Category Archives: Deconstruction

(re)posting postmodern notebook

In my previous post I said that I am a kind of “by default” post-modernist, that it is the sea in which I swim, and that I love aspects of it, but that I also loath it. My desire, as I said, is to strip away all the post-modern garbage and get to the Truth. I was reminded of a post I wrote a while back on another blog about this post-modern sea we swim in. I am re-posting it here.

We have learned to trust the photographic image. Can we trust the electronic image? With painting everything was simple. The original was the original, and each copy was a copy – a forgery. With photography and then film that began to get complicated. The original was a negative. Without a print, it did not exist. Just the opposite, each copy was the original. But now with the electronic, and soon the digital, there is no more negative and no more positive. The very notion of the original is obsolete. Everything is a copy. All distinctions have become arbitrary. No wonder the idea of identity finds itself in such a feeble state. Identity is out of fashion.

~Wim Wenders, 1989

The following screengrabs are from Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989). They are all of images within images, and represent/re-present places within places and ideas within ideas.

My mind wanders over these images and then wanders beyond them, both outside their frames and to my own presuppositions and fetishes, and I think of Baudrillard’s quote:

It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image.

-from Photography, or the Writing of Light (2000)

Of course Baudrillard is wrong if we take him literally. Reality has not disappeared. But Baudrillard is right, as all postmodernists are, that the way we understand reality is heavily mediated for us (and by us) to the effect that reality, or “reality”, would seem to be an image created for us, is an image presented to us, is an image we carry with us, is an image we remember, and is an image we create. And, as an image is worth a thousand words, or a million, and therefore images are stories, fragmented or otherwise, connected and intersecting with other stories, stories referencing other stories, images referencing other images, we can apparently say all is reference. With Wenders we have the added question of the ever changing and never original (or always original) electronic image coupled with the question of what is fashion.

I suppose this blog plays a part in how I mediate the world for myself. I write for an audience, largely imaginary, but I also write for myself. Subconsciously, and maybe sometimes consciously, I write so that I can understand the world and my place in it. In this sense I can say that I have my take on reality. But the question is, are all distinctions truly arbitrary? And can this notion apply beyond the world of images to the rest of life?

So some degree Wender’s position hearkens back to his explorations in such films as Paris Texas and Wings of Desire. In those films we see characters struggling to communicate across great barriers (physical, psychological, spiritual) with those whom they love, or believe they love. In Wings of Desire the barrier is the difference between the world of human beings and the world of angels. The film’s story revolves around the idea that to become fully human one has to give up being merely an observer and enter in, that is, to immerse oneself in the tangible messy world we humans call reality. To cross that chasm is to take a leap of faith.
But is faith a leap? In the so-called Western/Christian tradition the word faith has a lot of gravity. Faith is one of those words, like love and happiness, whose meaning we all know and yet can never seem to finally pin down. For many the word has precisely to do with some kind of existential or spiritual leap. And for some that leap is a leap into the unknown or the unsure, or even the absurd. Interestingly, when we read the word faith used by the early Christian writers, such as the Apostles Paul or Peter or John, it is, in fact, the ordinary Greek word for belief. It does not appear that the Apostle’s intentions were to convey any idea of a leap of faith, or of faith being a kind of spiritual ecstasy. For what I can tell they were merely telling others to continue to believe what they have heard about Jesus because it is true, and that they can know it is true because the Apostles were eye witnesses.
Which brings us back to Notebook on Cities and Clothes and the idea of mediation and its relationship to truth. The fact is we are immersed in a world of images, and we seem to understand our world more and more in terms of those images rather than words, and those images are increasingly potentially untrustworthy. We are also in a world in which, while many of the barriers between people and cultures still remain, we are intersecting more and more with an increasingly broader scope of people(s) and a multiplicity of voices. Which means that we live in a world of references, that is, a world in which everything begins to reference something else and is built upon other references.
Maybe no other living filmmaker has more fun with playing with references than Quentin Tarantino. Part one of Death Proof immerses the viewer in a 1970s pastiche, full of faux antiquing of the film, samples from 1970s films, and stylistic choices right out of now classic B-movie road and slasher films. The film is designed to draw attention to itself. Tarantino winks at the audience and the audience winks back, along with the occasional high-five and an “oh yeah!” If a drinking game were devised for Death Proof, where viewers had to down a shot for every meant-to-be-obvious filmic reference, players would die of alcohol poisoning after ten minutes.

Examples include this appropriated “restricted” card from the early days of the MPAA rating system:

And this created title that looks like it came directly out of an early 1970s Disney film starring you know who:
Other examples include faux scratches and dust on the film and numerous jump-cuts that simulate a worn out film jumping in the projector gate because of splices and damaged sprocket holes.

But what is so fascinating is that Tarantino is not making a 70s film. He is making modern film. Consider that while the characters seem to live and play in a archetypal film of a previous era, and while the film makes a point of looking aged and worn out, characters still drive modern cars and use cell phones – like Jungle Julia below.

And yet, I doubt many viewers found this disconcerting, or even noticed, because there are no longer any meaningful distinctions (apparently). For a director like Tarantino there are no boundaries between films or genres or eras, there is only the magnificent cloth of cinema where every film participates in the weave, connecting and intersecting in the psychic playground cinephilia. For Tarantino, I would argue, faith is not a belief in what is true, but in what is cool and can be appropriated. And cool is another word for fashion.
In such a world where does one find one’s identity? Might one say that we are all only references built up from other references? That is the postmodern perspective, and it is the current version of “God is dead.” But is it true? I would say no. Ultimately there is no such world of only references, and we do not live our lives as though such a world were true. Wisdom would say one should always recognize the potential fallibility of our sacred ideas, but we are all creatures of faith, and faith knows there is a final reality that, at least, haunts us. Maybe, as we are immersed more and more in images, so increases the haunting.

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Very Brief Thoughts on Religion and the Art of Appropriation: Or How the Post-Christendom Church Mirrors the Impulse of Postmodern Art

I am reposting this post from my other blog. It was originally published a couple of years ago. I have added new thoughts at the end about where I am now with the topic discussed. I hope you enjoy.

Are we not postmodern?

My brain often works best by comparison. In this post I want to briefly compare the postmodern impulse in art making and the post-Christendom worship of the emergent/emerging1 church. I fully admit my ideas are not fully baked, and yet the process of putting them forth might teach me a thing or two.

Somewhere in the transition from the 1960s to the late 1970s Art reached its end. The end was prefigured by such notables as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. The end of art wasn’t really about the end of art, but about the end of a series of historical/cultural problems and intuitions tackled largely in succession since the Renaissance. What happened over time was a decline in interest in those issues as they either were solved (“solved” is a rather subjective term with regards to art) or they were found no longer relevant. The world changed and so did the world of art.

But art never stops. Art will emerge as long as humans exist.


Hymn, by Damien Hirst, 2000

What happened (one thing that happened) was a new impulse, that of appropriation. This impulse was already coursing through the veins of art; Picasso appropriated, Johns and Warhol appropriated, and many others. But with postmodern art artistic action began to twist free from the weight of art history and the art’s weighty lineage. Art and art history began to work more and more independently from each other. Of course that independence wasn’t complete, but art makers felt that art had become fundamentally divorced from meta-narratives. Now the appropriation of anything and everything was possible – even appropriation of that weighty lineage. In this sense art finally became art.


Portable War Memorial, by Ed Kienholz, 1968

What is meant by appropriation?

To appropriate something involves taking possession of it. In the visual arts, the term appropriation often refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of new work. The borrowed elements may include images, forms or styles from art history or from popular culture, or materials and techniques from non-art contexts. Since the 1980s the term has also referred more specifically to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work. The new work does not actually alter the original per se; the new work uses the original to create a new work. In most cases the original remains accessible as the original, without change.2

Key here is that last part. The “original remains accessible as the original, without change.” This is a kind of quoting without quoting; a kind of objective theft for subjective purposes. One could say it’s a synthesis, something new from something old that becomes new merely through the act of appropriation. In this way an old work of art may become a new work of art fully within a new context – and seen as a new work of art because of new ownership as it were. But this should be expected, for “there is nothing outside the text” as Jacques Derrida once said.3


After Walker Evans 2, by Sherrie Levine (1981).

Keeping this in mind I want to shift gears a bit.

Christianity has gone through (and is going through) similar changes. Christianity is one of the great meta-narratives in world history. However, many Christians (some of whom prefer the term Christ followers) have begun to twist free of their traditional moorings. They see their faith and Christianity as two different entities. Faith is no longer strictly about being a member of a particular group with its set of proscribed codes, mores, or rituals. The focus has shifted more toward Jesus and away from the historical church. Jesus has become the deconstruction force, deconstructing Christianity.


Jesus has a power lunch with the money changers?
(Why I put this picture in here I don’t know.)

If faith is a passionate, existential belief in the lordship of Jesus, then Christianity as an external religious set of practices can be other, is other. This otherness allows the multiplicity of historical and cultural expressions of Christianity to be appropriated as the “believer” sees fit. One is no longer bound by a tradition, rather by faith. Christian practices and disciplines from any branch of the church and any time period can be appropriated by the Christ follower on an as needed basis. Logically, then, practices from non-Christian sources might be appropriated as well. If being a Christ follower is no longer about religion (or being religious), then religion, as a set of optional practices and disciplines, becomes a non-threat.

More and more Christians today are seeking old, and very old, religious practices – going back to the historical church and gleaning. I assume the idea is that through the course of the modern era we may have lost some good things. I assume this is more true for Protestants than Catholics or Orthodox. The question on the table is whether these practices are meaningful and might they negatively influence one’s faith – a real fear for many Protestant apologists. I don’t have an answer for that at this time. I am both curious and wary, and certainly interested.


Christ followers walk a labyrinth

Why does this interest me? I came to a deep re-evaluation of my faith as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I was an art history major, a film studies major, and part of a college ministry team in a large Baptist church. I began to have too many conflicts between my faith (which I held to be true) and the Christian culture in which I was immersed. My Christianity was deconstructing, but only because my faith was stronger. I began to see that the outward forms were of little consequence compared to my pursuit of truth and my beliefs. Interestingly art played a big part in this. Art is what helped me realize the freedom that resides at the center of the story of Jesus. I saw artmaking, which is such a natural human thing to do, chafing under the weight of Art’s meta-narrative. Breaking free did not destroy artmaking, in fact artmaking flourished. Breaking free merely lowered the dominance of the meta-narrative a few notches. I think, similarly, I knew intuitively my faith could handle some freedom.

And so I left that Christian culture behind for a while. I took a breather. But I did not leave Christ behind. In fact my faith became stronger, my theology more grounded, and my hope deeper. Now I am at the fringes of that culture again and wondering.

Modern Christ followers, many of whom are part of what is sometimes called the emerging church, are appropriating many religious practices – trying them out as it where – in much the same way that artmakers are appropriating many things from both “within” and “without” the art world. And just like with artmaking, if one’s faith is authentic then one has great freedom in one’s practices.


Image by Luke Flowers from this article

Phyllis Tickle has recently articulated the idea that the emerging church is really part of a wholesale worldwide emerging, religious and otherwise. She has also likened the shifting and changes in Christianity to be like a great rummage sale, where people sift through what is there, what has come before, what others have done, to find what they need and what they didn’t know they needed. According to Tickle these rummage sales tend to occur within Christianity about every 500 years or so. The current rummaging includes searching for spiritual practices that have been lost, long unused, or never before used in the current context(s). These practices include anything from how we “do” church, to how we pray and fellowship, to classic disiplines like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, confession, and submission. Most of these practices were never truly promoted or explored in my Christian upbringing, and they are largely foreign concepts to a consumeristic culture.

I am not yet sold on the idea of spiritual disciplines. I am still inclined to think of a truly spiritual person as being one in whom the Spirit of God is at work – which I see as a one way street: God invading a person’s life. And I am inclined to think that one cannot move or change one’s spirituality through any action unless God initiates and completes the work. Yet, just as with all issues of God’s sovereignty and human action (and choice) there is what we know of God and what we actually experience every day. With that in view I can see spiritual disciplines as offering tremendous encouragement and I find myself increasingly curious about exploring disciplines. I also see them as being very much a matter of personal choice. Regardless, the re-emergence of disciplines and practices is evidence of a church extending beyond the modernist model of Christianity, which I see as generally positive.

1. I am purposely conflating these two terms, though many would seek to separate them, because under the umbrella of this particular topic one finds the comparison still holds true.

2. “Appropriation (art).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2008, 15:40 UTC. 17 Sep 2008

3. I believe that quote is found in Of Grammatology.

New thoughts since the original post two years ago:
For several years I was seeking a new kind of Christianity or , at least, a new kind of Christian culture. I kept running up against my aversions to modern Protestant versions of the “faith,” and I wanted something that had more substance in terms of culture and practice. However, whatever kind of Christianity I found would still have to have some basic theological foundations that were largely reformed, for I am a child of the Reformation in many ways, though not strictly. Out of curiosity the emergent/emerging church became a focus of mine for a while. In some way it still is and some of the key players in that movement (if it can be called that) are still on my radar, but less so these days. I appreciate some of the hermeneutic approaches and the emphasis on one’s personal process in coming to truth. But the more I look at popular alt-church trends the more I find that church, religion, practice, or most of anything we call worship or the Christian life just doesn’t mean squat. Not that there is no value whatsoever, but none of it is truly substantial. Faith is radically inward. Faith is what is truly substantial. Faith gets worked out in a person’s life in works that cannot be adequately predicted or proscribed. And there is nothing that a person can do, no practice, no spiritual discipline, nothing, that can affect any meaningful spiritual change in a person’s life. You cannot grow your faith. Only God can do that. If he chooses to work through some spiritual discipline or some ancient practice in someone’s life then that is his choosing and the individual’s benefit. But if there is anything that a study of the New Testament cries out to us regarding religion is to beware of pretense. It is is a bigger trap than mere sincerity can avoid. My searching has only clarified this for me.

On the whole, though, I do not see my observations in the original post above as necessarily indicating a negative situation for Christianity. The postmodern situation highlights something very important that can get lost in a primarily Christian dominated or influenced culture. That is, faith is fundamentally existential, which means that it requires the individual to make the decision, which means that the choice needs to be a free choice. Postmodernism throws everything up for grabs and pushes the individual into a more radical posture. It calls into relief the meta-narrative of Christendom as narrative. If we strip away the trappings of Christian culture one can no longer rely on the safety that culture provides. One has to now wrestle with the issues rather than having them answered before one even has a chance to ask. Kierkegaard dealt with this issue in his Attack Upon Christendom. The problem, as I see it, in not with postmodernism per se, rather it is with the sad reality that many (most?) people today do not seem to have the intellectual foundations to be able to accept this freedom and turn it to good. Our present age appears to me as a sea of people floundering in the waves and grabbing anything that looks substantial. Freedom without discernment is a deep and wide ocean where everything and nothing looks like salvation. But of course discernment, like faith, is one more undeserved gift from God.

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Jesus, the event within

 

This is a previous post from my other blog. Note: The more I read John Caputo the more I realize that it has been a long time since grad school and I don’t know Derrida as well as I should. Regardless, I think this post is pointed in the right direction, if only as a simplistic step towards a jumping off point.

 

Would Jesus endorse Christianity as we know it? Would he say, “Yeah, that’s it. You got it.”? Or would he surprise us all by not fitting into our concepts of who he is? I think we all know the answer.

Since the beginning of Christianity there has been the need for reform of one kind or another of the church. The letters of Paul attest to that. Some would argue, and I would generally agree, that refocusing on Jesus as the foundation of Christianity (are not Christians followers of the Christ?) is the most direct and most powerful catalyst for change and reform. This concept interests me a great deal. I am fascinated by the idea of setting aside much of what we Christians cling to and then turning only to Jesus and, with him as our sole example, examine our lives, actions, and worship. With this in mind I give you two quotes to ponder:

A great deal would have been achieved if it were remembered today also that Christianity is obviously not some sort of world view nor a kind of idealist philosophy, but has something to do with a person called Christ. But memories can be painful, as many politicians have discovered when they wanted to revise a party program. In fact, memories can even be dangerous. Modern social criticism has again drawn our attention to this fact: not only because generations of the dead control us, have their part in determining every situation in which we are placed and to this extent man is predefined by history, but also because recollection of the past brings to the surface what is still unsettled and unfulfilled, because every society whose structures have grown rigid rightly fear the “subversive” contents of memory.

Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 1974, p. 120

In deconstruction, one sets out in search of, or rather, one is oneself searched out or called on by whatever is unconditional, or undeconstructible, in a given order, and it is precisely in virtue of this undeconstructible x, which does not exist, which does does not exist yet, which never quite exists, that everything that does exist in that order is deconstructible. Whatever exists, whatever is present, is contingent, historical, constructed under determinate conditions—like the church or the Sabbath—and as such is inwardly disturbed by the undeconstructible, unconditional impulse that stirs within it—which for the church is the event that occurs in the name of Jesus. To “deconstruct” is on the one hand to analyze and criticize but also, on the other hand, and more importantly, to feel about for what is living and stirring within a thing, that is, feeling for the event that stirs within the deconstructible structure in order to release it, to set it free, to give it a new life, a new being, a future.

John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 2007 p. 68
Rembrandt van Rijn, Holy Family, 1640
Oil on wood, 16 1/4 x 13 1/2″ (41 x 34 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

I like Küng’s concept of the ‘”subversive” contents of memory.’ That there is something subversive in the very person and teachings of Jesus is a powerful idea. What would the church (I recognize that’s an unwieldy and overly broad term) do with Jesus today? In my more cynical moments I am inclined to believe he would be crucified again and again. Though the name of Jesus is prominent in Christian churches I doubt that name represents the true Jesus as much as one might assume. My fear is that I would be part of the mob that called for his death. My desire is that I would know the truth instead, that my life would be conformed to Jesus’ example and, if faced with the physical (living, breathing, walking, talking) Jesus, there would resonate deep within my soul an unqualified and unchangeable “YES!”

Of course, in a profound way we do have Jesus among us. Remember the words of Jesus, like in the following famous passage from Jesus speaking to his disciples:

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'”

“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'”

“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'”

To me this is kind of sneaky, in a good way. We can easily be knocked off kilter and sent spinning if we think we have Jesus pegged. What I find interesting is that the above passage always surprises me even though I have been familiar with it for decades.

How is it that Jesus is a subversive force within the church? In films like Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?, and books like They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations we find that most people have a fondness for Jesus, though many express a dislike for Christians or Christianity or organized religion in general (most especially if it’s Christian). This makes sense to me, but I know there is a difference between a “Jesus is my homeboy” approach and a “Jesus is my lord” approach. I understand the dichotomy, but I also know that those outside the church will just as likely have wrong ideas about Jesus as those within.

If Jesus is subversive then he must challenge the very foundations of the “truths” we cling to, of that with which we are comfortable, of what we claim even in his name. If Jesus is a comfortable idea then we have missed who he is. The irony of modern evangelization is that to begin with Jesus straight away may be the path of least resistance, and yet many Christians may mean something entirely wrongheaded when using that name. This I cannot say for sure, but my intuition says it must be likely.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The raising of Lazarus, c. 1630
Oil on panel96.2 x 81.5 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Caputo argues for Jesus as a kind of deconstructing force within the church. When I set Jesus and the church side by side in my mind and ponder the connection, I cannot think of a better concept than deconstruction with which to understand the force of Christ amongst our religious structures. Caputo sees Jesus as “the event” within the word Christianity. (I know I am not doing the depth of his argument justice.) The idea of “the event” he takes from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Think of the word “democracy.” There are democracies and then there is democracy the ideal (not in a Platonic sense, but in a Derridian sense). That ideal calls to us when we think about, speak of, or participate in doing democracy. We don’t ever see the ideal, but we know it is there. Democracy the ideal is the event within the word Democracy. Think of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is a kind of force, a man who quotes Lincoln and Washington while entering the cynical world of real politik. In the end he becomes a kind of savior-like figure who sacrifices his life for what he knows to be true. Jesus, who’s name is spoken countless times in churches around the world is like Mr. Smith. But rather than just speaking of the truth, he is the truth, he is the image of God, he is the event within the word Christianity.*

Rembrandt van Rijn, Descent from the Cross, 1634
Oil on canvas, 62 x 46 in. (158 x 117 cm)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg

What I fear is that I live my whole life as a “good Christian” only to one day confront the actual event (Jesus) within this thing (Christianity) I am doing, and to be told “I never knew you.” The fact is I confront the event every day. The question that I must answer is to what am I finally committed, Christianity or the event within.

Back to my original questions. I don’t think Jesus would give our organized versions of Christianity the thumbs up, though I don’t think he would give the thumbs down to all of it. I do think, however, that we would all be surprised by his presence beyond reasons of “wow, he exists!”. I think he would challenge us deeply in ways that get at those very things that we use to convince ourselves of our own wisdom. I think those individuals and groups deeply embedded within the church would have trouble with Jesus on many levels. And I’m not referring to the obvious examples of those who claim Christianity but spew hatred. I am referring to the good, ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christians who try to live good lives and get along with others. They would have trouble with Jesus as much as anybody. But I also think those outside the church, who say they like Jesus but not Christians, would also have trouble with Jesus. Jesus hung around with sinners but he was not their homeboy. He was not their revolutionary either. He is God’s revolutionary, whatever that means – which is something we could spend the rest of our lives figuring out.

* This is one of the reasons I don’t like seeing a U.S. flag prominently displayed in a church. The event within democracy is not the same event as that within Christianity. The event within the U.S. flag is something closer to patriotism than democracy, and it is miles from Christ. With our tendency to focus on Christianity rather than the true Christ already in play, why jeopardize our profound and constantly reforming need for truth that much more with connecting faith to patriotism?

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