Monday, April 22, 2013

Abscess of Fixation: On the Unity of the United States

Friday's city-wide lockdown of Boston occasioned, for me, a glimpse of a concept introduced to my thinking by René Girard: the abscess of fixation. In its original use, "abscess of fixation" apparently described a medical procedure to help purge purge the body of impurities. I guess we'd call it lancing today, puncturing the wound in order to drain it.

Girard, however, uses the phrase in a metaphorical sense. For him, the "abscess of fixation" functions to galvanize a mob, a community, a nation around an enemy. The corporate body becomes fixated upon a central site, a disruptive locus. The whole becomes enchanted by and fixated upon a part: all other concerns are placed in abeyance as the abscess is focused upon.

If that's too abstract, think of it like this. For a teenager, there's hardly a better "abscess of fixation" than the pimple appearing on the chin, nose, or forehead the day of the class picture. One little spot on the body becomes the center of the teen's attention.

Within my own Jesuit community, I must admit, Friday's television coverage of the event provided  just such an abscess. Everything seemed to stop and the television became the center of the day's gravity. There was a hunger for news, any little nugget giving insight into the characters involved. In a rare departure for house custom, dessert was taken in front of the television as guys watched police heroically capture the suspect from the boat where he'd sought refuge.

I went to my room: I had resisted all day the lure of the television. I kept an ear open to NPR, to be sure, but for the most part I worked on several projects. While Dzhokhar weighed options, I did yoga and prayed. I knew he had been apprehended when shouts of joy erupted from the television room and the streets in my neighborhood redounded with jubilant cries.

The abscess had been lanced. The body, restored.

It's a false restoration.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ, the Risen One who conquered death and reveals God as the life-giving author of creation, is the true reconciler of history. Jesus reconciles us to the Father not through violence but through forgiveness, by giving us a share in the same Spirit that makes us into brothers and sisters. The same Spirit that reconciles us with the Risen Lord is the Spirit that makes us one as a people. Christian unity, initiated by God, comes about through his offer of peace.

American unity, it seems these days, parodies this. Our reconciliation comes not from the God of Jesus Christ, but through 19-year old Dzhokhar. Our reconciliation came on November 20th thanks to Adam Lanza. Our reconciliation came on July 20th thanks to James Holmes. Our reconciliation came on 9/11.

Is unity in America possible only as a response to violence?

I'm afraid that we, as a people, find our temporary reconciliation only when we unite against a common enemy, gathered around the bodies of innocent victims. No greater parody could be enacted by a so-called Christian nation of true reconciliation wrought by the innocent victim to reconciles us to one another, not by naming a victim, but by forgiving.

 If I sound pessimistic, it is because I am. I am deeply mistrustful of false peace and what seems to be an increasing tendency, particularly by media outlets, to "captivate" audiences. We simply must wake up to the fact that, far too frequently we are the United States only when unified against an enemy, only in the wake of violence. The abscesses of fixation - terrorists, shooters, corporate greed - simply point to a much deeper pathology we are refusing to address: we are a people of great violence and any unity achieved through violence is inherently unstable and passing.

Martin Richard, enshrined in the hearts of millions on the steps of his parish church after his First Holy Communion, diagnoses and treats what infects our corporate body. This picture, viral on the internet, summarizes in crayon what his spilled blood cries out: "No More Hurting People. Peace."

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them
(Isaiah 11:6)


Francine said...

I guess it's the pretension that gets me -- the passing references to NCR and yoga.

That is, if you're interested in what "gets me."

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...


Passing reference to NCR?

You dislike yoga?

I'd love to know what "gets you" if you'd actually say something.

jamez said...

I too am troubled about how tragidies like this are exploited by the media. When I see this trend happening I begun to step away from the media hype,ie actively not watch it any more than getting the basic scenerio then going away and lighting a candle in solitude,reflection and prayer.
I wonder about how I can live, what can I do in myown small way to mitigate these tragic events in the world and our troubling fixation with false catharsis...

Francine said...

NPR, not NCR. My bad, that's why my comment was unclear!