Friday, September 18, 2015

Manipulation and desire, part II

Beaver, Hatch Lake, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

To manipulate means one of two things. It either means to operate skillfully, to handle and execute technical tasks, or to mislead by intention. To me, there is an irony in these two definitions, because they actually turn out to be one definition, in terms of the way that manipulation operates in us as human beings.

The act of manipulation always implies, by default, a wish to control. Whether the intentions are good or bad is what divides the first definition from the second one; if one manipulates with skill to a good end, the first definition applies, and if one manipulates with skill to a bad one, the second one does. Either way, there is an implication of agency — the ability to do — and a desire to control, that is, to be in charge, to be the one who knows.

There is no doubt that we need this ability to manipulate and turn things towards service; but when we lose the idea of service, and become fascinated with manipulation as an end in itself, it takes us away from what we need to be as human beings. There is no real love in control; it's about coercion. Mankind has been confused about the conflict between coercion and love since the beginning of recorded history; and we are confused about the difference between a loving God and a coercive one — or, if one is a pantheist, loving gods and coercive ones. To this day, society is locked in a struggle between those who believe in coercive gods that demand we adhere to a strict code of honor and sacrifice,  and those who believe in a forgiving God, who replaces the strict severity of demand and compulsion with an ethic of compassion and love. 

 Of course the coercive gods are gods of manipulation. These are the invented gods, the invented codes and ethics, which we hammer out of sheets of steel in hellish forges and make into the shapes we  need to justify our own lower urges. We want to manipulate; so God must also want to manipulate; we broadcast the horrors of our own desire into heaven and color its skies with our selfishness. This obsessive wish to manipulate, with all of its reductive, object oriented baggage, starts out with lofty goals such as understanding the makings of the universe, but it always ends in one form of tyranny and destruction or another.

Perhaps this is why the image of the hand is so powerful and religious iconography. The word manipulation itself is derived from the Latin word for hand; and indeed, it's the hand — not the foot or other part — that changes everything for man. We pick things up with our hands and change them: we control them. The hand itself is what contains, in a certain way, the transformative power of being in the world that sets us apart from animals. We manipulate; we use our hands to change things. If we were intelligent in the way we are now, but were creatures with fins such as dolphins, it would never have been possible for us to manipulate and destroy in the way that we have over the last 10,000 years or so. Our hands have made us makers; but they have always also made us killers, killers in a way that is quite different than the way other creatures are.

The hand has, however, the power to transform in many different ways; and the mudras of Christian and Buddhist art, the gestures of prayer that communicate compassion and care, indicate a different potential for the hand.  This potential is subtle: in every prayerful gesture or mudra, we see a hand that is not primed to take and control, but, rather, a hand that wishes to stay quiet and to receive. The hand symbolizes the whole inner state of Being; we have the potential to receive our lives, instead of taking our lives. The entire inward attitude is different here; it implies a different kind of inner measurement, and then inwardness that receives, rather than the coercive and compulsive outward in this we have, which wishes to take. Instead of an extraction mentality, it is a mentality of relationship, in which I come together with the world, rather than wishing to consume it.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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