Othering and smOthering

In the comments of my last post, Elizabeth Upton warns me against Othering the Medieval mind. It’s a point well-taken. If we accept the idea that certain ways of thinking about the past constitute a sort of epistemic violence — or at least an epistemic boorishness, drowning out the voices of other peoples with our own self-satisfied monologue — then Othering is what happens when we ignore those things we might have in common with another subjectivity. In saying “they’re not like us,” we deny other subjectivities their full share in the humanity we presume for ourselves. This is obviously what’s at work in the mentality of colonialism, and it’s also the standard criticism of musical exotica. To “exoticize the Other” is to make a spectacle of cultural difference, so that those we designate as Others are separated from us as if by Plexiglass walls and made exhibits in a human zoo.

Elizabeth is not the first medievalist to object to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (which I leaned on quite heavily in my last post) and what appears to be its deployment of a venerable trope of Othering, the old “Age of Faith” bit. Steven Justice writes,

You can almost hear medievalist palms slap medievalist foreheads in despair: trying to describe premodern religious belief, [Taylor] conjures an enchanted world where spirits and demons were part of life as lived (“it wasn’t possible to entertain seriously the idea that they might be unreal”), where what we would call ideas were encountered as realities (“no . . . distinction, between experience and its construal, arose”), and where possession, mystical union, the presence of God, must “be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of ‘theory,’ or ‘belief,’” “a fact of [their] world.” Medieval studies thought it had stricken such notions from respectable academic discourse: one of its most confident boasts is that it dashed the notion of an “age of faith.” [Justice, “Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles?, 1]

Inasmuch as Taylor is assuming that such an “Age of Faith” lies on the far side of an impassable epistemic gap, then sure, I have a problem with this too. Writes Justice, “the problem arises neither in explaining the category of belief [the “Age of Faith” trope] nor in bracketing it [what scholars do to avoid the “Age of Faith” trope]; the problem arises in creating the category, in imagining belief as a distinct kind of cognitive state or activity, and then declaring it the defining property or defining problem of certain centuries.” [Justice, 12]

Justice wants to think of belief as practice: belief is not a “black box,” a placeholder concept whose contents remain a matter of mystery or indifference, but a set of readily-legible “mechanisms that enjoined belief, and backed the injunction by that system of regulation and pedagogy, of sanctions and rewards, that R. W. Southern memorably called ‘truth-enforcement.'” [Justice, “Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles?, 12]

For those who read my long series on magic, this should sound familiar. I argued that such a practice of belief is the sine qua non of the modern magician, and in doing so imagined a character named Ivy, “a thoughtful child of a skeptical age, who must figure out how to play with strange and archaic ideas of daimons and augurs while remaining in commerce with the modern world in which she lives.” I wrote that “such a person would have to manage a kind of double-jointedness of belief, an ability not only to put away disbelief but to assert powerful positive beliefs while holding them in a state of play.” Understanding Ivy’s practice of belief would go a long way to answering the question I meant to answer in my series, which how magic can continue to thrive in a supposedly disenchanted age.

But while I am in broad agreement with Justice — and indeed this idea of belief as practice supplies something that is missing in A Secular Age — I’m still not quite happy with his account of how disciplines of belief work:

These structures would have been pointless unless belief were something amenable to command, and they would have been redundant had it been second nature, the reflex experience of an enchanted world. Mental states cannot be enjoined, while choice can; the will, not the intellect, can obey. This is what it meant to describe belief as faith, as a discipline of fidelity undertaking and maintaining commitment to a series of putatively true propositions: the content of the commitment is cognitive—one commits oneself to the position that the propositions are true—but the mind encounters the commitment itself as something alien, peremptory, and rebarbative. The first duty every Christian undertook was to maintain assent to a series of propositions: “Do you believe in God the Father. . . ? in Jesus Christ his only Son. . . ? in the Holy Spirit. . . ?” the baptismal ritual asked; that ordinarily others answered for one—parents and godparents engaging infants to a matter on which they had no say—left one faced with the prospect of accommodating cognitive habits to the maintenance of truths often repellent to natural dispositions. Belief concerned what was uncertain, difficult, inaccessible. [Justice, “Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles?, 12]

To which I would ask, difficult and inaccessible to whom? What are these “natural dispositions”? Natural in whose terms?

In modern terms, of course. “Natural” here connotes the assumption, nearly universal among educated moderns, that there are no spiritual agents in the world, and that some outside force — in this case, “mechanisms of truth-enforcement” — is needed to make them appear. Justice is suggesting that human beings, left to their own devices (ah, another venerable trope, the “state of nature”!) will naturally see no God, no Son, no Holy Spirit, because such spooks aren’t materially there. What is materially there is what is “natural.” The latter is the bedrock assumption of scientific naturalism, the belief system of educated moderns that Taylor lays bare with pitiless clarity. In this passage we sense what Taylor calls the “subtraction narrative” lurking close by: reality is simply what we moderns believe it to be, a world of brute matter evacuated of spirit, and that any other way of understanding reality is something extra added in, something in need of explanation. Taylor’s A Secular Age might trade in the “Age of Faith” trope, but its great contribution is to point out that ours is an age of faith, too. And not many scholars have wrapped their minds around what that might really mean.

For the historian, Othering isn’t the only risk at play here. If Othering is the Solve of academia’s identity-political alchemy, then Appropriation is its Coagula. Appropriation is the opposite error of asserting not difference but sameness between another subjectivity and your own. If you have ever objected to a white kids affecting African American styles or someone insisting on colorblind politics (“I don’t see race, I see people”), you are objecting to their assumption that there is no difference between their own subjectivity and someone else’s.*

The phenomenon I’m talking about here is broader than what is normally meant by Appropriation, though. What I am really writing about is an error of the historical imagination — the shoehorning of Medieval people, or Ancient Greeks, or modern magicians, etc., into our consensus habits of mind. Perhaps we need some other name for it. For now, I will call it “smOthering”: the hidden flip side of Othering, a different reaction to the same basic inability to accept a noetic difference between ourselves and our subject. Whereas Othering involves throwing up our hands (whaddaya gonna do with these primitives), smOthering begins with the assumption that there must be a fundamental similarity of mind and proceeds to smother all real differences in a forced consensus. “Just like us” makes the Other vanish just as effectively as “not like us.”

One very common way of doing this is to find something that simply cannot be made to fit a modern view of reality — say, William Blake’s notion that the sun is a host of angels — and to assume that it is a metaphor, that the sun is like a host of angels. We can only assume that Blake is a reasonable sort of creature, much like ourselves. (And of course no-one sets the standard of reasonableness quite so well as a present-day humanities professor!) So we cannot believe that Blake is really saying that the sun is literally, actually a host of angels:

What are we to say of the man who fixes his eye on the sun and does not see the sun, but sees instead a chorus of flaming seraphim announcing the glory of God? Surely we shall have to set him down as mad … unless he can coin his queer vision into the legal tender of elegant verse. Then, perhaps, we shall see fit to assign him a special status, a pigeonhole: call him “poet” and allow him to validate his claim to intellectual respectability by way of metaphorical license. Then we can say, “He did not really see what he says he saw. No, not at all. He only put it that way to lend color to his speech … as poets are in the professional habit of doing. It is a lyrical turn of phrase, you see: just that and nothing more.” And doubtless all the best, all the most objective scholarship on the subject would support us in our perfectly sensible interpretation. It would tell us, for example, that the poet Blake, under the influence of Swedenborgian mysticism, developed a style based on esoteric visionary correspondences and was, besides, a notorious, if gifted, eccentric. Etc. Etc. Footnote.

This is Theodore Roszak, in The Making of a Counter-Culture (1969), a dashing assault on the modern “myth of objective consciousness” and a call for us to cultivate a premodern, mystical way of seeing the world. But Roszak was not so foolish as to imagine that his fellow academics would be much help on this score. What is striking about this passage is how little has changed since 1969: a present-day scholar, however “postmodern,” would almost certainly end up smothering the challenging weirdness of Blake’s vision in much the same way. “Art” has become a hold-all category used to stash any thoughts that cannot otherwise be assimilated to the modern’s naïve construal. A scholar of magic is faced with a stark choice: call it art or call it madness. Calling it madness is Othering; calling it art is smOthering.**

Next time: the Ontological Turn to the rescue! Maybe!

*I should mention in passing that I think our concern over cultural appropriation is ludicrously overblown, and that in many, perhaps most instances, it’s a bullshit concept. The flap over “cultural appropriation” in the General Tso’s Chicken served at Oberlin’s dining halls marks the reductio ad absurdum of this style of critique. But that’s an argument for another day.

**Well, you could call it “religion,” but this introduces a whole different set of problems. Again, that’s an argument for another day.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Othering and smOthering

  1. John Kilbourne says:

    Thanks for talking about this stuff again.

    In exploring this further the last time you wrote about it, I came across an explanation of logical positivism that pointed out that LP not only says that X,Y,Z procedures and sensibilities will lead to truth and correctness, but more importantly, that ONLY those procedures and sensibilities will lead to truth and correctness.

    In other words, LP claims to be the (sole) way the truth and the life, and nobody can reach the kingdom but through it.

    Again, I appreciate how you unfold and explore these issues that relate to what I think of as the non-linear aspect of experience, the counterexamples to the ‘study hard and work hard (in the material sphere) and you will be rewarded’ story.

    • That’s completely true. And yet logical positivism was large enough to encompass things like Carnap’s “principle of tolerance”: that all meaning is governed by conventions, and the conventions can be anything two or more language users like. LP is the truth and the life like Christianity, but a very liberal Christianity.

      I hold no brief for LP, but I think it’s problematic how the stereotypical image of it has become something like Otto Neurath at his most belligerent. Although LP was a typical early-20th-century modernist movement with a manifesto, proselytizing, etc., the differences between Neurath and Carnap, or Neurath, Carnap and someone like Friedrich Waismann (who almost ended up co-authoring a book with Wittgenstein), were often at least as significant as the similarities.

  2. Tommi Uschanov says:

    Your answer to your own question “Natural in whose terms?” is good, but a competing answer could perhaps be found in a passage in Alasdair MacIntyre (a Doppelgänger of sorts to Taylor), where he raises the question

    “why […] the same intellectual difficulties at one time appear as difficulties but no more, an incentive to enquiry but not a ground for disbelief, while at another time they appear as a final and sufficient ground for scepticism”

    and suggests that

    “the concepts [involved] were part of a set of concepts which were indispensable to the forms of description used in social and intellectual life. It is the secularization of our forms of description, constituting part of the secularization of our life, that has left the contradictions high and dry. To take an obvious example, Christianity does not and never has depended upon the truth of an Aristotelian physics in which the physical system requires a Prime Mover, and consequently many sceptics as well as many believers have treated the destruction of the Aristotelian argument in its Thomist form as something very little germane to the question of whether or not Christianity is true. But in fact the replacement of a physics which requires a Prime Mover by a physics which does not secularizes a whole area of enquiry. It weakens the hold of the concept of God on our intellectual life by showing that in this area we can dispense with descriptions which have any connection with the concept.”

    (“Is Understanding Religion Compatible with Believing?“, 1964, p. 129)

    Obviously this is very different from Justice’s idea that (as you put it) “human beings, left to their own devices […] will naturally see no God”. I’ve had a hard time deciding whether I agree with MacIntyre here or not, but at least I can say that I find his suggestion worthwhile; and I think it’s compatible with the view that ours too is an Age of Faith, while Justice’s is not.

    This is all getting to be like a Reddit AMA for you, and obviously I’m primarily looking forward to your discussion of the Ontological Turn myself, but I thought I’d raise this before I forget.

    • philphord says:

      Hi John and Tommy, very sorry to be so slow to respond. I was on holiday for a couple of weeks after I wrote this post and then got horrendously sick. I’m just staggering back to Dial M and blowing off the layer of dust that’s collected everywhere. More soon, I promise!

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