Saturday


Manifest Destiny personified

In my last post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, I wanted to emphasize how both individuals and political wholes (social groups) seek to vacate their responsibilities by cloaking them in a specious facticity, so that an interpretation of the world is treated as if it were something more than or other than a mere interpretation. One of the most common ways of doing this in relation to history is to formulate an interpretation of history, whether personal or social, as “destiny.”

We are all painfully familiar with loaded terms from historiography like “destiny,” “progress,” “inevitability,” and the like. We find them impartially on the left and the right. In fact, the most strongly ideologically motivated institutions make a practice of most grievously distorting history to fit a particular model that flatters the ideology in question. All one need do is recall the utopian plans of communism and Nazism from the previous century to understand the extent to which visions of the past and the future supposedly inherent in the very nature of things issue in dystopian consequences.

I realize that I’ve engaged with this issue recently in slightly different terms. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I formulated two principles that I called Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle. Gibbon’s Principle is that the authority of a social whole is inalienable. Sartre’s Principle is that the authority of the individual is inalienable. In other words, even if a social whole or an individual engages in the pretense of surrendering its autonomy, this is an act of bad faith (mauvaise foi) because the social whole or the individual retains the autonomy to act even as it denies this autonomy to itself. Gibbon’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the history of social wholes; Sartre’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the individual’s personal history.

It may seem a bit incredible to compare the benign Eurozone to malevolently utopian visions like communism or Nazism, but the narratives employed to defend the Euro — the inevitability of European integration and its historical irreversibility — are on a par with inherentist narratives that make claims upon history that cannot be sustained. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I compared the attempt to make the Eurozone permanent to the Cuban attempt to incorporate its present socio-political regime as a permanent feature of its constitution, which latter I had discussed in The Imperative of Regime Survival.

It is significant in this connection that the US experienced a traumatic challenge to its national claims of permanence that took the form of the Civil War. Had I been alive in the 1860s, I suspect that I would have argued that it was utter folly to craft a national constitution that had provisions for adding to the territories of the United States but no provisions for the peaceful succession of regions that no longer desired to be part of the US. Because there were no peaceful provisions for succession, the succession took the form of militant succession, which was answered by militancy on the part of those who believed the Union to be indissoluble.

So am I arguing that the Confederates were right? That would certainly put me in an awkward position. If the South had peacefully succeeded from the Union, it is entirely possible that the Balkanization of North American would have yielded a map of minor states such as we find in South America (after the breakup of Gran Colombia), though it is equally possible that the fractured Union would have left only two successor states in North America. Counterfactuals are difficult to argue with any kind of confidence precisely because inherentist and essentialist conceptions of history almost never provide an adequate narrative of what happens.

Regardless of what might have happened, what did in fact happen is the the unity of the US was imposed by force of arms, more or less guaranteeing the US a continental land empire without any power able to seriously challenge the US in the Western hemisphere. This likely resulted in the US repeatedly intervening in the internecine quarrels of Europe until the US itself took responsibility for European security, eventually winning the Cold War and becoming the dominant world power. None of this was inevitable, but it has been given the air of inevitability by nationalistic narratives of American exceptionalism.

There is a sense in which the Cuban narrative of a permanent revolutionary government and the Eurozone narrative of indissolubility seek to emulate the apparently successful indissolubility revealed by the US national experience. Who, after all, would not want to be the exception to the mutability of all human things?

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The Coup in Mali

23 March 2012

Friday


The coup in Mali, which I wrote about yesterday in Trouble on the Periphery Comes to the Center, was discussed in The Old-Style Coup Makes a Comeback in Mali by Jennifer G. Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Coups making a comeback? by Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine.

I find it interesting in both of these analyses that the writers have treated the coup as a kind of Cold War throwback, Ms. Cooke by calling it an “Old-Style Coup” and Mr. Keating by asking if coups are making a “comeback.” And this geopolitical nostalgia does not yet even take ingto account the rumors of a coup in China discussed in The Lesson Behind China’s Coup Rumors on Stratfor and Chinese coup watching on Foreign Policy and Damaging coup rumours ricochet across China on the BBC.

I‘m not sure how helpful it is to trot out Cold War analogies in a very different world in which the perennial verities of the Cold War no longer hold. A Cold War-era coup in Africa would mean a change in sponsorship of the leadership of the nation-state in question from American to Russian or from Russian to American alignment. Either the nation-state in question would stop receiving M-16s and receive AK-47s instead, or they would stop receiving AK-47s and receive M-16s instead. Of course, the writers of the above-cited pieces were careful to point out the differences from the “old-style coup” and the present coup in Mali

I have several times written about the lack of imagination displayed in socio-political thought (most recently in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I argued that the moral evolution of human beings cannot yet have stalled, as against the idea that everything has been tried). Everything about the coup in Mali points to the dangers sticking to the “tried and true” (or, if you prefer, always doing the “same old, same old”). The government of Mali, despite receiving high marks for its democratic operations, was focused on the capital and allowed the situation in the north of the country to get out of control; the coup plotters did what coup plotters always do, and the commentariat responded by contextualizing the events in Mali in terms that emphasize the non-uniqueness and non-originality of the events in Mali. In a sense the commentators are right, because both the government and the coup plotters were engaging in politics as usual, but this is not exactly the sense in which the commentators cast the coup in terms of its unoriginality.

Is is any wonder that one of the most predictable facts about history is that people will be surprised by events? Of course, history is intrinsically unpredictable, except for certain parameters, so we will always be surprised by what happens next. But there is a big difference between being surprised by the unexpected (but being prepared for the unexpected) and being surprised because one thought that one knew what was happening. Relying on familiar narratives simply because they are familiar and not because they accurately capture events is a sure way to be overtaken by events.

I predict that the Sahel will hold surprises, and that events will develop in unanticipated ways. Perhaps these developments will not constitute strategic shocks on the order of the Arab Spring, but the unpredictable developments in the Sahel will be sufficient to make world powers scramble to catch up and not be overtaken by events. Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré has yet to make a statement since the coup, though he is believed to be under the protection of loyal elements of the military (the “Red Berets”). When and where and how he reveals himself will have a significant impact on the development of the coup.

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From Rituals to Stories

19 November 2010

Friday


A few weeks ago in Take Comfort in Rituals I offered a commentary on the then-current Starbucks slogan that had been emblazoned across their many locations. This “ritual” campaign did not last long, as I noticed that the slogans disappeared not long after I wrote about them. Now a new series of slogans have appeared at Starbucks, and it looks like the marketing team has made the transition from mythology to narrative, as they have gone from promoting rituals to promoting stories.

In so far as a myth (embodied in a ritual) is a special case, a particular example, of a narrative, the passage from mythology to narrative represents a passage to a greater level of generality, and therefore possibly also a connection to the perennial, universal truths of the human condition. And what could a marketer desire more than to establish some connection between a brand and the universal truths of the human condition?

In The Totemic Paradigm I discussed the significant and growing role of narrative theory in many aspects of contemporary thought, from analytical philosophy of mind to psychotherapy. It would not surprise me in the least if someone on the Starbucks marketing team has tapped into this vein of thought, and in so far as popular culture learns from serious scholarship, we are the better for it. George Lucas struggled with his screenplay for the original Star Wars film until he happened upon Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, which provided a template for the schematic science fiction hero story that he then went on to write.

While it may seem cynical or crass for the Starbucks marketing team to expropriate narrative theory for selling coffee — or, rather, selling the experience of drinking coffee — if our experience of coffee can be reconfigured and recast as more of a cultural experience and less of a consumer experience, we are probably the better off for it.

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A Naturalistic Sermon


The Stories that We Tell

Today is Palm Sunday. What does Palm Sunday mean, or what ought Palm Sunday to mean, from a naturalistic perspective? Perhaps even to ask the question sounds odd. Let me try to explain.

Recently when I was working on Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia and Fear of the Future in which I discussed several science fiction films and television series, I found that I was asking myself, “Why are these stories meaningful for us?” and “What do these stories mean to us?” The answer to the question is not immediately apparent. Clearly, the stories are told, and clearly also they resonate with the public; their popularity tells us this much.

There is a sense in which the effort to elaborately place a story in a context utterly distinct from the world that we know alienates us from the story. But the same could be said for the world of fairy tales, in which animals talk and men are transformed into stone, and the like. And yet we understand immediately the relation of the world of the fairy tale to the world in which we actually live.

Similar considerations apply with stories from the distant past, and Bible stories that have become institutionalized as holidays are stories from the distant past that are, in some respects, so different from the world we know today that their relevance is open to question. On the other hand, we again immediately recognize our world and ourselves in the world of the past. Because we recognize our world in the world of the past, we can, at least to some degree, identify with the past, and because we can identify with the past it becomes meaningful for us.

The Meanings of Palm Sunday

A story such as that told of Palm Sunday has many layers, and therefore many meanings. A Google search on “Palm Sunday” returns several obvious resources, including a nice summary on Wikipedia and an entry from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. The latter opens not with the story itself, but by situating the holiday in the context of the ecclesiastical calendar, the Christian liturgical year, as follows: “The sixth and last Sunday of Lent and beginning of Holy Week, a Sunday of the highest rank, not even a commemoration of any kind being permitted in the Mass.” This is a rather formal evocation of Palm Sunday, and notably lacks the human interest of the narrative core of the holiday.

The core of the story from a narrative standpoint is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. A triumph is itself a many-layered and manifoldly meaningful symbol. The Wikipedia article cites Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem, and other sources use this language as well; however, Christ did not enter Jerusalem on the back of a white charger, but rather on the back of a borrowed donkey, and he was honored by readily available palm fronds and not by conspicuous luxuries.

In Roman antiquity, a Triumph was a special procession through Rome awarded to a victorious general, and came, in later Christian usage, to be called a pompa diaboli, that is to say, the devil’s procession. In the eyes of the earliest Christians, the official pomp, splendor, and spectacle of the Roman Empire was diabolical. Thus to call Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a “Triumph” would have been, in Christ’s own day, very much a “loaded” description of the event. Nevertheless, Christ did enter into Jerusalem, and was celebrated and honored by the people of the city; Palm Sunday was a triumph, and it was not a triumph. The symbolism, to borrow the language of Tillich, contains an element of self-negation.

The name of the holiday — Palm Sunday — references not the narrative of the holiday, but its most prominent symbol: the palm frond. In Christianity’s spread to temperate climes, palm fronds became difficult to find, and many different forms of greenery were substituted. If it is to be understood that the essence of the story is retained even while yew, box, and willow were substituted for palms, then, by the same token, we might speculate that the ancient pagan rituals inevitably involving seasonal display of greenery (an ancient custom throughout Europe), also in a sense retain their essence even when the story of Christ is substituted for the pre-Christian stories that were the occasion of spring festivals across the Old World.

A Lesson for Palm Sunday

If the stories that we find meaningful demonstrate for us, with a palpable immediacy, the presentness of the past, and make it possible for us to feel that the men who inhabit these stories and the situations that they faced are, in essence, like our own, one lesson we ought to take from this is the corollary to the presentness of past: the pastness of the present. Now, this is admittedly an awkward term. Probably it would be better to find a more elegant formulation, but for the moment this will do.

If we can feel the relevancy of meaningful events from the past for today, we ought also to be able to, by way of the a priori imagination, feel the relevancy of the meaningful events of the present for the past. History works in one direction, and while the men of the past cannot learn from what we have experienced, but we can learn in both directions — past to present and present to past — an in doing so we can extend our understanding beyond conventional categories.

The exercise of the intellect is the highest calling of man. Today, perhaps contrary to expectation, it is little cultivated. Why contrary to expectation? One might suppose that, given the near universality of literacy and the availability of information resources that there is no excuse not to cultivate the intellect, but what we find instead is the tiresome repetition of the false, the misleading and the conventional.

We can do better than this — much better. And one way that we can do better is to push our a priori imagination to the limits of its possibility in attempting to understand points of view distinct from that egocentric point of view native and natural to each one of us. To this end, thinking through history from both directions, thinking of the present in terms of the past and the past in terms of the present, is one place to start.

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