Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sartre and Projects

As Umberto Eco pointed out, lists are our way of avoiding death. By giving order to the world, and organization - by making rational sense of it - we avoid our own death. I'll quote him, from an interview in 2009 with Spiegel Magazine:

"SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed?
"Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die."

How we organize our time was a particular interest of the 20th century Existentialists. Unlike their early fore-bearers, such as Nietzsche or Kierkegaard, time became all the more important when faced with the modernism of the 20th century. The simple pace and rate of change required a new philosophy. Some wrote academically about the changes in the world around them, such as Walter Benjamin's famous essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" from 1936. As he writes in the first sentences:

"In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity."

We are, of course, hyper-aware of the reproduction of things. It defines our world, fundamentally. We are made aware of it from earliest childhood.

Shot from a Sesame Street short about the crayon factory.

How many recognize this Looney Tunes tune?

Best not to ask...

Still a proud tradition in cartoons today.

We are inculcated with the assembly line from our earliest youth. The mass-production side of modernism that perfectly duplicates and makes carbon copies of the world around us. How could the doubling of our world not affect our view of it?

So, too, did notions of space and time change enormously at the start of the 20th century. Flight, skyscrapers, cars, trolleys, telegraphs, telephones, gramophones, motion pictures, and time zones all were invented, or popularized, in a very short period, from 1880 to the 1930s. One lifetime - not even. Most of these inventions helped to collapse distance and minimize time. Think of the novels of the era which we still love that deal with time travel (The Time Machine by HG Wells, 1895) or the conquering of distance (Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, 1873, challenge undertaken and beaten by Nellie Bly in 1889). Books about change abounded (The Magnificent Ambersons by Tarkington, To the Lighthouse by Woolf, Looking Backward by Bellamy, etc.) during these years, and artistic styles kept pace.

As the physical world muddled notions of space and time, including artistic mediums such as film, other mediums were interested in modernity's fast pace. The Futurists, especially, caught the bustle and difficulty of attempting to render the new pace of the age on a static canvas, or solid statue:

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

Bird in Space, 1923

All of this hustle and bustle was to be found in the foundations of our reason, as well. In the mid-1800s non-Euclidean geometries were developed by Lobachevsky and Riemann. This laid the groundwork for the breakthroughs in physics of the modern era (Lorentz, 1899; Einstein, 1905; Minkowski, 1907; de Broglie, 1924; Heisenberg, 1930) that dealt with the issues of space-time and quantum mechanics. How much more fundamentally can space and time be altered than relativity and quantum theory?

Even logic, itself, underpinning science, mathematics, and philosophy, was undergoing a revolution in the modern era, with significant advances and updates to structures fundamentally unchanged since Aristotle's time (Frege, 1879; Whitehead and Russell, 1913; Godel, 1931). With such a revolution taking place at levels, in all forms of knowledge, expression, and experience, it is therefore not surprising that the 20th century Existentialists differ radically from those of the 19th century.

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The issue is time, and what to make of it.

For Heidegger, whose ontological treatise Sein und Zeit, Being and Time, the focus, it would seem is mainly on being, and more importantly being-in-the-world. How we exist int he world in fundamental to understanding Heidegger's thought - for the manner of our existence is rather odd. To quote myself, from this blog five years ago, discussing a Heidegger moment:

"So while I was walking my mind was 'far away', as they say. (Stop and consider the philosophical connotations of such a phrase, in relation, as it usually is given, to one's mind. That's Heidegger.) My thoughts were pleasantly fantastical at the moment in question. A middle-aged Asian fellow walked briskly past me, requiring me to shift on the sidewalk, and pay attention to my footing.

"I was peeved. I had been thinking fun thoughts, and this fellow had forced me to stop and think about my legs and feet!"

After the influence of Heidegger in the 20s, the next big Existential thinker was, of course, Sartre. Sartre's magnum opus is Being and Nothingness. Sartre said the important thing is to have projects: more specifically, projects of the self.

For a long time I eyed people with "causes" with suspicion. It was rooted in Sartre. People subsume their selves to a cause, to an artificial project. "Subject" is the right word, perhaps, both as verb and noun.

As Eco said, lists are a way of avoiding death. For the Existential thinkers, death is key. In the modernism of a rushing, whirling, time-and-space up for grabs world death became a more obvious, eternal constant, I should think. Celebrate the here and now, for the solemnity of death in eras gone by will be magnified by a new sense of loss of novelty: the dead won't get to see next year's fashions. (This is a notion Leopardi hit on in his conversation between fashion and death, written in the 1820s - perhaps the grandfather of the existentialist writings.)

Sartre basically said that we embroil ourselves in false projects, things that seem important, all the time. Some are quests we make our mantles for years, others, a trip to the hardware store, to fix that light in the pantry. From the political platform to the shoe-box diorama, life is full of projects. Distractions from our own existence. Only those projects that help us discover ourselves, more or less, are the one's worth pursuing, argues Sartre.

For three years, starting on this blog back in 2012, I got interested in writing about campaign finance reform, the Millennials (whom I dubbed 'the Loser generation', a connotation I stick by), and how screwed up both Congress and the economy are. I wrote a whole book on it in the interval.

The book, at least the first significant draft, is done.

But was it a project that helped me discover my self? To put the issue in philosophically grounded language, that I should hope a dedicated laywoman would understand, I borrow from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"The way in which the incoherence of the dichotomy of facticity and freedom is manifested, is through the project of bad faith (chapter 2, Part One). Let us first clarify Sartre's notion of project. The fact that the self-identity of the for-itself is set as a task for the for-itself, amounts to defining projects for the for-itself. Insofar as they contribute to this task, they can be seen as aspects of the individual's fundamental project...

"...all projects can be viewed as parts of the fundamental project, and we shall therefore focus upon the motivation for the latter (chapter 2, Part Four). That a for-itself is defined by such a project arises as a consequence of the for-itself's setting itself self-identity as a task. This in turn is the result of the for-itself's experiencing the cleavages introduced by reflection and temporality as amounting to a lack of self-identity. Sartre describes this as defining the `desire for being~ (BN, 565). This desire is universal..."

This is why the Existentialists are the rightful inheritors of the Socratic world, to know thyself...

Did my book help this particular 'for-itself' with self-identity, or was it a project of 'bad faith', with the scorn I'd laid at the feet previously of those suspicious individuals who took up causes?

Was this project not just a means of wasting time? If, truly, the discovery of ourselves and the contemplation and actions base don our raw existence is the most important thing, then the answer is a simple affirmation that I did indeed waste a lot of time. When Sartre sat to write Being and Nothingness he was engaged in a form of self-identity and discovery, no doubt, that I cannot claim with my book on campaign finance. My world view shifted, somewhat, in a way Heidegger might appreciate, but not, perhaps, Sartre.

In a modern world, isn't it so much harder to reject the novelty, the changes, the assembly-line of life? Aren't all the forces and factors of our society pushing us towards embracing the distraction, and marveling in the marvelous marvels around us? The early modernists, in the era I described before, understood this. Their camera lenses whirled and whizzed and blurred and plunged. They captured the chaos. Perhaps the definition of post-modern, which we are still reluctant to embrace and avoid, generally, is that we no longer are surprised by the new. "Nothing new under the sun" actually makes sense to us. We've managed to create an incredible rate of change, and to approach it with the indifference of Egyptian priests, of a thousands-year old tradition of unbroken pharaohs, sunrises, and the Nile.

*     *     *

When I finished writing it, this long project, I faced a new void.

As a list-maker, I like to organize and rationalize my world. But the Existentialists had too profound an impact on me - I can't shake them. And when faced with a modern void, unlike the abyss of Nietzsche (d. 1900) I turn to Camus.

Camus wrote two important works for philosophy. The first stated that the question is suicide. If the universe is unfeeling, life, in the truest sense, meaningless, Godless, and bounded by an unchosen birth and an inescapable death, don't we have to seriously contemplate the act of living - of existing? These views are brought forth in his The Myth of Sisyphus and aren't even that new. Schopenhauer and Hume, and others, had already debated along similar lines the importance, philosophically, of suicide. Camus just updated the work to fit the times.

His later, and more important work, was The Rebel. Sisyphus was written in 1942, and The Rebel in 1951. In it he argues that, okay, so life is absurd. but isn't this actually a contradiction - a nihilism in sheep's clothing? You can't actually believe that life is absurd, and so we rebel. And this rebellion takes numerous forms - basically, we want justice, and there is none. So some rebel with crime. Some with revolution. Some fastidious Russian assassins attempted to justify their taking of life through terrorist bombings with the polite exchange of their own lives in return. Human existence is a story of injustices, and revolutions and terrorist gangs none too appealing (despite their claims to legitimate rebellion). 

Was my book an act of rebellion? I doubt it. I want to start a revolution, it is true. I wrote the work to read as a manifesto, a memoir, and a logical synthesis, or summary, of the world today: a vision of clarity and insight to rock our society. Tangibly, the cause I'm writing against is an injustice. The domination of one group of peoples by another.

In between these two philosophical works, Camus wrote his best novel, The Plague. This is the most accurate literary phenomenon of the existential tradition. It acknowledges the absurdity, and continues on.

*     *     *

My book is finished, for now. I have ended the project, and for a while forgot death. Now the absurdity of life continues on, and the only real choices I have are whether to engage in another "cause" of the bad-faith sort, or one of self-identity. To rebel against unfairness of our condition in a meaningful way, or a construct. Bore myself in a postmodern phantasmagoria or try for existential reckoning with the whirlwind - a whirlwind of space and time. A carnival...

"And the music came back with the carnival, the music you've heard as far back as you remember, ever since you were little, that's always playing somewhere, in some corner of the city, in little country towns, wherever poor people go and sit at the end of the week to figure out what's become of them. "Paradise" they call it. And music is played for them, sometimes here, sometimes there, from season to season, it tinkles and grinds out the tunes that rich people danced to the year before. It's the mechanical music that floats down from the wooden horses, from the cars that aren't cars anymore, from the railways that aren't at all scenic, from the platform under the wrestler who hasn't any muscles and doesn't come from Marseille, from the beardless lady, the magician who's a butter-fingered jerk, the organ that's not made of gold, the shooting gallery with the empty eggs. It's the carnival made to delude the weekend crowd. 

"We go in and drink the beer with no head on it. But under the cardboard trees the stink of the waiter's breath is real. And the change he gives you has several peculiar coins in it, so peculiar that you go on examining them for weeks and weeks and finally, with considerable difficulty, palm them off on some beggar. What do you expect at a carnival? Gotta have what fun you can between hunger and jail, and take things as they come. No sense complaining, we're sitting down, aren't we? Which ain't to be sneezed at. I saw the same old Gallery of the Nations, the one Lola caught sight of years and years ago on that avenue in the park of Saint-Cloud. You always see things again at carnivals, they revive the joys of past carnivals. Over the years the crowds must have come back time and again to stroll on the main avenue of the park of SaintCloud . . . taking it easy. The war had been over long ago. And say, I wonder if that shooting gallery still belonged to the same owner? Had he come back alive from the war? I take an interest in everything. Those are the same targets, but in addition, they're shooting at airplanes now. Novelty. Progress. Fashion. The wedding was still there, the soldiers too, and the town hall with its flag. Everything. Plus a few more things to shoot at than before. 

"But the people were getting a lot more fun out of the Dodge'em cars, a recent invention, because of the collisions you kept having and the terrible shaking they gave your head and innards. More howling lunatics kept pouring in for the pleasure of smashing ferociously into one another and getting scattered in all directions and fracturing their spleens at the bottom of their tubs. Nothing would make them stop. They never begged for mercy, it looked as if they'd never been so happy. Some were delirious. They had to be dragged away from their smash-ups. If they'd been offered Death as an extra attraction for their franc, they'd have gone right in. At about four o'clock the town band was supposed to play in the middle of the carnival ground. It took some doing to collect the musicians, because of the neighborhood bars, all of which wanted a turn at them. A last one was always missing. The rest waited. Some went looking for him. While waiting for them to come back, the others would be stricken with thirst and two more would disappear. They had to start all over again. 

"Incrusted with dust, the gingerbread pigs turned into relics and gave the prize-winners a devastating thirst. 

"Family groups are waiting for the fireworks before going home to bed. Waiting is part of the carnival too. Thousands of empty bottles jiggle and clink in the shadow under the tables. Restless feet consent or say no. The tunes are so familiar you hardly hear the music or the wheezing motor-driven cylinders behind the booths, which put life into things it costs two francs to see. When you're tipsy with fatigue your heart pounds in your temples. Bim! Bim! It beats against the velvet around your head and inside your ears. One of these days you'll burst. So be it! One of these days, when the movement inside catches up with the movement outside, when your thoughts scatter far and wide and rise up at last to play with the stars. 

"A lot of crying went on all over the carnival, children getting accidentally squeezed between chairs and others being taught to resist their longings, to forego the enormous little pleasure of another ride on the merry-go-round. For character building the carnival hasn't its equal. It's never too soon to start. The little darlings don't know yet that everything costs money. They think it's pure generosity that makes the grownups behind the brightly lit counters incite the public to treat themselves to the marvels which they have amassed and which they guard with their raucous smiles. Children don't know the law. Their parents slap them to teach them the law and protect them from pleasure. 

"There's never a real carnival except for the shopkeepers, and then it's deep down and secret. The shopkeeper rejoices at night when all the unsuspecting yokels, the public, the profit fodder, have gone home, when silence returns to the avenue and the last dog has squirted his last drop of urine at the Japanese billiard table. That's when the accounts are totted up, when the shopkeepers register their receipts and take stock of their powers and their victims."

Louise-Ferdinand Celine, The Journey to the End of the Night, 1932

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Has the writing of this post been an exercise in turning away? An act, a project, of bad-faith, to avoid my decision a little longer? 

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