What We Lose When We Lose God

Our most interesting beginnings often only appear after a time of wandering; usually we end where we ought to begin. So at the end of a rather strange essay arguing for the death-of-patriarchy as the death-of-adulthood AO Scott offers a wonderful articulation of our present cultural moment:

A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can also be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attentions with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or mom in sight. I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

Or, as Nietzsche had it a few years earlier:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

The argument Scott presents prior to this conclusion-as-more-interesting-beginning is, in many ways, an attempt to reconcile himself to the rather simple realization that culture, whatever else it may be, is an historical thing, that it is a heterogeneous becoming constantly in motion and as movement sometimes passes us by. And in being passed by, as Nietzsche also pointed out, we may find ourselves overcome in resentment; or as Scott might recognize in himself, if allowed a moment of self-reflexive retraction, we become invested by our own irrelevance (a subjection he quite rightly recognizes in others). In this irrelevance we are left to the whims of our own personal preferences masquerading as critical insight; which is to say, with Scott, that the “elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan has made children of us all.” At which point Scott becomes irretrievably implicated in his own argument; which isn’t to say the argument is wrong, just that it is a little confusing.

To consider our cultural moment as saturated with the death of God, especially in its Nietzschean variations, proposes that what is lost or has been lost and continues to be lost – or more properly what has been struggled against and partially overcome moving into our cultural past – is not patriarchy or adulthood per se but the hierarchy of being through which our world has been organized. That hierarchy functions according to an imago dei of imagined likeness and proximity to a creating-seeing god. This is a god who created through the word but judged through vision, a world spoken into being but seen to be good. This god whom Nietzsche declared murdered, saw all – and in seeing judged all, in life and in death – but could never be seen, or rather, could only be seen at the price of death. For Nietzsche there are always too many murders to keep track of. In its historical development, European-American patriarchy was organized around this imagination: drawn to a certain height by the transcendence of their god, white men projected themselves as mundane judges of the world, unseen seers and organizers of the world of their vision. We see this in practice when Scott admits to “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games.’ I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction.” (Although, his loss of pride is not much of a deterrent.) “As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops…” For Scott, the world presents itself before his gaze to be judged and in being judged put in its place. The patriarchy and adulthood-conflated-parenthood that concern Scott seem, in this sense, to be different if at times overlapping practices of this spectacular hierarchical judging imagination.

In this sense, the “best and most authentic cultural products of our time” are not, as Scott argues, simply those that manage to be invested by the scary, weird, ambiguous and fun condition of our day. This could be said of any day of any time, because abundant living is rather scary, weird, ambiguous, fun, and quite a bit more. The most interesting cultural – and we should add political here too – products of our time are those that are attempting to create worlds outside hierarchies of vision, worlds organized around being together on an immanent plane feeling ourselves in our worlds and in our relations other than as being on display to be judged.

Scott almost sees this in his recognition of a feminism that exists outside the world of post-patriarchal men, a world of irrelevant losers who can imagine nothing other than their being the center of their own narratives. But rather than being merely a passive concept for existing in wake of and absence of patriarchy, the cultural feminism that Scott sees (as that circumscribed by Beyoncé and pop-music and network and cable television) is also an active practice of imagining the world otherwise, a world organized around practices other than transcendent seeing and judging. These are worlds organized around finite relationships of friendship, work, sex, cultural production and participation, and maybe, even sometimes, love. This is of course a difficult world to see in; in a literal way, when meeting face-to-face, without the domineering privilege of transcendent height, I only ever see at best half of you. For our being in the world, our relations with and in the world, something, and usually many things are necessary beyond a mere seeing; a relational experience is necessary that cannot be reduced to a simple vision. This is in part why the casual nudity of Hannah Horvath/Lena Dunham is often so troubling for cultural critiques to understand: her body is not being presented for a gaze, anyone’s gaze, It is, as we learn almost immediately, a way of relating and of being together. This is also why it is sounds so strange for Scott to even worry about the sexualization of female pop-stars: most bodies simply aren’t for your viewing pleasure. It takes a special kind of hubris to think otherwise.

But this, of course, is not easy. As Nietzsche warned and worried, the announcement of God’s death may be a bit premature: we have not gotten rid of God because we have not gotten rid of His grammar. If patriarchy and parental adulthood are lost we still live in their shadow and their logic. Alongside Hannah/Lena’s casual nudity is a pervasive self-criticism of her appearance. But what makes these shows interesting, what makes feminism – and all those other movements that Scott ignores – interesting, is not that they are complicated but that they are trying to create a new world and begin new conversations that may make no sense in the grammars that we have been given. This, it would seem, is the proper work of adulthood in the wake of God’s death, a learning to live without.

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