Existential infinity

by CarlD

I suspect that the ‘infinity standard’ is a dead, beaten and buried horse, but for my own amusement I have a ribbon to wrap it in. Consider this post collateral damage from a long commute alone with my thoughts during an NPR pledge drive.

To recap for convenience, in comments on the first post of the thread Kvond perceptively noted that “the Common Sense digestion of the guilt people feel for ‘not doing enough’ probably has very [little] to do with… an Infinity Standard. It probably has to do with letting specific people or models down that one feels they can’t live up to (not Infinite Models), and has to do with the prior, one might almost say, a priori establishment of subjectivity itself as a condition for guilt (at least in the West), a mechanism of storing up energies of self-infliction, much more locally organized and defined from any logic of infinity (real or imagined).”

I agreed that the subjective experience of an infinity standard was properly understood not as the product of a top-down logical argument from principles, but of a bottom-up accumulation of local obligations and their affective baggage. I think that’s how morals actually work; as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Bourdieu show in their various ways, systematic moral philosophies range from attempts to universalize local practices to reports on the fantasies of their authors. The feeling of infinity comes when the local claims on one’s moral action overload the buffer on one’s attention and energy, producing a paralyzing system crash. As I metaphorized it later in the thread, the resulting guilt effect is like “the shrapnel of moral artillery being fired by various competing communities tear[ing] into those of us with a sense of obligation to something larger than ourselves but no stable sense of what that might be.”

The key point is the locality of effective standards and obligations. Kvond reports feeling those local claims as dispiriting straight-jackets. Seen this way, the abstraction of infinity offers a liberating expansion of possibility. For any of us who grew up in tight-knit families, small towns or other relatively insular communities this argument is immediately evocative. Over-regulation can be a problem (corresponding to the “dualism/received knowledge” positions in Perry’s cognitive/ethical development schema).

But abstract infinity is only abstractly liberating, just as Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question” that abstract liberty is only abstractly liberating. In practice, Durkheim said, one must be regulated by a moral system that offers definite guidelines and goals, otherwise ‘it’s all good’ and ‘it’s all bad’ become equally available and equally unavoidable as floating judgments (corresponding to the “multiplicity/subjective knowledge” positions in Perry). Goffman’s warning against the tyranny of diffuse aims is on point here: when it’s not clear what the standards are, it can’t be clear what counts as accomplishment and an infinity of judgment is enabled.

We’re probably alright as long as we remain focused on personal liberation from a specific set of restrictive local morals, because they remain regulative even in their negation. Infinity looks like possibility from this vantage. The harrowing moment comes when we decenter our own locality and fully enter a world of multiple other local moral systems and agendas, each with equally coherent and valid claims on our attention and effort. Here the over-regulation is not coming from narrowness, but from overwhelming saturation. The syndrome is not claustrophobia, but agoraphobia.

As Neddy Merrill put it recently in quite a different context,

if we follow the ‘do the most good’ thought wherever it leads, we end up having really robust obligations that don’t leave room for our projects and commitments, e.g. friendships, hobbies, and so on. Or, in another version, the ‘do the most good’ thought leaves us alienated or estranged from our projects because of the way it prompts us to think of their value from the impartial point of view.

This is the question in relation to the trivially narrow yuppie quandary of whether to give money to Harvard University, and already it’s oversaturated. If we open the discussion up to all the possible wrongs that could be addressed by all the possible rights, any particular course of action recommended by one compelling standard becomes not just hopelessly inadequate by the plurality of standards but actively pernicious by other compelling standards. There are a lot of goalposts, they’re all a-wiggle, and the holder may not be on our team.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

As wonderful as the internet and the world of blogging are for increasing our interaction density and enabling liberation from narrow, constraining provincialisms of practice, thought and ethic, that very same decentering dynamic potentially exposes us to an overwhelming multiplicity of compelling claims on our attention and energy, and potential judgments of our practice. The internet is just the most richly interactive of many modern media that not only delocalize us but then relocalize us in a much larger, more kaleidoscopic field of effective standards and obligations. Closing off or artificially limiting this paralyzing legion of ‘trolls’ and ‘grey vampires’, as a number of bloggers have done recently, is certainly one coherent coping strategy, and could suggest a relativist or perhaps merely multiplicity/subjectivist position in Perry’s old cognitive/ethical schema.

Perry suggests instead that we move to what he called “commitment:” “An affirmation, choice, or decision … made in the awareness of relativism (distinct from commitments never questioned). Agency is experienced as within the individual with a fully internalized and coherent value structure.” Yes, I end up saying, there are many other good things one might do, but this is the one I’m doing. Or as Weber said in his famous speech on politics as a vocation,

it is immensely moving when a mature man [sic]… is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’.

The trick, I guess, is to be open to other people’s projects and even their criticisms of one’s own, without getting diverted into the swamps of Shoulds and What Ifs. It’s an infinitely open question where to draw that line.

Advertisements

11 Responses to “Existential infinity”

  1. Carl: “The key point is the locality of effective standards and obligations. Kvond reports feeling those local claims as dispiriting straight-jackets. Seen this way, the abstraction of infinity offers a liberating expansion of possibility. For any of us who grew up in tight-knit families, small towns or other relatively insular communities this argument is immediately evocative. Over-regulation can be a problem (corresponding to the “dualism/received knowledge” positions in Perry’s cognitive/ethical development schema).

    But abstract infinity is only abstractly liberating, just as Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question” that abstract liberty is only abstractly liberating. In practice, Durkheim said, one must be regulated by a moral system that offers definite guidelines and goals, otherwise ‘it’s all good’ and ‘it’s all bad’ become equally available and equally unavoidable as floating judgments (corresponding to the “multiplicity/subjective knowledge” positions in Perry).”

    Kvond: The problem is, at least in my mind, you set up for yourself something of a false dichotomy “local” good, “infinity” (or extra-local) bad. Aside from the irony that this meta-logic has something of an “infinity standard” built into it, the difficulty is that you are thinking only from the God’s eye view, looking down upon infinity, instead of within it (always a danger).

    The infinity come out of the very creativity of human social interaction, the realization that THESE local bounds simply do not work for THIS circumstance or THESE circumstances. It is a MOMENT in mental development (and not a place to reside). We must leave these rules, these restrictions, these limits, and most importantly THIS situation in order to find a solution, a way forward. It is the literary equivalent of finding the right metaphor when literal description fails. Or in Wittgenstein, it is finding a new language game.

    So, when you invoke Durkheim “one must be regulated by a moral system that offers definite guidelines and goals” you are at the wrong stage of the use of infinity. One cannot solve all problems within that “good”, instead, in PHASE, one has to turn to the looked down upon by Marx, “abstract possibilities” offered by the infinity standard to create a new space for real solutions. Some of this imaginary, some of this is intuitional, but it involves a real and literal expansion of the self (how it is conceived), and a real experience of the infinite (which is, strictly speaking, the “un-bound”).

    Take the Jewish question which you raise. Franz Rosenzweig makes the interesting, more than poetic point that the Jews are the one people who are defined by their blood, not given an “earth” to identify with. They are composed of a kind of abstraction. Nevermind if this exclusivity is historically accurate, or simply a product of their mythmaking, but there is a very real sense that indeed, when deprived of an earth, a land, a terra upon which to orient oneself (speaking in the figurative sense), indeed an abstraction is needed, a reorganization at a “higher” or at least de-territorialized, level. This may come out of brute historical necessity, or out of simply problm solving needs. Indeed every craftsman who thinks to himself how to solve a problem through the use of a tool in a new way, or the invention of a tool altogether, passes for a moment into an “infinity standard”, the very strong sense that “more can be done” no matter what previous standards, rules, limits, experience has told him. After the tool/technique is found upon, YES, then it becomes reterritorialized, reinscribed into specific goods, specific aims, new localities. But not so without passing into the infinity standard itself, setting oneself at sea.

    Now, for someone like Deleuze or Guattari, there is much focus on the deterritorialization aspect of a cycle of de- and re- territorialization. They figure that this is the most life affirming degree of life-living. The infinity standard propells you out of local restrictions, along a line of flight. It is almost always a question of aesthetics, how much chaos, abstraction, leap do you want in your cup of tea. As I have argued elsewhere, http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/is-spinoza-a-cyberneticist-or-a-chaocomplexicist/ , Spinoza who is a theoretician of the infinite if there ever was one (though also a pragmatic craftsman, and no mere dreamer), felt that the infinity standard was the very thing that allowed one to see through the limits that confined us so as to produce our worst antagonisms (Dante’s thought when looking down at the earth from space: that small round floor that makes us so fierce). It is both our capacity to look down into ourselves with external circumstances, our moment, our circumstances are not good, and expand ourselves beyond it, that gives the infinity standard its merit. And it is our capacity to, in looking out beyond what is merely local, discover that we are more than we thought we were, that gives the infinity standard its sheen.

    This does not mean that the “local” (customs, rules, expectations, defintions) is ignored or diminished. The local is the fully concrete “us” the very sharp and beautiful way that life expresses itself. To ignore the local is to ignore the ecosystem upon which you most depend and thrive. But ultimately the local gains its own equilibrium and reference to what is beyond it, in the way that dumping garbage into the otherwise thought “infinite” sea ends up being a bad idea.

    So, its not a question of local good, infinite bad, or even its reverse. It is likely best seen as a process of PHASES, there are times we must dip into the infinite (in fact we do so regularly), and then times, in phase, when we dip back into the local, at best, creating a rhythm for solutions and expression.

  2. I was thinking of the whole infinity standard discussion yesterday, because I was thinking about two people w/ whom I work, both of whom have serious boundary issues. They are in danger of burnout, pretty much all the time. Thus, I found it amusing to find, today, that Carl is talking about local instantiations of . . . stuff.

    (It also occurs to me that at least one of the people had a likely less-than-ideal childhood (e.g., some substance addiction in a parent in there), in ways that typically do screw with one’s boundaries. So there’s a different type of intersection between the personal and the deity-eye view.)

    Which also makes me think about the feminist trope about the personal being political.

    (Yay Phillies!!11eleventy!!)

  3. Allow me to recommend Stanley Cavell Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Cavell is a somewhat precious writer but has, I believe, important things to say.

    Of particular relevance to this thread is the two images of perfectionism he offers: The first, and more familiar one, is Platonic: There is one Good situated at the top of a mountain. There are various routes to the top but they all converge on the same peak. It is possible, moreover, to rank the climbers by noting who is closer to the top, and those higher up the mountain are seen as having a duty and a right to impose their wisdom on those below them.

    The second, Emersonian image, is of individuals traversing a vast plain. All are searching for their own goals, their own particular better selves that correspond to their own particular visions of what a better society would be. Sometimes their paths intersect, but all remain on the same level. None occupies a higher position from which to impose his or her vision on those below. All that a would be teacher can do is describe where they have been and where they are trying to go, offering him or herself as a model that others are free to follow or reject as they will.

    Democrat and pragmatist that I am, I prefer Emerson to Plato.

  4. J.M.: “Democrat and pragmatist that I am, I prefer Emerson to Plato.”

    Kvond: As Emerson reportedly said to a youth who said he found faults in Plato: “My boy, when you strike at the King, you must kill him.” Alas, the King still lives.

  5. Of course he does, and serves as godfather to every totalitarian convinced that he or she knows the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth. It may be true, as A.N. Whitehead remarked, that all of Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato. If so, it is time to move on.

  6. Thanks, Narya. I’ve seen the inner deity/Superego drive several good people off the deep end, and turn plenty of others into people I don’t enjoy being around. Of course this shows how psychology transforms exquisitely local interaction dynamics into effective images of transcendence, in these cases arguably for the worse.

    Kvond, I don’t think this is quite a dichotomy of local-good/infinity-bad. Otherwise I agree with you pretty comprehensively, and don’t think I’ve said anything inconsistent with what you say. Apparent disagreements come from the fact that we are using ‘infinity standard’ in two very different senses, as I’ve already addressed on the other thread. Just for clarity it might be helpful if we used it my way here, since I started the conversation, and you came up with another term for what you want to talk about. I like the sense of open possibility you’re getting at very much. I don’t like ‘infinity’ to describe it; that’s not a human scale.

    John, my sense is that lots of people have moved on from Plato (and the theological correlates of platonism in Christianity). Over the last little while various non-platonic approaches to knowledge and being have split off and set up their own shops, anthropology being one, the sciences being the most visible.

    What’s left of philosophy per se is the questions that can’t be answered without resort to platonoid abstraction and speculation. And of course any philosopher worth her salt can replatonize anthropology, science, or anything else without even breaking a sweat. But that fact has become increasingly irrelevant.

  7. Carl, I completely disagree that we are using two different “terms”. I am saying that your “infinity standard” (which you began with in the very first post on the topic, minus the false conclusion) is exactly what I am referring to, that you can always do more, and the sense that infinite effort CAN make infinite good (it requires the improvement of perspective or approach).

  8. Sorry to hear it. That exhausts me. Excuse me while I shut off my computer, stare off into space and take a few deep breaths. I’ll be fine once I get that abyss to stop staring at me.

  9. The abyss is your friend Carl (smilely icon). But I suppose because you view it as exhausing I can certainly see your trepidation of what is not finitely defined. We can only do what we can do, and then try to change our mind (and body) to do a little better (to invoke the dread “infinity standard”).

    I recall a Taoist or Buddhist adage (and I am neither), something along the lines “While it is impossible to cover the whole world with leather, it is better to cover your feet”. Your exhaustion of the abyss is simply trying to cover the world with leather, which indeed would be depleting. Just wear (metaphorical) shoes.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: