News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: American Neoliberalism: Intro to Demonology 101

Sunday, September 07, 2008

American Neoliberalism: Intro to Demonology 101

Talk about demons appeals to the popular consciousness. Numerous works of fiction and film exploit the idea that we humans can be inhabited and made to do things that we otherwise would not do. Evil things--evil things so horrendously heinous and terrible that we'd despair of some presupposed innocence that we're born with.

Of course, the most spectacular of these films was Peter Blatty's potboiler, The Exorcist. The film based on the book made huge bundles of cash for Hollywood and spawned two sequels. The most recent, The Exorcist: The Beginning just played last year and is now on HBO.

I watched this most recent installment the other night. Beyond the obvious absurdities, and the still quaint notion that evil inhabits another woman, what struck me most was the indefatigable tenaciousness of the priest who doesn't believe in God anymore. His spiritual journey back to faith is played out against the backdrop of his loss of faith occasioned by the massacre of innocents by Nazis. While the special effects are decent, and the story is often compelling, the movie is not very convincing in showing the true meaning of the demonic.

Two recent articles show the Catholic Church's unwavering war against demons, however. Working on empirical data that demon possession is on the rise, the Church has revamped its book of exorcism, enlisted a cadre of new exorcists, and made public pronouncements of its unerring belief in the reality of the Devil. ...

In an interview with Sign and Sight one exorcist, Rev. Pedro Barrajon, claims:

Cases of possession seem to me to be the evil flip-side of miracles, which are equally inexplicable, but which we can also observe. The devil is present everywhere that evil things happen within the normal laws of nature. In anyone who says: I don't accept love, the love of my brothers and sisters, the love of God. And in many places, in all massacres, in every murder, in physical catastrophes, in every concentration camp, in all evil. Sometimes he shows himself, strangely, but also in cases of possession. But he's much more dangerous where he doesn't let himself be seen, where he can't be done away with through exorcism. No question.
Such expressions, of course, meet with a skeptical guffaw from the intelligentsia. A scientific age cannot and will not believe in anything that cannot be subsumed under the aegis of empirical study. But the empirical is exactly what the demonologists work with. As innumerable ethnographic reports will tell you, demon possession is real--for those possessed and for those who witness it.

The point, of course, is that these cases are simply manifestations of psychological problems that proper psychiatric care can dispel and cure. Or so it is said. For anyone familiar with the incapacity of modern psychiatry to truly effect cures in the mentally disturbed, such claims as cure and returns to normal are irenic at best, self-delusionary at worst. If you think that prescribing powerful anti-hallucinogens and mood-altering drugs is a cure, then perhaps we need to redefine the concept of cure.

I am not saying that cases of possession aren't symptoms of deep and profound psychological problems. Indeed, I believe that modern psychiatry and psychology are correct in identifying the mundane causes of these symptoms and taking them out of the realm of the supernatural. No doubt, more people have been helped--however relatively--by the psychological treatments than by medieval treatments for possession. Again, however, this statement must be put into context. Traditional and indigenous methodologies show an amazing ability to cast out demons and integrate individuals back to social normality.

I've intentionally conveyed the impression here that I am skeptical of both the religionists who use demon posession to cover up their own connivance with power structures as well as the brainiacs who think that the demonic is simply the distorted manifestations of superstitious minds.
In a recent post, I quoted Martin Matustik's characterization of Kierkegaard's understanding of the "diabolical." Contrary to every received opinion of Kierkegaard as a thinker, he was intimately concerned about the political and social events of his time. For Kierkegaard, from his post-Xtian perspective, the demonic manifests itself in ways that traditional religionists would reject and rationalists would find offensive.

In the context of US foreign policy in Iraq, Matustik identifies the the desire of Americans to appear innocent to themselves and to their friends and enemies. Matustik writes:
Known to [Frederick] Douglass but lost on most contemporary Americans is the danger of an even greater evil: what Kierkegaard called the human capacity for acting “diabolically.” The “diabolical” is anyone who wills oneself to be good without having confronted one’s capacity for evil. Such a person must cling fast to false innocence because this person despairs over the question whether he or she truly is innocent. The politically “diabolical” is any regime that in despair wills its false innocence. The desire to be the innocent source of one’s power - a phenomenon we can call the despair of America - can be confronted, says Kierkegaard, by the breakdown of the false ego and its attachment to power.

Matustik calls to attention the innate tendency of Americans to impute to itself an inherent innocence when it comes to dealing with others. In a country where difference means everything yet is itself to be erased in the great melting pot, the erasure is supposed to return us to a commonly shared humanity that short-circuits the influences of tradition and cultural conditioning. But this supposed dimensionless region of individuality is a con job since it abrogates the obvious effects that environment and socio-cultural institutions and life-forms have on humans. You can’t, at the risk of becoming wraithful non-beings, abrogate personal history or the general history of your society.

The pernicious notion that society or culture does not affect an innate innocence produces individuals who are tragically unconscious of their own responsibility for evil. We go through life believing that we are simply atoms borne about by chaotic and ultimately unknowable forces. In the popular imagination, this state produces an anxiousness about the unknown that continually beckons from fictional accounts of evil forces inhabiting otherwise decent human beings. The mass production of horror and slasher films and TV programs indicates the uneasiness that many feel about their place in the universe.

On the obverse side of this coin, the scientist attempts to reduce the anxiety to physiological processes that only a scientist or expert can understand. From the notion that we are hardwired to do what we do to the idea that environment determines all our actions, the scientific lack of imagination believes that it can explain human life and thereby serve as the keystone is an edifice of a yet-to-be-determined socially engineered utopia. That the theory changes every few months based on new studies and new data; that the final explanation of the data is always put off until more data or new instrumentation is available; all this does not deter the rationalist mind from pronouncing that the end of the search for who we are is at an end.

The ethico-religious implications of this confusion are obvious. In the face of the general uncertainty about what humans really are reinforce the demand to follow rigidly defined dogmas and a nihilistic appeal to a mealy-mouthed fideism. This fideism is not the leap into the absurd of a Kierkegaard or Camus but is instead an act of despair that ultimately bolsters the prevailing machinery of power and self-interest.

For the social engineers, the uncertainty is equally unsettling yet blinded by the starry night of scientific promise they simply point to a future age when the anxiety will end. Hoping to usurp the role of oracle and prophetic office that religion served in the past, the engineers can at least point to concrete and hardcore results that supposedly prove their truth. Yet it is a truth that benefits the demonic eye in the sky that ensures social conformity and comity. It steels the mechanics of control, feeding in to the spiritual and socio-cultural fears that no psychology will ever erase but only repress.

And in their repression they combobulate and fester and breed the swirling crimes of personalistic nightmares: the serial killer, nice guy who lives next door, the consumerist queen who will kill to stay on top of the mass production fashion hill, the angst-filled adolescents stalking the halls of revenge.

For Kierkegaard and Douglass, according to Matustik, the demonic is a massive con job, perpetrated by individuals in their denial of a self beyond self-interest, as well as selves that desire to hide from themselves their own potential for perpetrating evil acts while seeming innocent.

Kierkegaard's take on evil and the demonic is situated in the individual and his/her journey to true selfhood. Given the propensity for lying to oneself and covering over one's true motives, this search often involves outright rejection of the Good simply because it is the good. Yet, the more insidious forms of the demonic, according to Kierkegaard come in the form of those who espouse religion while secretly using it to bolster their own cherished rejection of the true demands of what the Good demands.

In its wraithful obsession with denying the other, in being like the others better than them, in fearing that someone else more rights or more things or more beauty, Americans have become the walking dead crack ho of the world. Possessed by all that it denies in others and its dreams of pie-in-the-sky happiness, we stalk the stage of history like those brain-dead zombies in George Romero’s films. For as much as Americans want to be different they are just as much envious of anyone who might find a source of life-filled meaning that does not measure up to the criteria by which we gauge real success and real equality.

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