Saturday, May 07, 2005

Navigation of meaning

Gaunilo has a really, really interesting post up at Gaunilo's Island. Much of it centers on a view of Christianity as an ethical navigation of meanings:
Christianity must be understood as a community and a mode of discourse that operates according to a logic of openness and continual negotiation of identity. I don't see Christian identity as constituted by boundaries that we are transgressing in being too accepting; I see Christianity as a community for whom its identity is its central task and eschatological condition - as an embodied community of argument centered around the liturgy and inhabited by the Spirit.

A little later, he writes: "My money rests instead on the ethical vision that is produced by the most compelling narrative, and eventuates in the richest surplus of meaning."

There's a lot in this post, but I'd like to take a quick look (when I should be studying international sales contracts...) at the suggested internal link between ethical navigation and the surplus of meaning.

One of the things that's always interested me in Christianity is its fundamental beauty.* It's the beauty of absence: what is usually thought of as beautiful in the Mona Lisa, for example, is the strangeness of the smile. The beauty of the painting lies in that which escapes the painting, that which is absent from the painting (the reason for the smile). Similarly, certain pieces of beauty have a longing in them that makes them agonizingly beautiful. Briefly, this is the aestheticization of absence. I think we see this absence in Christianity: at the pivotal moment of Christianity, when Christ is on the cross, he asks why this is happening. Notably, there's no response. I find that amazing: at possibly the most crucial point in the Passion, Jesus/God himself doesn't know why he's there ("Of father, why have you forsaken me"). Had God responded with a power point presentation of the four-fold root of his suffering, the passage would lose its ability to compel. Like the Mona Lisa, the beauty of the faith resides in a fundamental absence.

How is this absence squared with the surplus of meaning? Usually, we'd posit God as the source of meaning, which throws these two things into tension. But if we see God as a Lacanian super-signifier, the Big Father that sutures signifiers together into a univocal chain of signifiers, then the absence of God entails the polysemy of meaning. Without a super-signifier excluding possible meanings, everything is awash in different meanings. This is what I thought was so clever in the film About Schmidt: in this new landscape, the goal isn't to reassemble the Big Daddy (this would be Jesus as Osiris – Christianity as the putting-back-together of the god); it's to navigate the plenitude of meaning in an ethical way.

*One of these days, I'm gonna work out an aesthetic epistemology. Contemporary epistemology has already shown the way out of correspondence, so prima facie I don't think it'd be too hard to take one more step and locate truth in aesthetics.