The Nothing in Belief: Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless Part 2

In a brief sketch of the work as a whole, Simon Critchley states his idea about faith and, I am tempted to say, his belief about belief.  This meta-claim of his is that only those who doubt their faith can have it.  Only those placed in the uncomfortable position of lacking a guarantee of their affirmation can have faith.  Only those who are in a position of weakness and *subjection* (by another) can be truly ethical subjects: “[F]aith is the enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power” (p.18).  A subject, a self, is only what it is in relation to a demand that it act or believe this way or that.  Not a source in itself, something beyond the self pushes it, compelling it and driving it.

 Yet a great many of us now see this beyond now as a fiction, an illusion with its own manipulative designs.  To make an affirmation out of a something one cannot in good conscience believe would be dishonest, we crave the truth when we place our faith in something.  The trick is to find the energizing affirmation of the act of believing and couple that with the nihilistic disillusionment accompanying the loss of a believable transcendent being.  “The faith of the faithless cannot have for its object an external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, or transcendent reality” (p.4) says Critchley, because such an object lacks the rigor we demand today for believability due largely to the giant successes of the skeptical-scientific method (my analysis).  But such an object is not necessary for a work of faith and even a commitment to the other person in front of us – right over there – is a commitment of faith. The declaration of faithlessness and the basic denial of atheists and rationally minded individuals then goes too far too fast: faith appears in moments of trust, friendship, and collective (and individual) action.  Critchley’s “faith – as fidelity to the infinite demand – is not just shared by the denominationally faithless or unbelievers, but can be experienced by them in an exemplary way” (p.18).  This is a broad interpretation of faith and allows one without a definite belief a chance to partake in a empowering modes of resistance without compromising one’s integrity.
Critchley turns to Rousseau early on to get an articulation of belief in the context of a politically relevant civic attachment from a sovereign individual.  The individual citizen here in Rousseau constitutes the public by its freely made consent.  The public sphere, to be the legitimate will of it’s people and so be worthy of the name, must answer to the voluntary consent of those individual citizens in a non-representational assembly.  The paradox running through Rousseau is his insistence on the identification of the individual with the public at large meaning the sovereignty of each citizen is respected and present in the movement of the general public (as opposed to represented by another body).  In the state of nature, the essential goodness of the sovereign individual is unimpeded; to harness that goodness after entering civilization, the individual will must align non-coercively with the public.  Present not re-present.
 The problem now becomes one of consensus or agreement of all as a fulfillment of the unity of the people.  I won’t spend any time defending the claim that such consensus is fictional: disagreement, diversity, and deviance are facts of existence.  But stopping there blocks out what motivates liberal democratic politics, why people believe in it, and identify as citizens with real political power.  The act of giving into the general will, of agreeing with popular sentiment and participating in a consensus process with consensus as a goal is formative, it creates a subject or self out of the fiction of a equalizing and complete social whole.  The social contract is “not a contract based on an exchange between parties, but an act of constitution, a fictive constitution, where a people wills itself into existence” (p.40).  Both the ’subject’ and the ’people’ are fictions that depend on each other for their continued existence to keep either one from straying to far away and becoming alienated.  To proclaim public consensus and autonomous individuality to be fictions is true but together they form a subject into creation; a subject built around a facade but one that is a better equipped and more effective machine.
 This discourse on the sovereignty of the individual and the public good is thoroughly embedded in our culture and cannot be tossed away (if one were to wish it).  The positing of my being as an individual is only possible as an intense oscillation between two fictions, a negative negativity which then becomes a positive nothing.  One can still hold that real entities do exist regardless of one’s fantasies and historical conditioning but what Critchley is getting at here is the faith informing a *politically effective* body with subjects that move together as its parts.  The crux of such a body as it is communicated and believed by its subjects is “the fiction of popular sovereignty understood as association without representation, which is, for Rousseau – and I think he is right – the only form of legitimate politics that can face and face down the fact of gross inequality and the state of war” (p.89).  From a realist point of view, the body held together by a fiction is a more capable and effective force due to its ability to mobilize a large mass of bodies into a common faithful front.  The public commons must be believed in to exist, but it must exist for there to be a subject to make or hold a belief in it.
 This can be made clearer when one visualizes the bombardment of fantastic objects and cleverly designed slogans and images pervading our culture.  These advertisements and other media don’t just tell people (by coerce or persuasion) how to be unique and “their own person” but are formative – they create persons.  Even more than that, these categories and stereotypes paint a picture of society that is roughly accurate.  More so than ever a subject’s identity given a vast array of types of individuality and even encouraged to create their own.  But the choice of identification (and the idea that one creates it themselves *autonomously*) is a fiction: the available options, traditions, and happenstance attention grabs obscure a pure choice. We like to think that individual people are the true authors of their decisions and that our society is composed of these secular people, but the the fictional/divine creeps in all around us: “it might be said that fiction of popular sovereignty is a more fictional fiction than divine right” (p.85).
 The game of crafting subjects whilst maintaining the loyalty needed to keep the political body together is a game of magic tricks and giant spectacles using subliminal religious undertones if not overt preaching.  The divine fiction that tends to be covered over in the present lies in both the autonomous individual and the national whole: it is supposedly free individuals who affirm and constitute the nation in liberal democracy (which is actually a republic), but the disparate people only exist by virtue of the collective commons.  Each person is now sacred without diminishing any of the grandeur of the sacred nation.  A doubly divine fake-out means there is just the right amount of confusion for a self to bloom.
 This is merely the structure of faith within the context of an effective constitution of people.  To be and declare oneself faithless is to understand illusions in their negativity, but does not become creative unless one goes farther into the negativity of the one making the statement.  This opens up the potential for a new collectivity and, therefore, a new subjectivity to form in the wake of a loss of faith – rather than pure destruction or passive acquiescence.

The Nothing in Belief, Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless p.1

Reading Simon Critchley’s latest book The Faith of the Faithless is like receiving some of the most relevant currents from past intellectuals for our problems today. Government and consent, autonomy and violence, faith and ethics weave together into a story informing the trajectory we are racing along, all the while the impetus to act responsibly with thought and careful reflection race along with us. The central concern to the book as I read it is to articulate the basis for a faith that we can believe in today, even amidst the seemingly insurmountable apathy and nihilism preventing a commitment to a positive future. Nihilism is not a mode of thinking to be rejected in favor of a happy optimism or a comforting belief but thought through. The pervasiveness of disenchantment with the state of the world, the rush of stimulation at the sight of the latest thinly-veiled fantasy apocalypse story followed by an “oh well, I got to go back to work”, is a serious concern not to simply attack but grapple with. Such is the over-arching motivation behind this work: to provide a theoretico-religious faith when faith is in such short supply and understandably so.

This is the work of painstaking commitment. To not condemn, to not write or proclaim the next messiah, to not command and determine action according to a ruler’s program; but to search the landscape for signs when added up point in a direction of hope. This can also be a work of immense joy and even ecstatic humor.
Taking a survey of the time we find ourselves in, feeling and observing organizations of power and the road they are taking us on can have the overwhelming effect of despair and disbelief. I’ve got a mind to think that many would rather avoid this thought and reserve it for “the artists” – if they aren’t busy with immediate survival and crushing debt. The despair and disconnect come from a general sense of powerlessness: the trembling in the face of a system that operates so smoothly that even one’s most uplifting moments still cannot rearrange its highly stabilized movements. But this powerlessness is precisely what Critchley seizes on in defining ethical relations: effective political resistance against a dominating power is created in fusing infinite demands into a local struggle allowing weak forces to exceed their *realistic* limitations.
The infinite demands so often mentioned stand for a call from beyond – somewhere else. The reserve from which a subject gets its energy to act responsibly (to one another, society, or country) comes from a fictional source. This fictional source transcends the local conditions of an environment and persuades the subject to act otherwise than what is expedient and immediately rewarding to it. It is all too easy for pragmatists, political realists, atheists, and nihilists to point to the fictional, fantastical, and incorporeal nature of these demands and turn instead to effects as they are felt immanently. And they have a good point; believing in something transcending what is viscerally right in front of you, weighing down on you in direct contact requires a leap into strange territory. At worst this can result in dogmatic attachment or a cultic following that abolishes all deviancy. But to ignore the power of the faith-based fictions circulating both now and in our history or outright combating them is to deny who we have become and how we got here. Our culture and history are saturated with symbols of otherworldly beings and imaginary constructions that people believe in wholeheartedly. To take an opposing tract and settle with non-belief, to only deal with *real* beings in *this* world, misses an essential point about what it means to believe and have faith.
That being stated, to believe in the era of information overflow means one must get through, step inside of, or at least consider the nothing of nihilism – the gap that persists in all acts of belief. That mystical facet reserved for many in a super-sensible world seems to have crashed into the physical world, organizing it with statistics and other formally precise symmetries making us feel trapped. Believability has become flexible, bending and stretching our commitments and pursuits across a wide spectrum yet inside a totalizer whole. To isolate a local place and allow for something infinite to combine with that place is perhaps *the* most pressing matter here on a planet under the threat of a global capitalism tightening its grip on a uniform measurement of wealth.
Again, this is no reason to throw oneself into whatever beliefs provide a momentarily inspiring spark: the nothing hanging over the shoulder of belief *must* be affirmed. Critchley’s brilliance is in affirming the nothing twice as a double nothing (he calls it meontology) that everyone is caught between. This highly charged zone between two nothings is actually what it means to believe, in contrast with a one-way attachment to a figure representing reality. The differing structure of an affirmative nihilism to hierarchical beliefs puts the subject in a tenuous spot where the only reprieve is a constant movement until a new self might emerge in conjunction with the infinite demand calling for it. This call comes from somewhere, as in the face of the other that confronts me, and the otherness of this place or thing *assures* all belief of a nothing. But this infinitely demanding belief is “a massively creative nothing” (p.245) which when affirmed in its nothing forms the groundwork for a critically uncompromising belief.
This is the work that prepares for a belief that does not fall into a apathetic laziness or a violent destruction of *the* system (which can be made to stand for anything and everything). Both of these positions risk feeding the systems that do predominate and in effect align with the beliefs anchoring those systems.
More to come on this later with deeper textual analysis.

Time and Linear Growth

Deleuze’s preface to Kant’s Critical Philosophy begins with a reversal of the conception of time in the ancient sense to the modern sense. The declaration of the modern break is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet saying “time is out of joint”, which Deleuze interprets as movement no longer holding its sway over time but instead time subordinating movement. This reversal is profound: time it seems was once measured according to a movement which persisted above it and beyond any measurement of time’s control. Now in modernity, how things move – the flows, changes, dynamics, and energy fluctuations of matter – is subjected to time’s hold.

Imagine an analogue clock rotating in predictable cycles on a wall or your wrist; then imagine an alarm clock by your bed with digitalized lights to display numbers on a luminous rectangle screen and this distinction might become more apparent. Time is now independent of movements and extends into a virtual world beyond the flora and fauna that move in their potent interaction. Time in this modern world does not repeat the same movements in a cycle but *progresses* along a line: “the labyrinth is no longer a circle, or a spiral which would translate its complications but a thread, a straight line, all the more mysterious for being simple…”. This arrow of time has become “an immutable Form which does not change” since it is not subject to the diversity of movements, but it is still “the form of everything that changes and moves” effectively submitting the movement of all things to a linear directionality. Things go forward or backwards now instead of in repetitive cycles; we are always either “ahead of the times” or “behind the times”.
This changes the very structure of the Self and perhaps even creates a new one. Time is now a form steadfastly moving in one direction and needs a place if it is not a simple accounting of multi-directional material flows. Time must exist as a form in a mind. But it doesn’t just sit there; time cuts through the mind dividing it into past and future selfs. This idea of time must find its matching linear organization of movement in the mind of the self and so divide it from itself. Deleuze writes: “the I is an act which constantly carries out a synthesis of time, and of that which happens in time, by dividing up the present, the past and the future at every instant.” The ’I’ as an *act* conducting a particular kind of movement which is subordinated to time means that the produced result in this ’I’ must go forward only, leaving behind the past self despite when people say “your stuck in the past”. The ’I’ as singular present cannot be kept in the stasis of the moment, but is divided in itself thanks to a conception of time which gained its ground in real events.
The self or the I as both the subjective, perceiving decider and an objective, perceivable thing are two contrary aspects of a single thing now. The ego and the I become things to be analyzed and studied… by people (i.e. lots of I’s). All this becomes possible via a conception of time rising above its constraints from movement and becoming separate entity as a form. Seeking a place for itself to exist in that is not an illusory world of abstract forms, time finds itself in the mind of the ego which it then works on to divide in two.
It would be a mistake to attribute the idea of a self to a shift in the idea of time, something else is going on here. Time’s autonomy from space/matter comes not from a change of perception or the logical composition of the idea, it arose from a measurement tool of material movements to gain such prominence that it now organizes those material movements for its own purposes. Not exactly a pure form because of its effects on the composition of things, time has straitened us out along with the world we call real. No pure form or fictional world can stop its effects from influencing the physical. Time has just been left alone and accepted as an obvious and singular abstract idea that it has grown to carry us along with it. Time asserts its dominance over an earth that spins ’round and ’round and a climate that swirls, ripples, cracks, flows, etc. through the medium of a mind fleshy bodies believe to be their own.
A mind to go along with a body, both of which are “mine”. What else could this ‘I’ do at this point but divide itself ruthlessly? When does one insist that two options are not enough?
Keep in touch for the next part. I’ve got Nietzsche, Quantum Physics, and Economic Theories lined up…

Real World Beings

How can one lay claim to a world of real beings that exist apart from illusory beings of a subjective world of perception? It isn’t such a big leap to admit that there exist things beyond or regardless of our experiencing them. Yet I would contend this is a leap nonetheless: only because when writing and talking, making claims and arguments, and residing in the mode of language so familiar to us we are trying to retrieve these things knowing full well we cannot possess them. One can have knowledge of objects’ powers and movements by way of various models, formulas, statements, etc. most successfully via scientific experiment but the gap persists.
To ask a Kantian critical-philosophical question: are the conditions for the possibility of this gap due to centrality of the words ’being’ and maybe even ’world’ which are supposed to evoke something transcental – that is, more than objects referred to by a symbols? And to follow it up with a Deleuzian question: is it enough to emphasize becoming, process, and motion (even in a *given* locale and time) to get rid of the reduction toward a central being or a totalizing, metaphysical *presence*?
Reversing the transcendental character resulting from the meditation of being into an immanent becoming a la Gilles Deleuze allows the focus to be on relation, motion, and energy (his work is very energizing indeed) in a way that brings a physical insight into the symbols and images without ever exhausting it through them. We must pay attention to ontology; beings can be categorized this way or that, distinguished from one another in type, position, etc. so that a wide variety of beliefs end up competing against each other. Such is the power of being: it can come to *stand for*, *represent*, *signify*, (one could go on) any number of diverse objects that exist apart from each other. Corporeal objects existing independently in a certain kind of beyond that our language cannot touch in the way that a handshake can: our language all the more intensified in our frustration.
To write of becoming, the processes and flows of matter/energy well and with a provocative style helps diminish the domineering aspect of continually referring to a singularized being. It is not enough to write or speak of a plurality of beings for they could all still be organized around a central being or, even worse, a single being could become equal with a world. It is here that *uni*verse becomes problematic. To pass over the gap of world and thing, to posit a word like ’universe’ or ’nature’ that needs explaining – an explaining that does something more basic and fundamental than “ordinary”, non-scientific coping with surrounding things – ignores the difference necessitated by having and using language. We are caught up in creating an ever more complex web of relations and divergences from the concepts inherited in trying to go from symbols – all of which we know to be illusory – to real ones (which is no less an act than any other).
But we still go along with realism and naturalism debates and take positions for and against with that pool of concepts growing wider. Sometimes foregoing such a positioning opens up other avenues. Sometimes the game is fixed.
There is something beyond the wordplay, the fictions we employ and tell each other. But as soon as I write or say the word “something” it explodes into a war of critique with icons, alliances, and beliefs. I often wonder how Heidegger could generate all those words.