Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The split between manner and matter

We understand so that we can freely and responsibly make a choice between resistance or embrace. So far, Charles Taylor has built a case for an ethic hidden under the solipsist individualism created by modernity, the ethic or ideal of authenticity. Now, in the last few chapters of The Malaise of Modernity he wants to discover a place from which such authenticity can engage in political debate in the face of soft despotism and the temptation of instrumental reason.

On a larger canvas, one has to remember that Taylor’s arguments find their place in the turn to the subject. Taylor plots a process he calls “subjectivation” where the subject moves to the center of things “once settled by some external reality—traditional law, say, or nature.” Choice takes center stage and asks us to think for ourselves rather than perform for authorities. “Modern freedom and autonomy centres us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity” (81).

But, he says, let’s not forget an important distinction: that between matter or content and manner or method. It is a very important distinction, and especially as the assumption is always made that simply because you can rebel against all external voices you should. Stated in another way, just because you yourself find meaning doesn’t mean you have to find that meaning in yourself. “Authenticity is clearly self-referential: this has to be my orientation. But this doesn’t mean that on another level the content must be self-referential: that my goals must express or fulfill my desires or aspirations, as against something that stands beyond these.” (82) One only recalls Taylor’s argument to realize that he espouses causes much larger than the borders of the self. Authenticity is with us; self-reference is encoded in the Western self, but our ends, our matter, need not correspond to our manner.

To illustrate the difference between the matter of self-referentiality and its manner, Taylor goes back to art. At one time, he says, artists had a language made up of “publicly available reference points that, say, poets and painters [could] draw on” (83). People had an imaginative and symbolic universe in common, a public stock of images and meanings, a cosmic syntax upon which artists could draw. “But for a couple of centuries now we have been living in a world in which these points of reference no longer hold for us” (Ibid.). This has been replaced by privately created languages of articulated sensibility; “the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable . . . language rooted in the personal sensibility of the poet, and understood only by those whose sensibility resonates like the poet’s” (84, 87). [For poets, Taylor turns to Rilke, Wordsworth, and Shelly.]

Now the reason this is important is phenomenological. With the loss of a common, public domain of imaginative reference points went a common projection of reality. The “objective” has become a statistical line whereby each imagination’s reality is taken to be some of the truth, but not all, and these projections assembled into a vision which approximates the truth (if there is any “the truth” at all.) Indeed

the very idea that one such order should be embraced to the exclusion of all the others—a demand that is virtually inescapable in the traditional context—ceases to have any force. It is only too clear how another sensibility, another context of images, might give us a quite different take, even on what we might nevertheless see as a similar vision of reality. (87)

But note my sarcasm: “if there is any “the truth” at all.” Taylor strongly disagrees with this rash judgment. “It by no means follows,” he says, “that there has to be a subjectivation of matter [where what is painted, poem’d, sung, or prosed is but the pure psychology of the artist, knowable and experienced only by herself].” Taylor reminds me that, “The effort of some of the best of modern poets has been precisely to articulate something beyond the self. . . . The inescapable rooting of poetic language in personal sensibility doesn’t have to mean that the poet no longer explores an order beyond the self” (88-89). His point is well taken. There is no reason why we can’t “call on individual intuitions to map a public domain of references” (87). The classical order—that public domain of imagination—could itself have been such an attempt; a collective, but temporary, trial at understanding the universe in which human beings of that time found themselves. People changed, and so that model had to be discarded. Yet, their cosmos is the same for us, the same all-encompassing universe “for which no adequate terms exist and whose meaning has to be sought” (86). Don’t mistake the seeking for what is sought; nor confuse even an interesting journey with any sort of arrival.

Such confusion slips into an instrumental reason which emphasizes our claims to the deficit of all others, an error which, Taylor argues, should not be.

Just because we no longer believe in the doctrines of the Great Chain of Being, we don’t need to see ourselves as set in a universe that we can consider simply as a source of raw materials for our projects [contra instrumental reason]. We may still need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us. (89)

Going back to his anthropology of relatedness, Taylor asks his hearer to realize that “nature and our world make a claim on us.” We are creatures immersed in a universe of interrelated demands, but hearing those claims upon us, being related to a world of not-I, of Other, is not easy. We must resist solipsism. We must resist instrumental reason. We must explore our world by means of artistic languages of personal resonance. The ideal of authenticity, and its corresponding ethic, the recovery of our own sentiment de l’existence connects us intimately to our world. That’s why a failure to see this, a failure to separate manner from matter, is a tragedy of ethics and a flattening of our very selves.

Final thought. Taylor deals quite a bit in this chapter with Romanticism, and I wish I had more time to investigate the underlying project and purpose of the Romantics. “It was perhaps no accident that in the Romantic period the self-feeling and the feeling of belonging to nature were linked.” In his notes he cites Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968) and Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism (New York: Norton, 1984) of which he says the second chapter contains an excellent discussion of the Romantic aspirations to a natural symbolism. He also quotes lines 307-11 of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. It is an addition to his argument to reproduce lines 401-414:


Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature--purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.


Previous entries in this series are:
Taylor on Art and History .


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