You Are A Slave To Your Teeth: The Future of the Body

For the past two months or so, I have been having an unusual sensitivity to temperature in my left upper molars.  A year ago, the dentist told me that I had a cavity there, but out of childish fear I put off making an appointment.  Two weeks ago the pain was bad enough that I made the appointment.  Today I had three cavities filled in three adjacent teeth.

As I sat in the chair numbing up, I was thinking about Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who for all of his dedication to the metaphysical was still a slave to his teeth: when the body asserts itself against the thinking mind, there is no contest.  Something as simple as a tooth can become the center of your existence.  In those moments, I resent all things bodily.  The body is a pain.  Maintaining its drives is a chore, and it naturally degrades despite your best efforts to give it what it needs.

After my appointment, I came home, drank some beer, and watched a documentary on Ray Kurzweil (Transcendental Man), who is an inventor and technology theorist.  He wrote a book called The Singularity is Near which describes the imminent moment at which human intelligence merges with our technology.  Without going into too much detail, one result of Kurzweil’s Singularity is that we are finally liberated from our bodies: we will be immortal.  The individual consciousness can be uploaded to a computer that simulates living, but this time free of disease, want, pain, age, fear, etc.

There are many postmodern types who are chomping at the bit to move beyond the limitations of the human body.  There are elements of that sentiment that are appealing to me.  But the question that it begs is whether the essence of humanity is the ability to experience pain.  That possibility is what makes every human choice a momentous one, it is the foundation of ethics and the impetus for metaphysics.  Once we are rid of our bodies, the thinking of metaphysics ceases — we are no longer subjects that exist at a distance from the metaphysical — life becomes synonymous with the metaphysical.

What I like about Kurzweil’s thought the most is his apparent belief that the body is dross.  His interest is in the soul (even though he doesn’t call it that).  That is where my interest lies.  But his belief that the soul can be separated from the body and then transferred (not merely represented) to another medium is bizarre.  It makes him into some kind of techno-Cartesian.  How is this transference possible?  Because for Kurzweil, the soul (or consciousness) is finally just data.  Moving it from one medium to another is the ontological equivalent of ripping a CD to iTunes.  But he misses what I think is a key insight: data is not a reality in itself, it is a reflection of reality.  And if the soul is real (I think it is and I think Kurzweil does too), then to reduce it to data enacts all the violence of representation — in the transference, it becomes something else.  So the philosophical question is not (as the techies like to think) “What are the limits of the human?”, but rather “How badly do we want to be human?”  Bound up in the latter question are the issues of choice, rights, love, faith, compassion, ethics, and yes, my teeth.

Do I want to be rid of the body?  I will take the cavities every time.

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Commerce Clause: The Snake Eats Its Tail

The suit filed by 26 states against the health care bill has been endorsed by a federal appeals court, which struck down the individual mandate: in other words, the government can’t force you to purchase something.

The argument of the administration is that health care is special: the individual’s refusal to purchase health insurance can be regulated by the government because that economic inaction effects other consumers.  Pah.  Yes, but only because of the structure of the bill in question.  Of course, one’s refusal to purchase insurance (even without the bill) effects everyone, but in EXACTLY the same way as your refusal to purchase bread does.  The administration has yet been unable to articulate a rational grounds on which to differentiate health decisions from any other decisions.

This brings us to an interesting contradiction in left philosophy: if we are being honest, health care is only different because it is a “moral” decision.  But the entire critical framework of left politics is that morality is a fundamentally subjective category: it is on these same grounds that all sorts of policy decisions (from the Iraq War to tax cuts) are attacked.

And yet, in this particular case, citizens are asked to collectively concede that the “right” to health care is an ontological a priori: we are implored to grant the moral necessity of the bill on its face.  How many issues does the right try to argue by appealing to “a priori” moral grounds?  Gay marriage is one of about 100 examples.  But these positions are laughed away: after all, who is so old-fashioned to say that one thing is better than another?

Despite the belly-aching of the left, they have run the table philosophically (if not electorally) since about 1967. Another way of saying this is that they won the cultural battle even if they lost the democratic one.  However, as Nietzsche shows (despite his continuing reappropriation by the academic Left) a philosophy of negation always doubles back on itself.

Perhaps health care is the first of what must be many moments to reorient American policy: perhaps it is the most visible dramatization of the moment at which the left is called to account for its equivocations.  How does one demonstrate an ethical a priori when the only a priori is the subjective ontology of ethics?  Impossible. An imaginary feat for an imaginary philosophy.

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The Implicit Cynicism of Hope as Political Philosophy

I remember after a semester long doctoral study on rhetoric and ethics with one of my favorite teachers ever, the class was at a loss for how to move forward with the very idea of ethics after we had subjected so much ethical theory to such intense scrutiny.  I think we were wrapping up the course with Levinas, and I remember my teacher suggesting that “hope” was perhaps the most viable ethical comportment in our modern world.  I talked with him a bit after class, and I left feeling deflated: “That’s it?  All we can do is hope?”

This course took place before Barack Obama’s campaign began in earnest and before “Hope and Change” was a familiar public slogan.  In some ways, my professor seems almost prophetic: he had put his finger on a questionable idea whose time had come.  The semiotic vacancy of “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” is well-documented, but what surprises me is that the general public (left and right) viewed these slogans as optimistic ones (even if they were empty or unrealizable).

Instead, I see the slogans as terribly cynical.  Let’s deal with “Hope and Change” first.  What was the change referred to?  Obama insisted repeatedly that it alluded to the policy changes that Americans collectively viewed as necessary ones.  But he would often imply that his election would be the change itself, not the precursor to it.  In Grant Park on election night, it became clear that Obama himself was the change: his supporters chanted “Yes We Did!” as he approached the podium.  What did “Yes We Can” refer to?  Presumably enacting the changes that Obama was advocating.  But the “Yes We Did” chant suggests that the mission is now complete: Obama was elected, the “Change” was made.

The “Hope” part of “Hope and Change” is even more troubling.  Supposedly, Obama’s candidacy was a moment of empowerment for the disenfranchised electorate.  But who is supposed to be doing the “Hoping,” Obama or the electorate?  I assume (and hope) that it is an exhortation for the electorate: you make the change, then sit back and hope.  How is that empowerment?  It implies that place for everyday people is on the margins: their role is reduced to bequeathing power upon those who will execute the changes.  This is a cynical vision of participatory democracy, and one that isn’t particularly “hidden inside” the slogan — it is stated pretty plainly, and yet it was embraced by so many.  Do the people seeking empowerment really even want to be empowered?  Or do they just want someone to manage their aspirations and maintain their hopes?

Onto “Yes We Can.”  I can remember receiving a paper from a student shortly after Obama’s election in which the student spent about a half a page discussing how she was personally inspired by the President’s “Yes I Can” campaign.  I wrote in the margin that it wasn’t “Yes I Can,” it was “Yes WE Can.”  But the more I thought about the slip-up, the more it bothered me.  How could a devout Obama supporter who had been aurally assaulted with “Yes We Can” for a year make such a mistake?  “Yes I Can” is precisely the inverse of “Yes We Can.”  The latter slogan IS a message of collectivist empowerment, but the former is an implicit rejection of the collectivist impulse: “Yes I Can” is a statement of individual agency, responsibility, and independence.  “Yes We Can” suggests that the individual does not have the potential to make changes — he must cast his lot with the collective if he wants to get things done, and it is through the simple act of “joining” that his power is expressed.  Again, this idea is one of disempowerment for the citizen.

These slogans neatly parallel the larger philosophical projects of the left: explaining away the human will (i.e., your failures are not your fault but the intolerable outcomes of a flawed system, your successes are not a product of your hard work or aptitude but are the intolerable outcomes of an inequitable system), and reconfiguring the notion of responsibility (minimizing the obligations (and thus, the rights) that fall to the individual and maximizing the obligations (and thus, the rights) that fall to the State).  For a vulgarized expression of these philosophical projects, see Gladwell’s recent book Outliers, which presents itself as a benign rumination on how success works (and was received by the public as such).

The left’s commitment to these projects helps explain their immoderate hatred of the Tea Party.  The Tea Party IS a collective, but they are not Collectivist.  They are loosely defined.  Whatever cohesion the group has is located in its rejection of the Collectivist/Statist impulse: individuals have been subjected to too much government power and the government has become so large (so “Collective”) that it can no longer meaningfully respond to the particular needs of the individual in society.

The success of the Tea Party has fed the hatred of their opponents.  Until the Tea Party, the left had believed that any “collective” action required a subversion of individualism.  Further, they believed that any “authentic” political collective would, through a rational and natural process, come to see the virtues of the leftist program and embrace the cynical-romantic philosophy it entails.  (Put differently, the left didn’t believe an authentic “grassroots” right-political movement was ontologically possible).  The Tea Party is hated in part for proving them wrong.

The stock market lost 2,000 points in the last two weeks.  In the midst of the decline, Obama spoke to fundraisers and explained that he never meant that things would change over night in 2008.  This is his best explanation for the current state of affairs?  In other words, another exhortation: “Keep Hoping.  And Don’t Forget to Vote.”  Let them eat cake.

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What Am I Missing?

It is always sobering to come to the recognition that you are wrong about something you were very confident that you were right about.  Of course, one always knows one is wrong about all sorts of things, but if you aren’t exactly sure what those things are…no harm, no foul.  Everyone makes mistakes.

Still, Obama’s steady slide in approval ratings opened my eyes to something.  I complain frequently about the overt leftist ideological agenda of the mass media.  I also complain frequently about the power of those same mass media entities to produce the effects they name (in other words, they create public sentiment by “describing” (or, more appropriately, imagining) it)). 

If the media is so powerful in producing public opinion, and if the opionions they want to inculcate are that Obama’s policies are sound, that he is a good leader and a wise man, then why are his approval ratings sinking like a stone?

Either I am wrong about the mass media’s prediliction to left perspectives, or I am wrong about the limits of their ability to persuade the public.  Either way, it seems my media critique should be mitigated.

Or is it just that the massive loss of wealth in the last two weeks (2,000 points in the DIA) has awakened some people to the actual state of affairs?  That might account for some of the decline in approval ratings, but still, the decline points out the limits of the media’s ability to control the public discourse.  In these dark days, the appearance of those limits should be some small comfort.

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J.J. Abrams Joins the Club

I saw the movie Super 8 today with low expectations due to the mixed reviews it received.  It was a wonderful movie.  Throughout the entire film I was thinking Spielberg directed, but when the credits rolled, I saw it was J.J. Abrams.

The reason I thought it was Spielberg was because the movie was a movie about growing up posing as a movie about aliens.  It is essentially E.T., if E.T. was a fighter rather than a lover.  I think this is an important film for Abrams, because in so-expertly executing the summer blockbuster bildungsroman, he joins a very elite group.  Spielberg, Lucas, and now, J.J. Abrams.

These three writers and directors have a common vision of American adolescence (and specifically, male adolescence and young manhood).  I think that when Lucas and Spielberg are gone, their most important cinematic legacy will be their representations of growing up (that is, growing up white, suburban, and middle class).  Some of their movies that deal with this idea: E.T., American Graffiti, The Goonies, Star Wars, and now, Super 8.

Their vision of transition from childhood to adulthood is one that feels very true to me: it is tender, violent, honest, and funny.  In all of these movies the kids (usually around 12 years old) are too young to take part in the decision making of the adults around them, but are old enough to be profoundly effected by those decisions.  A crisis always ensues for everyone in the film, and while the adults scramble and bicker, the friendship that binds the kids enables them to work together in a way that often pits them against the adults.

The dialogue is all these movies always seems to unfold exactly the way I remember when I was that age — interruptions, yelling, joking.  But also very honest: the kids have purer motives than the adults.  It is the purity of these motives that enables them to resolve the crisis, but always in doing so, some of their values are compromised, some aspects of their friendships are violated, some adult truths that they were ignorant of are illuminated.  And so, the crisis is solved, but doing so finally requires acting like adults.  The knowledge and pain and triumph that comes from the victory finally pushes them over the cusp, out of childhood and into the earliest stage of adulthood.  Things will never be the same.

Another interesting thing is that in all of these films, there are so few scenes that take place in the school — odd for movies that feature adolescents.  And yet, every one of these films is undeniably about education (ESPECIALLY Star Wars).  I think that taken together, the genre is critical of formal schooling.  Learning happens, but the most meaningful lessons are taken outside the controlled environment of the classroom, out in the real world.

Check out Super 8.


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Science and Anti-Capitalism: Chocolate and Peanut Butter?

Al Gore’s recent literary work is representative of a general tendency on the left to claim Reason and Science (yes, the capital letters reproduce Gore’s stylistic flourish in a recent Rolling Stone article) as the foundation of all its principles and positions.  This, of course, is supposed to be in contrast to the political right, which grounds its ideas in Bible-thumping and corn-pone American irrationalism.  There is some truth to the recent conservative rejection of “reason” as the sole determinant of an argument’s validity, but I would argue that this is partly due to the success of the left in claiming rationality itself as their stock and trade.  It is no coincidence that the “rational” position is always perfectly conducive to the ideological investments of progressive politics.  If reason is synonymous with Obama’s agenda, does the right have any choice but to be irrational?

The discourse surrounding global warming has recently captured my interest.  Let’s put aside the questions of when, where, why, how, and whether it is happening.  My interest is in how the left’s framing of the issue has made it impossible for many conservatives to take the “rational” position.  We all know that the climate change racket is partly a front for a global anti-capitalist agenda.  Many conservatives are smart enough to understand this, and unfortunately, to be anti-capitalist is necessarily to be anti-American.  This explains at least some of the resistance of the right to Reason and Science when it comes to global warming — the issue is always framed as a moral one, and it needn’t be.  Since when has science been terribly interested in morality anyway?  It hasn’t.  Anti-capitalism, however, has always forefronted moral arguments in its criticism.

And now we have gotten down to what is fascinating me about the global warming debate.  It serves as a microcosm of what I believe is a paradox on the left.  Can we use “Science” as a weapon to attack “Capital”?  I have spent the past two months thinking about it.  In my view, the two are inextricable.  The knowledge and innovation produced by modern science are WHOLLY indebted to the operation of the capitalist economy.  For example, think of all the grants, all of the venture capital, all of the equipment involved in the medical field.  Where does the money come from? Not from good intentions.  If “Science” is the bedrock of the left’s rationalization of their positions (and if the left is indeed anti-capitalist(?)), then wouldn’t the end goal of left politics (the abolition of capitalist economy) destroy the very foundation of left politics?  I can imagine one saying “yes, but at that point a left politics would no longer be necessary!”  Perhaps.  But this rebuttal hinges on the belief that there is no one powerful or cunning enough on the left to ensure the self-preservation of the ideology.

That Obama’s health care bill so quickly became a referendum on social justice and market capitalism is indicative of the inviolable alliance between science and capital.  They need one another: it is no coincidence that science and capitalism were coming into their own at virtually the same historical moment.

All of this finally points to the question hinted at above: If progressive politics truly longs for a world in which there is no longer a need for progressive politics (I have my doubts), does the movement (which in some ways exists independently of its adherents) have the moral fortitude to allow that world to come about?

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A Brief Note on (Imagined) Isolationism

Apparently, the buzz word of the month among media types is “isolationism.”  Numerous talking heads keep warning us of the “growing isolationist” tendencies on the right.  What are they referring to?  The right’s opposition to the war in Libya.  Somehow, this was a word that we never heard during the Bush administration.  Even when the left was willing to fight against our involvement in ANY war tooth and nail (not only because the cause was ignoble, but because war itself is inherently “bad” ((no, not evil!  that would be a moral judgment!))), we never saw the media misting up over the left’s “growing isolationism.”  No synthesis of ideas today: just noting again how quickly the sands move.

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