Agalloch, Romanticism, Wonder and Nature

One of my favourite bands is Agalloch; they are a metal band from Portland, although their music has progressive and folk elements. One interesting element of their music is that many of their albums have a significant pagan element, which expresses a strong sense of wonder towards the natural world. This sense of wonder towards the natural world can be found in much romantic art and literature. For this entry I would like to examine some of Agalloch’s lyrics to try to outline the nature of the wonder we experience towards nature. Furthermore, I will argue that the reason why we experience this wonder towards nature is that our phenomenological experience of nature is something that resists our sense of the universe as disenchanted, and because we are “porous selves” who are vulnerable to being controlled by external forces, including elements of nature.

The Agalloch piece that I will examine is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion.” In this song the lyrics state:

“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless
This is where I choose to tread”

It should be noted that in these lyrics the search for God is not something that is done through dialogue with other human beings about the natural world. Rather God is something that as isolated individuals we search out for in the natural world. Our connection to God is not mediated by our social role, or membership in a society. Rather, our relation to God is one that stands apart from society.

Furthermore, the lyrics state:

“Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God
Then God is not dead”

It should be noted that the suggestion being put forth here is that the revealing of God is something that can occur through a vision of the panorama of nature itself. Furthermore, the allusion to Nietzsche’s notion that “God is dead” suggests that while God may seem dead as we live our everyday lives in society, that our sense of wonder towards the natural world reveals something beyond. Consequently, according to Agalloch it seems that our sense of wonder towards nature is something that consists in seeing something powerful, majestic and transcendent in nature that tends not to reveal itself through our lives within society.

While I may not believe that God exists in nature in the way that some of these lyrics suggest, I do a feel a deep sense of wonder and transcendence as I encounter certain elements of the natural world. I remember standing at the top of Mt.Pilatus in Switzerland and feeling a deep sense of wonder towards the view. I could not clearly articulate what this sense of wonder meant in terms of propositional belief, but I certainly felt something resonate deeply within me, and this sense of resonance is not something that I tend to experience as I navigate society. Consequently, Agalloch’s lyrics in this song seem to present an accurate and compelling picture of the sense of wonder that we experience towards nature.

The preceding may have clarified the nature of the sense of wonder we experience towards nature, but it has not clarified why we feel this sense of wonder towards nature. So for the remainder of this entry I will address that question. While I do believe that humans have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, I think that for members of post-industrial societies this sense of wonder is intensified by the fact that most members of post-industrial societies, whether they believe in God or not, believe in a disenchanted universe. This belief in disenchantment states that the universe is purposeless, in and of itself, and can be best understood in terms of efficient causation. In this sense, the universe is best understood in analogy with a machine. However, while the phenomenological experience of post-industrial society reinforces this mechanistic view of the universe as everything within society seems to operate in terms of efficient causation, the phenomenological experience of nature does not. There is something mysterious and powerful about the phenomenological experience of nature that does not seem to be rendered intelligible by translation into strict efficient causation. The natural world seems to be a living place with its own meanings, rather than just an extremely complex arrangement of matter reacting in particular ways. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that one reason why contemporary people have experiences of wonder towards nature is because our experience of nature is one which suggests to us that the natural world cannot be fit into the simple disenchanted worldview that we have. Nature then appears as something that transcends the disenchanted universe and consequently we feel wonder at this seeming transcendence. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that the natural world cannot be made sense of in terms of a disenchanted view of the universe, only that our phenomenological experience of nature seems to suggest that it cannot.

One other reason for the wonder we experience towards the natural world is the fact that the natural world has a power over us such that we come to feel wonder for it without choosing to do so, or looking to nature for inspiration. Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way in which modern people see their self as invulnerable to being acted upon by the external world; this idea is encapsulated by the idea that if we try we can avoid having things get to us if we are disciplined enough. Taylor contrasts this with the notion of the “porous self” which he suggests would have been common during the middle ages in Latin Christendom, in which the self was vulnerable to being acted upon by meanings that were outside of itself; things that were a part of nature or emanations from God or Satan. These meanings could take control of us, and guide our actions for significant portions of time. To some degree our phenomenological experience of nature is one in which our nature as porous selves is revealed. My sense of the power and majesty of the mountain acts on me and I feel a sense of wonder for it. I do not choose to feel a sense of wonder towards the mountain, rather I am acted on by the mountain and come to feel a sense of awe or wonder, and there is nothing I can do about this fact. Thus, it seems plausible to think that our sense of wonder towards the natural world might be a function of the fact that, despite the self-image we possess, we are porous selves to some extent and are vulnerable to being acted upon by nature.

While there is no specific political, ethical or spiritual point that I am trying to make through this entry beyond what I have specified above, it should be noted that if we better understand our sense of wonder towards nature then we are better able to understand our spiritual predicament. And one way to best ensure that we adequately respond to this predicament is through gaining the deepest possible understanding of the situation as we can achieve.

Now listen to some Agalloch because they are absolutely wonderful.

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Facebook’s Newsfeed, Recognition and Friendship

On Facebook’s newsfeed people often post everything from pictures of themselves and their food, to news articles and videos, to facts about their daily lives and seemingly profound quotes. In this sense the newsfeed on Facebook serves as medium of self-disclosure wherein people choose to share facts about their lives, their thoughts on politics or simply their taste in cuisine. The question that this raises is what drives people to disclose themselves in this way through the medium of Facebook’s newsfeed? It seems that one reason for these forms of activity is that people desire to be valued by others. The desire to be valued by others, or put differently the desire to be recognized as valuable is not inherently problematic, but posting to Facebook’s newsfeed because of this desire is problematic as it constitutes a form of disrespect for others.

Typically on Facebook, people have many contacts which range from close friends to relatives to distant acquaintances. Generally, the vast majority of ones “friends” on Facebook are merely acquaintances with which one shares very little connection. Anything one posts to one’s newsfeed will show up in all of one’s “friend’s” newsfeeds. As a result of this fact when one posts to the newsfeed one is sharing not only with one’s actual friends, but with the broad range of contacts that one has collected as Facebook “friends.” Consequently, it seems that, in some cases, a legitimate explanation for why people disclose themselves through posts to their newsfeed is so that they are seen by others in a particular light and in turn valued by them. For example, there is little difference between talking about your recent breakup on Facebook’s newsfeed, and talking with a cashier who you are acquainted with about your breakup. In the latter case we would say that the person needed someone to hear them out in order so that they felt valued by others. So, in the former case (Facebook’s newsfeed) it seems that we should also think that the person is searching for valuation by others. Consequently, I think it is plausible to think that in many cases posting to Facebook’s newsfeed indicates a desire to be valued by others; in such cases we expose ourselves to others in hopes that they see the post and come to recognize our value.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the recognition that we look for while posting on Facebook’s newsfeed is not the desire to be recognized as a human being with dignity, because someone can accord this to another, without valuing any particular features of the individual. Consequently, we can recognize another as having equal human dignity if we think that all individuals should be treated with respect, even if we do not value the particular nature of certain human beings. This is clearly not the kind of recognition we seek through posting on Facebook’s newsfeed. Rather, the recognition we seek in the context of Facebook’s newsfeed is to be seen as valuable not as a human being in general, but as a particular human being with particular features. For example, we may want to be recognized because of our profound intellect or our exquisite taste in music, or some other particular feature. For the rest of this post when I refer to recognition I mean this latter form of recognition of particularistic value.

The problem with posting to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to achieve recognition is that this act seeks to achieve recognition without any interest in forming a deeper relationship with the others who are being asked for recognition. When one is forming a friendship one discloses oneself to others in hopes that they will recognize the particular value that you have, but you also have an interest in forming a relationship with that person and sharing in their life in some way. When we post to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to gain recognition on the other hand we do so to get as much recognition as we can, but without actually taking an interest in developing deeper relationships with those who we are asking for recognition from. In this case, there is a tendency to see the others that we are asking for recognition from as a source of “likes,” rather than as other particular individuals. We want these others to affirm our value, but we have little interest in forming a consequential relationship with them, whether it be a friendship, or simply a spirited sharing of interests. Seeing others as mere sources of “likes” or recognition in this way is deeply problematic as it objectifies the person who is being asked for recognition, and consequently disrespects them.  Now it is true that objectification is a large part of most elements of contemporary society. We are objectified in our work place as we are “resources” rather than persons. We are objectified by the store owner who merely sees us a source of money, but nonetheless we need to take a critical eye to all forms of objectification, if only to better understand if it is a necessary element of all developed societies, or if it is something that we can overcome.

 

Edit: April 20 – 5:43 MST

Fight Club, Material Goods and Freedom

In the film Fight Club, Tyler Durden, a character who is a representation of the rejection of feminized mass consumer corporate culture, says that “the things you own end up owning you.” At first glance this line seems perplexing as it seems to suggest that freedom and owning a vast set of material possessions are in conflict. While, I don’t think that this comment is true in all circumstances it seems to be true in a particular sense within the context of societies in which nearly all of the residents are expected to have jobs and work for a living. Let us call these jobholding societies. Within this entry I will show in what sense Tyler Durden`s statement is true and furthermore, I wlll argue that the lack of freedom of the accumulator of material goods within jobholding societies is characterized by the problematic marginalization of leisure and a life which cycles between work and amusement.

Within a jobholding society if one has a set of material possessions one must then put labour into the upkeep of those possessions in order so that they retain their value. Furthermore, the more possessions that one has the more time one has to put into their upkeep as a whole. Of course one could merely buy the things and then refrain from putting any time into their upkeep, but this seems irrational as the point of buying something is so that one can capitalize on the value that it provides. For example, if one has a sparsely furnished single bedroom condominium one will have to spend far less time on the upkeep of this set of possessions than a large home that is ostentatiously furnished. Consequently, it seems that the more things one owns the more one will be required to spend one`s time maintaining those goods. Thus, there seems to be an insight to Tyler Durden`s comment as the person who owns many things within a jobholding society must now become devoted to maintaining those things. This is something that is dictated by the very logic of the purchase of commodities itself.

It should be noted that the possessions that an aristocrat owns would not have a negative impact on his or her freedom, because they have servants, or possibly slaves to deal with the maintenance of these objects, and that is why I say that Durden`s line is not true under all circumstances. There are other circumstances under which Durden`s statement would also cease to be true, but for the sake of brevity I will not consider those situations.

Furthermore, within jobholding societies there are ways out of this dilemma for the owner of a large set of material goods and that is to hire others to maintain one`s goods for you, but this option is only effectively open to those with exorbitant wealth. Even if those within the middle classes can hire someone to clean their home once every two weeks, they are still left with a large degree of upkeep on their home and other possessions. So for those who are not extremely wealthy the accumulation of possessions is a mixed blessing. We are at once are drawn to the accumulation of material goods in order to make our lives more comfortable, but these material possessions end up taking our time away as we struggle to maintain the value of the possessions that we have purchased.

Similarly, the danger that the ownership of a large extent of material possessions is not some minor threat to our freedom, as it encourages us to live within a problematic cycle of work and amusement or entertainment. Due to the fact that we spend a large part of our lives working at our jobs, and working to maintain our material possessions, when we are not working we tend to slide into activities that we enjoy merely as a visceral source of entertainment that allows us to momentarily unwind. What this cycle leaves out is leisure. Leisure is not rest, but rather time that one has where one is free to do what one finds valuable. When we engage in an activity under conditions of leisure we do so because we find that activity valuable, not because we have to engage in the activity to pursue some other end. Furthermore, leisure is distinct from entertainment or amusement, as we amuse ourselves so that we are able to reenergize so that we can return to work, whereas leisure has no aim beyond itself. Leisure is significant because if flourishing is to mean anything more than pursuing instrumental goods (work), or merely being entertained (amusement), then leisure will have to be central to flourishing. And surely there is more to the value of human life than work or amusement. This is evident as subsuming the value of friendship, romantic love, the life of the mind, musical composition and athletic achievement under the category of something that is merely instrumentally valuable, or something that is merely entertaining denigrates these goods. These are all goods which can only be fully realized under the conditions of leisure, because if they are pursued as instrumental goods, or as mere sources of entertainment their value is inadequately recognized and appreciated. Consequently, the ownership of a large set of material possessions with a jobholding society damages the freedom and life of the possessor by encouraging them to fall into life which cycles between work and amusement, rather than a life in which a space is given to leisure and all of the goods associated with it.

Therefore, Tyler Durden`s statement reveals a deep problem with jobholding societies in that while these societies may seem to allow individuals to be free to accumulate the goods that make themselves most comfortable, the cost of this practise of accumulation is the marginalization of leisure and all of the good associated with it from the lives of those who accumulate large sets of material goods. Thus, while it may seem paradoxical that the jobholder with a large set of material possessions is less free in one sense than the jobholder with fewer possessions, there seems to be a very real sense in which the preceding is true.

Another important element that we can draw from the preceding is that the danger to human freedom that capitalist holds occurs both on the side of production and consumption.. We are well aware of how we are unfree within a capitalist society in that we have to either work or starve, and we are exploited by the extraction of surplus value, but sometimes we are not aware of enough of the ways in which our very activities of consumption and accumulation make our lives less free. Here it should be pointed out that jobholding society is a distinct concept from capitalist society. All capitalist societies are jobholding societies, but socialist societies are also jobholding societies.

Inclusion and Public Dialogue: Moving Beyond the Choice Between Tolerance and Identity Politics

A lot of ink has been spilled over the last 50 years concerning the question of how to deal with the problem of how a deeply diverse society can be made fully inclusive for all members of the society. There are two primary approaches to this problem and both of them are implausible because of the deep shortcomings that they possess. The first approach is the tolerance approach and it argues that in order to ensure inclusion within a diverse society we should respect the rights of individuals to pursue diverse practises as long as these practises do not violate the rights of others. The second approach is the identity politics approach which argues that we need to positively value the unique identities of all people in order to ensure society is fully inclusive. To show the shortcomings of each of these approaches I will look at how this approach deals with the question of how we ought to treat others within the context of public dialogue to ensure that society is inclusive. By public dialogue I mean the diverse set of dialogues that occur concerning how we ought to live together. Furthermore, I will sketch out an alternative that, at least at the level of public dialogue, overcomes the shortcomings of both the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach.

Within the context of public dialogue the tolerance approach merely suggests that we ought not violate the rights of others and allow them to espouse their opinions. In and of itself it does not require us to listen to others and try to learn from them in order to facilitate inclusion. It is a merely negative ethic in that it prohibits us from violating the rights of others, or inciting people to violate the rights of others. The problem with this is that members of groups can still be deeply marginalized if no one listens to them within public dialogue, even if their rights are not violated. So, this approach fails to ensure a robust enough form of inclusion to address the problem of inclusion within a deeply diverse society.

Contrastingly, the identity politics approach suggests that in the context of public dialogue we should recognize the value of all diverse perspectives and intently listen to all perspectives as they all provide a distinct value to the public dialogue of a political community. Surely, this would ensure a great degree of inclusion by ensuring that within the context of public dialogue there is real engagement with all perspectives, but the problem with it is that within the context of deeply diverse society it can only ensure this degree of inclusion at the expense of disrespecting people by asking them to say things that they do not necessarily believe. For example, if I believe that Christianity holds more wisdom than other religions and perspectives, it is disrespectful to me to suggest that I ought to affirm the value of other religions and perspectives, as I may not actually value these other religions or perspectives. Consequently, the attitude that the identity politics approach asks people to take within public dialogue may seem effective at ensuring inclusion, but the identity politics approach is disrespectful because it attitude may require me to espouse beliefs that I reject, and thus this approach seems deeply problematic.

Some defenders of identity politics suggest that it is bigoted or prejudiced to think that the perspective of one culture or religion is superior to another and consequently there should be no place in public dialogue for perspectives that adopt such an attitude, but this seems to me to conflate disrespecting a person’s perspective and disrespecting the person. I disrespect a person’s perspective if I say their perspective is inferior to mine, but I disrespect the person if I say they should adopt my values because I think my values are superior. It is absurd that we should avoid disrespecting people’s perspectives, because some perspectives merit disrespect (ie perspectives in favour of footbinding or honor killing) and disrespecting beliefs does not constitute disrespect for persons. Thus, there does seem to be a place in public dialogue for perspectives that say that one perspective is superior to another.

The key to inclusion is not to artificially try to affirm the value of all perspectives, but to develop a citizenry that is reflective enough to recognize that they may not have all of the answers to all questions and can learn from the wisdom of others. Such a reflective citizenry would facilitate inclusion through public dialogue because they would see others as possible sources of insight and consequently listen to them. This would facilitate inclusion as it would ensure that the voices of all members of society were heard and engaged with. Furthermore, it would not require anyone to say or do anything that violates their integrity or any reasonable belief that they hold. Consequently, we should endorse this approach over the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach on the question of how to make society inclusive at the level of public dialogue. Of course the development of such a reflective citizenry is not something that is easy to achieve nor something that we should hope to achieve anytime soon, but by better understanding the kind of citizenry and culture required for full inclusion, we are better equipped to begin making steps towards this goal, and understanding the shortcomings of our current state.