Saturday, March 28, 2009

Secularism, Utopia & the Discernment of Myth

Boer, Roland. "Secularism, Utopia and the Discernment of Myth," Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 7 (Fall 2005).

Roland Boer has written a number of books and articles on Marxism and religion, and has a blog, too. More on all that later. For the moment, this article . . .

Boer seeks a way to characterize properly the free-lance sensibilities of contemporary "spiritual experience". Four issues to address are: secularism, post-structuralism, utopian possibilities of religion, and the discernment of myths (after Ernst Bloch). I'm guessing that he really meant to write post-secularism rather than post-structuralism.

Post-secularism is manifested by the pervasive practice of asserting that one is spiritual, not religious. In the utopian realm, Boer seeks a shared language of spiritual experiences that do not erase differences. Secularism and post-secularism are inseparable and dialectically related. Contrary to the settled conception of secularization now, the concept was much contested in the 19th century prior to the interventions of Max Weber and Karl Lowith. Considering alternatives to the latter two, Boer begins with Walter Benjamin (The Origin of German Tragic Drama). Boer's description of Benjamin's notion of secularization is unintelligible to me, but it has something to do with the fall of theological/historical time into spatialization and taxonomy, termed "natural history". Benjamin's work reveals that religion has been (tacitly?) equated with Christianity, and secularization effectively equals the negation of Christianity. Religion is often assumed to pertain to the supermundane, supernatural realm, though it has taken on a broader meaning as well. Boer is unclear here, but he mentions anthropological studies and studies of religions outside of Christianity (and Judaism). All the analytical tools brought to bear on non-western non-Christian belief systems are actually secular translations of the categories of Christian religion.

Boer sees something pernicious in this, apparently, but his next move is to shifts to a discussion of Adorno's critiques of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Key here is that . . .

The language of theology, appropriated by Heidegger and existentialism, has the distinct ideological role of producing patterns of subordination to an absolute authority, which became fascism rather than God and the Church. The theological language of existentialism - which drew its sacredness from the cult of authenticity rather than Christianity – becomes, for Adorno, an ideological schema particularly suited to fascism, for which it functioned not so much as an explicit statement, but as a “refuge,” a mystification that gave voice to an ostensible salvation from alienation that functioned as a virulent justification of oppression, the “smoldering evil” (Adorno 1965, 9) of fascism.
Boer equates this view to a critique of idolatry one can find in Adorno's writings. Proceeding further . . .
Secularization then becomes a process riven with contradictions, one whose rejection of Christianity relies on Christianity, and this, I would suggest, is one of the main reasons for the fact that secularization never quite seemed to succeed . . .
Boer's overall argument doesn't make a bit of sense to me. Mini-arguments here and there do, but the overall structure of the argument doesn't cohere. Here is one piece, though, that is exceptionally lucid, and socially accurate:
The flowering of the myriad forms of religious expression and experience for which the secularization hypothesis could not account is instead described in terms of spirituality, the properly post-secular religion. I don’t want to trace the Christian history of the term “spirituality,” but one of its features is that it relies upon the widespread knowledge of a whole range of religious practices that would not have been possible without the study of religions in the first place, without the endless cataloguing and study of religions from the most ancient, such as Sumeria and Babylon or pre-historic humans, to the most contemporary forms, such as the well-known Heaven’s Gate group that committed suicide, all shod with Nike shoes, when the comet Hale-Bopp appeared on earth’s horizon. Apparently emptied of doctrines to which one must adhere, or of institutions that carefully guard salvation, or of specific groups bound by language and ethnic identity, spirituality enables one to recover lost or repressed practices, such as Wicca or Yoruba sacrifice, but to pick and choose elements that seem to suit individual lifestyles or predilections. It allows one to designate the vitality of indigenous religions (which are no longer religion but spirituality), as a lost source of connectedness with the land, with nature, or other human beings. Unfortunately, however, spirituality’s private piety and devotion comes at the expense of any collective agenda. It also relies on both liberal pluralism and tolerance, as well as the profound reification of social and cultural life that is everywhere around us. You can practice your own particular spirituality in your small corner, as long you don’t bother me, we say. Like secularization, spirituality itself depends upon its own contradiction: both rely upon the religion they reject.
This is a dead-on description of all the upper middle class New Agers I've met in recent years.

Boer next shifts to a discussion of Utopia, taking off from the thought of Ernst Bloch. Again, there's a passage I can't make any sense out of:
What is often forgotten is that the hermeneutics of suspicion and recovery in political approaches such as feminism, post-colonial criticism and liberation theology owe a debt to Bloch. It seems to me that the effort to locate a shared language of “spiritual experience,” one that is sensitive to variations of social, political and cultural difference, relies upon a utopian project in the best sense(s) of the term.
One of Bloch's central insights was not only to discern utopian impulses, but to note that when they include yearning for a lost golden age, their regression has already set in. Utopianism should be future oriented.

The problem with seeking a shared language, as utopian hermeneutics does, is that religions embody mutually exclusive world views. And there is no unmediated experience. Attempts to transcend difference betray origins, as is the case with Rudolph Otto.

Once again, Boer's logic eludes me, but his next move is to seek a unifying principle in myth.
Even more than religion per se, the Enlightenment target of secularization was myth, a term that had acquired an unwieldy cluster of associations: untruth, confusion, fuzzy thinking, the ideology of oppression, and so on. Myth found itself driven from town to town, expelled by the enlightened burghers, only to retreat to the forests and deserts, the realm of Nature, where a few wayward individuals might have some use for it. Faced with the use of myth by the Nazis and other sundry fascists, with their notions of blood and soil and the Blond Beast, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno saw only the negative aspects of the term. For Benjamin, the ultimate form of myth was capitalism, as he traced in The Arcades Project (1999), and so he sought a way beyond myth, a waking from the dream, that made use of biblical motifs. Unfortunately, he remained trapped within the myth of the Bible itself. For Adorno (1999), myth was the antithesis of utopia. Myth was the realm of the unitary principle, the abolition of non-identity that is characteristic of a world dominated by men. For both Adorno and Benjamin, utopia meant the end of myth.
Boer prefers Bloch:
For Bloch, myth is neither pure false consciousness that needs to be unmasked, nor a positive force without qualification. Like ideologies, all myths, no matter how repressive, have an emancipatory-utopian dimension that cannot be separated from deception and illusion. Thus, in the very process of manipulation and domination, myth also has a moment of utopian residue, an element that opens up other possibilities at the very point of failure. Bloch is particularly interested in biblical myth, for the subversive elements in the myths that interest him are enabled by ideologies both repetitious and repressive.
Further down . . .
At his best, Bloch’s discernment of myth is an extraordinary approach, for it enables us to interpret the myths of any religion or spirituality as neither completely reprehensible nor utterly beneficial. That is to say, it is precisely through and because of the myths of dominance and despotism that those of cunning and non-conformism can exist. It is not merely that we cannot understand the latter without the former, but that the former enables the latter.
Two examples from the Bible are given, the first concerning Eden, the second, death.
In the end, then, the value of religions like Christianity is that they have tapped into this utopian desire for something beyond death. Their mistake for Bloch is that they want to say something definite about death. But that something is hardly definite: it is mythology, and for that we need a discerning eye that can see both the liberating and repressive features of those myths.
I find Boer's conclusion most unsatisfactory and downright irritating:
If we follow through the dialectical relationship between secularism and post-secularism - a contradictory logic in which secularism turns out to rely on the Christianity it everywhere denies, a logic that appears starkly in a post-secularism that cannot be thought without secularism - then myth turns out to be the most urgent religious or spiritual question for us. Rather than the problem-ridden term “spirituality”, I have argued that Bloch’s hermeneutics of the discernment of myth provides not only a productive method, but also an approach to the utopian desire that lies behind any effort to find a shared “religious” or “spiritual” language. Such a language needs to be both critical and appreciative, for myths work in an extremely cunning fashion. It is a process that enables on the one hand the identification of those myths, or even elements within a myth, that are oppressive, misogynist, racist, that serve a ruling elite, and on the other, those which are subversive, liberating and properly socialist or even democratic ­ in other words, utopian.
I have a number of objections here, beginning with another instance of a chronic lack of logical clarity. How does Jewish secularism rely on Christianity? Or Indian, or Japanese? Suppose one rejects post-secular ideologies: New Age spirituality, etc.? Then how is myth the most urgent spiritual question, other than to neutralize it? Why should there be a spiritual language at all, shared or not? Why should anything subversive, liberating, or socialist be seen in mythical expressions in the 21st century? There's not an atom of it that is progressive in any way. Myth can only be productively scavenged retrospectively, by those not under its grip. Myth in any form is not adequate to the comprehension of contemporary society. Considering the problem more widely, popular symbology simply can't encapsulate the truth content of the state of our society at this time. Indeed, after the waning of the various countercultures of the 1950s-70s, I see nothing left for popular mythology to do. The good intentions of the past need to be salvaged as well as criticized for their naivete. (I've addressed this with respect to the individual mysticisms of avant-garde jazz musicians.) What myth is alive today needs to be killed off and dissected. In any case, Boer should be more clear and specific about what he's after.

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