Postmodernism, Take 3: Dubious Asceticism

Postmodernism’s “form of alleged non-belief fulfils exactly the same affective conditions as every conviction in which one believes: postmodern skepticism, like every illusion of one’s own, is a specific way of accommodating the libido that, instead of producing pleasure, first and foremost produces self-esteem. It creates the same ego-fixated enjoyment of those who believe in everything that they believe in, regardless of what it is, only in order to believe in themselves- including those who do not believe in anything but themselves.

This libidinal function of postmodern skepticism, focused on the production of self-esteem, is the second reason why it seems necessary to break through the epistemological obstacle it erects. Not only does its skeptical theoretical claim seem dubious- so does its promise of happiness. Thus, just as postmodern ideology claims to correspond with the skepticism of classical antiquity at the theoretical level, at the affective level it wants to be thought of as a return to the pleasure- lost to modernism- in games, myths, infantilism, irony and kitsch. On the contrary, I want to show that postmodernism, rather than being a thorough critique of Enlightenment-based modernism, is merely an extension of the same ascetic enterprise carried out by different, possibly more efficient means. One sign of this can be observed in the rampant self-pity present since the emergence of postmodern ideology. Whereas modernism produced an enthusiastic daring and a certain tolerance for frustration with its utopian promises, the disappearance of utopia from Western societies has mainly resulted in a certain passion for lamenting; a lust for airing grievances, which consumes all other pleasures; the yearning to be a victim. These postmodern activities emerging from a tristful passion testify to an organization of affects that can be considered typical of ascetic ideologies.

The critique presented here, based on the concept of the illusion without an owner, thus applies equally to modern and postmodern ideologies. It sees the ascetic modern and the merely purportedly pleasure-friendly postmodern as accomplices- an “epistemological pair” as defined by Gaston Bachelard. Both obey the paradigm of one’s own illusion. They create the same specific way of accommodating the libido, the desire for one’s own self. This type of desire, as we would like to show, forms the substance of every ascetic, tristful passion that has advanced through Western society since the Enlightenment- and has been given even more strength by postmodernism.”

(Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners [Brooklyn, NY; London: Verso, 2014, orig. 2002])

Even the Beautiful Must Die

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According to the self-understanding of Christian faith, there is only one single appearance of truth which- despite all parallels to the beautiful pre-appearance of the truth- follows another law. That is the revelation of God. It is distinguished from the epiphanies of the beautiful in that the origin of all light appears in this event, and indeed appears in such a way that it does not radiate in the light of the world as does the beautiful, but rather appears hidden sub contrario [under the opposite]. The event of revelation cannot therefore be subordinated to the category of the beautiful. Sin- that which God made him, who knew no sin, for the sake of sinners, and for their benefit- was too ugly for that…. The revelation of Jesus Christ shatters all beautiful appearance. It must shatter the beautiful appearance, because it is not a pre-appearance of the truth, but is the truth itself. Yet according to the understanding of the New Testament, this truth occurs fundamentally as a crisis. It does this by confronting the world not only with its finiteness and transience, but also with its merited end and well-earned disgrace. Revelation does this, as Paul expresses it, by ‘painting’ the crucified ‘before your eyes’ (Gal. 3.1). From this death as such, it is not apparent that the life of the risen one has been released from it, and with that that eternal life is promised in the form of a visio beatifica [beatific vision], thus a totally unfettered vision of God face to face. For according to the New Testament, God’s love is a work in this death. This love is not a love which (like amor hominis [human love]) is kindled by the beautiful, but rather a love which beautifies that which is ugly, namely the self-defacing homo peccator [human sinner], by loving it. As the event of the love of God, the death of Jesus Christ is the opposite of what it appears to be. The cross of Jesus Christ does not disclose that in this death there occurs the unity of life and death in favour of life, which deserves to be called love.

For that disclosure to take place, a renewed coming of the one who has previously appeared sub contraria specie [under the opposite species] is necessary. For this, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is necessary, that is, the Easter coming of the Lord in glory and thus in the unmitigated light of his own being…. For now the beautiful appears both in the alien light of the world as well as in the light of its own being; but then this twilight hanging over the beautiful will come to an end. Then nothing more will appear. For then being in glory will replace appearance…. Then truth and beauty will be identical…here and now the beautiful remains only a glimmer of truth, lighting up and fading away again. With Schopenhauer one can say that the beautiful ‘does not deliver’ humanity ‘from life for ever, but only for a few moments’. In a world context characterized by sham existence and lack of freedom, the experience of the beautiful (as the glimmer of truth) that makes the torn world whole can only be an experience which interrupts this world context. The most that an aesthetic relation can promise is being whole (being eternal) for a moment – in order then to return to the interrupted life context, at best changed and changing. But if one wants it to be more, or if it should become more, if one denies the bitter insight that ‘even the beautiful must die’, then the beautiful will inevitably become an enemy of the truth.

…. only what makes a claim to truth deserves to be called beautiful, and that only where truth establishes itself in a work can one speak of a work of art. But beauty and art are both welcome and dangerous competitors with the Christian kerygma, for in the beautiful appearance they anticipate that which faith has to declare, without any beautiful appearance and indeed in contrast to it: namely, the hour of truth.
(Eberhard Jüngel, “‘Even the Beautiful Must Die’- Beauty in the Light of Truth”, in Theological Essays II [T&T Clark, 1995], pp. 79-81)

Postmodernism, Take 2: Science Cheats Us Out of Wonder

This one comes from Soren Kierkegaard’s journal (VII A 186) the same year he published his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846), and it forthrightly witnesses to his repulsion at the triumphalistic Enlightenment perspectives that were carving up the world to quantify it and master it.  Here we see Kierkegaard’s heart to preserve the capacity for awe in the face of rumors of intellectual comprehension, and he, better than most in his day, foresaw the risks:

Almost everything that nowadays flourishes most conspicuously under the name of science (especially as natural science) is not really science but curiosity. In the end all corruption will come about as a consequence of the natural sciences… But such a scientific method becomes especially dangerous and pernicious when it would encroach also upon the sphere of spirit. Let it deal with plants and animals and stars in that way; but to deal with the human spirit in that way is blasphemy, which only weakens ethical and religious passion. Even the act of eating is more reasonable than speculating with a microscope upon the functions of digestion… A dreadful sophistry spreads microscopically and telescopically into tomes, and yet in the last resort produces nothing, qualitatively understood, though it does, to be sure, cheat men out of the simple, profound and passionate wonder which gives impetus to the ethical… The only certain thing is the ethical-religious.