Friday, 28 March 2014

Giving from out of poverty

The parable of the poor widow is often interpreted in terms of the capacity of the destitute for sacrifice when this is compared to the greater volume of gifts donated by the wealthy. That the poor must pay more, must bear a greater burden, is a convention of society.
For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
But, the parable of the poor widow cannot simply be cashed out as a celebration of sacrificial heroism emerging from an unexpected corner, the turning of the convention of contributory piety onto its head, nor is it translatable into the injunction, give what you can afford to the cause.

A parable performs both a transformation of terms ( by which a structured metaphoric content draws interpretations on and on into its winding heart) and a withholding of its satisfactory resolution (the parable is a heuristic not a riddle). Contribution and sacrifice are not at the heart of the parable of the poor widow - it is not a moral lesson but rather a means into meditating upon the tortuous spiral of want.

That is not to say that the parable embraces the victims, as victims, of those who devour widows houses. Poverty is not a means to an end, a path to transcendence, and nor is it an ideal to be aspired to. It is rather, a position from which the ordinary machinery of the world is experienced otherwise, as if from outside. However, it is not a straightforward matter to avoid lapsing back into the received form of the immiseration thesis - the parable of the poor widow even invites this error.

There is a logic, within the pattern of thinking (driven by the content rather than the form) by which narratives that frame poverty as their object are led towards an aestheticised conclusion where there must occur a reversal of terms -  a transformation where it is revealed that the first shall be last. There is a structural convention of narrative wherein suffering shall be rewarded at another level.
It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.
That is not to say that a case of poverty may be directly exchanged with an equivalent reward in wealth. The gains of poverty are located in heaven or in communism - they are developed through the real movement of history, whereby accumulating productive forces exacerbate the tendency to alienation and redundancy within the surplus population but are then suddenly overturned. Productive forces are transformed in their late decadence by the radical appearance of the means of transcendence whereupon the repurposed machinery of impoverishment becomes a material base for the alleviation of social relations - swords shall be beaten into ploughshares.  

The transformation of the means of impoverishment into a higher category of wealth is conventional to progressivist thought where historical outcomes are conceived as emergent, game-changing events arising from complexly organised accumulations of activities which are subsumed by the resultant new relations as so much raw material. However, the progressivist narrative of beneficial transformations (out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet) is not compatible with the parable form, it more closely resembles a moral fable.  

The parable of the poor widow is a parable, it is not a fable. It is a mechanism of, and for, meditation, through which the good meaning is not always located. If the fable finds a new path to fixed verities, parables are kinetic devices which produce variable and difficult outcomes in every instance of their use. The parable never uncovers the moral of the story, it is a discursive psychomanteum, an interior space within which are discerned the reflections of uncertain, and otherwise unknowable, truths -  meaning is fixed to the structure but also fluctuating in its content. 

The feint at the parable’s heart invites the reversal of poverty into another form of wealth - the easy path: the poor widow is rich in her faith. And contrariwise, the device draws awareness away from the difficult conclusion that an individual’s poverty must be impoverishing – needs have not been answered and this has attenuated the individual existence; where they were injured, they will not flourish. There is nothing uplifting about the sacrifices of the poor widow. 

From a position of impoverishment, the ordinary mechanics of the world appear otherwise than on their own terms. The poor widow indicates the struggle to process faith within a context of institutional collapse (her few pence are the modicum of belief that may be sustained against overwhelming disproof of its relevance). 

It is not that she is resilient enough to maintain 'faith' in the context of a failed state (the righteousness of Lot in Sodom) but that failure to make a difference (where works do not work) interrogates the generalised, or structural, failure within faith (the doubling up of a contextual inappropriateness of faith in a context where  it is voided of meaning). Her act of unreciprocated giving sets off a chain of collapses that are contained within collapse, of impoverishments within impoverishment. 

Those who are bereaved and forsaken by the content of their faith must follow the spiral of its loss all the way into the abyss. And by structuring the capacity to process profound, cosmic even, discouragement they tilt a prism towards the glare of the world which is set against them - for now we see through a glass, darkly. The immiseration thesis states that there are no equivalent parabolic depths in the innocent certainties of apparatchiks, technocrats and organisationalists - they know not what they are. 

The bereavements by faith (by the works that do not work) and the framing of a revealed absurdity within a  structure that is itself bereaved is also our inheritance - and yet sustaining the frame of faith, even as its referent is relinquished, retains its own divinatory significance - a darkness reflected from the depths, by a system of mirrors, into the corridors of power. It does not suffice to believe, and it does not suffice to suspend belief - there is however, an inherited obligation to adjust to both the objectivity of our de-selection and to the continued advancement of our own irrelevance. We might yet pluck a defeat from the jaws of defeat.