Do we have a cure for experiential illness?

February 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

Is it terminal? – a conceivable question even when the “it” contains uncertain properties. Why do I feel this way? Can anything be done about it? Who can help? I know a man who knows a man.

The man that knows: In the recent book Against Everything, compiled of essays from the last decade, Mark Greif describes a modern crisis of experience caused by the unprecedented access to knowledge & connectivity. Once, “[t]ragedies were presented in small clusters on a special festival day at a rare time of the year. We do not now encounter dramas on designated days of the year” (240) but live in a year-round Carnival where media does not supplant dramas so much as pile them up. Greif calls this a total aesthetic environment, since it asks people to be constantly responding to their surroundings.

The crisis of experience exposits two extremes. The first is a frenetic energy to collect as many experiences as possible with which to build a fortress identity in “the debased aestheticism called consumerism“. (93) The second is an anaesthetic reaction to the same, where all is done to avoid “aesthetic intrusions from fictional or political drama”. (226) The former is wildly more common; in practice, it looks like ambition, an insatiable thirst for travel & money, amateur photography, a fear of disease/death, & shirtless tinder profiles. The latter, the author tells us, is much rarer – but hardly more dignified.

Anaesthetic ideologies are methods of philosophy & practice that try to stop you from feeling. Or they help you reduce what you feel. Or they let you keep living, when you can no longer live, by learning partially how to “die.” (227)

People openly practising anaesthetic ideologies have difficulties in society. They may feel more virtuous or responsible than the people around them (239) but that sense of superiority gets in the way of human connectivity [in judging others, they are likely to experience ostracism, the sense that the world lives by a different code of ethics, & this will give them further reason to reject their surroundings]. Their anaesthesia might even chemically be just that, drugs & alcohol to numb the intensity of experiences –these can conveniently be practiced under the guise of actually seeking out experience &, therefore, be practiced unnoticed for a long time. (233)

The behaviours of those practicing anaesthetic ideology – lethargy, detachment, lack of motivation, inertia, intoxication – only seem to be symptoms of depression. Anaesthetic ideologies are, I repeat, measures taken in order to stay alive. Alternately, “[d]epression does not save the self, it tells it to die”. (236) I wonder if the increasing prevalence of diagnoses of depression might actually relate to ignorance of this subtlety. That this phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the west makes perfect sense to the hypothesis, since the exposure to different & global experiences is greatest there. The reasons for this are: access to new technologies, more money to consume media & experience, people in the west face fewer immediate threats that require local responses, & they need to understand the foreign policies of their interventionist state[s]. Is it any wonder that people are suffering from experiential illness?

The known man: The man that Grief knows who might be able to help is Epicurus, student of Diogenese of Sinope [the Cynic]. The Epicurean ideal was ataraxia: imperturbability & mental detachment which isn’t the absolute avoidance of trouble, which they deem impossible, rather it’s the absence of want so as to guard from psychological disturbance. When he says that pleasure is the goal of life, he doesn’t mean the typical materialist values, but pleasure defined as the lack of pain & terror. Epicurus was the only one of the Greek philosophers to include women & servants as equals in his conception of societal organisation; rather than tyrannising over one another, he believed that people should support others to banish want, not fear death, & let pain alone since it too will pass away.

The Epicurean school is largely forgotten today, overshadowed by Plato & Aristotle of the Greek philosophers, because it represents a tradition of philosophy that is now described as peculiarly “eastern”, dealing with issues of “nonstimulation, nonsusceptibility, nonexcitement, nonbecoming, nonambition; also antifeeling, anaesthesia” (228). The fact that we look for non-attachment philosophies outside of the west is a form of orientalism. More than that, it reveals that desire is at the core of western values – any attempt at a life free of desire is treated as either alien or as depression.

Happiness has wound up in an ideology of the need for experiences. Very well. This is our “health” & our quest. But is this happiness-by-experience itself then regulated & moderated by the constant chatter of strong represented experiences, whose effect is not, finally, to stimulate strong experience in their viewers, but to make up some hybrid of temporary relaxation & persistent desire? (241)

The question Greif poses is important: to what degree is the culture of collecting experiences actually about sedating oneself, reigning in political discontent, & staying bound to insatiable consumerism? A hell of a lot is his hypothesis, otherwise there would be even more people exhibiting experiential illness; there must be something in that experience-chasing culture that keeps people in check, a system that feels aesthetic but is actually anaesthetic. The truth of the experiences don’t even matter, that they are uniquely yours & how you recount them does.

What it comes down to is that experiential illness is harnessed to a post-modern approach to information & meaning. Ironic distance prevents one from knowing. “It is the denial of any meaning to immediate experience, apart from the judgement one places upon it, that is truly anaesthetic”, (231) in Grief’s words. “Meaning starts to seem a perverse thing to ask for, when what we are really asking is what life is when it is not already made over in forms of quest or deferral”. (243) By insisting on protecting it values of desire above its citizens, the west has brought itself to this point of post-truth existence. It exports this value system to the world through economic dominance, “humanitarian” intervention, & cultural imperialism.

Experiential illness is a pandemic without language to describe itself, which is to say it will eventually become the global culture everywhere assumed, nowhere discussed. The people will be perfectly submissive, indifferent to facts, think only of themselves, happy to sacrifice their rights [or neighbours] for purchasing power. Those are dream circumstances for tyrannical leadership – that’s what’s being exported from one side & aspired to by the other sides. It’s total madness. Changing the cultural values seems to crucial to spare us from this fate, Epicurus offers one suggestion of many imaginable alternative.


Not alone in anger

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Important author Pankaj Mishra, in preparation of the upcoming non-fiction Age of Anger: A History of the Present, has recently published a note-worthy introduction of the new work in the Guardian. Responding to democratic publics voting against their interests, a nostalgia for simpler times or firm-handed leadership, & neoliberalism without alternative, Mishra surveys how “today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new & increasingly potent irrationalism into existence”.

The argument behind this survey is that the sphere of emotions is crucial to understanding new structural inequalities, the problems of western democracy, & how radical groups recruit, among pretty much any other phenomenon surprising the masses today. If the emotional weren’t excluded from liberal rationalism, that is to say, none of this would be surprising in the least. For Mishra, anger is the primary emotion of the present moment — as one might expect, whether from the title or from personal experience. Certainly, most of us feel angry about some of the many legitimate reasons current global order gives to be angry. For the first time since the world wars, people in the west don’t hold back in naming who they feel is to blame for their loss of security or power: the bursts of violence against muslims, women & trans-feminine people, national minorities, & other Others seem to be destined to continue to increase in number.

How this anger is cultivated in individuals is elaborated on through the concept of ressentiment. It is defined as the need to be preferred over others in a meritocracy, which is usually caused by humiliation & being encouraged to envy. With equal rights & democracy for base principles, the exprience of ressentiment expands on them by adding the following values: freedom is to have choice in the global marketplace but no choice to reject the global marketplace, democracy is a historical inevitability so intervention is a responsibility, & prosperity will bring equality whether from trickle-down wealth or from reduced vulnerability when threats faced by the lower-class disappear. The competitive aspect of this perspective — that someone must fail in order for someone else to succeed — is what allows for anger, jealousy, & fear to enter the social landscape; it is also what prevents “rational” organisation, as it was imagined to come about spontaneously, & what debunks the “sciences” that treat people strictly as rational actors.

The argument moves along: “Committed to seeing the individual self as a rational actor, we fail to see that it is a deeply unstable entity, constantly shaped & reshaped in its interplay with shifting social & cultural conditions”. Here, Mishra alludes to the return of identity politics [remodernisation] without naming it. He says that complexity/multiplicity of identity has to be suffocated in trying to develop the rational world order but, also, that this is a lie. Regretfully, “many intellectuals have embraced nostalgic fantasies of vanished unity” — in particular national unity & common identity, state projects today.

Ressentiment can be extended to understand the interactions between states or between a state & its subjects. It will probably take less convincing that states don’t always behave to maximise happiness for the largest number of people than it did regarding individuals. In international relations especially, it is evident that this is not a priority.

Fear, anxiety and a sense of humiliation were the principal motive of germany’s expansionist policy in the early 20th century — & it is impossible to understand the current upsurge of anti-western sentiment in china, russia & india without acknowledging the role played by humiliation.

While this is all very interesting, I want to turn the magnifying glass onto a group which is often spared scrutiny as one that might be perpetuating fear, anxiety, or humiliation — it is also a group I identify with — social movements of the Left.* The fact that we don’t ask these questions is a problem; it also leaves me rather alone with the Right’s criticisms: that the horsepeople of the apocalypse are actually on the side of the Left with fear-mongering regarding global warming, street violence against vulnerable groups, or elections of racist, ableist, misogynistic, homo- & transphobic demagogues. Its social movements are depicted as angry, yelling hordes with no alternatives to suggest just criticisms.

But does anger hinder or help the movements? First responses aren’t negative: the angrier people get, the more they talk about it & seek out others who are equally angry [which is no small feat for building solidarity], & the more likely they are to take direct political action [which is notoriously difficult to do]. An opinion is an emotion & an emotion a belief, after all. It’s also a really great way to enounciate problems in their intricacies/complexities from the point at which the personal & political overlap since, in anger, we don’t immediately attempt coherence but settle with description & cathartic repetition.

However, if we look deeper into the experience/expression of anger a different revelation surfaces. Anger is a continuation of the same values that divide people [no surprises there] & even when used to separate oneself from those that encourage the division between people, practising anger legitimises their way of thinking. Anger riles up the opposition & rallies the allies — it reproduces anger exponentially. Mishra is right; we are in an age of anger, our culture & media teach us how to get angry & even tell us why & at whom. I myself feel angry often [including at myself for not being able to upholding all of my ethical ideals in life — & the society of self-accountability tells me I alone am to blame].

Obviously, I believe we need to acknowledge that contradiction in Leftist anger & take other approaches seriously. One alternative is not even to fight for the experience of something else, like “love”, “forgiveness”, or “empowerment”, rather for the absence of experience altogether. I will go into this point further in my next post on Mark Greif’s article, “Anaesthetic Ideology”.


* Mishra doesn’t address this in the introduction, but might in the full book due on the 26th of January. The only criticism of the Left in the introduction is that it, like the Right, accepted utilitarian notions of progress.

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