Unsettled Time and the Great Muddle (I)

In this and in subsequent posts, I explore what I call the Great Muddle. I’m not yet clear how to characterize the Great Muddle despite my sense that it is the right poetic description of how we’re actually living.

Unsettled Time

About five years ago in 2011, it occurred to me that we are living in Unsettled Time. A time is unsettled just in case the current way of life is untenable, even is passing out of existence, while a new way of life is not yet on the horizon. I believe this to be true of our time, hence ours being Unsettled Time. One can read “signs” of Unsettled Time in the following ecological, economic, political, and social phenomena:

  • The Anthropocene
  • Ecological degradation more generally
  • Evident and widening global economic inequality
  • Increasing precarity
  • The profoundly large, chiefly unspoken-about number of people living with massive amounts of doubt
  • Geo-political uncertainty to the point at which liberal and social forms of democracy are being brought into question
  • The rise and power of fanaticism
  • The pervasiveness of social alienation
  • The pervasiveness of nihilism

Enigma

What is thrown up by Unsettled Time is what I will call an enigma. The enigma is: given that our current way of life is impossible, how shall we live? To call this question an enigma is assert the following:

  • The question concerning how to live is not always and in all times a question period but now it most surely and forcefully is;
  • The question concerning how to live is not always and in all times a question for everyone but more and more now it surely and very forcefully is;
  • The question concerning how we shall live is not yet answerable but, posed as an enigma, presupposes that there is some answer.
  • The question seems to come now before all other questions we could ask. In other words, there is no question more important than this one during our Unsettled Time.

The Great Muddle

How are we actually living in Unsettled Time? We are actually living in the Great Muddle. What makes the way we’re actually living a Great Muddle?

  • A pervasive sense of cluelessness about how to find our way.
  • The preponderance of words associated with “figuring things out,” “sorting things out,” “finding out,” and “making sense.”
  • The preponderance of words associated with confusion, “feeling lost,” and “feeling stuck.”
  • A sense that most people are just “slogging by” or “muddling through” without knowing why or how or for what.
  • The predominant mood, oddly, manifestly not tragic, comi-tragic, farcical, satirical, or cynical but rather “muddly,” an inchoate, pre-reflective sense of continuing to do more of the same despite knowing that the same doesn’t work.
  • The Rise of Sophistry: many sophists (consultants, business leaders, politicians, the coterie of experts and advisers) claim, without any reasonable basis, to know how we all should or must live yet, upon further examination, it becomes clear that they haven’t the foggiest.
  • The Rise of Pretense (or “bluff”): the various ways in which most people make themselves look as if they’ve got things figured out but, upon being acquainted with them, it becomes clear that they haven’t got any more clues than you do.

We’re in the Great Muddle to the extent that how we actually live does not, not even in the slightest, measure up to the magnitude of the enigma concerning how we should live. One feels underwhelmed and even shocked every time someone proposes something or shows you how he or she actually lives and the immediate thought is, “Given the enormity of Unsettled Time, is that it? Is that all you’ve got?”

Our Socratic Moment

I have this eery, uncanny sense that the Great Muddle has not yet but is about to become apparent to us as the Great Muddle. And when this awareness occurs, it could be called our Socratic Moment. What makes it deeply Socratic is that what should strike us with the force of exceptional and indubitable clarity is that nobody knows what he or she is talking about when it comes to how we should live. Recall Socrates’s surprise in The Apology when he relates to his fellow Athenians how he went around and examined representatives of all social classes then in Athens (the poets, the craftspersons, the statesmen, the sophists, those of noble birth), only to discover that none of them, not one, was wise. Likewise, could it be that nobody actually knows how to not just muddle through Unsettled Time? Could it be that nobody has yet answered the enigma? Have we faced the enigma, as enigma, yet? What if we were to realize that we don’t know what we’re doing?

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Two Stances Toward Hardship: Gloom & Vainglory

When it comes to hardships in one’s life, two basic “stances” are often adopted. One is gloom. The other is vainglory.

It’s gloom that one frequently hears about these days. In fact, one hears of gloom being not just a mood but a clincher. According to purveyors of doom, difficulties and hardships, being largely in evidence in their lives, trump most everything else. If, they say, something is feasible but the efforts expended would be onerous, then the action isn’t worth doing.

In reply to the gloomy ones, plucky interlocutors summarily discount, downgrade, or dismiss the very fact of hardship. That’s nothing, actually, they say. After all, these plucky ones insist, can’t you do anything you set your mind (or your will) to? Isn’t it really true that most things in life are easily accomplishable?

The plucky respondents are missing the point, which is not that life doesn’t present us with difficulties, hardships, and obstacles (for manifestly it does and about the reality of his own difficulties the gloomy person may be very clear-eyed) but rather that it can’t be presumed, as it is by the purveyors of gloom, that difficulty, on its own, is a clincher. That is, difficulty, on its own, is not a sufficient reason for refusing or neglecting to do the right thing.

Sometimes the gloomy person, when in the presence of an upbeat person, feels inspired, but here we must be careful about the source of that inspiration. For what may occur to the gloomy person is the thought, “Ah, well, now I see that there is hope after all. Things could take a positive turn. The wind at sea could pick up. Things could get better.” The concept of hope remains questionable, or so I think as I write today, just because it posits some external power or force as being that which acts to make the world, the one in which the gloomy person, inhabits better. If it does. The implication is that no effort on the part of the gloomy person is necessary.

The feeling of hope may foreclose the very possibility of what seems more sensible: the postulate that the person is gloomy because of his belief that he cannot act to overcome his difficulties or to nimbly move around certain obstacles. Just so long as he gives in to gloom, he will likely continue to find hardships “winning the day.” And just so long as he believes in hope, he may also, again and again, succumb to despair. Can one think of hope without also returning to despair?

We have seen that the gloomy person is first committed to believing that difficulty is a clincher and second that she may come to hang her thoughts on hope. But what about the vainglorious person? What can we say about this figure?

The Tibetan Buddhist thinker Chogyam Trungpa deserves credit for having coined, in the early 1970s, the term “spiritual materialism” to describe the form of consciousness of the person, being on a spiritual path, seeks to possess certain spiritual accomplishments. The spiritual materalist is very keen on having certain spiritual experiences; on seeing himself as making spiritual progress; on accruing certain spiritual rewards. The Buddhist Trungpa would succinctly say that the spiritual materialist, who is purportedly seeking to overcome the ego, is actually feeding ego. That’s the spiritual materialist’s paradox.

I submit that vainglory, which comes out in the writings of the ascetic Evagrius (345 – 399 CE), is a particular type of spiritual materialism. According to one scholar parsing Evagrius’s sense of vainglory, the latter is the desire to be rewarded for one’s virtues. Hence, the vainglorious person so conceived actually delights in her capacity to overcome difficulties and hardships or in her almost always doing the right thing. The trouble with vainglory is that, in addition to being distorted and therefore untrue, it breeds complacency, the self-satisfaction of occupying the high moral ground.

We are now faced with an interesting predicament. The gloomy person and the vainglorious person now seem not like two binary opposites but like two sides of the same coin. One wallows in misery while the other delights in his strength. The former wants his life to change (or–more clearly perhaps–the conditions surrounding himself to change) while the latter absolutely delights in the way he continues to act virtuously. How shall both gloom and vainglory be confronted? How let fall away without redoubling themselves or, indeed, with gloom giving way to vainglory or vainglory giving way to gloom? No general answer will do much good, only a specific course of action in which a person, long given over to gloom, sees his actions as mattering, only another specific line of investigation in which the vainglorious person comes to see that she has much to learn about the machinations of the self.

Whatever else ends up being said on the matter, one truth stares us in the face. The actual impediments to self-transformation are not difficulties or achievements per se but the persistence of gloominess and vainglory in our lives.

Rethinking Economics: Husbandry, Commerce, & Gift

I

Yesterday, John Thackara (@johnthackara) tweeted a link to one of the feminist economist Julie Nelson’s recent articles, “Husbandry: A Feminist Reclamation of Men’s Responsibility to Care.” I think Nelson makes a very important contribution to our reconsideration of what an economy is or could be, and I also believe that she makes a mistake. I want to speak to both. The very important contribution first.

II

She is rightly concerned that economics as it is currently understood is disjunct from care. She writes, “if we want to create economies that preserve and enhance our societies as well as protecting the Earth and future generations, we need new metaphors, images, myths, and stories. We need new images that combine care and economics.” Thus, she proposes employing the metaphor of husbandry in the service of this combinatory project. I quote at length:

Picture yeoman farmers who carefully nurture the growth of their crops, tilling and weeding and protecting them. Or shepherds who watch over their sheep, making sure that they are safe and fed and watered. Or the nomads who tend their cattle in the Serengeti. Tell yourself a story about how such people call their dog or horse by name, or how they know the challenges of drought and flood intimately, the lore concerning breeding and protection, and the shape of the surrounding landscape.

The image of ‘good husbandry’ is useful because it joins together what are usually seen as opposites: ‘husbandry’ is both clearly recognizable as sitting within the realm of economic production and as deeply engaged with carefulness and concern. I’ve chosen a word with masculine gender connotations deliberately: we don’t have a problem associating women with care, but we do lack images that illustrate care with a masculine face. Popularizing the ideal of husbandry could help to even up the balance.

The examples she offers us–farmers, shepherds, nomads–bring out something that is only there implicit but later on becomes more explicit: “Natural resources are carefully ‘husbanded’ when they are protected and preserved for the use of future generations” (my emphasis). Broadly speaking, the objects of care are natural resources: land, water, sunlight, vegetable and animal life, and so on.

III

It was while reading Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival in 2014 that I came to recognize that there is another form of economic life that is not well-expressed or understood in the terms we’ve taken for granted in modernity. Rather unfortunately, Jacobs calls this take as opposed to trade or, what is the same thing, exchange. At the time, I reformulated this economic act in the form of a maxim: “Kindly use what we have.” And from here, given the hunter-gatherer backdrop, I made the mistake of imaging such kindly use in the archetype of the warrior.

Nelson’s husbandry metaphor helps me to make a correction both to the sense of this economic act and to the image associated with it. A better maxim would be: “Kindly care for what we have,” and the better image associated with it would be that of husbandry.

IV

I promised that I would speak about what I take to be Nelson’s mistake; I do so in this section. Implicit in her argument is the claim that husbandry will replace our current set of economic metaphors, the idea being that husbandry could somehow stretch across the entire social-economic space. The mistake, I think (and here I’m arguing in a Kantian way), is to apply this metaphor too expansively so that it goes beyond the bounds of its legitimate applicability.

I want to claim instead that husbandry should be reserved for what I’ve previously called Category I, leaving two other categories, Category II and Category III, to function according to their own internal logic. Each category, I submit, is sui generis.

V

This means that the Category II maxim–“Fairly exchange what’s in hand.”–and the Category III maxim–“Generously offer and receive what you can.”–apply to different social-economic phenomena. The images associated with CII and CIII are the merchant and the priest, respectively.

Thus:

  • Category I: Kindly care for what we have. Image: Husbandry.
  • Category II: Fairly exchange what’s in hand. Image: Merchant.
  • Category III: Generously offer and receive what you can. Image: Priest.

Elsewhere, I’ve tried to argue that we get into a heap of trouble when we confuse husbandry with commerce and commerce with priestliness.

VI

Time doesn’t permit me to spell all these claims out, but one example may help to shine some light on how an economy writ large could be said to be the system in which CI, CII, and CIII play themselves out. Suppose a family-run farmer in Southern California grows vegetables. In the first place, her relationship with the land and its bounty should very well be one of stewardship. Hence, her land ethic follows the maxim set out by CI.

But now it is Sunday and she is coming to the local farmers’ market to sell her produce. When I approach her farm stand, I do not think about how to “kindly care” for her. To me, she is a stranger and toward her I hope to be perfectly friendly and vice versa. Indeed, she and I just don’t care about each other not because we’re callous human beings but because care isn’t an appropriate factor in our considerations. But what, then, are the appropriate terms with which we think and speak to each other? They are CII terms. If I want these tomatoes, I’m trying to figure out whether X USD is a fair exchange for Y tomatoes. If I paid too dearly, then I may say that the exchange was unfair, in short, that I got a “raw deal.” If she sold them too cheaply, she could say that she got a “raw deal.”

Now suppose it’s the end of the market day and the farmer has extra produce that has gone unsold. She might say to her employees, “Would anyone, as a gift, like some tomatoes?” Afterward, she might then go home, knowing that for the next couple of nights she will be hosting friends who will be staying with her at the farm. These are both CIII considerations. She is generously offering what she can.

VII

Now some, indeed many, ethical and political questions are open for contestation and debate, but it’s important that we get the terms of the debate right. Is the object in question an exchange or a gift? Is health care best regarded as a form of exchange, an instance of husbandry, or a gift? Are employees, as workers, to be treated fairly or, as human beings, with care? The political debates occurring at the borderlines of vague and contested cases will here continue to ensue, yet it is of the first importance that we get right what it is we’re arguing about to begin with.

It is also a crucially important lesson that we not continue to make the mistake of allowing any one category to “totalize” the entire social field. Within bounds, markets (CII) make sense. Within the proper bounds, doing a favor for your friends, fulfilling your friends’ requests, sharing what you have, lending a helping hand, and so on–all these being instances of CIII–make sense. Finally, within the proper bounds,  caring for the land (CI) upon which we live and the resources bequeathed to us make sense. When we don’t respect those boundaries, we produce monsters such as neoliberalism and state socialism.

Three Types of Pain in Trungpa’s The Myth of Freedom

What’s interesting about Buddhism is that it takes pain to be not an exception to human experience, not something accorded a special status, but is, as an existential matter, put front and center. Pain is center stage. In this respect, it doesn’t give rise to the theodician-inspired question, “Why is there or must there be suffering?” That question, if asked, is answered in deflationary terms. There is suffering because we’re lost, held by a false picture of how reality works. Strictly speaking, we’re foolish.

To begin a further investigation of this sense of lostness or foolishness, it would be wise to come to a deeper understanding of the First Noble Truth that human life is dukkha. I’ve been reading the Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa’s interesting yet rather fast-and-loose book The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Liberation. In one of the opening chapters on suffering, he distinguishes (not very clearly, so what follows is my attempt to iron things out) between (1) “all-pervading pain,” (2) “alternating pain,” and (3) “the pain of pain.” Dukkha is all three, and I discuss each type in turn.

I take it that “all-pervading pain” speaks to a basic or fundamental unsatisfactoriness of human life as it is. One type of all-pervading pain, I think, is existential anxiety (to borrow the term from Paul Tillich). I may have the not-yet-explicit feeling that something is awry, that things are “out-of-joint” (Hamlet), that something is uncannily off and this less-than-explicit feeling may elicit in me eeriness, subtle horror, restlessness, or something else. I take that to be pain at a certain pre-reflective metaphysical level. Another type of all-pervading pain could be not a toothache per se (since any case of the toothache may go away) but the neurotic fact that I’m subject, at any time, to toothaches, colds, flus, back pains, and so on. I suppose that this type of all-pervading pain points to something about a certain kind of take–fretful, trepidatious–on the finitude of the human condition. I have no doubt that there could be a catalogue of other types of all-pervading pains, but I leave off that exhaustive cataloging here.

To turn to the second basic type: I take “alternating pain” (thanks to Alexandra’s suggestion) to be the sort of pain that arises when I’m (a) reflective or aware of something or other causing me pain and (b) that pain becomes a something seemingly uncontrollably and obsessively for me. In “alternating pain,” my thoughts are wrapped up in this pain. Significantly do I relate myself, ongoingly, to it.

But why then call it alternating pain? Because I am not just wrapped up in pain X but I also believe that pain X is (or wish that pain X be) now gone forever, only for pain X to return. And for this–I take X to be gone for good and then X comes back–to happen again and again. It’s painful to see that what we had hoped to be eternal (painlessness with respect, say, to heartache) is actually impermanent (no heartache now, fresh heartache later). It seems to me that alternating pain is painful on two levels: on the level of the actual recurrence (“Damn, here it is!”) and on the level of the sense of human incapacity (“I thought I was finally through with this, and now it’s come back! Again!”).

The real kicker comes with the third main type, “the pain of pain.” I take “the pain of pain” to be a certain kind of awareness of these two first-order types of pain. What I begin to grasp in “the pain of pain” is that both first-order types of pain seem to cover the entire human landscape as I currently understand it. Everywhere I look, I see either all-pervading pain or else alternating pain or both. I see no gaps in the landscapes, no area not already covered by one of these. Recognizing that both of these types of pains are laws (so to say) of the given human condition is itself startlingly painful. But this, more succinctly, is just to say that what is painful is my realization that, from my current state of consciousness, there is no exit.

The qualifiers in this textual explication–“human life as it is,” “from my current state of consciousness,” “as I currently understand it,” and so forth–serve as pointers. As I see it, the Buddhist gamble is to say that this is only a certain form of consciousness, one from which we can, largely through our own cognitive-practical efforts, free ourselves. If one admits that life as it is is dukkha (for one could reject that metaphysical premise), then one is likely to be open to following the postulate that there is a way of liberation from dukkha. At least, one is open to try.