Jeffery L Nicholas
Philosophy and social theory
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
Yesterday, I wrote on love and politics. This post continues the thoughts begun there.
For at least half of the human population, politics involves living in a city. For David Harvey, radical politics and the revolution begin with claiming a right to the city. Harvey nicely details how the structure of the city serves to distribute resources, and in our current times, to distribute resources from the poor to the rich. Thus, he calls, rightly, for a transformation of the city. He wants us to have "the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves."
After I wrote yesterday, i was thinking about what it would mean for us to restructure the city on the principle of love. Actually, my thought was more pessimistic--it was a question: can we live in cities if the basis of our politics is love? Yesterday, I was more willing to answer this question negatively.
The reason I wanted to answer the question negatively in part derives from what I am teaching and how my students react to it. So, for example, in "Western Civ," we've talked about the right to property as a right for each person to own enough land to raise food for one's self. How does one construct a city around this principle, is the challenge my students offered? I'm tempted to say that perhaps we cannot, or certainly cannot on the same scale we do now. So what does that answer mean for living in a city and for Harvey's brand of political revolution?
One thing it does not mean is that we adopt a Rousseau-ian politics that sees civilization as negative and demeaning and living in the state of nature as best for developing human virtue and flourishing. I think that this divide is the threat that leads to a view like Huxley's Brave New World, with its noble savage.
Another reason I was wanting to answer the question in the negative is my visit to Findhorn. Findhorn, from what I saw, is a community of people living through integration with the land. It's not a city, more of a village. And I wonder given the beauty and love I experienced there whether that is our human destiny. Again, if it is, what does that mean for radical politics, for Harvey's political revolution?
I invite you, my dear readers, to offer your own visions of what a city built on love might look like, or whether you think such an experience is possible?
I've had a lot to think about since the beginning of this month with my trip to Findhorn and participating in the "Healthy Birth, Healthy Earth" conference there. You've seen many of these thoughts on my blog--about birth and community, about love, about a new vocabulary, about social transformation. Really, I've had so much to say, so few words to say it with, and so little time.
One thing I keep returning to is love and community. I've been reading Hannah Arendt's The Promise of Politics, and she makes a total critique of the history of political thought stemming from Plato. According to Arendt, politics for Plato and since has centered on setting aside a space of freedom for philosophers to philosophize. Each thinker managed this space in his or her own way, but it always involved a separation.
She may be right.
The reason I mention her though is because she has helped me contextualize the history of political philosophy in a different light. I see a strange and unfortunate contrast between Plato's Symposium--which is a discourse on love--and his Republic--a dialogue about justice. If Arendt is right, then the Republic sets aside space for symposia. However, this separation distances love from politics. Strangely, still, Aristotle makes friendship the foundation of good politics, and friends are united in love. Yet, this foundation isn't carried through in his discussion of justice or equality. In fact, the discussion of friendship occurs at the end of the Politics.
What happens if we instead put love at the beginning of politics?
To answer that question, we need a better account of love than what we have. I wonder that the philosophers seemed to have abandoned love and given it over the religion from Plato till the late 19th century. Why is love a theological virtue rather than the premiere civic virtue?
These questions lead us back to the idea of healing thy birth and healing thy earth and to the question of birth and community. Birth, I think, has always been about reproducing society; love is secondary at best. Yet, if we embrace a conscious conception approach to birth, then we also must embrace a conscious conception approach to society. I don't think any of these ideas are utopian in any false sense. They are the first steps to realizing what we can accomplish as a species. Consider, for example, if in Marx we understood labor, not as work, but as a woman giving birth. How does that change in perspective help us to rethink the whole tradition of political thought from Plato?
I'm sorry if this post seems to ramble. It's a beginning.
I want to reflect for a moment on a post from Graham Meltzer about transforming the world and the role of community.
No less than the role of community in the evolution of our species. Yes, I do see a link there! So this post is not about Findhorn directly, but about community life in general and its contribution to the making of a better world through the humane welcoming of babies and raising of children.
How do we change the world is perhaps the fundamental question of both Christianity and of Marxist philosophy, in many ways a Christian heresy. The big attempts at change were never really attempts at all in the Marxist sense--the USSR, China, Cuba, all began from different principles. The vanguard ideology was never something Marx fully embraced, certainly not in the way that we have seen it instantiated. Yet, that leaves us with the question, whence transformation?
What Graham points out is what must be obvious and what we ignore, especially in Western philosophical circles: it begins with children and how we raise children. Robin Grille's research demonstrates this point on a socio-psychological level.
Perhaps then, it might only take a few generations of our kids repeatedly enjoying a humane and loving welcome into community for peace, harmony and resilience to become the norm.
I'm always at pain with my students to remind them what children are really like when they are young. My students repeat what they hear in society: human beings are selfish, children are self-centered. Having raised three beautiful, wonderful human beings, I know, of course, that they can be, that every person must go through some stage of self-centeredness.
Yet, when they are young, a child is the first to come to someone who is hurt and offer a hug. A child is the first, when she is secured in her life, to offer to share.
What Rousseau got right, and what Marx emphasized is that society conditions people to act in certain ways. The communities we have, at least in modern liberal democracies today, emphasize selfish tendencies.
But one community at a time, built around healthy birth and a healthy relationship to the earth, provides an opportunity to raise children with different values.
My philosophical mission has always been grounded in this search for a new world. I'm not saying I am perfect, that I was a perfect parent, or that I know all the answers. What I am saying is that I have been searching for the philosophical foundations for this new way of being, this new way of life. I believe wholeheartedly with Paulo Freire that change without reflection is no change at all.
Intentional communities, like Findhorn, are intention--ed. And they are local. We cannot just take Findhorn and transplant it in Rhode Island. But we might be able to discover the principles which support the building of such communities. Science fiction is one way to discover these principles. Philosophy is another. But to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, these are but straw if we do not put them into practice.
This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally.
For me, these lines are like the gestalt picture of the rabbit and the duck. In one light, they make me think of the baby being born. The pregnancy and the birthing are mysterious powers--a new life lives inside the woman and she brings it forth at birth into the world. When needlessly contorted by fetal heart monitors, epidurals, and C-sections, the health of the mother and the baby can suffer--especially the spiritual health. Several speakers addressed this mouldiness at the HBHE conference. The technocratic nature of birth can be part of the distortion of childhodd that Robin Grille discussed.
In another light, I see so much else about the way we live or refuse to live in our bodies. Western Christian culture has such a distorted view inherited from Manicheanism through Augustine. Yet, God created us as ensouled bodies--as Thomas Aquinas states, to be without a body is an unnatural state. That's why we have a resurrection of the body--not just of the soul. The soul deformed without the body. Modern philosophy and science and culture mis-understand this. We are not ghosts in a shell. We are living bodies.
It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.
I love this vision of freedom: giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts.
Those familiar with the work my students do in classes might recall the way we imagine leadership
This definition came from our reading of Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference. It lies at the heart of what I see in MacIntyrean practices--like midwifery, fishing, playing guitar, etc. Freedom lies in releasing our creativity and love for others.
Re-imagining birth, the environment, and society in new language is a step toward this freedom. It means engaging in practices for their goods and not for other reasons. Ignorance brought on by the desire for security in the form of ever more money prevents us from engaging in that way. As a teacher, one of my goals is to at least get students to think about the possibilities here. One of my successes was a student a long time ago who, after taking ethics with me, left her business major and went off to film school.
How I wish we could all be so inspired. How I wish we could all go off to our own film schools, or own creative centers.
That is what we must aim for in transforming society.
Graham Meltzer encouraged me to think about writing something on birth and community. I've spent some time thinking about what I would have to say here. It seems to me obvious that something should be said, but what should be said and why I should say it has been the problem.
It occurred to me as I walked to work this morning, that we can draw some parallels between birth and political community. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes in After Virtue, our politics has for a long time been removed from the hands of the people. Max Weber is notable for pointing out the workings of bureaucracy in the state. MacIntyre explains how, not the good or needs of the people, but the knowledge of the experts is the standard way for determining state policy.
This point should sound familiar. Whether midwives are permitted or not in the birthing room, the overwhelming driving force can often be the knowledge of the experts. This "knowledge" sees pregnancy and birth as pathological, has devised instruments for "helping" the birth along, and has removed agency from the hands of those most involved in birth. I know more about this in the US than other countries. In the US, midwives attend 7% of births. When my wife and I went to a midwife for the birth of our second child we were told no, because we were at risk. Why? Because it was the beginning of the second trimester and we'd not seen a physician yet. This fact put us at risk, despite my wife already giving birth to one child with no complications. I've read articles about court cases where midwives will testify, but their testimony would be ignored because of the expert opinion of physicians--the scientists. (I address scientism as a ideology in my article "Eucharist and Dragonfighting.") The experts can drive the decision making in the birthing room, and do so. In the US, midwives have been displaced as ignorant and dirty in favor of the experts. Regarding the UK, I am familiar with an article titles "Mad, Bad, or Indifferent." This article reports the ways that midwives often undermine the expert control of the physician in the birthing room. Overall, however, midwives are being attacked in the UK by the experts.
These are the negative aspects that unite birth and community. I want also to focus on the positive aspects. I invite you, my dear readers, to share below both negative and positive parallels of birth and community.
What Plato later called dialegesthai, Socrates himself called maieutic, the art of midwifery: he wanted to help others give birth to what they themselves thought anyhow, to find the truth in their doxa.
Let’s consider this thought a moment in relation to the modern way of birth. The midwife helps the mother—supports her—in giving birth to a child. Often, though, especially in medical institutional settings, the obstetrician—and here I want to remember that what I write is not true of all obstetricians, and that it may be more true in the US than other places—takes over from the mother, uses his own technology to separate the mother and child. (In relation to yesterdy’s post, this obstetrical action can be viewed as Freire’s banking model of education.) Obviously, sometimes both in education and in birth, a different expertise is needed, when, not the mother’s hesitation, concern, etc, but the body’s operation might require input. Yet, the different models are telling. (To refer to an earlier post, one might read Robbie Davis-Floyd’s work on the wholistic model of birth.)
If we remain true to his own metaphor of maieutic, we may say: Socrates wanted to make the city more truthful by delivering each of the citizens of their truths
To continue this analogy from Socrates, the midwife wants to make the city more humanistic, letting each mother and each family find the truth—and the trust—in their own natures. We can think on this ideal a bit more in relation to the city. It would be easy to consider the city as the symbol for technology, and thus to consider the over-use of technology on a par with the increase in city life. David Harvey, on whom I’ve posted before, sees in the city the centre of revolutionary potential. So the city has something special about it. He ends his discussion of the city and revolution (in Rebel Cities) by noting the need to balance the infrastructure of the city with the natural environment. Here we return to birth again. By returning to a more wholistic model of birth we might also discover a better way of building cities. Once our model of birth is one with nature, where technology has a subordinate role, then we can begin to live more human lives in harmony with nature. Cities, under this model, must be restructured to support our natural living.
To Socrates, maieutic was a political activity, a give-and-take, fundamentally on a basis of strict equality, the fruits of which could not be measured by the result of arriving at this or that general truth
At the heart of the midwife activity, in contrast to the dominant obstetric-technological model, is equality. What might our democracy look like, our cities look like, our social relations look like if we birthed naturally, with or without midwives and doulas, in a relationship of fundamental equality? A return to natural birth, again supported by the obstetrician and technology when necessary, is a first step to a return to a natural equality, one which the Neolithic age disrupted.
It is time for us to reclaim our mothers, our births, and our equality.
This article should both sadden and frighten us all.
Scientists have discovered that they can use any cell to begin reproduction through a form of parthenogenesis. Parthenogenesis is a cellular process by which some animals--mostly reptilians and amphibians--can reproduce without a male partner. You may be familiar with this term from the Jurassic Park movies, for they use parthenogenesis to reproduce the dinosaurs.
Like the scientists in Jurassic Park, our present story lacks any discussion of the why. Why should we use non-egg cells to reproduce new life? The reasons are easy enough,perhaps, to discover. A gay couple may want a child of their own genetic material. A rich, childless man may want an heir. Or perhaps it is the first step to immortality in one's own body, so to speak.
Or, to follow the thread here even further: we can imagine a future species like the Bene Tleilax who reproduce solely through cloning.
The title of the piece is telling here: "motherless" babies. The Tleilax use axlotl tanks for reproduction--women hooked up to machines, with no autonomy, no agency, simply used for the womb. For a long time, I have wondered about parthenogenesis as a story element for a male-less society. Here, though, in reality, the scientists are pursuing a female-less society. At what cost? What thought has gone into this? We already know that female fetuses are aborted at higher rates than males, that women have fewer opportunities for expansion of their agency throughout the world, etc. Imagine, it's not too hard, a China with a one child policy and this motherless science.
That possibility leads to greater threats of course. We know, for instance, that chimpanzee infants would rather cuddle a terry cloth robe than nurse from a bottle hooked to a metal mother-figure. Mothers in the US receive limited maternity leave. We devalue them everywhere. Yet, without mothers we become inhuman--we lack the basic touch that produces healthy men and women secure in themselves and in each other. We return again and again to a world filled with monsters but no human persons.
Someday, I hope soon, we may learn that wisdom must precede science. That is the real message of the masterful novel The Canticle for Liebowitz.
The last few posts have addressed the revolutionary nature of the act of a woman giving birth, both in its economic and in its cultural aspects.
In this post, I want to step back for a moment and reflect on the truly revolutionary nature of the Healthy Birth, Healthy Earth conference. I do so from the philosophy of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
It should be obvious to anyone that women, children, and all people are today suffering from oppression. It should also be obvious that the earth too suffers from oppression. The oppression is, in many ways, from our own making. Michel Odent pointed out that our culture is grounded in a domination of nature; Robin Grille pointed out how the domination of birth and children leads to ever greater domination; many speakers spoke on the way that birthing methods today are dehumanizing.
The tremendous praxis of this conference lay in the reality that we as oppressed people were speaking out and educating each other on this oppression and on change. (I include myself in this "we" even though I was not a presenter because to do otherwise would be to deny what happened to me personally, as well as professionally, at the conference.) Freire writes
This then is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.
When they discover within themselves the yearning to be free, they perceive that this yearning can be transformed into reality only when the same yearning is aroused in their comrades.
The wonderful, lovely, inspirational, transformative reality of this Heal Thy Birth, Heal Thy Earth conference is that we have grasped on to this yearning and we want to spread it to others. The moment of solidarity is alive in the coming together, not to rail against the oppressors, but to understand our own oppression and how we might redeem ourselves and the world, how we might change consciousness by changing the way we relate to birth and the earth.
To use Freire again, reflection and action were one in this conference. We attendees engaged in transformative action during our reflection, through dance, singing, living together, eating together, and eating from the earth.
This week made our lives more difficult. Now we have returned to our daily lives where we are no longer surrounded by loving hands and minds. Our task does not change: that our action is reflective, that our reflection is active, that we are always inviting others to join us in praxis. Here, then, we must build community, one patient, one client, one friend, one family member, one person at a time.
A guest post from Fleur Parker, a dear friend from HBHE. Find her information here.
I was intrigued by Jeffery’s blog post this morning. I had a strong reaction and something didn’t sit quite right for me. Jeffery referenced capitalism and political revolution. In the UK, where money does not follow procedure, birthkeepers are frequently social revolutionaries first and political revolution comes next often as a consequence of our social activism.
Thanks to the forward thinking health secretary Aneurin Bevan, the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 means we do not have to pay for our health care. Although there is a private healthcare option there is little, if any, private obstetrics care north of London and only one private maternity hospital in the whole of the country, also in London.
So when Jeffrey talked about the economic aspects of childbirth and the capitalist mode of reproduction my mind went elsewhere. I am not naive, I studied health care policy and management for my MSc and I was a business manager in the NHS. I understand that, even in the UK, money has a role in the provision of maternity services. But Jeffery’s example doesn't work here. I wondered what our British context is, how are we agents of change? I thought about our story of maternity services and what stories of birth are we disrupting with our work as birthkeepers?
Humankind has used stories, myth and legend as a lens through which to make sense of the world since time began. We use reason and arrange the evidence into stores that align with our own personal mythologies. These mythologies are often so intricately intertwined with our prevailing culture that the two become synonymous. Gatherings like hbhe are powerful because the people attending already have personal mythologies that go against their cultural norm. Last week it was a World cultural norm that we were disrupting - I didn’t speak to one person who said their country had already healed birth.
In my work as a childbirth educator I am constantly disrupting stories. To maintain credibility as an evidence based practitioner I speak of childbirth within a cultural frame of reference. And then, I disturb those stories, slowly take them away to leave space for new ones. When we disrupt stories we go deeper than upsetting the status quo we are agents of change in ways more powerful than we can understand.
Charles Eisenstein in his book The more Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible has a whole chapter on Disruption. He asks “….as people seeking to change the world, how can we change our society’s story?”
To be global birthkeers we have to be activists - social activists, political activists, spiritual activists. Only then can we create a new world paradigm, a new story to heal birth, to heal earth.
"There's nothing more revolutionary than a woman giving birth"
"Men make their own history"
Reproduction can either affirm the status quo or revolutionize the world. This fact is true whether we are speaking of birth itself--the physical labor of bringing a life from the womb into the world--or about the birth of society--the reconstitution of social, political, economic life through our everyday activities.
When one goes to the hospital and pays the obstetrician to with insurance or a medical card or a credit card, one affirms the status quo. Part of our challenge is to rethink how we do birth so that we challenge the status quo. This challenge does not mean getting rid of the obstetrician. Some mother-baby couples need that extra medical attention. The question is, how do we affirm or challenge that relationship?
Part of what I am bringing out here is the economic aspect. We spoke so much at the HBHE conference about so many topics. I thought that underlying some of our talk was a challenge to the status quo that is capitalism. So Romiro's comment about women giving birth as revolution is a challenge for us to think about how the way we do birth today buys into the capitalist mode of reproduction and how a birth might challenge that capitalist mode of reproduction.
A mother giving birth is revolutionary because it is the most loving act. It is more loving than death or dying for another. For in the act of birth, the mother affirms life and love itself. In the act of death, of martyrdom, the moment of love occurs at the hands of another. In the moment of birth, the act of love comes from the mother's hands, her heart, her whole body. I do not deny the value of death or of martyrdom. It challenges the status quo often. Yet, the moment of martyrdom is a memory to be celebrated. The moment of birth is bringing into the world something new grounded in love. It is essentially a denial of the violence that often mars life.
Thus, in giving birth, a woman makes history by declaring her agency to the world. She also gives agency to another--she brings into life an agent, an actor, in history.
Jeffery L. Nicholas (Ph.D philosophy, University of Kentucky) is an associate professor at Providence College and an international scholar on ethics and politics. He serves as research associate for the Center for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University and a foreign research associate at Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá Colombia. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of and executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre's Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), as well as numerous articles. Dr. Nicholas writes on midwifery and birth, the common good, friendship and community, practical reason, and Native American philosophy. He aims to develop a philosophy of integral humanism that synthesizes the philosophical traditions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and Feminist Care Ethics.