Saturday, December 3, 2011

Parmenides & The Teenagers

How smart we used to be, before these days, these days of the security state. In the news yesterday, on a single day, I read that a pregnant nineteen year old girl was stopped at the airport because the purse she was carrying had an image of a gun worked into decoration on the side of it. The guards didn't for a moment think it was a gun. But they thought they should be concerned that someone else would think it was a gun. The girl was detained, and missed her plane. A boy of the same age, who'd just applied for work with an armored car service, taps on the window of an armored car belonging to that company wanting to ask the driver about the job. The boy is arrested for possibly attempting a robbery.

In the dialog Parmenides Plato has Zeno explain that his paradoxes were meant to show unacceptable consequences follow if Parmenides (500 B.C.) was wrong. Movement and division were illusions, because if they were not, rationality and sanity were illusions. We had to take our pick. Either rationality and sanity, and live in a world that was illusory. Or be insane and irrational in a real world.

I am ashamed to say, being a member of the human species, that we have chosen the second alternative.

Parmenides did his teaching in the form of story telling. A story is made up of words, which are separate things, and a story moves from one word to another. His saying movement and division are illusions also is an illusion.

What I haven't told you is that Parmenides gives us his teaching in the form of a myth. The characters are gods no one has ever seen, and it occurs in places no one will ever visit.

A myth is a kind of toy, and a toy is something we enjoy more the more obviously unreal it is. The more clear the unreality of some aspects of the toy, the more joy and clarity there is in our playful movement with the others.

A goddess in the story advises Parmenides to defend himself from the illusions of movement and division. Once we've heard this story, we play with it, learning to do what Parmenides was advised to do. What makes the story an extra good toy, makes it a myth, is that we can find the identical outlines of story in our own lives. We resist the temptation to take the world of division and movement seriously. We see movement and division as nothing more than those aspect of the toy that tell us what we are playing with is a toy. Like Parmenides we are being guided by gods into unreal worlds, on a passage through strange places back home to wholeness and stability.

The airport guard sees the image of a gun, knows it is obviously unreal, but tells himself another guard, someone who responds to signs of danger, might respond to this sign. The response would be rash, would be irrational, but deliberation and rationality are not involved in a situation entirely defined by word and movement, division and instability. Just saying the word "gun", I've been told by a guard at the airport, makes you extra suspicious. Words divided from each other, and removed from the life of the speaker, trigger fear or aggression, impersonal movements of emotion abstracted from individual life.

The guard can't pay attention to what is before his eyes because he must assume inattention. Inattention is essential to the role he plays. Inattention is the abstraction of every other human quality but which defines the role. Every role is divided from every other, is defined by its separation from other roles. People in roles respond, make movements without individuality, that is, with fear or aggression, in response to people in other roles making equally abstracted, divided, impersonal movements of aggression and fear.

The armored car driver cannot pay attention to, cannot see: teenaged boy, friendly face, no weapon, cannot let himself imagine the boy might want to warn him a tire is flat, the engine is leaking fluid, or a gang of masked men are waiting around the corner with a grenade launcher. The armored car driver is not allowed to pay attention, because he must consider the role which assumes inattention. He calls the police, and the police do exactly the same, arrest the boy, the employment application still in his pocket, because the movement of a divided thing must be pure movement, that is based on fear or aggression, because a divided thing has no other qualities to act on than what defines the division. Airport guards, armored car drivers, police officers act in response to threats, and nothing else. By definition they're inattentive. Teenage boys and girls, beware!

Parmenides never said there was no division and movement. He said a goddess tells us not to take them seriously. Parmenides reminds us we have choices in how we relate to the world. We can take it seriously or we can play with it. Our times show the irrational, unacceptable consequences of not listening.