Monday, October 31, 2011


Entitlement to distinction in society arrives in various ways, depending on what the society values and how approval is shown. In some societies difference is rewarded (twins are considered special) and in others difference is quickly eliminated (twins are killed at birth). With distinction comes obligation mixed with privilege. In recent Western society, the professions of medicine, law, theology, and university teaching were rewarded with high prestige and allowed privileged and confidential access to vulnerable people -- but they were monitored rigorously.

At first this was the assigned task of colleagues through boards and professional organizations. Slowly that duty has vacated, government bodies have taken over, and the idea of “professional” has shrunk to a matter of how one dresses. Corruption has undercut all professions, major and petite. The professionals are rich, but the vulnerable are unprotected. This was a cycle that has probably lasted several hundred years. Maybe it was an industrial model.

In the earliest societies certain people seemed more effective at hunting or more persuasive at settling quarrels -- they became “chiefs” in Native American parlance. (There was no election, one-person-one-vote.) Some were more skillful or more beautiful and they were also distinguished. Today important people tend to be basketball players (jokes) although Eloise Cobell is clearly among the most distinguished Native Americans in the nation and will never lose her position as one who “fed her people.”

Among the students I taught there were occasional individuals -- the ones I remember were young men -- who carried an aura. They were often alcoholic, though it was hard to know whether the addiction was the affliction or an attempt to deal with it. They were poets, story-tellers, musicians, but didn’t get good grades. Some were gay. None whom I’m thinking of lived past youth. I cherished them, maybe as much because of their outsiderness as in spite of it. Certain families seemed to produce these visionaries, but they were quiet about it. They were not always a force for good, partly because of their effect on the people around them. They did not seek prominence. Quite the opposite.

Remarkable but not particularly respectable people exist in every society, often pushed out to the fringes. A friend in Valier feels that all artists are entitled to a free pass when it comes to conventional life, that they should be supported, even if they cause suffering. The Sixties and Seventies pulled them out into the light -- who knew there were so many? They took a Dionysian approach -- approach, hell! Assault! Break the rules, climb the walls, search and question. They harrowed the status quo, turned it over to get the energy and wealth hidden on the dark side of the world. Then they crashed. In the Middle East the cycle seems to be at the top. Evolution denied becomes revolution. Force cannot suppress it.

Religion in the sense of dogmatic institutions seems to be of two sorts: those who support the status quo (and protect themselves) or those who join the revolution, even lead it. The Pope knows this, so to divert attention from the sexual abuse of children by priests and the blocking of measures to end AIDS, he is now beginning an assault on Big Money. This takes him close to Liberation Theology, which could use a little energy, though one version (non-Christian) is on fire in the Middle East. He is neither a shaman nor an artist. This is political.

Other realms exist. Now rising is science, partly visionary and partly self-searching in a near-moral way. (Not fully moral because it is not anthropocentric but morality is.) The brilliant non-conforming individual exists here but will need to attract and keep a team that is content to work in that context. Because of the reflexivity of the enterprise, this discipline is able to support continuous evolution, though occasionally there is new evidence, unexpected results, that send the whole field tail over teakettle.

A subsidiary enterprise is the “think tank,” the groups that buffer society and science by trying to analyze and integrate what science finds. I’m thinking of and, to a lesser extent, TED videos, plus the magazine racks laden with pop science mags, and the websites that are another aspect of them. The challenge keeps getting more intense.

For the 19th century Transcendentalists and amateur natural history adepts, nature was a great source of reassurance. In the 21st century we have come to a place as disconcerting as our displacement from the center of the solar system. As we look at evolution more closely, we (thinking of Nick Lane now) see that fittingness (NOT fitness) depends upon the ecological niche as much as our ability to adapt and that we are busily damaging (changing) our niche through overpopulation and resource consumption. The resulting anxiety is evidently not effectively addressed by our existing religious institutions. The word “apoptosis” comes to mind. Write it on a dinosaur fossil. Throw it through a stained glass window.

We study ourselves in many ways, but I am most interested in how we study our own thinking, particularly that which is based on experience, the senses, their ordering and meaningfulness. This is rhizomatous in metaphor, abandoning our old preoccupation with hierarchy and received book wisdom. Thus, the dynamics of entitlement endorsed by institutions or tradition are diminished. Entitlement seems to me to split out between personal charisma and persuasiveness or on the other hand rational considerations. The Internet serves both, but very much undercuts the status quo, whatever it is. Control of juried journal publications in slow publication cycles that weight the existing “experts” lose power. Online discussion of ongoing research speeds up the process of re-evaluation and peer review. But also the capacity to use visual sleight-of-hand and global rumor are greatly expanded.

My entitlement to comment on the matters I address, despite my academic degrees and ceremonial participation, rests only on my capacity and desire. Whether they are enough cannot be known. What is “enough?” It is enough to have the freedom to consider these matters, but all that I’m recommending at this point is a little formula for worship. No promises of contact with another world or miraculous healing. Just a way of thinking about a lot of interesting matters. But who knows where it could lead?

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I was reading a eulogy article about Steve Jobs, and the point was made that he wasn't a great scientist, he was an ingenious artist. He was always re-designing the reality around him. In the hospital he was sketching a device for holding an iPad for patients in bed.

I don't think the importance of intuition and the sense of beauty and elegance can be underestimated in the pursuit of science. Einstein thought those were essential aspects to any theory that was likely to be close to the truth: elegance, beauty.

Your of throwing a dinosaur bone through a stained glass window seems both apt and beautiful to me, this morning. I think there's a poem in there somewhere.