30 Nov 2007

Ben Chasny. An American Mystic

In some way or another, in our personal life, we are all shaping something like our inner destiny. We are looking for these works of art, for these philosophies, for these people which might help us to refine this essential, singular project. If we are asked though to explain this destiny, we do not find the right words. Of course, we do not give up on reflection. We do not neatly separate life from thought. There is philosophy, as a meaningfull and indispensable figure on this path; but there is no ready-made intellectual framework which fits this destiny. The great joy of music is that (in rare cases) it allows us to catch a glimpse of precisely our own project; that it embodies a vision which is so closely connected to our own destiny, that it strikes us immediately, on a wordless and intuitive basis.

Speaking for myself, Ben Chasny's Six Organs of Admittance hits the right chord there. Independent of his personality, his interests or his lyrics, most of his music embodies a perspective which haunts me in a partly incomprehensible but direct and effective way. Added you find the opening song of his new album 'Shelter from the Ash', out on Drag City. Reading the liner notes, I was very surprised to discover that the song takes its title from a book from Henry Corbin, a French philosopher and scholar of Islamic Mysticism. In his explicitly gnostic readings of the three monotheistic traditions, Corbin is known for affirming their essential unity in strictly dividing the inner religion (the 'inner church') from the different ecclesial masks. As such, together with his pupil Christian Jambet and Michel Henry, Corbin represents the fascinating other side (the esoteric side) of French postmodernism, opposing the superficial playfullness of the exoteric postmoderns with a deeply spiritual vision.

27 Nov 2007

Postmarxism, also for non-(post)marxists. Kojin Karatani's resetting of the agenda

"I, too, was part of this vast tendency - called deconstructionism, or the archeology of knowledge, and so on - which I realized later could have critical impact only while Marxism actually ruled the people of many nation-states. In the 1990s, this tendency lost its impact, having become mostly a mere agent of the real deconstructive movement of capitalism.
Skeptical relativism, multiple language games (or public consensus), aesthetic affirmation of the present, empirical historicism, appreciation of subcultures (or cultural studies), and so forth lost their most subversive potencies and hence became the dominant, ruling thought. Today, these have become official doctrine in the most conservative institutions in economically advanced nation-states. All in all, this tendency can be summarized as the appreciation of empiricism (including aestheticism) against rationalism. In this sense, it has become increasingly clear that the return to Kant in recent years has actually been a return to Hume."
K.K., Transcritique. On Kant and Marx, p. xi

16 Nov 2007

Julianna Barwick

Julianna Barwick is an American solo artists, who has just released her debut album 'Sanguine'. All the 13 short songs are variations on one theme: she loops her own, mostly wordless, vocals and adds some spheric effects to create a circular microcosm. It reminds me a bit of the way Animal Collective makes use of vocal loops, although Julianna's approach is definitely more minimal and introspective.
A live performance at the Portuguese radio station 'Ma Fama', can be found here.

9 Nov 2007

"Xenakis, prophet of insensibility" (Milan Kundera)

In doing some reading about Xenakis, I came across an intruiging essay by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. Through a short sketch of some of the basic parameters of western music, he explains the revolutionary character of Xenakis's music. Reading the passage together with the former (on immediate revelation) might help us to understand his work as the musical equivalent of a 'transcendental materialist' position.
"European music is based on the artificial sound of the note and the (tone) scale; it opposes the brutal and objective sonority of the world. As a result of an unbreakable convention European music is obliged from the beginning to express a subjectivity. It seems to fight the sonority of the outside world, like a sensitive being resisting the insensitivity of the universe. European civilization (from the year thousand on) is one of the only civilizations accompanied by a huge and dazzling history of music. This civilization - with its adoration of the suffering of Jezus, its courtly love, its cult of the bourgeois family, its patriotic passions - shaped the sentimental man. Music has played an integral and decisive part in the ongoing process of sentimentalization. But it can happen at a certain moment (in the life of a person or of a civilization) that sentimentality (previously considered as a humanizing force, softening the coldness of reason) becomes unmasked as ‘the supra-structure of a brutality’. This was the moment at which music appeared to me as the ear deafening noise of the emotions, while the sound-world in the works of Xenakis became beauty; beauty purified of the dirt, purified of sentimental barbary. To be a ‘prophet of insensibility’ Joyce could remain novelist; Xenakis had to step out of music. Xenakis opposes the whole of the European history of music. His point of departure is elsewhere; not in an artificial sound isolated from nature in order to express a subjectivity, but in an earthly ‘objective’ sound, in a mass of sound which does not rise from the human heart, but which approaches us from the outside, like raindrops or the voice of wind."
M. Kundera, Prophète de l’Insensibilité, in M. Fleuret (ed.), Regards sur Iannis Xenakis, 1981, Paris. (the translation is mine)

Iannis Xenakis - Concret PH (mp3) (A short piece written for the Phillips-pavillion (cf. picture) at the World Expo 1958. Manipulation of the sound of fire).

6 Nov 2007

Iannis Xenakis

"Art has something in the nature of an inferential mechanism which constitutes the platforms on which all theories of the mathematical, physical and human sciences move about. Indeed, games of proportion - reducible to number games and metrics in architecture, literature, music, painting, theatre, dance, etc., games of continuity, of proximity, in or outside of time, topological essence - all occur on the terrain of inference, in the strict, logical sense of the word. Situated next to this terrain and operating in reciprocal activity is the experimental mode which challenges or confirms theories created by the sciences, including mathematics. […] It is experimentation that makes or breaks theories, pitilessly and without any particular consideration for the theories themselves. Yet the arts are governed in a manner even richer and more complex by this experimental mode. Certainly there is not nor will there ever be an objective criterion for determining absolute truth or eternal validity even within one work of art, just as no scientific "truth" is ever definitive. But in addition to these two modes - inferential and experimental - art exists in a third mode, one of immediate revelation, which is neither inferential nor experimental. The revelation of beauty occurs immediately, directly, to someone ignorant of art as well as to the connoisseur. This is the strength of art and, so it seems, its superiority over the sciences. Art, while living the two dimensions of inference and experimentation, possesses this third and most mysterious dimension which permits art objects to escape any aesthetic science while still enjoying the caresses of inference and experimentation."
I.X. Art/Science. Alliances
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) is Greek/Romanian composer and architect (he often worked together with Le Corbusier), known for his highly intellectual approach to music. Experimenting with mathematical algorithms, the relation between sound and space, and the manipulation of sound, he became one of the pioneers of electro-acoustic music. Some of his later electronic music is even surpringsly noisy, in a way you wouldn't expect from a modernist composer. Bohor, a work from 1968 is probably the heaviest piece of Avant-garde music I've ever heard (think of Sunn O))) plays John Zorn's Kristallnacht). In contrast also to the work of some of his contemporaries in Avant-garde music, most of his work is very dense, calling to mind the saturated universe of orthodox spirituality (although his language and imagery isn't religious at all).

The Community of Non-Community. Philosophical Anthropology as a Challenge to Theology (Laclau, Badiou, Žižek)


"The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God. For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on us the Spirit of love. […] Division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature.”[1]

In the first chapter of Ut Unum Sint John Paul II situates the core of the ecumenical enterprise in God’s universal will of salvation. Divided humanity should be re-united into the one Body of Christ and the division between different Churches and ecclesial communities will have to be overcome. One particular church, the Roman-Catholic represents the universal Church of Christ, although elements of truth may be found outside this particular community. But also in the latter case, internally these elements tend towards a reintegration within the Catholic community.

"The Church of Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him", and at the same time acknowledges that "many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside her visible structure. These elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism towards Catholic unity”.[2]

As such, with the notion of Catholic Unity the Catholic Church reaffirms again the centrality of the idea of ‘universality’: God’s message is addressed to all men and to reorient the focus to the particularity of truth is thoroughly anti-Catholic. In more recent documents, the Vatican continues to stress this aspect, especially since some deviations within the Catholic community tend to undercut this central and indispensable aspect of Catholic faith. Pope Benedict XVI for example observes that some theologians are more willing to please a community of post-Christians, than to rethink difficult and unfashionable topics as the universality of truth.[1] Having discovered the ‘linguistic turn’ they reduce truth and rationality to what is meaningful within a very particular language game: this allows them to hold on to their so-called tradition while being at the same time a modern pluralist.[2] Tradition then, stripped from its inner grounds and conditions of possibility, becomes a package of identity-features; an outward costume that allows the cultural Christian to know about his identity in the midst of religious plurality. People might have these psychological needs, but as the Vatican and the whole Catholic theological tradition - at least till Johann Baptist Metz - realises, the consequences of this logic are disastrous. Metz even turns the safeguarding of universality into the special mission of the theologian today: “The theologians will be the last universalists in our highly differentiated world of science, and they will have to remain so, whether they like it or not.”[3]
Till so far the Catholic statement: no Christianity without universalism. More precarious is to understand the actual nature of this universalism. How are we to conceive universality and what is its precise relation to particularity? The intuition of my paper consists of the idea that the Catholic tradition defends with good reason the universalist dimension of Christianity, but that there is a risk of a certain misunderstanding of the universality of Christianity. As a result of the latter, the Catholic universalism (as represented by doctrinal documents) might turn out to closely resemble a particularistic position. In other words: the Catholic anti-communitarianism risks to lapse itself into a hidden form of communitarianism. The first part of the paper is meant as a short reconstruction of Catholic universalism. I will undertake this in the light of Ernesto Laclau’s postmarxist philosophy. In a second part, I will take a look at Alain Badiou’s reading of Saint-Paul as an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of a Christian particularism.

I. Ut Unum Sint versus Ernesto Laclau

Coming back to the quotes from Ut Unum Sint, we witness a strict distinction between universality and division. Division contradicts the will of God, for God wants us all to be united. Universality is therefore understood in terms of unity; a unity that can be reached by overcoming the division between different communities, and more specifically through a reintegration of the different extra-Catholic communities within the unity of the Catholic Church. The ultimate source of Christian universality is thus God’s will; a will mediated by one particular community. The mediation itself is not arbitrary. As a result of God’s own incarnation, the body of Christ comes to subsist in the Catholic Church, which as a community governed by the ‘Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him’ can clearly be designated as a particular community. The Catholic Church thus becomes Hegel’s concrete-universal: as the reign of the Spirit, it is the perfect synthesis between the divine and the earthly principle, giving flesh to the universal not just in the singular person of Jesus, but as a reality now accessible to all, through the institutional mediation. The objection to this logic is obvious: the Church may claim it represents the universal, but formally its universality is a generalization of a set of particular truths. Nevertheless, I will refrain here from judging whether the Church claims this with good reasons or not. The function of the objection is to help us to recast the scene and to enter the dialectics of particularity and universality.
Let us then start again, from a more general philosophical perspective, in order to see where the Church might fit in. As Ernesto Laclau[4] remarks, our postmodern condition is characterized by an increased awareness of the particularity of all identity; all discourses are particular discourses and none of them is in itself capable of bringing about the fullness of communion. This results in the common proposition that the validity of any statement is contextually determined. At first sight, the logic of differentiality at work here looks unproblematic: we are living in a culturally pluralistic world, with different identities shaped within different contexts. But, as Laclau points out, a strict logic of differentiality is actually self-defeating and confronts us with a paradox: if all identities are defined within a context and if we are to avoid a complete dispersion of identity, the context will have to be a relatively closed context. But how can we define the limits of a context? If we start from the fact that differences are constitutive for identities, we cannot appeal to something beyond differences. At the same time, we cannot overlook the Hegelian insight that we can only define limits by pointing out what is beyond them. The first solution would thus be to argue that beyond the limits are new differences. But in this case, it becomes impossible to know whether these new differences are internal or external to the context. If there is only contextuality, the very possibility of a limit and thus of a context becomes a problem. Laclau thus argues:

"the only way out of this difficulty is to postulate a beyond which is not one more difference but something which poses a threat (i.e. negates) to all the differences within that context – or, better, that the context constitutes itself as such through the act of exclusion of something alien, of a radical otherness."[5]

By consequence, antagonism is constitutive of all identity: an excluded, non-dialectizable element constitutes the system of differences and allows the context to define its limits.
How does this argument relate to the concept of universality? Laclau directs our attention to the absent focal point where all differences meet, namely ‘the beyond’ as implied by the logic of particularity. In two ways, the logic at work reveals something as universal. Firstly, to make identity-formation possible, ‘the beyond’ has to differ from the logic of differentiality and therefore refuses integretation within a particular discourse. As a result of this distance, it can be labelled as universal. Secondly, because ‘the beyond’ is at the same time a threat to the logic of differentiality, it introduces a universality of equivalence between the different particular discourses: as an ultimate limit it is a threat to all the differential identities, which render them interchangeable concerning the relation to the limit; all identities become equivalent with regard to the void of their outside.[6] The universal is therefore necessarily an elusive, vanishing point, required by the system of differential identities, though at the same time a threat which reproduces a relative universality between the particular identities. It would lead us too far to sketch all the different consequences of such an approach. What concerns us here is the basic structure of Laclau’s analysis as a peculiar tension between the universal as non-dialectizable and the logic of particular discourses; a structure which not only holds for the functioning of discourses, but which has its ontological condition in the subject as “immanently antagonised”[7].
Taking a look again at Ut Unum Sint, Laclau helps us to question an all too easy distinction between universality and division. The risk of such a distinction consists of cancelling the non-dialectizable universality of the beyond in favour of the relative universality between the discourses. The strategy then oscillates between two extremes: either all different discourses come to a full agreement and are united by a newly structured discourse, or one discourse is generalized as the final, all-encompassing discourse. But beside the fact that the Catholic Church tends to opt for the latter strategy, what becomes questionable is not the strategy, but the whole attempt to locate universality at the level of discourse. From the moment, universality is set in opposition with division, a counter-productive logic is set free: universality becomes the end of a process aimed at the erasure of division, and because division is finally understood as a division between different particular discourses, the process of erasure will inevitably turn into a battle of the discourses, all striving for a hegemonic position.
Paradoxically, the opposite thesis might make more sense: true universality is the universality of division. What divides us is finally not our being part of certain community, as distinct from other communities, but our being divided within ourselves. We are split between the sphere of the non-dialectizable and the order of representation. The latter explains how our identity is inevitably a particular construction within a particular community; the first explains why the particular construction does not exhaust who we are and why all construction is always under threat. Does this then leaves us with an opposition between two perspectives on universality, a Christian one which despises division on the one side and a postmodern which embraces division on the other side? Not immediately: the thesis of true universality as the universality of division might be more Christian than one usually thinks. In what follows, I will take a look a the reading of the New Testament by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. As postmarxists, they are not the most orthodox readers of the gospel, but they might help us to get rid of a too communitarian interpretation of Christianity.

II. Saint-Paul and the Foundation of Universalism

In continuity with earlier existentialist interpretations, Badiou and Žižek assist us in detecting a fundamental tension cutting across the whole corpus of the New Testament. The tension is the following: we are split between two lords, and we cannot serve both (Mt 6:24). Obeying the will of the Father is radically incommensurable with obeying Mammon. Of course, this is just one specific formulation, and the different authors of the New Testament each have their terminology to designate the fundamental tension. John focuses on the idea of the world, as a sphere incommensurable with the Life of the Divine: “I am not praying for the world” (Jn 17:9), “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). For Paul, the tension is one between Love and the logic of grace on the one side, and the Law and the supplement of sin on the other side. Formalised: we are split, like in Laclau’s scheme, between the non-dialectizable and the economy of representation, for grace cannot be counted, it doesn’t allow any calculation from our side. At different places, the gospel is clear about this radical split which refuses all mediation: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). The law, tradition, family… are radically surpassed, unable to mediate between our human condition and the life of faith.
Let us make this a little more specific. As an atheist philosopher, Badiou turns his attention to Paul, not because he believes the traditional claim about Jesus’s resurrection, but because Paul has established a universalist truth-procedure:

"Paul’s unprecedented gesture consists in subtracting truth from the communitarian grasp, be it that of people, a city, an empire, a territory or a social class. What is true cannot be reduced to any objective aggregate."[8]

Badiou stresses that Paul’s notion of ‘Resurrection’ is not meant as an historical claim about the body of Jesus (no wonder that Paul has no interest in the historical Jesus). ‘Resurrection’ functions rather as an empty signifier which designates the pure event of the liberation from the Law. With this notion Paul was able to undermine the existing discourses of his time, by focusing on the site where all the particular discourses lose their representative ground. In contrast with the settled position of the Jews and the Greek, this allows Paul to open up a different relation to reality through his experience of the failure of the existing discourses. More specifically, Paul lays bare how both the Jewish and the Greek discourse are aspects of the same form of mastery. The Jewish discourse is the discourse of the exception, of the prophetic sign and the mastery of its deciphering. The Greek discourse bases itself on the cosmic order and the idea of a direct mastery of the totality through wisdom. The Jew is in exception to the Greek. In both cases their theory of salvation is tied to mastery.

"One may also say: Greek and Jewish discourses are both discourses of the Father. That is why they bind communities in a form of obedience (to the Cosmos, The Empire, God or the Law)."[9]

‘Resurrection’ then designates the reign of the Son, as the event of the opening up of the original closure of truth within particular discourses (of mastery); an event which reconnects us with the impossible Real (the non-dialectizable) as the source of life. As such, Paul makes a strict distinction between the world of truth (which we enter through grace as a pure and simple encounter) and the world of particularity. Of course, Paul knows that we live in a world of particularity, but truth can only be established by traversing all particular differences.[10] As a result, Paul refuses to play the subtle game of identity-construction; since we are all one in Christ, he refuses to set up dividing distinctions: “It is not being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can affect anything – only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).[11] This is not to deny the idea of a Christian identity. But the identity has now become something paradoxical, as the identity of non-identity, for there are essentially no particular characteristics which shape the identity of being Christian. Moreover, precisely this paradoxical point has become the place from where Christian universality is defined: the universality emerges from the point where those who are ‘part of no-part’ speak. Or as Žižek states:

"Christian universality is formulated from the position of those excluded, of those for whom there is no specific place within the existing order, although they belong to it; universality is strictly codependent with this lack of specific place/determination."[12]

The universal dimension discovered by Paul is therefore not the ‘neither Greek, nor Jew, but all united as Christians’. As Žižek argues, this would exclude the non-Christians and reduce Christianity to a particular discourse with a specific identity. Paul’s insight is that Christian universality is the universality of division. What is universal is the difference itself between Christian (the new man) and non-Christian (the old man). This division cuts across the whole social body: “It proposes something that is open to everybody.[…] The division is internal to the subject itself.”[13]

III. Conclusion

Both Badiou and Žižek agree that true evil does not lie in an excess of subjectivity, but in its ‘ontologization’, in its reinscription into a positive order of Being (cf. the Greek discourse of mastery). At once, this is for both the great insight of Christianity, that “the global cosmic ‘chain of Being’ is not ‘all there is’, that there is another Order which suddenly emerges and which suspends the validity of the Order of Being”[14]. Love, as non-negotiable, as non-dialectizable, as grace cuts through our being emerged in a particular subset of Being. As such, this kind of Urspaltung (a primal cut) is what connects us all; it opens up a true universality, which is no longer the generalization of a particular discourse. Also ecumenism might be driven by an attempt to avoid the model of generalization. But as an ecclesial practice, it becomes highly questionable if it will ever be able to escape the pitfalls of communitarianism. Theology in general tends to get stuck in a logic of differentiality. In a ever more secular world, it suffers from a strong need to affirm its own particular identity. These needs are human, without doubt, but the consequences of this logic might be disastrous: here, Christianity tends to degrade itself to a particular life-option, to a subset/dogmatism/fundamentalism among others, suppressing the universality of division in favour of the comfort of its own niche.

"There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ" (Rom 3:22-24)

[1] Cf. for example in Dominus Jesus, § 4: “The roots of these problems are to be found in certain presuppositions of both a philosophical and theological nature, which hinder the understanding and acceptance of the revealed truth. Some of these can be mentioned: the conviction of the elusiveness and inexpressibility of divine truth, even by Christian revelation; relativistic attitudes toward truth itself, according to which what is true for some would not be true for others.” Cf. also the recent notification on Roger Haight’s Jesus Symbol of God: “This theological position fundamentally denies the universal salvific mission of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Jn 14:6) and, as a consequence, the mission of the Church to announce and communicate the gift of Christ the Saviour to all humanity (cf. Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15; Eph 3:8-11), both of which are given clear witness in the New Testament and have always been proclaimed as the faith of the Church, even in recent documents.”
[2] For an Anglican perspective, cf. especially the thought of John Milbank. Having flirted with a rather particularistic Yale-school approach (in Theology and Social Theory), he more and more comes to stress the universalist aspects of Christianity. “Once again theologians have been caught out in their inauthentic pusillanimity. In deference to liberal fashion, they have foresworn Christian claims to uniqueness, to a transcending of the Jewish legacy and so forth. Now they are wrong-footed by Marxist atheists who recall us to the facts of historical phenomenology: Christianity was the first Enlightenment, the first irruption of an absolutely universal claim.” J. Milbank, Materialism and Transcendence, in C. Davis, J. Milbank & S. Žižek (ed.), Theology and the Political. The New Debate, Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2005, 393-426, p. 35.
[3] “Die Theologen werden die letzten Universalisten in unserer hochdifferenzierten Wissenschaftswelt sein, und sie werden es – um Gottes und der Menschen willen – bleiben müssen, gelegen oder ungelegen, immer auch mit der Bereitschaft, einen gewissen Ungleichzeitigkeitsverdacht auf sich sitzen zu lassen. […] Der Theologe, der nicht sich selbst und andere betrügen will, der Theo-logie treibt, und zwar nicht als dies oder das, sondern als den immer neuen Versuch der Rede von Gott, ist und bleibt auf Universalität verpflichtet.” J.B. Metz, Zum Begriff der neuen Politischen Theologie: 1967-1997, Mainz: , 1997, 156.
[4] E. Laclau, Subjects of Politics, Politics of the Subject, in Differences. A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 7 (1995) nr. 1, 146-164, p. 150-153.
[5] Ibid., in, p. 151.
[6] Cf. also S. Žižek, The Parallax View, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2006, p. 36.
[7] Laclau agrees here with Žižek that we finally will have to make this move and that we cannot treat the distinction as one between two externally opposed views. Cf. E. Laclau, Politics, Polemics and Academics: An Interview by Paul Bowman, in Parallax 5 (1999) nr. 2, 96-107, p. 100. For the reason why we have to interiorize this, cf. Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 36.
[8] A. Badiou, Saint Paul. The Foundation of Universalism, trans. by R. Brassier, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 5.
[9] Ibid., p. 42.
[10] This does not mean however, that Paul is trying to abolish particular differences. His strategy is more subtle. Take for example his relation to what is Jewish. As Rom 9:1-6 makes clear, Paul’s relation to the Jews is essentially positive. It is therefore not all Paul’s aim to discredit particularity. But he finally praises particularity only to be able to traverse it. In Badiou’s words: “Paul fights against all those who would submit postevental universality to Jewish particularity. […] The task Paul sets for himself is obviously not that of abolishing Jewish particularity, which he constantly acknowledges as the event’s principle of historicity, but that of animating it internally by everything of which it is capable relative to the new discourse, and hence the new subject.”[10] Moreover, Paul does not conceal his own strategy here: “To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win the Jews; to those under the law, I became as one under the law – though not being myself under the law – that I might win those under the law. […] I have become all things to all men” (Cor. I.9:19-22). Ibid., p. 102.
[11] Cf. also Paul’s disdain for customary casuistry: within the order of particularity everything is essentially admitted. “In truth, all things are clean” (Rom 14:20). Also on the level of intersubjectivity, Paul displays a similar generosity: “Why, then, does one of you make himself judge over his brother, and why does another among you despise his brother? […] Let us each stop passing judgement, therefore, on one another” (Rom 14:10-13). To protect the universalism, he even explicitly warns that one must avoid doctrinal quarrels as much as possible. “Give a welcome to anyone whose faith is not strong, but do not get into arguments about doubtful points” (Rom 14:1)
[12] Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 35.
[13] A. Badiou, An Interview with Alain Badiou. “Universal Truths and the Question of Religion”, in Journal of Philosopy and Scripture 3/1 (2005) 38-42, p. 40.
[14] S. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, p. 133.

29 Sep 2007


Charalambides - The Good Life (mp3) (from their forthcoming album Likeness, on Kranky)

24 Sep 2007

Michel Henry and the Origin of Evil

Liberating spiritual life from the constraints of religious identity-politics, from neuroscientific reductionism and politically correct pluralism, Michel Henry is definitely one of the most fascinating phenomenologists of the last decennia. As a severe critic of the whole linguistic turn, Henry might even count today as the last genuine transcendental philosopher. But the more I read and think about his project, the more I'm puzzled about one specific question: How does Henry explain the origin of evil?
Throughout his critique of traditional phenomenology’s failure to address the question of what phenomenological appearing actually means, Henry is led to discover auto-affection as the origin of the phenomenological process; an origin he identifies with Life, and which he sets in opposition with the world. Life as self-revelation thus remains independent of all forms of worldly intentionality, and cannot be approached from the perspective of the world. At the same time Henry discovers (through his reading of the gospel of John) that precisely the Christian God is the One who is necessarily self-revealing. God’s form of manifestation has nothing to do with what becomes manifest in the world; it precedes worldly intentionality as the basis condition for all phenomenality. Henry therefore equates the Absolute with Life and with God, understood as the Christian God (Absolute=Life=God=the Christian God); a God who can never be found through a modification of our worldly knowing, but only through our own self-affective life as opposed to our worldly ‘nature’. The latter explains Henry’s enraging critique on all kinds of hermeneutics. Because the truth of Life is independent of worldly particularities, hermeneutics is a life-denying enterprise in which our divine nature becomes reduced to a set of arbitrary worldly features. The same goes for biblical exegesis or historical approaches of the truth of Christianity, for as he stresses: “it is truth and truth alone that can offer us access to itself”. Language is an instrument of worldly intentionality and therefore the negation of reality. But because we are revealed to be son of God, we are not destined to dwell in the untruth of language: through the self-affectivity of our life we share in the Life of God.
Henry's phenomenological/theological critique on the diverse forms of worldly reductionism is at the same time a strong cultural critique. An intriguing example is the last and apocalyptic chapter of 'I am the Truth'. Henry's observation of the modern world as haunted by a technology foreign to life, makes him proclaim that we have entered the era of the Anti-Christ. Or as he says: “Upon the Anti-Christ Allegation (even when this Allegation is completely ignored these days) is founded the organization of the whole modern world. […] A new era begins, a dangerous time, not just of episodic lying but of systematic, permanent, efficient and ontological lying that can no longer be perceived as such.” But how is this possible? Where does this fall come from? If we are son of God, if we share in the divine Life of God, and if God is the One and thus the Absolute outside of which nothing exists, how is it possible that we live in exile and that the laws of the world have the power to make us forget about our divine nature?
Phenomenologically Henry explains the logic of the world as a transcendental illusion; because Life is One, our being caught in the worldly is a form of transcendental forgetfulness. But this doesn’t explain how this illusion comes to reign over life in the modern world. Unfortunately, Henry remains rather silent about this, and takes recourse to metaphors as ‘the Anti-Christ’ and the ‘Statue of the Beast’ without adequatly explaining their phenomenological origin. This raises the suspicion that Henry opts for a rather traditional Augustinian solution, in such a way even that he gives up on his purely immanent phenomenological theology in which there is no room for a contingency like the fall which would cause original sin. At the same time however, Henry sees himself unable to adopt a more Plotinian solution like that of Schelling, by displacing the origin of evil into divine life itself. This would imply the end of Life as undifferentiated and immediate self-affection, and as a Christian Henry indeed refuses to ontologize evil.
My intuition so far is that Henry's Christianising of phenomenology contaminates the rigor of his phenomenological project. I fail to see how he explains the power of forgetfullness and why the Plotinian solution would be phenomenologically intolerable. Furthermore, I do not see why he does not succumb to the same contamination of universality as he detects all over by equating the 'Absolute' with the 'Christian Absolute'. Of course, Henry defends the view that there is no risk here of particularising phenomenology. The truth of Christ is the universal truth, and therefore completely independent of worldly assertions of a particular religion. But this is quite unconvincing: in order to claim that life as absolute self-affection leads us to the recognition of Christ and the Father he shows himself dependent on a particular reading of the Johannine texts. Moreover, from his perspective of purely immanent phenomenology the whole idea of particular associations are unnecessary. If God is Life, indifferent to all possible forms of worldly mediation, there is no need to associate Life with a very particular tradition.

[1]Michel Henry, I am the Truth. Toward a Philosophy of Christianity, 270-272.

15 Sep 2007

Om - Pilgrimage

"Through music, and all art for that matter, a glimpse of something ineffably sacred can occur. It can't be tapped consciously, it visits and envelops when it chooses. In that, there is a flash of something outside of time and space. Art of that nature can be a catalyst to a dilation of one's perception of the universe." (Al Cisneros)
In anticipation of Om's new album Pilgrimage, Southern Lord has just posted one of the songs as a mp3. Om is Chris Hakius and Al Cisneros, the rhythm-section of former doom legends Sleep (while Matt Pike went on to form High on Fire). Continuing the sound of Sleep, but purified and more minimal, they take heavy music in a more spiritual direction. With their trance-inducing rhythms and chant-like vocals, they're indeed your ultimate gnostic doom band.

7 Sep 2007

Keiji Haino

For those who like their jazz wild and distorted, I just found out about a great collaboration. Purple Trap, was an occasional super-band, in which we find the number 1 of the Japanese avant-garde Keiji Haino backed by the great rhythm-section of Rashied Ali (drummer with the late John Coltrane) and Bill Laswell. Do not expect many structure here. Whereas Ali shows himself as the leading exponent of multidirectional rhythms/polytonal percussion, Haino screams and tortures his guitar, building up crescendo's without givening the listener much to rest on.
I also added a song from the first double-live Fushitsusha album. Fushitsusha was Haino's psychedelic freak-out band. Indepted to the European and American psychedelic rock of the late sixties and early seventies, Haino manages to develop a whole new aesthetics: guitarplaying becomes wrestling and every performance becomes a singular happening. Haino refuses to play songs over and over again, and indepted to the spirit of free jazz, he's one of the first and only artists who succesfully integrates the freedom of jazz into the domain of rock.
A good interview with Haino can be read here.
Purple Trap - Just now let us continue to say farewell (mp3) (from the album "Decided... Already The Motionless Heart Of Tranquility, Tangling The Prayer Called "I", on John Zorn's Tzadik label)
Fushitsusha - #2 (mp3) (from Double Live, PSF 4)

27 Jun 2007

As I am soon leaving for India, there will be no updates for the next month.
Added you find a raga by the well know master Ali Akbar Khan, as well two musical registrations of Tibetan rituals. The latter are released on a compilation called "Tibetan Buddhist Rites from the Monastery of Bhutan", and are among the best field recordings of Tibetan Music. Listening to it, I'm again suprised how rich their musical heritage is. In the West we just have begun to discover Eastern music; a discovery which I believe somehow might have the power to reconceive traditional Western conceptions of music as well as our appraisal of the spiritual traditions of the East.

Ali Akbar Khan - Two Lovers (mp3)

Tibetan Rites - Exhortation to the Guardian Goddess of Long Life (mp3)

Tibetan Rites - Rise Up, Padma Sambhava (mp3)

18 Jun 2007

The Violence of the Real. Transcendental Style in Film

Since I saw Taxi Driver for the first time (about 7 or 8 years ago), it has always remained one of my favourite movies. And thinking about transcendental types, I used to associate precisely Travis (Robert De Niro) with such a type. Travis, an old war-veteran who suffers of insomnia, is the typical loner who cannot finds it place again in the 'symbolic order'. He tries to be a taxi driver, as an attempt to symbolise his position at the margin, but also this fails. Being himself an outcast, living with outcasts (while working at night, serving other people in the margin) is not an option. What has fallen apart is the 'symbolic order' as a whole. We could say: a theology of liberation is no longer an option, for the idea of moral or political reform (as a program) has lost it's force. But where the symbolic loses its grip over Travis, Travis becomes the hostage of a different force: a singular, absolute relation to the real (he has to kill). Of course, this absolute relation manifest itself first in the form of a program: he prepares an attack on the presidential candidate, but it becomes clear that his agenda is finally not political. He has to be remain faithfull to a singular calling, and this can be lived anywhere and anytime.
Of course, I used to consider this Lacanian-transcendental reading as a little bit of overinterpretation, but was surprised to discover recently that Paul Schrader (the scriptwriter of Taxi Driver) had actually such a sort of transcendental type in mind. Schrader took his inspiration from Bresson's movie Pickpocket, and had just finished his studie of the work of Bresson, Ozu and Geyer, published as 'Transcendental Style in Film'. In a next topic, I will come back on his idea of transcendental style, for it are precisely these experiments which will help us to conceive something like a transcendental style in music (in life, in thought).

12 Jun 2007

Jarboe / Swans

"a ritual awakening
transport transformation
in her altar of temptation
taste of bliss, anunciation

treasure book and temple
eternal idol mystica
transcendental satisfaction
the sweet meat - love and holy cult"

I have no idea what Jarboe is actually trying to say here; it's just always a little funny to hear the word 'transcendental' in a song (definitely not a word with good pop-credibility). Anyway, Jarboe is still, after so many years one of the most fascinating women in rock music. The song 'ode to v' is from her 1995 album Sacrificial Cake.
Added are also two Swans songs. Jarboe became part of the Swans in 1986 and married frontman Michael Gira. For 10 years as a creative duo, they made some of the most intense music, anticipating many developments in rock (in the early eighties they started the whole noise/industrial movement, in the early nineties postrock). The end of the band was also the end of their marriage. The both still continue as solo-artists. Michael Gira also performs with his band Angels of Light, and owns his own underground record label 'Young God records' (he discovered for example Devendra Banhart).
Swans - Failure (mp3) (from the 1991 album White Light from the Mouth of Infinity)
Swans - 1000 years (mp3) (from the 1988 Lp World of Skin)

1 Jun 2007

One divides into Two. On Immanent Tensions

On thinking further about ‘Battles’ and the philosophy of Deleuze, I realised how relative a notion as immanence can be. In some way, indeed through their aspired neutrality, ‘Battles’ invoke a pure immanent logic: the music is not about something, it’s not representational, there is no external reference. But this idea of immanence has nothing to do with the immanence of a flat, liberal cultural, nothing with a pragmatic acceptance of the contemporary world. Through the whole logic of deterritorialisation, true music opens up within immanence a way of connecting with what we could call the ‘Real’, or in the Deleuze’s terminology ‘Life’. Deleuze stresses here that this connection with Being as Life is in itself a pure immanent happening, in this sense that he wants to exclude all reference to a transcendent metaphysical principle like a theistic God. Nevertheless, Deleuze also establishes a structure of absolute non-relation, of discontinuity through deterritorialisation. In this sense he repeats a move which we could associate with a contemporary form of transcendentalist dualism. Of course, metaphysically Deleuze argues that Being is One, but this one immediately divides into two: the process of absolute creativity (of Life) gives rise to actual states of being, and as such there appears a distinction between a dynamic principle of creation and the static orders of creatures. The latter then becomes our ‘home’, as the world of representation, and as a flight from ‘Life’, whereas true spirituality instead implies the radical affirmation of ‘Life’ by becoming a vessel of creation: so we have to go back from the static order of creatures/objects to the transcendental, dynamic order of creation. Surprisingly, Deleuze comes here very close to the thought of Michel Henry, to the ‘nouveaux philosophes’ (Jambet & Lardreau) and to more Lacanian inspired authors as Kristeva.

For a bright analysis of the non-relational, dualistic tendencies of contemporary French thought, cf. Peter Hallward, The One or the Other. French Philosophy Today, in Angelaki (2003/2) 1-31. Cf. also his book on Deleuze: Out of this World. Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation, Verso, 2006.

24 May 2007

Battles. Exercises in Deleuzian Deterritorialisation?

Visually, I use to associate Deleuze’s thought with avant-garde architecture woven into the busyness of contemporary metropoles, with the rhizomatic arms of the London-subway or with the chaotic though clean structures of a city like Tokyo. Deleuze’s philosophy also seems to be a philosophy for the inhabitants of these hypertech cities, for those having lost their affinity with a life centered around the church-tower. ‘Battles’ then might provide them with a soundtrack. The more I listen to their recent album ‘Mirrored’, the more I’m inclined to consider it as a musical equivalent of at least some key elements of Deleuzian thought. The core concept here is ‘immanence’. In their aspired neutrality, Battles tries to present a pure immanent musical vision: the music doesn’t serve to express emotions, political agenda’s or intellectual thoughts; its aim is not to comfort us with recognizable patterns which allow us a homecoming in the song, nor just to distract us. But it is also not the case that thoughts, emotions or politics do not matter. What makes their music immanent is that there are not trying to open up the musical language through direct references to an outside. If they express any of these (emotions, thoughts...), it’s aimed to happen only through a pure musical play of differences, through shifting rhythmical patterns and references which remain within their own self constructed musical language (they have for example invented their own system of annotation by way of diagrams). The cover of their album perfectly symbolizes this: locked up in a monad, they generate difference from within. And ‘Mirrored’ is not the outside; only the inside is. Nevertheless, precisely the generation of difference from within should enable true connection. In some way, this is comparable to what Deleuze calls ‘disjunctive synthesis’: all monads express the One, and this guarantees that all monads are connected, although there is no direct connection between them: everything is locked up within the inside of monad.

“The first musical operation is to machine the voice” (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 303).

21 May 2007

Contemporary Electronic Music: Fennesz, Ben Frost

Of course, electronic music is not only music to dance to. From Brian Eno to Aphex Twin or Biosphere there has always been for example a wide range of ambient electronics. Many have explored how to manipulate sounds, how to work without rythm or melody and so how to create intriguing soundscapes. Too often however, ambient music risks to function as wallpaper-music, fit to be played in expensive hotel-lounges. Luckily, more and more artists are taking ambient in new directions, transgressing the traditional boundaries between electronic and rock music. Christian Fennesz might be a nice example. He combines rock-elements with electronic noise and other effects, often by using some guitarchords which he manipulates later on, in order to bury popmelodies underneath a dense layer of electronics. Ben Frost could be considered a pupil of him. On his recent debut album 'Theory of Machines' he manages to find a fine equilibrium between both genres (not hiding his influences: Michael Gira was the frontman of noise-rock band 'Swans').

Ben Frost - We Love you Michael Gira (mp3) (from 'Theory of Machines', out on Bedroom Community)
Fennesz - The Point of it All (mp3) (from his 2004 album 'Venice', out on Touch records)

14 May 2007

Epistemological Explorations II. MacIntyre on Tradition-Dependent Rationality

The whole idea that the linguistic turn is inevitable, that rationality has to be conceived as narratively framed, that there is no way to escape language… has taken today the form of a new ideology: the ideology of hermeneutic particularism. In different ways I would like to counter this ideology by investigating the aporias of this positions, as well as by exploring a different conception of rationality and subjectivity.

I’ve already taken a short look at Taylor’s conception of Modernity, but I will delve now a little deeper into the epistemology of Alasdair MacIntyre; an epistemology which I consider to be one of the strongest feeding the ideology of hermeneutic particularism, particularly for elaborating the idea of a tradition-dependent rationality. MacIntyre became known to the philosophical audience by publishing his highly acclaimed After Virtue[1]. In this book he opposes the modern, liberal project of a universalising ethical account, in order to return to a kind of virtue ethics as was known in Greek Antiquity. Precisely in its denial of the role of particularity and tradition, modern ethics is considered abstract and empty, and thus unable to provide us with a substantial vision of our goal in life. His epistemology, to which I limit myself here, can mainly be found in the sequel to After Virtue, namely Whose Justice? Which Rationality?[2]. This book can be read as a plea to always understanding philosophy “in terms of the historical context of tradition, social order and conflict out of which it emerged.”[3] Crucial is the idea of an ever-evolving historical story, constituting a tradition, and as such providing the framework for rationality.[4] In other words: conceptions of rationality always have their own story.

MacIntyre conceives the development of a tradition as an evolution through different stages. He distinguishes three. Every rationality starts in a condition of pure, historical contingency. The beliefs, the practices, the institutions and eventually the founding texts of a particular community constitute a given, which gives rise to a certain rationality, a certain way to understand the world. In this first stage, the authorative texts and voices have not yet been questioned. However, after a while, incoherencies appear and some lacunae in the particular system of convictions become visible. This marks the transition to a second stage. Normally, this transition takes place when a community is confronted with new situations it cannot adequately deal with by using its original system of beliefs. Therefore inadequacies become identified in this stage, but not yet remedied. This happens in the third stage by developing reformulations and re-evaluations, which should be able to overcome the limitations and inadequacies of the former system. This is the stage of inventivity. Important however is that this inventivity is never to be considered as a free or unbound inventivity: some ruptures may occur, but “some core of shared belief, constitutive of allegiance to the tradition, has to survive every rupture.”[5]
So far, it would be possible to reproach MacIntyre relativism. Because of the radical particularity-dependency we get the impression that he holds on to a pure coherency-theory of truth, and that there are in the end so many truths as there are traditions of rationality. MacIntyre however wants to tackle this impression by an account of interaction between different rationalities. According to him, the incommensurability and the untranslatibility of traditions does not exclude that a certain form of dialectics between the traditions can be thought of. MacIntyre points out the fact that a tradition is normally able to respond and to react to new situations by using its own resources and that within the account given above, there is no real interaction with other forms of rationality. It is possible however that a tradition reaches the point that it is no longer able to evolve by using its own standards. A situation may occur where a tradition exposes more inadequacies and previously unknown incoherencies in using its own methods of research. MacIntyre calls this an epistemological crisis: the tradition reaches a point where its own survival is at stake. Of course, the occurrence of such a crisis does not have to be fatal. It means that a tradition is falsifiable. It can be put into question as a whole. It is clear that there are two options in case of a crisis: either the tradition actually gets falsified, or it still manages to come up with a solution. A solution demands the invention of new concepts and frameworks, or theories that meet three specific requirements.[6] Firstly, the conceptually enriched schemes must provide a solution to the problems, which gave rise to the crisis. Secondly, it must provide an explanation of what is was that rendered the tradition sterile or incoherent. Thirdly, these first two tasks must be carried out in such a way that shows some fundamental continuity between the new schemes and the original tradition. If these three things are not compatible a conversion to a rival tradition becomes inevitable. Consequently a conversion is not arbitrary, but motivated by the failure of the own tradition. That specific tradition, which is able to answer the unsolved questions of the original tradition, therefore becomes attractive.

MacIntyre thus believes that the idea of falsification is tenable without returning to the idea of a reality independent of a particular, tradition-bound rationality.[7] The principle of falsification is grafted onto the possibility of uncovering the inadequacies of a tradition, always measured by its own standards. But because of the fact that other traditions sometimes may give better answers to problems of the own tradition, the closeness of a tradition is forced open and gives rise to a kind of dialectics and interaction. MacIntyre himself even speaks of the possibility of “a rational debate between and a rational choice among rival traditions.”[8] The opportunity of a challenge by other traditions rests on the possibility of the apprehension of a ‘second first language’ and on the skill of ‘empathetic imagination’[9]. The language of a tradition may be untranslatable, but this does not preclude the possibility of apprehending another language; apprehension as the condition to judge what exactly remains untranslatable.

It is clear that MacIntyre here offers for example theology a very interesting epistemology. Firstly, he demonstrates the constitutive role of authority and tradition for rationality. Furthermore, it is clear that the element of faith inevitably re-enters: holding on to a specific rationality always implies an element of faith, exactly because all rationality retains an element of contingency. Critical reasoning is in other words always already a ‘fidens quarens intellectum’[10]. Secondly, MacIntyre is convinced that his epistemology does not lead to relativism. The relationship between rationality and a particular tradition does not imply a need to abandon all notions of objectivity. It does not imply that in the end an infinite number of rationality-traditions exist next to one another in total incommensurability. Between the traditions there will always be a kind of dialectics, which makes a certain rapprochement between the ‘truths’ possible. However, exactly at this point, MacIntyre’s project becomes questionable. Crucial is the question of the statute of MacIntyre’s interaction-scheme. Is the scheme in itself a merely tradition-bound, particular scheme, or does this scheme, at least concerning the validity of it, transcend the different particular traditions? In his answer to the problem of perspectivism and relativism, he conveys the impression that this is happening. The problem with this however consists of the risk of contradicting the own point of departure. On the other hand, when he presents his scheme as merely particular, it becomes hard to see how he finally does not fall back to relativism.

MacIntyre thus presents us a general model, which explains how a form of dialectics between traditions can be thought of: on the basis of an ‘empathetic imagination’ a person learns ‘a second first language’, and so he goes on to investigate the relation between the newly acquainted tradition and the problems that gave rise to the epistemological crisis of the own tradition. MacIntyre presents both the skill of ‘empathetic imagination’, the possibility of learning ‘a second first language’, as well as the structure of the development of a tradition, namely the possibility of an epistemological crisis together with the step-by-step plan for the solution, as somewhat tradition-transcendent. That is at least the impression we get. Sometimes, he is even quite explicit.

“The grounds for an answer to relativism and perspectivism are to be found, not in any theory of rationality as yet explicitly articulated and advanced within one or more of the traditions with which we have been concerned, but rather with a theory embodied in and presupposed by their practices of inquiry.”[11]

The principles that should allow interaction and a form of dialectics between the (enquiry-bearing) traditions cannot be reduced to a specific tradition. According to this quote, they enable precisely a ‘dialogue’ between the traditions, and so seem to be presupposed by the different traditions. This sounds quite logical: to resolve a conflict between rival traditions on a legitimate basis, one cannot use principles that are restricted to just one of the traditions. MacIntyre’s problem however consists then of the fact that he falls back on a transcendental logic by speaking of “a theory embodied in and presupposed by”. Of course, he could claim that he only proposes a minimal, formal procedure as general, and not articulated substantive standards. But that would not solve the problem. On the contrary: a transcendental logic precisely rests on such a formal procedure. What’s more, it would just be highly ironic to slide back into a formal, procedural logic, exactly because this typifies the modern, liberal tradition he is in fact opposing.[12]

Nevertheless, an alternative reading seems possible. The system of interaction could be considered as universal on merely pragmatic grounds, more precisely because it would be for all traditions the most profitable scheme within the light of their own further development. He himself states quite clearly, that each system only has to gain by the idea that another system may be superior on some topic.

“The only rational way for the adherents of any tradition to approach intellectually, culturally, and linguistically alien rivals is one that allows for the possibility that in one or more areas the other may be rationally superior to it. […] Only those whose tradition allows for the possibility of its hegemony being put in question can have a rational warrant for asserting such a hegemony.”[13]

Progression then has to be evaluated from the possibilities to explain more in the future; as a possibility that becomes optimised by accepting MacIntyre’s interaction-scheme on a pragmatic basis. This would not have to result in relativism, because in the course of time a form of dialectics remains upright: one system will lose out on another, simply because e.g. system A will be able to explain more than system B. Thus to be able to explain more or less then becomes the criterion which allows for a legitimate comparison between different rationalities. Still, it can be doubted that MacIntyre here succeeds in escaping relativism. The ‘more or less’, according to MacIntyre’s own logic, can no longer be considered as a neutral criterion: there is no ‘more or less’ as such. Therefore he will have to admit that the ‘more or less’ is also tradition-bound and so already an internal principle. He will have to admit that with this criterion, it is impossible to install a genuine form of dialectics. The adherents of system A may be convinced that their system is able to explain more than system B, while the adherents of system B may be convinced that it can explain more than system A. When rationality as such is thought of as tradition-bound, one has to admit that all inadequacies as well as all solutions have to be thought of intra-systemically as well. Thus if an epistemological crisis can only be called so from within the rationality of one’s own tradition, nothing states that crises will keep occurring. Finally, it cannot be excluded that some traditions of rationality are able to reach such a high degree of coherence so that a number of traditions will exist next to on another, incommensurable and without interaction.[14]
[1] A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, London, 1981.
[2] A. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Notre Dame, 1988.
[3] Ibid., 390.
[4] This implies that all rationality has to be understood from within a specific tradition of understanding or research. MacIntyre himself uses the word of ‘enquiry-bearing traditions’. Cf. Id. 354. This idea is closely related to Imre Lakatos’ model of ‘scientific research programs’. What Lakatos proposes within the context of natural sciences, seems so to get translated by MacIntyre for a context of human sciences. On this affinity, cf. also A.N. Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity. Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion and Ethics, 49-62.
[5] A. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 356.
[6] Cf. A. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 362.
[7] Cf. Ibid., 357: “Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention”
[8] Ibid, 352.
[9] [9] Jennifer A. Herdt turns attention to the ironical fact that this is precisely a liberal concept, and that by consequence MacIntyre does not manage to stay within his own tradition. Cf. J.A. Herdt, Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Rationality of Traditions” and Tradition-Transcendental Standards of Justification, in The Journal of Religion 78 (1998) 524-546; 531-532.
[10] Cf. also, C. Early, MacIntyre, Narrative Rationality and Faith, in New Blackfriars 82 (2001) 35-43.
[11] A. MacIntyre, o.c, 354.
[12] Cf. also J.A. Herdt, Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Rationality of Traditions” and Tradition-Transcendental Standards of Justification, in The Journal of Religion 78 (1998) 535: “Is MacIntyre’s rationality of traditions perhaps just a new Enlightment method?”
[13] A. MacIntyre, o.c, 388.
[14] Nowadays, it is still possible to present oneself as a die-hard materialist, or as a die-hard idealist, even as a neo-platonist or as a neo-scholastic.

Lichens - Drone Improvisation

Lichens is the solo project of Robert Lowe (90 day men, TV on the Radio); his vehicle to explore, on a mostly improvisational basis, a variety of introspective soundscapes, combined with melodic guitar lines (which remind me again of John Fahey). Limiting himself to guitar (acoustic or electric), some effects, minimal percussion and wordless vocals, he creates densely layered, dreamy songs, without losing himself within a pool of homogenous sounds. The subtle use of atomic guitar chords here even reinforces the haunting effect of the drone: the structure he waves into the songs is circular and hypnotic, taking the listener further on the path of what some would call an other-worldly vision.
On his recently released album 'Omns' he continues the aesthetic perspective of his debut 'The Psychic Nature of Being', though with a little more use of effects as overdubbing (the tracks on his debut are all one time improvisations). Added you will find a song from both albums; 'Shore Line Scoring' from his debut, and 'Vevor of Agassou' from 'Omns'. Both albums are released on Kranky.

Lichens - Shore Line Scoring (mp3)

Lichens - Vevor of Agassou (mp3)

10 May 2007

Noise. The Rumbling of Being

At least from Schönberg on, there has always been a certain fascination for atonality in music (in the sixties further explored in the field of free jazz, and from the late seventies on in electronic and rock music by bands as Throbbing Gristle). Noise-music explicitly injects this fascination into a blend of diverse musical styles, essentially as an attempt to do away with the traditional boundaries of musical sense. It aspires to create time and time again a new, free language of musical expression. Of course, it’s rather contradictory to turn it into a new genre. But this has never been an attempt. The generally conservative attitude of 90% of all musicians has created the impression of a separate niche. The musical focus is often on dissonance, subtle tensions and violent outbursts, but also this cannot be made into a rule. What typifies noise-artists is their willingness to embrace new idioms and techniques which defy classical distinctions. The music itself can vary from cerebral to wildly chaotic, from hypnotic to aggressive.
Added you find a rare collaboration between Anthony Braxton and Wolf Eyes. Wolf Eyes are today one of the most popular noise bands (popular here doesn’t mean accessible). Their roots are in the hardcore-industrial rock, but they soon started to deconstruct the traditional rock approach, using self-made instruments, tape-manipulations and effect-pedals (often for other purposes then the traditional guitar-distortion). Anthony Braxton is a legendary figure in the world of avant-garde and free jazz. He has been called ‘the last bona fide genius of jazz music’, especially because of his attempt to combine a more traditional jazz approach with the practices and composing techniques of non-jazz artists as John Cage and Stockhausen. Being often reproached of not being a truly jazz-musician and for being too cerebral and abstract, Braxton actually proves to be a truly open-minded artist. (A man in his sixties, professor and jazz legend, playing with these young, brutal dogs might for some in the elitist jazz-world indeed cause a little shock.)
Wolf Eyes & Anthony Braxton - Rationed Rot (mp3) (from Black Vomit, a live recording at Victoriafest 2005)

6 May 2007

'The Sound is God'. Transcendental Style in Music

One of the more remarkable evolutions in Western (popular) music is its renewed attention for sound. Western (popular) music has traditionally been focused on rhythm, melody, and lyrics. In this sense, popular music seems to be deeply anti-transcendental. It’s strategy is one of identification: through melody and lyrics (mainly) it tries to arouse those emotions, for which the listener is in some way already looking (consciously or more unconsciously). Pop music is narratively structured, and creates a parallel symbolic world, which closely resembles the life-world of the listener (of course, it can look more exuberant, wealthy…). It’s a streamlined world which focuses explicitly on the whole set of basic emotions. It tell us a story about broken relationships, the joy of drinking, falling in love… No problem with this, but as such we remain with pop music fully within a flat immanence. Moreover, through its narrative structure the medium does not even seem to be fit for discovering a certain depth or transcendence within immanence. So, what would then be a transcendental style in pop music? Definitely not making it religious. Religious pop music (like Christian rock) remains locked within the same logic of identification. It tells us a story of conversion, of consolation, of hope… and tricks us into the artificial world of particular ecclesial agenda. Here, there is no depth to be found.
For a transcendental style, one will have to use the medium of pop against itself. It’s still hard for me to figure out what this precisely should be, but I believe some evolutions might give us a hint. Through a peculiar attention for sound, texture and repetition for example contemporary western artists are trying to overcome the traditional linear approach. By delving into the notes itself, by exploring the spaces between notes and by relinquishing (to a certain extent) the narrative structure, they open up a domain beneath the song. They try to explore a domain of what we can call ‘transdescens’, a form of transcendence within, or maybe better underneath the immanent sphere of the symbolic.

Added you find a raga by Pandit Pran Nath (picture above), a renowned Indian vocal master who was (as a teacher of La Monte Young and Terry Riley) of major influence in the world of Western minimalism. In the other file, Ravi Shankar shortly comments on the spirituality of music.

Six Organs of Admittance is a solo project of Ben Chasney, an American guitarist who is deeply influenced by John Fahey, but also by Indian and Japanese folk. ‘Dance among the waiting’ is from his album ‘Dust & Chimes’ (2000, Holy Mountain) and Maria from his nameless debut LP (1998, Holy Mountain).

Richard Youngs is an eclectic Scottish folk musician, known for his many collaborations and use of very diverse instruments and styles, from raga to noise and pop. ‘Sky is upon you’ is taken from ‘River Through Howling Sky’ (2004, Jagjaguwar).

Fursaxa is the solo project of Tara Burke, a singer and multu-instrumentalist from native-American origins. ‘Lunaria enters the blue lodge’ is the second song from her recent album ‘Alone in the dark wood’ (2006, ATP records).

Ravi Shankar - introductory comment: the Sound is God (mp3)

2 May 2007

Daniel Higgs - A Modern Shaman

"Have you heard that the devil is a clear blue sky?"

Daniel Higgs, known as the charismatic frontman of rockband Lungfish, bedazzles his audiences with enigmatic chants and psychedelic-repetitive songstructures. As a solo artist he plays Jewish harp or banjo; his lyrics are mantras touching on topics as alienation, the ambiguity of the divine and redemption. But quite unlike most of the recent freefolk-scene, he is driven by a pathos that uplifts his music far above the realm of musical entertainment or playful obscurity. His performances are rather 'unheimlich' through the sheer force of his voice and the playing which is full of inner tension; both, lyrics and music, reinforce each other's power, in a way he is able to open up a sphere of existential reflection seldom heard in contemporary folk.

Daniel Higgs - O Come and Walk Along (mp3) (from the LP Ancestral Songs, out on Holy Mountain records-

1 May 2007

Loren Connors' terra incognita of the soul

Loren Connors (sometimes called Loren MazzaCene Connors) is an American solo guitar-player with a peculiar attention for both detail and atmosphere. Since 1978 he has explored (and still does) the whole field of minimalistic, meditative playing, without ever sounding cheesy or losing himself within some New Age-lameness. The blues influence is obvious, but at the same time he takes his cues from avantgarde minimal composers and the experimental folk tradition, combining traditional blues elements with an spheric density, often achieved by holding on to a note. He used to play only acoustic guitar, sometimes with his wife Suzanne Langille on vocals, but mainly changed to electric guitar (with the use of pedals and distortion) since he was diagnosed with the parkinson disease. During most of his active carreer he remained unknown to audiences, but he got some recognition since the late nineties (he has collaborated with artists as Keiji Haino, Jim O'rourke, Christina Carter and John Fahey). His relative obscurity did not prevent him from being a very prolific artists: he has released about 50 albums (mostly in very limited quantities).

The track 'Child' is from 1993's Hell Kitchen Park and features his wife Susanne on vocals. The second one is taken from his album Sails (2006).
I also added two Charalambides songs, just because Tom Carter's guitar sound reminds me a lot of Connors' (on voice: Christina Carter). Both songs can be found on Glowing Raw, a 2006 CD-R release on 'Wholly Other' records.

Loren Connors - Child (mp3)
Loren Connors - Trinity, pt. 3 (mp3)

26 Apr 2007

Epistemological Explorations I. Taylor’s Anglo-American Concept of Modernity

In ‘What is Secularity?’, a recent article by Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher develops a conceptual scheme to understand the shift from a premodern, religious perspective to a modern, secular way of living. Crucial would here be the emergence of what he calls ‘closed world systems’ (CWS), as world systems which leave no place for the ‘vertical’ or ‘transcendent’. In order to understand better the phenomenon of Modernity, he therefore investigates different versions of CWS as ways in which people, who claim to be modern and secular, legitimate their position vis-à-vis religious people (who are then labelled as premodern from the perspective of CWS). His actual aim becomes clear at the end: to reconcile the spirit of Modernity with the possibility of religious belief, and so to deconstruct all at least rigid versions of CWS (he received the 2007 Templeton-prize). I will first shortly present Taylor’s account of CWS. In a second part, I will try to indicate how Taylor lures us into his conclusion by presenting a too flat image of modern secularity, and how he silently switches from a descriptive to a normative level. This last heavily weighs on the status of his conclusion, for his conclusion presented as normative might finally be nothing more than a philosophical generalization of a world system which fits his own psychological constitution.

Basically he identifies two main forms of CWS, the first as a strictly epistemological version, the second as a more existential one. They do not exclude each other; the second is mainly a more sophisticated, broader one. CWS 1: this comes down to the specific structure of modern epistemology, which operates “with a picture of knowing agents as individuals, who build up their understanding of the world through combining and relating, in more and more comprehensive theories, the information which they take in and which is couched in inner representations.” (Taylor, 59) Characteristic is then a series of priority relations, which do not only tell us what is learned before what, but what can be inferred on the basis of what. Applied: one starts with mental pictures, and from there on one affirms the existence of the outer world; then, on the basis of this trust in experience one starts making more complex scientific claims, for example about the laws of the universe. Thus, one always has to start with the natural, and claims about the transcendent are necessarily at the most fragile end of a series of inferences. Further, CWS 1 proclaims the primacy of the individual’s sense of self over society. The subject of science is a disengaged, independent subject, controlling his own thought-processes. He/She is not driven by particular interests or values, but claims to proceed on the basis of a pure epistemological, scientific method. We can be short here about Taylor’s critique, for it’s the same as for CWS 2: CWS 1 claims to be neutral, but it is not. It only functions because the adherents are driven by a specific set of values.
CWS 2 is labeled by Taylor as the ‘death of God’ paradigm. This tells us that “conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it is no longer possible – honestly, rationally, without confusion or fudging, or mental reservation – to believe in God.” (Taylor, 62) As a result, we are left with only human affairs, for belief in something transcendent is now seen as emanating from a childish lack of courage. Concerning the origins of the conditions which have arisen, Taylor identifies two sorts: “first, and most important, the deliverances of science; and then, secondarily, the shape of contemporary moral experience.” (Taylor, 63). The first is so strong, because Taylor believes the whole trust of modern science is to establish an all-around materialism. Modern science is not only interested in investigating very specific objects with their strict method of so-called neutral observance, but functions as a meta-narrative. In other words: it functions as a specific ideology. Adherents claim their package of truths is plausible, because science would have shown this and that, but what actually drives them is the broader project of a materialism, which is in itself not epistemically driven. This brings us to the second origin, as actually inseparable from Taylor’s deconstruction of the first: the ‘death of God’ paradigm is founded on a specific moral, humanist project: what matters are human affairs (welfare, human rights, human flourishing…) and this leaves no place for belief in God. In his words: “my contention is that the power of materialism today comes not from the scientific ‘facts’, but has rather to be explained in terms of the power of a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the package we could call ‘atheist humanism’ or exclusive humanism.” (Taylor, 67) His strategy is double: first, he states that epistemically the transition from science to full-blown materialism is unconvincing, that it is always full of holes (his examples here are evolution-theory, sociobiology and the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett). Second, he tries to show that people are in fact moved by certain values and that this undercuts their own image of objective research. Of course, Taylor stress on CWS as one, historically constructed understanding of human agency is not meant as a further purification of the scientific method. What he tries to argue for is that all types of understanding are always historically constructed, that there is no neutral gaze. This however does not imply a return to premodern understanding. He laments that the moral order of CWS 2 is formulated on the basis of a substraction-theory (at least by the adherents): it is formulated on a negative basis, as a doing-away with everything which might be an obstruction for human welfare (thus in the first a transcendent authority as God). What we should defend instead is a modern project as sustained by a positive visions of the good; and this might on its turn leave more room for transcendence, myths…

Till so far Taylor’s presentation. My objections concern his presentation of CWS 1 & 2 as typical for Modernity and the logical consistency of his critique and own positive proposal. I might agree with Taylor that we should not forget that Modernity has its own positive spiritual vision. But first: that it should not be conceived as a particular story is inseparably linked with its spiritual vision; and second, the positive spiritual vision is precisely the discovery of transcendence. Of course, modern transcendence has nothing to do with the existence of God. But this does not mean we’re lacking transcendence as such. The religious claim depends on an ontology no longer accepted by modern standards. Moreover, from a modern point of view, what was called transcendence becomes debunked as a foundational principle within Being; God as a highest Being, which is as such not something transcendent but a function of human understanding in search of a highest principle. The discovery of Modernity then concerns a transcending of Being within the sphere of human subjectivity. The human subject is understood as not locked up within the phenomenal sphere, but as opened (from the inside) towards what eludes its grip (this from Kant’s notion of the noumenal, to Levinas’ autrement qu’être, Derrida’s Khora and Lacan’s Real). Moreover, Taylor’s conviction that Modern epistemology is driven by an attempt to establish a full-blown materialism does not seem hold. In his description of CWS 1 he refers to the classic sources of modern epistemology, but some of the most crucial figures here do not envisage something as materialism. Let’s just take Kant: his epistemology is mainly in line with Taylor’s description of CWS 1. But it’s hard to see the connection with what Taylor describes in CWS 2. Kant’s philosophy is thoroughly dualistic, and his moral project has not much to do with materialism or naturalism (the same holds for Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Derrida…). Taylor’s account of CWS 2 is therefore mainly a Anglo-American version of Modernity, as a version which is a rather simplistic rendering of the original one (just look at his examples: Dawkins, Dennet…).

Let’s deal now with Taylor’s own method. His whole argument seems based on a problematic shift from a psychological-descriptive level to a normative one. In his critique on both CWS 1 and 2 he mainly states that most adherents do not stick to it on epistemological or scientific grounds: he perceives that they are driven to it on the basis of a particular package of values which is compelling for them. We are here on a descriptive level, and it is indeed very likely that it mostly works like this: people are in need of a certain worldview which fits their own (psychological) needs, although they will not legitimate their worldview by referring to attractivity of the values implied by their worldview. In this case, one of the options is to display a new honesty: to admit that our worldview is just a particular, historically constructed story, which we have chosen, not because it is so epistemically compelling, but because its moral package fits us best. This is the road Charles Taylor wants us to take. But why wouldn’t there be another option? Why should we admit that CWS 1 compels for different reasons than epistemological ones? That a lot of the adherents have an extrinsic motivation tells us nothing about the validity of the epistemology itself, nor about its power to convince. In Taylor’s words: “the whole package (of CWS 1 and 2) is meant to plausible precisely because science has shown… and so on. That’s certainly the way the package […] presents itself officially; that’s the official story. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and to convince lies in it as a definition of our moral predictment.” (Taylor 64). Again: this might be true for a lot of the adherents, but it tells us nothing about the possibility of being epistemically driven. A reaction to Taylor’s descriptive analysis, from the perspective of CWS 1 could therefore be as follow: ‘thank you very much Mr. Taylor for your sharp observation. There were indeed a lot of people claiming to be part of CWS 1, but there membership was false. Their motivation was extrinsic, and from now on all these people will be expelled. They do not longer represent CWS 1.’ And it might be possible that are not many left in this case of purification. But the quantity of adherents has nothing to do with the validity of the official story, namely that science itself has the power to compel. Taylor thus switches silently from a pure descriptive to a normative perspective. He switches from the mere observation to the idea that it always should be like this.
Of course, Taylor knows that the mere observation of extrinsic motives does not really discredit the validity of the epistemology itself. He therefore also comes up with an epistemic response. This is correct in the light of a modern epistemological approach (and even necessary for a dialogue with CWS 1/2), but it becomes highly problematic in the light of his own philosophy. We have already mentioned his actual response above: to him all the arguments from modern science to materialism are unconvincing, and the theories are full of holes. But why would we believe this? His whole philosophy is an attempt to show that what drives us is a particular ethical worldview, and not the so-called neutral insights of epistemology and science; there are no neutral observations, for all observations already reflect the larger ethical package for which one has chosen. He defends this theory in general and applies it here to CWS 1 and 2; but this also holds for his own philosophy. Therefore: his argument that modern epistemology is unconvincing is not to be taken as neutrally valid, but it is already the reflection of his own particular worldview. Further: his whole attack on epistemology in general is thus not based on his the actual insight into the weaknesses of epistemological reflection, but already the logical outcome of his own moral package. To understand then why he reacts so harsh against (modern) epistemology, we only have to take a look at this package of him: Taylor wants to be religious and modern at the same time. In his package he wants to embrace modern ethical values, while remaining a religious person who believes in the existence of God. He knows that this combination is hard to achieve while holding on to a strict epistemological reflection, and thus turns epistemology itself into an enemy. To be coherent, I believe Taylor should have refrained from an epistemic response (remember the option of honesty: do not pretend your argument is neutral) and embrace a harsh relativism; but then this would undermine his modern ethical project.

(I will later argue why Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank present more convincing versions of a similar argument; MacIntyre by giving up on a modern ethical project and Milbank by truly embracing the radical relativism still eschewed by both Taylor and MacIntyre)

Reference: C. Taylor, What is Secularity?, in K. Vanhoozer & M. Warner (eds.), Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology. Reason, Meaning and Experience, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007, 57-76.