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75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

From the Personal…

Mark Kingwell (left) and Peter Timmerman

Summary by Paul Collins

Rima Berns-McGown

The foundation of the next three days will largely focus around personal notions of progress. Questions such as how do we live in the world? How do we feel about ourselves?

This session is going to be a conversation between Mark Kingwell and Peter Timmerman.

Mark Kingwell

The ellipsis at the end of the title represents a form of philosophical inquiry. Why are you here? Not so much the “why,” the point that often gets emphasized, but the “you”. What does it mean to be you? Our paths through time intersect at this particular moment.

Leisure is the problem. For the ancient Greeks, leisure was a time to reflect on life and to think about the “why” and who we are. Since then, leisure has taken on a different meaning.

One could begin a history of leisure at different times. I will start in 1899, with the publication of the book by Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class. This book came out in the same year as Freud’s Theory of Dreams.

Veblen was influenced by Nietzsche, especially by Nietzsche’s idea’s of envy. Veblen produced a groundbreaking study of envy of people who have things they cannot.

The nature of capital changed during the 1930s. The old accumulative capitalist system changed to a system in which capital needed to keep expanding. This gave rise to the start of the mass market – the economic growth in the 1920s, the rise of wages, standardization in finance, etc.

This new system of mobile capital required mobile consumers. The idea of the self as consumer becomes important. Taste became style. With this change the leisure class of Veblen was surpassed by mass consumption. The idea of the mass market - all must want and continue wanting. There was a rise of spectacle and advertising.

Advertising and the narrative; advertising creates a problem and the solution arrives at the same time; for example, Listerine creates a campaign around halitosis.

Conspicuous consumption remains, but is now focused around shopping. Leisure becomes shopping for goods, the democratization of the tragic problem.

Change since 1930s. The rise of technology, including what Kingwell terms “Techno-hedonics,” the technology of happiness.

Progress is a narrative, concerned with the why and how; an ideology of improvement. But according to what story do we judge happiness? With Techno-hedonics the claim is if you are not happy now, you will be. We have, or can make, a solution to everything. We will, for example, create drugs for everything.

This relates to Aristotle’s idea of pleonexia – the more you have the more you want. There is a paradox here: satisfying a desire does not uncover the nature of desire, because when we satisfy a desire we then miss it. When we satisfy a desire and miss it, we then develop a new desire. Desire satisfaction can never satisfy itself.

Now anything can be commodified and everything can be made available. Commodity is a relationship. The world in its totality is available for consumption.

What can we do? George Grant “the last myth is the myth of progress.” It is all consuming; it eats up the world.

The self becomes its own enemy, manipulated by consumption.

We can shift our thinking, away from selves as consumers but to the idea of selves as trustees. We do not own our selves. We take care of them, we are in trust of them.

There is a range of possibilities available for humans. Take care of yourself in such a way that tends towards virtues of Aristotle. Move away from consumption. Don’t view ourselves as products of consumptions.

Philosophy can help us develop in this way; it can help us learn how to die. Philosophy is a therapy of concepts that can help us with this, because it maintains its sense of irony and does not believe in perfection/an end point.

Peter Timmerman

Anxiety, the original concern, the status of our being in the world. This concern is getting worse.

We’ll look at this problem from two approaches, Buddhist and environmental, and locate concerns, personal as inward. People who are spiritual practitioners know that the closer you get to your concerns, the more tempting it is to swerve aside and grab for a cliché.

These days it seems as if it is easier to be re-incarnated as a human and harder to be reborn as a rare animal. The religious traditions are having a hard time coping with the warping of the world due to environmental degradation. Warping the fundamental symbols of the natural world is even worse.

The earth is “on fire” and we are the fire starters. Humans are the global actors now, with the power to influence the world.

What was the start of the environmental movement? Many people think it was Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. But at the same time, people were working on the nuclear test ban. There was the idea that a nuclear war could end the world in a very short time, or we could all be poisioned by radiation coming from far away.

The globe was then seen as interlinked. Like in On the Beach where radiation from a nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere was spread to the Southern by global weather patterns.

This marked the start of seeing the web of interconnectivity surrounding the globe. And idea is that this web can be ripped, causing a loss. Idea that cherished things can be poisoned, like acid rain or that species can be permanently lost. A sickening sense of loss.

Environmental degradation can damage the fundamental basics of life. The hole in the ozone now means that the sun is now a danger. Today the danger is from climate change. We are, in effect, changing the wind. “Seed time” is now at risk.

Now we are starting to look at how to change our genetic life.

These are threats to the intimate. Fears that the end of the project is to create beings without uncertainty and without death. We want to separate ourselves from the world. Bottled water, separate from the environment, is an example.

A new sort of “bad religion,” where we want to separate ourselves from the world, is spreading. This is foolish, as human beings are open systems, with holes at both ends. We are open to the world; totally connected to it. We cannot say where we end and the world begins.

It is bad to try and be totally disconnected from the national world – we will destroy the world, bottled water and air conditioning as the death of humanity. Need to be more connected to the world, to be linked to finding solutions to the problems.

The worse way to solve the situation is to think of it as something “out there” to be solved. Problems versus mysteries. Mysteries cannot be solved by internal attack.

Buddhism – everyone has a fundamental question, the great ball of doubt. (The earth for humanity.) Doubt, irony, ability to make connections being central.


RBM: Unless one approaches life with a sort of a double consciousness, unless we have doubt and are critical, we become pawns.

MK: Distinction between hope and optimism. Optimism being the idea that things are going to get better. Hope is more mystic. The idea that one’s life can get better, despite claims to the contrary.

PT: Environmentalists tend to think about things in terms of figure-ground reversals. Is progress white on black, or black on white?

MK: Not clear where action can be taken, except everywhere. Language of anxiety – we feel unease in our bodies. But we need to take from the peripheral and bring to the fore.

PT: Need to keep the personal from turning into tripe. Progress is a religion. It has it’s own cadre of priests, etc. (like self-help books). We need to dismantle this to show this is the wrong way of going about getting what you want. The scarcities we have are because we have done something wrong. Idea became that we had to generate false abundances. Because the world is so fundamentally scarce, we see the world as a zero sum game.

MK: A lot of this can be framed in terms of recovery. Self as consumer was the product of late capitalism. Now we are consuming ourselves as consumers.

Wonder has been appropriated by science. Made into something to be solved.

The shift from accumulative capital to reproductive capital requires a shift from taste to style. We become subject to constantly changing styles, forcing us to consume more. The way capital is structured forms the self.

PT: Sophisticated marketers and psychologists work to get close to our hearts’ desires (love, friendship, etc.) then get us to swerve aside and by something. Appeal to our desires, things that cannot be bought. We are not that materialistic, because we throw everything away.

Marketers will take this resistance and commodify it. Place it within the system.

Socrates didn’t know what the answer was. The answer was a life spent asking that question.

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