“I say I’m a pacifist because I’m a violent son of a bitch. I’m a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I’ve got. And I hate the language of pacifism because it’s too passive. But by avowing it, I create expectations in others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what I know is true but that I have no confidence in my own ability to live it at all. That’s part of what nonviolence is–the attempt to make our lives vulnerable to others in a way that we need one another. To be against war–which is clearly violent–is a good place to start. But you never know where the violence is in your own life. To say you’re nonviolent is not some position of self-righteousness–you kill and I don’t. It’s rather to make your life available to others in a way that they can help you discover ways you’re implicated in violence that you hadn’t even noticed.” Stanley Hauerwas
“Attending to the language of my fellow human beings, I believe that many of them would never use the word “creator” but feel themselves very much included in the word “creation.” That something lies before us, a cosmos outside ourselves, makes us strangers to the world that is produced and administered and at home in the other, the created world. The more we destroy nature, the more we long for it.” –Dorothy Soelle.
For a long time I had willingly confused the two. It was a defense mechanism to confuse the two. I had considered in much of my childhood the biblical necessity of humility, meekness and poverty of spirit to be other phrases to describe shyness!
I’ve often wondered where the shyness has come to begin with. For many of my early years I certainly wasn’t. I would be rough and tumble with the best of them. But sometime in 3rd or 4th grade (of St. Boniface School, I might add) I developed another layer of interiority that was some form of fear and resentment on one hand, and imaginative foundation-building on the other.
These two seemed to go hand in hand. And thus, I saw my sense of being “nice” as a fair virtue. I wanted the world to be fair, too. The everyday cruelties that involve, well, just being a child–much less an introverted one–were overwhelming, and I had trouble engaging with them for many years. This only exacerbated itself in high school, earnest in Catholic prep school, fully ensconced in genre-land with science fiction and fantasy, and woefully lacking in the social skills needed to navigate the tauntings and lonliness that tended to form my almost-daily existence in those years.
Still, I thought that my “niceness” was a virtue, if not a form of power. I was nothing if not stubborn. That must have been the form of “meekness” talked about in Christianity!
Well, no, on two counts. The first count was that it was only a mask for deep, abiding (and honest, in its way) anger. It wasn’t very productive anger–since I was still paralyzed socially to do much to improve my conditions. It seemed impossible–but more than that, it wasn’t something on a base level that I WANTED to do. The abyss was too terrifying.
However, there was also something very passive aggressive about this “meekness.” I had used it as a way to hold back from others. It was a very convenient way to live for most of life, as it didn’t require me to ‘get my hands dirty’ with engaging with other people in (sometimes) uncomfortable ways. This was the flaw: I had used this sense of introversion as a source of pride. There was a desire for the abyss. (Zizek says here: “One would expect that fantasies are defenses against traumas. We have a traumatic experience, we cannot endure it so we build up a protective fantasy web of fictions. I claim that we invent, as a protective web, trauma itself.”) I had put myself above others, that the very fact that I had difficulty talking to others or making eye contact was a sign of specialness. A sign of my “niceness.” It was precocity, of course, but more than that. It was a sense of judgment, and anger born out of despair. That it was others’ fault for my own shyness.
This continued for many years. Beyond childhood. Beyond adolescence. In many ways it’s only in the last few years that I’m really beginning to untangle these threads. And also learning to forgive myself as well for living with this, and through this.
The promise that “the meek shall inherit the earth” appears in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:5). At times as a teenager I earnestly put stock in this, that there would be a reversal of fortune, somehow, within the confines of high school (with strangely did start happening in my senior year). Needless to say the vagrancies of a highly structured adolescence–indeed, the entire idea of introversion–wasn’t exactly on the minds of anyone in the midst of Second Temple Judaism. But, as was most often the case, Jesus was drawing on much earlier traditions. He was tugging on a much older thread; specifically in this case, Psalm 37. Here’s the first 11 verses (NRSV):
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret–it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
The idea of meekness arrives full bore with the idea of abiding in the face of great evil and injustice. Our culture does put a huge emphasis on using aggression to correct perceived slights. This exhibits itself as a violence of spirit that I myself have fallen into–a shortness with people (if anything, an overcorrection of me perceiving myself to be “nice.”)
And the push and pull gets more complex. Certainly it does with writing. So much of one’s writing identity does not come from meekness (though it may come from an introversion that’s allowed to inverse itself online, into a vortex of bluster). False humility is the last refuge of the braggart, believe me, I’ve been there in moments of weakness and frailty. St. Diadochos (5th century) defined humility as “attentive forgetfulness of what one has accomplished.” Such an act is literally impossible in the sphere of cybernetics and information management.
But meekness isn’t weakness. And it’s not introversion. The “inheritance” is one of justice. It’s interesting that so much of the verses quoted above talk about meekness as an antidote for anger, not brashness per se. I feel that dejection in the fabric of the world, in the pockets of fascism rising up, in the equivocations of democratically elected leaders who seem incapable of steering the ship of state, in the ecological disasters that seem to be the next generation’s lot. The meekness I am beginning to uncover and open up inside of myself–as a project if nothing else–is that (1) gentleness towards others goes a long way, (2) my writing can only embody the grammar that is necessary for me, (3) introversion is one layer of who I am, but not the only layer, and any attempt to move beyond it is a good one, even if it fails, (4) there is fierce peace in patience.
My computer has been in the shop for, like, about a month because of a virus. I haven’t really had a backup computer suitable for blogging. UNTIL NOW.
OK, so it’s time to blog about the sorcery of social media.
This essay by Jim Grote adroitly puts together a case for Simone Weil‘s theory of “social force” as one that is extremely relevant in our highly networked times. Indeed her theories tie in astonishingly well (considering they were written before and during World War II) to how our social media works–in a manner that is almost purely reputation based. And reputation creates prestige:
Prestige “rests principally upon that marvelous indifference that the strong feel toward the weak, an indifference so contagious that it infects the very people who are the objects of it.”
In manners of trivial angst, you can see how this works with Twitter “followers”: the desire for more, and the efforts to acquire more. People aren’t necessarily “followed” for what is being written but rather for the unit of reputation that that content creator represents.
Thus, according to Weil, the consolidation of power in these forms of media (or mediated forms) only increases reputation as the main unit of currency in our society. It’s a “post-modernization” of prestige (post-modern not in the lit-crit sense, but in a sense of work-machines and systems, e.g., from ticker tape to the computer). And this prestige imbalance (provided one buys into the system) creates power disparity:
We read, but also we are read by other. Interferences in these readings. Forcing someone to read himself as we read him (slavery). Forcing others to read us as we read ourselves (conquest). A mechanical process. More often than not a dialogue between deaf people …. Every being cries out to be read differently.
Social force is bound to be accompanied by lies. That is why all that is highest in human life, every effort of thought, every effort of love, has a corrosive action on the established order …. The social order, though necessary, is essentially evil, whatever it may be.
This isn’t to say that Twitter is some inherently diabolical force in our culture, but rather it is indicative of how the forces in our culture operate. There is no purity in this; it’s hard to break out of seeing “beyond” social media when it is an aether that surrounds us. I get excited when someone even vaguely semi-famous follows me on Twitter. Why is that? The craving for attention, for recognition is all-pervasive. A total repudiation of this would be unthinkable for many people, especially in Generation Y and younger. The New York Times had an interesting article of late about the possible rewiring of the brain that takes place because of the prevalence of gadgetry and communication tools at our (by “our”, meaning a certain segment of the developed world-certainly cell phone usage is not a developed-world phenomenon; I would contend however that the onslaught overload of the continually new is) disposal.
He goes to sleep with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and when he wakes, he goes online. He and Mrs. Campbell, 39, head to the tidy kitchen in their four-bedroom hillside rental in Orinda, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, where she makes breakfast and watches a TV news feed in the corner of the computer screen while he uses the rest of the monitor to check his e-mail.
When he studied, “a little voice would be saying, ‘Look up’ at the computer, and I’d look up,” Connor said. “Normally, I’d say I want to only read for a few minutes, but I’d search every corner of Reddit and then check Facebook.”
It’s that ‘little voice’ which interests me, bringing about complicity into the network. And, believe me, I know this pull. I struggle with it every day not only in my writing but in my everyday life. It was inculcated at a very early age (probably 8 or 9, when I got my first Texas Instruments computer?). Back to Simone Weil:
What, then, is the antidote? Weil puts forward an “out” that is neither capitalist nor Marxist. It involves attention, but real attention:
As Weil’s special vocation was to seek and find the forgotten, she considered the essence of both friendship, and social justice to be the act of “creative attention.” Her favorite parable was the Good Samaritan. The charity portrayed there she regarded as sacramental in character:
‘Christ taught us that the supernatural love of our neighbor is the exchange of compassion and gratitude which happens in a flash between two beings, one possessing and the other deprived of human personality. One of the two is only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him. Those who pass by this thing scarcely notice it, and a few minutes afterwards do not even know that they saw it. Only one stops and turns his attention towards it …. The attention is creative. But at the moment when it is engaged it is a renunciation. This is true, at least, if it is pure. The man accepts to be diminished by concentrating on an expenditure of energy, which will not extend his own power but will only give existence to a being other than himself, who will exist independently of him …. Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist… He who has absolutely no belongings of any kind around which social consideration crystallizes does not exist. ‘
Both love and justice perceive what is invisible to the world of social ideologies, that is, the individual sufferer. True attention literally creates personality in the sufferer. Far from leading to political quietism, Weil’s philosophy of “creative attention” leads to authentic political action.
What’s interesting about this from a standpoint of poetics or aesthetics, particularly narrative-prose aesthetics, is that fiction is also a process of “breathing life” into a stranger. The writer creates both the stranger and ground he or she stands upon–and then the stranger becomes “known.” In this, writing creates… “a ‘personal’ existence for that individual.” In the real world, in compassion, in giving life to relationship, we are in essence making that person exist for us. (How much of the day is spent amongst simulacra?) This is what is meant by the “depth” of a character–it is pointing toward the character’s character, the innate yet rather ineffable quality that comes about when a character comes alive in a book. And this, perhaps, is why the written arts are so crucial, and why I do worry that the shallowness of attention in our current culture is making the need for fiction obsolete.
Not because of length of prose, or even difficulty of reading (although that certainly plays a part) but because people would rather not get closer to each other. Even if it’s an imaginary other.
One final note, about social media and the sorcerous (I did promise that at the beginning of the post, didn’t I??). For Weil, the “Beast” of social media accretes power to the powerful by deception. Media manipulation by powerful conglomerates and spokespeople and celebrities. One of the most profound books I read in the last 12 months was Eros and Magic in the Rennaisance by Ioan P. Culianu, which involves:
how magic in the Renaissance was “a scientifically plausible attempt to manipulate individuals and groups based on a knowledge of motivations, particularly erotic motivations. In addition, the magician relied on a profound knowledge of the art of memory to manipulate the imagination of his subjects. In these respects, Culiano suggests, magic is the precursor of the modern psychological and sociological sciences, and the magician is the distant ancestor of the of the psychoanalyst and the advertising and publicity agent.”
I think the interplay between Weil and Culiano here is extremely apparent. I’ll try to touch on Eros and Magic, and Giordano Bruno, in a future post.
Late note: I have to add this excerpt from a review by John Crowley of a book about Culiano’s mysterious murder (well, it’s a long story). But this is the important part:
Culianu distinguishes between two types of polity: the magician state — such as the United States or Italy, where he lived when he came to the West — and the police state. The police state becomes a jailer state, “changing itself into a prison where all hope is lost,” repressing both liberty and the illusion of liberty in order to defend an out-of-date culture in which no one believes. It is bound to perish. The magician state, on the other hand, can degenerate into a sorcerer state, providing only the illusion of satisfaction, keeping the controls hidden; its faults are too much subtlety and too much flexibility. “Yet the future belongs to it anyway,” Culianu says. “Coercion and the use of force will have to yield to the subtle processes of magic, science of the past, of the present, and of the future.”
That sounds like the “Social Beast” to me.
From the Economist’s obituary of Alice Lakwena:
“But it was not Alice Auma who was sitting by the Nile. She was possessed by a spirit called Lakwena…Lakwena also offered, in August 1986, to conduct the war for them. And when the rebel commanders ignored him, he and Alice formed their own army. The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) numbered at their peak around 10,000 souls, not a few of them abducted children; and for a brief spell they were the most successful of all the groups fighting the NRA, which was now the Ugandan government.
“Lakwena expressed these war-rules through Alice twice a day…He made her repeat the 20 Holy Spirit Safety Precautions: no walking-sticks on the battlefield, no hiding behind anthills, no smoking, and each man to have ‘two testicles, neither more nor less’. Round Alice stood three charcoal stoves on which little wire replicas of enemy weapons were heated until they glowed and then waved above the soldiers’ heads to immunise them.”
This is not a joke. This is not fiction. This is from “Waves of Glory! A Report and Photos on the Kids on Fire Summer School of Ministry“:
Our anticipation level of what would happen that night on a scale of one to ten was about a fifteen! We were not disappointed as the moving of the Spirit at prayer time the second evening was even more intense than the first. Gold dust began appearing on the hands of the kids for the second night, which was an amazing sign and wonder to all of us, but especially the kids. “It was sweet! (meaning “cool”) one boy testified with a grin.
One little girl went down under the power of God and was pinned to the floor by the Holy Spirit and could not get up for over an hour. The presence of God was so thick in the room one could almost reach out and touch it.
But the toll of such extreme responses to Him physically again literally exhausted everyone. No one complained when we required an hour and a half rest period the next day. I fully understood then why God can only visit His people in limited amounts, because to be in the fullness of His glory would be too much for the human body to endure.
I have really mixed feelings about what this article about membership libraries implies. As usual, the New York Times skates over the larger implications, and has its usual class-based steganography:
Manhattan has three membership libraries: the Mercantile, the New York Society Library and the Library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. All of them are a world apart from public libraries, with their buzzing crowds and constant foot traffic. In contrast, the reading rooms at the membership libraries have the velvety quiet that Lord Peter Wimsey may once have encountered at the Bellona Club.
Damn those hoi-polloi! The fact that, say, the awesome new Mpls. library isn’t open on Sundays–when people with jobs can actually, you know, use the library–is a result of political decisions made by a conservative state government. Which, also, isn’t too crazy about public parks. How are these membership libraries, then, not mere gated communities for the learn-ed? Is the best way to fight the new Gilded Age to replicate the Athenaeum, and abdicate the public sphere? (Which isn’t to say that there are multiple layers where people abdicate and embrace the public sphere simulataneously, with multiple projects.)
In related news (and it is related, at least in how our society will be shaped in the upcoming years), “Faith Nights” are becoming more popular at sporting events. (The NYTimes has an article about it, but it’s under the Times Select aegis–man, talk about an abdication.) At an Arena League football game in Birmingham, players had bible verses sewn onto their jerseys. Major league professional teams such as the Atlanta Braves are going to ramp up Faith Nights for their own purposes–it’s easy money, to tap into the superchurches’ rolodexes and bring them out for a good old wholesome night of Jesus and baseball. The temptation is for abdication, either one’s country or one’s library. (When will they be having “Faith Days” at your local library? Don’t laugh.) But this is precisely the time to till that public space even harder, so that the entirety of literature doesn’t end up under the purview of specialists, or at best, enthusiasts with money, who can pay for “velvety quiet.” (via Gwenda)
Don’t yet have a con report in me–worked 11.5 hours last night with pretty much nothing in the tank. But this is a quick link-up in the “creeping/creepy Christianism” department–the Colorado Rockies baseball organization attributing their recent semi-success to Jesus Jesus Jesus (and having an all-Christian clubhouse):
While praising their players, Rockies executives make clear they believe God has had a hand in the team’s improvement.
“You look at things that have happened to us this year,” O’Dowd says. “You look at some of the moves we made and didn’t make. You look at some of the games we’re winning. Those aren’t just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this.”
To think that these multi-millionaires have anything to do with Christianity is obscene. And they’re not going to stop. Ever.
I had to take After Writing back to the library, so these are transcriptions I hurriedly jotted in my notebook. With my crappy handwriting. This, here, is the epigraph for the book, which I love:
“In the struggle for time, state and art must destroy each other since the state wishes to stop the flow of time, while art would drift in it.” –Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption
Ok, here we go.
“As Genette emphasizes, poetry of the French baroque could not be less fluid. As well as noting the prevalent use of organized, almost geometric duplets of air and water, water and fire, hot and cold, he also notes the abundant use of lapidary emblems which push off against one another, like baroque architectural folds, without interpenetrating. Baroque nymphs stop adorning themselves with garlands of flowers, and take instead to wearing jewels. And the flowers they do wear bloom with a borrowed life, enduring unnaturally through every season. Stable substances are misposed upon liquid, so that water is variously described as gold, jasper, alabaster, and crystal, and the female body is described as ivory, marble, and silver…In this poetics of mineral and metal, words receive their value by virtue of their solid contrast, their folding against one another…”
“The 19th century novel and the photograph share the same struggle toward immediacy and facility guaranteed by an abundance of circumstantial detail…Which can be seen as part of a valorization of objects, via an apparent bypassing of the contaminating layers of subjectivity equated with death and obscurity according to an instantation of the maxim that the ‘this was so defeats it’s me.'”
“For our language ordains our relationship with reality as consisting in certain seminal ritual gestures: unlocking energy, ordering, measuring, storing, commanding. These ontological tasks are our own measure, and we perform them automatically, without genuine “activity,” alreaady claimed by a certain mode of apprehending our own role. Thus, in our seeking always to name, to concentrate in the name, to place and transfer through the name, we are ourselves included in that name, unwillingly ordering ourselves from within by that which we think we order from without. What is this nomination, but carnival naming?”
I’ve been reading Alain Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil over the weekend. If you have even the slightest tolerance for philosophical wonkiness, I highly recommend it. The book throughout creates touchpoints with questions of what art can mean–or does it mean?–in contemporary society. Badiou is not a postmodernist; in fact he derides postmoderism in favor of truth-processes and universality. (An atheist, he wrote a fascinating little book on St. Paul on this very subject.) Quotes:
“A truth punches a ‘hole’ in knowledges, it is heterogeneous to them, but it is also the sole known source of new knowledges. We shall say that the truth forces knowledges. The verb to force indicates that since the power of a truth is that of a break, it is by violating established and circulating knowledges that a truth returns to the immediacy of the situation, or reworks that sort of portable encyclopedia from which opinions, communications, and sociality draw their meaning.”
“The Good is Good only to the extent that it does not aspire to render the world good. Its sole being lies in the situated advent of a singular truth. So it must be that the power of a truth is also a kind of powerlessness.”
“When all is said and done, consistency is the engagement of one’s singularity…in the continuation of a subject of truth. Or again: it is to submit the perseverance of what is known to a duration peculiar to the not-known. Lacan touched on this point when he proposed his ethical maxim: ‘do not give up on your desire’. For desire is constitutive of the subject of the unconscious; it is thus the not-known par excellence, such that ‘do not give up on your desire’ rightly means ‘do not give up on that part of yourself that you do not know’…’do not give up’ means, in the end: do not give up on your own seizure by a truth-process. But since the truth-process is fidelity, then if ‘Do not give up’ is the maxim of consistency–and thus of the ethics of a truth–we might well say that it is a matter…of being faithful to a fidelity.…It is now an easy matter to spell out the ethic of a truth: ‘Do all that you can to persevere in that which exceeds your perseverance. Persevere in the interruption. Seize in your being that which has seized and broken you.'”
“Every truth…deposes constituted knowledges, and thus opposes opinions. For what we call opinions are representations without truth, the anarchic debris of circulating knowledge. …Opinions without an ounce of truth–or, indeed, of falsehood. Opinion is beneath the true and the false, precisely because its sole office is to be communicable. What arises from a truth-process, by contrast, cannot be communicated. Communication is suited only to opinions (and again, we are unable to manage without them). In all that concerns truths, there must be an encounter….To enter into the composition of a subject of truth can only be something that happens to you. Confirmation of the point is provided by the concrete circumstances in which someone is seized by a fidelity: an amorous encounter, the sudden feeling that this poem was addressed to you, a scientific theory whose initially obscure beauty overwhelms you, or the active intelligence of a political place…As a result, the ethic of a truth is the complete opposite of an ‘ethics of communication.’ It is an ethic of the Real, if it is true that–as Lacan suggests–all access to the Real is of the order of an encounter. And consistency, which is the content of the ethical maxim ‘Keep going!’, keeps going only by following the thread of this Real.
“We might put it like this: ‘Never forget what you have encountered.’ But we can say this only if we understand that not-forgetting is not a memory…In one of my previous books, my formula was: ‘Love what you will never believe twice’. In this the ethic of a truth is absolutely opposed to opinion, and to ethics in general, which is itself nothing but a schema of opinion. For the maxim of opinion is: ‘Love only that which you have always believed.'”
“She sees a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven…she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burnt away.” –Flannery O’ Connor, “Revelation”
More hypothetizing is stranger than science fiction. What if the speed of light is slowing down? It surely then would suggest “that scientific validation exists for a (gasp) literal interpretation of the seminal passages of Genesis.”
I usually don’t blog on weekends, and I had a nice, long weekend. Just some random notes to get things started…
+I have no clue whether this is of interest to anyone else, but in this review of Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute (a flawed but wild book…but I guess that’s the case with any book that tries to synthesize Lacan, Marx, and Jesus, using Hitchcock’s Vertigo as one of your core texts), Malcolm Bull brings up some compelling parallels between Lacan and my guy Plotinus; in particular, the idea of the mirror and the mirror state (inner and outer):
Migration, too, presupposes a capacity to see yourself somewhere else, and the capacity to see yourself depends on the surface in which you are looking. According to Plotinus, it was because they saw themselves reflected in the world that immortal souls first migrated to the realm of matter. The idea had its origin in the myth of Dionysus Zagreus. To distract his attention the Titans offered the infant Dionysus a mirror and some other childish baubles, and then, while he was admiring his own reflected image, captured him and tore him to pieces. The reborn Dionysus meted out the same treatment to his own victims, but it was not this aspect of the story that interested the Neoplatonists. For them, the mirror of Dionysus was the material world itself. Proclus suggested that when Plato stated that the surface of the world was created smooth, he meant that it had a reflective surface like a mirror, and Plotinus had something similar in mind when he claimed that it was when the souls saw their images in ‘the mirror of Dionysus’ that they descended from unity into material multiplicity.
The myth has obvious resonances with what Lacan described as the mirror stage. Lacan interprets the human infant’s capacity to recognise itself in a mirror as simultaneously a revelatory moment of identification of and with the Ideal-I, and a devastating moment in which the discrepancy between the unified image of the reflection and the unco-ordinated body of the infant becomes apparent. Like the Neoplatonists, Lacan’s theory makes the experience of the mirrored image the precipitating event through which human subjectivities are formed, and emphasises that the mirror functions as a lure: captivation leads to capture. Just as Dionysus is torn apart, and Plotinus’ souls lose their immaterial unity, so the infant experiences itself as a fragmented multiplicity…
+Finally, my (rather) short story The Centaur is now up at Spoiled Ink. Have a look see.
Chris (and pretty much any friend I have), I know you’re not going to be too psyched about The Ohio Restoration Project, involving the training of “Pastor Patriots.”