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Friday, February 23, 2007

A fragmented past

This is Perkins speaking of the ancient mindset (third century):
The traditional society of the ancient world resisted change. "The new" was no virtue. Its visionaries did not seek to bring into being a new and glorious future but to recover a revered and glorious past...Since people sought to recover the past, their tradition, and since they did not have print and electronic media documenting every change of style, they perceived much less discontinuity between themselves and their past than we do... (Pheme Perkins, The Gnostic Dialogue, 4)

Interesting quote, I thought. It continues along my theme of the fragmented self in contemporary culture. That is, we are not holistic and complete. We are various fragments pulled together: work life, love life, entertainment life, religious life (which is often a pluralistic compilation in itself), online self, hobbies, etc, etc. We are a myriad of fragmented interests and preoccupations....Perkins here points out that in the ancient world there was a reverence for the past, in contemporary society there is an obsession with the future: We are anticipating the improvements that lie just around the corner, especially technological. Perkins also notes that when media documents "every change of style" there is a sense of discontinuity of the past. In other words, in contemporary society our historical progress is fragmented. A few weeks ago it was the Super Bowl, next it was the astronaut love-triangle, yesterday it was Anna Nichole, today it's Britney and her kids, etc....I think we view ourselves as more fragmented because we move so rapidly through history from one current event to the next to the next. History happens faster. We can follow a war on the other side of the world in real time. 24/7 media on the cable networks document every latest breaking news story with a deluge of commentators who exhaust a subject within a few short hours of its breaking. And, of course, within a few hours there is something else that follows.

Do we feel any continuity to the historical flow of our lives? We live from one event to the next, to the next, to the next. Our mass media outlets document "every change of style." We are a people in flux. Ever changing. Always anticipating. Breathless. We never stabilize and settle. We are always progressing, without any real time to reflect. It is progression without the stabilization necessary for genuine reflection. We process our events in hours and then move one. It is historical fragmentation.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Did I mention that Perkins is writing in 1980? Before 24/7 news media, and before internet, etc.

ktismatics said...

How does this sense of rapid change and discontinuity jibe with your friends Qoheleth and Baudrillard, for whom there is nothing new under the sun?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Qohelet (Ecclesiastes 1):

1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

3What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

4One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

5The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

6The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

7All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

8All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

9The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

10Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

11There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

King James Version

Jonathan Erdman said...

In light of our topic in this post verses 10 and 11 are striking to me: No one can claim something "new" (v. 10) and the former things (the past, history, etc.) are not remembered (v.11).

Some scholars believe that the primary point of this first series of verses is to emphasize the continuing cycles and "eternality" of the earth. By "eternality" we mean simply that it goes on and on, repetitively, with nothing to stop it. Everything is cyclical. This ties in with chapter 3 where there is a "time" for every season.

The first thing that is striking is that Qohelet says there is nothing new. This jives with Perkins' point and with other scholars who hold a general agreement that the ancient mind did not place a value on "newness". Our ad campaigns today say things like, "new and improved"! And these kinds of slogans stimulate us to purchase products. In our minds the best things are yet to come. We would never buy a product if it said, "This product is old and we haven't done a thing to improve!" In our setting there is always room for improvement. This is how technology has affected our perception. Technology is always improving on a daily basis, and so we expect products to improve, and, I think there is also a general feeling that we should be able to improve everything else as well.

In the ancient mind they were suspicious of the "new". They looked to "former things" as holding more value, which brings me to the second thing that strikes me about Qohelet: He seems to deny the ability of "former things" to hold sway over the current day.

"There is no remembrance of former things"

This strikes me as perhaps a deviation from standard ancient thought, espcially Judaism. For the Jews there was a preservation of heritage and history via the Law and the oral tradition. Qohelet's claim that there is "no remembrance" of these things would seem to me to immediately capture the attention of the ancient Jewish audience. "Is he saying that our treasured past will slip away?" I would imagine that this would be a somewhat striking thing. Unthinkable, really.

Putting it all together, then, it seems as though Qohelet is saying that the earth is on a never-ending cycle that produces the same kinds of things: What has been done will be done again, Ideas will be recycled, People will basically be the same kinds of people who move with the currents and cycles and seasons of time.

Perhaps the only reason we call certain things "new", then, is because "there is no remembrance of former things". Surely at some point in time people have done something similar or have shared parallel ideas. We just don't have the records to show it.

This will be the preamble for Qohelet deconstructing the experience of humankind and also searching for some way to find meaning in a destabilized world. Here in chapter one the only thing stable is that the earth goes through cycles and wearies us with its everlasting endurance.

ktismatics said...

Jonathan -

It's funny, but I don't read Ecclesiastes like that at all. I don't see a destabilized world; I see a guy who's trying to make something different happen but it's all for naught. Everything is locked in, and there's nothing to be done about it.

Then I read Baudrillard and he says pretty much the same thing. Change? It's an illusion, a distraction from Ecclesiastes' insight that really none of it is new. Super Bowl XLI is the same as XL is the same as all the rest. Anna Nichole and Britney -- how many times have we seen their stories before? But we forget that it's all old news, just like Qohelet says.

Then you could take it another turn, if you're Baudrillard: all the so-called flux hyped by the media is there to persuade you that there is something stable underneath. Whereas the foundation itself is unstable too. Or: the stability of faith is there to persuade you that secular life is always changing, whereas in fact there is nothing new under the sun. Which story is true: everything is unstable, or there's nothing new? Or both?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, I agree with your reading of Qohelet/Ecclesiastes. There is definitely a strong sense that Qohelet is "locked in" to a cycle and system that denies him meaning and purpose.

Ktismatics...Which story is true: everything is unstable, or there's nothing new? Or both?

I don't think my conception of "instability" (as I read it in Qohelet) and the idea of "nothing new" are mutually exclusive. Q is locked in - there is nothing new. He is searching for meaning, and looking for a way to break out of a sort-of deterministic world that has denied him meaning. He keeps searching for "what is worthwhile to do under the sun." He looks in every conceivable place (pleasure, success, achievment, and even faith), but the result is the same: Meaning is never a sure thing. One can find meaning in anything, but meaning is never a sure thing. In chapter two we find that being content and happy is a gift from God. I read this as part of the deterministic motif: Whether we can find meaning in something is up to God. No one can lock in meaning in their life. There is no formula. And the reason there is no formula is that life is continually in flux and shifting. We try to stabilize things with formula answers to life, but then when many of us put the formula into place we find that it doesn't pan out for us.

So, we are locked in to a world that refuses formulas...but on the other hand we have to use the formulas b/c that's "the way the world works." This is where Derrida's aporia concept comes in. I liken it to the "chasing after the wind." We are people locked in to a world where we must strive, but we can't always grasp it. We reach for meaning, but often times meaning slips through our fingers. That is why Qohelet commends those who navigate through life and find meaning, purpose, and happiness.