(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)
My response to Chapter 2 – The German Idealists – was getting so long and convoluted that I decided to split it into a couple of short, convoluted, essays that I’ll post this week. I should have known that no discussion involving the philosophy of Immanuel Kant could be kept to a sensible blog post. This entire book club is a terrible idea. I apologize.
How many Burners are German Idealists and don’t even know it?
To find out, let’s read Terry Eagleton’s description of the German Idealist dream circa the 1800s, only replace the word I’ve bolded with “Burning Man.”
“The fractured bonds between citizens, as well as the threatened alliance between Nature and humanity, might be restored by a communality of image and belief. Coterie ideas and common opinions, high theory and popular practice, would no longer be at daggers drawn. Myth would serve as a mode of displaced religion, uniting the mystical and the mundane, priest (or philosopher) and laity (or common people) in a shared symbolic order. The abyss opened up by the Enlightenment between a coterie who lived by the idea and a populace who lived by the image might accordingly be bridged.”
Convinced yet? It goes on. Replace “poet or philosopher” with “artist.”
“The poet or philosopher would be invested with the status of secular priest and art or mythology converted into a set of quasi-sacred rites. The damage to the human spirit inflicted by individualism, as well as by a withered rationality for which Nature was so much dead matter, might thus be repaired. A more organic ideology of everyday life would evolve, one which reunited the cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic domains.”
Admit it – you’ve heard a regional rep in a mesh body suit give this exact speech. These are sentiments I’ve heard often (if less eloquently) from those Burners who believe Burning Man is more than a fantastic party, who see Burning Man as the next major step in the evolution of a sustainable global culture.
Which is a problem, because German Idealism didn’t really go anywhere.
Don’t get me wrong, it was HUGE in the 1830s, but it hasn’t appeared at any major festivals lately. You only see it popping up when somebody quotes Immanuel Kant in a high school debate tournament, or when somebody proposes a “science of history” to incorrectly predict what will inevitably happen next.
While the German Idealists’ critique of religion is every bit as trenchant as their critique of rationalism, as effectively as they identified “the problem,” their solutions ultimately satisfied no one and (if pressed too hard) tended to dissolve into mumbling about “spirit” with no substance.
To the extent Burners are closet German Idealists, we should take it as a warning sign to do better.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Burning Man is waaaay more fun than German Idealism ever was. We’ve got that going for us.
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