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  • Mark 8:41 pm on August 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , existence, , imminence, the last man,   

    The claustrophobia of imminence 

    I woke up with this phrase stuck in my mind recently, after a strange and vivid dream. It involved a landscape somewhere between Deep Space Nine and Snowpiercer, dark corners filled with metallic pools and steam hissing across braying crowds. I can’t remember the narrative of the dream but a crucial idea from it remains clear in my mind.

    The Last Man is about the suffocation of growth rather than the end of the impulse to grow. It is the end of resonance rather than the cessation of our search for it. It is the loss of our capacity to give birth to stars and a forgetting that we ever had it:

    And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people: It is time for man to fix his goal.  It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.  His soil is still rich enough for it.  But this soil will one day be poor and exhausted; no lofty tree will be able to grow from it.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond mankind— and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to twang!  I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.  I tell you: you have still chaos in you.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars.  Alas!  The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself.

    The dream left me with a vivid sense of the claustrophobia of imminence which might still be felt after this forgetting. The sense of being hemmed in, aspiring to be something more while denied the conditions which would make this growth possible.  Many of the questions I’m interested in ultimately relate to this feeling, its sociology and psychology. It’s odd to realise that I’m only now coming to understand the final object of years of work.

  • Mark 9:58 pm on April 15, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , existence, , imagination, , ,   

    The Work Dogma and Contraction of the Existential Imagination 

    I found this argument, in David Frayne’s excellent Refusal of Work, deeply persuasive. From pg 110:

    Employment itself can be held partly responsible for the negative experiences of joblessness because, in allowing people only a limited space in which to cultivate other interests, skills and social ties, full-time jobs can often leave people with few personal and social resources to fall back on.

    In contemporary capitalism, the notion of a public life has become so synonymous with paid work that it has indeed become difficult to imagine other ways in which a person might transcend the isolation of a purely private existence.

  • Mark 4:46 pm on January 17, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , deliberation, , existence, life course, life planning, ,   

    life planning as navigational guide rather than existential blueprint 

    This idea from Daniel Little really chimes with what I’m arguing in my chapter for the 5th CSO book. Life planning as blueprint is becoming ever less sustainable as the continuity of a subject’s context becomes ever less assured. This disrupts instrumental rationality because contextual assumptions about means become unreliable, while social and cultural change also throws up new opportunities which invite us to reconsider our ends:

    We might think of life planning as being less like a blueprint for action and more like a navigational guide. We might think of the problem of making intermediate life choices as being guided by a compass rather than a detailed plan — the idea that we do good work on living if we guide our actions by a set of directional signals rather than a detailed map. Life outcomes result from following a compass, not moving towards a specific GPS point on a map.

    There is an analogy with business planning here. Consider the actions and plans of a CEO of a company. His or her choices in concrete decision moments are guided by several important considerations: remain profitable; prepare the ground today for viable business activity tomorrow; create an environment of trust and respect among the employees of the company; make sure that company choices also take the wellbeing of the community into account; treat employees fairly; anticipate changes in the marketplace that might dictate change in process or product within the company. But there is no certainty, no fixed prescription for success, and no algorithm for balancing the goods that the firm’s leadership pursues. The successful firm will have built its success over a long series of decisions oriented towards the fundamental values of the business.


    What I’m interested in is how it remains possible to shape a life under these conditions. One response is to embrace shapelessness. The other is to temporise, dividing planning up into manageable chunks which facilitate instrumental rationality no longer sustainable over the life course as a whole. But the one that seems most sustainable is what Daniel Little details here as life planning as navigational guide.

  • Mark 12:07 pm on March 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , dying, existence, , meaning, , the good life, ,   

    Towards a Sociology of the Good Life 

    What is the good life? It’s a question which preoccupied me in my past life as a trainee political philosopher and it’s one which still concerns me as a sociologist. It’s rarely addressed within the discipline for reasons that cut through a number of trends within the field: a hostility towards normativity, an admission of normative question in a restrictively critical mode and a scepticism concerns questions pertaining to the particular character of individual lives. This is a shame because I believe sociology has a lot to contribute towards questions of the good life, not least of all because it can ensure otherwise abstract ruminations are grounded in an appreciation of the variable circumstances within which actual lives are lived. It can also help link these philosophical questions to empirical ones concerning dominant trends in how ‘the good life’ is conceived within a particular social order.

    In this sense we could see existential questions as close to invariant but the dominant cultural answers as being immensely variable through history and across the planet. This is not a matter of individual variation, such that each person individually confronts universal existential dilemmas and through their responses contributes towards patterns that register aggregatively at the macro level as empirical patterns in understandings of ‘the good life’. It’s also necessary to distinguish between discursive formulations and actual practice without prioritising one over the other. Cultural formulations of ‘the good life’ are intimately connected to lived practices in a way that necessitates we appreciate their entanglement if we are to properly understand either culture or life. Only through doing so does it become possible to understand how change occurs at either level, as people individually or collectively advocate for heterodox understanding of the good life or elaborate upon prevailing ideas through their personal or shared practice which may come to be formulated at a discursive level and so escape their original context and begin to potentially exert an influence in others.

    The work of Harmut Rosa offers clues about what a sociology of the good life might look like, though his suggestions are only a peripheral part of a much larger and very different project. In his Social Acceleration, he writes about the notions of a good life that emerge under conditions of acceleration and describes how these have been shaped by older conceptions of the life well lived:

    the idea that an accelerated enjoyment of worldly options, a “faster life,” will once again allow the chasm between the time of life and the time of the world to be reduced. In order to understand this thought one has to keep in mind that the question concerning the meaning of death is indissolubly tied to the question of the right or “good life.” Thus the idea of the good life corresponding to this answer, which historically became the culturally dominant idea, is to conceive of life as the last opportunity, i.e., to use the earthy time span allotted to humans as intensively and comprehensively as possible before death puts a definitive end to it (pg. 181)

    These are theoretical observations that are informed, albeit unsystematically, by historical sociology. I think they could also be informed by cultural sociology and cultural studies, drawing upon popular texts which deal with these themes. For instance I’ve been reading Late Fragments by Kate Gross, a former high flying civil servant, who died of colon cancer at the age of 34 and left a moving collection of ruminations on life catalyzed by its early end and the pain of leaving behind two young sons and a much loved husband.

    Acceleration is a theme that runs through the book, albeit without using that term, for instance in her description of friendships that “survive on scraps of time and emails, squeezed between the rest of life, and very often conducted thousands of miles apart” (pg 51)  and her wonderment at the life she has lived (analysis of her privilege would be an important part of a Sociology of the Good Life, though in Kate’s case, it’s hard to think this through without feeling immensely uncharitable):

    There is wonder in my past, and in my present. As I write this book, I lay out my memory quilt to see all the dancing I have done: places I have been, people I have met. I have fitted so much colour into my short life that I wonder if I lived on hyper-speed, as if, somehow, I knew my time was limited. (pg 30-31)

    My suggestion is that Kate Gross embodied Rosa’s accelerationist ethic, feeling compelled at she did to fit so much into her life and confrontation with an early death leads her to reflect on the virtues and limitations of it. Her account of the cancer in part frames it in terms of deceleration, in which “time was carved out for friendship again” (pg 52) and she was led, by existential need rather than reflective inclination, to cultivate those aspects of herself which had been lost in the rush:

    It is too easy, as an adult, to let life rush past with its business of succeeding, working, consuming, rearing. All of that can be joyful and fulfilling, I grant you. But it is so, so easy in the rush of life to neglect your inner world. I know mine was dead for many years, squeezed between work and achieving stuff and my darling little ones – it’s a choice I made, and gladly. But one of the unexpected blessings of illness is that it has given me time to tend my mind again. (pg 75).

    I found the phrase ‘achieving stuff‘ immensely powerful. It conveys her continued investment in what she has accomplished while expressing how the details (what? when? why? with whom?) have begun to fade away in the face of finality. Perhaps this suggests it was the achievement rather than the particular achievements which were deemed worthwhile: securing the worth of life through what is achieved in its short span. This points us towards questions of qualitative worth: what distinguishes an ‘achievement’ from the simple fact of something we have done? Does it entail leaving a lasting mark? Once we start to ask these questions, we’re already way outside the realms of the hedonistic calculus currently being reinvented by behavioral scientists like Paul Dolan. The graphic artist Jim Steranko conveys this vividly in his account of the meaning he derives from his work:

    I believe that happiness is nothing … I don’t think people were put here to be happy. I think if you decide to bean artist or a writer, you automatically accept the responsibility of being alone. However, after your 50 or 60 years are up you’ll be able to look back and see this output that you’ve done that will endure long after you’re gone, and will continue to fill the minds of millions of people.

    Marvel: The Untold Story, Pg. 83

    Would this still provide meaning for him if his work endured but it was largely forgotten? There are lots of different levels on which statements of purpose and statements about purpose (with the latter probably more interesting) can be analyzed. I think a Sociology of the Good Life would be well equipped to do just this. The study of texts could supplement the theoretical work undertaken by someone like Rosa in a way that enhances both. However I think there would be much more to it than this, for instance looking at the material constraints upon the good life and how these ideas help reproduce existing inequalities, not least of all by binding people in to life strategies that perpetuate structural injustice.

    • gordonhays 10:55 pm on March 20, 2015 Permalink

      Wow, this resonated with me a lot. I too am seeking what it means to live The Good Life–so much so in fact I created a radio show around it! If you’re on Facebook check out my professional pages Gordon Hays Artwork and The Good Life with Gordon. I look forward to reading more of your work!

    • markandres777 2:49 am on March 21, 2015 Permalink

      Reblogged this on markandres777.

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