Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gods and Kings, Prophets and Propaganda

“Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to history and one other area of knowledge.

With both history and religious knowledge systems, prevailing narratives describe the world and in turn one's place in it, however, both of these areas of knowledge seek to transform the world through their description of it. When dominant political systems, religious systems, or a combination of the two have power, their power translates the description of the world into transformation of it. But lets unpack that statement a bit.

From a structuralist perspective, every religion serves a mythological purpose. At their most base levels, religions serve the four Campbellian mythological purposes: mystical, cosmological, social, and pedagogical. But, what if history follows suit? What if the dominant narratives

In religion, the mystical function describes the world as having a mystery about it, and the idea of a higher power that was (up until fairly modern times) characterized as having a very imminent presence in the world. Now this describes the world physically, but more so than that, it also gives ethical authority to the religion in question as agents of higher powers. This is the reason for the increase of power in the priest castes in ancient societies; by identifying oneself with the higher powers to whom natural phenomena are attributed, members of the priestly caste are granted the authority and reverence of the superstitious cultures of antiquity.

This is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, however what is undeniable is that the concept of a higher power lends religious knowledge systems power. Therefore, in describing the world they actually increase their standing within it and in doing so provide more efficacy to their cause. Examples include "Deus Volt" or "God wills it", a battle cry of the Catholic Crusaders during their wars against those of different faiths. Positive examples include the justification of many humanitarian actions by all religions such as feeding the homeless, healing the sick, et cetera.

But what mystical function does history have? How does history create wonder and mystery in the minds of those who behold it? To answer this you must look at how history was compiled and made as well as what bias, power, and agenda the historian holds. Dark examples can be found in authoritarian states where history is shaped and altered to suit the interests of the state. Authoritarian states like the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia create wonder and mystery in the state by giving mythic qualities to historical rulers or ideas through outright state propoganda. Subtler examples occur in the attribution of mythic qualities to ideas and rulers of western democracies, the idea of the enlightenment ideals in particular are a good example. The very term "enlightenment" is rooted in the idea of a higher power or sort of mysticism. In turn, we assign these ideas greater value because of the prevalent narrative supports the notion that these ideas originate in a higher state of being.

In each of these areas of knowledge the world is described in a way, but this description is more than just innocent objective description, encoded in the descriptions are biases that advance a narrative, this narrative in turn offers rhetorical power that can be taken advantage of to advance power over the population existing under the system.

The cosmological function is a bit more simple in both religion and history. In both areas it serves to describe how the system and the world came to be. In religion it is usually relegated to a creation story such as the Judeo-Christian Genesis, Native American creation stories, the Greek drama of the titans and Zeus, and Brahman and the Trimurti of Hinduism. These stories allow for the religious system to align themselves with other facets of nature which makes their existence very natural and impossible to be questioned. As for history, its cosmological function has been rather fluid. In areas where history is more objective, science has been the source of cosmology in the history as secular governments have increased.

 This is true for the physical world, however, governments use history to create a mythic cosmology of their own, whether subtle or overt. Overt examples are again found in authoritarian states due to their restrictive nature. North Korean historical control has led to many delusions among the populace about the very creation of their reality and has placed the Kim family as the creator deities. More subtle examples are the glorification of various revolutions that have lead to states such as the United States' mythic qualities of its revolution, the Chinese mandate of heaven, Soviet Russia's insistence on using the revolution to create a national identity. In short, religious or historical, the cosmological function is always the concrete foundation of the dominant narrative. In describing the world from a perspective of power and influence, political and religious systems utilize history to create the illusion of a setting for the world view they advocate.

History and religion both create a mythic social function when utilized by systems of power mainly through precedence and stories used to transfer values onto the society within the system. Religions use allegories, myths, parables, and archetypes to tell people how they should live in relation to one another. The Ten Commandments or any other code of laws or values in religion are obvious examples. History on the other hand portrays its values through emphasis based off of political entities. American history emphasizes individualism and capitalism through the constitution and the dominant narratives that deify presidents in the same way that Chinese history, Russian history, or any other political system does. Descriptions of social life always transfer values based off of bias, especially so in religions, and in doing so it changes the world by changing the behavior and socialization of those under the power of the religious or political system.

Finally, the pedagogical function determines how an individual should live his or her life under any circumstances. In religion this occurs similar to social  parables but more individual. The eightfold path is a good example as well as the teachings of Jesus in Christianity. History is used to convey this via the Great Man theory of history, it uses famous historical figures as role models for individuals. Especially if these people embody ideals that the political system values. Such as the deification of the founding fathers, Karl Marx, Enlightenment thinkers, Greek Philosophers, or heroes of revolutions. When a system of religion or government has power, it uses history to describe itself through individuals or stories relating to individuals, but these transfer the values of the system and affect the values of those who live under given system.

In conclusion, history and religion both change the world by describing it. This is true because of the fact that history and religion are inextricably linked to the political systems that utilize them. When these systems have power over history and how it is shaped especially, history as an area of knowledge as well as religion both change the world through how they describe it via their power as it is extended through the political systems of power.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

More Than Just a Cup

You are listening to your favorite playlist on Spotify. After a while, Kendrick Lamar's 2012 banger "Swimming Pools" comes on and you ready yourself to sing along every word of the chorus. But wait. This is a world without cups. How is Kendrick going to pour up before he dranks??? How can he head shot and drank???  Sit down, drank??? Stand up, drank??? How can he pass out, drank??? Wake up, drank???

The answer is he cannot. King Kendrick would be limited by the lack of cups. And imagine how boring that song would be without its iconic hook. Imagine how stressful existence would be without cups. Imagine drinking out of rivers by your hands, lapping up water out of a fountain like a dog, laying under the faucet looking foolish, using a spoon to lap up Coke at dinner, getting an absurd, gigantic spoon for winning first place.

So what does a cup do in its simplest form? Well, it takes a liquid from a source and makes it portable. Much like it's cousin (who has a glandular problem) known as The Barrel. The cup takes the human action of scooping a liquid from its source, carrying it in your hands, and sipping it (given that it is a beverage), or pouring the liquid onto another surface. But how has this effected us sociologically?

As humans we have delegated much to The Cup. Its magic ability to allow us to take liquids with it, have changed how we live, how we purchase, and even how we utilize resources.

Cups have changed the human trend of staying close to rivers, mountains, and streams for access to water. We can use cups (or more often their big fat cousins) to move fresh water inland. Otherwise we'd be stuck with big ugly aqueducts like the Romans.

How would you get your Big Mac and large Coke sans cup? Would you have a giant straw drinking from a communal lake of coke? No. Would Bloomberg outlaw your Big Gulp gulpy straw because it makes you fat? Would you walk into your kitchen and hold your head under the faucet and getting sprayed with water just to hydrate yourself? Would Indiana Jones search for the Holy loopy straw??? Cups have changed our lives with their very existence, and they even shape geopolitical affairs.

Imagine fields and fields of crude oil. But after America occupies the region how will they get it back??? Giant pipelines running across the sea? Drilling for domestic oil sources at the risk of ecological disaster? These are the possibilities we have without the big fat cup known as the barrel or drum. Which the global oil market uses to weight the price.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sociology and Spirituality

"Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are." This statement lends itself to many different interpretations based off of semantics and perspective. Mainly the semantics for the purposes of this analysis deal with the definitions of the word "knowledge" and "we". As far as perspectives go, in order to take into account the use of "we" in this statement the areas of knowledge discussed will be the human sciences and religious knowledge systems.

Beginning with knowledge, the word itself comes from the Greek "gnosis" which has lent itself to the early Gnostic traditions of 2nd century Christianity but more on that later. Merriam Webster defines knowledge as:

 a (1) :  the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association (2) :  acquaintance with or understanding of a science, art, or technique
b (1) :  the fact or condition of being aware of something (2) :  the range of one's information or understanding answered to the best of my knowledge
c :  the circumstance or condition of apprehending truth or fact through reasoning :  cognition
d :  the fact or condition of having information or of being learned a person of unusual knowledge

and all of these are applicable to the situation so there is no problem with that. Knowledge of the human sciences is generally broader education and knowledge of facts in general. But, for the purposes of the religious knowledge assessment of this statement, religious knowledge must also be taken into account. Usually religious knowledge usually consists of realization of greater truth behind profound mysteries

Religious knowledge is one of the seven gifts of the holy spirit in several Christian traditions. In the Gnostic sect of Christianity, esoteric knowledge is considered a way to enlightenment. In Hinduism, Jnana Yoga (The Path of Knowledge) is considered one of the three main types of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. In Buddhism (both Mahayanna and Therevada) enlightenment comes in the form of Nirvana, or a realization, that changes the life of the practitioner and makes them a bodhisattva in Mahayanna and allows them to leave the karmic cycle in Therevada buddhism. This is similar to the gnostic belief that knowledge of the divine within leads to unity with the supreme being, which allows the Gnostic to transcend the illusions created by the Demiurge in the Gnostic creation myth.

The only deviation from this trend lies in daoism, the Tao Te Ching states "the scholar tries to learn something every day, the man of dao tries to un-learn something every day". But ironically, this too advises a type of knowledge on the practitioner: intuitive knowledge which comes with deconstructing the knowledge systems we have created in order to separate and categorize. This is why daoism is so hard to explain in words, it is a knowledge system that relies entirely on subconscious understanding and realization of the unity of yin and yang.

On the other hand, human sciences relies on the divisions we create. They are defined by their opposites, each is organized into schools of thought, and each exists to create, acknowledge, define, and categorize humanity. So the dichotomy exists between religious and human knowledge. Esoteric spiritual practices seek to undo the binary of the divine and mundane (nirvana, gnosis, kabbalah, sufism, etc.), while the human sciences remind us of our place as a one or a zero.

And this is not to diminish human sciences, It is impossible for us to know what we are as westerners, without first deciding what we are not. The human sciences give us knowledge by contrast so that we may eventually use this to deconstruct distinctions.

This has been personally something I have grown with recently. My knowledge of religious systems, sociology, and complex systems of culture and identity have helped to give me insight into my limitations by showing me what I am not as well as giving me an interest in other cultures practices. And so by first discovering differences I have allowed myself the ability to later discover similarity despite difference. The case in point being the similarities shown through spiritualistic practices that I have had an interest in despite geographic, cultural, and social separation from each other (excluding practices that blended or grew from one another). And have given me both the yin and the yang that have allowed me to see the circle that both halves make up.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Forgotten Republics, the Great Game, and Myth

With the headlines dominated by Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen, I was surprised to learn about some of the problems facing the central Asian Republics, or as I had previously known them: "The istans". These are the countries your social studies teacher glossed over in world history, the ones you can't spell or find on a map, one of the Borat countries. And yet these countries have endured as much or more injustice at the hands of colonial powers than most post-colonial states that we do know. The US, Russia, England, Persia, and The Mongolian Empire are among the powers who have had a hand in "The Great Game" trying to create spheres of influence in the Central Asian region.

Mr. Brewer's guest speaker really was speaking my language on Friday, specifically on the concepts of ethnicity and national identity. Especially how national identity develops in post-colonial states rife with ethnic gerrymandering and the remnants of a soviet police state for a government. I mean you have a region that has been passed around by empires like a cheese platter that finally gains autonomy and they can't even begin without establishing a national myth.

They chose to revere a figure who they did not know very much history about, however it served the function of the myth in uniting the country with nationalistic pride. Tamerlane wasn't even Uzbek he was turco-mongol, but why does this work? How can fabricating authority, precedent, and a positive connotation effectively give mythic power to people or concepts? And more frighteningly how does this happen in our own country?

In IB Lit we have been reading the Lords of Discipline which has given a very clear picture of the kind of mythologizing we have in the South in regards to the Civil War. Lee didn't even support slavery! We see the mythic qualities that Ronald Reagan has been imbibed with by the Republican Party. "I'm a Ronald Reagan conservative" you hear from the mouths of every elected official of the Republican Party as the idea of Reagan not even the man himself has taken on this powerful ethos appeal. As if the very uttering of his name bathes the speaker in folksy-ness and approval rating points. The same is true for the founding fathers, Lincoln, Kennedy, and any other leader who has transcended being a person and become a concept.

So what to do about this? Is it a natural human tendency? Is it a result of high religious authority in the country? Is it a problem exacerbated by mass media? Honestly I do not know but it is certainly a disservice to the person and to history when a man or woman becomes nothing but a concept to sling around for ethos.