This was precisely the problem investigated 2500 years ago by one of the most ancient treatises on artifice, Plato’s Republic, which famously (or notoriously) called for the banishment of the mimetic arts from an ideal city-state (polis), an issue which also underlies the subsequent ambivalence and/or antipathy of religiosities toward artistry or artifice. Strictures against mimetic artifice, whether in terms of “naturalistic” imagery in some or all civic contexts, such as the portrayal of a reified immaterial force or divinity or even of that force’s proponent, inventor, spokesperson, “saint,” or “prophet,” or against the complete visual “representation” (writing) of the name of a reified immaterial force, have been essential (even if ambivalently enforced) features of all monotheistic religiosities.
Perhaps the extraordinary fear–the terror endemic to monotheistic religiosities in the face of possible “disobedience” (with respect to “visual representation”) –more often than not leading to ostracism, corporeal punishment, or at times in all ultra-orthodoxies or fundamentalisms violent death, is a perfectly “logical” and consistent application of a systemic need to forestall or prevent even the imagining of difference. By this I mean that if it were to be admitted that, for example, the structure of a certain social, political, or economic system were an artifact of human artistry (rather than having been “pre-ordained” by a reified immaterial force or divinity or deified ancestors, or by “natural” law), it would allow for the possibility of thinking otherwise–of imagining other forms of community, organizations of cities, economic systems or ways of life, even of different forms of human society: different ways of being “human.” This is the essence of Plato’s prescriptions for an ideal city-state (polis),5 which in the terms I am using here, resulted in what can be called a political religiosity– itself a central foundation of Augustine’s distinction, many centuries later, between an ideal “City of god” and a “City of Man.”
The terror at the heart of many religiosities attests to the fundamental fragility of instituted and enforced systems of thought (established “religions” in a strict sense) in the face of possible evidence of alternative “realities.” If a faith community’s members might be exposed to the awareness of the artifice of its religiosity–the possibility of it being not “created” by an immaterial (and thus unassailable) source or force but rather has its origins or sources in (“mortal”) human invention–then the possibility also exists that other realities, beliefs, social systems, cosmologies, reified immaterial forces (gods), or even ideas of what is “properly” “human,” might be imagined with equal cogency. The dreaded result would be the patent “destabilizing” of a given community or social contract, and the loosening of its legal bonds, leading to a vision of chaos. The reality or the very cohesion of an entire universe “really” does hinge on the size of a bikini. what if the land your people now occupy really wasn’t the gift of an immaterial divinity but was actually stolen by you or your ancestors from others?
This antithesis to fundamentalist religiosity is what some have characterized as a “postmodern condition,” although it would have to be said that any such “condition” is in fact a property of the orthodox system itself (for example, a “modernity”) being threatened: its co-produced and co-determined Other, which inhabits the system as its very possibility of existence in the first place.6
Religiosity would then appear dangerously fragile at every point in its system, if it can be cosmologically threatened if ten centimeters of female flesh were exposed, or if the flesh of an improperly slaughtered animal is served at a dinner table, or if the consequence of enjoying sex “outside” a “marital” state is being stoned or burnt to death, or if the utterance of a disrespectful or even incorrectly pronounced or written word in connection with a sanctified or hallowed person or divinity, could instantly incur the wrath of that divinity or prophet or minister, or if being of a different religiosity or ethnicity than that of someone in power could legally expose one to rape, impoverishment, or death. Ironically, what is specifically evoked in such instances of terror is the threat to the propriety or decorum of a social or civic order or code of behavior–in other words, the stylistic consistency and aesthetic harmony of an artistic fabrication. The “truth” of any religion is a property of its artistry. Such ironies, as Kierkegaard and his philosophical tradition of post-Hegelianism clearly understood in the late 19th century, are not “merely rhetorical” but are in fact deeply structural–which is to say ethical, suggesting the mutual entailment of aesthetics and ethics; more on this later.
- Plato, Republic, trans. Paul Shorey, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1953), esp. 1: 243-45 and 2: 464-465. The bulk of the discussion is carried out in book 6, especially at the end, with a consideration of the contrast between the intel- ligible and the visible (511 ff).↵
- The notion of the “postmodern” not as modernity’s aftermath but rather as its co-constructed and co-present Other is at the heart of the argument of the text by Jean-Francois Lyotard which gave rise to the “postmodernist” thesis in the first place. See Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington & Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984 [La condition postmoderne, Paris, 1979]).↵