"So let us regard this as settled: what is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious."
-- Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)
"This is what violence does…This is what violence is. It is not enough that death reeks and stinks in the world, but now it takes on inimical human forms, prompting the self-defending survivors to strike and to hate, rightly or wrongly.” - William T. Vollmann, from Rising Up and Rising Down
For many of us, the first time we seriously contemplated whether it was possible to
“To see a world in a grain of sand,” was when we were introduced to Plato and Aristotle in school, or when we were asked to do so by parents or siblings who had thought about such things; others still, perhaps, were introduced to the notion by the leader of a congregation of like souls within a house of faith. The guileless and universal act of pondering the question of what constitutes reality, such as the different ways of perceiving an object through the senses as opposed to through the imagination or “heavenly light”, as Plato calls it, referring both to sunlight, to the imagination, and to the philosophical life, is as common as breathing.
Aristotle, Plato’s famous student (and eventual detractor, to a degree), relied upon the senses to interpret reality – and please forgive the oversimplification for the sake of this juxtaposition of theories – and, thus he was an empiricist, who relied upon a posteriori observations, that is, by experience or sensorial information rather than knowledge that is gained through intuition, pure reason, or other non-experiential sources ( also known as a priori). Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (see below) illustrates the evolution of reality from a posteriori to a priori ; if you choose to concur. Anyone who has had a fever, or tried any number of illicit and/or licit drugs, or experienced a personal epiphinal moment in a forest, on a mountain, at the sea, or just prior to sleep has indubitably questioned what is real and what is not; are we part of one or part of multiple universes, and other ineluctable inquiry.
Over the last five years, America, and by extension of influence, the rest of the globe, has had to accommodate shifting, separate, mercurial, and adamantine realities that must, with great difficulty often, assimilate with the chronic routine of our ordinary lives; our own separate realities.
Consider these words published on August 28, 2001 in Salon, by Robert Scheer:
There is method to the president's madness, as he spelled out in his press conference Friday, proclaiming that the prospect of government red ink is "incredibly positive news" because it will produce "a fiscal straitjacket for Congress." … … The plan is to bankrupt the national government so we can be reduced to life as it's lived in Texas, where the rich make out like bandits playing with public funds, as George W. did on that stadium deal, while the rest of the folks scramble. Texas politicians, including three presidents in the past 40 years, always make sure their companies are fed well at the Washington trough, even if it means going to war. Whatever the state of the federal budget, Bush is not going to be tight with the dollar when it comes to a bloated military, because big oil still needs that stick of U.S. military intervention to protect its investments abroad. Why else do we need a military big enough to fight two wars at once except to protect U.S. investments that stretch from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf? Think of it as a Social Security program -- or more accurately, welfare -- for military contractors and energy companies, led by Halliburton, where Dick Cheney hustled his quick millions.
While the words are themselves prescient, as well as true to the facts at the time, the most salient aspect of reading this is that two weeks after its publication “reality” would undergo a radical and permanent paradigm shift; September 11th would shake up our glassball world, and nothing would ever settle as it was prior. Those in power would choose not to view the event as “criminal”, but rather as an “act of war” – another paradigm shift. 9/11 would be usurped for enormous geopolitical plans of hegemonic and reality-shifting proportions. (See this article for some perspective.) What has transpired since then, from the Orwellian named Patriot Act to the recently discovered (though long ago implemented) Bush-authorized, NSA warrantless domestic wiretapping and surveillance, and innumerable paradigm-shifting political, nay stygian, malevolent, greedy, and jaw-dropping examples of hubris (think Abu Ghraib), as well as diabolical, if incompetent, designs as yet unfathomable – try to wrap your perception of reality around a “tactical nuclear strike” against Iran.
In 1975, the Italian writer and literary critic Umberto Eco, went on a tour of America to get a firsthand look at the imitations and replicas that were on display in the nation's museums and tourist attractions. Eco had become theorizing upon the tendency of modern society to re-create reality – realistic fabrications – in a way superior or more idealized than actual reality; a priori better than real. His resulting and brilliant essay, Travels in Hyperreality , examined the encroachment of simulacra upon the American landscape, with its apotheosis in the glittering hyperreality of Las Vegas – where fake and idealized New York City, Venice, and Paris, are just the tip of the iceberg of simulacrum. Within the length of the essay is a section entitled, The Fortresses of Solitude, from which this is a sample:
Two very beautiful naked girls are crouched facing each other. They touch each other sensually, they kiss each other's breasts lightly, with the tip of the tongue. They are enclosed in a kind of cylinder of transparent plastic. Even someone who is not a professional voyeur is tempted to circle the cylinder in order to see the girls from behind, in profile, from the other side. The next temptation is to approach the cylinder, which stands on a little column and is only a few inches in diameter, in order to look down from above: But the girls are no longer there. This was one of the many works displayed in New York by the School of Holography.
(The entire essay is linked to below.) The point of this inclusion here, is to illustrate that our culture as a whole has been tinkering with reality with alacrity in recent decades. Of course, this has been the entire reason for the existence of fiction, art (painting and sculpture), music, etc. I can think of no character in literature who understood this better than the aesthete Des Esseintes of Huysmans’, À Rebours, who organizes an elaborate funeral for his late virility:
In the dining room, hung in black & opening on the transformed garden with its ash-powdered walks, its little pool now bordered with basalt & filled with ink, its clumps of cypresses & pines, the dinner had been served on a table draped in black, adorned with baskets of violets & scabiouses, lit by a candelabra from which green flames blazed, & by chandeliers from which wax tapers flared.
To the sound of funeral marches played by a concelaed orchestra, nude negresses, wearing slippers & stocking of silver cloth with patterns of tears, served the guests.
Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup & eaten Russion rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice & blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape preserves, mulberries & black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out of dark glasses, wines from Limagnes, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas & Porto, & after the coffee & walnut brandy had partaken of kvas & porter & stout.
Perhaps, with the diurnal onslaught of mind-cracking news, coming at us from our phones, our televisions, our computers, all of which are beyond ubiquitous, an indulgence of the senses that celebrates the essential quality of an object or experience would seem liberating; certainly indulgent. How sad and pathetic, however, that we should have to look to 19th century literature to imagine such divine escape.
The struggle to maintain focus, within a political context, in an America that has been vanishing for decades, but that is in danger, under the Bush regime, of becoming extinct – a catastrophic paradigm shift – or at best, nothing imagined by the authors of the U.S. Constitution (who would have found these tendencies to be anathema).
I offer these examples as a place to begin a conversation about epistemology in the age of shifting sands, each granular translucence offering its own complete and unique world.
Reality in Desuetude
•Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (begin here)
•Eco’s essay Travels in Hyperreality (then go here)
•Regarding Iran: John Bolton, US envoy to the United Nations, told visiting British MPs:
“We can hit different points along the line. You only have to take out one part of the nuclear operations to take the whole thing down." (Not to mention: The likes of a John Bolton being confirmed to a position for which he is clearly the antithesis of its purpose…)
•Nuclear experts estimate that Iran is at least two and up to ten years away from production of a useable nuclear weapon. At the same time, Iran lacks the kind of up-to-date, long-range missiles or jet aircraft needed to hit even regional targets.
•Iran, however, is surrounded by nuclear powers: Russia, Pakistan and India. US forces based in Iraq almost certainly have nuclear weapons. Israel, moreover, is estimated to have around 200 nuclear weapons, and also has a large fleet of sophisticated missiles and aircraft capable of hitting Iran. (For an interesting, if I may say so, perspective on the historical background the U.S./Iran relationship, go here.)
•WASHINGTON (AFP) - The administration of President George W. Bush is planning a massive bombing campaign against Iran, including use of bunker-buster nuclear bombs to destroy a key Iranian suspected nuclear weapons facility, The New Yorker magazine has reported in its April 17 issue. The article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh said that Bush and others in the White House have come to view Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a potential Adolf Hitler. "That's the name they're using," the report quoted a former senior intelligence official as saying. A senior unnamed Pentagon adviser is quoted in the article as saying that "this White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war”. The former intelligence official depicts planning as "enormous," "hectic" and "operational," Hersh writes. One former defense official said the military planning was premised on a belief that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government,"
•Europe is now home to an estimated 20 million Muslims; a statistic accomplished in a mere three decades. Islam now threatens the preeminence of Christianity as a religion on the Continent. There are strident intellectual discussions of this phenomenon, and huge issue of assimilation, from several perspectives, many of which are, to say the least, controversial, but nevertheless studied, necessary, and very worthwhile. Contemplative discussions of the subject can be found here and here and here and here. (The last is a simple reference to a term used by Bat Ye’or, and will certainly offer a perspective that is anathema to some. Nevertheless, these sources are among many that need to be brought into the discussion for the sake of instigating an intellectual dynamic; a dialectical alternative to an all-out global war of civilizations. All of the above should be read again and again – the discussion should be as imperative as the subject.)
“Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile... a stain upon the silence.”
The stay-the-course-in-Iraq meme is part of a rhetorical network that itself is part of an intractable labyrinth devolving imperceptibly through advertising techniques into myth.
In order to grasp the power of motivation in myth, it is enough to reflect for a moment on an extreme case. I have here before me a collection of objects so lacking in order that I can find no meaning in it; it would seem that here, deprived of any previous meaning, the form could not root its analogy in anything, and that myth is impossible. But what the form can always give one to read is disorder itself: it can give a signification to the absurd; make the absurd itself a myth. (Roland Barthes, 1972)
To Be Continued…