“The Morning” & “Just Write Anything!”

Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini, translated by Jessica Sequeria, just out from Sublunary Editions (Seattle), measures a mere 80 pages (4 and ½” by 7” by ¼”) and contains the pieces “The Morning” and “Just Write Anything!” and also an introduction (by Cesar Aira, translated by Adrian Nathan West), an acknowledgements page, a 4 page translator’s note, and 62 endnotes (in a font size so small this reader’s used eyes required over-the-counter reading glasses of +3.50 strength), almost as long as either story – indeed, a third story – as well as a Parental Advisory warning label (suitable for bookmark use), modified to read:

P A R E N T A L
A D V I S O R Y
OSVALDO LAMBORGHINI

One is tempted to form a review as response in a supposed style of the stories:

In the beginning was the word. And the ice dam(n) broke, the word escaped, and all hell broke loose, as in a Blow-up. A devil’s drool (“Las Babas del Diablo,” Cortazar). It was all done on a typewriter. That tin bell kept us awake. Its tintinnabulations. And he had to send his only son, or daughter, as the case may arise, to supply some endnotes, but he didn’t explain to what end. And the notes musical, in a sense, pleasant. One confessed to eating the plums. Bless me Father, for I have eaten the plums. They were purple. And the season Lent. We had given up meaning for the season, without reason. And the church filled with words, every pew stuffed end to end. And every word related. In each word all the genetic material of the language, of all the languages, of the uttered universe. Prokaryotic flagellum. To allow word movement. The words stood, knelt, sat, stood, and filed out, one by one, pew after pew, line after line. Some disappeared. Through the blank pages of the cosmos, along the gaucho trails along the green rivers in the gorged valleys below the ghastly ghostly mountains, seeping through the pampas and the full drainage basins, out to sea. The sea, the sea! Wordomics. This is my body, a comics: “To ourselves … new paganism … omphalos” (Joyce, Ulysses).

Of the two stories, “The Morning” and “Just Write Anything!,” the latter is perhaps the more accessible, comprehendible if not understandable, than the former, but the first, “The Morning,” one might find more enjoyable. The two stories might have been written for two different audiences (although Aira’s introduction suggests Lamborghini didn’t write to any particular audience), but neither seems within the purview of the common reader. But what is within the purview of the common reader? Slogans? Well, slogans are comprehendible, but rarely understood. They become like magic words, spells. In the US today, MAGA might serve as an example; an argument of proposal in no need of backing, it is not an argument at all, but an order, a command. Authoritarian. Enter, sex, and why we need a parental advisory. Sex, like politics, manipulative, special interest, you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. For the working class, sex is one thing, for the middle class, something else. The middle class wants relief from guilt, a guilt the working class does not feel. The middle class wants to enjoy, to experience pleasure, guilty it has benefits others don’t, but not enough that it can’t also enjoy envy of those who have more. Thus the middle class craves perfumes and brands, must have fantasy and escape, ritual that includes punishments and rewards. The working class has not time nor appetite for values which can’t readily be seen, measured, felt. As for Peronism and whether or not readers need a background in Argentine history to appreciate Lamborghini, Peronism might not be substantially different from any other ism around the world seeking to exploit one class by numbing another class for the enrichment of a third class, except that Peron started out wanting to make all of the people happy all of the time. But of course there are always those who don’t want to be happy, or don’t care to be made happy. Politics is sex without love.

In other words, for the working class, the word innuendo means exactly what it sounds like, while for the middle class, it can only suggest what cannot in what is sometimes called polite society (on the endangered species list) be directly talked about, and must be submersed in ambiguity, doubt, and mistrust. Enter Peron, that is to say, to wit, an imputation that what is valued most in each class can somehow be conjoined, but the ballroom can’t hold everyone.

Click here, on the belly button, where you were tied to your mother, treading water in the salt marsh. You were still nullifidian then. All gills and fins. Your mother’s voice coming muffled through the cloudy water. And then your cry, and then your sucking, and then your sleep, and then the tin bell, and the rhythm rolling. The next time you awake, you are swaddled in the bottom of a dory, your father at the oars, your mother tending a fishing line, all against a muddy current in coastal waters.

Lamborghini’s writing is probably not egalitarian, not as evidenced by these two stories or the three poems appearing in Firmament No. 1 (Sublunary Editions, Winter 2021), not that it needs to be, yet it contains all the characteristics readers generally value. Humor surrounded by horror. The sweets and sours and bitters and salts of life. It is a writing of associative addition, one image conjuring up or giving way to another, the narrative like a bus ride, the bus stopping at the end of every sentence to let someone off and to take on another rider. Though these riders are not necessarily characters – they may be ideas, or props. Repetition is therefore valued, and memory encouraged. So that at the end of “The Morning,” if asked what it is about, we can say it is about a character savaged. But the common reader wants her back scratched, not whipped.

The form (forms) of these two short stories appears very different in each, the one on the open sea, the other back and forth where the rivers spread in the tidal marsh. Jessica Sequeira’s “endnotes” are indispensable, and actually a pleasure. For one thing, it’s comforting as a reader to know you’re in the same boat as other readers, translators, critics. That is to say, the difficulty is not yours alone, not yours at all. You are now able to read. And while the endnotes clarify, elucidate, inform, they also project, surmise, guess.

Sublunary Editions is an independent press out of Seattle. You can find a copy of Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini here.

Rain

As said of politics, all rain is local, parochial. It may seem frivolous to a parish under water that in a neighboring bureau filled with sun denizens are dressed in shorts and sleeveless shirts drinking dizzy fizzy wine coolers in the town square park sitting in beach chairs on the warm dry grass listening to a gypsy jazz band play La Mer, while next door, where rain falls, Leonard Cohen indoors on a turntable sings, “All the rain falls down amen, on the works of last year’s man.” Yet in rain country umbrellas are not as ubiquitous as one might expect, nor are they absent in the sunny clime. The rain falls through hair, straightening the curl, seeps through flannel and wool, fills the shoes and soaks the socks, wrinkles the skin. The rain bounces off the asphalt street, runs down the gutters carrying along leaves summer and fall debris: a dirty tennis ball, a burnt out sparkler, a used up crumpled face mask. The rain overflows the curb down at the corner and a car spins by splashing a muddy wave across the sidewalk. A city bus sploshes around the corner, windows fogged, the driver and riders masked and anonymous. There are no cats to be seen out and about, a few dogs hunkered up on their porches. A woman with no umbrella scurrying shoulders hunched head down misses her bus and takes shelter under the awning in the doorway of a closed cafe, pulls out her phone and votes for sun, but the polls are closed for the winter.

The Apostrophe of Waiting

You took away the source, but it was some graffiti, as I recall, but now in the grog of morning’s woke fog, I forget what it said, but one of the words was missing an apostrophe, crowds, I think, should have been crowd’s. The crowd is awaiting its apostrophe. So something is missing, the elemental that connects. That’s the meaning of apostrophe – an elision, but more, to turn, to turn away (from), even as things merge, as in a crowd. The apostrophe, like a stray bird, lands in the nest of merged things, its meld. The crowd is awaiting its possession, what it wants, its melt and weld. Also, the apostrophe that is an address to a missing person, one who has been turned away, or is turning away from another, as the crowd disperses. Waiting’s apostrophe. Waiting for the bird that has flown to return. As the crowd scatters, like birds, each one turning away from their neighbor, coming apart, each now a new apostrophe looking for a new gathering, a new mustering, a levy of birds, where they can drop into place to satisfy the whole. And today’s crowd of words is punctuated by the police, steel pot helmeted commas out to enforce the gravity of grammar, but they seem unable to put a stop to the run-on sentences.

Part of the Game

Fans of baseball and elections found suspense and drama in the long playoff series closing the 2020 seasons, some with delight, others with disappointment, of course, but to say despair is too much; after all, it’s just a game – one in which many fans show not much interest until the end of the season when the pennants are up for grabs, the news and ads full of hype and hyperbole, the waving of bunting pandemic. Baseball fans were heartened to see a fair play series between the Dodgers and the Rays, particularly after the Astros allegedly stole championships with their sign stealing campaign now exposed, confirmed, and penalized in scandal for the 2017 through 2019 seasons. The record books for the 2020 baseball and election seasons will be forever checked with asterisks for the influence of Coronavirus disease 2019 on the play and outcomes. Assumptions got tested, predictions again found presumptuous, and predilections and presuppositions exposed. And the utmost importance of audience was heralded, as fans insisted on being a part of the game.

Blest Be the Tie that Binds

One year, on a trip north from Los Angeles, we stopped off at the University of California at Santa Cruz campus to visit a married couple, both in graduate school studying computer programing. When I asked about their projects, one of the students said she was working on a component that would become part of another system, but she didn’t know its ultimate purpose. It might be military; it could be household. She said computers would improve lifestyle and livability. For example, she said, when you arrived at the front door of your house, a computer would recognize you, and your door would open automatically. Later, I learned that, having completed his graduate program, her husband got a good programming job, but due to a misunderstanding regarding dress code, he quit his first day at work because he was expected to wear a tie. That same day, he went to another computer programming firm in the area, where ties were not required, and was immediately hired.

About ten years later, this time on a trip north from Portland, in Seattle on business, I visited a friend who was working in the computer industry. He took me on a trip of the home office, which was called a campus. With its various outdoor activity fields, the low profile buildings, the walkways – it looked and felt like a school campus. On our way to an onsite cafeteria for lunch, we passed through a couple of long corridors lined on both sides with solid doors opening into offices the size of telephone booths where single workers sat hunched toward a computer screen. After finding a table in the cafeteria and settling into lunch, I glanced around and gradually noticed I was the only guy in the whole place wearing a tie.

Glancing around today, I notice that one of the few industries still apparently requiring a tie is politics. But I’ve also noticed that news media people on camera also wear ties. They all seem to share similar clothing styles, the men and the women, the politicians on both sides of the aisle, the leaders in industry, the ladies and gentlemen of the world. It’s a wonder they don’t all get along better, and one wonders what today a tie might signify. The tie seems now only a theoretical construct – its purpose and meaning are not directly observable. It no longer binds, but unbinds.

The title of this post is taken from the hymn by John Fawcett:

“Blest Be the Tie that Binds”
by John Fawcett, 1740-1817

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our alms, are one,
Our comforts and our cares.

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When here our pathways part,
We suffer bitter pain;
Yet, one in Christ and one in heart,
We hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way,
While each in expectation lives
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin we shall be free
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

Hymn #464
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Eph. 4:3
Author: John Fawcett, 1772, alt.
Composer: Lowell Mason, 1832
Tune: “Boylston”

Seven Days in May Not; or, A New Lord’s Prayer

Our Potus who hides us
from sea to lake crisis
hollow is your name.

Thy Kingdom rots
from east evidence storms
to trans west fires.

Feed us our daily diversions.
Forgive us our not tots
as we forgive those
who abandon us.

And lead us not into fees and tolls,
but deliver us our lowly titles
and our vulnerable genders,
our human based prayers.

The Flags of Our Dispositions

Some talk again
about the end
of this world
but yr rapture
might not be
his rapture &
maybe he’ll be
happy as hops
to see you go.

Kneel, stand, or
dodge the show
weekend TV
questions for
the status quo
diversion plays
reductio ad absurdum
the flags of our
dispositions.

More disposed
to please or dis
now a word
from the sponsor
who decides
penultimately
what is ok
& what
unacceptable.

The crickets’
crackles
diminish
lights off but
sounds off
continue
the broadcast
day now
infinite.

Body of Christ and Body Politic: Notes on Luke J. Goble’s “Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith”

In one of the early scenes of H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine,” the Time Traveler discovers a group of Eloi lounging in the sun by a small river, bathing in the shallows. One of them, Weena, cramps and is caught in a rapid, and is in danger of drowning, but her screams are ignored. None of the other Eloi help her. They don’t even seem interested. They don’t seem to care. The Time Traveler saves Weena and learns the Eloi live lives of elite, privileged pleasure. But they pay a price. Each evening, the Eloi are summoned by a kind of futuristic church siren, a pair of giant doors slide open, and one by one the Eloi enter, walking slowly and devoutly into the underground home of the Morlocks, where the chosen Eloi are cooked and eaten. The remaining Eloi, after the siren stops and the doors close, without protest wander back to their pleasure dome to a dinner of luscious fruit and vegetables, never missing their lost ones. The Eloi have no religion and no politics.

What do today’s Christians want, and why? And why would what today’s Christians want be any different from what anyone else wants? And what should Christians want, since they don’t all seem to want the same things?

“Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith” (2017) is an even-tempered argument exploring the place and practice of politics as a consequence of religion. Definitions (what is politics, what is justice) are patiently unpacked and assumptions and predispositions brought to light and questioned within an academic shell (researched citations, references, extensive bibliography), but the text is written in an accessible, at times almost conversational, style. Written in the first person throughout, the book is carefully organized to include discussion of multiple opposing, diverse, or varying viewpoints. Each chapter closes with personal reflections and concrete examples of practices of political importance showing politics as a necessary, wanted, and useful element of daily life. The target audience is probably the thinking Christian, but as in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism,” which argues for a citizen of the world, a more diverse, broader audience is implied and addressed. The tone of “Worshiping Politics” is not arrogant or preachy. The occasion is not knocking door to door, evangelical Bible in hand. The book’s claims are challenging and their opposition anticipated, acknowledged, and handled respectfully.

The author of “Worshiping Politics,” Luke J. Goble[1], a Harvard graduate, professor of history, and adoptive parent, does not simply break with the old convention of etiquette that advises one not to talk about politics or religion. He argues that religion is politics. To ignore talking about either is to miss the point in a vapid exercise of politeness. But to talk about politics and religion in a qualified academic argument is not to rant and rave, attack or scare, browbeat or arm-twist, inflict guilt or wish perdition. In any case, that’s not Luke’s style. Militant atheists might be surprised by this book, as might many militant Christians. We should not ignore, or worse, scorn, those in need of help, and, arguably, our politics and religion need help, separately and together. But how do we help a drowning victim if we don’t recognize a call for help when we hear one, or we can’t swim either, or we just don’t want to get wet, or when we do jump in and reach them they are in such a panic they drown us with them?

Common words and terms are carefully qualified: “Based on my emerging definition – that politics means engaging in the process of debating, negotiating, and pursuing the good of a particular community – and by almost any definition of church (other than a building), it should not be difficult to grasp the political nature of church. If church is a kind of community with a common call, goal, or good, then participating in that community is inherently political.” That is what effective argument does – defines, specifies, draws a field of play. Goble references the Bible, but his book is not simply a collection of biblical quotes selected to create a convenient credibility. Whatever else it might be, the Bible is a historical artifact, and Goble uses it for proof and backing of claims in a historian’s voice. For some readers, Christian and non-Christian, this might come as a kind of revelation, that the Bible is not necessarily read literally, that there are insider questions regarding how and when its books were written, and why, and how some writings came to be included and others left out, while at the same time the Bible does provide historical evidence. The Bible is history, or at least a part of history. That the Bible is interpreted in various ways and often used for what might seem cross-purposes should come as no surprise; the US Supreme Court interprets the US constitution – no one questions the historical fact of that constitution, but what any part of it might mean today is backlogged with case reviews.

Early in Goble’s text, five foundational claims are examined: “1. The Bible is political 2. Jesus was political 3. The gospel is political 4. The church is political 5. Christians are called to be political.” But if everything is political, what remains? If “Come follow me” is a political invitation to vote one’s religion, how authentic are the called who only vote, or vote their conscience, as the saying goes? Of what is the conscience made? But Goble isn’t talking about simply voting, or voting at all. He’s talking about living a political life as an outgrowth of the religious life, what he calls a formative life, which, in one sense, means making an existential decision to break from one’s learned, emotional reasoning to reach a more clear understanding of why and how one thinks and behaves and what one wants to do and how to go about doing it. Formation is not an easy process. We are easily and naturally formed, but our formation does not necessarily inform us. We are rather like the Eloi. When the siren goes off, we get in line and follow. We don’t always choose what is good for us or for others. We may not know what is good for ourselves or for others.

“When it comes to negotiating power and pursuing the good of a community beyond ourselves (i.e., politics), we are deceived about our capacity to be fair, honest, and objective. So, while most of us tend to represent our political views and activity as what is best for the community (or country) overall, we are not very good judges of what is good for others” (30).

Central to his argument about how we think and behave (what informs decisions such as how we vote or who we help or who we scorn), Goble closely examines Jonathan Haidt’s work on decision making informed by rationalizations and justifications that suit us comfortably, that make us comfortable with our decisions and behaviors. Conscience is a deeply embedded magician performing sleight of hand tricks we come to believe are real.

“We are not as good as we think we are. Our behavior is conditioned by factors like 1) our natural propensity to want to be liked by those around us, 2) our need to protect the group(s) that comprise our core identity, 3) our desire to preserve our current self and path unless otherwise forced, and 4) our need to be ‘ok’ with our existing behavioral patterns and our ability to find ways to do so. In the studies referenced by Haidt, these conditioning factors all take on a negative light. But the same propensities can also make us the kind of human beings that can live well in community – to seek compromise, to build commonality, to operate according to convictions. What they show most of all is that we are creatures whose deep feelings drive our behavior even though we think it is our reason” (42).

Or we don’t think about it at all. We behave first, then we create a reason that seems to give that behavior some kind of sense. We do something similar when judging or trying to explain someone else’s behavior. What were they thinking? Likely they weren’t thinking at all. Their siren went off and they behaved accordingly, according to assumptions and predispositions so deeply rooted they are not thought out at all. This may be particularly true of religious behavior, which presupposes and assumes good. If we behave a certain way for what we or others take to be a religious reason, that behavior must be good.

“Does that mean people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority? Does it mean that religious convictions do not have anything significant to contribute to public justice or cultural mores? I would say yes and no. Yes, sometimes people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority. Research in moral psychology seems to defy any claim that beliefs or religious identity labels are accurate predictors of behavior. But perhaps convictions that come by way of belief also have something significant to contribute to the ways in which our deep feelings are formed, and subsequently the kinds of actions that emanate from those ways of being formed” (43).

Goble’s book, an argument that religion is politics and politics means caring for others, “opening up to the interests and circumstances of others” (57), takes turns that lead down paths of psychological work; historical precedent and interpretation; practical applications for regular community exercise; works of classic and contemporary philosophy; popular expressions of contemporary life (for example, scenes with dialog from the television series The West Wing); scripture and the history and practice of reading, studying, and passing down scripture, his discussion of Talmudic study compared to contemporary Christian reading of the Bible, for example: “…when we read the Bible, we don’t typically read the most important interpretations or debates alongside” (57); and his own personal reflections from his experience of “living in the world,” of “being in the world.”

How does one be in the world, working outward from nature to self to family to community to state to a world where one feels safe, and why does being in the world often seem so fraught with conflict that all we can think to do is run and hide to the supposed safety of our own affective emotional constructs? Or, as Appiah puts it in “Examined Life”: “There’s a certain kind of philosophical universalism, which is often associated with evangelizing religions, where, yeah, we love everybody but we want them to become like us in order to love them properly. There’s a great German proverb, which says, ‘If you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll bash your skull in’…And that’s the opposite of cosmopolitanism. It’s the universalist who says, ‘Yeah, I want you to be my brother, but on my terms,’ whereas the cosmopolitan says, ‘I want to be your brother figuratively, your fellow citizen, but I don’t make it a condition of that that we come to be the same’” (p. 92 of the text of the film). And “but the Bible says,” regardless of what we might think it might say (i.e. how we interpret and determine what’s most important in the Bible), is an inadequate response.

“Once certain connections between guiding narratives and political dispositions are made explicit, it is easy to see how political biases shape interpretive choices…the tendency to interpret Scripture according to intuitive frameworks of meaning but to see and declare our own interpretations true, absolute, and unchanging. Our intuitions lead us to choose different narratives to emphasize. This approach leads to deadlock and disunity among Christians, not to mention a confusing and compromising witness to those who put little or no authority in Scripture to begin with” (back to “Worshiping Politics,” 56).

At least one reason some citizens may give no authority to Scripture might be found in the history of the Church. One is tempted to take the metaphor to its rhetorical end, its reductio ad absurdum, the body of Christ so infected by the worms of heresy and hypocrisy it is now a skeleton hanging in the closet of a high school biology class, a dried up framework that without muscle supports nothing. Goble recognizes the fickleness of the Church though the centuries: its WASP-ish table settings; its compromises, treaties, or concessions; its contradictions; its inquisitions – in short, how for many of the world’s people, the body of Christ has been either a turned back or an experience of acculturation. That history though is fascinating reading. Goble’s book includes a survey of changing church paradigms over the centuries, including “the early church, the early Roman Church, the medieval church, the Lutheran ‘Two Kingdoms’ model, Puritan Theocracy, Kuyperian Calvinism, Christian Realism, Amish/Anabaptist Sectarianism, Christian Anarchy, Liberation Theology, Yoder’s Middle Axiom Model.” Readers may begin to wonder what held the body of Christ together throughout time and the world, the good news continually subsumed by the bad.

“Not only has theology excluded voices, but like other forms of dominant discourse, it has participated in constructing and maintaining structures of power. A huge blind spot in each of the previous paradigms is in the conception of the social body or society itself. Taking society or ‘the world’ for granted without thinking about the political implications for those who do not wield dominant power, essentially multiple societies or social bodies, is a gap in the paradigms that come after the Middle Ages” (116).

It seems ordinary members of the faithful may have over time held more sway than Church leaders in restoring what health we might find currently in the body of Christ.

“Corresponding with the cultural and national liberation movements that came about after World War Two, new spaces of reception opened up for previously marginalized voices in theology. One of the most important developments out of that milieu has been liberation theology. In short, liberation theology grew out of the struggle for justice by Latin American peasants who had long experienced marginalization in all aspects of society – politically, economically, and spiritually by the (mostly Roman Catholic) church. Many Catholic priests, already living and working in solidarity with the poor also recognized the contradiction that the gospel should be ‘good news’ for the poor, yet the institutionalized church and other forms of power in society that it reinforced were not good news at all” (116).

Who were these Catholic priests (and nuns), where did they come from, and from what were they formed and how were they informed?

“Our political behavior is not thought or even taught but ‘caught’ – meaning it is shaped affectively and, at least to some degree, out of our control” (31).

At the end of Wells’s “The Time Machine,” the Time Traveler, having returned to his present and met with some friends and told his story of the future, decides to return to the future: “I came back through the corridor. The Time Traveler met me in the smoking room. He was coming from the house. He had a small camera under one arm and a knapsack under the other.” Wells did not tell his reader what was in the knapsack. In the 1960 film version of “The Time Machine,” staring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, it’s suggested that the Time Traveler takes with him back to the future two books. In the film, the Morlocks are destroyed in their underground caverns by a giant fire fed by the Time Traveler assisted by the Eloi. The Eloi will now no longer be food for the Morlocks, but they will now have to care for themselves, take care of one another, work, worry. The addition of the question of what books the Time Traveler selects is an interesting Hollywood edit to the Wells text.

The Time Traveler wants to help the Eloi. But then why would he take anything in his knapsack from his own time, his own time having proven to be such a disaster? If there is good in the world, where and what is it? Is what’s good for Christians also good for non-Christians? Goble explores good and justice and explains why we should be careful imposing our own values of what is good or just on others. How do individuals influence the future, their own or that of others? What is the extent of an individual’s influence over religion or politics? How can we be sure our actions in the present are good for the future?

“Belief in the lordship of Christ allows for patience, peacefulness, hope, and sacrifice now. It allows for Christians not to try to force peace through violence, justice by imposition, or well-being through coercion” (129).

There is in Goble’s book a dichotomy at work that readers may find puzzling or problematic. That isn’t Goble’s fault; it comes with the territory. In one sense, the dichotomy is shown in Augustine’s “two cities,” the City of God and the City of Earth. In another sense, the dichotomy might be seen in the insistence that Christians maintain a distinction from other entities also working toward good and justice. And here not that their ideas of good and justice might be different than secular ones, but that the impetus to work toward them “should flow out of our [Christian] identity and not our ambition” (128). That, because the Christian’s identity presumably includes the idea of a happy ending for the good. Phrases like, “…the last thing, the end event, when the Lordship of Christ is full realized” (129) may sound a bit mystical or esoteric to the general reader. Metaphor is always at work. Words like kingdom and lordship suggest a state and subservience to that state as well as class distinctions, from peasant to knight. These are images that enable views. Goble wants to make sure his reader understands he is “not a biblical scholar” (129). (Had me fooled.) Readers might also feel a dichotomy between the old and new testaments. Thomas Merton said that God is un-seeable, unknowable, almost unthinkable – that we can only approach an understanding of God through our human images or symbols or rituals – but those images are human images. They’re not wrong, but they are human-made and serve only a human purpose. Yet there are times the word God appears in Goble’s text as if God’s a go-to-guy. Goble acknowledges that language translations and cultural contexts add to our confusion. Is God’s love for his people a human love or divine love? Does God love everyone, or only his chosen ones? Another dichotomy. We can add love and God to our list of difficult concepts to unpack: good, justice, love, God. God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only son. What the hell kind of love is that? I have seen many sons sacrificed by their fathers, beginning with Vietnam, some on the battlefield, others at the kitchen table. But I digress. Onward, Christian soldier.

The last chapters of Goble’s book are the most difficult, not to read, but to reflect upon, to perhaps put some new way of being or thinking into practice. The arc of the book is threaded. We see how we are predisposed to think and behave and we learn to self-justify our dispositions. We then see examples of that at work in history, philosophy, popular culture, psychology. We then discover how we might work to change our dispositions, change ourselves from being driven by emotional affective design toward being more intentional about how we think and behave, about who we are. Here is an example of the book’s arc. This is just one thread. Goble talks about how we self-deceive: “We are self-justifying creatures who construct narratives about the world necessary to maintain the views of ourselves that we hold” (41). We might think the more educational experience we gain the less likely we would be to self-deceive and be forced to self-justify, but Goble cites research that shows “IQ and education levels do not markedly improve one’s ability to see an issue more objectively, but they do increase one’s capacity to support and defend one’s initial judgment. In other words, greater intelligence or education can help us defend our ideas better, but they do not necessarily result in better thinking” (39). Those quotes are from Chapter 3: “The Problem of Self-Deception.” In Chapter 10, “The Problem of Practice,” the thread of how we think is picked up again, under the sub-heading “Against Closed-Mindedness”: “Intellectual humility describes perfectly rational, disinterested truth-seeking, involving openness and willingness to accept information because it is true…involves an established sense of one’s self and worth apart from how one’s intellect, accomplishments, or legacy are viewed, and a genuine intrinsic concern for knowledge and truth” (165). Since most of us are probably not intellectually humble, but we might agree such humility might make us more effective working and being with others, the question becomes how do we intentionally change our dispositions. Related threads that form the arc include “self-promotion, tribalism, self-justification, self-deception” that “are [not] easily overcome by the cultivation of counter-virtues through material practices” (166).

Goble’s book concludes with an existential examination of formation. Existentialism suggests that existence precedes essence. That means we are born into a circumstance and predicament not of our choosing, but we do have a choice – to decide for ourselves what the essence of that existence might be. For cradle Christians (those born into a Christian circumstance and predicament), that choice can be profoundly difficult. A Franciscan Friar once told me Catholicism was not a religion for children. I thought, then I might want to stay a child forever. As an existentialist, I might successfully make that choice. But Goble suggests the Christian’s choice is not existential, because “Desire for God is not willed, it is a gift” (172). “How [then] does [intentional] formation happen?” (172).

Goble’s idea of formation does seem to share with the existentialists the idea of freedom. It might seem paradoxical, but he seems to think that belonging to God differentiates in a way that creates a freedom from the world that continually works its formation of us without our approval or even awareness. Borrowing from Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, Goble says Jesus is saying something like don’t mix up me with “where you live, who you are with, or the trappings of religiosity or culture that you might mistake for me” (190). In other words, we might want to be very careful with the alliances and treaties we make with the powers that be, because we will be formed and reformed by whatever accommodations we might make. It’s not enough to be born again once. If you really want to be a Christian, you must be born again every day. The existentialist also renews the choice of essence, of existence preceding essence, on a daily basis. The Body of Christ must be very careful not to get too cozy and fall into bed with the Body Politic. Goble summarizes this problem: “How can the church faithfully engage the world while still being set apart? Being in the world makes being formed by the world inescapable. Withdrawing from the world makes engagement impossible. Wherein lies the balance?” (193).

That’s an important question, because one wants to maintain one’s freedom. In the last chapter, Goble provides an example, what he calls a “Model for the Moment,” of a possible balance. The example involves Embrace Oregon, a coalition of diverse forces attempting to care for the needs of orphaned, vulnerable children. “Real relational knowing is mutually formative, and only by being formed by significant relationships with those who are ‘other’ in multiple intersectional ways (race, class, gender, socioeconomic, class, education, nationality, language, sexual orientation, religion) can we live out a culture forming faith. There is always a dynamic movement between formation and culture creation” (200).

The text of “The Time Machine” suggests a characteristic of the Eloi not seen in the film version referenced above. In the text, the Eloi are little people. In a sense, they are children, or they are like children in that they are completely vulnerable. Their caretakers, the Morlocks, care for them. It might be said that the Morlocks may even love the Eloi, but the Eloi are not free.

In Goble’s very last “Practice,” he says, “Cultivate and struggle for relationship in the face of rules that remove, economics that exclude, addictions that alienate” (207).

I don’t know if H. G. Wells, in naming the Morlocks, had in mind the biblical Moloch, but it seems likely he did. Goble recognizes the need for Christians to work with the Morlocks to free the Eloi, without themselves becoming coopted by the Morlocks, becoming a new Moloch, or putting the Eloi at risk of a new captivation.

 

 

 

[1] Disclosure: Luke teaches at Warner Pacific College, where I’ve done work as an adjunct instructor.

 

 

“All the World’s a Bill-Bard” at Berfrois

Something new up at Berfrois. In which we argue for the power of the napkin poem! If yr sitting out with a cup, give it a read?img_20161112_130954

Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

Sunday Morning Comics! Scamble & Cramble Run for Oval Office Episode

“I’m going to legalize catnip!”

Scamble & Cramble Run for Office 1