If you want to learn why you think whatever it is you think, strip away the existing context and force it into a new one and see what happens.
The point of this blog is to think about power. I can take or leave French philosopher Michel Foucault's conclusions, but the intellectual tools he used are worth holding onto. The tyranny of the "symbol system" forces our hand to draw symbols rather than what we see. The problem isn't that you can't express yourself well, the problem, as in drawing, is that we don't perceive well. We rely on symbols, and they make us feel knowledgeable.
Those symbols guarantee we simultaneously misunderstand reality while affording those with a will to power some interesting opportunities. Stepping outside semiotics then, or at least knowing the tyranny exists, is a good lesson. Thanks for the tip, you bald Frenchy.
The postmodernists don't like God. Wow, big news, hold the damn press. But God isn't the problem, the problem is weak humans need external validation. Which means if you take God away something else must replace it. Giving up on the bearded dude in the sky is easy squeezy. Becoming the kind of person who doesn't need semiotics just to eat a bag of peanuts is hard. You think M. Foucault could walk up a set of stairs without believing in the Omnipotent Other?
On the one hand, we live in a society which values free choice and personal responsibility, but we are told that it is safe to value those things only because people expect a certain amount of absence of choice and freedom from responsibility. You assume you would not be allowed to make a truly dangerous choice, hence why the French thinker trusts the next step without a second thought: he believes in a power above and outside him, in this case, council officials. But a power nonetheless.
M. Foucault's work on the prison is instructive here. He argued that the mechanics of prisons are designed not so much to lock away criminals as to train them into docility. Prisons aren't houses of confinement, they're departments of correction. Kinda like parenting.
In fact, Theodore Dalrymple once wrote that good parenting was enforcing specific meal times. The point wasn't to feed the child, the little tykes will find the hidden snacks eventually. The point is that parenting's core role is to make a good citizen. Forcing a child to sit down three times a day to eat, even if they aren't hungry, teaches them to control their impulses and follow a social norm. Only savages eat snacks. In the same way, the function of a prison is the timetables, not the cage. Discipline occurs in the supervised inspections, the monitored mealtimes, the work shifts, even the "yard time" overseen by armed guards and psychologists.
The purpose of prison surveillance is to transmit to inmates that they are subject to constant, omnipresent oversight. It is not meant to deter prisoners from thoughts of escape, but to compel them to regard themselves as subject to correction. M. Foucault called this "biopolitics," a power over a person's body and mind by a state institution. Although the prison was invented in the 18th century, the goal isn't anything new at all. It nests within the nature of reality. And you can no more destroy reality than throw a ball beyond the edge of the universe.
The 18th century was a time when the utility of the traditional God idea was already falling into disuse. The constant surveillance was supposed to be the effect of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, but the actual architecture was never built.
It was a hollow ring of donut-shaped cells surrounding a cylindric central tower. Each cell in the ring had windows on the outside and inside through which light exposed the interior, making the inmate visible to guards observing from the central tower. But the cellmates couldn’t see through the central tower's windows, so had to assume the guards were looking at all times.
Mr Bentham knew ceaseless surveillance limits a person, creating a set of right and left-hand boundaries and a spectrum along within which they can act. Those boundaries would exist anyway, but the nature of the reality -- the infinite -- is so tempting and the freedom it allows so overwhelming that people will act as though the boundaries don’t exist unless they are subjected to surveillance of some kind.
After all, what makes society possible is that although I am completely free to drive at 200kmph, I voluntarily give up some of this freedom to crawl along at 50kmph in order to live with others. There are no rules, there is only slave speak, but following rules is my decision alone. No matter how I cut it, there is a reality beyond me that doesn't care about my choice.
The infinite implies two things: there are correct actions and it must be separate from the rules of society, otherwise, it wouldn't be infinite. My contention is that God is simply an unsophisticated shorthand to describe that which is real and outside any human action of change. One does not believe in God because "otherwise, how would you know what's right and wrong." One believes in the infinite so that it may make itself apparent for harmonisation in order to live a life with the least amount of unnecessary suffering.
This is not about morals. It is about coupling the finer points of that which is true (science) with how to live (myths). Science paints for us the boundaries of what is beyond human action to change. Those boundaries are not constricting, they are freeing: acceptance of the infinite creates limitation (freedom to act) and to accept or reject the responsibility commensurate with those boundaries gives us meaning. This is the lesson underneath the idea of making sacrifices: if you don't harmonise yourself with the unbendable infinite, you will be destroyed.
People always say they don't know what to do with their lives, and I think it's because they're too free. Infinite freedom is proportional to infinite terror. All that liberalism and unshackling from traditional constraints didn't make people happier. "No more oppression! No more control!" Really? You want that? You're so sure infinite choices will make you more likely to make the right choice? Have you been to Subway?
The message of the Yin and Yang symbol is to remind us that a healthy life is lived with a balance of order and chaos, according to psychologist Jordan Peterson. Too much of one makes Jack a dull boy. Pieces of your life must be pushing into the unknown, while other pieces must be grounded in the known. Discipline helps to foster a desire for this balance by teaching a child how to act.
I think the magic really starts when parental discipline is coupled with the concept of the infinite. That's when society is born. The infinite is above a parents' rules, giving the adult justification for discipline while deflecting any innocent scepticism away from the fallible parent towards "that which cannot be disproven." It's a very useful tool. But it's a two-way street. The parent must constantly test his understanding of reality and social norms to ensure he is harmonising the two correctly.
Because one thing I struggle with is: if there's a proper way of being which is beyond human action, and one must harmonise with it, then is there any room for the evolution of social norms as technology and science advances? What is the mechanism for testing that one is, indeed, weighing the constraints of the infinite with the persistent human ability to dilute the effects of those constraints?
I still haven't figured this out, but I do have some guesses.
The Soviet Union is a good place to start. In pretending they didn't need to believe in the reality of infinite, the Ruskies nevertheless found they couldn't alter core human dynamics. They tried calling men, women and all people "comrade" or "soviet" and thereby eliminate tribalism and group solidarity. Lysenko's agriculture was the regime's failed attempt to alter the reality of the world, causing the deaths of millions in Ukraine.
Utopian dreamers still want to bend the world to their will because that means they'd be equivalent to God and so avoid death. That's always been the utopian goal, which is why ideology is synonymous with religion. Their human fears mean they both want to transcend death. My big-picture takeaway is that communism and American progressivism (and even fascism) match an ethical template historically derived from a highly successful sect of Christianity which believes humans are essentially good (ie, they do not believe in original sin). This is the forest. And I refuse to play the get-lost-in-the-trees game. They all quack, they all waddle, they’re all ducks to me.
For example, one term for the “human essence” is inner light, a concept specific to the Quakers, but absolutely typical of the English Dissenter zeitgeist. The hallmark of this tradition is the worship of the soul. So, in the past men argued about whether animals had “souls,” today they argue about whether animals have “rights.” Plus ca change. The human spiritual instinct can imprint on any concept that is fundamentally mysterious. It does not have to be a bearded dude sitting in the clouds. It can be a purely philosophical mystery, such as today’s "humanity," Plotinus’ "One," Buddhist "enlightenment," etc, etc. All it needs is some kind of unsolvable problem or unanswerable question.
The larger point is that we are supposed to accept mainstream thought on "humanity" as the pinnacle of reason and science, rather than parsing it as a received tradition in the Christian power structure. Missing this connection discards what I think is the most parsimonious explanation of how people came to hold these strange beliefs in the first place, which are so divergent from reality. The key is to question if all legitimate authorities could be wrong, and a fringe gang of discredited, eccentric monsters could be correct. The analogy of freethinking in previous centuries, when combined with the hypothesis of unbroken but mutated Christian continuity, shows why this is important, I feel.
As an aside, I'm starting to think the purposeful denial of the infinite explains why the nature vs nurture debate has become so annoyingly central to the propaganda of the LGBTQ activists. If they can convince the rest of us it's possible to pick and choose at will something as fundamental and beyond the human action to change as one's sex or gender, then it follows axiomatically that it should be possible to change malleable human minds into whatever form the utopians desire. What we have is hundreds of thousands of people who believe their mode of being can be surfed like TV channels. What we don't have is any scientific data showing that this belief comports with the nature of the infinite.
Anyway, back to bashing the parents (I jest).
Way before Christianity, early humans invented the twin power structure of God/parents to deal with the natural limitations of who we are and how to act. They knew the basics of those limitations such as women produce children, men are generally stronger than women, men like ideas while women like aesthetics, all humans can catch hypothermia, groups would rather live with homogenous groups, etc.
Science suggests men with long ring fingers soon figured out if you discuss these limitations cogently while organising them into rules, you can control people. Everyone else knew these concepts were true, they'd just never heard them spoken allowed and assumed the speaker had some phenomenal access to the infinite (God). In the first book of the Bible, Adam names the animals. Why? He didn't invent animals by organising them into names. Cows existed before Adam. No, it was because, without names, animals are part of chaos which is unavailable to the human will to power. Yet with names, chaos could be dragged into order so humans can act even in the presence of chaos. Very clever story.
Consider women in primitive societies. The burqa was (and still is) necessary due to the unconstrained male sex drive. Without discipline, men follow natural urges. Concealing clothing is the mechanism men put in place for the purpose of containing men, not women. Obviously, burqas oppress women, I'm not arguing with that. But oppressing women is not their primary purpose. The reason Islamic scholars still require women to cover up is simple: to protect them from being raped. That isn't a joke or a rationalisation.
Unless overwhelming social control, laws and cultural mores are enacted, men will pursue women for sex. Men in these places are largely uneducated if not totally illiterate, aggressive and incredibly hormonal. Of course, other men in power understand this lack of impulse control, but for a long time also lacked the resources for an obvious police presence. The one thing they can control, however, is female clothing. From their perspective, the danger isn’t that a women’s sexuality is so powerful it must be contained, the burqa is an acknowledgement that men at their basest are impulsive and violent.
From the outside, the burqa looks like a patriarchal oppression. But it's actually a good example of society harmonising with the infinite in proportion to the technological advancement of the time and space. Similar sartorial laws were still in play up until the 1930s in Meditteranean Europe because all societies know this aspect of male reality is true.
So why are bikinis available today if males haven't really changed? That's a great question.
Here's my guess: a strong police authority dilutes the effects of the infinite (as contraceptives diluted the consequences of sex) and the "rule" demanding female concealment was loosened to reflect this technological advance.
But the advance doesn't alter the fundamental reality that males are dangerously impulsive at their basest. It's just that the strong central authority artificially drags the chaos of an unconstrained male hormonal drive into the order of a constrained social being. All this progress could be undone frighteningly quickly if the human institutions built to deal with the nature of reality fail.
So a society needs both an understanding of the infinite and the enforcement of its limitations. There are really only two choices. We could break down this complex structure and follow the dreams of "free" utopians. Or we could resign ourselves to the infinite, resurrect the purpose behind the institutions of God and parents to best mirror this world's technological advances. That would require a constant feedback loop to comport these social rules with the infinite and our technology.
The responsibility for this is on parents. Society depends on them making good decisions. Parenting doesn't come naturally like breathing. If you're worried about your girl's school grades, read the myths. We've been telling each other stories like this for thousands of years.
Myths don't tell you what is real. They tell you how to live. Narcissus was a massive douche, but Laius and Jocasta were horrible parents. Read the stories until your eyes bleed or the classics section in the library basement floods. Don't worry about making noise down there, you won't be disturbed, which is precisely why we're in this damn mess.
Don't want to be a good parent? How convenient. Schools and prisons are doing it for you anyway. Because we thought it was a good thing to get "freedom" from responsibility, the state stepped in to control the function of the God/parent institution. And if you'd read any of those classics you'll probably know what happens when a state takes responsibility for a critical social dynamic...
But these prisons are just a sterile recreation of the God/parent power relations. The prison is a crude and temporary answer for when a society hasn't resigned itself to the infinite, kicking the can further down the road avoiding ruin, for now.
The burqa isn't needed in New York, but you'd be silly to think that's because men are saints. Everyone has some definition of right and wrong, which is a consequence of their cultural upbringing. Morality is acquired in about the same way and about the same time as language. Both are restricted by anatomy, but neither can be derived from it. If you lock a baby in a closet and feed it through a slot, of course, it will grow up with neither. But describing the resulting creature as “human” is a stretch.
It's the role of the God/parent structure to pass on the cultural kernels of factual inferences and ethical judgments about the world at an early age so they can remain stable throughout life. Imprisonment coaxes prisoners to learn how to inspect, manage and correct themselves. Supervision means they eventually won't need supervisors and they become their own attendant and "docility" is just the modern word for "conscience." Discipline is the mother of society.
Dear parents, I think you know deep down that existential meaning is directly proportional to responsibility. What you might not know is that responsibility is a synonym for power. Someone's going to have it, you can't make power magically go away. You probably better think about that before it's too late.