Self-understanding and scapegoats

In my rush to complete some class of a document that approximates a research proposal, there is one phrase that adds immeasurably to my comprehension of why we do things in the ways that we do them: self-understanding. Here’s Jurgen to give us some sense of it:

In the light of a liberal constitution, well, religion must be tolerated, but it cannot lay claim to provide a cultural resource for the self-understanding of any truly modern mind.

And here is Slavoj (thanks to Kevin and Gavan for getting me back to basics on this guy’s thought):

In The Puppet and the Dwarf (2003) Žižek discerns the function of mythologisation as the projection of our imaginings, motives, and reasons into this ‘dark spot’ of fundamental meaninglessness. This dark spot is the Abyss of freedom that precedes the subject as both Self and subjectivisation. Following Schelling, Žižek reveals a sense of awe accompanying the understanding of ourselves as a Self: our self-understanding.

Self-understanding is never attained but is the search for meaning in a largely meaningless world where you now exist but did not always. Your self is part of the flow of time that we can gain some appreciation of but never fully comprehend. We also collectively self-understand: stories that we have accumulated that make some sense of ourselves as groups of people. We are Irish, ‘we’ are not black, we are modern people who vote, we take care of our own first. These are paths to collective self-understanding and the identification of others who do not share this is key to divining that path. Lest you think I’m getting dull….

In an unexpected conversation with a colleague here after coffee today, he compared the Adam and Eve (oh, and the serpent) narrative as told in the bible as one of the deepest self-understandings of our place in the world. God, however we conceive of her, finds those pesky garden-dwellers guilty of obtaining knowledge and arrogance. “She made me do it.” “But it was the snake that made me do it.” and so on and on. In the Promethean myth (if I remember Richard Kearney’s class from 1992), Prometheus steals the fire (knowledge) from the gods; the gods get angry and bind the poor fella to the earth for eternity, making him autochthonous. Our self-understanding as people is riven with examples of apportioning blame and displacing guilt. In an effort to avoid understanding ourselves more fully, we would rather blame someone (or something) else. Limerick gang members are scum (i.e. not me), Travellers are not like ‘us’, Polish builders took my job from me.  Not that understanding of the self is ever attainable. It is the mind’s black box: open it out of our insatiable curiosity and it is no longer a box of black, it is now and empty box, a blue box, a box with a cat in it. Our disappointment is palpable.

Cattle under a tree in a field above Golcar
Photo owned by Tim Green aka atoach (cc)

In the rush to find who to blame for the gross abuse of children and the subsequent cover up, we may well be sacrificing a measure of greater self-understanding for the application of laws that do not exist to capture the complexity of issues. Brian Lenihan is to blame for the poor state of the economy, building on flood plains is to blame for catastrophic flooding, Donal Murray is to blame for not taking action when he should have. All of this, as we now know, is true but not the truth. If you think you know the truth, then you don’t. Understanding is not held in the palm of one’s hands and retained lest it escape. Believe that and you’ve already lost it:

  • Senior Gardai assisted Dublin Archbishops in covering up the abuse of children.
  • Politicians gave unctuous and politically-motivated deference to Church leaders.
  • People sought mortgages for and bought dwellings to live on flood plains.
  • NAMA will burden the Irish economy and its people for two generations to come.

These are facts but they are not the truth, at least not the truth. They don’t make it easier that people are now living in their relations’ houses for three months or that those abused will continue to feel a great and unknown pain. Some parents reported the abuse of children, others did not. Expulsion or resignation will not change any of this. These are merely the constituents of understandings that we know about ourselves as people. The truth changes, right? The ability to wield power sits right on top of all of this but that’s another day’s posting.  One of the problems right now is that some very powerful people believe that they can protect the truth.

The truth will set you free it is said. Set the truth free and we might get a bit further.