2.23.2010

Against Faction


Anybody older than 25 should be able to understand that the attraction to monotheism or polytheism is very much a corresponding attraction to notions of Unity or Plurality/"Diversity". This way of thinking is pretty much assumed in American literature circles, where deep familiarity with the founders' fear of "faction" and emphasis on Union (against the anti-Federalists) is expected alongside an awareness of Poe's emphasis on aesthetic unity (see Eureka) and the rise of Unitarianism in New England. The Greeks knew this philosophical problem as the question of "The One and the Many," starting with Heraclitus (Many) and Parmenides (One). The inconsistencies in contemporary thinking (Catholics who oppose imperialism, materialists who appeal to Justice as if it's self-evident, etc.) mark a high point in the long transition phase that we are witnessing as Western culture becomes polytheistic. See the comments in yesterday's post. [I appreciate Sophist_Monster's candid association with polytheism.]

This idea is at least as old as William James, and I find strong traces of it in Herman Melville. Nevertheless, a vast majority of Americans call themselves monotheists. I see parallels there between today's self-described monotheists-in-America and the moments just before and during Jesus' teaching where Jews were apparently turning to false idols:
Consider the "carved images" of the Old Testament. I think most of us tend to scratch our heads when confronted with the commandment about not having other gods before Me. What's so great about a wooden cut-out of Mithras, we ask? But the carved images are what make America go 'round. Ours are fancier: iPods, cool purses, flashy belt-buckles, whatever. But "our" values are dispersed in these. Seen in this light, Americans have been polytheists almost since the beginning.

Now, I'm not arguing (yet) that monotheistic culture is better than polytheistic culture, but (watch this!) I am arguing that "culture" is a singular noun. A polytheistic culture is really a set of polytheistic cultures. And considered from the vantage point of the One/Many problem, this leads us to acknowledge that a Union is only possible if it is supported by a shared culture. (Consider what, if not its shared culture, has allowed Jewishness to survive for so long as a unified whole.)

So as the United States produces scientists who explore the possibilities of "multiverses" (as opposed to The Universe), and as public schools doggedly encourage diversity, my argument is that the center will not hold. Still--still!--I am not arguing that monotheistic culture is better (or more philosophically "true") than a set of polytheistic cultures. I am only following the logic through. A polytheistic "culture," which emphasizes different values and affirms the notion that justice is contingent, and case-based, cannot remain a single culture. And we see this all over the place in America, from the tax-credits given to homeowners but not renters, to married couples but not singles, to people with children but not people without children, etc.

Here's an excerpt from a book published in 2005 called E Pluribus Unum, by W.C. Harris:
Read together, Moby-Dick and Billy Budd emphatically demonstrate the progress Melville made in producing his own solution to the hard problem of unity. It is my contention that Moby-Dick represents one of Melville's stronger movements toward, and Billy Budd, his most successful realization of, the narrative equivalent of pluris, his most fully articulated theorization of manyness, decenteredness, and incompleteness as viable bases for textual, individual, and social identities that are not grounded in the more limiting categories of uniformity, integration, and totality.
Read that twice (!), because a careful look reveals that Harris himself overwhelmingly favors polytheism. Indeed, it is because Harris favors polytheism that he regards Billy Budd as a superior creation to Moby-Dick. So I accept his analysis, but not his evaluation, of Melville's two works. Harris' language gets even more particular:
The required strategy… is to dislodge unity altogether as the valorized term of identity, the default category for social formation. It is with Billy Budd… that Melville succeeds where previously he had failed.

[And then:]

Melville experiments… with variety-based kinds of unity (as in the “Isolatoes federated along one keel [but]… remains committed to unity in its most encompassing form.
Notice Harris' language of "failure." Failed at what? Well, to become a polytheist (Melville follows Ahab's "monomania" through to its end in Moby-Dick). Harris is a genius for seeing this much, but I disagree with his final evaluation of Melville's literary productions. I value Moby-Dick much more highly because it is much nearer to the white-hot center of this problem of the Many&One, though it does finally decide on Oneness. And look at the results:
Moby-Dick: The Many (the crew) perish; the One (Ishmael) survives
Billy-Budd: The One (Billy) perishes; the Many (the crew) survives
It is certainly true that "pragmatically," Billy Budd seems to get the better outcome--fewer lives are lost. But Melville is a symbolist, and the One is not just the individual character of Ishmael or Billy. Rather, the One is that shared sense of identity and culture that is necessary to keep a Union united.

Of Moby-Dick, Harris wrote,
…the text attempts to produce [cosmological and psychological] unities but finally casts down the crude, partial copies it is able to make (like the cetological system), regarding them as the ineffective detritus of a world whose loss of its transcendent ground (God, Union) has produced pluralism to the point of chaos.
And it is in this assessment that we can see Melville as a prophet of the apocalypse (Civil War). The founders of America understood the danger of faction and disunion. It is an absolute fact that this country's Constitution was written precisely to protect against faction (read even the first sentence of Federalist No. 10). For better or worse, we are living in a time during which very few Americans are as wary of faction as Hamilton and Madison were. To put it more directly: I won't pretend to judge whether it's better that America remains one nation or not, but we are on a path to take it toward "not."

Finally, a more general/theoretical point: it seems to me that we have a distinction between "Philosophers," who aim at the One, and "Sophists," who revel in the Many. There is no contradiction for the Philosopher, who in choosing Oneness must thereby refuse the Many. But there is a significant contradiction at the heart of Sophistry, that implies that a Sophist, embracing the Many, must also [absurdly] embrace the One, else he has turned his "Many" into a species of One itself.

But then (I'm sure the Sophist will reply), what of contradiction?

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