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Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

What, Then, is Creativity?

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Teaching on January 9, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.

Last week a student asked me, “What is creativity?” I was unsure how to respond. I felt like the speaker from Leaves of Grass musing about a child, who, fetching a handful of grass, asks him what the grass is. “How could I answer the child?” the speaker wonders. “I do not know what it is any more than he.”

What is creativity? How could I answer the student? I did not know what it was any more than he. My ignorance on this subject nevertheless inspired me to seek understanding, perhaps even a definition, and then to proffer brief, explanatory remarks. Here they are, principally for his benefit but also for mine—and for that of anyone, I suppose, who cares to consider them.

Every human, I think, is the handiwork of God. If humans are created in God’s image, and God is our creator, then humanity’s creativity is, or might be, a limited, earthly, imperfect glimpse into the ways and workings of God. “We too,” said Paul Elmore More, “as possessors of the word may be called after a fashion children of the Most High and sons of the Father, but as creatures of His will we are not of His substance and nature, however we may be like Him.”[1]

Inherently flawed and sinful, humans cannot create what or as God creates and cannot be divine. Our imagination can be powerfully dark, dangerous, and wicked. The Lord proclaimed in the Noahic covenant that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”[2] Construction of the Tower of Babel demonstrated that the unified power of ambitious men laboring together may engender impious unrestraint.[3]

Humans, however, being more rational and intelligent than animals, are supreme among God’s creation and bear the divine image of God. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?” asks the psalmist, adding, “and the son of man, that thou visitest him?  For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hath crowned him with glory and honour.”[4]

Saint Peter—or the author of Second Peter if that book is pseudographical—called humans potential partakers in the divine nature who have escaped the corruption of the world.[5] Saint Paul implied that followers of Christ enjoy something of Christ’s mind, some special understanding of Christ’s instructions.[6] He also suggested that followers of Christ, the saints, will judge not only the world but the angels,[7]beneath whom, in substance, we consist.[8]

What these passages mean, exactly, is subject to robust academic and theological debate, but surely humanity’s crowning artistic achievements—our paintings, sculptures, philosophies, architecture, poetry, theater, novels, and music—are starting points for exploration. What evidence have we besides these tangible products of our working minds that we who are not divine somehow partake in divinity?

Humans are moral, spiritual, social, creative, and loving, unlike the rest of God’s animate creation, only some of which, the animals, are also sentient. Aristotle and Aquinas, to say nothing of the author of Genesis, rank animals lower than humans in the hierarchy of living beings because, although sentient, they lack a discernable will, conscientiousness, consciousness, and capacity for reason that humans definitively possess. Moreover, animals provide humans with the necessary sustenance to survive, and our survival is indispensable to the advancement of knowledge and intelligence, themselves essential to the enjoyment and preservation of God’s creation.

All human life is sacred because of humanity’s godly nature,[9] which is a privilege with coordinate duties and responsibilities: to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue, or care for, the inferior creatures of the earth.[10] However awesome humanity’s creative faculties are, they are not themselves divine, and cannot be. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,” intones the prophet, “so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[11]

Russell Kirk titled his autobiography The Sword of Imagination. A sword is a bladed weapon with a sharp, lethal point and sharp, lethal edges. It’s the symbol of medieval warriors and Romantic knights. The imagination, powerful like a sword, can be wielded for the forces of good or evil. It’s unsafe. But it can be channeled for moral and virtuous purposes.

Only God can have created something from nothing. That the cosmos exists at all is proof of an originating, ultimate cause, of some supreme power that is antecedent to all material life and form. Human creativity, by contrast, is iterative and mimetic, not the generation of perceptible substance out of an absolute void.

Human creativity builds on itself, repurposing and reinvigorating old concepts and fields of knowledge for new environments and changed conditions. We learn to be creative even if we are born with creative gifts and faculties. Imitative practice transforms our merely derivative designs and expressions into awesome originality and innovation.

Creativity, then, is the ability of human faculties to connect disparate ideas, designs, and concepts to solve actual problems, inspire awe, heighten the emotions and passions, or illuminate the complex realities of everyday experience through artistic and aesthetic expression. The most creative among us achieve their brilliance through rigorous training and a cultivated association with some master or teacher who imparts exceptional techniques and intuitions to the pupil or apprentice; every great teacher was a student once.

Or so I believe, having thought the matter through. It may be that I know no more about creativity than I do about grass. But I know, deeply and profoundly, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and for that I am infinitely and earnestly grateful.

 

Notes:

[1] Paul Elmore More, The Essential Paul Elmer More (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972), p. 55.

[2] Genesis 8:21.

[3] Genesis 11:5-7.

[4] Psalm 8:4-5.

[5] 2 Peter 1:4.

[6] 1 Corinthians 2:16.

[7] 1 Corinthians 6: 2-3.

[8] Psalm 8:4-5.

[9] Genesis 9:6.

[10] Genesis 28.

[11] Isaiah 55:9.

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Students, Keep an Open Mind and Humble Heart in College

In Academia, Communication, Humanities, Pedagogy, Teaching on January 2, 2019 at 6:45 am

Why I Write: Daren Dean

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Writing on December 26, 2018 at 6:45 am

Daren Dean

Daren Dean writes in the American South, and is the author of the novel Far Beyond the Pale, which was recently reviewed in The Huffington Post. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Red Dirt Forum, Cowboy Jamboree, BULL, Midwestern Gothic, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Missouri Life, The Oklahoma ReviewFiction Southeast, storySouth, Crixeo, and elsewhere. He’s been interviewed in or for diverse publications such as Ecotone online, Chattahoochee Review, Image, Ploughshares and Little, Brown and Company. His story “Bring Your Sorrow Over Here” was selected as Runner-up by Judge George Singleton in Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction contest. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His favorite unofficial title comes from Robert Olen Butler who wrote, “Dean writes like the laureate of fallen angels.” He teaches creative writing and composition in the English department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

This piece originally appeared here in Fiction Southeast.

“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”—Flannery O’Connor

 

Why do I write? Who can answer this question definitely? No one thing made me want to write. In fact, I think it was an accumulation of experiences from childhood and maybe even lives before I was born. I guess it’s the idea of the transience in life. The way our family moved in and out of each other’s lives and into the lives of other families as well. I never worried about this as a kid, but as an adult looking back I see it as both a blessing and a curse. I was being groomed to be a writer I think and all I can do is point to some of these signposts. Some of my earliest memories are probably what everyone would agree are the those emotional events that your memory holds onto because even as a child you know they hint at something profound though you can’t quite put your finger on it. The mystery surrounding all of us all the time is what drove me to want to write. It’s the mystery that is lived as O’Connor said. Flannery O’Connor said the modern world wants to eliminate mystery, but it is this fundamental mysteriousness inherent in each of our lives that drives me to write.

As a boy, I can remember lying next to my brother Lane on the floor. Lane was older than me by a year. He was born mentally handicapped. He could not communicate. It was never clear to me that he recognized us, my mom and me, for sure. He would sometimes sit in the sunlight with the dustmotes coming in from a window and slap the back of his hand so hard over and over, he would also gnaw on his hand, until there was a callous on it. Well, I would lay there on the floor and stare into his blue blue eyes and try to communicate with him telepathically. I’m not sure  I knew that word then but for some reason I was convinced it might be possible. He would stare back at me very calmly, but as far as I know we never communicated in words but at least I did feel love and an indescribable emotion. This impulse to communicate with another human being, a friend, a mother, a father, a son or daughter, is the heart of what a writer does. Interestingly, when my children were born, this idea of communicating emotion returned to me. The feeling I had when I attempted to communicate with Lane.

I talked quite a bit as a young boy. I see it in my kids now. It’s this fundamental need to know, to share, and to love in that way. There was a time in my adolescence when I almost quit talking to anyone I didn’t know. I think there were reasons for it. We moved so much. I didn’t want to try to make new friends and connections when they were going to come to nothing. Even then I still yearned for understanding. It was a frustrating time as it is for most everyone. However, communicating emotion through stories is T. S. Eliot’s Objective Correlative but it’s a pretty tall order. I feel emotion. You feel emotion. It’s tough to put it into words. I can remember every time we drove over the Missouri River bridge going in and out of Jefferson City, my great Aunt Vivian would point out that my great grandfather was one of the carpenters who worked on the state capitol, which seemed pretty magnificent to me. The giant dome. Over time I began to associate it with my great grandpa. I could remember him vaguely, he had quite a sense of humor, but he died when I was young. In my mind, he built the capitol all by himself. But since we moved around so much, I was not around family much and I felt this void. Who was I? A question that haunted me for a long time. It haunts most of us one way or another I suppose. How did I fit? It was one of the negative things to constantly moving, this alienation. I wanted to make sense of life and know who I was. My parents had divorced when I was so young, I could not remember them ever being together as husband and wife. I saw my father on average about once every two years. He was a handsome stranger, a mystery, I could never unlock. At other times, my mother also mysteriously disappeared and I lived with my great aunt and uncle. They were wonderful for taking me in. I think my mom had us so young she wanted to sow her own wild oats. I couldn’t articulate any of this except that I yearned for her to return.

As I grew older, I was around an independent Christian denomination based on the Holiness movement. It was charismatic. Spirit-filled. My Uncle introduced me to it as a boy. The church was called the Christian Center and later they opened a school called the Christian Center Academy. I went there for a few years in grade school. Again, it was an introduction to the spiritual world and still more mysteries. Could human beings communicate with God? I saw people being prayed for: Miraculous healings; people being slain in the spirit; the faithful speaking in tongues; the beauty of the Psalms. The metaphors in the Book of John are still quite wonderful to me. The Word was God. I remember in one of the upper rooms of the Christian Center (the Church was in an old building on the main drag through town and situated right next to a tavern) there was a big painting of a giant white cross over a fiery abyss and the faithful ran across it. No one needed to explain this. Also, the themes of impending apocalypse, fire, and redemption were real to me in a way that was so literal that if you found yourself alone you might wonder if the Rapture had already taken place. It reminds me that in an interview the Mississippi writer, Larry Brown was asked something like if he’d ever been Born Again. And he said something like, ‘I feel like I’ve been saved many, many times in my life.’ I love that and it resonates with me—and my experience too. I was very passionate about my own spirituality in my twenties. In the Church they talk about the feeling of the Spirit moving in the congregation and that is a very palpable feeling.

As a teenager, I read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and all about the Lost Generation of writers and artists. I loved the Surrealists and wished I could be an artist of some kind but I seemed to have no physical talent for it. So, I remember reading things by and about Andre Breton and even the Dadaists. I thought maybe I could write if I could train myself to think in words instead of images. So I started to try this and some of those early experiments were bizarre to say the least. Most were terrible. But I was reading and dreaming so much then. This is very necessary to the development of any writer. There was a great deal of emotion going into poetry and something like prose back then. I felt like I was tapping into something, but I didn’t know what it was. Now, I know I was tapping into the universe. Around that time I remember coming across an old hardback copy of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. What a great novel! There was an author photo of the young Capote in a white t-shirt. I was hooked!

In college I read A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor in an English class. I remember thinking, why haven’t I read her before now! Why have they hid this writer from me! I don’t know who hid her per se but I couldn’t believe I’d never even heard anyone talk about her before! My English professor told me about Wise Blood. I read all of O’Connor’s work. It resonated with me because of my religious experiences. Wise Blood was the book that made me want to be a writer again. Several years went by. I really didn’t write that much. I wasn’t that good at it. Writing was, and is, hard work unless you totally immerse yourself in it. Then, it can be sublime.

Several years went by. I discovered the annual New Stories from the South collection. I started to read that collection religiously. I came across Larry Brown’s works because of that series. I think I read Facing the Music first. Then, I found Joe. I sensed that my spiritual experiences along with the kind of rural characters I recognized in Brown’s work was something I could write about as well. Even before Brown, I read a couple of books by Harry Crews. In a Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Crews opens with these startling lines: “My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.” This line really spoke volumes to me as I mentioned earlier that I felt disconnected. Now, I can see that one reason I decided to write was to find these connections and some of them I’ve found in events real and imagined. The historic record and the fictional world of imagination come together in the writer’s mind and form this bridge to emotion, to understanding and connection. Readers read for this connection just as much as writer’s write for it. I recently read this piece in the Oxford American that Barry Hannah wrote. Something he said stuck out to me: “But I believe he (a writer) might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted . . .”

At one time I thought I would find all the answers in a person…and later I thought I might find them in a book…then I thought I might find them within and from my own writing. Now, pushing 50, I find I’m more resigned with being (with process) than thinking I know all the answers. My advice would be don’t be so quick to eliminate all of the mystery. You only get that sense of wonder one time and it cannot be duplicated. This is the mystery I’m talking about.

John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

John William Corrington on Science, Symbol, and Meaning

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington’s essay “Science, Symbol, and Meaning” (1983) is archived at Centenary College as “Houston Talk.” It was the opening address at the Second Annual Space Industrialization Conference of the National Space Society in Houston, Texas. It has been included in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on this image:

The subject of “Science, Symbol, and Meaning” is man’s exploration of outer space and the potential physical instantiation of certain theories about the structure of the cosmos. Corrington sets out to “reconstruct” Western culture, first by defining and describing it and then by diagnosing what he calls its “deformity,” which involves confusion regarding the differences between mythical and scientic modes of knowing.

This essay uses the subject of space exploration as a starting point for recommending remedies to this so-called deformity. Corrington purports to derive his thesis about time and cosmic order from Eric Voegelin, Martin Heidegger, and Giorgio de Santillana. He critiques the “illusion” that scientific thinking displaced mythopoetic thinking in the West because, he says, theological and symbolic thinking has been used to make sense of the data that has been objectively arrived at and disinterestedly gathered. This illusion will no longer stand, Corrington suggests, as the expanse of space becomes more intimately known to us and we begin to acknowledge the role that myth plays in ordering our experience within the observable cosmos.

Rationalism and empiricism are, Corrington suggests, themselves forms of myth about our ability to know the cosmos that we occupy.

Corrington emphasizes the limits of human knowledge and submits that modern science is, however useful, myth; science, he says, is not “co-extensive with the manifold of reality.” Science equips us with symbols that can be manipulated to structure and explain our thinking about the phenomenal universe.

The drive for the enterprise of space exploration, in his view, represents a repressed desire to know and order our experience; it is in this sense a structural element of our psyche, something that is not new to modernity but long felt and expressed. For this reason Corrington believes the “leap into space is the heritage and destiny of Western Man.” Corrington’s prescription, in light of his comments on space exploration, for  the “deformity” in Western thinking is as follows:

We must re-learn and carry to the heart the old verities that existed before the rise of metaphysics and science, the truths that were carried on and carried down through the mythological structure of the psyche: the unity of humanity and the cosmos, the illusory and ephemeral quality of the ego, the one law common to all that penetrates and encompasses the fine structure and the gross structure of reality.

John William Corrington on a Rebirth of Philosophical Thought

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Southern History, Writing on November 21, 2018 at 6:45 am

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” is an essay by John William Corrington that appeared in The Southern Review in 1984. It opens by discussing the connection between Louisiana State University and Eric Voegelin and addresses the efforts of Voegelin and Ellis Sandoz to bring about a “rebirth” in philosophical thought, namely in premodern, mythopoetic forms of philosophizing.

Corrington calls Voegelin’s thought “an argument directed to the reader as spoudaios, the mature human being who, if he is capable of theoria, self-reflection, will be able to reconstitute in his own psyche the substance of what Voegelin has experienced in recollection from a past rendered opaque for most of us by some five hundred years of cultural destruction.”

For both Voegelin and Corrington, Nazism, Marxism, fascism, communism, and other totalizing ideologies of the twentieth century were the result of disordered philosophy and the divorce of modern thinking from its premodern antecedents for which humans had an innate longing, but from which they were alienated by modernity.

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” provides helpful summaries of Voegelin’s most definitive theories, including his belief that modern disorder reveals symptoms of latent Gnosticism that has undergone dramatic but gradual change in light of the rise of Pauline Christianity with its various Greek influences.

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Review of Amy Chua’s Political Tribes

In Academia, America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship on November 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared in Academic Questions. 

Amy Chua, known both affectionately and derogatively as “Tiger Mom” after her highly acclaimed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), is a law professor at Yale Law School and an expert on globalization and international business transactions. She has the impeccable credentials of the typical law professor: Harvard University, Harvard Law School, clerkship with a federal appellate judge, and private practice experience at a Wall Street law firm. Her first book, World On Fire, coined the term “market-dominant minorities” to refer to “ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the ‘indigenous’ majorities around them.”[1] Certain minority populations, this theory runs, exert disproportionate control over their regional economy, fomenting in the process group backlash, resentment, and tribalism among those impoverished majorities who feel disenfranchised or marginalized.

The theme of market-dominant minorities underlies Chua’s latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, which examines domestic identity politics and the effects of foreign identity politics on U.S. foreign policy. Chua’s focus on tribalism, that instinctual tendency of humans to associate around shared norms, values, histories, customs, and traditions, holds together what feels like two different arguments: the one about culture at home and the other about foreign policy.

The less original of the two involves foreign policy. Five of Chua’s eight chapters can be reasonably reduced to a simple conclusion: American military intervention and capitalism did not succeed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and elsewhere because they were predicated on ideals that did not square with local, on-the-ground realities. In short, American values could not be universalized; presuming their viability in complex ethnic or tribal conflicts abroad led to disastrous consequences. Although she doesn’t cite him, her theme seems Hayekian: faraway experts cannot rationally design workable systems for the particular circumstances that are intelligible only to those with native knowledge.

Chua’s account of domestic tribalism and identity politics, on the other hand, is premised on the claim that America, historically, has been a “super-group.” A super-group is characterized by membership that “is open to individuals from all different backgrounds—ethnic, religious, racial, cultural.” Moreover, “a super-group does not require its members to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.” Rather, “it allows those subgroup identities to thrive, even as individuals are bound together by a strong, overarching collective identity” (12).

Tribalism, Chua submits, is spreading throughout the United States, dividing people by racial and class identities. When people identify with and as groups, she argues, they see themselves as victims and respond to perceived threats by retreating into insularity, defensiveness, and punitiveness. Elites, as a tribe, disdain “the provincial, the plebian, [and] the patriotic.” By contrast, “many ordinary Americans have come to view the elite as a distant minority controlling the levers of power from afar, ignorant about and uninterested in ‘real’ Americans” (6-7).

Chua alleges that the United States has split into the “haves” and “have-nots,” recognizable categories that are nevertheless crude. Although she describes several examples of groups that fall within these categories, her central concern is the difference between the progressive, elite, activist haves and the populist, patriotic have nots. The former purport to speak for marginalized, underclass groups without actually including those groups as members. The latter embraces the prosperity gospel and watches NASCAR and WWE. The haves and have nots, in this cartoonish illustration, represent “America’s two white tribes,” which have, she believes, turned against each other.

Chua seems correct about the alienation of white America in light of rapidly changing demographics and cultural norms. “For tens of millions of white Americans today,” she says, “mainstream popular culture displays an un-Christian, minority-glorifying, LGBTQ America they can’t and don’t want to recognize as their country—an America that seems to exclude them, to treat them as the enemy” (173). Yet Chua is off-base in assuming that the United States is or ever was a super-group, let alone “the only [super-group] among the major powers of the world.” She states: “We have forged a national identity that transcends tribal politics—an identity that does not belong to any subgroup, that is strong and capacious enough to hold together an incredibly diverse population, making us all American” (166). Her fear is that tribalism will cause America to lose “who we are.”

But who are “we”? Citizens of the United States? People who live within the territorial boundaries of the United States? People whose ancestors came from—where? She never clarifies. Are “we” unifying or coming apart the more diverse we become in terms of culture, religion, race, national origin, and so forth? Is it really an identity that holds us together? What about our Constitution, which, in the words of Albert Jay Nock, “recognizes no political boundaries, no distinctions of race or nation” in that “our allegiance to it takes precedence over every local or personal interest.”[2]

The fact is that America—both the idea and the geographical territory—has never truly been open to the kind of all-inclusive, harmonious diversity that Chua celebrates. The growing cultural chasm between New England and the South during the eighteenth century does not seem to have transcended tribal politics. The economy of the yeoman farmer and eventually the plantation system with its chattel slavery in the nineteenth-century agricultural south stood in stark contrast to the busy industry of New England. During the Civil War, southerners in the Confederate States of America would not have identified as American while retaining a “sub-group” identity.

There are many Americas. The history of the United States consists of numerous conflicts over which and whose version of America should prevail. It’s true, of course, that the United States has enjoyed, to some extent, an “ethnicity-transcending national identity and . . . unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins,” at least if the total number of immigrants and the fact that many of them do feel part of a larger America are any indication. But the existence of the National Origins Formula, in effect from 1921 to 1965, and the immigrant exclusion laws (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) suggest that the United States has, at times, been at least equally committed to keeping certain immigrants out of the country.

Treatment of immigrants in the United States has differed in kind and degree from region to region, city to city, and decade to decade. Thus, to purport that America has maintained some uniform and constant attitude towards immigrants, immigration, cultural multiplicity, ethnic minorities, and religious variety is mistaken. The United States may have been comparatively better than other nations at instituting welcoming, tolerant laws and policies regarding immigrants, but it has, for better or worse, always been tribal. In other words, tribalism in this country is not a new problem necessitating sudden panic.

Chua seems to recognize this weakness in her case, acknowledging that “American politics have always been identity politics.” She adds: “If we define ‘identity politics broadly, to include cultural and social movements based on group identities, then slavery and Jim Crow were forms of identity politics for white Americans, just as the suffragette movement at the turn of the twentieth century was for women.” If that’s true, then what’s so dangerously different now? How could she imply that things have gotten worse than they were during the Jim Crow Era? Her response: “[A]t different times in the past, both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today” (22).

One problem with this blanket assertion is what it doesn’t say, namely that those group-transcending values that have existed in certain periods were never identical or homogenous across the United States, never part of a consistent narrative with which large swaths of the American population would agree. The imaginary utopian super-group America that Chua promotes and envisions is the product of myth. She recalls the airy, exhilarating rhetoric of the honorable St. Jean de Crèvecœur, a French liberal aristocrat enthused by the democratic possibility inspired by the New World. Yet Crèvecœur’s sentimentality was time bound, reflecting the Enlightenment excitement and optimistic mood out of which sprang the myth of the American Dream. The United States, however, has never been “a group in which membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching, group-transcending collective identity.”

Myths express narrative truths about ourselves that we tell ourselves and others. The population of the United States has grown steadily and rapidly since the Founding era due to immigration, among other factors. Chua asserts that, “[o]ver the centuries, through the alchemy of markets, democracy, intermarriage, and individualism, America has been uniquely successful in attracting and assimilating diverse populations,” and that “the United States has always been one of the most ethnically and religiously open countries in the world.” She’s accurate by the measure of overall immigrant population and by the nature of our immigration laws in some respects during some periods. To be uniquely successful, however, is not to be fully or even consistently successful.

Perhaps the most unifying idea behind America, the sentiment that more than others achieved national solidarity, involved antimonarchy; for to become American has not required proof of bloodline, feudal hierarchy, or title. Still, for most of our nation’s history, immigration has originated from European nations, where monarchy was slow to dissolve and still exists in residual forms. And if you wanted to climb the social ladder, it didn’t hurt to belong to certain families: the Adamses, the Quincys, the Appletons, the Harrisons, the Cabots, the Lodges, the Roosevelts, the Holmeses, the Thayers, the Coolidges, the Rockefellers, the Peabodys, the Kennedys, the Bushes. America has lacked kings and queens, but it has erected de facto aristocracies.

The linguistic history of the United States might lend substance to Chua’s thesis about anti-tribalism and the possibility of immigrant incorporation into American civic life. Early America was a polyglot society, but the United States did not become a polylingual nation. In the contest for primacy among native dialects—Spanish in Florida and the southwest, French in Louisiana, Dutch in New York, German in Pennsylvania, and the multiple languages of immigrants from China or Japan, Italy or South America—English won out as the common tongue. Yet Chua isn’t talking about language when she extols America the super-group; she ignores arguably the most important corroborating evidence that supports her premise.

Chua sounds, in her anti-tribalism, more like a sanctimonious Barack Obama than our Founding Fathers. Obama’s 2016 speech to the Democratic National convention cast then-candidate Donald Trump, and by implication his supporters, as un-American. “[T]hat is not the America I know,” Obama said of Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention the week before.[3] He continued:

 

The America I know is decent and generous . . . I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That’s the America I know![4]

 

This America that Obama knows was not known by George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson. But what of Hamilton, the musical-inspiring “immigrant” from the British West Indies, who rose through the military ranks in service to Washington, eventually becoming a prominent Founding Father? He asserted that

 

foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners . . . The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.[5]

 

Hamilton’s conclusion? “The United States has already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils, by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others.”[6] So Hamilton was a tribalist and nativist, after all.

What of the enlightened, homespun, and cosmopolitan Benjamin Franklin? He declared that

 

the number of white people in the world is proportionably [sic] very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal boy of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people? why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind.[7]

 

Turns out Franklin was tribalist and nativist as well.

The super-group representation of America proclaimed by Obama and Chua is attributable to only a sliver of American history in the late twentieth century. It was after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Chua’s view, when “America underwent [a] profound transformation: from a multiethnic nation into something even more unusual: a super-group” (27). But is it proper and anthropologically sound to define America by what amounts to around 22 percent of its history since 1776?  Doing so could be a reason why some white Americans have, in Chua’s words, asserted “ownership of the country’s past” with a tribal attitude: “We built this land of opportunity and invited you in, and now we’re being demonized for its imperfections.

Myths idealize and romanticize truth, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. As a scholar, Chua ought to be in the business of ferreting out the truth rather than distorting or glossing over it through mythmaking. She applauds the inclusiveness of America as a super-group without acknowledging the ironic implication that, a fortiori, those who disagree with her are wrong about their definition of America. Of valid conceptions of America that might seem tribal, or at least out of key with her postwar liberal revivalism, she has nothing favorable to say. She therefore opens herself up to criticism that will only compound rather than mitigate the tribalism she seeks to abate.

Chua betrays her own thesis: From a position of supposed authority, she presumes knowledge about the way ordinary people in the United States think about their country. She thereby reveals her own tribalism, to which she seems blind, and unwittingly presents herself as a member of the elite tribe that she so decries. With the wave of a hand, she lumps Americans into two undesirable categories, the haves and have nots, never taking the time to explain whether and how these categories are permeable or inadequately representative of a diverse population with distinct experiences.

Despite her intended message of peaceable inclusivism, Chua might be  misinterpreted as  insisting that newcomers, local communities, and regional cultures give up their customs and traditions and embrace the assimilationist experiment that she portrays  as essential to American identity. She says, for instance, “we need to collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with, and hold together as one people, Americans of all sorts—old and young, immigrant and native born, urban and rural, descendants of slaves as well as descendants of slave owners” (203).  This is a beautiful but quixotic proposal, one that could require groups to abandon positions that are integral to their identity and Weltanschauung.

Chua’s proposal also  raises questions about how much coercion she believes to be justified to stamp out opposition or dissent in the name of absolute inclusion. What reasonable thinker would in good faith disagree that  “what is needed is one-on-one human engagement” (201), or that “[w]hen people from different tribes see one another as human beings who at the end of the day want the same things—kindness, dignity, security for loved ones—hearts can change” (202)? The problem, of course, is translating that compassionate sentiment into official policy through government or institutions. People cannot be forced to love each other.

Anti-tribalism is tribal, i.e., a view embraced by certain elite groups in America without regard to the perspective of many ordinary Americans. Political Tribes suggests, therefore, that Chua is part of the problem: her type of tribalism is acceptable, others are not. A more convincing plea would acknowledge that the breezy cosmopolitanism Chua prefers is not accessible to all, and offer a more nuanced depiction of “Americanness” and its multiplicities.

 

[1] Amy Chua, World On Fire (First Anchor Books, 2014), p. 6.

[2] Albert Jay Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), 1.

[3] Full text of Barack Obama’s speech available in the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-obama-2016-convention-speech-transcript-20160727-snap-story.html.

[4] “Read: President Obama’s Speech at the Democratic Convention,” NPR, July 28, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/07/28/487722643/read-president-obamas-speech-at-the-democratic-convention.

[5] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Vol. XXV July 1800 – April 1802, edited by Harold C. Syrett (Columbia University Press, 1977), 496.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc. (New York Reprint: W. Abbatt, 1918), 224.

John William Corrington on the Recovery of the Humanities

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 7, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote two essays on the recovery of the humanities, both of which are collected in my edition of his work, The Southern Philosopher. 

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The first of these originated as a lecture for the Southern Humanities Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1984. Corrington sets out in that piece to define the “humanities” and to explain why he believes they need recovering. He argues that symbolism is essential to the humanities and that symbolism has been under assault since the Enlightenment.

Corrington believes that the Enlightenment ushered in an era of scientism and materialism that led to the rise of Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism, all of which contributed to the “decerebration” of the humanities. The task of recovering the humanities, according to Corrington, involves “the need to re­examine the fundamental experiences and symbols upon which any serious notion of the Humanities must be grounded, and to question our present understanding and application of those symbols.”

Corrington undertakes this task through the paradigms of Eric Voegelin, who frames his analysis in terms of the mythopoetic thought of certain peoples and places, the role of the human psyche, and the nature of divinity and the infinite. Corrington examines the difference between psyche and physis; the former formulates mythopoetic meaning out of the data of the phenomenal world and provides the basis for our understanding of political order. By way of consciousness, the psyche comprehends and organizes logos and thereby structures our understanding of reality, including what it means to be human.

The second essay concerning the recovery of the humanities originated as a lecture at Kansas State University in 1986. It builds on the ideas in the previous essay / lecture regarding the derailment of the humanities in light of the gradual loss of noetic homonoia or sense of like-mindedness among disparate cultures with similar understandings of symbolic order.

Corrington seeks to substantiate the arguments from the previous essay / lecture by consulting T. S. Eliot’s notion of order as experienced through literary texts. Corrington suggests that Eliot’s notion of order “exists initially in the psyche of the poet-critic who represents his experience of truth by way of the symbolism of simultaneous order; it exists secondarily in the collective psyches of those who are capable of reenacting Eliot’s experience theoretically, and who find themselves, as if in Platonic dialogue with the poet, bound to admit the truth of what he says about the order—even as his work continues and extends the order.” Applying Eliot’s notion of order to classical texts, Corrington demonstrates that symbolized experience has a temporal element whereas the psyche, existing independently of any one person, is timeless.

Corrington references the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (otherwise known as the Nazi Party), various Marxist-Leninist operations, the French Academy, and the Index Libororum of the Holy Office as examples of practices and institutions that attempted to break down the ideal order that is represented in the continuity of certain canonical texts. Corrington challenges Eliot’s apparent assumption that art and literature are the proper lenses for examining symbolic order. He considers what qualities of a work make it literary as opposed to philosophical—or something else entirely. His point is not to discredit Eliot but to suggest that Eliot’s notion of order in literature is nuanced and complex.

Corrington argues that what drives human culture is “the human psyche in search of itself in the multiplicity of its forms, dimensions, and possibilities—and the loving and fearing tension within that psyche toward the divine ground.” Corrington returns to the idea that studying symbolic orders in different times and places reveals the commonalities between disparate peoples and cultures: “Whether we probe the roots of high civilizations or purportedly ‘primitive’ cultures, the result is the same: the foundations of human order are invariant: The society in question either represents itself as mirroring the order of the cosmos, the society of the gods, or expresses itself as that existential ground upon which gods and men interact with one another, the business of men and gods inextricably fused.” Understood this way, the political order of any given society can be explained as a reflection of metaxy, that state between the human and the divine whereby humans attempt to organize themselves in keeping with their beliefs about the nature of the divine and its order.

The understanding of human place in the world in relation to the divine is, according to Corrington, the humanities. Corrington critiques Eliot’s notion of an ideal order, but credits Eliot for what Eliot’s theory discloses, to wit, the organizing possibility of symbols to convey experiential realities: “Eliot’s earlier critical expression of an ideal order is thus discovered to be an inadequate but evocative symbolism which has, even as a poem might, invited us to probe the experience symbolized and rectify, through analysis of the symbolisms, the precise character of the experience.” Corrington again calls for the recovery of the humanities, not for the sake of any divisive telos or ideological goal, but instead for the unifying potential of an experiential and symbolic understanding of human purpose over time and in disparate places.

John William Corrington on the Academic Revolution

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Creative Writing, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 31, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington delivered “The Academic Revolution,” which is part memoir, as a lecture at Centenary College in 1969. In this talk, Corrington seeks to develop what he calls his “ontologies,” which he adopted in part while he was a student at Centenary.

Corrington suggests here that our lives are short and meaningless without an ontology and that our purposive acts ought to be guided by essential patterns of history.

Corrington’s conservatism and his belief in canonical greatness are apparent in his recommendation to “enter that vast communion of past, present, and future, of living, dead, and yet to be born that was recognized by the early church and called the communion of saints.” One’s sense of place and continuity, Corrington submits, is requisite to the production of great works of art.

Corrington suggests that academic revolution is paradoxically tied to tradition in that the new necessarily springs from the old. Corrington claims that the current academic revolution is rooted in the rejection of authority and the repudiation of materialism. He is concerned with the transitional ethic of the 1960s and the concomitant widespread questioning of the legitimacy of authority and institutions. He refers to this questioning as the New Politics.

Corrington praises the academic revolution and encourages universities to serve as a matrix for that revolution. He believes that universities study the old disciplines to reveal new ways of forming constructive communities. Championing the drift of the university toward more student-centered objectives, toward more bottom-up rather than top-down power structures on campus, Corrington embraces and celebrates the reforming spirit of his students. He believes this spirit is in fact conservative in that custom and tradition and the complex, organic nature of social development teach that reform is necessary to ensure future growth.

Corrington suggests that colleges and other institutions, to remain faithful to the past, must reform themselves; to be faithful to the past, in other words, colleges and other such institutions must rework and re-energize the past for present purposes.

“The Academic Revolution” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

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