Monday, November 8, 2010

Nihilism, The Experience of Space and Time, Status Functions, and The Self-Regulation of the Mind

So I'm continuing my reading of Nihilist philosophy. I feel reinvigorated to pursue it as a distinct line of thought. My post from yesterday 'Nihilism and Novelty' felt very exciting to me. I really liked the questions I was asking and the new angles that I was able to approach them with. I think the main thing I accomplished was specifying more clearly exactly what nihilism has to do with mindfulness. But several other things happened, too. So I want to reflect on those three other things, those three other questions that I feel that I prompted myself to answer.

First, I ended up making some connections to David Harvey's book The Condition of Postmodernity, specifically, I vaguely brought in the idea of the experience of space and time. If nihilism is indeed the negative component to mindfulness, in that it breaks down our pre-configured categories that prevent us from really paying attention, then how does nihilism have to reckon with the experience of space and time, which, as Harvey shows, is so crucial to the formation of social categories? The short answer: nihilism has to regard shifting experiences of space and time as a major source of cultural change, and so has to keep in mind how it effects the categories that it seeks to destroy/transcend.

The second thing: today I realized that experiences of space and time can easily be likened to John Searle's analysis of 'status functions'. Status functions are things in society that operate only because they have been declared to work that way, and because people have (consciously or unconsciously) accepted them. Barack Obama is the president, for example, only because he has been declared to be the president. Language has this incredible power – it can bring things into existence simply by declaring them to be so. A more mundane example the Searle uses: if I go to a bar with two other people and buy everyone a beer and designate that the first is X's beer and the second is Y's beer I have effectively created a status function that holds some power. If X were to try and take Y's beer then there would obviously be some tension, some awkwardness. I'd be all like: 'Dude, I said that was Y's beer, I bought you that beer, why don't you just drink your beer?'. Before I had designated the beers as belonging to someone there was no attachment to a person or otherwise. But once I declare that the beers belong to a certain person, I have effectively made a status function declaration, and the beers are now charged with social meaning and effectively belong to X and Y respectively. Similarly, I think that time and space are also regulated by status function declarations. It is only because calendars were created, only because it was declared that there were 365 days, 52 weeks, so on, that time exists in the way that it does. Space works similarly: customers can't come behind my cafe counter because our society has declared that space to be exclusively for people who work there to make coffee treats. Quick examples, I know, but the point seems obvious to me: the experience of space and time are regulated primarily by status function declarations. We experience space and time the way we do because people use language to declare certain things about the function of space and time. Hmmm, I wish I could state this more clearly. But I have decided to incorporate this idea into my current large project 'Art, Zen, and Intellectual Insurrection'. But in any case, I am starting to suspect that what nihilism deals with, what it tries to break down, is essentially status functions. The things that work in our society only because it has been declared and accepted to work that way.

The third question that I have prompted is slightly less related, slightly less obvious in its connection to nihilism and the rest of my thinking. But I think it a serious issue that fits in somehow. The issue is this: to what extent is the mind capable of regulating itself through thought? What power does thought have to change the way that the mind works on an unconscious level? This has been a major, major, issue for me since at least 2007 when I took Jon Sumida's seminar on Clausewitz. I have continued to grapple with it. Some of the most interesting evidence I have for the power of thought comes from Jeffrey Schwartz's The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. In that book Schwartz claims that he has taught OCD patients to use Buddhist mindfulness techniques to overcome their OCD, effectively rewiring their brains (as brain scans confirm). Also, I think I have heard that Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit deals with this issue, and thus I am resolved to read Hegel at some point. But this is such an important question. How efficacious is thought? How much does free will and decision making hinge on thought? This is also a major issue that Foucault raise. Foucault is so adamant that philosophy must be a process of thought that effects future thought and behavior.

I suppose that this is the entire reason that I wrote my post on 'Nihilism and Novelty'. I want thought to be able to overcome itself. I want to be able to intellectualize my way out of life's pain. I want to be able to overcome the negative and painful components of nihilism by finding a philosophically defensible form of Zen nihilism. I want to obliterate Nihilist pain by turning it into a form of Zen. But that would be too bad, because nihilism is clearly its own distinct philosophy. I just need to grapple with it in all its complexity.

But in any case, those are the three major questions that I have now been prompted to think about. 1. What does nihilism have to do with the experience if space and time that Harvey identifies as a major factor in cultural change? 2. Is it appropriate to identify the experience of space and time as a status function of sorts? And does this help me further identify nihilism's task as the attack on status functions? 3. How much can thought change the mind? Is it possible to think enough and thus change the way we think? Can intellectual work lead to meaningful changes in the patterns and inclinations of thought, and thus in unconscious behavior?

I will be ruminating on these issues, no doubt.

But in any case, my current reading project will undoubtedly help me: E.M. Cioran's The Fall Into Time. A fascinating Romanian nihilist philosopher, explicitly grappling with time and knowledge. I was first convinced that nihilism could become a form of Zen when I read Cioran's The Trouble With Being Born, so I have no doubt that this other book will help me grapple with my current questions. Over and out.

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