Monday, October 30, 2006

Making things vanish

You've got to hand it to Margaret Thatcher. As horrible as the Iron Lady was as Prime Minister of the UK, she was a first-rate magician. David Copperfield gets a TV special for making the Statue of Liberty vanish, and it reappears before the eleven o'clock news. Mrs. Thatcher announces that "there is no such thing as society," and--allakazam!--it's still missing.

Case in point: the latest issue of Mother Jones Magazine, which features on its cover a piece called "The Thirteenth Tipping Point." This is the author's hoped-for moment when humanity "slips from selfishness to altruism." Why are we trashing the planet? Well, we simply don't know enough; children aren't taught in schools about the impact their personal choices have on the environment. If only they realized! And we haven't organized enough to convince the corporate world that there's a market for efficient and green goods. So let's harness the power of the web! Evolution has brought us so far--now let's nudge it along, before we're all either toast or up to our necks in the rising sea level. These little changes will all add up, and then, all at once, human nature will change.

Now, human nature changes all the time and is different in different places, and what our author doesn't seem to realize is that the most recent shift (a partial one, to be sure) went the wrong way--from altruism to selfishness. By "only recently" I mean in the past 25,000 years or so, after the beginnings of large-scale agriculture. For the half a million or more years before then people lived in close-knit, supportive, bickering, sometimes violent but generally intimate and supportive communities. And this way of life, which some people today still prefer to the wonders of the modern world, was itself the result of a change--what anthropologist Christopher Boehm called the "egalitarian revolution." None of our brother and sister apes shows anything like it, not even the much-romanticized Bonobo.

What happened in the part of the world that calls itself civilized was a change in social structure that gave some people power over others. In other words, we undid the egalitarian revolution. From then on everything in social life was a zero-sum game. And in the past 400 years, in one part of the world, a further revolution took place which took almost every decision of any importance out of our hands. Under capitalism these decisions have been turned over to the market, which demands by its logic that production and consumption increase without end.

What really changes--and what makes for those changes in human nature--are the rules of the particular game that a culture plays. Capitalism shapes all production to maximize profits and expand markets. People are selfish in that kind of society because it doesn't make sense for them to act any other way. It's not because they're biologically programmed for selfishness. (They're not programmed for altruism, either, to be sure.) All of the carbon set-offs, buying clubs, acts of self-restraint, and other personal efforts we make won't change a thing as long as our interactions and collective decisions follow market logic.

Maybe you don't agree with me. I don't know if the author of this article does or not, because she never once mentions capitalism and never suggests that our own culture is anything other than transparent, value-neutral, and totally responsive to unfettered individual choices. In other words, she shares the Thatcher fallacy--thinking that all that exists is a bunch of independent, rational actors moving around in a social vacuum. But every human change throughout time has been a change in social structure, too; individual and social are indivisible. If there is no society, then there is really no hope--except for some mysterious global psychic transformation that overtakes all of us in our sleep. That hasn't happened before. I wouldn't count on it now.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Work in Progress, I.

Here's a description of a short (under 30,000-word) text I'm finishing up. I hope some readers will comment on this synopsis; feel free to ask questions, too. It would be very helpful. If you'd be interested in a pdf of the entire draft and would be willing to send me comments after reading it, please ask me at mlstein Thanks.

The Truth of Myth and the Myth of Truth
explores the kinds of intellectual and cultural moves that are likely in communities where fundamental issues are addressed through the telling of stories. It opens with the tale of an imaginary anthropologist who cannot square his Enlightenment ideals with the apparently irrational and inconsistent ways in which his subjects think. The anthropologist, I argue, understands knowledge as a body of propositions that can render the operations of the world in thought, thus making those operations understandable and controllable. Beginning with the substance/attribute distinction, he hopes to arrive at a series of universally valid statements that specify objective relations among substantial entities.

However frequently this model is criticized, it remains folk psychology and is implicit in virtually all academic work. But it is also inadequate, self-contradictory in its social implications, and inconsistent with what we know about the way organisms conduct themselves and even the way we observe ourselves and other animals behave.

A sketch of the difficulties with the propositional theory leads to the discussion of myth-centered communities, which operate with a different understanding of what makes statements truthful. This discussion falls into two large sections. The first considers the political and historical implications of the variability of myths and the tolerance generally shown for other people’s stories or versions of one’s own story. Such tolerance is essential if a community is to retain full social equality. To claim a correct version of a foundational story is to assert the right to condemn others as false, and this concentration of power is intolerable in an egalitarian community. Where certain stories are reserved for a specific group there is almost inevitably a degree of hierarchy.

Tolerance towards variability also allows the readjustment and renegotiation of foundational accounts with demographic change. The paradoxical result is that communities that claim to preserve the ways of the ancestors have historically been among the most resilient of social units. Ideas of group and individual identity are continually reconstructed through myth-telling (and through ritual); communities remain self-identical without essentializing identity, and experience acquires coherence without positing a unitary or private subjectivity.

The following section treats the philosophical implications of the anti-essentialism manifest in myths, which consistently blur such distinctions as life and death, animal and human, and divine and human. In the words of Nahuatl scholar James Maffie, they posit a “dialectical polar monism”—a world at once divided and not-divided. Divisions appear only in order to establish relations of complementarity, and those relations are easily and frequently inverted.

Any thoroughly anti-essentialist approach makes being secondary and relations primary. It favors experience over observation, a preference that N. Scott Momaday noted when contrasting American Indian thinking with European models. Dealing with this irreproducible complexity requires attentiveness to all the influences that transform events and to every ramification of every act. The similarity to Chinese thought, especially as François Jullien interprets it, is obvious; but so, too, are the resonances with the picture being drawn by contemporary neurology and social psychology.

What appears in myth is the real world, but with the invisible as prominent as the visible. Myths can point to reality, but only because they do not reproduce what our senses can perceive and do not attempt to derive propositional truths from observation.

The closing pages of the book consider the survival of many of these elements in literate cultures—the Aztecs, the Chinese, and in Classical Antiquity. The question of a revival of myth in modern times underlines the common misapprehension that it is a kind of sacred story which is accepted as true in the propositional sense. Myth-telling, though, is not a way of transmitting set truths. It is part of a practice that organizes perception and directs activity in certain ways. In the modern world this work is carried out largely by the market, not by retelling foundational stories; there can be no revival of myth in such a world.

Asthmatic Kitty and the Thing about Christianity

Because it's much cheaper than iTunes, more manageable, less annoying, and has heaps of oddities that are hard to find anywhere else (a lot of Harry Partch's own recordings, for example, plus the BIS catalogue, Michael Tilson-Thomas's Mahler, Shahram Nazeri, El Perro del Mar, The Books, etc., etc....) I subscribe to eMusic

Confession: that link pays me if you check them out and get the 25 free trial downloads. What's eMusic?

I recently downloaded a free sampler CD from Asthmatic Kitty Records. I could hardly resist the name, it was a chance to hear a few cuts by Sufjan Stevens, and it was, after all, free. I found it an excellent bargain. The level of craft is high and the songs ingratiating. The various musicians are all worth my attention.

But they are also overtly or obliquely Christian. Not the scary, stereotyped born-again, Bush-loving, panting-for-the-apocalypse type, but the kind of intelligent, open-minded, heart-in-the-right-place Christians you run into at anti-war demonstrations and welfare rights rallies.

So why am I still uneasy? Is it simple prejudice that makes me single out an album suffused with Christianity and not, say, one that's Buddhist to the same degree--like The Books' wonderful Lost and Safe? Aren't "religions" essentially the same? Doesn't "this is the day the Lord hath made" say the same thing that Zen masters convey by saying, "every day is a beautiful day"?

Well, they're not all the same. It's true that both of these sayings remind us that the world isn't set up to meet our standards--they can be boiled down respectively to "Thy will, not mine, be done" and "not my will", which are indeed remarkably close. They point to a profound and difficult truth that secular humanists rarely appreciate.

But the differences are even more important. Buddhism doesn't privilege humanity. The Bodhisattva takes a vow to release all sentient beings, including cockroaches and poisonous snakes--not just people. There's a kind of chill to its rejection of all of humanity's special pleading. It's summed up in John Cage's answer to a woman who asked him if he didn't think there was too much evil in the world. Cage replied that he thought there was exactly the right amount of evil in it.

We surely have the right to recoil from such cold-bloodedness. (No less a Zen character than R.H. Blyth did so.) But the Christian alternative exacts too high a price--not just in its exclusivity and factual absurdity, but in the way it tosses out the baby with the bathwater.

The joke in Christianity is that because God is especially concerned with his human children, he wills for us what we would have willed if only we had our heads on straight. Whatever happens only seems to be contrary to our will. We should accept it and embrace it because it's all been set up for our ultimate benefit.

In other words, Christianity is the ultimate exercise in bad faith. It only appears to put us in our place. As the Gospels say, he who would save his life must lose it, which means that you get to save your life by pretending to want the opposite. That's where the smart money goes.

How does it accomplish this paradox? In part by telling us, correctly, that the appearance of the world doesn't reproduce the real structure of the world--but then, rather than directing us to look attentively and egoloessly at reality, going on to ask us to see it through a particular and very anthropocentric set of glosses. Most of the practices we lump together as "religions" tell us to stop mistaking our ideas of things for the things themselves. The oddity and frightfulness of Christianity is that, more than any other tradition, it places its own set of ideas in front of us and passes them off as the things themselves. In that sleight-of-hand is its real danger.

An invitation by way of introduction

The stereotyped blog contains one person's thoughts on all sorts of matters. This one will fit that description--but only up to a point. In my eyes it won't be successful unless it attracts other people's thoughts. I'm looking for a few good correspondents.

I'm a writer--what most people would call an independent scholar--who works as a lawyer in Rochester, New York. A year ago Monthly Review Press published a book of mine, The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism. I'd worked on this project for some years with very little feedback for others, and I joked with friends that I'd written it to find the people I should have talked it over with before I wrote it.

With a few exceptions my hopes remained unfulfilled. I'm still working in almost complete isolation, and that's not good for any writer, or any person. I needed different way to find those same people. This blog may be it.

I'm the first to deride the idea of an internet community; putting visual representations of words on a screen is a very inadequate substitute for the complex and multidimensional thing we call communication. But it's sometimes the best we can do.