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Universals–again

Lindon Barrett

Apparently, I’m still stuck on the topic of universals, so I’m going to follow it, and for those of you not at all interested in contemporary critical theory, I beg your indulgence for a moment. It’s only a short walk to my point.

University of California, Irvine, where I studied philosophy and comparative literature in the mid-nineties was, and still is, a theoretical paradise. Even as an undergraduate, you could sit in on Jacques Derrida’s lectures on Tuesday nights with the rest of the Doc Martened graduate students and listen to the late Professor deconstruct whichever binaries struck his fancy that night. Andrzej Warminski was there too, and although he never reached the same marquee status as his former colleague, Paul de Man, he spun etymological webs of indeterminacy with the best of ’em. His lecture on Hegel’s preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit was the first time I experienced the psychological equivalent of a high-altitude climb. Miles of work with no visible end, and then, unexpectedly, a vista–familiar things seen in such strange relation they appear dewy.

I mention this to explain, with some bashfulness, that I no longer live in those heady altitudes. Occasionally I’ll visit, especially when a friend recalls me to them, but for the most part my concerns have become more mundane. Most of my training, both graduate and undergraduate, has taught me to be suspicious of heroism, doubtful of my ability to transcend my particular place in a scheme that is always mediated, but still, in spite of myself, I seek those things. I’ve been taught to suspect that my desire to claim the universal is an aspect of my privileged white, male middle-class life, or Western philosophy’s preference for presence over absence, and there are times I fear that either one or both are true. But whenever I feel pulled between the intellectual allegiances I formed through training and practice, and the gut which revolts against them, I follow my gut and turn to the those who have gone before me.

Before I start reading my entrails, however, let’s pull one more professor into this: Lindon Barrett. Professor Barrett, who I once argued with in the kitchen of a Long Beach apartment, was also at UCI. I don’t remember the argument clearly, something about Freud and Gandhi, I think, but if I had to lay money on it, I’d bet I was wrong–even though I don’t think I was, but he’s a safer bet, so I’m just playing the numbers. Professor Barrett was murdered on July 13th, 2008, and though I have close friends that knew him well enough to call him Lindon, I didn’t, so I won’t. He was brilliant and intellectually tenacious–and gone. Violently gone. Strangled to death on the floor of his apartment.

Which brings me, in a gruesome and round-about way, to my point. All of our experiences are conditioned by particulars–skin color, gender, privilege, creed. Take your pick; we know that, or, at least we should. That, however, shouldn’t be news to anyone with an interest in these things. Judaic theology has been aware of that fact for a good 5,000 years or so, thus the injunction against idolatry. God isn’t any particular image. He is hidden and revealed, as the writing of God’s name, “YHWH,” without vowels strongly implies. In reality we don’t know which vowels should be attached to those consonants, hence the hidden “vowels” and revealed “consonants” of God’s name. Indeed, you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the implications of this idea.

Now you see him.

Now you don’t.

Grace comes and goes, but it’s always moving, just like Derrida’s linguistic play. The one thing it doesn’t do is stick. It doesn’t fetishize the golden calf, or whiteness, or maleness, or presence, or even absence. It never gives up the ghost, or the trace, or whatever you want to call it. It keeps playing, and like all play it doesn’t have a point outside of itself, but it does have a point inside of itself. What do I mean? I mean that it makes not a wit of difference whether or not a two-line pass is a violation in hockey: the game functions with or without it, but it makes a lot of difference in how the game is played. Hockey can exist either way. The way it looks when it is being played, however, changes dramatically depending on the rules.

The same is true for culture. It is absolutely true that we can’t land on the truth–paradox intended. We’ll uncover no bedrock that reveals creation’s mystery. No equation will ever completely theorize the universe. No explanation of the psycho-social error will solve human cruelty. There is no outside to this inside that will fix the mess we’re in. But here’s the thing. The one thing. The unifying thing. The one thing we shouldn’t give up–save the saints who hold up the world–and that’s the work.

Ridiculously simple? I suppose. But the play takes care of itself. Time makes toys of us all. We are fate’s rag dolls. I know that, because Arjuna learned it on the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita, and because the Buddha held up a flower and then proceeded to keep giving sermons, and it’s very likely you know that too for various other reasons. Even though we can never escape the particular, we don’t stop reaching for the transcendent.

The simple truth is that on this old blue marble we call home, some rules are better than others. Some rules change the way the game is played. Like the right to vote, and the re-distribution of wealth, and potable water. And for these weird hairless little ape bodies and all the affectionate kinships they form, presence is better than absence, living is better than not–even though we have to remember that for Krishna and his ilk, the distinction is arbitrary.

I would have preferred to have another go at Professor Barrett, but his absence is irrevocable. I would have liked a chance to prove him wrong, or learn something in the offing, but that’s not possible. He is the plaything of gods now, and not men. I prefer the latter.

Dead White Males

Alex Haley’s, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, contains one of the great character arcs of 20th-century Western Literature. The story is well known. Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, undergoes several radical transformations throughout his unfortunately brief life. From gifted but oppressed young student, to con artist and street tough, then prison, self-education and The Nation of Islam,Continue Reading

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