A mosque in West Philadelphia advertises free classes on Tasfir, or Qu’ranic exegesis, on its marquee outside. In keeping with my New Years resolution of completing a wholly novel, yet predefined, activity every day for the rest of my life, I dropped by. Sockless along with Rich and Jonny, who both mentioned how inclusive it felt to be called brother by a large, booming black man… A significant drawing point for any mosque.
I listened but was not fully attentive. Too caught up in other thoughts on the dynamics of meaningfulness and cathexis. I say meaningfulness in contrast to meaning, by which I will mean signification. The two are usually thrown together willy-nilly. We say “crucigrama means crossword puzzle in Spanish” and “her friendship means alot to me” as if they were the same concepts. They’re intertwined and mutually reliant, sure, but one is about semantics and the other about the mechanics of human desire. The first I’ll dub meaning; the second, meaningfulness.
The process of cathexis— the intertwining of matter and the human heart— generates meaningfulness. So does trauma, in the other direction. And our surroundings, down to the salt and pepper shakers, fairly well radiate with emotions, aims, and memories. With meaningfulness and investment. You might not think so, but a weekend long ago, with my serotonin sapped from a week of abuse, firmly sold me on how cathected and present I was in even the most neutral features of my world.
Meaningfulness is a wholly decided phenomenon. That is, it has the same ontological status, the same “claim to being,” as a choice does. Maybe you were not the one who decided; maybe you only inherited certain incidents of meaningfulness. This only means that some one else, some stretch of history, decided instead.
Point being: you cannot find meaningfulness. Fiat and decision are the substance of meaningfulness. What might not be as sharply understood is how much meaningfulness can respond to fiat. That it can be easily bestowed, above and beyond meaning-as-signification. Wills generate meaningfulness, in and of themselves, in the way that electrical potential creates electrical current. This is charisma (understood more widely than in the sense of dictators and movie stars). The process is not magical per se. Magic would presume human desire to be material; that wills were made of stuff, and ontologically on par with rocks, birds, and ziploc bags.
Nevertheless charisma— be it a charismatic person, situation, or process— can bestow meaningfulness upon the relatively inert. The mosque, for instance, that I was sitting cross-legged in, listening to Arabic wisdom on Hellfire and the archangel Gabriel. The mosque was, through historical decision, anointed with a meaningfulness. The bad faith behind this particular meaningfulness is that since this numinosity is ancient, it seems original to the object. A natural order of some kind. God’s favorites.
What is admirable in Islam is the frankness by which they encourage surrender to divine charisma. Dissent and divergence causes the charisma to falter a little. Less meaningfulness, in turn, is generated. In theory, we could adopt Islam in good faith, even as atheists, simply on this ground… That all fundamentalisms, regardless of their tenets, are essentially the same worldview. A worldview that expects all wills pointing in the same (perhaps arbitrary) direction, like iron filings in a magnetic field, simply to generate a maxed-out and totalizing meaningfulness; a communal religious experience. Even to presume divine charisma can generate this kind of emotive forcefield.
But this meaningfulness— the tingly aura— can be created by fiat even by the handling of small desktop objects. You can walk into an antique shop, pick up a brass doorknob, and with all due attention, bestow upon this object this tingly aura. How adept at it you are depends on how swift or presumptuous you are with your Sartrean sense of agency. Critics might call this delusional; that we can ignite this so abruptly. But it is better, in my mind, to suffer from delusion (where we are presumptuous about our agency) than bad faith (where we seek to escape or negate our power of choice). Like I said, many cathexes, like sexual attraction, will be handed to us. It does not mean we cannot redecide as much as possible.
One recipe for this redecision is by generating fields of meaningfulness— intentional charisma— while still perfectly aware of their contingency. Such a maneuver is often considered to be a kind of double-think, a kidding of the self. But I think this holds only if you assume meaningfulness must originate in a presumed naturalness, that certain things are or are not meaningful.