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.
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