Saturday, January 22, 2011

Christianity, Marxism, And The Persistence Of Religious Protest

I decided it might be a good idea to pause and ask a really good question: Why am I at all interested in Marxist discussions and appropriation of Christian theology? Whether one considers Marx's ideas of a piece, or periodic with an early, more humanist Marxism juxtaposed to a later, more scientific approach, one thread that runs through his work is, at the very least, a hostility to the Christian religion as it was reified in industrial capitalism in western Europe.

I will state upfront that I think the other side of the equation, the Christian churches and their various theologians, have been all-too-eager to accept the indictment of Marx and his followers (they have been less enthusiastic toward Freud, but that is a subject for another day). All too often this agreement has been too vigorous, too shallow. Because they have sought it out, many theologians have found, within the text of the Bible, in the history of the faith, and in certain theological categories tools that can liberate not only this same dehumanized mass, but itself from the fate of going the way of the dodo. While there may be a genuine desire on the part of many to work for the liberation not just of those under the bootheel of late industrial imperialistic capitalism, for the most part I honestly believe it is rooted even more in a desperate attempt to keep the Christian religion alive, even vital, in the face of the protest against its use as a tool to degrade human beings.

Bad faith is never a good reason to do anything, especially a bad faith rooted in a shallow guilt and a desire to remain "relevant" rather than faithful.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc is so far in the past there are people in the US of legal voting age with no living memory of it. We have lived far too long under the lie, "There is no alternative" (TINA, as it has been shortened, was a favorite of Margaret Thatcher). There is a rich, vibrant history of Marxist thought, from the founders to our own day, and this is the precise moment it may well indeed speak to us who have the desire to hear of a better way, a more human way, of being together.

The Christian churches, in all their variation, are now, as they have always been, on all sides of various fences. The powerful and the powerless, the leaders and the herd of dehumanized masses who want only to live fully human lives find solace within the walls of the churches, comfort for their pains - social, psychological, physical - in the soothing words and outstretched arms of both clergy and laity. The challenge before us, really, is one of honesty. Were we Christians honest, we would admit not only that the churches have been complicit, sometimes overt leaders, in the exploitation of human beings for the sake of the powerful; we would admit, further, that it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to find support for such action within the text of the Bible and the categories of theology. The effort to lift out and read the Bible, the history of our theology and practice, those parts that favor a different view of what it means to be Church, to be a Christian, while noble and certainly finding support in various parts of the text, undermine themselves at precisely the point they deny any contradiction within the text itself, let alone in the history of the faith.

Like the far-too-shallow appropriation of large elements of liberation theology by North American Christians, the rush to accept the judgment that we have, indeed, been guilty of monstrous crimes against humanity in the name of God - implicating God, too - misses the point. We cannot rid ourselves of the distasteful past. We cannot wash the blood from our hands. We can work with those texts and categories that offer a way out of the abyss, but we should do so honestly, and with more depth than I think, heretofore, has been done.

In reading these Marxists and the ways theology informs their work, even as they deny any reality to the content of the truth claims of theology, I have discovered that, at the very least, much of the on-going protest against "God" and "religion" is not anything "radical". The God-deniers and church-bashers far too often are wed to an ideology that is hand-in-glove with those forces that continue to oppress and subjugate large parts of humanity. The shallow scientism of Dawkins and Harris, the sophistry of Daniel Dennett, and the imperialistic war-mongering of Christopher Hitchens are not at all radical critiques of religion and the evils it visits upon humanity in the name of humanism. Quite the opposite; Hitchens and Harris are enthusiastic war-boosters, with Harris going so far as to endorse the torture and murder of Muslism on grounds that can only be called genocidal. Dawkins beef with Christianity - its ridiculous creationist, young earth nonsense - has pushed one biologist past the point of endurance. The result, however, is an endorsement of an equally dehumanizing scientism that is itself part of the structure of liberalism that buries far too many human beings under its own groaning weight.

Furthermore, St. Paul did instruct us to be all things to all people, to be as wily as foxes. If there are, in fact, resources for imagining and living the Christian faith that can be found in Marxism - resources not only for judging those whose lives are rooted in human exploitation, but comforting and even struggling with those envisioning a better, more human/humane world - then, by all means, they should be given a third, or even fourth, look. That there are Marxists who struggle with theological issues, whose effort to consign religion to history's dustbin are thwarted by the reality that the many faces of religion include one that lives with, sides with, the exploited, dehumanized tools for the enrichment of the few, we owe it to ourselves to learn from them. Even if we cannot agree with all they say, by rooting around in the attic of western thought we may find some garments to drape across the tattered, withered frame of Christian thought and life.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Catholic-Tinged Revolution - Louis Althusser

Fear is not a fatherland, nor is courage . . ., more the human condition is not a human fatherland. It is, perhaps, the fatherland of men as they appear to God; because we are Christians, we call this condition original sin. For the man who is not a Christian, and for the Christian who does not usurp God's place, the human fatherland is not the proletariat of the human condition, it is the proletariat tout court, leading the whole of humanity towards its emancipation. This proletariat has a real content.

For, as Christians, we believe that there is a human condition; in other words, we believe in the equality of all men before God, and his Judgement, but we do not want the Judgement of God to spirited away before our very eyes; nor do we want to see non-Christians and, occasionally, Christians as well, commit the sacrilege of taking the atomic bomb for the will of God, equality before death for equality before God . . ., and the tortures of the concentration camps for the Last Judgement.(italics in original) - Louis Althusser
Roland Boer moves from two semi-assimilated German Jews, comfortable with a certain German Protestant approach to Christianity to the first of two French Roman Catholic thinkers. In the case of Louis Althusser, the specificity of this description - French Roman Catholic - is necessary to understand the way Althusser takes a large part of what he, Althusser, found so attractive about Roman Catholicism. In the words Boer borrowed from Althusser for the chapter title, it lends to Althusser's work a certain "ecclesiastical eloquence." More, for Boer, it provides a clue to understanding some confusing aspects of Althusser's thought.

In particular is the way Althusser, in a way that is far too common, tended to use the word, "Church", written that way, that elided the many differences not just among various Christian churches, but even with the Catholic communion itself. As an active member of the post-war Catholic Left in France, the move from Roman-Catholicism to Marxism was aided, for Althusser, by a general desire for an alliance among various Left groups. This move was helped along by certain teachers, including Catholic ones.
In fact the Church, via its chaplains and encyclicals, made their own militants aware of the 'social question', of which most of us were totally ignorant. Foo course, once we recognize that there was a 'social question' and the the remedies proposed were ridiculous, it did not take much, in my case the profound political vision of "Pere Hours', for us to explore what lay behind the wooly-minded slogans of the Catholic Church and rapidly convert to Marxism before joining the Communist Party!
Boer examines not only four early theological essays. He also examines in some detail "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", which forms a nascent sociology of both religion and morality. Within this essay, however, Althusser seems to replace "ideology" for the God of Thomistic doctrine. Unlike its actualization in specific ideological structures - including what Althusser calls "practical ideologies" like religion - "ideology" itself, or perhaps better Ideology, is transhistorical, eternal, and inescapable. Rather than arguing about Ideology, Althusser seems to suggest that most people are arguing about various instances of ideology incarnate in history; Ideology, unlike its early Marxist formula, is not rooted in the historical form of the class struggle.

In this way, the various Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) are, in a way, mere appearances to the Platonic Ideology that Exists. Boer sees the shadow of Augustine here as well as St. Thomas, which in some ways is ironic. Augustine, like Althusser, was a restless intellect, moving from Manichaean religious beliefs through neo-Platonism to Catholicism relatively rapidly, dragging various bits and pieces with him along the way. Althusser, so Boer wishes to argue, was a self-declared scientific Marxist whose writings are suffused with various elements from the French Roman Catholicism of his youth and young adulthood. Confusing the specific with the universal, seeing in Ideology an easy substitute for the God he rejected, Althusser's work was more a continuation of the leftward journey he began as he moved from the Catholic left to Marxism. I do believe that the marriage might be far easier for a Catholic than some other Christian groups, due in small way to the universalizing tendency within Roman Catholic thought. In that way, Althusser's ritualized, sacralized Marxism does seem to bear a remarkable resemblance to his discarded Church/church.

Snapshots II

The ridiculous nature of our discourse in the wake of the Tuscon shootings just won't end. The right continues to act the real victim, ignoring the six dead and multiple wounded. Stupidity piles upon ignorance as the leader of the Republican Party, Sarah Palin, continues her highly profitable star-turn as the biggest victim of the shooting (as a side note, as I watched her appearance on Sean Hannity's television program, I was amazed at his ability to ask questions while his tongue was stuck so far up her ass). The impossibility of any serious discussion of violence, guns, politics, rhetoric was clear enough in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as some on the left decided to point the finger of blame absent any evidence whatsoever. The right, however, decided to play the game, using the trump card of victimization. What follows, like my previous Snapshots post, is just a random, stream of consciousness list of stories, facts, and other items. Rather than offer a way out of the discursive impossibility we face, I want only to break through, perhaps, with some bits and pieces from the reality we all live without even realizing it.

In a review of a recent scholarly work on guns and violence, Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life by Florida Atlantic University professor Christopher Strain, Scott McLemee notes an interesting, yet desperate, statistic. In 1996, there were 15 handgun-related deaths in Japan. In the US, that same year, there were 9,390. That is, on average, almost 26 per day. Even accounting for differences in population, that is an astonishing, horrible reality.

Incidentally, the comments on Scott's review are a marvelous example of why having a sane, sober, restrained conversation on guns and violence is impossible. If I weren't used to it, I think I would cry a little.

On July 18, 1984, James Oliver Huberty walked in to a McDonald's in San Ysidro, CA carrying a 9mm Uzi semiautomatic, a 12-gauge shotgun, and 9mm Browning. He killed 22 people before being shot by a SWAT sniper.

On March 24, 1998, at a middle school just outside Jonesboro, AR, 5 people were killed and ten wounded in a shooting. The perpetrators were a thirteen year old and an eleven year old.

The phrase "going postal" has become a commonplace for marking workplace violence, due to a spate of shootings in postal facilities that began in the mid-1980's in Edmond, OK and include other incidents in New Jersey, California, Oregon, Michigan, and Tennessee.

In a summary of a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they report that, in the fourteen years between 1992 and 2006, there were 11,613 workplace homicides in the United States. While the CDC does note variances among the years, the average is 829.5 people dying each of those years from violence in the workplace. Not accident, not unsafe working conditions directly related to workplace performance or equipment. 830 people died, on average, each of those years due to homicide.

The summer of 1919 was known as "Red Summer". As the United States tried to adjust to the post-World War I era, including the heroic actions of segregated African-American troops, the re-establishment of white supremacy, north and south, led to a series of race riots across the country. Between May 10, in Charleston, SC and October 1 in Elaine, AR, there were 34 separate racially-motivated attacks by whites upon African-Americans. The dead were numbered in the hundreds.

Two years later, the Greenwood section of Tulsa, OK, a thriving, economically and socially successful black neighborhood, disappeared, burned to the ground in an orgy of racial violence.

On January 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy opened fire on the crowded playground of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, CA, kiling five children.

From today's Chicago Tribune:
Three men were killed and two others wounded overnight in a house on the south side of Gary in what police believe was a drug-related shooting.

According to police, a man called 911 at 10:40 p.m. from another home nearby, saying he had been shot in the home at 3829 Washington Street.

When police arrived, they found three adult males dead, all apparently from gunshot wounds.

They also found a 4-year-old girl, uninjured and now in protective custody. Police said her father was one of those killed.

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, there were 88,097 forcible rapes reported in the United States in 2009, among the lowest figures from the past 20 years. That is 241 rapes per day. Hurray for lowering it to that figure.

I'll stop for now. All the blather on television, on radio, on the internet, at least as it is currently conducted, is meaningless. It seems impossible to grasp that there are 241 rapes - just forcible rapes - reported - just reported - each and every day in the United States. This is a low figure, as the violent crime rate continues to decrease. As long as these realities receive, at best, a sorrow-filled shake of the head, and a dispassionate shrug of the shoulders (what can you do, crazy people will do crazy things blah blah blah) we will continue to talk about inanities like "blood libel" and talk about pogroms of conservatives, all the while the bodies pile up, lives and families and whole communities lie broken and bleeding, as long as no one says quietly, but firmly - "Enough".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Looking Good For A Corpse

Yet another obituary for rock music.
So Neil Young was wrong. "Rock and roll will never die," the whiny-voiced old coot told us, and we believed him. But now along comes Paul Gambaccini, the self-styled "Professor of Pop", to announce that, since only three rock songs appeared in last year's top 100 singles, the genre has expired.
That's it? Because fourteen-year-old girls are buying Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber and Beyonce and L'il Wayne, because that's what the record companies are selling, rock is dead? Leith notes that this is hardly a marker of the demise of rock, but then goes on to note that ubiquity of pop/R&B will have repercussions down the road.
The problem is that if the kids aren't listening to rock, when they go into the music industry they won't make rock. It is going to run out. We have discovered too late that rock, like fossil fuels, is a finite resource. Sometime in the early 1990s, we hit Peak Rock: we now have only managed decline and a Mad Max style post-rock world to look forward to. Don't get me wrong. I love rock music. I'm so uncool I even sing along to the Killers in the car. But I have to recognise that I am that old fart I warned my younger self about. When I go to rock concerts, I don't look about me and see The Kids. I look around me and see The Man. The world's remaining rock deposits are being stripmined by irresponsible members of the boomer and post-boomer generations.
Um. Uh.

On the one hand there is the nostalgia circuit - Peter Frampton going from city to city replaying his Comes Alive LP from 1976, in running order, note for note. The reformation or on-going old-fogey tours - bands like Styx, Kansas, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Cheap Trick hitting the road together, none of them with the exception of Cheap Trick having anything new to play - are cash-cows, because folks my age and a bit older have enough disposable income to afford the tickets and get a chance to go out, smoke some grass, and pretend they don't have gallstones or a hernia or have lost their hair or that it is gray. They can scream and sing along to songs that were popular, or at least played on the radio, when they were in high school, and feel young again.

If Robert Plant and Jimmy Page doing shows under the name "Led Zeppelin" depresses you - it certainly does me! - or if you have the experience I did at a Rush concert a few years ago, looking around and realizing that, when you start bringing your kids to rock concerts, it might be a sign that you should stop going to rock concerts, it isn't so much evidence that "rock" is dead. Rather, the pretend ideology of rock - it's music about young people for young people, and if you're "of a certain age", you just won't get it - might well have been wrong, after all.

A commenter to this article got it right.

So an entire wing of the music industry is declared dead because singles sales have fallen??

Festivals and live shows are in rude health.

Album sales may be down, but this is due to rock music diversifying and splintering into many sub-genres.
All of these sub genres are in creatively good health but have had to downsize their expectations and stage shows in accordance with their smaller share of the market.

It is doubtful whether any one band or one main genre of rock will unite all rock fans in the way it did in the past.
Back then there were only so many sub-genres and this is why rock bands like The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Judas Priest and Queen ruled the roost. Small pond syndrome.
With new sub-genres being invented all the time and the rock fanbase being subdivided along with it, we are unlikely to see rock dominating the charts as it once did.

I DARE you to go to Download, Sonisphere, Rockness, T In The Park, V Festival, Reading, Leeds, Isle of Wight or Hammerfest, get up on stage and announce that rock is dead in front of a crowd of 70,000 young rock music fans.
I have been saying much the same thing for quite a while. Part of the reason there were supergroups who sold millions of copies of albums that really didn't warrant such sales was the monopoly major labels held, the power of radio in the pre-internet age, and the luxury of a whole lot of disposable income. Part of the reason the majors are in such trouble and CD sales are down across the board is the majors refused to price them properly. Charging as much, if not more in constant dollars, for CDs as they did previously for LPs, even though the technology should have made the price fall, the record companies committed suicide. They still charge almost twice for a physical CD what it costs to get the same set of songs on iTunes. Unable to come to terms with the changed nature of the music public, they will, in all likelihood, go the way of newspapers. Unable to come up with a business model to survive in changed market circumstances, combined with the relatively cheap cost of high-quality music production and mixing software, allowing DIY bands to record, mix, and even produce their own product effectively and less expensively, they, not the genre that kept them afloat for decades, are the ones that are on the way out.

As the letter writer said, the situation isn't so much that "rock" is dead. Rather, there are no bands - no Beatles, no Led Zeppelins, no Rolling Stones, not even R.E.M. or U2 fill the bill anymore - that create a center around which others can revolve. Rather, the musical universe is alight with all sorts of stars of varying brightness. They all have their fan-bases, their little publics that follow them, buy their music, shows up at gigs. Some are bigger, some are smaller, but it's all vibrant and varied and quite lively.

So what if 14-year-olds aren't perceptive enough to realize that Taylore Swift is more a product than any of the alleged music she creates? The biggest rock act in 1965 wasn't the Beatles, it was Hermans Hermits, for crying out loud; the number one song the week of Woodstock was "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies. All of this is to say the story we tell about rock music elides all sorts of uncomfortable realities we want to forget. I think rock will do just fine, and bury yet another obituary.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sectarian, Fideistic Tribalist - Stanley Hauerwas On The Church Versus America

America is at once the name of an aspiration to liberty and equality of rights and the name of the power that stands in the way of that aspiration. - Stanley Hauerwas, "On Being A Christian And An American", in A Better Hope, p. 31.
As I wade through Roland Boer's dense commentaries on the Marxist appropriation of theology, I am pausing to read an essay or two from my one volume of Stanley Hauerwas. For those who may not know the name, Hauerwas is more than just "a Christian ethicist". His name is a symbol for kicking against so many conventions, not the least of which is his contention that "Christian Ethics", as a phrase (let alone a discipline of the academy) isn't really intelligible.

A Better Hope: Resources For A Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, And Postmodernity is one of the initial publications by Brazos Press, a small imprint of Baker Book House. A compendium of essays from the 1990's, the collection could be considered "dated" (it was published in 2000) were it not that the topics he addresses are not just pertinent but really vital.

I will confess that I have mixed feelings about Hauerwas. I want to like much of what he has to say. I get the feeling that his intentions are not just honorable, but rooted in instincts that are correct. His counter-claim to what he sees as the unholy alliance between political liberalism (broadly understood) and the Christian churches in America is simple enough. He writes the following at the end of the essay quoted above, on p. 34:
I believe . . . Christians can do nothing more significant in America than to be a people capable of worshiping a God who is to be found in the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The worship of such a God will not be good for any society that desires a god made in the image of the bureaucrat. A people formed by the worship of a crucified God, however, might just be complex enough to engage in the hard work of working out agreements and disagreements with others one small step at a time.
Fair enough. Yet, unlike those who face the fire of his ire - John Rawls, in particular - Hauerwas is thin on the ground as to how, exactly, we are to negotiate the differences among incommensurable vocabularies, or to put it in his terms, reconcile the different stories we tell about ourselves. If, as Hauerwas suggests, Americans are a people predisposed to a certain avoidance of conflict, pasting over very real differences in order to keep a certain social peace - and I am not convinced this view, which he borrows from an essay by Alisdair MacIntyre, is true - then the alternative he suggests would seem to prevent anything else than agreeing that we do, indeed, disagree. These disagreements, moreover, under the terms he sets forth here, would be unmanageable because they are rooted in "stories" that start in different places, have a whole different cast of characters, themes, motifs, and serve such a welter of purposes that "disagreement" is a polite way to describe what really would be conflict.

So, we end up where we are in many ways. Different groups insisting on the primacy of "their" story as being the key to being "America" (and despite his insistence that his view denies a role for "America" in a Christian's self-understanding, the practical result is the same), without any common vocabulary, or single "story" to which to appeal, sounds very much like our current situation. The appeal to the Church to "be" the Church of Jesus Christ, witnessing to that reality in its life in the life-world that is America is hardly a sectarian call to arms. All the same, working through both his method, and his sectarian, tirbalist view of what it means to inhabit a story, leads me to the conclusion that a key ingredient is missing from his theological polemic - grace.

Without grace, that sense that God's justice and love are united in a prodigal condescension to our human condition - and Hauerwas is certainly correct when he notes that the Nicaean/Chalcedonian formula is a shorthand for the uniqueness of the Christian story of God (although I prefer "confession" to story) - leaves out the key to understanding the "why" of the Incarnation. Are we, in being the Church in America, presenting a set of stark alternatives, the "thou shalt" of a new law? If this is the case, what need have we to confess this same Incarnation?

Again, there is much in this essay, and in Hauerwas' larger theological project, to commend itself to a variety of publics. All the same, what I found wanting in this essay - how we get to the point where we can negotiate those agreements and disagreements - is really indicative of a far deeper problem. Hauerwas' view of the Church is one much like himself, confrontational, committed to its "story" without any need to justify that commitment to those outside its walls, and lacking any sense of grace, which would be rooted in an acknowledgment of the contingency and partiality of any narrative. This, too, is a Scriptural insight, one Hauerwas passes over in silence.

When Everything Old Will Be New - Mid-Week Music Sharing (UPDATE)

I am committing blogger theft. It has been at least a year, perhaps more, since I stopped doing my music posts, and I miss them. Rather than just do the same thing over and over again, I have decided to do something someone else does. Tbogg, and if you're not reading him you should, does what he calls "Pre-Friday Random Ten". He sets his iPod on shuffle and the first ten songs that come up, he posts, with one to grow on. It is such a genius idea, I thought, what the heck, right? Is he gonna sue?

Please, don't sue.

In order to make this a more perfect Wednesday, breaking up the monotony of the week, and the somewhat dumbed-down headiness that has become my blog over the past few weeks, I am going to be doing this, at least until I get bored with it or forget it or someone tells me to stop (OK, maybe not the last one; I don't like people telling me to stop doing stuff, ask my mother).

You can play along! Do the whole "shuffle" thingy on your little Walkman or whatever, and let me know in comments what is on your playlist, getting you over the hump.

OK, set your phasers to stunning . . .

Prayer for the Dying - Seal
Fragile - Sting
Sowing the Seeds of Love - Tears for Fears
Closer to Fine - Indigo Girls
She Sells Sanctuary - The Cult
She's On Fire - Train
Lovesong - The Cure
Free Man in Paris - Joni Mitchell
Please Read the Letter - Robert Plant and Allison Kraus
How Come - Ray LaMontagne

Not quite making the cut, but I'm putting the video for it up, because, well, it's my blog. . .

UPDATE: I hate to admit it, but I liked that so much, I decided to do it again, with another ten-plus-one.

Court and Spark (featuring Norah Jones) - Herbie Hancock
The King of 17 - John Wesley
Up for the Downstroke - Parliament
Never Gonna Stop Me - Rob Zombie
Us and Them - Pink Floyd
Water - The Who
Casey Jones - Grateful Dead (Workingman's Dead)
Whipping Boy - Train
One O'Clock Jump - Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall, 1938
I Want You - Marvin Gaye

And the pinch to grow an inch . . .

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Allegory, Myth, And The Possible Future - Roland Boer On Walter Benjamin

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard places on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback wao was and expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet's hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called "historical materialism" is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to jeep out of sight. - The first Thesis "On the Philosophy of History", Walter Benjamin, in Illuminations, p.253. Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt.

If there is someone who could be imagined the opposite of Ernst Bloch, it would be difficult to escape the idea that Walter Benjamin is the perfect candidate. They were friends and correspondents. Both shared an affinity for literature as well as Marxism. Both were semi-assimilated German Jews "of a certain age". Beyond that, the differences could not be more plain. Bloch's works were many, varied, sometimes far too long, their Marxist pedigree always in dispute. Benjamin's longest work, his habilitationschrift, was his first work. Bloch's style of writing - expressionist, the words and sentences and paragraphs defying normal grammatical rules as they pushed the reader forward, sometimes against that reader's will, to see with new eyes - was nothing at all like the spare, traditional style of Benjamin. Yet, that style belied a depth of analytic vision, an almost furious desire to draw in whatever tools necessary to demonstrate that Benjamin understood late capitalism to be the great destroyer, not least of beauty. Among the tools Benjamin uses, from his Trauerspielbuch to his late, unfinished Passagenarbeit, was the medieval method of Biblical interpretation, the four levels of allegory. As he wrote in his first thesis on the philosophy of history, it is precisely because theology is now wizened that it can be sneaked in, almost without anyone seeing it, to be of service to stripping away the crumbling facade of late capitalist triumphalism.

The second chapter of Roland Boer's Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology considers the work of Walter Benjamin. Boer focuses on Benjamin's two major works, his first, long-languishing work on the baroque German mourning-play, to which he refers throughout as the Trauerspielbuch, and his late, never-completed work on the Arcades of Paris. While he draws in several of Benjamin's aphoristic "Theses on a Philosophy of History", as well as his essay on translation, by focusing on these two works, the bookends of his intellectual life, Boer shows that Benjamin displayed a remarkable consistency of vision, even as he, Boer, sees that consistency was paid for with the limitation that Benjamin became trapped within a certain mythological - and by "myth" Boer clearly means "false" - consciousness that derives from his too-heavy reliance upon certain theological and exegetical methods and assumptions.

Benjamin's allegorical method not only generates the failure of his overt proposal but also becomes an appropriate method for what I am suggesting. It is not, as the anti-allegorical polecmic of biblical criticism has argued for so long, that allegory seeks a wooden one-to-one correspondence to carious items in the test. On the contrary, allegory, particularly in Benjamin's hands, might be seen to reach across the divide between a capitalist present and a communist future to draw terms from that future to itself, however imperfect they might be. The question remains as to whether the mythological material that runs through Benjamin's writing is able to do the job. In terms of specific content, no, but in terms of the effort to think differently, then myth provides one way of doing so. Roland Boer, Criticism on Heaven, p. 105.
There are two parts to Boer's chapter. The first focuses on Benjamin's use of allegory. The second, which flows from the first, considers how Benjamin sees myth, not just Biblical myth, but the category itself, as a useful category for seeing how capitalism creates its own myths, destructive - even self-destructive - as they may be. Boer claims, however, that Benjamin's use of certain Biblical categories - in particular, he considers Creation and Eschaton - traps Benjamin within a mythological framework that leaves him, with his reliance upon certain theological and exegetical principles lifted from biblical criticism, unable to escape. He cannot, it seems use the myths for the sake of pushing a liberating message; indeed, by falling back, as Boer demonstrates pretty clearly, upon highly sexualized language (although I think "gendered", as clumsy as it is, would have captured Benjamin's use better), to the denigration of the female imagery. Indeed, Boer points to a passage where Benjamin, using the first three chapters of Genesis to work up a theory of language, can make a plea for more creative possibilities for men, while accepting without any criticism, the inherent secondary status of women, including downplaying procreation in favor of a yearning for a more creative masculinity.

It is Boer's analysis of this particular passage that is the clue for the much larger criticism Boer levels at Benjamin - the use of allegory traps Benjamin within the categories of myth. As he states in the passage quoted above, Boer does see possibility in Benjamin's method, but only possibility. Benjamin's ploy seems to be, according to Boer, that capitalism is not just myth-making, but is willing to draw on pre-capitalist imagery to hold up its teetering ideological structure. Much that capitalist society and culture has to say about itself is little more than a combination of myths, scavenged from wherever one may find them, that end up predatory upon themselves and even the society and culture for whose sustenance they are employed. In this sense, the destructive tendencies of capitalism are clear enough.

All the same, while Boer expresses a certain sympathy for the possibilities inherent in Benjamin's project at the very end, he nevertheless insists that, trapped by his reliance upon allegory and the inevitable mirror-game of myth, Benjamin cannot escape from myth because he does not explicitly set forth how these new myths from a post-capitalist reality, can draw us in. Too much beholden to the original creative myth, with its denigration of women, seeking solely for a creative possibility for the male, even seeing in the procreative act of women something akin to Nietzsche's eternal recurrence rather than something new, Benjamin does not move forward. While there is possibility, at the end his project flounders upon these rocks, rocks first set down when he decided to invite wizened theology in to the game.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Can We Be America - Some Thoughts Inspired By The Life And Words Of Martin Luther King

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath --
America will be!
-Langston Hughes
It is with both sadness and something like awe that I read through King's 1967 speech, "A Time to Break Silence". Delivered at New York's historic Riverside Church, it was more than just a statement against the wars in Vietnam. It was a thorough critique of American life, foreign and domestic. As in so much else, King cut through the illusion that the war, like segregation, was the illness. In this speech, he not only pleaded to end the wars. He also talked about America being America. Like his 1963 speech to the March on Washington, he proclaimed a vision for the United States that was in deepest accord with our most cherished values; unlike that speech, he offered no vision of hope or promise in the ringing tones of a vision of eschatological peace. On the contrary, he indicted the United States for betraying that vision, wondering whether we were not, perhaps, demonstrating symptoms of national decline, a failure not just of nerve, but of those qualities that would, indeed, make us a great nation, not just a great power.

Unlike the speech in Washington four years previous, King was not playing to our best sense of ourselves. He was, rather, holding a mirror before a nation already weary from social strife, yet destined for years more of it and declaring that, without justice, there can be no peace; that the peace we sought in Vietnam was inextricably linked to social justice at home; that the justice of which he spoke, and for which he had worked for over a decade required more than adjusting a few laws and changing a few minds. Repeatedly, at the end of the speech, King stated that the two goals for which he worked, the America he wished to see, could only come about through revolution.

Not just some "change of heart", although that was certainly part of it. The revolution to which he referred was that same revolution he spoke of seeing across the Third World, revolutions to which the United States seemed institutionally and inherently opposed. To live out its highest values, to "be America" as Hughes said we might yet be, America needed to be on the side of these revolutions, support them actively and purposefully. Only then could we, in the words of his 1963 speech, live out our creed that all people are created equal.

In the years since his murder, King's legacy as a public figure was contested space. The prophet of a necessary revolution became the preacher of peace. We are inundated with the sounds of his 1963 Washington speech - a marvelous piece of American oratory, to be sure! - but without the context of his later speeches and work, including a "Poor People's March" he was planning as he was gunned down in Memphis, a year to the day after delivering his speech on the wars in Vietnam, leaves one with the impression that King was a sober liberal. That image, imposed pretty early on, is part of the reason for the remarkable veneration among many young African-Americans, of Malcolm X, his alleged rival until Malcolm had his own final confrontation with a gun. The differences between the two men, the subject of James Cone's remarkable work of social and ideological detective work, Malcolm, Martin, and America, were far less than the public, and perhaps even they, imagined. Yet, it was the appropriation of the peace-loving, non-violence-preaching King by white liberals that rendered so much of King's actual work unintelligible, silenced a forceful, revolutionary agitator in favor of an image that was uncomfortably close to the Establishment's house negro.

In the early 1970's, radical black theologian William R. Jones, author of Is God a White Racist?, gave a lecture at Wesley Theological Seminary at its annual celebration of King. The contested legacy of King was of some import at Wesley at the time. The academic dean, Phil Wogaman, had gone to Alabama and marched with King; he had been attacked by the police at the Benjamin Pettus Bridge. His mentor at the theological school at Boston University had been King's as well, L. Harold DeWolfe (whom Wesley stole from Boston to be its first academic dean in 1965; DeWolfe dragged along several BU alumni, including Wogaman and Jim Logan and, later, William "Bobby" McLain). In that speech, Jones declared that the contested legacy of King was, in large part, a matter for whites. Blacks had no need, and certainly no desire, to take their cues on whom they should venerate as leaders from whites.

Jones' speech was met with consternation, to say the least. He was hardly dismissing King's work. Rather, he was stating, quite boldly, that the arguments over who King "really" was were irrelevant to the question of "leadership" among African-Americans. They were quite capable of understanding who King was and what he did. The imposition of a part of King's legacy - that peaceful preacher of non-violence and racial coexistence - stripped away not only the revolutionary King. It robbed King's message of its historic depth because the onus, at least in the whitewashed (pun intended) version being sold after his death, was upon the African-American community to meet the social and psychological needs of whites, rather than understanding desegregation as part of a much larger revolution of social and cultural and political values that would fulfill the promise, long ago stated succinctly by Langston Hughes, that, America might yet be America for all its people.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The First Blogger?

I'm just past half-way through Roland Boer's chapter on Walter Benjamin, and I decided to pause and go back and read what little I have on Benjamin. My introduction came through mentions other writers had made, and then I read Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times, which includes a profile of Benjamin. There are two small collections of various essays, fragments (including his "Notes On The Philosophy Of History"). One is entitled Illuminations, and its was edited by Arendt and includes the essay that appears in Men. The other, Reflections was edited by Peter Demetz.

What came through my reading these volumes was, initially, curiosity. As Arendt rightly notes in her essay, for an age that needed to pigeonhole writers and thinkers, Benjamin defies even the most ardent attempts to do so. Comfortable with Marxist thought, he didn't join the Party. He wrote essays on Baudelaire and Kafka, yet he wasn't a literary critic. He utilized theological categories in his analysis, yet was not a theologian (indeed, as a mostly-assimilated Jewish German, his ease with Christian thought was probably an oddity that defied explanation). He was led to Kabbalah by his lifelong friend Gershom Scholem, yet was not a mystic.

His longest works are intricate works on the interchange among the history of ideas, culture, and social thought. While one might be tempted to call him a cultural critic, even that doesn't capture the range of his vision.

In many ways, Walter Benjamin was an example of a kind of writer with which we are only now getting acquainted. I think Benjamin would have found the internet a marvelous tool; the academy wasn't sure what to do with him, literary and academic journals consistently rejected his essays and articles. Writing on a blog, however, would have provided a forum for Benjamin to present his musings without having to assuage the egos of those with whom he was engaging.

Arendt's essay on Benjamin, upon reflection, is frustrating on a number of levels. A pedantic, pedestrian kind of thinker, she focuses far more on the frustrations of Benjamin's life, personal and professional, reading backward from his suicide on the Franco-Spanish border to see little but tragedy. She calls his Habilitationschrift on the Trauerespiele a work on German drama, when it is in fact far more specific, far more wide-ranging in its analysis. She describes The Arcades Project an unfinished work on 19th-century Paris. That's a bit like calling Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics an unfinished work of theology. The Arcades Project was, as described and unfolded by Boer, a look at the way late capitalism had rendered Paris, rather than the pinnacle of culture (as it was viewed at the time by many), a decadent, Philistine realm where the final ravages of commodification had rendered people incapable of grasping their own decline.

It is easy, I suppose, to get caught up in the frustrations and failures Benjamin experienced in his life, looking back from that terrible moment when he decided to end his life rather than face the possibility of being turned over to the Gestapo and returned to Germany. In ill-health, he probably would not have survived long the gentle ministrations the Germans visited upon Jewish intellectuals. All the same, his writings are a testimony to the power of a mind and intellect refusing to bow to convention (including the conventions of academic politics and expectations) that offer a view of our society and culture that continues to enrich our lives.

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