The Religious Attitude

The above clip comes from Adam Curtis’ four-part BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, in which he tries to show how the modern West came to be ruled by (in his eyes) an ideology of radical individualism. Politics, he argues, is no longer about communal interests or the promise of a different world; it is instead about administering to the present state of affairs, and satisfying the individual’s self-interested needs and desires.

Curtis returned to that theme, one of his favorites, in a talk he delivered last weekend in New York City’s e-flux gallery. There, he expressed frustration with Occupy Wall Street and the left in general, saying that both had failed to come up with a workable alternative to the cult of the individual. Horizontalism, in Curtis’ dim view, is little more than an anarchified twist on the old fallacy of the market’s invisible hand: both posit that a mass of people all expressing their own individual preferences can somehow yield a coherent, dynamic, and mutually beneficial ecosystem.

You can quibble with that take on horizontalism, if you like — it is, to be sure, more than a little reductive to equate heavily structured General Assembly discussions with the Hobbesian chaos of a laissez-faire market. But Curtis’ broader indictment of the contemporary left is both harder to swallow and harder to dismiss. Those elements of the left that have denounced the ideology of the self (and they are fewer than you think) leave a conceptual vacuum in its wake.

This is not, I think, a mere oversight. The problem is much deeper than that: it is that the dominant ideologies of the left-wing anti-neoliberal sphere are constitutionally incapable of presenting a positive moral vision, because they seek to reject the very foundations of moral argument. E.g. Marxist historical materialism, with its pretensions to being an anti-metaphysical exercise in objectivity, explicitly rejects the necessity of a normative argument for socialism or communism. (Outside the work of G.A. Cohen, anyway, though he is far from orthodox.) Moral principles become mere cultural artifacts, interesting only because they seem to benefit the interests of one class or another. Postmodernism and post-structuralism are even more explicit in their attempts to problematize the whole of normative ethics into oblivion. There is no foundation from which one might construct an ought because “ought,” like all positive assertions, is a foe to be defeated.

But politics without an “ought” is a shapeless gesture. Most communists see some reason to prefer communism beyond craven self-interest, yet they deny themselves access to the vocabulary with which they could express reasons for that preference. Same goes for the post-anarchists. Where’s the reason or imperative for this other, better world? References to coercion or oppression are just an exercise in question-begging. Strip away the dross and they become strong moral claims that have been unmoored from any deeper normative context.

It doesn’t have to be like this. At one point, I hoped that Occupy would be the soil out of which a new “ought” would grow. By reconstructing the public left-wing communal sphere, I hoped that the first occupiers had created an environment in which the next Big Idea could be found. But that never quite came to fruition — the very thing that made Zuccotti Park such a great communal space, its famous inclusiveness, was the very thing that made it an inhospitable climate for attempts at philosophical holism. Something still might have emerged, given more time, but the physical space in which that could have occurred has been destroyed. Zuccotti is unoccupied, and its former residents have fractured into a thousand worthy causes. There is no unifying principle, for both good and ill.

We need to look elsewhere. I don’t have any answers, but I at least have some ideas about where we might start. For example: with a recently dead, critically revered postmodern novelist.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

Counter-intuitive, I know. And probably likely to prompt eye rolls from regular readers, who know about my longstanding David Foster Wallace obsession and might expect me to use any excuse I can to work him into a post. But I think a close look will show that DFW deeply understood the predicament that we now face, and was trying to find his own way out. To him, the great dangers of the modern era were solipsism, selfishness, loneliness, and the seeming inaccessibility of capital-T Truth. He tended to frame this struggle in the language of the personal and the abstract, but a brief glance at some of his interviews and minor works show that his concerns were also very much political. If we were to put those concerns in political language, we might say that DFW feared the cult of radical individualism. He saw it as not just socially, but spiritually corrosive. The only escape appeared to be some sort of impersonal moral truth, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was, and he took seriously the threat postmodernism presents to moral truth. So he used the tropes of postmodern literature to answer the postmodern challenge and try to find a way to the other side.

He never completed that project, but he dropped some hints as to where the answer might be found: see his occasional reverential nods towards Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, two great writers who confronted the challenges of an earlier modernity head on. Both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard were deeply religious, but neither shied away from the challenges of atheism, nihilism and materialism. To them, the man of faith was not just permitted but required to stare into the darkness and struggle with what he found there.

Their answer to the darkness, of course, was Christ. DFW doesn’t seem to have been a Christian, but he does have what one might call the religious attitude, best expressed in his commencement speech to Kenyon University:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

I submit that when the left finds its “ought,” it will find it in the religious attitude. We need to find something that we can worship together. The non-neoliberal right already understands this, and that’s why they remain a much more organized and powerful force in American politics than the non-neoliberal left. But what they worship — a mythologized and heavily militarized nation, an atavistic and gender essentialist notion of the family, a creedal theistic system that you reject at your peril, and so forth — is not what we should seek to emulate. Worship can be naturalistic, nontheistic, non-creedal and inclusive, even as it remains philosophically rigorous and normatively potent.

Getting there from scratch, of course, can be sort of tricky.

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13 Responses

  1. On that darkness into which those two great writers thought men of faith were required to stare: have you read Blood Meridian? McCarthy really *does* that. He really stares. And he is not a man of faith. I believe it is a great novel, and I believe Wallace did too.

    • Blood Meridian is indeed an excellent novel. It’s funny, I do think that McCarthy shows some signs of faith, broadly defined, in his later books — I’m thinking mostly of The Road. But I have to admit that Blood Meridian is by far the stronger and more fully formed of those two books.

  2. I was reading Perry Anderson’s new piece on Carlo Ginzberg and wondering what there was in it that made me reject it and found myself getting into a scary circle. No no, I found myself thinking, there’s no such thing as objective truth, because truth is in minds, objective truth is the world which contains them, but the point about that is that *it doesn’t matter*, don’t hold up objective truth as an ideal we can only fall short of, truth is social, truths are consensuses, there’s nothing about objective truth (uncontainable by and so destructive of minds) that wouldn’t be inimical to these applications — the fact that truth is social is actually *why we promote* this ideal of objectivity, objectivity in an honest interpretation meaning ‘relatively less subjective’, there’s no point arguing against it, let it be, the ideal is just a function of the subjectivity of truth. So you see the extremity of my condition. I don’t have any grounds even to argue against a materialist concept of truth my resistance to which is the reason why I don’t have such grounds.

    I once said on Twitter: Wallace made conservatism new.

    I like this post but I feel that at the end you just arrive at the problem again. The problem is a great not-being-able-to. The problem is that we — or we on the liberal left — are *unable* to believe, *unable* to worship.

    We can’t let go of the whole huge anchor of our scientific metaphysics. We get too much in return from science to say no to it so finally. But there’s something about it that means we can’t ‘believe’ in your sense with any of the necessary passion. There’s a kind of resistance inherent in us that perhaps takes its emotional costs as a mark of its prestige.

    • I disagree with your closing point. To bring the empirical sciences into conflict with value is to commit a category error. And as Einstein might tell you, they can yield their own sense of the sublime.

      This resistance to worship is a product of specific cultural circumstances. Those circumstances might be, on balance, insurmountable — but the stakes are far too high to not give it a try. Besides: one day it, like all hegemonic ideologies, will buckle under its own weight. It’s worth thinking about what we’d like to see take its place, and what we’d like to avoid.

  3. […] to my first post on the subject, friend of the blog Dara Lind suggested to me that Vaclav Havel’s political […]

  4. This notion of a heterogeneous left that fails to define itself in terms of simple narratives – hasn’t that more or less been true for generations now? The very fact that we talk about “the left” and “the right” is due more to the constructed binary nature of 20th century american politics than to anything intrinsic to human nature, I think. “The Right” is the group with “a mythologized and heavily militarized nation, an atavistic and gender essentialist notion of the family, a creedal theistic system that you reject at your peril”, and so by definition “the left” is the opposite.

    So I guess my question to you is, if you reject the blanket oversimplifications required by right-wing american ideology why do you immediately feel the need to tell the story of a left-wing american ideology?

    I understand from a realpolitik perspective it’s necessary for there to be an organized opposition to the Right – but is it really a flaw that this opposition can’t define itself in similarly streamlined terms? Certainly it’s an inefficiency – but to me, the closer the left gets to a unified ideology the more it starts to resemble the right, and the less appeal it has for me. Some efficiencies are not worth the cost.

    It’s an interesting problem and I agree with you to a large extent. I guess though that I feel like the first thing that has to go is the sense that “the left” needs to be able to rally around something the same way that “the right” does – because if you achieve that then you’ve just created a new tribe with its own overly simplified narratives etc. Haven’t you?

    • The big problem, though, is what the dominant ideological strains of the left have embraced instead: either accepting the cult of the individual or dismissing the whole concept of moral reasons out of hand.

      • Sure, I get that – which is how you end up with green activists and neoliberal “pragmatists” on the same bill.

        But I guess I feel like there are three levels at play here: individual, tribal and universal. The Right doesn’t care about individual or tribal – they tell a universal story and you either buy it or you don’t.

        The left, on the other hand, is in a really weird place – a small handful of political players are attempting to create a universal movement out of a disjointed set of tribes and individuals.

        You’re saying, “Hey guys there are documented problems with paying too much respect to individuals! How can we unify a non-right movement around ideas instead of tribes or individual fancies?”

        So you’re trying to wrap your head around how to build a competing “universal” ideology, but I guess I’m saying that that feels like a category error. It just introduces a new top-level dichotomy, which is perhaps something that we should all be aware of anyway: “Full-Stack politics” vs “open source politics”, kind of.

        Is that fair?

      • Okay, I see. I suppose I’m less interested in a “top level” universal ideology than I am in carving out a significant space in the left coalition for what looks to me like a sorely neglected viewpoint.

  5. OK, that I can get behind. You want to create a tribe that’s “for” something, and that isn’t identical to one of the many already-existing tribes on the left that are “for” something. I guess that’s the difference between a philosophical liberal and a pragmatic liberal – the green activists don’t have to have these conversations, because they have clear goals. But those of us who find ourselves on the left primarily because the right is unpalatable haven’t necessarily gone through that.

    I’ve always wanted to found a political party based on the fundamental incompleteness of narrative. What drove me to the left was that I felt like only a fool or a child would accept the overly simplified narrative of the right. The more complex the story, in my experience, the better the mapping to reality. It’s just that you can’t really run good ads with this approach. Of course, if we get rid of this sham we call “Democracy”… ;)

    In all seriousness, though, that’s something to worship: the idea that there’s no such thing as the whole story. Is it possible to build a tower on a negation?

    • Apropos of that question, you might want to check out the Vaclav Havel essay I link to in my follow-up post.

  6. Regarding the above discussion: I think the incompleteness of knowledge – knowledge of own ignorance – as basis of political philosophy leads you right to the dude that the blogger uses as his twitter avatar. However, a Socratic orientation has usually been taken as a “conservative” one, always proclaiming less ambition regarding alterations in the system or totality – including whatever the Faith of whatever Fathers – than has been the provenance of the “left,” certainly of any self-consciously “revolutionary” tendency. Socratism seems (at least pending a consideration that I wouldn’t attempt today or in a blog comment) to stand for being fully prepared – indeed, it seems to be the preparation – to take one’s medicine rather than flee or seek the overthrow of the city/system, even at the moment of that city/system’s quite personally lethal injustice.

    It may be characteristic of our own historical moment that a defense of social democracy, including an irreducibly progressive principle, qualifies as authentically conservative, but whether it would satisfy the yearnings of Occupiers and their sympathizers for novelty in worship seems doubtful. Then again, whatever in the world could satisfy such yearnings, and, if it could be in the world, would we really want it?

  7. (hmmm… think I meant to say “province” of the left, but revolutinism seems also to be its provenance… as of an antique… )

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