…the determining impingement on most knowledge produced in the contemporary West (and here I speak mainly about the United States) is that it be nonpolitical, that is, scholarly, academic, impartial, above partisan or small-minded doctrinal belief…[however] No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of society…
– Edward Said, Orientalism
…the general liberal consensus that “true” knowledge is fundamentally non-political (and conversely that overtly political knowledge is not “true knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced. No one is helped to understand this today when the adjective “political” is used as a label to discredit any work daring to violate the protocol of pretended suprapolitical reality.
To be true, the Indian just had to be an Indian; to be true, the white liberal must be an anarchist, refusing relocation from the borderland of the soul.
– Author’s reflection after viewing HBO film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Having recently finished Edward Said’s Orientalism, I am affected by his revelation of how the “otherness” of the “Orient,” in the hands of the Orientalist tradition of scholarship became justification for its subordination to the designs and the imagination of the more powerful West. He reveals how a hegemonic thoughtworld comes to be, providing the basic “mind food” for the majority, practically impossible to dismantle, all puny efforts to do so quixotic rather than simply righteous. Remarkable to me is that Said’s moral standpoint doesn’t depend on having to devalue or degrade “the enemy;” he says “shame on us,” without implying that liberal white people are morally defective, without, in effect, shaming us. He refrains from doing to the Occident what has been done to the Orient and its people over the centuries of scholarship, travel writing and other literature, that he examines.
In our little anti-fascist book club here in Utica, we’re reading Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States. In combination with Said, the result for me is an unusual chance to foreground the usually hidden (for white people) white supremacist and imperialist thinking and policy that is our foundational mind food in this country, just as the persistently biased field of orientalism provided the knowledge upon which European colonialist and imperialist enterprises in the Middle East were based ( as well as academic careers for many scholars over many decades). Said calls orientalism and its consequences a human failure, “a failure to identify with human experience” and “to see it it as human experience.” In saying this, he points toward a different kind of knowledge, one overruled for centuries in the West in obeisance to rational and scientific knowledge. Lacking this knowledge, ego its lone master, the intellect becomes capable of endorsing brutal and barbaric enterprises that treat “the other” as less than human.
In modernity, no collective means exists – no authoritative unifying call to brotherhood – by which secular progressive liberals can identify with human experience, except abstractly. Said’s words then, I hear as a call to individuals to identify with theirownexperience and “see it as human,” the task of imagination. Though I admit, the possibility that modern people could be capable of restoring power to imaginative knowing is remote, at the same time, it’s most hopeful, for such a capacity is within reach of every human being. The imaginative dimension, common property of all human souls, allows a way out from under the totalizing blanket of neoliberalism that has incapacitated us for seeing beyond individual survival, including for members of the liberal class. Among the best and brightest liberals today, the good job and the having a good job sum up value and purpose, moral decisions mainly getting defined by whether or not I can, not whether or not I ought.
Like Said, I wish not to shame but to be true. A lecture given by an extremely gifted young mathematics professor from an elite local college as part of a speakers’ series at our non-profit community space in Utica provides a case in point. Her subject was gerrymandering and the efforts being made by mathematicians to assist the process of redistricting in the direction of being more democratic. During Q & A, my husband, who unlike me is never intimidated by liberal timidity, identified himself as anarchist, and essentially asked what difference any of this democratizing of the voting process makes when there is no significant difference between the Parties being voted for. The speaker more or less cheerfully admitted Orin was right. She said the politicians are just trying to keep their jobs, “just like I am trying to keep mine.”
That is, her discourse is confined to the allowable, within which she is sincerely interested in making mathematics relevant to the real world. No one else in the audience that day stepped forth to join my husband in his bolder speaking. The fact that the speaker has no standpoint is unremarkable to the mainly middle-aged and older, liberal crowd that attend these talks (the young people present were all students from the college). Possibly we’re reassured the boat isn’t being rocked. As director of the non-profit, my dilemma is that the continuation of this series and the financial advantage attached to it depends upon our never mentioning the unmentionable. We must allow our academic speakers to “color inside the lines” of their own discourse of knowledge production while we refrain from asking them what is their standpoint. We never ask them to speak “so our souls can hear them.” To be clear, the hunger of our souls – and I dare say of anyone’ssoul, the very core of humanness – is not for opinions that perfectly match our own but for the clarity of conviction itself, of plain honesty in all its stunning glory. The price tag of maintaining a non-profit even so small as ours is similar to that attached to “the jobs” which buy most peoples’ silence and complicity every day. The silence is the cost of admission in the neoliberal context. Gradually, the reasonableness of silence takes over; it becomes dreadfully easy to forget what our “quibble” was even about.
Fortunate for us, the soul does not forget. Its (or in mytho-poetic language, her) need for the oxygen of truth never abates. All/any participation in that required silence which is our daily context is toxic for the soul. This problem has no “solution” in the way science and technology like to think and have taught us to think. No solution exists except to havethe experience of being human, which is to have the unmistakably, undeniably real experience of one’s creative soul. Creative expression is the sole means to the inner unity – birthright of every human and the only possible basis for a standpoint that would never sell out the human to the expedient – available to those living outside a collective myth. Speaking personally, my participation in that silence (for who among us doesnot need a job, or at least some of that trickle down?) actively destabilizes the inner unity I labor each day through my creative work to find, requiring that each day I must go back to find it. This is why the creative task, functioning in precisely the same way as prayer for the believer, is not optional. In no other way can a white bourgeois person like myself be rooted in my integrity – i.e., in my struggle to stay with the process of becoming human that joins me with the rest of struggling humanity – except I “re-root” myself over and over in the process of my very soul, the outcome of which cannot be foretold or promised.
Frequently, I harangue myself for not fully developing my talent, for living on the threshold rather than insidethe palace of artists. But then I counsel myself: most people are not artists, they are like me, their creative spirits closeted in an inhospitable social environment! My personal conclusion regarding the sisyphean labor to which I am committed is, thisis what I was made for, a work that it took me to midlife to discover, which is to be positioned creatively midway between the exalted world of the artist-shaman and the masses of ordinary people of whom I most certainly am one. The “God-man” relationship – for this iswhat I am talking about – once was mediated through religion. Religious myth was/is designed to make meaning in relation to the soul’s sense of being buried, lost(exiled) under the given layers of reality, the spiritual/creative/human task then being to find and restore relation to that original unity. But today, the world under the dominion of capitalism must serve capitalism’s need for unassuageable dissatisfaction in order to manage and control.
The system works with deadly effectiveness to prevent the possibility of individuals ever finding, let alone restoring and maintaining that unity; the creative soul now as doomed as the borderland the once mighty Iroquois in 18thcentury colonial New York, whose land I live on, struggled to protect. The concerted effort of the powerful with their controlled media and their bought institutions ensures that few will ever entertain the awareness that Babylon – this awful place of our exile – is not the sole reality. Living inside neoliberal silence, people are flagged off the inward-gazing process of becoming human; it wears now a terrifying aspect as if the soulwere the terrorist rather than the ongoing and relentless process of dehumanization being acquiesced to in the collective silence. I have called this terror religiophobia, a means of defense for the post-enlightenment liberal secular mind that has been torn from its connection to the heart and so is prey to capitalism’s insatiable appetite.
Because the artist in me was closeted for most of my life, forbidden to conscious realization by the unconscious exhortation of a monotheistic ego, what I write about is pretty much always the same: the process of keeping that unified self alive against the destabilizing effect of the silencing context to which I learned to accommodate and to which most people accommodate. Writing to keep myself in that unity, the subject area of my writing is limited to this “borderland” of my soul and concerns my continuing effort to defend it and provide its necessary stability. In this way the quixotic projects Orin and I are committed to “on the ground”– the Cafe business and our non-profit arts space–can be sustained not on dreams of “success,” but in being continually refreshed by the inexhaustible waters of the soul. In protecting the borderland of the poetic imagination we keep our human sparks alive in the hopeless, humble anarchist project of building the world worthy of its’ innocents, everywhere.
Loss of soul is a political crisis; in fact, it is the original one, much prior to the “Trump” crisis or the crisis of neoliberalism. In our current increasingly alarming reality, with the loss of a constellating inner world accessed through religion, with successful marginalization of artists and poets and prophets by centralized media, the ghettoization of the liberal arts in the universities, the excision from historical memory of the violent suppression of anarchist movements in the previous century, as well as the commodified provision of access to exalted virtual worlds at everyone’s fingertips by our Silicon Valley masters, with the loss of stable families and communities and geographic home, with political decisions driven by fear and confusion and never by vision and thought, the dehumanization process is going spectacularly well. Never has the revolution so clearly been the anarchist one of the struggle to be, humanly, thereby embodying the doomed-and-exalted nature of being human and free.