30 June 2008

Law Versus Love

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:09 am

[This post concludes a series of four on Saint Paul by Alain Badiou.]

“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the grounds of their faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Paul in Romans 3:28-30)

God is One, not as an abstract Greek principle of Oneness but as the one God for everyone without exception. Israel is the exception, and the Mosaic Law marks its particularity. Law functions according to an economy of what is due, establishing conditions of righteousness on the basis of mutual obligations. The Christ event operates outside of law as an act of grace, a gift that exceeds all contractual and juridical exchange. Likewise participation in the Christ event entails no fulfillment of contractual rights or duties: this act of subjectivation takes place outside of law. The place of the universal, of the oneness of God, is to be encountered not in universal law but in the gratuitous event that surpasses Law. And it is through this unlawful encounter with the universal that the subject escapes from his static legal coordinates on the structural grid and emerges as a revolutionary agent of the unprecedented and the underdetermined. In surpassing the intricate structure of particularities prescribed by law, the gracious event of the resurrection opens up the possibility of difference on a universal scale.

The profound ontological thesis here is that universalism supposes one be able to think the multiple not as a part, but as in excess of itself, as that which is out of place, as a nomadism of gratuitousness. If by “sin” one understands the subjective exercise of death as path of existence, and hence the legal cult of particularity, one thereby understands that what is maintained of the event (which is to say, a truth, whatever it may be) is always in impredictable excess of everything circumscribed by “sin.” (Badiou, Saint Paul, p. 78 )

In other words, the law establishes a reticulum of obligations which defines violation and its consequences. It’s this whole system that turns the person into a dead object of impersonal systemic operations. Badiou contends that this whole economy of dead life is what Paul means by “sin.” The two subjective paths, death and life, whose nonrelation constitutes the divided subject, are also two types of multiplicity. The particularizing multiplicity of the law prescribes its own limits; the universal multiplicity of the event exceeds the legal limit, exceeds its own limit.

But why is law so closely associated with sin? Here Badiou picks up the complex theme of desire by exploring the labyrinth of what he calls Paul’s most famous, yet also most intricate text : Romans 7.

“If it had not been for the Law, i should never have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the Law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment that promised life proved death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, seduced me and by it killed me.” (Romans 7:7-11)

Paul says that, before he became aware of the Law, he was alive: his desire was free and he was free to desire. So sin isn’t desire; rather,

Sin is the life of desire as autonomy, as automatism. The law is required in order to unleash the automatic life of desire, the automatism of repetition. For only law fixes the object of desire, binding desire to it regardless of the subject’s will. It is this objectal automatism of desire, inconceivable without the law, that assigns the subject to the carnal path of death. Clearly, what is at issue here is nothing less than the problem of the unconscious (Paul calls it the involuntary, what I do not want). The life of desire fixed and unleashed by the law is that which, decentered from the subject, accomplishes itself as an unconscious automatism. (p. 79)

The law defines prohibition; transgression takes place when the object of prohibition becomes the object of desire. It’s in this way that the law produces desire in the subject, regardless of what the subject wants. The subject loses his autonomy and instead becomes a dead object in the automatic operation of the law that links prohibition to desire. In order to break with the automatized death of the prohibition/desire/sin complex, Paul concludes that it’s necessary to break with the law.

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate… So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.” (Romans 6:16-17)

The extreme tension running through this text comes from the fact that Paul is striving to articulate a de-centering of the subject, a particularly contorted form of its division. Since the subject of life is in the place of death and vice versa, it follows that knowledge and will, on the one hand, agency and action, on the other are entirely disconnected. This is the empirically verifiable essence of existence according to the law. Moreover, a parallel can be drawn between this de-centering and the Lacanian interpretation of the cogito (there where I think, I am not, and there where I am, I do not think.) Let us generalize a little. For Paul, the man of the law is one in whom doing is separated from thinking. Such is the consequence of seduction by commandment. This figure of the subject, wherein the division lies between the dead Self and the involuntary automation of living desire, is, for thought, a figure of powerlessness. Basically, sin is not so much a fault as living thought’s inability to prescribe action. Under the effect of the law, thought disintegrates into powerlessness and endless cogitation, because the subject (the dead Self) is disconnected from a limitless power, that of desire’s living automation. (p. 83)

In Badiou’s reading of Paul, salvation is the empowerment of the subject when thinking is no longer divided from doing. Instead of being incapable of controlling the movement of autonomous desires that animate him like a zombie, the saved person knows what he wants and is able to do it. But thought can only be raised up to the position of power by something that exceeds static thought. “Grace” is the name of the excess; “resurrection” is the source of the power, and “love” is its name.

The Self is a closed form of the subject, divided against itself, impotent in its cogitations, animated by outside forces operating beneath conscious awareness, occupying the place of the dead. “Christ” is the name of the resurrected subject, open to the grace that exceeds all fixed boundaries assigned by the letter of the law. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” There is a law of the spirit (Romans 7:14), universal but nonliteral, that gives consistency to the life of the resurrected subject. The subject is faithful to the truth of the event that brings him life, and it is this faithfulness that is the unwritten law of love. Life itself becomes the universal law, a law of possibility made manifest in the unique trajectory of each subject who lives it.

Faith publicly acknowledges that the subjective apparatus commanded by the law is not the only possible one. But it becomes apparent that faith, confessing the resurrection of one man, merely declares a possibility for everyone. That a new assemblage of life and death is possible is borne out by resurrection, and this is what must first be declared. But this conviction leaves the universalization of the “new man” in suspense and says nothing as to the content of the reconciliation between living thought and action. Faith says: We can escape powerlessness and rediscover that from which the law separated us. Faith prescribes a new possibility, on that, although real in Christ, is not, as yet, in effect for everyone. (p. 88 )

“He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law,” Paul says in Romans 13:8. To love your neighbor as yourself is to apprehend the neighbor by faith and hope, according to the universal law of possibility, not as a dead self but as a living subject. In Paul’s thought, says Badiou, love is precisely fidelity to the Christ-event… love bears the force of salvation. The resurrection life is not a solitary one; it is relational, and militantly so. Love is the work we do together that actualizes the possibility of grace universally.

27 June 2008

Flesh and Spirit

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:27 pm

το γαρ ϕρονημα της σαρκος θανατος, το δε ϕρονημα του πνευματου ζωη και ειρηνη. “For the flesh’s way of thinking is death; but the spirit’s way of thinking is life and peace.” (Paul in Romans 8:6)

After centuries during which this theme has been subjected to Platonizing (and therefore Greek) amendment, it has become almost impossible to grasp what is nevertheless a crucial point: The opposition between spirit and flesh has nothing to do with the opposition between the soul and the body. That is precisely why both the one and the other are thoughts. (Badiou, Saint Paul, pp. 55-56)

Badiou contends that, confronted with the “Christ-event” of death and resurrection, the subject finds himself divided in how he grasps and responds to that event. But this inner division isn’t the movement of a dialectic, whereby through the negation of the negation death is supplanted by resurrected life. Rather, the two moments are held in tension simultaneously and continually until the moment when resurrection suddenly comes forth out from the power of death, not through its negation. Paul doesn’t laud the redemptive efficacy of suffering as a means of mortifying the flesh and bringing forth the spirit. Suffering is inevitable in this world, but the Christ event offsets suffering with the consolation of hope. [Note: in Romans 5:3ff, when Paul writes that he exults in tribulation because it brings about hope, he’s not saying that the tribulation burns away his doubt, making him a more hopeful person. Rather, he’s saying that hope is what lets him exult while in the midst of tribulation. Both tribulation and hope, death and life, flesh and spirit, are present in him at the same time.] When Paul describes his own sufferings in some detail in 2 Cor. 11, he does so only to emphasize his own weakness, bearing the precious gift in an earthen vessel, in contrast to the discourse of power to which the Jews are accustomed.

Let us propose a formula: in Paul, there is certainly the Cross, but no path of the Cross. There is Calvary, but no ascent of Calvary. Energetic and urgent, Paul’s preaching includes no masochistic propaganda extolling the virtues of suffering, no pathos of the crown of thorns, flagellation, oozing blood, or the gall-soaked sponge. (pp. 67-68 )

Death cannot bring salvation because death is on the side of the flesh. He’s not talking about flesh as body, destined to perish while the soul lives forever. After all, the glory of the Christ event is the resurrection, the glorified body. Rather, the flesh is a ϕρονημα, a way of thinking about everything, including the body and the soul. Paul’s response to the ϕρονημα of the flesh is a resolute “no”. No to law and self-abnegation; likewise no to transgressive desire and self-gratification; most importantly, no to death. Paul says “yes” to the ϕρονημα of the spirit, to the uniqueness of the Christ event, to the resurrection.

In sum, death is only required insofar as, with Christ, divine intervention must, in its very principle, become strictly equal to the humanity of man, and hence to the thought that dominates him, which as subject is called “flesh,” and as object “death.” When Christ dies, we, mankind, shall cease to be separated from God, since by filiating Himself with the sending of his Son, He enters into the most intimate proximity to our thinking composition. Such is the unique necessity of Christ’s death: it is the means to an equality with God himself. Through this thought of the flesh, whose real is death, is dispensed to us in grace the fact of being in the same element as God himself. Death here names a renunciation of transcendence. Let us say that Christ’s death sets up an immanentization of the spirit. (p. 69)

Next: law versus love.

26 June 2008

Neither Jew Nor Greek

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 3:28 am

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (Paul, in 1 Cor. 1:22-24)

Badiou’s Saint Paul speaks to two issues I’ve been exploring recently: the relationship between law and desire in the Pauline epistles, and Paul’s idea of the “new creation.” Repeatedly in his letters Paul emphasizes that in Christ’s new creation “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” Badiou frames Paul’s assertion in terms of alternative “regimes of discourse.”

Jewish discourse is a discourse of exception, says Badiou, as spoken by the figure of the prophet. Israel is set apart from other nations, its exclusivity marked off by distinct geographic boundaries, fixed ethnicity, idiosyncratic laws, purification rites, cultic praxes. The elect status of Israel is marked by signs, miracles, declarations; the prophet is the bearer of these marks of exception. Greek discourse is cosmic… the discourse of totality; its figure is the wise man. Wisdom speaks to universal concerns and the proper ordering of nature and society, named in the ideal logos.

Paul offers neither one discourse nor the other, nor even a synthesis of the two, but rather a third and entirely new discourse:

Greek discourse bases itself in the cosmic order so as to adjust itself to it, while Jewish discourse bases itself on the exception to this order so as to turn divine transcendence into a sign. Paul’s profound idea is that Jewish discourse and Greek discourse are the two aspects of the same figure of mastery. (pp. 41-42)

The Jew can never be an exception in and of itself; it is an exception relative to the Greek. Election, miracle, and prophecy attains mastery precisely by virtue of their deviation from the universal. In complementary fashion, the Greek discourse achieves its universality by absorbing differences in a comprehensive logos; wisdom’s derives from its transcendence of the exception. Both Jew and Greek, prophet and wise man, base their mastery on the other’s discourse.

Rather than putting forward another variant of the master’s discourse, which is also a discourse of the Father, Paul presents a discourse of the Son, whose figure is neither prophet nor wise man but apostle. The apostle is not of a guarantor of truth in either its exceptional or its universal form; rather, the apostle testifies to an event — in this case, the event of the resurrection. Paul wasn’t an eyewitness to this event, nor did he accumulate evidence of its historicity. Instead, his apostleship presents an entirely subjective testimony, validated by virtue of living a life of continual participation in the event. The event to which Paul testifies is the resurrection.

For the interest of Christ’s resurrection does not lie in itself, as it would in the case of a particular, or miraculous, fact. Its genuine meaning is that it testifies to the possible victory over death, a death that Paul envisages… not in terms of facticity, but in terms of subjective disposition. Whence the necessity of constantly linking resurrection to our resurrection, of proceeding from singularity to universality and vice versa: “If the dead do not resurrect, Christ is not resurrected either. And if Christ is not resurrected, your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:16). In contrast to the fact, the event is measurable only in accordance with the universal multiplicity whose possibility it prescribes. It is in this sense that it is grace, and not history. The apostle is then he who names this possibility… His discourse is one of pure fidelity to the possibility opened by the event. (p. 45)

The master Jewish discourse achieves its legitimacy through power; the Greek, through wisdom: both stake ontological claims about the ultimate Source of mastery. But Paul, in what Badiou regards as his most radical statement, writes that “God has chosen the things that are not in order to bring to naught those that are” (1 Cor. 1:28).

One must, in Paul’s logic, go so far as to say that the Christ-event testifies that God is not the ground of Being, is not Being… That the Christ-event causes nonbeings rather than beings to arise as attesting to God; that it consists in the abolition of what all previous discourses held as existing, or being, gives a measure of the ontological subversion to which Paul’s antiphilosophy invites the declarant or militant. It is through the invention of a language wherein folly, scandal, and weakness supplant knowing reason, order, and power, and wherein non-being is the only legitimizable affirmation of being, that Christian discourse is articulated. (p. 47)

Paul regards Christ not as a mediator between the competing master discourses, nor even primarily as a mediator between what came before and what is to follow. Rather, Christ is a coming who disrupts all discourses, all before-and-after causalities. Christ is what happens to us. What happens is that we are freed from the law of the Master (the subject of the next post on Badiou’s book) in order that we might become sons. Through the event, we enter into filial equality. And we bear our filiation not in the strength of mastery but in weakness; “we bear this treasure” of the Christ-event “in earthen vessels,” Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:7.

Whoever is the subject of a truth (of love, of art, or science, or politics) knows that, in effect, he bears a treasure, that he is traversed by an infinite power. Whether or not this truth, so precarious, continues to deploy itself depends solely on this subjective weakness. Thus, one may justifiably say that he bears it only in an earthen vessel, day after day enduring the imperative — delicacy and subtle thought — to ensure that nothing shatters it. For with the vessel, and with the dissipation into smoke of the treasure it contains, it is he, the subject, the anonymous bearer, the herald, who is equally shattered. (p. 54)

25 June 2008

Diary of a Country Priest by Bresson, 1951

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 2:40 pm

24 June 2008

Why Saint Paul?

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:37 am

Strange enterprise.

That’s how Alain Badiou introduces his short 2003 book Saint Paul. Badiou is an atheist; Paul was a self-appointed Christian apostle. But, Badiou avers,

I never really connected Paul with religion… For me, Paul is a poet-thinker of the event, as well as one who practices and states the invariant traits of what can be called the militant figure. He brings forth the entirely human connection, whose destiny fascinates me, between the general idea of rupture, an overturning, and that of a thought-practice that is this rupture’s subjective materiality. (pp. 1-2)

But Badiou doesn’t focus on whatever Paul reveals of his own personality in the letters he writes. In fact, Badiou observes that Paul rarely talks about himself, his blinding vision of Christ on the road to Damascus that converted him from persecutor to leader of the nascent Church, his mystical communion with God, the signs and wonders that Luke attributes to him in the Acts of the Apostles. Instead, Paul talks about the nature and consequences of the “Christ event”: the death and resurrection that opens up the possibility of a new life.

The subtitle of Badiou’s book is The Foundation of Universalism. Badiou identifies parallels between Paul’s circumstances as a Jew living in the Roman Empire and our own situation. Israel was an exclusionary culture, separated from the surrounding nations by geographic boundaries, ethnic purity, and distinctive laws and traditions and cultic practices. In contrast, Rome was the great assimilator, absorbing little countries like Israel into itself. Rome didn’t care about local traditions as long as everybody paid their tribute to Rome and submitted to its overarching political and military authority. Greece provided a theoretical rationale for Rome’s pragmatic universalism: every local difference constitutes an imperfect manifestation of the one ideal — hence local variations aren’t really important.

Badiou regards the contemporary scene as a bland synthesis of exclusivity and universalism, in which tolerant multi-culti “communitarianism” becomes the universal solvent.

What, in effect, does our contemporary situation consist of? The progressive reduction of the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment… ends up in a cultural and historical relativism that today constitutes at once a topic of public opinion, a “political” motivation, and a framework for research in the human sciences. The extreme forms of this relativism, already at work, claim to relegate mathematics itself to an “Occidental” setup, to which any number of obscurantist or symbolically trivial apparatuses could be rendered equivalent, provided one is able to name the subset of humanity that supports this apparatus, and, better still, that one has reasons for believing this subset to be made up of victims. All access to the universal, which neither tolerates assignation to the particular, nor maintains any direct relation with the status — whether it be that of dominator or victim — of the sites from which its propagation emerges, collapses when confronted with this intersection between culturalist ideology and the “victimist” conception of man.

What is the real unifying factor behind this attempt to promote the cultural virtue of oppressed subjects, this invocation of language in order to extol communitarian particularisms (which, besides language, always ultimately refer back to race, religion, or gender)? It is, evidently, monetary abstraction, whose false universality has absolutely no difficulty accommodating the kaleidoscope of communitarianisms. (pp. 6-7)

Badiou seeks a better way for the individual subject to participate in the universal. As far as Badiou is concerned, the only new political phenomenon of any import in France is LePen’s ultrarightist “France for the French” exclusivism. In contrast, the national government struggles with the issue of whether Islamic schoolgirls should be able to wear the headscarf as an expression of cultural distinction, or whether this subjective expression of identity constitutes a fundamental right of the universal citizen.

What is being constructed before our very eyes is the communitarization of the public sphere, the renunciation of the law’s neutrality. The State is supposed to assure itself primarily and permanently of the genealogically, religiously, and racially verifiable identity of those for whom it is responsible… The law thereby falls under the control of a “national” model devoid of any real principle… Abandoning all universal principle, identitarian verification — which is never anything but police monitoring — comes to take precedence over the definition or application of the law…

How clearly Paul’s statement rings out under these conditions! A genuinely stupefying statement when one knows the rules of the ancient world: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28)! (p. 9)

As in the days of the Roman Empire, the contemporary scene is composed of a loose agglomeration of communitarian entitities subsumed under a universal economic system that not only tolerates but profits from these distinct identity groupings. As a consequence, the multiple identitarian communities never join forces in pursuit of more important universals like truth and beauty, justice and love. Badiou wants to investigate Paul’s praxis of shifting subjectivity from identitarian communitarianism to participation in the universalizing event.

23 June 2008

Living in Oblivion, 1995

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:10 am

22 June 2008

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead by Lumet, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 8:26 am

Not too long ago I watched Twelve Angry Men, Lumet’s first film, a courtroom drama shot in black and white starring Henry Fonda. Fifty years later, in his eighties, Lumet made this one.

In the long productive interval between these two endpoints Lumet directed some very successful New York cop movies, including Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. While living in Nice I attended a Democrats Abroad function where I happened to meet Robert Daley, who wrote the book on which another of Lumet’s NYPD stories, Prince of the City, was based.

20 June 2008


Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:59 pm

Yesterday Anne and I enjoyed a delightful lunch with a guy we hadn’t seen or had contact with in twenty-five years. He was an assistant professor while I was in grad school, and we co-taught a Social Psychology of Religion course. Denied tenure as the result of a vendetta by the head of my research area, this guy landed on his academic feet, scoring an associate gig at a mid-list department before eventually moving on to full pro at one of the bigs. Now he’s the chair.

Anyhow, back before he lost his tenure battle, this guy served as a proxy presenter at a regional psych conference, standing in for a noted researcher whose health problems made it impossible for him to travel. The presenter had tape-recorded his talk and made a videotape, and my friend played the tape and ran the video. But having a stand-in was more than appropriate for this particular presentation, because the eminent psychologist was Stanley Milgram and his talk was on cyranoids.

Milgram is legendary in for one study, known simply as “The Milgram Experiment.” He also did the “small world experiment,” which entered popular awareness as the “six degrees of separation” meme. But I think the cyranoids was my favorite Milgram scheme.

The name is derived from Cyrano de Bergerac, who helped his friend woo a sweetheart by telling him romantic things to say to her. A “cyranoid,” then, is someone who speaks words that do not originate in his own mind. Milgram conducted a few studies with cyranoids. In one, an 11-year-old boy was interviewed by an adult who was assigned the task of assessing the boy’s intelligence. Unknown to the interviewer, however, the boy was a cyranoid: inside his ear was a wireless receiver. Behind a one-way mirror Milgram listened to the conversation between the woman and the boy. Whenever the woman asked the boy a question, Milgram would speak his answer into a microphone connected to the boy’s earpiece, and the boy would speak Milgram’s words. Milgram, a 50-year-old Yale professor, didn’t play dumb: he answered as if the woman were speaking to him directly Afterward the woman said that she thought the boy was personable and very bright, though not necessarily a genius. She had no idea that the kid wasn’t speaking his own words. The only anomalous slip-up came when Milgram fed the kid a sentence with the word “philosopher” in it; the kid, unfamiliar with the term, said “falafeler” instead.

Another variant involved a college student cyranoid, again engaged in conversation with an unsuspecting stooge. Again Milgram stood behind the one-way mirror; again he conveyed his own words by microphone into the cyranoid’s earpiece. This time though, Milgram stepped away from the microphone partway through the interview and another “Cyrano” took his place. As I recall five different speakers fed lines of spontaneous dialogue to the cyranoid. At the end of the interview the stooge was asked questions about the cyranoid’s personality. The stooge had no difficulty attributing a unifying persona to the cyranoid, who had been channeling five separate personalities during the conversation.

19 June 2008

Loss of Innocence

Filed under: Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:26 am

Adam at An und für sich has obliquely sketched out an alternative interpretation of the Biblical Fall in Eden, transforming it into a story about early humanity’s first experience with private ownership.

The fall occurred when someone got it into his head to rule over and own everyone else, that is, had a desire for possession that goes beyond the simple needs of survival and acted on it.

By this reading I infer that Adam — appropriately named for perpetrating this mythic inversion — would make Yahweh the original sinner for having staked proprietary rights to to the Garden and especially to the forbidden Tree. This treatment of the Fall reminded me of my very earliest childhood memory.

I was in my backyard playing with my best friend Jeff Heydecker — the officials at Ellis Island probably changed the family surname from Heidegger to make it sound more American. Jeff and I were fighting over a toy metal firetruck. I was convinced the truck was mine; Jeff insisted it belonged to him. And then Jeff conked me over the head with it.

15 June 2008

La Vie en Rose, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:04 pm

11 June 2008

Seventh Continent by Haneke, 1989

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:28 pm

“What really interested me was not that there was a family that committed suicide because, sad as it is, there are a lot of those. What I thought was fascinating was that there was a family that goes out and commits suicide, but before they do so, they destroy everything they possess. I thought that was a good metaphor for our situation.”

10 June 2008

Teeth, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:05 am

I finally followed up on Seyfried’s recommendation and saw this movie. It’s like Shaviro says.

9 June 2008


Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:41 am

It’s certain that at least some of the soldiers who went to Afghanistan or Iraq believed they really were liberating the people from tyranny and extending democracy into distant parts of the world. It’s equally certain that at least some of the soldiers regarded themselves as ambassadors of what they deemed a superior Western form of life, with its pop culture, its commercialism, its globalization, its Christianity. Many of them may also have eagerly looked forward to joining forces with others of like mind in common pursuit of a noble cause.

Whether these motivations for engaging in warfare were justified or not, circumstances on the ground haven’t lent much support for their realization in either the short or the long term. The soldiers find themselves feared, even hated. They’re barricaded apart from the local populace, further entrenching the us-versus-them nature of the occupation. They are encouraged, even commanded, to wield force against the locals without concerning themselves overmuch with whether this particular target is or is not controlled exclusively by the enemy, whether this particular Afghani or Iraqi is a civilian or an insurgent. The situation may seem to get better over time, but it’s an artifact of the militarily enforced partitioning of the country into ethnically cleansed Bantustans.

Of course the occupied territory is stressful and dangerous; of course it elicits anxiety and rage and depression and guilt. Pursuing any cause in the teeth of strong opposition is liable to produce the same reactions. But if you feel like you’re working toward something worthwhile, something that might even override one’s own safety and happiness, maybe you regard your own physical and psychological scars as “collateral damage” justified in pursuit of a higher good.

But what if the biggest commitment you’ve ever made in your short life turns out not only to have been a failure but a lie? The cause wasn’t just; it didn’t justify anyone’s idealism or sacrifice; it wasn’t worth any of the lives and money and collective energy that got squandered. If you manage to survive, how could you ever again take seriously any sort of call to a cause or a commitment that puts your own safety and happiness at peril? If one were entirely cynical, one could speculate that part of the government’s mission is to discharge the potentially dangerous collective zeal the young are capable of mounting in support of worthy causes.

8 June 2008

Pathogenic War Environment

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:28 am

Sam recently made a comment on my Wartime Reality post from about a year ago, linking to this TIME article which discusses the use of antidepressants to treat American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq for stress-related psychological disorders. In his comment Sam remarks:

What’s your take on ‘helping’ soldiers to cope with the war zone in this way? It strikes me that the use of these drugs in this situation is ethically ridiculous given the fact that it is not based on any scientific studies, not even short term ones. Experimenting on the troops in the name of expediency is really the pits!

I don’t think the use of psychotropic medications is particularly experimental. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in medicating the effects of pathogenic situations — this is pretty much status quo in the civilian world as well. Soldiering is a job; usually it’s a rather mundane, repetitive and boring sort of job. Put the soldier in occupied territory and the job changes drastically: danger induces fear and anxiety, aggression and anger and guilt, loss and depression, hypervigilance and psychic numbing. The diagnosticians might want to assign a separate diagnosis to each of these psychological reactions, or to roll them all together into one catch-all category like “combat stress disorder.” The medications aren’t specific in their effects: they serve to modulate neural reactions to chronically pathogenic situations, letting people tolerate these situations.

The issue is this: anxiety and depression are normal psychological responses to stressful and depressing circumstances. Overriding these responses by medication tricks the brain into regarding the circumstances as less traumatic than they really are. Also, the whole protocol of diagnosis and treatment shifts the locus of pathology from the environment to the individual. Instead of focusing on the toxicity of the militarized zone and figuring out either how to change the environmental toxicity level or to escape the environment altogether, the soldier starts thinking of himself as mentally ill.

The Time article says that soldiers — who are younger and healthier on average than the general population — have been prescreened for mental illnesses before enlisting. Doesn’t this strongly imply that the syndrome isn’t caused by abnormal brains but by exposing normal brains to abnormal situations? The article continues:

Pentagon surveys show that while all soldiers deployed to a war zone will feel stressed, 70% will manage to bounce back to normalcy. But about 20% will suffer from what the military calls “temporary stress injuries,” and 10% will be afflicted with “stress illnesses.”

This three-tiered categorization scheme is almost certainly not a true reflection of qualitative differences in psychopathology, but rather a statistical artifact. Let’s say the Pentagon’s psychologists come up with a diagnostic checklist. “In the past month have you felt downhearted and blue most of the time?” “In the past month have you ever felt intensely angry, to the point where you were afraid you might hurt someone?” And so on. Let’s say there are 25 items on this checklist. The military administers the questionnaire to a few hundred soldiers. The results are fed into a computer, and in the output you get the aggregate distribution of “yes” responses. Some will have none; others will acknowledge 1 stress-related response, etc. Let’s further speculate that the Pentagon is prepared to acknowledge that 20% of the soldiers have “moderate stress disorder,” while another 10% have “severe stress disorder.” What the statisticians have to do is find the break points in the distribution. Maybe 30% of respondents have 5 or more “yes” responses and 10% have 8 or more “yeses.” Those statistically determined break points become the gold standard for clinicians diagnosing individual soldiers. It looks scientific, but it’s a cooked-up scheme. If over time the statistical distribution shifts, so that a higher percentage of soldiers are 5+ on the checklist, the diagnostic manual can just shift the break points: now instead of 5 “yes” responses you now need 6 in order to get the “moderate stress disorder” diagnosis. It’s like the American football commissioner moving the goal posts back 10 yards if the kickers get too accurate and change the dynamic of the game.

This isn’t just my antiwar cynicism talking (although it’s partly that). I don’t doubt that soldiers in the occupation experience all manner of anxiety, depression, rage, risk-seeking, etc. As I said, it’s a normal response to a pathogenic environment. I question the management, the spin, the official explanations for what’s happening. In Creating Mental Illness, sociologist Allan Horwitz describes how the American Psychiatric Association vastly expanded the number of discrete diagnoses included in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The process works just the way I’ve described it here: a panel of clinicians names a mental illness; psychological researchers devise a diagnostic questionnaire based on clinical consensus about what characterizes this mental illness; based on statistical distributions on the questionnaire as well as current treatment practices among clinicians, the researchers “set up the goal posts” for assigning an individual the diagnosis based on his or her score on the questionnaire. Clinicians and pharmaceutical companies are united in their motivation to move the goal posts in, making the diagnosis more inclusive so practitioners have more potential clients to treat, more potential income to be generated. The Pentagon has different variables to factor into their cost-benefit analyses, though I suspect that in their deliberations they’re not immune to the influence of Big Pharma.

The Time article goes on:

The mental trauma has become so common that the Pentagon may expand the list of “qualifying wounds” for a Purple Heart — historically limited to those physically injured on the battlefield — to include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on May 2 that it’s “clearly something” that needs to be considered, and the Pentagon is weighing the change.

In a prior exchange with Sam I had wondered why all of a sudden the Pentagon was acknowledging the prevalence of PTSD among soldiers and veterans, why in addition to the latest $126 billion requisitioned for continued funding of the occupation an additional $2 billion was stuck into the bill for psychological treatment. This might explain it: America needs more decorated war heroes. I doubt the recipients of these Purple Hearts will derive much comfort from the honor. But if it rallies the nation behind the war effort to pin more medals on more uniforms, if it induces more sympathy for the soldiers/vets, if it increases the public desire to justify our boys’ sacrifices by staying the course, then it’s a pragmatically sound strategy. I’m sure that even as we speak the Pentagon’s market researchers are investigating “what-if” scenarios, reading the tea leaves, running it up the flagpole…

7 June 2008

Truman Show by Weir, 1998

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 7:07 am

Truman’s Burbank’s quest to escape his commercialized and televised bubble world amounts to exchanging the role of performer for that of watcher, since watching The Truman Show seems to be the only thing anybody in the real world ever does.

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