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2003-12-19 - 10:52 p.m.

Thought I'd share some of the work I've been doing on my thesis with you, show you what's been keeping me from updating regularly. :) It may well make no sense to you; I'm basically writing about how a student who is disappointed with the difference between school and uni is relating to their "favourite subject". It is specific to this person although hopefully there's something generalisable in here too; also, toward the end, I ramble at length about Jesus. This could be a sign that I'm going mad, or it could just be that I couldn't think of a better example of the kind of thing I was trying to get at... anyway, this is a draft, not a polished version, so don't be surprised by the senselessness of it. Thesising is all about writing senseless drafts and then making sense of them. :)

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Hegel, Identity, Janet and Italian; the basic structure

Hegel’s ideas about identity are concerned with the negation of difference. I am I; the undifferentiated, the same, what I feel to be me; however, there is no sensation of being “me” without the contrast of “not me” to remind me of my me-ness. My skin has no especial sense of being a particular way or in a particular place unless it is opposed to something or contrasted with something... the part of my arm that is resting on the desk has a sense of the desk as an “other” surface, which reminds me of the feeling of my arm being there. I have a boundary around myself only insofar as there is difference, something different from me to define me against.

But difference always has the potential to threaten. Perhaps now the desk under my arm feels comforting, reassuring… but nonetheless, it is not me, so it is capable of harming me. Or being better than me, or failing me. It is an other, it is different, separated by a “skin” of sensation, a feeling that it is not part of my own body… in a paranoid frame of mind, if I become frightened of difference, then my task will be to accomplish mastery over the other. If I can control the other, then its capacity to threaten me will be diminished and ultimately destroyed. So I form with the desk a relation of mastery, of ownership; it is an object and I am a person; it will do what I want it to do, it will be where I put it, and feel the way I want it to feel. Its capacity to be different will be reduced to being as different from me as I decide it should be, as I tell it to be.

However, the more perfectly I master and control this difference, the less real the difference becomes, until at last it reaches a point where I feel identified with the controlled object; it is no longer able to be anything to me other than what I decide it should be; it can no longer surprise me or oppose me or be anything… outside. I have lost my sense of it being outside of my boundary, pressing up against my skin; instead it is under my skin, part of me, and an injury done to my property is felt as a blow to my own core, my own identity… instead of making myself stronger I have turned this mastery into a new area of vulnerability.

What’s more… I depend on the controlled object much more than it depends on me. In order to be the master I have to have the slave, this slave, this piece of property; deprived of this slave I will cease to be a master, or I will be a less powerful master. But the slave is a slave regardless of who his master is; if someone else manages to master my property then the property loses nothing, while I suffer the pangs of a lost piece of my identity…

…and this type, this structure of relationship, is the kind of relation that Janet has to Italian in her story, particularly at university.

Consider that Italian is an “outside” phenomenon; it’s something that she’s good at, that she’s achieved a high level of mastery of, that she expects people to notice her for how good she is at Italian. So Italian becomes this thing which she is going to get something that she wants out of; Italian is a slave to her, she expects it to give her recognition, admiration… she will control it and others, seeing her control of it, will recognise her mastery and admire her as someone worth reckoning with. Someone to respect, like a landlord with an impressive amount of wealth.

When it fails to deliver, she becomes like a devalued object, because she is identified with the object she has devalued. The Italian teacher at university has a fearsome power, because she can either approve or disapprove of Janet’s mastery of Italian. The very fact that she has this power has already made victory impossible for Janet. This is important because Janet is fantasizing about being a favourite of the teacher, being noticed, as though this will rescue her from the position she’s worked herself into… but this fantasy itself has already devalued her. Because the relation between the teacher and Janet is now a master-slave relation in which Janet envisions herself a slave; she is worrying about whether she will be a successful slave or a failed slave, but in the end there’s no transcendence in this model. She has already lost any sense of Italian as something to be loved in its own right, something which demands service from her and promises nothing in return… something which might deserve service. Everything has been set up in such a way that she can’t win even if she wins because it’s a world of slaves and masters, and the masters are themselves slaves to their own need to be masterful.

I was thinking today about Jesus and power and Kings… I had this image of a “good king”, thinking about what that might mean. Because it occurred to me that power is still going to be part of the world, even when we get out of those master/slave relations, there will still be power relations. And I thought, somehow the good king is a servant to his power, not enslaved by it in the needy or lustful way of the compulsively dominant, but like Jesus, washing the feet of his followers. Jesus has infinite power and yet… that essentially means infinite responsibility, so that he must be willing to suffer anything himself in order to do justice to the gift he’s been given; he must give himself up if that is the best way for him to serve his followers. Jesus is the king of kings; he is not… a slave, or feeble, or subservient. But he is humble… humble and powerful, and these two qualities don’t fight against each other, rather, they are built into each other; his power is in his humilty. Immanent. Not tempered or restrained by humility, but part of it…

And any power that is worth having is not just a power to do good or to be good, in that sense that Merton warns can be so deadly; it is itself a call, a call to fulfill the gift, to accept the gift.

I’m not sure that I’ve put this quite right, but in terms of Janet’s relation to Italian, there is power in this relation. She has a passion, a gift for Italian that has carried her thus far; in trusting in her talent she has been given a certain amount of… leverage? Yes, leverage in the sense that it magnifies what she is able to do, she can transform small movements in herself into large movements out there. Now, she wants them to be larger, more leverage, more power, she resents that she has only this limited amount, and that others have leverage over her, that the teacher’s attention has been magnified in such a way that it means life or death to her. But what she doesn’t get is that… argh, I’m avoiding a dreadful phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility”, linking power to responsibility. Because it’s wrong, wrong because it suggests that power brings responsibility along with it as a sort of reluctant companion. But really power is a responsibility, the necessity to respond… or the range of things that one is compelled to notice with the magnification, the leverage that power brings, grows… the “great power brings great responsibility” formulation suggests a kind of… power/weight ratio… as in, having more power allows you to get more of what you want, but it also adds to the guilt you should feel about getting it. Whereas what I’m suggesting here is that any power is a call, is a demand on us for service… Jesus must serve his followers. It’s not that he chooses to serve them because that’s a nifty thing to do with all of this amazing power; rather, he is powerful because he is humble enough, small enough to enter into such power, to give himself to the divine by accepting its gifts…

Did I lose Janet there? What I guess I’m trying to say is that Janet has become alienated from Italian because she has been imagining it as a kind of exchange economy, and when she notices that the numbers aren’t adding up the way she’d like them to she refuses to continue participating. It’s not a fair trade! But what this logic misses is that everything she was trading with was given to her in the first place. If she’s to keep living she must also keep giving, because only in accepting her power to give will she receive that power as a gift… not in exchange, not to balance out the ledger, but… no words. Hmm.

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"Sometimes it seems that there's so much that you need

Sometime the world is upside down

Sometimes it seems that the only thing you need

It to be holding someone's hand while you walk through town" - Dan Bern


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