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Monday
Aug052013

from "the birth of anti-meaning & salvation of souls"

An Australian aborigine woman, whose child was taken from her by the state because the whites-run state believed the child would be endangered if it remained in an aboriginal habitat, views the white Australian Christian’s respect for “family values” differently than does the Australian Christian.  (Alan Thornhill, “Australian Aborigines Win Apology,” Associated Press in The News Journal, Delaware, 8/27/99, p. A4)  The Jain, whose commitment to nonviolence extends to the point where she/he wears a mouth and nose covering in order to avoid accidentally killing an insect by inhaling it, views a bullfight differently than does a butcher in a Madrid supermarket.  Regardless of our different interpretations of the meaning of a child’s welfare, a white-dominated government, a flying insect or a bullfight, we all see, allowing for minor variations in our sensory systems, the same child, government, insect and bullfight.  That we do not necessarily agree on their role in the larger scheme of things does not alter the fact that we recognize the isness of things out there, beyond ourselves.  Despite our human differences, people more or less mean the same thing when they say in their respective languages ”tree,” stone," “bellybutton,” “corpse.”

Yet it is also clear that in spite of beginning with similar tools of perception and analysis, we descend into giant morasses of confusion as groups dispute each other over the meaning of history and progress, and as national cultures collide with each other in attempts to lay claim to specific geographical areas or to receive credit for certain historical accomplishments. 

Regarding history, the strict Hindu believes history is cyclical and that each new cycle evolves toward destruction, then is followed by another cycle also destined to self-destruct, and so on.  The pro-America pedagogue, on the other hand, believes history will culminate in the globalization of U.S.-style democracy and business practices. 

In terms of geographical disputes, European and U.S. Christians assisted Jews in finalizing their creation of Israel in the Mideast following the Holocaust, which meant that Palestinians, who played no part in the Nazi Holocaust, had to lose their land in order to mollify western guilt, thereby creating, not only a politically volatile Mideast, but cultural discord between Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom claim Jerusalem as their holy city.  Such discord also plagues disintegrated Yugoslavia, where Serbs slaughtered ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in order to guarantee the Serbs’ future control of sites holy to the Serb Orthodox Church.

Not quite so bloody, but also fiercely debated, are questions pertaining to who gets credit for the birth of civilization and various scientific discoveries.  Did China possess a complex understanding of mathematics while westerners were still unable to count their fingers?  Did the Greeks, the so-called source of western civilization, depend for much of their knowledge on the influences of African thinkers?  Was the Iroquois conception of a political federation one of the sources of U.S. thinkers’ early vision of a group of states independent of each other, yet also connected through a central government? 

Such debates don’t mean there is no real truth and that all interpretations of events are merely personal or group opinions.  What such debates do prove is how often, almost without exception, dominant cultures force-feed everyone under their control with their (the dominant culture’s) vision of history, meaning, creativity, the source of civilization, etc.  Although subordinate peoples also possess myths that celebrate their own cultures while denigrating outsiders and outside meanings, they are not positioned, precisely because they don’t enjoy political, cultural or economic power, to institutionalize their biases in ways that guarantee the permeation of those biases into every aspect of the thought and customs of the larger society of which they are a part.  On the contrary, their lives have been entwined in a web of meanings, behaviors and attitudes that assume their own secondrateness and another group’s superiority.  Therefore, if we want to understand a particular’s society’s reality, it isn’t sufficient to explore that society’s most powerful economic classes or cultural groups.  We must first understand how the power of those classes and groups entwines with and is resisted by the populations they control.  In what ways does this entwining occur?  And in what ways, out of this entwining, does an anti-meaning emerge, a negation of what seems to be, that represents the potential upending of the dominant power structures, which pose as universal but which in reality are more fragile than they seem. 

They are fragile because without some group to subdue -- indeed, without the act of subjugation, which produces their self-definition (“I am this which dominates that,” “I am this which is not that”) --  they collapse into the chaos of self-doubt. It is in this sense that the subdued holds the subduer by the throat.  As Hegel said in his Phenomenology of Mind, unless the master can see himself through the servant’s consciousness, he cannot know himself as master, since without the a servant or bondsman he cannot be a master.  In an odd way, then, the master’s independent consciousness of himself as a master is not really independent but is in fact borrowed, or on loan, from the servant’s consciousness of him.  The master’s highly prized awareness of himself as a lord is not really his awareness but is in fact the bondman’s.  This is why Hegel remarks, “Just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness.”  (G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1967, p. 236)  That something “quite different” is that the master’s "consciousness is . . . the consciousness of the bondsman.”  (Hegel, p. 237) The master is psychologically enslaved by the very person he has physically enslaved. 

Karl Marx read Hegel’s analysis of the master-servant relationship and saw in it a method of analyzing the relationship of capitalist to worker.  Marx viewed the servant as a laborer without whose labor, performed as directed by the master, the master lost his masterness.  In Marx’s hands, this perception evolved into the idea that since the capitalist cannot do without the  worker’s labor output, the worker through her/his output redefines her/himself as more than just subordinated, but as the producer of that without which the capitalist cannot be what he wants to be: a capitalist not only today, but also when he wakes up tomorrow morning, in perpetuity.  Although workers’ withholding their labor power from the capitalist does not immediately rob the capitalist of what he is (i.e., a capitalist), it is the first stage in the strangulation of his identity.  According to Marx, this crack in the wall of power is a place where workers can clamber through into a liberated or revolutionary zone where economic/political power can be redefined in workers’ favor. 

What Marx underestimated was the degree to which the connections between power-holders and the oppressed were not just economic, but also were defined by other factors:  culture, racial theories, the evolution of a professional-managerial class, etc.  As a result, people’s movements for greater economic democracy, if they exist in isolation from other social-cultural movements which aim for the abolition of other injustices (racial/ethnic oppression, discrimination against developing countries, etc.), are not capable of the full-scale altering of power and economic structures they claim to want.

This is why we are in need of anti-meanings or negations of what seems to be.  Such meanings are anti because they spring from a social place that, although degraded as hopelessly beneath the standards of the rest of society, reveal insights into the world’s makeup that destabilize society’s conventional wisdom.  In this sense, the negation of what seems to be is not a rejection of reality, but rather the dethronement of a false or incomplete reality in order to release a hidden reality without which the totality of our historical situation cannot be more fully understood. 

A bad dream can awaken us in a cold sweat, destroying, at least for the moment, our self-assuredness.  Yet if we possess the patience and stamina to remember the dream in detail, and to meditate upon its images, even the most disorienting ones, we frequently arrive at an understanding of the dream’s motivating anxieties and the steps we must take in order to begin the process of resolving them.  But even if the dream eventually proves helpful to us, this does not change the fact that its original irruption into our consciousness was a disorienting event characterized by scenes that at first frightened us because they either seemed to make no sense or because the sense they did make seemed too bizarre to bear. 

An anti-meaning or negation is like such a dream.  It irrupts into our consciousness like a strange drama that sheds a disruptive light on our experience of the world, negating the familiar and liberating what’s hidden: the repressed.  Once the repressed is unburied, it puts the familiar into perspective in such a way that even it (the familiar) becomes unfamiliar, spirit-shaking, new.  Angry, we respond, "The world isn’t like this, no it isn’t!”  But even as we say this, we often sense, in the midst of our confusion, that we’re wrong.

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