Thursday, October 18, 2012

I’m Tired—The Madeline Kahn School of Hermeneutics

A second Federal appeals court, this one in New York, has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and probably thereby set off another argument about interpreting the Constitution in the subterranean darkness of various Internet comment threads. I don’t propose to go there, literally or figuratively; but maybe this is a good time to dust off a meta thought I’ve had for some time that it is more or less apropos.

While the lawyers are not going to give up debating every social and political issue of the day in terms of its relationship to the Constitution—that’s what they do for a living, after all—the rest of us may be finally giving up the game of assuming the special wisdom, if not sacrality, of that document.

Any tradition based on a text has the same problem. Whether you’re a Mormon, a psychoanalyst, or a votary of Ayn Rand, you always have a choice. Even people of the most cadaver-like loyalty to the cause inevitably end up expressing their own ideas about modern problems if only because the Book didn’t cover that or because the obvious literal meaning of the Book has intolerable implications.  To defend your version of truth, you can either resort to more or less heroic exercises of interpretation and claim that you simply are returning to the true meaning of scripture or you can simply admit that the Book is, after all, a book. 

It isn’t necessarily a bad idea to opt for the first choice and reduce all legitimate thought to commentary. As the history of religion and philosophy amply demonstrate, such a strategy does not preclude creativity of the highest order. In fact, some of the most original, not to say loopy, thinking has been promoted under the slogan of back to the sources—Lacan is just Freud properly understood; Althusser is merely a close reading of Marx; the humane religion of the rabbis really is the truth of bloodthirsty Torah; the first Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t rule out punishing people for blasphemy; of course the New Testament provides a basis for infant baptism, etc.  The game gets stale at times, however; and even if its obvious fictiveness doesn’t bother you, it becomes simply exhausting. You have to give it up.* In the current political instance, you stop regarding the Constitution with absurd reverence or, at a minimum, admit that torturing it into permitting decent political institutions is a merely formal exercise.

One last note: there is an inverse to the issue of how to deal with sacred texts, for there are a class of texts that are canonically diabolical or anti-sacred. Thus the way that most academics refer to Marx’s writings is the mirror image of how the sages approached the Torah. One does not agree with other books and authors—who agrees with anybody about much, after all—but it is somehow necessary to endlessly assure everybody that you are aware of how wrong Marx is. By contrast, though I certainly don’t agree with Locke’s ideas on substance or religious toleration, I don’t find a need to cross myself when I cite him. Marx is wrong in a way that is different from ordinary wrongness, much as for a Muslim, the Koran is right in a way that is different from ordinary rightness. Maybe if we dispense with the worship of Bibles and Constitutions, we can dispense with the ritual denunciation of dangerous tomes and just read them (or not) as they turn out to be relevant or irrelevant.

*An alternative is to make fun of it. Free thinkers can make fun of tradition by producing their own commentary literature on sacred texts and lampooning the absurdities of interpretation. This was a common approach in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Pierre Bayle, the Stephen Colbert of his times, discussed all the embarrassing parts of the Bible with deadly seriousness. The pages of his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695) are even laid out like a Talmud with tiny sections of text crowded out by commentaries and subcommentaries.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Last Man Standing Turn Out the Lights

I don’t know if it counts as an instance of the wisdom of crowds, but some trends in popular culture do seem to amount to a general conclusion about our situation, almost as if the fads and crazes amount to an act of perception on the part of the hive mind. What set off this thought is a quick trip through the television listing wherein one finds, for the umpteenth year in a row, a host of televised contests, reality shows, and movies that all have the same general format. Whether they involve survival on an island or cooking or modeling or set design or makeup or dancing or singing or getting married, the format of nearly every show is the same as the plot of the Hunger Games. One by one, the contestants are winnowed down until only one individual or team remains. The contest is far less about winning than about avoiding loss. The lingering camera shots are on the losers. The winner is merely a formal necessity of the grammar of the contest and only appears for a few minutes at the end of the hour or even the season. Sometimes the credits are already rolling over the happy faces as they take their brief bow at the end. Obviously, the winners aren’t as interesting as the losers. The moment of triumph is the anticlimax: the disappointment and degradation of the losers is the substance.

Framing contests in this way is not a given, and television contest shows of older vintage do not.  The contestants on Jeopardy or Iron Chief or even Wheel of Fortune try to win. There are losers on these shows; but the focus is not on them; and they are treated very differently. Of course, cross-culturally, not even an emphasis on victory is a given. David Pace, a historian of anthropology, tells me that in many societies contests are played until the score is tied and wonders why this seems odd to us. Even if it does seem odd to us as heirs to the old Greek imperative that one must strive to out do the others, it remains true that our attitudes about victory are a matter of culture. In any case, the recent framing of competition that we see on the tube, goes a long way beyond a general obsession with competition. I think it reflects a specific and quite recent economic and, one might even say, spiritual situation.

Although the top prizes in the economic game are absurdly great, very few of us are even entered in that lottery. For most of us, the prize pool has shrunk over the last 40 years or, and this is what matters as far as the mood of country is concerned, it is perceived to be shrinking, hence, the compulsion to stage and restage simulacra of what is apparently a nation-wide game of musical chairs. Americans know that they have to make alliances with one another in order to survive; but they also believe, perhaps falsely, in the necessity of eventual treachery in a world without enough for everybody. Complicated debates about health policy aside, much of the opposition to universal health care is based on the simple thought that anything the other guys get will be at my cost. Ergo, get your hands off my Medicare!

There’s a deeper mechanisms at work as well. Winning or at least not losing is a value that survives the bankruptcy of other values. To put things crudely, the contest is a way of changing the subject in the absence of a sense of what your life is for. As a people, we could declare peace, after all, and build a society in which the goal was not a level playing field for an endless protracted conflict but the general health and welfare of the inhabitants of North America. Apparently this outcome is too terrible to contemplate. People not only chose to watch Chopped! They chose to live it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Where is Fancy Bred?

You don’t have to be some sort of postmodernist to recognize that we frequently mistake linguistic conventions for objective facts about the universe. For example, we normally speak of facing the future; but it would be more sensible to claim, as some peoples do, that we are backing into the future. After all, everything we can know or perceive, as opposed to make guesses about, is in the past; and our constant stumbling would be more understandable if we adopted the metaphor of walking backwards to tomorrow. Whichever way we imagine our orientation in time, however, the choice is linguistic, not a matter of adopting a different physics. Nevertheless, such choices can have existential consequences.

Consider how we speak about sexual desire. When I say I desire a woman, the normal interpretation, at least among my kind of people, is that the desire, though inspired by her, is something that belongs to me, something I’m responsible for. There is nothing inevitable about this way of putting it. Old poems sometimes personify desire and treat it as one of the properties of the desired person, a fact about them. “Desire glowed in her lovely face.” On this view, one can no more choose not to perceive and feel this desire than one can choose not to see that an apple is red; and if the lover makes a fool of himself over the beloved or even acts in some seriously wrong way, the fault is not his, any more than it’s the nail’s fault to be attracted to a magnet.  In speaking in this fashion, the troubadour is merely working a variation on the eternal complaint of the misogynists. After all, priests and philosophers have been blaming women for being desirable for several thousand years now as if women had a singular responsibility for the bridle their attractiveness puts on masculine freedom. This rationale, which I suspect underlies the resentment of women by traditionalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims, continues to be widely in evidence in the modern world and, if it sometimes seems ridiculous, causes a tremendous amount of hurt. Of course it is possible to construe this attack on women as an instance of projection; but the matter can’t be settled scientifically because the location of desire is not a natural fact but an ethical choice, albeit one that the culture we are born into usually makes for us. Taking responsibility for your own behavior isn’t a recognition of a truth, it’s a matter of doing the right thing, which is something different.