Archive for June, 2011

A critique of critique: a restatement

June 25, 2011 4 comments

I have been feeling somewhat bothered by the fact that my post with the same name from a few days ago was not especially clear–one might even say, badly written.  I confess, I wrote it in haste!  But there is an idea in it which I wanted to express, so I’m going to try it again.  This time more straightforwardly.

After now ten years spent in the context of higher education (particularly in the fields of continental philosophy, theology, and religion), I am left with the impression–and it is at this stage only an impression, not something which I have researched and am prepared to demonstrate, but nevertheless a persistent impression–that a certain kind of critical thinking has become hegemonic.

The particular sort of critical thinking that I have in mind exhibits a complicated relationship with Kant’s Critiques and what they represent: namely, a very sophisticated form of modern skepticism, objectification, or suspension (epoche), for which he is obviously not the only representative.  This bracketing procedure can approximate a certain kind of nihilism.  Because everything would seem to be, as far as we know it, determined by the conditions of transcendental consciousness, everything has, to some significant extent, lost its gravity, its credibility, its affirmability (for lack of a better word).  However, many thinkers who have come after Kant have subjected his own critical work to a further critique.  His transcendental approach was too naive, precisely because it neglected or concealed many of the conditions for its own possibility: history, culture, power, language, flesh, environment, etc.  But if Kant’s critique destabilizes a positive and meaningful sense of the whole, the mode of critique which has sought to move beyond Kant (a mode which one might call “meta-transcendental” or “postmodern”) has seemed, at times, only to increase the threat of some sort of implicit nihilism.  I acknowledge that this tradition can be interpreted in another way, as seeking to retrieve or rediscover sources of meaning which modern transcendental reason excludes.  But what I am concerned with here is its critical aspect, which is often salient, and which departs from Kant only while amplifying the intellectually elite negation of the whole which is expressed powerfully in his work.

My point is that much contemporary critique gives me the impression that we are still embedded in a kind of Kantian danger.  The message of academic discourse is still, basically, that everything is suspect, unreliable, already invalidated by a critical awareness of the conditions for its possibility.

Given this state of affairs, I would not want to advocate an end of critique but rather a more concerted effort to articulate a positive context which is larger and more powerful than the critique itself.  It seems to me that, without this effort, the intellectual life becomes a kind of badly infinite “gotcha” game, in which the goal is to pull the rug out from one another, to reveal with ever greater acuity the depths of another’s unacknowledged naivete and implicit culpability.  To put the point more positively, we need to try to answer questions like: What is not illusory?  What is it that we are attempting to protect by means of critique?  What ultimately warrants our allegiance, our fidelity, our affirmation, our praise?  It is for this reason that I want to suggest precisely theological praise as a point of departure for reflection concerning the bases for saying “yes” definitively and, therefore, for saying “no” in a localized and meaningful way.  Even Qoheleth, who sees the world and declares “vanity of vanities!” does not make this critique in the absence of God but rather in recognition of God’s glory.

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Michele Elam’s *The Souls of Mixed Folk*

June 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I have recently discovered a book which I would like to recommend: Michele Elam’s The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millenium (Stanford University Press, 2011).

Through her insightful interpretations of many different artistic, literary, and pop-cultural representations and performances of black-white mixture, Elam seeks a middle way between, on the one hand, the insufficiently critical anticipation of a thoroughly hybrid and post-racial American culture (an increasingly popular attitude which is easily co-opted by those who no longer want to see racism as a problem) and, on the other hand, the insufficiently complex traditional rhetoric of blackness and black emancipation (which, though it has been productively destabilized by new patterns of cultural and biological miscegenation, nevertheless remains necessary in the fight against racism).  In other words, Elam takes on the contemporary aporia of race with impressive nuance and subtlety.

Whether you work directly in this area or not, my advice would be to read this book, and soon.

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A critique of critique, or what may be wrong with academia

June 24, 2011 1 comment

Kant exemplifies, and thereby verifies, the following claim: modernity is an age of critique.  In what sense is “critique” characteristic of this age?  There can be no doubt that negation is not a modern invention.  To say “no” and, moreover, to show or explain why “no” must be said in this or that circumstance is an act for which humanity has had the competence since time immemorial.  But to say “no” to the whole, to all things, and with reasons for doing so?  Even this radical negation finds a certain kind of precedent in the ancient words of Qoheleth.  And yet, it is the modern epoch that one calls “critical.”

Why?  Because there are hardly grounds any longer on which to say “yes” and, therefore, to say “no” in a believable, trustworthy way.  These grounds have been invalidated by a style of critique which one recognizes as “transcendental,” i.e., as implicating consciousness as such.  Because they must be doubted (Descartes), or at least objectified (Kant and, maybe, Husserl), the bases for our thought and action have been thoroughly jeopardized as bases.  The explicitly transcendental project was, of course, far too naive.  It, too, has been invalidated by a sense that every act of consciousness–if one can even speak this way anymore–is localized in history, culture, language, power, flesh, environment, etc.  The now prevalent judgment against transcendental reason of the Kantian type exhibits a meta-transcendental character.  One is obliged to hold that the conditions for the possibility of thinking (like Kant) about the conditions for the possibility of consciousness are universally and necessarily history, culture, language, power, flesh, environment, etc. and, simultaneously, their concealment.  In short, to attempt what Kant attempts, one must suffer from illusion or be engaged in some kind of self-deception.  Such is the central tenet of critical theory and postmodernity, of various sorts.  Its elaboration is always almost (but perhaps not quite) a performative contradiction.  In other words, one may very quickly find oneself accused of something very much like the sort of illusion which one imputes to another.

Now, the following analysis may seem exaggerated, but I think there is some truth in it.  Having been deeply informed by these traditions, the academy currently finds itself in what might be called “critical condition.”  As soon as one begins to speak positively about something; begins to propose an idea; begins to invest in a particular form of life; begins thereby to shift power in this or that direction; begins, in all these ways, to cultivate a philosophy, a theology, a culture, a people, a vision for the future–there are immediately countless meta-transcendental critiques which can and must be made.  Implicit in any position will be an infinite debt to a particularizing, destabilizing, and delegitimizing background of uncertainty, violence, chaos, oppression, absurdity, vanity.

The problem is that, when one points this out, or constantly feels the need to point it out, or makes only this sort of remark lest someone else make it about one’s own work (which might happen in any case), all that is empowered is the meta-transcendental critique itself.  Everyone is made to circulate its power and to wield it, with the result that everything comes to seem already negated as though by an a priori collective judgment.  Everything is potentially illusory.  But this means, paradoxically, that everything is affirmed weakly, surreptitiously, obscurely, inconsistently.  At least, this is the practical consequence.  After all, life must go on; people will believe this or that about the whole of reality and actually seek to live by it; no words of a critical academic will deter this natural mode of human being; and, in any case, the suspension demanded by the current form of the postmodern epoche is not sustainable even for the thinkers themselves, in their own lives.  And so everyone is left without anything positive to contemplate and, therefore, with a (perhaps highly cultured) sense of indifference or apathy.  Because no one will have the courage to say “yes” to a course of thought which seems promising, fruitful, or edifying, the effective message will be that it matters little what one thinks.  Meta-transcendental critique, having become all-powerful, will empower nothing and no one.  Worst of all, many will not have been empowered to stand their ground when it is really necessary, precisely at the decisive moment when “no” must be said with one’s full heart, with everything on the line, in order to defend something which we have forgotten how to articulate and which we no longer even attempt to specify.

Hope lies in the attempt to offer something positive, a genuine possibility, to others, however troubled may be its already and inevitably grave preconditions.  It seems that the intellectual life, in order to remain worthy of the name, must seek to shed light in this direction.  If one can, perhaps, begin to praise God even in the world’s distress, one can perhaps begin to think also through the implications of this praise.

Has this been an argument for uncritical thinking (if there is such a thing)?  Let me say, in conclusion: no.

The untold significance of African American spirituals

June 6, 2011 14 comments

I was prompted to write this short reflection after reading two very rich and insightful posts written by Sonja and Katie, two of my friends over at Women In Theology: and  I recommend reading these, if you have a chance.

The question on the table was how to evaluate the singing of so-called “ethnic” music–and, particularly, the spiritual songs of the African-American tradition–in predominantly “white” churches.  On the one hand, both Sonja and Katie suggest that this practice is often well-intentioned (i.e., motivated by a desire to respect and cultivate diversity in the body of Christ).  On the other hand, however, both argue that, in various ways, this practice can also be problematic, precisely to the extent that it does not address (and may even  support) the regnant power dynamics which are constitutive of racism,  white privilege, and white supremacy.  The take-away points for me are these: (1) singing supposedly non-white songs in churches that are mostly white is to be recommended only when combined with a rigorous ecclesial struggle against racism and (2) in the absence of such a struggle, this performance of multi-cultural worship is likely to entrench what it superficially appears to resist. 

I agree with these points.  I would, however, like to take a step back and think about the songs themselves.  The crucial question to me seems to be whether we are supposed to understand them more fundamentally as ethnic music (i.e., music belonging to and expressing the core of a particular culture or people) or rather as prayerful music (i.e., as music which, even in its particularity, potentially discloses something about the meaning or the stakes of prayer as such). 

Of course, the spirituals are both.  However, it strikes me that, because they are always and everywhere classified as the former, they are seldom recognized fully as the latter.  Decisions are made about them largely on the basis of their ethnic status.  This is the case not only among those who would use this status as a justification for excluding them from “mainstream” worship, but also among those who want to include and celebrate them for the sake of diversity.  Even those (like Sonja and Katie) who powerfully deconstruct these first two possibilities discuss the spirituals as though the decisive factor has to do with ethnicity (or culture or race): that is, with the way particular groups of people have been organized in history.    

This is no doubt an important locus of conversation!  Don’t get me wrong.  But it doesn’t get to the heart of the spirituals, which, like the psalms, are deeply revelatory of the mystery of prayer as such–in its historicity, its physicality, its beauty, its hope, its sorrow, its urgency, its power.  James Cone’s Spirituals and the Blues brings out this essentially prayerful aspect of the spirituals, but I still think Cone prioritizes the ethnic or racial question in such a way that many readers are likely to overlook what they are actually saying.  It seems to me that those who first sang the spirituals were less interested in being black or in expressing their particular culture than they were in raising up their sufferings and their hopes to the almighty God.  I say this as someone who understands myself as black but also and more fundamentally as a human being who tries frequently (and sometimes unsucessfully) to pray.   

So let me propose that the first criterion for the use of the spirituals by anyone has to be a readiness for prayer. 

And yet, this is not the only important criterion.  Another criterion is certainly that racism must be resisted.  But I’m also inclined to assert that the power of racism takes root precisely in our society’s collective deafness to the more-than-ethnic significance of these songs.  It is as though, because people with darker skin first sung them, their meaning has to be defined thoroughly by the politics of skin color.  But this pervasive outlook implicitly takes something away from their ability to embody prayer in the fullest, most humanizing and most divinizing, sense.  Prayers which are worthy of the name will take place in a particular linguistic, social, bodily event of space and time, but they will also be able to mediate a posture of openness to God across the greatest geographical and temporal expanses.  They will be recognizable, translatable, always and everywhere pray-able.  Consider the psalms (again); consider Augustine’s Confessions (and let us not forget that this text was written by a north African); consider Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle; consider any great classic of prayer.  Consider the spirituals.  In order to resist racism, it is necessary to let the spirituals be received as an important part of a general canon of Christian witness and devotion.  The dignity of those who first sang these songs is denied if this tradition is restricted to the status of cultural property.

No doubt, it is important to remember that those who composed and carried on the tradition of these beautiful lamentations and hymns have been treated for centuries as though they were less than human, as though they were unloved by God, and as–at best–a uniquely gifted but marginal (“ethnic,” “diverse,” “racial”) people.  In many ways, this unjust treatment continues today.  The awareness of these facts gives the spirituals additional poignancy and political significance, which more often than not probably goes unnoticed by many who, encountering them only rarely in the midst of a Sunday liturgy, are never prompted to stop and think about them in their original and contemporary contexts.  The solution to this, however, would seem to be to let their presence and their importance resound more powerfully and more frequently in the church as a whole.  The solution cannot be to lock them in a file to be used only when a certain percentage of blacks are around.  Such an approach merely underscores the status quo.  It devalues the spirituals.  It even invites African Americans to interpret the songs in a misleading way, as though they were to be valued as cultural elements existing alongside the catholic tradition rather than as integral features of it. 

If what so-called white churches need is a greater awareness of historical and ongoing racism, let us work to increase this; but what better place to start than by unpacking the significance of the spirituals (perhaps in a homily now and then . . .), and by incorporating them more robustly into mainstream liturgies everywhere? 

Do many people often feel awkward when singing these songs?  Yes.  But get over it.  Let it go.  Try to enter into the experience.  Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Step out of your comfort zone for a few seconds.  Use it as a chance to cultivate a greater sense of solidarity, not only with African Americans, but also with all those who, even though they pray, have not been respected in their humanity and have not been welcomed as the children of God that they are.  This will probably not come easy for some; it will be challenging.  But I see it as an indispensable part of our vocation as Christians: to allow ourselves to be enriched by prayers coming from all parts of the body of Christ.

Who has a right to sing these songs?  Only those who attempt to pray genuinely with them, to contemplate the depths of prayer which they vocalize, and–on the heels of this experience–seek greater justice and love in our still racially and ethnically torn world.