Alongside Taylor’s exploration of the conditions secularism—and therefore also of belief—in Euroatlantic late modernity, there is a surprisingly unreconstructed Christian faith that comes out when he attempts to deal intellectually with sex and violence. I want to raise some questions about Taylor’s account of “our moral landscape” after the mainstreaming of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Our moral landscape has indeed changed—that is undeniable—and yet, in Taylor’s hands, the cartography of that moral landscape appears all too familiar, and this is so because he does not take—indeed historically has not taken—the challenge of post-Nietzscheanism seriously. (One need only return to his Political Theory essay on Foucault for early evidence of this.)
As Taylor sees it, sexuality and aggression or violence pose profound problems for Christian ideals and ethics in the secular age, so he turns to categories familiar to discourses of belief and unbelief—humanism, immanence, and transcendance—in order to see how they configure the moral landscape and thus how he can situate his own Christian commitments with respect to sexuality and aggression. In particular, Taylor examines the way in which Christian believers can respond to the attacks from critics that their faith either “mortifies” humanity by expecting a surplus renunciation of specifically human life or else “bowdlerizes” humanity by ignoring much about how humans historically have lived. Both criticisms point to a will to transcend ordinary humanity, and the critics fall into two camps: secular humanists and neo-Nietzscheans. The secular humanists pathologize the “wild side” of human being—both sex and violence—and, inspired by Enlightenment ideals of reason, would want to overcome these primitive drives within an immanent frame, advancing a humanist ideal rather than a transcendent, divine one. Neo-Nietzscheans, on Taylor’s account, embrace human wildness as a necessary consequence of affirming the superabundance of life in the will to power. (‘Mortify,’ ‘bowdlerize,’ and ‘wild side’ are Taylor’s expressions.)
To Taylor’s credit, he considers Christian ideals’ confrontation with this wild side of human being a real dilemma; also to his credit, he shows, by reference to the work of Georges Bataille, that he is aware that many adherents of Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions, and non-believers as well, have historically regarded th0is human wildness with ambivalence—both heightened attraction and repulsion. But here is where all the questions arise for me, because Taylor is content with the language of ambivalence rather than that of irreducibility. Not only post-Nietzscheans such as Bataille, but also post-Freudians such as Leo Bersani, consider this wildness irreducible. According to them it is not only the case that we both fear and crave to act on our wilder impulses toward aggression and shattering sexuality and therefore cannot simply stamp them out without mutilating humanity—as Taylor recognizes—but, moreover, we ought not even to expect to reduce or to hope to guide these impulses. Indeed, we cannot even apprehend this wildness directly. These “primitive” drives are too fractious, too central, at once pervasively present and yet evasively absent, at once excessive and lacking, too vital and therefore marked by death. Because of their radical negativity, we can only recognize wild drives in their effects and not in themselves.
Taylor seems to condone a Christian resolution to the dilemma of this ambivalence toward wildness that would see humans’ calling to a divine education that would turn them away from endowing anything other than God with numinous power: “God is slowly educating mankind, slowly turning it, transforming it from within. . . . But at the same time, the pedagogy is being stolen, has been misappropriated, and misapplied; the education is occurring in this field of resistance.” Hence, the fact that “the wild frenzy of killing, or sex, can be endowed with the numinous” marks a “fallen condition.” And the fact “that most historical religion has been deeply intricated with violence, from human sacrifice down to inter-communal massacres” is “[b]ecause most historical religion remains only very imperfectly oriented to the beyond.”
Why is it possible to say that “the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” can reduce violence but that the sexual revolution proved that “integrating the Dionysian into a continuing way of life” is impossible? In some sense, the latter was obviously impossible, since the Dionysian marks an abundance of life that is destructive to it—but in spite of that, Taylor’s decidedness here leads me to think that he is asking less challenging questions about the sexual revolution than he thinks he is.
Not all sexual revolutionaries believed that greater sensuality and/or transgressive sex would lead to permanent human fulfillment and liberation. The sexual revolution also generated sexual practices that did not take self-fulfillment or self-liberation as an end, but rather flirted with the very loss of the self—its (temporary) shattering, devastation, perhaps obliteration. Some of the practices were oriented to ascesis, the disciplinary disorganization of a self as object by the self as subject. Whether explicitly inspired by what Taylor calls neo-Nietzscheanism or not, such practices as anonymous cruising (gay or otherwise), queer sex work, or some forms of sadomasochism could be seen as standing aside from liberation or self-fulfillment. (Ironically, “SM” in Taylor’s book refers to “scapegoat mechanism.”)
Something about the self-certainty of Taylor’s Christian answer to wildness—a resolution that one ideal is possible while another is impossible; the decidedness of being able to pinpoint God and the presumption of being able to orient oneself to divinity; the expectation of being able to manipulate a self, a calling, a pedagogy, reducibility—all this strikes me as the deeply conventional stuff of a faith that has not reconstructed itself truly at its depths in light of the challenge that post-Nietzscheanism and post-Freudianism represent.
But what if, precisely because the wild side of human being cannot be domesticated since there is always more “unemployed negativity” (Bataille’s term), we can only approach human wildness obliquely and thus take a less self-certain attitude to the interrelationship of wildness, humanity, and divinity? What if our orientation to immanence and transcendence were indirect? What if, in short, it might be the case that apophasis, a negative theology, is the most appropriate tactical response to the secular age and its dilemmas? Then, I want to say, we would have to be at once more modest in our claims about human improvement and divine pedagogy—indeed we might give up on those ideas altogether—and therefore more bold in speculation and action. Paradoxically perhaps, by avoiding the compulsion to speak of god so frequently and with such prolixity, the negative theologian grants us the holiest of all things: not a Feuerbachian return of our humanity, but rather its risk.
There is a big secret about “fullness”: most people don’t like it.
While I grant that Leo Bersani’s version is better than mine, I think it’s worth juxtaposing Jimmy Casas Klausen’s excellent post with discussions about A Secular Age’s vocabulary. Before continuing, let me apologize for the belatedness of my response. Let me also add that there is much to learn from Klausen’s post, as it adds a fresh and underrepresented perspective to Taylor’s rich book.
That said, I think some of Klausen’s points fit into the broader debate over Taylor’s terminology. At the recent “Varieties of Secularism” conference , for example, several speakers took up Michael Warner’s suggestion of “motivating intensities” as an alternative to Taylor’s original “fullness.” Each speaker, I’m sure, had different reasons for considering this, but one possible reason stems from the idea that a word like “fullness” evokes and represents religious sentiments more forcefully than it does secular ones. (Similarly, Jonathan Sheehan’s post suggests that Taylor’s “fullness” can be read as a particularly theological, or even apologetic, word.)
Questions like these match Klausen’s in form, if not in content. When Klausen argues that “there is a surprisingly unreconstructed Christian faith that comes out when [Taylor] attempts to deal intellectually with sex and violence,” he finds a partiality similar to that detected by others in the wording of “fullness.”
All this, and I haven’t even engaged Klausen’s key distinction between “ambivalent” and “irreducible” wildness. Whether one agrees with Klausen or not, though, his argument for a fresh emphasis on “radical negativity” renders A Secular Age even more rewarding.
I owe Craig Fehrman a note of thanks: I am in his debt for his kind words and careful consideration of my bid to divert us from Taylor’s fullness, and, being indebted, I relish how far from fullness or plenitude I feel. Grateful indebtedness is an art of masochism.
By a wonderful coincidence, Fehrman’s reply recalled me to my original post during the very week when I was teaching Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents in a course on hospitality and hostility. It is in Civilization that Freud begins to systematize a theory of an aggressivity drive and sees it at work in the superego’s response to the ego’s (constitutive) inability to abide by such moralizing zingers as “love thine enemies.” Decades later, Jean Laplanche will assimilate aggressivity to sexuality as against Eros—thereby confirming the sense one gets that over the course of his career Freud (unconsciously?) is making sexuality do two very different kinds of work, binding and unbinding, attracting and repelling, satisfying us with afterpleasure and frustrating us with forepleasure.
Now, the great thing about Fehrman’s rewriting of Bersani’s famous first line to “Is the Rectum a Grave?”—“There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it”—is that the juxtaposition shows us just how obliquely Bersani moves from a position like Taylor’s. For Bersani, whether they know this or not, most people don’t like sex because of the way that it mocks any possibility of earnest redemption. Sexuality constantly humiliates attempts to turn sex acts into Eros and communion, and even latterly into “sacred sex”—and precisely therein, precisely in sexuality’s refusal to affirm selves and even its shattering of them, may lie its value.
Fullness-talk, by contrast, puts Taylor on the side of redemption and by extension on the side of mutually affirmative sex. The very fact that, as Sheehan points out in an earlier post that Fehrman recalls us to, Taylor uses fullness to describe even varieties of secularism suggests that he wills to redeem secularisms on the order of Christianity. If secularisms too seek fullness or orient themselves to fullness, then how easy it would be to re-orient them to a responsible and responsive (future) Christianity! If secularists want plenitude—indeed, even the ambivalent ones want it at least in part—then they’re already on the road to redemption.
A term like “motivating intensities” at least recognizes that both positivity and negativity may be at work at any given moment: intensity is the result of the tension between the two. Moreover, motivating intensities jettisons the metaphysical baggage that already pre-decides us (I want to say: afterpleasures us) in favor of positivity, plenitude, and the redemption of ambivalence. In motivating intensities, there is at least the hint of an intimation that the wild side of humanity is doing its negating, unbinding, frustrating work.
As Fehrman notes, I would push radical negativity even further. I am not convinced, with Taylor or by Taylor, that a redeemed version of Christianity is the solution or even a salve to the malaise of modernity (to refer to the Canadian title of Taylor’s Ethics of Authenticity). Far from it—and that is what my emphasis on the irreducibility of the negative is meant to point to: as I see it, irreducibility mocks narratives of redemption. I still think that radical negativity yields immense resources—not “solutions”—for a critique of modernity and indeed for a number of possible counter-conducts that move at an angle oblique to politically dominant trends in Euro-Atlantic late modernity.
In short, given a choice between unredeemable sex or redemptive fullness, I make it no secret that I’d rather have sex than fullness any day.
I appreciate your criticism of one aspect of Charles Taylor’s book. It gave me a lot to think about. After reading your post and your appended comment a few times, I see that your entire argument hangs on the following:
“To Taylor’s credit, he considers Christian ideals’ confrontation with this wild side of human being a real dilemma; also to his credit, he shows, by reference to the work of Georges Bataille, that he is aware that many adherents of Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions, and non-believers as well, have historically regarded th0is human wildness with ambivalence—both heightened attraction and repulsion. But here is where all the questions arise for me, because Taylor is content with the language of ambivalence rather than that of irreducibility. Not only post-Nietzscheans such as Bataille, but also post-Freudians such as Leo Bersani, consider this wildness irreducible. According to them it is not only the case that we both fear and crave to act on our wilder impulses toward aggression and shattering sexuality and therefore cannot simply stamp them out without mutilating humanity—as Taylor recognizes—but, moreover, we ought not even to expect to reduce or to hope to guide these impulses. Indeed, we cannot even apprehend this wildness directly.”
You go on to say that you are not convinced “with Taylor or by Taylor” that Christianity is the solution to the modern “malaise” (by which, I believe, Taylor means something larger than this one issue of ambivalence about the “wild side”), and that “radical negativity yields immense resources…for a number of possible counter-conducts that move at an angle oblique to politically dominant trends in Euro-Atlantic late modernity.”
It strikes me that the opposition you set up between yourself and Taylor is not airtight. First, you seem to suggest that Taylor’s “redeemed version of Christianity” rises or falls with the universality of its redemptive effects. Based on the examples you give, it would seem that Taylor is wrong as long as his Christianity doesn’t reach the “unreedemable” folks you talk about, i.e., the ones involved in “anonymous cruising (gay or otherwise), queer sex work, or some forms of sadomasochism.” Or put differently, Taylor’s Christianity fails if it doesn’t eventually, in a utopian future, eradicate the negative, i.e., the desire to engage in unredeemable sex acts. I’m not sure this criticism holds. You seem to accuse Taylor of proclaiming an ultimate or eventual victory over the negative, while you seem to imply an ultimate or eventual victory of the negative over the positive. Or at least you seem to suggest that the negative absolutely halts any sort of positive progress. (I would note, however, that this “halt” takes the form of an ethical imperative, rather than a statement of fact; radical negativity is yet to make the significant “counter-conducts” against “politically dominant trends” that are prefigured by the anonymous cruisers, queer sex workers, etc.). Isn’t there a third way? Christian anthropology, for instance, has always seen human existence as a struggle between the negative and the positive, between desire and the love of God, or between the bondage of the flesh and the freedom of the mind and the will. I see the real difference between you and Taylor in this way: you think that the negative trumps positive progress (of whatever stamp) because the negative is *so very* radical, while Taylor thinks that the negative is one radical thing among others, and therefore only slows down religious development (unless we choose something else; Taylor never prophesies the triumph of Christianity or even religion). Put differently, you prefer the myth of the unconscious over the myth of spirit.
I think your last statement was the most precise of all: “In short, given a choice between unredeemable sex or redemptive fullness, I make it no secret that I’d rather have sex than fullness any day.” At the heart of our intellectual work indeed lies a personal preference.