Theology and Pedagogy III: Aesthetic Considerations

So far in this series, many questions have been raised, and in my contribution, I’m going to begin to untangle some of the answers. Thankfully, Luke and Sean have framed the problem very well and have raised some really important questions: How do we navigate the double commitment theology seems to have to both the academy and Christian practice? How do we initiate a theological discourse that isn’t self-legitimizing? Is that necessary or even possible? Why do we need theology at all?

We might find it useful to consider these as aesthetic questions. Aesthetics has this same double commitment to theory and practice and this same problem of legitimization. Aesthetic theory has also already faced (and continues to face) a problem that seems central to theology these days: systemization.

I think the first two can actually be answered through the third. It may seem to some that theology is, without question, a systematic discipline. “Systematic Theology” is one way we refer to the discipline in seminaries. Theological systems usually take as their starting point a number of first principles. These are concepts that ground a system and can’t be deduced from any other concept within the system. (What Derrida calls “centers” in “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”) What those are may change, but probably all theological systems include “God.” Some might include sin, love, wisdom, Man, etc. Aesthetics too, from the time of Kant, included an attempt to establish some principles from which to begin evaluation and understanding of the aesthetic object.

While Kant identified three spheres of judgment, understanding, reason, and aesthetics, only the first two have a realm of objects in which they are interested: sensible objects and moral objects, respectively. However aesthetics is a disinterested sphere according to Kant because any object has the potential to be an aesthetic object. Because of this disinterest, in order to determine whether or not an object is aesthetic and its aesthetic value, one must employ judgment by subsuming the object under general categories of aesthetic understanding. These categories are first principles which ground what it is for an object to be aesthetic (beauty and so forth.) It’s important to note that Kant isn’t trying to say that aesthetic judgment can be objective in the same way that the understanding is (in the First Critique.) Rather, Kant’s aim is to separate the aesthetic from the teleological. To establish a purposiveness without purpose for the aesthetic. If the telos is removed from the aesthetic object (i.e. we can no longer say the aesthetic object exists for the purpose of inspiration or the portrayal of divine beauty, etc.) then a completely new way to understand how we know when an object has aesthetic value must be derived. That is Kant’s aim, and his solution is to say that we use the categories. That is, of course, a huge oversimplification, but for our purposes, I won’t be going into the details of exactly how the categories are implemented in aesthetic judgments. It is enough to know that Kant thinks aesthetic objects are subsumed under the categories in making aesthetic judgments.

There are some very important differences between the aesthetic object and the theological concept (particularly with regard to purpose), so I don’t want to say there is a 1:1 relation. But I think the problem that Luke and Sean outlined in their post with regard to the rigidity they find in theological discourse and pedagogy finds a helpful analogy in the problem of systematization in aesthetics.  Namely, theological discourse has typically demanded that the discursive practice of the discipline be subsumed under certain first principles which must result in a system in which every element hangs together with every other without any room for contingency. The discipline, particularly in orthodoxy, becomes a practice of eliminating difference in the hopes of banishing contingent possibilities. It may seem like the solution is just to say we should eliminate systems altogether. But I don’t think that’s the solution. Indeed, I’m not sure such a thing is really possible. Instead, systems need to be laid open, made contingent, not just to allow for the movement and flux of concepts for the sake of concepts, but to make the politically mobilizing potential of theology actual. Adorno’s aesthetics starts us down this path.

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno agrees that form in the Kantian sense is important in aesthetic judgment, but this must be combined with the Hegelian notion of intellectual import and the Marxist understanding of the social function of art. Thus, what qualifies as an aesthetic object drastically changes. Adorno specifies between two different types of experience of the aesthetic: Erlebnis und Erfahrung. The former is the unreflective consumption of art (what we typically experience when we see a blockbuster film or listen to pop music.) The latter, however, is an engagement with the object in terms of why it qualifies as art, what Adorno says is the “subjective experience directed against the I [which] is an element of the objective truth of art.” By “objective truth of art” Adorno literally means a “transcendent” dimension–an intangible that pushes beyond, sometimes far beyond, where we are already. Aesthetic cognition, then, is not a subsuming of the object under generalized categories. Rather, there is a reversal of transcendental judgment when one is confronted with an object that is truly of high aesthetic value. Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced. It is a shattering of the general categories that transcendental aesthetic judgment would try to impose. It destroys what you thought the beautiful was, what you thought form was, what you thought a human being was, what you thought love was, what you thought God was. And finally, we understand the aesthetic object when we recognize the non-transitive form of the experience—that we cannot restate something without eliminating the original meaning that the aesthetic object disclosed.

The temptation here, especially if you study theology or are a person of faith, might be to jump to the conclusion that Adorno’s account of aesthetic experience can simply be read analogously as an experience of the noumenal per Rudolf Otto or something like that, but I would strongly caution against that. There’s more that we need to consider first.

Gilles Deleuze carries Adorno’s project further in including and focusing his attention on the visceral, embodied experience of the aesthetic object (see: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation.) What is important for both is to understand how an aesthetic object can break free from its own context. However, judgment for Deleuze is not antithetical to aesthetic experience; rather, it is an epiphenomenon of sense with the potential to commit violence against aesthetic objects. In his essay “To Have Done With Judgment,” Deleuze uses the distinction between combat and war to make this point. Judgment is a war on the senses in its attempt to subsume objects under a particular aesthetic ideal. Combat, on the other hand, is how Deleuze describes not just our sensual interaction with the aesthetic but the way understanding works in general. That is, we are incessantly confronted with “forces” that we must adapt ourselves to in order to proceed, and in that combat, we are changed.

If theology were to abandon its current relationship to “traditioning” and orthodoxy in favor of a new relationship to those modes, we could talk about theology using this aesthetic apparatus. When theological discourse is rigidly subsumed to the first principles and categories of “theological judgment” the latter becomes a war on our theological “senses”–even those that are practical! Paradoxically, however, it is the system which makes theological transformation possible in the first place because it is precisely the calcified system against which we must engage in combat. Therefore, systems, in a new sense, need to exist; however, they cannot be permitted to wage war against us but rather allow us to engage in combat.

Both art and theology become politically mobilizing forces in this way and it is in this way that the politically mobilized force can be both aesthetic and theological (which is, with regard to the aesthetic, to push this discussion in the direction of Jacques Rancière.) That is, if the aesthetic object must be that object which destroys previous formed categories (about sexuality, about humanity, about race, about gender, etc.) then it is also necessarily politically mobilizing. This is one way to answer the question of the legitimacy of the aesthetic.

How can theology produce this sort of effect? It can’t in the same immediate way that aesthetic objects can. But remember, we shouldn’t be drawing such tight parallels anyway. Instead, we might think about the openness of theology in a way that would allow those doing work in the field to produce politically mobilizing theologies–theologies that are allowed to shatter the boundaries of what is even thinkable in theology to begin with. As an aside, I want to stress that radical theology (meaning “death of God” theology) is but one example of this. The death of God isn’t the only unthinkable in theology.

To close, I offer one note of clarification: My point about the necessity of systems may sound like a justification of systems that have been historically oppressive, so I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not what this is. Since this post is already getting quite long, we will have to explore that idea more in a later post, but I will just note that for Adorno (and even more so Walter Benjamin) the reification of art is simply an inevitability in the the age in which we live. That is, even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power. When this happens, those ideas and objects can become tools of oppression. (Think “saved by grace through faith” or MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream.”)

I didn’t say much about pedagogy directly; I’ll do that next time. We’ll take a look at what literature departments are doing with theory (and what they’re not doing) and ask why theology couldn’t maybe do something similar as a way to talk about how theory and “practice” might be related without theologians having to pretend that they’re pastors when so many are not.

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Doxological Theology Part II: Idol and Icon

Of course, as the trained theologian will not fail to note, to address praise to this God is no mean feat. As Jean-Luc Marion highlights, the conflict between idol and icon is always “a conflict between two phenomenologies.” [1] As such, it is a conflict not between two competing objects with competing referents who otherwise are (have their Being) in the same way, but one between different ways in which these objects may be. That even objects which reference the ‘correct’ God may be idols, and the fluidity with which objects may traverse the divide between idol and icon both suggest this distinction. Rather, what is at stake is two distinct “modes of apprehension [or reception] of the divine in visibility.” [2]

For Marion, the basic form of the idol is not that of illusion or forgery. It is not properly illusory because it consists rather in the recognition of precisely that which cannot help but be seen; the idol stabilizes (grasps) that which captures the gaze, so that it can become a point of reference, given for the gaze’s use. It is not properly a forgery because the fabrication only enters the status of idol in the later, determinative, moment when it presents as “that which will fill a gaze.” [3] “The gaze makes the idol, not the idol the gaze—which means that the idol with its visibility fills the intention of the gaze, which wants nothing other than to see.” [4] The gaze stops upon some thing (the idol), and the idol re-presents that stopping point—the gaze’s own aim. Thus, the privileged metaphor for Marion is the invisible mirror; what the idol presents to the gaze is the gaze in its own intention, but it shows this in a way that masks over—renders invisable—its own operation. [5]

The icon, on the other hand, phenomenally inverts the operation of the idol. The icon is not determined by the gaze, but “provokes” it towards a vision unaccountable within its own aim. [6] In the icon, Paul’s formula rendering Jesus the “icon of the invisible God” becomes paradigmatic; the icon does not present the visible as a means of discerning between visible and invisible, offering an image for the grasp of the gaze. [7] Instead, the icon presents the invisible precisely as invisible; as that which confronts the gaze without becoming an object for the gaze’s determination. The privileged reference here is a face; because the gaze and aim that determine the icon as icon are not those that belong to the one who apprehends the icon, but to the icon itself as presentation of the invisible, the one who apprehends finds in the icon not a thing but an aim alien to herself, by which she is confronted. Thus, while the idol’s reflexive origin admits a fixed point of return, the icon can be submitted to no measure, no aesthetic, but only to its own apocalyptic, abyssal “infinite excessivess.” [8]

What is important here for the student of theology learning to pray and praise with Dionysius is the idol/icon analytic when applied to the conceptual names of God. How are we to address our praise to true God rather than idol?

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being : Hors-Texte, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Note the resemblance of the invisible/invisable distinction here to Althusser’s formulation of the ideological interpellation of the subject as subject.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 20-21.