Is this the right way?

Late one August evening in a small provincial town, a woman steps out her front door. In her hand, she holds a slim leather briefcase, probably containing a laptop. When she steps down from the small landing in front of the door, a mild breeze fills the air, gently tousling her long blond tresses. She tries to pull her hair back behind her ears without any luck. From the back pocket of her jeans she pulls out a bandeau and ties those unruly locks into a simple ponytail. Now, with no hair interrupting her vision, she looks first to the right and then to the left before turning around to lock the door behind her. After checking twice that the door really is locked, she rotates to face the street for the second time. 

This time she looks to the left first. Actually, at this point, her whole body shifts as she evaluates the possibility of going in that direction. 

Is this the right way? 

Read the rest of the essay in Terse Journal.

Philosophy as fiction

“For me, philosophy is a way of living and not an academic discipline that requires you to swallow a certain amount of information to pass. Most great novelists are philosophers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that literature in order to become philosophy must become fiction. I like that. It also shows that the distinction between philosophy and literature is rather new—perhaps stemming from Kant—but does it matter if Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, and all the others are classified as philosophers or writers?”

Read the rest of the interview in Under the Gum Tree.

Learn to philosophize

Today, we live in a society organized mainly by capitalism. Not only is making money an objective that guides many people’s lives, but so are prestige, status, and social identity. Even when corporations claim that “people come first,” they refer to their employees’ skills and experiences as “human capital” or “cultural capital.”

Everything we do is a currency that can be counted. This problem can be seen through two concepts: power and freedom.

Today, the power that controls us (i.e. status, prestige, identity) appears invisible unless we pay very careful attention. But—and this is the problem—we rarely pay attention because that which works as an invisible or imperceptible power is also what seduces us not to pay attention.

The consequence is that we are not free. Freedom can be seen as both a problem and a possibility. It is becoming, emphasizing that we become by combining courage to stand against dominating ideals and norms with the imagination that things could be different. Thus, freedom is more than my individual liberty to do whatever I feel like doing because that neglects how everything is interconnected. Freedom is social; it’s about succeeding in creating a sustainable future—together.

Most philosophers – and this is probably no surprise – suggest that thinking is the best remedy against today’s maladies. But in order to think philosophically (i.e. reflect, contemplate, analyze) we must be capable of loving, that is, relating to others and the world with care.

Socrates is the example. He philosophized for free. And he showed that philosophy is social. Perhaps for that reason is it difficult to philosophize today when we have become too narcissistic. “The narcissistic-depressive subject only hears its own echo… Social media like Twitter and Facebook aggravate this development, they are narcissistic media,” wrote Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han In The Swarm.

The question, therefore, is: how do we learn to pay attention?

Philosophy and mindfulness in the schools

The answer is to bring philosophy and mindfulness to schools at all levels, although my errand here is at business schools. Business is, of course, part of the current problem as well as it can become a crucial part of the solution.

Mindfulness is easy to implement as a non-religious meditation practice which helps cultivate and strengthen our capacity to pay attention. With this in mind, future leaders can with greater success make sustainable and responsible decisions that are not grounded in their own egos, or the ego of the board members. The point is to cultivate an awareness that will gradually make it desirable to make decisions on behalf of others – if for no other reason, then because we are all connected.

The combination of philosophy and mindfulness, I believe, is one the strongest assets against today’s rigid achievement society that makes many of us suffer in a way that very few people realize that they themselves are the perpetrators of their own misery. It’s also a strong tool against the current idea that transparency per se is good, although it undermines the most elementary of human relations: trust.

Still, before future leaders can act in a sustainable way, they must be aware of what is actually going on. And it is here that business schools can be part of creating a better future for all, because instead of speaking about attention and concentration, we can develop it. And once future leaders are aware, they will also question some of the models used in business.

The blogpost was originally post at Esencialblog at Toulouse Business School – Barcelona.

We’re All Accountable

… From my essay on sexism, morality, identity politics, and compassion:

“I remember Rebecca Solnit saying something about men being the problem—not all men, but men. And she’s almost right. Because men, as philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said about women, aren’t born men; they become men. Weinstein didn’t come into this world as a sick misogynist. He, like all those like him, was formed by the culture in which he was brought up.

Luckily, I think, I spent a lot of time with my mother and my sister. Yet, many small boys spend time with their mothers, and less time with their fathers … or, at least, they used to. Does this mean that even women—some mothers—are favouring their sons? Encouraging them to see themselves as better than girls? Telling their daughters to passively obey?”

Read the entire essay here.

Life is a shockingly hairy crotch

“The smooth is the signature of the present time,” writes philosopher Byung-Chul Han in Saving beauty. This kind of smoothness, he continues, “connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones and Brazilian waxing.”

Han claims that today smoothness is the same as beauty, and this concept embodies today’s society of positivity. We live in a society that offers no resistance; we simply look for others to like us or like what we have posted. Smooth, smoother, smoothest = good, better, best.

Another way of saying this is that a lot of contemporary art works in concert with neoliberal capitalism, instead of resisting or working against it. For instance, Han contends that Koons is, “arguably the most successful living artist at the present is a master of smooth surfaces.” In other words, Koons is playing the capitalistic game. What determines success is the ability to sell your art. Success is here being defined as being known and admired.  Koons’ version of art does not require the artist to open an “echo chamber, in which I assure myself of my own existence,” as Han writes. “The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether.”

Koons is about as progressive as a Brazilian waxing.

For readers, who are familiar with Han’s work, Saving Beauty unfolds the same arguments against today’s achievement society. Han discusses the transparent, porno, and burnt-out society we have become. What is sad, of course, is that art, apparently, has also been reduced to something kitsch: shiny tulips, balloons, and smoothness.

This book is full of startling, precise statements. For example, he says, “A selfie is precisely such, an empty, expressionless face.” The addiction that our current society seems to have with taking selfies only illustrates an actual emptiness of the ego. It lacks character, and instead, it is smooth and easily likeable.

The core argument in Savage beauty is that today, beautiful equals smooth, clean, and transparent. In contrast, in earlier times, like during the era of Plato, Kant, and Hegel, there was no distinction between beauty and the sublime. Experiencing sublime beauty is not supposed to be pleasurable; rather, it hurts. It makes you fall and stumble. It is similar to falling in love because you can lose yourself and act rather stupid.

“The sight of beauty does not cause pleasure, but shocks,” Han stresses. I must admit that although I attend exhibitions monthly, I rarely am affected. Visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao earlier this year, I had a chance to experience Koons’ tulips, which was a pleasurable experience. However, they did not affect me like Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time did. With Serra’s work, I found that his huge iron sculptures opened for me an encounter where I interrelated with the work in a way that affected my equilibrium. The viewing his work made me become someone else. That is the beauty of experiencing your own fragility.

“Instead of opposing the sublime to the beautiful, one should return to beauty a sublimity that cannot be subjected to inwardness,” writes Han. Art can shake us, make us see the world differently, and make us perceive our own limitedness and flaws. “The longing for beauty,” Han says, “is ultimately the longing for a different mode of being, for another, altogether non-violent form of life.” Unfortunately, the digital nature of beauty in our current age has removed all negativity or otherness that might have existed. All there is left is something likeable. Yet, following Heidegger, Han suggests that concealment is essential to beauty since “transparency and beauty do not go together.”

This reflects how information cannot be veiled, whereas knowledge can retreat into secrecy. Art is related to the secret story as Roberto Bolaño once said. It conceals something for us, but it often does so in a way that it painful and not pleasurable. Art  requires hard work. “Without injury, there is not truth,” Han claims. The smiles and likes of today, “lacks any intensity, any quality of a shock.”

Beauty is located, somewhere “between disaster and depression,” according to Han, “… inherent to beauty is a weakness, a fragility, and a brokenness.” I have experienced that feeling with the artwork created by Serra, not with Koons’ work.

In today’s transparent consumeristic society, art is rarely contemplative. The ideal consumer, Han argues, is a person without character. The ideal worker or citizen in today’s neoliberal and capitalistic society tolerates everything as long as it sells. Nothing is avoided because there might exist a market somewhere for it. “Facebook is a characterless market,” Han writes. Art, when it is made smoother, is characterless as well.

Still, why all the fuss about saving beauty? Why must we fight to save it?

“Beauty promises freedom and reconciliation,” and “truth is freedom,” as Han writes. In other words, a world of smoothness is false; it’s a world of “post-truth.”

For Han, the beautiful is both true and good, it’s almost like the Korean-German philosopher is turning Platonic.

Han is a strong critic of contemporary society. He elegantly hides his own moralism (most of the time). When “beauty frees me from myself,” Han points out, then saving beauty is also a way to rescue the other. It represents an opportunity to save the negative and that which constitutes me as another.

Han ultimately ends up embracing the philosophy of Alain Badiou, especially, his idea that the task of philosophy is to be loyal or faithful towards whatever binds us together. (Han also ended up with Badiou in his essay, The Agony of Eros).

If there is a morale, it is that we have to show fidelity to what takes place. Fidelity is unconditional in that it presupposes commitment. That means, that we once again should try to become capable of matching all parts of life, not just when life is pleasurable and smooth. We must do so even when life is a shockingly hairy crotch or chest. To do so is to save democracy. Or as Han finishes his essay: “The saving of beauty is the saving of that which commits us.”

I recommend the book.

See also my review of Buyng-Chul Han’s In The Swarm.

Right here, right now

“Know thyself” is one of Greek philosophy’s best know aphorisms. This aphorism, or saying as Aristotle called it, was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Greek philosophy tried to turn people inward in a friendly confrontation with themselves and their approach to the life around them.

“Know thyself” was not the only aphorism in ancient Greece. Another well-known example is “Take care of yourself”.

The two aphorisms are tied. The better care you can take of yourself, the better you will know yourself. And the reverse. Philosophic practice consists of both. You cannot get to know yourself better without self-care. One way to show self-care is to know yourself better, for example, by acknowledging your limitations and mistakes.

The two aphorisms underscore that philosophy is a practical investigation of life. An investigation into what it means to live. Seen in this tradition, philosophy is both ethical and spiritual, because in order to gain self-awareness, the individual must necessarily take his or her experiences seriously. Philosophy becomes an ongoing testing of one’s opportunities and conditions for existence. Life becomes a great laboratory.
And it is here that philosophy’s third aphorism or pillar comes into play, as a balance between “Know thyself” and “Take care of yourself”.

The third aphorism is “Know your place”.

Knowing your place is to know your own history as well as the history that surrounds you: for example, when you were born, where, in which body, with which colour, which gender. To know your place is one way of making the ideal of knowing yourself and taking care of yourself relative, as it always happens in a specific context. Life is always lived here and now. A here and now that winds back and forth in time, yet underscores that what happens is happening here and now.

It is through your presence in the now that you can take care of yourself, test or experiment with life as a lasting attempt to become better at living, meaning knowing yourself. It is never too late, as every self-examination begins here and now.

The moral is therefore just as simple as it is difficult to practice: If you are not paying attention to where you are, if you are never present, it is difficult to care for yourself and impossible to get to know yourself better.

This journey never ends, as you and I and everyone else changes all the time. That is why certain questions never go out of style:

Who are you? What kind of life do you want to live? Are you here?

***

In connection with the launch of a new Danish ecological clothing label, I was invited to write three semi-philosophical reflections: I am Right Here, Right Now is the second.

A Smile for You

It is said that a smile knows no boundaries, that it is universal.

A smile can cross continents and time. It can overcome ugly ideologies, whether they are tied to race, religion, age or sexual observance.

A smile is more mobile than the internet. It connects. It is life’s messenger.

A smile can be decoded at a very early age. Children know whether what they are doing causes concern or earns approval – just by looking at their parents or other adults.

A smile is a language that connects, touches and penetrates because it confirms life. No less than life.

A smile is a smile is a smile. It can be said that simply. It can’t be misunderstood. Naturally, false smiles exist. But such smiles are not really smiles, but rather false smiles. They are assumed, like the Joker’s smile in the Batman comics and films – pasted on. A false smile can seem frightening, because it pokes fun at life. No one knows that better than best-selling suspense author Stephen King, who in his book IT has a clown represent man’s deepest fear. The false smile lacks respect.

A smile is something happy, as well as something serious. It is a love missile that does not seek, but gives, shares. A smile is generous.

A smile comes when it comes, as we say. And indeed it does. But it is possible to cultivate a more smiling approach to life, as when the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his readers to wake up with a smile on their lips. It is life you are smiling at, from and with. You have awakened, not died in your sleep. You can always smile, because things could be worse. You could be dead. A smile is what always makes us turn towards life, even when we feel that life has turned its back on us. A smile wills life.

A smile is disarming. You can go through most of a day without speaking to other people but still treat others with respect and kindness, if only you smile.

A smile is more than an upward curve on your lips. The smiling sun in children’s drawings always has a mouth turned upward. But even if your mouth were to be sewn shut, you could still smile with your eyes. In fact, you can smile with your entire face. Your entire body. You can have a smiling approach to life. Not a frivolous or unserious approach, but one that is life affirming. The French philosopher Michel Serres has said that people who age unattractively do so because they so rarely smile. Even your wrinkles can smile. Yes, even your frame can smile.

A smile always emphasizes three things: I have lived, I am living, and I want to live.
That is why you smile.

 

***

In connection with the launch of a new Danish ecological clothing label called Change yourself, I wrote three semi-philosophical reflections: A Smile for You is the first.

Kierkegaard’s True Love

In the twilight of Søren Kierkegaard’s life, he begins to question his own philosophical fundament. He did not plan this. Actually, he would prefer to avoid it. But it is happening. While lying for nearly five weeks at the Royal Frederiks Hospital certain images, memories, and ideas surface.

Some of these trouble him.

He inscribed himself at the hospital after suffering from a blackout in the middle of the day. The purpose for this inscription is not recovery. Although he is only forty-two years old, he knows that this is a last preparation for the inevitable fact of life: that it ends. Soon he will meet his only master: God.

What he didn’t expect were the questions now emerging.

Read the rest of the short story here

To Love Slowly

In Either/Or: A Fragment of life, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” In this talk, I will argue why I agree with Kierkegaard but will also—perhaps more importantly—illustrate why it is so difficult to not live ridiculously. Lastly, I will show a way out by (slowly) cultivating a will to love.

This is a recording of my talk entitled “To Love Slowly“, which I presented at the Doing Deceleration Symposium at Notthingham Contemporary, July 2017.

Meet the Author

For me, philosophy is a way of living and not an academic discipline that requires you to swallow a certain amount of information to pass. Most great novelists are philosophers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that literature in order to become philosophy must become fiction. I like that. It also shows that the distinction between philosophy and literature is rather new—perhaps stemming from Kant—but does it matter if Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, and all the others are classified as philosophers or writers?

Read the rest of the interview in Under the Gum Tree.