Martin Buber: I and Thou. (10/16/2001)

Working through Martin Buber's I and Thou, something I may have done with a modest enthusiasm many years ago, now seems to require more effort than I am able to generate. My disaffection with Buber's thought stems from his proclivity to express ideas in terms that tend to defeat rational assimilation. His excuse, or justification, for doing this is very similar to the one invented by early church Fathers (Christian) who, when confronted by reasonable questions about the Faith from the philosophers of Athens in the 1st Century, always avoided responding to them with appeals to the fact that God and His nature were essentially incomprehensible to human reason. This attitude allowed them to assimilate a wide range of contradictions that entered Christian ideology from early attempts to make it appealing to Everyman in every place to which it was spreading. The idea that God had to be mysterious to be God was drawn from long-standing traditions of Jewish mysticism, on the one hand, and from every other Middle Eastern tradition, on the other, that perceived the objects of religious veneration, which were often only commonplace things after all, as profound mysteries in and of themselves. The more common an object was, in fact, when it became an object of veneration, the more strange, alien, and mysterious it seemed to be. The Fathers were always quick to point out the fact that pagan idols were only stone or wood, were only the most common objects imaginable, and therefore did not and could not measure up to the invisible Creator of the entire universe that they were promoting and worshipping as an Absolute unity of being.

In his discussion of the ultimate relation that exists between man and God, which he refers to as "I-Thou," Buber says that "[i]n the relation with God unconditional exclusiveness and unconditional inclusiveness are one" (78). The absolute dialectical binary opposition established between these two terms, in effect linking the outside to the inside in a way that cannot happen in the real world, formulates the ultimate ground for mystery that Buber envisions as the basis for all religious discourse at a personal and private level, on the one side, and in the public square, on the other. To admit that this statement makes no sense to me, to say that it is incomprehensible, is very probably precisely what Buber intended. One essential advantage in describing the characteristics of an empty signifier, in this case the relation between man and God called "I-Thou," is the fact that anything at all can be included in the description without fear of any possibility of contradiction arising from the appearance or emergence of the object under scrutiny into the realm of the real world. Anyone can claim to have this relation, can describe it in exactly these terms, without fear of contradiction. God, and man's relations with Him, necessarily fall into the category of an empty signifier, since there is nothing "out there" that will ever appear or arise or come to mind to call the relation's absolute "exclusiveness" and absolute "inclusiveness" into question. Buber's assertion, then, cannot be challenged for the simple reason that God's mystery and God's incomprehensibility, which are always given a priori as conditions for His existence, make it certain that no method of thought will ever be found that might verify the validity of the claim. Faith, however, always steps in here to avert the danger of censure against illogical thinking, where all anyone needs to do is believe that the statement is valid for it to be perceived as such.

Since belief (faith) is more a feeling than it is a function of rational thought, a feeling, furthermore, that even tends to obliterate reason, Buber accepts the task of clarifying a necessary distinction between feeling and relation. He says that

"In distinction from relation a feeling has its place in a scale. But above all, every feeling has its place within a polar tension, obtaining its color and significance not from itself alone, but also from the opposite pole: every feeling is conditioned by its opposite." (81)

This statement should not surprise anyone who is familiar with the logistics of creationist ideology, and in this case especially, since Buber has already anticipated the dialectical direction of his thought in his previous discussion of the inclusive and exclusive character of relation itself. The ground of this ideology rests in the fact that God is the ultimate and absolute Other in His power and dominance over man's frailty and sinfulness, absolute Good versus a paler version of Evil that is only so by virtue of not being absolute, where binary opposition must arise as the only meaningful way to describe every other aspect of reality in a downward spiraling hierarchy reaching out as a direct and inescapable consequence of the initial God-Creator/man-creature relational opposition. The fact that every "feeling has its place in a scale" simply demonstrates the inescapable recognition that binary opposition always sorts itself out in hierarchical structures.

Buber, like most other thinkers confronted by the inequality that must necessarily arise from the existence of hierarchical structure as an inescapable, God-ordained fact of human reality, dodges the bullet of man's unfreedom (without equality how can you be free?) by saying that

"Yes; in pure relation you have felt yourself to be simply dependent, as you are able to feel in no other relation-and simply free, too, as in no other time or place: you have felt yourself to be both creaturely and creative. You had the one feeling then no longer limited by the other, but you had both of them limitlessly and together." (82)

Being "creaturely" and dependent falls out on the side of man's lack of freedom. Its opposite, being "creative" and independent, which is necessarily conditioned by the first or prior feeling of absolute dependence, falls down on the back of man's freedom. Precisely why it is a good thing to be both free and enslaved simultaneously, especially where freedom is an unqualified risk, is a question Buber does not seem to acknowledge. But then, there does not seem to be a way to explain such a thing as that. A point that can always be made here is that being dependent on God, which invariably amounts in reality to being dependent on one of His human agents, since God only rarely appears in person so to speak, and hence profoundly unfree at every level that can actually matter in one's life, has always been much easier and much more comforting than being unbound, chain-less, and totally free, has ever been. Being threatened on every side with everlasting damnation, if you happen to exceed the limits of the chain in an exercise of too much creativity, too much independence, only exacerbates the appearance of the risk that is involved of separating yourself from your enslavement to the Creator. Hence, and inevitably, freedom (as disobedience in the face of the empty signifier) has always been the first sin anyone has ever committed.

From a purely native American point-of-view these issues, especially the ones involving binary opposition and hierarchical structure, have simply never arisen. Buber, like most other Europeans, always knew that someone like me would appear. He could sense the shadow of someone grounded like I am in a perception of reality, of the universe itself, which excludes the necessary a priori condition of a Creator and sees reality instead as something that has always existed, as something that did not come into existence, in every word and thought he voiced. He knew I was stalking him. He also anticipated, as well, that I would then raise, as a result of being too independent, the inevitable and irrefutable objection to his meditations that: starting out with the absence of God as a creative force, I would be unable to find any ground whatsoever to support the existence of binary opposition and hierarchical structures as viable components, much less as necessary ones, of any known universe I have ever seen or imagined. This is true because the Creator/ creature binary is the source of all other oppositions in Western philosophy and religion. Without the Creator such things simply blow away like a fragile mist in the grip of a heavy wind.

Buber refutes my argument will before I have even attempted to state what it is, indeed, even well before I have any reason to make it in the first place. He begins by asserting that primitive man does not create "a tool or a toy" out of any sense of his/her ego consciousness as a "creator," but only because it is his/her "body that wishes to make things" (21). He goes on to say, in a refashioning of Descartes "proof" of existence, that "a cognosco ergo sum, in however naive a form and however childlike a conception of the experiencing subject, cannot be found in the primitive function of knowledge" (21). "I become acquainted with therefore I am," "I get to know therefore I am," or "I learn therefore I am," which is the way Buber's reassessment of Descartes's "I think therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum) reads from the Latin, and which he claims does not exist in the "childlike" consciousness of primitive people, constitutes the oldest and most formative aspect of tribal culture that anyone could ever imagine. I mean here, of course, the emergence of the concepts of spirit-power that have always stood at the very ground of tribal conceptualizations of the natural world. Buber's problem with recognizing spirit as an aspect of "becoming acquainted with," of "getting to know," of "learning" itself, arises from the misconceptions Europeans have always held about the nature and meaning of what spirit represents in native and tribal culture. Standing against God as spirit always has reduces it to superstition at its best and to demonic Evil at its worst, both of which apart, not to mention what they are together, removes them from consideration as knowledge. Starting out with the preconceived notion that primitive must also mean "childlike," and hence incapable of sophisticated thought processes, even devoid of reasoning ability altogether, it is only a single, small step from that racially biased prejudice to bringing oneself to the conclusion that primitive people do nothing and think nothing that could possibly rise to a level high enough above the swamp-scum where we think to attract the attention of always superior Eurocentric arrogance and certitude.

Spirit is the text of every native American teacher. Spirit is the text that every native American learns from the day of his/her birth to the day of his/her death. Spirit is the whole of what one becomes acquainted with during the entire course of living in the real world. Spirit is the world native Americans get to know in both the waking and dreaming any of us are privileged to experience. We do not, however, know God, since no spirit so wrapped in contradiction that it cannot be known has ever presented itself to us. We take that to mean that empty signifiers exist only in the minds of those who invent or imagine them and consequently have no home in the world we occupy.

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