Here’s a little experiment on my part — me sharing some thoughts about the world without writing them down. Just reflecting on life. Let me know if you think this is a good medium. More importantly, let me know your own thoughts on the topic I’m addressing. Thanks.
Welcome to Episode 19 of “A Course in Miracles for Social Justice Activists.” I’m your host, Mike Rivage-Seul.” And today we turn our attention to Lesson 11 in ACIM’s Workbook for Students.
It invites us to think clearly about the purpose of life – about its meaning. It tells us “My meaningless thoughts are showing us a meaningless world.”
Of course, today’s lesson follows up on yesterday’s where we ended up praying: “Lord release me from all that I now believe.” Yes, The Course still has us in the process of trying to clear our minds of false ideas about God and life itself, but also (as social justice activists) about our country, its history, and what it’s doing in the world. (This process of thought-purgation, cleansing, and removal of intellectual debris will continue in The Course for some time. So be patient.)
Today’s lesson asserts that our thinking processes misguided by the world and our culture have us on a tragically wrong track about life’s purpose. Let’s think about that.
Apropos of doing so, Neale Donald Walsch suggests that every morning as we look in the mirror, we should ask ourselves four questions – all of them connected with today’s lesson. Walsch’s questions are:
- Who am I?
- Where am I?
- Why am I here?
- What am I going to do about that?
Our culture gives superficial answers to all those questions. It tells us that:
- We are an Americans.
- We live in the greatest country in the world.
- We are here to enjoy ourselves and accumulate as much money and as many goods as possible.
- So, all of us should go out and shop till we drop.
Clearly, none of those answers is true. To begin at a superficial level, we’re not the only “Americans.” That name belongs to people living in this entire hemisphere. Canadians are also North Americans, and so are Mexicans. Brazilians and Venezuelans are South Americans. Nicaraguans and Hondurans are Central Americans. As citizens of the United States, we might more accurately call ourselves “Usians.”
At a deeper level, of course, all of us are human beings. But what does that mean? Are we simply individual animal bodies colliding against one another as we scramble around in fierce competition for scarce goods? A lot of people believe that. Our culture seems to say so.
Yet all of us know deep down that our scrambles, collisions, and competitions soon end exactly like a dream. At the end of their lives (and often before) “Americans” holding this view end up inhabiting what Lesson 11 calls “a meaningless world.” (That’s the significance of the term “meaningless” in A Course in Miracles. It refers to what doesn’t last. What is unreal or meaningless simply doesn’t last.)
For A Course in Miracles, the only reality that lasts is the single Divine Energy that manifests itself in bodies like our own and in the entire universe. That Energy includes consciousness. In traditional language, the only thing that lasts, the only thing that’s Real and Meaningful is (please excuse the misused and debased expression) “God.”
And here’s the Good News of The Course: we are all part of God. At our essence, we are expressions of divine energy. We are spirits having the very temporary bodily experience we call “my life.”
Relative to Source, the Ground of Being, Ultimate Reality, and “God,” we are all really one Energy. Everything is. We’re like waves on the ocean. We arise like waves, exist as such for a short time, and then return to being part of the ocean.
According to this view, there is really only one of us here. The distinctions between any of us are all quite superficial – like the distinction between those waves. I’m talking here about nationality, skin color, cultural differences, personalities. . . We’re all in this together. We’re in competition with no one. We are one with each other and with animals, plants, minerals, earth, fire, wind, and water.
The purpose of life then is to live from that place. It is the only reality. All the rest is unreal; it is meaningless; it will soon pass; and we’ll be left only with vague memories of events that we won’t be even sure really happened as we recall them. It’s like they never occurred.
Doesn’t that ring true for you? (Well, maybe not yet. But stick with The Course, and it soon might.)
In the meantime, living from the place I’ve just been describing (i.e., from a conscious awareness of the unity of all creation) has political consequences. Those are what concern me especially in this podcast specifically about the connections between A Course in Miracles and social activism.
If we adopt ACIM’s approach (which, by the way, reflects basic Christian mysticism) we might draw the following highly political conclusions:
- We are not principally “Americans” at all. We are human beings. Even more deeply, we are expressions of Divine Energy manifesting itself in very temporary and rapidly changing bodies. While each of us is “special,” we are no more special than the poor women and children seeking asylum at our borders. They are us.
- And as for where we are, we are not really in a place called “America” or even in the United States. Those designations are human inventions intended to obscure humankind’s basic unity. I know this is difficult to accept. However, the Great Conscious Divine Energy recognizes no borders, no national identities. No one owns the earth or any of its parts. It belongs to everyone. Immigrants and asylum seekers belong here as much as any of us.
- Thirdly, our purpose in life is to live from a consciousness of the unity of all creation and of all human beings. This means that competition is out; cooperation is in. It means that capitalism’s destruction of the congealed energy we call “Planet Earth” is out; treating the earth as a living being deserving our love and respect is in.
- Fourthly (answering the question of what to do about this consciousness) it seems to me that for starters, we’ve got to:
- Stop all our wars – every one of them – drastically cutting military budgets meant to defend us from the world’s poor. In the words of Pope Francis, “War never again.”
- Work on creating a world with room for everyone
- Where labor can claim as much mobility as capital in ignoring and crossing borders
- Open our borders to those seeking asylum from our wars against them, our destruction of their homes, schools and hospitals, and the devastation of their ecosystems at the hands of our colonialism and neo-liberal capitalism.
Yes, all our thoughts about American exceptionalism, about consumption and competition, about war and borders are all meaningless. They have created a meaningless world that has no future.
It’s up to us Course in Miracles students to reverse all of that. It’s the only way to the “inner peace” that A Course in Miracles aims at. In the words of Lesson 11, today’s idea (“My meaningless thoughts are showing me a meaningless world”) “contains the foundation for the peace, relaxation, and freedom from worry that we are trying to achieve.” Accepting the truth of the thought that “My meaningless thoughts are showing me a meaningless world” is also the only way towards achieving world peace.
So today, for our practice periods, simply follow the directions the lesson gives. It says, “Begin with your eyes closed, and repeat the idea slowly to yourself,” ‘My meaningless thoughts are showing me a meaningless world.’ “Then open your eyes and look about near and far, up and down, — anywhere. During the minute or so to be spent in using the idea, merely repeat it to yourself, being sure to do so without haste, and with no sense of urgency or effort. . .. Three practice periods today will probably be sufficient.” I intend to join you in doing that throughout my day.
Then, in a day or so, let’s get back together to focus on Lesson Twelve.
This is Chapter 15 of my novel, The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel: a novel about Cuba, prostitution, and the Catholic Church.
For previous chapters, just scroll down.
This is chapter 3 in my audio novel The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera and Fidel. (I made a mistake yesterday entitling its uncorrected chapter “Chapter Three.” It was really chapter two.)
Just for fun . . .
In 1962, disorder began to enter my life. Its cause was the Second Vatican Council started by Pope St. John XXIII. Out of the blue, it seemed, he decided to reform the Catholic Church – to “open some windows,” he said to the modern world. And with that decision, my life was changed forever – but not overnight.
As a basically conservative person, I initially resisted Vatican II – or at least some aspects of it. I liked the church the way it was. Everything there was so clear and certain.
But now, they were introducing English to replace the Latin Mass. The priest celebrant was turned around and faced the community. Guitars replaced organs. And the music became folksier and less solemn. All of that was fine and rather exciting.
But then, colleagues of mine became critical of things like our nightly Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, priestly vestments, and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. (I loved that book.) The seminary chapel was radically remodeled so that the tabernacle now moved to the side, looked like a huge treasure chest. It had been designed, we were told, by a Jewish artist. I wondered, “How can someone who doesn’t share our faith in the Eucharist create art that reflects centuries of reflection on Jesus’ Real Presence in the eucharistic elements?” I remember writing a long screed in defense of The Imitation of Christ.
That was at the beginning. But gradually, I became persuaded. More progressive and better-read classmates and elders influenced me. One of them prevailed upon the dean of students to have our library subscribe to The National Catholic Reporter (NCR). It was fascinating.
But most influential of all were my classes in Sacred Scripture and theology. Our scripture professor was Eamonn O’Doherty. He was wonderful. He taught us about text criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism and more. For four years and line by line we went through biblical texts that I came to see as richer than my literalist, fundamentalist mind was ever able to imagine. What I had learned about poetry from Fr. Griffin when I was a college freshman and sophomore enabled me not only to understand what the scholars were saying, but to find my own textual meanings as well.
And then there were the theology classes. Their focus changed from preoccupation with bland traditional manuals written in Latin to actual books by controversial authors like Teilhard de Chardin, Bernard Haring, Hans Kung, Ivan Illich and Edward Schillebeeckx. I remember being greatly impacted by the latter’s Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God as we studied it under the guidance of another of our great professors, John Marley. Fr. Marley was a liturgist who helped us all develop sensitivity to the history and profound meanings associated with public worship and sacrament.
We were reading non-Catholic authors as well – something completely unheard of before John XXIII. I found Paul Tillich especially powerful. I actually discovered sympathy with the Great Reformers we had previously been taught to dismiss and even despise. I read everything I could from the psychologists Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers.
Yes, my ordered, predictable world was coming apart. Along with my seminary colleagues (and professors!!), I was questioning more and more – accepted doctrines such as papal infallibility, moral teachings on contraception, abortion, the uniqueness of the church itself, the role of priests, and, of course, mandatory priestly celibacy.
I remember reading an article in the NCR about “reluctant celibates.” Those were actual and would-be priests who felt called to the priesthood but unenthusiastically accepted the celibacy requirement without having an actual vocation to the celibate state.
I feared I fell into the reluctant celibate category. Before my ordination to the diaconate, I discussed this with my spiritual director. We agreed that it was probably just a matter of pre-ordination jitters.
So, come December 22, 1966, I was finally ordained along with nine classmates – three of whom I had been with since my first year in the high school seminary. After 12 seemingly interminable years, I had finally reached my goal. However, by now I was a Vatican II product. The new theology and my scripture studies influenced every aspect of my priesthood from my homilies and the way I celebrated the Eucharist. Eventually, it shaped the way I dressed and the length of my hair; I even flirted with a moustache and beard.
I was at last on fire academically. During my final semester in Milton, I was honored with a request to teach an adult education class in a Boston parish. The topic was Vatican II and the Bible. I relayed to my class of 30 adults – some twice my age and more – exactly what I was learning under Eamonn O’Doherty. They loved it. The class was a great success. I was discovering that I could teach. And I loved that too.
So, I was delighted when my first priestly assignment was not to Korea, the Philippines or Japan, but to continue my studies in Rome. My Columban superiors wanted me to get a doctorate in Moral Theology there, so I could come back to Milton and teach in the seminary.
Rome still smoldering from the conflagrations set by Vatican II (’62-’65), held wonderful and unexpected surprises that would continue the disorder that I (and the entire world at the time) was coming to embrace.
[Next installment (still on disorder): Rome challenges me to grow up in every sphere – intellectual, political, and personal.]
(This is the first in a series of reflections on the occasion of my 80th birthday.)
Last Sunday (Sept. 6th) I celebrated my 80th birthday. I feel as if I’ve crossed a line into a new psychological and spiritual territory. I’m now officially old.
On Sunday, my daughter, Maggie, and her family graciously celebrated the event. My younger son, Patrick, was there as well. He works in DC and came to Westport for the occasion.
My elder son, Brendan, was unable to come. He works for the State Department in Paris, France. COVID-19 kept him from crossing the pond with our lovely daughter-in-law, Erin, and our recently arrived granddaughter, Genevieve Simone. (We’re still feeling bad about not yet having seen little Gigi except on ZOOM.)
Maggie invited us for lunch. She made my favorite dish for the occasion – spaghetti alle vongole (with in-the-shell clams freshly delivered from the ocean a few miles away from here). Maggie’s white clam sauce was perfect. Then, of course, there was a birthday cake (chocolate mousse – again my favorite).
After lunch we all drove to nearby Greenwich to begin an hour-and-a-half yacht ride to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The weather was glorious. There were drinks, cigars, laughter and just enjoying the boat’s swift dash to Manhattan.
In the presence of Lady Liberty, we took photos (see above), marveled at the historic objet d’art, and then turned back towards Greenwich, stopping on the way for crab sandwiches and French fries as the sun rapidly descended and the cool breezes forced us to put on our wraps.
The next evening (Monday), we reprised the celebration with friends from our new church in nearby Darien. Again, there was cake, candles, and singing “Happy Birthday.” And then everyone took turns saying nice things about me.
Imagine that: not one, but two birthday celebrations!
Still, regret was expressed that COVID kept us from a bigger party with more relatives and friends, including some former students. However, I pointed out that I already had such a celebration when I formally retired from Berea College ten years ago. I remember thinking at the time as people spoke kindly about me, “This is like hearing speeches at my own funeral. I’m glad I’m here to experience it all. What joy to be with so many relatives, friends, and so many of those I’ve taught!” For me, that was enough.
When my own turn came to speak on Monday, I quoted Richard Rohr who speaks of the “three boxes” that contain life’s memories for all of us. One is labeled “Order,” the second is “Disorder,” and the third, “Reorder.” The categories represent apt summaries of my life, I said; its elements clearly fit into such containers.
An Ordered Life
Like Rohr, I was blessed with a great deal of order in my early life – till about the age of 21. As a Roman Catholic boy attending St. Viator’s School on Chicago’s Northwest Side, I had clear ideas of who I was. I knew exactly what life was for, who God is, and what he expected of me. I wanted nothing more than to save my soul; nothing else mattered.
So, having just turned 14, I chose to leave home and begin preparation for becoming a priest. I figured that was the best way to get into heaven.
Accordingly, I shipped off to St. Columban’s Minor (i.e. high school) Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo). There, every day was highly ordered with 6:30 rising and 10:00 “lights out,” intense study especially of Latin, mandatory study hall, compulsory sports activities, and strict supervision by a host of father figures, disciplinarians, and demanding teachers. At “The Creek,” I doubled down on my determination to become a priest, even as most of those I entered with either decided otherwise or were “bounced” (as we said) for disciplinary or academic reasons.
In 1958, I entered the college seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. There, my inner student was awakened as never before by Fr. James Griffin, my English teacher nonpareil at Milton for two years. Under his watchful eye, I discovered poetry, music appreciation, and creative writing. I learned how to read with a critical eye. I feared and loved the man at the same time. He was the best.
In 1960, my classmates (now reduced from 32 to 12 in number) and I embarked on our “Spiritual Year” in Bristol Rhode Island. It was the Columban version of a religious novitiate. Its centerpiece was a 30-day Ignatian silent retreat that began on October 6th of that year. It was unforgettable. So was the entire year. It taught us to pray, silence our voices and minds, to meditate and appreciate God’s creation as never before there on the shores of Narragansett Bay.
After Bristol, it was time to return to Milton – this time to the major seminary – to complete college work on our philosophy majors and then to continue with four years of theological and scriptural studies. As far as order was concerned, it was more of the same: rising at 6:30, retiring at 10:00, mandatory classes and study periods, long periods of silence, regular spiritual retreats, daily meditation, and little contact with “the outside world.”
I thrived on it all. I still knew who I was and what was expected of me. God was in his heaven. All was right with the world – despite what was happening outside e.g. with the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam.
(I’ll soon post a reflection on the collapse of my ordered certainty.)
I recently wrote a piece here and for OpEdNews entitled “Why I Won’t Vote in November.” It evoked passionate response from readers I greatly respect. They saw it as conceding the reelection of Donald Trump. It was an exercise, I was told, in elitism. It ignored the plight of children in cages at our border as well as Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. It overlooked what should be the main goal of progressives – the defeat of Donald J. Trump at all costs.
My point however was that the goal of defeating Donald Trump is indeed not enough. It won’t cure what’s wrong in America. And that’s because it’s the entire system we live under that must be replaced. It’s entirely corrupted. Democracy has already been all but exterminated in our country. And I deceive myself if I think otherwise.
The whole system (from the executive office to the Congress to the Supreme Court) is anti-worker, anti-people, and pro-corporation. It must be allowed to fall and be replaced. More specifically, the nation’s voting system is corrupt beyond recall, Democratic candidates (like Biden) are perennially pathetic – only marginally different from the Republicans – and Joe Biden epitomizes the pathos and systemic failure as few have before him.
A Corrupt Voting System
Begin with the voting system.
They don’t even want us to vote! They’re quite clear about that. And I’m not just talking about the Republicans. No one – Republican or Democrat – is taking serious steps towards eliminating the Electoral College, instituting public funding of all campaigns, creating a voting holiday, establishing same-day voting registration, eliminating hackable voting machines, or turning over the electoral process to a bi-partisan centralized commission to eliminate gerrymandering and ensure that the same rules apply to every state. That’s how bad it is.
As a result of all that, voting has become a complete sham. It contradicts the received wisdom insisting that “every vote counts.” That’s a lie. Look at all the electoral shenanigans in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere. The whole point is to remove partisan-threatening voters from the rosters. No wonder fewer than 60% of eligible voters participate. Consciously or unconsciously, the dropouts know the system’s rigged. They have no dog in the fight.
And let’s be clear, it’s not the “elites” that aren’t voting. It’s the poor, minorities, and working classes who long ago came to the conclusion that their votes don’t matter. To begin with, their ballots might not be counted. But even if they are, those elected won’t attend to the concerns of wage workers, the unemployed, homeless and uninsured.
Still, our overseers (and others) want to shame the rest of us into voting, even when the “lesser of two evils” brings us the same tired polices that serve no one but themselves and their rich employers. What I’m saying is that despite those efforts at shaming, I more and more see the point of working-class non-voters. And if nothing fundamental changes, I’m going to join them.
Perennially Weak Candidates
As for the position of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that my not voting equals a vote for Donald Trump. . . How about huge VOTE that the DNC itself has cast for Trump by its absurd choice of yet another milk toast candidate – this one far weaker than their last? She couldn’t beat Trump; so, how can he? He’s weaker than Hillary, Gore, Kerry, Dukakis, or Mondale. And how did those centrists work out for us? No, it’s the Democratic Party that’s voting for Donald Trump. They love Republican policies. In fact, they’d rather have Trump than Bernie Sanders. They are champions of the status quo.
That’s shown by the fact that their “victors” like Clinton and Obama came to represent nothing more than Republican Lite. What disappointments both of them turned out to be! Big promises followed by the same neo-liberalism, the same trickle-down nonsense, the same wars, the same destruction of the planet. Despite Obama’s slogan, there was no hope, no change.
It all makes me wonder why the Democratic Party keeps giving us such uninspiring, self-defeating choices? That’s on them. It’s on them for giving us a candidate this time who, even in the midst of the present pandemic, insists that he’d veto Medicare for All – which the majority of Americans desperately need. He’s also like Trump in wanting us all to go back to work even if it means that many will die as a result – for the sake of the economy and Wall Street profits. And don’t even talk about his positions on the Green New Deal, free college tuition, forgiveness of debt, or Social Security.
The Case of Joe Biden
In fact, have you ever heard Mr. Biden offer a single defining policy initiative of any kind? Even one? I haven’t. And that’s because (Correct me if I’m wrong) he hasn’t given us any. His only claim is that he’s not Donald Trump. That’s it.
I’m asking then: do citizens deserve blame for perceiving that the fight is fixed in favor of the donor class of both parties? Both candidates are their champions not ours. So, are we blameworthy for realizing that we’ve seen this movie before? Should we be ashamed for demanding that Biden actually earn our votes – that he take action to convince voters that he’s worth voting for as someone other than a leering old man marginally nicer than the other imbecile?
In fact, Biden’s not that much better. Like Trump he’s a pathological liar. He’s also a worse mass murderer. Remember, Biden promoted the Iraq war. (It was no mistake. Anyone paying attention could see right through his justifications and those of Colin Powell.) That war has killed more than a million Iraqis. Even Trump hasn’t gone that far.
Moreover, the immigration policy Biden cooperated with was overseen by a president who quickly became known as the “Deporter-in-Chief.” Additionally, with the cooperation of the mass media, Biden has managed to evade addressing credible charges of sexual assault.
As I said, the system’s rigged. The Democratic Party is as bought-off as the Republicans. Neither the reigning system of political economy nor the Democratic Party is worth supporting. We’ve got to let them fall and be replaced. And the sooner we all realize that, the better.
Yes, I agree that it might make one feel heroic (in a quixotic sort of way) to pledge standing for hours in a driving rain to vote for a near corpse to save us all from Donald Trump. Still, those in soaking sneakers will surely know that their votes very literally might not count. And even if, by some miracle they do, voting for the geezer in question won’t significantly inhibit the inexorable process of climate change. Neither will it lessen the prospect of nuclear war. (After all, it was the Obama administration that decided to modernize the nuclear arsenal.) And it won’t bring us Medicare for All, forgiveness of student debt, or even guarantee the salvation of Social Security.
But you can bet it will mean millions, billions and trillions for the donor class.
Remember, our savior from Mr. Trump has promised those all-important constituents that “Nothing fundamental will change.” Take him at his word. What’s the point?
This is the third essay I’ve written for a course on critical theory I’m taking under Stanley Aronowitz at the People’s Forum in New York City. It’s a response to a piece written by Walter Benjamin (pictured above) entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production
As we complete the first third of our course, “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory,” I’m beginning to see the logic behind the progression of our assigned readings so far. To my surprise I’m also perceiving more clearly the vital connections between our course and the book on critical thinking that I published in the middle of April.
My book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news. Written specifically to introduce advanced secondary students as well as college freshmen and sophomores to easily-understood critical theory, Magic Glasses centralizes structural (especially economic) analysis along with ideological distinctions and historical considerations in the form of Ten Rules for Critical Thinking.
The rules are deduced from the work of liberation theologians at a think tank in San Jose, Costa Rica, where my wife, Peggy, and I have worked on-and-off since 1992. The study center is called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones. Until recently, it was headed by Franz Hinkelammert, a leading economist and liberation theologian who now leads The Critical Thinking Group also located in San Jose. His many books are generously peppered with references to Frankfurt School authors.
Drawing on Hinkelammert and others, and in the spirit of our reading from Benjamin, my Magic Glasses also forges connections between contemporary politics in this age of Donald Trump in terms of an unmistakable world-wide drift towards fascism. But even more to the point of this week’s reading assignment, Magic Glasses highlights film as a tool for awakening within students their latent revolutionary consciousness.
With all of that in mind, what follows will first of all briefly connect this week’s assignment from Walter Benjamin with our previous readings from Theodor Adorno on “Progress” and “On Subject and Object.” Secondly, this review will present my summary of our third reading, Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There he identifies film as “the most powerful agent” for facilitating the work of contemporary mass movements. Though warning of its dangers, he sees it as a tool for raising consciousness and catalyzing political praxis. My brief essay will conclude by illustrating Benjamin’s points with my own teaching practices as reflected in the book referenced above.
Our first two readings from Adorno emphasized vital points about human beings in general and critical thinkers in particular. Contrary to biblical teachings and the analysis of Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Adorno insisted that human beings were not created fully-fledged.
Instead, they are products of evolution; they are works specifically “in-progress” importantly shaped by their historical and material contexts. As such, their fate is still undetermined and might well end in failure – even in the extinction of the human race. Technological development does not guarantee human progress. Rather, uncontrolled it actually threatens the very survival of our race.
Only progress understood as a development of critical consciousness paralleling technical advance and given direction by the very victims of merely mechanical progress, can save us. Salvific consciousness of this kind liberates its possessors to employ technology in the service of human development rather than for its destruction.
In other words (and this brings us to Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”), a major task of critical thinking is to facilitate the transformation of those who use technology from objects to subjects – into conscious agents employing technology in the service of human liberation.
Put more concretely, technological gadgets like radio, movies, television, computers, and I Phones can easily objectify or reify unconscious users and stealthily shape their lives and thinking. Transformed into subjects, the gadgets themselves can turn those who use them into unthinking objects and deprive the unwary of their essential identity as conscious agents directing their lives towards specifically human purposes. Once again: according to Adorno, those purposes centralize the liberation of those whom the structures of capitalism routinely objectify and deform into oppressed, marginalized, despised, and humiliated sub-humans.
So, how exactly do Adorno’s abstract generalizations about technology’s power to captivate and transform human beings into objects shake down in concrete, historical terms?
The question brings us to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There, the author confronts his readers with stark political choices inherent in technological “progress.” That choice, Benjamin argues, is principally between fascism on the one hand and communism on the other.
However, before he gets to that decision, Benjamin delineates the status questionis. He reviews the history of mechanical reproduction. The Greeks knew exceedingly few forms of mechanical duplication. Reproductions took the form of stamped coins for commercial use, along with bronze and terra cotta artifacts. Other forms of mechanical reproduction followed. They took the shape of wood cuts, the printing press, lithographs, photographic negatives, and movie films including sound recordings. (We might add that “progress” continues today in the forms of computers, I Phones, digital cameras along with associated social media.)
Each development in the list just itemized profoundly impacted human beings in Adorno’s terms, specifically as objects and as subjects.
On the one hand and objectively speaking, the developments in question often straightened the horizons of those interacting with the resulting products. As Benjamin puts it, a reproduced piece of art detached from the history of its production and ownership lost its uniqueness. It lost its “aura” – the halo connecting it to time and space beyond the context of its immediate user. Thus, one viewing a Greek statue of Venus might have no idea of its original value as an object of religious veneration, much less as an object of condemnation by the medieval church which considered it an idol. Moreover, the decontextualized observer would typically remain detached from the history of the statue’s ownership and of the monetary value given it in various contexts.
Even more importantly in terms of reifying naïve observers, Benjamin points out that objects of art produced in mass quantities can be used to propagandize viewers-turned-consumers. This is especially true in the case of photography appearing in magazines and even more so with film. In magazines and newspapers, de rigueur captions actually tell people what their eyes should be seeing. Movie images change so quickly that (for the unaware) successive frames in effect give meaning or interpret the ones preceding them. Assaulted by rapidly changing figures and scenes, the viewer has no time to analyze her or his past or immediate experiences.
In this way, photography and film, especially when coordinated by the ruling classes become perfect vehicles for propaganda and the spread of ideology. Germany’s fascists (in power at the time Benjamin penned this essay in 1936) were quick to recognize the potential of this new technology. Accordingly, they utilized the new visual arts for purposes of brain-washing and massive indoctrination – even employing film to glorify war as the apotheosis of human development. Anticipating their later U.S. counterparts, the Nazis effectively convinced the uncritical that “being all you can be” involves killing one’s fellow human beings and utterly destroying their property in “beautiful” acts of murder, mayhem, and self-immolation. Carried to its logical conclusion, such human objectification, Benjamin warned, leads inexorably to envisioning the apex of human development as mass suicide. (The subsequent development of nuclear weapons and dawning awareness about anthropogenic climate chaos may well prove him to be prophetic.)
Yes, without doubt, Benjamin is correct in expressing serious reservations about the objectifying dangers of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. However, there’s another side to the coin he describes. By its virtue, human subjects as such can also seize the apparatus of such duplication and employ it for purposes of human liberation. Thus:
• Widespread reproduction of art works has turned everyone into a critic.
• Or into film actor of sorts
• Similarly, (and even more-so with the advent of the internet) virtually everyone can discover “an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports,” etc.
• And (I would add) the capability of YouTube to excerpt clips from Hollywood films and from documentaries enhances possibilities for critical teachers to (in Benjamin’s words) “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property.”
And that brings me back to The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.
There I use YouTube clips of classic and contemporary films to illustrate each of my ten rules for critical thinking which include (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Select Market (as an organizing principle), (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-Sect Violence, (8) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (9) Collect Conclusions, and (10) Detect Silences. Film clips featured in the book come from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and the Broadway musical, Hamilton.
The clips, lasting no more than ten minutes each, have been selected to connect directly with my ten rules. Because of their brevity, and if students missed the point or wanted to see the clip again, any film excerpt can be viewed again with nothing lost in terms of class time. This ability to extract and repeat overcomes Benjamin’s objection about film images whose rapid succession prevent careful analysis or reflection.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about. It comes from Good Will Hunting. There the Matt Damon character, Will Hunting himself, is interviewed for a position in the National Security Agency. He’s asked why he shouldn’t take the job. Hunting responds:
Will’s answer is, of course, ironic. However, his response provides a good example of the kind of critical analysis that can be stimulated by short film clips. This one raises questions about connecting contemporary issues into a coherent whole. Will Hunting traces the effects of an anticipated assignment at the NSA from his desk there, to a war involving senseless carnage, a friend’s participation in that war, oil prices, environmental destruction on a massive scale, unemployment problems in the U.S., job loss to cheap Third World labor, and to corrupt politicians, who avoid military service, while somehow managing to get elected to the highest office in the land.
In terms of stimulating critical thinking, all the teacher has to do is ask students, “What did you see?”
I suppose what I’m saying here is that I found Walter Benjamin’s essay not only helpfully coherent with previous readings in our course; I also found his words about film and its use in stimulating critical thinking encouraging in terms of my own thoughts and praxis as a teacher and author.