Thinking of Things, Season1, Episode 10:

We are biological and social creatures

Byung-Chul Han: “An animal busy eating must at the same time pursue other tasks. It must, for example, keep away competitors for the prey. It must constantly look out so that it does not itself get eaten when it is eating. At the same time it must watch over its kids and keep an eye on its partner. In wilderness, an animal is forced to distribute its attention on several activities. Therefore, it is unable to sink into contemplation, both when it is eating and when it is copulating.”1

We are biological creatures and we are social creatures, our limitations and possibilities depend on our biology and social context. Without our biological and social reality, meaningness cannot exist. Our insecurities are biological in their origin and function, while their specificity is cultural, just as we eat because we are hungry, which is determined by our biology, what we eat is specified by our culture.

The fact that we are biological creatures means that we have limited time and energy at our disposal for our (trans)formations. If we are at a stressful place in life, our biological reality tends to be in survival mode, our body is in fight, flight, or nurture mode, and the mental space needed for sincere engagements may not manifest, since the stress distracts us from whatever task we have at hand. For example, many studies show that poverty tends to put a person in a state of perpetual stress, resulting in sleep loss and poor decision making, particularly economic decisions, which adds to the predicament causing a self-perpetuating stressful life situation. Nothing causes as much stress as the belief that we are loosing social status e.g. within the group we perceive ourselves to belong to, or within the dominant culture of our society. Moreover, in a consumerist society we are bombarded by advertisement telling us what to buy to gain, regain, or retain this status, causing us to be distracted from what could be meaningness. Furthermore, in a secular society, distraction from the otherwise meaningless and cold universe is seen as a modern virtue, as expressed by Woody Allen above.

In order to take responsibility for our personhood and find meaningness, one have to first create the mental space for doing this; for going outside of our culture savvy comfort zones. One needs to find a strategy for dealing with the stresses and distractions in the situation one finds oneself in. The stoics offer a strategy for this when they say that you cannot affect how the world is, you only have control over your reaction to it2. This can be a very powerful realisation in a stressful situation and may help some to overcome stress. The stoic philosophy offers a plethora of strategies for taking control over one’s reactions to reality and to find calm in a stressful world.

Finding space for meaningness is a start. This is the place of being content, or even happy. While Stoicism deals with finding equanimity with one’s place in a cultural context, meaningness does the opposite. Meaningness may, through sincere engagement with self, Eachother and the world, take you away from that equanimity and content. Meaningness does not make you happy, at least not all the time. This may sound gloomy, but Meaningness is also joyous and playful. It may be painful at times, sure, but to truly connect with oneself, Eachother and the world is extraordinarily rewarding, and by engaging without insecurities we open up to a kind of playfulness and fun with being which we otherwise deny ourselves.

Transformations are at times hard work, sincere engagements take energy. And energy comes in limited supply to a biological creature. Therefore, one also needs rest, and the possibility for rest depends strongly on one’s social position within a culture, for we are social creatures immersed in hierarchical cultural contexts. One needs escapism, entertainment, silliness and fun, none of which is separate from meaningness. One needs pleasure for the senses, beautiful surroundings, and a good sleep. One needs a reasonably healthy body. Because without at least some of this, to each according to ability and taste, one cannot be sincere in one’s engagements.3

Meaningness is Political

Simone Weil wrote that the most corrupting thing about a political party is that, after a while, its purpose is only to grow4. Recently I harboured the idea that the purpose of any political activism or party was to render itself redundant. Therefore, a party’s decline, e.g. the decline of the European Social Democrats, may be seen as a success and not a failure, since, to a certain extent, the decline is a sign of having accomplished their goals. I no longer believe that.

Instead, any constellation of people gathering should be focused on their own interpersonal growth. To create a space in which society’s hierarchies have no power over us. Where we together can express our selves sincerely and manifest who we have become. A space within which we can transform. Not learning fifteen second phrases to answer those questioning our cause, not learning how to effectively argue against those who disagree with us. Not strategise about furthering the cause. A meaningful struggle should not have the totalitarian goal to eradicate the world from evil, in whatever form it may be5. A political cause of meaningness will not defeat the oppressors but help liberate them from their self-thingification, by making them transform with us.

Every culture contains prejudices and hierarchies which creates the insecurities which takes us away from being human beings. And every person grows up as a cultural being. To think this can be changed is a misunderstanding of both culture and human nature. Even if we change culture itself, it will not disappear, for it is part of our biological and cultural reality just as much as our lack of wings and gills. We are instead left with ourselves and each other, and therein lays the work. What matters is what we do with what we became, and take responsibility for what we keep becoming together. Creating a “better” culture, while not necessarily a bad thing, is still a totalitarian approach, and as such achieves little. However, we can help create spaces for Eachothers to form and transform within, together. Creating spaces of sincere engagements.

It may seem as if I mean to say that political activism, or partaking in politics is totalitarian and has nothing to do with meaningness. Nothing could be further from the truth. If one is sincere in one’s engagements one becomes political.

The economist Albert O. Hirschman analysed three different strategies for engaging with the world, which he called “Exit”, Voice”, and “Loyalty”6. The liberal, and indeed consumerist engagement with the world is through the exit strategy. By merely being present in a situation; being a party member, a customer at a store, wearing a band’s t-shirt, joining a club or a college, or placing your children at a school, this all indicates your fullhearted support. When you no longer feel that you can give it your complete support, for whatever reason, you Exit, i.e. leave the context and seek out a new one. This is insincere politics. However, in order to be engaged in the project of meaningness one also needs to be in a context in which one can engage sincerely. To exit a context which prohibits sincerity is sometimes necessary for meaningness.

The more sincere approach is to Voice. If something is wrong with the situation and context you find yourself in, then you engage with the situation sincerely by voicing your discontent. With this engagement one then hopes to constructively improve what is wrong, while the Exitstrategy is a passive criticism, leaving the ones left-behind guessing what went wrong.

Loyalty is about voicing and staying, as opposed to voicing and exiting. Through loyalty one makes sure that something happens, through constant voicing, interaction, and engagement. Through loyalty, you do not threaten to leave a situation–you threaten to stay. This forces others in the same context to negotiate your presence and, to some extent, take you seriously.

If one engages sincerely with one’s context and Eachother, one cannot help but also becoming an activist. Sincere engagement makes it impossible to ignore what one think is wrong within a context. If one could ignore such aspects, one would again not be sincere, but instead become a cynic. A cynic is the opposite of the sincere and a cynic7 is the opposite of an activist.8

By creating spaces of sincere engagements, one creates opportunity for collective Voicing and showing Loyalty. Spaces of sincerity are by necessity non-hierarchical, otherwise we would not be able to treat each other as infinite persons9. By collective voicing and showing loyalty we threaten our entire culture to stay.10

Empathy is often misunderstood as the ability to feel what another person is feeling11. To me, empathy is the ability to listen to and take a stranger serious, to be sincere in the encounter, and act accordingly. Then empathy becomes solidarity and, if we are engaged sincerely with ourselves, solidarity leads to action, else it does not manifest. It is through sincere engagements meaningness becomes a humanism.

Next page: On the virtue of having a hobby

Page 1: “Introduction”
Page 2: “The project of Meaningness”, “The Other and Eachother”
Page 3: “We are biological and social creatures, Meaningness is political”
Page 4: “On the virtue of having a hobby, Meaningness vs. Happiness, A few examples”
Page 5: “The Meaningness of Death”