Caputo: Chapter Three—Letting Truth Be: Augustine, Derrida and the Postmodern Turn—Part Three

Caputo sums up his comparison between Augustine and Derrida towards the latter end of this chapter.  Remember, this is the example he is using regarding what he means by “repetition” which is the way an underlying truth, even if we cannot completely grasp it or understand it, is “repeated” and moves on in one form or another over time.  In speaking of that repetition, Caputo notes:
“A certain religion happens here [Derrida’s Circumfession] without the doctrines of a determinate confessional religion, without the institutional structures, the hierarchy, the candles, the prayer books and the church suppers.  Unlike the dogmatic atheism of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century materialism, it does not dismiss religion as delusional.  Rather, it repeats the structures of a certain religion, a certain structural religion, by which I mean a certain faith (without religious creed) and hope (in the promise of the future, not in going to heaven after death) and love (of more life, of what life promises, not of a supernatural being called God).”
Or we might say it transgresses the boundaries of what we normally think of as “religion” while repeating the same restless search for that thing, we know not what.  A Christian may say that “thing” is God or that the word “God” represents that thing.  Others may not feel they can say that, but the desire, the encounters with “events”, the longing is there.  Here is where the terms “theist” and “atheist” break down, as those terms really only have meaning in a limited propositional sense (“God exists.” or “God doesn’t exist.”).  Boundaries are crossed, because the two travelers find themselves all of a sudden on the same road, or on the same journey.  Our lives, at any given time, are just snap shots of where we are right now.  At times, we are doubters—other times, believers.  Mostly both.  We are never one pure thing.  We have a “public” face, but inside and deep down we are much more complicated.
“He [Derrida] undermines this duality, skews the neat opposition, ‘deconstructs’ the distinction that modernity treats as fixed.  He repeats these religious gestures but without religion’s trappings.  He repeats religion without religion and he repeats the modern secular order without its secularism.  That is what I am looking for and why I pin everything in my little book of truth on this fascinating scene, which in every way is an exquisitely postmodern one.  The sense of chance and contingency, the melding of categories, the resistance to dogmatic certitudes, the openness to the future, the retrieval of something ancient in a new and even shocking form, the hope and desire for something I know not what.”
And of course this brings fear to both religious and secular fundamentalism.  It has an “anything” goes feel to it.  Fundamentalism relies upon secure boundaries so that it can know who is in and who is out. So it can know who is right and who is wrong. So it can know what is true and what is false.  It depends upon clear delineated lines.  We might think of it as philosophical segregation.  Blacks must be with blacks and whites with whites.  For them, what Caputo is talking about sounds like (cue gasps) interracial marriage or a state church.  Caputo goes on:
“If, as we have said, we can define modernity as the construction of the category of the ‘category’, Derrida’s work lies in its deconstruction—not its demolition, but making it porous, showing how buckets leak, how its borders can be transgressed.  His text exposes some kind of elemental religion without confessional creeds, spawned in a night of non-knowing, a religion of the restless heart that is restless for I know not what, which underlies and undercuts the war between theism and atheism even as it makes plain the religious passion in a seemingly secular order.”
And, when they began to get it, the traditional atheists did not like what they were hearing from Derrida.  We might compare it to the traditional or more fundamentalist evangelicals who, when they got it, did not like what they were hearing from Rob Bell. 
“His [Derrida] atheism has nothing to do with the modernist attacks on religion which declare it nonsense, superstition, delusion, devoid of truth, because he thinks there is something to religion, a truth that is happening there, that is being performed there, that is being promised there, something coming that bears repetition.  There is a certain religion in all of us, in what is deepest in us all, one that cuts across the neat divisions constructed by modernity between faith and reason, religion and secularism, or theism and atheism, which only serve to obscure and fence off a deeper event…He does not deny reason, but looks for a new enlightenment, in which faith is not opposed to what we call reason, but a crucial ingredient in it.”
Rather than trying to carve people up into tribes (fundamentalism) what Derrida and Caputo are doing is searching for deep commonalities and a derivative result here is that it creates an opening, one which should hopefully allow the tribes to understand each other better or at least recognize each other as distant cousins.  This might be a good place to stop and ask one’s self (if you find yourself with negative reflections thus far regarding Caputo): Why would I oppose or be suspicious of such a result, this opening?  Why does this bother me?  Why do I need these boundaries in place?  What is it I’m afraid of?  Depending upon one’s answers, here is something to keep in mind that might haunt: What if you were to find the exact fears were being experienced and the same answers to those questions were being given by the other side—the side (tribe) you think so wrong, so delusional, so ignorant, and dumb?  Food for thought.  Caputo continues regarding what this means for “truth”:
“Accordingly, the postmodern view of truth is struck in terms of the event, not of God or Pure Reason.  This represents a postmodern repetition of the premodern ideal of truth, but this time as decentered or eccentric, without an absolute centre, ground or foundation, without a closed cosmic order, without a top-down hierarchic structure.  Contemporary wisdom is certainly nourished by truth, but by another conception of truth.  Repetition operates in a more open-ended and loosely assembled quasi-system in which violence would be minimized and openness to the future maximized, in which an optimal disorder and dissidence, an optimal instability and uncertainty, would be sustained in order to keep the system open-ended and ongoing.”
By way of inference, we could also say that those efforts, events, or happenings that lead to violence, closed systems, where the obsession for stability and order shuts out, silences, and even kills those “unstable” elements (whether human or some other type) within it, are false, not true.  Caputo continues:
“Postmodernity, as I conceive it here, embraces the idea that truth is always a process, always in the making, a forward repetition, so that truth flourishes under conditions which promote the future.  The sense of truth, therefore, lies precisely in the open-endedness and availability to change, where the accent falls on novelty, on the power of the event for invention and reinvention.”
Again, we might say by inference that untruths or falsities are those ideas, events, or happenings that tend toward the opposite sensibility or result—the opposite of what Caputo just described.  An example might be when we hear someone talking about the “good ole” days and how the present and future is going to- “hell-in-a-hand-basket”.  I imagine that was heard quite often when the American south was made to integrate.  However, the truth, the event, can never be frozen in time.  It will always re-appear (repetition) in a prophetic way where it calls into question the reigning paradigms.  What Caputo is talking about is being open to that prophetic voice wherever it may appear and it’s not that it will challenge the “other” guy’s paradigm, but our own.  Caputo cautions however that this is not some new “myth of progress”:
“The faith that the future is always better does not mean we subscribe to the myth of progress, that the more smartphones and smart bombs we have the smarter we will be, and the more high-definition TVs we have the more clearly we will see the world.  On the contrary, I have invoked Lyotard’s famous ‘incredulity about such big stories’, whether of progress or of decline…postmodern theorists think of truth as an event, as something still to be made or done, as what lies ahead, as still in the making, and hence as a promise/risk.  Truth has the sense of what can happen anywhere and of what is still on the way—what is yet to be discovered in science, is yet to be invented in technology, is yet to happen in art, or what lies ahead for us in our personal, social and global life…having hope goes hand in hand with acknowledging that things are under threat.  Threats and hope depend upon each other conceptually.  We hope the threat will not be realized, but the only reason we are threatened is because we have allowed ourselves to hope in something to begin with.  We realize our hope may not be underwritten by a divine warranty or Pure Reason but will depend instead on us.  Hope requires courage, which is why love is risky business because we expose ourselves to the threat that our love will be rejected.  Hopes and fears, promises and threats, these are marks that truth is on the go.”
Caputo then finishes up chapter three, under this subtitle: Towards a Postmodern Idea of Truth
Caputo notes that what he is proposing is organizing truth around something other than God or Reason.  He knows those are the names we give to something, something we think is true or the way to truth.  As noted already, he is interested rather in what is going on in those names.  That is where the truth lies.  And if it isn’t captured by those names completely, where can we locate truth?

“But if we cannot organize our idea of truth around God or Reason, what then?  That is the role of the event, and the event requires a theory of repetition.  If this wider, more open-ended sense of truth is, as I maintain, a truth that is on the go, the question we need to ask is, how does it go?  How is it on the go?  If truth is an event, how does an event happen?  My answer is repetition.”
Caputo then notes the two themes or focal points we need to keep in balance, the pre-modern focus of truth being that which is good, true, and beautiful (wisdom) and the post-modern focus of truth being that which comes out of diversity and on-going conversation.  Of that part he writes:
“…which is that we always have something to learn from others.  The other person is always and in principle capable of surprising us, of saying something we did not expect to hear.  No matter how well we know someone, we can never really be sure of what they will say next, or what they are thinking.  That is why long marriages or long friendships need not be boring (although I do not deny that sometimes boring people get married).”
What holding these two focal points in tension means for Caputo is this:
“This represents a postmodern repetition of the premodern ideal of truth, but this time as decentered or eccentric, without an absolute centre, ground or foundation, without a closed cosmic order, without a top-down hierarchic structure.  Contemporary wisdom is certainly nourished by truth, but by another conception of truth.  Repetition operates in a more open-ended and loosely assembled quasi-system in which violence would be minimized and openness to the future maximized, in which optimal disorder and dissidence, an optimal instability and uncertainty, would be sustained in order to keep the system open-ended and ongoing.”
The closest I can come to what is being said here, from a Christian perspective, is leaving room for the Spirit.  Instead of locking all the doors, instead of thinking we have it all figured out, instead of putting everything in neat, tidy, air-tight boxes, perhaps we should leave everything a little open-ended.  Maybe we should leave room for the Spirit to break in and breathe new life, a new perspective, into all our boxes.  We might say the postmodern is about leaving windows open in the house (and when the owners would shut one, someone would open another on the second floor) that modernity built.
“Postmodernity, as I conceive it here, embraces the idea that truth is always a process, always in the making, a forward repetition, so that truth flourishes under conditions which promote the future.  The sense of truth, therefore, lies precisely in the open-endedness and availability to change, where the accent falls on novelty, on the power of the event for invention and reinvention.  This goes along with the unforeseeability of the future, with the assurance that nothing is assured, that the one thing we know about the future is that we cannot see what is coming.”
So when we think about something being false—not true, we have to think of it in the above context.  I think one of the wisest responses one can give to the many conundrums, scenarios, and ethical riddles people like to throw out is, “It depends.”  There is no formula.  There is no set of clear principles.  There is no algorithm.  There is no mathematical equation.  If this bothers you, it may say much more about you than it does anything Caputo is suggesting.  In other words, be careful, your modernity slip (the very issue disputed) is showing. Caputo continues:
“Truth comes in the form of a mix between expectations that are confirmed and expectations that are not confirmed.  If our expectations were never confirmed, life would be chaotic.  When we open our front door we expect to see in the house within not a lake of fire and sulphur.  But when we open our door we may find the house has been burgled, or that we have left the water running in the kitchen sink…truth is the result of resolving previous undecidabilities and instabilities.  Such stability conserves past experience and is necessary lest we have to reinvent the wheel each morning.  Without it we risk chaos.  But such stability is always provisional and it carries with it a risk of its own—nothing is safe, not even safety—that it will close us down to the future, to what is possible…truth is not a state (stasis) but a dynamic, in which relatively stable structures are incessantly de-stabilized by a series of shocks…truth is our openness or exposure to the open-endedness of the self, or of the world, a being-exposed to an unforeseeable future—or to an irrecuperable past—to something we cannot see coming, even if it is coming from the past.  Truth is not confined to scholarly treatises or scientific research, but crosses over every category of life from science to art, from ethics to politics, and bleeds into the crevices of everyday life.”
With the next post we will begin chapter 4.
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Friday Roundup

There is nothing more embarrassing than when someonetells us philosophy can “mess us up” and then goes on to spout and privilege their own…philosophy…wow, clueless. 
Yes, “collect yourself and reflect…”
We “see” what our brain allows us to see…
Beam me up Scotty…

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2 Responses to Caputo: Chapter Three—Letting Truth Be: Augustine, Derrida and the Postmodern Turn—Part Three

  1. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    Ah, fear of the gobbledygook. If I thought that this kind of mutton-headedness was going to take the world by storm, I might fear it. As it is, I just roundly dismiss it as an inabilty to use language and thought in the most elementary way. If we are to raise our thoughts to the level of discourse, they need to be put through a process of refinement and differentiation that crystalizes or gives form to them, rather than endlessly talking about how formless and inexpressible they are. …”I know not what”. Perhaps you should wait till you do know what.

    If that is our true condition, it is a condition worth transcending, and that is truly the point of art and science together- to express these conditions in explicit and well-formed terms.

    As to commonalities, they are easy enough to find. But you would have to be willing to accept a thoroughly psychological explanation for faith, religion, super-naturalism, which provides a highly unifying and well-supported explanation, if that is not overly analytical for your taste. Science deals in vastly unifying commonalities.. a problem is that many people do not take such analytic thinking seriously.

    You portray the distinctions of conventional truth and falsity as fundamentalisms equally pernicious, preferring to meld both into a delightful union of tolerant muddle-headedness. I beg to differ. Not out of fear, but out of the clearest philosophy. What part of religious fundamentalism is correct? How much of creationism is correct? How much of militant Islamism is correct? Their subjective states are subjectively correct, and that is as much as one can say. All the rest of it is utter balderdash, and while it generally is not worth going to war over, it certainly is worth keeping a clear head about.

    Why do you and Caputo spend so much breath defending all this stuff and finding a middle-muddle? I have one answer, which is that a direct defence of superstitionism, supernaturalism, etc. has become impossible, so this is the best you can hope for- to throw up a bit of postmodern chaff and hope the argument goes away. Intellectually, it is a sad ending, and tactically, it is highly unlikely to work.

    But on the other hand, if your perspective is focused on morals, not on the propositional falsities of religion and questions of science and pseudo-science, then this attitude of moderation and toleration makes more sense. There is no truth in morals, as they are subjectively based. So there I would be with you. But that is not clear.. the exposition is hopelessly muddled.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “Ah, fear of the gobbledygook.” Translation: “You know what’s wrong? Everything I don’t understand.”

    “…preferring to meld both into a delightful union of tolerant muddle-headedness…”

    “Why do you and Caputo spend so much breath defending all this stuff and finding a middle-muddle?”

    Are tolerance and finding the middle worrisome ideas for you?

    My more religious fundamentalists interlocutors could have written, word for word, your thoughts here (I hear the exact same critique from them, which leads me to believe Caputo is definitely on the right track). The irony is rather delicious.

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