Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 2

Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 1

A romantic counterculture has existed since the early nineteenth-century Parisian Bohemia. Its continued relation to the dominant bourgeois culture was analysed by Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), and Gertrude Himmelfarb showed how its sensibilities have today largely conquered the establishment and what used to be polite society. Analysis in terms of the pantheistic revolution makes it easier to understand this dialectic between the counterculture and the establishment. Under the influence of a single blurred ideology of rights and enjoyment, and a uniform imaginative and emotional universe, not only what C.S. Lewis called the “large, well-meant statements” of popular pantheism, but an ever-intensifying, renewed romanticism of the outcast and a growing fascination for evil shapes graduate seminars, art galleries, and novels to the same extent that they control the world of pure entertainment.

In the secular revolution of immanent utopianism, guided by radical Enlightenment and radical Romanticism, the traditional differential structure of Western order, and especially the relation and balance between them, are finally abandoned altogether. The distinction between spiritual and secular power, as well as the distinction between the independent learned community of the university and the power of the state and the Church – and, we could add, the bourgeois world of commerce – are, for instance, replaced by the distinction between the evil, repressive forces of the past, deceiving the People, or rather, increasingly, the oppressed minorities by masking its selfish exercise of power behind false, hypocritical moralism and religiosity, on the one hand, and the radical, progressive intellectual on the other. But the role of the intellectual is really obsolete too. Today, the ranks of politicians, academics, artists, Churchmen and -women, business tycoons and popular entertainers become indistinguishable. In the terms of my analysis, it could be said that all people of all classes and walks of life are ever more closely joined in the ubiquitous pantheistic cult.

In the dominance of electronic media, computers, and technology in general, the interdependence of romanticism on the one hand and scientific rationalism and empiricism on the other reappears. The romantic, narcissistic ego, ever torn between self-assertion and self-annihilation, which, weakened by pseudo-idealism, was an easy prey of the brutal outer forces of the emerging new external world, which in the nihilism of its self-exaltation was only seemingly paradoxically never far from self-extinction in the bosom of nature or in the void, and which in its unavoidable bitter disillusion readily accepted cynical and extreme versions of the naturalistic worldview, today reasserts itself in the mode of a popular culture unquestioningly adopting all the new wonders of technology.

It is hard to see any decisive difference between the practices of Michel Foucault – at his death, according to James Miller, “perhaps the single most famous intellectual in the world” – and the messages conveyed by the grosser and more violent films and music of today’s popular culture, except that Foucault still took his practices far more seriously and invested them more portentously with philosophical, cultural, and political meaning. Foucault

“joined…in the orgies of torture, trembling with ‘the most exquisite agonies’, voluntarily effacing himself, exploding the limits of consciousness, letting real, corporeal pain insensibly melt into pleasure through the alchemy of eroticism…Through intoxication, reverie, the Dionysian abandon of the artist, the most punishing of ascetic practices, and an uninhibited exploration of sadomasochistic eroticism, it seemed possible to breach, however briefly, the boundaries separating the conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, pleasure and pain – and, at the ultimate limit, life and death – thus starkly revealing how distinctions central to the play of true and false are pliable, uncertain, contingent.” [Cited in Roger Kimball, Experiments Against Reality (2000), 248.]

But the serious revolutionary satanism of the pantheistic revolution has long been transformed by the tendency of its expression in the remaining forms of the  avant-garde to be increasingly reduced to mere entertainment. Art and literature are merged with advertisement and fashion. Politics is reduced to a manipulation of images and phrases by the media. Historical revolts were earnest enough to the extent that they were the products of real material destitution which to some extent interacted with ideological convictions that were earnestly held. Not that this was the whole explanation of historical revolutions, but there often was at least one factor of this kind. In the postmodern age, a revolutionary ideology was, as it were, earnestly held only as far as earnestness is at all possible in a pantheistic universe. At our stage in the history of the romantic revolution, earnestness tends to dissolve in the inherent nonsensicality of its fully realized pantheism.

For pantheism itself necessarily disintegrates in its triumph. Traditionalists argue that however legitimate the revolts against the corruption of the government of favour and the religion of grace may have been, in the long run, turning against the order of reality itself, revolutions of empty space cannot succeed. The process of pantheism swallows up all critical vantage-points, including those of radical modernism. Were it not for the implicit tendency towards nonsensicality, some rock concerts today resemble the radical political mass meeting, which in turn can be seen as a further development of the ceremonies on the Champs de Mars and the hysteria of Jacobin decapitations. The rebellious punk movement was ever close to more or less anarchic political activism. Perhaps the new religion could be said to be the religion of what J. L. Talmon in the title of his best-known book called “totalitarian democracy”, the dictatorship based not only on ideology but on popular enthusiasm.

Of course, postmodern “fun” and entertainment could be sinister enough. If they couldn’t reach the suprapersonal ecstacy of joy, they could at least sink to the subpersonal ecstacy of the Dionysian orgy. In one aspect, the recent trends of our culture would seem to land us in endless triviality and banality, with, in Allan Bloom’s words, some “[a]nti-bourgeois ire” as “the opiate of the last man”. [The Closing of the American Mind (1987), 78.] In reality, it simply weakens the discernment of evil and the resistance against it.

As we have seen, in its seemingly disparate currents the pantheistic revolution is intelligible as a single movement of interrelated forces. In the postmodern carnival of micronarratives, objective theoretical and moral truth was replaced by consent alone, [Dennis McCallum, ed, The Death of Truth (1996); Robert H. Knight, The Age of Consent: The Rise of Relativism and the Corruption of Popular Culture (1998).] but the aim and direction of the whole movement was unambiguous, and its meaning, even as it rejects meaning as such, was clear. It is highly significant that so much in Lasserre’s formulations precisely describes postmodern criticism:

“C’est la destruction de la critique…un art équivoque de délayer tout dans tout, de parler de tout à faux, de faire dire aux philosophies, aux religions l’opposé de ce qu’elles disent, de ramener l’affirmation à une négation, et plus encore de hausser la négation à la dignité d’affirmation, d’apprécier les positions intellectuelles et morales le plus nettement prises par les hommes du passé, selon l’indécision d’une pensée qui se croit la plus grande, parce qu’elle ne s’arrête nulle part.” [See the note about Lasserre’s book and page numbers above.]

In postmodernism’s non-hierarchical, differential play, all forces and perspectives were relative to each other, but of course no longer parts of a whole in relation to which they had to be understood. Identities were fractured, ephemeral, contingent, ever-changing, insubstantial constructs and fictions. It was a carnival of fluctuating “appearences” alone, with nothing of which it was appearances. But this situation too was the ultimate consequence of pantheistic monism and of the nihilism that is never far from it, for an empty principle disappears easier than a principle full of spiritual content. Postmodernism was the ultimate blurring of distinctions: everything was indiscriminately included, everything of a lower character was legitimized – not any longer in the dialectical movement of the World-Spirit, but in the multivalent process of chaotic play.

As already in the early romantics, pantheistic “love” was all-inclusive, yet intrinsically linked to the hate of the rebel-heroes whose satanistic excess, notorious in entertainment in a spectacular form which, in accord with the evaporation of seriousness in postmodernism, ever verges on self-parody, was embraced as just and legitimate in the face of the oppression of the only enemy, non-pantheist differentiationalism. At least to some extent, the latter, however faded and diffuse it may have become, must somehow be mythically retained and its injustices ceremonially rehearsed for the indiscriminate cult of liberation, a central ingredient of the pantheistic revolution, to preserve credibility and motivation.

Pattison argues that democracy is pantheism’s political form. “The refined seek to rise above the ubiquitous democracy of the grass, but Whitman answers: ‘I exist as I am, that is enough’. Pantheistic democracy’s ‘common language’ is ‘sensation’, and ‘its boundaries are the universe’”: “There is no evil in the pantheist democracy because the transcendent vantage to distinguish good and evil has been gobbled up in the whole. Every act, no matter how loathsome by traditional standards, is valid, since the one knows itself by assuming the infinite forms of the many. To understand this process is ‘to live beyond the difference’ between good and evil, refinement and vulgarity.” [The Triumph of Vulgarity, 26-7.]

For this reason, even the enemy would, it seems, ultimately have to be included in the pantheistic universe. But that is impossible as long as the enemy preserves his own identity and refuses to accept his redefinition in pantheist terms.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


Arts & Humanities



For a Truly European Union

Carl Johan Ljungberg: Humanistisk förnyelse

All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi