Sacred Space, Sound, and Gesture
April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
Ethics as part of politics is a misunderstanding. Aristotle says explicitly: ή μεν οὗν μεθοδος τούτων ἐφἱεται, πολιτική τις οὗσα, “this investigation [in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics] is an investigation that moves in the direction of [cultivating knowing-the-way-around the being of human beings in its genuineness].” Insofar as the consideration is πολιτική, a basic determination found in all considerations of the ἀγαθὁν [good] lies hidden therein.
– Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy (48)
Action today must be conceived in terms of a tradition of an intentional passivity, namely mysticism – a kind of non-action where an individual is infused with something he or she determines as Other, divine, spiritual, or demonic. Because the contemporary “human” is already alienated – at least in terms of western discourse and advanved industial society – we must change how we think of what is “outside of society.” Traditionally, the mystic leaves human society, receives an “experience,” and returns to the society, often the power to say something political, to prophesize. Mystical experience is a license for speaking about action, speaking as action. While there are differing definitions of mystical experiences, passivity is a common theme among them, as is the fact that they often (not always) occur accompanying intentional contemplative retreat; they begin with effort, not for the mystical, but for the metaphysical.
Mystical experiences create stories, overlapping with literary models of journey and return, yet with the benefit of not going anywhere physically. The narration of the experience is akin to writing and storytelling. In fact, Don Cupitt has argued that mysticism is itself a certain kind of writing “steeped in paradoxes” of life experience traditionally made “secondary” by the attempt among the Greeks to locate a “primary” basis for living. Celebrating “postmodern” writers who challenge a fixed center, Cupitt calls for anarchic mysticism to disrupt fixed religious and governmental institutions. That is, he calls for worldly action arising from passive, other-worldly experience. The mystical is sought when there are no worldly answers to the woes of living. This itself becomes ritual. Particularly in America, however, mysticism has taken on a worldly, do-it-yourself, pragmatic quality which informs passive political activism. Mysticism can therefore be a model for exploring how intentional passivity relates to social action in our society.
In the following, I trace the western concept of action in a general, European sense, particularly as it relates to the life and work of Martin Heidegger, whose own retreat to a kind of mysticism acts symbolically for how the concept of action is changing. Extending this, the work of Simone Weil develops a call for mysticism as a radical passivity for political critique. After this, I turn briefly to America in part two, discussing mysticism as passivity in practice, arguing that how we distinguish between method and attitude informs our notions of being and form and how we determine being reveals our state of grace. Deliberately standing outside the political is a method or attitude of exposing one’s self to the possibility of a grace that is im-possible, in hopes for either answers to earthly trauma or an exit toward God.
The western concept of action, inherited from the Greeks, is a gesture producing meaning, inherently violent in being’s grasping of the world through reason and language (logos). This gesture demands justice in the witnessing of its own birth, for the one who kills one’s father creates himself. As meaning-maker, the person of action, like Zeus replaces God as time (Chronos). Modernity claims the “death of god,” but closely following is the “death of humanism.” These phrases, admittedly grandiose, show action annihilating the author of the action, resulting in the death of the subject; we all become others, authors. In becoming master creator, assuming God’s throne, the human continues to follow the traces of the God who recedes from the world in the Old Testament. The Reformation, the birth of capitalism, the rise of institutions, the rise of liberalism – these narratives work in varying degrees as the story of an individual who either disappears or becomes an object. But they ignore the exposure of being and they forget spirit, just as modern science favors the verifiable. This has become the western conception through its own hubris. Martin Heidegger’s life and labor exemplifies a kind of failure in which traditional senses of action recede.
Heidegger’s Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy articulates the general western philosophical concept of action: “Aristotle designates this τἑχνη as πολιτική. Therein lies the fact that he sees the knowing-one’s-way-around of living itself as πολιτική, being-there-as being with-with-one-another” (Heidegger 49). Hannah Arendt claims the vita activa is no older than “our tradition of political thought” (14). This material has poignancy when considering Heidegger’s own political quietism late in his career – a significant change from his National Socialism. His life exemplifies the ambiguous relationship with action. If Aristotle teaches that the ones who know how to live are most happy and most ethical, Heidegger, arguably the most influential philosopher of the past century, lacks this knowledge. He reaches an obstacle, and as Simone Weil says in another Aristotelian echo, “human action has no other rule or limit than obstacles” (121). He is the king at the bottom of fortune’s wheel – the scapegoat himself.
In his Aristotle lectures, Bios is “the ‘tending of life,’ ‘course of life,’ the specific temporality of a life from birth to death, the ‘run of one’s life,’ so that Bios also means ‘life account’” (52). Yet Heidegger begins his lecture saying of Aristotle himself, “regarding the personality of the philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died”(4). Concerning work, Simone Weil says, “Through work, man turns himself into matter, like Christ does through the Eucharist. Work is like death […] It means the abandonment of personal will […] labor is a consent to the order of the universe” (119-120). Heidegger’s work and life is an acute submission to such an order insofar as his actions reveal his limits. To ask about action is to ask what we do with a life that cannot be undone, even by suicide.
In our society, non-action, or refusal, is action so long as the will is involved and so long as one is constrained by life itself. Even Bartleby’s preferences show will, and as he says to his former employer, “I know where I am” (624). John Cage argues something similar when he says silence does not exist since the frequencies of our high-pitched nervous system and low-pitched blood-flow hum constantly in our ears (8). All life is vibration; all sense is perception of vibration. Vibration vibrates in space: “in space a capacity is formed of an element invisible to our eyes and yet solid enough to hold vibrations within it” (Khan, Music of 17). Capacity is a kind of form or limit, like the body or the soul. The soul is a limit of spirit. As Hazrat Inayat Khan describes, spirit is like sunlight and soul is the form of that light through the window of a room; thus, in life “there is one loss and one gain. The loss is the loss of freedom, and the gain is the experience of life which is fully gained by coming to this limitation of life which we call the individual” (Mysticism of 12). This Sufi conception of capacity precedes Heidegger’s Dasein, revealing a discussion of being which does not, like him, neglect spirit.
If body is limit, sense is limit, even soul is limit, then when one gathers intention of the will toward accomplishing in action, one creates a capacity in order to address the prior capacity which is always already the constraint of life. Life is already passivity. Heidegger’s later work shows him to be aware of this, and it should be considered when reflecting on his idea of a subject-less “thinking” and his comments that philosophy can no longer speak to politics: “the greatest distress of thought consists in the fact that today, as far as I can see, no thinker speaks who is “great” enough to bring thinking immediately, and in a formative way, and thereby to get it under way” (“Only a God” 116). This disappearing will makes things hazy.
Not only is life constraint, but each aspect of living has constraints which may or may not be congruent with other aspects. I may sense something in my soul that I cannot sense in my physical body. This is magic. Michael Taussig, in What Color is the Sacred says, “Magic is sometimes said to be just this dazzling fusion of the human world with the thing world too” (158). The experience of others and the world transcend the body is also magic. If the ideal living is a harmonious tuning into body, perception, and soul, one would expect a vibratory communication between them, but the trauma of life does not place these aspects in tune with each other automatically. That is done by the will through gesture. Gesture is action in the world. My command of movements teaches me that at a basic level I have potential to act. Yet because of my state of being in the trauma of life, my potential is different from others’, though perhaps closer to some. Communal gestures – dance, ritual, yoga, functional harmony, etc. – reveal their importance in the ways they allow participants to come into vibratory communication with one another. The liberal subject is an oversimplification, and Heidegger was right to question it.
We cannot intentionally stand outside society without will, but the will is what Heidegger questions by moving away from the modernist tendency to split subject and object. Our culture resonates with Aristotle after two millennia. Emmanuel Levinas goes so far as to claim Greek philosophy is “the wisdom of nations” due to its “agreement between the intelligibility of the cosmos in which are posited both solid and graspable beings, and the practical good sense of men having needs to satisfy – [making] all significance, all rationality, go back to being” (118). Consciousness is the light of reason, a being which “grasps” in space. Consciousness intentionally wills toward future and is the locus of action based on gathered knowledge. It is discernment and judgment. Heidegger lacked ethical political judgment, but he also kept stripping the will away from what he called “thinking.” This thinking, without subject, still includes others, magically.
When we judge someone, we consider his or her ability to judge. When we consider someone’s goodness, we take into account one’s knowing-how-to-live. We have degrees of manslaughter; we consider the authenticity of actions. To be authentic in its ancient sense is to murder with one’s own hand, and possibly to murder one’s family member. We value the action which makes justice swift. Tragedy, for the Greeks, occurs when one’s knowing-how-to-live transgresses unwittingly against the Gods’ “natural” order. Oedipus puts out his own eyes to atone for a misunderstanding beyond his knowledge. Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism is modern tragedy, a metonymy for collective guilt and a demand for justice. He saw and hoped for that future that did not come to be. And if authenticity is, for him, a gathering one’s self in angst and care toward death, what are we to make of his failed suicide attempt and its relation to justice? Does this action count in an account of his life? Was it Hari-kari? Does his proximity to success in the attempt matter? The will suffers a terrible blow.
To kill with one’s own hand is also to have intent and will. We culturally laud this action in epics and action movies – the action of dominance. In literature, there is a special place for the stranger, the Other, the Grendel, descendent of Cain. But isn’t Cain marked so that we know he has already been judged? When Beowulf kills Grendel, he takes his fate into his own hands. Yet, what Cain did to Abel is also what Beowulf does to Grendel. Even if Beowulf is right to kill Grendel in the law of the human world, he disrupts something larger. Beowulf dis-arms Grendel and displays it in the Heorot. In the transfer of the arm is sign there is a shift from God as meaning-maker to hero as meaning-maker. Later, Beowulf writes the doom of the dragon with a dagger: “his final foe, unlike the Grendel-kin, does not bear the mark of God’s enmity, and therefore Beowulf must do the writing himself” (Sharma 273-4). In Old English, “the verb forscrifan, along with the sense “to condemn” or “to doom,” can conceivably carry the sense “to cut into” or “to write upon” – in the sense of engraving as writing (270). So the man of action, the super hero, is also the maker of meaning, and the writer takes on what was once God’s task. To refuse to make meaning, then, is cowardice.
But making meaning is social action. Heidegger recedes from acting politically, becomes passive, denies the will, and emasculates himself. Philosophy cannot relate to politics. With the subject gone, there is no privacy. To “participate” in contemporary society is to engage in its violence. To vote for any President of the United States is to vote for war. In the 1960s, Great Refusal hoped to stand outside of history, but without the subject, history and freedom are either archaic concepts which never existed. There are no more Alaskas, and Hannah Arendt has said that it is the possibility of space travel that makes the earth a prison (10). If we live in completely man-made conditions, “neither labor nor work nor action nor, indeed, thought as we know it would then make sense any longer.” This is the modern nightmare even here on earth, unless we are to find a transport to an Other that could provide a solace for alienation. Perhaps Heidegger was right to recede.
In the pessimistic European sense, to live is to be in the hollow carcass of bourgeois body. We are already ghosts waiting for judgment day. Radical passivity, as Heidegger suggests, appears our only recourse. But insofar as it is intentional such a passivity must be a repetitious performance which forgets its own intention. This more optimistic approach has long existed in America, where everything becomes an “act,” where action itself parodies living, planting beans on the highway for all to see as Thoreau did. One overcomes with an earnestness which outperforms sentiment. This spirit is found in political non-action and mysticism.
Modern action narratives de-emphasizing spirit because it disrupts authentic power must be transcended. Spirit, coming like the light of the sun, taking shape as a soul in a dwelling, has been neglected. If spirit can exist, it must come through intentional passivity. The only action is to be a kind of Christ or Buddha, which is in a way the most violent kind of action, it destroys politics. It is a consciousness of exposure which authenticity cannot master. Freedom itself is a constraint grounded by the constraint of life’s capacity: “Where there is [this kind] of freedom there is a blossoming of happiness, beauty and poetry; that, perhaps, is its only most certain mark,” says Simone Weil (126-7). The mark is in creativity. For Weil, “nothing can have as its destination anything other than its origin. The contrary idea, the idea of progress, is poison.”(118). Man cannot be his own origin. Democracy, for her, presents a false consent based on unwilling subjection to incompetent leaders, masking no choice with choice. Sounding much like the Frankfurt school, and a bit like Heidegger’s critique of technology which influenced it, anticipating the Great Refusal, Weil’s answer to the crisis of modernity and instrumental reason is madness (127). It is the madness of the mystic. This occurs in strains of American thought and creative gesture.
In America, the concept of action assumes a kind of creative mysticism. Most of this essay has necessarily discussed European thinkers so as to conceptualize action in the west. However, American culture both inherits and transforms the notion because America is the home of much religious fervor. One might even call it madness. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, lectures given by the American William James in Scotland (1901), he calls for a suspension of scientific thinking while simultaneously praising the benefits of psychological studies of hallucinations among the insane for his project (22). Pragmatism tries to keep open possibilities, something James perhaps gains from his father’s Spiritualism. Citing both Jonathan Edwards and St. Theresa, he claims evidence of grace can only be considered after the experience (20-21). Mysticism in New Thought relates to action in practical, daily, one might say pragmatic ways to improve life, often relating to mental health. Aristotle’s conception of knowing-one’s-way-around takes on folk-like qualities, especially with concepts like hoodoo, where knowing-one’s-way-around is not around a polis.
Mysticism in America reveals that action and non-action are determined by a distinction between attitude and method. This is a result of seeing nature as sacred. While Romantic, it also comes from both Native Americans and thinkers like Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who aestheticize the natural in (perhaps unknowingly) in the Aristotelian meaning of aesthetics as something perceived; that is, not determined by sense (Heidegger 21). Engaging with a world where labor is intimate with nature, the thought takes on both ancient and romantic approaches to nature, thus creating experiences like Emerson’s transparent eyeball or the vertigo of Jefferson’s land bridge. The sacred is public. Spiritualism seeking to contact the dead, seeks mergence with the sacred dead already here. Openness is an attitude. William James’ openness to varieties is a kind of leading, in the Quaker sense of the term. The longing to merge with the spiritual drives an American adornment of otherness through its own brand of Orientalism. Running out of land in the twentieth century, Americans go west till it becomes east, then west again. Mysticism becomes practicable as method, one must simply choose one’s form of yoga or gesture, which in a way leads to a large-scale neglect or refusal of state politics, the question is determined by perspective. Consider the influence of the Ouija board on Caodaism, the Vietnamese religion influenced by New Thought (Horowitz 65).
For Cupitt (and Weil), intentionally passive mysticism is a postmodern answer to a corrupt and unjust society. He claims that “in terms of the classic binary oppositions around which our culture was formerly constructed, the word spirituality is the opposite of temporality” (27). The writer or poet, imposing measure, performs his or her own death (Derrida 25; Blanchot 37) – at least in a liberal society. American jazz music in the 1960s, by removing external form, constantly explores the question of action in the method and attitudinal combination as the imposing of measure. John Coltrane’s music, like Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Sufism, seeks a vibratory harmonizing of body, mind, soul, and spirit – a combination of living and practice. We see this even in method books like Steve Lacy’s My Life with the Soprano Saxophone and Yusef Lateef’s Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music.
It is important for a musician to know just how much he/she can feel, if only to point up emotional limitations, but it is misleading for a musician to assume that the ability to undergo emotionalism automatically implies the ability to produce it […] The alternative to a conscious injection of emotional-memory is a full-bodied, deeply rooted, mentally alert sense that is a vital tool of expression. (Lateef 6)
This kind of creating is a particular approach to action. It requires the admission of spirit which means an exposed being, that freedom is imprisoned by life. One of the first principles of R. P. Poulan’s Graces of Interior Prayer is that one cannot will a mystical experience; it must come from outside (114). But the attitude is that this does not mean we cannot try. Simone Weil claims that
The act of creation is not an act of power. It is an abdication. Through this act a kingdom was established other than the kingdom of God. The reality of this world is constituted by the mechanism of matter and the autonomy of rational creatures. It is a kingdom from which God has withdrawn. God, having renounced being its king, can only enter as a beggar. (123)
So, to deliberately stand outside society is a method or attitude of exposing one’s self to the possibility of a grace that is impossible – for grace does not appear to be an act in time or human intention – in hopes for an answer to earthly trauma or an exit to God. But one performs this through a labor of creation repetitiously so as to forget one’s will through process. Action can no longer be determined by a being which grasps alone, but a being whose labor is abdication.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. New York: Verso, 1951.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Bivins, N.D. P. “Spiritism.” Marie Laveau’s Original Black and White Magic. International Import Company. Los Angeles, 1991.
Blanchot. Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
Cage, John. Silence. Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1961.
Cupitt, Don. Mysticism after Modernity. Malden: Blackwell, 1998.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1974.
Ellwood, Robert S. Mysticism and Religion. New York: Seven Bridges, 1999.
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Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. Trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.
———————- “Only a God Can Save Us.” The Heidegger Controversy. Ed. Richard Wolin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.
James. Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Dover, 2002.
Hohman, John George. Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies. Pomeroy: Health Research.
Horowitz, Mitch. Occult America: The Secret History of Hoe Mysticism Shaped America
Howe, Susan. The Nonconformist’s Memorial. New York: New Directions, 1989.
Khan, Hazrat Inayat. The Music of Life. New Lebanon: Omega, 1983.
————————–The Mysticism of Sound and Music. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.
Lateef, Yusef. Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music. Massachusetts: Fana Music, 1975.
Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Art of the Short Story. Ed. Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Pollack, Rachael. The Forest of Souls. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.
——————— Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. San Francisco: Weiser, 2007.
Poulan, R.P. Aug. Graces of Interior Prayer. United States: Kessinger Publishing, 1910.
Sharma, Manish. “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative Structure in Beowulf.” Studies in Philology. Vol. 102, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp 247-279. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4174821.
Taussig, Michael. What Color is the Sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Weil, Simone. “Justice and Human Society.” Writings Selected. Ed. Eric O. Springsted. New York: Orbis Books. 2006.
 Cupitt’s reliance on text as writing perhaps displays a limited and essentially modern hermeneutics: “Mysticism is protest, female eroticism, and piety, all at once, in writing. Writing, I say, and not ‘immediate experience,’ that Modern fiction. Many or most mystics have been persecuted by the orthodox, but whoever heard of someone being persecuted for having heretical experiences? To get yourself persecuted, you have to publish heretical views; and at your trial for them your judges will need evidence of them in writing. Indeed, unless mysticism were a literary tradition of veiled protest, we’d never have heard of it” (62-3).
 The main influence for the writers who Cupitt says points the way.
 Bourgeois failure is present in European criticism as the disappearing subject. See Bourdieu’s lectures on Flaubert in The Field of Cultural Production, Blanchot on Kafka in The Space of Literature, and Adorno’s Minima Moralia for Heidegger: “what is decisive is the absorption of biological destruction by conscious social will” (233).
 See his posthumously published interview, “Only a God Can Save Us.”
 See Rachael Pollack on the history of imagery surrounding the wheel in the Forest of Souls (16-20) and Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom 83-90).
 “The personal is political,” as the 1960s saying goes.
 See Heidegger’s student, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man: Critical theory “wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given their life to the Great Refusal” (257).
 This follows the trend of American exceptionalism, which has roots both in the first European settlers who arrived at the “promised land” as well as the spiritual places occupied by natives which they superimposed their faith onto, be it the Burned Over District in New York, William Penn’s Pennsylvania, or Mount Rushmore. From Anne Hutchinson to Revivalism, from Johnny Appleseed to Transcendentalism, from the Poughkeepsie Seer to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, American history is full of individuals with exceptional religious experiences. By the time William James lectured on religious experience, the New Thought movement was in full swing. In Occult America, Mitch Horowitz points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase, “We know that the ancestor of every action is a thought” (82). The New Thought movement also has roots with Phineas P. Quimby, who, like Andrew Jackson Davis and many other “mystics” had received little formal education. In Bivins’ introduction to Marie Laveau’s Black and White Magic, the “ill-educated” medium is discussed:
It would be strange if departed spirits should deliberately elect to manifest them-selves through such unworthy vehicles, but it is not strange that these people should be capable of exerting their Mind-forces to such an extraordinary degree […] It is fact that in highly-educated people, Mind is sometimes impotent through non-use. (2)
Highly educated or not, both folk culture and blatant disdain for cosmopolitanism play important part in American mysticism and political action. Horowitz points to Fredrick Douglass’ self-conscious description of Sandy, a root worker, who gave Douglass John the Conqueror or “High John” before his confrontation with the ruthless slave-driver, Covey (121). He points to the fact that even soldiers in Vietnam “were known to carry” Johann Georg Hohman’s 1820 Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend on them. Horowitz also points to Frank B. Robinson’s mail order, money-back guaranteed religion, Psychiana, which although it had enough followers to be the eighth largest religion on the planet, is “found in no major work of religious history written in the past forty years”(101). Robinson’s use of mass media precedes and influences televangelizing and large-scale churches which seek to channel the divine in the congregation.
 Robert Pirsig expresses this in terms of native American geographical names in his novel, Lila.
 In Prisoners of Shangri-la, Donald Lopez tracks the concept of Tibet as a nation over the past two hundred years. Escaping formal colonialism until China takes it over, Tibet is the conceptual storage space for all that could be sacred – a true mystical state without states. Tracking the influence of Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and Olcott, whose anti-colonial activism Ceylon produced enough development for the country to him a postage stamp, through Evans-Wendtz’s, Timothy Leary’s, and Sogyal’s varying Tibetan Book’s of the Dead, Spiritualism merges with and informs contemporary Buddhism, Lopez claims, “Tibetan Buddhists are building an empire of individuals” regardless of nation or ethnicity (207).
 Coltrane recounts his overcoming of drug abuse with his spiritual devotion to God in the notes to A Love Supreme, which marks a drastic change in his playing style.