Wednesday, February 17, 2016


“Religion Dispatches” is one of the subscription websites that sends out daily messages about what it considers to be religion, mostly the machinery of institutions, the money, the big shots, the controversies and scandals, the dogma, the cattiness, and the whole tangle of worldliness.  At last comes an article that is about my point of view, except that they call it “affect theory” and I call it something more like “deep metaphor.”  You could call it the primal base of religion:  convictions so deep they are invisible.

Above is the link to “In the Beginning was not the Word:  Why Belief in the Primacy of Language Leads to a Misunderstanding of Richard Dawkins, Islamophobia, and Politics”  by Andrew Aghapour and Michael Schulson.
The two authors interviewed Donovan O. Schaefer, who proposes “affect theory.”  I picked out some sentences from Schaefer’s responses that I think are vitally important.

“Somewhere in the history of Western thought in particular, we ended up with this model of subjects as primarily linguistic thinking beings. There’s this notion that the first thing that happens leading to an action is a word.”

“I think that there’s a very strong line of continuity between that notion of sovereignty as coming through language to where we are now, where we see language as fundamentally what power is.”

“Many people think of religion as a set of propositional beliefs that can be written down in a book.”

Dawkins and an ammonite fossil

“You see it right away in someone like Richard Dawkins. He sees God as a hypothesis. He sees it as a propositional statement that is reducible to a set of beliefs. But I think most people don’t really encounter religion in that way. They encounter it as affects moving through them.”

“They’re talking about religion as if it’s a package of beliefs. And talking about science as if it’s exclusively about truth, when it’s actually about the production of knowledge in process.  Human beings experience their worlds very differently. I’m very interested in the phenomenon of disagreement. . .  We can experience the same information in completely different ways.”

A now-jailed twitter troll who threatened rape.

“I think hatred is also something that we need to see as viscerally exciting for all of us, that’s something that we’re always susceptible to, always going to be tempted by.”

To restate this from a slightly different angle, people who love to argue about atheism are using a dogmatic statement about something that they rationally know cannot be true literally, unless only in terms of metaphor, because they KNOW somewhere in themselves that then the argument can’t end.  There is no possible proof. The two sides inhabit different realms.  But this is an advantage. 

People like the argument, not the beliefs in question.  Someone on Aeon (another website that likes to think about “religion” but always innocently discusses it in terms of the Anglican church) asked whether Dawkins and his atheist friends had damaged religion.  My answer was that I doubted the Buddhists even noticed.  The proposition is like saying that since cats have socks and play with yarn, they knit their own socks.  

Cat with white socks, probably athletic

The hatred thing is part of the hominin package we carry around in our bodies, hard-wired responses that we have to work to keep ourselves from swinging from trees, tearing the throats out of rivals, and fucking against their will pretty ladies or gents just because.  The impulses are still there, plenty strong and scary, so no wonder we’d rather pretend that words are the only things that matter, esp. written words and esp. written words given holy patriotic status.  

Yesterday some were recommending a short YouTube video of President Obama’s press conference, demonstrating the calm temperament and generous views of an ideal president.  The appended comments were insane: crazy, obscene, uninformed epithets one would hear in a riot or a bar.  Paleolithic war cries.  (Some comments may be removed by now, which is an advantage of fungible print.)

Paleolithic rage.

These contrasting styles are constructed “niches”, one based on the ultimate rational word-based manner of thinking that is characteristic of, say, the University of Chicago Law School, and the other based on curse-and-puke culture as modeled in the pop media.  Admittedly, the first is admired and given governing primacy in this country, where we live by the Book, whether it is the town code book or the Bible or the Constitution of the USA.  The second Trumpian attitude is not taken seriously by those people, but in fact it controls their election to office.  We are startled.

An intemperate gesture?

I do take the intemperate often-emotion-drunk constituency seriously as a force, but words can have their dark side. I want to mark what giving rational word-based primacy does in terms of creating a niche, using Scalia as an example.  Previously, I said there should be an autopsy to eliminate the sort of ambiguity that continues about the deaths of prominent people.  Autopsy, a legal document, is being denied on grounds that he was already so sick (health too fragile to risk an operation on his shoulder) that his sudden death was no surprise, a given.  He had been to his doctor twice in the preceding week, not feeling well, and at the resort he was too “tired” to hunt.  One wonders what opiates he was taking for his shoulder pain.  And why he didn't retire gracefully much earlier. 

He died leaving the court with a huge pile of work where he was the crucial figure in the balance between liberal and conservative. (Meaning in his case the radical — root-based — conviction that the Constitution meant only what it meant to the men in the 18th century who composed it: “originalism,”)  By default, this means liberals, the alternative, are people (both men and women) responding to contemporary issues, but short of amending the words of the original document.  These are issues of print-based thinking, which holds things frozen.  For Scalia to retire would have meant political consequences, but they would have been far more orderly than the emergency reactions caused by his death.

He occupied the social niche of the CEO, intimidating and patronizing, but reliable for the purposes of business as usual, meaning profit-making.  “House of Cards,” not “Game of Thrones.”  For years we’ve known what this will do to a person’s health.  When I rode the elevator with him thirty years ago, his face was always red and damp, his repartee also choleric but masked by joking.  It seemed “normal.”  But it is not a temperament we associate with Supreme Court justices.  We were all children to him and he protected us — on his terms, which were in writing.  His clerks confirm this by first-hand experience.

Always the teacher.

Scalia’s niche empowered him, overrunning the more deliberate judges, but it held him in the position that killed him with high blood pressure and a bad heart, obviously beyond the power of medicine to “cure” him.  The question is how much it distorted his decisions.  In a world that demanded a good heart (in both senses), how much mortality did his patriotic elitism impose on children, women, minorities, the stigmatized, and other disadvantaged demographics, while supporting oligarchies so wealthy they must be managed by corporate lawyers.

It is often pointed out that the framers of the Constitution were slave-owners.  Then Lincoln is interpreted as a President who set the black people free with a written Emancipation Proclamation.  But now, only slightly rearranged terms, favorable to the "haves," have economically enslaved people of every origin, gender and age, even under a black president.  Written laws have incarcerated a shockingly high proportion of the population.  

We need a new way of doing business that doesn’t kill our Supreme Court justices through their own pride because they will not give up power. Scalia died in a privileged enclave based on killing, if "only" birds for victims, where his own written death confirmation was phoned in from many miles away.   (CSI would NOT approve.)  One quite realistic resistance to autopsy may be that it could reveal dementia.  But then, it is confirmed that Reagan was president while suffering from Alzheimers, and President Wilson's decisions were made by his wife.  We don't seem to object.

In the beginning the invention of writing, and the stable logic it made possible, was enabling and ennobling. But in a democracy, the curse-and-puke crowd controls the deliberations.  Hopefully, they’ll forget to vote. 

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