February 5, 2010

A Relationship with Knowledge

Justin Katz

First, a line that's supremely relevant for those of us who've been beating our heads against a wall of political inertia, in Rhode Island:

In my experience, compulsively objective scientists are evenly matched, or even outmatched, by shamelessly subjective humanists. More than once I’ve been shocked by colleagues who seem unable to grasp that richly elaborated accounts of personal experiences do not refute claims about statistical tendencies.

That's from R.R. Reno's response to a book addressing our relationship with knowledge by Paul Griffiths:

The first half of Intellectual Appetite provides a metaphysical analysis (or, more accurately, the grammar of a metaphysical analysis—Griffiths operates as formally as possible to encompass a wide range of metaphysical options) that allows us to explain why, for a Christian, the basic move of "enclosure by sequestration" trains the mind to be false to reality. The world is not made up of tiny little bits of disconnected reality, all just waiting for our mental appropriation. Everything is saturated with the sustaining power of God’s creative will. Nothing merely exists, because everything comes into being and endures in the shimmering light of the divine gift of existence.

By the phrase "enclosure by sequestration" Reno means to indicate the human tendency to disassemble the components of reality for inspection. As a practical matter, this is how the limits of our own capacity for comprehension require us to proceed, but the danger is that we'll pick and choose those components that serve the reality that we prefer to conceive. If we were to stroll farther into the metaphysical weeds, I'd suggest that we do, in a real way, succeed in constructing our own realities, but that doing so does not make each variation equally valid. They can all be measured by their distance from and movement with respect to objective Truth.

In this view, nothing — no action or thought — is inactive, because what we believe the world to be manipulates reality as surely as what we do with our physical bodies. So, I disagree with Reno's interpretation, here:

In his Confessions, St. Augustine provides a particularly vivid account of the power of spectacles. He reports that his close friend Alypius, though possessing a good and cultured character, became addicted to the bloody, violent games that provided civic entertainment in the ancient world. At first, Alypius "held such spectacles in aversion," Augustine writes. One day, some friends persuaded him to go. Alypius steeled himself, closing his eyes to avoid participating in the barbarism. At the crucial moment, as the blood gushed and the crowd roared, "he was overcome by curiosity," and "he opened his eyes."

But Augustine's account does not turn toward ownership, as the phenomenology preferred by Griffiths suggests. On the contrary, all the images Augustine uses point in the opposite direction: "He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator, whose fall had caused the roar." "His eyes were riveted." He "was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure." He becomes addicted and captivated. It isn't that Alypius owns the spectacle. The spectacle owns Alypius.

It would be closer to the truth, I'd suggest, that however much he may enslave himself to his own fixations, the voyeur is actually pursuing a sense of ownership of the gladiator's final moments, as if for a collection of images that the spectator has accumulated. Moreover, the scene allows him to participate without immediate bodily risk — to benefit whether the gladiator survives or dies.

The viewing is not passive. It constructs the communal hand that forces the gladiator into a fight for his real life. It represents a movement toward a particular understanding of reality, one in which the senses are deadened to violence in a way that minimizes the travesty and in which the participant is not a person with a soul with which to communicate, but an object. Hence, the progression toward ever more gratuitous scenes and perhaps an increasing likelihood of acting them out.