Upon entering class today, I was faced with the projected image of Louis C.K. On the screen rested the cued clip for a segment titled “Of course, but maybe.” He, and the clip, however, would have to wait. There was first the issue of the reading quiz.
We were tested on our comprehension of a text from Orwell “on shooting an elephant…” and from Heschel, a theologian. I was readily equipped with my problems with Heschel, who I find to be, if one thinks of argument as a dance, a real tap dancing motherfucker. His text argues for religion, and, that religion is everything. It is not caused by our desire, say, for a patriarchal figure to watch over us and give us comfort, a la Freud. It is not simply the reflection of an economic system, beliefs determined by material existence. It is simply everything. It is a totality. It is not caused, it is not an effect, it is the entirety of the operation and the question.
Religion, for Heschel, lies in the essence of life itself. And there it was: that mendacious motherfucking word again. But first:
The Orwell we read was a scathing and ironic depiction of his remembered plight as a policeman in one of England’s colonies, the time that he was forced, coerced… the time that he decided to kill an Elephant. The story itself indicts imperialism, and its glory lies in the examination of the psychology of a subject acting on behalf of a belief, while at the same time, fully aware of that belief’s untenability. It is, just as Kanye West describes in “All Falls Down,” when he describes being at once aware that we “buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em” in order to “cover up what’s inside” because patriarchy and capitalism has made “us hate ourself and love they wealth” while at the same time admitting that he “ain’t even gonna act holier than thou / cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou.” For Orwell, in the story, as I saw it – who else? I’m writing – the story as framed is, of course, whether to shoot the elephant or not, all of which presupposes that the choice is so binary and dialectical.
Imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy – the bastard by many names - exercises it self in the very framing of that question for its subject: to obey, or disobey. This is binge, purge. This is cheat on your girlfriend, repent and buy flowers. This is the symptom of the problem that is a larger condition. This is the point: for Orwell, he himself is so totally within the system – one he himself READILY admits he despises, writing “for at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing” [the emphasis mine], that before he acts he already makes the mistake, one impossible not to make – given his condition – of framing his choice within a totalizing ideology.
In other words, what the dominant ideology robs us of – hegemony – is having any other ideology. What Gramsci, the man with whom I associate the term hegemony, or Althusser, who is part and parcel with the former, depict most explicitly and menacingly, is that hegemony isn’t just the dominant ideology: it is the only ideology. That is what it robs us of, that is the feeling Kanye experiences: does he, newly rich, buy himself all the shit he dreamed of? Or does he donate it to charity, as after Katrina (Kanye himself admits this contradiction in his infamous rant about George Bush, where he describes having bought expensive designer clothes even before donating to charity, and hating himself for it). The state of the subject within hegemony is of being robbed of another world view, though we intuitively – and, as in Orwell and Kanye, rationally – know the one with which we were raised to be inadequate if not wholly untenable, immoral and/or inherently flawed beyond recompense.
The words “beyond recompense” indicate, in that phrase, that the dominant ideological system – say, “capitalism” – is not justified. Or, more explicitly in the words that I’d like to focus on – finally, he gets to his point, the pedantic bastard! – are: “the ends do not justify the means.”
When Louis C.K. in the clip cued, finally animated after our reading quiz, begins to speak, he discusses how we all do this: We think to ourselves, “of course, but maybe” as in of course it’s a terrible thing that people have serious peanut allergies that can cause death and suffering, and that, as a result, all people who work in food should be educated and aware of the danger… but maybe, we should just not, because all those people with nut allergies probably aren’t the fittest to survive anyway. Or, we “of course” think that slavery is a terrible, terrible thing – the audience now, after having laughed at his lighter previous examples, now contorting their faces in horror at the expectation of what is about to be said – but that perhaps all human greatness, be it the pyramids, the transcontinental railroad, the Iphone – requires throwing death and human suffering at the problem. Of course, we realize, slavery is terrible, wrong, bad, unacceptable. But at the same time, for some of us, probably all of us, there is the thought that perhaps, the end justifies the means, so long as we have the latest Iphone.
Of course, it doesn’t. However, what this exercise demonstrates is manifest: that intuitively we know something to be true, while at the same time, we are able to rationally argue a terrible thing to its justification. For me, this demonstrates two of the central problems with which I’ve come into contact in all of my late night, neurotic, nervous, self-obsessed searches for meaning and understanding: the problem of intuition being subverted, in what amounts to sexism, in favor of “objective” and communal rational thought. And also, the problem of utilitarian logic, or, in other words, of the ends justifying the means.
The only way any horror can ever be justified – be it imperialism, capitalism, dropping the atomic bombs on Japan – is if one can justify the means of doing something with its supposed ends. However, what this does is to try, as some English majors and professors try to do – those mendacious motherfuckers – is to separate form, from content, as if form were something decorative, rather than intrinsic to the content in question. This is an issue of placing meaning over moment, of interpretation over seduction and the joy of the text. But moving on:
For we have Heschel, he who argues that “religion… is the integration of the detail into the whole” and also “neither a state of mind nor an achievement of the intellect” and “a divine grant to man… a permanent condition.” For him, religion is an “everlasting fact in the universe,” one in which “all existence stands in a holy dimension.” You perhaps, can even imagine me regurgitating my lunch here now as we speak, you and I, the smell of it on my breath as I wretch and attempt to spew forward this mendacious bullshit – but we must move on. For, “religion is, as it were, the space for perpetual contact between God and the universe.” And lastly AND BEST: “man does not possess religion; he exists in religion… for every soul is a wave in the endless stream of the destiny of man.”
There it was, the finale, the last tap to the dance that seals the scene.
This brings me and us to another set of my great big issues of thought: the ideal of essentiality, and the mendaciousness of universality.
When Heschel argues that religion is the essence of life itself, he of course presupposes that there is this thing called essence, and that it is somehow inherent. What is, essence? From whence did this creature arrive? Essence, as in, the essence of man, depicts something essential within him, which leads us to the concept of the “soul.” The soul – of course – is a fucking fiction created by the church in order to hold us accountable for our actions on this Earth in the fairy afterworld. It is the same way with the doctrine of free will. They are both fantasies created to exert control over people, in order to hold us accountable. This is from where guilt stems: from the supposed belief that we could have acted otherwise. For, we had SO MUCH control…
The problem of universality is the one of a so-called “objective world” of capital T truth. An example of this can be found in Kant’s categorical imperative, where he believes an action can only be justified if it would be okay if everyone did what you are doing. In other words, it is therefore unethical to, say, lie, for, what would happen if everyone lied? Or, as the kids as the end of football practice may ask themselves when they are cleaning up the field, putting the blocking sleds and tackling dummies away: what would happen if everyone didn’t stay to clean up, and instead run to the locker room to shower and change for their hot date that night?
The problem with this is, of course, of prescribing ethical action as only being that which everyone would do and agree is the right thing to do in any given situation. This is the logic of fascism, of group think, the violence of the will to community. Here, the absolute value is “reason.” For religion, it tends to be “selflessness.”
The problem is of “always” and “never,” of believing that something can be always wrong (and even, to get postmodern, the problem of saying there is never a never #nextlevel). Example: murder. When President Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, he described how, as leader of the free world, he cannot act and live “by the words of Gandhi alone.” In other words, he cannot martyr himself – and the nation – on the cross of non-violence (although perhaps, in some instances, he and we should). We must attend to the moment, and act accordingly. Trying to prescribe some absolute standard by which we attempt to live our lives is, for some people, probably wholly adequate and necessary. Some people really can’t decide what the “right” thing to do is, given the situation. Some people really should consider an “objective” framework when deciding how to act, because they have really shitty intuition and are probably stupid, which is not their fault. However, for some, being told over and over again, by religion, by philosophers and rationalists and nuns and priests that we should always stop, and consider our actions by some golden rule or standard is, honestly, fucking overwhelming, and leads to an all-consuming neurosis.
However, if there is any standard by which we can act, let us at least start with rejecting the belief that the “ends can justify the means.” If we do that, if we trust our first blush, intuitive reaction, the “of course” in Louis C.K.’s shtick - if we do that, we just might be alright.
And maybe then, we won’t, any longer, have to kill any elephants.