On Messianity [Owls at Dawn]

Last Spring I sat down with Austin Smidt for the Owls at Dawn podcast (go support them here!) and talked about my research into Messianity. Listen to the whole episode now live on their site: Non- or post-religious messianism w/ Tim Lavenz

As time allows, I’ll re-listen to the show and fill in this post with corrections and elaborations. Also happy to field any questions in the comment section and incorporate them here.

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Mysticism and Trash

Trash is what can no longer be submitted to the productive process but can only be eliminated, incinerated, buried, and so on. Trash can be viewed as a metaphor for the ‘uselessness’ of religious/spiritual knowledge as it stands from the prospective of capitalism and its logic of objects and value; and as a metaphor for the devaluing of mysticism as it stands from the perspective of our scientific, ‘enlightened’ times.

In most cases trash continues materially to exist, only out of sight. This ‘invisibility’ effects in no way the consequences its continued existence may have. Such may be the case for mysticism as well, one could surmise, and perhaps even with as much ‘omnipresence’ as trash.

An interest in mysticism is then aligned with the rejection of submission to the productive process or dominant economy. It is a useless activity – whether by reinvesting the register of taboo pleasure as Bataille seems to – or if it rejects the premise of consumption and attachment to productivity, namely, desire. This includes the desire to durate, to ‘last’ in social time as an individual self with past, present, and future. The living corpse of the mystic as garbage bag.

The mystic, as one whose happiness is found in union with God alone, could be positioned as the extreme of a negation of the commerce of ‘goods’, the circulation of mundane values, and so on. Being essentially indifferent to time, the mystic is like a plastic sac blowing in the wind, or an old cigarette butt discarded in the street. Retaining the mark of having been produced by human labor, as a disposable ‘by-product’ of civilizational advance, it has arrived at an odd, almost ‘post-human’ point. Returned to nature, yet as potential contaminant of all cosmic and cosmetic order, not natural; yet also not participating, particularly, in culture and history; and so only non-consumable refuse, a stand-in perhaps for God’s refusal of all the designs of man, a mirror of eternal dust. Silence: the wasteland of a breath that won’t sell…

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Descent to Higher Ground

They allegorized you in many visions; Behold, You are one in all depictions. —13th century Hasidic liturgical poem

Artists, creative writers, and so on, have in general ‘solved’ or ‘superceded’ many of the ‘problems’ given as philosophically or institutionally intractible; it’s only that the form of expression of their new ‘solution’ does not always, if ever, accept the original given terms of the ‘problem’ (indeed, this reevaluation of the premises of contradiction is an engine for thought’s advance): thus, those who have not exerted the will or imagination to enter the new zone of expression have, in principle, great difficulty accessing the new answer or even grasping the new approach, the novel posing of the ‘problem’.

Problems are largely ‘solved’ through creative misappropriation of past intractibles. ‘Derivation’ means ‘divergence’ simultaneously. To ‘address’ an issue at its most difficult point, is to form an ‘exception’ within whatever has issued from it so far. These are misappropriations, creative betrayals that in no way spiteful or unthankful for what has preceded them. It’s just that any ‘official’ or ‘traditional’ approach to a problem will likely remain stuck in a dead-locked manner of posing it.

There is an unfortunate prioritization, via the hubris not of philosophy per se but of a certain understanding of philosophical rationality, that subsumes the creative to the ‘logical’. But the creative is simply operating at a level of ‘logic’ (in the broadest sense of developing according to an exigency ‘internal’ to the creative process or formation itself) that the extant ‘logic’ (circumscribed by a presupposed ‘law of law’, a delimitation of possible possibilities in advance) cannot comprehend, or even see, given its limitation to adherence to itself.

This is evident when innovation is called heresy. That is why the writer of the Zohar, for example, places a teacher from one millenium prior as the main beloved figure and insight-bringer, Rabbi Si’mon, the Holy Lamp. It is Moses de Leon who is largely responsible for the text, but he hides his name from it, crafting instead a book/commentary that is in stylistic imitation of commentaries coming before it (Talmud, Midrash) and also citing these rabbinic sources. So, one foot in past posings, the other of innovative misappropriation (at a minimum: running that risk). So the Zohar can claim to be “new ancient wisdom,” disclosing the secrets of the old through the revelation of the new. That process is a part of what I, following my own ‘inheritance’, call the ‘messianic’.

But it is inherent, unfortunately, to the logical to want to grasp all instances under the categorical, which ends up meaning, in the historial. That is fine, and inevitable, so long as those categories remain dialectical or in constant reflection upon what is non-identical to them, what escapes or resists the categorization. Namely, the coming of time, of new contingencies and exigencies. Dryness in insight emerges when the link to the basic novelties of existence is lost. But the further into those novelties the innovator wishes to tread, the more likely he or she will be ostracised. It is painful to press ahead, which is why, when all is said is done, one needs friends and correspondents to support and encourage the effort. One ‘does it for them’, writes ‘to them’: for they act as figures, not just of who they are, but of the listener to come, who will receive the new expression in its fullest breadth, not already circumscribed by what, historially, is given.

This is why the treatment of art is so difficult, or why literary criticism is obliged to become poem itself–not out of lack of rigorous understanding, but out of awareness that the higher ‘productivity of truth’ emerges only where creative misappropriation takes its risks. It seems that only in that way can one honor, not just truth, but the contingencies of time.

There is a mythic layer inherent in the substance of Hölderlin’s work, as in any genuine demythologization. —Adorno

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Prayer in three short takes

Prayer in three short takes:

Yes, at times there is intentional prayer: when one supplicates God to align reality with one’s needs or desires. One could say this is self-serving and thus ‘dead on arrival’, since God is not in the business of wish fulfillment. But still it often happens that one prays this way, for example when under great stress or pain or fear. In this case it might be true that prayer simply serves a psychological function of conjuring in us a feeling of strength or perseverance, or of not being alone. It is easy to attribute that to a supernatural actor but it could just be self-suggestion. Without deciding on that question here, it does seem like ‘monotheism’ means to subtract itself from the sphere of gods who are influenced as humans are.

Then there is the prayer of acceptance: when one asks to align one’s will to God’s will. The Letter of James asks: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain’; whereas really you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’” [4:13]. And earlier: “You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend on your passions.” One can observe two logics of desire here: one that asks for itself (its own needs/desires) and one that asks for what is (and so desires whatever is given, even unto death). The controversy here is that then prayer seems to mean acceptance of the given ‘as is’; and that, consequently, it assumes God’s will and ‘what is’ are in accord, or tending toward accordance. That assumption can lead to some cruel perspectives if one takes it all the way (e.g., justification of present injustice). So, for this to work, one has to say that “God’s will” cannot simply be read off of what is. One would have to constantly recall that the will of God is radically Unknown, that God’s will is not known to us, that it ‘exists’ in a transitional space, in a movement into which one might better enter. One prays to recall the Eschaton toward which ‘what is’ drives: then prayer is not acceptance of ‘what is’ so much as a reorientation of the ‘mists of life’ toward the End, within the cosmic transition. “Faith” steps in at this point, as perseverance in this unknowing.

But there is another manifestation of prayer which is even more mysterious. I will call it prayer of receptivity. This is when the intention of God seems to flood in from the other side. Its markers are most akin to self-dissolution leading to self-giving transcendence. A shiver in the body is sometimes its signal: a moment of (seemingly un-willed) inward recollection that comes from ‘nowhere’, perhaps in the oddest places or at the oddest times. A feeling of confidence totally at odds with one’s given circumstances may arise. Or perhaps when one is weeping, one feels cleansed or forgiven far beyond one’s own capacities or dreams. A feeling like something is praying in us. There need be no words, no discourse in the mind, no supplication. Perhaps not even any reflection; or if there is, the mirror is decidedly other, reflecting back ‘nothing’. If anything, there is dissolution, accompanied by what seems to be the (unspeakable, unknowable) ‘discovery’ of a sort of invisible ground. But there is no ‘chasing’ after this state, no retaining it or claiming it. I would even be reluctant to call it an ‘experience’, if experience implies a separation from the experiencer and the object of experience, since in this mode of receptivity a sense of oneness prevails. So, if it is an experience, it’s certainly not one that can be possessed or reproduced at will through spiritual exercise; the latter can at best make one permeable, accessible to, prepared for, such a state, but it cannot will it into existence by force or demand. One can only request: ‘Spirit come’. But the essence of the reception is that God has sought you and found you – though in the moment, even such ‘clarity’ is not present or necessary, this ‘saying’ being deduced after the fact. In the moment there is neither leading nor leading astray: the growth is of the timeless, of rest in the invisible ground. And while it is a moment that is certainly filled with thanks, the intention to be thankful is only echo, consequence or response, and thus intuition received. Ego-satisfaction is ruled out on principle. Perhaps, then, one is ‘sucked’ into Eschaton: a loss of the All that gives it all back. No knowledge of God, no clarity from one’s purpose, necessarily comes from this. It is more like a revelation of the tenderness of being, or of its fragility. From such an invisible ground, it is probably impossible to not love.

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Cloud Animals

Language as a ‘code’, behavior as ‘programming’, ideas as ‘downloadable’—these are all metaphors drawn from a cybernetic and technoscientific paradigm. However, predominant as these metaphors are in guiding the norms of our society, is not guaranteed, nor is it likely, that their explanatory power extends to cover all aspects of semiological activity—whether natural language use, economic behavior, or exchanging ideas is concerned.

A code is something that is really only virtually present: all that matters is that it be received and decoded at the target end so that the desired and expected action is performed. The code ‘disappears’ in or underneath the communication. Once the message or packet of information is received and processed, the means can be disposed of. I send a signal for a document to print; once it’s printed, the computer can comfortably forget the signal and ready itself for another. Likewise, all instances of reception are functionally identical, no difference or mutation enters in. When I download a PDF, my computer receives the exact same file your computer would. Obviously, the details of the code will depend on the platform, the OS, the printer, and so on; but no matter these details, whenever the desired acted is successfully performed, the code disappears.

In other words, with ‘codes’, interpretation is lacking. This is essential to its purpose: if the dots and dashes of Morse code allowed for interpretation, it would be a nightmare to send a consistent message. A code cannot function without a clear set of references that are regularized and repeatable. Computers function on 1’s and 0’s and nothing in between. But even word-based sign-systems, like crossword puzzles, can lack this dimension of interpretation and operate like a code. All that matters in the puzzle is to fill in the blanks with the right letters; once this is finished, there’s nothing left to do. And while thought is involved in finding the right answers, there’s no option about what they can be. It is retrieval from memory and highly associative, but in the end, the activity of decoding the code— by whatever strategy, along whatever detour— is all that takes place. To interpret a clue differently from what’s expected just means you’re making a mistake. It is also an activity that aims at disposing its means, the crossword itself, upon completion. That is why ‘cheating’ is both silly (because why play if it’s just copy and paste from an answer key) and irresistible (because cheating may be the only way to get it over with). Finally, once more all instances of solution are identical. The only variety comes in how one reaches that identical goal, but again, by puzzle’s end all trace of that process is invisible and irrelevant (unless, perhaps, you’re being graded on your crossword skills!). The ‘means’ vanish into the message, the proper arrangement of letters on a grid, which itself is meaningless once the task is finished, the challenge met and some leisurely pleasure produced.

By contrast, if each of us read Plato’s Phaderus, every instance of reception is going to be different, spark different associations, lead to different intellectual conclusions and existential choices. There will be ambiguity at points and dispute at others. Certain meanings will be clear and agreed upon, others will remain hidden, obscure, perhaps even unreachable. At no point will the text become disposable or lead to an identical result. Although Plato has been interpreted by nearly every philosopher since, none would be so foolish as to suggest that their interpretation could substitute for reading the text itself. So, there’s difference and supplementarity all along the line of transmission of this text: readings that differ from each other and supplement each other without replacing each other or the original; an original that itself appears different with the passage of time and the history of interpretations. Indeed, after multiple readings of it, the same reader’s interpretations will evolve, deepen, perhaps contradict. And this is without even mentioning the importance of translation and how, if we could read it in ancient Greek, the entire text would look different and raise other questions. But the primary point is that it calls for interpretation and cannot be treated like a code.

In short: interpretation comes in the moment we have to ask “What does it mean?” and the answer is not only *not* transparent but demands we exert ourselves to read— not only to make sense of what it says, but to reflect upon ourselves and examine our own ideas in the process. The Socratic method could even be viewed as a type of deprogramming: right where you thought it was simple as filling in the right answer, according to views you already hold but never investigated, instead you’re asked to think. Furthermore, there is no ‘message’ of the text that interpretation only has to reach. Reading is not deciphering but thinking-along-with. This spills over, in Plato’s case, from examined text to examined life. This is where interpretation shows its true color as something world-embedded, as a process of weaving understanding from all the texts and textures encountered there.

To return, code-based metaphors only get us so far. They may even lead in the wrong direction, if too broadly applied. For my part, I would say it’s a great danger to view communication and the acquisition of knowledge according to this paradigm. The question of a tradition (‘handing-over’) of knowledge is something different from the decoding of a code: it is a creative project and the outcome cannot be predicted in advance. It is this unpredictability of result—the un-programmable nature of any genuine inheritance from the history of thought, which involves decision, risk, faith…— it is this unpredictability that everything from big data mining to an education system based in standardized testing seeks to eliminate from the process of understanding the world, in all likelihood, to dull our power to critique it.

No one can deny the pervasiveness and dominance of codes and programming, but the consequences of accepting it as defining of knowledge are severe and further reaching than we may initially believe. Doing so turns society into a calculation of ‘social codes’, with most outcomes effectively prescribed according to manufactured views and norms. It is a manner of treating each of us like terminals, like machines merely selecting from options defined in advance. Worse, the ‘messangers’ for these codes, humans, ultimately become disposal too–a model that draws strength from evolutionary theory when it treats the individual as the vessel for passing on the species DNA code—only now, the code is caste and capitalist accumulation, maintenance of a status quo of inequality passing itself off as the ‘programming’ necessary for the ‘act’ of society to succeed. A code is good for computers, but the idea of a code comes from military and religion culture. So, it is no accident that codes so efficiently accomplish tasks, stabilize references, circumscribe fields of reference, and make sure all the letters are in the right place in the grid.

What is the code we are normally unwittingly consigned to transmit, and which takes us out of play for the sake of the ‘message’? What does resistance to the paradigm of total encoding and information transmission look like? What is interpretation?

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Narcissism of ‘Smarts’

Psychological tendencies we dislike and critique, that irritate and get on our nerves, can over time get rooted in us, as much out of repulsion as attraction.

One becomes so troubled by what one observes in others, or in general social norms and trends of ‘thought’, that one is compelled to amplify its importance, its negative impact, and so one sets out to set things right.

One crafts various ‘charms’ to keep the unpleasant influences away, but this often just brings them closer in less obvious ways. Not infrequently, even when I think I’m speaking on my own behalf, I’m just foolishly trying to account for and make up for the lack of thinking I perceive, or rather project, in others. The narcissism implied in the attitude is obvious. This easily becomes occasion to make a fool of myself, in displays of seriousness that convey more than anything my own frustration and anger at not feeling I fit in or can relate. The other side of this coin is dissimilation, withdrawal, multifarious pity.

One acts as if the grief and fury funneled into a musing might propitiate the entire assemblage of confusions that seemed to have made it necessary, including one’s own beguilement at having anything more to do with it – as is often the case with ‘political tirades’ that are as vehement as they are self-consciously impotent.

Some part of ourselves rises up to have its voice heard, as it supposes to bring clarity to chaos, but often it is only a release of tension, a performance meant to reassert a prowess, superiority, or self-respect. It is a way to gain distance from a conflict by announcing it and putting oneself in conflict with it. An act of intellectual war.

Followed, often enough, by a bad hangover consisting in futility, regret, embarrassment, powerlessness—isolations inevitably accompanying a mind that ‘betrays too much’ of its own inner workings, often enough just to demonstrate to itself it still ‘works’.

The beautiful soul fails to recognize that he not only contributes to, but in a way produces from within himself, the intellectual disorder he perceives as bearing down on him from the outside world.

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Patterns of Fascism

Patterns of fascist demagoguery and propaganda:

1) The fascist wins support by playing on unconscious mechanisms, rather than by presenting ideas and arguments. Compared to the emotionalized, psychological stimuli applied to the crowd, the ‘content’ of the propaganda, the ‘platform’, plays a minor role.

2) The fascist agitator focuses on personal lives and personalities, not on objective social structures and tendencies. They frame themselves as making a big sacrifice to save the people and as outsiders to the system. They announce a band of ‘good guys’ who are just about to save the day.

3) The fascist message is REVIVAL– of religion, nation, patriotism, race, etc. – but in terms that only glorify the activity of reviving. Means are substituted for ends. The ‘goal’ is left unstated or deliberately unclear, thus it is ready for an uncontrolled flood of repressed content, resentment, racism, protection, etc.

4) Propaganda becomes content: the audience suddenly feels privy to information about the hidden workings of society: they have the ‘scoop’, they know the dirt, etc. Knowledge about scandals (fictitious or true) proliferates, producing the pleasure of ‘participating’ in the goings-on of society.

5) Fascist leaders avoid positions they will have to stick to because a) their followers are only useful for the consolidation of power, after which it is easier to cheat and abandon them, b) repressive measures will go much further than the announcement; no definite limit is set because there is no intention to stay within any limit.

6) The masses are not seen as self-determining, but as objects of administration; the expectation is for self-effacing, obedient, non-resistant, conformist behavior.

7) The fascist attacks bogeymen, not real opponents. The chosen foe is an imaginary one that need not be grounded in reality whatsoever, or in exaggerations that reality does not bear out.

8) The fascist ‘discourse’ operates not on logical premises and inferential reasoning but on ‘similarities’ and ‘associations’. This not only makes it resistant to rational examination: it also makes it much easier for the listener to follow. Exact thinking is not required, one simply flows passively with the stream of words.

9) “The fascist agitator is usually a masterly salesman of his own psychological defects.” The structural similarity in mentality between follower and leader turns neurosis or lunacy into a commodity that can be sold to the afflicted. Propaganda’s goal is to establish this concord: a fellowship of pathological thinking.

10) The fascist agitator knows how to put on a show, how to entertain, how to produce pleasure and gratification in the listener: out of gratitude the listener accepts the ideology of the speaker.

11) The fascist leader differs from the follower only with respect to uninhibited expression: they do and say what the followers would never have the gall or courage to do or say. By risking making a fool of themselves, they break through norms of middle-class discourse, increasing the effect of the propaganda.

12) The fascist leader is beloved for their “false tones and clowning.” It is not true that the mass audience has a subtle taste for ‘authenticity’ and disparages the fake; rather fictitiousness, like a drunk’s tirade, appeals for its affectation.

13) The fascist orator redeems the masses’ inarticulateness. This redemptive act requires the RITUAL of rallies, ceremonies, public statements, and so on. These reveal to the masses the identity they want to have but cannot express, and sanction emotions they would have otherwise concealed. (At the center of the ritual is often the symbolic murder/sacrifice of the chosen foe.)

14) “This loosening of self-control, the merging of one’s impulses with a ritual scheme is closely related to the universal psychological weakening of the self-contained individual.” The fascist ritual applies the mechanism of religion emptied of religious content, sanctioning a ‘community’ or ‘cult’ around a leader or ideology that, in essence, prohibits and eliminates critical, individual, divergent, self-determining thought.

15) Fascist propaganda is characterized above all by stereotyping and cliché and the amazingly incessant repetition of stereotypes and clichés, which are ritually ‘drilled’ into the skull. Rigid repetition and mechanical application is craved and standardized. The fascist leader makes a fetish of reality, of the status quo of established power relationships.

16) The fascist spirit is essentially destructive, both selling and enjoying warnings of impending doom, for friend and foe alike. Underneath it lies the unconscious desire for self-annihilation, which is why it ultimately turns its followers into victims.

—Adapted/summarized from Adorno et al. “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda,” printed in From the Stars Down to the Earth

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