Monday, August 13, 2007

Loose Connections

In a previous post, Who Wants to Be a Supermensch?, I wrote about the Jewish superhero Mr. Mitzvah, aka Ivan Wilzig, in the SciFi Channel reality show, Who Wants to Be a Superhero? Well, for those of you not watching, Friday he was eliminated. And I have to say that I feel a degree of discomfort about it all. It seems that he did not mix well with the other contestants, went off on his own a lot, did not volunteer much about his background to the others, and this was a source of friction for some of them. They even had a meeting to talk about him behind his back. Sure, this could happen with any mix of people, its a common phenomenon in group dynamics, but here we are dealing with symbols and stereotypes, and the producers need to tread carefully.

On this last episode, he did finally explain to the others that he came from a wealthy background, and I can understand how he'd be reluctant to reveal that because people get weird around the rich and famous. He did not reveal, at least on the episode, that his father, who he referred to as a financial genius, was a Holocaust survivor, and that this was behind his whole MO as a superhero. I was disappointed that this never came up on the program. The main reason he was eliminated, though, according to Stan "The Man" Lee, who serves as the show's deus ex machina, was that he failed to face his fears two weeks in a row, first by being the only one to cover his eyes when trapped with hundreds of bees, and second by not being willing to ride a really intense rollercoaster in order to find clues needed to solve a puzzle they were given. And when confronted with this criticism, his response was, well, stiff necked is the best way to describe it.

Mr. Mitzvah was part of a double elimination along with Ms. Limelight, and there's an interview of the two of them by last year's winner, Feedback, which can be accessed from the Aftershow 3 video file on the program's website. And it seems like the guy's pretty personable, all in all. And I knew he wasn't going to win, with his money he doesn't need to come out on top to make a comic or even movie for his character. But I did hope he'd do a little bit better.

And while we're on the subject, or off it, or simply to make a loose connection, I really am disappointed with Shawn Green's performance on the Mets this year, a strong start but steady decline. Where have you gone, Art Shamsky?

So, okay, next on the list, it's come to my attention that the URL I used in my previous post here entitled The Ten Commandments, which was supposed to take you to my MySpace blog entry by the same name was bad. Anyone who has any experience with MySpace knows that things over there can be a little screwy. Well, I have gone back to that earlier post and corrected the URL, so the link works correctly now. But, just in case you don't feel like going back to that page just to get to the MySpace page, here it is too: The Ten Commandments.

And speaking of the Decalogue, or at least going back to the Second Commandment's prohibition against graven images, we had an interesting discussion last Friday night during services at Congregation Adas Emuno, in response to the week's Torah portion, Re'eh. Cantor Shapiro chose to focus on just two lines from the portion, Deuteronomy 14:1-2, which read:

1. You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. 2. For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth.
On the basis of this passage, as I understand it, comes the more generalized prohibition against tattoos or other forms of bodily mutilation such as piercings. As I have always heard it, the argument is that we are made in God's image (according to Genesis), and therefore it is not right for us to deface ourselves in any way. This also connects to the traditional belief that when the messiah comes, he will resurrect the dead, so you need to keep your body whole--this makes autopsy a violation of Orthodox Judaism, which obviously can present some problems.

But, the question that I had not considered until then is, if we venerate the body in this way, why do we also have a tradition of modesty, as opposed to one in which the body is celebrated? Why did we follow a path diametrically opposed to that of the Greeks, for example. I should note that Hellenic culture posed an enormous challenge for the Jews in the ancient world, as here was a people who were highly literate, in many ways following lines of development that paralleled that of ancient Israel. But they embraced the body, and sexual freedom, while our people struggled to keep these things under control.

I know this could all be linked to gender politics, but the Greeks were just as patriarchal in their own way. Sexual politics are another story, but I think the real significance lies elsewhere. Cantor Shapiro explained that the prohibition against mutilating the body was also connected to the Second Commandment, tattoos especially being a kind of graven image. In general, all this attention given to the body, whether altering it, displaying it, or reproducing it in some art form, constitutes a kind of idolatry. It's not just a problem of worshiping other gods, or worshiping beasts, bodies of water, mountains, trees, and the like. It's narcissism, worship of the self, of our own physicality, especially of physical beauty.

It also seems to be part of a complex media ecology that heavy use of imagery, and concomitant idolatry, goes hand in hand with body worship and ritual practices involving sexuality (e.g., sacred prostitution), and sometimes human sacrifice as well. But the intimate relations between art, sex, and religion associated with what has been known as paganism, has been an important theme in Camille Paglia's work, especially Sexual Personae. And her argument is that it was never completely eliminated by Christianity, but remained an important undercurrent in western culture. And this is particularly apparent in Roman Catholic iconography.

So, the Second Commandment prohibition against idolatry served to counter these tendencies. replacing exhibitionist body-worship and open sexuality with an ethos in which veneration of the body required modesty and restraint, if not repression. We are made in God's image, but God is invisible, and the body too must be kept hidden. Literacy leads to abstract thinking, which makes monotheism possible, the abstraction of a single deity who is almighty, omnipresent, and yet unseen, and literacy therefore leads to a more abstract view of the human person as a mind, and spirit, rather than a body. Descartes was inevitable.

Marshall McLuhan opened a seminar at Brandeis University by saying that, of course it is difficult to learn how to read and write if you're naked--my source for this is a taped interview of John Culkin, the former Jesuit priest who brought McLuhan to Fordham University for the 1967-1968 school year--the tape was provided by another McLuhan associate, media producer Tony Schwartz, for the McLuhan Symposium I organized at Fordham in 1998. According to Culkin, McLuhan then went onto another subject and never returned to the naked guy, typical McLuhan nonlinearity at work. But the point, as Culkin explained, is that, if you're naked, all of your sensory energy is involved with the total exposure to your environment, leaving you with too little for the activity of reading. Clothing is an extension of the skin, and as a prosthetic device, it numbs the skin, numbs the body in its relation to its environment, allowing the mind to move inward, which is what literacy is all about.

Literacy is about control, suppression and repression. Both McLuhan and Ong noted the parallel between Sigmund Freud's stages of psychosexual development and the evolution of media environments, the oral stage going along with oral culture, and the anal stage, which is all about control, mastery, and closure, going along with literate/print culture (and let's not get into the similarities in use of writing surfaces such as paper, shall we?). This makes our present electronic culture line up with the genital stage. Surprise, surprise, we are in an era of explosive sexuality.

I don't mean to come off like a prude or a Puritan. I'm a part of this culture, after all, and came of age in the wake of the sexual revolution. It was lots of fun. But I also remember a lecture Lewis Mumford gave in 1980, at the in-house media ecology conferences that Neil Postman and his colleagues used to organize for their graduate students. It was my first, in fact, and Mumford, a devout atheist I might add, warned that the sexual revolution was resulting in new forms of venereal disease that would pose a major threat to our society. This was a year before the first cases of AIDS were identified! Clearly, what we have here is an extreme example of what Postman would later refer to as amusing ourselves to death, or maybe it should be abusing ourselves to death?

In ritual practice, behavior that is otherwise taboo may be carried out under divine aegis. And this is true of one form of bodily mutilation, the circumcision. It is intended as a mark of identification in a tribal sense, also as a seal marking the covenant between the Jewish people and God (having been circumcised in a ritual manner, I am in effect under contract with God to carry out all of his commandments, a contract that is all but impossible to revoke, and God, if you're reading this, sorry I'm doing such a lousy job at fulfilling my end of the deal). Circumcision, thinking about it, is also a powerful symbol of control and mastery over our sexuality. And surprise, surprise, medical research has shown that it lowers the chances of contracting venereal disease, including AIDS. But what is also highly significant is that circumcision, unlike many types of piercings, cuttings, and tattoos, is a form of mutilation that remains hidden, out of sight, and therefore does not in any way violate the Second Commandment.

So, what does it take to solve the problems posed by today's image society, to find a way to gain some control over our collective pursuit of pleasure, to figure out how to deal with our own sexuality and that of others, to find a healthy balance between body and mind, to find a way out of these cultural conundrums?

I don't know. I don't know if anyone really knows. I think that maybe, we need some kind of...


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