Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma

At the end of his 1986 book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press), Jesuit priest and scholar Walter J. Ong addresses the sort of Christian faith to which the life and work of 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bears witness. Like Ong, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. He was also an exact contemporary of Nietzsche. Both were born in 1844 and both entered into darkness in 1889—the darkness of the grave for Hopkins, that of the madness in which he spent the last eleven years of his life for Nietzsche.

Ong finds in the poems, prose, and letters of Hopkins a “forthright” view of Jesus’ crucifixion, one in which there is no weakening of the suffering and failure involved. That includes any weakening of that suffering and that failure through any consoling idea that what Jesus was working for would somehow still finally be accomplished even after his own death on the cross. That is, there was nothing such as, a century after Hopkins was born, allowed orthodox Marxists to find consolation, even in the face of imprisonment and death in Auschwitz, in the sustained conviction that the eventual victory of communism remained inevitable. In the view of Jesus on the cross that Ong finds in Hopkins, there is no such reality-weakening faith in play. Rather, by the “forthright” view Ong attributes to Hopkins, “[t]he truth was that what Jesus was working for, what he had planned, turned out a total and spectacular failure.” In confirmation of that interpretation, Ong quotes from a letter Hopkins once wrote to his friend Dixon:

His [Jesus’] career was cut short and, whereas he would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure, prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues, and he was the most prudent of men—nevertheless he was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone. However much he understood all this he found it an intolerable grief to submit to it. He left the example: it is very strengthening, but except in that sense it is not consoling.

Ong expands upon that passage by remarking that, in Christian teaching as Hopkins understood it, “God the Father had let Jesus’ ‘career’ work out as a failure not to cancel out the failure later but because he had plans about the consequences of the failure. The failure was never cancelled out and never will be,” regardless of whatever subsequent history—or the supposed end of it—might bring.

A faith purified by trauma, which is to say a faith that no longer avoids or numbs itself in the face of trauma but instead opens to it, can only be the sort of clear-eyed faith that Ong sees in Hopkins. It is not anything like a faith in “pie in the sky by and by,” as one popular put-down of reality-weakening religious faith puts it—no sort of defensive certainty that everything will prove to have been for the best in the end, when the whole story finally gets told, and the mysterious ways of God are at last made clear. Central to Hopkins’ sort of “forthright” Christian faith, a faith that faces trauma, rather than denying it, is the insistence that the wounds will always remain open, even in Christ’s resurrected body.

A faith that has been purified by trauma need not prove itself in dramatic acts that command attention. Instead, such faith is one that carries itself out in the fidelity (which is what faith is all about, after all) demonstrated by the daily living out of a life fully open to traumatic reality. In an important sense, there is nothing complex about such faith. It is a very simple and straightforward. Despite that, it remains demanding and difficult.

The real difficulty lies precisely in the fidelity—what St. Paul in his letters calls the “perseverance”—required for keeping such faith. The hard part is remaining faithful day after day in a life fully lived, and therefore lived in full exposure to the suffering that all true life entails. Yet however difficult the ongoing keeping of it may be, manifestations of such faith are really not all that rare. One does not have to have any special gifts, such as Hopkins’ for poetry, to keep such faith. It can be, and often is, kept faithfully in the daily life of the most ordinary people—a point I will continue to explore in my next post.

Shattering Silence of Peace (4)

      Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIII


A theory derived instead from Russia’s long history of communal social forms, and from an immediate experience of Russia’s land and natural history, with its sparse population and harsh environment, would foreground, not surprisingly, the struggle that pits organisms against a challenging, often brutal environment and the forms of cooperation they develop for their survival, over the gladiatorial combat of the survival of the fittest.

— Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, in reference to Peter Kropotkin’s theory of “mutual aid”


The shrieks ought to be over; but I still hear the silence of the executed.

—Elias Canetti, The Human Province, a note from 1947


When people find themselves in a harsh environment, perhaps competing with wolves and other animals over scarce resources, they come together in communities of mutual aid to meet the challenges with which surrounding nature, including all its wolves, confronts them. When men themselves—and my use here of the gendered term men is intentional, for reasons I have already indicated in my previous posts in this present series—become wolves to one another, they naturally draw apart, each suspicious and defensive toward all the others. The first vision, of human beings giving mutual aid to one another in the face of an always-threatening nature, is Kropotkin’s. The second vision, of a standing state of war between all men, is that of Hobbes.

As I put it in an early, short article of my own entitled “The Conversion of Nature and Technology,” published in 1976 (in Analecta Husserliana, Vol. V, pages 281-290), nature was once “the ambiguous dimension of the overwhelming, the inescapable, and the sustaining, all in one.” In such a time—no longer our own—nature, as I put it then,

is both that to which man [and my usage of that gendered term then was just ignorantly sexist] belongs and that which constantly jeopardizes man’s plans and even his very life. As the three-fold dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and inescapable, nature, even in its calmest moods, always maintains that tension from which, at any moment, chaos and destruction might suddenly erupt. Here, nature is the unity of that which surrounds, sustains, and yet threatens and endangers man. Nature is cosmos and chaos in one.

In all societies before the modern one, nature was such a “three-fold dimension,” which, “even in its calmest moods,” maintained exactly the sort of threatening “tension,” as I called it in that early discussion, with human communities—the very “disposition” toward “battle,” as Hobbes puts it in my opening epigraph for today’s post, that, as Hobbes saw it, defines the very “nature of war.” In such pre-modern societies, therefore, nature herself was the very place of war, and human communities were pockets of peace established and maintained, always precariously, through what Kropotkin accurately labels “mutual aid.”   In such a world, it was the time of nature that was the time of war, to speak again with Hobbes; and what he calls the “other time,” the time of “peace,” was the time, not of nature, but of human community, a peace built by the mutual aid that Kropotkin envisions.

In modern society, everything changes. War, that inner disposition toward violence or battle, toward disrupting human wishes, wants, plans, and enterprises, is taken away from nature, and put into the hands of “man himself,” as I’ve put it before in this series of posts. Whereas war had been the underlying disposition of nature toward the human being, in the face of which human beings had had to rely upon mutual aid, it now became the disposition of human beings—at least as dominated by men, that is, male human beings—toward one another.

As Hobbes saw and said with brutal clarity at the very start of modern political thought, it was precisely because of that war “of every man against every man,” as he puts it in the lines above, that men established sovereignty, that “Leviathan,” as he aptly named it. In such a condition, men were riddled with suspicion of all their fellows, who were in turn, and altogether properly, no less suspicious of them. In order to allay their radical sense of insecurity, men turned over their right to kill one another to one (or some, the numbers are not what counts) among them, to rule as sovereign over them all, and alone among them vested with the right of decision to kill. Thus arose the State. Thereafter, men no longer had to fear everybody else; they only had to fear the sovereign State, that Leviathan.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Mother bears defending their cubs from perceived threat have no interest in compromise or negotiation. As is typical of “combat in females,” as Walter J. Ong writes in the passage from Fighting for Life that I used for an epigraph to start my second post to this current series, the combativeness of a mother bear among her young “tends to be either perfunctory,” as it is when she huffs and puffs at a cub itself to set it straight when it gets out of line, “or furiously real,” aiming to kill any outsider she perceives as a genuine, non-perfunctory threat to those same cubs. Secure in her own power, the mother bear uses that power whenever necessary to protect her cubs from perceived threat. Otherwise, she rests in peace with her cubs in their nest.

By Ong’s analysis, conflict among males, who are driven by a constitutional feeling of in-security, always tends, in contrast, to become ceremonialized, creating and preserving a distance between the combatants that in fact minimizes the risk of the conflict turning lethal. It therefore is highly conducive to the very processes of avoiding the outbreak of what we call “actual hostilities” through negotiation and compromise, both of which tend themselves to become highly ceremonialized affairs. The price, however, that must be paid for such an outcome is the perpetuation of the condition of underlying, though latent, hostility between the male combatants—the perpetuation, that is, of the “known disposition” of hostility toward one another by which Hobbes defines the very notion of war (though Ong himself does not refer to Hobbes in this context).

Interestingly, in a later passage of Fighting for Life, in a chapter-section called “The New Setting”—namely, the setting of the time in which he was writing, which is still part of our own time—Ong addresses “the conflicts of the 1960s” that erupted on college campuses throughout the United States and beyond during that decade and into the next. What he has to say about those conflicts suggests to me, on that basis of the rest of Ong’s own broader analysis, that they actually involved a return from what he characterizes as predominantly masculine forms of conflict to what he characterizes as more typically feminine ones.

Ong cites six characteristics of the campus-centered conflicts of the 1960s. His remarks are interesting enough to deserve being cited in full. I have added all the emphases, to highlight special pointers to a sort of re-feminization of the conflicts at issue (the ellipses are all mine as well) :

First, the [campus] conflict of the 1960s tended to be between students and administration rather than between students and teachers: in effect, the principal arena for academic ceremonial combat had been vacated. . . .

Second, attacks on faculty members in the 1960s tended to be made because of their personal beliefs, not because of their behavior as teachers or disciplinarians: again, combat had moved from the ceremonial arena and had become an ad hominem attack, in which the attackers pursued their opponents anywhere and everywhere. (In male-with-male ceremonial combat, one male never pursues another beyond a given territorial limit; for infrahuman conspecific males, flight is normally an inhibiting mechanism for the victor—in human ludic terms, the football player who steps outside the gridiron cannot be tackled.)
Third, there was a feeling that if one argued with a teacher about the teacher’s own subject, one risked losing. . . .

Fourth, the academic world itself was often attacked not on academic grounds, but on grounds of social injustice as such: the academic arena was bypassed again.

Fifth, whereas agonistic educational methods had prepared for the subsequent extra-academic give-and-take of politics and diplomacy—here the classic example was the exquisitely agonistic British Latin public school—the new agonistic proposed in the
(by some, not by all) was revolutionary guerilla combat, a different sort of thing, perhaps highly intellectualized, but designedly lethal, not argumentative and ceremonial.

Sixth, the advancing of “nonnegotiable” demands was, superficially at least, an attack on formal negotiation, with its rules of give-and-take . . .

When what is at issue is truly worth fighting for, then fighting is not playing some game, regulated by rules of fair-play and confined to a clearly delimited playing field, and played for ceremonial prizes, honors, recognitions, and applause. It is deadly serious. However, for that very reason, fights truly worth fighting also come to definite ends. When they’re over, they’re over. All the noisy bluster, boasting, cheering, and back-slapping ceases, and silence is restored. Peace returns to the nest.

*     *     *     *     *     *

There are mutual aid societies, and then there are mutual aid societies. Sheep graze together in herds for protection, but wolves also hunt together in packs for predation. At least wolves in nature pack together. With human wolves it is different—at least with Hobbesian human wolves.

Among Hobbesian wolves, mutual aid is replaced by mutual hostility. Such non-natural, which is to say artificial, wolves no long naturally band together in packs to aid one another in the hunt, which is an active process. The “bands of brothers” that they form are instead always and only re-active, designed to protect one another from having to face up each one’s radical sense of weakness and insecurity. All the bluster and brio of such brotherly bands—of buddies all back-slapping and bad-mouthing one another in some “man cave,” for example—goes along with that reactive character, which belongs to all the artificial “packs” into which such artificial wolves enter.

So, too, does it belong to all the pacts into which they enter—“pacts” being always matters of artifice, not things that grow of themselves in nature. Above all, that same reactive character belongs to that pact of all pacts, the original pact whereby, out of terror of one another, their wolfish self-interest leads each man-wolf-man to agree to subject himself to some sovereign one of them, if only all the other man-wolves also so agree. Better to be terrified of only one sovereign man-wolf on his throne, or the equivalent, than to live in constant terror of all one’s brother man-wolves wherever they may be lurking!   So all the frightened man-wolves enter into a pact with one another to set up one of them—or three or three hundred, or maybe even just any available representative of “the people”: It’s not the number that matters, just the sovereignty—to lord it over all the rest of them, in order to buffer themselves against the fear of one another. The pattern here is still the same one of ceremonialization and distancing to which Ong calls attention. In principle, sovereignty is a purely ceremonial thing.

Any “peace” that such sovereignty may be able to establish is also no more than such a distancing, ceremonial sort of peace. It is at most the mere absence of “active” war—which is to say the breaking out above the surface of the always underlying hostile “disposition,” to use Hobbes’s term again, that sovereignty tries to bury beneath that surface: the becoming manifest of what was latent all along, defining the whole process. The peace established by sovereignty is merely the repression of the underlying reality of war.

The repressed, however, will return. Indeed, the more it is repressed the more compulsively it insists on returning. It keeps on returning, every more insistently, until and unless the resistance against it finally completely collapses, letting what has been so long repressed flood the entire system. Then everything changes at last.

After that, a different sort of peace, one which is no longer just the repression of war, may finally have a chance to settle over the ruins.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Peace between men comes with the establishment of the sovereign State, which is to say the nation, which takes from its subjects the right to make war, claiming for itself alone a monopoly over such violence. Infra-national peace, peace within the nation—which is to say inter-human peace (at least so long as the humans are men)—is thus accomplished by the self-subordination, to the nation, of those who henceforth count as that nation’s “subjects,” since they have indeed subjected themselves to the will of whoever or whatever gets counted as the the mouthpiece of the nation’s “sovereign,” “supreme,” or “ruling” power. That mouthpiece is a king or queen in a “monarchy,” for example. It is whatever is set up to count as expressive of the will of “the people” in a “democracy.” And so forth. The nation, exercising its sovereign power through its mouthpiece, thenceforth takes charge of enforcing infra-national, inter-human peace, detecting and punishing anyone whom it perceives as actually or potentially violating such peace—and thereby challenging the nation’s claim to a monopoly over acts of war.

Under such sovereignty, accordingly, war ceases to be between individual men—Hobbes’s “war of every man against every man”—and comes instead to be between nations. In contrast to the peace between men, or infra-national peace, which is imposed upon men by the nation in its sovereignty, peace between nations, or inter-national peace, can only be attained through a “balance of power” between those nations (which in the days of the “Cold War,” to give a good example, was a MAD matter, a matter of “Mutually Assured Destruction” between all the nations with nuclear capacity, should any one of them be tempted to push the button unleashing “the bomb”). Or else it must come through the establishing of some no longer national but international sovereign who can take war from the hands of the nations, just as they took it from the hands of individual men, and claim its own monopoly over war. So far, however, the nations have not been quick to ape men by ceding their individual war powers to any inter-national sovereign, whether in the form of one among them (the U.S. being the only plausibly available candidate today, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with China not yet positioned to provide a viable alternative), or in the form of some deliberative representative assembly of them all (such as the United Nations, that bug-a-boo of all right-minded nationalists today, at least in the U.S., the sole “superpower” left around today).

Both sorts of peace, infra– and inter-national, are really no more than illusions of peace. Both are built on, and can only be maintained by continuing, the repression of the underlying hostility, the “disposition” toward aggression whereby Hobbes defines the reality of war itself, whether that hostility be of each man toward every other man, or of each nation toward every other nation. Regardless of whether the peace is imposed between men or between nations, it remains just that—an imposed peace. The peace of sovereignty is always an imposed peace.

However, an imposed peace is really no peace at all. It is just the continuation of war by other means. The silence it imposes upon the clamor of war is a false silence: Those who do not speak because their mouths have been wired shut are not maintaining silence; they are merely being silenced.

The coming super-catastrophe of the collapse of global system of catastrophe-generating equivalence will shatter both sorts of illusory peace. It will shatter the silence that sovereignty has for so long imposed upon peace.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Nature may kill, but it never executes. Only men, or their equivalent, can do that. In turn, once any sort of sovereign State is established among men or their equivalent, that State is granted exclusive claim to all right to execute. Indeed, sovereignty has often enough been defined in terms of that very right—as the individual or group or institution vested with the right of decision over life and death, over who will be allowed to live, and who will be executed instead.

The peace of sovereignty is built over the graves of the executed, the shrieks of whom always soon die out, leaving only their silence. That silence, however, is deafening. It breaks to pieces that other silence, the one sovereignty imposes on those it executes—those countless ones.

Once the screaming stops, the silence of peace settles over the graves the executed. That silence alone is the shattering silence of peace itself.

Shattering Silence of Peace (2)

The basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones, is matched by their phylogenetic insecurity. Males are expendable for the good of the species. Intraspecific male-with-male combat, however furious, is normally ceremonial rather than lethal and often effects territorial distancing. This distancing reduces intense individual interaction, thereby among human beings giving more play to the “objective” elements in conscious attention. The corresponding relatively nonceremonial character of combat in females tends to be either perfunctory or furiously real. Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio. Males feel a defensive need to advertise the female as the “weaker sex,” which basically means weaker in ceremonial combat and all that it entails, for in other arenas the female is probably the stronger. . .

— Walter J. Ong, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness


While under the sign of gender women might be subordinate, under any economic regime they are only the second sex. They are forever handicapped in games where you play for genderless stakes and either win or lose. Here, both genders are stripped and, neutered, the man ends up on top.

— Ivan Illich, Gender

Like the male ego and the capitalist economy, the modern state is founded on fear. All three are founded on the same fear, one fear in particular. In a famous line from a speech he gave in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state, that is more than enough. It is specifically that fear—the very fear of fear itself—that founds all three.

To say the same thing differently, and to carry it one step further, the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state are all three founded on the denial and repression of fear itself, specifically on the denial and repression of that fear that is literally root-fear itself, the very root of fear as such: the fear of death. The modern state, the capitalist economy, and the male ego are all three alike founded on the denial and repression of the fear of death.

*     *     *     *     *     *

“From death, from the fear of death, arises all knowledge of the All.”

That is the opening line of Franz Rosenzweig’s introduction to the first part of his great work, The Star of Redemption, first published in German in 1921. What he means by “knowledge of the all” (Erkennen des All) is the presumption to be able to know it, the claim that it is possible to have such knowledge, as the title he gives his introduction makes clear: “Über die Möglichkeit, das All zu erkennen,” “On the Possibility of Knowing the All.”

In a class once, one of my philosophy professors in graduate school defined philosophy itself as “the attempt to give a rational account of all things.” Even back then, that was not what I meant by that word, though I certainly acknowledged then, and still do, that such a definition captures well enough the sense of the term insofar as philosophy takes itself to be what gives birth to what we call “science,” which in the whole is just such an attempt, one “to give a rational account of all things.”

That is also the sense Rosenzweig gives the word in The Star of Redemption—“philosophy” in a sense that he contests in that work. That is philosophy insofar as it “takes it upon itself to throw off the anxiety of earthly existence, to take away from death its poison sting, from Hades its pestilential breath,” as he puts it in the third sentence of the book.

It is nothing but a delusion that such knowledge of the all is even possible, and a dream born of that delusion that through such knowledge “man” might eventually be able to establish “dominion and control” over nature, as Descartes states to be the aim of the “method” he recommends be adopted in his Discourse thereon. That is, to return to Rosenzweig’s terms, it is delusional to think that earthly life can ever be made impervious to anxiety, death deprived of its sting, or hell of it stench.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In my immediately preceding post, the first in this present series under the general title, “Shattering Silence of Peace,” I addressed the process of transition that Walter J. Ong, following Roger Callois, traces in The Presence of the Word: the transition from a society in which war is taken as the rule and peace as the exception, to one in which peace is taken as the rule and war as the exception. As I also already suggested in my preceding post, that process could well be called one of general “de-polemicization.”

What above all gets “de-polemicized” in the process at question is nature—understood as Aristotle understood physis, from which we get our English word “physics,” in opposition to techne, whence come such English words as “technique,” “technical,” and “technology.” War (Greek polemos) gets removed from nature as Aristotle defined that latter notion, namely, as that from which comes whatever emerges of itself and serves no purpose—whatever is an “end in itself,” to use a traditional but distorting way of putting it. War is torn out of nature so conceived and delivered over instead into the domain of the technical, in the broad sense of that which must be made, to serve a purpose.

When peace gets thus cast as the underlying rule and war as the interruptive exception, nature herself ceases to be defined by war any longer. Instead, nature comes to be cast as the place of a sort of original peace. In turn war, removed from nature, becomes itself something essentially “man-made.” War becomes something men wage against one another, instead of belonging to the very nature of nature herself.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Combining what Ong writes in The Presence of the Word with what he writes more than a decade later in Fighting for Life, from which my first epigraph for today’s post is taken, discloses that the process of de-polemicizing nature intersects with another process, that of the de-ceremonializing of war and combat—that is, the de-ceremonializing of the polemical as such. Thus, at the same time war undergoes a process whereby it ceases to belong to nature (physis) and instead becomes something artificial (a matter of techne), war also undergoes a process whereby it becomes less and less ceremonial.

Perhaps that intersection of the two processes of the de-polemicization of nature, on the one hand, and the de-cermonialization of war, on the other, can be at least partially accounted for in terms of what Ong sketches out in my epigraph passage about the thoroughly hostile character of the maternal womb for males of the species—about “[t]he basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones.” Talk of nature herself as a “womb”—as in “the womb of nature”—is an old commonplace.

Perhaps, then, the very ascription of polemos to nature in the first place derives from the predominately male experience of the natural, maternal womb. It would then be expressive not of anything itself “natural” to all premodern societies, but only to so called “patriarchal” ones. To the both ontogenetically and phylogenetically indispensable female of the species, the natural, maternal womb is not such an utterly anxiety-provoking place as it is to the ontogenetically and phylogenetically expendable male. (No wonder we men would want to develop the technology for making “test-tube babies”! We can control a test-tube womb!)

Precisely in becoming something man-made, rather than something belonging to nature herself (the pronoun is telling here, and I have been trying to be consistent in using it: “nature herself”), war ceases to be something against which man must be so driven to build a shelter for himself, a buffer against the hostile environment of nature, that womb. But such shelter and buffering is just what the ceremonialization of the polemical so typical of male combat provides for the genetically insecure male psyche, the psyche that so desperately feels itself in need of them. As Ong describes in such passages of Fighting for Life as the one I’ve used in my epigraph, the “ceremonial” nature of “infraspecific male to male combat”—which is to say man-made “polemics,” or “warfare” in the broadest sense— has precisely the effect of “distancing” the combatants to provide such accommodations.

*     *     *     *     *

As Ong remarks a bit later in the same passage, “Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio.” “Braggadocio,” it bears noting, is a way of posturing, of puffing oneself up like a cat upset by an intruder on its territory. It is only when fluffing up no longer works to keep the intruder at a distance that the catfight begins. In contrast to feline fur-fluffing, however, bragging is a distinctively linguistic activity. Thus, it is only when the boastful words stop flying that the fists start to do so—or the swords to start cutting, the guns to start shooting, the bombs to start dropping, or the like.

Thus, the ceremonialization of warfare guards against the very lethality of war between men. However, if in the very process of what we might well call being “de-natured”— that is, taken out of nature and turned over into men’s hands—war is also de-ceremonialized, then war is loosed from all the restrains with which either artificial ceremonies for distancing and posturing, or natural tendencies for keeping combat perfunctory and brief, guard against war automatically escalating into something lethal whenever it occurs. In being loosed from its ceremonial constraints, having already been loosed from any natural restraints, war is thus freed from all bounds. It is set free to become boundless.

All wars now threaten to become total war. At least in terms of their potential lethality, an equivalence of wars is established.

*     *     *     *     *    *

The process of taking polemos out of the womb of nature and putting it into the hands of man pacifies both nature and the feminine, turning the maternal womb from the scariest of all places for men into something they can handle—indeed, into something that now “nurtures” them, rather than subjecting them to wave after wave of lethal assault. As part of that, women in a man’s world get treated as delicate, requiring masculine “protection” in exchange for all their nurturing: Women become “the weaker sex,” as Ong notes.

Pushed to its limit, this pacification—what we might well call the literal dis-em-powerment—of nature and the feminine as such eventually results in just the sort of situation Ivan Illich describes in my second epigraph for today’s post. That is a situation in which the liberation of women from domination by men comes to present itself as though such liberation were a mater of establishing an equivalence between men and women, but in which that equivalence itself is defined in exclusively masculine terms that, however, can no longer even be acknowledged as such. What is characteristically masculine—in all its from-the-womb anxiety-ridden insecurity—comes to be universalized, which is to say counted as universally true for all human beings without exception. In that sense the masculine gets “neutered,” as Illich puts it. That is, what is really essentially masculine is no longer given as just one side of what Illich, as I’ve discussed in my earlier series of posts on “The Traumatic Word, calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” but is instead counted as the unquestioned, exclusively definitive ideal for all, to such a degree that it is no longer even visible as only one side of an irreducible duality.

Thus, equivalence between men and women is projected solely in terms that actually only ensconce the now “neutered” man in a position of dominance that can no longer even be acknowledged, since the very words of acknowledgement have been repressed beyond recall.   In every position that might be adopted after that, “the man ends up on top,” as Illich indecorously but accurately puts it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

We might put Illich’s general point this way: Establishing equivalence is anything but establishing genuine equality, since the very measure of equivalence is determined by only one side of an asymmetrically complementary duality.

Equivalence turns out to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution—to use a current commonplace of which I’m fond. Indeed, equivalence turns out to be a hardening of the problem itself, what we might well call a petrifaction of the problem, a literal turning of it into stone. Equivalence thus provides a rock-hard organ to penetrate all resistance and guarantee perpetual dominance. Now the man can always stay on top.

(Finally! A safe place at last for all of us who are so constitutionally insecure!)

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued again.

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 10:29 pm  Comments (2)  
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Shattering Silence of Peace (1)


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.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

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.

*     *     *     *     *     *

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.

*     *     *     *     *     *

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.

*     *     *     *     *     *

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.

*     *     *     *    *     *

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.

*     *     *     *     *     *

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.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Published in: on March 29, 2015 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Traumatic Word (5)

Though for the word’s own sake I could still say much more, this is the final post of my series on “The Traumatic Word.”

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It is human to see the world made up of three kinds of things: food, proscribed edibles, and non-food. For a Hindu pork is taboo, not so begonias. These he has never thought of eating. By eating pork, he loses caste. If, however, he joins an Indio from central Mexico eating begonia flowers not he, but the world around him has changed. Begonias have moved from non-food to food.

Issues as well can be thus divided. Some are considered legitimate. Others not to be raised in polite society. A third kind seems to make no sense at all. If you raise these, you risk being thought impossibly vain.


So far, every single attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular value has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernization of poverty.

— Ivan Illich


Both of the citations above are taken from Ivan Illich’s 1981 book Shadow Work—from which I already cited two lines in a note appended to my previous post, the fourth of this series of five on “The Traumatic Word.” With regard to what he says in the first of the two citations above, about there being some issues the very raising of which runs risks of being thought to be as impossibly vain as a begonia-eater, Illich offers as an example the issue he risks raising in Shadow Work itself. That is the issue of the distinction between what he therein calls “the vernacular domain,” on the one hand, and “the shadow economy,” on the other (the emphasis is Illich’s own in both cases).

Being far less of a risk-taker than Illich himself, I will not risk discussing both sides of that risky conceptual disjunction. I will leave it up to interested readers to read Illich’s book itself for enlightenment (or befuddlement, if Illich loses his wager with those readers) about what he means by “the shadow economy.” For my own risk-averse purposes in this post, I will simply focus on the first disjunct, the notion of “the vernacular domain.” In fact, to minimize my risk even further, I’ll confine my attention to what is named in just the first two words of that three-word phrase—“the vernacular.”

With regard to the vernacular, I will risk saying this: the vernacular is the parochial.

In saying that, just as it stands, I am not risking much. That’s because, just as it stands, it will sound bland and innocuous to most modern ears. Of course the vernacular is the parochial, those who hear with such ears might well remark. After all, both refer to what’s local, informal, and more or less uneducated or “backwoods”-ish—as when we speak of “parochial concerns” and of putting something “in the vernacular,” for example. Such ways of speaking and putting things contain within themselves what amounts (to use the vernacular) to “putting them down,” reducing them to the sorts of concerns and ways of speaking characteristics of “hicks,” more or less (of the mindless masses of “the great unwashed,” to use the educated way of saying it that, as I mentioned in my preceding post, one of my old DU colleagues used to like to use).   That is, having concerns that count as “parochial,” or a tendency toward putting things “in the vernacular,” is just not the sort of thing one wants to do if one is concerned to preserve one’s status as an educated, well-schooled person who would resort to the vernacular only by putting what one says within quotation marks, as I’ve been trying to be careful to do so far. To the well-trained, well-schooled understanding, both the vernacular and the parochial always carry a whiff of vulgarity with them—vulgar being a word derived eventually from Latin vulgus, meaning “the common people,” where that phrase in turn is already pressed into service to put down such people, reducing them to the status of “the multitude,” that is, “the crowd” or “the throng,” the mere and sheer human “swarm” of “the great unwashed.”

At least part of what Illich is trying to call to our attention in his own usage of vernacular is how uppity we are in our dismissal, as always being somewhat vulgar, of everything local, home-grown, and genuinely “convivial,” to use another word he likes to risk using in unusual ways, at least by today’s hoity-toity, “grammatically correct” standards. As I already noted in my immediately preceding post, the word vernacular derives from the Latin vernaculus, which means “domestic, native, indigenous.” What I left out in my preceding post what that vernaculus itself derives from verna, a Latin word of Etruscan origin that meant a “home-borne slave.” By my reading of him, Illich is in effect running the risk of trying to liberate the vernacular itself from its slavery, thereby restoring to it the full, fully ambiguous freedom that is the birth-right of all words as words, whose worth as such is taken violently away whenever they are pressed into service as mere signs or symbols (in the sense of those two words that Walter J. Ong, for one, helps us hear).

Since Illich has already run all the big risks of such a liberation of words with vernacular, I am free to run the much smaller risk of trying to do some of the same for parochial, a word the origins of which are not already tainted by such hierarchies of master and slave as are the origins of the word vernacular.

Parochial derives eventually from Latin parachoia, which means “of or pertaining to a parish.” In turn parachoia derives from the Greek paroikos. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary ( that last word was used by early Christian writers to mean “a sojourner”—after its classical Greek usage to mean “neighbor,” from para, “near, beside,” and oikos, “house.” Insofar as those origins can be heard back into what parochial says, the parochial is that which belongs to home, the place where we dwell, where we are “at home”—the same “home-grown” stuff, in short, as makes up the vernacular, at least in Illich’s liberation of that word from its bondage.   The parochial, the vernacular, is what is of or pertains to where we do indeed sojourn, from Latin sub-, “under, until,” plus diunare, “to last long,” from diurnum, “day.” Where we sojourn is literally where we “spend our day,” day after day throughout our human life from birth to death—“we” being all of us common people, in all the glorious, irremediably vernacular vulgarity of our utter parochialism, our great unwashed-ness.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I claim no special expertise on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and most especially none on the proper scholarly interpretation of his poetry. However, one of his poems once delivered an especially resonant word to me—a word pertaining to trauma. That was during my own traumatic summer vacation of 1987, about which I have written on this blog before, without at that time discussing the contribution my reading of that one of Hopkins’ poems made to my experience then, back when I first read it in 1987. When I recently read Ong’s book on Hopkins, including Hopkins’ own letter to his friend Bridges about the word sake, I was reminded of that contribution.

Hopkins’ remarks in the letter On cites struck me as no surprise when I read them for the first time in my recent reading of Ong’s book, because they struck me as already familiar to me from my much earlier reading of the poem at issue. In the light of Hopkins’ letter I was able to see—or, more accurately put, perhaps, in the resonance of that letter I was able to hear—how that poem, as I first received it years ago, during my summer of 1987, really said the same thing already, at least to me, in a poetic rather than a prosaic way. Here is Hopkins’ poem, #34 in the standard numbering:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.


I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


When I first encountered that poem, during my summer vacation of 1987—when I underwent, in full public display (at least in a rather parochial sense of “public”), a traumatic reliving of a much earlier trauma from my childhood—I heard Hopkins’ two stanzas as constituting what Ivan Illich in Gender calls
a duality, characterized by the asymmetric complementarity of that duality’s own constitutive duo. That duality emerged, and was marked by, my hearing, at the start of Hopkins’ second stanza something that remained unsaid, but nevertheless determinative for my entire understanding of everything said in the poem as a whole, in both its stanzas taken together.

The unsaid I heard then, during my traumatic summer vacation—which was most especially traumatically healing, I will add, with regard to a much earlier trauma from my childhood—of 1987, when I first heard Hopkins’s poem, was but a single word. In fact, it was but that very word: “But.” Though it is not there in what Hopkins actually says, not written there in letters beside all the ones he did write in that poem, I heard (and still do) the second stanza sound a silent “but” at its very beginning, to set the tone not only of what was to follow as that second stanza itself, but also of what lay there already to be found in the first.

According to the first stanza of the poem, “each mortal thing” keeps on redundantly saying over and over again the same old thing. That same old thing is nothing but itself. Each thing says the same thing all the time: “Myself it speaks and spells/Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”

However, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza, does not just say that same, does not just “fling out broad its name,” crying out always only “Myself.” Rather, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza remains utterly anonymous, which is to say name-less. That nameless speaker does not cry out itself, and beyond that shut up, saying nothing else. Rather, that anonymous “I” says “more”—which Hopkins himself already doubly emphasizes by placing the diacritical mark over that word in the already wholly italicized stanza: “I say móre . . .”

The “I” who speaks the second stanza says “more” than what “each mortal thing” says, according to the first stanza. That is what I heard in hearing a silent “But” sounding to open, and thereby thoroughly to tune, the whole second stanza–and, with it, to attune the reader’s ears for properly hearing what the whole poem gave voice to.

What it gave voice to, when I first heard it during my own doubly traumatic summer vacation of 1987—“doubly traumatic,” because it was an itself-traumatic, asymmetrically complementary reliving of an earlier trauma—was itself dual, precisely in Illich’s sense of that. What I heard was the duality, in short, on the one hand of entrapment in hell—the pure hell of total self-absorption, in which the self, has become so wrapped up and entangled in asserting itself that it has lost itself entirely—and on the other hand of liberation from that entrapment—the very “harrowing of Hell” by Christ himself between his death on the cross and his resurrection on the first Easter Sunday, according to Christian tradition, which was of course the tradition to which Hopkins himself so crucially belonged.

According to another tradition, that of Mahayana Buddhism, samsara and nirvana are said to be “the same.” Well, in the same sense of “the same,” hell and the liberation from hell—which is to say hell and heaven—as Hopkins’ poem 34 long ago now gave me at least to hear, are “the same.” That is, coming to be liberated from hell is not like being taken from one location and transported, by magic or airplane or any other means, to some other, new, different location. It is, rather, being freed from the bondage of self, wherein the self loses itself entirely in the entanglements of claiming its own, into genuinely being oneself, which one can only be in what Ong—glossing Hopkins’ remarks about the sake of such expressions as “for one’s own sake,” in Hopkins’ letter to his friend Bridges—well names one’s “outreach to others.” Only when liberated from the bondage of having always only to be myself alone, am I given to know that I have all along been no one other than myself—but always already and only myself among others.

That’s what I heard when I first heard Hopkins’ poem 34, during my summer vacation of 1987. It’s what I hear still, when I listen through all the noise, rather than to it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is far from accidental that, as Walter J. Ong reminds us in the lines from The Presence of the Word with which I began this whole series of posts on “The Traumatic Word,” the word as word is not only not a “sign,” but also not a “symbol” either. To take each in turn:

The word is not a “sign,” properly speaking, since the word sign itself ultimately bespeaks something visible, something to be seen, whereas the word word bespeaks something audible, something itself spoken, to be heard rather than seen.

What is more, to repeat, the word is not only no such sign, says Ong, but also no “symbol.” That is because, as he tells us, originally “symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties.”

In the concentration upon the visible imposed upon him, regardless of his own will in the matter, by the already now long-standing tradition of treating language as nothing more than an elaborate system of “signs,” and the word itself as no more than a “symbol” of what it names, in the just re-cited passage Ong may himself have misheard some of what sounds in the word word itself.   It is not simply because the word belongs among what sounds, and so gives itself to be heard, rather than belonging among the visible, which gives itself to be seen, that the word as word is no “symbol.” It is also—and in my own judgment above all—because the word as word is no token of coercive power, that drives to make everything fit. The word as word is no sign, such as a torn ticket or a broken coin, the two sides of which fit perfectly together, thus signifying the official authorization of the messenger, who carries one half of the symbol with him, to carry some official message to the officially designated recipient of that message, who proves his own authorization to receive it by providing the matching other half of the symbol, to perfectly fit the messenger’s half. A word as word, as a breaker of the silence to which it gives voice, is no such torn ticket or broken coin or modern digitized equivalent that testifies to such polarized and polarizing authorization. The symbol as such is always a sign of claimed power, claimed “authority.” The word, as word, claims no authority. It just speaks.

That is why the word is no sign. As Ong so rightly observes in the next to last line from the epigraph with which I began this entire blog series: “The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be ‘broken’ and reassembled.” However, he misses, I’d say, the deepest, truest reason that the word cannot be broken, as is every “symbol.

That the word cannot be broken derives not from some timeless or indestructible durability of the stuff of which the word consists, certainly. After all, as Ong himself repeatedly emphasizes, there is nothing more passing, less enduring, more easily destroyed than sound, which is finally all the word consists of. The reason the word cannot be broken—and why it is therefore so unsuitable for being made to do service to coercive power, the sort of power that imposes itself on those it over-powers, as do all institutions that have passed beyond conviviality—has nothing to do with that.

The word cannot be broken because it is always already broken to begin with, and only so does it speak. The name and what it names—the same as glory and the glorious, or luster and the lustrous, or shine and the shining of that which shines of itself—are never two halves of some once presumably unitary totality that somehow got subsequently broken apart, such that the pieces could ever, even in the wildest fantasy of security and authority (beyond even “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” that couldn’t re-fit Humpty-Dumpty back together after he dumped from his wall), be fitted seamlessly back together again.

The name, the very being of what is named—its being “outside” itself, with and among others—on the one hand, and its being “in” itself, “indoors which it dwells,” on the other, constitute a duality, not a polarity. The two are strictly incommensurable: There is no common standard by which they can both be neatly operationalized, measured, ranked, and set to order within a hierarchy.

The name and what it names are really the same, but that is so only in the way that men and women are really the same, which does not in the least mean that the two are “one and the same thing.” If the name and the named were just one and the same thing, then the name could not be the named itself outside itself, given to others. Then neither God nor anything else could ever be honored for its own sake, and nothing would ever have any glory.

The word can never be broken, because it is, as word, the break itself. The word is the very breaking open of the cosmic egg, without which the egg can never attain its own glory, for its own sake. The word itself is traumatic. That’s why I have entitled this whole series “The Traumatic Word.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

There is no one, all-encompassing, all-comprehending uni-vision, uni-perspective, uni-conception that can reduce everything to one single all-inclusive, all “other” exclusive, totality of beings. As Heidegger already taught in “What Is Metaphysics?”—his inaugural address in 1929 when he took over his mentor Edmund Husserl’s chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg—we are never given “the whole of beings” (das Ganze des Seienden). We are only—but also always—given “beings in the whole” (das Seiende im Ganzen). Whatever gives itself at all has, as so self-giving and self-given, its own being “outside” itself, as Hopkins so well puts it, that is to say, its being open and given to all the other beings with and among which alone it can be.

To my ears, ever since they were first attuned to hear it during my traumatically healing summer vacation of 1987, Hopkins teaches the very same lesson in poem 34: “As kingfishers catch fire . . .” As I hear them, Heidegger and Hopkins say the same. It’s just that they say it, appropriately, in two radically different, asymmetrically complementary ways.

Such differences can only help us hear if we let them. And only a hearing attuned to such difference can hear at all. So we should let them.

What they help us to hear, among other things, is that, as for the universe, in opposition to the cosmos, at least in the original sense of that latter word—well, there simply is no such thing. There is no “uni-verse,” no one thing that is the whole of everything, and turns everything into just one thing. There is no such all encompassing, all other excluding, single thing. There is only and always what might well be called “the di-verse,” if I may risk putting it that way.

The universe, were it to be, would be nothing but a total, monotone horror, and a colossally monotonous bore, on top of that. The diverse, however, is richly chromatic—we might call it extra-chromatic—and ever entertaining.

Therefore let us thank God that there is no such thing as the universe, but that there is only the diverse. That is, let us give thanks that there is only the being together of each with all—in which all things act for the sake of each other, to the glory of each other’s name: the word by which each is called, the very being of each outside itself, with and among all us others.

Amen! Which is to say: So be it!

The Traumatic Word (4)

As plans have a way of doing, my plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with today’s post has fallen through. However, this series of posts of my words on the word will end with my next post, most of which is already composed.

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            Sake is a word I find it convenient to use: I did not know when I did so first that it is common in German in the form sach. It is the sake of ‘for the sake of,’ forsake, namesake, keepsake. It mean by it the being of a thing outside itself, as a voice by its echo, a face by its reflection, a body by its shadow, a man by his name, fame, or memory and also that in the thing by virtue of which it has this being abroad, and that is something distinctive, marked, specifically or individually speaking, as for a voice and echo clearness; for a reflected image light, brightness; for a shadow-casting body, bulk; for a man, genius, great achievements, amiability, and so on.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins


Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between men and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

— Ivan Illich


The passage immediately above—that is, the second epigraph for today’s post—comes from Ivan Illich’s 1983 book Gender (Berkeley: Heyday Books, page 76, end of footnote 57). That book was no less controversial when it first appeared than were such earlier Illich publications as Deschooling Society, first printed in 1971, and Medical Nemesis, the first edition of which appeared in 1975 and which probably gained the most widespread attention, and engendered the most controversy, of all his works.

Born in Vienna in 1926, as a young man Illich became a Roman Catholic priest. He remained in the priesthood from then until his death in 2002, despite falling into conflict with the Vatican and—by mutual but non-official agreement, in effect, between him and the institutionalized hierarchy of the Catholic Church—ceasing to function publicly as a priest toward the end of the 1960s, though he even continued to say the Catholic Mass in private on occasion throughout the rest of his life.

Recurrently in his work, Illich argued and documented that the formal institutionalization of practices and processes pursued beyond a certain point becomes counterproductive. That is, pursued beyond that point institutionalization no longer facilitates the realization of that for the sake of which the institution was purportedly established. Instead, it begins to become an obstacle rather than an avenue for such realization, even beginning to generate specifically opposite results.

For example, in Medical Nemesis Illich argues that the institutionalization of medical care, carried beyond a certain point, starts making the society in which such institutionalization occurs less healthy overall, rather than more healthy. Put in different terms, pursued beyond that critical point, the institutionalization of medical care not only passes what economists call “the point of diminishing returns,” but actually sets off an inflationary spiral of ever-rising overall social costs for healthcare. As is true of all such inflation, although it massively benefits an ever more select few, it works to the growing disadvantage of the vast majority of society. In the case of medical care, that means medicine institutionalized past that tipping point starts making the society as a whole sicker, even and especially generating iatrogenic (“doctor- caused”) illnesses—a clear example of which is the disturbingly high rate of hospital-caused infections in the United States today.

In case after case, book after book, Illich advanced the same general argument about institutionalization becoming specifically counterproductive whenever it is pursued beyond such a certain, surprisingly minimal point—“surprising” at least for those of us today who long ago became used to living in a globally over-institutionalized society. Whereas in Medical Nemesis he addressed the counterproductivity of contemporary institutionalized medicine, a few years before that book appeared Illich addressed, in Deschooling Society, the institutionalization whereby education becomes “schooling,” which takes place only in specially designated places called “schools” at specially designated times (“school-time,” as we say) and ages of life (as reflected in talk about someone being “school-aged,” for example—though with the rampant commercialization of education and the emergence of the total horror of “life-long” schooling well under way today, that expression may be well on the way to losing its currency). Illich does a good job of showing how such over-institutionalization of education by enclosing it ever more tightly within schools and schooling ends up making the society as a whole less, rather than more, educated.*

In general, institutionalization becomes counterproductive once it passes the point of what Illich calls “conviviality.” He uses that term in the title of his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, and means by the “convivial”—which he will also connect with what in various works, including Gender, he calls the “vernacular”—what can be pursued within ongoing local community life as such, and is “expressive” of that community itself.   “Convivial” tools as well as institutions would be those that are established and maintained truly for the sake of those who establish and maintain them, as expressions of themselves.

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The first epigraph for today’s post, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, about the sake of such expressions as “for the sake of,” comes from a letter Hopkins wrote his friend Robert Bridges dated 26 May 1879. Walter J. Ong cites it in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, page 38), and then glosses it by writing: “Doing something ‘for my sake’ is doing something for me in so far as I have an outreach to you. What is distinctive about ‘my sake’ is not that I am totally self-contained in a solipsistic, self-sufficient world but that the outreach to you is in this case the outreach that comes from me and only from me, that is distinctive of me, not found in any other.”

All the way back at least to Being and Time, Heidegger distinguished between, on the one hand, what we find or fabricate for use “in order to” (um zu) pursue some extrinsic end (a redundant expression, actually, since any end as such is necessarily extrinsic to the thing we find or fabricate for use to achieve that end) and, on the other hand, what we use all such means for pursuing all such ends “for the sake of” (um willen). His discussion helps make clear that what we do “for its own sake” is precisely what we no longer do “in order to” accomplish something else.

So, for example, what we do “for God’s sake” (in German: um Gottes willen) is nothing that we do for any “ulterior motive,” as we put it—some such motive as currying favor with “the Czar of the universe” (to borrow an apt phrase from AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s telling of his own tale in the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous), in order to keep the Big Bully from zapping us for not obeying his orders, or to get him to give us something we want, or the like. What we do “for God’s sake” is just what we do for no other end or reason at all, save adding to God’s own “glory.”

Hopkins is right in what he says in his letter to his friend Bridges about the English word sake, including his remark about the German cognate of that word, which by the conventions governing written modern German would be Sache, meaning “thing” or “matter.” So, for example, a work Heidegger published late in his life was a collection of essays all of which dealt with the same matter—what he called, in the title he gave the whole thing, Zur Sache des Denkens. That title for its own sake might be translated as “On the Thing of Thinking” (or “of Thought”), if we use that word thing the way Baby Boomers such as I still do when we speak on occasion of “doing our own thing.”  Or it might be translated as “On the Matter of Thinking.” At any rate, what Heidegger means by his title could perhaps best be captured by noting that all of the essays in the book address that for the sake of which thinking occurs, that for the sake of which thought takes place.   That is, to ask after die Sache des Denkens is to inquire into what thinking or thought adds to the glory of—what it adds to the luster of, as gold adds to the luster of those suited to wear it.

Hopkins himself is deeply thoughtful to note, for Bridges sake and for his own, that he, Hopkins, himself means by the word sake “the being a thing has outside itself.” That is why I have been speaking in my own turn of what is done “for the sake of” someone or something as done “for the glory” of that one or thing. I will continue to use the example of doing something solely “for God’s sake,” that is, doing it solely to add to God’s own luster, God’s own glory.

The “glory” of God is not something extrinsic to God. It is, rather, to use Hopkins’ own way of putting it, the very being of God as such, God Him-self/Her-self/God-self, “outside” Him-/Her-/God-self. How gloriously Hopkins puts it! The “sake” of a thing is the thing itself as outside itself—as itself there in its shine, its splendor, in short, its glory.

The glory of God’s—God’s very “sake” as such, in Hopkins’ glorious sense of that word—is not there for its own sake, however. The (Hopkinsian) “sake” of God is there to the glory of God, not to it own glory. It is God’s own luster–God’s “name, fame, or memory,” to borrow what Hopkins applies to what he names “man,” but which in his spirit we can happily apply just as aptly (if not even more so) to what we name “God.”

To do something solely “for God’s sake” is thus the same as doing it solely “in the name of God,” or as we also say “for His [sic] name’s sake.” In turn, to act solely “for God’s name’s sake” is not to act to the glory of something apart from God—since God’s “sake” is God’s “name” itself, and both the same are not different from God, but are God’s very being “outside” God Her-/Him-/God-self, that is, what we could aptly and happily call, borrowing from Ong, God’s “outreach” or “presence” to others. To act “in God’s name” or “for God’s name’s sake” is to act to the glory of God God-self. (I hope I have sufficiently indicated by now that I am using that expression God Godself to avoid talking of God Himself or Herself, while still avoiding turning God, that “who” of all “who’s” rather than “what’s,” into any “It”—Id in Latin, and Lat-anglicized Freud. In the name of God let us, to be sure, avoid drafting God’s name into service to sexism, but not at the price of letting that name degenerate to no more than the sign of an “it.”) To act solely for God’s name’s sake is to act in such as way as just to add glory God’s own glory, shine to God’s own shine, luster to God’s own luster. It is to polish the gold in which God always already comes decorously bejeweled. In short, it is to adore the divinely adorned.

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Division by “gender,” as Illich analyses it in his 1983 book of that name, is a convivial duality, as opposed to the non-convivial, specifically counterproductive polarity of division by “sex.” He thereby reverses—or rather “transfigures,” to use a more convivial term, since he does not just turn it around—what still at that time at least (the early 1980s), passed as conventional feminist wisdom. The latter took sex to be less “socially constructed” than gender, and objected above all to distinguishing between two supposedly natural genders rather than the two sexes, of “masculine” and “feminine,” “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman.” Thus, “gender” was commonly taken by feminists to mean something “social” or “cultural,” whereas “sex” was taken to mean something “biological.” In sharp difference, Illich writes (pages 3-4):

I use gender, then, in a new way to designate a duality that in the past was too obvious even to be named, and is so far removed from us today that it is often confused with sex. By ‘sex’ I mean the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting in the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular [from Latin vernaculus, “native, domestic”—so what is “convivial,” in the sense Illich gives that term, which I explained above] gender, which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is ‘catholic’ [that is, claims “universality”—from the literal, etymological meaning of catholic]; it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character of intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, ‘discrimination’) of derivations from [what, under such a “diagnosis,” becomes] the abstract, genderless norm of ‘the human.’ Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous [a mark of its “catholicity,” since the “vernacular” is always and inescapably ambiguous] language of science [that most universal, or catholic, language of that purely, purified catholic “knowledge” that is science]. Gender [in sharp contrast to the exclusively uniform and uni-forming totality of “sex”] bespeaks a complementarity [What a glorious word for it!] that is enigmatic and asymmetrical.

As he sums that up nicely, much later in Gender (in footnote 101, bottom of page 138): “Gendered speech constantly breathes, whispers, and utters gendered duality, while sexed language imposes discrimination. Grammatical gender (genus), therefore, becomes in sexed language what it could not be in gendered speech: a constant device for a put-down.”

For my purposes in this post, what I will take from such fine passages, and from Illich’s Gender as a whole, will not be the issues of sex, gender, totalization, discrimination, globalism, and feminism, the disconnections and interconnections of which he deftly traces in that book. That discussion is most certainly worthy of careful reading and reflection upon for its own sake, to be sure. But for my purposes here all I want to extract from it is the distinction therein between what he calls “duality,” characterized by the “asymmetrical, ambiguous complementarity” of its two sides or halves, and what he calls “polarity,” characterized by how it “imposes discrimination.”

In a brief footnote discussion entitled “Complementarity and Social Science,” within a chapter called “Vernacular Gender” (footnote 52, to pages 68-69), Illich observes that light, in the sense of the Latin lumen, or “way of looking,” was once thought to “stream” from the eye out to the visible thing—in effect, “palpating” it, as Merleau-Ponty liked to put it in various texts, though Illich doesn’t mention him here. Applying that to the vernacular duality of gender, Illich writes that in the analysis he is attempting to present through using that duality, “each culture appears as a metaphor, a metaphoric complementarity relating two distinct sets of tools, two types of space-time, two domains,” which “find expression in different but related styles in which the world is understood or grasped”—two incommensurably different but related beams of light, streaming out from two incommensurably different but related sets of eyes to palpate the visible.

In contrast, he goes on, science “is a filter that screens from the observer’s eye the ambiguity of gendered [that is dual, asymmetrically complementary] light.” As a result of such filtering out of all such irreducible ambiguity within what is called “social science,” the “asymmetry that constitutes the social reality of each vernacular is effected by the central perspective of cultural anthropology,” which institutionalizes a “monochromatic, genderless [that is, utterly univocal and uni-sighted] lumen”—the single, glaring, contour-blanching light “of such concepts as rule, exchange, and structure.” Such concepts—which word comes from Latin con, “with,” and capare, “take, grasp, seize”—cease to conceptualize (to grasp in and for thought) anything of what Illich calls “the Eigen-value [from the German eigen, “own,’ in the sense of belonging or being “proper to” that which has, manifests, or in short shines forth with and in, it] of each and every vernacular reality,” that is, every local, native, domestic, home-grown and home-growing, concrete, really real reality.

Accordingly: “What the scientific observer sees through his diagnostic spectacles are not men and women who really act in a gendered subsistence society but sexual deviants from an abstract, genderless cultural norm who have to be operationalized, measured, ranked, and structured into hierarchies.” Thus, as Illich then concludes his discussion in this footnote by writing: “Cultural anthropology that operates with genderless concepts is inevitably sexist,” with a sexism that is “much more blinding than old-style ethnocentric arrogance.”

Later in the same chapter, in a footnote discussion entitled “Ambiguous Complementarity” (footnote 57, bottom of pages 75-76), Illich himself nicely grasps in his own thought just what such pseudo-concepts as exchange actually accomplish, which has nothing to do with vision, but everything to do with imposition. I have already given that passage above, as the second epigraph for this post, but it bears repeating here, to end today’s post:

Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between man and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

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My next post will finish the current series on “The Traumatic Word.” (I promise!)

* Of course, a select few are singled out by the schooling system to become hyper-educated (Ph.D.’s like me, for example), but just as the income gap between the monetarily rich and the monetarily poor keeps on widening, so does the education gap between us members of the hyper-educated elite and the common folk whom one of my colleagues at the University of Denver used to like to dismiss by calling them “the great unwashed.”   As to how schooling pursued beyond the tipping point at issue can create its own teacher-caused equivalent to doctor-caused illnesses, I am reminded of something I used to tell the students in my own classes, before I learned more skillful means of subverting the university: “Any idiot can get a Ph.D.—in fact, being an idiot helps.”   In Shadow Work, published in 1981 (Boston and London: Marion Boyars), two years before Gender, Illich himself writes (page 31): “Students ask if they are in school to learn or to collaborate in their own stupefaction. Increasingly, the toil of consumption overshadows the relief consumption promised.”


The Traumatic Word (2)

This is the second post in a series on “The Traumatic Word.”

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The word in its purest form, in its most human and divine form, in its holiest form, the word which passes orally between man and man to establish and deepen human relations, the word in a world of sound, has its limitations. It can overcome some of these—impermanence, inaccuracy—only by taking on others—objectivity, concern with things as things, quantification, impersonality.

The question is: Once the word has acquired these new limitations, can it retain its old purity? It can, but for it to do so we must reflectively recover that purity. This means that we must now seek further to understand the nature of the word as word, which involves understanding the word as sound.

— Walter J. Ong, S. J., The Presence of the Word (page 92)

The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.

— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (page 184)

We listen not so much to words as through them.

May years ago, when I first had to start wearing glasses, which was not until well into adulthood, it took me a while to adjust, as is common. Until that adjustment had taken place, I often found myself seeing my glasses themselves, rather than (or at least in addition to) what I saw through them. My eyes were unsure, as it were, about just where to focus: on my glasses, or on what lay beyond them. During that adjustment period, the glasses were more of a distraction to my vision than an enhancement of it. I found myself wanting to look at my glasses, rather than through them.

Similarly, when some year later I had to start wearing hearing aids, at first they were also more distractions to my hearing than aids to it. I found myself wanting to listen to the hearing aids, rather than through them.

As is true for any good, useful tool, the job of glasses and hearing aids is to vanish into their usage—in the case of glasses and hearing aids, into the vision and audition they are respectively designed to make possible. That’s just what both my glasses and my hearing aids did, at least as soon as I’d adjusted to wearing them.

Insofar as words are no more for us than means of conveying information or “messages” back and forth between “senders” and “receivers”—they too, at least when they are good little words, vanish into their usage. Otherwise, they become “noise” in the sense at issue in information theory: “interference” that distorts the message, just as static does on a radio. Words that call attention to themselves are just so much noise, when it comes to the transfer of information.

It is worth noting that, taken as the Word of God, Jesus is very noisy. He constantly calls attention to himself in one way or another.

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At one point in The Presence of the Word Walter J. Ong discusses how the word, as spoken sound, is “noninterfering” (page 147), whereas in contrast the gesture is “interfering” (page 148). By that he does not mean that the word is low on the noise-making scale, and the gesture high on it. Obviously, the contrary is the case. As sound, the word is nothing but noise, whereas a gesture makes no noise at all. The word is to be heard, and therefore must sound off; it must make noise. The gesture, however, is given to be seen.

Of course, in saying such things I am clearly just playing with the word noise, since the noisiness of the word is not a matter of its interference with the delivery of a message, but is instead actually essential to the usefulness of the word for carrying messages. A word that made no noise in the sense that it did not sound at all, would be a word that remained unspoken and therefore incapable of sending any message, conveying any information, whatever. In turn, however, the same thing applies to the gesture: a gesture that called no attention to itself—which made no noise in that sense—would be no less incapacitated as an information-transfer system than would a never-sounded word. It would be tantamount to a gesture that did not “give itself to be seen” in the first place, and therefore utterly failed to deliver any message at all.

By making such noise about the word noise, by playing noisily with that word, what I want to call to readers’ attention is, at least in part, that when Ong says the sounded word is “noninterfering,” whereas the gesture is “interfering,” he is not using that latter term the same way it is used in information theory. Rather, what he means when he says the sounded word, the voice, is “noninterferring” is, he explains, that “one can use the voice while doing other things with the muscles of the hands, legs, and other parts of the body.” In contrast, the gesture is “interfering”: “It demands the cessation of a great many physical activities which can be carried on easily while one is talking.”

Despite differentiating between gesture and word in that way, Ong nevertheless writes (on page 148) that “[i]t may be that human communication began with gesture and proceeded from there to sound (voice). Gesture would be a beautiful beginning, for gesture is a beautiful and supple thing.” If we take that suggestion seriously, then it may even turn out that the word itself remains a gesture—only a vocal, audible gesture, rather than a nonvocal, visible one. That would still fit with Ong’s point about the voiced word being “noninterfering,” since it would simply require confining “interfering” to non-vocal gestures. And that, in turn, would still leave room for what Ong says next, right after remarking on the beauty of a possible gestural beginning for the word: “But, if this was a development which really took place, the shift from gesture [that is, now: non-vocal gesture] to sound [vocal gesture] was, on the whole, unmistakably an advance in communications and in human relations.”

Yet even if that be granted, it still remains the case that, in the sense of “interference” at issue in information theory, as opposed to Ong’s own usage of that term, it is not just what he calls gesture, that is, what I just suggested might better be called “non-vocal gesture,” that “interferes.” Rather, both his “gesture” (my “non-vocal gesture”) and his “word” (my “vocal gesture”) are essentially “interfering.” That is, both by their very nature throw up obstacles to optimum transparency of any “message” they might be used to carry, any transmission of information they might be used to accomplish. That is because both call attention to themselves, not just to what comes packaged in them.

The beauty of gesture to which Ong himself calls attention is inseparable from gesture’s thus calling attention to itself. Beauty does that. It stops us in our tracks, brings us up short, dazzles us, stuns us, shocks us into silence and admiration—from Latin mirare, “to look,” and ad, “to or at,” but we also extend our usage of “admire” with ease to cover as well our attitude toward perceived auditory beauty, beauty that is heard rather than seen. Both gestures and words (or non-verbal gestures and verbal ones, if that is what the distinction at issue finally turns out really to be) have that arresting quality. Both a raised middle finger and the verbal equivalent, for example, have it.

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Whether I silently “give the finger” to people or yell “Fuck you!” at them, in either case I am telling them the same thing. What is more, however, the process of telling those to whom they are directed whatever those two, the nonverbal gesture and the verbal one, do tell them, both gestures tell it in a way designed to call attention to the telling itself. For both, just delivering information is far from all they are doing, or even the most important thing.

What they are doing, when taken in their fullness as gestures, is actually sharing a world. To be sure, the specific nonverbal and verbal gestures I have chosen as my examples (flipping someone off, or telling someone the same thing verbally) share the world with the person to whom they are directed in a very polemical, which is to say war-like, way (from Greek polemos, “war” or “strife” ”—which, according to Heraclitus, is “the father of all things”). Such gestures, verbal or not, convey enmity, even hatred. Indeed, it is for that very reason that I have chosen them as my examples.

As Sartre was good at pointing out, hate no less than love is a way of taking the other person seriously. It is a way of remaining genuinely in communication with that other person, rather than breaking the communication off. What breaks off communication—or never lets it get started in the first place—is not hate, but rather the indifference of passing one another by, unheeded.

In communicating with one another, we certainly process information back and forth. By yelling, “Fuck you!” at someone, I convey considerable information to that person, should said person wish to treat my behavior as no more than a message to be processed—ignoring me and focusing instead on decoding whatever information my behavior encodes. Such a decoder could decode lots and lots of bits of information from that single bit of my behavior: information about me (such as information about the current condition of my vocal apparatus, or where I was born, from details of my pronunciation); information about the culture from which I come; information about the decoder himself or herself (including that he or she apparently just did something that somehow triggered my outburst, and may even be under immediate threat of danger from me as a result, should I stop yelling and start acting). My behavior is chock full of all sorts of information, enough to satisfy any would-be decoder. However, in ignoring me to focus instead on decoding the information contained in my outburst, the person to whom I directed that outburst would run the very real risk of just enraging me further through such a display of personal indifference.

Sartre’s point that hating someone is a way of remaining in relationship with that person can be put in a more Heideggerian way by saying that hating is continuing to care about the other person. Ong also makes essentially the same point in The Presence of the Word, when he says that no matter how polemical or even verbally abusive talk between people may become, at its core (page 192) “[t]he word moves toward peace because it mediates between person and person.” As he proceeds to point out (page 193):

When hostility becomes total, the most vicious name-calling is inadequate: speech is simply broken off entirely. One assaults another physically or at least ‘cuts’ him by passing him in total silence. 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.**

To pass from speech, no matter how vicious or even abusive, to a fist striking a jaw or a bullet tearing flesh is to cease gesturing at all any longer, whether verbally or nonverbally. To send a fist into the face of another or a bullet into that other’s chest is not to gesture at anyone. It is to break off all gesturing, and therewith to break off all genuine further communication.

To continue with Ong’s ways of formulating things, what is truly distinctive about communication, properly so called, is that it is the sharing with one another of what is “interior” with regard to each of the communicants—sharing it precisely as “interior,” so that it continues, in its very being shared, still to be closed off, unseen, not laid out in the open, in short, continues to be invisible. That is why Ong repeatedly insists that the word as such is sound. Sound alone can plumb the interior depths that vision—or taste or smell or touch, for that matter, in the final analysis—can never attain, depths that vision can never “sound,” as we by no accident say. Sound sounds from, and “resounds” or “resonates” from, the interior of that which is sounding, whether sounding of itself (as does the animal in its cry or the human being in speaking) or sounding through the action of another (as does a melon when thumped or a wall when knocked).

In that telling sense, communication is the sharing of what can never be processed as information, in short, the sharing of the un-sharable. Ultimately, to communicate is gives voice to the incommunicable.

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“The spoken word is a genuine gesture, and it contains its meaning in the same way as the gesture contains it. This is what makes communication possible.”   So writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his 1945 Phenomenology of Perception (translated by Colin Smith, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, page 183). Those two sentences occur a bit earlier in the same passage that ends with the line I used for my second epigraph at the beginning of this post. Right after those two sentences, the passage at issue continues as follows (pages 183-184):

In order that I may understand the words of another person it is clear that his vocabulary and syntax must be ‘already known’ to me. But that does not mean that words do their work by arousing in me ‘representations’ associated with them, and which in aggregate eventually reproduce in me the original ‘representation’ of the speaker. What I communicate with primarily is not ‘representations’ or a thought, but a speaking subject, with a certain style of being and with the ‘world’ at which he directs his aim. Just as the sense-giving intention which has set in motion the other person’s speech is not an explicit thought, but a certain lack which is asking to be made good, so my taking up of this intention is not a process of thinking on my part, but a synchronizing change of my own existence, a transformation of my being.

Nevertheless, because to live in the world together is also to live in, with, and by building, “institutions” together, there is a tendency of the spoken word to lose its sonority, as it were—to lose what, favoring the visual over the auditory as our culture has done since the Greeks (that, too, has become institutionalized), we might well call the word’s “shine” or even its “glitter.” The word comes no longer to call attention to itself, but instead sinks down to the level of the commonplace utterance, and language becomes no more than a system of signs. The word no longer calls out to be heard, and to be given thought. Accordingly, the passage from Merleau-Ponty continues:

We live in a world where speech is an institution. For all these many commonplace utterances, we possess within ourselves ready-made meanings. They arouse in us only second order thoughts; these in turn are translated into other words which demand from us no real effort of expression and will demand from our hearers no effort of comprehension. Thus language and the understanding of language apparently raise no problems. The linguistic and intersubjective world no longer surprises us, we no longer distinguish it from the world itself, and it is within a world already spoken and speaking that we think. We become unaware of the contingent element in expression and communication, whether it be in the child learning to speak, or in the writer saying and thinking something for the first time, in short, in all who transform a certain kind of silence into speech. It is, however, quite clear that constituted speech, as it operates in daily life, assumes that the decisive step of expression has been taken. Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin, so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and as long as we do not describe the action which breaks this silence.

Silence is broken by the action of speaking, of sounding the word. Hence, Merleau-Ponty ends his long passage with the line I already used as my second epigraph for this post:

The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.

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My next post will continue this series on “The Traumatic Word.”

** In future, I may devote one or more posts to how it stands between the word, sound, and peace—especially today, our endless day of global market capitalism. If so, I may call the post/s something such as “Shattering Silence of Peace.”

The Traumatic Word (1)

In the strict sense, the word is not a sign at all. For to say its is a sign is to liken it to something in the field of vision. Signum was used for the standard which Roman soldiers carried to identify their military units. It means primarily something seen. The word is not visible. The word is not in the strict sense even a symbol either, for symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties. The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be “broken” and reassembled.

Neither can it be completely defined.

— Walter J. Ong, S. J.

We would like language to be no more than a system of signs, a means for conveying information. At least since Aristotle, and down past C. S. Pierce to the present day, that view of language has been all but universally taken for granted, just assumed as true. It isn’t, as Walter J. Ong realized.

Ong was a United States professor of English who focused upon linguistic and cultural history—especially the cleft between oral and literary cultures, which was the topic of his most influential work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, originally published in 1982.  The lines above are taken from an earlier work, however. They are from next to last page of The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, first published in 1967 but consisting of lectures Ong gave by invitation at Yale in 1964, as the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures On Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy for that year.

Besides being a professor of English, with a Ph.D. in that field from Harvard, Ong had done graduate work in both philosophy and theology, and was also a priest of the Society of Jesus, that is, the Jesuit order, as the “S. J.” after his name indicates. That religious provenance is manifest in his work. In The Presence of the Word, it is especially evident in Ong’s focus not just on any old word, so to speak, but on “the” word in a particular sense. His concern in his Terry Lectures is not just on “words in general,” as the ordinary way of taking his title would suggest. So understood, “the word” in Ong’s title would function the same way “the whale” functions in the sentence, “The whale is a mammal,” which is equivalent to “All whales are mammals,” thus picking out a feature that is common to whales in general, applying indifferently to each and every whale whatever. Ong’s underlying focus in his Terry Lectures, however, is not upon words in general but rather upon the word in the distinctive sense that one might say, for example, that Mount Everest is not just a mountain but rather the mountain, the very embodiment of mountain as such.

Befitting the intent of the grant establishing the Terry Lectures, Ong’s underlying focus in The Presence of the Word, furthermore, is not upon some word that might come out of just anyone’s mouth. It is, rather, upon one uniquely singular word that comes out of one uniquely singular mouth—namely, “the Word of God.” At issue is the Word of which John says in the very opening verse of his version of the Christian Gospel (John 1:1): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Thus, to put it in terms that became traditional within Christianity only long after John but based upon his Gospel, Ong’s underlying focus in The Presence of the Word is on Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity.

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Alain Badiou’s seven-session seminar in 1986 was devoted to Malebranche (published in French by Fayard in 2013 as Malebranche: L’être 2—Figure thélogique). In his session of April 29, 1986, Badiou argued that Malebranche, being the committed Christian thinker that he was, found it necessary to think of God’s being (être) in terms of the cleavage (clivage) of God into Father and Son—which, we should note, though Badiou himself calls no special attention to it at this point, is a self-cleavage definitive of the Christian God in that God’s very being, such that God is God only in so self-cleaving.

However, to think of God’s being by thinking it back into his self-cleavage into Father and Son is to empty the thought of God of any substantial content beyond self-cleaving action itself: “In the retroaction of his cleavage,” as Badiou puts it (page 149), “God is empty: he is nothing but his process, his action.” God, so thought, is nothing but the very action set in action by the act of God’s self-cleaving. God voids God-self of any substantively separate self in such self-cleavage, and is only in such vanishing.

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It is no accident—and it is deeply resonant with the opening of the John’s Gospel, it bears noting—that Walter Ong, long after Malebranche but more than twenty years before Badiou’s seminar on the latter, says the very same thing of the word. According to Ong (page 9 of The Presence of the Word), the emergence of electronic media in the 20th century “gives us a unique opportunity to become aware at a new depth of the significance of the word.” Not many pages later (on page 18) he expands on that point, writing: “Our new sensitivity to the media has brought with it a growing sense of the word as word, which is to say of the word as sound.” That growing sense of the word as word calls upon us to pay “particular attention to the fact that the word is originally, and in the last analysis irretrievably, a sound phenomenon,” that is, the fact that originally and always the word sounds. The word as word—which is to say the word as saying something—is the word as sound. The word only speaks by sounding.

Not every sound is a word, of course. However, every word is a sound. Or, to put that more resoundingly—that is, to make the sound louder (using the re- of resound not in its sense of “again,” but rather in its intensifying sense, as when we speak of a “resounding success”)—the word as word is nothing but sound, or rather sound-ing. As Malbranche’s God is nothing but his own process or action, so is the word nothing but “how it sounds,” if you will.

The word as sound, Ong insists repeatedly, is pure event. “A word [as spoken sound] is a real happening, indeed a happening par excellence” (page 111). In that sense, we might say that the word never is, but rather forever vanishes. The word as word is a “vocalization, a happening,” as Ong puts it at one point (page 33), adding a bit later (on pages 41-42):

Speech itself as sound is irrevocably committed to time. It leaves no discernable direct effect in space[. . .]. Words come into being through time and exist only so long as they are going out of existence. It is impossible [. . .] to have all of an utterance present to us at once, or even all of a word. When I pronounce “reflect,” by the time I get to the “-flect” the “re-” is gone.* A moving object in a visual field can be arrested. It is, however, impossible to arrest sound and have it still present. If I halt a sound it no longer makes any noise [that is, no longer “sounds” at all].

The word’s sounding is its event-ing, its coming forth in its very vanishing: as sounding, it “does not result in any fixity, in a ‘product,’” but instead “vanishes immediately” (page 95). The word as such is a vanishing that, in so vanishing, speaks, or says something. It speaks or says, as Ong observes (page 73), in the sense “caught in one of the accounts of creation in Genesis (1:3): ‘God said, Let there be light. And there was light.’ ” Such saying is creation itself, as the very letting be of what is bespoken.

In thus vanishing before what it calls forth, just what does the word—not just any old word, but the word as word—say?

It says the world.

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More than once in his lecturing and writing, Heidegger addressed a poem by Stefan George entitled “Das Wort” (“The Word”), the closing line of which is: “Kein ding sei wo das wort gebricht.” In German, gebrechen means “to be missing or lacking”; and sei is the subjunctive form of the verb sein, “to be”—as, for example, in the line “If this be love, then . . .”   If we take sei that way in George’s poem, then his closing line says something such as: “no thing may be, where the word is lacking.” It would then express the relatively commonplace idea that, if we don’t have a name for something, as a sort of label to attach to it, then that thing doesn’t really take on full, separate status for us, such that we can retain it clearly in our thought, memory, and discourse with one another. That’s the idea that a thing really and fully “is” for us, separate and distinct from other things, only when we come up with such a name by which to label it—as, for example, an old bit of what passes for popular wisdom has it that we, who do not have a whole bunch of different names for different qualities of snow, such as the Eskimos are said to have, are not really able to see those differences, at least not with the clarity and ease with which the Eskimos are purported to be able to see them.

At the same time, however, sei is also the imperative form of the same verb, sein, “to be”—the form, for instance, a teacher might use to admonish a classroom full of unruly children, “Sei ruhig!” (“Be still!”). Taken that way, George’s closing line would have to be rendered as the imperative, “Let no thing be, where the word is lacking.”

What’s more, gebrechen, “to be missing or lacking,” derives from brechen, “to break,” which is not heard any longer at all in “missing” or “lacking.” At the same time, used as a noun, ein Gebrechen means a more or less lasting debilitation of some sort, such as a chronic limp from an old broken leg, or a mangled hand from an industrial accident (and it is interesting, as a side-note, that “to lack” in German is mangeln). If we were to try to carry over some part of what thus sounds in the German gebrechen, then we might translate the word no longer as “to be missing or lacking,” but instead by something such as “to break” (as the waves break against the shore), or “to break off” (as a softly sounded tone might suddenly be broken off in a piece of music, perhaps to be suddenly replaced or overridden by another, more loudly sounded one—or by a demanding call coming in on a cell-phone with a ringer set on high volume), or “to break up” (as the voices of those stricken by grief might break up when speaking of their losses).

Hearing gebricht along such lines, the closing verse of George’s poem “The Word” would say something to the effect that where the word breaks, or breaks off, or breaks up, there is no thing.

The way I just worded the end of the preceding sentence—“there is no thing”—is intentionally ambiguous, designed to retain some of the rich ambiguity of George’s own line, most especially a part of its ambiguity which is important to what Heidegger would have us hear in that line. To say that where the word breaks, or breaks off, or breaks up, “there is no thing” can be taken two different ways. First, it can be taken to say that no thing “exists.” That way of taking it would fit with the presumably common way of taking George’s line articulated above, whereby that line says that things fully “are” or “exist” for us as distinct and separate things only when we have names for them in their distinctness. However, the same phrase, “there is no thing,” can also be taken in a second way, one in which the first word is emphasized: “there”—that is at such and such a specific place. At what place, exactly, would no thing be? By George’s line, no thing would be exactly there, where the word breaks up, breaks off, just breaks: There, where the word breaks, don’t look for any thing. There, where the word breaks, you will have to look for something else altogether, something that really is no “thing” at all.

Yet if we are not to look for any thing there, where the word breaks, just what are we to look for? What are we to expect to take place there, where the word breaks? Heidegger’s response to that question is that there, where the word breaks, no thing, but rather the “is” itself takes place—the very letting be of whatever may be, as it were, takes place there.

“Thar she blows!” old whalers would call, at least by our stereotypes of them, when a whale broke the water’s surface again after diving when harpooned. “There she be!” they could as well have said, though less colorfully. Well, where the word breaks, there be world.

Just how would the word break—in the sense that the waves break against the beach or Moby Dick breaks the ocean’s surface—if it were not as sound, breaking against silence? Sounding in the silence, the very silence that it breaks, the word is word: It speaks.

As I said before, what the word says—what its says there, where it breaks out, and up, and off as sound—is world.

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At this point, I will break off my reflections on “The Traumatic Word,” to resume them, given the breaks to do so, in my next post.

* That is worth repeating. So Ong repeats it almost twenty years later, in Orality and Literacy, just varying his example: instead of using “reflect,” he uses “existence,” and says that by the time I get to the “-tence,” the “exist-” no longer exists. That example especially well suits the word itself, which as word—that is to say, as sound sounding—“exists only at the instant when it is going out of existence,” to use Ong’s way of puting it at one point in The Presence of the Word (page 101).