Friday, March 11, 2011

Expanding Unbelief (ch. 10)

1 / From Mimesis to Creation: Artistic Creation of the Immanent Frame

Taylor ended ch. 9 by noting that the modern cosmic imaginary “opened a space in which people can wander between and around all these options without having to land clearly and definitively in any one” (351). This is a cross-pressured space, the space of the nova-effect, plural and complicated—unlike the supposedly secure and dogmatic zones one would expect if one believed the so-called “war” between belief and unbelief. Most of us, Taylor argues, do not live in the confident camps of such a war; rather, most of us live in this cross-pressured “no-man’s-land” between them.

What is unique in Taylor’s story is the significance he accords to both the Renaissance and Romanticism. Philosophical accounts of modernity—and hence our present (or “postmodernity”)—tend have an epistemological fixation which seizes upon the Enlightenment as the center of the story (for an exception, consider Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns). But Taylor’s account is much more nuanced, recognizing early and important shifts in the Renaissance. Even more importantly, Taylor accords a central role to Romanticism as a turning point—a kind of counter-modernity within modernity. This is why “[w]e can see the Victorians as our contemporaries in a way which we cannot easily extend to the men of the Enlightenment” (369).

This is why, in chapter 10, Taylor—in contrast to the “subtraction story” on science—considers the central role of art in creating this “open space” which characterizes our secular age. One of the features of post-Romantic art, he suggests, is a fundamental shift from art as mimesis to art as poeisis—from art as imitating nature to art making its world. This was necessary precisely because the flattening of the world meant the loss of reference. We find ourselves in Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols” but without tether or hook, without any given to which the symbols/signs refer. Enclosed in the immanent frame which is now the home of the buffered self, the best we can do is “triangulate” meaning from our signs, through historical nostalgia, to our present (352-353). So in poetry, for instance, “where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility” (353). The “poet must articulate his own world of references” (353); in other words, the poet has to create a/the world. Taylor seems similar shifts in painting (353-354) and music (354).

Taylor describes this as yet another “disembedding” by which art now begins to emerge as an autonomous entity and institution. In earlier societies, the aesthetic was embroiled with the religious and the political—what we look back on as ancient “art objects” were, in fact and function, liturgical instruments, etc. What we see in modernity, however, is a shift whereby the aesthetic aspect is distilled and disclosed for its own sake and as the object of interest. And from this emerges “art” as a cultural phenomenon and an autonomous reality (355). So now we go to hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor in a concert hall to appreciate it as a work of art disembedded from its liturgical home. This is a “desemanticisation and resemanticisation” whereby the art is decontextualized from its religious origions and then recontextualized as “art” (355).

Thus Taylor sees the emergence of “absolute music” as the culmination of this disembedding (ab-solute in the sense of music that is ab-solved of connection). Whereas the music that accompanied the Mass or even the play was tethered to action and a story, engendering responses within a community of practice that knew the references, “with the new music, we have the response in some way captured, made real, there unfolding before us; but the object isn’t there. The music moves us very strongly, because it is moved, as it were; it captures, expresses, incarnates being profoundly moved. (Think of Beethoven quartets.) But what at? What is the object? Is there an object?” (355). Nevertheless, we can’t quite shake our feeling that “there must be an object.” And so, Taylor suggests, even this disembedded art “trades on resonances of the cosmic in us” (356).

But how does this create the “open space” of the nova effect? In what way do these artistic shifts make room for cross-pressured options and alternatives? Well, these “subtler languages operating in the ‘absolute’ mode can offer a place to go for modern unbelief;” more specifically, they provide an outlet and breathing room for those who feel cross-pressured precisely by the Romantic critique of the Deism and anthropocentric shifts that have flattened the world, leaving no room for mystery. For those who can’t tolerate that (and Taylor thinks our better nature will never tolerate that), this emergence of the arts provides another venue for a kind of immanent mystery, an anthropologized mystery within.[1] The arts and the aesthetic become a way of working out “the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important” (358; see Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man). The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence: in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settled for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism or moralism. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage, etc. (360). [And again, Taylor’s reading is ambiguous here: on the one hand, this impulse could simply come from an older longing that we’ve outgrown—a historical pressure (361); on the other hand, it sometimes seems to suggest that this pressure comes from the now-ignored transcendent itself, “the solicitations of the spiritual” (360).]

2 / Why We Don’t Believe (or Don’t Believe Your Own Testimony)

[Discussion: The Reformation entails materialism?! See p. 362, top.]

This section is a fascinating little psychoanalysis of a convert—but of one (or a culture) that has converted from belief to unbelief. The upshot is a hermeneutics of suspicion: if someone tells you that they’ve converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them. Because what’s usually captured them is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science: “Even where the conclusions of science seem to be doing the work of conversion, it is very often not the detailed findings so much as the form” (362). Indeed, “the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findngs as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality” (365). But you can also understand how, on the retelling, the convert to unbelief will want to give the impression that it was the scientific evidence that was doing the work (365b). Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories.

And the belief that they’ve converted from has usually been an immature, Sunday-Schoolish faith that could be easily toppled. So while such converts to unbelief tell themselves stories about “growing up” and “facing reality”—and thus paint belief as essentially immature and childish—what it betrays is the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned. “[I]f our faith has remained at the stage of the immature images, then the story that materialism equals maturity can seem plausible” (365). But in fact their conversion to unbelief was also a conversion to a new faith: “faith in science’s ability” (366).

Such tales of maturity and “growing up” to “face reality” are stories of courage—the courage to face the fact that the universe is without meaning, without purpose, without significance. So the convert to unbelief has grown up because she can handle the truth that our disenchanted world is a cold, hard place. But at the same time, there can be something exhilarating in this loss of purpose and teleology, because if nothing matters, and we have the courage to face this, then we have a kind of Epicurean invulnerability. While such a universe might have nothing to offer us by way of comfort, it’s also true that “[i]n such a universe, nothing is demanded of us” (367). Now the loss of purpose is also a liberation: “we decide what goals to pursue.”

[One gets the sense, however, that Taylor thinks there are diminishing returns on this: that something in the universe is going to keep pushing back, and that something in ourselves is not going to allow us to be satisfied with what looks like “freedom.” One might suggest that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom gets at the same malaise.]

3 / Immanent Counter-Enlightenment: Revolt Against the “Secular Religion of Life”

In the point above re: the liberating nature of the loss of purpose, one can already see burgeoning hints of what’s coming: Nietzsche, and other “post-Schaupenhauerian” visions (369). What we get here, according to Taylor, is an internal critique of modernity, the “immanent counter-Enlightenment” which turns against the values of the Enlightenment precisely insofar as those values were secular analogues of a Christian inheritance (think: Geneaology of Morals, which targets Kant and Jesus, Hegel and Paul). What we get here is a critique of that strand of exclusive humanism which secularized agape, giving us the universalized “agape-analogue” (369-370; cp. 27). What we get from this Enlightenment formalization or secularization of Christian sensibilities is “a secular religion of life” (371)—and it is that to which the post-Schaupenhauerian strains of counter-Enlightenment are reacting.[2] On their account, Kant is still immature; still blind to the harsh realities of our cold, cruel universe; and thus still captive to slave morality, unable to be a hero (373).

[1] Cp. Rorty on the new role of art in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, pp. 4-5.

[2] [I wonder whether one could read Michael Chabon’s and Amy Chua’s critiques of modern parenting as a kind of cultural expression of a similar reaction to the politics of politeness that we get from a secular religion of life.]

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