Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Myth of Estrangement

From the Immanence of Myth, available now through Weaponized Press.

“The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference…all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.” Jean Baudrillard

    We stand “outside the Garden,” as we said, estranged from ourselves. What does this estrangement mean? Where does it originate? What mythic repercussions does it have?
    Amongst the multiplicity of myths that have played themselves out through the history of the so-called Western world, there is a single idea that seems a prerequisite for all of them. The ideological history we discussed in Pretty Suicide Machine is the legacy of this simple valuation: the priests, scientists, and even artists painted the natural order as something which must be overcome, restructured, and dominated for personal, economic, or even spiritual progress to take place. This prefiguring idea amounts to an underlying assumption that structures the world that we know today. It is not an assumption that lies under all cultural heritages: most Native Americans, for instance, had no such concept in their mythic DNA. However, it would appear that cultures that do not maintain the necessity of mastery, control, and possession quickly become the possession of cultures that do, or they are simply driven into obscurity or even oblivion.1
    This is one of the premises explored at length by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “In thought, human beings distance themselves from nature in order to arrange it in such a way that it can be mastered.” Though this thesis is arrived at in part through only considering the negative function of myth, their point is valid nevertheless. Mastery of nature is far from the only valuation that shapes our heritage, but it is a ubiquitous one. The myth of ownership, the myths of social hierarchies, the myth of capital, individuality, freedom, and so on are all the true backbone of our culture, for better and worse, and all of them are informed by this valuation.

    As a result, our current corporate, mass-media culture owes itself, in part, to an ideology that poses itself against nature and the natural order. Though this valuation exists within these many seemingly disparate cultures, there is no singular source for this belief. You will find this ideology present in the religion of Zoroaster, Judaism, Manichaeism, Christianity, but that is not to say it is an instinct that only exists because these traditions gave them voice. No, it is more likely the other way around: these traditions happened to give voice to a tendency that human instinct already desired. The “civilized” world that was likely birthed from the Tigris and Euphrates was carved out of the body of God. We desired mastery, and it was made possible through our myths of conquest. As animals were made into livestock, myths arose which established a tradition of the subjugation of animals: God placed them on the Earth so that we might use them. Arising hand-in-hand with the institutionalization of agriculture were myths that contextualized mankind as the farmer. As a result, we selectively manipulated the genetic stock of the biosphere of the planet to match our needs, and our myths. It's plainly obvious that the metaphors employed the describe nature describe our prescribed place within it. Though we come ever closer to mastering the Earth itself, we have not mastered ourselves.
    While most people today are unaware of Zarathustra, all of us live in a world fashioned from these models. Though it is hard to say for sure, it seems reasonable that this core concept was transmitted throughout the ages via a sordid history of conquests, inquisitions, and other forced and unintentional cultural intermingling. In an evolutionary sense, the idea of the mastery and subjugation of nature seems to have been all too successful. It has replicated and survived conquest, subjugation, and genocide.
    A world where human civilization is held in tension against nature, where the purpose of humankind is to bringing light to the world in emulation of the warlike Father-god, changing a dark, wild chaos into a world of order through rational intention is also inevitably a world governed by the laws of rationality, with all of its blind spots.2 The history of the Church and of science is a sordid one; at times the two were opposed, yet this conflict was integral to both. Despite our beliefs about the conflict of science and Christianity, the two are essentially contentious brothers: science, the younger and more ambitious of the pair. Through this conflict, and the painful conquests and Diasporas that surrounded it, the myths of capitalism and industry were born.
    The progression of civilization, as we know it, the Classical age leapfrogging forward and giving birth to the Renaissance, and that giving birth to the Age of Reason, and that giving birth to the Industrial Revolution, and so on, has involved a process of re-learning, of modeling the complexity already existent in the natural world that we perceive around us. As we have explored in depth now, this modeling is done through representation, mythologization. This could reach a theoretical culmination, if such progress is teleological and not asymptotic; we could reach a point where we are able to successfully model and manipulate the complexities of the natural world, putting aside for a moment the problems of model dependence. Our invented models will allow us access to the secrets of the atom, the genome, time and space, consciousness itself. Does this Promethean process lead us closer to Godhood, or further from the Garden? Do we reach a point of complete alienation and isolation when we reach this theoretical singularity?
   It may appear that we're running the wrong way, away from nature, as we come to know it through the models we build to represent it. However, at this stage in our evolution, who can argue for a complete “return to nature” that would undo the benefits we've gained as a result, or that such a shift would be beneficial, or for that matter, even possible? Yet we must also take stock of the actual processes at work here, and shrug off the blind optimism of the Enlightenment mentality that still clings to the Western narrative of progress.
  This mastery of nature sculpted our so-called Western world-view. The American myth of the individual, the idea that an individual can change his social destiny, are the results of these underlying presuppositions as much as the hubris, corruption and unwitting bigotry which follows from them. The myth of the individual, so central to the Western myth of progress, (as it contrasts the ubiquitous, identical smiling faces of the Communist myth of progress, for instance), a myth so crucial for the development of the wonders that we have accomplished, is as flawed as any other. Like all myths, it distorts and deletes — inventing further myths in its own image, deleting what doesn't match. And like all personalities, a culture's myth is rendered unique as much by its perceived detriments as its virtues.
    How different would our culture be if we instead inherited it from the Jainist aphorism “Parasparopagraho Jivanam,” roughly translated to mean: “All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence”? Though Jainism isn't the only mythology that could logically be derived from this premise, all myths derived from this aphorism would be vastly different than those which seem to have an underlying belief in the credo “divide and conquer.”
    The cultural heritage of the so-called West carries more baggage with it: lurking beneath or perhaps alongside the sentiment of the superiority of our species and our culture is a myth of psychological estrangement and personal sin.
    This idea of estrangement is particularly worth highlighting. Though Christianity ostensibly did away with the need of a Priestly caste to act as an intermediary between man and God, this ideology was quickly brushed under the carpet as the Catholic Church rose to power. Thus the early Judaic idea of estrangement or exile remained — along with this growing belief that the physical world itself was a sort of purgatory from the union with God. Obviously, this myth germinated in the cultural soil of a people who were constantly being kicked out of their chosen homeland(s). This belief most likely begins with one of the oldest monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism, which originated somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries BCE in or around what is modern day Afghanistan.
    In these early monotheistic traditions, God took the role of an absolute Other, which makes a genuine relationship impossible: communication depends on commonality. Our relationship to this Other may be supplication to the extreme forces of nature, or the absence felt of a lost or estranged lover. It is, regardless, a feeling of estrangement from the source. This is even implied in the etymology of the word Religion, as we explored already.
     To the Zoroastrians, he was Ahura Mazda, the source of wisdom pitted against the evil of the world. Mazda was possibly derived from the Assyrian God Ashur, patron God of Assur, who in the Assyrian version of the Enuma Elish slays Tiamat, rather than Marduk. This is of interest because, as we have already explored, the Enuma Elish details the slaying of chaotic nature to make way for the world of man, rather than being a myth pertaining to our place within nature.
    This is further driven home by the fact that, to an even greater extent than the Christian God or Judaic Yahweh, Ahura Mazda is not immanent. He exists elsewhere and we know him through his intermediaries. Yahweh or Jehovah was raised from the position of a somewhat secondary war or sky God to the position of supreme overlord who said “no Gods before me.” Manichaeism, a slightly later development which at one time was the most widespread religion in the world, further emphasizes the contrast of light and dark. Though the realm of sole father God is not prominent, here we see the idea that the “light” is the soul, and the “darkness” is the body, the material. In other words, evil is embodied in nature. All of these ideas should seem rather familiar to those who are at all aware of Christian cosmology.
    To hoi polloi, these myths re-enforce the social paradigm of patriarchy; God became a father-figure so elevated that we could only follow his commands, but never understand him. To attempt to relate to this absolute, estranged Father-God, one can only cry up to the heavens in hope of a response that cannot come but through an intermediary — half divine himself — thus sharing a part of our essence and part of his. It is in response to this need for an intermediary that Jesus, historic figure that he may be, took on the mythic resonance of an age, simultaneously adopting many of the elements of the male agrarian regenerative Gods that the Israelites had discarded. As the Christian cult grew from its early antinomian days into an institution, (most notably after the Council of Nicea and subsequent Nicene Creed), their leadership developed many political tools out of their myths. An example of this is the political leverage of Original Sin, and as a result of the historic and mythic resonance of this belief, we have this revolt against nature which has been with us for the duration of Western Civilization. This is not a linear progression but rather a series of feedback loops, which moves temporally in one direction, but with resonances that can cross cultural boundaries, even inexplicably occur simultaneously in geographically disparate locations.
    We are all often guilty of missing very obvious connections because we compartmentalize and label the world so thoroughly. It would be very easy to see these ideas of ownership and exile as a phenomenon relegated strictly to the religious sphere, as if such a “sphere” actually existed. The fact is that this valuation, like all of our sub and semi- conscious myths, color the way we view the world so profoundly that we're bound to miss it.
    By way of example, consider this idea of the “exile from nature” when you next visit a supermarket. Look at the “meat products,” homogenized, packaged and ordered in neat rows. How divorced is this meat from the process of killing, or from the life of the animal that provides it? What kind of effect has the ideology of industry had on the way that we prepare and consume food? In the industrial context, food is simply fuel for the human machine. The very physical buildings through which such products are sold further emphasize our consumer worldview, while downplaying the elements that are at odds with its underlying mythology. The psychology of a specific desire is analyzed, reduced to common denominators, and presented in manifest, profane form: the supermarket. (Cue dramatic music.)  
    In the abstract, this is an idea we've returned to time and again, yet as it may at first seem hard to trace the line from ancient sky Gods to our dinner table, it is worth underlining. The natural world is all that is. As such, we are in many ways at war with our own nature to the extent that we attempt control: chewing down, regurgitating, restructuring, reclaiming, building a world in our own image. “It is through mastery that reality can be tamed.” This was the cry of peasants and kings, evangelical zealots and boardrooms, not a divine decree. (See also: The Mythology of Business, Part 1, which takes up where this leaves off.)

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