(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.