The Fetishization of Practical Constraints

The appeal to practical constraints is a variant of the commonly supposed urgency of matters of fact. Facts, although man-made (“fact”, from Latin factum, “that being made”), are seen as somehow objective and as part of a reality whose key feature is deemed as being able to persist without us. Like objectivity is more or less described as what can be without us, without our perception of and our entanglement with it.

That things can be objective in that sense seems to be a concept that arose in Antiquity when orality was surpassed by literacy. That which can be stated in a sentence and was part of other things stated in sentences, had still been of ephemeral character, as in the moment of its being uttered and heard, its existence had already past, and would remain only in the memories of those in attendance of its former presence.

When writing came into being, things changed profoundly. Not only became ideas more or less constrained in “size” to the “length” of their expressing sentences; the idea of a sentence (instead of a paragraph or other bulks of sentences) being able to “express” an idea or content at all and that their function primarily consists in conveying just that became predominant. And why not? In writing, one wrote down a sentence, and that sentence, via its material carrier like wax tablet, parchment, or paper, could be handed over to somebody else to be read at some other time. Not only did sentences become distinct from the content they conveyed; content became distinct from the person to which it had occurred in the first place. That content could be accessed independently from its “producer”, independently from the local space and time, could stand alone via its material carrier (the sentence and the medium on which it was written) and accessed by everyone who was able to read, constituted what later should become a whole ideology of objectivity (Plato’s ideas, e.g.). That “mental objects” (as they now could be called) could be handed back and forth and could remain throughout time via the existence of their material carriers without depending on their original “producers” not only created a specific sense of objectivity, but far more a specific sense of knowledge, belief, opinion, and error. As content became durable in time, and seemingly remained unchanged throughout time, it became receptible to characteristics that likewise persisted unchanged in time. Truth became an objective quality, very much distinct from sincerity and authenticity.

In oral times things existed throughout time as well, but in a different way. It wasn’t the literal words that would be conveyed, but the connections between the ideas, the topics, the happenings and characters. Remembered were stories, not facts, and with that the connection of the story told to those telling them. The access to story was communal, and it was the repetition of accessing the story together that was an important feature of a community not only staying in time, but being connected to the knowable items, be it ideas, fairies, gifts, intervention by the gods, as well. Truth was a matter of community, that is, balance. What brought together people, an environment, its ecology, and the unseen and invisible beings that contributed to the well-being of all. There still could be huge amounts of things to remember, even the attempt to remember them as literal as possible (genealogies, e.g., to explain and reconstruct territorial and ritualistic responsibilities). But truth was not what could be verified through all times by different people at different places; truth was what kept going a community, the land, the ancestors in one continuing story. Truth was guarded, and not because someone tried to create an advantage by restricting access, but because of responsibility due to the knowledge how fragile communities can be. Sustaining a balance between the people and the other beings was about creating a communal body with no clear boundaries between who was a member and who was not.

When truth became the a-temporal quality of an a-temporal content, which, via writing, could be accessed by everybody who was able to read, the laws of nature didn’t take long to appear as well. When the Scientific Revolution succeeded in creating the necessary mathematics to capture their essence in appropriate formulas, and were able to “verify” them by the success of appropriate predictions, the distinction between objective laws on the one hand and subjective persons on the other gave way to an renewed sense of what existed eternally and what existed only for a fleeting moment. Discovery was a gradual process of attaining “the” truth, and approximation became the rational stance of understanding one’s own position in this process across time.

The sense of matters of fact derives from this supposition that there are things “outside” us that are supervenient to us, independent of us, but able to influence and impact us. In fact. such matters of fact are seen as what cannot be argued about, what impacts us no matter what, and irrespective of our liking it or not. Reality, it seems, is when there is no place left to argue. But interestingly, what may have been true about features of nature that impact us no matter what, doesn’t have a counterpart in the human world, with the exception of man-made laws and regulations. Laws and regulations (like taxes, one might quip) do have an impact on us irrespective of who designs them, who the objects are onto whom they apply, and irrespective of the consequences their exertion may impose. And although there is no direct link between being and ought (so David Hume, contrary to whom Immanuel Kant later tried to connect both again), the “consent-enforcing” power of juridical laws and regulations has been mimicked proofs of mathematics (and the laws of nature) which exerted their powers regardless of estate and fame.

John Brunner once gave a remarkable definition of Evil: “If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing.” (The Shockwave Rider (1975), p. 198) Not that there hadn’t been specific forms of evil throughout the times, but our modern form of evil in the sense John Brunner explicates, relies on the specific understanding of and the insistence on the dichotomy of animate self (here) and inanimate other (there).[1] It requires the understanding of some “higher”, “more real”, “less ensouled” complex of powers that can and should be imposed onto something other.

There is a little detail in Brunner’s definition which might be overlooked. If it is evil to treat another human being as a thing, then it is likewise of evil to treat oneself as a thing. That is, treating oneself as if being a thing, is in the same way against one’s own humanity as treating other people as things. But how would that happen? Usually by trying to impose some regiment of rules onto oneself to enhance one’s own performance in society, work space, relationships, communities.

I want to point out that by this I do not just mean the internalization of standards of work related performance. The same goes – if the definition and its self-application are correct – with every kind of intended self-improvement that makes one the object of some self-applied “objective” standard, be it in sports, therapy, spirituality, meditation etc. To become a better person via treating oneself as an object becomes not only a contradiction but reveals how much of the goal of improving oneself via one’s performances is an inhumane endeavour.

In particular in the work space, practical constraints are not just an external parameter that influences how a company or work group functions; far more it is used internally as a means to streamline group efforts, suppress back talk, impose a shared understanding of what is real and what is not, what is important and what is not, and what is enduring and what is transient. Given enough pressure, most participants of groups that are impacted by practical constraints will eventually appeal to those same constraints to enforce a behaviour in solidarity. That is, practical constraints are most often used as justification (or rationalization) in the exertion of pressure, to force people to perform better. Not only will the practical constraint prevail against considerations of humaneness and leniency; it will be actively used as a means of repression.

Practical constraints are a convenient way of enforcing a straightforward behaviour. And the reason for this is twofold, lying in the one who exerts the pressure as well as in those who receive it.

The virtue of practical constraints is that everyone appealing to it can shift responsibility for their activities on the matter of fact. It’s not him, but the facts (i.e., the work goal, the sales figures etc.) that forces him to force you to perform better, complain less, suspend demands. That is, not the one forcing others to enhance performance is the culprit, but the practical constraint is, of which the one exerting the pressure is victim like everybody else. He doesn’t have the responsibility, it’s some strangely out-of-world-impact that forces him and thus everybody else to keep going. This is particularly true in bureaucracies of totalitarian states, in which the one exerting the pressure is always one who can’t be held responsible as it wasn’t his choice to pressure to begin with.

Another aspect comes into play when practical constraints are combined with violence. The appeal to practical constraints can cloak the point that the one exerting the pressure onto others is not only a victim himself; far more in being a victim he can no longer be held accountable for his violence, and what appears to be violence becomes self-defense in the light of a cruel situation. Whereas violence is usually morally reprehensible, self-defense is not. In fact, becoming a victim is the sole best move to entertain one’s violence without having to face consequences.[2]

There is, on the side of those who endure violence and pressure from (appeal to) practical constraints, a huge patience and willingness to endure hardship. Especially in work groups that face constant pressure (e.g. by shortage of staff), the practical constraint (that seems immovable) and the feeling of solidarity one shares with one’s co-workers will often prevent one from speaking out against the pressure, knowing that once one leaves such situations the co-workers will only suffer all the more. It’s this feeling of humanity, of being humane, that hinders one to let others suffer in a dire situation. (And every employer knows this and will act accordingly to cut wages.)[3]

Practical constraints are means to avoid responsibility in the face of knowing that one bears responsibility. Their pervasiveness as a means of rationalization and justification of what can only be called violence is astounding. In fact, it seems that the appeal to practical constraints is not only a cherished way accepted by society to exert violence, it is likewise an insidious way of making oneself embrace and cherish this violence – if only as necessary evil. That this necessary evil is an absolute evil, towards others as towards oneself, can only be ignored by declaring it either a response to something bigger, or as a sign of vitality and performance. Both let us lose sight of what is important: the humane aspect in human life.


[1] Cf. my “Information Culture” (2013), “Towards an Economy of the World-Ingrained Self” (2013), sec. 1 and 2, “The Karma of Places” (2010).
[2] Cf. my “Villains And Victims – Part 1” (2010).
[3] Cf. my “Food Banks” (2014).


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