The Invisible Monster

I groped around some in the darkness. It’s tough. I honestly don’t know how anyone begins, how do we even figure out what questions to ask; any question we ask is going to be met with some answer, anything can look like we’ve made some kind of a start. Next thing we know, we’ve been on some tangent and we’re old, the questions have faded and the answers have taken over and if they’re not working then maybe they need a champion, perhaps it’s a fight rather than a Q & A or maybe we’ve just had our try and we retire.

I have this rap, “I asked this question as a child,” and yes I can weave that narrative now, but that didn’t begin to come clear until around the time of my first child’s birth, age thirty-five or so. In my teens and twenties, I was that clueless seeker, read something from the hippies’ spiritual library, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, some yoga. That stuff led me to try philosophy, I still have my copy of Kant’s Critique, and I’ve put a good dent in it a few times – I really should finish it, the first third of that book has stuck with me, it was good stuff in there, more so than a great deal of philosophy, I think.

Because it’s a critique, I think.

So then I went off and lived a life, had a marriage, raised some kids.

I read some psychology heading into that, tried some R. D. Laing, not easier than Kant, I won’t pretend to have absorbed him either, but a few things. I learned about shadow selves, repression, got taken with an Alice Miller book or two. A lot of overviews, “History of (western) Thought” stuff, our progress narrative. When I tried to learn some biology, I wound up in the library of the alt-Right, I guess, Pinker et al. – I came out of that focused on evolution, trying to ignore their conclusions and drawing my own. Their conclusions are so bereft of meaning, it sent me running back to philosophy!

These days I’ve been trying to absorb some classics, but one such history has reached modern times and I’ve had an introduction to Foucault, and now a short summary audio book I’m on my second pass through. He was very concerned about his identity, that he wasn’t a philosopher as such – it’s a very narrow discipline in some senses – and at one point he settled on “critical intellectual,” because his work was analyzing and troubleshooting existing systems, not so much designing new systems from scratch or whatever it is proper philosophers do.

Seems he was a stickler for those sorts of definitions and perhaps an authority, and he was quite expansive about how to define “author” and an author’s relationship to their society, so I got to thinking that “critical intellectual” surely has a known and understood role in society as well, that we know how to respond to them.

I also learned something personal listening to his ideas.

Critical intellectuals really get on your bloody nerves, that’s how we respond to them! Plus also I am one of the bastards. I listened to his ideas and found myself trying to pick them apart, it’s what I do. Of course it’s an easy matter, decades later, speaking from a world that Foucault’s ideas very much helped to create, of course we’ve moved beyond him and anyone can do that looking back, he said this, I’m sure.

But I noticed it, the irony was a little too on the nose, noticed that this is the role I have adopted and so I noticed that the response I get is also part of a role or roles, perhaps not scripted, maybe only a familiar mode of interaction . . . well, Foucault may have settled on it, it was the truest option for him, I guess.

It’s true for me as a character trait; it’s not really true about my work. My critiques come from a new design.

New designs are not expected, perhaps not possible, from critics, is that it? Is this my mistake, I start by announcing Nothing New Here and then Here’s My New Thing! I may have to ch . . . I may have to ch . . . cha . . . oh, you know what I mean.

Of course I should read the prison one, of course a summary of critiques is going to get tiresome – I should read one of his in long form, hear and enjoy his voice in a thorough treatment, not just a list of complaints. I should very much also write one of mine in long form, stop giving nothing but a list of complaints myself. The previous sentence, this I say as a reader. The response I gave Foucault’s list of ideas – Oh, FFS, sort of –  is the response I think I get from folks, and that makes perfect sense to me.

Y’all wrong, of course.

Not about me! I am exactly that rock in everyone’s shoe, I know that. You’re wrong if you think what I’m trying to say is only critique, though. At least as regards my main subject.

One cannot say this, I know that. It’s unlikely in the extreme, I know this, it’s flat-out impossible, I know this – but I’m better than him. I just got lucky, sure, but that counts too. He’s smarter than me in every way, these guys are bloody polymaths, they got fifty points on me all day long and I got exactly nothing to show, never lived above a hundred points, for all you’d have seen, what can I say? Murphy’s Law, goes to show you never can tell.

Record scratch, freeze frame, restart. Making that case is going to take a minute.

They are all fighting some invisible monster, and by “they,” I mean “we,” except that in this, your narrator would exempt himself from humankind. This thought has been brewing for a long time.

By “they,” I mean philosophers, authors, yes, and also scientists (nobody says “I’m a scientist,” like Quincy M.D., I know), artists, basically anyone attempting to interact with humanity or life itself, anyone trying to solve the problem of humankind, or even artists, students of human nature who try to soothe this savage breast with beauty. They all work off of some great, vague antagonist, some central problem with so many names as to be nameless and so many features as to be non-existent, not optional enough to name or talk about. Many concepts approach, many ideas at least partially succeed in pointing us to it.

Oh Gawd, here it comes, yes, I’m going to say the words, I promise to try really hard not go down my usual rabbit hole here, or at least keep it short. If I fail, I’ll see you on the other side?

(Spoiler alert, I did not fail!)

One such attempt to define this thing we call Christian original sin, perhaps non-Christian societies have an analogue, the idea that we are born a sort of “bad,” that bad things are to be expected from us, failing some intervention. I’m not saying we walk around with that maxim foremost in our thoughts, I’m just saying that at the bottom of all the detail, after all the life history, after all of our conversation dies down, this is usually what’s assumed to be the nasty bit of reality underlying everything. We try not to let every conversation go dark like that, we don’t think about it very much, it seems pretty clear that it’s unproductive, whether we actually believe it or not, it’s the end of the logic, the end of the conversation, bah! Human nature.

Certainly, the atheist contingent of this Christian society has an analogue in slightly more evolutionary language, something like the beast within.

Before those ideas and existent still in art and life, however, is an idea more like fate or the Fates, this is more what the thing seems like in a novel or other dramatic work, it seems original sin and such are not required in fiction, fictional villains do not require reasons or excuses, they are provided as the reason and the excuse for the story already, generally. Longer or deeper stories may still invoke some theory as to why the villain is the villain, and then we’re back to our theories about real people.

When we’re looking at authors, especially the ones we call thinkers, looking at the arc of their lives and their works, we can sometimes see what sort of metaphor they used when addressing this thing. Certainly Dostoevsky ended on original sin, of course, along with many from a Christian culture, modern biological voices seem to go with some iteration of the beast within, I’m thinking about Sapolsky, “we are half this and half that, predator and prey, bestial and civilized.” Often we simply see the empty space, the artist as simply artist, depiction and not explanation, think Bob Dylan’s attitude, maybe the Coen brothers’ films, not always nihilism, sometimes just the very best sort of science, dispassionate exposition, recorded for possible future interpretation, when better ideas become available.

It’s a bit of a leap of faith for me to try to do what I want to do here, I worry a little that I’m just another Dr. Frankenstein, messing with what we are not meant to mess with. If I name this thing, will I end art? If we lose war, do we lose, courage, valour, honour, all that is good about us?

Can you imagine what it would be like if while on a philosophical pondering walk, considering just this fuzzy, opaque thing, you happened to catch sight someone pouring barrels marked “the invisible thing that hurts us all” or “fate” or “original sin” into the water supply? It would instantly be a different world. The next person you saw shaking their fist at God and asking “Why?” would be a different experience for you from all of those you saw before. It’s . . . artificial? Human made?

That’s one shock that might bring, sure, but carrying on with this elaborate, uh, metaphor, suppose that after this, every time you pass the water tower, those people are there, adding the stuff, and you start to realize they always were there and before the cistern, they used to put it straight in the river? Now it’s the same world again, only different for you, imagine every time you talk to someone, see some television, read a book, that it quickly becomes clear that no-one else has seen the people and the barrels and what’s going on with the water?

The experience of madness, to be sure, but always, and only, ever?

These thinkers, these polymaths and geniuses – and maybe a few simply lucky ones like me – what they managed is impressive, brilliant theses about the world starting from nothing, the same as the rest of us and working around this thing, making their deductions while having to treat almost the entire basis of human drama as an unknown, as a huge black box exercise, half of the story always only guessed at. It’s amazing the feats of thought with this giant handicap placed on us all – while I’ve been the prima donna, giving it “I can’t work under these conditions,” ha.

Since we’re deep in the philosophy fantasy here, I should say more clearly, I can’t work under this episteme.

So, I just won’t. I’ll shatter it instead.

Many embrace the invisible thing.

Not all who call it this embrace it, I think Foucault stopped loving the name before he applied it to the thing, but many call it power. This was Foucault’s arc, from my unique take on someone else’s summary, from playing with power sexually etc., to seeing it as the currency of society – hard to argue, with that definition – and blaming humanity’s dark creativity on the power, perhaps the seeking after it? Perhaps not. He defined the modern era as having sort of socialized power, having spread it around compared to past days of monarchies, which, not far from me and AST there, I too think the problem has been socialized, we’re all doing it. For me, though “seeking” power and glory and such, these are not motivators, I think Foucault had just this difference with Nietzsche himself, these are hobbies for the privileged, not basic motivators – certainly a few steps from biology, it would seem. I’m not clear, as you see, that he thought of it as a bad thing, in fact he had positive roles for power maybe, so I don’t think he replaced original sin with it somehow, it’s only clear he settled upon the word, power, perhaps not moralizing about it at all.

It seems a little clearer that he didn’t replace original sin with abuse like I do either, though. At least in the prison one and the madness one, it sounds like passive voice stuff, conformism, marginalization, impersonal sounding processes, and I think the passive voice indicates the void, the unnamed thing in it’s unnamed state. Of course, I mean when it’s sincere. Passive voice can also simply hide a conviction we’d rather not share (like a straight up belief in original sin, or at least for you and your people if not for themselves and all people).

So if all that marginalization, normalization and conformity were simply depicted and not explained early on by Foucault in a passive voice, it seems fair to say that his power ideas are what he developed to fill that void, and I’ll say, he’s a Brother From Another Mother for me, he comes as close as absolutely anyone to beating me to it.

But damn him for all eternity for giving it the fascist’s favourite word.

You tell a spanked eighteen year-old boy/man that the secret to life is power, no wonder we blame Nietzsche for the previous major outbreak. And who reads those guys anywhere but at school, at just that age? Circular, I guess. They do because of that word, don’t they?

I want to do this, just this, those guys’ method, Foucault’s archaeology or genealogy, to a few more thinkers, show their treatment of the invisible thing at the centre of human life, the arc of their seeing it, but perhaps this will be long enough and perhaps if I find someone else that seems instructive they deserve their own blog, and not to be an appendix. I gave one social critic’s, and blurbs for one primatologist’s and a few artists’, there are plenty more thinkers, but there aren’t many more takes on this thing anyway.

There it was, right there, two paragraphs up! It’s not a secret what I think.

I think the unnamed thing is the spanking, abuse in all its forms.

Think of it as a path to power, if you like nouns for answers, like “power.” Personally, I’ve been thinking about it as a misguided path to “security,” myself, makes us sound nicer, like we’re on defense, when I want a noun to end a sentence about it with. OK, past tense, I had been thinking defense, but I’m letting go of that, I’m thinking aggression these days, but I still think power is too big a word to have meaning. It pretty much just means ability, or capability, that’s not a thing you can toss around or argue about or solve for. “Security” still works for me, as long is has the ironic quotation marks around it.

The main thing is, though, to think of abuse as that great, invisible problem no-one can name or even see, rather than to think of it as the solution, because, surprise, that’s why you can’t see it, you’ve got it labelled wrong.

I want to say, before I sign off, I’m not so cold.

Breaks my heart, thinking of us all banging our heads against this problem and not being able to name the monster, especially when I know the person I’m seeing fighting blindly against it is a sensitive thoughtful sort, someone really trying to work it out for us all, so many of them, of us. It’s both a personal and a universal human tragedy. I’m guessing Foucault left his own abuse aside, as we do, surely that was “only” a personal problem, and not to be included in any serious studies.

You know? I know you do.

 

Jeff

March 12th., 2020