Technology, Mass-Culture, and the Prospects of Human Liberation

Cultural evolution is arguably just as fascinating as biological evolution (if not more so), with new ideas and behaviors stemming from the same kinds of natural selective pressures that lead to new species along with their novel morphologies and capacities.  And as with biological evolution where it, in a sense, takes off on its own unbeknownst to the new organisms it produces and independent of the intentions they may have (with our species being the notable exception given our awareness of evolutionary history and our ever-growing control over genetics), so too cultural evolution takes off on its own, where cultural changes are made manifest through a number of causal influences that we’re largely unaware of, despite our having some conscious influence over this vastly transformative process.

Alongside these cultural changes, human civilizations have striven to find new means of manipulating nature and to better predict the causal structure that makes up our reality.  One unfortunate consequence of this is that, as history has shown us, within any particular culture’s time and place, people have a decidedly biased overconfidence in the perceived level of truth or justification for the status quo and their present world view (both on an individual and collective level).  Undoubtedly, the “group-think” or “herd mentality” that precipitates from our simply having social groups often reinforces this overconfidence, and this is so in spite of the fact that what actually influences a mass of people to believe certain things or to behave as they do is highly contingent, unstable, and amenable to irrational forms of persuasion including emotive, sensationalist propaganda that prey on our cognitive biases.

While we as a society have an unprecedented amount of control over the world around us, this type of control is perhaps best described as a system of bureaucratic organization and automated information processing, that gives less and less individual autonomy, liberty, and basic freedom, as it further expands its reach.  How much control do we as individuals really have in terms of the information we have access to, and given the implied picture of reality that is concomitant with this information in the way it’s presented to us?  How much control do we have in terms of the number of life trajectories and occupations made available to us, what educational and socioeconomic resources we have access to given the particular family, culture, and geographical location we’re born and raised in?

As more layers of control have been added to our way of life and as certain criteria for organizational efficiency are continually implemented, our lives have become externally defined by increasing layers of abstraction, and our modes of existence are further separated cognitively and emotionally from an aesthetically and otherwise psychologically valuable sense of meaning and purpose.

While the Enlightenment slowly dragged our species, kicking and screaming, out of the theocratic, anti-intellectual epistemologies of the Medieval period of human history, the same forces that unearthed a long overdue appreciation for (and development of) rationality and technological progress, unknowingly engendered a vulnerability to our misusing this newfound power.  There was an overcompensation of rationality when it was deployed to (justifiably) respond to the authoritarian dogmatism of Christianity and to the demonstrably unreliable nature of superstitious beliefs and of many of our intuitions.

This overcompensatory effect was in many ways accounted for, or anticipated within the dialectical theory of historical development as delineated by the German philosopher Georg Hegel, and within some relevant reformulations of this dialectical process as theorized by the German philosopher Karl Marx (among others).  Throughout history, we’ve had an endless clash of ideas whereby the prevailing worldviews are shown to be inadequate in some way, failing to account for some notable aspect of our perceived reality, or shown to be insufficient for meeting our basic psychological or socioeconomic needs.  With respect to any problem we’ve encountered, we search for a solution (or wait for one to present itself to us), and then we become overconfident in the efficacy of the solution.  Eventually we end up overgeneralizing its applicability, and then the pendulum swings too far the other way, thereby creating new problems in need of a solution, with this process seemingly repeating itself ad infinitum.

Despite the various woes of modernity, as explicated by the modern existentialist movement, it does seem that history, from a long-term perspective at least, has been moving in the right direction, not only with respect to our heightened capacity of improving our standard of living, but also in terms of the evolution of our social contracts and our conceptions of basic and universal human rights.  And we should be able to plausibly reconcile this generally positive historical trend with the Hegelian view of historical development, and the conflicts that arise in human history, by noting that we often seem to take one step backward followed by taking two steps forward in terms of our moral and epistemological progress.

Regardless of the progress we’ve made, we seem to be at a crucial point in our history where the same freedom-limiting authoritarian reach that plagued humanity (especially during the Middle Ages) has undergone a kind of morphogenesis, having been reinstantiated albeit in a different form.  The elements of authoritarianism have become built into the very structure of mass-culture, with an anti-individualistic corporatocracy largely mediating the flow of information throughout this mass-culture, and also mediating its evolution over time as it becomes more globalized, interconnected, and cybernetically integrated into our day-to-day lives.

Coming back to the kinds of parallels in biology that I opened up with, we can see human autonomy and our culture (ideas and behaviors) as having evolved in ways that are strikingly similar to the biological jump that life made long ago, where single-celled organisms eventually joined forces with one another to become multi-cellular.  This biological jump is analogous to the jump we made during the early onset of civilization, where we employed an increasingly complex distribution of labor and occupational specialization, allowing us to survive many more environmental hurdles than ever before.  Once civilization began, the spread of culture became much more effective for transmitting ideas both laterally within a culture and longitudinally from generation to generation, with this process heavily enhanced by our having adopted various forms of written language, allowing us to store and transmit information in much more robust ways, similar to genetic information storage and transfer via DNA, RNA, and proteins.

Although the single-celled bacterium or amoeba (for example) may be thought of as having more “autonomy” than a cell that is forcefully interconnected within a multi-cellular organism, we can see how the range of capacities available to single cells were far more limited before making the symbiotic jump, just as humans living before the onset of civilization had more “freedom” (at least of a certain type) and yet the number of possible life trajectories and experiences was minuscule when compared to a human living in a post-cultural world.  But once multi-cellular organisms began to form a nervous system and eventually a brain, the entire collection of cells making up an organism became ultimately subservient to a centralized form of executive power — just as humans have become subservient to the executive authority of the state or government (along with various social pressures of conformity).

And just as the fates of each cell in a multi-cellular organism became predetermined and predictable by its particular set of available resources and the specific information it received from neighboring cells, similarly our own lives are becoming increasingly predetermined and predictable by the socioeconomic resources made available to us and the information we’re given which constitutes our mass-culture.  We are slowly morphing from individual brains into something akin to individual neurons within a global brain of mass-consciousness and mass-culture, having our critical thinking skills and creative aspirations exchanged for rehearsed responses and docile expectations that maintain the status quo and which continually transfers our autonomy to an oligarchic power structure.

We might wonder if this shift has been inevitable, possibly being yet another example of a “fractal pattern” recapitulated in sociological form out of the very same freely floating rationales that biological evolution has been making use of for eons.  In any case, it’s critically important that we become aware of this change, so we can try and actively achieve and effectively maintain the liberties and level of individual autonomy that we so highly cherish.  We ought to be thinking about what kinds of ways we can remain cognizant of, and critical to, our culture and its products; how we can reconcile or transform technological rationality and progress with a future world comprised of truly liberated individuals; and how to transform our corporatocratic capitalist society into one that is based on a mixed economy with a social safety net that even the wealthiest citizens would be content with living under, so as to maximize the actual creative freedom people have once their basic existential needs have been met.

Will unchecked capitalism, social-media, mass-media, and the false needs and epistemological bubbles they’re forming lead to our undoing and destruction?  Or will we find a way to rise above this technologically-induced setback, and take advantage of the opportunities it has afforded us, to make the world and our technology truly compatible with our human psychology?  Whatever the future holds for us, it is undoubtedly going to depend on how many of us begin to critically think about how we can seriously restructure our educational system and how we disseminate information, how we can re-prioritize and better reflect on what our personal goals ought to be, and also how we ought to identify ourselves as free and unique individuals.

Book Review: Niles Schwartz’s “Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies”

Elijah Davidson begins his foreword to Niles Schwartz’s book titled Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies with a reference to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where he mentions how that book was, among other things, about God.  While it wasn’t a spiritual text in any traditional sense of the term, it nevertheless pointed to the finitude of human beings, to our heavy reliance on one another, and highlighted the fact that the natural world we live in is entirely indifferent to our needs and desires at best if not outright threatening to our imperative of self-preservation.  Davidson also points out another theme present in Moby Dick, the idea that people corrupt institutions rather than the other way around—a theme that we’ll soon see as relevant to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.  But beyond this human attribute of fallibility, and in some ways what reinforces its instantiation, is our incessant desire to find satisfaction in something greater than ourselves, often taken to be some kind of conception of God.  It is in this way that Davidson refers to Melville’s classic as “a spiritual treatise par excellence.”

When considering Mann’s films, which are often a cinematic dichotomous interplay of “cops and robbers” or “predator and prey,” they are, on a much more basic level, about “freedom and control.”  We also see his filmography as colored with a dejection of, or feeling of malaise with respect to, the modern world.  And here, Mann’s films can also be seen as spiritual in the sense that they make manifest a form of perspectivism centered around a denunciation of modernity, or at least a disdain for the many depersonalizing or externally imposed meta-narratives that it’s generated.  Schwartz explores this spiritual aspect of Mann’s work, most especially as it relates to PE, but also connecting it to the (more explicitly spiritual) works of directors like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, to name a few).  Schwartz proceeds to give us his own understanding of what Mann had accomplished in PE, and this is despite there being a problematic, irreconcilable set of interpretations as he himself admits: “Interpreting Public Enemies is troubling because it has theological and philosophical precepts that are rife with contradictions.”  This should be entirely expected however when PE is considered within the broader context of Michael Mann’s work generally, for Mann’s entire milieu is formulated on paradox:

“Michael Mann is a director of contradictions: aesthetic and didactive, abstract and concrete, phantasmagorical and brutally tactile, expressionistic and anthropological, heralding the individual and demanding social responsibility, bold experimenter and studio genre administrator, romantic and futurist, Dillinger freedom seeker and Hoover control freak, outsider and insider.”

Regardless of this paradoxical nature that is ubiquitous throughout Mann’s filmography, Schwartz provides a light to take us through a poetic journey of Mann’s work and his vision, most especially through a meticulous view of PE, and all within a rich and vividly structured context centered on the significance of, and relation between, freedom, control, and of course, the future.  His reference to “the future” in OTM is multi-dimensional to say the least, and the one I personally find the most interesting, cohesive, and salient.  Among other things, it’s referring to John Dillinger’s hyper-focused projection toward the future, where his identity is much more defined by where he wants to be (an abstract, utopian future that is “off the map,” or free from the world of control and surveillance) rather than defined by where he’s been (fueled by the obvious fact that he’s always on the run), and this is so even if he also seems to be stuck in the present, with Dillinger’s phenomenology as well as the film’s structure often traversing from one fleeting moment to the next.  But I think we can take Dillinger at his own word as he tells his true love, Billie Frechette, after whisking her away to dine in a high-class restaurant: “That’s ‘cuz they’re all about where people come from.  The only thing that’s important, is where somebody’s going.” 

This conception of “the future” is also referencing the transcendent quality of being human, where our identity is likewise defined in large part by the future, our life projects, and our striving to become a future version of ourselves, however idealized or mythologized that future-self conception may be (I think it’s fair to say Dillinger’s was, to a considerable degree).  The future is a reference to where our society is heading, how our society is becoming increasingly automated, taken over by a celeritously expanding cybernetic infrastructure of control, evolving and expanding in parallel with technology and our internet-catalyzed global interconnectedness.  Our lives are being built upon increasing layers of abstraction as our form of organized life continues to trudge along its chaotic arc of cultural evolution, and we’re losing more and more of our personal freedom as a result of evermore external influences, operating on a number of different levels (socially, politically, technologically), known and unknown, consciously and unconsciously.  In PE, the expanding influences were best exemplified by the media, the mass-surveillance, and of course Hoover’s Bureau and administration, along with the arms race taking place between Dillinger’s crew and the FBI (where the former gave the latter a run for their money).

As Schwartz explains about J. Edgar’s overreach of power: “Hoover’s Bureau is increasingly amoral as it reaches for a kind of Hobbesian, sovereign super control.”  Here of course we get our first glimpse of a noteworthy dualism, namely freedom and control, and the myriad of ways that people corrupt institutions (as Davidson explored in his foreword), though contrary to Davidson’s claim, it seems undeniable to surmise that once an institution has become corrupted by certain people, that institution is more likely to corrupt other individuals, both internally and externally (and thus, institutions do corrupt individuals, not merely the other way around).  If bad ideas are engineered into our government’s structure, our laws, our norms, our capitalist market, or any other societal system, they can seemingly take off on their own, reinforced by the structure itself and the automated information processing that’s inherent to bureaucracies, the media, our social networks, and even inherent to us as individuals who are so often submerged in a barrage of information.

Relating Hoover to the power and influence of the media, Schwartz not only mentions the fact that PE is undoubtedly “conscientious of how media semiotics affect and control people,” but he also mentions a piece of dialogue that stood out to me as well, where FBI Director Hoover (Billy Crudup) just got out of the Congressional Hearing Room, having been chastised by Senator McKellar (Ed Bruce), and he says to his deputy, Clyde Tolson (Chandler Williams): “If we will not contest him in his committee room, we will fight him on the front page,” showing us a glimpse of the present day where news (whether “fake” news or not), and the overall sensationalism of a story is shown to be incredibly powerful at manipulating the masses and profoundly altering our trajectory, one (believed) story at a time.  If you can get somebody to believe the story, whether based on truth or deception, the battle is half won already.  Even Dillinger himself, who’s own persona is wrapped in a cloud of mythology, built up by Hollywood and the media’s portrayal of his life and image, shows us in a very concrete way, just how far deception can get you.

For example, Schwartz reminds us of how Dillinger managed to escape through six doors of Crown Point jail with nothing other than a mock gun made of wood.  Well, nothing but a mock gun and a hell of a good performance, which is the key point here, since the gun was for all practical purposes real.  By the time Dillinger breaks into Warden Baker’s office to steal some Tommy guns before finishing his escape, Warden Baker (David Warshofsky) even says to him “That wasn’t real was it?,” which resonated with the idea of how powerful persuasion and illusion can be in our lives, and maybe indirectly showing us that what is real to us in the ways that matter most is defined by what’s salient to us in our raw experience and what we believe to be true since that’s all that affects our behavior anyway.  The guards believed Dillinger’s mock gun was real, and so it was real, just as a false political campaign promise is real, or a bluffed winning-hand in poker, or any other force, whether operating under the pretenses of honesty or deception, pushing us individually and collectively in one direction or another.

The future is also a reference to Michael Mann’s 2015 cyberthriller Blackhat—a movie that Mann had been building up to, and a grossly underappreciated one at that, with various degrees of its foreshadowing in PE.  This progression and relation between PE and Blackhat is in fact central to Schwartz’s principle aim in OTM:

“My aim in this book is to explore Public Enemies as an extraordinary accomplishment against a backdrop of other digital films, its meditations on the form precipitating Blackhat, Mann’s stunning and widely ignored cyberthriller that converts the movie-house celluloid of its predecessors into a beguiling labyrinth of code that’s colonized the heretofore tangible firmament right under our noses.”

And what an extraordinary accomplishment it is; and fortunately for us we’re in a better position to appreciate it after reading Schwartz’s highly perceptive analysis of such a phenomenal artist.  In PE, the future is essentially projected into the past, which is interesting to me in its own right, since this is also the case with human memory, where we reconstruct our memories upon recall in ways that are augmented by, and amalgamated with, our present knowledge, despite not having such knowledge when the memory itself was first formed.  So too in PE, we see a number of questions posed especially as it relates to the existentialist movement, which hadn’t been well-developed or nearly as influential until some time after the 1930s (especially after WWII, with the advent of existential philosophers including Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger), and as it relates to the critical theory stemming from the Frankfurt School of social research (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.), neither of which being nearly as pertinent or socially and politically relevant then as they are now in the present day.  And this is where Blackhat becomes decidedly apropos.

So what future world was foreshadowed in PE?  Schwartz describes the world in Blackhat as an utterly subliminal and cybernetic realm: “The world is pattern recognition and automatic information processing, the stuff of advertising.”  Though I would argue that our entire phenomenology is fundamentally based on pattern recognition where our perception, imagination, actions, and even desires are mediated by the models of the world’s causal structure that our brains create and infer through our experiences.  But this doesn’t mean that our general schema of pattern recognition hasn’t been influenced by modernity such that we’ve become noticeably more automated, and where many have seemingly lost their capacity for contemplative reflection and lost the historically less-hindered psychological channel between reason and emotion.  The Blackhat world Schwartz is describing here is one where the way information is being processed is relatively alien to the more traditional conceptions of what it means to be human.  And this cybernetic world is a world where cultural and technological evolution are accelerating far faster than our biological evolution ever could (though genetic engineering has the potential to re-synchronize the two if we dedicate ourselves to such an ambitious project), and this bio-cultural desynchronization has made us increasingly maladapted to the Digital Age we’ve now entered.  Furthermore, this new world has made us far more susceptible to subliminal, corporatocratic and sociopolitical influences, and it has driven us toward an increasing reliance on a cybernetically controlled way of life.

The social relevance of these conceptions makes Blackhat a much-needed lens for fully appreciating our current existential predicament, and as Schwartz says of Mann’s (perhaps unavoidably ironic) digital implementation of this somewhat polemical techno-thriller:

“Conversely, Mann’s embrace of the digital is a paradoxical realization of tactile historical and spatial phenomenology, lucidly picturing an end of identity, while leaping, as through faith, toward the possibility of individuation in nature, free from institutional conscriptions and the negative assignments of cybernetics.”

Schwartz illustrates that concomitant with identity, “… the film prompts us to ask where nature ends and the virtual begins,” though perhaps we could also infer that in Blackhat there’s somewhat of a dissolution of the boundary (or at least a feeling of arbitrariness regarding how the boundary is actually defined) between the real and the virtual, the natural and the artificial, the human and the transhuman.  And maybe each of these fuzzy boundaries implies how best to resolve the contradictions in Mann’s work that Schwartz describes in OTM, with this possible resolution coming about through a process of symbiotic fusion or some kind of memetic “speciation” transitionally connecting what seem to be distinct concepts through a brilliantly structured narrative.

And to take the speciation analogy even further, I think it can also be applied to the changes in filmmaking and culture (including the many changes that Schwartz covers in his tour de force), where many of the changes are happening so gradually that we simply fail to notice them, at least not until a threshold of change has occurred.  But there’s also a punctuated equilibrium form of speciation in filmmaking, where occasionally a filmmaker does something extraordinary in one fell swoop, setting the bar for a new genre of cinema, just as James Cameron arguably did with the heavily CGI-amalgamated world in Avatar (with his planet Pandora “doubling for the future of cinema [itself]…” as Schwartz mentions), and to a somewhat lesser technological extent, in Michael Mann’s PE, where even though the analog to digital leap had already been made by others, “Mann’s distinctly idiosyncratic use of HD cameras rattled viewers with its alien video-ness, explicating to viewers that they were perched on a separate filmic architecture that may require a new way of seeing.”

Similarly in Blackhat, Mann takes us through seamless transitions of multiple scales of both time and space, opening up a window that allows us to see how mechanized and deterministic our modern world is, from the highest cosmological scales, down to cities populated with an innumerable number of complex yet predictable humans, and finally down to the digital information processing schema at the micro and nanotechnological scales of transistors.  Within each perspective level, we fail to notice the causal influences operating at the levels above or below, and yet Mann seamlessly joins these together, showing us a kind of fractal recapitulation that we wouldn’t otherwise fully appreciate.  After reflecting on many of the references to freedom Schwartz posits in OTM, I’ve begun to more seriously ponder over the idea that human freedom is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, dependent on one’s awareness of what is being controlled by another, what is predictable and what isn’t, and one’s perception of what constitutes self-authored behavior or a causa sui formulation of free will.  Once we realize that, at the smallest scales, existence is governed by deterministic processes infused with quantum randomness, it is less surprising to see the same kind of organized, predictable causal structure at biological, sociological, and even cosmological scales.

Aside from Blackhat, Schwartz seamlessly ties together a number of Mann’s other films including Thief, Miami Vice, and my personal favorite, Heat.  There’s also a notable progression or at least an underlying and evolving conceptual structure connecting characters and ideas from one film to the next (above and beyond the transition from PE to Blackhat), as Schwartz eloquently points out, which I see as illustrating how various salient psychological and sociological forces and manifestations are so often reiterated in multiple contexts varying in time and space.  Clearly Mann is building off of his previous work, adapting previous ideas to new narratives, and doing so while continuously trying to use, as Schwartz puts it: “alchemic cinema tools to open a window and transform our perception,” thus giving us a new way to view the world and our own existential status.

An important dynamic that Schwartz mentions, not only as it pertains to Mann’s films, but of (especially well-crafted) films in general, is the notable interplay between the audience and the film or “the image.”  The image changes us, which in turn changes the image ad infinitum, establishing a feedback loop and a co-evolution between the viewer’s interpretation of the film as it relates to their own experiences, and the ongoing evolution of every new cinematic product.  There may be some indoctrinatory danger in this cycle if the movie you’re engaging with is a mass-produced product, since this product is, insofar as it’s mass-produced, deeply connected to “the system”, indeed the very same system trying to capture John Dillinger in PE.  And yet, even though the mass-produced product is a part of the system, and despite its being a cog in the wheel of what we might call a cybernetic infrastructure of control, Schwartz highlights an important potentiality in film viewing that is often taken for granted:

“…The staggering climax inside the Biograph beseeches us to aspire to the images conscientiously, reconciling the mass-produced product with our private histories and elevating the picture and our lives with the media.”

In other words, even in the case of mass-produced cinema, we as viewers stand to potentially gain a valuable experience, and possibly a spiritual or philosophical one at that by our forming a personal relationship with the film, synthesizing the external stimuli with our inner sense of self, coalescing with the characters and integrating them into our own relationships and to ourselves, thus expanding our set of perspectives by connecting to someone “off the map”.  On the other hand, Schwartz also mentions Herbert Marcuse’s views, which aptly describes the inherent problem of art insofar as it becomes a part of “the system”:

“…Herbert Marcuse writes that as long as art has become part of the system, it ceases in questioning it, and thus impedes social change.  Poetic language must transcend the “real” world of the society, and in order to transcend that world it must stand opposed to it, questioning it, quelling us out of it.”

But we need also realize that art will inevitably be influenced by the system, because there are simply too many subliminal or even explicit system-orchestrated ideas that the artist (and everyone else in society) has been instilled with, even if entirely unbeknownst to them.  It seems that the capacity for poetic language to transcend the real world of the society lies in its simply providing any new perspective at all, making use of allegory, metaphor, and the crossing of contextual boundaries, and it can do so even if this new perspective doesn’t necessarily or explicitly oppose some other (even mainstream) perspective.

This is most definitely not to in any way discount Marcuse’s overarching point of how art’s connection to the system is a factor that limits its efficacy in enacting social change and its ability to positively feed the public’s collective stream of consciousness, but merely to point out that art’s propensity for transcending the status quo isn’t entirely inhibited from its unavoidable connection to the system.  And to once again bring us back to the scene in PE where Dillinger is fully absorbing (or being fully absorbed by) his viewing of Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater, Schwartz seems to describe the artistic value of a film as something at least partially dependent on whether or not it facilitates a personal and transcendent experience in any of the viewers:

“Cinema is elevated to a ceremony of transubstantiation where fixed bodies are resurrected through the mercurial alchemy of speed and light, contradicting the consumption we saw earlier during the newsreel.  Dillinger’s connection to cinema is a meditative and private one…”

I think it’s fair to say that, if there’s anything that can elevate our own experience of Mann’s work in particular, and film viewing more generally, Schwartz’s Off the Map is a great philosophical and spiritual primer to help get us there.  Both comprehensive and brilliantly written, Schwartz’s contribution to film scholarship should become required reading for anybody interested in cinema and film viewing.

Some Thoughts on “Fear & Trembling”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but haven’t had the opportunity until now, so here it goes.  I want to explore some of Kierkegaard’s philosophical claims or themes in his book Fear and Trembling.  Kierkegaard regarded himself as a Christian and so there are a lot of literary themes revolving around faith and the religious life, but he also centers a lot of his philosophy around the subjective individual, all of which I’d like to look at in more detail.

In Fear and Trembling, we hear about the story found in Genesis (Ch. 22) where Abraham attempts to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac, after hearing God command him to do so.  For those unfamiliar with this biblical story, after they journey out to mount Moriah he binds Isaac to an alter, and as Abraham draws his knife to slit the throat of his beloved son, an angel appears just in time and tells him to stop “for now I know that you fear God”.  Then Abraham sees a goat nearby and sacrifices it instead of his son.  Kierkegaard uses this story in various ways, and considers four alternative versions of it (and their consequences), to explicate the concept of faith as admirable though fundamentally incomprehensible and unintelligible.

He begins his book by telling us about a man who has deeply admired this story of Abraham ever since he first heard it as a child, with this admiration for it growing stronger over time while understanding the story less and less.  The man considers four alternative versions of the story to try and better understand Abraham and how he did what he did, but never manages to obtain this understanding.

I’d like to point out here that an increased confusion would be expected if the man has undergone moral and intellectual growth during his journey from childhood to adulthood.  We tend to be more impulsive, irrational and passionate as children, with less regard for any ethical framework to live by.  And sure enough, Kierkegaard even mentions the importance of passion in making a leap of faith.  Nevertheless, as we continue to mature and accumulate life experience, we tend to develop some control over our passions and emotions, we build up our intellect and rationality, and also further develop an ethic with many ethical behaviors becoming habituated if cultivated over time.  If a person cultivates moral virtues like compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, then it would be expected that they’d find Abraham’s intended act of murder (let alone filicide) repugnant.  But, regardless of the reasons for the man’s lack of understanding, he admires the story more and more, likely because it reveres Abraham as the father of faith, and portrays faith itself as a most honorable virtue.

Kierkegaard’s main point in Fear and Trembling is that one has to suspend their relation to the ethical (contrary to Kant and Hegel), in order to make any leap of faith, and that there’s no rational decision making process involved.  And so it seems clear that Kierkegaard knows that what Abraham did in this story was entirely unethical (attempting to kill an innocent child) in at least one sense of the word ethical, but he believes nevertheless that this doesn’t matter.

To see where he’s coming from, we need to understand Kierkegaard’s idea that there are basically three ways or stages of living, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  The aesthetic life is that of sensuous or felt experience, infinite potentiality through imagination, hiddenness or privacy, and an overarching egotism focused on the individual.  The ethical life supersedes or transcends this aesthetic way of life by relating one to “the universal”, that is, to the common good of all people, to social contracts, and to the betterment of others over oneself.  The ethical life, according to Kierkegaard, also consists of public disclosure or transparency.  Finally, the religious life supersedes the ethical (and thus also supersedes the aesthetic) but shares some characteristics of both the aesthetic and the ethical.

The religious, like the aesthetic, operates on the level of the individual, but with the added component of the individual having a direct relation to God.  And just like the ethical, the religious appeals to a conception of good and evil behavior, but God is the arbiter in this way of life rather than human beings or their nature.  Thus the sphere of ethics that Abraham might normally commit himself to in other cases is thought to be superseded by the religious sphere, the sphere of faith.  Within this sphere of faith, Abraham assumes that anything that God commands is Abraham’s absolute duty to uphold, and he also has faith that this will lead to the best ends.  This of course, is known as a form of divine command theory, which is actually an ethical and meta-ethical theory.  Although Kierkegaard claims that the religious is somehow above the ethical, it is for the most part just another way of living that involves another ethical principle.  In this case, the ethical principle is for one to do whatever God commands them to (even if these commands are inconsistent or morally repugnant from a human perspective), and this should be done rather than abiding by our moral conscience or some other set of moral rules, social mores, or any standards based on human judgment, human nature, etc.

It appears that the primary distinction between the ethical and the religious is the leap of faith that is made in the latter stage of living which involves an act performed “in virtue of the absurd”.  For example, Abraham’s faith in God was really a faith that God wouldn’t actually make him kill his son Isaac.  Had Abraham been lacking in this particular faith, Kierkegaard seems to argue that Abraham’s conscience and moral perspective (which includes “the universal”) would never have allowed him to do what he did.  Thus, Abraham’s faith, according to Kierkegaard, allowed him to (at least temporarily) suspend the ethical in virtue of the absurd notion that somehow the ethical would be maintained in the end.  In other words, Abraham thought that he could obey God’s command, even if this command was prima facie immoral, because he had faith that God wouldn’t actually make Abraham perform an unethical act.

I find it interesting that this particular function or instantiation of faith, as outlined by Kierkegaard, makes for an unusual interpretation of divine command theory.  If divine command theory attempts to define good or moral behavior as that which God commands, and if a leap of faith (such as that which Abraham took) can involve a belief that the end result of an unconscionable commandment is actually its negation or retraction, then a leap of faith such as that taken by Abraham would serve to contradict divine command theory to at least some degree.  It would seem that Kierkegaard wants to believe in the basic premise of divine command theory and therefore have an absolute duty to obey whatever God commands, and yet he also wants to believe that if this command goes against a human moral system or the human conscience, it will not end up doing so when one goes to carry out what has actually been commanded of them.  This seems to me to be an unusual pair of beliefs for one to hold simultaneously, for divine command theory allows for Abraham to have actually carried out the murder of his son (with no angel stopping him at the last second), and this heinous act would have been considered a moral one under such an awful theory.  And yet, Abraham had faith that this divine command would somehow be nullified and therefore reconciled with his own conscience and relation to the universal.

Kierkegaard has something to say about beliefs, and how they differ from faith-driven dispositions, and it’s worth noting this since most of us use the term “belief” as including that which one has faith in.  For Kierkegaard, belief implies that one is assured of its truth in some way, whereas faith requires one to accept the possibility that what they have faith in could be proven wrong.  Thus, it wasn’t enough for Abraham to believe in an absolute duty to obey whatever God commanded of him, because that would have simply been a case of obedience, and not faith.  Instead, Abraham also had to have faith that God would let Abraham spare his son Isaac, while accepting the possibility that he may be proven wrong and end up having to kill his son after all.  As such, Kierkegaard wouldn’t accept the way the term “faith” is often used in modern religious parlance.  Religious practitioners often say that they have faith in something and yet “know it to be true”, “know it for certain”, “know it will happen”, etc.  But if Abraham truly believed (let alone knew for certain) that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, then God’s command wouldn’t have served as any true test of faith.  So while Abraham may have believed that he had to kill his son, he also had faith that his son wouldn’t die, hence making a leap of faith in virtue of the absurd.

This distinction between belief and faith also seems to highlight Kierkegaard’s belief in some kind of prophetic consequentialist ethical framework.  Whereas most Christians tend to side with a Kantian deontological ethical system, Kierkegaard points out that ethical systems have rules which are meant to promote the well-being of large groups of people.  And since humans lack the ability to see far into the future, it’s possible that some rules made under this kind of ignorance may actually lead to an end that harms twenty people and only helps one.  Kierkegaard believes that faith in God can answer this uncertainty and circumvent the need to predict the outcome of our moral rules by guaranteeing a better end given the vastly superior knowledge that God has access to.  And any ethical system that appeals to the ends as justifying the means is a form of consequentialism (utilitarianism is perhaps the most common type of ethical consequentialism).

Although I disagree with Kiergegaard on a lot of points, such as his endorsement of divine command theory, and his appeal to an epistemologically bankrupt behavior like taking a leap of faith, I actually agree with Kierkegaard on his teleological ethical reasoning.  He’s right in his appealing to the ends in order to justify the means, and he’s right to want maximal knowledge involved in determining how best to achieve those ends.  It seems clear to me that all moral systems ultimately break down to a form of consequentialism anyway (a set of hypothetical imperatives), and any disagreement between moral systems is really nothing more than a disagreement about what is factual or a disagreement about which consequences should be taken into account (e.g. happiness of the majority, happiness of the least well off, self-contentment for the individual, how we see ourselves as a person, etc.).

It also seems clear that if you are appealing to some set of consequences in determining what is and is not moral behavior, then having maximal knowledge is your best chance of achieving those ends.  But we can only determine the reliability of the knowledge by seeing how well it predicts the future (through inferred causal relations), and that means we can only establish the veracity of any claimed knowledge through empirical means.  Since nobody has yet been able to establish that a God (or gods) exists through any empirical means, it goes without saying that nobody has been able to establish the veracity of any God-knowledge.

Lacking the ability to test this, one would also need to have faith in God’s knowledge, which means they’ve merely replaced one form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual ends of human moral systems) with another form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual knowledge of God).  Since the predicted versus actual ends of our moral systems can actually be tested, while the knowledge of God cannot, then we have a greater uncertainty in God’s knowledge than in the efficacy and accuracy of our own moral systems.  This is a problem for Kierkegaard, because his position seems to be that the leap of faith taken by Abraham was essentially grounded on the assumption that God had superior knowledge to achieve the best telos, and thus his position is entirely unsupportable.

Aside from the problems inherent in Kierkegaard’s beliefs about faith and God, I do like his intense focus on the priority of the individual.  As mentioned already, both the aesthetic and religious ways of life that have been described operate on this individual level.  However, one criticism I have to make about Kierkegaard’s life-stage trichotomy is that morality/ethics actually does operate on the individual level even if it also indirectly involves the community or society at large.  And although it is not egotistic like the aesthetic life is said to be, it is egoistic because rational self-interest is in fact at the heart of all moral systems that are consistent and sufficiently motivating to follow.

If you maximize your personal satisfaction and life fulfillment by committing what you believe to be a moral act over some alternative that you believe will make you less fulfilled and thus less overall satisfied (such as not obeying God), then you are acting for your own self-interest (by obeying God), even if you are not acting in an explicitly selfish way.  A person can certainly be wrong about what will actually make them most satisfied and fulfilled, but this doesn’t negate one’s intention to do so.  Acting for the betterment of others over oneself (i.e. living by or for “the universal”) involves behaviors that lead you to a more fulfilling life, in part based on how those actions affect your view of yourself and your character.  If one believes in gods or a God, then their perspective on their belief of how God sees them will also affect their view of themselves.  In short, a properly formulated ethics is centered around the individual even if it seems otherwise.

Given the fact that Kierkegaard seems to have believed that the ethical life revolved around the universal rather than the individual, perhaps it’s no wonder that he would choose to elevate some kind of individualistic stage of life, namely the religious life, over that of the ethical.  It would be interesting to see how his stages of life may have looked had he believed in a more individualistic theory of ethics.  I find that an egoistic ethical framework actually fits quite nicely with the rest of Kierkegaard’s overtly individualistic philosophy.

He ends this book by pointing out that passion is required in order to have faith, and passion isn’t something that somebody can teach us, unlike the epistemic fruits of rational reflection.  Instead, passion has to be experienced firsthand in order for us to understand it at all.  He contrasts this passion with the disinterested intellectualization involved in reflection, which was the means used in Hegel’s approach to try and understand faith.

Kierkegaard doesn’t think that Hegel’s method will suffice since it isn’t built upon a fundamentally subjective experiential foundation and instead tries to understand faith and systematize it through an objective analysis based on logic and rational reflection.  Although I see logic and rational reflection as most important for best achieving our overall happiness and life fulfillment, I can still appreciate the significant role of passion and felt experience within the human condition, our attraction to it, and it’s role in religious belief.  I can also appreciate how our overall satisfaction and life fulfillment are themselves instantiated and evaluated as a subjective felt experience, and one that is entirely individualistic.  And so I can’t help but agree with Kierkegaard, in recognizing that there is no substitute for a subjective experience, and no way to adequately account for the essence of those experiences through entirely non-subjective (objective) means.

The individual subject and their conscious experience is of primary importance (it’s the only thing we can be certain exists), and the human need to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world is perhaps the most important facet of that ongoing conscious experience.  Even though I disagree with a lot of what Kierkegaard believed, it wasn’t all bull$#!+.  I think he captured and expressed some very important points about the individual and some of the psychological forces that color the view of our personal identity and our own existence.