Lost in the Desert -- Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion by Mark C. Taylor

By Carp, Richard M. | Art Journal, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Lost in the Desert -- Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion by Mark C. Taylor


Carp, Richard M., Art Journal


Mark C. Taylor. Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 360 pp.; 36 color ills., 101 b/w. $45.00

Mark C. Taylor, Preston S. Parish Third Century Professor of Religion at Williams College, is one of the first American religious thinkers working within and out of the currents of "deconstruction." He is one of the most influential young religious thinkers in the academy, as is indicated by his positions as editor of both a book series and a journal published by the University of Chicago Press. In keeping with deconstructive literature, his prose is intentionally thick, full of word plays, puns, feints, and misdirections. In Disfiguring, there is no discursive thesis, but an "argument by example," which offers an interpretation (not the interpretation), since Taylor views all communicative forms as disseminative, sustaining multiple, perhaps contradictory, interpretations and giving rise to unintended but genuine significations. Disfiguring is breathtaking in its scope and erudition, despite some troubling lacunae, moving fluidly and intelligently within and between theology, philosophy, art, and architecture and regularly reflecting on the political and economic ramifications of his sources.

Refusing the traditional label of "theology," Taylor dubs his work a/theology and himself an a/theologian. In a previous book Erring: A Postmodern A/theology, working out of what he called a "radical Christology," he proposed that God, self, word, and book are mutually interpretive within Christian thought, and that the contemporary reconception of word and book must necessarily transform God and self.(1) Then, in Altarity, he explored how the Western tradition has thought "being" and "the appearance of being" in terms of difference (rather than presence), since Heidegger's challenge to Hegel's unifying System.(2)

Disfiguring unites these themes, reconceiving religion as a binding together (religare) that is a double binding "in which irreconcilable differences are repeatedly negotiated.... a 'double movement' that is neither merely positive nor merely negative" (p. 318). Traditionally, "God" has referred to "being itself" (or to "the ground of being") and "salvation" to a pure presence of beings to one another and to God, a total wholeness manifest in "bind[ing] back together everything that has fallen apart" (p. 317). Taylor grapples with imagining "God" and religion when "being" is viewed as a logocentric dream and presence is inevitably permeated with absence. Following Kierkegaard and Blanchot, Taylor envisions an aesthetic education that "does not reveal the presence of the divine here and now but stages an unrepresentable retrait that leaves everyone gaping.... through the failure of language. The 'name' of this failure is the unnameable and the pseudonym of the unnameable is 'God'" (p. 314).

At the end, Taylor offers a religious textuality he believes to be consonant with "truly" postmodern art and architecture (e.g., Michael Heizer, Peter Eisenman, and Anselm Kiefer). Not rejecting modernism (avoiding a "negative duplicate" of modernism), Taylor wants to undo it "as if from within.... to recall something that is terribly old. Though neither eternal nor divine, this immemorial borders on what might be refigured as the religious" (p. 316). He wants to suggest the spacing that enables space, the timing that enables time--to indicate what Plato in the Timaeus called chora, what (he says) Derrida calls differance. This makes thought possible though it cannot itself be thought. It can never actually be revealed, nor can it be at all; it is the (pre)condition of any being.(3)

Taylor deploys three "nondialectical epochs"--modernism, "modernist" postmodernism, and postmodernism strictu senso (which "subverts both modernism and 'modernist' postmodernism as if from within" (p. 6)--presented as strategies of disfiguring. Modernism disfigures by abstraction (removing the figure), modernist postmodernism disfigures by refiguring ("deforming, defacing, or corrupting") modernist purity, and "true postmodernism" disrupts and dislocates both of the others "by trying to figure a disfiguring that struggles to figure the unfigurable" (pp.

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