The Heterotopia of Facebook

I’ve written quite a lot before about heterotopias. Heterotopias are ‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the margins of or outside of normal cultural space, irrelevant to the practical functioning of most people’s everyday life. They are real places, with a relationship to other real places, but they are absolutely different from other sites. Traditionally, they were places set aside for people undergoing  transitional crises, part of the common stages of life like adolescence, menstruation, pregnancy, dying. Nowadays, we have the military and the honeymoon trip to stand in for these, as well as “heterotopias of deviation,” like prisons and psychiatric hospitals, places where we put people to keep them away from the rest of us.

Heterotopias don’t have to be places of deviation or rites-of-passage, though. Some further examples of heterotopias, as noted by John Doyle and others, might be museums, libraries, the theatre, fairs and festivals, cemeteries, gardens, airports and train stations, tourist towns, a ship. Disney World might be another example.

A heterotopia might be any place that:

  • Juxtaposes and merges incompatible spaces “like ‘private space and public space, family space and social space, cultural space and useful space, the space of leisure and that of work’ into spaces of otherness.”
    Michel Foucault, who coined the term in the 1960s, describes “a heterotopia as a space that disrupts the continuity and normality of common everyday places. … [Heterotopias] relate to other spaces by both representing and at the same time inverting or distorting them.  … A cinema, for example, is a space of otherness amid more ordinary spaces, ‘a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two–dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three–dimensional space.’  In it, the real world and the fiction of the movie are juxtaposed, and the visitors are drawn into the story of the heroes and villains projected on the screen.”
  • Links to “‘slices in time,’ often breaking with traditional time in certain spaces.” Doyle writes: “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies — disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year.”
  • Represents ordinary life but also inverts it in some way, either by exposing it as an illusion or by compensating for its imperfections. Heterotopias invite reflection on their relationship to other spaces. They are “‘counter–sites,‘ a kind of effectively-enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” They function by “unfolding between two extremes: between providing an illusion that exposes the real world as still more illusory, and providing a space of perfection to compensate for the flaws of real life. The otherness of a heterotopia, whether it is characterized by illusion or by perfection, calls into question the reality of the ordinary spaces around it. Heterotopias are disturbing.”

So I was pretty excited to come across this article, “The Heterotopia of Facebook,” by Robin Rymarczuk at Philosophy Now (h/t to Peter Johnson at Heterotopian Studies). And then to find a much fuller treatment of the topic by Rymarczuk and Maarten Derksen in First Monday, June 2014, from which I’ve drawn most of my quotes.

In the paper published at First Monday, Rymarczuk and Derksen enumerate the ways in which Facebook is a heterotopia — in fact,  “a heterotopia par excellence,” “able to reflect just about any other site in our culture — the office, the living room, the café, the amusement park, the brothel — at the same time turning them into something completely new.”

You can read the paper at the link. It’s fascinating, especially concerning the Trinidadians’ embrace of Facebook as village-like.

For me, the most interesting aspects are two: Facebook’s distortion of time — conflating past and present, in particular; and its revelation of our carefully constructed identities as illusory:

Tɪᴍᴇ ᴅɪsᴛᴏʀᴛɪᴏɴ: Not only does time seem to fly when we’re using Facebook, and other online resources, but Facebook’s Timeline “collapses past life, present life and afterlife into something very other. … Like a museum, Facebook accumulates time.  … Facebook keeps the past present, but in a way that is much more direct because it is accessible in the same space where the present happens. The past becomes transparent in a way that many people … find unsettling.”

And, “[t]he past lives on in another way as well. Like a cemetery, Facebook houses eternity, but here the dead wander among the living. It’s estimated that by 2015, there will be 50 million social ghosts or profiles without a living owner on Facebook .”

*      *      *      *

Last week, a Facebook friend of mine died suddenly. In one sense, she was a virtual friend, because I never met her in person, though I heard her voice on my voicemail when she called me after my mother died, one of very few of any of my friends who did. We also exchanged very tangible Christmas gifts, baked goods, pickles, and cards. But our primary interactive space was on Facebook, in the Timeline, on post comments, and in private messages. We were in touch daily for most of 3 years. I felt a more intimate connection with her than with most of my “in the flesh” friends, mainly because she was completely integrated into my ordinary, daily life, even though our meeting space was often somewhere in the ether between my house in New Hampshire and hers on Long Island, NY.

I miss her the same way I miss my dog, who died in June 2013, which is more than I miss my parents, who have both died. Daily, meaningful connection — virtual or not — is intimate connection.

And seeing her Facebook page now that she has died – still being filled with tributes, (virtual) tears, photos, comments, and her past-but-no-longer-present postings — is a touchstone for me. I hope it remains online always.

*      *      *      *

Tʜᴇ Iʟʟᴜsɪᴏɴ ᴏғ Iᴅᴇɴᴛɪᴛʏ: This is the most interesting facet of social media for me, the construction and presentation of an online identity and how it differs from our normal identity construction and presentation. The writers argue that Facebook — often seen as illusory, deceptive, a constructed performance — reveals the illusion of real life identity:

“A heterotopia has a function amidst the other spaces in a society. Because heterotopias are spaces of otherness, outside the normality of everyday life, their function revolves around the distinction between reality and illusion. Foucault gives the example of a brothel, ‘a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.’  In the case of Facebook, organised as it is around personal profiles, status updates and postings, it is the reality of personal identity that is at stake.”

Rymarczuk summaries, in the piece at Philosophy Now:

“Erving Goffman argued in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) [that] the self is always a performance, in which individuals attempt to control the impression that others have of them. This fact is unsettling, because it means that in recognizing the way we present our lives and construct our identities on Facebook to be a performance, we then come to question our personal identity offline too. It is exactly at this juxtaposition of reality and image, where the virtual defines the real, that the heterotopia undermines the notion of ‘real’ reality, through undermining the notion of ‘real’ identity. So on the one hand Facebook opens up a new kind of space where the selection, formulation and articulation of content concerning our identity is more readily available; but on the other hand, this new-found malleability makes us question what our everyday ‘identity’ actually means. … Facebook exposes not the increasing reality of the virtual, but rather that our reality, our identity, has been virtual all along.”

Of course, on some level most of us know that our identity is always constructed, in the tangible world as well as in the virtual world. We know we act one way with one group of people and another way with another group. We always choose which aspects of ourselves to convey, whether consciously, subconsciously, or completely unaware that we’re doing it.  I think somehow knowing that we construct and present our identities for various audiences — which for some reason makes us feel inauthentic, though it is vastly human — lies at the heart of the discomfort both users and non-users of Facebook and other social media share:

“In Foucaultian terms, Facebook is a ‘disrupting’ space which turns our usual world on its head by disturbing its ‘continuity and normality’. You exit the normal world when you log in; but still you are involved in representing a version of normal life. … Whereas Facebook is attractive to many primarily as a social networking tool, it is repulsive to some as a site, a heterotopia.”

Reconciliation in Action

joshuaandwillisjohnsonfergusonMOAug2014Yesterday, All Things Considered’s Melissa Block interviewed the Rev Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, MO, a town where what’s apparently been simmering for a while has come to the boil this week with the police killing of a teenager named Michael Brown there last weekend.

I hadn’t really been following all the details of the shooting and aftermath, but that made the impact on me of Johnson’s comments and actions no less powerful. I consider his embracing of 18-year-old Joshua Wilson a deeply heroic, Christian, Buddhist, human act . And I use all those words to describe it because his actions and reflections on it reveal:

recognition of himself in another person, including when the other person is shaking with anger, about to do what he thinks is a mistake. And that awareness comes to him as a human, living a particular human experience in time and place (“I’ve been Joshua before”), and because “I do understand what it means to be that angry.” This reminds me of tonglen practice in the Buddhist tradition, where we bring up our own experience of emotion to tap into compassion for others feeling the same way. We all know what strong emotion feels like and knowing that, we can understand “the other” at a deep level even when we don’t fully understand. I think this is good action in and of itself (this heightening our awareness of the sameness of self and other), but Johnson takes it further when he

risks self, by touching, speaking, holding the other person in the midst of chaos, and accepting into himself the other’s pain and his desire to harm: “I’d rather you, if you gonna fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear.” This is the essence of being a hero and of being a Christian, to my mind: being willing to carry and bear another’s pain, regardless of potential cost to self. Not in a martyr sense, not in a belief that ‘I’m strong enough to bear your weakness,’ but in a clear

realisation of interconnecteness, a felt sense that my being willing to carry your pain is not only for your benefit but for my benefit, too: “We kept each other from harm’s way.” Johnson realised he needed affirmation, embracing, and being held back as much as Joshua did. I see this sense of interconnectness as a particular facet of the Buddhist tradition as well as of the Girardian Christian tradition, where we are all seen as interdividuals, our identity constructed not in and of the self but in the relationships between and among us.

Finally: Johnson speaks several times in this 7-minute piece of “human nature,” what makes us human, including empathy for others as well as feeling deeply the pain of the human condition: “If it’s not touching you, if it’s not personal, that’s where there’s a problem.”

Co-mingled with his words about being human are the tears when he talks about being a black man in America today: his father’s fears for him, his own fears for his teenaged son, feeling like a scared kid when he’s pulled over by cops.  He speaks of a need for “reconciliation, resolution and resurrection.” I see actions and reflections like Johnson’s as enacting reconciliation and resurrection here on earth.

Fascination with the Apocalypse Now

horseriders on Driftwood Beach, JI, 27 April 2012


Someone recently asked, at a sort of salon conversation gathering on 21 Dec. — the day that some believed the world was going to end (as implied by the Mayans’ calendar ending on that date) — why we humans are so fascinated by speculation about the END OF THE WORLD. It’s a good question.

After all, although the Mayans didn’t really predict the end of the world — their  ancient calendar simply rolled over, beginning a new 394-year century (baktun), which some believe may usher in a new and perhaps more peaceful age — lots of groups and people throughout history, since 2800 B.C.!, have predicted and prepared for Doomsday, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming, Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, the End.


Plenty of religious folk in particular — popes, cardinals, rabbis, prophets, nuns, Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist forerunners the Second Adventists, the Nation of Islam, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Millerites in the 1840s, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God (in the 1930s, 40s and 70s), Billy Graham in 1950, Hal Lindsey in his bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth (my mom had a copy), Pat Robertson on the 700 Club — but also others, like 16th century seer and apothecary Nostradamus (who may have said that the world would end in July 1999), UFO cults, numerologists, pyramidologists, alien channelers, the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations, John Napier (the mathematician who discovered logarithms), scientists who expected comets and asteroids to wipe us out — have been predicting the end of the world practically since humans have existed on the planet.

Some contemporaries of Jesus interpreted his words as written in Matthew 16:28 (“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”) and in Matthew 24:33-34 (“So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.  Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”) as a prediction of the world’s imminent demise then, and religious people have been predicting specific dates ever since, despite Jesus’s assurance immediately following (Matthew 24:36) that ” of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Perhaps the “the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult” was founded around 156 AD and lasted for several centuries even though Jesus didn’t show up. Some thought the world would end 6000 years after it was created, or no later than 500 A.D.  There were “end dates” during the 800s, 900s, and every century thereafter, dozens and dozens of them. New England preacher and witch hunter Cotton Mather predicted it would end three times (1697, 1617, and 1736), Christian preacher Harold Camping has predicted “Judgment Day” on May 21, 2011, and again in 1994, and they’re not alone in their serial predictions.

Some people still interpret the books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Bible to be apocalyptic prediction, with a heavy focus on events in Israel seen as ushering in the end times.

(Lists of predictions are available online for those interested, via Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events and Chris Nelson’s rather more detailed A Brief History of the Apocalypse.)


Many people, families and small groups now  (religious and not) are quietly planning for a cataclysmic end to life — either globally, nationally, or regionally — as we know it. There are so many ways we imagine we could go! To name just a few:

  • the consequences of climate change, ranging from scarcity of water, food and oil to a new ice age or extreme flooding caused by glaciers melting;
  • government attack on gun owners or on non-Christians, or conversely, an armed citizen insurrection against the government;
  • a terrorist act or series of them, involving nuclear or chemical warfare;
  • widespread natural disaster like an asteroid hitting, or a super volcano, or a massive earthquake or shift in tectonic plates;
  • widespread public health disaster such as antibiotic-resistant infection or highly contagious and lethal disease;
  • technological (or Congressional?) disaster that could freeze the flow of money and keep us from accessing bank accounts, causing worldwide panic;
  • the planet Nibiru could enter our solar system and become a second sun;
  • the magnetic poles could shift again

And the list goes on. The Telegraph, in its Dec. 2010 article, “Armageddon in 2012? The truth behind the doomsday theories,” listed and rated some of the most popular doomsday theories.

We recognise the dangers of being mortal and of living on Earth, and some of us spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing for threats. Even those of us who don’t do much to prepare may feel perennially anxious in the shadow of a cataclysmically disastrous future.

As a recent CNN article noted, there are a number of popular TV shows about preparing for the end, including Doomsday Preppers (a reality show, on National Geographic Channel), Falling Skies (fiction, TNT), Revolution (fiction, NBC), and The Walking Dead (AMC, fiction about the zombie apocalypse). The article also reminds us of the “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that are based on the dispensationalist idea of a rapture, or the Second Coming, and the years of tribulation on earth afterward. Post-apocalyptic fiction and tales of werewolves, zombies and vampires abound. Disaster movies have been popular for many decades, from the first apocalyptic film in 1916, The End of the World.


Of course, some think it’s just Americans who are obsessed with doomsday prophecies. In July 2012, the BBC considered “America’s Fascination with the Apocalypse — “There is a long tradition of such apocalyptic thinking in the US. But … it has now moved beyond religious prophecies into the secular world. … [A]ctivists from both the political left and right have embraced apocalypse thinking, issuing dramatic warnings that everything from the traditional American way of life to the very existence of the planet is under threat” — and in Sept. 2012 at Fordham University in NYC a lecture was held with the title “Apocalypse Now: America’s Fascination with Doomsday and Why It Matters,” with Elaine Pagels, Jim Hoberman, and Andrew Delbanco speaking on the topic. In the BBC piece, author Matthew Barrett Gross (The Last Myth) calls it “an idea that unites all Americans” and says it has “played a central role in the American story since the very beginning.” Apparently there are 3 million “preppers” in America, preparing and stockpiling for an apocalyptic future.


Scientific American also covered the phenomenon this month in a collection of  articles, essays and blog posts (originally published from 2009-2012) on its website and devoted a print issue to it, with the headline “the end. or is it?,” in Sept. 2010, including Michael Moyer’s “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise,” which suggests that “[t]he impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature … It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points.”

That CNN article I referred to earlier, and many other sites online, offer a number of other explanations for our obsession with the end of the world, despite the fact that “apocalyptic prophecy behavior is puzzling at first glance because people tend to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic.” They boiled down to a few main ideas:

  • Apocalyptic tales give us a safe theatre to explore death and the unknown, as they “embed a tale of fantasy into reality.” This might be called counterphobia, “the idea that we pursue what we are most afraid of in an attempt and effort to control anxiety over it. I think at some level, the fascination with the end of the world – whether a book or in movie form – gives us a way to control the uncontrollable, to master anxiety over death which is inescapable. For that reason, it provides us with a degree of comfort,” says psychologist Lawrence Rubin, quoted in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson.  Richard Beck discourses on length and with great insight on this idea in his series of posts The Theology of Monsters, including “Monsters, Horror & Death.” More on this below.
  • Related to and deriving from the first but diverging slightly: Apocalyptic scenarios and predictions give us a sense of greater control, not just over death-anxiety but by offering an opportunity to reimagine and remake our world, to change our lives, to become more self-reliant, to feel we can control and co-create our future and mold it so that we feel we are not victims but survivors. In this last — seeing selves as survivors rather than victims — it’s still very similar to the first idea, that we can face (the possibility of) our own death and yet live. We can expect the end of the world and prepare ourselves so well for it that we survive it. And it’s similar to the last idea (below), that our lives feel humdrum, so we long to shake them up by imagining — with that delicious frisson of terror we experience when watching horror movies or telling ghost stories — the unimaginable. But there is also a New Year’s resolution feel about this explanation, a belief and feeling that we can co-create a new and improved world, that whatever comes may be better. In a way, that’s still a strategy for reducing death anxiety (like a belief in a happy afterlife), by means of imbuing us with a sense of renewal and even hope.
  • Another explanation is that these doomsday scenarios allow us to rise above our petty differences of gender, colour, race, creed, class, etc., and cooperate for the good of all against a powerful adversary. (Rubin, again, in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson). It’s a narrative that captures our sense of the heroism of humanity. We feel good about ourselves because we are in the struggle together, making communal and noble sacrifices against a common enemy.
  • Finally, for some, these stories may offer a way out of despair or simply the boredom of a humdrum, unsatisfying life: “[T]hose who hope the world will end [may] need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.  ‘There’s a lot of benefit that may come for some if the world ends, unfortunately, and some people look forward to that.'” (CNN) And along the same lines, we like to imagine the world ending on our watch (as people also did in ancient times and ever since) because it enhances or validates our sense of being a key part of something absolutely monumental: “We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet — with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. … Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.” Cracked magazine (go-to source for this sort of thing, right?) says it this way:

As a species, we like the apocalypse in the same way that a mopey teenager might like the idea of their own funeral: We want to see our decaying remains and revel in the tragic glory that we couldn’t appreciate until it was too late. We want to see crumbling skyscrapers and flooded metropolises and know that, once upon a time, we built those things.

Not only do we feel part of something incredible, but imagining THE END — whether of our own life or of everyone’s life all at once — boosts our appreciation for what we have in the here and now.


I said before that these explanations boil down to a few main themes, but really I think there is only one underlying theme: Seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. And what we most can’t control, and what everything else we can’t control hints at, is our own death and the death of those we love. We want to be survivors, but history and medicine tell us that we won’t be, if surviving means that our hearts keep on beating. Most of us won’t even be remembered beyond a generation or two.

We want to be the heroes of our own stories — noble, good and strong — but in the end we will be bones, ashes, compost (if we’re not locked inside titanium vaults).


In the past, and in less developed countries now, people have been more in touch with death, because it was ordinary. It happened in the home, it happened often, it happened accompanied by a lot of pain and undeniable suffering. People feared it but they were also conscious of it.

Now, in modern times and places, we still fear death and dying, even though we rarely see it first-hand, in our homes, in the streets, every day. Still, the absolute threat of death is just as prevalent as ever — we are all still going to die — but now we are much more able to repress the thought of death from our conscious minds. Most of us don’t smell its stench. We rarely see it and when we do, it’s often in antiseptic hospitals, or on a mediated screen.

Beck’s post on Monsters and Death, mentioned above, addresses this:

Thanatologists, those scholars who study how cultures deal with death, call our current era ‘the pornography of death.‘ That is, modern life in America is typified by systematic cultural death repression. That is, death is systematically pushed out of consciousness. Consequently, to discuss death in the public sphere is inappropriate. Like pornography, talk of death is illicit.

He sees the Industrial Revolution, which changed the way we got food from killing and processing it in our yards (“Farm children lived with death on a daily basis”) to buying nuggets that look nothing like a chicken (“Boneless meat fosters a kind of death repression”) as one thing that distanced us from death, and the other is of course the modern hospital: “Before the rise of the modern hospital we died at home in our own beds. After death, the body was prepared and displayed in the home. The wake was in the home. In short, death and dead bodies were common features in every American household.” Now we have a funeral industry and we’ve moved corpses out of our back yards and into memorial gardens.

In short, “In modern America [and elsewhere], one never comes into contact with the dead. This lack of contact fosters death repression.”


The ways most of us do come in contact with death are precisely through our imaginations (as humans have always done — including when we lived daily with actual, ubiquitous death — through “grimm” fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, doomsday books, art imagery, and so on) and now also through the media, which present us with stories, photos and videos of plane crashes, natural disasters, terrifying encounters with sharks and grizzlies, mass shootings, tragic highway deaths, acts of terrorism and war, etc. We also have extremely violent and popular video games where people kill and are killed over and over.

I think the glimpses of death we get through the media, even through those video games, only serve to keep death safely in the unconscious realm. We think if we rehearse it, if we acknowledge its existence in fantasy, in the lives of other people in other circumstances than ours, that we will somehow defeat it. But we don’t. And we won’t.


I said earlier that I think that apocalypse-speculation all boils down to one explanation, which is seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. I’ve explained how I think that motivation underlies our urge to explore death in a “safe” space (far away, in imagination, non-immediately) and our preparations and affirmations that lead us to believe we are survivors and not victims; and I think that the same explanation also underlies the satisfyingly noble feeling we have when we feel we’re cooperating together, rising above our differences, against a common enemy (aliens, comet, germs, NRA, government, terrorists, etc.) as well as how special we feel to be part of something extraordinary. Whether religious, atheistic, pagan or other, we humans seem to want a “sacred centre” to give our lives meaning, to give us a feeling of transcendence, goodness, unanimity in righteousness. To give us identity.

As always, I feel James Alison explored and expressed the psychology of the “sacred centre” and the unanimity, grief and fear attendant with it — all of which are important to us when speculating on all things ending — in his talk on contemplation in a world of violence, after 9/11. I’m quoting at length because I think his insights are complex, deep, and widely applicable:

I would like to take us all back in our memories to the afternoon of September 11th — the afternoon, that is, for those of us who were on this side of the Atlantic. What I want to suggest to you is that we were all summoned to participate in something satanic. Now, by ‘satanic’ I don’t mean an over-the-top figure of speech, but something very specific, with very specific anthropological content, something whose very ability to be decoded by us is a sign of its failing transcendence.

“[I]mmediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. Our response was sparked by two particular forces: the locations chosen for the suicide with collateral murder — places symbolic of power, wealth and success (never mind that many of those killed were neither powerful, wealthy or successful); and the omnipresence in the cities in question, and particularly New York, of rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network which enabled a significant proportion of the planet to be sucked in to spectating from a safe distance. An already mimetic center, drawing more attention than ever towards itself, on that day became virtually inescapable.

“As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us.  … And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.

“And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. …

“And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like ‘to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.’ …”And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.“What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic.  … A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.

“When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization. But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. … [W]e no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it.

I think speculation about the end of the world enables us to explore death from a safe vantage point, to prepare for it “if” it comes, and mostly, to feel better about our humdrum existence, to feel we are part of “something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.”


Alison goes on in his remarks to offer another alternative:

We are given a very specific and very commanding example of the divine regard: it teaches us to look away, not to be ensnared, to de-sacralize. It is the very reverse of apocalyptic.” … We are tempted to imagine that suicide planes, collapsing buildings, increased security, the unanimity of the rich and powerful, and of course, bombs and more bombs and more bombs, are signs of power. Are creative of a new world order. … But what Jesus suggests is that all that power is a dangerous illusion. His talk is of a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all those things, weaning us off our addiction to the sort of crowd desire which makes that power possible and apparently all englobing.

In short, Alison says that fascination with the sacred centre is “a distraction, dangerous to us, but of no consequence to God, a distraction from the real coming into being of an entirely gratuitous, peaceful, creative meaning, and one in which we are invited to be involved.”

For myself, I think the “apocalypse” is ongoing, every day. It’s, literally, the uncovering, the unveiling, the revelation of a world that we can be part of all the time, when we notice that the sacred centre and its attendant grief and drama is a lie; when we resist the temptation of feeling morally good and right, either because of what we do or what we believe, and instead let that go entirely so we can receive what’s freely given; when we look through the illusion of meaning, identity and security that’s gained through violence, unanimity, and sacrifice; when we stop locating evil in others, justifying our own violence, and making distinctions between good and bad violence. When we stop looking for the end of the world as we know it … and just live it.

As Mary Oliver writes:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The Lives of the People

I read two essays yesterday that reminded me how differently we live our lives (as if Facebook weren’t reminder enough!). Of course, the variety of viable choices available to different people can differ wildly depending on when and where we’re born and how we’re raised; and while I don’t think we necessarily have as much choice about what actions we take and even what attitude to adopt as we sometimes think we do, yet I think that each person has some choice in these matters, and a life is shaped by these small and large choices.

* * * * * * * *

The first piece I read was an essay about “opting out of the national religion” of the U.S., i.e., shopping, which described a bit of Kathy Kelly’s life and accomplishments before offering her suggestion that Americans might stop our devotion to buying things for a bit and instead focus our undistracted energy and attention on the poor around the world, “especially those who are stuck in warzones.”

Kathy Kelly

is a three time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and lives a fascinating life. She is an advocate of nonviolence on a global scale and has been arrested more than 60 times in the US and abroad for nonviolent protests. Kathy has traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq more than 26 times, remaining in dangerous combat zones during US led military strikes. She risked her life by going to Baghdad during the United State’s infamous ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign. … Just a few hours after our interview, Kathy flew to Kabul, Afghanistan, to meet with young Afghans about building peace in their country.

* * * * * * * *

Very soon after reading about Kelly, I read the obituary for the boxer, Héctor “Macho” Camacho, who was gunned down in a car in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at age 50. His friend Adrian Mojica Moreno was also killed. There were nine bags of cocaine in Moreno’s pockets, plus a 10th bag open in the car.

Camacho, a boxing champion in three weight classes, was flamboyant:

He was known for his hairdo, which featured a spit curl over his forehead; his clownish antics at news conferences; his brashness and wit, especially whenever a reporter with a pad or a microphone was around; and his dazzling outfits. He variously entered the ring in a diaper, a Roman gladiator’s outfit, a dress, an American Indian costume complete with headdress, a loincloth and a black fox fur robe with his nickname, Macho, stitched across the back in white mink.

He was also

a brawler, a serial shoplifter, an admitted drug user and a car thief …. He was arrested numerous times on charges including [car theft], domestic abuse, possession of a controlled substance, burglary and trying to take an M-16 rifle through customs. This year he turned himself in after a warrant charged him with beating one of his sons. A trial was pending at his death.

I notice a couple of similarities in the lives of Kelly and Camacho, even within these very cursory accounts: both were arrested over and over again, and both to some extent chose dangerous vocations, in the midst of violence.

I can’t help but think of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

More on Kelly and Camacho at Wikipedia.

Mimesis in Real Life and in Fiction; or, Wherever Two or Three Are Gathered, Look for Victims

I’ve seen several articles and essays pertinent to mimesis and rivalry in the news this month:


Another child dies in a hot car, and Gene Weingarten asks: Why was this a crime? in the Washington Post (15 March 2012)

We demonize, villainize and stigmatize others when we’re afraid that we’re actually like them; in this case, when we fear that we could make the same potentially fatal mistake they’ve made. And we could.

‎”The compassion that was eventually shown to Murphy in court led — as it almost inevitably does in these cases — to an ugly spasm of online denunciation, in the form of anonymous reader “comments” on news stories reporting the plea deal. “Mommy Dearest will be popping open the bubbly tonight,” predicted Tommy McGuire on The Washington Post’s Web site. On WJLA’s site, Lucre3 thundered: “SHE NEEDS  TO BE LOCKED UP AN [sic] FORGOTTEN. HONESTLY SHE DOESN’T DESERVE TO LIVE.” Many suggested forced sterilization. Said RJM: “Maybe she should get one of her vet friends to spay her.”

“If the ugliness seems puzzling to you, it doesn’t to psychologists who have examined this phenomenon. It’s a form of denial, they say: Deep down, people understand that all lives are fragile, that we are all capable of momentary mistakes or misjudgments that could destroy us. We don’t want to face this terrifying fact. So we must convince ourselves that the people to whom it happens are unlike us. To sustain our delusion of safety, we must make them monsters.”


Closed-System Sibling Knowledge at The Last Word on Nothing (12 March 2012) asserts that siblings may be hard-wired to not to be knowledge rivals but to have their own niches that encourage competition. The Girardian explanation would be that this adaptation exists, if it does, to prevent mimetic violence between the subject and the model/obstacle.  Envy, and rivalry in general, doesn’t come about just because we view someone else as having what we want or being who we want to be; it comes about when that other is proximate to us in space, time or status. Siblings are about as proximate as you can get: They live with us, we spend a lot of time together, and we generally view them as equals, similars, anything but remote. Only twins could be closer.

So it makes sense to me that we would try to differentiate ourselves in many ways from siblings, in order to keep from feeling envious, being rivalrous, and possibly resorting to violence against our siblings.

(Some more of my thoughts on differentiation)

(And some of Alain de Botton’s thoughts)


Why Won’t They Listen? “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt (23 March 2012)

This is a book review by William Saletan of Haidt’s book. Haidt is “a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who … seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature.”

Saletan writes:

‎The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality.

As those familiar with Girard’s work will recognise, according people different status and value based on hierarchy is an excellent way to maintain order.

Later, he writes:

Another aspect of human nature that conservatives understand better than liberals, according to Haidt, is parochial altruism, the inclination to care more about members of your group — particularly those who have made sacrifices for it —than about outsiders. Saving Darfur, submitting to the United Nations and paying taxes to educate children in another state may be noble, but they aren’t natural. What’s natural is giving to your church, helping your P.T.A. and rallying together as Americans against a foreign threat.

Again, valuing one’s own group over “the other” and rallying together against an outward threat is also an excellent way to maintain societal order. It provides an outward focus and target for any enmity and rivalry that may build up within the society, thus protecting the society from doing violence to itself. Unless you consider that an us-them orientation promulgates its own violence.


Finally , on to fiction. I haven’t seen or read The Hunger Games film or trilogy, though friends have and have described it for me.

Father Robert Barron (Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL) writes in the National Review Online about The Hunger Games movie with specific reference to Rene Girard’s work. He cites Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery,” as well as the real-life practices of the Romans and Aztecs in an interesting essay titled The Hunger Games: A Prophecy? (27 March 2012).

From which:

The really interesting question is this: Why has this motif of the sacrificial victim played such a large role in the human imagination for so long? Why do we keep acting out this scenario, both in reality and in our literature? The contemporary literary theorist Rene Girard has speculated that practically every human community is grounded in what he calls “the scapegoating mechanism.” This is the process by which we discharge our societal tensions onto a victim whom we have decided, collectively, to punish. In this, we effectively (at least for a time) manage to bring some peace and stability to our always volatile communities — which goes a long way toward explaining why the scapegoat dynamic is so popular with governments and why it is usually given a quasi-religious sanction.

His conclusion:

Human sacrifice flourished in the midst of some of the most sophisticated and intellectually advanced civilizations in history. …

What haunted me as I watched The Hunger Games was that the instinct for human sacrifice is never far from the surface and that it could easily exist alongside of tremendous cultural and technological sophistication.

We’ve got to become more human

Peter Rollin’s recent interview, Belief is easy (at provoke love), is worth listening to, I think. He is so clear about the false narratives we live by, and why they separate us, and about why acknowledging our brokenness could be so freeing, enlivening, human, and godly.

I couldn’t find a transcript online so I transcribed some of it myself (and bolded some words and phrases that seem important to me):

“I think there’s a universal problem … that we all seek certainty and we all seek satisfaction. All of us want to have a story that tells us why we on this side of the river are right and those people on that side of the river are wrong. Why we are good and they are bad. We all want a story that tells us why we’re here, where we’re going, and what we should do in the meantime.

“When we’re children we start with the story, whenever our parents tell us we’re strong when we’re crying, that we’re brave when we’re [crying?]; that’s a lie – if we’re crying, we’re not brave [well, we might be]. Or you say to a little girl, Oh you’re a little princess. She’s not a little princess.  We create these lies, these stories. But the stories are great, because they give you a sense of mastery, they give the child a sense of “Oh, I’m independent, I’m strong, I’m beautiful,” And it covers over the fact that they’re dependent, that they don’t really have an understanding of what’s going on in the world.

 “And as we grow, we simply develop these stories, into cultural, political, and religious ones. And they do exactly the same thing. They cover over our unknowing, they cover over our brokenness, they give us a sense of mastery, they tell us that I’m right and they’re wrong.” …

“We wanted to begin to interrogate those beliefs that we have, that separate us from each other. Because as soon as I meet you, if you have different beliefs and practices from me, I generally think of you as monstrous and weird. If you have different views on religion, or marriage, or sexuality, or something like that, I think, ‘Wow, you’re bizarre.’

“And I either try to consume you — to make you like me — and if I can’t do that, I want to vomit you out, I want to get you out of my social body, because I can’t integrate your difference. Or I might tolerate you, as long as you don’t tell me what you believe, hide it behind closed doors. Or I engage in interfaith dialogue, where we discuss where we’re both in agreement.

“We wanted to reject all four of those, because in all four of them, I’m right. In the first three, I’m right and you’re wrong. And in the fourth, we’re both right, let’s have tea and biscuits. I wanted to create a space where I see myself through your eyes, and I encounter my own monstrosity. I encounter my own beliefs and practices as weird and contingent, and in doing that face up to the anxieties in my life and give them a place to breathe. …

“We want certainty, and everybody’s offering it. Everywhere you turn, people are saying, ‘Believe this, think this.’ The other thing is satisfaction: We all think there’s something that will fill this gap in our lives. Might be looking a certain way, buying a certain product, worshiping a certain god. And again, for me, this is a problem, that God just becomes another product like BMW, God is just another thing to satisfy your soul.

“We wanted to explore the idea that actually we need to embrace our dissatisfaction, embrace our brokenness, embrace our suffering, speak it into being, and find god not as the solution to it but rather in the midst of it . And find god not as the guarantee that we’re right, but rather god as the mystery that dwells in the unknowing where we acknowledge our brokenness and our inability to have the answers.

“So, you can see it all around you that churches that claim certainty, that claim to have the answers, seem to be growing. And that makes total sense to me. Because belief is easy. … Because we want certainty, we love to know why we are here, we love a story that tells us that we’re important, that we have a place, a story that covers over our brokenness, and so selling certainty is easy. Asking people to interrogate their beliefs, to question some of the things that they hold most dearly … that’s difficult. That’s profoundly hard. “

Later, he talks about the odd idea that churches seem to have that belief is about what we (think we) think, what’s in our mind; when actually, belief is about how we live, what we do: “I want to believe that I don’t believe in child slavery.”  But his actions (and most of our actions) say that we do.

His final words:

“We all want to become more like god, we all want to get out of our limited perspective and take a god’s-eye view. The great thing about Christianity is that if you want to become like god you’ve got to do what god did and become fully human. We’ve got to become more human.”

Photo #25

dark sky over churches, Middlebury VT, Thanksgiving 2010
dark sky over churches, Middlebury VT, Thanksgiving 2010

Now You Know the Worst

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzak Rabin, November 6th 1995.

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another
even our enemies, and this is hard.

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be

the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
your light.

— Wendell Berry