Friday, September 02, 2005

Radical Orthodoxy

A provocative thesis here:
It would be a great mistake, however, to write off the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy because of their jargon-filled postmodernism. It may invite silliness, but more often it loosens the grip of Derrida and Foucault on the intellectual and moral imaginations of the lost souls drifting through contemporary universities. Milbank et al. use the prevailing vocabulary and verbal techniques of cultural and literary studies to expose the dark emptiness of secular postmodernism, hoisting it on its own petard. If Radical Orthodoxy is any sign of the future, tomorrow's academy will see countless theses on the subversive power, not of transsexuality, but of the Eucharist-in all, a welcome development. ... Faced with the postmodern premise that violence and power are the basis for identity, the glue that holds things together, Radical Orthodoxy never blinks. Governed by an Augustinian rather than Nietzschean vision, it has no reason to trim and disguise the nihilism of dominant postmodern theory. The dialectical gymnastics designed to make violence into the more winsome principle of "difference" are nothing more than the postmodernists' theoretical effort to repress and hide what they are doing, even from themselves. The "play of differences" may sound like good, clean schoolyard fun, but postmodern rhetoric more often recalls the battlefield and penitentiary. An honest Nietzschean acknowledges that the "peace" and "stability" of society, personal identity, and textual meaning are born of domination, and does not try to disguise this truth with labels such as "aesthetic individualism"-unless, of course, such deceptions serve his will-to-power. The deconstructors find themselves, to their surprise, led by their own metaphysics of identity and difference into the machine of deconstruction. In its criticism, Radical Orthodoxy need do little more than draw aside the curtain that hides this procedure from the view of postmodern fellow travelers. For Radical Orthodoxy, then, Derrida need not be made into a savior, nor Foucault a saint. In the fevered world of contemporary cultural and literary studies, that is something different.
I'll say. Derrida and co. serve to keep the dead white men of the humanities silent until they can be removed altogether. For now, they are still on the lists, but not to be read - only, it seems, to be deconstructed. This is hardly the same thing. To engage the writers of the past, one needs to suspend - even if only momentarily - one's Nominalism. Learning to do so will enable a student to better understand Nominalism. In the end he may or may not reject it, but the benefit to him will be that he is aware of his choice. He will therefore have to justify it to himself and not simply assume it, like the fundamentalist he thinks he is the opposite of.
Not having heard of this term - "Radical Orthodoxy" - before, I was very pleased to read this next bit, which is where the train of my own thought has been heading for... well, for a while. Perhaps I now have a term for it.
Put more simply, Radical Orthodoxy hopes to recover Neoplatonic metaphysics as an explanation for the glue that holds the world together. Something can be what it is—a unit of semantic identity or meaning, a person, a social practice—and at the same time depend upon and reach toward something else. Or more strongly, something is real only in and through this constitutive dependence and fecundity. For the Neoplatonist, you, or I, or the value of my moral acts, or the meaning of this essay, are as emanating from and returning to the One. ... Radical Orthodoxy, then, does not reject modern and postmodern assumptions about the foundational role of violence only to exist as a negative critique, dependent on postmodernism for its raison d’ĂȘtre. The Neoplatonic framework so warmly recommended by Radical Orthodoxy offers a theory of identity and meaning based on unity and peace. Consider the role of liturgy as an incorporating force. In an extended meditation on the dynamics of Eucharistic celebration, Pickstock wishes to show that the Roman Rite of the Mass is a complex combination of giving and receiving, in which the human subject remains identifiable even when incorporated. We need not become "not selves" in order to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, nor can we remain simply "ourselves," unchanged and unaltered. (The Neoplatonic note is struck.) Christian liturgical practice assumes that we can be ourselves and be enrolled in the drama of redemption. We can participate, without either abandoning our identities or guarding them against divine dominion. The glue that holds us together, our identity as discrete individuals with personal projects, is the same glue that holds us together as a community in common worship. The one intensifies rather than diminishes the other.

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