Now Listening: Wild Flag's "Wild Flag"
'Specially: Track 1, "Romance"
Earlier this week, in a discussion of Foucault's Order of Things, somebody made the comment that "art is," for Foucault, "for the limit." We were talking about the reference to Borges' Chinese Encyclopedia passage that starts the OT introduction, and about the 'Las Meninas' section that opens the book, and a little bit about the function of works of art in his earlier Madness and Civilization. The consensus, such as such things go, was that there might be a foucauldian tendency to let artistic productions, and artists more generally, serve the rhetorical purpose of demonstrating or exploding the limit of normal orders. Whether Foucault thinks 'art' always does that, or only art, we can at least say that the pictures and poems he mentions are mentioned because they make you laugh or look closer, and just generally stop you in those tracks laid for you by the order of things. There's a sort of promise, there, of transcendence or freedom that I'm not sure really works systematically. But it pokes its hopeful head up every once in a while.
I'm reading Peter Hoeg's The Quiet Girl this month. I used to read more quickly, a book in a few days, but I'm slower now with everything except young adult fiction (Hunger Games. Was Awesome. And read in well under twenty-four hours.). I'm not sure, though, that I'd read TQG any faster even if i were on my earlier game; it's fantastic. Really, really beautiful and difficult and I love it, and i have to look up from it every twenty or so pages to take a break and sort of dwell on it for a while without moving forward as a distraction. I wrote someone somewhere a few years back that I thought i was done finding favorite authors, but Hoeg has been creeping up on me (I really enjoyed Borderliners when it came out, and thought The Woman and the Ape was more than solid, but neither of them were quite convincing as favorite authorial options), and now I'm totally won over. If we have ever had a conversation about books, and had the same taste at all, i totally recommend you pick up Hoeg's latest novel. I'm in love.
I don't know if Hoeg is 'art for the limit' with The Quiet Girl. There's a quote, though, that somewhat pertains to limits, and more specifically to religion, which is why i've come here to post about it. Hoeg writes about the protagonist Kaspar (a philosopher clown in Denmark with superhero hearing), "... One found natural catastrophes. Children mistreated. Kidnappings. Loneliness. Separation of people who love each other. His anger increased. The problem with anger against God is that it's impossible to go higher in the system to complain."
Especially given my inclination to look at the building up of authority through appeals (for example, the accretion of power to church legal systems when medieval european peasants appealed to church figures after feudal powers proved either too far away or too oppositional to suit their interests), the idea of God as that-beyond-which-there-is-no-appeal is really satisfying. I'm entirely comfortable with a metaphysical view of God as the anthropomorphization of limits, a thing on which to rest one's deepest anger, or gratitude, or hope. Not that that's the only role/identity/aspect of God, or necessarily the most import one. Just that, taking this view, we have an interesting intervention into the rhetorical force of God.
To have a system of expectations in which catastrophes should be prevented, children should be well-treated, no one should be kidnapped or lonely or separated from those they love, is extremely human. And extremely social -- we are best served by a society which tries to prevent human action from producing these horribly disrupting things. So it is individual not to want to suffer these things, or to suffer the experience of watching those we love suffer these things; and it is communal to police individuals such that, in seeking to prevent such suffering in certain quarters they don't bring it down on others. But of course suffering still happens. The world is beyond an individual's total control, and individuals are beyond society's total control. So we have God as the space defined by a dissatisfaction with the system that can't be redressed. God as the figure who can't be played off against other figures, in monotheisms at least (this approach would i think get usefully complicated, but not undermined, by an exploration of poly- or non-theistic traditions), and who therefore can't avoid all your wrath (for disaster) or all your adoration (for its prevention).
Art, for Foucault, is for the limit of the reasonable, productive maintenance of social order. Maybe. Something like that anyway, at least in his early writing. (Which makes one think he's incredibly indebted to Bataille, but we'll leave that for the moment). For Hoeg's Kaspar, God is for the limit of anger; a point which shows you the dimensions of your world with the good and the bad and the out-of-control all picked out in stark relief. In this order of things, religion is what allows full humanity (the actual geography of experience) and full divinity (the absolute limit) to co-exist. It is also a relationship between one's emotional and rational reactions to the world. It mediates the limit without in any way threatening the legitimacy of the limit, because the limit is felt, both emotionally and rationally, as a part of the experience of being in the world. God is a presupposition of sorrow -- and of joy, though that's less a part of this passage.
The risk here is to echo Marx, and call God/religion "the sigh of the oppressed people," which is not at all what i mean. God is the coproduction of the oppression and the ability to sigh, or their ground, or the pivot on which those two things, oppression and sigh, can be seen as in opposition.
Again, I don't mean to imply that that's all there is to religion. It isn't. God isn't even all there is to religion, and this isn't all there is to God. And it isn't even all there is to philosophical clowns in beautiful literature. But it's in there, among all the other things.