Monday, February 23, 2009

The Nostos and the Corporation

In his De Anima, Aristotle is unclear as to whether each individual human being has a single mind, or whether there is a world mind, or soul.  The soul is spiritual, or immaterial, Aristotle almost reluctantly agrees, erring on the side of the empirical over the ethereal forms of his master, Plato.  Yet he never makes it clear whether there is only one world soul, or many individual souls.  In the 12th century, Averroes argues precisely to that conclusion.  

Such a thesis is appears to be not untenable, given the way that American society exists, and now also many parts of the world, thanks in large part to globalization.   Actually, it seems to me that the "free" market operates precisely under this assumption.  Now let's be clear: there is a single human nature. This is an assumption of the free market as long as it plays to its benefit.  But more important for the success of the current free market is that there is a single world soul, residing, however, external to the person. In other words, precisely the kind of soul that Judith Butler, following Foucault, describes in Bodies That Matter.  Picking up on the fact that most modern individuals no longer have a nostos, a homecoming, as described in the early lines of the Odyssey, corporations have taken it upon themselves to go ahead and create this for us.  

Let me explain.  Free markets only work when a particular understanding of "freedom" is in place.  This is primarily a negative conceptualization of human choice.  Freedom is the ability to make a choice that advances one's own personal ends. There is  no such thing as a primary End or Goal of human nature (hence the rejection of human nature), but only now and then aggregate individual ends that are the result of individuals grouping together.  This being the case, each individual can simply choose what is offered from a list of options according to his own individual preferences.  Such is the concept of the free market.  No external coercion of choice = free market.  

So what's the hitch.  Well, when there is no ultimate goal of human nature, no primary End of human desire, desire is unfettered, unhitched, and so easily manipulated by the most powerful bidder.  And so "free" markets become playpens for the libido dominandi of the strongest man. 

And so we find in modern America.  Corporations have become the enemy of the nostos.  Since they don't want us to believe in a homecoming, a primary end of human desire, but rather intend to convince us through advertising what our true desires are, they play the role of Circes to perfection.  We wake up from their clutches, only to realize that instead of five days, we have been in their arms for five years.  

They are the World Soul.

They project, much like Plato's cave, our very selves onto a wall.  We look at that wall, and actually take the shadow to be our image.  And so the self is a constructed world soul, externally projected by corporations who have a vested image in the construction of consumers.  The nostos never happens, and we become wanderers on the seas of consumerism.

The only safe boat is the Church.  But how is this Church not just another manipulator, another power relation?  It is a good question, especially when one has only to look around at many present day protestant megachurches to see the corporate image projected yet again even into spaces of worship.  Everyone is looking for a homeland.  It is not found within, since the inside has rotted out of the spiritual life.  Dualism reigns supreme.  American spiritual life is a Cartesian ghost in the machine.  Except the ghost has long since gone, expired, since it was discovered that the pineal gland was not adequate to connect it to the body.  Cast afloat, the soul and body are no longer one, and they drift apart.  The ghost expires, and in its place is the corporate hologram of Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, or, less sinister, a megachurch, the projected unity that people are unable to find within themselves.  

The problem with megachurches is that they too are projections, bearing too strongly the image of the culture they are meant to evangelize.  No more ghosts in bodies.  Just bodies. Descartes thus left a hollow space for corporations to fill, and they have, projecting holograms into the empty bodies, creating their own pineal glands, causally manipulating our choices of ends.  With our personal desires unhitched, they project a soul onto the wall, and then funded advertising becomes the pineal gland.  And our selves are externally created anew.  

The Catholic Church alone can escape this mass projection only because of its Mass projection (pardon the terrible pun).  It projects the true body of Christ, and that is the center of unity, the Eucharist held high, the body whose body we are members of.  It alone can provide the end of our desires, thus shaping them according to itself, not as consuming beings, but as consumed beings, becoming the image of the love of him whom we consume.  

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

1 comment:

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

I was recently contacted about this post by someone who asked:

"I didn't understand your allusion to Judith Butler and Foucault in your piece about the market and human nature. Could you state your proposition again?"

Here is an excerpt of something I have written elsewhere:

"Butler cannot, however, simply wish away body and soul. She attempts to re-categorize them under Aristotelian/Foucauldian terminology. According to Aristotle, prime matter can never appear except as informed or schematized. Butler takes up this notion of form in Aristotle and historicizes it through Foucault, understanding the “schema of bodies as a historically contingent nexus of power/discourse.” However, Foucault reverses the Aristotelian formulation, placing the soul outside the body rather than within it. The soul actualizes the body, but the schema that is the soul now does so by virtue of historical discourse that bring bodies into subjection, not presuming ontological status, but conferring it.
Precisely in invoking Aristotle, albeit through Faucault, Butler cannot, however, be truly rid of bodies. She claims that “the soul described by Foucault as an instrument of power, forms and frames the body, stamps it, and in stamping it brings it into being.” Such a claim is no different than that of Aristotle, i.e., that prime matter is only to the extent that it is in-formed. What Butler seems to be claiming is that, though there must be some proto-bodily material that is informed through cultural discourses, the agency is on the part of the discourse."

My point in the post is that mega-corporations have attempted in the same way to form a discourse. They operate under the implicit or explicit understanding that the soul is not primarily internal but rather external and malleable; as Foucault would say, something created by a particular Discourse or Episteme. Corporations, via advertising, attempt to create their subjects of consumption, turning Aristotelian proto-matter into consuming subjects.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ