February 24, 2017

Catherine Pickstock claims that the rejection of liturgy is central to modernity. Having refused the integrations of liturgy, modernity forges various forms of pseudo-liturgy, pale substitutes to accomplish what the liturgy once did in Western society.

One of these pseudo-liturgies is civility: “Once the common ritual basis in which the symbolic order is mediated through subjectivity has collapsed, one has to do something to prevent total intersubjective misunderstanding and conflict. Instead of ritual bonds, which presupposed a shared horizon of substantive conviction, one must substitute codes of civility or good manners which assume only a formal agreement about accepted protocols.”

Linking civility with Cartesian mathesis, she describes manners as “a kind of method.”

With manners comes the possibility of dissembling, of wearing a face to meet the faces. Pickstock argues that the “liturgy cannot possibly deceive. If the priest at the Mass secretly denies what he is doing, it does not matter. He has still performed his representative function, and the truth of the Mass remains.”

There is no such guarantee with the signs of civility:”with the emergence of civility in the Renaissance, there already emerged the pervasive problem of dissembling. A symbol had now ceased to be an unalterable event, and had instead turned into a sign that might or might not be reliable; this rupture between sign and reality was also given theological encouragement by the voluntarist assumption that all links and connections are simply arbitrary divine impositions.”

The contrast is too stark: Manners can be an extension of liturgical practice into everyday life. At the same time, it’s true that obsession with civility arose when the Mass ceased to be a unifying rite, a rite that unified even in the midst of intense conflict. Fragmented at the center, Western civilization had to find ways to compensate.

(Pickstock, “Liturgy, Art, and Politics,” Modern Theology 16:2 [2000]: 159-80).

May 11, 2016

Max Weber begins his lecture on “Science as a Vocation” by noting the “meaningless” of science, a product of the notion of scientific progress that guides scientific pursuits in the modern world. “Each of us knows,” Weber writes, “that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted in a quite specific sense, as compared with other spheres of culture for which in general the same holds. Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated. Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact. Scientific works certainly can last as ‘gratifications’ because of their artistic quality, or they may remain important as a means of training.” This is the whole aim of science, the “common goal”: “We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have,” and “this progress goes on ad infinitum” (using the translation in Stephen Karlberg, Max Weber: Readings and Commentary on Modernity, 321).

This raises the question of the meaning of science. What can science mean if it is never completed, if we are engaged in a project that is by definition never finished? Why continue to pursue science under these conditions? He thinks the answer is insoluble. Science doesn’t lend itself to answering questions of meaning.

Scientific progress, he goes on to argue, is an aspect of the “process of intellectualization” that has been going on for millennia (322). Practically, this doesn’t mean that we have greater knowledge than our ancestors. “The savage” has far more knowledge of the way his world works than we do; he is far more attuned to his tools. We don’t understand most of the technologies we use, but trust that these technologies will work even when we can’t understand them.

What distinguishes the intellectualization of modernity from the pre-modern knowledge is modern person’s belief that he has the potential to learn and understand how things work. We operate with “the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time.” And this implies that “principally there are no mysterious incalculable powers that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” And that in turn implies that we regard the world as “disenchanted”: “One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means” (322). Weber’s point has less to do with the belief that we have explained everything. Disenchantment does not amount to proof that magical means and mysterious incalculable powers are fictitious. It is more in the attitude of the modern person, who does not think the world explained but is confident that the world is explainable.

Disenchantment has existential as well as technical/scientific import, and Weber argues that no one captured this existential effect so well as Tolstoy. “All his broodings increasingly revolved around the problem of whether or not death is a meaningful phenomenon. And his answer was: for civilized man death has no meaning.” Scientific progress robs death of meaning: “the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no man who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity.” Death in the premodern world possessed the sense of closure at the edge of eternity: “Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life.” By contrast, “civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, know- ledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the mind brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness” (322-3).

Again, the argument is not a metaphysical one. It is not that scientific progress has proven that the world is nothing but matter in motion, without aim or purpose. The argument is that progress has opened an infinite future that an individual can never come close to reaching. Abraham died at the edge of eternity; scientific progress has pushed eternity out far beyond the life of any individual, and so death no longer has a sense of an ending.

Weber traces a genealogy from the Platonic discovery of the concept through the Renaissance prioritization of the experiment to an age where science is no longer thought to be the path to meaning. During the Renaissance, “to artistic experimenters of the type of Leonardo and the musical innovators, science meant the path to true art, and that meant for them the path to true nature. Art was to be raised to the rank of a science, and this meant at the same time and above all to raise the artist to the rank of the doctor, socially and with reference to the meaning of his life. This is the ambition on which, for instance, Leonardo’s sketch book was based.” In Weber’s day, young people wanted to be delivered from science in order to rediscover their nature and nature. Science was no longer considered a pathway to art (324-5).

That is a recent development. In the early age of scientific progress, scientists weren’t content to discover nature or art but aspired to use science to point the way to God: “If you recall [the eighteenth-century German anatomist] Swammerdam’s statement, ‘Here I bring you the proof of God’s providence in the anatomy of a louse,’ you will see what the scientific worker, influenced (indirectly) by Protestantism and Puritanism, conceived to be his task: to show the path to God.” Protestants had given up the medieval faith in philosophy as a handmaid to theology, “in the exact sciences . . . where one could physically grasp His works, one hoped to come upon the traces of what He planned for the world.” This perspective had disappeared by Weber’s time, and with the evaporation of this theological goal for science the goal of pursuing meaning evaporated too: “Who – aside from certain big children who are indeed found in the natural sciences – still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world? If there is any such ‘meaning,’ along what road could one come upon its tracks? If these natural sciences lead to anything in this way, they are apt to make the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe die out at its very roots” (325).

Instead of seeking God through science, the nineteenth century abandoned not only science but reason to find God: “That science today is irreligious no one will doubt in his innermost being, even if he will not admit it to himself. Redemption from the rationalism and intellectualism of science is the fundamental presupposition of living in union with the divine. This, or something similar in meaning, is one of the fundamental watchwords one hears among German youth, whose feelings are attuned to religion or who crave religious experiences. They crave not only religious experience but experience as such” (325).

For Weber, this is all a matter of defining “science as a vocation.” The point is not that the big questions of meaning are irrelevant or pointless. His argument is simply that science is not designed to answer such questions, and given modern presuppositions about scientific progress and the capacity of science to explain the world, such a conclusion is virtually inevitable. Science’s aims must be much more modest.

September 30, 2015

In The Premodern Condition, Bruce Holsinger examines the influence of medieval studies on some of the major figures in the 1960s French avant garde. By “medieval studies,” he means both scholarship on the Middle Ages (Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, the Annales school, Denis de Rougement’s Love in the Western World) and also archival research that some of the main postmodern theorists engaged in. Holsinger finds precursors to theory’s interest in the medieval world in Heidegger, Max Weber, Hegel, Croce, Bergson, and French “New Novelists” of the twentieth century. Challenging scholars who ignore or belittle medieval influences on the making of theory, he argues that avant garde theorists did not look to the Middle Ages with Victorian nostalgia but plundered medieval literature and philosophy for fundamental philosophical concepts and language, systems of thought, and models of inquiry. Theory is, for Holsinger, partly a critique of modernity from the perspective of modernity’s “Other,” the medieval world. As Renaissance Humanists reached back to antiquity for resources to critique the medieval system, so postmodern theorists reach back to the Middle Ages for resources to critique modernity.

In particular, the book examines the influence of Thomism in the work of Georges Bataille (credited by Philippe Sollers with moving French thought from structuralism to poststrcuturalism), a lapsed Catholic trained as a medievalist; Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic use of the medieval courtly love tradition; the concept of habitus in Pierre Bourdieu, who also translated Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism into French; and the influence of Henri de Lubac’s Exegese medievale on the literary theory of Roland Barthes, both of whom, in Holsinger’s words, emphasize “the multiplicity of the text as the boundless object of hermeneutical delectation.” Holsinger also suggests that Derrida’s Of Grammatology, though not so explicitly indebted to medieval concepts as other avant garde treatises, offers a critique of the ideological assumptions underlying historical periodization by attacking Rousseau’s notion of the medieval as Gothic barbarism and Rousseau’s tragic story of the decline of language.

The implications of Holsinger’s book run in various directions. First, it is a fine specimen of intellectual history that rightly ignores contemporary disciplinary boundaries. Historical theologians trace the influences of nouvelle theologie on Vatican II and twentieth-century Catholicism, while intellectual historians concentrate on the avant garde circle of 1960s Paris. The notion that these worlds might intersect is jarring. It’s surprising to learn that Roland Barthes attended colloquia on the history of biblical exegesis and that Bataille debated the future cardinal Jean Danielou (editor of the French patristic collection, Sources chretienne and author of, among many works, the wonderful The Bible and the Liturgy) about Nietzsche in Marcel More’s living room in occupied Paris in 1944, or that Danielou might spend an evening in the company of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty to discuss Bataille’s work on sacrifice.

Second, as a footnote to the first point, Holsinger makes clear how important Catholic theology was to 20th-century French intellectual life. This was partly a revival of Thomism, inspired by Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical, Aeterni Patris, which produced, for example, the “existential” reading of Thom found in Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson.

Third, Holsinger’s book tells a story of strange alliances. Not only were Danielou and Bataille debate partners, part of the same Parisian intellectual circle, but in a number of respects they made common cause against the paleo-Thomists of the day, who were so committed to the timeless absoluteness of Thomism that they even regarded the Sources chretiennes project with suspicion, fearing more widespread knowledge of the Fathers might undermine the primacy of Thomas. One of Bataille’s major works, La somme atheologique, brought forward a medieval mystical, apophatic challenge to the aspirations of Thomas’s comprehensive Summa and in so doing dovetailed with the work of Catholic neo-Thomists. Catholics called for an ad fontes return to the early church sources found echoes of their own projects in the work of one of the most radical avant garde thinkers, the debauched atheist, pornographer, and celebrants of limitless eroticism, Georges Bataille.

Fourth, the argument of Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern helps in assessing the theorists that Holsinger talks about. At the heart of the modern mentality, Latour argues, is a sharp distinction between the modern “Us” and the premodern (or primitive) “Them.” Latour’s argument is that, despite this modern assumption, in reality We are not so very different from Them. Postmodern theorists enter alliances with Them in order to critique Us. But Latour’s challenge to postmodernism in general applies to this particular postmodern move as well: Postmodern critiques of modernity often assume that modernity is what it claims to be, a wholly new thing in the history of humanity. Postmodern critiques accept that We are not like Them. And the effort to critique modernity with resources drawn from medieval thought and culture could be operating on the same assumption. To put it another way, do the theorists Holsinger examines recognize that, in spite of Terrors and deChristianizations and a thousand assaults on the ancien regime, modernity has never been able to expunge the medieval from our midst? Do they recognize the real and pervasive continuities between Them and Us? R. J. Rushdoony pointed out long ago that the “county” as a unit of government is a medieval holdover.

April 1, 2015

Douglas Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred is rather all over the place (as one might say if one had a thickly superior British accent). The Judaism he favors isn’t a “traditional community with concrete values and well-defined rules” (1) but one that “stresses transparency, open-ended inquiry, assimilation of the foreign, and a commitment to conscious living.” Above all, Rushkoff argues, “it invites inquire and change. It is a tradition born out of revolution, committed to evolution, and always wiling to undergo renaissance at a moment’s notice” (2).

In fact, it’s a Judaism whose iconoclasm is so radical that it has little interest in God: “If God cannot be conceived in any way, if his existence is utterly out of the reach of human systems of belief and intellect, then for all practical purposes he does not exist. The evolution of God . . . is from the real, to the ethereal, to the inconceivable. This is why the spiritual crisis of the twentieth century, precipitated by the success of the scientific model and rationality that came with it, need not threaten one’s spiritual foundations. As long as faith finds its foothold in something other than the authority of God or the testaments of those who claim to have encountered him, logic and spirituality are not at odds. God is just not something Jews are supposed to worry about” (29). 

What he calls “abstract monotheism” isn’t a path to God but “the path through which they get over their need for him” and by which they come to assume responsibility for one another. Not much of a loss: Who wants to find a path to an abstract God in the first place?

It’s no surprise that Rushkoff considers “lapsed Jews” to be “the keepers of the true flame” (5). But this leads him not only far afield from anything that looks like Judaism but into self-contradiction. One of the virtues of Judaism as Rushkoff defines it is its “modernity.” Yet in the next paragraph, he complains that Judaism hasn’t resisted the cultural challenges of economic and cultural globalization: “instead of contending with . . . the impact of market culture on our children, Jewish outreach groups are hiring trend watchers to help them market Judaism to younger audiences” (3). It’s not clear why he’s unhappy with that. Perhaps this is just the most recent evolution of the flexible, modern, burnished Judaism he celebrates. And, perhaps, it takes something like devotion to God, and to “concrete values and well-defined rules” to resist the pressure.

Still, Rushkoff offers some nice readings of some biblical stories. What is slain in Egypt is not, he says, only the firstborn of Egypt, but the “firstborn civilization”: “Throughout the Torah, it is firstborn sons who meet terrible fates and their younger brothers who carry on the Israelite civilization. From Cain and Ishmael to Esau and Reuben, firstborn sons in the Torah get a bum deal, missing out on blessings, enduring God’s wrath, and getting banished. But to early Israelites who understood that Egypt was the firstborn civilization, the elevation of the second-born sons symbolized the ascendance of their emergent new society” (18–19).

He suggests that Yahweh’s charge that Israel is “stiff- necked” has a more complimentary subtext, referring to Israel’s “deeply seated iconoclasm” that prevents it from kneeling before man or icon (21).  He traces the expansion of Moses’s sense of justice in the early chapters of Exodus—from defending a brother Israelite from an Egyptian, to saving on Israelite from another, to defending the daughters of Jethro (who are strangers when he meets them) from shepherds: Moses’s story shows “how for Jews the definition of social justice has an ever-expanding radius” (34–35).

Helpful observations, but not enough to rescue a book whose central thesis is rather all over the place.

December 3, 2009

“Kitsch” has become a key category in critical evaluations of the aesthetics of “mass society.”  Thomas Kincaid, Hummels, sentimental novels and manipulative Hallmark movies are all branded with the label.  I think it’s a useful label, but a student paper on the subject left me with some suspicious.

1) The student, David Dalbey, noted how paranoid people become when confronted with the question of kitsch: “Did I get something kitschy for my mother for Christmas last year?” they ask, anxiously.  That’s a revealing response, I think.  It indicates how much we take our aesthetic cues from others, and how much taste is a matter of liking the things that people who know what to like like.  And it also raises questions about the category of kitsch: How much of kitsch-criticism is just a power-play, cultural bullying by elites against their “lessers”?  To put it somewhat differently, is the rise of interest in kitsch directly linked with the rise of aestheticism?


August 21, 2007

What happened to Trinitarian theology between the Reformation and the eighteenth century. The closest thing I’ve found to an answer is Philip Dixon’s Nice and Hot Disputes, which summarizes some of the developments in seventeenth-century England. Here are some of his main points.

1) Because of Socinianism, Trinitarian theologians were put on the defensive. Through the Racovian Catechism (1605) and other writings, the Socinian denial of the deity of Christ spread from Poland to the rest of Europe. The catechism states, in part:


August 8, 2003

I’ve been reading a good bit of Mikhail Bakhtin this summer, and have come across some pretty mind-blowing passages in his Dialogic Imagination and Rabelais and his World . The following quotations have to do with the role of humor in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The laughing, parodic-travestying literature of the Middle Ages was extremely rich. In the wealth and variety of its parodic forms, the Middle Ages was akin to Rome. It must in fact be said that in a whole series of ways the medieval literature of laughter appears to be the direct heir of Rome, and the Saturnalia tradition in particular to live in altered form throughout the Middle Ages ( DI , 68).

Though what he calls the “laughing culture” is mainly folk culture, it penetrated medieval high culture as well. Bakhtin comments on the

rights and liberties enjoyed by the school festivals, which played a large role in the cultural and literary life of the Middle Ages. Works created for these festivals were predominantly parodies and travestie. The medieval monastic pupil (and in later times the university student) ridiculed with a clear conscience during the festival everything that had been the subject of reverent study during the course of the year — everything from Sacred Writ to his school grammar. The Middle Ages produced a whole series of variants on the parodic-travestying Latin grammar. Case inflection, verbal forms and all grammatical categories in general were reinterpreted either in an indecent erotic context, in a context of eating and drunkenness or in a context ridiculing church and monastic principle of hierarchy and subordination.

Virgilius Maro Grammaticus is one of these. His work

is an extraordinarily learned work, stuffed with an incredible quantity of references, quotations from all possible autorities of the ancient world including some that had never existed; in a number of cases even the quotations themselves are parodic. Interwoven with serious and rather subtle grammatical analysis is a sharp parodic exaggeration of this very subtlety, and of the scrupulousness of scholarly analysies; there is a description, for example, of a scholarly discussion lasting two weeks on the question of the vocative case of ego ( DI , 72-73).

Laughter invaded the liturgy on certain feast days.

Medieval laughter is holiday laughter. The parodic-travestying “Holiday of Fools” and “Holiday of the Ass” are well known, and were even celebrated in the churches themselves by the lower clergy. Highly characteristic of this tendency is risus paschalis , or paschal laughter. During the paschal days laughter was traditionally permitted in church. The preacher permitted himself risque jokes and gay-hearted anecdotes from the church pulpit in order to encourage laughter in the congregation — this was conceived as a cheerful rebirth after days of melancholy and fasting. No less productive was “Christmas laughter” ( risus natalis ); as distinct from the risus paschalis it expressed itself not in stories but in songs. Serious church hymns were sung to the tunes of street ditties and were thus given a new twist ( DI , 72).

Bakhtin sees that this represented a particular perspective on the world. Two elements stand out. One was the idea that comedy and laughter was able to penetrate truth about the world that was not accessible to any other mode: Speaking of the Renaissance view of the comic, he says

Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning; it is one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a peculiar point of view relative to the world; the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint . . . . Certain essential aspects of the world are accessible only to laughter.

Similar perspectives are evident in medieval parodies:

For the medieval parodist everything without exception was comic. Laughter was as universal as seriousness; it was directed at the whole world, at history, at all societies, at ideology. It was the world’s second truth extended to everything and from which nothing is taken away. It was, as it were, the festive aspect of the whole world in all its elements, the second revelation of the world in play and laughter ( RAHW , 84).

The other important element is the relationship between laughter and fear, laughter and death:

the serious aspects of class culture are official and authoritatarian; they are combined with violence, prohibitions, limitations and always contain an element of fear and of intimidation. These elements prevailed in the Middle Ages. Laughter on the contrary overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations. Its idiom is never used by violence and authority. It is the victory of laughter over fear that most impressed medieval man. It was not only a victory over mystic terror of God, but also a victory over the awe inspired by the forces of nature, and most of all over the oppression and guilt related to all that was consecrated and forbidden (“manna” and “taboo”). It was the defeat of divine and human power, of authoritarian commandments and prohibitions, of death and punishment after death, hell and all that is more terrifying than earth itself . . . . This feeling is expressed in a number of characteristic medieval comic images. We always find in them the defeat of fear presented in a droll and monstrous form, the symbols of power and violence turned inside out, the comic images of death and bodies rent asunder. All that was terrifying becomes grotesque ( RAHW , 90-91).

There are two implications of this to notice. One is that this view of the role of laughter and comic that arose during the Renaissance was quickly suppressed. The move here is similar to the post-Renaissance move described by Stephen Toulmin in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity , where Toulmin argues that the Renaissance spirit of inquiry and freedom was seen as something dangerous that had to be controlled. Modernity, beginning philosophically with Descartes, is an effort to harness and control the vitality of the Renaissance. Bakhtin sees something similar with the comic.

Second, this has vast implications for theology. Today, people can read Luther and even Calvin with enjoyment, because they were punchy, humorous, sometimes bawdy writers. Would anyone pick up Turretin if he were not already a theological wonk? Something drastic happened to the comedy of theology after the Reformation, something that needs to be discovered and recovered.

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