Thursday, May 26, 2011

Be Rational, or the Gobble-uns Will Get You!

I'm reading Marge Piercy's The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (Knopf, 1999), and one poem, "For each age, its amulet," took me back to the question of rationality. By contrast with the precautions her grandmother urged on her ("Circle yourself with salt and pray"), Piercy points to the fears and rituals of our modern, scientific society:
By building containers of plutonium
with the power to kill for longer than humans
have walked upright, demons are driven off.
Demons lurk in dark skins, white skins
demons speak another language, have funny hair.
Very fast planes that fall from the sky
regularly like ostriches trying to fly, protect.
Best of all is the burning of money ritually
in the pentagon shaped shrine. In Langley
the largest prayer wheel computer recites spells
composed of all words written, spoken, thought
tapped and stolen from every living person.
One of the perils of thinking yourself rational is that you ignore your own irrationality. As I commented at another blog, "rationality" is something you do, not something you are. No one is perfectly rational all of the time. Compare these observations from Joanna Russ's 1972 review of the science-fiction novel Moderan by David Bunch (collected in The Country You Have Never Seen, University of Liverpool Press, 2007, page 74):
We all know that Reason is superior to Emotion. (After all, look where it’s got us.) And that souls ride inside bodies, like people inside Edsels, right? And that Edsels often break down, leaving us to cry like Saint Paul, Who will deliver me from the body of this death? I have actually met engineers who told me (in all sincerity) that they lived their lives according to the dictates of Reason, and when I got them enraged – which is easy to do – they told me I was irrational. In Love and Will Rollo May describes a patient of his, a chemist, who had invented the perfect daydream erection: a metal pipe extending from his brain directly through his penis. The rest of his body was irrelevant.
And as David Noble wrote in The Religion of Technology: the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (Knopf, 1997, pages 113-14),
The apocalyptic outlook of the weapons-designers is, in essence, no different from that of evangelists: the expectation of inevitable doom. And here too anticipation of annihilation of “blended” with a belief in salvation. For the weapons-designers, the bomb is a means not only of destruction but of deterrence, defense, and deliverance. If nuclear weaponry does not deter attack, it might defend at least some of the species from earthly extinction. And if that too fails, it might be used instead to propel a privileged few scientific saints to safety among the stars. For all their claims of building bombs to avoid disaster, at least some of the nuclear community were hedging their bets by seeking yet another form of technological transcendence, their own technical version of the Rapture: nuclear-powered spaceflight.
Bear in mind that there was never any possibility of getting significant numbers of human beings "to safety among the stars": the fantasy was that the Elect (the scientific self-chosen) would seed the stars with their superior genetic material.