Saturday, September 24, 2011

Seeing God: Morton to Latour to Harman to Bennett to Alexander to Greenfield to Darwin

There are great big worlds out there. If we get outside of the Enlightenment, of the Judeo-Christian system of a single truth, everything else being superstition or wrong, there’s a world that we can learn from, and there’s so much to learn.
—Dr. Sidney Greenfield

So, some months ago I read this Timothy Morton guy at Stanford’s Arcade and he gets me interested in object-oriented ontology, which is something of a shock as it’s in the Continental philosophical tradition, which I abandoned years ago, when I abandoned all philosophy (and literary criticism, too). What AM I doing reading this stuff? Well, as I’ve said here and there, I’m after graffiti, I’m after the ‘other side’ of literary understanding (it’s ‘other’ from my distinctly non-standard POV, but that other descends from the traditional humanistic criticism that I abandoned).

And so off I go traipsing through Latour, having a grand old time, and now I’ve started reading Bennett (Vibrant Matter) and Harman (The Quadruple Object) and, once again, it’s WTF!city. This stuff is, well, it’s Continental, that’s what it is. And as I read it I’m telling myself that’s how perception works, that’s what the brain is going. I’m psychologizing it. But they’re not talking about the mind, they’re talking about the world. And I know THAT. Heck, that’s why I’m reading this stuff. But do I HAVE to? Why? What’s it going to get me?
[Dude, you won’t know THAT until you get there, will you?

I suppose not.]
Ecstasy and Healing

Meanwhile, in over the transom, one Sharon Alexander Dreyfus tells me she’s read my essay-review of Benny Shanon’s Antipodes of the Mind and before you know it I’ve got an eCopy of her dissertation, Oh My God!!!!: Ecstatic ritual as examined through the evocative techniques of gospel choir, which is right up my alley, since music and ecstasy is something that, not only interests me, but that I’ve been through. Are you experienced? sings the hippy heavy blues metal psychedelic rock guitar-god musician.

And so I now ask: Morton, Harman, Bennett, are you experienced? Is that what drives you? Is that why you’re doing the evocative Continental Lindy on the shore of the River Jordan preparing to get ovah to the other side? Is that what this is about?

And Alexander leads me to Sidney Greenfield (one of her readers), an anthropologist I’ve met at Columbia a time or three. Here he talks with Harold Channer about his book, Spirits with Scalpels, which is about spirit healing in Brazil.

Somewhere in this interview you’ll see spirit healing at work. We’re not talking about the laying on of hands. No no, we’re talking about scalpels saws blood and intervention in the body without anesthesia and without pain. That works. The healer is in a trance channeling a spirit that’s doing the real work.

Whoah! Far out, dude!

Now at the end of that interview (starting at, say, 46:30) Channer and Greenfield mix it up. Channer goes all sciency—though sporadically non-mainstream science—and Greenfield’s saying: watch, listen, learn! Take it in. Bracket out all that science stuff.

Psychology, Philosophy

So, how do we philosophize THAT? I haven’t got the foggiest idea what to do about spirit healing. I’ve got half an idea what to do about mystical experience. The half I’ve got is the same half that lots of folks have, the psychological half. Now, if that’s ALL you’ve got, what happens is that the powerful noetic value of the experience is simply dismissed out of hand as some elaborate hiccup in the nervous system. And, I suppose, spirit healing is an elaborate hiccup in the nervous system/endocrine system/body.

That half is necessary, but not good enough methinks, not good enough by half. When it’s about the ordinary visual perception of, say, an apple, OK. The psychology seems adequate. Sure, the psychologists don’t have visual perception locked down, but it’s not deeply problematic either, not like seeing god. We know about apples, don’t we? They’re real physical objects out there in the world, aren’t they?

Well, when you read Harman and Bennett you think maybe those real physical apples out there in the world aren’t so simple qua real physical objects out there in the (real) world.

Is there a REAL out there when you see god or channel a healing spirit? When you’re not seeing the god or channeling the spirit, what’s it doing? Are they out there chatting with one another, and perhaps with the apple too?

American Politics on the Shore of the River Jordan in the 21st Century

And, you see, this all has implications deep for the blood and guts of contemporary American politics. For those politics have been deeply riven by fundamentalist Christians who reject Darwin and reject abortion. I don’t know what’s going on here. I’ve thought about it time and again, and it doesn’t make sense.

That others go about the world differently than I do, I’ve got that. What I don’t get is why these particular issues have been so divisive. I don’t understand the inability to live and let live, as it were. On all sides.

About abortion I’ll say nothing. As for Darwin, it’s my not-terribly-well-informed sense that the rejection of evolution is not theologically necessary. There are 35 ways of framing a Christian theology that’s OK with Darwin.

And yet that resistance and rejection is deeply entrenched, all but foundational. Why? Between you me and that fencepost over there, here’s what I think. Many American Children of the Enlightenment are contemptuous of religion—Bah! Humbug! Superstition!—and particularly so of fundamentalism. The fundamentalists know this, deeply. One of the ways they return the favor is by digging in on Darwinism. It’s a form of resistance, of protection.

I realize that, when I hypothesize this, I’m invoking one of those ‘hidden causes’ so characteristic of the Sociology of the Social and of which Latour is, rightly, suspicious. At the same time, I also suggest that perhaps the only way to heal this rift in the American body politic is for us Children of the Enlightenment to be more respectful, more mindful, of religion, and of religious fundamentalism. If you, fellow Children of the Enlightenment, think I’m crazy, well . . .

You might want to take a run through The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, by Robert William Fogel, 1993 Nobel Laureate in economics. He argues, with data, that American society is driven, shaped by, cycles of religious revival. How can you possibly shape American politics if you’re contemptuous of its deepest driving force?


  1. Amen brother! Hard to explain these experiences when one limits oneself to "science."

  2. So, Tim, somewhere you've said the OOO affords a 'configuration space' that has more options in it than atheism and theism. I'm thinking that developing that idea is VERY important.

    I've seen surveys here and there asserting that a majority of Americans, for example, have had 'mystical' experiences. The accepted higher-ed level culture can do little with such experiences; at best, it can psychologize them. It cannot admit noetic value for ANY of them.

  3. "If only because gravity is
    weight enough to observe

    how the sounds of soul survive
    this life of the body,

    silence of a life given
    yet to weep again, and be

    the tears wet with salt
    and anonymity."

    -- Sally J Benzon

  4. Bill said:
    ....."So, Tim, somewhere you've said the OOO affords a 'configuration space' that has more options in it than atheism and theism. I'm thinking that developing that idea is VERY important." ....

    I did a mental double take on this idea. It is exactly this that got me reading OOO and Tim's work on Hyper Objects. As if returning from some Psilocybin enriched night in the desert, feeling compelled to bring something back. A non-narrative experience of the other. As if atheism and theism are just surface films on some much larger object, commenting to us through cause and effect, reaching us through the ecstatic and the mundane.