The Murmurings: Human Beings and Our Instinctual Fear of Change and Progress

Change and progress are, inherently, opposed by human nature. Humans do not like change, even if it is change for the better. An ancient text relates what a group of Israelites felt once they were freed from slavery. The story of the Exodus is not just a story of liberation from slavery; it is also the story of how shitty human beings are in response to beneficial change. Michael Walzer, commenting on the Exodus narrative, writes that one response to liberation is that of “murmuring.” That is, murmurings proceed from “not someone who is adjusted to his slavery but someone who complains endlessly about his liberation.”[1] As David Pacini notes, “[T]he greater price of freedom, haunted by evil, is that we live in the permanent possibility of falling apart.”[2] The price of freedom is: “murmurings” and “falling apart.” Or, as Søren Kierkegaard put it, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

A slave who had been a slave all his life could not be saved overnight from his “slave mentality.” To invoke a popular quip (modified for our purposes): “you can take a man out of slavery, but you cannot take the slavery out of the man.” As the Israelites marched onwards towards the Promised Land, they were out of their comfort zones, marching into a future holding the unknown. Back “home” in Egypt, they had shelter, food, and the comfort of familiarity; up ahead, in the desert regions of Sinai, they faced the “permanent possibility of falling apart.” And so, in the strangest of fashions—or maybe it wasn’t so strange after all?—the Israelites complained. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Ex. 14:11, NIV). Instead of freedom, the Israelites—upon tasting its bittersweet waters—demanded, quite adamantly, a return to their previous state: a state of slavery.

In light of such reflections, it is certainly possible that, as some claim, change must occur slowly. You boil the water too fast, and the frog jumps out; you heat it up slowly, and you boil it to death. Humans are like that frog: you pressure us into changing overnight—even if the change is in our favor—and we’ll bite your head off. Instead, what is needed sometimes is the slow and steady change of progress towards the ideal. In light of recent events, events which are affecting our country in numerous ways, it’d be wise for both legislature and people to recognize how instinctually frightened the human species is to change.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 50.

[2] David S. Pacini, Through Narcissus’ Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 35.

In Defense of Materialism: Philosophy of Language and Employing Material Things as Symbols

Materialism has been criticized on many grounds that I will not cover here. In fact, I have, in various ways, been strongly opposed to materialism. (Read my essay Materialism; Or, The Human in Decay as a case in point.) That is, until now. In this paper, I will attempt to articulate a sympathetic approach towards materialism. More specifically, I will argue that materialism, when seen through the perspective of the philosophy of language, is actually a type of “language” used to communicate certain things (like wealth, power, prestige, responsibility, success, etc.). In fact, “the pursuit and possession of grand material objects” (my modest, working definition of “materialism” in this paper) is beneficial to a human being attempting to communicate and convey certain values and/or facts. First, I will argue that the philosophy of language sheds light on how we humans employ “communication” (and it is not simply reduced to “language” and “writing”). Second, I will argue that materialism allows humans to communicate certain messages rapidly/promptly (without resorting to “proving yourself”). Third, I will argue that this is actually a good thing, that materialism, as I see it, is beneficial to finite human beings.

Paul Ricoeur, a phenomenologist interested in language, once said, “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[1] That is, within our words, within our language, that is where all life and communicating occurs—it is our “kingdom.” Ricoeur defined language as using “symbols,” symbols that functioned as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols had multiple meanings, and, hence, could confuse interpreters. Ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which used symbols—occurred were inevitably going to end up being interpretations. However, it should be noted that symbols in and of themselves need not be inherently reduced to language/writing. A symbol could be a national flag or, as in my case, a luxury vehicle. All such “symbols” communicate and stand-in-for something else. (A luxury vehicle, for example, may communicate to those around you that you are a successful individual who is responsible, who will provide for a future family, etc., etc.) The point here is the following: as we try to communicate things to those around us, we use symbols all the time. In most cases, symbols are words or phrases. I say, “I love you” and that means that I will take you on dates, buy you dinner, send you flowers on Thursdays, be concerned about your wellbeing, etc., etc. The phrase, “I love you,” is a stand-in-for something else. In and of itself it means…nothing. (Of course, this, too, could be debated.) I employ the phrase in such a way that it points to something outside it; it points to actions I will take on behalf of my beloved. The phrase, in this case, is a “symbol.”

Ricoeur writes: “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[2] Ultimately, he writes, “[T]here is interpretation wherever there is multiple meaning…”[3] Since symbols are almost always open to being interpreted in a plurality of ways—and, thus, of being found guilty of “double meaning”—it is the task of the interpreter to discover what the meaning is.

Going back to our luxury vehicle example, the “symbol” (i.e., the vehicle) may also be interpreted to mean, “I am a thorough-going materialist only interested in material things. I care not for relationships and people. Give me a dollar, and I’ll sell you my soul.” Of course, this is one way of reading materialism. It is one way of interpreting the symbol.

But notice what I am saying here, even as I speak the critique: it is merely one way of interpretation. (“One” way implies there are more ways.) It is possible to behold a symbol (i.e., a luxury vehicle) and to interpret it in a different way, another way. It is possible to see its owner as a good person. It is possible to see its owner as being a thoughtful person who goes to work on time, is punctual, cares about his family and tries to provide for them. Notice, then, that there is nothing in this interpretation of the symbol that is utterly negative and/or derogatory. In fact, I would like to be such a person. And maybe you’d like to meet such a person.

The next point I want to make has to do with prompt communication. If I am attempting to—let us theorize here—meet a girl, in what ways should I go about doing it? First, I am a finite human being, bound to space-time. I cannot be everywhere at once, meeting millions of girls in the span of one minute. Being thus bound, I have to make the most of my time. Second, and by implication, if I want to make the most of my time, I have to communicate things clearly and promptly. I could, in theory, be an “anti-materialist,” and resort to explaining to each and every girl I meet that I am successful, that I will take care of her, that I am a responsible human being, etc., etc. That’s one way of doing. It’s a very time-consuming way, but it is certainly an option. (If you have the time for it, go ahead and do it, I say!) In this case, you would essentially have to “prove” to every girl you meet all of the above. Or, you could do things differently.

It is possible to use symbols that communicate more rather than less. A picture says a thousand words. Driving up on a luxury vehicle conveys more than several hours of conversation over coffee. (And what makes you think she’ll believe you when all you’re doing is feeding her “words”?) That is, the symbol (i.e., the vehicle) conveys more than a million words spoken in defense of your alleged success.

Finally, as I’ve already hinted, materialism—as I have defined it here—seems to be something that is possibly beneficial to human beings. It allows us to communicate things to those around us. It allows us to do more with less. It also allows us to spend our coffee dates talking about things like love and romance, loves and hates, rather than trying to prove to the Other that we are responsible, successful, wealthy, etc., etc. In other words, I stand by my word: buy yourself that Lamborghini and enjoy your finite life!

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

Dedicated to: Petr Bulkhak—for being a good conversationalist regarding this particular subject.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Paul Ricoeur, “La Parole est mon royaume,” Espirit, XXIII (February, 1995), p. 192.

[2] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98. Italics original for both citations.

[3] Ibid.

adultery poem

Ghost Kiss: A Poem

I cannot kiss your sparkled lips
As we roam our souls downtown
City lights wander drunken, toxic
Blind ghost-kisses landing on your mouth

The wet paint from twilight’s crime
Sticks to your heels like lover dust
Leaves you adulterous and mesmerized
Vain attempts to pretend focus

You quake your spine to face my wrath
Those sacred lips of yours still moving
Two ghosts and an insomniac
That tongue of yours accusing

And who the hell may they all be
if not some ravenous intruders?
I’ll wait for death to erase me
To discuss what still behooves us

So will it be that frozen phrase?
We said: “‘Till death do us part”
If so, then kill me; do not wait!
Your vows writhe, breaking on the rocks

But you are much too cunning, Sweets
To speak cruel words, weep poison
Beneath the skies of tidy sheets
You’ll sex me till I’m noiseless

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to: E. A. P. (without traces of K)

 

AUTHOR’S NOTES: I’ve always found the concept of reconciliation post-adultery rather fascinating. Do people actually forgive the Other or do they merely forget? Or, which is more likely the case, do they simply pretend? Pretend to not care; pretend to not recall the atrocious act committed; pretend that it’ll never happen again.

It is, as my poem suggests (not that my interpretation of the poem has anything to add of any authority, since authorial intent is usually eradicated in the presence of the potent subjectivities of my fellow readers), the story of an adulterous affair committed by the feminine, female character. (Not that female characters are predisposed to such things; rather, I could not imagine it otherwise, being a heterosexual male myself [and such acts would, I assume, be committed against me by none other than a female character; but, of course, “God forbid!”]).

The poem begins with the negative, the “cannot” (reminding me of the “thou shalt nots” filling the Hebrew Scriptures). The characters find themselves entering city lights. And, if one is familiar with Johannine literature, one would know that sinners are afraid of entering the light. And the light becomes, for our female character, something which is rather “toxic.” Once in the light, the male character realizes the ghost-kisses, the “twilight crimes” committed by the Mrs.

But where lie her crimes? They are stuck beneath her heels; they are hidden—but they are, nonetheless, there, stuck to her like wet paint.

Once the conversation turns to confrontation, she pretends to focus. But it’s not meant to be. Then comes the victim mentality, the psychological rationalization. “Of course, it wasn’t me! It was that ghost, that invisible and ever-absent Other!”

The next several lines are self-explanatory; there is no need for me to comment on them.

The closing stanza changes the scene to the bedroom. There the couple is having sex with the male character’s voice coming to a close as he exchanges ethics and anger for sex. And so, sex wins. Sex is the de facto dictator when it comes to silencing those who have a voice, making them utterly “noiseless.”