Against Appropriation

Almost done with Crystal Downing’s book. I’ve slowed down because I’m not entirely satisfied with some of her scholarship in this last half. She seems strong on Derrida and deconstruction; weak on Rorty and irony. She also seems to believe (mistakenly, imo) that C.S. Lewis would support a lot of postmodern epistemology. James K.A. Smith tried something similiar in the beginning of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? in a discussion of Francis Schaeffer. I think technically Smith’s point stands (re: appropriating non-Christian thinkers) but I don’t think you can use Schaeffer without heavily qualifying that Schaeffer would probably disagree very strongly with most of Smith’s project. He alludes to this early on but it’s a little mis-leading to the uninformed…

Which brings me to another great Percesepe article. In Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought (1999) he has an essay entitled “Against Appropriation: Postmodern Programs, Claimants, Contests, Conversations.” It’s a challenging piece to be sure, especially appearing as it does in a book essentially devoted to appropriating atheists and agnostics. Percesepe argues that all appropriation is violence by definition; yet avoiding appropriation is impossible (it’s essentially the history of philosophy after all). What to take away then? For one, it’s the idea of trace, the hidden voice of the author still lingering in the appropriated. More on the taking and being taken:

There is the matter of the apparition appearing at the inheritance, and one never inhabits, one never appropriates, one never recontextualizes, without coming to terms with some specter, and therefore with more than on spector. “Whose grave’s this, sir?” Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than confusion or doubt: One has to know who is buried where.

We take from the dead, and even from the living, whatever we determine we need; but can we take without being taken? …Claimants who are not laid claim to, takers who are not taken, are claimants and takers to be feared, resisted, and ultimately, haunted.

No appropriation in the singular is possible; no appropriation is simple; no appropriation escapes the burden of the debt or gets out of committee without one; no appropriation ultimately evades the work of mourning, the specters of the future.

Philosophy haunts its own places as well as inhabits them. And philosophy is always more than philosophy if it is truly philosophy.

Appropriation is like the Eucharist: you take at your own risk, but not apart from self-examination, and mind the holy ghost of the Other… Before you take, consider also that you too are taken, blessed, broken, and ultimately given to the world. The best interpreters are broken, grieving, haunted, humbled, errant… At twilight, before or after a night of bad dreams the specter finds us, and no academic conjuring — by forgetfulness, by foreclosure, or by murder — will release us from the price of our appropriations, which bring into the world new ghosts, untimely ones.

Note too that the editor of this book is Merold Westphal, who even has an introductory essays entitled “Appropriating Postmodernism.” See now how subversive Percesepe’s article is? But nevermind, onto Westphal… for I’ve uploaded another essay:
“Postmodern and religious reflection” (1995) by Merold Westphal. Modern Theology (April 2007) has a Westphal article I haven’t read but looks very good: “The Importance of Overcoming Metaphysics For the Life of Faith.”

I believe that I believe

Research log:
I finished James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? earlier this week and am wrapping up Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernim Serves (My) Faith (“Question Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art”). In the back of the book she has a list of resources that were helpful to her and one of them is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern” by one Gary Percesepe. The name jumped out at me because Gary Percesepe taught philosophy at Cedarville for a number of years and, I think, is the founder of CU’s Honors program. I could only find the article on microfiche (Dec ’90 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review) and I’d highly recommend it to you, my enterprising readers. The article is more amazing in light of how controversial postmodernism has been at Cedarville in the last couple years — yet here’s a sympathetic voice from 17 years earlier. I may try to put the whole thing online soon, but here’s an excerpt:

“The postmodern conversation after all is our conversation, and it is we postmoderns who shall have to live amidst the fragments of a world whose unraveling can be traced back to the work of our own hands, doing what we have always done — making and unmaking texts of meaning. This is no mindless, deathlike nihilism; it is merely the realization that it is the discourse of modernity, after all, that has put forward the unpresentable in its own presentation, moving the conversation along until now. The mark of the postmodern is the stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable. Rather than strive for the unattainable in the shadow of the total, the postmodern searches for newer presentations, if for no other reason than to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. The postmodern marshals resistance to the totality, knowing that the price of the illusion that one can have it all is terror. And we have had enough of the terror of the totality, we moderns” (pg 129).

Also particularly good is his discussion at the end of Kundera and the lightness/play of postmodernism vs. the heaviness/gravitas of modernism.

So now I’m reading lots of Dr Percesepe. Intertext published a good (if uneven) short story of his called “Missionary” and I very much enjoyed an Enterzone piece entitled “The Way You Live Now” (and three poems of his at Enterzone). Also recommended is the short essay Reflections on the Integration of Faith, Learning and Life” which features a story from his Cedarville days. Percesepe was editor for a time of Antioch Review but I haven’t yet located any of his work published therein. OTOH, The Mississipi Review has published nine pieces, mostly prose. None of it philosophy per se, so take a look. I’m still wading through the MR stuff myself.

Here’s a schedule of what’s next:

Deconstruction: A Reader, will probably skip most essays except:

  • “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing” – Richard Rorty
  • “Jacques Derrida: Wholly otherwise” – Emmanuel Levinas
  • “God is not differance” – John Caputo
    The whole end of this reader has eulogies by Derrida which I’ll probably get to, plus an “Open Letter to Bill Clinton” from Derrida.Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology looks good through-and-through (features John Searle, William Alston, Roderick Chisolm, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman). The last chapter is Richard Rorty’s critique/response to all five essays so I may skip them and just read him to save time and just because Rorty is my homeboy.

    I will probably read a lot in Postmodernism: A Reader just because of who’s in it (Baudrillard, Rorty, Lyotard, Habermas) and I’m particlarly excited to read Gianni Vattimo’s “The Structure of Artistic Revolutions.” Vattimo has intrigued me since his collaboration with Rorty in The Future of Religion. Vattimo’s Belief also contains a fantastic story of postmodern faith:

    “…One hot afternoon I made a telephone call, from an ice-cream shop near a bus stop in Milan, to Gustavo Bontadini, a distinguished representative of ‘neoclassical’ Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Although I did not share his theoretical theses, I felt bound to him by deep affection and admiration. The call was about the competitive examination for a university chair. As we were both members of the examining commission, we had some confidential academic business to discuss. But while we were still greeting each other, Bontadini, with whom I had not spoken for a long time, shifted to fundamental matters, asking me suddenly whether at bottom I still believed in God. I don’t know whether my response was conditioned by the paradoxical situation in which the question aros: next to the telephone was a table of women, eating ice cream and drinking orange juice in the heat. So I answered that I believed that I believed” (pg 69-70).