Taylor, Trauma, and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same

1/28/09

In the spring of 2008 theologian Mark Taylor briefly visited the University of Denver as an invited distinguished teacher.  As a  part of his visit, Professor Taylor graciously served as a guest-lecturer in a Heidegger seminar I was conducting at the time.  He talked with my class especially about his recently published book After God, which I had just finished reading myself in anticipation of his visit.  My reading of his work occasioned the two entries in my philosophical journal posted below, in which I reflected on the relevance of some passages from his book to my own  continuing work around the issue of trauma.

Readers interested in what I say below concerning the thought of Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe might also wish to refer to my earlier post, “LaCapra Continued,” posted on January 14 of this year.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mark C. Taylor, After God (University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 118, quoting from Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (University of Nebraska Press, 1982), pp.30-31:

“In time’s absence what is  new renews nothing; what is present is not contemporary; what is present presents nothing but represents itself and belongs henceforth and always to return.  It isn’t but comes back again.  It comes already and forever past, so that my relation to it is not one of cognition, but of recognition, and this recognition ruins in me the  power of knowing, the right to grasp. It makes what is ungraspable inescapable.”

Applies exactly to trauma, and how it subverts the sovereignty of the image (of representation) in and as the very founding (Heidegger’s Stiftung) of that sovereignty.

Taylor comments, p. 118:  “This past that was never present eternally recurs as the future that never arrives to disrupt the present that never is. In this  way, the originary absence of the past is the condition of the inescapable openness of the future.  Since the past is never accessible, the present is never present, and the future is never closed . . .”

P. 119:  “The present, understood both temporally and spatially, is always gift or present pre-sent by (the) nothing that is (not) present. . . . Since that which  is never present cannot be re-presented, representation includes, as a condition of its possibility, ‘something’ that remains irreducibly unrepresentable.  Expressed in terms of figuration:  inasmuch as figuring can never be figured, every figure is always disfigured as if from within.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Taylor, p.137, on [how] “cosmogonic myths” provide a religious schema, by his definition of religion (whereby “religion” is, as he says again on this page, “a complex adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that both give life meaning and purpose and disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure”–by which definition, by the way, [it seems to me that] AA would have to  count as a “religion,” as would, e.g., Schopenhauer’s philosophy):  “Within this schema [i.e., that of the cosmogonic myth, which he reads here (as acknowledged) á la Eliade], human life has meaning and purpose insofar as  it is understood to be a repetition of a divine prototype.  Meaning, in other words, is not really temporal or historical but is derived from recurrent natural rhythms.  Indeed, inasmuch as the future is prefigured before the beginning, it is actually always already past.  If everything is programmed in advance, nothing new occurs; creation is not creative but is the eternal return of the same.  In the absence of creativity–be it divine or human–change remains superficial.  From this point of view, the challenge is not to ‘make it new’ [the defining imperative of “modernity,” says Taylor–correctly enough] but to repeat the old.”

It stuck me [when] reading this how easily this description could be seen to apply to an analysis, á la Heidegger, of “modernity” itself, rather than “pre-modern” “cosmogonic” myth.  In the age of Gestell [Heidegger’s term for “the essence of modern technology, from the past participle of the German verb stellen, to place or put], it is precisely such a frozen (non-)world as Taylor describes here, that fixes itself in place, and takes over all places.

What if one read the story/history from the age of cosmogonic myths to the age of technology through the lens of trauma?  Then the “eternal return of the same” in the sense that phrase takes here and in Eliade, shows itself to be not at all “the same” as the  sense the same phrase takes in Nietzsche and can, following him, be used to name what is at stake precisely in the Vollendung [end and completion] of modernity!  “Modernity” would then be the avoidance of trauma (“structural,” at least).  I am increasingly thinking that such avoidance–e.g., the Bush “response” to “9/11”–is to be distinguished from repression, which is one side of the repetition that, in fact, drives to the point of the breakdown of the “ever-the-same-“ness, the eternal return of the same, of the detemporalized time of the avoidance of trauma which is “modernity.”

Read along these lines, “myth” itself needs to be rethought, in such a way as to liberate that notion from insertion into the sort of “fictioning” [Phillipe] Lacoue-Labarthe sees as definitive of the Western “fiction of the political/politics,” the “mimetic” tradition at the heart of the West that bears its final, awful fruit in Auschwitz.

Taylor prefaces the passage cited above by writing, “While it should be clear that this cosmogonic myth serves both of these functions [giving a structure of meaning and purpose, yet disrupting any and every “stabilizing structure”], it is important to note precisely how this is accomplished.” He then goes on to write what I already cited.

But, despite his prefatory remark that both functions are in cosmogonic myth, [so far as I can see] the passage I started by citing deals solely with the first function of providing a stable structure of meaning.  Nowhere that I can find does he ever really address how such myth also destabilizes any stabilization.  He does, on the preceding page (136), talk of how such myths do provide for a return to chaos, at the end of one great cycle and, therefore, the beginning of another.  But the very way he discusses that aspect of such myth subordinates it to the other aspect, of stabilization into  the frozen “eternal return of the same.”

At best, then, his account of cosmogonic myth reads the latter as providing for the disruption/destabilization of any intra-cycle structure, just as the cycle of the seasons relativizes and destabilizes each of the four seasons in turn.  But nowhere is there an opening in the overarching structure of recurrence itself.

Far from it.  Thus, right after characterizing cosmogonic myth in terms of the “challenge . . . not to ‘make it new’ but to repeat the old,” he starts his next paragraph as follows:  “All of this changes with the irruption of the transcendent God in the midst of the divine-natural cosmos.”  That “irruption” he identifies with Moses and  the emergence of Judaism, where (Taylor tells “the same old story” himself here that has  so often been told) “history” is first really introduced into the “network” which is religion:  In Judaism, “The relation between God and self is covenental rather than ontological”:  [from the next page, 138,] “The establishment of the covenant marks the transition from cosmic or natural religions [Again!  “The same old story,” as I’ve said] to a religion organized around the supposed historical interaction of God and his people.”

How is this not “the same old story”–a story told by someone within a given religious tradition (of Judaism, etc.) about its relationship to other religions?  The same old story that ends up, in the very way it tells that story, the terms in which it tells it, privileging the teller’s position over the positions of different tellers?

Doesn’t recalling Rosenzweig “disrupt” Taylor’s own structures (and isn’t Taylor himself in this book providing a new “religion,” by his own definition of that term)?  Once one passes through Rosenzweig’s “gate” into life, into the everyday life to be lived every day, never “once and for all,” then doesn’t everything look very different?  Then, doesn’t a new perspective/position not also open up for rereading “the cosmogonic myths” and myth in general?  A perspective from which the eternal return of the same (the very everydayness of the everyday) is  precisely where the genuinely “new” takes place?  Since the new is  not “another thing,” but the “same” thing again, only each time brand new, as each day begins anew?

Modernity:  the reduction of the eternal return of the same, ever new, to the frozenness of the identical–the reduction of sameness to identity, the conflation of the former with and into the latter:  “Die Wűste wächst [a line from Nietzsche that is typically translated as “The wasteland grows.”]

Taylor even goes on to quote Henry Frankfort, “a distinguished archaeologist and historian” (from p. 134), including this line (p. 139):  Until Judaism and what happens with its emergence, “. . . man was condemned to  unending efforts which were doomed to fail because of his inadequacy.”  Goodness!!!  Neither Frankfort nor Taylor mean this as at all critical toward [thinking] such a thing.  Rather, both of them take it to be the way that Judaism, and everything coming from it (e.g., Christianity), draw away from and rise above (though neither says it that bluntly, and would no doubt [be able to adduce various qualifications in their views that that could help] to exonerate themselves of the charge) “cosmic and  natural religions”!

But isn’t Rosenzweig’s reading of Judaism very different?  Doesn’t Taylor‘s reading of Judaism end up flattening out the very things Rosenzweig’s highlights?  And isn’t what finally gets flattened out time and history as such, which now become no more than the endless succession of “one damned thing after another”?

Who’s historical?

As Heidegger suggests, the supposedly un-historical ages may be much more authentically historical the our hyper-historical present age.

Taylor, p. 169:  “Th[e] ostensibly ‘secular’ interpretive strategy [of what Ricoeur calls the “hermeneutics of suspicion”] is actually an extension of theological hermeneutics . . .”  Similarly, p. 171:  “Marx’s revolutionary program not only depends on Hegel’s account of religion but also presupposes a thinly disguised secularization of traditional Judeo-Christian theologies of history.”

As I already wrote recently of others who argue the same way, such “readings” could as easily be reversed, and one could see, á la Hegel, for instance, the “truth” of earlier religious ideas to be what finally comes into its own in later, non-religious thought.

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