Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Enormous, illusory, powerful, and spectral presences as the “defining” features of the human condition

I want to begin my contribution to this discussion on the politics of spirituality by highlighting the tension-fraught relationship between theoretical self-reflexivity and empirical study. […]
Further, I would suggest that this ethos of autology resonates with certain political traditions that embed self-sufficient self-service into their conceptual armature, notably the liberal democratic one. Freedom and the self. Individuals that choose their own way, breaking away from tradition. Spiritual and not religious. It is in this sense that circular definitions of spirituality and more linear, “objective” studies of spirituality in the world can come together. If one admits the nebulous swirl of self-grounding groundlessness as a feature of the world and not simply a feature of (misguided) analysis, then one may come closer to understanding the social construction of spirituality and the role that spirituality can play in the formation of the polis.
I take as my foundation an interest in and commitment to understanding religiosity in its more unconscious, habitual, automatic, instinctive, and just plain unclear dimensions. I start here not only because of the implausibility of the image of the human as a theoretically transparent, self-aware, self-possessing entity (who believes that or ever did?), but because equally implausible, or at least incomplete, is the characterization of knowledge through terms of transparency, awareness, and possession. If one instead follows the lead of, among others, Herman Melville in his suggestion of the enormous, illusory, powerful, and spectral presences as the “defining” features of the current human condition, then an interest in religion will not look to its clearest dimensions but to its vagueness. And this has driven my interest in spirituality. […]

In another piece I treated the techniques for managing spiritual experience in national parks. Here I turn to the self-reflections of park visitors on their spiritual experience, focusing particularly on the implications of that experience for their relationship to the collectivities of community, nation, and state. […] Hints of the influence of management on spirituality can be seen in references to the atmosphere of the parks. One respondent said, “I just feel that national parks are just such a beautiful example of God’s handiwork and God’s creation. […] The state works most powerfully in the parks through absences: through managing space in such a way as to remove or minimize polluting stimuli, including its own speech (interpretive panels and ranger talks obey a strict principle of economy, of not getting “in the way”). In those absences and silences, circles form. Perceptions of the environment, however intensively managed that environment may in fact be, turn into experiences of nature, self, and god. The political dimension of such experience is largely unspoken. But in its particular embodied characteristics, such experience is structurally dependent on a certain exercise of state power. In this way the politics of spirituality may have little to do with thoughts about elections or particular government officials. But it has much to do with creating a space for significant governmental presence in both personal and collective life.

Steven B. Smith reviews the Faye book for the Claremont Review of Books.
“In his single-mindedness to convict Heidegger, Faye overlooks the fact that Heidegger's life work was focused almost single-mindedly on one problem, the problem of Being. Our forgetfulness of this problem—this fundamental problem—is what he regarded as the root of modern nihilism. ForHeidegger, everything turned on a recovery of the problem of Being, without which life would become increasingly shallow, forgetful, and meaningless. He posed the question—if not perhaps with the greatest clarity, certainly with the greatest depth—who has responsibility for Being? At its best, his work is a call for a renewed sense of responsibility. It is the merit of Faye's book that he shows us how Heidegger, who did nothing but preach responsibility for Being, abnegated this responsibility because he did nothing but think of Being.”

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