The Moment of Truth — July 21, 2007

Hey, You Got Your Ghost in My Machine!

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the friendly ghost in the machine.

The muscle car still exists, and of all categories of desirable automobile, the muscle car is the glory of the proletariat in the USA. In the last two decades the muscle car has acquired a certain amount of snob appeal. But to be a true muscle car it must be owned by someone making an hourly blue-collar wage. Or at least someone with some kind of muscle. Because the muscle in the muscle car is not limned within the frame and chassis, its owner contributes some of the muscle. It’s part muscle, part car.

This makes sense if you think back to when social theory people were writing about how machines had become extensions of the human body, a notion we take so much for granted that it’s a cliché now. The car is the sine qua non of this image. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that driving long distances to and from work is plenty of exercise for one day. If you’re someone who drives a lot, and your car is out of commission for any length of time, part of you has been amputated. There are even phantom cars, just like there are phantom limbs. People know exactly where their missing car should be parked and what they should be able to do with it—except it’s not there, it’s in the shop. But it’s mapped in the brain, like the human body is, it’s part of the brain’s map of the body, circumscribed within the four points of the feet, eyes, hands and tush.

It’s said that the part of the brain corresponding to the feet is immediately adjacent to the part corresponding to the genitals. This is supposed to explain foot fetishism. But it also explains the fetishism of driving. One foot-pedal sends volatile fuel into a combustion chamber creating explosions that release power, heat, speed—thrills! Another brings the gears together to mesh and transfer energy. And another pedal has the power to bring the whole sexual combination beast-machine to a screeching halt. I need not belabor the point. You all know what I’m talking about.

All this is by way of saying that any extension of the body is an extension of the brain and, by extension, of the mind. What’s odd is that the mind has had such an easy time distinguishing itself from the body, philosophically severing itself from the body, and building all kinds of barriers between itself and the body. The mind has always thought of the body as its filthy drunken cousin and a constant source of embarrassment.

Of course, the mind can’t keep itself entirely separate, or even partially separate, from the body. That’s why the mind had to come up with the soul. The mind, in its egotism, thinks of itself as the self. And of course the self at its core is pure, not filthy like the body. So why does the mind so often involve itself in such an unseemly manner with the body’s filthy business, even going so far as to procure for the body the means of practicing its vices? Well, it must be because the body’s filthy influence corrupts the mind, dragging the unwitting, helpless but otherwise pure soul around with it. The soul is like Oliver Hardy, always telling Stan Laurel, the body, “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”

I’m speaking here of the mind as constructed in Western philosophy and the soul as conjured by Judeo-Christianity—though in no way are they limited by geography or denomination.

There was an influential Khasidic rabbi in the 18th century named Nahman of Bratslav. He founded the Bratslaver Khasidim. And the stories that he told are renowned for their allegorical richness. But he also had some weird dreams. One of his followers jotted down Nahman’s description of one of his dreams that went something like this: I was walking down the street and recognized a very very righteous rabbi, but no one would say “hello” to him or even give him a glance. In fact they made it a point to stay as far away from him as possible. I wondered why they were treating such a holy man this way, and then I was made to understand: this rabbi’s body was made up of unclean parts of other people’s bodies, and the rabbi had agreed to inhabit this constructed body in order to redeem these unclean parts.

In Nahman’s dream, not only is the body a filthy dwelling for the pure soul, but this particular body is a Frankenstein stitched together from the worst pieces of a bad lot. It’s a collage costume made of rotten meat. Yet the soul of a righteous man is so powerfully holy it can even rehabilitate the worst of the worst. Even more telling is the reaction of the general public to the rabbi. They only recognize the superficial filthiness. Nahman, of course, being a righteous man himself and possessed of judgment unclouded by the body’s corrupting influence, recognizes the soul.

For us normal people, though, the body’s corrupting influence is a constant danger to our souls. Our souls are just too weak to fight off the infection. So a pure and innocent soul, forced to travel for a lifetime in a human body, might become so tainted that when it’s finally released from the body there’s nothing to do but throw it onto the scrap heap or institutionalize it in one of the afterlife asylums for the spiritually deranged. Or it might have its corruption purged in a purgatory. Or it might be sent back into a body to try again—some doctrines even suggest that only the corrupt parts of the soul are sent back, glued together with other corrupt parts of similarly situated souls into one soul, to live again and make another try for redemption. Or the corrupt parts might be accompanied in their new body by a helper soul who isn’t so screwed up.

In any case, the soul lives on. Whereas the body turns to dust.

But the cultural construction has it backwards. In reality, the body is indestructible, its matter and energy persisting in the world long after the soul, mind, or whatever you want to call the Self, has vanished. Our bodies, their vices, and all the paraphernalia of their vices, are made of matter that was forged in the earliest stars, and long after our sun has died, the matter and energy that constitute us and our material surroundings will still be around in the universe. It’s our identities that will disappear. Or at least, that’s what seems to happen. When a person dies, you can still see her body or what’s left of it, but the soul or mind or self is gone. That’s what’s so disturbing about dead people. They’re just piles of meat and bones. The thing that used to call that pile of meat and bones “me myself and I” is not around anymore. And the simplest explanation is, that’s that.

It’s the purest form of self-delusion that we’ve turned reality inside out to make our Selves feel good. When Oliver Hardy accuses Stan Laurel of having gotten them into another fine mess, the mess is equally Hardy’s fault, if not more so. Like the Bush administration blaming the media and the lack of will of the people for its own failures in its wars, the soul-mind-self doth protest too much.

The souls thinks it’s some pure thing ennobling the repugnant flesh. But in reality the flesh, like the machine, is perfectly innocent. It goes about its business without making value judgments. It derives no morality which it then hypocritically violates. It’s the soul-mind-self that invests innocent matter with its disgusting assumptions and prejudices. The body and the machine are born innocent. It’s the soul and the mind that make them dirty and evil.

Guns don’t kill people, people do, says the NRA. That’s so true. A pile of guns is just a pile of metal—highly organized metal, but meaninglessly so; the organization of the metal serves no purpose until some asshole picks it up and infuses the innocent gun with gun-ness and anger and fear and machismo. In fact, there is no gun unless there’s a person. Without a person, a gun might as well be a rock. With a person, though, especially a person familiar with the operation of guns, what is essentially a rock turns into something that can hurt you a lot worse than a rock can.

Convicted drunk driver Bruce Tinsley—I don’t know if he was driving a muscle car when he was DUI—had his alter ego, a cartoon duck named Mallard Fillmore, sputter in frustration at his liberal antagonists, “Have you ever seen a gun running around shooting people by itself?” He’s so right. But have you ever seen a person accidentally shoot a seven-year-old with a rock?

So, yes, matter is innocent, it’s people with their intangible motives and inner conflicts that corrupt matter. This is not to say that a muscle car as an extension of the body is not problematic, especially, for example, in the context of global warming. As the mind extends itself through the brain and body into the car, it creates what the world calls an American. America is big and powerful, made up of big and powerful individuals, so American body-extensions have to be big and powerful, too. No one wants sleek, silent, energy-efficient genitals—if you can afford them, you want big, roaring, turbo-powered genitals.

Silent genitals are good for sex on the sly, something we associate more with the French, I think. I therefore expect the French to have the first nationwide non-carbon transportation economy. This eventuality will be condemned by the pundits of Fox News Channel, whose fears of castration seem to motivate everything they do.

The whole advanced industrial world is working on alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning engines. But in addition to the usual obstacles to the invention and establishment of any new technology—the financial, physical, institutional and intellectual hurdles—we’ve got American genitals to contend with. It’s not just a matter of winning hearts and minds. What terrorist suicide bombers and kidnapper-murders do in their flailing guerrilla fashion might be what has to happen in a larger civil sense—and it’s no accident that decapitation and dismemberment through explosion is so bound up with the oil industry. The global transfer to a hydrogen economy will most likely require the psychological castration and dismemberment of the American body.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!