Friday, September 5, 2014

Body and Soul

Orlacs Hände. Konrad Veidt, 1924.
Shorter David Brooks, "The Body and the Spirit", New York Times, September 5 2014:
What is it that revolts us so much in the spectacle of religious zealots cutting off the heads of innocent journalists? Gosh, I don't know, but I'm guessing it must have something to do with theology, on which we and the terrorists disagree.
Why is it that I'm so revolted by the incongruity with which our reigning public intellectual leaps on this horrible story as an excuse for a dispassionate excursion into (less than second-rate) cultural analysis? Can't I just leave him alone?
Most of us, religious or secular, have some instinctive sense that there is a ghost infused in the machine. And because the human body is a transcendent temple it is worthy of respect. It is offensive to treat it the way you would treat an inanimate object.
I can't stand the way he projects his fatigued Cartesian dualism on all of us. I can't stand the way he uses Gilbert Ryle's description of mind-body dualism—the "ghost in the machine"—without realizing it's meant as snark, or his use of the word "infused", treating the soul as a kind of teabag.

I can't stand the way he projects "our" undoubtedly very widely held feelings about beheading on the Judeo-Christian tradition, as if it were something that you could deduce directly from the writings of Maimonides or Thomas Aquinas, as if beheading had never been used in the West as a method of killing people (in France, indeed, by guillotine, as the lethal injection of its day, devised as a particularly humane and painless method of execution and abandoned only when they abandoned execution altogether on the view that capital punishment of any kind is finally incompatible with "our" philosophy).

I can't stand the Orientalism with which he makes the killers something out of an Edwardian horror story by, I don't know, John Buchan or Sax Rohmer, arguing not out of evidence but pure clichéd imagination:
They have a tendency to extreme asceticism, to seek to deny themselves pleasures of the living world, to celebrate the next world at the expense of this world, to oscillate between masochistic self-flagellation, when they think they have been sensual, and bouts of arrogant spiritual pride, when they convince themselves they have risen above the senses. It doesn’t matter to them what they do to their enemy’s body, because this physical reality is not important.
The hell it doesn't. It matters to them a great deal; that's why they put it on video. Brooks is thinking of his pals over at Opus Dei.

Earlier this week, he started off on a more promising angle of analysis when he spoke of the weakness of the self-denominated Caliphate, though he started backing off it in mid-paragraph.

A much more useful analytic approach is that proposed in the Times on Wednesday by a writer possibly even more cold-hearted than Brooks, and by some accounts as sloppy, but an actual intellectual as opposed to playing one on TV, Slavoj Žižek, with the point of view that they aren't fundamentalists:
Instead of seeing in ISIS a case of extreme resistance to modernization, one should rather conceive of it as a case of perverted modernization and locate it into the series of conservative modernizations which began with the Meiji restoration...
That is to say, they are conservatives, typically using the heroic mythologization of the past as a justification for their ethos of selfishness and resentment; just better armed and less filtered, and of course working with the context of a society in Iraq and Syria whose institutions were destroyed by the US invasion of 2003 (that's a crisis of context, if you like).

The Rude One does a really nice job on this column, which I would be remiss in not mentioning.

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