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In a new feature at the HKRB, we are running extracts and chapters from forthcoming books by authors. The first feature is the opening chapter of Daniel Bristow’s political text An Ethical Suspension of the Teleological: A Short Treatise on Faith and Modern Politics.

 

What colossal injustice! […] To be put outside the universal from the start, by nature or by historical circumstance, that is the beginning of the demonic and the individual can hardly be blamed for that.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

 

In the Bible, Abram has his name changed to Abraham by God at Genesis 17:5; his former name in Hebrew means ‘high father’, but through this transformation he comes to be known as ‘father of a multitude’. In subsequent Catholicism, he becomes referred to as the ‘Father of the Faith’. In his work Fear and Trembling – which he wrote under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio – the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard chose Abraham to be the exemplar of his theory of the teleological suspension of the ethical, and suggested that Abraham is arguably the only figure in history that has embodied so totally what he called ‘the paradox of faith’. In proof of this is the fact that when Abraham was told by God a couple of inconsistent things, because of the strength of his faith he had no trouble in wholly believing them: these were that he was to become this ‘father of a multitude’, through his son Isaac (that is, through this God-chosen progeny), and also that he would kill Isaac. His faith in God was such that between these two contradictory injunctions it was only when he had raised a dagger above his son to slay him as a sacrifice that his hand was stayed by an angel, thus leaving his faith unscathed, in that both of these God-given commands which would cancel each other out were in effect unwaveringly followed at once.

Kierkegaard’s definition of the ethical is the universal; the teleological – from the Greek telos, meaning ‘end’ or ‘purpose’, and theologically representing the progress of history, or its predestined design – in a sense represents for Kierkegaard the particular. Typically, as Kierkegaard puts it, ‘the single individual is the particular that has its telos in the universal’.[1] However, in the case of Abraham, there is ‘a teleological suspension of the ethical’; the particularity of his faith – of his religious action and obeisance – trumps the ethical, suspends it in accordance with religious fidelity to God and His (supposed) decree. Kierkegaard set out to study Abraham, the knight of faith, by dehistoricising him; that is, by viewing him as a modern figure alongside the tragic hero – who is always a deferrer to universality – from whom he is distinct in his unique type of fidelity.

Our political modernity may demand something of a return to Kierkegaard’s terms in order to re-locate or expose the position of faith in our societal and political structures. Modern liberal or neoliberal society can be seen as having become unknowingly Abrahamic, or rather pseudo-Abrahamic; this, not only due to the historical singularity of Abraham’s remarkable leap of faith, but in that this modern, unconscious faith is injected into a world without guarantees, or angels. It is from these initial reflections that this short series of interventions will constitute a plea for an ethical suspension of the teleological.

It is the teleological that modern faith is invested in for a great many. Made up of confused cultural residues from religious conceptualisations of the Creation, philosophical notions of Intelligent Design, and even the scientific theory of evolution (seen so often as species’ progress, through the very much adapted idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’), the teleological harbours a resilient faith that it is not ‘an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness [that] lay[s] hid beneath everything’, to use Kierkegaard’s own words.[2] This faith differs between political modes of being: teleological progress for a Nazi would be the fulfilment of Aryanism through the elimination of races, religions, and orientations considered by Nazism to be inferior to it; this same principle underlies all fascisms – misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, national frontism, etc. – and is inherent in all their real or fantasised implementations: genocide, eugenics, humiliation, suppression, denials,[3] etc. For liberals, this faith inheres in the belief that good work does not get undone. Liberalism is the most teleological of political faiths. Advancement is seen as inexorable, and the possibility of retrogressions (which it sees flanked on the left and the right, and which it therefore ostensively tries to balance itself proudly between on the straight and narrow path) it so often meets with an incredulity bolstered by this very faith (or, as we may come to later define it, belief). For the socialist left, the project is goal-oriented and the attainment of equality and equanimity for all is worked towards (there is thus perhaps here more of a realisation of a volitional process than a relied-upon inevitable progress; although fascism, too, is of course a work of the Will); and for Communism there is the necessity of the proletarian revolution, the postponement of the coming of which is often met with by Marxists as a challenge to or crisis of faith (so often seen in instances of religious practice as an underlying structure of the perseverance of faith, in its wrestling with that on which it is premised).

Alain Badiou sees politicisation as one of the great events of life (his other categories of event are science, art, and love); it can occur in any number of contingent or necessitous ways (a chance reading, a conversation, a political upbringing, the interruption of war into one’s lifeworld, an uprising, etc.).

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Image by Louise Perry

All life is political. We might here venture a philosophical definition: that the presence of anything not being its absence, and vice versa, is its policality; that is, something – whether taken for granted in its enjoyment or felt as oppressive or debilitating – a freedom, a restriction, a provision, a sanction, contains the notion of its inverse, which, through a political structure, is not realised or manifested in the particular socio-political organisation from which it is excluded by law or social more, which of course do not absolutely preclude their transgression, although this may be met with with varying degrees of punitive (re)action). Thus, if human beings are political entities, it is nonetheless not the case that all human beings are, or have (yet) been, politicised. For many, politics is something that rolls round every four or five years in the form of elections, to say nothing for the moment of the categories of privilege, apathy, disenfranchisement, or social engineering that this relation to politics might be based on, or rather not to separate these out, for the time being. If we return to Kierkegaard’s terms, this relation to politics can be seen as the teleological; a relation underwritten by a faith that everything will be OK, more or less, and, as the particular, as the single individual, one can carry on, much as before. In contradistinction, the political is the universal: it can never have been entered, nor even glimpsed, or opted out of, given up on, dismissed as inconsequential, or hopeless, etc., although all of these relations to the universal do not (or have not had the opportunity to) heed the philosophical basis of the political that was ventured just now – the presence-absence of the political – which underwrites the possibility of all of these relations.

An exemption from the universal Kierkegaard calls ‘the demonic’ in the quotation from Fear and Trembling used for the epigraph above: ‘to be put outside the universal from the start, by nature or by historical circumstance, that is the beginning of the demonic and the individual can hardly be blamed for that.’[4] The word ‘demonic’ naturally has religious overtones of devilishness or ungodliness, or of a Cartesian evil orchestrator, in Kierkegaard’s text, but it nonetheless has resonance in relation to the mass of people it designates in today’s political landscape, or to how this mass is brokered in the tug-of-war for them (or their representation, their imaginary embodiment) between right and left. For example, the right might be construed as demonising (a subsection of) this group, with pejorative accusations (the rhetoric of ‘scroungers, layabouts, spongers’, etc.).[5] To be much more tenuously fanciful with our etymology here, we might say that the left might demonstrate on behalf of (a subsection, or even subaltern section, of) this group. That this group is anomalously made up must be kept in mind, and will be returned to. It is a particular type of individual in this group, however, that is referred to by Kierkegaard: the excluded ‘by nature or historical circumstance’, and on this particular individual Kierkegaard states that blame can hardly be laid.

Interestingly, the ever-dubious former Labour leader and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair identified the demonic in his response to what were billed as the UK Riots of 2011: he stated that ‘the big cause is the group of alienated, disaffected youth who are outside the social mainstream and who live in a culture at odds with any canons of proper behaviour.’[6] Whatever kernel of sense there might be in this, his comments are generally moralising and officious, and almost as much concerned about the PR image of the UK in the eyes of the rest of the world as with the social unrest itself and its discontents.[7] However, the notion of canonicity that is brought up here is utilisable. We might rephrase Blair’s words to suggest that this group that he identifies is outside of mainstream moral or political canons (this, not only to escape the value judgement and universalised individualism inherent in the word ‘proper’, but to mainly be much more precise in what is being designated[8]). Alienation from or disaffection with these canons are certainly essential factors in the political society that has given rise to them. These factors cannot be seen as organic or natural (which Blair teeters on doing, perhaps in an attempt to excuse himself and his government from any complicity in the creation of conditions for their causation or maintenance), but should be seen as ‘historical circumstances’, often circumstances of exclusion from politics by politics, in order to skirt scrutiny as much as welfare provision, or to establish a political economy in its most unabashed meaning, a marketisation of politics, with corporate interests at its heart, and not people’s. However – to put it in psychoanalytic speak – as the riots proved, the repressed returns.

***

Capitalism is the faith that neoliberalism bought into wholesale. Despite its cracks showing with an exponential ferocity that its bills are finding it increasingly hard to paper over, it is still believed in with as much faith as it’s ever mustered, if not even at an increased rate (however reactionary this is to its crises, from the financial crash to the election of the ostensibly anti-big business big business presidential candidate, Donald Trump). Capitalism is never calm, but it always carries on. The issue with capitalism (which concentrates capital into circulations open only to capitalists whilst expropriating the proletariat, or precariat, etc.) is that it concerns itself only with maximums possible in the present, with scant regard for what harm this may cause to others, now or to come. In this regard, capitalism represents a disavowed pessimism about the future; that is, whilst it could be construed as a preservative type of provision-building for the individual’s future (i.e. beyond the recirculations of constant and variable capital, surplus-value could be saved, invested and thus multiplied, etc.), the harmful excess it creates in its reckless expansion creates negative effects (environmental, military, global, even financial, in terms of destabilisation drastically revaluing money and its abilities: i.e. sudden liquidations, bankruptcies, inflation hikes, etc.) on all inheritance beyond the individual’s present, to say nothing of that on society. It is these negative effects that are disavowed (these effects are known to the capitalists, but all the same the capitalists carry on). Communism, on the other hand, represents a disavowed optimism about the future in its concerning itself with the oppressions of the present, which must be alleviated for the future to flourish. It is here that the communist’s present ability to guiltlessly (or even pleasurably guiltily) enjoy – e.g. the hedonism of capitalistic excess (despite whatever claims of ‘abstinence’ might still exist) – is disavowed, whether this is seen as sacrificially or responsibly.

Capitalism’s telos is thus firmly lodged in the individual; it is selfishly teleological, in the specific sense that we have excavated from Kierkegaard. Communism – as its alternative, and still very much yet to be correctly realised in a historical manifestation (on this, see Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis) – or a certain form of socialism, then, is the universal, in its specific sense of the political that we have given it above, in its engagement with politics, not its divestment of it and its effects (regulations, etc.) due to buying it and its representatives out, which capitalism does in its promotion of itself to a position of political string-pulling. This dichotomy is doubly useful in exposing the fact that the laissez-faire policy of liberalism – the worship of the free market economy – paves only a way to one of the two abovementioned alternatives (that is, it cannot subsist in itself as a type of suture between them). Currently, it can only be a wager that the rise of the modern Western fascisms, which ostensibly want to break down neoliberalism, will only continue capitalism, with some modifications (e.g. a more pronounced reliance on ressentiment, perhaps entailing a kind of entitlement-based economic factionalism: workers identifying by collar colour against each other and ending whatever’s left of cross-sector class solidarity), but it is a fairly safe bet. What has been capitalised upon in the campaigning of the new fascisms (the ‘alt-right’, etc.) is precisely the capitalistic teleological. Its suspension in the name of the ethical, through political enfranchisement and engagement, and the spread of solidarity, is what needs to be aimed at in combatting and replacing it.


Footnotes

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling [1843], trans. by Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 2005) p.62.

[2] J. W. Burrow states that ‘nature, according to Darwin, was the product of blind chance and blind struggle, and man a lonely, intelligent mutation, scrambling with the brutes for his sustenance.’ See J. W. Burrow, ‘Introduction’, in Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection [1859], ed. by J. W. Burrow (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) p.43. See Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p.14.

[3] From historical instances of Holocaust denial, to climate change denial, to the litany of contemporary denials made by Milo Yiannoplous on Channel 4 News on 17 November 2016, of the claims of – in his words – ‘handwringers, feminists, Black Lives Matter, all these groups that are preoccupied with feelings first and facts later; they spread conspiracy theories and propaganda, about the wage gap, campus rape culture: this stuff isn’t real.’

[4] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p.129.

[5] See, for example, the subtitle of Owen Jones’ bestseller Chavs, ‘The Demonization of the Working Class’.

[6] Tony Blair, quoted in Daniel Boffey and Toby Helm, ‘England’s riots shouldn’t be blamed on ‘moral decline’, says Tony Blair’, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/aug/20/englands-riots-tony-blair

[7] Blair states: ‘elevate this into a highfalutin wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally and we will depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad, and worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work’, in ibid.

[8] The precision in the word ‘moral’ emerges if we conceptualise morality as an imposition, or self-congratulation (Tristan Tzara indeed said: ‘morality is the infusion of chocolate in the veins of all men.’ See Tristan Tzara, Approximate Man and Other Writings, trans. by Mary Ann Caws (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973) p.156.). This, in contradistinction to ethics. Elsewhere I have condensed this conceptualisation into the formula: ‘morality is an ethics that’s stopped’.


Daniel Bristow is a scholar of psychoanalysis from the UK. Among other things he is the author of Joyce and LacanReading, Writing, and Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016) and the series editor of the Everyday Analysis book series.

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