this, that, and the Other

identity, alterity, and everything in between

Month: July, 2010

the soul which is you which is to say me

(I knew upon my creating of the categories “essay” and “poetry” they would surely deconstruct themselves at some point)

the soul which is you which is to say me

The lover loves the body—
no—the lover has a certain
pull to a beyond the body—
a desire already ahead of
the—no—a love of the
person who is in—no—in
front of
? no. behind? no. There
is a limit to what we do with language
and what it means to talk about love.
We tend to think of the person as a beyond or over-yonder away from sensation or bodies; an inner truth wrapped within an outer sensation which often leads to deception. We have come to call this soul that we in turn have coined into mind, intentionality, and lastly consciousness or perception. But is the traverse from soul to perception an accurate one? Is not the view of the soul in Dante more of a body than this body albeit born of ether?

To conceive of an inner soul implies the relationship of inner to outer, which is a relationship grounded in the physical. To think of the soul as higher or more divine is a relationship grounded in the intentional, directional language of the physical. To think of the soul as a pilot is to resort to physically grounded metaphor. To think of the soul as anything requires a body not just as background but as constituting agent. To think of the soul requires a body. To think requires a body.

How then are we to retain any conception of the individual soul? If the soul is not to be that which masters the physical what is it? It seems to retain the soul we must say it is that which is pre-physical, pre-conscious, and pre-intentional. This is not Freud’s unconscious of which we speak for the unconscious speaks the language of consciousness, that is it is a language the analyst taps in on, the language the self reveals to the self via consciousness. We are speaking of that which comes before and is always prior to origin. We speak here of primordial myth. Namely the self of which to utter its name is to already put it outside itself. The soul is a-physical not in the sense that it opposes matter but is beyond it—the soul is the self beyond any totalizing of being.

To speak of the soul is not to speak of matter but neither is it to speak of mind or consciousness. The soul envelops the whole of the body and is the body; it envelops the whole of consciousness and is consciousness—yet the soul is already beyond these things for to speak of them as-such is to fool the self into categories which always fail to exhaust the unutterability of the self.

This self though is not the self of the “outer” world, the self friends and families possess, the ego of Sartre, the self of first impressions. Likewise though it is not the self of the self, the imaginings of myself, my intentions, my conscious thoughts, as these are reductions of the self shaded by pride and intelligibility. It is the self beyond my possibilities, beyond my commitments to others—it is the self so holistic it is only to be uttered by the voice of God by the opacity of his silence. Here we enter Kierkegaard’s realm of the absurd and the impossible. The self that is infinitely high and thus always beyond grasp, no matter what height thinking or formalizing reaches.

Yet despite the infinity of the height of the self we do catch glimpses and traces of it, don’t we? In the face of the one whose viewpoint is unintelligible to us and where we stand, the other who is beyond your grasp (which is to say everyone), the girl in the line at the supermarket who paid with exact change or a hand-written check, your girlfriend even when you find out your
conception of her is wrong and your
re-conception wrong
and that you always get her wrong
and that is the beauty of it—
Don’t you find the absurd unutterbility
of the divine in his or her face? and
when I say other you know I mean
love of the other and by the other I
mean the self which I would tell
you about but then it wouldn’t be you?

a sonnet

sometimes in the morning you can’t
bring yourself to bend over and cut
your toenails despite their nearly
doubled length or roll barely out of

bed to the bathroom to brush off that
faint smell of rum from the night before
sometimes the daylight hurts so bad
you walk to get breakfast in sunglasses

and sometimes the poetry hits you
just a little too early with its far too
wide-open arms and you just can’t quite
bear hug it and lift it up or really

seem to fit it at all with its wet leaves
and wind shuffling the form of things

Being-With, Iconoclasm, & the Other: a Reflection on Emmanuel Levinas and The Brothers Karamazov

The other resists my attempt at investiture, not because of the extent and obscurity of the theme that it offers to my consideration but because of the refusal to enter into a theme, […] the other lays him- or herself bare to the total negation of murder but forbids it through the original language of his defenseless eyes. –Emmanuel Levinas, Transcendence and Height

To destroy is to declare oneself a destroyer, to present a certain way of being-with to the world. The destroyer of art not only removes art but also presents himself as an iconoclast. To destroy is to present oneself as one who destroys, to liturgize the self towards a certain behavior or being-in-the-world. The iconoclast destroys icons not because he sees iconography as an inherent wrong, as if representation, significance, or meaning were evil, but rather is ironically guilty of making an idol out of the icon.

The icon is a space for meaningful and authentic worship, a place for the religious to inhabit. Worship is an approach, a movement of an individual towards another precisely in that it is another—no one can be said to authentically praise that which is the same as the self, this is self-love and pride. Thus when we authentically worship, we worship a God as the ultimate Other, or the lover, or the hero for precisely that which we cannot see or grasp in the self. The iconoclast then does not see the icon as a sight of habitation or possibility, he cannot even see the trace of the other, rather all he sees is propositional or doctrinal “content.” All the iconoclast sees is an extension of himself, his ideals. The iconolast is idolater par excellence for he reduces the height and infinity of the icon, its possibility as a space of worship, to one exhaustive interpretation. To see in the icon nothing but the potential for doctrinal error and supplant the whole of the artwork’s possibility to that fear is not to see god in the icon, in the light bursting through the stained glass, but to see nothing more than the reflection of the self.

The idol is diametrically opposed to the icon; the idol is a reduction of the opaqueness of existence to an ideal or proposition, while the icon is a sacred space of inhabitation, something to experience that can always be viewed as something but never exclusively. Once the iconoclast has reduced the icon to an idol he can see nothing but his ideal negated, the inherent polarity in his conceptualization, and thus must destroy it. The iconoclast takes metaphor, ideality, as existence rather than as language or a way to speak about something—he reduces the art of Rublev to Trinitarian heresy by conceiving what it is the Trinitarian god should be presented as and thus inevitably what it should not. To destroy the icon then is to first reduce it to a negation of the self’s ideals, and secondly, in the destruction submit the self and its actions to one’s own ideals. Wherein metaphor is meant to be a commonality, a way of making available a shared world, reciprocity, the iconoclast reduces to a shutting off of the world for one’s own sake, a reduction of others to the self. Every iconoclasm is thus also a totalitarianism, a spreading out of an exhaustive metaphysics over all that one sees, a shutting off completely of being-with-others. It is here that we can see inherent in all exhaustive metaphysics the groundwork of solipsism, for any attempt to narrate the whole of the world and make it known to the self is at heart a reduction of the world to the self, the destruction of the other.

Here both the iconoclast and killer are guilty of the same crime, namely that of subsuming a unified whole to an abstracted ideal. Each person is a unique perspective on the world, and therefore live out an entirely differing set of possibilities than myself. As the stained glass window is a “filterer” of light and yet our means of experiencing the light so too the individual is our means of experiencing that which is beyond ourselves yet made available by our self and body. When we experience the other we authentically experience something entirely other than the self yet it is always experienced from somewhere, namely the self and its whole factual, historical existence. The self is here a background though, that by which the other can be presented as other and is thus a thoroughly different phenomena than seeing the other “as” a pre-existing conceptual category exclusively. It is precisely here where man as icon, the imago dei, gains relevance, for it is the other, the neighbor, who most bears the trace of deity. It is in the face of the other that one cannot help but be made responsible to it and invert the declaration of the self to a questioning of the self, for here is immediately before the self that which is just beyond any conceptualization. There are times when to utter to the lover any formulation of the relationship is to shatter the very phenomenon which binds them. The thing has already been “named” in a primordial way and any subsuming under a mental category would be a violence.

Thus to see the other “as” any one thing exclusively is a reduction of the neighbor to an enemy, it is in this way that all hatred is murder as in the gospel of St. John (3.15). For prior to any killing is the violent act of seeing the individual qua self, to deny the light and artistry of the icon. The murderer like the iconoclast subsumes the individual as a condition of meaning and sees only one meaning—as-criminal, as-enemy-of-the-state, as-race—actualizing his ideals by negating another’s existence. The murderer always claims that he is still loving however in that he has a love “for humanity,” yet this love never transcends conceptuality and can never be an authentic love of one’s neighbor. This is a love of the distant rather than the close—and it is precisely those who are close, the neighbor, we are called to love. The murderer is guilty of Ivan’s conceptualization in The Brother’s Karamozov for Ivan,

could never understand how one can love one’s neighbours. It’s just one’s neighbours, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance, […] for anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.

And again,

One can love one’s neighbours in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible. (The Grand Inquisitor, prt. II)

This reduction of love to the conceptual and thus impossible in the face of the other is precisely the hatred of which St. John’s Christ speaks. Ivan rightly had no neighbors for all he could see in the face of the other was his own terrible self-loathing. Smerdyakov was right in calling Ivan the true murderer of Fyodor Karamazov. Dmitri on the other hand could not murder Fyodor, although he had the pre-murder of subsuming Fyodor to ideality, he could not bring himself to do so when he saw his face. For the face of the other makes us responsible to it, and one cannot look into it authentically and murder the other (see Levinas, Transcendence and Height). To murder then is to cut off existence from others entirely, to destroy what it means to be in a shared world with other people.

The reciprocity that is co-existence is destroyed when one can only see the other “as” something regardless what the “as” is. This is to be distinguished from the other as given to something or the other “for” something, i.e. the other for me as father is not reductive in the same way as the other as enemy of the state—for to see the other as father is to have a stance by which to see the other and opens up his being to me as possibility, a significance which opens up a meaning and allows my father, a unique other, to exist for me. To see one as a father is a non-exhaustive role, one which whenever I act upon I also acknowledge rather than deny or repress his other possibilities. If ever it becomes exhaustive however, i.e. I can no longer see my father as anything other than say the one who pays for my education or food, as Ivan had done, I have committed parricide in the utmost sense, for I have reduced another to a mere idealistic operation or function. Likewise when I look into the face of another and all I can see is an abstraction which can only follow from a co-existence which I have possessed and deny its being-given (I claim rather than my belonging to it, its belonging to me), extending myself through my Ideals, I have murdered my neighbor. This is Narcissism to the utmost, not only being able not to see or hear the other but not even being able to conceive of the pool, the shared background of metaphor and significance, but to only see reflected back the self.

As the iconoclast destroys the art because he refuses to see the art in light of the other, or trace of the other, only seeing one possibility rather than a condition for possibility, so too the killer can only see in the face of the other a possibility which the self already possesses, denying the transcendence which the face of every neighbor gives. To deny the other in this way is in short to deny being-with-others and that each of us have a unique perspective on the world, it is to conflate oneself to omniscience. And the cycle is vicious for to cut off oneself from the world is to spiral ever within the self and to only see the self, and what the self already has, in the world around us.

Whose Service is Perfect Freedom

Whose Service is Perfect Freedom:
Thoughts on Free Will, Historicity, Finitude, and The Graduate

Each moment declares I am free. As I sit and type this I reach for my espresso and I know it is me reaching and that I very easily could have grasped the book or pencil in front of me, or done anything really, but I did not and instead I grabbed and drank my espresso. Time presents us infinity—the possibility of doing nearly anything with myself: take a shower, read St. Augustine, go to church, eat breakfast. All of these meanings seem and are infinite in that at the moment, the event, I could will any of them. However something happens after I drink my espresso. I start writing these sentences, am filled with its caffeine and goodness and suddenly narrate into my personal history that I have drank and am drinking espresso. It could not be any other way. I drank it—and suddenly the infinity of the situation slips back into the finitude of my history that I declare with every action that I do from thenceforth.

This short essay is the product of my having drunk espresso, and if I had read St. Augustine I should not have written it. This is the essential point that the exclusivist approach to free will and determinism fails to grasp, namely, Time. For it is only in light of my having a history and situations by which to define myself and see myself and grasp myself that I can know myself as a grounded, determined thing. Once something is grasped, that is brought into my existence, formulated, comprehended, it has already fallen away from the infinity and transcendence of the absolutely free and into the finite and determined.

In the Christian tradition both these exclusive standpoints are exemplified in the Calvinist and Arminian positions. Both ultimately deny the primacy of Time as the father of freedom. The Arminian glorifies the moment to the whole of existence while the Calvinist glorifies history into the whole of existence—and both are right from a certain standpoint. At the time of salvation, baptism, marriage, or any defining event of the self, a narrating force that gives shape and meaning to a life, one is faced with the terrifying freedom of the choice. I cannot help but think of the marriage scene at the end of Nichols’ The Graduate—what is Ben to do? What about Elaine? Mrs. Robinson? One is faced with an infinity of possibilities depending upon the actions of the individuals, the outcome of which will define their lives and project them each to their respective futures. It is a defining moment. Once, however, we are left with Ben and Elaine running out together we are left with the outcome and ask how could it have been any other way? The whole of the movie retroactively seems to have only been possible in light of Ben and Elaine’s running out of the church, crucifix swinging and all. The event has been reified and brought to meaning in light of the narrative just as the events of our lives, our “religious” experiences, bring meaning to ours.

Freedom then is only possible in that it will eventually be seen as a given, something fixed; Calvinism and Arminianism imply each other and are co-dependent in this way. My actions and choices can never be separated from their history and context and reduced to propositions—today I made curry, love, I made the bed, I ate eggs—all of these are reductions of a historically grounded individual presenting his life’s narrative in these moments. This is why we say I made the bed, for the “I” is short hand for the whole of my existence as it was presented at the moment I made the bed or love or curry. To be free to choose is precisely to define the self in action, to take up my determined history and project it to an indeterminate future. The glances Ben and Elaine cast one another at the end of the film declare this—the escape from the wedding has been narrated, they have done it, but now what to do with it? One is always taking up one’s history and presenting it to the world. And it always slides back into a history. Man is bound up by his history and yet man is always declared free by each and every event in it.

And as the caffeine leaves me, having gone to breakfast, had some coffee, come back, typed, edited, and had another cup of coffee, I cannot imagine having done anything other than having eaten eggs for breakfast and making and drinking coffee. Thus another essay gets written and, having written and drank, written and drank, I find myself with an insatiable urge to make curry.

Or maybe read St. Augustine.

confession

I must confess that

the two loads of dishes
done as of this morning
were in fact not done
by your roommates,

nor the ice cube tray,
filled perfectly to the
top without freezing
the cubes together;

the bed re-made, and
the laundry folded and
placed along your chair
were equally not them

in fact. I am told that
charity is best rewarded
when unsaid and good
deeds returned to the

silent do-gooder, but
really now, at some point
some good deed has to be
said as to reward the

unsaid good deed
already mentioned;
if deeds were unspoken
how is it one could

have a sufficient back-
ground by which to
judge a good deed from
a bad one or an okay

one from an indecent
one, so the whole thing
really deconstructs
itself when you think

about it. All that to
say that I suppose all
of our deeds are spoken
somehow, and silence is

still speaking, and each
of our kindnesses have
a sort of rescinding and
negation in the telling,

but, since I’m telling,
I might as well let you
know I vomited in your
sink and also behind

your green waste can
once or twice because
the bathroom was oc-
cupied at the time—

but, in my defense, you
do have five other house
mates and only the one
bathroom so now who’s

really to blame for that?

Fiasco & the Self

There are ways we show the self to the self,
metaphors we sketch and plan in some deep and accidental
part of our intention, similes we build brick by brick only to watch
in that brief flight of a moment deconstruct, whispering nakedly
to ourselves into our own ear, Yes, you really don’t matter terribly much.
Like a build-it-yourself bookcase I purchased, laid out,
and built slowly, the books of poetry to fill the five modifiable
shelf sizes laid out and organized and stacked.
The labor of an hour, the sweat of the brow,
in hoisting the work upwards to the spot
along the wall opposite the newly acquired loveseat.
The care of organizing the poetry, The Odyssey first to go in,
Spenser of course alongside Sydney, and Plath, Pound.
And the whole thing wasn’t up for one minute
before I decided to give it a slight push to the right,
a gentle nudge to make way for a mirror to match the coffee table
when the bookcase made a sudden shift, the tradition on its shelves
in stubborn fixity, and the whole thing came tumbling,
shelf by shelf, nail by nail, Tennyson by Whitman by endless Dickenson.
You scolded me and laughed the sort of laugh you only laugh
amongst other company, after some brandy, an Allen film,
and I thought how much like each other we both had grown,
and, bleeding from a falling Eliot, I laughed with you, like Prufrock’s mermaids
singing each to each on those white-tipped waves, and I couldn’t
help but wonder if tonight we would lie some cause to the returns counter,
get another bookcase, start the whole thing over, or lie down instead
each on the other’s breast among the bent pages of Dante.

the thing and the natural world

“there is a difference in operation
and thus somehow a difference in value” you think
as you pass by the stripped leather office seats
alongside a mismatched dining table;
the owner Buddha-like eyes beyond the
polka-dotted beach umbrella and lunchboxes and boxes
of old cassettes as if to say, “come, look,
these are the extensions of my body, turned inside out for you,
do try the a.m. transistor radio or this
slightly worn through papier-mâché mobile
made and worn for you, or this, a hanging
crucifix here is time used up for you,
these records replayed to the vinyl bone
and split like memory are spread out just for you,
here how they crackle when played,
and this buddy holly bobble head doll
is language, my prayers and swearing taken up
and felt and smelt and put down and taken up
and put down again somewhere behind the silverware
and stained linen tablecloths which were my mother’s,
just for you” and your eyes seem to say right back to hers
“no thanks, I have plenty of stuff in my garage, I even
rented storage space down the street so I really doubt
I could use possibly anything more, but then again,” you falter,
“I wouldn’t mind thumbing through that box over
there, after all, I have an insatiable love for buddy holly.”

Baptism as World Collapse

We make a narration of our lives, choose roles, vocations, because we are finite, temporal creatures. Any possibility I am faced with I actuate because I am certain that there will be a time when I am not—what Martin Heidegger called the possibility of no more possibilities. It is only in light of knowing that I cannot fulfill all of my possibilities that I must “narrate” my life; why would I limit myself to being a student, a teacher, an artist, a construction worker if I could actuate every possibility? It is in anticipation of death that I choose a particular role for myself, a certain set of possibilities and no other. My language, location, role, and meaning in this life are defined in their particularity only because I face this possibility of no more possibilities that is death.

In so living out a role, a narrative, I am limited to a certain background, a common condition by which those possibilities are presented to me. For instance, the fact that I am born in a particular place, raised with and in a certain language, culture, and, of course, that I am to die all shape a certain background by which I am faced with choice and possibility. This background is not a choice or willing on my part, yet it is something that I inevitably “take up” as it were, it is what I live through. When speaking with someone else there is a shared background that we each work through that communication may occur—we speak a certain way, stand a proper distance apart, speak at an appropriate volume, etc. All this background activity is not rightly “our conversation,” rather it is what all conversation presupposes, it is a condition of possibility as Merleau-Ponty would say, the medium by which possibility is possible. These conditions of possibilities and backgrounds are all facets of the world, the unified whole that we all work from and have in common and represent to one another; as Heidegger says, we are “the world existingly” (Being and Time, Harper & Row, 1962, p.416). By representing the world it is not meant that our actions are determined, but our conditions of possibility are a given thing, fixed, like how close I stand to someone when I speak is a societal “given” although what I choose to speak is not.

There are cases apart from my own death which cause a possibility of no more possibilities, cases in which my background radically changes, what has rightly been called a world collapse. When a particular, finite something enters my world and becomes a narrating force, i.e. a location, culture, individual, this can collapse my entire operational framework, not just what I see, but how I see. If a tornado destroys my home, if a loved one dies, if my government is overthrown, not simply have my possibilities changed, but my entire means of making choices have—my background has shifted, my conditions have changed. I have lost something I used to feel my way around in the world.

Depending on what phenomena narrates my existence world collapse gains deeper and greater significance. A divorce does not de facto destroy ones whole mode of being or how one goes about in the world; however, as embodied creatures we do not just think through abstractions and analyses but through our spaces and relationships. I think about everything always against the background that I am a body and it is here and now in a certain space with certain people. When I lose a loved one I do not just lose them but I lose the world as a place with them. This loss is like the soldier returning from the war lame—he has not simply lost the use of his legs, but he has lost the world as a place to be walked in or stood on. He has lost a certain mode of being in the world altogether. Likewise the widow sees the world as a place shot through by absence, feeling for the limb so to speak which is not there and denies her her possibilities. A world collapse is this falling out from possibility, the recognition of our world haunted by impossibility.

Thus there is a way in which I can be living in denial of an already collapsed world, like the widow who continues to act as if her husband were still alive. She deliberately lives within a paradox, living as if her husband where there, thinking of her role still as wife-of-someone (the condition of possibility), while yet clearly being denied of his actual presence and possibility. In the same way the man with the lost limb can deny his deficiency and continue to see the world as a world to be walked in, creating a “phantom-limb,” or he could recognize he has a new set of possibilities and can no longer live as if in the old world. This dilemma presents itself in unhappy marriages and dissatisfaction in a career or location—one recognizes that what they thought was possible is in fact no longer possible, and thus collapse this aspect of their world in hope of a new, more satisfying one. In so many words this is how William James describes the phenomena of religious conversion—one is faced with the dissonance between the intentional and lived world, and, like the corrupt marriage or state, the individual must articulate the collapse by a psychical and physiological experience, a rite of passage, a divorce so to speak. This is precisely why the sacrament of Baptism is not just metaphorically called a death; it is the articulation of an entire world collapse, a literal death of a world, of an entire background I live through. Baptism is first and foremost a sacrifice of the old world, a burying of the old man—out of that collapse though a space is opened for a new world to be articulated, the birth of life in the Spirit.

Conversion into Christianity then is not the assumption of a foreign world per se, but also of the intentional world actuated, the death of the self and its world in order that it may be more truly and meaningfully itself. It is like the lame man giving up his phantom-limb in order that he may live more fully as he actually is. In death we are raised into a life not lived in face of the possibility of no more possibilities anymore. Rather the Resurrection of the Dead demonstrates that death is to be anticipated as that by which our roles and narrations gain their meaning. Our resurrection authenticates not just our bodies into what they were intended to be, but the whole of the life we live as Baptized. The life of the Spirit and grace does not stop at the ego, the individualistic level, but extends to the furthest reaches of our world. By being raised to new life I reflect that life in each action I make—my actions as a resurrected creature bring the Kingdom of God to fruition on earth. However, because the Kingdom runs alongside the world of man the new world is still haunted by the old, and each possibility declares both that I am a dead as well as a living thing. In other words, each choice declares that I am baptized, and every decision I make is a looking-back, the taking up of my cross, as well as a looking-forward, my bodily resurrection and perfection. Possibility is therefore always an artistic endeavor for the resurrected individual, for in every action is the destruction of the old world and the creation of the new.

Thus living out a “role” is no longer done so in avoidance of or in spite of our actual death, but rather in anticipation and in hope of that death—I am no longer a teacher because of the limited possibility of my world, a teacher for-myself, but I am a teacher because it is my vocation, I am a teacher for-the-world. My role then is not just something to do in the face of death, but an actuating of the future infinite in the finite, the City of God within the City of man.

Toward a Common Hermeneutic: a Reconciliation of Theology and Art

One of the most basic postures we take as humans is to invoke names. By names we designate, invent and reinvent, and even deconstruct. A name paradoxically shades and narrows our interpretation of something while simultaneously being our only means of opening the thing up for experience. All discourses, in this case particularly those of theology and art, interact with and employ names as a means of communicating. After providing a brief reflection on the phenomenon of naming, I will expound further on what shape naming takes primarily in art, as imaginative disclosure, but in theology as well. A reconciliation of the two and a possible use of theology as aesthetic discourse are finally presented.

A Brief Sketch of the Phenomenon of Naming

Since the linguistic turn it has become increasingly difficult to conceive of language as simply a representation of inner thought, a sort of equipment our minds sadly have to use to communicate. Language does more than just carry thoughts, it encapsulates how we think, act, and behave within our given situation (and, arguably, is what gives us those situations). It is out of language that philosophy and worldview present themselves. For it is not that language incarnates an abstract notion of mind, but rather language shapes how and what we think. The language we speak brings with it a history of how to think with that language. Of course reason is a vast whole and this treatment cursory, yet it is clear that language and reason are inexorably linked. It is for this reason that the primal substance of creation as viewed by many of the pre-Socratics was logos: the reason, thought, word, and systematic imagination of the cultures of men. St. John picks up on this theme when he speaks of Christ as the primal Logos in his gospel. As those who participate in the Image of God, Christ the Logos, we too share this image, the imago dei. Traditionally the imago has been associated bearing a logos, the stamp of the divine, in that we are in a thinking-discourse. The Church Fathers, particularly St. Irenaeus, used such logic to eventually reach the formal designation of man as “rational animal.” We must not understand this as Descartes did, the res cogitans, thinking things, but rather as being rational in that we have language and language has us.

The creation and recreation of man is framed around a hermeneutical approach to existence. As mentioned above St. John saw the Incarnation as the Logos, the Word, assuming humanity and vivifying their logos, the divine in man. But before this recapitulation of humanity in Christ man was first created to be a steward over creation and to name the things of the earth, as outlined in the creation myth of Genesis 1 and 2. Out of all the actions that could be at the center of man’s posture to the world in Eden we find the phenomenon of naming. If we see the “naming of the animals” and the possessing of a logos as related then it follows that any posture toward a thing (interpretation, prejudice, understanding, et al) is a sort of name. To articulate any interpretation of an artwork is to “name” it, to take a certain stand on the thing. Even silent articulations, thoughts, are names (although not shared). Likewise to make an artwork is a naming. To approach something with any sense of the thing, any pre-judice, is to already have named it.

How then does naming shape how we live? Naming is to existentially “place” things: naming defines a “here” and a “there.” In this sense we touch on Heidegger’s distinction of man as Dasein, “being-there,” or that which presents a “there” wherever it is. Man most primordially designates space in relation to himself, the lamp as here, the chair as yonder, etc. Granted, he perhaps has an understanding of the chair as 10 feet away, but this is a formal designation that follows suit from the existential, the “there.” In fact, I can only conceive of a there because I am here; the lamp has a there only in that it is a possible here for me. Before I can conceive of quantified space I conceive of relational space—me as here. Naming is thus a strictly human, existential action; it places things in relation to itself, designating a space for a thing to appear as intelligible. To name then provides not only a means of talking about the thing but a context and situation for the thing to be understood as that thing. Naming then has a degree of paradox to it—it simultaneously gives a “space,” an interpretation, of the thing while yet shutting the thing in particularity, naming it this.

Naming a thing as this then works backwards onto our experience of the thing. For instance, the male and female form are two objects, things, which every culture or context interprets in a certain way, what we call masculinity and femininity. However, I never experience the male or female form objectively, that is devoid of any interpretation of them. Even if I have the ability to conceptualize the female form as something separate from femininity this presupposes my experience of femininity from which to derive it. Here we run into Heidegger’s famous hammer analogy—the hammer’s being is constituted first and foremost by its hammering (as a thing “ready-to-hand”) long before we can conceive of it as an objective thing possessing a height and weight (as a thing “present-at-hand”). Just as we experience a lamp as over-yonder before we think of it as 10 feet away we first experience gender as our context and culture presents it. Further, to be able to conceive of something as objective (devoid of context, self-subsistent) I must have already subjected it to this embedded interpretation. This is all a way of saying that before I talk about something I must name it. Before I can cognitively separate or categorize something I have to have experienced it and thus already interpreted it.

Art as Imaginative Disclosure

Naming then is an articulation of something that is already there, or rather an articulation that the situation presents to me. Before naming, the thing has already presented itself to-be-named and I have taken a posture of one-who-names. Naming is not creation ex nihilo but revelation and prophecy, an opening up of this silent dialogue. Objects themselves beckon to the namer, the situation I find myself in calls for the object to be articulated. The stone beckons to the sculptor in this way, asking of the sculptor to “name” it, chip away at it, until it becomes what the situation calls for, namely, a work of art. Naming an object then opens what was once closed off, revealing in an articulated form an interpretation that was always there but withdrawn. This is why Heidegger chose the word “disclosure” to talk about the phenomena of actuating this type of possibility. Naming is exactly this sort of disclosure: for to name a thing is to reveal in physical form a certain posture we are disposed to take before the thing, just as the sculptor is disposed to “name” the stone as a work of art.

Not only does naming bring out a situation then, a “there,” but also reveals an interpretation of the thing already in that situation—it discloses a meaning. In this disclosing we interpret the thing as-something, metaphorically extending the thing. Metaphor in this sense is literally a carrying (phora) over (meta) of meaning, as in the phenomena of gender—I experience the female form and anatomy first and foremost by its metaphoric-extension, femininity. We know objects by the names we give them. So, for instance, if our sculptor was commissioned to make a bust of a political leader, before he puts chisel to stone there is a silent dialogue of the art work—the sculptor has a certain way of sculpting and the political leader has a certain way of appearing, the possibility of the work of art is there already. The situation the artist is in beckons for the work to be made in such a way. If our sculpture is the David then we have a metaphoric-extension and naming of David—this is David the masculine, ideal, the icon. However, if we shift the situation and think of Shostakovich and his Ninth Symphony in “honor” of the Soviet victory at Berlin, we have a very different metaphoric-extension—a piece which is superficially an ode but at heart a carnival-like mockery. Although simple examples we must not dismiss metaphoric-extension, the creation of symbol and culture, as superfluous or inessential, for it is by metaphor we experience the world as such. For the theatre is not a microcosm but the actual cosmos presented more obviously and naturally; likewise, art is not a reflection of the world but the very means by which we see and experience the world—there is no discourse without names.

The Metaphors of Theology and Art

All naming, not just as exemplified in the arts, has artistry to it, interacting with mental space and supplying us with new metaphors to “take up” and use. Theology likewise is artistic in this way, supplying us with metaphors to take up and think through the Divine. Visual art does this even more so though in that it both commodifies mental and physical space—art extends not only mental metaphor but also visual metaphor. Michelangelo literally modified the stone into metaphor in his David while also extending the mental metaphor of say masculinity, iconography, Creation, the soul, as well as how we think of David as a mythic-historic figure. Art works from the physical metaphor and lays hold of, besieges our mental spaces—in this way the metaphors of art inhabit our being. As the body and soul are only discernible as things in reference to each other, so too mental and physical space are defined by each other—no physical experience of art is without an appropriation of metaphor by the soul. Art is then a sort of incarnational naming, a transformation of a physical situation into a meaning. This is not to say theology is a-physical per se, but rather that its epistemology is grounded upon an admitted Unknowable, inclining it to a theoretical, mental space.

Art as a discourse then is an incarnational whole whose physical space always has mental, metaphoric significance—every artwork supplies a metaphor, a name, beyond itself. The David extends away from David the person to create a metaphor that occupies its own mental space. Not only does the artist name David-as-statue, but he creates the “as” of the metaphor—there is now the possibility for something to be like the David. The artist has created a relation and named it—disclosing David-the-ideal as a particular. Consequently, theology as a discourse discloses meaning in light of the Unknowable. The metaphoric-extensions of theology, its categories, formations, and divisions are all interpretations of the ultimately pre-predicative, anti-propositional whole that is God (like the David is an interpretation of David-the-ideal). Just as the female form can only be discussed in that it has been already interpreted as femininity, so too theological discourse is that interpretation of God, which is not God, yet our means of experiencing Him.

Because this is the case we can apply the “as” of theology, its metaphoric-extensions, to the “reading” of art. If we take up the metaphors of the theological discourse we can readily see that all art is already enmeshed with theological meaning—and, because of the hermeneutic circle (pre-judices affect the reading which affect the judgments which affect the reading ad infinitum), art in turn supplies metaphors for theology to take up. As the naming of an artwork is found in the situation the artist finds himself in (the silent dialogue) so too the meaning of the work is found in the situation of the artwork and its world.

As an articulation the artwork has a shared sphere of intelligibility—I am not the sole interpreter of an artwork, nor the artist, but rather the situated community interprets the artwork. That is to say I may name something (i.e. make the artwork) but I as an artist am equally alongside my peers as an interpreter of the work—once a name is created it is taken up by the community and used as it sees fit. In a fabulous text Owen Barfield (in Poetic Diction) sketches a history of the word “ruin,” showing how its meaning had been developed and redeveloped by such authors as Shakespeare, Spenser, and Coleridge. None of these men have “ownership” of ruin nor its meaning, rather they took up a name they did not create and presented an interpretation to the world—in turn their interpretation was taken up by another and commodified. There is no functional difference between ruin and Richard III. Each is a name that has been handed down with a history of various interpretations and meanings. Interpretation of a name or artwork is essentially artistic, a re-naming. The situation the word appears in, what people and contexts commodify the word, are those who orient where the history of the word is to go—they salvage the word from a past, present it to the present, and project its meaning into the future. If there is to be any dialogue between the discourses of theology and art here and now it can only be done so if theology chooses to approach and interpret art. If theology presents itself as an ideological discourse by which meaning can be found to be in the work (i.e. as Marxism, Freudianism, and Foucaldianism have) then that meaning will be found to be already in the artwork.

What is it to be a theological artist then? It is to be a human in the fullest sense; to understand the cultural-mythic languages given, dialogue, deconstruct, and recreate them in response. This is the primordial stance of what it is to be human, to worship the Creator by pulling out of creation its possibilities. All art though inevitably has theological implications, as it does psychoanalytic or epistemological ones. The artist if not intentional in his theology should at least be aware of these implications (Rothko and Hirst clearly seem(ed) to be). What is it to be an artistic theologian? To provide a sphere of intelligibility for art—a situation in which art can thrive and be interpreted and re-interpreted. Christian aestheticians have done this throughout history, St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger all provide theological theories of art as a basic groundwork of their philosophical-theologies. The Christian artist and theologian are called to be human in their situated, perspectival views on the world. Although they have differing viewpoints each take a similar stance toward the world, both concerned with man and his interpretations. Being human is an erotic existence, one in which things are experienced, felt, internalized, named, interpreted, worked into a mythic scheme, formalized, rejected, and finally re-experienced as people and their culture shift, opening up the space for ever new interpretations and possibilities to be named.

In Defense of Symbology

Like the fear of a left blinker blinking yellow
out of a closer-than-objects-appear mirror
only to notice the placard idly on the back
reading “student driver” or the fear of sudden
realization that the black specks in the last
half of yesterday’s bagel are in fact not poppy seeds:
an affirmation of the certainty of context, of language,
and what it means to never ever see every side at once,
the same fear Galileo felt to think the spots in the rag
of night we call stars might tear to dowse us in light,
that the spheres might some day fall off their circuit
to leave the earth alone in its bed Sunday morning
with nothing but the rumpled, stained sheets of the
whole galactic affair, how much simpler then, easier, true,
to put us off to the side a little, the sun the bigger, the stars
hung up like the bigger sun just farther away, and us hapless,
haphazard making inches with our fingers of the vast
light-year spaces of void, not some objective spot
groping each end of the thing but just another nosy neighbor
peaking through the blinds watching Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So
going at it from Venus to Io, nova to shining nova