Spritzophrenia

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Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

Why Does Existence Matter? Simondon and Ontology

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2012

I’ve been reading about Gilbert Simondon, a French thinker (1924 – 1989) who has been very influential on the Continent, but is only just becoming known in the English-speaking world. I’m wondering if I can use his ideas to help me in my studies.

Using sociology I try to understand what a human being is, and how they are constructed by social forces (or how they construct themselves). Discourses of gender, for example, help construct us as male or female. Simondon spends a lot of time discussing what an individual is1.

Rather than understanding an individual as a static unchanging being, Simondon suggests individuals are a process which is part of a system. “Individual development is a constantly changing and fluid, ‘non-linear’ process” (Harvey et al, 2008: 4). He also thinks we are fundamentally relational beings. Simondon thinks we are permanently in relationship, and that our being can only be defined by our relationships.

The term “individuation” describes the process of how individuals are created from “pre-individuals”. Debaise says Simondon refers to a “preindividual nature”, by which it seems he really means “being” rather than the natural world of plants, rocks and seas (Debaise, 2012: 3). So we are individuated (‘created’) as a process in a system of being. I originally thought that for Simondon individuals have multiple selves, or parts, but this may be a misunderstanding on my part.

existence

Simondon is talking about ontology, which is the study of being, or existence. I think it was Sartre who said, “The biggest question is why anything exists at all.” He’s right; if you start to ponder why the world is ‘there’, it can get very tricky. Ontology is not just about the fact that things exist, it’s also about the nature of their existence. Ontology asks, “At the deepest, most core level, what kind of a thing is a person?”. If we think a person has a soul, we could ask, “What kind of a thing is a soul, and how does it interact with the world?” If you’re not comfortable with the word, just replace ontology with “existence” whenever you see it.

And here is my question: Why does it matter what the existence of humans actually is? How does being able to describe the “being” of a person make a difference to me as a sociologist? To sociologists or scientists, people who are trying to understand the world, does it really matter? I could just say, “People exist, we know that, let’s move on to something else”.

Here is a second, related question: If ontology does matter for doing sociology, how do I connect ideas about ontology to ideas about how society works? How would knowing the essential nature of a person (or group) affect how I theorise their actions? Does knowing that a person is not a static thing, but a process of individuations make any difference in how I think about their gender? (There are at least a couple of feminist articles on Simondon that suggest some social scientists think it does make a difference.) If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them.

Here’s what I think ontology could mean for social theory:

In the next few months I am going to be interviewing a number of men who will tell me about their lives. Instead of understanding these men as unchanging, fixed “souls”, I can analyse them as a developing process, who are in relationship with their world. Their gender, for example might not be fixed but changing over time as they relate to other men and women. What I believe someone actually is will affect my interpretation of their social world.

Here’s another idea. Elder-Vass (2012: 144) suggests that a theory of ontology can explain causality – how someone causes things to happen. I can cause the water to flow by turning a tap, for example. Socially speaking, ontology might explain how a parent can “cause” the development of gender in a baby by their words and actions. Or a church can “cause” a man to be excluded.

Perhaps I’ve answered my question. But I think there’s more that could be said. Do you have any ideas or comments?

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Notes
1. For Simondon individuals aren’t necessarily humans. Other things (cars, rivers, elephants) can be individuals too. The idea of non-human individuals, and technics, have been hugely influential on Actor Network Theory, Latour et al, and the philosophy of science. This part of Simondon’s theory is less important to me at present.

References
Debaise, Didier. (2012). What Is Relational Thinking? Inflexions. 5.

Elder-Vass, Dave. (2012). The Reality of Social Construction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, Olivia; Popowski, Tamara; Sullivan, Carol. (2008). “Individuation and Feminism.” Australian Feminist Studies. 23(55).

Salmonella Dub – Conspiracy Dub. Great New Zealand band.

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Posted in ontology, Philosophy, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Why Occupy Wellington Failed

Posted by spritzophrenia on March 15, 2012

It is hard for me to write the words “Occupy Wellington has failed”. Ever since the majority of campers left Civic Square in December I have been waiting and hoping that new life will spring up. Ever since Occupy New York came to my attention I have hoped we were seeing something powerful. However, I can only report what I see. Social movements are complex, hence I can’t identify one factor alone that has hamstrung the movement. I think it’s a combination of the themes below:

Youthful optimism versus harsh reality

Camping was hard. Strangely, the hardest part appeared to be living with other people in camp, not external pressure. By December a large number of the younger contingent left the Civic Squre site in frustration. I had hoped to see them return, but as at mid-March this does not appear to be occurring. One of the “originals” organised a General assembly for March the 3rd. This was rained out, and there has been no attempt to re-ignite a GA. If these original campers can no longer be bothered turning up, I think Occupy is dead in Wellington.

Personal disputes marred the camp as well. Many seasoned protesters refused to join Occupy because of the presence of one person who they did not respect. However, I do wonder whether these long-term protesters would have brought their own issues, eg an inability to let go their previous views of the world.

Lack of ordinary older people

Perhaps older and more experienced people could have brought some perspective and wisdom to the camp, and been able to mediate some of the disputes. However, there was a low percentage of those living in the camp who were over thirty. There was a lot of external support from such people in my experience, but very few were able to spend significant amounts of time with the campers. Because we sought to support the 99%, it would have balanced us to have involvement from ordinary people and families (accountants, nurses, teachers, lawyers, the fire service, retired people… ). The vast majority of the campers were students and under-employed people.

Freeloaders

The percentage of those who turned up for a free bed and food versus those who were there to achieve other goals was too high. Some of the freeloaders bought problems such as drugs and violence on site and the camp spent too much of its time on dealing with internal needs, rather than outreach to the general public.

However, there was another sort of freeloader: Those that spent much of their time participating on the internet but rarely any time physically on site. Even some admins of the various internet presences were hardly ever seen in Civic Square.

Violence

At one or two points pre-December there was violence and sexual harassment against women. This was poorly handled and pushed some people away. (Sadly, the queer caucus had already left.) The “safer spaces” methods were ignored. In the final week of the encampment after all of the original occupiers had left there were two arrests for violence. Ironically the (allegedly) self-proclaimed head of security was one of those arrested. A satisfactory way of dealing with violence was never achieved. Even though there was very little violence in the camp, violence has a way of affecting morale and trust far beyond its circle.

Lack of clear goals

Although the group did come up with clear goals, it appears they weren’t adopted by enough of the campers. There were too many people camping who had a vague idea, or no idea of what Occupy was really about.

This meant that it was easy for the camp to be co-opted by other elements. The camp began to support all protests (from 9/11 conspiracies, to the Food Bill, to anti-Fracking and more). Overseas, Occupy was fundamentally a protest against the influence of the very rich; these other protests diluted and confused the Wellington camp. In addition, there were some who had their own agenda, or who were still tied to old ways of thinking, for example Marxism.

Poor Marketing

When I was just a member of the public, my experience of the camp’s message was poor. Towards the end I heard numerous comments that the camp was actually intimidating for many people. However judgemental it might have been, the fact was that a phalanx of “scary looking” people at the entrance was not welcoming for many of the 99%.

Media Lies

Having been on “the inside” of a few stories I am now under no illusions about the mainstream media. Many reporters are extremely dishonest and partisan. Unfortunately, the general public is simply unaware of how biased most stories are. The biased reporting did have some influence on the success of the movement; perhaps if the camp had lasted longer or done more than elaborate navel-gazing the reporting would have changed over time.

Lack of action

The Occupy Wellington camp carried out a few noisy protests, talked interminably, and had a couple of people’s universities. But they really didn’t DO much. Yes, they fed people, but let’s not forget this was largely feeding themselves. Where was the assistance for those oppressed by the ultra-rich, for example the occupying of foreclosed homes or businesses? Occupy Wellington really did not seem to take on this aspect of the overseas occupations at all. It was only at the end with support for locked-out workers in Marton that they began to do any practical good for the oppressed.

So What Next?

I note that many of the above problems were also extant in Occupy Auckland, from my discussions and brief attendance of a GA up there.

Now that the camp is no more, a popular slogan is “You can’t kill an idea”. However, an idea ultimately has to have some outcome or it is meaningless. The idea was Occupy, the idea was camping. Without this protest, there is no movement.

Occupy is now reduced to pontification on the internet about “Occupy 2.0” and the suggestion of more new publications. Publications have rarely done any good, and only tie people and resources up in time-wasting efforts to speak to themselves. Marxist groups, for example, have handed out their newspapers for decades with very little to show for it. Propaganda without action is useless.

In Wellington, some Occupiers have drifted off into party politics, a fact that amazes me and suggests they never understood Occupy in the first place. (It’s also noteworthy how little interest in Occupy various Green, Mana and Labour party people have now that the elections are over. Coincidence? I think not.)

Some Occupiers have moved back to various Marxist or Anarchist groups. The latter have never produced anything of note in New Zealand. Marxism hasn’t produced a new idea in the last century and is irrelevant. Occupy was a chance to leave behind these political dinosaurs and attempt to come up with something new.

For myself, I would like to take action. I don’t pretend that I have the answers or desire to be a leader. However, if there were just a few others who were willing I would be camping on public land tonight. Specifically I would like to begin a new camp whose aim would be twofold: 1.To take practical, visible action in support of the 99% and against the 1% and 2. To outreach, explain our purpose and invite others to join.

However, at present it appears I would have to find a completely new group who would be willing to work together, as the former Occupiers appear to have completely lost their interest. I hope I am wrong. But I don’t have the energy or ability to do it by myself. At present I am just another person sitting back, waiting for someone else to do something. And hence, Occupy will die. You can’t kill an idea that has already died, and the idea of Occupy – in Wellington – is dead.

Posted in Occupy, Sociology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Agamben, Exile and Compassion

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 24, 2011

Today I worked outside with others on a spontaneous project to create an outdoor stage for our New Year’s party. It’s summer solstice, the longest day. The sun was hot, the sky, cloudless. I made a salad while others prepared the evening BBQ. Recently I’ve been studying fresh social theory in between working.

I want to share several paragraphs from my reading with you, and explain what they mean to me. Hopefully my thought process won’t be too muddy.

Firstly, Giorgio Agamben speaks of global populations being transformed into a vast, “planetary petty bourgeoisie… in which all the old social classes are dissolved” (Agamben 1993: 62). Class is an important term many sociologists use. I think of myself as “middle class”. If I worked as a factory labourer I might be “working class”. What I find intriguing is that Agamben suggests that classes have become so blurred that there is now only one planet-wide class. There is now no individuality, late-modern capitalism has made us all the same. This is a radical suggestion, but one I find resonating with the idea of the 99% as a single class – the majority of the world who do not have significant economic and political power.

exile

It is noteworthy that Agamben titles his chapter “Without Classes” (Agamben, [1990] 1993). For those in his enormous petty bourgeoisie even death itself cannot grant them an individuality, as Agamben writes:

The fact is that the senselessness of their existence runs up against a final absurdity … : death itself. In death the petty bourgeois confront the ultimate expropriation, the ultimate frustration of individuality: life in all its nakedness, the pure incommunicable, where their shame can finally rest in peace. Thus they use death to cover the secret that they must resign themselves to acknowledging: that even life in its nakedness is, in truth, improper and purely exterior to them, that for them there is no shelter on earth. (Agamben, [1990] 1993)

Agamben’s most famous term is homo sacer. Homo sacer is an old Roman term for a person who has been banished so far from society, that they can be killed by anyone. However, they cannot be “sacrificed” to the gods, as this would make them a part of the community. (As an aside, I’m also thinking a bit about death in preparation to tutor a summer course on death, dying and religion. It starts in three weeks.)

As noted above, even death cannot give homo sacer an individuality separate from the rest of the vast petty bourgeoisie. But all is not lost, for “this also means that the petty bourgeoisie represents an opportunity unheard of in the history of humanity” (Agamben, [1990] 1993: 65). In spite of the pessimistic prelude, Agamben finishes on a note of optimism. Again, I see the Occupy Wall Street movement as providing that note of optimism for the universally petit-bourgeois 99%.

Someone who is homo sacer can also be considered an outsider and an exile in my view. Diken & Laustsen talk about “exile” as a social state, not a physical one (Diken & Laustsen, 2005, p. 153). The exile could be sitting in the same room as everyone else, but has chosen not to be “integrated” with society.

The distinguishing mark of the ‘exile’ is not sheer physical movement, but ‘the refusal to be integrated’, a kind of ‘spiritual’ exercise. The exile is the one who is determined to remain ‘nonsocialized’, as a singularity that is present but not represented, ‘in, but not of the place’. The exile only accepts relation in the form of a nonrelation, integration through the condition of non-integration (referencing Zygumunt Bauman, 2000: 207-9).

From time to time I feel exiled from my social groupings. One time several years ago this coincided with a general frustration with my music performance. It was at this point, that I renamed my musical project “xhile”. It doesn’t take much to make me feel like an exile. Just a couple of days ago a house where I thought myself welcome decided to exclude all non-residents. They had good reason for it, but I still felt hurt when included with the general lot of untrustworthy people. For the last few days I’ve been doing more participant observation with our local “occupy” movement. I’ve been literally homeless and penniless, sleeping on the streets while I await my welfare to come through. (I have applied for jobs, little has eventuated as yet). As it happens, I was able to squat a building on my own one night, and I am currently allowed to camp in a community garden. Nevertheless, this experience of exile has made me ponder. I have been thinking of some of the homeless people who were part of the Civic Square occupation before it ended, and wondering if they are homo sacer, people who are so completely outside of society that they could be killed with impunity. However, I am also homo sacer, and I understand that Agamben thinks most people have now moved into this category.

This leads me to think of compassion and praxis, something that academics are not always known for. One of the things sociologists sometimes do is interview people to find out how they see the world. One of the most famous current sociologists, Pierre Bourdieu writes of interviewing:

I would say that the interview can be considered a sort of spiritual exercise that, through forgetfulness of self, aims at a true conversion of the way we look at other people in the ordinary circumstances of life. The welcoming disposition, which leads one to make the respondent’s problems one’s own, the capacity to take that person and understand them just as they are in their distinctive necessity, is a sort of intellectual love: a gaze that consents to necessity in the manner of the ‘intellectual love of God,’ that is, of the natural order, which Spinoza held to be the supreme form of knowledge.” (Bourdieu, 1999, p. 614)

I too, in my interviews last year felt such compassion and intellectual love, and I can say my informal interviews with those in the occupy movement, combined with the challenge of Agamben’s ideas, have led me to something of a conversion of the way I look at other people.

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Troops of Doom | Tension

References

Agamben, Giorgio. ([1990] 1993). The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre et al. (1999). Understanding The Weight of the World. London: Polity Press.

Diken, Bulent, & Laustsen, Carsten Bagge. (2005). The Culture of Exception. Sociology facing the camp. London: Routledge.

Posted in Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Trust and Occupy

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 23, 2011

In my years of on-again and mostly off-again activism I’ve met a lot of people. It saddens me that so many of those I meet, even in supposedly honest movements, display a basic lack of honesty and lack of trust. I suppose for some it’s understandable. They’ve had Police invade their homes, they’ve had people let them down, they’ve had people with hidden agendas hijack something which was dear to them. They don’t know me, so why should they trust me?

I remember the time many years back when I attended a planning meeting after the national Anarchist conference in New Zealand. I couldn’t figure out why one woman in particular didn’t seem to want my help or allow me to be part of much. Turns out that she assumed I was a Police spy. But she never asked me about it, or told me her concerns.

What annoys me most in these situations is that very few people ever have the honesty to talk to the person they have a problem with about their concerns. Instead they spread gossip and malcontent, much of which could have been cleared up with a simple conversation.

trust

This issue has reared its head again for me recently. I’m trying hard to work with our local Occupy people. I support the international movement and its basic call to limit the economic and political domination of a very small number of people (the “1%”). However, it’s hard to do much when people don’t trust me, and don’t talk to me about their lack of trust. I’ve got so much to offer, I’m 42 and have a helluva lot of life experience and resources. I’ve worked raising money for the CMP workers. I’ve protested. I’ve camped in Civic Square. I’ve talked to everyone I can about their vision for Occupy. I’ve also made mistakes. But I am open to correction, and will fully admit when I’m wrong.

Right now I’m kinda discouraged. I get the need to be cautious. But there’s a difference between caution and petty childishness. Talk to me, people. Find out where I’m coming from. Check me out. And then, if you’re satisfied, use my resources. And don’t forget that at the same time I’m also checking you out, and I won’t be shy about reporting what I find.

If there isn’t a little more maturity, openness and trust, I might just report back to the rest of the 99% that this is yet another idealistic movement that has come aground on its own ignorance and navel-gazing. And the many boring middle class people like me, who have time and resources, will choose to spend them elsewhere.

My previous posts on Occupy are here and here. For balance, here is a nice article by Anne about the same occupation, which sums up the positive side I find in Occupy.

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I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide…

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How to Change Subconscious Cultural Assumptions

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2011

Tena kotou katoa. Ko Jonathan Elliot taku ingoa. Kia Ora Tatou! No reira, you just had a cultural experience reading those words. Most likely it was uncomfortable or confusing. Perhaps your cultural assumptions of how one should begin an English-language blog were challenged.

We all have subconscious cultural assumptions, things that we think and say and do which are so “obvious” and common sense that we never question them. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a universal condition of being human.

What I want to know is, how do I overcome my cultural assumptions?

I am using “culture” in a very broad sense. For example, I think men have a culture that is distinct from women. Much of it is based on our upbringing and society. Some of it is based on our purely physical differences. Because of the latter, no matter how we try, men will never truly understand the depths of being a woman – and vice versa.

A subconscious cultural assumption could be another way of describing a Foucauldian “discourse”. A discourse, simply put, is what can be said at a particular point in history. In Madness and Civilization he asks why it was possible to talk about “madmen” in the 1800s and yet now we can only talk about those who are “mentally ill”. Foucault suggests that a new type of person, the madman was actually invented when we began to talk about people in a certain way.

Maori

To illustrate a moment that questions cultural assumptions, let me quote from another of Foucault’s works, the opening to The Order of Things.

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

So, I know I have cultural assumptions. How can I be aware of them, and perhaps change them? Here’s
what’s worked for me:

1. Admit You Have Assumptions and be Willing to Change

If you read the above, understood it and agree, you are probably already in this mindset.

2. Expose Yourself to Other Cultures

In the late 90’s I did two overseas tours as a musician/DJ. One to the USA – this wasn’t much of a culture “shock” as the US mainly speaks English (and Spanish). But there were distinct differences – I will never forget the time in smalltown Georgia where I saw a Taco Bell with a sign outside: “Hamburgers 95c – Praise the Lord”.

A second DJ tour was through South-East Asia. In Malaysia we were hosted by local Chinese families. They took us out for an amazing 9 course dinner at a street restaurant. I had always found Chinese people to be a bit “different”, I had never really felt comfortable around them. After this I realised how warm and loving these families were, how deeply they loved their kids and how generous they were. It changed my life and I have always felt deep love for Chinese people ever since.

3. Give It Time

Challenging your cultural assumptions is easy. Changing them is hard. One thing I’ve learned is that you simply have to give it time, and expose yourself to different cultures again and again. For example, when I was a teenager I had heard of this “progressive rock” band called Yes. They were supposedly very good. I went out and bought two albums (on vinyl) to see if I liked them.

At first, I wasn’t impressed. The singer had a too-high falsetto, their lyrics were a poetic mess, and they spent most of their time in interminable guitar solos and fiddly-diddly keyboard solos (Rick Wakeman was in the band at the time). But I made myself listen again. And again. And by the third listen I was beginning to “get” the music, and enjoy it. Now, many years later I’m looking forward to seeing them live for the first time ever.

It was the same experience, but more extreme when I was first exposed to drum ‘n bass in 1996, and more recently to dubstep. Now I love them both. But it took time and a willingness to persevere to understand these musical subcultures.

What about you? What other ways can you think of to help us see through our subconscious cultural assumptions?

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This post is part of the blogfest initiated by Carlos “Iggy” Shelton from Emerging Thought in Montana. If you enjoy this post, please check out the other links:

Blog Carnival: Subconscious Cultural Assumption by Emerging Thought in Montana.
Baked Ham for a Blog Carnival by Tripping and Stumbling While Following Jesus
Subconscious Cultural Assumption And “The Other” by Ben Currin on Facebook.

The Knobz | Don’t Give Me Culture This is a New Zealand post-punk song from 1981. It was written in protest of then-Prime Minister Rob Muldoon’s sales tax on records. He considered records not “cultural”.

Posted in music, personal, personal development, Sociology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Encouraged By #Occupy – Again

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 5, 2011

If you read my last post you will know I’ve been checking out my local “Occupy Wall Street” movement. I can now report that my initial misgivings were both well-founded, and completely wrong. Unfortunately I can’t explain more at the moment – otherwise I would have to kill you 😉

I have returned from four days and nights camping on site, doing some investigation of my own, and talking to as many different people there as I could about why they are there and what is happening with the movement. In brief, it was a challenging and highly rewarding time.

I do have more blog material written on paper while I was there. I hope to share it with you soon, I think it’s a beautiful wonderful story. But for now, take a look at how our city’s mainstream media reported on us while I was there. Then have a read of my comments below.


An unbiased article? Factual thoroughly verified investigative journalism?

Not the real occupy

OK. If you have read the above link, you have probably formed a particular opinion about who and what Occupy is all about. I can assure you that almost the only truly accurate thing in this so-called “journalism” is the title. I know. I was there.

For example, this reporter — who has been to the site repeatedly for stories, and who works for one of the biggest Corporate media organisations in this part of the world — did not report one word of a half hour interview he conducted the same day. That interview was with a friend of mine who truly represents what Occupy is trying to do.

Instead, the reporter Blair Ensor tried to find known controversial-looking and sounding figures, and report on them. Let me add one more thing. “Bad Touch Santa”, which is our nickname for the “street evangelist” is NOT part of our movement, never has been, and has now been firmly removed from at least two “Occupy” sites including ours. If Blair had asked us about him, he would have known that. Unfortunately he was in too much of a hurry to find some controversy and reach his deadline than to pause and check his facts.

Folks, I know it’s a cliche, but don’t believe everything you read. Check your facts. Be sceptical. Especially when the source is owned by people who have vested interests in misreporting the truth.

I look forward to sharing some more Citizen Journalism with you soon. Kia Kaha 99%

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The Magnetic Fields | I Don’t Believe You

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Disappointed with Occupy – Again

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 1, 2011

*Names are changed*

The first time I visited our local Occupy site I was going to write about it, titled “Disappointed With Occupy”. Me, my partner and baby visited the site on a sunny day. One person, a 40-something scragglybeard in the information tent was friendly and articulate. He had to leave to attend to other matters. The other person sitting in the information tent – a 20-something scragglybeard British tourist? – only deigned to look up from his book to talk to us after I asked him a question.

I’ve been to two meetings since. One was a “general assembly” – which gave me some hope that the movement might have something worthwhile to offer. About 80 people were at that. And a “people’s parliament”, now renamed “people’s forum”. Damn good they renamed it, because the 20 or so mostly under-30 people who gathered could hardly be called a parliament. That was nice, we talked about what kinds of changes to New Zealand’s parliamentary system we could imagine. It was small, young, but hopeful. And yes, the guy who sat next to me did smell.

Tonight was my fourth visit to the Occupy Wellington site. Tonight I wanted to stay, to help “occupy”, to see what it was all about. To talk to people. To enjoy the cameraderie. Participant observation and all that. I arrived about half an hour before sunset, at the tail end of a beautiful summer’s day.

I want this to succeed. I identify as one of the 99%. I want this to grow and to reach all the boring middle class people like me.

tents

Not a photo of the local lot. Too many tents

Wednesday 8:30 pm:

Seems like no-one is here. There are far more tents than people. I counted the tents: Thirty-five. There are a few dry patches of dirt where tents had once been. I’d heard the greenhouse tent had blown over in the recent wind. The “marae” tent that we were shown on our first day is no longer there. There is no information tent. But at least there is a nice large courtyard area with some plastic chairs. The site is tidy enough.

It’s just after dinner time, I ask if I can stay the night, and am eagerly welcomed by Barry, the scragglybeard who first welcomed us a few weeks ago. The kitchen staff washing up offer me food, but I’m really not hungry. I give them apples and oranges to share around. I don’t need a tent, I have a “bivvy bag” so I can sleep in the open. Nevertheless, they think there is a tent free and will see if I can use it. Nice.

I spread my gear out in an open space, and then wander around. I decide to read the protest signs hung along a fence. One says something like, “You will not get us to go away”. I felt it was kinda confrontational. Right now, I think this movement needs to be welcoming. Fortunately there are welcoming signs too. I wander back.

Dave comes over while I’m lying on my bivvy bag and tells me that a tent is free. “Just move the stuff in it to one side and you can use it”. I thank him. I’m quite happy sleeping out on my own, but decide to move into the tent. There is a lot of bedding, a pack and a guitar with only two strings. I am happy I will have warm padding to lie on in my sleeping bag.

Once I am settled I ask myself what I am doing here. I come up with two main reasons:

– I don’t like our democracy being controlled by the rich.
– I don’t like the gap between rich and poor, I want to help the poor.

That’s what I would say to an outsider. I’m mainly here to be involved, to support something I *think* might be important, to learn more. I reflect on the “Occupy” movement. I’ve read a lot about it, both local and international. Somehow when I first heard about it the whole concept seemed exciting and just resonated with me. I wanted to be involved.

But it’s boring.

It’s boring.

I wander out again. It’s getting dark now. No-one much talks to me. Let’s face it, there’s no-one much around. Eventually I talk to a Maori “security guard” in a fluoro vest. I only mention his ethnicity because I want to note that the group is not all whiteys. The guard belongs to the occupy group, not the council. I found him hard to understand, tho’ he was very friendly. He said something about the camp being “locked down at midnight.” He let me know there was no drink or drugs on site, but “if you want to drink, we do it over there”, pointing to seats not far away from the camp with a conspiratorial snigger. He did tell me what Occupy Wellington was all about: “It’s all about love.” Can’t argue with that.

The camp is right beside a public thoroughfare – as it should be. A sporadic stream of people walk past, many avoiding the camp altogether by walking far away. A few stop and look at the signs. Four 15 year-olds turn up and sit along the edge of the camp. A couple of occupiers chat to them. The teens seem interested, and have heard of occupy. One of them asks, “Excuse me for being… I don’t watch the news. Did National win?” The election was four days ago. When she discovers the result, she abuses John Key.

I decide these novice teens are not going to help me get any sense of the movement so walk back inside the camp where half a dozen people are gathered outside the kitchen tent in an uncomfortable circle. Some seem friendly, although no-one speaks to me. Most are silent, or doing random verbal “jazz” freestyles while listening to one or two people chat.

“Andy”, another bearded chap in shorts who I met at the people’s forum the other day walks past and says Hi to me. He’s genuinely friendly and a welcome relief from being ignored. But he moves on and after ten more minutes of being ignored I wander off alone to my tent again.

Eventually I decide to read my book and manage to find enough light near the entrance to the camp. There another young guy is noisily chatting to a man with a foreign accent who has stopped to see what’s going on. Noisy guy is mostly telling him about his view of the world, rather than listening. Apparently if the USA spent all its defence budget on education the world would be “sorted out in no time”. I can’t concentrate on my book (a highly political critiqute of society by Giorgio Agamben, which I thought appropriate). The tourist leaves and a few friends arrive to say hi to noisy guy. NG quietly boasts of “dumpster diving” recently in Porrirua, Johnsonville and Churton Park. I wonder if he has access to a car to get to these suburbs which are fairly distant from the central city. He tells them Moore Wilson’s [supermarket] is supposed to be good but was cleaned out when he got there. I heard someone else mention that he got food from the Hare Krishnas tonight. I wonder what the state of food and donations to the camp is, if they are reduced to going through the rubbish or begging from dubious religious charities.

I give up and wander back through the camp. I notice a dim light on in the kitchen. I am about to check it out when I notice the only people there are a couple cuddling intimately. I decide to go back to my tent.

Grabbing my drink, I leave the camp and sit looking at the city buildings, the lights of distant Petone and the colourful seafront walkway. I tell myself that it’s pointless being there if I don’t talk to anyone. I try and work up courage to talk. But first I must pee. The council have continued to lock the public toilets at night, so I walk along the waterfront to the park and pee on a bush. I hope no-one sees me, as I don’t want to bring the movement into disrepute. This is why I’ve walked a reasonable distance from the camp.

There is no wind. Therefore, no electricity from the tiny camp wind turbine. I see it absolutely still. Dead. Where are the people who are active on the Occupy web site and facebook page? Are they even here? Lack of electricity would suggest not.

I return.

10:07 pm.

I have a short, humorous conversation with six people out on the main drag in front of the camp. I finally start to be included, although they are mostly interested in talking among themselves. Comfort zone, why should they talk to a newbie, even though I’m trying to smile and joke.

It turns out several of them aren’t actually sleeping here tonight. Just visiting. One has just come back after a week and a half away. “It was better when there were 40 people here”, says one twenty-something woman. I ask how many are here now. They don’t know. I think they said twenty.

They all talk loudly about where they will go to grab food. They leave for a cafe uptown. They don’t invite me with them. “Nice meeting you”, says another young woman as she leaves. “Was that a meeting?” I ask. She dissembles. I wasn’t even aware she had noticed me.

I go back to my borrowed tent. Alone. Bored.

If the police wanted to raid, there would be about 5 people on the site right now.

And I wouldn’t care.

EDIT: I have since returned and lived onsite for four days. I begin to share about that experience here

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Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2011

Perhaps, dear reader, you can tell me whether Michael Shermer applies the concepts in his new book to his own ideas. Essentially, The Believing Brain (2011) says that we create beliefs and then find evidence to reinforce those beliefs. On those terms, Shermer’s statement is also a belief, and Shermer is merely finding evidence that supports his idea and ignoring other possibilities. I want to know if Michael Shermer raises this problem and answers it.

Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book.

However, I’d like your help, because I simply don’t have time to read The Believing Brain in its entirety yet and I have to return it to the library in two weeks. In that two weeks I have to finish writing about 10,000 words so reading Shermer in depth just ain’t going to happen yet. The problem: If our brains create beliefs, and then we find the evidence to support these beliefs how does Shermer know his idea is true? He may simply “want to believe” that his ideas are correct and conveniently only look at evidence that supports him. Even the idea of “looking for evidence” is a belief itself, a belief about how one best discovers “knowledge”. I don’t think– from my brief look so far– that Shermer addresses this. I may be wrong. Can you tell me if Shermer talks about this?

believe

If he doesn’t, I think it might undercut much of what he says, because deciding how we find truth and know truth is not a simple question. And some people don’t even think there is a “truth” to be found. The epilogue is where Shermer talks about what he thinks is the best method to find the truth, which he says is science. He writes, “What makes science so potent is that there is a well-defined method for getting at the answers to questions about the world – a world that is real and knowable.” Notice the assumption that the world is both real and knowable – this is philosophy, not science. He continues, “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism.”

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems Shermer doesn’t like philosophy much. This is sad, because as I pointed out above, he doesn’t seem to realise how much of his own point of view actually depends on philosophy, not science. I was surprised to find no mention of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, let alone Bruno Latour’s or even Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” even though I suspect the model of science Shermer is using is based on the latter. This is a constant surprise to me: Scientists who seem to have absolutely no awareness of the philosophy or sociology of science which their discipline is based on.

Let me say at this point, that I love science. I trained in it in my undergrad degree, and I’m so grateful to live in a world where we have things like cars, medicine, and the computer on which I’m typing this. What I don’t love is scientism, the view that almost turns science into a religion. Scientism says that science can solve anything, including things which science just isn’t built to solve. Shermer concludes his book with the statement that the truth is out there and that “science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.” I will conclude by quoting him with a small modification: “In the end, I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is one of the best tools we have for uncovering it.”

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King’s X | Believe (Great song! Lyrics.).

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Meditation Means You Don’t Like Your Self?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 9, 2011

Do you like your self? Does being a person in the world, living, loving, laughing make you happy? Why would you want to lose this self, then?

At present I’m working on a paper which is a Foucauldian reading of Buddhist meditation. As part of it I’m trying to understand the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, translated “no-self”. Here are some quotes:

Consider the way meditation is recommended by some doctors: their view is usually that meditation is simply a therapy for reducing stress. It is true that the ability to manage stress is a likely fringe benefit of meditation. From a Buddhist perspective, though, the point of meditation is to stimulate a process of change and development towards the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.” (Kamalashila, 1992: 4)

Epstein (2007: 42) speaks of “Misappropriation of Freudian terminology by scholars and practitioners of these Eastern traditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the confused concepts “ego” and “egolessness” … “This goal [of egolessness] is understood from a Western psychological perspective, rather than with the more subtle, originally intended Eastern meaning”. He quotes the current Dalai Lama who says, “this seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all” (Epstein, 2007: 52)

mind

From a look at the canonical and commentarial works of Theravada, “[Cessation] is, in brief, a condition in which no mental events of any kind occur, a condition distinguishable from death only by a certain residual warmth and vitality in the unconscious practitioner’s body.” (Griffiths, 1986: 13)

Khema has a chapter titled “Removing the illusion of self” (Khema, 1997: 129). Buddha says to Poṭṭhapāda that there are three kinds of “acquired” (or assumed) self. The body, the “mind-made”, and the “formless acquired self”. “The Buddha continues: ‘What is the formless acquired self? It is without form, and made up of perception.’ … [Khema interprets this as] There is neither physical nor mental form. In the infinities of space and consciousness there is nothing that has any kind of boundary, but there is perception. If that were not so, we would not know we had experienced infinite space and consciousness.” Perception can also be considered consciousness. But perception is not “my” self, it just is. (Khema, 1997: 134) But even this is ultimately not the true self, but it’s the best we can do for now at this level of teaching. Although it’s hard, we have to realize we are “thinking in the wrong way” (Khema, 1997: 147,148, 153).

I include one quote from an academic that seems to imply something else. Dr V.V.S. Saibaba (2005: 187) writes, “the condition of the enlightened one is incomprehensible”, but “it is nowhere stated that the Buddha after his parinibbana has been annihilated”. He says this is why it can be considered orthodox even in Theravada to pray to or worship the Buddha- because the Buddha is still in existence.

In contrast, consider these words of Aristotle, from the 8th and 9th books of the Nicomachean Ethics.
“Seeing that we are alive is in and of itself sweet, for life is by nature good, and it is sweet to sense that such a good belongs to us. … All people find the fact of their own existence desirable … Existence is desirable because one senses that it is a good thing” Agamben (2009: 32)

As we can see, these viewpoints are very different. According to Aristotle, existence is self-evidently good and desirable. According to the First Noble Truth, existence is dukkha (suffering) and should not be desired. Although it’s subtle, the goal of Buddhist meditation seems to be to lose one’s own existence. So is meditation ultimately an anti-human activity? I’ve grown up with Western points of view, and I like having the experience of my “self”. I think experiencing a life, and valuing people as individual selves is a good thing.

What about you?

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References:
Agamben, Giorgio. (2009). What Is An Apparatus? Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Epstein, Mark. (2007). Psychotherapy Without the Self. A Buddhist Perspective. New Haven:Yale University Press.
Griffiths, Paul. J. (1986). On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
Kamalashila. (1992). Meditation. The Buddhist Way of Tranquility and Insight. Birmingham: Windhorse publications.
Khema, Ayya. (1997). Who Is My Self? A Guide to Buddhist Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Saibaba, V.V.S. (2005). Faith and Devotion in Theravāda Buddhism. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that a non-adherent of a religion usually makes mistakes in emphasis, nuance and understanding when writing about it. My apologies for any factual errors. I feel uncomfortable criticising a spiritual path from the outside so I’m relying on those writing from the inside. I also acknowledge the large number of good, moral buddhists.

Check out one trippy Western response. “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream It is not dying It is not dying…”
The Beatles | Tomorrow Never Knows

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Would You Report Someone For Welfare Fraud?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 8, 2011

Lots of people are interested in my post a while back about welfare fraud in the USA. So I thought I’d do a follow up. First, I’ve got some current figures from reliable sources. Here’s part of a 2011 paper. If figures bore you, skip to the interesting stuff below:

Overseas findings
The UK Department for Work and Pensions estimated that in 2008-09, approximately 2.2 percent of all benefit expenditures, or 3b [pounds sterling], was overpaid as a result of fraud and error (DWP 2009). Half of this, about 1.1b [pounds sterling], was attributed to fraud, although this was based on a sampling procedure rather than convictions. The figure represented an increase, from a low of 0.6b [pounds sterling] in 2005-06, despite concerted efforts by the department to stop fraud (NAO 2008).

In the United States in 2008-09, the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General (2009) received 129,495 allegations of fraud and closed 8,065 cases, with 1,486 criminal prosecutions. These activities involved over US$2.9b in ‘questioned costs’; with US$23.3m in recoveries, US$2.8m in fines and a further US$25.5m in settlements, judgement and restitution orders.

welfare

Australian data
The following section presents data supplied by Centrelink on its compliance and fraud-related activities and outcomes. Unlike the UK Department for Work and Pensions, Centrelink does not provide estimates of fraud but reports on detected errors and fraud prosecution actions and outcomes.
Formal fraud investigations are usually initiated through compliance and eligibility reviews. Reviews occur in large numbers each year. There is a crossover of triggers and methods, including routine data-matching, random sampling, identity checks and public tip offs.

Table 1 reports on the outcomes of reviews for the three year period 2006-07 to 2008-09. Of note is the fact that typically, only 15.7 percent of reviews led to cancellations or reductions in payments. Of these, as few as 0.8 percent were referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP); with 0.5 percent being prosecuted. Prosecutions resulted in a 98.8 percent conviction rate. Overall, in the three years, 0.04 percent of customers were convicted of fraud. For the same period, fraud investigations were estimated to have produced $380.6m in gross savings and amounts targeted for recovery. This compares with $1.4b in overpayments identified and debts generated from the review process. Fraud therefore accounted for approximately 26.2 percent of invalid payments. Furthermore, on average, only 15.1 percent of investigations resulted in a prosecution referral. In 2008-09, Centrelink referrals accounted for 69 percent of defendants prosecuted by the CDPP (2009: 115-116).

Table 2 provides a snapshot of fraud across the top 15 benefit types. Within this group, the Single Parenting Payment and Newstart Allowance (unemployment benefit) together accounted for 72 percent of convictions and $33.5m of debt. The Disability Support Pension and Partnered Parenting Payment together accounted for a further 14.7 percent and $7.6m of debt.
Figure 1 shows longer term trends for compliance reviews and adjustments for the 12 year period from 1997-2008 (when Centrelink was established) to 2008-09.
They show that, in terms of the number of Centrelink customers, compliance reviews increased by 54.5 percent from an average of 41.1 percent of customers up to 2001-02, to an average 63.4 percent subsequently, while cancellations or adjustments more than doubled from 4.3 percent to 10.1 percent.
Figure 2 shows that referrals to the CDPP have increased less dramatically, with prosecutions and convictions at a fairly stable rate.

Exerpt from Prenzler, Tim. “Welfare fraud in Australia: Dimensions and issues.” Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice (2011)

Be careful in how you read the figures above, as it isn’t always clear what they mean. Also, these figures don’t tell the whole story. I haven’t fully absorbed the paper, but in essence, it supports my previous claim that less than 2% of people on welfare commit fraud.

In my last post, a few people queried the definition of fraud in the comments. So here’s the definition I’m using: Fraud is knowingly accepting welfare payments that you are not legally eligible for.

Note that it’s knowingly. Mistakes by the recipient, or the welfare agency are not fraud.

“Abuse of the system” is not fraud. If Bob is lazy and doesn’t want to work, but the welfare system has evaluated him fairly and allocated him funds, this is not fraud. You may wish to reform the system so that people like Bob can’t get money, but it’s not fraud. In New Zealand, where I live, it is not at all easy to get welfare, and it is not at all easy to live on welfare. It’s not a “cushy life”. Another paper I read suggests we feel more strongly about welfare fraud than we do about tax fraud or white collar fraud, arguably more serious crimes. I wonder why this is?

A few commenters assert that fraud is much more widespread than my figures show. Again, I reply: Show me the evidence.

Some commenters give anecdotal evidence, eg, “My sister has a baby and she hasn’t told them who the father is so she can get welfare, even though they are living together.” My question is, if you are so concerned about welfare fraud, why don’t you report them to the authorities? I know someone who has probably been collecting more welfare than she is entitled to for many years. Yet, if I report her, her son might suffer financially. Maybe we get the welfare system we deserve?

Would you report someone close to you for welfare fraud? If not, why not?

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