Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/05/2011

Merry 12th Day of Christmas to all!

Today is the 12th Day of Christmas, or the Eve of the Epiphany. The season of Christmas ends when Epiphany begins. Tomorrow Epiphany begins. Epiphany, the second most important festival to the church before it became beholden to the world (somewhere around 275 A.D.). Christmas landed on the 25th because the pagans, mainly the Roman military, were having so much fun celebrating the birthday of Mithras, the Persian “Sun of Righteousness”(1). We have the date and one of the names for Jesus (Malachi 4:2) directly from the pagans. A nice bit of incongruity. Thank the pagans for Christmas. And for the eclipse of the older and more important festival of the church, the Epiphany (manifestation of Christ to all the world).

My 12th-Day-of-Christmas schedule could  include:
1)  Report to the apartment management that my refrigerator is dead (and get it fixed or replaced)
2)  Go to Dallas Municipal Court to sign up for Defensive Driving School for a speeding ticket
3)  Pick up my dead laptop (with all of its memory saved) at Best Buy
4)  Get the disk for the latest Microsoft Office for my new computer
5)  Take the new computer to a geek friend’s house to install Microsoft Office and do some other stuff on my new laptop
6)  Go to the English department office to fill out the form (the form? the piece of paper? how archaic) for the registrar’s office to enter electronically a grade change for the one student whose grade I miscalculated using the calculator on the desktop of my now dead laptop.
7)  Go to the university bookstore to make sure I changed the movie we will use in class (which most of the students will simply rent from Netflicks or download through Hulu)
8)  While at the bookstore get the sales pitch for a “Nook,” which I will purchase with the Barnes and Noble gift cards I received for Christmas

Much of my day will be spent on machines and technology. I don’t–in case anyone reading my blogs thinks I do–want to run and hide from technology. Although I don’t understand the gadgets you all use, I see the need for “progress.” But I am baffled by it. And by the effects I see (in my limited vision) on the affect of our lives.

People are suffering in the modern societies of “the emptiness and meaninglessness of modern life, the terrible loneliness of the individual, his isolation and drifting”, they say: “I have many acquaintances but not a single friend”. The awareness of being lonely and isolated continues unabated, in spite of the tendency toward a social “togetherness”, with the popularity of words like friendship, fellowship and neighborhood (2).

That’s a pretty grim assessment. Today I don’t feel as if I have “many acquaintances but not a single friend.” Sometimes I do. What I am feeling today is that I have many friends, but because we have accepted a fantasy life–that is, one based on the double unreality of capitalism and technology–we (or at least I) have little opportunity for those friends together to find the connectedness we–or so I’ve heard–believe we need to be fully human. To be happy? This may simply be sour grapes or whining because I’m not rich, don’t have an iPhone, and live alone. But my guess is Akman’s assessment rings true for nearly everyone.

Last semester my students  needed a philosophical hook to hang their hats on in order to understand the “post-modern” or “post-post-modern” (or whatever it is) underpinnings of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. In a frenzy of database searching, I found Chris Barker’s

. . . [description of] postmodernity as a period in which previous assumptions about ‘‘rationality, science, universal truth, and progress’’ are subjected to a critical, self-conscious questioning. (3)

Moist expands the definition.

. . . Philip Deloria identifies three key sensibilities that underpin the changed postmodern culture that came out of the 1960s: ‘‘a crisis of meaning and a concomitant emphasis on the powers of interpretation, a sustained questioning of the idea of foundational truth, and an inclination to fragment symbols and statements and to reassemble them’’ in various new, if not always clear, forms (4).

My schedule today may not be important enough for me to give a “critical, self-conscious” questioning to any of my previous assumptions, but it does prompt me to question the point of this activity. I no longer know what my previous assumptions were. However, I know I feel–at this very moment–in thrall to new assumptions about “rationality, science, universal truth, and progress” that are not to my liking. Anyone my age or older (an observation so commonplace I would strike it from a student essay) has experienced so much “change” in our lifetimes that the process of “fragment[ing] symbols and statements and [reassembling} them” is a daily reality. I, for one, can’t possibly keep up. The first successful test of the “point-contact” transistor came when I was two years old. The entire history of the computers we use has happened in my lifetime, but it was slow enough at first that we didn’t notice the change about to explode.

My discomfort today (and always these days) centers not so much on the speed with which technology has changed my world. I want to know what my activity today means. Anyone who has read this blog before knows I dwell on this question often. Today for some reason, I am particularly aware of the (dangers of change that require) “sustained questioning of the idea of foundational truth.” As I have reflected already this morning (waiting for the maintenance man to check my regfrigerator so I can get on with the rest of the technological business of the day), the “foundational truth” of my life is fragmented–and I don’t know if I myself am responsible or if our societal rush to technologize everything is responsible.

Part of my disgruntlement today rests on what I will admit is simply my own inner conflict. I began this writing with the historical/traditional understanding of this day in the church calendar. The most important event of my day will be a meeting at a Lutheran church to discuss and plan the memorial service for a fifty-year-old friend who has painfully struggled to stay alive for many years and whose body finally gave out. Her death leaves her mother with no family, having lost her husband and her other child in the last ten years.

I don’t know how to fit those realities–a religious sensibility that I cannot disentangle from my mind no matter what “crisis of meaning” I’m having, and the anguish of a friend at the death of her daughter–into this world of machines.

The Catholic historian and sociologist David Walsh says that

we have neither the faith to affirm Christ nor the resoluteness to deny him. We gravitate towards terms like” post-Christian or “post-modern,” but what do such epithets designate if not the awareness that we still carry within us what we thought we left behind? (5).

Walsh’s understanding applies to all of our thinking. Neither those who never were nor those who are no longer Christian live in a vacuum of the moment. If we insist that our lives are happening “post” anything, we must have some idea what it is we’ve grown out of. And also have the sense not to reject what gave us meaning before we “posted.” The organization of our lives by patterns greater than our busy-ness. And remembering those we love, for starters.
(1) Coffman, Elesha. “Why December 25?” Christian History. (8/08/2008). Web. 05 Jan. 2011.
(2) Akman, Kubilay. “Sufism, spirituality and sustainability: Rethinking Islamic mysticism through contemporary sociology.” Journal of US-China Public Administration 6.4 (2009): 47-55. Quotations are from: Pappenheim, Fritz. “Alienation in American society.” Monthly Review 52.2 (2000).
(3) Barker, Chris. Making Sense of Cultural Studies: Central Problems and Critical Debates. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002. Quoted in: Moist, Kevin M. “Visualizing Postmodernity: 1960s Rock Concert Posters and Contemporary American Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 43.6 (2010): 1242-1265.
(4) Deloria, Philip. ‘‘Counterculture Indians and the New Age.’’ ImagineNation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. Eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle. New York: Routledge, 2002. 159 – 88. Quoted in Moist.
(5) Walsh, David.  The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999. p. 7. Quoted in: Fuller, Timothy. “Responding to the Mystery of Human Existence: David Walsh and Some Contemporaries for and Against Modernity.” Perspectives on Political Science 39.3 (2010): 140-146.


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