Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction

“Man is an upside-down tree, the roots of which are in the air.”

 – Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov

In context, Shem Tov—a Spanish Kabbalist quoted in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory—is speaking about how humanity feeds off of spiritual nourishment, rather than the material world. The image, however, has stuck with me for another reason, and fed my thoughts over the last week or so with regard to the integral role of abstraction within our thought and language.

Personally, I’m recognizing how frequently I take recourse to abstraction in my writing and in my teaching when I’m unsure of the point that I’m trying to make, or trying to dance around some sensitive issue. It’s always easier to treat a topic from 10,000 feet above it, rather than mucking through the particulars. It is a symptom of my laziness, an attempt to avoid the hard work of research or careful thinking that would allow me to write or speak more exactly. As such, I’m trying to shorten my own leash on abstractions.

More generally, I’ve become aware of how much power there is in abstract language to mask and distract. Abstraction allows someone to speak when there is really nothing to say, or to speak in a way that obscures what is really taking place.  Not only is abstract speech very often the language of politics (especially campaign politics), it is frequently the language of religion, and most unfortunately, the language of prayer. Abstraction is empty talk, the raw material of ideology; but it is nonetheless effective for that. We have our roots in the air, and we feed on abstractions.

In contrast, concrete-ness is the blood of poetry; intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. I’m sure that this statement will come back to bite me, but I can’t think of any straightforwardly ideological poetry.

Of course, politics, religion, and prayer are hardly dispensable or peripheral human activities, and I’ll be the last to try to put a stop to any of them. But without question, politics, religion, and prayer are the most honest, and do the most good, when they forego winged words and endlessly maleable concepts and speak instead with earthy imagery, verbs that move, and visible nouns.

The Criminal Politics of Wilderness

“In a world truly left to itself, that is, unviolated, as we say, or at least very little penetrated or marked by humans, there would obviously be no need to reserve spheres for animals that could protect their overlapping territories. To evoke such a world is to evoke something that was the unwritten rule, the instantaneous adjustment for millennia; it is to evoke a form that has given way only during the last few centuries in Europe and during recent decades in the rest of the world. But the movement seems irreversible, so much so that one cannot help sensing, while traversing those reserves, that one is facing the vestiges of a world about to disappear.

The possibility that there will be no more wild animals, or that they will exist only confined or subjugated, is taking shape before our eyes day by day. Reactions to the threat of the avian flu that recently spread throughout the world, for example, all conformed to a model in which wildness itself was accused and singled out: peaceful domestic fowl threatened by hordes of uncontrollable migrators. This will become the accepted schema—even though intensive breeding and all the modes of confinement (the word speaks for itself), far from sparing animals effectively, have been, on the contrary, the direct origin of the most serious epidemics ever known. Between the thousands and thousands of carcasses burned during the years of mad cow disease and the common graves of birds in the new century, what is taking shape is the psychological preparation of humanity for the necessity of total control, a world in which wild animals will be no more than tolerated and in which they too will be, in a way ‘in human hands,’ in allotted spaces that will be more and more restricted or instrumentalized. . . . It came back and it comes back, it goes around in a loop, discourse is unhinged, this had to happen: our sisters and brothers by blood have kept silence forever. What would the world be without them? The sky without birds, the oceans and rivers without fish, the earth without tigers or wolves, ice floes melted with humans below and nothing but humans fighting over water sources. It is even possible to want that? In relation to this tendency, which seems ineluctable, every animal is a beginning, an engagement, a point of animation and intensity, a resistance. Any politics that takes no account of this (which is to say virtually all politics) is a criminal politics.”

Bailly, Jean-Christophe. The Animal Side. Translated by Catherine Porter. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.

Wildernesses, wildlife reserves, and protected lands of all sorts are critically important; and we need desperately to strengthen and expand the protections that we have put in place. But these isolated wild spaces are also symptomatic of a collective bad conscience. They give us places to “escape,” and get “back to nature” for a few days. It’s hard at times, though, to wonder if this kind of adventuring amounts to more than a petty nostalgia. After all, it would seem from both our political rhetoric and the voracity of our economic systems that these are little more than isolated Exceptions that allow us to tolerate our own Rule of appropriation, expansion, consumption, and the commodification of “resources.” Ecologically speaking then, our politics (by which I mean the network of our power relations to others of all stripes) is a criminal politics, and we’ve found perverse ways of assuaging our consciences.

the promise of political salvation :: politics as religion

The other day, one of Barack Obama’s speeches lit-up all my “political messianism” warning lights.

In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

To be parsimonious, I’m pretty sure that I can refute that statement with two words: Manifest Destiny.

Whether or not you think there has ever been anything false about American hopes depends, more or less, on whether you are driving the covered wagon or lying in the ruts and reservations left behind. If you have not seen the speech/music video in which the line appears, you are in for a treat. Here is a political liturgy that tells us where power lies, and who we ought to become:

My main point, however, is to point to an excellent interview: Paul Kennedy speaking with John Gray on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Ideas. The program is available for download (scroll down to “Utopian Dreams”), and presents Gray’s argument that the “secular” politics of the last two centuries have co-opted religious devotion and eschatological expectation in grand narratives that order human life in the present. He is speaking as much about neo-conservative agendas for the triumph of democracy as the Marxist end-times revolution. Politics is at its best, he insists, when it aims toward the modest goal of helping folks get along. The program is well worth your listening.

a common word :: who refuses to hear?

Prof. John Stackhouse, writes in explanation of his signature on a recent response to the letter from a group of Muslim clerics and scholars who drafted a statement acknowledging common ground between Christian and Muslim faiths as the basis for (at least) political coexistence. When the letter was initially released, I offered a few comments as to its importance.

The substance of the original letter, as well as the response, is an acknowledgment that wherever Christians and Muslims are bound up in hatred for one another marked by violence, then neither Christians nor Muslims are being faithful to God’s commands: to love Him above all else, and to love our neighbors. Whatever our theological differences, no one is being convinced or converted in the bloodshed.

Apparently, Prof. Stackhouse has met with some criticism for his signature on that letter, and if he has, then other signatories have likely been chastised as well. I haven’t heard any criticism, but I am persuaded that any objection must rest on misunderstanding. I would really like to run into someone who opposes this mutual attempt at understanding, perhaps he or she can clarify things for me. 

The letters are essentially political documents, in the sense that they attempt to structure a relationship in such a way that the parties involved can get along. The theological content of the letters is by no means dishonest about differences between the faiths. Is theological truth being sacrificed to political expediency in this exchange? If this is the objection to this effort, then theological truth and political expedience (in this case, a rather minimal desire for co-existence) are being falsely opposed to one another. There is no theological truth that can be taught with weapons of war. Differences between the faith are not maintained by means of hostility, they are maintained by means of teaching that is faithful. Children of both faiths who learn in a context of violence are taught by fear, which only perpetuates violence. Dialogue on the other hand, does not negate difference but defines it. We all, Christians and Muslims alike, bleed red—no difference there.  

If it is objected that the Muslims who sent the original letter do not represent the “true” Muslim faith, which is rather to be seen in those more radical elements which do want to inflict harm on their neighbors, then I would reply that the objection is irrelevant, or at least it should be to a Christian. The location of “true” Islam with the violent ought to be disputed, but the more relevant point is that disregarding the efforts of these Muslims who are reaching out in a gesture of peace, is a shameful begrudging of hospitality. These are neighbors whom we are called to love. In light of the tensions between historically Muslim and historically Christian nations (whatever they are now) the least we can do is return a gesture of respect and acknowledgment. That humility is only the beginning of the love and service that we owe our Muslim brothers and sisters—even those who may hate us.

No one’s identity is being compromised in these letters. Nothing is being swept under the rug. I can’t conceive of a viable objection to this effort at mutual understanding. Perhaps someone can help me understand.

Oh, Prince of Peace, come quickly.