Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gadamer and Liturgy

In one of H.G. Gadamer's seminal pieces, The Relevance of the Beautiful, he posits the ideas of play, symbol and festival as meaningful tools for the ways in which one can more practically and interactively engage a piece. His purpose in the essay is to explore whether or not modern art such as Duchamp's "readymade" conceptions can be evaluated under the same framework as Monet's "Lily Pond" or Chagall's "The Praying Jew". Gadamer claims that while our perception of art is historically contingent, the common feature of art, we find in the Ancient Greek conception of poietike episteme, or the knowledge and faculty appropriate to production. He says it nicely comparing Plato's craftsman in the Timeaus to the artist that persists through history:

What is common to the craftsman's producing and the artist's creating, and what distinguishes such from knowing from theory or from practical knowing and deciding, is that a work becomes separated from the activity…the common feature here is clearly the emergence of the work as the intended goal of regulated effort.[1]

Thus, just as a craftsman designs and produces a table or a watch, so to, the artist looks at a canvas and purposively projects a design of sorts. This design need not necessitate such detail as the mathematical precision of a still life, but rather the design comes from having art qua art or beauty as a telos. Acting with such regard is the means by which the beautiful for Gadamer, "enjoys universal recognition and assent…but serves no specific purpose". Art requires participation in the work; a primary and fundamental engagement that virtually begs the question "is this art?" Indeed, asking whether or not something is art is irrelevant; prima facie, it is the very fact of tradition, i.e. history, culture and language that establishes something as art. Art has no meaning apart from these contingencies. In this project, I am going to work to explicate Gadamer's ideas of the play, the symbol and the festival in relation to the writing of religious liturgy. Here, I will posit my own assertion that the performance of liturgy amongst a body of people is analogous to Gadamer's Aesthetic theory, in the sense that it serves the ontological function of the beautiful, that of bridging the chasm between the ideal and the real.

Just as the artwork is the focal point in determining a subjective experience of art itself, "so is the act of understanding similarly determined by the matter to be understood; as the experience of art reveals, not in spite of, but precisely because of the way it also conceals, so also is understanding possible. It is not in spite of, but again, precisely because of, its prior involvement."[2] Gadamer makes the comparison between experiencing an artwork and the concept of play. Indeed, play is not a "disengaged, disinterested" subjective experience; play is an interaction involving dialogue, asking the question, "is this art", and a reciprocal interpretive process. For Gadamer, this is a project of hermeneutical ontology; that is, when one stands in front of an art piece and readily engages it as art qua art, not only is the art interpreted into and made meaningful because of one's own subjective, historical conditioning, but moreover, the artwork in turn works to challenge the person's own ontological questions. Before the person had seen the artwork, this meaningful experience had not yet occurred; yet after the experience, the person is changed because of what she saw and experienced. As Gadamer nicely says, "My concern is not about what we do or what we ought to do, but rather, my concern lies in what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing." All art and artistry draws upon play in a fundamental way, the ways in which the audience of the artwork are of equal importance as the artist and the artwork themselves. If there were no audience, then the work of art, while not meaningless per se, would not posit influence to distinct, factical ontological entities.

Similarly, the conception of the symbol has its meaningfulness found within recollection and tradition. The symbol is supposed to remind us of something that we have already once known. He gives us the example from the Greek tradition, where Aristophanes tells us that:

Originally all human beings were spherical creatures. But later, on account of their misbehavior, the gods cut them in two. Thereafter, each of the halves, which originally belonged to one complete living being, seeks to be made whole once again. Thus every individual is a fragment or a symbolon tou anthropou.[3]

Thus, Gadamer's symbol is such that art is supposed to reflect for us what is not immediately apparent, but that seems to nevertheless "ring true or obvious". As humans are constantly trying to find the other side of their sphere, to be made whole again, they experience pieces of wholeness in their different encounters with art and with their present world. Moreover, it also serves an ontological function; it calls us to seek to understand ourselves within the artwork. We are drawn into the piece because it reflects something about ourselves that we "know" but must "recollect" and posit and interpret within the experience of art.

Just as the playful and the symbiotic relationships of the human and the experiences of art acts as a vehicle for understanding the hermeneutical "being" of both the art and the human, the festival works to show the historical placement, the "situatedness" of the being. Festivals are to be celebrated, they are an occasion that "lifts the participants out of their 'everydayness of existence' and elevates them into a kind of universal communion."[4] The festival is a gathering of people that is purposive, for the joining together to participate in a ritual or observance of a particular day, a factical joy or sorrow or perhaps for an unknown reason save the routine of doing it. An important aspect of the festival is that it creates its own time and space, but it is such that it cuts through daily time and space to a sort-of "positive parasitic relation". By that I simply mean that where time and space occur in their everydayness, when the festival occurs, everyday time and space still occur, but there is an additional bubble of time and space that exists both because of and in addition to, everyday time and space. Art is analogous to the experience of the festival, because it too creates this extra burst of time and space; it dislocates us from our everydayness and allows us to see our everydayness in a new light and with different regards to our daily experiences with the world; but moreover, it is the case that this experience is such that anyone who experiences the art will feel this dislocation. Thus, while people need not share an identical experience, it is the experience itself, which lends to the communal experience.

Hence, we have worked through explicating a few key aspects of Gadamer's aesthetic theory. As a personal anecdote, in my current internship, I am part of a staff of five or so people that writes religious liturgy for the different seasons of the ecumenical, liturgical calendar. Liturgies are the words of call and response between a church body and its leader (pastor, priest, clergy, etc.). For the past few months, we have been meeting to write the liturgy for the coming season of Advent, the weeks of waiting and preparation for Christmas. I find liturgy, both as a participant in the congregation and as a leader, an incredible functionary of reciprocal dialogue. Through the formulations of the words, we work to incorporate peace, justice, racial reconciliation and inclusive language. The words generally include basic statements of belief; not just about the overarching protestant faith but it also speaks to our daily role of peacemaking in the world. Through the weekly reiteration of these words, it establishes a community, it establishes commitments, and it gives rise to the power of language to work on individual factical ontologies. When I read and speak aloud statements of my belief each week, I am professing both to myself and to the world around me, who it is that I am--not in a transcendental, neutral framework, but in an interpretive, hermeneutical positioning of that specific time and place. The next week, I will be situated in a separate time and place and thus will occasion new words, and new understandings of those words in light of my recent factical experiences.

In the ways that it relates to Gadamer, a church service is similar to play in that it also is not a "disengaged and disinterested" experience. The reading of liturgy cannot happen in a space where there are not people. Rather, its very nature necessitates dialogue; it necessitates players participating with the dialogue. If people did not show up to take part in this "play", if people did not engage their specific roles within the experience of play, then the play would be utterly meaningless. Part of liturgy is the meaningful participation. I do not mean to imply that religion on the whole would be meaningless without players, but the weekly, repetitive functionary of a church service or liturgy recitation would be meaningless without this dialogical reciprocity. Symbiosis is derived from the Greek "syn" [with] and "biosis" [living], giving ways to the idea of the long-term interactions between different biological species. Gadamer's notion of the symbol seems to be a critical depiction of this. The church service, the people that actively engage in the liturgical readings engage with the rather parasitic history of the church and actively work to change and reshape history. Standing and participating is a way in which we recognize the wrongs the church has committed, but also verbally commit to working towards a new aim. We recollect our past situatedness and we make new claims in our new experiences, claims that incorporate our present world, claims that include rather than exclude, and hermeneutically function to make explicit the things in the world that are implicit or kept hidden (racial violence, domestic abuse, hate crimes on the GLBT community, homelessness, etc.). The function of the symbol of the church and the dialogue about beliefs are integral to the shaping of what happens "to us, in light of what it is that we are doing." Lastly, the conception of the festival is such that the specific hour each Sunday morning, apart from the ritual, tradition and historical situatedness that it holds would have no meaning whatever. However, by the very nature that at 11am on a Sunday morning, 200 or so people gather in a room to participate in the same festival-like experience. It grants the same "bubble" of time and space that disrupts our everydayness participation in the world. It is not merely because of a final telos that we gather; in a way, we gather because of this ritual. Being a part of the ritual is part of disclosing to us and to the world a piece of our own ontological searching and discovering.

Although there are some obvious discontinuities between the aesthetic experience and the experience of religious dialogue, the metonymic tools Gadamer provides, in turn provides a helpful resource in discovering the ways the participation in life can act as a moving, dislocating force to identifying one's situational being. Interestingly, with the rising of blog culture, liturgy is no longer something that is practiced only within a certain space. Moreover, with the rise of women taking leadership positions in a church, liturgy is no longer being written in only male (and Medieval) dominated language such as "Father-God", "King" and "Lord". There is a sense in which, not only has the very act of writing liturgy become a more socialized position, but the very language itself has become less hierarchical, less distant and more in tune with a personal congregation. When the language that people are speaking is a language that meets people in their familiar and contingent language, then it is such that the language does not demand distance, but rather, it is language that creates solidarity. When a telos for living (life) is created as opposed to working towards a final end, it seems to be the purpose of the church to create solidarity amongst themselves and then take that solidarity into the world to promote peace and wholeness.

[1] Gadamer, H.G. The Relevance of the Beautiful. Trans. Nicholas Walker. p. 12

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful.

[4] Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful.

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