Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 1

I republish this series as an indirect comment on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. It was first published here in 2012 (this first part on 16th April), but written in 2001.

For many years, postmodernism, in the broad and loose American sense which includes also the main thinkers of poststructuralism, has come under attack in academia from various quarters, and some of its influence should be described in the past tense. But if it is receding, it has of course, like all the successive movements in the shifting pageant of modern intellectual and academic life, left a permanent legacy which is taken up in more or less recognizable forms in subsequent thought. Not only is it still a relevant analytical category in the effort to understand contemporary culture, but as a product of what I call the pantheistic revolution, it stands in an indissoluble relation to some of the movements which have recently supplanted it and which are also products of this same revolution.

This is one of the things which can best be seen by applying the analytical concept of a pantheistic revolution that comprises both modern romanticism and modern rationalism. Derridean deconstruction and similar strategies were Americanized postmodernism’s new attempt to break down what the prominent scholar of romanticism Morse Peckham described in terms of “orientation”, the fixed, dualistic, hierarchical and of course allegedly unreal constructs of order of Platonism and Christian theology as well as of Enlightenment rationalism. In a sense, postmodernism still constructed the world out of the self and the self out of the world, but there was no longer any explanation or deduction from an empty, unitary principle behind this process. All first principles, comprehensive systems, supreme propositions, and overarching theories were now rejected, and considered possible to reject. There could be no ontotheology, no centre, no master narrative. The hierarchical, vertical, “arborescent” structure of knowledge with clearly classifiable branches stemming from an original unitary principle was abandoned by Deleuze in favour of a horizontal or subterranean, “rhizomatic” knowledge. The use of a vague, poetical, allusive, metaphorical and analogical language in Ahrimanic opposition to the – always caricatured – limitations of the clear and distinct Ohrmazdic conceptuality of Descartes, the “idées claires”, “règles”, and “forme” defended by French classicist critics of romanticism like Pierre Lasserre, was taken to new extremes.

Modern rational exploitation, domination and control of nature, and traditional spiritual transcendence of it, became ever more indistinguishable. Postmodernism opposed mainly the rationalistic, epistemological subjectivity of modernity, but failing increasingly to perceive the difference between such subjectivity and the subjectivity of moral and religious consciousness in the Platonic and Christian traditions, it tended to reduce the latter to the former and to and reject all subjective identity based on the qualities of consciousness as an imperialistic metaphysics of presence and logocentrism.

This is one of the reasons why postmodernism must be seen as a chapter in the long story of modern romanticism, restating some of its oldest and most basic themes in terms the newness of which can delude us only if we do not grasp the depth and pervasiveness of the romantic movement as quintessentially defining Western culture at present no less than two hundred years ago. For the postmodernist, the rationalist, abstract straitjacket of the logocentric metaphysics of presence stifles the play of  dualities and binary opposites that the earlier romantics sought in various ways to reunite, but which were now even more fluid, unstable, and ambiguous, and the indeterminate play of which was now – also largely in line with Adorno’s negative dialectic – simply to be set free without even an ideal of synthesis.

In Lasserre’s words about romantic thought, “la Définition est la mort de la pensée”; we stand before a “laisser-aller infini”, and “le caractère indéterminé des représentations” is indeed, and again, “mêlé d’une sorte d’enthousiasme”. The effect of the new wave of release was of course, as ever, revolutionary, guided in the new, indirect fashion by “l’esprit de nivellement par en bas dans l’ordre de la culture”. [Le romantisme français (1907) – page number missing in my notes, but will be added when I next consult this book in the library.] But after Heidegger there were no longer any claims either to human divinity or to the spontaneous harmony consequent upon its liberation. With deconstruction, postmodern culture finally passed unambiguously beyond even the distorted remnants of what Peckham analysed in terms of the tragic vision that were still cultivated or manipulated by modernism. In this state, where all objective distinctions of reality were suspended or dissolved in the directionless process of what was originally pantheism, the whole content and meaning of art, which previously depended on these distinctions, were ultimately reduced, if not to sheer nonsense, at least to triviality.

For the distinction between romanticism before and after the complete loss of the tragic vision can be linked to a distinction Robert Pattison makes in The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism (1987) between vulgar and non-vulgar romanticism. Even rapture, ecstasy and joy, which were still goals of romantic aesthetics, are “states impossible for the vulgar pantheist. To be rapt is to be snatched from the toil of common existence and lifted to a transcendent sphere from which to view perfection. To be ecstatic is literally to stand outside of one’s self, an incomprehensible position to the solipsist.” [Op.cit. 197.]

Already Coleridge realized that these states were incompatible with pantheism: “Pantheism, Coleridge says, is ‘the inevitable result of all consequent Reasoning in which the Intellect refuses to acknowledge a higher or deeper ground than it can itself supply’. And so pantheism is for Coleridge ‘practically atheistic’ – a belief that gives us a universe in which there is no joy because there is nowhere from which it flows or toward which we can move to find it.” It is clear to Coleridge that “we cannot have the joy of Beethoven’s Ninth and the vulgarities of pantheism together”. [Ibid.] But as pantheism triumphs and takes Western culture beyond the tragic vision, mere entertainment, “fun”, is all it can reach.

Although, as Pattison shows, the same case about the pantheistic revolution could as easily be made with reference to modernist and postmodernist art, literature, and non-popular music, it is popular music that reveals most clearly, through its “vulgar” directness and simplicity, the underlying moods, attitudes and motivations of the revolution of romantic pantheism, the momentum of the deeper cultural dynamic which encompasses also the intellectual élites or pseudo-élites of radical modernism and postmodernism.

The Triumph of Vulgarity is an analysis of rock music as a quintessential product of the pantheistic revolution, where pantheism comes completely into its own. Pattison shows how the “classical moorings” of vulgarity and refinement were dislodged by the industrial and democratic world revolutions, which were “only different names for a single upheaval” that “continues today with unabated vigor”, and which Pattison chooses “for the sake of convenience” to call “by the name of its literary incarnation, Romanticism”. [Ibid. 13.] The analysis is simplified of course, but serves, as such, to reveal some essential truths inevitably obscured by the very process that is laid bare. We recognize, as had Lasserre, the “empty principle” of one main current of romantic, radical idealism:

“Fifty years after the proclamation of the First Republic, the Romantic historian Jules Michelet still wrote of the French Revolution in the present tense, translating it from the deathbed of history to the vitality of myth. ‘The revolution is nothing but a tardy reaction of justice against the government of favor and the religion of grace.’ The Empire had memorialized itself in the friezes of the Arc de Triomphe, royalty in the palaces of the Louvre, religion in the masonry of Notre Dame. And the revolotion? ‘The revolution has for her monument – empty space.’ Michelet was thinking of the Champs de Mars, where the French nation celebrated the first Quatorze Juillet in 1790 and four years later gathered under the leadership of Robespierre to solemnize the Republic in rites now directed to a new deity, the Supreme Being, who had ousted the Christian divinity of the ancien régime. But Michelet’s ‘empty space’, where the people once assembled to celebrate the overthrow of favor and grace, is also a memorial to vulgarity and Romanticism. Refinement, the mode in which favor and grace have apprehended the world, has always made a point of filling the imagined vacuum of vulgarity with reasoned civilization. The Romantic revolution proclaims that the apparent emptiness is in fact infinite energy that needs no refined tinkering. Two hundred years after the Revolution, rock, celebrating this energy, is the liturgy of a new religion of vacant monuments, the fulfillment of a devotion begun on the Champs de Mars.” [Ibid.]

Postmodernism, like the pantheism analysed by Lasserre, “ne distingue pas entre une sensibilité cultivée et une sensibilité barbare”, it is “[le] règne de la facilité”. [See my note about Lasserre’s work and page numbers above.] Pattison shows that the sophistication of the avant-garde culture of aesthetic modernism that was considered the prime vehicle of imageless Messianic utopia under twentieth century conditions, was, despite being until recently contemptuous of the “vulgar” expression of romanticism, ultimately but a different mode of articulation of the same credo of romantic pantheism, narcissism, relativism, and democratism that defined popular culture. The bearers of the élite, avant-garde culture of aesthetic modernism looked with utter disdain on the expressions of popular culture, but the vehemence of the attack could, as Pattison almost implies, to some extent have been due to embarrasment at the vulgar versions of the romantic pantheism that was really also at the heart of their own convictions.

Today, the remaining distinctions between popular culture and the intellectual élites of radical modernism that shunned the vulgar expressions of their own positions have largely collapsed. Until recently, the postmodernist thinkers, effecting the transition to the new state of subjectless subjectivism, had in the eyes of the unparalleled quantity of students in what has been termed today’s mass university, ever more completely cut off from traditional classical and Christian culture, much of the kudos of the modernist avant-garde, and preserved through the cultivation of an esoteric, jargon-laden idiom their distance from popular culture. But the import of their theories consistently contributed to the breakdown of all such residually traditional distinctions, even as the jargon itself epitomized the distance from the foundational traditions of the West.

Thus the thinkers could be seen to become themselves mere stars in the entertainment culture, seemingly setting up increasingly spectacular and shocking intellectual or pseudointellectual shows in order to attract and retain attention. The phenomenon is both chronicled and exemplified in grotesque products of this state of affairs like James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault from 1993. In the progressing pantheistic universe’s dissolution of distinctions, what popular culture staged as identity experiments and gender-bending to mass audiences, the remaining, self-dissolving avant-garde preached as deconstructionist anti-essentialism. But even the distinction in form between the two substantially identical strategies was increasingly blurred.

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