Thursday, January 28, 2016

An Early Lenten Reflection: Hiding and Seeking

When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. The LORD God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you? He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat? The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman: What is this you have done? The woman answered, “The snake tricked me, so I ate it.” [Gen. 3:8-13, NAB]

The simplicity of the action in the story of the Fall of the Human Creature provides a relationality of seeking, hiding, being seen, being accused,  and even accusing, despite all the finger-pointing every which way. Whatever Michaelangelo intended in his painting of the creation of man, the fingers of the man and God are pointed in accusation toward each other.

'Where are you?' The man does not respond with the hineni of the Patriarchs, the 'here I am' that formulates the responsible response to the call. Instead, the man, in fear, shame and even guilt, conceals himself. When put to the test of an honest response, the man points at the women in a vain attempt to defray his guilt, and at God, for 'put[ting] her here with me.' Not to be outdone in buck-passing, the woman points to the snake. As that great philosopher-theologian, Flip Wilson, has concluded, the devil made them do it. No one in Genesis 3 seems to own anything they do. Well, perhaps things are not as bad as all that.

In his The Moral Emotions: Reclaiming the Evidence of the Heart (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Pr., 2014), Anthony Steinbock has identified this hiding from God as the 'paradigm of shame,' and he rightly states that 'hiding' signifies the injury in the relationship between the human and the divine. However, it is the very discovery of nakedness (punning on the Hebrew 'arum/'eyrom cunning/nakedness), and shame that also confirms that the general orientation to God has not been abrogated; for that orientation is the source of the moral emotions experience by the man and the woman. God, in his orientation toward the man, seeks the human; the human, in their orientation toward God, seek God, despite the change in the relationship.

At the heart of shame before God is the change in heart, called by some 'repentance,' the metanoia that holds out the possibility of healing the injured relationship with God. Indeed, once the emotion of shame experienced by the man and the woman becomes attached to an 'act,' an accomplishment that comprises a transgression against the 'other' (in this case, God), the emotional structure becomes more complex to includes guilt, which, in its consideration and fundamental orientation to and of the 'other,' opens upon the possibility of change, both in the meaning of the past action/transgression, and its future status.

"Make straight the path of the Lord" [John 1.23; Isaiah 40:3].

God takes no path to the human; his unconditional call is already there. Only the human needs to tend her garden, keep its paths open and direct, letting nothing hide or impede any progress upon them. No thicket, no forest, shall cast a shadow upon the path. The changing heart is a most wonderful and creative gardener. And while every day is a day for metanoia, Lent provides a place in the liturgical life of the Church that magnifies the seeking of the human and the divine. This movement of liturgy invites the human person into a personhood constituted by responsibility toward the other, and the interpersonal space of the self given to the Myself (which is the good to myself for me). This movement is oriented 'up', into the verticality not only of religious experience but of moral experience as well.

Making 'straight the path' is a kind of phenomenological reduction, where the self sets all things aside so that it may appear before the "Other." The textures of pride collapse, leaving only an authentic self giving itself to the Myself, effacing all counterfeit claims that feed such pride, which Steinbock identifies as the "poverty" of the recipient of givenness. Such a self, standing free and clear, has a richness about it, a plasticity that can open upon idolatry (suppressing givenness, squeezing it into a place where it cannot be contained) or upon a lack that receives what has given itself. This "lack" is not the flat 'lack 'of Lacanian psychoanalysis that seeks any fulfillment, any occlusion by any signifier that happens to be floating by. This lack seeks not occlusion but a different kind of fulfillment where the self gives itself to Myself as oriented to the other, to 'revelation' and the metanoia the ensues when  the human self positions itself before holiness.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Nostos: A Phenomenology of Baseball and the Play of Verticality

Just in case you missed it, Baseball is the Great American Pastime; if we didn't know it before, we certainly knew it after Ken Burns' Baseball.

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Just buy me some
peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game.

The first person to ever 'steal home' was not even a ball player, though he would have made a great manager: Odysseus. It took him 20 years to get back home, only to find his home defended by the visiting team; and the only way he can finally get home, is to steal it back again. In the process he drives home at least 2 points, one through the ax-heads, the other through Antinous's  throat, the locus of his usurpations. For Odysseus, these are all ecological matters, but to return to baseball, it's just part of the game.

Baseball is based on home, based on home base, based on a diamond-shaped field of 3 other bases, which need to be traversed prior to arrival at home. Putting aside the adolescent sexual metaphor of getting to 'first base,' and Elaine Benes' warning Keith Hernandez that she's not 'waving him in,' or Woody Allen's classic schtick about thinking of baseball to defer the moment of ecstasy, we can safely say that, for the most part, baseball is not really, or at least not just, about sex. Baseball is about nostos, and it enacts the epic journey of the hero returning to where he started, through trials and tribulations; and, in its fanfare for the common man, provides structures and patterns of human experience.

Come to think of it, perhaps baseball really is about sex, but 'sex' as generation and generativity, about the navigation of homeworld and alienworld, and the constitution of the lifeworld. Baseball entails home teams and visiting teams, about playing 'at home' or 'on the road;'  about playing in one's 'own house' or at someone else's 'own house.' We root for the 'home team' and, presumably having left our own homes to get to the home field, the matter is so grave that we 'don't care if we ever get back' (something Odysseus could never say). Baseball is alienating for fans and players alike.

When a batter comes 'up to the plate' he stands very near home, oscillating over the base. The game invites him to leave the environing region of home through the trial of a 'pitch,' a projectile aimed at home but sometimes at the batter's head: baseball is a dangerous endeavor and being 'safe' is never guaranteed. If the batter gets the better part of the pitch, the battle is joined and the journey begins; if the pitch gets the better of the batter the batter is out, and retired to the dugout.

The home field is filled by 9 visitors, invaders really, who have pitched their tent for a few days, and who dedicate their play against the home team's desire to generate 'runs' or points that increase their score by crossing the threshold of home, home plate. Scoring is about reduplication, a generativity of returning home that increases the mass of home itself. Home is defended by increasing the home team's score and limiting the visitors' victories, their crossing the threshold of a home not their own. Each alien transgression of home is an assault, a diminution, an idolatrous delimitation of the home team, the home crowd, the homeworld.

Of course there would be no game were it not for competition, the engagement with the alien, the visitor[s]. Therein lies the threat to verticality: in baseball terms, the coming together of the team and the fans in the generativity of 'scoring' and 'winning.' There is no generativity apart from the creative tension between home and alien: teams can play all the 'practice games' they want, but growth in stature, fecundity in competitive and comparative standings, occurs only with respect to the alien. Sameness---intramural sport--- generates no real points, scores or statures. The threat to verticality is embedded in the inherent 'hospitality' of the game.  It is constitutive of baseball, as lifeworld, to play out on the co-constitutive and co-relative interface of the homeworld and alienworld. After all, in any game of baseball, the visitors come up to the plate as well.

When the NY Yankees host the Boston Red Sox, the pregnancy of hospitality starts the 'game' before the actual game begins. Sport-talk happens, on the parts of the players and the fans. In this example the Yankees are home, and the Red Sox are  'on the road.' Ya gotta love this 'on the road' business: everyone in baseball understands the metaphorical character of the phrase. No one familiar with the game thinks play will occur on some interstate highway. 'On the road' and 'away' euphemistically refer to a game to be played on alien territory. This state of affairs reminds us of the enemy attack on the homeland or homefront (to use a WWII expression) as I have recently discussed in Grendel's visits to Heorot. The Red Sox dedicate themselves to committing what Anthony Steinbock has dubbed 'idolatry' (as I alluded above), which manifests as the denial of the Yankees' achieving 'verticality': a fecundity of scoring, of generativity.

Baseball understands the centrality of the 'other' and its relation to the 'self,' or to use Steinbock's wonderful term, the Myself. Co-constitutive, co-relative play of the homeworld and alienworld makes baseball more than a game symbolic of the acquisition of private property, of adding someone else's home to 'my home;' that doesn't happen in baseball,  even if the standing of the Myself is competitively portrayed in scoring and statistics. For baseball, hospitality is always generative, 'for the love of the game.' The threat to verticality, played out as idolatry of competition, of defensive play, is constitutive of baseball, whose rules are laid down on the horizontal but played out always pointing to the vertical.

Beginning with Ken Burns' Baseball was no mere gratuitous reference. I began there because Burns' documentary, along with other kinds of films, such as Field of Dreams, The Natural, Pride of the Yankees, For the Love of the Game, underscores the importance of Baseball to the American imagination, its culture and values, and Baseball's reach into the experience of actual persons. The penetration of baseball-talk into everyday life speaks to the experience of Americans as Baseball itself has been woven into the fabric of Americana. Baseball language has legal ramifications, such as in the '3 strikes and you're out' rule; it has business ramifications as well, as when, after a boardroom meeting, Harry says to Sally, 'hey you really hit that one out of the park;' or when, after a business lunch Bill says to Susan, 'you really hit a homerun.' In business or politics people 'strike out' all the time, or something really comes 'out of left field.' Indeed, many people's failures are expressed as such persons being sent 'back to the bullpen.'

Baseball, in common parlance, bespeaks the navigations of the homeworld and alienworld, and traversals of territories. Threats to verticality---suppression or delimitation of any social, political, commercial, moral, ecological, religious orientation other than the status quo, the horizontal axis of monochromic, totalized closed-off existence---enter experience as perturbations in the co-constitution and co-relativity of home and alien. Moral and ecological phenomena, and other phenomena of home-coming, cut across the plane of the natural attitude, and point off the horizontal toward an intersecting plane at angles ever so acute, but always poised for vertical flight.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Case of Case: A Thought on A Grammar of Relations and the Verticality of Experience

As you no doubt recall, the nominative case is case of the subject, the accusative the case of the direct object, the dative the case of the indirect object, and the genitive the case of the multiplicities in subjects and objects (direct or indirect). There are special cases for these cases, but let it suffice for now to note these four. In phenomenology, and in post-structuralist approaches in general, the accusative gets some attention. It is the case of the "I" called, or called out, pointed to, seen, and even, of course, accused.

A little confession: I still like Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film always struck me as a fairly obvious allegory of the theophany on Mount Sinai, and the calling of a people to an encounter with the divine. As you no doubt recall, the film depicts an alien visitation, a 'scheduled' visitation, on Devils Tower, the first declared national monument in the US. The aliens have sent a thought, a mental image to whomever can receive it, and the receivers are moved to all sorts of behaviors, mostly artistic endeavors that represent the mental image, which is of the famous monument in Wyoming. Roy Neary, the troubled protagonist in the film, is driven nearly insane by the image in his mind until he makes the visual connection between his sculpture of Devils Tower and its appearance on TV. He goes to Wyoming to learn if it's all real.

Just as Roy is called, we are all potentially open to an anonymous call, a call that pulls us into a relationality with something. Roy is driven by his accusation toward an image, a voice. Is Roy Neary a mystic? There is a wonderful scene in the film in which the communication between human and alien, a musical dialogue, a tonal conversation, takes place in a crescendo of notes. At first, single tones are played on a keyboard, and then a particular melody. finally the alien craft responds and answers the musical provocation, by completing the musical phrase. Then the music becomes increasingly complex, and the human keyboardist struggles to keep up, as the complexity emerging from the alien taxes his abilities. Finally, the alien takes over, and the keyboard is shown playing itself, being played by the alien, as the fantastic communication continues.

A theme shared by mystical traditions of monotheistic faiths is a graduated experience of the divine. This theme is magnificently described in Anthony Steinbock's Phenomenology and Mysticism (Indiana Univ. Pr.: Bloomington, 2007) and these comments are indebted to his presentation there. Whether Neary is a mystic or not is really not the point: what is important is that the accusative case is not only the case of being called, seen, or accused, but also of being chosen. I read the musical dialogue in Close Encounters as the gradations of verticality as one moves from the natural, human-directed efforts to ascend into a new relationality, toward the divine, where divinity itself directs the ascent---where the keyboard plays itself, where something other than the human takes over and lifts the human toward itself in a very close encounter. 

Neary, like some of the mystics in the monotheistic traditions, is accused, called, seen and chosen. He acts in his world (as St. Teresa of Avila, Rabbi Dov Baer and Ruzbihan Baqli do in theirs) as part of his hineni, his 'here I am.' Perhaps 'everyday mystics' are potentially open to the kind of gradual (which is not to say hierarchical) approach to the divine insistence. Accusation and chosen-ness is the case of a grammar of relationality that releases the event of religious verticality. The less we try, so it seems, the more effortless our approach to the divine becomes, because we are seen, not because of our own will to be seen, but because the givenness of another will takes over, brings us over to another place. The shifting of grammatical cases plays out as 'subjects' become 'objects' and objects and subjects become multiples, in countless encounters as we find status before and after the Word, that is, the 'verb.'

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Monsters on the Frontier: The Denial of Liminality and the Restoration of the Lifeworld by Baptism

As I traverse "Terrain and Territory" in Anthony Steinbock's fascinating and difficult study of phenomenology, Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl (Northwestern, 1995), I allow my favorite monster from literature to intrude upon the landscape: Grendel, who famously appears in the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. Of course, Steinbock's presentation of the 'homeworld' and 'alienworld' and his adoption of these Husserlian ideas within his project of 'generative phenomenology' sets the stage for Grendel's entrance within the 'lifeworld' of the Danes.

Grendel, of Cain's kin and the 'shadow-walker,' hates the sounds of 'joy,' the celebrations within Heorot, Hrothgar's hall, where this king of the Danes gathered with his retainers in the evening. Joy, singing and even inebriation continue until the monster stopped all that with nocturnal murder. What kind of being but a monster could rage against joy? Why does joy and song enrage such a creature? Another nickname for the monster holds a clue: mearcstapa, the 'border-stepper.'

Grendel, whose name suggests both 'ground' and 'border' (consider Mod. Ger. Grenzen) or 'frontier,' crosses from the fens he holds fast to Hrothgar's mead-hall, without ever stepping into liminality.  He personifies the limit, yet never stands at the border of two world, as the 'hero on the beach' often does in Old English poetry (the hero at the border of two worlds is thematic in the Anglo-Saxon poetic record). As a shadow consigned to the lineage of Cain, Grendel can never cross over the outer limit, never become the brave one, sporting a glinting light, near the edge. He remains alien to his enemies and to himself: regenerativity (or generativity) is off limits to him: even in victory he stands alone in Heorot, sterile and the stranger. He is never at home.

As Kenneth P. Quinn has noted in his The Use of Baptismal Liturgy in three Old English Poems, the imagery of the outer limits or edges in Beowulf conjures the liminality of the baptismal font and its liturgy. Liminality, as ontological status, is something denied to Grendel through his proscription, but open to all others, presumably even to the drunken 'thanes' celebrating in Heorot. As the 'mark-stepper' Grendel is denied baptism, the play of 'homeworld' and 'alienworld' is denied its authentic relationality. For Grendel, the 'lifeworld' never reaches perfection (in the sense of completion or fulfillment), and he remains condemned to reign over the limits with no hope for liminality.

Enraged at what is possible for the revelers in the mead-hall, Grendel acts out what is impossible for him; in a mockery of a liturgy of new creation and the baptismal font, which he can never approach, he destroys what is created and celebrated in the scop's (the singer of tales) song of creation, which he cannot endure. Steinbock's delightful discussion (HB, 208-19) of 'narrative' and the role of the 'narrator' in the 'homeworld' provokes an interpretation of a dimension to Grendel's wrath: the scop, as 'narrator 'of cultural narratives, weaves not only tales of history but also of the social virtues and values. In this sense, the teller of tales re-invents the fabric of the lifeworld. The scop, then, continually weaves a world which Grendel can 'visit' but never enter.

The monster reigns over Heorot for 12 years until Beowulf turns the laughter in his heart to fear. Grendel, ripped apart from his own hand and shoulder, his very grip on Heorot, and eventually beheaded in death, rests disjointed and hewn apart whence he came, underscoring his separations in life, denied as he was a co-constituted and co-relative 'homeworld' and 'alienworld.'

The hero's eventual epic descent to the depths of Grendel's mother's lair restores the traversal of water as new life, as he secures victory over evil. The balance of 'alienworld' and 'homeworld' is also restored. Heorot is made whole again, and enjoys an integration of worlds denied its attacker. The baptism of regeneration is for some, but not for those others conscripted into the line of Cain.