Utility, Again

George Will has a piece, reproduced today by National Review Online, comparing how American billionaires lived a hundred years ago to how Americans of all means live today. It’s a particularly weak piece, something that could have been written by the ordinary third-grade American after two, maybe three, google searches, and as such, it underscores a fundamental weakness with political and social thinking which seems to have come to prevail in Western institutions.

In the first place, this is a game that can be played forever, straight back to Adam and Eve, who had to sew clothing from fig leaves, until God showed them the advanced technology of sewing clothes from animal skins, complete with a pocket for their iPhones, so they could text each other after Cain killed Abel. “Now r u srry” “U 8 2.” Moreover, you can extend this forward into perpetuity, considering that technological progress has never been stopped (I can’t even think of an epoch where technological progress was slowed). In a hundred years, what marvels of progress would make George Soros, Bill Gates, and <insert other world business magnates whose names I couldn’t care less to remember> beneath the paupers of that age, for want?

In the second place, Will, as so many do, misses the point entirely. Let’s run the third-grade trope both directions: would you give up your iPhone for a billion dollars in 1916? Answer: never, because dentistry, health care, suffrage, civil rights, centralized heating and air-conditioning, electricity, and easily accessible Swedish Death Metal, all of which mark the ease of our lives in these present days.

Oh? Would you give up your iPhone and also your mediocrity for a Fifth Avenue penthouse overlooking New York City, with the mayor of New York City a mere handmaiden, whose significance to you is his opening the door for you so that Presidents, Kings, Warlords, and every other kind of power might call upon you? Yes, a thousand times: yes, yes, I would.

That game also goes backwards into perpetuity. I’d give it all away to go back to the relative squalor of 16th Century England so that I could celebrate the beheading of my Queen, Anne Boleyn, that faithless daughter-producing, miscarrying witch, with a party and a wedding engagement. To be King Herod, who with a whisper, would avoid the embarrassment of reasoning with a mere girl in front of my important guests by bringing my friend’s head in as a gift for her on a platter, because her mother was some kind of lover. Or as Ghengis Khan, I would roll over the steppes to conquer and conquer and conquer some more. Sayonara, iPhone.

I’ll take a lot less, in fact: if I could be an important figure in the politics of the City of Tonawanda, with the ear of the mayor, and, with his ear, the possibility of my name on a plaque near the foot of a new bridge in town, and the attendant honor handed down as a legacy to my fine sons and their children–if so, then, again, yes, the squalor of squatting in an outhouse in exchange for all this mediocrity.

Yes, I get it, George: we, the mediocre, live better than kings of yesteryear. So it could have been said in 1917 of 1817. But what is it to live so comfortably? I’m so content I’m bored to depression! To have lives in my hands, numbers who look to me for livelihood and inspiration, sycophants vying to win my gracious eye: that is living! No billionaire, millionaire, or any other kind of power honorific -aire would ever trade his worth in the more squalid epochs of history for my unimaginably richly appointed bungalow on an undistinguished street in the City of Tonawanda, New York, USA.

Don’t Look Down

My father believes that the 21st century by necessity will be a metaphysical age. Our tacit metaphysics so divides us from one another and from the world, that we will have to find our way back again. I do not doubt that a new, great unified metaphysical framework may bloom. As to its necessity—I wonder.

For a long time, as a devoted believer in the philosophy of David Hume, I thought that “metaphysics” was simply the highest form of rationalism; a word that must always be said with a sneer. Metaphysics is synonymous with hubris, with the folly of man leaping over an open cliff with no real hope of reaching the other side.

A greater appreciation of history has helped me to see that Hume’s anti-metaphysics metaphysics, and the sorts of metaphysics it was aimed against, tend to run together. For every Plato and Aristotle there is a Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, for every Hume there is a Kant—or more to the point, a Hegel.

Today, the echoes of the Hegelian and Marxist projects, as well as the anti-metaphysical positivist ones, are all we are left with. They have fallen into ruin, but their ghosts continue to haunt us as the most recent of such projects to be taken up. Behind them we see the long reach of their predecessors; the continental rationalists and the English-speaking empiricists.

But in this accounting we leave out a very different sort of project. We can see it in the phenomenological and hermeneutical schools in Germany, and in the “ordinary language” philosophy in England. Its most prominent figures are Heidegger, whose putrid prose and National Socialist politics left a foul odor on the enterprise, and Wittgenstein, who made his name through a cold formalism he subsequently abandoned for the enchantment of language.

These thinkers were not so much metaphysical or anti-metaphysical as mystical. Their critics would agree, for positivists, Hegelians, rationalists and empiricists alike can think of no higher insult to a thinker than the accusation of mysticism.

But mysticism is not here meant as an insult, but as an appreciation for ineradicable mystery. Heidegger’s forgetting of Being can be seen as the inevitable result of attempting such an eradication. In seeking to remove all mystery, we simply fence our attention into specific areas and soon forget that a whole world exists beyond them. As Wittgenstein put it:

It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…”—and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.

A serious commitment to truth accepts that unconcealing some aspect of it necessarily involves some other aspect falling back behind the veil. Total unconceilment, Hegel’s great promise, is not available to frail, finite beings such as ourselves.

And yet there is wisdom, there is truth—even moral truth—immanent in life. It is not really grasped through theory, though theory does play a partial but important role in the life of such truths. These truths are best approached cautiously, sketching them out as living phenomena rather than attempting to reduce them to some formula.

Poetry and storytelling are beyond compare as methods for approaching these truths. It is precisely their indirect, figurative, and suggestive nature that leaves them open to vastly more than direct examination allows. More than even poets and storytellers are capable of realizing they have captured.

I don’t think anyone has any trouble seeing and feeling this when they aren’t taking the stance of philosopher or scientist. As children, stories seem to have a simple meaning. As we age, we notice meanings in familiar stories that we had missed the first time. The danger is to suppose we have finally grasped all of the meanings, or that we are capable of doing so. True adulthood requires an acceptance of the multitudes forever beyond our reach. This acceptance must be paired with a faith that such multitudes exist at all.

Metaphysics, and even anti-metaphysics, has its place. But living in the world requires a deep seated belief in its enchantment. In practice, we are all mystics.

But He Will Rule You

Mary Ellen was always pretty as a girl, and she knew it coming through grade school. She kept the boys enthralled with a wit that drew them close and kept them at bay, like Redbones on the scent without a command to hunt. “You might be tall, Hugh Johnson,” she told him, “so tall the Lord God couldn’t reach up to put any brains in your head.” When she blossomed, they howled. Right then she determined not to marry in her town because they knew her too well.

In the next town they ached for her. The other young ladies frowned severely, each trying to look through the back of her gentleman’s head, whose neck was twisted dangerously, too tight, you might say, if you understand what I mean by that frown. They puzzled, too, wondering how a girl without much in the way of physical attributes could twist every neck in town. Was it her dress? Her shoes? Her hair? Her money? All were the same as theirs. In fact, nothing about her stood out except her glow, and when she smiled: oh, my…

Was there a man in town made for her? In fact there was a man every young lady hoped she was made for. He was Jeremiah Fenton, Jeremiah, Jr., in fact, the son of Jeremiah, Sr., who was the owner of Fenton Construction, a contracting outfit interested in new home builds, garage builds, remodels, and general home repair. As for Jeremiah, Jr., he was a savvy businessman himself, right out of high school, having the good sense to listen to his father, who had built up that business before the war, during those dark times of the Great Depression, then holding on until the soldiers came home. The soldiers listened to him, and then to his son, whom he taught the business.

It didn’t hurt that Jeremiah, Jr. was the very definition of strapping, with shoulders broad and proud. Good humor tinged everything Jeremiah said and did, so that even when he made a mistake, a customer could point it out with equal good humor such that whatever was lacking was made right without much fuss for either party. “If I had used a bigger hammer,” Jeremiah said to Willy Gaithers, “I might have had to build you a new sun room on the back of your house.” Willy Gaithers laughed while Jeremiah’s crew plastered over the hole Jeremiah had made while putting some finishing nails in the trim Willy Gaithers wanted around his windows.

Jeremiah took the blame, but everyone knew (because Willy Gaithers told everyone) what really happened was Jeremiah discovered a leak in the roof which had rotted away one of the wall studs next to the window frame. He climbed up on the roof, found the problem, fixed it, figured out a way to replace the stud without taking out the whole wall, then patched the greater hole that had formed anyway. In other words, everyone knew that not only was Jeremiah an honest businessman, he was generous.

When he saw Mary Ellen out of the corner of his eye, his neck twisted so hard that he was forced to let go of Martha Johansenn’s hand and pursue Mary Ellen’s. “Aha!” he declared. “At last! I have a woman who is for me!” Mary Ellen thought that was nice, and she told her folks, and her folks met with his folks, and the two towns were, on the wedding day, brought together in the union of this man to this woman. It was a match made in heaven, and everyone treading that ground knew it, and they smiled under the blessings of God.

It wasn’t that Mary Ellen was dissatisfied with the money; she wanted the prestige. While the two towns waited for progeny to embody the union, Mary Ellen lay awake at night crafting a plan to attain an upper middle class lifestyle, and from there, to step into the elite class, replete with its invitations to invitations, invitations to socialize in air-conditioned buildings up off the ground and away from the people of the land.

She said, “You should think about commercial construction. There’s a building boom going on.”

“You mean business buildings?” Jeremiah, Jr. shared with Jeremiah Sr. his misgivings.

“Can’t get comfortable,” said Jeremiah Sr. “There ain’t no such thing, not in construction. You can grow the business out or you can grow it up.”

“I’m going to need a construction manager,” he said to himself. “And a loan.”

What made Mary Ellen leave her town to make a union in Jeremiah’s town made her make Jeremiah leave his deliberations and take out a loan. A tax accountant advised them to stay liable for the money instead of sheltering it in a corporation. Something about equipment depreciation. Jeremiah barely understood. Mary Ellen guided his hand onto the bottom line. “This is our house, too,” he said.

The money froze the marriage. Progeny were not possible.

Jeremiah doused his God-given natural desire by gulping down Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey, a habit that made him a little unpleasant in the mornings, which made his hired hands a little displeased in doing their work, and they made mistakes. He roared at them, and they quit. While he was watching them leave, the bank tapped him on the shoulder, demanding to know just what in God’s name happened to those contracts to build additions, wings, wards, and extensions to hospitals, churches, department stores, and supermarket groceries.

The bankruptcy judge was perfunctory and cold. He didn’t even shake his head in disappointment. Mary Ellen was in the truck outside the courthouse, waiting for Jeremiah. He hopped in without a word. She was in tears. “We still have each other, don’t we?” she asked. He stared straight ahead, with his jaw clenched. Mary Ellen fixed her eyes upon her man, Jeremiah, Jr., waiting for a word from a him, that he might treat her as his bride. At a stoplight near their house, which now belonged to someone else, Jeremiah turned to his wife, and with all the strength he had in his broad shoulders to maintain his calm, he uttered, “This is all your fault.”

The light turned green and he turned his attention to the task of driving home.

Where was home?

Melting Away

Insofar as Reformation theology relies on this principle in interpreting Scripture, it remains bound to a postulate that is itself based on a dogma, namely that the Bible is itself a unity.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

I have recently begun to read Jacobin Magazine, as a scout might enter the boundaries of an enemy encampment. A few days ago they posted a review of Marx’s Inferno, a book I had seen mentioned in my web community a few times. The central conceit of the book, apparently, is that Marx used the basic structure of Dante’s Inferno in the way he unfolded his arguments in the first volume of Capital.

The critic is charmed by this analysis, and thinks it’s pretty compelling, but believes the author makes a fundamental mistake:

My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works. He does so on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive. I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.

The author responds:

[I]t is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.”

He locates their difference of interpretation in their model of Marx. The critic views Marx as an “explainer” who is distilling his findings to a broader audience.

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

One of the crucial questions in phenomenology and hermeneutics is what the relevant horizon of meaning is, within which some specific text is given its sense. The critic argues that Marx’s entire body of work, published and unpublished, trumps any one work standing on its own. The author, by contrast, argues that the public field into which volume 1 was published provides the most appropriate context.

“Horizon” refers to boundaries, but like the horizons of vision they do not bound all that could be seen. Marx’s other works are connected to yet others; ones that are directly mentioned in the texts as well as ones that were influential but did not get mentioned. And those texts, of course, were influenced by yet others, many of which Marx never read himself. And out and out.

The same holds for the disagreements and controversies he was responding to. If you had asked Marx to set out and draw a circle around the participants in these scholarly and political conversations, he could not have. He may have drawn it around the people he himself had read, or at some arbitrary point beyond them. But any participant would form a link to others, who formed links to others, going back to before any of the current participants were alive. If you look too hard, the “conversation” disappears into history itself.

The speech act theorist J. L. Austin described how the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife” have, beyond their locutionary effect or semantic meaning, a perlocutionary effect; they are “doing something” rather than just “saying something.” They are effecting a change in status, from single to married, with all that entails within the specific speech act community. But it can go wrong—what if it turns out the officiant was lying about being licensed? Or if the couple never filed for a wedding license? In order to know whether the speech act took effect, “it is important to take the speech-situation as a whole.”

But how can we do this? What is the whole speech-situation? Jacques Derrida replied that because context is boundless, we cannot possibly know enough of it to determine if we have learned all of the relevant context. The speech-situation is too large, the relevant details too hidden behind the horde of irrelevant ones. If you stare at the speech-situation too long, it too melts away, deconstructed without mercy.

What are we to do? If we need the whole to interpret the part, and the whole is either infinite or in any case too large for human comprehension, then can we interpret anything?

We can, but in doing so we are walking on air. Like Marx we do not have a “fully-worked out” framework in our “back pocket.” Nor is our horizon of meaning made up solely of the specific texts we have read and conversations we have had. The authors of the texts we have read, the interlocutors in the conversations we have had, and we ourselves, have what Gadamer referred to as “historically-effected consciousness.”

We bring our prejudices to the texts we read and the conversations we have. These prejudices are shaped most directly by “our place within a historical series of persons” with whom we have already interacted. But these people are, as mentioned, influenced in turn, and under scrutiny the influence ultimately melts into the many currents of history. The currents are fluid, but we, with our prejudices in this moment, are concrete. We take concrete actions, come to concrete understandings and establish concrete relations. We engage in concrete practices that form the basis of concrete communities.

Or so it feels to us, and so it must for us to carry on. We’re aware that there are peripheries to these communities, we may even be aware how vague and porous they are. But many imagine they could find reasonable boundaries, if they had the time and inclination to perform a systematic study of the matter. They are wrong, but that hardly matters. They recognize the game, they recognize and are recognized by the players, and that is enough—enough for books to be written and read and understood, enough for men and women to marry, “putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties.” Enough to be active in the community of scholars, of gamers, of young mothers in the neighborhood.

Except for when people do attempt a systematic study. Our understanding of social space is implicit, similar to our understanding of how to navigate a familiar neighborhood without a map. But unlike physical geography, attempts to map our implicit social space influence the very thing under study. And so those theorists who approach the study of community with the prejudice that there is an essential, rational meaning of the word, and that each community is discrete and can be mapped, may end up doing a lot of damage along the way. That, in any case, is the story of the 20th century’s great tragedies, perpetuated by men who imagined themselves to be social engineers and scientists.

When you approach the question of community as an engineer or scientist, the experience of community melts away entirely. Cold, logical axioms are all that remain, taking the place of authentic understanding.

Ploenipotentiary Representation

Or: In The Beginning Was The Chicken or The Egg

One of nature’s wonderful delights, for those of us who are easily amused, is a kitten chasing her tail. Is it an evolutionary impulse which causes the kitten to lie in a soft sunny place for the purposes of, after resting, training herself in the finer arts of feline pursuit? Perhaps it is, in the genius that is Evolution, a polyvalent delight, a telos achieved in the now for the kitten and also for the young mother who is nursing her child, bored out of her gourd, and a little tired, receiving peace and comfort from the kitten who is chasing her tail.

The kitten’s training exercises now complete, she wanders off into her patrols, seeking where she may to find a way out, but all the windows and doors are screened off, and every way out is simply another way in, but around the house she goes, patrolling. Young Mother rises, compelled by boredom to seek where she may to find a way out of her gourd, so, after tightening the bonds which secure her baby into her bosom on this fine spring day, she loosens the bonds which secure the screens closed against the kitten’s absconding.

It is a neighborhood into which Young Mother escapes, planted by city fathers in 1925, somewhere in-between the timber boom and the industrial boom. It is now 92 years later, enough time for a child to have been born, lived, married, produced children and careers, fought in wars, survived economic and marital hardship and change, grown weary, grown old, and perhaps has died or is about to die, given the mortality tables nowadays. It is not just a generation, but an entire lifespan which has waxed and waned.

There is womanly chattering nearby, a grandmother and a mother and Young Mother and a toddler or two, with the occasional automobile passing by, recognized or not. What is the conversation? It is of the weather, of politics, of family relations, of occupation, of career, of local government, of gardens, of school, of transportation, of–

Just what distinguishes 1925 from 2017?

–of hopes and dreams? I think not. Hopes and dreams are not for casual conversation out in the open, where there are no fences. –of hopes and dreams dashed? I think so.

“That worthless husband of mine…”

When Sheila’s man moved out, there was a ripple through the community, and the rest of us made adjustments, trying to be nice to her children while also warning our own children that there would be trouble, hoping to convince the children both of the particular kind of trouble, because who knows what kind of trouble comes from deep-seated emotional consuming fires which are kindled by divorce? And also that our children should be faithful to their friends in kindness and in deed, actual friends, not mere playmates. On the other hand, there was an envy, palpable, depending on who you talked to: Sheila had become free of her man, the asshole. I must admit, however, he was good to me, just tall and a little rough, and, I think, probably immature in certain ways. Maybe. I’m not sure.

Who said it? Who said, “That worthless husband of mine…”? Not Sheila. She never uttered an unkind word about her man. She rarely spoke of him at all, in fact, and her liberation from him was de jure, at least as far as we all could observe. The de jure declaration had more of an effect on us than the de facto reality she was living had on her. No, the others, namely, grandmothers, mothers, Young Mother, uttered those words, and regularly.

When the time of conversation comes to a close, Young Mother looks at Other Young Mother, knowing that an emotional bond has been forged, a strong bond, probably unbreakable (except by circumstance, which comes by chance and cannot be accounted for), but also knowing that Other Young Mother is about to go into her domicile to interact with her own man. It’s time for Young Mother to return to her own domicile, to make the life that she and her man agreed to make, an agreement forged in utter and absolute freedom, and witnessed, gazed upon by mother and father and mother and father. In these days, there are a few attachés via divorce and remarriage, and also illegitimacy, but the ties that bind are mother and father and mother and father, even if the ones who occupy those offices are destructive, and the attaché has no authority beyond helpful advice and good counsel, or unhelpful and bad.

“That worthless husband of mine…” An utterance she received from her mother many times. Young Mother thinks of her own utterances to the same effect. “By the power invested in me…” is the other utterance which engages, in fact which ended the engagement, putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties, not just an utterance, but a declaration, with authority, “…I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Is it an evolutionary impulse which causes nearly every other house in the neighborhood to be occupied by those under authority? And by what authority to bind together those whose binding would be in various stages of decay?

Young Mother, closing the door to the neighborhood behind her, finds the kitten asleep, having finished for the time being her patrols for freedom. The infant awakens, hungry, and Young Mother returns to utter boredom, nourishing her offspring. And her husband’s.

Wilderness Wandering

Matthew presents Jesus wandering in the wilderness, sent by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil, who is introduced to the narrative as The Tempter. Traditionally, the Church has liturgically connected the temptation of Jesus to the temptation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) and, subsequently, to Paul’s discourse on Adam contrasted to the One Man (Romans 5). Sometimes the Church has paired the temptation with David slaying Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Thus the Church generally has understood the temptation of Jesus to be an embodiment of some other significant event, drawing it out of its historical bonds of unbelievable, legendary, indeed, mythical storytelling, into the cosmic realm of timeless applicability.

Even so, it appears Matthew is guiding his reader to pair the temptation of Jesus with the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. In fact, if you read it this way, the wilderness wandering is transformed from being a tale of rebellion and grace–or a tale of mere rebellion and grace–to a full development of the struggle of the One Man against the satanic forces. Israel, indeed, is the One Man.

I am reminded of my first religion course, in which I enrolled as a wee lad of eighteen, fully knowledgeable in all things, offended that I had to convince a soulless institution of that fact. As a lifelong church goer, what in the bible could I possibly not know? A merciful professor was he, and he heaped mercy upon me and those like me with a quiz, a quiz given one week before the final exam. This quiz stood as the first and only mark going into the final exam. Of the ten questions submitted to us, a simple reading comprehension quiz, I was able to answer only one. Therefore, I was going into the final exam–pardon me–The Final Exam with a mark of ten percent, far below my expected A plus plus plus. Sufficiently chastised, I went to my dorm room, fetched my bible from its place on the floor behind the university-supplied bookshelf, tore off the cellophane wrapping, cracked open the spine, and read the sections our tender-hearted professor had assigned.

After the exam, which I managed to pass with ease, I stayed to speak with the professor, excited by the narratives which had engaged me for the first time in memory. “Boy,” I said. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”

I had in mind all their sins and rebellions which commenced almost immediately after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. “Yahweh is a mighty warrior!” they cried out in exultation. “He has thrown the horse and its rider into the sea!” They rejoiced and celebrated this victory given to them by the Lord with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, rejoicing, at least for the moment, before they turned to face their new freedom, this life in the visible presence of a personal and fiery God.

“Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh back in Egypt, where we sat beside meat pots, and we ate bread to our fill!” This is how they remembered the Iron Furnace: meat pots and bread, all the comforts of home, not the cruel slave drivers forcing them to make bricks without straw.

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes out of the mouth of God.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, failing to trust God. But are they condemned? The One Man received bread from heaven. “What is it?” they called it, the substance which was like a wafer made with honey, a down payment on the milk and honey they were about to inherit.

But not without more temptation. God called Moses up to the mountaintop to talk about this arrangement of God dwelling in his destructive glory in the very midst of the people, that is, they talked of building a protective tabernacle to shelter the Israelites, but of such a kind that God might be there in plain view. Well, an arrangement like that is going to take some time to hammer out, forty days, in fact, a type of the forty days of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The Israelites became terribly impatient and built for themselves an idol. They threw off all inhibition and threw a party for this golden calf.

This one stung God. He told Moses that he wasn’t going to go with them. Moses, of course, interceded, begging God to come with them or else they would all die, and then what would the nations say?

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the pinnacle of this Temple. “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, putting their God to the test with this bacchanal to an idol they made with their own hands, and a series of other tests, known as the Bronze Serpent, the Rebellion of Korah, the Complaining at Meribah, the Twelve Spies, and many more. Even Moses managed to test his God so that he earned himself a ban from entering the Promised Land. But are they condemned? God listened to Moses, and after the tabernacle is constructed, he descended from his heights to dwell in the midst of the One Man, fully revealed in his glory, leading them personally to their Promised Land.

But not without more temptation. On the cusp of inheriting the Promised Land, the Moabite women came calling. They must have been absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, sweet as honey, nice as pie. All the Israelites had to do to eat their peaches was to bow down to their gods. Without hesitation, they did eat and they did bow the knee to the Moabite gods. Twenty-four thousand Israelites were struck with plague and died.

All these nations and all their glory I will give to you if you throw yourself down and worship me. “Begone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, bowing the knee to the gods of the nations. But are they condemned? The One Man enters the Promised Land, and the process of inheritance begins in full force, with Yahweh the mighty warrior picking up where he left off at the Red Sea.

How disappointing to The Tempter! All that evidence, and the witness of heaven and earth to the red-handed sinners, but no condemnation! How can this be?

“Boy,” I said to my professor. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”

He looked at me through little round glasses, thick-lensed, which caught the fluorescent classroom lighting in such a way that his eyes always looked like they were laughing, but his countenance was otherwise stern, projecting dour and trustworthy wisdom.

“David,” he said. “The Israelites paint a picture of your heart. You are the Israelites. The Israelites are you.”

I slumped into my chair. My life was changed.

In this way I see the world and everything that goes on in it.

In the wilderness with Jesus is in the wilderness with the Israelites, distilled to forty days for intensity: the stakes are not a little Ancient Near Eastern nobody people with a bizarre blood cult, the stakes are all the nations of the world.

It’s Academic

Recognition is performed. Its meaning is determined by the context of the performance. This gives it an elusive quality, difficult to generalize out of particular settings.

Consider the academic department. Wallace Stanley Sayre famously said that “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” As a student in an MA program in economics, I had a very small window into it. Mostly through the gossip of the PhD students, for whom it was a practical concern. It amazed me how a few dozen people could organize into so many factions.

The games that were played were largely determined by larger communities than the particular department—academia and the field of economics. You published papers and you taught students, some of whom you took under your wing. My school was a bit unusual in the degree to which blogging and writing books for popular audiences were recognized as legitimate work, rather than sideshows. A popular book that made a big splash could elevate a professor’s status in the department, which I have been led to believe is not the norm.

A lot of the moves that professors made in these games were characteristic of the department rather than the larger communities. Ronald Coase, F. A. Hayek, and Gordon Tullock were recognized as authorities whose work could lend strength to your argument, for example. But a lot of moves were recognizable signs that you belonged to a specific faction.

One of the factions was extremely tightly knit compared to the rest. Their canonical texts were more uniformly selected, their shared scholarly language distinct. They rotated around a single central Sun, who had a handful of former students within the department in the closest orbit. An alumni who was not of this particular faction joked that to gain the career benefits from it, you had to burn their brand onto your forehead. The members went out of their way to make themselves recognizable, not only as members of the department but members of their faction first and foremost.

Repeated failure to recognize the moves, or even the games, that someone is playing, will eventually lead to lack of recognition of membership in the community. Tenure complicates that equation. One tenured professor was playing games so clearly different from his colleagues that he was out in the wilderness, as far as the community was concerned. He did not participate in their games and they did not participate in his. Nevertheless, all recognized his claims to a salary and an office, as well as his responsibility to teach classes.

Context is key. The department is a particular community, but so is the field of economics, as well as the vocation of university professor. Economics professors in different factions or employed at different universities would recognize one another as fellow travelers at a wedding where neither knew any of the guests. An economics professor and an English professor would probably find something to commiserate about in that situation as well.

In the specific setting of a given department, economists who seem quite close together from an outsider’s perspective may refuse to recognize one another as fellows. You’re one of them, the ones taking the department down the wrong path. At the wedding, the same person is someone who can talk about something actually interesting, and they are recognized as such.

I originally approached the question of recognition to get at a different question: just what is a community? My tentative reply was: a community is a group of people who recognize one another as players in a set of games which they also recognize, and are capable of recognizing the potential moves in those games.

Recognition and community exist, then, in a hermeneutic circle: community cannot exist without recognition, but recognition lacks sense without the context provided by community. Whether you’re in the department with one group of people, or at a wedding with another, bounds what you’re capable of recognizing and gives meaning to the recognition you do, in fact, perform.

Recognition is performed in communities which are created by recognition.

Recognition

In a little suburban neighborhood, the children play on the sidewalk. The parents, standing together to watch, play a different game. This game takes the form of a conversation.

The moves in this game may include telling a story about your child that the other parents will appreciate, or talking about the sport you know another parent also enjoys. The potential moves are too many to list, and the boundary around them is vague and indistinct. You know you’ve made a legitimate move only when your conversation partners recognize it as such. You know you’re a member of the same community when the group of you are capable of sustaining a series of mutually recognized moves in familiar games.

Our membership is always incomplete. More crucially, the game is always in the process of being developed. So we will all make moves that are not recognized by anyone. This lack of recognition is isolating; it highlights the existential gulf that exists even between the closest of friends in the most tight nit of communities.

This lack of recognition is akin to what Gadamer called the hermeneutic problem: we begin to think about the discipline, as opposed to the everyday practice, of interpretation, only when something has gone wrong. When we come up against the otherness, the opacity of a text. We seek the fusion of horizons between text and reader to overcome that otherness, to the extent we historical, finite creatures can do such a thing. And communities form and fuse the horizons of their members as they continually seek to overcome the isolation of unrecognized moves and even unrecognized games.

There is another aspect of recognition which is also a crucial feature of communities. Its absence does not have its origin in misunderstanding; it is driven by a desire to exclude. A clique may form among the sidewalk parent group, and they may refuse to recognize one of their neighbors as a member of their little community. So merely knowing how to play the games is no guarantee of membership in a community.

Perfectionism

Old Earl–I saw this with my own eyes–Old Earl leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face–I was in the kitchen with them, just the three of us. They were sharing an early-evening snack with me. I was visiting as a friend of the family. She leaned back against the kitchen sink when he did this. He leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face, which fell, and a little fear came into her eyes, realizing that she had provoked her husband. I recognized the face.

Her daughter, my friend, had been ill and in the hospital, and while I was visiting her, the doctor came in to deliver bad news, seriously bad news: surgery and a very long recovery, along with an abrupt change of lifestyle. Her face expressed wonder girded up by fear and framed by anger.

I think her mother’s expression was anger slow-cooked over the course of several decades so that her face was now expressing tired rage. Nevertheless, she shrank because his own expression overpowered her resentment.

They called him Ole E which took me forever to understand as a diminutive for Old Earl and not Olie. They called him that, being a long-time president of a local, and under his leadership the local had grown, never experiencing any scandals with money or other kinds of abuse. He was telling his wife what time and where the great-grandkids’ soccer games were that evening. He went outside to take care of something in the yard. His wife relaxed and came to me, setting a bag of powdered doughnuts before me. I indulged.

“Do you have any children?” she asked.

“Two,” I said. “Two boys, 10 and 8.”

“I had two boys,” she said. “And a girl. Do you take them to church?”

“Almost every Sunday,” I said.

“Do you dress them up?”

“What?”

She looked at me, then she said. “I remember dressing the kids for church every Sunday. We would walk to church. Church is only three blocks from here, so we walked. It didn’t make much sense to start the car just for a three block drive. We walked to church every Sunday.”

“But you drive now?”

“Three blocks is an awful long way when you’re as old as we are.”

I wolfed another powdered doughnut. “I’ll bet,” I said.

“I used to press the boys’ pants into perfect creases, every Sunday morning, and then I hung them over the easy chair until just before we left for church. Do you know why  I did that?”

“No,” I said, licking the powdered sugar off my fingers.

“Every Sunday, right after I pressed the creases into the boys’ pants, I would do Lucy’s hair, so that the curls would be just right. It seemed to me that just about every time I was pulling the bow into her hair, trying to set it perfect, the boys would start wrestling on the living room floor.”

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “They’d mess up the creases in their pants.”

“That’s right,” she said. “So I started hanging their pants over the easy chair.” She laughed. “Such a funny memory: the boys in their underwear, a shirt, and a tie, wrestling on the living room floor. I lost my voice almost every Sunday morning, screaming at them to settle down.”

I wished at that moment I had had a little brother, or even a big brother, to wrestle with on Sunday mornings.

“Earl taught them to polish their shoes, and we made them polish their shoes every Sunday morning while I got Lucy’s hair right. Oh, I remember her glossy black shoes, Mary Janes!”

“Mary Janes?” I asked.

“Buckle shoes,” she said.

“Oh.”

“They slipped right over her perfectly white Sunday tights, and she walked so tall and so proud, leading the way to church. I can still see it to this day: we showed the whole neighborhood what a good Christian family looks like!”

“Lucy?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Lucy doesn’t look like someone who ever wore white tights and black Mary Janes.”

“People nowadays have no respect for church. If they even go, they wear jeans and crumpled t-shirts, like they just rolled out of bed to meet the Holy Lord Almighty.” She shook her head.

One day, by invitation, I walked the path from Ole E’s house to the church, the full three blocks under the gaze of the whole neighborhood and God himself. It wasn’t a Sunday, but there was stuff going on. In fact, there was a hive of activity, busy little religious bees buzzing about, setting up tables for a fundraiser of some sort, baskets and displays emerging like so many six-sided cells. Over in one corner of the comb, several would-be queen bees were having a very quiet, but mortal, argument over who would be handling the money. I steered clear. Repudiated queen bees have a deadly sting.

On the day Lucy came home from a long stint in a rehabilitation facility, I saw Ole E put his nose into a nurse’s face, but instead of shrinking away, this nurse drew up in indignation. His wife suddenly piped up, “He does that to me all the time.”

Ole E stood, silent, thunderstruck.

The nurse replied, “You let him push you around like that?”

“Oh,” his wife said, “it’s not so bad if you just forgive him.”

“Forgive him? I’d never put up with that from my husband.”

His wife laughed. “You girls nowadays. You know, he got that from his mother, putting his nose down in people’s faces. She used to do that all the time.”

Ole E finally spoke. “I do that?”

“Your whole life,” his wife said.

Tears sprang into his eyes. “I do that to you?” In his face, I saw a wave of realization wash over him. “I do that to the kids?”

“You did,” his wife informed him. “But not anymore, now that they’re bigger than you, and out of the house.”

Ole E wheeled to talk to Lucy. “I did that to you?”

“My whole life, Dad.”

“Oh, dear Lord,” he said, sitting down in his son-in-law’s easy chair. “Oh, dear Lord. I didn’t mean to do that to you. I tried to be a good father. That’s not good; that’s what my mother did to us!”

I excused myself, wishing Lucy a happy and quick recovery.

Lucy told me, when I asked, that the whole family had been transformed. Not only had things gotten easier between her father and her mother, and easier with her and one of her brothers, but it had gotten more tense between her father and the other brother. Until Ole E’s dying day, Thanksgiving and Christmas were gala affairs, with more wine spilled, and more laughter with it, and also palpable tension with the brother who retained the perfection instilled in him in his childhood.

The funeral was a gala affair, with one third of the family excusing themselves quite before the celebration had begun.

Tectonics

I have a new gig in two communities in New York State near Lake Ontario. The communities are eighteen miles apart, oriented east and west from each other. The community to the east we shall call Parker; the community to the west we shall call Coomer. Parker and Coomer are both towns centering respective town-and-country lifestyles. Those who live outside Parker envy those who live in Parker, and those who live outside Coomer envy those who live in Coomer. I live in neither community: I commute from no small distance to work in one or the other, or both, four days a week, driving in from the south.

Or, as they say, I drive from “up,” because I live above the Niagara Escarpment. In this way they are the same culture. Below the Escarpment is one culture, what I might call the Lake Culture. It is populated by very old, early-American farm families, in some state or another resembling the The Sound and the Fury, some having achieved greatness, others having fallen from greatness into utter ruin, still others having wallowed forever in the misery of poverty. Overlaid is the Erie Canal Culture, which is archetypal mid-century blue-collar America, its participants working in the many and varied factories of heavy industrial giants, seen in one way as the purveyors of great wealth to a rural class of people without the back-breaking and agonizing labor of farm-tending, and also as the soul-destroying never-ceasing powered shafts and conveyor belts. The factories shuttered suddenly.

Above the Escarpment is another culture, with a completely different history, distinct family infrastructures, and different institutions, even though the factories are shared.

So I drive north, down, to do my work in their midst as an outsider, always looking in, watching them as families interacting, and I on occasion being invited in to interact with them, to my great delight. I get lonely while I’m driving, and they’re good people, enviably so.

It has been given to me as a task to unify a few families of each community, so that they might achieve some effectiveness in certain charitable endeavors, endeavors which are to be determined in the future, after we can determine what sort of resources we might be able to pool together, determined by ascertaining what resources these several families are able to acquire. Driving from Parker to Coomer, and then again from Coomer to Parker, is a lovely task under pleasant skies, with regular glimpses of vast lake waters to the north, the constant shoulder of the Escarpment to the south, the land between lined all long with orchards, vineyards, farms, and wooded lots, wherein dwell various species of game animals and their predators. It is a flat plain without a single geographic interruption.

Nevertheless, the people of Coomer, being separated by a mere eighteen miles of empty highway, translating to twenty minutes of travel time, have no knowledge of the people of Parker. The people of Parker know nothing of Coomer. In fact, they are suspicious of each other. At first, this flummoxed me. How is it that these very old families, who are veritably nearly in view of each other, know nothing of each other? When their respective high schools compete against each other in varsity contests, the enmity is palpable and brief. After sharing a regulated and tightly contained space to yell at their children for an hour or two, they depart, socializing not. They have not intermarried.

Instead, each community looks up the Escarpment to sizable little cities, traveling north and south for goods and services not available in Coomer or Parker, respectively, which journey is more than twenty minutes. It seems obvious, to an outsider, that Coomer and Parker together, with greater ease, could support each other with those same goods and services, such as restaurants and larger supermarket grocery stores. It is not so. They think on a north-south axis, they speak of a north-south axis, and they live on a north-south axis, going up and down the Escarpment, to the disadvantage of their own utility. Well, maybe. I dunno.

Driving on the east-west axis, the horizon is apparent, I suppose. One could argue that I’m trying to manufacture a horizon, where the one community ends and where the other begins, but I think I’ve found one. There is a third community, which we shall call Lakeshire, a very thinly populated town, spread out over some area, closer to the Escarpment than Parker and Coomer. There is practically nothing to this Lakeshire community to speak of, no important institutions, no real history, no central presence in the area. Although it is little more than a crossroads, it is more than a crossroads, but no inhabitant of Lakeshire claims to be from Lakeshire. Instead, they claim to be from either Parker or Coomer. The inhabitants of Parker and Coomer, on the other hand, would not consider Lakeshire a part of their respective communities.

There exists, north of Lakeshire, exactly halfway between Parker and Coomer, and on the main road, a mobile-home park. It is large, containing the population of a small town all by itself. The inhabitants of the mobile-home park are located exactly as far away from any amenities as is possible in this area.

There it is, a blight, an unpleasant experience, seeing all those country poor people gathered together in one forlorn place, out of sight, and perhaps out of mind. What is life like within this mobile-home park, each home nestled too close to its neighbor, with no fences to make neighbors, good or otherwise? Caricatures fill the mind. And then the conscience strikes.

There are no trailer parks on the north-south axes.