Saturday, 7 July 2007

Specialists without spirit: medical doctors carrying out terrorist acts in the UK

Recent tragic events in the United Kingdom have forced me to reflect on why it always struck me in my student days how many of the campus evangelicals were there to ostensibly study the hard sciences. In light of this fact, it becomes legitimate to wonder aloud just how much this has to do with a need for compensation to make up for deficits in the disciplines they are enrolled in. By extension, surely it is more than coincidental and of mere passing interest that the official 9/11 Commission Report dutifully notes one of the chief criterias for Al Qaida's talent scouts as being to avoid those enrolled in the liberal humanities and social sciences. Afterall, what is presupposed in this instance is a greater capacity to think and act more reflexively, which can equate, to such critics, to moral relativism. In other words, something more general is at work here than basic demarcations in "human nature" or Islamism, or fundamentalist Christianity, which have to do with the organisation of modern societies. Sociologist Max Weber had a readymade label for those folks which seems more useful than the two catchall labels just mentioned; he spoke, rather, of "specialists without spirit". This dilemma may well hold up across the board for everyone in a comparable position, from Campus Crusaders for Christ (which gained its initial strongest foothold in Australia on the campus of Sydney''s hub of I.T. training and development, Macquarie University), to the postgraduate engineering work of that 9/11 suicide pilot, Mohammed Atta.
Don't get me wrong though. I'm not making a claim that more reflexive thinking can't create problems of its own, not least by paradoxically turning into an avant garde formalism of its own. In that situation, norms become alienated from creativity as what is issued is a licence to commit to continuous transgression as an end in itself (something like "permanent revolution", you might say). Again, I got to experience this first hand thanks to an unfortunate falling out with a friend who was an electronic musician. On one particular day I was subjected to a previously hidden "shark behind the glass" persona, with a tidal wave of confessions about visiting sex workers. Perhaps I could have coped more readily if it hadn't been presented in such sleazy and tough terms, i.e. "I've had all sorts [sic]...big tits, little tits, you name it". I could have been more sympathetic in separating the activity from the special requirements of a person with physical disabilities, if it had not been so closely intertwined with such blatantly self-conscious misogyny. The latter component was so strong I couldn't help wondering if it had something to do with reclaiming power from an abject position largely dependent upon an otherwise invisible domestic economy inseparable from the labour of women (nurses, cleaners, doctors, chefs, and yes, sex workers). Women were also distinctly underrepresented in the music, films, books, art etc collected by this individual, other than as the cover models of publications such as Bizarre Magazine. I also have to stress that whatever ethical boundary issue was crossed for me at this point, it was not something I could easily just step away from by patronising the guy by sticking theoretical labels on him.
Given the engineering background of this individual though, perhaps here it could still almost be said that Weber's two typologies begin to intermingle, i.e. specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart. Some combination of these features hints then at the wider cultural crisis we may be forced to increasingly confront. Here then is Ferrara's astute summation:

That is, the society which once found its ultimate frame of reference in the religious ideal of an orderly life devoted to the carrying out of one’s calling is now split into the two opposing camps of the "specialists without spirit," devoted to work only as a means for securing consumption, and the "sensualists without heart," who dedicate their lives to aesthetic cultivation but remain insensitive to all sense of duty or communal purpose. The choice of this vantagepoint reveals its infecundity when the theorists of postmodernity combine it with Weber’s dichotomy of asceticism and mysticism. When these two notions are superimposed over the distinction of specialists and sensualists we obtain, as a result, the gist of the neoconservative interpretation of modernity. Asceticism, which in a broader sense stands for vita activa, for a sense of moral purpose, for taking interest in the external world….for believing in progress, for the desire to grow more in control of our collective destiny, and for the desire to free ourselves from all man made yet unintentional constraints, is seen as losing ground. Mysticism, which is associated with vita contemplativa, with intellectualism without ethical commitment, with immobility and self-inspired stagnation, with withdrawal from the world and therefore with losing control over it, is seen as gaining the favor of the "sensualists without heart" and as threatening to become the dominant outlook (Ferrara 1993: 23).

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