Thinking Blue Guitars

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Category: Morality

Thoughts on Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work

One of the most striking features of this book is its Latinity. The ratio of Latin to Anglo-Saxon- or Greek-origin words must surely be tipped very highly in Rome’s favour. There are certain passages that would remain literally incomprehensible to someone who lacked knowledge of Latin or of a Romance language. In itself, this is not necessarily a great crime, but as one progresses throughout this remarkable memoir, it comes to assume a wider significance.

Gillian Rose – whose works of philosophy, I admit at the outset, I’m yet to read – is acutely attuned to the ethical implications of language. Whether it be the shocking revelation of her dying grandfather’s knowledge of the enemy tongue (High German), or her inheritance of this forbidden fruit by teaching herself German using the works of – madness! – Theodor W. Adorno, she understands that a language is not simply a neutral medium for the channelling of information, but is bound up with a whole way of life, or ways of life. In many ways, the types of language we use determine the limits of our dispositions and possibilities for self-transformation; they are repositories of sedimented and accumulated wisdom and folly, of prejudice, insight and blindness, in which and out of which we are blessed or doomed to set up home together. To be born into a language is to be born into a whole culture, itself an amalgam of past and ongoing struggles.

That Rose was originally dyslexic, and that she came to experience her overcoming of dyslexia as one of the defining battles of her life, is not insignificant. Language, that communal medium par excellence, confronted her as an object with which to be struggled. And struggle is all for Rose: “Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon” (a timely riposte to New Age ‘religions’ which seek to cleanse reality of its frictions). She cannot even accept advice from her doctors without plaguing them with awkward, cutting questions. In fact, all of the figures who feature in her memoir are, in some way or another, agonistic. Whether they be gays who dress up as drag queens in New York, or seemingly ‘nice’ old women who are secretly driven by the flames of lust, the people with whom Rose feels affinity are those who defy convention. In other words, they are quite literally ‘eccentrics’.

When the centre is dominated by mediocre prudes, eccentrics are a source of hope: a vision of how the world might be beyond those damagingly limiting modes of thinking and behaving that are now in place. But, in a certain sense, they are also self-exiles. They remove themselves from the unbearable stuffiness and mediocrity of the centre to attempt to build a life for themselves on its outskirts, but they often do so by leaving everyone else behind.

And this is the central contradiction that I sense at the heart of the book. On the one hand, Rose is a fiercely brave, intelligent woman determined to spurn the false, easy solutions of postmodernity so as to stay true to the difficulties and risks of human love: “To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.” On the other hand, however, there seems to have been a risk that Rose was unable to take: the risk of the centre, of the non-eccentric. It is here that her Latinity assumes its ultimate significance: in using its various precisions exactly to articulate her and our ethical predicaments, she adopts a language so bristling with philosophical exactitude that it suggests a distrust of everydayness. This is clearly not to suggest that if Rose had only written like Hemingway then all our problems would be solved. But it certainly is to suggest that part of love’s work must surely be the common working-through of boring, mundane frictions, not all of which require transmutation into the celestial altitudes of Latinate discourse. In other words, the problem is not the content of what she says, and nor is it the form; rather, it is the content of the form. The esoteric verbiage is at one with the eccentric withdrawal, thus making her ethical principles of engagement and readiness-to-be-wounded very difficult to put into practice, except in certain limited situations.

This is clearly a serious problem, but as Rose well knew: it is not one that can be resolved in thought alone. It requires a common framework of practices. Rose’s unforgettable contribution, difficult as I find it to accept in its totality, is surely of the utmost importance in developing those practices.

BBC Breakfast; or, the Manufacturing of Ruthlessness

This morning BBC Breakfast ran a story on a study that has been carried out which shows that British youngsters lack the ambition and ruthlessness of their European counterparts (because, of course, Britain isn’t in Europe). After a video report shot at a posh international school down south, in which these findings were unsurprisingly ratified, a ‘discussion’ (for which read ‘mutual appreciation and united front against a common enemy’) was held with the head of OFSTED and an ex-‘businesswoman of the year’. At no point in this discussion was the glorification of ambition and ruthlessness ever put into question: the presupposition of the entire report was that ruthlessness is a positive human attribute and should be aspired to. That British youngsters apparently do not was seen as a grave disappointment. Indeed, it was the trigger for an all-out and decidedly spiteful attack on the ‘youth of today’ and their namby-pamby, mollycoddled upbringing. Schools that do not hold competitive sports days or which demonstrate in any way whatsoever that competition and ruthlessness are not virtuous ends-in-themselves were mocked and ridiculed. At one point, the businesswoman went so far as to suggest that because children are not physically hungry and because they enjoy themselves too much (both of which she associated with the ‘nanny state’), they lack the requisite ambition. The implication was that enforced starvation and a ban on state-provided services would be good for them and ‘Britain’.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. Firstly, the BBC is a key ideological apparatus in the manufacturing of an inhuman way of life: a moral and political disgrace. Secondly, genuine compassionate humanity can find no place in the current state of affairs: if you desire a life worthy of a fully human being, you are condemned to fighting the status quo. Thirdly, if the nineteenth century had have had TV, it would have looked like that.

Response to Mitchelmore: The Guilt of Modernism

It is only after a third, close reading of Steve Mitchelmore’s recent essay (see yesterday’s post) that I have come to appreciate how profoundly interesting and problematic what he is saying really is. The best way to begin my response might be to recapitulate what I take to be his principal points.

Essentially, he is making a case against those who argue that recent ‘creative non-fiction’ (mainly war-reportage) is usurping contemporary fiction. First of all, he rejects the criteria by which new non-fiction is judged to be superior: excitement, intensity and cultural relevance. These factors already presuppose a definition of what literature is, does and should be with which he cannot concur. Mitchelmore points out that the likes of Dyer and Siegel are essentially after good old storytellers, someone who can tell a rip-roaring yarn about ‘the big stories of our time’ (9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan). These books may well irradiate an ‘existential urgency and intensity’, but, as Mitchelmore rightly argues, this is more a result of their subject matter and severely limited perspective than of any more profound self-probing. Ultimately, then, Dyer and Siegel may well be right on their own terms, but these very terms of debate mask the larger existential issues at stake.

At this point, he offers the alternative of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Because of the story’s structure, in which the governess’ letter intervenes between the narration and the events, ‘the plot…becomes the lucidity and obscurity of the governess’ experience. James uses the distance between the real words and the real world to create the ambiguity of the children’s innocence’. And here is where I find his essay takes its most impressive turn:

The complexity of this ambiguity may be easily correlated to the narration of writers embedded in an occupying army among the ghostly, recalcitrant servants of Afghanistan. The governess becomes the imperial force invading an alien land, seeing danger and evil everywhere except in itself. In fiction, however, the reader is astute enough to recognise the governess may not be reliable.

Henry James between light and shade

What he does here, though without using these terms, is to draw a parallel between traditional, non-self-conscious story-telling techniques, whereby the narrator simply gets on with telling it how it was, and empire. Or, to put it differently, between empire and empirical observation. That there is no apparent moral vision at work in such war reportage is, so Mitchelmore tells us, precisely the moral vision itself: ‘Their evasion is as necessary to the books as it is to the military action itself. In their forensic attention to detail and narrative drive, they match the military’s unflinching prosecution of executive orders’.

Far better, then, to follow the likes of James and Kafka. James, as Blanchot tells us in a fine phrase, was a master of ‘the art of stalking a secret which, as in so many of his books, the narration creates’. In other words, the very inner structures of these works tend towards a realm of absolute moral and existential ambiguity, a realm of which Mallarmé might be said to be the dubious guardian. It is a place (again, the phrasing is mine) of paradoxical identity of opposites: there where Kafka’s innocence was at its most absolute was precisely there where the shadow of his guilt was darkest. It is a place of ‘pure indeterminacy’, where the very act of writing itself casts its own shadow, and it is precisely this intense doubt that the likes of Dyer and Siegel have ignored and shunned at their peril.

Now, a simple way of summarising Mitchelmore’s view might be that ‘creative non-fiction’ isn’t as good as modernism. Judging from the examples he cites, it is clearly those texts (James, Kafka, Proust) which lend themselves to different types of self-referentiality that appeal to him. He reads this self-consciousness on the part of the text – one severely lacking in the new non-fiction – as the locus of whatever morality might still be possible today: not an absolute moral judgement, nor an ‘infinite meaninglessness’, but a ‘nagging ambiguity’.

by Francis Bacon

This is fine as far as it goes, but one can’t help but think that Mitchelmore’s determinedly modernist tastes are in themselves rather limiting. It is difficult to tell whether his argument is simply that non-fiction war reportage is incapable of this sort of ambiguity, or whether such ambiguity should be an aim for any fiction worth the name. In other words, is he offering a description of non-fiction or a prescription for fiction? If the former, then one is inclined to agree with him since it is merely an important and interesting observation; if the latter, then one would surely have to disagree and point out the complex origins of literary modernism and their being bound up with various historical pressures, such that to continue writing in such a way might be politically and morally dubious.

‘Point of view’ in the novel, for example, (of which James was perhaps the master), marks what Bachelard would have called a coupure épistemologique: the substitution of the unity of psychology for the unity of action. For Fredric Jameson, point of view ‘is something a little more than sheer technique and expresses the increasing atomization of our societies, in which the privileged meeting places of collective life and of the intertwining of collective destinies – the tavern, the marketplace, the high road, the court, the paseo, the cathedral, yes, and even the city itself – have decayed, and with them, the vital sources of the anecdote.’ The novel of ‘point of view’ is a literary expression of a historical problem (namely, bourgeois individualism, Weberian rationalisation, social atomization). If it enables James to edge towards a morality of absolute ambiguity, this is only because the form itself is already engaged in the politics and morality of a wider history. So, whilst Mitchelmore is quite right to suggest the inadequacies of the non-fiction war reportage, it must not be assumed that their rectification, especially their moral rectification, can be found in literary forms which are themselves in a sense already guilty.

In other words, unless we can achieve a more nuanced conceptualisation of the mediation between historical guilt, literary-formal guilt and existential guilt, we risk falling into the trap of subsuming all three beneath the same rubric and then passing it off as ‘human nature’.

Authority and State Terror

Ronnie Lee Gardner

On Friday the state of Utah murdered the convicted killer, Ronnie Lee Gardner. Gardner, having lived by the gun, chose to die by it – by firing squad. When I first read about this I had an image in mind of Gardner stood against some sort of pole in a yard with a lone gunman-executioner positioned before him, face-to-face. I imagined maybe a single point-blank shot to the head.

In fact it wasn’t like that at all. Gardner was strapped to a chair inside a small room – designed one imagines by family-loving, God-fearin’ architects – a target was placed over his heart by a doctor, and five gunmen shot him from behind a wall with two slots in, just large enough for the rifles to shoot through. Gardner could not see his murderers, and their identities were not revealed to the public for ‘fear of reprisals.’

A further detail of note is this from The Guardian:

Four of the rifles were loaded with a single live bullet. The fifth contained an “ineffective” round – which unlike a blank gives the same recoil as a live round; that way none of the five executioners know whether they delivered the fatal shot, thus lessening their psychological burden.

I want to say two very simple things about this event. The first is that those who accuse this method of being ‘barbaric’ are somewhat missing the point: it is simultaneously the most barbaric and the most civilized of punishments. What do I mean by this? Firstly, the reason five men were chosen to kill Gardner is not for the simple pragmatic reason that if one or two miss the target then the other two might hit it. It is because the authority of the state cannot be seen to reside in one man alone. It must remain multiple, so as to avoid any personalising lex talonis. If capital punishment is part of the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ logic, then the state, at least, should be the final communal mutilator of the offending eye, beyond which the cycle of revenge can move no further. Secondly, the men remain anonymous because state authority has to appear anonymous. State authority cannot appear to favour any single person or faction or class. When the media broadcast images of the wall from behind which the men shot Gardner, they were effectively broadcasting the anonymity that power in a ‘civilized’ world requires to function and to reproduce itself.

The second point refers to the ‘ineffective’ fifth bullet. If ever there were an example that might suggest to hardcore pragmatic-empiricist social observers (i.e. those for whom theory or psychoanalysis or any other vaguely abstract method of ratiocination is airy-fairy bullshit) that there is more to social reality than immediately observable data, then this is it. If society functioned via pragmatism alone, then one man would have been given a gun, he would have stood in front of Gardner, and blown his head off. Pragmatism does not result in the building of a wall with two slots in it to mask five gunmen, one of whom – but no one knows whom exactly – will fire a blank. The official reason for this practice is ‘to lessen the burden of guilt’. This might hold water, if it weren’t for the fact that the gunmen volunteered to execute Gardner. It is unlikely that a policeman, trained to kill, who chooses to murder a criminal will suddenly be ravaged by a guilty conscience having done so.

The only convincing way the fifth bullet can be explained is via some form of the psychoanalytic Big Other. I don’t know enough Lacan to go into this in detail, but it strikes me as fairly obvious that the purpose of the fifth bullet is to transport the execution from the empirical realm of individuals to the pseudo-transcendent, transindividual realm of the Other. It makes the cause of death strictly indiscernible and therefore irreducible to the actions of specific humans. The gunmen themselves do not know who killed Gardner, and precisely in their ignorance is located Authority. It is the same Authority embedded in the white-washed, anonymous walls.

It is this terrifying Authority – terrifying because not residing in specific, challengeable human beings – that must be defied at all costs so long as it constitutes the life-blood of state terror.

Doggy-style; or, why sex is civilized

‘It’s not fifty-fifty like a business transaction. It’s the chaos of eros, we’re talking about, the radical destabilization that is its excitement. You’re back in the woods with sex. You’re back in the bog. What it is is trading dominance, perpetual imbalance.’
– Philip Roth, The Dying Animal


‘You’re back in the woods with sex’. We talk about wild sex, animal sex, doggy-style, shagging like rabbits and so on and so on. All of these are images of some supposedly brute animality, some primitive urge that rages inside us: our evolutionary inheritance from the cavemen. The images suggest pure, material drives, unadulterated and undiluted.

What this suggestive picture ignores is the role that language plays in sex. Non-sophisticated sketches of the nature of man always seem to think of humans as basically animals but with language added on as a sort of extra. But this misses the point. Language is not just one activity of man among others, such as eating, drinking, producing etc.; it fundamentally transforms the very nature of all the other activities. Eating is no longer just eating: food becomes a world of signs, rituals, habits, and meanings. How else could diseases like anorexia or bulimia arise if signification were not a fundamental component in the process of consumption?

"Two Figures and a Cat" - Picasso

Physically, on the surface, sex appears as the most animalistic activity in which humans still engage. ‘Doggy-style’ is so-called because of obvious physical resemblances to the animal world. But these superficial similarities hide the truth: as Freud well knew, it is during sex that humans are at their most human, their least animal. Why is this? Again, because of language and meaning. The body and its accessories are captured in a network of signs, all of which play a crucial role in sex. A mouse might seek shelter in a high-heeled shoe, but it is only a human who can be aroused at the sight or the sound of one. We humans are all, to some extent, ‘natural fetishists,’ and we are so precisely because of language.

So, if this is the case, then, is it true that ‘you are back in the woods with sex’? Well, yes and no. You are back in the woods with sex to the extent that humans have conjured up a whole symbolic world centred on the woods and the primitive. We have imbued the natural world with human, linguistically-mediated desires, ones which animals themselves could never experience. Just take the great ‘doggy-style’, for example: when two dogs engage in sex it is natural and non-linguistic. It does not have a ‘meaning’ for them in the sense in which a human could experience ‘meaning’. But when two humans have sex ‘doggy-style’ it is an act rampant with signs; they have transformed themselves into what they (wrongly) think of as a bestial state of pure desire. But eros is not pure – it is always mediated by a network of symbols.

The most outrageously barbarous of sexual acts are, in fact, simultaneously the most deeply civilised.

Against the Liberals

Another day, another reflection on my existential quandaries. This time it was inspired by the final phase of the British Humanist Association’s atheist bus campaign. The BHA has just released a batch of billboard posters which are the perfect encapsulation of liberal thinking in the West today. The slogan says it all: ‘Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself’. What could possibly sound more reasonable? Is this not the most enlightened civic virtue burning away those wishy-washy clouds of Christian and Muslim mystification? Does it not bring a metallic, positivist tear to one’s radiantly rational eye?

Before enumerating just why I loathe this poster, it might be worth making a caveat. Let’s not be fools: in extreme cases, where religion is clearly being used to suppress reasoned and critical reflection, to subject a human being to oppressive conditions – be that physically or mentally – then I’m all with the BHA. Another way of saying the same thing is that I’m all for adopting an anaemic liberal ideology over an uncritical and oppressively dogmatic religious ideology. (Though let’s not forget that dogmatism is not always and everywhere oppressive: one can hold dogmatically to one’s beliefs without going round thumping tables and brandishing one’s fists over them).

The main problem I have with this poster is that its principal ideological presupposition is almost theological: choice is sacred. It’s worth unpicking this a little bit. For the British Humanist Association (as for liberalism in general) a human being is an individual – a lonely monad -existing in the void: self-made, self-fashioned. Athena was born fully-grown from the head of Zeus; but the liberal individual is both Athena and Zeus in one, constantly giving birth to itself (‘it’ because it is disembodied and sexless) in the highest stratospheres of solitude. To its north, its south, its east and west there is nothing but nothingness: no history, no society, no God, no illness, no ideas, no needs – just pure nothingness. And within this void the individual chooses. It has no preconceptions, no presuppositions; it is a blank slate choosing in and from an infinity of blankness.

The freedom to choose is the capitalist freedom par excellence. Real freedom might entail making oneself the ground of other people’s freedom – even if that included self-sacrifice -, but capitalist freedom is the liberty to choose: choose a toothpaste, choose a car, choose a house – choose a religion. Religion for people like Dawkins is a set of theoretical propositions on a piece of paper which we can tick if they suit us and cross if they don’t. It is an abstract, unlived, immaterial phenomenon. It is, in other words, precisely not what most practitioners of a religion think they are doing. Religion is a way of life, of being-together, a communal giving and receiving, a shared taking-on of the burdens of finitude and mortality. Moreover, for Christians, this community even stretches to the dead. Because history exists: it is lived through and died in; it hurts and it lives on. Atheist humanism is almost always reason in the void, and it is almost always the perfect ideological accompaniment to a rampant capitalism which renders the lives of most people in the world a misery.

They can put someone else’s religion on the line, but can they put themselves on the line? Dawkins and Grayling and their ilk are obsessed with choice. They did not choose the burden of their historical guilt – the guilt of the bourgeois – but they are guilty nonetheless. So am I. There are many productive ways of dealing with this historical sin – socialism being a prime contender – but celebrating choice is not one of them. It is simply an irresponsible reproduction of the dominant ideology. ‘Let me grow up and choose for myself’: let them grow up, indeed, but into reasonable people.

Reflections on David Cameron’s Speech

Today, David Cameron gave his final speech of the Conservative Party Conference 2009. Perhaps unlike many fellow socialists, I happen to agree with many things he says. His main theme is that Britain has become a ‘broken society’, and that in order to fix it we need to resurrect a sense of civil society. The means for doing this won’t be the ‘big state’, as under Labour, but rather Cameron’s big three watch-words: Family, Community, and Country.

Superficially, I agree with Cameron that Britain is a ‘broken society’, for reasons too numerous to explain here. Unfortunately, he’s going to implement policies which are antithetical to everything he says he believes in and which will, in all likelihood, aggravate the current woes. I have the time and the space to write about only two of them. Let’s take the most boring-sounding one first: cutting inheritance tax. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, one of the ten general suggestions for the foundation of a fair society is the abolition of all right to inheritance. This is not because Marx has some pathological aversion to family heirlooms; it’s because when the minority of excessively wealthy people die, they simply hand on their wealth to their children. It is in the interests of rich people that society stay exactly the same as it is now, because if their children were banned by the state from inheriting that wealth, then the rich would have to be proactive in bringing about a better society for their children to grow up in. Cameron says that it is precisely this better society he wants to bring about. Unfortunately, he wants to do this by cutting inheritance tax, thereby making it easier for the small number of rich people to pass on their accumulated wealth to a small number of rich children, and consequently giving them no incentive to change the nature of the current exploitative system. This then increases the poverty of the majority of normal people and plunges them into exactly the kind of social circumstances which create the ‘broken society’ he wants to fix. It’s a bit like saying you want to make a boat less leaky and then drilling a series of twenty-inch holes in it.

The second policy I’d like to consider is that to do with Afghanistan. He assures us that the reason why our troops are there is to ‘stop the re-establishment of terrorist training camps’. The problem is that while the Afghanis are no fans of the Taliban, nor are they keen on having their families and children massacred by coalition forces (usually in air raids) – troops, let’s not forget, who are effectively imperial occupiers. (Imagine how we would react if Iran sent over an enormous army to Britain, carried out air raids on our homes in Birmingham and Chelsea, murdering our toddlers and destroying our livelihoods, all in the name of preventing another US-British terrorist crusade in Iraq). What poll after poll has shown is twofold. Firstly, the vast majority of the Afghani population want us to leave their country immediately (but of course they’re only the local population, so they don’t count). Secondly, our soldiers have wreaked such havoc on their lives that those who were originally against the Taliban and against networks such as Al-Qaeda are now fleeing to join them either to take revenge or simply because they have nothing left. Ultimately, our aggressive militarism, which was designed to eliminate the roots of terrorism, has succeeded – as experts on the region predicted prior to the invasion – in creating the conditions for the radicalising of a new generation of terrorists. So what does Cameron propose to do about this? Respect the grieving locals and withdraw the occupiers? Create conditions of material prosperity for the dispossessed of the Middle East (i.e. the main economic category from which jihadis emerge)? Of course not! He wants to send more troops! The man for whom the Family, the Community, and the Country are ruling values wants to send more of your sons and daughters to slaughter Afghani sons and daughters, only to be slaughtered in their turn, radicalising more potential slaughterers who will – imitating our Western logic – arrive in our Communities and our Country and slaughter us.

So when David Cameron, in those oh-so-self-assured, oh-so-dulcet tones of his, tries to convince you to vote for him at the next election, please be aware that he – like those in power before him – is a maniac.

Simone Weil: Pride

Simone Weil

Simone Weil

A few years ago I invited a friend of mine to my birthday party. I’d regularly attended events he’d invited me to, either as company or moral support or whatever. He agreed to come, but an hour or so before the party was due to begin he called me to say that he was ill and that he’d have to give it a miss. Now, it just so happened that I knew for a fact that on this same evening his girlfriend had been given the night off work; moreover, I’d seen him just the day before and he’d been on top form. I told him it was fine – no worries. But the second I put the phone down I began with the abuse: “Lying bastard.” (Notice that his dishonesty was never doubted.)

Two days later the lads and I were due to go out to watch a gig which a friend of ours was playing at a local bar. I received a text message that morning from the guy who’d missed the party, saying ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it on Saturday. How was it in the end?’ I was still annoyed. I wasn’t going to be taken for a fool! So I suggested to my girlfriend that I send a text message back with something like: ‘Yeah, was ok. I guess you won’t be coming out tonight because of your illness.’ Two can play at that old game. My girlfriend suggested I was being pathetic; I suggested I wasn’t. This guy thought he could just lie to me and that I would accept it!

Philosopher, Mystic, Agitator

Philosopher, Mystic, Agitator

In the end, however, I never sent the message. But the dynamics of the situation still haunt me. I knew he was lying, and he probably knew that I knew – but I needed him to know! I needed him to feel that I knew, that I wasn’t some gullible loser. I needed him, in some sense, to be reduced, to become smaller than me. So, I was surprised, then, when I read the following in a book by Simone Weil:

“To harm a person is to receive something from him. What? What have we gained (and will have to be repaid) when we have done harm? We have gained in importance. We have expanded. We have filled an emptiness in ourselves by creating one in somebody else.”[1]

Of course, my friend’s not coming to my birthday party was trivial and understandable (not to mention that I’d done the same thing to other people on many occasions!), but it produced in me a tiny wound: I’d been cheated in some way, I’d been abandoned and left alone. But this tiniest of wounds made me want to expand until my magnitude engulfed him, until he felt the emptiness he’d made me feel. So what should I have done? Just said nothing and accepted it, or something more dramatic? I leave you with these words of Simone Weil, ones I don’t think I shall ever live up to:

“It is impossible to forgive whoever has done us harm, if that harm has lowered us. We have to think that it has not lowered us, but has revealed our true level.”

[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Arthur Wills, p. 50.

Beyond Truth

Aristotle chilling with Plato

Plato chilling with Aristotle

In yesterday’s post I touched briefly upon how the Kantian ethics of duty has distorted our thinking on morality. Today, I shall focus on the ways in which it might even be said to have infiltrated our thinking about truth.

In a valuable recent exchange with a few ardent atheists, I came across a classic argument that runs something like this: people turn to religion because it makes them feel better about themselves and their lives, and, even though sometimes this mindset can actually lead people to do better in real life, what atheists are concerned with is not ‘feeling good’ but the ‘truth’. Now, in yesterday’s post I outlined both why Christianity in particular cannot be said to be a ‘feel-good’ religion (it has a crucified Jew at its core!), and I also observed that the fact that Christianity may well succeed in making people feel better about their lives is not necessarily a bad thing (bizarre that that even needs to be said). But here the argument is slightly different.

The underlying logic of the atheist thesis is thus: people who turn to religion feel good about themselves therefore it cannot be true. Now, even ignoring the fact that the first half of this proposition is patently false, and that ‘religion’ in the abstract is senseless, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the logical connector (‘therefore’) is illogical. It is a confusion of categories. Since when has it been a pre-requisite of truth that it make you feel miserable? Traditionally, and in everyday practice, truth can be defined via the Aristotelian concept of adequatio: ‘saying of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.’ It is a supposedly perfect equivalence between mind and world. Of course, philosophically, this is highly problematic, but even if we accept this workaday definition it is obvious that whether or not one feels good regarding a particular truth has nothing to do with its veracity. I may feel sadistically delighted that I’ve just dropped a meat cleaver on my bare foot, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true and that I need immediate surgery.

The most boring genius in history?

The most boring genius in history?

But even this doesn’t get us very far, for it still relies on Kant’s archetypally bourgeois separation of pure reason, practical reason (ethics), and aesthetic judgement. In fact, the ‘moment of truth’ in the atheist’s logical short-circuit is that it attempts – in spite of itself – to reunite rationality and the sentient body. In medieval scholastic thinking, the tripartite Kantian scheme would have been almost literally unthinkable. ‘Reason’ was a way of life – a way of moving, loving, thinking, feeling and praying in harmony with the world – not something you confined to a white-washed lab and a textbook. So, even if at the level of content the atheist argument that feeling good equates to falsehood is totally wrong, at the level of form their unintentional attempt to unify body and mind is spot on.

When it comes to faith, the ‘adequation’ concept of truth is, ironically, inadequate. It remains trapped within the realm of bourgeois alienation. This form of ‘truth’, removed from the lived context of human community with its squabbles and fracas, its murders and lovers, its sweethearts and heart-attacks, is like a small squib of a phantom at one’s command. Facts and figures I can dominate; I am their lord. But to critically and willingly submit myself, through making sacrifices and putting myself at the service of those in need, that is something over which I have no mastery. In the messy, difficult and tangled web of human relations, truths of the Kantian kind remain important, but they can only get you so far. At best, you will remain unchanged – just like the world around you – but, as compensation, you will have an army of dates and theses at your command. (This, of course, is perfect for the capitalist status quo, which spreads injustice like disease.) But the real truth is a holistic totality of lived, empirical and imaginative worlds, and the forms of loving human interaction that can arise within it. If that doesn’t sound like what we traditionally mean by ‘truth’, then all the better: truth is, ultimately, beyond truth.

Contra the Atheists: In Defence of Joy and Losers

Painting by Blake

'Sconfitta' by Blake

Common perceptions of Christians may well include the following: they are gullible, scarily amicable,  sexually unadventurous, irrational, zealous, happy-clappy, generally very boring, teetotal, cheesy, disconnected from reality, hypocritical, and in need of a heart-warming fable that they can believe in in order to feel better about their pathetic selves and less afraid of death. Now, if we’re honest, much of that is often true. After all, the Church is not meant to be a gathering-place of perfect human beings, but rather a communion of losers and failures – or, to put it as Eagleton once did, the shit of the earth. Jesus was, of course, contrary to what right-wing American zealots might argue, history’s all-time greatest loser.

What I want to focus on in this post is the last of these stereotypes: that Christians seek refuge from the real world in a cosy, cockle-warming tale. Those who think like this (and I was once a most vociferous proponent) generally tend to view themselves as enlightened, rational beings who have the fortitude to see reality for what it really is, not through any rose-tinted spectacles. Their world is one guided by ‘science’, by which I mean their faith in the capacity of practising scientists to solve the mysteries of human existence and to explain presently inexplicable phenomena. History, in general, is perceived to be an endless march of linear progress which is roughly in line with scientific and technological advancements, and the transcendent never much exceeds a hazy agnosticism. As for death, that’s the end: the great abyss.

With such a gloomy and unimaginative horizon, is it any wonder that certain people turn to Christianity? Atheists get Darwin. Not bad, all things considered, but Christians get Darwin and flame-engulfed angels! Atheists get an abyss, but Christians get – more terrifyingly – a bodily resurrection of all humans who must then give an account of themselves before the source of all being…who died for them! You couldn’t even write this shit! So, whilst it is, of course, true that many people take shelter in the Church so as to feel better about their lives, we might well want to stop to ask why this is such a bad thing. It’s rather like the whole ‘altruism versus egoism’ debate: did I help this little old lady with her shopping because I really wanted to help her, or did I do so because really I wanted to feel good about myself? Why couldn’t it be both?! Helping an old lady is good and doing good makes one feel good. Our popular conceptions of morality have been corrupted by the sadistic Kantian concept of duty: doing good must make us feel bad. Absurd!

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

No, Christianity is not for fools (well, it is but it isn’t, if you catch my drift). It is all very well for atheists to spout on about ‘proof’ and ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, but when it comes to the crunch it is secularists who are often (not always) the most gullible and least critical thinkers. It is totally acceptable for an atheist to invoke the dominant ideology of scientific rationalism – the great ‘opium of the people’ of our age – without having any specialist scientific knowledge whatsoever, whereas a Christian is forced to fight her intellectual corner in terms of science, history, theology, philosophy, etc. An atheist is under no obligation (other than worldly law) to accept responsibility for the state of the world or for the wrong of a particular situation; all they have to do is bemoan it, and go on reproducing the status quo which gave rise to it. A Christian, on the other hand, must accept that for all wrong that exists in the world, she is personally responsible; moreover, as if that weren’t enough already, she must do all in her power to ‘make God possible’ in no matter how dire a context. That Christians often don’t (à la moi) is not always a sign of their hypocrisy (although with me it sometimes is), but rather of their humanity.

Of course, many atheists are wonderful people who do wonderful things (the socialists the greatest amongst them), and they’re often a damn sight better than most Christians: give me Dawkins the Banal over Bush the Destroyer any day. But at the heart of Christianity is a political prisoner who was mutilated and then crucified by an imperial regime. It doesn’t get much more ‘real’ than that. Now, many atheists appreciate the horror and evil of the world – they are absolute realists – and for that I applaud them, but Christians know the darkness too. The difference for them is that they know a second, more potent, darkness – darker than the most infernal obscurity. So dark, in fact, that it is known to them as light. For them, death and evil have been conquered: to remind them that, despite this fact, we must still do all we can here on earth to stay true to that message is absolutely legitimate and necessary; but to deny them joy by claiming that it is only happy-clappy claptrap is nothing but the purest bourgeois ideology.

Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!

May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.

[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

Rowan Williams’s Radical Christian Mission

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture on Christian mission. What, you might be thinking, could Rowan Williams and Christian mission ever, even after having smoked the world’s beefiest bifter, have to do with me? Well, here goes a shot in the dark…

To begin with it might help if we turn to that bastion of lexical resourcefulness,, for a simple definition of ‘mission’ in the Christian context: ‘a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc.’ In general, even such a neutral description of Christian missionary work as this one can conjure grim spectres of rapacious colonial expeditions in the minds of most enlightened liberals. Having no expertise in the history of such expeditions myself, I’m far from qualified to comment on the justification of these conceptual ghouls. Nonetheless, the stereotype of Christian mission which exists in the minds of secular westerners might look something like this: the white, male, Christian from North-Western Europe arrives in Africa with a fleet of war-ships, over-brimming with brainless, God-fearing mercenaries; he approaches the terrified locals (whom he refers to as ‘savages’) who had been leading lives of perfect contentment up until this point, and stands on the beach proclaiming that he has come to release them from the bondage of ignorance and wishes to shine the light of the irrepressible one true God into their lives; when the locals fail to demonstrate immediate enthusiasm at this mysterious interruption into their hallowed ways, the Christian missionary calls in the mercenaries who butcher, rape and torture at will until the terrified inhabitants of the African wilderness acquiesce and give themselves up to Christ; the said missionary then tears out the heart of one of the corpses, hoists it aloft, and as the blood drips down upon his celestial features he bellows: “The truth of the Lord is written on the hearts of all men!”

In what sense, then, can Christian mission still have any relevance whatsoever to anything at all? I’ll try to keep it brief. Rowan Williams concentrates primarily on the biblical passage of Matthew 10 (the Bible, incidentally, for those of you who never read it – like me 50% of the time – is a disturbing, if invigorating, read):

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You have received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food’.

Here’s what Rowan Williams gets from this:

  1. Jesus’ instruction to go to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ implies that missionaries should only go there where they feel God has, in some sense, already ‘tilled the field’, somewhere where God has already prepared the way, i.e. don’t just jump on a plane with your Gideons and invade any old Amazonian patch, but rather think about where you might be needed or – dare I say it? – welcomed. (‘Start where God has started’.)
  2. ‘As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’’ Rowan Williams reads this as an extension of the first point; when a missionary goes somewhere where they believe God is opening doors, one of the first things they should say is precisely that – God is already here amongst you at work. It seems to me as if one might draw a comparison with Plato’s ‘anamnesis’ or ‘unforgetting’: you help those to whom you go to unforget that God is always already at work amongst them. (Hang in there, all ye atheists – the main point hasn’t been broached yet.)
  3. But then what should missionaries do? Essentially, Rowan seems to think, it’s a question of changing and release: ‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity.’ Ultimately, it is what he calls ‘Christ-shaped change’. And here we approach the main event.

It is worth quoting a whole passage from the Archbishop’s lecture:

And I put it that way so that we can remind ourselves that the change we speak of, where mission is concerned, is not simply or primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs. First of all, it’s a change in the whole environment, a change in the world you live in. Not for nothing does St Paul speak of new creation. Not new things going on inside your head; not new concepts but a new world, a world whose newness is shown in that manifest release that’s going on in the lives of people and communities. Where do we start? Where God has started. What do we say? God is nearer that you think. What do we do? We seek to bring Christ-shaped change.

Now, as a pseudo-intellectual with Marxist proclivities, this strikes me as deeply radical. Mission is not ‘primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs.’ This goes against all bourgeois thinking on faith. For bourgeois society, faith is something you do in your spare time: it’s a private, internal affair. (This presupposition is, of course, the upshot of the public-private divide which capitalist society exacerbates to borderline schizophrenic proportions.) But what Rowan Williams is saying is something else: mission is not about going to a farflung country and commanding a local people to tick off a checklist of the Nicene Creed, all the time leaving the external environment exactly the same as it was before. It’s about new creation, building a new worldscape, which means material newness as well as psychological novelty. Because faith, despite what many seem to think, is not just a private affair: it is lived out in reality and it recognises no public-private divide. In this sense, it has definite resonances with socialism. (It is no co-incidence that Rowan Williams is often associated with traditional leftist thinking; he was once arrested for scaling a fence during a protest organised by the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament).

Indeed, the next part of Matthew 10 simply compounds this idea of creation: ‘You have received without payment; give without payment.’ Contrary to diabolical theories of creation, orthodox theology teaches that God had absolutely no reason to create the world, but did so, rather, out of a sheer superabundance of love. (Fortunately, shareholders play no part in the Trinity, and so the triune Father, Son and Holy Spirit were blessedly free of the utilitarianism of the Alan Sugars of this world.) Likewise, Christian missionaries have freely received and so they must freely give: there is no exchange value which haunts this transaction; businesswise the figures just don’t add up. If God created the world for no reason but love, then mission is all about gratitude for that free gift.

Now, gratitude is difficult to demonstrate to whichever brothers and sisters you anticipate serving if you arrive with a fleet of stealth bombers. That might be how oil merchants like to spread their gospel – by inscribing its falsehood onto the blown-up limbs of children – but it is not recommended for followers of Christ. Rather, as Rowan Williams puts it rather succinctly: ‘Mission travels light.’ Further on, he expands:

‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be led by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – ‘For the labourers deserve their food’.’

It seems to me that this, too, is an extension of the radical nature of mission I’ve accentuated so far. It’s not about planning a military operation, where to strike, and what we want to get out of it. Rather, it’s a case of heeding local communities, listening to what they need and helping them to bring that about. By serving a community, by putting yourself and your resources at their disposal, your deeds speak the words of the Gospel.

So, whether or not one is Christian, or socialist, or a Christian socialist, it is not unthinkable that the most unfashionable of men with the most outrageously unkempt of eyebrows, can, in a lecture on something as obscure and superficially irrelevant as Christian mission, give us a few pointers on where we’re going wrong, and how we might better live together.

Review: David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

It’s not long since Terry Eagleton informed us that reading Richard Dawkins on theology is like encountering someone who has read only the Book of British Birds and who then feels qualified to hold forth for over five hundred pages on biology. Indeed, fans of Eagleton’s ‘acerbic wit’, a quality which has become to ‘Eagleton’ what ‘yellow’ is to ‘submarine’ or ‘finger lickin’ good’ to ‘KFC’, are in for a treat with David Bentley Hart’s latest publication: Atheist Delusions. In delectable prose, the likes of which is exceedingly rare within the confines of the rhetorically deaf academic community (besides Comrade Eagleton’s, of course), Hart flays and scourges Dawkins and his ilk, whom he refers to under the endearingly archaic collective putdown: ‘gadflies’. Contrasting them with their far superior forbears – Celsus, for example, or, more recently, Nietzsche – Hart often appears decidedly disappointed that history has deigned to offer him such philosophically infantile and imaginatively vapid opponents. If at times he appears to teeter dangerously too far on the wrong side of ‘condescending’, then at others the sheer force of his erudition, so rhythmically and articulately performed, do more than enough to convince us that he has every right to be!

The majority of the book is taken up with methodically demolishing, one by one, the popular myths that are peddled about the role of Christianity in human history. Such myths include the following: that ‘religion’ (Hart rightly observes that ‘religion’ means nothing in itself, since no one advocates ‘religion’ per se, but rather a particular manifestation of it), or, more precisely, Christianity, has been responsible for the most despicable atrocities ever to have stained the annals of time; that Christianity is always and everywhere opposed to ‘scientific truth’; that it was the Enlightenment that rescued mankind from the yoke of Christian darkness, rekindling humanity’s moral and intellectual flames after centuries of obscurity under irrational faith; and so on. Several chapters begin with quotations from popular literature on Christian history which are then shown to be based on false assumptions, dubious historical sources, or downright ignorance.

All of this is not to say, however, that Hart naively celebrates a Church that has only and could only ever bring good into the world. He is far too astute and honest for such intellectual child’s play. No, rather, what it comes down to most often is this: whether or not, throughout history, someone was a Christian or a pagan, by the sheer fact that he or she was also ‘human’ (yet another category that Christianity pretty much invented), they were necessarily potential monsters. Supposed lovers of Christ were often just as susceptible to brutality as were their heathen counterparts, but not more so, and quite likely less so.

That said, however, Hart is not backward in coming forwards: where Christianity deserves credit, he is sure to give it in abundance. Take the overarching celebration of the book, for example: the Christian Revolution. Unlike what he deems to be false revolutions, those violent and explosive outbursts that fundamentally change nothing, the Christian Revolution changed everything. Our consciences, as he rightly observes, are historically conditioned. That little voice in the mind demanding us to welcome strangers, to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick, no matter if they are one of ‘our kind’ or not, is not something that has existed eternally. It has come to be through the slow, gradual, but ultimately tectonic, shift in Western human morality that began with a Jewish political prisoner who was executed by an imperial regime, and who, three days later, was resurrected. Hart demonstrates time and again that, where a Christian community was present, there was to be found the sick tended to, orphans cared for, the hungry fed, and the downtrodden uplifted.

But perhaps the most powerful chapters of the book are those concerning modern conceptions of freedom and the fate of Christianity in the modern world. For Hart, to be entirely modern (which, he points out, very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. Not just figuratively, but literally: to believe in nothingness itself. We are the great nihilists:

[we] place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgement is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology.

Moreover, the logical (and metaphysical) consequence of modernity’s consumerist nihilism is the following one: ‘if the will determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too, at some very deep level, must also be nothing: simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself.’ Suddenly, the ruling elite’s current obsession with choice (‘Choose your school!’ ‘Choose your hospital!’ ‘Choose your dildo!’) comes to sound a little more ominous than its civilized façade might admit.

Yet, despite the implicit nihilistic metaphysics of modernity, and despite his initial triumphalist rampages through the ranks of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett, David Bentley Hart ends on a note of lament. Far from foreseeing an inevitable resurgence of Christian faith in the West, one which would carry on the work of the Christian Revolution before it was co-opted by the temporal state of Constantine, Hart envisages its steady decline, as Fortune’s Wheel revolves once more. If in one sense Christianity permeates everything we are – right down to our knee-jerk ethical reactions in our everyday lives – then in another sense it is disappearing, and something new is gradually taking its place. ‘If the principles that give an idea life are no longer present, then that idea loses its organic environment and will, unless some other ideological organism can absorb it, perish.’ And if that happens, he warns, the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, even in their darkest hours, could not imagine what a West purged of all Christian presuppositions would look like. It is time, he notes, mournfully, that Christians prepare themselves once more for the desert.

9/11 – A Defence of Logic

(Originally written a year ago)

Last night I had a conversation with friends on politics and cultural theory. The subject matter drifted towards the 9/11 terrorist attacks, whereupon I proposed a view that struck me as fairly self-evident: 9/11 did not happen in a historical vacuum; whilst it was a deeply horrific act which was morally unjustifiable, it was also a logical response to and reaction against, amongst other things, US imperialistic foreign policy. Having expressed this view, my friends, whom up to this point I had considered to be generally likeminded, castigated me for having described the attacks as ‘reasonable’ and ‘logical’. Shocked by their immediate reactions, I took heart in the idea that in defining my terms a little more precisely I might make myself clear. ‘Reasonable’, they rightly pointed out, has a semantic tinge of ‘justifiable’, or ‘emotionally valid’. Henceforth, I tried to stick to the cold light of ‘logic’,[1] but unfortunately their disagreement went deeper than terminology: their fundamental belief was that in insisting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a logical reaction to a very particular historical and socio-economic context, I was somehow endorsing the attacks. The purpose of this article is to combat such reactionary folly, and let us be absolutely clear about this: folly is precisely what it is.

Indeed, Terry Eagleton has shown that by invoking the ‘explanation is exculpation’ mantra, you actually de-ethicize terrorist acts:

In the so-called war against terror, ‘evil’ is used to foreclose the possibility of historical explanation…In the disparagement of rational analysis which it suggests, it reflects something of the fundamentalism it confronts. Explanation is thought to be exculpation. Reasons become excuses. Terrorist assault is just a surreal sort of madness, like someone turning up at a meeting of the finance committee dressed as a tortoise. Like the sublime, it lies beyond all rational configuration…On this somewhat obtuse theory, to explain why someone behaves as they do is to demonstrate that they could not have acted otherwise, thus absolving them of responsibility.

The truth is that unless you act for a reason, your action is irrational and you are probably absolved of blame for it. A being who was truly independent of all conditioning would not be able to act purposefully at all, any more than an angel could mow the lawn. Acting for a reason involves creatively interpreting the forces which bear in upon us, rather than allowing them to smack us around like snooker balls; and such interpretation involves a degree of freedom. It is inadvisable to caricature your enemy as crazy or spurred on by bestial passion, since morally speaking this lets him off the hook. You must decide whether you are going to see him as evil or mad. Unless we can propose some reasons for why people act as they do, we are not speaking of specifically human behaviour at all, and questions of innocence or guilt become accordingly irrelevant. Moral action must be purposive action: we would not call tripping over a stone morally reprehensible, or wax morally indignant over a rumble in the gut. Reasons may be morally repugnant, but actions without them cannot be.[2]

He who begins as a liberal transforms himself, through his denunciation of the proposed act of comprehension, into the very fundamentalist his flawed politics attempts to refute.

Beyond the realm of logic, there are further manifestations of such reversals. In order to understand them, we must first understand one or two unique characteristics of the current historical epoch. Frederic Jameson points out in his Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that one of the results of multinational capitalism is that we are no longer able to create effective ‘cognitive maps’. What he means by this is that in less capitalistically developed or in pre-capitalist society people used to be able to carry around in their minds the totality of which they were a part as an articulated ensemble: a cognitive map in which they could visualise their place in the world. Today, it has become increasingly common and increasingly impossible to imagine our real place in the world. Take the term ‘post-industrial’, for example, which is used by many First World commentators to describe our current historical epoch; what they forget – or choose to forget – is that just because industrial production has gradually disappeared from the West does not alter the fact that it’s now moved to places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. (Indeed, one might be tempted to argue that the first step towards becoming genuinely geo-politically conscious would be to take a look at the labels in one’s clothes and have a think about how they got there.) In other words, part of the problem with my friends’ argument is that it willingly forecloses the possibility of producing a cognitive map in which global interactions and our place within them would make sense. For them, these attacks come from literally nowhere: their perpetrators are ahistorical phantoms from outer space.

Related to this is a second problem. Slavoj Žižek makes a distinction between subjective and objective violence.[3] By subjective violence he means violent acts committed by concrete individuals or groups of individuals who are clearly identifiable agents. Objective violence, by contrast, is systemic, and is no longer attributable to single agents and their ‘evil’ intentions. The mistake that most people make is to use the latter as a neutral background in front of which to view the former. He gives as an example the outbreaks of violence in pre-revolutionary Russia, whereby the liberals simply could not understand the reason behind these seemingly irrational outbursts. What they failed to perceive was that their ‘neutral background’ of imperial Russia, the socio-economic formation on which their relative prosperity was founded, was itself an objective, systemic violence which gave rise to these outbreaks. The same holds true for 9/11. If you perceive those aeroplanes launching themselves into the Twin Towers as a subjective act of violence on a neutral background, then you cannot hope to understand it. If, however, you realise that your intellectual safety blanket – the ‘neutral background’ of US foreign policy and multinational capitalism – is in fact a profoundly violent system, then you have more hope of understanding where these attacks came from and why.

Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me how blind liberals actually are. They are the political equivalent of small children; they haven’t quite grown out of the habit of seeing their nation (usually Britain or the US) as ultimately good. “Yes,” they say, “we know the ruling powers make mistakes, we know they are capable of horrible things, but deep down Daddy loves us.” Well, know this, my child: Daddy doesn’t love you. Daddy loves himself. But if you ever want to kick your habit of subliminal paternal affection, might I suggest a less violent substitute: Noam Chomsky. Unlike the majority of post-9/11 muddleheaded commentators, just seven days after the attacks Chomsky gave a brief, carefully worded radio account of why they had happened.[4] Here are the principal reasons:

  • First we must remember that Bin Laden was a Saudi-Arabian millionaire who rose to prominence as an Islamic military leader in the war to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. He was one of many religious fundamentalists recruited, armed, and financed by the CIA and their allies in Pakistani intelligence with the aim of carrying out maximum carnage on the Soviets.
  • Once the Russians had been driven out, these soldiers then joined the Muslim forces in the Balkans: the US did not object, since this enhanced its particular geo-political aims at the time.
  • Bin Laden and his “Afghanis” turned against the US in 1990 when the Americans established a permanent base in Saudi-Arabia – from his point of view, it was a counterpart to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, but far more significant because of Saudi Arabia’s special status as the guardian of the holiest shrines.
  • Remember, however, that Bin Laden loathes the corrupt and repressive regimes of the region – especially that of Saudi Arabia – which he views as ‘un-Islamic’. Bin Laden despises the US’s longstanding support for these regimes.
  • He also despises the US for their constant support of Israel’s brutal military occupation, now in its 42nd year: Washington’s decisive diplomatic, military, and economic intervention in support of the killings, the harsh and destructive siege over many years, the daily humiliation to which Palestinians are subjected, the gross violation of the Geneva Conventions, and other actions that are recognized as crimes throughout most of the world, apart from the US, which has prime responsibility for them.
  • Bin Laden also contrasted these crimes against humanity with the US-British decade long assault against the civilian population of Iraq, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and ultimately strengthened Saddam Hussein – who was a friend of the US and Britain during the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of Kurds.
  • The US supported anti-democratic regimes throughout the region and imposed barriers against economic development by propping up oppressive regimes. It is not surprising, then, that among the great majority of people suffering deep poverty and oppression bitterness was rife and led to fury and despair. It is from this source that arise suicide bombers.
  • Finally, Bin Laden was praying for large-scale attacks on Muslim states by the West because he knew – correctly, in hindsight – the result would be that fanatics would flock to his cause.

This was the runway from which those aeroplanes took off, not some ahistorical black hole. Not to understand this is to render yourself impotent in the task of preventing more innocent people from being butchered. Well-meaning liberals are subjectively lovely people, but if they refuse to accept that 9/11 was a logical act, thereby divesting themselves of the need to seek its true causes, then at the objective level they mirror the violence that the 9/11 terrorists committed at the subjective level.

[1] They’ve since informed me that this ‘cold light’ was more of a ‘heated inebriation’ on my part, so for that I apologise.

[2] Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 116-117.

[3] Slavoj Žižek, Violence (London: Profile Books, 2008)

[4] What follows is not verbatim citation, but nonetheless draws heavily on Chomsky’s wording. The transcript can be found here:

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