Posts Tagged ‘deconstruction’

mythologies

I’ve been working in a library for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it quite agreeable. It allows me to use both my retail warehouse experience and my academic experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m considering going back to school next year to qualify for a full-time job. One of the benefits is getting a close look at the collection, which is really very interesting. As is essential with small libraries, the collection is highly idiosyncratic; big sections on medicine and sociology, not as much in languages or the hard sciences. I sometimes think that we must have had an amazing collection forty years ago, but then I realize that these books that were cutting edge in the 1970s probably weren’t acquired until the late 1980s or 1990s.

This is from work rather than from my personal collection; I’m the first person to check it out, but now that there’s a stamp from 2017 it’s likely to have a spot reserved on our shelf for some time to come. This is a book of essays about French pop culture in the 1950s, translated to English in the 1970s, but Barthes’s observations seem oddly congruent with American society of the 2010s. Far from being a dispassionate observer, Barthes seems to get quite angry about things, and the things that make him angry are the same things making my friends angry now.

The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him justly, since Justice is a weighing operation and since scales can only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are. Sometimes – rarely – the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod. How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. [Barthes’s italics]

Barthes’s main point can be summarized pretty quickly, actually. One of the most important problems with people (specifically, the bourgeois, or we might say conservatives or Trump supporters) is that they confuse Nature with History. They look at the injustice in the world and they assume it is the natural order of humanity instead of a culturally specific situation determined by social, political, and economic forces (what he calls History). Nowadays we call it being blind to privilege and it’s the fashionable complaint against our political opponents, but it’s the same concept. The consequence of this confusion is what I call The Myth of Human Powerlessness, the idea that no one can do anything about things. People don’t fight against injustice because they think that they can’t (powerless) and that they shouldn’t (it’s natural, so no one is responsible for it, least of all me).

The first part of the book is a set of short pieces, each three or four pages long and inspired by something happening around him. Some of the pieces come from performances, like a wrestling match or a striptease, but others come from reading the sort of magazines that these days are found in the supermarket checkout line – Elle, Paris-Match, and L’Express. These pieces are focused on concrete facts and events, which makes them fairly simple to understand.

The second part is a fifty-page essay of post-structuralist theory, which is highly abstract and less simple to understand. He refers to Saussure and Freud and seems to prefigure Derrida, whose first major essay was written around the same time, but most of whose work came later. Barthes defines mythology as a second order of signification: a concept is represented by a symbol, and the relationship between the two is considered a sign, which is a simple dialectic that I can understand. I saw Bell, Book, and Candle for the first time recently, so let’s talk about it. Most of the main characters are witches, but if they fall in love with the opposite sex they lose all their power, so they are constantly fighting against heterosexuality. So in this film, it seems like witchcraft is a symbol for gay sexual orientation; homosexuality is the signified, witchcraft the signifier, and our connection between them (which includes them) is the sign.

The trick with Barthes’s definition of mythology is that it’s a second-order sign: the sign itself can become a symbol for another concept, and the relationship between the two can be considered a myth. Or in other words, what does the fact that we equate witchcraft with homosexuality mean? The narrative surrounding homosexuality in 1958 told the story of anti-American sexual deviants who had no place in proper society; these witches lead similar lives of secrecy and hold similarly dismissive attitudes about the people who demean their community and deny their right to exist. For Barthes, this is the sticking point: modern mythologies point us to injustices in our society, and for someone who understands that Human Powerlessness is a myth, injustice can and should be corrected. When I was in school people talked about how post-structural linguistic arguments were politically motivated, but I think I’m just beginning to understand that now.

Barthes includes a section on left-wing myth, but he points out that mythology is primarily a conservative drive. It’s the people on the right who have a vested interest in keeping things the same (hence the name conservative), so they invent complicated mythologies to maintain their privileged position. The examples of this are too numerous and too painful for me to pursue right now, and besides, the internet is full of people pointing out the injustices. I sometimes feel like my facebook friends are expecting me to fix all of the injustices right now (ALL OF THE INJUSTICES!!!!!!!), and while I don’t believe myself to be powerless, I don’t see how I can do more than I’m doing already, teaching my students to spot their own prejudices by guiding their reading of essays used as rhetorical models. Because I don’t think it’s enough to spread articles on facebook to raise awareness; I think awareness has to be coupled with a concrete plan of action to remedy the injustice. For example, people raised my awareness about the tragic hurricane in Puerto Rico, and then they included several links to pages where I could donate money to support the relief agencies traveling to the island to help the people. This one is good, but most of the others don’t tell me what I can do to relieve the pain. Hence my frustration with the MeToo hashtag, which seems to tell me not to sexually harass or assault women, but I’m already exhibiting that behavior. How much of this awareness-raising is being targeted at people who are already demonstrating the target behavior? How many of the people using that hashtag are actually friends with someone who would assault them or denigrate them because of their gender? And for men, the limit of what people seem to expect of us is that we won’t assault women. I can’t volunteer in a facility for women who have become victims because the mere fact of my maleness could be a trigger for them. My presence would make them relive their trauma, so I stay away. But I feel like there ought to be something I can do other than feel the weight of suffering of hundreds of people and carry it on my shoulders like Atlas.

The world is a beautiful place where good people live. But there are still problems, and Barthes’s strategies can help us elucidate those problems and work toward solutions. He doesn’t reach any solutions in this book (other than something like “treat people with more respect”), but he raises questions and models thinking that will push us in the direction of solutions. He’s raising awareness. And if it takes us another sixty years to find solutions, then at least we’re moving in the right direction.

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This is the book I really intended to be reading this week. It’s short, but moves slowly. Philosophers tend to write very densely. I imagine that they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ideas but little time thinking about how to express them clearly. This essay explains concepts at the end that it discusses at the beginning as if the reader already understands them; it’s all very recursive. This is characteristic of academic writing in some countries, but not in mine. When academics from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, move here, they have to completely re-learn how to write an essay.

I was very interested in Derrida back in undergrad; fourteen years ago, I read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” over and over again until I thought I understood it. It takes a very specific mindset to understand Derrida, and I’m not sure if I had it this week. This essay was originally part of a collection (L’Ethique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don); it feels a bit like being in a class taught by Derrida, but in my case I didn’t do any of the advance reading. It reflects on and interprets an essay by Jan Patočka, but also includes references to Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Bible, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Bible and the Melville I get, but the others are sort of like Berlin. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it in films and news stories, but I’ve never actually been there. I don’t know it well enough to discuss it. I’d like to, but not yet. As a linguistic exercise, this essay is a bit dizzying. An English translation of a French essay that interprets a Czech essay, using philosophy written in German and applying it to a story written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, largely translated into Latin.

Let’s see if I can get to the heart of this. In the beginning, there was orgiastic mystery. People had transcendent experiences that led them to imagine divinity, and in the grip of these experiences they did strange things. Orgiastic mystery, what I usually refer to as mysticism, has never gone away. When Plato came along, he incorporated this type of mystery into his philosophy. He said that people had these experiences to point them (and everyone else) toward the Good. He dressed the mystical experience in abstractions to make it more accessible to the layperson, to introduce an ethical component to the divine madness. He rejected the mad elements of it, and incorporated the rest. It’s like when there’s an artist who advocates restructuring society; Americans will celebrate the shit out of her, ignore the really revolutionary elements of her art and create a sanitized version they can teach to fifth-graders in a unit on celebrating our individuality. It’s like reading Ginsberg with ninth-graders in a public school.

And then there was Christianity, which repressed and sort of covered over the mysticism that preceded it. Plato’s abstract Good became incarnated as God. An ethical response was replaced with a personal relationship. And, this personal relationship, this God, is all based on the idea of death as a gift, a specific death given with a specific purpose, one man dying for all mankind. Which is odd and sort of bollocks.

Every one of us dies. Every one of us will die. There is no escape from that. Someone can give their death to prolong our life, but no one can take our death from us. We will all experience death, and all in our own specific way. In Sense and Sensibility, people are placeholders for social roles and positions. When Edward’s inheritance is settled irrevocably on his brother, his fiancée drops him for Robert immediately. Edward Ferrars is not a man, he’s a destiny. Just as the three pairs of sisters are all pretty much the same, Elinor and Marianne, Anne and Lucy, Lady Middleton and Mrs Palmer, it’s a pattern that repeats, like wallpaper. In real life, we are all unique and irreplaceable, because our experience of death will be utterly unique. Death is what makes us who we are. It’s what we have to offer the world.

We are responsible for our actions. When our actions are bad, we deserve the bad consequences. According to Christians, Jesus gave his death as a gift to cancel the consequences of our bad actions. As the Holy Other, Jesus exists in a hierarchical binary relationship to humanity. He is utterly other, and always above us. Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t stop us from dying, our deaths being an integral part of our identity; it stops us from suffering afterward. It relieves us from responsibility. This is what that study realized, when they gave kids a test to see how well they shared – atheists behave more ethically than religious people because they have no mediator with their own consciences.

Derrida (and possibly the others as well) uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, though Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismail would work just as well. So, this angel tells the father to kill his son. He keeps this exchange secret, preserving the integrity of the orgiastic experience, being responsible toward God while committing a completely unethical act. Religion demands this sacrifice of all its adherents; God tells people to act in strange, unethical ways, ways that harm or at least confuse the people around them. They have a secret responsibility that supersedes their responsibility to their families and society, what Robinson Crusoe (and Gabriel Betteredge) called the Secret Dictate. Here in the United States, Jesus’s gift gives people the right to hate and persecute those who are different to themselves. Look at the resistance to gay marriage and abortion rights; look at the new laws determining which bathroom transgender people can use. I’d feel much less comfortable urinating in the same room as a person in a dress than a person in a suit and tie, regardless of who has a penis and who doesn’t. But American Christians have a habit of legislating their discomfort. Fuck ethics, we have a Secret Dictate, a responsibility to God to ignore the rights of fellow human beings. Now, I’m generalizing, I know that there are good Christians out there, but the reactionary laws still pass, and Donald Trump has secured the conservative party’s nomination, so the good Christians are either not numerous or not vocal enough. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I think Derrida’s right: in the wrong hands, religion destroys a sense of ethical responsibility. And most hands are the wrong ones.

Which leads us to the end, tout autre est tout autre. It looks like nothing, Everything else is everything else, but that’s not what he means. Everyone else is wholly Other. Yes, God is completely different than humanity (Wholly/Holy Other), but every human is completely different from every other human. God and other people are equally alien to us. Which means that that secret responsibility to God, understood properly, is also a secret responsibility to every other person. Derrida tends to see the world in terms of hierarchized binaries, which he then smashes apart or “deconstructs.” Self and Other is one of these binaries, and our natural impulse is to favor Self. But religion teaches us to value the Other above the Self, but every Other occupies the same role in the binary, so it doesn’t matter which specific one I’m thinking of, a two-thousand-year-dead Jewish carpenter, my ex-wife, or the new boyfriend I’ve been texting all week. Every other is the same as every other, Holy or Profane.

We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more – into the bargain, precisely – capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places. It is perhaps necessary, if we are to follow the traditional Judeo-Christiano-Islamic injunction, but also at the risk of turning against that tradition, to think of God and of the name of God without such idolatrous stereotyping or representation. Then we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, of speaking, that is, of producing invisible sense, once I have within me, thanks to the invisible word as such, a witness that others cannot see, and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once I can have a secret relationship with myself and not tell everything, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God – a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from “God calls me,” for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret. God is in me, he is the absolute “me” or “self,” he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity.

God sees without being seen, holds us from the inside, in secret, and makes us responsible for keeping that secret. Or in other words, God is a voice in our heads; creating a relationship with the divine is an activity of self-revelation, self-approbation, self-discovery. As in Yeats’s poem, we create God in our own image because our gods are in us all along. Walking with God is a way of loving and accepting oneself.

When I was at school, I thought of these two parts of my life as separate, the conservative religious “good boy” in one box and the liberal intellectual free-thinking academic in another. And here Derrida has deconstructed my personal internal binary, explained what I had kept secret, even from myself.

In the end, Derrida talks about what I had previously thought, religion-wise, only he has a much stronger background in philosophy than I do. Which is: Believing in God doesn’t mean shit if you can’t see God in the people around you, or in yourself. There are Bible verses I could use to back that up, but if you think I’m right you don’t need them, and if you think I’m wrong they won’t convince you.

So. Death as a gift. There are many people, including myself, who have considered Death as a friend to be welcomed, one we become impatient to see. To us, the suicides, I say: consider Death not as a person but as a gift. Give yours to someone who really deserves it, in a situation where the loss of you will have meaning. Most suicides are just a creation of an absence. Find a way to make yours matter. Your death makes you unique and irreplaceable; don’t waste it. Even if you don’t value your life, treat your death with enough respect to make it special. As I follow this vein of thinking, I begin to put more value into my life. Making a good death means living a good life. So let’s do that, shall we?