Thursday, September 30, 2010


Perhaps the most maddening thing about banning, censoring, making things secret, is that it is always about privilege: I can know, but you can’t. You can’t handle the truth. Adult to child version: this is for your own good. (You don’t need to know about sex.) The powerful, the elite, the wealthy, the educated, the military, and the underworld all say, “This is information I can have but you cannot.” Therefore, those who tell, who spy, who remember and cannot be suppressed, are always dangerous and resisted. This is a world based on gaming and secrecy is the advantage in games, esp. military games.

There’s been talk lately about whether Obama is one of the secret-keepers, in spite of assuring us that he would enforce transparency in government. (That he would disclose everything in spite of a hostile and gaming organization of opponents trying to put him out of power.) What’s MORE worrisome is the idea that what he knows is so devastatingly pessimistic -- that things are so far worse than we ever could have imagined -- that he is keeping the secrets to protect us from despairing madness or desperate revolution. I’ve been reading about family secrets in Mark C. Taylor’s “Field Notes from Elsewhere,,” mainly his slow realization that there were several suicides by hanging in a family already plagued with depression. It was considered too suggestive for the descendants to know, especially since there were no obvious reasons for such a final act. Too many questions to burden the young with the facts. Therefore, no inquiry into mitigation.

Secrecy is interpreted as the only safe way to avoid intervention from authorities. Secret groups form all the time, sometimes secret by default because no one cares anyway, but maybe because of fear of punishment, dispersal, raids. Which is worse? How do we tell the terrorists from the simply neglected?

We have the idea that if we just knew enough, we could handle anything. If we knew the mechanism of tragedy (let’s say soldier suicides) we could unravel them. But identifying the causes is only the first step. What we really don’t want to know is what we’ll have to do to stop the wars that make soldiers suicidal. It would be better to leave the necessity and price of peace in some dim and dubious cloud. For one thing, a lot of military-based economy would have to be shut down. Shifting the money from war to resettlement of refugees would be so chaotic that corruption would run wild. Here on the rez the council has just about figured out how to handle oil leases properly when along come international corporations very sophisticated about wind farms. Who knows how to read a wind farm contract?

Suppose a person is adopted, which was a family secret, and at last discovers the facts. More questions are raised than can be resolved. Where, when, why, who? How does that change one’s relationships? What does divulging the secret do to other people’s lives? What will it do to inheritance? What about getting caught up in political issues about adoption by people outside one’s original genetic group? Weigh that against resolving some inner dissonance that always raised questions.

Catastrophic and inexplicable events leave us hungry to know more. Every exposé is followed by an exposé of the exposé, the hoax that was behind the public hoax, the self-delusion that was behind the hoax-accusers -- that they knew the truth when, in fact, no one knows the real truth because reality is so complex and shifty that it is simply unknowable except in bits, sound bites, screen grabs. So Woodward tells us that HE knows the truth about Obama. And Jimmy Carter tells us HE knows the truth about Ted Kennedy. To be “in the know” is to be important, smarter than others, well-connected. That idea sells newspaper.

The idea that people will buy or read dirty books for the titillation of it is only part of the story. Another big part is that the upper classes read transgressive stuff -- why shouldn’t I? And there sits “Ulysses,” unread. The “upper” classes sometimes read things that only make sense if a person has a specialized (meaning focused) education that is normally acquired only at great cost. Can YOU read Derrida? How about Paul Ricoeur? They aren’t about sex -- they are about rewriting the world. That can be far more obscene and upsetting.

Only the wealthy in time can sit around trying to decide what a perfect world would be like. Most people are simply trying to survive. The censorship of their lives is never having enough time to read, let alone think. An intellectual life is one of the greatest luxuries but it is so hard for an ordinary person to “see,” that there is a strong prejudice against it. In rural Montana a person who has time to read is often considered a slacker. They could have been doing something constructive like mending fence.

I say, “When I have money, I buy books.” But what I really mean is “when I have money, I buy time during which to read books.” After all, there are libraries. If you have a computer, there are libraries in it. I don’t have time to wash the dishes because I’m composing an essay. (If I can compose in my head while I wash dishes, so much the better.) The beauty of audible books mean one can read while washing the dishes or driving the car. (It’s a little risky to compose essays while driving -- more distracting than texting, so it’s lucky I live in a place with long straight highways little traveled.)

Evading censorship, reading banned books, can be a waste of time because there is so much else to explore. But if the highest virtue of reading and writing means following Ariadne’s thread (truth) wherever it might lead, no matter the consequences, then hiding truth becomes evil. And yet the truth-seeker has a responsibility not to be mistaken, not to dig out trivia and valorize it as significant simply because it was hidden, and to help deal with the consequences of revelations. Because they change the world. The ultimate game is not winning, but constructing the rules for the greater good rather than merely supporting the elite. Reading is not the only way to learn things.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

Samuel R. Delany wrote a graphic novel called "Empire" that deals with this very topic (art by Howard Chaykin). The premise was that those who control the flow of information and knowledge control the political economic aspects of empire as well. The book also used catastrophe theory, which was an early precursor of chaos theory, as part of the plot, culminating in how the knowledge-controlling empire was brought down.

I know Delany has read Derrida, and most of the other theorists. I've read Derrida's bookk on Nietzsche, and a little bit more; it's work, but not impossible. I've read a lot of Foucault and Barthes, too, although I have to say at this point I find all such theoretical reading hollow anymore if it isn't applicable to practice. In my universe, theory follows praxis and always must; a lot of bad art is made when theory dictates praxis, rather than follow along behind it.

I don't count myself as a member of the leisure class, except lately as enforced by illness, but rather a voracious reader. It's that hunger to find things out for oneself, and to know.