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

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