Perceiving “us” and “them”

Perceiving “us” and “them”

As I consider the topic, it is not possible to get this phrase of Pink Floyd out of my head:

Us
and them
and in the end
we’re only ordinary men

Who are the “ordinary” and who the “extraordinary” humans in this world is not an irrelevant point to the matter but let us ask first, is it possible that the “us and them” dichotomy is a reminiscence of an ancient “you and I” dialogue disguised as the apparition of two distant entities? We know that in writing, not to mention other forms of self-expression, the second person is the mirror of an I; is it possible also that “them” is thus a form of “we”?

When Muhammad Ali received an honorary degree at the University of Princeton, he reciprocated the honor with a very short sort of poem, actually a one-liner:

I  us

One realizes that even a comma between can become a wall; the hand-to-mouth grammar of existence can as well serve as a limit to the flow of being. Quantum physics has made it clear – as clearly as that notion can be understood – that things are insofar as they are involved in interaction in a given spacetime and that there is thus no such thing as permanent clear-cut entities. On the other hand, how often we have encountered the discrepancy between “being” and “existing”, is such discrepancy pertinent to the “us and them” perception? In his poem “The Unknown Citizen”, W.H. Auden gives a relation of traits of a regular “one-of-us” creature, someone who participated in a World War, worked all his life in the same factory, paid taxes, had a car, a record player and a freezer but … Auden did not forget to ask at the end

Was he free, was he happy?

as if underlining the probability of two lives: one, measurable, made out of statistical interpretations of existence, and another life, irreducible to measure, composed of the joyful facts of just being. On one side, the achievement of just being and, then, its reverse, the fragmentary “being” of achievements and goals. Does this dichotomy, as it often presents itself in poems, philosophy and works of art, correspond to an actual separation in human specimens between those who ordinarily exist and others who are in an extraordinary way? What would otherwise be the meaning of myths and legends depicting certain individuals, or groups of individuals not excluding other animal species, who seem to share an unusual alliance with the avatars of being and becoming? In other words, there is a legendary notion in culture according to which “I” can become “it”, “you” and eventually “us” and even “them”, as we can see in Plato’s dialogues, the Bhaghavad Gita or in Rimbaud’s

J’est un autre

I is an other; that is, at the very least, verbal proof of how complex the act of perceiving separate entities can be when “I” or “you” attempt to account for a specific condition of existing. Obviously enough, when it comes to writing, elaborating, transcribing or translating ideas onto a page, virtual or not, the issue of who is it that writes as opposed to who is it that reads naturally jumps to mind. Do I write for you, for us, or for an impregnable anonymous them?

In “The Barbarians”, a poem by Konstantinos Kavafis, there is a transparent vision, however uncomfortable it may be, of what to expect of the “us and them” partition. According to Kavafis, the “we” is always wary of the presence of a barbaric “they” which, in reality, has always inhabited our common self. Now, is there any such thing as “common self”? In the study of language and language variations – let us not forget that the so-called Babelian curse is basically a virus provoking a partition of selves – we are able to realize that certain linguistic groups sustain the notion of “us” as a fallacy, not even worth considering in terms of a simple everyday sentence. Some languages, like the Lakota of the Sioux of North America, do not possess a cellular plural frozen into an “us” but only an accumulation of “Ies”, that is, me and you and she and he.

Inevitably we must deal with a lot of platitudes and clichés as we approach the boundaries between language and perception and the perceptions of language because such events are heavily based on the production of clichés and commonplaces.

“I” needs to organize what it perceives by separation and classification as much as it needs, in other, perhaps more radical situations, to relinquish piecemeal perception in order to perceive a whole which is far beyond the necessities of a fragile individual-ness. In any case, as many a scholar on Hindu Advaitist thinking has pointed out, we need duality in order to attain non-duality. If the “us and them” cliché is a necessary one, we might at least be aware of what it is necessary for and which its communicational costs are. But then we should ask first if communication is our first goal when we are communicating.

So many things have been said about the utilitarian values of communication that very often one tends to forget (and at this point I must sincerely wonder who this “one” is) that communication is a value in itself. So, if “us” and “them” are not so distant relatives of “you” and “I”, it is clearly up to us (or me) to ascertain the degree of coincidence between all those particles of utilitarian speech. Much has been also said around the very existence and functions of an ego (including that unreliable structure as the “collective ego” is); sometimes the ego appears as the selfish inflated villain in a drama of many, a common enterprise, whereas some other times the most sublime achievements of the human mind are unattainable without the presence of an everyday, regular, transient ego. To define how transient and, at the same time, resilient an ego can be calls for a study in mental physics, if such a discipline exists. At least, we can acknowledge the actions of a stubborn “ego chip” throughout human expressions, be it sweeping the floor, doing an abstract painting or making love. Whether in philosophical or physiological enterprises we find a moveable, malleable center responsible, supposedly, for the most joyful or elevated deeds. No wonder why many artists and poets, notably T.S. Eliot or Artaud, have dared defining their works as defecations of a disposable ego. But then, as Eliot himself has put it, in order to abandon the ego, one first has to have one and know how it works.

Going back to Plato’s dialogues, some of the notions they entertain – anamnesis, maieutic or metempsychosis – seem to imply that thinking is not a completely individual process but an interaction of minds and mindfulness, the latter considered not as an distinct condition but as a participation in a multiple, universal phenomenon. One almost would feel tempted to describe a coalition of discerning egos, an alliance of conscious entities eager to dissolve useless grammatical, or other, intermediaries.

And then, what about “us” humans and “them”, the rest of animals? There is no denying that the animal-human partition is fruitful in terms of industry, politics or even religion; however, is it so real and functional in terms of interaction, communication, not to mention just being?

We have been led to think that the “us and them” perceptual trick – for that is how it basically works – is indispensable for survival while we very seldom wonder how useful it is in the light of love and evolution. And who is utilitarian enough to overlook the link between love and evolution? Is there really a communicative gadget more efficient and environmental-friendly than love?

In a poem by e. e. cummings we discover this conversation with mother earth:

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
the
doting

fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched
and
poked

thee
, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
thy

beauty, how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
gods
(but
true

to the incomparable
couch of death thy
rhythmic
lover

thou answerest

them only with

spring)

“Them”, this time, are not barbarians; quite on the contrary, they are those supposed to be at the top of the human mental pyramid: philosophers, scientists, religious individuals. However, the poet while building an alliance with nature sees “them” as vandals in relation to his beloved magical mother, probably the closest thing to his deepest sense of “us”. The fact that “them” can also be cultivated human beings groping among the many veils of reality – and not necessarily extraterrestrial invaders or heavy-handed oppressors – could mean, in the first place, that the “us and them” division is not one based on differences of culture – be it language, formal education, race, gender or the like – nor merely on an organized perception of reality such as is offered by science, or sciences, which divides phenomena into elements, traits and categories: earth, planets, vegetables, liquids, numbers, etc. It is rather a question of an instantaneous provisory function. In the end, philosophers will, literally, become earth regardless of any categorical division, whereas the poetic energy which is embedded in reality will eventually give course to new philosophy.

*

Félix Varela is a crucial character in the Cuban nineteenth century; a Catholic priest, he did remarkable work in the fields of knowledge contributing to the reception, say, digestion of Western, European thought for the benefit of his pupils, early offspring of the marriage between Mediterranean genes and the Caribbean islands.

Not satisfied with his endeavors as educator and thinker, Varela tried to mediate in the increasing dissension between those creoles and their Fathers-Masters (Padres Patrones), the Spaniards. These were reluctant to accept the independence of thought and behavior typical of newly created specimens, such as the creoles were.

While Varela had some success in the exercise of scientific research – as when he managed to establish in his teachings that, even if the authority of saints was undeniable in the religious terrain, in science the last word should be reserved to scientists – in the political arena he failed in circumventing, much less transforming the resistance of the metropolis. That is when he famously proclaimed: “It’s either them or us.”

Considering the genetic vicinity of the two groups, it is remarkable how rapidly the differences escalated into a “war of independence”, as it is technically called, and also how, a hundred and something years later, many Cubans apply for the Spanish citizenship dutifully presenting their genetic link.

To determine what role poetry plays in these sort of processes would be fascinating, and the same, of course, could be said about politics or economics; many people have tried to bring light to the process of evolution from many different angles. If you look at reality from the perspective of sex, everything smells like sex; from the perspective of the so called “law of value”, everything sounds like the rustle of paper money, whereas, from the perspective of fear, everybody looks pretty much like an enemy.

From the perspective of perspective, anything is but perspective. When, in the Gospels, Jesus claims that “us”, or at least some of “us”, should stop fishing fish in order to start fishing humans, it is also a matter of perspective. In the end, I can only fish “my self”. Eventually, this self will be fished by us or them or whatever is there beyond grammar.

Going back to the Cuban nineteenth century, we find another remarkable character, Andrés Petit, someone who, like Varela, decided to operate in the field of cultural translation. Determined to foster the assimilation of African magical practices into a local religious system back then still in the making, he introduced the innovation of putting the image of Jesus Christ in the center of such practices, together with other “power objects.”

Whether or not this appears to be scientific enough, I have the impression that this sort of connection, as much as others more traditionally acknowledged, contributed to conform a new “us-and-them” cell.

According to the scientific viewpoint, living organisms survive in a hostile environment by means of reproduction or adaptation. “Us and them” is thus a kind of molecular thinking, the sort of thinking which is good enough to start the process of real human thinking. However, there is more.

What happens when “us-and-them” is not enough, as in poetical thinking? Take, for instance, the notion of influence in art. This notion has a clear scientific flavor, it is a sort of medical or meteorological metaphor destined to explain how two or more poetical organisms – whether they are called poets, poems or even verse – coincide in a certain point of expression, be it tone, sound, intention, meaning and, naturally enough, word choice.

According to this viewpoint, an organism influences another in an A–B timeline; while there is also a barely disguised antipathy towards “less important” organisms (such as “minor” poets or artists); that is, those who are always in the B spot. Luckily, there is also the C organism to receive the information delivered by B, and so forth. It sounds very much like an Olympic gold-silver-bronze medal cycle. In fact, it is just another metaphor of biological competition or contest translated to the cultural field.

Competition, that is to say, purpose, is the golden rule of civilized life. Some people would automatically rule out “civilized”: they would tell you that life itself is nothing but competition, thus justifying wars and other forms of “organized” violence. Then, the role of culture would be to make this primitive, archaic impulse look like as civilized, meaning entertaining as possible. The show must go on regardless of how obsolete or even vestigial, the organ of violent competition appears to be.

On the other hand, not everything seems to have a purpose or be busy with controlling, defending-and-attacking activities. It would suffice to open your eyes and look around to realize how much there is which is unoccupied by the tasks of vanquishing and being vanquished. When Hamlet declares that “To be or not to be, that is the question”, he is not going after the gold medal, he is just singing the world as it is.

Does that mean to say that poetry is disinterested, purposeless? To look at poetry, still, from the perspective of interest and purpose is to follow the same game of contraries. We have to accept that there exists also a poetical perspective that can function very well without the help of a specific goal, whichever that is.

*

There is a natural analogy between Timon of Athens, the Shakespearian character, and Job, the rebellious man from the Bible. Both Timon of Athens and the Book of Job are essays on contradiction and they both depict poignantly the disruption of social grammar: the way we think about “us”, “them”, “you” and, eventually, “I”, is disturbed by a catastrophic event. In the case of Job, the disruption is placated by, literally, a deus ex machina intervention; in the case of Timon, the disturbance ends up being irreversible. The role of catastrophes in the conformation of social conscience has been, perhaps, sufficiently studied and, on the other hand, the story of Job is so well known that it is unnecessary to go over it now. What could be necessary is to understand, at this point of our common story, how the place of the individual relates to the communal in times of a crisis.

According to Slavoj Zizek, the specific role of Christian thought starts with Job, and that line of thinking is very much based in the assumption that – contrary to popular religious or superstitious conceptions – “there is no meaning in catastrophes.” For some, like the Italian writer Primo Levi, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, the reality of Auschwitz and the idea of God cannot be so easily reconciled. That is when human beings, in a different light, turn to one another and to that unknown realm which the “one self” is.

Job’s poem gives voice to a polyphony of contradictions – or counter-dictions – between the brand new “I” of the sufferer and that which this sufferer calls, ironically enough, “the voice of the people.” If we could but detach ourselves a bit from this polyphony, we would notice that each and every voice is singing, practically speaking, the same message: God is right, God is wrong, but in the end we cannot know his reasoning, which equals the reason of things. As Eliphaz, one of Job’s contradictors, puts it:

Do you think that man, however wise, can be of any use to God?

In reverse, and this is Job’s suspicion, the same question runs between the lines:

Do you think that God, however wise, can be of any use to man?

Whereas the validity of wisdom is not questioned in the poem – as it radically is in the Ecclesiastes – the author seems occupied in discerning how it can be attained and transmitted:

Where does wisdom come from? Where does intelligence abide?
Man does not know its value nor does he find it in the world.
The abyss says “I do not have it”, and the sea “it is not here”.
It will not be exchanged for gold nor its price fixed in silver.

In the same ambivalent line, the poem contains a criticism of patience as passive assimilation of the common law – whether it can be called doxa or dogma or even folklore – while hinting at a natural lore beyond reasoning which is metaphorically named “the law of rain”, that is to say, the original logos.

While the author of The Book of Job is concerned with wisdom and its circulation, in Timon of Athens, Shakespeare is busy exposing how wisdom is closely related to the circulation of money, that symbolic unit which Karl Marx called “the self of the other.”

Timon is an Athenian nobleman who gives away his money, that is, his own self, for the benefit of a consumerist and hypocritical community of “flattering lords” and senators. When prodigality surpasses economic reasoning, Timon becomes, first, a debtor, then an outcast – literally a prodigal son in the common law of value and, finally, a “sworn rioter” and a madman “to the world”, very much like Job and, for that matter, Christ. As one of the characters of the play, one Hostilius, puts it:

Men must learn now with pity to dispense,
For policy sits above conscience.

So much for wisdom, and so much also for the symbolic value of money because being has been outcast from the circulation process which is now a question of having and accumulating. When another character makes the demand to

banish usury
That makes the senate ugly

one cannot help remembering Ezra Pound denouncing, in his XLV Pisan Canto the contra naturam practice of speculation, raging against those who Timon calls “affable wolves”; nor can we forget how Pound was eventually condemned as a traitor and then as a madman. Timon’s rage is directed towards the measurability of kindness: “Cut my heart in sums” and “Tell out my blood” he says before leaving Athens, the mythical cradle of democracy, to live and die in the woods, “where he shall find / The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.” When Timon declares “I am a Misanthropos”, he goes one step further than Job in his rebellion against common sense; because Job still appeals to the ultima ratio of God, who is a typically anthropological sense unit, he remains attached to the world of reason, and unreason. As Timon answers to one of his many contradictors “I do wish thou wert a dog / That I might love thee something,” he not only leaves behind the commonsensical assumption that only humans, as God’s favorites, are supposed to enjoy the primacy of love, but also entertains the no less commonsensical notion that animals – meaning, them animals – as non-thinking beings are entitled to innocence, which is another anthropological fabrication.

It is true that in such critical moments, against the background of political us-and-them disruptions, the “I” in anger, while defying the whole fabric of “politic love”, as Shakespeare calls it, claims for a new type of love. It is then that he resorts to nature and them-animals. Shakespeare is aware of this back-and-forth projection process when he has Timon say

give to dogs
What thou deny’st to men

as if forgetting that dogs are also a human creation or, at least, a case of human participation in the act of creation. This unending stream of projections between humans, gods and them-animals has haunted the mind ever since there was something we can call “the mind”. Sacrifices to gods, or to god – which, from the perspective of the slaughtered animal must be pretty much the same – are a good example of these mental transitions. Humans sacrifice them-animals to propitiate those gods who are a projection of our best capacities; when this is not enough, we sacrifice other humans by means of war, starvation or more elaborate means such as paid work.

The Aztec civilization is a famous example of the practice of human sacrifice; however, whereas the Aztec offered an explicit discourse, however infamous, on the necessity of this practice, and a detailed elaboration of the ensuing methods, this civilization of ours is not so overt in this respect. In one of his dialogues in the woods, this time with a bandit who justifies his want of money by saying

We cannot live on grass, on berries, water,
As beasts and birds and fishes

Timon retorts:

You must eat men.

and

Love not yourselves: away,
Rob one another.

From Job to Shakespeare, from Homer to Auschwitz, there have been several thousand years of common living experience and numerous examples of poignant and heartfelt analysis of that experience, yet the notion of separation among beings is so much stronger that not even the apparition of a line of reflection on the interdependence of all existences from, say, Zen Buddhism to quantum physics, has been able to change the tide of thinking.

The fact that a human embryo in its development resembles other animals, like fish or reptiles, with which it shares a genetic heritage, does not seem enough to make us think of “us” as a wider family. We opt for separation and, going back to the idea of sacrifice, the invention of God comes handy. The concept of sacrifice is indeed very similar to the concept of money: it is a never-ending game of intermediaries.

Since it is obvious that the amount of sacrificing has been more than enough, the question is, how external is this eternal debt? Is it a debt that, as some poets have claimed, we acquire through the mere revenue of living? As does Calderón de la Barca in La vida es sueño (Life is a dream):

For the greatest sin of man is being born

And, in that case, who’s to pay, us or them?

*

In his poem “Ithaca”, the Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis depicts a critical return to the self. Despite the fact that it describes an experience shared by millions of human beings – and most surely by millions of other beings as well, namely that somewhat mysterious activity we can call the migratory drive – there is something unequivocally individual about the poem.

The voice of this Odysseus has a distinct tone of self-conscious sadness which has nothing to do with pessimism of fatalism. It is not a philosopher’s voice, it is a traveler’s. This sadness attempts to summarize the whereabouts of this endless journey-within-a-journey that we know by the name of evolution.

Human beings carry in their genes an ideal that, if misunderstood, can lead the way towards superiority and the exercise of the so-called “free will”, basically the will to prevail no matter what. Rightly understood, the idea of perpetual evolution seems to place the human being in a singular spot among countless forms of existing: that of a creative observer, a creature who, by the sheer power of observation, is able to modify reality. That is why, at the poem’s turning point, Kavafis wonders:

For how long still shall my spirit be immobile?

Relentlessly moving through the planet in search of “another land, another sea”, or “a city better than this one”, the Odysseus incarnated by Kavafis offers a skeptical view of so much physical and spatial activity displayed around the stagnation of the human spirit, while pointing at the interdependence of all phenomena end existences with a concise warning:

When you destroyed your life
in this small corner of the world
you destroyed it all over the earth.

*

In a lecture he recently offered in Havana, the Brazilian dance theoretician André Lepecki explored the connections between contemporary dance and darkness as a tool to equilibrate and reinterpret the ultramodern use of light. While, through centuries, dancers have been taught and stimulated to “magnify their presence”, contemporary dancers of this century are starting to understand – thanks to the interaction with and within dark spaces – that, as Lepecki puts it, “the limits of yourself do not correspond to the limits of your image.”

Moving further on in this line of thought, Lepecki draws a fascinating analogy with the French writer Roger Caillois’s investigations of animal mimicry. Whereas the scientific viewpoint on animal mimicry is based on notions of competition and defense – very much in the military fashion – Caillois concluded that animals who imitate their surroundings love space and want to become space. Humans dancing in the dark, on the other hand, may discover that the person and the subject are no longer necessary or, at the very least, not in the usual protective and self-advertising manner.

Recalling Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” – which has been conspicuously forgotten nowadays – and relating it to Caillois and Lepecki’s reflections on a depersonalized form of awareness, we might find it simpler to decide whether we want to become conspicuous beings, by way of competition and consumption, or we aspire to develop into beings ready to become one with the space around us.

Havana, June 2, 2016

Omar Pérez from Havana, is a prize- winning poet, essayist, and Zen Buddhist monk. He received Cuba’s Nicolás Guillén Prize for Poetry for Crítica de la Razón Pu- ta (2009), and its National Critics’ Prize for his essay collection La perseverancia de un hombre oscuro (2000).

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