Sunday, 12 September 2010

Regarding the burning of sacred texts and double standards

I'm beginning to think there's something a bit strange about the west's relationship with Islam. Forgive me if that's a truism. Like a lot of people I was insensed by the stupidity of Pastor Terry Jones' intended Koranic bonfire. Because I consider myself a liberal, and someone who believes in respect for other cultures, other belief systems and just in not pissing people off for the hell of it.

But then I heard about this: Military burns unsolicited Bibles sent to Afghanistan. Obviously this is not a simple inversion; the Bibles were burnt not out of malice, and not even by Muslims but by (nominally) Christian people who were concerned with protecting themselves and their colleagues.

I also don't think, as I've heard others say, the issue is that the Christian world has a greater intrinsic tolerance. I don't think this is true. History simply doesn't bear it out - Christian nations have committed at least as many massacres, forced conversions and human rights abuses as Muslim nations, and probably much more (the Second World War alone would probably settle this matter).

The real issue is the bizarre passive-aggressive stance the west takes. Western countries meddle in others internal politics, cripple them in abusive trade agreements and declare war when they can't see any other way to get what they want (and to remove leaders who they've groomed, who have got too big for their boots); but we are very eager to put on a show of not disrespecting their religion. So, the American government makes public pronouncements against a tiny Church burning the Koran for fear of upsetting Muslims. While quietly in those Muslim countries, the Bible is burnt, for fear of upsetting Muslims. "Burning another peoples' holy scriptures is completely unAmerican" says Obama, while his military burns their own.

If the (post)Christian west was so concerned with actually being disrespectful, wouldn't fair foreign policies be more to the point? Or would that be too subtle for Middle Eastern Muslims to understand? Isn't it more likely to be the perpetual political meddling and economic imperialism which are causing people to want to revolt in the first place, and the surface symptoms of intolerance such as Koran burning are only sparks which set off a tinderbox?

I've heard a few people argue that Christianity forms the most humanistic expression of religion, because of the Gospels' emphasis on love for humanity and freedom over dogma or a specific, strictly-defined culture. I'm quite dubious that this is really the case, though certainly there is a less deterministic ethic in the Christian paradigm; by concentrating on people's internal attitude rather than their external behaviour, by concentrating on the universal of humanity rather than cultural stability, the individual is given a higher value than the community (and the mind rather than the body but that's -ostensibly?- a different argument). This notion seems to have conditioned our society for both better and worse, such that all individuals are given equal moral value but at the expense of any respect for culture, for the whole of a society.

Christians of course are not up in arms about the Bible being burnt in Afghanistan. Part of this is because of the reasons I mentioned earlier (it wasn't done maliciously by an 'other' intent on defamation); part of it is also because because such a reaction is no longer part of our culture. We no longer see the text itself as holy. Rather it is the spirit behind it, the moral lessons, separated from any theological principles. A third factor is that of power: the (post)Christian west exists inexorably in a dominant relationship to the Islamic Middle East, and therefore events are always skewed in our favour. The fact that there is an American/European military presence in the Middle East, while there is no such Middle Eastern military presence in Europe or America means that the west is in an undeniable position of superiority, and knows it. Inexcusibly awful statements are made on a regular basis about Jews in the Islamic Middle East, because of this fact and perceptions about the relationship between the west and Israel (it's not the issue here and I'm not commenting on the correctness or otherwise of the perceived relationship - only that it is perceived); quite possibly defamatory statements or actions are made about Jewish or Christian scriptures in the Islamic Middle East (it seems unlikely they are not); but the public judgment will ultimately always be that they are not as dangerous as western defamations of Islam, for the same reason that the rhetoric of the Black Panthers or Nation of Islam was never seen as quite as awful as the KKK (despite at points being almost identical); the oppressed have a right to retaliation whereas the oppressors do not have the right to continue their spiritual whitewash.

If you're wondering what my point is, then you're in good company. I'm still trying to work it out
myself. The tendency to think in black and white rather than shades of grey is incredibly seductive and presents a challenge to us all. This is particularly true in terms of the Middle East, where oppression is conducted in almost every combination imaginable, but where people are often quick to shout about rights and wrongs. Interestingly, I've seen little (in fact, nothing) on Facebook recently about the plight of the Roma evicted from France. A people without a nation, expelled from the country they've made their home - where have we heard that before..? Has even Europe really learnt its lessons?

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Salvation and Christian typology in Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is one of the most powerfully - and genuinely - Christian books I've ever read. I don't say this lightly, not being a Christian myself but as someone who has on occasion felt the raw power of Christian mythology. I read it in a little under a week, and probably affected me because of the depression I've been in myself recently, one I saw evocatively echoed the descent of Isidore (the subhuman, mutated by the poisonous atmosphere of the earth) into the tomb world. As the real world collapses around him - literally it breaks apart at his fingertips - he finds himself in a subterranean place of bones, spiritless and unformed. But after an aeon life begins to emerge again, and takes him with it, and he realises that the origin of the person Mercer, this new world's popular messiah figure, is unimportant - the fraud has just been revealed as a conspiracy based around an unwitting and unknown actor - whether Mercer actually lived, or experienced any of the events people go through when they 'fuse' with him. He lives in human beings, in the people who look to and rely on him.

The androids, conversely, don't care. When media celebrity Buster Friendly exposes the fraud, they mock human empathy (typified in the fusion with Mercer provided by the ubiquitous 'empathy machines') as a hoax, one proved false by the swindle of Mercerism. But the final proof of Mercer's 'untruth' is negated by Isidore's experience as a result of the androids' mutilation of a spider he found outside. Wild animals are extremely rare in the poisoned earth, and cherished by the philosophy of Mercerism. Just as Isidore is saved by the false messiah of Mercerism, so is all reality; all of creation is resanctified, death is defeated and life returns.

Just as in this process, even the tomb world is essential (the appearance and experience of death is necessary for the salvation, when death is revealed as conditional), so the bounty hunter Rick finally realises his wife Iran's meaning: Iran had claimed that depression was a healthy human reaction to some conditions, one necessary to a full human life. The absence of such a correct reaction to the sterile world, abandoned and devoid of life, that surrounded them, she identifies as an archaic mental illness. This flattening of affect typifies the androids as well as the pathological bounty killer Phil Resch who is consistently mistaken for an android; an absence of any emotional depth or resonance which is in fact the problem of the novel's world.

Rick identifies in himself a defect: he has begun to identify with some androids. Phil Resch has no such problem. Although Rick initially feels this overactive empathy as a horrifying mutation, a symptom of dust-infection, it slowly becomes clear that it is not him but the world which is wrong: the cold world, devoid of compassion, involved in a constant struggle to tell androids from humans when even some humans are pathological. Even Isidore, a cripplingly mutated chickenhead, demonstrates his superiority to the androids in his response o the spider - he is terrified by their curious desire to experiment on it, and it is Mercer, the false prophet, who saves them both.

Philip K Dick lived during the last half of the 20th Century, the period when Christianity began to be popularly reduced to the status of a falsehood under speculations about the historicity of Jesus. Dick's own interest in the early Gnostic mythology of the Nag Hammadi texts evidences a belief in the power of myth to guide our lives, and reimbue reality with a sense of meaning and purpose. In Do Androids Dick fully realises the potential of myth as an element of human thought to again bring life to a dead and cold world: Rick finally realises that, in his own identification with Mercer, he has become immortal, identified with an archetype who, despite his literal falsity, is imbedded in human consciousness. Mercer, as the name suggests, is a personification of mercy - mercy to all life, and to that we may call the soul of reality.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The problem of understanding meaning in postmodernism

Pascal Boyer's recent critique of deconstruction is worth reading. In it he challenges the often breathtaking statements of postmodern thought, claiming that these represent an elaborate bait-and-switch intended to ostentatiously cause shock while in fact masking a profound lack of meaningful claim.

I have sympathy with his attack and feel that these criticisms should be heard by those who jump eagerly onto the confrontational bandwagon of postmodernism. The reason I fel this is because they make the same mistake as Boyer. Thus, Boyer serves to highlight an easy and all too common misunderstanding, committed by advocates and enemies alike.

The interesting problem here is that Boyer's central argument - that postmodernist claims never mean what they say - is correct. Postmodernism should never be taken literally, for this is not its aim. Postmodernism seeks to disrupt the priveliging of literalist interpretations of reality; it attempts to disfigure that which claims a single truth which overrides the individual, and instead re-empower the human being or human consciousness over and above the material truths of science. The mistake comes when its own claims are understood as having the same meaning as those scientific truths. For, the attempt is not to dislodge and replace a literalist materialism with a different system. Rather, the attempt is to provide an alternative which can sit alongside the literalist convention, contrasting with it without the need to ascribe one or the other the sole criterion of value.

Lacan's statements that there is no such thing as sexual intercourse, or that the challenge to women is that they are not, should obviously be heard as metaphors which instigate a new appreciation of the categories society gives us, and a questioning of the relationships with people, events and objects which we tend to fall into (and even: the ideas we have of ourselves). If this is obvious for the kind of things Lacan says, it is more difficult to grasp in the case of other thinkers; and I have cause to wonder whether sometimes those thinkers themselves forget not to take their doctrines as literal statements about reality. I know I have often fallen foul of this, especially in the heat of debate.

It is a problem of dull, unsubtle thinking which can only take words as describing an objective, as-it-is world. Thinking at its most powerfully sublime, that which informs the practices of religion, art, philosophy, works precisely against this method. Instead of constructing valid descriptions of the world, it helps to dismantle invalid or constricting world-views. It allows people to question and reinvent their relation to the world, people, events and society in order to re-validate their lives.

The power of Derrida denying objective reality is lessened and devitalised when he is forced to admit that, in scientific terms, this is not correct. Both Searle and Boyer claim this as a victory, but I concur with Derrida himself that they have failed to correctly understood Derrida's project or intention. Admittedly, this failure is not a difficult one. Derrida is not talking scientifically, and should not be understood as doing so. But Searle seeks to place his thought within the scientific (which is the common-sense outlook of the 20th century west), thereby instantly negating Derrida's project by priveliging the literal description of reality over the poetic.

But we need the poetic to help us live. We need myths, we need the emotional power of new, human-centred narratives. It is my own opinion that this endeavour is what has informed the religious urge in humanity, as well as much of what we call philosophy - both the existential seeking of continental philosophy, and much of what came before. Thinkers such as Plato, the biblical prophets, Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, Zarathustra, et al have sought to reconfigure the human understanding of our world and our place within it by constructing new metaphysical systems which privelige human values and ideals - of a specific kind - over the ossifying systems dominant in their own societies. I've attempted to argue several times in previous posts that religious doctrines are never meant to be understood in the same way we understand scientific claims about the world, but instead depict mythologically an approach to living which is meant to be used to enable us to live better; happily; more ethically. Therefore, these systems should be understood as a manifestation of the drive not toward literal truth, but toward authenticity as living beings.

To sum up, a quote from Keith Devlin's book I've just finished reading which I think illustrates this very well:

"In real life, who best understands a flower? The person who sees it with her own eyes, growing in the field? The photographer who chooses the best light and the best angle in order to transfer its beauty onto film? The painter who captures its subtleties on canvas? The poet who captures its beauty in words and likens it to aspects of the human condition? The blind person who perceives it by scent and touch? The musician who sees it swaying in the breeze and captures its motion in a melody? The botanist who knows how it germinates and grows? The biochemist who understands the chemical processes that keep it alive and give it colour? The biologist who knows what insects depend on the flower in order to breed and survive? The mathematician who writes down equations that describe the flower's symmetry? Surely, there is no one way to view and to understand a flower, nor even a unique 'best' way. There may be ways that are suited to a particular purpose, but that is another issue. In terms of understanding an aspect of our world, the more ways we have to understand a flower, the greater will be that understanding. The poet or the painter who remains ignorant of chemistry, biology, and mathematics is as deprived in his or her vision and understanding of the flower as the scientist who is blind to the flower's beauty."

(Goodbye Descartes, p.281)

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Horror and the European

Well it's been quite a while since I posted here, having been concentrating on my other blog. One issue I thought about though while Israel was race. Of course, this was prompted by the writings and thoughts of the African Hebrew Israelite Community. Ben Ammi's typifying of 'Euro-Gentile' culture, stemming from Greco-Roman culture and being essentially corrupt, damaging to the human spirit, in contrast to their own very positive and forward-thinking (and essentially holistic) lifestyle made me contemplate whether there are indeed any essential differences between white and black or European and African patterns of thought and approaches to the world. I wouldn't want to make any such statement myself (because such massive generalities would be intrinsically false and bound only to mislead) but while at Neot Semadar I had the time to read Collapse IV, the first article of which is George Sieg's article on the self-referentiality of horror. In this he analyses Zoroastrian traditions and HP Lovecraft to argue that horror is inseparable from the Aryan racist drive to purity. This article struck some chord with the thoughts I'd been incubating for the previous month. I'll record here what I wrote in my journal for posterity, not as a statement of any formulated belief or position I'd necessarily want to be associated with - just as an example of where some ideas can lead.

Horror, Sieg argues, is fundamentally dependent on reason: its emotional power depends on fixation upon more than what is currently present. In this it is an abject suffering based on the possibility of thinking beyond the immediate. It depends on concept-thought, on the capacity to abstract. Animals, he argues, cannot be horrified, only terrified. Horror, as the film genre can best suggest, is based on that which is not present but implied.

It occured to me while reading this that European culture could be typified by these qualities: the drive to abstraction, to concept-thought over and above contextualised or humanised thought. Ever since Greek times, Europeans have automatically strived to disassociate thought from matter; divine from life; pure from impure. This is precisely what Ben Ammi and his followers set out to address. Their lifestyle firmly relocates thought and holiness within the world and life as lived. Separation is the crime which European society has created. In religious studies we call this immanence.

In the dark pagan underbelly of western, Aryan-caucasian society, we have always had a clear and vivid conception of the horrific, of evil. Often this has been projected onto other humans, and has allowed us to treat other humans in ways unthinkably evil and horrifying. In our fear of other cultures, the unknown, the other, we have objectified them and sought to cartharise our fear onto them.

If the Aryan-caucasian is defined by abstraction, by logic and intellect divorced from the world and life, our capacity to feel, intuit and create horror is a part of our racial make-up, inseparable from our minds and thought-processes. To objectify the world, to think in terms of death - the Living God compartmentalised, boxed out of existence as the Shi'ur Qomah tradition (a Jewish one, oddly enough - though Bem Ammi would argue not Hebrew) does so beautifully. The holistic world disappears, that of life and action and emotion, surrendered for a thousand classifications, philosophy, science and reason, new methods to kill either physically or intellectually. In our science, life itself becomes an accident; consciousness an illusion and free will and morality anachronistic dreams from a long forgotten adolescent innocence.