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"The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," — Eli Siegel

March 31, 2007
Discussing the Philosophy of Culture Change-- & the Opposites of Difference and Sameness

In his opening comments to the lecture Ethics Is a Living Thing--which I will be among those presenting on May 6--Eli Siegel gave the philosophic beginnings for understanding how social change and individual psychology belong to each other. It was while he spoke of the Peasant's Rebellion of 1381 and the postal workers' strike of 1970. The workers won that strike on March 25, 1970, and Mr. Siegel saw huge meaning in it:

For the first time in American history, the people in America said they were the government, and had a right to say so. People representing the American people said, You don't stand for us. This method of giving us justice won't do, and we have to get back to first things. We don't like it! And a strike is a way of saying "we don't like it!"

Now, in history there are things like that and they have to do with the poetic matter, the art matter, of difference within sameness and sameness within difference. That is what has to be understood by a critic of poetry, it's the largest matter. It includes the looking at separate lines, looking at words; the technical and the universal are close. [P. 1, script for Ethics Is a Living Thing]

....The worst kind of battle in the world is with another part of yourself; it corresponds in a way to the history of government and people as we have it in politics. It is a phase of sameness and difference. There is a difference in our sameness and we try to kill it as much as possible, because it is hard to see the friendliness or oneness of the two. [P. 44 script for Ethics Is a Living Thing]

An individual self--a self struggling to remain THE SAME and conservative and in a fight with the part of itself that wants to be DIFFERENT--is like a society in which ethical forces both for and against change are struggling. To help show why this is so important to the understanding of social change, I give some samples.

One of the best examples I know, in which a political battle corresponded to the ethical battle in self, occurred in Oksapmin, New Guinea, before contact with Europeans. What happened was literally a prehistoric revolution against a selfish leader. I write about it in Oksapmin Society and World View and I write about it in Gwe, Young Man of New Guinea: a novel against racism. Let me summarize it here. A man became very rich and consequently a leader in the community. His family had more than other families. He had much land cultivated with food plants but didn't give food to people in need. He had three wives. (No other rich man had more than two.) Whatever ethical obligation he felt toward his community he had put aside and done away with. At last, he went beyond what the community could tolerate--he had so much contempt for the rights of others. And so it was arranged that he would be killed, secretly, under cover of the next battle with the neighboring community. His brother was the person who would kill him. And the reason is this: his brother was the man who would be obligated to avenge his death if anyone else were to kill him. Sure enough, there was a fight with bows and arrow in close quarters with the community next door. Under cover of this fight, the murder was accomplished. The whole community was responsible.

In every one of us there is something that demands that we honor the rights of people different from ourselves. And too, that we stand up for our own rights when they are just--don't let an injustice pass by because it's more comfortable and safer to do so. And in everyone there is a desire to ignore this, to put it aside, to kill it. This critic of ourselves inside ourselves has been called the conscience--the "still small voice." More philosophically, Mr. Siegel calls it in the quoted paragraphs "the difference in our sameness." For we consist of sameness because every bit of us, every atom (as Walt Whitman might say), has in common that it's me. But there's a fierce advocate for difference in that sameness. It can take the form of guilt, conflict, self-regret; indeed, "The worst kind of battle in the world is with another part of yourself."

For example take an Oksapmin story of a rich man who steals sweet potatoes from others' gardens and also uses magic to kill lots of animals for himself in the mountain heights. In the story there is a symbolic objection to his selfishness: armed men come dancing into his hideaway. Then, he shares his ill gotten goods with them. When a person dismisses the rights of people and animals different from oneself, something in one, represented by the dancing and threatening warriors, objects. That objection is within everyone.

In the instance of legal assasination that I described three paragraphs above, the ethical obligation of a rich man was not honored by him. And so, it was necessary for his neighbors to enforce it. Rather than have the sameness of culture go on as before--where nothing essential changes--a note of Difference was introduced: indeed, a revolution.

Cultural change is always a philosophic, or aesthetic, compound of difference within sameness and sameness within difference. In each case we need to ask, is there a difference, a nucleus for change, implicit within the seemingly smooth sameness of everlasting cultural continuity? Is there a conservatism, a desire not to change anything, keep things the same, implicit within the thrust for change and impeding it? What is the ethics of this change--is its purpose to make people stronger? or to make them weaker? What is the ethics of this conservatism--is its purpose to make people stronger? or to make them weaker?

I will not attempt to go into it in all its ramifications now, because an unethical change can appeal to the ego and take over a whole culture. For years it may seem to be a mere ripple of difference--an unimportant ripple in well-established cultural norms--as the Hitler movement in the 1930s Germany appeared to so many of German Jews.

Here is one further example of an ethical objection that caused new cultural possibilities to enter the consciousness of England and the western world: the Peasants' Rebellion of 1381 in England.

Despite the feudal laws and culture that elevated the landlords and denigrated the peasantry, there was an advocate for the peasant serf within every peasant--"Have ye not felt the strong, indignant throb / of justice in your bosoms?" [Robert Southey's Wat Tyler] That "strong, indignant throb" was more powerful at a certain time than time-honored cultural constraints--the sameness of continuing forever a bad social and economic system. The French 14th century historian Froissart tells it this way:

These unhappy people of these said countries began to stir, because they said they were kept in great servage, and in the beginning of the world, they said, there were no bondmen, wherefore they maintained that none ought to be bond... saying why should they then be kept so under like beasts; the which they said they would no longer suffer... []

For now that's all I will say about cultural change and the ethical situation underlying it. I hope to take it up again with more examples.



Jean Froissart, The Chronicles of Froissart, translated by John Bourchier, Lord Berners. [Edited by: G.C. Macaulay. Harvard Classics: P. F. Collier & Son Company . New York
1910 The Harvard Classics]

Eli Siegel, Ethics Is a Living Thing. Lecture on Robert Southey's Wat Tyler. Lecture of March 25, 1970. Presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, including May 6, 2007.

Robert Southey, Wat Tyler, written in 1794, published in 1817. Electronic Version, University of Maryland, edited by Matthew Hill [].



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Critical Links

bulletAesthetic Realism Foundation bulletAesthetic Realism Online Library  
  bulletMy Weblog: "A New Perspective" bulletMy Weblog: "An Anthropologist Speaks"  
  bulletEllen Reiss on "Criticizing" John Keats (1818) bulletThe Theatre Company I Work With  
  bulletA Class I Attended, Conducted by Ellen Reiss bulletTerrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation  
  bullet"Jobs, Discontent, and Beauty" bullet Aesthetic Realism vs. Racism  
  bulletEllen Reiss on poems of Robert Burns and Eli Siegel, & the prose of J.K. Rowling  


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