Alongside Taylor’s exploration of the conditions secularism—and therefore also of belief—in Euroatlantic late modernity, there is a surprisingly unreconstructed Christian faith that comes out when he attempts to deal intellectually with sex and violence. I want to raise some questions about Taylor’s account of “our moral landscape” after the mainstreaming of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Our moral landscape has indeed changed—that is undeniable—and yet, in Taylor’s hands, the cartography of that moral landscape appears all too familiar, and this is so because he does not take—indeed historically has not taken—the challenge of post-Nietzscheanism seriously. (One need only return to his Political Theory essay on Foucault for early evidence of this.)
As Taylor sees it, sexuality and aggression or violence pose profound problems for Christian ideals and ethics in the secular age, so he turns to categories familiar to discourses of belief and unbelief—humanism, immanence, and transcendance—in order to see how they configure the moral landscape and thus how he can situate his own Christian commitments with respect to sexuality and aggression. In particular, Taylor examines the way in which Christian believers can respond to the attacks from critics that their faith either “mortifies” humanity by expecting a surplus renunciation of specifically human life or else “bowdlerizes” humanity by ignoring much about how humans historically have lived. Both criticisms point to a will to transcend ordinary humanity, and the critics fall into two camps: secular humanists and neo-Nietzscheans. The secular humanists pathologize the “wild side” of human being—both sex and violence—and, inspired by Enlightenment ideals of reason, would want to overcome these primitive drives within an immanent frame, advancing a humanist ideal rather than a transcendent, divine one. Neo-Nietzscheans, on Taylor’s account, embrace human wildness as a necessary consequence of affirming the superabundance of life in the will to power. (‘Mortify,’ ‘bowdlerize,’ and ‘wild side’ are Taylor’s expressions.)
To Taylor’s credit, he considers Christian ideals’ confrontation with this wild side of human being a real dilemma; also to his credit, he shows, by reference to the work of Georges Bataille, that he is aware that many adherents of Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions, and non-believers as well, have historically regarded th0is human wildness with ambivalence—both heightened attraction and repulsion. But here is where all the questions arise for me, because Taylor is content with the language of ambivalence rather than that of irreducibility. Not only post-Nietzscheans such as Bataille, but also post-Freudians such as Leo Bersani, consider this wildness irreducible. According to them it is not only the case that we both fear and crave to act on our wilder impulses toward aggression and shattering sexuality and therefore cannot simply stamp them out without mutilating humanity—as Taylor recognizes—but, moreover, we ought not even to expect to reduce or to hope to guide these impulses. Indeed, we cannot even apprehend this wildness directly. These “primitive” drives are too fractious, too central, at once pervasively present and yet evasively absent, at once excessive and lacking, too vital and therefore marked by death. Because of their radical negativity, we can only recognize wild drives in their effects and not in themselves.
Taylor seems to condone a Christian resolution to the dilemma of this ambivalence toward wildness that would see humans’ calling to a divine education that would turn them away from endowing anything other than God with numinous power: “God is slowly educating mankind, slowly turning it, transforming it from within. . . . But at the same time, the pedagogy is being stolen, has been misappropriated, and misapplied; the education is occurring in this field of resistance.” Hence, the fact that “the wild frenzy of killing, or sex, can be endowed with the numinous” marks a “fallen condition.” And the fact “that most historical religion has been deeply intricated with violence, from human sacrifice down to inter-communal massacres” is “[b]ecause most historical religion remains only very imperfectly oriented to the beyond.”
Why is it possible to say that “the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” can reduce violence but that the sexual revolution proved that “integrating the Dionysian into a continuing way of life” is impossible? In some sense, the latter was obviously impossible, since the Dionysian marks an abundance of life that is destructive to it—but in spite of that, Taylor’s decidedness here leads me to think that he is asking less challenging questions about the sexual revolution than he thinks he is.
Not all sexual revolutionaries believed that greater sensuality and/or transgressive sex would lead to permanent human fulfillment and liberation. The sexual revolution also generated sexual practices that did not take self-fulfillment or self-liberation as an end, but rather flirted with the very loss of the self—its (temporary) shattering, devastation, perhaps obliteration. Some of the practices were oriented to ascesis, the disciplinary disorganization of a self as object by the self as subject. Whether explicitly inspired by what Taylor calls neo-Nietzscheanism or not, such practices as anonymous cruising (gay or otherwise), queer sex work, or some forms of sadomasochism could be seen as standing aside from liberation or self-fulfillment. (Ironically, “SM” in Taylor’s book refers to “scapegoat mechanism.”)
Something about the self-certainty of Taylor’s Christian answer to wildness—a resolution that one ideal is possible while another is impossible; the decidedness of being able to pinpoint God and the presumption of being able to orient oneself to divinity; the expectation of being able to manipulate a self, a calling, a pedagogy, reducibility—all this strikes me as the deeply conventional stuff of a faith that has not reconstructed itself truly at its depths in light of the challenge that post-Nietzscheanism and post-Freudianism represent.
But what if, precisely because the wild side of human being cannot be domesticated since there is always more “unemployed negativity” (Bataille’s term), we can only approach human wildness obliquely and thus take a less self-certain attitude to the interrelationship of wildness, humanity, and divinity? What if our orientation to immanence and transcendence were indirect? What if, in short, it might be the case that apophasis, a negative theology, is the most appropriate tactical response to the secular age and its dilemmas? Then, I want to say, we would have to be at once more modest in our claims about human improvement and divine pedagogy—indeed we might give up on those ideas altogether—and therefore more bold in speculation and action. Paradoxically perhaps, by avoiding the compulsion to speak of god so frequently and with such prolixity, the negative theologian grants us the holiest of all things: not a Feuerbachian return of our humanity, but rather its risk.