Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Daoism (page 1 of 1)

excerpt from my journal

I want to write a post about why my “Cosmotechnics” essay ended up being a dead end for me. Though I need to think harder about just why I believe that’s the case. I was looking for a way to think about technology that did not involve critique or enthusiasm but rather a kind of ironic detachment. But having made that point I think I exhausted the relevance of Daoism to me. Daoism could teach me ironic detachment from Technopoly but it could not teach me how to get from such detachment to the love of God and my neighbor. 

N. B. I’m posting this excerpt instead of writing that post. 

illusions and their removal

In The Point of View of My Work as an Author Kierkegaard explains why he writes sometimes under his own name and sometimes under pseudonyms. One of his primary goals — or, as he rather curiously puts it, one of the primary goals of “the authorship” — is to attack the illusions under which his fellow Danes are living, the chief among them being that they are living in a Christian society (which means that they believe themselves to have received Christianity as a kind of natural inheritance). The problem, Kierkegaard says, is that such illusions are hard to remove by direct attack — and indeed, the deeper the illusion is the more resistant it is to any direct confrontation.

No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed. If it is an illusion that all are Christians — and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all….

There is nothing that requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it. If anyone prompts the prospective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost. And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which he can make most profitably to himself privately. This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God—that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.

I especially adore this: “for love is always shy.” See also the magnificent tale of the king and the lowly maiden in the Philosophical Fragments.

There is much more that could be said about this, and how it relates to, for instance, Leo Strauss’s case for the value of esoteric writing in philosophy (something I have often mused on when engaged in my own writing). But for now I simply want to ask this question: What can I do to remove my own illusions?

I think it was A. J. Ayer — one of those 20th century Oxford philosophers anyway — whose highest praise of any other philosopher was “Yes, he’s very well defended.” I think almost all of us are well-defended against the dispelling of our illusions. This is why Kierkegaard said that the person whose life is governed by some powerful illusion must be as it were approached from behind. But how could I approach myself from behind? After all, as I recently wrote, the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Shouldn’t I take seriously my own position?

Well, for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to do just that. I’m not any less interested in theological reflection (or in being a Christian!) that I used to be, but I’ve been reading theology for so long that it’s hard for me to be surprised by it — hard for me not to assimilate whatever I’m reading to my existing categories. So I’ve been trying to read more stuff that evades those categories, that forces me into a less predictable and (ideally) more creative response.

That’s why I’ve been trying to learn from Russian socialists and Daoists and anarchists — they’re all people who are trying to address the same social and ethical issues that concern me, but who do so from different perspectives and with the use of different intellectual tools. But I’m now thinking that, having been fortified by my encounters with those traditions of thought, it may be time to return to my specifically theological concerns and see what they look like in light of what I’ve learned. For instance: 

  • What does Christian peaceableness look like in light of Alexander Herzen’s melioristic approach to social change? 
  • Is there really, as I have suspected, a kind of familial resemblance between Daoism and Franciscan spirituality? 
  • Can the “emergent order” of anarchism be a key to the building of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community”? 

In short: Can I, through these oddball explorations, remove the illusions that prevent me from seeing what I should see about myself and the world? Can I learn through these exercises to think more wisely and act more justly? I dunno. I hope so. 

This post by Victor Mair on the staggering variation in translations of the Daodejing points to something that has been worrying me. I want to go father with my investigations into Daoism — see the relevant tag at the bottom of this post — but I keep running into differences in the various translations that are this extreme or even more so. I’m starting to think that I’m either going to have to abandon my Daoist inquiries … or learn Chinese. The latter being a very daunting thought, especially at my age. (If I’m going to pursue any language with an alphabet other than my own, it probably should be Greek — which I know a bit of — or Hebrew — which I don’t really know at all.) 


My essay in the just-out edition of The New Atlantis — if you want to read it now, please subscribe to this excellent journal, and even if you don’t want to read it at all, please subscribe to this excellent journal anyway — begins with a description of what I call the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. That critique has been articulated, in varying terms but with a significant conceptual unity, by a group of thinkers I very much admire, including Albert Borgmann, Ursula Franklin, Ivan Illich, and Neil Postman. An excerpt:

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, to reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections — but also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects — and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The problem with the SCT isn’t that it’s wrong — it’s admirably incisive and acute — but that it has, so far anyway, been powerless. In this essay I suggest an alternative approach — a kind of alternative to critique itself — that draws on, of all things, Daoism, approached by way of the work on “cosmotechnics” by the philosopher Yuk Hui. It’s not a definitive treatise that I have written but rather an exploration, an attempt to trace some new paths for thinking about technology and technopoly.