A Discussion Between Cadell Last, O.G. Rose, Tim Adalin, and Alexander Ebert
A Few Thoughts on a “Philosophy of Lack” (Discussion 1)
Thinking After Parmenides
Caddell, Tim, Alex, and I recently started a conversation series on the role of “lack” in our lives. Cadell opened the conversation beautifully by suggesting that, after Parmenides, Western thought has been almost exclusively focused on “being,” which has left us ill-prepared to address the role of “lack” in our lives.
After Nietzsche though, we find ourselves having no choice but to face the subject. Unfortunately, after thousands of years of ignoring “lack,” I don’t think we have responded well. In my view, Existentialism was generally a reaction to Nietzsche, and though useful in some ways, as with most “reactionary movements,” it wasn’t ready to finish the job. Why and how is another subject for another time, but the main point is that the West still needs a “Philosophy of Lack.” This is hopefully the start of that effort.
- The “Return to Freud” series by Cadell Last is of the utmost importance for grasping our “neurotic world” today. His work on Slavoj Žižek and Hegel are also relevant and stunning.
- Alex Ebert’s “A Void Dance” is mentioned throughout the discussion and well worth your time. “Death Denial Is Death Drive” is a grateful response to it.
- Voicecraft by Tim Adalin is full of discussions that are relevant to the conversation. What Is Philosophy? and “John Vervaeke on the Confusion between ‘Having Needs’ and ‘Being Needs’ in Western Culture” are great examples.
- For an elaboration on the difference between “lack” and “nothing,” please see this paper (Thomas Jockin is great).
- Daniel Zaruba of the Halkyon Guild does great work on the Kyoto School, a school which provides an important distinction between “nihilism” and “absolute nothing,” a distinction which is also useful for the discussion on “lack” (see also “The Dialectic Between ‘Meaningful Memories’ and ‘Pure Experiences’ ”).
Below are a few scattered thoughts and notes I took inspired by the recent discussion on “lack.” Take them or leave them as you see fit.
1. The very way we experience the world says to us “You get it,” making it difficult to focus on “lack” versus “being.” When I look at a bookcase, I experience “(I know) this is a bookcase” — I do not experience “I don’t know that this is a bookcase.” Yes, I could then ask myself, “How do I know this is a bookcase?” but my initial impression is one of “grasping.” Additionally, even when I encounter something I don’t understand, I know I don’t understand it. This is all elaborated on in “The Phenomenology of (True) Ignorance” by O.G. Rose, but it might be a reason why we naturally grasp “being” over “lack” (phenomenological experience itself may favor Parmenides).
2. Religion could familiarize everyday people with paradoxical practices that could help them be more A/B than A/A (what is meant by this is elaborated on “Death Denial Is Death Drive” and “On ‘A is A.’ ”) We perhaps did not appreciate this “paradoxical gift” of religion, and so did not think we needed to replace the practices as religion lost its power and influence (think “Chesterton’s Fence”). It would seem we need new paradoxical practices to avoid neurosis.
3. We tend to automatically “grasp” our relationship to phenomena in the world (as discussed in Point 1) and get habituated to so “grasping” things. We instantly “grasp” that we know something, that we don’t know something, that our understanding is incomplete, and so on, and this means we always “grasp” things with a “there-ness.” The thing is there “in” how I understand it, which suggests the thing “is.” As a result, when we encounter “lack,” we can struggle to know what to do with it: out of habit, we grasp it with a “there-ness” that doesn’t seem to rightly apply (or at least not in the same way we grasp the “there-ness” of a bookcase). Perhaps influenced by hundreds of years of Western thought, our default might be to then discard “lacks as nothing,” as things that aren’t real and don’t matter, because everything we experience and encounter reinforces an idea that “everything real has there-ness,” and if “lacks” have “there-ness” in a way that is different from everything I encounter in the world, “lacks” must not be in the world, and thus “lacks must not exist.” In this way, our “automatic grasping of phenomena with there-ness” could contribute to our conflation of “lacks” with “nothing” and failure to develop a robust “Philosophy of Lacks.”
To put it in other words, our experience of “lacks” doesn’t automatically bring with it an understanding of how we should relate to those“lacks.” Just about everything else in the world does (contributing to our thinking that “lacks don’t exist”). To know how we should relate to “lacks,” we have to think about it, and it seems we need an unnatural, philosophical kind of thought (suggesting the need for paradoxical practices we may not generally realize we need).
4. Alex Ebert made the tremendous point that a desire for satisfaction and “fulfillment” must be a desire for infinity, for only infinity “needs nothing.” But here is the key move: infinity needs nothing, and that means if I’m going to be “like infinity” (and so fulfilled), then we need nothing too (we need it bad). Being “without nothing” would entail being “unlike infinity,” which would make me distant from a state of “fulfillment.” If we are to overcome anxiety and neurosis, we must learn to need nothing (and in this way be “like” infinity).
If infinity is indeed the point at which we are satisfied, per se, and infinity “needs nothing,” then the act of filling “nothing” is the act which takes away from us the state of satisfaction that we are “filling nothing” precisely to achieve.
5. Generally and naturally, I phenomenologically exist moving from “ignorance” to “understanding.” As a child, I don’t know what a knife is, but as I get older I start to grasp that “this is a knife” (sharp, dangerous, etc.) Yes, this is a very general picture, but it suggests that we are naturally habituated to move from “ignorance to grasping.” A “Philosophy of Lack” would suggest there is ultimately a “lack” we cannot “grasp into our terms ” (and so away, filled), which flies in the face of to what we are naturally habituated. This perhaps suggests why a “Philosophy of Lack” is so difficult and why it was an achievement for Socrates to realize that “he knew that he knew nothing.”
6. Anton from No Country for Old Men strikes me as someone who doesn’t integrate “lacks” into himself and consequently ends up a violent monster. Absolutes, certainties — all these are gone after Nietzsche, but Anton replaces God with a coin toss he never questions. In this way, he runs from the void by replacing it with a new absolute and ends up incredibly violent. And yet the other characters like Sheriff Bell even seem to admire Anton, they feeling lost and wanting a return to “givens” like those Anton has made for himself. But Bell doesn’t integrate “lack” into his life: neither Bell nor Anton are the answer. (The problem of “givens” is elaborated on in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose).
7. How can we learn to “feel you-less” and that not make us feel “use-less” (u-less)? On “you-less” as in “other-less” (u-less) and also “me-less”…
8. Cadell’s recent discussion on “The Future Prospects of Psychoanalysis Therapy” pointed out that Freud understood how neuroses increased in their prevalence as the power and authority of religion wanned. Cadell also noted that today we don’t seem to like religion or psychoanalysis, suggesting we are in a problematic spot — we favor a “free expression of neuroses,” it seems. Perhaps there is some value in this “free expression,” but it also doesn’t seem to be the right answer, suggesting a need for a “Philosophy of Lack.”
9. We can’t escape ourselves. When we feel a room getting too hot, too crowded, too loud — we can just walk outside. But if we feel our minds getting too frantic, our anxieties too painful, our ideas too rapid — we can’t go anywhere. We are pressure cookers that we are also in, strangely, and this feeling of “both-ness” probably contributes to us tending toward dualism (and creating “Cartesian Clubs,” as I’ll now call “the Cartesian Theatre” after Alex Ebert’s “Dead Cool” presentation). But we are not inside a pressure cooker; we are the pressure cooker. Which isn’t all bad, do note: pressure cookers can make some delicious meals, after all. We just have to learn how to live with and use the pressure…
Perhaps what would help us grasp this point is to imagine that we are all a conscious Ship of Theseus. As the famous philosophical problem outlines, if we started taking apart the ship, at what point does it cease being a ship? It would seem we can never locate an “absolute point” at which the line between “ship” and “non-ship” can clearly be drawn. But imagine we were the ship and consciously watching someone take us apart: wouldn’t we naturally expect that they would open us up and, at some point, find us inside. We’d keep waiting as each board was taken away, expecting the next to find us there, only for us to never appear. To the question, “At what point would a board be removed and we see us inside?” the answer would be “Never.” It’s obvious when thinking about an inanimate object like a ship that no “you” will ever be found inside, but why should it be any different with us?
We are each a “Conscious Pressure Cooker of Theseus,” per se (yes, that’s a mouthful), meaning that if we’re gradually taken apart, no clear point will be found at which “we” begin and “we” end: the designation of “we” at x point versus y point would ultimately be arbitrary (if anything, perhaps “we” are something “emergent”, a “high order complexity” that always must be “lacking” from “low order” terms). And while we take ourselves apart, we may genuinely feel like that we are somewhere inside the pressure cooker, because that is how it phenomenologically feels, precisely because we feel “pressure” inside of us. But pressure cookers feel pressure too when they cook, but that doesn’t mean pressure cookers are what are being cooked. In fact, a pressure cooker can be turned on even when there is no food inside. This seems to be us: we are empty pressure cookers that have been left on and know it.
Now, we have to be careful though to say that “therefore we are nothing,” because we are “pressure cookers” even if there is nothing inside of us: in sum, we are more so a “lack” than “nothing.” What is nothing is “what we feel is inside of us,” but that doesn’t mean we are nothing, because we are in fact “a thing containing nothing.” We are bodies, after all — everyday experience suggests that much, at least, and we can observe others as bodies too (and it might be disrespectful and arrogant to say, “They are nothing”)— and if we take a hard stance to say that “We are nothing,” then that would fly in the face of the fact that we do exist in the physical forms we do exist in (stuck with the thoughts and memories of this “reference point”). Thus, by the phrase, “We are nothing,” we must instead mean something like “We are ultimately nothing,” “We are nothing more than our bodies,” “We don’t matter,” and/or “Our selves are nothing (as distinct from bodies).” This isn’t to say the phrase, “We are nothing” is always invalid, only that the phrase suggests a very complex reality that has to be worked through using the difficult language of “nothing.”
Even though an easter egg might be hollow, it wouldn’t follow that easter eggs don’t exist. This suggests why I prefer saying that “We are lacks” versus “We are nothing,” even if the language of “nothing” is valid in certain ways (and even if I myself have said, “We are nothing,” failing to maintain consistent language). For me, we are “beings without anything inside,” which means we are “lacking.” At the same time, if we learn to identify with having nothing inside, then the space inside becomes part of us, and thus can cease to feel like a loss. As an easter egg is something empty inside (and is complete as an “easter egg” in that hollowness), so we too we are complete in our own hollowness. If the easter egg was conscious and thought there was something wrong with it because it was hollow, we’d all know the easter egg was mistaken. It just is what it is — empty.
Paradoxically, to Alex Ebert’s point, infinity is also a point in which entities have “nothing inside,” because the surface and depths of the phenomena, per se, are unified. Theologically speaking, there is no division in God either, so to say “We are nothing” can actually be a statement of supreme human value. It sounds nihilistic, but if by “we” we mean “the illusion of a divided self living inside a body (versus perhaps as a body),” then to suggest this “we” is nothing would be to suggest that we are not divided. Paradoxically, the acceptance that “we are nothing” is precisely how we integrate ourselves with our “hole” and achieve “wholeness” with that “hole.” Traditionally, we have asserted that “we are something” to achieve a state of wholeness, which ironically is exactly the assertion that makes wholeness unachievable, because we are “lacking” that which we (want to) feel like we don’t “lack” (stable, unified selves).
10. The “pressure” we make ourselves feel through our daily lives (as “Conscious Pressure Cookers”) perhaps contributes to the feeling that “we are something,” for surely we must exist to feel pressure like we do, yes? Perhaps a conscious Ship of Theseus makes similar conclusions when it feels people walking around inside of it. “Surely,” the Ship might think, “I must have something going on inside of me for someone to be walking around inside of me.” And in one sense, the Ship does have something going on inside of it, but that something isn’t a “self.” It’s space, stairways — “parts of a body,” per se (as an easter egg has the “interior of its shell” “going on inside of it”). Perhaps if the Ship said to itself, “I have room inside of me” and meant something like this when the Ship said “I have a stable self,” there would be legitimacy to the statement, but if the Ship means “I have a ‘True/Unified Ship’ inside of the Ship of me,” that would be a problem.
11. “Self,” “ego,” “mind,” “individual,” “singular point of view,” “me-as-body” — all of these terms and phrases should be divided out and pondered separately. To say, “I exist,” could be true if “I” is defined as “this singular point of view inside this body,” but the phrase “I exist” could be false if it means “this stable self exists.” This suggests the difficulty of language and “overlaying language” regarding the “Philosophy of Lack.”
12. “Time” and “the day in, day out” might be the main increaser of “pressure” within “the pressure cooker of us.” Overcoming this feeling of repetition could be critical, and a critical way to do this might be to really grasp the transience and uniqueness of each and every moment. Alex Ebert discusses this, and perhaps a way to feel “unrepetitive” is to learn how to live a life of “flow.” This isn’t easy, and many of the practices mentioned in the discussion might help.
13. Does “mimetic desire” described by Girard readily apply to status? Alex Ebert raises some great questions on this topic.
14. If life didn’t end, it wouldn’t be precious, but “limitation” is also what generates scarcity, a regular source of conflict and strife. The trick is to learn to see “limitation” as precious in of itself; otherwise, it turns into a “problem of scarcity.” But isn’t scarcity a real problem? Yes, but not always — this suggests the need for “active thinking” (which our brains, perhaps always wanting to save energy, naturally dislikes).
16. “Negative theology,” by making absolute knowing or unity unknowable, motivates us to “take the battle inward,” and this might help “negative theology” from motivating religious violence. “Negative theology” may also help us be more dialectical.
17. Cadell made the interesting point that the Buddha could only become the Buddha from a place of privilege. The Buddha had to start out in riches and luxury to realize the emptiness of it all; similarly, it is from gaining a professorship or high-status position that we realize “what we’re looking for” isn’t there. Now, critically, Cadell doesn’t think that the fact we find emptiness in these “places of prestige” means we shouldn’t pursue them; in fact, we need to pursue them precisely in order to realize that “we are lacks.” For until we reach these summits, we only have “ideas” but not experiences to support our “lacking-ness,” and I believe it is experience that ultimately motivates us and shapes our lives.
18. Alex Ebert has mentioned “proportional thinking” as “pre-thought thought,” and “proportion” suggests ethics, for if we can determine “the right proportion,” we can determine “the right way.” I personally find the idea of making “proportional thought” foundational for ethics very interesting.
19. Nihilism is a “deconstruction of being,” whereas “embracing lack” is to “be ‘with” nothing” (like an easter egg). Existentialism strikes me as often being a “deconstruction” versus “integration,” hence the need for a “Philosophy of Lack.”