Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Personal Declaration of Independence

On this long weekend of the July fourth, I hereby declare my own independence. I hold to an independence from all that is systematized in our daily lives, to all narrowing of possibility and stunting of imagination.

Through an act of will, however unfree that will may in actuality be, I wish an independence from any creed, doctrine or guru that would have us be in any way finished, finalized, understood and explained. I recognize that such explanation explains away.

There are many facts to be said about us, and our structures and institutions might hold necessity, in much the same way as a flower needs soil in which to grow and flourish. But this necessity does not give any of us the justification to forget our inner conscience or real nature. At every moment of life we must take an inventory of these structures and ask if they are good for us, or just so much convenience and habit. This sense of being that resides in all of us, from the most abject to the most elevated among us, always holds great promises and powers. One has only to listen, but what if it were only that easy! What will be heard is different for every human being yet nevertheless is the only way to know how or where to turn, and most importantly, why. Any compromise of the truths to be found in that place of being ends in some kind of ruination. If we coast along in ignorance of the truth in question we may be happy half of the time, and we may even find a degree of comfort, but we will be only half alive to this world.

And we must ask ourselves if an alleged necessity is right by our nature. It will be very different and vary from one to the next. A scholar who tends to their garden knows it is not right for their constitution to be in an after hours club in town. But someone whose heart is in the bustle of that club and is invigorated and fortified by the electricity of the human connections to be found there does not belong on the farm or even in the study holding the world’s greatest wisdom. What would be noisome and empty to the scholar, is, for the partygoer, a living human comedy with vibrancy, with all of its glories and all of its flaws. Somehow, by each following their nature, in the apparent chaos that ensues, some measure of harmony will be achieved.

I remember some time back in the early nineties when I was discussing with an anarchist friend the dissolution of the old Soviet empire and its replacement by independent and sovereign states based on tradition and group identities with shared history. Although nobody in their right mind would have been sorry to see that awful empire fall I was suspicious and confused about the prospect of all of these new nations and histories to take into account. It seemed like a great deal of trouble to me. Moreover I wasn’t sure independence wouldn’t form new tensions and excessive tribal pride. My anarchist friend was only happy about the turn of events. As he succinctly put it: “I think everybody should get out of everything.”

Everybody should get out of everything. John was surely unto something. It is not merely that as a nation we are entangled in a barbaric war as wasteful of spirit and body as much as purse. It is not only that each of us, as a result of having made a bargain for temporary security, is mired in a complex interdependent system whose success threatens our very survival.

The problem lies rather in the province of ontology. As never before in human history, with the likely exception of the medieval period in the West, we are constantly told, by way of mass communications of all kinds, who we are, what we are, and what we are meant to do about it.

We are told of how every gesture we make and every though we think is incredibly important, of what evolutionary purpose all of our vanity has served. The lowest habit of the most abject, pitiful creature and the highest reach of the most elevated Samaritan are flattened onto the same plane and analyzed and explained to us in the most banal of terms: perhaps as positive and negative sides of a single coin.

One time, not so very long ago, we were told who we were on the recommendation of arcane, incongruous, and improbable texts believed to be penned by a god. Now we are told who we are in the form of brute facts, with which nobody dares to argue on risk of being though delusional or worse. That what we are told now is demonstrable or true is scarcely an improvement. The net effect serves only to limit human possibility, all the more so, since today’s map of the human has that blunt force of fact in its favor. Never before have we been so systematized and. It is little wonder, then, that leading research neuroscientists seriously consider the possibility that robots or machines that resemble us in every way from the outside would ipso facto be indistinguishable from us on the inside, since the private experience inside of our skulls that each of us lives all of our lifelong days is thought to be unreliable at best or literally an illusion at worst.

Doubtless, we can all appreciate the pleasures of certain knowledge. Much like that which can be gleamed from a PBS science special or the daily act of reading the morning paper, there are things about us which can be understood and quantified. There is more to us than that, however. That this something more, has been the cause of much religious nonsense and fanaticism is most unfortunate, as it is no cause for denying the obvious.

But that sense of our own existence - call it consciousness if you will - is the one thing of whose existence we can be sure. Ironically, the very thing thought in certain respectable quarters to be utterly unreal - because they are out of reach of the third person, objective view - turns out to be all that, in the end, we have. Descartes had a real sense of this insight in his “I think; therefore, I am” quote. One might reverse this formulation. At first we are. There is being. There is something prior to thought, whether that thought be discursive or transcendental in nature. That something has no proper name, brooks no easy explanation and is slippery when one attempts to grasp it. Yet each of us knows it and knows further that “it” is the only thing to which we can turn to remedy any problem. It is intensely personal and unique yet has universal import. In my more elegiac moments I might call it love. Fear has no place here; indeed, it is stronger than any clumsy caution we might feel to be necessary. That is why we can escape any systems laid out for us. We can surprise ourselves and others. We are but works in progress and it is work never done.

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