critique and myth

In a famous footnote to the Preface of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote,

Our age is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.

Kant’s purpose here is to announce the sovereignty of critique, its power as a universal solvent of all claims to legitimacy and truth, and indeed the Western intellectual world for the next two centuries largely endorsed that sovereignty and paid due fealty to it.

What rational critique does above all is the dispelling of myths, and what we are seeing in America right now, as I have suggested in this essay, is a powerful restoration or recrudescence — depending on how you assess it — of mythical thinking. This is occurring chiefly among (a) the white-populist Right and (b) the black-liberationist Left, along with its various encouragers and supporters in the media and the universities.

This “return of the repressed” leads to a question, or set of questions, concerning cause and another concerning consequence:

  1. Is the return of mythical thinking a result of the failure of critique or rather its success? That is, are those now taking their bearings from coherent and compelling myths about the order of the world people who have never been exposed to, never been initiated into, the power of critique? Or are they people, or the pupils of people, who have followed critique into the moral and emotional deserts it inevitably produces and then turned away, looking for oases? Another way to put the question: Does critique when successful create the conditions for its repudiation?
  2. Is the current return to myth an evanescent or a lasting phenomenon? Are we looking at a widespread repudiation of the liberal order — of which critique, and socio-political practices related to it, like proceduralism, are essential parts — or is this moment just a temporary flare-up of impatience and frustration sparked by people who spend far too much time online? A moral panic that has come but will soon go? Perhaps the social and political structures built by liberalism are strong enough to resist the current upheavals and, over the long term, retain their power.

UPDATE: A while back I wrote, “If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kołakowski.” So I took my own advice and re-read his great essay “The Idolatry of Politics,” originally delivered as the NEH’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1986. It was later published in The New Republic, but I think that once-vital journal has deposited its entire history in the Memory Hole; fortunately I was able to find Kołakowski’s original typescript at the NEH website. Who says government is good for nothing?

The whole essay, which if you read actual codex books you can find in Modernity on Endless Trial, is brilliant and full of fascinating thoughts that I may well return to — it was Kołakowski who originally got me thinking about the diverse and subtle powers of myth to shape political life — but for now I want to call attention to one passage near the end of the essay. Again, remember that this was written in 1986:

In political decisions and attitudes people can appeal to the divine law, to the natural law and the theory of social contract, or to the feeling of historical continuity of which they are agents even if they revolt against it. It appears that we are about to lose all those three reference points; thus we either reduce politics to the technical rules of success or try to dissolve our existence in a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another, or else we are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices. I believe that we can be cured but not painlessly.

These sentences have been proven true, in the following ways:

  1. Our culture has indeed lost the three “reference points” for thinking and acting politically, largely because of the complete abdication of social responsibility by our educational system.
  2. Some experiencing this loss have indeed taken refuge in finding “technical rules of success,” in flourishing-by-bureaucratic-regulation. The neoliberal core of the Democratic Party, and the elite universities that provide that core its ideas, take this view of the world.
  3. Others — the populist right and liberationist left I mention above — have found their compensations in “a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another.”
  4. Still others, and maybe the largest number, “are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices,” the most effective of those devices being social media, television, and video games.

How can politics be done under these circumstances?

UPDATE 2: In response to a friend who asked, “Does the return of mythical thinking signify a natural recognition that something sacred must inform shared life? And can the proceduralism you long to sustain adequately honor a communal recognition of what is truly sacred?” I replied:

My answers are Yes and Definitely Not! But I would add that proceduralism is a means of reckoning with a plurality you can’t erase, not a means of honoring the sacred. Indeed, the idea that the political realm is supposed to be both the school and the panoptic enforcer of absolute values is the belief that binds Sohrab Amari and Ibram X. Kendi. They only differ on the details. 😉

I prefer a political order that is as ignorant of the sacred as it possibly can be. John Adams thought that only a virtuous people could thrive under our Constitution, but he did not think it the job of the government so constituted to make them virtuous.

And I agree 100% that critique is not what it claims to be. As MacIntyre says, it is the tradition that denounces tradition; as Gadamer says, it is constituted by a prejudice against prejudice. Its claims to be above all traditions and all prejudices is a self-glamorizing fiction. But my post isn’t about the fundamental character of critique, it only concerns the relationship between the reign of critique and the re-emergence of mythic thought.

That said, I could have made it more clear in the post that I do not take critique at its own self-valuation, or even self-description; but many have, and their credulity has been immensely consequential for our social order.


Here’s a brief summary by Charles Taylor of a contrast that’s vital to his thinking: porous vs. buffered selves. The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?” 

The positive valence of porosity is fullness; its negative valence is terror.

The positive valence of bufferdness is protection; its negative valence is emptiness.

Taylor’s thesis is that over the past five hundred years Western culture has moved from a general condition of porosity to a general condition of bufferedness. That claim can be, and has been, contested: see this post on my old Text Patterns blog for an example. But I think he’s probably basically right. Taylor doesn’t see this movement occurring in a straight line; he discerns again and again dillusionment with the disenchanted world of the Modern Modern Order generating alternatives, from nature-worship to spiritualism; but he does see a general trend towards accepting a disenchanted world. 

Even if that’s true, I am interested in the ways that individuals and cultures oscillate between the porous and the buffered condition. As terror grows, we seek protection; but as emptiness grows, we seek fullness. And I am, further, interested in the ways that people seek an escape from this oscillation, some structure of experience that claims to provide fullness without terror, protection without emptiness. That’s why, having in the past taught a course called The History of Disenchantment, I’m now teaching one called Beyond Disenchantment.

The story I’ve just sketched out is, I believe, proper context in which to read, as we just have, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The one thing needful for the person encountering Kurzweil’s book is to realize that, for all his technological talk, it’s not a narrative that arises from the “technological core” of society but rather from the “mythical core” — indeed, it is itself a myth, the myth by which Kurzweil himself hopes to live. Kurzweil’s myth promises the security, stability, safety of a self that’s uploaded to the cloud and multiply backed up, and the fullness that comes from the ability always to fulfill not only our sexual desires but our spiritual ones, located in the God module. No terror, no emptiness — so says the myth. 

If you grasp this, you will understand why Meghan O’Gieblyn responded to the book the way she did:

I first read Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. […]

At Bible school, I had studied a branch of dispensational theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth: the Dispensation of Innocence, the Dispensation of Conscience, the Dispensation of Government … We were told we were living in the Dispensation of Grace, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the Millennial Kingdom, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this teleological narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending assuredly toward a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my subjective experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves. […]

It’s difficult to account for the totemic power I ascribed to the book. Its cover was made from some kind of metallic material that shimmered with unexpected colors when it caught the light. I carried it with me everywhere, tucked in the recesses of my backpack, though I was paranoid about being seen with it in public. It seemed to me a work of alchemy or a secret gospel. It’s strange, in retrospect, that I was not more skeptical of these promises. I’d grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture. But Kurzweil’s prophecies seemed different because they were bolstered by science. 

O’Gieblyn was “not more skeptical” of Kurzweil’s promises because they provided a mythological framework to replace the mythological framework that she had recently lost.

At the time, I would have insisted that my rituals of self-abuse — drinking, pills, the impulse to put my body in danger in ways I now know were deliberate — were merely efforts to escape; that I was contending, however clumsily, with the overwhelming despair at the absence of God. But at least one piece of that despair came from the knowledge that my body was no longer a sacred vessel; that it was not a temple of the holy spirit, formed in the image of God and intended to carry me into eternity; that my body was matter, and any harm I did to it was only aiding the unstoppable process of entropy for which it was destined. To confront this reality after believing otherwise is to experience perhaps the deepest sense of loss we are capable of as humans.

And “what makes the transhumanist movement so seductive,” especially to someone who has undergone that profound loss, “is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated.” It is a myth against myth. When Kurzweil tells you that nanobots — he loves to talk about the infinite powers of nanobots — will do nondestructive scans of your brain and upload your identity to the cloud forever, such utterances are functionally identical to “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” And about as empirically justified.

So now on to a myth that is essentially the opposite of Kurzweil’s: The Dark Mountain Manifesto.

defilement and expulsion

A couple of years ago I wrote this:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’d like to pair that brief reflection with an essay I published around the same time, in which I made this claim: “For those who have been formed largely by the mythical core of human culture, disagreement and alternative points of view may well appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.”

It is this sense of defilement that makes people want to cast out wrongdoers, to expel the contagion they carry. It seems increasingly common on the right to cast all this in Girardian terms — my friend Rod Dreher does this a lot — but that wouldn’t be quite right even if Girardian terms were valid, which they are not. (The nearly absolute uselessness of Girard’s thought is patiently and thoroughly demonstrated by Joshua Landy in this essay.) The scapegoat is by definition innocent; the malefactors our punitive society casts out are not, but their crimes are so small in comparison to their punishment that they seem like scapegoats.

But if we understand how the experience of defilement functions we will also understand its punishment. The University of Virginia has an honor code which punishes violators with the “single sanction” of expulsion: one either has honor or one does not. Similarly, the woke social order has a single sanction: either your presence does not defile me or it does, and in the latter case the response is and must be expulsion. This is what Phillip Adamo of Augsburg University learned when he used the n-word in class — or rather, quoted James Baldwin doing so. This he was removed from the class he was teaching and then suspended from all teaching, “pending the outcome of a formal review.” The separation of the source of defilement from the community must always be the first step, when one’s responses arise from what Kolakowski calls mythical core.

If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kolakowski.

“religious myths recycled as ersatz social science”

John Gray:

With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.

Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.

It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them. 

Gray’s point here converges nicely with my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.”