this, that, and the Other

identity, alterity, and everything in between

Category: Contra Descartes

Hold Onto Your Butts: on Bumper-Sticker Beliefs

Today I got stuck behind a car driving through Huntington Beach. On the back was a bumper sticker which read, “Hold onto your butts: keep our beaches and streets clean” featuring a picture of a cigarette butt. Nothing special. The irony, however, was that the driver was in fact smoking a cigarette and proceeded to throw the butt out the window. You know. Onto the street. At the beach.

This stresses to me something fundamental about belief. That is, belief is external, caught between and around and in front of us. It is out there in the world—we are in it, not autonomous possessors of it. This is not meant to completely undermine agency, just to say that oftentimes our so-called personal beliefs and convictions, say the soiling of streets with cigarette butts, goes against, not just our actions (i.e. hypocrisy), but active, external beliefs. This person (assuming the car was hirs and blah blah) had contradictory beliefs, both external convictions, one, that beaches and streets should be clean, and another, that s/he would like to smoke wherever s/he felt like. A lot of people’s reaction to global warming takes on this same contradictory-belief/disavowal quality (“Oh, of course I know global warming is really happening and terrible, but just one [insert environmental abuse here] isn’t going to break the camel’s back…”).

Basically, I’m trying to say that belief is caught up all around us. This includes us of course, like I said, I’m not trying to undermine agency. Who knows. Maybe a lot of good came from that bumper sticker. But nonetheless there was a pronouncement of a so-called “inner” belief (although of course this is wrapped up in external ideologies and mythologies about Nature, a certain health ideal, smoker shaming, etc etc) which, given its internality is presumed to be the person’s “authentic” self, counteracted by an “external” belief (“well, fuck it, I want a cigarette”), which is either viewed as a deeper self (“they’re a hypocrite!”) or  ideological (“look at how the media/corporations/et al have sapped away their agency!!! Aren’t we super great to in no way be influenced by ideology like those heathenz lolz!!1!”). Neither of these options fully satisfies me though.

I think of belief as an aggregate that, although including agents, is also external to myself. If you haven’t read Andy Clark and David Chambers’ fabulous essay on the extended mind, you should. In it, they argue to show the spreading of epistemic credit—that is that the mind is active externally in the objects it thinks “through.” So, for example, when writing a poem, myself, the pencil, and the pad all form an aggregate. I think “through” these things. Likewise with a laptop or even in regards to memory (the Otto and Inga example in the essay).

This is why I am so unsatisfied with most of the responses to the London riots. Either, the poor are demonized and blamed, the “they have revealed their true selves” rhetoric, or, on the opposing side, the rich and systemic forms of ideological and class oppression are to blame. Or, as Philip Blond seems to think, a bizarre form of both (he seems to think ideology is to blame, the destruction of “the individual” and blah blah, but yet somehow he wants to hold “individuals” wholly responsible… or am I reading this wrong?). None of these satisfy me wholly. People are caught up in beliefs, in systems, in ideologies. A person never fully bears the brunt of the belief in its entirety as an agent nor is the belief ever fully outside of the person. The agent is outside of the reach, withdrawn from the belief in some ways (like the smoking in the car with the bumper sticker, not wholly captivated by the belief, or rather, captivated in counteractive ways) and likewise the belief is outside the reach of the individual, they do not realize it in its entirety. No person involved in the London riots bears neither “the criminal” (a la demonization) nor “the oppressed poor” (a la ideological approach—which, for clarification, I do think is much less bigoted and far more insightful than the demonization approach) stereotype fully nor can anyone person be held fully responsible for the systemic beliefs involved therein (whether or not there is legal responsibility or what-have-you is not my concern here).

This is why I’ve decided to stop attending the church I was previously going to. I fully support equality for the LGBTQ community. It is also, unfortunately, hard to find the kind of church I would like to attend that doesn’t go directly against (in terms of verbal and/or financial support) LGBTQ issues and policy. I was attending such a church, and, well, I felt that I was within a system of belief I did not want to be—I was supporting an institute which propagated a certain belief, put me in a belief aggregate, that I did not want to be in. So it was time to leave. It was like smoking in the “hold onto your butts” car (perhaps a cliché is in order: “pulling a ‘hold onto your butts’ ” perhaps?). Despite the fact I didn’t “believe” the policing and hate, it was being believed for me—I was still within a system of belief acting on the world. What I would like to have thought of as a deep-seated, authentic belief was nothing more than a bumper-sticker belief on the engine of a gas-guzzling, beach-littering machine of a counteracting belief. Suffice to say, our beliefs are inherited, interconnected, disavowed, repressed, out-there, and mesh-y things. Mesh-y indeed.

On the Empty Tomb: an Assemblage of Easter Thoughts

“And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”—the (presumably original) ending of the Gospel of St. Mark

When people die we tend to have some sort of funeral service—some rite of passing into a beyond, other world, the ether, fire, or simply the earth. The funeral service is a radical reminder of our finitude I think—that even at death our bodies belong to this spherical mass floating about some star in some big globular of stars somewhere. This is juxtaposed of course with a sense of importance, about the person, about the human species, rites commemorating the body and such. The funeral is the place of settling, the place of final dwelling we could say, the place at which all things are finally rested, centered, and stabilized. The place we celebrate a singularity’s significance in spite of its ridiculous insignificance.

And I think this is why the empty tomb is such a terrifying thing. Sure, it stresses the beauty of conquering death (whatever that means), redemption, salvation, and what-have-you, but it also completely decenters the significance of death—or, rather, decenters significance. Significance exists in that there is a certain risk involved to the significance. For instance, I really love Walt Whitman precisely because I have invested so much time, interest, and passion into his work. I have invested all this time and interest against the background of other poets and books and things that I have chosen, risked if you will, to not invest so much of my time in. I only really care about Walt Whitman in that I risked my time, my being, my life, etc., to study his work over and above something else. Choosing Whitman (or anything) involves a radical rejection of other things.

This is true of people too—getting to know someone, befriending someone, loving someone, all involves this sort of risk. Risk only exists in that I am ultimately risking my life, my body, my being. There is no adventure, no journey, no hero’s quest (and therefore no hero) without this risk. Without risk I am open to all possibilities as possibilities without consequence, that is, possibilities without significance. Thus the funeral rite—it is a way of acknowledging the risk taken by all involved in the person’s life. A way of affirming the value of the risk—displaying of the body, remembering of the individual—and a way of mourning the ultimate loss the risk involved.

So—what does this really have to do with the Easter season? Well, in short, I have a hard time getting out of Lenten mode and into Easter mode. The resurrection is too ridiculous, too nonsensical, and far too mysterious to be a satisfying answer to the question of Lent (I think this is why there is a whole season of Easter, to allow the mystery to “settle in”). Christ as a singularity, as a finite creature, radically possessed by the creation he created, is obliterated in the resurrection. Resurrection destroys the significance of risk, of possibility, of choosing this to that. Although the empty tomb is hopeful and comforting in its infinitude, it is also terribly stifling and claustrophobic. Infinite possibility is rightly a way of saying no risk or significance to possibility. To take the Whitman example—if I knew I came back from the dead and lived forever, what then is the significance or risk to reading Whitman over and above say Shelley? I’m going to have an infinite amount of time, so, it’s really quite unfair to go around picking favorites. Significance emerges because, or at the very least in part, I face my death. My death is “mine” and in part defines this mineness—without “having” a death, who/what am I? How am I even singular?

Although I’m looking ahead in the church calendar, this is what is frightening about the ascension—this now non-singularity ascends out of the earth that he did not belong to, even in death, and into the non-place of “the right hand of the father.” I mean, come now, what the hell is that supposed to mean? Where is “the right hand”? How can a bodily Christ dwell at the non-bodily “hand” of a person, the father, who is the same nature as himself (especially when that “self” also possesses a human nature as well)? This just makes no sense.

And I don’t think it’s supposed to make sense. The resurrection is ridiculous—this is what is meant by a “mystery.” During the Easter season there is a reminder to Christians that Christ is risen, yes, but also that he is not here, the tomb is empty. No risen thing could be here. This is the land of risk, of significance, of finitude—here death sets the rules. We’ve done the funeral rite, we’ve put Christ in oils and perfumes and wrapped his body and we’ll be damned if he comes back and we have to go through it all over again. But we don’t have to—because he leaves us, he ascends. And although I get that the Church is the body of Christ, that it is the community of believers that is Christ, in one sense all that’s left of Christ is the empty tomb. His body is not here. His singularity is not here. Although his trace may be everywhere, he is not here.

To put it another way—the two Marys have traditionally represented the Church in two different aspects. Mary the mother of god represents our birthing of Christ into the world, the Church as the body of Christ, the Church as mother. Mary Magdalene however represents the Church as the lowliest of sinners, begging Christ for mercy, the Church as lover. In this way one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass, really encapsulates what I’m trying to say about the solemnity of the empty tomb,

“For Magdalene, of course, the resurrection didn’t mean

She’d got him back. It meant she’d lost him in another way.

It was the voice she loved, the body, not the god

Who, she had been told, ascended to his heaven,

There to dispense tenderness and pity on the earth.”

After the Winds

Why I’m Not a Carnivore

Arguments for or against vegetarianism/veganism tend to boil down to a Cartesian affirmation of animals-as-machines versus the PETA animals-are-our-friends jargon, the inclusion of animals into some common guild with us people. Neither of these are very intuitive to me although I can affirm each in part—animals are used as product, more often than not (but not exclusively) as meat-product, but also they express something of will, individuality, pleasure, and “freedom.”

Interestingly enough both arguments can be turned on there heads. For instance, we equally have the capacity for reification to meat-product. Both the cow and I share the capacity to be de-sexed, quarantined, pumped with corn product, and consumed by the masses (and, to be blunt, I would probably act a fair amount like a cow if in a cow’s situation, although perhaps such a hypothetical is too tautological to mean much). Likewise though me and the animal have a disparity of freedom—I am free to quarantine and eat the cow in a way the cow is not “free” to do to me for instance (I for one am terribly dissatisfied with such a line of argumentation, but that would be another post). Either argument essentially says, “hey, the animal is like such or can be used as such, therefore it is as such.” I am somewhat perturbed by either of these stances.

In short I think animals are animals. I think any interpretation of animals (whether as capital/value or anthropocentric) already presupposes a system of linguistic-speciest distinctions withdrawn from the animal. The animal cannot exist as my “friend” in the sense that my roommate whom I make espresso for and chat about Woody Allen with does—the animal is “absent” from language and human society.  S/He is not my “friend” save as animal-friend—not only can she not accept and reciprocate friendship as I give it, but she is wholly incapable of being available to it. She is in a different “world.” However, although the animal is not in human society and language it does not mean she is antithetical to it, it’s absence/nothingness. She is withdrawn from it. She is not available to it. However, the animal is available to things in an animal-ish way (compared to the machine which has no will or “availability”). Animals do animal things. Sometimes they eat this grass, sometimes that. They have monogamous, polygamous, homosexual, or unabashed libidinal sexual relations. Sometimes they’re celibate. They have pleasure and sometimes they don’t have pleasure.

All I’m saying is animals should be treated like animals. This is not an ontological sketch to say what that is if one can say what that is. Whether that means animals should be raised with the capacity to express what they can in the way they can before being consumed and dispersed as capital-product or rather we should stroll hand in paw/hoof/wing down the street singing Kumbaya is not this post’s concern. Simply put, animals are animals—which is a tautological way of saying animals are. Whatever the hell that means. It just seems to me people should be more aware of what the is-ness of animals is: whether avoiding meat-consumption, buying free-range, praying in sobriety before each meal, or simply deciding not to spay or neuter their Scottish terrier. Animals are. Figure it out.

Toward a Common Hermeneutic: a Reconciliation of Theology and Art

One of the most basic postures we take as humans is to invoke names. By names we designate, invent and reinvent, and even deconstruct. A name paradoxically shades and narrows our interpretation of something while simultaneously being our only means of opening the thing up for experience. All discourses, in this case particularly those of theology and art, interact with and employ names as a means of communicating. After providing a brief reflection on the phenomenon of naming, I will expound further on what shape naming takes primarily in art, as imaginative disclosure, but in theology as well. A reconciliation of the two and a possible use of theology as aesthetic discourse are finally presented.

A Brief Sketch of the Phenomenon of Naming

Since the linguistic turn it has become increasingly difficult to conceive of language as simply a representation of inner thought, a sort of equipment our minds sadly have to use to communicate. Language does more than just carry thoughts, it encapsulates how we think, act, and behave within our given situation (and, arguably, is what gives us those situations). It is out of language that philosophy and worldview present themselves. For it is not that language incarnates an abstract notion of mind, but rather language shapes how and what we think. The language we speak brings with it a history of how to think with that language. Of course reason is a vast whole and this treatment cursory, yet it is clear that language and reason are inexorably linked. It is for this reason that the primal substance of creation as viewed by many of the pre-Socratics was logos: the reason, thought, word, and systematic imagination of the cultures of men. St. John picks up on this theme when he speaks of Christ as the primal Logos in his gospel. As those who participate in the Image of God, Christ the Logos, we too share this image, the imago dei. Traditionally the imago has been associated bearing a logos, the stamp of the divine, in that we are in a thinking-discourse. The Church Fathers, particularly St. Irenaeus, used such logic to eventually reach the formal designation of man as “rational animal.” We must not understand this as Descartes did, the res cogitans, thinking things, but rather as being rational in that we have language and language has us.

The creation and recreation of man is framed around a hermeneutical approach to existence. As mentioned above St. John saw the Incarnation as the Logos, the Word, assuming humanity and vivifying their logos, the divine in man. But before this recapitulation of humanity in Christ man was first created to be a steward over creation and to name the things of the earth, as outlined in the creation myth of Genesis 1 and 2. Out of all the actions that could be at the center of man’s posture to the world in Eden we find the phenomenon of naming. If we see the “naming of the animals” and the possessing of a logos as related then it follows that any posture toward a thing (interpretation, prejudice, understanding, et al) is a sort of name. To articulate any interpretation of an artwork is to “name” it, to take a certain stand on the thing. Even silent articulations, thoughts, are names (although not shared). Likewise to make an artwork is a naming. To approach something with any sense of the thing, any pre-judice, is to already have named it.

How then does naming shape how we live? Naming is to existentially “place” things: naming defines a “here” and a “there.” In this sense we touch on Heidegger’s distinction of man as Dasein, “being-there,” or that which presents a “there” wherever it is. Man most primordially designates space in relation to himself, the lamp as here, the chair as yonder, etc. Granted, he perhaps has an understanding of the chair as 10 feet away, but this is a formal designation that follows suit from the existential, the “there.” In fact, I can only conceive of a there because I am here; the lamp has a there only in that it is a possible here for me. Before I can conceive of quantified space I conceive of relational space—me as here. Naming is thus a strictly human, existential action; it places things in relation to itself, designating a space for a thing to appear as intelligible. To name then provides not only a means of talking about the thing but a context and situation for the thing to be understood as that thing. Naming then has a degree of paradox to it—it simultaneously gives a “space,” an interpretation, of the thing while yet shutting the thing in particularity, naming it this.

Naming a thing as this then works backwards onto our experience of the thing. For instance, the male and female form are two objects, things, which every culture or context interprets in a certain way, what we call masculinity and femininity. However, I never experience the male or female form objectively, that is devoid of any interpretation of them. Even if I have the ability to conceptualize the female form as something separate from femininity this presupposes my experience of femininity from which to derive it. Here we run into Heidegger’s famous hammer analogy—the hammer’s being is constituted first and foremost by its hammering (as a thing “ready-to-hand”) long before we can conceive of it as an objective thing possessing a height and weight (as a thing “present-at-hand”). Just as we experience a lamp as over-yonder before we think of it as 10 feet away we first experience gender as our context and culture presents it. Further, to be able to conceive of something as objective (devoid of context, self-subsistent) I must have already subjected it to this embedded interpretation. This is all a way of saying that before I talk about something I must name it. Before I can cognitively separate or categorize something I have to have experienced it and thus already interpreted it.

Art as Imaginative Disclosure

Naming then is an articulation of something that is already there, or rather an articulation that the situation presents to me. Before naming, the thing has already presented itself to-be-named and I have taken a posture of one-who-names. Naming is not creation ex nihilo but revelation and prophecy, an opening up of this silent dialogue. Objects themselves beckon to the namer, the situation I find myself in calls for the object to be articulated. The stone beckons to the sculptor in this way, asking of the sculptor to “name” it, chip away at it, until it becomes what the situation calls for, namely, a work of art. Naming an object then opens what was once closed off, revealing in an articulated form an interpretation that was always there but withdrawn. This is why Heidegger chose the word “disclosure” to talk about the phenomena of actuating this type of possibility. Naming is exactly this sort of disclosure: for to name a thing is to reveal in physical form a certain posture we are disposed to take before the thing, just as the sculptor is disposed to “name” the stone as a work of art.

Not only does naming bring out a situation then, a “there,” but also reveals an interpretation of the thing already in that situation—it discloses a meaning. In this disclosing we interpret the thing as-something, metaphorically extending the thing. Metaphor in this sense is literally a carrying (phora) over (meta) of meaning, as in the phenomena of gender—I experience the female form and anatomy first and foremost by its metaphoric-extension, femininity. We know objects by the names we give them. So, for instance, if our sculptor was commissioned to make a bust of a political leader, before he puts chisel to stone there is a silent dialogue of the art work—the sculptor has a certain way of sculpting and the political leader has a certain way of appearing, the possibility of the work of art is there already. The situation the artist is in beckons for the work to be made in such a way. If our sculpture is the David then we have a metaphoric-extension and naming of David—this is David the masculine, ideal, the icon. However, if we shift the situation and think of Shostakovich and his Ninth Symphony in “honor” of the Soviet victory at Berlin, we have a very different metaphoric-extension—a piece which is superficially an ode but at heart a carnival-like mockery. Although simple examples we must not dismiss metaphoric-extension, the creation of symbol and culture, as superfluous or inessential, for it is by metaphor we experience the world as such. For the theatre is not a microcosm but the actual cosmos presented more obviously and naturally; likewise, art is not a reflection of the world but the very means by which we see and experience the world—there is no discourse without names.

The Metaphors of Theology and Art

All naming, not just as exemplified in the arts, has artistry to it, interacting with mental space and supplying us with new metaphors to “take up” and use. Theology likewise is artistic in this way, supplying us with metaphors to take up and think through the Divine. Visual art does this even more so though in that it both commodifies mental and physical space—art extends not only mental metaphor but also visual metaphor. Michelangelo literally modified the stone into metaphor in his David while also extending the mental metaphor of say masculinity, iconography, Creation, the soul, as well as how we think of David as a mythic-historic figure. Art works from the physical metaphor and lays hold of, besieges our mental spaces—in this way the metaphors of art inhabit our being. As the body and soul are only discernible as things in reference to each other, so too mental and physical space are defined by each other—no physical experience of art is without an appropriation of metaphor by the soul. Art is then a sort of incarnational naming, a transformation of a physical situation into a meaning. This is not to say theology is a-physical per se, but rather that its epistemology is grounded upon an admitted Unknowable, inclining it to a theoretical, mental space.

Art as a discourse then is an incarnational whole whose physical space always has mental, metaphoric significance—every artwork supplies a metaphor, a name, beyond itself. The David extends away from David the person to create a metaphor that occupies its own mental space. Not only does the artist name David-as-statue, but he creates the “as” of the metaphor—there is now the possibility for something to be like the David. The artist has created a relation and named it—disclosing David-the-ideal as a particular. Consequently, theology as a discourse discloses meaning in light of the Unknowable. The metaphoric-extensions of theology, its categories, formations, and divisions are all interpretations of the ultimately pre-predicative, anti-propositional whole that is God (like the David is an interpretation of David-the-ideal). Just as the female form can only be discussed in that it has been already interpreted as femininity, so too theological discourse is that interpretation of God, which is not God, yet our means of experiencing Him.

Because this is the case we can apply the “as” of theology, its metaphoric-extensions, to the “reading” of art. If we take up the metaphors of the theological discourse we can readily see that all art is already enmeshed with theological meaning—and, because of the hermeneutic circle (pre-judices affect the reading which affect the judgments which affect the reading ad infinitum), art in turn supplies metaphors for theology to take up. As the naming of an artwork is found in the situation the artist finds himself in (the silent dialogue) so too the meaning of the work is found in the situation of the artwork and its world.

As an articulation the artwork has a shared sphere of intelligibility—I am not the sole interpreter of an artwork, nor the artist, but rather the situated community interprets the artwork. That is to say I may name something (i.e. make the artwork) but I as an artist am equally alongside my peers as an interpreter of the work—once a name is created it is taken up by the community and used as it sees fit. In a fabulous text Owen Barfield (in Poetic Diction) sketches a history of the word “ruin,” showing how its meaning had been developed and redeveloped by such authors as Shakespeare, Spenser, and Coleridge. None of these men have “ownership” of ruin nor its meaning, rather they took up a name they did not create and presented an interpretation to the world—in turn their interpretation was taken up by another and commodified. There is no functional difference between ruin and Richard III. Each is a name that has been handed down with a history of various interpretations and meanings. Interpretation of a name or artwork is essentially artistic, a re-naming. The situation the word appears in, what people and contexts commodify the word, are those who orient where the history of the word is to go—they salvage the word from a past, present it to the present, and project its meaning into the future. If there is to be any dialogue between the discourses of theology and art here and now it can only be done so if theology chooses to approach and interpret art. If theology presents itself as an ideological discourse by which meaning can be found to be in the work (i.e. as Marxism, Freudianism, and Foucaldianism have) then that meaning will be found to be already in the artwork.

What is it to be a theological artist then? It is to be a human in the fullest sense; to understand the cultural-mythic languages given, dialogue, deconstruct, and recreate them in response. This is the primordial stance of what it is to be human, to worship the Creator by pulling out of creation its possibilities. All art though inevitably has theological implications, as it does psychoanalytic or epistemological ones. The artist if not intentional in his theology should at least be aware of these implications (Rothko and Hirst clearly seem(ed) to be). What is it to be an artistic theologian? To provide a sphere of intelligibility for art—a situation in which art can thrive and be interpreted and re-interpreted. Christian aestheticians have done this throughout history, St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger all provide theological theories of art as a basic groundwork of their philosophical-theologies. The Christian artist and theologian are called to be human in their situated, perspectival views on the world. Although they have differing viewpoints each take a similar stance toward the world, both concerned with man and his interpretations. Being human is an erotic existence, one in which things are experienced, felt, internalized, named, interpreted, worked into a mythic scheme, formalized, rejected, and finally re-experienced as people and their culture shift, opening up the space for ever new interpretations and possibilities to be named.

In Defense of Symbology

Like the fear of a left blinker blinking yellow
out of a closer-than-objects-appear mirror
only to notice the placard idly on the back
reading “student driver” or the fear of sudden
realization that the black specks in the last
half of yesterday’s bagel are in fact not poppy seeds:
an affirmation of the certainty of context, of language,
and what it means to never ever see every side at once,
the same fear Galileo felt to think the spots in the rag
of night we call stars might tear to dowse us in light,
that the spheres might some day fall off their circuit
to leave the earth alone in its bed Sunday morning
with nothing but the rumpled, stained sheets of the
whole galactic affair, how much simpler then, easier, true,
to put us off to the side a little, the sun the bigger, the stars
hung up like the bigger sun just farther away, and us hapless,
haphazard making inches with our fingers of the vast
light-year spaces of void, not some objective spot
groping each end of the thing but just another nosy neighbor
peaking through the blinds watching Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So
going at it from Venus to Io, nova to shining nova