Odysseus and the Cyclops: mastery, humility, and fate

cyclopsOdysseus was the hero’s hero. King of Ithaca, he sailed to Troy with an army of men to liberate the princess Helen from the Trojans. Odysseus’ leadership and prowess at Troy made him a legend among his fellow Greeks. Yet, Odysseus had a fatal flaw, and this would be his undoing. Odysseus could master a chariot and a phalanx of soldiers, but he wasn’t always the master of himself. Every now and then, his pride would get the better of him and he would become wild and unchecked, a primal force of passion and fury.

In these moments, Odysseus would forget the limits of his powers. He would believe that he was god-like and untouchable, the master of fate and destiny. He would lose his grip on reason. He would overreach himself and get himself into all kinds of scrapes.

Finally he messed up big time. The epic misfortunes of Odysseus’ life, dramatized by Homer in The Odyssey, hinged upon a single lapse in self-control. Odysseus’ error presents valuable insights into the kind of self-control that we need to deal successfully with change. Most importantly, it indicates how pride, or hubris, constantly undercuts our attempts at self-mastery. We believe that we are masters of the world. We overreach ourselves and wind up victims of the world instead.

Homer describes Odysseus as a master strategist – a ‘man of twists and turns’. It was Odysseus, at the siege of Troy, who devised the plan for getting the Archaean army into the city. Disguising himself as a beggar, ‘searing his body with mortifying strokes and throwing filthy rags on his back like a slave’, Odysseus stole into Troy and read its defences. The princess Helen, prisoner of the Trojans, recognized him and demanded that he tell her his plan. Odysseus gave it up reluctantly. The Archaeans would build a giant horse and put soldiers in its belly, giving it to the Trojans as a gift. It was a crazy scheme but it just might work! Under the cover of darkness, the soldiers would creep from the horse and throw wide the city gates and the Archaean army would come pouring in. This is how Odysseus, ‘master of any craft’, facilitated the conquest of Troy and liberated Helen. [Read more…]

Social media as gift culture: the prismatic self

Multiple-selves-in-social-mediaThis is the third post in a series on social media gift cultures. The series draws on indigenous gift cultures to examine the psychological and motivational dynamics of social sharing online. The first post in the series, The reputation game, looks at the North American Potlatch to reflect on the enticements and rewards of sharing online. Social sharing involves a reputation game. The aim of the game is to win the favour of your tribe by presenting them with exorbitant gifts.

The second post in the series, Sharing circles and tribes, considers how tribes are formed online. Tribes emerge when participants share with select users, who return the favour by sharing with them. These sharing circles are typically based in common values and interests – hence, so are tribes. I indicate the unstable nature of sharing circles and how an affirmative attitude towards gifting helps sustain them. Imbued with the ‘spirit of the gift’, the gift becomes a token of gratitude for the sharing circle and the tribe it maintains. The more that we cultivate this spirit in our online exchanges, the more robust and fulfilling they become.

This post considers the challenges of sharing across multiple systems online. Active users of social media are often engaged across multiple sites, groups, and activities in real time. Multi-tasking online can be a source of signficant consternation. While missteps (below the threshhold of the screaming faux pas) are mostly overlooked, this doesn’t reduce the anxiety that users (particularly new users) feel when tasked with sharing across multiple channels in real time. It is easy to lose track of how one is expected to behave in different contexts.

When tech journalist Paul Miller returned to the internet after a year off, he was surprised to find how stressful it was to multi-task across services. ‘I had, like, three tabs open and I just didn’t know what was going on’, Miller complains. This is a familiar experience for users of social media, who struggle to keep up with the flow of information on multiple channels.

The solution is to find your tribe. Sharing across multiple channels is easier when we share with our tribes in mind. A thriving tribe gives back more than we contribute to it. Tribes are a living reservoir of cognitive capital and an infinite human resource.

[Read more…]

Social media as gift culture: sharing circles and tribes

kulaThis is the second post in a series on social media gift cultures. I am interested in how indigenous gift cultures can help us understand the psychological and motivational dynamics of online social sharing. The first post in the series, Social media as gift culture: the reputation game, used the Potlatch ceremony of native North Americans to reflect on the enticements and rewards of sharing online. Social sharing, I argued, involves a reputation game – a ‘virtuous competition’ premised on the free exchange of gifts. As in the Potlatch, social media prosumers seek to create value for their followers through ‘gifts’ in the form of posts, tweets, pins, shares, comments, vouches, etc. The more value they create, the more reputation they earn and the more support they stand to gain from their communities.

In sharing content online, we are playing a reputation game. The object of the game is not to beat other players but to challenge them to greater expressions of generosity. It is a battle of abundant spirits that contributes to the common good.

This post shifts geographical focus from North America to the Western Pacific. I want to look at the Kula ring of the Kiriwina Islands to reflect on the nature and origins of social media tribes. Your tribes are comprised of people with whom you commonly chat and share online. Sometimes they are based in offline friendships, but not always. Shared values and interests are ultimately all that are required to hold a tribe together. If you are wondering who among your followers count as members of your tribe, make a list of the people who commonly like, favourite, share or RT the things you put online. Make another list of the people whose content you like, favourite, share and RT. Look for names that appear on both lists. These are the members of your tribe. [Read more…]

Nietzsche’s way of the creator: my north star

nietzschesupermanFriedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is my favourite philosopher and greatest philosophical inspiration. I have spent years defending Nietzsche’s concept of will to power from detractors, explaining why it has nothing to do with domination and control. Nietzsche is a philosopher of creativity and spiritual health. If he comes across like a rabid dog, barking furiously at the world, it was because he dreamed passionately of a better world – a world of free spirits, risk takers and creators, people who selfishly seek to cultivate their powers so that they can unleash themselves on the world in powerful and dynamic ways.

Do we live in a Nietzschean world today? In many respects, we do. Still, creators walk a lonely path, for they engage in disruptive activities, and thereby ruffle as many feathers as they release birds into flight. I dedicate the following passage to the passionate dreamers of the world – the pathmakers, philosophers, and radical entrepreneurs. It comes from Nietzsche’s magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-4). It is called, ‘The Way of the Creator’. It has helped me find my way, and I hope it helps you find yours.

Would you go into solitude, my brother? Would you seek the way to yourself? Then wait a moment and listen to me.

“He who seeks may easily get lost himself. All solitude is wrong”: so say the herd. And long did you belong to the herd.

The voice of the herd will still echo in you. And when you say, “I no longer have a conscience in common with you,” then it will be a grief and a pain.

Lo, that same conscience created that pain; and the last gleam of that conscience still glows on your affliction.

But you would go the way of your affliction, which is the way to yourself? Then show me your right and your strength to do so!

Are you a new strength and a new right? A first motion? A self-rolling wheel? Can you even compel the stars to revolve around you?

Alas! there is so much lusting for loftiness! There are so many convulsions of the ambitious! Show me that you are not a lusting and ambitious one! [Read more…]

Be human: Heidegger and online authenticity

Bay-Holiday-Display-Blue-WomenThis is the second post in a series on online authenticity. The first post, Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity, points out a challenge for anyone who seeks to brand themselves on social media. It is easy to fall into the trap of defining oneself through shares and retweets. This sets up a shiny wall of themes and memes surrounding your brand, but it can make it impossible for friends and followers to access the real you. To define an authentic presence on social media, you need to tap into the unique person that you are offline. An authentic presence requires that you creatively represent the best version of who you are.

What do you have to give to the world? Take the best version of who you are and give it to the crowd. I call this: creative self-affirmation. Creative self-affirmation is authentic self-expression.

US management guru Tom Peters has an uncompromising view of creative self-affirmation. The key to self-branding online, Peters claims, is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world and brand that. This is easy enough for a management guru to do – but what about the rest of us? This post dips into the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to define a reflective approach to personal authenticity online that is both easier and more natural than the path Peters suggests.

Authenticity shouldn’t be a chore. Being authentic is simply being human.

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What does it mean to be you – the real you – online? Is it possible or desirable to express your real thoughts and feelings if you are developing a commercial image, or brand? Many people argue that, when it comes to online branding, commercial imperatives trump authenticity every time. The watchword of social media PR is caution: stay on message, avoid equivocal turns of phrase, keep the brand strategy in mind at all times. The upshot is that branded social media content often lacks a human voice. Like manikins in a store front window, branded content strikes a pose that reminds us of authenticity, but is incapable of offering up the real thing.

What about self-branding online? If cultivating a personal brand is subject to the same market imperatives as corporate PR, we should expect social media to be full of plastic people robotically spouting on point messaging. Some commentators argue that this is the way that things are headed. Geoff Livingstone, for instance, argues that ‘[t]he commercialization of the social web has reduced most communications to simply corporate or marketing initiatives’. Perhaps genuine authenticity is an outmoded virtue, as quaint as chivalry and just as absurd.

I don’t buy it. Every brand benefits from a human touch, no matter what product it’s selling. My thesis is that the best branded content online speaks of human values and experiences. It speaks of a human world, or set of worlds, and it makes us want to inhabit them.

[Read more…]

Life-changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

What is love? Poets and philosophers have struggled with this question from time immemorial. Before talking about their findings, it is worth noting that ‘love’ is an abstract noun that can be used in a various ways. As Wittgenstein observed, in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use. I love Nietzsche and I also love a good cherry Danish. I doubt that either of these forms of love is what Wendy James from Transvision Vamp has in mind in the song, ‘I Want Your Love’. You see my point. Let’s start by agreeing, then, that love is an abstract noun that can have different meanings depending on its context.

Love comes in many flavours. Ultimately, though, you (and I) are probably not so much interested in the weird and exotic variants of love as we are with big love – true love – the kind of love that Pierrot and Marianne feel in the shot above (from Godard’s 1965 film, ‘Pierrot le Fou’). Transformational love. Pulse-bursting, sweep-us-off-our-feet, turn-your-life-around love. This is the kind of love I am thinking of when I ask: ‘What is love?’ Not just a feeling. A life-changing event. This kind of love is something that French philosopher Alain Badiou takes as a given.

France - "Vous aurez le dernier mot" - TV SetIn The Meaning of Sarkozy (2010) and his ground-breaking dialogue, In Praise of Love (2012), Badiou claims that ‘love needs reinventing’. We need to rethink love as an existential event in which two (or more) people discover a different perspective on life and the world. Lovers, Badiou claims, see the world ‘from the point of view of two rather than one’. This thesis initially appears to be a gloss on Aristotle’s take on love as ‘two bodies with one soul’. However, Badiou’s theory is more interesting than Aristotle’s rather trite conception. It explains, for a start, why love, when it happens, is a life-changing, and often inconvenient, event. It also lends itself to extrapolation in areas of life beyond the realms of romance. Quality collaborations are infused with an element of love, as Badiou understands it. It should come as no surprise that Badiou is a committed political activist in addition to an incurable romantic. [Read more…]

Nietzsche on God and power: timely meditations

Nietzsche – “Desconstruindo gigantes” by Emerson Pingarilho http://tinyurl.com/c4lontc

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a thinker at war with his times. To understand Nietzsche’s vision of the death of God and the will to power, we need to understand the world that he lived in.

Nietzsche’s nineteenth century was a time of industry and transformation. Germany was a major industrial and colonial power, unified under Emperor Wilhelm I. European society was being reshaped from within by the emerging middle class, while the working class railed against their conditions and dreamed of revolution as they browsed the works of Marx. Everyone was looking ahead, inspired by the possibilities of science, democracy, socialism and progress.

Nietzsche smelled something rotten at the base of it all. He peeled back the layers of polite conversation to unveil a simple truth. There was no place for God in this brave new world of science and progress. Indeed, most progressives didn’t see a need to make a place for God because they no longer believed in Him. This reflected a major social and cultural shift. God had ruled European society through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through his emissaries in the Church and State. Religious faith had shaped and colored life at all levels of society, from the rituals of the King’s court to the observances of the working poor. But God had been sidelined through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rise of science and the secular state, undercutting the power of the Church. By Nietzsche’s time, God had become a private matter, if not a superstition.

God took ill the day that it became acceptable to question His existence in polite company. He went into seizure the day that science established it was a better guide to reality than faith. ‘God is dead’, Nietzsche declared. ‘All of us are His murderers’ (The Gay Science [GS], §125). [Read more…]

Epictetus on the seas of fate: cultivate the power within

The Roman slaver groaned as it lurched through heavy seas. Below decks, a boy, Epictetus, lay writhing in his chains. His left knee, where the manacle bit into the shin, was trussed in a heavy rag. Two nights ago a crate had come loose in a storm, careered across the floor and crushed his leg. Epictetus had been in and out of consciousness since then.

No one had treated the break. The soldiers who had dragged the crate away retreated when they saw the damage it had done. Now they spoke in whispers and brandished the lash when he begged for help. He was damaged goods. Epictetus could tell that they didn’t expect him to survive the trip.

Epictetus would prove them wrong. All he needed to do was to control the pain. Try as he might, there was no stopping it. He had tried to blank it out, but it was oppressively – there. There had to be some way of dealing with it, the boy thought. What was it that the Stoics taught? Cultivate the power within. Epictetus struggled to apply the Stoic teaching.

[Read more…]

What is philosophy? An expression of care for life

I was invited by Rev. John Queripel to speak on philosophy at the Bondi Chapel by the Sea. Rather than prepare a talk, I spoke off-the-cuff and from the heart about my own experience of philosophy, which I understand as an expression of care for life. Peter Dowson from Bondi Storytellers was there and captured the moment on film. Thanks Pete! I owe you hugs and beers.

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Excerpts:

‘The basic idea that I want to share with you tonight is that the philosophical disposition, the philosophical state of mind, is an expression of care for life, care for existence’.

‘We are creatures that have the capacity to create value. And the fact that we have the capacity to create value … is attested by the fact that our sense of the value of things grows and decreases, waxes and wanes, depending on how we are feeling. You know how it is, you wake up in the morning and you are feeling a bit blue and nothing seems to have any value, nothing seems to have any importance. But then on another day, you’ve had a few triumphs and all of sudden those things in the world that really seem important just come into relief for you, and you are reminded about what it is in life that you find so valuable… I think that what we are experiencing in these moments when value comes into relief for us is … our own power to care about life. And this ability to care is very very important. Without it we are sociopaths, essentially. We need to care … in order to be good human beings’. [Read more…]