Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/14/2010

Chase Visa as the Denial of Death: Søren Kierkegaard, Jonathan M. Newton, and James Baldwin

I was thinking this morning about my “cosmic place” and my “social purpose.”  Cosmic place. My place in the cosmos?

The denial of death

The denial of death

Social purpose. My purpose in society?  Sure, that’s what I was thinking about this morning. That is, I was thinking about it after I came across this sentence researching something else I’ve completely forgotten:

Our industrialised societies are thereby lost in a confused miasma where “want” has replaced actual need, where cosmic place and social purpose have been subsumed to mean one’s position in “the economy.” (1).

One’s place in the cosmos and one’s purpose in society have been “subsumed to mean one’s position in ‘the economy.’”

—verb (used with object)
1.   to consider or include (an idea, term, proposition, etc.) as part of a more comprehensive one

I knew it! My place in the cosmos and my purpose in society are mere manifestations of my position in the Capitalist System of America. Whether or not I am a being with a soul or a member of the (perhaps—ants may be more successful than humans) most successful animal species on one small planet, which is itself merely a part of one small solar system which is part of one galaxy, etc. etc. and whether or not my living in society with other members of that species has any purpose are questions of no import compared with the problem of discovering my place in the money-making processes superimposed upon my species.

Jonathan Newton continues,

An empty dialogue of technocentric and anthropocentric commodification is constantly fostered by mainstream media/business/educational worlds, as well as by certain sections of the philosophical and scientific communities. Absent is a socially celebrated sense of the joy of life and a reflective consciousness on this planet, and recognized rites of passage, particularly in the secularized, emotionally stunted west (3).

The dominant conversation among our media, our business, and our educational establishments regarding our society (a society subsumed under its own economy) is meaningless chatter in which both technology and humanity become nothing more than commodities. Our society does not enjoy life or reflect consciously together on the meaning of our lives. This is particularly true in “secularized, emotionally stunted” Europe and North America.

The actual meaning of “work” for many people is a degrading survival issue in the monetary economy, engaged in processes and tasks which have little real meaning or satisfaction (4).

In 1849, Søren Kierkegaard, the moody Dane, wrote:

. . . .the immediate man. . . [is] included along with “the other” in the compass of the temporal and the worldly. . . Thus the self coheres immediately with “the other,” wishing, desiring, enjoying, etc., but passively. . . . he manages to imitate other men, noting how they manage to live, and so he too lives after a sort. . . . he dies. . .—but a self he was not. . . . For the immediate man does not recognize his self, he recognizes himself only by his dress. . . .he recognizes that he has a self only by externals (5).

Why the Dane was moody

Why the Dane was moody

I suppose it’s not fair to equate 21st-century Americans with 19th-century Danes. However, I watch TV enough to know that the true American has fashion from Target, paint for her living room from Home Depot, and Samsung phones from Radio Shack. Cookie-cutter externals. This is beginning to resemble a sophomoric diatribe against materialism. That may well be the most I am capable of.

Yesterday I was presented with a decision that put me in the proverbial position “between a rock and a hard place.” Dental work. Necessary. Not covered by insurance. A bridge needs to be replaced; my insurance pays for a replacement after eight years, and I’ve had it for seven. Total cost: $3300. Omigod. I don’t have a credit card. Not one. Where will I get $3300? Of course, I have some meager resources. But I don’t want to spend any of my “retirement funds” on my teeth.

This rock and hard place is familiar to me. I’m grateful I don’t have any credit card debt (slipping into retirement soon, all of my retirement income will belong to me, and not to Chase Visa). I have a certain sense of moral rectitude (“Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought to think”) that I spend only what I have. I need to be careful  about moral rectitude, however. I don’t have credit cards because I lost them—a foolish real estate purchase a year before the recession of 1991 from which I was never able to recoup my losses—and when Chase Visa offered to let me try again, I declined. I do have some limited resources that I did not earn (that’s a long and complicated story not to be retold here—one of the great graces of my life for which I am humbly, I hope, grateful).  But I am slouching toward retirement, and I have to decide how to gather the $3300 together so it makes the least impact on my ability to eat and pay rent ten years from now. It’s a pain in the neck (or elsewhere).

The actual meaning of my work for the next few weeks will be “a degrading survival issue in the monetary economy, engaged in processes and tasks which have little real meaning or satisfaction.” Oh, I will have some satisfaction that I can take care of my own body (my teeth), but whatever I might have done (travel, go to a play, attend the opera, help support the Voice of Hope children’s ministry) that might have helped give my life a “little real meaning or satisfaction” will have to be sharply curtailed.

Whose fault is that? Mine, of course. I have not maintained my position in “the economy” as steadfastly as I should have. I have not traded in any “derivatives.” I have not worked at a job in which I have been worth a multi-million dollar bonus. I have not been willing to work at jobs that offered me no spiritual satisfaction or possibility of creativity. I have not been a member of Congress or the Governor of Alaska.

...confronting with passion...

...confronting with passion...

In 1963, James Baldwin, the fiery American, wrote:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life. . . (6).

We are lost in a miasma where “want” has replaced actual “need.”  The miasma is possible because we have allowed reflection on our place in the cosmos and striving to understand how to live together in society to be subsumed under “the economy.” Everything that should be important to us is subservient to—no, is a part of—“the economy,” and we have no way to “earn our death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”

It may, perhaps, be true that the purpose of credit cards is “to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.” After all, if you owe Chase Visa $10,000, you can’t die. You have to work it off. Endlessly.
(1) Newton, Jonathan M. “Altruistic economics: the gift culture and end of the culture of extinction.” Pacific Ecologist 18 (2009): 21+.
(2) “subsume.” Unabridged.  Random House, Inc. 2010. Web. 14 Aug 2010.
(3) Newton, ibid.
(4) Newton, ibid.
(5) Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. New York: Anchor Edition, 1954 (184).
(6) James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. New York: Random House, Inc., 1963 (91-92).


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