The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

How Buffered Is Your Self? September 4, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor — Joel @ 7:32 pm

Taylor uses a couple of interrelated phrases that speak powerfully of our pre-modern/post-modern selves; his terms are the pre-modern “porous self” and the modern “buffered self.”

The porous self describes the common pre-modern worldview of being open to the good and evil forces of the world.  This meant that there were demons to be placated and protected against, storms to be drained of their strength by devotions to various deities, and saints to be blessed by. In short, the experience was an outer experience, one in which the person laboured to position herself in the most beneficial posture possible in reference to the powerful world around her.  The modern buffered self is completely the opposite.

We can see this sin in things like the preparation for the 2010 winter Olympic games in Vancouver, where the homeless are carted, out of sight-out of mind, to the outskirts of the city, and where the import of sufficient quantities of prostitution is allowed as long as it isn’t seen (of course that is their problem now, it has become visible).  It seems to me that the buffered self merely stuffs human desire and “irrationality” into marked boxes to be opened only in private.

Taylor marks the departure from the porous self as synonymous with the rejection of carnival (I will return to the idea of carnival later) and with the acceptance of the reformation’s dictum that all must be 100% christian; all must read the bible for themselves (interpreting perfectly through the pure lense of a childlike faith), all, not just clergy, must live up to the virtues of a syncretistic, synchronized leap of ecclesial and governmental force, diving into the shallows of the buffered, protected, reasonable self.

It seems that Taylor explicates the problem well, but feigns to consider the the issue as problematic as I do.  When he says “buffered self,” I say “death.”  Granted it cannot be as simple as this, but it is interesting that Taylor comes so close to the edge of the abyss which his own explanations open up, but seems unperturbed by such depth and darkness; he is perhaps more caught up in the grand vista that he claims to see on the other side.  The question remains whether what he sees is another city (le cite de dieu) or a pile of clouds, lit for the moment with sun and sky.


Political Discussions in the Public Sphere: Designed to be Powerless August 27, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,public theology — Joel @ 5:59 am

Continuing from my previous post on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I want to reflect on a point that Taylor makes regarding the public sphere.  He makes an interesting distinction between the public sphere of our modern age and the public sphere of the ancient republic or polis.  Both historical scenarios include discussion outside the decision making body.  The difference, he says, is that, in the ancient polis, “the discussions outside….prepare for the action ultimately taken by the same people within it.  The ‘unofficial’ discussions are not separated off, given a status of their own” (189).  The experienced reality of “discussions” in our modern era, on the other hand, operate very differently.  “It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power.  It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power.” (190)

I find this very interesting.  We, as citizens of North American style democracy, are taught to view our views, opinons, and discussions as important.  At the same time, I think most people are left wondering how these things actually contribute to the decisions made in the end.  If Taylor is right, our voices don’t figure in unless those in power decide that they should.  Our much touted public sphere of free voices is actually “extra-political,.. a discourse of reason on and to power, rather than by power.” (190)

Now there are good reasons that Taylor cites for the implementation of such spaces as extra-political.  If our discussions on the street are apolitical, then they are less likely to be as charged with violent partisanship.  This unfortunately doubles back on us, creating a modern arena of “political discourse” which seems completely centred around entertainment.  Watching Fox news, imagining it to be a stand-up routine, is an example of how important we view our discussions to be.

How can our discussions become poweful?  How do we side step (or can we?) such a circus of “political discussions” devoid of actual power?  I’m not sure how invested Taylor is in an answer to these questions, but he has done a good job of laying an interesting stage that I had not noticed before.

I don’t think that we have the “right” to be heard.  If we lean on ideas of rights in order to be heard, we only play into the system which has labled our discussions apolitical in the first place.  Instead, if we want to be heard, if we want our discussions to have power, then perhaps a more communally centred approach is the ticket.  In our society, a good measure of whether or not we are truly discussing with political power would be if those “in power” consider our discussions dangerous.  We wouldn’t have to be discussing radical issues, I don’t think; it would instead depend on the strategic place and persistence of our speech.


Music in Modernity: Gatherings of Sub-Conscious Desire August 19, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,Spirituality — Joel @ 5:49 pm

I have spent the summer reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a large work in which he endeavors to explain how, in 1500, it was inconceivable not to believe in God while in 2000 it is quite easy, if not inescapable.  He is determined not to weigh-in with his own opinion while admitting that this is impossible; thus he simply omits the end of every paragraph where you would expect an essayist to declare, “and so I agree/disagree with this.”  It has been a good read (800 some pages) and I have enjoyed beginning to think through some of his points.

On page 360, Taylor speaks about modern gatherings around music as an example of the uncertain response of many westerners to the various tides of agnosticism, atheism, and anti-deism.  He says,

“I am thinking of the way in which publicly performed music, in concert hall and opera house, becomes an especially important and serious activity in nineteenth century bourgeois Europe and America.  People begin to listen to concerts with an almost religious intensity.  The analogy is not out of place.  The performance has taken on something of a rite, and has kept it to this day.  There is a sense that something great is being said in this music.  This too has helped create a kind of middle space, neither explicitly believing, but not atheistic either, a kind of undefined spirituality.”

Most of us have heard the likening of U2 concerts to church services, and Arcade Fire holding its concerts in cathedrals offers another example.  But it is not the lyrics (U2) or the setting (Arcade Fire) which Taylor alludes to, but rather the sense of profundity that one can experience at a concert.  I think the “undefined” and “middle space” are crucial thoughts here.  While most feel vaguely or strongly uncomfortable with the idea of everyone going to church, they are not ready to abandon the “feel” of sacred gatherings either.  Music, with its poetry and sonic unsayables, offers a gracious canvas on which to place the mixed paint of (1) nostalgia for the common point of celebration and depth that was the Mass, (2) assumed discomfort with “doctrine” or “dogma,” and (3) a palpable “not-going-away” desire to gather around some agreed-upon depth.  All this is experienced in a kind of demilitarized zone of the arts.

I’m both glad and uncomfortable with this.  I’m glad that the longing for sacred gathering is still very much alive.  I see it as a sign of hope that our communal memories are not completely shot.  My discomfort comes with our lack of historical and sociological awareness about the reasons for our musical gatherings.

This is a feeling that I’ve been having all through the book.  Its a feeling akin to someone telling you how ridiculous you’ve been acting around your ex-girlfriend, and you having no idea that you were acting so strange.  Christianity is our society’s ex-girlfriend.  We’re still wanting a little something-something (nostalgia), while at the same time recoiling, remembering truthfully (somewhat) her various infidelities.  I say this not to mean that we should just “turn back time,” I recoil at that; but I am disturbed by our lack of aquaintance with the history of our own desires.  Are we following a path that will lead us into greater light or are we are rats in a causal cage, outfitted with Bose speakers?