A Note to the Reader from a Concerned Friend

by Jack Miles

Copyright notice

To read this book right, you have to read it wrong. Reading a book wrong is getting lost in what is superficial or merely charming about it--its interesting examples, its striking illustrations, its literary style, the way the print looks on the page, and so forth--and failing to come to grips with its central argument. But that's just the right way to read this book. Its surface fascinations are considerable. Enjoy them. Don't try to link them into a thesis that you can accept or rebut. Don't read Hiding as a book, in short. Instead, take it as a trip. For most serious works of nonfiction, that would be a mistake. For this one, it won't be.

To read Hiding by coming to grips with its central argument would be to misread it because Mark C. Taylor, its author, is not trying to come to grips with you. You can't wrestle with a man who won't wrestle back, and Taylor won't. I'll try to say why in a moment, but let me remind you first how often argumentation does indeed become a kind of mental wrestling match. The attacker, the author, tries to pin the defender, the reader, with his arguments. If he succeeds, the reader says, "OK, you got me, you're right, I give up." Our language is full of buried metaphors alluding to this struggle. "I am convinced," we say, using an English word derived ultimately from the Latin word vincere, "to conquer." "Your arguments are cogent," we say, using an English word derived from the Latin cogere, "to force." If your arguments are not cogent, then I can refute them, from the Latin refutare, "to drive back."

But Taylor, as I say, doesn't want to conquer his readers. He doesn't want to bring us round to his views by force. It isn't that he is kinder or gentler or more forbearing or more polite than the next author. It is because his guiding conviction is that reality cannot be coerced into a form that would permit him or anyone to derive a cogent, convincing, coercive argument from it. When we try to do that with reality, he says, we turn it into illusion. To those who might reply, "But if we can't do that with reality, then reality might as well be illusion," he says, "Yes, and . . . ?" Life can be lived, he implies, without the usual sturdy certainty that the world is really there.

One name for this conviction of his is nihilism, from the Latin nihil, "nothing." A kinder name for it is vision. In popular parlance the nihilist is the ultimate, universal aggressor, the enemy not just of religious faith but of any and every claim of truth. But as Taylor knows and Buddhism shows us, nothingness and emptiness can function as guiding concepts within a religious vision that eludes or transcends conventional demonstrations of truth or falsehood. It is no ordinary aggressor, surely, who disarms himself before he disarms you. The right way to read this book, I suggest, is to allow yourself to be disarmed by its disarmed author. Try not to fight with him, he's not fighting with you. Don't accept or reject his book as an argument, see it as a vision or, to repeat, take it as a trip.

A trip may change your mind, after all. In the 1960s, the word trip became American slang for the mind-change that mind-altering drugs were bringing about. In subsequent usage, trip has come to mean, by implied comparison with the drug experience, any highly stimulating or intense experience. However, the original term of comparison remains the voyage experience. A voyage is not an argument. It may have a destination, it does not have a point. And it may not even have a destination: a trip to nowhere is still a trip and may be the most rewarding kind of trip, for it truly begins with the first step: every part of it counts.

Taylor and I met as graduate students at Harvard University in the late 1960s when the counterculture was at flood tide. What we both took from that extraordinary American moment is what American academic life itself, in varying measures, has taken; namely, an unshakeable suspicion that, to borrow a Spanish proverb, mas enseña la vida que la universidad: life teaches more than the university.

At the beginning of the decade, the imperial demands of "the discipline"--words always spoken with a slightly minatory air--were unchallenged. By the end of the decade, there was a restive and ubiquitous challenger: "interdisciplinary" study had become a new imperative. Had it arisen spontaneously, this new imperative, as professors in one discipline began impulsively knocking on the doors of professors in the discipline next door? Anyone who knows professors knows how seldom they do this. No, the mail from one door to the next in la universidad is typically carried first by la vida, and so it was in the 1960s. Interdisciplinary study permitted academics to expand and modify the vessels of on-campus, schooled reflection to contain social, political, cultural, and technological subject matter that, encountered first off campus, seemed too important and too intellectually fertile to ignore.

My own response to the new interdisciplinary imperative was to obey it to an extreme. Though I completed my doctorate, I became in short order that which the ancients of "the discipline" most abhorred: a journalist. But I became a journalist who, let it be admitted, was always trying to make the newspaper behave more like a university. Taylor, who remained in academe, did the same work from his side of the border: he tried to make the university behave like a newspaper. I wanted an impossibly serious and analytic newspaper. He wanted an impossibly receptive and inquisitive university. Thirty years after graduation, I published God: A Biography, a book that, though it won the Pulitzer Prize, neither journalism nor academe knows quite what to do with. Hiding is the comparable effort from my penpal. Readers, in their disorganized individuality, will respond to it warmly. Institutions, I predict, will have trouble with it.

There is a pleasure principle of a sort at work here. I once waited for Taylor for two hours on Harvard Square without a book or magazine or anything to divert my attention from the people walking through the square. It was easy to tell those who had a destination from those who did not. Those who had a destination were, in particular, white men in their thirties and forties, Harvard professors perhaps, frowning slightly, carrying briefcases, walking quickly, nervously, as if irritated that they were not already where they intended to go. They met no one's eyes and were otherwise blind to what they walked past. Those who had no destination were, in particular, black men in their forties and fifties, probably unemployed, carrying nothing, walking a lot more slowly. They met the eyes of anyone who would look back (I remember, because they met mine). They took everything in.

Mark Taylor may be the most focused thinker I know, and yet he would ever blur his own focus, forget his original destination, take in the scene. This is a quintessential sixties habit that can be a weakness or a strength. He makes it a strength. The trip on which he invites his readers is a trip that, so to speak, has a destination even if you never arrive. For twenty-five years he has been on that kind of trip, taking in the scene, assimilating everything that came his way, putting it all together. If nothing else, Hiding is a fabulous travelogue.

No other philosopher now writing moves so deftly through theology, literature, literary criticims, art, architecture, biochemistry, neurophysiology, fashion, and technology. In his twenties, as a philosopher of religion, Taylor read the eternal Germans--Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche--and the Dane Kierkegaard as an anti-Hegel. In his thirties and forties, as a philosopher of language, he read the fashionable French--Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Michel de Certeau--and brought their insights to bear on contemporary theology with startling originality. During this period, Taylor also ventured into twentieth-century art and architecture in a series of remarkable essays and books. Now in his fifties, he seems to have drawn the conclusion about his own country that many foreign observers draw; namely, that what the Americans say is rarely as provocative as what they do. He has become a philosopher of culture who functions not only as a penetrating intellectual reporter but also as an innovative practitioner who is helping to lead others into the new worlds opened by new technologies.

God--the God of Genesis, the God of the West--is an artist rather than a philosopher. He does not find the world and try to understand it, as a philosopher does. He creates the world and tries through it to understand himself, as an artist does. Taylor--more an artist than a philosopher of religion--is thoroughly Western in his conviction that there is no escaping creativity: nothing is given, everything is made. For him, the average scientist is just an artist who will not see his own fingerprints on his work. Consistently, the synthesis that he offers in Hiding, the banquet he spreads here from all he has assembled over the past twenty-five years, has about it more art than philosophy. But then, as a philosopher, Taylor believes that he has no choice but to be an artist.

As omnivorous as Hegel in his cultural appetite and akin to Hegel in the way he collapses any final distinction between the spiritual and the real, Taylor stands as a powerfully original and authentically American exponent of a philosophical tradition that most Americans find deeply antipathetic. In the United States and in the rest of the English-speaking world, the triumph of science as implicit philosophy rather than as just the theoretical dimension of technology has been virtually complete. In the late twentieth century, as everyone knows, science speaks English: the language of international scientific gatherings is overwhelmingly English. But by the same token we may well say that the English (and the Americans and the other English speakers) "speak science." The assumptions of science define the whole of our culture, and central among these is the assumption that ultimate reality is one great thing which may be analyzed into many smaller things, down to its ultimate constituents. These constituents are themselves assumed to be real, and so are the relationships among them. They are external, "out there." Analyzing them is assumed to be the proper object not just of science but of thought itself.

So it happens that the school of philosophy dominant for nearly a century in the English-speaking world is the "analytic" school begun by the mathematician Bertrand Russell, who took scientific thinking to be the paradigm of all thinking. To any suggestion that reality has no ultimate, scientifically analyzable constituents and/or that the relationships among its alleged constituents are inseparable from the minds of the scientists themselves, the reply not just from most scientists but from most of the English-speaking world would invoke technology and that with no little indignation. If scientists were making it all up, so the refutation would go, could they put a man on the moon?

Well, could they? And what if they could? Then what? The idealist, originally German tradition out of which Taylor works would reply to the moon question by saying that the fact that scientists have put a man on the moon does not prove that either the man or the moon exists; it merely proves, tautologically, that scientists have put a man on the moon.

Crazy? Maybe, but in the words of the Bible (Proverbs 6:6), "Go to the ant." The ant produces prodigies of micro-engineering, technological miracles that, given the ant's limitations, bear fair comparison to our putting one of our own species on the moon. But do those tiny tunnels prove to the ant that the Earth really exists? No, they do not. The ant, obviously, has no concept of the Earth or of existence. Now, for a thinker like Taylor, that very fact--the fact that that the ant lacks these concepts and is yet able to do so much--should put our own concepts into perspective. It may be necessary for our species, when it undertakes its own kind of technology, to employ concepts such as existence. But another species, lower or higher, may dispense with our concepts; and as for ultimate reality, it may escape us as completely as Earth escapes the ant. How would we know? To state the obvious, we don't know what we don't know.

The assumption in the scientific worldview dominant in the English-speaking world and in the analytical philosophy most closely akin to that worldview is that though science doesn't yet know everything, it has in place a reliable framework and is patiently filling in the blanks. The assumption in Taylor's worldview and in the idealist philosophy that lies behind it is that the framework around science as around all the products of the human mind is the human mind itself and that the relationship of this framework to ultimate reality can never be known. All that we can know is that we are ourselves and that we cannot be other than we are or make anything that will not bear the marks of our own making. Existence is just another human word.

A scientist who did not believe that either the man or the moon existed could still go through all the empirical steps necessary to put the one on the other, for science as philosophy may fall and yet leave science as science standing. The tradition in which Taylor writes insists that the limitation of the human mind is such that in order to say anything, it must leave everything else out. Conversely (it insists again), the besetting temptation of the human mind is to claim for some one of its products--physics, for example--that this one product has left nothing out and so must be understood to include everything. To make or imply such a claim, Taylor believes, is not to capture reality but to flee it. This mistake, the error that he calls "totalization," is what he alludes to when he says at the beginning of his final chapter, a chapter that evaginates from the one that precedes it as an organ from a developing embryo: "After (the) all has been said and done, the question that remains is not 'What is virtual reality?' but 'What is not virtual reality?'"

The embryological emergence of the ultimate from the penultimate chapter of Hiding is by design--specifically, by the remarkable design of Michael Rock and Susan Sellers of 2 X 4 Studio. Their intent, clearly, is to make the design of the final chapter evoke the content of the first. The final chapter climaxes with Taylor's ten rules for "nontotalizing structures that function as a whole" or, if you will, ten rules for worldwide webs. The first chapter begins with his description of how the human embryo, all skin at the start, becomes a human body that beneath the surface . . . is still skin, skin all the way in. Near the very beginning of that first chapter, we read of the developing embryo:

The endoderm generates the blood, internal organs, and all interior linings; the mesoderm produces the skeleton, connective tissue, muscles, and the urogenital and vascular systems; and the ectoderm engenders nerves, hair, nails, and the epidermis. Since the organism as a whole is formed by a complex of dermal layers, the body is, in effect, nothing but layers of skin in which interiority and exteriority are thoroughly convoluted.
Near the end, just before the mentioned rules for nontotalizing structures that function as a whole, we read:
Such a structure would be neither a universal grid organizing opposites nor a dialectical system synthesizing opposites but a seamy web in which what comes together is held apart and what is held apart comes together. This web is neither subjective nor objective and yet is the matrix in which all subjects and objects are formed, deformed, and reformed. In the postmodern culture of simulacra, we are gradually coming to realize that complex communication webs and information networks, which function holistically but not totalistically, are the milieu in which everything arises and passes away. These webs and networks are characterized by a distinctive logic that distinguishes them from classical structures and dialectical systems.
Several years before the rest of his countrymen took notice, Taylor was pointing out that cybernetically precocious Finland, with sixty-two internet hosts per thousand people (the American average is thirty-one, the German seven), had something to teach the rest of the world. In the fall of 1992, he and his Finnish colleague, Esa Saarinen, used the most advanced telecommunications technology to create a trans-Atlantic, real-time, interactive classroom. This unprecedented undertaking, which is recorded in Imagologies: Media Philosophy, resulted in Taylor's being named the 1995 Outstanding College Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation. Relentlessly experimental, Taylor runs to meet the cutting edge with a knife sharpener.

Taylor does not argue conventionally, competitively, coercively from his first picture of skin (in fact, a gallery of amazing pictures of skin) to his closing vision of distributed intelligence. He does not offer the first as premise and the last as conclusion. What he offers, in sum, is not demonstration but verisimilitude. Artist that he is, he aims not to compel but to seduce. The response he awaits is not agreement but surrender and aesthetic delight. He presents the eery isomorphisms and then stands back with a half-smile to watch us react.

If his is also a paradoxically religious vision, it is such by foregrounding the similarity between aesthetic climax and religious conversion. A Buddhist proverb says that "the Tathagata [the Buddha] makes no hypotheses." The point of all koans is that there is no point to a koan, or to Buddhism itself. Obviously, to argue that all is illusion is to concede by the very act of arguing that not all is illusion, for argument supposes structure, coherence, and a distinction between reality and illusion. This is why the Buddhist master does not indoctrinate the novice by argument but suggests by hint as in the famous Buddhist gesture of the finger pointing at the moon.

Taylor advances his own vision by similar tactical abstentions.

The latest epigones of idealist philosophy--the deconstructionists and poststructuralists and postmodernists--have all seemed to me to make a similar kind of gesture and call for a similar kind of response. Like Buddhists, but unfortunately without the elegant restraint and perfect self-consciousness of Buddhism, they blithely dismiss rather than carefully refute their opponents' views and blandly assert rather than patiently argue their own. One cannot agree with them, for mere agreement is not sought, one can only espouse them--marry them--and I have never been inclined to do so. And yet Taylor, who knows all that they know, touches me as they do not, for he takes their ideas, and the ideas that lie, historically, behind their ideas, and applies them--better, fits them--to an astounding array of subjects in which I am already interested. I find myself, after a time, if not converted, then at least surrounded. The experience is both unsettling and rewarding.

I have called Taylor a philosopher-artist. I might also describe him as a particularly artistic and extraordinarily wide-ranging species of critic, a critic at once of art and architecture, of philosophy and science, of literature and culture. Like any criticism, his is parasitic on the works criticized, but it is so in a uniquely illuminating way. By being parasitic simultaneously on so many wildly different works, Taylor manages to make that which infects them all, namely his own parasitic reading of them, seem infectious indeed, a wildly spreading virus. You don't refute a virus. You either catch it or you don't. I haven't caught it yet, but I know I am susceptible. I know what it would feel like. Or, to change the metaphor to one that for Taylor is scarcely a metaphor at all, you don't refute a fashion. You either adopt it or you don't. Again, I haven't adopted it, but I know I could. I can see myself wearing it.

In the meantime, I relate to the spectacular intellectual show that Taylor puts on just as I urged you to relate to it in the opening paragraph of this brief foreword: I don't read it as a book, I take it as a trip. No one but Taylor can cite Friedrich Nietzsche's most blushingly biblical passage,

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him--you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither are we moving? Away from suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not erring as through an infinite nothing? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing? God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."
and then go on to say:
This is a remarkably apt description of the experience of cyberspace where all reality seems to be virtual. Nietzsche's telling insight grew out of intellectual and cultural developments that had been unfolding for more than a century. Though rarely recognized, the terms of cultural debate in the modern western world were set during the pivotal decade of the 1790s in the small German town of Jena. The artists, poets, philosophers, and theologians gathered in Jena defined the philosophical and theological agenda for the nineteenth century and articulated what would become the guiding principles of twentieth-century art and practice.

After a leap like that, I find myself writing in the margin ??!!! But whether I am quite prepared to leap along with Taylor at any given moment or not, there is again and again in this work an intellectual daring that is its own reward. As we say in California, Taylor takes it to the limit, pedal to the metal, straight out across the burning sands. His designers take the book-as-machine--the ink-on-paper codex as a text-storage unit--to its physical limit. He himself takes a set of two-hundred-year-old ideas to their intellectual limit and finds that they carry him to corners of our science-shaped culture that no other vehicle can reach. Sit back, reader--no, buckle down: You're in for a wild ride.

Copyright notice: The foreword by Jack Miles to Hiding by Mark C. Taylor, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 1997 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.

Mark C. Taylor
Paper 256 pages (est.), 122 halftones
(c) 1997, ISBN: 0-226-79159-9
Price: $29.95

For information on purchasing the book--from bookstores or here online--please go to the webpage for Hiding.

Return to the University of Chicago Press homepage.