Thursday, December 28, 2006

Way of of the Wild Heart: Chapter 1 - Misdirection

Eldredge kicks off chapter one with an anecdote. He tells us of the time he had to do some plumbing work, fixing his sprinklers. He fails. I certainly can't judge him here; I don't know anything about sprinklers myself. The interesting thing about this story is his reaction to his failure, and then his after-the-fact analysis of that reaction.

When he realized he couldn't fix the valve, he became angry. From his description, it's clear this is a bitter, resentful anger. He watches an instructional video and says he is feeling "about ten years old. [Watching] A cartoon for a man who is really a little boy." (p. 3) He discovers that he doesn't have a particular skill, and this indicates a certain immaturity. I give him credit for basically realizing that this isn't entirely rational, but he doesn't really work with that realization enough.

He offers three sources for his anger. First, he says he is angry because there is no one there to help him; he is always forced to figure these things out on his own. He also claims to be angry with God, "because why does it have to be so hard?" (3) Finally, he says he is angry with himself because he needs help.

These three reasons are really collapsable into a single cause. He has this external image of himself as an all-American male, the kind of guy that writes maps for the masculine journey. He comes across an instance in which he cannot fulfill this role. All three of the above reasons spring from his basic inability to be the person he wants to be. Becoming angry at other men, God, even himself are all just expressions of a deepseated alienation and resentment. His anger is a misdirection.

He goes on to speak of "Unfinished men," those men that have not completed their "masculine journey." For this journey, we need "initiation. And, we need a Guide." (4) This journey involves multiple stages. These stages do not belong to specific ages, through they concentrate in particular periods. There are elements of each stage in every other. In other words, they are just like Hegelian moments. Georg Hegel insisted that all of reality was a rational process, advancing towards the goal of the absolute; all elements in the process were particular moments, but each moment existed in all the others.

Anyways, the stages are Boyhood, Cowboy, Warrior, Lover, King, Sage. I won't bother describing them because they all seem pretty self-explanatory. An unfinished man is usually stuck in Boyhood or Cowboy mode.

So, Eldredge has issues with resentment and alienation. His chosen method of dealing with these problems is a standard one - create for yourself a code of behaviour and a priviledged community that will respect that code and by extension yourself. The community he creates here is a masculine one. Every community needs to exclude someone, and if by definition you are including all men, than you also must exclude all women. Hence his claim that this journey is a specifically masculine one.

Exclusion, per se, isn't necassarily bad. Like I said, all communities have to do it. The problem is that Eldredge is assigning qualities to men, thereby denying them to women. Eldredge's man is active and aggressive; this leaves women the role of passivity. I know the Eldreges wrote a book for women as well. Eldredges, plural; the wife didn't do it herself.

So chapter one is a good start. He finds his anger and directs it against others and an alienated part of himself. His cure for his anger is to create a code of behaviour and a community of men that he believes will allow him to take up the role he so wishes. I don't think this cure is bad; in a formal sense it's as good as anything else. The problem is that he misdiagnoses himself. He's trying to cure the wrong thing; the symptoms rather than the root.

It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Way of the Wild Heart Commentary Intro

I was in Upper Room bookstore picking up a Christmas gift when I saw a new book by John Eldredge, the esteemed author of Wild at Heart. I always found that book vexing in its simple mindedness and rigid view of gender roles (and by extension, human life in general). If there was ever a book that exemplified the Nietzsche quote at the top of this blog, this was it. Wild at Heart is clearly a psychological biography of Eldredge, a portrait of himself dealing with his own unfulfilled desires, resentments and confusions. He dealt with these three things by projecting them onto all males in general; alas, his projection doesn't seem to have excised but only amplied them.

The new book is entitled The Way of the Wild Heart, and it's obviously a sequel to the first book. So what did I do? I used my grandma's christmas check to buy it.

Whatever else I think of Eldredge, I have some sympathy with the form of his project, if not the content. Wild at Heart was basically a book of therapeutic ethics disguised as a lame self help rag. He touches on themes and concerns that I'm very much interested in. He deals with religion, final causes, gender roles, external images and subjectivity. In different terms, of course. Because of these things, I thought it might be a useful exercise to read this book, than record my reactions, chapter by chapter.

So stay tuned for chapter one.

Free Will Debate

I really was serious when I said the hiatus was over!

Some time ago, I said I was going to start writing about ethics. I even wrote what amounted to a preface, here. This post should be seen as part 2 of that preface.

Part and parcel of any discussion of ethics is the free will / determination debate. Are we simply incredibly complicated robots, or do we have freedom? In my readings this semester I've come across a handful of answers to that question. There's Spinoza, who believes our only freedom is the ability to assent to what is. There's Kant, who says that while all reality is chained to cause and effect, our choices can be thought of as atemporal and therefore outside that chain.

My own approach is to begin with a very practical reality. The answer to this question of free will has no practical value. This may seem counterintuitive; is it not a popular belief that "free will" is necassary for any sort of responsibility, and therefore morality? No morality, no law, no society: chaos would reign.

Here's the problem with that belief. A belief in determinism is no more a guide to behaviour than a belief in free will. Consider the legal system. If criminals begin making the philosophical claim that they have no free will (as opposed to psychiatric claims of insanity) and therefore cannot be held responsible for their crimes, judges can throw the claim right back at them. A judge is just as bound to toss them in jail.

A belief in determination doesn't remove the consequences from our actions; all it can do is facilitate a series of excuses for one's behaviour. However, the need for these excuses, and the creation and deploment of them, must both come from different places in a person's mind. The need for excuses for one's behaviour is a question of psychological insecurity; the creation of the excuses is a matter of philosophy. In order to deploy the excuses, one must already be willing to admit insecurity and weakness. That admition, however, would itself require a certain overcoming of that weakness and insecurity. Attempting to use the idea of determination as an excuse or justification for behaviour is a self-defeating and forced position; it can only be used coldly and cynically, and is therefore not legally or ethically important.

The free will debate, then, is an abstract, academic matter. However, a discussion of it remains bound to the discussion of ethics; in order that our behaviour not be arbitrary or futile, we need a knowledge of what we are capable and incapable of. We require a critique of will.

Cutting to the chase, I think the answer to the debate lies in its very undecidability.

Whenever someone claims a certain form of knowledge is limited, there are two possible meanings for this. First, it could simply refer to a lack of information. We lack the required quantity of data to form a conclusion. Only more research and thought is required. Perhaps the quantity of information required is so great that it is practically impossible to attain; it is still, in principle, a possibility for knowing. The second way knowledge can be limited is in quality. There may be information or beings that we are simply unequipped to explore or analyze. I would argue that there is an aspect of humans that is inadmissable to analysis or full knowing.

When I say it cannot be analyzed, I mean it is something we cannot directly access. It is not something that can be pointed to and described; it can only be posited as an explanatory device.

When people argue over free will, they are either claiming a certain creative spontaneity for humans, or for a rigid determination. I would argue this is an impossible question; it cannot be answered. When we ask what this spontaneity may be; a particular aspect of human nature is named. Spirit, reason, will, whatever. This aspect is then explained to be somehow independant of all immanant causes; nothing has shaped this one aspect. Family life, no matter how fine or horrible, has molded this aspect. Absolutely no combination of socio-economic-historical factors has affected this aspect, because if this aspect was capable of being affected, than it would be one more link in the cause and effect chain and therefore determined.

This aspect - will, spirit, reason - therefore only has a one way relationship with everything else. All else that might reside in a human subject and its environment can only be affected by this aspect; they themselves can only be altered; they can do no altering themselves.

The determination folks believe every last aspect of reality rests within a cause and effect structure. Nothing happens without an immediate cause; every human action has a cause, which itself has a caused, all the way down to the bottom turtle. The aspect the free willers believe in is itself determinted by something else. There is a two way relationship between the spirit/will/reason and the environment - they affect each other.

Now, why do I think this debate is unresolvable? Because neither position can truly support itself. Free will can never be proven, because it is a simple matter to posit that one is determined to believe in free will. However, determination cannot be proven either. The moment one posits a free will/spirit, an aspect of the self that stands unaffected by the environment, no philosophy of determination can track down and kill this aspect. If there is such a free aspect, it would be impossible to conclude exactly which environmental factors might affect this aspect. Every determination posited - ie, bad family life, can only explain a single piece of behaviour. Those who believe in free will can simply relocate the will to a position unaffected by the posited determination; this process can go on indefinately.

The claims of free will and determination cancel each other out. They negate each other. In negating each other, they create an unknowable aspect of human nature. A nothingness. Our knowledge of ourselves is essentially finite, and no quantity of information or observation can ever change that.

This nothingness itself is, in practice, identical to the posited free will. Because we can never know if or how anything determines it, it appears to us to be a responsible, spontaneous, creative, force. What it is on its own account is unknowable; all we can deal with is the appearance and the appearance is undetermined.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Year That Was, Vol. 2

I'm going to go ahead and insist that my little blogging sabbatical is over. How can I not take advantage of this fancy new template?

It's the end of the year, and that means its time for a best-of. This list isn't confined to the best art and media produced in 2006; it's more about the things I encountered for the first time in 2006.


Once Were Warriors

A New Zealand film that a Kiwi friend introduced me to. It's the story of a Maori family disintergrating into chaos. Top flight acting and story, though there's a pivotal plot point that struck me as melodramatic. Nonetheless, this is one of the best movies I've ever seen... maybe top twenty quality.

A Bittersweet Life

A Korean gangster/revenge flick. It's pretty straightforward: one man insults another man, and the sheer quantity of testostone flowing through their veins makes apology impossible. It's not some slapdash action flick, though; the cinematopgraphy and acting (mostly) are top flight. The violence is keen too.

Ichi the Killer

If you think Han Solo or The Punisher are "anti-heros," you need to be introduced to this movie. Just... don't watch it with your mother.

Takashi Miike puts love into his violence. That's all there really is to say about this.

Fiction Books:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a Japanese author I came across this past year; I've read 3 of his books, and they are all fantastic. I'm choosing Wind-Up over Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore because, well, Wind-Up was my first. This novel has some of the most truly gorgeous and affective writing I've ever come across; sensuous and dreamlike. Hiding behind the story of a rather passive man looking for his cat is an epic, sprawling battle for the soul of the Japanese people. I can't recommend Murakami enough, though if you wanted to dip your toes into something shorter begin with Norwegian Wood.

In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

A lot of the reviews I've seen around the net are pretty cool on this book; my own memories are strong and pleasant. I admit this might have something to do with the circumstances under which I read the book: on the flight home from Korea. The cabin was dark, and everyone around me was sleeping. I was in my own dimly lit little world while reading about a young Japanese man leading, and being led by, the vaguely mystical Frank through the back alleys of Tokyo. I remember it as a hazy nightmare. These two Murakamis aren't related to one another, by the way.

Wizard and Glass: The Dark Tower IV by Stephen King

I'm slowly working my through King's Dark Tower series, enjoying every step of it. This has so far been my favourite installment of the five I've read. This book is essentially a booklength flashback, a prequel of sorts. The characters in this novel - long dead by the time of the larger storyline - are more interesting than the primary characters of the serious. There's a paradox here; the strength of this book is therefore the weakness of the rest. I hope books VI and VII have a lot more Cuthbert and Alain in them.

Non-Fiction Books:

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

This isn't the book of answers. It doesn't tell you if God exists or if eating babies is bad or who you should vote for. Heidegger's modest project just tells you how you can ask those questions in the first place.

Ethics by Benedictus de Spinoza

Written in 1677, it offers us a pretty good understanding of why Spinoza was kicked out of the Jewish community and labelled an atheist by... well, pretty much everyone.

It would be easy to see this as a stone-cold calculating book, but there's always an explosive Jewish mysticism just lurking beneath the surface. Forget the Kaballah, make this mandatory reading. For everyone; especially Intelligent Design fans. Spinoza pretty much curb stomps standard religious beliefs like final causes and anthropomorphic gods.


Talking Honky Tonk Blues by Buck 65

It's a mix of country, hip-hop, folk-rock and electronica. Yeah. And it all works to make my favourite album of the year. If you have an interest in any of those genres... Buck 65 can't be reccomended enough. Everyone should be this creative.

By the way, he's giving away the tracks from his new EP on his website. Go listen to all five, and tell if that this man is not going to single handedly save country and hip-hop from themselves.

Anger Do Not Enter by Beef Terminal

Why yes, I've picked up a taste for ambient beats. This is pretty much perfect night walking or reading music. It's about as relaxing as anything I've come across.

The Dusty Foot Philosopher by K'naan

This is definately runner up for my favourite album of the year. An unstoppable tour de force of world beat hip-hip.

So that's the year that was. An extraordinary year for music, books and movies all around; I'm very impressed with 2006 all around.