The Paradox of Subjective Truth: My Response to Simon Critchley’s New Book

Essays

Simon’s book, ­The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology must be read as throwing down a great risk. Simon enters into the theological and the political domain in ways that are offensive to how these very terms have been shaped in order to stifle action, subjectivity, and even faith itself in the very name of the political and the theological.

A few radical thinkers have recently risked thinking otherwise about theology and the political. But for the most part professors (especially in the context of America) have not been willing to risk thinking otherwise about religion and the political for reasons that can only be explained by how much academic speak has been policed by the assumption that the student is little more than a passive consumer in need of placation through reinforcing their unconscious assumptions (conservative or liberal) in the pretension of being “critical” and “objective.”

Oscar Wilde, Irish dramatist, poet, and wit, born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills in 1854. 1882

This is the fourth response to Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

Simon’s book, ­The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology must be read as throwing down a great risk.  Simon enters into the theological and the political domain in ways that are offensive to how these very terms have been shaped in order to stifle action, subjectivity, and even faith itself in the very name of the political and the theological.

A few radical thinkers have recently risked thinking otherwise about theology and the political.  But for the most part professors (especially in the context of America) have not been willing to risk thinking otherwise about religion and the political for reasons that can only be explained by how much academic speak has been policed by the assumption that the student is little more than a passive consumer in need of placation through reinforcing their unconscious assumptions (conservative or liberal) in the pretension of being “critical” and “objective.”

Philosopher Simon Critchley at Trinity Wall Street

More concretely, Simon is asking us to rethink the dilemma of politics and belief in our contemporary social and psychological deadlock in terms of Oscar Wilde’s formulation of an aesthetic subjectivity in the face of institutionalization of religious beliefs, socially stifling morality, and a depressing neo-liberal deterministic political horizon.  The political and religious subject in Simon’s book is the individual who discovers himself or herself paradoxically when they are socially lost, abandoned, and alienated from social norms and general consciousness.  Indeed like many prophets of the Christian (and other religious) traditions the alienated subject becomes the ground-zero point of self-consciousness birthed in dark isolation from the silenced margins of society, and in the case of Simon’s example Oscar Wilde, this self-actualization takes place in prison.  Moreover, this discovery of the political-cum-theological subject is given within an immanent matrix alone sundered from drawing an abstract power and external forms of truth, such as transcendence or what Lacan called “the Big Other.”

Simon examines Wilde’s De Profundis, which he reads as an “incipit of Psalm 130 in Latin, ‘From the depths I cry to thee, O Lord.’  It is the religious dimension of this letter that interests me, and in particular Wilde’s interpretation of the figure of Christ. I think that this text by Wilde illuminates extremely well the shape of the dilemma of politics and belief that will guide the various experiments in this book, The Faith of the Faithless.”

The Truth in Prison

What Simon identifies is crucial:  The very precondition of the subject overcoming self-alienation by being determined by general consciousness is the discovery of absolute loss.  Simon says, “[h]aving lost everything (his children, his reputation, his money, his freedom)” Wilde is able to gain a political-subjective socialistic consciousness.

At first Wilde echoes the words of Augustine’s platonic paradox “the way up [to heaven] is the way down [bending the knee to Jesus the Savior]” (Augustine’s Confessions 7.18).  But as Simon points out there is a basic difference between Wilde’s “faith” and the traditional Christian “faith” for Simon says, “one does not bow down before the external command of some transcendent deity. On the contrary, he sees his sufferings as the occasion for a ‘fresh mode of self- realization.’”  But the solution to confronting this fundamental lack that resides in the pit of all our beingness for Wilde does not try to simply fill the void by a God outside of us in some fake fashion or fast-food religious pill; indeed it is clear that the void itself can never be fully filled by anything at all.  The void abides—the experience of loss being found in the void are infinitely unknowable.  And this is the precise point!  One cannot finally know themselves in full transparency: neither religion, nor morality, nor even reason can fill in the void.  Thus to come to terms with our selves we must be humbled by our own lack.  We are precisely because we are not.  As Simon brilliantly points out: “Wilde cannot view his misfortunes rationally as the external imposition of an injustice. On the contrary, he must internalize the wrong—but this requires an artistic, not a rational, process.”  Finding himself in a foreign, dirty and miserable context as a prison cell, which is far removed from the familiarity of comfortable objects in normative reality gives him the conditions for coming to terms with immanent truth found in himself and not transcendent artificial terms.  Simon then concludes, “At the core of Wilde’s remark is the seemingly contradictory idea of the faith of the faithless and the belief of unbelievers, a faith which does not give up on the idea of truth, but transfigures its meaning” beyond the contradiction into the heart of a community defined in terms of its own brokenness.

The Church

This is a most extraordinary insight.  It is at this void that traditional, passive faith becomes activated on the ground-zero level of the subject-void who enacts faith aesthetically, creatively, and inventively.  Wilde’s faith is not a traditional, institutionalized faith, which is simply handed down to you as if your creative individuality must be erased in order for you to be a member of a Church—a tradition secured by an abstract ideal “god” and backed by socially acceptable truths (let’s face it if a church were truly offering the radical life of Christ the church would be destroyed by the community as it would pose too much of a danger to the status quo).  To the contrary, faith here is a creative act that is so because the faithful person embraces their own irreducible singularity—their own lack—and in so doing activates their faith in their own faithlessness.  Faith thus is not a top-down determination—like a case-mold that simply shapes molten plastic into an alienating identity that looks like everyone else.  Faith becomes a singularity of the void humbly aware of its own radical aesthetic contingency.  It is aesthetic because it must be engaged with and created and not simply assumed.  Groundless faith (or what Simon is calling faith in the faithless) is like Poe’s “raven,” Camus’ “Plague,” and Dostoyevsky’s “Underground Man” whereas traditional faith is a faith in an unforgivable denial that you are you in all your pain, suffering, and dis-ease that together comprise you uniquely such that no one (not even your “Double”) can possess.

Dostoevsky's "Underground Man"

Like Wilde, Dostoyevsky wrote to his poet friend from a Siberian prison, “I too thought and went through experiences and conditions that obliged me to experience, rethink, and ponder far too much, beyond endurance.”  But it was precisely because Dostoyevsky confronted the limits and even the death of his own social identity that he was able to create his own faith from the void—a rebirth out of the ash heap of a soulless pragmatic and overly rationalized society.  Furthermore, by being honest with our own individual contingency, by staring into the face of the void that is YOU, you are able to paradoxically perceive with the eyes of faith—to perceive your enemy not as other, but an enemy that can be embraced in their very toxic nature.  It is like the Jesus parable about judgment.  Jesus warns us before you judge your neighbor by pointing out the small speck in her eye one must first confront the plank of wood in his own eye.  For once we confront our own toxic wasteland in ourselves (as ourselves) then we are never able to fully love.  This is why Churches will continue to exist by remaining on the abstract platitude of theorizing “love” (telling nice stories, wearing fake smiles, making shallow gestures) and thus they can never fully confront a radical foreign love by first passing through one’s own death.

This is the new form of Christianity that has emerged, not in its traditional abstract institutionalized sense that has all the answers prepackaged up for you in non-offensive terms, with a nice big red bow on top.  But this new form of Christianity is a form of an atheism—a disbelief in a God that has all the answers awaiting you and sets you up for failure by propagating an idealized version of love (or what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”) which will only make you doubly unworthy of your own sinful being forcing you to repress it in order to conform to the social norms (paying your taxes, burning oil and other natural resources, and trying to sustain a lifestyle that is unsustainable just to be accepted, which by the way, is a form of insanity!)  The paradox of atheistic theology is that you must confront your own socially articulated death in order to live into a contingent love of true encounter with the other as other (including yourself as foreign and unknown to the self).

J. Derrida

This version of a faithless faith that Simon is fleshing out in this book is a radical break in his own thinking.  Simon has broken from his Levinasian and Derridian ways.  As a graduate student, I remember picking up Alain Badiou and Simon in my car, which, at the time had little or no stopping power—my breaks were not working.  We drove around town looking for “real” coffee and it soon became obvious to them that my breaks were failing.  In light of this we came up with a joke that my car was like Derrida’s idea of difference in that truth never arrives but is only ever infinitely deferred and different. My car’s new name was difference! But, in this new book Simon’s insights arrive in their most brilliant splendor:  Unlike Derrida’s version of truth (and its political important) that keeps deferring and is always different, here the breakthrough happens precisely when we are able to confront our own toxic void and in the suffering of this confrontation we are able to connect with the immanent other in an act of love in the horizon of a broken embracement. Like Christ’s brokenness on the cross he opens up a way through suffering that does not cancel out the void and lack that grounds us, but unites us in the very brokenness itself.  This is the basic thesis of my book Truth after the Death of Meaning—for it is when we are nothing that we become a nothing fully conscious of ourselves as a nothing.

From the origin of Parmenides’ metaphysics founded on the opposition between Being (Reason) and Non-Being (the Irrational) the question of why there is something rather than nothing has continuously haunted philosophy, and predetermined the very terms that constitute it.  It seems that the ghost of “the nothing” that haunts philosophy’s infatuation with “something” finally breaks through the wall of hard-core analytic philosophy in recent re-readings of the philosophical trinity of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Lacan.  With Simon’s new book it becomes increasingly clear that the haunting “nothing” (void etc.) is not only real but is a necessary precondition to the political subject as such?  Thus, the age-old metaphysical question is reversed.  Now the way into political community begins with the question:  Why is there nothing rather than something?

Banksy's Christ on the Cross

The theologico-political truth for us today can no longer be conceptualized in terms of “reforming” a liberal society (this is only a fake political discourse) or even staging a systematic revolutionary moment (which hijacks radical contingency), but is rather the confrontation with our nothingness and pure individualization and freedom that becomes a threshold into which a community of the Underground is formed in our very nothingness.

2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Subjective Truth: My Response to Simon Critchley’s New Book

  1. fantastic work. “the breakthrough happens precisely when we are able to confront our own toxic void and in the suffering of this confrontation we are able to connect with the immanent other in an act of love in the horizon of a broken embracement.”

    is loss, vulnerability of a prisoner a reification of the mastery of a culture as normativity? i hesitate a bit to think that one can be a prisoner to come to the o so radical nothingness you proffer. for how does the ground swell when one finds oneself pinned under a judicious thumb? likewise, the temptation toward institutionalizing abjection is so easily created by the regime…verily co-opting the experience of loss into a positivity (an intelligible meaning) as one’s culpability justly punished.

    you note that the eyes of this groundless faith allow one “to perceive your enemy not as other, but an enemy that can be embraced in their very toxic nature.” why are we facing an enemy? even if in you i end, as i (brokenly) embrace this truth, does other not cease entirely to be a threat (as loss is transsubstantiated from threat to rebirth)?

    you write, “For once we confront our own toxic wasteland in ourselves (as ourselves) then we are never able to fully love.” i am interested that you declaim an ability to fully love. it seems that what youre saying instead is that we transmute the coordinates of loving–to the real–and foreswear this branded intelligible faux love…
    is this a full love v. contingent love, whereby we find the fullness is a mirage, is it a mirror?

    toward a love that “unites us in the very brokenness itself.” may be the cell then is more normative reality? may be in this loving future we might regale our inmates as the progenitors of a new theological-political subject.

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