Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Penumbra of the Empty, Part XVII

The Enlightenment thinkers had an important task before them: for the sake of peace, sanity, happiness, and progress, to divide the secular from the religious.

Though the results of this Enlightenment task of separation are "mixed", it is evident that something was divided from something--something was partitioned, however it is we understand "something" or "partition." What happened is confusing. How do we know what happened isn't similar to what happened in Borges' Chinese encyclopedia?

"This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought--our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography--breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h)included in the present classification, (i)frenzied,(j)innumerable,(k)drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m)having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that."-- Michel Foucault, preface of The Order of Things: an Archeology of the Human Sciences
The passage from Borges' Chinese encyclopedia provokes Foucault's laughter, but also shatters his thinking. How could Foucault consider Borges' whimsical categorizations a challenge to the Enlightenment's serious categorizations?

What if what was changed for the sake of peace, sanity, happiness, and progress changed the very meanings and experience of peace, sanity, happiness, and progress? In the event that the meanings and experience of these was mysteriously altered, was the promise of the Enlightenment kept, or lost, or deferred--deferred as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is deferred?

Illustration from Lori Nix Photography

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Penumbra of the Empty, Part XVI

The creation of the perfect list of religious claims ultimately rests on the idea of knowable and defined attributes, qualities, or predicates of the religious claims.

The list of these knowable and defined attributes, qualities, or predicates could overlap a similar list for secular claims, but in each case of a religious or secular claim, the lists couldn’t be the same. So, in any mixture or heterogeneous composition of claims, the religious claims could be separated out, to whatever practical degree of separation was required or desired, (but presumably to purity—why settle for less?)

What is so unreasonable and questionable about thinking religious claims have attributes, qualities, or predicates which are knowable, defined, and listable? What object does not?

These last questions I believe are crucial to the inquiry and I want to address them in greater detail at a later date. For now, I want to point out that while one can insist that religious claims come in these lists of defined predicates, etc., if one is faced with the discovery, at just the moment one is formulating such lists, of other cultures with religious practices and claims not like one’s own, the list goes into crisis: the list gets torn up, or else the other people get torn (which could be just tearing up their religious claims—but I think that amounts to tearing those people up.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Penumbra of the Empty, Part XV

I have in mind a perfect list of all active religious claims of eighteenth century western societies. As far as I know the perfect list doesn’t exist anywhere but in my mind—in my imagination, to be more exact. But even as an image existing in my imagination, this perfect list appears as the chimera of a chimera.

How would I imagine such a list to look?

On this perfect list, no active religious claim is omitted or distorted….No secular claim is accidentally included. The list charts the space-time of western societies so perfectly that one always knows at any given time what territory one is in—secular territory or religious. One does not play cards in the vestry and one does not chant a catechism during a math test. One does not invoke God during a legislative session and one does not advocate a partisan policy during worship services…One fights for no reasons other than economic ones but one does not worship money….One is ecstatic in sex but doesn’t have “a religious experience.” If one observes this map, this perfect list, one is in danger neither of saying a prayer before a math examination nor of calculating how long to the end of a sermon.

The perfect list is annotated with witty (but not poetic) comments and mathematical formulas remarkable for both brevity and inclusiveness. There are some remarkable graphs next to the list which elucidate it, not with nude women or unicorns, but with dependent and independent variables and a grid. It has been composed, or mapped, by men who were perfectly capable of seeing what belonged on the list and what didn’t. These men were perfectly known to be perfect for this perfect task—how? By the perfect degrees they held from the perfect institutions of higher learning they had attended (all with religious affiliations--all obviously imperfect.) I envision these religious claims being intentionally withdrawn from the political sphere. I understand this to have been done by these societies in order to “let in the light” and to “let freedom ring.” (I.e. according to the perfect intentions of the perfect men of these imperfect societies.)

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Penumbra of the Empty, Part XIV

The process of progressively withdrawing religious claims from the political and public spheres of society I have conceived as a dividing practice.

The question I want to ask is where and how the cleavages can be formed: are the cleavages following some sort of natural dividing line or are they imposed—dictated? If the cleavages follow some sort of natural dividing line (natural division being along some sort of inherent basis for separation or differentiation within the undivided,) how is the basis for cleavage determined? If the dividing lines are dictated—how is that even possible?

As always, as I try to think about the dividing practices, I discover I am using a variety of dividing practices to understand dividing practices—an infernal frustration.

Stepping back from that frustration just for a moment, I wonder how a list of “religious claims” I might compile would look. In other words, if I could identify and list “religious claims” in the political and public spheres of pre-Enlightenment society and then compared that list wit the “religious claims” which we actually witness being withdrawn historically, I wonder how they would compare.

Is it possible to know if my list is anything but arbitrary? I would expect to see quite a few of my identified claims confirmed by the historical record, but because I am conventonal, not necessarily thoroughly rational. Is it advisable to regard the list generated in the actions of history as rationally authoritative? (I definitely wouldn’t call it arbitrary.) The questions of order and chaos once again.