A meditation for Halloween—code and anti-code, structure and anti-structure

Reading: From “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor (Belknap, Harvard, 2007, p. 51)
Certainly one consequence of the eclipse of anti-structure was this propensity to believe that the perfect code wouldn’t need to be limited, that one could and should enforce it without restriction. This has been one of the driving ideas behind the various totalitarian movements and regimes of our time. Society had to be totally made over, and none of the traditional restraints on action should be allowed to hamper this enterprise. In a less dramatic way, it encourages the tunnel vision with which the various “speech codes” of political correctness are applied on certain campuses, and lends the positive ring to such slogans as “zero tolerance.”

The epoch of the French Revolution is perhaps the moment in which at one and the same moment anti-structure goes into eclipse, and the project of applying a code without moral boundaries is seriously contemplated. This emerges most clearly in the attempts of the various revolutionary governments to design festivals which would express and entrench the new society. In these attempts, they drew heavily on earlier feasts, for instance, on Carnival, on pilgrimages (the model for the Fête de la Fédération), and the processions of Corpus Christi (la Fête Dieu). But the nature of the enterprise was in a certain sense reversed.

That is because the dimension of anti-structure was totally missing. The aim of the exercise was not to open a hiatus in the now reigning code, but to give expression to its spirit, and inspire identification with it. The anti-structural elements of Carnival were sometimes borrowed, as in the dechriscianization of Year II, but this destructive mockery was directed against the old religion and the ancien régime in general. It aimed to complete the destruction of the reigning code’s enemies, not to suspend the code itself.


Tomorrow sees the celebration of Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, an evening which will be viewed by many of us as more-or-less harmless fun during which we may or may not choose, via a book, radio play or film, to indulge a little in what the sometime provost of King’s College, Cambridge, medievalist and famous ghost story writer, M. R. James, once called “a pleasing terror.”

Halloween is, of course, much more than this and I think a great deal of value may be learned by taking time to explore something of its rich and complex history. By way of a brief general introduction to the evening click on this link to read Ronald Hutton's excellent overview written for the Guardian back in 2014.

But even if and when we get a reasonably good handle on the history of the event most of us here today are still unlikely to view it as something that has any deep theological/philosophical/social importance for our own, present-day, liberal, secular culture. However, it seems to me that a consideration of Halloween can help reveal something of great importance about which our present day culture should be highly alert and very concerned.

In his book A Secular Age Charles Taylor notes that pre-modern societies included in their overall make-up a complementary “play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code” and that this either took “the form of the code’s being momentarily suspended or transgressed; or else . . . the code itself allows for a counter principle to the dominant source of power; it opens the space for a complimentary ‘power of the weak’” (Charles Taylor: A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2007 (pp. 48-49). He goes on to note that it is “as though there were a felt need to complement the structure of power with its opposite.” (ibid. p. 49).

Taylor is, of course, in part pointing here to the common-sense recognition that the pressure of any dominant code needs to be relaxed from time to time in order to allow it’s own people to let-off steam. But Taylor also points to another important reason why the relaxation of any dominant code might be required. He notes that were the code and structure to be “relentlessly applied” it would drain us of all energy. This, in turn, means that to continue to be effective, “the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.”

Now, without going into the complex and creative detail of the season that surrounds Halloween, it seems reasonable to suggest that in our pre-modern European culture it’s celebration fits well into Taylor’s idea of an existence of a code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure. So, for example (and sticking to our own culture’s old, and rather Manichean world-view), on this eve, God’s good and ordered world really was perceived as becoming suddenly filled with bad ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of various kinds, all of whom were lead by Satan who was perceived to be a real leader of a real anti-structure to heaven (i.e. hell).

Taylor’s work suggests that we may, perhaps, best understand Halloween and its temporary reign of darkness as an anti-code and anti-structure as something that, overall, helped people to commit ever more deeply to God’s code and structure. The unspoken paradox hiding in all this is, of course, that God’s contining power was, in some structural way, dependent upon Satan’s own balancing power.

If you are interested in such things a powerful modern re-telling of this basic story can be found in the second film (“Dark Knight”, 2008) of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” based on the DC Comics character Batman. In it we see that the meaning and import of Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent and Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s own “good” and “just” code and structure is, in Gotham City, tightly intertwined with the Joker’s “evil” and “unjust” anti-code and anti-structure in which we can find no motive, no order, and no desire except that of delighting in havoc as he watches the world burn.

Although violence and moral ambiguity remain very much with us I do not need to rehearse with you why the pre-modern overall world-view no longer works for most of us here today (except, of course, in the form of an occasional, fictional, pleasing terrors like a Batman film or an M. R. James ghost story). Suffice it to say, the rise of the natural sciences and associated, generally secular, non-religious philosophies, have had a great deal to do with this. The result is that today we simply no longer believe in ghosts, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, let alone in the idea that Prince of Darkness and his minions (or the Joker and his henchmen for that matter) are really going to be carousing through our communities on Monday evening. Such beliefs are no longer for us (à la Wallace Stevens) “necessary knowledge, required as a necessity requires.” In short, as Taylor observes, in our modern secular context “anti-structure is no longer recognised at the level of the whole society, and in relation to its official, political-jural structure” (ibid. p. 50).

What we need to see clearly in all this is that from the seventeenth-century onwards, western philosophy and science became increasingly concerned to develop a universal perspective from which could be derived ideal moral and political codes by which the greatest number of people — ideally all people — might come to live. As you heard in our readings for Taylor “the epoch of the French Revolution is perhaps the moment in which at one and the same moment anti-structure goes into eclipse, and the project of applying a code without moral boundaries is seriously contemplated.”

In other words from this date onwards as a European and North Atlantic culture we began to articulate various secular world-views that aspired to contain everything and which, intentionally, left no real possibility (nor need) for the existence of any anti-code and anti-structure to keep things in balance.

However, as Taylor notes:

The idea that a code need leave no space for the principal that contradicts it, that there need be no limit to its enforcement, which is the spirit of totalitarianism, is not just one of the consequences of the eclipse of anti-structure in modernity. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that the temptation to put into effect a code which brooks no limit came first. Yielding to this temptation is what helped to bring modern secularity, in all its senses, into being (ibid. p. 51).

Let me reiterate this vitally important point. Modern secular culture is founded on yielding (not always consciously) to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. It may have used and, indeed, continues to use the language of inclusivity and diversity as it has grown and developed but, because it has come to believe (as a necessity requires) that outside it’s own codes and structures there really is nothing you could call super-natural (i.e. beyond this world), it has become, in a fundamental, technical sense, a certain kind of totalitarian world-view. Despite the many benefits that our secular modern culture has undoubtedly brought us it is with this point, that it is in fundamental, technical sense, a certain kind of totalitarian world-view, that I arrive at my major theme today.

As we know from other historical examples, every sustained attempt to suppress divergent voices and codes and structures leads, eventually, to societal break-down and revolution. Our own present day, totalising secular culture has not been completely blind to this danger and it has attempted to address this problem by encouraging anti-codes and anti-structures to move from the public domain into the private. Taylor notes:

The private/public distinction, and the wide area of negative freedom, is the equivalent zone in these societies to the festivals of reversal in their predecessors. It is here, on our own, among friends and family, or in voluntary associations, that we can ‘drop out’, throw off our coded rules, think and feel with our whole being, and find various intense forms of community. Without this zone, life in modern society would be unlivable (ibid. 52).

For at least a couple of centuries this strategy worked remarkably well but, increasingly, it seems that the dangers of this private/public distinction are revealing themselves all over the place and it is this that I wish to alert you to today. Although the modern private space for private anti-codes and anti-structures offered, and to some extent still offers, undreamed of creative and liberating possibilities it has also brought with it “hitherto unexperienced dangers of isolation and loss of meaning” — dangers the full extent of which we just didn’t see coming.

For example, it is vital to realise that it is in these very modern, private, fantasy spaces that many of the new violent religious fundamentalisms have been enabled to grow and strengthen alongside other countless and sometimes deeply problematic and destructive activities and lifestyles. These hitherto unexperienced dangers are now no longer simply playing out in the discrete, private lives of individuals but are, in important ways, beginning to spill out into the public space.

As they have developed and grown some of these neo-anti-codes and structures have come to believe that they can themselves replace, in toto, our prevailing secular codes and structures — violent fundamentalist Islam and the still burgeoning alt-Right being but two high-profile contemporary examples.

But, as I hope you can see, such neo-anti-codes and structures are not really functioning in our wider culture as genuine anti-codes and structures which are, in some way, in meaningful balance with their opposites. As Taylor notes, they are “anti-structures to end all anti-structures” and that their dreams, if carried through, will turn into a “nightmare.” This is, surely, a good reason for we moderns to be afraid, to be very afraid — a traditional Halloween theme if ever there was one.

Considered in post-theological shadowy (ghostly) fashion, Halloween helps us to see there exist terrors that are very real indeed, ones that are walking abroad in our streets in the form of some very nightmarish neo-anti-codes and anti structures that are at least as scary as anything our forebears could imagine.

But we cannot solve this problem by imagining we can roll back the clock and restore the old balance that existed between our old codes and anti-codes, structures and anti-structures. We simply cannot re-enter that pre-modern world view. So, instead, we have to find ways forward that start with an honest, critical  recognition of both the pros and cons of our present secular, scientific codes and structures.

And I point out these post-theological scary monsters out to you today, not to send you away to hide, fearfully and trembling, under some metaphorical or real bed but, instead, to encourage you as good adults charged with looking after frightened children, bravely to stand up and shine a bright light onto these same neo-anti-codes and anti-structures to help discover how and why our own secular codes and structures have helped them come into being.

At the very least I hope thinking about this will help us have a conversation about how we might go about creating a new, realistic kind of radical democracy; one which has no suppressed, hidden desire to impose on any one any kind of totalitarian world-view and which also fully understands the need for the explicit, public existence and play of all kinds of balancing moral codes and structures, anti-codes and structures. Nothing less will serve to keep the most scary monsters at bay.