funny when you find your own thoughts on christianity coming out of the mouth of an englishman in a way far more articulate and learned than you could have conjured for yourself:
Posts Tagged ‘Terry Eagleton’
between fish’s review of terry eagleton’s ‘Reason, Faith and Revolution’ , larval subject’s discussion thereof yesterday and today, not to mention The Politics of Love, (with Hardt, Zizek, Westphal, Hent De Vries and others speaking) which I recently attended in Syracuse you might say we’re taking part in an a.tent.ion revival of and to all things theological. from lacan and zizek on the neighbor, the undead, the truly terrifying in aspects of Christianity to Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou’s interests in the revolution generating potential of faiths… we are, i suppose, all on our knees… looking for an answer, or 3.
on my knees (or on my back?) as it is and as it were, i’m still working through ritual. searching, undecided – you could call me a sunshine soldier of sorts… for today, i’m pushing on and look forward to your comments on Seligman et al’s book Ritual and its Consequences: An essay on the limits of sincerity.
chapter 2: ‘ambiguity, ambivalence and boundaries’
first boundaries – it could be said and has been said that western civilization is fundamentally built on an ongoing extermination of its others (see: exterminate all the brutes, by sven lindqvist). if anything, or rather, among many things, what lindqvists’ work points out is that for any communities we might hope to foster or construct or…, an awareness not only of the other but an at least more permeable and less genocidal boundary between ‘us and them’ would be the first order of business. Seligman, et al enter this debate as follows:
…in this chapter we address those capacities of the human mind that allow the ‘as if’ world of ritual to come into being and to persist. the ‘as if’ quality in turn allows ritual to deal with the ambiguities and ambivalence in interactions with unseen and influential beings, especially deities. In dealing with ambiguities, ritual engages boundaries: boundaries are crossed, violated, blurred, and then, in an oscillating way, reaffirmed, reestablished, and strengthened. Among the paradoxes that attend the performance of ritual is the paradox that ritual plays out a completion, a closure that solves the problem at hand. Yet, at the same time the very nature of the repetitiveness of ritual implicitly shows that the problem is not solved once and for all, that all is not complete and perfect. (Ritual and It’s Consequences, p. 43)
there is much to attend to in this quote, but let’s begin with the deities, quasi-mysterious unseen and yet influential. from here we could go in still many more directions, but to keep this within an immanent framework, i am proposing a link between these deities and Zizek’s concept of the neighbor, and/or Lacan’s Big Other, even potentially to Levinas’ ‘third’. this is a gloss on something i’ll develop more deeply later, but when we think radical otherness, surely ‘god’ is at the top of that list. modes of relating to that radical other that have instituted in religious contexts may (though certainly they do not necessarily) provide options for relating to the Other next door. more needs to be done here, clearly…
too quickly, then, our next move through the above Seligman et al quote is to see the way that ritual engages boundaries. and not simply known boundaries. through blurring and oscillating known boundaries, incompletion arises as given and repetition echos and enhances this incompletion and openness. weeks (months from now?) when this dissertation moves on to Derrida and iterability, this may become more (ironically) clear.
taking ritual out of its traditional background in religious practice, Seligman et al look to clinical psychoanalysis and the social sciences for examples of ritualized boundary play: jokes, riddles, storytelling, lying, mythmaking and art are just such play-grounds at work. recalling bed-time story time between a father and child helps layout both what is operative and what exceeds ritual in the process of boundary setting, testing and ongoing dissolution:
The little boy sits on his father’s lap, holding his favorite stuffed animal, while the father reads a story to him, the child having gone through the ritual of which book to read (it always turns out to be only one or two out of a large number of possibilities). The father reads “Jack and the Beanstalk” and must read it the same way each time, but either father or child can make some variation if the other consents to it, usually done in a slightly teasing or playful manner. The little boy and/or father might accentuate in voice or gesture one or another of the characters… but it has to be in a particular way, with a particular verbal and nonverbal formula. a videotape would show also the repertory of bodily gestures, the alternating enfoldings and then separations of the bodies of father and son, the fidgeting and touching of different body parts at different points int he story, the variations in how closely the stuffed lion is held… (Ritual and its consequences, p. 48)
yes, it is a sweet, common enough story… but the authors’ suggestions are these:
if one were to observe and study this bedtime ritual over time, it would become clear how much is being enacted between father and son: issues of giants and little boys, tiny things that can grow big and straight and strong, little boys who can act like the father, mothers who encourage their little boy’s efforts at “manhood,” and the virtues of cleverness as a weapon of the weak… (Ritual and its Consequences, p. 48)
ok, i can hardly stand much more of this beanstalk variety/virility… but even with the ‘point’ being…, emphasis falls here: over time the little boy learns to play his role in the story and his father’s, new rituals arise from set frames and these new rituals challenge what was ‘the only way’ before. ambiguity and ambivalence are worked through, allowing the child to imagine himself as self and other.
other make-believes make the scene as well. but not all ritualizing social examples are childhood sweetness and light. ritual and repetition often have overtones of trauma built into their mention for good reason. freud’s fort-da begins here, but post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sexual abuse are potentially ritualizing traumas as well. in these cases, loss and/or abuse are re-cycled through repetition compulsions, fetishizations, and both verbal and non-verbal ritualized interchange.
as we enter these critical domains of split and fracture, i am going to pause, post and re-group. i look forward to your feedback.
springing from larval subjects’ post this morning on/by Terry Eagleton’s ‘come to jesus’ (and, of course, my dissertation) i’m undertaking a close reading (translate: close writing) of Ritual and It’s Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.
In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed.
for me, this quote just begs the question: what is ultimately needed? and doesn’t this ‘ultimately’ already cede far too much?
guessing that ‘delivering what is ultimately needed’ means something like, for Badiou, creating the conditions for evental sites, or, for Zizek, overthrowing the money changer’s tables, i.e. making spaces for alternatives to capitalism… then Eagleton is jumping on a very large and already quite loud bandwagon. i don’t blame him. but i am increasingly convinced that formal, aestheticized and even radicalized Christianities such as those put forth by the abovementioned philosophers are simply a first step, when we are already on to the next riser.
enter Ritual and its Consequences, by Seligman, Weller, Puett and Simon.
Ritual: clearly a very old concept, predating monotheism, or, if you prefer, potentially pre-conscious. As the social sciences formulate it, ritual is community building in at least one of two ways: 1) ritual order is ‘an artifice of humanity’ – think: the Confucians – designed to create social cohesion or, 2) ritual is ‘a divine construct, sent to allow humans to live properly in and even help support a divinely created order’ – think: rabbinic literature. Concurring that both of these formulations short circuit the real strengths of ritual, Seligman, et al propose:
…ritual as a subjunctive – the creation of an order as if it were truly the case. Or, putting it in different words, the subjunctive creates an order that is self-consciously distinct from other possible social worlds. (Seligman, et al, p. 20)
Going back to Eagleton and the need for ‘what is ultimately needed’, Ritual and its Consequences sees Eagleton’s bet in Reason, Faith and Revolution and raises it one, proposing that it is not the nature of religion that revolutionaries (or post-marxists, if you prefer…) are seeking but a subjunctive universe, an ‘as if’, which can and does take place outside of religious frameworks. Take the ritual courtesies of “please” and “thank you” – as Ritual writes it, with these seeming formalities,
…we are inviting our interlocutor to join us in imagining a particular symbolic universe within which to construe our actions. When I frame my requests with please and thank you, I am not giving a command (to pass the salt), but I am very much recognizing your agency (your ability to decline my request). Hence, saying please and thank you communicates in a formal and invariant manner – to both of us – that we understand our interaction as the voluntary actions of free and equal individuals. “Please” creates the illusion of equality by recognizing the other’s power to decline. (Seligman, et al, p. 21)
Of course the ‘illusion of equality’ at first rings hollow. Surely ‘what is ultimately needed’ is not the illusion of equality but real equality itself. At this crux, we are faced with what will become questions of illusion which will be answered and further problematized in my dissertation on performativity, answered and further problematized in that same work on iterability, yet for now, staying close to Seligman, et al, the illusion of equality brings us near an anecdote I couldn’t have ordered if I’d tried. This week on the F train, I overheard the following:
no, really, i can’t remember where i read it. i think it was the new york times, or maybe, no, it was the times, i think: the point is that some people are just more comfortable lying. they are good liars. and you know what else – they are also really good competitive swimmers. really, this was part of it. they did a study and people who were good liars were also really good swimmers. they said the correlation is that winning in swimming is, like, impossible. but the people who could lie to themselves and think they’d win actually did better and won more often. i know, you want to see the survey sample, but still, i read it like, last week.
Between swimmers and liars, though we should very surely make a distinction between lying and illusion-ing, we are back again to the subjunctive, to the world ‘as if’ rather than the daunting unwinnable world ‘as is’. Competitive swimmers who are good liars are able to illusion and imagine themselves into what was formerly and impossible truth. They are able to please and thank you into a world where please and thank you is actualized: in short, the commonality between competitive swimmers and illusion is potentiality. Or as Ritual writes it:
We argue that what constitutes society – what makes the social a sui generis entity, irreducible to any other – is precisely a shared “could be,” a mutual illusion of the sort that all rituals create. To a great extent, this is what symbols do more than anything else: they represent a “could be”.
Echoing here is the impossible possibility of Derrida, and Zizek and Badiou’s shared injunction that only the impossible is worth doing. Clearly Seligman, et als formulation is not free and clear, but what this work does expose is a slippage that Eagleton, Zizek, Badiou, Critchley and others may be reifying by merging the subjunctive with the religious. We’ll keep going here, with this reading of ritual and, in this work in progress, I look forward to your feedback.