Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stumbling on Bibles (14 June 2007)

On a recent flight I traveled beside a 13-year old boy who spent most of the flight not munching complementary pretzels and sucking down Cokes or watching the Ryan Phillipe movie most of the other passengers "enjoyed" but reading passages from the Bible he carried with him. Why I found this reassuring, I can't immediately say; perhaps it was as Zizek theorizes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, and I was comforted by the material presence of an object that resonates belief -- it believes so that I don't have to. Its very existence, and the boy reading it, establishes beyond doubt the reality of a whole substratum of faith without my having to make any spiritual effort. Zizek cites a Stalinist expression: "Whatever I may be thinking, objectively I am believing" thanks to the presence of an object that connotes the material reality of belief. I don't have to believe myself to be in an objective state of belief -- this is why cultures have often developed designated mourners that can do the formally required grieving, freeing up the bereaved to take care of more pressing matters. So in this case it may be that I have convinced myself that the passenger beside me has freed me to write blog entries and play computer chess (about which more later) by carrying the visible signs of his belief with him, participating in that great religious stratum in American society in which I grumblingly subsist but in theory I'd be lost without. I need the forms of spirituality enacted around me to not be troubled excessively by spiritual questions myself. I need there to be religious folk so I don't have to be religious myself. I have faith by proxy.

I'm not entirely convinced by this reasoning, though Zizek's use of it to explicate laugh tracks is pretty interesting -- the shows laugh so we don't have to, and we can experience enjoyment without making the effort necessary to understand, make the movements in our thought to produce genuine amusement, laughter. We can rest assured that we participated without effort, which is its own reassuring satisfaction, the pleasures of passivity. As Zizek puts it, "Even if, tired from a hard day's stupid work, all evening we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television screen, we can say afterward that objectively, through the medium of the other, we had a really good time." In other words, a really good time can be had merely by mimicking the form, perhaps more so by mimicking the form rather than genuinely experiencing pleasure. Purer pleasure is always already secondhand, mediated, predigested, since this preempts the difficult questions of purpose, why am I bothering with pleasure? What is this pleasure supposed to accomplish?

Which brings me back to Bibles. One of the comforting things I find about the Bible is that it is a book whose meaning is almost entirely exogenous; it makes little effort to justify itself by present a thesis, by mounting a coherent and unifying argument, by rationalizing its heterogeneity. This means that despite the laborious efforts of concordance, the work to organize the text and being it all to account, it still promises the leisure of unstructured reading; it invites being picked up and flipped through at random -- hence the divination procedure of opening it at random and trying to deduce the horoscopic relevance of the passage chosen. Approaching the text with that spirit feels as though it frees us from the hassles of belief as well; we can demystify the words by reading them without preconception, without needing to understand them, and this becomes a practice of faith as well -- we can take care to not make any interpretations to assure our faith's perfection. We validate the religious without partaking of it; haphazard Bible reading thus becomes a kind of homeopathic remedy for becoming overwhelmed with theological complexities and conundrums and puzzles, which after all may lead one to question faith, to question the spiritual altogether. Thus the path to spiritual sublimity may be a principled ignorance, taking for granted what you are searching for without necessarily suspending your quest or conceiving its ultimate end.

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