Mar 23, 2010

The rhetoric of original and the original

When Andrew Campbell began to talk of a creedless church, it was new and experimental, yet he spoke of it in precisely the opposite terms. He didn't try to argue that this was exciting and an opening of new possibilities or that new ground was going to be broken, but specifically that it wasn't new, that it had all been done before.

It's hard to imagine he and his experiment of Restoration could have been successful otherwise. The argument, in America, had to be that this wasn't original, but a return to the original.

When Joseph Smith, for example, read hyrogliphed plates with Urim and Thummim, those angel-given glasses, he appealed to the wrongness of the present (implying, here, that it was known, that the wrongness would resonant as something one knew but had not admitted) and appealed to a reclaimation of the past, the original, to the idea of something old and lost, rediscovered but not invented. Mormonism is very American and very new, and is interesting for its newness and American-ness, yet it has to rehtorically ground itself in a sense of not being new at all.

American Christianity really has a history of radical experimentation. It's character is of one newness, openness, Messianic moments, Events where all sorts of impossible things are possible. From the Shakers to the Mormons to the creedless Disciples of Christ, from the Quakers not calling themselves Christians to the Pentacostal's ideas about religious life, from the communes of the 1840s to the to those of the 1970s to the house churches to the Emergents of the 1990s and now, from the Pope Pius X Catholics with their Latin dogma to the preterists and presuppositionalists, from Jewish-Christian hybrids to Buddhist-Christian hybrids and Racist-Christian hybrids, from the circuit riders to the revivalists to radio preachers to TV preachers to the ministers who sit on stools and wear jeans and just talk to you, American religion is marked by a freedom of and even a need for experimentation.

And also, almost without exception, this is experimentation that denies its experimental nature, rhetorically couching itself as less new, less experimental than everything else.

This isn't just religion in America, though. This happens in politics all the time and you see it in even advertising (why should I want the original Levis more? Haven't they learned anything about how to make jeans since 1853?) Almost every radical eating plan or program, for example, describes itself as a return to some sort of pre-corrupt diet, returning followers back to how God or nature intended us to eat, how everyone used to eat, or how thin and disease-free peoples from some past or exotic place eat; that is, radical and experimental diets characterized themselves as not being experimental at all.

But why? What's so persuassive to us about claims to being old? Of being original? Why couldn't Alexander Campbell or any of the above say, here's a new idea, which no one has ever tried but which, using what we know and what we've learned, we will try? Why wouldn't it work for American conservatives, for example, to argue that of course the constitution doesn't ban abortion, or that the 2nd ammendment obviously didn't originally apply to concealed weapons (e.g. and etc), but it should, and that America would be more perfect if it did? Why not claim newness? Experiment? Originality?

My question isn't about the actual historical truth of the claims being made -- in part because an idea's copyright date isn't, by itself, an argument either way -- but about the need for and the funciton of the rhetoric.

It functions, first and obviously, as an appeal to authority that conceals the weakest part of a proposal (its untriedness, audacity, etc.) and shifts the argument, so the existing and established views have to defend themselves. I think it's here that the claim is fundamentally dishonest, and is more like a magic trick than an argument.

The rhetoric acts, second, to ease or even erase the anxiety that comes with newness. This might, actually, be why this appeal, this argument against originality and for the original, is so prevasive in America, a country kind of condemned to newness and made by experiment. There is a panic that comes with realizing that everything is untried, everything is new, that there is no ground and no just natural way of doing things, and so there's a strong attraction to arguments that offer the assurance of not being new (cf arguments that the Declaration of Independence and founding of America were not revolutionary, or that the market really is free, or the assume that interstates and suburbs are unplanned).

Third, and this is where I think it gets amazing, the rhetoric functions to liberate thinking. By claiming not to be new, but to be from before all that is known, the table of our thinking is completely cleared and we can do something radical. We can start anew. It can operate the other way, of course, and often does, being used to limit rather than open, as an insistance on reactionariness, but this seems to be the weaker function, which is also regularly undone by newer, more experimental movements claiming a more thorough return to the original. This apparently conservative standard is actually a guise for radical thinking, though, for a freedom that ought to be celebrated rather than hidden. With this move, previously unthought things can be thought, new realities can be envisioned, assumptions can be questioned (even if it's only ever some of them), and there is, at least in that moment, an openess to the depth of questions and the true width thinking.

There is a point, then, where the two uses of the word "original" collapse, so that "the original," which is fictional, opens the horizon of the imagination, allowing the freedom for originality.