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Title page


This book is dedicated to Bazon Brock – for several reasons. Firstly because, thanks to his reflections on a normative concept of civilization, he provided one of the polar reference points for the thoughts presented here. Secondly, because his seventieth birthday, despite having taken place some months ago, offered an occasion of almost challenging quality. Finally, it was he who provoked the present study through his own personal initiative. The following text is based on a lecture I was asked to give by Bazon Brock and Yael Katz Ben Shalom on the occasion of the opening of the Artneuland gallery in Berlin on 28 November 2006, a venue that thematicizes, among other things, the development of the trialogue between the monotheistic religions in the medium of the arts – but also supports the secular exchange between Israelis, Arabs and Europeans. The mixed response to my roughly sketched, rushed oral presentation gave me something of an idea of the difficulties involved in such a project. That experience formed one of the motivations for the slightly slower, more complete exposition of my thoughts I have attempted here.

There is a further reason for my decision to dedicate this text to Bazon Brock. In the summer of 2006, on the occasion of the aforementioned birthday, I had the honour of being invited by Chris Derkon, with the patronage of Hubert Burda, to give a eulogy in the Haus der Kunst in Munich for the artist, art critic, civilization theorist, pedagogue of provocation and performance philosopher Brock. In my speech, I attempted to hold a mirror up to him in order to characterize him through similarities and contrasts with four figures from recent art and cultural history: Marcel Duchamps, Salvador Dalí, Joseph Beuys and Friedrich Nietzsche. I took the latter's concept of intellectual honesty in order to ascribe it to the jubilarian in a highly personal sense. In that context, which invited thinking in superlatives, I could take the liberty of making the following statement: ‘My dear Bazon Brock, you will have to put up with my saying that you are the most honest person of our time.’ On that occasion, I spoke those words in front of an audience that was at the same time a circle of friends. Now I would like to repeat them to a readership that constitutes no more or less than a public.

The premises

When studying the writings of philosophical authors that demand a thorough inspection of one's own discourse, one occasionally stumbles upon paragraphs that are conspicuous because they are obviously not necessitated by the course of a particular idea, but rather stem from a sudden associative urge that interrupts the development of an argument. In Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, for example, in the section dealing with the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, the author includes that now famous reference to ‘life's Sundays’ – meaning those exceptional states of existence relished with such demonstrative sensual enjoyment by the people he depicts. Obviously it is not Hegel the dialectician speaking here, the thinker who knows most of what he knows systematically, rather than simply having ‘picked it up’ somewhere. In this passage, he is bypassing his logical apparatus and speaking as a descendant of Swabian Protestantism encountering a welcome echo of his youthful impressions in the relaxed indecency of Dutch everyday life. So even if these boisterous philistines from the damp North are anything but saints, they surely cannot be entirely bad people with such good cheer – and, when the occasion arises, he will tell the reader this in the manner of a declaration of faith. If one so desired, one could see a hidden doctrine in Hegel's formulation: as highly as we cherish what is wonderful, it is the duty of art to let the commonplace have the last word. Does the value of that trivial Sunday feeling not increase to the same degree that we grow tired of the cult of exceptional states, these continuations of the wonderful by the most extreme means?

To take a much darker example – and at the same time a much more current one – of a digression that breaks the boundaries of its context in the work of an otherwise highly controlled, even obsessively careful, author, I shall introduce a few lines from a lecture given by Jacques Derrida in spring 1993 in Riverside, California; the extended version was published as a book that same year in Paris under the title Spectres de Marx.1 There, in a passage that has become notorious since, Derrida gets carried away for a moment and makes the following comment: ‘The war over the “appropriation of Jerusalem” is today's world war. It is taking place everywhere, it is the world, it is the singular figure of its “out of joint”-ness today.’ This eruptive statement can only be understood with reference to two pieces of information concerning Derrida and his context. Firstly, one needs to know that, in order to explore the possibility of the inextinguishable significance of Karl Marx for the post-Communist era, he had embarked on a meditation upon Hamlet's comment ‘the world is out of joint’ that runs through his overlong deliberations as a leitmotif. Secondly, he engaged polemically with Francis Fukuyama's theory of the ‘end of history’ (first put forward in 1989, then expanded into the book The End of History and the Last Man in 1992), in which he sees (mistakenly, I would argue) a form of liberal-technocratic evangelism and a somewhat rash, perhaps even irresponsible, version of American triumphalist rhetoric. This marks the start of a torrent of ideas culminating in the passage quoted above.

I shall place that statement by Derrida, who left us in 2004, at the head of the following reflections – not as a motto, but rather as a warning sign pointing out a particularly explosive semantic and political danger zone in today's world: the Near and Middle East, where, if Derrida was right, three messianic eschatologies embroiled in rivalry are ‘directly or indirectly’ mobilizing ‘all the powers in the world and the entire “world order” for the ruthless war they are waging against one another’.2 I am not sure whether I would like to adopt the thesis of the war of eschatologies unreservedly, and am well aware that it is more an example of dangerous thinking than a stylistically assured philosophical explanation, whether casual or committed. Here, Derrida of all people – that author whose reputation is tied to the procedures of ‘deconstruction’, the meticulous dissection of metaphysical hyperbole and one-sided discourse used as a means of power – indulged in an excursus based around one of the most pathos-ridden exaggerations ever formulated by a philosopher of recent generations.

It is clear, however, and this brings us to our subject: Derrida is here referring, directly and indirectly, to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is concerned with identifying the group of monotheistic religions as ‘conflict parties’ entangled with one another in world-historical terms. His synopsis anticipates the meanwhile popular theory of a ‘clash of monotheisms’, though one cannot accuse him of wanting to confront the three religious complexes with one another in their dogmatic and social totalities. He refers primarily to their missionary aspects, which are sometimes also known as their ‘universalist potential’, and hence those elements in each of the individual belief structures that one could describe as its ‘radioactive material’, its manic-activist or messianic-expansionist mass. It is with these dangerous substances that we shall concern ourselves especially in the following.3

My intention in placing a quotation of this kind at the start is to make it clear that none of what will be said here can, whether theologically, politically or religion-psychologically, be thought of as harmless. The following deliberations could be compared to open heart surgery – and will only be chosen by those who have reason to prevent their convictions from suffering a metaphorical heart attack. I would therefore consider it advisable to agree on some form of safety procedure with the readers before we begin. This will take the form of an arrangement as to which aspects of religion and religious faith can and must be discussed with the help of scientifically founded distortions – and which aspects most likely can or should not. I would suggest a sort of blasphemy clause, and invite the reader to decide, after taking some time for reflection, whether he or she wishes to continue reading. According to this agreement, a number of phenomena traditionally assigned to the realm of the transcendent or holy would be released for non-religious reinterpretation (of potentially blasphemous appearance, albeit not intended as such). Other areas of sacred speech and religious sentiment, however, will remain untouched for material, formal and moral reasons.

I shall address – provisionally, and without systematic intentions – seven aspects of the phenomenon of transcendence. The first four of these, as will be demonstrated shortly, are capable of being critically translated into worldly and functional categories without their religious side risking the loss of more than is always lost through the acquisition of better knowledge. I will distinguish between four incorrect interpretations of the fact of transcendence and two further aspects that I would not wish to present as entirely immune to misunderstanding, but which, owing to their objectively mysterious character, offer resistance to any simplistic projection onto natural and social contexts. I will then address a seventh, highly sensitive aspect, showing that its undecidable nature places it beyond the difference between knowledge and faith – though it is faith, conspicuously enough, that profits most often from this state of affairs.

Let us begin with a thesis presented not long ago by Heiner Mühlmann, in a recent essay on cultures as learning units, in the form of a resolute question followed by a succinct answer: ‘How does transcendence come about? It comes about through the misunderstanding of slowness.’ The author clarifies: ‘A movement is slow if it takes longer than a generation. In order to observe it, we must depend on co-operation with those who lived before us and those who will live after us.’4 As co-operations with previous and subsequent generations have been either only rarely achieved or structurally impossible, and at best remained precarious episodes, it is understandable that, in previous times, most of these slow phenomena were consigned to the realm of transcendence, which here means: to the realm of the unobservable. As a result, they could be declared subject to the otherworldly plans of some transhuman or divine intelligence, and no objection would have had any chance of success. As soon as technologically and scientifically matured civilizations develop effective methods for the observation of slow phenomena, however, the concept of transcendental planning loses a considerable part of its plausibility – whether it is known as creation, prediction, predestination, salvation history or the like – and makes room for immanent procedures serving the interpretation of long-term processes. These means can encompass biological or socio-systemic evolution theories, wave models and crack theories that allow a description of oscillations and mutations in the realm of the longue durée. Only then can the difficulties and failures of evolution be assessed in their full extent, without the forced positivism of the creation idea compelling us to look away. In orthodox communities where identification with the edifying notion of transcendental planning is still very intense, one can observe militant resistance to the conceptual means leading to the secularization of those slow phenomena previously consigned to the hereafter. This is exemplified most clearly by the creationists in the USA, who are known to resort to all manner of methods in order to immunize their doctrine of sudden, intentional creation against the new sciences of slow, self-organized becoming.5

The second step lies in recognizing the following: transcendence also arises from the misunderstanding of vehemence. In order to clarify this idea, I shall draw once again on a concept introduced into the cultural sciences by Heiner Mühlmann – namely the link between stress analysis and the theory of the determinate formation of rituals and symbols laid out in his epochal programmatic text The Nature of Cultures. This work – encouraged by suggestions from Bazon Brock – introduced a radically new paradigm for the combining of cultural science and evolution theory into the debate.6 The phenomenology of the great stress reaction in homo sapiens and the ways in which cultures have sought to cope with it make it clear why, to the subject of stress, the conditions experienced often seem be of a transcendent nature. The vehemence of endogenous processes – which are initially strictly biologically determined, though very often cloaked by symbolism – can, in some cases, reach such a level that what is experienced is inevitably attributed to external forces.

Within our space of tradition, the model for this is provided by the wrath of Achilles as recounted by Homer, invoked throughout millennia by the warriors of the old Europe as the numinous origin of their noble and cruel profession. Undoubtedly heroic wrath is part of the same phenomenon as the manifestations of battle frenzy found in numerous cultures, which can in turn be compared to prophetic ecstasies. In physiological terms, the episodes of heroic fury show the result of an identification of the warrior with the propulsive energies that overcome him. It belongs within the spectrum of berserker enthusiasms, which includes the well-known amok syndrome of the Malaysian peoples (eagerly taken up by Western mass culture and pop-psychologically instrumentalized from within as an example of the wild), alongside the ecstatic rapture of the Vedic warriors or the battle rage of the Germanic heroes, which extended even to a lust for their own demise. In almost every case this fury, in the eyes of its bearers, seems to take, almost by necessity, the form of an obsession inspired from above, in which the martial energy of the agent is completely absorbed, making the battle appear to him as a mission. As a primal form of endogenous revelatory experience, fury constitutes something like the natural religion of the impassioned. As long as the transcendental misunderstanding of vehemence predominates, it is impossible to see how something that is experienced as an inspiration of strength could arise from a psychosemantically influenced process initiated from within the organism when it is subjected to extreme stress – a description that would presum-ably also apply to a considerable number of prophetic ecstasies.

Furthermore, this massive reaction to stress manifests itself in not only an explosive, but also an implosive, mode. There was an example of this a number of years ago, at a bullfight in one of the most important arenas in Madrid. The matador had made three failed attempts to deal the deadly blow to the charging bull – upon which he was seized by a sort of dumbfounded numbness, a state in which he would have been run down or killed by the raging animal if his colleagues had not carried the paralysed bullfighter from the arena. The scene can best be understood by recognizing in it the reversal of the stress reaction into an ecstasy of self-rejection. In that moment, shame revealed itself to the failed matador (in Spanish: the killer) like some otherworldly force. Although the physiological side of the incident is thus not especially mysterious, its spiritual aspect is at least somewhat harder to pin down. But we can certainly speculate: if one established a connection to the religious sphere, this should remind us to what extent the God who judges humanity also has the power of damnation. Whoever finds themselves wishing the ground would swallow them up not only feels the disadvantage of being visible, but also has an immediate understanding of what it means for one's own name to be erased from the Book of Life. This much is clear: the connection between guilt, shame and stress, without which the fervour of some religious subjects against themselves would be inconceivable, is rooted in endogenous mechanisms that are open to psychobiological elucidation. Much of what Rudolf Otto refers to in his well-known book Das Heilige as the mysterium tremendum7 lies de jure within the realm of stress theory. Taken as a whole, Otto's study – despite certain achievements towards a clarification of the objective field – can be considered a solemn misunderstanding of vehemence. In the fear and trembling side of religion often cited since Otto, one finds a manifestation of the neurosemantically significant fact that artificially induced extremes of experience appear at the ritual centre of all those religions which have succeeded in maintaining a lasting tradition. Paradoxically, it has been precisely the monotheistic scriptural religions, apparently endangered by the paleness of the letter, that have shown a great aptitude in finding a solid foundation in effective ritualizations of the most extreme arousal. Only in this way have they been able to secure their inscription on the involuntary memories of the faithful.

A third form of transcendence that is open to elucidation stems from a misunderstanding of what I call the ‘inaccessibility of the other’. I shall briefly illustrate what this means with an example from a classic work of modern literature. Towards the end of the second part of his novel tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers, written in 1934, Thomas Mann describes how Jacob, having received the news of his favourite son Joseph's alleged death, embarks on an excessive ritual of mourning: he perches himself on a rubbish heap in his courtyard, as Job later did, and hurls laments, accusations and protests at God and fate over endless days and weeks. Once the first wave of grief has subsided, Jacob realizes how improperly he has behaved – and now begins to see it as a great advantage that God did not react like some offended spouse or partner to everything he said in his heated state, rather choosing to conceal himself through remoteness; Thomas Mann speaks subtly of Jacob's provocative ‘impetuous misery’ [Elendsübermut], which God fortunately ignored ‘with silent tolerance’. Clearly one should first of all interpret God's calm non-reaction, which some theologians make quite some fuss about, in a more plausible fashion, both here and elsewhere. It is initially no more than a simple case of inaccessibility, and a number of substantial conditions would have to be met before one could conclude that someone who does not react is therefore a superior, indeed transcendent, other. If one were to tell a deaf-mute the story of one's life, one should not conclude from his silence that he prefers to keep his comments to himself. In such situations, transcendence arises from an over-interpretation of unresponsiveness. It results from the fact that some others are initially – and largely – unreachable, and therefore remain independent from us. Hence they lie outside of the fantasies of symmetry that determine our usual notions of reply, understanding, retaliation and the like. This discovery can lead to the formation of sensible relationships between people, relationships characterized by the hygiene of proper distance. The independence of the other is the stumbling block for any delusional search for partnership – this failure, however, constitutes a great step on the way to a freedom capable of relationships. The appropriate response to an encounter with an intelligence that remains free even in the act of co-operation is therefore gratitude for the independence of the other. So even if we are dealing here with a conception of transcendence marked by misjudgement, one should honour ‘God’ – in so far as this means the ultimate other – as a morally fruitful concept that attunes humans to dealing with an unmanipulable communicative counterpart.

Finally, the development of an important part of immanently transferable transcendence can be traced back to an overlooking of immune functions. Immune systems are the embodiments of expectations of injury. At the biological level they manifest themselves in the ability to form antibodies, at the legal level in the form of procedures to compensate for injustice and aggression, at the magical level in the form of protective spells, at the religious level in the shape of rituals to overcome chaos – the latter show people how to carry on when, by human reckoning, there is no way forward. From a systemic point of view – and perceived through the prism of functional distortions – religions can be defined as psychosemantic institutions with a dual focus. On the one hand, they specialize in dealing with impairments of integrity and devote themselves, thus viewed, to a wide range of psycho- and socio-therapeutic causes. On the other hand, they serve to channel and encode the human talent for excess – a function that, since European Romanticism, has largely been handed over to the art system.

At the centre of the first functional circle lies the need to give meaning to suffering, death, disorder and chance. This service, which combines the consolation of individuals with the ritual consolidation of groups, is often granted at the price of an unpredictable side effect: the edifying effects of religions are inevitably tied to ritualized speech acts, and thus attached to the level of symbolic generalization. Something that should function as a cure must simultaneously present itself as a symbolically structured conception of the world, i.e. as an ensemble of truths with claims to practical and theoretical validity. This contains the seed of a confusion of categories with virtually explosive consequences. It is the same as the temptation to elevate a pharmakon to the level of a deity. Because several symbolically stabilized immune systems normally exist alongside one another, all circulating their generalizations simultaneously, it is inevitable that these will question – or even, depending on the intensity of their respective claims to generality, partially or totally negate – one another. When there are collisions between such systems, the task of instilling edifying thoughts – or more generally, of imposing order on life by placing a frame around it – is combined with the need to be right. In order to do justice to conflicts of this type, one would have to imagine Prozac patients and Valium users accusing each other of heresy and warning of grave loss of health if the other does not convert to using the same medication. I have chosen the names of sedatives that, as we know, occasionally fail to achieve the desired effect and trigger manic states instead. The phenomenon known since St Paul's day as ‘faith’ has always been accompanied by a comparable risk. The welcome psychosemantic effects of religious conviction, namely the spiritual stabilization and social integration of believers, are tied to dangerous effects that correspond closely with the aforementioned manic reaction – since long before the beginning of monotheistic religions, one should add. One should therefore not take the well-documented fact that the formulation of the expansive monotheisms arose from their founders' states of manic-apocalyptic arousal lightly. The overlooking of the immune function here has a direct effect on the notion of truth. Whereas the pragmatic mentality contents itself with the belief that whatever helps is true, zealous behaviour insists on the axiom that truth is only to be found in a belief system which is entitled to demand universal subordination. Here the danger comes from the zealous tendency of a misunderstood claim to theoretical validity.

The arguments mentioned thus far follow, of course, the tradition of David Hume's work The Natural History of Religion from 1757, though – unlike the early Enlightenment – they no longer reduce religious ideas merely to primitive ‘hopes and fears’. Certainly wishful thinking and affects of avoidance are still important factors, but they do not fully explain the religious phenomenon. The renovated version of the criticism of religion follows on from certain concepts in general cultural theory, which asks under what conditions cultural programmes achieve horizontal coherence, vertical capacity for continuation and personal internalization within a given populace. Thanks to its complex view, the new approach also permits detailed insights into the natural and social history of false conclusions. In contrast to the classics of the Enlightenment, the new descriptions of religious aspects sketched here do not explain certain manifestations of faith through natural human error; rather, they see them as surplus phenomena that chronically expose humans to an excess of uplifting and unifying energies. The updated natural history of religion falls back on an anthropology of overreaction; this permits an illumination of the evolution of Homo sapiens through a theory of luxuriating surplus drives within insulated groups.8 These surpluses would include those of consciousness that make human existence effusive or enigmatic. The concepts of surplus and overreaction do not only help to understand the energetic side of religious phenomena – they also shed light on the actual tenets of faith, as every single theopoesis is based on the universals of exaggeration.

post mortem


Homo hierarchicus