by Tom Jacobs
The sensuous world around [us] is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty’ are only given [us] through social development, industry and commercial intercourse.
— Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845-46)
11:59 to 12:00 Means, Well, What, Exactly…?
The end of 2011 means many things to many people. I don’t know exactly what it means to me. It was a fine year, I suppose. Full of fully realized anxieties but also moments of small triumphs. I did things that would make my mother proud, but I did many things that would no doubt shame her, as well. Based upon a very cursory review of my facebook friends’ posts, however, the turn of the calendar year seems to mean mostly an aggressive goodbye to a year one would prefer not to remember. (An exemplary post shows an image of the first two digits “20” juxtaposed with two upturned middle fingers, signifying both the missing “11” as well as a not so fond farewell to the departing calendar year). The desire to leave behind and to forget is counterbalanced by the desire to imagine ourselves fresh, innocent, and new. This is, of course, is complete silliness, but who of us doesn’t entertain this fantasy. We will change. We will relinquish the foul rag and boneshop of the soul and re-invent ourselves. Existence will become light and not heavy. Perhaps we and/or it will. But time grinds slowly into the future (as Steve Miller once said, in a slightly different register), and real change, the kind of change that allow us to step into a new, invented persona convincingly, requires trauma of some sort, I find. We need to be slapped once in a while.
Grace, the very thing that allows us to become more human, better, doesn’t come cheaply. This is something that I think I know. We need to suffer to understand. Understanding without suffering is like trying to understand pearl divers with scuba diving technology. Two different things. Not eternally opposed; but opposed nevertheless. One inhales deeply of the existent air and dives into the deep on a dive predicated upon human limitations; the other has a false cartridge of oxygen, swimming effortlessly amidst the coral and imbibing beauty with every oxygenated breath. Two different things. You get the idea.
And so I think about resolutions, and their relation to the recorded or unrecorded past of each of our lives. Looked at objectively, or as objectively as I/ we can, what do I/“we” see? What has been learned? I have had many moments of intense and unassailably human, human contact. A near fight. A homeless person who opens the door to the ATM. A nameless and hopelessly damaged person on the street who wants an answer. What can I/we say?
But these moments matter to me. But what do they mean? And what do they add up to?
January 1st signifies a billion different things to different people, a billion different things that can’t be properly weighted, evaluated, or categorized.
The 1st. The beginning of something new, new resolutions, an imminent loss of weight, the pursuing and getting of a new job, the ending of a relationship, the propitious possibility of newness, the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning, the consummation of our best understanding of the logic of the Mayan calendar, etc… I count myself amongst all of us; it’s hard not to think that a New Year is meaningful in some meaningful way. Newness never gets old. A fresh green breast of a new world to explore and colonize.
All of this is interesting to me, but it requires the erasure of the past. A forgetting of sorts. I will stop ____. I will become_____. That sort of thing. It’s inescapable. It’s inevitable.
Let’s begin with the notion of erasing the past.
Here’s a reference to possibly the most violent novel ever written (which seems appropriate): Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy. 1985. It’s long, but worth quoting at length. Or at least a passage from my long since abandoned dissertation:
Pursued into the featureless terrain of what would eventually become southern Texas by a tribe of Apache Indians whose scalps they had hoped to collect for bounty, the Glanton Gang—the group of cowboy criminals at the center of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, Blood Meridian—pause for the evening to make camp for the night somewhere near the United States-Mexico Border as it existed during the summer of 1849. As the rest of the gang prepares their beds for the night, Judge Holden, the intellectual psychopath who leads the gang, sits before the campfire arranging and then sketching the collection of objects he has managed to acquire during their bloody travels across the southern deserts. His acquisitions include pieces of carved flint, tools made of bone, fragments of Anasazi pottery, a foot piece from a three century-old steel foot piece of a conquistador’s suit of armor, various fossils, and a variety of birds taxidermied with dried grass. After sketching a detailed image of each item of his collection in an old notebook, he casts the objects into the flames of the campfire. When one of his colleagues asks what he intends to do with the notebook and the collection of objects it represents, the Judge replies that it is “his intention to expunge them from the memory of man” (140). His interlocutor then compliments his skilled draftsmanship but then goes on to mount a critique of his project: “them pictures is like enough the things themselves. But no man can put all the world in a book. No more than everthing drawed in a book is so” (141). The judge responds by explaining the larger nature of his work in his typically cryptic but luminous language:
What is to be deviates no jot from the book wherein it’s writ. How could it? It would be a false book and a false book is no book at all. […] Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world (141).
Once the odd syntax of the Judge’s crude eloquence falls into place, it becomes clear that the he envisions his work not just as a private act of resistance to the forces of both human and natural history, but also as an anti-historiographic practice of erasure of much broader implication—a culmination to his desire to forget the past that is also meant to relieve the collective conscience of future generations of the burden of history. By recording in visual form the histories to which his collection of objects metonymically refer, and then obliterating the objects themselves, the Judge envisions his work also as an act of strange charity, a means of liberating futurity from the consciousness of what he perceives to be a monumental history of cultural de-evolution, from the “higher order” of early civilization to the “lower order” of modern culture: “The tools, the art, the building—these things stand in judgement on the latter races. Yet there is nothing for them to grapple with. […] All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage” (146). According to the Judge, the spirit that has animated human civilization from its beginnings has only degenerated and withered from the peak of its expression long ago. According to his principled opposition to the claims of history, the Judge effaces the inscriptions and “marks” of history so that they don’t become signs or symbols. From his perspective, the contemporary “meridian” of man’s apparent achievement” is at once his darkening and the evening of his day” (147).
Let me pause here to note two things. One: the extraordinary poetry of destruction. One can’t help but root for the Judge in some way. He’s got a clear program (and, by the way, he’s ridiculously tall and completely hairless…dunno what that means, but it’s significant in some way…). And he wants to imagine a historyless world, in which we each invent ourselves every moment of every day. This is, of course, kooky.
The profound nihilism of Judge Holden’s critical work of collection, organization, and destruction is strangely subverted and transformed by his desire to record the things he collects and destroys, as if the desire to efface the past from the geographies of the present were indissociable from the desire to preserve it. His sketchbook, which preserves in visual form the very material evidence of the cultural history he seeks to destroy, would seem to salvage the very history he seeks to annihilate. The contradictory character of the Judge’s anti-historiographic project offers an important framework for thinking about the peculiar power objects and images from the past hold over us. Seeing in these relics a narrative that binds us all together into the same weave of human history, the Judge seeks to liberate humanity from the centrifugal forces of a shared history so that each individual might confront the world with a fresh innocence, as a kind of American Adam standing in an Edenic landscape unsullied by a sense of the past.
By erasing the material record of the past, the Judge seeks to create the conditions in which the individual’s consciousness would be condensed and atomized into the horizon of his own mortality. The Judge’s project of destabilization stands in direct opposition to what Hannah Arendt’s called the “durability of the world,” by which she meant to suggest the essential function of the material world of man-made artifacts that transcend individual mortality to stabilize human relatedness over time:
the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that—in contradiction to the Heraclitean saying that the same man can never enter the same stream—men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. […] against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched nature, whose overwhelming elementary force, on the contrary, will compel them to swing relentlessly in the circle of their own biological movement… (1958, 58)
By seeking to destroy history and with it any notion of progress or evolution (of society or consciousness), the Judge is a kind of destroying angel of history, an annihilator of the stabilizing function of cultural tradition and an unleasher of the “overwhelming elementary force” of an indifferent nature that, from the Judge’s point of view, liberates humanity to “swing relentlessly” in the circle of its own, mortal sphere. “Whatever exists,” the Judge proclaims, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” (198). From his pathological and alienated perspective, the only way to establish a meaningful relationship to history is to forget it. Consequently, the Judge, with his work of recording and erasure, views himself as a “suzerain of the earth,” a term he goes clarifies for his fellow gang members by explaining that it means “a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rules. His authority countermands local judgments” (198). As a suzerain-keeper of history, the Judge’s commitment to a kind of radical individualism is, in a perverse way, an acknowledgment of democracy in so far it is a political concept based on replacing inherited notions of tradition and legacy with the principles of individual autonomy and self creation. For McCarthy’s Judge’s, the destruction of the materiality of history is, in effect, a “forcing of the unity of existence,” an erasing of the inheritances that en-culture and en-class us (249).
I have much more to say about all of this, and I will do so on another occasion.
For now, let me say this.
I ordered a few more things than I needed to (or even wanted) on ebay tonight. These are things that will make me happy, things I didn’t get for Christmas. Things that will bring me back into some material/historical relation to the person I once was. Call me silly. I accept it. But we are all silly. I want to be surrounded by little icons or material reminders of who I once was. Is there anything wrong with that? I dunno. I think not. I mourn like a melancholiac. As we all do.
In three days I will have various Star Wars figures that have been loved or preserved or curated by people I will never know. I will have a small model of a giant squid. And, although it’s possible I will play with them as I once used to, the power and affect will be to hold in my hands a piece of my past. Perhaps so that I can remember it distinctly. Perhaps so that I can hold it in my hands and thus, forget it.
Now I will tell you have to live your life. Remember the past so that you might forget it. (paradox-mongerer, that I am). Here’s a bit more.
We remember so that we might forget and repress and move on, even as we know such a thing is impossible. We stand on an unevenly balanced see saw between laughter and forgetting, between knowing and not knowing. Trauma and pleasure. Each floods into the other, and it’s hard to separate where one begins and the other ends. This uncertainty, this undialectical relationship is fantastically great. It’s the very thing that makes me weep and feel hopeful, Emersonian-like.
No doubt the coming year will be full of regrets and mournings and unhappinesses. There will also be things we’ve done spangly and on the dot and events for which we would have not traded for anything to be there. These are what we will come to remember as perfect moments. And they are important. History will continue to impress itself in ways that are both pleasant and unpleasant.
But I wish that your happiness is as somatic as it is empirical. I wish you the fullest sensorium of deranged senses as is possible. And the unexpected…I wish you all of the unexpected possibilities that are available.
All my best to you, my double. Perhaps my reader.