The New Metaphysicals Post #2

I had posted a few weeks ago about the new book by Courtney Bender called The New Metaphysicals about the current practice of new age in America.

My post received no comments even though it touches on many topics that come up whenever I post on Neo-Hasidism. Specifically, how the narratives of believers and those of historians or scientists do not match. Here is a review of the book by Andrew Perrin dealing with some of the issues from a different angle. First off, when do we say that these new age practitioners are loony? The 1950’s saw all kabbalah, hasidut as off limits and would scoff at negel wasser or Tu beshevat. But now that new age is everywhere and neo-hasidism is everywhere, when can you tell someone that his new explanation is daffy?

Perrin spends more of his time asking about authenticity. There is already a huge anthropology literature showing that practices revived in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the US, Korea, and Japan, are done in the name of authenticity, even when the performer has no claim to authenticity, even if the person has no continuity with the past, the practice did not characterize the past, and the practice is not done like the past. Perrin notes that even if the practitioner investigates the matter, evidence wont change anything because they have a Platonic idea of authenticity. A similar but not identical phenomena has occurred in Jewish law, where tradition (mesorah) is invoked by people with no direct link, only a theological link based on imagined institutional ones, no similar practice to the old country, and an explanation of the practice that flies in the face of the older interpretation.

Perrin’s question to Bender is how can university educated people not know the refutations to their positions and not understand that the very Ivy academies where they received their degrees would not accept this pseudo-science. Perrin concludes that Bender offers a glimpse of how people believe but not why they do and how they reconcile it with the world around them.

Perrin’s own start of an answer is that they think that not everything is known by the official standards of the academy and that they have access to an authentic source of knowledge. It is authentic because it comes from a different source, a truer source, and a truer conception of reality unharmed by empiricism.

The New Metaphysicals offers a peek into a world that I found at once pedestrian and strange, and the information that it gives us about so-called “spiritual but not religious” people is invaluable. The new agers, mystics, yoga instructors, and other metaphysicals whose words animate The New Metaphysicals seem quite foreign at first blush, and it’s to Professor Bender’s enormous credit that she theorizes the milieu without undermining the authenticity claims and struggles in which her subjects engage. At the same time, I found myself wanting more of a critical stance, a more thoroughgoing interrogation of the epistemologies that these subjects espoused.
Authenticity is a constant struggle for Bender’s subjects, amongst whom a common theme is the sense that their metaphysical pursuits offer something more real, more genuine, than the routine life of urban Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Bender conducted her fieldwork. Hans, for example, had developed an extensive theory of ethnic authenticity, applied as “the coloring, the embellishment” of generic shamanism, and had sought vainly for a sufficiently authentic Germanic shamanism to match his ethnic heritage. Along the way, though, he laments the fact that Native Americans, who constitute for him a kind of Platonic ideal of indigenous authenticity, don’t really seem that interested in his shamanic group
I found myself wanting more of this sort of critique. While I admire the self-control that enabled Bender to restrain herself from dismissing her subjects as just plain loony, many of them do go through remarkable rhetorical contortions to make the elements of their narratives fit together adequately. Many of these contortions map onto terrain that has been covered over the past century or so by sociological, anthropological, and cultural theorists agonizing over precisely the same chimerical authenticity that seems to motivate many of Bender’s subjects. Why do these academic critiques not carry the same weight among the metaphysicals?
Philippa, an astrologer, uses recognizably scientific language (gamma rays, matter, Pluto, Prozac, Ritalin, even “a wobble in Mercury’s orbit”) all to establish the reality of the planet Vulcan. Each of these individuals engages in reasoning that strikes me as essentially post hoc, selectively deploying observations, likely random in origin, as evidence for a predetermined conclusion.
I assume that, were Philippa to take her talk to the Astronomy department down the street, the evidence she mounts would be unlikely to convince the faculty there that Vulcan exists. So why the attempt at a common language? Why not just adopt a dismissive attitude toward observational evidence, claiming spiritual, metaphysical space for themselves and leaving material, physical space to the scientists? Bender’s narrative provides great insight into what the new metaphysicals believe and how they engage that belief, but why they believe it and how they reconcile that belief with the outlook of less-metaphysical friends, neighbors, and family, are open questions.
Read the rest of Perrin here.

Nahmanides’ appeal in his introduction to the Humash commentary to the 49 gates of wisdom known only to Moses, the traditions of the Torah as black fire on white fire, and one long name of God, and the scientific traditions known to Solomon and King Hizkiyah serve many of the same functions of undermining the science of the day and creating an alternative authority and authenticity. The widespread use of Nahmanides in late 20th century Judaism has helped foster and coalesces with this deeper authenticity.

So, why does the Jewish community accept pseudo-science? And what are the alternate forms of authenticity?
I know one neo-Hasidic haredi author who writes complete pop-psych but claims he is authentic because he tangentially copies Idel’s footnotes (And mine and Aryeh Kaplan’s and Scholem’s). There authenticity is his claim to know texts, even if not these texts.

How do our Jewish new age practitioners ignore Western canons and also claim Torah authenticity?

There is still much meaty discussion of the book at The immanent Frame- we will return to the book again later in the week.

2 responses to “The New Metaphysicals Post #2

  1. Kevin Rothman

    I do not think that neo-hasidim are alone in their rejection of western canons, even within orthodox judaism. I know many many quite mainstream people who show great mistrust of the medical establishment and prefer practitioners of homeopathy etc. with no demonstrated medical value. Aside from breslovers who follow a specific injunction to avoid doctors at all costs, I see this in two lights:

    1- the rejection of western knowledge re-affirms adoption of traditional values
    2-there is a perceived antagonism of the establishment towards minority groups (often true). When I worked as a teacher in liberty city (urban slum) in miami many many families consulted the voudoo doctors (there are many hatians in the neighborhood) instead of medical doctors because they felt de-valued and ignored by the latter.

    i think that the use of scientific terms while rejecting science speaks to a certain wishful thinking: that science itself will demonstrate its own falsehood (which is the very argument that the Lubavitcher Rebbe attempts to make in many of his letters on the subject)

    but beyond that, does not all orthodoxy at some level have to reject the notion of western science as-free-inquiry? there is a great deal that can and should be put up to debate even within orthodoxy, but certain things can never go up for debate without orthodoxy ceasing to be orthodox. Eg. what if it could somehow be proven without a shadow of a doubt that there never was a mass gathering at Sinai. While it could reasonably be argued: the point is not whether it happened or not, but that in principle we ground the legitimacy of our law in divine mandate…. this is not orthodoxy; the validity of the law is grounded in its formal institutionalization at sinai by God. but to retain this construction of validity would then demand an explicit valuation of belief over fact; it would be to reject the western canon. So i think the question becomes more blatant among the new-agers, but it runs much deeper… to the core of revealed religion itself (not just jewish orthodoxy)

  2. Kevin Rothman

    though i would also like to add that this is, in my opinion, only due to an unnecessary interpretation of “faith” as “belief in” … i.e. faith as a form of knowledge instead of “faithful to” or “in faith with”… working from the latter standpoint all of these questions become superfluous

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