Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hymn to Morning

The first miracle is light, and each day gives a microcosm of creation -- or our tales of creation must fall upon the resurrection of dawn as their inchoate and coeval models. Either way, light is the pulse and breath of awe. Before vision, and far earlier than awareness, there is light soaking and being shivered off of every thing that we will know. Thus it is that light had to be and not grow from constituent parts. Fiat lux is the only way.

 Just some trees.

In morning, crisp bird wing cracking from the limbs as each tests its voice in an alarm, a call to the tree and leaf, as the owl calls its last for mates, the sounds on the wind are indistinguishable from the hopeful light, ingrafted thoughts and breezes and glimmers, with the colors -- even the dead browns -- dipped in hue again because of the teasing fingers, the question of the light. Then especially I cannot help seeing with the special sight daylight and nightlight deny. I have to see the skyward vocal of geese as part of the rustling trees and a foil for the hammer-fall of a barking dog shouting to absent or sleeping owners that he has seen a threat. The swirl of pinestraw in the roadway is an accident of eddies in rainwater and microclimate, but in the morning light I cannot miss the way that the pinestraw has repeated the shapes of the clouds against a gray sky of ashphalt.

The swirl.

The "infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing" is not here, but only because here would become a place. From freedmen in Herculaneum to indebted and suborned Americans, men have stuck single trees in front of their houses, and the wind has shaken the trees for thousands of years. The leaves sparkle like exploding tinsel as their starved trunks swing wildly, acting as if they had a mind to break free and get out of the place at last, though the wind always slides away before the sapling can snap. . . or fly. A few more decades, and the tree will no longer try such things but will stand still, acting as if it felt nothing at all. The same wind will blow. In fact, the same wind is blowing now that blew the freedman who lived safely outside the crime and corruption of Rome, for it has never stopped. The air is always stumbling down the stairs, and we breathe the breath our heroes let fly, ourselves only rooted to one place and time and waving about.

I ask my memory and imagination for an explanation that will stick, for a metaphor that will shatter words and images and alarm the reader enough to make the fire leap, but every metaphor has been worn to the nub of catachresis. My memory and imagination come back to me, chiding like Lazarus: the reading world has better counsel than yours, so why would a court listen to one with so little wergild?

Autumn's flares

The symphony, the song, the rhapsody that remains a poem no matter how various -- every new accident becomes part of a plan that always was -- all are reflections. Each is a word in a new sung voice. Each is a hymn to the glory of God. Let some new, arbitrary, accidental, curious, ugly, sound or shape or shade fall into the light, and the light makes it part of the song, and now it was always part of the harmony, always a rest in the measure or a cross hatching in the brush stroke. Such is the greatness of the first miracle.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Challenges of Mormonism to Fundamentalists

The reactions we are encountering to Mitt Romney from "evangelical" Christians are not surprising, largely because of prior experience, for the nonreligious and apathetic and parochial. They sure don't surprise me. I actually think the pastors who say that Mormons are nice folks, but doomed to Hell, are simply following their convictions. No one in favor of tolerance has much of a position for denouncing someone whose monotheism is jealous, simply because it is jealous.

No: people in churches are allowed to think members of the congregation down the road are all heathens. Speaking as a person who is viewed locally and increasingly as "unsaved" because not having a conversion experience but rather believing in the truth of Christ Risen, I know that opposing the right of people to think what they want will do no good anyway. I also know that making fun of Baptists and Assemblies of God folks is missing the mark. The outrage is not that a group has an identity with an include/exclude criterion. That another group disagrees isn't news, is it? For how many centuries have there been groups that think of themselves as Christian but which other Christian groups either wish to or do exclude?

We don't need to start with Martin Luther for that one. We can go to the Docetists, if we want.

In churches with hierarchy, any revelation has to go through channels, as it were. Further, any logical argument with dogma must also go through the process. This means, of course, that the channels limit what gets through, and what comes out tends to look like the pipe it traveled through. Dogma strengthening bishops is approved by bishops, etc. Sometimes, though, some really revolutionary material gets through. Sometimes the power, the spirituality, or the popular spirit of a revelation or reform will overtop the levees, and reformers like Francis of Assisi or visionaries like Julian of Norwich or Juan de la Cruz or Theresea of Avilla will pass into the body and change the world.

However, when churches without "papist" hierarchy encounter revelation, they depend upon the Bible, naturally, and the congregation to discern the revelation.

 Further, the nature of the "evangelical" movement is to assume a few critical intellectual positions that are by no means common to all churches:
  1. When Jesus commissioned His disciples to go out and heal the sick and spread the news, that commissioning is open-ended to all who would follow Jesus always.
  2. When Jesus commands that His followers carry the good news of salvation to the corners of the earth, that is a specific sanctification of each believer to be an evangelist.
  3. The Apostolic Age either has never ended, because the Holy Spirit performs the same miracles now as before and the same state of "spiritual warfare" exists now as in 32 AD, or because there is a special dispensation due to "end of days" whereby a new Apostolic Age has emerged.
  4. "Witnessing," which is to say telling another person about one's own conversion story is the principle form of spreading the Good News, as this Good News is a converting news.
  5. Exposing the unbeliever to the Good News is efficacious by itself in affecting a conversion.
  6. The efficacy of the Word is known by the converting of the person from sin to non-sin, accompanied by a change of essence, whereby an old human nature is lost and a newly perfected one comes in, accompanied with a vast emotional change.

Many Christians can and do argue with several of those assumptions. This is why we have separate denominations and churches. I do not want to argue these points, except that I, myself, am growing weary of 4-6 in their effects on me. You see, I recall that Jesus also had a story about the "good seed." The seed (the Word) is good, and the sower may be fine, but that doesn't mean that there is a return.

Anyway, to return to my subject, these assumptions are very important. It means that we know the truth of the message from the response to the message. In other words, the way we know that the minister's vision and visitation were holy is that he "brings people to the Lord." Efficacy is attributed to holiness.

We have all long ago noted the consequence of this assumption. Elmer Gantry and "Dusty Rhodes" are examples of this natural, if not superstitious, habit of assuming that the person who sells a lot of units must have divine blessing. What Sinclair Lewis noted first has not changed: the emphasis on gathering bodies to the church encourages the adoption of hucksterism and puts a pressure on the minister to study advertising and psychology and sales. It takes the slight theater that is inevitable in any positioning of a priest before a church and turns it into full on circus, as the speakers go into trademark gestures, patented cadences, and jumps and leaps that would surprise an orthopedist.

The ministers are sincere, I am sure. However, the assumptions of their church put a pressure on them to conform to a Westmoreland-like body count. "Last night, forty-two young people came to the Lord!" someone gushed recently and concluded "___ is a really special speaker." Hrrrm.

So far, it probably seems more like I'm interested in belittling evangelical churches than I am explaining the heeby-jeebies they get with Mormons, but I really do need to explain these peculiarities of practical theology (beliefs about God as they are manifest in action) before I can explain. You see, if the message's validity and the messenger's holiness are both proven by the convert without any hierarchy or history to check it against, then the Mormons are frightening.

How do you -- yes, you -- explain the fact that Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the world? How do you explain the relative uprightness of the flock?

It's tough for anyone who isn't a Mormon.

I was driving today (told you all my ideas come in the morning), and I was thinking about how I could explain "kairos" in "Little Gidding," and I was reflecting on the fact that, in the 19th century, a lot of people were beginning to see History as a series of circles. I then thought, "The Mormons are big on that 'it happened before and will happen again' thing." I then thought about how that religion started and spread. Here's the problem: the foundation story of the religion is very, very... implausible [warning: link auto-plays].

So, a man in New York claims to have seen an angel who led him to buried golden tablets that he can only read with magic stones and in the bottom of a hat, and from that he can dictate the Book of Mormon, which is a sequel to, or "further adventures of," the New Testament. No one can see the golden tablets, or the magic stones, and no one sees the angel but him. The revelation consists of giving permission for multiple wives, commands for clean living (a common 19th century temperance movement feature), and gleeful mistreatment of American natives. It gains adherents, is immediately attacked, gains more, and begins moving with, and then ahead of, the frontier.

Why did it keep growing?

A person with access to "secular" theories would say that the religion incorporated many of the movements of its age and so appealed to many of the psychological and social pressures of its adherents. Such a person would point to other groups nearby who had similar calls. However, that doesn't do much. Then, of course, there is what having multiple wives and as large a family as possible will do for a religion. Then there is what mandatory mission work will do.

What, though, if you do not have such a theory to use? What is using such a theory is fearful, because it might be used against oneself?

Mormonism puts revelation and enthusiasm into the crucible. If the only test a person has of the validity of a belief is the Bible and the effect on a person, then Mormons are hard to challenge. Mormons fall all to pieces if they have to be squared with tradition, with the writings of the Fathers, with rational analysis, and with the test of confirmation (does no one remember that Paul says that a person with a prophecy has to have corroboration? the Holy Spirit isn't, so far as I know, in the business of keeping the truth a secret from those who seek).

When a Christian evangelical looks at a Mormon, it is looking at a mirror of fear. Mormonism itself is an extension of evangelical assumptions, and so there is nothing that an evangelical may say, except, "You're going to Hell." There is no mechanism by which she or he can speak with the Mormon, no reasoning he or she may offer, because, at base, there is too much similarity in frame.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The borders of Paradise

This morning, and I have all my essay ideas in the morning before thoughts can side track the natural impulse, I heard an Iranian-German artist lady talking about filming dancers in Iran. She said that dance is absolutely forbidden in Iran, but they have something called "rhythmic movement" that is allowed.

"No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of the misunderstanding of the ends of art." -- Ruskin

We can take Ruskin's quote and nod sagely. "Yes, yes," we say, "and out of the crooked timber, what-what." The later Victorians were full of awareness of imperfection, situated as they were in the satiated and regretful phase of empire. Category and clarity had swept away the sights of beggars, but not the beggars themselves, and "The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness, than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings," as Hazlitt wrote in 1829. Many had come to realize that the noise could not be shut out, that, as Horace said, "Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret" (in Epistles) ['You can drive Nature out with a pitchfork, but she will return again']. Cover the nudity, and it's still under the covers.

Nevertheless, when we persist through these ages of empire, of decay, of self-conscious sadness, there is a tendency on our parts to turn from a red faced public servant with a sack full of fig leaves to John Cage. We go from purists to artists of Autotune. This produces its own dialectic, if not enterically then exotically. The religious fundamentalist and the political fundamentalist alike appeals to any population that is awash in too much embracing of porous borders. Each generates its own idealistic ideology, its own Zion Celeste.

The political idealists are easier to talk about than religious revolutionaries, as they seem to conform to readily understood causes that have economic and material bases, and they often transform into other parties, other organizations. Thus, it's not so hard to talk about fascists in Germany (but you'll have a heck of a time nailing them down in Italy), and it's not that hard to talk about the John Birch Society in the U.S. or the National Front in the U.K. These groups all set out to be puritanical -- to achieve an ostensibly conservative goal by the eradication of all accumulated state apparatus and the imposition of a morality and clarity that had been muddied by Them and the agents of evil.

The political groups want to stop the flow of population, the drift of genes, the spread of culture, the transformation of economic structures. In that regard, they are not conservative, but Utopian. They are not, and never have been, summoning glories of the past but promising a thing that cannot be: a frozen moment of security. To achieve any of their goals would require immense power, tremendous abridgments of liberties, and endless regulation -- as both Italian and German manifestations of fascism have attested (and the latter also required a reiteration of slave labor for its economics to function). This is because they are attempting the impossible: they want to stop nature.

It is natural for people to mix their genes, to mix their tongues in more than one way, to invent and forget, and to flow as far as they can to opportunity, because humans are opportunistic.

Is the same true of political purists of the communal variety -- the socialists? Since these groups begin by embracing paper work and rules and the state's place in administration, it is hard to see how they are betrayed by their actuality as much as that they fail by siphoning off their potential in their implementation. The ideological and idealistic energy behind their endeavor lessens with each aparatchik, each factory boss promoting his buddies, each rigged election, and each set of police necessary to monitor these.

In Iran, they had a completely idealistic revolution. It was simple: they would have a real theocracy. In Afghanistan, the same thing, more or less, from a different branch of the religion. In 17th century England, too, they had a clean, clear idea: the Lord's own nation, led by saints inspired by the Holy Spirit. We know from history that the English were unhappy with their government and, because of the semi-feudal nature of the remaining state, were able to affect a second revolution to restore, but with changes, the prior government and nation state structure. That is not to say that Cromwell failed, or the Taliban failed, or the Ayatollahs failed, because "fail" depends upon the goal sought.

I know that it's convention for the Marxists to reject religious socialism as being non-revolutionary, it's also true that the power of the supernatural ideal powers the endeavor once in place far more effectively than a philosophical system. The problem, though, is that they have a problem of ensuring that their ideology extends into the subject. In other words, when Christianity or Islam ceases to be a religious choice and becomes your employer or your state, then your state and your employer have to, as a matter of existence and operation, extend religious faith into the mind and soul of the employee and citizen.

The ideal, which is lovely and functioning when idealists join, becomes state power when those idealists triumph and make the ideal the innervating element of the state.

Once Oliver Cromwell became Protector General, it became necessary to ensure the Christianity of the people. Instead of trusting the people to be Christian, the state now had an interest, and therefore it had to have proof. Further, it needed to specify for its functionaries how and what would be considered moral. Idealized states spin paper as a precondition of their existence. Perfection, after all, is only perfect if it is protected in a static position, and that means ruling out change or ruling in qualities.

Therefore, the Iranian "rhythmic movement" and "approved hairstyles for men" are examples both of the native authoritarian extension of power into an ideological space of the subject and the deterioration of the subjective ideal that frames the power impulse. A state may start out with the simple ideal of good men and women, but it will need to say what constitutes good, and then what constitutes bad, and then it will make the soul of the individual, as well as the body, its concern.

Our dilemma, then, as humanity, is that we accept the blood and pus and confusion of allowing each other to sin, and thereby create a call for our overthrow, or we strive to a perfection that, by its nature, is death. Either that or, more sensibly, we worry about the neighbors' health and happiness and our own goodness.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Dude, You Can See, Like, Everything!

". . . the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions. . . . " -- Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
I make no secret of the fact that I am working on a time machine solely for the purpose of going back in time to shoot the inventor of the cell phone. Mr. Motorola and his wife, Nokia, are in my sights, in the past. The dim glow neighbors see coming from my bedroom at night must be understood to be such lucubrations.  The main hindrance to my plan is not any dictate from Dr. Einstein, as, like all creative types, I do not respect his right to make a rule binding on the future, especially now that he has been shown to be a party pooper, but rather the difficulty of finding the moment of creation for the infernal machine. Therefore, I have a fall back position. I will go back to kill, or have the dewclaw removed from, the inventor of SIP.

I have many reasons for this work, but there is a a mission to it. This is a vendetta. All teachers feel the hatred, I know, and college teachers feel the special rage, when the cell phone appears. All those little thumbs diddling themselves to bliss as an alternative to education or responding to the class are infuriating. We liked it better when they whispered to each other all class. Now, they still do, but with their thumbs, and they're whispering to whomever, wherever. That would be enough, but it is not what has given my madness genius.

I have recently acquired "Mcluhan's Wake," and I give it a 5 star review. Phillistines above all others should watch it, but every conscious or semi-conscious being should watch it. The philosopher's books are very, very dense, and this movie makes his thought comprehensible to any audience. McLuhan predicted that there would be a transformation/recreation in media, whereby there would be the recreation (in a transformed way) of the village as we lose our village. Because technology is unexamined, we are destroyed by it. This is the "global village" that McLuhan coined (one of the few things people can quote of his). He was not really predicting, there. He was describing. He was saying that we have already externalized our nervous system (perceptions) in external eyes and ears with television and radio, and that means that someone else now owns parts of the ego. His prediction was the global theater.

Welcome to that, but also to what, in a way, McLuhan never saw.

After McLuhan's books, some people grabbed hold of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy and combined it with him to make observations about the process of the invention of the subjective self. These critics and scholars tended to follow McLuhan in locating it in the Elizabethan age, too, even though that locus is pretty arbitrary. What fewer scholars have followed is that next, tragic element of McLuhan's analysis -- mainly because no one wants to be caught dead speaking future tense in a scholarly article (and the dead rarely speak of the future), the transformation to global theater.

Yeah, it's a photo. I took it.

My students report to me, quite frequently, that they "never go on the Internet." Instead, they "just go to Facebook." Similarly, many will tell me that they do not use web browsers or any of that. They have no opinion on those matters, because they only chat and "Facebook" (v.) -- and neither one involves the Internet. At the same time, they are increasingly finding reading five pages from the textbook "too long." While it's true that students in 1989 complained about any reading, too, they tended, back then, to simply complain at the outrage that freshman English required any of their time, where today students are complaining that five pages are wearying.

Their complaints are false to some degree, incidentally. The same length, more or less (which is to say, very, very short), is tolerable for them if there are pictures. The textbooks they have grown up with have as many photo inset boxes, illustrations, and break-ins as commas. 

They expect a literature book to come with an audio CD, a Chemistry book to have a DVD-ROM. They are not on the Internet. Take each of these incidents of "misprision" at face value and look at them analytically rather than satirically.

Students, if not "people today," have gone that next mile toward a visual addiction. A long time ago, people were weeping that "kids today" would soon speak a purely pictographic language (heard that in 1988). A full generation later, and that prediction has not come true. Instead, what we see is a pictography rather than a visual language. I would argue that the cell phone is emblematic of why the visual reliance of people today, and young people in particular, is not pictographic, but insensible.

[They say my essays are hard to understand because of the digressions. I say that that's part of the subject under discussion in this essay.]

When I was living in the Bronx, the god of wealth, Pluto, sent out a new plague as a way of marking the flesh and scarring the soul of the poor. We had the appearance of "push to talk" phones. These are a way of turning one's cell phone into a very nasty walkie-talkie. Most importantly, they sound out each transmission with a loud beep. In a dense urban mass, the purpose and evil of this "feature" was quite clear.

First, poor people were monitored by their bosses.
BEEP-Salvatore! You need to go down to Queens after you're done to see about another job.-BEEP! 
No one ever saw the crowd at Lincoln Center BEEPing at their families, and no one heard Bloomberg BEEPing his way toward elected office. Second, it took the natural horrors hidden in the clam shell of the cell phone and amplified them among those fell in love with the tool.

  • The evil of the cell phone as a cell phone is that it removes context. 
The wall of "home" falls, and the power wall, ideological locus, of "work" evaporates. The worker can be obtained any time and any place, thanks to the cell phone, but, also, the people who choose to use cell phones have no knowledge or acknowledgement of when and how they are at home or work. The push-to-talk phone thus took the old problem of people saying, aloud, in public, their halves of a private conversation ("private" being a cultural category developed after literacy and industrialism) and added the other side of the conversation and, just in case you had managed to hurry down the street without noticing, an ear-splitting BEEP! to announce each.

BEEP! [female voice] I don't know, Sheila. He says that he's out with Ray. BEEP!
[Woman standing in doorway of her apartment] Well, you tell moy so-called husband that he can shove it up his Aasss!
BEEP!I know, right? I can tell you this much, if moy husband thinks he's getting any....
At this point, your correspondent chose between only two options and, instead of rubbing his ear cartilage off on the sidewalk, ran away.

Think about it. The two women were reacting to the natural pressure of New York City, which is to erode personal space and to daily attack the concept of the private, and then were numbed by technology's novelty. The telephone assures one of a private, personal conversation, but the cell phone erases the location. The push-to-talk was simply another disguise for the cell phone, and so the two women were willing to speak of providing sexual access to their husbands and the states of their marriages to the street.

"If Jesus Christ were to come to-day, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it." -- Thomas Carlyle, Table Talk.

Carlyle is commenting on the high point of privacy, when decorum demanded dissembling in all places. Today, either Joe Wilson would scream "You lie!" or an audience member would shout "Let him die!" but the reaction would be ejaculatory.

I should go back to wipe out the cell phone for its assault on the hearth, if nothing else. However, it, along with the world wide web, demolished the sense of location and distance, including the very concept of "access" and "inaccessible." The most common personal question I have had to answer this semester has been, "Why do you buy CD's."  I'm serious. Earnest, Christian youngsters cannot understand why I buy CD's. This marks a complete switch in the debate, does it not?

The RIAA has continued its terror tactics. Cato would be pleased. However, ten years ago, students would argue with me that they were not criminals for downloading music, and now students argue with me asking me to justify why I am not a cultural criminal for not downloading music. Similarly, the talk among the young is not -- spectacularly not -- for the first time in human history not -- bare flesh.

I cannot tell you how amazing this last is.

Let's add the two together, though. Flesh is available on the Internet -- upon which the young do not know that they have been, and so they do not need to seek or visit pornographic magazines, pornographic movies, or anything like that, because friends have e-mailed them all of these. Therefore, they are still looking, but there is no challenge. In fact, there is so little challenge that there is no awareness that there could be a challenge. The same is true of music. Music simply is. Musicians similarly just are. Instead of only an eternal "now," there is an eternal "here."

What began with the destruction of location has become the destruction of all locations. The world wide web and the free market desire to make each website "your one stop on the Internet" have combined with this, and with Facebook's rape of the American youth, to lead to the vanishing of context. I do not mean the context of this or that, but context itself.

Why are kids not hot to go here or there, saying you can see her ___? Because seeing her ___ is going to be an e-mail attachment, or a flash picture. Why not concentrate on pictures and what they mean (becoming the foretold pictographic language)? Because that would mean that pictures must either mean in isolation or must combine for a semantic stream. Such streams must have a grammar. A grammar, even a pictorial one, implies rules of relationships, and the coherence of single experiences and disparity of separate experiences means that no one has the right to create a rule and no one will ask for it to be obeyed. Why do pictures make five whole, long pages easier to read? They break that difficult (really) tendency of the work to demand setting up a set of walls (past, future; expectation, memory; reference, instruction) necessary for context.

So, if you see me working on my time machine, please don't Friend it or Like it or Tumblr it. Just let me go and find some context.