On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Adbusters — the de facto magazine of choice for leftist fundamentalists — has an interesting article by Micah White on the (too oft-heralded) death of postmodernism and the birth of “altermodernism.” I think he gets things half-right, and we’ll start with his conception of postmodernism:

“…[A]n essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation.”

So far I’m fine with this, and he rightly pulls out the political & ethical bent of deconstruction instead of just characterizing it as literary navel-gazing. But I think things fall apart when he starts to spell out how/why postmodernism & deconstruction failed us:

“…[B]y the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.”

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A Christmas Message

This is by Brynne Lewis Allport, from “An Impression” on The Church and Pomo Culture:

In God, Death, and Time, Emmanuel Levinas claims that the immanent experience of a transcendent God amounts to a reversal and referral of the desirable (God) to the nondesirable (the Other). This correlation results in a mission to approach and engage the Other, especially as the Other is figured in the needy, the oppressed, and the forgotten. In this sense, God’s presence is experienced in those persons in whom God is least expected to be found (absence).I visualize this concept in the following way. God’s inbreaking into existence is a stone, thrown against wet sand. The moment of impact is unobserved (unoberservable?) and the stone is absent, bounded off somewhere unknown. What remains is a small dent, an impression left in the soft shore line. The impression is the shape of the stone, the size of the stone, retains the fine features of the stone. However, as an impression, these features are preserved in reverse. In this way, God’s presence, if it is to be found at all, is found in those places where God is most absent. The Old Testament is full of reminders that worship of God is only as good as the care extended to widows, orphans, and the poor. The epistle of James makes this same claim.

It is important to point out that it is not simply the existence of these Others that is God’s presence in the world, but our caring engagement with them. To return to my metaphor, when the impression is all that remains, the only way to experience the stone is to press into the shape it has left behind. This absence is filled with engagement in the same way one takes a plaster cast. In approaching, meeting, ministering to those in need, the community conforms to, fills out the shape of God in the world. The mold is as much the shape as what is poured into it. Holiness therefore is not a characteristic retained by either party alone, but a quality that emerges from the touch-point of the two.

I recently had the pleasure of helping our community fill its annual Christmas baskets. These baskets (boxes really) are distributed to area residents who apply for aid. They include clothes, basic food stuffs, and toys for the children. Because I had the job of matching mittens with hands that might need them, I had to read each application to determine the number and size of each pair. The requests were simple, the situations similar and familiar: illness, unemployment, injury. As I passed each box, read each name, I held each person in my heart for just a moment. As I placed each pair of mittens inside each basket, I was overwhelmed by the privilege of sharing a holy meeting in the presence (absence) of God.

Merry Christmas.

Anti-Statism, Relativism, Prosperity Gospel, etc.

So I took a trip to Myanmar this week. I’ll blog about it later. In the meantime I have a bunch of tabs of stuff I’ve been meaning to share and I’ll have to just dump them w/o much comment because they’re slowing down Firefox.

  • The Atlantic: “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” by Hanna Rosin. Short answer is No, it didn’t… but the name-it-n-claim-it prosperity gospel probably contributed a little at least.
  • “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” by Carl Raschke – summary & review of the first two chapters from Merold Westphal’s book Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Raschke is expectedly excellent:

The term “relativism” nowadays is routinely and indiscriminately used as a handy synonym for “postmodernism” by Christian and cultural mossbacks in the same way that “deconstruction” is taken as the first thesaurus entry for nihilistic devastation of the entire legacy of Western culture.  Pondering the “relativity” of the symbolic order – Einstein’s special and general theories notwithstanding – is generally regarded in these same circles as akin to taking a puff of Ouachita Gold and then inhaling.  That is, it is the first tragic slip on the slipper of the slippery slope to reprobation and incurable insanity.

  • The A.V. Club is trying to sum up the past decade. One of their lists is “The Best TV Series of the ’00s” wherein Arrested Development is somehow not #1 and NBC’s The Office bribed someone to earn an entry. I remain unimpressed by Judd Apatow’s TV work (I did like most of Funny People though, fwiw).
  • They’ve also got a big 50-entry list of “The Best Music of the Decade” which I will say is not the worst list I’ve ever read. Arcade Fire got robbed, of course, losing out to Outkast and (FFS!) Kanye; “this is an outrage” “how dare they” et cetera. No My Morning Jacket at all. Zilch. Actually, with all due respect to Win Butler & Jeff Tweedy, I may have to give my vote to “Best Album of the Decade” to Mr. Lamontagne for “Trouble.”

Dangerous Knowledge

I guess I’m on a philosophy film kick. The latest was the BBC’s Dangerous Knowledge, a documentary on mathematicians Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing — four geniuses whose neuroses drove them fatally mad. It’s debatable the extent to which their respective theories made them insane — the film obviously plays this up for dramatic purposes — but it’s an intriguing film and not overly technical.

One of the ironies here is that I learned of this film via some people with deep antipathy towards postmodernism, despite the fact that these four helped unravel the modern project and clear the conceptual space for postmodernism. For me, it’s impossible to ignore the links between these mathematicians at the turn of the century and the postmodern philosophers at the close of the century. The key is recognizing that the quests for certainty, universality, and totality that were under assault in science & politics — climaxing in the existential refutations that were World Wars I & II — were being assaulted in logic & mathematics via Cantor & Co.
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John Caputo Listens to Creed

The cake is a lie.

This post title is also (probably) a lie.

But I continue to find John D. Caputo one of the most interesting living philosophers. He’s written an interesting preface to the Chinese edition of his book What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Entitled “Why the Church Deserves Deconstruction,” it’s an interesting read even if you haven’t read the book and actually serves as a decent introduction to a couple major themes in Caputo’s thought.

Also, and this is completely & utterly unrelated, but I’ve been greatly amused by this awesome new song by Creed:

A Fictional Letter to a Semi-Imaginary Friend

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Dear ________,

Please accept my apologies for not writing sooner, though my delay was not entirely accidental. The truth is that I wanted to give you space to struggle on your own. Let me start with a confession: I don’t hold conventional rational argument in much esteem.

You see I think our beliefs and opinions are a lot like a new pair of jeans, or shoes, or what have you. You can tell only so much from a distance. It’s not until you put them on, try them out, truly feel it through, that you can tell whether they’re for you. You have to see yourself in a mirror: how do these make me look? Do I see myself as the kind of person that’d wear something like this? What will my friends think?

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“Literature is a way of (not) telling secrets”

“If I have a taste for the secret, it clearly has to do with not-belonging; I have an impulse of fear or terror in the face of a political space, for example, a public space that makes no room for the secret.”
– Jacques Derrida, A Taste for the Secret (59)

We stumble in, half-drunk already, half-dead already, ready for night and ready for day. Don’t you see there, the Stranger in the back, always in the back? Is he unlike us, more like Derrida when he uncovered the reason, the fear and terror of the public space? Not (mostly) shame and guilt, the secret is undoubtedly more intimate. His secrets are personal – “coextensive with the experience of singularity” – the singularity of self. And these are the secrets: how he crosses his legs, folds his arms, squints his eyes, touches his hair, taps his fingers while reading. Who can tell, who can know? Ritual discontent, on display. Hell is other people, says Sartre, for their unrelenting gaze. The Stranger reading, only aware of self and book, the play of words and words of play. Isn’t this where the fear is introduced, the moment he feels the gaze of the other, our violent on-looking, his self-conscious realization of himself as Stranger alone in the back, yes alone, reading alone? Self as seen by other, either disdained or patronized by other, by us? What other reaction, in the face of the gaze in public, is there but existential terror? Indulge him, despise him, this is not Everyman, his name is Difference. His demand is too great: close your eyes.

Jacques Derrida On ‘Atheism’ and ‘Belief’


John Caputo: In Circumfession, you say that you “rightly pass for an atheist” (“je passé à just titre pour une athée”) Instead of just saying that you are an atheist, you know. Why don’t you just say, “I am an atheist” instead of “I rightly pass…” Is it because you have some doubts between the distinction between atheism and belief in God? Or some doubts about whether you are an atheist? I mean, suppose someone said, interpreted that to mean, “I am to all appearances an atheist, but appearances can be deceiving. So don’t be too sure, perhaps I am not”…?

Jacques Derrida: I, I’m not, simply the one who says “I.” On the other hand, I think that we may have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God. If the belief in God is not a cultural adaptation, if it doesn’t go through a number of atheistic steps –- that is, not only the critique of idolatry, of all sorts of images in prayers (especially in prayers) but also in the critique of onto-theology, the re-appropriation of God in metaphysics, which as Heidegger says, doesn’t know anything like prayer or sacrifice, the ontotheology –- so if one doesn’t go as far as atheism one doesn’t believe in God. So the true believers know that they run the risk, have to the run the risk, of being radical atheists – even [Emmanuel] Levinas says somewhere that in a certain way he’s an atheist because he doesn’t understand God as an existing Being. God is not an absolute Being – so if you go through what we know as negative theology, apophatic theological criticism, and so on, and deconstruction – if we don’t go as far as possible in this direction of atheism, then this belief in God is naïve and totally inauthentic.

Now, in order to be authentic – this is a word I almost never use – but in order to be authentic, belief in God must be exposed to the absolute doubt. And I know that the great mystics are experiencing this. They are experiencing the death of God, or the disappearance of God, or the non-existence of God, or God as being called as non-existent: “I pray to Someone who does not exist in the strict metaphysical meaning of ‘existence’ that is ‘to be present as an essence or substance’ or ousia.” When we think of epekeina tes ousia [Good beyond Being] according to Plato’s, even Heidegger’s, terms, “being beyond Being” the Good, in Plato’s terms being beyond Being, epekeina tes ousia. If I believe in what is beyond Being, then I believe as an atheist, in a certain way. Believing implies some atheism, however paradoxical it may say. I’m sure that the true believers know this better than others, that they experience atheism all the time – and this is part of their belief. In this epoche, this suspension of belief – suspension of the position, the existence of God – it is in this epoche that faith appears. The only possibility is faith in this epoche.

So when I say “I rightly pass as an atheist” I know that because of everything that I’ve done so far, say in terms of deconstruction and so on and so forth, I’ve given a number of signs of my being a non-believer in God in a certain way, an atheist. And nevertheless, although I confirm that it is right to say “I’m an atheist”, I can’t say myself “I am an atheist” as a position, see “I am” or “I know what I am”: “I am this, and nothing else and I’m identifying myself as an atheist.” I would never say… this would sound obscene: “I am.” I wouldn’t say “I am an atheist” or I wouldn’t say “I am a believer” either. These statements, I find them absolutely ridiculous: “I am a believer, I know that I am a believer.” Who knows that? Who can affirm and confirm, “I am a believer.” And who can say “I am an atheist?” I just write such sentences, that is the only thing I can say…

Talking Caputo and Vattimo

This weekend I’ve been reading a lot about/by Gianni Vattimo and Mark Driscoll. I mostly just wanted to mention those two names in the same sentence. One a homosexual Italian Catholic, the other a homophobic American Protestant.

The Vattimo books are Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo and After the Death of God (conversations with John Caputo & Vattimo). Caputo is challenging for me; I’ve pre-ordered his What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and so will probably comment more after reading that.

Here’s my problem with Vattimo: I can’t figure out why he’s a Christian. Think about Heidegger, in which we’re unsure on what philosophical basis he can reject Nazism — and he doesn’t. Vattimo is clearly indebted to Heidegger, though philosophically not politically. But as easily as Heidegger slipped into Nazism, so too has Vattimo easily slipped into Christianity. I get the distinct impression that were Vattimo born in India he’d be a Hindu or a Buddhist if born in China. His choice of Christianity seems completely arbitrary — if asked “Should, or why should, I be a Christian?” I think Vattimo would be dumbfounded.

I’ve changed my mind, I’m going to comment on Caputo just briefly. I’ll give a longer quote just for kicks:

“The [I think he means ‘a’] meaning of postmodernism is to weaken the classical difference between theology and philosophy. The distinction between faith and reason, for example, does not finally hold up for me. I take reason to be deeply structured by faith and I take any faith that is not simply madness to be obliged to be articulate about itself and, so, rational in that sense. Virtually all of contemporary philosophy is bent on showing the way in which to understand something is to operate within a horizon of understanding that has to remain tentatively in place for you to get anything done. That horizon of understanding is something like a faith. It’s a presuppositional structure that is constantly getting tested, but it has to be in place.By the same token, the natural/supernatural distinction also comes apart. To distinguish a natural order into which is injected some supernatural influx, some supernatural empowerment of our natural faculties, is, I think, to believe in magic. It’s a good thing I retired from Villanova just as I was getting to heretical! To think clearly about religion you have to clear your head of supernaturalism and magic. That is our permanent debt to Tillich. A religious faith is a historically inherited symbolic system, a hermeneutic, a symbolic way of looking at things that has been handed down to you by a cultural and literary tradition with which you have a built-in resonance.

So, there aren’t any clean distinctions that you could make between philosophy and theology that I could not deconstruct, if you give me a computer and an hour and a half. The dispute between them is a lover’s quarrel. Mostly it comes down to what extent you’re willing to talk about God. When your discourse keeps returning again and again to God, and you cannot be cured of this, then you think, this must be theology. And that may be permitted so long as it [is] a confession, not a self-congratulation.”

The first and third paragraphs are very good; the second not so much. Caputo has failed to sufficiently deconstruct: he has not subverted the binary, but merely inverted it. Now he’s distinctly modern and the natural takes precendence over the supernatural — indeed, we’re to clear our heads of any notion of the supernatural. It’s that sentence that betrays Caputo, for I’m with him on the first two sentences. What he ought to have said is that the natural/supernatural dichotomy truly falls apart when we realize that the supernatural is natural in a world created by God, and that the natural is supernatural in a world sustained by God.

FWIW, Tony Jones has called Caputo a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” though I’ve not decided if that’s a phrase suited to Caputo… recognizing, of course, that this deciding – this naming – is itself an injustice to the man & his thought. However, perhaps this was just all an awkward segue to a Tony Jones article that’s really worth reading; it’s a blog post in response to the question “Why is the Emerging Church drawn to deconstructive theology?” Part of his answer makes me think he would agree with this quip: Deconstruction is what Scripture does to us, not what we do to Scripture. The Church and Postmodern Culture: Conversation blog is generally good and recommended by me. They have a good PDF collection of their best posts from the 1st half of this year.

Theological outlaws

If postmodernism is a disposition (and a dis/position), it is a disposition that is more instinctively comfortable for some than others. I want to give a picture for the former, but perhaps it is a picture that’s inviting – an invitation to join the “we” mentioned in the forthcoming passage. It’s a passage by Gavin Hyman in the book The Predicament of Postmodern Theology; the ‘predicament’ being the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of a Christian metanarrative. If there is a way to live in this paradox (and I’m convinced there is), what is it and where does it leave us? Hyman writes: “Neither city dwellers [theologians, believers, theists] nor desert nomads [a/theologists, unbelievers, atheists], “we are exiled to an intermediate zone.” Hyman writes:

Carl Raschke has characterized such a zone as an “Indian Territory.” Following [John] Caputo, he says that we are “outlaws”: “The outlaw moves routinely and undetected, within the ‘territory’ from which he or she is a fugitive. Whereas the nomad has no ‘home’, no territory to signify as place, the outlaw knows his, or her, ‘site’. The terrain is familiar. The postmodernist is like the habiru of ancient Egypt, an outlaw that ‘displaces’ the topos of imperial signification to the desert. Yet the desert is always a place from which to stage raids on the empire, to wander in and wander out, to settle and rule, then return.” So the outlaw “wanders in and wanders out” of (or “moves through”) theology. Theology is the “familiar” terrain from which we are fugitives. It is a terrain that can be “accessed, disrupted, and called to the bar.” But if theology is the terrain through we move, it is not our territory: “as a house is not a home, a terrain is not a territory.” …To dwell within Indian Territory is to dwell in a condition of suspension, as we find ourselves suspended in and between opposites… Faced with these opposites, we are confronted with a decision that must necessarily be left unmade. Deprived of a place where this undecidability may be unproblematically expressed, we must necessarily resort to tactics… But what will it mean to enact such tactics? We have seen that we cannot avoid the terrain of theology, and yet it is a terrain from which we are simultaneously exiled. Consequently, our tactics will be to move through theology, intellectually, ethically, and ecclesiastically…

I have bastardized Hyman’s conclusion in the name of simplicity, of presentation — the picture is key here, not the particulars. But I suspect the objections are already percolating, a suspicion supported by knowing that the majority of my readers are Evangelicals; indeed, no doubt my “site” is Evangelicalism, my “terrain” that of Protestantism. I suspect we (I, too, when within your city walls) cringe at “condition of suspension.” Don’t we, we (hyper)moderns, resist such tensions (“either/or, please sir!”) — yet isn’t this at the heart of the Christian message? Scripture is rife with paradox and tension, and more than a few sects have arisen simply by crafting a narrative that excludes the other. Was it Abraham’s faith, or God’s grace, that lead to the provision of a lamb? Is it not both? Is this not carried into the New Testament, where our salvation is both act and process, both because of works and in spite of them? A savior (both God and man) who is crucified at Golgoltha, yet also crucified once eternally for all saints? Do we not preach of a Kingdom of God that is both present and absent, one that is here and to come?

There is more to unpack here, another story that I’m emotionally and intellectually unprepared to tell presently. It is of a ragged, wandering Christ who is pursuing and being pursued, appearing and disappearing, always close and always far. It is both the “not that, not that” of Hyman and nihilism, and the “viens, oui, oui” of Derrida and deconstruction. Come, yes, yes. Beautiful vision, stay with me all the time; beautiful vision, stay ever on my mind.

The curse of Plato

Let me attempt to explain my shift in thinking during the last four years by illustrating via context-less quote-mongering. In high school when I was first “getting into” philosophy I would often come these interesting, derogatory quips about philosophy itself. For example:

“Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.” – Ambrose Bierce”Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy.” – Aldous Huxley

“The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” – Bertrand Russell

“There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.” – Cicero

“If a man’s good for nothing else, he can at least teach philosophy.” – William James

“Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.” – H.L. Mencken

These will suffice, there are obviously more. The pecularity, of course, is that these quotes are by philosophers (many of whom never did shake this vice). Note that I read these and still went to university for philosophy. So for a long time my approach was one of a/bemusement; they were funny (ironic detachment, yadayada).

You might think that it is only now that I feel their bite, that I protest, that I stutter and defend my mistress. On the contrary, it is only now that I laugh harder. I’ve come to realize that the history of Western philosophy is the history of an error, and that error is Plato’s (and/or Socrates, smarmy bastard that he was). It is a “bold flight of invention” (to turn Plato against Plato) and I readily join with so-called “postmoderns” in exorcising the demon of Platonism in all it’s latent/overt forms (pun intended). Sure, I joined the Tribunal of Reason and pontificated for a while, but I’ve now resigned my post — upon discovery, of course, that the king has no clothes. After the death of philosophy, what now? It’s not all dirty nihilism and trampled orchids: whether genealogy/archaelogy (Nietzsche/Foucault), phenomenology (Heidegger), hermeneutics (Gadamer, Vattimo, et al), deconstruction (Derrida), etc it seems clear there is something post-… post-metaphysical, post-representational, post-realist, pick your poison/medicine, pick your (un)hero. Me? I gots me Rorty and I gots me Van Morrison. Your mileage may vary.

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.”