Thursday, February 03, 2005

"Little Eichmanns" - Part II

I see, in one of the comments on the first part of this essay, that "it is unreasonable to expect anyone to provide a comprehensive answer to the question of what our system does.' No one currently is in possession of enough knowledge to answer, nor does anyone have sufficient time to acquire it. Only someone with the hubris to claim he understands the system (like, say, an Ethnic Studies professor) would try to explain it. And by explaining, he has undermined our confidence in his ability to understand it."

I'm not sure I fully understand that comment. I think it means that an outline of "our [political economic] system" must needs be imperfect. So imperfect that there's no point in trying.

From an "objective" historical or social scientific perspective, that may be the case. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But it doesn't mean that that the question--what is the nature of the world and what is our place within it?--is meaningless. On the contrary, it is a question of ultimate meaning. The quest for an answer may be informed by history, social science, philosophy, the rest of the humanities, even ethnic studies, but it is ultimately a spiritual quest.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

The answers are never complete or final, but there are glimpses; what William James, an early psychologist of religious experience, termed "cosmic consciousness," a sense of the interconnectedness of all things. Any number of novelists, poets, and songwriters have tried to describe this phenomenon. I will only instance Paula Cole in the title track to her fourth album, Amen:

I'm siphoning gas from the high school bus
Into the tank of my beat-up bug
So I can drive away from the shouting and misery
I drive into the night, to the hill, to the water tower
To lie on my back and drink in the meteor shower
Knowing that many men have lain as i do now
Ptolemy, Copernicus, Carl Jung
Pondering his existence,pondering,
Is God with me now?

And I look to the sky
And I ask these questions
Yes, I feel something I don't understand
Can somebody say Amen?

My life is but a short and precious seed
Like three seasons of life in a leaf on a tree
And when I cascade to the ground I will not be done
I will mingle with the earth and give life
To the roots again
Can somebody say Amen?

And I look to the sky
And I ask these questions
Yes, I feel something I don't understand
Can somebody say Amen?
Amen for the drivers in their garbage trucks
Amen for our mothers, for the lust to fuck
Amen for the child with innocent eyes
Amen for Kevorkian and the right to die
Amen for NASA, the NSA
It's all a front anyway
Amen for Marilyn Manson, Saddam Hussein
Amen for America and the Milky Way.
Amen for Elvis, for Betty Page
Amen for Gloria Steinham and Ronald Reagan
Amen for O.J., Clinton too
Amen for the Republican witch hunt coup
Amen for Gandhi, for Malcolm X
Amen for the uprising of the weaker sex
Amen for Babylon, the third world's call,
Amen for the unity of us all
Amen, Amen, Amen

And I am not unique.
We are all leave on this great big tree.
this tree that is life, that is God, that is you, that is me
And I lie under my tree like the Buddhas before and after me
And I ask the stars, "What for?"
Yes, I feel something I can't explain
A light that flickers off and on again
And I look to the sky
And I ask these questions
Yes, I feel something I don't understand
Oh, can somebody say Amen?

Most of us experience this sense of cosmic consciousness, this subjective experience of interconnectedness, intermittently at best. Once in a while we'll have one of those epiphanies--in the scrubbed look of the sky when the sun comes out after a heavy rain, in the easy laughter among old friends, in the way a song you've heard dozens as times as background can suddenly pierce you with an understanding of life you carry with you forever after. Mostly, though, we turn away, particularly in a society that, despite much conventional piety, actively encourages us to turn away. The social critic Christopher Lasch--who in most respects would be tearing Ward Churchill a new one were he still alive--called this societal style "the culture of narcissism."

We are immersed in a consumer culture that constantly beguiles us to find meaning not in authentic spirituality but in clothes, CDs, DVDs, cars, and the endless gew gaws and doo dads on which the health of our economy rests. There is a word for this.


Not in the Psycho, Exorcist, Friday the Thirteenth, I Know What You Did Last Summer sense of evil, nor even the Schindler's List sense of evil, though that comes closer. I'm talking about evil as the term is defined and used in People of the Lie (1983), psychiatrist M. Scott Peck's follow-up to his famous best-seller The Road Less Traveled.

Continue to Part III.


Anonymous said...

Here's some cosmic interconnections for you--the type which binds credit card crooks, resume forgers, and plaigerists in one seamless community of being: It turns out that Ward Churchill fabricated his ties to the Keetoowah tribe; at least the tribe denies any connection.

If Mark G., despite the excellence of Hard Hand of War, insists on sounding like a cross between Jacques Derrida and a run-of-the-mill spiritualist (with an assist from rock music lyrics), let me try to answer his blog as Dr. Spock might: "the warp-continuum of cosmic interconnectedness of all souls is broken by bad vibes, such as those put out my terrorists and professional liars." Rather, I prefer to take my warp-continuums, not from Gene Rodenberry, but from Benedict Anderson--"Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (1983)"

Now, if intellectuals wish to elevate "systems" above the people who comprise them, so be it; it is, as my father used to say, a living. But frankly, I don't have to analyze an economic or political system--I simply look at its people product.

Mark G, apart from conceptualizers, systems have no independent being. After all, what is the difference between a conceptualized Nazi state and the real McCoy--not the state, but Adolf Eichman.

Conceptualizing worked great when the issue was public sanitation in the mid-19th century. Abandon notions of individual virtue, chiefly spiritual, and you may design any system of goodness or utility that you please--in the end, it will fail. I offer the 20th Century as Exhibit A.

Mark G. said...

Thanks for the suggestion that I have the slightest grasp of Derrida. You are the first person ever to make that claim.

Incidentally, the faith tradition that informs this essay is evangelical Christianity. The idea that Christian values are reflected in culture, including pop music lyrics, is suggested in Richard H. Niebuhr's Christ and Culture as one of several models of the relationship between the two (the others being Christ against culture, Christ above culture, etc.

I am very interested in your suggestion that Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is relevant here. Intuitively that sounds right to me, but would you mind elaborating?

Anonymous said...

"Is it reasonable to insist that each of us ask what our system does and how we each contribute to helping it operate? We don't really want to go there"

Mark G--let us go there.

I don't believe Derrida had any grasp of Derrida; Alan Sokol proved that in 1996; instead, "Derrida" has become my eponymous shorthand for any writing where the abstractions outnumber words of common experience by some (not yet quantified) ratio. When Trollope was asked to define a gentleman, he couldn't, although he unfailingly knew one on sight--ditto with the various postums--modernism, structuralism, colonials, ad nauseum. (Incidentally, when Derrida, a Jew, expired, I happened to be reading his obituary in the company of a very pious rabbi. When the obituarist declared that had Derrida lived, his next project would have been a cultural critique of the "Old Testament," the rabbi shot me an unforgettable look. "Just in time," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.}

Benedict Anderson is a far more interesting proposition. My parochial reaction to Imagined Communities was informed by my observant Judaism. If nation-states are largely imagined, artificially connected within the confines of a sheet of newspaper, then human responsibility shifts from fealty to imaginary contraptions to a loyalty to moral systems founded on personal experience or worked out in some other fashion. If, like Saul of Tarsus, I should experience a bolt of lightening, and awake as Paul, that has considerably more resonance than "the working class," "transgressive affinities," "the white race" or even (my beloved) "United States of America."

Talk of systems diminishes the notion of human choice. Once choice is diminished systems predominate--if you're only approving death camp train schedules, but don't know there's a death camp, it's conceivable that, on being informed that a death camp exists, you'll be able to shrug your shoulders, blame the system, and get a good night's sleep--and go right back to work the next morning.

I found Anderson very a load was lifted from my soul.