Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
17th May 2016

Ebert’s New Book is Out!

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myths gods

Preface

The essays collected in this book constitute, as it were, a sort of retrospective of two decades as an American cultural critic. None have previously appeared in book form, however, and most of them have never been published before. Only the first two essays, “Visions of a Biomechanical Apocalypse (First Version)” and “Ancient Myth and Modern Science” were published in periodicals (the now defunct Lapis and Parabola magazine, respectively).[i] I did “publish” my essay about the Unabomber on my blog at cultural-discourse.com, and also my piece on Thomas Pynchon’s novel V. that concludes this collection, but those essays are no longer available on my web site. The rest of the essays were simply lying around on my laptop in varying stages of completion, and all have been rewritten, polished, and given new coats of paint.

The essays were selected by me for this collection because they all hover around what has been the core theme of my career as a cultural critic: namely, the tensions between ancient ritual, symbol and myth on the one hand, and the constant barrage of technological innovations on the other, innovations that have destabilized these traditions, sometimes wiping them out completely, and at other times discrediting the transcendental spinal axes holding them upright. Gianni Vattimo has not called this the age of “soft truths” for nothing.[ii]

As any reader of my books knows very well, I never arrange my essays haphazardly, and the case is no less so with the present collection despite its apparent diversity, for it is arranged in “epochs” in order to tell a story: the history of the transformation of the gods into consumer icons and pop culture signifiers. The opening two essays in the section entitled “Tensions Between Myth and Science” form a sort of prologue that sets up some of the basic problems: the first essay, “Visions of a Biomechanical Apocalypse (First Version)” raises the possibility that one day our Western civilization may crumble into ruins like the shattered Roman Colosseum pictured in Thomas Cole’s 1832 painting Interior of the Colosseum, or the rubble of antiquity that is so frequently depicted in the art of Frederic Edwin Church. The essay should be regarded, then, as a sort of literary equivalent to one of those paintings, although it takes the perspective of someone from the future looking back on the ruins of Technological Civilization.

The second essay, “Ancient Myth and Modern Science” suggests that scientists, when creating theories about the origin and evolution of the universe may be unconsciously drawing upon mythic structures to organize their narratives (a point not original with me, however, for it has been made by William Irwin Thompson and others).[iii] But the essay therefore suggests the possibility of a mythologized science, one which does not discredit myths but actually returns them to us in a new guise. Indeed, science may one day rescue metaphysics for us from the rubble heap of the collapsed metaphysical age, since the stories brought back from near death survivors, if true, tell of a strange and beautifully luminous Other World that may exist beyond death. Nietzsche’s critique of the fable of the “true world” created by humanity as a metaphysical comfort for the sufferings of this one may turn out to have been wrong after all.[iv]

The book’s second division, “The Pre-Metaphysical Age: From the Neolithic to Ancient Sumer,” is composed, likewise, of two essays. The metaphysical age is a concept that was invented by Heidegger,[v] which he demarcated as extending from Plato to Husserl and then theoretician Peter Sloterdijk added his concept of a pre-metaphysical age[vi] (equivalent to Jean Gebser’s mythical consciousness structure), whereas Gianni Vattimo (and others) has mostly worked out the consequences of the post-metaphysical age of contemporary modernity.

The first essay of this section, “On the Symbolism of Tools: Hoe and Sickle” sketches out the idea that most tools do not, and have not, originated with pure functionality in mind, but almost always as part of a ritual context controlled by mythological signifieds. Hence, the genealogical line that can be traced from the Acheulean hand axe of Homo erectus—too heavy to be of any practical use—to Thor’s hammer to the judge’s gavel traces out the evolution of the implement from a mythological to a merely secularized juridical context. Mythological signifieds act as controlling ideas on technical implements until their original meanings are forgotten and they are displaced to other contexts, becoming semantically depleted in the process. It is a bit like visiting ancient Hohokam ruins in the Arizona desert, wondering what happened to all the people who once lived there and have now left behind only enigmatic crumbling shells whose meaning and significance are long since forgotten.

The second essay in this section tells the story of the tensions between two ancient Sumerian deities, one an agrarian god and inventor of the plough named Ninurta, and the other a patron god of craftsmen named Enki. The chapter describes the battles between these two gods, one from the more northerly city of Nippur and the other from the southernmost city of Eridu, and finds that even back then, more than five thousand years ago, there were tensions between farmers and craftsmen of the towns inside the walls like blacksmiths.

The next section, “The Dawning of the Metaphysical Age,” is composed of only one essay, an analysis of the imagery of this book’s cover painting by the Dutch Utrecht artist Dirck van Baburen entitled Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan. The deed, as Hesiod makes clear, is an epochal one that brings the Golden Age to a close and inaugurates the rule of Zeus with his victory over the pre-metaphysical age Titans, crowned by his stealing the metaphysical vulva from the Great Mother and giving birth to Athena, goddess of the age of (logocentric) wisdom and rationality that will soon follow. From Athena—who condemns the pre-metaphysical age Furies of matriarchy—to Plato’s separation of Being from Becoming through elevation of the Forms to pure transcendence, there is only a short leap. Both are masculinist feats which inaugurate Heidegger’s metaphysical age.

The book’s final section, “The Post-Metaphysical Age” is composed of four essays: the first is an analysis of the great writer Paul Bowles, who was a sort of tangential member of the Beats, and whose 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky was already moving ahead into the post-metaphysical age—just as Mark Rothko’s paintings were doing at about the same time[vii]—and showing us the consequences of the collapse of the Transcendental Signifieds that once anchored the Western tradition in an age of ritual, myth and philosophical metaphysics. With those signifieds gone, the couple who form the protagonists of the novel find themselves—as do we moderns—adrift, floating across the Saharan desert without aim, purpose or direction only to end up with disastrous consequences (a fable that perfectly describes our contemporary situation).

In the next essay, “Heidegger vs. Coca-Cola,” the ancient tradition of the conservative agrarian (or in Heidegger’s case, rustic) who objects to the technological transformations of modernity are scaled down to two signifiers as metonyms to make the case that not everyone is so enchanted with all these gadgets —which Heidegger calls “mere objects” as opposed to “Things,” the former abandoned and cut off from Being while the latter remain anchored precisely in Being.[viii] Heidegger was one of the first thinkers to warn of the consequences of nihilism and superficiality that such a consumer world—which I have simplified in the essay to the signifier of “Coca-Cola,”—cut adrift from everything local and rooted in meaning and tradition, would bring about.

In the penultimate essay on Ted Kaczynski, the rustic’s resentment against Industrial modernity becomes deadly and degenerates from the plane of the Imaginary and the Symbolic back to the zoological violence of the Real that begins, and also ends, every high civilization (all of them eventually disappear into a cloud of vaporized signifiers—whether they are “vaporized” by Christian lynch mobs, say, or philosophical extermination, as in the case of the wiping out and absorption of Buddhism in India). Kaczynski tried to play the game first on the plane of the Symbolic with his essay on “Industrial Society and its Future” but did not have the patience or tenacity to learn the craft of writing and go through the agon of finding a market for his ideas. So he resorted to another craft altogether, that of bomb-making, and began mailing bombs to the various men of science whom he saw as the originators of the shallow signifiers of consumer society floating all around us. By deleting those men from existence, he supposed that the source of such signifiers—Coca-Cola, for instance—would simply disappear and Industrial society eventually crumble and collapse in on itself: exactly the vision that I sketched out in this book’s opening essay.

The concluding essay, then, comes back full circle—in mythical fashion—with a discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s novel V., just as it opens with a brief image from that novel in the inceptual essay. But this time the consequences of the floating signifier known as “V.” are fathomed, for Pynchon represents it as a signifier that simply will not stick to any Signifieds whatsoever. Herbert Stencil’s inability to even verify the existence of the woman “V” is testament to the fact that meaning now in the post-post-modern age is nowhere to be found since all signifiers are sliding and skidding free of their signifieds and can therefore be made to refer to anything whatsoever.

So, those are the nine or so exhibits that form this author’s retrospective glance backwards at a two-decade long career as an American cultural critic in an age when the publishing ecosphere that once enabled such individuals to thrive has simply popped like one of Peter Sloterdijk’s macrospheres and disappeared, leaving the individual to become a rogue scavenger foraging for sustenance entirely on his own.

The essays, then, tell two stories: the obvious one is that just outlined above, of the gradual transformation of those Transcendental Signifieds—Derrida’s term[ix]—once known as the gods into Plato’s Forms and the Christian Logos, and then eventually into the philosophical signifieds of philosophers like Kant and Hegel that anchored the metaphysical tradition’s last century of existence before it was ruptured by Nietzsche and Heidegger, and then later with French postmodern thought. With the semiotic vacancies left in the Western metaphysical Clearing opened up, ads, icons (in their semantically depleted sense) and commercials instead of Ideas began to “unconceal” themselves from out of the darkness of the Heideggerian woods and to substitute a world of rapidly evanescent signifiers for one anchored in meaning and tradition.

The other story told by this retrospective is a disguised autobiography, one that tells the tale of a cultural critic’s evolution from the study of comparative mythology to that of Critical Theory and media studies. Unlike most critical theoreticians of today, I began in the field of ritual, symbol and myth—which I studied for about a decade and a half from 1990 to approximately 2005 or so—and then gradually moved out of it when I realized that the field was becoming depleted of ideas and so moved on into the fields of media studies and finally contemporary postmodern philosophy, where ideas were still rich and full of possibilities. I saw that there was much work to be done in combining all three fields—comparative mythology, media studies and continental Critical Theory—to be applied toward an analysis of our contemporary moment.

It has been difficult, however, if not impossible, to make a living doing this sort of thing these days outside the university system—and even there, professors tell me it is becoming more and more difficult to survive at all—but at least I have managed to do it, against all advice from friends and family members, for two decades, and have produced 19 books, a website and countless YouTube video lectures as a result of my stubborn tenacity.

I hope you enjoy the retrospective.

                                                                                                           –April, 2016 (Mesa, Arizona)

 

Preface

[i] For “Visions of a Biomechanical Apocalypse,” see Lapis #5, 1997, although the essay has been slightly rewritten and polished up for inclusion in the present volume. The Lapis essay was expanded, revised and changed completely to become a chapter in my second book Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons, but it scarcely resembles its original prototype, which is why I have included it here and called the “First Version.” For “Ancient Myth and Modern Science,” see Parabola magazine, Fall, 2008, although here again I have revised and slightly rewritten the essay.

   [ii] See Gianni Vattimo, A Farewell to Truth, trans. William McCuaig, (Columbia University Press, 2014).

   [iii] For instance see William Irwin Thompson, Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989) or Misia Landau, Narratives of Human Evolution (Yale University Press, 1991).

   [iv] See “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Twilight of the Idols, collected in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann, (NY: Penguin Books, 1968), 485ff.

   [v] See “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (NY: Harper Perennial, 2008), 427ff.

   [vi] See Peter Sloterdijk and Hans-Jurgen Heinrichs, Neither Sun Nor Death, trans. Steve Corcoran (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2011), 167.

   [vii] See the chapter “Mark Rothko” in John David Ebert, Art After Metaphysics (NY: Create Space, 2013), 53ff.

   [viii] Martin Heidegger, Country Path Conversations, trans. Bret W. Davis (Indiana University Press, 2010), 128.

   [ix] See “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Jacques Derrida, Writiing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (The University of Chicago Press, 1978), esp. 280.

 

 

 

 

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