"Mormonism and the Enlightenment: In Response to
John-Charles Duffy"

Joseph M. Spencer

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 3 (Fall 2010)


1 Comment




            Is there room in Mormonism for postmodernism?

            In many ways, as I hope becomes clear in the course of the following essay, this question is problematic. This is not because of what it asks or how it asks what it asks, but because of when it asks what it asks. Though its influence remains strong in other disciplines, the postmodern moment has arguably definitively passed in the world of European philosophy.

            Why, then, do I bother to ask the question? It is largely motivated by a recent article in Dialogue, written by John-Charles Duffy and appearing under the title “Can Deconstruction Save the Day? ‘Faithful Scholarship’ and the Uses of Postmodernism.” [1] In this study, Duffy sets himself the task of “provid[ing] historical perspective on the uses of postmodern appeals by ‘faithful scholars’ over the last twenty-five years,” as well as “inquiring into these appeals’ rhetorical efficacy and political uses.”[2] What results is a for-the-most-part-nicely executed history of orthodox Mormon scholarship since about 1980, suspended from a not-so-for-the-most-part-nicely executed analysis of the possibilities and impossibilities of a Mormon embrace of postmodernism. Duffy’s biggest mistakes are philosophical and theological rather than historical (though he does make some historical faux pas on my reading, these seem to be consequences of his philosophical and theological missteps), and one might suggest that they are therefore largely forgivable—particularly given Duffy’s own admission early in his paper that he lacks specific philosophical training. [3]

            But whatever the forgivability of Duffy’s philosophical and theological missteps, they seem to me to be representative of common misinterpretations of the philosophical significance of Mormonism as a historical phenomenon. I want here, therefore, to take Duffy’s paper as an occasion for reflection on the question of Mormonism’s relationship (philosophically conceived) to modernism or to the Enlightenment—in a word, to what postmodernism has long since called into question. For a number of reasons, it seems most convenient to me to present this reflection as a kind of response to Duffy, uncharitably focusing my attention on claims he makes only briefly and not without apologizing for his lack of philosophical rigor. In particular, framing this reflection as a response will allow me, in a brief excursus near the end of my argument, to wager an alternative interpretation of what Duffy calls the phenomenon of “faithful scholarship.”

            At any rate, what follows is (1) an analysis of Duffy’s discussion of postmodernism itself, in which I isolate Duffy’s three claims about the relationship between Mormonism and postmodernism; (2) a brief engagement with the idea that Mormonism’s supernaturalism is at odds with the Enlightenment (Duffy’s first claim); (3) a more detailed investigation of the idea  that orthodox Mormonism can embrace postmodernism’s ethical emphasis, but not its essential antifoundationalism (third claim); (4) an excursus on the status of “faithful scholarship” (second claim); and (5) a brief word of conclusion.

Postmodernism and Mormonism

            What is postmodernism? This is a tired question, not only because it has been asked and answered so many times since the 1970s, but also because, as I have already indicated, the postmodern era has arguably passed in philosophy. It would thus perhaps be more appropriate to ask what postmodernism was, or to ask what should be understood today of the postmodern passage. But—at least to get started—it will here be necessary to begin where Duffy begins in his discussion of postmodernism, that is, with the idea that postmodernism is alive and well. I will have occasion, soon enough, to return to the question of postmodernism’s passing.

            Though Duffy asserts that postmodernism is “notoriously difficult to define”[4], he provides the following relatively apt description:

Based on sophisticated reflections in epistemology and linguistics, postmodern theorists maintain that human beings cannot apprehend reality as it is—or at least, we could never know if we have apprehended reality as it is—because our knowledge is inescapably mediated by language and culture. To borrow the language of Doctrine and Covenants 93:24, our knowledge of things as they are and were and are to come is confined to representations or interpretations of things as they are and were and are to come. [5]

Though this position seems to lead rather inevitably to relativism, Duffy rightly goes on to point out that postmodernism “is many times more sophisticated than popular understandings of relativism as ‘Anything goes,’ or ‘Everyone is right.’” [6] Postmodernists—good postmodernists, at any rate—are less interested in affirming otherness for its own sake than in calling into question Western civilization’s wonted nervousness about otherness. As Duffy explains, postmodernists “call attention to the historical and cultural forces that produce—and by the same token, restrict—our perceptions of the philosophical or moral options available to us.” [7]

            But if postmodernism thus appears to be more consistently negative than positive, more consistently critical than affirmative, it must nonetheless be recognized that there lies at the basis of postmodern theory at least one fixed point of reference—a very Western point of reference, incidentally—namely, an ethical affirmation of justice as political equality. Thus, as Duffy correctly notes, “postmodernism is less interested in making pronouncements about what is true than in investigating the historical origins of our ideas about what is true and analyzing the political implications of those ideas.” [8] At once “driven by ethical concerns” and “wary of ethical systems” [9], postmodernism is both the most famous descendant and the most consistent critic of the modernism it professes to come after. It thus occupies an essentially Oedipal position in its role as heir apparent of the Enlightenment.

            It should be clear from this brief discussion that Duffy does a fair job of outlining the basic, somewhat popularized position espoused by postmodernists, though of course a great deal more can be said (and I will myself have to provide some more details further along). [10] But, of course, Duffy’s summary introduction to postmodernism is meant only to provide the necessary background for his larger argument, which he introduces in the following way:

Among the varieties of knowledge that the Enlightenment heritage has tended to classify as “irrational” is religion—at least the kind of unabashedly supernaturalist religion that Mormon orthodoxy represents. For that reason, religious conservatives from a number of traditions have, during the past couple of decades, adopted postmodern appeals against being marginalized in the name of universal rationality. Mormons in academia are among the religious conservatives making these moves. As I hope is apparent by now, there are some aspects of postmodernism to which LDS scholars could readily subscribe—concern for the marginalized, for instance. At the same time, there are other aspects—such as antifoundationalism—that are more difficult to reconcile with the absolute truth claims of Mormon orthodoxy. We now turn to examining the particular uses that faithful scholars have made of postmodernism and the ambiguities that surround their doing so. [11]

These few sentences call for a great deal of careful commentary. Indeed, it is here that Duffy’s account, even before he turns—or really, at the very moment he turns—to the story he wants to tell, renders his entire project problematic.

            In order to isolate the several steps of Duffy’s argument in the paragraph just cited, it is necessary first to extract everything he says there that does not immediately make a claim about Mormonism:

Among the varieties of knowledge that the Enlightenment heritage has tended to classify as “irrational” is religion—at least . . . unabashedly supernaturalist religion . . . . For that reason, religious conservatives from a number of traditions have, during the past couple of decades, adopted postmodern appeals against being marginalized in the name of universal rationality.
There is little to quibble with in this first of Duffy’s moves (so long as one recognizes that it is not only religious conservatives who have expressed interest in postmodernism). [12] And he helpfully goes on, further in the essay, to mention a couple of the “religious conservatives” he has in mind, specifically Michael McConnell and George Marsden. [13] As Duffy recognizes, the referenced “adoptions” of postmodern appeals by religious conservatives are complex, more a question of calling postmodernists to consistency (“the contemporary academy on its own terms has no consistent grounds for rejecting all religious perspectives”) than of embracing or accepting the terms of postmodernism itself. [14]

            But if Duffy’s first move is essentially valid, problems emerge when he introduces Mormonism into the story. On analysis, Duffy makes three assertions about Mormonism in the paragraph cited above, which might be delineated as follows:

  1. “Mormon orthodoxy represents” precisely “the kind of unabashedly supernaturalist religion” that “the Enlightenment heritage has tended to classify as ‘irrational.’”
  2. “Mormons in academia are among the religious conservatives” who—because “the Enlightenment heritage” classifies religion “as ‘irrational’”—have recently “adopted postmodern appeals against being marginalized in the name of universal rationality.”
  3. In the end, “there are some aspects of postmodernism to which LDS scholars could readily subscribe—concern for the marginalized, for instance”; but “there are,” at the same time, “other aspects—such as antifoundationalism—that are more difficult to reconcile with the absolute truth claims of Mormon orthodoxy.”

Each of these three claims is problematic, and each must be dealt with in detail. In the following two sections of this paper, I will deal only with Duffy’s first and third claims, principally because only these deal with theological and philosophical concerns, with what might be called the essence of (orthodox) Mormonism. I will displace my (somewhat looser) discussion of Duffy’s second claim—which bears less on the essence than on the history of Mormonism—into the subsequent excursus.

Mormonism and Supernaturalism

            First, then, is it quite right to describe Mormonism (“Mormon orthodoxy,” at any rate) as an “unabashedly supernaturalist religion”? At one level, such a description is unquestionably accurate. Orthodox Latter-day Saints not only affirm the existence of God; they also, in the recent words of Grant Hardy, “exhibit remarkably low levels of skepticism toward angels and miracles.” [15] Whether in the shape of Willard Marriott talking on 60 Minutes about his temple garment protecting him from the flames of a boat accident [16], or whether in the shape of a young man telling Helen Whitney in the documentary The Mormons that he had been so invested as a missionary that he would have been willing to be assigned as a suicide bomber [17], Latter-day Saints have a tendency all too often to come across—especially to secular non-Mormons—as living in a supernaturalist world of delusion. But appearances are, in the end, only appearances, and the question of Mormon “supernaturalism” is much more complicated.

            In the end, it is only from a secular standpoint that Mormonism appears to be supernaturalist. Indeed, Evangelicals tend to regard Latter-day Saints as being far too naturalist or even materialist, concerned about Mormon beliefs that collapse the ontological distinction between human beings and God, between the physical and the spiritual, and between the earthly and the heavenly. [18] Summing up such concerns, Terryl Givens describes as “the principal danger” of Mormon theology the fact that “the sacred as a category threatens to disappear altogether (and with it, perhaps, worshipful reverence).” In “a culture that sacralizes and exalts the mundane even as it naturalizes and domesticates the sacred,” he goes on, “transcendence is virtually annihilated as a possibility.” [19]

            Richard Bushman in turn beautifully captures Mormonism’s theological immanence in a comment on a passage from the Doctrine and Covenants, a text in which Joseph Smith laid out the basic history of his encounters with angels (D&C 128:19-21):

No passage better captures Joseph Smith’s restoration than this one, mingling the names of “divers angels”—Michael, Gabriel, Raphael—with specific mundane places that one could locate on a map—Fayette, Seneca County, Colesville, Broome County, and the banks of the Susquehanna River. That mixing of the mystical with the plain was pure Joseph Smith. This very concreteness gave him his highest pleasure. [20]
As early as Joseph Smith, then, and with remarkable consistency since his time, Mormonism has preferred, theologically and philosophically, a collapsing of the supernatural into the natural. [21]

            What, though, of Mormonism’s commitment to God, to angels, to miracles, and to spiritual gifts? Strikingly, the history of Mormon theology is the history of attempts, in one way or another, to naturalize all of these traditionally supernatural concepts. On God, Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet comes immediately to mind: “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may become.” [22] Regarding angels, one need only turn to the Doctrine and Covenants, where it is explained that angels “are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones,” and that all of them either “belong or have belonged to” the earth (D&C 129:1; 130:5). James E. Talmage’s classic discussion of miracles in Jesus the Christ is representative of the LDS naturalization of that notion: “Miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized.” [23] And all things spiritual—gifts presumably included—are clarified, in the Doctrine and Covenants, to be a question of “matter,” though a kind of matter that is “more fine or pure” and so “can only be discerned by purer eyes” (D&C 131:7).

            If examples such as these highlight a traditional Mormon naturalism, however, one might of course point to an increasing trend among Latter-day Saints during the second half of the twentieth century to express interest in reinvesting Mormon theology with a strong—or at least stronger—sense of transcendence. Of course, it must be recognized how widely this cultural shift is regarded, outside of Mormonism, either as a capitulation to non-Mormon influences (and so as a kind of abandonment of Mormonism as such), or as a deceptive public relations campaign (and so as a kind of obscurantist embarrassment about Mormonism as such). Nonetheless, the trends do seem to be quite real, and some scholars at least have done remarkable work in tracing the development of a kind of “Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy.” [24] But, real as these trends may be, even an increased interest in transcendence does not imply an embrace of the supernatural. Indeed, the second half of the twentieth century saw not only an apparent increase in interest in transcendence, but also an equally apparent decrease in interest in what in Mormonism would appear to secular non-Mormons to be supernaturalist. Where theological transcendence is emphasized, miracles tend to become the miracles of everyday life, angels to become kind human beings who help one out on occasion, and spiritual gifts to be natural abilities in teaching, public speaking, or learning languages. In the end, this should not be surprising: Enlightenment rationalism did not close the door on transcendence—as philosophers of religion have generally come to acknowledge.

            It thus seems clear that, whether in the shape of its traditional theology of immanence, or whether in the shape of a somewhat recent trend in the direction of a theology of transcendence, Mormonism cannot be aligned in any facile way with “unabashedly supernaturalist religion.” Indeed, in many ways, Mormonism appears, given its emphasis on naturalism, arguably something like an Enlightenment religion. It is certainly significant that, according to Lucy Mack Smith’s history of Joseph Smith’s family, the Prophet grew up under the influence not only of his mother’s Biblicism, but also of his father’s—and especially his grandfather’s—interest in Enlightenment thought. [25] Obviously, Mormonism is nothing like an American instantiation of Immanuel Kant’s envisioned Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, but its relationship to Enlightenment rationalism is not therefore simply ascertained by assuming a direct opposition between Mormonism and modernism.

            But what, then, is the relationship between Mormonism and the Enlightenment, besides “complex”? In order to answer that question in anything like a coherent way, it is necessary to turn to Duffy’s third claim about the relationship between Mormonism and postmodernism. In the meanwhile, then, it is important only, as regards Duffy’s first claim, to be clear that any assertion of orthodox Mormonism’s unabashed supernaturalism—or of its simple opposition to the Enlightenment—is problematic, to say the least.

Antifoundationalism and Concern for the Marginalized

            Duffy’s third claim is perhaps his most straightforward. It states, simply, that there are aspects of postmodernism that might be amenable to Mormonism, while there are other aspects that might not be so amenable. As an example of the former he cites postmodernism’s “concern for the marginalized”; as an example of the latter, postmodernism’s “antifoundationalism.” Now, it is simply obvious that Mormonism is not to be equated with postmodernism, and therefore that there are likely to be some aspects of postmodernism that would make orthodox Latter-day Saints uncomfortable, and other aspects of postmodernism that orthodox Latter-day Saints would be happy to embrace. It remains a question, though, exactly what in postmodernism does work with orthodox Mormonism, and what does not. And it seems to me that Duffy representatively gets things exactly backwards on this point. I want here to argue that it is precisely postmodernism’s philosophical antifoundationalism that meshes well with orthodox Mormon thought, while it is precisely postmodernism’s concern for the marginalized that arguably does not mesh well with orthodox Mormonism.

            What is the nature of philosophical antifoundationalism? In what is arguably the canonical study of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, the “foundation” denied in antifoundationalism is set forth as a very specifically Western narrative articulating the relationship between politics and science, between the State in its sovereignty and the basic structure of knowing. As such, the foundation called radically into question by postmodern theorists is a narrative that established—in particular through the rise of the German model of the university in the immediate wake of the Enlightenment—a system of epistemological legitimation, that is, a schema, with deeply historical roots, for determining the truth-value (or legitimacy) of propositions. On Lyotard’s account, the early twentieth-century entanglement of post-industrial capitalism and the explosion of technologization forced the “grand narrative” of legitimation to confront its own constructedness, revealing a profound nihilism that had been woven into the narrative from the beginning of its construction. The consequent collapse of the grand narrative issued in what Lyotard calls the postmodern condition, a crisis conditioning contemporary thought by rendering it effectively impossible to provide universally acceptable criteria for legitimating claims. [26]

            Postmodernism is thus, in the end, a systematic critique of modernism (especially as modernism is what gave birth to the Enlightenment), as well as an attempt, via that critique, to return to the foundations of modernism, to the essential nihilism postmodernism see as having been woven into modernism from its very beginnings. It is in this sense that Lyotard makes the claim, which in other contexts appear to be so much French academic nonsense, that something “can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.” [27] Postmodernism is a kind of genealogical attempt to return to and to remain at the “nascent state” of the project of modernity, the nihilism or antifoundationalism against which modernism in effect rebelled and so from which it took its original bearings.

            If that much is clear, how could one seriously claim that orthodox Mormonism meshes well with antifoundationalism—that is, with postmodern nihilism? Does Mormon theology not clearly throw its lot in with, say, Descartes (the proverbial father of modernity), attempting with him to break with every form of nihilism by discovering some indubitable foundation on which all other knowledge can be built? In the end, I think the answer to this question is negative. Mormonism—whatever its complicated relationship to the Enlightenment turns out to be—cannot be reconciled with the Cartesian project, which “discovered” an indubitable foundation for thought only in its assertion of an irremediably transcendent “idea of God.” Given orthodox Mormonism’s theological immanence, according to which even God is not transcendent, it seems impossible to reconcile the larger and essentially Cartesian project of modernity with Mormon theology. [28]

            At the same time, though, is it not the case that few Latter-day Saints are prepared without reserve to join postmodernists in an embrace of strict nihilism? Certainly! But it must be recognized that postmodernism makes two distinct moves, one negative and one positive. In its first, essentially negative move, postmodernism offers a poignant critique of the Enlightenment heritage. And only then, in a second, more strictly positive move, postmodernism calls for an embrace of the nihilism unearthed in the course of the critique of modernism. Of these two moves or moments of postmodernism, only the first, strictly speaking, deserves the title “antifoundationalist.” To the other I would like to give the title, for the moment unjustified (I will return to this point in a moment), “ethical.” It is only the first of these two postmodern moves—namely, the strictly antifoundationalist move—that I believe meshes well with orthodox Mormonism. Mormonism, traditionally wearing its startlingly heterodox commitment to theological immanence on its sleeve, can or even should recognize in postmodern antifoundationalism something like its own critical position vis-à-vis modernism. The ethical move made by postmodernism—that is, the postmodern embrace of uncompromised nihilism—is, of course, another story.

            What justifies naming the second of postmodernism’s two moves its ethical moment? That is, how can an embrace of nihilism be regarded as an ethical move? As I have already indicated, though only in passing, the critique of modernism that comprises the first of postmodernism’s two moments is a critique specifically of the narrative of legitimation woven by the project of modernity. An immediate consequence of this fact is that postmodernism finds itself concerned with questions of power, with the task of critiquing the manner in which the specific narrative of legitimation that grounded modernism constructed—under the ironic name of emancipation! [29] —relations of power that privileged certain kinds of people. [30] The critique of modernity undertaken by postmodernism in its antifoundationalist moment thus implicitly levels the political playing field, effectively deconstructing the relationships of power rooted in the modernist project. Postmodernism’s second, essentially positive moment then follows not as a simple deconstruction of the modernist tradition, but as a kind of subsequent vigilance against any reconstruction of narratives that might again establish problematic relations of power. [31] It is this second moment of vigilance that, it seems to me, deserves the title “ethical.”

            Postmodern antifoundationalism thus only paves the way for postmodern ethics, an ethics that unquestionably takes the consistent shape of what Duffy rightly calls a “concern for the marginalized.” But, it seems to me, it is precisely this second, essentially ethical moment that orthodox Mormon theology cannot embrace. Committed, as it is, to some kind of notion of invariant truth, orthodox Mormonism cannot easily be wedded to any strong kind of nihilism, even if this nihilism takes the shape of a concern for the marginalized. It is difficult, in short, to see how any orthodox Mormon theory of ethics could philosophically ground itself in the nihilism postmodern theorists identify as lying at the foundation of modernism. Able to join postmodernism for the antifoundationalist show, Mormon orthodoxy nonetheless cannot join postmodernism for the ethical cast party afterwards.

            What philosophical position remains open to the orthodox Latter-day Saint, if she can unite neither with modernism nor with postmodernism? Actually, this is a question Duffy himself raises and to which he provides an answer:
It is doubtful that the postmodern authorities cited by the antipositivists would concur that, from their theories, it followed that Mormon historians ought to defend affirmation of supernatural interventions in history and exclusivist claims to divine authority. Postmodern theorists were useful to the antipositivists because they wielded academic authority against the Enlightenment ideals undergirding the new Mormon history (as well as more radically revisionist scholarship). But Midgley’s and Bohn’s defenses of LDS orthodoxy represented an antimodern rather than a postmodern position. [32]

Orthodox Mormonism’s interest in but irreconcilability with postmodernism—because it marks both the Mormon rejection of the modernist project (thus interest in postmodernism) and the Mormon rejection of the postmodernist project (thus irreconcilability with postmodernism)—leaves, according to Duffy, only one philosophical option open to the orthodox Latter-day Saint: opportunist antimodernism, that is, antimodernism that only (and illegitimately) “takes advantage of the postmodern moment.” [33]

            But, one might legitimately ask, is antimodernism the only way out of the apparent either/or of modernism and postmodernism? Here it becomes necessary to turn, finally, to a point I have already mentioned twice, though I have, each time, postponed discussion of it: the postmodern moment has already passed in philosophy. This point must now be developed in order to make clear that there is a philosophical position after the modern/postmodern entanglement, one that does not return to anything like a premodern (or antimodern) position. Before turning to a brief exposition of this position, it would be well to give it a name. In doing so, I will simply borrow a name already given to it in passing by Alain Badiou, unquestionably the foremost expositor of this philosophy after postmodernism. What comes, according to Badiou, after premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism (or, what is the same, apart from antimodernism, modernism, and postmodernism), is a “second modernity.” [34] In outlining this fourth philosophical orientation, I will continue to borrow primarily from the work of Alain Badiou, who has been bold enough to call the launching of the project of a second modernity “the return of philosophy itself.” [35]

            Direct, poignant criticisms of postmodernism appear throughout Badiou’s publications, though two of his works in particular could be described as systematic critiques: his 1989 Manifesto for Philosophy, in which he places postmodernism within the ancient (and largely venerable) tradition of sophistry and therefore labels it “antiphilosophy”; and his 2006 Logics of Worlds, in which he gives to postmodernism the name of “democratic materialism” and uses it as the foil for his own “materialist dialectic.” [36] From this alone, it is clear that Badiou breaks with postmodernism. At the same time, though, he is very clear that he understands the postmodern critique of modernity to be valid, that his concerns about postmodernism are not to be construed as a return to the modernist project as inaugurated by Descartes. Indeed, on Badiou’s reading, postmodernism’s antifoundationalist critique of modernism is without question the right first move, but the precise misstep postmodernism makes comes in its second move, the formation of its ethics. As Badiou argues in a feverish little book—called, precisely, Ethics—postmodernism betrays its essential ontological antifoundationalism in its ethics by taking death (or suffering, or finitude) as an unshakable foundation. [37] In essence, for Badiou, postmodernism is not antifoundationalist enough.

            Ironically and at first surprisingly, though, the still more radical antifoundationalism Badiou thus calls for is coupled with a startlingly robust “return to truth”! Beginning with his 1988 Being and Event and set to culminate in a still-projected volume to be titled The Immanence of Truths [38], Badiou has dedicated the majority of his philosophical career to working out a fully rigorous theory of eternally invariant truth. Importantly, it is Badiou’s philosophical conviction that no genuine theory of invariant truths can be deployed after the modernist break without finding a way to fuse a radicalized postmodern antifoundationalism with a revitalized premodern Platonism. It is in the shape of a “Platonism of the multiple” (as opposed to a “Platonism of the One”) that a second modernity must be forged—a project as committed to invariant truths as was modernism, and as committed to the non-existence of the One as was postmodernism. [39]

            Obviously, this article is not the place for a full exposition of Badiou’s philosophy—or even for a further brief summary of other major thinkers who have exposited projects similar to Badiou’s. My intention here, for the moment, is only to make clear that there is another, philosophically rigorous way out of the modernism/postmodernism entanglement than an anachronistic embrace of premodernism (an anachronistic embrace that could only be called antimodernism). The question remains, though, whether it is best to understand the relationship between Mormonism and postmodernism as betraying Mormonism’s essential antimodernism, or as pointing out that Mormonism is in some sense an attempt to launch the project of a second modernity.

            Here it is necessary to come back to the difficult relationship between Mormonism and the Enlightenment, discussed earlier. There are, as I have already indicated, some ways in which Mormonism appears to be an Enlightenment religion, though it also clear that Mormonism cannot be reduced to any strictly Cartesian project. Perhaps it is best, in light of what has here been outlined about Badiou’s project, to describe Mormonism as being a second attempt at formulating the project of modernity, a kind of second try at the Enlightenment—one that breaks with the inevitable nihilism that haunted the modernist project Joseph Smith found enthroned in the Western tradition he confronted with his translations and revelations. Whether or not the Latter-day Saint attempt to forge a second modernity can be mapped in its entirety onto Badiou’s project—or onto any one of the many other similar projects [40]—is a question that remains to be answered. That Mormonism need not be, in the end, merely reducible to antimodernism is perhaps all that needs to be recognized for the moment.

            Why, though, might one miss the possibility of associating Mormonism with projects like Badiou’s? Unfamiliarity with contemporary philosophy would seem to be the best explanation. And indeed, Badiou and others at work on similar projects have only begun to receive attention in the English-speaking world in the past decade (Badiou’s first translated work appeared, for example, only in 1999). [41] Nonetheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that there is something not entirely honest about taking “faithful scholarship” to have embraced an antimodernist position. Indeed, on Alain Badiou’s own argument, his insights about there being a non-antimodernist way out of the modernist/postmodernist problematic are nothing new. In a remarkable little book, Badiou places his own “diagonalization” of the modern/postmodern situation in a tradition stretching back at least to Saint Paul! [42] Whether or not Badiou’s interpretation of Paul is entirely defensible [43], his willingness—particularly as one who does not fall within Paul’s religious tradition—to learn from Paul is exemplary. In the end, it is perhaps this willingness to learn from one’s subject of study that is missing in misinterpretations of Mormonism’s philosophical significance.

            At any rate, the analysis of “faithful scholarship” that I have offered here calls for a new analysis of the “perspectivism” on display in the past several decades of Mormon studies. Such should begin to make clear what kind of shape Mormonism’s attempt at forging a second modernity takes. What follows, then, is an excursus on questions of historiography, culminating in a few words about the philosophical status of perspectivism and, by implication, “faithful scholarship.” Here I will return to close analysis of Duffy’s paper.

Excursus: Perspectivism and Postmodernism

            In his actual historical presentation, Duffy lays out what in the end are three distinct historical sequences. The first, nicely assignable to the 1980s, is the period of “antipositivist critiques,” of papers both presented and published by orthodox Latter-day Saints that employed postmodern insights in order to criticize the new Mormon history (produced especially in the 1970s and early 1980s) for its modernist theoretical commitments. [44] The second sequence, assignable in turn to the 1990s, is the period of “perspectivism,” of institutional endeavors to establish “faithful scholarship” as a kind of standard among orthodox Latter-day Saint scholars—endeavors primarily undertaken at Brigham Young University and justified through references to the work of religiously conservative scholars drawing in complex ways on postmodernism. [45] The third sequence, finally, is what Duffy regards as the present period of “ambiguities and ambivalences,” in which orthodox appeals to postmodern theory appear to be exhausting themselves, being replaced by “rhetorical moves associated with the new Mormon history” and thus allowing Duffy to prophesy: “Leonard Arrington’s style of Mormon scholarship may yet see a comeback.” [46]

            I have already dealt at length with what Duffy has to say about the first of these three periods. It is precisely the antipositivist critiques of the 1980s that Duffy labels “antimodern,” and the clarifications I have offered of postmodernism’s antifoundationalism—as well as of orthodox Mormonism’s ability to embrace that antifoundationalism—have already shown in advance, I believe, that there are problems with Duffy’s analysis of the first of the three periods he describes.

            But, as Duffy explains, the antipositivist critiques of the 1980s were only “the forerunner to a diffuse postmodern sensibility among orthodox LDS scholars during the 1990s.” [47] The antipositivists rather consistently suggested, in their critiques, that there was room for what would become the perspectivism of the 1990s. In the end, it is this perspectivism—perhaps especially because of its institutionalization and therefore political mobilization—that seems most to concern Duffy. [48] This he makes clear in the second of his three claims outlined earlier in this paper, in which he offers a précis of his larger historical presentation: “Mormons in academia,” Duffy there summarizes, are part of a larger movement of “religious conservatives from a number of traditions” who “have, during the past couple of decades, adopted postmodern appeals against being marginalized in the name of universal rationality.” [49]

            Because Duffy regards perspectivist historiography as part of what Terry Eagleton has colorfully described as “postmodernism’s enduring love-affair with otherness” [50], it is possible to see the shift from the antipositivism of the 1980s to the perspectivism of the 1990s as tracing, in effect, what I have already described as the two “moments” of postmodernism—the antifoundationalist moment (orthodox Mormonism’s antipositivism) and the ethical moment (orthodox Mormonism’s perspectivism). But it must be asked whether historiographical perspectivism actually represents a strictly postmodern position—whether, that is, it ultimately derives from a strictly postmodern ethical sensibility.

            Strictly speaking, as has already been shown, postmodern ethics takes the shape primarily of a kind of vigilance, after the (antifoundationalist) deconstruction of the grand narrative of modernity, against the construction of new or other founding narratives. It is precisely thus that postmodernism can be characterized as nihilist: postmodern ethics is first and foremost a question of tarrying at the ambivalent (anti)foundations of modernism, of attempting positively to embrace the negativity of the nihilism against which the modernist project defined itself. It thus effects, as Jacques Rancière has put it, “a reversal of the flow of time: the time turned towards an end to be accomplished—[the modernist programs of] progress, emancipation, or the other—is replaced by that turned towards the catastrophe behind us.” [51] This is what Frederic Jameson has described as “an inverted millenarianism,” a general malaise in which “premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the ‘crisis’ of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.).” [52]

            How is this reversal of the flow of time an ethics? I have already suggested that it is largely motivated by the concern that any construction of new founding narratives (“ideologies”) after the deconstruction of the grand narrative of modernity will inevitably weave anew relations of power that marginalize some groups and privilege others. Rigorous postmodernism thus calls not only (in antifoundationalist tones) for a recognition of the traumatic aspect of the founding of modern society, but also (in ethical tones) for a vigilance against any possible repetition of the trauma of that founding. But this negative aspect of postmodern ethics is also, as Rancière again notes, a positive aspect. Postmodernism—at least in the shape of postmodern art—focuses not only on “bearing witness to the irremediable catastrophe lying at the very origin of [the social] bond,” but also, ironically, on “restoring the social bond.” [53] This postmodernism proposes to do, however, through a collective embrace of precisely the trauma of modernism, that is, by positively claiming that the social bond can only be restored if human beings collectively orient themselves to the trauma the antifoundationalist critique identifies. All the world, on the postmodern ethical vision, would in effect become deconstructionists—would assume a critical regard for every founding narrative, even and especially their own founding narratives.

            In the end, it is difficult to see how this heavily theoretical postmodern ethical vision can be said to ground historiographical perspectivism—especially because perspectivism is inevitably an art of weaving founding narratives. And thus if perspectivism is to be connected to postmodernism in some way, it will likely have to be—by the non-Mormon as much as by the Mormon, orthodox or otherwise—only through an essentially illegitimate taking advantage of the postmodern moment. Arguably, this is precisely what Duffy has in mind when he speaks of there being “a diffuse postmodern sensibility” among orthodox Latter-day Saint scholars in the 1990s, a sensibility predicated on “a broader turn toward perspectivism that had occurred in academia under the influence of postmodernism.” [54] And indeed, it is perhaps worth drawing with Terry Eagleton the distinction between “the more recherché formulations of postmodern philosophy” or “the higher philosophical flights of the subject,” and “the culture or milieu or even sensibility of postmodernism as a whole,” postmodernism as “a portmanteau phenomenon” or “a kind of received wisdom.” [55] Perhaps Mormon perspectivism, like all perspectivisms, is just a misappropriation of what in the hands of the theorists is something much more rigorous.

            It is, of course, quite possible that perspectivism is nothing more than a taking advantage of the postmodern moment, a kind of badly formed historiographical methodology predicated on a sloppy appropriation of postmodern theory. [56] But there is also a rather different way of approaching perspectivism as well. In a brilliant but complicated study of historiography over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jacques Rancière has suggested that there is much more at stake in the formulation of perspectivist historiography—not only a recognition of the problems of the modernist “contract” (and its embrace of a very specific founding narrative), but also a break with any “scientifically” (or ultimately ethically) justified dismissal of narrative as such. [57] It is, according to Rancière, in historiography’s curious weave of irretrievable events (one meaning of the French histoire) and poetically constructed stories (another meaning of the French histoire) that a form of subjectivity that comes definitively after the fragmented subjectivity of postmodernism takes shape. [58]

            Might it be that a strikingly non-postmodern perspectivism is actually what is at work in Mormon studies since the 1980s? Might it be, that is, that “faithful scholarship” represents not so much a popular but nonetheless illegitimate misappropriation of postmodern theory—theory that otherwise would be irreconcilable with orthodox Mormon theology—but instead a historiography very much in line with other philosophical and non-philosophical attempts to move beyond the modern/postmodern problematic without therefore reverting to a vague pre- or antimodernism? It seems to me necessary to recognize this as a real possibility, and I would like to provide at least one historical indication that it might make better sense of the story of Mormon scholarship since the 1980s than does Duffy’s account.

            Though Duffy describes perspectivist historiography as finding its way into the world of academic Mormons only in the 1990s, it must be confessed that it actually made its appearance in the 1980s—in fact, concurrent with and arguably independent of the earliest antipositivist critiques. 1984 saw the publication of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, a study of the emergence of Mormonism up through 1830 largely portrayed as a biographical study of Joseph Smith. [59] (At that point, only two of the many antipositivist critiques had appeared in print, and both of them only in 1983 when Bushman would have been more or less finished with his work.) [60] As reviewers immediately recognized, Bushman’s approach to historiography was strikingly new in its full embrace of a perspectivist point of view. [61] Moreover, Bushman was himself quite forthcoming about his perspectivism, noting on the very first page of the book his intention to “accommodate a Mormon’s perception of events.” [62]

            Perhaps still more importantly, 1985 saw the publication of Jan Shipps’ Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, which Bushman was quick to describe—directly on the jacket of Shipps’ book—as possibly “the most brilliant book ever written on Mormonism.” [63] What likely endeared it to Bushman from the very beginning was its essential embrace of his own perspectivist historiography—not to mention the fact that this embrace of his own perspectivism had been undertaken by a non-Mormon. Shipps explained in her own preface that she had “tried to establish contexts that would have been recognizable to the Latter-day Saints who lived in the times and places in question,” thus attempting to reconstruct “the picture of early Mormonism as perceived from the inside.” [64] Again, reviewers were quick to note the novelty, among historians of Mormonism, of Shipps’ historiographical methodology, coupling it only with the then-recent publication of Bushman’s 1984 study. [65]

            Contra Duffy’s account, then, it seems clear that a perspectivist historiography emerged among Mormon historians much earlier than the 1990s, and arguably independently—or even really in advance—of the antipositivist attacks against the new Mormon history. [66] Duffy curiously remains silent about the perspectivism of these mid-1980s publications. Instead, interestingly, he positions Shipps’ work in the 1980s directly within the larger trend of the new Mormon history, arguably simply because the antipositivists so positioned her. [67] This is particularly problematic because, while Louis Midgley in particular heavily criticized Jan Shipps’ project during the antipositivist critiques [68], he later revised his position on the status of Shipps’ work while nonetheless still claiming that the middle ground sought by new Mormon historians remained a fantasy. [69]

            But not only did a perspectivist historiography thus appear a full decade earlier than Duffy suggests, it was far more theoretically informed and carefully forged than any “diffuse postmodern sensibility” that emerged only in the 1990s. That Shipps and Bushman—along with the similarly informed figure of Terryl Givens—unquestionably reign in the current explosion of Mormon studies at least suggests that it was less a vague postmodern turn in the academy than a direct attempt at emulating established scholars that paved the way for a widespread emphasis on historiographical perspectivism in Mormon studies after the turn of the millennium.

            Moreover, in light of all these problems with Duffy’s analysis of the second of his three sequences in the recent history of orthodox Mormon scholarship, his analysis of the third sequence seems, bluntly, to be simply wrong. When he suggests, for example, that Richard Bushman, in his production of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (in 2005) made a move away from his own preferred position and to “the project Jan Shipps had pursued twenty years earlier” [70],he seems entirely to ignore both Bushman’s own longstanding historiographical entanglement with Shipps (going back to precisely that twenty-year-old project) and Shipps’ own comments on Bushman’s complicated relationship to the new Mormon history, published in 2007 in the Journal of American History. [71] Bushman’s desire to produce a history that is positioned between “secularism and uncritical traditionalism” [72] is neither new (Bushman praised Shipps’ work as early as 1984 for its ability to “[break] the deadlock between believers and skeptics”) [73] nor disconnected from his interest in perspectivism (Bushman has described his concern about uncritical traditionalism to be less a question of academic rigor than of his worry that “young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph . . . may lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along” if and when they “discover his failings”). [74] The “shift back” Duffy professes to detect in current trends is largely, it seems to me, a phantasm. [75]


            Is it worthwhile to pursue the possibility of regarding Mormonism as an attempt to forge an alternative Enlightenment—an Enlightenment that fully recognizes the rigor of antifoundationalism while nonetheless refusing to dismiss the possibility that there are universally valid and eternally invariant truths? In the end, I think such a project may be immensely important for scholars dedicated to studying Mormon history. Whatever modernist or postmodernist resistance there may be to a strongly grounded perspectivist historiography, it must be confessed in full rigor that only a perspectivist history accounts for the historical phenomenon of Mormonism’s self-understanding. Perspectivism—even when it is cast as “faithful scholarship”—asks the historian to account not so much for the events to which the believer claims fidelity, but for the believer’s fidelity itself, for the way the believer’s fidelity to events (that may or may not have actually taken place) shapes history.

            Of course, the current contour and the historical shapes of Mormonism’s “second modernity” remain to be traced. Not only does it deserve to be compared and contrasted with the Enlightenment, it deserves to be set alongside other attempts at a second modernity, some of which attempts have crossed Mormonism’s path at interesting historical junctures. (A few examples, ranging from familiarity to obscurity, come immediately to mind: the culture of folk magic in the early Republic; the Icarians settling in the abandoned city of Nauvoo; the so-called “modernism controversy” at Brigham Young University; etc.) Interesting comparative studies thus remain to be undertaken, as well as introspective philosophical reflections on the part of “faithful scholars” about the meaning of faith or fidelity in a world that has begun to leave both modernism and postmodernism—as well as every form of pre- or antimodernism—behind.

            In a word, what perhaps remains, above all else, to be produced is a definitive Mormon Bildungsroman, less in the shape of Rousseau’s Emile or Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister than in the shape of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. As daunting as such a project sounds—as much to read as to write!—it may be that Mormonism’s coming-of-age in the years since 1980 demand nothing less. Whether faithful scholars are “vigorous, prophetic, and creative” enough to take on the task, however, is a question still to be answered. [76]



[1] John-Charles Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day? ‘Faithful Scholarship’ and the Uses of Postmodernism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 41.1 (Spring 2008): 1-33. The article is essentially a streamlined and somewhat updated version of Duffy’s master’s thesis, completed in 2006. See John-Charles Duffy, “Faithful Scholarship: The Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies and the Politics of Insider Discourse” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2006). [Back to manuscript]

[2] Ibid., 2. [Back to manuscript]

[3] See ibid., 2. [Back to manuscript]

[4] Ibid., 4. [Back to manuscript]

[5] Ibid., 5, emphases in original. [Back to manuscript]

[6] Ibid., 6. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Ibid., emphasis added. [Back to manuscript]

[10] Duffy’s discussion of postmodernism relies exclusively on tertiary resources in providing his outline of postmodernism—encyclopedias, introductions, and anthologies. He thus avoids any actual contact with even the most crucial formulations of postmodernism by its leading theorists: Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991). [Back to manuscript]

[11] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 7. [Back to manuscript]

[12] What, in light of Duffy’s terminology, would have to be called religious liberals have unsurprisingly expressed a good deal more interest in postmodernism than have religious conservatives. While religious conservatives have arguably, as Duffy puts it, “adopted postmodern appeals against being marginalized in the name of universal rationality,” religious liberals generally go much further in their embrace of postmodernism. Good examples of fusions of postmodernism and religion in the Christian tradition can be found in The Bible and Culture Collective, The Postmodern Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007); and Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Pres, 1984). [Back to manuscript]

[13] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 15-16. [Back to manuscript]

[14] The parenthetically cited words are Marsden’s as cited in ibid., 17, emphasis in original. [Back to manuscript]

[15] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), xvii. [Back to manuscript]

[16] A transcript of the 60 Minutes interview, produced by Robert J. Woolley, can be found at http://www.lds-mormon.com/60min.shtml. Accessed September 18, 2010. [Back to manuscript]

[17] The transcript of Helen Whitney’s film can be found at http://www.pbs.org/mormons/etc/script2.html. Accessed September 18, 2010. [Back to manuscript]

[18] I have ventured an analysis of this in Joseph M. Spencer, “The Romance of Materialism: Notes on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo,” Mormon Review: Books and Culture from an LDS Perspective 1.6 (September 2009): 1-4. [Back to manuscript]

[19] Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42. [Back to manuscript]

[20] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005), 478. [Back to manuscript]

[21] I have cited historians of Mormonism here instead of the relevant Mormon theologians primarily to emphasize that Duffy should have been quite aware of Mormonism’s theological immanence. [Back to manuscript]

[22] Clyde J. Williams, ed., The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, Fifth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984), 2. [Back to manuscript]

[23] James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 139. [Back to manuscript]

[24] See O. Kendall White, Jr., Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Book, 1987); and Douglas J. Davies, The Mormon Culture of Salvation (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2000). I have offered a response to some of these developments in Joseph M. Spencer, “Taking Grace for Granted: A Roundabout Review of Adam Miller’s Immanent Grace,” Element: The Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology 4.2 (Fall 2008). [Back to manuscript]

[25] Lucy Smith described an event that took place when her father-in-law discovered that she and her husband were attending Methodist meetings: her father-in-law “came to the door one day and threw Tom Pains age of reason into the house and angrily bade [Joseph Sr.] read that untill he believed it.” See Lavina Fielding Anderson, Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 291. [Back to manuscript]

[26] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 27-41. [Back to manuscript]

[27] Ibid., 79, emphasis added. [Back to manuscript]

[28] The implication here is that it is less modernism’s secularism than modernism’s theological commitments that distance Mormonism from its project. This point seems to me to be crucial. [Back to manuscript]

[29] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 35. [Back to manuscript]

[30] This kind of critique has perhaps been most systematically undertaken in the work of Michel Foucault, on display throughout his publications. Exemplary is Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage, 1988). [Back to manuscript]

[31] The word “deconstruction” comes, of course, from Jacques Derrida. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976). [Back to manuscript]

[32] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 11. [Back to manuscript]

[33] Ibid., 19, emphasis added. The words are actually Richard Bushman’s, though Duffy takes advantage of them. [Back to manuscript]

[34] Alain Badiou, Number and Numbers, trans. Robin Mackay (Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2008), 14. [Back to manuscript]

[35] See Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. Norman Madarasz (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), 113-138. [Back to manuscript]

[36] Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy; and Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. Alberto Toscano (New York: Continuum, 2009). It is to be expected that Badiou’s Second Manifesto for Philosophy, due out early in 2011 in English, will also deal with postmodernism. [Back to manuscript]

[37] See Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (New York: Verso, 2001). [Back to manuscript]

[38] See Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2006). Badiou has recently announced the projected third volume of Being and Event, to be titled The Immanence of Truths, in an interview with Fabien Tarby. See Alain Badiou and Fabien Tarby, La philosophie et l’évènement, et une introduction à la philosophie d’Alain Badiou (Paris: Germina, 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[39] The phrase “Platonism of the multiple” comes from Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, 103. For the sake of full disclosure, it should be recognized that Badiou equates the rejection of the (ontological) One with “atheism,” and Badiou himself is an avowed atheist. Arguably, however, this is actually not a problem for orthodox Mormonism, which rejects the definition of God as the ontological One-All. Because Latter-day Saints believe in God, they cannot be said to be atheists in the strongest sense, but they are, technically speaking, philosophical atheists, not believing that there is some ontological plug that holds the universe together. [Back to manuscript]

[40] Among the philosophical projects that can be called attempts to forge a second modernity, one might perhaps class phenomenology. Certainly, a number of very interesting LDS thinkers whose thought is reducible neither to modernism nor to postmodernism have taken the insights of phenomenology very seriously, something James Faulconer—chief among these LDS thinkers—points out. See James E. Faulconer, “Response to Professor Tracy,” in Donald W. Musser and David L. Paulsen, Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2007), 477. [Back to manuscript]

[41] Phenomenology, obviously, would be an exception, if it can be classed as an attempt at a second modernity. At any rate, phenomenology certainly presents itself as an alternative to the modernist/postmodernist divide. And not only have phenomenological studies been available in English for decades, they were cited often during the antipositivist debates of the 1980s. [Back to manuscript]

[42] See Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). Incidentally, that Badiou’s interpretation of Paul might be amenable to a study of Mormon history is something I have argued in a piece forthcoming in BYU Studies, titled simply “The Four Discourses of Mormonism.” [Back to manuscript]

[43] At a 2005 symposium held at Syracuse University and dedicated to precisely this question, several leading Paul scholars read and responded to Badiou’s work on Paul. Though some important criticisms were raised, none of the historians questions the appropriateness of his comparison between Paul’s and his own attempts to forge a fourth “discourse.” See John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff, eds., St. Paul among the Philosophers (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009). [Back to manuscript]

[44] See Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 7-12. [Back to manuscript]

[45] See ibid., 12-17. [Back to manuscript]

[46] See ibid., 17-25. [Back to manuscript]

[47] Ibid., 12. [Back to manuscript]

[48] That Duffy is concerned about the strictly political implications of the normalization of perspectivism is clear from his statement early in his paper that his “project” is not only “to provide historical perspective on the use of postmodern appeals by ‘faithful scholars,’” but also to “inquir[e] into these appeals’ rhetorical efficacy and political uses.” Ibid., 2. Note that this concern is much more consistently on display in Duffy’s much longer master’s thesis. See Duffy, “Faithful Scholarship.” [Back to manuscript]

[49] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 7. [Back to manuscript]

[50] Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others (New York: Verso, 2003), 1. Note that Eagleton lists a series of examples of “others” falling within the “otherness” embraced by postmodernists on the same page, and the list includes—between “monsters” and “cross-dressers”—Mormons. This is in accordance with Eagleton’s claim elsewhere that the “more canny spokespeople” among Latter-day Saints have learned, by picking up “the language of the cultural studies departments,” to “present them[selves] as a victimized postmodern minority.” See Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 148. [Back to manuscript]

[51] Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran (Malden, MA: Polity, 2009), 119. [Back to manuscript]

[52] Jameson, Postmodernism, 1. [Back to manuscript]

[53] Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, 130. [Back to manuscript]

[54] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 12. [Back to manuscript]

[55] Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), viii. [Back to manuscript]

[56] Duffy quotes Russell McCutcheon to this effect: “Postmodern critiques of authority are often appropriated by scholars of religion acting as caretakers and used to legitimize and relativizes all contexts; in other words, because we are all contextually bound, or so the argument goes, then all viewpoints deserve equal time in any one discourse.” Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 20. Whether Mormonism is making a move like those described by McCutcheon remains, of course, to be shown. [Back to manuscript]

[57] See Jacques Rancière, The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge, trans. Hassan Melehy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). See also Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor, trans. John Drury, Corinne Oster, and Andrew Parker (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 125-202. [Back to manuscript]

[58] I have investigated the possibilities of drawing on Rancière’s historiographical suggestions in a brief study of Parley P. Pratt’s Autobiography in a brief essay (the title: “On the Poetics of Self-Knowledge: Poetry in Parley Pratt’s Autobiography”) forthcoming in the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of Mormon History. [Back to manuscript]

[59] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984). [Back to manuscript]

[60] Neal W. Kramer, “Looking for God in History,” Sunstone Magazine 8.1-2 (January-April 1983): 15-17; and David Earl Bohn, “No Higher Ground: Objective History Is an Illusive Chimera,” Sunstone Magazine 8.3 (May-June 1983): 26-32. [Back to manuscript]

[61] Marvin S. Hill, “Richard L. Bushman—Scholar and Apologist,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 125-133. [Back to manuscript]

[62] Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 3. [Back to manuscript]

[63] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985). [Back to manuscript]

[64] Ibid., xii, emphasis in original. [Back to manuscript]

[65] Klaus J. Hansen, “Jan Shipps and the Mormon Tradition,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 135-145. [Back to manuscript]

[66] Further evidence of the independence of this emergence is the fact that Martin Marty, as the invited keynote speaker at the 1983 meetings of the Mormon History Association, called attention to phenomenological and hermeneutical—effectively perspectivist— approaches to doing historiography. See Martin E. Marty, “Two Integrities: An Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography,” Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 3-19. [Back to manuscript]

[67] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 8-9. [Back to manuscript]

[68] Particularly in Louis Midgley, “The Shipps Odyssey in Retrospect,” FARMS Review 7.2 (1995): 219-252. [Back to manuscript]

[69] See Louis Midgley, “No Middle Ground: The Debate over the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon,” in Paul Y. Hoskisson, ed., Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (Provo: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 2001), 149-170. Duffy never cites this piece from Midgley in his study. [Back to manuscript]

[70] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 22. [Back to manuscript]

[71] Jan Shipps, “Richard Lyman Bushman, the Story of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and the New Mormon History,” Journal of American History 94 (September 2007): 498-516. See also Bushman’s response: Richard Lyman Bushman, “What’s New in Mormon History: A Response to Jan Shipps,” Journal of American History 94 (September 2007): 517-521; as well as Keith A. Erekson et al, “What We Will Do Now that New Mormon History Is Old: A Roundtable,” Journal of Mormon History 35.3 (Summer 2009): 190-233. [Back to manuscript]

[72] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?” 23. [Back to manuscript]

[73] Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 192. [Back to manuscript]

[74] Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 121. I have provided a lengthy analysis of the historiographical methodologies of both Bushman and Shipps, in their relationship to the larger project of the new Mormon history, in Joseph M. Spencer, “The Rise of Mormon Cultural History and the Changing Status of the Archive” (master’s thesis, San José State University, 2009). [Back to manuscript]

[75] Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day”? 25. [Back to manuscript]

[76] See Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 112. [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Spencer, Joseph M. (2010) "Mormonism and the Enlightenment: In Response to John-Charles Duffy," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleSpencerPostmodernism.html, accessed [give access date].

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

1) Clark Goble, 9 March 2011

Most of Spencer's essay I agree completely with but there is one place I have some issues.  The issue is how Duffy applies postmodernism, nihilism and the marginal.

Postmodern antifoundationalism thus only paves the way for postmodern ethics, an ethics that unquestionably takes the consistent shape of what Duffy rightly calls a “concern for the marginalized.” But, it seems to me, it is precisely this second, essentially ethical moment that orthodox Mormon theology cannot embrace. Committed, as it is, to some kind of notion of invariant truth, orthodox Mormonism cannot easily be wedded to any strong kind of nihilism, even if this nihilism takes the shape of a concern for the marginalized. It is difficult, in short, to see how any orthodox Mormon theory of ethics could philosophically ground itself in the nihilism postmodern theorists identify as lying at the foundation of modernism. Able to join postmodernism for the antifoundationalist show, Mormon orthodoxy nonetheless cannot join postmodernism for the ethical cast party afterwards. 

Might I suggest that Derrida actually offers a way out of this conundrum?  He sees truth as the selection by greater powers.  In other words the truth is always under question as we graft signs into new contexts.  However clearly many things stay stable through such transformations.  To quote Derrida from the interview at the end of Limited Inc.:

[L]et it be said in passing how surprised I have often been, how amused or discouraged, depending on my humor, by the use or abuse of the following argument: Since the deconstructionist (which is to say, isn't it, the skeptical-relativist-nihilist!) is supposed to not believe in truth, stability, or the unity of meaning, in intention or "meaning-to-say," how can he demand of us now that we read him with pertinence, precision, rigor? How can he demand that his own text be interpreted correctly? How can he accuse anyone else of having misunderstood, simplified, deformed it, etc.? In other words, how can he discuss, and discuss the reading of what he writes? The answer is simple enough: This definition of the deconstructionist is false (that's right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that's right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine, which therefore must finally be read or reread. Then perhaps it wil be understood that the value of truth (and all those values associated with it) is never contested or destroyed in my writings, but only reinscribed in more powerful, larger, more stratified contexts. And that within interpretive contexts (that is, within relations of force that are always differential-- for example, socio-political-institutional--but even beyond those determinations) that are relatively stable, sometimes apparently almost unshakeable, it should be possible to invoke rules of competence, criteria of discussion and of consensus, good faith, lucidity, rigor, criticism, and pedagogy." (Derrida, Limited Inc, 146)

Once again (and this probably makes a thousand times I have had to repeat this, but when will it finally be heard, and why this resistance?): as I understand it (and I have explained why), the text is not the book, it is not confined in a volume itself confined to the library. It does not suspend reference-- to history, to the world, to reality, to being, and especially not to the other, since to say of history, of the world, of reality, that they always appear in an experience, hence in a movement of interpretation which contextualizes them according to a network of differences and hence of referral to the other, is surely to recall that alterity (difference) is irreducible. (ibid)

Now I recognize there's a bit of a problem equating postmodernism with Derrida for a slew of reasons.  My point isn't to make that connection merely to suggest that the focus on the marginal can be rescued in the context of a Mormon conception of absolute truth.  Absolute truth of the sort GAs have long talked about is precisely this play of the marginal in terms of power.  Derrida says something similar in an interview originally published in "Literary Review" (Vol 14.18 April - 1 May (1980):21-22), which was later republished in Anthony Easthope's "British Post-Structuralism Since 1968" (Routledge: 1988)

Q: It might be argued that deconstruction inevitably leads to pluralist interpretation and ultimately to the view that any interpretation is as good as any other. Do you believe this and how do you select some interpretations as being better than others?

JD: I am not a pluralist and I would never say that every interpretation is equal but I do not select. The interpretations select themselves. I am a Nietzschean in that sense. You know that Nietzsche insisted on the fact that the principle of differentiation was in itself selective. The eternal return of the same was not repetition, it was a selection of more powerful forces. So I would not say that some interpretations are truer than others. I would say that some are more powerful than others. The hierarchy is between forces and not between true and false. There are interpretations which account for more meaning and this is the criterion.

Q: You would reject, then, the view that meaning is any response whatever to a sign? That meaning is determined by the person who reads the sign?

JD: Yes, of course. Meaning is determined by a system of forces which is not personal. It does not depend on the subjective identity but on the field of different forces, the conflict of forces, which produce interpretations.

Q: You would, therefore, reject the theory of authorial intention as determinate of meaning?

JD: Yes. I would not say that there is no interest in referring to the intentional purpose. There are authors, there are intentionalities, there are conscious purposes. We must analyse them, take them seriously. But the effects of what we caul author's intentions are dependent on something which is not the individual intention, which is not intentional.

Q:There is a pragmatic aspect to this question of intentionality. It has been suggested that it is only in the field of literary theory that reader-based theories of interpretation are taken seriously, that all other fields of discourse accept author-based intention. Reader-based theories of interpretation tend, therefore, according to this view, to partition off literary speculation from the rest of experience and thus to trivialise literary speculation. What are your views on this?

JD: I do not accept this opposition between reader-based and author-based meaning. It comes from a misunderstanding of deconstruction, one which sees deconstruction as free interpretation based only on the fantasies of the reader. No one is free to read as he or she wants. The reader does not interpret freely, taking into account only his own reading, excluding the author, the historical period in which the text appeared and so on.

Q: So you would not consider yourself an anti-historicist?

JD: Not at all. I think that one cannot read without trying to reconstruct the historical context but history is not the last word, the final key, of reading. Without being anti-historicist, I am suspicious of the traditional concepts of history, the Hegelian and Marxist concepts.

So Absolute Truth for a Mormon might be seen not as an imposition on the world of some transcendent totalizing force but rather precisely the play of the marginal which survives all such changes of context.  We are not free to interpret such things as we will.  (Of course it is precisely at this point that perhaps many postmodernists who are more relativist would part company with Derrida)