Month: July 2013

Are social critics really that vague and incompetent?

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Forgive my flashy title but, exaggeration apart, there is a serious issue that for some years is known but not getting as much attention as it should. Do social critics generate culture or as a matter of fact they actually just talk nonsense? That is the question that reiterates Noam Chomsky over and over. “Posturing”, as the famous linguist and political activist repeatedly says in one of his interviews on this subject (see below). What is it with their endless chattering that no one understands? Are they complicating their discourse making it incomprehensible for anyone because they are actually hiding their lack of ingenuity? Chomsky claims that because they have no theory, they attire public attention by creating a sensation in the reader of admiration while all they have is a rhetorical discourse. In reality, their skills are in the art of language more than the ability to develop an important social theory like they pretend.

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek

Chomsky mentioned Slavoj Žižek and Lacan but of course there are many others. Even the French critics say that if they must have at least 10% of incomprehensible rhetorical jargon in order to be taken seriously. That ‘necessity’ is for two main reasons: to let the reader think she understands while deducting a conclusion based on her own knowledge and practically has nothing to do with what the author wanted to say or not. The second reason is to impress by having the reader believe he still has a lot to learn before he could reach a sufficient level to understand such overwhelming reflections.

Another example is in a most interesting article the moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes about the work of Judith Butler. The Butler’s dilemma about gender as a social construction is well-known across the academic and some of the public spheres. In fact, not only Butler’s claims for gender as a social artifice but also her political views, national as well as international (lately in a fierce pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel campaign). For Nussbaum, Butler prefers to “remain on the high plane of metaphysical abstraction.”

”It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, says Nussbaum, because it is difficult to figure out what they are,”. As far as her social critic for gender issues, Nussbaum relies that ”hungry women are not fed by this (Butler’s so called theory), battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.”

It seems that there is a cloud of a dangerous quietism above our heads in many provocative and/or populist rhetorical discourses. Where many social critics enjoy spotlight for their eccentric character more than a solid substance, the problems of the world seems to only of a rhetoric importance. Slavery, for example, was not abolished by complicated phrases and incomprehensible mystifications in a circular rhetoric. Strong arguments were needed, logical and ecumenical discourses followed by treaties and antidiscrimination laws. When Bartolomé de las Casas advocated in favor of the notion that Native American Indians were, in fact, humans with souls (according to the religious perspective of that time some said they weren´t), he did so with strong arguments and subversive performance to undermine the conventional and prejudice vision of his contemporaries. Women rights were only began to become a matter of importance when brave people engaged reforms and surfaced in spite and not because of social discourses.

The prestige in the literary world for certain philosophers is somewhat curious. In fact, a closer look on that reveals an appreciation for the obscurity of the rhetoric more than the real work of the thinking mind. However, a good sociolect should be aspiring for clarity in between its followers, instead of having a dazzled audience with no real substance. Take a look for example in the following video where Lacan is trying to answer a short rather fuzzy manifesto of a young rebel (a real classic moment from 1972 during a lecture at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium).

So, all that is left for us, readers of social studies and fans of rhetorical argumentation, is to constantly search after the elusive theory. And certainly, never forget, it´s ok not to understand some perpetuated charlatan discourses, sometimes they are simply empty of any significant meaning. Chomsky says that if you cannot explain your idea to a twelve years old for him to completely comprehend, then forget about your theory and move on.

Chomsky on Zizek and Lacan:

So why not to start thinking for ourselves? We don´t have to follow blindly some incomprehensible diagram and mathematical equations to explain how we exist in an interaction with others or blurring a sound out to the air. We can learn the basics that all of them use and create our own world of definitions and complex theories and enjoy watching people faces while you share them (which is, by far, priceless).

Hermeticism, the Origin of Trispectivism

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Tehuti_hermesWhen I lived in Guatemala and attended to a retreat center called “Las Pirámides del Ka” I was recommended a book about an interesting perspective of life. The book concerned an ancient philosophy known as Hermeticism, which was formed from writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. One of the many websites devoted to Hermeticism states that “The Hermetists believe and teach that The All, “in itself,” is and must ever be Unknowable. They regard all the theories, guesses and speculations of the theologians and metaphysicians regarding the inner nature of The All as but the childish efforts of mortal minds to grasp the secret of the Infinite.” This passage refers to the Kybalion philosophy on Gnostic. The Kybalion is one interpretation of the Hermetist All (you can find a link here, chapter IV). I do not agree, however, to the idea that the writing is too complicated to comprehend and that a mortal mind cannot grasp the divine reflection (a quite repetitive notion in all religions). The difficulty it projects is that if the passage itself is said by mortal mind, who can actually know what is really is to grasp which makes is no different than many French philosopher that like to poster and sound too complicated in order to be appreciated (a future post about the subject is under construction).

This citation certainly does not explain what this philosophy is, yet it relates to the driven passion of the unknown behind it. In Trispectivism, I do not refer to Hermeticism but more to my perception of what it can present to us in a more pragmatic point of view.

Today, after more than two millenniums, human interpretation regarding Hermeticism varies from a belief to an order or cult, and almost to a religion. You can read about it on the Internet and have your own interpretation, but what I wish to achieve by discussing it is to provide a background to what I refer to as Trispectivism. Actually, you do not have to understand Hermeticism and the theory of The All to comprehend the idea and application of Trispectivism; it is more than enough to know that it was an important milestone. Thus, by no means do I want to be considered a Kybalian, a Hermetist, or a member any kind of group, religion, or belief. As many new theories in life, trispectivism is a derivation, an interpretation in order to facilitate self-awareness by the means of an ancient, yet to be fully understood, philosophy.

persian350

Are we really that selfish? Self interest vs. Egoism

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Among other equally important issues that evoke a relationship between the Other and the self, I choose first to concentrate on self interest. It is true that over the years these words have gained a strong negative connotation. It is usually considered to be an egocentric act of profit, and it always comes at the cost of other people’s welfare. Well, this is true, and usually you will not see self-interest treated in a self-help book, or if you do see it, it is usually discussed as a destructive aspect that, in order to find true happiness, must be avoided at any cost. To that I can only reply: hypocrisy. If the child of some guru needs a liver transplant and there is another child on the waiting list, how noble the actions of the great master will be in a situation in which he will have to choose?

In practice (as opposed to theoretical nobility), the preference is obvious. It will be hard to find a woman who will tell her father that because she cared so much about starvation in Somalia, now she cannot afford his heart surgery. Self-interest is one of the many gifts of nature; it is what distinguishes us from machines with no emotions or care (for good as well as for bad). Obviously, like anything on this planet, a person can decide to make a bad use of it, or to carry out selfish actions using it as an excuse, but you have to recognize its existence and not to try to hide it from others and from yourself. First, they are certainly doing the same, and second, it will drive you further from being one with yourself. That being said, we should be more attuned to our surroundings and help everyone wherever and whenever we can.

Moreover, by saying self-interest, it does not imply egoism and cannot be compared to it. Unfortunately, some self-help books and religious discourses confuse the two and use both without distinction, ending up speaking about the malevolence of self-interest. The principal difference is in the action of the person. Self-interest can certainly be a positive, progressive action that not only benefits the self but also its surroundings.

World’s self interest

With egoism, though, the situation is different; where self-interest includes the surroundings as well as yourself, ego (“I” in Latin), is the I that is motivating the action. For example, if you would rather help a family member than a stranger, this is self-interest, but with egoism, family members are at the same category with strangers: they are not you. Also, in the stock market, it is in your own best interest if other investors feel optimistic and make a profit—that way, the stock market will rise and as a consequence you can make more profit as well. Egoism says that if you want to profit, others must loose. Concentration on the ego, the I, is concentrating on the individual All; this can never function because reality and life is not only that. Belittling or disregarding the universal All is to negate nature, and it will eventually draw you away from happiness. Self-interest recognizes that aspect, and if you use it properly, you can harmonize its interconnectivity with the universal All and achieve greater results both for you and for your environment.

Hence, I try not to forget, at times, if an egotistical urge rises in my belly, I go ahead and do it, but I don´t forget to balance it later (or while) with some good, old fashion common good. That way, I see how in an instant it transforms itself into some self interest sharing.

The power of habits

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Learning about a new book while inscribing into the gym and forcing myself to go on a regular basis, had me thinking again about habits and routines.

In this new book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, the psychologist Jeremy Dean talks about the function of habit. This is an amazing theme to discuss especially because we seemingly complain about its weight in our life at the same time of cherishing its necessity.

There are many facets to habit, mainly as a routine, or as an attitude towards life (eating healthy, exercise, reading or the contrary, constantly watching TV, eating junk food etc.). The interesting part is when we can actually learn from them about our lives, about ourselves and our interaction with the environment. For example, when we try to begin a new habit, learning a new language requires daily practice, so does learning a musical instrument or perfecting the one you have. It seems that there is time requirement before something becomes a habit. Doing sport is a good example. For someone who has just begun going to gym or the pool it will be a constant fight until the activity becomes routinely. How long will it be?

In his book, Dean is trying to help with some good advice of that problematic period of in between, when you are convinced at the what and why yet too weak for the where and when. Change is difficult in any context yet learning how to embrace the change will not only benefit your body (considering we are talking about acquiring a healthy habit of course) but your mind as well.

Changing habit is also well known creativity boaster. When in automatic repetition of our daily life, our creativity becomes dull, fading away into a circle of false sense of security. Being able to change your habits means to regain control on your life, bringing back that spark we all had as children in the search of our happiness.

RoutineWe tend to think that we are in control of what we wear, our choice of food, flavor, and our daily habits. “I can stop smoking whenever I decide”, we hear occasionally from a-pack-a-day smokers (I said it myself for some years), yet if and when we try to stop the habit in question suddenly we feel the void and we become less sure of that. Control and conscious decision-making is an issue we only little know about. “It is possible to neurosis to begin in childhood?” asked himself Freud. Well, it is certain that many of our identity do begin in childhood and with it many of the repercussion on our daily life as adults.

What are your habits you can´t give up or have difficulties begin?

The conflict of good and bad stress

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There is an extended discussion today about stress and its influence. People from different areas try to relate to the negativity stress affect our lives. There are many accusations in regards to the origin and open questions as to the toll it has on our culture, on our mortality or quality of life etc. There is no doubt that it is a hindrance to a healthy life.

stress-resourcesYet stress as a whole it too big to attend and try to diminish, which is why there is a need to a more methodological set of recognizing the details. In Trispectivism I talk continuously about the importance of the awareness we should have toward separating the abstract term from the actual consolidation of the manifest in each one´s life.

“It will be alright, this will be the last time” or maybe “he said that this is wrong, it has to be wrong” and even “I´m not afraid of traveling alone/dying…”, phrases such as these are common in our daily life. Many times they will be the one thing we need to make a decision. Yet why are we saying them and what is their relation to stress?

Self manipulation is known and well used in our minds, some of the occasions we use it, we actually have a slight awareness but we negate it with different reasoning, while other times we are simply not consciously aware of it at all.

Let us take for example a preparation for a stressful big event (i.e. conference, important examination, evaluation etc.). We can react in a two natural ways, good stress and bad stress. There is no point in acknowledging those who say they are not stressed, even if they think they mean it, it is because of the feeling of pleasure and excitement they have had from the event after the last time the went through it, which is what stayed in the memory. Thus, while relating stress to a negative emotion, they take comfort in the thought they do not feel it. What do I mean by that? The good stress and excitement is the one that motivate you to try harder, to learn more, to memorize and to really prepare yourself to the event with the most effort and rigor you have. The bad stress, on the other hand, is what convinces you to remain in a passive mood, you do not prepare adequately, your effort it minimum, probably just enough to say you really tried. Leaving aside the good stress (for it is usually a positive motor for creativity and achievement), it is important to ponder a little on the negative one. Usually, the passiveness is caused and reinforced by the person telling to themselves that there is no reason to be excited and stressed using arguments such as, ‘enjoy the present’, ‘don´t worry too much, it causes heart attacks’ etc.

And here is the interior conflict, while trying to relax their mind diminishing the importance of the event they do not manifest a desire for Buddhism tranquility but a defense mechanism for the imminent failure (or so it seems to them and for the fact of not putting any effort in the preparation). You anticipate a failure by actually creating it while preparing for the supposed future with out-of-context expressions of reinforcement.

Of course, that kind of mechanism does not only happen on small scales but also on a much larger, life altering, achievements. For example, a test to a higher position in your job or many kind of decision-making that comes across your way.

Trispectivism can help by realizing and distinguishing the universal, global and abstract term of the stress inducing aspect and the aspect itself and its implication and preparation needed.

Thus, next time you are facing a test of some sort (not necessarily academic one) do not start depressing because you realize you are in stress, but rather use stress for your advantage and not to put you in a state of false apathy and despair.

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An update to this post from 05.09.2013:

Yesterday I watched a TED talk talking about exactly this issue. I have to admit that it took some time to these Harvard guys to reach a the same conclusion as above. But thanks to them, I can now say there is an important and renown research to back my words as describe above. Here’s the talk:

Medieval crusades and the 21st century conflicts

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History has such an inspiring effect, don´t you agree?

This post is the result of an interesting conference I assisted recently relating the Crusade as a conceptual use in thought and public discourse today.  Crusade (cruzada in Spanish) is a concept which actually was first used long after the physical action started (to be precise about two hundred years after). If the first official crusade was around 1095 (ordered by Pope Urban the IInd), the concept itself did not appear before the 13th century. Common concepts in the context of military expeditions and conquests with religious ties usually were and still accompanied by phrases like ‘war of justice’ or ‘Just War’ (Guerra Justa), ‘Holy War’ (Guerra Santa), ‘Pilgrimage’ (peregrinaje) etc. With regard to Christianity, there are also terms such as Campaign or Journey of the Cross, (Campaña de la cruz, Latin: expeditio christus). Yet, a different denomination reminds the more economical side talking about the Jesus Christ’s Affaire or Business (el negocio de Jesucrito, or negotium christus in Latin).

In those times the land ownership was of the feudal lord. As this method of taxation was already very common in two thousand years, a successful pyramid method had considerable economic value. Thus, with the growing threat, it became important for the feudal lords to adhere to a much larger confederation. Therefore, it seems to be justified to annex and occupy lands beyond the border stationing loyal governance as the land’s sovereign. In particular, when land ownership interest is between the Church and Muslims, the sworn enemy of the Christians all through the Middle-Ages and beyond. And so it was that thousands of people, mostly peasants, step out to defend their faith and to bring wealth and fortune to themselves and for their mother church. Those brave soldiers became with time the known soldier priests (monjes soldados), devoted men or opportunists who joined the different Orders of the Crusades under oath of priests with the divine mission to shed the blood of the enemy and to conquer and expand its reign territory (not to confuse with colonialism).

There were different Orders at the time of the Crusades, distinguished by the goal, violence, and the various competences as well as the diversity of their origin (country, culture, etc.). Probably amongst the more known Orders today is that of the Knights Templar (with the Red Cross logo).

templerThe idea of Just War is all too familiar. For many centuries people are fighting in the name of their sovereign, whether divine or not, and the name of Christ religion was not very different. The end justified the means, they say, yet while that can be perceived as right for a divine reason, is it also true for simple conquering land and slaughtering the habitats for more wealth and power? In fact, the use of the term just war was used since early ages. The ancients Greeks fought the Barbarians (all that were strangers and didn´t speak their language) with that same devoted approved violence. In trispectivist view, it is when an individual all wants to become universal all, while the way to achieve such an aspiration is by violent interaction. The aspiration of power is to create certain parts of your identity equal to the majority.

And so, the Just War can be compared the concepts mindset to a famous maxim: “If someone is coming to kill you, rise against him and kill him first” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72:1). Indeed a famous saying and can claim to be “right” but without a specific context, anyone can use it to his advantage and always be sure that… he’s right.

In brief, we can resume three main reasons to defend oneself under the spiritual context:

1 – The first and perhaps most important is the economical reason. Church Goods means many assets all over the world. Every Christian has the duty to donate his church 10% of his earnings in addition to more sporadic donations during prayers, buying products and special personalized prayers etc. As such, the more believers and subjects or local officials who must appear in churches, the more profit and political power you will have. The human resource means the accumulation of lands and many properties that are an integral part of the organization (residential seminary, houses of worship, public spaces, etc.).

2 – Many towns and villages were under different sorts of beliefs that began to dissipate slowly with the globalization of occupying large scale monotheist beliefs. From the other hand, Christendom was in awe in front of the rapid conversion to Islam in the Middle East and Northern Africa, as to how two centuries of roaming villages and individuals had become a victorious empire under the banner of the half moon (6th centuries 8th). Therefore, conquering all lands between the Christian Europe and the Holy Land meant strengthening the status and pushing back the enemy from the heart of Christianity (in Italy and Southern France).

3 – To deal with segregation and local political problems, you need a common enemy. This may be one of the known effective strategies against uprisings in the kingdom. And if possible, a common enemy from afar, strong enough to be a worthy adversary who will make it a Holy war with endless praises and glory.

For the Muslims the Just War is what is called Jihad. Although it is not part of the five most important pillars of Islam (to believe (creed), to pray, to give alms, to fast and pilgrimage) but it is, no doubt, repeatedly mentioned by the messiah Muhammad as essential for the expansion of Islam (6th century AD). Each warrior of a Holy War is recognized as a martyr and his place in heaven is assured. Moreover, the spiritual level of the ones who fight for the cause is considered elevated and much stronger than the pacifist, docile believer.

During the Crusades, the same idea of ​ martyr was also widely used among Christians. Therefore, the warriors who conquered and ransacked villages on their way east in the name of Jesus their God, were extremely regarded and popularized.

bush-crusaderIn our era, the Just War continues to be part of the daily speeches, whether in the third world with poverty and lack of education as in the so-called developed countries. Nixon in 1973 and President Carter six years later used the same idea of ​​going to war in Asia and the Arab countries out of fear of the enemy’s control of what was already back then the most important raw material of our time. In 2001, George Bush Junior had a slip of the tongue in a post 11-S speech in which he mentioned a Crusade against the enemy to restore order in Iraq and world peace. This happens year after year in every country regardless of the political situation, spiritual and educational level of its habitats, as it seems, human beings are not as changed as we sometimes want to believe.

As well-known, this perspective of Just War is not unilateral, meaning, we can easily find the multiple use of fighting the infidel, protection of our faith from the Muslim side. Suleiman Abu Ghiz, the spokesman of Al Qaeda, made a clear parallelism between the conquests of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs by saying that they will not allow the tragedy of what happened in Al – Andaluz (Andalucía, the Spanish autonomy where Granada is located) to repeat in Palestine. What he meant was that they will not give up a key geographical strategically important point, to fall into the enemy hands. Strike your enemy before he strikes you.

 crusade

And while we are talking about hundreds of years of history of people and about beliefs of hundreds of millions of people, it’s impossible not to think about its future implications. One of which is the improvement of warfare technology that can only lead to automated war, as “Just” as they may seem now. As the Crusaders, even though they started with a noble and trust worthy cause in the first Crusade (as romanticized and idealized by the likes of Sir Walter Scott), by the fourth one, they were nothing more than mere mercenaries. Their need of gold had them ride from Venice to Constantinople as swords for rent, fighting and killing for the highest bid, draining the European resources… again.

What really is “Just” and what is Fear?