Miscellany: On Babel, art, Barfield, and Girard

On Babel:

Most disagreements are fought over words and not meanings. I think it is tempting to mistake the feeling of familiarity with a word that hearing it pronounced or reading it may bring, with actually having grasped its meaning. The words then function like mercenaries in proxy-disputes; conflicts that are vicarious. I think words like “God” or “socialism” or “consciousness” are supremely telling examples. The essence of what is at stake is rarely approached because we remember having heard or used the word before and so assume we already know what it means to us, in itself, and to our interlocutors. The words themselves begin to carry as an implication their own judgement. For example, “God” for a religious person does not imply that he is a figment of primitive imagination or a cognitive structure that increased genetic fitness of our forebears in the way that the same term would do for an atheist. And yet they both use the same word. “God” then, is secretly a homophone. “‘God’ is said in many ways,” to paraphrase Aristotle. 

But the fact that a word in one language can (at least approximately) be translated into another shows that a word is more than its instance. It makes me wonder if music presents something like the sublimation of speech. In casting of any definite form, speech would free itself from the fixtures of habit and foregone association that usually constrain our discourse. I picture the way dry ice sublimates to become vapour. The first thing has a predeterminate form while the second is formless and therefore retains the potential to assume any form while still maintaining its original essence or substantia. This provides for pluralism that is not facile pluralism; without merely capitulating to “anything goes” or “that’s just your opinion, man.” Still, it is evident that two people may be thinking in a different key and hence what appears to be a disagreement over propositional content is in fact an incommensurability of paradigms.

On Owen Barfield, the co-extension of mind and world, and art as epiphany and edification:

In Saving the Appearances, Barfield convincingly argues that the “view-from-nowhere” ideal of modern science is a chimerical notion and that it is impossible to refer to “the world” or to “reality” outside of our experience of it. This is not to be interpreted in a pseudo-solipsistic way because the mind should not be understood as something outside of reality to begin with. It is remarkable that this line of thinking appears to have enjoyed such widespread acceptance over the last centuries (i.e. since Kant or Descartes, or perhaps Ockham). After all, it borders on a priori incoherence to assert that the mind, whose existence is attested to be the very act of assertion, is not real, since “reality” is understood, by definition, to encompass existing things. To say that the world is not separate from experience of it is also not to be interpreted as a doctrinal or axiomatic statement, but as an observation that can be made by anyone who reflects upon his own process of perception. Perspective then, is not, as the scientific ideal would suggest, a source of bias that blinds the researcher to reality. Instead, it is the only window through which he may perceive it. If you want to learn about the world through observation, you cannot at the same time insist that it be observed from nowhere and by no one. Of course, if you do not care about observation, then an observer is not necessary, but it is hard to see how this could deliver anything that would deserve the title of “knowledge.” And if it did, then it would have accomplished this by recourse to what is, in essence, the very thing which it had ostensibly rejected. All knowledge is “first-person” knowledge in that it depends on a knower to be known and to be at all. A perfect theory of everything would be useless to someone who could not understand it. Given that when we say “reality,” we are not referring to something entirely separate from the activity of our own minds, and given that this is so difficult for modern people to grasp, Barfield is perhaps justified in the following admonition:

We should remember this, when appraising the aberrations of the formally representational arts. Of course, in so far as these are due to affectation, they are of no importance. But in so far as they are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And in so far as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately therefore, seeing that kind of world. We should remember this, when we see pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motor-bicycle substituted for her left breast. (Saving the Appearances, 137)

“Art” is perhaps best understood as an intentional stance of participation than by any specific feature of its product. After all, when cultured critics ensured us that Duchamp’s “Fountain,” was not just a porcelain urinal, they were arguing on the basis of something other than its formal and material causes. Instead, they were reporting an experience of participation that characterized their perception of the object. This stance of participation describes both the artist and the viewer or audience. The artist participates the archetype with his imagination and forthwith sets about to raise his medium to participate it as well. In this way, the original medium is transfigured into a work of art. As a result, it may serve as a sort of invitation to any viewer to participate the same archetype. And this participation shapes us, “Or do you suppose there is any way in which someone can consort [ὁμιλεῖ] with what he admires without becoming like it?” (Plato, Republic 500c). This much cannot be denied: art serves to instruct our imaginations and in this connection, the thrust of Barfield’s warning can become clear. Through the experience of art, we rehearse given forms in our perception. As a result, our experience of the world is stamped with a given inflection which the artwork conveys. But our experience is, itself, a part of, and not apart from, the world. Hence, the world is inflected in the same mode as the artistic imaginary. In this way, an understanding of the simultaneous active and receptive processes in the experience of art can disclose the same elements in ordinary perception. The world is not simply lying around waiting to be perceived. Instead, the world calls forth something from our minds and our minds, in turn, actively imbue their response upon the world which we perceive. And this process is, itself, not apart from the world but rather an integral part of it. Once the co-extension of mind and world is grasped, it will be clear that bona fide art can be both edifying and epiphanic. 

Barfield’s express concern in the passage above is over the Chimera and I have often experienced a similar one over the Machine. In fact, these two impulses have already inseminated the imaginations of some futurists with the result that the vision of the Cyborg has been born—the Cyborg, of course, representing a hybrid of the Chimera and the Machine. The technocratic vision was first fostered tacitly by the collective unconscious before emerging explicitly from the conscious imaginations of a select few. Further reflections on this theme are welcome.

On the iconography, the Trinity, and modern science: 

The Father is the hypostasis of the Trinity who is Deus absconditus and hence does not lend himself to imaginal or artistic representation. Michaelangelo’s stunning and somewhat grotesque Sistine Chapel ceiling, while impressive, also shows the incoherence of any finite representation of God the Father. The exception proves the rule and demonstrates it is a good one. Christ, on the contrary, the Son and Second Person of the Trinity, became the hypostasis of God who lends himself to iconography. This was accomplished through the Incarnation. In some ways Christ is iconography in that he establishes the link between “the above” and “the below,” as it were. In other words, making images is possible insofar as Christ causes the iconography to be sustained. Indeed, the same holds true for perception as such: otherwise the image or appearance of something would bear no necessary relation to its being or reality (as for Kant). Hence, all intelligibility is a form of Communion in that it is a participation in the body of the Lógos. The Holy Ghost, Third Person, lends herself neither to representation nor its opposite but to suggestion. Hence the dove has served as a symbol of the Spirit without the latter ever appearing as such. 

Christianity appears to be a marriage of the Greek imagination with the Semitic imageless intuition of the Godhead. The synthesis has been a dynamic one, and has often unfolded through a dialectic. Hence Tertulian’s famous rhetorical question: “what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Protestantism is something of a “Semitic” reaction to the proliferation of the “Hellenic” imagination in Catholic and Orthodox tradition. Perhaps it was a necessary corrective and hence justified and perhaps not. I am more inclined to judge the extreme form of this reaction as an excess: the Puritans, in their extreme Protestant spirit, went so far as to prohibit celebrations of Christmas in the colonies because it was too “pagan,” which is to say, imaginal or “Hellenic.” Muslims, unlike traditional Christians, did not graft the imaginal scion of Hellenism to the Hebrew stock and hence Islamic art is purely abstract. One will never see an icon of Muhammed ascending on Buraq, for instance, while icons of the Transfiguration on Tabor abound in traditional artworks. Rudolf Steiner’s assertions that the progenitors of modern science were reincarnated imams was something I could never make sense of until I grasped this connection. Now, though I cannot verify it, I can at least make sense of it given the impulses of mathematical instrumentalism that characterize the “hardest” of sciences. This is to say that, in these fields, “knowledge” is equated with calculability and not perception, disclosure, or experience. While the fundamental equations of quantum mechanics, for instance, were elaborated a century ago, most physicists appear content to to remain agnostic as to exactly why they work. To explain the accuracy of such equations would entail being able to imagine—which is to say, represent—in the physicist’s imagination, the process that is being modeled and predicted by them. “Shut up and calculate,” in David Mermin’s quintessential expression, remains the refrain of the majority of quantum mechanics. 

On René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism: 

“Mechanism” is a fitting term because it can reveal the natural and mechanical enslavement of our inner states and behaviour to it and also, by the same token, show our path of deliverance from it. Plato depicted this in the Parable of the Cave: the only way to exit the cave is to first assume we are in it. Conversely, people who are convinced they are not in the cave will violently oppose “the philosopher” who suggests otherwise. Similarly, everyone tends to think he is beyond the “cult of Moloch,” as it were, and therefore sees no reason to free himself from its mechanism of cyclical scapegoating and sacrifice. In my view, Girard’s theories reveal that many phenomena that we see today that first appear to be chaotic and unintelligible in fact follow almost of necessity from the surrounding conditions. This seems to me the measure of a good theory: that what before seems arbitrary is seen as unfolding according to an inner logic. Goethe’s Urpflanze or “archetypal plant” can be seen in the same way.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

6 Comments Add yours

  1. stolzyblog says:

    What a worthwhile meditation the very first sentence of this piece is!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      I wouldn’t think to argue with you even though I think I know what you mean 😉

      It is worth thinking on repeatedly and continually because it can serve as an admonition not close the shops of learning by presuming to have already understood. Maybe it is best to think of understanding as a verb or a state that must be sustained.


  2. Charles says:

    Good Writing to ponder, I appreciate this “that it is impossible to refer to “the world” or to “reality” outside of our experience of it”
    “Girard’s theories reveal that many phenomena that we see today that first appear to be chaotic and unintelligible in fact follow almost of necessity from the surrounding conditions.” Keep it up

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hellomcgrory says:

    Brilliant post as per Max. Interesting thoughts on Art and I’m inspired to share the following quote.

    “In life learn art, in the artwork learn life. If you see the one correctly you see the other also”
    Friedrich Holderlin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you, and I am grateful for the Hoelderlin quotation! I have also found these works from Paul Klee supremely illuminating:

      Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar.

      “Art does not reproduce the visible; art makes visible.”

      —Paul Klee

      I wrote a short reflection on a similar theme here: https://theoriapress.wordpress.com/2021/06/01/miscellany-left-right-the-euthyphro-dilemma-the-scapegoat-mechanism-etc/


  4. Hesiod says:

    Great reflections Max, especially concerning the “Hellenic” imagination in Christianity. Can’t help but always think if not for that Hellenic imagination, Christianity wouldn’t hold the same sublime and artistic aesthetic appeal I consider so integral to its understanding. It would really be a much more impoverished religion without it. Case and point, as you highlight: Puritanism. (Notwithstanding some of their own quirky appeals and allure.)

    Liked by 1 person

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