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13 August 2012 | Draft

Paradoxes of Engaging with the Ultimate in any Guise

Living Life Penultimately

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Forms of the Ultimate as imaginatively anticipated (Cluster 1)
Forms of the Ultimate as imaginatively anticipated (Cluster 2)
Engaging with the Ultimate
Persuasion -- and conversion of others to the Ultimate
Awaiting the Ultimate vs. Living Penultimately


There is a curious dependence on the "ultimate" in a variety of forms. This may be related to anticipation of an ultimate experience, whether in the form of a theory, a spiritual revelation, an encounter with another, a global strategy, or the like. The expectation is that this will be "ultimately" transformative in ways which can only be intuited, but whose consequences are much anticipated.

Of particular significance is the manner in which the term is used in a variety of contexts to "qualify" that which is most valued, or to which humanity most aspires -- or of which it is most afraid. Use of "ultimate" thus tends to imply a conflation of qualities from the contexts with which "ultimate" is associated.

The concern here is with assumptions regarding how the ultimate might be recognized -- if this is possible -- and with the manner of engaging with it, given its extraordinary nature. Also of concern is how the ultimate for one person may be of little significance to another -- despite all efforts at communication. This is especially relevant to assumptions regarding the possibility of global consensus on an ultimate remedial strategy for the world's problems, as previously discussed (The Consensus Delusion: mysterious attractor undermining global civilization as currently imagined, 2011). This could be seen as related to any anticipated ultimate emergence of an effective global leadership for the world in its present condition -- or perhaps some corresponding insight or discovery.

These considerations suggest that -- to the extent that the ultimate may be essentially elusive or inaccessible -- it may be more fruitful to explore ways of "living life penultimately". Given expectations of the ultimate collapse of global civilization -- even if not imminent -- living life in this way would be consistent with the injunction of James Lovelock (The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can, 2009).

Forms of the Ultimate as imaginatively anticipated (Cluster 1)

The following represents an effort to identify -- from web references -- the variety of ways in which "ultimate" tends to be used and "qualified". This is understood as a means of giving a sense of the significance variously attached to "ultimate" for different reasons and by different constituencies. It offers a "flavour" of "ultimate" from a variety of perspectives on the assumption that these are conflated to a degree in what is understood or implied by "ultimate". The following might then be considered as a form of "market survey" with regard to use of "ultimate" -- as this may prove relevant to appreciation and uptake of a global strategy.

Forms of the Ultimate as imaginatively anticipated (Cluster 2)

Engaging with the Ultimate

The variety of understandings of "ultimate" presented above offer a framework through which to consider how it is possible to engage with the quality thereby implied.

Persuasion -- and conversion of others to the Ultimate

The above review of web resources is necessarily selective. The review is not helpful in highlighting the extent to which "ultimate" is used in promotion of products and services, in the titles of blog commentary, and in videos. The example of its extensive use in comics was cited.

Especially interesting is how "ultimate" is used as an ultimate qualifier in unexpected contexts where such usage might otherwise be considered improbable -- but nevertheless provides a valued focus for the popular imagination. It might be described as the ultimate form of marketing hyperbole -- a celebration of coolth!

Awaiting the Ultimate vs. Living Penultimately

As suggested in introducing the above review, "ultimate" would seem to hold a conflation of values and expectations -- whether of the highest values to which humanity can aspire, or of the conditions most feared. There is however a curious degree to which the "ultimate" is descriptive of the unrealized and the unresolved. This even characterizes the promotional marketing of products described as "ultimate" -- something to be experienced, but only if the product is purchased.

Awaiting closure: Whatever the promises implied by "ultimate", the situation might be caricatured experientially in terms of waiting for a lottery ticket to "win". In that sense "ultimate" is intimately associated with an "ultimate hope" of a desired future outcome -- or a hope that a feared "ultimate outcome" does not result.

Such remarks apply most readily to individual engagement with "ultimate". The caricature can however also be applied to collective preoccupations -- as with hopes for the resolution of evident crises through an "ultimate strategy", possibly enabled by an "ultimate leadership". Again there may be hope that the "ultimate crises", foreseen or otherwise, will not come about.

The process of awaiting the ultimate might be seen as illustrated by the absurdist play written by Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot: a tragicomedy in two acts). Appropriately for this argument, this has been voted "the most significant English language play of the 20th century". In it two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. Godot's absence has led to many different interpretations since the play's premiere. Beckett has explicitly denied that he intended "Godot" to represent "God", although some have valued this possibility. For the purpose of this argument, and enriching it, the "Ultimate" could usefully be represented by "Godot", given the dynamics of the play.

Anticipation and time: As evident from the examples cited above, use of "ultimate" has strong implications of time -- together with anticipated resolution through a form of transcendence and synthesis. However this tends to imply a very linear understanding of time, with "ultimate" then being somehow at the end of (normal) time -- "beyond the last telephone pole".

The question this then raises is the appropriateness of engaging psychologically in dependence on such anticipation. With respect to collective strategy, is it healthy for the individual to be encouraged to await on the "ultimate" outcome of political promises -- or of those made by other authorities? To what extent is this comparable to the comfort offered by the Jewish Yom Kippur service and the Passover Seder in concluding with recitation of the phrase "Next Year in Jerusalem"? Or of a "life hereafter", as promised in other traditions?

Anticipation of death: Living in anticipation becomes especially poignant in the case of those facing death -- as an experience widely (and necessarily) acknowledged to be "ultimate". This applies as much to those who can expect to die "normally" at an appropriate age, as to those with a terminal illness, or to those on "death row". It applies to those from whom sacrifice is expected, as with the workers repairing the Fukushima nuclear reactors -- recalling the Roman gladiatorial salute to imperial representatives: Nos Morituri Te Salutamus. However it also applies to those who may well die prematurely from an accident -- an "ultimate surprise" in tragic contrast to the life they had anticipated living.

Fulfillment in cyclic time: When is hoping for the "ultimate" fruitful and when is living for a hypothetical future simply dysfunctional? In what way might it be fruitful to recognize that the "ultimate" is not going to "happen" -- especially in the form one has been encouraged to expect? Realistically, is life to be experienced "to the full" -- but in practice, "not quite" -- as with reaching "Jerusalem"? And would the "ultimate" be recognized if it did "happen" -- especially if it is a "verb", for example (as argued above)?

Anticipation framed by a linear sense of time merits a degree of challenge, given the radical insights offered by physics into the nature of time in relation to space. It can however also be challenged by worldwide understanding of the cycle of seasons. How is the sense of "ultimate" then held within cyclic time? Only by "breaking the cycle", as might then be implied by climate change?

Ungrasping sustainability: Using a geometrical metaphor, is the "ultimate" somehow associated with the "centre" of a cycle -- as with the planets circling the Sun? This metaphor then emphasizes the sense in which the "ultimate" is unreachable in any conventional sense -- and certainly problematic to "grasp". Is it possible that the insights offered by "nothingness" to physics are to be fruitfully related to the most fundamental insights of spirituality -- and to intuitive understandings of the "Ultimate" (cf. Emerging Significance of Nothing, 2012; Import of Nothingness and Emptiness through Happening and Mattering, 2008; ¿ Embodying a Way Round Pointlessness ? 2012; Orbiting Round Nothingness across Communication Space, 2012).

Is the acclaimed goal of sustainability to be understood as a desirable "ultimate" achievement for humanity? Given the recognized emphasis on cycles and recycling with respect to sustainability, is there a sense in which it is futile and inappropriate to endeavour to "grasp" the centre of such cycles as some kind of endpoint? Is there a "point" to sustainability?

Are there more inherently viable possibilities through seeking to engage more appropriately with cyclic time, as separately discussed (The Isdom of the Wisdom Society: embodying time as the heartland of humanity? 2003; Strategic Embodiment of Time: configuring questions fundamental to change, 2010).

Penultimate living: It is in this sense that this argument has been subtitled Living Life Penultimately. Even if the Ultimate may well be about to happen -- or may not -- is living "now" best experienced as living "penultimately"? Rather than awaiting manifestation of the Ultimate, is there a manner in which life can be lived by "circling" the Ultimate -- at an appropriate "orbital" distance? The "penultimate" is then dynamically tangential to the "ultimate" -- effectively "periultimate", avoiding the closure implied by the linear interpretation. Is this the essential insight of voluntary simplicity? (cf. Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity, 2010). How might this relate to the sense in which "ultimate peace" is not to be attained in that "we only live in the process of peacemaking", as Louis Kriesberg notes that some have argued (Conflict Resolution Applications to Peace Studies, Peace and Change, 1991)?

How would reflection on global policy shift if it was not based on achieving the Ultimate -- "getting to the Sun" -- but rather on living in recognition that this was not going to happen? Would this shift help to ground policy in reality rather than unrealistically projecting it into a virtual world of spin and promises made to be broken -- as with recent Earth Summits? It is clear that the Sun is not something it is fruitful to seek to live "on" or "in". The metaphor does however offer recognition of the manner in which the Sun can be fruitfully lived "with" as a vital central reference point.

Engaging with a process reality: Further to the case for exploring process reality, of potential relevance to this argument is the presentation by Christopher Martin Klinger (Process Physics: bootstrapping reality from the limitations of logic, Scientific Commons, 2005) who describes the development and evolution of a new paradigm, a radical information-theoretic modelling of reality. He demonstrates the viability of looking outside the current paradigms of quantum theory and Einstein's relativity by showing that "process physics" yields: unified emergent phenomena that permit an understanding of fundamental processes and penultimately motivate both quantum theory and relativity as relevant higher-level descriptors within their respective domains.

Especially for the individual, reframing dependence on the Ultimate acknowledges a degree of subtlety of lifestyle, with which many are necessarily familiar, as discussed separately (Living as an Imaginal Bridge between Worlds: global implications of "betwixt and between" and liminality, 2011). Rather than seeking to "enclose" the Ultimate in explanation and predictability, it emphasizes the partial comprehension well illustrated by orbiting the Sun (Towards the Dynamic Art of Partial Comprehension, 2012; Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty: re-cognizing the varieties of non-comprehension and misunderstanding, 2012).

In response to the above argument Jeff Vander Clute remarks:

It seems there is always an unfolding nextness -- notwithstanding the apparent finality of death -- and that the present moment is always both all we apprehend directly and in a constant state of ending (as well as coming into form). Thus the present moment is a kind of penultimate. Where I "end" up in this moment is that the term "ultimate" isn't all that useful; and 'penultimate' can serve as a bridge from the cul-de-sac of ultimateness to floating and flowing in the present moment. It's interesting how much energy goes into thinking about and planning for the future (i.e. the ultimate), including present concerns about climate change. Although those seem completely justified, I wonder whether the ever-co-arising reality is vastly more malleable and can "turn on an atom," particularly when we loosen our ideas about causality and future?

Living "penultimately" in relation to death: This is then consistent with the encouragement of various traditions to reflect on the nature of the Ultimate with which death is associated -- if only as a challenge to understanding the paradoxical relationship between the illusion of permanence and the nature of "eternal life" (cf. Dalai Lama, Advice on Dying; Pende Hawter (Death and Dying in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, 1995). Insights into the processes of the "art of dying" merit similar consideration from a collective explored by various cultures (cf. the Christian Ars moriendi; the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead). Potentially of considerable relevance is the possibility of new insights into the as yet unresolved relationship between "short-term" frameworks and "long-term" relationships as they might apply to sustainability.

One useful approach to "death" in a collective context is through the death of discourse as explored by Loyal Rue (After the Death of Discourse, U. Cin. L. Rev., 64, 1277, 1995-1996). The author asks:

Which things matter ultimately? Which things matter penultimately? And which things matter proximately? ... The central point, however, is that survival is in a very general way an objective value for all life forms, humans included.

Death of the penultimate: Another approach is through the much-commented line of Stéphane Mallarmé La Penultime est morte -- given his emphasis on the "non dit" and the "autrement dit" implying a willful vagueness about the magnitude of its consequence (cf. Judd D. Hubert, A Post-Mortem on "The Penultimate", 1988; Jean-Michel Rabaté. La pénultième est morte: spectrographies de la modernité, 1993; Marvin Richards III, The Demon of Criticism: Mallarmé and the Prose Poem, 1995). As argued by David A, Powell ("La Penultième," or Next-to-Last What? A musical approach to Mallarmé's "Démon" 2001):

To name, or to attempt to name, the next-to-last thing would contradict Mallarmé's intentions... One area of interest for Mallarmé where a next-to-last position carries meaning or importance is music. This system emphasizes the peunultimate sound, which either heralds or satisfies the end. The question remains: Why should the element die? What is the effect of its death? [Powell] explores the possibilities of absence and/or reflexivity, stability, essence, and meaning in relation to this pivotal line, to music, and to the orchestration of both in Le Démon de l'Analogie.

As a form of "slogan" for the condition against which this argument is made, the "death of the penultimate" could be interpreted as a loss of capacity to live in the penultimate as a consequence of obsessive focus on the ultimate and achievement of closure -- despite its elusive nature. By "enlivening" the penultimate, possibly understood as enactivating it, "space-time" for a viable habitat is engendered (cf. Walking Elven Pathways: enactivating the pattern that connects, 2006). Rather than current preoccupation with the limitations of living globally, emphasis is shifted to the toroidal dynamics of the planetary orbit vital to the seasons, as variously argued (Complexification of Globalization and Toroidal Transformation, 2010; Enabling Governance through the Dynamics of Nature, 2010; Implication of Toroidal Transformation of the Crown of Thorns, 2011; Exploring the Hidden Mysteries of Oxfam's Doughnut, 2012)

Ironically the failure to achieve the ultimate, with its global connotations ("global domination", etc) obliges people to live penultimately without realizing or appreciating it fully -- effectively "living on borrowed time" (Summer Rally In Stocks Living On Borrowed Time? Forbes, 17 August 2012; Italy Living on Borrowed Time, Wall Street Journal, 31 August 2011; Living on borrowed time: Morsy's political economics, Egypt Independent, 16 July 2012), The situation can be exploited, as with the repackaging and sale of toxic assets as derivatives, which engendered the current global financial crisis. The art of such exploitation then lies in the capacity to be the penultimate holder of such assets -- leaving the ultimate holder to bear the loss, when their toxicity becomes apparent.

Engaging with impermanence: This argument recalls the illusion of permanence cultivated in all empires and civilizations as being effectively "eternal" (cf. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1970; Tausendjähriges Reich). As with the reflection recommended by Buddhism for the individual, are there insights of relevance to sustainability and survival "after death" then to be gleaned from reflecting more coherently on the ultimate death of civilization as conventionally understood (cf. Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah, Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: perspectives on individual, social, and cvilizational change, 1997; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 2006). Is living penultimately the means by which the eternal sweep of such history becomes meaningful to the individual in the now (cf. Engaging Macrohistory through the Present Moment, 2004).

Paradoxes of ultimate cyclic completion
(as articulated between the final two hexagrams of the daoist I Ching cycle)
After Completion (Chi Chi #63) Before Completion (Wei Chi #64)
The transition from confusion to order is completed, and everything is in its proper place even in particulars. This is a very favorable outlook, yet it gives reason for thought. For it is just when perfect equilibrium has been reached that any movement may cause order to revert to disorder. Indicative of a time of climax, which necessitate the utmost caution. Indicative of a time when the transition from disorder to order is not yet completed. The change is indeed prepared for. While the preceding hexagram offers an analogy to autumn, which forms the transition from summer to winter, this hexagram presents a parallel to spring, which leads out of winter's stagnation into the fruitful time of summer
Indicative interpretation for
Policy and Lifestyle
Indicative interpretation for
Policy and Lifestyle


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