What We're Reading

30 Aug

Camille Paglia: Only Religion Can Save the Arts

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/30/07

Since the publication of the book that made her a celebrity intellectual, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), Camille Paglia has been focusing attention on connections within the fabric of Western culture that are often ignored or denied. This has earned her a bundle of suspicion from across the political and ideological spectrum. So, for example, when she writes that "the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion," she will no doubt frighten leaders in the arts while flummoxing many American religious leaders, who can't imagine why we ought to bother reviving the fine arts.

Paglia's assertion launched an article entitled "Religion and the Arts in America" in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of the journal Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics (published at Boston University). The bulk of the article is a whirlwind survey of the history of the contentious if sometimes fertile relationship between religion (mostly Christianity) and the arts in America since the Puritans, with sections on literature, the visual arts, and music. Noting that the art world and the Church world virtually ignored each other for most of the twentieth century, she then discusses the "culture wars" episodes of conflict in the 1980s and 90s (the Mapplethorpe controversy, etc.), most of which were about morality, not art or religion. Looking ahead, Paglia writes (in the final three paragraphs):

For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. Profaning the iconography of other people's faiths is boring and adolescent. The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s' multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts. The search for spiritual meaning has been registering in popular culture instead through science fiction, as in George Lucas' six-film Star Wars saga, with its evocative master myth of the Force."" But technology for its own sake is never enough. It will always require supplementation through cultivation in the arts.

To fully appreciate world art, one must learn how to respond to religious expression in all its forms. Art began as religion in prehistory. It does not require belief to be moved by a sacred shrine, icon, or scripture. Hence art lovers, even when as citizens they stoutly defend democratic institutions against religious intrusion, should always speak with respect of religion. Conservatives, on the other hand, need to expand their parched and narrow view of culture. Every vibrant civilization welcomes and nurtures the arts.

Progressives must start recognizing the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular humanism and reexamine the way that liberalism too often now automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms. If conservatives are serious about educational standards, they must support the teaching of art history in primary school--which means conservatives have to get over their phobia about the nude, which has been a symbol of Western art and Western individualism and freedom since the Greeks invented democracy. Without compromise, we are heading for a soulless future. But when set against the vast historical panorama, religion and art--whether in marriage or divorce--can reinvigorate American culture.

Posted by Ken Myers on 8/31/07"

30 Aug

Rieff Revisited

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/30/07

If you were intrigued about our features on volume 82 about Philip Rieff and would like to know more about his ideas before committing to reading him, a pithy summary of Rieff's views by critic George Scialabba appeared in a recent issue of the Boston Review. The occasion for Scialabba's article is the posthumous book by Rieff called Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. Rieff draws on (and disputes) Max Weber's idea of charisma, which was in Weber's formulation a form of authority. Rieff insists that there can be no charisma in Weber's sense apart from some sense of sacred order, no charisma without creed is how Rieff summarizes his view.

Philip Rieff always maintained that the point of culture was to provide authority, to set limits against which individuals could come to understand the world and their place in it. But the crisis of modernity is specifically the loss of the plausibility of any authority. Rieff believed (in Scialabba's summary) that: For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it, only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe.

A review essay of the anniversary edition of Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of The University Bookman. In the essay, James G. Poulos (who dubs Rieff America's most obscure critical genius) examines the question of how to best live in the present world. In a society where genuine community seems withered and perverted, and where the wisdom and habit of traditional culture is often repudiated by popular publicity, is the moral dissident to fight or flee? Put more specifically, is it our duty to struggle to engage a culture that has soured to our tastes, or are we better off abandoning, in Rieff's term, the anti-culture that surrounds us?

Full disclosure requires my acknowledgment that Mr. Poulos discusses the work of MARS HILL AUDIO as being influenced by Rieff, in our continuing effort to address (in Poulos's words) the dilemma of engaging the culture without being lost to it.

Posted by Ken Myers on 8/31/07

20 Jul

A Deeply Religious Civil Religion

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 07/20/07

Just before the Independence Day holiday this year, Doubleday published David Gelernter's Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a frequent contributor to several magazines, often writing about the visual arts. His new book serves as a hearty rebuttal to the claim that America is the product of post-Christian and secularist ideas. On the contrary, he insists, America is a "biblical republic," meaning at the very least that many of its social, cultural, and political commitments were pioneered and defended by thinkers haunted by the Bible. Americanism is a biblical religion although, Gelernter reminds his readers, it is not Christianity.

Moreover, being a religion "of the Book" does not render Americanism one of the great "monotheisms." Gelernter explains that "you can believe in Americanism without believing in God--so long as you believe in man." Despite the optional theism of this new religion, Gelernter insists that "Christians and Jews ought not to see Americanism as a blasphemous replacement for Christianity or Judaism." (Concerning this assurance, theologian Peter Leithart has appropriately mused whether belief in man without belief in God wasn't the original blasphemy.)

Americanism is sustained by two things: an "American Creed" and "American Zionism." By the first he means a set of beliefs that boil down to "liberty, democracy, and equality for all mankind." American Zionism he defines as "the community's closeness to God and its obligation to God and the whole world--Americans as a new chosen people, America as a new promised land" [p. 69, italics in the original].

Gelernter's book corrects much of the revisionist history of the past two or three generations which has shoved American religious history down the memory hole. But his historical sketches are so selective and tendentious as to be of no real help to Christians attempting to come to terms in theologically responsible ways with the intertwining of political and religious experience in American history. His long and sympathetic discussion of the Puritans (whom he regards as the most significant factor in giving rise to both the American Creed and American Zionism) avoids asking whether the Puritans themselves would have approved of Americanism as espoused by Lincoln, Wilson, Reagan, or George W. Bush. To take the Puritan commitment to the idea of being a chosen and covenanted people and cut it off from its essential eschatological links with the work of Christ and the mission of the Church would surely have been regarded by all of the Puritans as a blasphemous deviance far worse than the disfigurements they rejected in the Church of England or in Rome. If they had known their lives and deaths were preparing a way in the wilderness for Americanism they might never have set sail from Southhampton.

In insisting that America is "a biblical republic" Gelernter is rejecting those historians and political philosophers who have insisted that the Founding is a project of the Enlightenment. He dismisses this claim rather glibly, repeatedly returning to the evidence of the biblical ideas undergirding the work of Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and others. I am reminded of the wise observation of C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, that "in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes." To say that there were biblical themes present in the thought of architects of the American polity is not really saying very much at all. The question is whether the themes were developed well in conjunction with many other biblical themes, or whether ideas like "covenant" and "providence" were co-opted to serve ends incompatible with the religious vision of Isaiah or St. Paul.

One need not be anti-American to reject American Zionism, one need not regard America as the New Israel to love it and admire its commitments. I am worried that many patriotic Christians will read this book and not ask whether Americanism has become an alternative to the Christian religion in the lives of many who call themselves Christian. It is notable that there seems to be a correlation between a high view of America and a low view of the Church. One might begin by looking at Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, two high priests of Americanism, and ask what room there was in their belief system for ecclesiastical authority. One could continue by asking whether Independence Day or Pentecost is the more important holiday for the majority of American Christians. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, the living Stone, that has been and is being built into a spiritual house which is (in the words of the apostle Peter) "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God." There has never been a need for a third chosen nation, since the second one is still being assembled.

Gelernter's book is a helpful reminder of the religious, indeed, biblical sources of America's beliefs about itself, although it does little to invite any religiously grounded reflection on those beliefs. By denouncing the secularists and asserting the propriety of an unapologetically religious sense of civic life, he seems to assume that Christians will applaud his argument. But the Bible itself is not terribly sympathetic to religion as such, most of its pages, Old and New Testament, are devoted to denouncing false religion. For millennia, numerous belief systems have arisen which have their origins in the Bible, even in a reverent and often sincere submission to the Bible. For just as long, biblically based beliefs have been subjected to the Church's scrutiny, following St. Paul's example of exposing false gospels.

Another angle of approach in examining Gerlernter's assertion that Americanism is compatible with Christianity is to ask whether "Christianity" as we usually define it isn't already a construction re-tooled to make it more compatible with Americanism. If you read Gelernter's book (or even if you don't), I strongly recommend wrestling simultaneously with the deliberately prickly and provocative arguments made by Peter Leithart in his book Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003). Leithart argues that the Bible does not present the goal of advancing an abstract set of ideas called "Christianity." The Bible is the story of God building the Church, which is a people, a community, a city. "The Church is God's society among human societies, a heavenly city invading the earthly city." And this means that "a territorial conflict is inevitable."

Posted 7/21/07 by Ken Myers

28 Jun

A Forgotten Prophet

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/28/07

The name Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy shows up now and then in books and essays I read, but for a long time I knew almost nothing about him or his apparently brilliant ideas.

Now Peter Leithart provides readers with a glimpse (summary isn't the right word for such a deliberately unsystematic thinker) of the fertile and generous ways of Rosenstock-Huessy's mind. In The Relevance of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, posted on the First Things blog, Leithart shows how Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973) anticipated various postmodern insights, in much the same way (it would seem) as did Michael Polanyi.

Here is a paragraph from Leithart's essay:

To take a more extended example: During the modern period, he writes in The Christian Future (1946), people believe that all large organizations are rational, legal, and mechanical as well as logical and systematic. At the center of modern institutions, there stands a typewriter (a machine, and specifically a machine for generating plans and reports). Moderns are puzzled by the perfectly unsystematic, irrational, antilogical institution, the poorest organization on earth but yet fully alive--the family, which to the modern mentality seems a colorful folly. At the center of the family is not a typewriter but a bed and a stove, the unquenchable illogicality of the family perturbs planners with a blueprint for the future.

Posted 6/29/07 by Ken Myers.

20 Jun

Better Things for Better Living

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/20/07

I first ran across the work of Richard DeGrandpre in an article he wrote for the magazine, AdBusters. That magazine's original editorial vision (which they seem to have forgotten in recent years) was to examine the ways in which the version of reality encouraged by advertising (and by other technnlogically mediated forms of communication) promotes habits of profoundly distorted perception.

The article I read by DeGrandpre was called The Great Escape (published in the March/April 2001 issue), in which DeGrandpre described experiments done in the 1930s by perception psychologist James Gibson. People were given glasses that distorted their vision, making straight lines seem curved. The subjects gradually compensated for the distortion of the lenses, and eventually, the curved lines seemed to be straight ones. When the glasses were removed, straight lines were perceived to be curving in the other direction.

DeGrandpre related this to the so-called beauty myth. Young women, he observed, have millions of exemplars from which to judge the sizes and shapes of the female body, yet this vast pool of reality is somehow overridden by a narrow band of hyper-reality. It's a perfect match with the finding of Gibson's classic study. Many young women, presented with their own image, fail to 'see' what appears on their retinas. Instead, as researchers have now documented, they often perceive a distorted, 'fatter' version of themselves. Again, their sense of reality derives from cumulative experience with the goal of adapting to whatever reality appears to be most pressing, or 'valuable.' Unfortunately, for many women, this 'valued' reality happens to make them sick.

DeGrandpre's discussion was a helpful reminder of how much our perception of reality is conditioned by our cultural setting. This leads some postmodernists to insist that there is no reality, only socially constructed perceptions. An alternative reading, one which has many resonances in Scripture and the Christian tradition, is that there is a reality, and our cultural situatedness can either help us see it or deter us from seeing it. The glasses I am wearing right now enable me to see what the trees outside my window and the birds at my feeder actually do look like, they do not enable an arbitrary and entirely idiosyncratic view of the world. They put me in greater touch with reality.

Richard DeGrandpre was concerned in that article about the way in which virtual reality was becoming more attractive to people than real reality, a theme he pursued well in his 2001 book Digitopia: The Look of the New Digital You (Random House). As he wrote in his AdBusters article,

The mind isn't some kind of computer that remains unchanged as cultural software runs through its cerebral circuits. Conscious reality changes as the software of everyday life changes, and remains changed thereafter. Whether it's watching the tube, surfing the web, or viewing the latest special-effects flick, chronic exposure to simulated ideas, moods, and images conditions your sensibilities, albeit to different degrees, for how the real world should look, how fast it should go, and how you should feel when living in it. When a thousand points of light shine upon you in a commercial war for your thoughts, feelings, and wants, your mind adapts, accepts, and then, to feel stimulated, needs more. Kids twenty-five years ago forfeited their quarters to a video game called Pong. Pong is to Sony PlayStation 2 what a firecracker is to the atomic bomb. Virtual reality wires us for a virtual world. . . . As you adapt to the latest digital experiences, straying farther and farther from your home world of the here and now, that home world becomes less satisfying each time you return to it. Simply, the virtual becomes the only reality that counts.

Later in the article, DeGrandpre talks about how the use of psychotropic drugs mirrors the increasing levels of engagement with alternative-reality media. About one in ten Americans filter their life experiences through antidepressants. But with the increasing number of people using such drugs comes a novel social philosophy. As dubbed in Peter Kramer's best seller Listening to Prozac, this is 'cosmetic psychopharmacology.' The idea here is that new 'lifestyle drugs' are being synthesized not to make us well, but rather to make us, as Kramer puts it, 'better than well.'

This is a profoundly cybernetic ideology: the progressive abandonment of concern over real-world causes of despair and dysfunction in favor of symptom-specific individual solutions. The better-than-well ideology marks not scientific progress—-several thousand compounds were tested by Eli Lilly before Prozac was stumbled upon—-but social regress. It urges you not to think about or pursue social change, but to seek out technological and consumer-based fixes to what are not individual problems.

Of course this cyborg ideology of more human than human couples perfectly with the postmodern ethos of the digital age. Both tap in to the same utopian technological spirit, both function as technologies of the self, and both help you accommodate your nervous system to a dying and dysfunctional social realm. As unplugged reality gets worse, the cyborg solution is to constantly upgrade and improve the self. By helping us cope in the middle years of today—-living neither as the socioborgs of times past nor as the true cyborgs of times future—-drugs like Prozac affirm our cultural direction. They are part of the great escape.

This article raised many of the same issues about happiness and society addressed in Carl Elliott's book Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.

Richard DeGrandpre had written an earlier book called Ritalin Nation: Rapid-fire Culture and the Transformation of Human Consciousness (W. W. Norton, 1999), in which he examined ways in which popular psychotropic drugs alter the brain and its expectations. Most recently he has written The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World's Most Troubled Drug Culture (Duke University Press, 2006), which examines the complicated reasons (few of them scientific) why some drugs are regarded as bad and outlawed while others are deemed to be good and encouraged by large marketing campaigns.

Posted 6/21/07 by Ken Myers