Friday, August 07, 2009

An open letter to Stanley Cohen on his book States of Denial

Dear Sir:

Your States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering is one of the few books that figure in Precursor Works for an Algonomy. Algonomy, have I proposed, is a field of activity in which we would deal with suffering.

Here are, in relation with your book, a few 'algonomic' thoughts that I hope you will appreciate.

On page X of your preface, you recall your former fantasy of a 'sociology of denial', and you say that the subject remains the same: "what do we do with our knowledge about the suffering of others, and what does this knowledge do to us?" This could certainly be a subject in the "sociology of suffering" proposed by Iain Wilkinson. And I suggest also that such a subject (as well as questions concerning knowledge about our own suffering) could be usefully approached from an algonomic viewpoint.

On page 25, you wrote: "I take this simple formula - the 'need to be innocent of a troubling recognition' - as my guiding definition." This reminds me of what Cynthia Halpern says in her chapter on Nietzsche in Suffering, Politics, Power : A Genealogy in Modern Political Theory: in the end, what is important for the philosopher on suffering, is that 'there is no blame'.

Page 34, you evoke two modes of evading the realities of personal and mass suffering, turning a blind eye, and retreat from truth to omnipotence. That may correspond to the usual reactions that I get when I propose the idea of algonomy. People may say that algonomy is interesting but they cannot dwell much longer on it because they have other things to do (we respect but fear the truth, we keep facts conveniently out of sight, we cannot face all the time the disquieting implications of the facts). Or, alternatively, people may say that algonomy is not pertinent, because suffering is the business of a greater power, which they serve.

While reading your book, I have been inclined to apply what you say on denial to the reactions regarding the proposal of an algonomy. When I first proposed the idea in 1976, I thought it would be a matter of weeks before people acknowledge the value of the idea and get down to business with it. Thirty some years later, I am still looking for a first collaborator! Of course, there are a lot of people like me who propose something and find no buyer, or even no rejector either, but just sympathizers. However, I suspect that in the case of reactions to a proposal having to do with the very topic of suffering itself, denial might be involved. After all, the algonomic attitude is the un-denial per excellence vis-à-vis suffering. The next few passages that I quote from your book might illustrate that point further.

Page 54 (quoting Langer): "'(…) the patient must "know", but may at different moments have more or less ability to tolerate what is known and to integrate the knowledge into a meaningful reality.'" I guess that without an algonomy, the patient, or each of us, is lacking the means to fully integrate the knowledge into a meaningful reality.

Page 119: "One of his [Freud] definitions of repression is a fine statement about denial: 'the effortless and regular avoidance of anything that has once been distressing… It is a familiar fact that much of this avoidance of what is distressing - this ostrich policy - is still to be seen in the normal mental life of adults.'" And as a consequence, there is still no algonomy in human culture or civilization.

Page 131: "The impossibility lies not in seeing the past reality, but in perceiving it as reality"… I believe the problem with granting algonomy the importance it deserves is that we do not perceive past (or future) suffering as bad as it was (or will be). And if we are suffering in the present, we are disabled.

Page 139: "Historical skeletons are put in cupboards because of the political need to be innocent of a troubling recognition; they remain hidden because of the political absence of an inquiring mind." It might well be that algonomy is unrecognized because everybody has a vested interest against it. Nevertheless, policing the 'necessary' use of suffering in a rational way, i.e. to the best interest of each of us, is impossible without an algonomy.

Page 195: "(…) any dimming of compassion, any decreased concern about distant others, is just what the individual spirit of the global market wants to encourage. The message is: get real, wise up and toughen up; the lesson is that nothing, nothing after all, can be done about problems like these or people like this." Indeed.

For the rest of your book, much could be said. I will only note that "The project of 'overcoming denial' is more complicated and stranger" than you imagined (p. 278). In effect, it takes an algonomy. Only algonomic action has enough scope to be an adequate reaction to the bystander effect (p.140). I find that channeled acknowledgement (p. 273) is the way to go: I believe there should be compulsory algonomic service like there is compulsory taxes or military service. I believe also that the kind of measurement you are talking of p. 276 or p. 293-294 is doable in algonomy. And to "determine which forms of denial matter, which can be left alone" and "then try to lower the toleration threshold by transforming knowledge into inescapable knowledge" (p. 295), or "to sort out atrocities and suffering, rank their demands in a principled way, then set up filters and channels" (p. 296), I believe it takes also an algonomy. Otherwise, "The world of suffering makes moral imbeciles of us all." (p. 294).

I will soon post this message as an open letter in my blog About Suffering.

Thank you for your outstanding book.

Best regards,

Robert Daoust


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