Friday, March 2, 2012

Chiastic metaphysics after the "Death of God" (Part 2): On the trail of the lost centre

The following text continues the investigation begun in: How to think like a moth - Thought after the "Death of God" (Part I)

the movement of the moth's wings depends on the muscles in its thorax, so the conceptual movement of the chiasm depends on the power of its middle. What, then, is the grounding middle in the chiastic reversal from the loss of transcendence into the transcendence of loss? And aren't we here simply over-stretching our analogy with the moth, moving by mere metaphor from its body as the enabling middle of its wings to some hypothetical middle of the chiasm as the ground of its truth? Not quite. For the middle as the ground of truth really has deep roots in western philosophy, reaching from Parmenides and Aristotle, through medieval theology (Boventura), to Kant and Hegel. In general terms: the middle is that which holds everything together and which as such justifies the binding of predicates to subjects in judgements, thus grounding theisin any true judgementS is P. The turning of the periagoge in western philosophy is therefore to a large extent a turning to the middle, a spiralling of thought, turning around the middle in ever smaller circles. In that sense the philosophical concept of the centre canwith another chiasmbe called the central concept of western philosophy. A short overview:

The metaphysical logic of the middle

Parmenides invented philosophical idealism by founding the unity of thought and being in the middle that holds everything together in the sphere of the One. Aristotle then gave this Eleatic thought a more scientific form by thinking the middle as middle term, that is, as the conceptual bridge between subject and predicate in any true judgement, where this conceptual middle is conceived by Aristotle in terms of essential or substantial being (ousia), which for Aristotle is ultimately God, the Unmoved Mover as the final cause of the universe. Bonaventura, thinking in the Christian Middle Ages, harked back to Parmenides by conceiving God asan infinite sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. Kant, in contrast, harked back to Aristotle but under the sign of modern subjectivity, focusing on thethird termunderlying the synthesis in any judgement, which he conceived as grounded in the transcendental apperception that binds concept and sensation together. For Kant, then, the transcendental subject played the same role that God played for Aristotle as the highest middle, underlying all true judgements. Of course, due to his critical limitations, Kant could not own up to this parallel with classical metaphysics, but Hegel had no such qualms. Hegel synthesized Aristotle and Kant by equating the transcendental subject with God as the final cause of the universe, adding the dialectical twist that this divine middle grounds not just the unity of subject and predicate but also their differentiation, as this is presupposed by their unification in judgement (thus judgement as Urteil is also arch-differentiation, Ur-Teilung). In that way Hegel was able to think God, the absolute subject, as self-mediating through negativity, as the self-moving middle between itself and the non-self.

I realize that this short history of the metaphysical logic of the middle is all too short and in need of serious elaboration if the traditional idea of the grounding middle is to be fully intelligible. I am sure that such an elaboration would reveal many important lacunae in the overview above (one interesting question, for example, is how Heidegger's view of theopen middleas the place of Being relates to the metaphysical view of the middle as the locus of God as the ultimate guarantor of truth). Nevertheless, I do think I have shown that there is some point to my question for the middle of the chiasm (the loss of transcendence is the transcendence of loss) as the ground of its truth. One could say that in asking for that grounding middle I am in illustrious company and in line with the metaphysical tradition of western philosophy.

The loss of the centre as the centrality of loss?
Yet, this also indicates the trouble I am in. For it is precisely the crisis of the metaphysical tradition with which we are trying to come to terms here. The loss of transcendence, theDeath of God, signifies precisely the falling away of the divine middle as the ultimate ground of truth. Thinking after theDeath of God, we no longer believe that there is some transcendent centre of existence, some ultimate Substance or/and Subject that guarantees our access to The Truth, binding everything together into one meaningful whole. Thus the loss of transcendence, the “Death of God”, can be reformulated as the loss of the middle. And thus our chiasm can be reformulated as: the loss of the middle (centre) is the middle position (centrality) of loss. In other words, it is precisely the loss of the transcendent middle of the metaphysical tradition that must itself be thought as the new grounding middle, as the axis of the chiastic reversal that resurrects metaphysics in the moment of its fall, as the axis of the periagogic turning after the “Death of God”. But how is this possible? How can the loss of the middle be itself the new middle for thought to turn on?

The case of Christian conservatism
One interesting thing to notice here is that the “loss of the middle” is a well-known topos of Christian conservatism. Here the “loss of the middle” obviously means the modern loss of faith in Christ as the mediator between God and mankind, a loss that supposedly leaves society rudderless as it robs traditional authorities (e.g. kings and churches) of their religious mandate and undermines the moral substance that binds us together. According to conservatism, the loss of the Christian middle condemns society to what Adorno called “mediation without a middle” (although, of course, Adorno himself was by no means a conservative: he precisely accused conservatism of not being able to “hold out” the contradictions of modern life, so that conservatism regresses to pre-modern modes of thought and action). Without collective faith in Christ as the transcendent centre of society, social oppositions – like the one between labour and capital – can no longer be mediated by a reconciling middle but clash im-mediately, plunging society into chaos. This apocalyptic sentiment in the conservative lamentation of the loss of the middle is quite explicit in Yeats's famous poem
The Second Coming, where the loss of the middle appears in the centre that “cannot hold”. The specifically Christian meaning of that centre for Yeats is of course obvious in the title of his poem, which indicates the longed for return of Christ as the living centre of society. Here is the first stanza:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Here, in the vision of Yeats's poem, the turning of the
periagoge derails completely, moving in ever widening spirals (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”) away from the transcendent middle, deeper and deeper into illusion and evil, constantly further away from the True and the Good. Society (the “falcon”) no longer hears the call of its centre (the “falconer”), so that the centrifugal forces gain the upper hand, dissolving society into “mere anarchy”.

What does this conservative jeremiad about the loss of the Christian middle mean in the light of our attempt to think the loss of the transcendent centre chiastically as the transcendent centrality of loss? Doesn't this precisely mean that we are moving in the opposite direction, away from conservatism? And is this also a moving away from Christianity? Does this mean that we deny the social problems pointed out by conservatism? Of course, society is in serious difficulty: on the one hand shocking self-enrichment, on the other hand poverty, hunger, war, alienating individualism, loss of self in drink and drugs... The “ceremony of innocence is drowned” indeed. But is this due to the loss of the centre? 

The empty throne of the God-man
Let us, to gain more clarity here, take a closer look at the conservative topos of the loss of the Christian middle. One informative
locus classicus in this regard is the book Loss of the Middle (Verlust the Mitte) by the art historian Hans Sedlmayr, published in the war ravaged Germany of 1948. In this book Sedlmayr analyses how the central position of man – religiously founded in the divine status of the man Jesus – slowly disappeared from modern art. Sedlmayr begins by pointing out how, until the 18th century, every art form used to be part of a sacred Gesamtkunstwerk in which divine man occupied the central place – a Gesamtkunstwerk formed by the complex of church and palace. In the following centuries, however, the various art forms gained a life of their own, becoming ‘autonomous’ by breaking away from the sacred and humanistic context of Christianity. Harking back to Blaise Pascal – who said “Leaving the middle means leaving humanity” – Sedlmayr analyses this development as a dehumanization of art. The inhuman comes to the fore in modern art: the indifference of nature and matter, the rapacious development of technology and industry, the self-reflective and abstract forms of autonomous art. In this way, Sedlmayr says, art reflects a broader social process of loss of centre, the downfall of Christian humanism. Art is not able to reverse that process (with respect to underlying social processes, art is powerless). Nevertheless, according to Sedlmayr, art still has a task here. In all its inhumanity, modern art has the crucial task of keeping the memory of the lost centre alive for future generations: “Then at least the awareness must stay alive, that the lost centre is the throne left empty for the perfect human, the God-man.” (Sedlmayr 1948: 248)

“sitting on a mountain of negations”
I must admit that I find this a beautiful, fascinating image: the lost centre in modern art as an empty throne – a throne that by its very emptiness refers to the missing king. But it is also this image which for me manifests the paradox of Christian conservatism. For the lost centre as the empty throne of the divine man? Is this not par excellence the empty cross, referring to the removed, dead body of the God-man Christ? Is this divine throne not Golgotha, the “mountain of skulls” on which the crucified Jesus throned, crowned with a wreath of thorns? I am reminded here of the negative theology of the Indian logician Adi Shankara, who painted a picture of Brahman as a God without attributes, sitting on a mountain of negations. Isn’t Golgotha that mountain? Isn’t the cross of Jesus precisely the cross of negation, referring back to the crossed out being of his mortal flesh? A picture means a thousand words, they say. Is this not true here? Doesn’t the picture of Golgotha make clear in one stroke that the centre as the throne of the divine man
must be empty, that this emptiness necessarily follows from the core of the Christian doctrine? For was the sacrifice of Christ as Mediator not necessary to reconcile man with God and thereby with his fellow man? Is the loss of the centre in this sense not precisely the precondition of the unity of the Christian community, its unification in the Holy Spirit? In fact this is precisely what Christ himself said according to John: “it is better for you that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Holy Spirit [Paraclete, Comforter] will not come unto you, and if I go, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7)

Hegel on the vanishing mediator
In this regard Christian conservatives should have listened better to one of their heroes, namely Hegel (who could sublate all earthly contradictions in the thought of the Absolute Spirit, thereby in practice leaving everything as it was, to the delight of the Prussian regime). In the
Spirit of Christianity Hegel explains that as long as Jesus lived among his followers, he formed a “dividing wall” (“Scheidewand”) on the one hand between the followers themselves, and on the other between them and God:

“As long as he lived among them, they were only believers; for they were not based on themselves; Jesus was their teacher and master, an individual centre on which they depended; they did not yet have their own, independent life; the Spirit of Jesus ruled them; but after his removal this objectivity, this dividing wall between them and God, also fell away; and the Spirit of God was able to revive her whole being.” (Geist des Christentums, p.384)

In this regard Hegel was undoubtedly one of the German children of Luther, who deprived the Catholic priest of his mediator function in order to make the relationship between believer and God im-mediate. In this Protestant sense, Jesus is portrayed by Hegel as “the good priest” who makes himself superfluous and disappears into the relation between God and man (in other words: the only good priest is a dead priest, or in terms of Yeats: the only good centre is a dead centre). But one would underestimate the importance for Hegel of Jesus as vanishing mediator if one sees here only the influence of Luther. In fact, the concept of the vanishing mediator is an intrinsic part of Hegel’s dialectic, which is after all the atoning mediation of opposites. To truly bring opposites together, the mediator must – like Jesus – disappear from their midst. This is clearly argued by the Hegel scholar Herbert Scheit, who notes concerning the above passage of Hegel on the necessity of Jesus’ disappearance:

“This applies to every mediation, if it really wants to earn that name: mediation implies not just a third, a middle, it sublates itself in the unit of the mediated ones, which is then a “mediated immediacy”.” (Scheit 1973: 183, n. 207)

For Hegel, then, the goal of every mediation is what he calls “mediated immediacy”, the synthesis of opposites between which the mediator has disappeared. In that sense one can say, referring to Hegel, that the vanishing mediator is a universal given, or rather a universal absence, a disappearance that is ‘active’ in every process of mediation.

More about chiastic metaphysics and the loss of the middle next time. Apparently, I have to postpone kicking Hegel's but to some future occassion.

-Sedlmayer, Hans (1948),
Verlust der Mitte. Salzburg/Wien, Müller.
-Scheit, Herbert (1973),
Geist und Gemeinde: Zum Verhältnis von Religion und Politik bei Hegel, München und Salzburg, Verlag Anton Pustet.

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