Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Categorical Thinking

Categorical Thinking

Kant’s Categorical Imperative says we should act as if what we do would be the rule for everyone. That would work fine if everyone was exactly like us. It generally works, and that’s about as good as it gets for categorical thinking. It can be generally true most of the time. The problem is it’s deadly dull ALL of the time.

Kissinger’s Economic Imperative was a noir categorical twist on Kant: that we should behave as if our economic interest should be the only guiding principle of foreign policy. It works fine if you turn a blind eye to the problems we visited on third world countries (including Iraq) by selling them infrastructure too massive and technologized for their abilities to sustain it or the debtload (and pantload) incurred in buying it (cf. John Perkins’ ECONOMIC HIT MAN) and also by engineering coups to install democracies in name only based on a capitalism that wasn’t relevant to their culture.

Categorical thinking is the triumph of mind over chaos up to the point at which the categories get treated as territory instead of maps whose reliability needs to be constantly tested. As we get older categories tend to take the place of realities, and words substitute for (and finally obliterate) sensory experience, and the triumph of mind becomes the instrument of its demise, as Wordsworth laments:

Splendour In The Grass

What though the radiance
That was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight
Though nothing can bring back the hour
of splendour in the grass
of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
In the primal sympathy
which having been must ever be
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering
In the faith that looks through death
In the years that bring the philosophic mind

There’s a woman on the radio whose abusive childhood gave her a Jones for minding other people’s business and telling them how to behave according to HER categorical imperatives. Her name is Laura Schlessinger, otherwise known to those of us who suffer in silence and sweltering traffic thru her Yentaing rants as Dr. Laura. An expert at drawing lines she has now drawn her entire life inside the box to the point that the most and the worst of her advice is by category: no individuals can survive their classes or escape the numbers stamped on their wrists by the guards who stand at the stations of our lives saying to those numerologically too old or too young: “You shall not pass.” Oughta, coulda, shoulda, woulda, godda, and always “Now go do the right thing” until it fries your brain like an advertising jingle. With the rare exception of certain individual cases which she by fluke or fault or default treats with brilliance and specificity, she can’t even hear anything people are trying to say to her outside of what box they fit into and what generalized moralism or exhortation is attached to that box. In the good times, she cuts with surgical precision, but in the bad times she cuts like a surgeon who cuts because he needs to cut. I’m sorry about her unhappy childhood but basically she’s just become a coarse, crude, ugly woman because she has allowed her whole life to be degraded into one massive generalization, and in violation of her own rules, she brought a child into that semi conscious mess, and that child is now a gung ho Army Ranger fighting in a war we got into by the broadest possible categories of diplomatic thought: good vs. evil, with us or against us, our so called civilization vs. everything and everybody else in the world, man vs. nature, body vs. soul, capitalism vs. communism, torture vs. terror….where can we go from there except into another box labeled COFFIN (and sometimes flag draped with some corrupt politician moralizing and generalizing over it)?

But we must never forget, they also serve who stand in stasis as the best bad example possible. With an intellectual cowardice that should be obvious to anyone so full of praise to heroes who fought the system and its holy LAWS as long as they did it in the sanctified catacombs of history, she always stops us at the gates of knowledge, telling adoptees and other people not to go into their pasts. I understand there are good reasons for concentrating on what we can do in the present, but all children and all people want to know who they are, and part of that will always be in where they come from and the healing power of memory can give us all the strength to go on. In one case in particular her advice seemed egregiously culturally biased. She told a native American adoptee not to look into his roots and history. And then turned around and ranted on another show about how when the Rabbi comes down the aisle with the artifacts of her religion,

“You’re touching three thousand years of history.”

And, I might add, three thousand years of grumpy old dudes (& dudettes like her) with stringy white beards, above or below the waist, mistaking their disappointments, crochets, foibles and prejudices for the word of God. And let’s not forget it’s also three thousand years of submitting existential development to the poisonous generalities of culture, the daily banalities that kill us a little each day until we become one of them. She goes on and on: all criminals are evil, all women who marry men in jail are sick in the head, old men should not marry young women, murderers should be executed, living together without getting married is degrading and NO experience, for that matter, not sanctioned by organized religion can be holy, don’t be in a relationship that isn’t “going somewhere”, don’t talk or drive or write or create unless you know EXACTLY where you’re going! Her female principle, her family project, defines ALL goals as reproduction and VALUEing human DNA above all other….like there was a REAL line instead of the one she draws, BETWEEN! Thank you, Doctor, for being so OBVIOUSLY stupid. All of these kinds of things go over here, and all of those over there. There now, all tidied up. It relaxes the mind. Relax the mind enough, you’re dead.

All of which I state not to fight the lost cause of educating her or any of her fans, and not in the delusion that any knife I can make can cut through the petrified bull shit of political so called thinking, but to say again the value of her bad example can never be overstated and even more simply: to beg the question, how can WE not die like that? Assuming that I’d agree with Wordsworth that the splendour in the grass and the glory in the flower are ever really gone, what I take as useful subscript from his poem, are phrases such as “primal sympathy” and “soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering”, and “strength in what remains behind” and "faith that looks through death".

There’s a place in my philosophy about “the intelligence of nature” in which a “primal sympathy” unites us all and with all of the natural and so called material world. It’s evidenced in the way some animals manage to like us in spite of the way our overgrown brains have turned the world into a mail order catalogue. It’s evidenced in the way imitation or mimesis is evidently a principle of evolutionary development, and in the way evolutionary development proceeds not only by adaptation, but by proprioceptive leaps in which DNA seems to understand what is necessary for its survival and adopts creative strategies to that END, which qualifies it to fit the definition of intelligence, because that word comes from the Greek root, TELEOS, meaning end seeking. But it’s not Intelligent Design, it’s not Stupid Design, it’s not Design. It’s better than design, it’s improvisational. You can’t FIGURE it, because it’s a DANCE of matter becoming self reflexive, the MOVING CENTER of a non categorical sympathy that runs through all nature and is available to every being that has a sympathetic nervous system because it’s that PRIMAL.

There’s a place we get to in art in which the extraordinary rendition of “human suffering”, or what is considered “ugly”, creates a new esthetic distance that makes it new and beautiful. It gets to that place by being particular and specific and refusing to let creativity knuckle under to aging melodramatic concepts such as the anthropo and self centered cult of youth and cosmetic beauty. The lost, desolate, old and ugly are actually more beautiful than anything Hollywood could or can ever dream up once we understand how old and ugly and desolate and lost its vision actually is.

The “strength in what remains behind”, I believe, is the value of experience. I believe all experience, no matter how horrific, has an absolute value. We can approach that value by being moved from the place where things are happening to us to the place where we are watching things happen to us, that first and last act of will. Art can get us there, so can philosophy, or just meditation. Neither the categorical imperatives of Kant, Kissinger, Schlessinger, Hollywood, or any other person or institution of thought or government has anything to say to us that can alter the strength we can gather from what remains behind once we question all interpretation and thereby become credible witnesses to our lives.

As to “the faith that looks through death” the closest term I have is that when my father died, my brother and I, took his ashes out, according to his instructions, on county road 107 just outside Carlsbad, N.M, and, also according to his instructions, “with no ceremony” I scattered the ashes. When we got back in the car, my brother, a conservative Christian, said, disappointed,

“Well, that’s what he wanted.”

I felt, in contradiction to both my brother and my father, that my father, an atheist, had created a ritual by forbidding ritual, that was more moving to me than any church service from any culture could have ever been. I felt I had been privileged to witness a mystery. And I carried away from that place a shred of faith that sometimes seems to be able to look through death.


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