The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

On Bullshit

by Mary Chino Cherry

In a famous moment from The Blues Brothers, Elwood Blues breaks down a vital concept for his brother Jake. Jake has just accused Elwood of lying to him while Jake was imprisoned, and Elwood responds “I just took the liberty of bullshitting you a little . . . . It wasn't lies. It was bullshit.”

Americans are, of all variations of the genus homo, perhaps the most prone to—or adept at—bullshitting as a way of life.

Alexis de Tocqueville notes that, even in the 1830s, the people of these United States were constantly on the make, uninterested in philosophy for its own sake, but fascinated in all that might make material differences in their circumstances. Tocqueville's insinuation that this was a flaw is, perhaps, prototypically French, but the fact that he devotes considerable real estate in Democracy in America to exploring it implies the opposite. Indeed, no American would seriously criticize another for wanting to do better for himself, even if that American was already rich. “Excessively wealthy” must, then, be considered the default synonym for “successful,” “happy,” “satisfied,” or any other conceivable positive status.

That we Americans want philosophy to bend toward bettering ourselves by fattening our wallets may get us into trouble, but, importantly, it's a good benchmark by which our devotion to bullshit may be measured. Rather than let Christian traditions about the sacraments of giving and living simply get in the way, we have re-created the faith as the “prosperity gospel” without a single stammer or blush. Put simply, Americans have forged Christ Hisself in the image of the charlatan, the adman, the salesman, the motivational speaker, the bullshit artist.

Americans fall for marketing strategies, bald-faced hype, and clever ads not because we're gullible, exactly, but because these things are different passages from the same American scripture. We recognize in those who speak them the words of Our One True Lord. To not fall for the come-on, to call the salesman on his bullshit, is something just shy of blasphemy; doing so places the bullshit-caller-on-er squarely in the category of pessimist, destroyer of the American Dream. In a broad-based transvaluation of values, the American bullshitter has become the American plain-dealer. He is fair because he is playing the game as, it is understood, it ought to be played: an attempt to gain advantage is the only admirable quality in the continual tournament of self-interest. Woe be to she who walks away or refuses to play the bullshit game.

It is this ethos that allows the right-wing—which correctly does represent “traditional” American values—to denigrate all “bleeding hearts” and feminists, “do-gooders” and regulators alike.

There is little more sobering to the spirit of bullshitting than she who is unafraid to point out its obvious and overpowering stench.

Friday, January 2, 2015

On Ceremony and Civilization

We've largely done away with ceremony in the Western World, and while there's a lot of merit in that, our ingrained need for ritualistic behavior bubbles up in other ways, often along the lines of what we used to ceremonialize: superstition, numerology, cleansing, purification, and the like. When someone washes her hands 100 times a day or flips the lights off and on 50 times before entering a room, some primal needs are being met, and often for the same reasons preindustrial cultures might dance the rain into existence or cleanse a new hut with sacred smoke: we all suffer basic anxieties over situations that are outside of our control.

That ceremonial and ritualistic behaviors are also means to make sense of the disturbing absurdities of everyday existence gets little attention in the psychological literature, and that hints at what truly ails us: we've placed sense-making squarely in the category of psychological disease because to acknowledge its true nature is to tacitly admit that our culture needs to be made sense of, that the basic absurdities, contradictions, and injustices of contemporary society are, in fact, those things, and our culture is not as well-ordered and normal as is generally assumed.

The same culture that justifies execution because murder is wrong, that promotes the violent death of unarmed minority men because a law officer feels threatened by the color of his skin, that blames poor people for being born poor, and rewards the destruction of the world economy by giving multi-million dollar bonuses to the destroyers is a culture that requires that no one question any of these injustices. It must have its assumptions shared by a preponderance of the population in order to function. Those who openly question or those who subsume social ills into psychological or bodily distress must, by the logic of keeping the system alive, be deemed sick, criminal, dangerous, and so on.

By this reckoning, acts of madness and acts of ritualistic behavior outside of the accepted ceremonies can also be considered acts of subversion.

This notion is reinforced when we look at which ceremonies we have decided to retain. Rather than relieving grief, restoring hope, or creating meaning, contemporary ceremonies are often occasions for reinforcing the existing social order. Even seemingly innocuous ceremonies such as graduations, formal weddings, and awards presentations follow similar patterns. The most powerful members of the representative organizations take literal power positions within the gathering area. They are placed high on podiums and stages, visually representing the organizational structure and dominating the scene. These powerful people control the sequence of events, bestowing “honors” on the peonage assembled below them. These “honors” are generally for those who exemplify obedience to the status quo. In order to accept the honor, you must also implicitly accept the power structure that bestows it.

During funeral services, the reach of the power structure is projected into a hypothetical afterlife: you die as you live, but now, in perpetuity, as a vassal of the system to which you bowed your entire dry and grinding life. The pastor or the priest is seldom present in order to celebrate a life or as someone who helps make sense of death; rather his role is as a reminder of He to whom your petty soul belongs, his pronouncements on the rightness of the order he represents. Thus we hear, along with the traditional bromides, such phrases as “God has His reasons,” but these reasons are rarely enumerated; it's an act of hubris to question what those reasons could be, much less whether nor not those reasons are valid or even exist. Into the breach of this mystery stands the pastor, whose earthly presence is sufficient reason for you to know—and accept—your place in the Holy Order: below and with head bowed and heart cowed.

And so ceremonies that those unburdened by civilization might have used as ways of bringing people together or as ways to help solidify an individual's importance to the group we corrupt into rituals of subjugation.