Lebenskünstler

Toward a theory of spiritual ecology…

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/16/2016

soilsoulsocial

Advertisements

under the Bodhi Tree of social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/01/2016

bodhi

Sacramentalism in the age of mercenary enchantment, or why there is no shame in my Romantic game – Imagination as the ecstasy of reason

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/08/2015

We Have Never Been Disenchanted – Eugene McCarraher

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.

Understanding Gregory Bateson Chapter 5 – “Aesthetics, Ecology, and the Path Toward Grace

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/18/2015

Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth – Noel G. Charlton

…Firstly, he [Bateson] was linking the aesthetic, the beautiful, in “nature,” and in human art, with the possibility of enlightened ways of living.

…For him, life is a matter of patterns within patterns, all beautiful and hence aesthetic, arranged in levels and differentiated into logical types of lesser and greater generality.

…the aesthetic dimension of living, is able to enhance the possibility of our refinding grace, specifically *because* art is not subject to purposeful, language-bound, conscious rationality.

Poetry, he says, is not distorted prose. It is the reverse of that: prose is poetry that has been subjected to logic…We cannot expect to bring artistic or creative process wholly within the world of conscious purpose and description.

…Our limited, language-mediated consciousness, unaided by art, dreams, poetry, and other aesthetic practice, can no longer appreciate the systemic nature of mental process…As societies and individuals, *we* are dynamic patterns within the patterned world. *Love* can only survive if *wisdom* (recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice. Engagement with the aesthetic and the beautiful is a way to reclaim such wisdom

Later in the week, he was asking whether any social system could be viable “with only laws and ethical principles and no play, no art, no totemism, no religion, and no humor”

An “ecology of ideas” may be a close synonym for aesthetic sensibility.

…”Gradually the realization came that they were choosing their integrity over their existence.” It would be nonsense to sacrifice integrity in order to save a religion “whose only validity – whose only point and purpose- is the cultivation of integrity.: Bateson’s point is that the validity of our mental processes is imperiled if we breach “the fine lines dividing the sacred from the secular, the aesthetic from the appetitive, , the deliberative from the unconscious, and thought from feeling.”

…to experience an aesthetic response is to recognize a fellow mental process.

…It is, claimed Bateson, the organism *in relationship with its environment* that is the unit of survival [rather than a mere individual organism or a species]. From his earlier statements, it is clear that he sees aesthetic recognition of relationship as a necessary aspect of survival.

…Here he is beginning to emphasize that aesthetic process – the production and recognition of beauty – *is a feature of evolution.* Evolutionary creativity is mental in kind. it is analogous to, and is a special case of, mental creativity and artistic process. The products of evolution become examples of art. The artistic products of humans are similarly “marked by the evidences of that mental creativity.” We can now search for the “criteria of mind” among all the products of mind: evolutionary, environmental, natural, and artefactual.

…[re: Wordsworth] “This something more is self-reflexive recognition. The primrose resembles the poem and both poem and primrose resemble the poet. He learns about himself as a creator when he looks at the primrose. His pride is enhanced to see himself as a contributor to the vast processes which the primrose exemplifies. And his humility is exercised and made valid by recognizing himself as a tiny product of those processes.”

…As explained earlier, information is not, for Bateson, just data or words about facts or things in the world. It is any “difference which makes a difference,” [cf. Derrida’s “différance”] any item of “news” – novelty, change, contrast, comparison, growth, evolution, symmetry, asymmetry, similarity, or dissimilarity – that is relevant to the relationship in which it is perceived. Bateson says that the understanding of the “deeper symmetry of formal relations” is basic: “Never quantities, always shapes, forms and relationships..” There is always connectedness.

…It’s not a new idea that living things have immanent beauty, but it is revolutionary to assert *as a scientist*, that matters of beauty are really highly formal, very real, and crucial to the entire political and ethical system in which we live.

…Mind, learning, evolution, rigorous art, and loving science are one.

grace as that which enables the recognition of our relational embeddedness in the living world

all organisms, not just art critics and philosophers, rely on aesthetics all the time.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Six

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/13/2014

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.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Four

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/09/2014

…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.

“No one understands the human heart at all…” – The barbarism of reason

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/05/2013

The barbarism of reason – John Gray

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.

With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.

…An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”

His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.

What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.

Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.

…The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.

Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”

Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.

“Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/09/2013

Beauty will Save the World – Jeffrey Bilbro

I want to reflect today on the title chosen for this gathering, “Beauty will Save the World.” That’s quite the assertion, and I don’t know if I can convincingly support it, but I’ll give it a shot. My tentative thesis today is that the best way to cultivate healthy local cultures is to celebrate their beauty. It’s not to pass laws, it’s not to develop rational or economic arguments for their benefits, it’s not to start some new program. All these might be needed subsequently, but if we don’t first bear witness to the beauty of a healthy culture, then other approaches are doomed. It’s in this way, by enabling us to see the truth and goodness of healthy way of life, that beauty will save the world. So I want to think with you about the beauty of local culture, why that beauty is important, and how to cultivate it. I’ll begin by describing a beautiful, and I think saving, activity that I’ve had the privilege of participating in this past year.

Rather, our hope is that the students and staff and faculty who participate will see and experience how beautiful it can be to grow and eat our own food. This rich, practical connection with our food is what Wendell Berry calls the pleasures of eating. These pleasures are complex, and they are nearly impossible to quantify, but if you’ve ever eaten a sandwich with tomato slices still warm from your garden, you know something of these pleasures. When you plant a seed, water it, weed around the delicate seedling, try to protect it from deer and bugs, watch it blossom and set fruit, and wait for that fruit to ripen, the act of eating the fruit is not merely an input of calories and nutrients. Rather, eating is just one part, perhaps the climax, in a whole narrative that we’ve embodied and lived out, a narrative that connects us to our fellow gardeners and to the place in which we live.

To call something beautiful in this sense is to speak about its material shape or form, and also about the meaning or splendor that emerges from the form and makes it desirable. And as von Balthasar goes on to argue, when we see a vision of the beautiful, when we see the contours of its form, we are enraptured by its splendor, caught up in a desire to participate in the radiance that beauty grants us to see as love-worthy. So to call this narrative of our community garden beautiful means that the whole way of living that the garden enables us to glimpse, in which we work together and share the fruits of this work, is desirable and love-worthy.

And yet oversimplification leading to disease marks nearly every aspect of our fragmented, modern lives. Our corporate medical system does not aim for health, but rather isolates various parts of the body and treats particular abnormalities. Hence our medical establishment has been particularly unhelpful at offering preventive care and treating complex problems such as obesity. Our monoculture agriculture is merely another instance of our propensity to isolate and specialize, and I’m not sure that our biculture of corn and soybeans here in Michigan is much of an improvement. We still don’t have complex polycultures that include animals and a true variety of plants. Such simplification works itself all the way down to our lawns, which we spray with toxic chemicals just to have “beautiful” grass.

In their false simplification, such specialized visions and the ways of life toward which they lead inevitably contribute to disease. These narrowly-focused ways of life become insipid, losing the splendor of beauty, and yet they define much of our lives as we search for quick and easy solutions. Wendell Berry notes the irony in our culture’s stereotypical view of country life as “simple,” noting that in actuality, it is urban, specialized living that is simple:

When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here. In New York, I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place. (The Way of Ignorance, “Imagination in Place” 47-48).

My point, then, is that our culture’s tendency toward reductive specialization is intrinsically un-beautiful, that beauty arises only from complex, harmonious forms, that health is beautiful. Currently, our cultural aesthetic is, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, sickly and pale: we too often confuse the pretty, the mere appearance, for true beauty, hence our acceptance of lush green lawns that cause water pollution. But perhaps beauty can save, or at least salve, our world by giving us a richer imagination of health and thus causing us to desire ways of life that, as von Balthasar might say, carry the splendor of truth and goodness.

How do we actually see such forms whose beauty might inspire us to find more healthy ways of living? I think there are at least two conditions for perceiving such visions of beauty. The first is that we see beauty on a local scale.

We have to be able to see the whole to perceive beauty (again, note the connection between beauty and health). Analysis of the beautiful, if it does not begin with a vision of the whole and keep this vision constantly in mind, quickly devolves into an abstract rummaging through dead parts. It becomes what von Balthasar calls “anatomy,” which “can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements” (Seeing the Form 31). This is the way the “industrial mind,” a term that Berry derives from the Southern Agrarians, sees the world. Such a vision, precisely because it is too narrow and specialized, inevitably leads to disease and deformation. In his essay “Solving for Pattern,” Berry argues that solutions based on this sort of specialized vision always worsen the problem—he gives the example of addressing soil compaction by using bigger tractors, which only compact the soil further, leading to the need for even larger tractors (The Gift of Good Land 136). So while a bad solution “acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained,” “a good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns” (137). In order to see the beauty of these larger patterns, and thus perceive what modes of life would harmonize with these patterns, we need to be able to see the whole form. When we try to imagine a beautiful whole on a global or even national scale, the difficulty, if not impossibility, of this task makes the temptation to perform a quantitative analysis of isolated parts almost irresistible. And yet such a fragmented gaze can’t see the living, beautiful whole, which is precisely the form that can give us the vision of health and beauty our imagination needs.

The second condition for perceiving this vision of healing beauty is a personal experience or encounter. We don’t see the whole form of beauty when someone describes it abstractly.
I can tell you about the Sistine Chapel and describe its scheme and what the various parts depict, but you won’t really see its beauty unless you stand in it yourself. The same holds true for a Bach fugue. This is so because of the complexity and richness of beauty; there is a qualitative difference between an experience of the beautiful and an abstract description of that experience.

…Every morning the local bakery draws a group of men who drink coffee, eat pastries, and talk about the work that awaits them in the day ahead. Their conversation is punctuated by oblique references to stories they all know and by the habitual phrases of friends absent or dead. The community’s memory lives in such conversation. But it’s hard to quantify and analyze what makes this community a healthy one; merely listing its attributes does not convey the beauty of its form. We perceive its beauty as a whole, when we experience life in such a community.

…So we all need to practice creating beauty. It’s remarkable how counter-cultural this participation might be, since we now live in a society that thinks “beauty” is meant to be produced by professionals from big cities and consumed by the rest of us.

We may not all be gifted artists like Kathleen, but we can still all be involved in creating beauty. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his “Letter to Artists,” “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” We all have an opportunity and a responsibility to participate in this task of culture, and our “sub-creation,” as Tolkien calls it, should be guided by the contours of the beauty we’ve perceived.

I am afraid that what often keeps us from embracing the quotidian work of sustaining the “little platoons” of which we are a part is the sense that this local work can’t affect the national and international problems over which the news media continually obsesses. But while such local work may seem futile in our current political and economic environment, it may actually be the most consistent and effective way to cultivate health, given the farce that national politics has become. This is why Berry believes that our “Our environmental problems [as well as our other diseases that afflict our society] are not, at root, political; they are cultural” (What Are People For, “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey” 37). Dreher echoes this sentiment in an essay on Wendell Berry in which he considers him to be “a latter-day Saint Benedict”: “I am convinced that conservatives have placed far too much stock in political action and far too little in the work of culture” (The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry 281). Dreher hopes that Berry has begun a sort of monastic cultural movement, where instead of pouring their energy into national politics or the culture wars, individuals work to form healthy, beautiful communities in their homes. These communities might then preserve and sustain culture, providing beacons of hope that stand in stark contrast to sick society around them.

I do want to qualify this politics/culture distinction. Politics is indeed part of culture and a shaper of culture, but my point is that it shouldn’t be the primary arena in which we try to affect cultural change. Rather, fostering healthy and beautiful cultures will inspire others to participate and cultivate the communities of which they are a part. Representative democracy too often relies on the slim majority forcing everyone else to do the majority’s will, whereas culture relies on beauty to foster a robust conversation about the common good, and then to persuade others that this common good, that health, is desirable.

This distinction provides, perhaps, the clearest insight into the unique power of beauty: whereas political power ultimately relies on force, beauty simply invites others to perceive the splendor within its form. Beauty is an invitation, a gift, and thus it is always vulnerable to rejection. This is its weakness, and this is why beauty is often overlooked as a salve for our contemporary problems. But its weakness is also its strength. In our cynical world, where people are jaded by political posturing over truth and strident demands that some particular way is the only right way to live, beauty simply puts itself on offer. And if its form reveals truth and goodness, then those who behold beauty may find it love-worthy. Once our affections are moved, right action and truthful speech will follow.

“too little time spent on word and theory” – Art history as mere profession vs. contemplative practice – Let us stop building bibliographic tombs and instead cultivate an affinity for present experience

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/13/2013

[Reading through my notes today on Practicing Mortality: Art, Philosophy and Contemplative Seeing. I discovered that one of the authors Joanna E. Ziegler died five years after its publication (at age 60). I read through various tributes and obituaries and this quote exemplifies the scope of her ambition, “The point is not just to teach them to design buildings, but to design their lives.” Her influence was clearly deep, if not broad and although I never knew her personally and her death was three years ago, the news still hurt – so passionate and beautiful was her life/pedagogical/spiritual/art/philosophical practice. If you can’t find time for the book I mentioned, the following essay concerning the Mission Statement of the College of the Holy Cross provides a glimpse of her holistic approach to the art of living.]

Wonders to Behold and Skillful Seeing: Art History and the Mission Statement – Joanna E. Ziegler

For me, that experience epitomized the nature of what this essay is about — ‘Living the Mission’ — especially as it continues to reshape my pedagogy and my professional identity. I wish the story I am about to unfold were seamless and easy, and that the wonderful insights gained at Collegium had been brought home to Holy Cross, yielding the bounty and sustaining the fervor they promised. The reality, however, is that for all my enthusiasm and commitment to ‘live the Mission,’ it remains, three years later, hard and sometimes confusing work. Confidence and optimism mingle with doubt, as the project of linking art to contemporary issues of living spiritually is alternately embraced and marginalized by the academic community.

‘Living the Mission’ affects professional practices and identity, as well, beyond the College’s gates and in the field of disciplinary inquiry. Art history is currently defined as a project to locate history — to locate subjectivity in the past — in quantifiable evidence and hard data, whose footings lie deep in sociology. Thus, any sort of personal, contemporary experience of historical form — the very thrust of my courses regarding art and contemplation — is looked upon skeptically, even censoriously as something better left to personal rather than professional journals. (2)

Part of this story, then, is about the taxing demands of persevering in a relationship of art conjoined to spirituality as a serious academic pursuit — that is, as a matter of genuine and significant intellectual content such as befits an academic discipline. For now, art history (as serious ‘scientific’ study) and spirituality (as religious non-academic experience — as a matter of faith) compete for ultimate authority in their absolutely separate domains. My attempt to ‘live the Mission’ is, in a very real sense, an effort to bridge that separation.

Conceived as something akin to a skill, the art of looking (or spectatorship) can occasion contemplation and mindfulness — inner states that are recognized nearly universally as the true paths toward spiritual awareness. Eastern meditation practices, Zen Buddhism, Benedictine spirituality, Western mysticism, Emersonian pragmatism, and stress reduction exercises, to name but a few, all seek to attain ‘wisdom’ through attention and awareness. Concentration is the cornerstone. As I envision it, then, the study of art — outside the studio — might appropriately take its place alongside other contemplative practices. It shapes contemplative consciousness by insisting on routine physical discipline, which enables readiness, and, in so doing, shows students the spiritual and intellectual depth of artistic creativity — for them as beholders, no less than for the creators.

Faith and creativity share a paradox, as I see it: fidelity and stability, gained through practice, prepare the way to true freedom. Only with readiness can one hope to transcend the constraints of practice (therein lies the paradox) and enter that place which is so mysterious, so immeasurable. The experience is so unlike the routine activity that gave rise to it, that all the names given that experience through time — transcendence, divinity, creativity, performance, ecstasy — cannot begin to capture its true nature.

Perhaps more disconcerting than its supposed similarity with Formalism, is the emphasis I place on the training or practice involved in looking. I emphasize the word training, for what happens in my classroom — and by extension the museum — seems understood as being more in line with studio or fine art, rather than art history per se. Colleagues who paint, sing, or dance embrace the sort of training I offer. Yet for art historians, it can smack of art appreciation and, worse, appear to offer insufficient servings of quantifiable, documentable, ‘hard’ evidence — the currently favored material for serious intellectual content. Too much emphasis on sensory and practical information, too much prominence of the present, and too little time spent on word and theory, is how my approach is seen as differing from current standards in teaching art history.

The joining of faith and spirituality with art — an important element in my approach — is a legitimate and long-standing aspect of art history, to be sure, but only when firmly lodged in period styles, such as Gothic or Renaissance. Professional groups have priorities and, at the moment, for works of art to have religious or spiritual significance, they must be of explicitly religious subject matter or have clearly devotional applications. In this view, the emphasis I place on developing a personal, present-day relationship with a work of art belongs, somehow, in the realm of New Age therapy rather than hewing to the ‘exacting’ professional standards of contemporary art history, which tend to see and contain works of art firmly within the time frame of their production.

For me, therefore, the message of the Mission poses a dilemma. It asks me to heed its call, when to do so I must step beyond the boundary — to put it bluntly, to write myself out of the norms of publishable scholarship — of the very discipline that brought me to the College in the first place. True, the Mission Statement has inspired and enriched my thinking on creativity immeasurably, but I have had to leave the collegial setting of my discipline to pursue that thinking and to nurture thought into action.

On sabbatical this year, for example, I reflected long upon the contemplative lessons of great art and on the future of putting down scholarly roots among those lessons. I read a broad range of contemplative literature, which led, in part, to this essay and others like it. Meanwhile, my colleagues in art history were off to the archives and conferences in Europe, or reading vast amounts of post-Structuralist and deconstructionist theory. It may seem to them, therefore, that in my current activities I am abandoning the rigors of on-site research and voluminous bibliography-hunting for an apparently more relaxed, home-based form of intellectual pursuit. Such is by no means the case; reflection and contemplation are time-honored pillars of academic inquiry and pursuit. Nor do I want for challenges.

Where are the signposts of the Mission, so visible in campus conversation, as I thrash my way in isolation through the underbrush of this dilemma? The Mission Statement is a demanding document, more so than might appear on the surface. It presents a test of commitment to a purpose that diverges from the one that led me to Fenwick Hall some years ago. When I took my place among the other faculty of my Department, I vowed to be a loyal member of the field by bringing the best and most recent of its scholarly developments to our students. The evolution of the Mission Statement threw this vow into question, asking in a very tangible sense that I reassess and perhaps reorient my understanding of what I do and how that relates to the Mission. This I have done — but now, where am I ‘current’ as an art historian? What is my bibliographic base? Who, really, are my peers? And to what field do I or will I belong? ‘Living the Mission’ has been, in a word, costly.

“the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry” – Keith Ansell-Pearson on Peter Sloterdijk

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/09/2013

Philosophy of the Acrobat: On Peter Sloterdijk – Keith Ansell-Pearson

The thesis that religion has returned after the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project needs to be confronted, Sloterdijk argues, with a clearer view of what we can legitimately consider as “spiritual facts.” Such a consideration shows that the return to and of religion is impossible since, so goes Sloterdijk’s initial contention, religion does not, in fact, exist. Instead, what exist are only misunderstood spiritual regimens. All human life requires the cultivation of matters of body and soul, and all philosophies and religions have attended to this fundamental feature of our existence. By this view, any clear-cut dichotomy of believers and unbelievers falls away. In place of this dichotomy, we should distinguish between the practicing and the untrained, or those who train differently.

…He wishes to give a new truth to the insight developed by Marx and the Young Hegelians in the 1840s that contends that “man produces man”: in short, the human being is never given to itself or to anything else, but produces and reproduces its own conditions of existence and as a project of personal development, even an adventure. Sloterdijk, however, differs from Marx and the Hegelians in not wanting to place the stress on labor or work as the key category by which to understand this self-forming process of man. He proposes that the language of work be transfigured into that of “self-forming and self-enhancing behaviour.” We need, then, to go beyond both the myth of homo faber and of homo religiosus and to understand the human being as a creature that results from repetition. As he notes, humans live in habits, not in territories. If the 19th century can be viewed as standing under the sign of production, and the 20th century under the sign of reflexivity, then we need to grasp the future under the sign of the exercise. None of this refining and purifying work is without significance for our understanding of the human animal, since it holds the potential for unlocking anew the secrets of the human animal, including a reinvigoration of the key words by which we understand our so-called spiritual life, words such as “piety,” “morality,” “ethics,” and “asceticism.”

For Sloterdijk the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry, the “human in training” as he puts it, or which we could call shaping and self-shaping. Not only is the earth the ascetic planet par excellence, as Nietzsche contended, it’s also the acrobatic planet par excellence.

Sloterdijk contends that human beings are always subject to “vertical tensions” in all periods and in all cultural areas: “Wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes.” I take Sloterdijk to be referring in general terms to the self-surpassing tendencies of the human animal, or its perfectionist aspirations. Thus, he recalls at the outset the Platonic Socrates, saying that man is the being who is potentially superior to himself. He takes this to indicate that all cultures and subcultures rely on distinctions by which the field of human possibilities gets subdivided into polarized classes: religious cultures are founded on the distinction between the sacred and the profane; aristocratic cultures base themselves on the distinction between the noble and the common; military cultures establish a distinction between the heroic and the cowardly; athletic cultures have the distinction between excellence and mediocrity; cognitive cultures rely on and cultivate a distinction between knowledge and ignorance; and so on. There is thus in humans an upward-tending trait, and this means for Sloterdijk that when one encounters humans, one will always find acrobats. One great modern “myth” of our time that captures this, and the idea of verticality in general, is that of Nietzsche’s tale in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of the being that is fastened on a rope between animal and superhuman. What model of vertical perfection and “progress” is encapsulated in this idea?

This is where matters get controversial in Sloterdijk’s study since he is dealing with matters such as training in the sense of “breeding” that have a highly dubious history. However, here he endeavors to be dexterous in his appreciation of projects that aim to fashion new human beings. On the one hand, he takes seriously Nietzsche’s seemingly fantastical ideas about the ?bermensch; on the other, he is severely critical of the “Soviet” attempt to create a new human and a new society by means of large-scale social and technological engineering. In reading Nietzsche, Sloterdijk does not find a biological or eugenics program (in spite of all the talk about “breeding” in Nietzsche), but an artistic and acrobatic discourse in which the emphasis is on training, discipline, education, and self-design. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, one builds over and beyond oneself — but to do this well one needs to be built first “four-square in body and soul.” The human subject needs to be seen as a carrier of “exercises,” made up of, on the passive side, an aggregate of individuated effects of habitus, and, on the active side, a center of competencies that allow for some minimal sense of self-direction and self-mastery. Should we thus not calmly agree with Nietzsche that egotism is but “merely the despicable pseudonym of the best human possibilities”?

Activists, academics, and priests – The failures of critique – New Age experiential, pragmatic, somatic practices and the disenchantment of intellectualism

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/01/2013

Specialists With Spirit: New Age Religion, English Studies, and the ‘Somatic Turn’ – Kurt Spellmeyer

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
Kyoto.”

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.

There is a mountain – Richard Shusterman on Art and Religion

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/28/2013

Art and Religion – Richard Shusterman

In advocating a pragmatist aesthetics I have criticized this otherworldly religion of art because of the way it has been shaped by more than two centuries of modern philosophical ideology aimed at disempowering art by consigning it to an unreal, purposeless world of imagination. Such religion, I have argued, is the enemy of pragmatism’s quest to integrate art and life, a quest exemplified both in the classical Western notion of the art of living and some Asian artistic traditions, where art is less importantly the creation of objects than the process of refining the artist who creates and the audience who absorbs that creative expression.

The conclusion that Dewey wants to draw from this, however, is that poetic imagination, with its “moral function . . . for . . . the ideals and purposes of life” (CF 13), should not be a mere playful, compartmentalized supervenience of art for art’s sake but rather a formative force in making social and public life, as well as private experience, more artistically beautiful and rewarding. In short, Dewey holds the pragmatist ideal that the highest art is the art of living with the goal of salvation in this world rather than the heaven of an afterlife.

… Zen Buddhist-style notions of art and religious practice offer a religion of immanence with no transcendental, personal God existing outside the world of creation; no eternal, personal, immaterial soul existing apart from its embodied manifestations; and no sacred world (an artworld or heaven) existing beyond the world of experienced flux. The essential distinction between the sacred and the profane (or between art and nonart) no longer marks a rigid ontological divide between radically different worlds of things but rather a difference of how the same world of things is perceived, experienced, and lived – whether artistically, with an inspiring spirit of presence and an absorbing sense of profound significance or sanctity, or instead as merely insignificant, routine banalities. Transfiguration, in such religions of immanence, does not entail a change of ontological status through elevation to a higher metaphysical realm but is rather a transformation of perception, meaning, use, and attitude. Not a matter of vertical transposition to an elevated ethereal realm, it is rather a vividness and immediacy of being in this world, of feeling the full power and life of its presence and rhythms, of seeing its objects with a wondrous clarity and freshness of vision. Consider this description of the path to transfigured insight provided by the Chinese Zen master Ch’ing Yuan of the Tang Dynasty: “Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got the very substance I am at rest. For it is just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.”

However we address these issues, one question must be faced forthwith: Were those transfigured drum cans art? Though clearly not part of the institutional artworld, they were just as obviously part of an installation work of deliberate design aimed at providing experiences that could be described as meaningful, thought-provoking, and aesthetically evocative. And the deliberative design of this installation suggests that it was obviously “about something” (a condition of meaning generally deemed necessary for art). But what, exactly, the drum cans were about is a question that has many possible answers: the powers and possibilities of meditation, the surprising uses of industrial detritus, the contrast yet continuity of nature and artifact, the question of beauty (difficult and hidden versus easy and conventional), even the meaning I eventually found in it – the immanent transfiguration of ordinary objects that could make them art without taking them out of the real world and into a compartmentalized, transcendent artworld whose objects have an entirely different metaphysical status. Such immanent transfiguration, whose meaning of enriched presence is to fuse art and life rather than suggest their essential contrast and discontinuity, is where Zen converges with pragmatist aesthetics.

 

 

(more…)

The Humanities as Soul-Making – Scott McLemee reviews Andrew Delbanco

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/27/2013

To Get the Soul Out of Bed: Can an element of secular transcendence be returned to the American college curriculum? – Scott McLemee

At the same time, College is written in defense of a specific mode of higher learning that Delbanco values and wants to see prevail: the humanities regarded as a practice of soul-making, a secular encounter with the possibility of transcending the particular view of the world you happen to have acquired through the accident of being born in a particular kind of body in a given society at a certain time. He quotes a remark from Emerson’s journals about the teacher’s effort to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”

This isn’t just a plea for the humanities to keep its place at the table, though College is certainly that. Nor is Delbanco exactly making an argument for the liberal arts as the medium through which new, socially critical ideas can take hold and be propagated, a la Dewey—despite his clear belief that an education that has not produced an accountable, critical mind has failed. Rather, he’s concerned about the deeply anti-democratic implications of what is happening—the undoing of Emerson’s vision of scholarship and serious discussion coming down from the ivory tower and joining the fray, rather than polishing the manners of a happy few.

Social Practice as the Ethics of Paradise – A Profound Embrace of This World – Or why when I read many “radical” critics, I see the Crucifix

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/26/2012

‘This present paradise’ – Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

Paradise, we realized, was the dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries. And to our surprise and delight, we discovered that early Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife. In the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. Images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.

Nearly everything we had previously understood about Christian history, theology, and ritual began to shift as we delved deeper into the meaning of paradise. Our new book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, reaches back nearly four thousand years to explore how the ancient people of West Asia imagined paradise. It shows how the Bible’s Hebrew prophets invoked the Garden of Eden to challenge the exploitation and carnage of empires. It shows how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.

The beautiful feast of life returned the senses to an open, joyous experience of the world; it was an encounter with divine presence infusing physical life. The Eucharist thus bound humanity to the glory of divine life in “this present paradise,” and through its Eucharists, the church cultivated responsiveness to the power of holy presence in the world. Its beauty was a spiritual path that opened the heart.

With the advent of Crucifixion-centered theologies, paradise was lost. It was no longer tasted and felt as a spiritual realm to be entered in this life. It was postponed to the hereafter, or secularized, as a land to be conquered. When Christopher Columbus set sail, he was looking for paradise for its fabled gold and jewels. Colonization, with its exploitation of peoples and lands, evolved from the loss of paradise. Materialism filled the spiritual void. We live now—within the dominant culture of the West—in the aftermath of the closing of paradise. We live with the legacy of militarism, racism, and exploitation of the earth and its peoples that has put paradise at risk.

And yet there is some whiff of paradise that still reaches us. Walking through the woods in the early morning, we catch glimpses of it. Singing in church, we hear strains of its harmonies. Cooking supper for friends, garlic and basil simmering in olive oil, the fragrance of paradise touches our senses. We lift a child into our arms and dance. In our twirling we feel paradise in our limbs.

Rediscovering paradise and recommitting ourselves to the ethics of paradise is just what we need now. Western culture needs to stand again at the open doors of paradise and find its way to re-enter this world as a sacred site, as holy ground. The Universalist part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage can help show the way.

Universalism tells us that we can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth. Generosity, nonviolence, and care for one another are the pathways into transformed awareness. Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.

Paradise is human life restored to its divinely infused dignity and capacity, and it is a place of struggle with evil and injustice, requiring the development of wisdom, love, nonviolence, and responsible uses of power. Power can be experienced as spiritual illumination of the heart, mind, and senses felt in moments of religious ecstasy, and it can be known in ordinary life lived with reverence and responsibility. Paradise is not a place free from suffering or conflict, but it is a place in which Spirit is present and love is possible.

Entering paradise in this life is not an individual achievement but is the gift of communities that train perception and teach ethical grace. Paradise provides deep reservoirs for resistance and joy. It calls us to embrace life’s aching tragedies and persistent beauties, to labor for justice and peace, to honor one another’s dignity, and to root our lives in the soil of this good and difficult earth.

Edward Mooney – Lost Intimacy in American Thought [Part I]

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/08/2012

Lost Intimacy in American Thought – Edward Mooney

[Thoreau and Bugbee] write ‘salvations’ that raise life from decline; they are philosophers who write intimately, personally, for love of the world.

He [Bugbee] proposed that philosophy was “a walking meditation of the place.”…a philosophy that brings life to things, a lyrical philosophy that finds plenitudes in them.

To test a world by theory, we retreat from the-world-to-be-theorized and size it up in terms of that theory. Thus the detachment of theory is the detachment of the theorizer from an intimate immersion in the world…this stance of ‘looking at’ (rather than beholding) destroys the wider intimacy that a religious sensibility seeks and sometimes finds…To know a sunset intimately is in part to bask in its presence, which is to find ourselves basking – not theorizing.

His [Thoreau’s] walking is an exercise in weaving the world, weaving the self, weaving contacts that occur as revelations of the world as a place overflowing with meaning – even holy, so deep is its significance.

…philosophy becomes identified less with a saving journey, and more with a cognitive grasp attained through abstract products – explanatory or critical schemes…thinking theoretically vaults one above or outside the fray in an aspiration to motionless onlooking that freezes that onlooker in a narrow slice of the significant range of life’s wider plenitudes. To cut back from the immersions and submersions, passional and practical, that are the tissue of life is to cut adrift from opportunities for self-knowledge. A knowing contact with oneself cannot come about through distancing oneself from vital contacts.

…One travels, with baggage, passions, and commitments. Sometimes the wondrous is not in the remote valley or mountain top, or distant heavens but in the local. One finds the astonishing as one moves with and around parochial passions, promises, and practices. Then philosophy [or social practice] can become a quasi-religious journey toward the intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of  family or neighborhood life, of rock-climbing and cooking, of the ups and downs of walking a friend through cancer, or of swimming away from catastrophe.

…the uninterrupted ‘eternal’ standpoint of theory, or of the benefits of impersonal theory-production, a detached stalling that occludes our particular immersions in local pains and delights, family ties and occupational demands…his [Bugbee] condition clarified, not by argument or theory but by moving ever deeper into his condition.

Thoreau – Art/Life

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/06/2010

The true poem is not that which the public read. There is always  a poem not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped in the poet’s life. It is what he has become through his work. Not how is the idea expressed in stone, or on canvass or paper, is the question, but how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the artist. His true work will not stand in any prince’s gallery. [italics in original; bold emphasis mine] – H. D. Thoreau in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Josef Pieper – Leisure – Chad Lakies – How Might Life Live?

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/22/2009

An abstract for the forthcoming paper “Challenging the Cultural Imaginary: Josef Pieper on How Life Might Live” by Chad Lakies discovered at his blog here:

“Asking anew “How might life live?” is to offer an opportunity to re-imagine. In the midst of a cultural imaginary that imagines life in terms of the Protestant work ethic, resulting in a culture of total work, Josef Pieper imagines a different way of living. His work emphasizes the place of leisure in the life of the human creature. From within a culture of total work it seems impossible for leisure to have a place, yet Pieper’s reflections pose leisure as the very basis of culture itself, ironically the basis from which the current culture of total work may have emerged and at the same time, the only place from which it can be escaped. It is in the imaginative moment of leisure that one can affect a transformation of the cultural imaginary, for at one and the same time leisure is the basis for a new formulation of culture against total work and a living of life in a way that inherently stands in disobedience against the total work world.”

Robert Skidelsky – The Good Life – Wealth

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/23/2009

“In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that in 100 years – that is, by 2030 – growth in the developed world would, in effect, have stopped, because people would “have enough” to lead the “good life.” Instead, the accumulation of wealth, which should be a means to the “good life,” has become an end in itself because it destroys many of the things that make life worth living.” – Robert Skidelsky in an article here. I would offer a minor corrective to Skidelsky and qualify his use of wealth as material/monetary wealth which tends to destroy other forms of wealth the *other* things that make life worth living (via Jerome Segal) – transcendent meaning, aesthetic experience, social/loving relationships/neighborliness, intellectual growth…

Love – Education – R.R. Reno

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/10/2009

“Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment…What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.”  – R.R. Reno