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Enchanted Credulities: Art, Religion, and Amnesia

Donald Preziosi

Note 1

“A divine teleology secures the political economy of the fine arts.”

-Jacques Derrida

“The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own. And if no entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.”

-John Stuart Mill

“The inner and the outer did not form a harmonious unity, for the outer was in opposition to the inner, and only through a refracted angle is he [Plato / Socrates] to be apprehended.”

-Søren Kirkegaard

“I can’t help fooling around with our irrefutable certainties.”

-M. C. Escher

It is of the utmost urgency today to fundamentally transform the contemporary discourse on religion by radically transforming the very terms of that discourse (and its “irrefutable certainties”). Religiosities and their antitheses were twins at birth. Instead, I will take my task here to be not a “criticism” of religion, but rather a critique with respect to religion and religiosities. By the term critique I mean not simply examining the flaws or imperfections of a doctrine or a particular religion, or of religion as such (given the dangers of using a very specifically Eurocentric term such as “religion” in the first place). Critique is not a series of criticisms designed to “improve” a religion but is rather an analysis focusing upon the grounds for a system’s possibility, reading backwards from what is claimed to be natural, obvious, or self-evident. The aim of critique is essentially the work of philosophy: not only to articulate the historicality and artifice of naturalness, but also to make clear how such artifice is commonly blind to itself.2

My aim here is not simply to make religion “better” in favor of a “kinder, gentler theology” free of endorsing or promoting the death of adherents of different faith systems or different sectarian versions of one’s own faith, though surely that is to be desired by all. Instead, critique is concerned with the deconstruction and exposure from within of what a system’s basic presuppositions conceal–the blind spots and amnesia about what produces and maintains a system or systems of religiosity in the first place. Critique is more concerned with establishing primarily what a statement or claim or where it derives from and secondarily with what that statement purportedly “means.”

Critique, then, is a certain strategy of reading—a method of very closely and carefully reading statements, claims, theories, and beliefs—foregrounding not the weaknesses or stupidity or absurdity of a religious doctrine or dogma but rather foregrounding a belief’s structurally necessary silencing of what gives the belief its apparent naturalness or cogency. As a strategy of close and attentive reading, critique is a “deconstruction of the validity of the commonsense perception of [what is unquestioningly taken to be] obvious.”3 (In which case, then, it is a sibling of religious exegesis itself: a romance, perhaps, of twins separated at birth.)

My paper, then, attempts to elaborate a critique of religiosity in foregrounding what many religiosities appear to conceal or are ambivalent about, as a small contribution to elaborating a fundamental shift in perspective on the nature and role of religious systems in contemporary life. I will be using the term religiosity to foreground the structural processes or behaviors common to many instituted religious systems, focusing upon what I will call the epistemological technologies of those systems: how they work as intellectual, aesthetic, and ideological practices. My motivation for elaborating such a critique is in response to the urgent need to address the increasingly catastrophic problem that religiosities are claimed to have become in our world: the massive release, as the philosopher Alain Badiou recently put it, of ancient irrational passions which in the overt or covert name of one or another sectarian belief system have unleashed, in so many communities and nations, what must of course be absolutely unacceptable: an escalation of death and destruction in the name (literally or covertly) of religion. The problem with religion is larger and deeper than religion but concerns religiosity, of which established religion is in fact but one symptom–one symptom amongst others. My concern, then, is not with criticizing religion, but in understanding what processes religious systems are an effect and product of.

Footnotes

  1. This essay is a slightly modified version of a paper delivered as the keynote address to the international conference “Godless! The Modern Critique of Religion,” University of Copenhagen, Denmark, January 28-29, 2007, a more recent version of which was delivered in the lecture series “Art History after the End of Art,” University of California, Santa Barbara, April 17, 2007, under the title “Plato’s Dilemma.” What follows is a synopsis of the opening chapter in a forthcoming book on the relations between art and religion.
  2. A useful discussion of these points, as well as an excellent summary of what is entailed by a critique of metaphysical forces structuring any text, may be found in the Translator’s Introduction to Jacques Derrida’s text Dissemination, by Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), xiv-xvi.
  3. Ibid., xv.