Monday, May 28, 2007

The War Prayer

A Memorial Day reflection you're not likely to hear or see on the news, from the pen of Mark Twain:

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cormac McCarthy at Cannes

I've made no bones about the fact that I was not a big fan of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men. Increasingly, I'm beginning to wonder if I just am not advanced enough to appreciate it. From the sounds of it, the Coen Brothers might be.

Speaking of McCarthy, I'm really shocked, pleasantly so, that The Road is getting such wonderful press. And not just from Oprah -- which was a development I was not expecting at all. If you've not yet read it yet, trust me, do so.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Religion as an Alternative

Curtis White has a fantastic two-part essay on "the idols of environments" and the "ecology of work" ([1] & [2]) in Orion Magazine, which by the way is a fairly new online magazine that is well-worth looking through if you're interested in eco-issues. Both parts really hit hard on an issue that is increasingly important to me: religiously re-animating our passion and our relationship with the earth & existence.

White first captured my interest a couple of years ago with his book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves. Since then, he wrote an underappreciated little book called The Spirit of Disobedience [see summary version from last April's Harper's]. I've never blogged about this last book, but it has proven really influential to me in terms of offering me a new grammar to conceptualize the kind of research & work I'd like next to do.

Judging by his essay in Orion, it has also set White's current course. In the second part, he does, I think, have an error. He asserts that humanity is naturally inclined to live in harmony with itself and its environment. I think he is fundamentally wrong here. The history of human civilisation has found it not simply a witness but a cause of an ecosystem's collapse. This is no radical claim either -- just read Jared Diamond's Collapse. Now, this isn't to call humanity a virus, or something dramatic like that. It's an observation, not a moral judgment, that we consistently tame nature to its submission, and in many cases our own demise.

What is a moral judgment is the hope for an alternative. To call for a different & religious way to approach and live within our ecosystems, as White does, should not be framed in some kind of nostalgic or idealistic plea for 'the way things used to be'. It is far less practical than that: its focus is about the way things might be. This was basically the point of my long, likely-ignored post last week about marketable religion. Only when we have figured out a way to think something different (note: not think something differently, which just assumes we see that "something" in a different light), and thus to breach the defining confines of practicality and productivity, is it possible to proceed "religiously". The aim of religion, in this perspective, isn't simply to project imaginative fantasies, but somehow to inspire and organize us to proceed from these fantasies imaginatively.

Sir Charles

I've been a fan of Charles Barkley ever since he actually made Auburn's basketball team fun to watch back in the early '80s. Even as a nine-year-old I could appreciate the sheer athleticism of somebody so fat -- at one in his college basketball career was weighing 300 lbs, all carried in a 6'4 frame. He, of course, went on to become one of the greatest NBA players of all time. And, in all likelihood, one of the most entertaining.

Fortunately, Barkley has not become an embarassing shell of his entertaining self like Michael Jordan. TNT was very wise to pony up the big bucks to land him on their Inside the NBA studio show, and it is consistently one of the most fun things to watch on tv. I suspect that even non-basketball fans might enjoy it, if only because it's so rare to see people on a live set actually seem to enjoy one another's company and have a good time talking.

For those who do not know him very well, Barkley is the consummate court jester. He is, though, also pretty insightful, as this interview proves. Much of it can be ignored, but he does hit on something in crystal-clear, "blue-collar" language what I think is the fundamental truth about the world today (not just America):

So is that what interests you primarily--economic issues?

America is divided by economics strictly. You know, people always talk about race, and we have racial problems in this country. Of course we do. But the real issue is the rich against the poor. We've got to get poor white people and poor black people and Mexicans [sic] to realize they are all in the same boat. If you in one of those three groups and you are poor, you are going to be in a bad neighborhood, you are going to go to a bad school, and you are going to have strikes against you. You can't commit crimes in good neighborhoods. They will get your ass. Their kids go to private school, or they go to school in a good economic area. But the poor people, they are all in the same boat but they divide you based on race or stuff like that. A lot of these politicians say things like "We've got to stop all these illegal immigrants." I am like, "That is so easy to stop." They are not working for other immigrants.

Has your perspective on these issues changed in the last few years?

Yes, when I realized that rich people will always be rich and the poor people are like crabs in a barrel. They are going to fight with each other, but they are really in the same boat. They want you to argue about gay marriage. They want you to argue about the war in Iraq.

Well said.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A San Francisco Treat

It's taken about a week, but K., Ireland & I are just about settled into our temporary housing in a Mission Bay community two blocks down from AT&T Park, home of Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants. We've washed the miles out of clothes and off the car, and I think we've sufficiently adjusted to the time-zone change.

I am, of course, still looking for a job. The only positive thing about this is that I have time to get to know the city better. Ireland & I, for example, learned very quickly that long walks in the Nob & Russian Hills area are not for the faint-hearted. These hills are fierce!

I've also been able to indulge my budding love of jazz. (Now that I think about it, I don't know that I've broadcast this interest all that much here on Silentio. If you're at all interested, I do so elsewhere every Friday night in my regular feature "Friday Night Jazz".) Last week, I was listening to the radio while idling next to Ocean Beach and was introduced to a San Francisco institution, Uplift! The Music of John Coltrane, a four-hour program on Tuesday afternoons devoted purely to the music of John Coltrane. I was stunned. Four hours!? Even if you're not a jazz fan now, I invite you to take a listen to this program. If Coltrane cannot suck you into the jazz fold, I don't know who can. Click here on Tuesdays, between noon and 4 (between 3 and 7 for you EST people), for the station's streaming broadcast. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Marketable Religion

There is a general, running assumption that defines our globalistic political economy: if the market tanks, we're all fucked. By 'we', the assumption does not refer to the already impoverished. They are already fucked. All measures to save them now are efforts to assuage the collective first-world conscience. No, by 'we', this assumption refers to the workaday hoi polloi -- those of us with a little bit of 401-K stock, casual day-traders, or even those with no stock at all. The market, so goes the assumption, is so deeply inbedded into our experience of reality that the two are now now fully indistinguishable. When somebody imagines an alternative lifestyle, say, on a commune, most of us conclude that this simply isn't practical. When somebody else suggests that we individually try to 'opt out' of the market, or to 'escape the grid', we're told this kind of singular action isn't productive. Indeed, so goes the trump card, neither are they even feasible, for the market itself makes possible the the existence of its alternative -- even the thought of its alternative. E.g., those Europeans can enjoy their fancy universal health care, we're told, because Americans are the suckers stuck with the market-based health care, where billions of dollars are pumped into research and development.

On one level, this assumption rings true. For the sake of a blog post, I'll accept it as such anyway. Now the more interesting question: why is this true? Why exactly is the market the limit-experience by which which all other experience is defined -- the paradigmatic paradigm? Why exactly do we read with embarassment our religious texts, when they tell us to give away all we own, or when they indicate the implications of recognizing desire as the root of suffering, and recognizing our experience of life as one of vanity and/or illusion? Why do we then rationalize and/or spiritualize these texts into something more palatable -- something more marketable and productive?

The answer, of course, is as simple as the question is complex, and betrays a religious element to our political economies. Our religious myths almost universally, be they orthodox or heretical, speak of an original -- or immanently recurring -- lie. A deception at the heart of our experience of what we take to be real. A deception that is the original melancholic "fall" (or, for the philosopher, "being thrown") into existence. For some, this deception is an evil that never should've happened; for others, thinking beyond this original evil is impossible, for where there is no deception there is no creation, and where there is no creation there is nothing & nobody to gripe about the deception. It is here that we find an important analogue between the mythic/religious 'original lie', whether it be a deception that must be reversed or one redeemed, and our position with respect to the the market & marketable religion.

Almost across the board, religious myths are built around the notion that in some way the basis and limits to our lived existence (be they the lie or the market) can be overcome. However, to resist the lie (or, by extension, the market) or at least the degree to which it defines us and the possibilities for our future, is not a matter of coming up with transcendental or utopian alternatives, as though we might imagine some truth that is beyond or trumps the plane of existence (and thus of the lie / the market). We are, on the contrary, stuck with the great lie, to the extent that it forms the basis for all existent, marketable truth.

Nevertheless, in my view, our religious myths & cultic practices are not means of cooperation or compromise. (Such compromise is what we find in traditional formulations of sacrificial atonement -- i.e., Christ dying on the Cross to satisfy the penalty for guilt, etc. -- and various proposals now to use use the market to solve problems caused by the market -- e.g., carbon credits, etc. I do not find either very compelling.) To overcome the great lie, our religious myths remain fully a part of the lie they expose, and thus are prey to inherent weaknesses, flaws, and aporia, but inform a cultic practice whose power is not accessed by marketable efficiency. If, then, religion can be found to participate on the level of the lie, and perhaps even provide our political economy with its foundational myth, the cultic practice of religion might then also inform us of a means & aesthetics of our resistance.

I recognize that all this comes dangerously close to an apologia for fundamentalism. When Thomas Frank wondered, 'What's wrong with Kansas?', he failed to adequately explore the religious basis for many rural poor voters to go against their own temporal (financial) interests and instead home in on moral issues. While I affirm there are solid religious reasons for these voters to vote against their interests, and thus to reject marketabl efficiency, I fully reject their equation of morality and religion. Such an equation, in my estimation, requires little to no actual cultic practice -- and, thus, very little in the way of actual religion. Contemporary religion, in the east now as much as the west, has traded in the power of the cult that cannot be measured for the power of its marketable return. This need not be a the immediate return of, say, a bomb exploded in the name of a deity, for it could just as easily be done with a view to deferred eschatological future that never arrives. Moral civic religion is, in short, not simply a reluctance but a full-scale unwillingness to take traditional religious practices at their word -- that is to say, is to not really believe in their power or truth.

A point of discussion, I hope, is the the extent to which we have almost completely lost the sense that religious practice has been traditionally limited to minoritarian communities. Monks, of myriad religious stripe, for example. This never meant that an individual culture was without religion. Superstition has, of course, always been rife; we might even say there was enough inbedded religious belief that, to the outside observer, the culture itself was religious. But, for the most part, it seems that traditional religious practice consisted of patronage -- that is, supporting that smaller community who was seen as actually believing in, and thus practicing, the religious myth. In this way, the greater community reaped the benefit by cultic proxy. There is, perhaps, something to this sense of the true believers believing for you.

If that is the case, casting alternative religious visions & practices, in spite of the protests of some, is not an irresponsible apology or rationalization for the religion & religious ideology that exists (even if unknowingly) to maintain the lie / the market. It is, rather, one of our most essential tasks.