If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem Place and Personhood in the Crisis of Modernity

Charles Johnson
7 May 2002
typographical errors fixed, 5 June 2005

This essay is © 2002 by Charles Johnson, and is freed for credited reprinting and derivative works (but not, of course, for plagiarism) under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 copyleft license. If you have any questions or comments about the essay, feel free to contact the author.

When we speak of man and space, it sounds as though man stood on one side, space on the other. Yet space is not something that faces man. It is neither an external object nor an inner experience. It is not that there are men, and over and above them space; for when I say a man, and in saying this word think of a being who exists in a human manner--that is, who dwells--then by the name man, I already name a stay within the fourfold among things.

– Martin Heidegger, Building Dwelling Thinking

I. Introduction

In Persons and Places: Paradigms in Communication, W. H. Poteat meditates on the phenomenological character of place, the primordial and prereflective character of our existence which is that we dwell in the world. Poteat advances four primary theses in the course of his meditation. (1) The experience of place is fundamental to what it is to be a human person. (2) Place is the orientation and habitation of myself in a world, and should not be confused with space in the sense of an abstract Cartesian extensio. (3) The crisis of modernity is characterized by the loss of place and the consequent loss of personhood. (4) The loss of place is the result of place being supplanted by abstract space. Poteat's analysis, however, over-generalizes existential angst and thus misidentifies the character of the modern crisis, which lies primarily not in anxiety from dis-placement, but rather in the dangerous articulation of place. Insights from Eric Voegelin's The New Science of Politics: An Introduction will help to redirect and reshape Poteat's critique, while also providing new resources to Voegelin, and elucidating a fuller understanding of the nature of the crisis of modernity. (I.1)

II. Persons Have Places

Persons have places. (II.1)

It is in these three words that Poteat tersely expresses the vital center of his view. To think on these words will require more elaboration of what terms, precisely, are involved. But already there is a great deal which opens out to us from this terse formulation. (II.2)

Human being is being in the world. I am here at a particular point amongst theres towards which I turn myself. To be a person is to be at a place. (II.3)

Contrast the Cartesian view whose spectre, explicitly or implicitly, continues to haunt the intellectual landscape. Here our notion of our mind as ours has no reference to or dependence upon any particular body ... and also has no reference to or dependence upon the one and only body which is the entire universe or alternately the notion of body as such (183). For Descartes, I am only in a place accidentally, through the tenuous connection of mental and corporeal substance. Not so for Poteat: persons have places. I cannot say that I live a properly human life except that I feel, I plan, I act, I speak, I think, I build... none of these are possible without the room opened up by human being in a place. (II.4)

At this point, however, one may feel inclined to scoff. What exactly do you suppose all of this geometrical speculation is supposed to get us? Yes, I always exist in space, but what's so special about that? (II.5)

There is nothing at all special about the fact that persons have places. We may attend to it with the astonishment that Plato tells us is a very philosophical emotion, but here we are only elucidate the texture of our everyday life. However, the response elicited here is important to consider because it highlights the condition which, according to Poteat, the modern age has distinctively fallen, and which systematically obscures the importance of place. (II.6)

Poteat had been talking about place within the life-world around me. But, Poteat argues, the modern understanding has an extremely impoverished regard for the life-world, where our primordial conception of it has its inception in artistic and mathematical spectation and achieves its consolidation in the modal of a discarnate, godlike knower (181) without a place, a body, or a will. As a result of this impoverishment, someone meditating on the fact that persons have places conceives of this primarily as a matter of abstract geometrical space. (II.7)

Place, however, is nothing like abstract geometrical space, the Cartesian extensio. Rather, this abstraction only arises from out of the dynamic place. For Poteat, Place is the where of my body in order that there may be a where of my body, to which I have the fundamental of all relations, and is the condition of my having any relations whatsoever (185). The primordial place is the pre-reflective presence of myself in the world. It is only through the mediation of this presence, my orientation in my body from my place, that I come to the space of everything else around me. But even this space is not geometrical space, but rather primordially that by means of which I orient myself, or more exactly, by means of which I am oriented from within my body (182). It is only through the process of mathematical spectation and abstraction that we go from this dynamic, heterogeneous life-world to the homogenous abstraction of three-dimensional geometrical space. (II.8)

III. Dis-placement

In the modern age, The conception of space under review systematically preempts the notion of place (185). This has come about for a variety of reasons; chief among them that spectation, i.e., visual orientation, has risen as the overwhelming metaphor employed in today's language. What have been the effects? (III.1)

Place, unlike space, is a where in a dynamic, heterogeneous life-world. A place, Poteat writes, is where I feel at home, full of objects and relations upon which I left my very personal stamp, expressed my own idiosyncrasy, part of my unique history (186). Whereas Space can never belong to me, nor I to it; for Poteat, places can belong to me and I to them. (186). Whereas space offers only the cold, homogenous emptiness of measurable points, we dwell in places and it is through them that we exist as persons. Thus, To be of no place is therefore to lack the grounds of becoming a person; and to have no place is to lack the minimum conditions for remaining a person: a place which is the where of a body (186-187). (III.2)

When abstract space supplants place, we have none of this richness of the life world. When the notion of place, Poteat writes, is assimilated to that of space ... or when place is preempted by space, in this sense the concept of a person falls into grave jeopardy (181). Increasingly, our ability to make sense of ourselves as persons is undermined. And thus, Not knowing or having a place in nature, in the city, or in history, and finding our vocation at least ambiguous, we are a rootless, restless, placeless people--seeking with increasing desperation a place which, however tentatively, shall be ours (194). The anxiety and nihilism of modernity rests in the obstruction of the experience of being rooted in a place. It is only through the restoration of the experience of place that one can hope to propagate a new personalism (181). (III.3)

IV. Gnosticism and a Place in History

However, there is good reason to believe that Poteat has misunderstood what has happened to place in the modern world, and so misunderstood the root of modern anxiety and nihilism. In order to understand what has actually happened to place in the modern world, it will serve us to turn to Eric Voegelin's analysis of modernity as the outcome of gnostic symbolizations of truth. (IV.1)

Through the Middle Ages, orthodox Christianity had provided a symbolic framework of what Voegelin characterizes as soteriological truth, in which God bends towards a radically de-divinized world. As Poteat recognizes, the orthodox Christian framework articulates a dual sense of place. The ultimate place is the transcendent place in the Kingdom of God. In a secondary sense, an immanent, spatial place was articulated in accordance with the calling of the soul to God to reside at a particular place on Earth. Poteat argues that modern symbolic orders have lost the Christian conception of place with the death of God, but this is a failure to see the gnostic character of modern secular ideologies. The modern symbolic orders did not lose the Christian conception of place, but rather took it up and fundamentally distorted it. The nature of the distortion lies in the experience of gnosis. (IV.2)

Modern experience of place is thoroughly mediated by the gnostic symbolic order. Orthodox Christianity had conceived of the immanent world as being brought by grace towards God's transcendence. Nevertheless, the believer was still situated in her immanent place, related to her transcendent place in the Kingdom of God only through the bond of faith and the outreached hand of God's grace. The emergence of gnosticism, however, distorted and supplanted this ordering of experience. The full realization of the Kingdom of God in the orthodox Christian understanding lies at the end of history, and it is achieved through the grace of a God transcendent from the de-divinized world. In Gnosticism, however, the experience of gnosis replaces the cognitio fidei; whereas the Christian sees as though through a glass, darkly, the experience of gnosis clays claim to an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man (124). Rather than God's grace, gnostic contact from human faculties to the God within becomes the basis for the experience of place. And through this substitution, place in the Kingdom of God, which for the Christian had been transcendent of history, is folded into the immanent historical process. Modern secularizations of gnosticism are only radicalizations of this immanentist tendency--the immanent eruption of the Kingdom of God now takes the form of the revolution of the proletariat, or the purification of the Volk, or the onward march of civilizational progress. (IV.3)

Voegelin argues that the gnostic immanentization invariably brings about a theoretical problem, the problem of an eidos of history (120). Place remains articulated within the Kingdom of God, but with the immanentization of the eschaton, the supernatural pull from transcendence has been eliminated, and so an intelligible form of the immanent world-historical progress must be articulated to make sense of the Kingdom of God. The re-divinized world must pull itself through history by its own bootstraps, and the apocalypse of the new world into the old requires an understanding of historical forces as pushing toward a state of earthly perfection. The experience of gnosis seeks to re-unite the immanent and transcendent places, and to re-articulate place as place in an order of world-historical progress toward a future realm of perfection. Unlike the transcendent horizon of the end of history, this immanent Kingdom of God is seen as being brought about by the deified believers through the gnostic contact with the divine within. (IV.4)

V. Causes

The roots of Gnosticism lie deep in tensions within the Christian representation of truth. The nature of Christian soteriological truth is such that one's ultimate place is always in the Kingdom of God. The immanent place in which a person dwells can be appreciated as a calling from the transcendent place in the Kingdom of God, but it is far downgraded from the pagan understanding of place, where the believer lives in a world full of gods. Truth is attained not through the exercise of any human faculty, but rather through faith and grace. However, the bond of faith is tenuous indeed, and it may snap easily (Voegelin 122). God's silence and the aching for things unseen confront one constantly with the Problem of Evil and the fear that she is losing her place both in Heaven and on Earth. (V.1)

Despite the anxiety aroused by the soteriological truth, the understanding of place in ancient paganism had lost their spell precisely for men who had tasted of Christianity, and so The fall could be caught only by experiential alternatives, sufficiently close to the experience of faith that only a discerning eye would see the difference, but receding far enough from it to remedy the uncertainty of faith in the strict sense (123). Gnostic experiences emerged as the new articulation of place on which gnosis of the divine could serve as a way of recuperating the tension between final truth and the need for forbearance. The re-unification of transcendent and immanent place into the articulation of place in history is part of a quest to escape the tension between the dual place of the orthodox Christian. (V.2)

Other factors may be identified as having contributed to the rise of historical Gnosticism. In particular, the development of the printing press and the advent of mass literacy rapidly sped along the process at the opening of the modern age. Two reasons may be identified for this. (V.3)

First, the articulation of place in history would have been impossible to an oral/aural society. The lack of canonical records prevented the development of history as such. Time, instead, was periodized into a cosmic cycle of the mundane and a transcendental mythic dream-time of creation. However, with the development of mass-printed and encyclopaediac history, the Gnostic desire for the immanent realization of the Kingdom of God could be articulated through the eidos of world-historical progress. (V.4)

Second, the same literacy that enabled the experience of place in world-history also pushed forward the Gnostic tendency to seek an intelligible eidos in historical progress. Printed text is the medium of historical transmission, and so along with it comes the tendency to approach immanent world-history as an intelligible text, with the eidos of historical progress shaping the rising action, climax, and denouement. (V.5)

VI. Effects

What happens, then, when a person experiences place as articulated in history rather than in space? (VI.1)

The disappearance of spatial place may come to be understood not as a cause of modernist crisis, but rather as a symptom. The crisis of our day is the gnostic articulation of place into world-historical progress; in this articulation spatial place is increasingly left only as empty abstract space due to the removal of the life-world into the realm of history. (VI.2)

As Poteat writes, place is where I feel at home, full of objects and relations upon which I left my very personal stamp, expressed my own idiosyncrasy, part of my unique history (186). With the re-articulation of place into world-historical progress, home now lies not in a spatial place but in a stage of time. The identity of a person in historical place is articulated in terms of her relationship to contemporaries and also to the progress of the Kingdom of God. Home rests not in a spatial place but amongst the ephemera of one's own generation and in the continuation of the march of world-historical progress towards perfection. What it is to be a person is to be a person in the new millennium, surrounded by the characteristic gadgets and gizmos of the age, immersed in generational pop culture with a mixture of nostalgia and camp, and to be at the head of the historical line towards progress. (VI.3)

However, the Gnostic articulation is not simply a new order of representation. It is a malign distortion of the Christian articulation of place. The articulation of place in immanent history--the immanentization of the Chistian eschaton--amounts to a radical new form of idolatry, with disastrous effects. The articulation of place within world-historical progress is, ultimately, a project which has to fail, because the articulation on which it is based is fallacious. Although we may try to articulate our place within a world-historical progress towards immanent apocalypse, The course of history as a whole is no object of experience; history has no eidos, because the course of history tends into the unknown future (120). Place may be articulated within history, but only if history is regarded as open towards transcendence. The Gnostic immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton (120) creates an illusionary eidos by treating a symbol of faith as if it were a proposition concerning an object of immanent experience (120). (VI.4)

Nor, of course, did the idolatrous attempt to bring God into the human soul actually succeed in producing a God within, which is impossible. Rather, the experience of gnosis meant a ruthless closing off of the soul from transcendence and the attempt to pull the immanent world up by its own bootstraps. In this way, Gnosticism, on Voegelin's account, most effectively released human forces for the building of a civilization because on their fervent application to intramundane activity was put the premium of salvation (130). But the danger of gnosticism grows along with its progress. The closing off of the soul from transcendence meant a massive investment into an immanent world without consideration of any ends other than as an instrument to the satisfaction of the gnostic dream world. And with the closing off of the soul, (VI.5)

The death of the spirit is the price of progress. ... The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline. (131)

The articulation of place within the immanentized eschaton means that the soul is closed off towards transcendence and devoted entirely to ruthless pursuit of an impossible perfection--whether the nihilistic satisfaction of desires, or the totalitarian world of a dream-become-nightmare. (VI.6)

What endangers place and personhood in modernity is not that they have simply been lost--for they have not. Rather, it is the corruption in their articulation which was brought about by Gnosticism. A recovery will require a re-opening of the soul towards transcendence, and an articulation of place in a history open to the horizon of the future. With such a new understanding, a place for the immanent place in space may once again open up and overcome the crisis of place and truth in which the modern condition has placed us. (VI.7)