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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hart, week 2: Milbank and the Sublime

(Gaunilo's take on this week is here.)

The present chapter describes Hart’s take on the ‘postmodern’ situation obtaining in a great deal of Western thought now, setting up these positions to act as foils for his constructive theological work in the remainder of the book. He first examines Milbank’s criticism of postmodern thinkers, focusing on Hegel and Heidegger, and then proceeds to look at the tradition of the uncapturable sublime, and the way this dominate the thought of thinkers such as Derrida, Deleuze, and Levinas. The final section – left for next time – deals with Nietszche and the notion of will-to-power.

The first section of the chapter covers the critique by Milbank of several postmodern thinkers; Hart echoes, expands and deepens Milbank’s criticism of these thinkers. In fact, Hart uses an odd rhetorical technique, giving signals that he does not fully agree with Milbank, yet not critiquing Milbank himself in much depth – in what we’ve read so far: e.g. ‘One somewhat notorious answer…’ p. 35; ‘It is tempting to borrow here one of Milbank’s apercus…’ p. 54 Hart does mention at one point Milbank’s ‘hasty summaries’ and that on one point Milbank is ‘not fully persuasive’, but this just shows that he has read Milbank. There does seem to be a deep resonance between the two thinkers (‘ultimately, I would endorse much of Milbank’s reading here, if in somewhat altered terms.’ 42) Is it possible that Hart is re-doing Milbank’s project – with some difference? If so, one of the salutary changes made is that Hart focuses on the constructive alternative, rather than the critical task, if page numbers reflect priorities. This is not to say that they are identical, nor that Hart replaces Milbank, but that they might be seen as quite complementary (I say that based on my reading to this point).

The middle of the chapter is occupied with a discussion of four types of postmodernism which take the sublime as being a central touchstone; Hart identifies these related types as the differential, cosmological, ontological, and ethical sublime. He correlates one major thinker with each of these four types: Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Emmanuel Levinas, respectively.

I was hoping to not have to say much about the sublime, but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has nothing on it, and Wikipedia’s article is not satisfying. Still, I'm going to forge ahead with just a brief note. The notion of the sublime used here is an appropriation of the term as used by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and not the usual definition of lofty, grand, or exalted in expression or thought. To quite oversimplify: Kant (in his third critique) noticed the difference between what we conceive (in, say, conceiving a piece of art) and what we produce (in executing that same piece of art). The distance between conception and execution which we struggle against is the sublime. It holds not just for art, but for everything, as Kant divides our conceiving of something (which is a product of the mind and sense perception) from the actual thing in itself -- which we have no knowledge or perception of apart from our minds. Again, the sublime here defines a limit against which we struggle. Later thinkers -- Hart mentions Lyotard in particular -- took this notion further, as a 'limit that actively draws in upon thought, until even the stability of representation and immanent formal teleology gives way...' (47) Hart further summarizes 'Again, it is not implausible to say that the entire pathology of the modern and postmodern can be diagnosed as a multifarious narrative of the sublime, according to the paradigm of Kant's critical project: what pure reason extracts from experience and represents to itself is neutral appearance, separated by an untraversable abyss from everything 'meaningful'; and what reason sees in appearance can have, obviously, no more eminent significance: beauty does not speak of the good, nor the good of being. Questions of the good, of being, of value, of the possibility of appearance itself do not so much exceed the world as stand over against it; truth is not, finally, the seen, but the unseen that permits one to see. ' (51) So much for my 'brief note'.

Hart critiques the early Derrida's emphasis on the axiomatic character of difference because it ends up reinforcing what is supposedly called into question (under erasure), preserving just what it negates. (55) Deleuze, Hart maintains, affirms a kind of chaos underlying all, expressed through repetition which preserves simulacra by insisting on the singularity of each phenomenon. After that, let's just move on to the next sentence, and say that Hart critiques Deleuze (and Foucault) because they are deeply committed to an ethical project as an outworking of their philosophy, a project which Hart doesn't believe could be coherent: with the dissolving of any inherent order or valuation to the world and the elevating of the will, how could working for justice or liberation be anything other than arbitrary? Hart gives a brief -- and not entirely clear to me -- treatment of Nancy's notion of the ontological sublime. The final section deals with Levinas' (and the later Derrida's) ethical sublime, the infinite, abstract duty I have towards the other, which exceeds all specific duties, relations and so forth. I was surprised by how savagely Hart critiqued Levinas in this section about which, more later. Among his criticisms of Levinas are 1) that its insistence on abstract commitment cuts against the proper nature of ethcial commitment, 2) it reduces the other to 'persecutor', 3) it ends up aggrandizing the individual, promoting a moral heroism which also ultimately erases the otherness of the other, 4) by insisting on the completely abstract ('without theme, context, contour, identity' 82) nature of the commitment to the other, the other is actually the same, an expression of my infinite ethical duty, and 5) there is in fact no ethical 'relational without relation', no encounter which is not already thematized. On top of this, it is not clear that Levinas' schema of 'the other' actually preserves ethically what it means to: by acknowledging analogies between myself and others, I do not reduce the other to same but acknowledge that other, in a subordination 'of the self to 'a likeness to which the self actually belongs and which it cannot encompass.' (85)

More on Nietszche next week.

Hart is moving in the direction of affirming the Christian story as one of (strains of Milbank) ultimate peace, coinciding with infinity, and allowing beauty to again become a crucial category in understanding reality (a part of restoring the traditional transcendentals).

Observations and questions
Throughout, what lies in the background of Hart's critique of Levinas is the problem of letting the subjective (our conditions of perception, e.g.) dominate and determine. I think there is something quite worthwhile about this. I especially appreciated Hart's line 'To acknowledge a shared participation within a way of being, that is to say, far from 'totalising' being, is to be borne forth from a false sense of sufficiency into the illuminating strangeness of that to which one belongs before one belongs to oneself.' (85) (There have been a number of very quotable lines in this book thus far; this is one of the best.)

But I do wonder about Hart's adamant rejection of Levinas. Certainly, some -- notably, David F. Ford -- have found Levinas' thought to be very religiously fruitful, if also limited (I am referring specifically to Ford's Self and Salvation, in which Ford uses Levinas' notion of the face, but supplements it with ideas drawn from Jungel and Ricoeur.) At any rate, that Ford can make use of him at least puts a prima facie question mark against the sort of wide ranging criticism of him that Hart engages in. It might be that neither engages in a faithful reading of him, or only partial readings of him -- as I mention, Ford feels the need to supplement Levinas to make best use of him. Assessment of Ford's or Hart's readings of Levinas is beyond the pale of my competence.

Indeed, I am not qualified to judge (many of) Hart’s readings of these thinkers, such as Derrida, etc., as these are beyond my realm of expertise. I am willing to grant them as readings of ‘Derrida’, as descriptions of positions which may or may not be held by Derrida or his followers – in fact, which may not be held by anyone at all – yet are useful foils for describing what Hart is doing, and adequate descriptions of positions he disapproves of. This might, perhaps, seem like a retreat from critical reading, but the fact is I only have so much time, and my intentions in engaging this text are not to form a judgement about Hart as a reader of contemporary texts, it is (more) to get a sense of his overall project, to examine his positive theological constructions (about which I know somewhat more), and, especially, to explore his notions of divine glory. And I propose that this is actually how most of us approach most texts, most of the time – we simply don’t have the time, energy, or background to be every bit up to speed on every ongoing debate, and are generally willing to grant to writers that they have, most likely, gotten it mostly right, at least on those things upon which we are not qualified to say otherwise. Naturally, this kind of reading does also have a question mark hanging over it: while I am willing to grant Hart his reading of ‘Derrida’ for the sake of argument, I am not willing to go to the mat to defend his reading – that is, to contend that ‘Derrida’ and Derrida are one and the same – without some serious reading of Derrida himself. Of course, this is simply one part of the hermeneutical circle, of coming to understand a larger tradition: we always enter mid-conversation.


The pictures in this post are of the haunting City Methodist Church in Gary, Indiana; more information can be found about it here. The pictures are not mine, but borrowed from that site.

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