The following text is an introduction to the Changing Suns Press blog “It Is What It Isn’t.” It may seem to introduce far too much for something called a “blog entry.” I also write a column for the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. My friend and former CNS editor Joel Kovel once commented, in a joke that only leftist intellectuals could appreciate, that my columns had “burst the integument of the column-form.” Despite such tendencies, I plan to make a real effort to make future bog entries something like blog entries, though they may still turn out to be something else.
For years I’ve been intrigued by the increasing “is” contamination of the English language. More and more, you hear strange constructions like “the idea is, is that” and “the problem was, is that.” Occasionally you even hear three is’s in a row. “The thing is, is, is that.” But, above all, there’s the ubiquitous “It is what it is.” This phrase became so common that it was once officially named “cliché of the year.”
As a defender of dialectic, I found this trend rather disturbing. From the viewpoint of dialectical thinking, the crucial challenge is to see the ways in which things are not what they are. It always is what it isn’t and isn’t what it is! Getting trapped in the world of “it is what it is”—what I call Isisism—is the royal road to delusion, disaster and domination. The right road, the road to illumination and liberation, is what I call Isisntism. It seemed to me that we desperately needed a forthright defense of Isisntism against the rising tide of Isisism. So, in late 2013 I wrote an article called "It Is What It Isn't! A Defense of Dialectic" to defend dialectic against rampant misinterpretations (such as the ridiculous idea that it means “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”), and to champion the cause of Isisntism.
A few months after the article appeared, news stories began to appear about a fanatical fundamentalist organization that was rather unbelievably called “Isis.” Is is! Sometimes it was even called simply “IS.” Never before had the roots of dogmatism been expressed quite so clearly. For some time I had been attacking “Isismic Fundamentalism” in a general sense. Impossible reality soon supplied the most extreme example of Isisism imaginable and gave it the name I would have picked if I had made it up. It went so far as to murder anyone who had the slightest doubt about what is. This group was Isisism incarnate! So we finally had the perfect expression of the nature of Isisism. However, we should not allow this convenient paradigm case to lead us astray. For Isisism is, in fact, all around us, and the real challenge is to uncover it in its less flagrant but still insidious guises.
We don’t notice these Isismic phenomena because they are enshrined in the dominant ideology, which is so pervasive that it becomes no more noticeable than the air we breathe. So a key dimension of dialectical thinking is the critique of ideology. This is identical to the critique of Isisism, since ideology is basically a set of ideas that purports to tell you how the world is, but which really tells you what some system of power and domination requires you to believe about the world. This is why we need what has been called “a ruthless critique of all that exists”—all that is— arising out of a resolute spirit of negation. Dialectic extols the virtues of negative thinking—the isn’t side of Isisntism. One might respond: “Negative thinking? Don’t we have too much of that already?” Of course, we do, but we have too much of it precisely because garden variety negative thinking is not negative enough. We need to put a lot more negation and a lot more thought into our negative thinking.
For example, when narrow analytical thinking negates the ego, it gets molecules, atoms, or maybe nothing at all. It’s no wonder that those who reason in this way usually have little interest in thinking the matter through. One-sided analytical thinking murders to dissect, rather than scattering to collect (as Heraclitus put it). When dialectical thinking negates the ego, it gets to the larger dimensions of “selfhood” and “personhood.” It gets to the human community, the community of nature, and communities of communities of communities. It gets to what Gary Snyder in his essay “Good, Wild, Sacred” calls “the whole mountains-and-rivers mandala universe.”
It might seem rather insane to say this, but the only thing that can save the world is dialectical thinking. It seems insane not only because dialectic is usually misinterpreted immediately as its opposite (such as some dogmatic nonsense about triads), but also because it really is rather insane from the viewpoint of conventional normality. However, something needs to be added for it to begin to make sense. This “thing” that we need is not just one thing. It is not some kind of free-floating “thinking,” but a certain kind of world. A world of dialectical thinkers who also live and act dialectically. Non-dialectical thinking means dogmatic, alienated, obsessive, automatic thinking. Non-dialectical action means zombie-like, machine-like, puppet-like activity. Dialectical thinking means thinking relations, connections, contexts, wholes, changes, novelties, emergences, and transformations. Dialectical action means fully experiencing and living all of these realities. Basically it’s The Walking Dead vs. The Walking Alive. To quote Gary Snyder again, it’s “domesticated mind” vs. “wild mind.” Disordered and domesticated mind vs. orderly and free mind.
Nietzsche, one of the great dialectical thinkers, was a bit like a Zen master in that he disguised his dialectic by attacking dialectic. But no one depicted dialectical reversal better than he did: “When you fight monsters be careful that you do not become a monster. When you look into an abyss the abyss looks back into you.” This could be a good mantra (mnemonic device) to repeat at least a few times a day. How many who have fought totalitarianism or authoritarianism have taken on all the qualities of what they were fighting? This was the history of the cold war. The cold warriors became what they most vehemently “were not” and what they most intensely hated. Fundamentalist religion does the same thing when it fights against Satan, heathen and infidels. But this history is also repeated on the everyday micro level when our obsessive reactions to the pettiness and meanness of others turn us into mean and petty people. Mark Twain was right in his brilliant injunction, “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” But we should also consider the fact that after a while there may not even be much of a difference.
The popular culture is so pervaded by Isismic thinking that we hardly notice it. I recently happened to overhear about thirty seconds of a program on the History Channel about the Great Depression and even within those few seconds I stumbled on a typical case of Isisism. Commenting on the life of the famous outlaw John Dillinger, the narrator remarked that he was sent to prison for ten years, but that it obviously didn’t work, since when he got out he immediately started robbing banks again. This is certainly true, if we abide by the rules of conventional Isismic thinking. It teaches us to believe, or to pretend to believe, that prison is designed to make people into honest, upstanding citizens. Prisons are “reformatories” to help them reform, “penitentiaries” to help them repent, and “correctional institutions” to help them correct their wayward path. So prison obviously didn’t work.
But obviously prison did work for Mr. Dillinger, as in millions of other cases. It worked exactly like prison works. Prisons help inmates make contacts that facilitate getting into, or back into, the crime business. They are ideal places to get pointers on how to improve techniques of crime. They fuel anger and rage that often lead to violent and illegal behavior. But all this is a bit beside the point. Prisons are designed above all to create a class of people called “criminals,” and to put them on the crime-police-court-prison treadmill. If prisons were really designed to turn criminals into obedient, law-abiding citizens, they would have been universally judged a failure long ago and abolished. As early as 1793 William Godwin could in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice conclude that they were “seminaries of vice,” and that only a person of “sublime virtue” could fail to come out a much worse person than the one who entered.
This is a case of Isismic thinking that is fairly easy to see through. Most are a bit more challenging. For example, prison doesn’t work by working in the same way that so many of today’s medications for supposed psychiatric disorders don’t work through working. They continue not working precisely because they do work. The crucial Isisntist question concerns the end for which they work. According to an obsolete mythology, these medications correct a “chemical imbalance” in the brain. But this contention has been conclusively proven false. Here’s the real message to the consumer: “Dear Patient: We have some bad news from your physician and the pharmaceutical companies. You have a variety of psychiatric disorders. Careful research has proven that they are a direct result of a severe financial imbalance. The good news is that you, your insurance company and the taxpayers can go a long way to rectifying this financial imbalance. Unfortunately, you will have to stay heavily medicated for the rest of your life, but this will make a healthy contribution to correcting the financial imbalance.” So it turned out that there “is” an imbalance, but it also that this imbalance “is what it is not” (corporate, not chemical; in the balance-sheet, not in the brain).
Electoral politics is another area in which flagrant Isismic thinking proliferates. Probably the most famous quote about American electoral politics is the old cliché that “all politics is local.” Doesn’t anybody think that it is at least slightly strange that the powerful politician who said this was famous for the thirty-four years he spent, not in his local neighborhood, but in Washington, D.C.? But let’s not dwell on that absurdity, since there are much bigger contradictions to consider.
According to conventional wisdom, the whole point in electoral politics is to win. However, such a strategy is obviously a ridiculously self-defeating approach. In the sham democracy of the two-party system, winning often leads to disaster. Win at the wrong time and you’re in real trouble, as Herbert Hoover found out. In national politics, it would be much wiser for the parties to concentrate on analyzing the business cycle and being sure to lose (and especially, to lose the presidency) immediately before a severe recession sets in. The unfortunate winners always get the blame for the economic disaster, even if it is a global phenomenon. They are then thrown out of office, after which the lucky losers come back with a considerable majority, and when the inevitable recovery comes, the latter get completely undeserved credit for it. Why all this absurdity? Because what is today called “politics” is not what it “is,” that is, political. It is not of the polis.
The phenomenon of losing by winning has in fact been pointed out long ago by astute observers. Immediately after the Spanish-American War, the classical liberal sociologist William Graham Sumner wrote “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” He argued that as a result of the war with Spain the United States had become an imperial power with colonies and global interests that would drag it into a morass of international entanglements and undercut freedom at home. In other words, by fighting against Spain it was itself turned into Spain. It suddenly discovered that it is what it isn’t. We are back to Nietzsche’s dialectic of monsters.
Heraclitus was the founder of Western dialectic (“Western” because he was from the Far West of Asia). He famously said that you can’t step into the same river twice. You can’t do this because it isn’t what it is—the same river. He also said “Always expect the unexpected, or you will never find it.” Dialectical thinking defies the expected (that which we are told “is”). It patiently waits for the appearance of the unexpected (what isn’t and might even be thought to be impossible) and is able to notice it when it appears. The dialectical sensibility is a form of negative capability. It accepts the possibility that the impossible will become possible, which is only to say that it accepts the possibility of a world of true emergence and true creativity. Heraclitus also said that “the path up and the path down are one and the same.” This is true because each path isn’t what it is—a separate path. This idea of unity-in-plurality and the identity of opposing forces is basic to both ecological and dialectical thinking.
The ancient Daoist sage Laozi taught a similarly dialectical view of reality. He said that one opposite can’t win out over another opposite—because each one isn’t what it is—a separate, independent, entirely opposed reality. In Western culture, the famous concepts of yin and yang are often translated into innocuous New Age ideology at best and into cunning tactics for business success at worst. But they are in fact radical concepts that challenge conventional views of reality and indeed conventional reality itself. They place in question the entire hierarchical and dualistic view on which the dominant order has been based for millennia, in the teaching that the polarities are on one plane of reality, are mutually determining, have no rigid boundaries, flow into one another, are dependent on one another for their existence, and are contained within one another.
Laozi challenged his highly patriarchal society in which the males ruled over females and elders ruled over the young, teaching that our ideal models for virtue and goodness are the female and the young child. He observed that the greater the use of force and coercion to maintain order, the greater the resulting disorder. He said that one can never achieve victory through becoming as strong as possible—because strength isn’t what it is—pure power with no weakness. String a bow too tightly and it loses it efficacy. Sharpen a sword too much and it loses its edge.
Hegel, in his Master-Slave Dialectic, showed how a seemingly independent and all-powerful being can turn into a being that is dependent on a seemingly subordinated being. The master begins with power of life and death over the slave. However, by becoming a passive consumer who relies on the slave for the necessities of life, the master becomes a dependent being whose power finally depends on preventing the slave becoming conscious of the real conditions of life and the real power relations. The more that power becomes what it is (powerful) the more it becomes what it isn’t (powerless). We are now seeing such a reversal on a world-historical level. The World System was seemingly founded on Euro-American societies as the center of capital accumulation and Asian societies as the primary locus for maximum exploitation of labor-power. However, as production has shifted to Asian societies there is a reversal of global power-relations that will ultimately eclipse European hegemony. Or consider the long-term results of the project called “the control of nature.” In my own bioregion, the project of mastery, of exploitation of nature and holding back the sea, will probably result in our complete disappearance in the course of the present century.
Marx’s most dialectical dimension is expressed in his question “What do we produce through our labor?" The usual non-dialectical and rather uninformative answer is that we produce things, such as “products,” or “goods and services.” We produce something that “is.” The dialectical answer is that we produce many things, along with their opposites, including social relations, and modes of being and non-being, or lack. We produce wealth, along with poverty, power, along with powerlessness, dominance, along with subordination, happiness, along with misery, pride, along with humiliation, intelligence, along with stupidity, strength, along with weakness. We produce production itself, along with distribution and consumption. We produce a class system and a state system. In sum, we produce a certain kind of self-contradictory world, and we produce ourselves as a certain kind of self-contradictory being.
We might also touch briefly on the ideas of Nagarjuna, since he is the most radical dialectician and Isisntist in history. Nagarjuna introduced the Tetralemma of Isisisntism. He says that whenever we consider whether something is a certain way, we must also consider the way in which it isnot, the way in which it both is and is not, and the way in which it neither is nor is not. To which, he adds, we must consider the way in which choosing any of these alternatives still leads to contradictions and the need for further investigation. It might be helpful to look at an example of how the Tetralemma applies.
Human beings are intelligent beings. They have minds that have evolved in ways that have helped them not only to survive, but to grow and flourish. However, these minds have also evolved in ways that lead them to ignore and to systematically misinterpret basic aspects of reality. So let’s say I’m a human being. I should ask in what ways I am intelligent. There are probably quite a few, and I would do well to find out what they are and put them to good use. But I also have to ask in what ways I am not intelligent. One of my own core beliefs I call “respect for my own stupidity.” I can be stupid in a lot a ways and it might not make much difference. But there are some really important forms of stupidity that I need to pay careful attention to, and do something about, since the cost of ignoring them may be disaster. (On the personal level this might mean wrecking my own life, on the collective level it might mean wrecking the biosphere). Next, I need to ask in what ways I am both intelligent and stupid, which means simply exploring the interrelations between the first two questions. And, finally, I must ask in what ways am I neither intelligent nor stupid. This question might not seem to make much sense, but it is in fact the deepest and most challenging one of all. It leads me to the realization that ultimately, it’s not all about “me” (or “the egoic I”). Not only is it not all about me, but, on a certain level, none of it is about me. “I” is but the stream in which the “Not-I” goes a-fishing.
Nagarjuna’s ideas are based on the premise that the fully awakened mind is the only path to the deepest truths and most ultimate realities. One of the most important of these realities is the Big Story about which our little egocentric minds are usually oblivious, so immersed we are in our own little, disjointed stories. As Hegel said, the truth is the whole (though dialectic also explores the untruth and limits of any whole). The Big Story encompasses the Earth Story and the ways that we fit into it. The awakened mind comprehends the Earth Story as the epochal history of both the emergence and flourishing of human and natural communities and the progressive destruction and dissolution of these communities. It is awakened to the ominous truths of the present world crisis: that we live in an age of mass society and mass extinction. The nihilism and despair of the world today arises out of an implicit recognition that we live in a culture of death in an epoch of death. Shall we call our era the Thanatocene? The fact that no one does is a measure of the depth of our world’s denial and disavowal. It shows its lack of awakened consciousness that, as Hakuin said, “this very Earth on which we walk is the Pure Lotus Land,” or as the dialectical and mystical poet William Blake stated it, that “if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
It’s worth returning to Hegel’s insight that “the life of Spirit” is not a “life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it.” It reaches truth “only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” If we are willing to face history with open eyes, we need to go through the Dark Night of the Soul. Spirit needs to pass through being-toward-death to reach being-toward-life, and more importantly, being-toward-birth. This is the apocalyptic vision. Perhaps we should be anti-catastrophists, but only in the sense that we are apocalypticists. Catastrophe is of this world, the dying one, and it is real. Apocalypse is of another world, the world of death and rebirth. Apocalypse is a turning, a revolutionizing. It means finding “new suns.” Dialectic reveals that every apocalyptic moment is “a time to change suns.” Every mundane moment is “a time to move on.”