Absolute Nothingness and Taylor's Imagology

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Thomas J. J. Altizer
SUNY Stony Brook, Emeritus

    Mark Taylor has remarked many times recently that theology has come to an end in our new world and is now wholly anachronistic, but the question can be asked if Taylor's recent work is not in deep continuity with his previous theological work, a work whose seminal expression is in Erring: A Postmodern A/theology.[1] For despite its comprehensive range, this book has a genuine theological center, and even a Christian one, as it calls forth a milieu of "unoriginal origin," which is an eternal cross(ing) of the word, and one revealing scripture anew. Here is a thoroughly incarnational Christology, and a truly Christocentric theology, but one in which the divine is forever embodied, and the word is always already inscribed. Yet this incarnation is an embodiment of the death of that God who is only God, for the word is never disembodied, and its kenotic emptying embodies the death of transcendent originality and the end of a solitary causa sui. While enacting the end of history, this book knows a history which begins with the incapacity or refusal to say "Yes to Nay," and ends with the ability and willingness to say Amen, an Amen which is a "Mazing Grace," and one in which the disappearance of origin is the "end of the end".[2] If thereby this is not an apocalyptic ending, it is nevertheless a genuine ending, and Taylor can ask if the disappearance of the subject, which is being realized in our midst, is an embodiment of that death of God, which is the realization of the dissemination of the incarnate word. Yet this dissemination is a nihilistic dissemination, one completing nihilism itself, but the completion of nihilism is a reversal of nihilism, a reversal in which the fullness of nihilism is identical with the will to overcome nihilism completely, and to overcome it through an eternal and kenotic cross(ing).

  1. If we always begin as having already begun, for we are always beginning again, this is a beginning erasing an absolute origin, but precisely thereby releasing the play of the divine milieu, a divine milieu which has never been so comprehensively manifest as it is in our new world. This is the world which Taylor explores in his more recent work, a world in which the word is always an image, as most clearly manifest in a new and all comprehensive simulation, one in which the essential is nothing, and nothing is essential, now virtuality is all in all, and reality itself becomes "imaginary." Yet virtuality also has a theological ground, for now the Imago dei becomes deus imagnis (Imagologies, 6-7), as once again a divine milieu is enacted, and now the disappearance of reality is the full and final appearance of the "no-thing." This is the disappearance which is most fully explored in Disfiguring (1992), a reenactment of the transformation of modernity into postmodernity as it occurs in the visual imagination, and this is a genuinely theological exploration, one employing a theoesthetics and an a/theoesthetics, as for the first time the fullness of modern and postmodern art is investigated from a theological perspective. Modern art is understood as the presence of a total presence, but the presence of total presence is the death of the transcendent God, and modernity culminates in "nullity" or das Nichts.

  2. Now divine transcendence is indistinguishable from the death of God, and this death is comprehensively enacted in the postmodern world, for now signs are signs of nothing and there is nothing other than signs. Taylor asks how is it possible to speak this silence, but he does speak it in his exploration of postmodern art and architecture, and if here there occurs a total disappearance of God, this is simultaneously the birth of a world of total simulation. Yet that simulation is a "denegation" through which the repressed or the refused returns, for "denegation" is an un-negation that affirms rather than negates negation (Disfiguring, 230). Just as we are now being overwhelmed by an excessive refuse, this is a refuse that cannot be incorporated or eliminated, and it subverts every purported "re-fusal." Here, Taylor is most exciting and most original in his exploration of postmodern architecture, and if he thereby draws forth a truly new space, and an absolutely empty space, an empty space which is "desertion," now the world itself is simply and only a desert. But it is also and simultaneously the "desertion of the Absolute," a primal motif which Taylor employs in his investigation of the painting of Anselm Kiefer, a painting revealing that all previous art is "iconolatry," and Kiefer's disfiguration, too, is an un-negation that affirms rather than negates negation. And now Taylor does discover an original beginning, an anarchic arche which is the "terrifyingly ancient," that "unrepresentable before" that disfigures all figures (Disfiguring, 302). Yet this anarchic arche has never been so totally present as it is in our new world, one releasing a total disfiguration, a disfiguration nowhere more fully present than in those new and comprehensive images which are engulfing us, images dissolving everything but illusion itself, and images which for the first time are purely illusory images.

  3. We could perhaps understand this ultimately negative abyss as one impelling the advent of a total simulation, and if now everything is image and nothing appears but appearance, this virtualization of reality is a "desertion" of everything whatsoever, but a desertion hiding that ultimate nothingness which has engulfed us, and hiding it by giving us a totally simulated nothingness, one in which surface is depth and depth is surface, and one which Taylor takes with total seriousness. Hence in the conclusion of this book he refuses the dream of salvation, embracing a "no resurrexit," and does so by refusing both the total transcendence and the total immanence of God, insisting that we must unthink all that we have thought with the name of God. Nevertheless, this is a genuine theological conclusion; and it initiates a quest for a truly and totally negative theology, which is conducted in Hiding (1997), which can be understood as Taylor's most important book.

  4. Of course, Hiding is not a book, for not only does it occur after the closure of the book, but it intends a total erasure of all distinction between text and image, as now a postmodern totality of surface is truly embodied. It might be remarked that no writer in history has commanded the publishing resources that Taylor commands in Disfiguring and Hiding, nor has any writer since Blake published a truly illuminated printing, it is as though the full power of postmodernity is vested in Taylor's voice, and we have for the first time a truly postmodern evangelism. Now we can know that we have no genuine media evangelists, or none apart from Taylor, and if now the medium truly is the message, this is a message, which is an evangelistic message, and one calling us to an ecstatic celebration. But is this truly a nihilistic celebration, one ecstatically embodying a total nothingness, a nothingness which only now is all in all, but nonetheless a nothingness reversing nihilism itself, and reversing it by truly overcoming nihilism? If so, it can be understood as being genuinely evangelical, and evangelical in a truly theological sense, and even if Taylor can refuse salvation for himself, his is nevertheless an evangelical call, and one embodied in the dazzling images before us.

  5. Is this then an erasure of writing, or an erasure of every writing that is only writing, and if only thereby a dissolution of everything that we have known as theology? Certainly there is far less theology in Hiding than in any previous work of Taylor's, perhaps no theology at all, or none that we can recognize as theology, and if only in that sense Taylor can truly know theology as anachronistic. Yet is theology truly absent in Hiding, or could this be that absence which Taylor knows as presence, and one inescapable in a calling forth of a total nothingness, a total nothingness that in our history could only evoke a theological naming, even if that is the naming of ultimate abyss? Indeed, no theologian has so focused upon that abyss as has Taylor, but now for the first time he is evoking abyss and abyss alone, an abyss which can perhaps be named as "Mazing Grace," but now and only now an abyss totally engulfing us all. It is just by calling forth that grace that Taylor is truly evangelical, and this is a grace that is truly everywhere, even if it is everywhere as a pure simulacrum; and if simulacrum is everywhere in postmodernity, it is an everywhere that, precisely as a nowhere, can be greeted here as an ultimate liberation.

  6. If Taylor is giving us a truly new negative theology, it shares at least one primal motif with its ancient counterparts, and that is a total disappearance of the body, one now universally occurring in our electronic revolution, and all of our postmodern images record the disappearance of the body, a body which can now appear only as a pure simulacrum. In truth, our new bodies are virtual bodies, and if Taylor can call forth a virtual reality in which reality is an illusion, our new bodies are truly illusory bodies, but thereby body itself is a truly universal body, and one which Taylor can almost greet as a resurrection of the body. Apocalypse now? Is it only a traditional apocalypticism that Taylor can refuse? Is this an apocalypticism that he reverses in so greeting the virtual nothingness of the body, a virtual nothingness that is a total nothingness, and a total nothingness that for the first time we can actually see and hear, and ever more increasingly we can hear and see nothing else? Once again, Taylor can know our new world as a desert, a desert in which "nothing" is visible; and it is visible in a simultaneous subversion of both significance and insignificance. Now nothing whatsoever distinguishes significance from insignificance, just as nothing whatsoever distinguishes surface from depth. How could this not be true if we are undergoing a total incorporation into an electronic or artificial body, and if a total automation now lies before us as our new destiny? This is a destiny Taylor can greet and affirm. Are we undergoing an apocalyptic transubstantiation, a transubstantiation into a totally automated life? Surely a total virtualization could be no less than this. But is it possible to understand such virtualization as an apocalyptic resurrection, and an apocalyptic resurrection in which all actual bodies will disappear, or in which all actual bodies can only be actual as virtual bodies? Will they therein truly be eternal bodies as at last our longing for immortality is fulfilled? Then, and only then, can we finally and totally say Yes?

  7. The truth is that Taylor pronounces no such affirmation. Is he, like Moses, forbidden to enter his own promised land? Nevertheless he is issuing a new Torah for this new covenant, or if not a Torah at least an ecstatic call; but now, and perhaps for the first time, an ecstatic call fully realizing the ultimate desert that is now at hand, and even in realizing it, daring to embrace it in an ecstatic embrace that is an embrace of a total nothingness. It must be remembered that Nietzsche, along with Hegel and Kierkegaard, is one of Taylor's three ultimate masters. Taylor's is a Nietzschean language, evoking an ultimate Yes in response to an ultimate No. Just as Nietzsche is our greatest master of modern nihilism, Taylor intends to be our primal master of a postmodern nihilism. Nietzsche is purely evangelistic in pronouncing and evoking an absolute Yes, an evocation only possible in response to the full advent of an absolute No. It is the very totality of that No that makes absolutely necessary the evocation of an absolute Yes; and Nietzsche's is a truly apocalyptic Yes-saying, one only called forth by the final ending of history, one celebrating an absolutely new apocalypse. Would Taylor be our new Nietzsche? Or, if that is impossible, is his calling forth out of the depths of our postmodern abyss a decisive way to an apocalyptic celebration? If depth now is surface itself, does that make possible an apocalyptic totality that all can and will embody?

  8. Here there is a deep difference between Taylor and Nietzsche. For if Nietzsche's is a way only for the elite, Taylor's is a way for all and everyone. At that point he is a true evangelist, as Nietzsche is not, and he is most evangelical in calling upon his hearer to actually receive that which he has already been deeply given. If what we are being given is a virtual reality that is grace itself, we only have to awaken to that which we already are or are becoming, and leave behind forever every remnant of an old life and an old world, an old world that has already come to an end, and even come to an end in everything that we can now actually see and hear. Yet is this ending a new beginning of that kenosis or self-emptying or cross(ing) that is the center of Taylor's earlier work? Has that kenosis now become a universal horizon as it never was before, one embodied not in our depths but in our surfaces, surfaces which are all in all, and all in all in all of us?

  9. Surely Hiding is a maze in which everything is hidden. Superficially it appears as a haphazard collection of scraps and bones with no order whatsoever. It can also be understood as Taylor's scrapbook, even containing autobiographical recollections, but nevertheless there is a center in Hiding, and a kenotic center, for it centers in an absolute sacrifice as most fully called forth in ""Ground Zero." The way to this sacrifice is unveiled in the conclusion of "De-Signing," a de-signing in which we are immersed in the totally artificial world of fashion. There we can actually see that the fulfillment of desire is death, and Taylor can claim that the fear of fashion is the dread of a time whose sting is death; and that we can embrace fashion only by affirming that life which is death. But de-signing flows spontaneously into ground zero, which opens with questions about sacrifice, including the primal question of whether sacrifice can be sacrificed. We are given a primal or gnomic formula: Nothing:Ground 0=0 Ground. This formula is associated with the figure of the pyramid, in which the tip of the pyramid is understood as the center of the sphere, the point at which the "real" is totally present, and the movement from center to periphery is marked by the dispersal of reality in a play of appearances, appearances that, having originated in lack, seek reunion with the One they are missing: "The return of, to, and on the One, however, is impossible apart from the sacrifice of the many" (Hiding, 222-23). At the tip of the pyramid is a flame, which not only radiates the sacrifice of the One but also consumes the sacrifice of the many. This fire of consumption is a holocaust that consumes differences in identity while leaving nothing but "the trace of the nothing." In that "Unity" we sink into Nothingness itself. Thus, Taylor can ask: All or Nothing, All and Nothing, All for Nothing? Again we are initiated into a modern architecture whose history is the story of alternative strategies for making the body disappear, and as everything becomes transparent, materiality dematerializes, and nothing remains to hide. This is a transparency, however, which is the very darkness of the desert, one beyond all superficial appearances, a darkness which is the very heart of our appearances, and which can only be visible as "Nothing."

  10. All too significantly, we are taken now to Las Vegas, a literal ground zero, one that is the very reversal of everything Taylor knows as the play of the divine milieu. Nonetheless, it can lead Taylor to an acceptance of the ultimate wager in the game of life, one nourishing a gay wisdom that freely accepts lack and embraces loss, for it is necessary to wager everything with the expectation of receiving absolutely nothing in return (Hiding, 267). Is that the wager Taylor is making with postmodernity itself? Is it one which all of us must make? Is this the "gospel" or the liberating message Taylor is giving us? Is it a truly evangelical gospel, one liberating us from everything that is an obstacle to that grace which is finally all in all? But is this wager not itself an ultimate sacrifice, even one that repeats the kenotic sacrifice Taylor so deeply knows, a sacrifice that is a universal kenosis, or a universal cross(ing)? A traditional, purely negative or apophatic theology only knows the Godhead itself, and knows the Godhead as the absolute Nothing. Is it a comparable or parallel nothingness that Taylor finally calls forth? Taylor's is a purely incarnational theological thinking, an incarnational thinking that is a purely kenotic thinking. We can ask, therefore, if the new virtual reality Taylor calls forth is a kenotic reality, one finally embodying an absolute sacrifice in which our new appearances or our new illusions or our new virtuality are the consequence of an absolute self-emptying or an absolute sacrifice. If our new world truly is a "no-thing" or nothingness itself, and a nothingness that is an actual nothingness, must it not be the consequence of an ultimate emptying, or of an ultimate sacrifice of the One, and of that One which in this sacrifice is absolute kenosis itself? If so, we can understand Taylor's message as an enactment of the gospel, but an enactment in which every other enactment of the gospel becomes truly and actually anachronistic insofar as it is turned away from our truly new world, a world that may well be the deepest desert in our history, and thereby precisely the arena for a new and comprehensive gospel enacted in the new virtual reality that is purely illusory, or finally, a pure nothingness.

  11. Nothing is more difficult to think than nothingness itself. Not until the advent of German Idealism did an actual nothingness enter our philosophical thinking; and if Schelling, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are our purest Western thinkers of nothingness, this is an extraordinarily elusive motif in their thinking, one which is never fully or decisively realized. Yet, both an actual and an absolute nothingness has been the primal center of a uniquely modern imagination. Just as Taylor calls this forth in Disfiguring, it is a genuine center of Hiding, but nevertheless it is hidden as such in Hiding, only occasionally appearing as an explicit motif, and never unveiling itself as such. Or does it unveil itself in everything Taylor says about appearance and reality, a new reality in which reality is only appearance or illusion, and is therefore finally nothingness itself? Indeed, there is a totality of illusion or nothingness here that is truly unique. No longer is it possible to distinguish appearance from reality, or the illusory from the real, perhaps no distinctions of any kind are now truly possible, except for that ultimate distinction between this new world and every world which has occurred before. Is this a truly apocalyptic apprehension, and an apocalyptic apprehension of nothingness itself, a truly new nothingness, and a nothingness which is totality itself. Nietzsche could enact such a nothingness in his enactment of Eternal Recurrence, but Nietzsche could say an absolute Yes to Eternal Recurrence, one which it is impossible for Taylor to evoke in his response to our new world. Is that a decisive sign of a genuine failure or erring of Taylor's, or a call to a new move he now must make?

  12. If Taylor truly is a genuinely negative theologian, indeed one in continuity with an ancient negative theology, could he know a total virtuality as a reflection of the absolute nothingness of the Godhead? Thereby absolute nothingness can be known as being absolutely real, but absolutely real only as an absolute nothingness. Something very like this is present in his deeper apprehension of our new world, for that world is wholly illusory and yet nevertheless real. We can enter that world only by entering a deep illusion, an illusion in which our very bodies disappear into a virtual nothingness. Then nothing is truly distinguished from anything else; every here is there, and every there is here, now the present is everywhere, and past and future are nowhere. Is this a new epiphany of an eternal now, which is not only everywhere but everyone, as "Here Comes Everybody" is now truly incarnate, and truly incarnate everywhere? Of course, this is the deepest possible illusion, but it is precisely thereby reality in our new world, for only the illusory can be real in that world, a world that truly is illusory, and therefore truly is nothing. Now this is a very different "erring" than that which is present in Taylor's earlier work. No genuine fault or rent is here apparent, unless there is no longer any distinction whatsoever between erring and non-erring or between rent and unrent.

  13. Taylor is our theologian or a/theologian who has the most comprehensive understanding of fall, but is fall here finally indistinguishable from a purely redemptive self-emptying or cross(ing)? Is that fall embodied in our new world, and embodied in pure virtuality itself? Is that virtuality a truly sacrificial virtuality, one fully manifest in the very disappearance of our bodies, and in that new emptiness that is now all in all? Is a truly kenotic sacrifice being enacted in our new world; and is it a sacrifice that is now everywhere, even if only everywhere as a purely illusory sacrifice? These are questions that inevitably must be addressed to Taylor, and perhaps they have been asked by Taylor himself. Or, has he turned away from all such questions by his new refusal of theology, one certainly not present in his previous work, but seemingly primal for Mark Taylor today. Taylor is given to autobiographical reflection more than any other contemporary theologian, and no other theologian so fully records or "marks" himself in his work as does Taylor. Yet, he never speaks autobiographically of his own theological thinking. It is as though this is a deeply forbidden or hidden topic, and perhaps the only topic that Taylor refuses. Why? Is a deep fault or erring inseparable from Taylor's theological work, and revealed in his most open theological writing, a writing he can know to be indistinguishable from "erring," perhaps most so in his more recent writing?

  14. It is fully possible to understand that there is something truly perverse in Taylor's understanding of postmodernity or of our new world; this is manifest in his pure conjunction of reality and illusion or significance and insignificance or surface and depth. It is as though he has accepted a challenge to construct the most perverse or most inverted world, one that could only induce the deepest shock; and yet it is certainly remarkable that this construction calls forth such real resonances within us, and that once we have encountered it, we find it virtually inescapable. One is reminded of the evangelical preacher's enactment of our ultimate sin. While sin is a category alien to Taylor, he has ever more fully evolved a far more comprehensive counterpart; for the ultimate desert he calls forth is truly our own, and we can know that desert as our deepest condition, and know it through his genuinely evangelical call. Every genuine preacher knows that preaching is truly dialectical. Only an evocation of the deepest darkness can make possible an evocation of the deepest light; and only an enactment of eternal death makes possible an enactment of eternal life. Something very like this is present in Taylor's recent work, and indeed, more present here than in his earlier work. Is that a decisive sign of a full theological presence? Is it when Taylor's work is most theologically hidden or disguised that it is most truly theological work, having a far greater impact or effect than otherwise would be possible, perhaps because it is most theologically disguised?

  15. We have long since learned that our great poets have had a far greater theological impact than have our major theologians. If, in full modernity, theological language as such has become ever increasingly sectarian or unreal, so that it has now virtually ended both in our academic and in our truly public worlds, it could well be that now only a fully disguised or hidden theological language can be real; but thereby it could have a universal impact. That potentiality would appear to be real both in Disfiguring and in Hiding, Here Taylor's most individual statements foreclose this possibility, individual statements belying the new world he calls forth, and diluting the total anonymity that otherwise is fully manifest. Far more fundamentally, however, a play that admits no possibility of resolution is ever enacted throughout this work. Not only are Taylor's conclusions or endings always beginnings, they are also beginnings foreclosing endings. Here, everything is foreplay, and a foreplay evading all possible final penetration. Could it be that Taylor is suppressing the theologian within himself as a way of perpetuating this continual play or foreplay; and if Taylor is finally more deeply a theologian than anything else, is such suppression at bottom a repression fundamentally blocking his path? Indeed, a deeply theological ground can be understood as the origin of this quest, one fully manifest in his earlier work, and if his newer work ever more fully disguises that ground, is this a disguise that is illusory, creating an illusion essential to this work and to its real impact?

  16. Apparently we are now undergoing a genuine turn or return to religion, one more manifest in our philosophical than in our theological world. This is fully manifest in Taylor's primary contemporary master, Derrida. If Derrida is contemptuous of the very idea of postmodernity, could that at least in part be because there is something truly missing in our understanding of postmodernity, namely the religious itself? Certainly this is missing in Taylor's understanding of postmodernity; but perhaps it is not actually missing, and surely it is not if his understanding of "desert" is a truly religious one, as it would appear to be in his calling forth of the anarchic arche that is a truly terrifying horror religiosus. So, too, his understanding of an actual nothingness, and of the new universality of that nothingness, is inseparable from a religious or a theological ground. If he can understand the Holocaust as the very inauguration of postmodernity, there is an absolute evil here that cannot possibly be understood as a mere privatio boni. It can only be understood as an absolute nothingness, and an absolutely negative absolute nothingness, one that Taylor envisions in his calling forth of "desert."

  17. If Taylor is truly serious in his understanding of self-emptying or sacrifice, of a primordial or original kenotic sacrifice, now enacted in us all, that sacrifice is inseparable from an ultimate violence that is minimized if not dissolved in his earlier understanding of cross(ing), but called forth in his understanding of a contemporary "desertion" that certainly is not simply a virtual reality, and certainly not a simulacrum. Is it possible that Taylor's understanding of postmodernity breaks down just when it is apprehended from a fully theological or religious perspective, or breaks down in terms of the language with which he commonly describes it? This is above all true in Imagologies, but no less true in those dominant sections of Hiding that deal with virtual reality alone, or give us only the play of images, a play disguising the violence that is its source, and so inevitably disguising the ultimately religious ground of the images. True, a religious or theological language does enter Hiding at crucial points, perhaps at its most crucial points, but this language is always cryptic and abrupt, as though it is laboring under a deep repression or censorship, which perhaps is invisible to its author. But it cannot be invisible to its theological reader, who might well have the suspicion that this very conjunction of text and image disguises a genuinely theological ground, and disguises it by a contemporary imagery, which not only dissolves the body but dissolves every ultimate ground. For if surface and depth are now indistinguishable, and now surface is depth, such a surface is infinitely distant not only from all pre-contemporary painting, but from everything that we have known as a purely religious act or enactment.

  18. Taylor's recent work gives the initial impression that it is an integral whole. Upon further reflection, however, this impression dissipates and deep rents or rifts become manifest. For when one reflects upon the proposition that illusion is reality, or that surface is depth, one discovers that these words then lose all real meaning. But perhaps this is so only if we reflect upon them as words alone, thereby losing what is here their integral relation with image. If this imagery is solely a contemporary or postmodern imagery, then it must be confessed that it does evoke meaning, but a meaning in which sheer horror is incarnate, even if it is clothed in an imagery disguising that horror. Is it possible to evoke a greater horror today? Our saturation in contemporary imagery has a truly numbing effect, and perhaps it most deeply numbs a horror religiosus, which otherwise would inevitably be called forth. Is it nevertheless called forth in a truly disguised form? For if such imagery calls forth a truly new emptiness, is that not an ultimate emptiness, and an ultimately actual emptiness, that once was known as eternal death or damnation? In no tradition is damnation or eternal death so central as it is in Christianity; and in calling forth our ultimate emptiness, Taylor once again bears the mark of a Christian theologian, because this is an ultimately actual emptiness that is an ultimately actual nothingness. Only Christianity knows that nothingness, most deeply though the eternal death of the Crucifixion. So as opposed to his earlier understanding of cross(ing), Taylor has now envisioned an ultimate death that is an ultimate nothingness. If he can unveil this as the very center of our new world, is it a center that is death and life at once, or an ultimate death that is finally an ultimate resurrection? This is the very point at which Taylor is called upon to say Yes, or to say Amen. Is that even now a possibility for him, or for anyone who actually knows our new world?


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