Monday, March 21, 2016

Mud Season: the Viscous in Nature and Slime in General

Go for a walk in the woods. You enjoy the rustle of leaves, the sun filtered through the foliage, the call of birds. But stoop down and brush aside the dry vegetation underfoot, then scoop up a layer of mud beneath, and you'll find a very different "nature"--one of rotting, squishy substances populated by slimy worms, insects, and composting substances of unknown origin. You know that the former experience depends entirely upon the existence of the muddy handful, but there may still be a shiver of repulsion to color the experience. Psychoanalysis and philosophy visit this world of repulsion to bring back reports of the "deeper" levels of our sexuality and--for philosophy--new questions of ontology: the existence of the world of slime. It seems fitting here to add to these objects of inquiry some thoughts on politics, in this season of mud-slinging, "sliming," and "dirty politics." Politics has some lessons to be learned from the errors and insensitivites of our abstract and idealized myths of "nature."

"Nature"--like a beauty contestant parading before the judges--must conform to certain rules and standards to be considered for artistic attention and celebration, whether in poetry, painting, fine photography, cinema, or a descriptive passage in a well-reviewed novel. Like the beauty queen, nature must present herself at the proper distance from the optimal point of view, in the right costume, thoughtfully lighted, and free of any blemishes caused by disease, age, maltreatment, violence, or unfortunate genetic origins. Thoreau narrates it in comforting conformity:

"Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life." (Walden, 202)

John Muir gave us a West Coast version of the style:

"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. " (Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras, 110)

The transcendentalist assumes that we are one with nature, whose "job" it is to give meaning, depth, and beauty to our lives, when we live in harmony with her systems--as awed participants in a divine universal organism.

Now and then a writer or artist notices that nature's "blemishes," like a beauty queen's rash or sweaty underarms, can't simply be ignored or air-brushed out of the picture--that, indeed, nature is chock full of violent, disgusting, and repulsive elements that require only a slightly different angle of vision, viewing distance, or enhanced attention to all but destroy one's romantic preconceptions about our harmonious role in the tapestry of creation. Worm in the apple. Sore on the lip. Mud, instead of garden. Here's Annie Dillard, our "20th century Thoreau," describing a pond event:

"...At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn't jump.

He didn't jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island's winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water; it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.

I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. 'Giant water bug' is really the name of the creature, which as an enormous, heavy-bodied brown bug. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with those legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs--all but the skin--and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice..." (Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 8)

We are instantly transported into the world of our sci-fi nightmares: The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon.

It doesn't take much: venture to the garden in late-March "mud season," bend down to inspect a pile of rotting black leaves, then plunge your fingers into the slimy muck beneath, pulling up the remains of dead vines, pulpy stems, and slimed-over remains of last year's crops. Mud season.

On the other hand, insufficiently "civilized," tamed, and repressed, kids love slime. Mud? Great for toe-wiggling, mud-pies, splatter wars. Infants will happily smear the crib with their own feces, whatever the Gerber Baby advertises to the new mothers at the baby shower, exchanging their colorful Calder-inspired minimalist mobiles, ruffled pink baby quilts, and sweet-smelling moisturizers. Infants seem to believe that oatmeal is great for the scalp, that applesauce is a fine candidate for tossing to whoever's nearest. Worms, silly putty, grape jelly? Couldn't be more fun. Later, as taboos get enforced, the joy changes inflection: now it is delight in the "Ewww" factor--joy enhanced by the recoil of the audience: what kid has not learned the pleasure and power to be had by a rousing vocal performance of:

"Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat
Hairy pickled piggy feet
French fried eyeballs floating in some kerosene
And me without a spoon."?

This childhood ambivalence--the battle between the "Ewwww..." and the "Ooooh..."--is carried over with enhanced power into a multitude of adult preoccupations and structures: sexuality, artistic practices, psychopathologies, as well as religious and philosophical dogmas and categories. The taboos and attractions are multiplied in extremely powerful ways, right down to the deepest levels of our mythic and cultural architecture.

In the psychosexual domain the literature references blennophobia (fear of slime) and obsessive/compulsive rites of cleanliness and germ fear at one end of the spectrum. At the other extreme is obsessive erotic attraction to slime, filthiness, and "taboo" practices such as the originally Japanese bukkake orgies in which a great number of men--sometimes hundreds--ejaculate upon the nude body and face of a single woman. Examples are easily elaborated: pica (the obsessive eating of clay, plaster, or roadside dirt), coprophagy (the eating of feces), the ritual smearing of feces and urine on a sexual partner's body, and, in milder manifestations of these erotic proclivities, festivals of mud-wrestling, erotic massages with oils and jells, and so on for scores of variations easily imagined. As St. Augustine noted, "Inter faeces et urinam nascimur" -- we are born between shit and piss (and never seem to lose our fascination with the possibilities thereby offered, whether in bed or in the most serious works of art.)

$2.3 million was offered for Chris Ofili's 1996 portrait, "The Holy Virgin Mary," whose exposed breast is made of lacquered elephant dung, while her robe is made up of depictions of women's asses. "Piss Christ" is a 5' x 3' photograph by Andres Serrano of a small crucifix suspended in a plastic box filled with the artist's urine. A more refined variant of the fascination with viscous and psychologically freighted substances is to be found in the large-scale sculptural works of Matthew Barney (who made the epic Cremaster cycle of films, premiered at the Guggenheim Museum), which utilize hundreds of gallons of petroleum jelly--sometimes allowed to melt and slime over all the surroundings--his statement on the fossil fuel industry, as well as the antecedent use of whale oil as fuel. These artistic practices may seem bizarre: but imagine trying to explain to a visitor from a lost culture or distant planet the Christian doctrine of the eucharist, in which believers consume the actual body and blood of Christ by the miracle of transubstantiation of the physical substances of the wafer and the wine... theophagic cannibalism as a religious commandment! And recall that the Biblical account of our very creation involves God's playing in the mud, scooping up clay to form a creature in "his own image," then breathing into his mud-sculpture the breath of life, making of us immortal souls! It is all a bit complicated?

Twentieth century philosophy did not hesitate to dive into the issues raised by such matters (and indeed 2500 years earlier Heraclitus had divided up human souls into those that are "dry," and those that are "damp." The damp ones, drunkards, etc., are prone to sink, while the dry souls ascend towards the heavens to be purified in the fires of intellectual suns--a foretaste of Plato's division of the human soul into the appetite, the will, and the intellect above.) Armed with hundreds of years of theory, art, and psychological conjecture, philosophers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty tackled the issues treated here in ontological terms. Under the tutelage of phenomenology, these philosophers argue that objects in the world--things--have, as part of their reality, affective qualities: repulsivenss, and attractiveness, for example. These are not merely associated with the object by an act of the mind, but are really there, in the thing--as real as its mass, velocity, color, shape, or proportions. This can have revolutionary consequences for re-engineering our philosophical understanding of our lived world and its truth, since, among other advantages, it gives us an opening to understand the power and knowledge-status of the arts, which depend primarily upon these "affective" qualities of existing objects.

Of course this is no place to even sketch out the elaborate, decades-long arguments for this position (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, DeBeauvoir, and many others). It will have to suffice here to make a few points concerning some findings of this methodology regarding the matters at hand--the roots of our contorted relationship to the nausea and attraction of such substances as slime, mucus, phlegm, sexual juices, and extending even to foods, organisms, bodily functions, as well as qualia, textures, smells, and so many of the imagined objects of classic science fiction/horror/comic books, movies, hip-hop songs, poetry, novels, paintings, and other human cultural productions, whether pathological or "normal."

Sartre provided an extended meditation on the roots of existential disgust and repulsion in his Being and Nothingness, as well as the novel, Nausea, thereby provoking the anger of feminists, who easily identify Sartre's characterization of the feminine-viscous as misogynist. In Sartre's play, The Age of Reason, the protagonist wrestles with his repulsion and horror of female anatomy in its admixture with human embryogeny--pregnancy. Hollywood horror films have made abundant use of this nexus of extreme feelings in such films as Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, The Alien, The Nightmare on Elm Street, Rosemary's Baby, Species and literally hundreds of others, most of which identify the fluids, orifices, and organic functions of (especially) the female role in reproduction as horrifying, and threatening.

Recall my former point that phenomenology insists on the "objective" or "really real" status of affective qualities in the things of the world. Studies show repeatedly that we make confident and surprisingly accurate judgments about people in a matter of seconds on first meeting--say in a job interview or at a party. Furthermore, a questionnaire asking subjects to name the personality types, and emotional states of inanimate objects (tea kettle, candle, clock, shoe, or whatever), elicits answers of amazing uniformity: people on the whole perceive the world under categories untouched by geometry, physics, and measurement. According to the phenomenologist, this is not at all an operation of pasting or attaching an imagined or "mental" association to a bare perception; rather we get a "bare" (scientific) perception only by abstracting qualities from a too-rich bodily encounter with a quasi-subjective object in our experience.

Roquentin, in Sartre's Nausea, suffers from an ontological malady; he suffers from the very paste and "thereness" of things in the world. It is their existence that he finds insupportable and nauseating:

"His blue cotton shirt stands out joyfully against a chocolate coloured wall. That too brings on the Nausea. The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me. It makes itself one with the cafe, I am the one who is within it." (Nausea, 19)

For the early Sartre, consciousness (For-itself) is Nothingness (nihilating activity)--it is another name for freedom, the human ability to assign meaning to any object, and, thereby, to change any situation. The objects/things of the world (the In-itself) are inert, existing in space and time as objects for consciousness and operating under laws discovered by the sciences. Science, or knowledge, is about these things--an operation of consciousness. But consciousness exists in a state of continuous anxiety, since "it" alone has no existence, no definition, no fixed identity. Knowing that it can be anything, it lapses into "bad faith," the attempt to assume a stable identity and fixed definition: "I am a Republican, a Catholic, a Father, a Banker, a Husband, a Hiker." Now, I have no need to take responsibility for my choices, since they all flow from my fixed definitions. In my anxiety I try to forget that I could choose at any moment to be an unfaithful, atheistic, runaway revolutionary. But I can never hide from my consciousness this scandal that belongs to the core of consciousness in its being: I am Nothing fixed, nothing definable. I am responsible.

In a metaphorical leap of representation, Sartre says that this framework is the basis of our queasy response--our nausea--in the presence of slime--a "substance" that refuses to be either liquid or solid, that refuses to be pinned down, just as I, myself, cannot be defined in a fixed identity:

"At this instant I suddenly understand the snare of the slimy; it is a fluidity which holds me and which compromises me; I can not slide on this slim, all its suction cups hold me back; it can not slide over me, it clings to me like a leech. The sliding however is not simply denied as in the case of the solid; it is degraded. The slimy seems to lend itself to me, it invites me; for a body of slime at rest is not noticeably distinct from a body of very dense liquid. But it is a trap. The sliding is sucked in by the sliding substance, and it leaves its traces upon me. The slime is like a liquid seen in a nightmare, where all its properties are animated by a sort of life and turn back against me. Slime is the revenge of the In-itself. A sickly-sweet feminine revenge which will be symbolized on another level by the quality "sugary." This is why the sugar-like sweetness to the taste--an indelible sweetness, which remains indefinitely in the mouth even after swallowing--perfectly completes the essence of the slimy. A sugary sliminess is the ideal of the slimy; it symbolizes the sugary death of the For-itself (like that of the wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it).

To touch the slimy is to risk being dissolved in sliminess. Now this dissolution by itself is frightening enough, because it is the absorption of the For-itself by the In-itself as ink is absorbed by a blotter..." (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 609)

Passing over the misogynist overtones, and abandoning here any ambition to show in any detail how Merleau-Ponty, attacking the quasi-Cartesian dualism of Sartre's analysis, breaks through to a fruitful and novel ontology of the Flesh (le chair), which as for-itself-in-itself, allows him to describe our primary world of experience as bodies--as essentially the very "paste" of interconnectedness.

I can rub my fingers together and touch myself touching, living alternately in the "subject" finger and the object finger, while at all times being the body that makes this simultaneity possible. And by extension this view makes sociality possible, since we are both bodies, alternating like my two fingers as subjects and objects, but never losing our rootedness in the bodied world. flesh of our flesh--involved in our shared carnality.

A book-length essay would be required to follow up the consequences of this radical re-focus of the categories of existence, and another book would be needed to spell out the practical consequences in the world of political and social struggle.  It is easy to extend our disgust with slime metaphorically to the excesses of media coverage of the current presidential election campaign. Mud in the garden, mud-slinging on the networks, muck-raking in the journals, and slime left on all of us--as if "Slimer" in Ghostbusters had left its ectoplasmic calling card as it slithered through all our orifices and vulnerable faculties.

Suffice it here to note that this view casts a new light on the claim that "all politics are local." We have had enough of the abstractions and systems of the neo-conservatives, libertarians, utopian socialists, and even garden variety Republicans who cloak racism, misogyny, greed, and simple cruelty in the high-flown language of liberty, states' rights, market "corrections," constitutional originalism, American exceptionalism, corporate personhood, weapons system sanctity, standardized testing, and campaigns against political correctness, and rational gun-control,  environmental skepticism, calls for border and voting "safeguards," and a thousand other trickle-down fallacies and ideological smoke-screens.  Aristophanes would have had a wonderful time satirizing these "head in the clouds" theorists and apologists for our victimizing class system--these politicians, who mask their own greed and psychopathology in the language of standard abstract defenses of corporate and upper class "rights."

Slime Ichthyology

In 1971 the experimental film maker, Stan Brakhage, made a half-hour, silent, 16mm film, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. The subject matter is mostly of standard autopsy procedures in a morgue. It is common for the occasional viewer to become sick, or even pass out, when confronted with this ultimate portrait of the human condition as embodied--all a matter of fluids, slimes, faces peeled back, exposed brains, and so on. This, too, is the truth, perhaps the "deeper" truth of the same body celebrated in poetry and painting, the same face that invites our deepest instincts for attraction, repulsion, and grounds the barriers to aggression and violence, that we celebrate in art, advertising, personal experience, and myth.

This sort of experience is one of the best arguments I know for grounding politics in the mire and muck of actual embodied lives, rather than the abstractions of deluded politicians, theoreticians, and campaign strategists, Politics is local--down to the cellular level, from the bottom up, and all politics in the best sense, are "dirty." A hungry child huddled in an unheated apartment owned by a rich absentee landlord will tell us much more about our system of power and privilege than all the position papers ever published by the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, or the Free Enterprise Institute. The Republican establishment's fear of "populism" is, at base, a fear of the "dirty" truths of the inequalities of social and economic organization. (2016 has a great deal to teach us in such matters.)

We need never to discard our "nostalgie de la boue," our longing to be back in the mud. From the primal ooze of life's first appearance on earth to truth's appeal to seeing the flesh of the world "with one's own eyes," we fool ourselves when we think we can survive and thrive together in the sterile, minimalist, super-clean environs of Platonic Forms, or right-wing myths of racial and cultural purity. Only in this revisionist sense of the term, my vote is strong for dirty politics.

[NOTE: Unless I change my mind again, this will be my last essay here. Thanks to all of you who have read what I've written, and have a good Spring.]