Curtis White

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Curtis White is an American essayist and author. He serves as professor of English at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and as President of the Board of Directors of the Center for Book Culture.


The spirit of disobedience: an invitation to resistance[edit]

Harper's Magazine, April 1, 2006 Full text online

  • Justice, under capitalism, works not from a notion of obedience to moral law, or to conscience, or to compassion, but from the assumption of a duty to preserve a social order and the legal “rights” that constitute that order, especially the right to property. … It comes to this: that decision will seem most just which preserves the system of justice even if the system is itself routinely unjust.
  • The Muslim whose legs-are being reduced to pulp by his American tormentor doesn't care if he's being murdered because he is despised by Christians or because he is an impediment to economic rationality. … For all the inevitability that surrounds the Christian/Enlightenment divide, it should not be so difficult for us to find a third option in our intellectual traditions, even if this tradition seems mostly defeated and lost. It is a tradition that is spiritual and yet hostile to the orthodoxies of institutional Christianity. It is the creation of the Enlightenment and yet it is suspicious of the claims of Reason, especially that form of Reason, economic rationalism, that defines capitalism. This tradition began in Europe with Romanticism and in America with the Concord Transcendentalists.
  • Christianity, for Blake, bled from Jesus his real substance as prophet/poet. Reason, or Ratio, on the other side, born with the scientific revolution, divided the world from the self, the human from the natural, the inside from the outside, and the outside itself into ever finer degrees of manipulable parts.
  • In the fraudulent Manichaeanism of Reason and Revelation, each the light to the other's dark, each more like the other than it knows, the Imagination seeks to be a decisive rupture.
  • Thoreau's disobedience is disobedience as refusal. I won't live in your world. I will live as if your world has ended, as indeed it deserves to end. I will live as if my gesture of refusing your world has destroyed it.
  • Thoreau's famous retreat to Walden Pond is thus in a continuum with his sense of the duty of disobedience. He argued that "under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." Less self-destructively; we might say that Thoreau concluded that you might find a just man outside, at Walden Pond, in a self-created exile that is also the expression of a desire for the next world. He understood this exile as the need to create a society-even if a society of one on the banks of a tiny Massachusetts pond-that he could willingly join.
  • What Marx and Thoreau shared with Christ was a sense that "the letter killeth." What killed was not the letter as Mosaic Law but as secular "legality." Legality had so saturated the human world that it stood before it as a kind of second nature.
  • Time, for Homo economicus, is not “the stream I fo a-fishing in.” It is a medium of exchange. We trade our time for money.
  • The true cost of a thing, Thoreau shrewdly observes, condensing hundreds of pages of Marxist analysis to an epigram, is "the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.”
  • Similar though Marx and Thoreau may be in their accounts of the consequences of living in a society defined by money, their suggestions for how to respond to it are poles apart. Forget the Party. Forget the revolution. Forget the general strike. Forget the proletariat as an abstract class of human interest. Thoreau's revolution begins not with discovering comrades to be yoked together in solidarity but with the embrace of solitude. For Thoreau, Marx's first and fatal error was the creation of the aggregate identity of the proletariat. Error was substituted for error. The anonymity and futility of the worker were replaced by the anonymity and futility of the revolutionary. A revolution conducted by people who have only a group identity can only replace one monolith of power with another, one misery with another, perpetuating the cycle of domination and oppression. In solitude, the individual becomes most human, which is to say most spiritual.
  • The ethereal is gained by simply doing one thing, consciously. "I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it," said Thoreau. What is divine is simply being attentive to what you are doing in the moment you are doing it, assuming that that thing is not merely stupid (i.e., anything you have to do to receive money).
  • The Imagination has always called for a return to the truest fundamentalism contained in the question "What does it mean to be a human being?" Needless to say, this is a question that deserves the deepest and most patient development. It will have to suffice for the present to say that our reigning social reality forbids-structurally, politically, violently—the broad posing of this question.
  • As Simone Weil—perhaps the strangest and most unlikely Thoreauvian solitary, outcast, and transcendentalist of all-wrote, echoing Thoreau's sense of awareness: "The authentic and pure values-truth, beauty, and goodness-in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object." Or, more tersely yet: "Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer."
    It is perhaps the saddest, most hopeless thing we can say about our culture that it is a culture of distraction. "Attention deficit" is a cultural disorder, a debasement of spirit, before it is an ailment in our children to be treated with Ritalin.
  • Although the '60s counterculture has been much maligned and discredited, it attempted to provide what we still desperately need: a spirited culture of refusal, a counter-life to the reigning corporate culture of death. We don't need to return to that counterculture, but we do need to take up its challenge again. If the work we do produces mostly bad, ugly, and destructive things, those things in turn will tend to re-create us in their image. We need to turn to good, useful, and beautiful work. We need to ask, as Thoreau and Ruskin did, What are the life-giving things? Such important questions are answered for us in the present by the corporate state, while we are left with the most trivial decisions: what programs to watch on TV and what model car to buy.
  • What the earliest utopians—Montaigne, Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella—understood was that they fought not for a place but for a new set of ideas through which to recognize what would count as Real: Equality, not hierarchical authority. Individual dignity, not slavish subservience. Our preeminent problem is that we recognize the Real in what is most deadly: a culture of duty to legalities that are, finally, cruel and destructive. We need to work inventively—as Christ did, as Thoreau did—in the spirit of disobedience for the purpose of refusing the social order into which we happen to have been born and putting in its place a culture of life-giving things.

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