Monday, August 24, 2015

What We're Doing Talking Like This


- Ever wonder what we're doing, talking like this?
- We're getting ready to change the world.
- Why do we have to wait?
- We don't. Getting ready is already beginning. Think about what happened here last night: three in the morning, Westwood Village, night café. This corner more than well lit up under the marquees of two of the city's oldest and largest movie theaters. People coming and going even at this hour. You and me are here, with three or four others, waiting for the morning. A vague resignation of no better place to go hovers over us with the light.
- "The dispossessed and abandoned", in the words of those bygone days when it was considered normal to be of concern to others and to have some place in life, when it was thought something must have happened to people like these to overthrow the usual ways of the world.
- That world has long been overthrown.
- It has. So we were sitting there and then: pound! pound! pound! Across the street two storefronts down is someone in a deeply hooded sweatshirt with a sledgehammer hitting away at the jewelry store window. And what do we do?
- We do nothing.
- We watch. We wait. We are in no conflict about it. The world has its ways and they are violent and the world is not our world.
- What is our world?
- We're ready for that question, aren't we? All this past week* we've been talking about the secular and the sacred, the new school of theology that studies their relation. The secular: the world, as its etymology suggests, that is in time and of the times. A world in which what people claim is good changes because that world itself changes, is not fixed in time. Though there is a kind of fixity to be found in the way the secular world moves. It has a system or mechanism, in fact, has two of them: the free market in which everyone trying to profit at each other's expense is said somehow to work to every one's advantage; and evolution in which violent competition for survival strengthens the species to the advantage of those members of the species privileged to survive. In both cases there is mechanism and violence. And what you and me discovered, and the professors hadn't, was that the sacred is the same! The sacred: the world outside time we can only access through rituals and ceremonies of gods dying and being reborn, through a mechanical procedure re-enacting violence. The professors of the new school saw clearly there is religion in the secular world, that people imagined themselves in the god-like force behind mechanisms of market and evolution. But the professors didn't see how the secular enters into the sacred in the form of mechanism and violence guiding the transition from secular time to sacred time. What they, these professors of the secular and sacred didn't notice being immersed in these worlds themselves was that the secular and sacred have almost everything in common: life practiced in the secular would is mechanical and violent, and our access to life in the sacred is also mechanical and violent: we have to lose ourselves to gain the world.
- And sitting at the café, watching the sledgehammer wielded by the hooded man?
- The secular world is supposed to operate on its own market mechanical principles without our having to decide what is good or bad. And the sacred world promises us that with a different kind of violence and machine we can get out and away from that secular world of violence and mechanism. What is all this to us? I don't want either world. Do you? Do the dispossessed who watched along with us? One world of violence and mechanism, two worlds, an infinity of worlds of violence and mechanism, how does this involve us?
- We sat at the café and watched.
- Yes. Our ideas of good and bad, secular and religious, have been discredited. Gods are in the secular, mechanism is in the sacred, violence is in both. Religion is a joke, as is non-religion.
- But if we say it is a joke that implies we have a standard we are judging it against. What is that standard if it is neither religious nor non-religious?
- In the Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah we are sparks fallen to this world from the fire of god. Only when we have perfected our knowledge will we return to god. 'Souls must reenter the absolute substance whence they have emerged, but to accomplish this they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them.'** We need knowledge, not mechanism and violence. And what is the most essential knowledge we need?
- Of the world we actually live in.
- We need to know our world here and now and the obstacle to knowledge it represents if we are to have a chance to acquire more knowledge.
- We need to know the world we actually are in if were ever to get out of it.
- Know what the secular and the sacred really are. It's knowing a lot, a good beginning, to see that they are much the same.
- Because that tells us to look for good elsewhere?
- Yes.
- But if not in this secular world of time passing and not in the timeless sacred world of ideas and ideals, what's left?
- The world right here. Starbucks Coffee, Westwood. The guy in the deep hood and the sledgehammer. This world of mechanism and violence protected by the police whose sirens we could hear approaching, whose helicopter in minutes would be overhead.
- Average house price in Westwood: two and a half million dollars.
- An invasion army coming trained to issue orders to anything that moves: Keep your hands where we can see them! Identify yourself! State your reason for being here! One minute you're sitting at a café drinking coffee in the place you grew up in, the next you stand a good chance of being shot.
- All of us left before the armed forces arrived.
- Why should we stay to be subject to mechanism and violence? Did we believe we were gods of violence in charge of the world economy or evolutionary fighters for survival? No, not us. We didn't believe good came out of the sacred world, we didn't believe morality was determined by a god who had to have recourse to mechanical ritual to get us to do his bidding, didn't believe in the rules of the free market, of violent competition for survival. Secular and sacred emerged from nowhere and become our worlds, learned in childhood without knowing we learned them: the sacred taught us to engage in mechanical ceremonies pretending to be a murdered and then reborn god, the whole process beating into our heads acceptance of roles, old and new, weak and powerful, reconciling us to a society of roles, of power exerted by one role upon the other, taught us to be slaves and masters of slaves; the secular taught us to do things for the sake of doing them, to keep things we didn't have use for from others who did, taught us to hoard.***
- Again: if not those, what world do we live in?
- What world did we go to when we left the café? Where did you guys go? It would be hard for you to hoard possessions you don't have or sell yourselves into slavery to people who have more slaves than they need. I myself went on with reading and writing.
- We turn the corner but haven't gone anywhere.
- We've gone to look for good each in our own way with each other's help.
- How can we know the way? How will we help each other?
- Keeping off the wrong ways, wary of violence and mechanism, wary of hoarding, slavery, role, hierarchy.**** Gradually our eyes will open.
- Is that your religion? A prediction?
- A theory.
- Then let's find out if it's right.
- Let's. But our difficulties are not as great as they seem.
- Optimism coming from you is suspicious. I think you enjoy leading me in circles.
- Violence and mechanism, hoarding and hierarchy are social expressions of vain thought and vain action. Vain thought is when, rather than (as in ethical thought) being inattentive to ourselves while seeing the world as beautiful and whole, we instead see only ourselves, see our power of control. Vain action is when, rather than (as in ethical action) being inattentive to the world, unclear in the process of change, while attentive to our selves as we try differing attempts to better our position, we instead are blind to ourselves as in intoxicated passion we strive to force the world back into a form in which we felt powerful.***** Ethical action and thought, being the reverse of vain thought and action, involve a changed relation to the world, but don't require any new learning or experience. Plato called progress from one to the other conversion: a turning around.
- Conversion. A theory that once stated confirms itself. We're back to religion.
* On Bureaucrats & Violence
The Two Worlds
** The Zohar
*** Clutter, Gloves Off
**** Bringing Back Stray Sheep
***** Noam Chomsky & Mental Things

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