Puppet Masters and Ventriloquists Eating at the Trough in the Age of Uncertainty.
15 December 2015
Dear Colleagues and Friends of CEIMSA,
The cultural hegemony of the medieval Roman Catholic Church controlled the vast majority of the population in Western Europe with the fear of eternal damnation and the hope of salvation. The graphic descriptions provided in the verses from Dante’s Divine Comedy (ca. 1300 AD) illustrate this mechanism of social control which had operated already for nearly a thousand years and would continue for many centuries more. The violence and threat of violence on the part of the Roman Catholic Church is a success story for preserving social inequality and restoring law and order in the face of massive injustices. Marx thought that ideology serves as a cover to conceal material contradictions; it is instructive to note, he believed, that ideas which are concocted in a given context often have an inverse relationship to the material reality and that any analysis should take this into account. Thus, the preaching of ideas for equality serves to ‘naturalize’ real inequalities and to perpetuate the status quo; the rhetorical flourishes celebrating principles of human rights are useful to conceal the daily injustices practiced in the same quarters and to make them tolerable; the lofty pronouncements of citizenship camouflage the venal opportunism practiced routinely in consumer society. In short, ideology is understood as part of a wider phenomenon of the projection of wishful thinking which is often used to hide its contrary in the real material world. A recent example of this is the press conference held by the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Real Admiral John Kirby (USN), where he projects his own short comings onto a RT journalist who is questioning him about US policy in Turkey-Iraq relations. Please see: https://www.rt.com/usa/325550-iraq-turkey-kirby-dodgy/
State Department spokesman John Kirby gets testy when RT’s Gayane Chichakyan asks if Iraq has a legitimate concern over “the situation where the US invites f...
If ideology is mostly an ipso facto production of some idea the meaning of which stands opposite to that of a real material contradiction, then it is a matter of simple geometry to discover from where there is smoke there is fire, i.e. the material contradiction which created this phenomenon is located at its source.
The sight of such contradictions can be terrifying; we can imagine the medieval serfs not wanting to interrupt the flow of food to the aristocracy, nor even think about it. The real material contradiction of the many producers empowering the few owners, who turn around and use that power to dominate them and to periodically destroy them with wars is shockingly ugly when first viewed. The sight of such contradictions is camouflaged by ideology, however, and life goes on, business as usual, as if such relationships did not exist.
For a good illustration of the forces of cultural hegemony during the Spanish occupation of the Medieval Flanders, see the 2011 film, “The Mill and the Cross,” based on the painting by Peter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) - "The Way to Calvary"- and directed by Lech Majewski
(one minute wait to load 1h30 movie)
[The film focuses on a dozen of the 500 characters depicted in Brueghel’s painting. It consists of a series of vignettes depicting everyday peasant life, interspersed with monologues from some of the principal characters, including Brueghel explaining the structure and symbolism of his painting. The theme of Christ's suffering is set against religious persecution in Flanders in 1564.]
In the medieval works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), we see early expressions of genuine disgust with the vapid authoritarian culture that expands quickly into general hypocrisy and sordid criminality. The Canterbury Tales were completed in the 1390s, and its vivid descriptions of social relationships are memorable not for their official piety, but for their bitter satire in portraying individual foibles, such as greed, vanity, hypocrisy, naiveté . . . . The poignant ridicule of greed and dishonesty is expressed in the “The Pardoner’s Tale” :
‘In churches ,’ said the Pardoner, ‘when I preach,
I use, milords, a lofty style of speech
And ring it out as roundly as a bell,
Knowing by rote all that I have to tell.
My text is ever the same, and ever was”
Radix malorum est cupiditas. (The root of evil is greed.)*
‘First I inform them whence I come; that done
I then display my papal bulls, each one.
I show my license first, my body’s warrant,
Sealed by the bishop, for it would be abhorrent
If any man made bold, though priest or clerk,
To interrupt me in Christ’s holy work.
And after that I give myself full scope.
Bulls in the name of cardinal and pope,
Of bishops and of patriarchs I show.
I say in Latin some few words or so
To spice my sermon; it flavors my appeal
And stirs my listeners to grater zeal,
Then I display by cases made of glass
Crammed to the top with rags and bones. They pass
For relics with all the people in the place.
I have a shoulder bone in a metal case,
Part of a sheep owned by a holy Jew.
‘Good men,’ I say, ‘heed what I’m telling you:
Just let this bone be dipped in any well
And if cow, calf, or sheep, or ox should swell
From eating a worm, or by a worm be stung,
Take water from this well and wash its tongue
And it is healed at once. And furthermore
Of scab and ulcers and of every sore
Shall every sheep be cured, and that straightway,
That drinks from the same well. Heed what I say:
If the good man who owns the beasts will go,
Fasting, each week, and drink before cockcrow
Out of this well, his cattle shall be brought
To multiply –that holy Jew so taught
Our elders—and his property increase.
‘Moreover, sirs, this bone cures jealousies.
Though, into a jealous madness a man fell,
Let him cook his soup in water from this well,
He’ll never, though for truth he knew her sin,
Suspect his wife again, though she took in
A priest, or even two of them or three.
‘Now here’s a mitten that you all can see.
Whoever puts his hand in it shall gain,
When he sows his land, increasing crops of grain
Be it wheat or oats, provided that he bring
His penny or so to make his offering.
‘There is one word of warning I must say,
Good men and women. If any here today
Has done a sin so horrible to name
He daren’t be shriven of it for the shame,
Of if any woman, your of old, is here
Who has cuckolded her husband, be it clear
They may not make an offering in that case
To these my relics; they have no power nor grace.
But any who is free of such dire blame,
Let him come up and offer in God’s name
And I’ll absolve him through the authority
That by the pope’s bull has been granted me.’
‘By such hornswoggling I’ve won, year by year,
A hundred marks since being a pardoner.
I stand in my pulpit like a true divine,
And when people sit I preach my line
To ignorant souls, as you have heard before,
And tell skullduggeries by the hundred more.
Then I take care to stretch my neck well out
And over the people I nod and peer about
Just like a pigeon perching on a shed.;
My hands fly and my tongue wags in my head
So busily that to watch me is a joy.
Avarice is the theme that I employ
In all my sermons, to make the people free
In giving pennies –especially to me.
My mind if fixed on what I stand to win
And not at all upon correcting sin.
I do not care, when they are in the grave,
If souls go berry-picking that I could save.
Truth is that evil purposes determine,
And many a time, the origin of a sermon:
Some to please people and by flattery
To gain advancement through hypocrisy,
Some for vainglory, some again for hate.
For when I daren’t fight otherwise, I wait
And give him a tongue-lashing when I preach.
No man escapes or gets beyond the reach
Of my defaming tongue, supposing he
Has done a wrong to my brethren or to me.
For thou I do not tell his proper name,
People will recognize him all the same.
By sign and circumstance I let them learn.
Thus I serve those who have done us an ill turn.
Thus I spit out my venom under hue
Of sanctity, and seem devout and true!
‘But to put my purpose briefly, I confess
I preach for nothing but for covetousness.
That’s why my text is still and ever was
Radix malorum es cupiditas.
For by this text I can denounce, indeed,
The very vice I practice, which is greed.
But though that sin is lodged in my own heart,
I am able to make other people part
From avarice, and sorely to repent,
Though that is not my principal intent.
(from “The Prologue of The Pardoner’s Tale”)
Today, in the 21st Century, contradictions abound, both in the realm of ideas and in field of material relationships; to be well educated means to be equipped with the critical skills to free ourselves from conditioned obedience, to identify manipulation by propaganda, to distinguish truthfulness from intentional distortions and deceitful self-interest --to deconstruct ruling-class edicts so that we can identify the roles played by different value hierarchies which are in conflict (among them capitalist interests in private profits vs. civil interests of social well-being and the environment).
The 10 items below should help raise our level of consciousness to better appreciate the origins of painful contradictions we are now living, and the dire consequences these contradictions inflict on us and on future generations. The inescapable question today is: Who owns society, the class-conscious people or the class-conscious owners of capital, who purchase collusion from elements of the masses?
Professor of American Studies
University of Grenoble-3
Director of Research
University of Paris-Nanterre
Center for the Advanced Study of American Institutions and Social Movements
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