Knowing Your Place

An Awareness of What is Missing, Part 2

(c) jessjamesjake

In their introductory chapter to the collection of the same name, Michael Reder and Josef Schmidt connect Habermas and his ‘awareness of what is missing’ to other thinkers such as Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno and most notably Bertolt Brecht (pictured).The Brecht link makes sense (there’s a link there also to Bloch): although Habermas never makes this connection himself, the title of his paper can’t help but recall Brecht’s opera (in collaboration with Kurt Weill) Rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny. In the opera, one of the main characters, Jim Mahoney, repeats the line ‘something’s missing’ time and again in response to other characters’ notions of what a good life represents (smoking, for example – this was the Wild West after all). The phrase ‘something’s missing’ is designed to highlight the alienation at the heart of Mahagonny, a city of casual debauchery and not much else.

The allusion to this phrase in Habermas’ work can be read in a number of ways – it could for example be a nod to Habermas’s neo-Marxist beginnings, given how Rise… was a satire of capitalism. A more prosaic understanding would centre on the spiritual void left in the wake of modernisation. But whatever the meaning to Habermas, if something’s missing, it therefore means that a void of some sort has been left behind – a void that needs filling, somehow and with something. What that something is represents a significant question in the world of Dirty Looks, and also reflects Habermas’ interests in the tension between reason and religious faith and the potential in this tension for the development of dialogue:

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Photo credit: monojussi)

Faith remains opaque for knowledge in a way which may neither be denied nor simply accepted. This reflects the inconclusive nature of the confrontation between a self-critical reason which is willing to learn and contemporary religious convictions. This confrontation can sharpen post-secular society’s awareness of the unexhausted force of religious traditions. Secularisation functions less as a filter separating out the contents of traditions than as a transformer which redirects the flow of tradition.

If the phrase is understood in this context, the ‘something that is missing’ is the space between reason and faith, or at least the recognition that such a space exists in the first place. Habermas being Habermas of course, such an act of recognition would necessarily entail bringing together various ‘semantic elements’ of the different traditions. This may help the cause (I’m not entirely convinced), but any acknowledgement of this space could do worse than to posit the relational world as a mediating force to be reckoned with.

Because if anything can sway the undecided toward religious sets of beliefs, it’s surely what these beliefs can offer as a way to manage the earthly demands of blame, shame and guilt alongside the desire to be witnessed and forgiven. And what other ‘world’ could offer such an escape route from the never-ending gaze of others, internalised or otherwise? What other belief system could ever even compete as a bulwark against the all-too-profane court of arbitrary judgements that constitutes real life?

While Sartre’s play suggests that there is, in reality, no exit from the judgement of others, it may just be the case that religious faith has been providing an exit of sorts all this time. If true, this assessment would suggest that, in the great scheme of things, proponents of religious faith have very little to worry about in our supposed ‘post-secular’ society.


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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.