Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Folly of Individuality - April Fools 2018

Defining Individuality
            Here’s a phrase that, I think, captures the essence of individuality: “I’m me.” “I’m me” expresses the separateness of individuality-- as in, I’m me and not you. It expresses particular composition-- I’m all these things that make me “me.” And it expresses agency-- in “I’m me,” Matt Lowe is both of the words/concepts in the sentence, both the subject and the object. I’m all the things that are “me” but I’m also the “I’m,” the owner and agent of this thing that is me.
            So if someone were to ask “What is an individual?” then these characteristics-- separateness, particular composition, and agency-- while not comprehensive, go a long way towards describing the individual. But an equally salient question goes like this: “What does it mean to identify as an individual?” In answering this question, a certain experience, marked by passion and anxiety, is highlighted-- to identify as an individual is to live with and act upon an intense need for separateness, for particular composition, for agency. So, let’s say that “identifying as an individual” is what we mean by “individuality.” Here individuality is a commitment, a desire, for dignity, for integrity, for self-importance. For self-determination, both in terms of having power over one’s self-definition and having power over one’s fate. So that’s individuality.

The Folly of Individuality
            The folly of individuality is that, from the perspective of many fields of study, the separateness, particular composition, and agency of the individual are illusions. The reality, the experience, of myself as a unique agent is repeatedly eclipsed by larger Wholes (with a W) which, paradoxically, also includes things smaller than me. When I reflect on the many parts and Wholes among which I find myself, then my self-importance, my ability and desire to define myself and determine my fate-- it all feels foolish, and this individuality represents a failure to recognize and live in alignment with greater truths of my reality.

            I have so many examples of this to share, but I don’t want to be too confusing or overwhelming; I want to present them already organized. So I’m going to present my main point first-- that the individual is made of parts that mock individuality, and that the individual fits into Wholes that mock individuality. These look like two separate critiques here: (1) a bottom-up critique from the perspective of parts, and (2) a top-down critique from the perspective of Wholes. In actuality, these two perspectives are the same-- maybe a metaphor will help. The individual is a wave in the ocean. The bottom-up critique tells us that a wave is nothing but water molecules and motion. The top-down critique tells us that a wave is nothing but the ocean doing its thing. Do you see, then, how these critiques are the same? The ocean doing its thing is water molecules and motion. There’s a larger Whole, playing out in millions of tiny parts, and the individual is just something caught up in it, and individuality is that something taking itself too seriously.
            The wave metaphor might be too reductive-- I don’t want to say that the individual is nothing but component parts of a larger whole but rather that the individual is nothing without component parts of a larger whole. How about a tree metaphor, with the individual as a leaf? The self-importance and self-determination of a leaf would be foolish, given its place in the life of a tree.
Ok, then, so how about this as the main point: Individuality is foolish when we consider the individual as something that emerges among the component parts of a larger whole. (repeat it). Now for a brief survey of a bunch of examples-- let’s look at this phenomenon biologically, ecologically, psychologically, socio-historico-culturally, existentially, religiously, and mystically. This won’t take as long as you think-- I’m going to do the whole thing pretty glibly.

Biologically, the individual emerges out of and biodegrades back into a stream of atoms, hormones, genes, etc. “I” am a brief or permanent stopping point for a flow of genes that have been mixing and remixing for eons. I am a collection of collaborating cells... that is, until they stop collaborating, at which point I become more of a battleground or a junk heap, a compost pile, my personhood incidental and past.
The ecological example is just the biological one on a larger scale. The individual emerges out of and biodegrades back into the life of the Earth. I’m a function of climate. Like other animals, I’m a temporarily effective vehicle for water and seeds.
            Psychologically, I subscribe (loosely) to two theories that chip away at the integrity of the individual-- internal family systems and attachment theory. In my framing of internal family systems theory, the individual is just the place where various intrapersonal forces compete and negotiate for the power to speak for me as a whole. The “I” is literally a persona, a mask, an attempt of some part of me to represent all of me.
In my understanding of attachment theory, the stability and positivity of my personality-- the fact that I feel capable of knowing and loving myself-- is mostly a result of having the good fortune of feeling known and loved by certain people in my life. This reckoning of how the individual emerges out of a family leads me into the next realm, the socio-historico-cultural.
            Socio-historico-culturally-- on a societal, historical, cultural level, Matt Lowe is an overdetermined entity. Ask Marx; ask Maslow; ask Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. My sense of self floats atop the historically-contingent life-support systems of industrialism, capitalism, agriculture, academia, and several others. *My ability to think about myself personally, to have productive and fulfilling work and relationships, is a product of my more basic needs being met. The fact that so many of my basic needs are met is a product of how society treats me as a first-world-inhabiting economically-secure educated employed neurotypical non-disabled cis het white Jewish male in 2018. Self-determination? Ha! I’m mostly a particular collection of social component parts of a larger social whole.
This is getting repetitive, so I’ll speed up the last three. Existentially-- I am a variation on existential themes, something that emerges out of and degrades back into a stream of self, other, desire, freedom, time, etc. Existential motifs play out in individual lives like the five ingredients used in every Taco Bell menu item-- it’s all there, just in different shapes and combinations (example taken from The Onion). Religiously-- the meaning of the individual is subsumed into the religious myth. My definition and my fate are shaped by the context of a cosmic narrative. Mystically-- the individual is nothing but the One, nothing but an expression of the divine flow.

            And there it is! The individual’s self-importance is quickly humbled when the individual sees themselves as emerging among the component parts of the larger whole. Biologically, ecologically, psychologically, socio-historico-culturally, existentially, religiously, mystically. The folly of individuality is-- as if I could really see myself as separate, as unique, as a free-standing agent in the larger reality from which I emerge.

One step deeper
So far I’ve characterized the folly of individuality as based in its illusoriness. But I want to go one step deeper, and talk about the arrogance and the privilege behind individuality. The individual may be an illusion, but individuality is a sin.
            First a quick return to my basic definitions: the individual is characterized by separateness, particular composition, and agency. Individuality is characterized by a need to identify as an individual, a commitment to being recognized as separate, particularly composed, and agentic. Individuality is motivated by a need for self-importance, self-definition, and self-determination.
            So, if it isn’t clear by now, individuality exists within a very specific relationship to power. Individuality is a luxury. “I’m me” only if and when I’m in a position of enough power to not get lumped in with the masses. “I’m me” only if and when I’m sheltered from the forces that do not give a shit about me as an individual. I get to feel like an individual when I’m not one among many fighting for survival. I get to feel like an individual when my day-to-day experience is not defined by being a targeted population. My particular position in society provides me with power that allows self-definition and self-determination, and thus the luxury of self-importance.
            The illusion of the individual and the privilege of individuality pose major obstacles to making positive change in the world. Individuality becomes an idolatrous individualism in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, or an idolatrous Messiah complex in some religious or secular groups. In ecology, individuality produces the tragedy of the commons. Jessa Crispin in her book “Why I am Not a Feminist (A Feminist Manifesto)” points out how individualism in feminism produces the phenomenon of individuals “cashing out” once they’ve achieved personal liberation from (or in) the system. Individuality leads to the abusive phenomenon of blaming individuals for systemic issues-- we see this in psychology in the phenomenon of the “identified patient” in family therapy, or in the fact that the DSM is filled with pathologies that only implicate the individual.
            Individuality, individualism, is not helping us. We need movements. We need more identification with the greater Whole. We need to understand ourselves as participants rather than as individuals; as participants, so that we understand ourselves and act intentionally within the larger realities in which we are already participating. We have to rise to the challenge of organismic thinking. Individuality must be overcome.

The Inevitability and Redemption of Individuality
            Which brings me to the part of the speech where I backtrack, the part where, having critiqued and discouraged individuality, I’m going to go back and insist upon it, and hopefully redeem it.

            The fact is, I don’t have to argue much to reinstate the reality of the individual; despite all of my talk about component parts and larger wholes, the illusion of the individual dominates my experience. Despite everything I’ve said, privacy, a major dimension in the separateness of the individual, persists. Internality persists. “I’m me” includes the fact that my pain cannot be traded out, cannot be experienced by anyone other than myself, and none of the above arguments change that privacy, that solitude and isolation.
            The biggest factor, though, that forces me to take individuality seriously, is the feeling of responsibility. The individual could be an illusion. Heck, free will could be an illusion. And yet, the onus of action persists. Agency, weirdly enough, seems to be both an illusion and a sacred trust.
            Even my call to overcome individuality still places the burden on the individual, doesn’t it? Right? If I call upon myself, call upon you, to join something bigger than yourself, only you can actually make the choice and take the action to do that.

            It’s very weird-- with enough critical analysis, the individual appears as illusion and sin; and yet and yet and yet, over and over, the individual is a persisting illusion that continues to color our experience. This inevitable illusion, we have to do something paradoxical with it-- to challenge it while leveraging it into responsible action. Only the individual can make the choice to step out of individuality. I cannot participate conscientiously in the Whole without first dealing with myself as an individual participant, as a particular person with a particular location and a particular agency.
            My recommendation, then, is that individuality needs to be sifted; I need to understand when and how my individuality is useful versus when it’s toxic. As a general principle, it appears to be toxic whenever it revels in its disconnection, when it smugly inhabits luxury and privilege. And it’s useful when it’s understood and leveraged into participation, when it’s engaged to subvert itself, through teamwork, through solidarity, through allyship, through participation. That’s it-- that the individual alone is folly; and that the individual-in-participation is everything.
            Thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

This Passover, Talk about Power

(Disclaimer: In order to speak the language of the holiday, I use the word "God" in this post. I'm using it because God is a character in the Passover story; I'm not intending to make any claims about the historical veracity of Passover or the existence of an actual god.)

This Passover, can we talk about Power instead of Freedom?

We’re American; “Freedom” always sounds like a good thing. On Passover, liberal Jews love to celebrate it as a holiday of freedom. The clever ones among us like to add nuance to the conversation, things like “Freedom from or Freedom to?” and “What kind of freedom is truly free? Don’t we always serve something?” These are great questions, ones that point at the same thing I’m pointing to--

Why not just talk about Power?

To me, the whole story makes more sense when seen through this lens. The Hebrews are under the power of Pharaoh. God can only take them through a superior show of power. Then they are under God’s power instead.

I think we prefer the “Freedom” version because freedom sounds so unambiguously virtuous, and power does not. Power sounds desirable but suspicious, dangerous. What makes God’s power morally better than Pharaoh’s? That’s unclear; that depends on how define our terms.

And that’s why I’d rather talk about Power this year. Our minds link power and corruption, power and abuse. If we talk about power, it will drive us to think and talk and figure out what the heck “good power” looks like. Then we can consider the Hebrews in the desert in a different light-- not asking about how God’s law makes us free, but how God’s power succeeds or fails in empowering us, how power should be used or shared in the relationship between God and the people, and how we can discern whether or not God’s means and ends reflect “good power.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Matt's Metaphysics and More (as of Dec '17)


Stuff and Space
There’s stuff and there’s space.
“Stuff” is anything that’s a thing. (I’m not thinking too deeply into this yet.)
“Space” is a little more complicated-- it’s anything that is not a thing, but rather, the absence of things, which in turn can actually serve as the medium in which things move/reside. So, Time is also a kind of Space.

Where did these two types come from; what created them?
Shut up, that’s what. It’s not within the capacity of the human mind to “see” “behind” this level of reality (read: Immanuel Kant; Ludwig Wittgenstein; Gordon Kaufman). Just because you can ask the question “Oh, gee, where did it all come from?” doesn’t mean that you get an answer, or even that it’s actually a coherent question.

Stuff either connects with other stuff or doesn’t connect.
When it connects, higher-order stuff results. Sometimes the higher-order stuff is a more complex thing; other times it’s a relationship between things.


Not Theology
“Theology” is, unfortunately, too often conflated with theistic theology, in which the principle(s) of ultimacy is given a personality. Thus, “atheology” is the consideration of ultimate/concern without dredging up “god”ly forms of theology (idolatry).

Dualistic Atheology
This is a pretentious but accurate phrase for where my beliefs have landed.
Here’s another one: “existential mereology.”

There are two ultimate principles: encounter and emptiness.
Each principle can occur as the divine or the demonic.

The divine dimension of encounter: insight, wholeness, love....
The demonic dimension of encounter: misunderstanding, meanness, Moloch (systemic evil)...
(Neutral aspects would include: knowledge, creativity, power, personality, meaning/narrative…)

The divine dimension of emptiness: humility, freedom, possibility, rest...
The demonic dimension of emptiness: absurdity, loneliness, being swallowed by the abyss...


This is an extensive intellectual/emotional (or simply “holistic”) consideration of one’s relationship with the phenomena/experiences of encounter and emptiness.

Regarding encounter, one must consider and adopt a caring stance towards what it means:
·        To be
·        To be capable of meaning-discovery/making
·        To be oneself
·        To be oneself with/among things
·        To be oneself with/among people
·        To be oneself in the world at this time

Regarding emptiness, one must consider and adopt a caring stance towards what it means:
·        To die
·        To live in a world that (probably) cannot be made whole
·        To live in a world heading towards heat death
·        That nothing of this means anything ultimately

Managing Dualism
This, for me, is the next major challenge in developing my secular spirituality:
Creating a coherent spirituality,
given the major tension between encounter and emptiness.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Myths, Motifs, and Meaninglessness

*This post was inspired by my recent reading of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which overlapped with my college mentor Rabbi Neil Gillman’s death and memorial.

These are three different types of structure (or lack thereof) of the connection between person and world.

In myth, person fits into world as character in narrative, with a beginning provided and end assured.

In motif, person is of a kind within the world-- many narratives are available but no master-narrative. The person is simultaneously unique and connected, insofar as they are a (shifting) bundle of attributes shared (in part) by others in existence. The person’s origin and destiny are lost among the play of motifs; no long-term survival of self or stable context of meaning is assured.

In meaninglessness, person exists in world for a time. “Sound and fury,” etc. That’s about it.

My current self/world-view is motif. I see individual/collective life as the playing out of various existential-biological themes, such that each situation is simultaneously unique and yet resonates in the general play of life.

Myth and meaninglessness make claims as to the ultimate structure of meaning, while motif makes no such claim. The thing with motif, however, is that it could exist within the context of either myth or meaninglessness. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Motif within myth - there is a master-narrative that’s hidden, but if you pay close enough attention to patterns, it can be discovered. Gillman compares the ability to find myth to the ability to discern a basketball team’s “passing game.” The motifs attain ultimate meaning by being placed within the larger myth.

  • Motif within meaninglessness - yes, there are lots of echoes in the world, lots of themes, great. Cool. But, ultimately, there’s no order to it, no point, it all adds up to nothing. The motifs fail to achieve ultimate meaning because there just isn’t any.

I don’t feel assured enough to make a claim that myth or meaninglessness are the actual state of things. Is that ok? Is it ok to just focus on the motifs, despite their relativity to some ultimate-yet-undetermined state of things? Can relative meaning be enough to get by, enough to avoid the despair of meaninglessness as well as the *problematic structures of myth?

*I recognize that this last phrase, critiquing myth, needs elaboration.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dual “Divine” Options in Atheism

Skip this paragraph unless you need me to defend my use of the word “divine”

As I’ve established a few times in this blog, I’m not so much an atheist as I am someone who finds the word “Godsuper-problematic, mostly because it function grammatically as a Proper Name, leading people to speak about the divine as if it was some kind of being. This is why I really prefer the phrase “the divine,” because it’s easier to use to speak about a property of (our experience of) reality-- “the divine” being a way to point towards the mystery, the transcendent, the surplus, and occasionally the blessing we encounter in reality. “We encounter the divine” sounds like it’s describing a quality of a special experience; “We encounter God” sounds like it’s describing a meeting of beings, one of which is a God.

Dual Identities: Negative Theology and Humanism
This post is inspired by a talk given at Shabbat services yesterday by Rabbi Ari Saks, in which he invited the congregation to consider different ways to handle bowing during the Torah processional before the Torah reading. Should the person holding the Torah:
  • Bow (along with the rest of the congregation) towards the empty ark?
  • Bow towards the congregation as the congregation bows towards them?
  • Stand straight up while everyone else bows towards the Torah?

The idea behind this fantastic question was to illuminate how choreography expresses different theological positions/preferences. Given my position (see links in first paragraph), I felt torn between the first and second options, and this called attention to my split priorities when it comes to the divine. As a negative theologian, I like how the first option locates divinity in the empty space. As a humanist, I like how the second option locates divinity as something that resides/appears within/among the congregation.
I want to explore briefly how these two locations of divinity play out and interact.

The Abyss as the Divine (or demonic)
This is a position promoted by Lurianic Kabbalah and Rubenstein’s post-Holocaust theology, reflecting the fecundity of space, the absoluteness of the abyss, the sacred in the silence.
At the same time, the abyss is very often not a blessing, especially given that it ultimately will swallow us all, leaving no trace.

Between-ness as the Divine (or demonic)
This is a position promoted by Buber, Levinas, and Raphael’s post-Holocaust theology, and certainly accessible through Reconstructionism and Humanism, all of which call attention to the ‘divine’ power of human love, care, attention, labor, etc.
And at the same time, so much of what occurs between us humans is not divine, but rather mean, messy, and/or misled.

Relation and Tension between the Abyss and the Between-ness
I’ve already gone over this once-- the abyss appears to be the source/place of all that goes on between us, but it’s also the destroyer of all of that too. To focus on humanity is, most often, to forget/ignore the abyss. To focus on the abyss-- you get the idea.

But! I believe both are very important! And both have clearly captured my imagination in terms of what seems special about existence, despite the lack of a more classical God. So, is there some way to honor both together, to represent and relate to both together?

At the very least, it seems like I’m working myself into some kind of dualistic theology-- one faced (the human face, face of the other, etc) and the other faceless. I wonder, then, if the next step is to look into the ways that Dualistic theologies (even though mine is an atheology) function.

So, here’s where I’ve arrived for the moment: a Dualistic Atheology, which aims to identify the understandings and best practices towards engaging with the abyss, and with between-ness.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ten Variations on Void

There are all kinds of voids to encounter. But, it's important to know what kind one is encountering so that one may know what to expect and how to comport oneself appropriately.

A Void that Echoes
When one shouts into it, something bounces back. Despite the apparent emptiness of this void, it must be surrounded by walls or something. This kind of void can be useful, then, as sounding board (or echo chamber?).

A Void that does not Echo
When one shouts into it, no sound comes back. There is eyn sof, no end to this void, and so no way to produce an echo. Despite the infinitude of this void, the encounter brings no feeling of expansiveness. Without an echo, the infinitude is actually quite murky, and so the sound of one's voice sounds very small and very local. This void is effective for remembering humility.

A Void that can Contain
A void, because it's an empty space, can be really useful for storage. Sometimes the void stores what cannot be stored elsewhere. Sometimes the void is used for storage just so the void itself will be decreased.

A Void that does not Contain
This is very similar to the Void that does not Echo. One might try to place things in this void, but those things cannot be managed in this way. They do not even disappear into the void, because that would still be a kind of containment. No, what happens is that you put the thing in the void, and then turn around and it's right where you initially found it. So, what to do when encountering a void that does not contain? Don't try to dump anything in it.

A Void that is Transparent
One might not even notice a void like this, since its transparency simply reveals whatever is on the other side of it. This kind of void is important to note, however, since in this manner one becomes more sensitive to distance/space as the relationship between things.

A Void that is Opaque
Look into it all one wants, there ain't nothing to find in a void that is opaque. One only sees not-seeing. Not unlike staring into a fog, except a fog is not a void. Is there any use for a void that is opaque? Maybe if one needs a break from seeing.

A Void that Appears Within
I've already written on this topic at length. But to riff a little here, the void that is within can be so many things, from hunger and desire to hope and curiosity, and very often ignorance and possibility.

A Void that Appears Without
This category and the previous feel like uber-categories in that any of the preceding voids could be encountered within or without. And, of course, one that appears without could still be a reflection/reminder of one within.

A Void that makes Room for Possibility
Hooray, a space! The frontier continues.

A Void that Crushes the Infinite/Possibility
Nothing comes from nothing. The silence deafens. The sheer scale of nothingness makes a mockery of somethingness.

Further Variations
I hope it is clear that many of the above kinds of void can be coterminous with one another.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Developing Civic Habits

Discomfort as Motivation for Healthy Habits
I floss every single night. I’ve done so for years now. If I try to go to bed without flossing, I get uncomfortable and then have to get up again and floss.

My exercise routine is much more sporadic. When I have more time (weekend, vacations), I exercise well and regularly, with appropriate stretching and sufficient time and energy to constitute some solid aerobic fitness. But there are long stretches in the year when exercise means taking a walk at some point in the day-- not as good, but not nothing either. At some points in the year, I’ll stop doing even this, but within a few days or a week, my body and mind get sufficiently agitated and I know that only some good body movement will get me right again.

These are habits that I’ve been able to develop because of the way I’ve learned to better identify with my body as part of my larger organism. I tend towards being mostly “heady,” and it’s taken time and experience to value and remember to take care of parts of me that are not immediately my mind. And the key to developing these habits seems to be about developing sensitivity to my own discomfort when I let them lapse.

Civic Habits and the Luxury of Individuality
After the recent inauguration, like others I felt a high degree of motivation to stay politically active. I started making donations, and making several phone calls a week to political representatives, as well as encouraging friends (on social media) to do the same. It lasted about a month before work and life became busier (at the time I was looking for a new job, planning a move to a new city, and planning a wedding), and my personal sense of crisis and urgency began to abate.

One of the major dimensions of Privilege is being sheltered from experiencing the negative effects of societal issues. As a first-world economically-secure educated employed neurotypical non-disabled cis het white male (did I miss any?), societal/global health can plummet while my personal experience of society remains stable and strong. Others are affected; others are worrying; I don’t have to worry right now.

Individuality is a luxury, a benefit of privilege(s). So when my civic habits lapse and wither away, I don’t suffer. I just return to normal. I return to comfort and lose touch with motivation for urgent activism.

Loosening the Bonds of Individuality
There are truths about my life to which privilege blinds or desensitizes me. I’m part of a social network of life. My daily stability and comfort is established by unjust systems of capitalism, racism, sexism, and so on. I need to develop more social consciousness, in which I experience “my” well-being in alignment with the larger organism.

Individuality is losing sleep because I’m hungry. Social consciousness is losing sleep because others are hungry. (And just to be less noble for a second: Social consciousness is wayyy harder. My life has less stress when I let myself assert that many, many societal problems are simply not my problem. And, within the framework of individuality, I can’t solve all the problems of society, so why stress myself out, right?)

The goal is not to give up individuality but to temper it, and to develop an embodied social consciousness. In fact, a major part of developing that social consciousness is about sensitizing myself to the impacts (even if subtle) of others’ oppression on myself, and then developing effective ways to process that sensitivity and turn it into action.

What comes next is basic but essential.
  • Cultivate discomfort by identifying beyond this limited sense of self.
  • Make habits of consciousness-raising and activism.
    • Attend civic events.
    • Make calls.
    • Maybe, someday, join a civic-minded group and focus my energy there.
    • Allow this habit to fluctuate (like exercise) but don’t let it lapse.
  • Set up personal systems of accountability. After all, I didn’t really change my flossing habits until I had a partner who flossed with me. Never underestimate the power of the “buddy system.”