Friday, April 5, 2013

A little heavy culture: Disengaged?

Gauis made a comment on one of yesterday's posts that got me to put so much effort into my reponse that I think I'll make it the basis of today's post.

The comment is about the insolubility  of modern arguments pitting rights against morality (and his argument is reminiscent of Alisdair McIntyre's arguments at the beginning of After Virtue.)
I think the most interesting thing is the mix-and-matching of two arguments, which you could call the "public policy" argument and the "morality argument." And this is on both sides. Neither people who feel strongly that gay marriage is wrong on moral-religious grounds, nor people who feel strongly that it is necessary for reasons of justice-rights-morality, are likely to be convinced by arguments that gay marriage is either beneficial or harmful to society. That’s both because such arguments can never be as fully scientific as they claim to be (whose society? What’s ‘harmful’? what’s ‘beneficial’? How can you prove this? Aren’t such arguments inherently ideological? Etc.) and therefore not convincing, but also because (I think) people recognize legal norms as basically the shadow or simulacrum of ‘real’ morality, and to a degree they hold back from recognizing legal-societal norms as fully legitimate.
I think that is exactly right. and I added the following.
At some level, that [meaning seeing "legal norms as basically the shadow or simulacrum of ‘real’ morality"] is inevitable. There is always going to be a gap between a set of legal moral principles and what we believe for ourselves. What seems to have happened lately in our culture is that we no longer even pretend to think that the morality embedded in the law is real. Somewhere on YouTube there is a video of some of the people now loudly proclaiming that same-sex marriage is a right saying that marriage is necessarily between a man and a woman in an equally self-righteous tone. Liberals are fully engaged in mass morality but they think it is endlessly malleable, which is another way of saying it doesn't really exist.

It makes me think of a line originally in the Ferris Bueller script but cut from the final version, "It took you twenty years to find out you don't believe in anything?"

Christians, OTOH, are more and more detached. My wife made a presentation to a group of Anglicans in their 20s and 30s on popular culture a few years ago. These were pretty typical Anglicans, which is to say pretty easy going and willing to accommodate their practices to make living in the modern world easier. The jarring discovery, as my wife put it elsewhere, was that even these easy-going types had created their own world separate from the common culture. She couldn't get them to even begin to engage issues arising from it. For them the only morality that matters is between them and God, except that you wonder how much separate existence they attribute to God as he always seems to tell them they can do the things they really want to do.
I wonder to what extent this is driven by modernism? Modernism has seen a huge revival as the generation raised on Ikea aesthetics have become adults, parents and leaders. As the Lemon Girl and I were saying just the other day, it's not as if the problems that caused modernism to collapse in the early 1960s have been solved or magically gone away. And yet modernism has seized us all by like some sort of irresistible sexual impulse might do.

I am now reading a great little book called Decadent Enchantments which is about how Gregorian chant was revived at the abbey of Saint Pierre at Solesmes. It's a fascinating story and is very well told by Katherine Bergeron. She makes two fascinating distinctions. (Fascinating to me, anyway, I suspect this may end up being the least-read post in the history of this blog.)

The first distinction is between the situation at the end of the French revolution versus the normal decline and fall of cultures. Most cultures leave some ruins. Which is to say that, however much wanton destruction takes place, there are usually ruins that become ruins through decay. The situation for a religious revival at the end of the French revolution was different. Everything thing had been destroyed or, worse, removed from its historic setting and placed in a museum. The French word "vandalisme" (the source of our English word) was coined to describe this new kind of destruction. Bergeron says that the restorers saw what was left as an era of debris rather than an era of ruins.
For the Romantic spectator, then, the violent dislocation of historic monuments offered an image not so much of decay as of debris. The sight of such fragmented remains [in a museum] could produce no meaningful "effects", to use Chateaubriand's word, because these broken pieces no longer possessed the aura of pastness. It was the very existence of debris, a vulgar index of revolutionary change, that seemed to enable this new Romantic ideal of decay. Decay emerged as a countersign, a shadowy figure of not-change imagined, by necessity, as aura surrounding the now lamented natural ruin was a haunted sign, a ghostly specter of lost presence. Decay as such, together with the past plenitude it embodied, became poetic at the moment when debris had effectively taken it's place. (From Decadent Enchantments by Katherine Bergeron, p. 4)
That should be familiar to readers Brideshead Revisisted as it is exactly the attitude of Charles Ryder. I think it needs some work as no fully sound argument will include ugly expressions like "pastness" and "not-change".

Anyway, she then goes on to distinguish between that Romantic attitude and a later Modernist understanding that saw restoration as possibly "recreating" a form of life that "may have never existed".
It is perhaps not surprising that, perched on a hinge between two centuries, the figures of Pothier and and Mocquereau should be seen to swing in such different directions, betraying historical orientations that might be called, for convenience's sake, Romantic and Modern. For Pothier, Gregorian history appeared as an the aura of time imaginatively experienced by one who, standing at the end of the historical continuum looks back—collecting the accumulated reside of the past into a single aesthetic moment. For Mocquereau, such history appeared as a new beginning, a field of possibilities so vast it's ultimate truth, though glimpsed in the present, could only be assigned to some distant future.
The odd thing about right now is that "Modernism" itself has become part of the debris that the Ikea generation has picked up and "restored". Progressives and the few remaining liberal Christians  tend to be "Romantic" about this restored Modernism—that is they see it as an opportunity to put themselves at the end of an historical continuum. The group I see myself in, which includes a lot of the younger Christians I have been working with, on the other hand, tend to be "Modernist" about a restored Romantic Christianity, seeing it as fragmented but offering a glimpse at an ultimate truth to be realized in the future.

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