Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Man is nothing but what he makes of himself"

Jean-Paul Sartre's essay “Existentialism” from Existentialism and Human Emotions explains the problem that stems from Sartre's assertion that “consciousness brings nothingness into being by questioning being.” Sartre's atheistic existentialism argues that God's existence is not relevant to discussing human values, using subjectivity as the starting point for evaluating how we find meaning in existence. For atheist existentialists “existence precedes essence.” Instead of a definable human nature predetermined by God, existentialists acknowledge the absence and nothingness in living with freedom and possibility that his absence highlights. Finding meaning in freedom requires individuals to continue define their essence in response to the conditions of their existence. A tension arises between defining one's essence in relation to one's existence which is already an unstable concept due to the nature of self reflection and subsequently defining one's essence in relation to the existence of others. Subjectivity becomes a dilemma for an individual because ultimately “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre 345).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Machine Culture of the Gilded Age

Machine
"Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless."
-Thomas Edison

The industrial innovations during the Gilded Age created a paradoxical tension between Man and Machine. While man is the sum of his “feelings, passions, perceptions” and a machine is an “artificial inanimate mechanism,” the ideas of how each affected each other came into question and blurred some of the distinctions between the two. Both highlighted contradictory truths about their possibilities. The power of machines expanded the powers of man but also adopt the flaws of their creators and consumers. A contradiction emerges when we can no longer determine where the consequences of machines begin to work against human nature, given that they are a artificial creation of a humans that are undoubtedly part of nature themselves.
Thomas Edison's moving picture camera allowed the body to become the subject of study. Through the mechanistic camera we learned much more about how mechanistic the body itself is. The camera also expanded man's ability to perceive things, bringing images from around the world to a screen. Technology is exciting because it is an extension of many of man's natural abilities. Though man is different from machine because he has “free will, consciousness, and rationality,” it is also recognized that he is much like a machine because he is “mechanistic and predetermined by instincts and habits.” In many ways our observation enabled us to hone the potential of the body. Body image becomes a more prevalent element of American society as audiences begin to see body builders and boxers in Edison's videos. We learn to embrace the idea of controlling our bodies like a fleshy machine that must be conditioned properly in order to function to the fullest capacity.
"If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed.
I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."
-Thomas Edison
The excerpt from Dagobert D. Runes' The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison has Edison explaining his Sunday on July 12, 1885, as a day of leisure where he spends his day pursuing a variety of intellectual tasks having been freed from the duty of physical labor. In many ways machines have “liberated the body from harsh labor for existence” and “enhanced, augmented, and expanded” the body's power. He notes that we have even “electricity employed to cheat a poor hen out of the pleasures of maternity. Machine-born chickens! What is home without a mother?”
"I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill."
-Thomas Edison
Even though Edison recognized how technology removed human beings and other animals from nature in a way that protected them from the “pain, discomfort, and inconveniences” of the “forces of nature,” he also seemed to recognize that it somehow “separates and alienates us from nature.” In the Gilded Age many people feared how technology would dehumanize individuals and society. 

One word: Terrifying.
Ignatius Donnelly's dystopian novel Caesar's Column exhibits the anxiety of the era towards technology's degenerative tendencies on humans. Technology changes the power that men have and how dramatic the effects of their actions change as a result of this disconnect.
Jack London's “The Apostate” (1906) is an account of a factory that demonstrated how brutalizing the effects of a machine could have on degrading the human body. Routinized systems suppressed the conscious being in man and treated him as no more than a machine. The machines that should liberate the worker, Johnny, instead enslave him to an occupation controlled by the machine. Monotony mutes the pain of others as Johnny ignores a boy next to him who is whimpering while “it seemed to him as useless to oppose the overseer as to defy the will of a machine.”
Jacob Riis' photographs of industrial life exhibited how work weighed on the psychological and physical health of workers, even child laborers, at the time. An individual's purpose becomes dangerously linked the function they perform in labor. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times exhibits the absurdity of using man as part of machine. His madness from overwork shows the disconnect from humanity created by man's own invention. Ultimately, the workings of the factory stem from the human choices of the omnipotent President of the Electro Steel Company, who gives directions via screen to the workers but is completely removed from his actions by the functions of the machine. Consequently, he ignores the effects the assembly has on his human work force, using them as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves.

Captain Alfred T. Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1893, exemplifies how technology transforms the ability of a nation towards growth of industry even in overseas trade. However, a problematic human problem arises when technology increases the ability to wage war as well as trade. Imperialism and colonization represent the use of technological advantage to create a separate between citizens and the consequences of their actions. He argues how seapower can control the colonies “in peace, the influence of the government should be felt in promoting by all means a warmth of attachment and a unity of interest which will make the welfare of one the welfare of all.” However, “in war, or rather for war, by inducing such measures of organization and defence as shall be felt by all to be a fair distribution of a burden of which each reaps the benefit.”

Henry Charles Merwin's “On Being Civilized Too Much” in 1897 worried that industrialization would detach man from his instincts. He argues that the dullness the machine brings to man through industrialization could end in “the possibility of an impending disaster stemming from a loss of visceral reactions to the world.” F.W. Taylor's “Principles of Scientific Management” demonstrates how the machine caused management of production to become a such scientific process that the worker became dependent upon the “help of those who are over him” to understand his work. These feared that technology will make us either dull or dumb, losing either our empathy or intelligence through a subservience to these supposedly civilized devices. Almost every advance in technology was met by critics that deplored the effect that each invention would have on the country's moral character, deploring things as tame as the bicycle to be a public menace and a “tool of Satan.”


Theodore Roosevelt's “Conservation Message” in his address to the 60th Congress' first session in 1907, exhibits this recognition that economic prosperity and industrial innovation not only threatened to detach man from his fellow human beings and his own human nature but from coexisting peaceful with nature and its natural resources as well. His speech bridges the tension between the goals of development and preservation. He asserts that the federal government has an obligation to “conservationism.” Conservation embraces the “application of science and engineering to the responsible development of natural resources” while preservation, preferred by the likes of the Sierra Club's founder John Muir, laid more importance on the “aesthetic and spiritual virtues of the unspoiled wilderness.” Thomas Cole's “The Course of Empire” paintings exhibit the fragility of nature's relationship to human advances in technology and its destructive problems. The paintings may seem a bit like an exaggerated doomsday warning but it best represents Roosevelt's argument about conservation and consumerism that “Optimism is a good characteristic, but if carried to an excess it becomes foolishness.” He argues that consumption cannot consider resources inexhaustible and that technology must play a role in enabling conservation.
Anna R. Weeks' The Divorce of Man from Nature displays the kind of realistic optimism that Roosevelt's policies required. She recognized a need to address “burgeoning urbanization with civic responsibility.” While she recognized that there was a moral importance to a “spiritual relationship between man and land,” she also hoped for an “ideal socialist, globalized, technology based future.” She outlines a tension between the difference of living in relationship with the advantages of technology in the city versus the spiritual connection fostered with the land with farmers. She argues that technological advances and the culture that connects men in the cities can be spiritually beneficial just as much as the relationship that a farmer has to the land he works. She says “Cumulative modern invention and cumulative psychic light are intensely unifying the race.” She asserts that technology can change the function of our society for the better, affirming that “Electricity, aluminum, and the thought force promise to serve us far more in the future than as yet.” She equates the future's technological infrastructure as being comparable to a “new Eden” with “roads, the bicycle, the telegraph, the telephone, the ocean cable, pneumatic tires, air ships, electric cars, and telepathy” which will “keep us near one another and near our needs.” 

Cowboy Culture of the Gilded Age

Outlaw
Encouraging individual freedom has been one of the defining features of American culture. The country's creation experienced the violent birth pains of a rebelling against England, forming an American ideal about rebelling against authority. The American Civil War showed us another aspect of this rebellious reaction to the constraints of law and society, as both sides erupted in violence that attempted to address what each side perceived as a dangerous threats to the social order. The outlaw archetype of violating the law for the greater good of society against authority framed both the arguments of John Brown and Jefferson Davis in asserting their right to transcend and defy the law in order to express and act upon their support for ideals of freedom. Economic, political, social and personal freedom/rebellion have become major and often mythologized element of the American character. During the Gilded Age, “Cowboy Capitalism” becomes a great but conflicted mythology supporting the American rebellious and resourceful spirit.





The Boy Scouts of America Handbook does not present itself as a rebellious document but it is still appeals to the sense of the rugged individualism that we associate with the cowboy. The Boy Scout Handbook provides useful skills that find commonality between the two different worlds that the adventuring cowboy negotiates his time learning skills to use on the frontier to survive in the wilderness or using in modern society's social and technological resources. The handbook appeals to numerous archetypal examples of chivalry from history, citing Ancient Knights, Pilgrims, Pioneers like “Johnny Appleseed” and Daniel Boone, Knights of the Round Table, the Founding Fathers, and Abraham Lincoln. While these provide us examples of America extolling the importance of self-reliance and a resourceful relationship to nature in all parts of modern society, it remains unclear how the cowboy myth became so closely with the moral virtues of America's chivalrous knight while also connecting American individualism to the the concept of the “outlaw.” The handbook acknowledges that their examples of chivalrous men are not the only heroes in the struggle between right and wrong. The handbook outlines the idea of the continuance of the chivalrous knight's “Struggle for Freedom” as being a “revolt against oppression” for countries like France, Germany, and the United States.


Andrew Carnegie's “Gospel of Wealth” affirms capitalism's support for the “intense Individualism” reflected in the cowboy character. Carnegie equates the change from previous approaches of work represents “not evolution, but revolution.” He argues that this change can improve the structure of society but it is imperfect. He argues that those who criticize capitalists for not perfecting man's ideal, favor the destruction of “Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation, and the Law of Competition.” Despite his “outlaw” status, the cowboy archetype abides by these values of American Capitalism even if he may break the country's actual laws from time to time. The cowboy's rebellious attitude is summed up by Carnegie's question “What is the proper mode of administering wealth after the laws upon which civilization is found have thrown it into the hands of the few?” He debates between different methods of how to deal with wealth between families but resolves the question by asserting that free markets will create conditions that encourages individuals to take responsibility for their work and wealth. He argues that man is “destined” to “solve the problem of the Rich and Poor,” and says the Gospel of Wealth echoes Jesus Christ by bringing “Peace on earth, among men good will.” 


Owen Wister's “Evolution of a Cow Puncher” describes a man toughened by pioneering. With guns, booze, and smokes, the cow puncher he describes embraces individualistic vices just as easily as Carnegie might assume he would embrace capitalist virtues. Wister's description of this “evolution” is difficult to discern from Carnegie's “revolution.” The description of the reality of a cowboy's work is much less glamorous as our dramatic mythology makes the cowboy myth out to be however. While the cowboy is painted as a revolutionary figure in American culture, Wister's description of a cowboys skills and work as a tiresome and busy adventure without the glory and valorization we have given him. Even with the cowboy acknowledging that the American was a “bad man,” his work is less antagonistic as we would like to believe. He may spend time avoiding “the provincial eye” or the “nobleman,” cattle herding and traveling embodied the American ideal of self-government and common law. The cowboy transforms from an aristocrat to a democratized English lord in touch with his instincts as soon as he “smelt Texas.” He is “fundamentally kin with the drifting vagabonds who swore and galloped by his side.” However Wister even tells us not to lament the loss of the cow puncher as a descendant of Anglo-Saxon chivalrous knight for “He has never made a good citizen, but only a good soldier.” Frederick Jackson Turner's “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” demonstrates the need for growth in American capitalism that required expansion into the frontier and questioned what this change would do to the American moral character. America faced this question as the frontier closed off: what would the cowboy do with this spiritual connection to nature now that he could no longer expand?





W.E.B. DuBois's “Souls of White Folk” acknowledges this desire to be disconnected from judgment for our character, hiding “high in the tower” from “above the loud complaining of the human sea.” The “triumphs” of the cowboy and the expansion of the American territory are built upon wars taking away from Natives and foreigners in the name of expanding civilization. Letting the “noblemen” run the country leads to “Rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form” as Glave writes American imperialism shows us in 1895. DuBois notes that American imperialism and American capitalism has made the white man “wretched” in his failures that stem from his triumphs. Individualism and pride, DuBois notes is fine, but he says the white man should not be surprised when after asserting proudly that “I am white!” that DuBois will respond just as proudly, “I am black!”






Teddy Roosevelt and this guy, Charles Eastman,
founded the Boy Scouts of America during the Gilded Age. 
Charles Eastman's perspective as a Native American reflects the reasons behind his efforts to found the Boy Scouts of America. He assess the conflict between Native Americans and the settling white men as a “misunderstanding as to the selfish greed of the white man.” He argues that civilization itself has been mistaken for “struggle for existence” as a struggle with fellow men instead of a struggle with the forces of nature. The desire for both groups to find a simple system instead of the complexities of modern civilization has created. He argues that his identity as an Indian connects to the simple sense of “right and justice” while civilization's progress can be more “along social and spiritual lines, rather than those of commerce, nationalism, or material efficiency.” Cowboy mythology connects to this same ideal of connecting with nature in the way that the Native American's relationship had been.



William Dean Howells' “Editha” illustrates the complications of the American rebel spirit's conditioning of the character of men. While Editha encourages her fiancee to become a “manly figure worthy of her love and sacrifice” the “timid attachment to sentimental prejudices” causes George Gearson to become a “stranger who slightly frightens her.” Though Gearson longs to become a moral character, originally considering to become a minister and pacifist becomes a military hero because he is a “moral coward.” His “moral complicity” with the nationalist desires is his downfall in his relationship with Editha and with national life. Howells highlights how sensationalism encouraged the Spanish-American war by affirming the conflict as part of the American spirit. Roosevelt embraces the image of the cowboy that makes him a war hero and eventually president. The dehumanization of foreign societies in later conflicts during the Roosevelt administration would further complicate the notion of imperialism's corrupting cowboy attitude and the effect it had in defining the goals of the country. John Gast's “American Progress” (1872) exemplifies how the connection to chivalry extends to defending Manifest Destiny as a pure woman. This functions as a moral justification for even the darkest points of American expansionism. Self-government becomes a problem of perception of others' wrong doing. When Editha asks him whether war for the sake of liberation from oppression is not glorious, Gearson replies “I suppose so” and asks, “But war! Is it glorious to break the peace of the world?” She responds “That ignoble peace! It was no peace at all, with that crime and shame at our very gates.”


Valuing individualism in the name of liberation from oppression causes the cowboy/outlaw/social bandit to become a lauded figure in Gilded Age society. Edwin S. Porter's “The Great Train Robbery” shows that the cowboy figure's lawlessness was at least entertaining to the audience in 1903. Andy Adams' outlines the relationship between The Rebel and John Officer in Log of a Cowboy's “The Wild West: A Visit to Dodge City.” The outlaw's rebellious consumption is his means of asserting power. He gambles, drinks, smokes and totes his gun in front of an officer who can't arrest him for his lawless behavior as a bandit because he is only consuming legally in front of the officer with his ill-gotten gains and escapes a fight toting his carbine and riding his horse. His actions are as conspicuous as the Frederic Thompson's “carnival spirit.” In his futile attempt to find the culprit in the papers, John Officer burns the articles and laments, “Good whiskey and bad women will be the ruin of you varmints yet.”

Visual Culture of the Gilded Age

As industrialization and innovation increased productivity and the possibility of new products, consumer culture became increasingly more public and concerned with the role of seeing and being seen in the social and economic marketplace of the Gilded Age. Social relationships became more defined by a concern for one's own appearance and using appearances to assess others. Though products became more efficient through mass production, individual consumers became more concerned with uniqueness compared to producer goals of creating maximum efficiency. Beyond consumer goods, the Gilded Age saw a dramatic increase in the amount of spectacles and entertainment available. Technology created new visual art forms such as films. Prosperity propelled new potential places for people to see each other at parks, public performances, spectacles in the city and in other carnival-like atmospheres. People were seeing more of the potential possibilities that a capitalist consumer society could provide for them.
Frederic Thompson's account of creating “carnival spirit” at amusement parks gives us a good example of how American consumerism steered society towards creating successful visual communication and how it transformed the relationship between “performers” and their audiences. The spontaneous feel of a carnival creates an illusion of chaos while actually requiring an careful planning a manufactured experience. Thompson's “Amusing the Millions” suggests that visible displays of “decency” and “speed” along with “enthusiasm” are important to the success parks and carnivals as spectacles. P.T. Barnum acknowledged that his role in society was a performance of sorts for the public saying 
I'm a showman by profession...and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”
Visual culture in the Gilded Age revealed a paradox in the American experience. Consumer culture obscured the reality of the country and created illusions about society using the very technologies that had been “promised to reveal hidden realities.”

Thorstin Veblen's “The Economic Theory of Women's Dress” vilifies “conspicuous consumption” of commodities, specifically women's dresses, for exalting a “barbarian” feature of a “culture of adornment.” Veblen scorns the Gilded Age leisure class culture's valuing unnecessary goods for looks rather than their usefulness. Though “wearers and buyers of these wasteful goods desire to waste,” Veblen argues that the display of waste is meant to indicate the ability to pay. Veblen outlines “expensiveness,” “novelty,” and “ineptitude” as the three principle reasons why conspicuous consumption of clothing becomes wasteful and inefficient. Issues of patriarchy and social status are overshadowed by a natural desire to be on display. Emulation, imitation, and a comparative culture makes visible culture a “gilded” means of consuming.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued in Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relationship Between Men and Women as a Factor of Social Evolution, that the culture of consumption traps women in the role of consumption rather than allowing them to be creative. She notes despite the evolution of labor, society's rules still “carefully maintain among us an enormous class of non-productive consumers.” She argues that the “personal selfishness” in a “market for sensuous decoration and personal ornament” is deadly to “true industry and true art.”

Although consumer society propelled growth in the country's economy, Jacob Riis' photographs of tenement yards illustrated the side of capitalism's effect on those who could not afford to pay for the luxury of waste like the leisure class. The creation of the camera enables Riis to highlight the reality of living in the city in spite of the grand spectacles that promised the grand possibilities within the city. 

Thomas Edison's invention of the first working motion picture camera further accelerated the ability of visual culture to observe reality objectively. Edison's invention had the effect on expression, education, and entertainment that made telling truth from tale more transparent. It created a society that looked upon itself more than ever, reflecting with more self-awareness. The observation of the world around us became more possible as a result of using Edison's movies to examine some of the most basic elements of our lives with a more substantial and objective tool of visualization than was possible to the naked eye. 
While Edison hired William Kennedy Laurie Dickson to film real people to observe reality, Dickson and Edison learned quickly how to use visual efforts to embellish for the sake of spectacle. Edison's notorious electrocution of an elephant to demonstrate how dangerous Nikola Tesla's AC current was to promote Edison's more dangerous DC current system. This act demonstrated how dangerous Edison's technology had become to obscuring how we look to tell truth.
Temple University Founder Russell Conwell's “Acres of Diamonds” speech argues that the resources for success could be found in one's own community. He starts the speech with an anecdote he learned in Baghdad about a man who sold his home to search for diamonds. The new owner finds diamonds on the property and Conwell encourages his audience to “dig in your own back-yard!” when looking for opportunities, success, and fortune. Conwell's commentary on why we glorify generals exemplifies the strength and subtleties of symbolic culture, arguing that the statues of generals honor not only the men we see but also the numerous but effectively anonymous group of men they represent as soldiers in a shared struggle.


Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois' struggle over issues of representing African-Americans is similar to Conwell's question of how the emerging visual culture emphasizes individuals who symbolically represent groups. DuBois' Souls of Black Folk exemplifies how the elite and educated “talented tenth” of the black community ought to use education as a means of setting the example of how black intellectuals present themselves to American society. Double consciousness exemplifies how the culture of “looking” creates social and economic inequality. Washington's criticism of DuBois in his Atlanta Address in 1895 shows how the struggle to adequately represent a complex community through individuals becomes a consequence of this culture of looking. Washington's “cast down your bucket where you are” attitude echoes Conwell's idea of looking carefully enough at our surroundings to make the most of our situation. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 demonstrates how shallow the possibility of succeeding in American society was for its most marginalized members. Segregation exhibited the worst side of a culture which defined aptitude and ability based on appearance. Racist mythology deceived us by spreading the belief that appearance was an issue that could somehow reveal the truth about someone's nature. “Separate but equal” became an effort to create the illusion of equality rather than achieving it. Nevertheless, the mythology of American civilization's promise of material prosperity continued despite its rotten, racist core.


Theodore Roosevelt's The Strenuous Life made the American Dream into a ideal Americans could visualize for society around the world. Imagery of the prosperity of civilization became a major propaganda point for pushing imperialist invasions in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hawaii. Political cartoons produced an agenda driven effort to portray these territories as uncivilized societies which required American intervention. Racialized caricatures manipulated the American public into intervening for its own interests without regard for the people they intended to colonize.
William Jennings Bryan condemned the US occupation of the Philippines in 1900 at the Indianapolis Democratic Convention and pointed out that though the war was sold under the façade of building up their society while colonization would refuse to educate Filipinos for fear of revolt. He highlights that the war would bring profit to “army contractors...ship owners...those who seize upon the franchises...officials whose salaries would be fixt here and paid over there.” Meanwhile, the illusion of shared sacrifice and success in the war will “bring expenditure without return and risk without reward” to the “farmer...laboring man and to the vast majority of those engaged in other occupations.” Bryan warns his audience “be not deceived.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jean-Paul Sartre on Subjectivity

“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself”

Jean-Paul Sartre's essay “Existentialism” from Existentialism and Human Emotions explains the problem that stems from Sartre's assertion that “consciousness brings nothingness into being by questioning being.” Sartre's atheistic existentialism argues that God's existence is not relevant to discussing human values, using subjectivity as the starting point for evaluating how we find meaning in existence. For atheist existentialists “existence precedes essence.” Instead of a definable human nature predetermined by God, existentialists acknowledge the absence and nothingness in living with freedom and possibility that his absence highlights. Finding meaning in freedom requires individuals to continue define their essence in response to the conditions of their existence. A tension arises between defining one's essence in relation to one's existence which is already an unstable concept due to the nature of self reflection and subsequently defining one's essence relation to the existence of others. Subjectivity becomes a dilemma for an individual because ultimately “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre 345).
Subjectivity: Private Subjectivity/Transcendent Subjectivity
Sartre argues, “The word subjectivism has two meanings, and our opponents play on the two. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, that an individual chooses and makes himself; and, on the other that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity. The second of these is essential to the meaning of existentialism”(346). Subjectivity arises from the perceptions people have of existence as defined by the individuality of Descartes' cogito. The problem becomes that self reflection becomes the only certainty individuals have in defining their meaning and existence. “I think; therefore, I exist” becomes the philosophical starting point for Sartre because private subjectivity shows a person what is possible within themselves (357). Sartre's writings Creative Conformity: Descartes and Being and Nothingness would outline “Cartesian Freedom” as two kinds of freedom “(i) creative or productive freedom and (ii) conformative 'freedom'”(Kadir 51). The tension between those that believe in God and atheist existentialists described in “Existentialism” stems from the ambiguity of God's existence combined with a need for absolute morality. This disagreement arises because “The freedom which Descartes ascribes to God, Sartre reserves for man”(52).

"I have no need for good souls: an accomplice is what I wanted."

The existentialist “thinks it very distressing that God does not exist” (Sartre 349). Without a god there can no longer be an a priori Good. Existentialists argue that the framework of God as a concept to transcend human subjectivity in creating “secular ethics” around the concept of God. Without god, atheist existentialists argue that there is no essence to compare to for the meaning of existence, existence finds its essence in private subjectivity.

"You must be afraid, my son.
That is how one becomes an honest citizen."

Sartre argues that the loss of God is why anguish occurs when the existentialist is posed by the impossibility of transcending human subjectivity through private subjectivity. We understand that our reflection through private subjectivity could be flawed in a way that makes us blind to or otherwise unable to accept our actions' consequences. Taking responsibility for freedom requires acknowledging that one's actions can be wrong despite our belief that “we can never choose evil” (346). We act in “bad faith” and lie to ourselves about the consequences or we accept our subjective reality acting with “anguish, forlornness, despair” like Abraham (347). Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling exemplifies how this anguish transforms Abraham's action from a question of ethics to a transcendent religious belief. Sartre argues “every man ought to say to himself, 'Am I really the kind of man who has the right to act in such a way that humanity might guide itself by my actions?' And if he does not say that to himself, he is masking his anguish”(349).

"If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company."

Sartre argues that existentialism is criticized not for “pessimism” but for “optimistic toughness” (356). The coward is responsible for being a coward just as much as a hero is responsible for being a hero. Although man's “private subjectivity” is the “point of departure,” existentialism is not a “philosophy of quietism, since it defines man in terms of action;”(357). Sartre's existentialism meets criticism for its “radical position on the totality of human freedom” (King 19).

Whether distrusting a belief in God, deceiving private subjectivity, or denying the destiny of mankind, the burden of freedom becomes that man is “condemned every moment to invent man.”(Sartre 350). Sartre argues that accepting the responsibility inherent in defining one's freedom with the pressures of creating meaning in life. To act is to assert a universal value or to negate universal values in a way that attempts to transcend human subjectivity. For Sartre “freedom is absolute, or it is not at all. Man is deeply influenced by his family and environment, but he freely chooses how he will relate to this influence” (King 19).

"Man is condemned to be free; 
because once thrown into the world, 
he is responsible for everything he does."
Absolute Freedom?: Three Objections
Sartre addresses three objections to existentialism directly in an attempt to explain how humanism transcends human subjectivity. Critics argue that existentialism makes constructing moral values impossible given the arbitrary nature of subjective perspective. Sartre mocks the idea that acknowledging freedom of choice means “So you're able to do anything, no matter what!” (Sartre 360). Sartre compares making moral choices to “making a work of art” in that it is clear there is no definite painting to be made. There is no a priori rule to art but “we never say that a work of art is arbitrary” (361). This is why Sartre rejects the first definition of Humanism as honoring man as a higher value. He rejects the idea that we can think of man as an end because he is always in the making. Man's good creations are not evidence for the good nature of his a priori essence but rather a reflection upon what he has made of his freedom and choices in his existence.

The second objection Sartre imitates is that with existentialism “You're unable to pass judgment on others, because there's no reason to prefer on configuration to another” (360). Sartre's definition of Humanism makes clear that reflection on others is necessary to construct subjective value in a society. By choosing who we associate with we are making choices about what we do with our freedom. There is choice with consequence, though subjective reality might make us blame circumstance. Sartre says by recognizing that “existence precedes essence” a free human being realizes that he is obliged to want freedom for others (363).

Sartre's atheist existentialism laments the loss of God as an absolute authority on right and wrong who can grant an individual absolution from the responsibility of freedom and choice. Sartre addresses a third criticism that in existentialism that “Everything is arbitrary in this choosing of yours. You take something from one pocket and pretend you're putting it into the other” (360). Existentialism simply points out the arbitrary nature of any choice of how we use our freedom. Even with the arbitrary decision to choose to discard God “there has to be someone to invent values.” Existentialists reject the belief that if there is no a priori purpose to life that somehow “fundamentally, values aren't serious, since you choose them” (365).

"Commitment is an act, not a word."

Sartre outlines existentialism as a constructive philosophy to define Humanism. His second definition of Humanism reflects the idea of how to transcend human subjectivity by arguing that being a humanist requires “acknowledging that man is constantly outside himself.” Sartre's philosophy acknowledges the difficulty in defining our relationship to the Other but ultimately finds Humanism as a hopeful promise for cooperation. The concept of “passing-beyond” individual subjectivity and transcending into the human universe allows for the “particular fulfillment” of “liberation”(366). A man who can make freedom for himself can make freedom for others. Existentialism is an optimistic “doctrine of action” which should not be seen as in despair over how the existence of God affects human essence. Man's existence provides the possibility of defining man's essence on his own and through his efforts with others.


"For an occurrence to become an adventure, 
it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it."


Works Cited

Kadir, Kazi A. Sartre & God. Karachi, Pakistan. Al-Ilm Agencies, 1975. Print.

King, Thomas M. Sartre and the Sacred. Chicago, 1974. The University of Chicago Press. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism. ”Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: The Modern Library, 2004. Print.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality


Why does man, 
according to Nietzsche, 
“suffer of man, of himself?”

Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death and the Fear and Trembling of Abraham



"Is despair an excellence or a defect? Purely dialectically, it is both.” 

-Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus that despair is the “sickness unto death.” Despair emerges from a “misrelation in that relation which is for itself also reflects itself infinitely in the relation to the power that established it”(43). Humans fear death because they misrelate the limitations of their finite existence with the infinite possibilities that exist before God. This misrelation without God leads an individual to either neglect or wrongfully focus attention on the existence of a self which they realize is either finite or infinite. This misrelation, while a defect that manifests itself as despair, also reveals the existence of a self, which can be turned into an excellence.
To Kierkegaard, consciousness of self means that “consequently to be able to despair is an infinite advantage and yet to be in despair is not only the worst misfortune and misery—no, it is ruination.” (43). While despair confirms our existence as spiritual beings, Kierkegaard outlines that despair is a “sickness of the spirit” that manifests itself in three forms: “despair not to be conscious of having a self, despair not to will to be oneself and despair to will to be oneself” (42).

“Despair not to be conscious of having a self” is ignorance of existence of the spirit. Kierkegaard considers this a misrelation of the finite to the finite. He says pagans and non-Christians enjoy earthly pleasures that are balanced by the earthly fear of sickness and death; their despair stems from an inability to see the world and themselves as infinite possibilities of the self. While Socrates argues that sin is ignorance, Christians believe that we do not know sins until we accept Christ and have faith in God. Even though in ignorance a person can be happy, Kierkegaard argues that they are still in despair because they have misrelated their existence and do not know the truth of the existence of a self (73).
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (1590-1610)
Oil on canvas made in 1603.
“Despair not to will to be oneself” is a misrelation between the self as it currently exists to the previous concept of lacking consciousness of an eternal self, desire for an idealized future self, or a wish to have a completely different self. An individual relates their seemingly “temporal” self to a comparison of their “eternal” concept of themselves, whether past, present, or future (81). The comparison never resolves the despair because they never consider their current self as worthy of the eternal self of which they are now conscious. “Despair not to will to be oneself” either concerns itself with finitude or “despair over the earthly,” where the self cannot understand the unknown concept of eternal beyond life on earth. “Despair over the earthly” would be why one fears death or any other problems with existence on earth (87). “Despair over the earthly” leads one to fear their concept of a finite self as a weakness, and believes itself therefore unworthy of the eternal or God. Conversely, one can also despair over the infinite existence of an eternal self wishing for finitude or at least, another self.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt (1606–1669) 
Oil on canvas made in 1635 
“Despair to will to be oneself” is to accept despair as a reality for the self but attempts to alleviate despair by acting upon the self. In despairing to will to be oneself, a self will “bestow infinite interest and significance upon his enterprises” despite the fact that their finitude makes them essentially “imaginary constructions” (100). The self pays attention to itself becoming its own “imaginatively constructed god.” However, even in the effort to strengthen the self through this process the self nevertheless is in despair. Kierkegaard outlines an even more intense form of this despair that becomes “demonic” as the self reflects upon itself in a way that rejects the nature of existence (103). The demonic self blames eternity for harming his quest to become the “infinite abstraction of the self” which he believes has now become so “concrete.” The self wills its despair to define its existence and in defiance rejects the God which offers him forgiveness (105).

Despair is a problem of either necessity eliminating a self’s ability to see possibility or possibility undermining a self’s conception of necessity. Understanding the synthesis between these concepts of self requires belief in God in Anti-Climacus’s religious opinion to understand that “actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity” (66).

However, this unity reveals the paradox in the human condition stemming from despair. Reflection upon the self reveals that despair is the result of misrelation to the synthesis of the self reflecting upon itself. The despair continues even when a self recognizes that it exists “before God.” Realization of self acknowledges the freedom given to the self but also leads us to reflect on the possibility of our misuse of this freedom, which without God will lead us to despair. However, just because despair reveals this synthesis does not mean that the synthesis itself is the cause of despair.

Kierkegaard implies that the “sickness unto death” is man’s creation. God only reveals to us that we are living in the sin of despair but he did not create the sickness. Kierkegaard acknowledges that despair is default for self-conscious beings but he argues that this consciousness makes them realize that it is a sin to be in despair before God. However, this realization and existence of sin is not an absence of virtue. To not acknowledge this sin would be a defect but Kierkegaard argues that with faith in God, Christians can overcome this sickness and make it an excellence. He argues that sin is not action but rather a state of mind that can be corrected. He argues that in order to do this we must reject the sin of despairing over sinfulness, we must reject the sin of refusing to believe in forgiveness and we must reject the sin of rejecting God’s teachings.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer (1936-present)
Handcolored etching made in 1997. 
Anti-Climacus's religious viewpoint is that being in despair over the self can only be resolved in embracing the absurdity of faith in infinite possibility through God. He says, “If only the abstract idea of despair is considered, without any thought of someone in despair, it must be regarded as a surpassing excellence. The possibility of this sickness is man's superiority over the animal and this superiority distinguishes in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit” (43).

Although viewpoints and ideas between Kierkegaard's pseudonyms differ, Johannes de Silentio's example of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac embodies Anti-Climacus's argument about how God helps us turn despair into an excellence. The infinite misrelation between the possibility of teleological suspension of the ethical and necessity of an absolute to god could have led Abraham to despair. He could choose to ignore his responsibility or despair over the consequences of defying the universal or despair over his despair to defy God for himself. Instead, Abraham embraces the absurdity of the task he has been asked to perform and acknowledges his actions as sin through his “fear and trembling.” He has faith in his absolute duty to God, becoming a knight of faith. Instead of despairing over actuality's absurd possibility and dreadful necessity, Abraham's acknowledgment of his sin combined with his faith in forgiveness of the self before God allows him to overcome the defect of despair through embracing the eternal excellence that will heal the “sickness unto death.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Philadelphia's Reaction to Mayor Nutter: The Politics of Permits, Policing, Sexual Assault, and Civil Disobedience

While Mayor Michael Nutter's comments about reevaluating the city's relationship with Occupy Philadelphia have sparked media attention for the movement, it remains uncertain what the confrontation between city government and the Occupy movement will look like going forward.

Occupy Philadelphia hosted a press conference on Monday, November 14 at 1 p.m. at Dilworth Plaza to respond to Mayor Nutter's allegation that the movement was no longer cooperating and communicating with city officials.

Nutter said in a news conference on Sunday that, “The people of Occupy Philly have changed and their intentions have changed. All of this is not good for Philadelphia. We must change our relationship with them.” He said that "it is abundantly clear that 'Occupy Philadelphia' is in violation of the terms of its permit which requires it as an organization to observe our city ordinances ," posing safety hazards and sanity issues along with reports of thefts and violent assaults at the protest, . Nutter said that “misconduct is not free speech. The behavior that we're now seeing is running squarely against the needs of our city that also represents the very real 99 percent. As Mayor of Philadelphia, I represent the 99 percent also.”

Jody Dodd spoke on behalf of the movement's Legal Collective and attributed the failure of communication to the city's lack of sufficient information about the terms of the occupation's permit, affecting the General Assembly's decision to stay stationed at Dilworth Plaza.

“The original members of the Legal Collective have been joined by additional people committed to working for economic and social justice,” said Dodd. “We have not changed. The mayor's attitude has. We do, however, agree with the Mayor that we can and will continue to maintain open lines of communication to further the work of Occupy Philadelphia.”

On Sunday, November 13, Mayor Nutter announced he would be increasing police presence at the Dilworth Plaza after arresting a man for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman in a tent at the protest.

Amanda Geraci spoke on behalf of the Women's Caucus, responding critically to the mayor's approach to addressing the problem of sexual assault. Geraci said, “We are concerned with the contradictory statements that the police and the mayor have made to the media about their support for the occupy movement, while simultaneously withholding support for situations of physical and sexual violence. The recent demonizing and vilifying of the Occupy movement in the media is a scapegoating of the problems and violence that plague our communities and cities daily." She also noted that in the last two weeks there had been 28 other sexual assaults in the city and asked rhetorically why Mayor Nutter had not held press conferences for any of those incidents.
Geraci added that the city's solution to problems at the protest reflect what they perceive to be the flawed solutions and expectations of the Philadelphia Police Department's broader strategy in the city.

They argued that just as in the city neither increasing police presence nor expecting people to police themselves is a viable solution to crime problems. She cited examples of “stop and frisk” policies as unfairly

With regards safety and security Geraci said the movement is “met with statements from police, such as follows; ‘That’s not our job. Get your men to handle it.” Geraci noted that compliance with the police in leaving the plaza was not entirely necessary, citing Rosa Parks and Philadelphia's own Cecil B. Moore as examples of those who fought injustice and inequality using civil disobedience as a tactic.
Mayor Nutter argued that by blocking the renovations at Dillworth Plaza, “Occupy Philly is now purposely standing in the way of nearly 1,000 jobs for Philadelphians in a time of high unemployment. They are blocking Philadelphians from taking care of their families.”

Mayor Nutter argued that groups such as the “Radical Caucus” are “bent on civil disobedience and disrupting city operations.” He called the actions of the group “intolerable” and accused them of “not acting in good faith.” He said, "We do not seek confrontation with Occupy Philadelphia.” Mayor Nutter asserts that he supports the Occupy Philly issues related to “unemployment, poverty, bank lending, homelessness, the rights of people to express themselves.

Philadelphia Police Officer Joesph Sposa disagreed with the idea that police and protesters could not cooperate while noting that confrontation would be beneficial to the movement's media coverage. He said, “I support the Occupy movement's message about the abuses of Wall Street but these people are expecting a direct confrontation for publicity, that's why all these reporters showed up today.” He noted how this reflects the way media coverage of crime in the city lives by the rule of “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Though the General Assembly has voted to stay at Dilworth Plaza, Protester Michael Baus noted that even though Occupy Philadelphia voted on Friday to stay, leaving the plaza remains a choice for individual protestors to make for themselves. Baus had no prepared remarks but announced on the microphones that he understands there will be differences of opinion at the protest, saying “We as the people who are staying also hope that we get that cross support of the people who are going to leave. This is a movement, and in a movement you are going to have discrepancies among the people who are your allies.” When asked whether he planned on staying he said “I plan on staying. I don't think I'm going to get arrested.”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Give Me A Brake! The Social Significance of Cycling


In 1884, Mark Twain wrote
“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it--if you live.” 

In an unpublished essay titled “Taming the Bicycle,” Twain details his daring efforts to learn to ride a large-wheeled “penny-farthing” bicycle invented by James Starley in 1871 (Levinson).


To Twain’s likely relief, Starley's nephew, John Kemp Starley, invented the first “safety” bicycle called The Rover a year later (“Icons of Invention”). His creation of a better balanced and chain driven bicycle propelled the product to become one of the most popular consumer goods of the next century.

Through the Gilded Age, public perception of the bicycle went from that of a dangerous play toy for rich daredevil men to a popular, practical device for the working class that everyone could use.


Bicycles were expensive at first and not available to everyone. Robert Smith, author of A Social History of the Bicycle, estimates that “any of the nearly two-thousand men employed in cycle plants in 1890 would have had to work nearly half a year at the prevailing wage to purchase one of the machines he helped assemble” (Smith 26).


Perhaps they were better off waiting. Early bike enthusiasts bought bikes before innovations like the invention of the pneumatic tire and the subsequent inventions of brakes and gears made the hobby safer. After possibly the scariest beta tests in history, bicycle prices began to drop in 1893, as a result of public pressure and overproduction on the part of the manufacturers (25).

Bikes became a popular form of recreation and a practical machine, stimulating many business innovations of the era. Bicycles provided an energy efficient alternative to horses and brought rapid individual transit before the mass production of affordable cars. The innovations in mass production--including mechanization, vertical integration, and aggressive advertising—would all become ideas that the automobile industry adopted soon. Many automobile makers began their training in bicycle plants.


The bicycle became a major consumer good. Major bicycle manufacturers spent between $4 million to $9 million a year to advertise bikes in newspapers designed to market the “identity” of a cyclist (Furness 17). 
Though early models of the bicycle were marketed towards the upper class (costing around $100 to $150), the bicycle had become affordable to working people by the turn of the 20th century (Smith 17).
In 1895, suffragist Frances Willard wrote in her book, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle:
Tens of thousands who could never afford to own, feed and stable a horse, had by this bright invention enjoyed the swiftness of motion which is perhaps the most fascinating feature of material life (Willard 11).  
The president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union emphasized how important the bicycle had been in reviving her health and political optimism, using a bike as a metaphor for politics of action, stating "I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum"(“A Whole Philosophy of Life”).

Though the bicycle created some friction with the horse and buggy industry, it expanded possibilities for cities. Cycling created demand for suitable roads to provide ambulances, policemen, postmen, and other bicycle-savvy solutions to problems. The League of American Wheelmen lobbied for paved roads with the financial assistance of Columbia bike manufacturer, Albert Augustus Pope. They created pamphlets and magazines such as “The Gospel of Good Roads” and Outing, propagandizing the need to legalize biking, to build roads, and to implement safety features (Furness 18).

Businesses such as farmers, hotels, and inns benefited from tourism created by bikes journeying into rural areas (Smith 54). The bike boom brought about change by connecting communities closer together not only through building roads but also by emergence of amateur social cycling clubs and professional bicycle races (“Bicycling” 46). Bicycle culture created industries for accessories and uniforms associated with cycling clubs. The social benefit of the bike would soon quiet complaints from even the bicycle's harshest critics.


At the onset of the bicycle craze, physicians’ accused the bicycle of producing “chronic disease” while priests condemned it as “diabolical devices of the demon of darkness” (Smith 1). Cycling soon proved to not only to be beneficial for strengthening the lungs, improving circulation and building muscle tone but it also changed America's conception of moral propriety and social rules (67). The bicycle was touted as an alternative exercise for women to horse riding in 1890 (Tyng 61). Not only did the bike provide for good exercise but also many people argued that it also encouraged temperance because it deterred men from drinking so they could control their bicycle.

Though originally marketed to men, women began to use bicycles and it changed their fashion choices from clothing like the restrictive corset to more comfortable clothing such as bloomers. Though some would criticize bicycle fashion as a moral decay, most would welcome “rational dress” as a “reform that had been long demanded by common sense” (Smith 109).

Susan B. Anthony affirmed the progress the bicycle had brought about for women, stating in a New York Sunday World interview on February 2, 1896: 
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood (Bly 10). 

While the bicycle enabled greater freedom for the working class and for women, the bicycle's freedom on the roads became somewhat of a liability given its unique status.

Many people considered bicyclists menaces on the road. Taxi cab drivers and “teamsters” (previously used as a term for horse-and-buggy drivers rather than truck drivers) tried to have cycling defined as a “hazardous occupation” (Smith 198). Bicycles would be given the same rights as other vehicles in 1897 along with the restrictions and responsibilities that those laws imposed (197).



George Bernard Shaw would joke over three decades later, “newspapers are unable seemingly to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization” (Moyers 3). Sensationalist accidents and ensuing social stigma marginalized the cycling. Despite having literally paved the road for the possibility of other vehicles, the bicycle presence began to decrease as roads became more heavily populated.
The bicycle remains a fixture of American culture with approximately 16 million bikes being sold in the United States every year (“Facts and Figures”). Approximately 66% of the 130 million bicycles sold globally are made in China (Panday). However, its role in broader society has changed dramatically. The bicycle is still viewed as a luxury item of conspicuous yet pragmatic consumption. A bicycle provides still fulfills superfluous fashion goals of Gilded Age status seekers. Consumer marketing has changed from materialism to an identity of ideals. The bicycle still serves as a symbol of self-reliance to its current enthusiasts, while also representing an environmental and safer alternative to the automobile.


While cyclists relish in their hobby, the majority of society today looks upon them in a different light. Today, less than one percent of all commuters use bicycles to commute to work (Furness 30). Motorists consider bicycles a nuisance and an obstacle in the way of their road. Society still reveres bicycles as a form of recreation and exercise today, but mostly as a childhood right of passage. The motorist-cyclist reveals that many people may no longer view cycling as a legitimate adult form of transportation.

Zach Furness highlights in One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobiles how society perceives bicycles as a “childish” device. Furness cites an example of this trope in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Steve Carell's character, Andy Stitzer, rides a bike to work. Andy Stitzer's coworkers, friends, and girlfriend consider his bike  evidence of his childish inability to grow up, his virginity (Furness 111). Ultimately, his girlfriend buys him a bike, embracing his quirkiness but the damage is done; Stitzer’s bicycle is a silly remnant of his childhood to be tossed away, losing his innocence after he brutally wrecks in the road.




Just as bicyclists brushed off criticisms from detractors in the Gilded Age, bicyclists today reject the judgments from those that deem bicycling unworthy of their status on the streets. They have embraced their antagonistic role in the road while also asserting that they can abide by the “grown up” rules designed to ensure their safety. Bicyclists have successfully petitioned government to build bike lanes in many cities. Nevertheless, bicycles face a danger especially in urban areas. In 2009, 630 pedalcyclist deaths accounted for 2 percent of all traffic fatalities during the year. Seventy percent of those deaths occurred in urban areas (“Bicyclists and Other Cyclists”). When Mark Twain warned that you would enjoy a bicycle “if you live” he was commenting on the dangerous design of the penny-farthing he rode; today, after all the possible safety innovations created for and required of bicycles to legally ride, the external threat of the automobile poses the greatest threat to cyclists’ lives.


Many bicyclists consider themselves activists with a duty to highlight the injustices that car culture perpetuates. Cyclists have begun to use their bicycles as a method of protest. One example of this kind of protest is the recent series of naked bike rides that have occurred all across the country to promote awareness of how cars pose a threat to their safety, both on the road and environmentally. These naked protests share the spirit of disregarding dominant concepts of social propriety as their predecessors in the bicycle craze, while emphasizing the idea of positive body image that can be achieved through cycling.


Through bicycle activism, the bike has a chance to represent more than just sentiments about road safety, healthy lifestyle, and fashion; the bicycle has become a physical manifestation of individual power that accepts individual responsibility. At the same time, the egalitarian nature of bicycle culture welcomes both the amateur and the professional. Although the bicycle was designed for the individual, the roads bicyclists demanded demonstrate the possibility of collective effort in producing social benefits and bridging social connections.

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle."

-Ernest Hemingway