Thursday, August 30, 2007

Transcedence, Immanence and the Sacred

Much of my thinking and reading lately has come to a head over the issue of immanence and transcendence. In recent blogosphere ventures I encountered several posts on the issue (Larval Subjects here and here, Rough Theory, Transcendental Enquiries). There is understandable criticism over forms of transcendence which need to appeal to something outside in order to explain things or solve things. This of course is the common domain of much religious expression as well as Hollywood plot making where a miraculous visitor or event intervenes to change the course of someone’s life. This is part of the overall criticism of the weakness of religion, religion as a crutch.

My interest in transcendence does not grow out of a need to appeal to something beyond what we can see, experience or explain. However, I also do not assume that humans have the resources or senses to bring all of reality under a loosely scientific model of inquiry and explanation. That may lead some to view my thinking or theory as weak. I am beginning to understand that what I am concerned with is the relational aspect of reality. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Suppose truth was a relationship – what then?” This is definitely a structural approach to reality. Meaning arises in contextual relationships.

I am however not satisfied with the view that this leads to an evasion of meaning, that meaning is endlessly deferred. This is I suppose where people explicitly or implicitly appeal to a transcendent source to stabilize or deliver meaning. This is where I begin to move towards what may be viewed as an incarnational (any other terms available?) view of reality. What I mean by this is that all of reality, reality as such, has its being (ontology) in a certain potential which as of yet has not bowed and submitted to human colonization. This is where the poetic and aesthetic become most helpful. The poetic respects the possibility of reality. My guiding quote in the header is becoming more and more significant for my thought, “There is another world, and it is the same as this one.” Beauty has not yielded her secrets but she still invites. This is not some plea for something “outside” to clarify or correct. This is the eternal task of relationship, of taking ourselves out of a perceived centre and hovering around the sacred absence necessary for relationship. This in turn leaves not a deferral of meaning but honouring its abundance.

Criticize where necessary. This is certainly a work in progress.

1 comment:

N. Pepperell said...

Hello - Nice post. I suppose my first reaction is to be a bit concerned that you've asked me to comment here, on a post that begins with an expression of concern that your thought might be perceived as "weak" or that religion might be perceived as a "crutch". These sorts of things aren't really a motivating force for my own work, and I don't tend to make generalisations about "religion", any more than I make generalisations about other very abstract categories for grouping social or intellectual movements. Religious practices or beliefs won't always have the same nature or function, on a personal or collective level - to the extent that I would make evaluative judgements of religious movements, it would be on the same grounds that I would make judgements of secular movements: on the basis of the specific ideals to which they appeal, the determinate practices they involve, the concrete impacts they are likely to have on others, the degree to which they enable a realisation of potentials within the context in which they unfold.

I'm also inclined to think that most humans reach for meaning in their individual and collective lives, and not to see the sense of treating such a general impulse as a weakness. The debate then comes down to whether meaning can be grounded only by a reach "outside", or whether something immanent and relational is instead possible (and what the different implications of landing on one side or the other of such a debate might be). But this debate doesn't immediately pick out one side as religious and the other as secular: there are many secular forms of thought that tacitly or explicitly posit an "outside", and there are religious forms of thought reaching for forms of immanence. So, again, I think it's an issue of looking at specific forms of thought, specific practices, rather than generalising.

In terms of the more detailed concepts you outline here, some of my own work would turn around whether a statement like this might already concede too much:

What I mean by this is that all of reality, reality as such, has its being (ontology) in a certain potential which as of yet has not bowed and submitted to human colonization.

One hallmark of recent theory (theory unfolded since, say, the 1960s) is its disaffection with the potential for meaningful social transformation emerging from within a society itself (there are, of course, some very good historical reasons for critics to draw this kind of conclusion, so on one level it's difficult not to be sympathetic). As a consequence, critique has subsequently often been repositioned as a form of practice that cultivates resources for resistance to whatever is regarded as characteristic of the social field - resistance to some property of colonisation, power, or similar terms that suggest the existence of an encompassing process that is not internally contradictory and that cannot effectively be overcome, but that can perhaps be contained or held at bay in some fashion if we mobilise other resources that arise outside the social process we are trying to "resist".

My interest is not so much in denying that "other resources" outside a social process might exist (one can operate quite consistently within an immanent framework, without reducing everything back to the creations of human society), as in asking whether we were right to accord so much power, so much identity, so much non-contradiction, to whatever it is we think we are trying to "resist". I believe that, when we rethink this issue, and look closely into the reproduction of some of those aspects of contemporary human society we have been trying to "resist", we sometimes find that some of the "resources" that had seemed to lie outside the social, instead turn out to have been generated within it - that the contemporary social field is more intrinsically internally riven, and therefore holds more potentials, than much theory manages to capture.

This sort of theory, if done successfully, then might suggest a potential to historicise, bound, and situate (relationally) certain things that are often positioned as "eternal" - and might be able to unfold an explanation for why certain forms of thought and practice are particularly meaningful for us, in this present moment, due to a particular constellation of relationships in which we are currently embedded, whose qualitative character renders us into subjects prone to recognise something as meaningful when it assumes a particular shape.

The implication of this kind of analysis - I would agree with you here - is not at all nihilistic: it is only when someone starts from the assumption that the only possible meaning is timeless and transcendent, that nihilism would appear to be the consequence of such an exploration.

I don't know your work well enough to know if these concerns touch directly on what you hope to grasp - I don't assume the issues that occupy my work will be of concern to everyone. But these are some of the more practical reasons I engage with questions of immanence, in the specific context of exploring whether certain forms of (generally secular) theory are relying on tacit or explicit appeals to transcendence, because they have so theorised the social field in such an "all-powerful" way that the only hope of transformation appears to lie in an appeal to some kind of irreducible "outside" - to something that cannot be touched by the social. My position is that our shared social field is much more complicated than this kind of theory allows - and that in some cases this means that theorists are projecting critical forms of thought onto an "outside" (onto nature or onto language, for example) that actually are generated in determinable ways through a process of social reproduction. Among other things, this tends to lead to a disjoint between theory and practice, such that theory can inadvertently reinforce what it is seeking to criticise. But, as I said, I'm not sure these concerns are directly relevant to the sorts of issues you're wrestling with - I'm just trying to provide a bit of a frame for interpreting some of the strategic intentions of my own writing on issues of immanence.