Thursday, June 21, 2007

Towards an Affirmation of Materiality

In an early attempt at Enlightenment Underground to confront the event of Enlightenment, (the reactivation of a philosophical ethos which occurred in eighteenth century Europe,) Carl Sachs made the following comments,

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique. However, the predisposition to mythic thinking is inscribed in the cognitive structures through which any complex, hierarchical society is produced and reproduced. Therefore, the task of critique is without end. An infinite and incompleteable critique.

Myth is totality: the total and complete picture of the real. The temptation to totality. (“From Ionia to Jena,” as Franz Rosenszweig puts it in his The Star of Redemption – that is, from Parmenides to Hegel.) Myth does not cease to be myth when it is rendered in a conceptual form, and at the heart of all myths is something that refuses to be conceptualized. ( This is true for conceptual myth-makers like Plato and Hegel. And in our own day, the thirst for conceptual myth-making, such as that of Ken Wilbur or Richard Tarnas, remains unquenchable.)”

These comments were made on this blog on February 16, 2006, and I’ve been haunted by them ever since.

They demand development of some sort… I don’t believe that they were offered or intended to stand as “totalities-truisms,” even though a statement such as “Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” is surely an exemplification of the very totalizing structure it appears to be attacking.

When I first read these comments, I simply assumed that Carl was framing the Enlightenment in terms of its creation and privileging of epistemology ( via Kant) – wherein anything which can be labeled myth is understood to have been devalued and trivialized and to be cast aside as useless to serious thinking or praxis. I assumed that Carl was affirming, with reservation, this casting aside of “myth”, while simultaneously wishing to resuscitate and stimulate the spirit of critique, by which to fight the encroachments on the accomplishments of the Enlightenment by a resurgent American religious uncritical and mythologizing fundamentalism.

There is indeed a brief and powerful theory for a reactivation of the philosophical ethos of the eighteenth century Enlightenment to be found in this excerpt from Carl: reactivate critique and critical thinking to reactivate the philosophical ethos.

I don’t take issue with that.

What I might take issue with is that the renewal of a spirit of critique would involve a revival of Enlightenment epistemological thinking, where there is a clear bright line between mythological thinking, “totalizing” or otherwise, and some other kind of thinking, which is somehow purer, clearer, light-filled.

Carl seems to be indicating a similar attitude when he says, “However, the predisposition to mythic thinking is inscribed in the cognitive structures through which any complex, hierarchical society is produced and reproduced.” I miss the point that he’s trying to convey in this because I don’t believe that mythic thinking is inscribed in the cognitive structures of the human brain – I object to this on a number of levels. I think Carl does indicate a kind of necessity and compulsion to “mythologizing thinking,” which I think is real, but I conceive of the nature of this “necessity” and compulsion in a very different way.

I don’t believe in “cognitive structures” if that’s a reference to some innate, immutable, biologistical determinism of the bounds and limitations of what human thinking can do at any given time. I don’t think that mythic thinking emanates as a “given” from any essential feature of the human thought process, or the brain, or from human anatomy or physiology. I admit that part of the reason I don’t think that this is the case is because if it were so we as a human race admit to a kind of defeatism, wherein our thinking is going to be largely a “guilt trip.”

In order to convey my difference with Carl’s theory, I rephrase his passage this way,

“Enlightenment is the coming to grips with human material reality, and the overcoming of the notion that there is a separate human “spiritual” reality which exceeds this human material reality in importance and significance. However, human “spiritual” reality contains, or has to be included in, any coming to grips with human material reality… human “spiritual” reality is a not insignificant part of human “material” reality. Mythologizing is in part a vital material practice of human beings, and couldn't so far in history be eliminated entirely without damaging human material practice. The two realms relate through power and knowledge, power/knowledge. What’s more, there’s no easy way to demarcate the realm of human “spiritual” reality from human “material” reality, even though the two are different, and therefore, the task of critique is endless.

The processes and practices by which humans come to grips with human “material” reality is not totalizable in anything resembling the way that human “spiritual” reality becomes totalized. It is a feature of the usurpation and diminishment of the significance of human material reality when the appearances of totalizations of human material reality in the manner of human spiritual reality are observed in human culture. These usurpations can take virtually any form, including the conceptual.”

The crucial point of difference, for me, is that the reactivation of philosophical ethos occurs, not through "clear" or even "better" or "more intelligent" thinking, or through some epistemelogical breakthrough, but when material reality is accorded greater value, and that according of greater value must be an ongoing process if the reactivation is to continue.


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