Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ruminations 42: Conformity and Forbidden Knowledge--The First Rule of Fight Club, the Invisible Hand and the Semiotics of Obedience

(From Adam Fisher, Skipping Stones, Genkaku-Again, May 25, 2009)

 The cultural importance of veiling the underlying presumptions and mechanics of actions and beliefs-- of seeing reality and of being satisfied to follow instructions that are bound up in a reality that must neither be seen nor questioned--is very strong. The triadic relationship between follower-obedience and rule-maker serves as the basis for systems and systems theory grounded in the core premise of stability of social and power relations through the control of the way in which  symbols are understood and action managed. I offer three categories to suggest both the scope and the ordering power of this semiotic arrangement, visible only when visibly invisible; there are more. These are tales of the perils of disbelief;  tales of punishment for acquiring forbidden knowledge (the perils fo knowing more than your station in a social-power hierarchy requires); and  tales of the vaue of silent acceptance and conformity.

A rock falling into a lake appears to affect only the surface of the waters--sending ripples out that affect the water and those things which the water's surface touches. Yet the ripples say nothing about the rock, either before to after it causes the ripples. It makes it impossible to consider the possibility of ripples caused by fish coming to the surface or water birds flaying off.  To consider the rock and not the ripple shifts, to consider the ripple beyond the rock suggested a semiotic possible that has important implications of law and other rule systems. And this got me thinking about the mechanics of obedience, and of the way on which obedience is cultivated by constructing systems that are both visible and invisible; that is that we obey in part because we have accepted the confined of the premises which create boundaries for action but that we may neither see those premises nor express any doubt in their power.

 The cultural importance of veiling the underlying presumptions and mechanics of actions and beliefs-- of seeing reality and of being satisfied to follow instructions that are bound up in a reality that must neither be seen nor questioned--is very strong. The triadic relationship between follower-obedience and rule-maker serves as the basis for systems and systems theory grounded in the core premise of stability of social and power relations through the control of the way in which  symbols are understood and action managed. I offer three categories to suggest both the scope and the ordering power of this semiotic arrangement, visible only when visibly invisible; there are more. These are tales of the perils of disbelief;  tales of punishment for acquiring forbidden knowledge (the perils fo knowing more than your station in a social-power hierarchy requires); and  tales of the vaue of silent acceptance and conformity.

The first are the disbelief or doubt tales.  These serve as powerful symbolic narratives of the importance of unquestioning adherence to what is neither seen nor understood.  These are "common folk" instructions about the way that belief systems operate and the expectations of individuals to systems that they cannot see.  It suggests the primal necessity of the semiotic puzzle of belief systems that rely on the suspension of disbelief in core parameters with a small implementary interpretive space. Two remind us of the fundamental structures of modern religious systems, and the other of more ancient cultural grounding and their connection to the basic operating rules of modern belief systems.

One considers the consequences of disobeying divine commends (delivered by subordinates with an unknown (before the fact) connection to the Rule-Maker.
17 And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.
. . . . .
25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
26 But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt. (King James Bible Genesis 19:17; 26-26).
The other two are related, though separated by millenia and belief system structures.  The tale of Cupid and Psyche is the formative first example:

She had not yet seen her destined husband. He came only in the hours of darkness and fled before the dawn of morning, but his accents were full of love, and inspired a like passion in her. She often begged him to stay and let her behold him, but he would not consent. On the contrary he charged her to make no attempt to see him, for it was his pleasure, for the best of reasons, to keep concealed.

"Why should you wish to behold me?" he said. "Have you any doubt of my love? Have you any wish ungratified? If you saw me, perhaps you would fear me, perhaps adore me, but all I ask of you is to love me. I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god."

This reasoning somewhat quieted Psyche for a time, and while the novelty lasted she felt quite happy. But at length the thought of her parents, left in ignorance of her fate, and of her sisters, precluded from sharing with her the delights of her situation, preyed on her mind and made her begin to feel her palace as but a splendid prison. When her husband came one night, she told him her distress, and at last drew from him an unwilling consent that her sisters should be brought to see her.
. . . . . 
 The sisters, not satisfied with this reply, soon made her confess that she had never seen him. Then they proceeded to fill her bosom with dark suspicions. "Call to mind," they said, "the Pythian oracle that declared you destined to marry a direful and tremendous monster. The inhabitants of this valley say that your husband is a terrible and monstrous serpent, who nourishes you for a while with dainties that he may by and by devour you. Take our advice. Provide yourself with a lamp and a sharp knife; put them in concealment that your husband may not discover them, and when he is sound asleep, slip out of bed, bring forth your lamp, and see for yourself whether what they say is true or not. If it is, hesitate not to cut off the monster's head, and thereby recover your liberty."
Psyche resisted these persuasions as well as she could, but they did not fail to have their effect on her mind, and when her sisters were gone, their words and her own curiosity were too strong for her to resist.
. . . . 

As she leaned the lamp over to have a better view of his face, a drop of burning oil fell on the shoulder of the god. Startled, he opened his eyes and fixed them upon her. Then, without saying a word, he spread his white wings and flew out of the window. Psyche, in vain endeavoring to follow him, fell from the window to the ground.
Cupid, beholding her as she lay in the dust, stopped his flight for an instant and said, "Oh foolish Psyche, is it thus you repay my love? After I disobeyed my mother's commands and made you my wife, will you think me a monster and cut off my head? But go; return to your sisters, whose advice you seem to think preferable to mine. I inflict no other punishment on you than to leave you for ever. Love cannot dwell with suspicion." So saying, he fled away, leaving poor Psyche prostrate on the ground, filling the place with mournful lamentations. (Lucius Apuleius, Cupid and Pyche).
And the other other are variants of the "Knight of the Swan" story, in which a mysterious and celestially touched person comes to the rescue of a maiden on condition that she must never ask his name.  It has come to the modern West in the form of its German operatic version, Richard Wagner, Lohengrin, a short synopsis of which brings all the semiotic threads together of the triadic relationships that form society and the consequences of seeking to expose its foundations.


ACT I. Antwerp, c. 900s. . . . King Heinrich, . . asks Count Telramund . . . why the Duchy of Brabant is torn by strife and disorder. Telramund accuses his ward, Elsa, of having murdered her brother, Gottfried, heir to Brabant’s Christian dynasty. (Gottfried was actually enchanted by the evil Ortrud, whom Telramund has wed.) When Elsa is called to defend herself, she relates a dream of a knight in shining armor who will save her. The herald calls for the defender, but only when Elsa prays does the knight appear, magically drawn in a boat by a swan. He betroths himself to her on condition that she never ask his name or origin. Defeating Telramund in combat, the newcomer establishes the innocence of his bride.

Act II. Before dawn in the castle courtyard, Ortrud and the lamenting Telramund swear vengeance. When Elsa appears serenely in a window, Ortrud attempts to sow distrust in the girl’s mind, preying on her curiosity, but Elsa innocently offers the scheming Ortrud friendship. . . .  At the cathedral entrance, Ortrud and Telramund attempt to stop the wedding — she by suggesting that the unknown knight is in fact an impostor, he by accusing Elsa’s bridegroom of sorcery. Though troubled by doubt, Elsa reiterates her faith in the knight. . . .

ACT III. Alone in the bridal chamber, Elsa and her husband express their love until anxiety and uncertainty at last compel the bride to ask the groom who he is and whence he has come. . . . He explains that his home is the temple of the Holy Grail at distant Monsalvat, to which he must return; Parsifal is his father, and Lohengrin is his name. He bids farewell and turns to his magic swan. Now Ortrud rushes in, jubilant over Elsa’s betrayal of the man who could have broken the spell that transformed her brother into a swan. But Lohengrin’s prayers bring forth Gottfried in place of his vanished swan, and after naming the boy ruler of Brabant, Lohengrin disappears, led by the dove of the Grail. Ortrud perishes, and Elsa, calling for her lost husband, falls lifeless to the ground. -- courtesy of Opera News (New York, Metropolitarian Opera). 
 The most interesting part of these stories is the exposed character of suspicion and disobedience.  If a deliberate "unknowing" is good, then suspicion is evil and disbelief the consequence of evil.  The result is expulsion from the system that brought such perfect good and an exile to a world that is less good.

This leads seamlessly to the second category, forbidden knowledge tales.  There is a tale for that as well:
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

9 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

14 And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

20 And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Genesis 3:1-24
Note that knowledge is itself not evil.  What is evil (the serpent) is suspicion, doubt and the drive to question the established order. What is good is an unquestioning willingness to live within a perfectly ordered system system created for you without the need for questioning and with the obligation only to fulfill one's duties within it. It is here that perhaps, one understands the semiotic imperative of antisemitism (the root of Jewish evil and their Satanic character among Christians and Muslims was their doubt and suspicion, one that seemed to challenge the divine order; they undertook the role of the serpent in the realm of Satan and thus collectively, for the medieval Christian could become Satan). It also serves to provide a semiotic reinforcement of the value of obedience which also reinforces the gender ordering of power (men are capable of obedience more than women who are more tempted by evil--suspicion--and doubt). If men obey and women quesiton then in stable systems women are weak and men are strong.  Suspicion upsets the stability of a triadic relationship between subject (the obedient), symbol (obedience) and interpretant (the invisible unquestionable presence); it serves as a dynamic element that might destabilize the triadic relationship grounded in static relationships and remake it as something else.  From the position of the original triadic partners, this movement can not be viewed as positive.

The forbidden knowledge tales sometimes include an element of disobedience or doubt.  The story of Lot's wife, related above, is not just about suspicion or doubt, but also about forbidden knowledge and rescue--in the sense that Lot's wife chose to look on the divine work of destruction when she had been instructed to look away in the course of a divine effort to effectuate her rescue.  What she saw doomed her.  Classical mythology includes important forbidden knowledge and rescue tropes, some of which suggest the important tie between divine commands, knowledge of divine intervention and rescue.  One of the most famous is that of Orpheus and Eurydice.

  Then Fame declared that conquered by the song
of Orpheus, for the first and only time
the hard cheeks of the fierce Eumenides
80 were wet with tears: nor could the royal queen,
nor he who rules the lower world deny
the prayer of Orpheus; so they called to them
Eurydice, who still was held among
the new-arriving shades, and she obeyed
85 the call by walking to them with slow steps,
yet halting from her wound. So Orpheus then
received his wife; and Pluto told him he
might now ascend from these Avernian vales
up to the light, with his Eurydice;
90 but, if he turned his eyes to look at her,
the gift of her delivery would be lost.
They picked their way in silence up a steep
and gloomy path of darkness. There remained
but little more to climb till they would touch
95 earth's surface, when in fear he might again
lose her, and anxious for another look
at her, he turned his eyes so he could gaze
upon her. Instantly she slipped away.
He stretched out to her his despairing arms,
100 eager to rescue her, or feel her form,
but could hold nothing save the yielding air.
Dying the second time, she could not say
a word of censure of her husband's fault;
what had she to complain of -- his great love?
105 Her last word spoken was, "Farewell!" which he
could barely hear, and with no further sound
she fell from him again to Hades.
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, Orpheus and Eurydice)

To look back is to see something that one is not meant to see.  What one is not meant to see, of course, is the physical manifestation of the divine force--the force of interpretation, of what which gives the symbol signification; life in the case of Eurydice; death in the case of Sodom.  One cannot look back for the same reason one cannot ask the identity of Lohengrin or eat of the apple of knowledge. Disbelief suggests the possibility of unmasking systems of interpretation and the reality structures that system frames.  It suggests the possibility of an alternative--and entertaining such a possibility is the ultimate subversion. 

The protection against this subversion are bound up in the third category, stories that serve to teach the importance of silent acceptance and conformity, built on obedience and the negative consequences of knowledge and doubt. These stories reinforce the negative judgment that of the nature of change (suspicion, disbelief, evil), and a similar one to the agent of change (weak, female, Satan).  Note also the character of the semiotic (that is the triadic) relationship that make it possible to understand good. Good requires both a subject (the obedient) a symbol (obedience) and interpreter (the originators of knowledge or the keepers of knowledge (serving in a priestly role)). 

And in Canada last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s budget passed with an $85 billion dollar deficit. This, despite the fact that until now, Harper’s political identity was firmly rooted in free-market economics. His master’s thesis, written in 1991, demonstrated that government interventions in the market served political, rather than economic interests. Clearly, Harper knows that if he had applied his free-market ideologies to last week’s budget, he’d likely be out of a job before the next election. (So Much for the Invisible Hand, The Unmasked Anthropologist, Feb. 5, 2009)

The invisible hand is powerful only when it lies at the bottom of things, unseen; to expose it is to eliminate its effect. It survives in modern form, in powerful ways. To question is to disrupt.  To disrupt is necessarily to produce a subversion of the social order. That subversion requires both exposure of the old ordering elements and the veiling of the new. Here one is confronted with the role of the serpent, of Ortrud, and of Psyche's sisters.  That is the semiotic essence of Tyler Durden and of revolution, so well reduced to its dramatic symbolic elements in the 1999 movie "Fight Club" from the book of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk (W.W. Norton 1996). 
Tyler Durden: Welcome to Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! Third rule of Fight Club: someone yells "stop!", goes limp, taps out, the fight is over. Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight. Fifth rule: one fight at a time, fellas. Sixth rule: No shirts, no shoes. Seventh rule: fights will go on as long as they have to. And the eighth and final rule: if this is your first time at Fight Club, you have to fight. (Fight Club 1999 20th Century Fox)
Fight Club suggests the ancient tales in modern form in a number of ways--the club represents a means of questioning the dominant order, of rebelling against it, of seeking victory through exposure and of preserving the power of the rebellion by veiling its true objectives.  The success of Fight Club is its ability to first instill doubt and then overcome the old unquestioned order by replicating it in new form. That may well be the semiotic double significance of "Project Mayhem", requiring obedience that mimics those of the system it seeks to bring down, and the fight club from which it originates:
  1. You don't ask questions.
  2. You don't ask questions.
  3. No excuses.
  4. No lies.
  5. You have to trust Tyler.
The essence, then, of the triadic relationship is visible invisibility. To ask is to doubt; to doubt is to subvert; to subvert is to face expulsion from the community of believers or to lose one's credibility as a member of that community.  And thus the semiotic framing of interpretation--meaning is possible among sign, symbol and interpreter when sign and symbol conform to interpretation.  But the triadic relationship is stable only when "you don't ask questions" and when you trust the source of basic meaning.  Within Western legal culture it is possible to engage in interpretive contests of a wide sort--as long as one does not question the framework within which questions are possible.  To doubt is to place oneself outside the triadic system; to ask the wrong question is to expose the limits of a system and suggest alternatives.  In the ancient language of semiotics, that is doing the devil's work.

The puzzle and contradictions of these story "types", of the useful learning bound up in the core myths of modern society centers on semiotics itself -- that semiotics is powerful only when it is invisible. This suggests strains two strains of thought in semiotics: One is mentioned by my colleague Jan Broekman (without articulating the importance of) Peirce's notion of Firstness and his interpretation of breaking up Firstness as a matter of attitude change (e.g., Jan Broekman, "Firstness and Phenomenology: Peirce and Husserl on Attitude Change" in Prospects of Legal Semiotics. (Dordrecht, Netherlands, Springer 2011).  Another is how a text is seen/interpreted as a specific engenderment and not as a definitive phenomenon. (e.g., chapter 10b;  Jan M. Broekman and Larry Catá Backer,  Lawyers Making Meaning:  The Semiotics of Law and Legal Education II ((Dordrecht, Netherlands, Springer 2012) (ISBN 978-94-007-5458-4). Ideas, chance, possibilities--apparently endless, yet tightly constrained when they appear in any context.  What appears to be free is quite enchained.  But it may be as useful to understand firstness in its mythical contexts: Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice and the medieval "Knight of the Swan" tale, and the construction of the ur-text of semiotic relationships in the Bible. If "Firstness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, positively and without reference to anything else (Peirce, A Letter to Lady Welby, CP 8.328, 1904), then it becomes a marker for the individual within regulatory and meaning-generating systems, but on ein which the individual serves best by thoughtless obedience.   

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