The Need of Attachment

Just as we do not need food to meet the need of hunger if we can identify or invent some other means to meet that need, then also we do not need suffering if we can identify or invent some other means to meet the need of attachment. Moreover, inasmuch as needless attachment leads to suffering, we may read in a different light what Thầy Nhất Hạnh says:

Understanding [needless attachment] always brings compassion. If we don’t understand [needless attachment], we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of [needless attachment], we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need [needless attachment] to grow happiness.

The fact is that [needless attachment] and happiness always go together. When we understand [needless attachment], we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle [needless attachment], we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

Perhaps the appeal to “suffering” in Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s book—rather than an appeal to “needless attachment”—as the source of unpleasantness in human experiences arises from an attempt to reach a certain kind of ear in our Occidental culture. For a very long time now, Thầy Nhất Hạnh has sought to speak to Occidental ears, from his earliest appeals to people in the United States to stop destroying the people of and the world of his homeland to all of his subsequent work for peace worldwide.

Moreover, he stresses over and over that one may neither communicate nor achieve communication where listening cannot or has not occurred. Out of the howling suffering that we live in within our Occidental culture—a howling plastered over by thick layers of materialism, anaesthesia, and a partial knowledge of human experience—perhaps it must seem too abstract to approach the root of “attachment” all at once.

If “understanding suffering always brings compassion,” then a part of what such compassion entails would involve a person’s realisation of the attachment underlying that suffering. Otherwise, such compassion has an only a limited, therapeutic benefit, albeit still a desirable one. No wonder that non-attachment in Buddhism so often reads in Occidental ears as, “Oh, so I’m just not supposed to care about anything?” A focus on feeling or affect (on the sensual experience of suffering) that does not track back to the source of that affect (one born of desire arising from attachment) shifts us only from a disagreeable state of attachment to a seemingly more agreeable one.

The use to which the phrase “we need suffering” gets put acknowledges that suffering serves as a means to an end, and in this way discloses the misleading use of the word “need.” In fact, do not need suffering, although it suffices as a prevalent or prevailing means for meeting the need of attachment. To realise this clearly cuts off at the knees any apathetic or sadistic attempt to justify cruel behaviour or the suffering of others under the banner of “we need suffering”. It debunks every claim both of doing harm for the good of another of doing nothing for another’s harm because we all must deal with our own problems.

We do not need suffering. One would instead have to argue that we have no alternative to suffering as a means for meeting the need of attachment, except that we do have other means both to work against attachment and to work for non-attachment that make such a claim hollow, self-serving, or maliciously intended.

The Need to Suffer

Since a need refers to that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, we must ask then whether suffering names an actual need or if it embodies rather a present or prevailing means for meeting an as yet, still unnamed need. In the same way, just as the necessity of food as the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger implies further that we might meet that need of hunger through means other than food, then the necessity of suffering as the most prevalent means for satisfying whatever as-yet unnamed need it meets implies as well that we might meet that unnamed need through means other than suffering as well.

Here, we may return to the Bhāgavad-Gītā for a clue what might constitute this unnamed need. There, we see:

while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops; from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger; from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory; from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence; and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

The root of this cascade that ends in one’s disintegration begins from developed attachment while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops. Contemplation of the objects of the senses itself does not inevitably play out in the cascade, but the attachment to those sense objects contemplated. From that, desires arise; desires that circumstances then either frustrate (leading to anger that the desire failed to be gratified) or gratify (leading to anger that the desire proved non-permanent and transitory).

How we understand the downstream consequences of the desires arising from attachment, not only does attachment itself begin this cascade, we may note that attachment precedes desire. Hence in Buddhism one hears again and again of the necessity of non-attachment as a solution to the problems both of frustrate desire and the perils of karmic rebirth, rather than an initial emphasis on desires themselves. Attachments to desires not desires themselves prove the trap; not affect or feeling itself, but the ground of them, attachment to them.

This already suggests that suffering, understood as an affect or a feeling, does not get to the root; we might simply say that attachment to suffering identifies a prior condition or problem that requires our address. Thus, if we “need” suffering, this hols only because “attachment to suffering” occurs so pervasively, so automatically, so unconsciously, that it already provides the framework or the ground by which we might move towards happiness or peace and away from or out of suffering.

And yet, the understanding disclosed by the Bhāgavad-Gītā shows that by awareness of the issue—by seeing that attachment to desires, not desires themselves—exhibits the root of the problem, we may proceed from that point, and not from the condition of being already trapped within our attachments. This alone shows suffering not as a need but as the prevailing means by which we address the now-no-longer-unnamed need of attachment.

The Bhāgavad-Gītā, Buddhism, and many similar traditions, in fact, insist that suffering results from needless attachment, from attachments that we assuredly resorted to but that it did not have to go that way.

The strangeness or weirdness, the difficulty of trying to come to terms with the notion of non-attachment, so prevalent in Buddhism, arises out of this critique. Even to say, “One might not be attached” seems attached to the notion of non-attachment. But nothing paradoxical hides in this. Just as our best approximation of “objective reality” can only arise from a collectively intersubjective collation of subjective impressions—the Jains would remind us, “No, not even then”—so also must every engagement with the notion of “non-attachment” find expression through our embodied and attached human beingness. We can never talk it, but can only talk about it, but even that talking about it serves, or can serve, to orient one’s attention in the right direction.

But however helpful or unhelpful the elaborations, we see that suffering supplies merely the most prevalent means for meeting the need of attachment.

We may speak of a need of attachment even in Buddhist terms, in that everything manifest being necessarily both transient and limited, then we see attachment to that limitation and transiency as the condition that must be met if the state of affairs of our individual embodiment will continue. Since much Eastern philosophy and religion sees this sort of persistence over lifetimes as a problem needing a solution, its solutions then properly go to the very root of the need that generates the ground of that persistence: attachment.

Just as I cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need of separation (apartness, isolation, &c) no longer gets met by some necessity (whether friendship, community, togetherness, &c), so also do we cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need for attachment gets no longer met by some necessity as well. That suffering embodies simply the prevalent or prevailing means by which the need of attachment gets met, this means we might meet that need by other means as well.

As such, we do not need suffering.

 

Let Us Not Promote Suffering

Against the notion of this defence of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence that “we need suffering,” to say we need suffering also resonates terribly in English. If we would say that we need suffering, then this means we should also do all that we can to ensure that we and others suffer, so that they may grow, or at least move finally toward that end of happiness or peace that suffering lays the groundwork for.

A very great deal of political quietism and apathy may hide under this notion, even if someone does not have enough strength of character to inflict deliberate suffering in others that they might grow toward happiness. They can at least stand aside and declare the suffering of others none of their affair but certain something good and necessary.

However, as we also know the Vedic injunction—mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone—one might think that this alone should stop any such understanding of suffering—deliberately or perversely inflicted or not—in its tracks. The injunction should already rule out any apathy by people toward suffering, much less any insistence on inflicting or promoting suffering in others through violence due to the necessity and benefit of suffering. However, it does not always work out that way. In his study of the Śrī Vedānta-Sūtra, Adhyāyas III & IV, for instance, David Bruce Hughes summarises the argument around Sūtra 3.1.26:

The Vedas order:

agnisomīyaṁ paśum ālabheta

“One should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña.”

Because piety and impiety is known only from the Vedas’ statements, the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious. Therefore the orders of the Vedas are never impure. The prohibitions “Never commit violence to anyone,” and “Violence is a sin,” are the general rules decreed by the Vedas; and the statement, “one should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña,” is an exception to that general rule. A general rule and a specific exception to that rule need not contradict each other. There is scope for each (29, underlining added).

One may readily anticipate a reading of “the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious” as simply the Orwellian doublespeak of Power.

I will not engage the manifold apologetics, both disingenuous and sincere, that exist for this exception to the general rule of mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone. I raise the point only to make clear the destructive use that some may and have put the phrase “we need suffering” to use, whether to do harm to others for their own good or to do nothing about harm to others for their own good. I do not read that Thầy Nhất Hạnh intends the phrase to stand on its own, and he provides much more text by which to contextualise his intended meaning, as I hear it. Yet I still hear him saying, “we need suffering” out of a sense of his own experience of suffering as it contributed to his growth toward peace and happiness.

If we seek out the “lesson” in the suffering that befalls us, this occurs only retrospectively. Experiences befall us, and those we experience and name as suffering we may then engage in whatever way we do, even to learn something from that experience. We will see, then: one may only recognise suffering, we re-cognise it; one cannot inflict it, not even the sadist, who may know another human being well enough in advance to know that certain kinds of physical, psychological, or social violence done will instantiate in that person as suffering, that they will experience and name those actions as inflicting suffering. Nonetheless, such a cruel person inflicts only violence, and we may see then in every claim to do harm to another “for their own good” only violence and a violation of the injunction mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone.

In life, if we will less often meet sadists—those sufferers who spread the agony of their experience deliberately to others—and more often those sufferers whose own suffering makes reaching out compassionately to others too onerous or difficult, still the burdensome of this experience does not mean we must overlook the self-serving character of our attempts to solace ourselves by blunting or deflecting or ennobling the evident suffering of others—especially suffering that arises from social injustice and privilege—under the banner of “we need suffering”. Perhaps I decide I need a suffering, that does not license me to decide that you need suffering in general, and even less so any one or more specific suffering: that cancer, sexual assault, the death of your child, a war, your failure to get into college.

Whatever need of suffering we might recognise individually in retrospect, to prevail over the violence that wrought it argues not for the necessity of such violence but rather to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of an inhuman fate.

 

The Suffering of Need

In English, we have an unfortunate relationship with the word need. We may often hear something referred to as needed, when the thing described rather embodies only the present or prevailing means by which we meet an actual, often unnamed, need.

A need, rather, names only that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. The notion of biological needs, the biology of living beings, gives us our most familiar examples. We call food a need, for instance, but food embodies only the most prevailing means by which we meet the need of hunger. In other words, we may understand hunger as a need, i.e., that condition that must be met so that a given living being may continue to persist as a living being. That food embodies simply the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger means further that we might meet that need of hunger with other means than food. Biologically—for mammals at least, including ourselves—we may name also the needs of thirst, environmental exposure, and fatigue also, which we generally meet with the prevailing means of water, clothing and shelter, and sleep. By referring to these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive list.

Since we experience these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion as unpleasant, as something we wish to avoid, but must continue to experience them in order to persist as living beings, then we may say that we need the suffering they entail. Without them, we would cease to exist as living beings. In this light, we may understand how Thầy Nhất Hạnh insists, “We need suffering” (30). We may see how our embodiment in this life, which seems to require this kind of biological suffering in order to persist, makes suffering a prerequisite for the condition opposite of suffering, which we might call happiness or peace.

Being > Biology

For human beings, as one species amongst the many within the counsels of species, what constitutes our human lifedoes not arise from our biology. Experiencing everything through our perceptions, our perceptions define what we deem reality. A living being without self-awareness will have no body, no brain, not even any world or environment in the sense that we experience it. For us to speak specifically of biological needs, then, already emanates not from any physical reality of the world but from our way of conceptualising our experience of it.

Since a need denotes that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, inour human experience we not only name under a category of biology such needs as hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, but also many other needs; Thầy Nhất Hạnh specifically combines the biological and the non-biological when he writes, “Love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive” (9).

One will find few who would object to the notion that human beings—if not all sovereign, living beings—need love, respect, and friendship. But again, we see love, respect, and friendship not as needs but rather the present or prevailing means by which we meet some actual, as yet still unnamed, need. I notice that it does not clarify thinking to imagine food as the opposite of hunger; rather, food embodies a prevailing means by which the need of hunger gets met. So just as the necessity of food meets the need of hunger, then we might ask as well what the necessities of love, respect, and friendship meet the needs of.

To address only one example, we may see that friendship meets a need of separation. Since we cannot have the experience of existing as individuals if we do not experience some reality of apartness or distinction that sets us apart from all other people and living beings, then separation or apartness describes a condition that be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. If we ceased to exist in our separateness, then we as a living being would no longer exist. However, as also with hunger, the unpleasantness of this experience of separation or apartness—this absolute isolation from all others—along with our desire to avoid the on-going state of the experience of that, makes friendship (or togetherness or community) a present or prevailing means by which that need of separation, isolation, apartness gets met.

One might elaborate a long list of non-biological human things—for example, love, respect, friendship, fairness, cooperation, compassion, recognition, &c—that we would incorrectly call needs, since these things embody rather the present or prevailing means for meeting some as yet still unnamed need. But in all cases, however one builds such a list, the experience of the unpleasantness of those needs and our desires to avoid experiencing the state of them points again to the sense of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30) if we would attain its opposite: happiness or peace.

However, I would further emphasise that any so-called “biological” needs do not differ in kind at all from these otherwise “non-biological” needs.

A living system self-aware or not that fails to meet the need of hunger disintegrates; the organisation of its life as an organism falls apart and it ceases to have being. Conventionally, we say it dies. In the same way, for self-aware living beings, if one fails to meet the need of separation, the organisation of its life as a living being also falls apart and it ceases to have existence. We sometimes metaphorically say people die of loneliness, but sometimes this happens literally as well.

Moreover, whatever importance I accord my conceptualisation of my biology, that conceptualisation itself already represents a “non-biological” value. Thus, when someone gives me food to eat—when someone meets my need of hunger with the necessity of food—I say we might more clearly understand this not in terms of biology but, rather non-biologically, as meeting the need of separation with friendship.

Someone might object, “Why only the need of separation? Why not also the need of hunger?”

I intend to erase here the false distinction of the biological as somehow prior to human existence or simply more important. Instead of “one does not live by bread alone,” I would say, “one does not live by bread at all; one only persists.”

But further, that I should cease to have being “biologically” does not end my life—it ends only my experience of that life. Whatever role our human imagining of biology plays in the shaping of our lives—and it plays a considerable role, one assumes—it describes neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for understanding the character or experience of self-aware life. When I die, my life continues in the lives of other living beings; the framework of “biology” cannot explain this aspect of human experience, an experience shared by other living beings who express grief over the death of another, for instance.

For the experience of a self-aware life, then, the qualities of difference one may identify between different needs (like hunger or separation) have felt consequences, but do not finally rise to a difference in kind. In other words, one perhaps may not ultimately find a satisfying distinction of difference between the so-called “biological” and “non-biological” needs of self-aware living beings.

To make this more starkly dramatic, rather than speaking of a need for hunger, one might describe the need for starvation in human experience. It seems no accident or coincidence that one of the riders of the Apocalypse has the name Famine, not Hunger. Or again, people in prison and in poverty and in alienating workplaces may receive food and yet feel (correctly) that they have ceased to live. Or yet again, like those on hunger strikes who specifically refuse to meet the need of hunger with food, they may yet feel (correctly) that their life, perhaps for the first time, has at last attained significance and meaning. At the end of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton reflects on his impending (and voluntary) execution as giving for the first time a weight and significance to his otherwise wasted life.

In all of this, we may understand all human needs as the needs of self-aware living beings, and refuse to misleadingly distinguish between biological and non-biological needs and the means that meet those needs. Such a view remains resonant with Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30)—we need the human experience of hunger and separation, thirst and loneliness, &c. In the case of all such human needs, the unpleasantness of the experience of those needs as well as our desire to avoid those experiences, points to the (human) need of suffering Thầy Nhất Hạnh identifies; an experience we then either meet with the present and prevailing means that meet that need or fail too and experience the disintegration of the organisation of our lives, i.e., we die or cease to exist.

In the same way that if we cease to experience hunger this in all likelihood means that we have died, then more generally if we cease to suffer, then this in all likelihood means we have stopped humanly living.

 

Summary (TLDR Version)

A collection that really benefits from appearing as a collection; a collection that successfully turns into a graphic novel.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Morrison, Truog, Hazelwood, Grummet, Cullins, Montano, McKenna, & Farmer’s (2013)[2] Animal Man (omnibus edition)

I have a memory of reading something that very disimpressed me by Morrison (the Invisibles), and only the sheer length of this tempted me back. Good for that.

While obviously replete with some patently silly stuff, the moment significant part of this issue involve the way the writer publicly implicates himself in the relevance, or irrelevance, of the genre he works in. this appears most of all in the breaking of the fourth wall at the end, when the character of Animal man confronts his then-lifewriter, but it shows up more subtly in the way Morrison tried to integrate his real-world issues about animal rights (an vegetarianism) into the issues. This appears also in his attempt to make sense of the discontinuity that results from him taking over someone else’s writing project for the character.

This obviously embodies the sort of critique of form that Moore’s Watchmen so thoroughly proposed, but Morrison seems simultaneously more inside and outside of that issue. In other words, if Moore represents purely an artist, a figure who would have cropped up as a major writer in whatever form the culture had available at the time, with Morrison it seems more that he would only have appeared as a writer of comics. If Moore can take the genre as a genre less seriously, whether to critique it or to leverage it to whatever project he wants to work on, for Morrison—at least in this run—he seems more obliged to accept it at a kind of face value, even when he turns it inside out at the end.

Put another way, that Morrison appears in his own issues puts a more personal slant on things than Watchmen. You might not know where Moore stands at some point—especially about the character Rorschach—but with Animal Man, one already knows where the author’s identity tends to reside, even before he bifurcates into his own representation in order to speak with his creation.

Perhaps because this “self-conscious” element remains so thoroughly a part of the various texts it makes the turn at the end seem less contrived and very well-integrated into the whole thing. It certainly represents an appropriate closure. And the frame-busting episode, thanks to the Psychic Pirate, makes not only an impress tour de force but also, again, a logically motivated episode in the whole arc of the thing. Thus, the soul-searching at the end of the run hearkens back to the “soul-searching” of the run itself as Morrison tries to work out the incoherence between previous version of Animal Man and his own incarnation of him.

Of course, the thrill of reading each next edition has its own charm, but collecting all of these issues together helps put the whole arc together in a way it deserves. This means a few issues could get left out without going missed, but this in order to strengthen the arc overall. In other words, while this represents a collected series, it does for the most part represent an actual novel.

This and Hines Duncan the Wonder Dog (part 1) supply some serious grist for animal rights activism. I could say more, but more simply I’d recommend reading it. You have to winnow through some patches, but this collection doesn’t waste your time usually.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Morrison, G, Truog, C., Hazelwood, D., Grummet, T., Cullins, P., Montano, S., McKenna, M., & M. Farmer’s (2013)[2] Animal Man (omnibus edition), pp. 1–708.

mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni – never commit violence to anyone

नमस्ते. Namasté. “I bow to the divine within you, and am grateful for your presence.”

In The Art of Communicating, Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says that “when we listen to someone with the intention of helping that person suffer less, this is deep listening” (42). One must “take the time to look and see the suffering in the other person” (44), and to say to yourself as you listen, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less” (44).

I honour to remember this as I comment on what he has written about suffering. And I remember also verses 62 and 63 in chapter 2 of the Bhāgavad-Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa offers a detailed description of the origin of suffering. I give this below with the hope that you may as well savour the beauty of the original Sanskrit script, the strangeness—for those, like myself, who cannot read Sanskrit—of an encounter with its transliteration into the Roman alphabet, and also the insight offered by one of its translations into English of the sequence Kṛṣṇa identifies as the source of suffering, how it comes about:

              2.62

2.63

dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsah saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ‘bhijāyate
krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraṁśād buddhi-nāśo buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśati

While contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops;
from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger;
from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory
from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence
and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

Thầy Nhất Hạnh—the word thầy suggests an honoured teacher in Vietnamese—writes that “we need suffering” (30, emphasis in original), and adds further:

Understanding suffering always brings compassion. If we don’t understand suffering, we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of suffering, we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need suffering to grow happiness. The fact is that suffering and happiness always go together. When we understand suffering, we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle suffering, we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

The purpose of my commentary in this essay aims to respond to the points made here by Thầy Nhất Hạnh, endeavouring as I do to remember to listen for the suffering in his writing, that I might make him suffer less.

 

Summary (TLDR Version)

Does this answer the quest for a “female hero”; I don’t know. As a redemption narrative, it falls flat.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Keatinge, Campbell, Hamilton, Bergin III, Gieni, Solis, & Sherwood’s (2014)[2] Glory (the Complete Saga)

If I wanted to get really deep into this, I might try to decipher why some reviewers rave about this book. Amongst the people giving it low marks, this includes both males and females—only two seemingly female reviewers gave it four stars on a five star scale; the rest were between one to three. But not that many males gave it a four anyway.

The major complaint involves shifts of art style (Glory gets bigger and smaller) and perhaps also just sheer incoherence of story. One certainly gets some juicy splatterfest, but indeed, the storytelling has some really glaring lapses. This often comes about with unconvincing jokes, usually from the “mere mortal” in the story, who seems like she should have died about a billion times over before ever getting past page fifty.

However, I want to chew on only two issues.

From my reading, it seems that Glory obtains permission to visit the land of the dead—to see the people her actions have killed but also to reunite, if briefly, with her lover—but only on the condition that when she actually dies she will not go to the world of the dead herself. Of course, like a stoic hero, she never divulge this fact to those she visits, even when they tell her that the world of the dead rocks and they all look forward to her arrival once she actually dies. The narrative plays this element so close to its chest, I actually cannot tell if I read it correctly. I mean, perhaps Gloriana will go to the land of the dead once she dies, contrary to the earlier prophecy. It seems that we should have some moment when glory completely breaks down, because she knows all of this talk about “we can’t wait to see you; it will be so great!” will never happen. The reader needs some signal of this, not only to confirm it as the case, but also to drive up the pathos of the encounter. In other words, the authors should do some of the work to actually write the dramatic irony, and not leave it entirely up to the reader. Especially since delicacy or subtlety hardly marks this narrative otherwise.

More generally, vast portions of the narrative remain unmotivated. The text makes a great fuss about Glory’s parents having had another child, and that sister and Glory apparently have to try to kill each other every time they meet. Except, rather than being some sort of titanic “let’s finally settle this” confrontation, it turns out as something that just happens, and the text even makes jokes about “we don’t even have to do this, I guess.” A lot of the bloodbaths have a similar gratuitous quality. Having recently read Grant Morrison’s omnibus Animal Man, he supplies a much smarter example of how to handle the comic book “we need a fight sequence here; things are getting dull” issue—from which obviously the movie of the Hobbit learned nothing as well.

Beyond this, the author(s) commit the grotesque gaffe of deflating all sense of the epic. This shows up in stupid insertions of jokes. One cannot just throw in the sort of wise-cracking asides of a sidekick. You can see it handled with some deftness sometimes by Tarantino; you can see it very deftly deployed in Cabin in the Woods (and sometimes by Whedon generally, when the narrative has not already become utterly exhausted with itself). But not here. Gods fixing waffles devolves to stupid kitsch and simply makes the epic depictions later seem dumber, rather than more epic, by comparison. Mere banality of family sits poorly; at least the Sandman and his sister never seem like suburban boobs, &c.

So this cheese-corn makes the whole redemption arc of Glory cheaper. The redemption of a divine force and the redemption of a mere mortal don’t equate. And this then brings up whether or not this redemption narrative changes with the redeemed figure as female.

I tend to dislike redemption narratives. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant gives you an idea of one I find brilliant; Moorcock’s Warhound and the World’s Pain seems adequate as well.

The most recurrent problem involves proportion; 95% of the narrative consists of the jackass behaving badly, with 5% devoted to the redemption itself, usually in very maudlin terms, i.e., out of love for some otherwise narratively meaningless love interest, sometimes a person’s offspring. In a world where men can get away with murder, 95% of raping, pillaging, and plundering, marked by a sudden change of heart—again, on grossly sentimental grounds already extremely familiar to patriarchal culture—reads to me more as an apologetics for the shitty behaviour. Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014)[3] Fear Agent (Volume 2) supplies a really gross case of this.

The problem turns not simply on the arrogant practice of male license by the character, which comes off as sanctioned by the author—that’s the most important part—but that the redemption merely turns on the flipside of that arrogance: being touched by a female self-sacrifice, or by some “touching” sentiment of fatherhood suddenly. Underneath it all, it seems—boys will be boys—the jackass simply embodies a hurt little boy (never a hurt little girl; this matters) inside. And on those grounds, the author expects us to forgive him. We understand his awful behaviour as simply a yearning for love.

Moore spares us such stupidity in the Comedian, for instance.

Given how integral gender remains for such redemption narratives, it seems tweaked in a context with a female hero. Irrationally in the first place, Gloriana’s parents create her not only to provide a pretext for peace between their two warring factions, they also train her so that she will enforce that peace through unstoppable violence. In other words, her parents create a super-weapon, but whatever sense this makes, the authors can’t stop re-creating more children (i.e., two more sisters). We have a theme of a failure of parenting, when Glory wilfully runs off to hang out on earth just because, but it begs the question of what her narrative redeems her from.

In general, the problem that Glory poses turns on her demonic nature, not her divine nature. She gets into a bloated fit of rage, and then destroys everything, eventually even one of her friends deliberately. So, if males need redemption from hurt little boy feelings, which we at least theoretically may understand or sympathise with, what Glory requires redemption from involves demonic irrationality. She needs redeeming from her “nature” which certainly makes for a problematic assertion. Not all men will come to the point of requiring redemption, so long as they don’t become assholes; for female characters, they would all require redemption. In fact, all of civilization must rise up—the mother and father alike eventually coming to realise they need to work together to undo what they have made.

But let me stop. The narrative nowhere has sufficient coherence to bear close analysis. And even if Glory starts as female, like the Valkyries upon which she seems more based than anything Greek, she ultimately starts to seem like a male figure with a female skin on top. Specifically, at the height of her rage, she kills Riley—or Riley sacrifices herself, in one of those typical “eye-opening” gestures that redemption narratives love so much. It always involves that moment when you “go too far”—just as we have to hear about those haunting moments for heartless soldiers who suddenly can’t forgive themselves for deliberately killing a child.

Whatever tortured lie you tell yourself to justify your shittiness, that doesn’t make it any less obviously shitty to everyone else. Thus, the soldier who can’t forgive himself for killing the child still believes he did nothing wrong in killing women and men. I don’t count that as redemption. So also Glory: if she ultimately feels she went too far in killing her friends, she shows no compunction whatsoever for everything else she has destroyed. Once again, that doesn’t constitute a redemption.

In our culture, that shows up in discourse form as: one should never rape a child, but to rape a woman, well: shit sometimes happens.

Ultimately, the reviewers (male and female alike) of this book correctly point to the disjointed, incoherent sloppiness of the narrative. If we get spared many of the usual grotesque blandishments of masculine excess in the narrative, because Glory likely won’t run around raping people, for instance, this does not ultimately detach the narrative, in this case, from the unconvincing tropes that ground redemption narratives.

A friend of mine notes our culture’s desire for comeuppance. This presupposes, of course, some range of activity warranting that punishment, but when we have an anti-hero who seems too safely tucked between some quotation marks, so that by “anti-hero” we really understand (wink-wink) someone we should more admire than not admire, then we see an article of bad faith around the notion of comeuppance. In other words, Glory acts badly, and has to come to a more or less bad end—for the sake of comeuppance—but the authors don’t really believe she constitutes the “problem” that the narrative calls her. Or tries to.

This always comes across more clearly in sloppy redemption narratives with males. A print run will come to an end, so you kill the guy off supposedly to atone for his many sins. To really sell that, the redemption would have to come at the beginning, because the effect of redemption should show in the future consequences of it. When the State executes a serial killer, nothing of the future of that “justice” comes into the picture; the whole cases consists of nothing more than a litany of horrors by the “hero” (hero in the eyes of the psychopath, centre of the story or protagonist from the public point of view), so that somehow the throwing of the switch, the comeuppance, should settle the whole matter. If he goes out with a sardonic smirk at his executioners, that differs little than if he breaks down at the end, begs forgiveness and apologises—except that the latter confirms the whole of the patriarchal structure that he himself so (perversely) embodied in his life and crimes.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] J. Keatinge, J., Campbell, R., Hamilton, S., Bergin III, J., Gieni, O., Solis, C., & Sherwood’s, D.E.(2014)[2] Glory (the Complete Saga). Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 1–352.

[3] Remender, R, Moore, T, Opeña, J, Hawthorne, M (2014). Fear agent, vol. 2. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse, pp. 1–520.

Summary (TLDR Version)

The original ran six pages, apparently; it could have stayed that long.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Richard McGuire’s (2014)[2] Here

I have been reading books but not writing replies and more and more feel pressed to “catch up”. This makes me want to have less to say than I might. All the same, of this book, the publisher tells us:

Richard McGuire’s Here is the story of a corner of a room and the events that happened in that space while moving forward and backward in time. The book experiments with formal properties of comics, using multiple panels to convey the different moments in time. Hundreds of thousands of years become interwoven. A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999. Conversations appear to be happening between two people who are centuries apart. Someone asking, “Anyone seen my car keys?” can be “answered” by someone at a future archaeology dig. Cycles of glaciers transform into marshes, then into forests, then into farmland. A city develops and grows into a suburban sprawl. Future climate changes cause the land to submerge, if only temporarily, for the long view reveals the transient nature of all things. Meanwhile, the attention is focused on the most ordinary moments and appreciating them as the most transcendent.

More ad-text assures us that readers have waited twenty-five years for the expansion of the original piece (now fifty times longer), which supposedly exploded the comic form by depicting the events over time that all happen in the same place.

This “joke,” which doubtless seems striking, and remains striking in the first couple of pages of the present version—and by “joke” I mean that in the most favourable sense of the word—quickly loses its traction however, and it seems instructive to wonder why.

From the publisher’s blurb, while “A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999” makes a possibly compelling image, that sort of significance does not, and in fact cannot, continue to resonate in the same way over a 300-page text. Everything depends in this book upon the various ironies of co-occurrence. One might imagine the human lives that all intersect at a given street corner over the course of a century, but if person A and person B have some sort of ironic or poignant connection, and so do person C and person D, what does the first couple have to do with the second?

Ultimately, any sense of the “history” of the place becomes nothing but a jumble of unrelated events, and this becomes very clear when pseudo-realistic depictions of the planet in some of its earlier eras linger in the background. This does not succeed in making human life tiny but, rather, simply detaches the sense of a place, a here, from the story. I doubt very much McGuire intends this.

I suspect that, ultimately, the very brevity of the original not only forced McGuire to more carefully integrate all of his material into something more like a single narrative, however spread out in time, but even if not, it certainly allowed the reader to make more of a single narrative of it. The expansion of the idea kills that possibility, essentially—like a full-blooded short-story tortured on a narrative wrack into an anaemic novel, or what we saw happen to the latest Hobbit movie.

Also—memory being treacherous at this point—it would appear that in the billion or so years of this room, the only sex that ever occurred here involved the rape of a Native American woman by a Native American male. That seems trashy and gratuitous, and it especially points out—since that narrative has no follow-up—how selective the book gets about what narratives it depicts at some length. The last gesture of the book, providing a kind of tidy tie-up, answers a woman’s question posed much earlier; she can’t remember why she has come into the room, looking for something, and at the end she remembers.

So McGuire implies, accidentally or not, that the book concerns memory, but this does not seem convincing. The only “history” of the place truly constructed comes from the reader (of the book). Only the reader has any access to the event-depth of the place, so that perhaps McGuire expects us to make something of the fact that a rape occurred and now the house stands on Native American burial grounds, or at least the site of a Native American culture depicted in only the most cursory of ways. One might call this invisibility deliberate or apposite—an official history that only takes note of what it choose to take note of (wandering dinosaurs, the Cainozoic era, &c). I certainly don’t find myself moved to a thoughtful consideration of “real” U.S. history by the only representation of Native American culture in this corner of the world as a rape. &c. He supplies nowhere near enough compositional intelligence to make such a reading likely, however much one could torture one out.

Also, the lack of an equal depth of field into the future seems a mistake. Apparently, the “act of imagining” required to supply images of the past represents a different faculty in the artist’s intentions. We do see some of the future, but only the extremely relatively near future—I think we get 10,000 years into the future at most, while the past goes back billions of years.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] McGuire, R. (2014). Here. New York, Pantheon, pp. 1–300.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Pragmatism made exciting, almost!

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 5a]

Someone asked me to read and reply to this book. And so, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 and part 2 and here.

Chapter 5: Integrating Experience and Epistemology: Ivone Gebara’s Pragmatic Ecofeminism

This is an out-of-sequence reply to this book, which has fallen by the wayside over the past few months through no fault of its own.

In building upon Gebara’s pragmatic ecofeminism, as he describes it, Tirres offers a construction of pragmatism that makes it compelling. For instance:

Pragmatism stresses that human beings interact with and in nature and are not inherently set over-and-against it. As such, knowledge is less something that a “subjective” self applies to an “objective” or “outer” world, and more a mode of interaction that is part-and-parcel of the continual and close-knit interplay between the human organism and its environment (125–6).

One may read this as merely “holistic,” but it also rests on an iterative process that takes art as its model.

In all cases, the process both begins with the question of quality and ends with it. It begins with a quality that is aesthetically “felt” or “given” before it is rationalistically “known.” The process of reflective inquiry reshapes and reconstructs this immediately “given” quality in such a way that it becomes a meaningful, “reconstructed” quality. In one sense, we could consider this reconstructed quality to be a new “end.” However, just as soon as we reach this point, the “end” becomes a potential new “means” for the reconstruction of further qualitative ends (127–8).

And so:

If, within the basic structure of experience, the dynamic growth of the organism–environment transaction yields immediate and qualitative moments of “fulfilment” and “consummation,” then, so too does consummation happen within the context of reflective inquiry. Consummation becomes “meaning.” In short, pragmatists like Dewey have no reason to turn to a priori or transcendental accounts of experience, since experience, as it is actually “had,” already supplies us with its own rich standards of value (126–7).

The attraction and strategic value of avoiding transcendental categories—or at least seeming too—spares the philosopher having to somehow ground those categories; a necessity that belligerent scepticism shall no doubt find a way to undermine, as it always does. At the same time, however, appealing to the self-evidence of experience—not, mind you, how it might come into being but the absolutely undeniable occurrence of the presence of the experience in consciousness itself—radically detaches all human beings from one another. Or, more precisely, it begs the question how or why experience for you in any way resembles experience for me.

Again, in claiming that experience “already supplies us with its own rich standards of value,” this does not point to how any such values “got into” that experience, i.e., where they come from, &c., but simply to the fact that the person having the experience will consult precisely the content of that experience—here claimed as having its own rich standards—in order to make their next lived iteration in the world. Of course, an observer may readily connect part of the content of that experience back to the environment/culture surrounding the one having the experience but, again, these does not constitute any of the “rich standards of value” locatable in the experience. Why? Because that content provides a negatively subjective part of the experience—by negative, I mean non-social or merely personal.

In saying this, I have made no effort to try to understand what the “rich standards of value” might legitimately consist of in this immediately given experience Tirres refers to. At the risk of the perils accompanying the distinction, I could locate those rich standards in the “form” of experience itself, not the “content”. Any values, if they would warrant the term and actually constitute values sharable between human beings and thus a part of the basis of any human culture or society, would have to reside not in the content of experiences per se but in the fact of having experiences at all, wherein the structure of experiences becomes (or seems) the shared element.

This may sound hopelessly abstract, but we often experience this. If a friend claims to have seen a ghost, and we don’t believe in such things, we may generous not simply laugh in our friend’s face for making such a ridiculous claim and say something instead like, “I believe you believe you had that experience.” The point of connection between the two people here occurs not in any consensus about the content of the experience but rather in the recognition (by the disbeliever) that experiences feel “real”. This recognition proceeds from the disbeliever’s own experience of experiences as well, and not from any specific “content” of those experiences. She can recognise times when she experienced something non-credible, for instance, but cannot in the same breath deny that she had the experience.

Behind this point lurks the observation that “knowledge is less something that a ‘subjective’ self applies to an ‘objective’ or ‘outer’ world.” Occidental philosophy often runs aground on the subjective/objective dichotomy, because in its main professions it fails (or refuses) to acknowledge the subjectivity of the objective as well as the objectivity of the subjective. The more usual sceptical complaint points out—again and again—that subjective perception can claim to hoist itself by its own petard; subjective judgments get taken as validation for claims about objective “facts”.

But what seems truly self-evident about experience hinges on its self-evidence. We feel we look “out” into a world and thus overlook that our consciousness has constructed something out of disparate neural firings. We say that our nerves experience impingement from energy sources “outside” of those nerves, but we do so on judgments from within those conscious constructions, &c. But even on these grounds, scientific studies demonstrate that the supposed “inputs” don’t correlate to (much less match) the “outputs”. Colour, for instance, constitutes no property of Nature but arises as an artefact of our mental functioning. And whether any one-to-one correspondence prevails between “inputs” and “outputs,” we have no external third point to make that judgment from.

At the same time, whatever presents to us in consciousness—ostensibly in some “subjective” way—has nothing subjective about it. Look around. Nothing you see has anything to do with your “subjective” desiring or wanting. If you see these words, you have no say in that. You choice exists solely in no longer reading, but this does not negate the “objectivity” of experience. And in fact, all of the markers we ascribe to supposedly “objective” reality actually better describe our experience of perception. Quantum mechanics assures us that “reality” in no way resembles, even a little, how we think it does; “objective reality,” then, denotes more our projection of our perception of experience; or, as Piaget (1972)[3] put it: the individual emerges as an object within a universe of objects experienced as external to itself. The “as” here (not “as if”) matters crucially; we experience the world “as” external to ourselves, rather than experience a world external to ourselves.

This happens objectively, not subjectively. And since my consciousness and your consciousness remain incommensurable, if we get into a dispute about the external world either of us experience, we have to negotiate that difference, often by making insistences about how the world “is”. We accuse one another of “subjectivity” then but both do so from an unswervably, innegatably objective experience of that external world. If I persuade you to my view (or you to mine), this does not involve making your previous experience into something else, except in the sense that you reinterpret it in a different way. You abandon your previous view, or modify it, but even then, the operations you perform on the “clay” of that experience can only start from and work with that specific clay.

So, indeed, as Tirres notes, experience never proceeds by a “subjective” imposition upon an “objective” or “outer” world. Rather, the structure of experience itself seems equivalent to any objective world. Again, the fact that we differ (or that anyone could differ) in experience does not “disclose” a subjectivity at work. Whatever consensus or sheer numbers I drum up to support “my” contention about “the world” can rest only on one of the more familiar logical fallacies as an argument for the truth of my contention. At the same time, the authority Copernicus cited against the ad populam of the general public also didn’t make his claim “true”; it only made it more adequately fit for explaining the disparate, phenomenal experiences of human beings.

And thus, to understand science as simply one of several forms of reflective inquiry, to contextualize science as one, not the only, form of reflective inquiry makes for a valuable reminder as well.

Nonetheless, what lingers in all of this involves a resistance to the word “pragmatism” and the crass unimaginativeness it invokes; a crassness Tirres acknowledges, even while trying to save the word from its current degradation. One wonders why? It would seem smarter to re-name the term more intelligently; not to do so has an air of secretly co-signing the frameworks and projects of the crass exponents.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Piaget, J. (1972). The principles of genetic epistemology. New York, NY: Viking.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 3]

Although I got out of the loop with this book, someone asked me some time ago to read and reply to it; I suspect I might just start over, especially since I have had such an oppositional attitude to much of what Tirres writes, which strikes me as curious, since often Tirres gets into terrain I remain sympathetic to. In any case, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 and part 2 here.

Before Going On

I want to add before continuing, my previous posts about this book may seem too harshly framed, and I apologise if it comes across that way. And as soon as (more or less) empowered representatives take it upon themselves to describe the “poor” or to speak on their behalf, the poor have a right to react cagily and circumspectly to such representations, even when meant in a “helpful” way—principally because the history of even well-meant representations have typically gone problematic. In this way, to take up talking about an “aesthetic turn” (even in the critical way Tirres does) while people starve to death can quickly and easily look ethically repugnant. An example, from a seemingly unrelated domain, will illustrate this.

Some time ago (more or less in 2002),[3] a sort of public debate took place over cosmopolitanism versus patriotism. A lot of hay got threshed about this by a number of academics; and then the lead organizer of the discussion offered her rebuttal. From my previous blog:

Earlier, I noted Putnam’s [2002][4] seeming lack of concern for the poor even as he employed them as an example, and especially his preface “I believe”; “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust” (96). Here, Nussbaum asks in a similar way:

May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world re starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption? These are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers (137).

Just as Putnam arrogates to himself an end of responsibility by proposing merely to pay lip service to condemning the poverty, here Nussbaum asserts that posing the question suffices. We may rest very assured that the answer to the tritely rhetorical questions Nussbaum proposes came as a resounding yes, all the more so when a supposedly cosmopolitan response fins sufficient to pose these “hard questions” and to insist that the course of action “will and should be much debate about the proper answers” (137).

Are you shitting me? The next section of her text begins, “As we pose these questions, we should value human diversity” (137)—Nussbaum has segued in matter of sentences from any kind of relevance into the depths of imperialist apologetics, illustrating Wallerstein’s (2002) warning that cosmopolitanism may as much abet as challenge privilege. Espousing a (justifiable) concern for hierarchy, Nussbaum insists that “some forms of diversity are clearly separable from hierarchy: most religious and ethnic differences” (138). Numerous wheels might get pitched at this, but I simply here want to underscore again—because Nussbaum’s effort of reply here keeps trying to get to the “basics” of human experience as a ground for her argument—that “religion” does not constitute a human universal, so long as one neglects to address atheism.[5] This point matters because Nussbaum cannot conceptualize matters outside of “the profound importance of religion, and respect for religious difference, in a just society” (137). The possibility that religion amounts to a socially destructive, and ultimately antisocial, superstition does not seem recognizable to Nussbaum as she characterizes her views here.

Not to take on the role of kill-joy, but when Nussbaum inserts as an intentionally humorous aside that “this does not mean that the world citizen cannot believe that the Bulls are better than all other teams. World citizens never deny was is self-evidently true” (138), this exemplifies the underlying falseness of Nussbaum’s view, just as surely as her trite rhetorical questions that we should debate how to address the question of world justice while children simultaneously starve for our benefit. In a pathetic footnote to this piece of cultural chauvinism by Nussbaum, where one hopes to find a proper measure of apology for this ridiculous incursion, instead she writes, “Marcus Aurelius did say that Stoicism required one not to be a partisan of the Green or Blue teams at the games—but he was speaking of a Roman context in which such rivalries gave rise to delight in the murder of human beings” (150).

In general, the supposed discussion conducted here amounts to little more than pious masturbation, a bunch of lip service paid to the right notions: that “there will and should be much debate about the proper answers” rather than any course of action right now to help people being destroyed at this very second. In one of the briefest replies in this discussion recorded by Nussbaum, brief perhaps because the respondent sees through this empty, academic twaddle, Wallerstein (1994)[6] bluntly remarked:

Those who are strong—strong politically, economically, socially—have the option of aggressive hostility toward the weak (xenophobia) or magnanimous comprehension of “difference” [largesse]. In either case, they remain privileged … ¶ In 1945, the United States become the hegemonic power in the world-system—by far the most powerful nation economically, militarily, politically, and even culturally. Its official ideological line was threefold: America is the world’s greatest country (narrow nationalism); America is the leader of the “free world” (the nationalism o the wealthy, White countries); America is the defender of universal values of individual liberty and freedom of opportunity (justified in terms of Kantian categorical imperatives). ¶ The United States government and moral spokesmen saw no difficulty in making all three assertions simultaneously. Most persons were unaware of the internal inconsistency of this triple stance (122–3).

In this kind of (imperial) context—the current one that we live in—it seems perfectly apposite (or at least reasonable) to demand some clear sign that any discussion (of liberation theology) serves first and foremost as a staging ground for some helpful action on behalf of those represented, rather than on the kind of self-serving “debate” Nussbaum finds so necessary (in order that she keep her job and that her daughter gets go to a fancy college denied to those that Nussbaum “represents”).

I recognise, and have defended, the necessity of having a proper or helpful frame on an issue as a prerequisite to moving forward, but very few circumstances have such critical stakes that we must stop all progressive action while we figure out what next needs doing. In other words, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that any liberation theologian shows in his or her actions a material solidarity and activity with those represented. At the very least, this signals the authenticity of the concern for those represented, the poor. Certainly, almost all of the Latin American liberation theologians showed this; some were murdered or imprisoned as a sign of their material solidarity with those they represented.

At the beginning of this chapter, Tirres frames his concern that US Latino/a liberation theologians have too complacently converted the option for the poor into the option for culture, essentially making liberation theology into an academic problem one might make a career of proposing to solve, no doubt by the kind of “debate” (rather than action) Nussbaum proposes. I want to emphasize that this seems promising—and his exposure of Vatican arguments against Marxism also suggest a promising stance—but if in the final analysis the corrective that Tirres proposes lacks sufficient signs of material solidarity with those represented (and spoken for) by liberation theologians, then he will have legitimately earned scepticism of my earlier posts and he will have placed himself squarely in a comprador intellectual position, betraying his race not only locally (in the US) but internationally as well (in South America).

Chapter 3: Liberation in the Latino/a Americas

As something to note right off, although Tirres does not enclose the word liberation in quotation marks in this chapter’s title, for the headers on each page have the word as “liberation”. I doubt Tirres decided this, and the scare quotes undermine the chapter’s credibility by making it seem he denies any reality to liberation in the Latino/a Americas.[7] Definitely something to edit for the second edition.

He begins by showing how from the Eighties onward the dominant Vatican response to South American liberation theology consistently (if not deliberately) misread the movement as a mere reduction to politics. He also underscores the Vatican did not limit itself to talk but systematically replaced Latin American ecclesiastics who supported liberation theology with those who did not. Of course ,this all has an obnoxious or hypocritical element in it, since the Vatican clearly arrogates to itself the right to declare that this kind of politicking on its part represents an integral theology itself, rather than a reduction of theology to politics. Tirres lets this irony speak for itself and does not underscore it, but it still elides the fact that the Vatican both debated and acted (acting here providing the sign of no mere masturbatory twaddle in the debate involved). An obvious point, perhaps, but in a context of liberation theology, we see the Vatican understanding (or at least taking seriously) that the faced a “movement” (in the literal and figurative sense of the word) and not just a “debate”.

After this, Tirres first takes issue with García-Rivera’s (1999)[8] construction of the “beautiful”; he “utilizes [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s and [Josiah] Royce’s logic and their metaphysics of relations. Whereas Peirce’s study of signs speaks to a ‘community of the true’ and Royce’s idea of loyalty points to a ‘community of the good,’ García-Rivera sets out to construct a ‘community of the beautiful’” (56). For Tirres, “the question is not so much: how do aesthetic objects and practices point to a presumed universal quality of Beauty, but rather, how can and does aesthetic meaning emerge organically within everyday experience, and how may it be further shaped and refined through creative, human action?” (57).

To put this matter too bluntly, Tirres rejects García-Rivera’s thoughtful attempt here as academic twaddle, i.e., too divorced from actual human experience. And he further rejects the notion of a too narrowly imagined theological aesthetics (an object of García-Rivera’s work) in favour of a religious aesthetics. Or, again to put it more politically, a Catholic or Protestant aesthetics won’t cut it as necessarily hobbled (if not disingenuous in a way even). Rather, the starting point for religious aesthetics “has more to do with the way that we ascribe aesthetic and/or religious significance to human experience and practice than with any a priori idea of Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine” (57), i.e., the undesirable a priori here meaning any specifically Catholic (or Protestant) construction of what Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine already means. And while, in one respect, this question almost hopelessly involves nothing more than academic twaddle, Tirres at least stands up here for a broader understanding of aesthetics than anything compassed by theological aesthetics. And even more generally than this, Tirres would place the notion of aesthetics on a generally wider footing than perhaps most (academics) think of it these days.

Thus, an experience may be deemed aesthetic even if it has nothing formally to do with art. The same logic applies to Dewey’s theory of ‘the religious,’ which may be seen as an intensification of the aesthetic and which may apply to experiences that are not formally connected with institutional religion (58).

Here, I would defend his point against accusations of academic twaddle (although wrapping this point up in Dewey seems gratuitous), because what he points to involves a recognition that human beings have access to profound (aesthetic or religious) experiences not only potentially through any experience but also, and specifically, not only in the sanctioned or approved (established) religious channels. As a particular earthy example of the former, people (often women) in India will place a piece of cow dung outsider the house and worship this as an embodiment of Ganeṣa; as a case of the latter, the visions of Brother Klaus (or any number of other Christian mystics) offered an extremely heterodox version of Christ (one not recognised by an Orthodox interpretation), but his vision still consisted of Christ (a sanctioned religious symbol). Finding the face of Jesus in a piece of toast marks a case of the latter as well.

All of this points, implicitly, to the question: who gets to define what constitutes a valid (aesthetic or religious) experience, and Tirres here weighs in less to say “everyone can decide for herself” and more to question “why does the religious Authority (or the Vatican) get to act as the sole arbiter of this question?” And, of course, this question of who validates aesthetic or religious experiences opens up as well into the broader question of who gets to validate experience in general. Consequently, when an experience happens to you, who has the right (or simply the power) to declare, “Your experience doesn’t count or is wrong?” Under a theological aesthetics, which he rejects, the answer to the question comes down to, “The religious authority decides.”[9]

Still, having said this, to contrast theological and religious aesthetics gives us a false dichotomy, since either choice leaves us in the domain of “religion”. Nonetheless, Tirres still points in a historically useful footnote to a broader vision of aesthetics:

If this sounds like a radical departure from the way what we tend to think about aesthetics today, we would be well served to recall that the modern discipline of aesthetics, as initiated by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in the 1730s, began as the “science of sensory knowledge” of any and all experience. It was only later theorists, most notably Kant and Hegel, who approached aesthetics as a pure judgment of taste and who restricted Baumgarten’s inquiry to exceptional pieces of fine art. Although subsequent thinkers like the Romantics would revivify Baumgarten’s understand of the wide reach of aesthetics, as witnessed by their fascination with the beautiful and sublime features of nature and the human body, aesthetic theory since the late eighteenth century continues, unfortunately, to be premised on the more limited idea that aesthetics is a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way. See Tirres [2009],[10] “Aesthetics,” 1:6–11 (n42, 58).

This question of aesthetics, which indeed has transformed largely into a piece of masturbatory academic twaddle precisely to the degree that it gets taken as “a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way” (58), has served in that respect as a piece of political neutralisation, i.e., whatever Baumgarten hoped to accomplish with his science of sensory knowledge,[11] the sort of use it got put to in the exemplary cases of Kant, Hegel, and subsequent commentators lost touch with the radically transformative possibilities in aesthetic experience (and Art) that Schiller still saw for it near the end of the eighteenth century. It surprises me, in fact, that Tirres makes no mention of Schiller, who represents perhaps the most significant philosopher on the value of aesthetic education in history. Academia seems to have chosen to forget this.

The remainder of Tirres’ chapter digs deeper into the work of García-Rivera and R.S. Goizueta. He specifically finds Goizueta’s work to miss its mark of integrating the aesthetic and the ethical, and a couple of tendencies come out in this. First, Tirres exposes what I would call an authoritarian tendency in both of these authors; in other words, he shows the links between these authors’ criticisms of South American liberation theology and Vatican critiques, all of which boil down to anti-Marxist. In both a Vatican and a US context, an anti-Marxist stance certainly dovetails neatly with the prevailing capitalist discourse, but anti-Marxism itself serves as a mask for borrowing the authoritarianism of the Vatican in the first place. As Tirres makes clear, he shows how a certain stripe of US Latino/a critics of South American liberation theology either (1) resort to vulgar embodiments of Marxism, (2) ignore the broader tradition of Marxist analysis that avoid such vulgarity, or (3) selective read (or misread) certain “non-vulgar” Marxists. Hence, “While Goizueta’s critique of Marxism here may hold true in terms of more reductionistic, orthodox, and vulgar forms of Marxism, the critique does not hold in light of more nuanced, non-sectarian, and ‘open’ forms of Marxism, with which [one writer] himself associates” (66).

To represent by synecdoche Tirres’ point overall (particularly with respect to Goizueta’s work in this chapter), he interrogates the stark distinction between “praxis” and “poiesis”—or, specifically, operatio-poiesis in Goizueta’s use. This distinction hinges on the difference between praxis (as a doing that serves as an end in itself) versus a poiesis (as a making that serves some end other than the doing itself). To give a familiar example from the domain of aesthetics, the critic will note the difference between art as an end in itself versus art that serves some non-artistic end, and thus smacks more of propaganda.

So, even as this distinction may seem like academic twaddle, behind it we may discern the intention of the actor (the artist)—does she offer the work of art as a disinterested emblem of some universal human truth, which culture ostensibly hails as the most worthwhile thing of all, or does it serve the squalid, narrow end of “mere politics” (serving the interests of a single, narrow class, whether the rich or the poor). In this, you should detect again already the same complaint directed against Latin American liberation theology; it gets too involved in “vulgar and narrow politics” rather than remaining oriented toward universal (human) truth, as the most worthwhile thing of all. Thus, these aesthetic gestures either represent the author’s intended gesture of liberation (from narrow political milieus) or it represents an attempt to delimit and control people (into a narrow political milieu). This latter attempt might arrive in reactionary form or revolutionary form, but one of Tirres’ main objections to Goizueta points to the too stark distinction between praxis and poiesis, between “doing” and “making”. For him, “In pragmatism, human knowledge, imagination, and creativity are ‘instrumental to’ the qualitative enrichment of experience. One cannot life as an ‘end in itself’ without such means. Both the product and the process are integral to one another” (64).

A point lacking in Tirres’ analysis: while he readily digs out how García-Rivera and Goizueta rely upon vulgar Marxism (or cherry-pick less vulgar Marxist analyses), he has yet to acknowledge that pragmatism too must have its own vulgar pragmatists. Or somewhat more to the point, except in the case of ideological tools, presumably such “vulgar” Marxism rests on some specific desire the proponent of it felt needed making. A point that would apply to vulgar pragmatists as well.

Or to put the matter still another way, the historically ubiquitous contending between (for want of a better term) absolutist framings of issues in contention versus “shades of grey” framing begs the question why this contention recurs. Those of a fundamentalist or orthodox orientation deem those advocating “shades of grey” heretic, traitors, compromiser, ell-out, while those advocating an integral or moderate view see others as zealots, fanatics, narrow-minded, and the like. Hence, of course Goizueta might harp on vulgar Marists to make his point, while Tirres cries foul and objects one may find any number of sophists, excuse-makers, or simply cleverer or more obfuscating proponents (of Marxism) that the ones Goizueta focuses on. Similarly, then, we might expect Tirres to avoid citing any vulgar pragmatists in his own analyses, but we have no reason to believe simply on the face of it that this means their arguments can’t be disingenuous, &c.

Also, it becomes hard to ignore, as Tirres treats García-Rivera’s and Goizueta’s arguments, in a strictly right or wrong contrast how this runs at odds with his insistence, on multiple levels, to reject stark dichotomies and instead pursue “integral’ positions. One may locate occasional disclaimers that keep Tirres’ exposition from becoming what one might call ‘vulgar rejectionism,” but these disclaimers finally do little to forestall the impression that Goizueta has nothing to offer and that one need pay attention to his work. I’d like to think this amounts to an overstatement, but I doubt it does.

However, as a qualifier on this: Tirres starts by dismantling the Vatican critique of Latin American liberation theology. The unstated part of this—as also the unstated part of the Vatican critique—seems an a priori advocacy for or opposition to Marxism itself. Seeking to condemn or defend Marxism in general, it seems as if the lens of liberation theology (whether pro or con) serves as a distraction for that fact. The situation resembles Bakhtin hidden polemic, except that the object of the hidden polemic (Marxism) seems very poorly hidden. Hence, just as Goizueta (at least in Tirres’ construction of his argument) takes up the Vatican charge of “covertly” bashing Marxism, so Tires similarly sets out to dismantle Goizueta’ argument as a way to un-discredit Marxism. Accusing Goizueta of resorting to vulgar Marxism especially points to this.

And then deeper still, this rather indirect squabbling over the quality of one’s Marxism does act as a further distraction from the underlying dichotomy tires frames North and South American liberation theology in: namely, the categories of the ethical (political) and aesthetic (spiritual). One finds an authoritarianism invoked on all three sides of this debate: (1) the unabashed authoritarianism of the Vatican, (2) the authoritarianism of Goizueta in attempt to “stifle” the open-endedness at work in Latin American liberation theology but also to provide his own end-all/be-all answer, and (3) the authoritarianism of Tirres who starkly deploys an either/or (that one should essentially reject Goizueta’s work wholesale) rather than identifying work of Goizueta’s sort as part of a continuum, as Tirres advocates for other either/or dichotomies. One feels in the presence of Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” where he tries to work through why people seem averse to a genuine (political) plurality in daily life. As Aileen Kelly (1979),[12] in her Introduction, so ably summarises (perhaps better even than Berlin):

Pluralism, in the sense in which [Berlin] uses the word, is not to be confused with that which is commonly defined as a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean. True pluralism, as Berlin understands it, is much more tough-minded and intellectually bold: it rejects the view that all conflicts of values can be finally resolved by synthesis and that all desirable goals may be reconciled. It recognizes that human nature is such that it generates values which, though equally sacred, equally ultimate, exclude one another, without there being any possibility of establishing an objective hierarchical relation between them. Moral conduct therefore may involve making agonizing choices, without the help of universal criteria, between incompatible but equally desirable values (Kelly, xv).

By this, we see Tirres advancing “a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions [like Goizueta’s] are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean” (xv). Pluralism would have acknowledged an agonizing truth, that a circumstance like Goizueta’s stark dichotomy between “doing” and “being” might not have an establishable objective hierarchical relation between them. The two views, Tirres’ and Goizueta’s, might instead offer incompatible but equally desirable values.

Berlin discusses in part how it seems always easier to declare those who disagree with you simply wrong, rather than admitting their (baffling) point of view may have some merit after all. But—barring any sufficient evidence that Goizueta doesn’t simply play the part of a shill or a tool for himself, his career, or someone else, an accusation we might with equal irresponsibility at this point level at Tirres—then I have to say that Tirres’ dismantling looks like it accomplishes (by accident or deliberately) no “liberating” us from his own variety of critical monism—i.e., the insistence upon only one way of looking at things; the antithesis of what Berlin calls pluralism.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism)Boston: Beacon Press

[4] Putnam, H. (2002). Must we choose between patriotism and universal reason? in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 91–97.Boston: Beacon Press.

[5] The habit of treating atheists as a form of religious sometimes has merit, depending upon the atheist, but generally the move serves merely to misprision the atheist critique of theism.

[6] Wallerstein, I (2002). Neither patriotism or cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 122–4,Boston: Beacon Press

[7] Although, which “America” this might point to (North, South, or Central) remains ambiguous, of course.

[8] García-Rivera, A. (1999). The community of the beautiful: a theological aesthetics. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

[9] Having encountered lately a bunch of “simple-minded” argumentation (excuse the judgmental tone please), I can only imagine that such folks would scoffingly declare that no one but the individual gets to decide on this matter. This self-congratulatory myth, of course, collapses as soon as (for example) you (1) become a heterodox Christian, bucking the authority and the community in your church, or (2) the police decide to arrest you and you get to offer excuses for your behavior to a judge who would sentence you to prison. &c. Both of these cases involve (I would say) a degree of an abuse of power, but the issue appears even in non-abusive cases. We only need admit that we sometimes get confused about our experiences so that an outsider might weigh in with a more apt description to get into this territory. Only if you believe you can never err in your interpretation of an experience could you possibly insist that you and only you can correctly describe that experience. This seems a piece of egregious entitlement (once again) characteristic of late-order capitalism.

[10] Tirres, CD (2009). “Aesthetics.” M. De La Torre (ed.) Hispanic American Religious Cultures, vol. 1, pp. 6–11. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO

[11] The topic may not have escaped the masturbatory in his work either.

[12] Kelley, A. (1979). Introduction: a complex vision. In I. Berlin Russian Thinkers. (eds. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly). New York: Pelican.

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