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Our Historical Purgatory Between Tragedy and Comedy

Dedicated to the Dumpster Commune over at Wealth Bondage.

The Beginning of the Last Chapter

I came across this quote recently:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.
     —Antonio Gramsci

Gramsci — ever quotable, ever accurate — captures, for me, in this one sentence our painful and tragic zeitgeist. This is the flavor of the curse of our interesting time. There's a sense that what neoliberal philosopher Francis Fukuyama euphorically considers "the end of history" (decoded as 'the end of the social' by Peter Lamborn Wilson) is, on the contrary, an epochal turning point: the current moment's seemingly ineluctable triumphant ascendancy of global capitalism may turn out to be its long, drawn out, and perhaps apocalyptic swan song.

One reason for this is that such a happenstance is inherently enantiodromic, a westernized tao notion, cousin to Hegel's dialectic, that posits that a force necessarily creates an opposing force — the more powerful the force, the more powerful the opposing force. (Eg: a slaveowner creates a slave opposed to his slavery; religious fundamentalism creates humanists opposed to their religious hegemony; corporate rapacity creates forces opposed to its neocolonial pillaging.) Neoliberal globalization — with its inherently schizophrenic and anti-humanistic ideology, with its grotesque and criminal Reverse Robin-Hoodism (ie: steal from the poor to give to the rich), with its evangelical zeal to commodify the planet — is creating an inevitable worldwide backlash opposed to it.

The flavor of the time is a strangely dissolute, angry, sad and tense flavor, like betting your last paycheck on one final spin of the roulette wheel 'cause you have nothing else to lose. It feels like everyone wants to gets off the ride but, like some kind of hellish Merry-Go-Round, it's spinning too fast and no one knows how to stop it. Sadly our species is so constituted that the ride will only end once the ride spins out of control or jerks to a complete and sudden halt. In either case the result will not be pretty: few will escape unscathed, including the ride ops and park owners.

Basically, the world knows that the system cannot (nor should) endure, but word hasn't spread, and solutions, though floating all around the ether, refuse to meaninfully coalesce given the staggeringly entrenched forces of greed opposed to a revolutionary paradigm shift that offers practical solutions to our dire situation. The neoliberal vision of utopia is inherently anti-human, based as it is upon an ontology of selfishness, conflict, and greed, and it cannot endure; but, as is glaringly obvious in our time, its beneficiaries will fight to the death — everyone else's first, of course, before their own — to maintain their power and riches.

We are accostumed to hearing that the "world changed after 911", as if that date marked the beginning of a new epoch. No. 911 doesn't mark the beginning of a new volume; it marks, rather, the beginning of the final chapter of the current volume. The only thing that changed on 911 is the intensity and drive of capital to attain omniscience and omnipotence. That's why we are seeing increasing evidence of universal surveillance and control. Capital unleashed becomes capital unhinged, demanding universal control and universal order to achieve its utopian ideal. To think that such an insane juggernaut would not be met by a reaction against it enters the realm of the fanciful. Which is why apologists for it, such as Thomas Friedman, label its foes things like flat-earthers — to protect their own belief structures, to dismiss heretics as madmen, and to preclude debate. It is a bona fide fundamentalist religion, one that seems to have entered its own eschatological ecstasy in its drive for global hegemony.

One of the problems is that the system has succeeded too well in wiring our brains to believe that people are not interconnected, and that nature is at our service and that we are its stewards. We are accostumed to blaming ourselves for our failures in life because we have internalized the bullshit of 'rugged individualism' and the 'nuclear family'. Atomization of communal units serves capital very well. Stuck in debt? Well, it's your own fault. Don't own a big house with two new SUVs? Well, it's your own fault. Stuck in a deadend job? Again, your own fault. Not happy, not financially secure, not enough time to spend with your loved ones, too fat, too stressed, can't make ends meet — obviously it's all your own fault, a deficiency of character, of planning, of fortitude, of that can-do entrepreneurial spirit you need to succeed. Why can't generations of urban poor just pull themselves out of the gutter? Must be some genetic deficiency, some inbuilt predisposition to laziness that prohibits them from magically knowing how to improve their station in life.

It serves the power elite very well to have people internalize their own victimhood. As South African activist Steve Biko said "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."


As the farcically christened "end of history" contrarily betokens with ever-increasing clarity, our world is not only ready for a paradigm shift, it requires one. And one of the most fundamental aspects of that paradigm shift is the necessity to rewire our worldview to embrace a fundamentally different view of life and reality: one that embraces a perception of reality as Comedy rather than Drama. Our mentality is still rooted in the ancient Greek's tragic view of life, a dour epistemology responsible for both the glories and horrors of Western culture. But this epistemology has led to an ontological cul-de-sac that is bringing down the whole world. Sadly, tragically, we haven't evolved all that much from Homer's noble but ineluctably tragic worldview of the Illiad.

Joseph W. Meeker, in his fascinating book The Comedy of Survival: In Search of An Environmental Ethic , explores the notions of Tragedy and Comedy and what it means for civilization. First, his thoughts on Tragedy:
Both as a literary form and as philosophical attitude, tragedy seems to have been an invention of Western culture, specifically of the Greeks...The tragic view assumes that man exists in a state of conflict with powers that are greater than he is. Such forces as nature, the gods, moral law, passionate love, the greatness of ideas and knowledge all seem enormously above mankind and in some way determine his welfare or his suffering. Tragic literature and philosophy then undertake to demonstrate that man is equal or superior to his conflict. The tragic man takes his conflict seriously and is therefore compelled to affirm his mastery and his greatness in the face of his own destruction. He is a triumphant image of what man can be...

Now his thoughts on Comedy:
Comedy is not a philosophy of despair or pessimism, but one which permits people to respond with health and clear vision despite the miseries the world has to offer. Its mode is immediacy of attention, adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances, joy in small things, the avoidance of pain wherever possible, the love of life and kinship with all its parts, the sharpening of intelligence, complexity of thought and action, and strategic responsiveness to novel situations. It permits people to accept themselves and the world as they are, and it helps us to make the best of the messes around us and within us.

Meeker then draws an interesting distinction between the ethical outlook of tragedy and the practical outlook of comedy:
Tragedies are events of moral consciousness where the central issues are good and evil, while disasters are physical and biological events which pose problems of endurance and survival. As awareness of disaster grows, we can expect to find ourselves worrying less about moral purity — or, at least, our particular view of it — and more about our responses to immediate threats. Perhaps we will spend less time trying to transform the world and more time trying to change ourselves to fit the world that surrounds us. Daily threats and challenges will focus our attention upon daily survival, and upon the coming imperatives of sustaining life even in the face of disasters. Comedy promotes survival not merely as a continuation of existence, but also as an affirmation of life and joy despite the disasters that may occur.

I think this excerpt from the foreward by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz nicely summarizes Meeker's thesis:
Dr. Meeker's central idea is that the comic mode of behavior is a geniune affirmation of instinctive patterns necessary for biological survival. My own observations of animal and human behavior have confirmed this thesis time and again. Destruction of one's enemies and prideful conquest of nature do not give life its deepest meaning. Reconciliation of opposites and adaptation to environment, the essential values which guide comic behavior, are necessary both to biological evolution and to the full expression of mankind's highest talents. Humility before the earth and its processes, the essential message of comedy, is necessary for the survival of our species.

"Humility before the earth and its processes." Isn't this diametrically opposed to every ideology in which we're raised? Eg: Christianity: "Humans, as Gods representatives, were to rule over nature as God intended." Eg: Capitalism: "The goal of production in a free market is to give man an ever-greater power over his environment... What capitalism offers...is, in reality, the best 'environment' for man: nature harnessed by industry and technology and used for man's benefit." Nature, it seems, belongs to us. We can even "own" it.
The origins of environmental crisis lie deep in human cultural traditions at levels of human mentality which have remained virtually unchanged for several thousand years. The premises upon which our culture has been built are powerful and durable, and their weight upon us must be appreciated before we can hope to alter their structure. Whether they may be subject to modification in the time available is unpredictable because we have so little experience of any such changes in our past. How can our culture change the influence of Homer or Aristotle or Moses or Sophocles upon all that follows from them, including methods of thinking and the inherited images which unconsciously influence human actions? The problem may be of this magnitude. Given such depth, it is possible that "solutions" are more than can be hoped for. Humanity may have to settle for the distinction of being the first species ever to understand the causes of its own extinction. That would be no small accomplishment.

Ecological crises are a result of Western culture's tragic outlook. Meeker is suggesting that perhaps the most vital aspect in overcoming the crisis is to rewire our perception — a task so monumental that it renders itself practically moot. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted. And that attempt requires us to abandon the peculiarly Western Tragic worldview that ennobles us to heroically conquer our problems. We need to heroically try another, non-heroic approach.

All of reality is filtered through one's cultural lenses. Tragedy necessarily adds our culture's ideological, metaphysical and ethical filters to those lenses.
Comedy, on the other hand, is very nearly universal. Comic literature appears wherever human culture exists, and often where it doesn't. Comedy can be universal largely because it depends less upon particular ideologies or metaphysical systems than tragedy does. Rather, comedy grows from the biological circumstances of life. It is unconcerned with systems of morality... The comic view of man demonstrates that men behave irrationally, committing follies which reveal their essential ignorance and ridiculousness in relation to civilized systems of ethical and social behavior...

It could thus be argued that comedy is basically pessimistic and tragedy basically optimistic, as tragedy shows humanity's potential strength and greatness and comedy tends to deny them... The tragic view of humanity, for all its flattering optimism, has led to cultural and biological disasters, and it is time to look for alternatives which might encourage better the survival of our own and other species.

Comedy demonstrates that humans are durable, although they may be weak, stupid, and undignified. As the tragic hero suffers or dies for ideals, the comic hero survives without them. At the end of his tale he manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible. His career demonstrates that weakness is a common condition for mankind that must be lived with, not one worth dying for. Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values we say we live by. Its only concern is to affirm our capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of any reasons there may be for feeling metaphysical despair.

Tragedy inflates; comedy deflates. This is why zealots and demogogues of all stripes rarely have a generous sense of humor — it undermines their worldview.

Comedy is thus a deconstructive, bottom-up strategy. It is dangerous to those "in control" as they assign their battery of "experts" to solve "our" problems. Comedy is a strategy that requires us to open our eyes and see clearly, to evaluate for ourselves what the problems are, and to take our own steps towards solving them. It's a strategy that demands we take action for our own survival rather than wait for others to provide some magic bullet. It is, ultimately, an existentialist as well as a practical strategy, requiring us to take responsbility for ourselves.

Buy or Be?

The phrase "requiring us to take responsibility for ourselves" intends the plural possessive, for indeed we are in this together. Just as the comic hero saves his own skin, so the comic community saves its own communal skin. And to do this the comic hero must first realize that his self-interest is also the interest of his extended self, his community; and so this community of comic heroes must be united in their comic outlook. Strong and comic community is the only weapon that can succeed against the powerful "divide and conquer" strategies of power and greed. That's why illegitimate authority constantly seeks ways to prevent such communities from forming.

Thus the first thing we need to do is to embrace our interconnectedness. The creation of the nuclear family, of the myth of "rugged individualism", of the single-family home with its white-picket fence, are supremely effective ways to disband community and create the alienated, neurotic, atomic consuming unit. This has proven to be the ultimate success of capitalism's "divide and conquer" strategy.

Enough! We must learn to say "Ours!" and not "Mine!". We must learn to say "Our Families" not "My Family"; "Our Money" not "My Money"; "Our Home" not "My Home". We must re-learn to share, to deeply internalize as adults those kindergarten lessons Kermit taught us on Sesame Street. What happened to that simple, honest message — perhaps the most potent weapon against the forces of consumerism? How does that message change between childhood and adulthood?

Answer: through early indoctrination during our formative years in equating the formation of one's personality with the acquisition of goods to differentiate oneself from one's peers. We become what we buy.

And as our self-definition blossoms from our acquisitions — wherein we identify ourselves increasingly as a "brand" — we become increasingly absorbed in our self-definition and seek community with those who similarly define themselves by the items and images they consume. (Multiculturalism is related to this phenomenon.) Thus neoliberal "community" is centered around the notion of demographic clusters. Rather than experience community as something deeply meaningful, wherein actors feel connected to each other in an organic wholeness of mutual fealty and safety where one feels a sense of belonging — a feeling that those of us raised in capitalism cannot begin to comprehend — community becomes another consummable where people seek out their demographic clones by the clothes they wear, the conventions and conferences they attend, and the shows they watch on TV. Paradoxically, our growing self-definition by such means leads to our increasing alienation. As I've said elsewhere
If the society that creates us is inherently schizophrenic, inherently competitive, inherently based upon a notion of acquisition in which desire is synonymous with lack, inherently alienating and anti-communitarian, a society in which we are always on the make, trying to sell others, as well as ourselves, on our presentation of ourselves — what kinds of people will be formed in such a society?

Because our identity derives from the society in which we emerge we will adopt and internalize such messages in order to survive in that society — they become part of our very makeup as human beings. Consumer capitalism creates psyches that seek to isolate us from one another, to view us as competitors in a zero-sum game, a society in which community is inherently fractured.

Community will happen. Man is a communal animal. The form that community takes, however, is dependent to a great extent on the notion of ourselves as either creatures of acquisitive self-interest, or creatures who share out of concern for The Other. Erich Fromm, the existential psychologist and philosopher, understands this very well. In his book To Have or To Be? he addresses this issue directly:
The desire to experience union with others manifests itself in the lowest kind of behavior, ie, in acts of sadism and destruction, as well as in the highest: solidarity on the basis of an ideal or conviction. It is also the main cause of the need to adapt; human beings are more afraid of being outcasts than even of dying. Crucial to every society is the kind of union and solidarity it fosters and the kind it can further, under the given conditions of its socioeconomic structure.

These considerations seem to indicate that both tendencies are present in human beings: the one, to have — to possess — that owes its strength in the last analysis to the biological factor of the desire for survival; the other, to be — to share, to give, to sacrifice — that owes its strength to the specific conditions of human existence and the inherent need to overcome one's isolation by oneness with others. From these two contradictory strivings in every human being it follows that the social structure, its values and norms, decides which of the two becomes dominant. Cultures that foster the greed for possession, and thus the having mode of existence, are rooted in one human potential; cultures that foster being and sharing are rooted in the other potential. We must decide which of these two potentials we want to cultivate, realizing, however, that our decision is largely determined by the socioeconomic structure of our given society that inclines us toward one of the other solution.

It is clear which mode our culture fosters. And it is the mode that our culture is ferociously foisting onto the rest of the world, and which the rest of the world enantiodromically resists with ever-increasing ferocity. It is a mode that has followed a trajectory rooted in Western culture's tragic worldview, and which Meeker despairs of changing in time to save the world.

But Fromm believes that change is possible.
This assumption [ie: that we are capable of altering cultural codes] contradicts a widely help psychoanalytic dogma that environment produces essential changes in personality development in infancy and early childhood, but that after this period the character is fixed and hardly changed by external events. This psychoanalytic dogma has been able to gain acceptance because the basic conditions of their childhood continue into most people's later life, since in general, the same social conditions continue to exist. But numerous instances exist in which a drastic change in environment leads to a fundamental change in behavior, ie, when the negative forces cease to be fed and the positive forces are nurtured and encouraged.

To sum up, the frequency and intensity of the desire to share, to give, and to sacrifice are not surprising if we consider the conditions of existence of the human species. What is surprising is that this need could be so repressed as to make acts of selfishness the rule in industrial (and many other) societies and acts of solidarity the exception. But, paradoxically, this very phenomenon is caused by the need for union. A society whose oriented around having, and once the dominant pattern is established, nobody wants to be an outsider, or indeed an outcast; in order to avoid this risk everybody adapts to the majority, who have in common only their mutual antagonism.

As a consequence of the dominant attitude of selfishness, the leaders of our society believe that people can be motivated only by the expectation of material advantages, ie, by rewards, and that they will not react to appeals for solidarity and sacrifice. Hence, except in times of war, these appeals are rarely made, and the chances to observe the possible results of such appeals are lost.

Only a radically different socioeconomic structure and a radically different picture of human nature could show that bribery is not the only way (or the best way) to influence people.

That's the crux of the problem Gramsci refers to: we are in the very moment where "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born." More and more people are aware of the problem; more and more people are ready for the "new" to be "born"; but people do not have the resources to know what they can do to help birth it.

Fromm posits what he believes is necessary to bring about incredible change in a culture's worldview:

Conditions for Human Change and the Features of the New Man

Assuming the premise is right — that only a fundamental change in human character from a preponderance of the having mode to a predominantly being mode of existence can save us from a psychologic and economic catastrophe — the question arises: Is large-scale characterological change possible, and if so, how can it be brought about?

I suggest the human character can change if these conditions exist:
  1. We are suffering and are aware that we are.
  2. We recognize the origin of our ill-being.
  3. We recognize that there is a way of overcoming our ill-being.
  4. We accept that in order to overcome our ill-being we must follow certain norms for living and change our present practice of life.

Well, if this is the criteria then I believe there is some hope, at least for an ever-growing percentage of people who see what's happening, and who will serve as the trailblazers for the rest of humanity. The tools and methods for this radical change in our worldview already exist. More and more people are doing them. But don't hold your breathe waiting to hear about these things on The Today Show — unless it's to mock them.

Let's quickly look at each of Fromm's conditions:
  • We are suffering and are aware that we are.
This is a self-selecting group of people, but not necessarily in obvious ways. Many people suffer without being aware of it — such people will often re-double their efforts on the treadmill, thinking it will get them to a better place. Also, many people do not even know that they are suffering as they fill their minds with distractions, unaware of their isolation. I would suppose that the majority of the world is aware of their own suffering. I expect there must be a certain amount of psychological dissonance for a great many people who do not experience the wondrous benefits of economic growth constantly shouted at them. Nonetheless, I believe a majority would probably fall under this category.

  • We recognize the origin of our ill-being.
Here the numbers drop precipitously. I would add that such an awareness entails being consciously aware in a way that is reality based. Blaming ills on phantasms — God punishing society for permitting licentious homosexuality, for instance; or that "liberals" or "conservatives" are to blame — will not lead to anything productive. I would suggest that recognizing the origin of our ill-being requires us to dig very deep to discover some of the fundamental causes. Anything else is misdiagnosing the problem, and will lead to using bandaids to cure food poisoning.

  • We recognize that there is a way of overcoming our ill-being.
Here the numbers drop off even more. I expect very few reach this point, other than the traditional placebos of "making more money" or "if only everyone was a christian". But growing numbers do recognize a variety of ways. I would suggest that there is not any single way, but a number of interrelated things that need to happen. Dr. Meeker suggests a very important one: to alter our epistemological outlook from a tragic outlook to a comic one. But that's only one path of several that need to be mapped.

  • We accept that in order to overcome our ill-being we must follow certain norms for living and change our present practice of life.
I'm assuming that if people have reached the previous conclusion they will naturally reach this one as well. But, in many ways, this is the biggest and most difficult jump. Just as with any kind of self-improvement, it's one thing to recognize the right way, it's another to do it. The space between this condition and the previous condition is the same space that Gramsci describes, the seemingly untraversable space between here and there, between the old and the new. This condition is the most daunting as it asks the most of us: It asks us to redefine ourselves by living in ways completely alien to our normal everyday life. It's one thing to think something; it's another thing to do it.

It cannot be emphasized enough — such change cannot happen by oneself. One may reach their own conclusions, one may even get themself off the grid; such an escape hatch may work for some people, but it will not effect change at a scale that will benefit society. The situationist's call to "think globally, act locally" demands that individual actors must get together locally first, must find each other and form their own communities on a local level. We are, after all, in this together. To find ways out together, we must literally get together.

Comic Communities Playing while Hiding in Plain Sight — A Brief Introduction

Hakim Bey, one of my favorite anarchist philosophers, suggests a way such a coming together can lead to such a vast social change. Here he introduces us to the concept of Tongs and Immediatism:

The mandarins draw their power from the law;
the people from the secret societies.
(Chinese saying)

A Tong can perhaps be defined as a mutual benefit society for people with a common interest which is illegal or dangerously marginal — hence the necessary secrecy.

⋅ ⋅ ⋅

Immediatism [ie: the creation of meaning done outside the realms of mediation, alienation, and commercialism] does not concern itself with power relations; — It desires neither to be ruled nor to rule. The contemporary Tong therefore finds no pleasure in the degenation of institutions into conspiracies. It wants power for its own purposes of mutuality. It is a free association of individuals who have chosen each other as the subjects of the group's generosity, its "expansiveness"...

If Immediatism begins with groups of friends trying not just to overcome isolation but also to enhance each other's lives, soon it will want to take a more complex shape: — nuclei of mutually-self-chosen allies, working (playing) to occupy more & more time & space outside all mediated structure & control. Then it will want to become a horizontal network of such autonomous groups — then, a "tendency" — then, a "movement" — then, a kinetic web of "temporary autonomous zones." At last it will strive to become the kernel of a new society, giving birth to itself within the corrupt shell of the old. For all these purposes the secret society promises to provide a useful framework of protective clandestinity — a cloak of invisibility that will have to be dropped only in the event of some final showdown with the Babylon of Mediation...

Bey explores the importance of "play" in creating communal meaning, of getting together outside the mediated gaze of "agents of alienation". This is akin to Emma Goldman's apocryphal saying "I wouldn't want to be part of a revolution if I can't dance", as well as to Dr. Meeker's emphasis on the comic worldview.

Remember kindergarten? Remember how kids become so absorbed in pursuing their own entertainment that friendships — communities — easily develop? How easily they create their own games — games with fluid, ever-changing rules? And it's not passive, mindless fun. They are not spectators waiting to passively consume some experience. They take their fun seriously — they are engaged in it, active creators as well as participants in the meaning they are creating. They band together and build sandcastles or lego cities or vast highway systems as a group, each with their own unique contribution. They do it naturally, with an easy sense of fun and ever-evolving community as new friends join or depart to other things. Kids who are really engrossed share everything they are doing: they do not need to be told how to behave; they continually change and adapt and challenge each other about the parameters of what they're doing, but continue to find ways to work together; though they may be focused on the minutae of what they are doing, they do not question the meaning of it; they do not evaluate what it means to be a community.

How can adults hope to re-kindle this engagement with life, with each other? It is possible. In fact, this is how many cultures live on a day to day basis. But such cultures do not write history, do not own the media. They live outside capitalism's gaze.

An even more important question is — would we even want to live this way again? The notion of living with such freedom, with such ease, with such play, is probably too genuinely frightening for most people. It throws out the rulebooks, it asks us to let go of our sacred ego, of the way we present it to ourselves and others. Is it even imaginable that a group of adults could get together and joyfully create for each other — for themselves! — real houses made of wood or strawbale instead of lego bricks? To share their land instead of their sandbox? To pool uneven resources yet share them equally? To create ever-fluid ways of resolving their adult versions of tag? And, perhaps most importantly, to extend the very concept of family from the atomic to the molecular? (And then to the cellular?)

I don't know. I'd like to think so. But I just don't know. It means jettisoning deeply held notions derived from our culture, and embracing things like giving, trust, and cooperation in ways we can barely imagine.

I'll let Erich Fromm have the last word:
I do not believe anything lasting can be achieved by persons who suffer from a general ill-being and for whom a change in character is necessary, unless they change their practice of life in accordance with the change in character they want to achieve.