Nations, Nationalisms, And The Natal Crime

Patriots and nationalists of many stripes are often committed to the view that a certain kind of nation-building violence was inevitable, and written into the very idea of the nation, into the national fabric as it were; the sanguine acceptance of such violence is ostensibly worth taking on as the price to be paid for the ‘gift’ of the nation–perhaps a home for a perennially wandering people, or a linguistic and cultural and religious community of one kind or the other, perhaps identified with a distinctive geographic location. Such acceptance has always had the uncomfortable implication that an acute incoherence is built into the citizen’s cherished moral creed of the nation and its politics. Its foundation is wrapped up in a holocaust that is part of its national origin, the burden of which all in the nation seem willing to accept with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Nations and their nationalist defenders deploy, in their political rhetoric, tropes that speak to virtue, to the earthly realization via their nation, of otherwise unrealizable moral and mundane goods; this does not preclude their insisting that their citizen defend in their name, all manner of moral atrocities. This incoherence is built into the heart and soul of the nation–and thus its citizens–so that it can force a peculiar and and distinctive dissonance on the part of its subject, rendering them internally incoherent and divided–and reliant upon the psychic support provided by the now valorized and seemingly immortal and indispensable nation. (There are parents who send out their children so ill-equipped, morally and otherwise, to deal with this world and those in it, that the child is soon driven back into the arms of its parents.) The arch critics of nationalism  insist all nations have violence written into their fabric because the nation can only come to being through some act of a national will to power that necessarily involves crushing the ambitions of other aspirations like family life or religious observance or local association. Cults are said to ask their devotees to discard all previous ties; the nation requires that all other commitments take a secondary place in the hierarchy of alliances and duties; the nation must do violence to these other competing claims. The nation is the mother of all cults.

Defending the indefensible is one of the many burdens that nationalism forces us to take on. Perhaps that explains, at least partially, the intensity of wars fought in the national interest: they are continuations of the violence that preceded and heralded them, an expression of acute discomfort, of horror, at the secret that is to be kept; these wars enable the maintenance of an appropriate distance from the scene of the natal crime. They are disavowals of the national crime, made more plausible by accusatory screeds hurled at another–perhaps a kind of ‘reaction formation’ on a  national level.

An entity that sought, and received, the blood of many to water its foundations will not hesitate for it again and again. Our history bears adequate witness to these demands.

Epistemology and ‘The Leftovers’

Imagine that an extremely improbable event occurs, one for which there was no warning; your best theories of the world assigned it a near-zero probability (indeed, so low was this probability then calculating it would have been a waste of time). This event is inexplicable–no explanations for it are forthcoming, and it cannot be fitted into the explanatory frameworks employed by your current conceptual schemes. What effect would this have on your theory of knowledge, your epistemology, the beliefs you form, and the justifications you consider acceptable for them?

This question is raised with varying degrees of explicitness in HBO’s The Leftovers–which deals with the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of approximately two percent of the earth’s population. ‘The Departure’ selected its ‘victims’ at random; no pattern appeared to connect the victims to each other. The ‘departures’ all happened at the same time, and they left no trace. There is no sign of them anymore; two percent of the world’s population has been vaporized. Literally.

The Leftovers is not a very good show, and I’m not sure I will watch it any more (two seasons has been enough). It did however, afford me an opportunity to engage in the philosophical reflection I note above.

One phenomena that should manifest itself in the aftermath of an event like ‘The Departure’ would be the formation of all kinds of ‘cults,’ groups united by beliefs formerly considered improbable but which now find a new lease on life because the metaphysical reasonableness of the world has taken such a beating. Critics of these cults would find that the solid foundations of their previous critiques had disappeared; if ‘The Departure’ could happen, then so could a great deal else. The Leftovers features some cults and their ‘gullible’ followers but does little of any great interest with them–lost opportunities abound in this show, perhaps an entirely unsurprising denouement given that its creators were responsible for the atrocity called Lost.

As one of the characters notes in the second season, ‘The Departure’ made the holding of ‘false beliefs’ more respectable than it had ever been. And as yet another character notes in the first season, that old knockdown maneuver, the one used to dismiss an implausible claim made by someone else, that ‘the laws of nature won’t allow that,’ is simply not available anymore.  Science used to tell us that its knowledge was defeasible, but now that that dreaded moment, when evidence of the universe’s non-uniformity, irregularity, and non-conformance with scientific laws is upon us, what are we to do? In The Leftovers a scientific effort gets underway to determine if geographical location was determinative of the victims’ susceptibility to being ‘departured,’ but it seems like this is grasping at straws, a pathetic and hopeless attempt to shoehorn ‘The Departure’ into extant scientific frameworks.

So, in the aftermath of ‘The Departure,’ we reside in a zone of epistemic confusion: we do not know how to assign probabilities to our beliefs anymore, for the definition of ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’ seems to have been radically altered. That old ‘you never know’ has taken on a far more menacing tone. Only the resumption of the ‘normal’ stream of events for a sufficiently long period of time can heal this epistemic and metaphysical rupture; it will be a while before our sense of this world’s apparent predictability will return. But even then, every argument about the plausibility or the implausibility of some epistemic claim will take place in the shadow of that catastrophic disruption of ‘reality;’ the reasonableness of this world will always appear just a tad suspect.

The Conformist Non-Conformist

In yesterday’s post I had quoted W. H. Auden‘s review of  David Luke‘s translation of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories in responding to his acid assessment of a reductionist impulse in art criticism.  Today, I quote him again, on a topic that is of similarly perennial interest, the problem of conformism as a hallmark of non-conformity:

In all technologically ‘advanced countries, fashion has replaced tradition, so that involuntary membership in a society can no longer provide a feeling of community. (The family, perhaps, can still provide it, but families are temporary societies which dissolve when the children grow up.)

In consequence, the word ‘normal’ has ceased to have any meaning. Community still means what it always has, a group of persons united by a love of something other than themselves, be it racehorses and poetry, but today such a love has to be discovered by each person for himself; it cannot be acquired socially. Society can only teach conformity to the momentary fashion, either of the majority or of its mirror-image, the rebellious minority. To belong to either is to be a member, not of a community, but if a ‘public’ in the Kierkegaardian sense. Today, all visible and therefore social signs of agreement are suspect. What a pleasant surprise it would be to meet a crew-cut hippie or a company director with hair down to his shoulders.

Auden’s observations should ring true to us. We have now become accustomed to the sight of the rebellious, the fringe, the ‘outsiders’, all too often, dressing and behaving lock and step in conformity with their chosen cohort. This isn’t surprising: having placed ourselves outside one group, we quickly seek another. True exiles, the hermits of the social sphere, are exceedingly rare. And in the quest for membership in a new group, visible signs of identification are very useful . These are the secret handshakes by which we enter the inner councils and proclaim our bona-fides. (Incidentally, Auden’s latter demand would appear to have been taken care of by the phenomenon of, most recently, the Internet start-up, some of whose directors are indeed long-haired and considerably more unkempt than the standard businessman.) Once inside the group, we seek to avoid summary excommunication by speaking and behaving alike. A ‘local’ vernacular or colloquial mode is quickly picked up as are standard expressions and targets of approval and disapproval. The overt adoption of these is necessary to continue and sustain the distancing from the older ‘normal.’

Such wholesale adoption of the trappings of the new group–especially speech forms and ideological commitments– require too, constant maintenance. This is best facilitated by persistent, frequent and sometimes, in extreme cases, exclusive, contact with other members of the new group. These interactions facilitate the upkeep of the new garb; they enable an inspection of slight changes in fashion that may need urgent responding to if membership is to continue.

The problem then, as Auden highlights it, is that the rebel only learns how to reject and leave a group; he does not learn how to live outside of one.

William Pfaff on the Indispensability of Clerical Leadership

In reviewing Garry WillsWhy Priests? A Failed Tradition (‘Challenge to the Church,’ New York Review of Books, 9 May 2013), William Pfaff writes:

How does a religion survive without structure and a self-perpetuating leadership? The practice of naming bishops to lead the Church in various Christian centers has existed since apostolic times. Aside from the questions of doctrinal authority and leadership in worship, there are inevitable practical problems of livelihood, shelter, and finance, propagation of the movement, relations with political authority, and so forth. Clerical organization seems to me the pragmatic and indeed inevitable solution to the problem of religious and other spontaneous communities that wish to survive the death of their founders or charismatic leaders.

These are interesting and revealing assertions. Pfaff assumes that ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘organized religion’; from this premise follow the rest of his conclusions. Pfaff does not indicate what he takes to be the extension of ‘spontaneous communities’; presumably these would include–as ‘charismatic leaders’ would seem to indicate–cults of all stripes. It might be that for Pfaff what distinguishes a ‘spontaneous community’ or a cult–as the early Christians would have been so regarded–from religions is more a matter of their endurance and organization than their content.  Two ‘spontaneous communities’ then, for Pfaff, could be similar in theistic and doctrinal, especially eschatological, content, but only the one with the requisite organization and endurance would count as a religion. A cult flowers briefly and dies out; a religion endures.

Pfaff’s conflation of ‘religion’ with ‘organized religion’ suggests that religions are properly thought of as organizations of sufficient complexity–in social, economic and political dimensions–to necessarily require some form of binding, cohesion and direction by ‘leadership’. Tantalizingly enough, we are not told how such a leadership is to be formed or selected from among the ranks of the followers; its ‘legitimacy’ to command, direct, and regulate its followers is left as an open question. (Pfaff does not address the issue of whether the survival of such an entity is desirable or not for the society that plays host to it.) But maybe not; is it the case that the legitimacy of the priesthood is derived entirely from its indispensability? A sort of ‘sans moi le deluge‘ argument, if you will.

This analysis of the necessity of clergies for the maintenance and propagation of religion also suggests leadership could be contested; rival contenders could stake their claims based on their alternative strategies for the continued flourishing of the religion.  This is not unheard of in organized religions; the Sunni-Shia schism in Islam dates back to a succession dispute, which even if not argued for on precisely these grounds, was still the kind that would be entailed by Pfaff’s claims of the indispensability of leadership.

So an interesting picture of organized religion emerges from Pffaf’s claims: its very survival relies on the creation of a space which could play host to a species of political dispute; this survival also requires ‘finance,’ ‘propagation’ and ‘relations with political authority.’ In short, it must be a political actor itself in the society in which it is embedded.

At the very least, this would seem to indicate organized religion should be treated like any other political force in society, and not one requiring special protections or immunities.

‘The Master’: Coming Undone And Putting It Back Together

One way to ‘read’ Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master is as an enormously ambitious, technically brilliant cinematic riff on Ron Hubbard and Scientology, on a time fertile for cults and messianic healing: post-WWII America, when broken men–post-traumatic stress disorder is as old as war–drifted back home, and were, just as many other Americans, looking for meaning and succor in a world that, for some six years or so, seemed to have gone collectively mad.

In this reading, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) are paradigmatic representatives of these two components of America: the healers and their patients. Their lives intertwine, they take from, and give to, each other, and then, they carry on, bearing the impress of each other’s presence in their lives. Dodd and his Cause serve as a showcase for many of the curious ironies of cult-based healing: that it may introduce greater dangers into the lives of those it claims to mend and repair, that the healers seem as much in need of cures as those they lay their hands on, that in healing the world, they first corrupt and disillusion those closest to them, that nowhere else is enlightenment as murky as in the words and actions of those who claim to pursue truth and eternal being beneath the superficial appearance of endlessly becoming things. (Given these ironies, it is no surprise that Dodd’s persona includes a volatile temper and a fondness for foul cocktails.)

But the story of Lancaster Dodd and the Cause is not just about irony, not just about ostensibly manipulative, dishonest, self-aggrandizing cults. It is also about story-telling and memory, about how we seek the key to the present and future in the past, how therapeutic interventions of many different stripes–sometimes art, sometimes psychoanalysis–converge on narratives and imagination. Dodd puts his patients on a couch (conjuring up visions of Viennese chambers) and invites them to travel back in time to seek clues to unlocking the mysteries of their perplexities; these performances are, unsurprisingly, subject to skepticism from stranger and family alike. But Freddie Quell’s life and his treatment show us that in fact, these past lives may not lie as far back as the skeptics imagine. For our  personas are always a sensitive and delicate balancing of the many lives that make them up. The coherent self we present–if we are lucky and skilled enough to do so–is an acutely controlled, finely tensed, dynamic equilibrium of these. Thanks to his traumatic childhood, a broken heart and an estranged sweetheart, a long, bloody war, sexual frustration, and alcoholism, Freddie has come undone; the Cause can perhaps, by making him revisit and reinterpret these sites of disruption, make him cohere again. The Cause can also, as Anderson sometimes seems to suggest, add more incoherence.

If in the end, ‘The Master’ is perplexing for some, it is because of the usual reasons: there are no straightforward resolutions, no neat endings. But in doing so, it might also pose the very sense-making challenge that confronts its central characters: of imposing structure on a series of striking, sometimes shocking, always affecting images and experiences.

Nietzsche on CEOs And Insider Trading

CEO hagiography has a long and well-established tradition in our time. Despite the–sometimes really well-written–mountains of evidence to suggest that they do little to deserve the size of their pay packets–which grow ever more obscene and disconnected from reality, and despite a nagging feeling that especially in the world of modern finance, a CEO’s success is very often either rigged or a fluke or both, very little real diminishment of their halos has actually taken place. This is isn’t entirely unsurprising; part of the beauty of the CEO myth is that while the CEO remains Perennial Uberman, towering over our puny selves, able to catch glimpses of distant lands that he will navigate us to while we scratch around in his shadows, we are reassured that we might too, someday, scale those very heights (and look down, contemptuously of course, at those we left in our wake).

The creation of this myth is central to the maintenance of our current economic system, and the figure of the CEO has a large role to play in it. And given that much of the myth-making media machinery is controlled–in monopolistic fashion–by those CEOs themselves, the maintenance, embellishment, and active sustenance of this story-telling is not too difficult, and indeed, is pursued enthusiastically–unfortunately, it must be pointed out, with active co-operation from those most hurt by it.

It should not be forgotten too, that the cult of the CEO taps into an almost irresistible fallacy: that of the lone author, creator, or agent. This fallacy is central to the maintenance of most nonsense written about ‘intellectual property’ today, and as the legions of shrieking ‘unpaid artists’ who clog up blog comments spaces demonstrate, its hold is also hard to shake. Dispelling this fallacy is going to be even harder than denting the armor of the CEO; this one is more personal, more important to the maintenance of a particular self-image, more central to our notion of ourselves as independent, freely-acting agents, able to single-handledly influence our fates and fortunes.

As I’ve noted before, Nietzsche has a line for everything. (The way I’m quoting him, it might appear they are all in one text.) Anyway, without further ado, from Human, All Too Human, Chapter 8 “A Glance At The State”, Section 449:

The apparent weather-makers of politics. – Just as the people secretly assume that he who understands the weather and can forecast it a day ahead actually makes the weather, so with a display of superstitious faith, even the learned and cultivated attribute to great statesmen all the important changes and turns of events that take place during their term of office as being their own work, provided it is apparent that they knew something about them before others did and calculated accordingly- thus they to are taken for weather-makers – and this faith is not the least effective instrument of their power.

PS: I have linked above to Gideon Haigh’s Fat Cats: The Cult of the CEO, quite possibly the best takedown of CEO mythology out there. You will laugh, you will cry; sometimes you’ll do both. Go read it.