Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Readings in Post-modernism

I've just started the drafting for my new book, "A Crisis of Passion," which is about post-modernism, art and the Catholic church. It's strange, because when I started to do my research I thought "I like post-modernity, but I don't like the post-modernists." Now, after several months with my nose in various books, my position is almost precisely the opposite: "I like the post-modernists, but I don't like post-modernity." (The basic difference? Post-modernity is the state of the world as it is, in so far as it is "post modern" or "after modern." It's this sort of being-in-epistemological-and-cultural-limbo feeling that permeates current society. The post-modernists, on the other hand, are philosophers like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, etc.)
That may sound like heresy, but it comes from a particular way of reading -- one that I picked up while I was working on Sexual Authenticity. The way I used to read -- and I get the impression that a lot of Catholics read this way -- was to accept more or less anything in a book that had some sort of real or implied doctrinal sign of approval, and to scrutinize, with the greatest possible care, any book that had a questionable status, trying to root out heresies, implied errors, wrong ways of thinking, etc. In short, the book had already been judged before it was understood.
When I was researching Sexual Authenticity, however, I had made a promise in my proposal: this was going to be the first Catholic book on homosexuality that relied as much on writings from within the gay world as on Catholic sources. This meant that I had to read a lot of books about homosexuality written by people who identified as gay, and I had to read them with an eye to understanding, so that I would be able to explain and not merely condemn. What emerged from the project was a way of reading books for their truth instead of for their errors.
I've carried that over into this new project, so now when I'm reading Foucault, it's not a matter of trying to work out how to refute the great heresies of the great post-modernists, but rather of trying to see what is true in his work, how that truth appeals to people, and how it can be used by Catholics who are trying to interface with culture.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jesus Camp

I just finished watching a documentary called "Jesus Camp," which is, as might be guessed, about an evangelical/pentacostal camp for children in the United States. I feel largely ambivalent about the film for a number of reasons. It's a strange beast: the content of it is the way that children are raised/educated/indoctrinated/(whatever word you want to use depending on your paradigm) in the evangelical movement, the bias of the film-makers is obviously liberal, and the whole thing sort of functions as a snap-shot of the culture wars with all of the sloppy thinking, hypocrisy, and general weirdness that accompanies that part of American cultural life.
On the one hand, my natural sympathies do largely lie with the film-makers. I am inclined to see the Jesus camp in much the same way as they do, to perceive this over-emotional, speaking-in-tongues, altar call, public-confessional, intensely Republican spirituality as weird as slightly disturbing. On the other hand, I think that the way in which the film was made is fundamentally disrespectful: no liberal film-maker would ever go into a tribe in another country that had different beliefs, different methods of child-rearing, different ceremonials, different values, etc. and film it in such a way as to induce mockery/horror/disdain/prejudice for the people of that faith and culture. I understand that because the Bible belt is in the States, and the people making the film therefore feel politically threatened by it, that the psychology of the thing is fundamentally different, but at the same time there is a deep hypocrisy here that is profoundly disedifying. The people who they are interviewing and filming are incredibly sincere, and they are trying to hand on their culture, such as it is, to their children, and the experiences that the children are having of faith are genuine experiences, etc. On the other hand, there is something embarrassing about the footage, a feeling that the people who are being filmed should have more audience awareness, that because they do live in post-modern America they should at least be aware that the film crew that has shown up to film them is going to be showing the footage to an audience with liberal biases, that the things that they are saying are going to be cast in a specific light. But then, on the other hand, can I fault people for failing to be ironic? For lacking a sufficient cynicism? For doing their best to convey the Gospel in a way that is sincere? Is it just because I am jaded and post-modern that I think that their way of doing it is inexcusably cheesy and slightly creepy?
It's strange, because it raises questions about the way that we feel about these things. On the one hand, when I see a film of people on the other side of the planet dressing up in strange white garments and spinning in circles in order to get euphorically dizzy and thereby to attain some sort of other-consciousness that they feel brings them closer to God, it has some sort of aesthetic appeal based on the exotic. Yet, on the other hand, if it's too closely related to my own religion -- if it's a form of Christianity and not a form of Islam -- it seems uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I just made one of those unfortunate encounters with google search where, in the process of looking up some entirely innocent query you stumble upon a piece of urban slang describing a sexual perversion that would never even have occurred to you might exist -- the sort of acts that you like to think only appear in de Sade's "100 Days of Sodom."
Now, I have not read all of the "100 Days." I think I made it about as far as day thirty, and then I couldn't stomach it any more. I read it in high-school, guided by a sort of morbid curiosity. "Hmmm," I thought, "I wonder if that's really as bad as it's supposed to be." After all, there's a movie that presents the Marquis as a courageous humanist, and his less obviously depraved works get quoted as profound and revolutionary social thinking in History of Western Civ. type text-books. One could almost get the impression that it's not all that bad, and there's a lot of smoke from very little fire -- an impression that is complemented by the fact that other "risque" works from the period (Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Salambo come to mind) are not scandalous at all to a modern audience. With de Sade, however, this is not even remotely the case.
Reading de Sade as a teen-ager was disturbing not merely on a superficial level -- it was not merely a matter of what he wrote about being obscene -- but also on a philosophical level. I was an extreme sexual liberal: whatever you chose to do in the privacy of your own bedroom was your business and not anyone else's, ever, for any reason, unless it caused direct harm to another person. So, for example, incest would be allowed if it were undertaken by a sterile woman and a family member, or by two same-sex family members, but not if offspring might be born to carry the genetic consequences. De Sade, however, put forward sexual perversions that somehow went beyond the pale; my feminist sensibilities were absolutely outraged, and I didn't care if he had somehow managed to get women to agree with the things that he wanted to do to them, because the acts were fundamentally degrading. There seemed to be a line there at which it was clear that the acts themselves meant something, regardless of consent, and that that meaning was inadmissible, that they were signs that signified a particular attitude towards women (or, alternately, towards the passive male partner in a gay relationship) that simply could not be countenanced. It suggested that there really was a need for boundaries, that sexual morality wasn't simply a matter of arbitrary control over the body, or fear of sex, or religious repression. It also suggested that the road of sexual perversion would, over time, depart more and more from anything that could possibly be construed as alluring, seductive, desirable or even human -- that it was a path that ended not in a universal love-without-limits, but in a sort of bestial hatred for the object of sexual attraction, an intense need to master or be mastered, to conceive of sexuality as a kind of conflict in which all of the rituals by which the conquered enemy is humiliated become somehow appropriate.