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Noble Blasphemy
Part II.

– Feb. 18, 2013

Return to Part I



"There has to be a transcendental signified for the difference between signifier and signified to be some where absolute and irreducible."
-- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology(1)

Olympia is blasphemy in the basic Western sense of the word: the denial of the divinity of the Christian deity; more exactly, the denial of deity, period, whatever its name, dogma or affiliation. But Olympia is 'art,' and is not religious either in subject or composition. How is it then blasphemous in the classical sense?

Olympia does not make any overt statements about religion. It is not making some statement whose content is recognizable as being blasphemous, and whose criminality is recognized as injury to the divine, as treasonous to the divine order of being, as having its effect in the celestial realm, and only consequently is the material. Olympia blasphemes not in content, but in its nature, in its own being in the world. Its blasphemy is very material, both in effect and purpose. It is not, as it may be perceived by contemporaries, a 'victimless' crime. In fact, it is a mass crime, injuring (not "having injured," but the ongoing present participle) not single individuals but the whole subscribing membership of systematized fields of societal norms.

That it offends the grammatical aspect of being, that mode of being that undergirds the social aspect of human reality. This mode of being (and, as such, of thinking) is the field and function of the political conscious of society. It is the modality of the socially constructed world, what Peter L. Berger describes as "an ordering of experience," "a meaningful order, or nomos , . . . imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals." (2) Berger continues:

To say that society is a world-building enterprise is to say that it is an ordering, or nomizing, activity. . . . Man's sociality presupposes the collective character of this ordering activity. The ordering of experience is endemic to any kind of social interaction. every social action implies that individual meaning is directed toward others and ongoing social interaction implies that the several meanings of the actors are integrated into the order of common meaning.

Grammatical world-building is the creation of known reality. It is the means by which the mind makes sense of the endless unknown of the world in which humans exist. Unable to face the awesome infinity of Reality, the mind, in concert with others, creates a manageable world, a defined world, a known and thus knowable world, which is accepted as reality in place of the overwhelming experience of Reality as it actually exists. In parallel it is, as C.G. Jung describes it, "manifestly an instrument of culture,"(3) in that it also makes 'known' other people, as well as the individual identity against the chaos of the great unknown, and thus psychological safety in the surety of self-definition.

The grammatical mode exists in opposition to the creative, the symbolic aspect of being. (Ultimately, "opposition" is not the correct word; though, it will suffice for this moment.) Jung uses (among others) the opposed terms "directed thinking" and "fantasy thinking." (4) The division does not speak of two areas of knowledge, or two fields of exploration, but of two different modes of thought. The former is that which underlies Berger's nomizing activity of world-building. Writes Jung: "The whole laborious achievement of our lives is adaptation to reality, part of which consists in directed thinking."(5) Directed thinking is "reality thinking, a thinking that is adapted to reality,"

by means of which we imitate the successiveness of objectively real things, so that the images inside our mind follow one another in the same strictly causal sequence as the events taking place outside it.(6)

It is the mode of thinking through which reality is made understandable, cognizable, ordered, rational. It is the mode of communal language, through which "we think for others and speak to others."(7)

The latter mode is the thinking of dreams, of creativity; it is unconscious thinking; it is "effortless, working as it were spontaneously, with the contents ready to hand, and guided by unconscious motives"; where the former "produces innovations and adaption, copies reality, and tries to act upon it," the latter "turns away from reality, sets free subjective tendencies, and, as regards adaptation, is unproductive."

Note that the two do not stand in mutual opposition. Creative thinking is the more primordial. Grammatical thinking is a construct within primordial thinking, created to permit the mind to "adapt" itself to reality and to the demands of the social arena of which directed thinking is a necessary condition.(8) The primary function of language is the adaptive function: it is the means by which people communicate, interrelate, and organize socially. But in that language is a creation of the (primordially unconscious) mind and not of Nature, language also functions creatively. In every speaking and reading both modalities are functioning. This is critical. Each does not exclude the other. Though in that the purpose of the grammatical is to make sense of the chaotic stream of sensations that is experienced Reality, it works against the creative mode, always working to suppress the functioning of the creative and, even, awareness of its presence. Every utterance functions, potentially, through both modalities. The operative question is to what degree is the creative suppressed by the metaphysics of the grammatical.

That suppression does not function equally across individuals or societies, as was recognized by Ortega y Gasset in his observation on the reception of modern art, "The Dehumanization of Art."

Every work of art arouses differences of opinion. Some like it, some don't; some like it more, some like it less. Such disagreements have no organic character, they are not a matter of principles. A person's chance disposition determines on which side he will fall. But in the case of the new art the split occurs in a deeper layer than that on which differences of personal taste reside. It is not that the majority does not like the art of the young and the minority likes it, but that the majority, the masses, do not understand it.(9)

The distinction he is making is not that the new art is merely 'new,' and the masses do not 'understand' it in the way a person would not understand a new language, or a never-before-encountered puzzle which has but to be figured to be mastered. He has observed something more fundamental: a divergence between the majority and the minority in the way art is engaged, one that is determined along the lines of directed and creative thinking. The evidence lies in art itself: "Let us remember that in epochs with two different types of art, one for minorities and one for the majority, the latter has always been realistic."(10) And there we see the connection to nomos: modern art can not be understood by the majority not because it is new and as such merely 'different' from something seen before, but because it functions outside the socially oriented nomos. In essence, there is nothing in the established nomos that tells the mass what they are supposed to get out of the painting: speaking of abstract art,

A painting or a poem without any vestiges of 'lived' forms would be unintelligible [to the majority], i.e. nothing - as a discourse is nothing whose every word is emptied of its customary meaning ."(11)

Again, it is not that the new art - and Manet is considered by many to be the progenitor of modern art - proffers a new meaning that simply has not yet made it into the nomos. It is not merely that Olympia, in having as its subject a prostitute, offered the Parisian populace a subject to which it was not accustomed (though it undeniably did). Olympia, rather, speaks a different modality of meaning: that is, a 'creative' meaning. The artwork successfully refuses the suppression of the creative by the grammatical to a sufficient degree that in perceiving the work the majority could not readily read a directed meaning onto it - and the majority reads primarily through directed meaning. As such, the 'dreaming' of the art (to use Jung's word) is beyond them, and you have, with early twentieth-century abstract art as with its nineteenth-century progenitors, the violent reactions of the Salon and the Parisian public. The creative is fundamentally disruptive to their psyches, which is dominated by the grammatical. The art is in every sense of the word meaning-less. And its meaninglessness is an affront to their understanding of the world. Modern art, in essence, points out both the limits of the social nomos and its artificiality: that it is a construct within the primordial unconsciousness of creative thinking.

Modern art . . . will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is anti-popular. Any of its works automatically produces a curious effect on the general public. It divides the public into two groups: one very small, formed by those who are favorably inclined towards it; another very large - the hostile majority. (Let us ignore that ambiguous fauna - the snobs.) Thus the work of art acts like a social agent which segregates from the shapeless mass of the many two different castes of men.(12)

The art points out, the art demonstrates to the majority (even, upon the majority) that the nomos is a fiction; that their known reality is not real; not that their Truth is not true, but that Truth is not. Which is exceedingly problematic to society, because in order for a nomos to function as the stabilizing reality of society it must be taken for granted, it must function unquestioned - it has to be reality. "Socialization achieves success [only] to the degree this taken-for-granted quality is internalized." As Berger continues:

It is not enough that the individual look upon the key meanings of the social order as useful, desirable, or right. It is much better (better, that is, in terms of social stability) if he looks upon them as inevitable, as part and parcel of the universal "nature of things."(13)

Psychological internalization of the nomos creates a reality which functions socially (and individually) only in that it can suppress the fiction of its own reality. A rupture in the nomos - which reveals that fictionality - must be repaired or it will call into question the nomos itself. To the degree the rupture can not be repaired, ignored, or concealed, to the degree the individual cannot conceal from itself the idea that its believed ordering of reality is not real, and to the degree that the individual is unable to accept or handle that questioning of reality, there will be psychological and emotional consequences - in the same manner that something repressed within the unconscious, when it erupts into the conscious and reveals the construct of repression, causes psychological and emotional effects.

The nomos operates in a dual action: it creates an ordering of the world by which the individual is protected against the inherent chaos of Reality, and then retreats from cognition, anchoring the psyche in knowledge that that world-ordering of the nomos is the world-as-it-is by basing the world-ordering not on itself but on some external, transcendental narrative. The end result is the simple belief that reality as it is understood to be. Variation from that norm can not simply be something 'different.' Variation calls into question the reality of reality. And if that variation is of a degree that can not be tolerated within the natural give and take of the nomos, it must be dealt with through the mechanisms of the conscious and of society as a whole. A such, it is not surprising that the individual "who strays seriously from the socially defined programs [would be] considered not only a fool or a knave, but a madman." That madness is not only label, it is projection of what the unconscious does know - that reality is not real. "Subjectively, then, serious deviance provokes not only moral guilt but the terror of madness."(14)

I would simplify the last sentence: it is not madness that is the source of terror, it is what the madness speaks to their own psyche: doubt in reality. "Madness" is the label that brackets that doubt, and categorizes the threat as a manageable element of the understood reality. "Terror" - or, as is more frequently used, "horror" - is the primary word. The idea is approached through a simple progression. "Fright" is the response to an immediate, unexpected, threatening event. In horror films, it is the psychotic murderer jumping out of the closet when the audience doesn't expect it. Fright can be contrasted with "fear," which is continuous rather than instantaneous. Fear is the response to the threat that is known, recognized and forthcoming, but not yet immediately present. (Note the threat can be imaginary; it need not be real.) It is the ongoing response of the audience watching the person walk through the house, knowing the killer is there and may at any point get them. It is the emotion that converted countless women to strict bathers after their having seen Psycho. That in turn can be contrasted with horror, which is the same ongoing response, only the source of the fear, while recognized as existing, is not 'understood,' or, more importantly, understandable. Fear and fright operate at a more instinctual (even, physical) level. Horror, on the other hand, is deeply psychological. It is tapping into the dark void that lies within the soul. It functions out of the suppressed knowledge that the world is in fact chaos, unknown, unknowable, and as such a potentially all-consuming threat to the psyche, a recognition the whole of the defensive measures of the psyche function to protect the individual from recognizing. In its most basic form, horror is the poking a hole in reality and pointing to that hole, saying 'here is something which you can not understand, but which you know, intuitively, is more real than reality itself. Something which, because it is more fundamental than your conscious reality, can not be killed, destroyed, or in an way removed - because you can not kill that which is not.' Thus the horror of such films as The Exorcist, or The Shining, which operate as well through fright and fear, but generate through their art an intuitive awareness of something that can not be understood. Horror is the negative experience of the opposite and antithesis of the nomos - that which can not be rationally understood. It is mysticism, negatively perceived. It is also ecstasy.

Berger gives an example of the psychological 'horror' response to the questioning of the reality of reality:

[T]he sexual program of a society is taken for granted not simply as a utilitarian or morally correct arrangement, but as an inevitable expression of "human nature." The so-called "homosexual panic" may serve as an excellent illustration of the terror unleashed by the denial of the program. This is not to deny that this terror is also fed by practical apprehensions and qualms of conscience, but its fundamental motorics is the terror of being thrust into an outer darkness that separates one from the 'normal' order of men. In other words, institutional programs are endowed with an ontological status to the point where to deny them is to deny being itself - the being of the universal order of things and, consequently, one's own being in this order.(15)

The nature of division between the two castes of people which Ortega y Gasset describes can now be understood in fuller light. (As well, why the word opposition, earlier, was an insufficient term.) The division is not simply a split between those who think grammatically and those who think creatively; rather, between those whose psyches are dominated by the grammatical, and as such are unable to think creatively to any great degree and for whom the creative is more a threat to the grammatical than not; and those who are able to think creatively even in concert with the consequential, continual, and necessary questioning, unhinging, and unmaking of the ontological basis of the reality of the nomos. What Ortega y Gasset recognized is that the nomos is internalized to different degrees with different people, and that the far majority of people (in the West, at least) are unable to move out from under the reality-controlling functioning of the nomos to any substantial degree. For them, the nomos is Reality - that is, after all, its function and purpose - and anything otherwise is aberrant, is unnatural.


Continute to Part III.


Note numbers link back to text.

1. Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 20 .

2. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), 19.

3. C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, trans. R.F.C. Hull, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), 16. There Jung also uses the terms "adaptive" or "logical" thinking or "thinking with directed attention," and "dreaming" or "subjective" thinking.

4. Ibid. at 18.

5. Ibid. at 12.

6. Ibid. at 11.

7. Ibid. at 12.

8. The relationship is functionally equivalent to that between the conscious and unconscious as described by Freud.

9. José Ortega y Gasset, "The Dehumanization of Art," The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature, trans. Helene Weyl (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 5-6. Ortega y Gasset is speaking of Western audiences, as is Jung when he critiques the overly directed-thinking-controlled society. The majority of Jung's work was with intent of revealing the extreme imbalance in Western society, the unhappiness it brought to its citizens, and the need to establish a healthier balance between the grammatical and the creative, between the societal and the individual. This is not saying that other populations are exempt from the observation (in whole or part). I am simply pointing out that the argument has a known target.

10. Ibid., 12. The emphasis is mine.

11. Ibid., 17-8. The emphasis is mine.

12. Ibid., 5. Keep in mind that the term "Modern Art" is here being used to describe art that has this effect. Be wary of the fallacy of assuming a work of art has this effect simply because it is labeled "modern art."

13. Berger, 24.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid. (italics mine).