Tuesday, July 02, 2013

God flip

I've just finished Deborah Bird Rose's Wild Dog Dreaming, my first Kindle-for-Mac book (hence no page references, sorry). It covers a lot of territory, including a powerful meditation on the Book of Job, imagining that at least one of Job's dogs must have kept him company on the ash heap - which manages, somehow, to change everything.

Dogs, Rose shows with both dingo stories from Australia and myths and poems from ancient and contemporary societies, invite us to a more complex relationship with the earth. They care for us, engage us in our humanity in a profound way. (An essay by Levinas, "Name of a dog," is the surprise proof text for this: a dog named Bobby alone acknowledged the humanity of Jewish prisoners of war during WW2, but Levinas, writing several decades later, can't return the gesture and respond to the "face" of a dog.) Yet hers is no romantic view of cuddly puppies:

What with their howling at the threshold of life and death, their eating of corpses, and their public sex, dogs bring sex and death together in the most visible and stunningly extravagant ways. The dogs’ outrageous excessiveness is so dog, and so world, so in the present, so in the face of human conventions, and thus forever a reminder of our connections within the world of life, lust, death, grief, and unbounded enthusiasms and desires.

Have I mentioned that Rose's first work, her most fieldwork-based book, was called Dingo makes us human? This book fleshes that claim out more broadly. And its base notes remain Aboriginal in inspiration.

She ends this book with a description of a moment early in her fieldwork when a fraught funeral was happening outside but she was kept inside by Old Tim Yilngayarri, telling her stories about birth. This was more than a diversion. Aboriginal worlds build in oscillations between life and death, as they do between humans and other forms of life. Aboriginal ritual moves between dance and non-dance, music and non-music; the gaps between precisely scripted moments are filled with humor and improvisation. Rose quotes ethnomusicologist Cath Ellis' description of Aboriginal music as "iridescent," characterized by the shifting of figure and ground. Rose calls this the "flip."

In the performance of ceremony, there are many flips. For the dancer there is the flip between the feet on the ground and the ground on the feet: Who is the dancer, and who is the danced? If we focus on motion, it is clear that both are dancer and danced, and that the significance of this mutuality is located in the flip back and forth between us.

The flip is part of what Rose commends to us as ways of living in a time of extinctions, extinctions in part triggered by the culture of human beings claiming to be, like Job's God, separate from and superior to the Earth. Her reading of Job doesn't consider the largely Earthy content of the divine speeches. The closest she'll come to theism is this gloss on Old Tim's exclamation, "True God! God's a man: Lord Jesus":

Sometimes he is human, sometimes not, sometimes clever, sometimes not. There is always an element of uncertainty; we can’t know for sure which person or animal is god at any moment. 

Rose's objection to God-talk is that it refuses the ambiguity of life - think of those unruly life-loving death-dealing dogs - an ambiguity falsified by categorical distinctions of nature or value and better understood in terms of an embodiment of the "law of participation" Lévy-Bruhl thought characteristic of animist cultures. What she's recommending isn't an easy New Age spirituality either.

The flip is not an oscillation outside of time, but rather, as part of life, it works with the dynamics of disorder and creation. It is important to note that the philosophy of the flip runs counter to two important maxims that are current within contemporary spirituality movements. It is not possible that “we are all one” in flip philosophy. Differences must exist; there must be I and You, self and other, death and life, in order for there to be flips back and forth. Nor is it possible that “everything is connected to everything.” It is the movement away that makes possible the movement toward. The unmaking and the making both matter. 

Dingoes apparently often appear in human form, but never to us humans. We need to learn to be part of a world wiser than we are - even about what it means to be human.

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