Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 69-119.
This book is a work of criticism, and, as such, it forces us to confront ugliness. But White clearly also intends it as a work of hope. (Ignoring ugliness, surrendering to it, is an act of despair — which in the Christian tradition has often been called an “unpardonable sin.”) In calling us to imagine an alternative future to the one promised (threatened?) by consumer capitalism, White may seem to be tilting at windmills. As Wendell Berry once argued, however, “Hope lives in the means, not the end.” (See his essay “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony.) Berry later elaborated: “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” (See “A Poem of Difficult Hope” in What are People For?) White’s “spirit of disobedience” means not only not acquiescing but also self-consciously building an alternative.
In chapter 3, “Confessions of a Holy Whore,” White addresses “The difficulty of finding a political ‘outside’ innocent of complicity,” given the uncanny ability of the system to “internalize” and “digest” dissent (73). White explores the films of Rainer Fassbinder as an attempt to create this “outside,” which could then serve as a springboard for promoting an alternate world. He also confesses, as the title suggests, that he is a holy whore himself, implicated in the very system that he critiques (78). As in earlier chapters, White here dishes out criticism aplenty of both liberals and conservatives in America. His larger point is that both parties of our two-party system are servants to “the one great Party of Business” (85), which is to say that they are bound in the worst way to preserving the “spiritually bankrupt” status quo (81). The reigning order, White suggests, knows one rule: “the Market Knows Best” (93). It is the order of industrial (and presumably post-industrial) capitalism, which brings us the “strip mine” and the “strip mall,” and which is engaged in long process of making the world over in its image. In the last several pages of this chapter, White proposes his ethical alternative to the enfeebled “Golden Rule” — he enjoins us to imagine and create an alternative vision of the future.
In the 4th and title chapter of his book, White pulls together his plea for disobedience. Here, he maps out the complex relationships among Christianity, Enlightenment, capitalism, Marxism, and “Imagination” in American culture. I’ll attempt to encapsulate his criticism, but it needs unpacking: Americans have been distracted by a red herring binarism, the alleged contest between Christianity and Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the deathly spirit of capitalism has virtually won the field. Marxist-Leninism has not proven out as a viable alternative (it’s worth discussing why). Surveying the mess, White proposes a third way, a third principle that might rescue the best qualities of Christianity and Enlightenment. This third way is what White — drawing on William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson — calls “Imagination” (104).
Imagination for White is essentially the spiritual. It’s the creative power of humanity to make (and remake) the world in which we live. He does not map out a new world vision for us, but he does urge us to start creating alternatives that will allow us “a return to the fundamentals of being human” (113). In the spirit of two of his intellectual models, Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin, White proposes a “new fundamentalism” centered on the question: “What does it mean to be a human being?” (113). One thing it means, surely, is to be alive, and thus in his epilogue, White writes of our need to be loyal to life (161).
I queried White about his use of the word spiritual, and he provided a very provocative response:
I mean intuition in … the Emersonian context. What I’ve been trying to describe is a synthesis of the American Transcendentalist and the American Pragmatist traditions. That’s what it comes down to. By this description, Nietzsche was the purest American, an idea I like a lot (especially given his own fondness for Emersonian individualism.) A homemade sublime. Intuition is first the recognition of the falsity of the world you happen to have been born into, of the pastiche of reassuring lies that we’re asked to live in. It is, second, the recognition that this is not reason for despair or nihilism but for claiming your right to make, both individually and socially, your own world. Every artist worthy of the name understands this. Which is why Nietzsche and Emerson honored them above all others. They have essentially opted on what William James called “the American bitch Goddess, success.” They prefer a wealth that is spiritual. Nietzsche had a vision of Jesus and it was this, “We are all the sons and daughters of God. Live like it.” — Curtis White, email to David Voelker, 12/8/07
When prompted, White confirmed for me that his understanding of the spiritual was decidedly unsupernatural, but with a twist. He sense of the spiritual, he said, was:
Absolutely not supernatural, but with the good sense to be respectfully in awe at the miracle of being, as per the deists, Voltaire et al. (Voltaire, another of Nietzshe’s favorites.) — Curtis White, email to David Voelker, 12/10/07
This sense of awe or reverence of life, then, seems to be White’s starting point for imagining an alternative to the status quo. Rather than stopping with this point, however, White concludes his book with a series of interviews about time, home, and food — three of the fundamentals that he connects to being human. Although I don’t have time to discuss these interviews here, I think that they are an important part of the book, because they illustrate that what White is calling for is within reach.
As I see it, the concluding chapters of the book raise several key questions:
- Why is White so hard on the liberal and conservative punditcracy? Why does he find them harmful?
- What is the problem with corporate capitalism? Why has White made it the chief villain of his book? Are his criticisms justified?
- In the end, what does White seem to think of the political left and its guiding philosophy of Marxism?
- What is White’s positive or hopeful vision of the future? Does it have anything in common with the pragmatic and transcendental traditions that we have studied? Is it satisfying?
— D. Voelker