An Opinion For Which I Could Live and Die

For anyone teaching philosophy, one of the most frustrating responses to a question asked in class is ‘it just comes down to opinion’. Variations on this include ‘it depends on your personality’, ‘it depends on your upbringing’ and ‘People believe what they want to believe’. In other words, many undergraduate students (unsurprisingly) reflect a default cultural relativism, in which there are no certainties and absolutes and in which talk of criteria for making valid critical judgements is assumed guilty until proven innocent.

What I’ve found interesting recently is how such sentiments can be combined with a high level of dogmatism. For example, in a recent seminar on Hume’s Dialogues, a student said both these things: (a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

The student seemed unaware of any contradiction between these statements. Now, maybe they were just being inconsistent, as we often are. However, I wonder if there is something more going on here. For what the combination of the two positions amounts to is this (which I guess is a Zizekian point): all you have is opinion, but you (or someone on your behalf) must hold that opinion absolutely. It is a microcosm of neoliberal ideology: everything is flexible, everything is subject to maximum choice and competition – except the system of flexibility, choice and competition itself.

In this scenario, the only thing to take seriously is the utter arbitrariness of the act of choice itself, to the extent that we become angry with those heretics who presume to make judgements about what choice is. The existence (real or fantasised) of others with non-ironic absolute commitments thus plays an essential role in maintaining the corrosive power of capital. They are the ultimate figures of the ontology of Opinion, whose foundation in naked power and terror we must always keep contained.

Force of Norms: The Mystical Foundation of Concepts

In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about objective knowledge. Ethics, he argues, is indirect communication. It does not seek to transfer a piece of objective knowledge from one person to another. Instead, it serves to awaken a capacity in the other. Its aim is to lure out of the individual what is already within them, in order that they may stand alone (i.e. they are not dependent upon the other for the exercise of their duty). As he writes elsewhere under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, ‘the secret of communication specifically hinges upon setting the other free’.

In order to accentuate his point Kierkegaard tends to draw the lines between different forms of communication strongly. However, it occurs to me that his arguments can be extended – or perhaps twisted – to shed light on the relationship between norms and concepts more generally.

A digression on Robert Brandom might help here. As far as I understand him, Brandom argues that the basic language game, upon which all other uses of language depend, is the giving of and asking for reasons characteristic of making assertions. To command, enact or otherwise perform something through language always implies the practice of making claims. By making claims, we assert things which act as support for other claims, whilst also standing in need of justification themselves.

Brandom is interesting for the way in which he combines rationalism (it’s the giving and receiving of reasons that is basic to our discursive practices) with pragmatism (the norms which govern our application of concepts, and the responsibility we assume for those applications, are socially derived – there is no natural or supernatural foundation for them).

My suggestion is that we should not see a huge divide between Brandom’s rationalism and the kind of ‘existential’ approach of Kierkegaard; or even between the former’s pragmatism and the latter’s concept of faith.

The use of concepts depends upon norms, norms which have no objectively specifiable foundation. This is not to suggest that the factual content of what is asserted is irrelevant (or merely ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’), but that such content only counts as ‘being-asserted’ through the application of norms whose warrant is itself not open to a final, rational confirmation.

Now this might seem to open the door to all kinds of fideistic nonsense, rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of foundations. However, such fideism involves a category mistake: seeking to ground normativity in an (irrationally accessed) objectivity simply raises again the question of why such an objectivity should count as imposing normative obligations upon us in the first place.

A different response is offered by Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. Butler’s interest there is in the inevitable incompleteness of our ability to give an account of ourselves, and therefore to assume responsibility for ourselves. We are always preceded by discursive practices and social norms which shape in advance what counts for us as giving and receiving recognition. We can never offer a total, final and therefore ‘objective’ narrative of who we are, and it would seem we always lack the clarity required for being responsible for ourselves and our actions.

However, Butler denies that this leads to determinism or quietism. In fact, she turns things upside down: it is the opacity of the subject to itself which is the opening of ethics and responsibility, where the latter does not imply total self-clarity, but the interruption of claims to a total comprehension of self and other. This opacity also conditions the subject’s agency and capacity to resist identities imposed upon it by the norms of others.

Kierkegaard appears to be engaged on a similar pursuit. His attempt to make distinctions between types of communication, and the norms which govern them, is evidence that his thought is not simply a fideistic flight from philosophy. His concern, I’d argue, is to explicate the intrinsically normative dimension of communication, but also to offer a ‘religious’ resistance to absolutising those norms.

This brings me back to the lectures on communication. Here, Kierkegaard says that religious communication is distinct from the ethical variant, because it does involve a communication of objective knowledge as a ‘preliminary’ to faith. Usually, this is taken as meaning that a person must ‘know’ the Christian claim that Jesus is the God-Man before they can make the decision of faith. There is, it seems, some objective revealed content to Christian claims. However, I don’t think this is the only valid interpretation.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, results from a passion of reason to know what cannot be known. To paraphrase, this means reason’s intrinsic desire to ‘give an account of itself’, to think the unthinkable conditions for its own emergence. Faith is not the provision of a transcendent ‘answer’ to this quest, but the actualisation of reality’s own paradoxical disjuncture, and the militant disavowal of naturalism and supernaturalism (Michael O’Neill Burns’ work is crucial here, though he is in no way to blame for my own take on this!).

On this account, the ‘objective knowledge’ required for religious communication is not a static dogmatic content. It is the paradox’s resistance to capture by our concepts and norms, a resistance which is entailed by the use of any and every such concept or norm. More positively, it is also the condition for the emergence of new conceptual and normative commitments.

Sketchy as all this may sound, I think there is at least an interesting line of dialogue here between pragmatic rationalism and the focus on faith and opacity more familiar within the continental tradition, but without the colonising assertion that the former is religion or theology ‘in disguise’.

‘Political Theology: The Liberation of the Postsecular?’ Call for Papers

The next conference of The Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion takes place July 10-12 2015 at Liverpool Hope University, UK. We’d love to welcome more readers of this blog to our northwestern corner of a faded imperial power.

Keynote speakers are Saba Mahmood (Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject), Catherine Keller (The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming), Katharine Sarah Moody (Post-Secular Theology and the Church: A New Kind of Christian is A New Kind of Atheist) and Richard Seymour (Against Austerity).

Conference Description
Political theology names a key site where contemporary philosophical engagement with religion takes place. Through notions such as sovereignty, messianism, apocalypse, hope and fidelity, a thinking of political grounds and transformations is never far from the theological. The nature of that relationship is, however, sharply contested.
Is the postsecular a way back to retrieving traditional sources for political sovereignty, or the opening of new possibilities for religion and politics to interact? Does it represent a further victory for Eurocentric understandings of religion and politics, or a way to undermine and move beyond them? As the possibility of revolutionary political change is confronted by the ‘capitalist realist’ sense of the impossibility of imagining how things could ever be radically otherwise, can political theology provide resources for creative advance, both theoretically and practically?
The conference will invite critical and constructive interventions in this debate. Relevant thinkers and traditions of enquiry will include, for example, Agamben, Zizek, Butler, Derrida, Pui-Lan, Schmitt, Taubes, Hardt and Negri, Spivak, Macintyre, Habermas, Mahmood, Foucault, Cone, postcolonialism, new materialism, radical orthodoxy, liberation theologies, feminist theology, queer theology and pragmatism.

Submission of Abstracts
Abstracts of 200-300 words to Steven Shakespeare:

28th February 2015

Special issue of Angelaki: ‘Immanent materialisms: speculation and critique’

You might be interested to know of a special issue of Angelaki just published entitled ‘Immanent materialisms: speculation and critique’. Co-edited by Patrice Haynes and Charlie Blake, it comprises papers from, and inspired by the theme of, the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion‘s 2009 conference ‘Towards a Philosophy of Life’.

The issue includes work by AUFS regulars Anthony Paul Smith [the first 50 of you can download my article for free using this token, but please only use if you don’t have library access – APS] and Joshua Ramey, plus a host of others, many of whom will be familiar to readers of this blog: John Ó Maoilearca, Jim Urpeth, Colby Heath Dickinson, Frank Ruda, Michael Burns [again, first 50 of you can download this using this token – APS], Alastair Morgan, Patrice Haynes and Benjamin Noys.

Metrics and the Humanities

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is conducting a consultation on the use of metrics to assess research quality. The current system in the UK is that, every five years, a time-consuming and expensive research assessment exercise is conducted. The last one was called the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (you can see where this is going). It involves dozens and dozens of academics reading through submissions from more or less every research-active university scholar in the country. At the end of this, an ever-dwindling pot of money is divided up between universities in order to promote further research and ‘reward excellence’ (i.e. concentrate money where there is already lots of it).

Naturally, the government would prefer the bean-counting to be done in a cheaper way, ideally not involving actual people (whether this constitutes an accelerationist moment, I will leave you to judge). As a result, they are keen to promote metrics-based assessment, hence this consultation.

The primary way of measuring the quality of a piece of work would be to count how many citations it attracted. This raises huge questions about the adequacy of the measure employed, and, of course, how the measure distorts what it is that is being measured, as people indulge in all sorts of game-playing to give and get citations. Meera Sabaratnam and Paul Kirby have written a response to the consultation, arguing against the proposal. You can add your name to it, if you wish to support it, though this applies principally to academics based in England. Others might wish to read the response anyway, and reflect upon the neoliberalisation of humanities research, and how it might be resisted.

‘Even Lenin’: In the Vanguard of Accelerationism

I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.

‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism

Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, ver­tic­ality, and ex­clu­sion all have their place as well in ef­fective polit­ical ac­tion (though not, of course, an ex­clusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with cre­ating a new ideo­logy, eco­nomic and so­cial models, and a vision of the good to re­place and sur­pass the ema­ci­ated ideals that rule our world today.’

For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?

Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.

This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.

However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-​democratic process and affective self-​valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided?  (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).

Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.

There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.