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History, Time, and Utopia: Some Reflections

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.” (Henry David Thoreau)

The above is a passage from Thoreau’s Walden. What is Thoreau calling into question in this passage? Nothing short of the sense of irreversibility that governs our ordinary understanding of time and historicity.

Indeed if time moves irreversibly ahead, then we may well be on a “descending and darkening way.” Our being in time is redeemable only if we can escape this inexorable movement. Does that mean that, as Plato seems to advocate in the Phaedo, that we have to liberate ourselves from temporality? On the other hand, Thoreau seems to be saying that a person who is out to redeem time by escaping it has already “despaired of life.”

Time itself, Thoreau implies, opens up another possibility. If we have not despaired already, we may realize that in fact time does not move irreversibly forward because each day is “earlier” than the one that went before. How early? The “auroral hour,” while not outside time, does not refer to any prior historical moment since any such moment is located on the “descending and darkening” path that has to be escaped. The “auroral hour” of which Thoreau speaks is time before history. This kind of time is not irreversible; rather it recurs each immemorial morning.

The beginning returns eternally even if caught within historicity. But we fail to be present to this temporality of nature, perhaps because nature itself has been historicized by our appropriation of it. For this is the nature that emerges fresh from the hands of the gods. Thoreau speaks of the morning as “the most memorable season of the day.” Having returned to the origin, one no longer needs to hark back to it. Only when it has been lost, in the middle of the day, one needs to remember it. In the auroral hour one neither harkens back to a previous time, nor does one orient oneself in terms of a future that has not yet arrived: one is present in the present and present to all that is present in it.

The above begs the question: why is this presence located in the past? Why, in order to locate it are we required to leave the present with which we are familiar? For the simple reason that historicity has so displaced “natural time” that it has become almost inaccessible. Why is then historicity a “descending and darkening way”? Because it signifies the deconstruction of presence by the future. We do not live in the present at all but subordinate it into a means of “getting ahead.” Within historical time, work views the present from the point of view of a goal to be reached, it displaces leisure which alone allows the presence of what is present to manifest itself without reference to any “in order to.”

In other words, appropriation of what is present takes precedence of contemplation of it, the use of things over appreciation of them. Historicity can be equated with profanation, rationalized as practical necessity. But it is a history which does not harken to beginnings (as Vico’s historicity certainly does) but is searches anxiously into petrified documents with a particular goal in mind.

Underlying that kind of rationalization is the drive to get ahead. What are we trying to get ahead of and what are we trying to get behind us? What prompts us to look past presence and privilege the future? This desire to get ahead, an integral part of any ideology of progress, seemed to Thoreau a kind of demonic appetite which enslaves the human heart. The image of historicity as a dark descent would suggest that Thoreau conceives of our being as caught in a tragic fall. Back to the garden of Eden.

For Thoreau, it is difficult but not impossible to awaken from the nightmare of history by retrieving the original experience which it has ruptured. Walden appears as sacred scripture, because it details the practice of this retrieval and does so via a poetic naturalistic language.

However, this account seems to have fallen prey to the metaphysics of presence which a modern philosopher such as Derrida has deconstructed in such a devastating way. For in fact, Thoreau’s project of escaping historicity and retrieving natural time seems to require our believing not only that our origin exists but that it is separable from all that derives from it; i.e., the privileging of being over historicity, the natural over the cultural, the signified over signifiers; it promises us to avoid deconstruction. But this promise can be fulfilled only if the dichotomy between “natural time” and historicity is tenable; only if time is not a “descending and darkening way,’ only if deconstruction is not immanent within time itself. This is precisely what Derrida (as well as Heidegger) call into question.

Let us therefore test Thoreau’s experience of the “auroral hour” with the Derridarian critique. This is not easy because Thoreau does not describe it literally but simply evokes it through hints and intimations, for he believes that it cannot be rendered any other way. It is not a matter of the intellect, but of the heart. We do not awaken to it by opening our eyes, but by becoming wonderers. Amazement attends to what is right here in front of us. This is in contrast to the attitude of practicality which notices nothing of the present except to achieve future goals.

When wonder arrives however, it interrupts everything else. This is the experience we lived once as children, but eventually lost when we fell prey to the restlessness of practicality. Wonder is wholly absorbed in and by the presence of that is present before it, and appreciates it for its own sake, instead of profaning it as a mere means.

All genuine philosophy begins in wonder, for immanent within it is an awareness of the world as sacred; implicit in that sacred character is the imperative that it be reverenced. This is the ab-original religious experience and without it no civilization is possible. The child in us is aware that there is more than what is right in front of us; there are intimations that move us and transport us out of ourselves.

It is like falling in love with the world the way a St. Francis of Assisi fell in love with it in total self-abandonment. What did Francis abandon himself to? To the “more” that is both immanent within the present and other than it, the not yet, a wholly unknown and unforeseeable future. Far from fixating us in the present, original amazement transports us beyond itself. As Thoreau renders it: “when we are really walking, we go forth…in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return…” (From Walking). So the deconstruction of the present is the very condition for the possibility of ex-static wonder. The metaphysics of presence causes us to misconstrue this experience.

Thoreau helps us to deconstruct it by evoking the experience in such a way that the deconstruction immanent within it is allowed to emerge. For humans, there is no original presence, no being antecedent to temporality, no time except from historicity. The breakthrough into the unpresenceable future is what is ab-original for us in as much as the very nature of our being is to be wonderers.

What becomes then of the dichotomy between “natural time” and historicity on which Thoreau’s spirituality depends? To answer the question we need to look a bit more closely at what Thoreau sees as the characteristic of our historicity: goal seeking. When we are working toward a goal we subordinate the present to the future. When goal achievement becomes a way of life the danger is that each goal becomes a means to another goal and no arrival is ever final. Goal seeking approaches the future with a destination in view and a plan for reaching it.

This meticulous measuring and planning is the pride and joy of all rationalists. The planning prescribes the shape of our historicity. It aims at controlling the future. Paradoxically, the achievement of any particular goal becomes less important than the overriding project of control itself within the assumed framework of “inevitable progress” and its corollary belief that what is newest is always the best. What will matter the most is not so much getting to the goal but making progress and “getting ahead.”

However, the unforeseeable future usually intrudes. It is radically heterogeneous from the present. We approach the future with a master plan in the hope of repressing this heterogeneity and obtaining a future that will not be destructive or deconstructive; that is to say, one that we can control. In other words, goal-seeking wishes to prevent the future from breaking upon the present in a way that would deconstruct it. Implicit in this desire to prevent this deconstruction is a nostalgia for a present insulated from the future. Working hard to get ahead is a way of trying to bet back to a present that the future has not yet deconstructed.

Thoreau would have us withdraw from historicity in order to immerse ourselves in an undefiled present. But that risks confusing the attempt to control the future with living in relationship to it. For to live wholly in the present means exactly to be caught in the unforeseeable which is immanent within the present as a disruption, i.e., being present to the future. A present insulated from the possibility of this fracture would not be a temporal present; it would be outside or before time. This longing to immerse ourselves in such a present is the equivalent of a desire to control the future. In both case we seek to escape temporality.

We may ask: why does our historicity take the form of trying to repress the future by controlling it? Because to wholeheartedly embrace what is right-here-and now-in front of us as an unknown that transcends us and beckons us to a response requires letting go of that which is right-here-and now-in front of us, thus relinquishing our toehold on the present and abandoning ourselves to the unforeseeable without efforts to control it. Indeed, irrespective of what the future holds in store for us, opening ourselves to it in its radical heterogeneity is a radical disruption, a sort of death.

Thoreau puts it thus: “We should go forth…in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdom. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready to walk” (Walking). This kind of walking does not bring one back to an original natural time. It leads straight into a historicity that requires leaving home, and abandoning all hope of ever returning.

The home we do not wish to leave is presence undefiled by the future. We have never been there, and yet we dread departing from it even though this departure is what we are. We desperately try to make historicity conform to our plan for it so as to relieve the dread. A goal-oriented life is not open to the future; it attempts to get ahead of time itself, so as to prevent it from devastating us. The alternative to historicity as we ordinarily live it is not to returning to natural time but abandoning ourselves to historicity rather than trying to control it. Surely it requires the ascesis of dispossession which Thoreau prescribes and St. Francis well knew, but this ascesis leads into history, not away from it.

The ecstasy of being transported out of ourselves is inseparable from the anguish of departure. Think of the myth of Europa and the scene of goddess Europa departing for good on top of a black bull (Zeus in disguise). We may ask: is she being transported out of herself in ecstasy? On the way we answer that question hangs the whole issue of the cultural identity of Europe. For the fullness of the present can be experienced only in so far as we abandon ourselves to the future what is immanent within it.

It can easily be argued that no time has been obsessed with controlling historicity as our own. What we ended up getting was Machiavellian real-politik where the end justifies any means. This drive at control is intensified by the painful realization that we do not control time and that there is no higher providence that will do it for us as the founding fathers of the United States surely believed. So we feel abandoned in history and abandoned to it. The intensity of this abandonment drives us to control the dreaded heterogeneity of the future; but the more control is achieved, the less history becomes possible.

Enter Francis Fukuyama who postulates an end of history when historicity is an anachronism and everything will be under control; that is to say, a future time in which the future will have been abolished. Enter George Orwell with his 1984. Enter Henry Ford with his “history is bunk.” Thoreau for one would strongly argue that we must try to escape such madness and go back to a time when the present was not held hostage to the inevitable progress as conceived by our present day rationalists dubbed by Vico “barbarians of the intellect.” It is therein that lies the prostitution of our very humanity.

One parting thought: there is an alternative to both the myth of the undefiled presence and the utopia (or dystopia) of a wholly controlled future, which is to say, the alternative to getting behind time and getting ahead of it. The alternative is to live within historicity itself as Vico has well taught us. To live in the present as it is broken open to and by the future.

The difficulty, in my opinion, is that the obsession with measurement and control has become so pervasive within positivist modernity that the very existence of the future in its heterogeneity seems to be in jeopardy. Within the problematic times we live in, nothing is held out to us, except the utterly unforeseeable wonder, the possibility of something impossible to anticipate. Both Thoreau and Vico teach us that to live fully in the present is to abandon ourselves to this possibility of something impossible to anticipate.

Indeed, to live fully in the present is to abandon ourselves to this possibility instead of wishing to avoid it or control it. We desperately need to learn what Thoreau calls “the art of walking,” but even here he would claim hat our power to do so depends on what used to be called grace, over which we also have no control.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

New Social Compact

Women and girls with autism must be empowered to overcome discrimination they face

MD Staff

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On World Autism Awareness Day, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has joined the global call to empower women and girls with autism and involve them and their advocates in policy and decision-making to address the discrimination and other challenges they face.

“They face […] barriers to accessing education and employment on an equal footing with others, denial of their reproductive rights and the freedom to make their own choices, and a lack of involvement in policy making on matters that concern them,” said the Secretary-General in his message on the Day.

Emphasizing that “our work for gender equality and women’s empowerment must reach all the world’s women and girls,” he stressed that the international community’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must uphold the 2030 Agenda’s core promise to leave no one behind.

The Goals and the landmark framework from which they emerged were adopted by UN Member States three years ago. Together they aim to wipe out poverty and boost equality by putting the world on a more sustainable economic, social and environmental path by 2030.

“On World Autism Awareness Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to promote the full participation of all people with autism, and ensure they have the necessary support to be able to exercise their rights and fundamental freedoms,” concluded the Mr. Guterres.

Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that manifests during early childhood, irrespective of gender, race or socio-economic status. The term Autism Spectrum refers to a range of characteristics.

Autism is mainly characterized by its unique social interactions, non-standard ways of learning, keen interests in specific subjects, inclination to routines, challenges in typical communications and particular ways of processing sensory information.

The rate of autism in all regions of the world is high and the lack of understanding has a tremendous impact on the individuals, their families and communities.

The World Day is marked annually on 2 April, and this year’s official UN commemoration will be on Thursday, 5 April, with a half-day programme in New York entitled Empowering Women and Girls with Autism, that will feature a keynote address from Julia Bascom, Executive Director, Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

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New Social Compact

Law in societies: Encounters vs. Anarchy

David Ceasar Wani

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In this essay I will discuss the purpose of law in society but before I go further law refers to the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may enforce by the imposition of penalties.

Some human beings can be aptly described as weak willed animals. They are easily influenced by the slightest sight or sniff of power and money. This originates from insatiable greed. Greed that can sometimes make even the iron willed loses their head. How many stories have we heard since our childhood where many “heroes” lost their way to the path of glory by being trapped by greed?

Our one aim in life has always been to find balance and serenity in our lives. A utopian society envisages a vision where people govern themselves. People trust each other blindly. They achieve happiness. People set their goals, lead disciplined lives and achieve anything they set their sights on They are able to live their lives to the fullest and all the time feeling secure about it.

However the vision, unfortunately, exists in an ideal world which frankly is almost the opposite of today’s real world. Our realistic society is heterogeneous mixture of all kinds of people, people who look to disturb the balance of the natural society. It is here that law plays a very important role in restoring that delicate balance back to the society and making the lives of the people living together cohesive. It is here that law helps to maintain the morality of the people as individuals as well as the society as a whole.

World without Let us imagine a world without any law to punish the wrong doer. Let us assume that the society has till now lived an honest life without any kind of betrayal. Suppose a person, in greed, steals a valuable item from his neighbor’s house. He isn’t punished but everyone knows what he has done. Some naive person, probably a youngster witnesses this and is tempted to steal because he knows there are no repercussions. This develops into a never-ending chain endangering the very foundations of the society.

Another example might be a survival situation. A group of people are stranded on an island with twenty days of food and water. They know that a rescue team will reach them on the twenty first day. They carefully divide the food such that they get the necessary nourishments by the time they are rescued. A person, out of greed for more, sneaks quietly and consumes two days of food meant for the whole group. When the group discovers what has happened they confront the person who cunningly reasons with the group that there was no rule or law which forbade eating more. As the group consisted of educated men and women, both young and old, they knew his reasoning was correct and they could not do anything to get the food back. As a result, they starved for two whole days during which a few old people fell ill and could not make it.

Law is essential and many do ask why and how but Law is essential in the society and it is there to guide the society towards happiness without bloodshed and in peace and harmony. Law helps us to restrain ourselves in times of great thirst for more money or power. It curbs our greed reminding us that there is someone or rather something out there ready to punish us if necessary. It helps to restore the balance in the society and bring justice to the victimized. The greatest thing about law is that all are equal before it. No man is rich or poor in the eyes of the law. No man is more powerful than the other in the eyes of the law. Law helps to regulate the behavior of the people. It prevents us from descending into anarchy.

Law is dynamic. It is constantly adapting to the changing times so as to close all the loopholes that may be left due to human error. Our Preamble states the ideals of justice liberty sovereignty fraternity and equality which constitute the basic foundation of Our Constitution. However, without law these ideals will be constantly shattered. There will be nothing to protect these ideals.

In a world where ‘survival of the fittest’ is prevalent, and looking at the size of human population we can say only one thing. Law is needed for survival. We cannot go against each other as it will definitely lead to destruction. Law plants an element of fear which may prevents in killing of fellow human being. It gives each one his or her own share, what they deserve.

Laws tell us what to expect as consequences as a result of our actions. It makes us look before we leap. It is there to protect and to destroy. It restricts people who get carried away due to the freedom given to them by the absence of law if this is the case. They know one abuse of the law will affect them economically, mentally and physically. Some exceptions may be found but this is applicable for the majority.

In addition the natural law which can be refers to Mother Nature herself which follows many rules and laws which help in the sustainability of this world and the life which flourishes on it in abundance. Every living organism, from the tiny unicellular amoeba to the biggest animal the blue whale follows a set of laws to survive.

Let us take the examples of honey bees. They follow the orders of the queen bee and visit hundreds and thousands of flowers to carry the process of pollination which helps in reproduction of these plants. They have to follow a set of rules or laws which will help in this important process. If one of them breaks the law, they are ordered to leave the bee hive. They cannot join another hive nor can they return. It is as good as giving them a life sentence. This life-threatening situation helps to keep the honey bees in check and brings order into the hive.

Same can be said for the birds which migrate every winter or summer depending upon their pattern. They have to follow a set of rules or laws which will help them navigate their way. One abuse of these laws can lead to cases extreme to death.

When in the modern society our modern society has become quite educated and the main question that arises from them is that who has the authority to form these laws which imposes a restriction on their lives. They question and debate upon the authority that makes these laws and rightly so. Once they are satisfied with the authority they know that their lives are secure and they are free to concentrate on their aims and dreams in life. Law is there to attempt to balance the needs of individuals against the needs of the majority. We accept responsibilities, we renounce some of our freedoms (not kill others, not harm others, not steal from other members of the society) to receive in return the benefits of society (not being kill by others, not being harm by others, not being robbed by other members of the society).

Law helps in removal of social stigmas such as dowry and untouchability. For example, in some Constitutions, it talks about untouchability and even though it still exists today, the number of cases has comparatively gone down a lot. This is just one example that law can have in a society which is not perfect, a society where human beings fight, and abuse and kill their own species. This is how law helps in protection of the underprivileged.

Furthermore Law plays a significant role in producing successful societal functions around the world. Law helps regulate social behaviors, ultimately leading to society running efficiently. Without laws, society would have no ethical boundaries or standards, no rules or measures, nor any means of settling even the simplest disputes. Law helps keep the peace in society through governance and standards set forth by all voting citizens. All functions of law in society include peacekeeping, promoting personal freedom, regulating government power, promoting economic growth, promoting social justice, and protecting all of society and the environment. It is important to remember without laws to govern the actions of people in society, it is highly likely all social structure and commerce would collapse. If one can imagine what life would be like if every prisoner in the world were to be released back into society that would be about how unsafe and dysfunctional society would be without laws (Melvin, 2011).

Law and Society The function of law in a society is more or less universal. It acts as a deterrent to control the evil and treacherous behavior of humans, to maintain discipline and imposes restrictions on some freedom. We live in a chaotic and uncertain world. Without an orderly environment based on and backed by law, the normal activities of life would be lacerated with chaos. Law is a social norm, the infraction of which is sanctioned in treat or in fact by the application of physical force or by a party possessing the socially recognized privilege or so acting. It provides a society with order and predictability, resolving disputes, protecting individuals and property, providing for the general welfare and protecting individual liberties. Law and the predictability it provides cannot guarantee us a totally safe world, but it can create a climate in which people believe it is worthwhile to produce, venture fort, and to live for the morrow. It prevents the state of nature, which would be total anarchy had there been no laws. Societies today are more complex and interacting. Maintaining good order and discipline have far reaching implications on a society’s prosperity. Laws are in acted daily throughout different societies for the protection and security of individuals, property, businesses and states. It permits an orderly, peaceful process for dispute resolution and provides us with the programs to establish and enable corporately, what would be impossible, or at least prohibitive, to do as individuals. Laws should be designed to protect the individual personal and civil rights against those forces, which would curtail or restrict them. Some examples of this are freedom of speech, religion, the press, the right to a fair trial and the freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. In the United States the respect for the law is paramount and disobedience to the law.

In conclusion it can be implied by common sense that law helps us to survive as a society and it is convenient. Convenient is comfortable and humans look for comfort above all things apart from happiness. Also law helps in getting rid of the social barriers that exist in our society. Through law we survive yet thrive. Hence law is necessary in a society.

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New Social Compact

The holistic gender and media agenda in focus

MD Staff

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Achieving gender equality in and through media requires a comprehensive approach covering a full gamut of longstanding as well as new challenges.

Assessing the issues – ranging from media ownership and staffing, news coverage, the safety of women journalists, through to policy effectiveness – is essential if society is to overcome the snail’s pace of progress to date.

This was the thread running through a panel session convened at the UN headquarters in New York on 23 March by UNESCO and the Global Alliance for Media and Gender (GAMAG).

Taking place as a side event during the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women  (CSW), the occasion previewed a number of analytical position papers which GAMAG had prepared with the support of The Netherlands and channeled through UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC).

The position papers, to be published in book format later this year, helped GAMAG to focus its advocacy around the CSW’s annual review theme on women’s’ participation in, and access to, the media and information and communications technologies.

The work also helped towards references to media and ICT being included in the CSW’s conclusions concerning its primary theme of “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls”.

Aimée Vega Montiel from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the Interim Chair of GAMAG presented the wider context of the position papers. She pointed out that media has a key role in the achievement of gender equality across all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals through shaping the social and cultural norms underpinning discrimination and inequality.

Sarah Macharia of the World Association for Christian Communication and co-ordinator for the Global Media Monitoring Project  flagged how little progress has been made in the portrayal of women in media. Within a 10-year timeframe, women’s appearance as experts in media has only risen by 2 percent.

Combatting sexist stereotypes is a necessary part of the process but it is hindered by the low representation of women in decision-making roles on boards of media companies. As Carolyn Byerly, a professor at Howard University noted, media and social media power is still highly concentrated in the hands of men. She cited research showing that out of the 100 largest media companies, only 6% have a woman CEO.

Rampant sexual harassment within the media and society is an enduring problem, with women journalists being abused within newsrooms and also by sources, said Mindy Ran from the International Federation of Journalists.

She said that women in media faced a “triple jeopardy” – enduring the same risks as their male counterparts, social pressures because they are female, and additional abuse because of the combination of being a woman who is a journalist. “Protection mechanisms are often completely inadequate at workplaces”.

Claudia Padovani from Padova University in Italy signaled the importance of having effective policy to mainstream gender equality in and through media. She highlighted, however, that many governments lacked such an instrument, and that there are questions about the effectiveness even where policies exist.

Abeer Sa’ady, Vice President of International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) summarized the discussion, urging that “we need to close the gap between good intentions and practices”.

Gender equality should be everyone’s concern, she said. “It is not about women, but about everyone, about men and women”, adding that there was a need for action across governments, trade unions, universities, civil society and private and public sectors.

UNESCO’s Guy Berger, Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, called for relevant actors to introduce or revise gender policies for media in order to ensure greater implementation.

Many governmental, social media and newsroom policies serve only as “weak symbols” that may reflect the aspirational gender norms, but are not translated into practices, he noted.

The event was moderated by June Nicholson from Virginia Commonwealth University .

UNESCO

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