I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… – John Keats1 
It would seem, then, that genuine intellectual clarity is obtainable only when that which is to be “known” is allowed to remain open and mysterious: an attitude synonymous with a kind of reverence. – Catherine Pickstock2 

In her labyrinthine and perhaps performatively aspectual book After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Catherine Pickstock argues—provocatively, dazzlingly, and sometimes nearly inscrutably—for “the event of transubstantiation in the Eucharist” as the “condition of possibility for all human meaning.”3 After Writing brims with similarly fascinating conjectures and insights: the enlightenment rationalists are heirs not of Plato, but of the sophists; modernity’s groping toward immortality through transhumanism, born out of a fear of death, emerges from a deeper necrophilia; a purely immanent rationalism (like Descartes’s) is self-erasing and tantamount to the nihil; manners are but the trivial and bastardized vestiges of ritual.4 But one of the most persistently curious aspects of Pickstock’s first major work involves the way her own authorial style is seemingly borne along the currents of the flux of being, achieving a kind of harmony with the fundamental ontological dynamism that she sees modernity (and sophistry) seeking to immobilize. Pickstock has in fact been criticized as obscurantist and overly performative in her prose style in this early work;5 and these criticisms aside, After Writing is certainly not easy sledding, even for those trained in philosophy or theology. But Pickstock’s refusal of neat argumentative closure (if that is a fair way of putting it) is, rather than a vice, a positive virtue, conducive to the kinds of readerly discoveries she hopes to permit. This is because knowledge, as a continued action and not as the accretion of discrete facts in the mind, emerges with the fumblings of uncertainty, or within the open liminality that surrounds flashes of clarity. For clarity, experienced by itself, tends only to stifle the act of knowledge and bar holistic movement toward the good, the true, and the beautiful, behind a lattice of perceived intellectual mastery or, more damningly, arrival. 

But if this is true, why is there a concern in so many spheres of life, not least those of analytic philosophy and of Western education, with rational clarity? Or why, perhaps more specifically, does a kind of pseudo-democratization of knowledge which aims to render all truth “accessible” across as many strata of the social order as possible continue to persist? Pickstock traces one answer and, in the process, argues against clarity, in her genealogy of the “spatializing” tendencies ensconced in what she calls “the polity of death.”6 

The origin of this necrophiliac civic order stretches at least as far back as the sophists in her account, but it almost certainly extends into the fog of prewritten and immemorial past. Against Derrida’s appraisal of Plato inaugurating (or handing down) Western philosophy’s obsession with original metaphysical presence, Pickstock shows that Plato was positively opposed to any notion of an unmediated philosophical apprehension and actually advocates a liturgical approach to knowledge which necessitates a continued acceptance of what is always arriving as gift. Accordingly, while Phaedrus ceaselessly seeks empirical verification of Socrates’s mythic tales, Socrates is content to attribute his wisdom to a vague ἀκοῆ7in the unidentifiable past; while Phaedrus views knowledge as a series of containable and transferrable tokens of capital, capable of being possessed under his cloak, Socrates supposes that knowledge “cannot be circumscribed in the manner of ordinary, empirical data, and is not accessible to technical knowing, but instead must be allowed to arise in and through the excess of supplementary figures which successively illuminate its nature.”8 Pickstock grounds these and other divergences between Plato (as Socrates) and the sophists in the “inaccessible and inexhaustible plenitude” residing at the heart of Plato’s metaphysic, in contrast to either sophistic immanentism or a notion of a kind of pseudo transcendence that is static and spatial and, hence, containable.9 So it is the sophists, she concludes, that occupy a closed and flat world, ever subsumable within a mappable intellectual mathēsis, in ignorance (or denial) of temporal embodiment, the contingencies of history, the particularities of place, and eros. 

But this “unliturgical world” spreads and expands beyond the sophists of antiquity and takes shape with particular clarity in John Duns Scotus (13th C), Peter Ramus (16th C), René Descartes (early 17th C), Robert Boyle (late 17th C), and onward.10 Pickstock’s treatment of these “usual suspects” has certainly been much debated since her book’s publication, but the lineage that she identifies remains compelling, and sometimes downright scintillating, nevertheless. The theology of Duns Scotus is, in her words, “perhaps the first definite theoretical symptom of the destruction from within the liturgical city.”11 Emerging from his rejection of Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis, according to which real ontological difference permits participation in the divine, Duns Scotus asserted that “God is deemed ‘to be’ in the same univocal manner as creatures,” only to be distinguished from creatures by an “intensity of being.”12 One major consequence of this is that, paradoxically, God becomes infinitely distanced from his creation by virtue of his infinite intensity of existence over against the finite intensity of existence with which creation subsists. But secondly and more relevant here, being—as an abstract category above both God and the creature—now becomes the sole object of metaphysics and requires new, non-Aristotelian categories in order to understand it. In place of Thomas’s real distinction and cognitive distinction, Duns Scotus is forced to posit the formal distinction—a distinction comprehending that which is “neither being nor Being, neither particular nor universal, neither wholly real nor wholly thought,” but “formality.13 

According to Pickstock, this blend of the actual and the possible, planted at the very heart of Duns Scotus’s metaphysics, abstracts the fabric of reality from itself because it permits the potential independence of matter from form in a way that Thomas’s distinctions did not. In other words, all things are relativized “in favour of all that [they] could be,” rather than affirmed in the particular actuality of all that they are.14 Both the transcendent (goodness, truth, beauty) and immanent particulars (the cardinal outside my window, this cup of warm coffee) are alike reduced to an abstracted plane of potentiality that, by definition, can be realized “only in thought, or in some prior or virtual realm.”15 Reality is thus transmogrified into a cognitively apprehensible grid, paving the way to modern epistemology wherein the endlessly deferred and uncontainably plentitudinous source of being (as had been previously assumed) is flattened into a vast and immanent given—graspable, containable, and susceptible to an eventual theory of everything.16 

The initial symptoms of a non-liturgical (and necrophiliac) order present in Duns Scotus only become more prominent after the collapse of Christendom, the invention of the printing press (which allows spatialization to flourish through mass identical repetition), the enlightenment, and the technological revolution. Peter Ramus, desiring to do away with the convolution and impracticality of ancient Greek and subsequent medieval philosophical thinking, offers to his readers a universal method, in the form of a series of ordered steps, that one can apply indiscriminately to any subject to better understand them than one could through “all thy fower years studie in Plato or Aristotle.”17 The emphasis, for Ramus, was on simplicity, accessibility, and clarity, accentuated, as Pickstock notes, by his copious use of diagrams and charts which “apparently occupy space in a timeless domain of abstract lines, whose ability to communicate information at a single glance seems to bypass the mediation of language itself.”18 

The infection spreads through Descartes’s plan for the city as “written, immanent, and homogeneous,” with a strong preference for “a single legislator” who dismisses the past, the transcendent, and any conception of desire, for his own interior and rationally consistent intellect.19 This is consistent with Descartes’s ontology of a pure immanence, transparently apprehensible by the singular and unaided rational mind, but crucially, Descartes’s goes further than Ramus. For while Ramus aimed at “designing a simplification of education by providing new and better ways to memorize information,” Descartes sought to “abolish [memory] altogether through its reduction to intuition.”20 The self becomes more akin to the dead, unmoving and having no need to lurch outward toward tradition or transcendence or anything else. 

Reality and the self are further demythologized in Boyle’s methods for gaining scientific knowledge, wherein an experimental procedure “was emplotted into stages, thus anticipating, and thereby cancelling, the event’s contingency.”21 By showing that anyone could construct his famous air pump, follow the instructions for its operation, and witness identically the result of its effect on the natural world (e.g., the expansion of a balloon), the chain of “genuine and spontaneous reaction” was compressed, cognitivized, and functionally supplanted by the repeatable “end result”—which is to say, an event was replaced by an item. This replacement was moreover understood by Boyle as a manipulable and transtemporally repeatable manifestation of the “hand of God” which “impels the [causal] machine of the world,” meaning he rendered the transcendent “empirically verifiable.”22 Space further gains ascendency over time, as Pickstock’s first epigraph has it,23 as openness gives way to closure and the real flux of being is sealed, perhaps only partly figuratively, beneath a coffin. 

But this necrophiliac preference for the constative and static seeps even into that which, on some accounts, is supposed to most profoundly distinguish us from the non-living and even from the animals: conscious perception and language. Following the developments of lithography, photography, and the daguerreotype in the nineteenth-century, Pickstock notices that the “rise of historical representation” seemed to “actualize a summoning of reality distilled from the flux of time, as a spatial given.”24 This same struggle towards “immediacy and facticity” was pursued by the nineteenth-century novel in its “abundance of circumstantial detail” via an “apparent bypassing of the contaminating layers of subjectivity.”25 Even the ascendency of the noun over against the verb in the imagist poetics of the twentieth-century Pickstock sees as an outworking of spatialization, the noun being “most suited to a production in language of an epiphany of the real.”26 And nominalization—the grammatical form wherein a noun is created from a set of ideas or clauses, like “X has alleged against Y that Y has done A” being transformed into the single noun “allegation”—becomes more and more widely used, as when politicians speak of “‘inflation,’ ‘privatization,’ or ‘recession,’” and thereby elide any notion of responsibility or of action.27 

By the end of After Writing, particularly the sections on spatialization and the polity of death, the dystopian worlds of Kurt Vonnegut or Aldous Huxley have already come to mind—the banality of the identical houses and people, the intractable social immobility, the insidious and totalizing attempts to bypass particularity, time, or difference. It is likely not too adventurous to say, though at this point it may be trite, that the Brave New World represents a version of the necrophiliac order par excellence, spatialization taken to one of its profoundest possible extremes. Dante’s portrayal of Satan may be a different extreme, the creature literally immobilized in ice and disallowed the possibility of movement—apart from the flapping of his wings to produce more ice, his only “movement” thereby only a paradoxical perpetuation of his stasis. It is no coincidence either that the “liturgical city” which opposes the polity of death in Pickstock’s account is a realm of perpetual (temporal) journeying, a movement toward the altar of the triune God, despite it being “an infinitely receding place.”28I think it is only fitting, therefore, that, as an English teacher, I object—or at least raise a suspicious eyebrow—when a student asks me to render a piece of literature more clear.

  1. John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, Facsimile ed. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002), 193–94.
  2. Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford; Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 20. 
  3. Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford; Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1998). Xv. 
  4. Ibid., 47–48, 101–114, 67, 148, respectively. 
  5. See for instance Paul Griffiths, who calls her writing “occasionally gnomic” and her argument “consequently unclear.” Paul Griffiths, “Review: After Writing: On the Liturgical Consumation of Philosophy, by Catherine Pickstock,” The Journal of Religion 79, no. 1 (January 1999): 148–49. 
  6. Pickstock, After Writing, 1–118.
  7. Sound or voice. 
  8. Pickstock, After Writing, 9–11. 8 Pickstock, 11.
  9. Pickstock, 11. 
  10. Pickstock, 49. 
  11. Pickstock, 121. 
  12. Pickstock, 122. 
  13. Pickstock, 124. 
  14. Pickstock, 126.
  15. Pickstock, 126. 
  16. Pickstock, 47–100. 
  17. Pickstock, 49. 
  18. Pickstock, 49. 
  19. Pickstock, 58–59.
  20. Pickstock, 71. 
  21. Pickstock, 79. 
  22. Pickstock, 78. 
  23. “In the struggle for time, state and art must destroy each other, since the state wishes to stop the flow of time, while art would drift in it.” Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption. 
  24. Pickstock, After Writing, 89.
  25. Pickstock, 89. 
  26. Pickstock, 91. 
  27. Pickstock, 93. 
  28. Pickstock, 183. 

Drew Santa (B.A. English, M.A. Theology) teaches literature, biblical Greek, and doctrine courses at Trinity School at Greenlawn (South Bend). His general research interests include religion and literature, philosophical theology, and modernist poetry, but his current project involves expanding upon the "ontological turn" in scholarship on David Jones's poetry.