On the Development and Evolution of Culture – Raymond Williams’ [The Sociology of Culture]

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture, originally published in 1982, is a precise and methodological approach towards the field of cultural sociology. The book is centered on establishing the prominence, evolution, and reproduction of culture. Williams ultimately traces this evolution through a discussion of cultural sociology, and through a painstaking description of cultural forms and their nuances.

Raymond Williams posits that a sociology of culture is an  cross-sectional, cross disciplinary area of study that is concerned with all areas of cultural production, including those forms that can be approached as ideological. The work of the cultural sociologist or cultural historian centers on:

the social practices and social relations which produce not only ‘a culture’ or ‘an ideology’ but, more significantly, those dynamic actual states and works within which there are not only continuities and persistent determinations but also tensions, conflicts, resolutions and irresolutions, innovations and actual changes. (29)

Thus, rather than attempting to solely find easy solutions to problems, the sociology of culture tries to take into account the totality of cultural productions, even when this totality is paradoxical or incomprehensible. This encompassing approach strives to rework social and sociological ideas that approach cultural productions such as language and art as marginal or peripheral social processes. Furthermore, the sociology of culture “is concerned above all to enquire, actively and openly, into these received and presumed relations, and into other possible and demonstrable relations” (10).

Williams opens his discussion by alluding to the multitudinous definitions of culture that exist. He points out three common and general definitions that are usually attributed to culture; however, he points out that the third definition is the most common usage within contemporary cultures (all three definitions are found on page 11):

  1. a developed state of mind – referring to the person who possessed a developed or cultured mind. (e.g. Neil goes to art museums every weekend. He is a very cultured individual).
  2. the processes of this development – referring to cultural interests or activities. (e.g. wine-tasting, opera, going to the theater, going to an art museum, playing golf, attending a lecture, playing a game, watching a television show, etc.).
  3. the means of these processes – referring to the broad categorizations used to approach cultural processes. (e.g. the humanities, the arts, the sciences, etc.).

These definitions of culture, according to Williams, can be traced back to two different “convergences” of interests: one that he refers to as idealist, which emphasizes on the “informing spirit” (11), or in other words, a lifestyle that aims for broad and deep engagement with socio-cultural activities; Williams approaches the other convergence as materialist, which emphasizes “a whole social order” (12), in which “a specifiable culture, in styles of art and kinds of intellectual work, is seen as the direct or indirect product of an order primarily constituted by other social activities” (12). For instance, from this macro perspective, we can refer to a specific Puerto Rican culture, which is known for possessing its own music (bomba, plena, salsa, and reggaeton), literature and literary figures, and even its own cuisine (banana tamales, arroz con gandules, etc.).

Although these were the traditional convergences that were usually scrutinized when conducting a cultural study, Williams points out that there is a third emerging convergence that is becoming evident in contemporary cultural work–and this third convergence becomes the central object of analysis in The Sociology of Culture. This third convergence “sees culture as the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” (13). This convergence is quite different from the previous two because it takes into account signs and signifiers, along with the traits usually associated with these elements, such as reproduction, replication, and innovation. Even more so, this focus on cultural signifiers allows sociologists to more effectively scrutinize social relations as mediations rather than reflections. According to Williams, mediation refers to the

necessary processes of composition, in a specific medium; as such it indicates the practical relations between social and artistic forms […]. But in its more common uses it refers to an indirectness of relation between experience and its composition. (24)

Another element that Williams approaches as crucial for the sociology of culture is the concept of ideology, for it is used to approach and categorize “formal and conscious beliefs of a class or other social group” (26) or “the characteristic world-view of general perspective of a class or other social group” that includes conscious and “less conscious, less formulated attitudes, habits and feelings” (26). Williams seems to prefer the latter definition because he believes that an effective ideological critique cannot be restricted solely to formal and conscious matters. He also makes a succinct critique of the notion of a general ideology, explaining that if the term is used to allude to a broad group or a way of life lived by a certain community, then we run the risk of creating a “false generality […] to discriminate ascriptions to specific classes and other groups” (29). Williams thus highlights the sociological necessity of the concept of ideology, as long as it not used as a term to categorize or stereotype the “informing spirit” of a universal or broad population.

I was particularly drawn to Williams’ chapters on identifications and reproductions, mostly because they contribute immensely to conversations that I’m engaged with in terms of the “literariness” of young adult fiction, and the possibility of approaching the young adult novel as an object capable of cultural innovation. Williams devotes a significant amount of effort into discussing notions of the aesthetic. He speculates that at first, many might assume that the aesthetic seems relatively easy to define–the term is usually approached as a a synonym for terms such as beauty, harmony, or proportion. However, these terms lead to an “untraceable” problem when it is deemed that people can specialize in channeling or using these perceptions to recognize and judge works of art. Another problem that arises when it comes to the aesthetic and the arts is the plasticity of the term; art can be used as a categorical marker to approach everything from hair, fashion, decoration, landscaping, dancing, and sports, among others. Williams also points out that the arts are a label usually assigned to “areas of human thought and discourse” (124), as seen within the humanities.

The problematic nature of the notion of aesthetics leads Williams to ask an important question within the sociology of culture: what is, or what is not, art? Williams points out that judgments of value, quality, and execution are expected in virtually every practice. However, within the practice of art, there are works that are produced through a practice recognized as art that are difficult to categorize or approach as art. For instance, although some films, such as Academy Award-winning movies, can be and are approached as art, there are other movies that people would refuse to view as such. Think, for instance, of the differences between movies such as The PianistDude, Where’s My Car?; InceptionThe Hoursand Sharknado.  Some of these movies would, undoubtedly, be approached as high-quality works of art; others would be approached as a movie capable of killing brain cells. Williams points out that the criteria used to approach cultural artifacts and productions is variable and unstable, and even though a production might comply with expected and general standards, it might still lack an element that prevents it from being categorized as art proper.  As Williams puts it:

a ‘bad novel’ does everything that the category ‘novel’ indicates, at the level of generic definition, but then fails to do something else, either in its ‘aesthetic process’ or in terms of its ‘seriousness’ or its ‘relation to reality’ (which at least explicitly, the original definition had not included). (125)

This notion is problematized even more by the fact that works that were once considered “bad” can later on obtain status as a “legitimate” work of art. Williams points out that novels, for instance, were considered to be a literary object associated with lower classes–whereas this is clearly not the case today. Science fiction novels, as Williams claims, are also examples of works that “move from one side of the [art/not art]divide into another, or are straddled across it” (125). Williams then delves into the social processes of art, and he makes a claim that I, at first, was rather skeptical about. He argues that

The attempt to distinguish between good, bad and indifferent work in specific practices is, when made in full seriousness and without the presumption of privileged classes and habits, an indispensable element of the central social process of conscious human production” (126).

My hesitancy about this claim arose from my belief that this focus on the “good” or “not good” is a dated idea in that contemporary critical studies recognizes that all objects, good or bad, are capable of informing the subject on the social processes of human production. However, from a social perspective, this divide between the good and the bad can be useful, because it highlights the way elements and productions are socially organized. Thus, Williams does not view these labels as permanent, but rather, he views these labels as markers in flux: “variable social forms within which the relevant practices are perceived and organized” (130).

The Room (2003) is a film that is almost universally recognized for being one of the worst movies of all time. What does this help us to understand how cultural forms and productions are socially organized? What makes The Room a bad film? Even more so, how do we approach the film once we take into account its popularity as a cult classic? Is this movie so bad that it becomes good?

– – –

Another chapter that I was really interested in was the one on cultural reproduction. Williams opens this chapter by discussing the tension that exists between micro socio-cultural studies that target a very specific forms, practices, and institutions, and macro socio-cultural studies that tries to develop a general theory that accounts for most social processes. He believes that the more one knows about a subject, the more one tries to defend it from being distilled or interpreted through a broad, general perspective. He then proposes a distinction between two kinds of cultural consciousness that are in play in terms of the value of the specific over the general:

  1. “that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity” that puts “working generalizations and hypotheses under strain” (182).
  2. the “often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for endless postponement of all (even local) general judgments or decisions” (182).

Williams argues that the distinction between these two forms of consciousness is crucial towards understanding the process of cultural reproduction.  Cultural reproduction is approached as a temporal concept (one that is not always historical) that involves “movement from one dateable manifestation of culture to another” (183). Cultural reproduction is also a negotiable concept, or better said, a notion that is characterized by its plasticity. Williams points out that when talking of cultural reproduction, it is important to keep the two connotations of the word reproduction in mind: although it can denote the exact replication of an object (such as in the case of a photocopying machine), it can also have a biological valence in which a new organism is producde that shares traits with the original source, without being an exact copy. Williams asserts that when it comes to cultural reproduction, both connotations should be kept in mind because “There are very few significant cultural processes analogous to the printing press or the photocopier, but there are also very few analogous to sexual or other biological reproduction” (185).

In terms of reproduction, Williams emphasizes works that are transitional, that is, works produced when formal innovation begins to manifest within a particular culture. Innovation usually takes place in these transitional forms when there are new elements that are “incompatible or undigested” present within the work. As Williams points out, there are times when a work’s treatment of these new elements may be simplified and unable to reach their full potential, but we must be careful not to ignore their formal significance by comparing them with “preceding or succeeding mature examples” (200).  It is quite easy for scholars to not notice transitional innovation when it is occurring, but as Williams puts it, this innovation “is one of the very few elements of cultural production to which the stock adjective, ‘creative’, is wholly appropriate” (200).

After addressing the issue of innovation and reproduction, Williams classifies categories of social and cultural change that take into account relations of domination and subordination, but that also takes into account the dynamic nature of cultural forms. These categories are:

  1. Dominant – Williams asserts that this is the most obvious condition of production. Dominant forms are usually seen as crucial, “natural,” and necessary by forms that are not dominant. Dominant forms are not always overtly aware of their dominance. There is a range between dominant forms that consciously control (e.g. the press), “various kinds of displacement, to a presumed (and then dominant) autonomy of professional and aesthetic values” (204).
  2. Residual – “work made in earlier and often different societies and times, yet still available and significant” (204).
  3. Emergent – “work of various new kinds” (204).

Williams points out how the dominant can absorb, or at least attempt to absorb, the residual and emergent forms. He also posits that there is older work preserved by certain groups available as an alternative to “dominant contemporary cultural production” (204), just as there is almost always the presence of innovative work that tries to move beyond dominant forms, and at times succeeds. Interestingly, Williams asserts that some forms of innovation can happen within the dominant, ultimately becoming a new form of the dominant.

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture is a slightly difficult yet very insightful book that gives scholars the tools and the terminology needed to effectively scrutinize and critique culture. There are countless other interesting ideas in this book that I could’ve highlighted in this discussion, but I simply decided to focus on the elements of the book that will be useful for my future research. In due course, I hope this post gives you a better idea of the notions discussed in The Sociology of Culture, and I hope that it pushes you to give it a read.

Work Cited

Williams, Raymond. The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. Print.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s [Epistemology of the Closet] – A Staple of Queer Theory

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is often approached as one of the most groundbreaking discussions within the study of queer theory. Combining philosophical, legal, literary, and historical approaches towards queerness and human sexuality, Sedgwick’s text is focused on the destruction of the dichotomous divides used to discuss and categorize expressions and epistemologies (states of being) pertaining to sexual identity. She goes as far as to posit that a complete and encompassing understanding of Western culture must incorporate a critical analysis of the establishment and advent of the homo/heterosexual definition (1), and posits that issues pertaining to homosexuality and the closet (such as the divides between privacy and exposure, nature and culture, man and child) are central to most of contemporary Western thought. The aim of this post is to distill some of the more challenging and noteworthy claims made by Sedgwick in her discussion.

Sedgwick’s text was overall challenging due to the elusive and difficult nature of her prose and sentence structure. After reading some passages several times, however, I was offered great insights into the positioning of homosexuality within current strands of thought and philosophy. Here discussion opens up with a differentiation between minoritizing views towards homosexuality (in which homosexuality is of importance to a minority of people with specific attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs) and universalizing views (in which homosexuality and queerness are central in some way to all human beings). She also delves into a discussion of the origins of the term homosexual based mostly on Foucault’s pivotal discussion titled The History of Sexuality (Volume I). Surprisingly, not only was the term homosexual coined before the term heterosexual, but the prominence of the term ultimately led people to identify themselves not only according to their gender, but also their sexual orientation (thus illustrating the convergence of language with sexual identity). The homosexual, in this Foucauldian view, thus became a distinct species. The aim of Sedgwick’s discussion, however, is not to offer an explanation for the establishment of sexual categories, but rather, an exploration of their “predictably varied and acute implications and consequences” (9).

Later on in her book, Sedgwick mentions its purpose, which actually was one of the most difficult passages for me to understand and break-down. Epistemology of the Closet intends to:

demonstrate that categories presented in a culture as symmetrical binary oppositions—heterosexual/homosexual, in this case—actually subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation according to which, first, term B is not symmetrical with but subordinated to term A; but, second, the ontologically valorized term A actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous submission and exclusion of term B; hence, third, the question of priority between the supposed central and the supposed marginal category of each dyad is irresolvably unstable, an instability caused by the fact that term B is constituted as at once internal and external to term A.” (10)

As can be seen in the passage above, this purpose is indeed loaded and slightly difficult, but I will try to deconstruct this passage in hopes of providing some illumination as to Epistemology of the Closet‘s purpose. In essence, Sedgwick is arguing that the binary opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality is futile due to the instability of this divide in the first place:

1) Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not symmetrical or equal terms, and they are not equal halves of a whole. Rather, homosexuality is a secondary or inferior class of term when juxtaposed to heterosexuality. This part is quite obvious and understandable, for homosexuality (as a term or concept) does not possess the power, “prestige,” authority, or valence  that is loaded within heterosexuality (it is ontologically valorized).

2) The meaning attributed to heterosexuality depends on the not only taking valorization away from homosexuality, but also on the exclusion of homosexuality as part of the heterosexual. Keeping in mind that the term heterosexual was coined after the word homosexual, it comes as no wonder that the heterosexual is thus defined as he/she who does not embrace the traits or behaviors of the homosexual (i.e. I am heterosexual because I am not homosexual).

3) When it comes to the issue of whether heterosexuality came before homosexuality, or vice-versa, is a “dilemma” with no solution that is in turn very unstable, precisely because homosexuality is part of heterosexuality while at the same time being excluded from it. In this sense, homosexuality is similar to Kristeva’s notion of the abject in that you recognize that it is part of the whole while at the same time being excluded from it.

Sedgwick posits that the category of the homosexual, despite its status as a subordinate classification, has  in part refused to wither away because individuals who identify themselves as homosexual view the term as one of empowerment and unification. However, the prominence and permanence of the term is attributed to way more than its use as a gay-affirmative term: “Far beyond any cognitively or politically enabling effects on the people whom it claims to describe, moreover, the nominative category of ‘the homosexual’ has robustly failed to disintegrate under the pressure of the decade after decade, battery after battery of deconstructive exposure—evidently not in the first place because of its meaningfulness to those whom it defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define themselves against it” (83). Thus, the term homosexual thrives not because of its positive attributes, but rather, because it allows a so-called status quo to delineate attitudes and behaviors that it rejects.

On Difference and the Nature/Nurture Debate

After her discussion of the futility of the binary divide between homosexuality and heterosexuality, Sedgwick delves into a nuanced treatment of the three points that I explained above, focusing on the subordination of homosexuality within a heteronormative context, and on the development of axioms that help the reader to understand the importance of difference when it comes to the discussion of human sexuality. The subordination of homosexuality is quite obvious and easy to grasp, especially when Sedgwick discusses biases that have existed in the legal treatment of homosexuality within contemporary society, especially after the appearance and spread of AIDS. For instance, she alludes to the use of gay panic defenses within courts as a way of justifying violence done to members of the gay community, and how “The widespread acceptance of this defense really seems to show to the contrary, that hatred of homosexuals is even more public, more typical, hence harder to find any leverage against than hatred of other disadvantaged groups” (19).

Sedgwick posits a handful of axioms that are necessary not only to fully comprehend the epistemology of the closet and the nuances of sexuality, but also to deconstruct the binaries that enforce ideological views of the world. The first axiom, which at first may seem to be the most obvious, is that people are different from each other. I believe this is something that most people would agree with, but it’s also a very difficult concept to come to grips with. We have plenty of identity markers used to classify, categorize, and understand the people around us, but even then, we only have a very limited understanding of the person as a whole. Sedgwick posits that the most universal markers of identification that exist today are those of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, among others, but even then, this information only enables us to understand people in very broad ways, preventing a more nuanced or true differentiation from taking place. Sedgwick argues that people, especially those who have suffered oppression or subordination, have had to develop systematic ways of classifying and knowing people in order to determine “the possibilities, dangers, and stimulations of their human social landscape” (23). Learning more about the types of people that exist in the world is not only necessary to avoid stereotyping, but Sedgwick ultimately argues that knowledge about the different people in the world is crucial for survival:

I take the precious, devalued arts of gossip, immemorially associated in European thought with servants, with effeminate and gay men, with all women, to have to do not even so much with the transmission of necessary news as with the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one’s world. (23)

In axiom 4, Sedgwick aims to deviate from the nature/nature debates that hinge on discussions of homosexuality, preferring to discuss homosexuality in terms of universalizing or minoritizing views because it forces us to ask the question: “In whose lives is homo/heterosexual definition an issue of continuing centrality and difficulty?’ rather than either of the questions that seem to have gotten conflated in the constructivist/essentialist debate” (40). Sedgwick seems to imply that there is perhaps the possibility of a eugenic agenda that might surface if a constructivist view on homosexuality is ever determined to be causal. She argues that gay-affirmative work complies with its aims when it steers away from discussions on the origins of sexual orientation and identity, and focuses more on activist and contemporary concerns. By engaging in a debate on the origins of sexual orientation, one risks participating in a tradition that views culture as something that is malleable and nature as a static phenomenon. If homosexuality were to be viewed as a product of culture, there is the risk of viewing it as something that can be altered or suppressed.

On the Nature of the Closet

The closet, as Sedgwick points out, is complicated because although it is presumably used to conceal a facet of one’s identity, this sense of concealment is not always complete or total. The act of coming out the closet is not a one step process because there is always more than one closet in the life of the homosexual. Coming out is a process that must constantly be dealt with when encountering a new person. One may consider themselves to be out, but there is always someone out there who is not aware of one’s sexuality due to its presumably unmarked nature, and there are times when remaining in the closet seems to be a more feasible, and at times safer, option:

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Especially today, the closet is closely tied to notions of knowledge, concealment, and truth. The term “coming out” has even been applied to notions that deviate from the disclosure of one’s sexual identity, such as to “come out” as a democrat, or to “come out” as an atheist. It can be said that the notion of coming out has been broadened to such a degree that it is no longer central to notions or matters of sexuality, but Sedgwick argues that in true universalizing fashion, this broadening demonstrates how pivotal queer and homosexual matters are for Western thought, and how integral they are to everyday actions and beliefs (72).

I think that the first couple of chapters within Sedgwick’s discussion really provide a solid platform that enables a discussion of homosexuality, the closet, and their pervasive influence in contemporary thought. The book is particularly useful because it demonstrates not only the futility of binaries as proper mechanisms of definition, but also the issues that surface when determining the relationship that exists between language and sexuality. Homosexuality as such was a category that was devised as a pathological classification of individuals who engaged in same-sex behavior, and the emergence of this category pretty much radicalized the way we approach knowledge and people. This is a text that I must revisit soon in order to fully comprehend all of the arguments and notions that Sedgwick presents in her attempt to reconfigure epistemological and ontological approaches to homosexuality and the closet in a postmodern world.

Primary Work

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

On “Forgetting” Rifles and Sacred Texts

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius

Dover Thrift Edition of the Novel

In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, I was particularly interested in a debate that occurs between David Gamut and Hawkeye concerning religious belief versus pragmatic/empirical knowledge. David, extremely thankful that Hawkeye has just saved his life, praises the scout, claiming that his skills and his bravery prove that Hawkeye is indeed worthy of “Christian praise” (105). David then goes on to posit that divine providence played a role in the situation, and that in due course, some men are destined to be saved while others are destined to be damned. This assertion greatly discomforts Hawkeye, and he does nothing to conceal his disapproval of David’s claims.

Hawkeye asserts that the only reason he could credit himself with the murder of an enemy native was because he experienced the event firsthand, not because it was predestined to occur. What we are observing here is a clash between two different ideological views of the world: whereas David relies on faith, destiny, and the abstract to explain what happens in his surroundings, Hawkeye relies on evidence, experience, and empirical observation to deduce his claims (I killed the Huron native, therefore, I am responsible for what occurred).

Hawkeye assumes responsibility for his actions rather than attributing them to an unseen and unknowable force. Hawkeye’s reliance on personal experience triggers an interesting debate on the differences between textual evidence and experiential evidence: as soon as Hawkeye denies the plausibility of providence, David demands to know whether or not the scout’s claims can be supported by textual Biblical facts: “Name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” (106).

Now, this is where the conversation gets extremely interesting. Hawkeye proceeds to denounce the value of books, stating that rather than relying on a set of words inscribed within a page, he has “forty long and hard-working years” (106) to back up his belief system and his pragmatic approach towards the world. He then mocks David’s views by asking whether his instruments and tools (his rifle, his bull horn, and his leather pouch) are being approached as if they were the passive instruments of a writer/scholar (the feather of a goose’s wing, a bottle of ink, a crossbarred handkercher)—implying that David is not viewing the scout as a rugged man of the wilderness. In a striking move, Hawkeye presents his disdain towards “men who read books to convince themselves there is a God” (106). I couldn’t help but recall Bruno Latour’s views of facts, fetishes, and “factishes” at this point, due to the importance of objects in this conversation, and their role in the construction of knowledge and belief.

Now, what may be noticeable in this conversation is that David definitely fetishizes (in a Latourian perspective) sacred texts and books, for although they are produced and crafted by a human being, the middle-man is forgotten and the object is approached as holy or divine. Belief and divine power are imbued within these textual objects, and their crafted nature is forgotten or simply ignored. Now, Hawkeye seems to be aware of this fetishization of the sacred texts (although he certainly wouldn’t use this term to describe his views), and thus, he deems David’s distorted view as silly or misconstrued. He doesn’t seem to project his belief on a certain object, but rather, his beliefs are projected from the self: something is only true if you are able to feel and experience it.

However, what Hawkeye is failing to see is the fact that his own experiences relied on a set of tools or instruments: without his rifle, Hawkeye wouldn’t have been able to undergo the particular experience of killing a Huron native (at least not in the way that it actually occurred). Without that object, it is questionable whether or not Hawkeye would’ve encountered the degree of success that he did in that moment. Thus, it can be argued that both David and Hawkeye are guilty of the same ‘sin’: David forgets the hand-crafted nature of the divine object, and Hawkeye forgets the role of the object in the definition of his experiences and perceptions.

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

What occurs in this situation is a failure to recognize that both figures see fault in the other’s beliefs, when objectively speaking, both systems beliefs are reliant on similar practices of fetishization and forgetting. This failure of recognition leads to a blocking of the communicative passage, and thus, both individuals decide to drop the conversation. What is interesting at this point is that after the debate ceases, both David and Hawkeye engage in the channeling of their belief systems through their fetishes/factishes, even though they are not explicitly aware of the implication of this practice: David places a pitch pipe on his lips and begins to belt out biblical verses in song (interpreting divinity in a material format), and Hawkeye adjusts the flint of his rifle and reloads it with ammo (preparing the instrument so it can help him experience another successful event).

I can’t help but wonder what role do factishes and fetishes play in the development of belief systems in the remainder of The Last of the Mohicans. Objects that certainly come into mind are the clothes that the characters don (compare, for instance, the attire worn by Hawkeye in comparison to the war paint worn by Chingachgook). I also am beginning to wonder whether more discreet “objects,” such as skin or hair color, go on to instill beliefs in a similar fashion to Hawkeye’s rifle or David’s knowledge of sacred texts. After all, hair and skin color can ostensibly be approached as a creation (via the mixing of two distinct human genetic codes), yet these creations instill attitudes and beliefs that transcend their physical properties (dark skin and light skin are fabricated though the same processes, yet the act of creation is forgotten, and perhaps overshadowed, by moral particularities correlated with skin pigmentation). Perhaps this is taking the implications of the fetish and the factish a step too far, but the possibilities are indeed seductive.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.


Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

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