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The Axioms of the Other

In the delineation of differance everything is strategic and adventurous. Strategic because no transcendent truth present outside the field of writing can govern theologically the totality of the field.

— Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy

In antiquity, axioms referred to what was obviously true to all. Now they simply refer to the background assumptions we make. Now they refer to the game board we are playing on along with the rules of that game which we are following.

The successful legislative functioning in an electoral democracy certainly requires an acceptance by all Congressional members of their own rules of order. Less certainly achieved is the requirement that each member acquire an understanding of different background assumptions held by their legislative peers and the constituencies that have elected them to office. This need stems from a common realization that understanding resulting only through interpretations made within the scope of one’s own assumptions are no more than proofs conducted on one’s own game board, a clear case of circular reasoning.

What is required is an understanding that puts into play, mentally speaking, the axioms of the other, the matter of adoption of what is not in play in one’s own thinking. This not an easy mental exercise, but one we are called upon to make in everyday life. This is a necessity for a functioning legislative process in all political orders not monarchic or dictatorial.

When warring factions misrepresent each other, and the opportunities for that are monumentally increased in a culture driven by both online and offline continuous representations of everything from peanut butter to politics, the exercise of reliable interpretation of opponent views is jeopardized. When reductive tactics and pithy putdowns aimed at “destroying” another’s views accompanied by the thoughtless truisms from which they emerge become the accepted form of public discourse, the recognized “social” media of interrelationship, you can expect rising levels of hostile incompatibility, a country in a bitter divorce battle.

An electoral democracy bears a very fluid hegemony. For example, the Republican Congressional order that pushed through its tax “reform,” which is intended to raise all boats but is so much more likely to align all boats in a pitched battle, all broadsides firing, may give way after the 2018 Congressional elections to a Democratic order. However, the election of Donald Trump shows us that our traditional back and forth politics, “first this party and then that party,” had left many voices out of this supposedly all encompassing politics.

The Gramscian notion that any hegemony is always under attack and assailed by controversies but nevertheless can only sustain itself by such confrontation and negotiation did not anticipate  the presence of a 24/7 online confrontation without order or hope of compromise. And that dimension of unreality drives both the composition of a real world political order and its manner of confrontation and negotiation.Gramsci’s notion of hegemony also did not foresee the collapse of dialectic and dialogue into a monologue of personal opinion emerging from a confounding of any path to what is “obviously true to all.”

A “post-truth” order of things thus expands game boards and their axioms to a personalized order of things, a kind of democratization of reality and reality making, or a sort of populist subjective idealism. And that is a fluidity fit for chaos theory.

A grassroots level of all this is reflected in our political order, although we each do not allow confrontations that could lead to gridlock in our own minds because we cleverly do not admit an oppositional party into our own minds. Gridlock is only in the Congress because they cannot assert that ruling, excluding force which we apply in our own thinking. And of course we think them stupid for this failure. My point is that unless the grassroots constituency is able to open its own mind to a recognition and understanding of other axioms emerging from other background assumptions, we will seek and elect those who are limited in the same ways we are.

We are thus on all levels quite prepared to fall apart as a society that can recognize a barely minimum level of common understanding.

There are multiple points in which our divergent background assumptions reveal themselves but the most recognizable one is in the presidency itself. The divide here is easily expressed: Only President Trump tweets venom and blindness while each of us tweets sense and truth. Or, President Trump tweets what’s really going on, while others seek to destroy him. This may be the most commonly recognizable point at which the union breaks, once again, though there are multiple potential breaking points.

Whether or not we are close to “storming the castle” as Keith Olbermann phrases it in listing seven reasons why he believes Trump’s presidency is soon to fall, the consequences of that fall may go far beyond scattered protests, far beyond the angry uprising of Black Lives Matter and the Occupy Wall Street sit in. The Charlottesville clash between White supremacists protesting the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, an iconic figure in a cause never buried at Appomattox, and counter-protesters condemning that statue as a symbol of the Confederacy’s fight to maintain slavery reveals the intensity of what we should expect whether Trump is impeached or resigns.

It’s too late to expect that a new version of PlayStation or X-Box or a new I-phone or a new App or the newest new in social media, an even bigger flat screen TV, or an “All in One” computer will seduce, distract and anesthetize those who will hit the streets if and when Trump is forced out of office. A direct frontal lobe implant of the internet may keep the angry off the streets, or, if there, quickly lead them somewhere else. But it’s too late to expect that innovation. Big Pharma, however, is pushing out soma tablets at a breathtaking pace and so we may not get anything more than a whimper “After the Fall” of Trump.

In a dark view, our psycho-pharmaceutical soma, called every ridiculous name by Big Pharma except soma, may be dulling us all for a robotic/AI future which we meet with no resistance at all. In an even darker view, our depravity in soiling our own earthly habitat may be the tectonic plate eruption we fall into and disappear.

So, Trump is our immediate,  most attention grabbing breaking point but the tectonic plates that create that eruption are in play to create further eruptions at different points. Just as global warming is set to create more and more frequent catastrophic eruptions, our social and political order is set to do the same. Whether the union that has thus far been achieved in the U.S. can endure a divergence in common beliefs and understandings, a wide divide between the background assumptions we make regarding “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is once again a question to be answered.

Whether or not we manage to see that we ourselves are always the other and so the axioms of the other are to the other our axioms requires a stepping back from our ready to hand explosive devices until we can once again meet face to face and see the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other. We no longer inhabit a world in which anything said can be viewed by all as “obviously true,” a recognition that may be the first baby step in fashioning a world of background assumptions “adventurous and strategic.”

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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