I’ve often said that modern culture is essentially materialistic, in the philosophical sense that material (physical) things are deemed to be all there is. And yet, materialists routinely invoke language of the transcendental to explain what’s going on around them, including the word “transcendent” itself. It’s confusing. It has the effect of masking the absence of meaning or purpose and even conceptual truth from the postmodern paradigm.
I recently read an article by Ewa Thompson, called The Great Amputation: Language in the Postmodern Era, published in Modern Age, Fall 2018. In it, she comes to a similar conclusion:
Something happened to the English language within my lifetime. Its most subtle and ineffable level has been amputated. The most respected humanistic texts are anti-essentialist in a way that precludes assigning a “metaphysical vibration” to language. In public discourse, words have ceased to be, in Seamus Heaney’s expression, “bearers of history and mystery,” indicators that there may exist a mode of experience that can be expressed only in an indirect and obscure way, and that this limitation does not make such experience unreal. Words have become carriers of a public image and signs of aspiration to a public image. . . . Following Ferdinand de Saussure, scholars have begun to treat words as “points of intersection” rather than as entities that potentially carry within themselves multiple meanings, including spiritual ones.
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Among those who have explicitly advocated such an amputation, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida stands out. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida writes of his desire to do away with the anagoge. He outlines his frustration with traditional approaches to language and encourages efforts to eliminate from language its connection to the world of metaphysics. He wants to demystify language in such a way that no trace of the spiritual would remain. He posits that such concepts as soul and spirit should disappear from our vocabulary, because they mistakenly lead us to the imaginary and false source of all pseudo-meaning, namely, God. Were Derrida alive today, he would rejoice. What he tried to get rid of—the very core of Western culture—has all but disappeared from academic and public discourse. Not only in everyday conversations but also in scholarship and literature, we avoid reaching for the verbal potential that connects us to the spiritual.
A snippet from Mark Steyn last week:
When I was a kid and watched sci-fi movies set in a futuristic dystopia where dehumanized individuals are mere chattels of an unseen all-powerful machine policed by commissars in identikit variety-show tinfoil suits in a land where technology has advanced but liberty has retreated, I always found the caper less interesting than the unseen backstory: How did they get there from here? . . . [W]e’re now in the getting-there-from-here phase: Things are changing very fast. And, if we don’t fully understand why they’re changing and where they’re heading, we’re going to end up in one of those dehumanized dystopias – and very soon.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned an article by Roger Scruton, and quoted a portion of it, in which he writes of “pollution” as being the reduction of another person to a mere object of one’s individual subjective experience, rather than him- or herself also a subject; Another Like Me (catchy book title, that). Scruton wrote:
[A]lthough we may banish the concept of pollution from our thoughts, it cannot be banished from our feelings. It did not need the MeToo movement to tell us that sexual encounters can be felt in retrospect as contaminations. The entire literature of humanity points in that direction. . . . Ritual purification is a feature of both Judaism and Islam, and cleanliness is regarded in both religions as the avenue to an inner purity. This inner purity is at stake in sex and love. But it also has a profoundly religious connotation, being a readiness towards God, a self-presentation to the Lord of creation, from whose grace we might otherwise irrecoverably fall.
I note this with particular interest because there are competing ideas about what constitutes the worst kind of personal failing one can have, short of murder, and its reciprocal virtue. For theists, it may be sexual libertinism/rectitude. In modern culture, it is rejection/tolerance. I’m still developing on this idea, but I mention it now not only because of Scruton’s writing, but also that of Rene Girard, whose I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning I am neck-deep in. One conclusion of Girard’s is that the concern for victims is the new absolute value. This is something I’ve experienced in life. On the right, sexual failing may be regarded as the cause of deepest self-humiliation. On the left it’s bigotry.
What do you think?