Wednesday, August 06, 2008

An(other) Omen Read Wrong

Recently, I was reminded of a passage from Micheal Herr's excellent 1977 memoir Dispatches. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War, he helped write the screenplays for Coppola's Apocolypse Now and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and he (along with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe) pioneered the literary genre of the nonfiction novel. There's an excellent documentary called First Kill about what war does to the human psyche (in Greek, both "mind" and "soul")--including an exploration of what has come to be known as "the libido of war"-- that is partially based on Herr's Dispatches. It includes several interviews with Herr and you can watch it online here. But, back to Dispatches...

There's a short section from Dispatches in which Herr bemoans the circus of misinformation that was the Vietnam War, at the end of which he recounts the following anecdote about U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam (and former Vice-Presidential candidate) Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.:

"One day in 1963 Henry Cabot Lodge was walking around the Saigon Zoo with some reporters, and a tiger pissed on him through the bars of its cage. Lodge made a joke, something like, “He who wears the pee of the tiger is assured of success in the coming year.” Maybe nothing’s so unfunny as an omen read wrong." (Dispatches, 50)

I suppose it's mostly unnecessary for me to explicate the analogy between the "wars" in Vietnam and Iraq here. It should suffice to say that our current mess is in large part the result of a series of monumentally bad judgments-- many of which were, effectively, wrongly read omens. Of course, some of the Iraq-related bad judgments have also included outright misinformation, and not simply imperfect communication, but for now I want to stick to the omens...

The thing is, "hard facts" by themselves reveal precious little about the reasons for America's involvement in Iraq. Were there really WMD's in Iraq before we invaded? It matters far less than you think. For all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that the Conservative Right does about postmodern relativism, their treatment of the "fact" of WMD's demonstrates that, quite often, the "world that is the case" is no contest for those who need to see the world as some determinate "sign" or another. Facts are only ever omens, sometimes manufactured as booby-traps for those of us seeking a coherent meaning behind all this madness and bloodshed. They must be read, they often are misread, and although the world that is the case may offer some resistance to our interpretations of it, rarely does it muster enough resistance. It is always our charge as the custodians of logos to interpret omens, to attach meaning and significance to the representations that history hands over to us. And, as Herr says, nothing is so unfunny as when we do that badly.

It's no use, I think, simply to complain that the world is mediated, as opponents of revisionist history are often wont to do. There is a use, however, in complaining when that world is mediated in stupid, non-critical, or manifestly manipulative ways... as it has obviously been with the Iraq War. As my friend anotherpanacea says in his recent excellent post on Interpretation, "philosophy is the practice of making sense of the world we share." So, we philosophers should be the first to stand up and say something like "No, Hank, the tiger just pissed on your leg. That's all there is to it." And on the eve of what (I hope) will be a new administration in this country, it is the philosopher's job to vociferously protest the further distribution of badly-manufactured historical accounts of this war.

Again, from Herr's Dispatches:
"Straight history, auto-revised history, history without handles, for all the books and articles and white papers, all the talk and the miles of film, something wasn’t answered, it wasn’t even asked." (Dispatches, 49)

If we're not asking whether or not we are reading the omens in the best possible way, then who will? Il n'y a pas de hors-texte!


emma b said...

With this I fully agree: "It is always our charge as the custodians of logos to interpret omens, to attach meaning and significance to the representations that history hands over to us." Well stated Doctor J.

I'm wondering, though, whether it might be worth here making a distinction between the historical representations or signs from nature (e.g.tiger piss, Hurricane Katrina), and signs from the human world (e.g. nuclear capabilities in Iran).

The latter seem amenable to analysis via various frameworks (asking questions such as: "what are the economic motivations at work? What are the vectors of power? Whose interests are being served? What unconscious motivations are amenable to being brought to light? etc.).

The former are entirely more mysterious, and yet oddly clear it seems to me, if we have ears to listen. I cannot help but read the hurricanes, typhoons, fires, the frog and bee deaths as glaringly, screamingly, unambiguously obvious signs that we need to change our earth-ravaging ways. And the experience I have with feline pissing behavior tells me there's no mean hostility there too. But of course this has no philosophical credibility at all... But the injunction to interpret remains.

"The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign" - Heraclitus.

Booga Face said...

I like his point, "It wasn't even asked." And another way to put it:

"There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. And there are unknown unknowns." -- Rumsfeld
"And there are also unknown knowns." -- Zizek
Anyway, nice post.

Brunson said...

I do like thinking of taking an article and slaughtering it to read its intestines for authorial intent (this is not sarcasm).

DOCTOR J said...

Brunson: You know, of course, that sometimes "authorial intent" is the worst criterion by which to judge! (See Booga's comment above.)

Brunson said...

Oh certainly - I just liked the idea of auguring the will of the Author of Nature. But of course sheep intestines and papers are both mostly full of shit.