Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Quick Takes -- Deep Time / Pseudo-Dionysius and a Pug's Bottom

by KARL STEEL

First Quick Take:

We here love how "deep time" humiliates our human pretensions. From my own deep time archive, from my distant childhood, here's a video to watch alongside Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger's "Das Rad."



Second Quick Take:
People have had their good laugh, or worked up a good dander, at the divine image on this dog's butt, which joins toast, tortillas, and a mishmash of other humble materials in attesting to god's catholic love for creation, or as a joke at the expense of the credulous. Here's a typical outraged response:
What do I think? I think blasphemy and a blatent disregard for things that are sacred to people is completely out of hand. I see the person who wrote this did not put their name on the article but shame on you and shame on [Huffington Post] for "printing" such garbage just to annoy good people.
I am not a Christian but I have all the respect and admiration for Jesus Christ who came to this world to teach love and peace and respect of fellow human beings. HP please grow up and try harder to help with peace, love and understand rather than upset good people.
If you're looking for more interesting ways to get upset, or seeking out ways to prove the relevance of medieval studies to skeptical deans and indifferent colleagues, by all means (please don't) take this chance, and direct the uncertain and uncurious to the negative theology of pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy II, 3 (141A-B):
Since the way of negation appears to be more suitable to the realm of the divine and since positive affirmations are always unfitting to the hiddenness of the inexpressible, a manifestation through dissimilar shapes is more correctly to be applied to the invisible. So it is that scriptural writings, far from demeaning the ranks of heaven, actually pay them honor by describing them with dissimilar shapes so completely at variance with what they really are that we come to discover how those ranks, so far removed from us, transcend all materiality. Furthermore, I doubt that anyone would refuse to acknowledge that incongruities are more suitable for lifting our minds up into the domain of the spiritual than similarities are. High-flown shapes could well mislead someone into thinking that the heavenly beings are golden or gleaming men, glamorous, wearing lustrous clothing clothing, giving off flames which cause no harm, or that they have other similar beauties with which the word of God has fashioned the heavenly mind....Indeed the sheer crassness of the signs is a goad so that even the materially inclined cannot accept that it could be permitted or true that the celestial and divine sights could be conveyed by such shameful things.
Obviously, pseudo-Dionysius doesn't go far enough in his persistent distinction between "similarities" and "incongruities," between, say, the grandeur of a 900-ft Jesus rap-rap-rapping on the United Nations, and the apparition of the selfsame savior in a dog's bottom. A more dedicated negative theology would abandon these merely human hierarchies and get far filthier. It would fall weeping on the pugend, finding in it as much mystery and holiness as any gleaming ceiling in Ravenna.

Confidentially to the befuddled: this is all a joke, kind of....except that mockery implicit in the dogbutt photo works best if both believer and blasphemer believe sclerotically, each committed to an anodyne and precious purity, anxious and easily sullied, each unwilling to trek into theology's weirder regions. The dogbutt Christ is funny, because to mere humans like us dogbutts are funny. But a better mystic, a better believer, and even a better materialist, antihumanist atheist, like me, should find something holy or wondrous in what we mistake as the most wretched things. To make belief stranger, and blasphemy far more difficult, we have to get dirtier.

And if this horrible event actually happened, I have to hope that a little more negative theological weirdness could have stopped it.

For further reading:
Bertrand, Daniel A. “Le Christ Comme Ver : à Propos Du Psaume 22(21),7,” in Le Psautier Chez Les Pères (Strasbourg: Centre d’Analyse et de Documentation Patristiques, 1994), 221–234.
Masciandaro, Nicola, "Wormsign."
Ruaro, Enrica. "God and the Worm: The Twofold Otherness in Pseudo-Dionysius's Theory of Dissimilar Images." American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 82.4 (2008): 581-592.

(update with a relevant clip from an excellent post by Steven Shaviro on Dylan Trigg, Object-Oriented Ontology, and Lévinas "The vague sentience of the slime mold (my favorite biological organism) is not in the least horrific for the slime mold." In short, the Lovecraftians may be going at things entirely wrong)

1 comment:

Karl Steel said...

Over on the fb, Jeffrey directed me to this great exchange with Carl Sagan:

QUESTION: Richard Hoagland has recently got hold of some pictures, Hasselblad pictures from NASA, which were taken some twenty years ago of the moon, and he has been describing those in great detail. He gave a talk at Ohio State University a couple of weeks ago and he had video cameras on and they were supposed to have videos available. I wonder if you’ve heard about this and had previous knowledge of . . . .

SAGAN: You forgot to mention what is on those videos.

QUESTION: Structures on the moon.

SAGAN: Richard Hoagland is a fabulist. By the way, it’s not difficult getting hold of the hand-held Hasselblad camera pictures; NASA freely releases them to everybody. These are in the public domain, they’re available to anybody. You don’t have to do something remarkable to get the pictures. The aspect of this story I know best has to do with the so-called Face on Mars. There is a place on Mars called Sidonia, which was photographed in a mission I was deeply involved in, the Viking mission to Mars in 1976. And there is one picture in which along a range of hulking mesas and hillocks, there is what looks very much like a face, about three kilometers across at the base and a kilometer high. It’s flat on the ground, looking up. It has a helmet or a hair-do, depending on how you look at it, it has a nose, a forehead, one eye—the other half is in shadow—pretty eerie looking. You could almost imagine it was done by Praxiteles on a monumental scale. And this gentleman deduces from this that there was a race of ancient Martians. He has dated them, he purports to have deduced when they were around, and it was 500,000 years ago or something like that, when our ancestors were certainly not able to do space flights, and then all sorts of wonderful conclusions are deduced and “we came from Mars”or “guys from other star systems came here and left a statue on Mars and left some of them on Earth.” By the way, all of which fails to explain how it is that humans share 99.6 percent of their active genes with chimpanzees. If we were just dropped here, how come we’re so closely related to them? What is the basis of the argument? How good is it? My standard way of approaching this is to point out that there is an eggplant that looks exactly like former President Richard Nixon. The eggplant has this ski nose and, “that’s Richard Nixon, I’d know him anywhere.”

What shall we deduce from this eggplant phenomenon? Extraterrestrials messing with our eggplants? A miracle? God is talking to us through the eggplant? Or, that there have been tens, hundreds of thousands, millions of eggplants in history, and they all have funny little knobs, and every now and then there is going to be one that by accident looks like a human face. Humans are very good at recognizing human faces. I think clearly the latter. Now let’s go to Mars. Thousands of low, hilly mesas have all sorts of features. Here’s one that looks a little like a human face. When you bring out the contrast in the shadowed area it doesn’t look as good. Now, we’re very good at picking out human faces. We have so many of these blocky mesas. Is it really a compelling sign of extraterrestrial intelligence that there’s one that looks a little like a human face? I think not. But I don’t blame people who are going into the NASA archives and trying to find things there; that is in the scientific spirit. I don’t blame people who are trying to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence—I think it’s a good idea, in fact. But I do object to people who consider shoddy and insufficient evidence as compelling.