Temptations of the “Everybody”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nota Bene: Due to the impending porting of The Divine Wedgie to the Patheos Catholic channel, this will be the final substantive post on this platform. Links to the new site will be posted once it is live.

Commonweal Magazine recently published a highly informative article by Regina Munch, on her reflections on the post-Brexit fallout among millenials, as well as the recriminations of racism and xenophobia following the narrow victory of Britons wishing to leave the European Union.

Though this is not the central point of her article, what is indeed interesting is what seems to be Munch’s calling out of a kind of universalism in the production of political opinion by media elites. In a way, what she indicates goes beyond what Michel Foucault wrote about deviancy in his History of Sexuality. There, he spoke about the processes that led to the production of normality on the one hand, and deviancy on the other.

The difference in what Munch seems to indicate is that, while there are still the shrill cries of deviancy (namely racism and xenophobia) from the Remain camp, the manufactured commentary from both online and broadcasted sources actually go further by also denying the existence of a different opinion altogether, with cries like “everybody” or “universally” thrown about like so much political confetti, papering over any geographical, class, age-based or economic nuance on the ground.

Regardless of the side of the debate, or regardless of the topic of debate, and regardless of the variety of opinions that the media showers us with, it would seem that the filtering of opinion via media channels both new and traditional still bears a new form of the logic of massification identified by Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, a logic which the Marxist saw as a form of totalitarianism. In a way, this form of massification is more insidious due to its attempts at erasure of any type of complexity by manufacturing a simulated notion of the “everybody”, outside which no real thought or person exists. What is more, this simulated uniformity can apply to opinions manufactured on all sides of any debate.

As the media, rather than lived experience, becomes an increasingly important source of information, one temptation to resist would be the one that such media encourages, namely the tendency to ignore the complexity that embodied experience can uncover and adopt the virtual uniformity of whatever is being flashed on one’s screen. Indeed, it would appear that vigilence against the processes that generate such uniformity might be needed in order to defend the politics presumed by Aristotle to be predicated on difference. The converse is that, if one were to give into manufactured uniformity, the existence of any truly political exercise is put at risk.

Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince

 

People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

The Liturgy of Hiroshima

In Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh described the nation state as a parody of the Church, with the waging of war as its liturgy. It is a secular simulation of the Divine Liturgy, with highly perverse parallels and even more perverse results.

No where do we find a more vivid reminder of this when one reads the Lectionary for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord on the 6th of August, the Feast on which the atomic bomb was dropped in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. In the first reading, we find the following passage from the Book of Daniel

I beheld till thrones were placed…his throne like flames of fire: the wheels of it like a burning fire. A swift stream of fire issued forth from before him: thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before him: the judgement sat, and the books were opened… (Dan 7:9-10)

From there the Liturgy of the Word culminates to the Gospel of Matthew, in which the following passage is found

And [Jesus] was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun; and his garments became white as snow…(Matt 17:2)

Survivor of the Hiroshima bomb, dropped on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

Laudato Si, Gay Marriage and the Whitered State

 

The release of Pope Francis’ new encyclical has elicited a higher than usual volume of hostile blogosphere traffic. This was the case even in the leadup to its release, when nobody actually knew the content. Indeed, it is questionable as to whether any hostile commentators had even given the document a meaningful perusal following its release.
Putting that to one side, what is interesting is the fact that the heart of the hostile response is the subsuming of whole spheres of operation into one particular area of competence, with the most significant of these being the nation state. This is not apparent at first glance, until one considers, for instance, how it is politicians running for office within the nation state (such as Jeb Bush or Rand Paul), or policy makers and commentators who are try to influence the levers of state that are basing their rejection of the encyclical on the grounds that this is the realm of “politicians”, meaning state bureaucracies and their operatives.
Another story that is noteworthy is the commentary given by the Catholic University of America’s C.C. Pecknold on National Review. Perhaps unintentionally, Pecknold appears to have taken a biopolitical angle in examining how the popularity of the push for same-sex marriage comes not merely from grass roots agitation, but also from the machinations of state bureaucracies and their operatives. What Pecknold suggests in his article is that the reason for this is that the granting and enforcement of same-sex marriage represents an opportunity for the state to increase its capacities and its purview in what has largely been touted as a private matter of love.
These two seemingly unrelated stories suggest a development identified by William Cavanaugh in his Theopolitical Imagination. This is the point that, contrary to the claims of a post-Cold War defeat of top-heavy statism and the triumph of freedoms over the whitered state, there appears to be a push towards increasing the capacities of state in matters that traditionally were conceived to be pre-political, in the realm of the social.
What should be of concern to Christians if this trend continues would be the increasingly shrill claims by the state and its operatives to define what is or is not a matter of religious concern, whether it is the defining of contours of the Church’s ability to teach, or the rendering of aspects of the Church’s life to a service to a customer. This tension is inevitable given, as Augustine once commented in his City of God, the world we live in has citizens straddling multiple poloi until the time of judgement in the eschaton. The real task then, is finding the sites of this tension, and calibrating a proper response.

Theology of the Body & the Torture Report

In an old post, mention was made of the moral exhortations that abound within our culture concerning what to do with one’s body, even as that same culture bleats out the mantra “my body, my choice”.
Mention was also made of the fibres within our bodies acting as deposits of memory, which makes bodies as not just a thing in the here and now, but also a sign and reminder of things long past, in the same way that scars act as physical reminders of memories long since suppressed, if not forgotten.
What has not been mentioned, however, is the notion of the body as an eschatological thing, one that draws our attention towards a future horizon. The experience of encounters with the bodies of others, and seeing them as either potential friends, spouses or enemies, is rich raw material for such consideration. Philosophically, this notion of the body being a sign to a future moment has been hinted at by Martin Heidegger as a symptom of our fundamentally “being in the world”. The body is not just “being” in the present, but also being launched towards a future horizon, and ultimately to one’s death. Theologically, the Epistles of Paul regard the body against a backdrop of struggle, almost to the point of despairing the ablity of “the flesh” to offer anything. Be that as it may, Paul also critiqes “the flesh” against a backdrop of hope in a future reception of real life in our mortal bodies (Rom 8:11).
We have a tendency to ignore this profundity of this future dimension embedded in the body, or adopt a stance of defensiveness in the face of a future unknown, a stance whose ugliness was made manifest by the recent release of the American Senate’s “CIA Torture Report“, an evaluation of the abuse of bodies by on whom the label “potential terrorist” was imprinted.
The explanations for such barbarity, and pessimism pertaining to the kinds of future horizons we associate with the bodies of others, will no doubt be manifold. However, one understanding that Christians cannot avoid is one coming from the theological standpoint, which can be gleaned from the Theology of the Body of Pope St. John Paul II. The “eschatological dimension of the body’s signifcation is unveiled”, says John Paul II, only to the extent that they are revealed by the glorified Body of Christ. Our failure to see a future festivity, and instead perceive a future threat, in the body of the other, is tied to our failure to heed Paul’s exhortation to “put on Christ” and sacramentally augment our dying flesh with the animated flesh of the Incarnate Word, whose logos contains not just all the ideas and reasons that came before, but also contains every idea and reason that can ever come in the times ahead.

 

The State as Confessor: a View from George Orwell

In his Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh spoke of the modern nation state as a simulacra of the Church. More specifically, he spoke of the state as a kind of simulated liturgy where, through a series of collective actions, the state mimics the Church as a site of gathering. Another way in which the state mimics the Church is in the way it takes on dimensions of the sacramental economy, administering state functions to the citizenry in the same way that the Church administers the sacraments to the faithful.

We see, for instance, the tussles between the Church and the State over the presiding of marriages, with each one claiming the power to grant certain marriages valid or otherwise. Another, less considered sacrament that should concern the Christian is that of confession. Those familiar with the sacrament that it is “through the ministry of the Church” that a presbyter exercises his apostolic function to bind or loose on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 18:18). 

This function can be gleaned by reading a passage from George Orwell. In a wartime essay entitled “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (which can be found in a slim volume of essays entitled Why I Write). Orwell spoke with some bemusement of the fact that “men who would never dream of committing murder in private life” would have no qualms about killing for his country. The reason for this distinction, he chides, is that, through the ministry of the state, the country “has the power to absolve him from evil”.

Of course, this is not the only time that sacramental language has been used to legitimise the powers of the state. Apart from the sacrament of holy matrimony mentioned above, attention was focused on the failed Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin who, in addressing an audience at the National Rifle Assocation, recommended waterboarding as a “baptism for terrorists“, a remark which drew widespread cheers and limited critique.

This slow trickle of ecclesiastical or sacramental language into state functions should not be surprising. Hegel’s 1807 work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, had already laid the blueprint for the collapse of the Holy Spirit (which is what gives efficacy to the sacraments) into the political community of the State. What would be interesting to see is how the other sacraments (the annointing of the sick, holy orders, confirmation and the Eucharist) get taken up. A seed for further thought on this is Giorgio Agamben’s presentation at the Centre for Theology and Philosophy conference in Rome in 2008 (summarised here by Adam Kotsko), in which the Marxist philosopher very creatively analysed the role of angels as ministers and messengers from God and applied that logic to the logic of state bureaucracy.

The Church and the State of Exception

A famous stanza of The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats reads:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
the ceremony of innocence is drowned
“The centre” here can be defined by what Aristotle calls a common telos or end. For the ancients and medievals, societies function well when they have a conception of the good to pursue, even when how it is pursued may legitimately differ. This telos is what provides a template for the harmonious organisation of a polis. Indeed, as Joel Hodge makes clear in a post on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Portal, the pursuit of a transcendent telos, such as a committment to God, does not negate the full living out of one’s life in this earth. Indeed, it has the effect of putting terrestrial life in its proper place, which has the strange dividend of enriching terrestrial life by constantly pressing against their horizons. Liberty in this framework, according to Thomas Aquinas, coheres with the pursuit of that common telos and the freedom to pursue the fullness of life within the framework of that telos, that is, within a framework of a life dedicated to perfection and virtue.

Things change fundamentally, however, when liberty becomes absolutised and pitted over and against a common telos, as is the case with many modern States. As was mentioned in classes in Political Philosophy at Campion College, the Modern state gets its legitimacy precisely through the affirmation that no common telos can be discerned or pursued. The removal of the pursuit of a common end thereby has major political consequences. The most obvious consequence is that, when liberty is absolutised, social organisation splinters into the pursuit of varied individual ends. The centre cannot hold precisely because there is no centre to do the holding.

Yet, this jettisoning of a common telos does not automatically lead to “mere anarchy”, for another principle of social organisation will come to fill the void. This is far from a source of comfort, for this illusory form of organisation will still bring about the loosening of the “blood-dimmed tide” identified by Yeats’ poem. This principle is what the Italian Marxist Giorgio Agamben calls the “state of exception”, where the contingency of an extreme situation becomes the justification for extreme, intrusive and arbitrary bureaucratic measures. The phrase “just in case” becomes the central organising principle.

While clear examples may exist in the form arbitrary detention without trial by democratic societies, (just in case a citizen, or asylum seeker, is a terrorist or a “threat to sovereignty”), or invasive State oversight of activities previously deemed private, we tend to forget just how such measures are the pointed end of a whole complex of practices within the texture of our dominant consumer culture that are informed by this very same principle. Consider the proliferation of insurance products as one example of creating a whole life form, constituting what Foucauldians call an “insurational imaginary”. In the name of forestalling the risk of accident, whole industries are now making a living siphoning millions of dollars everyday from economies. Another example is the contractual nature of relations that runs right through the culture in postmodernity, which as William Cavanaugh suggests, fundamentally turns the social fabric into an arena of strangers. Why is this done? To defend everyone in eventuality of one person in the corner of that social fabric imposing himself on another. Thus, there is no disjuncture between libertarian consumerism, arbitrary arrest and invasive State scrutiny, but each falls on different parts of the same spectrum.

The proliferation of networks of relations organised around the principle of “just in case” has another sinister dividend: the exception becomes the societal norm, and the thing that is sought to become marginalised starts to become the centre of social concern. Ironically, by taking every measure to prevent an exceptional circumstance, the thing being avoided becomes the thing that is normalised throughout the social fabric. In the name of preventing the violence of terrorism, for instance, Agamben points out, liberal politics has justified the normalisation of what he calls a “pure violence without logos“. Not only is violence normalised, but the violence that is normalised is also a violence that is completely arbitrary. Thus, while the removal of a shared end in social organisation may not necessarily immediately give way to anarchy, bloodshed mascarading as order (with order being the avoidance of arbitrarily declared “extreme threats”), is quite often the next step.

Under such conditions religious communities, and in particular the Church, have an important witness to offer to a society without a centre. The Body of Christ offers that very centre, through the proliferation of an economy of practices that begin and end with the One through whom all creation was made and oriented. Yet at the same time, as was mentioned in a previous post, the Body Christ holds in tension that common Christic centre with the image the service of the one Lord assuming many parts. In the incorporation into the Body of Christ and in the worship of Christ, thus, nothing becomes the exception, or is one narrow program of ends arbitrarily declared.