Category Archives: Philosophy

I’M HAPPY IF AND ONLY IF I’M HAPPY

The above sentence proves that for every sentence x that is true, it’s predicated to the interpretation (I) in the language of the structure A. Every sentence in this sense requires a qualifying sentence to confirm the initial premise: I’m happy. This basically tells us that we never really get to the truth of things. This is not merely because of the weakness of an object language but just a fact of life that there’s no complete correspondence between perception and reality. What we see are the objects of belief and this belief has nothing whatsoever to do with belief itself.

A trope from Wallace Stevens’ poem Description Without Place might give us a good feel of this:

It is possible that to seem — it is to be,

As the sun is something seeming and it is.

The sun is an example. What it seems

It is and in such seeming all things are.

How should we define happiness then? For one thing, we immediately notice that there is no verb for the noun word happiness. We know well enough that noun words like iconic representations are inexact and abstruse and worse they are themselves representations. Thus the dictionary might give you a definition of happiness: the feeling of or showing pleasure or contentment, but we wonder all the same how in the world do we reach that state of happiness (all nouns) without the intermediary of action words such as to feel or to be? Both ‘to be happy’ and ‘to feel happy’ suggest a kind of movement, an activity.

Perhaps we can draw on this illustration to get to the heart of the matter. An illicit love affair. Two lovers bound together in a cart dragged to the public square for execution. In the last scene of Kenji Mizoguchi’s film The Crucified Lovers, the lovers down on their luck exchange a fleeting smile. This fleeting nonetheless beatific smile, according to Badiou, is the truest expression of love because it’s beyond the generally accepted conjugal context. It’s an event. That smile is the affect of true love.

Can the same be said about happiness then? That the feeling of happiness is an affect in consequence of an activity? There is a sense from Badiou’s description of the smile of love that these affects are explicit. They are the metastatic signs of a symptom.

But we know from experience that such expressions may be misleading: that happy people are rotund, cherubic, rather chubby and always smiling and laughing. Because some of the meanest and most unhappy people are ones that laugh the hardest and are often the most exuberant!

Happiness as a pursuit is as old as the Greeks’ indictment that life is a tragedy. A century after the Enlightenment, in late 19th  century, Miguel de Unamuno, the renowned poet, novelist and philosopher from Bilbao, still persisted in this thought as shown by his work in Tragic Sense of Life. As with any predicament of life, a formula or a formalisation is sought vigorously to lend the flounderers among us a grip. Thus the phenomenal success of books about happiness. Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness no less. Since the liberation of gender and sexuality, happiness has become the obsession of our times. It’s become the indispensable pursuit of life in consequence of the huge leaps achieved by science and prosperity.

If we can derive from what we’ve learned from language and emotionality, the fact that happiness is an affect of an activity, we can safely say then that there is in reality no such thing as happiness. We can pursue this ineffable state for as long as we want, we shall never achieve the ultimate of it. One might even speculate if rigorous pursuit of it might not mislead us into all kinds of shenanigans of life. From this we can also say that happiness is neither an objective nor an added value to life. It is not an objective of life because how can one arrive at a delimiting point? It’s not an added value to life because we’ve learned from experience that misery (see the productive ashes that arose from depression era: mass industrialization etc) just as happiness (in our versatile modern age) is equally productive.

Happiness then is that intervallic Ni, the delimiting factor, that makes it possible to split two numbers into another extension. To be happy then is always in this gap that moves toward a plane ever different from the position where we find ourselves in. Since it has been proven that all knowledge is partial, because of the failure of a true correspondence between our perception and the object itself, we can therefore assume that this gap is also partial, the intervallic position. This partiality or gap is the necessary space for the production of novelty.

Life’s not a misery or worse a tragedy because nature does not allow itself to be disseminated. To the lowest end of negativity is the negated itself. Negativity in this way diminishes as we continually negate it.

The happiest people are people who are always on the move, in action and also those who never set their sight on the objective end of a pursuit. Happiness is the inherent nature of life that needs to be continuously extracted. It’s a quiddity.

A version of this essay appeared in Now Jakarta! October 2010.

The Paradigm of Society

We use the term society lightly. We say we belong to a society, as if society is an organization that has a clear hierarchy. We say ‘we’ as a body of individuals constitutes ‘the’ society. As if ‘we’ as such can be circumscribed into one description.

Society is the abstract term for the collection of domains. We can delineate a domain but the Domain of domains is in reality non-existent. This capital word, Domain, is for lack of a better term, merely a hint. Our obsession for an orderly hierarchy that climaxes at a summit inclines us to think that multiplicities are reducible to a One.

A domain is a pool in which a specific group gathers. Since the membership of any group is in constant flux –the phenomenon of change and chance –a domain is itself constantly reconfigured. There’s then no society. There are only domains that are constantly changing. There are only individuals whose allegiances and individualities are impossible to be singularized.

In a given free state, in which individual rights are upheld, we would be led to think this is the ideal condition for a democratic life: a balanced state in which the constant mixing and re-mixing of a diversity of variables disallow the forming of an overwhelming majority. What we often forget, however, is that underneath the calm and balanced façade a constant battle for domination rages. As soon as a group manages to form into a recognizable body, power exerts its ugly face through the manifestations of the aims and means of the group. The relations of the forces are by no means benign. Power appears in their midst not so much as an intermediary, the bargaining chip for peace, but rather as its ultimate objective. Power feeds on itself as the ultimate objective. Its relentless drive toward domination is its natural expression.

Domination of a group in a given situation is therefore an inevitable natural phenomenon. To break down the domination is the work of every historian, anthropologist, philosopher and for that matter any civilian. The question still remains. Since the relations of forces are naturally hostile and power craves domination, how do we achieve a state of equilibrium? Throughout the history of mankind various propositions have been posited. Baron de Montesquieu, a political thinker (1689-1755) suggests that equilibrium can be achieved only through separation of powers. One of the examples he cites is the rule of the monarch. A monarch surrounds himself or herself with nobilities. These nobilities with their own interests in mind help negotiate the wishes of the monarch with the subjects. Since a monarch’s rule is meaningless without the subjects, the wishes of the peasants must in some way be conformed in order for a peaceful continuation of the rule. In this way, equilibrium is achieved.

Dictatorship is easily the worst form of governance because it tends to self-destruct for the obvious reason that there is a limit at which the subjects will allow themselves to be subjugated. The modern parliamentarian rule is by far the weakest method of governance. Because, as is proven here and elsewhere, the parliament is the fallow ground in which the elites, the representatives, thrive either through the indifference of the people (lulled in the luxuries of freedom and riches of an advanced state) or through the ignorance or helplessness of the people (in developing countries).

Plato suggests the seven-day rule. A leader is elected through the random draw of straws. This notion is interesting because it prevents the ambitious and the rich from manipulating the selection process and the constant change of leadership means that vested interest groups will be kept at bay. Thus the rule of majority for all, rather than a minority for all, is constituted.

In 1976, Foucault abandoned a project on the domination of power. One of the reasons he cites is that looking at the domination forces us to see a phenomenon as if it has two opposing forces. He chooses instead to look into the relations of forces and operators of these relations. For him, to understand how these strands of forces work will help reinstate us as subjects (operators) rather than objects of forces.

Jacques Ranciere considers every situation in which a person takes a part, he or she is both sharing ‘in’ and sharing ‘with’ the other. A give and take situation in which domination is neutralized. Both he and Badiou share the belief that the representation of the unrepresented, the poor, the repressed, the invisible immigrants, are to be the tasks of a true state of emancipation.

These modern thinkers equip us with the necessary apparatuses to map the topology of the world we live in. Through them, we learn to look at every situation as a separate world that has its own secret rules and characteristics, which demands equally a different set of approaches or techniques. There is no Society, but there are societies. Our associations define us. They describe who we truly are and how we want to be identified as. More importantly, they teach us to be a paradigm in a given society, a singularity that doesn’t recognize the dichotomous zones of opposition. We are both exemplar and exemplum.

A version of this essay appeared in Now Jakarta, September 2010

Can You Please Stop That Noise?

What if you were subject to the pullulation of noise all your life, would you still be annoyed, not to mention deranged, by it? Let’s push this idea a bit further, what if by noise we mean not just of the audible kind, but a whole raft of sense-assaulting ‘noises’ in a daily existence? The list will start from the stench that evaporates from the sewage, the profusion of kamikaze motorists and we hardly stop at the incredible harangue of mosquitoes.
In a besieged life such as this, it’s arguable whether you’d become a stronger or much reduced person: stronger in the sense that you’d grow more resistant to the meanest germs and the most deafening audible assault. And most probably become the luckiest person that escapes from a calamity on a daily basis. Or conversely, due to endless bombardment to your senses and body, you turn slowly and irrevocably into a hapless decrepit.
Life in Jakarta is an open-air affair in a crowded space. There’s no partitioned zone between public and private space. The prevalent din in the open-air penetrates to the deepest and most protected sanctuary of your privacy. A stroll on Las Ramblas, Barcelona or a dinner in Roppongi, Tokyo (yes, it’s still more tranquil than any part of Jakarta) often reminds you of this fact. On moments like these, you’d be reminded of how much you’ve missed this calm and peace in a daily existence.
What I’m getting at is this: those of us who live in Jakarta are used to the noise. Not necessarily immune to it. A composer friend, Slamet Sjukur, challenged it. He started a movement to ban the clarion calls of Adzan out of an outrage that his privacy has been infringed upon. We know where this movement would wind up: in the bin of the memory of a list of forgotten causes. Most of us accept the noise as a given, much like the Goby fish accept the murky canals where they find themselves wallowing in each day.
This modality of a lifestyle tinged with noise is in turn reflected in the peculiar way we conduct our life in the Big Durian. Whether you find yourself in a restaurant, a wine lounge or a bar, chances are you’ll spot a huge television set blaring brightly in the most visible corner of the premises. The volume is usually turned just above the din, as if a conversation is pursuant upon a good piece of transmission from one of the networks. I suspect that in most households the same television sets are let on while the inhabitants fast sleep lulled by the susurrus of broadcast gibberish.
You would think, however, being exposed so openly to the noise, the denizens of Jakarta would be a glib and loquacious lot. You would be very wrong. The television sets and ear-splitting lounge music are set to the precise volumes so that you’d be saved from an awkward start in a conversation. If we were to risk making a speculation, we’d say that the infectious noise has turned our public life one that is barren of conversations. If this were true, we’d soon be exchanging glasses of drinks as conversational gambits. We’d be passing downloaded musical tracks like postcards to let others know how we feel about them. Would that be a higher, more evolved way of communicating, I wonder, or a regression?
Since these noises get amplified, turn louder and louder, we too speak, not more volubly, but just more forcefully to be heard and behave more aggressively as an indirect consequence of being loud.
The noise in the Big Durian has turned us all into little iPods hooked on a new breed of soundwaves. We clap on the earphones to turn up a different noise so that we don’t have to listen to the kind from the external. We’re not deaf. Helpless to resist the noise, we end up feeding on it in despite of ourselves.
I wonder why there aren’t more spas that promise a half-hour reprieve in complete solitude. Primordial quiet. Pick your preferred eras. In a clamoring and disquieting city, quietude and tranquility are sellable commodities. So are earphones with special regulators to control the kind of sounds you’d permit to enter into your systems.
May I suggest then that we walk more gingerly, speak more softly and act less in haste, in our effort to tone down the level of noise? Then again we’re probably ways too late for that now. Prepare those earphones. Or be deaf. Or mute forever.

A version of this article appeared in Now Jakarta, August 2010

To Live


There’s no such thing as ‘was’ –only is.  If  ‘was’ existed, there would be no grief or sorrow. So says William Faulkner.

Years later, Alain Badiou, the French thinker, will make this statement, ‘History does not exist… There are only disparate presents whose radiance is measured by their power to unfold a past worthy of them.’

Both thinkers are in a sense telling us that fetishism of history has stultified our ‘present’. Our presence is not defined, nor is it to be derived from a history per se. The past is not, as most post-modernist relativists would like us to believe, descriptive. The past is not enclosed in a circular description to which the present is inextricably referred. The past is not a separate zone in which everything that has transpired lies in inertia.

The past is prescriptive. So much of the present is reclaimed from a trace in the past that had somehow been buried, either because it had appeared prematurely in a particular period or because a more radical event had overshadowed its presence. In 2007, Garrett Lisi, an impoverished surfer physicist, stunned the world by positing that he’d discovered the unifying Theory of Everything by retooling the complex 248-dimensional symmetry called E8, a category of problems brought up in 1887 by the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie. In March 2010, a group of paleoanthropologists led by Paabo and Krause discovered a new species, called X-woman, in the Denisova cave in Southern Siberia, thought to have shared an ancestor with humans. This specimen, a hominid described as neither Neanderthal nor a human, lived 30 to 50,000 years ago. This discovery may very well lead to a major rewrite of human history.

As Badiou has insisted, the ‘worthy past’ is determined by the disparate presents whose radiance is measured by their power’ to unfold it. These ‘disparate presents’ refer to our movements from point to point in the topology of existence. ‘To live is possible. Therefore, to (re)commence to live is the only thing that matters.” It’s through taking one more step that we reconfigure our present over and over and break with the atonicity of the past. Our fate then is neither pre-determined, nor impacted in any way by the historicity of a past. It’s constantly forged for as long as we keep moving from point to point, from world to world.

We might naturally wonder at the aimlessness of a life wandering from one point to another. The ultimate question is then what’s the point? What is the purpose of a life? Post-modernist thinkers have instilled in our age that to live means to celebrate the present by abusing languages and bodies, because death is inevitable and life is basically aimless. They might have misconstrued Nietzsche who suggests that the Eternal Return of the Same means that Meaning and Purpose shall be lost in the constant re-willing of the non-willed world. Such questions lose their significance as we become One with the symbol of the eternal Circle. The pursuit of a life is none other than the losing of oneself in a passion or in the intensity of a pursuit.

Badiou proposes a more affirmative take on this by suggesting that there are languages and bodies, except that there are truths. He borrows from Descartes this dictum: truths are eternal because they’ve been created and not because they have been there forever.

For Badiou, there are truths as there are worlds. Truths are not confined to a world; they’re infinite, observable from everywhere. ‘Man is this animal to whom it belongs to participate in numerous worlds, to appear in innumerous places. This kind of objectal ubiquity, which makes him shift from one world to another, on the background of the infinity of these worlds and their transcendental organization, is in its own right, without any need for a miracle, a grace.’

Unconstrained by a finite history, unfazed by death as a limit, freely moving from one world to another, humans are therefore immortal.

A version of this essay appeared on Now Jakarta July, 2010

Menuju Ke Sebuah Pemahaman Tentang Multiplisitas

Menuju ke sebuah masyarakat baru, kita perlu telisik ulang pengertian tentang pluralisme yang sering dikumandangkan oleh para pundit politik dan pemikir idealis. Kita paham terkandung dalam teriak-teriakan mereka adalah sebuah niat yang baik, yaitu sebuah masyarakat kemajemukan yang demokratis dgn toleransi tinggi terhadap perbedaan dan keadilan untuk semua. Tetapi, begitu seringnya istilah-istilah seperti demokrasi, pluralisme, multikulturalisme, toleransi, disebut-sebut sehingga pernyataan seperti itu menjadi akronim-akronim pakam yang dianggap pemaknaannya dipahami oleh semua.

Akronim adalah sebuah kata yang terdiri dari huruf-huruf awal kata-kata yang berbeda. Ketika sebuah keyakinan tentang demokrasisasi sebuah masyarakat kemajemukan dikepingkan menjadi sebuah akronim, kita perlu mempertanyakannya kembali, sehingga ia tidak bertengger abstrak menjadi sebuah makna usang yang dipasing-pasing bagaikan sebuah objek konkret dalam genggaman. Apa yang bisa kita pahami dari akronim demokrasi? Ini kira-kira uraian yang kita peroleh: Demokrasi=Pluralisme=Multikulturisme: Toleransi + Keadilan untuk Semua. Setiap akronim menghasilkan sebuah akronim baru yang tak kalah abstraknya dari akronim sebelumnya. Dari pengalaman sehari-hari kita tahu kata Mobil memang secara kategorikal menjelaskan sebuah objek kendaraan, tetapi kita juga tahu kata benda ini hanya merupakan sebuah rujukan umum sebuah kategori objek; ia tidak menjelaskan secara tuntas rakitannya: tahunnya, spesifikasinya dan perakitnya. Seperti itulah yang kita peroleh dari kata demokrasi dan yang paling parah adalah ketika kita sadar bahwa demokrasi, pluralisme, multikulturisme, toleransi dan keadilan tidak bisa dirujukkan pada sebuah objek konkret, tidak seperti mobil yang bisa dirujukkan pada sebuah kendaraan beroda mesin dsbnya.

Penguraian di atas menyadarkan kita bahwa tiada akronim yang sanggup merangkum begitu banyak varian perbedaan ke dalam satu makna: tiada set untuk semua set, namun subset selalu jauh lebih besar daripada set. Bahkan seandainya akronim demokrasi kita definisikan secara saksama, kita tidak akan mencapai sebuah kesepakatan yang berarti. Sebagai contoh, bila kita telusuri pluralisme, sebagai pecahan makna demokrasi, pertanyaan pertama adalah pluralisme berdasarkan apa? Berdasarkan sebuah nasionalisme? Ini kemudian merujuk pada nasionalisme seperti apa? Yang kemudian menghantar kita ke pertanyaan tentang identitas bangsa, kebudayaan, adat, komunitas, keluarga dan individu.

Yang menarik dari penelusuran di atas adalah dari ruas penjelajahan kemajemukan kita akhirnya menyempit terus ke individu. Di sini, saya kira, apotheosis penyelidikan kita dan seharusnya titik keberangkatan kita. Kita perlu menjelaskan sebenarnya apa yang dimaksud sebagai seorang individu. Individu yang ingin saya jelaskan, bukanlah individu yang kalau kita telusuri akan mengembalikan kita pada lingkaran yang sama: yakni individu, keluarga, komunitas, adat, kebudayaan, identitas bangsa, kemajemukan, demokrasi, etc.

Kita perlu memahami bahwa setiap individu dengan sendirinya bukan sebuah entitas utuh, tetapi ia terbentuk dari multiplisitas diri yang berubah-rubah dari saat ke saat. Penyelidikan neurologi terbaru oleh Antonio Damasio membuktikan bahwa diri manusia berubah setiap saat, pengetahuan kita pada diri tercipta dari sebuah kerja sama antara operator daya ingat inti dan daya ingat jangka panjang yang menyimpan data-data imaji berikut perasaan-perasaan yang terekam sebelumnya yang akan teraktifkan secara asosiatif ketika kita berhadapan pada sebuah objek baru . Daya ingat jangka panjang inilah yang memungkinkan kesadaran kita pada sebuah identitas diri yang sebenarnya senantiasa berubah terus.

Identitas dalam pengertian eksternal juga bukan sebuah singularitas mutlak. Walaupun A secara bangunan genetika tidak ada duanya di dunia, dan totalitas kualifikasi dirinya membedakannya dengan individu-individu lain, seperti A bermukim di Jalan Samudera no 44, berumur 25 tahun, seorang turunan suku Madura, A punya kualitas diri yang juga menyamakannya dengan individu-individu lain, seperti A gemar bermain gitar, membaca buku-buku detektif, bernyanyi di kamar mandi, suka makan makanan pedas, dsb.

Seperti diuraikan di atas, jelas sebagai individu pun kita sebenarnya merupakan sebuah totalitas yang berkontinuitas dari berbagai diri dan kualitas yang menjadikan kita unik sekaligus menyamakan kita dengan yang lain.

Sebagai langkah berikut supaya kita tidak terperangkap dalam sebuah multiplisitas yang memosisikan kita dalam sebuah keterperangkapan kultural, keyakinan dan kemajemukan jemu, kita sebagai individu-individu unik harus bisa berpikir secara paradoksal, yaitu berpikir dengan segala keunikan diri. Berpikir telanjang tanpa embel-embel bawaan lahiriah seperti budaya, keyakinan dan bangsa. Proses pengelupasan diri inilah yang membuat kita bisa menghadapi setiap perbedaan tanpa bias, menghadapi setiap tantangan perbedaan bagaikan sebuah phenomena yang perlu dicermati, dipelajari dan ditekuni hingga sebuah pemahaman baru bisa dipetik dari pengalaman itu. Setiap konflik yang terjadi selalu berkonotasi sebuah pemisahan berjarak yang berdasarkan sebuah keyakinan ideologi yang berbeda atau latar sosial dan kebudayaan yang berbeda, maka perbedaan sesungguhnya tidak bisa dipertemukan antara individu ke individu ataupun kelompok ke kelompok, yang bisa dilakukan adalah sebuah usaha untuk menggeserkan diri untuk saling merapat, seperti mengindekskan dua kategori produk berlainan dalam satu rak atau mencoba melampaui sebuah kebuntuan jalan dengan memosisikan dua tangga di kedua sisi tembok yang berseberangan. Yang dibutuhkan hanya kekayaan imajinasi dan keinginan kita untuk berpikir secara paradoksal.

Berpikir secara paradoksal berarti kita harus berani menelisik ulang dan membongkar pemahaman dan keyakinan yang selama ini dianggap sahih oleh banyak orang, bahkan oleh diri kita sendiri. Berpikir secara paradoksal berarti berpikir dari sebuah ruang kosong yang terpijak, namun dengan sebuah hasrat tak terbayarkan oleh kepuasaan untuk mengisi kekosongan itu terus menerus. Totalitas sebuah pemahaman bukanlah tujuan akhir, tetapi pengejaran pada serpihan-serpihan makna yang timbul saat kita berjumpa dengan yang berbeda, yang kita tidak pahami, dan yang mengguncang seluruh pendirian kita. Titik-titik fokal inilah titik keberangkatan kita untuk belajar dan menyimpulkan untuk kemudian meningkatkan kita ke pemahaman yang lebih tinggi dari setiap permasalahan.

Dengan demikian pemahaman multiplisitas bukanlah 1+1=2 tetapi 1+1=1. Dua sebagai produk dari 1+1= 2 adalah sebuah produk perbedaan yang merujuk pada analogi identitas satu dengan satu yang lain. Sedangkan produk satu dari 1+1= 1 adalah sebuah hasil yang mengabaikan sebuah konsep atau identitas yang pakam: ia merupakan sebuah Beda yang hakiki. Pemahaman multiplisitas seperti ini menghantar kita pada sebuah kesimpulan bahwa “only that which is alike differs; and only differences are alike.(Lévi-Strauss).”

2009