Religion, Fundamentalism, Gnosticism: Part XII
The “fat sex therapist” is a familiar lunatic. Her neatly dualistic scheme recalls Chesterton’s description of a madman: “He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.” But she should not be dismissed: the particular form madness takes discloses something about society, even when it is not afforded sympathetic interviews. Here, moreover, her fantasy echoes the tenets of Gnosticism and the intuitions of trauma—that the world is corrupted by a class of reprobates (in this instance fatphobes), over whom the righteous (fatphiles) will triumph by means of global destruction—which we find all about us.
We should pause to ask certain questions. Why do our fantasies so reliably take Gnostic form? Why are they received respectfully? Why are these fused with a faith in science and its tools? Are they aberrant, or the logical flowering of evil habits and assumptions?
Christopher Lasch argued that industrialization enjoined new patterns of socialization, which produce “other directed” character types, both prone to a dualistic reductionism, and bearing a strong resemblance to complex trauma patients and cultists. We may add to this critique of progress.
As labor is divided, and subsequently re-divided, operations once complex and relatively unique are made simpler, uniform, and repeatable. Specialization entails abstraction and the replacement of judgment with technique. Early on, the process is uncomfortable. Seventy years ago Allan Seager had Amos Berry complain:
Doctors? Go into any big hospital. Look at the different service, all full of specialists. How would you like to stare into the dilated pupils of a hundred eyes a day or look at a hundred crying babies and do nothing else? Even for money and humanity. I have heard there are rare specialists who treat only diseases of the rectum. Is this the good life? Go into the office of any big law firm. Look at all the names on the door, the rows of little offices inside. Each bright young man is an expert. Torts, one of the subdivisions of contracts, wills, labor law, tax law but who knows The Law? In the hands of these men I become patient, plaintiff or defendant and my trouble is a case. And they patronize me because I don’t know the little inch they peddle. Yet I am more than that. I am a man.
But with time we become habituated to our tools and protocols, while the multiplication of the quantity of techniques involves a change in the quality of life. Notably, our turn towards abstraction has accompanied an alteration of memory and ethics. John Ralston Saul described the former:
Certainly the manner in which the Western individual remembers does seem to have changed. There are now two kinds of memory. One is related to structures. Each structure is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. The memories they produce are therefore internal, logical, and unattached to the outer world. The other sort is eclectic: one-off memories. People. Places. Events. This is the memory of a McLuhanesque world in which there is no sentence structure and no order. The mind soars and dives, like a gull over a vast municipal garbage dump.
What is missing is linear memory—that is to say, the historical view. We may remember the event of two days ago, but cannot remember the passage of the two days. All words are neither true nor false without this linear pattern in the mind. They are merely words, well or badly said by people who are liked or disliked. Without an ordered memory, civilization is impossible. The weight of the words, their value, and even the sentiments attached to them are lost.
The contextual, historical view is precisely what abstraction rejects. It’s right there in the name: to “abstract” is to draw out of context, to isolate those elements which are manipulable and quantifiable. The habits of abstraction atrophy the historical view.
Ethics has been similarly abstracted. Traditionally, it had at least three axes: morality, “the good life,” and honor. As this articulation suggests, in the old view, ethics is unintelligible if disembedded from a society which at least partially agrees upon the proper ends of men, and upon the reciprocal obligations of men fulfilling different roles. Abstraction tears morality out of its context, in an attempt to universalize it. The trouble is that, without this context, it becomes difficult to state what people need or deserve. Consequently, morality tends to be reduced to intention. Scott Adams recently provided a fine instance:
Abstraction prefers technique, and whatever is manageable by technique, and refuses complexity, ambiguity, and the context of memory or ethics. Because such refusals amount to a denial of embodied life, wherever abstraction predominates, it becomes a death cult. Lasch’s “other direction” may, with equal fitness, be described as mental illness or as an adaptation to the cult of abstraction.
Consider just how many of our priorities wage war on life and the body. The Coronavirus response was never about health, but about application of technique. Natural and herd immunity, because complex and organic, could not be trusted, whereas vaccines are quantifiable and reassuringly manufactured. To ask, “Do they work? Are they safe?” is to again and impermissibly raise questions of organic complexity. Similarly, we could not inquire about either the efficacy or the costs of masking and lockdowns. The repeatable technique becomes the measure of truth.
Environmental activism likewise seems stamped by unreality and technique. Our state of the art sun- and wind-catchers must be good!—never mind that they are inefficient, unreliable, and fatal to numerous species of birds. Our disgust for engineered meat is perhaps calmed by our faith in the assembly line.
Gender activists, the body positivity people, pedophiles, and abortionists are not aberrant: they are the true votaries of abstraction. All are united in the belief that the body can make no claims on the will; the body is an object, to which we can assign any value we choose.
All of this is underwritten by an ethics of abstract universalism. To an ethics of embodiment, the body is no more the object of the mind, than a woman is the mere possession of a man. Meaning, justice, and truth inhere in the reciprocal engagement of man with man, community, and nature. As I wrote elsewhere, this framework
justifies conduct, and defines actors, in terms of relationship. It says that a woman is the complement to man, just as much as a man is the complement to woman. Of course it’s recognized that men and women may be analyzed, or fragmented, into a series of attributes and functions—chromosomes, hormones, genitals, driving ability, etc.—but these have their use and meaning only in relationship. In this view, exploitation is defined as the absence of commitment and completion, rather than of consent.
It goes without saying that the death cult is peddled by means of another technique: the ceaseless propaganda of our media, diabolically effective because of our abstracted, and thus weakened, memory. The “historical view” would not be susceptible to this:
Perhaps most distressing is the ubiquity of fundamentalism, which repeats that the body has no claims on the mind, and adds that reality has no claims on doctrine, whether religious, political, or scientific. If every triple-jabbed gender activist & co. were translated to woke Valhalla, our commitment to technique and abstraction would eventually produce a new crop.