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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves (2010)
by Andrew Potter
296 pages
McClelland & Stewart

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It’s probably a bad sign when you’re halfway through reading a book, especially a non-fiction book, and you realize that you don’t have any idea of what the book is really about, in which direction the author is going, or what the body of the text has to do with the subject referred to in the title and opening segment.

Andrew Potter co-authored a book a few years ago called The Rebel Sell, which, for all its drawbacks, made a good point about how the ‘anti-mainstream’ counter-culture, in its veiled and overt demands to buy certain products, appear a certain way, and live a certain lifestyle, was actually the driving force behind consumer culture, and perpetuating many of the things it snobbishly pretended to rebel against.

This particular book is much less clear in its position, and the problem begins with failing to really define what it is about. Though Potter says he’s taking aim at all concepts of authenticity, he quickly glosses over the quest to cure some of the alienation modern people tend to feel with regards to friends and family, their work, or their society. His only comment on these ills consists mainly of ‘they’re paying you, so get over it’.

You’re really not going to stun anybody basing a book on the not-exactly-shocking statements that ‘authentic jeans’ are still designed by someone, that an ‘authentic ethnic restaurant’ might be more marketing than actuality, and that touring the cultural artifacts of a former dictatorship isn’t the same as living under one.  But in this book Potter does mostly take aim at what a very small portion of society is looking for in their quest for authenticity – the urban, white, wealthy, over-educated, wasp-y post-moderns with whom the author apparently spends most of his time. If you have any kind of broader experience of what society consists of, you’ll have trouble when he generalizes about what ‘everybody’ is doing these days.

It’s a really scattered, unfocused, poorly argued book, and the fact that the acknowledgments at the end credit several editors for doing a lot of work to make it sound better, and that Potter admits it took far too long to complete, it all just reinforces the impression of undercooked thoughts. Chapters which detail the recent US presidential race, or that consist of highlights of the author’s Eastern European vacation, seem to be just be re-purposed content the author had on hand, rather than tying into the core argument in any strong way.

Put simply, many of the conclusions Potter jumps to are unsupported by the material he presents. Survivalist extremism leads directly into apocalyptic fiction, as if everyone who goes to see an adventure movie wishes for those things to happen to them.  Potter tries to make a seldom-heard argument about the suburbs being a triumph of liberal markets instead of a blight, but no statistics are presented about things that might illuminate the discussion,  like cost of infrastructure, crime rates, or people’s satisfaction.  And I’m pretty sure nobody at the mall is thinking about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so if you’re going to spend a lot of time on him as central to modern society’s ideas, it’s going to need to be tied in a little better. As an example of the poor reasoning, “In short, the desire for authenticity is the cause of virtually all the major problems with our politics today.” (pg.175) Really? The problem with all of politics? I mean, the more you read and repeat that, the more pulled-out-of-your-ass it sounds.

In the end, Potter’s main viewpoint takes on the incredible hubris and delusion of saying current liberal democracy, with its free-market capitalism, is basically the end of history, and once the rest of the world is absorbed into it, no other political structures will ever threaten it, nor will there be any other kind of life to strive for. He also asserts, without even entertaining any arguments to the contrary, that life is meaningless and nothing can be learned from the world, and someone who thinks differently is a terrorist-in-waiting.

Obviously, I found this a very disappointing read, not only because its conclusions, weak as they are, are completely ludicrous, but because it’s so poorly organized and presented.  I still didn’t find any answer to what I think most people are talking about when they look for authenticity. The alienation from family and friends, work, or society at large, has a real human cost, in terms of psychological distress, substance abuse, violence, and decreased productivity and efficiency. It’s simply not true to say “In the end, authenticity is a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it” (pg.267) unless you’re using a definition of authenticity that is far outside what the general use of the word is. A more authentic relationship to oneself, close relations, and the world at large, precludes no one else from the same. Just because there’s no easy answer to questions about authenticity does not mean it doesn’t exist at all. To say that people should continue living in modes in which they are experiencing psychological, spiritual, or even physical distress because there are no perfect solutions and these people have more material comforts than ever, is not only unsupported by this book’s flimsy arguments but borders on the sociopathic.

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The Doors of Perception (1954) / Heaven and Hell (1956)
by Aldous Huxley
144 pages
Penguin

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Two collected essays by Aldous Huxley, the product of his experiences with mescaline and LSD.

The first essay, The Doors of Perception, deals with the experience of taking mescaline and what Huxley sees as similarity to the mystical experience of the religious (or sometimes the illness of schizophrenics). In many ways this piece is very much rooted in its era; Huxley spends a lot of time talking about his positive experiences, but the essay was written, and his life ended, before psychedelic substance use became more widespread among the population.  Thus, Huxley was able to experience the love-filled visions of his own disciplined experimenting, but didn’t live to see the days of people taking these sorts of drugs day after day just to stay high, or the permanent mental damage they initiated in some users, or even the use of these drugs by cults like the Manson family where they were used to break people down and turn them into mindless killers.  In the light of what we’ve now seen, Huxley’s appeal from the mid-50’s that drugs like these are harmless, and would ideally replace alcohol and even religious discipline, seems dangerous and mostly irrelevant.

The second essay, Heaven and Hell, is less notable, and mostly deals with various forms of art and the way Huxley believes that various aspects, such as landscapes or jewels, relate to the visionary experience, and the ‘other world’ all people have some kind of  (greater or lesser) contact with.  It’s a bit wordy and begins to grate when Huxley over-uses his metaphorical terms like Old World, New World, and Antipodes when referring to consciousness. It can also be very irritating to read what is supposed to be a fact-based essay when you catch inaccurate information, such as when early on Huxley states unquestionably that the vast majority of people dream in black-and-white.  This sounded odd to me, as I certainly don’t, and I did a bit of reading on it, and it seems that most people do actually dream in colour, though for a period in the 1950’s there was a theory floating around that most people dreamed in black-and-white.

That sort of inaccuracy is emblematic of this book, that is too concerned with unexamined spur-of-the-moment ideas, and swept up in Huxley’s enthusiasm for his newly discovered psychedelic substances. It can still be an interesting read in parts, but its relevancy has declined in the light of vaster knowledge, and it does something of a disservice to Huxley’s much-finer work elsewhere.

For relief I turned back to the folds in my trousers. ‘This is how one ought to see,’ I repeated yet again. And I might have added, ‘These are the sorts of things one ought to look at.’ Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone, in isolation from the Dharma-Body, in Luciferian defiance of the grace of God. (pg.33)

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The Book of the Mind: Key Writings on the Mind from Plato and the Buddha through Shakespeare, Descartes, and Freud to the Latest Discoveries of Neuroscience (2003)
edited by Stephen Wilson
Bloomsbury
432 pages

I think I got a bit hoodwinked by the cover on this one.  It looks really nice with the green background and hand-drawn people, and the subtitle makes it sound like it’s much more appealing to a mainstream audience than it really is.  Though there are samples of writings from all the names mentioned in the title, the vast majority of excerpts are taken from dry academic works by scientists you’ve never heard of.

Most of the excerpts are quite short, about a page or two, so I didn’t feel like there enough space allotted to follow the thought process of any author, and instead you were just lucky if you got a hint of what they were talking about. I picked this book up mostly because I thought it would be the sort of thing that would be full of ideas that make you think and wonder – but it wasn’t anything like that at all.

The book is divided into six main sections: Perception, Memory, Emotion, Thought, Consciousness, and Self.

I think someone who is deeply interested in psychology and psychiatry at an academic level might enjoy this, though the very short excerpts may be a problem even for them.

My favourite quote in here is by Gilbert Ryle:‘The mind is its own place and in his inner life each of us lives the life of a ghostly Robinson Crusoe’ (pg.249)

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