Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Briefest Note On Literalism

Yeats said it well: the world is clearly falling apart. Storms have ravaged these United States, mostly in the South, not once but twice in the past decade, beginning with Hurricane Katrina. The earthquake in Japan was most devastating. The nuclear model of energy shows evident failure in the devastation of Japan since, either owing to poor construction or regulation on the part of a particular nuclear industry, their storm caused enormous nuclear damage on a scale not seen in the world since Chernobyl.

People are ill educated. Unemployment is at its highest in decades. And finally, speaking internationally, for all of the glory, strength, and ethical resolve of masses of people struggling for democracy in the Middle East, that same struggle makes that region most unstable and reveals and exposes some atrocious dictatorships that have been at work for many years.

For all of the talk about falling birth rates for certain demographics, say in Europe, there are too many people living on our orphaned, fragile planet. Overpopulation has never been more in evidence and with each extra human being brought into the world, the less freedom there is for the rest of us, the more burdened become our resources - and oil will eventually be used up in the near future anyway - and the more regulations and laws, and bureaucracy in general will have to be erected and sustained to simply manage the crowding of our swelling populations.

And last but not least, China, arguably the world's leading or at least rising superpower, is close to being kind of new form of dictatorship, combining the worst of new free markets with the worst of the old planned state run economies and about the only virtues of that enormous country are a crude sense of plucky ambition and an admirable work ethic. And unfortunately, the benefits of those virtues only seem to sustain the vices of dictatorship as their economic success makes the United States and others indebted to that country in various ways and of necessity cooperative with it.

This list of ills and woes is most serious and surely there are many grave matters I have failed to mention in this introductory list. My apologies, dear reader, if I forgot to mention your favorite political cause or grievance. From my partial list you get the picture that our civilization is not in the best of ways.

Yet none of this should be taken literally. None of it means there is this entity called "the world" that is going to end. That is, none of it should be turned into a vain, self serving drama of cosmic import, and prophetic valence, whereby we turn narrative events, by means of substitution codes, into myth in the negative sense of that word as Frank Kermode criticized in his book The Sense Of An Ending.

How can we regard our world as an imaginative source of meaning and awe rather than a mere set of problems to be debunked and solved? How indeed can we even talk in such a way? Is such talk not a sign of wasteful privilege given the suffering around the world?

Yet maybe there is a problem in how we think of such events. Maybe our narratives of cosmic credit and blame, and heroes and villains is to take our crises in too literal a way?

I say literal because when we are literal we are receivers of information that we directly take in as assertions to confirm or deny. We are literal when we receive information as if it were some kind of summons to act in this or that way. That is we turn these problems we face, whether as a species, or as part of a nationality or geographic location and turn and translate them into literal commandments: laws and procedures regarding the chosen and unchosen people, the fallen and the elect: we speak of a literal Jesus who wants us to do this or that, and we speak of global events as if they literally are messages from the beyond or the future. Natural disasters are literally as some kind of verdict upon us personally, for example.

Often these attiudes and mass hysterias are thought of in merely psychological terms, as a natural response to fear for example. The most common explanation is found in the term fundamentalism. This choice of a word gets at some truth about the historical details of these destructive mentalities, but the fundamentalist label is far too narrow: it seems to make such ideologies a natural and inevitable occurence, or as a result of, say, bad or toxic religion, as opposed to an allegedly purer or more modern form of religion.

In place of the word fundamentalist I am inspired by scholar and writer Thomas Moore to name our problem literalism.

In his words, "literalism is the great sin of the age".

There are so many varieties of literalism, from reductionist neuroscience, to much of the expressions of the world's religions in certain historical moments for each of those religions, from the inability to interpret works of art, to the inability to have a genuine conversation, that it would be impossible to catalogue them all here. But you'll have to take my word on this one. Literalism is always the very worst thing to afflict a person or culture.

In literalist thinking there is both an excess of imagination (natural tragedies for example are read as signs of the gods or a god or of some monolithic verdict on the human race, say that we deserve punishment and so on) and a deficit of imagination (the inability to read our lives poetically, for example).

The failure or deficit of imagination is that it turns experience into usable and provable set of base and bare facts. Above all the literalist mode is a mode that is anti-Socratic. It closes down meaning into a list of childish and prodedural rules. It's aim is put an end to the process of questions once and for all. It looks forward to Utopia, whether in some hypothetical future stand in this world, a or a better world in another world elsewhere.

The literalist mode is an hysterical mode of both overreading and underreading. Literalists cannot accept or read the surface of things as they appear and in fact are. A literalist reads the surface of life and finds it some kind of compulsive reaction.

This is a deepest paradox. The literalists think the truth lies behind or outside of surfaces. They turn the surface of life into a code or myth to be decoded or translated. But though this may appear to be going beyond or beneath the surfaces of things, this is literalism since literalism thinks the point of life is to separate what is really true - deep down true - from what is untrue. The literalist isn't interested in the poetry of our lives; it wants to get the story straight!

Literalism takes over when aesthetics are lost and destroyed in a society. Literalism is what happens when society's pedagogical and educational institutions are reduced to teaching information and critical thinking alone (that is critical thinking in terms of deciphering what is logical, ethical and so on). I do not reject the common consensus that critical thinking is a capacity somewhat in trouble in this particular epoch, Nevertheless, critical thinking without perceptual or aesthetic thinking is just as impoverished. Indeed critical thinking without aesthetic "thinking" may be a worse state since a people obsessed with rational argumentation and solutions may lose the capacity for those states of consciousness with go beyond our functions as utilitarian animals. To be reduced to utility does disservice to our humanity.

And by perceptual or aesthetic thinking I do not mean the ability to decode media. Sorry dear reader if that is a goal near and dear to you. I am aware that some of our media is a very bad way indeed and people may need protection or insurance against its consumerist predations. I understand your concerns.

Decoding of media does not properly or adequately prepare one to love or have delight in our human culture. We must not only debunk and defend against our culture; we must have proper appreciation of that in our culture which is worthy of our attentions and respect. This appreciation involves something of awe, something or respect for mystery. This is not the same thing as critical thinking. One can be a critical thinker yet be convinced that we humans can do without mystery and see only in mystery superstition and ignorance that must be overcome.

Yet philosophers throughout all of our ages assumed - correctly I think - that there were some modes of inquiry which were not to be totally mastered, but rather to be contemplated or appreciated.

If we think of life as separated into three dimensions - the first, scientific or factual, the second, religious or ideological, and the third aesthetic or imaginative - we get a literalist culture when the first dimension of fact or proof is in control (domination by the scientific movement) and when the belief or value system (religiosity) replaces and takes the place of the aesthetic dimension. That is, people regard culture and literature as messages for how to live or models for the right kind of character to have and leave the rest to science to administer. Or they see a certain narrow conception of religion or spirituality as a replacement for aesthetics.

This is why in a literalist culture there is always great anxiety about the harmful or healthful content of works of art. Indeed, I would argue that in a literal age people do read culture in order to mirror or copy it, thus vindicating the worries or anxieties of certain censors. But if I am right, since everyone is in the grip of literalism, literalism becomes a kind of first cause to which literal playing out of fantasy worlds as if they are real and to be imitated are an effect.

In a literalist age people never regard works of culture as invitations to questions or contemplation of life's mysteries. A literalist age sees only the mania and need for solutions and conclusions. As a consequence, so called sacred texts are not invitations to awe or respect but rather as guides to life in a literal way, which is exactly why so many people read the Bible or the Talmud in such ways today.

I know this will create great arguments from religious historians and scholars, but I am sure that these books were not read in such ways at their beginnings. I am sure they were read in a poetic rather than didactic way. I do not have time to enter in that debate here, but it is something on which to ponder.

Inability to respect and read the surface of things without translating them into something egocentric and self serving is one kind of literalism. Another kind of literalism is paranoia. Conspiracy ideology takes discovery of corruption in a literal way, as if the shocking facts are a kind of verdict of the evil or falleness of human beings. At worst, stories are reinvented or reimagined so that they serve the hunger or need for facts.

The Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky somewhere makes the distinction between symbol and metaphor. About metaphor he is most enthusiastic but about symbol he has some reservations:

"We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it."

I remember a friend of mine who remarked, upon looking at Monet's water lilies, that Monet had not gotten the botany correct for that part of France, as if the painting were a literal report on the flora and fauna of the countryside.

I will leave the last word to John Ruskin who not only defends the need for imagination and poetics but draws a clear line between helpful and unhelpful uses thereof.

"The action of the imagination is a voluntary summoning of the conception of things absent or impossible; and the pleasure and nobility of the imagination partly consists in its knowledge and contemplation as such, i.e. in the knowledge of their actual of their actual absence or impossibility at them moment of their apparent presence or reality. When the imagination deceives, it becomes madness. It is a noble faculty so long as it confesses its own ideality; when it ceases to confess this, it is insanity. All the difference lies in the fact of the confession, in their being no deception.It is necessary to our rank as spiritual creatures, that we should be able to invent and behold what is not; and to our rank as moral creatures, that we should know and confess at the same time that it is not."

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