Sunday, September 28, 2008

Feedback Loop

Not long ago, I mused on whether or not history rhymes, as the saying says it does. Actually, the saying, is, "history may not repeat, but it sure does rhyme."

At times it has struck me that history echoes, or that it sings backup. Today, however, I came across something that led me to conclude that history actually creates a feedback loop which leads to ear-splitting, window shattering, crowd-maddening distortion.

Just to set up the illustration, let me use my favorite instrument, the guitar. When a guitarist strikes a note, the string vibrates, creating sound waves, the pickup (through the amazing principle of piezoelectricity) turns that vibration into electrical energy, and the amplifier amplifies that energy, so that you hear an energized collage of vibrations. If the instrument is close enough to the amplifier's speaker, the sound coming out of it that was just amplified will in turn vibrate the strings some more, which the pickups will turn into more electrical energy, and the amplifier will amplify again. With all this happening at something between the speed of sound and the speed of electricity, the effect can build on itself so fast that the result is an exponential increase in wave density (my colloquial analysis) -- a sonic mushroom cloud known as distortion or "feedback." If it weren't controlled, it would probably blow out the speaker (even if there weren't any eardrums left to hear it).

There are similar phenomena in all of nature, including in societies. The Salem witch trials, for example, can be considered a sort of "feedback loop" of paranoia. It reached its crescendo in the execution of numerous innocent and decent people. We have recently lived through a great feedback loop of real-estate asset prices.

A further example of a social feedback loop presented itself to me today in the words of the great Fr. George W. Rutler, Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour on Park Ave. I'll excerpt a bit of the piece that appeared in today's bulletin:

To bury the dead is one of the seven corporal acts of mercy. The human body is to be treated with respect from conception through death...

At the South Street Seaport, there currently is a display of 22 whole bodies and 226 additional organs and partial body specimens. "Bodies -- The Exhibition" is a version of "Body Worlds," which in recent years has exploited prurience in the name of scientific edification. The corpses are skinned, and the blood replaced with silicon polymers. These plasticized bodies are shown in various poses, sometimes whimsically. Dr. Thomas Hibbs, professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University, has called it pornographic.

The founder of "Body Worlds" is Gunther von Hagens, who invented the "Plastination" method at the University of Heidelberg. He is not culpable for his father having served in the Nazi SS in a perverse age when lampshades were made of human skin. That horrified people then. A generation later, more than 20 million people around the world have paid to view "plastinated corpses" for the thrill of it. Von Hagens moved to China in 1996 where bodies were more easily obtainable, some of them rumored to be the bodies of homeless or mentally ill people or executed prisoners. In 2004, bullet holes were found in two of the exhibited "sculptures." The anonymous bodies on display in Manhattan were taken from the Dalian Medical University in northern China. The New York State legislature this summer passed a bill requiring a declaration of the cause of death of the exhibited remains. Is it possible that if you visited this exhibition, you were looking at a Christian martyr?

Do you see the feedback loop idea? Any parent (that is, any parent with any sense) knows that what the parents tolerate, the children will embrace. We don't know, I suppose, if Mr. Von Hagens' father, in his capacity as a Nazi, was involved in making lampshades out of the skin of his Jewish neighbors, or something more or less unspeakable. But we do know that his son has fully embraced cold, utilitarian view of the human body that the Nazis had; that he treats not just the image of man but his very body as raw material to be exploited, as Fr. Rutler put it, and apprently to do so with the sort of success that those who pander to the base motives have from time to time enjoyed.

He may even view certain members of the human race as mere matter, and others as somehow superior to them. Would he want his father's or mother's corpse in one of his displays to help generate revenue? If not, why not?

The proposition is simple: either people -- all people, not just this or that race or nationality -- are material or they're more than that. Here's a clue how you can tell: if people were mere matter, something inside of all of us wouldn't wretch at the idea of human lampshades. Or human sculptures. Nor would morbid fascination be an effective marketing appeal.

In that post called "History Rhymes, " referring to Nazis, I asked, "have we become like they were?" In keeping with the theme of this post, I'll ask, "have we become an exponentionally dense version of them?"


I had a few things to say about the burial of the dead a couple of years ago. I'm sure I was not capable of having envisioned human-corpse sculpture when I wrote them. On the other hand, knowing that human lampshades are a historical fact, I might not have been surprised.
I dare you to think about it.


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