persistence of myth

The Polish Hassidic genius, Yosef Engel, devoted a penetrating treatise of pilpul to a question of indeterminacy and subjectivity. The legendary ordeal of the Sotah involves a sacrifice– a prerequisite for the efficacy of the entire ceremony. The problem lies in the intentionality behind the sacrifice. It won’t work if the person bringing it decides to render it inoperative through mental intention. In this case, why can’t the unfaithful woman merely short circuit the divine mechanism by thinking “f*** this?”

A similar interplay of myth, intentionality and veridication occurs in our political system. To quote Paul Krugman’s recent column 

Supply-side voodoo — which claims that tax cuts pay for themselves and/or that any rise in taxes would lead to economic collapse — has been a powerful force within the G.O.P. ever since Ronald Reagan embraced the concept of the Laffer curve. But the voodoo used to be contained. Reagan himself enacted significant tax increases, offsetting to a considerable extent his initial cuts.

And even the administration of former President George W. Bush refrained from making extravagant claims about tax-cut magic, at least in part for fear that making such claims would raise questions about the administration’s seriousness.

Recently, however, all restraint has vanished — indeed, it has been driven out of the party. Last year Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, asserted that the Bush tax cuts actually increased revenue — a claim completely at odds with the evidence — and also declared that this was “the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.” And it’s true: even Mr. Romney, widely regarded as the most sensible of the contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination, has endorsed the view that tax cuts can actually reduce the deficit.

To understand the utter seriousness of these claims, we need only look at the first pages of the epochal Work on Myth. In discussing the limit situation of myth (Grenzsituation; especially important for the critique of liberalism of Carl Schmitt) Blumenberg cites the experiences of the Aztecs.

The priests waded in the blood of the ritual massacres, and wars had to be conducted that were the fiercer the more difficult it became to procure, from the surrounding peoples, the masses of prisoners for sacrifice that were acceptable to the gods. All this in order to save the empire from a danger that had been proclaimed by astrology and was realized the very day it was prophesied for. But at that point there was a shortage precisely of those who had the qualities of nobility to make them satisfactory for the gods as sacrifices.

The function of myth is not to forestall fate; that would be hubristic if not impossible. Rather, myth functions here in an auto-annihilative fashion. The intelligibility added by myth is so great that it can explain even the dissolution of the cosmos by recourse to mere quality control. Blumenberg sees myth here as allowing us a space to act, over and against the absolutism of reality. The terminus ad quem for him extends even so far as the “mockery” put on by the Aztecs. I would add that any myth that cannot account for the dissolution of myth is not a myth. Human action can exist facilitated by myth. Like a psychoanalytic patient risen from the couch, it can also go on as if liberated from myth. But the conditions of possibility of liberation from myth are themselves its recrudescence and its power. Myth is that which allows us to live after myth.

The Blumenbergian answer to supply side voodoo would focus on the yet to be determined and undeterminable nature of the supply side myth. Supply siders can always say that the intentions were improper, the proper spices (or spice rub) was not applied at the proper point in the smoking process. Barring this, they can blame the Mexican immigrants without ever seeing their myth dissolve itself.

Beyond this conception of myth as cognitive dissonance or ideology (albeit immensely productive ideology) we could add that the very failure engendered by the unbelievable myth is itself presupposed in the myth. The productivity of the myth will lie not only in its adoption as a success against all odds, but in its self-sufficiency as an explanatory paradigm in its failure.

So with our Sotah woman, we have two ways out. She thinks whatever she wants and an orgasm of divinely abetted violence ensues no matter what. Because hey, its just water. Or even worse, she thinks what she thinks, chugs the divine Poland Spring, lives with the guilt of having cheated on her husband.

Like the Gods who cannot accept the bad sacrifices, she is chained to the self made collapse of her own world.


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