Monday, November 24, 2008

KNOWLEDGE AS POSSIBILITY

E.L Doctorow wrote an article for the June 26, 2008 edition of ‘The Nation’ entitled “The White Whale” (here).

It prompts a couple of thoughts.

He brings in the scientific term ‘quantum nonlocality’. The term refers to the verrry interesting fact that electrons shot from the same atom will – no matter how distant they are from each other – mirror each other’s behavior, and will do so simultaneously. Short of science fiction, miracles, or metaphysics, this isn’t supposed to happen. Marvelous.

But that’s not where he’s going with it.

Rather, he observes that there is a fundamentalist criminality confronting Us in the Middle East stemming from a bunch of radicals misinterpreting their sacred texts, and – a hemisphere away – the United States is sort of going down a dark path itself.

I get nervous that he is allowing his piece to go the way – as is so often the case nowadays with public intellectuals who want to stay on dinner and talk-show lists or be able to ‘get listened to’ and have their writings purchased – of pulling his punches. Because he immediately backs off: “This is not to suggest that our water-boarding and sensory-deprivation torture techniques and the incarceration in perpetuity without trial of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, are the moral equivalent of 9-11.”

But maybe I’m missing a well-embedded irony here and that’s precisely what he wants Us to think. He certainly goes to enough trouble to detail just what it is that’s verrrry baaad and has been done by Our forces (or ‘contractors’) over there and down there.

He goes on quickly to assert that “a declared enemy with the mind-set of the Dark Ages throws his anachronistic shadow over us and awakens our dormant primeval instincts.” Aha. We are ‘victims’ then? Is that what We going to go with at the bar of History?

Less focus on the ‘act’ and more focus on the ‘effects’ of the act might help achieve some clarity. Nobody can make Us torture. Nobody can force Us to indulge those nicely noted “dormant primeval instincts”. They are indeed down there inside each of Us, and in an even more eerie way, functioning among Us as a collective, as a social or societal group. But the fact that they are there does not mean that We ‘have to’ act on them.

In fact, it’s precisely in imposing upon Ourselves as individuals the discipline of the higher brain capabilities – all that prefrontal cortex stuff, among other things – that We demonstrate that We are not simply a single-stage brained animal, but indeed are something far more advanced (evolved, if you wish; created, I’d say). While the limbic reptilian brain and the earliest experiences of hominids around campfires in the days when life was “nasty, sharp, brutish, and short” are all held deep down inside each of Us and all of Us, there are other capacities and ingrained experiential pathings inside the self. We demonstrate just how ‘evolved’ and ‘mature’ human beings are by imposing sufficient mastery upon Ourselves so as to give Ourselves more options, more freedom from the flat, narrow, searing yet stone-like milieu into which Our earliest ancestors were mired and locked.

The “time loop” that Doctorow sees Us stuck in is not simply a current-events loop, nor a historical loop that pulls all civilization back to more barbaric times. It is a maturational time-loop that sees a reputedly evolved and mature human culture ( and society and civilization) regress to an immaturity, emotional and psychological, that also undoes the gifts bestowed through that culture’s maturity upon the rest of the world’s peoples. Oy.

Of course, it’s great to be able to be discussing anything in terms of ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ and ‘maturity’ at this point. Who cannot recall the shrill sustained bray of Second Wave feminism and multiculturalism, and before them the hippies and yippies, to the effect that ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ and ‘maturity’ and ‘adulthood’ is all so ‘bourgeois, so ‘male’, and so oppressive?

Doctorow doesn’t go so far as to connect any of those dots: that after some years of deconstructing adulthood and maturity and civilization, Americans – and their elected government – have reverted to acting childishly, immaturely, and in a decidedly un-civilized manner. As one’s Marine drill instructor might once have inquired noisily: YOOOOO-HOOOOOO? But maybe he hopes that We might still be able to do it for Ourselves. From his lips to God’s ear.

He evokes Henry James: “to take to myself ‘the faintest hints of life’ and convert ‘the very pulses of the air into revelations’”. Who can deny the nobility and – face it – frakking utter urgency of such a worthwhile resolution? To sensitize oneself to unseen but vital things is a tremendously human and humanizing achievement, and beyond ‘achievement’, it is an ‘askesis’ – a discipline around which one might trellis one’s entire character.

Nor is such sensitization the same thing as the ‘sensitivity’ that has now plopped out of the cultural sausage grinder as a result of feminist and celebrity concoctings. This is not some hysterical or histrionic or shared-mania emoting: this is a tuning of the human instrument – like a violin or a radar.

Indeed, while much the former, even more the latter. The former image – the violin – suggests that We are wondrously made and can be honed to perform Our marvelous gifts ever more genuinely, thus achieving a genuine, life-affirming, self-affirming, socially contributive fulfillment.

But that still leaves Us – as it did James and his fellow American Pragmatists – with only half the circuit completed. Pragmatism’s conceit was that if it ‘worked’ then it was ‘true’ and that was the only way anything could be called ‘true’. So ‘truth’ came from … the person who decided that it worked for him (or her).

But if the only ‘authority’ such truth possessed stemmed from the individual, then how much help was that ‘truth’, how authoritative was that ‘truth’, in the face of the massive challenges – ‘insults’, the medical and psych folks would say – to Our individuality when We are bethumped – as We all are, must be, and will be – by mortality, evil, and death? Piss little, actually. And that’s why – I would say – so many folks are zinging around now not only like loose electrons but like little globs of grease and fat on the flat surface of a hot iron skillet.

Whereas the latter image – the radar image – goes somewhat further. A radar is not only an instrument that has the capability of its own fine-tuned perfection; it can also detect and discern other things beyond itself, things ‘out there beyond’. Presences, even. And if I go a little further and propose the image of a radio, well then the thing can bring in ‘transmissions’ … and that’s one giant step for mankind.

A step that was made quite some time ago. And was retraced recently in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘liberation’ and ‘empowerment’ and fill-in-the-blank.

Because while James hits it on the head by claiming to want to convert “the very pulses of the air into revelations”, neither he nor his Pragmatist brethren and sistern could accept the necessary fact that if you have a revelation you have to have a revealer. Otherwise your revelation stems from merely talking to yourself, which may indeed lead to some interesting thoughts – especially if you’re kind of intelligent – but still leaves you holding your own … stuff … in the end. If you get my drift here.

So when Doctorow then speaks of “knowledge as a foundation for a democratic society” he’s speaking something of a truism, and yet at this point it imparts the kinetic energy of a revelation. Because knowledge has come in for quite a drubbing. Yes, the National Security State, like all control-leaning governments, started to play fast and loose with accurate knowledge so that The People, the Prime Branch, wouldn’t get too upset too soon. But that was old-fashioned skullduggery and deceit (not that I am in any way approving it).

What then came along after 1968 was something else: the praying mantis cutting off the head of its mate (well, host society, in this case). Weirdly – as things always get when revolution’s afoot – knowledge was simultaneously degraded (it wasn’t accurate and it wasn’t possible to have any anyway) and raised to the level of a secret handshake (those who ‘got it’ and those who ‘just didn’t get it’).

It may seem an act of supreme treachery or feckless imbecility to vitiate the wellsprings of a civilization. But that’s what radical revolutions do – although they claim that they’ve got something much better, if everybody would just shut up and do as they’re told . And that’s what has happened here. To Us.

He goes on about ‘terrorists’ but in this Year of Grace 2008 it is no longer even modestly possible to separate archetypal Islamic terrorists from committed Resistance fighters carrying the fight to the enemy. (If We have declared them an ‘enemy’ to Us, then I can’t see how it can be deplored if they consider Us their enemies.) Had the national response to 9-11 been handled differently, this confusion wouldn’t have come about, and there would not now be more ‘enemies’ of Ours out there than there ever were before this Administration.

The Incumbent, he notes, has no concept of “national community” – but what “national community” is left after the sustained fracturing assaults of Identity Politics? All We have in common is ‘fear’, and potential target-hood or – hmmmm – victimhood. Other than that, there isn’t anything else; or at least not when Doctorow was writing in June; now, perhaps a common descent into the economic abyss could elicit a new birth of unity and community.

“It will take more than revelations of an inveterately corrupt administration to dissolve the miasma of otherworldly weirdness hanging over this land, to recover us from our spiritual disarray, to regain our once-clear sense of ourselves – however illusory – as the last best hope of mankind.”

Well, the weirdness of the other-worldly is a many-faced thing. On the one hand, the past decades created an abyss in the center of the national mind and soul, as revolutionaries assorted and various sought – with no little success – to destabilize ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’ (as must be – for any radical revolution recognizes that ‘tradition’ (degraded to ‘the status quo’) and religion constitute obstructions to its agenda). But – the hot and terrible ironies – in destabilizing them and creating a yawning abyss where once stable and strong structures had stood, the revolutionaries were unable to muster the necessary violence to totally replace the lost values with their own revoltuion’s iconic thought and values.

Instead, the theretofore marginalized fundamentalism – claiming an other-worldly authority for enshrining this-worldly tradition and extending its sway and smiting its opponents – was sucked into the vortex from – as noted – the outer darknesses of American culture. You can have it however you like it: who were more the barbarians in this – the radical revolutionistas of the Identities or the Fundamentalist whackjobs with their sacred Moonpies and blood-thirsty flags?

Either way, We were the still-fat and fine fields and towns of Rome’s later empire. Until the barbarians came.

It was no illusion that We were the last best hope of mankind. It was an unfulfilled ideal – but that is not the same thing (though especially in matters Catholic, its enemies dearly love to make that inferential leap).

Nowadays, perhaps enough of the Constitutional vision has been spread about the world (not through Our recent essais d’armes, to be sure) that some other nation and people will provide a more suitable and capable vessel. The jury’s still out, but there’s no more guarantee that Americans were to be the only chosen people than there is a guarantee that there exists only the one sentient species in the universe. What a note to go out on: that We have indeed “meanly lost” the great heritage entrusted to Us – and just as women in striped pants and sensible shoes were becoming Army generals. Ah t’is a bitter and wanton trick, and enough to depress the bejesus out of a saint herself. History, not only not dead but quite frisky, may be allowed a cosmic guffaw, though some polite attempt to stifle it is the least decency might demand.

“Fundamentalism really cannot help itself – it is absolutist and can compromise with nothing, not even democracy.” Yes, and the same is true of revolution. We might note that in the face of 35 years of unremitting public doubt, the Second Wave and perhaps its follow-ons and spin-offs have been unable to compromise with democracy on the matter of abortion. Do We not recall what Lenin did to Kerensky? The last thing Lenin wanted was ‘compromise’ or a consensual improvement to matters; he wanted complete overthrow and power and he was settling for nothing less no matter how many bodies (or ‘blastocytes’) had to be piled up in the process – eggs, famously, must be broken, and some murders are simply ‘necessary’. Selah.

“A Manichean politics reduces the relevance of knowledge and degrades the truth that knowledge discovers.” A Manichean politics thinks it already ‘knows’ all the relevant knowledge and on the basis of that has declared this or that ‘evil’. Once the decision for ‘knowledge’ and ‘good’ has been made, any further search for knowledge or any further refining of the knowledge one already has is simply insufficient dedication to the task. But isn’t that also the task of those who ‘get it’ against those who ‘just don’t get it’? Or, in the matter of the aborted, those who don’t even get to get-it or not-get-it at all.

“To take the long view, American politics may be seen as the struggle between the idealistic secular democracy of a fearlessly self-renewing America and our great resident capacity to be in denial of what is intellectually and morally incumbent upon us to pursue.”

If fearless self-renewal involves a lot of killing, then surely the late Third Reich was one of the most self-renewing games in the league. And if self-renewal of humans involves killing humans, then somebody’s got a mighty deficient understanding of humanity’s potential. But nobody ever said that the current age possesses the fullness of understanding and wisdom; although far too many simply assume that it does. And that they do.

“Reality is too much for us to take in, as, for example, the white whale is too much for the Pequod and its captain.” But the captain – and that lemming crew – of the Pequod precisely thought that the white whale was not too much for them; that it was nothing but a whale. They refused to accept that some things are beyond human capacity to change or subdue. They refused ‘limits’ and so lost their ‘shape’ totally, permanently, utterly.

So if reality is too much for Us to take in, then just how is it a good idea to be messing with it so fundamentally, or declaring it totally plastic and devoid of any free-standing existence outside our own ‘constructions’?

“It may be that our new century is an awesomely complex white whale … “ Well, reality has always been an awesomely complex white whale; that’s what Melville saw in his century. And he saw that going after it – and with a harpoon or two, no less – is the height of madness and folly. And thinking that you could subdue it and turn it into something that will turn a profit – well, We are all as looney as Wall Street Gekkos. However the ‘profit’ is defined, whether as cash or a new and bloody revolutionary vision – the madness is the same.

The Pequod was a stout and well-found vessel. Had she been in the hands of sane folk, she would have continued on her voyage through time, for the time allotted her, and no doubt turned a respectable profit for all involved with her. But in the hands of madmen – madness defined as presuming to control reality and indeed to create it, and ‘men’ defined as ‘humans’ – then even the stoutest vessel, even a nuclear aircraft carrier, will founder in the vortex of forces roused up that no human can control.

Doctorow quotes Richard Rorty, himself taking a shot at the current state of affairs: “The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular Christianity, is not instruction about the authority under which we should live but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.”

I would go further than Rorty; this descends, it seems to me, beneath poor philosophy to outright pandering. This is a 'philosophy', simply providing a whacked-out revolutionary mania what it wants to hear.

The first mistake is to define Christianity merely horizontally: that it was a purely human construction, erected for the purely human (and hardly the best human competence is capable of) purpose of controlling other humans for its own aggrandizement. Even if that were true, the fact that the thing has lasted for two thousand years should give any lesser-lived entrepreneur prudent and sober pause. Not so Our modern revolutionistas.

But there’s no way to scientifically prove that it is a purely human construction. Yet to smooth one’s thus-rocky path by asserting that if it can’t be scientifically proven then it’s not true at all … this is akin to pre-war Western strategists dismissing the Japanese as fliers because, being carried about by the mothers for so long as children, they would ‘naturally’ have a poor sense of balance.

Rorty is cagey enough not to toss out all the gifts Christianity has bestowed. But they are demoted to “suggestions”, thereby losing their Vertical capacity to ground human life against any of outrageous Fortune’s slings and arrows. Simply “suggestions”, as a waiter might propose any of an assortment of fillings for one’s breakfast omelette. So the revolution gets to keep the property of those it dispossessed, while baptizing it in the good-purpose of the revolutionary cause and reducing it to merely ‘intellectual property’. Neat. Since the revolution could never make on its own what it has expropriated.

“Wonderfully different”? You mean, we’ll be able to fly? Be invisible? Have the Golden Touch? Or what?

There isn’t enough ‘wonder’ in being a human being? Perhaps not, if ‘wonder’ is taken to include the dark wonder of sin and evil and all its pomps and all its works.

But Rorty is philosopher to the beautiful – and thus there are no dark wonders. This is truly a financially-independent, young, and pretty person’s philosophy – suitable, like a Pharaonic ceremonial barge, only for junketing in shallow waters on nice, California summer afternoons. High-seas voyages over the face of the mighty deep are beyond it. The howling tempests of an over-extended superpower that has crashed its own and perhaps the world’s economy … those foaming mountainous seas will cull the ranks of the sleek and the fatted; the first generation of Puritans didn’t look like that because they were born that way.

Rorty is Ahab in a modern, juvenile, shallow key: not stark, raving proud and mad about it, but optimistic and cool, self-confident and mellow, safe behind mental walls of spun-sugar; like a hand-fed, penned soup-rabbit that never had to spend a night in the forest, a house-pet with floppy ears that gets shampooed often.

“Wonderfully different”. A namby-pamby version of that American exceptionalism that could treacherously destroy one race and enslave another for its own convenience. Convenience and comfort and the freedom of never having to say no to oneself. O brave new world, to have such people in it!

“Wonderfully different.” Freed of the need to mature, swathed in the mummified embrace of an all-providing government that demands only obedience, until it’s time for the soup.

“Wonderfully different”. Freed from the biological responsibility for procreation and nurturance of the young, male and female grooving together, generating ‘ideas’ from a collegiate education to which they paid no attention and which perhaps deserved no attention, and being more or less nice to the pool-boys and burger-jocks and waitpersons and salesfolk.

Whitman, Doctorow notes, advised Americans not to be curious about God but rather to affix our curiosity to the matters and things of this earth around us. Which is true as far as it went, but Walt didn’t go near far enough. One isn’t ‘curious’ about God; one is in desperate need of God as a Ground and a Rock and a Companion and Lord so as to be able to go up on deck and stay there to face the challenges of conducting human-hood on this stormy sea, so as to be free from the degrading necessity to either smother oneself in spun-sugar ‘philosophies’ and damp-dreams or to do away with oneself outright.

There’s no use being ‘curious’ about the goings-on if there’s no purpose or meaning to your existence. What’s the point? Might as well go shopping and call it a life. Be a valley-girl and get gagged with a spoon.

If we are becoming wonderfully different “to a degree of free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate” … then I say We should give things some serious thought.

And if other cultures in the world can’t tolerate our ‘wonderful’ difference, then maybe that’s because they know that to accept such madness into their own midst is to invite the sugary flatulent flatness of this evolving American anti-civilization over the thresh-hold of its own national and cultural life.

The world’s cultures are starting to avoid Us. If this happened while We were walking down Main Street, or in the foyer of ‘the club’ … well, that would be a message, wouldn’t it?

Respect the whale. Respect Ourselves.

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