The Battle for the Self
Or how to become Unique
My diagnosis of the zombification of the masses in my last posting, Zombies, was based on Metzinger’s philosophical interpretations of neuroscientific data (2010), and partly on the socio-technological observations of a current convergence of man and machine, always connected, plugged in, and completely surveilled on a worldwide scale. In Julian Assange’s words,
I see that there is now a militarization of cyberspace, in the sense of a military occupation. When you communicate over the internet, when you communicate using mobile phones, which are now meshed to the internet, your communications are being intercepted by military intelligence organizations. It’s like having a tank in your bedroom. It’s a soldier between you and your wife as you’re SMSing. We are all living under martial law as far as our communications are concerned, we just can’t see the tanks — but they are there. To that degree, the internet, which was supposed to be a civilian space, has become a militarized space. (Assange, 2016)
In my Zombies posting I’ve trashed the Western mature citizens not only because of characterizing them as pre-enlightenment serfs (Kant, 1992) due to the controlling authoritarian nanny states. I went further by questioning whether the “I” is not just a “computer” simulation of the brain. David Golumbia in his book The Cultural Logic of Computation (2009) called this ideology computationalism, and it is supported by Metzinger (2010) as well.
The following text is a critique of these ideas. Over two Million years of evolution of mankind shows that our ability to cope in the real world through our five senses, able bodies, and communicative social structures supports the idea of seeing us solidly embedded in the Real. We wouldn’t have survived if our instincts were based on hallucinations and fantasies. Philosophically the Self needs to be rescued, and its uniqueness restored, after it has been dumped by religion, Hegelian philosophy, and more recently computationalism. For this critique, Max Stirner’s philosophy, a post-Hegelian philosopher, is quite helpful. But more about him later.
But first, it will be useful to look a bit deeper into the concept of the “zombie”, which is less trivial than it might appear.
In Collins and Mablin’s book “Derrida for Beginners” (1996) we find an important concept in Derrida’s deconstructive thinking, the idea of undecidability, or Aporia, the Greek word for impasse or puzzlement, manifesting itself in cultural phenomena, for example in zombie movies. Zombie tropes emerged from the religions of enslaved West Africans in Haiti from the 17th century. For Western colonialists “voodoo” was a satanic religion full of blood sacrifices and cannibalistic atrocities. “But the zombie is a different kind of terror: a body without soul, mind, volition or speech. It said to be a reactivated corpse, or a living body rendered soulless and mindless by sorcery.” (Collins & Mablin, 1996).
This monstrous creature attracted Hollywood. In the late 1920s the movie White Zombie (1932) “set the formula for Hollywood: White Science meets Black Magic.” (Collins & Mablin, 1996) an anxious encounter, says Collins. What if the Western rationalist distinction of “life” and “death” doesn’t hold?
Collins & Mablin continue,
The zombie might be either ALIVE or DEAD. But it cuts across these categories: it is both ALIVE and DEAD. Equally it is neither ALIVE nor DEAD, since it cannot take on the “full” senses of these terms.… The zombie short-circuits the usual logic of distinction. Having both states, it has neither. It belongs to a different order of things: in terms of life and death it cannot be decided.
The late French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1978) deconstructed the cultural logic of Western binary distinctions: alive/dead, male/female, rational/irrational, white/black, or true/false and he demonstrated how the dominant term enshrines a cultish or mythic superiority, a supposedly dialectical rationality, leaving no room for “undecidables”. Before Derrida, the Frankfurt School’s critical theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer already identified the cultural logic of the West, the Enlightenment, as a myth. They wrote,
Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity…Man imagines himself free from fear when there is no longer anything unknown…That determines the course of demythologization, of enlightenment, which compounds the animate with the inanimate just as myth compounds the inanimate with the animate. Enlightenment is mythic fear turned radical. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is no more than a so to speak universal taboo. Nothing at all may remain outside, because the mere idea of outsideness is the very source of fear.(Horkheimer&Adorno, 1984)
It’s the outsideness of the zombie that is the very source of fear, eluding the power of the rational. Therefore in Western culture, the “undecidable” must be exorcised, it’s either DEAD or ALIVE, but not both. Yet, the zombie might be ineradicable and return. If not as a zombie then as a ghost, or a vampire, between life and death, or between male and female, the androgyne, or between human and machine, the android.
Resurrecting the self may not be so easy in practice as already indicated. There is a war for the “Self” going on, for the right to privacy, against surveillance, and for the freedom of the press, epitomized by the names of three people, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning. For de Lagasnerie (2017) they represent “A new way of thinking and conducting politics — of conceiving forms and practices of resistance …they are throwing the political landscape itself into crisis.”
For de Lagasnerie the intensity of the persecution of these “Cypherpunks” signals a fundamental threat to the safety of the secrecy of state power through the onslaught of whistleblowers and hackers. “Snowden, Assange, and Manning are the protagonists of a movement that is questioning the very ground we stand on, the mechanisms that define our present.” (de Lasasnerie, 2017)
For de Lasasnerie there is more at stake than just the right to privacy. He is asking questions “about obedience and citizenship in relation to the state, the nation, the law, democracy.” Who is he asking?
In 1843 a young Hegelian philosopher already did before him. At that time the aristocratic states and municipalities in Europe were as repressive as governments are today. Journalists went to jail, Marx could flee to England (how times have changed), and people in central Europe turned inward, looking after themselves. The German word “Gemütlichkeit” was coined at that time, and they invented the Christmas tree! The cultural epoch was called the Biedermeier. Not surprising then that a philosopher would tap into the consciousness of this often called “non-political” era. But make no mistake, underneath the “Gemütlichkeit” the kettle of the revolution was heating up and exploded in the Revolutions of 1848. This philosopher was Max Stirner, who wrote his major work, The Ego and his Own, better translated as The Unique and Its Property in 1844, and was according to David Blumenfeld (2018) the “first ruthless critique of modern society”.
Stirner’s first words were “All things are nothing to me”, and then continued:
What is not supposed to be my concern! First and foremost the good cause, then God’s cause, the cause of mankind, of truth, of freedom, of humanity, of justice; further, the cause of my people, my prince, my fatherland; finally, even the cause of the spirit and a thousand other causes. Only my cause is never to be my concern. ‘Shame on the egoist who thinks only of himself !
“Looking after oneself” always had a dubious reputation. In most societies, the government, the state, the king, the public good, your neighbour or God and his church always come first. In times of war young males and females are expected to give the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. And in the post-postmodern era of today, it’s Alt-Control-Delete for the “Self”, Metzinger’s phenomenal self-model, a simulation of the brain, a hallucination, a spectre (2010). Here I conjure up Max Stirner’s ghost, following Jacob Blumenfeld (2018), who writes,
In exhuming this philosophical corpse, however, I have discovered Stirner’s spirit already living among us. I have thus conducted a forensic investigation into how his thought has stayed un-dead through time.
As in Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), we’re recycling the ideas of the Enlightenment regarding state power and sovereignty, resistance and revolt, and the battle for the free and authentic “I” as ghosts still haunting us today. The revolution was never quite won, but neither did the state.
Stirner in contrast to his idealist teacher Hegel is a materialist or a post-materialist according to Blumenfeld (2018). For him, individuals are unique in their ability to own property. In order to own property, you need to be aware of your power as an individual to act to acquire property. In Hegelian terminology, such an individual does not just exist in-itself but for-itself. Blumenfeld says,
An owner is one who marks out the singularity of their existence by owning their properties, and not being enslaved to them. ..Owners, in other words, make themselves individuals. An owner is not formed through a higher calling or a given cause. To be an owner is to individuate oneself through the appropriation of one’s own conditions and the dissolution of everything alien to them.
For Stirner, this owner is unique, the unique one, which is much more than an Ego, an “I”, or the Self. It has unique access to itself. It is singular and individual. Everything else is generalities, spooks, or fixed ideas “floating around in our heads (for we all deal in language and thoughts).” Blumenfeld then states,
We must own ourselves. If we are able to determine our entire being such that we are willing and have the power to dissolve it as a whole, then we have made ourselves into property; we have made ourselves singular individuals.
In conclusion, I argue that we must regain control over our “property” in the Stirnerian sense, meaning not just material possessions but most of all our privacy, our freedom to move, to act, to participate or withdraw, and of course being able to preserve our confidential selves online. If one follows current events closely one will notice that despite censorship worldwide communication and discussions among people have increased thanks to the Internet, and it has allowed the spread of ideas against all corporate and state attempts to squash them. We must support Assange’s fight for his freedom and Wikileaks because it is our unique concern. The protests of the Yellow Vests now spreading from France to the rest of Europe and elsewhere is of our concern as well. Successful resistance requires actors that are not subservient but own themselves in their uniqueness. So concluding with Blumenfeld,
Stirner’s philosophy is a big fuck you to every progressive and liberal viewpoint. It is not expressed in the name of some superior tradition, race, gender, or nationality. Fuck them all, Stirner says, and fuck you too. I don’t care about your values, your issues, your cause — I care about me. Only after we learn how to care for ourselves can we begin to care for each other.
Assange, J., Appelbaum, J., Muller-Maguhn, A., Zimmermann, J. (2016). Cypherpunks: Freedom and the future of the internet [Kindle]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Blumenfeld, J. (2018 ). All things are nothing to me: The unique philosophy of Max Stirner [Kindle]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Collins, J., & Mayblin, B., Appignanesi, R. (Ed.). (1996). Derrida for beginners. Cambridge, England: Icon Books
de Lagasnerie, G. (2017).The art of revolt: Snowden, Assange, Manning [Kindle]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.
Derrida, J., & Bass, A. (Trans.).(1978). Writing and difference. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Golumba, D. (2009). The Cultural Logic of computation [Kindle]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T.W., Cumming, J. (Trans.).(1989). Dialectic of enlightenment. New York, NY: Continuum
Kant, I., Humphrey, T. (Trans.).(1992). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? Retrieved from https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/Kant--What%20Is%20Enlightenment_.pdf (Original work published 1784 A.D.)
Metzinger, T. (2010). Ego tunnel: the science of the mind and the myth of the self. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Stirner, M., Martin, J. J. (Ed.).Byington, S.T. (Trans.). (2012). The ego and his own: The case of the individual against authority [Kindle]. Retrieved from Amazon.com