Navigation in the Novel Situation

If you seek a philosophy which cannot be twisted in the service of power and evil, you will search forever. The true test of an idea is not how it has been or can be abused, but where it can lead when applied honestly and diligently. ALL ideas can be abused, commercialized, enslaved by material powers to increase those powers. To point out such inversions of good intent does not lessen the value of the idea, or of good intent: one perseveres in spite of such co-option.

At the same time, it is necessary for any application of a program of belief that it be evaluated for its possible impact, both good and bad. A poorly thought out plan of action is often antithetical to its own ends. It can become its opposite through purely internal contradictions. I am thinking, for example, of well-intended legislation which worsens the problems it aims to solve -- because those problems simply cannot be solved by direct legislation! Often this indicates a lack of imagination or understanding on the part of those supporting such action. The "war on drugs" (whatever its true origins in the heart of the State) is supported by many people who want their children and society to be healthy and safe. The trouble is that by demonizing "drugs" themselves as the problem, they are led to the equally short-sighted conclusion that simply eliminating drugs is the solution. They understand neither the real locus of the problem nor the most realistic and effective answers. Are these people to be blamed for their good intentions? No. Only for lack of imagination, which breeds fear and deferral of responsibility.

I think much of the confusion here has been fueled (ironically) by misapplication of critical theory and deconstructionism. Both have been invaluable tools in uncovering the hidden interests in various ideologies and "common-sense" beliefs, in unclogging a stalled creative discourse in our culture. But an immature grasp of the power of critique pushes it beyond usefulness. It is one thing to overthrow the tyranny of ideology, and another thing altogether to forsake all models of how the world works. The radical extreme of deconstructionism is that all ideas are false, or at best, meaningless. The further implication seems to be that all ideas are therefore useless. If the "critical moment" of a text can be located and illuminated, it is proposed, the whole edifice collapses like a house of cards.

This is where I draw the line. I wish to make a distinction between the truth-value of an idea, and its use-value. I am actually quite comfortable with the proposition that no idea is absolutely TRUE, at least as mediated by language. What our task should be instead is to develop models which -- at least provisionally -- take us where we need to go. Language is, in a sense, a system for building models, metaphors of what is going on. It is very important to realize that all we have to communicate with are models of reality. But to say it is "just" a model is not to invalidate it. Some metaphors are incredibly powerful. They can lead us past manifold distractions into rich and rewarding experiences. Others can lead us nowhere, except to waste great amounts of time and energy. And all this regardless of whether or not the model is "true". A religious belief, for instance, may not be "true" in the Western empiricist sense, but it may contribute to overall health of a given person.

What is important here is to balance the usefulness of a presiding model with a degree of flexibility. That is because the world is in constant flux, and thus the conditions under which a metaphor remains relevant are subject to change. Realizing that all we have are metaphors allows us to adapt, upgrade, or discard the metaphors we use, as needed. A sense of humor is essential here, essential in all things. Humor is flexibility, the ability to live with irony. People assume that humor is inappropriate in certain domains: the domains of politics and the sacred, for instance. I am not advocating the kind of sarcastic, dissipative mocking which passes for humor much of the time. A sense of balance, an ability to stand outside the problem, to not go down with a sinking ship -- this is what real humor, healthy humor, conveys. It is the lubricant which allows us to change models smoothly. Any political or spiritual model which does not allow for this, I maintain, is bankrupt.

And let me reiterate that I am not dismissing a critical perspective -- it is, in fact, essential in evaluating the use-value of a proposed or existing model of the world. We are rapidly entering new historical territory. The rate of change of cultural and technological evolution is accelerating exponentially, the amount of novelty is increasing. There is only one approach to this situation which is likely to survive and flourish in this situation. That is a perspective which thrives on novelty, which is critical yet spontaneous, determined but playful. It is an ad hoc philosophy, but one which is based on as much awareness of the present situation as possible. It acknowledges the resources at its disposal, but does not become attached to them. Because it seeks novelty, it naturally values cooperation and compassion, seeing conflict as limiting to freedom and thus to a pursuit of the fully novel. On the other hand, when conflict does arise, the non-attached person is not sentimental, but learns what she can from the experience and moves on. This person is forgiving, unattached, compassionate, playful, but not frivolous. She makes critical evaluations but knows the limits of such judgements, and does not mock others for holding different beliefs. This person is not super-human but, as Maslow might say, fully human.

If such a proscription seems naive or impossible in today's world, it is because enough people have not taken the responsibility to examine themselves. Those who are pessimistic about turning others around should at least seek to make themselves more aware, more responsible. It's not in human nature, you say? Perhaps you feel hopelessly chained to your bestial nature, but I don't. I would argue that to say we are and always will be brutish animals is a cop out, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. The real reason an attempt at self-betterment is difficult is that it demands creativity, and this means challenging our encrusted beliefs about ourselves and about others. This may offend some would-be Artists, but most people ARE creative, deep within. This output from the unconscious is merely clogged with years of repressed fears, desires, and self-deceptions, occasionally erupting in sprays of psychosis and raw hurt. Getting into the habit of self-examination and reevaluation, one begins to clear away the personal and cultural detritus clogging the pipe. It can be done; it has been done.

So flexibility, creativity, humor, and a desire to improve one's self and one's world -- is this so deluded? Do not accept anyone else's declarations of "true" and "false", but neither write off a new idea on prior or unchallenged assumptions. Take responsibility. Take action. You are alive! Have you ever considered what that means? And you are going to die! Have you ever considered what that means? Stop telling yourself you are helpless and take responsibility. This is the last chance you may ever get.

© abrupt, New York City, 5/12/96
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