Tuesday, August 30, 2005

John Milbank on Postmodern Religiosity

Just as there were strange modern modes of religiosity, so there are strange postmodern modes of religiosity. Two of these are worth mentioning. First of all, academic exponents of relatively Marxist versions of postmodernism are fond of giving a Spinozistic twist to their atheism. The plane of immanence is seen as the sphere of active, productive forces, which manifest themselves in human terms as desire and love. The still-beckoning communist future is seen as an apocalyptic refusal of negative, resentful, tragic, and death-obsessed emotions. These emotions are unnecessary, and hitherto were imposed upon us by alien oppressors. Something of Spinoza's "intellectual love" or his Deus Sive Natura persists in all of this -- there is to be a joyful reception and active contemplation of the immanent totality. For indeed, once oppression is surpassed, liberated nature-going-beyond-nature fully appears.

The second example is at a far more popular and widely dispersed level ... the phenomenon of "new age" religions. These religions all stress that salvation is to be located in a higher self, above the social, temporal, remembered self. This self can put one in harmony with everything, with the whole cosmos. This position ... takes modern individualism to an extreme and seems to advocate retreat within an absolutely private, interior space. But this position shares with the Spinozistic one an assumption of immanence -- of a self-regulating cosmos.
is located
in a higher self in harmony with
the whole cosmos

Moreover, its higher-self-merging-with-the-cosmos is really rather like the ironic remove of the Spinozistic subject from its own process in flux. It is akin also to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, able to speak of what belongs to the subject as somehow standing impossibly outside the "all" of things that can be spoken of. There are also parallels to Emmanuel Levinas's and Jean-Luc Marion's tendency to demote the graspably visible world counter to this totality, which consists in the pure, never visible interior of matter manifest as auto affection. Thus, in post-modernity, alongside the stress of fluid and permeable boundaries, we have a new affirmation of the sanctity of an empty mystical self, a self able to transcend, identify with, and promote, or else refuse, the totality of process in the name of a truer "life" which is invisible...even organized religion gets infected today with this kind of "spirituality."
John Milbank, "The Gospel of Affinity" in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity. eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg. (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdman's, 2004), 156-157.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Synchronicity, Symbols and the Christian

Carl Jung's theory of synchronicity, published in his 1952 paper "Synchronicity, An Acausal Connecting Principle", postulates that the "meaningful coincidences" that occur in every human life should be understood as something more than random coincendence. Rather they point beyond themselves to reveal a realm of ordered, a-causal meaning parallel to, or outside of, the realm of causality. Synchronous events hint at a unity underlying psyche and matter, a unity of existence that Jung called the unus mundus. They are flashes of insight into the deep structure of life, tying together chains of events into meaningful cross-connections. As such, their investigation suggests a way of tapping into the archetypal psychological forms that together make up the collective unconscious of the human species. This knowledge prior to conciousness exists, he postulated, as a kind of foreknowledge encoded genetically or otherwise into all human beings.

Jung found support for his idea in the Tao, the I Ching, and J.P. Rhine's investigations into ESP. He also noted recent advances in physics, which demonstrated that the iron-clad law of cause-and-effect, the very basis of all natural law, is porus. In other words, that statistics and probability, rather than Newtonian certainty underlie all natural process. In the present day, however, Jung's synchronicity has been preached most effectively by the late Joseph Campbell of Star Wars fame.

Joseph Campbell equated Jung's collective unconcious archetypes with myth. Campbell said "[Myth] puts you in touch with a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut. The ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing transcends all categories of knowledge and thought." Campbell understood myth to be encoded in the symbolic-systems that make up all religions, modern or ancient. "It's a natural thing," he said, "but that's the whole problem with Western religion. All of the symbols are interpreted as if they were historical references. They're not." Campbell described a symbols as, "a sign that points past itself to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder." He went on to say, "What you're learning in myth is about yourself as part of the being of the world." Indeed, Campbell instructs meaning-seekers to re-discover the transcendet, spiritual dimension which these symbols reveal, to decode the symbols, to go on a "grail quest." In doing so, one "would discover the very essence of your own being, so you're resting on it and you know it. The function of mythological symbols is to give you a sense of "Aha! Yes. I know what it is, it's myself." This is what it's all about, and then you feel a kind of centering, centering, centering all the time. And whatever you do can be discussed in relationship to this ground of truth." As he said, "No one in the world was ever you before, with your particular gifts and abilities and possibilities. It's a shame to waste those by doing what someone else has done." Campbell's view ultimately leads to a total deconstruction of propositional religious truth, as he said, "By getting to know your own impulse system and its images and the things you really are living for, and then to get support for - you might say - universalizing and grounding this personal mythology, you can find support in the other mythologies of mankind."

To summarize Campbell's program, Joseph Campbell taught the responsiblity of each person to live their lives based on transcendent insights derived from rivers of deep-human wisdom, a wisdom encoded collectively in human mythmaking and story-telling, and which is made available in symbols collected within the world's stories and religious texts and rituals. Becoming aware of the deeper "spiritual" text in which your life participates and actualizing this in your choices is the way to wholeness and to becoming a truly authentic human being living out of "the mystery of their own being."

So, how far is this from Carl Jung's synchronicity? The synchronicitous event, like Campbell's symbol, reveals levels of unconcious meaning encoded biologically or otherwise (Campbell emphasized text & ritiual over biological/genetic) in the human species. Like Campbell, Jung understood these events as possiblities of orientation toward a deep, mysterious unity of existence, a spiritus mundi or oversoul which grounds all the living.

In my mind this is exactly the platonic/stoic gospel of cosmic harmony, whereby the wise orient their lives into harmony with the rhythmns of nature and cosmos and thus correctly participate in the unity of all things. The two systems of meaning-making are remarkably similar, though Jung is more scientific in his approach.

Similarly, it is common practice in at lease the evangelical subculture to structure one's life according to the often-difficult-to-interpret insights garnered from God-directed moments of synchronicty uniquely shaped by God (the sender) to be meaningful against the context of each person's (the intended receiver's) personality, influences, and background. The legitimacy of this process is garnered from three sources: the doctrine of providence, instances of interpretation of dreams recorded in the Bible, and anecdotal evidence, typically good-results which have accompanied personal obedience to the revelation given. (I'm going to coin a name for these instances, and call them revelati.)

In my opinion, none of these proofs support the inclusion of revelati in the Christian hermeneutical circle. And, as a matter of fact, I believe dependence on them may even leave one open to the charge of divination.

Mystery of Matter: Carl Jung's Synchronicity
"synchronicity" Skeptics Dictionary
Mythic Reflections, Interview with Joseph Campbell

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Wolterstorff, Ellul & the command to liberate

In the article "Seeking Justice in Hope"[1], Yale theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff asks after justice. The redemptive deliverance of God, he says, is primarily a deliverance from injustice. It is not a retributive justice, in which one turns the suffering back upon the wrongdoer, but, rather, a liberating justice, which frees the victim from the injustice being perpetrated upon him. The Old Testament writers, Wolterstorff writes, understood that a good king does not as much do justice as seek it. The rightful king struggles to undo injustice.

Now, this struggle is commanded of the church. Under the aegis of the reigning Christ, the church obeys by striving for liberating justice in the world. I skip a lot of excellent detail here, but I am trying to set up the "punch line" of the whole thing.

The result of Wolterstorff's meditation is discovered in a two-part conclusion. First, the effort of the church toward liberation should not be undermined by the certainty that, really, only Christ's coming will perfect the job. Instead, the church should work for liberation simply because it is commanded to. Wolterstorff lifts the following quote from Jaques Ellul:

There is a divine law, which is a commandment, and which is addressed to us. Hence we have to fulfill it to the letter. We have to do all that is commanded. The sense or conviction of the utter futility of the work we do must not prevent us from doing it. The judgment of uselessness is no excuse for inaction. . . . Pronounced in advance, futility becomes justification of scorn of God and his word and work. It is after doing what is commanded, when everything has been done in the sphere of human decisions and means, when in terms of the relation to God every effort has been made to know the will of God and to obey it, when in the arena of life there has been full acceptance of all responsibilities and interpretations and commitments and conflicts, it is then and only then that the judgment takes on meaning: all this (that we had to do) is useless; all this we cast from us to put it in they hands, O Lord; all this belongs no more to the human order but to the order of thy kingdom. Thou mayest use this or that work to build up the kingdom thou are preparing. In thy liberty thou mayest make as barren as the fig tree any of the works which we have undertaken to thy glory. This is no longer our concern. It is no longer in our hands. What belonged to our sphere we have done. Now, O Lord, we may set it aside, having done all that was commanded.[2]

The second part of his conclusion is a tightening up of Ellul's quotation. Wolterstorff agrees that obedience is primary, but he disagrees with the open-endedness of Ellul's proscription. Work, yes, is an offering: "Make of it what you will, O Lord." But it cannot be a general work or a general offering. Both prayer and work are specific in action and in offering. We must particularly name the injustice, and pray particularly for its removal. Wolterstorff calls this "identifying the signs of Christ's redemptive rule in history" and says, "We cannot struggle for the undoing of the injustice whose alleviation one has prayed for without naming it." He concludes:

Christian hope for liberating justice is confident as to its ground in Christ, while at the same time it is humble as to our ability to discern the ways in which our endeavors contribute to the coming of Christ's rule of justice.

[1] "Seeking Justice in Hope" in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's 2004), 77-100.

[2] Jaques Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 190

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Peter Sellars on Public Space as Democracy

There is a fantastic interview with the prolific contemporary artist, Peter Sellars in the January 05 edition of PAJ: Performing Arts Journal. Not only, but his initial comments on public space dovetail very well with emphases that I have not yet blogged from All That is Solid Melts into Air. Therefore, I'm going to post some of the interview below.

PAJ: Why don't we talk about your efforts to open up a Greek clasic for contemporary audiences?

Sellars: Well, for me, one of the most important things about Greek theatre is theatre as part of government, theatre as part of a democracy, theatre as one of the primary cornerstone institutions of democracy. What moves me so much about Greek theatre is this aspiration towards the care and maintenance part of democracy, which of course is where America is in serious trouble. You can make all the declarations you want, but in fact working democracy is constantly menaced, for example, by money. That's why Euripides is filled with all these speeches against money having the final voice. As we know in America, your ability to enter public space, which has been privatized, is your ability to pay.

One of the most powerful images of Greek theatre is this giant ear carved into the side of a mountain--a listening space. The power of Greek theatre is acoustic. It was about creating architecture in which a single voice reaches the top of the mountain . . . the idea is that you make a structure that has a seat for every citizen. In Greece, democracy is a wonderful thing unless you happen to be a woman, a child, or a foreigner. Those are the people who couldn't vote and had no citizenship. Every Greek play is about women, children, and foreigners. So the idea that you're actually creating this special sound space, listening space, for the voices that are not heard in the senate, for exactly the voices that have been ignored in the corridors of power, as a society you say, wait a minute, unless there is a place we are really hearing them, we don't have a democracy. We have to take special effort to make sure that these voices are heard and included and recognized.

PAJ: In European societies under the Soviet Union, theatre functioned the same way, which in some measure is why it has lost its power and impact in society now. In the absence of a diverse media, free press or public spaces, people read the interpretations of the classics, usually reinterpretations, as political commentary.

Sellars: Exactly. And it became, again, a place where what could not be said anywhere else could finally be said. You're creating the potential of a democratic public space. "What is public space?" I think is the biggest question of the twenty-first century. What way can we create and sustain a space where a diversity of voices are present? All of the questions around why aren't we hearing from certain people and from certain parts of the society are really in play about how we shape theatre right now. It's a public space where we are physically the planet. So, this creation of shared spaces across the twenty-first century is the primary motivating factor for me in shaping [my] projects. Who needs to meet, in what ways can they meet, in what ways can we creat the platform so that meeting has potential for the future.

. . . . . . . .

Sellars: Quick change never lasts; it always creates a backlash whereas real change is actually moving deeply through people's attitudes across a generation. What we do in theatre--the word "culture"--is about cultivation. You're planting a seed as deeply as you can plant it, so that it will have long-term consequences.

PAJ: Hannah Arendt had elaborated the idea of theatregoing as citizenship. Herbert Blau had that vision, too. I see you in that tradition.

Sellars: Of course, yes, absolutely.

. . . . . . . .

Sellars:One thing that's very important is to access a voice that goes beyond the editorial pages of this week's newspapers so that we actually get what the roots of the discussion are. [To] think about the future in a more creative and open way than just simply shifting a few degrees in current policy. That's why Euripides is always showing you children and old people in play after play. What he's trying to say is, look fifty years back, and look fifty years ahead. Don't just solve the problem for the next ten minutes. He's always [asking] you to take this longer view. [Indeed,] reenergizing of the debate by reimagining the vocabulary of the debate is a very important contribution for artists to make at this time.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Christiana est absurdum

Come here. I have to tell you something to you. Call it a confession. Come here so I can whisper it. Christianity is absurd. Did you hear that? You're looking at me as if I've denied the faith. Perhaps you didn't hear me, I'll be a little more plain. Christianity as I am aware of it in the West has long been absurd and no one is willing to say it. Sure, theologians are saying it, but no one listens to them any longer. Don't believe me? Oh, you aren't sure what I mean by absurd. To be in absurdity is to act upon habit and compulsion without understanding. One may even defend such actions, but the arguments come from books not the soul. You do not believe me? Tell me about your hymnody. Whether you sing "the old classics" or try on the rock n roll nursery rhymes of contemporary music, is either particularly worshipful? Is this how you yourself would worship were you able to make your own choice? Or, granted the demands of a community, is anyone doing real investigation into the Scripture's regulations for worship any longer or simply doing the next thing, operating out of the absurd? Take the model of education which churches generally adopt. Why do we subject our children to the same doses of simplistic storytelling again and again and again? Why have churches adopted wholesale the age/grade model of the public school system? Why is curricula always dismally boring? And what of the implication that one advances in the faith as one advances in age or in knowledge which is implied by the classroom model of education? Everyone admits this is untrue. Spiritual growth is much too slow and intimately personal to be regulated by curricula. Whatever Christian education is, it should correspond to the reality of how people grow and develop into the skin of their confession. Yet, churches spend thousands and publishing houses pump out material by the ton in a great dance of market-driven absurdity. Aren't curricula and classes just a placebo? Don't we adopt them because of our type-A need to be organized and to feel we are doing something. In the beginning, believers met together to help each other understand this new thing that was happening, and to try and discover the new way of living in the light of the Kingdom coming. Recall a moment of tragedy or wonder in your life, how you hungered to tell and re-tell it, how you weren't happy unless you were with other people who understood your experience because it was also their own. Now, we file past the yellow skin of Lenin's corpse in, at best, an attempt discover we are still comrades and, at worst, to try and keep a Revolution going which has long since descended into the deep dark of absurdity. Didn't Karl Barth say that religion is another way of avoiding God? Isn't this what they meant when they said God was dead back in the 60's? Don't we know it's true, that if this - what we do every week and with so many of our weeknights and Saturdays - is God then he is dead. Maybe one day someone will finally say something and we can all be free of this absurd waste of time. What should we do? You want to know? I say it isn't going to be easy, but there are landmarks. Christianity is dead; but the Kingdom of God and its future is still there. We have the Spirit, and the lessons of the past. Above all, we have to begin with honesty. We're like a couple who don't talk any more. We have to learn to talk again: and not just therapy-talk. We have to get into our mouths what was in their mouths when they just had to talk about it. We have to get into our needs the absolute need they had to just be with others who, though some understood it less and others more, were joined by a common feeling. Something has happened! What does this mean? What is life from now on? In some ways I guess 9/11 did us a favor. Like every tragedy we realized nothing could be the same, but we had to keep on living into a future we didn't quite have figured out yet, and we still don't have it figured out. Terrorists die of fear before they pull that pin - and that's the same fear that all of us have now. Well, I digress. You can't lose faith - it isn't yours to lose. I don't have all the answers. Don't go thinking I'm your messiah.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Progress & Abyss

Jürgen Moltmann, "Progress & Abyss: Rememberances of the Modern World" in The Future of Hope eds. Miroslav Volf & William Katerberg (Eerdmans 2004), 3-26.

Modernity, as defined by Robert Marshall in his book All That is Solid Melts into Air (Penguin 1982), is how human beings today experience history. It is how we have been experiencing it as a species since the sixteenth century. Modernity is a hurricane that goes by many names, such as progress and development, names that reveal and conceal, effecting both good and bad. Yes, there are benefits, but every benefit exists in the shadow of a faustian bargain. Modernity exposes new vistas of possibility even as it commodifies every possible experiences and relationship to its lowest negotiated value. Such commodification desacralizes all experience. Nihilism is the existential result; negotiated value a synonym for valuelessness. In such a context, human beings cry out for transcendence in any form. Jürgen Moltmann in his essay "Progress & Abyss" speaks directly into this, addressing the polarity, exposing its paradox and finding a way out.

In the first section of his essay, Moltmann sets out to discuss the birth of modernity out of the spirit of messianic hope. His aim is to understand "the age of beginnings without end." The modern world, he says, began at two points. Its first beginning was the conquista of America in 1492. Its second was the Baconian revolution of knowledge, whereby human beings are to rule over and dominate nature using science and technology. What motivated the explorers, adventurers, nobles and scientists, he continues, was the promise of a new world order: the messianic reign of Christ. Such utopias, even unto our modern novus ordo saeculorum, promise an overthrow of the domination of the past in the setting up of a transcendent and messianic kingdom. "[T]he future takes precedence in the experience of time." History is moving toward a consummation, a third empire of the Spirit (Joachim of Fiore). "Future" (futurus) is for "for the modern world the new paradigm of transcendence" (11). Future becomes the transcendent hope of the modern world and the place from which it derives meaning. Such an attitude marked a world of beginnings without an end, a world of progress, evolution, growth, expansion and revolutions of hope.

In the second section, the Age of Catastrophes, Moltmann examines the dark underbelly of the Enlightenment's secular chiliasm. The glossy horizon of First World history has its garbage dump in the Third to which "the messianism of modern European times has never been anything but the apocalypse of their destruction." Here are ends with no beginnings, an end which includes the natural world as well. Modern industry calls every natural resource into question, a relationship based on "the disturbed relationship of modern men and women to nature." In the twentieth century, a total inability to find meaning in the face of history has replaced the nineteenth century's credulous faith in the future. As Moltmann says, "Every accumulation of power also accumulates the danger of its misuse." Therefore, he concludes, history cannot consummate and transcend itself. "It would be cynical to go on talking today about the moral progress of humanity through civilization" (15). "In the twentieth century, a total inability to find meaning in the face of history as it has hitherto been replaced the nineteenth century's credulous faith in the future" (16). No future understood this way can complete history, but is always subject to it, as are all things. Thus, finally, Moltmann begins to talk about the future.

Over the abysses of history must be thrown bridges to the future, says Moltmann. And, looking into the next millenium, such bridges of hope cannot afford to be naive. Though they "are practically the same hopes which called the modern world to life" today they have become "wise through bitter experience." History should breed caution and negotiation. "We have to work and hope for the future without arrogance and without despair." Therefore, the transcendence needed to undergird such hope must meet certain criteria. It cannot erupt from the usual framework of historical options. No, "it must be a future for the whole of history," past and future, "and therefore it must have a transcendent foundation." It must hope in the raising of the dead!

Without qualification, Moltmann states that for any hope to qualify as hope, it must be a hope for the past before it can ever be a hope for the present. "Without hope for the past there is no hope for the future, for what will be, will pass away; what is born, dies; and what is not yet, will one day be no longer" (18). Because we too are largely more past than future, our own hope must involve more than simply the duality of sentimental remembering or charitable forgetting. The dead cannot be left; there must be resurrection and "healing for what has been broken." That is why Christian hope is resurrection hope; it is Easter hope. "Because of the raising of the broken Christ, the Christian hope for the future is at its heart a hope for resurrection. The resurrection hope is not directed toward a future in history; it points toward the future of history, in which the tragic dimensions of history and nature will be dissolved" (17-18). Thus, our hopes for the future gain courage. "Because of a great hope for the overcoming of death and transience, our little hopes for future better times gain strength, and do not fall victim to resignation and cynicism" (19). And so, we turn to the future.

First, there is the political and the democratic revolution. Where there are threats--absentee democracy which leads to party-rule; the lack of recognition for human rights; the threat of nuclear annihilation--Moltmann places the shoulder of hope: democracy as an open, expanding, even hopeful process requiring active participation; the push toward universal recognition of human and environmental rights; and the realization of every nation, large or small, that "every country has the urgent task of restraining humanity's nuclear self-annihilation. . . . The state not only has the power of restraining the nuclear catastrophe; it also has the positive task of gaining time, and extending the time-limit, [gaining] time for life." (21, the last being, without a doubt, chastened so much as to resemble pessimism.)

Christians, are reminders of the Kingdom. Christians are to prepare the way for the Kingdom; to preach in word, act, and presence parables and correspondences of the Kingdom-come, to being the contradictions in the world into harmony with the world's future. Christians "will contribute their ideas about justice and freedom to their political community. They will be present wherever political ways out of the perils have to be sought. In these perils of the world they can show where deliverance is to be found" (22-23).

Nowhere is this more true than in the process of globalization; power is acquired, ends are acquired, but no one asks what ends should be acquired. "We must begin a public discussion about humane goals and the purposes of globalization." Globalization is inevitable, if not already here. What is needed is "a counter-model to the [present Baconian one which governs the] globalization of power which concentrates on finding humane goals and purposes for it." "The economy needs its political correlate, and politics needs human goals [where there is no difference between human and environmental] about which human beings can unite" (25). As part of this process, a new ecological anthropology will be required. This anthropology will understand human beings not as masters over-and-against creation, but as co-created members at home in and with the earth; "human civilization must be integrated into the ecosystem and not the converse." And, in a footnote which goes unexplained, Moltmann says this new ecological anthropology must also take into account the insights of modern feminist anthropology.

Moltmann concludes his essay by saying that the church, always looking ahead to the consummation of God's dwelling with human beings, should discover a "sacramental view of the world which would be able to take up and absorb into itself the worldview held at present in science and technology" (26).

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Christianity is dead; long live the Kingdom of God!

Christianity is not a silver-bullet solution to the anxious vertigo of slippage brought on by the disembodied place-less-ness of modernity. One shouldn't be a Christian because you are afraid of modernity and want a ticket out. Christianity is not a formaldehyde tank for the safe and nostalgic. It is not a safe-house for those fleeing the maelstrom/free-play of modernity. Indeed, in this respect the pagan is better than the Christian because the pagan openly expereriences what it means to be a human being today. Our petty fear of the Harry Potter's -- in other ages: Elvis & rock music, card-playing, role playing, the bikini, the cinema -- masks a larger attitude, somewhere between prejudice and phobia but more like stunned noncomprehension. What has the Christian to say to the Howard-Stern-approving B-culture Dollar-store culture, the gamers, to the samplers and hip-hoppers, to the hackers (and this is just a sampling of youth-culture, not to mention the larger cultures which inhabit the fragmented West)? The gospel has assumed a new shape today, a shape which we do not know. We do not know it largely because we have forgotten the wake-up-to-real-life incarnated in the poor, the outcast, and the dispossessed. We are anesthetized against all feeling, and kept safe from any possibility of cognitive and emotional revival by means of the overstock of personal calendars by multiple bureaucracies both internal and external. It is exactly our inability to discover this shape which makes our "evangelism" thud like a dead-fish against a wall of cultural miscommunication. In every one of those awful moments, we ourselves (rather than our supposed hearer) come to suspect that something has been lost. We wonder whether we even understand our own faith. Where is the power? Where is that electric and threatening power in the message which proved so explosive in the first century wherever it was preached? That message was all about the Kingdom of God. Christianity is dead - and the sooner the better, but long live the Kingdom of God!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

All That is Solid Continues to Melt

Modernity at the most personal, and most social levels is a maelstrom torn paradoxically between the nihilistic commodification or even destruction of all and the developing creative powers and critical abilities born of humanity's assertive protest and a desire to transcend.


Bergman describes Goethe's Faust as the first and best tragedy of development. In this section, worth reams of analysis, he describes Faust's growth into a larger self through development - but a development that always has a dark side. "He won't be able to create anything unless he's prepared to let everything go, to accept the fact that all that has been created up to now--and, indeed, all that he may create in the future--must be destroyed to pave the way for more creation. This is the dialectic that modern men must embrace in order to move and live; and it is the dialectic that will soon envelop and move the modern economy, state and society. Bergman believes that with modernism comes an irony and tragey in all forms of modern enterprise and creativity, "an emerging economy of self-development". An unhindered gospel of development would read: accept destructiveness as part of your share of divine creativity, and you can throw off your guilt [arising from a relation with nature and fellow human beings whereby one takes what one needs for one's own development and leaves the rest] and act freely. No longer need you be inhibited by the moral question, "Should I do it?" Out on the open road to self-development [authenticity], the only vital question is, "How to do it?" What matters is process, not the result: "It's restless activity that proves a man" (175-60). The pressure of modernism is to use every part of ourselves and everyone else to push ourselves and everyone as far as we can go. The growth is real, but it always comes with a cost. It is this gospel of development that is the irresistible pull of modernity. The lesson that Bergman announces is that those in modernity must take a share of responsibility for the development of those coming into it. Where man or nature is effected, Faust must confront the consequences of his own emerging nature, or be responsible for the doom inflicted. One thing, though, you can't go back to a time before modernity. To do so would be to suffer again the death of the premodern against the riptides of the in-rushing modern. What Faust, and we, ultimately long for is a way of dealing with modernity in which man does not exist for the sake of development but development for the sake of man.

Marx, Modernism and Modernization

In this world, stability can only mean entropy, a slow death. Progress and growth is our only way of knowing for sure that we are alive. Thus, to cry that our society is falling apart is merely to say that it is alive and well. We live in a state of permanent revolution--from nature to culture to self--and in order to survive, the personalities of human beings must take on the fluid and open form demanded by such an environment. Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change: not just to be open to it, but to demand and seek it, to carry it through, to delight in mobility and thrive on renewal, to look forward to future developments, all the while avoiding nostaliga for the fixed relationships. This is exactly the culture of the burgeoisie, the most destructive ruling class in history [repeated intentional destruction of the "built environment" is integral to the accumulation of capital], yet that very class claims to be the Party of Order--which is a political slogan since order is impossible. This situation, as Bergman says, is modern nihilism. There is nothing that may transcend the constantly-swallowing abyss of change. Between men and women there are no halos, no masks, no clothing, but only the bond of naked interest and callous cash payment. In the beginning of modernity, thinkers embraced this enforced nakedness. Hereditary privileges and social roles are stripped away. All, then, may now enjoy an unfettered freedom to use all their powers for the good of all. This, of course, ignores the constantly-present dark side. Unfettered freedom makes everything a negotiated commodity. Therefore, any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible and valuable: anything goes if it pays. This, again, is modern nihilism, equating our human value with our market price. The intellectual classes cannot escape. Even artists cannot escape this. They are paid wage-labors of the bourgeoisie, members of the modern working class, the proletariat. They are modes of production, and their productions, once accomplished, are valued by the ups and downs of the market in a manner completely separate from the intention or will of their creator. What this means is that the market does not just employ their labor, but also the fruits of their creative energy--their spirit. Intellectuals are dependent on the market not only for bread but for spiritual sustenance. Surely, everything and everyone is entangled in the market.

Bergman concludes this section with a question about the possibility of political community. How, in such a maelstrom as this, can the nihilistic thrust of modernity be avoided enough to create some kind of lasting political bond between human beings?

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

All That is Solid Melts into Summary

Summary quotes & thoughts per Marshall Berman All That is Solid Melts into Air (Penguin, 1988 rev ed.)

In All That is Solid Melts into Air, I define modernism as any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it. . . . They are moved at once by a will to change--to transform both themselves and their world--and by a terror of disorientation and disintegration, of life falling apart. To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction, a life characterized by the uninterrupted disturbances of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation which have been part of modernity for two hundred years.

If we think of modernism as a struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world, we will realize that no mode of modernism can ever be definitive.

I believe that communication and dialogue have taken on a new specific weight and urgency in modern times, because subjectivity and inwardness have become at once richer and more intensely developed, and more lonely and entrapped, than they ever were before. In such a context, communication and dialogue become both a desperate need and a primary source of delight. In a world where meanings melt into air, these experiences are among the few solid sources of meaning we can count on. One of the things that can make modern life worth living is the enhanced opportunities it offers us--and sometimes even forces on us--to talk together, to reach and understand each other.

[In response to postmodernism's absolute dismissal of all grand narratives.] Have we really outgrown the dilemmas that arise when "all that is solid melts into air," or the dream of a life in which "the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all"? I do not think so.

[There is] a widespread and often desperate fear of the freedom that modernity opens up for every individual, and the desire to escape from freedom [Erich Fromm] by any means possible.

There is a mode of vital experience--experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life's possibilities and perils--that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience "modernity."

Berman goes on to say that his desire in this book is to recover the history of modernity so that our own contemporary experience will be enriched and perhaps guided into the future. The experience of previous generations with modernity, both positive and negative, has been far richer than our own, he argues. We need to re-examine our situation and come up with better, more hopeful solutions. For example, in the past people understood the danger of being circumscribed by technology and the overwhelming power of social forces of organization, "but they all believed that modern individuals had the capacity both to understand this fate and, once they understood it, to fight it. Hence, even in the midst of a wretched present, they could imagine an open future. Twentieth-century critics of modernity almost entirely lack this empathy with, and faith in, their fellow men and women. . . . Modern man as a subject--as a living being capable of response, judgment, and action in and on the world--has disappeared. In the opinion of the modern intelligensia:

The masses have no egos, no ids, their souls are devoid of inner tension or dynamism: their ideas, their needs, even their dreams, are 'not their own'; their inner lives are 'totally administered,' programmed to produce exactly those desires that the social system can satisfy, and no more. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobiles, hi-fi sets, split-level homes, kitchen equipment.

Berman sees this opinion as a rejection of earlier visions of history as restless activity, dynamic contradiction, dialectical struggle and progress. The responses tended to simply into three groups based on attitudes toward modern life as a whole: affirmative, negative, and withdrawn.

All these visions and revisions of modernity were active orientations toward history, attempts to connect the turbulent present with a past and a future, to help men and women all over the contemporary world to make themselves at home in this world. Virtually no one today seems to want to make the large, human connections that the idea of modernity entails. Hence, discourse and controversy over the meaning of modernity, so lively a few decades ago, has virtually ceased today.

The modernisms of the past can give us back a sense of our own roots. They can:

(1) Help us connect our lives with people throughout the rest of the world who are living through the trauma of modernization.

(2) Illuminate the contradictory forces which inspire and torment us, such as

(a) our desire to be rooted in a stable and coherent person and social past which conflicts with our desire for limitless growth (economically, socially, psychologically, etc.) a growth which enriches the future while destroying the solidities of the past.

(b) our desire for clear and solid values to live by which conflicts with our desire to embrace the limitless possibilites of modern life and experience which often call such values into question, producing a constant negotiation of personal and political allegiances and hostilities.

This entire series can also be read as a single document.

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