Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sunday Morning Service: Jeremiah and the Value of Not Being Answered

I used to try to be upbeat and witty every time out, here. Then I went dark. Still, I like to avoid the personal, even if I am changing the rules. For example, I'm not going to talk about how our latest college president disappeared one weekend and why this good result was for a bad cause. That sort of thing would really get eyeballs, but it would be the kiss of death (or the second base of death, or maybe even the going-all-the-way of death). I also try not to go into purely religious stuff.

Well, nuts to that. You've been warned.

I will confess, first: I knew Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Thou Art Indeed Just Lord" before I knew the lament in Jeremiah that Hopkins is referring to. If you can read his sonnet, understand it, and not feel a sharp nail in your heart, you're stern, grim, and possibly psychopathic:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
I've written about the sonnet before, and here, so I won't belabor the faithful or task the fickle. His reference is to Jeremiah 12.
1 You will be in the right, O LORD, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
2 You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit; you are near in their mouths yet far from their hearts.
3 But you, O LORD, know me; You see me and test me -- my heart is with you. Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
4 How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, "He is blind to our ways."
5 If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?
6 For even your kinsfolk and your own family, even they have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you; do not believe them, though they speak friendly words to you.
It's strange, isn't it? Any reader can figure out that there are divisions. Like a sonnet, we can see pieces. Lines 1-4 seem like a completely different thing from 5-6. In fact, 1-2 is the charge, 3-4 is a call for justice, and then 5-6 are . . . different. The first part is the question of theocidy -- why is sin allowed to continue, and why do the evil prosper? The context of the twelfth chapter is that Jeremiah has discovered that there is a plot to kill him.

Lines five and six are God's answer. We're often thrown off in reading Psalms and the major prophets by the shifts in voice, because ancient Hebrew did not have quotation marks or use our conventions in signaling speaker shifts. God's answer to Jeremiah is, essentially, "If you're ready to give up now, just wait for the challenges coming up! You have no idea what injustice is."

Everyone who has read the Bible notices that Jeremiah's first lament is like Job's. Job is the master class in both theocidy and perseverance. However, Job is global and cosmic. Job asks about suffering, whereas Jeremiah asks, as the psalmist does, about the very specific problem of frustration, hopelessness, and fruitlessness in the midst of the prosperity of the wicked. Jeremiah, unlike many of the psalms, can see that there are two systems of "good" at work, that there is the "good" of wealth and plenty, and there is the good of God's will. As the wicked run riot, there is an evil and a greater evil, for not only does the pious man suffer, but the world is degraded and brutified by being under the control of evil men. He appeals to the judgment for the good of the land and the man.

It is the most specific formulation of the question of why the wicked prosper, and Jeremiah is calling for a hastening of the Day of the Lord. He would, therefore, seem to demand a specific answer.

God's answer is specific. However, Jeremiah has enough knowledge of the cosmic and human scales of justice to invoke the dual outrage, but not enough to actually locate his own place in those scales. Nor does he understand more than his own heart, ultimately, at a particular time. God answers with the specifics that Jeremiah is really moved by. Jeremiah is afraid and outraged by a plot, and God tells him that this is but the first hurdle. In Jeremiah's own biography, this grievous moment will only be a moment, and this danger will be, comparatively, an inconvenience.

The big question gets answered in that way. It is the same way that Job is answered. God does not translate His justice into human terms for a human, who is always a component part of that justice, to understand, but, instead, refers outward. For Job, God referred to eternity and creation, to the world itself. For Jeremiah, it is his life and the history of the men plotting against him.

The lack of an answer is the answer, but not in the way that silence is an answer. The answer is not "ineffability," nor is it merely, "suffer and learn," but rather an answer that points outward, always outward, beyond the person asking and the powers of language to contain. Job must gain, lose, and gain and bless the Lord for the blessing to mean as fully as it does, because the context is the meaning of "The Lord has given. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Only outward, beyond the encapsulation of the phrase, is there meaning for the phrase.

For Jeremiah, the answer will come not from questioning, but from the campaign of his whole life -- the race with horses and the thickets of Jordan -- which will both moot the complaint and make Jeremiah one of the answers to the question.

I couldn't think of any pictures for this one.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sale of the Century

The challenge of historicism post Hegel is not diagnosing ghosts for the metaphors by which they organized their lives or elaborating upon the tropes that kept them from seeing the plain truth before them, nor is it in diagnosing the dead's schizophrenia and condemning their certitude that phantoms were real. Explaining to one another that they were all infected and limned by the absurd "seven races of man" and exploring the narrative of such a belief is not frightening. No. What the anxiety of historicism is the awareness it commands of us that we ourselves are hooded by a metaphor we speak so often that we no longer hear it and the dire likelihood that many things we know to be obviously true, even clear states of physical being, are just as much phantasms as the "murderer's brow ridge."

Once we learn about Hegel's idea of history as an ineffable force, we're confronted with a paradox and a panic. The paradox is that, if history is determining and no person is ever free of history, then how was or is anyone ever able to come to the realization that history is a determining force? It would have to be the historical moment of Hegel that made it necessary and fitting for Hegelianism to occur, because there is no room for "genius" to be effective. The panic is that the student of history as much as the subjects of historical narratives is being controlled by the historical moment.

In the 1970's American intellectuals devised the notion of "paradigms" and "paradigm shifts." Around the same time, Michel Foucault wrote about the "episteme." Both are related, if not genealogically descended, from Hegelian historical determinism. In both cases, every generation or epoch of humanity organizes not merely what it knows, but what it can know along specific framing metaphors. It may be "father/family" that acts as a prefiguring metaphor in an age -- showing up in everything from discourse about the king/nation to church/flock to landlord/tenant to market regulations -- or it may be "inviolability of the body." Regardless, the who world of speakers and thinker is captured before it even emerges by a pattern of perception, processing and speaking. Political and economic power flows through these figures, but human knowledge itself moves only when "revolutions" occur in these frames.

We can reaffirm this anxiety, if we ever start to calm down or feel hopeful, by resorting to Marxism or remembering the painful lessons of Wittgenstein. According to the former, super-structure is only ever a reflection of base conditions. Marx never quite got around to writing a book about art, but the Marxists have hardly been able to shut up. Let's just say that what exists in language is not anything so coarse as Immanuel Goldstein's NewSpeak from 1984, nor is knowledge and artistic expression controlled by the capitalist directly, but what we can know and say and ask is at least engaged in a project of social and economic control. It gets that way coincidentally, and not because someone at Goldman-Sachs declares it, but ideas that spread do so because they are going through expensive media that is funded by investors, and "successful" persons are emulated, so individual, class-conscious, and free expression is at long odds.

Wittgenstein simply casts a doubt on the status of interrogation. He does not make knowledge less likely, but he points out so clearly that our words control our thoughts that he makes any honest person a skeptic about even asking questions.

No one wants to hear that he or she is a fool, and no one prospers by talking about the emperor's nakedness. However, I'm about to suggest that something "obvious" is actually artificial and mercantile.
I have dealt with being a religious intellectual for a long time. As I have gotten older, I have recognized that the dormitory conversation about "is too!" "is not!" in regard to God never grows up, because every year a new group comes into the dorm room. Therefore, I try not to get involved with naive arguments on the subject. People who argue their passions instead of their reason are impossible to reason with, so, since my religion forbids my slapping them, I really don't have much to say.

However, I was drawn on the subject too recently. I get annoyed by the "Stupid people are religious" line. I can have 20+ years of college education, and the other person can have a high school degree, but that person is much "smarter" and "knows" more because he (or she) does not believe in God. After all, he is following the course of Reason and Science. Only people who don't know anything believe in a "magic sky father."

What I said there caused enormous hurt. I said, "You bought your atheism from the store, and it was on sale, cheap." I pointed out that all of his argument was a script written for him and a discourse of power, that he had swallowed a cultural narrative that had been invented. He had not discovered it, had not bravely achieved courageous individualism against the repressive hoards, and he had not surmounted some vast intellectual height. He had gone along with a cliche.

That is what I'd like to discuss, perhaps in my next, since this is already long and has big words. Atheism is an invented concept. It is a cultural moment that has a history and functions in history. Like most of the poisonous metaphors that limit perception, it tells a lie about itself. Like most of the successful cultural adhesions of the last century, it serves capital.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Falling from Small Heights

"Man is, and was always, a block-head and dullard; much readier to feel and digest, than to think and consider." -- Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
As part of an "assessment instrument," I've been reading sample essays from Oh-ficially scored sources. See, our students read four very short arguments responding to a common prompt and then write their own argument about which is the best case. We free ourselves of subjectivity by using nationally certified sources. Our old essays are now too well known by the students, and we need new ones for the exit assessments anyway, so that means reading this year's samples. The old set responded to "As people rely more and more on technology, their capacity for problem solving and creativity will surely diminish." The responses were quite different from one another in approach, and the best was different from the middle one in thought as well as expression.

This year, all the prompts are business related. The best one, for our purposes, was, "For the leadership of the future, it is imperative that children be trained in the values of cooperation rather than competition." The responses, graded by the Official services from six to one, all agree with the prompt, and the differences between them are differences of compliance with written English. The "six" has complex sentences, and the "one" has sentence fragments.

They are all dumb. In fact, the "six" would have gotten only a B from me, because even it had the "Leaders will need to be encouraged in their school" object/subject number confusion (unless all "leaders" go to the same school). Not one of the responses was analytical. Not one questioned the dichotomy of the prompt. Heck, the "five" essay began with one of those, "The dictionary defines competition as..." gambits that is only supposed to be used if a person intends to redefine a term.

Consider this my answer, and my protest to the stupids that this Official voice wanted to offer people going to its test prep site.
"Skepticism (is) the virtuous mean between two vices: absolute knowledge and absolute ignorance." -- Odo Marquard, "Skeptics: A Speech of Thanks," in In Defense of the Accidental

"Competition" and "cooperation" are actions incomplete in their own. They both require objects, company, friends and enemies. One competes or cooperates with. These are neither values that can be taught in the abstract, nor are they transactions that can be consistently enforced without teaching a social setting that mandates the activity.

The submerged assumption in the writing prompt is that "MBA culture" has harmed America. Well, that's hard to argue, but it's also important to follow. "CEO America" looks at quarterly profits, does not know or care what the core business is, and is pleased to fire all of the labor force and eliminate all the goods being made by the company, because those are debts. The resulting "profit" will increase the stock price, which will increase the CEO compensation, and the trading of the stock will increase the company value, which will increase its price on being bought, which will ensure the board a good package on the merger. Thus, all of those making decisions will make enormous profits. The things being made will cease, but. . . that's not the business of the CEO. The CEO and board's duty is to shareholders, not to "consumers" or "labor."

Obviously, the effects of stock traded corporations are evil. Obviously, CEO's are bad for business and bad for the larger economy. Obviously, market funds are bad for the nation. Even their positive effect on stimulating start-ups is cancelled by their decapitation of those same businesses when they begin to produce, and especially when they manufacture. The specific evil is a system we have developed of captial pitted against commodities. When capital moves and "innovates" and "is made" without any relationship commodities, then there is a separate industry of "wealth workers" who set themselves in opposition to those who work in everything else, because their fundamental task is to shake capital free from any attachment to any person. (If you don't think we are post-capitalist in this manner, I'll see you in comments.)

By nature, humans are cooperative. By nature, humans are competitive. By nature, humans compete against themselves preferentially over other people, and we do not need studies to establish this.

Look around you at lunch. How many people are playing Candy Crush or played Tetris? How many people are playing video games solo? When they play in networks, do they play against one another, or do they play with each other in teams? In general, people play against fixed goals and against their own performances, seeking to be perfect at things. It is why they go to the gym and shoot hoops or lift weights.

At work, how often are you asked for help? How often do you ask for help? The point is that people are competitive, but not hostile, and they are cooperative, but not sycophantic. Indeed, we do need to battle the damage done by the naive assumption that "capitalism" is Darwinism and the even deeper lie that Darwin's "survival of the fittest" meant survival of the biggest, toughest, or strongest -- "fitness" means toward the environment, and strong, mean, nasty critters are not very adaptable. We have to fight the fascist theme that "America" is about individuals fighting it out without any help against one another for a triumph.

More, though, we need to understand that we are under assault by a post-capitalist economic theory that is disloyal, immoral, and corrosive of all values and value.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Consideration of "Nigger Lover" for MLK Day

I am not afraid of words. I am afraid of meanings of words.

In the 1990's, my students at UNC Chapel Hill were encouraged not to refer to all persons bereft of a Y-chromosome as "girls." The result was that I got numerous sentences like the following, "The females would like for fraternities to go away, but this is because some females are unable to get dates and are jealous." The boys who wrote for me managed to use the word "female" (not woman/women, because the Anglo-Saxon plural confused them) and intend things at least as venomous and ignorant as any man ever had when he referred to his co-workers as "the girls." At the same time, the fact that these boys knew that they were not supposed to write "girls" meant that they were aware that there was something going on, that they were conscious to some degree, even if this consciousness only resulted in reactionary knuckle dragging and chin drooling self regard in the short term.
"Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide." -- Abraham Lincoln, "The Lyceum Address" 1838
I recently ran into the word "nigger lover" for the first time in decades. As you might imagine, I don't spend any time in the "Comments" at, where, I gather, the term is somewhat alive. I will be discreet with the context because the context isn't actually very important: a high-up individual in a college was accused of having used the term. Students were extremely upset. In what follows, I will not say "N-word," and I won't say "n***." I consider "nigger" to be profanity. Just as I would not capriciously type "shit," so I would not capriciously type this word, but, just as I would not laboriously invoke and avoid the word, so I will not here. This post is about the meaning of the word, and therefore about the word itself.

First, do I believe that the college official used the term? No, not particularly. It's a bizarre term. It's a term that depends upon a biographical rather than geographical context, and I am pretty sure that it doesn't fit.

Here's the thing, though: what is the insult involved? Let's think through this term.

This is a picture of EVERYTHING
 If you were called a "nigger lover," as I was in 1968, would you be insulted? Would you even understand the charge? The term is much, much worse than "nigger," because it is an inescapable indictment of the speaker. It does not mean "inter-racial lover." It means, to its speaker, "traitor to the white race" and "person giving advantages to the unworthy and hateful villains, Blacks." The person who uses the word affirms two things:
  1. The speaker believes in skin color race. This person believes that persons descended from formerly enslaved persons, or simply persons derived from African stock by more than two generations, are naturally different from all other persons. This difference is a matter of innate competition as well as an entrenched and immutable superiority/inferiority. The person who uses the word believes that a child born with dark skin is already, before its first word, inferior, inimical, and alien to the speaker him or herself.
  2. The speaker believes that everyone else agrees with her or him. The person who calls someone a "nigger-lover" is assuming an audience, a geography, a region wherein race is not merely understood, but where the assumptions of inequality and enmity are accepted. The person who uses the word believes that history and biography can only be understood as the enactment of a race war.
It's shocking. The idea that a person might get upset with another person and reach for an insulting epithet is understandable. It's not acceptable, but it is understandable. The stressed out and angry office worker might refer to another as a Pollack or Dago or Spic in a moment of rage. The rage is the problem more than the word, and this is largely because the audience and community that believes in and accepts such terms as truths is not merely gone, but historical. That's not true for "faggot" or "nigger": there are huge populations that still hold the hostility.

I said that I had been called one in 1968. I was a little kid living in Savannah, Georgia, and the subject was Martin Luther King. It was becoming acceptable for white people to like King. My mother did. My father didn't, but he was generally not political. On my street, though, the kids were pretty clear: if you supported King, you were a nigger lover. (They didn't know what they were repeating or what it meant.) I was only six years old, but I remember being deeply, deeply puzzled by the charge.

What the heck did they mean? Of course I was a "nigger lover." Aren't we supposed to love all people? Isn't that what Jesus said? Aren't we supposed to love our neighbors?

The next year, we moved to Atlanta, then on to New Jersey, where I was accused of being a slave holder, because I was from Georgia, and then we came back to Atlanta. I didn't hear the word actually used again until last week.

Mr. Nickles: "There must be
Thousands! Whats that got to do with it?
Thousands -- not with camels either:
Millions and Millions of mankind
Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated,
Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking!
For walking round the world in the wrong
Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids:
Sleeping the wrong night wrong city --
London, Dresden, Hiroshima.
There never could have been so many
Suffered more for less. But where do
I come in?" -- Archibald MacLeish, J.B. Prolog
 Today, we have MLK Day, and we also have more overt racism than I have seen since my childhood. While we, the good guys, were triumphant during the 1980's, the bad guys were simmering and bubbling beneath closed pot lids, and they were spreading. The craziest idea of the anti-civil rights era -- the idea of races coming from the book of Genesis and there being a Christian race -- spread among the unmonitored, unlettered, uncontrollable right wing fundamentalist church networks -- reactionary racism riding reactionary religion.

I have heard, with my own ears, children seriously informing me that white people came from Adam and Eve, but Black people came from monkeys. That kind of gibberish was, in my day, hard to find if you were looking for it. Today, it walks up to you with a blonde ponytail and an ad for a Father/Daughter dance, with coupons for Chik-Fil-A.

The person who said that the college official said "nigger lover" was probably employing rumor as one of the last tools of the powerless in a situation that feels arbitrary, but I wouldn't want to judge. I do know, though, that the cultural milieu, the set of assumptions necessary, for using the word don't exist for the official. They don't exist at the college.

What frightens me more than any foul term is that the culture surrounding me is such that people are using that term, thinking that term, and believing that term's world again.