Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Malaises of Immanence Redux (JKAS notes on ch. 8)

We now transition to Part III of the book. Part I (“The Work of Reform”) considered the late medieval and early modern reform movements which began to shift the plausibility conditions of the West that made exclusive humanism a possibility (especially via disenchantment and the newly buffered self). But this was only a condition of possibility, not inevitability. Part II (“The Turning Point”) considered the positive shift that really made exclusive humanism a “live option”: a theological shift that gave us the impersonal god of Deism coupled with the intellectual & cultural Pelagianism which found the resources for an “agape-analogue” within immanence.

1 / Nova Effect from Cross-Pressures

Part III (“The Nova Effect”) considers the outcome of this turn in what Taylor calls “the nova effect” (300). By this he means a pluralization (300), fragilization (304), and fragmentation (299) of visions of the good life and human flourishing. This is a “nova” effect because it issues, not just in a binary choice between two options, but in an array of options that almost metastasize because of the multiple “cross-pressures” of this pluralized situation (302).

Taylor’s analysis of this point is deeply existential. As he puts it, while the world is disenchanted for “us moderns,” we nonetheless also experience a sense of loss and malaise in the wake of such disenchantment (302; cp. the fiction of DFW!). And so all sorts of people feel themselves caught in these “cross-pressures”—pushed by the immanence of disenchantment on one side, but also pushed by a sense of significance and transcendence from another side, even if it might be a lost transcendence. One should note how much Taylor’s account here relies on an appeal to a “sense” that “we” have, an “feel” for this. “My point,” he emphasizes, “is not that everybody feels this, but rather, first, that many people do, and far beyond the ranks of card-carrying theists” (302). All sorts of people feel themselves caught: “in the face of the opposition between orthodoxy and unbelief, many, and among them the best and most sensitive minds, were cross-pressured, looking for a third way” (302). And it is the intensity of these cross-pressures that causes the explosion, the nova effect, which is effectively an explosion of all sorts of “third ways.”

But what attends this explosion is also a malaise which is itself one of the consequences of a buffered identity. The same “buffering” of the self that protects us also encloses us and isolates us. “This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for us” (303). Sealed off from enchantment, the modern buffered self is also sealed off from significance, left to ruminate in its own stew of ennui. It is just this sealing-off that generates the pressure: the self’s “relative invulnerability to anything beyond the human world” also leads to “a sense that something may be occluded in the very closure which guarantees safety” (303).

2 / Reactions: The Malaises of Immanence

The nova effect is, in important ways, generated by the cross-pressures on the buffered self. However, there are other causal factors that contribution to this super-nova explosion of immanent spiritualities in our secular age. The pluralization is also caused by negative reactions to this “package” of modernity (“buffered identity, with its disengaged subjectivity, with its supporting disciplines, all sustaining an order of freedom and mutual benefit” [304-305]) or different parts of the package. Some of these negative reactions include Romanticism and Pietism.

a ) Theodicy and indictments of orthodoxy

But then there are also negative reactions to orthodox Christianity as well—“indictments against orthodox religion” (305). A central part of this indictment is fueled by theodicy, or lack thereof (305; cp. 232). In other words, we now have the rise of the evidential argument from evil. But this could only take hold within the modern moral order (MMO) and its epistemic confidence:

Once we claim to understand the universe, and how it works; once we even try to explain how it works by invoking its being created for our benefit, then this explanation is open to clear challenge: we know how things go, and we know why they were set up, and we can judge whether the first meets the purpose defined in the second. In Lisbon 1755, ti seems clearly not to have. So the immanent order ups the ante (306).

But we have to appreciate what has changed here: precisely the emergence of the disengaged, “World Picture” confidence in our powers of exhaustive surveillance (cp. 232). Prior to this stance, the conditions would have yielded lament, not theodicy: “If one is in a profoundly believing/practicing way of life, then this hanging in to trust in God may seem the obvious way, and is made easier by the fact that everyone is with you in this” (306).

b) Reactions to the buffered self

Taylor then returns to consider the negative reactions to disenchantment and the buffered self—recalling that these reactions increase the pressure in the “cross-pressures.” While he’s going to provide a taxonomy of these different sorts of reactions, he suggest that all of them hinge on a common “axis”: the “generalized sense in our culture that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost” (307: the optative mood is intentional). It is this lack, loss and emptiness that—in and by its absence—presses on the immanence of exclusive humanism yielding what Taylor calls “the malaises of immanence” (309).

Now, as he rightly notes, “it doesn’t follow that the only cure for them is a return to transcendence” (309); indeed, it is precisely looking for a cure in immanence that generates the nova effect, looking for love/meaning/significance/transcendence within the immanent order.[1] One of the best expressions of this is the new book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. “They too seek solutions, or ways of filling the lack, but within immanence; and thus the gamut of new positions multiplies” (310)—hence supernova (cue Oasis, "Champagne Supernova").

[1] One could, of course, run an entire Augustinian analysis of this as the doomed project of loving some part of creation instead of the Creator (a la Bk IV of the Confessions and passim.). But Taylor doesn’t not invoke “idolatory” as a conceptual frame here, for obvious strategic reasons.

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