Yes, yes. I know the election is over and, as a third-party voter myself, I don’t believe I’ll smell like sour grapes here regarding the results, but still there’s something about that Obama video. It’s the one where actress Lena Dunham compares her first voting experience to losing her virginity. “Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody,” says Dunham, and the political ad targeting the college-age voter, presumably female, goes on, and on, and on.

The older I get the more I think the best insights into the important parts of life are gained from looking at things through the lens of contraction rather than expansion. In other words, instead of looking at concrete, mechanistic, tangible, manipulable, supposedly real and primal ‘building blocks’ as being prior, and more important, than the larger, less mechanistic, more fluid, more poetic ideas or substances, I see the reverse. I’ve learned to see what normally goes by the name of progress as ‘a fall:’ a dimming, hardening, shriveling, and ossification of a prior, robust, living reality. The Big Bang, in this way of looking at the world, gets us thinking in the wrong direction, philosophically, and is probably a big bust scientifically as well.

‘Jobs’ talk, therefore, as an example of this way of thinking, is ‘the fall’ of ‘vocation’ or ‘a calling.’ It’s an ossification, collapse and dimming of a much larger reality. And, generally speaking, as a kind of law with all of this, when the larger reality gets collapsed, reduced or hardened into the smaller because of its ‘fall,’ the smaller reality collapses itself.  When ‘vocation’ collapses into ‘jobs,’ we lose the sense of a ‘calling’ and, eventually, we can’t even provide ‘jobs.’

But back to that Obama video. It seems to me to exemplify ‘the fall’ of at least three important realities, the collapse of which have many of our young scratching their head with confusion, and a experiencing lot of hangover-type pain. We put all of our faith in these collapsed remains and, no matter how much we try to squeeze life out of them, they just don’t, (because they can’t), deliver on the impossible demand made upon them.

SEX IS THE FALL OF EROS:  The first example of ‘the fall’ in the video is the typical view of sex it exemplifies. The implicit assumption here is the one of emergent evolution whereby the sex-instinct is the underlying reality and love is, what Owen Barfield calls a “late-come embroidery on it.” Sex is, for Lena Dunham in the video, obviously the central thing but at the same time almost unremarkable. The truth is, however, that Eros is, or should be, everywhere and sex should be its sacrament or flowering.  Eros is ideally that which connects people with nature.  It should be what gives us love of our place as well as passion in our calling.

Sadly, however, through its fall into just ‘sex,’ it aids in hypermobility and rootlessness as people run from the scenes and places of bad sexual relationships. And work, because of its increasingly mechanical and repetitive nature, as well as its apparent purposelessness, creates more nervous tension for which the relief is, yep, more sex. The cycle goes on. “For many people in a technological society,” says Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement, “the only real bit of nature they are ever going to encounter is the body of another person.” So sex itself collapses under and impossible demand made upon it.  As writer Marc Gafni says, “The modern zeitgeist has slain all the gods save Aphrodite, the Goddess of sexual love. Yet she cannot survive alone.”

THE VOTE IS THE FALL OF POLITICS:  In the video, Dunham compares voting for the first time to having sex for the first time, not in order to stress its smell of death or highlight its relative insignificance, but actually to make a case for its central importance!  Countless people have made this case better than I can here but, contra Dunham, the vote should be, in many respects, the least significant act of a citizen who has a robust engagement with politics and with all that has traditionally gone along with civic virtue.

What this context adds to that diagnosis is simply to suggest that the vote could be the flowering or ‘sacrament’ of a healthy political life but when it’s not, and it’s actually the dried-husk remains of the ossification of citizenship, it actually collapses itself.  Substitute, if you will, the word “voted” for something sexual like “got some” in any statement about hook-ups and you’ll see that it also rings true:  “I finally voted but I’m just as depressed, lonely and confused as I was yesterday.” Lacking a larger view of political life, voting, despite the hype, reeks of death.  For many people, the same bad taste could have been their mouth’s companion on the morning on November 7th if, instead of voting, they had picked up some dead leaves and had given them a good chew.

THE FALL OF LITERACY:   In a much less direct way, the video also takes for granted and seems to relish in what I would call the fall of literacy.   Though nowadays, partly as a result of testing and partly as a result of lowest-common-denominator schooling in general, literacy means to most people the simple ability to free words from a page, (or, more normally, a screen), using the tools of a phonetic alphabet.  Literacy, however, used to have many more connotations than that.  In A Is for Ox:  The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age and other books, Barry Sanders, provides a rich history of literacy, (and its collapse, or ‘fall’), that shows how literacy used to connote a robust inwardness and inner life.  It involved mother love and mother’s stories, intersubjectivity and introspection.  As literates in this larger sense, we could look inward and see our life as a story with a past, present and a future.  Sanders contrasts this robust literacy with the case of ‘wild boy’ (feral child) Kaspar Hauser, who showed up inNuremberg in 1828.  He lacked the ability to express himself with more than grunts and groans, and he even lacked a name, Kaspar Hauser being a name given to him later.  Despite later being taught Latin and Greek, Hauser never gained an integrated sense of himself or a satisfactory inner life.  Lena Dunham seems to be seeking to appeal to just such empty, unintegrated ‘literates.’

The fall of literacy mirrors the fall of politics which mirrors the fall of eros.  The worldview espoused in the video which was targeted towards college students is an insult to their intelligence as, in its primitiveness and festishization of fallen realities, it seems to address the college-aged as being closer to feral children than fully realized humans.   Not to worry, though. The sky is darkest right before the dawn. In placing these dark realities in the context of ‘the fall’ there are implicit echoes of the ideas of ‘redemption’ and ‘resurrection.’ In other words, the future is not all in our hands. And any of us who works with young people know there is interest and hope in cooperating in the great work of the redemption of literacy, of politics, of eros. The first step, however, is to pronounce dead things dead, and I think that’s beginning. With a bit of faith and a lot of hard work, the future is bright indeed.

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  1. Fascinating and thought-provoking write-up. Thanks.

    A few humble ramblings here sometimes along these lines, sometimes against the grain.

    First for the ossification process, you might want to look into Joseph Tainter’s lecture on Youtube (in 7 parts) “The Collapse of Complex Societies” and his book of the same name. His basic theory is that societies become complex through solving problems and this creates ossification until society can no longer properly adapt to changing circumstances and it collapses. Also as far as which side came first (and on the literacy point) you may find Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy” to be very interesting.

    The whole jobs talk, I agree, is a manifestation of this problem. Indeed jobs are the problem, not the solution. Jobs are the reason we have a gender pay gap. If we didn’t have jobs, but rather self-employment and vocation, these would no longer be meaningful.

    For sex, sex is so heavily cultural that any discussion will take up too much space, so I will skip it for now.

    For voting, I think the big lie we have been taught is that voting is how we make a difference, but voting is the end of the process for anyone who wants to make a difference, not the process in miniature. It is simply the way one gives bite to the rest of advocacy. The decay is from voice to vote as the measure of being politically active. In fact voting makes no difference by itself. It only makes a difference if it is a small part of how one makes one’s voice heard, and then (and only then) it is no small thing.

  2. Enjoyed this article (if enjoyed is the right word, given the subject matter.) As an English teacher I especially agree with the point on literacy. I actually had to read A is for Ox in college and I can tell you that it has influenced the way I teach to this day.

  3. Fascinating remarks on ossification theory and its application. Could this collapsing trajectory also be understood as an errant abstraction, a “fall” into misplaced concreteness (mistaking a part for the whole)? A move that mistakes itself for and so loses touch with the truth of a greater sacramental/incarnational reality? Enacting on a cognitive level what always gets sadly practiced when we imagine ourselves as godlets. A very useful post . Thank you.

  4. Perhaps another way of expressing the fall is that the means have become the end: sex is merely one of the means associated with eros and not the only one; voting is merely one of the means of political life and not the only one, as the author say, not even the primary one; and lifting words off a page is one of the means of literacy. I would, however, add that what passes for sex is not even sex but a mutual masturbation, since it is not generally to goal of hookups and fornication to produce fruit in the womb; for sex, properly understood is the way that a male and a female a species produce an offspring or a next generation as opposed to an individual of the species doing so asexually. Ironically, Clinton was right; he was “not having sex with that woman.”

  5. I think the Dunham ad was a weak attempt to associate some kind of Christian values with the Obama campaign in order to win the youth vote. Since women and young people put him in office in 2008, they thought they would kill two birds with one stone. After all, Dunham is y0ung and is a woman – if you can call her that. Add to that sexual immorality and the perverted connection between virginity and voting. That should seal the deal. And it did.

  6. Thought-provoking piece, and I do see the trends you describe, but to imagine these three phenomenon as “collapsed,” or “fallen” they must have been realized in the first place. In much of US history, civic participation and literacy were limited by class, gender, ethnicity and other markers of status. College attendance has skyrocketed in the last few generations. Political participation has broadened. The kind of romantic love you describe, a 19th century modern conception, is only one expression of human intimacy. “Lust” is quite natural (a biological imperative) and its expression is certainly not a new phenomenon.

    Having said all that, I do think we should be concerned with and encourage, deeper relationships, more civic participation and true literacy. What is interesting about these times is that we are becoming more aware of ourselves; we are beginning to see our society clearer. Your article is quite interesting, just a bit nostalgic.

  7. Aphrodite indeed cannot live alone. She is the lover of Ares. Between the two they have given birth to contemporary America.

  8. I despise this ad and all it stands for, but I can’t follow your remarks about literacy at all. Is the ad anti-literate because it takes place on a computer screen? In that case, the ship sailed long ago.

  9. “. . . Lena Dunham compares her first voting experience to losing her virginity.”

    In fact, she does not. She talks about her first time voting in a way that deliberately mimics the way a woman might describe her first time having sex, but nowhere does she “compare” the two.

    If you want to critique our culture (and there’s much to critique) you need to start with an accurate description of what it is you’re critiquing. So, eg, this article could begin, “This ad shows a young woman talking about voting in a way that mimics how someone might talk about sex. The humor in this piece occurs as he viewer realizes that this is an ad, and that advertisers have been slyly insinuating sexual references into advertisements for decades. The ad takes that practice up a notch toward the realm of absurdity–hence the humor. Now, let me explain why all those concerned about the imminent collapse of western civilization should be in high moral dudgeon about this . . .”

    Like that.

  10. John, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. This has been going on in the mass media almost since there was a mass media. All advertising is built on taking a marketable commodity, such as a car or a coke, and identifying, thru clever images and suggestions, with a non-marketable commodity, like love, peace, or prestige, etc. It is all a deliberate attempt to corrupt the inmost core of the person by confusing that which is truly valuable with that which merely has a price.

  11. I understood only 20%, maybe 25%, of what Ms Dunham said. Her articulation was awful. Has she not learned about the elementary sounds of the English language, abour vocals, subvocals and aspirates? The use of rising and falling inflections?

  12. John is on to something there. The show GIRLS is hardly a celebration of decadence. This Lena is pretty smart and nothing if not self-deprecating.

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