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Archive for the tag “Zygmunt Bauman”

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I started the “Thinking in Jewish” series of posts by numbering each post with a Roman numeral. This numbering system is antiquated and cumbersome and I am, quite frankly, tired of the whole mess. So from this day forward I will number the “Thinking in Jewish” posts using Arabic numbering system which means that the next post will be labeled 32.

There is a question I want to answer for the readers of this blog. It comes up from time to time in the comments which makes it a worthy topic to blog about. It centers on what on earth my atheism and the posts in the series “Thinking in Jewish” has to do with my prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment. Along the same lines I have seen a strange undertone that seems to be asking what is an atheist like myself doing commenting on Jewish thinking in the first place.  So here goes…my best effort at talking about these issues as I blog away.

Begin at the beginning. When I heard the words no one ever wants to hear, the words that may indeed harken the beginning of the end of life, the words “YOU HAVE CANCER” it has a sobering effect on the way one chooses to look at the world. In my professional life I was a Professor of Language and Literacy at a Midwestern state university. My professional interests gravitated toward the study of the teaching of writing so that middle school and secondary school teachers could better teach their students the skill of writing without effort. Blogging, then, seemed like the most natural thing I could do to both help me focus on the fact that I now have a disease that may contribute to my demise. Kubler-Ross was wrong in my case. I grieved over the possibility that my life was coming to an end but I quickly accepted that as a fact that may or may not be true. My job now was to come to grips with how I intended to live the remaining years (or months whatever the case may be) of my life.

As an atheist, I rejected the idea that there is a creator God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. My own observations of the world and my deepening understanding of Jewish religious texts, however, caused me not to reject my own Jewish roots. I am a Jew, I have a Jewish understanding of the world, of time and space, of ethics and morality. I simply don’t attribute any of this to a creator God. one that is angry, demanding and punishing. As a post-Shoah (or post Holocaust although Shoah is a better word choice) Jew, where 6 million of my nation perished at the hands of Germans in an unspeakably horrible genocide (perhaps religicide is a more apt descriptor) for no other reason than they were Jews in Europe, made the very concept of a benevolent and omniscient God improbable and the very idea than an omnipotent God would not put a stop to the horrors of the camps, gas-chambers and crematory ovens would make this God either a sadist or rather than omnipotent, simply impotent and unworthy of worship. The other possibility to consider is that there is no God to be omnipotent, omniscient or benevolent, a possibility I find more convincing than any that includes God or religion at the center of the a discourse.

While sick and waiting for testing to be completed to determine what course of treatment for my prostate cancer would be recommended, I decided that learning how to ‘think in Jewish’ would be a good way to think about the potential end of life. It was a clear choice. The Christian story makes absolutely no sense to me. The same can be said for the story of Islam although that one is easier to swallow perhaps because it was formed in the same region as the Jewish story while the Christian story, while originating in Palestine, is essentially a European take on the very idea of monotheism. That being said, I thought it best to stick with what I know and simply become better at understanding where and how the religion of my people developed. The story, especially when told in the light of the ultimate schism of Jewish and Christian thinking and the response of both to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, is fascinating. I do not intend to go into that schism here but the response of the triumphal Christians and the defeated Jews of the first three centuries CE paints a picture of quite different approaches to the self-same problem.

What I found as I studied and read more deeply was that the ethics of Judaism played a great role in the way I had been living my life for years. There was embedded in the literature constant reminders of obligations to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, for those less fortunate than we might be and there is always someone less fortunate than yourself no matter what your current situation might be. I don’t recall who said this but it is appropriate here. It goes something like this, “I cried out because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Sure I had cancer, but I still had hope and that hope lay in the hands of skilled physicians, men of science, who would do everything possible to make the remainder of my life one filled with the absolute joy of living. In the end, the men of science told me that surgery would cure my cancer and while there are some unpleasant side effects of the surgery, my life will not be disrupted to any great extent. I am now writing as a cancer survivor, one experiencing the unpleasant side effects and it is truly a small price to pay for many more years of life.

That being said, I decided to continue this blog because my personal struggle with ethics and evil in this world has become an important part of my life. Sure, it didn’t begin when I was diagnosed with cancer but that diagnosis brought it to the forefront of my being-in-the-world. That is why I continue to blog about my encounter with life in general and sometimes about health related issues that seems to arise as a result of my experience with cancer.

So no more Roman numerals and I’ll continue to make my thinking visible to me (and to you) on this blog.

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics, according to Emmanuel Levinas, is the first philosophy, elevated above ontology or epistemology. On Levinas’s view, as nicely summarized by Hillary Putnam, the fundamental ethical obligation is to become response-able (responsible) for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Ethical behavior is fundamentally interpersonal, non-judgmental, face-to-face and established without external imperatives. Bare life, according to the view of Giorgio Agamben, focuses on the excluded, the marginalized, the non-members of society who, through external imperatives by a governing authority are disenfranchised, separated from and isolated from the rest of normative society. Bare life is externally mandated by the sovereign power to eek out an apartheid existence. Sometimes, the isolation is limited applying to a single aspect of life, for example, an unwarranted fear of the other because of skin color, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), sexual orientation, social class (yes we have social classes in the United States that are not formal but that, nevertheless, exist), politics, or other generalized group membership. We also have examples where bare life, because of a vacuum in political opposition and a well-organized bureaucracy, takes bare life to unthinkable limits where genocide is a political function of the government and is carried out in exquisitely efficient ways so well described by Zygmunt Bauman.

The aporia, the double bind is that of self-directed ethics motivated by the interiority of the self to extend outward to the exteriority and absolute uniqueness of the other and the authoritative imperative motivated by the exteriority of the other and extended inward to invade the interiority of the self in an attempt to reduce the individual into the same, to homogenize the external world into a flat, featureless normality while excluding the uniqueness of the self. Linguistically we might think in terms of the oppositions of diversity/uniformity as representative of the aporia of modernity.

The double bind that is at work here is that one must engage in both worlds, one may choose an ethical stance even in the most horrific exercise of the authority of the sovereign, the one standing outside (not above) the law or one may choose the uniformity of enforcement of separation and isolation. There are, for example, countless stories of people choosing ethics over authority in the death camps of Nazi Germany (read the works of Primo Levy for a few examples). There are examples of those feigning uniformity who, rather than comply, chose to practice an ethical life (think of Schindler’s List as a prime example). And there are also those choosing to comply, even among the victims of the unimaginable homogenization of the death camps (those Jews who chose to do the work of their Nazi guards, to cooperate with their enemy if only to stave off the inevitable for themselves).

While these are extreme examples, we can see the same thing happening in modern democratic societies where the aim of exclusion is not as well defined nor is it as final as the consequences of the Shoah (the Holocaust). Police acting to curb protests, where the police are literally the uniform(ed) arm of the sovereign power, even while the police belong to the same class as those protesting. We see the leaders of religious institutions arguing for the exclusion of others who do not believe in the same specific tenants as they and it is all done in the name of their God or gods while their congregants uniformly accept the preachings of the hate mongers. I witness teachers willingly entering the classroom with the idea of creating a climate of compliance among their students in order to infuse the desire to score well on an imposed standardized test.

In the final analysis, however, the choice of the fundamental ethical obligation trumps uniformity, although that choice is always more dangerous than the choice of compliance, of sinking into the plain vanilla of uniformity. In making the ethical choice, one must constantly confront one’s taken-for-granteds, one’s prejudices and one’s biases in favor of the admission of bias and working to embrace that which one finds different. I recall a personal story as an example here. I was called for jury duty and while my panel was being questioned, one of the attorneys doing the questioning asked something like, ‘Is there anyone who cannot set aside their personal bias and examine the evidence presented to come to a verdict based solely on the evidence presented?’ I found the question a bit strange. I raised my hand and asked. ‘What do you mean by setting aside personal bias?’ The attorney responded, ‘That your verdict be based solely on the evidence presented and that you leave your personal beliefs at home.’ I responded, ‘Then I would have to answer that I cannot set my personal beliefs or bias aside but could only examine evidence in the context of those beliefs. I cannot simply turn off my bias and sink into a uniformity of fair-arbiter. I can listen to all the evidence but I cannot evaluate that evidence unless I evaluate it in light of my core ethical obligations.’ The judge dismissed me from the panel. In order to embrace the other’s diversity, one must also embrace one’s own values as uniquely their own.

The point of this ramble is that the line between diversity/uniformity is one in which we all find ourselves from time to time. The forces of the ethical self are at odds with the forces of uniformity and compliance.


The Hegemony of the Homogeneous

The monlingualism imposed by the other operates by relying upon…a sovereignty whose essence is always colonial, which tends, repressively and irrepressibly to reduce language to the One, that is, to the hegemony of the homogeneous.

Jacques Derrida, The Monlingualism of the Other

The Hegemony of the Homogeneous

The Hegemony of the Homogeneous

Let me suppose that Derrida is concerned with much the same thing that Levinas bemoans, the reduction of the self into the same. It is this very hegemony, this sovereign reduction, that creates the conditions for the blind acceptance of the many taken-for-granted ideas and feelings that promote an apathy that, in turn, leads to notions of self-protection and the exclusion of the other from the social order. While Derrida is concentrating on the language imposed by a governing authority, say the English only laws that infect several States of the United States, language is only a jumping off point, one that is, in fact, repressive and an irrepressive reduction.

Other places where the governing authority plays the hegemonic game of excluding those for whom belonging is placed in question are the repressive immigration laws that are cropping up in states like Arizona; laws that the defeated Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, called models for America. Aimed at excluding any undocumented foreign national, these laws repressively restrict access to the body politic acting as a lever to define who belongs and who must be eliminated at any cost.

English only and a rampant and repressive xenophobia are but two examples of the overt attempt to homogenize an outwardly diverse America. It is an attempt at embracing an ideal rather than allowing the self to embrace the diversity, the absolute uniqueness of the other, thereby validating the uniqueness of the self. By proclaiming the exclusion of the other, the governing authority defines that which is acceptable and that which is not; it is defining the qualifications for belonging at the expense of large slices of the population.

Let me personalize this idea. I am a member of a unique group of males in the United States in the fact that I have prostate cancer. Let us say, for example, that the State of Illinois where I live were to pass a law establishing that all men with prostate cancer must report to a camp where they will be isolated from the rest of the population and where they may receive treatment provided by the state aimed at reducing the effects of the cancer but not working toward a cure. Far fetched? Perhaps, but precisely the same thing was done to lepers, isolating them in colonies far away from the rest of the population so as to exclude them from participation in the affairs of the body politic.

There is no reason to believe, given the right set of circumstances, that this could not happen to any one of us for any reason. Those conditions were clearly fulfilled in Germany as argued by Zygmunt Bauman in his brilliant book Modernity and the Holocaust. It is this very drive to isolate and exclude that is a product of the amoral, perhaps immoral, function of bureaucracy in a modern democratic society.

The postmodern response to the drive to hegemonic reduction is to encourage that human beings do two things. First, unpack the taken-for-granteds that stand in the way of embracing the absolute uniqueness of the other, to understand that uniqueness as a positive force for building bridges of accommodation between the self and the other. Secondly, to not tolerate attempts toward hegemonic reduction simply because it is the easier path to survival of the self; surely this is the path toward self-destruction, or in the words of Bob Dylan, “The loser now will be later to win.” Times change, allegiances change, governments change and definitions of belonging promulgated by governing authorities change as well. No one is safe unless we all are safe; safety does not reside in a modern democracy run by bureaucrats nor does it reside in a state of chaos where governing authority is absent and brute force prevails, nor does it reside in autocratic dictatorships. Safety is a product of breaking down the walls of fear and hate by learning to create face-to-face encounters with those for whom fear is most felt. Embrace the diversity of your neighbor as you embrace the dignity of your own uniqueness and perhaps humanity finally has a chance to survive its own prejudices.

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern democracy’s specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjugation…Today politics knows no value (and, consequently, no nonvalue) other than life, and until the contradictions that this fact implies are dissolved, Nazism and fascism – which transformed the decision on bare life into the supreme political principle – will remain stubbornly with us.

Giorgio Agamben

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

For the past few days I wrote about things that have no apparent connection to my prostate cancer battle. This is attributable to two factors. First, my highly successful robotic radical prostatectomy along with the fact that there was no metastasis to either the lymph nodes or the bone makes any further therapy moot unless, of course, the cancer returns. Secondly, the bout with prostate cancer allowed me to focus on things that I find important, to reflect on my life past and my life connecting me to the absolute infinity of death. It is the latter I wish to concentrate on for the time being. Of course, there are side-effects to the surgery that are troublesome and I’ll surely write about those; for now, I want to concentrate on the ethics of the fundamental ethical obligation and the implications attached to following a life connected to being of service for others.

So today, I take up the banner of ethics and ‘bare life.’ First, I think it wise to define the notion of ‘bare life’ in Agamben’s terms. In modern democracies, human beings are no longer considered the object of political power, rather, they become the subject of that political power. The sovereign, the governing authority, establishes rules for belonging to and being excluded from the body politic. While these are two extremes on a continuum (there are degrees of exclusion), it is important that one understands that even in nuanced layers of belonging, a form of marginalization, the one excluded by decree is absolutely marginalized, there is no nuance about it. To be excluded by decree is not unique to the Jews of Nazi Germany; right here in the United States groups are and have been historically excluded from the body politic. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” was a phrase that ruled Westward expansion in the 19th century. Slaves, excluded by law, were nuanced for political purposes becoming three-fifths of a person for the purpose of the census, thereby adding political power to slave holding states. Even today, political arguments abound about what to do with undocumented foreign nationals in the United States. Proposals range from deportation to amnesty as a road to citizenship and the debate is heated, often turning ugly.

It is easy to think one is safe when belonging is taken for granted but everything can turn based on a political decree. Jacques Derrida, in The Monlingualism of the Other, makes a bold claim when he writes, “I only have one language: it is not mine.” Born to a Jewish family in French occupied Algeria, Derrida speaks French as his first language. He is, in fact, not monolingual because he also speaks English, yet his first language is the one he feels most comfortable with. In the book he writes about the fragility of citizenship embedded in his own experience of going to school one day as a French citizen; upon returning home, however, he no longer was a Frenchman, rather he was a Jew in Vichy France with no rights or obligations to the state. Full and complete exclusion by decree; no longer able to go to school, participate in activities with other children he was friendly with; the devastation of the bare life of exclusion by fiat is difficult. Then, as suddenly as he was deprived of his status as a French citizen, that citizenship was reinstated without fanfare, rather, by the decree of the governing authority to which Derrida now owed allegiance. Derrida questions what it really means to be a citizen, how citizenship is earned and, because it is so fragile, how it is not easily defined.

In modern democracies the governing authority surrenders much of its power to the bureaucracy upon which it depends to administer the legitimate and illegitimate decrees and laws of the state. Without the bureaucracy, the state simply cannot function. Yet it is this very apparatus, fully removed from the sunshine of accountability that the forces of exclusion operate without regard to those who are marginalized or fully excluded from society. The bureaucracy is amoral, functioning without ethical values, being accountable, from the lowest clerk to the highest official, only to the level of supervision one grade ahead of one’s station. This practice makes bureaucratic decisions that are geared at protecting the job rather than protecting the social order. The amoral begins here, subject to nothing more than the drive for efficiency and economy. Wrong-headed decisions are difficult to overturn thereby allowing the process of continuing down a road to self-destruction.

This brief essay presents an outline of the failings of the late modern democracies. Yet, unlike the angst of the existentialists, who preached the idea of personal responsibility, of integrity if you will, because the world is absurd, some post-modernists, especially Levinas, sees hope in the very notion of responsibility. Levinas’s fundamental ethical obligation is an act of responsibility and integrity involving the self to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. This dyad, the face-to-face that is required of the self and the other, is the foundation of ethics without ontology, morals without having to address notions of being. The fact that I exist is proof enough that I exist. The fact that the material world exists and that I can interact with the objects of the material world is proof enough for the existence of the material world. The fact that there is an Absolute Infinity that I will, of necessity, transition into is proof enough that there is an unknowable eternity awaiting me, an Absolute Other that I can only approximate by and through my social relationships with the other in this world.

The Reduction of Self into the Same: Modernity Exposed

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Declaration of Independence

The Reduction of Self into the Same: Modernity Exposed

The Reduction of Self into the Same: Modernity Exposed

Drawing heavily on John Locke, Jefferson, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, states the case of modernity quite well, especially the sentiment that “all men are created equal.” Of course, when Jefferson referenced “all men” he didn’t include women, men without property, slaves, or others that were socially unequal to the propertied class in the then thirteen American colonies of Great Britain. No, “all men” referred to those men who owned property, land and houses, chattel including animals and slaves, and other evidence of substance. In the nearly 240 years since the Declaration of Independence was written, the very notion of equality in the United States expanded to include working males, women, and others originally excluded from the body politic. But, equality does not mean the same thing as justice or fairness. Simply to offer people the right to vote without providing them with an empathetic hand is one technical definition of equality but it hardly qualifies as fair or just. What modernity understands as equality is merely the concept of equal treatment under the law and even that idea is questionable as the United States disproportionately prosecutes and incarcerates people of color when compared to white people; this is, of course, only a single example of injustice under the flag of equality. Another arena where the failure of equality to render justice is in education. Urban schools are severely underfunded compared to suburban schools (rural schools also fare poorly) yet, in the current climate of assessment of educational progress through standards and testing, all children are measured against the same standards.

What the modern state does well is to embrace the rhetoric of embracing diversity through equality while creating definitions of belonging that reduces the individual, the self, into the same, the normative citizen. This reduction is carried out through a massive bureaucracy, one that is ubiquitous, responsible to the next level up the ladder according to Zygmunt Bauman, and is only concerned with efficiency and economy; doing the task quickly and for the least amount of money is an important bureaucratic goal. What this does, in practice, is to create rules for belonging and rules for effective exclusion from the body politic. While the rhetoric of embracing diversity is politically correct, the bureaucracy works hard to undermine this very concept by denying the uniqueness of each and every human being through the public policy of defining what is and is not normative. This practice is ethically bankrupt. By denying uniqueness, the bureaucratic apparatchik writes rules and regulations for each and every aspect of life resulting in alienation of body, mind and spirit except for those who are able to comply with the bureaucratically designed normative or desired compartmentalized compliance.

Let me provide an example with which I am most comfortable, that of k-12 public education. Since the early 1980s, coinciding with the publication of the Reagan administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk authored by Chester Finn of the Department of Education, a document bemoaning the failure of American public education mainly through a comparison of testing performance of American school children with the performance of children of other nations, the American political (and in some ways but hardly universally advocated by those of us who inhabit the community of professional educators) community and the right wing of American politics pushed for improvement on testing scores through the initiating of written standards to which teachers and their students will be held responsible. Berliner noted that the crisis in education was a Manufactured Crisis but his words fell on deaf ears mainly because those pushing for standards and single instrument assessment were ideologically committed to the idea of standards and testing, facts be damned. For the last 40 plus years, the standards and testing movement (funded largely by the testing and assessment industry) has evolved into a bureaucratic exercise in refining and rewriting standards and creating uniformity of testing so as to carry out the task of assessment in an efficient and economical manner. In fact, however, nothing has changed in the relative performance of children when measured by single instrument testing. Standards are written to embrace middle and upper class values thereby depriving those outside of the privileged classes access to fairness in education. I often told my students that the game of school is a middle class game played well by those who comply with the rules of the game while alienating those who are defined as outsiders by those writing the standards. While this brief argument is scant on details, it is nevertheless, one that I am developing elsewhere and will soon publish. For now, however, the argument is one of reducing each and every child in public education to the same, an act that embraces the idea of the commune, the group, the whole while eschewing the uniqueness of the individual child, his or her experiences in the world and crushing curiosity and creativity.

There are, however, particular cases in which it is efficacious to smooth data. Medicine is one such example where statistical analysis of competing procedures, drug therapies and other new treatment options makes complete sense because each and every variable other than the experimental variable can be controlled. In social science there are too many variables outside the control of the experimenter leaving the results of any experiment only suggestive and not generalizable. The application of scientific experimental methods to social sciences does not produce reliable results nor does it produce verifiable results in redundant experimental designs attempting to repeat the experimental results of others. Yet, sadly, through a profound misunderstanding of scientific experimentation and statistical results in social sciences, politicians continue to call for reliance on data driven teaching.

The very notion of the smoothing of society is the result of modernity’s rush to equality rather than to fairness and justice. This rush to equality is selfish at its core, providing a rational for acquisition and protection. Freedom is seen not as one in which justice prevails rather it is understood as one in which I must protect what is mine at all costs. Freedom under equality does not recognize the other, does everything it can to remove the other from the body politic sometimes overtly through incarceration and often through economic deprivation. In this sense the modern era is morally and ethically bankrupt.

Only by embracing the individual, the uniqueness of the other person, the contributions of that very uniqueness to the structure of society can modernity be left behind in the rubbish heap where it belongs. In the post-modern world, diversity is embraced, evidence trumps ideology and fairness and justice trumps equality. In a world where the self is responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation, the self is open to the uniqueness of the other, embracing the diversity of the other while waiting in proximate space for the call of the other to trigger responsibility. I often want to think of the posture of the self announcing its presence as response-ability, the ability to respond to the call of the other. While both responsibility and response-ability are pronounced the same, the distinction can only be seen in the written word, as letters on a page. The underlying force of the difference between the two may be thought of as responsibility being responsible ‘to’ the other whereas response-ability is understood as being response-able ‘for’ the other; a distinction of embrace the former being something akin to a smoothing of relationships into the same while the latter is one in which the absolute uniqueness of the other reminds the self of its own uniqueness allowing embrace to emerge.


Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Clearly one of my most sacred concerns is the idea that ethics precedes ontology, that moral behavior is more important than the quest for understanding of what it means to be. I learn this from Emmanuel Levinas who measures what it means to be as an encounter with the other, a face-to-face simulacrum of the Absolute (unknowable) Other. This fundamental ethical obligation, the duty to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation is the foundational aspect of Levinasian ethics. While this formula holds for dyadic encounters, it fails to respond to Levinas’s greatest fear: the reduction of the self into the same, a reduction to the universal, the politically defined normative behavior expected of good citizens. While it is difficult for reduction to occur during face-to-face engagement, it is likely to occur in situations of mass audiences, of entire populations. Two philosophers take this into account as they describe the process of reduction of the self into the same, Giorgio Agamben and Zygmunt Bauman.

Both Agamben and Bauman find the bureaucratic dependence of Modernity to be the focus of the process of reduction. Agamben, quoting Foucault, writes, “For the first time in history, the possibilities of the social sciences are made known, and at once it becomes possible to both protect life and to authorize a holocaust.” Agamben’s argument is that the rise of Modernity as depicted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, coupled with the rise of Mercantilism followed by the ubiquity of Capitalism, created conditions for the state to define what normal would look like, to define what it means to belong to or be labeled apart from the body politic of the state itself. Bauman goes a step further by suggesting that the real culprit is not only Modernity and the idea of the social contract along with the rise of Capitalism, but it lies in the administration of Capitalism through the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the entire system, creates the regulations for and thereby defines belonging. The bureaucrat as defined by Weber lies at the heart of the reduction to normalcy yet this bureaucrat is anonymous, representing only his or her direct superior, knowing only what is needed to perform the job asked of him or her efficiently and economically.

Bauman carefully analyzes the potential of the functioning bureaucracy operating in Nazi Germany arguing that the Nazis took advantage of the already efficient German bureaucracy by infusing a singleness of purpose and then by defining what it meant to be German and what it meant to be other (than German). Then the Nazi power structure simply allowed the bureaucracy to find the most economical and efficient process for eliminating those who were other, those who were not Germans and must be isolated and later eliminated from Germany and existence altogether. While Capitalism played a role, if anything, that role was to create a private sector bureaucracy to run the economic powerhouse that was German industry. The same could be said for the rise of public bureaucracy in the 18th and 19th centuries; growing out of a need for efficiency and economy in providing for the welfare of the population within its borders, the state bureaucracies learned how to be efficient through a model of normative behaviors.

In our own postmodern era, Bauman suggests, it is the obligation of the self to break these ties to what is or is not normal. By seeking out others of like minds, one is able to better address the failings of the bureaucratic malaise that defines just who belongs and who does not. In fact, what he is suggesting is that we examine the taken-for-granteds that define what it means to be a normative member of society; to explore what it means for the state to define some people as less than and, therefore, are defined out of the mainstream, held hostage in poverty, in prison, or institutionalized; by exploring these taken-for-granteds, Bauman suggests, that the grip of the bureaucracy may be broken and a new, more moral, structure may emerge. In brief, Bauman, heavily influenced by Levinas, is arguing for a society in which the dyad of the face-to-face expands into something where whole groups can engage in the fundamental ethical obligation without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

Part of the Bauman approach is that diversity, the absolute uniqueness of the other (human being or human beings as a class), must be embraced without reservation. In short, what is good for one is good for all with the caveat that each individual within the larger social order be treated fairly and not equally. Equality simply levels the playing field allowing those who are clearly advantaged rise to the top at the expense of those disadvantaged human beings. Advantage and disadvantage, normative and abnormal, are definitions enforced by bureaucratic intervention. Being treated fairly, on the other hand, is a process whereby we all cooperate as an ethical political unit and care for the disadvantaged among us in order to help them gain an advantage to compete. By embracing diversity, by truly understanding that each human being on this planet is unique, with hopes and desires, with dreams to fulfill, and that uniqueness include the self, you and I, for without including the ‘I’ in the mix of diversity it is too easy to think that everyone else is (or should be) just like me. What a boring world that would be (already is).

Communal ethics is not out of our reach as a species. It begins with eschewing selfishness and embracing the other without reservation.

Play is the Dress Rehearsal for Eternity

Baseball rules

Baseball (Photo credit: Hugo!)

Zygmunt Bauman wrote that play is the dress rehearsal for eternity. His point centered on two important points. First, play is governed by agreed upon rules that, if broken, breaks the very essence of play and is, thereupon, subject to penalty or even the end of the game itself. Secondly, time is important only to the game and within the confines of the game.  When the game is over, the meaning of time ceases to be of any importance. Every moment within the game is a new beginning, every new game, a new allotment of time.

To play, in this sense, is to understand the very foundations of the existential life; the very life lived withing the boundaries of existential time; each life with a clear starting point and a clear ending point. Every moment lived is a new beginning within the confines of the existential life. Every moment is a moment of genesis, of renewal.

Given this analogy, can a life well lived be considered one resembling a game? Until I read Bauman’s analysis I didn’t think so but now there is some room for consideration. Play is absolutely natural for children. They can play in isolation or together, make-up rules and break them only to make-up a whole new set of rules again. They act with energy and creativity as they laugh with and at each other. They are unambiguously engaged in a welcoming practice, one in which only they are privy to the governing rules.

As we grow older, games played are more formal. Baseball, for example, has a long history of rules, umpires to enforce those rules and teams and leagues to organize the game. From little league to the major leagues, the game changes very little. What changes is not the game; the game is embedded in the rules. Each game played is a new beginning, a brand new opportunity to get it right. On the other hand, each game is also primed with the very roots of failure and, as such, each new game provides fertile ground for revenge, improvement or both. But each game is a new beginning, a fresh start as it were compressed withing a set number of innings, outs, balls, strikes and hits. No game is the same as the one before it. No game is ever played in exactly the same way. What changes, albeit in small increments, would be the skill of the players engaged in the game. Otherwise the game is the game, self-contained, self-limiting and final.

When Bauman references play as a rehearsal for eternity he is talking about a full life, one lived without fear of the other, the alien among us, the stranger next door. He is envisioning a life lived free of the bureaucratic nigglings brought about by a xenophobic fear of the other. He is thinking about a world in which mis-apprehension is set aside, where mis-meetings in which the gaze is diverted are avoided. In the societal world of play, the joy of life is apprehended in lieu of the profound sadness and isolation prevalent in the modern world.

Play allows for each human being to live in this very moment. It allows for the joy of discovery, creativity and accomplishment without requiring a forced isolation from the other due to the apprehension of difference. Play erases difference, allowing for the embrace of that very quality rather than a pushing away. In this very moment I shall continue to play and thereby live a full and contented life.

Making the Ethical Choice: It’s a Matter of Human Dignity

It does not matter how many people choose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation — what does matter is that some did.
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust

Bauman is writing of Jews and Gentiles alike who made the choice to resist the German genocide some refer to as the Holocaust, I prefer the Shoah. But Bauman’s ethics here goes beyond hiding a few Jews from the Nazis or taking up arms to resist. His message is far more ecumenical than that. It is a message that resounds with the courage to resist any and all attempts to substitute morals or ethics with the unrelenting rationality of the modern bureaucratic desire to make any idea one in which efficiency and cost are considered prior to human interaction. Trading proximity for distance is a model for the objectification of the other leading to total separation from that which is social.  It defines the other as outside and thereby creates what Georgio Agamben calls the “state of exception.”

When faced with a difficult decision, one must always choose; decisions are not always easily made. When faced with one’s own mortality, as I am, clearly the choices available are not always clear. Treatment options are presented, research is done, decisions are made. For me, the decisions are made after considering both the ethical and practical aspects of treatment. The first ethical question I ask is will the treatment option help preserve life. Closely thereafter, assuming a positive response from the first question, come questions about the quality of life one can expect from any treatment option available. These are, of course, questions concerning the preservation of life where that life has a quality that is worth sustaining.

There are, of course, other ethical questions to consider. For example, decisions made have an impact on others around me. If I am making the ethical choice I must always consider how that choice will impact those around me. Will I be a burden on those with whom I share a common gene pool or a connection built on love, trust and friendship? Making certain that others are both consulted and kept informed is, for me, a critical consideration as I face my cancer head on.

As of this very moment, I made the choice to undergo the surgical removal of my prostate. During this surgical procedure other organs such as surrounding lymph nodes will also be removed and biopsied to assure that no metastasis has taken place. I rejected options such as proton beam therapy because the overall potential for a cure simply wasn’t there. The surgical option provides me with the best change of long-term survival and so I made it.

Assuming the outcome of surgery is the best possible outcome, I will be available for presenting myself to others with what Hillary Putnam calls Levinas’ Fundamental Ethical Obligation, presenting oneself to the other in order to be of service for the other. Whether the other is family or friend, or simply another human being I do not know, a stranger, my obligation is to present myself without reservation to perhaps be of some help. This ethical obligation comes with some degree of patience. The other has absolutely no obligation to receive help from me and I cannot force the other to accept that help; reciprocation is up to the other. Here I Am…That is my obligation; where are you?

Reflecting on the Run-Up to Surgery and More

A light blue ribbon is the symbol for prostate...

A light blue ribbon is the symbol for prostate cancer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This whole run-up to surgery is becoming very tiring.  Not only is there a waiting period to allow my biopsied prostate to calm down, but now I have pre-op testing, a bowel cleansing, filling out forms that ask the very same questions that are already in my records and the very idea that my prostate will be removed by remote control. What’s a poor boy to do?

What I have concluded is that I need to return to my core, I need to sit quietly, do those things that I must do to take care of myself and the others around me, but mostly sit quietly and let this very moment be at the center.  I decided to not look at my calendar or wear a watch so I don’t have to focus on the future.  That’s a start, for sure.  But what I do best is think about issues, learn how others think about the same issues and synthesize ideas.  This means I’ll be reading a lot.  Currently, I am reading Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman, a powerful postmodern sociological take on how the holocaust follows from the vision of the Enlightenment and modernity and, while not a necessary effect of modernity, it is made possible only by the emphasis of rationality and science combined with unchecked political power and a bureaucracy that is efficiently geared to cost effective problem solving.

My core understanding of how life actually works centers on the very notion that all that is real is this very moment, already past.  The idea of the future being nothing more than the projection of goals or desires and the past being nothing more than a trace existing only as a memory that fades as the moment moves further away from the very moment of the present.  Given that central idea, I believe that it is easier to close the door on projecting into the future.

I am also bolstered by the very idea that I will die someday.  That is an unavoidable fact!  There are no vampires, zombies or other beings that are immortal in spite of the fantastic story telling of novelists and Hollywood.  The fact of dying has given me an opportunity to measure my life.  In a nutshell, I discovered this simple, yet extraordinary, truth; if I were to die at this very moment I would leave this life with no regrets of any consequence.  Sure, I would regret not seeing the Chicago Cubs win a World Series but this is of little consequence.  Up to this point I have lived a life of which dreams are made.  I worked at a job that I would have done for free, that’s right, for FREE.  The bonus was that I actually got paid to work at something so interesting and rewarding.

As a middle school teacher, I had the opportunity to influence the lives of hundreds of young, maturing human beings.  As an education professor I had the opportunity to work with future teachers and even watch them as their career unfolded.  Professionally, I published scholarly papers in professional journals, many of which were extensively cited by others, I presented research at scholarly meetings and seminars internationally and, with a colleague, co-authored a book.  During my working years I never felt like I was going to “work!”  I can go to the grave knowing that I made a difference in my time on this earth.

None of this means, however, that I intend to go easily.  But my best weapon for fighting my cancer is to focus on this very moment, live my life as it presents itself to me, and do that which needs being done at this very moment.

Under the Circumstances…The Best I Could Hope For!

I am relieved to learn that my prostate cancer is contained in the prostate.  Both the CAT Scan and the Bone Scan were negative for metastasis.  But a contained tumor with a Gleason Score of 4+4 (8) indicates a very aggressive tumor calling for surgical removal.  The surgery is scheduled for late November, after Thanksgiving and is to be done by a DiVinci Robotic system.  This seems to be the best option available and may even lead to a “cure.”  It may also lead to significant side effects; one worse than the other.  So once again I enter the state Levinas calls proximity.  In Postmodern Ethics, Zygmunt Bauman writes of proximity as follows:

Proximity is ‘beyond intentionality’.  Intention already presupposes a measured space, a distance.  For intention to be, there had first to be separation, time to reflect and ponder, to ‘make up one’s mind’, to proclaim and announce.  Proximity is the ground of all intention, without being itself intentional. (p. 87)

Understanding that proximity issues from my responsibility for the other, in a face-to-face dyadic encounter, a dyadic intimacy if you will, the encounter with the other serves as a simulacrum for my responsibility for the absolute Other, the unknown and unknowable infinity that bookends existential being.

Two states come immediately to mind when thinking about proximity that issues from this ethical responsibility: waiting and acting.  In either case, proximity depends on the Levinasian fundamental ethical obligation, that of commanding the other to command.  It begins with a silent (sometimes vocalized) announcement, a presentation of the self to the other; Here I Am! made without reservation or expectation which commands the other to command.  Perhaps the other will ignore the presentation or perhaps the other will issue a command; either way, the self relinquishes control when the Here I Am is made without reservation or expectation.  Once made, the only thing left to do is wait.  If the other issues a command, as commanded, then the only ethical choice is to act.  While the ethical presentation of Here I Am creates the state of proximity, the command of the other violently rips at the very fabric of proximity in order that the self may act.

Once one finds oneself in proximity, once one finds oneself simply waiting, there is no reason to reflect or ponder what might be or should be or what one wishes to be.  There is either a command to be commanded issued which simply requires waiting for the command and nothing more, or there is not.  If the fundamental ethical obligation was entered into without reservation then there is nothing to be gained through projection.  Waiting only occurs at this very moment, a moment which fades into the past as soon as it is existentially experienced.  Until the command comes from the other, there is little to do but wait.  Yet, once (if) it comes, there is but one thing to do…Act!

Proximity comes when one encounters an existential other, but it also comes when one hears the words of the absolute Other.  In a dramatic sense, when one hears the words, “You have cancer,” it is a stunning encounter with the infinity that is yet to arrive.  While the dyad is no longer human being to human being, it is, nonetheless, an ethical dyad established by the very fact that my response to these words was to simply present myself to the absolute Other; Here I Am! Made without reservation or expectation, I am required to wait as the absolute Other speaks through doctors and laboratories, through testing and results.  Not until I am presented with test results can I act.  It follows, that there is no room for pondering or thinking about or even wishing for a desired result.  It simply requires waiting until the professionals have had their way with me.

Now that results are in, I once again make an ethical presentation, Here I Am, making me responsible for the responsibility of the Other.  I can do nothing more than await the command of the other, unknown until surgery is completed.  Along the way, I’ll be commanded to present myself for pre-operative testing, get medical clearances and generally follow some pretty simple instructions, all minor commands that respond to my commanding the Other to command.  So, once again, I present myself without reservation or expectation to the absolute Other…Here I Am!  And now I wait…

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