By Haebitchan Jung
A mild fracas with a friend had shaken up my entire system of preconceived beliefs. The beliefs of my ideology, the ideology of my existence: why I am here as a student and why I strive to read so much philosophy and critical theory books. My reason, however, is nothing more than a mirror of my selfishness, because my journey is for my own wisdom. I wish to learn for the sake of learning. But most importantly, I’ve never personally experienced the theories that I have read. They were merely ideas and concepts to me than anything practical (Russell said that theories become science once it becomes proven in the real world).
The pursuit therefore, has always been lodged somewhere in my head, but it has never been found within my heart. I feel dry and desiccated of all emotions toward my educational endeavor, though I did not always feel it that way. In fact, the thought hadn’t struck my mind until my deep conversation with my friend just a while ago, who was the polar opposite of the totality of my existence. She studied philosophy and social theory for the sake of others. The others, she identified, were those who were always subjugated by the hegemonic forces of the law, viz., the monolithic corporations who manifest Adorno’s assertion of “culture industry.” The industry is everywhere like the laws that encroach the fragile boundary between the society and its people and assert its dominance.
“Poor people are poor for a reason,” I spouted. She returned, “Yes. But the social structure is that reason.” The only defense I could think of was, “Well, I’ve never personally experienced this myself,” to which she countered by saying, “Then how can you understand philosophy if you don’t know the first thing about philosophy?” The first thing? What does that mean? “It’s emotion. It’s passion,” she replied in a soft and in a cutting manner, “which comes from experience,” I could almost hear her whisper. Her words sliced through me, and I tried to cover myself by retorting, “I have a gusto for reading theory and it’s nothing more than that.”
She quickly silenced my voice by expatiating that I was only stimulated “up there” in the head, but not down there in the heart where it should be. How can I understand ergo cognito sum without understanding why Descartes would say such a thing in its social context? Without understanding how people at that time must have felt to know that their existence was not validated by external agencies and institutions, but by their own minds; their rationality gave rise to their existence. Or how can I ever truly understand Civilization and Its Discontents without understanding the tragedy of man, to have his desires and will be cut short by the restraints of civility, thus precipitating inner discontents within the people. How relevant is this “Freudian” philosophy today? That the local and federal bigwigs are repressing the mass through the imposition of endless rules and regulations? Well I’ll never know, I suppose, because I not only do I lack the ability to empathize with the suffering mass, I am devoid of the experience of intense suffering begotten by the insurmountable poverty for self-reflection. I lack both, my inner connection with the world, and the world’s connection to me. Thus the argument concludes that my endeavors are empty pursuits and merely intellectual inquires. No matter whatever new concepts I learn, I will never be able to internalize them. They will just be like clothing, something I can put on and take off, but it will never be within my nature.
But does that mean that empathizing happens only a posteriori? Must I be a homosexual to understand queer theory, or pauper to recognize the power relations at play between the societal institutions and I? How relevant is experience when certain things cannot be experienced? Isn’t that what literature is for? We read not because we know, but because we don’t know. History is the same; we can never live in those times, but try at least to understand it through literature or other modes of learning. Or there is really no point of being an English or history major at all. So while I have not told this right in front of her, I hold this counterargument close in my heart and proceed as if nothing has happened between us. Because it was nothing more than a mere fracas. Nothing more than that.