"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, November 04, 2012

What To Make of a Diminished Thing

Please forgive this presentation of something akin to an "ars blogetica."

Paul's recent post, "Slaying the Two-Headed Dragon...,"points up a kind of fallacy as regards the reformation of the social management of large systems: when one moves towards a "critical" pedagogy one discovers that these systems are manifestations of the the very "evil" we have attempted to move against--the authoritarian state.  It is only an evil from a particular orientation of course.  The authoritarian state can surely be praised for many advances, even in the realm of humanitarianism.  This impulse to rectify injustice for individuals while retaining the machinery of "blind injustice" is our moral paradox.

The disconnect here is that writers and educators like Paul (and I include myself in this as regards "the disconnect") are facing the very real dilemma of trying to convey a way of thinking (our own metaphysic) that is not in the least comprehensible to those Thoreau offered lived lives of quiet desperation and who Emerson proclaimed as performing a foolish consistency.  What this means is that most of us cannot understand one another.  When we literally cannot make sense of what someone is saying then we often react with a very real vehemence towards that person and those ideas.

Likely this is intellectually apparent though I will admit that it has taken me many years to understand my own desperation and foolish consistency--that is to recognize that my "rational" thoughts were not rational in the least to so many of my friends and acquaintances just as I believed that my friends and acquaintances were no longer making any sense.  And that they were at fault.

We live in a polarized nation because we live in an "era" of polarization.  We MUST take sides because to admit any aspect of the other side to "mix" with "our" side is to recognize the incoherence of both sides.  We are always wrong.  And we cannot bear that.  And so we bite down hard and believe and are certain that we are not only right but that others are entirely wrong.  Facts are not facts if they cannot be fitted to our metaphysic.  They must be in error.  To protect ourselves we ignore that which falls on the edges of our perceptual field.
To make a distinction, what is commonly called alienation today (1970), particularly by our "alienated" youth and their slaves, the reporters and columnists and article writers of the public press, and far too often educators as well, is not alienation at all, but polarization.  The polarized individual has cognitively grasped his culture as incoherent, but is response is not self-ironic.  His attempt to become coherent is merely one of fastening on to one set of values already in the culture.

The alienated individual sees himself as part of his culture, sees, though he may not spell this out overtly or even covertly, "personality" and "culture" as two different names for two different perspectives on the same data.  To him culture transcendence is the only solution to alienation....To the alienated individual...a self-ironic perspective has already created the mode of a self...Such a self is one for whom none of the roles of his culture is adequate, since each reflects that culture's incoherence.  The polarized individual, however, readily accepts a well-established role, that of the rebel, outcast, or social discard, as the case may be.  The alienated individual plays his roles self-consciously and ironically, since to exist he must play a role; the polarized individual identifies self and role.... (Peckham, Morse. "The Romantic Birth of Anthropology," in Victorian Revolutionaries, 223-4.)
Perhaps the "critical pedagogy" inculcates this kind of self-irony, but it will not make an ideal education for a nation of men and women who cannot bear self-irony.

It would make sense for a community dedicated to a suspension of "absolute" answers.  But nations are not communities and nations like absolutes.

For a brief example just look at the term "American" or "Un-American" as it is applied to "policy" or actions by either the state or individuals.  The absolute must be defended but will be as easily defended as it is easily defined to suit the "polarized" side that espouses its patriotism, jingoism, xenophobia.  It makes no difference whether you call yourself "liberal" or "conservative" or any other term meant to indicate a normative "metaphysic."  ("Liberals let Obama get away with Un-American actions")


The other day I saw an email from a school that was sent to parents regarding the upcoming election.  This note told parents that some of the children had investigated the process of debates in elections and then offered several links to the recent debates which the students found instructive and suggested that parents read or view the clips in order "to better understand" what the candidates support.

If I had been drinking something at the time I would have done a spit-take.  Is it possible that this is how one investigates what candidates support?  Of course, I don't even have a clue how one finds out exactly what one means by "support" in this context.

Now, I can't say if this is ALL the school did as the results of this pedagogical act were not conveyed.  I have read via this post by Eliot Weinberger at the LRB ("The Republic of Entertainment") that the debates are statistically irrelevant to the election outcome.  But what do I know?


Not too long ago Steven Pinker published a massive tome that defended the march of progress, that is "western" progress, i.e. Enlightenment Progress, and spent much time quantifying the "moral" data on the reduction of war-related murders.  That is a severe simplification, of course, but that, as far as I could tell was the point.  Reductions make points no matter how absurd.  ("Better Angels on Black Ships")

I don't know why, and I ask you offer suggestions, but I'm often reminded of Frost's "The Oven Bird" when I think of the immense amount of data that homo scientificus presents to proclaim this inevitable march "toward" something that must be a "good" because it is us doing the marching.  The great and expanding experiment always seems to be gathering data in order to justify the reductive explanation of which we already believe we are the embodied proof.

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.


Glenn Greenwald wrote a very interesting piece Friday in The Guardian, "Who is the worst civil liberties president in US history?"  Greenwald is brilliant and dogged.  However, I'd say he was clearly polarized.  I sent him an email after I read his column.  This is what prompted the response from me:
Ultimately, there are two critical factors that, for me at least, are highly influential if not decisive in determining the proper ranking. The first is the extent to which the civil liberties abuses are temporary or permanent.

Most of the contenders for worst civil liberties abuses were "justified" by traditional wars that had a finite end and thus dissipated once the wars were over. Lincoln's habeas suspension did not survive the end of the Civil War, nor did FDR's internment camps survive the end of World War II. The Alien and Sedition Acts were severely diluted fairly quickly, while the bulk of Wilson's abuses which survived World War I lay dormant until the War on Terror. As horrible as they were, these radical erosions were often finite, arguably by design, since the wars which served as their pretext would foreseeably end at some point.
This is my email:
While I agree with your ultimate point (indefinite, codified abuses are very bad)--I think you made several assertions that might not be valid or even defensible.  As well you might have made a stronger case that "indefinite" POTENTIAL for war has lived within this nation as soon as it asserted its right to assume "ownership" of territory.

In one sense the CLEAR truth of this is at least now out in the very wide open: US Presidents openly declare they can and have the will to do whatever they want whenever they want...that is to say, the US Military State can and will.  Who calls the shots is important but I think irrelevant to this point.

That is the "newness" that seems to have offended your sense of this nation's "fabled" freedoms and liberties.  Fabled is unfortunately the reality.

As you point out, our freedoms are often negated along the way and it is the negation that matters while the "freedoms" are a simply a veil.

I think you started confusing things with this paragraph:

Most of the contenders for worst civil liberties abuses were "justified" by traditional wars that had a finite end and thus dissipated once the wars were over...

But you indicate your own error within it--that "lay dormant" reveals the truth of all of this.  I imagine that your sense of precedence must make this clear to you...suspensions of liberties enacted in one era, in one administration, in one "war," simply creates its own future use.  You've said this before time and again.

Barack Obama, in this sense isn't a man responsible for abuses...he is the culmination of the American Military character.
I wonder if these are the debates we can have in our high schools and jr. highs?


A friend sent me a note regarding my last post--that post too was about polarization though I didn't say as much.  The note was a lamentation upon that very "side-oriented" propaganda that many of us reflexively fall into even as we desire in all sincerity to "fix" the other side's thinking.  We WANT the best for everyone--to get it, we need to fix your orientation!  This has been my trap as well.

I hope he will forgive me but I am going to share my reply to him here.

I've come to the "no more blogging" decision myself many times! However, as you say, it has "worked" for me personally as it has been an education in itself--I have read so much and I have developed as a writer. I've become a worse blogger and a better writer! (If that wasn't too immodest.)

As for the "sides" in this particular fight: there was a time when I might have said there was a "good fight" and that there were good ideas and I that I wanted to support these and espouse them. But the more I've read, the more I've written, the harder it's been to find them.

I think we will need the failure of electric power to discover the real gift that is reading and discussion (personal, face-to-face). Reading can be (should be?) a kind of meditation and depth psychology (less so an entertainment). We can find our layers within good books. We (and I mean nearly 100% of humans) have lost this and really lost the interest in doing this. All our "industries" or "markets" require a kind of surface "innovation" and speed so that nearly anyone can assert nearly anything and find an audience for it and make a "career" out of a kind of "mis-dissemination." Then if that career "works" then those "innovations" are "right" in the eye of that beholder...no more thought necessary.

To discover another reality often requires trauma or tragedy--things just don't seem the same anymore. Sometimes we can read our way into this and sometimes life will hand it to us. It is a difficult place to find oneself because no one quite understands you and you don't understand why "they" can't get it. The normal avenues to find a place for yourself are closed both by others and by your own sense of them. You can't say what you want; you know there is a game to play but you just can't seem to play it even when you want to...your new sight betrays you in a single word and you are lost again.

Life offered me tragedy, books saved me, then threw me into despair, and I am found again for the time being. I have discovered that no amount of didacticism matters, that no amount of argument matters, that no amount of thinking matters...it is all persuasion and persuasion is reduction and it is false--some justify it like they justify the "noble lie" to serve the greater good. It is a soul-wounding for me.

One must find a way to be an observer and a responder all in the way that most serves one's conscience. Sometimes this means you cannot speak--you cannot be heard. And finally what this means is you must find a different path, must find a way to make these words dance and sing and scream (and whimper and whisper) in another way--for another audience, somewhere else, if not now, then in the tomorrows there are left to come.

You have believed in something. You have found that all belief creates its own betrayal, its own trip-wire. With honest thought, you will stumble over it. You will stare at it, wonder how it got there, touch it, measure its slackness, its tautness. You will devise ingenious ways to avoid it, but it is inherent in your every argument from then on and you find out you are lying in your belief. Then you are in trouble, but then you are free...for a time. Because every belief, every metaphysic, has its own trip-wire, you will stumble again. This is what it means to be a fully alive human.

No comments:

Post a Comment