Friday, April 04, 2008

Either/Or (#1 in a series...)

Driving home the other day, find myself behind a pickup truck adorned with magnets on the tail gate reading (left to right): "Pray for our Troops;" "God Bless Our Troops" (this an oval with a candle in the center, adorned with red ribbon, all against a green background; I assume it was a Xmas item), and "Support our Troops." On the radio as I drive: testimony from US soldiers at Winter Soldier. I learn, among other things, that we have multiple launch rocket (MLR) weapons designed to destroy a grid 1000 meters by 1000 meters. The soldier tells me that's about a square block, and I'm imagining how far around my neighborhood the damage from such a weapon would spread. The truck, though, in this context, makes me think of the "either/or."

In modern politics, the preference is toward the either/or. Perhaps it's unfair to blame that on modernity; perhaps it has always been that way.

"Either/or" is a phrase which has taken on a particular meaning following Kierkegaard's use of it in the 19th century. Many early evaluators of the melancholy Dane's thought considered it the metaphor of the ethical "sphere," the one, supposedly, that mature and properly socialized adults live in. The term comes from one of the "aesthetic" works (S.K.'s term for them), Either/Or. Almost more a literary work than a philosophical one, Either/Or consists of two unequal halves. The first part is the "Diary of a Seducer," the journal of a young man whose sole interest in others is in their benefits to him. It is the adolescent's point of view, the man-child with money and social power, but little appreciation of the otherness of people who seem to exist only to service his pleasures. The "Judge" presents the bourgeois position of Danish society, counseling this young man, in a series of letters, to accept the mores and ethics of Danish society, the better to understand his obligations to something larger than himself and his selfish interests. That something larger, of course, is the "ethical," which requires one to think of others as others. If you read the book as a statement by Kierkegaard, it's a remarkably conservative and placid one, although rich in psychological insights. However, if you read it as one of the pseudonymous works, and recognize that the "Judge" means to exert power over the "Seducer," means to literally sit in judgment over the young man and call him to account on the basis of Danish society's ethics (which aren't necessarily S.K.'s), the book takes on a very different cast. And if you consider that one of S.K.'s "edifying discourses" (which were always published under his name, never a pseudonym) is: "Judge for Yourself!," you might begin to reconsider the importance of the Judge to Kierkegaard, altogether.

"Either/Or" refers to the bright line of ethics, the one we all claim a special privilege and access to, when push comes to shove. "Either/Or" means there is right, and there is wrong, and once we recognize the value of the other (the move from the aesthetic to the ethical sphere, according to the early interpreters of Kierkegaard), we recognize, too, the restrictions on our actions which necessarily accompany the "either/or." The "either/or" bifurcates the "both/and" of the aesthete (both eat your cake and have it, too). It splits that selfishness into self and other, and demands a decision, a choice be made. Of course, the choice is thoroughly bourgeois. The Judge is no different from the accountant who is Johannes de Silentio's Knight of Faith, save that the Judge fails wholly to make the invisible movements of eternity, the movements which set the Knight of Faith apart from the Knight of Infinite Resignation, the Judge trapped in the social web of the either/or, in the ethical which binds each person to each person and permits no longer the "both/and" of the aesthete, having replaced it with a "both/and" in which society is the beneficiary above the individuals (so could S.K. become a stern critic of the state church of Denmark, and utter his Attack upon 'Christendom,' the while himself remaining a beneficiary of his father's bourgeois achievement, which made Kierkegaard's life and publications, possible. S.K. resembled Socrates in more ways than one.)

However, there is an escape offered. If we truly self-actualize and achieve spiritual purity, we transcend even the ethical and achieve it's teleological suspension in the name of the true Authority behind the ethical itself. We become the Knight of Faith. Or we would follow that path, if Fear and Trembling were not itself one of the "aesthetic" works, published not by S. Kierkegaard, but by Johannes de silentio. A name which always reminds me of the final statement of Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." There is much in Fear and Trembling which is central to Kierkegaard's thought, but central only as an examination of the ways we convince ourselves how very, very important we are in the grand scheme of things, especially in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. In fact, the central conclusion of Fear and Trembling is that either/or (the world as seen by traditional ethics) is not the right way to divide human existence in order to understand it. But neither is both/and (Hegel or Kant). Because what lands right in the middle of either/or or both/and, is the paradox of the teleological suspension of the ethical (which is impossible, but undeniable for Christians) and the Absolute Paradox of the Incarnation (equally impossible, but also undeniable for Christians). So the "Either/Or" is not one of the "Stages on Life's Way" (another of the aesthetic works), it is a way in which we determine our own importance. The "either/or" and the "both/and," the ethical as well as the aesthete, are simply two sides of the same coin. Which is why "either/or" is very important to us: it is our identity, it is the very composition of our Self. To begin to give up the either/or is to begin to admit the importance of Other; and to begin to define and understand the self in relationship to Self, not as the boundary against Other. As Anti-Climacus puts it:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
Now if that isn't as dense as a Christmas fruitcake and as dark as the inside of a dog, you simply weren't paying enough attention. But one key to unlocking it is to follow D. Anthony Storm's lead and consider "self" here as a verb, not a noun. Anti-Climacus has a bit more to say on the subject, though, first:

If the relation that relates itself to itself has been established by another, then the relation is indeed the third, but this relation, the third, is yet again a relation and relates itself to that which established the entire relation.

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another. This is why there can be two forms of despair in the strict sense. If a human self had itself established itself, then there could only be one form: not to will to be oneself, to will to do away with oneself, but there could not be the form: in despair to will to be oneself.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.
I tend to read this language in light of Hume's description of the self, i.e., that he can't find one, but merely a reception of stimuli which somehow create the illusion of a self observing objects empirically which are known via such stimuli, which in turn are known because...well, because they stimulate the sense organs, and this knowledge gives the illusion of a "self" observing same. There is clearly some relationship in Hume's idea, between the world percieved and the stimuli received, but that relationship is merely the creation of our erroneous assumption of a causal relationship between observation and observed, or perhaps more precisely between observation and the seeming awareness of the act of observation. Hume puts the self under his epistemological microscope and fails to find anything to look at. Kierkegaard puts the self at the center of all relationships (the beating heart of existentialism), and finds it to be the place where all the ladders start; although it is not necessarily the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Indeed, it is the relationship which creates relationship by relating first to itself, and in so relating, can relate to others. The either/or of the Judge and the Seducer comes back around again; because the Judge's either/or, and the Seducer's both/and, are both products and creations of relationships between Self and others.

Which is the language of later phenomenology, specifically, in my usage, of Levinas and Derrida. But there is also, in Kierkegaard's language, one of the great topics of 19th century Europe, one of the central themes of Romanticism, from Wordsworth to Hegel to Byron to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer to the present day: the centrality of the will. Kierkegaard put this front and center himself, declaring in one of the signed (not pseudonymous) works that: "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing." It is will, according to Romantic thought, which can purify the heart and cleanse it even of despair (despair is the central concern of Anti-Climacus, not the self itself). Here, then, is the great challenge: we escape the dichotomy of the either/or both/and by purity of heart. But do we will that purity, or do we achieve that purity precisely by abandoning the will? Is God revealed to us, in other words; or do we discover God?

Lord, when did we see you?

I said "self-actualize" back there, and thought long and hard about re-writing that, because it isn't accurately Kierkegaardian at all. "Self-actualization" belongs to modern "pop" psychology, not the densely pre-Freudian insights of the Dane; it has much more to do with Deepak Chopra than with Johannes de Silentio or Anti-Climacus. But it has, since the Romantic movement and then the "Oprah" movement (not an accurate start date, but an apt metaphor), become the ne plus ultra of human existence. At least, for human existence as lived by the petit bourgeois who inhabit the world reached and affected by the likes of Chopra and Oprah and the "Gospel of Wealth."

It's very hard to read about Christianity's relationship to the self, to the individual, at least since Kierkegaard, without understanding it in terms of "self-actualizing." That it is not what S.K. considered the "road" to Christianity is clear from the break between the pseudonymous works and the signed works. Even the "will to be oneself" is simply a recognition of human reality, a rejection of the Hegelian Geist which controls human affairs; it is an acceptance, not an abdication, of responsibility. Self-actualization is all about me, but living as a Christian is all about living in a community, as Bonhoeffer said:

It is the mystery of the community that Christ is in her and, only through her, reaches to men [sic]. Christ exists among us as community, as Church in the hiddenness of history. The Church is the hidden Christ among us. Now therefore man [sic] is never alone, but he exists only through the community which brings him Christ, which incorporates him in itself, takes him into its life. Man in Christ is man in community where he exists is community. But because at the same time as individual he is fully a member of the community, therefore here alone is the continuity of his existence preserved in Christ. Therefore man can no longer understand himself from himself, but only from Christ.
But what does this mean? Surely if we had a sign, all would be clear:

What is to be understood by a 'sign?' A sign is the negation of immediacy, or a second state of being, differing from the first. It is not thereby affirmed that the sign is not something immediate, but that what it is as a sign is not immediate, in other words, that as a sign it is not the immediate thing it is.
I would stop right there, but Anti-Climacus goes on to clarify his meaning:

A nautical mark is a sign. Immediately it is a post, a light, or some such thing, but a sign it is not immediately, that is a sign is something different from what immediately is. This [viz. this failure to observe the distinction] lies at the bottom of all mystifications by the help of 'signs'; for a sign is a sign only for one who knows that it is a sign and in the strictest sense only for one who knows what it signifies; for everyone else the sign is only what it immediately is. Even in case no one had erected this or that into a sign, and there was no understanding with anybody that it was to be regarded as such, yet when I see something striking and call it a sign, it is qualified as such by reflection. The striking trait is the immediate, but that I regard it as a sign (a reflective act, producing something out of myself) expresses my conception that it must signify something, but the fact that is must signify something means that is is something else than that which it immediately is. So I am not denying the immediacy of the thing when I regard it as a sign without knowing definitely that it is a sign or what it should signify.
Deconstruction arose from structuralism, which arose from and alongside semiotics, all three of which are fields originated and dominated by French intellectuals. The fields are peculiarly French because they can trace their immediate cultural roots back the French Symboliste poets, rebels against the French bourgeoisie who felt a great affinity for the American Romantic, Edgar Allan Poe. It is not too much to say that Kierkegaard's prediction of his influence is proven true by this snippet of chronology. Writing in an obscure European language from a tiny and often overlooked European country (aside from fairy tales and Isek Dinesen, what is Denmark known for?), it was the mid 20th century before his works were translated widely enough to be known outside his native country. Interesting that he foreshadowed semiotics and structuralism and pointed toward deconstruction, almost 150 years too early. Interesting, too, that these considerations are, again, not the signed work of Soren Kierkegaard, but the pseudonymous work of "Anti-Climacus," he who wrote The Sickness Unto Death, and examined the reason, even the need, for despair. It cannot be overemphasized when considering the works of Kierkegaard: the pseudonymous works are not Christian works; and the signed works, the "Edifying Discourses," are not philosophical ones. The two realms, for Kierkegaard, simply do not overlap.

Which is not to say they exclude each other, but to point out Kierkegaard has different concerns which he addresses in forms as distinct and separate as the ancient Greek distinction between comedy and tragedy. As Aristotle observed of tragedy, one of its many aspects must be its seriousness. Greek tragedies were never leavened with humor, their comedies never darkened with serious consequences. Just so S.K.'s works hightlight the distinction emphasized in the Gospel of John, between the believing community (those with the "gnosis," according to many scholars, exemplified in the popular mind by Elaine Pagels) and those without. Except "gnosis" is not the bright dividing line it might seem to be, either. the "either/or" is a determinate for the culturally Christian pseudonyms; but it is not one for the pious and passionate author of the edifying discourses. Somewhere along the way we pass well beyond any teleological suspension of the ethical.

What, then is the sign we would accept? John's gospel is all about this issue. What the Synoptic writers call dunamis, works of power, John calls semeion, or signs. These signs are supposed to indicate the true nature of the Almighty and of the Christ, the Anointed One. But, as Anti-Climacus points out: "when I see something striking and call it a sign, it is qualified as such by reflection." And reflection requires some knowledge of the second state of being of the sign, some information that tells us how it can be more than the immediate thing it is. so is the conversion of water into wine at Cana nothing more than an act of power? If so, it merely makes us bow to the superiority of the wielder. And how is the kingdom of God like that? Does it matter who is first and who is last, if we are sll just subdued beneath the guy who can perform such transformations? If it is a sign, what does it point to? If it is more than what it immediately is, what does it mean? What reflection do I bring to bear upon it?

The Jesus of John's gospel is the worst at explaining these things. "You are a teacher of Israel and you don't understand this?," Jesus says to Nicodemus almost immediately after the wedding in Cana; and the fact is, none of us understand it. John turns us all into the cloth-headed disciples present in Mark and Matthew's gospels, and the Rabbi mocks our confusion. He doesn't explain what "born again" means, to Nicodemus or to us. He explains some of his signs, such as the raising of Lazarus: "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." And, just before calling Lazarus from the tomb: "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." But the sign clearly points in two ways at once:

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
"What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." John 11:45-48
Some see it's second being as the presence of God in Jesus; others see it as an act of power which threatens their power, and the power of the State. What should it signify? Well, that's the problem, isn't it? "[F]or a sign is a sign only for one who knows that it is a sign and in the strictest sense only for one who knows what it signifies." And we are always quite sure we know what a sign signifies; but on what do we base that assurance?

The statement of signs having a "second being" is not accidental. A sign is not a symbol. So when John writes of Jesus’ actions, he is not writing about symbolic events. The resurrection of Lazarus may foreshadow the resurrection of Jesus later in the story, and so be a literary device. But it is not merely a symbol of the triumph of the God of the living over death, or those who sleep, as Jesus puts it. It is a sign: but a sign as dunamis, or a sign of something more ethereal, something more akin to the metaphor of being “born again” (and is that a metaphor, or a sign? Apparently in John’s gospel semeion must be active, not rhetorical. The logos may have been the performative of Creation (but neither the performer nor the performed), but the logos here is the indicator, the one (as Bultmann says) who points toward the sign; and the sign points toward…? Or does it point at all? If the sign has a second being, what being is that? And what does any of this have to do with self-actualization or the validity and nature of the self, or for that matter the ethical burden of the either/or?

Well, I’m getting to that…..

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