Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Asking Tough Questions...

Cross posted at Kesher Talk.

Alcibides' recent post on Bill Maher and Chris Matthews aroused certain emotions in me. One of them, naturally, was disgust and contempt for the self-martyrdom inherent in Matthews' obvious adoration of himself, but another was a basic sense of things I have felt for a long time: that the advent of liberalism was not so much the triumph of reason and thought as it was a shift in the structures of social and intellectual power, or rather a shift in who holds that power and why. The hierarchy that was once ecclesiastical is now intellectual, the idolatry of faith has been replaced by the idolatry of reason. A decidedly closed and sharply defined reason, and one which is not so much thought as it is property. The question for us, of course, is who claims this amorphous territory, and whether it serves any purpose other than the perpetuation of its own power.

That the media is about power ought to be obvious. Knowledge, goes the aphorism (Foucault's aphorism?) is power. Knowledge, and its dissemination, is the raison d'etre of the media. Such is openly admitted by its practitioners. Their goal, so they tell us, is to enlighten, educate and inform. Each individual, of course, has the capacity to think, and therefore the capacity to educate and inform himself. The key, therefore, for any hierarchy of information, that is, any hierarchy of knowledge, is to lay claim. The pre-liberal order placed knowledge (information) at a distance. That is, on an Aristotelian (or Maimonidean, if we prefer) plain. God, according to the philosophers of faith, is an uber-thought, an all-consciousness or over-consciousness constantly thinking itself. This places knowledge, which is power, beyond the hands of man. In theory, if not always in practice (sometimes never in practice) man was divested of knowledge and therefore of power. Opposed to this, of course, in ecclesiastical terms, was hierarchy. That is, the hierarchy of knowledge and therefore the hierarchy of power. Nonetheless, through the domination (the longest, perhaps, of any philosophy) of Aristotelianism, limits were set on the contours of this domain. As Maimonides theorized, we cannot know what God is, only what he is not. The nature of the hierarchy, at least in Judaism, is therefore negative in nature. The man who knows knows only by virtue of knowing what he does not know. A slightly comical statement, perhaps, but nonetheless essential. It points us to an essential limitation.

The advent of liberalism, with its theory of progress, and especially of progressive knowledge, shattered this barrier. Liberalism, as I have sometimes said before (and I am by no means the first) is essentially imperialistic. It respects no borders, its appetite is infinite. Liberalism consumes (thus, perhaps, it is essential to capitalism). Unlike its predecessor, liberalism exists in an essential contradiction. That is, it presumes a world which is knowable and which progressively becomes more knowable. It proposed, therefore, a world bound by laws which are understandable in human terms. This is a fundamental: liberalism parts from Aristotelianism exactly at the point where Aristotelianism limits power. Liberalism reduces God to knowledge. A knowledge which is limited, demarcated, and complete. A God which is, therefore, conquerable.

This new idolatry (and it is, ultimately, idolatrous) raised several objects of veneration. One is the question. Another is man. Man questions, and by questioning man can know. Knowledge, being finite, can also be absolute. The question, and the willingness to ask, the asking in and of itself, becomes a prayer, an invocation, and an indication of holiness. It created, in other words, a new priesthood, a new definition of the heroic. "Dare to know!" said one of the scions of the Enlightenment. He created, in so saying, a new Achilles. An Achilles whose tragedy was not his arrogance but his lack of courage. The man who knows must dare. He must, in other words, transgress in order to seize.

This new archetype negated that aspect of philosopy considered most important by its ancient practitioners. Knowing what one does not know is no longer an indication of wisdom but an indication of cowardice. To not know is impossible for the courageous. The hero-priests will not and need not accept such limitations. At this very moment, liberalism consumed God. God, who is unknowable, is valueless. Liberalism recognizes only the positive existent. If we cannot know a thing, it is nothing. Literally nothing. God is not dead, He simply is not.

What replaces God is the question. Or, rather, the questioner. The idolatry of man, we must emphasize, is a hierarchical idolatry. It specifies man and seperates him into the questioners and the non-questioners. As in any hierarchy, the essential question is not who knows but rather who rules? In the empire of liberalism, the questioner rules. The question, therefore, ceases to be a means to knowledge and becomes an expression of the will to power. It becomes access, in other words, not to knowledge but to power. And power, of course, is only power if it is power over others. Liberalism, in other words, requires ignorance. It requires non-questioners. It requires, in effect, a proleteriat of knowledge. Those who know, the hero-priests of knowledge who are defined and ordained by the question, cannot exist without those who do not question, or who are believed not to question. Liberalism reversed the ancient dichotomy. The man who knows what he does not know and, more importantly, what is unknowable, is now object. The object, that is, of power.

To return to the world of the concrete, which is the question of the media and the questioners who compose the media as we know it today, we can assert the following: the media is liberal because it composes itself according to the hierarchical structure of liberalism. It undertakes, in other words, the idolatry of the question while annihilating the possibility of an answer. As such, it is a priesthood of questioners. Those who do not ask, or who believe in the question as a means of defining the contours of their un-knowledge, that is, the extent of that which they do not know, are the congregation of supplicants. Their salvation, which can only be through knowledge, is ascertained, decided, and dispensed by this thoroughly modern priesthood. Thus, the "asking of tough questions" is the deciding factor. These questions, of course, do not seek for answers, they do not demand answers. They are, rather, indications of power. Signs, badges, vestments, signifiers of an order. An order defined by the tyranny of the question. The answer, of course, or the impossibility of an answer, has been long since annihilated.

It is important, at this point, to admit to the obvious: hierarchies are inevitable. Human beings organize themselves into structures. These structures are the architectures that makes us human. We cannot escape them without destroying ourselves. Moreover, all hierarchies seek to expand their power. The will to expand and the rebellion against this expansion are endlessly repeatable and are likely to remain so. The question (I am aware of the irony of the word) before us is: does this structure, this hierarchy, serve the good?

I follow Emmanuel Levinas to the good. The good he signified by the ethical relationship. The self facing the other which apprehends the other, face to face, and realizes his ethical responsibility to the other. This recognition, an elementary recognition, based upon the sight of the other and the standing back, the recognition (not necessarily acceptance, acceptance too can be violence) of the otherness of the other, the recognition of the essential space between, is, in itself, the good.

Against this recognition of an ethical Being, an ethical method of Being, liberalism, and its priesthood, whether political or media, cannot stand. Knowledge as power demands knowledge of the other, of the object of power, and therefore the conquest of the other. Liberalism turns the question to a means of oppression. A weapon of subsumation and not recognition. Recognition does not imply knowledge in the liberal sense. Liberalism percieves knowledge as reduction, as breakdown, as the object broken into its constituent parts and therefore devoured. Liberalism cannot serve the good because it cannot know the good. It is incapable of recognition. Mr. Matthews, in his lamentable genuflection before himself, is merely stating a banality born of the essential nihilism at the heart of liberalism's consumption of itself. The question as weapon, as it must, eventually turns (happily) against the one who wields it. Liberalism as a hierarchy of knowledge, cannot, in fact, actually know. To know demands the recognition of the unknown and the unknowable; just as the other, the one who faces us, is essentially unknowable. The "tough question" as it is invoked, is nothing more than a narcississtic adoration of oneself as ejudicator, as a force, as power. The value of the question, and therefore the good; which can only be the recognition of the true question, which is the face of the other before us and its unanswerability, which is the fact that we can know only what it isn't; is assassinated by liberalism, and with it, of course, the good.