Between Swooners and Cynics (“the Spiritual”)

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(Rafael Barrios; Park Ave. at points below E.68th St.; stainless steel and acrylic lacquer)

When is a piece of stainless steel just a piece of stainless steel and when does the flat, floating colors over a tony Manhattan city street remind you of “something more”?

Martin Kavka wrote a brilliant, testy, somewhat snarky response to the online Frequencies series. It’s a series I happen to like, but Martin surely has a point. The Frequencies series is an online blog featuring posts by scholars of religion reflecting on “the spiritual” in contemporary culture. It builds upon a lot of the work pioneered by Marc Taylor.

This kind of reflection tends to look for religion where it hides kind of stuff that is big in postmodern, secular religion, and postsecular forms of religious thought and religious studies. In my own research, its akin to what Kandinsky would have called “the spritual in art.” I also find it all over the Buber-Rosenzweig-Heschel wing of 20th century Jewish thought. 

A philosophical-theological crux of the issue is the trust in language (articulated  most clearly by Rosenzweig in the Star, particularly in the revelation chapter on Song of Songs, but also elsewhere). This is the trust that a word or a sound or an image that is sensual in nature carries a kind of allusive (Heschel’s general term) character that points to a spiritual super-sense.

For me, the take-away from Martin’s excellent post is is this point: “To call for a genealogy is to call for individuals to dissent, to talk about echoes of spirituality where they are not always expected in our culture—in iP…hones, on the floor of a John Cage performance, on a highway, in a cup of coffee, in blood. This is what most of the contributors have done. However, to call for a genealogy is also to call for individuals to dissent from each other, to contest people’s claims that they have truly found the spirit in any of these places.

I tend to be with Rosenzweig on this side of the trust question, but I understand this trust lends itself to all kinds of critical abuse and can open itself to lots of ridicule, some of it undeserved, much of it undeserved. 

It’s the same basic tension in Edith Wyschogrod’s essay in Crossover Queries about religious swooning in modern and contemporary culture, about whom I posted below.

What I like about it the swooning is how it opens up a range of interpretive possibility. There may not be anyway to settle the debate between the swooners and their critics. But, there’s a right and a wrong way to occupy either position, internal to that single position. I don’t think we dare ignore the tension between charity (gullibility) and suspicion (criticisim).

I think you can mix suspicion and charity. But I’m never going to resolve fully this tension with Martin. I’m not sure I’d want to.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Between Swooners and Cynics (“the Spiritual”)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    these looked so unreal to me that i had to look them up several times and then youtube them to convince myself that they were real objects and understand what they were doing. i tried to find kavka’s essay on the like, but could not. but in any event, i think my reaction to the pieces says something about the tension of trust v.s. criticism/distrust. these images play in the inter-zone between trust and and distrust and this is why they are so captivating. we are compelled to trust our first impressions but, at the same time, these impressions are so fantastic that we simultaneously cannot trust them and are, therefore, compelled to discover the secret… which i did on youtube and you probably did while walking past them. in art there is always the illusion and, so, one will always be able to walk around the piece and be de-mystified. but in life i am not so sure it is that easy. i don’t think that we can never really “walk around the piece”, so to speak, so we are always in-between trust and distrust. to me, at least, either prong is, in isolation, rather reductive.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    kavka was kind enough to send me a link to the piece, which, now having read, i can do a bit of commenting on before returning to my term papers. he says:

    “If Lofton and Modern are calling for a field to take form—for genealogists to come together as genealogists—then those people should not only dissent from the past, but also self-consciously write about spirituality as if there were no reference point in it. This means not writing in the indicative, as if “the highway is a space of potential” were a factual claim. Instead, it means writing in the subjunctive, claiming that it is possible to take the highway as such space, and that when the highway is so interpreted, certain states of affairs will result.”

    I can go with him on the claim that writing must be self-critical, but not in the way he seems to view this. whether one makes a claim or rejects it, one must do so from a determinate position. even the standpoint of the possible is a position. it seems to me that kavka takes the possible to be a position independent of that of which it is the possibility. I am not certain about this. I would argue that the possible is the paradoxical validation of all positions of which it is the possible, affirmation, negation, alternation, etc. it is a positional totality. taken in this way, the claim that “the highway is a space of potential” need not be written in the subjunctive, but can be written in the indicative without sacrificing critical probity, for that it is not a space of potential, or that some other view of the spiritual which utterly displaces it will be held simultaneously in tow as indicatives. That is, we can approach such a project in the same way Barrios’ sculptures are approached: with a juxtaposition of belief and disbelief, neither of which negates the other.

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