Art's Secular Illusions

June 17, 2014   •   By Ricky D’Ambrose

Things are placed right in front of our eyes, not covered by any veil. This is where religion and art part company.

— Wittgenstein

Psychology is a half way science justified, if at all, by its therapeutic value. It must lead you in the end either to glands or to theology — both of which are clear and distinct ideas.

— T. S. Eliot


FOR SOME TIME NOW, an elect and self-proclaimed group of humanists has bolstered a litany of familiar ideas — chief among them, the inevitably spiritual value of art. The result is an incomplete point of view, not only of works of art, which are praised for peddling the pious, but also, if less directly, of the history of sovereignty and of scientific progress. Victoria Kahn, in her recent book, calls this phenomenon the “explanatory power” of religion: a pitiless weltanschauung that shrivels otherwise secular accomplishments to a defective conclusion: “If something takes the place of religion, it must be performing the same function.” As Kahn shows, once the work of art, a human achievement, becomes an item of religious consciousness, it can join the founding of a state, the creation of edicts, or a declaration of sovereignty as one more testament, supposedly divine in origin, to whatever surpasses our penniless human condition. 

The Future of Illusion arrives at a moment when the idea of religion has been generalized to the point of incomprehensibility (from religion to the religious to the mystical to the spiritual, etc.). Kahn, a professor of Comparative Literature at Berkeley, writes to redress the way in which contemporary secular debates are stitched to theological premises, and the grievances that result thereof. She also writes from a position of resistance; hers is an undertaking to reject the idea, stated by Carl Schmitt nearly a century ago, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” Kahn’s concern with poiesis, with “making as a new form of knowing,” underlies her claim that “art is precisely what has been missing from the current debate” about political theology. Across five chapters and 180 pages, the book sets out to diminish the power, and the persuasiveness, of transcendental interpretations in politics and in secular culture. After these interpretations have been discredited, Kahn argues, a problem besets the relationship between politics and religion — the older, perennial view becomes, suddenly, unconvincing. It’s only when art’s power is acknowledged as fully human that its political power can be accurately understood.

Kahn describes “the current fascination with the religious dimension of political authority,” attributable to Schmitt, Freud, and the German historian Ernst Kantorowicz:

The persistent haunting of liberal modernity by something in excess of the law, an exception that is then analogized not only to the miracle, grace, or some other figure of transcendence but also, in the register of immanence, to mere life, creaturely life.

In this account, sovereignty is an updated, refurbished version of God’s omnipotence; evolution, of eschatology; aesthetics, of the Creation. Kahn undermines these analogies by enlisting Walter Benjamin, who argued that the “baroque world knows no eschatology.” In his book on the difference between classical tragedy and the baroque mourning play, Benjamin argued that the Greeks assumed the preeminence of a shared historical reality; by contrast, the suffering tragic hero of the 17th-century trauerspiel, dumbfounded in his inadequate appeals to the gods, can only ever end in silence, with what Benjamin calls his “moral infantility.” 

But value will become creaturely, more profane, by the 16th century. The founding of the modern liberal state, and the development of legal and political ideas contemporaneous with what Kahn calls the “religiously neutral discourse of rights” of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke, meant a world without the guarantee of the deity. The state of formal equality before the law promised by liberalism is, in Schmitt’s view, incompatible with his theory of the political, which entails chronic crisis, confrontation, and the consolidation (rather than the division) of power. He ultimately turns to Shakespeare for an “authentic world of politics” — an attempt, in the form of dramatic theater, to eclipse artifice with action by pushing historical reality onto the stage. Hamlet, the play, can belong “to life itself,” since character and situation, not plot and action, are the elements of its tragic power and style. “Tragedy is raised above the liberal sphere of culture,” Kahn says of Schmitt’s position. “No longer an instance of fiction, tragedy instead returns us to moment before aesthetics” — that is, to a moment before poiesis, our inherited taste for the stylization of personality.

Kahn argues that Schmitt’s liberalism, a product of the rationalism and constitutionalism of Locke and his age, can never accomplish the final act of the sovereign: deciding upon the exception. For this, we need the aesthetic, in its least tampered, most human form.


Kahn hasn’t written a book principally about tragedy, nor has she produced a monograph on Schmitt’s ideas. I summarize Schmitt and Benjamin’s arguments here because they reveal a style of thinking and reading that she wants to recover.

This is a book indebted to the work of a few writers in the 20th century — Hannah Arendt, Hans Blumenberg, Leo Strauss, and Freud among them — who would find in Spinoza, Montaigne, Machiavelli, and Hobbes something potentially applicable to their own contemporary political situations. The movement of minds that makes it possible for Benjamin to talk about 17th-century German tragic drama, or for Schmitt to formulate a vision of political sovereignty in a discussion of Hamlet, gives Future of Illusion less a subject than a way for Kahn to focus her attention. (This may explain the laboriousness of the book. The cargo of its ideas is often an exercise, an ordeal, in unstinted comparative thinking.)

Kantorowicz is an early illustration of the book’s approach. Kahn shows that Kantorowicz, unlike the 20th-century philosopher Ernst Cassirer — whose secular demystification of history tempered his belief in the superiority of science to art — wanted to recover the potentially positive role of mythmaking. This new, redemptive mythology is found not in science, but in literature, which gives, in Kahn’s words, “an exemplary self-consciousness about the symbolic dimension of human experience, about the human capacity to make and unmake symbolic forms.” And because theology for Kantorowicz is always an outcome of storytelling, it’s also an ideal candidate for “reconceiving the relationship between politics and theology.” Thus, Kantorowicz could praise Spinoza not for his literary accomplishments (he wasn’t, in any proper sense, a storyteller), but for showing how the Bible is a human book with a copious textual history. Spinoza, completing the crusade from politics to culture, could turn the Bible in on itself by making it, simultaneously, the subject and the instrument of interpretation. “If they cease to be pious, the thing in question likewise, at the same time, ceases to be sacred,” Spinoza writes. “Nothing is sacred, profane, or impure, absolutely and independently of the mind but only in relation to the mind.” The mind, unfettered, moves freely and without the pressures of an idolatry (hence Kahn will approvingly quote Strauss’s claim, stated more than 250 years later, that Spinoza founded a new “Church whose rulers were not priests or pastors but philosophers and artists”).

A question remains, and Kahn is correct to state it: if culture is a source of religious enthusiasm, how can it also be a response to political theology? Kahn offers two potential answers. The first, pairing culture with judgment, belongs to Hannah Arendt. Writing for the pages of Daedalus, Arendt hoped to show that culture is neither an occasion for conflict (Schmitt) nor an affront to philosophy (Strauss), but the summit of consensus and deliberation. For this notion, she borrowed from Kant’s late-18th-century idea of a sensus communis — a “common sense” that gives our private, subjective judgments (whether we call a thing or an experience beautiful, for instance) their public, objective validity. When Arendt gave the work of art its prized place in the “judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world,” she was, as Kahn recognizes, reconciling aesthetics and ethics, and in a way that sought to ennoble what she called, in another essay, “the elementary problems of human living-together.” 

The second response comes from Spinoza. If Arendt could reason from culture to politics, as Kahn suggests, then Spinoza’s is a movement from politics to culture, impelled by a philological critique of scripture: the prophets’ incompatible descriptions of God, for instance, or Moses’s narration of his own death, are for Spinoza the peculiar pieces of a work of literature that ought to be read, not assented to on the basis of a presumed moral or spiritual authority. “No one,” Spinoza writes, “can surrender their freedom to judge and to think as they wish.” For Kahn, this remark summarizes not only a literary sensibility, but also a vision of political rationality more generally.

At this point, and by supplying the book with its coda and its title, Freud administers the last rites. With his theory of redirected human instincts and desires — and with his struggle to reclaim the liberating and politically efficacious potential of art — Freud could simultaneously rebuke and extol the work of illusion. Thus the scriptures are, in Freud’s account, “full of contradictions, revisions, and falsifications,” although their illusory force, invulnerable to reason, is nevertheless psychologically valuable: illusions are “the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind,” and they can be expressed, if only obliquely, in works of art. The Renaissance, with its grand, confident vision of human personality, was for Freud the triumph of a secular interpretation of Christian subjects. The artist, like the analyst, is never the destroyer of an illusion, but its litigator. As Kahn writes:

The shaping power of the artist is an emblem for the heroic project of civilization, construed as the sublimation and redirection of our instincts, and the even more heroic secular project of psychoanalysis, construed as the demystification of our illusions. It’s almost as if Freud were suggesting that, just as Renaissance artists turned the Bible into an occasion for art, so psychoanalysis turns illusion into an occasion for analysis, even as it concedes the inevitability of idolatry, whether religious or aesthetic.

And yet, Wilde’s famous command, that all art is useless, is intact. The delusional grandeur of the followers of the cross, the “intimidation of the intelligence” that Freud found so loathsome, has its antidote in the work of art. Here Kahn and Freud, it seems, align. “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it,” Freud would write in 1930. “Yet civilization could not do without it.”


Another question remains: why should we care? 

Kahn’s is a book for a sharply defined set of readers — students of comparative literature, political theorists, historians of religion, medievalists — although its arguments, stated without fuss, are sonorous and timely enough to warrant general interest. It is, above all, a sinuous, sometimes brooding transmission of ideas. The book is not, in any strict sense, a work of historical criticism, and its omission of a few important contributions to 20th-century political theology makes it unworthy as a proper introduction to the thinking, and to the longstanding discussions, that Kahn parses here. (Among the omitted: the liberal theologians of the German history of religions school — Troeltsch, Otto, Bousset — with their claim that theology poses a remedy to the incomplete visions of politics and science; and the Austrian Jewish scholar Jacob Taubes, who maintained a correspondence with Schmitt and whose own important work on the political theology of Paul and on eschatology, unavailable in this country until fairly recently, is informed by many of the problems raised here.) Rather, this is a book committedto the untrammeled work of the imagination. It ultimately wants to diminish the credibility of those theories of human conduct that are laden by the totalizing thrust of transcendence. The case it makes is for the unrepentant crafting and replenishing of consciousness — a task best finished outside of the religious imagination, through works of art.

But we may be able to detect the relevance of a book like Kahn’s elsewhere, beyond its pages, beyond its political and theological — that is, its immediate — concerns.

D. H. Lawrence, at the end of his life, dying from tuberculosis, would write in his last major work, “The essential feeling in all art is religious, and art is a form of religion without dogma. The feeling in art is religious, always.” By feeling, Lawrence meant a solution to a focused consciousness (that is, consciousness directed, aimed, and therefore robbed of its capacity for unlimited experience, slivered by dogma). Feelings, like consciousness, are — in fact should be — ultimately purposeless; ends in themselves. This is why Lawrence could praise the cults of antiquity: their mysteriousness, their presumed spirit of audaciousness and clout, amountedto a renewed contest between allegory and symbol. “Symbols are organic units of consciousness with a life of their own,” Lawrence says, “and you can never explain them away, because their value is dynamic, emotional, belonging to the sense-consciousness of the body and soul, and not simply mental.”

The recovery of this dynamic value culminates in an affront, since Lawrence lamented the encrusted, unimaginative deployment of consciousness gone on in the name of the Christianity of his (our) time. The feelings given off by works of art are, like the pagan mystery cults he prized, connoisseurs of inexplicitness, because they aim to open up, rather than shrink or dehydrate or impoverish, those cherished areas of the imagination that depend for their poweron the blunt integrity of curtains and veils.

The point is that styles can be heresies. A work of art that makes the world less explicit, more imponderable, will, to borrow E. M. Cioran’s phrase, “sin on the side of form.” (Another quote: “There are things that are destroyed by being shown.” De Maistre issues the rally cry of the inexplicable.) But it isn’t necessary to express Lawrence’s enthusiasms, or to share his taste for the Eleusinian mysteries and the cult of Orpheus, to know that consciousness can make and unmake the world. There are other styles of thinking and feeling, new imperatives — cloaked by old instincts — that are now being treated in a serious way.

Over the last few years, the leading example has come not from literature or painting, but from a species of visual art combining performance, chance operations, informal workshops, and collaborative exercises of many kinds. As Claire Bishop has put it recently, what’s repeatedly gathered up under the name of participatory art “is often at pains to emphasise process over a definitive image, concept or object. It tends to value what is invisible: a group dynamic, a social situation, a change of energy, a raised consciousness.” The artist Thomas Hirschhorn is, to a singular extent, its most representative practitioner: “My guidelines are: acting in headlessness; ‘Energy = Yes! Quality = No!’” Hirschhorn’s temporary ramshackle public installations — his Gramsci Monument, built at the foot of a South Bronx housing project, appeared for two months last year — often include makeshift libraries, computer labs, radio stations, classrooms, theaters, and cafeterias assembled with cheap industrial materials (plywood, Plexiglas, canvas, packing tape). One doesn’t walk away from a work by Hirschhorn with the same kind of contentment, or satisfaction, or relief that comes with staying for the curtain call; there are no final acts, no consummations or contrivances of a narrative, no deus ex machina of any kind. There are instead processes that are difficult to represent (a picture, for instance, is no adequate description, or illustration, of what goes on in one of Hirschhorn’s monuments), and which treat experiences ordinarily found outside of art — philosophy lectures and political workshops — aesthetically, as raw material. What Hirschhorn and a great many artists working now seem to want to show is the potentially transformative, mostly invisible processes of acting and reading and thinking that can have the effect, the sensation of a work of art. Like Kahn’s, theirs can be called a fantasy of recovery and renovation, an effort in poiesis.

What The Future of Illusion achieves is something like the dramatization of Kahn’s own thinking, drafted as an ample work of confessional criticism. “It is […] a book,” Kahn writes in her introduction, “about the process of reading several times over.” A work about a process (of reading and rereading, of making and deposing ideas), it is also a feat of persuasion, and an intimate report — a chronicle — of its author’s nimble handling of her sources. At stake is nothing less private, but also nothing less valuable to conscience in general, than the stripping of inherited altars.


Ricky D’Ambrose has written for The Nation, n+1, Film Quarterly, among other publications. He lives in New York.