25 March 2020

Obsessed with what's up

It all started off innocently enough. We wanted to know what the weather would be like tomorrow. Wouldn't anybody? At first there were rules of thumb drawn from experience, so-called Bauernregeln (in Geman) or 'folklore'. Today, 'we' (we all seem to be in this together — but who are 'we', and how is 'we-ness' possible at all?), I say, we seem to have left that far behind us; in place of rules of thumb, observed regularities, we now have a whole battery of supercomputers and satellites to monitor and precalculate weather movements and patterns. Much better, you say, because based on hard, evidence-based science. Without meteorological weather forecasting there would be, say, no air travel nor any other major apparent enhancements of modern living. And what would the farmers do today without reliable weather forecasts (that are unfortunately getting more concerning and alarming by the year)?

But it's not just a matter of predicting the weather or the techno-scientific mastery of the uncountable production processes in all the diverse spheres of modern production. These are the domains where techno-science is at home and for which it has been and continues to be developed as the agent of the mysteriously hidden, onto-theological, absolute will to power over all kinds of movement and change.

The obsession with foreknowing what's coming down the track sets in already at a more originary, everyday level, expressing itself simply in an unrelenting curiosity with what's happening locally and globally that can be observed ubiquitously 24/7 in all the media talk. You want to assess who's likely to win the next election. Your mate is keen on guessing who'll will the game next Saturday. All talk of politics is obsessed with what will happen next, guessing the next moves in the power plays of politics. Commentators of the chattering strata are fully employed in surmising what will happen next. Political scientists attempt to provide a bigger-picture analysis. To be taken at all seriously, it is incumbent upon social scientists of all stripes to point to empirical studies providing evidence for this or that trend or for the causal effectiveness of this or that measure or treatment for controlling this or that movement, whether it be a disease or any other movement that concerns 'us'. Since most of the goings-on in the world are beyond control, however, our main concern is to have an opinion about what's going on, thus 'mastering' it at least by opining, whether expertly or not.

The obsession with mastering happenings, and be it merely by holding one's ineffectual opinion about them, totally absorbs today's mind without it even being noticed. We don't notice it, but we do it. It seems self-evident that 'we' are out to get on top of movements and changes in the world, whatever they may be, even when 'we' chatter about them inanely without let-up in the media. Otherwise they would have nothing to talk about, no 'content', as they say. They would not hold our interest. We would be bored.

Beyond the realm of mere chatter, the empirical studies to which social scientists feel obliged to refer for bolstering the claims they make in coming to intellectual grips with certain movements, speak necessarily and self-evidently of certain phenomena that are supposed to provide the evidence. E.g. a statistically well-designed, empirical survey of the opinions and attitudes of a certain slab of the population is supposed to provide evidence of its disaffection with establishment politics or with democracy as such, thus suggesting a causal explanation for the rise of right-wing populist demagoguery. The pundits argue back and forth over whether this evidence is sufficient and persuasive, and one of them refers to a another empirical study with contrary results. Empirical evidence is self-evidently taken to be the touchstone for all claims.

Instead of interrogating the phenomena themselves, such as 'politics' or 'democracy', i.e, what they mean as modes of social existence, an average understanding of them or a one-line definition is taken as a sufficient basis for speaking about the movements of concern calling for some kind of explanation. 'We' are only interested in gaining mastery in somehow  understanding what is going on, i.e. the happenings affecting how we take care of our respective existences. 'We' are not interested in, nor have the least notion about how to, think through the phenomena themselves, especially not the simple ones that seem so banal and trivial that they can be taken as 'read' and skipped over, phenomena such as 'we are', 'you are, 's/he is', 'it is', 'they are'.  How could, say, the first person plural, 'we are', itself become a phenomenon covering up hitherto unknown depths and thus not only worthy of, but calling for interrogation? For today's mind-set, from the quotidian to the intellectual elite, the suggestion is preposterous that 'we' should or even could concern ourselves with such abstractions. Such thinking is not taught anywhere, even in philosophy departments with a smattering of scholarly phenomenologists. Theorizing what happened a nanosecond after the Big Bang seems far more relevant and concrete by comparison and generates more interest among laymen in popular science.

'We' are all embedded in a mind-set that is obsessed with what's up, and with preferably mastering movement and change techno-scientifically. You say that this mind-set is 'natural'. 'Of course' we are interested in foreknowing, in causally explaining, in controlling and preparing for movements of every conceivable kind as far a 'humanly possible', paying heed to the experts who can explain how this can be done. Modern science, you say, through its tremendous and ever progressing achievements enables 'us' to get on top of the challenges facing us in today's world. The world itself in its prima facie obviousness seems to be the totality of all the various factual states of affairs and empirical happenings that happen. End of story. The worldliness of the world reduces to a heap of facts. The empirical facts need only to be gathered as data and modelled by some testable scientific theory or other to attain control. The tremendous advances in computing technology enable 'us' to calculate and precalculate ever more complicated empirical movements, all the while assuming 'our' self-evident, unquestioned understanding of the phenomena being talked about (but never being thought through). The bewildering mesh of empirical movements in the world calls for endless amounts of Big Data to be accumulated and fed into artificial intelligence algorithms to predict them. This scientific effort is underpinned by our everyday concern with all the movements making up how we take care of our own existences.

Which brings me to the existential concept of 'distraction' (Zerstreuung) to be found in Heidegger's Being and Time (1927), but also much earlier in his WS1921/22 lectures. As an existential concept (Existenzial) it conceptualizes an aspect of our own mode of being as human beings (whos) in our everyday lives, as distinct from the categories that conceptualize the modes of being of things (whats). Such existential concepts can only be had from thinking through your own existence, i.e. you must come to them yourself through your own experience, and must not try to borrow them from elsewhere, merely mouthing them from some other source, whether it be a scholarly philosophical discourse or a scientific study.

Distraction pertains to your taking care of living in the existential movements of your own life. Existence itself is a kind of movement. You understand the world in terms of the interlinked web of relevancies (Bedeutsamkeiten) it has for your existential concern with taking-care-of... Through the pull of inclination, you are drawn into the movements of taking-care-of and thus are pulled, or even dragged, from one movement to another, one concern to another, in a never-ending succession of distractions through which you lose any distance from the world from within a distanced self-standing. Instead, you encounter your self in your distracted busyness only in the guise of masks that you adopt to pretend to yourself and others to be who you are. In such masked self-encounter, however, you are closed off from your self (Selbstabriegelung); you do not encounter your self, having lost any self-stand to involved distraction.

This distracted immersion in the endless current of existential movements goes hand in hand with your being intensely interested in knowing what's up in the world, its day-to-day movements, be it through curiosity or, more seriously, by understanding movements in the world scientifically. Due to this immersion, you are disinclined to take a step back from your existential involvement with the relevancies of everyday life and think through in any adequate manner what your existence itself as a kind of movement means, what selfhood itself means, what movement itself is as a mode of being. The step back remains an existential option nevertheless.

See also:

Taking care of living

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