Activists, academics, and priests – The failures of critique – New Age experiential, pragmatic, somatic practices and the disenchantment of intellectualism
Imagine for a minute that you not only work in English but that you also believe in God. If you did, you might lead a double life, engaged five or six days of every week deconstructing master narratives or tracking knowledge/power, and then on the seventh day, at least for several hours, doing something altogether different. Even if those hours were your most important ones, you would probably keep the secret to yourself – for reasons best explained, I’m inclined to think, by the history of higher learning in the U.S., which began with religious ties but then moved aggressively, over the last hundred years or so, toward secularism, science, and specialization. And given the academy’s astonishing growth, who would want to argue now against this move? By abandoning our claim to “ultimate values,” by becoming producers of specialist knowledge, our forerunners won a privileged place in the emerging social order, an order that no longer needed values anyway, premised as it was on “rationality” in the administration of its human subjects. With so much to gain from this process, and so much to lose – a process, as Max Weber would have it, of progressive “disenchantment” – English studies climbed aboard reluctantly, though since then, we have done pretty well. Yet who can help but notice, in our darker hours at least, that something’s missing from our professional lives, something rather like religion, after all.
…If the humanities have tried for a hundred years to imagine themselves as a science of some kind – of myths and symbols, signs and codes, a “political unconscious” – I believe that they can never get entirely free from concerns and practices they have always shared with religion. Like it or not, we’re in the business of constructing inner lives, and the sooner we admit the need for an inner life, the sooner we can see why religion still counts – and why English studies might count in the same way.
At the outset I should add, however, that our problem is somewhat more complex than the overt suppression of an inner life already there for everyone: the problem is precisely that an inner life has become difficult to argue for on the terms defined by the critical spirit of our day. And given this predicament – this relentless annihilation of interiority – Weber’s description of the modern world as an “iron cage” of meaningless routine strikes me as an understatement.
…practices that range from simple prayer and visualization to yoga and possession by the Holy Spirit. The truth produced by these practices, however, has less in common with the “truth” of philosophy or theology than it does with the knowledge made by scientists, since its merit lies not its propositional character – in claims reached by a purely deductive reason – but in its capacity to produce real-world results – in the self and in one’s relation to others. At least for those who follow the new religions, truth of this kind enables one to act: it frees one from ambivalence and so produces health as well as wisdom, at least ideally.
Yet the pursuit of such a truth paradoxically returns its pursuers to an older, premodern kind of knowledge. Knowledge in the modern sense separates the object and the observer from the larger world that contains them both. We say, for example, that we “know something” when it stands out vividly as a thing-in-itself, amenable to an analysis designed to expose the object’s internal logic – its parts. To know a poem, for instance, is to know how it is “put together,” and the same might be said of knowing a flower or a style of architecture. But the word “knowing” may also denote a kind of fusion, as in the King James Bible: a collapse of the boundary between thou and that. To know a poem in this sense is to see a world “through it,” so that the world, far from receding, becomes intensely present as a whole, and as a part of one’s own self-perception, memory, affect, and so on. This kind of truth feels true, and it feels true in a special way – by dissolving the knower’s sense of isolation. Precisely because such a knowledge extracts the observer from the grip of discriminating judgment, it runs the risk of appearing useless and purely fanciful – just as alleged by early empiricists like Descartes and Bacon – but this older path to truth offers something that our textualist knowledge cannot reliably provide: an experiential solution to the problem of multiple paradigms, which ordinarily intensify our alienation, and it does so without resorting to the authoritarian ideal of a single truth applicable to everyone.
…For them, a more compassionate and useful response to difference is a synthetic exercise of imagination. The point is not to decide who was right, the Buddha or the Christ, or to see the real itself as a simulacrum, but to construct a way of living inclusive enough to accommodate both claims as truth.
…While poststructuralists have correctly understood that encounters among cultures are often “relativizing,” they have generally failed to understand that the “relativity” of “incommensurable” paradigms cannot remain a permanent condition: their view, too, is an illusion of the scholar’s training – the neat divisions of academic labor and the card catalog, which owe far less to the process of understanding than to the logistics of storing and retrieving information.
Syncretism violates the logic of the library, but it makes sense as an ethics of engagement with the “Other” when alternative forms of life have placed in doubt one’s own beliefs. To praise, as Butcher does, “the Tao” that “becomes flesh and dwells among us” is to not to overturn the Gospel, but to renew its inner dimension through the encounter with Chinese tradition. And it would seem that this recovery of a meaningful inner life is the reason many followers of the new religions have embraced a syncretic hermeneutics. If syncretism sanctions all beliefs as potentially true, it also makes each person responsible for creating a private truth, which is true not because it can be universalized – that’s the textualist formula – but because it restores the knower’s sense of connectedness to the world and to others…
While we tend to believe that the best response to an oppressive public image is an energetic critique, the practice of critique may overturn ideas while leaving unchanged more fundamental structures of identification. As we all know, even brilliant social critics can be desperate for approval, and in the theater of political action, quite committed liberators can exploit, manipulate, and even murder the very people they set out to liberate. Those of us committed to critical consciousness have too readily assumed that criticism alone can compensate for relations of power that make it impossible to think or say certain things in public forums where the wrong sorts of speech often carry enormous penalties – the high regard of one’s colleagues, for example, or the possibility of publication in, say, a prestigious journal. Nor, it seems me, have we given much thought to the mechanisms of “inner censorship” – if I can use the language of the new religions.
If equality is our concern, and if the minimum requirement for a relation of equality is the power to say “no” to the other without fear of retaliation, then the making of a “strong” interiority becomes absolutely indispensable. As long as I depend for my self-worth on the powerful, the learned, the wealthy, the famous, and so on – as long as I locate outside my own control whatever I define as the highest good – words like “equality” and “freedom,” “liberation” and “truth” are little more than empty abstractions. And for this reason, a central tenet of the new religions is a return to the idea that “the kingdom of god is within you.” The valorization of the everyday has many dimensions, but the existential and the political seem inextricably related in much of the writing. As J. K. Bailey reasons in Already on Holy Ground:
“For too long we’ve reserved the divine presence for a coterie
of bishops and cardinals, sadhus and gurus, self-appointed
preachers and brilliant philosopher-scholars – as if they were
the guardians of our religious experience. Perhaps we believed
we weren’t smart, holy, or committed enough, or we pre-
sumed the core of spiritual life lay in some grand future awak-
ening. But in waiting for the blinding light to strike us, we
ignored the tiny sparkle of a star in the night sky that could
bring joy to the heart and help us to remember the Divine.
In experiencing this presence, no event is too minute for our
attention. . . . The potential for light is as present with
mechanics amid the grease and grime of the neighborhood
Amoco station as it is with Zen monks at a monastery in
It would be easy to point out, of course, that even the askesis of self-fashioning must be socially constructed and that the self is therefore “social” through and through. Yet to adopt “the social” as our master metaphor is not to get to the “real” bottom of things, but only to choose a bottom of a certain kind, since bottoms too are inescapably underdetermined: they are, in other words, political, if we consider politics as Aristotle did to be the realm of possibility, not necessity…
If religion as a practice may trouble us, the “New Age” has taken a still more alarming turn, though it may ultimately prove to be a miracle in its own way: a turn toward arts as practice, toward the making of art and away from its consumption, critical or otherwise. As we know from the historical record, the idea that a poem or painting exists primarily to be “analyzed” is actually quite recent. English departments, for example, were created to “teach literature” before anyone actually knew what “teaching literature” might concretely involve…As the sociologist Eric Livingston alleges, our critical practices serve primarily to preserve qualitative distinctions between the “informed” readings of experts and the “misreadings” of ordinary people, who generally read for pleasure or “life-lessons.” And as other observers have pointed out, criticism helps preserve the boundary separating lay people from the august ranks of “real writers.”
The rarification of the arts – their sequestration from everyday life and their metamorphosis into objects of abstruse expert consumption – typifies the very essence of disenchanted modernity as Weber described it, and this development corresponds quite closely to other forms of political and social disenfranchisement. But the academy’s appropriation of the arts may have social consequences more important in the long run than even the plummeting rate of voter participation or the widespread dissatisfaction with, say, the public school system. Fundamentally, the lesson of all the arts is the same: ways of seeing, ways of thinking, ways of feeling can be changed, and each of us can change them. The arts, we might say, dramatize the human power of “world making,” to take a phrase from Nelson Goodman, and they do so by freeing the artist from the ordinary constraints of practical feasibility, empirical proof, and ethical uprightness. Once the arts have become nothing more, however, than an object of specialist inquiry, they often cease to teach this crucial lesson and teach instead exactly the opposite: ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling might be changed, but only by exceptional people.
Once again an insight from the “New Age” may be more truthful than we wish to admit – the insight that the arts share common ground with the kind of experience we think of as religious. It seems to me, in other words, that unless English studies can offer people something like an experience of “unconditional freedom,” we have nothing to offer at all. If a poem or painting is always only a product of social forces, an economy of signs, or some unconscious mechanism, then why not simply study sociology or economics? If all we have to show for our reading and writing lives is a chronicle of ensnarements, enslavements, and defeats, then why should anybody tramp so far afield – through, say, the 600 pages of Moby Dick – when we can learn the same lessons much more easily from People magazine or the movies? In itself, the forms of activity we speak of as “the arts” can be put to countless uses for countless reasons, but we might do well to ask if ideology critique is the best of those uses. Does it seem credible that the millions of years of evolution which have brought forth humankind’s marvelous intelligence have now come to their full flower in our disenchanted age? Was it all for this? Or could it be, instead, that disenchantment, the failure of all our narratives, is now impelling us toward the one encounter we have tried for several centuries to avoid, having failed, perhaps, to get it right the first time around: I mean an encounter with the sacred.