File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0106, message 34

Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2001 11:08:00 -0500
Subject: Tantalizing times

The Greeks and Romans told two stories about Tantalus.  In one of them,
water and luscious trees surround him. When he is thirsty and attempts
to get a drink, the waters recede. When he is hungry and attempts to
pluck a piece of fruit, the branches always remain out of reach.

The other story tells of a rocky precipice constantly hanging over
Tantalus' head. It threatens to topple at any time and crush him to

Taken together, these stories seem to echo some of anxieties attendant
to the current myths of consumption. The media and the corporation act
as pimps for the various needs and desires their customers are forever
attempting to gratify, but the brand names never truly satisfy the
thirst and hunger inside of the weary marks. Consumers live like heroin
junkies, always waiting for the man to come with the next big score.
They also live in the constant fear that soon everything they have been
struggling for will come crashing down upon them and their lives will
have been in vain.  

This is the flip side of the Protestant work ethic, now secularized in
the form of the autonomous self, whose development and maintenance is
seen as the major goal of one's life, the achievement of which spans a
continuous arc from birth to death.  Be all you can Be.

When Lyotard spoke of the Postmodern as an incredulity towards
metanarratives, he was widely misunderstood. Critics supposed him to be
venturing into metaphysics with a metanarrative of the end of
metnarratives. Or else, they said, he was simply wrong empirically.  The
metanarratives were still with us and always would be.

However, when Lyotard spoke of these metanarratives of emancipation, he
was talking of something very specific, the end of modernity as it is
legitimized in the myths of consumption and production described above. 
It is an historical project that works as a set-up or disposition that
delays and defers immediate gratification in order to accumulate more of
it over time. The old story of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of

Such modernity is not new.  It has very deep roots. As Lyotard points
out in "The Confession of Augustine";  "From book XI of the Confessions
Husserl reads off the phenomenology of the internal consciousness of
time. In this book Augustine sketched out from below a
libidinal-ontological constitution of temporality."     

Thus, the movement towards the postmodern suggests a break with a two
thousand-year old tradition of Western Culture for which Christianity,
in both its literal and secular forms, has tended to provide a normative
basis.  The question arises whether the times are now ripe for a new
religion, an equinox of the gods.

One of the fastest growing religions in the West today is Buddhism. This
religion has very much to offer to a contemporary sensibility.  It sees
no need to posit a deity or even a self.  In some of its extreme forms,
such as Zen, it even seems to suggest that conceptions of truth and
moral judgements are inherently relative, the very kind of negative
assertions for which the poststructuralists are constantly vilified.
There are even suggestions that some Buddhist logicians practiced a kind
of deconstructionism.

Ultimately, however, regardless of how much Buddhism is down-sized and
re-engineered to make it a fit object of consumption for Western
audiences, it still carries over too much from its past for it to have a
wide reception here. There remain wooly mystical constructs such as
Nirvana, a belief in reincarnation, the lore of the masters and the
supernatural realms of beneficent and wrathful deities that do not jibe
well with contemporary scientific cosmologies. There is also a
nihilistic and pessimistic metaphysics at Buddhism's heart that is life
denying and sees the world as a place from which escape is the only
possible answer.

Is there another religion available which shares the strengths without
the liabilities of Buddhism? 

There is, if the definition of what constitutes a religion is greatly
expanded, and one is willing to revive a movement that for all intents
and purposes is dead today and was killed by the rise of Christianity.

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 341-270 BCE in a very
interesting period of history. He was born in the generation that
followed Aristotle and Alexander the Great and thus lived at a time
period when the Greek philosophical corpus was virtually complete and
the Greek Empire had created a cosmopolitan political culture.

He was noted for being a materialist and taught a atomistic theory of
physics, which as Michel Serres has pointed out is remarkably
contemporary and even shares some affinities with chaos theory.  He set
up a school which he called the Garden and one that sounds like the
first counter-cultural institution in history.  Here philosophy was
taught, crops were raised and people lived and interacted.  He was
notorious for including women as well as men at the school, a thing that
was unheard of at that time.

However, it is primarily because of his ethical and theological
teachings that Epicurus is still relevant today.  He is commonly
regarded as a hedonist because his ethics is based upon pleasure and
pain, but this conception needs to be greatly qualified.  Epicurus
believed (along with Aristotle) that there were two kinds of pleasure,
what he called kinetic and katastematic.  Kinetic pleasure is the kind
we are most familiar with - it is those pleasures which satisfy our
needs such as eating, drinking, sex etc.  These pleasures tend to be
momentary and fleeting.  The point Epicurus made was that while such
pleasures were good in and of themselves, the pursuit of such pleasure
often led to even greater suffering or pain.  Food can make us obese and
love can make us dysfunctional.  Thus, although Epicurus based his ethic
upon pleasure, he taught that reason is needed to help us determine what
pleasures are worth pursuing.  

Furthermore, the real ethical goal, from Epricurus's point of view was
the realization of katastematic pleasure. Such pleasure was continuous,
rather than sporadic; and inherent rather than external.  This notion
was presented through the doctrine, usually misunderstood, that pleasure
is the absence of pain.  What Epicurus meant was this.  When we are in a
state where our needs are met and there is no pain experienced, we
notice a feeling of peace and contentment, tranquility, joy and
pleasure.  Epicurus called this state ataraxia, a word that literally
means "without disturbance".  

Epicurus taught that to the extent humans live in the state of ataraxia
they live a life that is akin to the Gods and realize an inherent
happiness.  This is the positive part of his theology.  The negative
part was a criticism of conventional religion insofar it taught humans
to fear the gods and to fear death as well as the underlying threat of
punishment connected with both.  

Epicurus taught that since everything is composed of atoms, when we die
there is no survival, but this should not make us fearful.  "Where we
are, death is not and where death is, we are not."  With regard to the
Gods, they exist as the positive images of bliss and joy.  They neither
create nor punish. It is atoms, atoms, atoms all the way down. The gods
may exist, but they are not in charge.

The first point that should be obvious here is the deep connection that
exists between the Epicurean teaching of ataraxia and the philosophy of
Lyotard with regard to the sublime.  Both are marked by dialectical
feelings of pleasure and pain and both resist discourse and
representation.  To experience ataraxia is to experience the sublime.
The sublime is now. Ataraxia is now.

The second point is that if a significant number of people began to
practice something like Epicureanism, it might begin to pose serious
problems for capitalism because this movement  would amount to a
rejection of the corporate imposed Platonic realm of idealized brand
names. No more Logos. 

This rejection of commodification is perhaps the necessary counterpart
to the rejection of work.  Suppose they built a mall and no one came. 
Tantalus Shrugged.

What an irony it would be, if, 2000 years after the cry "Great Pan is
Dead" was heard, paganism would once again return with a happy
vengeance, this time in postmodern drag! Long live Pan!
We must regard Tantalus as happy.  Who wants that Evian water (tm) and
Golden Delicious apples (tm) anyway.


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