Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fidelity and the Word

This is a response to a post on Jamie's blog, yonder. I wanted to offer a more detailed, and possibly more useful, response than the two brief comments I've already left.

I think the best way to frame these topics is in terms of a brief discussion of faith. In a spirit of gross simplification, I'm going to suggest that there are two basic ways of viewing faith.
  • The first involves a path to knowledge; it is an intellectual acceptance of a certain category of data, i.e. revelation. Or prophecy. One knows something to be true because they have faith. Belief in this piece of information brings salvation. To be wordy, this kind of faith is a question of epistemology. To be critical, it is a shortcut. This is the faith that fruitlessly opposes skepticism. This is the Josh McDowell vs. Richard Dawkins kind of faith.
  • The second involves holding a certain perspective. It is not the same thing as a simple acceptance of particular propositions. This second kind of faith is an evaluation -- certain propositions are not only held to be true, but they are held to be valuable. This form of faith has more to do with a way of being; it is a human possibility. Incidently, this faith is the true object of study for theology.
I do not intend to suggest that the second form of faith - the evaluative - includes the first, and adds something else. The first form is an epistemological shortcut; the second form has only a secondary concern with epistemology. The evaluative form of faith does not first accept the truth of a proposition, than add a value to it; it's not really the other way around either. It's something rooted in lived experience - which is not empiricism, by the way.

How is this related to Jamie's post, you might be asking?

20th/21st Century North American Evangelical Christians place a great deal of stock in the idea that God speaks to them (and make no mistake, this is a contemporary North American oddity). They believe God offers direction and gives commands, in any myriad of ways. I am not interested in passing judgement on the truth of all this; I just want to comment on this belief in light of the above discussion of faith.

There are two ways to problematize the idea that God has spoken to you.
  • One is to question the truth of it - to study the possibility of revelation as an object, the way an astronomer studies a star. To pass judgement on the truth of this possibility - did God speak or not? There are two problems that a Christian thinking this way has to deal with.
    • The first is that of finding a criteria for judging the authenticity of a possible prophecy. Whatever criteria you wish to use - however strict or exact - it is still a question of finding a yardstick. Some kind of systematic way of judging. There are a myriad of problems with this problem of finding criteria, not the least of which is that this epistemological approach always leaves open the possibility that you are wrong.
    • The second is a question of diffusion of responsibility. If you believe that God said something, commanded something, and your response is basically "I was given this piece of data, and now I must act on it," you are walking into "I was only following orders" territory.
So to take some information - revelation, prophecy, whatever - and approach it as a question of correct or incorrect knowledge is to invite a disaster. You're gambling on a possibility (as opposed to a Pascalian wager) and you're letting yourself be led around like a donkey.
  • The second way of problematizing the idea of God speaking to you is, obviously, rooted in the second kind of faith. It takes God's word and holds it for true. The epistemological question of whether or not God actually spoke is not ignored, it is simply a secondary matter. Yes, this involves an act on the part of a subject. The subject of faith holds the word of God as true, and is formed by this word.
This second way dodges both of the problems of the first way. It ceases to take the word of God as an object to be studied and judged. The question of whether or not you are wrong ceases to have the same sort of import, because it is the wrong question. The responsibility also entirely falls upon your own shoulders, because you are choosing to accept the word of God and you are the one holding it as true. None of this "God made me do it!" stuff, which is really no better than the devil making you do it.

If one chooses to be a subject of faith in this sort of way, they aquire a particular perspective. Because they are engaged in a particular way of being - a particular comportment to the world - the immediate circumstances surrounding them in the world do not have the same power over them.

God's word acts as a disruption in the status quo of their life, and they conform their perspective to these disruption. Their life revolves around living out the consequences of holding God's word to be true - not around taking care of the myriad possibilities that may befall them. Calculating possible harms and possible goods becomes a tertiary issue.

I do not say any of this to denegrate someone's faith, even if it comes down to being that epistemological version. I am trying to illustrate a perspective that does not revolve around harms and goods, a perspective that an orthodox Christian can accept. If the best part of one's self is given over to God's word, then harms and goods are distractions.

A disclaimer is almost certainly required. I absolutely insist that I am not suggesting that a Christian believe they exist in the best of all possible worlds. I am absolutely not saying "chin up! Jesus loves you!" or "things will get better!" I have already said this, but God is just as likely to kill your entire family as he is anything else. You are just as likely to end up homeless or an inmate in Auschwitz as you are rich or comfortable or secure. But remember, these things are goods and harms. They can be calculated out in a utilitarian way: "five units of possible good versus six units of possible harm... better not take that route!" If that is the route you want to take, gambling and calculating possibilities, than what do you do when your calculations fail and the "truths" you have had faith in turn out to be childish fairytales?

Blog Tag: The Hills Are Alive

Well, I've been drafted in a game of blog tag by Titus, which means I actually have to write something, as opposed to just copying/pasting assignments. Sigh!

So what are the songs I'm loving right now?

1. Intervention by The Arcade Fire. An epic organ tune about working for the church while your family dies. This song is as least as fine as anything from their previous album, and the rest of the songs come through too.

2. There is No There by in The Books. I dunno who these guys are, but this album - and this song particular - is beautiful like a pacific sunset. There is No There is a ridiculously baroque tune that could have felt like a self-indulgent mash up... instead it's the song I'll be listening to once I step outside today, into the sun.

3. The Past Is A Grotesque Animal by Of Montreal. The first epic pop song of 2007, I tell you. I also would fall in love with the first cute girl that I met who could appreciate Georges Bataille. A song about the most violent, ecstatic kind of jouissane. Excellent music by fellow theory geeks.

4. The Universe! by Do Make Say Think. Fine instrumental work. Horns, strings, everything in there. I saw these guys in concert not too long ago, and it was a reallywonderful cacaphony. An enjoyable kind of night.

5. Imperial by Seefeel. Part of my ambient electronica kick. Seefeel is pretty versatile music - I can use it as background stuff for cleaning or work, or for walking at night, or just for listening on its own. It's not often I find music that I can listen to in so many different contexts.

6. Hey Jude by The Beatles. Pure awesomeness. I don't think I'll ever get tired of this song. I wish I could sing like these guys.

7. Heartbeats by The Knife. Weird, minimalist, dancy, electronica. The vocalist is arresting, and so is the synth. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

ToR 5: War and the Glorious Soldier

Here's Part 4.

A good solid pillage has something in common with a festival; the obvious violence and destruction. The difference lies in what the pillage and the festival produces; the festival is subordinated to the duration of the group, while warfare produces the glorious soldier. The glorious soldier is not exactly an individual, but rather a divine-ish individual, through the wagering of their life; they prove they are capable of risking death, of risking that return to intimacy - and so they become associated with the spirit world, with the divine. The destruction in war is a negation of duration, but the glorious soldier makes this negation of duration durable; that movement is a futility, a naivete. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.

A further problem for the solider is that his spirituality - that association with the divine - is never anything other than utility. The soldier makes people into slaves, into commodities to be bought and sold. Any notion of the sacred here is a false pretense.

So, the slave as object becomes a possible victim of sacrifice. These useful commodities, whose very existence is a degradation of the human order, are surrender to the “baleful intimacy of unfettered violence.” Human sacrifice is the greatest possible challenge to the real order of things and utility; it is also the greatest internal violence.

The development of human sacrifice could only happen hand in hand with the development of an excess of wealth, which needed to be spent in a spectacular way. The military order, once again, subordinates this excess of wealth to utility - that of ever increasing power. Rather than radical expenditure, wealth is used to project violence outside. Human sacrifice, Bataille said, has always been rejected by military kings.

Conquest, then, is contrary to sacrifice. It is a rational and methodical use of wealth to increase power. The group with Imperial ambitions submits to the real order from the beginning; the Empire subordinates itself to an end, and everything around the Empire is subordinated to the Empire. But it is in this way that it is not really true that the Empire is subordinated to the real order — the Empire becomes the real order.

In order to maintain the diversion of violence to the outside, the Empire must develop the law. The law lays out obligatory relations between different people and things. The law mirrors morality, and takes its obligatory force from it, but their connection lies really on the border between the outside and the inside of the Empire.

In this military, rational, calculated world, consciousness deals with, and is measured by, things. This results in a dualism.

Monday, March 05, 2007

ToR Part 4: Sacrifice and the Festival

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The foregoing is was basically a description of the situation that forays into the sacred attempts to temper. The world has moved from total continuity to general discontinuity, and now we can begin speaking of attempts to return to continuity.

So, the sacrifice. The first fruits of any harvest or the best of the livestock are sacrificed in order to remove these objects — along with the producing humans — from the world of things.

The violence of sacrifice is not random, or complete; the aim of this violence is to destroy the thing in the victim. It destroys the utility of the livestock, and the stock raisers ceases to be just a stock raiser. The sacrificer in fact acts from sovereignty, the uncalculated, perhaps non-discursive world of the spirits; it is from this position that he calls the victim from out of the alienated world of utility.

That call is a monologue, of course, and this presents another tension. The victim neither understands nor replies; sacrifice has no real relations here. No reciprocity. If these relations were taken into account, it would destroy the nature of sacrifice, which is to disturb the world of things and therefore the relations; this is what makes sacrifice appear gratuitous. The sacrificer can’t both destroy value and utility while accepting their limits.

Sacrifice does not require killing per se, but the greatest overturning of the real, valued order is the one most favorable to the appearance of the mythical order.

In the immanent state introduced by the disruption of the real, life and death lose their common significance. In immanence, death is not a negation of life.

Why? Because the world of things has duration as its foundation. No thing has a separate existence unless it is in time. Death is a threat to this; but what the real order rejects is not so much a negation of life as the affirmation of intimate life, of the immanence found in death. This affirmation of intimate life is, of course, a threat to stability, a threat to production and utility.

Death and sacrifice are not synonymous. Sacrifice restores a lost value through a relinquishment of that value; it is not necessarily violent or destruction — it is a radical giving, which is why objects that have spirits are the primarily victims. It is the antithesis of production; the ideal of sacrifice is radically anti-utilitarian. Production is concerned with the future, with duration; sacrifice is something that happens only in the moment.

In sacrifice, the individual identifies with the victim; anguish is experienced. Anguish is the fear of the loss of individuality; work in the world of discontinuous objects and the fear of dying are interrelated. Anguish is the sign of individuality; a defensive reaction on its behalf.

Because the individual identifies with the victim, the individual is partly immersed in immanence - they experience the sacred, to whatever degree.

Now, the festival presents yet another tension. In the festival, with its crazy, insane overflowing of energy and drives, the real order is utterly threatened. Everything is drowned in immanence.

The real order, however, is impossible to destroy; humanity cannot stop being human. The sacrifice threatens it, but ultimately, the sacrifice finds itself put to useful ends. The community needs to endure; it exists in time. The sacrifice is placed in service of this, with the spirit world as a mediator. The sacrifice is said to be made to the spirits - for the sake of crops and whatnot. The sacrifice is a vital part of the creation of a community; it offers both the experience of the sacred and duration.

This is the tension: the festival is only possible for the community because it rejects what it is. The sacrifice and the return to immanence - the destruction of utility - can only be performed in a community if they themselves have a utility. This is because man is tied to clear consciousness - a consciousness that distinguishes between subjects and objects.

This is what Bataille diagnoses as the basic problem of religion — it fails to see that consciousness is searching for that intimacy; sacrifice is interpreted in other ways such as atonement. Religion, as a search for lost intimacy, is the effort of a clear subject/object consciousness wanting to be a complete self-consciousness; but this is futile because intimacy refuses the clarity of consciousness.

The festival is the internal sacrifice of a group. It is a violence that has utility at the margins; however, when utility moves to the focal point of a group, the violence must become external. Why blow your own stuff up when you can blow somebody elses’ up? Hence, the origin of war as externalized violence.