Monday, 4 June 2018

A Philosophy of Mediation

Metaxology at Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini, in Rome, Italy

In any dichotomy, or in any form of dualism, the tension of opposites is resolved, or at least released somewhat, by some form of mediation. Mediation is the ground for the possibility of harmonious differences, the transcending of the either-or option, the all-or-nothing. The subject and the object enter into relation to each other by meeting in the middle, the metaxu, which is also to enter somehow into each other: the object is internalized in the subject, and the subject turns outward to "become," somehow, the object, to take on its form. But not only the dualism of subject-object, but also that of body-mind: every level of this relationship only reaches the other through a structure of mediation. There is a middle in which matter and spirit interpenetrate each other, and into which they enter with progressive degrees of intensity. Likewise, again: immanence-transcendence is a dualism that is overcome by mediation, by passing through the middle, by seeking out with finesse those dynamisms which lie between the operations of immanence and transcendence, and into which these latter operations always seem to "stretch" themselves. 

There are many forms of dualism, just as there are, in fact, many kinds of dualities. The terms or correlatives of the various dualities are more-or-less proximate to each other, and thus require a more-or-less intensive stretching to "meet in the middle." Certainly, the more remote are the terms of such dualities, the greater is the risk of falling into dualism: the positing of things in unmediable opposition to each other. But there is always this risk in any duality. The greatest of all such dualities is that of creature and Creator, finitude and the infinite, man and God. The dualism that many have perceived in this duality is the greatest "gap" that philosophers have ever felt the need to bridge; and they have often attempted to bridge without observing the complex and many layers of mediation that would be needed to do so. They did not appreciate enough the sense of being in the middle

William Desmond explains how, not appreciating the middle, philosophers have made three generic types of mistakes, all amounting to a kind of reductionism. These three types of mistakes, though mistakes, nonetheless point to aspects of the truth which must be preserved if the middle is to be fully appreciated. The three: 1) radical univocity, 2) radical equivocity, and 3) what is called dialectic, which is the attempt to reduce equivocities to a higher level univocity. 

A radical univocity addresses dualism by denying duality altogether. It does not so much solve the problem of bridging the gaps of dualism as deny that there is any gap to be bridged, any separation to be mediated. A univocal mind may thus rest confident that he may enter into relations with his God at "the flip of a switch," that he may correspond to his God in a one-to-one correlation. He needs no help; he presumes proximity to God. 

A radical sense of equivocity, on the contrary, gives in to the dualism and despairs of mediation at all; it too avoids bridging the gap, not by denying that there is a gap, but denying the possibility of bridging it. The equivocalist is rarely a theist; or if he is, he is also a deist; he is very often an agnostic, and he feels inescapably condemned to his agnosticism. 

Dialectic, as exemplified especially in Kant and Hegel (and taken to great extremes in, for example, Feuerbach), is what Desmond might call a "counterfeit double" of genuine mediation, since it seems to account for both equivocity and univocity. Yet it does this by subsuming equivocity, absorbing it, into a higher univocity. If it is mediation, it is self-mediated otherness - which is to say, the gap between the self and the other is bridged by acknowledging the other only as an equivocal version, so to speak, of oneself. Ultimately, dialectic returns to the self. In other words, dialectical mediation is one-sided, it does not fully dwell in the middle. In Feuerbach's interpretation of Hegel, this is the ultimate possibility of a kind of Christian atheism, in which "God" is not ultimately and irreducibly an other, a transcendence, but an self-othering image of man, a mere projection of the self. Dialectic is like univocity in that the self needs no other by which it comes to transcendence; but it is like equivocity in that the self becomes other to itself, only to bring the other back into itself. The self is an inherent contradiction: the dualism as dualism is internalized in the self, and thereby claimed to be "mediated."

Desmond emphasizes a fourth alternative, which tries to do justice to univocity and equivocity without either subsuming the one under the other, or reducing being to one or the other. This fourth alternative is metaxology: speaking about the middle, the between, the metaxu. Plato teaches us that man is something between: neither real nor unreal, neither knowing nor completely unknowing, neither God nor [beast? - check the Symposium]. This is why Plato is not a dualist, though he struggles with finding the right language to express the dynamic reality of the between. The best language, indeed, that Plato could conjure is precisely the ambiguous, perhaps highly metaphorical, language of betweenness itself: participation. We participate in what is real, in what is divine, in wisdom, because although we cannot say unqualifiedly that we are wise, yet we seem to have wisdom somehow in part or in a contracted way. We genuinely approach it, and we may always approach it; and yet we fall short, and we always will fall short of it. The Platonic ideal, as in the ideal city of the Republic, is not some inaccessible utopia that must be despaired of obtaining; nor is it a problem that can be neatly solved and exhausted by anything like a mathematical formula. There is no room for either optimism or pessimism in such a philosophy: there is hope and confidence, yes, for we genuinely may approach and continue to approach, approximate, or instantiate the ideal - there is real gain here; and yet we are still subject to contingency and the transitory nature of things, in which nothing lasts forever, or where in order to approximate the ideal we must inevitably struggle against forces of decomposition. There is mysticism and asceticism in such a philosophy: mysticism in the ever hopeful progression towards inexhaustible mystery; asceticism in the struggle to maintain oneself in that progression.

Metaxological mediation perseveres in the middle, between the self and the other, acknowledging their irreducible distinction and yet their integral though mediated relation. What are the forms of such mediation? The ancients and the medievals had an instinctive sense of mediation through hierarchical participation. Hierarchy was not merely the opposition of the good and the bad, but the progression from the lesser to the greater, and vice versa, and the possibility of the greater harnessing the lesser and bringing it to itself. There is not here the illusion of grandeur that seems to constitute dialectical self-mediation through self-otherness. There is the reality of grandeur, instrumentalizing and thus dignifying things with participation in itself, by a kind of sacramentality. Things in the world are not just things in the world; being in the between, they are also carried beyond the world and themselves, and carry indications within themselves of this beyond. The interplay of determinate singularity and indeterminate universality indicates something overdeterminate, something indeed too much for singularity, and too determinate for universality (taking "universal" and "singular" in an Aristotelian logical sense). A kind of oscillating and vibrating song seems to echo from this ongoing movement in things, a more and less, a back and forth, echoing more than itself, echoing also something which transcends all distinctions between the universal and the singular, from which all such distinctions flow.

This is a complex choreography, a graceful and multi-dimensional ritual, a polyphonic canticle, in which the echo and glimmer of absolute transcendence is heard and seen. All the levels of being resound harmoniously in this plurivocal between. It is a cosmic symphony. To neglect any participant in this symphony would be to compromise its integrity; and yet it is no complete system, enclosed on itself, for it always seems to leave room for the more that echoes as an overtone from an unseen place. Indeed, the reductionistic, univocalizing neglect of any part of this complex choreography might itself be the death of the inherent openness that characterizes such a hierarchy. To reduce to one dimension that which is indefinitely multi-dimensional is to close the system on itself, and to deny the need for mediation. Paradoxically, the opposite equivocalizing tendency to simply decompose the order into a random mash of unrelated parts has the similar effect of denying mediation. There is also the dialectical denial of this ritual, more complex than any simple univocalizing or equivocalizing tendency, but still reducing to the same thing: the retreat of all forms of mediation. For dialectical self-mediation is still no real mediation; it is a counterfeit and a pretense. 



I wish to make a liturgical observation stemming from all of this. What we have witnessed in the modern age of liturgical reform is a large-scale denial, or counterfeit, of metaxological mediation in the liturgy, the result of trends that were univocalizing, equivocalizing, and dialectical in the Hegelian sense. These trends were not unconnected: the dialectical way is both univocal and equivocal in a sense, inasmuch as it subsumes the sense of otherness into the self's own othering of itself. When the liturgy becomes a mode of self-affirmation, it risks the self-idolatry to which Hegel's dialectic seems to lead. The community's celebration of itself in God is one version of such self-consumed dialectic. It is an exaltation of immanence that risks making a counterfeit of genuine transcendence. 

For example, the reduction of metaxological modes of speech, which often veer into the poetic, is one instance of univocalisation. These modes of speech are, in Desmond's term, metaphorical, analogical, symbolic, and hyperbolic. Far less, with such univocity, does the liturgical voice seem to exceed itself in hyperbolic and exaggerated praise, nor depart from simple literalism into images and figures, or from monotonic verbiage into the motion of song. (Or if there is song, there are "hymn-sandwiches," played to tunes hardly uplifting but merely sentimentalizing, another form of univocity perhaps.) The liturgy takes the form less of a drama and more of a univocal discourse, an attempt to "bridge the gap" by creating a sense of immediacy with God, a sense of direct accessibility and clear conceptual recognition. This is the univocal "bridging of the gap" by way of simply denying the "gap," paying no attention to the gulf that really does separate man from God; and thus losing, along with the "gap," the hierarchical forms of mediation by which alone that duality can be integrated.

There is also a perverse equivocity in this reformed liturgical dialectic: the otherness that is thus subsumed into the self, the making of the self into an other. The self others itself in its own self-determining autonomy; it becomes itself according to its own idea. It expresses itself in determining itself. This is where Hegel is the inheritor of Kant's concern for radical autonomy. This gives way to the seemingly endless "optionitis" (as it is called by Peter Kwasniewski) which pervades the modern celebration of the liturgy: the radical sense of freedom and spontaneity with which priests and congregations are allowed to celebrate their liturgies, the wide range of options they are given to choose from, the indeterminacy of the liturgy which they are allowed to determine for themselves at will. This is equivocity, quite literally: the Church now voices her song of praise without a unity of song, but with a multitude of often randomly self-determined voices

All of this is to observe the near-vanishing of metaxological forms of mediation from the liturgy, the vanishing of the sense of being in the between. Gone, or reduced to a minimum, is the sense of approaching heaven, being even at its doorstep, and yet being not yet there. There is either a sense of being only here, on the earth, or there is a counterfeit of being there. 

The traditional liturgy, by contrast, is full of a sense of hierarchical mediation: clear distinctions, for example, between multiple liturgical roles, which interact with each other at different levels, in different functions, and at different moments of the liturgical act. There are priestly roles: consecration, blessing, the delivery of the mysteries; there are extensions of the priestly roles - deacons and acolytes - who assist the priest in the performance of their roles; there are choral roles and congregational roles. There is likewise a clear distinction between areas of the liturgical space: a place for the congregation, a place for the choir, a place for the clergy. But there is also communication between them: the congregation approaches the sanctuary for the communion, the priest enters and exits from the nave, the congregation and choir sometimes sing together, sometimes they do not. There is interaction, yet there is no trespassing of the congregation into the choir or the sanctuary, or of the choir onto the altar, etc. 

The traditional liturgy is a ritual full of images and symbolic gestures: signs of the cross, bows and genuflections, extension of the priestly hands, positions of the priestly fingers, lighting and extinguishing candles, fire and water, bread and wine, salts and oils, bells and incense, purification of vessels, processions and choreographed motions, the use of specific spaces and orientations, etc. Images likewise populate traditional liturgical architecture and art - figures from the natural world, archetypes and histories from the biblical narrative, geometric designs of obscure symbolism, not to mention the obligatory presence of the archetypal geometric figure of the cross at the center of the church. Things which are useful in the liturgy are never merely useful; utilitarianism is a species of univocity, of the practical sort. They are poetic and symbolic; they are metaphors and analogies of God, angels, men; of being, life, wisdom; of virtue and vice, holiness and sinfulness; knowledge and ignorance. This is nothing other than the metaxological way: the acknowledgement that we are dealing with realities that, though we might be able to name them, exceed what we communicate by naming them literally. Hence we need a multiplicity of mediating forms by which we enter into the space of the between, wherein we neither presume to directly access what is out of proportion to our reach, nor despair of accessing it altogether; and neither create what is only a counterfeit double of it. The traditional liturgy provides just this space of the between; we need only enter into it, participate in it. 

1 comment:

  1. Would you say that "Modern Man"(TM) has difficulty in grasping symbolism?
    The rejection of most of the symbolic in the Liturgy would seem to indicate it, yet I have seen congregations try to infuse their own symbols into the celebration. Nature abhors a vacuum?