Swooners and Skeptics (Responding to Martin Kavka, Again)


(Hermes and company, Grand Central Station, New York)

I’m not sure what to do. I have colleague-friends who are incredibly smart. Sometimes they post online, and I want to respond to them at JPP. The problem is that, well, I can sometimes be argumentative, and sometimes I sound more caustic than I want to be.

I don’t want to be the type of person who always wants to monopolize the last word. And maybe they don’t want their Google profile to get all gummed up by too many referrals to JPP. What I’ve sort of decided is to not post completely critical, or negative posts. I think the internet is a bad place to start most types of argument, and I want JPP to be “positive.” I don’t like a book or a print-article, I won’t write about it, most of the time. Not because I’m always a positive person, but because I know how bad negative contents can get online. What I’ve started to do is ask for permission from my colleague-friends before responding to their online content, with an offer to let him or her have the last word by way of reply.

It’s in this spirit that I observe how Hayyim Rothman pointed out in a comment here at JPP an argument made by Martin Kavka in his recent post online over at Immanent Frame. http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2012/04/02/the-fiercest-love-of-all/

Martin responds critically to the type of academic writing about religion and spirituality online at Frequencies , which tends to infuse everyday, material forms of experience and consciousness with super-terrestial super-sense. It’s a type of writing, much like my own writing about Buber, Rosenzweig, and “the spiritual in art” that lends itself to what Shaftesbury would have called “enthusiasm,” and which Kant less kindly called Schwarmerei.

I tend to be sympathetic with this kind of stuff. In the passage about which Hayyim remarked, Martin objects to “writing in the indicative, as ifthe highway is a space of potential’ were a factual claim.” Martin recommends instead 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.

Martin is right. Martin is always right…up to a point. The subjunctive form of expression lends itself to critical inquiry without which “religious enthusiasm” gets lost in a morass of bad jargon, and other kinds of abuse. But I think it’s also true to say that the subjunctive recommended by Martin also gums up things –discourse, thought,  imagination, and, in the end, the critical reason to which Martin commits himself and Jewish philosophy. So much energy (the energy in a sentence) gets invested in conditioning, qualifying, unsaying that I fear one possible consequence is that we lose sight of the phenomenal texture that mark those “certain states of affairs.” Subjunctive statements are long and convoluted. Statements in the indicative and imperative are more crisp, conceptually and syntaxically.

While I accept his caution, I’m more willing than Martin to entertain the claim or at least the spirit in which the claim is made by Chip Callahan over at Frequencies that “highways are a space of potential.”

That’s not to say you don’t want Martin in the car with you to keep you alert to the dangers of oncoming traffic. At some point, though, the subjunctive will fall asleep, and you can let your brain wander a bit. You just better be very careful, because, well, Martin’s usually right about this kind of stuff.

I’m not sure where Martin stands on this, but I think you can write both charitably and critically about religion, revelation, and “the spiritual and art” and claims concerning them. This would combine close attention to the sense and sensation of the text, image, and claims about them, as well as to all the material, contextual frames that form part of or all of their condition (of possible experience).

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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