Kant, like many philosophers, is notoriously difficult to read. Some people blame his proclivity for pedantic exuberance. That’s not totally inaccurate, but for me, the specific cause of the difficulty in my reading of Kant is that he is so wrong, more specifically, so incapable and comprised. It reminds me that, in British English, Kant and “Can’t” are homophones. Continue reading
Tag Archives: existentialism
Coexistentialism and the Unbearable
Intimacy of Ecological Emergency
Ecocritical Theory and Practice Series, Lexington Books, 2016
The philosophy of existentialism is undergoing an ecological renewal, as global warming, mass extinction, and other signs of the planetary scale of human actions are making it glaringly apparent that existence is always ecological coexistence. One of the most urgent problems in the current ecological emergency is that humans cannot bear to face the emergency. Its earth-shattering implications are ignored in favor of more solutions, fixes, and sustainability transitions. Solutions cannot solve much when they cannot face what it means to be human amidst unprecedented uncertainty and intimate interconnectedness. Attention to such uncertainty and interconnectedness is what “ecological existentialism” (Deborah Bird Rose) or “coexistentialism” (Timothy Morton) is all about.
This book follows Rose, Morton, and many others (e.g., Jean-Luc Nancy, Peter Sloterdijk, and Luce Irigaray) who are currently taking up the styles of thinking conveyed in existentialism, renewing existentialist affirmations of experience, paradox, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and extending existentialism beyond humans to include attention to the uniqueness and strangeness of all beings—all humans and nonhumans woven into ecological coexistence. Along the way, coexistentialism finds productive alliances and tensions amidst many areas of inquiry, including ecocriticism, ecological humanities, object-oriented ontology, feminism, phenomenology, deconstruction, new materialism, and more. This is a book for anyone who seeks to refute cynicism and loneliness and affirm coexistence.
“With refreshing style and intellectual forcefulness, Sam Mickey widens the scope of existentialism and shows how it offers important resources to address our urgent ecological situation. Here existentialism becomes coexistentialism, and through it we glimpse a chance to strengthen our existence together on a fragile planet. Make this book part of your coexistence!”
— Clayton Crockett, author of Deleuze Beyond Badiou and Radical Political Theology
“Is there an ecological style of engaging with things that aren’t me, yet share and even overlap with my being in some sense? The paradoxes and absurdities of existence have only become heightened as we have entered an ecological age, and it’s about time a writer committed to existentialism took up the challenge of working with those paradoxes. This book is up to speed with the ethical implications of our growing understanding of the symbiotic real and with what the author, quoting Björk, calls its necessary sense of ’emergency.’ In trenchant and engaging prose, not to mention deep engagements with philosophy, Sam Mickey lays it out for you.”
— Timothy Morton, author of Dark Ecology and Hyperobjects
I recently stumbled upon this 2007 Philosophy Now article by Colin Wilson, “Whitehead as Existentialist,” thanks to a retweet from Matt Segall—a Whitehead expert and the brilliant blogger (and soon-to-be PhD!) behind Footnotes to Plato. There’s never been any secure border separating who is in and out of existentialism, so why not? If someone wants to include Alfred North Whitehead, it’s fine with me. In our time of radical uncertainty and uncanniness, existentialist ways of thinking and being are perhaps more relevant than ever, so I don’t see any reason to close the door on Whitehead’s participation in any movement related to existentialism. In some sense, all you need to do to be an existentialist is exist, so including Whitehead seems pretty easy. Right? Not really. Although I appreciate Whiteheadian alliances and solidarities, it is more accurate to say that Whitehead is not an existentialist. Whitehead is in fact not an existentialist, not a representative, exemplar, or example of existentialism. Continue reading
Coexistentialism: Unbearable Intimacy, Ecological Emergency. The manuscript is finished and off to the publisher. It’s around 110,000 words. The best thing about coexistentialism is the “co-,” indicating an ecological redistribution of Heidegger’s Mitsein (being-with) to include all beings, human, nonhuman, and otherwise. The worst thing is the “ism,” which is no doubt risky; it can degenerate into a lazy substitute for thinking along with other “isms,” but it could (I hope) facilitate solidarity, shared struggle, shared suffering, and shared feasting. Existence is not the best or the worst, neither optimus nor pessimus. It just is: existence. Continue reading
“When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.” (1)
I just finished reading David Webster’s short and fun book Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy (Zero Books, 2012). I was happy to read a book that offers a critical analysis of contemporary spirituality, both because I teach theology and religious studies and because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which contains a vast array of flavors of “spirituality.”
Before reading the book, I read an interview with Webster about the project. The interview makes some interesting points, including Webster giving Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a response to the question of what book he wishes he’d written. Along those lines, I would say that Webster’s critique of spirituality is good, but it’s not quite as critical as Hunter S. Thompson’s, nor is it as hospitable and affirmative. In any case, Webster’s overall thesis seems correct: contemporary spirituality is indeed making us stupid, selfish, and unhappy.
Webster is careful to say that he is talking about contemporary spirituality in general. He acknowledges that some people use the word “spiritual” or “spirituality” in constructive, life-enhancing ways (e.g., Pierre Hadot, for whom “spiritual exercises” are part of philosophy as a way of life). Aside from such rare instances of spirituality, contemporary spirituality does make us stupid, selfish, and unhappy.
There is a cafeteria/buffet style of pluralism and syncretism that allows spiritual people to pick and choose what they want and don’t want from each tradition (even picking things that aren’t compatible). This apparent inclusivity and openness harbors some serious anti-intellectualism. Debates between competing truth claims? Those are only for religious people (dogmatists, fanatics) or for materialists (spiritually immature reductionists). Truly spiritual people transcend debates by participating in the perennial truth of mystic unity.
In short, spirituality is “faith-lite” (17). Whereas religion (or Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”) makes heavy demands on practitioners to adjust their thinking, feeling, and acting to fit with what’s been revealed according to the tradition, spirituality doesn’t make such demands, and it thereby makes us stupid or at least intellectually lazy. It also makes us selfish.
Institutions (religious and secular) are forces of community building and organizing. Spirituality is about a personalized inner journey to the true nature of the self. That privileging of interiority makes spiritual people less engaged in social and political activities. “Spirituality cedes the world to the worldly” (7).
Ironically, while critiquing consumerist materialism, the only kind of community that spirituality engenders is consumerist community, where members are all buying the same kind of magazines and meditation retreat packages, patronizing similar therapists and life-coaches. Spirituality sells happiness, but that happiness is not authentic. Webster follows the existentialist approach to happiness, for which happiness can only be attained by resolutely facing one’s own finitude and mortality. Spirituality doesn’t face the fear and loathing of existence, the abyss. Instead, it covers over the abyss with easy answers about an immortal soul or about happiness coming from within. When happiness comes from within, you don’t have to worry about the countless others outside of your spiritual bubble who are far from happy. Thus privatized, happiness becomes the name for a rather unjust and miserable way to live.
Webster’s diagnosis of contemporary spirituality is great, and I appreciate his appeal to existentialism. I also appreciate that he teaches religion and seems to have an extensive knowledge of South Asian religions. However, there are a few big problems with his analysis. First, his existentialism sounds too humanistic (too Sartrean, not enough Kierkegaard or Heidegger). Although he attempts to distance his position from humanism in the concluding two paragraphs of the book (too little, too late!), he only distances himself from the British Humanist Associations version of humanism, and even then it’s a very small distance. Webster seems to think that, if we want/need rituals, “then we are as capable of inventing them without spirituality and religion as we have been when we invented them as part of religious traditions” (75). Who is this rather capable “we”? It is a bunch of humans, as if the plants, animals, seasons, songs, and dances involved in rituals are so involved solely because of human inventiveness, and not because of any other-than-human power (which doesn’t have to be God or Being, but could also be the agency of plants and animals).
Along with Webster’s humanism, his atheism is also a problem. Let me put it another way: he gives no account of the ontological weight of angels, spirits, and God. Maybe angels and deities don’t exist, but how do they have the impacts and effects they do? Belief is one thing, but what about self-declared “spiritual” people who are actually having visions and encounters with these things? Are we just going to chalk it up to hallucination? Imagination? If so, what is the ontological significance of a hallucination or of image? Even if they’re hallucinations, they’re still powerful, and not something to be dismissed as if they’re merely a facade for anti-intellectualism or death-denial. On this point, I think a better critique of spirituality is given in that book that Webster would have liked to write, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter S. Thompson critiques theism, Satanism, and hippy spirituality while still honoring the reality (or hyperreality) of hallucinations, images, and even God.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking book. It’s short, accessible, and clever. I’ll probably use it for teaching my course on society and religion.