Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Conceptualization of America

“Conception is a secondary process, not indispensable to life. It presupposes perception, which is self-sufficing, as all lower creatures, in whom conscious life goes on by reflex adaptations, show.”

“When we substitute concepts for percepts, we substitute their relations also. But since the relations are of static comparison only, it is impossible to substitute them for the dynamic relations with which the perceptual flux is filled.” (WILLIAM JAMES, RADICAL EMPIRICISM,)

Kant said it best when he exhorted us to "dare to (or have the courage to) use your own reason", in his seminal work, WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT. Socrates of course told us to examine our life lest it be found wanting in qualities sufficient to justify even living. Many sages have found ways to encourage us and help us to see in new ways, to beat our own drums and newer rhythms, as in Thoreau, to make it new.

To a developing mind, say, in high school or college, this is heady stuff indeed. But the trouble remains, especially in our current cultural moment, that we take these encouragements and motivations in exactly the wrong way. Because, in a culture dominated by a facile and obscurantist war between science and religion, or between "Athens and Jeruselum", what gets covered over, obscured by TROMPE L'OEIL and ruse, is the nature of experience itself: we easily forget that both science and religion are guilty of the same problems, though perhaps they may be in a sort of funhouse mirror opposition to one another.

In religion the chief problem is the problem of literalism, "the great sin of the age" according to, rightly to my eye, Thomas More. That is, we take a religious text not as poetry designed for reflection and wisdom, but as a series of how-to manuals, often plagued by the basest or most world denying moralISM (as opposed to genuine morality, which is often much simpler and narrower a province than moralism). Moralism gets worked up over what we may or may not do with our sexual organs, or what thoughts we have in the course of a day, or all sorts of arbitrary displays of belittling power.

Genuine morality is as clear as light from the sun and is rather like the instinct healthily minded people feel at unnecessary pain inflicted on the other (say in forcing ourselves upon an other's body without their consent).

Of course to a literalist - and by literalist I don't mean here someone who is unable to read the latent or symbolic content of a religious book , but rather someone who reads religious texts as a kind of message or manual - to claim the great religions as works of poetry as James Carse rightly says they are, is to insult and demean religion because religion is like journalism and nonfiction and poetry is lesser stuff that is made up by fallen humans. But actually secular poetry has all of the truths you could ever want. Emily Dickinson describes how the brain works with an almost scientific accuracy. Wordsworth shows us how children are especially valuable in works like ODE and MICHAEL. And Sylvia Plath makes us feel how men hurt women and its consequences in DADDY.

Religion, when it is no longer read as poetry but instead as a kind of journalist's nonfiction also creates claims and assertions which inevitably alienate somebody else elsewhere: someone with different interests and claims. In this sense all religion runs the risk of exclusivity either implicitly or explicitly, a point made beautifully clear in Stephen Prothero's new GOD IS NOT ONE.

Look at how such claims create real estate disputes and have plagued the Middle East since the establishment of Israeli nationhood. Land is fetishized by both sides with accumulating claims and counterclaims until finally an explosion of rocks thrown, guns and missiles fired, and at the worst, suicidal bombs exploded: this makes the whole war a moot point since it becomes an orgy of self destruction.

The current Pope is so awful a figure, so tied to scripture as literal guidance, that he considers abortions and gays living together as the "greatest dangers" posed to the world today, as if global warming and terrorism (and the pedophilia in his own overweening, overrated and bloated institution) were but side issues when compared to the sanctity of legal contracts and the fetish for fetus. (In Gore Vidal's formulation).

This is the world when it becomes a great how-to manual; this is self help as totalitarian self abasement.

Now having said all of this you might suppose that I have some progressivist notions about the superiority of science.

Yet the other side, the secular, is little better. Ironically this is the side that purports to save us from the ills of the religions, chiefly by telling us what really exists and what has been proven as opposed to that which is imaginary. But science has been thoroughly intertwined with SCIENTISM, defined as the inappropriate application to a narrow scientific method to all understanding in all the different domains of knowledge, and the view that science reveals but one truth. We are bombarded by a plethora of nonfiction - indeed unimaginative and literalist non fiction must be the greatest disease of published writing in prose today - all of it desperate to explain once and for all why we mate, why we like music, how playing music is but an elaborate means to get laid, how and why we should be happy, the science of morality and the science of religion. It is surely enough to tempt the most rational soul to consider creationist doctrine just for the sheer drama and meaning it contains when up against the lifeless and relentlessly materialist reductionism of today's science. In essence questions of even philosophy are to be replaced by cognitive neuroscience.

Questions of deep value become beside the point: they get read as but quaint relics from a time when Gilbert Ryle's "ghost in the machine" was the dominant view. Perhaps we secualr Moderns are no longer haunted by the ghost but are stuck with the machine.

We are told so often and so relentlessly who we are, why we are here, what we are meant to do, what we are not meant to do, (this last comes in many radical ecological tracts that condemn civilization and urge us to go back to some ancient way allegedly more harmonious with our early days as a species). We speak the language of "appropriate" and "inappropriate" which is no improvement over the language of the old merciless preacher of the Puritans. Amazingly it is both less severe and more severe. To speak in terms of (in)appropriate appeals to notions of correctness, as if morality were a mathematical calculation, or worse some sort of majoritarian fashion rather than what morality had always been all alone: a deep claim upon our soul.

This is the world of pundits like Tom Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, of books like THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC and THE WISDOM OF CROWDS. It is a world of the New Atheism as if the old atheism were somehow insufficiently tough minded and incomplete. This is the world where daily we are told factoids about what foods cause cancer and how high the risk is to be married or unmarried, and happiness is thought to be as measurable like room temperature.

And if one raises any skepticism about this state of our public discourse one gets charged with nihilism on the one hand, or excessive credulity on the other.

Thus I find myself profoundly dissatisfied by both sides in the debate which share in what I call the general "conceptualization" of America. Drawing on William James' use of the terms percepts and concepts from his RADICAL EMPIRICISM, I would claim that, for about forty years or so, we have been dominated by concepts at the expense of percepts.

What gets lost in the process is this precious matter called EXPERIENCE. When religion colonizes experience, it literalizes it: that voice that I heard must be Jesus or Allah, every feeling I have I must first ask, does it come from God or the Devil?, is it good for me or bad? We don't regard experience as intrinsically valuable. We want to define it and know what it is. It is as if we feel there is something unseemly and undisciplined about savoring our lives. James Hillman put it best when he said that some Christians don't trust their own images and stories for the richness but want to know where it comes from and if it is any good for them. This is what leads certain religious groups to want to ban productions and readings of MACBETH in their communities.

A good poet needs to be as open as possible. They cherish their visitations. That is not to say they will not censor or edit, hopefully they will do just that, quite ruthlessly. But those omissions will be in the interest of formal excellence and yet ever more truth, not in the interest of fear.

Meanwhile our neuroscience crowd will tell us that experiences don't really exist: its all part of a "self regulating system", there is no I at home, just the random processing of neural networks. To make matters worse they will try and induct Buddhism as an ally, though the understanding of Buddhism is superficial.

How can we retain our sense of being more than machine, the ancient dignity of our human experience without getting caught in wedding our dignity to the specificity of our tribal blood pride, and our particular traditions?

One way is to let go of conception for brief periods and to dwell in perception. By this I DO not mean living like non human animals without any thoughts, dwelling only in reflex. Rather it is a way of being with our thoughts by working with them rather than being stuck IN them. Above all it is a way of being in our bodies and our senses and paying attention - to "being here now" as Ram Dass said it.

Sometimes religion at its best can do this, usually in so called "mystical" traditions. Art is all about this question of perception (I often get into arguments with conceptual artists when I tell them that their own work is not really valuable for the reasons they set out to do it: that is, to demonstrate or prove a point; when I tell them that the real value in their work resides in its perceptual qualities even when such merely appears to BEG for a propositional or symbolic understanding). Concepts have a fixed nature to them; they do interrupt the raw flow of experience, they do violence to the reality of temporality. Of course concepts are absolutely necessary in the function of life and culture. But, alas, concepts have overtaken other modes.

Interestingly I believe the first guilty party in the conceptualization phase was the human potential movement and newer psychologies of the 1970s: it was in this movement that we began to label with new jargon the most intimate details of life. New vogue words and phrases came into our language, and, eventually, our experience: vogue words like dysfuntional, codependency, inner child and so on. This way of looking at reality as the expression of a system or concept caused a sea change in human consciousness. People over time, with the help of mass media, began viewing their lives in these frames so that they began less and less to experience their individual lives in a spirit or ethic of SPECIALNESS. In America, a county predicated on unique individuality, this was quite a feat indeed, though something of our older small town conformity surely played a role.

I don't deny, a la social constructionist or a Michel Foucault, that there is truth to be gleamed from these concepts, only that they distort as much as they enlighten, and above all that consciousness has changed in radically different ways because of the rise of the concept.

Thus, in conclusion, we should examine our lives and dare to use our own reasons, but we should remember that the fact that we are able to dwell in experience is the most marvelous fact about us, and we may never be able to define it without doing some disservice to an essential feature of our humanity. If we do not examine our lives, someone else will be all too happy to do it for us for a fee.

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