Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Dickinson 721

“Nature” is what We see –
The Hill – the Afternoon –
Squirrel – Eclipse – the Bumble bee –
Nay – Nature is Heaven –

“Nature” is what We hear –
The Bobolink – the Sea –
Thunder – the Cricket –
Nay – Nature is Harmony –

“Nature” is what We know –
But have no Art to say –
So impotent our Wisdom is
To Her Sincerity –

In the first two stanzas here, Dickinson refuses to define the natural according to the reductive terms of sense-experience, or in terms of objective products of an empiricist worldview, and defines the natural instead in terms of transcendental qualities: 'Heaven', 'Harmony'. 

In the final stanza she refuses the idea of communication of (our cognition of) the natural, when communication is falsified into rhetoric, worldly speechifying or entanglement in social codes; 'Art'.

She also refuses the idea of cognition of natural truth ('Sincerity'), when cognition is reduced to self-preservatory 'Wisdom', such as academic testing.  

These refusals bear comparison with Buddhist meditative procedures: the natural is always already supernatural, and it is simply a case of detaching ourselves from our thought patterns in order to become enlightened that this is so. Enlightenment is as impermanent and intermittent as our preliminary ability to ground oneself back in the breath; just as the totality of Dickinson's language is broken by hyphens, the phrases recognizing Heaven, Harmony and Sincerity no less than the ironically, dismissively listed objectivities Bobolink and Sea.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Invisible Community Militant

Luther on vulnerability. From Thornhill, German Political Philosophy.

'Luther's response to Müntzer's ideas was vehemently to condemn the insurrections of the peasants and to support the princes in the violent suppression of the peasant armies. To support this, he denounced all people seeking to "enact God's scriptures on earth", and he denied that the Bible could be employed to justify any act of political resistance. If the "worldly regiment" is overthrown, he explained, this leads not to a political order founded in "God's word" but rather to "eternal destruction". It is only heathens, not Christians, he argued, who "struggle against authority", for only heathens attach such importance to worldly rule. Christians, in contrast, fight only through the cross and through suffering. Their "victory" lies not "in governing or in power ", but in "vanquishment and powerlessness".' 

This strikes me as a fundamental, if stark, description of our potential for existentialist, post-Marxist militancy: for the sort of revolt against objectivity suggested by Jaspers' thinking. Though of course in his book on Jaspers, Thornhill complexifies his relation to Luther considerably.

In my thinking I am not seeking to eternalize or to normalize despair. I am simply trying to attach some value to the misery I encounter weekly at Mind. Homelessness, indefinite hospitalization (again because of this city's housing crisis), self-hospitalization in flight from the work capability assessment process. Because the suffering of the vulnerable - the social invisibles -  is the prophecy, the future narrative, of a society that is all too visibly going down the pan. And all the Mind service users are involved with religion, ranging from King Street Buddhism to the most insular True Orthodoxy out of Guildford. Classified as a volunteer, I like to think of myself as one rung up on the rationalist ladder. I suppose I am evolving a fusion of secular Buddhism, as taught by the City Lit speech therapy department, and a Lutheran (mystery-inflected) rationalism allied to Jaspers' idea of philosophical faith.

To complexify John Lydon, 'there is no future' - for the very idea of worldly power - 'in England's dreaming'. When I first read Iain Sinclair's Radon Daughters around 1995, it came across as dark fantasy, a dream-transmission from a planet of unrealizable horror. Now, pick up the newspaper, it's there enacted. The collapse of what is called objective.

Up soon: the stammering magus, J. G. Hamann

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Spiritual Condition of the Age, part 2

In The Spiritual Condition of the Age, Jaspers maintained that ‘the problem of the mode of remembrance is the problem of such culture as still remains possible’. Rather than processing historical knowledge into discrete units of cognition which can then be bureaucratically distributed and assessed throughout the education system by means of ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘attainment’ league tables, as now, we could instead – Jaspers suggested – enable historical knowledge to become implicated with the self’s experience. This could rejuvenate culture, because we would have re-established a relationship between a person’s memory of culture and her own spiritual life – ‘a sincere historicity is a readiness to discover the sources which feed all life and therefore the life of the present as well’.

‘For remembrance as a mere knowledge of the past is nothing more than a collection of an infinite number of antiquarian details; remembrance as mere contemplation instinct with understanding realizes the pictures and the figures of the past only as a non-committal confrontation. It is not until remembrance takes the form of assimilation that there comes into being the reality of the selfhood of a contemporary human being in the form of veneration; subsequently as a standard for his own feeling and activity; and finally as participation in his own eternal being.’

The Spiritual Condition of the Age posits an awareness of temporal or historical continuity to be a mainstay of the formation of self-existence. For example, Jaspers sees that work can potentially consolidate selfhood, but ‘when the day’s work grew sufficient to itself and ceased to be built up into a constituent of the worker’s life – then man was, as it were, bereft of his world’. If the worker is ‘lacking all sense of historical continuity with past or future, man cannot remain man’. Jaspers opposes selfhood to the self which simply preserves itself: ‘if he craves for self-expression, there promptly arises a tension between his self-preservative impulse, on the one hand, and his real selfhood’. Tensions also arise with ‘the winners in the race’, who tend to ‘have qualities which disincline them to allow others to be their true selves’. Jaspers explains the familiar syndrome of the successful father and the failed son:  

‘Hence the winners tend to snub all those who aim at adequate self-expression, speaking of them as pretentious, eccentric, biased, unpractical, and measuring their achievements by insincere absolute standards; they are personally suspect, they are stigmatized as provocative, as disturbers of the peace […] Because he only “arrives” who has sacrificed his selfhood, the arrivist will not tolerate self-expression in subordinates.’  

In ‘Britain’s Liberal Riots’, Blond describes our contemporary society in which winners and losers alike have been brought to sacrifice their selfhood, and to be ruled by the instinct of self-preservation or self-interest alone. He notes that ‘the rule for the last thirty years is that one rules the many by persuading them that the values of the self-interested few ought to be their principles as well’. As a consequence of the UK’s general ‘moral and social collapse’ since Thatcher, the rioters were ‘merely acting out the values that now seem to govern and embody Britain – ruthless self-interest coupled to a rootless consumer nihilism’. Jaspers already saw how the totalizing of the principle of self-interest reveals self-interest to be not a real principle at all, but instead a valueless black hole which only creates rootlessness as it eats away at our sense of communal self-existence.

‘The crisis realizes itself as a lack of confidence. If people still cling to the coercion of the law, if they are still convinced by power, and by the rigidity of convention, it is only because of a calculus of material advantages, and not from any real confidence. When all has been reduced to the purposiveness of life-interests, the consciousness of the substantiality of the whole has been destroyed.’

Now that even career cliques based on competitive socializing, such as our dehumanizing humanities academia, are apparent to be no more than a source of income and status, we can see the relevance of Jaspers' argument that social confidence remains – can only be nurtured – within the sphere of personal ties or intersubjective communication.  ‘Every well-informed person is acquainted with the deceptions, the deviations, the untrustworthiness that prevail in his own familiar domain. Where confidence persists, it is only within very narrow circles, for it never extends to the totality.’ Quite probably, the more feral the operations of the professional club, the more emphasis is laid on what can be gained from interpersonal intimacy: so that this dialectic of communication (public suspicion/ private confidence), can be a harmful trap just as much as a life-enhancing opening.

Jaspers observes how we begin to view, and hence experience, social relations and interpersonal communication as a harmful trap when the principle of self-interest dominates. ‘It is, indeed, the tendency of the life-order to become absolute which arouses an uncontrollable dread of life.’ Because the self-preservative impulse is twinned with fear of self-destruction, the mental illness of anxiety is integral to modern society. ‘In the rationalization and universalization of the life-order there has grown contemporaneously with its fantastic success an awareness of imminent ruin tantamount to a dread of the approaching end of all that makes life worth living.’ With great insight, Jaspers notes the effects on the self’s communicative capacity of being ‘alarmed at the likelihood that he will in the near future become unable to obtain the vital necessaries’. Social exclusion becomes vulnerability’s self-fulfilling prophecy:

‘The sufferer from anxiety has confidence in no one; he will not enter into absolute ties with any other person. One who fails to participate in what others are doing is left alone. The threat of being sacrificed arouses the sense of having been utterly forsaken, and this drives the sufferer out of his frivolous ephemeralness into cynical hardness and then into anxiety. In general, life seems full of dread.’

Many many people, including myself, have lived like this, and it is possible to endure particularly if a person can come to terms with what Jaspers calls ‘a very different dread, namely that concerning his selfhood’, and the threat of losing it. Jaspers observes that psychiatry can never deal effectively with mental illness so long as it functions within an economy which threatens us all with social sacrifice. But psychiatry could genuinely help people, he argues, if it were to attend to the heady, spiritual formation of self-existence, in the face of the totalization of the principle of self-interest:

‘Doctors try and talk the sick or those who believe themselves sick out of the fear of death. But these institutions function effectively only when things are going well with the individual. The life-order cannot dispel the dread which is part of every individual’s lot. This anxiety can only be controlled by the more exalted dread felt by existence threatened with the loss of its selfhood, which induces an overriding religious or philosophical exaltation. When existence is paralysed, the dread of life cannot fail to grow. The all-embracing dominion of the life-order would destroy man as existence without ever being able to free him from the dread of life.’

Jaspers writes of how at crisis-points of the battle of life, mental illness can trigger physical sickness:

‘If a man comes to look upon his life as spiritually unacceptable, as intolerable were it merely because he can no longer understand its significance, he takes flight into illness, which envelops him like a visible protector. For in those limitary situations which (as mere life-experiences) crush him inwardly, man needs, either the selfhood of freedom, or else some objective point of support.’

The totalizing functionalism of the life-order, Jaspers argues, is threatened by its own limits as well as by ‘the selfhood of freedom’: ‘The unavoidability of the life-order finds its limit in the human being who refuses to be wholly absorbed into a function; and further in this, that no unique and perfected and definitive life-order is possible.’ Indeed, free refusal of technicizing objectivity by the vulnerable is enabled by the crisis-points – the ‘lacunæ’ – of technique itself. For example: when the labour market makes you unemployed, or when a university lecturer fails to arrange the placement that could help you back into work.

‘It is true that most us of us dread the freedom of selfhood. Still, it is possible that in the interconnexions of the titanic apparatus there are so many lacunæ that, for those who dare, it may remain possible, in some unexpected way, for them to realize their historicity out of their own sources. […] Pulling himself together on the border-line of destruction, the independent human being may arise, one who will take matters into his own hands and will enjoy true being.’

Seeing that ‘the basic problem of our time is whether an independent human being in his self-comprehended destiny is still possible’, Jaspers asserts that addressing the problem of contemporary freedom is a matter of the responsible self-development of personal existence: ‘this is a problem which, as clearly formulated and understood, tends to annul itself; for only he who is capable of being free can sincerely and comprehendingly moot the problem of freedom’. Hope for the possibility of a selfhood of freedom, Jaspers maintains, is dependent on an existentialist thinking which takes the risk of claiming freedom in itself, rather than arrogantly and presumptuously assuming that subjective freedom already exists, and is merely a means of planning objective freedom.

‘In objectifying thought, on the other hand, whereby the liberty of man is treated as an extant form of life and wherein the only question that arises is under what conditions liberty can be realized, it becomes conceivable that the whole history of mankind is a vain endeavour to be free.’ 

Anticipating contemporary academics’ focus on aspects of bureaucratic planning such as course designing, and their downplaying of sustained autonomous research in favour of cosy specialization, conference surfing and jumping on bandwagons, The Spiritual Condition of the Age comments on the degeneration of the university to its present state of being ‘no more than a school’. ‘An enforced curriculum relieves the individual from the risks attendant upon seeking a path for himself. But without the hazards of liberty, there can be no possibility of independent thought.’

Jaspers enables us to see that participation in the ‘hazards of liberty’ is an appropriate response to the flux of rootlessness, or to our condition of being ‘uprooted’ within the ‘historically determined and changing situation’ of modern secularism,  which – according to Blond’s analysis of last year’s rioting – we still inhabit. The development of a selfhood of freedom, for example through the practice of ‘independent thought’, is today no more than a ‘possibility’ precisely because now, as Jaspers writes, ‘existence is a mere possibility, not something possessed and guaranteed. All objectivity has become ambiguous: the true seems irrevocably lost; substance, perplexity: reality, a masquerade.’ The limit-point crises signified by mental illness, for example, are read by Jaspers as products and markers of our perplexifying modern existential state, which are also openings to the development of a selfhood of freedom:

‘He who wishes to find his way to the origin of the crisis must pass through the lost domain of truth, in order to revise it possessively; must traverse the domain of perplexity to reach decision concerning himself; must strip off the trappings of the masquerade, in order to disclose the genuine that lies beneath.’  

Jaspers suggests that risky intellectual work, precisely in its perilousness, is suited to developing its own freedom through the traversal of our critical spiritual condition; whereas ‘a new world cannot arise out of the crisis through the work of the rational life-order as such’.

‘What is needful is that the human being shall achieve something more than he brings to pass in the life-order, shall achieve it by way of the State as expressive of the will towards the whole, by the State to which the life-order has become nothing but a means – and also through mental creation, whereby he grows aware of his own being. Along both these roads he can regain consciousness of the origin and the aim of human existence in the nobility of free self-creation, cognizance of which has been lost in the life-order.’

Hence in this book Jaspers presents existentialism as a free and communicative thinking which exceeds the specialist cognition of the academic pseudo-community.

‘In fact, from the opening of the second half of the nineteenth century the traditional philosophy became everywhere an enterprise carried on by university schools which more and more seldom were communities of philosophic persons drawing from their own sources and communicating in the form of thought what had welled up in their own consciousness.’

Technical cognition of fragments of objectivity is to be exceeded by the visionary definition of self-existence, Jaspers argues, because only such meta-academic intellectual activity can hold the possibility of redeeming – or creating ‘a new world’ out of – the flux of rootlessness. We have already seen how, in Jaspers’ view, academic Marxism by contrast degrades the modern ‘dialectic of the extant being and consciousness’ by attaching being fixedly to its own simplistic historical analytic; when in fact the dialectic of modern secularism – like any historical dialectic – ‘cannot be properly understood on a purely intellectual plane, but can only be adequately grasped in the momentous fulfillment of that within us which, through its claim to selfhood, provides the spirit with its capacity for greatness’.       

‘Existence-philosophy is the way of thought by means of which man seeks to become himself; it makes use of expert knowledge while at the same time going beyond it. This way of thought does not cognize objects, but elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker. Brought into a state of suspense by having transcended the cognitions of the world (as the adoption of a philosophical attitude towards the world) that fixate being, it appeals to its own freedom (as the elucidation of existence) and gains space for its own unconditioned activity through conjuring up Transcendence (as metaphysics).’

You could argue that, for Jaspers, the only way to think beyond modern rootlessness is by defining its flux. The communicative strand of Jaspers’ existentialism means that for him the dialectic of being and consciousness can only be adequately grasped – or defined in a sort of vision which draws on our originary transcendental impulses – through a dialectic of consciousness and consciousness. ‘This existence-philosophy cannot be rounded off in any particular work, nor can it acquire definitive perfectionment as the life of any particular thinker.’ For Jaspers ‘the study of the innermost springs of behaviour […] belongs to the domain of true communication’. Intersubjective communication enables existentialist thinking as a dialogue between originary transcendental capacities: such thinking cannot in itself redeem or bridge the dialectic of being and consciousness, but it can at least enable us to ‘regain consciousness of the origin and the aim of human existence’ – and so it holds the possibility of redeeming, or creating ‘a new world’ out of, the flux of rootlessness. ‘Existence-philosophy cannot discover any solution, but can only become real in the multiplicity of thought proceeding from extant origins in the communication from one to another.’ What the existentialist philosopher is really creating, in Jaspers’ view, is our various singular claims to transcendence, and a dialogue between them. ‘Not merged in the enterprise of the coming and going idols of the life-order, he works as self-existence on behalf of self-existence; for he creates life as a demand through influencing others out of their own sources.’ The flux of rootlessness can only be defined visionarily precisely through such a fulfilment of our originary transcendental impulses, through ‘influencing others out of their own sources’, or the dialectic of being and consciousness ‘adequately grasped in the momentous fulfillment of that within us which, through its claim to selfhood, provides the spirit with its capacity for greatness’.  

the flux of rootlessness is Bleak House in 2011, solitary spectator-consumers look on as the city spontaneously combusts in shame

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Academic Free Fall

I have not read too many articles on the web commenting substantially on the current condition of UK academia, but here is what is probably the best of them: Neil Smith's 'Academic Free Fall', reprinted from Social Text's Periscope ['Impact' Issue, August 21, 2010] at the Really Open University site.

'The “impact factor” of this neo-liberalization of academia is immense.  Among British colleagues I detect very little critique of this predicament beyond a few individuals, and little or no organized opposition; rather the modus operandi is defensive rationalization.'

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Dickinson 689

It was too late for Man –
But early, yet, for God –
Creation – impotent to help –
But Prayer – remained – Our side –

How excellent the Heaven –
When Earth – cannot be had –
How hospitable – then – the face
Of Our Old Neighbor – God –

In this poem, Dickinson seems to me to be sketching out a spatio-temporal spiritual freedom - spatio-temporal because such freedom is as much a matter of being on 'side' or achieving contiguity to a divine 'face', as it is of living a present time - which is comparable to the ecstatic temporality proposed by Heidegger. I want to read the poem alongside two passages from Michael Inwood’s Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction. In the first, Inwood presents the spatial language behind the idea of ecstatic temporality:

‘Resolute Dasein, then, has a future that ends with its death, a past that extends back to its birth and perhaps beyond, and a present. Heidegger calls these “ecstases”, from a Greek word meaning literally “standing outside, forth”, hence “removal, displacement”, and, later, “being beside oneself, or out of one’s mind, in an ecstatic mental state”. (“Ecstasis” is related to “existence” and has the same root meaning.) Temporality, Heidegger argues, essentially involves these ecstases.’

It is just such a state of removal that the speaker seems to occupy in the first of Dickinson’s stanzas. In particular, when the speaker is ‘too late for Man - / But early, yet, for God’, she inhabits a condition suggestively similar to what Heidegger in Being and Time calls ‘the ecstatical unity of the making-present which awaits and retains’. When Dickinson writes of our being nonetheless still early for God, and open for a practice of ‘Prayer’, she emphasizes the future; just as Heidegger does, according to this second quotation from Inwood:

‘The future is the primary ecstasis, certainly for resolute Dasein, but also, with “modification”, for irresolute Dasein. Time is essentially and primarily time for doing something, time to do something, and this involves the future more immediately than the past or the present. The German for “future” is Zukunft, literally “to-coming, coming to(wards)”; the root idea is that events come to us, or approach, out of the future. Heidegger gives a different interpretation: Dasein runs ahead to its own death and then “comes towards itself” out of the future. It does not return simply to the present. It recoils from the future, from its own death, back into the past. The ordinary German for the “past” is Vergangenheit. But this suggests to Heidegger the past as dead and gone. The past to which Dasein rebounds is the past that lives on in the present, the past that informs its present situation and the possibilities inherent in it. For this he uses Gewesenheit, “having-been-ness”. Dasein’s past is not something dead and gone that it has left behind. The relevant past, the past that bears on its present situation, emerges from the future. Dasein then rebounds from the past into the present and it is there that it decides on action. The ordinary German for the “present” is Gegenwart, literally “waiting towards”, but Heidegger gives it an active flavour by associating it with a verb, gegenwärtigen, to “make present”: “Only as the Present in the sense of making present, can resoluteness be what it is: namely, letting itself be encountered undisguisedly by that which it seizes upon in taking action” (BT, 326). “Making present” is to the present what “retaining” is to the past and “waiting” or expecting is to the future; Heidegger avoids anything so specific and detached as “perceiving”. Irresolute, as well as resolute, Dasein has a Gegenwart. Only resolute Dasein has an Augenblick, a moment of vision.’

Dickinson’s second stanza echoes the idea that the ‘relevant past, the past that bears on its present situation, emerges from the future’: Heaven must be an ‘excellent’ beacon-future, when we occupy the state of removal (the Augenblick) when ‘Earth – cannot be had’, before we can witness the familiar God. All in all, it is this poem’s project to suspend, describe and also then to put back into motion ‘the Present in the sense of making present’; Dickinson seeks to seduce us to fulfill the ‘time to do something’. But rather than a ‘specific and detached’ act of ‘Creation’, the action which we are being encouraged to take, in a general yet implicated way, is ‘Prayer’.

When we are suddenly tipped by her out of these eight accelerating lines, we are already in that freedom. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Spiritual Condition of the Age

In his article ‘Britain’s Liberal Riots’ [here], Phillip Blond – former theologian, contributor to Radical Orthodoxy and founder of the ResPublica think tank – offers a very useful account of the social significance of the eruption of civil disorder which tore through the urban parts of England last summer. Whilst commentators on the left tended to view the rioting merely as an embarrassing outbreak of mass consumer looting revelatory only of the weaknesses of discrete underfunded areas of public service provision, and so failed to go on to point to the problems at the core of our pseudo-democratic political status quo, Blond emphasizes the politicians’ fear that we will all wake up to the fact that the nationwide disorder was ‘a defining event that could make or break public trust’, and also the way in which the political and media élites have subsequently ‘desperately been trying to capture and represent the resulting public mood’. Blond’s reading enables us to focus on the broken consensus regarding the legitimacy of our political system today, just as the media narration after the event could in fact only show a fragmented society: watching the reports from Clapham Junction on the morning after the concluding police clampdown, it was clear that the back-to-normal shop-owner out with Boris and her broom, inhabits an entirely different world from the black father screaming out ‘your children don’t end up in the mental health system’. For those of us who live in fear and anxiety anyway because of the way this city functions, the riots were terrifying but there is no normal to go back to.

In order to try to develop the most valuable points of Blond’s analysis, I want to turn again to Jaspers’ 1931 work Die Geistige Situation der Zeit – which I will continue to refer to as Thornhill does, as The Spiritual Condition of the Age, rather than as Man in the Modern Age (which is the strangely masculinist title of Eden and Cedar’s Paul’s translation of the work). As Thornhill notes, though this book is ‘certainly by far his [Jaspers’] most conservative political pronouncement’, it ‘remains at one remove from expressly radical-conservative arguments’, so that – rather as with Blond’s article – ‘the critique of parliamentary democracy which it contains never subsides into an opposition to the democratic order per se’. In a review [here] for Negations 3 (Winter 1998) of the conference anthology edited by Kurt Salamun, Karl Jaspers: Zur Aktualität seines Denkens (Karl Jaspers: The Timeliness of his Thought), Sigrid Koepke noted that the 1989 conference speakers all agreed that Jaspers’ evaluation of the 1920s and 1930s in The Spiritual Condition of the Age, is still ‘relevant and helpful for today’s situation – even if they do not necessarily agree with Jaspers’ applications or conclusions’. Here I want to point to the continuing relevance of Jaspers’ insights to the dire condition of the UK now.       

In his essay Blond stresses how the rioters were ‘shamefully emblematic of modern Britain’, insofar as ‘their values have striking parallels with [those of] the UK’s current elite’. ‘In a savage manner they were […] merely acting out the values that now seem to govern and embody Britain – ruthless self-interest coupled to a rootless consumer nihilism.’  The Spiritual Condition of the Age enables us to understand contemporary rootlessness in a more general existential sense, of being ‘uprooted’ within the ‘historically determined and changing situation’ of modern secularism, when ‘it is as if the foundations of being had been shattered’. Now ‘the identity of thought and being (hitherto unchallenged) has ceased to exist for us’. ‘That is why we live in a movement, a flux, a process, in virtue of which changing knowledge enforces a change in life; and, in turn, changing life enforces a change in the consciousness of the knower.’ Jaspers’ model of historical process here – ‘being and consciousness of being were severed, and they must perpetually renew their severance in a changed form, passing from one to the other’ – is explicitly Hegelian, and he goes on to critique the materializing and depersonalizing of the dialectic in Marxist thought.

‘The dialectic of the extant being and consciousness (which cannot be properly understood on a purely intellectual plane, but can only be adequately grasped in the momentous fulfillment of that within us which, through its claim to selfhood, provides the spirit with its capacity for greatness) was degraded by the fixed attachment of being to an artificially simplified process of human history – to history conceived as exclusively determined by the material conditions of production. […] In this doctrine, dialectic sank to become nothing more than a method, devoid both of the content of historical human existence and of metaphysic.’

Insofar as it offers a social philosophy of rootlessness, therefore, Jaspers’ existentialist analytic in this book, unlike the Marxist dialectic, is itself rootless or ever-changeable: ‘The construction of the mental situation of the present [...] is a process that will not lapse into the solidity of a completed stereoscopic image’. The process draws on an ‘attitude of mind which regards itself as selfhood trying to achieve orientation; the object of clarifying the situation being to comprehend as clearly and decisively as possible one’s own development in the particular situation’. The book’s project of defining the spiritual condition of the age is thus itself related to the development of (an idea of) a free self’s destiny today – a process which runs counter to the ‘general sociological situation’.

‘The decisive factor is the developing possibility of a selfhood which is not yet objectively extant – of a selfhood in a particular realm which includes and overrides the general, instead of being included in or overridden by it. This selfhood does not yet exist for contemporary man, but looms as a realisable possibility if man deliberately and successfully intervenes as one of the factors of his own destiny.’

The alternative to such an assumption of historical responsibility, as foreseen by Jaspers, is the evolution of the general sociological situation of rootlessness and alienation, or of the contemporary labour market characterized by a growing precariat, portfolio careers and intermittent employment:

‘It has been said that in modern times men have been shuffled together like grains of sand. They are elements of an apparatus in which they occupy now one location, now another; not parts of a historical substance which they imbue with their selfhood. The number of those who lead this uprooted sort of life is continually on the increase. Driven from pillar to post, then perhaps out-of-work for a lengthy period with nothing more than bare subsistence, they no longer have a definite place or status in the whole. […] What a man can do nowadays can only be done by one who takes short views. He has occupation, indeed, but his life has no continuity.’

To embrace these conditions as signalling the growth of flexible labour or the feminization of working life is, it seems to me, to miss the point: for what both genders are in fact succumbing to now is the death of community – ‘the whole’ – or the phenomenon of what Blond calls ‘widespread social anonymity and fragmentation’. Jaspers notes how ‘the tendencies to disintegrate’ the traditional nucleus of community, the family, ‘increase proportionally with the trend to render a universal life-order absolute’. Yet still ‘people cling to this primitive world with invincible tenacity’. Indeed, Jaspers maintains, ‘amid the general social dissolution, man is thrust back into dependence upon these most primitive bonds out of which alone a new and trustworthy objectivity can be constructed.’ Indeed, as regards ‘the relations between one selfhood and another, there is no generalisable situation, but only the absolute historicity of those who encounter one another, the intimacy of their contact, the fidelity and irreplaceability of personal ties’. The emphasis on existentialist personal ties is the basis of Jaspers’ theory of solidarity. ‘What frees us from solitude is not the world, but the selfhood which enters into ties with others. Interlinkage of self-existent persons constitutes the invisible reality of the essential.’ Precisely this conception of the invisibility or non-objectivity of solidarity amongst genuinely existent selves, enables Jaspers’ theory of indirect social action, for instance as performed by the vulnerable:

‘Since there is no objective criterion of trustworthy selfhood, this could not be directly assembled to form influential groups. As has been well said: “There is no trust (no organized association) of the persons who are the salt of the earth.” That is their weakness, inasmuch as their strength can only inhere in their inconspicuousness. There is among them a tie which does not take the form of any formal contract, but is stronger than any national, political, partisan, or social community, and stronger than the bonds of race. Never direct and immediate, it first becomes manifest in its consequences.’  

The praxis of ‘the solidarity of the self-existent’ involves the activation of non-formal ties, alongside a mindful readiness for a similarly formless, intermittent mode of communication: digital relations, voluntary work...

‘True nobility is not found in an isolated being. It exists in the interlinkage of independent human beings. Such are aware of their duty to discover one another, to help one another onward wherever they encounter one another, and to be ever ready for communication, on the watch, but without importunacy. Though they have entered into no formal agreement, they hold together with a loyalty which is stronger than any formal agreement could give.’

The form of sociality projected by Jaspers here is of course necessarily faltering and vulnerable, being ‘rendered insecure in the world by the weakness due to the comparatively small number of such persons and to the uncertainty of their contacts’. But this is not so much a Facebook community, made up of those who ‘have dozens of men as friends who are not really friends’, as ‘the origin of the loftiest soaring movement which is as yet possible in the world’.

‘The unity of this dispersed élite is like the Invisible Church of a corpus mysticum in the anonymous chain of the friends from among whom […] one selfhood is revealed to another and perhaps distant selfhood. In this immaterial realm of mind there are, at any moment, a few indwellers who, entering into close proximity, strike flame out of one another by the intimacy of their communication.’

Jaspers here holds communication to be ‘the most fundamental problem of philosophy’. In some crucial statements, he views the communicative creation of social ties as a means of the spiritualization through which the self can claim self-existence, and resist assimilation to the modern technical order. Blogging or voluntary caring, for instance, can be conceived as turning the machine against itself.

‘He must either on his own initiative independently gain possession of the mechanism of his life, or else, himself degraded to become a machine, surrender to the apparatus. He must, through communication, establish the tie between self and self, in full awareness that here everything turns upon loyalty or disloyalty; and in default of this his life will be utterly despiritualized and become a mere function. He must either advance to the frontier where he can glimpse his Transcendence, or else must remain entangled in the disillusionment of a self that is wholly involved in the things of the world.’

Jaspers’ upholding of community, communing and communication in the face of a technicizing social order, is comparable to Blond’s critique of the disastrous practice of centrist ‘socialism’ in the form of atomizing social control – a perpetuation of the cruel white heat of Thatcherism – which has brought our cities to their long-term meltdown:

‘The attack upon structures that stabilize people and provide a necessary and secure footing has also been accompanied by a relentless assault on the principles that underpin these foundations be it those of faith, tradition or morality. A hostile technocratic amorality that removes culture, taboo and memory from public policy has been the hallmark of Labour’s years in power.’   

Jaspers’ understanding of technocracy is Weberian: ‘To-day it is taken as a matter of course that human life is the supply of mass-needs by rationalized production with the aid of technical advances.’ When the ‘mass-order’ creates such a ‘universal life-apparatus’, Jaspers argues, this technical apparatus ‘proves destructive to the world of a truly human life’; ‘tension between the universal life-apparatus and a truly human world is, therefore, inevitable.’ Educators, for example, dismiss ‘historical tradition, and will have education carried on as if it had no relationship with time at all, and consisted only of training for technical skill’ and ‘the acquisition of realist knowledge’. This means that ‘the growth of knowledge during the era of advanced technique in conjunction with the spreading dominion of apparatus seem to narrow man’s potentialities even while enriching him’. Like Blond, Jaspers emphasizes the importance of keeping cultural memory alive – so as to regenerate mental potentialities (‘substance’):

‘Whilst an enmity to culture is grinding to powder all that has hitherto existed (with an arrogant assumption that the world is now beginning entirely afresh), in the process of reconstitution the mental substance can only be preserved by a sort of historical remembrance which must be something more than a mere knowledge of the past and must take the form of a contemporary vital force.’

To be continued