Friday, 7 December 2012

(...) man is first of all a creature who speaks: it is essentially as a speaking being that he discovers his equality with all other human beings.1   

          - Jacques Rancière

There is, it seems, at the present time, a great war in progress - not between states, or political ideologies, or races, or religious factions. And yet it resembles those in many ways, with numerous parallels. Perhaps the most obvious and dangerous parallel lies in the conviction held - or at least propagated - by each side that they are right, that the 'truth' belongs solely to them. When both sides in a dispute hold that view, and will not, or - perhaps, by the logic of their argument and all that is at stake therein - cannot compromise, then a certain symmetry is revealed. This symmetry, if not resolved by at least being broken down into asymmetry, leads to confrontation which in turn, if not checked, leads to destruction.

That objective analysis should, one might hope, seem just as intelligible to the rationality of logic as to the 'irrationality' of ethics and the religious 'spirit', whose common goal is surely the survival, happiness, peace and progress of mankind. The conflict I have in mind here is between 'religious' fundamentalism and 'scientific' anti-theism.

This conflict is not between atheism and faith in God: two different paths that human beings may take in the pursuit of an enquiry into the truth of existence and the nature of reality, paths that each of us may traverse in one lifetime, sometimes going one way, sometimes the other, or settling for one of the two as our own personal view. The conflict is between people who not only see these two as mutually exclusive, and who have adopted one view or the other as absolute truth: but also and more importantly make the claim that their view should be the universal one.2

Given the comprehensiveness of the documentation, and the critique, of the conflicts of human history now available to humankind, the dangers inherent in the notion of an absolute truth that must be universally accepted ought to be easily recognisable. But it is a common fault of people in such direct opposition that they are completely blind to that opposition’s fundamental character, it's own internal logic, and its impossible symmetry. If both cannot be right, and there is no compromise, no ‘give and take’, then it becomes a question of all or nothing, and confrontation is inevitable.

The differences and the relationship between a more personal atheism and equally personal faith in God, both of which are valid, might more accurately be described as taking the form of a syllogism, where a major premise and a minor premise simultaneously contain elements of one another whilst participating in a conclusion: but a universal premise, if it has a value to mankind, can be reversed in an equal and opposite symmetry, with the true outcome not one that weakens its original form, but is rather the Platonic inversion of that form, i.e. formless. This is an insight developed by Jacques Rancière in  his little book On the Shores of Politics. Speaking on the theme of "equality", as a universal  ideal particularly inscribed in the laws of France, he states:

"The interesting thing about this way of reasoning is that it no longer opposes word to deed or form to reality. It opposes word to word and deed to deed. Taking what is usually thought of as something to be dismissed, as a groundless claim, it transforms it into its opposite - into the grounds for a claim, into a space open to dispute. The evocation of equality is thus not nothing. A word has all the power originally given it. This power is in the first place the power to create a space where equality can state its own claim: equality exists somewhere; it is spoken of and written about. It must therefore be verifiable. Here is the basis for a practice that sets itself the task of verifying this equality."3

He goes on to say that assuming the existence of that illusive equality “somewhere” (not least in legislation) is the basis of democracy; not assuming that it is illusory, or proving it to be a false claim when matched to reality, or believing that it can never be fully realised. The problem is that we always approach equality from a syllogistic viewpoint, where various interests compete within an essentially asymmetrical freedom. But if democracy is taken at its socially and politically agreed “word”, then the abstracts of freedom and equality really do exist, and we can negotiate from that basis. Following the logic of Rancière’s thesis, is it not possible, therefore, that mankind’s perennial vision of a world free from conflict, and from suffering - a world of peace, joy and fulfillment, where dream and vision become reality, and humanity is liberated from its archaic strife - is a valid “word” that has its signified “somewhere”, and if we could begin from that position and behave as if it were so, we might make it so: we might realise and manifest the vision?

A second and equally positive view of the situation is as follows. In this war, as in most wars, each side has adopted very similar tactics: the use of propaganda; conventions and rallies; gross distortions of the other's point of view; vindictive rhetoric; and so on. Indeed, the battle at times takes on an apocalyptic dimension with one side being damned, or at least totally negated, and the other exonerated, in time, by an arguably false historicism of either scientific or doctrinal determinism. The symmetry is obvious to anyone who is sensible enough, and sensitive enough, to be detached from the implicit violence of the argument, the result of which is always going to be either destructive confrontation, or complete impasse. The former of these two is unthinkable, but the latter could be a serious candidate for consideration if it opens up a different way of thinking about the symmetry.

For it is an argument that in a sense involves, and embroils, almost every aspect of human culture. The catalyst for its recent reconstitution is perhaps the growth of Islamic fundamentalism particularly within the borders of secular states, coupled with a perceived religiously inspired agenda in the foreign policy of the United States directly following 9/11. In this regard fears of religious dogmatism, and suspicion of religion in general, might seem justified. But the counter argument, and minor premise, to this is that religion - like other identifications such as race, culture, and even anti-religion - has always, from ancient times, been used and manipulated as a cover to gain support for political action, and that the recent escalation in violence can quite readily be seen in this light: this indeed would lend support to the claim that fundamentalist terror has succeeded in one of its aims - to create instability in the structure of Western secular democracy by means of polarisation of opinion, intolerance and strife.

In intellectual debate this destructive instability is indicated by a revival of the old theist / anti-theist confrontation in a new and disturbingly apocalyptic form, which in itself confirms an interchangeability of syllogistic themes in its major premise of a return to absolutism. But perhaps, surprisingly, it thus unwittingly reveals a redeeming symmetry when the impasse reflects not the possibility of nihilism, but the seemingly impossible possibility of an absolute that is completely open and free: and free from conflict.

The absolutism of both sides in this conflict, however, as is usual in conflicts, involves collateral damage to all kinds of otherwise innocent human interests: they are, like the populace in a civil war, in danger of being drawn in by either side or ravaged by their proximity to the battleground. One of these interests is philosophy, and by extension of philosophy's range of discourse, also art and literature - and perhaps music and the other arts too.

However, fortunately for art it contains within itself an immunity - although this quality is something that would in itself be aggressively challenged by one or other of the belligerents - and that immunity lies in art's essential non-identification with static positions. Indeed, it might be said that this non-identification is part of art's 'being', its inner dynamic, its raison d'être. I do not mean that art is relativistic, or as a rule avoids positioning as subject matter. Rather it can include positions, but goes far beyond them. If we take, for example, a so-called 'religious' painting - such as Fra Angelico's Annunciation - its value as art does not lie in its narrative as such, but in multifarious major and minor factors. Nevertheless, its religious narrative is integral - historically, culturally, intrinsically - to its perceived artistic resonance. 4 To force the reification of this narrative positively or negatively as either real or illusory only adds to the phenomenal interest and significance of the work, while missing the point: to demand either that such narratives be expunged from art, in the name of a Puritan 'rationality', or to insist, in the name of religion, that the narrative is irreducible, being the sole instrumental purpose of the work as religious instruction or iconography, would be to ignore the way in which art takes both positions into a much wider, richer, deeper, and more meaningful whole. And in doing this it goes beyond both: it achieves a transcendence, in effect, that is out-with the limited scope of both positions. It does this, however, by implicitly encompassing both, and holding them suspended within its unique space of discourse. This is what I would call a ‘deconstructive’ space, after the brilliant work of Jacques Derrida in perceiving deconstruction and revealing its activity within language, especially when language concerns ‘truth’ positions. This space is affirmative of all it contains, but suspends the reification of any positional ‘truths’.                                            



  Fra Angelico. Annunciation. c1438-45.

This qualitative effect of art is already unconsciously recognised in the very cultural acceptance that a particular work has artistic value. If it were to be denied, then every representation in art retains a meaning only as indicative of and responsive to a resolved historical context, and the essence of a separate 'art' beyond historical record is then in question.  It becomes invisible - a transcendent. That essentially historicist view would of necessity approach and eventually engulf the near present. Abstract-Expressionism, for example, would be seen partly as a response to the mid-twentieth century angst inhabited by its exponents (even though the themes - social, political, spiritual, psychological - of its overlay of narrative are as yet unresolved). In a predictive rational future of art, themes yet to come would presumably be resolved in the same way, and so progressively on until - in some distant future utopia - there were no themes of sufficient antagonism to motivate art at all, and we would be left with its pure essence (this could be what Plato alluded to in the Republic, but I think not), or perhaps its disappearance. On the other hand, art might be perennially enmeshed in its ever evolving contextual milieu, and if so its purpose one of continual response to whatever present it happens to inhabit, i.e. to express that particular present's values as seemingly permanent (and therefore - ironically and paradoxically - impermanent and changeable); or again, simply to respond positively and reflectively to the world around it. In all of these, ‘art’ remains instrumental and outside of its context.


Jackson Pollock. Lavender Mist. 1950.

But perhaps there is a third positive possibility, one that contains elements of both Rancière's and Derrida's work. That is, is there a way in which regardless of the specific contingency of context, art transcends that context by engagement with it? In other words, art would be revealed as transcendence itself, where its telos is at once perceived in the past and projected towards an unresolved future; or is at work in the immediate - and contingent - present. If this is the case then transcendence is the past, present and future reality of art, immanently engaging with but paradoxically going beyond the specific past, present or future contingent context that art inhabits. Science would agree that the future of science is unpredictable, and religion would agree that transcendence has always been at its core, although as a signified 'final cause'. But the value of art, its effective transcendence, would be the same in the past as in the present and future, this transcendence constantly renewed and restated in immanent relation to its evolving contingent material context.

Art that recognises this retains but inverts the age-old ideal of perfection, which is forever sought, but never attained. It is not so much the actual creation of perfection, which seems always beyond reach: It is creation in direct response to a formless idea of perfection, where perfection does not remain itself, but proves to be rather the dynamic reality within transcendence; art is the freedom to transcend from moment to moment according to a spontaneously revealed intrinsic and evolving perfection in oneself, in the work, and in the world.

If this open precept integral to art were incorporated by either or both sides in the intellectual debate referred to above, a new and more fruitful form of discussion and research might well emerge. Meanwhile, if faced with the challenge of a symmetry of absolutes, we may meet it from within the opposite space of our inner and absolute freedom.


1 Jacques Rancière, "The Uses of Democracy" in: On the Shores of Politics (London: Verso, 2007), p. 51.

2 There is another important issue here - that of the ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. According to Aristotle, private virtue should be taken into public life and politics. The problem is, in the context of the above, how to define “virtue”. Is it another “word” like “equality”? This issue would require a more lengthy treatment beyond the present article.

3 Jacques Rancière, op.cit., p. 47.

4 I have written more about the resonances of this painting. See: “Reality, Illusion and Alterity: The Advent of the Other”. In: Tymieniecka, A. T., ed. Analecta Husserliana (Vol. 87), Human Creativity Between Reality and Illusion. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 2006.

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