Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Extreme-Sports Sociology, Old Testament Style (more on Job)

No, God is not controlling anyone. He is a lawgiver, but pretty much never a manipulator, But in the Old Testament you really find the experiment motif, if you will, repeated throughout. Noah (!) and the ark, Jonah and the whale, but none more so than Abraham and Isaac. If God is messing with people for no good reason, that's probably the signature example. "Kill your son! Do it! C'mon!.........Psyche! No, don't do it. Aw, you were totally going to do it!"

And then, after all that, there's Jesus-- the obverse of the Abraham event. No sacrifice is asked for, but the divinity offers a son. Humanity had various chances to offer clemency, but men mocked and tormented him, on top of killing him-- to the point where the son even echoes the doubt of the freethinking being.

The echo is really the main part of the deo-anthropomorphism problem. If we are to seek something behind the universe as we see it, how can we understand it in a manner outside of our experience? Or, perhaps, if the both the means and the evidence of our perceived alienation from the world we inhabit IS our intelligence, and this is perhaps most adequately summed up in our ability to apprehend and thus be alienated from ourselves, do we have any option but to assume that the substance of our souls is the substance of the universe we inhabit?

I don't think there can be a God without anthropomorphism, no matter how bodiless or immaterial. He can be mystified or abstracted, but if he is an intelligence, he is to us a human intelligence, with affects. This is completely the case in Islam, despite the strenuousness of Muslim anti-anthropomorphism.

To the Gnostics (courtesy Wikipedia), there is a perfectly abstract, remote divinity, but also this emanation of progressively more imperfect, more material beings. The elite (the professional caste?) can ascend through the ever less screwed-up, less material layers of reality to the core, which disposes of all myths of revelation and incarnation, but presents itself to the elected individual, in the symmetrical ideal balance of cosmic forces. Protestant parallels are duly noted.

If there is love, and law, and a broken world, and there is an intelligence to the universe, there are no perfect options. If there is a symbolic structure to the universe, as perhaps stated never more movingly than in John 1, it is probably not going to fulfill our navel-gazing fantasies of omni-consensus.

--- On Sat, 12/19/09, Noah Berlatsky wrote:

Date: Saturday, December 19, 2009, 10:15 PM

Isn't God controlling Job? He gives and then he takes away and then he brags about he can do anything and Job can't. And then he breaks Job who swears allegiance. If this was a human ruler, it would look pretty sadistic.

The Eden experiment (which sounds like a Jack L. Chalker title, actually) is a good analog.

I think basically anthropomorphizing God results in a situation where his motivations look despicable, much as humans' do. Maybe I just want a Bible without God anthropomorphized. I should be a Muslim, maybe.

I'm not sure I get your gnostic point. Would you expound?

On Sat, Dec 19, 2009 at 9:54 PM, Albert Stabler wrote:

Okay, sure-- it's a fine point, but you've sort of identified a difference between STANLEY MILGRAM (had his name mixed up with our pleasant radical orthodox theologian) and Job. The Milgram episode is indeed about depriving individuality and exerting control. God is not controlling Job. The issue is that God needs to see Job as autonomously loyal without having to bribe him with favors. God is absolutely insecure, which is a meaningful point-- he is subject to doubt, just like Christ on the cross, but it may be the only way he can be powerful and not sadistic-- or benevolent and not totally impotent.

God isn't portrayed as taking pleasure in Job's suffering-- or in the universal suffering Job eloquently bemoans, now that he has his first taste of it. God was testing him, and it's assumed in some sense to have been neither moral nor amoral- but, in another sense, Job showed righteousness as well as rebellion in impugning God's behavior on moral grounds.

The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was an experiment too, if you want to look at it that way. But God didn't smile benignly when his orders were ignored-- he cast Satan into the dust and ejected the humans, leaving them with the freedom and knowledge they desired. The Gnostic mistake is not to see knowledge (even of justice) as a gift, but as an esoterically revealed right-- the true immaterial essence of our Godhead.

--- On Sat, 12/19/09, Noah Berlatsky wrote:

That's kind of amazing (not to mention despicable) that the NPR story didn't discuss the ethics issues. They're not obscure.

Also, as I said, the pleasure in pain isn't indirect; that is, the researchers got to more or less directly torture the test subjects.

In film theory, as I understand it, sadism is almost more about controlling others than it is about specifically hurting them; it's robbing them of individuality and bending them to your will, essentially. I would say that in that context it's hard not to see the god of Job as sadistic (experimenting on your subject for basically no reason except that you feel like it seems pretty much the definition of sadism.) On the other hand -- yes, the thing about a transcendent god I'd think would be that it's not exactly possible to apply these psychological categories, or at least there's not much point in doing so. I mean, if you decide God is sadistic, it's hard to know where that goes. Does that mean God's immoral? Or that the universe is sadistic? The answer to both of those questions is basically despair -- which may be justified, but doesn't tend to get you anywhere in particular.

I think the question of what the researchers got out of the experiment and why they think we should listen to the moral pronouncements of lying torturers is probably the most, and indeed, the only ethical issue raised by the experiment that is worth discussing.

On Sat, Dec 19, 2009 at 7:54 PM, Albert Stabler wrote:

I utterly agree about the redefinition of the moral message. And actually I really enjoy how the NPR show just barely deals with the ethics issue. It's much more of a "search for the soul of man" kind of wankathon.

The only (perhaps intractable) bone of contention is whether God is abusing his authority in the Job story. And I doubt that's a settled issue theologically. Again, I read it as a parable.

Basically, if you lose everything for no moral or practical reason, whether it's because God decides to destroy your life arbitrarily or because he can't stop bad things from happening or because it's part of some grand scheme for the betterment of the universe, we cannot ultimately hold God to account. He's God, he's not a limited being with petty motives. God is like a petty dictator, but he's also not. He's not a transparent, contingent demiurge-- he's a remote yet ubuquitous source of energy.

But on the other hand, no matter what shit the world serves us, we are at least ultimately immune from the judgement of our neighbors.

Anyway, Katie just compared Milgram to performance art. I think there's a question about sadism here-- does making torture more remote (having it done by someone else) make it more sadistically pleasurable? And also, if God can be insecure, can he be saidistic-- i.e., is sadism an intrinsic aspect of all power, even if it's attributed to an entity without a body or a brain?

--- On Sat, 12/19/09, Noah Berlatsky wrote:

Did they mention on the show that Milgram did a bunch of experiments like this? He was like Mr. extreme sports sociologist. I think some of his experiments involved having his students defecate on people in public places and then measuring the severity of their beatings, then graphing the results based on socioeconomic status of the defecatee. He was a dreamer; I think there's a movie coming out where he's played by Robin Williams.

--- On Sat, 12/19/09, Noah Berlatsky wrote:

One of the things about the Milgram experiment (which perhaps they covered) is that it's pretty widely considered unethical. They didn't adequately inform the participants of what was going to happen, and many of them were in fact traumatized (not sure to what extent, but apparently many exhibited serious signs of stress.)

Which also fits with the Job comparison, in that the real ethical failing is, in some sense, not that of the participants who "did the wrong thing" by not obeying the secret moral code. Rather the failing is of the person in authority, who flagrantly abused his power to indulge in a basically arbitrary and worthless experiment for no reason, randomly hurting people in the process. And reaped fame and profit from it to boot.

It's especially apt because the Job story does read as an experiment; the parallel is kind of perfect.

Basically, the people who participated in the experiment are guilty of nothing except being duped, while Milgram and company are guilty of diabolical cruelty and attempting to take the place of God. It's a parable not about willing submission to authority, but about hubris and man's tragic refusal to submit to/leave a space for transcendence.

On Sat, Dec 19, 2009 at 6:43 PM, Albert Stabler wrote:

So I was listening to an NPR sound-collage docutainment show about the Stanley Milgram experiments at Yale, you know the one, where subjects thought that they tortured an actor, and then everyone genuflected about the Holocaust? They covered a diversity of viewpoints, all of which essentially somberly agreed that self-knowledge comes at a great price indeed.

My issue with that is not one of experimental ethics, but really, the displacing of authority. I create this situation in which I am pretending to order you to do this evil thing, and you are therefore the one being tested by torture, to see if you can tell the difference between fake authority and real authority. The real authority is the ethical code by which you are secretly being judged.

Which brings up some nice Job associations. God chooses to test Job's loyalty, and Job responds with outrage, rather than wallowing in the guilt that his friends tell him he should be feeling. And ultimately, he learns that his outrage is just, but not his presumption to judge. It's kind of the same situation, except that men are explicitly told that they aren't allowed to judge the way God is. That's the transcendence wall, that is lacking both in nineteenth-century metaphysics and twentieth-century pragmatism.

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