Sacramentalism in the age of mercenary enchantment, or why there is no shame in my Romantic game – Imagination as the ecstasy of reason
But is that the only way to understand the “different sense” to which Weber alluded so nebulously—that modernity marks the crossing of the Rubicon of disenchantment? Perhaps the sociologist who considered himself “religiously unmusical” heard faint notes of enchantment in modernity; perhaps, despite their wounds, the old divinities had not risen to give consent to their deaths. Were they really “disenchanted” when they assumed their “secular” form? Or do they still roam among us in the guise of “secularization”?
There are good reasons to think so, and some of them lie within one of the more tumultuous and aggressive of the allegedly “disenchanting” forces of modernity: capitalism, whose “laws of the market” Weber had identified as one refuge for the phantoms of divinity. Of course, capitalism has long been presumed to be a powerful solvent of enchantment. “All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned,” as Marx and Engels proclaimed in The Communist Manifesto. Far from being bastions of piety, the bourgeois masters of capitalism have “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor … in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” What if those waters of pecuniary reason constituted a baptismal font, a consecration of capitalism as a covert form of enchantment, all the more beguiling on account of its apparent profanity?
…capitalism has been a form of enchantment, a metamorphosis of the sacred in the raiment of secularity. With money as its ontological marrow, it represents a moral and metaphysical imagination as well as a sublimation of our desire for the presence of divinity in the everyday world. Second, the most incisive forms of opposition to capitalist enchantment have come in the form of what I will call “the sacramental imagination,” a conviction that the material of ordinary life can mediate the supernatural.
In this view, capitalism perverts both the sacramental character of the world and our consciousness of that quality—neither of which can ever be extinguished, only assaulted, damaged, and left in ruins. As Gerard Manley Hopkins summarized it so well in the Romantic idiom of the sacramental imagination, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God…. There lies the dearest freshness deep down things”—a freshness spoiled, he ruefully added, “seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.” The world does not need to be re-enchanted; its enduring and ineradicable enchantment requires our belated recognition and reverence.
But as the metaphysical regime of capitalism, monetary and commodity fetishism was at least as beguiling as any previous order of enchantment, especially as all its rivals were evaporating. If the proletariat is thoroughly permeated by pecuniary enchantment, why would the oppressed ever desire the transcendence of alienation and servility? With sufficient technical and political ingenuity—mass production, consumer culture, the welfare and regulatory policies of modern liberalism and social democracy—the sacramental tokens of commodity fetishism could retard and even extinguish the growth of revolutionary consciousness.
Weil traced the failure of the Marxist revolutionary imagination to its species of materialism. Like other nineteenth-century materialists, Marx conceived of matter as an inert and lifeless ensemble of forces; however “historical” his materialism claimed to be, the inertia of matter entailed subjection to the inviolable laws of the natural—and only—world. But if matter—including historical matter—is governed only by force, then the mechanisms of capitalist matter were, on Marx’s own terms, invincible. “Marx’s revolutionary materialism,” Weil observed, “consists in positing on the one hand that everything is exclusively regulated by force, and on the other that a day will come when force will be on the side of the weak. Not that certain ones who were weak will become strong … but that the entire mass of the weak, while continuing to be such, will have force on its side.” While Weil praised Marx for his acute portrayal of the apparatus of capitalist domination, she realized that the political implications of inanimate materialism were anything but emancipatory.
Rather than reactively dismiss materialism altogether in favor of some “spiritual” ontology of politics, Weil hinted at a sacramental alternative. Shortly before her untimely death in 1943, Weil—by then what could be described as a fellow-traveler of Christianity, someone lingering in the vestibule but never entering the sanctuary—speculated that just as “yeast only makes the dough rise if it is mixed with it,” so in the same way “there exist certain material conditions for the supernatural operation of the divine that is present on earth.” The knowledge of those “material conditions” for “supernatural operation” would, Weil surmised, constitute “the true knowledge of social mechanics.” If matter is not exactly “animate,” the material world of society and history could be a conduit for divinity. Because we have “forgotten the existence of a divine order of the universe,” we fail to see that “labor, art, and science are only different ways of entering into contact with it.”
This sacramental critique of Marxist metaphysics would not be that it is “too materialist” but rather that it is not materialist enough—that is, that it does not provide an adequate account of matter itself, of its sacramental and revelatory character. Sacramentality has ontological and social implications, for the “gift” that Williams identifies is “God’s grace and the common life thus formed.”
As the doyen of scholars of Romanticism, M. H. Abrams, explained, secularization has not been “the deletion and replacement of religious ideas” but rather their “assimilation and reinterpretation.” Romantics, in his view, provided an aesthetic asylum for the spirits of pre-modern enchantment. Like Thomas Carlyle’s Professor Teufelsdröckh, the philosopher-prophet of Sartor Resartus (1831), they longed to “embody the divine Spirit” of the gospel “in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls … may live.” But Romanticism did more than preserve an interior enclave for the supernatural; as Bernard Reardon perceived, it also named “the inexpungeable feeling that the finite is not self-explaining and self-justifying” and that “there is always an infinite ‘beyond’”—a beyond that lived in the midst of us, leaving numinous traces in the world of appearance. In other words, Romanticism is the modern heir to the Christian sacramental imagination.
Although divorced from orthodox theology, Romantic humanism echoed the traditional harmony of reason, love, and reality. When Romantics praised “enthusiasm,” “reverence,” and “imagination,” they restated the venerable Christian wisdom that reason is rooted in love, that full and genuine understanding precludes a desire to possess and control. Against the imperious claims of “Urizen”—Blake’s fallen “Prince of Light” and your reason reduced to measurement and calculation—Blake countered that “Enthusiastic Admiration is the First Principle of Knowledge & its last.” “To know a thing, what we can call knowing,” Carlyle surmised in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840), we “must first love the thing, sympathise with it.” Arising from a sacramental sense of the world as a “region of the Wonderful,” Carlyle’s incessant admonitions to “reverence” and “wonder” were, at bottom, exhortations to love.
“Imagination” was the name Romantics gave to this erotic and sacramental consciousness. Yet imagination was not only a subjective enchantment; in the Romantic sensibility, imagination was the most perspicuous form of vision—the ability to see what is really there, behind the illusion or obscurity produced by our will to dissect and dominate. To Samuel Taylor Coleridge, if reason is “the power of universal and necessary convictions, the source and substance of truths above sense,” then imagination is its vibrant sacramental partner, “the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” For Romantics, imagination did not annul but rather completed rationality. During the French Revolution, Wordsworth observed, reason seemed “most intent on making of herself / A prime Enchantress.” Though warning of the brutality of instrumental reason—“our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; / We murder to dissect”—Wordsworth described imagination as “Reason in her most exalted mood.” Imagination was, for the Romantics, the ecstasy of reason.
…Theodore Roszak praised the Romantics for their “sacramental consciousness,” which he hoped to enlist against a technocratic capitalism that now enjoyed a perverse “monopoly of the sacramental powers.” Consigning Marxism and other secular revolutionary theories to the dustbin of disenchantment, Roszak called on a new generation of radicals who knew that “politics is metaphysically grounded” to draw upon “primordial energies greater than the power of our bombs.”
As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton realized, those “primordial energies” could be as gentle as the rain. In “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” a haunting essay in Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), Merton imagined the sad perversity of a world reduced to inventory. As he listened to showers in the forest near Gethsemani, the Kentucky abbey where he lived, Merton hastened to convey the beauty of the rain before it “becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money”—they meaning business, determined to take everything free and incalculable and make it a paying proposition.
To Merton, this insatiable avarice indicated an evil much deeper than moral perversion; it emanated from a capitalist enchantment that only masqueraded as secularity. Business was launching an ontological regime in which “what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real”; in the cosmology of capital, “the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.” Graphing the rain on the commercial axis of effective demand and scarcity of supply, the alchemists of commerce cannot “appreciate its gratuity.” Yet for those who saw the world as the lavish largesse of a loving and prodigal God, “rain is a festival,” a celebration of its own gifted and gloriously pointless existence. “Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw,” he exulted. “Every blade of grass is an angel in a shower of glory.”
Who are the acolytes of Romantic sacramentalism in our own age of mercenary enchantment, when the specter of ecological catastrophe forms a global storm-cloud of the twenty-first century? Pope Francis I, for one, who in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’ (2015), provides an erudite and often moving manifesto of the sacramental imagination. Opening with his namesake’s “Canticle to the Creatures,” the Pope proceeds to excoriate the economic system for pillaging the earth and its inhabitants; the biosphere “groans in travail,” as he cites Paul’s warning to the Romans.
But as Francis insists in his own epistle to the disenchanted, the root of the violence wrought upon the planet lies in an ontological blindness. Divine love is “the fundamental moving force in all created things,” Francis writes; the world is “illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.” No doubt this will all seem foolish to the shamans and magicians of neoliberal capitalism, whose own imaginations are lavishly imprisoned in the gaudy cage of disenchantment. The Romantics would remind us that our capacity to act well relies on our capacity to see what is really there. For there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.
…What is more, each of us inherits and is partially constituted by a number of sociocultural scripts authored by those who came before us. As roles to be acted out in everyday life, these at times conflicting scripts – for example, of daughter, sister, mother, lover, wife, woman, teacher – can be exceedingly difficult and painful to rewrite, especially for those persons (like “Phaedrus”) who have been relegated to the margins…As even Dewey fails to acknowledge sufficiently, they inevitably constrain the possibilities of personal renewal in very significant and consequential ways.
…Thus begins the process of education between a text-as-friend and the reader wherein the text (as the reader’s unattained but attainable self) calls the reader to his next self.
[note 18]…[Dewey] “poetry teaches as friends and life teach, by being, and not by express intent.”
Like the figure of the poet-as-midwife in romanticism, the text-as-friend strives to arrange a conversational rather than authoritarian scene of instruction. It invites the reader to find that distinctive path to self-realization that the linguistic community he shares with others makes possible for him…we are all educators for ourselves as well as for one another, We are all partial representations of some greater common-wealth.
…in synthesizing human activity through flexible adaptation to the environment, the body’s natural structuring agencies are highly subject to the sense-making structures of the culture it inherits; which is to say that culture, with its complex symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs has its roots in the lived body. And as Michel Foucault forcefully reminds us, this makes it a malleable site for inscribing social power.
Whether we like it or not, the body is considerably more than a shadowing “giant” whose agencies can be substantially divorced from the art of living wisely and well. The habitual body, the primary medium of meaning in Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, is prefigured in every mode of human behavior and expression, including linguistic activity. It conditions and is conditioned by our ability to negotiate successfully and act intelligently within all kinds of cultural space, those of work as well as of leisure. To fail to recognize this is to suppose the body to be little more than the intractable vessel of our mental life. To fail to acknowledge it is inevitably to impede the cause of personal renewal.
What kinds of environments and activities are most likely to expand the self and its capacity to find an make meaning in the world?
…In its configuration as a tentative but relatively stable organic unity of many and diverse habits, the poetically fashioned self achieves a balanced movement of energies and impulses. Yet at the same time it also eschews the prospect of any final endstate or absolute perfection. In going forth to meet new situations that present new demands, each stage in its growth becomes as much a stimulating disturbance toward the new as an achieved ordering of the old. The poetic self is, in this sense, both medial and media.
What is more, the poetic structure contributes to the self’s ability to negotiate everyday experience in a meaningful and satisfying way. The breadth and vitality of the poetic self’s working capacities make it especially well equipped to receive, respond to, and integrate imaginatively the meaning-enhancing possibilities of the present moment. Its capacious array of habits provides increased opportunities for finding and creating meaning in the world. In addition, the poetic self has the ability to solve problems in ways that maximize self-growth, establishing new avenues for richly funded experience. But more than that- and I want to underscore this point – it will sense as problematic situations that would otheriswe seem in good order. That is, it will experience some degree of disequilibrium where others likely will not. Vague discordances – such as Pirsig’s increasing awareness of “Phaedrus’s” ghostly presence or his intimation of a slight misfire in his bike – can more easily be detected and brought to consciousness by the poetic self. Its world is one of multiple and intersecting horizons of meaning, ever pregnant with freshly emerging problems and possibilities.
…The other-directed dimension of Emersonian perfectionism is oriented toward self-reliance through our shared linguistic resources. But Dewey’s poetics look to harmonize regard for the self and its internal others with flesh and blood other(s) in the world. The end-in-view of Deweyan dramatic rehearsal incorporates the environing community with its immediate deliberative horizon – looking in to the self and out to the world are not discrete activities, but elements of one continuous process. This means that the questions “Who am I?” and “Who am I to become?” do not arise independent of the question “How should I treat others?” In addition, we have seen that self-perfection through linguistic activity, while indeed a valuable means of personal renewal, can never be an adequate substitute for more overt democratic praxis. We greatly risk falling into a debased perfectionism if we do not remain alert to the fact that undertaking dialogue with internalized others does not guarantee our being answerable for this dialogue in concrete activities of public life. Yet Dewey stresses that it is through such praxis that we best come to understand that we inhabit the world meaningfully only with and through one another.
1. art as experience makes possible the reconstruction of habits (and hence the self) in ways that significantly alter and enhance the potential meaning and value of things;
2. art as experience, in contributing to a poetics of the body, improves both the aesthetic quality and use-value of somatic activity, in addition to the physical culture of our everyday environment;
3. as a form of deliberation or “dramatic rehearsal,” art as experience utilizes the agencies of aesthetic discrimination and poetic creation, conceiving, in imagination, hitherto unrecognized possibilities for thought and action;
4. the procedures of “dramatic rehearsal” assume a narrative structure that helps reveal the shortcomings of our habits of deliberation, furnishing a valuable kind of self-knowledge;
5. the poetic self resulting from artistic engagement in diverse contexts acquires a broad array of habits that presents increased opportunities for finding and creating meaning in the world;
6. the many and diverse habits of this poetic self foster a heightened ability to engage with and liberate the meaning-making capacities of others.
…Moreover, we must recognize that poetic quality “exists in many degrees and forms”. In an effort to drive these points home, Dewey takes the time in Art as Experience to quote verbatim an actual weather report…Dewey freely admits that almost no one would call these lines actual poetry. Yet without modifying it in any way, he presents a bit or ordinary prose as “something poetic” found in an “unexpected place”.
…shared life and experience is for him the great miracle of human existence. The democratic attitude is the religious attitude; democratic values are religious values…The substantial emancipation of the religious from religion, he firmly believes, is the only way to heal this destructive and unnecessary chasm between “the live creature and ethereal things”…
…to emancipate the aesthetic, as an adjective, from the artworld’s acquisitive treatment of art as a noun substantive. Both the aesthetic and the religious are to be interpreted as qualities of a larger experience, latent in any number of situational contexts.
****…For all of these figures [Wordsworth, Emerson, Dewey, Pirsig] the aesthetic and the religious are variations of a common theme – the ideal of life as the realization of the poetic possibilities of everyday experience.****
…Dewey locates imagination not in the mind or some other part of our intellectual equipment, but rather in the dramatic field of self-world interaction. Imagination is a way of being oriented toward things, seeing and feeling them, as they constitute a unified whole…[imagination is not an individual possession] it is a phase of natural events capable of extracting from existing conditions unrealized possibilities for meaning.
Aesthetic experience for Dewey, culminates not so much in vertical movement – transcendence to a higher level of being through a tighter and more comprehensive unity. It is instead better described as horizontal – a movement outward toward an ever-expanding horizon of meaning and value.
Aesthetic experience emerges with the aid of intelligence from the manifold rhythms of everyday life, wherein all things pass ineluctably in and out of existence. This is the sine qua non of Deweyean pragmatic naturalism. There is no hidden and self-identical “higher” reality to be unmasked, no permanent haven for which to strive; there is only the body and mind working together in and through the natural and sociocultural environment to create and recreate meaning.
…A metaphysics that increases our understanding of the possible relationships between our sociocultural practices and the various traits of the lived world is, from this perspective, indispensable to philosophy as criticism.
1. both aesthetic and religious experience are latent in any number of situational contexts, and not exclusive and autonomous things-in-themselves;
2. the aesthetic and religious, taken together, manifest the ideal of life as the realization of poetic possibilities of everyday experience;
3. expressive (or aesthetic) meaning is wholly inseparable from its conditioning medium – there can be no such thing as “impulsive expression”;
4. all forms of expression are ultimately as much a function of the body as of the mind;
5. the self or its emotions are not what art expresses, but rather the sensed meaning arising from purposeful interaction of self and world;
6. the goal of interpreting an art object is not simply to “get it” by reading the artist’s mind – there is considerably more meaning to be gleaned from openly exploring the expressive potentialities f the object and its medium;
7. the aesthetic imagination is fundamentally intentional rather than free floating or disinterested;
8. imagination is not a discrete faculty or power, but rather a whole contextual orientation toward things capable of disclosing alternatives to present conditions;
9. art does not reveal the essence of things or achieve higher levels of being – it is a means of expanding one’s everyday horizon of meaning;
10. a unified experience should act as much as “a stimulating disturbance toward the new as an achieved ordering of the old” – to strive for a perfectly harmonious, inclusive unity is inevitably to stifle growth and possibility.
…In learning to conduct more of everyday experience in an artful manner, we increase our ability to liberate and expand the potential meaning of things…
…As a creative transformation of our everyday lifeworld, this experience [aesthetic for Dewey, high-quality for Pirsig], they argue, provides the means and media for an everyday poetics of living.
[Martha] Nussbaum takes from all of this that the structural form of philosophy – its use of language, method, exposition and argument, and so on – is organically connected with – and actively conditions – its content. Style itself, that is, makes certain claims about the world and about what matters in life. This leads Nussbaum to conclude that “there may be some views of the world and how one should live in it – views, especially, that emphasize the world’s surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty – that cannot be fully and adequately stated in language of conventional philosophical prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder – but only in a language and in forms that are themselves more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars.”…
…that vital link to future possibility necessary to sustain the poetics of personal and cultural renewal – what Dewey conceives of principally in terms of imagination (“the chief instrument of the good”) – is in danger of being svered by interpretive practices that, whether purposely or not, tend to blunt our sense of the ineffable mystery and wonder of the lived world by rendering everything either readily explainable or of no significant value…”
…each theory [analytic and Continental] discounts the possibility that literary texts refer in some way to concrete human readers (and therein to the world), readers who are not ontologically weightless abstractions, but who have practical interests and needs that often change and grow significantly through their encounters with literature…
…the proper aim of philosophy is not the creation of a logical system of thought, but rather the enhancement of the quality of life and experience through conscientious cultural or value criticism…Immaculately reasoned arguments and grand systems mean little if they have nothing to contribute to the art of a life well lived.
The despotism of theory and careerism – Slackers, the humanities, and understanding the difference between laziness and leisure
[This addresses a piece by Lee Siegel that I posted earlier. Sometimes I roll with conservatives.]
Siegel reminds us that literature wasn’t taught in our colleges until the end of the nineteenth century because reading novels and poetry “were part of the leisure of ordinary life.” That’s what an educated person did, and not, of course, for college credit. Thoughts and imaginations were shaped by literature as much as anything else. Sometimes they may have been silly thoughts and romantic imaginations—such as the chivalrous southerners who were moved by Sir Walter Scott to choose a very bloody and very optional war. And sometimes, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible almost all alone were enough to discover and “communicate” both the urgency and poetic/theological significance of the seemingly prosaic American proposition.
There was, as Siegel suggests, a kind of “existentialist” moment that began after World War II and persisted through part of the Sixties. The focus on one’s personal destiny in a world distorted by technology and ideology—a world that produced unprecedented mass slaughter—privileged literature over other forms of “communication.” Insofar as philosophy was existential—and so obsessed with Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre, even it seemed more like literature than a technical or “theoretical” discipline. The goal was to save reflection on the truthfully irreducible situation of the particular person from the clutches of theory. The predicament of the person born to trouble—or at least a brush with absurdity—is what novels are about. And the insufficiency of philosophic prose to display that predicament explains why Sartre, Camus, and Walker Percy, for philosophic reasons, wrote novels. It is close, at least, to why Plato wrote dialogues and why St. Augustine wrote his Confessions.
As the great critic Lionel Trilling pointed out, it might have been near-ridiculous to teach books that should make us radically discontent with our ordinary lives in the newly standardized format of American higher education in the 1950s. And it increasingly became doubly ridiculous to have those books taught by careerist professors with the souls without spirit and heart of specialized scholars. It might be triply ridiculous to expect administrators, bureaucrats, and other certifiers of competencies to be able to understand—much less articulate—a credible defense of “the humanities.”
The existentialist point of “the humanities” is to experience the mysterious singularity of the particular being stuck for a moment between two abysses, born to love and die, to be moved by the sometimes inexpressible suffering of the being who must love and die, to experience the joy of “insight” with others, an experience that has nothing to do with “collaborative learning.” …
…They were about concerns that should animate one’s whole life. But today, we sadly say, the humanities aren’t typically a refuge from either the despotism of fashion or the despotism of theory, much less the despotism of careerism. That’s one reason among many they seem like a boring waste of valuable time for most students.
Given what most of our institutions of higher education are really like today, Siegel celebrates their abandonment of the humanities. Now literature is free to flourish somewhere else. It’s true enough, I can add, that Socrates never taught for money. And he never could have gotten tenure. He didn’t publish, and his student evaluations would have been uneven. It’s far from clear why it would help a great writer to get any degree at all, and certainly not one in “creative writing.” Someone could argue, of course, that things were different when people routinely read real books outside of class. But there’s no reason why they can’t do so again.
There is probably something to Siegel’s perception that the effort to defend the humanities everywhere in our educational system might be misguided. Maybe the focus should be on “countercultural” (which doesn’t mean all about the Sixties) institutions that exist in a communal context and that have what it takes to resist standardization, trendy theory, and the understandable but still excessive focus on techno-productivity. Maybe they can in some indirect way elevate us all.
Or maybe we should ask that there be just a lot more celebration of the diversity that still characterizes higher education in America, even in particular institutions and sometimes within particular departments. The enemy of this diversity is standardization—what comes from shamefully intrusive accrediting agencies, government bureaucrats, the use of “branding” and various forms of management-speak to describe liberal education, the adoption of the skills-and-competencies model (which is okay for tech schools) to evaluate higher education, and the insistence that the standard of productivity should drive all educational funding.
One advantage of standardization, of course, is that it holds slackers accountable. But we shouldn’t work too hard to get rid of all those slackers (such as those “tenured radicals”). Otherwise, we’ll too often mistake leisure for laziness. We might even mistake metaphysics, theology, poetry, and so forth for self-indulgent pursuits that don’t prepare students for the rigors of the competitive twenty-first-century marketplace. More than ever, it seems to me, it is essential to hold members of our “cognitive elite” to a standard higher than productivity. All Americans’ lives would be less pathological—and so, for one thing, more productive—if imaginations were, once again, filled with “real books.”
“…between the facts run the threads of unrecorded reality, momentarily recognized, wherever they come to the surface… the bright, twisted threads of symbolic envisagement, imagination, thought-memory and reconstructed memory, belief beyond experience, dream, make-believe, hypothesis, philosophy – the whole creative process of ideation, metaphor, and abstraction that makes human life and adventure in understanding.” – Susanne Langer Philosophy in a New Key
…It is the nature of specialization, after all, to be specialized. No, the problem with specialization is that it narrows your attention to the point where all you know about and all you want to know about, and, indeed, all you can know about, is your specialty.
The problem with specialization is that it makes you into a specialist. It cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself…
…there’s nothing wrong with thinking that you got an A because you’re smart. But what that Harvard student didn’t realize—and it was really quite a shock to her when I suggested it—is that there is a third alternative. True self-esteem, I proposed, means not caring whether you get an A in the first place. True self-esteem means recognizing, despite everything that your upbringing has trained you to believe about yourself, that the grades you get—and the awards, and the test scores, and the trophies, and the acceptance letters—are not what defines who you are.
She also claimed, this young woman, that Harvard students take their sense of self-efficacy out into the world and become, as she put it, “innovative.” But when I asked her what she meant by innovative, the only example she could come up with was “being CEO of a Fortune 500.” That’s not innovative, I told her, that’s just successful, and successful according to a very narrow definition of success. True innovation means using your imagination, exercising the capacity to envision new possibilities.
But I’m not here to talk about technological innovation, I’m here to talk about a different kind. It’s not about inventing a new machine or a new drug. It’s about inventing your own life. Not following a path, but making your own path. The kind of imagination I’m talking about is moral imagination. “Moral” meaning not right or wrong, but having to do with making choices. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.
Moral imagination is hard, and it’s hard in a completely different way than the hard things you’re used to doing. And not only that, it’s not enough. If you’re going to invent your own life, if you’re going to be truly autonomous, you also need courage: moral courage. The courage to act on your values in the face of what everyone’s going to say and do to try to make you change your mind. Because they’re not going to like it. Morally courageous individuals tend to make the people around them very uncomfortable. They don’t fit in with everybody else’s ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and still worse, they make them feel insecure about the choices that they themselves have made—or failed to make. People don’t mind being in prison as long as no one else is free. But stage a jailbreak, and everybody else freaks out.
Think of what we’ve come to. It is one of the great testaments to the intellectual—and moral, and spiritual—poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel like they’re being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. You are all told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you’re being “self-indulgent” if you actually want to get an education. Or even worse, give yourself one. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not OK to play music, or write essays, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is OK to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it’s not selfish at all.
…The world is much larger than you can imagine right now. Which means, you are much larger than you can imagine.
Art’s Future is Not Art – Jerry Saltz – Post Art (or invisible art, spy art, escape art, unart, or the He Said of He Said She Said, etc.)
The best parts of Documenta 13 bring us into close contact with this illusive [might he have meant “elusive?”] entity of Post Art—things that aren’t artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force. It’s an idea I love. (As I’ve written before, everything that’s made, if you look at it in certain ways, already is or can be art.) Things that couldn’t be fitted into old categories embody powerfully creative forms, capable of carrying meaning and making change. Post Art doesn’t see art as medicine, relief, or religion; Post Art doesn’t even see art as separate from living. A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office.
I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.
“Central to Dewey’s approach is that ethics is understood as the art of helping people to live richer, more responsive, and more emotionally engaged lives.”
“…the central goal of education is nurturance of a child’s social curiosity into a communicative democratic faith.”
“Sequestering art and the aesthetic from everyday reflection, far from celebrating imagination, is a recipe for moral sterility, fragmentation, and alienation. Imagination cannot be democratic when it is ‘flat and toneless and lifeless,’ it has historically turned to radically individual pursuits, or to promotion of authoritarian control.”
[quoting Dewey] “Conversion into doctrinal teachings of the imaginative relations of life with which great moral artists have dowered humanity has been the great cause of their ossification into harsh dogmas; illuminating insight into the relations and goods of life has been lost, and an arbitrary code or precepts and rules substituted.”
“The moral production is not a dress rehearsal for a ready-made play, as it appears to be in many rule theories. Dewey’s moral stage is atypical. Scenes are actively co-authored with others and with a precarious environment. The acting is improvisational, the performances open-ended. The drama is experimental, not scripted.”
“What is most at stake in moral life is not some quantifiable pleasure or pain, but ‘what kind of person one is to become’ and what kind of world is to develop.”
“As a capacity to engage the present with an eye to what is not immediately at hand, imagination is more than a niche for fictional embellishment, as when someone has an ‘over-active imagination’ or is ‘imagining things.’ Nor is it the exclusive possession of fine artists. It is integrated with everyday life and learning.”
“Reason is embodied, evolving, and practical, and as such it is subject to physical, conceptual, and historical constraints. Further, reasoning is contingent upon perspectives and is characterized by an educated aesthetic response that can emerge from trust in a situation’s potentialities.”
[quoting Peirce] “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”
“…pragmatist ethics urges that moral reflection must begin where all genuine inquiry begins: in media res, with tangle of lived experience. Dewey in particular argued that moral deliberation is not disembodied cerebration…but is a form of engaged inquiry touched off by an uncertain situation.”
– Steven Fesmire in John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics
“An education in which skills, narrow intellect, and information have no connection with insight, imagination, feeling, beauty, conscience, and wonder and that systematically evades all engagement with the great, central issues and problems of human life, is a wasteland.”
“…an exquisitely stupid cleverness adept at taking the world apart with no grasp of what it is doing, nor apparent concern.”
“An adequate conception of education, an education of imagination, will always strive for that way of knowing which springs from the participation of the person as a total, willing, feeling, valuing, thinking being- a way of knowing that leads to the wisdom in living that makes personal life truly possible and worthy. It will have as its prime purpose, as its ground and aim, the complete, harmonious realization of the full capacities and potential of the individual as a whole person. Any conception of education that arises from some other or lesser concern or that fastens on a partial or isolated aspect of the total person will finally abort, delivering only fragments of persons and figments in place of reality. And by its nature, such a lesser education cannot avoid serving purposes that will be basically nonhuman and ultimately inhuman.”
[quoting David Bohm] “…insight is not restricted to great scientific discoveries or to artistic creations, but rather it is of critical importance in everything we do, especially in the affairs of ordinary life.”
“Rather than the sense of self indweling and sustained by a living and meaningful world in which the boundaries between self and world, self and other, are not sharp but flow and merge into one another, the modern experience has been increasingly that of a self separated sharply from other selves, and detached from nature, standing as a self-enclosed subject over against nature as object.” [the critical academic expert is exemplary]
“…chronological snobbery and temporal provincialism that so constrict the modern mind set.”
[and this especially on the academically ‘gifted’] “Those who display the requisite intellectual skills are singled out as special for their proficiency in the use of an aspect of mind that has no intrinsic relationship to the art of living well as persons…Most have been ill equipped by their education to live well as persons, to find delight in friendship and love, in the joys of sound and touch and color…”
– Douglas Sloan in Insight-Imagination: The Emancipation of Thought and the Modern World
From Common Culture: Symbolic work at play in the everyday cultures of the young by Paul Willis:
“In general the arts establishment connives to keep alive the myth of the special, creative individual artist holding out against passive mass consumerism, so helping to maintain a self-interested view of elite creativity…Against this we insist that there is a vibrant symbolic life and symbolic creativity in everyday life, everyday activity and expression – even if it is sometimes invisible, looked down on or spurned.”
“There can be a final unwillingness and limit even in subversive or alternative movements towards an arts democracy. They may have escaped the physical institutions and academies, but not always their conventions…we don’t want to start where ‘art’ thinks is ‘here’, from within its perspectives, definitions and institutions.[emphasis mine]”
“We argue for symbolic creativity as an integral (‘ordinary’) part of the human condition, not as inanimate peaks (popular or remote) rising above its mists.”
“Art is taken as the only field of qualitative symbolic activity…We insist, against this, that imagination is not extra to daily life, something to be supplied from disembodied art.”
“…young people feel more themselves in leisure than they do at work. Though only ‘fun’ and apparently inconsequential, it’s actually where their creative symbolic abilities are most at play. ”
“The fact that many texts may be classified as intrinsically banal, contrived and formalistic must be put against the possibility that their living reception [emphasis mine]is the opposite of these things.”
“Why shouldn’t bedroom decoration and personal styles, combinations of others’ ‘productions’, be viewed along with creative writing or song and music composition as fields of aesthetic realization?”
“Ordinary people have not needed an avant-gardism to remind them of rupture. What they have needed but never received is better and freer materials for building security and coherence in their lives.”
“The simple truth is that it must now be recognized that the coming together of coherence and identity in common culture occurs in surprising, blasphemous and alienated ways seen from old-fashioned Marxist rectitudes – in leisure not work [emphasis mine], through commodities not political parties, privately not collectively.”
What is so refreshing about this book is that it is filled with the actual accounts of lived responses to culture rather than the usual empty academic pronouncements about how culture is processed and taken up. Rather than opine, Willis listens.
“All the time, though, my sensibility pointed toward and yearned for an imaginative Elsewhere. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the narrowness of art as a formulation of the imagination. This will sound preposterous to many people, I’m aware, given that art offers and represents extraordinary behavioral freedoms, but in “making art” I found an ultimately enslaving formulation. How so? In art, you can do, yes, anything you want so long as you’re willing to have it end up as art. That isn’t real imaginative freedom, in my view. Inquisitiveness of mind will carry you past art, and apparently I love inquisitiveness of mind more than I love art.” – David Robbins [emphasis mine]