This week our featured book is Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo by Mark C. Taylor. Remember to enter our Book Giveaway to win a FREE copy of Rewiring the Real. Today, we have a fascinating Q&A with Professor Taylor, in which he delves into the relationships between art, technology, and religion he explores in greater detail in Rewiring the Real, and discusses the role of philosophy in a changing world.
Question: Rewiring the Real is part two of a trilogy, the first part of which is Refiguring the Spiritual. Both of these two works discuss important aspects of today’s society through analysis of a single work by important modern cultural figures (novelists and artists respectively). What led you to this conceit?
Mark C. Taylor: Let me begin by placing these two books within the larger trajectory of my work. For almost four decades, I have been developing an analysis of the interplay between religion and multiple aspects of culture. As I explain in After God, religion is not limited to what transpires in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques but pervades all aspects of society and culture. Unfortunately, the hyper-specialization and professionalization of the university discourage the multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural analyses that are, in my judgment, essential to effective critical inquiry.
In a series of books dating back to the late 1980s – Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion; Imagologies: Media Philosophy; About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture; The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation; Hiding; Grave Matters and Mystic Bones – I have explored the relationship of religion and philosophy to art. In some of these books, I use design to develop my argument. More recently, I have begun to expand philosophy beyond the printed page by creating artworks in different media – video games, photography. I am also engaged in creating art. In 2002, I had a major exhibition entitled Grave Matters as Mass MOCA and I am now engaged in a major land art and sculpture in the Berkshires.
There is also an historical context for this work. During the crucial decade of the 1790s, art and literature began to displace religion as the means for expressing religious and spiritual concerns. Though rarely acknowledged, it is not possible to understand many major twentieth-century artists and writers without an appreciation for their spiritual preoccupations. Refiguring the Spiritual and Rewiring the Real attempt to rectify this oversight.
Rather than approach these issues on a general or theoretical level, I decided to develop my argument by focusing on four artists and four writers whose work I regard as seminal. I am not suggesting any influence between or among these artists and writers but they do share certain preoccupations. I also decided to concentrate on a limited range of their work done by the artists and a single novel by the writers. By starting from a careful reading of particular works, I attempt to develop a broader interpretation of the relationship among religion, art and literature.
Finally, Refiguring the Spiritual and Rewiring the Real develop sustained critiques of much contemporary art and philosophy. While too many artists have been caught up with what I describe as the ‘financialization of art,’ too many philosophers have become committed to a style of ‘scienticism’ that prevents them from considering the pressing issues that most need to be addressed today.
Q: Why did you choose Gaddis, Powers, Danielewski, and DeLillo for analysis in Rewiring the Real? Was there an author that you found hard to exclude from the book?
MCT: I believe these four writers are among the most important in contemporary literature. In some cases, their work has been insufficiently recognized and in other cases it has been acknowledged for the wrong reasons. With the exception of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, the novels I analyze do not explicitly probe religious and theological questions. But that is precisely what makes them intriguing to me – I always find religion most interesting where it is least obvious.
The author I most regretted omitting was Melville. I have written about The Confidence Man in another context but have not yet written about Moby Dick. I made a strategic decision, however, to limit the works I consider to books by twentieth-century writers.
Q: What do you mean by “literature”? “Religion”? How are literature and religion connected? How do they relate to technology?
MCT: These are all good but difficult questions. Let me begin with religion. As I have noted, I have an expansive understanding of religion. In After God, I develop a theory of religion in which I offer a one-sentence definition. “Religion is an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate and disfigure every stabilizing structure.” There are two moments or aspects of religion – one structuring and stabilizing and the other destructuring and destabilizing. While acknowledging the importance of the former, I am more interested in the latter.
This definition makes clear that religion is not limited to a set of doctrines, practices or institutions but involves ways of responding to and dealing with recurrent problems all human beings face. If we take this broad view of religion, we can see how other cultural and social beliefs and practices approximate religion and vice versa.
In its destructuring and destabilizing moment, religion deals with that which cannot be clearly defined, delimited, or represented. It is, therefore, impossible to talk or write about the religious dimension of experience directly. As Kierkegaard, who is one of the very few to insist on the aesthetic aspect of philosophy, argues, religious discourse is always indirect. This is why the question of style that you raise is important.
There is no escaping style – the question is not whether writing is stylistic or non-stylistic but which style a writer selects. I have noted that for much of the twentieth-century, philosophy has been overly committed to what it regards as scientific style. If, however, that which one is probing lacks determinate reference and cannot be represented accurately, this style is misleading. The task of writing at the end of philosophy is to figure the unfigurable in works that are deliberately artful.
My understanding of literature is as expansive as my understanding of religion. The question is not “What is literature?” but “What is not literature?” Just as there is a religious dimension to all culture, so there is a literary dimension to all language. What usually is understood as the difference between non-literary and literary texts is actually the difference between texts that repress their literary quality and those that acknowledge and cultivate it. Once again, the decade of the 1790s in Jena was important. Post-Kantian poets and writers developed a distinctive the notion of literature that has remained normative ever since.
Literary language sensu strictissmo is irreducibly figurative and, by extension, performative. Rather than representing or re-presenting that which is prior to and independent of language, literature uses figures and tropes to enact what cannot be represented. For writing to be literary, it must clarify by obscuring.
In addition to this, the literature and art that truly matter do two more things. First, they take you elsewhere by allowing you to feel what you have never felt, see what you have never seen and think what you have never thought. Second, serious art and literature engender a critical self-awareness that is transformative. I reject the modernists doctrine of art for art’s sake. I believe art, literature and, I would add, teaching are what Joseph Beuys calls “social sculpture,” which is designed to change minds, lives and the world.
Q: You write that “technological innovation expresses desires and asperations [aspirations] once deemed religious” (6). How so?
MCT: Just as we need to develop an expanded notion of religion, so we need to develop a broader understanding of technology. Heidegger has argued that historically there is a close relationship between art and technology. I extend that analysis by suggesting that religion can be understood technologically and technology has a religious dimension. Consider the issue of transformation I have already discussed. Religious practices like rituals can be understood as technologies devised to transform self and world. As science and technology have become more sophisticated, they have displaced transformative religious practices for many people.
Let me offer two examples. Some writers today describe our era as “post-human.” While using this term in different ways, they all insist that we are at a tipping point where technological intervention is on the verge of radically transforming what once was called human being. Part of the fascination with genetic engineering, nanotechnology and neuroscience is the belief that they will make the age-old dream of eternal, or at least greatly extended, life a reality. The most outspoken evangelist for this vision is Ray Kurzweil, who labels this new age “the singularity.” Kurzweil is a serious scientist, inventor and writer who has a big following – where else? – in Silicon Valley. Indeed, his followers have launched Singularity University.
Technology is suppose to accomplish what religious practices could not. But these dreams are neo-gnostic – materiality and the body are not merely unreal but are prisons from which life must be liberated so it can migrate to immaterial and virtual realms. As bodies disappear, we are left with what Hans Moravec enthusiastically anticipates – brains in vats. That is not a future I look forward too.
Literature can help us to imagine new worlds and to think critically about them. Each of the novels I discuss in Rewiring the Real explores particular technologies: The Recognitions – media and communications technologies; Plowing the Dark – virtual reality; House of Leaves – the Internet and World Wide Web; Underworld – nuclear and networking technologies.
As Nietzsche taught us, there is something profoundly nihilistic about world denial. Technological fantasies extend the preoccupation with immortality that is, in the final analysis, a denial of death. In Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living, I explore the inescapability of our bodily condition and the potential liberation even the most devastating diseases can bring. The dream of the post-human is not only idle, it is deeply destructive. Death, Kierkegaard insisted, “is a good dancing partner.” We cannot embrace life until we accept death. There is another style of religion that does promise neither escape nor life eternal but brings us back to earth where we are always destined to dwell. This is the focus of my current work, neXus, which is an extensive land art and sculpture project that will become something approximating what once was called a book.