April 25, 2017

Matthew Tan: A little postmodernism can go a long way

A detail from ‘Family’ by Pavol Olsavsky. Photo: Alpha Art Gallery

‘Postmodern’ is a dirty word for Christians. In many parts of Christendom, it is associated with relativism, individualism and the jettisoning of tradition for the sake of the new or kitsch (sometimes justifiably so, from personal experiences).

Not everyone sees the postmodern in this light. In a highly persuasive book entitled Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, the Pentecostal philosopher James K A Smith suggested that postmodernism – insofar as it is properly understood as being past-modern – can actually be a counterpoint for a number of deeply modern commitments of the cultures in which we live, commitments that have led to social fragmentation, an over-confidence in human ability, and even out-and-out conflict across the world and in our homes. Furthermore, the book is useful precisely because it identifies the modern commitments of many Christians that have long been marinating in the institutional and attitudinal manifestations of these modern commitments.

It even goes further by saying that such Christians need not be raving lefties. Christians with modern commitments can count among their number those who take pride in their supposedly conservative credentials and in maintaining Christian tradition merely by sticking with the way things were done 30, 50 or 500 years ago.

On a more constructive note, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is also an exploration in the ways in which postmodernism can provide an idiom to recover the ancient treasures of the Church in a way that is not assured either by liberal or seemingly conservative factions.

By way of example, let us consider the French literary theorist Jacques Derrida, whose contribution to postmodernism was his concept of “deconstruction”, explored in his 1967 work Of Grammatology, which also made him the darling of postmodernism.

Put simply, deconstruction is the refusal to accept that symbols like texts are transparent bearers to fixed meanings, which has become popularised by critics and enthusiasts alike as “the way of not giving anything any fixed meaning anymore and making everything mean whatever I want it to be, whenever I want it to be”.

With all the enthusiasm – or mouth frothing – with deconstruction, what often gets ignored in Derrida’s overall work is the notion of treating the text as a subject rather than an object.

If a text is treated as an object, it is often treated as something to be controlled, something whose meaning is sucked out by the reader for his own purposes. By contrast, if a text is treated as a subject, the reader treats the text as if it was another person.

As a subject, the text would be resistant to the reader’s attempts to control and can indeed “push back” against the reader, so much so that in the process of reading, the reader could actually become read by the text just as much as the reader is reading the text. This process produces a decentring of the reader, as his frame of understanding the world becomes sidelined, and other, more marginalised voices or points of view come into the reader’s field of vision – migrants, the colonised and women, just to name a few – voices that could be rendered mute from conventional frameworks of meaning.

Such themes may seem so foreign to Christian practice as to be worthy of nothing but indifference. However, is this really the case? Why is the notion of the “text as subject” so foreign when, in the reading of Scripture, what we should be coming to know is not a set of concepts or precepts, but the Word itself? Moreover, why is it so foreign to treat text as a subject when the object of the text – the Word – is itself a subject, indeed, an incarnate person named Jesus of Nazareth … “The firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15), or to put it another way, the subject against which all that become subjects are understood?

Was it not Jesus himself who, on the road to Emmaus, explained to the disciples in the Scriptures “all things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27)? Thus, the reading of the text of scripture is an encounter with the subject named Jesus.

At the same time, the reading of Scripture acts as a call by this subject to co-abide in Him (John 15:7), and in the process of co-abiding, become transformed. This is depicted beautifully in the philosophy of St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. In the process of the lover embracing the beloved in that text, one becomes, in the words of the Dark Night, “transformed each of them into the other”.

In the process of reading the Scriptures, what gets deconstructed is not the text, but the reader. Reading scripture is deconstructive because it brings a marginalised voice to the centre, the voice of Jesus. If we are really honest, who can really say for certain that it is the voice of Christ at the centre of one’s life in the world? Can we be certain that it is not the voice industry, commerce and power posing as Christ?

In this bringing of Christ back to the centre, what gets deconstructed in the reader is the false sense of self. For if we think we are sure of ourselves, suggests Augustine, it is a sure sign of a false self. In the embrace of Christ, elements of a false self fall away – be it the self that thinks he is sure of himself, the self that thinks he is better than others, or the self that thinks that he is right before God.

But a Christian deconstruction goes beyond Derrida’s version, in that while the idols of a false self fade away in the illumination-by-Christ, that same illumination does not obliterate the self. Rather, deconstruction in the light of Christ brings to light the true self, the self that manifests the imago Dei. As the marginalised voice of Jesus becomes louder in the reading of Scripture, we are reminded of not only what we are, but what we are called to be, nothing less than a part of the Body of the Risen Christ.

Hyperlinks added by The Catholic Weekly

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