Friday, March 14, 2003

Dearest Scientist (and other Elders),

I want to publicly apologize for making you into a straw man upon whom I projected my frustrations on a bad day. Your initial blog was much more thoughtful than I gave you credit for, and your subsequent response was extremely insightful. Thanks for repaying anger with kindness. I actually think that we are saying much the same thing.

Now, having said that, I want to continue to be somewhat ornery by questioning the very thirdness paradigm that I so emphatically and enthusiastically introduced. I think that the notion of a hybrid thirdness--however ec (or ex-)-centric--ultimately remains imprisoned in the Hegelian dialectic, as the Lawyer suggested in his initial response. We just read Bakhtin's "Discourse in the Novel" in Bhabha's class, and Bakhtin has these two pet concepts of the dialogic and the heteroglossic. The heteroglossic denotes the entirely open, plural, multivalent, quasi-infinite networks of discourses floating around in social reality. Reality at its rawest and realest, we might say. This concept is key for Bakhtin, and he revels in its non-Hegelian messiness.

But, without fail, when it really gets down to it, Bakhtin seemingly cannot resist the telos of Hegelian teleology, and he in effect boils down the pluralistic panoply suggested by the heteroglossic to the comfortable binary of the dialogic. He distills from his broad-brushstroked picture of a dynamic Babel of innumerable, multilateral hybridizations the primal scene of a singular conversation between two primordial and discrete agents--a dialogue. In other words, the dialogic becomes a sort of synecdoche--or shorthand--for the heteroglossic, a metaphorically manageable part standing in for a dauntingly complex whole.

Needless to say, this distillation of the unwieldy heteroglossic into the tidy dialectic of the dialogic has incredible heuristic value. On one level, it certainly makes things much more graspable and comprehensible. But I would argue that it is just as needless to say that this distillation may very well undermine the very sense of a heteroglossic reality that prompted the adoption of the concept of the dialogic in the first place. What I want to put out there is the possibility that perhaps any tension model--even those that promise a binary-exploding, hybrid, transcendent thirdness (like the one that I offered)--has already engaged in a gross--and extremely problematic-- simplification of a manifold reality into a reified duality. At the most fundamental conceputal level, we have already made a decision to see things in a certain way that limits us profoundly.

So what would a more genuine, less reductive engagement with the heteroglossic look like? It is hard to say. Humanity seems to gravitate rather naturally toward the mystical vagaries of the numerological, whether the number happens to be 2, 3, 7, or, above all, 1. William James very sarcastically and hilariously wonders in his lecture on "The One and the Many" that "Abstractly taken, why is 'one' more excellent than 'forty-three,' or than 'two million and ten'?" Indeed, why is it? Why can't we deal better with the odd-ness, the uneven-ness, the randomness of the universe? Why must we so restrictively package it? And, believe me, I'm not holding out any grand delusion of an unconditioned glimpse of pure reality. I realize that our experience of the real is always mediated. But does the form of that mediation have to be so systematic, so discrete, so hyper-reductive, so categorical?

Maybe we should allow ourselves to slip, as Bhabha might put it, from a concern with causes to an attention to cases. What if we conceived of every instance as exceptional (though not entirely inexplicable, I would hasten to add, inasmuch as one is operating with a genealogical paradigm that recognizes the kinships between humanly-made historical forms), a unique convergence of multiple historical factors, rather than as entirely predictable, the inevitable proof of an all-determining or all-descriptive rule? As I've mentioned before, this would cultivate in us an entirely different skill set. Instead of privileging the theoretical, the scientistic, the analytical, the administrative, and the philosophical, we might try out the pragmatic, the relational, the improvisational, the ministerial, and, above all I would argue, the revelatory (which is where I think the Scientist has rightly led us). Isn't that the point of the radical Mormon requirement of continuing revelation? New cases always arise, and they need to be addressed in new ways.

A funny historical example to conclude. The Jesuit priest Jose de Acosta wrote his Natural and Moral History of the Indies in the late 16th century, describing among other things the religious practices of Andean peoples in Peru and establishing himself as one of the leaders of the idol extirpation campaigns that destroyed thousands of indigenous religious objects in the Americas. In a fascinating passage denoting the Andean worship of huacas, stones deemed sacred in situ, Acosta reveals his true (Western?) colors. For what really gets his goat about such Andean devotional practices is not the fact that they are worshipping rocks, but rather, as he puts it, that “things are worshiped not for their kind but in particular.” In other words, Acosta seems able to swallow the possibility of rock-worship provided that one worshipped rocks as a class, as a kind, as a category, as a metaphysical form, but he simply cannot fathom the worship of that one, singular, particular, unique rock.

Why the gag-reflex towards the particular? Returning to the terms of our recent discussion, what would a society genuinely and generously worshipful of the particular and carefully and communally attuned to the case look like? What kind of authority-structure would it require? It certainly isn't liberalism, because liberalism keeps particularity in the closet--we know you have it, it should be respected, but "don't ask, don't tell." And it certainly isn't communitarianism, because communitarianism can all too readily elide particularity in the pursuit of a kind of society. So what is it? Am I way off here?

P.S. Maybe we can even keep the tension model, but only if we conceive of the tension as multivalent and multidirectional, the pull of innumerable animate agencies rather than the oscillation between two abstract concepts. I think I could go for "there must needs be tension in all things" provided that tension wasn't conceived in entirely binary, oppositional, antagonistic terms, but rather as the nexus of agencies, forces, principalities, powers, dominions, glories, stories, ideas, ideals, etc. that constitutes any moment.

You guys rule,

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Tension and the binary:

Our literary critic has answered thoughtfully and well with his critique of the tension blog. A couple of responses to his views of its shortcomings:

1) The opposition in all things model does not require reification of binary logic to be effective. I wrote about justice and mercy but do not ascribe to them capital letters of the absolutes. I am not suggesting that the structure of the cosmos is necessarily dualistic or that my binary constructions reflect real absolute transcendent things (ideas, forms etc).

2) I seem to be accused of a conservative resignation where the tensions will inevitably produce the desired result. This seems to me to be exactly the opposite of what I desired to convey. My tension is the opposite of equilibrium thermodynamics: things do not tend toward the equilibrium, but the poles. This is why I did not use the word equilibrium, or use physical equilibrium metaphors. I am concerned with balancing intentionally the pull to one side with the other side, lest I get pulled to one extreme. It is the same fear of tyranny and fanaticism, whether for hyperpluralism or absolutism, that motivates this desire to balance the tensions for me. This takes a great deal of work, and makes the center a very unstable position. I used the metaphor of two chromosomes being pulled apart by cables pulling on them, and talked about how a divine tension can reorient out heartstrings to where they should be.

3) The Lit Critic's remarks about the third other are insightful. This transcending the binary is the final goal of the process. As I mentioned often what we initially set up as binaries turn out to be false dichotomies... and in the end I think we need to fully incorporate both into a third other where the binary breaks down. The Historian's comment in his talk in church about how Christ is fully human and fully divine is brought to mind. A balance of the two, or half-half hybrid is not sufficient. Again we do not think of God as somewhat just, somewhat merciful, depending on the day of the week, but fully just and fully merciful, though this seems initially to be a paradox. In the same way I think we can transcend the dual opposites, not by focusing on the duality, but through the grace of God as we have broken hearts and a contrite spirits. Indeed I postulated that the role of this tension really is to create a situation where we can become humbled (because of the pulling apart, the tearing of our heartstrings) and then be in a position to accept the atonement and the healing grace of God that makes us whole, healthy, complete, with both of the attributes initially seen as binary. This is my third other. Thus the necessity and demands of absolutism and the love for others and pluralism creates the tension in a good missionary requisite for this growth. Seeing the tension, and identifying the constructs helps us negotiate them and eventually rise above them, in turn growing and becoming more like God. I do not mean to reify these binaries, or make them absolute, quite the contrary, identifying them helps us overcome them. But I do think it a useful approach for thinking about proselyting, for example. And I do believe that without tension there can be no growth.

Tensely yours,

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

More thoughts on thirdness:

On imagining a non-Hegelian form of hybridization. These are some ideas from my class with the venerable Homi Bhabha, one of the kings--if not the king--of postcolonial theory. Bhabha is currently obsessed with this very topic and is bent on imagining a "third space" that resists the "Hegelian sublation" that "folds detail back into totality." He suggested the possibility of a non-transcendent dialectic (and this is all very abstract and highly conceptual, mind you, so it very well might not mean anything recognizable in "real life," which often occurs in literary theory) based on sublimation. The conventional reading of sublimation, a la Freud, is that it is a way of rendering the death drive quiescent, of domesticating the unconscious within the conscious, the Other within the Self. Very synthetic, teleological, and Hegelian, right? So Bhabha wants to imagine sublimation instead as a tapping into adjacent energies, an extension of networks, a domestication of the death drive not by suppression but by relation. He wants to establish a more Levinasian construction of solidarity as a function of putting things next to each other rather than of sublating them into a single synthesis. Instead of teleological unity you thus get pluralistic laterality (I swear that he used the word "laterality").

This nexus of questions seems very germane to the liberal/communitarian tension in Mormonism. The Lawyer, if I remember right, claimed not only that Mormonism contains a communitarian teleology, but also that communitarianism is itself teleological. I think Bhabha's idea might be read as a reformulation of the communitarian as non-transcendent, non-teleological, and heterotopian rather than utopian. The Mormon emphasis on the dynamism of a universe full of animate beings and the consequent necessity of constant and continuous revelation might be seen as converging in some sense with such a notion. This scheme attempts to have its cake and eat it--to retain a "liberal" respect for individual difference while also touting a "communitarian" coordination of individual subjectivities.

What say ye?

Monday, March 10, 2003

A NOTE ON SPRINGES: No it is not a typo. A springe is "A noose fastened to an elastic body, and drawn close with a sudden spring, whereby it catches a bird or other animal; a gin; a snare" (or so says However, Justice Holmes used the term to refer to intricate legal requirements. See Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22, 24 (1923) (Holmes, J.). I am studying (very loosely defined) Fed Courts right now, and I thought that it was important that I worked Justice Holmes into the discussion, especially given our Literary Critic's love of pragmatism...
A QUICK RESPONSE (SORT OF): The Literary Critic's thoughts below remind me of those monster complaints filed in complex litigation. "The plaintiff realleges points 25 through 178 set out above and asks for relief on the additional ground that..." It is a testament of how far I have fallen into law-geekiness that I find the above to be a really funny joke.

Some questions and random ruminations:

1. How does a tension between two poles that produces a new thirdness differ from plain old garden variety Hegelianism, which seems to lead to a simple, teleological unity?

2. Equilibrium models may be inherently conservative (and thus ipso facto wrong?), but absolute dynamism leads -- arguably -- to anarchy, nihilism, and violence. Think Robsepierre. Think pre-Wiemar Germany. Think modern day West Africa. Burke's historicism -- institutions that survive through time contain instatiated wisdom that we may not be able to explicitly state -- is no doubt circular. How do I know when something is just old and when it is wise? This doesn't mean that he is wrong.

3. There is in Mormonism a very, very strong strand of what I think of as "heroic obedience." Here I think of Nephi and Laban. I think of Brigham Young's devotion to Joseph Smith and his pride that he and Heber C. Kimball were the only members of the original Quorum of the Twelve who never turned against the Prophet. I think of men sent on missions to the far ends of the globe on a shoe string. I think of the settlers sent to the forgotten corners of the Great Basin to establish settlements for the greater cause of Zion. I think of polygamists who swallowed the bitter, bitter pill of abandoning Victorian sexuality and then stood defiant for decades against the marshalled legal might of the nation, "prisoners for conscience sake." One can tell stories that see these people in pathological terms. One can construct narratives about the dangers of "blind obedience," the tears of polygamy and patriarchy, and the forgotten poverty and misery of desert farming. Such stories are true. But there is another truth as well. It is the truth of Abraham, a truth about a god whom one loves in terrible and unimaginably powerful ways. That is a power within Mormonism that is just as genuine and potent as the dynamic expansiveness of Joseph that our Literary Critic so loves.

4. If we decend from the ethereal heights of theology, interpretation, and philosophy, I wonder as an empirical, sociological matter whether or not absolutism isn't an imperitive of collective survival. How many third and fourth generation Unitarians are there? How much Jewishness is left when one moves from a Hasidic great-grand-father, to an orthodox grand-father, to a reformed father and his reformed son, to the child growing up far from the springes of Torah and Talmud.

These aren't meant as counter arguments, just responses pointing toward a new thirdness!

OK! Back to work!
Another important thought (at least to me). On the question raised last week of whether one can be saved by a belief only if one sees it as in some sense a necessary, divine command. Is the idea that knowing something is contingent somehow takes the wind out of the sails of any enterprise, that we will not be sufficiently motivated unless we believe we are doing something absolute?

This is an interesting question, because pragmatism attempts to suggest the contrary. It wants to be a weirdly secular religion or strangely mystical secularism (James conceived of it as a Reformation on par with the Protestant one) in which belief is self-conscious and willed, in which one adopts certain "truths" critically and strategically with full knowledge that they are constructions of particular historical contexts. Can faith be so knowing? Or is such knowledge a higher form of faith? Conventional wisdom suggests that such a form of belief--if it can even be called belief--is insufficient to produce moral transformation. In fact, just last week I was chatting with Larry Buell about pragmatism, and he stated that the problem that many attribute to pragmatism is precisely that it is not an idea one could "die for."

However, I just read this marvelous article called "How Man Makes God in West Africa" that models a devotional practice among the Yoruba that in one sense looks a lot like Western skepticism, which fits rather nicely with my last blog about secularism and "traditional" religion. It shows what a "pragmatic" religion might look like and how it might work, how people might recognize that the sacredness of this or that is a function of cultural investment and still worship this or that. Is Mormonism "pragmatic" in this sense? Does the King Follett God, a pluralistic universe, dialogic revelation, and Joseph's shockingly self-conscious religion-making add up to a new religiosity that incorporates second-order reflection? Or, framed another way, what happens to the force of divine command when 1) the Divine is no longer absolute and 2) you are "co-equal[ly]" divine? Mormonism seems to push in such directions. Where does this take us?
Balance, equilibrium--sorry, I don't buy it. I have always secretly suspected the "opposition in all things" paradigm, because it seems rather transparently to be nothing more than a mystifying reification of binary logic. Or, put another way, if I ask the question "why must there needs be opposition in all things," I will most likely get answers that I find profoundly unsatisfying, like "Because that's the structure of the universe," or "That's just how things work," or, most tautologically, "Because there must needs be opposition in all things!" Not only do I not see reality in all of its dynamism, complexity, and variety as ontologically or epistemologically breaking down into these ready-made dichotomies (a fairly obvious point if you ask me), I don't see such a worldview as being very useful for negotiating my existence in any meaningful way.

Continuing with the scientific metaphors, I find it interesting that most ecologists have entirely abandoned the old "balance of nature" hypothesis that interpreted the natural world as tending towards some kind of steady state or cosmic harmony. Instead, they now say, the natural world is characterized above all by disturbance, dynamism, and variability. In terms of human culture, the trope of equilibrium has typically served as the supreme apology for a status quo that often depends on a binary logic of insider/outsider. Inconsistencies, contradictions, disjunctures, inequalities are to be overlooked as constitutive of the world-as-it-is-and-as-it-could-only be. Magically and mystically, things will of their own accord balance out, so there's no need to question the structures that sustain things-as-they-are. The equilibrium paradigm presupposes that the universe tends toward stability and balance and our job is simply to "endure to the end." This tends to confine human agency to the act of submission, which many religious people would delineate as the only meaningful and moral action that we can perform anyway. The binary thus boils down to: are you with the world-as-it-is-and-as-willed-by-God or are you against it?

The equilibrium model images a perpetual oscillation between two poles, creating a tension-effect. But the binary remains comfortably intact in this scheme, and the tension, I would argue, becomes somewhat automatic and non-productive. In this sense, I don't see it as being genuinely dialogic or transformative in any significant way. What about a transcendent thirdness? I am interested in a hybridization that is not a synthesis but an eccentric, extraordinary third weirdness that gets beyond/outside the binary (Roland Barthes, Homi Bhabha, and lots of other people have talked about this). This is how I interpret Joseph's magnificent maxim: "By proving contraries the truth is made manifest." Truth is always the third option, the unforeseen mestizo thing that explodes the binary by making you realize that there are so many more options than just the primal two. This is thus not a "middle ground," or a "happy medium," or a circumspect seesawing, but a bizarre revelation of that which is unthinkable by the standards of the binary.

In this scheme, the tensions in Mormonism are fruitful only insofar as they spur us on to create revolutionary new structures, like the "theo-democracy" that Joseph never got around to. On this model, the answer would not be to just leave the authoritarian and individualistic elements of Mormonism uneasily side-by-side as they are, forcing all of us to walk our tightropes (which, I admit, does give us some good exercise), but rather to hybridize these elements into something that is neither an anarchy of everyone walking after the image of their own God nor a fascist authoritarian state, the rather impoverished terms that the binary affords us, but rather some impossible Zion/kingdom of God/new heaven and new earth. Time to get trinary!

At bottom what I am saying in this ramble is that the equilibrium model is an inherently conservative position that presupposes that things will work themselves out by themselves over time. Do we think this this true? If so, we must admit that many elements of our tradition problematize this. For instance, where is the millenarian anxiety that made Joseph and others see the Second Coming as contingent upon their making the right historical decisions? Where is the very real sense that all was not well in Zion and that the covenant could always be revoked if they failed to act prophetically? Where is the sense that the Restoration was a perpetual work in progress, an endless unfolding, an overflowing fulness? Where is the radically presentist conception of salvation as a matter of the moment? Where is the sense of a pluralistic cosmos in which a non-transcendent God struggles and strives as we do? These notions suggest that the universe is not ultimately tending towards equilibrium, but rather is perpetually pulled by entropy. Things are tenuous, fragile--even God feels this from His position in a bewildering space-time. It reminds me of the Aztec reason for human sacrifice, namely, to provide the nourishing blood that would give the sun the strength to battle the forces he faced every night in order to rise every morning. Imagine a universe so delicate, so dynamic, so animate. Is that a Mormon universe? Do we feel such a sense of engagement and activism in relation to the sustenance of the Gods and their dominions? Or, in other words, is it possible for Mormonism to fail? If so, how will we know if we're failing? What would be the consequences of that failure? Does Mormonism possess within itself a meaningful self-critique?

So I guess what I have presented is a meta-tension, a tension between ways of approaching tension. Is the proper attitude toward the opposing paradigms within Mormonism conservative, to see them all as equally divine and ultimately harmonious, as things that we dare not meddle with but best endure, even when it hurts us and others unbearably? Or is the proper attitude toward these opposing paradigms activist, to see them as enticements to revolutionary thirdness, as historically-contingent revelation-resources to draw upon as we fashion ourselves in the prophetic present and attempt to usher in the kingdom of God on earth? Our tradition contains elements that support both responses. So how do we countenance that tension?