On the burning in the bosom

29 06 2011

When it is charged with the triviality of what it offers, it assures us, in reply, that the fullness and richness of its meaning lie deep down in its own heart, and that others must feel this too, since with such phrases as the “heart’s natural innocence”, “purity of conscience”, and so on, it supposes it has expressed things that are ultimate and final, to which no one can take exception, and about which nothing further can be required. But the very problem in hand was just that the best must not be left behind hidden away in secret, but be brought out of the depths and set forth in the light of day. It could quite well from the start have spared itself the trouble of bringing forward ultimate and final truths of that sort; they were long since to be found, say, in the Catechism, in popular proverbs, etc. It is an easy matter to grasp such truths in their indefinite and crooked inaccurate form, and in many cases to point out that the mind convinced of them is conscious of the very opposite truths. When it struggles to get itself out of the mental embarrassment thereby produced, it will tumble into further confusion, and possibly burst out with the assertion that in short and in fine the matter is settled, the truth is so and so, and anything else is mere “sophistry” – a password used by plain common sense against cultivated critical reason, like the phrase “visionary dreaming”, by which those ignorant of philosophy sum up its character once for all. Since the man of common sense appeals to his feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is done with any one who does not agree. He has just to explain that he has no more to say to any one who does not find and feel the same as himself. In other words, he tramples the roots of humanity underfoot. For the nature of humanity is to impel men to agree with one another, and its very existence lies simply in the explicit realisation of a community of conscious life. What is anti-human, the condition of mere animals, consists in keeping within the sphere of feeling pure and simple, and in being able to communicate only by way of feeling-states.

-Hegel, from the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit





Reality for the sake of theory

11 04 2011

Notes on Hegel’s Philosophy of History

The premise of Hegel’s work can be summarized, oddly enough, in a very simple phrase: “the Eastern world knew that one is free; the Greek world knew that some are free; and the German world knows that all are free”. The movement of the Spirit through history is manifested through man’s increasing separation from Nature. Spirit, simply put, is freedom, and modernity is the realization of that freedom that has been developing through the centuries. Hegel uses the figure of the Egyptian Sphinx, the human face climbing out of the animal body, to show this emergence of the free from the primeval muck of nature.
Read the rest of this entry »





Who Thinks Abstractly?

7 04 2011

Think? Abstractly? — Sauve qui peut! Let those who can save themselves! Even now I can hear a traitor, bought by the enemy, exclaim these words, denouncing this essay because it will plainly deal with metaphysics. For metaphysics is a word, no less than abstract, and almost thinking as well, from which everybody more or less runs away as from a man who has caught the plague.

But the intention here really is not so wicked, as if the meaning of thinking and of abstract were to be explained here. There is nothing the beautiful world finds as intolerable as explanations. I, too, find it terrible when somebody begins to explain, for when worst comes to worst I understand everything myself. Here the explanation of thinking and abstract would in any case be entirely superfluous; for it is only because the beautiful world knows what it means to be abstract that it runs away. Just as one does not desire what one does not know, one also cannot hate it. Nor is it my intent to try craftily to reconcile the beautiful world with thinking or with the abstract as if, under the semblance of small talk, thinking and the abstract were to be put over till in the end they had found their way into society incognito, without having aroused any disgust; even as if they were to be adopted imperceptibly by society, or, as the Swabians say, hereingezäunselt, before the author of this complication suddenly exposed this strange guest, namely the abstract, whom the whole party had long treated and recognized under a different title as if he were a good old acquaintance. Such scenes of recognition which are meant to instruct the world against its will have the inexcusable fault that they simultaneously humiliate, and the wirepuller tries with his artifice to gain a little fame; but this humiliation and this vanity destroy the effect, for they push away again an instruction gained at such a price.
Read the rest of this entry »





Hegel on Catholicism

6 04 2011

Catholicism does not claim the essential direction of the Secular; religion remains an indifferent matter on the one side, while the other side of life is dissociated from it, and occupies a sphere exclusively its own. Cultivated Frenchmen therefore feel an antipathy to Protestantism because it seems to them something pedantic, dull, minutely captious in its morality; since it requires that Spirit and Thought should be directly engaged in religion: in attending mass and other ceremonies, on the contrary, no exertion of thought is required, but an imposing sensuous spectacle is presented to the eye, which does not make such a demand on one’s attention as entirely to exclude a little chit chat, while yet the duties of the occasion are not neglected.

-Hegel, The Philosophy of History

One should keep in mind in the above quote that Hegel was actually very much a Francophile. Maybe he did not appreciate the religion much, but he liked the French, and even quipped to his wife that they should go live in Paris. Also, from the description, it is not hard to imagine Hegel actually gracing the doorstep of a church in France or witnessing a procession through the streets of statues or the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t think he is particularly bigoted, even if many of his dismissals of entire continents in this work show that he is, in his core, a bigot.

But of course, now we live in a different world. I have often called Vatican II, “the clericalization of the laity”. Many hardened traditionalists call it the “Protestantization of Catholicism”. Perhaps it is both, but not for the reasons commonly thought. If anything, the clergy were supposed to be the ones who “spiritualized” the popular rites and ceremonies of the people. Most clergy were probably just functionaries, and failed to do so. (This is why Jansenism was so popular amongst many sophisticated quarters in urban France: it attempted to “interiorize” religion, and not just make it the obligatory ideology of the State.) With the modern resourcement, the Liturgical Movement, Vatican II, etc. these rites could no longer be cultural and political obligations: they had to “mean something”, be assimilated by the Spirit,, etc. even if what they meant had to be made up on the fly.

I think the average Catholic, the real average Catholic, has the last laugh in all of this. Our rites still don’t take much “exertion of thought”, people still chat in church, and so on. (Makes you less nostalgic about the “good ol’ days”.) And there are still at least some “cultivated people” (I’ll go out on a limb and put myself in their number) who still find Protestantism hopelessly pedantic and captious. While we may miss the “spectacles for the eyes” and bemoan the frivolity and lack of gravitas in current Catholic ritual, we still might choose a parish based on church architecture and decoration, music, and so on. Plus ça change





Random notes on God

4 04 2011

What do we mean when we say, “God”? I think we may all mean different things:

1. The God of doctrine: This is the God who will not fail, not defect into error, the abstract God floating in the ether above history, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Except when they do.

2. The “folk Catholic” God: Sort of a cross between Santa Claus and a Mafia don. Old women burn candles and bug this god constantly to get their children a job, off drugs, to shut their neighbors up who are gossiping, etc.

3. The God of the mystics: The god of bullshit or good feelings. Pretty easy to make this one up and still sound the same as every other aspiring mystic of any given religious confession.

4. Deus sive natura: Perhaps the god of the agnostic, “spiritual not religious” person. Also a god of bullshit.

5. The personal God: Can be purchased for $19.99 plus shipping & handling. Options include fundamentalist, righteous misanthrope, suburban conservative, suburban liberal, peace activist, beige, compact, sedan, candy-paint, and “personal God Zero (TM)”.

6. The God of tradition: A cross between a Mafia don and your mother throwing a frying pan at your head. You believe in him because your father did, and his father did, and his father did. End of story.

7. The real Jesus: Unknown. Many have mentioned him, but no one can confirm that he actually exists. Some say that he was last seen at an anti-war demonstration in 1991 wearing sunglasses, flip flops, and a smiley face tee shirt. Others say that he was hanging out at a GOP fundraiser with Ralph Reid sipping a Diet Coke. None of these sightings have been verified by third party sources.

8. The God of virtue: Ceiling cat is watching you masturbate.

9. The “real God”: The one you found after concluding that all that your parents taught you were lies, lies, lies, and this society is intellectually and culturally BANKRUPT!!!!! Also known as the personal God.

10. God as History: “But in the World, secular business cannot be thus repudiated; it demands accomplishment, and ultimately the discovery is made, that Spirit finds the goal of its struggle and its harmonization, in that very sphere which it made the object of its resistance – it finds that the secular pursuits are a spiritual occupation”. Hegel, The Philosophy of History.

Most of the time, I am referring to 2, 6, 10, and sometimes 1.





Notes on Hegel on Africa

21 03 2011

These are some of the infamous passages by G.F.W. Hegel in his Philosophy of History in which he writes the following:

The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality-all that we call feeling-if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture…

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it-that is in its northern part-belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.
Read the rest of this entry »





Weekly links 03032011

3 03 2011

A link on “biblical consumerism”:

Beal thinks the current boom in biblical consumerism amounts to a “distress crop,” the last great efflorescence of the old authoritative ideal before people move on and learn to embrace biblical ambiguity. I’m not so sure. Craving the certainty and absolutism of fundamentalism is a fairly common response (across many religious faiths) to the often terrifying flux of modern life. If certitude is the main thing American Christians are seeking when they turn to the Bible, then they’re unlikely to tolerate, let alone embrace, Beal’s “library of questions” model. You can learn a lot about how the Bible was created in the past 2,000 years, and about the many strange forms it has taken in the present, from “The Rise and Fall of the Bible.” But where it’s headed in the future is a mystery much harder to solve.

A Protestant friend of mine once said that the Bible should probably be compared more to a music score than a guide book for living. Americans are notorious for using it as the latter. Even candle shops and botanicas sell books of the Psalms as works of conjure and white magic. The difference between this and using it to justify imperial power is merely a matter of scale. As for me, I never liked reading the Bible, even when forced to do it on my knees in seminary. Oddly enough, it was Luther who would say that the Word of God is expressed best in preaching, not in the written text.

Epistemological distress due to the ripening of late capitalism makes for poor dogma.

This is proof that most people believe in some pretty sloppy history. First off, one must concede that Marx himself called Lincoln a “first rate second rate man”. His subsequent apotheosis should then be seen as unjustified. However, when speaking of the Civil War, Americans are notoriously bad at considering the slaves as entirely passive actors; as poor victims waiting on the plantations to be saved. As W.E.B. DuBois proves in his magisterial work, Black Reconstruction in America, slavery was really ended by a massive general strike on the part of the slaves who left their plantations in droves during the course of the war. Something similar occured in Brazil in 1888: slavery was ended by the slaves themselves a couple of years leading up to the proclamation of the “Golden Law”. To concede that the actual slaves played a vital role in their own liberation would be too much for the bourgeois intellectual, just as the Haitian Revolution proved to be too much for the “world stage” to digest, at least openly.

And, some old news, just to prove that some Latin American “leftist” presidents are not as “left” we think.





The cunning of reason

24 02 2011

It is not the general idea that is implicated in opposition and combat, and that is exposed to danger. It remains in the background, untouched and uninjured. This may be called the cunning of reason – that it sets the passions to work for itself, while that which develops its existence through such impulsion pays the penalty and suffers loss… The particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared with the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned. The Idea pays the penalty of determinate existence and corruptibility not from itself, but from the passions of individuals.

This quotation from Hegel’s The Philosophy of History fits perfectly the common notion of the “cunning of reason”: individuals who follow their particular aims are unknowingly instruments of the realization of the Divine plan. But certain elements disturb this seemingly clear picture. Usually passed over in silence is the very point of Hegel’s argumentation apropos of the “cunning of reason”: the ultimate impossibility of it. It is impossible for any determinate subject to occupy the place of the “cunning of reason” and to exploit another’s passions with getting involved in their labor. i.e. without paying in flesh the price for his exploitation. In this precise sense, the “cunning of reason” is always redoubled: an artisan, for example, makes use of the forces of nature (water, steam…) and lets them interact for ends external to them, to mold the raw material into a form appropriate for human consumption; for him, the aim of the process of production is the satisfaction of human needs. It is here, however, that he is as it were a victim of his own ruse: the true aim of the process of social production is not the satisfaction of individual needs but the very development of productive forces, what Hegel refers to as the “objectivization of the Spirit.” Hegel’s thesis is therefore that the manipulator himself is always manipulated: the artisan who exploits nature by way of the “cunning of reason” is in turn exploited by the “objective spirit.”

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative





For a truly subversive Newman?

16 12 2010

From Eamon Duffy:

But if Cornwell absolves the Vatican of trying to conceal the potentially embarrassing sexuality of a candidate for sainthood, he is inclined to think that the beatification of Newman may nevertheless represent an attempt by an authoritarian church to tame a troublesome and unconventional intellect, and to neutralize Newman’s usefulness to critics of current Vatican policy. Newman was, by nineteenth-century Catholic standards, a deeply unconventional theologian. Soaked in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, he disliked the rigidly scholastic cast of mind that cramped the Catholic theology of his day. He was one of the first theologians to grasp the historical contingency of all theological formulations. Accordingly, he resisted doctrinaire demands for unquestioning obedience to contemporary Church formulae as if they were timeless truths. He was an ardent defender of the legitimate autonomy of the theologian and of the dignity of the laity as custodians of the faith of the Church. He was scathingly critical of the authoritarian papacy of Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), who held the office between 1846 and 1878, and he opposed the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 as an unnecessary and inappropriate burden on consciences. “We have come to a climax of tyranny,” he wrote. “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years…. He becomes a god, [and] has no one to contradict him”…

To resolve this apparent contradiction between a religion of objectively revealed truth and the flux of Christian doctrines and practices, Newman wrote at Littlemore a theological masterpiece, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Its central claim is that the concepts and intuitions that shape human history are dynamic, not inert. Great ideas interact with changing times and cultures, retaining their distinctive thrust and direction, yet adapting so as to preserve and develop that energy in different circumstances. Truth is a plant, evolving from a seed into the mature tree, not a baton passed unchanging from hand to hand. Ideas must unfold in the historical process before we can appropriate all that they contain. So beliefs evolve, but they do so to preserve their essence in the flux of history: they change, that is, in order to remain the same. “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

I used to make the intellectual mistake of thinking that the Hegelian dialectic, in the triad “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, was prone to the worst form of institutional crony idealism. The position of the current hegemonic institution is the teleological resting point toward which all of history is driven. That is not a fair reading. Really, the process is not about how the Ideal emerges from the purely contingent, but how the contingent becomes the Ideal. Or rather, how the Ideal is the contingent merely viewed after a process of double negation.
Read the rest of this entry »