Any student of earlier periods of Western culture from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance soon becomes aware that he is dealing with cultures in which overt personal hostilities are exhibited and even flaunted far more than in the ordinary technological style of existence. It may sound quaint to say this in a society so unfortunately given to wars as our technological society still is, but, despite the potential for mass destruction in an atomic age, the evidence is overpowering that earlier man commonly accepted hostility as part of the manifest fabric of life to a degree beyond that typical of technological man.
— Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word
Shortly after making the remarks above from The Presence of the Word (page 195), Walter J. Ong cites French scholar Roger Caillois’ L’Homme et le sacré—first published in French in 1930 eventually in English in 1959 as Man and the Sacred (translated by Meyer Barash, Glencoe: Free Press). As Ong recounts it, with obvious agreement, in that book Callois contrasts what both authors continue to call “primitive” society (even though they use that term to include even such highly advanced examples of society as classical Greece) with modern society. Callois contrasts the two in terms of how each stands with regard to war and peace.
In “primitive” society, as Ong recounts Callois, “war commonly (though of course not in every instance) constitutes ‘a permanent state that forms the fabric of basic existence.’” That is, in such society war is the underlying given and basic human condition, as it were. Thus, in such society:
even festivals are often defined by their relationship to war. They are allied to war in that both ‘inaugurate a period of vigorous socialization and share instruments, resources, and powers in common.’ The festival, however, interrupts the normal now of hostilities, temporarily reconciles the worst enemies, causing them to fraternize, but ‘in the same effervescence’ characterizing the state of war, as when the Olympic Games suspended Greek quarrels.
In contrast, modern society “takes peace to be the permanent or normally expected state, at least psychologically.” Accordingly, in modern society it is no longer “festival” that interrupts and temporarily stops the regular flow and order of things (namely, “war”). Rather, it is now war that interrupts and temporarily stops that regular flow and order (namely, “peace”). Ong gives a definitive example: “The football game is not the interruption that the Olympic Games were; it is rather more of the regular cloth of life.”
As I observed before in a recent post (namely, the second of five on “The Traumatic Word), our word polemical derives from the Greek polemos, which means “war” or “strife.” Following Ong’s own analysis in more than one book, the process at work in what he and Callois describe as the transition from “primitive” to modern society is one we might accordingly call “the de-polemicizing of public life.” Both Callois and Ong seem to regard that transition from war itself being taken as the rule, to it being taken to be an exception to the rule, as a generally positive development. They seem to regard that change as something to be applauded overall, despite reservations about some of its particulars—such as the unfortunate temptation of us hyper-technologized moderns to “nuke” one another on occasion.
However, Ong’s himself immediately suggests at least one downside to the shift from war to festival as the “regular cloth of life”: In effect, with the shift from war to peace as the basic inter-human condition, festival looses much of its festivity. Precisely because “modern man, even when he wars, does not regard war as being necessarily of the fabric of basic existence,” Ong writes in the very next sentence after the one about such things as modern football games becoming part of the fabric of everyday life, “[m]odern man’s festivals are less urgent than primitive man’s.”
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What’s urgent carries weight, pressing upon us, impelling us, urging us on: Urge comes from Latin urgere, “to press hard, push forward, drive, stimulate.” The less urgent something becomes, the less it moves us, affects us, matters to us. Most modern “holidays” have lost anything holy about them—anything special, set apart, erupting into the everyday, “interrupting” it, as Ong says. For most of us most of the time today, a holiday is simply another day off, a sort of extra weekend-day. We are glad to have days off, of course, but they have no great “urgency” of their own. A holiday is finally “just another day,” no different in kind from any other. Nothing special.
For that very reason, we often find ourselves “at loose ends” on holidays or other days off work. We “don’t know what to do with ourselves.” So we do whatever we can just to fill all the dead time, from eating compulsively, to shopping, to Facebooking, to doing drugs, to addictively watching sports on TV.
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Thus, too, do we keep the whole economic system going. Or, rather, so does that system keep itself going—and ever growing—by generating ever more need for the production of ever more products by simultaneously producing ever more consumers to consume them.
The Pax Romanum, the peace that reigned within the boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire, was purchased at the price of recurrent wars at those boundaries themselves, against all the “barbarians” who surrounded that Empire across those boundaries, which accordingly had to be tightly maintained and defended. Today, the peace that reigns within the borders of what Michael Hardt and Paulo Negri label “Empire”—that is, within the context of the global economic market system—may look quite different at first glance. However, a second, slightly more penetrating glance reveals that it, too, is purchased at the price of wars conducted at its own boundaries. It is just that those boundaries have, in effect, gone global along with the Empire they delimit.
As that Empire has globalized itself, it has not freed itself from all bounds, so much as it has driven those bounds inward, as it were. It has traced and trenched them into the very hearts of all its global “subjects,” which is to say all us good little obedient consumers, who have meanwhile been enticed to become thoroughly “cosmopolitan” in our tastes. That is, we have come to be equally at home anywhere, regardless of whether the MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, or Pizza Hut we go to is in Alabama or Zimbabwe, Tulsa or Timbuktu.
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In my same earlier post referred to above, where I briefly discussed the meaning of our word polemical, I also cited Ong’s remark about what might well be called the underlying pacific—the “peaceful” or “peace-fostering”—tendency of the word as word, which is to say as spoken, sounding. The word as such, Ong says (as I cited from page 192 of The Presence of the Word), “moves toward peace,” no matter how polemical the given word may be, “because it mediates between person and person.”
The words we speak one to another, even said in the heat of anger and confrontation, even in the exchange or curses and obscenities delivered under the breath or at the top of one’s lungs, “mediate” between us. They manifest and build relationship between us, regardless of the specific nature of the given relationship, be it one of friendliness and love, or one of hostility and hatred (the word “mediating” between those opposites as well.)
As already cited in my earlier post, Ong goes on to remark (on page 193) that it is when “speech is simply broken off” altogether that “assaults” begin, or that people at least “cut” each other by just passing one another by “in total silence,” or else take one another “to court.” In fact, to add to Ong’s insight, even the latter two cases—ignoring and court-ing, to put it punningly—continue to move within linguistic space broadly conceived: Both involve displaying themselves as gestures, which is what all words finally remain, as Merleau-Ponty for one reminds us. Thus, for example, to “cut” someone is not the same as being indifferent toward them. Rather, it is to make a show of one’s refusal to address them, to let one’s taciturnity toward them itself “speak volumes,” as we say.
Taking someone to court also continues to testify to maintaining an underlying relationship with that person. That is attested by what Ong himself adds immediately after mentioning that third option: “Or one goes to court, where, significantly, the parties do not speak directly to each other but only to the judge, whose decision, if accepted as just by both parties, at least in theory and intent brings them to resume normal conversation with each other once more.” Thus, when we take one another to court, the speaking does not cease. It just shifts from addressing one another directly to addressing one another indirectly through a third, who serves as an institutionally sanctioned “mediator” to do our word-work for us. Instead of mediating with one another directly, we now do it indirectly through that officially designated mediator, whose job it is to mediate our mediation—and that, in turn, with the final goal of reestablishing direct mediation (that is, communication) between us. Thus, it is not at all by chance that courts issue “judgments” and pass “sentences,” both irrefragably linguistic operations.
In short, even “cutting” one another and “going to court” over disputes continue to be ways of relating to one another. They are just continuations of relationships “by other means”—other than the usual ones of face-to-face address, even if that address is carried on in a screaming exchange of obscenities and curses.
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Von Clausewitz said the same thing, of course, about war in relation to politics. War, he said in the first chapter of On War, was nothing but “the continuation of politics by other means.” That very remark attests to the underlying transition that Ong and Callois call to our attention, the transition from a world in which war is taken as the given and basic condition, which peace “interrupts,” to one in which it is peace that is given and basic, and in which war accordingly becomes the interruption. Or as we might also put it, the transition is from a world in which war is taken as the “rule,” and peace as the “exception” to that rule, to one in which the reverse is the case, with peace being the rule and war the exception.
Where war is the rule and peace the exception, peace is no common thing, as the very notion of exception entails. It takes a lot of work to carve out a place of peace within the pervasive wilderness of war. The latter is the natural condition, whereas the former, the place of peace, can only be artificial, in the original sense of that word: Places of peace do not just spring up of themselves, but must be made. They are the products of “art,” not the produce of “nature,” to use an old distinction that goes back to the ancient Greeks. And once built, such places must be diligently maintained, lest they be reclaimed by that nature that always stands ready to overgrow them again.
What above all clears a space for, and then builds, such pockets of peace is the word. It is speech, the grand peace-maker that Ong describes.
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Such a place of peace was just what the ancient Greeks called the polis, the “city,” wherein it was not by chance that discourse flowered. The “political” was, accordingly, that which pertained to the construction and maintenance of such an artificial, high-maintenance, talkative place. The political was what pertained to the polis—that safe place built as a shelter against the pervasively surrounding “war” or “strife,” the polemos, that was nature and the natural.
In such a world, to say that “politics” was just a continuation of “war” would thus have made no sense at all. It is only in a very different world, one where war gets made by men rather than gods, taken out of nature’s hands and made a product of human ones (at least male human hands: a point to which I will eventually return), that such a remark could even occur to someone as something to be said.
Rome and its Empire lie between those two worlds—or perhaps beyond the boundaries of both.
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At any rate, in the transition to a world in which peace rather than war is given as the basic human condition, it is not only festival that is divested of much of its urgency. So, in its own way, is war itself, at least in the sense of polemos. As festival becomes less festive so does polemos become less polemical. “War” become less warlike. It becomes itself a sort of game.
It is thus by no accident that we have come to call the training that prepares armies to do their own thing to other armies “war-games,” and at the same time use the language of war when describing such activities as football, with its “defenses” and “offenses,” “tactics” and “strategies,” “campaigns” and “battles.”
Nor is it at all merely by chance that today in both war and football (which is sort of like saying “animals and dogs”) winning, as Vince Lombardi famously said, is not “everything,” because it is the only thing. To borrow in turn from Malcolm X: Finally, all subterfuge aside, the goal of playing a game, whether it be a war-game or a football game or some other game altogether, such as “the game of life,” is simply and solely to win, “by any means necessary.” Nothing else counts.
At the same time, as the border between wars and games gets erased, both also become more and more the specialty of a few, rather than part of the fabric of the daily life of all. For most people, both battling and celebrating pass from being matters in which they participate directly, to being something they only experience vicariously, through those who come to serve in effect as their representatives at publicly sanctioned wars and festivals. The majority of us become spectators rooting for the special few of us who are delegated to do the actual struggling, whether that be on the battlefield or on the gridiron, and then celebrating victory or agonizing over defeat. All the rest is just the same old same old. As Ong writes toward the end of the fourth chapter of Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981), published more than a decade after The Presence of the Word: “While the teams slug it out, the spectator sips beer.”
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To be continued.