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Charlene Spretnak's Anti-Modernity Book (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 19, 2011: In her new book RELATIONAL REALITY: NEW DISCOVERIES OF INTERRELATEDNESS THAT ARE TRANSFORMING THE MODERN WORLD (2011), Charlene Spretnak comes out swinging against modernity with the zest of a Roman Catholic pope. Because non-Catholic readers may not be aware of the zest with which certain Roman Catholic popes have denounced modernity, a brief digression is in order so that I can establish the Catholic cultural context out of which Charlene Spretnak comes.

If you think the justified rage of King Achilles at King Agamemnon, the commander in chief of the thousand ships that set sail to retrieve Helen from Troy, was of epic proportions, you should measure his understandable rage against the rage of the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century and twenty-first century Catholic popes and Charlene Spretnak against modernity. For them, modernity is a catastrophe. One nineteenth-century pope issued a document known as the Syllabus of Errors, denouncing one supposed error he associated with modernity after another.

Another nineteenth-century was far more shrewd in the way in which he expressed his rage against modernity. He called for a renewal of the thought of the study of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. To put this pope's call for renewal of the study of the thought of Thomas Aquinas in perspective, I should point out that one form or another of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and theology had dominated Roman Catholic thought during the period of Western cultural history known as modernity (roughly from the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1450s onward). In other words, up to the time of this pope's call for renewal of the study of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, more Catholics in Western culture had studied Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and theology than non-Catholics in Western culture had studied any alternative philosophy and/or theology during the period known as modernity. Furthermore, more Catholic students in Western culture had been taught one form or another of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and theology than non-Catholic students in Western culture had studied. But this nineteenth-century pope wanted to escalate the Catholic war against modernity, so he called for a renewal of the study of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. As I say, this was a shrewd move, especially compared to the listing of denunciations in the Syllabus of Errors.

Arguably the greatest achievement of Catholic scholars in Western culture in the first half of the twentieth century was the renewed examination of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Not surprisingly, this renewal was accompanied by a strengthening of the Catholic war against modernity. For example, Philip Gleason of the University of Notre Dame titles his history of American higher education in the United States CONTENDING WITH MODERNITY: CATHOLIC HIGHER EDUCATION IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (1995).

If we believe the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung, the recent Polish pope and the current German pope have continued the Catholic war on modernity, which is rooted in a pre-modern thought-world.

It is time to return to Charlene Spretnak. She comes from a Roman Catholic background, and so do I. She and I attended Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, in the 1960s. But I do not recall actually knowing her at that time, although she and I had mutual acquaintances there. I do not know if she is a practicing Catholic at the present time. But I myself am not a practicing Catholic.

In any event, for most of the decades in the twentieth century, the big Department of Philosophy at Saint Louis University was one of the two leading centers in North America for the study of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. (The other was the University of Toronto.)

In any event, my favorite teacher at Saint Louis University was Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003). As part of his Jesuit training earlier in his life, he had done his philosophical studies (in Latin) at Saint Louis University. As a result, he is one outstanding Catholic scholar who had studied Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy extensively. Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (1904-1984) is another. But somehow or other Walter Ong did not succumb to advancing the anti-modernity war that characterized so much Roman Catholicism in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Walter Ong's major study of the historical emergence of modernity is RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (1958). In my estimate, this is Walter Ong's first major book in which he works with the kind of approach that he later came to characterize as his "relationist" thesis (his explicit term). He states and explains his relationist thesis in the preface to INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (1977, see esp. pages 9-10). However, in her book RELATIONAL REALITY (2011), Charlene Spretnak does not happen to mention Walter Ong's relationist thesis, which he worked out in several book-length studies and numerous articles.

From the 1960s onward, Walter Ong turned to studying oral culture and residual forms of oral cultures, or pre-modern cultures. His most widely known book is ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982). I want to draw on Walter Ong's 1982 book to discuss the contrast with which Charlene Spretnak works in her new book.

In her rage against modernity, Charlene Spretnak works with the contrast between a deeply relational sense of life and modernity. She characterizes modernity as favoring decontextualized thought over against a more conspicuously contextualized thought-world, which she styles relational. Let me be clear here about my position. In the final analysis, I also have no serious problem with Walter Ong's relationist approach; as a result, in the final analysis, I have no serious problem with Charlene Spretnak's claim that reality is relational. However, in the final analysis, I have no serious problem with decontextualized thought, because we decontextualize our thoughts as a way to examine them more carefully; as a result, I do have a serious problem with Charlene Spretnak's targeting modernity and decontextualized thought as her way of proceeding to champion her cause. In other words, she works with an either/or approach, but I want to hold out for a both/and approach.

On page 191, Charlene Spretnak claims that as a girl she asked the question, "Who thought this up?" meaning who thought up the decontextualized thought-world of modernity. What a remarkably precocious girl she was!

Walter Ong attributes the historical emergence of decontextualized thought to writing and the spread of writing systems. Written words represent decontextualized thought, decontextualized, that is, from the context of live conversations in which questions may be asked and responses given. With the advent of the Gutenberg printing press, the decontextualized thought-world of writing spread, and so did formal education. As a result, modernity emerged historically in Western culture after the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press.

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Because the trend of raging against modernity had been well established by the time Walter Ong published his major study of the emergence of modernity in the 1950s, how come he did not join in with other Catholics at the time in raging against modernity? In all honesty, I do not know why he did not. It never occurred to me to ask him why he did not. But he did not.

The rage of the Catholic popes and Charlene Spretnak against modernity is best understood, I would suggest, as rooted in abandonment feelings such as the abandonment feelings that Susan Anderson ably discusses in her fine book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000). If we follow Susan Anderson's advice, then the only effective way to deal with rage due to abandonment feelings is for us to work our way through the rage we feel by allowing ourselves to feel its full force and experience its full force and express its full force by crying out in non-violent ways, as Charlene Spretnak does in her new book.

However, for the sake of discussion, let us consider how we might feel when our rage due to abandonment feelings has lifted and we are ready to move on. In his fine book THE DUALITY OF HUMAN EXISTENCE: AN ESSAY ON PSYCHOLOGY AND RELIGION (1966), David Bakan defines and explains two central tendencies in our human nature: (1) agency and (2) communion. In her big survey textbook THE PSYCHOLOGY OF GENDER, 3rd ed. (2009), Vicki S. Helgeson works with David Bakan's two terms rather skillfully. However, both David Bakan and Vicki Helgeson point out that we can overdo either of these tendencies. We can overdo agency, and we can overdo communion. In short, we should cultivate a certain measure of each, rather than overdo one or the other.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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