War and Culture 26 April 2006Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Politics.
Postmodern Irritation 25 April 2006Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
When I was an undergrad, I was completely taken with postmodernism, both its theories and its aesthetics. Now I find myself merely furrowing my brow and hrrmphing whenever I encounter it. Because I've been teaching Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 in my American cultural history course, I've been revisiting both what I used to love and what I now despise about postmodernism. Sometime after I completed my master's thesis, I realized that I no longer found postmodern theories to be of much help in conducting research or making sense of the world I lived in (with perhaps the notable exception of Michel Foucault, but I also run out of patience with the old french leather queen, too).
For my doctoral exams, I read David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change and found myself understanding better the relationship between the social and economic transformations of the post-war era and why that would lead philosophers and artists down the postmodern path. Harvey's casting of postmodernism as an aesthetic reaction to real-world contexts resonnated with what I'd been feeling and studying at the time and especially with my own meta-theory of culture.
Harvey sees postmodernism as a "structure of feeling" arising out of the post-Fordist, post-Holocaust, atomic bomb world, a new and transformed way of dealing with the alienation and uncertainty of modernity. Modernity is usually defined by social scientists as the period marked by the rise of industrial capitalism and all the social transformations that took place to accommodate the new mode of production and distribution of goods, including bureacratization of daily life, world-wide migration and imperialism, consumerism and advertising, etc. We know historically that the social and cultural effects of this transformation were massive and swift. Postmodernity, for Harvey, is a continuation and modification of the processes of modernity begun in the mid-19th century, with the loss of the labor movement, exportation of manufacturing, hyper-surveillance in every aspect of life, widening bureaucratization, etc., punctuated by the horrors of the holocaust and the atomic bomb. Postmodernity compared to modernity, then, is a difference of scale and scope, but not a difference of kind.
The difference between modernism (the aesthetics arising out of modernity) and postmodernism (the aesthetics arising out of postmodernity) is that postmodernism embraces the alienation, uncertainty, and fragmentation caused by the upheavals of modernity, often even celebrating it with irony and winking asides; whereas modernism struggled against the alienation, seeking to find meaning and reshape values from within the transformed and destabilized social and cultural environment. The postmodernists rejected the modernist search for 'truth' or 'reality' or more importantly for 'justice' and 'authenticity,' seeing such a search as a useless pursuit without an end.
The general attitude that there is nothing to do with alientation but revel in it has emerged as a lasting effect of postmodernity (the social conditions). My students find alienation to be "normal" and the only real question they ask is about their ability to consumer and/or their access to goods. They get really agitated when I ask them to make value judgments and argue moral positions, because they begin with the assumption that all values are merely fragments of meaning arising out of particular and highly individual experiences. Meaning is so localized that there is no meaning. Postmodernism has taken the lessons of modernism (that truths are socially constructed) and jumped into the abyss, misunderstanding the actual embodied social processes that 'construct' the truths they eschew.
Because postmodernisms rejects all rules as being "foundationless foundations", in the arts and humanities, artists produce art where form (the mixing of forms, the process of producing the art itself) takes precedence over the meaning. Indeed, form becomes an end in itself in postmodern art, rather than a means to an end (the consumatory experience of art). The consumatory experience of postmodern art lies in understanding its form, or more precisely, in "getting it." Getting it is so key that if you don't like it or if you want to argue with its premises, you are usually rebuffed with the phrase, "You just don't get it." Much like a religious movement, it is hard to convince a postmodernist that you do in fact get it but just think it's bullshit.
On the other hand, postmodern art has and sometimes still does thrill me. There is something exciting about "getting it", being in the know, catching all the winking in-jokes. The form of postmodern art is mostly about the pastiche of other forms and images, so getting it can sometimes take some work. Re-reading the Pynchon this past weekend has reminded me what I like about postmodern art: it's playfulness and cleverness and its deep irony. Despite myself, I have laughed deep guffawing belly laughs all the way through the short novel. But as I finished it last night, I came up feeling empty, because like most postmodern works, its falls back in on itself. Its only meaning is its own cleverness and its eshewal of all meaning. And so after a few laughs, I find myself wondering why I bothered. Pynchon is a virtuoso of language and cultural signs, but the work ultimately amounts to nothing more than a light confection, a cotton candy that was so much work to eat, it wasn't worth the miniscule and tasteless sweetness left in your mouth once you got it in there. As with Oakland, there is no there there.
The Thirteenth Spirit 25 April 2006Posted by Todd in Christianity, Homosexuality, Religion.
About a week ago, I ran across the newly discovered and translated Gospel of Judas. It is a coptic gospel, apparently from the Sethian branch of gnosticism. National Geographic's cover story for the June issue will be about the codex and it's implications. Two books available treat the gospel in depth: The Gospel of Judas is a translation of the codex with four commentaries of scholars of early Christianity and the Near East; The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot covers the scientific and scholary search for, restoration, testing, and study of the codex itself.
I read the translation of the codex and a couple of the commentaries last week and have found myself coming back to the text over and over trying to understand why I find the text to be so meaningful.
Early in the gospel, Jesus calls Judas the "Thirteenth Spirit" because he sees things that others cannot see, and he knows who Jesus really is: the embodiment of the divine. Much of the text covers Sethian gnostic theology, which is basically that the gods of this world, the creator, are lesser divinities and are jokesters who set us in a corrupt universe to keep us from the True God. Christianity as a whole during this time was aimed at transcending the world, and evolved in some ways to be life-denying (a point of much angst for my favorite philosopher Nietzsche). This is an aspect of Christianity I personally do not accept, finding the Buddhist response to suffering much more authentic and resonant with my experience; and although I have a great love for Jesus the teacher and Jesus the reformer, I haven't seen him as Savior for many years. And so I have been struggling with why I find the story told in this gnostic gospel so compelling.
One of the main points of this Gospel is that some individuals are the embodiments of the Divine Spark, and that spark of holiness within them allows them to see things that others do not see. Other gnostic traditions believed that everyone had a piece of the True God in them and that they could see if they chose to, but most choose to deny the holy within them. One of the things I value most from my Mormon upbringing is the idea that human beings are holy by nature. The story of Judas recognizing or listening to his own holiness and then seeing the divinity in Jesus moves me. Judas sees clearly the world around him, sees it for what it is, and recognizes the divinity of Jesus.
The Sethian tradition (as most gnostic traditions) saw salvation as coming not from atonement or the death and resurrection of jesus, but as coming through Knowledge. When Judas sees Jesus and recognizes the divine, Jesus pulls him aside and teaches him the mysteries. From sight to knowledge, Judas understands his own nature and the nature of the world.
But that knowledge is a great burden, for now he knows that Jesus, his dearest friend, is the divine housed in a mortal body in a realm of corruption. So when Jesus asks Judas to deliver him to the Pharisees, his knowledge becomes a burden, as in order to be true to the knowledge he's received, he must lose everything. Judas has a vision where he sees the 11 other apostles stoning him and chosing another, so he becomes the 13th. He is the only one among the 12 who actually get it, who know, who see. And so he must deliver up his friend to death, to free him to return to the True God.
I have always identified with Judas in the New Testament (and Cain and Esau in the Tanakh). These characters in our foundational myths are outsiders, rejected. Having always felt like an outsider, for many reasons, but most obviously because I'm gay, I have always felt that I understood these people. The Judas of this Gospel felt real to me: something about his very being allowed him to see what other miss and to know what other cannot know. It is the gift of being Other, of being outside. And his act of ultimatle betrayal was actually a sacrifice of love for his dearest friend.
Sexual Purity 16 April 2006Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cultural Critique, Gender, Islam, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Sexuality.
On PBS's NOW this week they covered the abortion ban in South Dakota. Much of what I saw wasn't news to me and most of the rantings from the Alpha Group (an anti-abortion counseling service in Sioux Falls) were par for the course. I have heard of the "chastity pledges" that are sweeping the nation, as teenagers take vows of celibacy until marriage; but I wasn't prepared for the "Purity Ball" sponsored by the Abstinence Clearinghouse (no, that's not a joke) in Sioux Falls.
We believe and think that it's important for fathers to be the first ones to look into their daughters' eyes and tell them that her purity is special and that it's okay to wait until marriage.
—Leslie Unruh, President of Abstinence Clearinghouse
The Purity Ball perpetuates that good ol' conflation of purity with virginity, an idea which is just baffling to me. Haven't we gotten over this crazy notion that sexual acts per se sully, taint, soil, besmirch or otherwise filthify the body and soul of an individual? But as if that weren't bad enough, young women as young as 12 years old come to a formal affair with their fathers to pledge to him their chastity. At the end of the Ball, the dad puts a ring on his daughter's finger as she says these words:
I make a promise before my dad, myself and my family [voice over interrupts for a few seconds] that I will remain sexually pure until the day that I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband. I know that god requires this of me, that he loves me, and that he will reward me for my faithfulness.
It's like these people want to prove Freud was right, or something, with this whole daddy-daughter "purity" pledge. Besides being sick, this is old school patriarchy, where the body of the daughter belongs to her father until marriage. But instead of it just being social convention, these young women pledge it in public and then get all mushy and weepy about it, being all terribly moved by ceding their autonomy and brains to their fathers. Just in case you didn't get it, she then pledges to "give herself as a wedding gift"? I'm embarassed that I live in a society where we are even having this conversation.
Maybe we should just forego the expense and pretense of a formal ball and just legalize honor killings in South Dakota. No family should have to bear the burden of an impure woman.
If you have the money and/or time, please support Planned Parenthood and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States in their fight against these anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-sex-ed, anti-contraception wingnuts around the country.
Capote 9 April 2006Posted by Todd in Cinema, Cultural Critique, Ethics, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Sexuality.
I'm still processing the film, but wanted to put up a strong recommendation. Truman Capote, as he is portrayed in this film, was a narcissistic artiste, willing to do anything to get the raw material he needed to write his non-fiction novel. What the film highlights is the emotional and personal cost of two competing drives in Capote, between his writerscraft and his very real connection to a murderer. Capote depicts a man torn apart by coming to know, understand and even like a man who had committed horrible acts of brutality; witnessing Harry Smith's hanging was, for many biographers, the loose thread that ultimately unraveled the genius. [Slate.com had a great two-part article by Daphne Merkin discussing the artistic and biographical merits of the film. And Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek's review of the film explains the brilliance Hoffman's portrayal.]
Here's Truman Capote at age 24, just after he wrote Other Voices, Other Rooms:
“Spiritual” Experiences as Consummatory 8 April 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Religion.
What is a spiritual experience or the feeling of ineffability or the moment of transcendance and awe that come for many as part of their religious practice? In many ways, these "religious" experiences are analagous to the experience you have when you see/hear/touch a work of art that is especially meaningful to you, or those rare moments when suddenly the whole world comes into focus and seems amazing and wonderful, or that gasping moment of awe when you stand in a grove of Giant Sequoias for the first time.
As humans, we live with the reality that the world is in constant flux and that at any given moment, there will arise needs and problems that we must solve. We spend our lives seeking to block out or stave off this constant movement and change. In other words, we seek constantly to create certainty, stability, universality, and order out of uncertainty, chaos, change, and transformation. In our efforts, we are in a continual process of "consummating our desires," that is, in achieving temporary ends in our quest for certainty. The efforts we make are not just physical efforts in the obdurate world, but include also emotional, intellectual, and cultural efforts to make sense of the world we experience. From time to time, through our efforts we achieve a temporary equilibrium; and those moments of consummation produce particular emotion responses, at base, of satisfaction with the world as we have made it, either physically or how our perceptions have changed.
The structure of our brains and the resultant "mind" that we experience in combination with the obdurate reality of a physical world in constant flux means that our entire lives are a process of moving from fear of uncertainty, to devising means to fix it, to enacting those means, to experiencing fleeting consummatory feelings, to experiencing new or continued uncertainty, and starting the whole process again.
It is my opinion that these spiritual experiences are indeed real, inasmuch as they emotional/physical response produced in our brains in the process of seeking certainty did occur. They are–like experiencing art, eating a good meal, having sex, finishing a job at work, cleaning the toilet–the moments when our minds have achieved the temporary feeling of certainty, but perhaps of a higher order or a greater magnitude. There is a qualitative difference between finishing a small task and that great feeling of "getting it" or of "being one" or of "satisfaction with life" that comes more rarely. In all these cases, however, it is never long before some stimulus or other from our social-cultural-obdurate environment pushes us into uncertainty again. In moments of pain and fear and anger, we often turn to past experiences of equilibrium as comfort and seek to recreate them. So in effect, when something "works" to give that consummatory experience once, we will, like Pavlov's dog's, seek to cling to it and reproduce it. But this process also has built into it the potential for profound disillusionment and disappointment when in trying to repeat a consummatory experience and recreate the moment of "stability" and "certainty" (that is, the "spiritual experience"), we find that it no longer works, the world has changed to much, and bringing the flux to a halt, however fleetingly, requires different efforts, perceptions, ideas, and feelings on our part.
Gayness and Meaning, Part 1 5 April 2006Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
Religious and ethnic communities raise their own children and pass on communal meanings, knowledge, and practices to their offspring. Gay men and women come from all of these communities, and emerge with the cultures of their parents. Their sexual desires and potential relationships are necessarily refracted through the perceptions of homosexuality they receive from their parent's communities and from the dominant culture (hidden ethnicity) of the society at large.
Pic 1: A 1952 meeting of the Mattachine Society (Harry Hay, the founder, is to the far left); this was right before the organization was taken over by conservative men who, in the context of McCarthyist America, were afraid of the backlash of society against such a "homophile" organization.
If an individual's general sexual desires fall within the norms of his/her culture of origin, s/he will enact their sexuality as a matter of course, or what I would call habitually or unconsciously. Humans learn the meanings of all the aspects of sexuality—ranging from the desire itself to sexual acts and from relationships to representations of sex in media—in interaction with their social environments and each other. If an individual's desires deviate from the norms, s/he effectively "trips" on those desires, bringing them into consciousness, such that s/he must deal with them directly. Many choices are open to the individual, depending on the context, ranging from repression to full and open expression. The individual is put in the position of having to make meaning for an experienced desire that cuts against the culture of origin. In the United States, depending on the sub-culture of origin, an individual with same-sex desires can construct meanings of homosexuality that are at worst deeply homophobic and at best probably indifferent. But once the same-sex desires are brought into consciousness and not repressed, the individual must figure out form him- or herself what that desire will mean, how they will behave, how they will express their gender, how they will form relationships, what kinds of representations of sex and gender they want to consume. Most importantly, the individual will have to re-value his or her sexuality, usually counter to their culture of origin.
Pic 2: A page from Vector magazine from the summer of 1966, when the hippies first took over Golden Gate Park; gay men in San Francisco looked toward the counter-culture as a possible model for constructing their own public sexualities.
Historically and anthropologically, nearly every society has a "homosexual role" for individuals with desires toward the same sex, usually one each for men and women (in some cultures the roles preceded the desires, and individuals would be chosen to fulfill the homosexual role, regardless of their desires). Where such roles exist, they may span from criminal and mentally ill, to gifted shaman (in many cultures, women aren't/weren't considered to even be capable of sex, so there was no "homosexual role" necessary in that context for a woman). The individual may accept the particular homosexual role of their culture, or continue to "trip," if the assigned role doesn't fit with the confluence of their desires, especially the confluence of desires for sex objects and acts, desires for kinds of relationships, desires for a certain gender expression, and a desire for social and cultural statuses within the society.
Americans with same-sex desires have only been working to construct egalitarian and public homosexualities since the mid-1920s. My research of 1960s San Francisco suggests that the best possible way for gay men and women to construct meaningful lives (to make sense of their desires, their sexualities, their genders, and their relationships) is in interaction with other gay men and women. Many queer scholars are fond of repeating the mantra that "homosexuality is socially constructed." Without dipping into the etiological debate (the cause of same-sex desire), I would argue that "social construction" is a material, literal process of interaction, and that the best possible situation is for gay men and women to have the social context within which to "socially construct" the meanings of their homosexualities. The beauty of the gay community is its diversity and the incredible tension within it: This is evidence of the ongoing process of individuals and groups identifying with each other and creating meaningful lives.
Pic 4: One of many Gay-Ins in Golden Gate park in the early 1970s; many gay men and women refused to confine their sexuality and relationships to private organizations, bars, and house parties, opting instead for out and public displays of their sexual selves.