Thursday, 1 March 2012

Andrew Shanks on Gillian Rose (or, Why Everybody Thinks Rowan Williams Is Wrong About Gay People)

Gillian Rose was a secular Jewish philosopher who was baptised into the Anglican Church on her deathbed. A lot of her work was on Hegel, and like Hegel she is incredibly difficult to read and understand. So, as a preface to actually reading her work, I've been reading Andrew Shanks' book Against Innocence, which is about her work, particularly her ideas about ethics. Rose was also a good friend of Rowan Williams, who was very influenced by her thought, and in the book's foreword Giles Fraser points out that the book as a whole is constantly hinting at the connections between Rose's work and Williams' task in trying to hold together the Anglican Communion.

Shanks starts out by pointing out that Rose was dyslexic: reading was never easy for her, and she seems to have sought out difficult thinkers like Adorno and Hegel to study. She was also caught between secularism, Judaism and Christianity for most of her life, and her thought reflects this too: she is difficult to read, doesn't quite fit in with a lot of other contemporary philosophy, and is drawn to complicated tensions and ideas which open up conversations between those three positions.

Shanks' basic argument is that a key element to Rose's thought is the rejection of innocence. We all want to feel innocent; we all want to feel like we are in the right (and therefore that others are in the wrong). But the world is more complicated than that, and the only way to keep our hands clean is to disengage from the world. What Rose wants is an ethics of engagement with 'the broken middle': the messy, complex, compromising reality of the world. If we really want to engage ethically, politically, socially, we have to be prepared to compromise, to sacrifice our innocence and our desire to be right.

One of the things that happened in the 20th century was that philosophers were so traumatised by the terrible things that came out of Enlightenment rationalism (e.g. the Holocaust) and the Marxist dream of liberation (Stalin, Mao) that they became too afraid to offer political alternatives: what if it all went wrong again? Rose isn't satisfied by this: we can't just stop engaging with the world. But she argues that the problem with a lot of the utopian political movements of the 20th century such as Marxism or 'Orientalism' (all the different movements concerned with resisting Western cultural imperialism the civil rights movement, various national liberation movements etc.) rely on the solidarity of people who think that they are right and other people are in wrong; they are innocent and other people are guilty. What Rose wants instead is the 'solidarity of the shaken', communities bound together not by their shared innocence but by their shared acknowledgement of guilt. This, Shanks suggests, is why she eventually became a Christian.

If we want to occupy the 'broken middle', we can't do this by brushing over differences and disagreements, by pretending that they're not there or that they don't matter. Philosophy, for Rose, is all about recognising and identifying conflicts which are ignored or overlooked. But what we then need to do is to refuse to identify the different positions as 'guilty' or 'innocent'. To live in the middle is to experience the impossibility of reconciling different positions, to refuse to take sides and so to look guilty to everyone, to satisfy no one, to be torn apart. This, says Rose, is where the sacred is. In particular, the broken middle tries to mediate between 'the ethical', the collective tradition and culture of a particular community and 'self-expressive nonconformity': individuals who refuse to be bound by tradition or culture. For Rose, the two thinkers who are best at practising this philosophical mediation in the broken middle are Kierkegaard and Hegel.

The key virtue of the broken middle is anxiety. Anxiety comes from allowing ourselves to be unsettled by the way that 'self-expressive nonconformists' challenge our ideas and assumptions, bringing uncertainty and insecurity. But you can't properly experience this anxiety unless you are also bound up with the life of a particular community: it's easy to challenge everything you believe in if you have a group of friends who all think exactly the same as you. But to challenge everything whilst also remaining committed to a community of people who have very different and deeply held ideas is another thing altogether. Rose is very critical of people who maintain their innocence by refusing to belong to an institution. Let's take an example that I think Shanks is hinting at: it is easy to be a conservative Anglican who thinks that it's wrong to be gay. It's also easy to leave the Anglican church and be a liberal Christian who thinks it's ok to be gay. But to live in the broken middle is to commit to the Church as an institution made up of people who deeply believe that it's wrong to be gay, and also people who deeply believe that gay people should be treated the same as straight people, and to refuse to take sides, to open yourself up to the compelling arguments from both sides, and to be torn apart by that tension. Hmm, which Archbishop might be a good example of that?

Shanks' Rose is basically arguing for liberal pluralism at its best: not the multiculturalism that pretends we're all fine and agree and can get along, but the pluralism which recognises that different groups and individuals have fundamentally incompatible ideas about the way the world is, and tries to hold them together anyway. Churches can model this sort of approach, but not if they force everyone to agree or keep splintering off into sects where everyone agrees with everyone else, and not if the basis of their community is that they are right and everyone else is wrong.


Gabrielle said...

Whilst I agree there is a lot to be learned and gained form being part of the broken middle, I'm not convinced Rowan Williams is a good example of it. He seems to have far too often taken sides with conservative Christians to be someone who can claim to stand with and appreciate the points of both sides.

Stu said...

I went through a Gillian Rose faze a couple of years ago. Not sure I understood much of what I read, but I'm pretty sure I channeled her nonetheless in my thesis. FWIW 'Mourning becomes the law' seemed like the easiest place to start.
Also, she changed the way I read Derrida - whether this is any kind of commendation, I don't know; after all, I'm not altogether sure that I'll ever read any Derrida again.

Annie Holmes said...

Yay for the broken middle!

Is it even possible to keep talking to both sides without taking sides? On Rowan Williams (what Gabrielle said) without knowing enough to go into specifics, I wonder if the situation has more of having chosen "to look guilty to everyone, to satisfy no one, to be torn apart."

Because you can't be in the broken middle without accepting that truly engaging with all the different people and ideas will change you. To be in the broken middle means to lose innocence, not preserve it. In church terms, it means to allow both conservatism and liberalism to corrupt you a bit.

The alternative is to not engage. To not swim against the tide of people finding solidarity in their rightness and innocence. To be in the middle often means to give up wanting to impress anyone. Rather than not taking sides, perhaps a more realistic aim would be to piss off all sides equally?(!)

Marika said...

I think there are good reasons to question Williams' approach to trying to hold together the Anglican Communion, but I do think that something pretty close to Rose's model is what he's trying to do. Interestingly, Giles Fraser's foreword to the book says that he and Shanks were originally going to write it together, but ended up disagreeing too profoundly, and the implication is that it was the Anglican Church's attempts to grapple with the debates about sexuality that they couldn't agree on. I think that Fraser would side with you, Gabrielle, and that Shanks would side with (his reading of) Rose and Williams

Matt Wilson said...

Very interesting considering recent event's. I agree with those who think that Williams is a very promising example of this sort of tainted engagement. You only have to read the mix of praise, critiscm and dissapointment in the comments coming from both sides folloowing his retirement to see that he very ably pissed of both sides and was considered a trator by both left and right.

If he did end up erring to much on the side of the right it was most probably due to sub/conscious fear of belaying what might have been his actual convictions on the issues he was trying to be more neutral on. Ultimatly only hindsight will reveal if he was the 'gift' for the time that Desmond Tutu considered him.