Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Apostles by Tom Bissell

The scholar  John Painter proposes a complicated, nuanced view of the likely scenario faced by Paul and the Jerusalem church. He identifies no fewer than six factions within the Jerusalem church and Gentile Christian movement.

The first faction, comprising men like the Christian Pharisees mentioned in Acts and referred to by Paul in Galatians as "false brothers", were Law absolutists fiercely opposed  to Paul's missions to the Gentiles.

 The second faction was made up of those  who "recognized the validity of the two missions but were themselves committed to the mission of and to the circumcision"; the leader of this faction, Painter proposes, was James the brother of Jesus.

 The third faction, led by Peter, also accepted the two missions  but with a greater conceptual openness to Gentiles; from Paul's letter to the Galatians, it seems clear Peter accepted that the two missions  had different ground rules, even if the lines between them sometimes blurred and that Gentiles were theoretically free from aspects of Judaic ritual but Jews were not.

 The fourth faction, which counted among its leaders Paul's friend Barnabas, had a more open-minded philosophy on the Law; "Their policy  was that home rules applied when missions intersected."

 The fifth faction, led by Paul, believed in a gospel that obliterated the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

The sixth faction, which comes glimpsingly into view within some of  Paul's letters, "advocated and absolutely law-free mission recognizing no constraints whatsoever, ritual or moral"; Paul's problems with the first three factions might have stemmed from his being unfairly linked to this last and most radical Gentile Christian faction.

 Painter's vision of early Christianity coheres not only with internal New Testament evidence but with the laws of human nature. In any elaborate human undertaking- and here  the  early Christian mission qualifies marvelously -factionalism of this kind is the rule. There is an argument to be made that the gospels themselves are products of similar factionalism.

.  .  .

Throughout Jewish religious history - throughout the history of all religions - there is an abiding tension between traditionalists and modernizers. Modernizers were probably the first monotheists, because the earliest forms of Jewish worship were demonstrably polytheistic, strains of which remain embedded in the Hebrew Bible. Traditionalists such as the Macabees overthrew the Seleucid modernizers seeking to bring Judaism into a place of accommodation with Hellenism, and traditionalists like the Zealots drove a dagger into the corrupted heart of a collaborationist and thus modernizing Temple aristocracy. When Christianity began to win more pagan converts in the second century, staunch traditionalists such as Tacitus and Celsus were horrified [Tacitus believed the Roman Empire had become too inclusive for its own moral good, a place where "all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular"]. The argument between  traditionalism and modernization lives on today within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is and will always been argument about the past and the future, about the pressures of inheritance and the desire for constancy. Although this ageless argument might twist and turn to unlikely effect (with great modernizers such as Paul being adored by the traditionalists of today),the argument itself will never resolve. It will never fade away. It will emerge over and over again, with different parties wearing similar masks,  for every spiritually engaged community is forced to confront the inevitability of newly arisen beliefs and the drifting tectonic plates of assumed morality.  .  .

I do not regard the stories about James son of Zebedee, or any stories about any apostle, as merely stories. All beliefs have moral insinuation, and all representations have political repercussions. James the infidel slayer was adapted for propagandistic by the Franco regime, after all. I do not believe a discernable form of "good" or acceptable or authentic Christianity stands behind these stories. Christianity, like Judaism before it and Islam after it, has always been and will always  be a less than ideal way to understand the world and our place within it.  At the same time, I know there is no purely rational way of understanding the world. A thousand irrational spasms daily derange us all. God is part of the same formless reality as thought, as real as all bits of data that float invisibly through this world. In this sense, all that moves through us is real. To explain the realness of that which we cannot see, we turn to stories left behind by evangelist writers, working behind their complicated veils of anonymity. The footprints they left behind lead us to places we long to be led.  .  .

High above me, on  the colonnaded veranda on the right side of the Santiago de Compostela, a police officer slowly stalks, carrying what appears to be a sniper rifle. I move closer to the church, ant-like in its presence, moving towards it in an ant time. The closer I get, the more majestically eroded it seems. The overgrown yellow moss allover its facade feels cool and lush and soft. I place my hand flush against the marble.

Nothing in this world suggests our overtures toward God are either wanted or needed. Someday this building will fall and the civilization around t. It is our stories that lay balms across out impermanence. I have long story to tell about Gideon's and my walk and suddenly wonder what would happen if I chose not to tell it, to transform it. What if a story was  enough for a thing to be?

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

* The Catholic position on biblical inerrancy is particularly refreshing. According to the Biblical Commission Instruction of1964, readers are not to understand that the gospels report everything literally or that the events described in them necessarily took place in the manner depicted.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Populism and Conspiracy Theory by Mark Fenster

Democratic politics relies on a gap between the public   and its elected representatives that is mediated by established political institutions; populism emerges when this gap constitutes a problem, or even a crisis, and when a movement can plausibly offer some more direct or "authentic" means of representation in the name of the people [Panizza, Populism and the Mirror of Democracy]. A populist challenge to an established political order, then, has neither a necessary content nor a necessary relationship to that order. It could be reformist or revolutionary; it could embrace a seemingly more participatory form of democracy; or it could reject democratic processes entirely.

An ever-present element of political action and a rhetorical move available to mainstream and marginal political  actors, populism challenges and subverts more institutionalized, seemingly "mature" political ideologies. Its ongoing and important role in politics demonstrates the failure of a "consensus" model of politics in which stable political parties solicit support from a rational, satisfied public, an economic free market satisfies all demands and preferences, and a technocratic state (whether in a minimal, "night watchman" form or in a social democratic form) corrects any market failures that arise. Unable to resolve all social tensions and political conflicts, and unable to respond to all of the public's passion and to sound definitely in the moral register the public demands, major political parties and mainstream political institutions face continual challenges from populisms of the left, right and independent sort [Chantel Mouffe, On the Political].  Populism offers up and then plays with what Bonnie Honig has called "remainders," unmet demands that inspire the resistance "engendered by every settlement, even by those that are relatively enabling or empowering," excesses left over from attempts to bring social and political order to human activity.  Populist discourse operates in the "perpetual contest, even within an ordered setting" of democratic politics, and in the inevitable fight over the institutional processes of democratic political and social order [Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics].

In Hofstadter's - and, at times, the left-progressives' - conceptualization of populism, the excess or remainder of consensus, whether of the margins or of leftist activists seduced into conspiracy theory, is a pathological refusal of normalcy  and the result of economic, political and cultural crisis. Understanding populism as a democratic logic, however, re-conceptualizes it as a production of the political itself, an aspect of the "perpetual contest" of democracy, rather than as a troublingly sick exception to the democratic ideal. Movements that rely on this logic may do so to further left - or - right-wing causes.

Populism operates as " a dimension of political culture in general,  not simply as a particular kind of overall ideological system or type of organization [Peter Worsley, The Concept of Populism]. Populism  "plays the role of the awkward guest," at once functioning as an element of liberal democracy by encouraging engagement in public participation and mobilization and expressing the popular will of a segment of the population, while it also disrupts the "gentrified domain in which politics is enacted." It operates through charisma, unfettered majorities and leadership, and an absolute sense of good and right;  it eschews such institutional, republican virtues as checks and balances, representation, negotiation, counter-majoritarian rights, and deferral of the public will. It promises redemption while it threatens disruption, unsettlement and revolution [Arditi, Populism or Politics at the Edges of Democracy].  .  . .

Conspiracy theory, based on the perceived secret elite domination over and manipulation of the entirety of economic, political and social relations, has played a role of varied importance in many, but by no means all, populist movements. It remains an element with a long tradition in American politics and culture that has been appropriated for different causes at different times. Conspiracy theory is a particularly unstable element in populism based on such profound suspicion and fear that its successful and thorough-going  incorporation within a large populist movement  would most likely occur in authoritarian or fascist regimes.  .  .

As a popular discourse and rhetoric within democratic politics, populism's  understanding of state and private  power as an estrangement of the people from the power bloc can be appropriated and articulated in different ways by different political movements and social forces, for inclusive and/or exclusive purposes and to revolutionary, reformist and/or reactionary ends. As a subset of populism, conspiracy theory constitutes  an integral aspect of American political culture, one that has different effects in different historical periods. In its apocalyptic narrative vision and semiotic apparatus, conspiracy theory assumes the coming end of a moment cursed by secret power and a (never-to-arrive) new beginning where secrecy vanishes and power is transparent and utilize by good people for the good of all. It may appear in a righteous jeremiad that would claim to be acting on behalf of divine or human justice, positing a necessary end to history through dreadful but deserved events that will lead to the victory of the fellow righteous; it may appear as an ironic apocalypse, facing an unavoidable end with distance and cynicism; or it may appear as a sublime vision of an infinite power-inspiring awe, terror, and pleasure, enabling regressive authorities to promise repressive protection from the great hovering threat. Nascent in all of these appearances is a critique of the contemporary social order and a longing for a better one. Conspiracy theory ultimately fails as a universal theory of power and comprehensive approach  to historical and political research, however, because it not only fails to inform us how to move from the end of the uncovered plot to the beginning of a political movement, it is also unable to locate a position at which we can begin to organize and respect people in the complex and diverse world that it simplifies.

Conspiracy theories can help break oneself free from the quotidian humdrum of normative bourgeois subjectivity, help expose the official, dominant political ideologies as the banal covers for the  brutality of power that they truly are;  a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory,  but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers, or better practice.  They can lead one to obsess over the hidden and in doing so miss the phenomena and oppression that exists on the surface.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Melville in Typee by D.H.Lawrence

Melville hated the world: was born hating it. But he was looking for heaven. That is, choosingly. Choosingly he was looking for paradise. Unchoosingly, he was mad with hatred of the world.

Well, the world is hateful. It is as hateful as Melville found it. He was not wrong in hating the world. Dalenta est Chicago. He hated it to a pitch of madness, and not without good reason.

But it is no good persisting in looking for paradise  ‘regained’.

Melville at his best invariably wrote from some sort of  dream self, so that events which he relates as actual fact have indeed a far deeper reference to his own soul, his own inner life.

So in Typee when he tells of his entry into the valley of the dread cannibals of Nukuheva. Down this narrow , steep, horrible dark gorger he slides and struggles as we struggle in a dream, or in the Act of birth, to emerge in the green Eden of the Golden Age, the valley of the cannibal savages. This is a bit of the birth-myth, or re-birth myth, on Melville’s part-unconscious, no doubt, because his running under-consciousness was always mystical and symbolic. He wasn’t aware that he was being mystical.

There he is then, in Typee, among the dreaded cannibal savages. And they are  gentle and  and generous with him, And he is truly in a sort of Eden.

Here at last is Rousseau’s Child of Nature and Chateaubriand’s Noble Savage called upon and found at home. Yes, Melville loves his savage hosts. He finds then gentle, laughing lambs compared to the ravening wolves of his white brothers, left behind in America and on the American whaleship.

The ugliest beast on the earth is the white man, says Melville.

In short, Herman  found in Typee the paradise he was looking for. It is true, the Marquesans were “immoral”, but he rather liked that. Morality was too white a trick to take him in,. Then again, they were cannibals. And it filled him with horror to think of this. But the savages were very private and even fiercely reserved in their cannibalism and he might have spared himself his shudder. No doubt he had partaken of the Christian Sacraments many a time. “This is my body, take and eat. This is my blood. Drink it in remembrance of me.” And if the savages like to partake of their sacrament without raising the transubstantiation quibble, and if they liked to say directly: “This is thy body, which  I take from thee and eat. This is thy blood, which I sip in annihilation of thee”, why surely their sacred ceremony was as awe-inspiring as the one Jesus substituted. But Herman chose to be horrified. I confess, I am not horrified; though, of course, I am not on the spot. But the savage sacrament seems to me more valid than the Christian: less side-tracking about it,. Thirdly, he was shocked by their wild methods of warfare. He died before the great European war, so his shock was comfortable.

Three little quibbles: morality, cannibal sacrament, and stone axes. You must have a fly even in Paradisal ointment. And the first was a ladybird.

But Paradise. He insisted upon it. Paradise. He could even go stark naked, as before the Apple episode. And his Fayaway, and laughing little Eve, naked with him, and hankering after no apple of knowledge, so long as he would just lover her when he felt like it. Plenty to eat, needing no clothes to wear, sunny, happy people, sweet water to swim in: everything that a man can want. Then why wasn’t he happy along with the savages?

Because he wasn’t.

He grizzled in secret, and wanted to escape.

He even pined for Home and Mother, the two things he had run away from as far as ships could carry him. Home and Mother. The two things that were his damnation.

There on the island, where the golden-green great palm trees chinked the sun, and the elegant reed houses let the sea-breeze through, and peoplde went naked and laughed a great deal, and Fayaway put flowers in his hair for him – great red hibiscus flowers, and frangipani – O God, why wasn’t he happy. Why wasn’t he?

Because he wasn’t.

Well, it’s hard to make a man happy.

But I should not have been happy either. One’s soul seems under a vacuum, in the South Seas.

The truth of the matter is, one cannot go back. Some men can: renegade. But Melville couldn’t go back: and Gauguin couldn’t really go back: and I know now that I could never go back. Back towards. Back towards the past, savage life. One cannot go back. It is one’s destiny inside one.

There are these peoples, these “savages”. One does not despise them. One does not feel superior. But there is a gulf. There is a gulf in time and being. I cannot comingle my being with theirs.

There they are, these South Sea Islanders, beautiful big men with their golden limbs and their laughing, graceful laziness. And they will call you brother, choose you as a brother. But why cannot one truly be brother?

There isan invisible hand that grasps my heart and prevents it opening too much to these strangers. They are beautiful, they are like children, they are generous: but they are more than this. They are far off, and in their eyes is an easy darkness of the soft, uncreate past. In a way, they are uncreate. Far be it from me to assume any “white” superiority. But they are savages. They are gentle and laughing and physically very handsome. But it seems to me, that in living so far, through all our bitter centuries of civilization, we have still been living onwards, forwards. God knows it looks like a cul de sac now. But turn to the first negro, and listen to your own soul. And your own soul will tell you that however false and foul our forms and systems are now, still, through the many centuries since Egypt, we have been living and struggling forwards along some road that is no road, and yet is a great life development. We have struggled on, and on we must still go. We may have to smash things. Then let us smash. And our road may have to take a great swerve, that seems a retrogression.

But we can’t go back. Whatever else the South Sea Islander is, he is centuries and centuries behind us in the life-struggle, the consciousness struggle, the struggle of the soul into fullness. There is his woman, with her knotted hair and her dark, inchoate, slightly sardonic eyes. I like her, she is nice. But I would never want to touch her. I could not go back on myself so far. Back to their uncreate condition.

She has soft warm flesh, like warm mud. Nearer the reptile, the Saurian age. Noli me tangere.

We can’t go back. WE can’t go back to the savages: not a stride. WE an be in sympathy with them. We can take a great curve in their direction, onwards. But we cannot turn the current of our life backwards, back towards their soft warm twilight and uncreate mud. Not for a moment. If we do it for a moment, it makes us sick.

We can only do it when we are renegade. The renegade hates life itself. He wants the death of life. So these many ‘reformers” and “idealists” who glorify the savages in America. They are death-birds, life haters. Renegades.

We can’t go back, and Melville couldn’t. Much as he hated the humanity he knew. He couldn’t go back to the savages, he wanted to, he tried to, and he couldn’t.

Because, in the first place, it made him sick; it made him physically ill. He had something wrong with his leg, and this would not heal. It got worse and worse, during his four months on the island. When he escaped, he was in a deplorable condition – sick and miserable, ill, very ill.


But there you are. Try to go back to the savages, and you feel as if your very soul was decomposing inside you. That is what you feel in the South Seas, anyhow: as if your soul was decomposing inside you. And with any savages the same, if you try to go their way, take their current of sympathy.

Yet, as I ay, we must make a great swerve in our onward-going-life-course now, to gather up again the savage mysteries. But this does not mean going back on ourselves.

Going back to the savages made Melville sicker than anything. It made him feel as if he were decomposing. Worse even than Home and Mother.

Ad that is what really happens. If you prostitute your psyche by returning to the savages, you gradually go to pieces. Before you can go back, you have to decompose. And a white man decomposing is a ghastly sight. Even Melville in Typee.

WE have to go on, on, on, even if we must smash our way ahead.

So Melville escaped, and he threw a boat-hook full in the throat of one of his dearest savage friends, and sank him, because the savage was swimming in pursuit. That’s how he felt about the savages when they wanted to detain him. He’d have murdered them one an all, vividly, rather than be kept from escaping. Away from them – he must get away from them – at any price.

And once he had escaped, immediately he begins to sigh and pine for the “Paradise” – Home and Mother being at the other end of his whaling voyage.

When he was really Home with Mother, he found it Purgatory. But Typee must have been even worse than Purgatory, a soft hell, judging from the murderous frenzy which possessed him to escape.

But once aboard the whaler that carried him off from, Nukuheva, he looked back and sighed for the Paradis he had just escaped from in such a fever.

Poor Melville! He was determined Paradise existed. So he was always in Purgatory.

He was born for Purgatory. Some souls are  purgatorial by destiny.

The very freedom of his Typee was a torture to him. Its ease was slowly horrible to him. This time he was the fly in the odorous tropical ointment.

He needed to fight,. It was no good to him, the relaxation of the non-moral tropics. He really didn’t want Eden. He wanted to fight. Like every American. To fight. But with the weapons of the spirit, not the flesh.

That was the top and bottom of it. His soul was in revolt, writhing forever in revolt. When he had something definite to rebel against – like the bad conditions on a whaling ship – then he was much happing his miseries. The mills of God were grinding inside him, and they needed top grind on.

When they could grind on the injustice and folly of the missionaries, or of brutal sea-captains, or of governments, he was easier. The mills of God were grinding  inside him.

They are grinding inside of every American. And they grind exceedingly small.

Why? Heaven knows. But we have got to grind down our old forms, our old selves, grind them very small, to nothingness. Whether a new something will ever start, who knows? Meanwhile the mills of God grind on, in American Melville, and it was himself he ground small” himself and his wife, when he was married. For the present, the South Seas.

He escapes on to the craziest, most impossible whaling ships. Luckily for us Melville makes it fantastic. It must have been pretty sordid.

And anyhow, on the crazy Julia, his leg, that would never heal on Typee, began quickly to get well. His life was falling into its normal pulse. The drain back into the past centuries was over.

Yet, oh, as he sails away from Nukuheva, on the voyage that will ultimately take him to America, oh, the acute and intolerable nostalgia he feels for the island he has left.

The past, the Golden Age of the past – what a nostalgia we all feel for it. Yet we don’t want it when we get it. Try the South Seas.

Melville had to fight, fight against the existing world. Against his very own self. Only he could never quite put the knife in the heart of his paradisal ideal. Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, love should be a fulfilment, and life should be a thing of bliss. That was his fixed ideal. Fata Morgana.

That was the pin  he tortured himself with. Life is never a thing of continuous bliss. There is no paradise. Fight and laugh and feel bitter and feel bliss: and fight again. Fight, fight. That is life.

Why pin ourselves down on a paradisal ideal? It is only ourselves we torture.

Melville did have one great experience, getting away from humanity: the experience of the sea.

The South Sea Islands were not his great experience. They were a glamorous world outside New England. Outside. But it was the sea that was both outside and inside: the universal experience.