you must post a reflection that addresses which evasion (isolation, anchoring, distraction, or sublimation) you utilize the most in order to avoid confronting the inherent meaninglessness of existence. This entry is still worth 20% of your final grade in the course (10% sharing an example of an evasion that you utilize and 10% for elaborating on how it fits the proper criteria for the evasion Zapffe presents. For example, how does playing computer games fit the criteria for Distraction?)
READING FOR QUESTION NUMBER 2 link
Peter W. Zapffe’s “The Last Messiah” https://philosophynow.org/issues/45/The_Last_Messiah (Warning: Philosophy Now only permits four complimentary viewings. So, be sure to keep this in mind when visiting the site. You are encouraged to copy/paste and print the essay for ease of reference.)
Additional reading for question number two
The Plague of Consciousness
If you’ll recall, Nietzsche viewed morals in an evolutionary sense. Morals and values, or the early precursors to what would in time become encrusted as Morals and/or Values, originated as affect, or bodily sensation. Over time these sensations became abstracted and idealized into the morals and values we might understand today. These abstracted ideals were in effect created by humans only to achieve a kind of life of their own. Humans, it seems, later came to subject themselves to the apparent power these ideals embodied. The power that these ideals contain is harboured in human consciousness. Thusly does Nietzsche scorn human consciousness as an organ that evolved only to caused humanity a great pain of being human, all too human.
Zapffe too views consciousness in this evolutionary sense, but unlike Nietzsche who offered the Overman as a beacon of hope for the overcoming of the human, Zapffe simply surrenders himself to a negative nihilism whereby humanity must learn to love its inevitable end without any hope of any overcoming. For Zapffe, consciousness is an organ proper to the human that no amount of Will would ever conquer; which is to say he does not believe in the emergence of an Overman as Nietzsche does. Consciousness will continue to grow and grow and grow eventually culminating in a climax not described by Zapffe where humanity simply goes extinct. Although he gives no specific details on this anticipated extinction, he probably means something approximating the dominance of over-intellectualizing every facet of life to the point where nothing happens and everything becomes thought of only. (Imagine what would happen if you spent all your time philosophizing about food, but never ate anything!)
Zapffe’s theory of consciousness was informed by and echoes a pre-Darwinian theory of evolution called Orthogenesis. Orthogenesis was an attempt made by scientists at the time (~1800s) to account for why certain organic forms went extinct. These scientists, working with the evidence that they had at their disposal, formulated a theory that stated certain traits were hard wired in organisms to just grow and grow and grow to the point where the organism could not longer function and it died and the species went extinct. For example, the Irish Elk:
Scientists who endorsed the orthogenesis thought that the elk’s antlers kept growing and growing and growing of the succession of a number of generations to the point where effectively the deer couldn’t lift its head to eat, let alone reproduce. The point is, there was nothing the elk could have done — assuming it had the ability to intervene in the course of its natural history, which it didn’t — that could have circumvented its naturally imbued destiny at the hands of these enormous antlers. We, humans, are not unlike the elk, only our “antlers” is our consciousness.
Since Zapffe though so negatively about the fact of being human (that is, to exist as a creature with consciousness), he argued that in keeping with certain Ancient Greek philosophers, we were literally better off before we were born. Seeing as we cannot reverse time to make it such that we were never born, Zapffe argues that human’s should stop reproducing and collectively usher in our own extinction through existential attrition. Hence the closing lines to his essay, The Last Messiah. If you think Zapffe’s alone in this, think again. There is, in fact, a whole society devoted to this philosophical view. See the link here for the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. (Signing up is not a condition for passing this course!)
This view is called anti-natalism, which essentially is anti-birth. Its not anti-life as such, rather VHEMers just don’t think all that highly about humanity and figure that everything would be better if were just “went away.” However, it’s interesting to reflect in this point: why not just “off” yourself, that is to say suicide, if the human condition is so bleak? Zapffe doesn’t answer this question sufficiently — I think — but what he does give us is a strange existential psychoanalysis accounting for the various ways that we survive the life we’re given. These ways are featured in the Activities to follow, and they are Isolation, Anchoring, Distraction, and Sublimation. For Zapffe, these are not so much strategies for living life so much as they are strategies for enduring life as painlessly as possible. It is now to these strategies that we shall turn our attention.
There are four ways in which we avoid confronting what Zapffe considers the unbearable void of being. The first evasive strategy is ISOLATION.
“By isolation I here mean a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.” — Zapffe.
Isolation isn’t hiding away in one’s room or being a loner as such (although I’m sure this too would do the trick, perhaps); rather, isolation is what you might experience walking down a hallway at work and running into a co-worker you don’t particularly like but who has some sort of administrative power over you. She might ask you, smiling, How are you today? Neither she, nor you, have any desire to inform her that you’re having a truly terrible day, that you’re domestic situtation is failing, that the hours she has you working have left you so stressed and tired that you can’t eat, and quite honestly recently you’ve been thinking of suicide. You don’t wish to tell her this because you fear that she might cut your hours and you really need this job, plus you want to look like a ‘healthy’ worker so that you might get a promotion; she doesn’t wish to hear this because she doesn’t really care and because she’s rushing off to a meeting, or something. So you say, Fine! (with a smile). And everybody pretends all is well, when it is SO not.
Another example might be something like a parent_child scenario where the parent thinks he or she “knows” their child because they are doing well at school, work a job after school, they’re being considered for a band scholarship, or sports, or whatever … BUT they have no idea that their child is heavily involved in drugs, crime, and other unexpected matters. If confronted by another parent about the child’s behaviour the mother may react saying No, that’s not my child! My boy is a good boy! Etc etc. Such isolation may even evolve into full-on denial: when pressured by police officers with evidence of a crime, the mother may still deny this not because she disavows the evidence, but rather — according to Zapffe’s theory — she can’t stand the thought of how thing might really be with her son. Her existential self-structure requires the veil of the idealized image of her son in order for her to survive.
“Anchoring might be characterised as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness.” — Zapffe
Founder of psychoanalytic theory Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of human psychic development involved an unruly dynamic ID colliding with a wall of sorts that he called the SUPER-EGO. The super-ego is the thing (parent, law, etc.) that tells the id NO! Otherwise, Freud Stated, the id will just do what the id will do. From this collision of id and super-ego, there emerges the EGO, or, the thing that you understand yourself to be as a self. (Note: This is a rather terse and cartoonish sketch of an otherwise very complex phenomenon.) The point is that the proverbial wall of the super-ego, functionally contains and regulates the behaviour of the id. One might even say the super-ego doesn’t so much contain the behaviour of the id than imbues the id with a bahaviour. In any case, without this wall, we would all just be wreckless out-of-control organisms, who probably would last very long in the world because wouldn’t have any sense of boundaries. This leaves us vulnerable to walking off a cliff or sticking our finger in an electrical socket.
Anchoring is similar to the encounter with a super-ego except its (mostly) a conscious taking up of a cause to give oneself purpose. Zapffe gives us some examples:
God and/or the Church for theists (or those who wish to be theists and believe the Divine will give them solace).
The State for politically motivated nationals who might champion a certain party.
The law of life: this might be for someone who claims to be an atheist and replaces the theistic God with Natural Selection. In the strict sense this person has just replaced one “god” with another god.
The people for a more socialist minded person.
The future: “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Insofar as the only reason to live as such is to live for the future; to leave the world in a better condition than how you found it; live for your children, etc etc.
Without these and other points of anchoring, Zapffe argues we would be so overcome by the void meaninglessness of existence that our minds would collapse. Implicit to his claim is that each and every one of these anchoring points is also meaningless in-itself, but they are the better alternative to the brutality of pure unmitigated existential pain. Perhaps the best point to illustrate this is the God — Law of Life relationship. There are some around who claim to be free of God and the strictures that a god gives one who believes (to say nothing of the moral guidance and so on); but, this same person then goes around pontificating the truth-claims of evolution and natural selection, biology, etc etc. It’s not so much that this person has turned biology into a replacement church or religion, but more so, as Zapffe suggests, it doesn’t need to be biology. It could be anything. The state. The future. Drugs. YouTube celebrity and fame. Gardening. Knitting. All of these are of equal value in that they are all valueless
Distraction: “One limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions.” — Zapffe
This of distraction as a relatively short term anchoring.
Now because of its relative brevity, I’ll also tack onto distraction a kind of superficiality and/or cheapness. By virtue of its lightweight, superficial cheapness, or total lack of credible substance it is existentially processed rapidly. Think of eating some fastfood burgers compared to artisan cuisine burgers; from the latter your body will absorb nutrients and you will feel satisfied, whereas from the former to your body won’t absorb any nutrients because the stuff is so processed … and you’ll be feeling hungry again in no time!
The prime example of distraction in our culture is certainly television (however it’s consumed), social media like Instagram, YouTube clips, short text conversation. These experiences are very short and sweet and leave us wanting more. Hence “Mom, what am I to do?” or “What happens now?” Watch another clip. Post another picture. Whether network television, NetFlix, or at the movies, thank goodness the Marvel Universe has provided us with such an expansive realm of distraction away from our own crumby universe. Whatever shall we do. (But in all honesty, I love Marvel.)
“[Sublimation] is a matter of transformation rather than repression. Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into valuable experiences.” — Zapffe
This is perhaps the most demanding of strategies. It’s also perhaps the reason why Zapffe says it’s the rarest. Sublimation is taking all those volatile and uncertain “liquid” forces of consciousness and rather than turning away from them [i.e., repressing], we “transform” them into something if not beautiful than at least something artful.
By artful, I understand something that endures. This means something that is sublimated at least carries with it the capacity to withstand the tests of time. That said, where in our contemporary culture are the resources to cultivate the talent necessary for sublimation. Don’t we encourage isolation, anchoring, and distraction far more than we do sublimation. (View this optional video if you’re interested in this question.)
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