Monday, December 03, 2012


Some nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers have tried to completely rethink the interfusing and interfused natures of individuality and community, of experiencing and experienced, and of past and present.  They attempt to short-circuit or abort the now automatic movements of detachment and analysis into atomlike parts or objects.  They try through various methods to engage us in our immediacy, to describe to some degree the experienced world as we get caught up in it spontaneously . . . This can be described as uncanny or magical: weird fusions, confusions, ecstatic transports, immediate discharges of fear and fury, strange feelings of relief, etc.

Bruce Wilshire, “Get ‘em All!  Kill ‘em!”

Some of Wilshire’s thought is uncomfortable, which is pretty unavoidable when talking about genocide.  Some strands lead to vampires and werewolves, as well as the confusion of mixing sex and violence, either in actuality or in media.  The whole genre of mutilating, sexy fantasy comes into play.  So does our fascination with these things right now -- there’s no doubt that the attraction exists -- a response to media revelations about terrorism and guerrilla atrocities, a way of dealing with them in some coherent way?  Or are they invitations to participate?  What does this have to do with individual madmen who go cannibalistically-bloodthirsty-crazy?

My seminary education at the U of Chicago Div School (1978-82) was right at the point when the issue of philosophical construction versus deconstruction came to a boil.  The infamous “Derrida Corrida” happened while I was there, but I could never quite grasp it.  Edward Said and Stephen Toulmin both spoke.  Said wanted us to look at the assumptions about Orientalism that were misleading the North Atlantic thinkers.  Toulmin was trying to get at the heart of thought through reflection.

One way of managing thought at the Div School was to be careful to name your “method.”  No direct relationship to the Stanislavski acting “Method,” but that theatre use of the word was part of the same subjective-versus-objective schism.  (Onstage should an actor try to recreate the internal world of the character or rather present the externals of the character?)  The Div School was very much weighted to the analytical and institutional which rather put me outside the Circle of Believers, since my training and natural inclination was “phenomenological” -- as is Wilshire’s approach -- but I respected my professors at the U of C very much, particularly Richard Stern whose specialty was literary “modernity” -- the form of intense subjectivity that came out of the psychoanalytical school of subconscious/unconscious/stream of consciousness:  Proust, Joyce, and all that.  This put me on a boundary between construction and deconstruction.  

Boundaries are always useful.  But only if one understands the gradient between the two -- we wouldn’t need boundaries if they weren’t closely related -- and can keep track of which side one is exploring or how the two sides interact.  The Div School was concerned with the aforementioned “Circle of Believers,” marked by whether a person believed in the dogma in question or was studying it from the outside, like an anthropologist.  Most address it in regard to Christianity.  But my context has been the Blackfeet “tribe.”  I cannot be inside that circle, but neither can I be outside it.  I live on the edge of the mapped rez, which is marked by an actual river, Birch Creek.

Sculptors who work in clay know there are two basic methods:  to add clay or to cut away clay.  The two methods have fancy names, but forget that.  The point is that to cut away is also a way to create.  Editing, eliminating, destroying are ways of making a new thing.  (There is another concept here which I’m going to put off: that of the positive space -- the object itself -- and the negative space, the displacement that the object creates in the same shape which functions as a mold, like RNA and DNA.)  So here’s the pay-off:  by destroying a major part of the world of the Blackfeet, the outlanders created a new thing which neither side understood.  We are still adding and subtracting.  Wilshire -- in his admiration for indigenous cultures -- neglects this idea and treats a tribe as it was originally.

What has persisted in the People has been internal and therefore uncontrollable, esp. since it is so supported by the landscape, which is full of the uncanny and mystical.  The successful religious groups here have been those that accept the supernatural, like the Pentecostals or the Catholics.  Now that the Methodists begin to accept a more “faith-based” rather than “class-based” style, they are growing again.  In “class-based” Valier the Methodists don’t quite compete with the Lutherans and the Catholics but the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists thrive among a certain subset:  maybe those who could use a little divine intervention.

To move from the objective to the subjective and back again, one must learn to manage one’s consciousness.  Strategies for cross-checking, testing for confirmation, recognizing relevant evidence, dissecting into parts, and the like are all good for getting to the objective, the scientific.  But for the subjective side there is a split.  One is the individual personality -- a “node in the universe” -- and the other is the “group mind” that controls how life goes on.  I cheat by living in solitude,  I also cheat by living in a tiny village where few people have my kind of education.  Not that my education is so elite (though it is seen that way by people who don’t really know it except by reputation) but that it supports a particular body of interpretation.  That is, most people in this village have no idea what I’m talking about and couldn’t care less anyway  Writing this blog is my way of walking the boundary. 

So it’s a kind of cosmic joke that the Baptist church next door is now being pastored (as they say) by a U of Chicago Divinity School graduate!  He attended earlier than me and is from inside the Circle of Believers.  We are probably the only two Div School trained people in the state of Montana and we could not be more different.  He is far more practical and domestic than I -- for instance, he has adopted and raised a tribal child.  His marriage is traditional and successful, as is his career.

And yet we share something powerful, even mystical.  It is a material culture, or at least recorded in us that sensory way:  the gothic stone quadrangles, the trodden grass under elms full of leaping squirrels, the feel of heavy old books in our hands and the discovery of bright new ones in the Seminary Coop Bookstore, the familiar voices of our professors, the endless talk over coffee or beer, the sound of the change-ringers’ bells in the several churches and the Rockefeller Center carillon.  They add up to a powerful emotional connection to a scholars’ community, as well as the legal one documented by our diplomas.  For me, out beyond, was the often-misty freshwater sea of Lake Michigan.  There is always a boundary, but it is a shifting one, sometimes adding land -- sometimes subtracting it.  Bibfeltian.  Both/And. 

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