Praising oneself in public and getting accolades for it

I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so my comments on Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. A memoir (Two Roads, 2016) will strictly adhere to an analysis of the book’s language, and an account of the culture it reflects and promotes.

lovewarrior

It is almost given that the last 30 years or so are an era in which it is easy to flaunt shameless and public self-promotion, patting oneself on the back, and self-aggrandizing. The Italian linguist and cultural critic Raffaele Simone has called this “il trionfo del privato” (the triumph of the private life). It is a surprise, though, that a memoir which deals with one woman’s emancipation from her demons (alcoholism, bulimia, unfulfilled life) and a report of what is according to her less-than-perfect marriage would garner the accolades of The New York Times and find a spot on Oprah’s 2016 Selection. Clearly, the publishing world and its mass media machinations can make anything of a piece of writing, no matter how thin.

Without diminishing the real Glennon’s accomplishments, the book is a thorough disappointment. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The language is plain and outright simple, but not in a pleasant way. Certain crucial notions are used without depth. Specifically, the concepts “God”, “warrior”, “love”, and “hero” – the most obviously crucial hooks on which her account hinges –  do not receive even a minimal definition, and yet the phrases  “x is a proof that God loves me” ( “Craig is my proof that God loves me”) , “love warrior” (“I am a love warrior”) and “hero” (“I am my own damn hero”) are repeated a number of times. This attitude of using words without reflection illustrates the superficiality of  the conceptual world view offered. Although Glennon is a victim of the consumer society’s stereotyped image of what a woman should be, she is ecstatic when she self-defines herself as “hero”, using a notion that is masculine in its origin and effects. She does not even attempt to give these notions fuller meanings.
  2. In a memoir, the reader expects some context in which the narrated events are unfolding. Glennon’s recounting is devoid of any clear setting – be it geographical (until the very end), social, political, educational, religious, philosophical. Little is said of her parents’ style of raising their children; Glennon goes through high school and presumably some college without the content of the lectures, classes, classmates or profs ever having had any effect on her. One thing is clear: her higher middle-class standing allows her access to therapists, days in a posh hotel and yoga classes whenever she feels like it. She hints at “those people in the boardrooms” who feed consumers desires they do not need, but there ends her commitment to question consumerist society of which she is a perfect victim.
  3. It seems that Glennon is hiding something: on a number of occasions, she does what she thinks is expected of her or what she is supposed to do  (to be accepted in certain circles of her peers, marriage, belonging to certain church,  find true love, have good sex, etc.), rarely questioning the reasons behind her actions. Glennon sets up a “representative” of herself which she presents to the world and then  demands that the world be sincere with her; and all through this she yearns for acceptance and she is suffering from loneliness. She is playing hide and seek with herself: “There is no way to be as honest in spoken words as I can be in written words.” (p. 115).
  4.  Glennon is a perfect example of a character who follows Luigi Pirandello’s dictum così  è  se vi pare (“it is so if it seems to you so”). She thinks she needs to do certain things to be accepted and when she is not her world collapses. Childishly, she always needs to imitate someone, but above all, she needs someone to tell her what to do (right up until the end: in her 20s she followed the model of her peers, post 35 she needs a therapist). Then she realizes her error, but in a megalomaniac way: “The cage I built to protect myself from the world’s  toxins also stole my oxygen. I didn’t know I needed to be seen  and known like I needed air” (p.225).
  5. Social media exasperate her shallowness since she finds comfort in the number of “likes” on her blog: “My blog community is my sanctuary…” (p.114).
  6. The role reversal in sex seems to satisfy her desire for true love: “I need to be the one to initiate every new step” (p. 241), not realizing that she is simply doing to her husband the same thing  he used to do to her.  After her triumphant proclamation that she is her own hero and her husband is a hero,  they disappear into a cliche beach sunset, forgiving each other all the hurt and grief they caused.
  7. The title (Love Warrior) may be interpreted in two ways: 1. Glennon is a warrior who fights on the side of love (i.e., fighting against forces which do not promote love); 2. Glennon is a warrior who actively fights for love (i.e., on a quest for it). Unfortunately, neither of these expectations is realized in the writing.

The book is an impeccable instance of the unquestioning promotion of limited cultural horizons.  It contains a description of the life of an individual who needs to have her every act approved by others even after she heals herself (she is invited to speaking engagements which she accepts). It reinforces the need for a different definition of a middle-class woman’s life, but does not offer any suggestions, other than promoting more navel gazing. Furthermore, it is a commentary not only on loneliness and desperation of one individual but also on her self-imposed intellectual loneliness and cognitive limitation brought about by the milieu of arid cultural postmodernism.

The book is not a memoir, Glennon is not a hero. The cultural horizons are so limited that any comparison only demeans the work to which Love Warrior can be compared. The most obvious parallel would be St Augustine’s Confessions, but the depth of observation, the wide Weltanschauung, and the universal spiritual struggle the Bishop of Milan describes are light years away from Glennon’s considerations about her life. She describes herself as a hero (i.e. self-definition), he, a sinner (also a self-definition). Clearly, he must attempt to reach higher, whereas she hardly thinks of this possibility.

 

 

 

“Good is bad and bad is good”

At a first glance, a certain type of zen meditation practices and postmodern ideologies seem to go hand-in hand. They both share (though from different perspectives) excessive self-observation, love of oxymoron and short quotations, negative stance towards expertise, distrust of reason and emotion, ‘the burden-is-on-the-user/learner/buyer’ attitude,  and, above all, the de-contextualization and dis-association of the individual from the historical, political, social environments.

zen1

zen2

These thoughts are the result of my reading and interpretation of  Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970) and Sylvia Boorstein’s, Don’t just do something. Sit there. A Mindfulness Retreat (Harper 1990).

The most interesting fact, though, is that neither meditation nor yoga nor musings about postmodernity can exist without relying on language. There are many activities that do not need language to be observed, understood, and performed, but not these.

Incredible illogicalities of the human world (a bit of irony never hurts): 26-30

bh

  1. In a recent, self-published book, a nutritionist suggests that “If your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.” Then she proceeds to use ingredients ¾ of which my grandmother (never mind my great-grandmother) wouldn’t recognize as food. A person from central Europe (northern Slovakia) three generations (about 75 years) ago wouldn’t not only recognize but above all have no access to such food as avocado oil, banana, quinoa, etc. Ah, the beauty of self-publishing! Long live bryndzové halušky!

 

  1. Today, true to the postmodern “fluidity” of things, TV journalists ask singers and athletes about spirituality and truth and then publish the opinions of these “experts”. In this case, it’s a great thing that Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has become 2 minutes of fame.

 

  1. Although more people than ever are attending if not finishing high schools, linguists have analyzed speeches from politicians (for ex., candidates for the US presidency) and found out that these speeches are between a grade 3 (Republicans) and grade 6 level (Democrats). Long live formal education!

 

  1. In the UK, according to the Financial Times, the government thinks of implementing a “sugar tax”. Wouldn’t it be easier just not to produce foods with so much sugar in them? Burden the taxpayer instead! The circularity of greed here is just too obvious.

 

  1. People flock to quinoa, farro, and other grains, without regard to the loss of individual varieties of other grains. What if quinoa becomes the next “wheat” and surpasses the other cereals? Globalization brings cyclic desires and answers to nutrition with the concomitant loss of plant varieties and plants in general. It’s a good thing that there is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, so the seeds will be available to exo-terrestrial settlers. As for those who will remain on Earth, who knows what “cereal” they will eat?

Food and Transhumanism*

trans

Although transhumanism, an international philosophical and social movement, has been growing steadily in the past twenty years, there are no formal, programmatic statements regarding this ideology and nutrition. In the 9 forward-looking proposals that comprise the Transhumanist Declaration, food has found no place. Paradoxically, this lack of specific and systematic mention of the role, nature, and importance of food in transhumanism is both understandable and appalling at the same time. One side of this paradox is understandable on account of at least two reasons: 1. Food has not been recognized (and it still is not in certain circles) as an academic field worthy of thorough scientific, social, and philosophical scrutiny. Most of the signatories of the Transhumanist Declaration were, in one way or another, part of the academia, and therefore the topic of nutrition fell easily through their ideological sieve.  2. All the x-human philosophies (such as posthumanism and metahumanism) propose a positive, if not optimistic view of the future and this presupposes a taken-for-granted, steady, and general availability of nutrition to everyone. This assumption needs more than a fleeting look, however.   The appalling aspect of the lack of mention of food stems from the fact that all that transhumanism stands for, expressed so clearly in the second sentence of the first point in the Transhumanist Declaration, relies on the continuous, balanced, meaningful intake of nutriments: “We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth”. Clearly, the human body is the main object of the possibilities of enhancement, and therefore, the view of the body underpins all the transhumanist developments. The idea of morphological freedom guides all the transhumanist scientific research. Transhumanism aims at enhancing and therefore going beyond the existing, biologically determined, human capacities. To obtain night vision, to breathe like a dolphin, to learn all the languages of the world instantaneously, requires some type of prostheses, implants, DNA manipulation, and these, in turn, require additional energy for the body. It may be that a specific enhancement will need particular sets of energy-boosting elements, and therefore transhumanism cannot predict what these may be, especially when the body is seen as an individual work of art (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoltan-istvan/transhumanist-art-is-brin_b_5447758.html). An enhancement which is eloquent in its absence is that no transhumanist wants to have two stomachs or additional taste buds, or to predispose his/her stomach to digest what is so far not digestible by humans, although here science fiction has something to say on the subject (photosynthesis tweaked for humans, nano implants capable of producing the desired energy, etc.).

 

And yet, without the expressed, concrete and profound discussion regarding food and nutrition (whether it be called fuel, energy, or otherwise), all the transhumanist scientifically-based developments remain abstractions without concrete support. What is at stake are not single opinions regarding the desirability or safety of GMOs, or replacement choices of beef (such as worm meat or lab-grown substances from beef muscle cells), but the interaction and interdependence between the individual and society. True to the postmodern attitude of celebrating the self as a “free” individual actor, transhumanism also boasts that its philosophical and conceptual bases have roots in humanism, hence in the belief of positive social results of scientific advancements. But this tension between the individual and society has unforeseen consequences for the role and meaning of food (not only in the sense of eating alone as opposed to eating in company). This tension is illustrated by a whole gamut of concepts, experiences, feelings which comprise the triangle suggested by Warren Belasco (in his Food. The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008). This triangle has at its points (consumer’s) identity,  (maters of) convenience, and  (sense of) responsibility. Furthermore, creating ad hoc solutions such as a Longevity Cookbook does not answer the individual nutritional requirements once the varied and possible enhancements will take place. The question, therefore, to be answered is the following: Will the enhanced individual be able to sustain her/his/its body on her/his/its own or will it need societal help?

 

*This is a continuation of my research presented at the international conference entitled “Gastronomy, Culture, and the Arts. A Scholarly Exchange of Epic Portions” , University of Toronto at Mississauga, 12 March 2016.

College experience on film: “God’s not dead”

god

There is no doubt that using the university classroom as a setting for any film could be entertaining and thought-provoking. The film God’s not dead misses these results since it attempts to account for Catholicism and postmodernity from the perspective of the “persecuted” and “silenced” believers placing the actions in an unreal, aseptic, conspiracy-filled setting. In a true postmodern fashion it discredits the professoriate*, and in a modernist fashion it relies on easily swayable underdog (student) body.
Although the generous reviews on the web give the film a mark of 3/5, the comments and reviews accompanying this mark tell the producers that viewers need more than was given to them in the first film. Obviously, the producers did not listen as God’s not dead 2 is to be released in April of 2016!

In any case, without getting into the content of the film marred by logical fallacies, slow pace, few examples of real suffering, and, above all, an unrealistic, static, one-sided vision of the academia, let me simply outline in three points through which the college experience in this film illustrates the amazing desire of film makers not to show the really messy, interesting classrooms of today. My more than thirty-year long academic life allows me to base these comments on facts.

1. In the film, the professor acts in a god-like manner but he is really less than smart.

Even for entertaining or teaching purposes, giving voice to a technologically-stupid and pedagogically-unprepared prof is a mistake, a mistake that obviously makes the life of the student who opposes him so much easier. It does not take much to shoot down an easy target. The prof relies on puny little white boards where his minuscule notes can hardly be read, whereas his adversary (the student) comes prepared with all the technological bells and whistles which dazzle the 80 or so classmates. What is more interesting, though, is the fact that this philosophy prof is made to miss the mark of a great prof by having students sign the statement “God is dead” (as if signing something had a pedagogical value). If the producers and directors had any insight into really great teaching, they would have had the prof make the students work (yes, thinking is work) to decide for themselves, through great teaching strategies, through comparisons, through deep reading, through writing. But all of this takes time and is as far from the day-to-day experiences of the fictional students as is the nearest galaxy for us. The makers of the film obviously did not ever step into the contemporary classroom, where technology allows students to be on the web (rather than to pay attention to what’s happening in the front of the auditorium: yes, the prof is forced to entertain), where they eat, drink, talk, comment, ask questions, send e-mails, think about their jobs to which they have to hurry after the class, etc. etc., all a far cry from the attentive student body in the film. The most unethical feature of the fictional prof’s behaviour is his letting the student “teach”: the teaching  unions in the real world would surely either slap the real prof’s hands or have the student be paid for his “work”. This, aside from not only illustrating (wrongly) but above all strengthening the postmodern view that anyone can teach.

2. In the film, the student body is easily swayed.

For all its proselytizing aims, the film makers’ biggest mistake is to show the student body as superficially savvy as the prof. In real life, there would be lots of objections and there certainly would not be a unanimous decision which sides with the student. There would be comments which show that some students did not pay attention at all, there would be attacks ad hominem, etc. On the one hand, students (whether fictional or not) will side with anyone who subverts the perceived god-like powers of the prof. On the other hand, in the film, the students are made to sign a statement to which only one of about 80 objects, therefore they side here with those powers who give them marks, showing their pragmatic view of what they expect from the course.

3. In the film, teaching is talking and learning is siding with whoever seems more popular.

One thing the film got right: if you are a boring prof. who is not passionate about what you teach, you might just as well let a student do your job. So beating up a dead horse, so to speak, is easy. But the old paradigm, shown in the movie, of teaching as pouring some knowledge into the learner’s head is long gone, replaced by the teacher being a facilitator of learning, thinking, critiquing, especially in the humanities.

It is clear that films are entertainment, but nowadays people “learn” from multimedia products, so any film also carries some type of teaching, reinforcing or subverting ideas, likes, dislikes, tendencies, and actions. Given the three points outlined above, it is clear that something is wrong with a not-so fictional society which 1. accepts a piece of paper containing one’s signature as a statement of one’s beliefs; 2. makes teaching/learning a popularity contest. What is the conclusion as far as the college experience on film is concerned? This film is not the answer to the real need of a well-though out, profound depiction of academic life today, with all its messiness, challenges, and excitement.

 

*By the way, Willie Robertson: the phrase God’s not dead has four, not three words.

 

Not the usual critique of transhumanist thought

The Huffington Post of Jan 14, 2015 publishes Zoltan Istvan’s thoughts on his candidacy for Presidency in 2016 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoltan-istvan/should-a-transhumanist-be_b_5949688.html ), obviously taking strictly transhumanist stance. What follows is my take on some of the unstated logical inconsistencies of transhumanist thought as expressed in that publication, and not the usual criticism leveled at transhumanists. First, Istvan’s statements are copied, and then my reactions to them follow.
He intends to

1. “…attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years” . Although overcoming senescence is one of the rooted ideas of transhumanism, this idea, positive in itself, does not deal in any way with i., the question of who would benefit from it ii., the repercussions of the burden to feed everyone iii., the repercussions on the manner in which every facet of social life is conducted. In other words, the connections between living indefinitely and carrying out one’s usual activities are so complex that “fixing” the death and aging problem does not really fix anything. More importantly than this, however, transhumanism does not explain the manner in which overcoming death would lead to life without pain.
2. “…create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.” It is interesting that even though transhumanists normally take the view that transhumanism abolishes differences in gender, race, and all the sociological categories, this statement brings forth nationalism, a category which is problematic if married to a specific intellectual movement. Furthermore, it is rather questionable that “the best interest of our…species” be placed in the hands of the president of the United States, any one person or group of people for that matter. The inclusivity and openness that transhumanism seems to represent are destroyed here.
3. “…create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.” Although this is a worthy goal, the manner in which this is to be achieved is not all all apparent. Moreover, the precautions and safety measures assume that globally, everyone is sold on the idea of transhumanism, which obviously is not the case.

Istvan continues:
4. “Artificial hearts will become better than the best human hearts. Bionic arms will become superior to human arms. Smart phones will become the size of a fingernail and will likely be implanted into your body. Speaking out loud will disappear as the modern world uses mindreading headsets to communicate, which already exist. Where will you stand? How far will you take technology in your life?” The comparison between what is (not very good) and what will be (better than today’s best) is a rhetorical device to postpone to some moment in the future all that is better, as if minute improvements in people’s lives now do not really matter.
5. “Transhumanism is not a political end, but a life-affirming commitment to becoming one’s best self using the help of reason, science, and technology.” The inconsistency here is the fact that the point of comparison is still a human being: one’s self. Until now, humans had ideal, albeit general views of what could constitute the best human being. This view was based on millennia of experience with religious beliefs, philosophical musings, observation of nature, and later, on education (especially humanistic education). Clearly, postmodernism did away with all this and therefore, on the surface, left the burden on the individual, to find out what s/he believes is to be the “best self”. Now logically speaking, it is impossible to do this on one’s own today, when mass media and social media bombard everyone with all kinds of things that can “better” our life. Transhumanism does not define “one’s best self”, and therefore leaves that definition without scrutiny.
6. “The transhumanist era is literally upon us. Those paralyzed and bound to wheelchairs can walk via exoskeletons. Those who have never heard sound can now hear via implants. Gun shot victims who are dead are brought back to life via suspended animation. The poverty rate is the lowest it’s ever been around the world. Science and technology are responsible for these joys and successes.” The inconsistency here is the fact that all of these technological and scientific successes and joys are born within the military applications and are driven by military needs. In other words, until the uses and applications are for the most part military, there can be no joys and successes for the general population.
7. “Yet, we spend so little of our resources on the brilliance that science can bring all of us. America still spends almost 10 times its resources on defense than on science and medical research. It spends approximately four times its resources on the prison system than on education for our kids. It spends at least 100 times its wealth on bureaucratic-inspired legal fees than on critical life extension science to keep its citizens alive.” It would seem foolish to keep citizens alive in a system which is really bent on profit, unless these citizens, living longer, can produce more profit.
8. “The Transhumanist Party will not win this election. But it can change the questions the real elected leaders will ask. That is something significant, indeed.” This statement assumes that “real elected leaders” will actually take note of transhumanism, forgetting that in 2009 the ethical questions of human enhancement were made public (http://ethics.calpoly.edu/NSF_report.pdf).

What can be concluded from Istvan’s piece? Until transhumanism gives more concrete answers to questions of education, human relations, and enhancement, especially committing to social justice, it will not gain ground with the general population. One thing is clear, though: now is the time to decide how and whether humanity can/should/must overcome its natural biological boundaries, but not in the naïve sense of “healing” (i.e. getting an artificial heart), but in the sense of going beyond the human (acquiring night vision, a set of gills, uploading one’s mind). The trouble is that no one individual has complete knowledge and the know-how of how this can be achieved: the social still wins over the individual, despite the postmodern burden on the “self” to embark on its own quest.