Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"that is where you go to die"

Horace Miner's 1956 essay, "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,"  satirizes western anthropologists' othering characterizations of "primitive" cultures by painting Americans (the "Nacirema"--sorry, I guess that's a spoiler) as a superstitious people whose cultural practices are based on the belief "that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease." I remember reading this essay in an anthropology course early in my undergraduate studies and finding it wildly amusing. 
Recently I returned to Miner's essay and was reminded that it has this to say about health care among the Nacirema:
The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because "that is where you go to die." Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.
 Oh, those Nacirema. Will they ever learn?

Monday, December 21, 2009

On my dullness.

From the Philadelphia Bulletin, 28 Dec., 1884:
"I am a young woman, twenty-one years old, and am called bright and intelligent. I fear I have seriously impaired my mind by novel reading. Do you think I can restore it to a sound and vigorous condition by eschewing novels and reading only solid works?"
I am now in full list-reading mode, and my list is about 2/3 novels. Maybe I should scatter the "solid works" around in such a way as to remain "bright and intelligent."

illustration: La Liseuse, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1772

Sunday, September 20, 2009

When nothing is everything.

Starting with a discussion of night and darkness, Emmanuel Levinas in “There is: Existence without Existents” gives us Being as a negative presence, not simply an absence but a phenomenon in itself—just as night is not merely the absence of day, but is itself a phenomenon with its own attributes and its own transformative power on the entities that still exist in space. And yet this is still inadequate, since it implies the necessity of entities (existents) for this being (the there is) to exist. In fact the there is—this Being of emptiness—is not an absence of entities, but something like a presence constituted by pure absence, and this pure absence comes to envelop everything, even if there is nothing to be enveloped.

[deep breath.]

In The Idol and the Distance Jean-Luc Marion gives a similar description, but in his version the disappearance occurs as a result of the all-consuming light of a transcendental noonday sun that blots out all shadows. Thus the subject-object distinction dissolves either in inky darkness or blinding light:
In the night, where we are riven to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not ‘something’. But this universal absence is in its turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence. (Levinas 30)
This unavoidable presence shows itself as far more than a mere nothingness by becoming an all-consuming, even sublime, “insecurity” and “horror”. It’s not just “nothing,” but takes on a material aspect—it actually is there (hence the there is).

It’s interesting that Levinas mentions this materiality as an overwhelming characteristic of Naturalism, since as I read it I had been thinking of his negative presence in terms of American Naturalism. Frank Norris’s McTeague, for example, is filled with descriptions of oppressive nothingness. It ends in Death Valley, a sort of ultimate negative space. Norris’s descriptions of the absolute silence and emptiness of Death Valley are reminiscent of Levinas’s characterization of the presence of there is in the darkness of night:
The last echo died away. The smoke vanished, the vast silence closed upon the passing echoes of the rifle as the ocean closes upon a ship’s wake. Nothing moved…League upon league the infinite reaches of dazzling white alkali laid themselves out like an immeasurable scroll unrolled from horizon to horizon; not a bush, not a twig relieved that horrible monotony. (Norris 423-25)
In Norris, this presence is the oppressive fear of death, the potentiality of dying against which the individual attempts to rebel or assert himself. But Levinas wants something more, and asks what exactly that thing is against which we rebel when we fear and attempt to escape death. It is one thing to fight for one’s life, but what is the entity which triggers that fear, and what is the entity against which one fights?

By exploring this sort of question, I think Levinas actually inches closer to Herman Melville’s legendary chapter from Moby Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale”:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? (Melville 165)

Melville gets at the heart of what Levinas discusses in his chapter on the there is, and the way in which it links back to—and supplements—Heidegger’s insights: the “rustling of the there is” is the horrific echo of infinite possibility. That is, where there is nothing there is also always the possibility of anything and everything. Death is included in this, but certain death in the form of a terminal illness doesn’t have the sublime power of an image of impending death by wandering through an open, empty desert. If Heidegger offers us the insight that possibility always precedes actuality, Levinas adds the observation that pure possibility is a terrifying emptiness (and vice versa):
…this silence, this tranquility, this void of sensations constitutes a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace. The indeterminateness constitutes its acuteness. There is no determined being, anything can count for anything else. (31)
And when “anything can count for anything else,” the subject disappears into his own inescapable uncertainty, drowns in the overbearing presence of this palpable nothing:
In horror a subject is stripped of his subjectivity, of his power to have private existence. The subject is depersonalized…It is a participation in the there is, in the there is which returns in the heart of every negation, in the there is that has ‘no exits’. It is, if we may say so, the impossibility of death, the universality of existence even in its annihilation. (Levinas 33)
This is not to say that fear of death is excluded, but that the certainty of death doesn’t close off this fear—it has no closure, it’s infinite. This is the “presence of absence,” the “density” of nothing, and the sense in which “being has no outlets.” (Levinas 35) It’s the crushing weight of an uncertain but predestined fate that hangs over the protagonists of Naturalist novels, or the sublime mystery evoked by the elusive white whale. Ultimate, absolute, and all-consuming, it’s also present in one of Melville’s great inspirations (and probably my favorite example of exactly the sort of imagery discussed here), Milton’s description of Hell:
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
(italics mine; Paradise Lost, Bk. I, lines 60-68)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The blog that wasn't there.

It appears that this blog has hit its inevitable identity crisis. That's not to say that I've run out of things to say, but that any attempt to organize a statement into a well-formulated journal entry has been thwarted by my "real" work on one hand and summer lethargy on the other. And therein lies the identity crisis: I didn't necessarily start this up to post well-formulated journal entries complete with citations and in-depth analysis, unless, by chance, such entries happened to be immediately possible and convenient. When this blog was more active, I was just as happy making quick observations as I was launching into involved political diatribes or musing about my hometown. The point was just to keep writing, to keep thinking, and I didn't quite accomplish either this summer.

But it's fall now, so...forward.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Beyond the laundry.

Just when I thought the church would stop and leave me to practice passive heresy in peace, the pope goes and opens his mouth. Condoms contribute to the spread of AIDS now. I, as a white middle class American male, never felt the urgency of the church's disdain for prophylactics. I knew it was frowned upon (having never been married and all), but we were never talked at about birth control, and especially not about condoms. Abortion, yes, but condoms and birth control pills were simply an accessory to sex. That is, sex is wrong, but if you're ok with that you should probably use a condom.

Now, I think it's safe to surmise that the pope doesn't actually oppose the policy I just stated: if you're not worried about eternal damnation he probably prefers that you at least have some consideration for others and try not to spread sexually transmitted diseases. The problem, of course, is that he did not say this. He said that the distribution of condoms actually hurts attempts to fight the spread of AIDS. Meanwhile the Vatican's talking heads gushed about recent increases in membership.

Hooray for increases in membership! It's like the old days, but without the galleons and heavy artillery.

illustration by AD McCormick, in The Land of the Golden Trade, by John Lang

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

So fresh and so clean.

As I've mentioned before, I have an ambivalent relationship with religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. Suffice it to say that I'm usually a heretic among the faithful and an apologist among non-believers. The latter position--never easy to maintain--has recently become even more difficult due to an impressive streak of three news stories in two days which have revealed that the biggest threat to Roman Catholicism is the abject cluelessness of its own leadership.

The incident most attractive to the international media took place in Brazil, where the life-saving abortion of twins from a pregnant nine-year-old rape victim resulted in the excommunication of her mother and doctors.

The story most immediately troubling for Americans consists of a Chicago bishop threatening to close Catholic hospitals should the Freedom of Choice Act be passed.

And finally, remarkable for sheer absurdity, the Vatican's official paper, L'Osservatore, celebrated International Women's Day by publishing an article (which I can't find in its entirety anywhere) declaring that the washing machine is the invention most responsible for liberating women.

So, in the interest of saving children's lives, the Brazilian bishop punishes a group of people for saving a child's life while the rapist (the girl's stepfather) escapes excommunication, which should not surprise anyone familiar with the Vatican's procedure for handling child molesters within its own ranks. Meanwhile, in Chicago, the church cleverly denies its clout and plays the victim, vowing to engage in civil disobedience to the great detriment of millions of real victims. Its many mouthpieces are quick to point out that these are private hospitals, but neglect to mention that they receive public funds and seem to have forgotten that this same qualification has historically been the argument for refusing care based on race, inability to pay, and other no-no's for the Holy See. Then of course there's the washing machine, which liberated women much in the same way that Eli Whitney's cotton gin lightened the workload of southern slaves, or that the guillotine helped create a climate averse to capital punishment, or that the atom bomb has succeeded in deterring war since 1945.

What bothers me is not that I disagree with the church's positions--that's nothing new--but the belligerence with which it has suddenly decided to express its views. In these instances the church has picked its battles for the express purpose of provoking confrontation. From the absolutely disgusting display in Brazil to the vindictiveness of the threat in Chicago to the downright idiocy of the washing machine article, the Catholic Church has decided that its best chance at survival in the twenty-first century is to emulate the Jerry Springer show. Continuing to employ such a strategy will not only destroy the church in the long run, it will take a whole lot of credulous sheep down with it.

photo credit: Samsung

Sunday, March 1, 2009

An unintended hiatus.

I was recently told by a dear friend that if I claim to have an active blog, I'd better at least have an entry posted during the current year. I think he's right, but I've also got student papers to grade, a seminar paper to write, taxes to file, applications to complete, and a series of exam lists to compile. 2009 started badly for me and, although things have actually begun to look up, there is not enough time in a day to do the things that I need/want/hope to get done. So here is my first blog of 2009. Consider it (assuming I still have readers) a written vow to put down my thoughts more frequently.

And now, in case you have not yet seen it, I give you Bobby Jindal as the GOP's human sacrifice. Poor guy.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Jindal channeled Mr. Rogers at the start, and it was downhill from there. Evoking Katrina, bringing up debunked myths on high speed rails, ranting about a volcano safety program. This was not an accident. He was sacrificed by his own party.

But why?

Neoconservatism and neoliberalism have both learned to capitalize on the trend to failure. Why train for the high jump when you can get away with lowering the bar? The Republicans have made nothing but stupid moves since Obama got elected. Rush Limbaugh is now considered a party leader, and was one of the few commentators to defend Jindal's speech.


They want expectations lowered. Or they're stupid, but for the sake of conversation let's assume that this is a very sophisticated ruse.

The president commits to healthcare and the very next day Democrats turn up on TV remarking that, while universal healthcare is of course the ideal, it's not very likely to happen and, well, we'll take what we can get. The president vows to close Gitmo and end torture, then waits a few weeks before vowing to carry on the War on Terror in a manner disturbingly similar to what we've grown used to (including renewed bombings in Pakistan). This is accompanied by reports of possible court challenges to the closing of Gitmo and even a Democrat now arguing that if we can keep it well-run and respectable, maybe closing Gitmo isn't such a good idea.

Extinguish the light at the end of the tunnel and people will just be happy just to set foot on solid ground.

This is politics. Lowering expectations in these circumstances may not be such a bad idea, but this is more than a plea for level-headedness, it's cynical propaganda, and it works with Jindal's absurd history lesson: America's work is done. Racism's over. Now don't expect too much.