Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Mythology of Estrangement

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 advancement 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: the Native Americans, for instance, have 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.
    This idea is 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." (pg. 31) 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, Manicheaism, Christianity, but that is not to say it is an instinct that exists only 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. As we explored in Immanence #1, the "civilized" world, the 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. We come ever closer to mastering the Earth, but we have not mastered ourselves. For this, the Earth suffers.
    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 sordid history of conquests, inquisitions, and other forced and un-intentional cultural interminglings. In an evolutionary sense, this idea seems to have been all too successful in terms of replication and survival.
    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. The history of the Church and of reason 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 brothers: science, the younger, more impetious and ambitious of the pair. Through this conflict, and the painful conquests and diasporas that surrounded it, the myths of capitalism and industry were born.
    This mastery of nature sculpted our so-called Western world-view. It gave us the best and the worst of what we have in our present day society. The American myth of the individual, the idea that an individual can change his 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 in our society, and 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.
    This heritage carries more baggage with it: lurking beneath 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. Again, Dialectic of Enlightenment echoes this sentiment: “Enlightenment is more than enlightenment: it is nature made audible in its estrangement.” (pg. 31) 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). "The dispersal of the Jews began with Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and the deportation of its inhabitants to Babylon. After Rome's destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.E., its annexation of Egypt in 6 C.E. excluded Alexandria's large Jewish community from the privileges accorded to citizens, and Jews suffered two expulsions from Rome itself." (Kiernan, pg. 3, Blood and Soil).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. 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 YHVH, Ahura Mazda is not immanent. He exists elsewhere and we know him through his intermediaries. YHVH 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. 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 the average individual, 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 part of our essence and part of his. It is of course 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 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 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. For instance, it would be very easy to see this 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 now provides it? What kind of effect has the ideology of industry had on the way that we prepare and consume food? The very structure through which such products are disemminated from further emphasize our consumer worldview, while downplaying the elements that are at odds with its underlying mythology. This is a point that we have 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, modern man is in many ways at war with his own nature.


  1. James, bravo. This kind of writing needs to not only flourish where it grows, but spread seeds across this world. (When I put finger to keyboard, I really didn't mean to express such a trite metaphor, but it's right, nonetheless.)

    Your writing inspires me. This area on the edge of linquistics, literature, art, science, religion, psychology, etc., is where, to use an old phrase, "it is at."

    In short, thanks.

  2. Happy you're liking it. Check out previous posts and stay tuned. :)



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