Interstitial (religion without religion)
If the debate between Athens and Jerusalem, between philosophy and religion, reason and faith (or thought and belief), is not to leave one with the unpalatable alternatives of the hypocritical profession of a (half) lie or the cynical deployment of the (full) ‘noble’ lie, then some version of religion after religion must be sought – the maintenance of the cohesive, finding-sacred, and quality-bestowing talent of humans without the organizational realpolitik, the endemic fibbing and the slide back into some brand of intolerance – not least when scapegoats are sought and found.
Between individuals, something must come. Otherwise all becomes mere fodder for the self; most especially in the default competitiveness enshrined in consumer society. Filling the interstitial region between individuals (opened by language and communication, and the identity-forming processes of mimesis and recognition) mediating self and self, and self and community… this was once the role of religion and allied codes. Yet outside of a range of group identities culminating in nationalism, with the latter often evincing the same relationship to a given language group as say, Latin had to Western Christianity, and Arabic has to Islam today, what remains? Something is called for that lies beyond utility, beyond manipulation, appropriation and price. Restraint, manners, values; the sacred as the source of restraint with its sense of ’binding-back‘ (literal translation of the etymological root of the word, ‘sacred’) was to be the provider of qualitative (and so also quantitative) answers to life’s perennial questions - but where to go for such today? As in the past, the thinking person’s dilemma remains: one can not live with religion (not least the hypocrisies of organised religion); but how to live in a society without any religion whatsoever - as society, apparently, cannot do without religion’s normative force and still remain civilized (rationalists profess an alternative but a glance at their unexamined axioms quickly reveals just one other form of the many secular religions that have been around since the Enlightenment)? The alternative on offer consists of the consumer barbarisms of today; individual relations entirely dominated by the modern use-relation, the profit motive, the parallel aggrandizement of identity and possessions, the feeding frenzy that feeds the economic boom but signals disaster for our environment… And… more failed communities within a unfailing state; the ever-growing underclass and attendant crime wave as the sacrifice required by the logic of unfettered capital (and the cure for which in many economically deprived and culturally stressed communities is crusading religion – a cure that brings with it many of the barbarities of belief that educated people precisely find so rebarbative).
However it would be wise to note that this use-relation is not new (not purely capitalist in nature) all hierarchical and divided societies (whether class, gender, fraterie or position in the State, so all societies, even those alone and at ‘one’ with nature, and who must survive on nature alone) have an incentive for the use of others, for economic and social betterment – not least in the choice of a mate… as well as the choice of ones ‘mates’… So like exchange relations (another social constant) the use of others accompanies, rather than arrives late in, human relations. The ‘win-win’, or mutual gain, form, rather than then the ‘zero-sum’, or domination form, is a constant in matters of human cohesion, cooperation and exchange. Yet, if it is the damage done by the more overtly unequal relations that we seek to limit is there not also something worrying about the total social manifold becoming as one, a field dominated by pure utility?
What is there between people that can stop all human relations from turning into some form of means-to-an-end relation (with the concomitant -and paradoxical- loss of the individual as an end in themselves)? But perhaps this formula is already a little naïve; persons can play many roles in one another’s lives; to pretend pure anti-utility is as bad as its opposite, and usually a cover for some other use, some other ruse… We are all familiar with acts of charity which are also acts of identity confirmation (their ‘true’ end, or personal utility) and there is nothing wrong with this, indeed it is the best (other) reason for such acts. But identities that do this, that give to charities, or that just like to give… need motivations, the motivation that comes from a belief system that functions like a religion… one whose guarantee comes from without… and therefore that is, most kindly put, metaphysical, or more bluntly put, that rests on obscurantist foundations. So rendering such identities liable to all the temptations of fundamentalist belief (from omnipotence and all-knowingness to the accompanying urge to find dissenting ‘others’ to ‘put to the question’). So perhaps the answer lies in staying with metaphysics rather than with religion as such? (If one can agree that there is a difference that has any meaning beyond a small group of the well-educated). Agreeing on value (or ‘core values’), is perhaps something that can be put beyond question… but can we even agree on this? Even the necessary fiction of ‘natural’ rights is liable to many exemptions (not least from differing religions) and to being made to fit all and any form of received hierarchy (family, generation, gender role and sexuality, class, work place, State, Nation). Or if the choice of belief is provisional; provisional on what? On our geo-political cultural context (accepting what is received from the past, and what is going on around us…)? On what end (all too often this position finally means that of our own immediate advantage)?
Perhaps the most convincing answer lies in choosing a softer, provisional, or ‘weak’ version of the past (a post-modern version of the modern, so to speak). One’s received cultural traditions, community habits, and educational cultural capital, the roots of our very selves as well as of our society, as a starting point for the work of liberal, progressive, (post-)modernising, deconstructive thought (the term chosen to describe this operation varying according to our received philosophical tradition). But if this approach protects us from sliding back into a variety of dangerous (and not only sacred) fundamentalisms, then it still does not answer the question of the source of value - for the fruit of this approach itself (especially in its ‘safe’ or neutered results) is precisely one such use-value. We use it as we would anything else (thus what makes it useable is also what weakens its legitimizing force). We are back in our world of unleavened utility and quantitative calculation.
Simply put, if there is not a qualitative relation between people then there will be a quantitative (utilitarian) one, and the qualitative one requires some system of support and justification…
God knows what ‘He’ must have been, thinking: so clever, to have created us with an inbuilt tendency to believe; least we forget, perhaps, or else somehow remain unaware of the requirement to look elsewhere for anchorage (evolved so as to place all the really important stuff ‘outside’…).
The cunning of religion, it would appear, exceeds that of reason… For reason indeed requires motivation, just as mathesis requires a concrete use or end to delimit its axioms, functions and measures. And the motivation, as also the ends and uses, come from what we hold dear… from what we hold sacred.
So, where did it begin, this sense that civilizes us, and renders the world enchanted, valued. For the origin it seems we must go back to the feeling our distant ancestors had for their habitat, a sense that persists in our poetry as in our myths of pastoral. The sense of place.
Genius Loci. Putting a face to a feeling, a face to a name. A name to a place. Anthropomorphism: is it a necessary strategy (to value-giving)? A trope that mediates our relations to the world? Something we do instinctively… Constitutional: the ultimate (beginning) in humanising the world; that is, in giving it value over and above the everyday (its rational utility). The ‘over and above’ appears to be the crux. Whilst we, citing our capacity for reason and transparency, foreground the quantitative appropriation of the world, something yet seems to be lacking; something… elsewhere. Yet the fact is that the qualitative also comes from our being as humans. If the value-giving spirit of the place is but the micro-version of an anthropomorphic god as the answer to the problem of first things, required (in the past) as prime mover, creator, ‘father’ (but one apparently not necessary to non-monotheistic religions…), then both rely on the subjective sense of something…elsewhere. Something… (Sublime…). The sense of the Sublime, of something awesome, more powerful, in the sense of place (the invisible something that we assume transposes space into place), infinitely more powerful in the infinite outside of all place; for it is this kind of experience that we are, yet again, talking about. The ‘Sublime’, the name given to religious experience in a secularizing, but still deistic, rational epoch; which is then named as self-like… personified. Where the feeling exists, the name-giving and face-giving; the gift of a name, the gift of face follows… Perhaps the ‘Sublime’ is the name to put to the emotional complex that gave birth to our mirror-image mimetic gods in the first place (as well as the iconoclastic schisms that have followed, the wishing to draw a veil over the face). The Sublime, face without a face: the sublime face, faceless. Our first fears given a face. Friendly, or if not, then at least comprehensible, appeasable… But what else would it be like… if there is nothing else, nothing we can grasp; for us limited humans trapped in what we are; a trap un-leavened by our much-vaunted imaginations, with their seemingly infinite capacity for creativity and destructiveness, yet still without a sufficiently developed capacity to imagine another… Therefore anthropomorphism: from the figure of personification, to the prosopopoeia (calling up, rendering animate, the inanimate, absent and dead) of genius loci, and the supposition of a god - a means to fill all available vacuums… master all existing fears, not least, that of a helpless animal gazing upon the face of the infinite.
Yet this is a gift we offer ourselves. No objective configuration or presence informs it. A gift, we offer, ourselves… To that which surrounds us, the world as it enters our senses reconfiguring our sense of being somewhere (its gift to us), and (our return of gift) our sense of ourselves. Providing, conversely, in return for our gift of value, its value to us; the return of gift, the return on gift.
But what if we consider Iconoclasm as the answer, the Sublime with no figural content as putative answer. Force or feeling without face. Or retort or clothing… Then only ineffable mystery remains, as tried by the Ancient Greeks, perhaps in order to salvage some dignity from their squabbling gods. Or Judaism’s unrepresentable God, something inherited by all monotheisms (and adhered to most rigorously by Islam with its strictures on representation). We have already been there.
Indeed, the solution by way of the Sublime seems to work best as Art, with the face of Nature taking the place of the Face of God (or the forms colours, textures and gestures of aestheticised abstraction). Or, on the other hand, we have (the other face of Nature) the sublime of reason or mathematics (also requiring axioms, ‘put aside’ to guarantee their efficacy) The haven of universals – the positing, or putting aside, of symbols, of another kind of formalized abstraction, one we ourselves have generated as something to occupy this (transcendental, supra-temporal) position. Again, nothing new.
The next step is then to remove the centre, to remove the name, already under taboo in some faiths, along with any concept or formula that might take its place. Leaving a kind of space, or better…‘place’. A place within, which is at the same time a sacred ‘place’, but with no actual place (but one with which we might bless any space as place). A kind of provisionality, fully in tune with our quantum world (uncertainty resulting precisely from our place in the world) even if not quite in tune with human needs... Floating and relatively undemanding. Fulfilling its function without any unwanted side-effects.
Actually ‘religion’ as (functioning ‘only’) as a set of guidelines to life, as a basis for moral conduct, is at least as old as the teachings of the Buddha, as old as Hindu and Daoist philosophy (also godless at their higher reaches) and perhaps most notably, as old as Confucius - as one of many practical, pragmatic Chinese thinkers who… ’give the gods and the dead their due, but keep them at a distance.’ This formula offers just enough of the stuff of the sacred (just enough of a basis ‘outside’) for a grounding to be established. The use of the metaphor of grounding, for such an operation, already shows how tied we are to our old metaphors, even in attempting to imagine the (even if only rhetorical, or minimally functional) other-worldly setting-apart (or setting-aside, deferring) which we appear to need to behave well. But today, such an untainted authority is hard to come by; its historical past (most people’s choice for this myth) is historically revealed as violence. Today’s would-be gurus all appear ludicrous in their pretension, and all, all too human (corruptible) for the role they would wish to play (equally these are also revealed historically as, at their most harmless, charlatans, and at their worst, mass murderers, and not only in embryo…).
Whence Confucius’s compromise with ritual; the means of mobilizing the sense of the sacred as a strategy without giving ground to its more extreme outcrops. In effect, guidelines with a minimum of mystification encoded in ritual. Something to give support to the roots of the qualitative in the modern world. How to translate this idea into a useable formula that reaches beyond the enlightened minority? Which habits can we take for the rituals (everyday) that may sustain this sense? Habits such as politeness, deferral, so many, minor, ritual sacrifices of the self, the time of the self, as part of a culture of co-operation, mutual aid and encouragement. The habits we like to call civilization; ‘civilized behaviour’ (but which might not be a part of the civilizations of the future). So evading the aggressive ritual of (male) display (of the attempted, or, at least, symbolic sacrifice of the other) in which we so disturbingly resemble our simian cousins, and in its place, foreground the ritual of giving (the sacrifice of the self) by which means we move from a ‘zero-sum’ identity exchange to a, paradoxically, ‘win-win’, or an enhanced sense of identity we can share with others.
recent centuries the secular religion of rationalism has usually been taken as
the opposite pole to the organized ‘superstition’ of traditional religion. But
if the universals of rationalism look outside, as do the humanistic and
culture-specific axioms of its followers, then the latter are very much
‘inside’ as more tellingly, is the motivation that powers this use of reason,
disguised and denied (the ultimate a priori of human identity and desire, never
more present than in the moment of its denial). But these secular alternatives
somehow always end-up looking like religion ‘proper’ (complete with the
intolerance of the revivalist spirit; the Fascism and Communism born of
Nationalism and class warfare, as, to a lesser extent, of other
political-isms). Indeed as early as the French Revolution, Robespierre’s
religion of Reason already excused and employed terror (since then factions
dominating the State and wishing to defend this dominion have merely followed
his example).However, in normal times such stuff is for desperate minorities
only. Blind belief in parties and ideologies, those latter-day secular
religions, for a certain kind of (‘oppositional’, reactive) intellectual only…
Blind belief in every prejudice of religion for bigots only… In response to
which the default forms are residual or ‘weak’ forms of religion, and ‘weak’
reason as belief (without belief) in our systems of belief, or better,
allegiances forged by culture, as the default, received, ‘religious’ culture of
most. Indeed the bigotry of the new (or revivalist) fundamentalisms appears to
be on the increase on all fronts; not least on the question of rights
(elevating homophobia, for example, into a virtual commandment). This blind
belief of creeping fanaticism is mirrored by the blindness of the Rationalists,
who carp at relativism (like any religious person), whilst playing with extreme
forms of skepticism, ‘brain in a vat’ type thought experiments… truly there are
none so ready to believe as skeptics in search of a system. So these
rationalists end up as believers in axioms they can not defend rationally (as
their creed demands) but must assert… just like any religious fundamentalist… (well almost). But the danger foretold by Euripides in The Bacchae
remains: with reason only unreason is left unchained (in the world of politics
Reason in practice has another small problem; its manifestation as bureaucratic reason, as rationalised hierarchy and its foibles. Foremost of which is its unfeeling (Kafkaesque) treatment of people; the product of un-mediated practical reason in the world. Whereas ancient civilized habits such as hospitality, helping the helpless, generosity, etc, serve better, than todays often callous, treatment of the dispossessed, such as asylum-seekers and refugees. Gifts of our ability to bestow quality, so to find something to serve, rather than to serve us. To protect rather than to exploit something to its ultimate exhaustion or extermination.
As genius loci , ‘the spirit of the place’, begins with an actual space, so space, the environment, is a good place to start, a good space to designate as place, so aiding its preservation and the survival of its inhabitants, those we should care for, the flora and fauna of the planet. Un-sustainability is uncreative destruction. Such cultures have signed their own death warrant – as it may appear we all have with our economic success as the prime cause of a (rapidly) deteriorating environment. So just as we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on defeating (or beginning to reverse) the manifest pollution of the industrial revolution, so a new Invisible Hand arrives to augment that of economics: the Invisible Hand of climate change now also asserts its sovereignty over the species that bought it into being, requiring its homage and a set of sacrifices perhaps equaling those of the rise of Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution and their cyclic aftermath (the Eternal Return of the Invisible Hand ).The revaluing of our environment, dependencies and reordering of our priorities may constitute the beginning of a bestowal of value in the world. A benign ‘transvaluation of values’ leading to the survival of our world as one fit for human life; a survival until now unearned -imperiled rather- but now requiring that it is ourselves that must prove a fitting inhabitant of our world – and by proving so guaranteeing the survival of both.
But to leave the creative collective Self, the gift-giving bestower of the world’s value to its own devices is to leave it at the mercy of its desires, like the selfish will of an untutored child - a child that may play God. So like that child, indeed as a child, the self too needs education, the incalculation of the mediating term… the Middle that interposes between Subject and Object, the medium through which we perceive, name and value… the continuation of that which it learnt as a child. We return again to the importance of our received mores, of our civilizations, our cultures, our learnt habitus, our habits of thought. For finding ourselves as gods we must then stop ourselves becoming as God. Zeus, Wotan and Brahma were not free from restraint; only a monotheistic religious culture leaves the unbeliever in the unenviable position of (a largely illusory) omnipotence. For finding oneself a replacement for God is as dangerous to others as believing oneself His unswerving servant. The thought-habit or hole dug for consciousness remains the same. Yet to stop this post-hole from filling up with blood, even the cleaving of the tent of monotheism, the rent in the curtain of the sanctuary torn by pluralism, may be insufficient…
Household gods and the spirits of wood and field augmented by the ghosts of generations past that inhabit our villages, towns and cities may indeed be a better (lack of) focus for our gift of rendering sacred. Rendering mediated by a universal respect looks not a little like a latter-day Pantheism. To protect and preserve what we have requires that we extend the sphere of our care beyond our immediate reach.
For the glow that comes not from the sun nor its reflected glory comes therefore from within, but not from within the object itself, but from within ourselves, gift perhaps born of our relation to those we care for, those that care for us, perhaps born of our realization (or choice to believe) that something bigger than ourselves exists. This itself the very definition of the bestowal of blessing.
‘Win-win’: blessing others and things we bless ourselves. The Promised Land is a gift we give to ourselves. A promise we make on our own behalf.
What to do with these gifts besides… if bestowing value finds matters enough, to what should we lend a face…?
Personification is perhaps the sheath for the sword of replacing God as giver of values; the face that stays the hand (in this respect Levinas may have been right after all – but remembering that that the withdrawal of the boot will itself be countermanded by the negative aspect of the very human relations that should urge charity and restraint…). Yet if it does stay the hand, then the image of a face (as in the case of the young Iranian Neda) may stay in the memory. A face to remember and stand in for the all the faceless dead.
This pair of thought habits, value bestowal and personification, long decried as anachronistic relics from the distant barbaric past, now said to be capable only of obscuring rational understanding and providing the gilding of surfaces that constitutes today’s commodity fetishism, had nevertheless evidently evolved as necessary aids to the survival of our species all those many (tens of) thousands of years ago. Perhaps their ability to protect and extend the life span of what they together deem precious, above and beyond any cycle of short term use, may again aid us with our survival now….
Quality bestowal. Also a Performative: ‘Let there be Light’.
Value bestowal: candidates for the magic of the performative: human or ‘natural’ rights (to be guarantied by the State which must, in practice, confer them), animal rights, environmental rights (genius loci) even social contracts; indeed the power of Law itself (over and above its final guarantor; force) would appear largely to rest upon such a relation, action, or event, consensual and collective, applicable in the community in which it is effective.
The performative act of value bestowal gives objective existence (within the given ‘felicity conditions’ of our human world, the world as governed by symbols, codes and attendant patterns of behaviour) to that in which we would want to believe has existence, is ‘real’ and has value; process by which our subjective hopes are made objective, lever the subjunctive mood, nudging the pointer of existence into the realm of the indicative in the fields of social life in which this operation is applicable… or rather, effective. In which, in sum, its belief makes a difference. Where it is that belief makes a difference
The Promise of a Re-enchanted World.
©Peter Nesteruk, 2009