GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 31, 2007

Gans & Katz on White Guilt

Filed under: GA — ericgans @ 4:56 am

This is to announce the appearance of a new Chronicle of Love & Resentment (341) by Eric Gans (“Victimary Extinction or Religious Survival”). Adam Katz’ response (“The Crisis of Firstness”) is expected on Saturday, March 31.

3/31 Update: Katz’ guest Chronicle (342) is now available.


  1. Thank you for the Chronicle, Adam. If you are around, could you explain this passage in the last paragraph?

    “A fully human reality is based upon mutual promises and covenants and upon keeping faith with them. This means we are obliged to follow ‘Abraham, the man from Ur, whose whole story, as the Bible tells it, shows such a passionate drive toward making covenants that it is as though he departed from his country for no other reason than to try out the power of mutual promise in the wilderness of the world, until eventually God himself agreed to make a covenant with him’ (Hannah Arendt). The retrieval and extension of firstness is the exercise of this power; it is all that can be holy for all of us today, and all that we need.”

    Particularly, what do you mean by the last part: “it is all that can be holy for all of us today, and all that we need”? (As perhaps you can imagine, the formulation might present confessional difficulties for the creedally committed.)

    Comment by Matthew — April 3, 2007 @ 6:51 pm

  2. Wouldn’t the creedally committed be happy to bless covenants that, after all, seek both to return to the very source of covenanting itself and to create conditions under which creedal commitments can flourish? And, insofar as such covenants are blessed or at least worthy and in need of being being blessed (as in, “God Bless the United States of America”) wouldn’t that be the one thing adherents to all creeds could embrace, precisely without surrendering their separate beliefs? (To the extent that some creeds would be unable to ask for blessings for free, constitutional governments, that would single out such creeds as “problems,” I would think.) And, if all the world lived under and maintained and continued to secure such blessings, what else would we need?

    Comment by adam — April 4, 2007 @ 4:20 am

  3. Adam, pardon me for missing your early response, which has been sitting here for so long.

    I think that, on the one hand, this overly “religionizes” what would in fact simply be optimal working civil arrangements (quite commendable in themselves) and on the other hand “civitizes” the transcendent core of (at least the monotheistic) faiths. If this is not quite the “embrace that smothers” it still seems nevertheless to be something like an “embrace that effaces.”

    “God Bless the United States” is a good example in the sense that all kinds of religious people can say it and mean it with a good and happy conscience, but whatever else it might be (prayer, petition, patriotic affirmation) it is not a doctrinal articulation. That example suggests in one sense that there are already practical, unifying gestures and expressions that would not require the radical spiritual and theoretical reallignment you propose.

    A hasty and no doubt inadequate response to your response–I hope I can return to this.

    Comment by Matthew — April 25, 2007 @ 8:56 am

  4. I suppose I should simply plead guilty to religionizing and civitizing–I would say “minimally,” rather than “overly,” but I suppose that will depend upon whether your primary commitment is to a doctrinal articulation or to articulating differing levels or domains of sacrality. Yes, the gestures we need are already available, but if we say that “God Bless America” does no more than “commend” in historically outmoded ways to which we are still understandably if irrationally attached certain “optimal working civil arrangements” (pretty much the Supreme Court’s position, as I understand it, and the best reason they could come up with for not finding such expressions to be a violation of the First Amendment) then it seems to me that much of the efficacy of the gesture has been lost, precisely when we need it.

    Comment by adam — April 28, 2007 @ 9:54 am

  5. When one starts calling things holy, the imperatives of doctrinal articulation start kicking in pretty hard, at least with the monotheistic faiths, because one wants to avoid idolatry. For instance, the twin commandments love the Lord + love your neighbor (something like the “domains of sacrality”, perhaps): the Lord is holy, my neighbor is likely not. We worship the former; we serve but don’t worship the latter. Etc. If we didn’t get this before, it seems that particularly after Marxism at least, the believer would be cautious about attaching sacrality to the wrong domain (for instance, “the People”). (Mimetic theory also quickly seems to contract itself into an inert, abstracted version of the “social Gospel.” How would GA avoid erring in a different direction but perhaps equal distance?)

    Ditto perhaps with “the retrieval and extension of firstness.” Are we to love “the retrieval and extension of firstness” with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind? This is not the same as asking whether it’s valid; I’m just asking if it’s worthy of religious (or perhaps you are proposing “meta-religious”) devotion.

    In other words, are you proposing a new religion? A new meta-religion? (I am not far from thinking of GA as a theoreticized form of Catholicism–which for me is actually a sort of compliment.)

    On other points, my “optimal working civil arrangements” is certainly much too weak a term for the cross-faith commonality you are envisioning, so OK on that–and if my phrase must be equated with the Supremes (as in a Casey “everyone is free to define the mystery of existence in their own way” kind of thing) that is appropriate penance for my verbal carelessness!

    Common ground, though–leaving aside for now the contested domains of church/state issues in the secular state–is not truly all that hopeless (thinking beyond affective gestures like “God Bless America”), If you’ve ever checked out Catholic work on things Ecumenical and Inter-Faith. I’m no expert, but this work has accelerated in the past several decades, I think, especially re: Orthodoxy vs. Catholicism and Christianity and Judaism. It seems the parties you would most want to sell on “the retrieval and extension of firstness” (or at least with whom you would have the putatively easiest sell doing so) are to some extent already working things out rather substantively. (For instance, there is no controversy about “firstness” theologically–Judaism is first, Christianity is as St. Paul says a grafted branch, and Eastern and Western Christianity are in JP II’s words two lungs badly in need of reconciliation.) They would see the challenge (cf. the real content of Benedict’s controversial address) coming from secularism/relativism/hedonism on the one hand and radical Islam on the other.

    The way I see it, your formulation is not going to fly with actual believers, and it’s not going to fly with secularists who have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smells religious. I think if you want to dialogue, you have to adapt to the way your hoped for interlocutors actually talk and perhaps even adjust your concepts accordingly. Maybe I’m just talking strategy now; can a minimal hypothesis nailed to the door attract any attention from the quarters you would most want to notice it? I think you’ve got to start hitting the Ecumenical and Inter-faith circuits and learn the lingo.

    (It’s possible that this post is drastically off track from what you were actually saying–in fact, I fear this is rather likely.)

    Comment by Matthew — April 29, 2007 @ 8:00 am

  6. No, you’re not off track–originary thinkers don’t just want to talk to themselves nor, in my understanding, do we asume that all vocabularies will or should ultimately be reduced to our own (it seems to me that if there is a GA “utopia,” it goes in the opposite direction: towards originary or scenic thinking becoming so interwoven in all vocabularies that it infuses all while it goes almost completely unnoticed). At the same time, that doesn’t mean that we (and certainly I) should be able to speak to everyone right now. So, I’ll take on just the one question that I think I can answer productively: are we to love the extension and retrieval of firstness with all our heart and all our soul? Yes, but only in the form of some what some particular firstness points to; which could not have been anticipated or mapped out in advance; and that we can generalize in the more secularized, critical terms of “firstness”; and yet that will not be exhausted by that generalization. So, I’m not proposing a new religion, but I am saying (and I know this will be very contested, within GA itself) that the modern form in which the secular/religious arrangments have been settled banishes sacrality unnecessarily from daily experience and interferes with our intuitions in this regard. I don’t think that “disenchantment” is such an obviously necessary component of modernity. Of course, if sacrality were to be “allowed” back in it would be in wildly unregulated forms (and I also think that we could direct our attention to all kinds of ways in which it is already “in”–often, of course, in quite dangerous ways), which make the desire to marginalize the sacred understandable. With regard to what you see as the necessary tendency toward doctrinal articulation, Isuppose right now I would say that I think other forms of intelllectual “protection” of the more difficult and demanding forms of monotheistic belief that we urgently need can be devised, but I doubt I could say more about that right now, or perhaps until they start to emerge. I do think that originary thinking provides us with the means for discussing such issues responsibly–we have. at least, a pretty good sense of what would be inappropriate objects of sacralization. But a precondition of discovering, maintaining and extending the common ground we have now would be, I think, a lowering of the terror induced in certain types of modern men and women at any designation of a shared holiness, even when one is able to point out that by their very behavior they are clearly treating something as holy.

    Comment by adam — April 29, 2007 @ 11:33 am

  7. but it’s irreducibly weird, surely. For the moment we tag or rather lumber a whole heap of putative, largely imaginary persons with the honour of bearing an ‘ism, we are in effect charging them witha religious effect, are we not? Not to mention that freewheeling blur whereby the very issue of such phrasings ensures that our gre/ay matter is disengaged, as GKC would say it just ‘carries us along’ ..but hey, i don’t mean anyone present here, this is the best conversation i can possibly imagine having – even when i do not speak! And then i have to lapse back into the ‘rest of the world’, and i know not how to countenance fr a second all these ‘religisms’ with which i must now presumably deal… yrs on the fly –

    Comment by lightweed — April 30, 2007 @ 4:26 am

  8. i mean, how many avowed ‘hedonists’ have you bumped right into lately?

    Comment by lightweed — April 30, 2007 @ 4:30 am

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