The Language Trap

For some reason, not sure why, a few weeks ago I started immersing myself in anthropology.  Books on human prehistory, ancient kingship, ritual.  Reading Sir James Frazer, A.M. Hocart, Rene Girard, Walter Burkert, Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (very interesting novel), many other things.

Burkert and Girard both published their seminal works (Girard, Violence and the Sacred; Burkert, Homo Necans) in 1972.  Their theories of violence and human origins are close parallels, but not the same.  Burkert traces the origins of human culture & consciousness back to animal life, & the emergence of hunting (homo sapiens distinguished itself early as the "hunting ape").  Homo Necans : "man the killer".  In Burkert's view, the violence involved in killing other large mammals - and the close proximity of hunting to "intraspecific" (man vs. man) killing - ie., murder, cannibalism - was the ground on which the rituals which structure later society developed.  Even after hunting was displaced by agriculture and animal husbandry, the ritual patterns remained, imprinting human culture with traditions of awe and taboo.

Girard offers a more radical and astonishing - a global, or total - theory.  (There is a fascinating book titled Violent Origins, edited by Burton Mack, which is a symposium of texts & conversations between Girard, Burkert, & anthropologist Jonathan Z. Smith, along with others).  Girard builds his global explanation of human consciousness & society on a re-fashioning of Freud.  For Girard, humankind is essentially the "mimetic (imitative) animal".  Violence instigated by "mimetic rivalry" - "what he has must be good : I must take it" - proved unstoppable, without limit, in primitive human collectives.  Rivalry and feuding threatened human self-extinction, until one day, the rival mobs united against a scapegoat.  The victimization of the scapegoat is the very ground of human social concord, of the peace necessary for social order.  But along with this act of mob violence went the "founding lie" : the human collective had to pretend 1) the killing was the victim's fault; 2) the victim actually initiated the violence;  3) the victim was therefore an alien being, superhuman, not one of us : that is, a god.  Thus Girard sees mimetic violence as at the root of social order (with its laws, rituals & taboos) and of human imagination.  The vast mythologies of divine beings turn out to be an elaborate ruse - a double displacement of responsibility for murder.  First, violent death is displaced onto the scapegoat victim; second, the scapegoat is held to be responsible for - or, what amounts to the same thing, the rescuer from - the original state of violent collective chaos.

This is a dark, but powerful theory.  Girard, a literary critic, draws his conclusions (as Freud was wont to do) from the evidence of myth & literature.  He also reserves a special place for the Bible and Christianity in his schema.  Judaeo-Christian texts are the antidote to the false consciousness of human culture (built as it is on the version of reality written by the victors, the scapegoat's persecutors).  Biblical texts, especially the New Testament, are instruments of disenchantment : they reveal the scapegoat mechanism from the perspective of the victim.

There are many elements of Girard's theory which I find both shocking & enlightening.  (One can read, for example, about the bear-hunting rituals of the Ainu of Siberia.  When the Ainu killed a bear, they apologized to it, and then they announced - "We didn't kill you; the Russians did.")  But I'm not yet quite convinced... I can't quite accept this total, global theory in toto.  What gave me pause was a passage in Mack's symposium, where Girard, in conversation, states that "Man is the mimetic animal".  In the end I find this to be a reductive formula.  Human nature is not defined merely by the impulse to mimic that which strikes us as the source of what is powerful, desirable or necessary.  I think that ultimately human nature is defined by a kind of freedom with respect to the "source" of reality itself.  It is in this sense that we can define ourselves as "children of God".  We are undetermined by everything except the spiritual source of all things.

(This view is closer, I think, to the writings of another remarkable anthropologist & theorist (of the prior generation), A.M. Hocart.  Hocart views human society as structured by ritual.  But ritual, for Hocart, is not primarily a mode of negative or false consciousness (a la Girard).  Rather, ritual is the form(s) applied by the human pursuit of Life itself : Life understood (by early human cultures) as a gift of the divine in its totality.)

Now Girard, as an anthropologist & scientist as well as a self-defined Christian, might not disagree with this : but he would say that our very language of the sacred is shaped & defined by the victimage scenario which was "hidden since the foundation of the world" (as he quotes the New Testament).  Unless we acknowledge this reality, we are "part of the problem" - we are merely continuing the false consciousness of a human culture structured on persecution.  This, too, I can almost accept : you could say in a sense that my representation of basic human nature is that of the "redeemed" Mankind - redeemed precisely by Christ's enlightening message - whereas Girard's schema offers a kind of prophetic warning about the real status of "unredeemed" Man.  They are two sides of the same coin.

Yet I guess I find something slightly oppressive itself about Girard's totalizing theory.  Man is not merely the "mimetic animal" - but also the "inventive, changing, transformative, originating" animal.

Girard constructs his illustrations from the Bible on the primal story of Cain & Abel.  And it is true that the Cain story implies the historical origins of urban, collective human society in Cain's murder of his brother - a murder spurred by envy (a frustrated mimicry).

Yet there is another story in Genesis, even more primal than Cain's : that is the story of Adam & Eve.  In this tale, human error is not motivated by imitation - though Adam's immediate effort to shift the blame to Eve (telling God, "she offered me the fruit, & I ate it") seems like the very "earliest" example of scapegoating.  But the point here is, Eve (& Adam after) are not motivated by mimicry, but by ignorant desire.  The great irony is that their physical desire - the "desire of the eyes" - is for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge : the one tree in the Garden God forbids them to touch.

There is some special blend of ironic humor & pathos at play in this story... something infinitely complex.  & oddly enough it suggests to me a return to the theory of Girard's "twin" in this field - Walter Burkert.  Think of it like this.  If anthropoid human culture was deeply shaped in its beginnings by the hunt, then there must be something "hunterly" about human language itself.  The Bible, we are told, is the language, the Word, the message of the one invisible Most High God.  So think of it as both a hunter's trap, and a trap for hunters.  In a sense, the Genesis story of the garden of Eden represents a sort of hunter's trap set for mankind.  Man is forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge - the knowledge that will make him "like God" (according to the serpent, anyway).  Nevertheless, unknowingly & willfully, Adam & Eve eat from the tree. The fruit of the tree is the knowledge of death : of their own mortality, their infinite distance & alienation from the eternal living God.

The long lesson of Biblical monotheism here begins to be enunciated.  When you choose merely the visible, the tangible, the timebound goods - the "desire of the eyes" - you simultaneously blind yourself to the ultimate source of such "partial" goods.  As Jesus noted, much later (according to the gospels) : "First get right with God, then all these (material) things shall be yours as well."

God the hunter set a trap for Man - called the Word, the "tree of knowledge".  (He set the serpent nearby, to attract Man to the bait.)  Essentially, the Bible is the voice of the divine hunter, mollifying & healing the wounded animal in his trap.

So what we have represented in the first Genesis story is not so much a tale of mimicry, envy and murder, but rather a lesson of blind desire : of "lost sheep."  Man is not inherently or necessarily violent; homo sapiens is not irreparably aggressive.  Man, you might say, is the animal most capable of failure to imitate, to follow : Man is the animal who gets lost.  Man is not only wolfish : Man is sheepish, too.

(p.s. I'm not a proponent of Biblical literalism, by the way, in any sense.  I can accept that the scriptures were "inspired" by the spirit of God, as a whole, in general : but they were written by men.  There are contradictions, mixed messages, many elements open to mistaken interpretation.  Through the ages, the Bible has sometimes been abused for purposes of bigotry & scapegoating.  This should never be forgotten.  In fact it should be investigated : & Girard offers a powerful hermeneutic for such exploration.)


I, too, find it unpopular

The powerful machinery of instantaneous discourse-proliferation & dissemination has its effects on poets' lives & careers.  Meanwhile the forces at work, the loci of the pressure, seem to become more visible.  Nevertheless these phenomena take on the tincture, exhibit the deformations, of the general strangeness of the times.  Thus we have the monotonous drumbeat demanding that poets & poetry become more socially engaged & transparent - that poets must claim their place & make their stand on the burning political & moral issues of the day.  Then we have the backbeat  (it's a duet of sorts) : journalistic/media experts, bemoaning the death of poetry, its irrelevance to the larger scheme of contemporary life.  Then a 3rd, dialectical, voice leaps into the fray - poets, editors, & poetry teachers, for the most part - who insist with vehemence that, to the contrary, poetry is becoming more & more popular, relevant, dynamic, pervasive, & culturally powerful!  Poetry is on a roll!  Poetry is coming into its own, shedding the old stodgy elitism & academic fetor, & emerging as the revolutionary expression of the people & the common life, the 99%!

The common thread here seems to be that poets have a moral obligation to serve populist movements & what appear to be the political questions of the moment.  & the technology of media dissemination actually promotes & forwards this attitude.  The popularity of poets & poetry now seems to be a product of very sophisticated public relations & media manipulation, rather than an effect of poems themselves.  Am I being paranoid?  Is this sour grapes?  I don't know, but there does appear to be at least an element of "selling" & Babbittry to the whole poetry enterprise - & it seems to be rather pronounced in our days.

OK, let's say I have no problem with the notion that serious poetry has an obligation to engage with the moral dimension of human history & life.  & I do not.  What I do have reservations about is how this gets translated simplistically into popular/populist memes, movements, celebrity, & (supposedly-) critical attention.  (I hate Pop Art, by the way.  I like Jasper Johns, though.)

I am not going to drag out this mini-jeremiad.  But let's just look for a moment at the micro-technology of literature.  The arts of the word (poetry, drama, fiction) are constructed around quasi-ritual acts : that is, they mirror the continuum of reality, while at the same time distancing themselves, becoming strange forms of serious play.  The verbal art of a long family novel, to give one example, offers us a telescoping of ordinary time & experience - & thus opens a window upon both life's pathos & its ironies.  What this character says & does now is framed inside an unforeseeable future, with consequences & ramifications (emotional, existential, moral, spiritual) which cannot be predicted in advance : & this situation is the very marrow of plot, the very essence of our emotional engagement with narrative.  & remember : it's art.  It's not everyday life.  It's not a speech, it's not a program.  It's a very complex mimetic evocation of an ultimately inexpressible wholeness.

Poetry telescopes the same foreshortening of fiction, with all sorts of other complicating effects (the mimicry of presence, the prosody of suspense...).  In general, though, all three modes (poetry, fiction, drama) aim toward the same telos, the same end, which is essentially aesthetic.  That is, the end of these arts has something to do with the beautiful.

How then can we have "the beautiful" by means of some kind of inherent distancing effect?  Isn't there a problem, or a danger, here, of diffidence, detachment, moral indifference?  Certainly : but it's the same  moral, existential & personal problem which faces us in all modes of human social life.  The arts do not have a monopoly on detachment & indifference.  You notice it also, by the way, in economic & political life - the various deviously-systematic modes (all rooted in selfishness & callous pride) of amoral indifference with regard to the common welfare & the rights of the poor.

The pressure for populism, political engagement, relevance & mass popularity with respect to poetry is underwritten by a kind of devil's bargain : we will trade aesthetic values for social power.  We will actually deny that there exists something objectively "beautiful" in itself (even if "objectivity" & "subjectivity" are impossible to delimit in a reductive way), for the sake of a persuasive political argument or a naively self-gratifying sense of our own political righteousness.

These pressures all seem to be part & parcel of the downgrading of the arts & humanities in education generally.  We are enslaved to various modes of functionalism & determinism today - all in the name of liberation, justice, &, yes, economic realism.

How boring.  It's enough to make me feel like writing another unpopular poem.


Rene Girard & the latest war

Following the terrible sequence of summer news from Syria & Iraq, all the atrocities... occurred to me today that the strange convolutions of recent upheavals might find some meaning through the anthropological-theoretical lens of Rene Girard.  Girard knows One Big Thing (he's the perfect example of Isaiah Berlin's "hedgehog" - as opposed to the "fox", who knows a little bit about everything) - & I have to approach his totalizing theory with caution.  Yet here we have a formation of current events which apparently could be illustrations of his Big Idea.

For Girard, human life & culture are rooted in subconscious "mimetic rivalry", culminating in "mimetic violence", & resolved (very imperfectly) by ritual sacrifice/scapegoating.  Is it possible to consider the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam as an example of this?  Girard says that what begins as mimetic rivalry over a desired object - the psychological mechanism whereby because he has this thing, it must be good, so I must have it - morphs eventually into pure rivalry : the object itself is forgotten, it becomes simply a matter of me against him, us against them.

The appearance now of the "Islamic State", or ISIS, seems to have upended the formalized (& centuries-old) rivalry between the two sects.  For the time being, & in some places, Shiite & Sunni political groups are actually working together.   The transgressive violence of ISIS has set this in motion : Girard's idea that the vertiginous magnetism of social breakdown, leading to the obliteration of all social differences in a chaos of destructive violence, is that most-feared thing, the only thing that could bring the two sides to work together.  So now Iran & Saudi Arabia & the US are all converging to combat the common menace.

The trouble is, ISIS does not quite fit the Girardian pattern of the "arbitrary sacrificial victim" - the scapegoat whose sacrifice "resolves" (for a while) the pattern of violence, rivalry & vengeance.  History is a little "messier" than theory (as Pres. Obama noted recently).  Once ISIS is defeated, another candidate for the leadership of glamorized political violence will arise, another iteration of the crisis.

It seems to me that the phenomenon of militant Islam is rooted in a theological notion, perhaps a distortion of normative Islam (I don't really know).  The notion is that humans - followers of the Prophet - can know God's will, and carry it out in terms of a political sovereignty based on force.  It is the totalizing concept of theocracy : that divine law and human laws are one & the same.  God is essentially an invisible cosmic commanding officer; & if you know God's will, and those others do not, then those others must eventually submit to your will.

There are other ways of thinking about God, and the human soul, and the destiny of the earth; other ways of thinking about law and political justice.  The ancient Egyptians, for example, had very considerable notions of law & justice, in a civilization which lasted 3 or 4 thousand years before the monotheistic religions arose.  Not that I am lobbying for ancient Egyptian culture : this is just one example.

The Western concept of "natural law" is another example.  It's possible to believe that "divine Providence" has provided humanity in general - across the globe - with innate notions of good & evil, right & wrong, which are suitable & equipped for the ordinary challenges of civil, earthly society.  The "theological virtues", on the other hand, are distinct spiritual gifts, which lift the human soul toward its supernatural, eternal destiny.  This is inevitably a personal journey; one cannot compel a person, either by law or by sheer force, to inhabit a moral/spiritual dimension which only God can offer.  This kind of idea is at the root of Roger Williams' pioneering political construct, the "separation of Church & State".  Let human law govern one global humanity; let divine grace govern the individual soul.

Some such alternative theological ideas might come in handy, during the long future struggle with militant & violent political ideologies of all kinds.