What is Enlightenment? – a response to Levi Bryant

Bryant posted recently about how he would define the notion of “Enlightenment.” I agree with part of what he has to say, in that clearly Enlightenment does concern the bursting forth of critique. Where we seem to disagree is on the extent to which critique can ever lift itself entirely above the mythopoietic structure of the cultures to which it belongs and out of which it came. Here is my response to him:

So “mythic” modes of consciousness are “immature” across the board? Are you arguing that the Enlightened are those grown ups who have entirely transcended myth to live in the full light of Reason? Or would you admit that story and narrative are essential and inevitable factors in all human knowledge of self and world?

To my mind, the Enlightenment represents a new awakening to (or remembrance of) a 2,500 year old axial form of mythospeculation that is not only reflexive (as the Greek tragedies and Jewish prophecies were), but now also self-reflexive. Individuals begin to step into their own authority as legitimate grounds for reasons. They need no longer draw explicitly on gods or kings or even kin when they argue for an essential rightness, or goodness, or truth concerning the world. Truth needs no intermediary. Of course, individuals always implicitly draw on ancient traditions of interpretation when they reason, whether they are deriving a mathematical formula in a lab, protesting for their freedom in the streets, or reading the first verses of John’s gospel at their bedside.

The Enlightenment didn’t do away with transcendence or myth. The Enlightenment offered us a new myth, the myth of mythlessness, and a new transcendence, that of Theory and Science. God was killed, but the Mind of Man was crowned in Its place.

I don’t think we need more Enlightenment. We don’t need more myth, either.
We need to integrate theory and story. We are more than merely rational beings. Rational intelligence emerges only within a matrix of culture and symbolism and finds its bearings amidst the stories sustained by this matrix.

Certain passions have haunted and lead us to cruelty, no doubt; but other passions provide the heart’s very reasons for living, “reasons that reason doesn’t know.”

I’m all about the Light.

But let’s not forget that the most brilliant lights casts the darkest shadows.

—————————————————————————————–

Update: the discussion continues over at Knowledge-Ecology.

To sum up:

Levi and I seem to be disagreeing about whether myth penetrates to the level of ontology, or whether it is merely an epistemic limit or veil that can be removed and discarded after logical, scientific thought has revealed the pure light of truth hiding behind it. Myth need not be a limit to thought; it can provide a doorway to the infinite if we do not allow it to collapse into narrow literalisms and closed ideologies.

Speculative philosophy is the telling of what Plato called “likely stories,” open-ended accounts of what may be the case, all known things considered.

18 thoughts on “What is Enlightenment? – a response to Levi Bryant

  1. The denial of the mythic modality of consciousness really frightens me about Enlightenment-promoters, because their disregard for how myth channels their science, etc., blinds them to hubris. That was much of the lesson of WWI and WWII–that science is not a cure-all.

  2. How do you figure, Jason? WWI amd II were not the result of “science”, but were motivated by myth through and through. WWI nationalistic myths, and WWII racist, religious, and nationalistic myths. It was myth that was the problem innthese atrocities. Technology only allowed mythic/authoritarian thought to kill on a greater scale than it ever had before. It wasn’t the cause.

  3. Matt,
    How did you even manage to move past Lucretius, Spinoza, and atomistic materialism presented as the typical and shopworn “reasons” against a straw-man “transcendent God”? (Whatever that means.) And, “immature”? Please. Don’t waste your time with the diatribe, my friend. When there is a good argument, *then* you should respond. Otherwise, don’t waste your time. I don’t. That sort of thing is laughable, at best.

    Leon / after nature

  4. Levi,

    I did not say that science was a cause of the wars. That is an obviously preposterous notion.

    My premises are not controversial at all from a historical viewpoint. Before the wars, general public consciousness in the west was that science and technology would usher in a new utopian era. This was especially so in the U.S. Afterwards, many realized–especially the French–that such was not the ultimate answer to human problems. Today, we still have many who think that scientific rationalism is the answer; see the commentary on Shaviro’s recent blog post.

    My point is that we cannot eliminate mythic thought and the notion that we can do so is paramount hubris. Hence, there is a limit to be “enlightened enough,” and we cannot think that limit. We can speculate. This thesis was the basis of my dissertation, all my work since, and my upcoming article. Think of it as a pragmatist parallel of Husserl and Heidegger’s critiques, except realist and science-friendly. If you reject that strain of continental thought, then you might reject mine as well.

  5. Pingback: Myth: A Pet Peeve « Larval Subjects .

  6. I’m not sure Bryant’s conception of Enlightenment implies a “denial of the mythic modality of consciousness” or “lift[ing] enitrely above the mythopoietic structure of the cultures to which it belongs and out of which it came.” For me Spinoza is crucial here. For Spinoza, reason is never above imagination, it’s immanent to it. You never leave imagination behind. It’s not a step on the ladder to a higher form of knowing, as some believe. And the imagination is just what you call “the mythopoietic structure” or “the mythic modality” of consciousness. In his critique of religion, in the Ethics and TTP, this is his most crucial point; the religious structure of reality, how reality is constituted by the imagination. Reason never transcends that.

  7. Christian,

    Levi Bryant’s does not as far as I can see. Please note that I did not write that, and we both discuss that point across two of his blog posts.

    As for the other points, I agree, and I have a forthcoming article on exactly that point.

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  9. “The issue, I believe, is not so much myth as transcendence. Transcendence, in all its forms, is what is to be fought.” From the post under discussion (comments section).

    Wow. Just … wow.

  10. Leon,

    Yes, I had a similar reaction. That declares war on much, much more than he admits in his post, including non-religious topics. I didn’t want to bring it up, because I don’t think the conversation will be productive … and I don’t want to be caught in the cross-fire in that debate. (Runs and hides.)

  11. Then let the vermin remain in the dark. One should *think* about what one says FIRST, before saying it (this to avoid insulting, excluding, marginalizing, or appearing as a bigot etc.) “Declaring war,” “to be fought” and so on is all obviously inflammatory language – and really, the bigotry and hatred has to stop when it comes to discussions about religion. Period. And spare me the whole, “Oh, well, that’s not what I meant” spiel. Or, “Oh, well I was attacking this religion but not that one” when you blanket-statement insult others left and right. (And so a critique of myth magically disappears if one brings up Buddhism but not Christianity – are you kidding me?) Go and attack Platonists and essential essences then, like anyone cares (and like anyone in the SR/OOO world or who reads these blogs is a traditional believer like that anyway). It would be more interesting to actually see an *argument*, and so far I have yet to see one, that attacks the “immaturity” of say, a Whiteheadian theism. No, that would be much too difficult. I guess that I am just not “enlightened” enough to understand bigotry, shallowness, and hatred when I see it. Laugh it off, Jason. Laugh it off. There will be no debate because I refuse to participate; and so my initial thought of simply not bothering with the diatribe remains. Actually, it’s gone from laughable to sad. So. I’m done. Enough said.

  12. My problem with Levi Bryant’s problematic arose only with the second post, on “myth”. This sets up a dualism between myth and enlightenment that I find unsatisfactory. So retroactively I wonder about the meaning of “enlightenment” that he proposes in his first post. “Enlightenment is immanence” – I agree with that, but only if that means that there is no essence to enlightenment, that there is no one enlightenment, that it is an open plurality of processes. My feeling is that those who speak out in favour of myth are in the same case, they do not wish to impose the One True Myth, but see myth as a processual dimension of many types of activities. So I would add to the mix the equation: myth is immanence. The danger for me is the literalising of myth into a fixed closed system, for which I would reserve the term “mythology”. So there is only a seeming paradox to saying more enlightenment implies more myth, and vice versa. Religion on these definitions can be seen to have both a mythic, enlightened, processual side and a dogmatic, creedal, static side. Even Zen Buddhism is not exempt from these to tendencies. There is the amazing “philosophical” zen that we encounter in various texts and explications, but there is the conformist institutional zen that we can encounter in its native institutions and rites. Zizek has some very interesting (if admittedly one-sided) comments on the use of zen training and ideology to condition soldiers into obedient pitiless killing-machines. The “timid” or non-radical Enlightenment is a similar case, as the free use of reason was limited to the élite and conditioned by various limiting assumptions, such as deism in the 18th Century Enlightenment. Freud I consider to be a typical case of the timid enlightenment with his positivism and scientism and authoritarianism (in his own practice of power, manipulation, intellectual predation, exclusion, self-serving fraudulent publicity, cynical money-making manouevres; in his justification of the status quo and of authoritarian politics and his antipathy to democracy). Further I think that “Reason” under a certain acception (no essences, so no one true definition of Reason as always and everywhere automatically on the side of progress and justice) can do much harm and is itself just as in need of enlightenment as any other process.

    • Terence,

      Thanks for stopping by. I don’t think “immanence” describes the Enlightenment all that well, since it is during this period that industrial capitalism took off, in large part based upon the mistaken assumption that human beings can transcend the limitations of the finite ecosystems of earth. The notion of divine transcendence was perhaps questioned, but human transcendence remains largely affirmed. The shift from a pre-modern to an Enlightenment mentality has much to do with the shift from theocentrism to anthropocentrism. I don’t think the Enlightenment has much to do with ridding ourselves of myth, either. Myth took on a whole new dimension with the invention of the Enlightenment myth, since it was the first time that a mythos explicitly denied the fact that it was a mythos.

      • Matthew,
        thanks for your hospitality on this blog and for giving me the opportunity to participate in a really interesting and stimulating discussion.
        1) I agree with you that the historical Enlightenment is a mixed phenomenon. It questioned the notion of divine trancendence, at least on its “radical” side. But the timid Enlightenment, of which Voltaire and Rousseau are exemplars, was deist and so defended a sublimated version of a transcendent deity. Further, the place of human beings followed the same divide. To a large extent human beings were given the same sort of transcendence that God had: “masters and possessors” of Nature. However, another tendency was the reintegration of man inside Nature, as in the naturalism of d’Holbach.
        It’s like with the idea that the Greeks invented democracy. One can point out, quite justly, that women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded. But there was some sort of production of immanence at this moment, a tendency of immanence that is linked to the birth of philosophy as a self-conscious activity. The Enlightenment was one occasion for the extension of the domain of application of this principle of immanence, but remained a mixed situation. Identifying Enlightenment with immanence cannot then be a purely historical thesis, but is in part polemical. We are saying this is the living core of enlightenment as a process that we would like to pursue today.
        2) I further agree that Enlightenment is not synonomous with ridding ourselves of myth. The Enlightenment notion of the autonomous individual is the transposition of the stucture of divine transcendence onto an anthropocentric paradigm. One can easily find all sorts of mythic structures: Apollonian reason, Promethean progress, the ego as Hercules imposing its will on the world.
        My timid idea is that, from my reading of pluralist epistemology, Deleuzian ontology, and (gasp! dare I say it?) Jungian analysis, myth too is an immanent process once it is detached from institutional, ritual, and doctrinal imposition, closure, and conformity. We are, as you indicate, enmeshed in myth, including te strange and twisted (Apollinian) myth of being myth free. This is not a bad thing if we keep myth-conscious and so participate in its flux.
        For example I open ANTI-OEDIPUS to the first page and I read:
        “The schizophrenic’s stroll: this is a better model than the neurotic lying on the couch. A bit of open air, a relation with the outside”
        (my translation)
        This is myth, thinking in terms of conceptual characters and landscapes that resonate over many different domains and contexts. This is mythic thinking, even if the elements (the schizophrenic, the stroll, the neurotic, lying down, the couch, open air, the outside) belong to no list of “archetypes” or pantheon. For me Deleuze and Guattari are enlightenment figures (they certainly advocate and practice “immanence”), and so they add to myth as they subtract the transcendences that hinder our mythic processes. Far from ridding us of myth, Enlightenment as immanence leads to its proliferation.

  13. Pingback: William James on Religious Experience and Philosophy | Footnotes to Plato

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