Epic change: Foucault on ‘today’ as a moment of vision

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We are living though remarkable times. Digital technologies are disrupting societies around the world, while our economies putter fitfully in and out of recession, and climate change sweeps whole suburbs into the sea. What is most remarkable about these times is how few people attend to their changing nature. Many people invest time and energy in distracting or shielding themselves from the changes that define the present. Even those who engage the present tend to treat it selectively, singling out those aspects of the historical moment that are relevant to their occupation and interests and zeroing in on them while ignoring the rest.

It’s time that we all took stock of the amazing times we live in. Because what we need today, more than anything else, are leaders – people that are capable of synthesising the chaos of the present, engaging with these changes and steering us through them. We need circuit-breakers, disruptors, people who look for opportunities in a crisis – people with the resilience to confront the present as a moment of crisis, the agility to mobilize multiple resources to deal with it, and the vision to mark new paths into the future. Today, our challenges are global in scope, yet so are our opportunities. The breakthrough initiatives that will define the coming decades will connect challenges and opportunities in unforeseen ways, putting us on paths towards goals that previous generations didn’t know existed. The great leaders of history have always been disruptive thinkers.

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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.

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What does it feel like to seriously confront death?

I answered a question on Quora: ‘What does it feel like to seriously consider the prospect of your own death?’ You’ll know if you’ve read Life Changing that I believe that confronting death is the best way to get in touch with who you are and what you think is important in life. Answering this question enabled me to go deep into intimate territory. Thanks to Seb Paquet for inviting me to take the plunge.

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It’s the people who haven’t done what they came to do in life who are the most scared of death.

As an atheist, I don’t see any reason to suppose that there is an ultimate meaning to life. Human beings are a cosmic accident (an accident that was inevitable in the scope of eternity, which doesn’t make our existence any less random or arbitrary). Conceding there is no ultimate meaning to life, however, doesn’t stop us from wanting to know the meaning of our own life. As Albert Camus claims, human beings are remarkable for the fact that they can acknowledge the meaninglessness of existence and affirm life regardless.

The attitude of existential revolt defines the human condition. It’s a bleak teaching, but having reflected on it for 20 years, I’m ready to say that Camus was right. [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…]

‘We are capable of incredible things’: Tim Rayner interviewed by Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM

I spoke with the indomitable Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM a few weeks back about philosophy, trust, collaboration and the meaning of life. I’ve transcribed some choice snippets below. You can listen to the whole interview here: Interview – Bondi Locals @ Bondi 88FM. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: the call of the crowd

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on social media and ‘subjectivation’ (Michel Foucault’s term for the self-construction of identity). Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue that the awareness of being watched and implicitly judged by the material we post online (including likes, shares, and comments) leads us to unconsciously aspire to please and/or impress a certain crowd, and to select content accordingly.

Part two deepens the analysis by reflecting on author Peggy Orenstein’s experience of Twitter. Orenstein’s awareness of the crowd spurred her to work even harder to craft a positive identity. This reflects a common response on the part of social media prosumers. Users who are able to channel and utilize the anxiety produced by the virtual Panopticon seize on the positive aspects of their identity and amplify them to the nth degree. This is what I call ‘creative self-affirmation’.

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Forget Farmville and World of Warcraft. Creative self-affirmation is the most popular game online. We play this game whenever we select material to share with friends or craft messages to frame our posts. The name of the game is to present oneself, via one’s tweets, posts, likes, comments, and shares, in the light in which one aspires to be viewed. This essentially amounts to affirming the things that one loves in such a way that the love one brings to the world is reflected in one’s online activity. The rules of the game are simple: [1] share only what you love or what resonates with you; [2] pay attention to the feedback you receive from the crowd and modify your posts accordingly; [3] don’t stray too far from the truth. Be creative but don’t be phoney.

This last point is crucial. It is easy to fabricate an identity online. We do this when we create avatars on SecondLife or player characters in World of Warcraft. We create fictional personas drawn from our dreams and imaginings – personas that may have little or no connection with our real world self. Creative self-affirmation is different. Instead of fabricating an identity, it involves creatively affirming key aspects of your person – those aspects that you consider valuable, virtuous and beautiful – while editing out your weaknesses and deficiencies.

Creative self-affirmation is an artistic activity, it is true. But like all great art, it has as much to do with truth as with fiction. It starts with your sense of who you really are. If your posts, tweets, comments, shares, and likes do not reflect who you really are (or who you believe yourself to be, at least), you are playing the game incorrectly. The point is to affirm your singular potential. You need to seize on your inner awesome and put it before the crowd. [Read more…]

Future-casting: from memory to destiny

Luke Skywalker stood on the dune at the edge of his uncle’s compound and gazed wistfully at the twin moons of Tatooine. If only the future looked as grand as those giant orbs. Luke had been raised by his aunt and uncle, who were moisture farmers on the remote desert planet. When Luke looked into the future, he saw nothing but boredom and toil. Luke’s heart brimmed over with longing for adventure. But life hadn’t given him any resources that might enable him to realize his dreams. Luke’s dreams remained precisely that – dreams. He was destined to work the harvesting systems on his uncle’s farm for the rest of his days. His excitements would be limited to racing his landspeeder through the desert canyons and haggling with the Jawas for droids.

All this changed the day that Luke stumbled upon a hologram of a beautiful princess calling for help. He sought the assistance of a desert hermit, Ben Kenobi, who turned out to be a Jedi Knight, practically living on his back doorstep. Soon Luke was consorting with pirates, hot-dogging through the stars and fighting space battles with Imperial forces. All the while, his knowledge and experience was rapidly increasing.

Luke was too modest to admit it, but his sense of destiny was expanding at an equal rate.

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Ready for change? Your time starts now


Life Changing is a hands-on guide to harnessing the power of change. Using philosophical examples, it shows you how to cultivate the resilience, agility and vision to embrace change and make it an adventure.

The book includes practical exercises that enable you to apply the ideas in familiar contexts. By doing the exercises, you learn how to think philosophically about change and unleash its life-changing possibilities.

Be creative with change. Don’t just ride it out — use it.

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide is available on Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes.

Check out the introduction to Life Changing on the P2P Foundation wiki.

Life Changing marks the end of a personal journey. For the past fifteen years, I have been studying, teaching, and applying transformative philosophy in my own life, first as a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, then as a lecturer at the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales, and recently in my Philosophy for Change course, which I’ve run at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sydney. My guiding intuition has been that it is possible to distil from philosophical ideas a kernel of practical wisdom, which can be communicated through simple exercises that students can apply to their lives.

This intuition is core to Life Changing. The book is structured about five practical exercises. Each incorporates a life-changing insight. The exercises show you how to muster the courage to change; how to control yourself like a Stoic philosopher; how to cultivate your Nietzschean will to power; and how to use Spinoza’s philosophy to supercharge your social life. They show you how to take adventure from the heart of crisis and fulfilment from the struggle with adversity. [Read more…]

What is philosophy and why should I care?

It happened again. This time in a public place. I was walking with the crowd into Central Station when I stopped to talk to one of the charity workers who hover like butterflies about the station entrance. These guys usually freak me out a bit – with their friendly handshake that holds you in place and their sales patter cloaked as bonhomie – but I was feeling playful on the day, and so I went along with it, waiting for my chance to explain how I was already donating to a handful of charities and would rather keep my credit card details to myself, thank you very much.

The spruiker must have picked me for a tough sell because he played the long game. Instead of diving straight into an account of his employer’s good works, he decided to inquire into mine.

‘That’s an interesting set of sideburns you’re sporting, mate’, he said. ‘I bet you have an interesting job. What do you do?’

Did I groan aloud? I’m pretty sure I swallowed it. But I knew what was coming.

‘Well, I write’, I said. My interlocutor beamed expectantly. ‘Philosophy’, I added, after a pause. ‘I am a philosopher’.

That killed it. It always does. I’ve never had a hostile reaction from anyone. But the response is rarely what I’d consider positive. Usually, you see a glazed look appear in the other’s eyes. I imagine cogs and wheels turning in their brain as they try to slot you into some recognizable social role. Philosophers don’t fit – that’s the problem. A philosophy academic passes muster because he or she has an office, working hours, a salary and tax bracket – all the things that go to comprise a recognizable social function. But philosophers per se have no function. It confuses people.

‘Philosophy’, the spuiker replied, recovering himself. ‘That’s great! So … what is your philosophy?’ [Read more…]