Since we at SSA consider ourselves at least on the margins to be a philosophy blog, and since we’re centrally located in the community of those who enjoin themselves to think critically about the social function of religion, I though it necessary to direct the reader to recent commentary on the Egyptian revolution by contemporary philosophers. Here is Zizek on the Arab revolutionary spirit, and here is Badiou on riots and revolution, and just last week Peter Hallward commented on the return of the concept of “the will of the people” here. Lastly, the aforementioned Zizek was on Al-Jazeera with Tariq Ramadan yesterday in rare “all fired up” form. I found his brief comments (or “ravings”, if you will) to be a full endorsement of the generic secular. As Z himself put it: “they’re showing us how to do it.”
This quote from Deleuze seemed apropos considering the heterogeneous and indefinable conglomerate that is currently uprising in the Middle East/North Africa:
For a long time philosophy offered you a particular alternative: God or man—or in philosophical jargon: infinite substance or the finite subject. None of that is very important any more: the death of God, the possibility of replacing God with humanity, all the God-Human permutations, etc. It’s like Foucault said, we are no more human than God, the one dies with the other. Nor can we remain satisfied with the opposition between a pure universal and particularities enclosed within persons, individuals, or Selves. We can’t let ourselves be satisfied with that, especially if the two terms are to be reconciled, or completed by one another. What we’re uncovering right now, in my opinion, is a world packed with impersonal individuations, or even pre-individual singularities (that’s what Nietzsche means when he says: “neither God nor man,” it’s anarchy triumphant). The new novelists talk of nothing else: they give voice to these non-personal individuations, these non-individual singularities.
But most importantly, all this corresponds to something happening in the contemporary world. Individuation is no longer enclosed in a word. Singularity is no longer enclosed in an individual. This is really important, especially politically; it’s like the “fish dissolved in water”; it’s the revolutionary struggle, the struggle for liberation… And in our wealthy societies, the many and various forms of non-integration, the different forms of refusal by young people today, are perhaps manifestations of it. You see, the forces of repression always need a Self that can be assigned, they need determinate individuals on which to exercise their power. When we become the least bit fluid, when we slip away from the assignable Self, when there is no longer any person on whom God can exercise his power or by whom He can be replaced, the police lose it. This is not theory. All the stuff going on as we speak is what matters. We can’t dismiss the upheavals troubling the younger generation just by saying: oh, they’ll grow out of it. It’s difficult, of course, sometimes worrisome, but it’s also really joyful, because they’re creating something, accompanied by the confusion and suffering that attends any practical creation, I think [emphasis added].
~ Gilles Deleuze, ‘On Nietzsche and the Image of Thought’ in Desert Islands and Other Texts, 137-138.
The events of the past weeks/days in Tunisia and, more recently, in Egypt are perfect depictions of what Sartre called the ‘apocalypse’: an immediate affective uprising of fused group praxis in which individuals suspend their particularity and act together, spontaneously, in order to meet a common goal; that is, confront a common foe.
Here is a good summary of the Tunisian revolt.
And here is a nice summary of the events in Egypt.
I don’t have the time nor the settled opinion as yet to accurately detail my thoughts on these proceedings. But one thing seems certain: things in Tunisia and Egypt will never be ‘the same.’
The idea of revolution, when used to denote the total substitution of one indivisible system by another, describes nothing but a dangerous limiting case of transformative politics, seen under the lens of an illusion about how history happens. When reality resists the illusion, the would-be revolutionaries may resort to violence, seeking in physical force the means to make good on the hypertrophy of the will. They want to take from social reality what it stubbornly refuses to give them.
Today the idea of revolution has become a pretext for its opposite. Because real change would be revolutionary change, and revolutionary change is unavailable, and would be too dangerous if it were feasible, we are left to humanize the inevitable. Such is the project of a pessimistic reformism resigned to soften, especially through compensatory redistribution by tax- and-transfer, what it despairs of challenging and changing. Such is the program of gradual adjustment instead of “shock therapy,” of a modicum of social protection rescued from the inevitable weakening of workers’ rights, of a softer version of the other side’s political project.
Thus did the disillusioned ex-Marxist become the institutionally conservative social democrat. He threw out the good part of Marxism, the transformative aspirations, and kept its bad part, the historical fatalism, changing its political significance. Lack of ideas soon made room for lack of character. He prostituted himself to fate, and betrayed his country by his way of accepting it.
~ Roberto Unger, Democracy Realized, 19-20.
I can’t help but think that Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is one of the most important books of the 20th century. Reading through it for the second time (the first time was during undergrad) has really allowed me to spend time “meditating” on its content. This isn’t to say that it is one of the best written books I’ve encountered. In fact, Yoder’s short chapters often leave the reader hanging, desiring more exposition. But perhaps that is one of its strengths. Rather than overloading the reader with reasons and further textual proofs he succinctly makes his points and moves on. The lingering that arises in the reader therefore causes him/her to ponder further the snippet of truth just presented. It is almost an artistic veiling that resists the urge to say too much. Or perhaps even more correct: the veiling is the epistemological effect of the ontological resistance of Truth.
That said, for all the positive that comes from The Politics of Jesus, I do have two general questions/concerns about Yoder’s thesis:
(1) Yoder asserts that the “church” is not equipped or intended to be offensive, but merely defensive. Quoting Berkhof, Yoder agrees that
One is not called to do more than one can do by simply believing. Our duty is not to bring the powers to their knees. This is Jesus Christ’s own task. He has taken care of this thus far and will continue to do so. We are responsible for the defense, just because He takes care of the offense. Ours it is to hold the Powers, their seduction, and their enslavement, at a distance… Our weapon is to stay close to Him and thus to remain out of the reach of the drawing power of the Powers (149).
While I appreciate Yoder’s treatment of the church’s otherness as being subordinately revolutionary, I can’t help but wonder if he is missing something profoundly important in the task of those who claim to follow Jesus. That is, sure, Jesus “takes care of the offense.” But isn’t that through the material existence of the activity of his followers? Does Yoder himself not claim that their very existence signals the defeat of the Powers as they proclaim the cross? I understand his unwillingness to in any way support the use of violence in pursuit of liberation. But even from within a pacifistic paradigm one need not remain passive or defensive. In fact, it seems that the opposite is the case, and would be more powerful: namely, through the “church’s” adamant rejection of violent means of liberation they expose the Powers’ weakness in using violence as the only means of its power. If death is the Powers’ only stranglehold then by virtue of death being overcome in Christ their power is already negated. Therefore, with the Powers characterized by an unrecognized impotence, the “church” must then actively pursue offensive means in order to expose and overcome any vestiges of oppression that remain. And while Yoder might not disagree, how is this not “offensive”?
(2) He claims that the apostles retained Jesus’ radical social ethic of liberation, even in light of Paul’s and Peter’s insistence on the continuation of certain social/cultural expression of inequality (ex. women with headcovering, being obedient to government, etc.). I guess what I’m wondering is: was not Jesus more radical than Paul et al regarding egalitarian ethics?
I am no expert regarding global history. In fact, I am no expert in anything. But by basic observation and through marginal study I have become convinced of a very simple historical truth: human history (particularly modern history) is rife with stories of those in power and those bent on the preservation and/or rediscovery of idyllic social/political/religious fantasies who fail to exhibit meaningful concern and instead perpetuate an active disinterestedness toward a great majority of those in the midst of suffering and toward the systems that carry out such violence.
This disinterestedness of which I speak is not a dogma or a creed or a planned position. Rather, it is the consequence of failing to believe in the world, of failing to affirm life and difference. It’s causes are enigmatic and perhaps even unidentifiable. But its presence is real and powerful. It has an energy about it that carries it forward from generation to generation, stifling the creative impulse of those who stand in its way; often times crushing them. It is the spectral past that haunts every present moment; a present-past whose primary allegiance lies in another world, or another time, or another people.
However, the good news is that this disinterestedness is not a foundation that necessarily exists. Rather, it is an outcome of innumerable forces that have been at play for millennia. And as an outcome of forces, this means that it is not necessary to the existence of the cosmos. It could have been otherwise, and it can be confronted – as it has in the past. As far back as history records there have been those who have been carried by a spirit of dissatisfaction with those who are disinterested in this world. They have been attuned to the power of the oncoming wave of opposition and have ridden this swell into direct confrontation with disinterestedness. Such a historical legacy ought to give us great consolation; for we are not starting from scratch. We are merely those who must catch the oncoming wave. We must catch it and create the New from that which is inherited from those who went before us. And it seems that now, more than ever, the materials for true transformative social praxis dwell in our midst. We must simply recognize them, seize them, create with them, and use them. But how…
Of course, here I am, sitting in my comfy, cozy flat with every amenity that I could possibly need to flourish in (a) life. I am not from a ghetto. I have no roots in any barrio. I have not struggled in life for material comfort. What right have I to open my mouth? What knowledge can I share with those who would view me as nothing more than a spoiled, middle-class yuppie with a guilty conscience? Just because I’ve read some books by Marx, Dussel, Zinn, Chomsky; just because I’m a part of Amnesty International; just because I get emotional at hearing about social injustice… does that give me a platform to speak? Perhaps not. Perhaps my socio-historical identity precludes me from having “revolutionary capital.” But perhaps this is also my strength. Perhaps like the lives of Marx, Che, and Gandhi, experiencing the spoils of capitalist exploitation provides those of us in the slumbers of western decadence to first acknowledge our own participation in the expansive destruction of the world. And perhaps this reflexivity is a necessary step for a new generation of revolutionary thought…
There are those of us (on both sides: those who oppose such progressive iterations and those who desire to claim such a vision) who are betwixt between theory and pragmatics. I hope it’s not too terse to claim that each group’s concerns are caught up in their own inability (perhaps for some an unwillingness) to create a new vision. There is too much concern with how such a vision would come into effect. There is too much of a willingness to settle for the status quo. There is too little creativity in imagining a future that would be devoid of military struggle, political might, economic exploitation, class division, or societal fragmentation. Not that such concerns aren’t valid – they are. However, it seems that the first step is not to decipher such a future’s tenability. Rather, the first step is to make a commitment to its necessity. There are no rules for creating. There is no law that we must follow. Thus, such should not be obstacles preventing praxis. It’s not even necessary for their to be a singular collective vision prior to action. There simply needs to be a vision for creativity, a vision for progress, a vision for the New. And in the midst of creation, as we remain sensitive to the forces with which we are surrounded and with which we use to create, we refine, reassemble, and reformulate our vision(s) as we create, replacing each plank of the ship while we journey toward new horizons…
Getting settled back in the East Midlands after what surely was a remarkable weekend of intellectual development, I have so much swirling around in my mind that I may have ammo for blog posts for the next couple months. One such thought that keeps cropping up in my mind pertains to a question that PhD candidate, Brian Smith, raised after my paper on Sartre. Briefly summarized, my paper sought to trace the early phenomenological materialism of Sartre from The Transcendence of the Ego and Being and Nothingness to his later, clearly defined, materialist manifesto Critique of Dialectical Reason (CDR), and to suggest that Sartre’s later ideas of social praxis are merely the outworking of his earlier existentialist notions.
The question that Brian asked was actually a perfect set. It was a nice, easy lob that I flubbed in the moment – the pressure of my first paper got the better of me!!! But I’m so glad that I flubbed that opportunity, because it’s been haunting me ever since, which has caused me to think further through my research.
His question was basically a response to something I mentioned in my paper: namely, that while there are many aporia left unresolved in the Sartrean corpus there is much to be gained from his work. So, Brian just opened the door for me to elaborate further what I specifically saw as some serious aporia that need to be addressed and then also to explain why I think that Sartre’s work is nevertheless important. Easy, right?!? Well, here’s a more proper answer to that question after a couple days of thought.
First, the largest problem that I see in Sartre’s work (which is something I did address briefly in my paper) is that Sartre is ultimately unable to account for the upsurge of the for-itself out of the in-itself. Sartre himself recognized this problem in his own work and claimed such a resolution was not his primary concern, but was better left for future metaphysicians and scientists. Ok. Fair enough. However, my problem is that I’m not convinced that his conception of being-in-itself is even formulated in a way that would allow for such an upsurge to occur. Therefore, for these future “metaphysicians and scientists” to be able to construct such a theory would require a complete reformulation of Sartre’s understanding of being-in-itself.
The primary issue that I have with Sartre’s conception of the in-itself is that, as he sees it, being-in-itself is completely static, fully positive, and crudely simple. Thus stated, there are no cracks or divisions in the in-itself that would allow for movement or change to occur, which seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for any ontological change whatsoever; let alone some emerging new ontological category to exist. What we need is (like Adrian Johnston suggested in his paper) an understanding of the material world (the in-itself in Sartre’s parlance) that supports such movement and change. I’m not exactly sure what this material order would consist of per se. But it would at the very least have to bear within it, intrinsically, by nature, cracks, divisions, and movement; a process philosophy of materiality.
Another issue I see in Sartre’s work is that even though he goes to great lengths in CDR to develop a theory of social praxis, I’m not convinced that his commitment to individualism as the a priori mode of subjective experience allows for a very adequate theory of subjective constitution. One thing that Sartre does not explore enough in CDR is the effect that the serial collective (the bad, objectified ensemble) or the group-in-fusion (the good, non-objectified ensemble) has on the constitution of the subject. Granted, his primary concern in CDR was not to develop a theory of subjectivity. However, I can’t help but wonder if such was necessary. I don’t think that his formulations in his earlier work suffice to explain how subjects in conflict or in common praxis are thereby constructed by such social arrangements. It’s almost as though these social organizations exist purely as inert instruments for the use of individual subjects. And while, to some degree, Sartre does claim that the group-in-fusion is an instrument that is used by individual subjects who suspend portions of their freedom for the common venture of the group in particular moments, I think more needs to be said regarding what happens to the individuals and the ensemble of individuals when they come together. Sartre staunchly denies the possibility of any sort of “extrinsic” unity to occur – such would objectify the persons involved and thereby limit their freedom. Thus, what needs to happen for the group to be successful while each person remains free is that the persons involved must be united by an interiorization of a common praxis. Ok. This sounds nice. But isn’t it the case that when people come together a group consciousness does unite them? Doesn’t this group consciousness then exist a sort of external transcendental unifying “force” that then unites the individuals for further praxis? And doesn’t this “external force” then create an energy that sweeps people up who are yet outside the group-in-fusion? Perhaps Sartre would concede to, at least most of, these points. He would merely claim that this energy that unites does not exist extrinsically but rather is the interiorization of the group. I’m just not so convinced…
That stated, that main reason why I do think that Sartre’s work, particularly CDR and his later post-colonial writings, is valuable is because of his creative reformulation of certain Marxist concepts. In CDR, Sartre did not set out to compose a history of humanity. Rather, in a Marxian fashion, he sought to delineate the material conditions that make human history possible. By creating new concepts, such as scarcity and the practico-inert, and by reformulating Marxist concepts, the negation of negation and stored labor, Sartre created new possibilities for narrative to be formulated and then constructed. Even though I fault him to some degree for giving too much priority to the individual, his insistence on radical voluntarism (individual and group) allows for the recreation of the world by placing the material order and the responsibility for the latter into human hands. And (as Peter Hallward’s paper from the conference showed) such capability and responsibility are precious reminders of the power of human organization.
Although the above piece is not exhaustive, I’d like to claim that this is my real answer to Brian’s question. I just need to thank him for affording me the opportunity to formulate these ideas a bit further.
What if Permanent Revolution pertained to the political analogously to Permanent Reparation relating to the “religious” – this would allow both there own sphere of influence, but also make them (for the most part) identical in purpose and form. The primary difference would be that the latter is ever engaged in the negation of the negation whereas the former is purely identified in positive terms as the outcome of the former’s activity, which then carries that task forward…
Perhaps??? Perhaps not… hmm…
It seems in most discussions regarding social, ethnic, (broadly-speaking) group reparations the arguments turn on either the idea that the current society that oppressed a former subgroup is responsible for atoning for past ills caused against particular collectives or that the current persons are not responsible for the past sins of their ancestors. The former position is generally tied up on some form of communitarian thought, whereas the latter is the liberal approach (crude depictions but I think fair enough for present purposes). It seems to me that in the public sphere advocates of either position have for the most part failed to have much imagination (the communitarians) or have been impetuous (the liberals). For example, the former often have sympathetic reasons for seeking reparations, which are generally expressed in terms of the memory of the past that looms over the present with a haunting presence. But then does not the advocacy of reparations simply amount to a self-satisfying quenching of guilt that the “status quo” feel for being privileged in society? Is a viable solution to really just throw some money at “them” so “we” can feel better and simultaneously assuage our guilt? Is not this very “solution” the very epitome of a commodified quick fix???
Regarding the liberal opposition to reparations, beyond the fact that there is no collective sympathy for the disparity in classification (in Bourdieu’s sense), there is also a real ignorance of the power of the past in the present. Each present moment is not a point-in-time devoid of the past. In many ways, the past is irreducibly tied up in the present, as its spectral companion. Every cotton t-shirt indelibly bears the virtual presence of lashings. Every cigarette virtually smells of the sweat of those who once slaved to cultivate this profitable crop. Thus, to argue that “we” are not responsible to pay for the sins of ancestors in many ways ignores the present structure that continues to exhibit a spectral oppression/violence from those past sins as well as (a liberal argument) limiting the freedom of persons within the “once-oppressed” community.
The liberal argument does not seem to be the best option for sympathetic or for egalitarian reasons; neither does it really make sense within a liberal paradigm. Then again, the former argument seems misguided as well, as nothing more than a sympathetic capitalist fix. A solution to this problem could be a modified Sartrean idea. Rather than permanent revolution, what we might be able to adopt is some form of permanent reparation. As Miroslav Volf claimed in Exclusion and Embrace, the original offence will never be satisfied by some form of penance. The original irruption/violation has a stigma that far exceeds any act of correction. This means that a society that bears significant historical wounds must seek a permanent solution – one that money or atemporal social programs will not satisfy. What needs to happen is that a complete overturning of social relations, ethnic boundaries, economic modalities, and political strategies would be effected in such a way as to create a true plane of equality. Of course, in one sense, pure equality can never be reached; the offence has already occurred, perhaps forever severing any hope of unity. However, by remaining in a constant state of reparative flux, society would be better prepared, motivated even, to face future challenges that arise while simultaneously seeking to create a semblance of social balance. Maybe is this is the best we can hope for…
Some questions remain: are we forever to be haunted by the presence of our collective sins??? Is this the symptom that must drive the State?