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January 31st, 2013 at 9:00 am

“Philosophy has lost its way”

Rewiring the Real

This week our featured book is Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo by Mark C. Taylor. Remember to enter our Book Giveaway to win a FREE copy of Rewiring the Real. Today, we have a guest post from Professor Taylor, in which he discusses Rewiring the Real, Refiguring the Spiritual, and Recovering Place, and tells why Rewiring the Real might have begun, “Philosophy has lost its way.”

“Philosophy has lost its way”
Mark C. Taylor

Rewiring the Real is the second book in a trilogy that includes Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy (2012), and Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill (2014). Refiguring the Spiritual begins, “Art has lost its way;” Rewiring the Real might have begun, “Philosophy has lost its way.” During the latter half of the twentieth-century, art and money entered into an unholy alliance in which artists eager to cash in on new money are selling works to financiers who resell them in hedge funds and private equity funds designed for ultra-rich investors looking for new ways to “diversify their portfolios with asset-backed securities.” While artists are trying to become Wall Street players, philosophers are trying to become scientists. As their work becomes more abstract and highly specialized, philosophers become less concerned about human problems and real world issues.

For art and philosophy to recover their missions, art must become more philosophical and philosophy must become more artistic in and through a rethinking of the interrelationship of art, philosophy and religion. This will require not only a change in substance but, more important, a change in style. This is not an original idea but can be traced to the publication of Kant’s pivotal Critique of Judgment (1790). It is no exaggeration to insist that this work has directly and indirectly shaped all philosophical, theological, artistic and, indeed, cultural discussions and production for more than two centuries. Kant provided the definition of art that became normative for Modernism. During the decade of the 1790s, discussions about Kant’s critical philosophy among a remarkable group of philosophers and writers, including, inter alia, Hegel, Schelling, Schiller, Schleiermacher, Hölderlin, Novalis, and the Schlegel brothers, led to a reconfiguration of the relationship among philosophy, art and religion. While leading thinkers in the eighteenth century had interpreted religion in either epistemological or ethical terms, writers, who gathered in Jena during the seminal decade of the 1790s, reconceived religion in terms of art and aesthetics. In their works, art displaced religion as the primary means for the exploration and expression of religious and spiritual concerns. Some of philosophers who have been most influential recently – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida – are as much artists as philosophers. But they have all remained writers, whose works are literary or even poetic. Some of the leading twentieth-century visual artists – Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Malevich, Rothko, Reinhardt, Newman, Pollack – insist that art has a spiritual dimension.

Refiguring the Spiritual begins with a critique of what I describe as the “financialization of art.” What Andy Warhol is to consumer capitalism, Jeff Koons is to financial capitalism. But there is an importance difference between Andy and his epigone Jeff. While Warhol’s ironic detachment leaves the viewer uncertain whether he is criticizing or endorsing consumerism, there is no ambiguity about Koons. He eagerly endorses practices of the Wall Street wizards who pay excessive prices for eye candy intended to make them feel good. Beuys, Barney, Turrell and Goldsworthy reject this tendency in contemporary art. Each in his own way extends the preoccupations of the modern avant-garde art by drawing on different spiritual traditions (Beuys, Anthroposophy; Barney, Celtic and Masonic mythology; Turrell, Quakerism and Hopi myths and rituals; Goldsworthy, Celtic mythology). Their works are difficult and demanding – they cannot be consumed quickly but take time to appreciate. Though many of their works are expensive to create, they cannot be easily commodified. The primary purpose of their works is not to market them for a profit but to create the opportunity for the cultivation of personal and, by extension, social transformation.

Rewiring the Real extends my analysis from art to literature by analyzing one novel by four important writers: William Gaddis, The Recognitions; Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark; Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves; Don DeLillo, Underworld. Though these writers are very different, they share an appreciation for the ways in which recent technological innovations (Gaddis, electronic media and communications; Powers, virtual reality; Danielewski, Internet and World Wide Web; DeLillo, nuclear power and global financial networks) harbor a latent spirituality in an era that is too often labeled secular and posthuman. Rather than merely critically analyzing these novels, I attempt to engage the authors in a conversation that expands the inquiry beyond the boundaries each writer defines. As these writers begin to “talk” among themselves, we begin to see how their work can help readers understand the ways in which the very sense of reality is morphing in the global world of financial capitalism.

If style is substance and substance is style, then writing must change. In previous works (e.g., Imagologies: Media Philosophy, Grave Matters, Mystic Bones, Hiding, and Motel Réal: Las Vegas, Nevada), I have used different styles of writing and visual design to convey the ideas I am attempting to express. This ongoing experiment continues with this trilogy: Refiguring the Spiritual uses images and design to fashion arguments and Rewiring the Real includes accounts of some of my own artwork as well as my first attempt at writing fiction. Recovering Place will be my most ambitious experiment so far. In this multifaceted work, I take philosophy off the page by creating land art and sculpture (metal, rock, stone and bone) in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, where I live. In addition to a series of aphoristic reflections about the importance of recovering place in a world that is becoming ever more virtual, the book also includes original photographs I have taken of my art in its natural setting. As Kierkegaard, insisted long ago, many of the most important things in life can only be communicated indirectly. I would add to this that there are things that we can apprehend but not precisely comprehend. Through stylistic innovation and artistic design, I have attempted to create performative works that work at multiple levels to transform apprehension as well as introduce new ways of understanding the world in which we dwell.

Mark C. Taylor
Stone Hill


  1. Tyler Durden says:

    Is this the goal of philosophy, to concern itself with “human problems and real world issues”? Isn’t this making a presupposition regarding the ethical dimensions of the argument, itself based on a full blown humanism, and very much in line with the sort of neo-liberal agenda-setting that philosophers’ marketing of their practice in “real world” ethical practices entails? It strikes me that your argument, while provocative, and in line with the contemporary move toward alternative epistemological practices – and the blurring of the boundary between art and thought in place since at least Plato – and in that sense, is caught up in the euphoria of making philosophy matter by explicitly foregrounding the bodily, material element.
    In terms of the “missions” that art and philosophy have lost, they never had them in the first place! The 1790s period of German Idealism was NOT a humanism, and although they actively re-thought art, they were not concerned with “human problems” and “real world issues” but rather, had a growing awareness of the necessity to rethink history as itself in need of philosophic investigation. This, of course, was coming from a theological engagement – not the sort of artsy new age spiritualism to which this entry refers.

  2. The Stone Philosophy Links - NYTimes.com says:

    [...] essay on the life and work of Stanley Cavell.At the Columbia University Press blog, Mark C. Taylor asks whether philosophy has “lost its way.”And the hits keep on coming: Principia [...]

  3. Mark Taylor argues that philosophy lost its way | EIGHTEEN CHAINS says:

    [...] This is an interesting essay by Mark C. Taylor at the Columbia University Press blog. “…For art and philosophy to recover their missions, art must become more philosophical and philosophy must become more artistic in and through a rethinking of the interrelationship of art, philosophy and religion…” [...]

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