TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On the Liturgical Critique of Modernity

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Kyle Nicholas looks at Catherine Pickstock’s “Liturgy and Modernity” from Telos 113 (Fall 1998).

Catherine Pickstock’s “Liturgy and Modernity,” from Telos 113 (Fall 1998), is an effort to find an alternative to liberal individualism and social fragmentation in modernity. Pickstock finds this alternative in liturgy: a liturgical critique of modernity where “liturgy” functions as a thoroughly political category. Liturgy is specially equipped to confront modernity due to its nature as ritual behavior (and therefore universal among humans). Yet the liturgical is to be favored over “ritual” for two reasons. First, ritual has already been relegated to its own “delimited sphere” in modernity, where it is viewed as a private superstructural category. Furthermore, ritual in the modern mind is regarded merely as “mechanical repetitions divorced from any informing narrative.” Liturgy, on the other hand, responds to the former challenge by its nature as “a pattern of social action” (not a delimited sphere) and responds to the latter by its foundation in a “privileged transcendent signifier.”

Pickstock argues that liturgy as a political category yields significant critical results as a critique of prevailing modern dichotomies (art and politics, subject and object, the real and the ideal), as a critique to modernity’s own “anti-liturgical liturgy,” and as a theological critique to purely secular liturgies. Thus, the liturgical critique must be both theological and political if it is to offer an alternative to liberal individualism.

Why is it, Pickstock asks, that the city of the Magnesians in Plato’s Laws has been chided as “second best” to the Kallipolis in the Republic simply because the former is regarded as more possible? In modernity, the more ideal will always be the best, and therefore the realizable city of the Magnesians is not the best since it is possible. This, however, is a mistake. Pickstock finds the liturgical basis of the Magnesian city as both the ideal and real city. In the performance of liturgy the most ideal (the Forms) are “mediated to each citizen collectively.” The city is characterized by “the sharing of goods among all citizens” and an “extraordinary rhythmic pattern.” The perpetual practice of liturgy in the city of the Magnesians fuses the most ideal and the most real without destroying each other. Modernity’s separation of the ideal from the real, however, typically biases the reader towards the Kallipolis of the Republic.

The pragmatist might respond that there is nothing other than the real: the real, everyday, and mundane actions of bodies and things acting causally with each other. Yet part of the liturgical critique of modernity is to recognize universality of an ideal aspect. Pickstock states:

Here lies the origin of unquestioned value or transcendence on which all else depends, even if, metaphysically, this transcendence lies within the immanent realm. It is impossible for human culture to avoid this starting point. In other words, the ideal aspect of human life is not an optional extra, but something essential to specifically human action. To say that human life has a fundamentally liturgical character is a way of recognizing that even the most pragmatic actions exceed themselves by pointing to the unquestioned and the transcendent, which is the horizon within which they operate.

Modernity’s obsession with dichotomies, then, may be seen as the unwillingness to recognize the real as always reaching beyond itself toward a cultural ideal. Two further dichotomies that follow are the rupture between community and individual, and the rupture between life and art. Whereas the liturgical grounds individual happiness or sorrow in a communal context, the communal in turn grounds, acknowledges, and defines that happiness or sorrow, thus giving it limits. Yet in modernity an “individual may alternate between seeking refuge from public misery in private delight, or escaping personal sorrow through absorption in the impersonal world of the media.” Since 1998, when Pickstock’s article was first published, it may be argued that this chasm has only been more strictly enforced by the market-state in the post-9/11 world; individuals are expected to behave ever more formalistically in public, while the content made available in the private sphere continues to multiply beyond the point of perversion in order to accommodate every individual’s insatiable whim or casual fancy.

Modernity will increasingly be characterized by a sharp division between the public, bureaucratic, and procedural, on the one hand, and the private, autonomous, and uncontrolled, on the other. In contrast, liturgy “concerns the fusing together of ‘real life’ with ‘art'” and therefore scorns a dichotomy between a work life shorn of beauty and private free time unconcerned with duty. In this way, and contra Adorno’s invested hope in avant-garde art, a theological liturgy is a practical and sustainable form of resistance to modernity.

Pickstock then develops her own account of modernity’s liturgy; while it may be a sham liturgy shot through with dualisms, it remains a liturgy nonetheless. Modernity’s “anti-liturgical liturgy” is founded on “a perpetual virtual space of identical repetition.” This fixity makes true human subjectivity (as found in the liturgy) impossible and is replaced increasingly by a “minimal automated subjectivity” that converts people it cyber-intelligences.

Three further characteristics of modernity’s liturgy given by Pickstock are the fixity of space, the valuing of civility over ritual, and the proliferated use of spectacles. By fixity of space Pickstock refers to “the attempt to force all knowledge into the grid of spatial mathesis,” which tends to erode, along with increasingly nominalized language, any sense of “time, personhood, and government.”

Furthermore, modernity substitutes mere manners or civility as the end of action, divorced from a “common ritual basis.” This insures that conflict may be overcome in modernity without any common ritual basis whatsoever, but rather only by “a formal agreement about accepted protocols.”

Finally, modernity’s liturgical use of spectacles is needed to sustain order; these spectacles “can vary from carnival compensations for the drabness of the everyday, to the turning of the everyday into a spectacle.” Pickstock’s argument has been increasingly vindicated in the past fifteen years, it seems, as capitalism has not succumbed to its own cultural contradictions partly by fusing work and play together again, but only fictitiously. In 2015, where the bareness of modern offices is infiltrated by neon ping-pong tables, espresso machines, and more general eclectic fancies, or where CEOs sport Patagonia sweaters and hiking shoes into the office, Pickstock’s claim appears to be strikingly apposite:

This is not the same as the fusion of work and enjoyment in genuine liturgy, because what it is fusing is a drained, functionalized work with a drained, virtualized and reductively—aestheticized enjoyment. Thus, connecting the two does not restore teleology to work, nor worship to enjoyment. Rather, it reinforces the cycling of both around a black abyss of recycled immanent spatiality.

The final section of Pickstock’s article posits a Catholic liturgy as an alternative to modernity’s liturgy. Briefly stated, Catholic liturgy has the ability to overcome more than simply philosophical dichotomies of modernity, but those that are political and social as well. For example, a Catholic liturgy overcomes the libertarian/communitarian divide by positing a transcendent source that orders society to that which is beyond itself; the democracy/hierarchy divide, by recognizing a hierarchy of privileged values (present in all human societies) while recognizing that the transcendent source (God) is as close to every level of the hierarchy as any other; and the universal/particular divide, by not merely tolerating difference as liberalism does (at best), but by “link[ing] to local tradition without any abrupt rupture.”

Pickstock’s liturgical critique of modernity offers a way for the social order to reach beyond itself and therefore recreate itself in “in ever different ways.” This would break the pattern of identical repetition that drives the modern subject into ever more disenchanted dichotomies. As we see the rise of new organic priorities, localist movements, and the new “sharing economy,” Pickstock’s article poses difficult questions for today. Are we merely playing in “mere carnivalesque spaces” pretending to have “substantive creative and pre-modern freedoms,” or is there an openness to a transcendent source that makes these communities more than a larger and more contractually complicated liberal subject? After all, Pickstock argues, capitalism will tolerate and even promote local autonomy and organicism if it is “in the interests of the overall efficiency of the system.”

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