Although philosophy often attempts to tackle large issues it can, at times, feel frivolous. Perhaps this fault is my own: an inability to take schooling seriously or more generally my apathetic disposition in daily life. There is some obvious truth in this and there is something to be said regarding these engagement experiences ability to draw students out of apathy. However first I need to repeat Albert Camus on the study of philosophy: There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging wether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest- wether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories - comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer. It is the answer to this very necessary question that, as a philosophy-student and as a person, I wish to explore. However, exploration of such a topic requires more than a cursory knowledge of the existentialists and a capacity to philosophize. Here lies the importance of such an engagement experience: One must go out into the world, leaving his armchair behind, to really
understand. Camus even said that it is the quantity of experience not the quality that is important; and there isnâ€™t any better opportunity to see if he is right than from the perspective found on the basement floor of a church in one of the poorest parts of America. In the following pages I attempt to fill out this perspective from my experiences throughout the trip. I first draw an anology between the aesthetic experience of great art and the awareness of apathy as the principle force in the universe. Next I contrast this apathy with the hardships of the formerly incarcerated and their journey through the wilderness as a testament to the importance of struggle while pointing out the irony of hope within this dichotomy. Looking at some of the other problems in the South Bronx such as addiction and gentrification I explore the possibility of a meaning in life without the guarantee of a promised land and gather strength from the struggles of others inorder that I my face my own.
The Aesthetic Experience of Nothing
A STRA IN A ST LAN
Another Reasoning: Dramatic Opposition
Th Imposs o Cho
Walls of opression
Th Possibi positive
ANGER TRANGE ND
Changlessness Numbness & More
he sibility of oice
Broken Window Theory & Apathy
he ility of e Peace
The Absurd Struggle
The Aesthetic Experience of Nothing How long does anyone really look at a work of art in a place like MoMA? The truth is probably embarrassing and shorter than we would like to admit (I would guess no longer than a few seconds). Occupied with gift-shops and souvenirs, the average onlooker misses a powerful aesthetic experience offered by the likes of Rothko, whose No.16 (pictured on the left) hangs from MoMA’s wall. Great works have a gravity that once felt, pulls the viewer in confronting them with a certain level of truth which is easily lost on those countless casual masses. I think though that there is a similar aesthetic quality the world offers to those who are sensitive of it’s weight. When I look toward world, the reality we find ourselves in, I feel crushed by an overwhelming and changeless force - one of apathy. The utter indifference of the universe is so palpable in the factuality of it all: the barren void of space, the unforgiving temperament of nature, the complete lack temperament in physics. Earthquakes, droughts, stray bullets, happiness, war - what meaning do these things have when they are all bound by the same apathetic force which dictates my own actions? Since we are all going to die, doomed to erode under the gentle breeze of this indifference - it is obvious the “when” and “how” don’t matter. Confronted with the all powerful, changeless force of apathy, I choose to be changeless, apathetic, empty. It’s as if I became that painting on the wall, an example for those not lucid enough to realize the meaninglessness of it all. In this false hope to absolve everything I forgot the wise and famous warning: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
A Stranger in a Strange Land Exodus was our first planned event of the trip and it was the first to divert my apathetic gaze. Those involved in the organization are extraordinary individuals and their struggle is important to understand. The actual name of the organization works as a metaphor, relating the freeing of the Israelites and their journey through the wilderness to the promise land with the release of inmates from prison and their hopeful reintegration back into society. Listening to these former prisoners describe their situation reveals much about the human spirit and the power of change. People like Alvin are put in prison and totally enveloped by apathetic concrete. Obviously bondage constricts but more widely than any physical sense; many prisoners leave the very same as they came, only to return. The government is indifferent to this and the guards laugh at some sick joke. However, prisoners like Alvin do something very unlikely – they find a way to walk in bondage. The incarcerated man can change his spirit despite the chains. Julio and others like him, drastically oppose themselves to the indifference of the prison through education, self-reflection, and the work that they now do. The wilderness is a struggle and the prisoners, like the Israelites, define themselves through it. It’s ironic that the building exodus is housed in has “Hope” carved on the walls because hope is not what is needed to change. To hope is to forget the fight. Alvin filled out one hundred job applications and his hopes were crushed nearly causing him to turn back from his journey. Why hope for a promised land? To be aware of the indifference and hostility of the wilderness but to continue in spite of it so much more powerful and changing than any hope.
Changlessness, Numbness & More The human spirit is one of constant change and metamorphosis. What we value in life, our goals, our emotions and attitudes are consistently in dialogue (confrontation) with the world around us. Through an engagement with the world, we assert ourselves within it but the world resists. To struggle, to stray from the path, is a way for us to create a meaning unique to ourselves. Of course, faced with a very real apathy (the resistance of the world), some decide to ignore this dialogue... Drug addiction is a changeless state of being. Opiates are a way of negating physical pain although continued use numbs the soul as well; the paths widen, merging at all ends as the user becomes lost in the void of his high. There is a certain failed rationality to drug use - perhaps the hope for the end of the struggle, a cure for depression. However, all things perish in the void: money, health, self-respect. Time stops as a user, intoxicated by a false hope, falls into a vicious cycle of theft, crime, needle-exchanges and prostitution. Anything to to stay the same - to stay high; to forget that the world doesnâ€™t care. Addiction transcends socioeconomic class: everyone demands meaning from the universe while only some hope for it. At the bottom of the bottle or end of a pill, in the hope for another gram or a filled syringe, there is nothing. Addiction may be timeless but watch as your own apathy (hope) crumbles while the universe remains indifferent...
Another Reasoning: Dramatic Opposition Itâ€™s common for those surrounded by poverty or crime to turn to something like drugs as a coping method against the enormous strugge of daily life. I have already highlighted the contradiction in this reasoning and would instead like to explore a different reaction given similar circumstance. Alvin is a perfect example of this choice in reasoning. Once a drug dealer and gang member, Alvin came out of prison to a deeply uncaring world. Instead of slipping back into destructive ways of life, he choose to dramatically oppose himself to the apathy of it all. Alvin filled out a hundred job applications despite knowing that people do not hire the formerly incarcerated: he struggled but eventually joined up with exodus and became a positive force in the community; as one of their best speakers, Alvin is an example for those not strong enough to realize the meaning in struggle. Other groups operate in a similar way. Mother on the Move marches through the community creating their own path as well as one for others to follow. It is in this contrast between the apathetic void and the fight in our hearts that creates meaning and community - This dramatic opposition and fight against the hopelessness of it all is a testament to the dynamic nature of the human spirit and the power of change.
The Impossibility of Choice The dichotomy of change and apathy may not always be clear and the choice to act with dramatic opposition maybe impossible. This became obvious to me on the Sunday morning in Harlem when I met Lt. David. Sitting in his broken wheelchair given to him by the Department of Veteran Affairs (Paraplegia from a spinal injury during his time in the military) and drinking a cup of coffee, David discussed his plans for the remainder of the day. He needed to find a pharmacy to fill his prescription to oxycodone and fentanyl (very powerful opiates, not unlike the heroin sold illegally in the area) on account of his pain from the chair and injuries. Of course he had already been to three pharmacies that morning, none of which keep the drugs in stock for safety and security reasons. Luckily though he was able to acquire the Klonopin and other medicine to combat the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he now suffers from. He was eating a bagel from the coffee shop we were in and mentioned that he should probably be in line for food stamps right now but it’s hard to sit in the chair for up to six hours without the pain medication. As we finished our coffee he asked me why I was in the South Bronx. I told him about the trip and Bowling Green. He asked if I had ever been to Columbus and sort of mused on his life before the injury when he had spent some time in the lively gay night scene of the Short North District. I said I was glad to meet him and we parted ways. I took the subway back to the church and he headed off to a richer area with a better pharmacy. It’s interesting to compare David’s struggle with other people in the community. Drug addicts attempt to nullify their struggle with self-destruction while others fight the apathy but David doesn’t really have these choices. His choice, if you can even call it that, is between food stamps and pain medication. He is in a repetitive cycle (unlike those dramatically opposing) but to no fault of his own (unlike the addict). The changelessness of his situation is only solidified by Post Traumatic Stress, which forces him to relive painful memories over and over again. The strangest part of meeting David though was seeing him happy. He seemed to be enjoying life even though there isn’t a hope for much more, certainly not like what he had during the time before the injury. I can only assume that when a man becomes divested of his hopes and choices, he learns to appreciate the timelessness of his struggle and pain.
Broken Window Theory & Apathy When we went door-knocking in the projects I was taken aback by insufficient living conditions (trash, broken equipment, urine puddles). It reminded me of this idea in sociology known as “broken window theory”. The theory asks us to “consider a building with a few broken windows” and shows that “If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.” So far this makes sense. If a person is living in apathetic and substandard conditions then it follows this person will act in a apathetic or substandard way. The theory goes on to provide a solution by suggesting policies and structures to fix the small problems (such as a broken window or graffiti) before it creates new and larger problems. An example might include an increase in police presence and property development: or essentially police brutality and gentrification. Broken Window Theory ignores the real issue behind vandalism. It’s proponents completely bypass the community and focus solely on the property. There is an apathy the people of the community have but it really isn’t a fault of there own. If a person has to live in the projects then they are already deeply entrenched in poverty - not even a new yankee’s stadium or new windows will fix that...
Walls of Opression Broken Window Theory goes on to offer solutions and policy changes to combat the apathy plaguing impoverished communities. The idea is to have a zero tolerance policy on smaller crimes such as loitering, littering, and vandalism to foster an environment where crime is unacceptable. This environment however, comes about all but naturally, requiring an increased police presence to enforce the laws. Soon you may have young men being harassed for littering by the police or other similar situations. Itâ€™s a classic example of negative peace, where the police are essentially deterring crime through harassment. For a young man living in the area, the oppression manifests itself physically and metaphorically in the towering projects littered across the wilderness. Confronted with the physical structures of violence surrounding him, the vandal takes up graffiti as his sword. Like the prisoner he looks oppression in the eyes and rightly so, where else is there to look but to some sickening hope? Does the artist know â€œthere is no fate that can not be surmounted by scornâ€?? His fate becomes masked in paint and his struggle takes shape on the wall. This wilderness inside, this is everything. A willful and malicious destruction of the property of others - No, the vandal makes it his own.
The Possibility of Positive Peace The protection of property eventually leads to a kind of gentrification where the most venerable members of the community are favored over the most vulnerable. People who take drugs or create graffiti are reacting to the hopelessness and apathy of their situation, which can be traced back generations. It is because they are so deeply entrenched in poverty that they engage in self-destructive behavior: an attempt to make hopelessness their own, whether it is in the form of addiction or graffiti. There is no amount of new paint or property renovation that can absolve this hopelessness â€“ these policies rob the community in more ways than one. First they are robbed of the signs of struggle as windows are replaced. Soon the community itself is taken as rising rent costs drive the original members of the area out. Of course this is a slow process and often leads to violence between those being forced out and those invited in. The policies used to deter crime are dubious and essentially accomplishing goals through the direct violence of police harassment and structural violence of gentrification. However, there may indeed be a chance to create positive peace in these communities by focusing on the apathy as a disease rather than a symptom. Instead of harassing people who litter, the city could encourage community gardens. The goal of a community garden is to transform an empty lot that would otherwise be used for garbage or crime into a place of community growth. It accomplishes the same end as a zero-tolerance policy without divesting community members of meaning â€“ the gardens, unlike drugs, are nourishing. Another alternative and chance for positive peace comes through community organizing. By breaking down the hopelessness and structural violence into manageable problems and actions, community organizing re-channels the destructive energies once used for vandalism and crime into a positive struggle. Instead of punishing the community for itâ€™s own apathy, organizing negates it by highlighting the apathy of the institutions and persons responsible for creating the structural violence in the first place. If there is any hope for these communities and their residents it should come through positive peace rather than police intervention and gentrification. Broken Window Theory is correct in identifying apathy as the corner stone of impoverished communities but mistakes the apathy of the social structure for that of the community.
Autumn is a second Spring when every leaf is a flower. In the middle of winter I at last discovered there was in me an invincible summer.
What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful. ~Albert Camus
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