Young person in yellow jacket stands on the precipice of a building as a dove and dog watch. Portrayal of the Fool for a Queer Tarot deck.

Beholding the beheld


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One of the first ways I ever heard Prof. Owsley say something highly critical about another thinker involved a colleague the Owl had known for decades. We bumped into the fellow on UNT campus when we were walking back to Terrill Hall from Wooten Hall where we had just finished a Great Books program class. They chatted for a bit, Owsley asked his mix of personal info and probing questions. The fellow told his thoughts, we parted politely, and we continued walking to the Philosophy Department. That’s when Owsley turned to me and said, “Keith… that man has hardening of the categories. A brilliant mind, blocked—unteachable any more. There is nothing more pitiful nor more dangerous than a smart person who becomes unteachable… they are effectively unreachable.” 

“Category” originates in Ancient Greece denoting a way of making a public claim of wrong-doing. KATAGOREIN may be translated literally as “to down (talk) publicly” or maybe in Texas we would say, “to publicly bring down” or maybe even “put down.” [1] Thus it is the cause for which a person should be prosecuted. Socrates was literally CATEGORIZED as an impious atheist whose very presence corrupted youth and subverted the good of Athens. The action’s original sense of airing a public-charge weakened down toward asserting an understanding about a thing or to naming the kinds of stuff in a collection. By the time Aristotle was teaching how to codify a logical structure of things, he used the term to point to the highest notion that gave meaning to a class. And we have pretty much meant this by “category” since the Abrahamic theologians of the late Middle Ages took-up Aristotle to elucidate the natural world in relation to Torah, Bible, and Q’uran studies. 

The thing about categories as a means of calling-out and organizing is how incredibly practical they can be. Categorizing helps in developing a taxonomy of processes in the natural world, assists in codifying an order of values in society at large, and even aids in developing a narrative of meanings from personal experience. Unfortunately, precisely because they are useful, they are prone to making-do: People make-do with the categories they have at hand rather than investigating new ones (creative thinking), dispensing with old ones (critical thinking), reactivating forgotten ones (historical thinking), etc. This contributes to the reification of categories into things that exist whether or not humans fabricate them. And while some aspects of the physical world definitely show a tendency toward obtaining even if we do not know about them, that is not the same thing as the rigor mortis exhibited by some people concerning social and personal categories that simply are nothing more than an uncritical imposition of their opinions on to the entirety of reality.   

I decided to call this knowledge-gathering segment “Beholding the beheld.” This gets at the reflective need to still my Self-Awareness in order to look upon the tension between the myriad possibilities within my everyday circumstances and the impossibility of imagining an authentic freedom that transcends them. 

So getting up and going forward to gather… What holds us? Always-already, TO-BE holds us. 

How do we hold ourselves? Too often through the constraints of ideology. Here ideology is the account of the interconnected ideas—meaning intersubjective cultural doctrines—rather  than empirically verifiable (objective) facts or logically demonstrable (objective) relations. In other words, ideology is belief system: the commonly held biases, prejudices, presuppositions, and customs that “justify” and “explain” the structure of everyday goings-on. The notion actually was invented at the turn of the 19th century to denote a new conception for studying ideas. In that sense, it is commonly used to talk about a close account of ideas at work in European political structures. This is how Karl Marx uses the term in The German Ideology.

As a regular occurrence in political philosophy, after the turn of the 20th certify, socialists, communists, and anarchists (later fascists as well), use the term to denote the scientific (therefore universal) validity of their own doctrines against the unscientific (therefore provincial) invalidity of the diverse capitalist regimes controlling Europe and the United States. As the socialistic surge progressed and empires regressed, the  term came to be applied by revolutionaries and academics as “imperialist ideologies,” meaning all of the older forms of economic governance, both the post-colonial holdovers of European conquest and the administrative organizations of the Ottoman, Chinese, and Japanese empires. 

By the time 2001 arrives, ideology stands as a kind of political commitment—the networked belief system. The ideology currently most apparent in the daily happenings, executive policies, and common laws within the United States is neoliberalism, a term that I refuse to use much anymore. This ideology takes as axiomatic that markets are generated by human beings to meet the needs of large and diverse populations. Markets are the best way to get from people what they can offer to the world-system and to deliver to people what they need/want. Markets must not be protected by trade barriers. Rather, they must be protected by well-trained managers (technocrats) who are sensitive to the cohesion of markets, the logistics of exchange, the intersection of cultures, and the desires of consumers. 

In other words, the dominate ideology is about controlling networks. Better: It is about networks of control. 

This has been evolving for a long time in the United States. After all, if Ortega y Gasset is correct that we hold ideas but we inhabit beliefs—indeed we are our beliefs[2]— it takes time for the notions that we hold to become the dogmas that we inhabit and thereby hold us. Or more poetically, it takes a moment for what we behold to become how we are beheld.

Now, I confess… I have an ulterior motive for sharing this with you today… right now, the State of Texas is being held up by the Repuglican Farty in order to criminalize whatever does not fit into their own ideologies. Texas politicians are playing with the lives of some beautiful people right now. And it is not only wrong-headed, it is utterly evil. If you live in Texas or if your family lives in Texas, please organize with friends to contact the offices of your state representatives and senators to let them know you do not support these efforts. Specifically, these conservative politicians criminalize parents seeking recognized professional help from physicians and therapists for assisting transgender children on their path to authentic self-expression. There are different bills that would take away the licenses of medical and counseling professionals who offer any therapy for trans children. And they also have written provisions that make seeking such help by parents for their kiddos an act of child abuse that would end in the parents being fined, possibly going to jail, and definitely losing custody of their children. 

So our knowledge-hunting today lays out the need to disrupt the categories hardened into ideologies of social exclusion and hyper-individualism. These promote vast disparities between people politically and economically. Leftists are not crazed equalizers as most mis-represent us. I am okay with slight disparities among folx where some have a bit more than they need. The condition for this, however, is that no one else is lacking in the material means to succeed nor the spiritual means to thrive. Where is the justice in many folx going thirsty, hungry, or homeless while a few folx have enough for dozens if not hundreds or thousands of people? Where is the justice when one group is perceived as “natural” and therefore “normal” while another is labeled “unnatural” thus “abnormal”? When socio-political systems favor one category of people over all others, there will be per force be toxic disparities precisely because rigid binaries by custom get treated as natural opposites where one side must dominate the other. 

In order to gather-up a better awareness, I will take us through a diagram I’ve created to lay out the relationships between truth, beauty, and joy as rational expressions of differing kinds of certainty. This is based off of my studies of intellectual history. I do filter this through my usual lenses: Karl Jaspers and Daoism. My hope is that the exercise will help folx grasp creative ways for reflecting on what they understand, how they believe, and where we encounter the limits of comprehension. 

But first, a little poem to set the stage…

“20 July 2020”

Where does mastery reside? 
Neither in some master nor in some reserve of wisdom. 
Rather, mastery happens as joyful abandon
on the threshold between actuality and possibility. 
No master possesses knowledge:
knowing knows as limit, as Differentiating. 
No tradition stores wisdom: 
powering powers as boundless, as Transcending. 
Ever-between yet never-where: 
Eventfulness.
The three realms of understanding, believing, and comprehending
inspired by the hermeneutic existential thinkering of Karl Jaspers’ Vom der Warheit

Truthful as GNOSTIC realm – UNDERSTANDING – Knowledge as logically valid relations (deductive) and as experimental validation of matters (inductive). We move by reason from knowledge to nonknowledge and back through interesting experiences. While demonstrable understanding (relations of ideas) logically stands so long as the axioms themselves are clearly utilized, assertive understanding (matters of fact) logically stands until more evidence confirms or denies the assertion. In this latter case, personal belief (possibly inherited from members of one’s group) plays a role as to the acceptance or denial of “new” understanding as more matters of facts become clear. 

Beautiful as PATHIC realm – BELIEVING – Active Life as axiologically appealing relations (reductive) and as rhetorical appeals to matters (conductive). Belief has an aesthetic component based upon like and dislike—Toward what are we more likely to turn? How are some experiences untoward, upsetting, harmful, even ugly? Can we go onward with our understanding if we begin selectively ignoring data that weakens a commonly accepted “fact”? When something we find beautiful distorts the truth of our understanding, where is the meaning of our striving-after a good life? 

Joyful as BATHIC realm – COMPREHENDING – Contemplative life as ontologically grasping relations (abduction) and existential grasp on matters (transduction)

Reason, as COMPARISON and CONTRAST, holds these three realms in tension with each other as well as with Being-World  (Cosmos) and Transcendent-Being (Liberation). 

The importance of making these distinctions centers on not CONFUSING the expressions of truth, of beauty, and/or of joy. Truth collects data in probable natural arrangements to explain and to predict. Beauty collects items in interesting social arrangements to appreciate and to persuade. Joy collects feelings in fascinating personal arrangements to elucidate and to contemplate. We can talk about ideas and facts that are proper to each kind of arrangement. But an idea or a fact derived from the exploration of nature as material reality is not the same thing as ideas or facts shared from the expression of culture as social reality. Nor is it the same as the ideas or facts grasped from the excitement of self as personal reality. We can talk about the relations of ideas and the matters of facts in each realm but each area has different means for establishing them as proper. 

It’s very slippery really.  

Going back into ideologies which drive us in our social-political commitments, we should think about law. The first step to deconstructing any trauma inducing superstructure is recognizing the difference between the kinds of forces that bind the cosmos and those customs that delimit a society. We refer to both as LAWS (LEX—>LEGE—>LOGOS) but the first is called that by analogy while the second describes the organizing process among a people: LEGal codes are LEGends that we use to keep order among ourselves. While a natural force will stay operative so long as all the cosmic conditions are stable, a social custom only operates so long as the legendary conditions hold. A change in the shared-word will lead to changes in the mutual conditions. For some, there can be pliability in the shared stories so long as the big narrative stays relatively similar and especially if they do not see themselves as losing out all that much. Anglo-Saxon Protestants can accept that Irish and Polish Catholics are “white” if it helps “white supremacy” maintain control over POCs. Or white women professionals can turn a blind eye to racism and homophobia if it means they keep progressing in their careers. Or good straight Christians can broaden their view of homosexual relationships so long as those folx uphold the authority of the Church while sustaining the heteronormative notion that there are only two genders. Hell, some neoliberals can go along with aspects of socialism so long as it keeps the capital networks connected and profits efficiently flowing.

Nonetheless, there are a few for whom the slightest critique to customary arrangements marks an existential threat to order itself. Why? Because they interpret the legends literally. They will do everything within their power to confirm the biases empowered by those tales. They will mix science and religion haphazardly to get their answer. They will deny scientific facts if that helps; then, if they need to, they will turn around and deny religious doctrines when those do not suit their purpose. All the while, their main concern focuses on privileging their own interpretation of the world over anyone else’s. They render their opinions with authoritarian ease because they self-identify as the the defenders of truth (the legend/law needing to be updated). 

The second group reminds me of something that once happened back in 1984 when I was studying with the Augustinians in Mexico. We were going up a mountain near Mexico City to see a total eclipse. Around each great bend in the mountain road, there was a small way station where folx could park to see the views. In these spaces, around every turn, lots of people were outside celebrating masses. I turned to my spiritual counselor at the time, the prior of the seminary, “What’s this?” He blushed… he actually blushed… and said, “They are saying masses and praying rosaries so the Sun comes back after the eclipse.” Some of the priests saying the masses did believe this. Some just went along because it would settle down the peasants. The reason I am reminded is because this practice of religious intercession connects back to ancient Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs. They believed that their world-system was kept afloat by a divine mandate to sacrifice human lives. Why? So the Aztecs would always be victorious as those who make the hard decision to what is needed so the sun does not go away and never come back. 

People who “honestly” are true-believers in old social customs that are expressions of the “real order” of the cosmos—they are willing to sacrifice whatever lives they need to offer up as a holocaust in order for their “Sun” to keep coming back, for the light to keep shining on their precious world-system. 

They will kill to not be wrong. 

The greatest danger for groups marginalized because of previous social customs happens at the intersection of the bad faith “so long as I don’t lose out…” actors and the falsely-authentic “I know the Will of God/Nature/Founders” fanatics. And that is what is happening right now with all these families in Texas and other states where fanatics have decided that they know better than medical experts and involved parents. They are treating transgender kids and their families as sacrificial victims to make sure the “Sun” keeps shining on their perverted, decaying world-system. Those politicians have to be stopped at every turn when they LEGislate hate. Their ministers have to be shouted down whenever they preach fear. These bigots have to be shamed into fearing something bigger than just having a social custom changed. 

Every bully that lasts awhile, like every tyrant, has people who go along with them… until for whatever reason, they do not. A quick review of 5000 years of human history demonstrates there is no convincing a fanatic. But it also shows that there is scaring bad faith actors. Nobody who acts in bad faith actually is willing to die for a belief they do not actually believe. And without bad faith allies, fanatics have no real power. 

My plea to you today is to go out and do more knowledge-gathering about this situation with these family and our transgender siblings who just want to live a life of authentic self-expression. And I implore you to reach out to your state representatives to oppose these moves by members of Texas State Legislature. I will be putting some links to help you out in the description. Give a call, write a letter, go to a protest. Let yourself be heard and speak out for these kids. You hear the truth about our human condition in nature. You live belief about equity among neighbors. You embrace the joy of self-expression… Let’s help transgender children in Texas and their families find all this too. Let us behold them such that they know they are being held close by us through this discouraging struggle. 

Once again…

Where does mastery reside? 
Neither in some master nor in some reserve of wisdom. 
Rather, mastery happens as joyful abandon
on the threshold between actuality and possibility. 
No master possesses knowledge:
knowing knows as limit, as Differentiating. 
No tradition stores wisdom: 
powering powers as boundless, as Transcending. 
Ever-between yet never-where: 
Eventfulness.

[1] Category. Aristotle’s logic: “highest notion.” Middle French catégorie, from Late Latin categoria, from Greek kategoria “accusation, prediction, category.” Verbal noun from kategorein “to speak against; to accuse, assert, predicate,” from kata “down to” (or perhaps “against;” see cata-) + agoreuein “to harangue, to declaim (in the assembly),” from agora “public assembly” (from PIE root *ger- “to gather”). Etymonline. Accessed 21Apr2021.  

[2]J. Ortega y Gasset (2001), “History as a system,” Toward a Universal History. Trans. ???, New York: Harcourt, 174.

Info on legislation content
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2 comments

    1. This is a very informative piece that I plan to use in my teaching in college philosophy courses.

      It is open to those who are curious, does not demonize the demonizers, and demonstrates a commitment to what German existential philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers would call “loving struggle.”

      Proud to have mind-walked with you on this in the very early stages.

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