Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, December 27, 2010

The secular angel: nostalgia or fidelity?

Adam Kotsko writes, concerning the angels of many secular narratives (he has in mind specifically Capra's It's a Wonderful Life):
in the modern world we can’t seriously conceive of God without arbitrary moralism or “mysterious” predestined plans — that is, we can’t conceive of a God who leaves “room” for persuasion, who needs or wants to persuade us. The throw-back element of angels is also a throw-back to a pre-modern, patristic concept of God.
This really puts its finger on something. It is quite striking that the merely or barely quasi-JudeoChristian stories like Wings of Desire, Angels in America, or Touched by an Angel have kept current an element of Biblical tradition that "mainline Christianity" has all but ignored. Yes, one can critique all this Hollywood angelology as newage superstition or nostalgia, and close readings of these narratives would doubtless reveal all sorts of ideology (e.g. the way bureaucracy is projected into Heaven in Touched by an Angel, a characteistic it shares with Dogma [the two renegade angels' attempt to get back into Heaven via a loophole in divine law] and indeed with It's a Wonderful Life [angel Clarence earning his wings with his "first assignment"]), but it is interesting that the arena often perceived by Christianity as its opponent may have been more faithful than Christianity itself in this respect.

Another critique I have heard often is that secularism is quite comfortable with angels, perhaps, but not so comfortable with Christ; glad to be entertained by stories delivering comforting assurances of someone watching over us, but to hear the call to repentance or to holiness. This is somewhat akin to the stereotypical protestant claim that the angels serve, like the communion of saints, in the lives of too many Christians to mediate and distance one from the radical intimacy of God with us. I am putting this last point rather baldly, in part because I don't find it very plausible--the idea that the pious Roman Catholic with a devotion to the Blessed Virgin ever mistakes her for the Creator of the World is countered by too much evidence to the contrary, in my experience, and this is all the more the case as regards angels. (There may, indeed, be something to the notion that the de-angelization of Christianity is a side-effect of the iconoclasm of the Reformation, but I would want to nuance this assessment quite a bit.)

What I find most compelling in Kotsko's observation, if I understand him, is that this readiness of pop culture to countenance angels is readable not as some pagan hangover, or a nostalgia for a demythologized bit of Christian trapping far from the essential core of the gospel; what we make of angels is an index of what we make of God. This is hardly a surprise if we recall that "gospel" translates eu-angelion. There seems a long way between the Ps.-Dionysus' Celestial Hierarchy and Touched by an Angel; but then again, the aforementioned bureaucracy of the latter bears a certain resemblance to the ranks and orders that the Areopagite details. What Kotsko suggests is that far from always implying God's grandeur and unreachability (the usual "protestant" complaint I mentioned above), angelology can also be a token of God's respect for the human prerogative. I'm reminded of Sura 2 (The Cow) in the Qur'an:
And behold, We said to the angels: "Bow down to Adam" and they bowed down; all save Iblis. (verse 34)
The messenger is not greater than the message; nor than the one addressed.

Friday, December 24, 2010

pealed the bells more loud and deep

Useless, and worse, wicked, to say "Peace, Peace," when there is no peace. With all my heart I believe this.

And with all my heart I believe the call has gone out from heaven's mouth: Peace on earth.

I did not always believe this and even now I do not find it easy to keep faith with it. Compared to so many, my life has been like a warm bath; and yet even I have learned enough of how the world can veer wildly and without warning into irreparable loss to know that there are griefs for which it is sacrilege to offer consolation. I tremble to think of it.

There are those I know and those I love for whom even the kindest-meant wishes of peace and expressions of faith in it (to say nothing of the cringe-making pseudo-cheer of cheap smiles and saccharine carols) are shallow at best and bitter mockery at worst. Some have been deeply hurt by what they know of Christianity; some have had their hearts broken by life. How little good to tell them, "But you are just the one for whom He came. He is near to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirits are crushed." One can only mourn with those who mourn-- mourn without understanding, what we may never understand. Ruin reigns over the world, our own failures haunt us, and everything we love is fragile before the stupidity, chance, and evil that threatens it.

And yet. And yet loss is loss precisely because life is good; only what is good can be marred. This is what makes me sure that those are wrong who say (and I have said it) that it might well be better not to be.

But more than this-- and I cannot justify it, I can only say it and ask pardon for its inevitable untimeliness: though every blessed thing we love vanish, and though each of us will one day no longer be, yet All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. This too I believe with all my heart, and if in anyone's pain they find it naive or irrelevant or insulting (and I can well imagine any of these), I can only ask; tell me if you can, if you have the patience, what hurt you, so I can try to put it next to this faith-- not to cancel either one out, not to presume to heal you, but only to ask how two such things can be in the world at once. We need not agree on the answer to this, but there could grow between us, at least, the beginnings of what we hope for.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Gary over at The Ontological Boy objects to my reference to the mythological matrix from which philosophy emerges. In comment to that post, Gary had connected my etymology for "argument" (from I.E. *arg, "to shine, be white, bright, clear") to the Thracian argilos, ("[white] mouse," tentatively), to which I replied:
Whenever animals move by, we are close to the mythological matrix out of which philosophy defines itself.
I've referred before to David Abram, whose remix of the phenomenological tradition is, with Harman's, the contemporary engagement with Husserl I find most fascinating. Abram's recent book Becoming Animal is just what I am talking about here. In the introduction to this work, Abram asks a crucial question:
Surely to speak, or to think in words, is necessarily to step back from the world's presence into a purely human sphere of reflection? Such, precisely, has been our civilized assumption. But what if meaningful speech is not an exclusively human possession? What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate expressive world--as a stuttering reply not just to others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?
Because Abram is asking about different ways we as human beings might engage the world, he is vulnerable to being thought interested exclusively in the encounter between the world and the human being--of still being in thrall to the "philosophy of access" Harman wants to critique. Too strong a reading along these lines would miss the point of what Abram intends. Abram is doing (I say) in epistemology what Harman is suggesting in ontology. This is not to say that I think their two projects are fundamentally "the same" or would not need some considerable work to harmonize them. But the question Abram asks--what if human language is a response to a language that pre-exists it?--does not presuppose that human beings are the primary objects of that address.

It's fair to ask: O.K., but what kind of "language" are we talking about, and can this be anything more than metaphorical? I'll just point you to Abram's book here, but I want to underscore that this is a re-framing of the so-called linguistic turn that moves the whole thing around 180 degrees. If instead of asking whether we can know anything outside of language, we ask whether language can transpire outside of our relations with the world, we re-cast the question: one might call it now a matter of universalizing epistemology.

This is perilously close, some will say, to the way Meillassoux's "strong correlationism," as he calls it, radicalizes the correlation between human being and world. But in fact both Meillassoux and Harman do some radicalizing of their own, driving correlationism even further. Meillassoux, following Badiou, wants to radicalize strong correlationism--this is why he makes the in-itself nothing but the mathematical, or rather the mathematizable (this is an ambiguity--either in Meillassoux or--more likely--in my reading of him). Harman on the other hand wants to radicalize weak correlationism, (i.e., Kantianism)--for him there is an in-itself, strictly unknowable--in a sense it is far deeper than the mathematical and strictly unknowable, but this does not prevent us from alluding to it. I won't bother to defend these two caricatures, which leave every subtlety out. My only point here is that to radicalize meaning, as Abram does in making human language just one mode of an infinite range of manners of address, is not to reduce it to the old chestnut of anthropomorphism.

Most [Continental] philosophers know how Heidegger drew on Jacob von Uexküll's work-- the latter's A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans has recently been translated--famously drawing out a number of theses in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics to the effect that "the stone is worldless; the animal is 'poor in world;' man is world-forming." Now leaving aside whether or no the tick has an umwelt that reduces to the scent of butyric acid, the hairiness of mammals, and the temperature of mammalian blood (~37 degrees celsius), it clearly won't do to play a one-up game of worlds here. One can multiply worlds ad infinitum; the question is not whether there is a world for a Cadillac or a chihuahua or a con-artist, but whether and how fully one can represent them, enter them, move through them. And it goes without saying that one of the most effective ways, I might even say the only real way (and it is certainly not a safe way), is to listen to the one whose world it is.

I think it does not need demonstration that animals are ubiquitous in myth. I take it that even in the late and literary records we possess (e.g. Ovid), myth preserves a recollection of our relationship (and often of our attempts to reject this relationship) with the animal world. Of course, this begs the question: what, exactly, was that relationship? And, assuming (for the sake of argument) that it was one thing, why should we care; why should we hope to recapture this in philosophy?

I don't claim that our relationships with animals was of any one flavor, ever; but I do think it was once considerably more complicated; as complicated as our relationships with each other. This is just the point; when animals are experienced as just our neighbors, beings who have a right to be here, we have a far different encounter with them than when they are either pets, or rare sights in a zoo (or on T.V.).

Of course, we may repeat all sorts of misconstruing gossip about our neighbors. To take the mouse: Homer calls Apollo Smintheus, mouse, and Strabo tells us that there were several shrines that addressed Apollo with this epithet. Speculation on the origin of this name runs that a god originally blamed for bringing a plague eventually merged with the healer of it. Herodotus has an account of a king of Egypt who had formerly been a priest of Ptah (presumably; Herodotus has "Hephaestus"). Having ascended from the ranks of the priests, he disdained the soldier classes, and thus found himself abandoned by them on the eve of being attacked by Sennacherib. Going into the temple that night, he dreamed that the god told him to take heart. The next day he took with him such an army as he had been able to muster from the people, and routed the enemy, because the Assyrians' bowstrings and shield-straps had been gnawed by a host of field-mice. A similar story is found in Strabo, where the "attack" of the mice is taken as the sign that a migration is to cease; and also in a Chinese legend.

The book of Judges recounts that the Phillistines, having stolen the Ark of the Covenant, were afflicted by mice and by boils, and had to fashion golden effigies of both to appease the God of Israel (as well as returning the Ark). The Vedic god Ganesh is shown riding on a mouse. In the Taoist and Buddhist parable of the man, the tigers, the vine and the strawberries, two mice--one black, one white--stand for day and night, nibbling away at the vine on which we hang suspended. St. Gertrude often has them running up her staff or her cloak (because, say the commentators, mice stood for the souls in Purgatory, for whose welfare she had a special concern); but I have also read this symbol interpreted as "a temptation of the devil." In France, pieces of paper smeared with butter used to (may still, for all I know) be put into rat- and mouse-holes, with writing on them saying "Rats male & female, you who have eaten the heart of St. Gertrude, I conjure you in her name to go to the plain of Rocroi." Hmm.

Now if you've followed my pied-piper flute this long, you know I must be leading somewhere. But where?

Just here. The mouse has a dozen mythical associations, and more. None of them are right, and the mythological mind would not have thought of them as either competing nor as being right or wrong.

These connections don't just dead-end in a mouse-hole. They lead hook-&-eye fashion on to cats and elephants, to Apollo and the charms of music, to Aesop's fables on the strength of the small; to the brevity of life and the penances of purgatory. And if we take another step back, to "the animal" in general, we back right into von Uexküll, Heidegger, and Agamben. The question of what it is like to be a flitter-mouse.

But there is a further step. The literary remnants we have of these myths are all very late fragments of a ritual worldview in which the community between world and human was simply a lived reality. We can get some sense of the difference by comparing Pindar or Pausanius to the stories of Australian or Amerindian myth. In our Greek heritage, animals tend to be helpers, or monsters, or incidentals--a golden ram carries away Phrixus & Helle; Pasiphae becomes enamoured of a white bull & conceives the minotaur. But the coyotes and ravens, the lizards and emus and spiders, of Africa or Australia or the Americas, are themselves the actors of their stories. They have not yet been forced off-stage to make way for the heroes of the bronze age.

This forcible eviction was really the beginning of the ascent of anthropomorphism, and the universalization of epistemology I referred to above can only be the first step in correcting for it; for epistemology itself only arises in the foundering of participation. To universalize epistemology is only to make ubiquitous the unanswerable skeptical conundrum which epistemology is. What really needs universalizing is ethics.

In his A Language Older Than Words, which despite all my many difficulties with it is still written the way I believe philosophy ought to be written (with urgency and beauty), Derrick Jensen quotes Jeannette Armstrong, poet, teacher and activist from the Okanagan tribes. As I re-read this post, I saw that Armstrong provides a blunt response to the question I asked--"what kind of language are we talking about here, and can this be anything more than metaphorical?" and she does so in expressly philosophical terms. For now I am going to let her have the last word on the dispute between Gary and me:
Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor. It's not a metaphor. It's how the world is.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Embarrassing grace

At An und für sich, a beautiful way of posing at least a part of the riddle of evil. Adam Kotsko writes, citing part of his analysis in Awkwardness, that
awkwardness spreads. If you witness an awkward situation, even one you’re not directly involved in, you feel awkward as well.
Spurred on by Brad Johnson, he then puts this together with the notion of divine compassion, imagining that
...the Supreme Being who watches over all of us is constantly paralyzed by the force of human awkwardness. It’s bad enough to watch one guy get shot down hitting on a woman — how about millions, every hour of every day? What if you spent all eternity watching jokes fall flat, watching grown children unable to let go of childhood sleights while visiting their parents for the holidays, watching people panic as they realize that their transaction is over-complicated and hundreds of people behind them in line are seething with hatred?
In that case, the answer to the problem of evil is that God can’t do anything, as he’s locked into a permanent cringe.
I love the way Kotsko sees the way awkwardness spreads--though he does not identify awkwardness with sin, one could make a case for at least seeing it as a kind of karma. I also like very much his articulation of God as always-already-commiserating with us in our awkwardness. If I quarrel here, it is because I've been spurred by the account. Kotsko gives away too much when he projects our human cringe into the Trinity (and it bears mentioning that feeling ill-at-ease is far from the only human emotion that is "contagious" like this; in fact most emotions have some capacity to spread, not least positive ones; this is part of the force of Girard's account of social mimesis.) For surely (and I'm being theological here, so philosophers must just be patient) the resurrection bespeaks that--despite everything "the powers of this world" would wish or accomplish--awkwardness does not (or at least need not) paralyze us. I would even call Satan the force that would convince us that the wince is paralyzing--that we can do nothing but wince. Whereas I want to articulate a picture of a God whose love for creation endures even this pitiful spectacle that Kotsko paints, and always, always remains steadfast and "able to save."

The force of Kotsko's theodicy (in this post), like all theodicy, is that, after all, evil still exists and still requires to be, per impossible, "made sense of" somehow. And it's not a bad trick to account for this via God's empathy. It's been tried before: witness Nietzsche ("God died of His pity for Man".) The liability of my reply is of course that it doesn't account for the fact that the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer.

But neither does the New Testament "account" for this. Theodicy, in the old sense of the classical trilemma (God is omnipotent; God is omnibenevolent; Evil exists) is a problem for philosophy but is remote from the resignation of Ecclesiastes, the theophany if Job, the petitions of the psalmist, the cry from the cross. (Even the declaration in the garden tomb, He is not here, does not offer such an account, as it renders such an account moot-- but this is to say too much.)

The death of crucifixion was not meant just to kill, but to humiliate, publicly. The profession of the Gospel is not just that "God died for your sins," but that God underwent the worst the universe could dish out: not just death, not just a violent and painful death, but a shaming and objectifying ordeal that rendered Him a thing to be ritually abhorred, got out of the way as soon as possible. But my point does not hinge upon a particular understanding of crucifixion. I share Kotsko's emphasis upon the notion of God sharing our humanity, as the prayer says; I just want to spin this in a direction that does not wind up giving away one leg of the trilemma--i.e., converting God's compassion into God's incapacity. I'd rather keep the trilemma.

What is unfathomable is that we are not reduced to nothing but our awkwardness. Despite the worst that awkwardness, shame, and humiliation can deal, we are not caught in the paralysis of an eternal cringe.

A life beyond the triggers and mechanisms of defensiveness? In this world it is all but inconceivable. One can sometimes glimpse it in the lives of saints. But the Gospels seem to make it clear that Jesus himself did not make people more comfortable.

What's the opposite of awkwardness? Grace. But grace doesn't deny awkwardness (which is merely more awkward)-- it acknowledges it, "validates" it (if I may have recourse to an overused word of pop-psych), transmutes it. There is no room for defensiveness, for looking away, for shuffling one's feet, for the deflecting change-of-subject that our pride seizes upon with relief. There is only the dignity of humility.

Monday, December 13, 2010


This happened to me a few years ago. It was October, the afternoon of the only day I had to spend in my hometown before flying home. The three days previous had been spent in a fairly intense group psychology workshop in Alexandria, Virginia (coincidentally the town I was born in), which I’d entered without knowing anybody and which I’d left feeling quite invested in the well-being of new friends. The night before I had spent stranded in the Denver airport with a canceled flight, barely sleeping on the hard floor. I’d arrived cold and very weary that morning; the day had been spent in a series of brief and happy but quite poignant encounters with family and friends.

I was going to meet J. in a little bookstore, at the new art gallery which is in the building which once housed the city library. I was late and so wondered if I had missed her, but she had mentioned wanting to see the exhibit; so I went in to look. I recalled she had said it was something about political refugees, but I did not recall anything specific (remember, I was coming off of about an hour of fitful sleep, which had followed three days of very intense psychological work in a different time-zone, and I had already done quite a bit of hurrying that day, trying to fit in a number of friends in the one day I had in town). As I entered the exhibit (thru the exit) I saw that each piece hanging on the wall was a beautiful silver-print photograph, black & white, maybe 2'x1', and almost always of a human subject. Some were up close, some were distant; some were in groups and some were single. All ages, all races, male and female; sometimes just looking into the camera, sometimes caught at some off-guard moment. What they had in common, as became clear when now I read the words on the walls, was that they were all displaced people1, relocated or fleeing from political persecution or war or some other total disruption of their life. All of them had been made to flee from what they had known and were uncertain about what would happen to them.

As I walked in, I was not really looking at the photographs. I was looking for J., and I only registered the photographs as objects. They were in fact quite beautiful, but I barely noticed even that, at first. I thought about the strange question of aestheticizing suffering; about the making of beautiful images to call attention to human sorrow, and whether, and how, this worked. But the artistry of the photographs themselves was undeniable, and they certainly “drew me in;” the best photographs are a magic synthesis of chance circumstance, brought under deft and light organization—a quality they share with the human face itself: fragile, but ordered in a mysterious proportion. The exhibit was organized in a somewhat labyrinthine way; photographs seemed roughly grouped according to time and place (the exhibit covers six years of fairly recent history), but the walls of the rooms, while fairly open, were also not quite orderly; it was possible to not know quite where you were. This may be fine if you are leisurely looking at pictures on a wall, but it makes it hard when you are looking for someone; there is always the possibility that your friend has circled ’round behind you. Of course one does not call out in a quiet art gallery just to see if someone is there. So I kept walking, looking from room to room; but I was also slowing down, noticing the photographs more and more. I remember one of a woman doing washing: the arc of the clothes she is beating dry unfurling behind and above her spraying water in a baroque curl. There was another of an old man with glasses sitting alone, filling most of the frame, his arms around his legs, what seems a look of being utterly at a loss on his face. There was another of a little boy in a field, a long row of train cars off behind him. There was one of a camp in Africa, huge hillsides facing each other, covered in tents. Face after face after face was looking out at me or looking past me—in fact they were all doing both. And suddenly saturation point was reached; I too was doing both. I was looking at them, but I was looking past them too. And yet I was also looking for a face.

I am not sure I can explain what happened next. It was as if the glass slid off of the photographs and the whole room, the whole maze, Escherized. I do not know whether I began to spin, but a feeling of vertigo came over me. I was no longer looking at surfaces; I had fallen, been lifted, into a space where questions were not made of words but were living energies moving through me. All the different planes of the question—art, aesthetics, life, my life, my life in Seattle, my life in Salt Lake, my life in Alexandria a day and two and three days earlier—all folded or unfolded in a kind of terrifyingly huge origami. There was nothing intellectual about it; it was as though all these issues had become wild animals bounding towards me with jaws open, howling from all directions. All my senses were simultaneously opening up and shutting down. I knew with an indisputable sense of recognition that I was in the middle of a poem—this is the word that happened to me (I can only put it that way) right then. It was not that I was taking notes for a poem but that I knew I was in the electric center of where poems happen. A poem by a friend2 flashed through my brain—he's at an aquarium with his toddler son and something happens—
…—I blink
—no—violently start forward, find the tank

right up against my nose, almost, the wild pant
of my own breath fogging the glass. The distant

sound is my own voice, anyone’s voice, chatter-
ing at my son…
but in my case there was no one to speak to, and no voice, only a rush and roar in my ears. Again I was passing through the membrane that is the question about art and life. All those faces, people I do not know, but could know. The face I wanted to see but was not there. The stories of their lives—the lives they thought would happen that were interrupted, the lives that were happening now, after the shutter had clicked; those relocations further in the past (all the black and white photographs of the 20th century were starting to fly through my mind in a windstorm); and those too recent to be shown here--people whose lives were uprooted by tidal wave, hurricane, war, famine, earthquake. Somewhere, microscopic in all the whirlwind, like a ragged serif on a footnote, a little picture of me huddled on the floor or the Denver airport with my own laundry spread over me for a blanket. But it was not me I was feeling; it was the whirlwind.

I don’t know how long this happened; I feel sure it cannot have been even a full minute, or I would have fallen to the floor; but time was telescoping out. My heart was pounding and my breath quick and shallow; and though I “knew” I was standing in a photography exhibit in the city I had grown up in, that knowledge was fast becoming as irrelevant to me as the knowledge I’d once “known” year before when, wading in a mountain lake, I’d stepped off an underwater ledge and found myself, non-swimmer, out of my depth in freezing water. Suddenly there were arms around me, my friend pulling me to shore, and I “knew” not to panic, not to struggle, I remembered stories of drowners drowning their rescuers... I was supposed to go limp and let myself be carried, right? But that knowledge was inaudible, itself drowned out by the blare of horns and terror that was filling my mind. Fortunately my friend was a better swimmer than I was a struggler. So too now, dizziness, growing panic, and a welling-up cry of inconsolable sorrow was drowning out the trivial detail that I was in a public room with a set of social expectations. Had I opened my mouth in that crowd of faces, I am not sure what would have come out.

I was staggering toward the door like a drunken man, when, suddenly, I was saved by the ringing of my cell phone. I answered, oblivious to protocol. I knew immediately, without looking, that it was J., but what I said was, “is it you?” By the time I made it outside to speak with her, my composure had melted like jello. The moment I tried to vocalize what was happening, I choked and could not speak. For where I was, there was only one language, and it had only one inarticulate word.

J's voice hauled me to shore; and I eventually was able, shakily, to drive. But I knew I had not “finished”; when I made it to my friend S.'s house about ten minutes later, I both wanted and did not want to try to say anything. It was precisely the same feeling as when one knows one has an unpleasant physical process to go through that will make you feel better afterwards--like needing to vomit, (or more picturesquely, to re-locate a shoulder, a friend suggested later). I trusted S. implicitly and knew I could tell her about it; but I was also unsure whether “it would still be there.” It was still there. Even now I can feel moments of clenching of heart or a faint echo of a too-big space in my mind as I recall it (if there is a poem here, it will not be “recollected in tranquility.”) I cried-- I shook-- I sobbed-- for what I think was twenty minutes. What was I weeping about? Even now I don’t think I can say “why.” The terrible sorrow, the huge scale, the fear (trauma) from disorientation, my own personal losses, the fragility of our stories—these were all ingredients, no doubt, in what I was feeling; but I find it very resistant to summary. Only one thing I said in the immediate aftermath—sitting on S.'s couch, her hand on my back, my face drenched with tears, in a moment where my trembling had quieted down enough to let me speak—keeps recurring to me when I think over that hour. I don't claim it to be profound; it may even be trite. But it does not go away. What I remember saying to S. is: “the biggest thing in the world is a human face.”3 Later that day I saw friends who I had been with just before I’d gone to the exhibit. I looked at them differently. Everyone I saw, in fact—I looked into their faces for a long time.

1 The exhibition was Sabastiao Salgado’s collection called "Exodus"

2 “Transparent, ” from Shells by Craig Arnold. Craig later disappeared while climbing the volcano Kuchinoerabu-jima in the Ryukyu islands off the Japanese coast. This essay is dedicated to him.

3 Would I stand by this qualifier, “human,” today? The question is appropriate and in some sense inevitable, and I am tempted to answer it negatively; but I could only alter the text of my recollection at the risk of falsifying it. Whatever the impossible contours of the whirlwind, the place it touched down for me was in the realm of the human. It does not seem to end there.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

How to argue, why & why not

Indelimitability and incommensurability, the two aspects of experience which I tried to spell out here, have a great deal to do with the “style,” or lack thereof, of these Open Letters. Discursiveness and density are the twins born to wonder and the desire to articulate. Superficially resembling indiscipline, discursiveness is a faithful and dogged following of one’s nose—or better yet, following the Tao (philosophy may be the fine art of distinguishing one’s nose from the Tao), over whatever borders may lie along the way. Neither thinking nor experience comes in chunks. The subjects most apparently at odds can be brought into intimate contact with a flick of a sentence. This is a function of an ontological wholeness, not just of discursive ingenuity. This is at least as significant, I hold, as any particular “point” we may address about the construction of Christian liturgy, the plausibility of a given reading of Kant or Plato, the resonance of an Indian myth with musical tuning or astronomical observations, or even about the attainability of shifts in consciousness or the political and ecological future of the planet. Laden with import as any of these specific arguments may (or may not) be, none is especially significant except in the context of the wonder that is the beginning of philosophy. Indeed, I would say that “discursive ingenuity” is a sort of “picture” of the ontological ingenuity of being.

Whatever the issue at hand, there is a deeper, more fundamental concern underneath, to which the more topical matters are merely tributary. This is why I asserted that the relationship between interlocutors is more philosophically crucial than any doctrine. As we meander between ostensibly separate topics, there is almost always more than one thing going on; far from being a mere symptom of a short attention span, philosophy aims to cultivate an ability to navigate among discourses. In fact, I do think that there is something to be said for grand, sweeping, “it-all-comes-down-to-X” theses. But these are not as easy to get to as one might think. Assumptions are hard to see, because often they are what we see by. Discovering them is usually the work of much reflection, of conscious, careful attention not to what we think we think, but at what we actually say and do.

This doing is not what happens when we set out to watch ourselves, but what happens when we are simply in conversation—and particularly, in argument. Argue: from the Old French, arguere “to make clear, to demonstrate,” linguists derive it from a proto-Indo-European base *arg- “to shine, be white, bright, clear”—a form that can still be seen in Latin argentum and French and Spanish argent, silver, and indeed the Old French for quicksilver or mercury. The root is also seen in the Greek Argo, the ship which carried the heroes questing for the shining Golden Fleece, and in the Sanskrit name of the hero Arjuna, the archer.

Philosophy arises in argument, either with oneself or someone else; but it is much easier—and more uncomfortable—to catch oneself at what one does when arguing with others. This means, however, slowing down, and watching carefully: a kind of continual weaving back-and-forth between saying what comes into one’s head, or being absolutely stumped, and (on the other hand) noticing what one has just said, or not said—noticing how one said it, noticing one’s feelings and motives all along the way.

It is easy to think that philosophy is a matter of assertions about the meaning of life, about space and time, about perception and reality, about freedom and unfreedom, the best political regime, the nature of the beautiful. This conception of philosophy is certainly preferable to the analyses-of-grammar one gets on one side of the Analytic/Continental aisle, or to the endless and trivial non-explication du texte on the other. At least in beginning courses on philosophy, one is offered the chance to think about large questions. But we are not philosophers until we allow the questions to shape who we are. We must be confronted by the questions, grasped by them, made to feel that our lives depend upon them.

“Philosophy,” notes Aquinas, “does not consist in asking what men have said, but in asking after the truth of the matter.” (In I lib. de Coelo, lect. xxii; II Sent., D. xiv, a. 2, ad 1um). But the truth of the matter is never an abstract assertion, because the question of (e.g.) freedom or nature or goodness does not offer us anywhere to stand outside of it to ask after it. If we are free or unfree, our freedom or lack thereof is already at play in the asking. If it is good to know what goodness is, this asking is part of its own object. Whether we are part of nature or stand across from it, this too conditions our inquiry from the beginning. It takes time to ask about time, we must be somewhere to ask about space, and in any asking whatsoever, the question of the nature of language arises for us. Philosophy is an exercise in conscious human life, is meant to foster our awakening. The ancient philosophers were quite explicit in their conception of philosophy as a spiritual discipline; one cannot read any of them of whatever school—whether Parmenides or Heraclitus, Plato or Aristotle, Epictetus or Lucretius, Plotinus or Marcus Aurelius—without the sense that they are speaking of experiences and not merely “doctrines.” Plato expressly says this in the Seventh Letter, for instance. Parmenides relates a vision of a goddess. Socrates goes to his death in genuine tranquility—not mouthing the word tranquility nor expounding the concept thereof, but having cultivated the state of mind. Aristotle speaks of generosity, bravery, equanimity; Lucretius of being delivered from fear.

And the most compelling way for this to happen is to be met by someone whose answers are not ours. It takes some time to get to these “answers” because they are usually operative assumptions and do not lie on the surface in our own or in the other’s thought. One can often see them (or think one sees them) in the other person first. After a while of being baffled by how they can be so wrong (or better, so right and yet so wrong), one eventually diagnoses the “problem,” the one big thing from which all their other errors stem. (E.g., “Dawkins’ fundamental error is that he cannot grasp that God is not an entity.”) And this is not just a diagnostic for individuals; it gets applied to social and cultural ills all the time. (Think Marx, think Freud; think radical Islamism, or Radical Orthodoxy.) But as we cast about, it is easy to see that there are many competing notions today—as there were for the ancients—concerning the One Big Thing that’s fundamentally wrong. Some see it as atheism; some as belief in God at all; some as belief in the wrong sort of God; some as that we think of time as linear, or that we believe values are relative, or that we believe values are absolute. Some think we should just get the hell out of science’s way; some that a few Timothy Treadwells and Julia Butterfly Hills and Theodore Kaczynskis are all that is keeping science from running our planet into the sun. We place too much faith in the free market; we place too much faith in the state. We waste all our time on video games; we don't play video games nearly enough. We are sexually repressed; we are sexually promiscuous. We are all brainwashed to think that existence is better than extinction; we have all already decided extinction is better, but we don’t know it yet.

What I am interested in is how to navigate (not arbitrate) these (and less-radical) disagreements, without demonizing each other, and without minimizing the non-negotiable gravity of the matter. Not, please note, how to show how "both are right," but to show how it is possible to account for really living according to these conclusions, and then to see what happens when one experiences the world as the context for all of them.

The method is first to seek the basic faultline—for instance, the “metaphors” that shape our thinking, as Lakoff & Johnson, among others, have suggested. This involves a good deal of skirting about over different subjects, in pursuit of the unifying theme. Next is frank and risky confrontation—genuine argument, but conscious argument. This is a vision of philosophy as a sort of irenic agonism. Genuine conflict is, as Empedocles saw, of the essence of thinking (for him it was even the essence of existence)—the contention between rival assertions. Such conflict offers a chance for the experience of freedom to leap up, like a flame from friction; but the friction sometimes has to get quite high first. One might compare work on koans. (It is often not appreciated that in the Zen tradition there is a right answer to a koan.) Or again, consider the crushing dilemma Paul names in Romans, “the good I would do, I do not, and the evil I would not, that I do,” a dilemma which alone allows the sudden inversion of law and grace that highlights for Paul the true freedom of the Christian. Sartre said that the most free he ever felt was when, during the Resistance, he might have been arrested and shot at almost any time; Koestler broke though and had one of the best-described experiences of transcendence more or less on the eve of his scheduled execution. I believe that the opportunity argument presents us as philosophers is to raise the pressure—to free us from our conflict-avoidant fear of fighting—which can offer a chance for seeing things whole, in a way that simply glossing over differences does not (for nothing is gained by muddy thinking and denial).

If this seems a strange claim--that a debate, raised to a sufficient pitch, can spark a mystical experience, or something like it--I can only rejoin that while I do not believe anyone was ever argued into (say) a religious conversion, philosophy that is not oriented towards the fundamental questions of who I am, what God is, what the world is, and these at a far deeper than theoretical level, simply does not interest me. But if "mystical experience" seems too high-pitched, try something like "concpetual breakthrough" or "paradigm shift," or (more riskily) "falling in love."

At the same time, it matters how one argues; the most important thing is not the content of the assertions but the process of the confrontation. “What kind of disagreement, my friend, causes hatred and anger?” asks Socrates of Euthyphro. Philosophy does not merely cultivate conflict, but seeks to channel it. It is, in this respect, the careful use of the irascible element in the human soul. (“I have never met a poet worth a damn that was not irascible,” said Ezra Pound, who surely ought to have known.)

To fall into the passions of hatred and anger is to fall into unfreedom; to be able to be in the midst of the contest without being controlled by it is the aim. This poise is extremely hard to attain except for brief moments, at least for a beginner like me. The drive to be right is all too easy to fall into, and avoiding it is not the child’s-play one might think; and most pernicious are those ploys which seem to allow eating the cake of being right and having the cake of arch indifference—the “going meta” that Morton sees as a refrain in Harman’s work. Because one is certain of one point, it is very easy to think one is certain of a related but separable point. This makes all the more seductive the impulse to defend “the truth of the matter”—not my feeling of being right, I tell myself, but the truth!!—with methods whose disingenuousness is so slight as to be almost unperceivable to myself. I dismiss some point I disagree with as a “long-discredited error,” especially if there is an excuse for me to claim a sizable majority of opinion on my side; or I slip into a rhetorical flourish with a sense of satisfaction that I am honoring the truth, not betraying it, though the rhetoric has nothing to do with the point. All the better if my allies and I can share a laugh at the opponents’ expense.

Socrates might say that these dangers, of forgetting the real point of argument, are the most pressing; but it would be facile to ignore others, namely, that one’s opponents might be riled into even more debilitating behavior than these. If “defending the truth” (as one sees it) with a misleading oversimplification is unfortunate, somewhat more so is such defense by harnessing legal or state or military apparatus. An “argument” by a cutting word is bad; one with a weapon is worse. Socrates went to the hemlock because his opponents were less level-headed and even-handed than he in their choice of argumentative strategy.

Philosophy is dangerous, then, in part simply because it is a kind of conflict. It can easily turn upon one; it can degenerate into scapegoating. The various moves that Straussian exegesis unfolds are employed, Strauss claims, as shields against such backfiring. As I mentioned, I have a different take on these moves; while I believe Strauss was correct both in diagnosing these “esoteric” strategies, and in the functions he claimed for them, I tend to see them more as intended to indicate to the insightful reader that the overt content of the philosophical argument is not always its most important aspect. Above all, they serve to show the philosopher that there is always another way—sometimes another way no one has thought of yet—a new way both to think the matter at hand, and to connect it with matters hitherto unsuspected. These trapdoors are like escape routes into different discourses, and though the philosopher cannot avail himself of them bodily in the courtroom or jail cell, they are a way of consolation even there. Of course, to the enemies of philosophy, they will be hard to distinguish from merely changing the subject. But this only indicates that the real subject has not been understood.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"An awkward and diligent poet"

There is nothing to say in honor of Liu Xiaobo that would not run the risk of being cloying. What can one add to international accolades for a scholar, poet and activist, and helpless (or at least, helpless-feeling) indignation at the thugs bureaucrats who keep him in a concrete box?

But I would like to cite some words by his wife, the poet Liu Xia, also under house arrest in China. This, from the statement she sent when Liu Xiaobo was awarded (again, in abstentia) the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, is equally appropriate for the Nobel Prize for Peace:
I have not come to view Xiaobo as a political figure. In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet. Even in prison, he has continued to write his poems. When the warden took away his paper and pen, he simply pulled his verse out of thin air. Over the past twenty years, Xiaobo and I have accumulated hundreds of such poems, which were born of the conversations between our souls.... I understand, however, that this award is not meant to encourage Liu Xiaobo the poet, but rather to encourage Liu Xiaobo the political commentator and initiator of Charter 08. I would like to remind everyone of the close connection between these two identities.
A couple of posts ago, I wrote: the fundamental issue is deeper than economic or ecological meltdown, whether or not these come. The deep question, as regards human choices, is not what will happen?, but who will you be when it happens? Liu Xia's tribute to her husband is all about his answer. The Nobel committee can add nothing to the dignity of that response, and the government jailkeeper can taken nothing away.

One Letter Is Enough
by Liu Xiaobo, tr. Jeffrey Yang

for Xia

one letter is enough
for me to transcend and face
you to speak

as the wind blows past
the night
uses its own blood
to write a secret verse
that reminds me each
word is the last word

the ice in your body
melts into a myth of fire
in the eyes of the executioner
fury turns to stone

two sets of iron rails
unexpectedly overlap
moths flap toward lamp
light, an eternal sign
that traces your shadow

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Facebook & Wikileaks to merge in new deal

OK, No, not really. But you gotta admit there's a certain symmetry.

As I read the back-&-forth on Wikileaks, there are two things that stand out. One is the utter inevitability of the whole stupid issue. Can anyone not have seen this coming, like, years ago? As Julian Assange said: the real scandal here is how it took so long. "How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined?," Assange said toThe Sydney Morning Herald. This is certainly an indictment of investigative journalism, but the possibility that the leaks are serving some darker purpose in the halls of government is not really reassuring. Either way, things look bad. If our governments are really as nonplussed as they are trying to seem, we are in serious trouble. Contrariwise, if they are putting this much energy into merely looking nonplussed, we are also in serious trouble. Ergo...

The other thing that strikes me is the weird ressentiment that informs so many free-speech defenders of Julian Assange. I count myself among these, but I do not relate to the indignant finally-a-dose-of-their-own-medicine tone I read in so many comment threads. "They know all of our secrets, now we know theirs," is the lowest-common-denominator version of this. Yes, there is some championing of the principle of open information. But beneath this is an almost palpable seething, the rage of the alienated. It's a bewildered fury that's just become self-aware, that hardly knew it existed a few days ago--the dawning realization that They knew all about us, and we knew almost nothing.

This reminds one of nothing so much as the protest, now died down but never satisfactorily answered, over Facebook's privacy policies, such as they are. Assange's weird twin is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, as described by David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. Zuckerberg
sees the world as moving very rapidly toward transparency and very rapid sharing of data between individuals in all sorts of ways, on and off Facebook,
Kirkpatrick remarked to N.P.R. last June.
And from the day he first created his system, he had this ethos of sharing that he strongly believed in.
This ethos leaves little room for showing different faces to different circles. As Kirkpatrick reads him, Zuckerberg disagrees strongly with the notion that people might have one identity at work and one at home, one personality when with old friends and one online interacting with God-knows-who. Such presentation or self-editing is not, for Zuckerberg, flexibility or prudence; it's merely dissimulation; and the belief that one is someone different in different circumstances is just wrong. Says Kirkpatrick,
He [Zuckerberg] believes that he will live a better life personally, and all of us will be more honest, and ultimately it will be better for the world if we dispense with that belief.
Of course, Zuckerberg has plenty of things he wants to keep to himself or he'd have a live web-cam following him around all the time. This does not keep Facebook from shamelessly going after anything it can glean about you, whether you put it on Facebook or not. In the words of their own policy:
We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile.
(The most recent version of the policy amends this to drop the reference to "other sources...", and if this makes you feel better, I envy you.)

To listen to Zuckerberg, it's really all about "openness:" "For me and my colleagues," he explained when asked why he'd turned down offers to sell the company,
the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people. Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me.
There is something manifest-destinyish about this for Zuckerman: "The thing I really care about is the mission, making the world open," he says.

Just how this mission jibes with the libertarian vision of Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal whose investment catapulted Facebook into its current ascendancy and who sits on its board of directors, is a little unclear; but it seems a safe bet that the philosophy of openness and transparency take a back seat to considerations of the bottom line. Despite some people tracing Thiel's weird hyper-libertarianism to René Girard's account of mimetic desire (Thiel did study under Girard at Stanford), Thiel is far more a right-wing Straussian than a Girardian, and far more one of Nietzsche's "exceptions" than a philosopher. Girard, whose anthropological account of the origins of violence argues that human desire is imitative, so that once something is desired, more and more people naturally and inevitably come to desire it, until violence breaks out, does describe the stock market as the "quintessential mimetic phenomenon," but this hardly seems sufficient to establish a close isomorphism between Thiel's hedge-fund and derivatives trading and Girard's readings of Dostoevsky, Stendahl, and Freud, or his account of the Christian gospel as the undoing of the violent logic of the sacred.

(Incidentally, Girard's way of distinguishing between Christianity and any number of other accounts of dying-&-rising gods, his critique of the comparative mythology reduction of the Gospel, is also behind a great deal of Žižek's reading of Christianity. To explore this would take us too far afield ["too late," I hear you muttering], but it's worth noting how Girard can inspire such right- and left-wing interpretations as Thiel's and Žižek's.)

Now lest the point be lost, I started this out as a rumination on Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and I am going to try to bring the comparison/contrast into focus.

Shortly before turning himself in to Scotland Yard to face possible extradition to Sweden (to face charges that almost certainly amount to less than meet the eye), Assange gave a Q-&-A session for The Guardian. A single question stood out, for Assange's apparent refusal to give a straightforward answer. It came (ostensibly) from a former diplomat who had
helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation.
All of this would have been impossible, the questioner claimed, had it not been for
the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states.
And so to the accusation:
Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources....In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy.(My emphasis.)
Alas, when the actual question finally got asked, it was no longer about diplomacy; it has turned personal: Why, the diplomat wanted to know, shouldn't Assange be held personally responsible next time a crisis arises and can't be solved through ordinary diplomatic means, now that Wikileaks has pulled the rug out from under it all? I understand (I think) why Assange declined to answer this, but I would have liked to hear his thoughts on the broader theoretical (or as Assange called it, "editorial") context of the question.

I am not concerned with whether the pubic has a "right" to know how some undersecretary sneered about a banana republic finance minister's table manners. I don't want to scoff at the seriousness of the impact Wikileaks could have on such endeavors as trying to avert humanitarian disasters. I take it for granted that this does change how diplomacy will be conducted, but I reject the notion that it makes it impossible. For the record, I believe Wikileaks is (if it's not some state department's front) a great moment in the history of openness of information, and one that was in any event bound to happen; if diplomats like the questioner are caught unawares by this eventuality, it speaks badly for diplomats. This does not excuse mere mischief-making, but this is not Assange's game. He may, just possibly, be a narcissist or a sex offender, but that would not change my attitude towards Wikileaks per se; so, after all, are any number of politicians.

I don't know what Mark Zuckerberg believes about human identity, but implicit in the denial that there is any appropriateness to being one person at work and one at home is the notion that presentation (1) is everything, and therefore (2) ought to be univocal. The vision of Facebook is: what if everyone knew everything about each other?

The vision of Wikileaks is: what if States could no longer lie to each other?
Would they then still need to lie to their citizens?

These questions are about incommensurable realities. This is because persons are not univocal entities, whereas the State is. We are in a bizarre nightmare world if states can lay claim to the need for dissimulation (or, let us put it charitably, equivocation or selective presentation), whereas human beings are compelled to offer up their last quirk and foible as fodder for advertisers.

But this points out that it is not even state considerations anymore that drives the storing-up of such caches of information; it is the market. It could be worthwhile for the state to have such a cache, for the eventuality that any given person becomes "a problem;" but the market has a voracious interest in each person, "problem" or no, not of course qua person, but qua consumer. Strictly speaking, the state could leave the person alone; but the market cannot. Every shred of "personal identity" will be turned into fodder to grow the long tail. And come to think of it, this foregrounds the obvious interest an Über-capitalist like Thiel would have in such a mine of information. And perhaps why Facebook gets so angry when you try to opt out.

What this highlights is simply the decisive difference between the state and the person. A "right to privacy" is a value not because there are certain nonnegotiable, essential facts about us that must remain under lock and key but because logistical circumstances currently entail that certain (more or less arbitrary) facts about us are used to essentialize us. That is, the more we allow ourselves to be construed as consumers, the more we are reduced to lists of appetites, habits, opinions, complex cocktails of loyalties and likelihoods, all of which can be used to predict--and engineer--our responses. A right to privacy should protect us from such reduction. A state has no such rights. Nor has a corporation. (Legally, of course, both can be defined as having them; that is a different matter). The debate about the propriety of Wikileaks' revelations all reduce to considerations about their impact upon persons.

Put otherwise: the state is a mimetic entity, exactly in Girard's sense. It is mimesis itself, one could say. But persons, despite their being prone to mimesis (after all, the state is a function of persons and not vice-versa), can exceed their mimetic proclivities.

Wikileaks is interesting precisely to the degree that it impacts the possibility of "diplomacy" (read: politics in general) as a whole. Failing that, it is merely another variation in current events, another distraction, another trend to follow (imitating "what everyone else is doing"); another click for Facebook to track with its cookies.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Greatest Hits, so called.

This month SpecCritTrad will be a year old. I'm very gratified by the encounters I have had thanks to this blog.

In honor of the occasion I added the little gizmo "popular posts" to the sidebar, which (at least temporarily) has cut off the first character or two from each title listed. (Still trying to figure how to fix that.) However, a word of clarification is called for.

As I anticipated, the most-seen post here is the one I wrote in response to all the foofarah in reaction to John Milbank's alleged crypto-colonialism. I am fairly certain, however, that no matter how many times this post has been "viewed," it cannot be the most read. Its position at the top of the list is due entirely to the fact that it annoyed Adam Kotsko, who forthwith issued me my badge in the niceness police, and linked to it, sending the considerable readership of An Und Für Sich in my direction. This artificially inflated its figures by couple of orders of magnitude. (Of course I assume that plenty of AUFS readers did read my post, but there are way more of them than there were hits that lasted for long enough to take in more than the first paragraph; and the number of hits that lasted zero seconds is disproportionately high.)

My own estimation of the "most popular posts," based mostly on the number of comments, diverges somewhat from the blogger algorithm. I'd list, in chronological order:

Theology Between Speech & Song

Outflanking Parmenides

Mythos &/or Logos


Waking while sleeping, relating while withdrawing

This last, as well as the related Logos, face, sunyata, made it via the algorithm thanks, I am sure, to the links from Tim Morton and Jeffrey Bell, but I am also sure that a large proportion of the folks who followed these links actually spent some time reading the posts.

Three runners-up in terms of comment conversation:

Thoughts on [at least] Two Truths & a Lie

Open questions

Cultivation & realization

There will be some other observances for the one-year anniversary as the month progresses. For now, please remember that comments are welcome on the old posts as well as the new.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hope against hope

There's hope and there's hope.

Following a link from How to Save the World, I found Derrick Jensen's broadside against hope. This is a few years old but somehow I missed it back then. I've been reading Jensen since 2000--A Language Older Than Words was one of my books in the aftermath of 9/11-- and always with a conflicted mixture of admiration and deep reticence; part of me wants to thump the table and say yes!, and head for the door with the dynamite; and part of me says, Wait a second. I am not going to weigh these responses against each other in this post; Jensen's work is the subject for a whole other essay. He's the best-spoken representative of primitivism I know, and if I don't always agree with him, it's primarily because I wonder what he's doing not blowing up dams, given what he believes. But all I want to do here is distill the gist of his take on hope. It opens with a sentiment that is bound to be one of your recurring thoughts if you read Jensen much:
The most common words I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We’re fucked.
Jensen could be fairly described as going out of his way to make sure that if you read a single one of his essays, you get this message. It is certainly one he has taken to heart, and he thinks you should too:
Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.... [I]t isn’t only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself.... The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in [Pandora's] box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.... hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless. I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it.... When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.... [W]hen you give up on hope...you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you...In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems.... When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore.... And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.
Listening the other day to Chris Hedges discuss The Death of the Liberal Class, I heard him mention the upcoming protest at which he and several others plan to cuff themselves to the White House fence. This, Hedges tells us, is what he thinks hope will look like "from now on." He lists a lot of things that hope is not, and sounds for all the world like Jensen saying what hope is:
Hope is not trusting in the ultimate goodness of Barack Obama, who, like Herod of old, sold out his people. It is not having a positive attitude or pretending that happy thoughts and false optimism will make the world better. Hope is not about chanting packaged campaign slogans or trusting in the better nature of the Democratic Party. Hope does not mean that our protests will suddenly awaken the dead consciences, the atrophied souls, of the plutocrats running Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil or the government.
Then Hedges gets down to business, his rhetoric (which I admire even as I shy from it) flying high:
Hope knows that unless we physically defy government control we are complicit in the violence of the state. All who resist keep hope alive. All who succumb to fear, despair and apathy become enemies of hope. They become, in their passivity, agents of injustice. If the enemies of hope are finally victorious, the poison of violence will become not only the language of power but the language of opposition. And those who resist with nonviolence are in times like these the thin line of defense between a civil society and its disintegration.
Hedges begins to sound a bit like St. Paul on Love:
Hope has a cost. Hope is not comfortable or easy. Hope requires personal risk. Hope does not come with the right attitude. Hope is not about peace of mind. Hope is an action. Hope is doing something. The more futile, the more useless, the more irrelevant and incomprehensible an act of rebellion is, the vaster and the more potent hope becomes. Hope never makes sense. Hope is weak, unorganized and absurd. Hope, which is always nonviolent, exposes in its powerlessness the lies, fraud and coercion employed by the state. Hope does not believe in force. Hope knows that an injustice visited on our neighbor is an injustice visited on us all. Hope posits that people are drawn to the good by the good. This is the secret of hope’s power and it is why it can never finally be defeated.... Any act of rebellion, any physical defiance of those who make war, of those who perpetuate corporate greed and are responsible for state crimes, anything that seeks to draw the good to the good, nourishes our souls and holds out the possibility that we can touch and transform the souls of others. Hope affirms that which we must affirm. And every act that imparts hope is a victory in itself.
Rhetoric aside, I'll go on record here and acknowledge that I'm more than 3/4 persuaded that Jensen and the other environmentalists he cites are right: it is a matter of time before the planet is a plastic-piled slag heap, and no amount of course-correction is going to avert it. And all my instincts veer towards believing Hedges as well; aside from a tremendous popular uprising such as I cannot realistically imagine, the world is headed straight for the depths of Kunstler's Long Emergency. If I don't jump on this apocalyptic bandwagon wholeheartedly, it's partly because I desperately want to be wrong about this (as my self-description runs, I am a teacher & fellow-student among school children, which means I have a professional commitment to a degree of believing in a livable future); partly because I don't completely trust my reactions on this (call this alienation or prudence as you wish).

Most of all, though, I don't join the chorus of doomsayers because I think that the fundamental issue is deeper than economic or ecological meltdown, whether or not these come. The deep question, as regards human choices, is not what will happen?, but who will you be when it happens? Hope is inextricably bound up in this. It is not by chance that Kant's three fundamental questions were "What can I know?", "What ought I to do?", and "What may I hope?". As to this last: are Hedges and Jensen's differences a matter of semantics? I don't think so. Jensen's jeremiad seems to me fundamentally (albeit negatively) theologically informed; he's taking aim at any orientation towards anything other than the committed human agent, and precisely to this degree it is implicated in the pattern it denounces. Jensen is closer to the truth when he affirms the goodness of life despite all the reasons to give up; and when he names love as his motive, I can't help but be moved by him; but his language has run away from him when he divorces love from hope.

Kierkegaard knew better: Love hopes all things, and yet is never put to shame. Hope is oriented not to any particular outcome in this world, but to a further context that will obtain no matter what occurs in this world--and yet, this world is where we stand oriented (or not) towards that context.

Hedges, in affirming hope in terms so close to Jensen's denial of it, is more conscious of its orientation, as one might expect from one who claims not to believe in atheists. Hope is fundamentally entwined with love and with faith, its fellow virtues, and in its eschatologically orientation is bound to look, as Hedges notes, absurd to the rulers of this world. Jensen, too, sees it as absurd, and he is quite consistent in giving it up, but he does not thereby exit absurdity; it's his glory that like Camus' Sisyphus he struggles on up the hill anyway. Whether he knows it or not, he is following the word of Christ to St. Silouan the Athonite: "Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not."

Monday, November 29, 2010

"...and each name gave birth to a new thought."

The pleasures that come from a medium used to its fullest, to the point where its very limitations become assets, are among the keenest I know. I've been struck speechless by watercolor still-lifes (lemons and oranges and cups of tea on a tablecloth), the precision of representation brought almost flush with the impossibility of representation. James Burke's Connections and The Day the Universe Changed are instances of exactly the sort of thing at which television can excel, and think they are still unsurpassed 20 years and more later.

This episode (transcripthere, but I recommend listening if you can) from NPR's Radiolab, is radio at its best. So much of radio is made up of language; here is a program devoted to the question of what language is and how it shapes us. (Of course, even more of radio is music, but I've written somewhat about that elsewhere and will again.)

To say there's been a bit of a backlash against "the linguistic turn" in some of the philosophical circles I frequent is something of an understatement. A great deal of that critique is well-taken. I got just as tired as anyone of too much emphasis on how something was said, as if this meant that one somehow couldn't get to what it was being said about. But I regard the current revival of realism as, in important ways, a new way of talking, and I am with Plato and Marx and Russell in thinking that metaphysics must go hand in hand with being clear about how we think.

There's an electrifying moment early in this piece in which Susan Schaller recounts the breakthrough moment she tells in her book A Man Without Words: her student, "Ildefonso," a man deaf from birth realizes for the first time what he's seeing when he sees people signing all around him. Until this moment he had not understood that "everything has a name." This is very close, as reviewers have of course remarked, to the famous moment Helen Keller recounts in her Story of My Life:
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.(My emphasis.)
This story of language-as-nomenclature is the one that Wittgenstein has in his sights in the Philosophical Investigations. He begins with this citation of St. Augustine:
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
This story, it will be noted, is extremely close to Schaller's example of Ildefonso, and Keller's of herself. Wittgenstein is quite right that it won't do to extrapolate an entire metaphysics out of this experience--as if a language was nothing but a complete inventory of the universe and the relationships of which the items on such a list are capable; such is, at root, the aspiration of the logical atomism which he had realized he had to abandon. But, as Wittgenstein would have said, just because it is a mistake does not make it a stupid mistake. The list of nouns we encounter in children's alphabet books, apple ball cat, really corresponds not just to an intuitive idea of language but to our first conscious encounter with it. Wittgenstein is right to say that use is, as it were, a broader concept than meaning (if we are thinking of lexical meaning at any rate), for in fact we begin to internalize use before we consciously seize upon meaning. But mightn't the reason "meaning" is so compelling a notion, and why "use" is, for all its liberating effects (a liberation which at least two generations of philosophers felt as a breath of fresh air), an extremely difficult conception to think through, be in part because to reach it we have to go back, so to speak, to before we learned "what language is?"

There's one further moment in this episode, out of so many, that I want to highlight. It is Jill Bolte Taylor's account of the "joy" that she felt after the stroke which knocked out her left brain, including all language function, for a long while. After this, during her recovery, she says, she lacked
that little voice that you know you wake up in the morning and the first thing your brain says it Oh man the sun is shining. Well imagining you don't hear that little voice that says man the sun is shining you just experience the sun and the shining.
... It was all of the present moment.
She had no thoughts, Taylor says.
I just had joy. I had, I had this magnificent experience of I’m this collection of these beautiful cells. I am organic. I’m this, this organic entity.
....I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.
This condition she attributes largely to the incapacity she had for language; at least, we might say, it clearly correlates with this incapacity:
... Language is an ongoing information processing it's that constant reminder. I am, this is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual, I'm a single, I am a solid, I'm separate from you. This is my name...
I did not have that portion of my language center that tells a story: curious little Jill, me, Jill Bolte Taylor climbing the Harvard ladder, through language, loves dissection, cutting up things, that language was gone. I got to essentially become an infant again.
When Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich heard this, Krulwich remarked,
When you drop out of the “I”-ness of yourself or the story of yourself then you're left, she says at peace, I could argue that that's just stranded, that's stranded in the sunshine, in the wind, in the now.
And this is indeed the rub. Here is where every reductive account of religious experience bottoms out, and rightly. Are all our accounts of mystical union, of transcendental bliss, beyond-words joy, simply a function of having no words at all? Is the ineffable just a matter of lacking the capacity to "eff"?

One thing is sure; animals who lack words can experience agony as well as joy, and one does not need words to scream. Wordlessness per se then is no sufficient condition for bliss. To make such a reduction is to fall prey to the pre/trans fallacy; the resemblance between the unio mystica and Freud's "oceanic feeling" is not enough to establish an equivalence.

Since I mentioned Wittgenstein's abandoning aspects of his early logical atomism, I ought to emphasize that the continuity between the Investigations and the Tractatus is much stronger than often remarked. In both there is an emphasis upon practice, upon the point at which our account of things comes up short and must fall silent. This is the basis for Wittgenstein's semi-Schopenhauerian idealism, an aspect of his thought Russell never fully appreciated. This "mystical" element in Wittgenstein (early and late) did not protect him from despair, but sometimes gave him, he said, a "feeling of being absolutely safe," that nothing could touch him,not even death. A psychologistic reduction of logic would have been meaningless to Wittgenstein, and so too a reduction of such transcendental sense, because both of these are such that they cannot be made the object of scrutiny; one cannot stand outside them. He did not dispute that they had no "objective" sense; but this was because they came, as it were before sense.

This is of course where the anti-correlationism camp goes nuts, and this is the site of my own dicey heresy. Certainly, as Brassier or Meillassoux would contend, "beyond language" need not mean "beyond thought." Of course it is not true that "everything has a name," and if thinking and being are the same, this lies beyond what can be said; but the testimony of ancient philosophy is that it does not lie beyond experience.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

St. Catherine & the wheel

Those who have read my speculative and meandering reconstructions of (aspects of) the mythical substrate of philosophy (a lot of this is e.g. in my paper on Herodotus, but some of the grammar of it is also in my paper on Badiou and Platonism and especially its appendix), know that I believe (to a far greater extent than I can prove) that ancient philosophy intentionally transmuted the symbols and experience of earlier cultural strata, especially mythology. In the cultural upheaval that occurred at the end of the Bronze Age (my guess is that much of it had to do with the effects of the technology of writing), participation began to dry up; what Charles Taylor has called the "pourous self" was on its way to mutating into the "buffered self" of today. If I have any semi-original case to make, it is that this development went neither unnoticed nor unopposed. Philosophy takes its place in the context of a minority cultural movement which aimed to keep available the experience of participation (albeit not the expressions of it) even by means of the very cultural forms--in particular, rational thinking--under which it was withering.

I think a good deal of this was preserved, either knowingly or (often) unconsciously, in later religious tradition as well, always doubtless sliding into superstition (or, put more mildly, at least into poetry); and that this is one way (not the only way) in which we ought to understand the "survival of paganism." It is not simply a case of the convenient appropriation of the trappings of one cult for the purposes of another, since there is always a radical transmutation. One instance of this, to my mind, is the cult of St. Catharine of Alexandria, patron of wheelwrights, of the dying, and of philosophy.

Catherine, whose feast is Nov. 25, was once one of the most venerated saints in the Church. In a wave of demythologization she was demoted to an optional observance by the Roman Catholics, but most strong critics of her legend admit that her historicity itself was not meant to be questioned. She is still revered by the Orthodox.

Her legend says (I am collating from several sources) that she was the daughter of a pagan king of Cyprus, wise and devoted to study and learning. Urged after her father's death by her mother and the nobility to marry, she preferred to remain single, and persuaded an assembly of aristocrats of the wisdom of this course, or at least of her own stubborn determination. (She argues for instance that, as they all admit her to be wise, and that there is no guarantee that a man will be wiser, the better course for them is to agree to be ruled by her.)

This was not long before Catherine traveled to Alexandria, to continue her study of philosophy. While there, an encounter with a hermit (sent by the Virgin Mary) converted her to Christianity. One day, sometime afterwards, Catherine saw the Roman Emperor Maxentius (or in some versions Maximian) making a sacrifice; and seeing the Christians there preparing to be put to death for refusing to join in, she went to upbraid the Emperor persecuting them, and for his idolatry. Since he was left stammering by her, he detained her in the palace and summoned as many scholars and thinkers as he could get to debate her. One by one they all fell to her argument, and either stormed away angry or converted, and were martyred. Thrown into prison, Catherine converted her fellow inmates, her guards, even the Empress who came to remonstrate to her, and the accompanying general along with his retinue of 200 soldiers. During this time Catherine experienced visions assuring her that her martyrdom was coming and that her sanctity would be accomplished thereby. One mystical encounter which figured frequently in later art was the "mystical marriage" in which the Virgin appeared and drew her hand near to Christ, who placed on her finger a ring. (This episode sometimes narratively comes before her first approach to the emperor, as a Christian sequel to Catharine's demonstration--while she is still pagan--to the host of assembled noblemen, of the superiority of remaining unmarried.)

Finally, after refusing Maxentius' offer to marry her and cause her to be herself worshipped as a goddess, she was condemned to be broken on the wheel. This by now rather medieval-sounding process seems to have had more than one form over the centuries, all of them horrible. One elaborate account of Catherine's story describes it as a diabolical device of four wheels turning against each other, equipped with knives and saw-teeth; but it was probably a wheel on which the victim was bound (either on the rim or against the side) and turned in order that their limbs be broken by the successive impact of weapons put in its way. In any case, the moment Catherine touched the wheel it broke asunder, killing its inventor, the story goes (The Golden Legend adds that its flying pieces killed "4,000 pagans"), and so she was beheaded instead. Her body, saith the hagiography, bled sweet milk instead of blood, and was borne by angels to Mt. Sinai where a monastery, still & continuously operative, was founded. Maxentius, of course, went on to be defeated by Constantine.

Catherine's connection to the wheel made her the patron of wheelwrights as well as of philosophers. Her circular iconography is also connected to the episode in her legend according to which she was mystically betrothed and wed to Christ. To this day, pilgrims to the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai are given a ring that had been laid on her relics. The abbey at Rouen (which name is plausibly connected to wheels, though this is a matter of speculative controversy) kept the relic of Catherine's finger(s) through the later middle ages.

This circular iconography makes her story replete with suggestive hints for someone disposed to look for continuity rather than rupture between the later Christian cultural forms and their predecessors. In the papers I reference above, I argue that cosmic models of the universe (the wheeling stars--the day, the year, the precession of the equinoxes), of music (the cycle of the octave) and of the soul's journey (the wheel of rebirth), are all interwoven into a vast symbol of wholeness that is not quite perfect. The cycles have built into them a structural flaw, but this flaw itself makes possible a use of the models more edifying than if the model had been perfect--to wit, the experience of it as model--at which point, the model "breaks." This suggests that Catherine's explicit association with philosophy is not by chance. She is supposed to be the emblem of the passage from the "closed world" cosmology of cosmic cycles to the "open universe" (to appropriate a title of Alexandre Koyré's) made accessible by faith, which is participation, but not participation as it was. (This makes it a necessary part of my project to contend, along the way, against reductive mis-definitions of faith.)

Catherine has been seen as an appropriation of the historical account of the death of the philosopher Hypatia at the hands of angry Christians, an inversion of the story of Ixion who Zeus ordered bound on a fiery wheel, and a recasting of details from the myth of the goddess Arianrhod, "silver wheel". My supposition is that there is a degree of truth in these correlations, but they do not explain the hagiography. In some future posts I hope to expand a little on some of these parallels and on Catherine's legacy (e.g. in the later episodes of Ss. Catherine of Sienna and Joan of Arc), possibly at the risk of analogy-mongering, in order to spell out a little more some of the structure of my thesis that the "survival of paganism" under Christianity is not a matter of undigested fossils being carried along, nor of the mere return of the repressed, but of genuine modulation of a heritage into a new key.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Metaphysics of thanksgiving

By way of preface, I want to say that among the many many things for which I am grateful is all the dialogue I have had on this blog. This post, which is only a sketch of some meta-considerations and not an (impossible) enumeration of everything that elicits my personal gratitude, is but an indirect expression of that thanks; but I feel it keenly.

A very good friend of mine, whose pertinent comments on liturgy and the implausibility of Biblical literalism have appeared on this blog before, used to be heavily involved with inter-religious dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. John's got one degree in Old Testament studies and one in Buddhism. It was while he was working on this latter, at Naropa, organizing conferences at which various monastics and teachers from both traditions would that a Japanese Zen master made the following remark, which has stuck with me every since John recounted it. A propos the well-known but easily overblown difference between the Buddhism and Christianity on Theism, he said: "When I first heard the Dharma, I realized that I was very grateful. I don't know who to."

In the last of these three videos I saw at Perverse Egalitarianism, Daniel Dennett remarks to the effect that, when one feels fortunate to be alive, to be able to think, learn, experience, one naturally wants to express that thanks. But for someone like him, who believes in no God, who is to be thanked? No one... "just my lucky stars."

Ernst Tugendhat, the philosopher who long before it was cool to try to breach the gap between Analytic and Continental philosophy was reading his teacher Heidegger back-to-back with P.F. Strawson and John Searle, offers in this lateessay a meditation that starts and ends with this same question: Who to thank? Now of course Dennett does not really mean he thinks his lucky stars have intentionally given him good fortune, but he still feels the urge to offer thanks somehow. For Tugendhat, Dennett's "lucky stars" are nonsensical objects of gratitude:
it seems evident to me that you can only thank a being whom it makes sense to ask something of. And it makes no sense to ask something of a non-personal being. So it seems absurd to pray to a non-personal instance, or to thank that instance. Consequently it is senseless to thank for things for which you cannot thank a natural person.
But this does not mean that the urge to give thanks goes away, as Dennett acknowledges and Tugendhat concurs:
In terms of cultural history, one may say that there are certain things, for example one's own existence or that of a loved one, for which people have always, or at least overwhelmingly, felt the need to thank a supernatural personal being. What happens to this need, and to one's attitude to these things, when you can no longer thank for them? A specific form of transcendence seems to be lost, flattened.
It could easily be argued that this urge to offer thanks is just a misfiring of some mental module, which tries mistakenly to apply social habits to a context in which they don't apply. Tugendhat more or less concludes, somewhat mournfully, that it's a perfectly natural mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. He asks speculatively whether a sort of mysticism that eschewed propositional belief in the supernatural might suffice for the people to retain this "essential aspect of their lives," or at least compensate adequately for its loss.

It is interesting to compare Tugendhat's meditation (and I hope someday soon his later philosophy will be available in English) with John Schellenberg's trilogy on the philosophy of religion. Schellenberg's first book is (as per its title) prolegomena, laying down principles and definitions; most significantly, he distinguishes very carefully between faith and belief. His second volume has been mined by many opponents of religion for its subtle and careful arguments against any belief in God, afterlife, or extra-mundane justification of morality. His third book has been more or less left severly alone by the same crowd, who realized, if they read it at all, that he means to adhere to the definitions very carefully Schellenberg defines "Ultimism" as a sort of bare minimum outline of any religion worth the name, and its chief characteristics are two: that there is a reality both "ultimate" (a sort of Anselmian metaphysical absoluteness) and "salvific" (vital to human beings' being fully alive). Belief in Ultimism is, in the second volume, shown (he takes it) to be unwarranted; the third volume is devoted to not just a defense but a positive commendation of faith (albeit a "skeptical faith") in ultimism. This sort of quasi-religious agnosticism entails eschewing any dogmatic denial or affirmation of positive ultimist propositions, but has plenty of room for "voluntary assent to a proposition, undertaken in circumstances where one views the state of affairs it reports as good and desirable but in which one lacks belief of the proposition" (my emphasis). Just how this differs from a kind of chastened wishful thinking, or again from the theological virtue of hope, is a matter that will be disputed. One can thus, Schellenberg claims, rationally represent to oneself that the world is such that ultimism is true, knowing that one wills this and is not compelled by evidence. One may also rationally, he says, act "on propositional religious faith," "in pursuit of a religious way." May one coherently, on these terms, participate in a spiritual community, engage in theology, watch for revelation? In some sense the answer is certainly "yes," albeit in a persistently as-if key.

Schellenberg's philosophy of religion does seem close to Tugendhat in some ways, especially in the latter's resolute refusal to deceive himself--
For me it would be much easier, instead of cultivating a neutral Daoist or Stoic attitude, to turn to God and say: "Thy will be done!" Yet I must expressly forbid myself from saying this because of course I know that God is only a construct of my need, and that if I let myself be determined by this need, I would end up lying to myself. No other option remains open to me than to withdraw to the impersonal, purely mystical standpoint. But this standpoint turns out to be inadequate in terms of my need for a positive attitude to my frustrations.
--though I think Tugendhat overstates the case for skepticism and slips into active denial when he argues that our need to believe is evidence that the belief in question is false--an argument which would seem bizarre if it was re-framed in terms of, say, our need to eat. Specifically as regards thankfulness, as an expression that might satisfy Tugendhat & Schellenberg, and maybe (in his poetical mood) Dennett, I offer in conclusion this by Mark Strand, who if not a Zen master is at least a fine poet:
Visions of the end may secretly seduce
our thoughts like water sinking
into water, air drifting into air;
clouds may form, when least expected,
darkening the glass of self,
canceling resemblances to what we are.
Even here, while summer sunlight
falling through the golden
folds of afternoon
brightens up the air, we mark
our progress by how much
we leave behind. And yet,
this vanishing is burnished
by a slow, melodious light,
as if our passage here
were beautiful because
no turning back is possible.
It is our knowledge of the end
that speaks for us, that has us weave,
as slowly as we can, an elegy
to all our walks. It is our way
of bending to the world's will
and giving thanks.