Here’s a repost of a poem in honour of the venerable Kazuo Ishiguro; newly adorned Nobel laureate in literature. May your work collect all the things we’ve lost since our childhood for many years to come.
If there is any notable commonality between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it is the tendency to portray as tragedy events of great violence. Perhaps it is a generalised strategy of the modern politician, but at least amongst these two otherwise utterly disparate men, it is observable in in Trump’s response to the Las Vegas shooting of October 2017, and in Obama’s speeches given in response to the numerous mass shootings across his two terms in presidency.
The gloomy, sombre tone, the grave, ashen face, the big, slow delivery of weighty words – these are the hallmarks of mass-shooting speeches. It is my view that, as a response to the acts with which these men grapple politically and ideologically, this approach fails. This is because these acts are ultimately not tragic.
This is not to say that these events are not sad. It need not be stated that the depth of the grief endured by the bereaved, the trauma suffered by the wounded, and the horror born by the survivors is without fathom. It also does not do to deny that these events demand a bearing witness, a mourning, and a frank and direct scrutiny of what these lives might have been lost for, what they might have meant, and what life might mean for those who continue in the wake of such violence. Yet it remains the case, and must be stated even moreso if justice is to be done for the lives lost, that these events are not tragedy.
The tragic, in the long history of Euro-centric culture, has been about Man in the grip of the supreme, about Humankind in the wash of vast tides; ‘the pride and refuse of the universe’ (I can’t remember where that quote comes from). In all cases of tragedy, in the broadest possible strokes, Man conspired against by forces against which (s)he cannot triumph. Whether this be the Gods of Olympus, the Lord in Heaven, Satan in Hell, or our own blessed soul, the great vices of men, their hubris, wrath, greed, sloth, lust, and fear, all of these forces appear as elements of fate in the tragic. This is present from the Ancient Greeks where oracles foretold great doom, and the tragic hero falls to his doom precisely because it is irrevocable, inexorable, it is his very nature, his tragic flaw to succumb to this fate. This has been retold endlessly throughout Euro-centric history, and is retold again now.
When Trump says that the mass shooting of October 2017 is ‘an act of pure evil’, he appeals to precisely this mode of representation: that the events here were of a divine nature, of forces inescapable and unpredictable, of power so sacred and indefiable that only a disembodied moralism could explain them. It is as if Evil himself, embodied perhaps in a demonic angel or a fiend from one of the more elaborate Buddhist circles of hell was the cause of these deaths.
It is important to note that this is quite different from the ‘evil’ mobilised by speakers such as George W. Bush, who, of course, used ‘evil’ to frame a friend-enemy distinction in order to mobilise the Afghanistan / Iraq wars in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. Where Bush’s ‘evil’ was designed to morally justify an act of violence (war), Trump’s ‘pure evil’ is used to absolve all responsibility for an act of violence. For Trump, when over fifty dead and five hundred injured are the result of ‘pure evil’, it allows him to forget and deny by omission the fact that over fifty dead and five hundred injured are actually the result of one man being able to access and purchase, without any known impediment, tens of firearms which are designed for military use in the sole pursuit of transforming living tissue into perforated flesh. Tragedy here is used to cover over the need to address gun ownership and ease of access, something which sits rather well with the National Rifle Association, who, of course, unequivocally support the Republican party. Need it also be said that when events of an actually tragic scale (two of the worst hurricanes in recorded history to make landfall in the USA) took place, Trump was the first to forget all tragic rhetoric and insist upon immediate point-scoring?
The case is more nuanced with Obama, who, it will not do to forget, vigorously campaigned to regulate gun ownership in the USA during his presidency. For he used the tragic to try to gain support for gun control, to develop an empathetic community with victims of gun crime, and to attempt a call a stop to needless loss of life. One of the reasons that he rhetorically failed is again, his misuse of the tragic. Once again, the tragic belongs to forces of disembodied and irresistible power: God(s), or the fatal flaws of man. Tragedies are always divinely wrought, or self-wrought, or both. Just read some Shakespeare – Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, some of the greatest tragedy of literary history bears witness to the tragic notion that man is most miserably struck down when he would defy fate through vice (indecision, pride, ambition), and in his defiance is the one who brings his fate to fruition. Noone would claim that the victims of mass shootings are tragic in this sense. Did they defy any Gods to deserve their fate? Did they bring ruin upon themselves for some unholy misdemeanour against ancient rites and sacred pacts? No, no, and no! Obama’s use of the tragic fails because, in an almost tragic irony of his own, his very deep-felt belief that gun crime is avoidable and that this loss of life is tragic, ends up absolving American culture as a whole of responsibility and covering over the direct action needed to address the issue. The more he portrayed the violence as tragic, the more, by definition of the tragic, it seems possible to deny that anything could by done about it.
Let us not continue to muddy the issue. It is admirable, and perhaps even a necessity of the public figure to show solidarity with victims, to empathise, to console, to acknowledge suffering and grief and loss. These events are not tragic. They do not belong to tragedy, and they never have. They have a direct causal root which can be found in the constitutional American obsession with the ownership of firearms. This is not tragedy, this is violence – and autoimmune violence at that. A mechanism put in place to defend the citizenry of the United States of America turns virulent; a right held to be a fundamental liberty of a people releases septic discharge into the bloodstream of a nation. The doctor does not tell the patient their perfectly treatable polyps are grievously incurable cancer in order to acknowledge the subject’s suffering. If we wish to be witnesses to these events, to take responsibility for them, and to do justice to them, then dispense with the tragic; lest our commitment to the dead do nothing to prevent more – and incidentally occasion the cause for a real tragic irony.
In its basic form, contemporary employment offers two kinds of work: Work which creates things and work which completes things. That is to say, broadly speaking, work can be split into two types: making and fixing, beginnings and ends, aperture and closure, desire and need.
Consider the builder. Her work is that of making, whether it be bricks and mortar on an industrial estate or laying the foundations on an episode of Grand Designs. It is work in which the object of work is formed through the work, work in which the fruits of one’s labours arrive after the work is complete.
Consider the doctor. Her work is that of fixing, whether it be hearts, lungs, brains, bones, or bipolar. This is work in which the object of work is fully formed at the start, and in which the objective of the work is to make the object of the work disappear. The fruits of one’s labours here, in a sense, never appear. The completion of this work involves a kind of self-obliteration: if all the doctors in an imagined ideal world completed all their work perfectly, there would be no more need of doctors.
Hang on. This is too ideal is it not? Isn’t this imaginary binary too far from reality? Builders in reality don’t merely create the objects of their work according to desire, they don’t merely fabricate endlessly. They have projects that they are given, they have contracts to fulfil, of course they respond to need just as well as desire. And equally the doctor does not merely solve problems, does not merely perform a machininc task according to need. The best doctors are of course creative, otherwise how to improvise when a high risk operation goes wrong? How else does one consult with and support a combined sufferer of schizoid-type personality ailment and Alzheimers dementia? Doctors are not mere algorithms designed to fulfil a task.
This is all true. Yet it does not diminish the value of the division between the two types of work when considering the nature of the work itself in a teleological sense. Teleology (from τελος, telos) refers to a goal or an end, a what-for, if you will. The work of building, that is, the act of building itself, the deliberate and essential executions that the work is composed of possesses a τελος that is, in a sense nonexistent. There is no total end goal to being a builder, one can build one house then build another and another and another. In theory, one could continue being a builder forever (material concerns like available resources notwithstanding). For the doctor this is not the case in the sense that, for the work of the doctor, the work of medicine, its essential execution, there very much is a whole and complete τελος to the work. The end goal is the cure of patients, with the hypothetical totalised goal being the cure of all possible patients of all possible ailments. Ideally, it would be impossible for one to go on being a doctor forever, rather it is only possible to continue being a doctor because of material constraints (there are many humans who will continue to suffer illness and injury and the condition of medicine cannot be perfected for the simple reason that we are not Asclepius the god of Medicine himself).
It is important to note here that in these two examples, the role of the ideal and the material flip. For the maker, the ideal of his work is infinity, without end. Materiality constrains this ideal and forces the maker to perform tasks for finite purposes. For the fixer, the ideal of his work is finite, total, completion. Materiality makes this completion impossible and consigns the fixer to work that is de facto infinite. This is why there is more to this binary division than mere arbitrary categorisation. If the we may posit the essence of the work in its τελος in the way I have described, then in the ideal terms I have denoted, I am yet to be able to think of an occupation, employment, vocation, pass-time, hobby, or job which does not fall cleanly into either the category of making or of fixing, or creation or of completion, of desire or need in the way I have described.
Why make this claim? Understanding the ideal form of one’s work and the way its material reality abrades against and facilitates different facets of this form affords us the ability to approach the work in the mood, in the attitude most appropriate to it.
Let us consider a new batch of examples. Consider the call centre worker. Worker A is a helpline call handler. This makes his work the fixer type. It responds to need. Teleologically, it is self-obliterating. At the τελος of his work, the helpline caller should have ‘helped’ every caller possible (whatever that means) and there should be no longer any need of his existence. The materiality of the work (we lack infinite time, we don’t really care much because we’re not flawlessly morally upstanding and we do this job for the money but hate being abused by irate customers, we’re in a call centre with eighty-four other loud, coffee-crazed individuals, our phone connection hasn’t been updated since 1994 to boost profit margins) makes it an infinite pursuit, one in which the end is inconceivable, even if in principle there is an end towards which we work.
Let’s say Worker A has been to a compulsory employee wellbeing and support workshop because his employer is being scrutinised for malpractice by a regulatory body and they need to show a commitment to employee health and satisfaction. At the workshop, he is advised by a lively and cheerful consulting agent that a creative and proactive approach to work will not only improve his own experience of the work and his mental wellbeing, combating stress and burnout, but also improve outcomes for the business overall, benefiting both the employer and employee. He is instructed in the importance of the three Fs: Fun, Focus, and Fulfilment, and subsequently informed of the ways a creative and proactive approach to his work increases all three of these key factors in the workplace. Finally, he is given a certificate of completion and asked to complete a feedback form while remembering the importance of an enthusiastic and fun approach to office tasks and co-worker interaction. Now, most workers, for reasons of they think it’s stupid, will struggle to take seriously the efforts of consulting workshops of this sort. However, imagine that Worker A is an earnest and straightforward type of man who thinks; ‘what the hell, why not give the three Fs a shot?’. What will Worker A accomplish with a creative and proactive approach to helpline call handling?
In terms of creativity, this is obviously not an arena where Worker A will be producing artefacts like the builder, the sculptor, the musician, or the engineer. In what frame could answering the phone be possibly approached creatively? This will only happen for Worker A in the manner of his answering itself, in the how of his execution of his role. This will be a processual or procedural creativity. What he can create is a method, a way of thinking, of responding to caller queries and accusations, a way of positioning himself and manipulating the task at hand which is unique to him alone. If he goes so far as to formalise this methodology, he perhaps creates a document endorsed by the company for good phone manner, and then goes on to create, by extension, an entire culture of phone operation in the helpline service. Good job! Yet notice that what he has created has the antithesis of creativity in it: he has created a set of instructions which are to be obeyed for positive outcomes, he has created nothing other than dogma, a method designed to accomplish a task, to meet a need. His creativity has reversed into its opposite! Why? Unlike the created objects in building, in art, in brewery, in cooking, in writing, and in music, for example, what Worker A has created is impossible to share or distribute. The work of creativity he has performed has operated entirely on himself; he has been forging his own habits, manner, and mind. The act of attempting to move this fundamentally private act into a public form transforms it from the freedom of an individual in a creative act into a script of performative gestures which prescribe action as law. Even more importantly, it must be noted that this creative act has precisely nothing to do with the work at hand. Worker A could have quite feasibly, nay even more powerfully, worked on his character and developed his selfhood in an entirely different environment. He could have achieved something like this as a sportsman, or an astronaut, a gold prospector, a stock broker, or an ocean trawler fisherman. The self is the object that is always at one’s disposal for working on in an act of creativity. The fact that it was the only way for Worker A to perform a creative act in his workplace demonstrates the total absence of creative potential in his position. This altogether demonstrates the absurd nullity of approaching such an occupation with the ‘three Fs’ attitude – sprinkles on a turd cannot make it any more appetizing to the palate.
It hardly needs to be mentioned that proactive helpline calling would be just as total a failure: is there a waste of time more gratuitously frustrating and infuriating than cold-calling dressed in the pretext of ‘I wondered if I’d be able to offer you any help today?’
For all the contemporary excitement around the gamification of the workplace and so-called Fungineering in office environments, approaching certain kinds of occupation with this mood is entirely futile. Tasks which fall into the fixer category, which fulfil a need, which are meant to be completed, will never benefit in their essential form from being approached with creativity: these tasks, by definition create nothing. As I have stressed, these tasks are self-obliterating: the end goal of the doctor is to require no more doctors. To put the problem in reverse, imagine a doctor in an entirely healthy community. Whether by incredible coincidence or genuine divine miracle, this doctor has nothing to do. His work can only fulfil a need – with no need, there is no need for the doctor. If he were to be creative, would he not commit the heinous villainy of creating the sick that he might become their healer, a sort of self-satisfied anti-Jesus who blinds men and strikes beggars down with leprosy so that he might restore their sight and cure their dreadful ailments somewhere down the line?
Once again, creativity is strictly impossible in roles of this kind. One can always work on refashioning and tempering the self, sure, and this will bring new facets to the work, but this, as already stated has nothing even slightly to do with the work itself. And buried under all this disavowal of creativity lies the true ideal mood for the function of this kind of work: pure disillusioned instrumentalism. Gamification and Fungineering advocates hold that the workplace as disillusioned and disenchanted instrumentality is the cause of anxiety, stress, and employee dissatisfaction, but through our understanding of the maker / fixer dialectic, it emerges that this is simply untrue for a full half of the kinds of work that exist on today’s job market. Think how different Worker A’s story is if he abandons the pretense of injecting creativity into his work and simply creates his call handler methodology as pure, logically deduced, fit-for-purpose machinery. No longer burdened by the impossible task of producing a creative and proactive helpline service, is he not freed to carry out his tasks without the imaginary emotional investments and duties the workplace ideology that the ‘three Fs’ attitude demands of him? Is it not the case that one of the great taboos of modern employment is admitting that your work is nothing more than a functional, soulless task? Is not this burden of guilt, the sense that one has to sincerely enjoy one’s work at all times as a vocation or be condemned as lacking commitment or as a freeloader the true source of workplace stress, depression, and anxiety? Does not Worker A not only feel much better, but also work, live, and be much better when he is under no illusions about what his work is and the reality of what he spends eight hours a day doing? Compared to the worker who carries the emotional burden of a fixer workplace with them everywhere he goes, the worker who embraces disillusionment lives a life of spiritual luxury.
Expanding this principle even to the doctor; indeed, what doctor could carry out his or her work without understanding it as disillusionment and instrumentality? The whole practice of medicine is the practice of transforming the human being into an instrumentalised form, a machine which can be repaired, tinkered with, and reformatted more or less as you like within the limits of your tools. Is not modern medicine precisely the process through which the elements of the spiritual and the soul leave the sphere of health and are replaced by pure instrumentalised reason? What surgeon could daily slice open, crack open, vise open, scrape open, and sew up, stitch up, suture up, bind up, clamp up, human bodies as a butcher does to pig carcassses without fully appreciating her work is pure instrumentality? The conscientious medecin may well treat each patient as if he were her own parent, but does this not show that in the practice of medicine even one’s own family are instrumentalised as objects of treatment? It should be obvious that the ‘three Fs’ attitude to the workplace would be entirely nonsensical in the medical profession, whether in the high-stakes operating theatre of the neurosurgeon or the relatively sedate world of the community locum general practitioner. One cannot treat this kind of work as ‘creative’; that would be antithetical to its nature. And furthermore, one should not try to perform this movement. ‘Fun’, ‘Focus’, and ‘Fulfilment’ are not conducive to fixer professions, whose only calling card remains Necessity. A doctor may say that she achieves fulfilment in restoring the health of the sickly and in easing the suffering of men, women, children, and families of all sorts. This may well be true, but as found in Worker A, personal development, the reason why a person chooses to pursue their work, or the how through which they carry it out have no bearing on the nature of the work itself. Fulfilment is peripheral to the act of practising medicine. In fact, if one did find fulfilment or fun in the act of practising medicine itself, would it not demonstrate all the more than it is a profession, like all fixer professions, best embraced as instrumentalised? Who, indeed, finds a prostate examination or a transrectal ultrasound in itself fun or fulfilling without somehow imagining the entire process as a series of entirely functional and impersonal procedures, biology disenchanted?
So much for fixer professions, but what of the maker professions? What of their lot in this analysis?
Well, straightforwardly speaking, there is much less to say about maker professions firstly because their overall prevalence is on the wane, and secondly because much less is said about them already. When was the last time anyone mentioned an artisanal shoemaker or a carpenter attempting to gamify their workspace? In what instance could it be imagined that a filmmaker or a dance troupe would invite a professional Fungineer to impress upon them the value of the three Fs in the office? What would instructions to take a ‘creative and proactive’ approach even mean to a bricklayer or an architect?
Such professions suffer far less from the problems imagined to exist in the fixer workplace. Stress, anxiety, and disinterest and their magic antidotes Fun, Focus, and Fulfilment are not especially prevalent problems for the maker because they are intrinsic to the form of the work. Recall that for the maker, the object of her work only arrives at the point the work ends, whereas for the fixer the object of the work is present to begin with and is destroyed through the work. By definition the maker generates the object which is the source of stress/fun, anxiety/focus, disinterest/fulfilment. The maker needs no extra input from consultants or advisory bodies to regulate their emotional input in the work – the work itself demands this input as such. Where personal commitment strikes the fixer as a burden no matter what, the maker’s work lives within that commitment from the start.
For these reasons, and not surprisingly, the appropriate attitude for the maker is the opposite to that of the fixer. Those in the making professions cannot embrace instrumentality in the way that the fixer can, indeed, this is the most powerful way to destroy the essence of the work. Working to contract or on a production line in a maker profession is the exact way the these professions have been materially ruined. Can the artist who produces work as a mechanical task for sales purposes truly be called an artist? Is not the electrician who fits the wiring for large housing developments fundamentally compromised in the nature of his work if he is contractually obliged to complete the work of five projects in the time proper to only one? Is not the production line manufacturing worker divorced from the essence of her work, the making of the product as such, in her reduction into a functionary carrying out the same task endlessly? This is a much more traditional critique of industrialism / modernism; it need not be repeated by me at any great length. Suffice to say that here it is appropriate to invoke the figure of the artisan, the artist, the creative, in today’s jargon.
What the mobilisation of this binarism has demonstrated is not an overall ideological or discursive critique of work and the modern job market, and I have certainly not spoken in the vein of the Marxist nor intended to. These are projects for another time and other writers. Rather, the understanding of the division between making and fixing, or the understanding of the nature of the objects of these two different kinds of work, should here offer, as demonstrated throughout, a way of approaching one’s affect, one’s mood, one’s appropriate sense to the work at hand. Contrary to the contemporary wisdom and pop shamanism which encourages the creative in all things, which argues for a self-enriching spiritualism everywhere, and a self-care regimen of dietary restriction, silent isolation (meditation), and structured exercise to make a prison officer weep with joy, I hold that it is vital to embrace the moments where these are simply not appropriate postures towards the task at hand. For every uplifting youtube video and shared facebook post, every consulting workshop and professional advice paper demonstrating the merits of optimism in the workplace, self-fashioning entrepreneurship as freedom, community and camaraderie as obligations of employment, and the benefits of feeling valued and integrated in one’s role, there is a complete cultural failure to approach a solid half of the kinds work offered by society for what it essentially is. To try to force the fixer to approach her work as if she were a maker does no more than impress upon her an irreconcilable guilt which devastates hours of nine til five five days a week for years of her life. The lawyer, the doctor, and the deliveroo courier should therefore be under no illusions: their work is instrumental and fie on the fools who come in with their clipboards and target quotas who want a service delivered otherwise. For the programmer, the graphics designer, the hot-dog stand man, well, they’re fortunate enough that the mood of the times is with them: go and be non instrumental, be creative and all that jazz – fortunately your work is appropriate to it, and long may you flourish in your freedom. For the rest of us, embrace self-obliteration. If you can think of no reason to continue performing your work once its need is satisfied then make no mistake: you are in the role of a fixer. Creativity be damned and wish unashamedly for the day you may say fuck the niceties and let a robot do the shit jobs.
Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) is today, along with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), considered one of the foundational works of modern Feminisms, such that even if one has never read the book, one cannot help repeating and reiterating the ideas contained therein if one wants to converse within the discourses of gender and sex generally. At the heart of Gender Trouble is a thesis concerning the nature of identity. Butler defends, with vigour and force, the idea that gender is performative, that is; that the cultural and social signifiers which designate gender roles are a like a kind of language or grammar which are delivered in performed acts which construct gender quite apart from biologically determined sex. This idea, liberating and radical in its time, derives from the work of the postrstructuralists writing in the 1960s and 70s, particularly Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. One running thread is the idea of iteration and its link with identity. Derrida analyses identity in the form of a signature and demonstrates that the value of a signature comes not from its uniqueness or its unreproducibility, but rather from the converse, from the fact that it can be reproduced continuously. In this language-based model, the identity formed by a signature, formed by signification attached to a particular object (in this case, a written name attached to a personage), is produced from the way the signifier is repeated, from the way it is reiterated, reinscribed, and reperformed. To put it more directly: no signature is any use if it can’t be signed the same way many times, no identity makes any sense unless it is recognisable as itself.
In her extension of this idea to gender, Butler maps repeatable markers of identity across a much broader scope than the signature, which refers to a singular identity only. Gendered performances such as those found in drag are famously described by Butler here, in an analysis I will not recapitulate in full. Suffice to say that after Butler, the simplistic division of masculine and feminine as characteristics of personality and identity became much harder to tie to a biological or physiological root with any certainty or concretion. Yet here start a number of other troubles.
The dismantling of rigid social roles comes to a dramatic fruition in this 21st century paradigm; a great and perhaps concluding collapse of few hundred years’ slide in history from the demise of feudalism, the diminishing roles of religion and caste and the divisions of class, wealth, race, sex and gender to the present where the diversities and mobilities of social groups of all kinds are visible and even dominant in the public eye. This is what is today called identity politics and is variously celebrated as a vehicle for change, decried as a mask which covers over the absence of actual liberation, and villified as a destroyer of identity itself. This is not to mention the ever-present mantra for the good Neoliberal: Capitalism capitalises. Hence we have everyone from Kanye West and Floyd Mayweather to Hillary Clinton and Nigel Farage cashing in their oppressed-identity cheques and selling their free-market moralised politics (Farage’s great appeal was his identity as a ‘normal’ ‘oppressed’ White British working-class man. Hillary, of course, mobilised her gender combined with an unhealthy complacency to disastrous effect. Kanye and Floyd have both made much of their race and their ‘oppressed’ status despite enjoying obscene wealth and comfort.). High street fashion sells so-called ‘gender neutral’ apparel (which is little more than slim mens’ clothing in grey). Facebook supports over 40 different sexual orientations. Starbucks, once the demonized tax-evading megacorp, reintegrates itself as the safe-space for open office gatherings aimed at the young and ambitious ‘entrepreneurs’ who fail to identify with the traditional workplace. Identity politics comes with a tote bag bearing Beyonce’s face and a receipt.
Let’s step back a little.
What is identity? We can quite safely say that it is not something reducible to race, sex, sexuality, gender, wealth, class, caste, biology, physiology, psychology, medical condition, star sign, birthstone, what car your dad drives (or didn’t drive), what street you live on (or didn’t live on), what school you went to (or didn’t go to), what haircut you asked for at the salon last Wednesday, what kind of knot you tie your shoelaces with, what you drink at the pub on Saturday afternoon, how often you cut your nails, the list goes on… It seems that the history we have has spent a lot of its time capably refuting what identity is not, but has been unable to find what identity itself is. From this, the best answer we seem to arrive at is that identity must be that which is not reducible to, well, anything. In current philosophy we have a couple of writers who work in this direction. One is Object-Oriented Ontology which proposes that the identity of any given object is that which cannot be exhausted by either its parts or its effects. Another is Tristan Garcia’s anti-reductionist philosophy which claims that the identity of an object must be the difference between its parts and its effects. The difference between these two is not strictly important here (and requires more semantic discussion than I wish to undertake now) so, for simplicity’s sake, let us state straightforwardly that identity is that which retains what it is regardless of the parts it is made from or the effects it has on other things.
We notice here that identity takes on the character that the existentialists (among whose company Simone de Beauvoir finds herself, incidentally) give to the human individual. That is, radical freedom – a kind of insurmountable withdrawnness which makes it impossible for any person (or being in general) to be totally identified with anything other than itself. It is a kind of tautology of essence: I am me, so to speak.
Now, a conflict develops between Butler’s notion of performativity and the existentialist idea of identity as freedom. On the one hand we have identity as defined by repeatability, by the repetition and reiteration of performed acts which proliferate in a public, discursive space. On the other we have identity as something which cannot be exhaustively disclosed in public at all, something entirely private, something by definition impossible to iterate, impossible to reduce to any kind of action, form, signifier, or performance. This dispute arises in a confusion best clarified in Kant, but taken note of in a great deal of thought since then: the split in reality between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or rather the split between things-in-themselves and things as they appear in phenomena for other entities. This is not the same as a divide between mind and body, nor is it identical to the duality between private and public (though this is closer to it). Rather, in this case, noumenal refers to something without relation at all, whereas phenomenal refers to something as it relates to other things.
It should be clear that, seen through this lens, advocates of performativity are speaking in the realm of the phenomenal, whereas the existentialists are speaking in reference to the noumenal. The one group are discussing identity as it appears socially, as it appears in language, in culture, as it appears for others, and the other group examine identity as it belongs only to itself. There is something like an order or presidence here too. Only a subject essentially free to begin with in itself could choose to present itself or perform itself in the various roles it wants to adopt in the public eye. Yet all is not resolved. Freedom in the context of these two realms is more troublesome than meets the eye.
This is because the logics of these two kinds of freedom reverse in opposite directions. The freedom of the existentials reverses into non-freedom in that in its originary sense I will always be me; there is no escaping identity as oneself, even if this absoluteness of identity also gives that identity freedom from all external influences. The freedom of performativity reverses into non-freedom in that total freedom of performance (in the sense that one can perform any role, any identity at all) leads to non-identity. That is to say that if performative identity is based on the repeatability of the performance, of the signature so to speak, then if one never repeats their performative acts, one never achieves an identity in the social or discursive realm. For the existentialist, radical freedom as myself means I am riveted to myself, absolute unfreedom. For the performativist, radical freedom to perform means I am entirely unmoored; I can act the masculine the one day, the feminine the next, the sys-trans asexual for the next half hour and the left-legged unicorn for the next fortnight if it takes my fancy, at the cost of maintaining any kind of stable identity whatsoever.
Herein lie the weaknesses in identity politics and its affiliates which are so easily exploited and reintegrated into the Neoliberal profit margin. This is also where many well-meaning humans shoot themselves in the foot.
Consider the modern job market. The ideal worker is expected to be flexible, multivalent, diverse. She is expected to fast-paced, adaptable, entrepreneurial. All of this amounts to justifying employers in offering as much occasional and fixed-term work as they can, in other words, offering workers ‘freedom’ (to explore your own avenues, to find yourself, to not be fixed to one role, to be your own boss) in exchange for never having to offer permanent contracts, abdicating long-term responsibilities to employees, and pay less and less out in wages for the same work done. Yet simultaneously, the ideal worker should be unique, he should bring not only skills, but personality to the workplace, he should have a lasting impact on his team, make his mark, do what only he can do, make the job his own. This justifies employers is leaving roles ‘undefined’ or ‘developing’, which means dispensing with training of any sort, and treating employees as expendable in lieu of profitable results or as soon as a more exploitable offer comes along. The result of this playing of performative identity against existential identity is the ‘gig’ economy, which has already built up a healthy body of criticism for the conduct of companies from Deliveroo and Uber to Amazon, which I shan’t repeat here.
Every industry today from Fashion and beauty to Fitness and Health is moving toward capitalising on the same paradoxes: You can be (buy) any identity you want, we have a huge range of underarm toner colours for you to choose from, but God forbid you look like anyone else, find your own look, make your own style, out of the huge range of underarm toner colours we have for you to choose from. You have freedom! Come to the gym and try our range of classes, build (buy) yourself into whoever you want to be! But remember not to be like everyone else, why not go the extra mile and become the true you (with a gold membership and a personal trainer)? Meditate daily! Liberate yourself of your worldly attachments, remember you can become anything you want and be free (classes in meditation and Yoga for £15 an hour or a discount rate if you book monthly!)! But remember you’re exactly okay as who you are, treat yourself, be happy in yourself, be good to yourself (cake and coffee after an avocado toast all for a delicious £19.99)!
No wonder identity-based-politics finds it no easier to make heads or tails of governance, much less any given individual trying to make his or her way in the world. Many a feminist has fought compatriots over whether gender identity is determined or fluid (existential or performative). Many a disenchanted young man has heard all about his proposed social mobility and freedom (performative) and found himself stranded in a seemingly bottomless pit of occasional work and unskilled labour after running up against the paradoxes of the job market. Many an ethnic minority tries to preserve and protect its identity (existential) but attacks those who attempt to share in cultural identity (performative). The slew of arguments surrounding appropriation, cultural diversity / authenticity, free speech, discrimination, and on and on testify to this fundamental confusion.
What to do?
What both the performative and existential models of identity as I have characterised them here take for granted is that identity is a kind of freedom. Identity is not, however, solely to do with freedom. This does not require contesting, but rather accepting both the existential and performative accounts of identity and, crucially, taking responsibility for them. What does it mean to take responsibility for identity in these senses together? It means giving up freedom (performative). If freedom (existential) is absolute (I am always me, and can never be reduced to other) then this means I am committed to being me, to a completely unalterable identity at all times. Thus, responsibility means attributing freedom (performative) to identity (existential), which is to say performative action, public identity and presentation must become worthy of and responsible for the person from whom they emanate. It means that, while performative identity remains free, it must willingly surrender its freedom and commit itself to a stable identity capable of bearing the gravity of existential identity.
Take the case of John Barrowman, actor most well known in the UK for his role in the TV series Dr Who. Openly gay, Barrowman acts as a public voice combating homophobia and discrimination. In the context of identity and performance, this is already a step towards a responsible approach to identity. To be publicly disclosed in this way is a commitment to a performative identity, a commitment to being who, and what, he is claiming to be in the public eye. If we consider a counter-case of a Barrowman who does not publicly disclose his sexuality – well, who could blame him, anyone might want to do without the trouble, and what business is it of the general public what his sexuality is anyway? This is all correct, and it would be his right and an exercise of his freedom (performative) to remain not publicly disclosed in this way. Yet how much more is he able to do, able to be, when publicly disclosed? When his performative identity stabilises and rivets itself to his existential identity, how much more does he become? An undisclosed Barrowman retains an identity as Barrowman = Barrowman alone. A disclosed Barrowman becomes Barrowman = Barrowman = gay = campaigner against homophobia = role model = inspiration etc. Disclosed this way, he sacrifices freedoms he would otherwise have enjoyed but gains responsibilities he may otherwise never have been able to fulfil.
A further example: Barrowman took part in a 2008 TV series in which his homosexuality was investigated through a series of empirical and scientific methods. The goal was, purportedly, to demonstrate a causal root for his orientation. Memorably, Barrowman was shown a scan of his brain activity in response to men and women, and expressed immense anxiety followed by relief upon discovering that his brain registered a great deal more activity in response to men than women. Regardless of the scientific interpretation of the results, what does Barrowman’s own response tell us? On some level he places a high determining factor on the data presented in the form of his brain scan. In terms of performative freedom this is indeed an abdication of freedom, but it has the opposite effect as before. This is because Barrowman does not surrender his performativity by returning the responsibility for his performance to his identity, rather he surrenders it by donating responsibility for his identity to some external body, in this case, a scientific discourse. Imagine again a counter-case where Barrowman is not anxious to know the results of his brain scan and retains the certitude of his self-identification as homosexual regardless. Is this not a greater example of bearing responsibility for chosen identity? Does this kind of self-dependent certainty not do more justice to who he is in himself and the freedom he claims? Conversely, does a dependence on the scientific discourse, or any other discourse for that matter, not betray an ultimate weakness or uncertitude in identity? Does it not fail to do justice to identity and undermine the commitment made to a performative role?
An understanding of one’s own identity and a commitment and investment made this way is something that anyone can accomplish, and I see no reason why a culture-wide change in this arena could not be achieved with the appropriate educational framework. I am not hopeful for the actualisation of such a thing in the near future, yet I am certain that without such a transformation in the generally deployed concept of identity, the general malaise that is identity politics and its affiliates will continue and continue to do more damage than good in the arenas in which it performs.
Thanks for reading.
Please forgive the sloppiness of my concepts this time. I am far below par as a writer here, so I am grateful for the reader bearing with my imprecision.
I am a carer.
See my fingers, soft, gentle,
Hold this withered hair.
Hands, friends. Organs without Flesh:-
Persistence, Desire, Longing.
In response to this below video and the wider “expert” climate.
There is one view from amongst those presented above which I feel was a worthy response, and that was: ‘Expertise, one has to be quite humble about, and one needs to be careful not to overrate oneself really, and to keep learning’.
I found this kind of self-effacing caution towards not only expertise as an accepted status, but to expertise in general as a category most refreshing. This response showed a wonderful clear-eyed reticence towards the status of the expert which I think no other respondent even vaguely gestured towards. Largely the respondents here are very willing to embrace the status of expert and its related trappings, which is, for me, to miss the heart of the problem.
The unfortunate final respondent here illustrates this difficulty most clearly. Her claim that ‘people do still trust academic scientists because they see them as having a lot less of an agenda’ demonstrates the easy conflation between ‘expert’ and ‘academic’. Whether the majority of the public do trust academics, whether scientists or otherwise, is somewhat moot here, but it is certainly the case that the status of ‘expert’ has been explicitly mobilised for the purpose of eliciting mistrust and suspicion in the public in recent political discourses.
From Michael Gove’s infamous Brexit line: ‘we’ve had enough of experts’, to Trump’s generalised assault on what he has characterised as a complacent and haughty establishment, the expert is the bogeyman of right-wing populism. In Britain the expert has found its home in the smug elitism perceived in Westminster and the city of London’s role as an economic drain on the rest of the country. In the American context this appears in the form of the Democrats and their patronising attitude to their supporters and enemies alike, along with their neglect of the malcontent of the white working class, especially as represented by Hilary Clinton and her campaign support from big business, and only underlined by Obama’s long-time insistence that ‘the arc of history bends towards justice’. The ‘expert’ stands in for the Neoliberal vision of top-down progress, for a failed trickle-down economics, a social and healthcare system that, particularly in America offers precious little in the way of dignity, and a culture which ultimately falsifies a dream of social mobility while routinely diminishing the quality of life deemed acceptable at the lowest common denominator even as it proffers a utopian ‘hard graft’ as its solution to poverty and socioeconomic ignominy.
In other words, the expert means; someone of privilege who patronises from a position of arrogance and complacency those considered less fortunate while ignoring the prejudices of a socioeconomic environment which has made their privilege possible.
It may be the case that this person does not exist, and it also may well be the case that, even if such individuals do exist, that they are not as ubiquitous amongst the enemies of society as Gove or Trump might have it. Regardless, this is one of the figures upon whom the malcontent and politically disillusioned have focused their displeasure.
The problem with the attitude prevalent in the above video is how easily and apparently blithely the academics interviewed accept their conflation with this identity.
It is not entirely their fault – clearly they have been framed a question within the terms of the discourse. They have been asked to discuss explicitly ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’ and the public attitude towards them – who can blame them for following the lines of an already polarised debate? Yet the fact still remains that only one respondent showed the awareness, pause, and caution towards being aligned with the ‘expert’ which would transform the conversation into one more productive about the role of the academic in society.
I tend to be a little reductive in my thought about what an academic should be. I tend to consider philosophy the ur-discipline of all the others – which is not to say that all disciplines should be trying to do what philosophy currently does or once did, but that all disciplines are breeds of philosophy with particular fields as their object of study and particular methodoligies developed for those fields. I think this is a fairly intuitive claim in the humanities, the arts, and the sciences and since it is not a major point here, I won’t discuss it at length. However, I will say that, the academic should absolutely not be equated with the expert in the sense I have highlighted above.
The expert is an easy imaginary enemy that groups such as Trump’s administration and Brexit campaigners have arrayed their battle-lines against. The expert is on the side of those who know, and against those who know-not. The expert is on the side of those who govern, against those who are incapable of self-government. In more explicitly Marxist terms; the expert is on the side of those who have, and against those who have-not. This is how, in the mobilisation of a single ideological term, an attack can be launched against public healthcare (“doctors are experts who patronise and think they know better when they really don’t”), political orthodoxy (“career politicians are experts who are complacent and privileged and don’t deserve to rule”), economists (“those rich city folks are experts who just manipulate us to keep the money in their own pockets”), educators (“teachers are experts who want to turn your children against traditional values with new-age ‘nurture'”), the European Union (the EU have been damaging and telling the UK what to do too long with their false and failing expertise”), climate scientists (see climate change deniers), academics of all descriptions (do I need to illustrate how?), and the list goes on.
It should be apparent how easy it is to tar any given target with this ideological brush. Whether intentional or not, the polarising power of this discourse as used by the current right-leaning political trends is not to be understated. Expert can apply to anyone who tries to tell you what to do – the ideal category to mark as your enemy if you’re working against the establishment or orthodox knowledge-producing institutions.
Against this, I feel it can’t be stated enough how important this attitude is: ‘Expertise, one has to be quite humble about, and one needs to be careful not to overrate oneself really, and to keep learning’. This is to remember the first attitude of philosophy: from the ancient greek philo- sophia-, to love wisdom, not to have wisdom, but to seek it. If the expert is one who knows and mobilises that knowledge in the service of power, money, capital, political gain, then the intellectual or the academic must be one who does not know, but who seeks nonetheless.
The objection might be made that science is from the latin scire ‘to know’, and hence, should be conflated with this political notion of the ‘expert’; one who knows. Since I have already stated that I tend to consider philosophy the ur-discipline of all intellectual pursuits, it should be clear why I disagree with this. For me, even the scientist should prefer the status of one who seeks knowledge to the status of one who knows.
By way of contrast, compare this selection of respondents above to the stance of contemporary public intellectual Slavoj Zizek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2VNwqpT-h8
Though Zizek has his own questionable brand of self-authorship and politics, what is clear is that a distance must be taken from this noxious status of the expert in the current political and public discourse. An easy and docile embrace of a category such as expertise, and an assumption of the neutrality of language in this context can undercut all the good will attempted by such projects as the video cited above from the Wellcome Trust. I do not, it should be noted, endorse the idea of ironically questioning the conditions for all debates either, however – to take a distance from the terms of the question is not a strategy which will ever actually answer the question itself. What is vital is to pursue the terms of the question itself with a sincere and deep honesty, coupled with a sharp and broad view of the discourse in which the question is framed. To this end, the expert as framed by Gove and Trump et al, has no place in the academic or intellectual climate – one who knows has nothing left to find out, and is no longer an intellectual but a bureaucrat at best, and a zealot at worst – and given its current political status, the expert is a concept that, in its current iteration, we could all do without.
A friend asked if I would write on the status of belief, or more specifically, the possibility of altering belief through conscious intervention or an otherwise form of reasoned action. I’d like to offer my understanding of belief as a general concept in answer, but am not entirely certain on the structure of the questioneer’s own concept of belief – therefore I’ll be using a loose workaround to characterise my interlocutor’s position to start with.
As far as I can tell then, the position I’ll be speaking against is characterised by a kind of essentialism of belief. Belief in this schema is unalterable. As it appears to me, this stance also holds that belief exists as a base element of character, an essential unit to the substance of the believer. I feel also that these characteristics are based on a basic contention which holds that belief and decision, or rather, faith and reason are diametrically opposed. Since the lead contention of my interlocutor’s stance appears to be that belief is fundamentally impossible to interfere with through any action on the part of the believer, it seems to me that a binarism can be derived from this which divides belief from conscious thought, faith from reason, and essence from action. This is doubtless a simplification of my conversation partner’s position, but in the absence of a full enumeration of it, I am satisfied to use it until such a time as more nuance becomes necessary or corrections offered.
My position on belief generally stems from the work of the poststructuralists and phenomenologists – philosophers generally active from the early 20th century until around the mid to late nineteen-seventies when that particular heritage began to go out of fashion. Needless to say, I do hold that belief can be altered and intervened in, and argue that belief is constituted in the act of positive decision in the first place. For myself, no true faith is possible without positive conscious intervention – belief, as far as I am concerned is constituted in the decision to believe.
To elaborate: belief must always have an object – there is something that is believed in. Whether that belief amounts to a belief in Santa Claus or a belief that the Earth orbits the Sun, or that God is present in all movements of everyday life, the object of belief cannot be taken alone, but always constitutes a belief system. To believe in Santa Claus is predicated on a belief in a whole mythos around the festival of Christmas, to believe the Earth orbits the sun is to believe in the value system posited by the Copernican revolution in astronomy and Renaissance science, to believe in the omnipresence of God is to participate in a doctrine formally disseminated through a church and its adherents. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are the philosophers most famous for discussing the contingency of meaning upon whole contextualising systems. In arguably his most famous single work, Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences, Derrida demonstrates that no term in language, and all forms of meaning more generally, has meaning at all without the system as a whole. One sign does not refer exclusively to its real referent and derive meaning thusly, it instead derives meaning from referring through an infinite movement of substitutions within its system of meaning. A simple way to parse this is through the English word ‘dog’. Culturally speaking, the concept ‘dog’ is opposed to that of ‘cat’. Regardless of any evidence in support of these two animals in any way having opposed features (indeed, both are mammals with similar body shapes and domestic roles amongst humans), the meaning developed between the two concepts is defined, not wholly by reference to the real entity, but by reference to the opposed concepts within the language, the meaning-making system. Thus when asked ‘what is the opposite of dog’, the response which appears at once natural yet without reason or origin on the tongue is ‘cat’.
What Foucault adds to this is in the same vein but speaking from the realm of historical contingency rather than linguistic analysis. Foucault’s idea of ‘discourse’ is, in my estimation, most well elucidated in The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. For Foucault, any enunciation, any set of statements is always entirely historical, that is, it gains its meaning from the meaning-disseminating institutions present in a given social moment. This is explicitly not limited to language, but to all ‘discursive practice’, including gesture, routine and habit, in everything from legal systems and education to where you sit on a bus. Quite apart from the intentions of the speaker or actor, Foucault’s idea of a discourse is a body of ‘anonymous historical rules’ (Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 131) which govern the meaning of concepts within any given enunciative (meaning-making) act. Again, to clarify by way of example, it is an obvious matter of course in some cultures for grandparents to aid in the raising of children, while in others, such a proposition would be egregiously offensive and absurd. This is not a mere appeal to cultural difference – it speaks to the function of a series of institutions of value and meaning; a Confucian tradition of ancestry embedded in government and education on the one hand, and a Christian / Hellenic tradition of nurture embedded in government and education on the other, each to form very different concepts of ‘family’. This can be observed on any scale, even within one culture, so the fact that two families in the same neighbourhood can have very different relationships is a function of each individual’s relationship to and interpretation of the discourses through which meaning is generated in their everyday life (who sits at the head of the table, who works in the family, how care is given, what responsibilities are expected, etc.). Foucault performs an excellent explication of this in Discipline and Punish, elaborating how the mechanisms of observation, training and rehabilitation, originating in the prison system, now pervade military, legal, governmental, educational, urban infrastructure, and business apparatus down to the micro-level of everyday human practice – I leave it to the reader to invest in this work at their own leisure.
It is therefore the case that belief as such always involves an individual’s placement within a belief system. There is no belief without the operation of meaning-making based on concepts developed through language and enunciative practices performed in discourse. However, simple submission within a belief system does not, for me, constitute true belief in any way. The operation of discourse and language as meaning-making and meaning-governing structures is a regular facet of everyday life; humans accept and live accepting the constructs of these systems as a matter of course – there is nothing of the character of belief in that so much as simple everyday adoption through necessity.
Consider the religious man – perhaps born in an Evangelical family and raised with all the trappings of Evangelical Christianity held as inalienable truths, going on with his life in the same manner and never once deviating from this path – a believer for life, so to speak. As far as I am concerned, at no point in this life is true belief or true faith in exhibition. It is as if the man is merely a feature of his environment – it doesn’t matter who he is or what he does, he could be any man, his entire life exists as a continuous and unrelenting operation of the discursive structure in which he has found himself. Consider a different person of religion – this person a convert, raised in the firm belief of a certain set of concepts – perhaps that of no god, or of some other god, or simply just believing whatever their family or significant peers believed, be it ambivalence, ardent atheism or whatever takes your fancy. This person, she becomes a woman of religion, a full-blooded evangelical, no different to our first case in habit or lifestyle. In this case also, no true faith, no true belief exists. The person has simply moved from one environment to another, fully adopting one discourse’s practices and language as truth, then abandoning those practices in order to fully adopt another. Nothing in the person is distinct from the discursive environment in which she is embedded – once again the person herself is meaningless, there is no true belief in the system in which she finds herself, merely a subservience to status quo, a blankness in her which is filled by the ideologies of her current social context.
The Existentialists suggest the way to what I take as true belief or true faith. Kierkegaard, adamant protestant, and Nietzsche, famously for the declaration: ‘God is dead, and we have killed him’, find themselves unlikely bedfellows in this regard. Within a Christian frame, Kierkegaard argues that ‘Innocence is ignorance’, a state like that of Eden where a human is ‘in immediate unity with his natural condition’ (The Concept of Dread, 37). Within this frame, the state of paradise – a prelapsarian garden – is a state in which man is not differentiated from its surroundings. Man only gains freedom through falling, through independence from its surrounding state of being, through becoming self-aware (through Sin and knowledge of Good and Evil in the Christian context). Nietzsche argues similarly that the goal for humanity is the kind of man who is independent of both tradition and convention, swayed by neither the trappings of the past nor the status quo of the present. Though the concept of Ubermensch is most famous for its adoption within National Socialist ideology, the fundamental point has much more to say about the freedom of man as an individual over any and all proximate systems of thought than about the superiority of any national ideology in general.
The point of significance is that a human only gains freedom through separation from their immediate conceptual environment. This, for me, is the starting point of true belief or true faith. Without self-awareness, and the full capacity to doubt and, indeed, deny that a given discourse is true, the possibility of belief does not exist. A person moves in and out of many discourses and many conceptual realms in the course of a lifetime, acting on the ideological systems of each in turn – this does not make that person a believer in any of them, only a conduit through which each of them operates (in order to reproduce an economic reality if you’re a Marxist, to reproduce its memes if you follow that kind of theory, etc.). If I am raised in a family of agnostics and follow their customs, I move out and begin to spend time with atheists and follow their habits, then later convert to Christianity because I am spending time amongst many other Christians who convince me to do so, in no way am I a true believer in any of these systems of thought – I am nothing more than a person who is, as Kierkegaard would put it, is ignorant, who lacks the self-awareness to qualify as a free functioning subject. To adopt the discourses of my immediate surroundings is something that proceeds through the simple ongoing interaction with the people in my proximity. This is little more than a convenience. Indeed, many go through life in this way and this way alone – none are possessed of faith in its richest character. To possess true belief is to make the active decision to adopt a system of meaning in full light of the knowledge that it is fallible and deniable.
If it seems like I am targeting theism unfairly, please forgive another example based in religion – it is an easy lens through which to illustrate the point, though I hold that this character applies to anything that can be believed whatsoever. Imagine again a member of the church, which church doesn’t matter, nor whether they’re lifetime devout or recently enlightened. If this individual does not acknowledge the possibility of the entirety of their doctrine being false and mistaken, and still elect to follow it, they are bereft of faith. Assuming they do not acknowledge the fallibility of their doctrine, imagine entertaining a conversation with this individual. Whether you speak to them from a position of agreement with them or a position of opposition, there is nothing to be spoken about with regard to their so-called belief. Even if you are both followers of the same church, it would be a conversation utterly without merit to, for example, question this person on their interpretation of the nature of the holy trinity, or the implications of the story of Cain and Abel, to pick examples at random. Even if this individual produces sound arguments and well-organised rhetoric, unless they have sought to challenge these arguments and found them lacking in some manner, then belief in its truest form cannot exist. The problem is not a problem of the content of what he might have to say, it is a problem of whether you are truly speaking to him at all. If he produces an internally watertight argument for the nature of the holy trinity being fundamentally based on the holy spirit, it would have no meaning to hear it from him if he had not already acknowledged his argument’s failings and chosen to proceed in his belief in that position anyway. To produce arguments with flawless internal logic is admirable for sure, but without acknowledging that the formation of that logic itself is a function of a given discourse, and therefore possesses the possibility of complete untruth, there is no belief in the argument regardless of its rhetorical execution. One may as well speak to a machine, or (if such a thing were possible) converse with the ideology itself – which is essentially what this kind of person becomes; a pure embodiment of a discourse, but in no way someone capable of belief or faith.
By contrast, consider the religious woman, an advocate of one God or another, who both cares to understand and fully acknowledges the possibility that another religion has merit and its own measure of truth. Consider that she also cares to pay attention to and investigate the merits of atheistic discourse, scientific discourse, polytheistic and pantheistic discourse, as well as other assortments of spiritualist and paganistic ideology. If she remains firm in her decision to follow the path of her choosing, not only does she epitomise freedom in the sense both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard hold most highly, she also possesses belief in the truest sense. If you ask this woman about her ideas on the mysteries of faith, then she really has something to say – because you can be certain that what she says is hers, absolutely hers, not the mere repetition of discourse, or the recital of a discursive logic speaking through her tongue, but a genuinely considered disposition which she as a free individual has taken the time and effort to unravel and chosen to hold as true based on her own volition.
This holds true just as surely for the claim that ‘the Earth is flat’. To even use this idea, this sentence, presupposes an idea of ‘Earth’ as opposed to something-other-than-Earth, be that space and the planets, the heavenly firmament and hell, or the ancient Apeiron, which in turn presupposes a cosmology – a discourse governing beliefs about the nature of the universe. It is impossible to speak about this contention without first understanding the world-system, the network of meaning that it entails. To declare my belief that ‘the Earth is flat’ constitutes no true belief at all without acknowledgement that there is a counter-system of meaning which declares that the Earth is round, or in some other state. Truly, to echo again Kierkegaard, a declaration such as this is nothing more than ignorance, a wilful ignorance of the possibility of alternatives – which amounts to nothing other than stupidity; is the very definition of stupidity.
I have made quite a lengthy exposition, but it should be obvious from this why, for me, the very idea of belief is impossible without decision. An idea simply accepted and taken as true is no belief whatsoever, and a human who does so barely registers as a free subject in the Nietzschean sense any case. The refusal to understand and accept the merits of diverse viewpoints amounts to wilful ignorance, which is itself the definition of stupidity, and furthermore rank irresponsibility. True belief, true faith, is the decision taken by a free subject to follow a system of meaning and to uphold its merits, while acknowledging the possibility of the absolute fallibility of that system in the face of alternatives. This is the very essence of belief itself. I refer to one more philosopher in support of my point – the famous phenomenologist and ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, who states in Totality and Infinity that ‘the atheist separation is required by the idea of Infinity’ (p. 60). Infinity for Levinas means religion, and is predicated on ‘atheist separation’, by which he means, the absolute independence of a being from its system of being and meaning: belief cannot exist without the believing being being wholly independent from the concepts in which it believes.
At this point the question of whether a belief can change based on a decisive act alone is more or less trivial with the answer affirmative. No true belief exists without decision, hence a belief altered – from the Earth is flat to the Earth is round, say – can of course exist. Especially given that the believer must acknowledge the fallibility of their belief and the truth of alternatives, then I see no difficulty in this, save the commitment on the part of the individual necessary to truly believe anew with sincerity. It should be clear here that this stands against the idea of belief as an opposite to reason, or faith as an opposite to conscious thought, or essence as an opposite to action. True belief and faith are the apotheosis of reason, an apogee of the committed and focused pursuit of thought. The essence of a personality is not necessarily found in the beliefs that go unchallenged and unnoticed in them, apart from their determined action (though this can be the case). The essence of a personality can just as easily be present, and all the more so for the commitment made, in the active and conscious choice made to believe in X, Y or Z in the full light of its flaws and opponents. A free subject is one who is independent of, and self-aware within, the discourses which surround them. This is a goal for any human to aspire to. The opposite is wilful ignorance, the complacency and arrogance to choose not to court or understand or acknowledge the essential viability of competing systems of meaning, which makes a human no more than a discourse machine or an ideological marionette – the prisoner blind to the prison, to speak in more cliche terms. True belief cannot be the idle submission to a dogma, nor can it be the pure logic of an ardent follower. For the former case simply exists within a discourse like a fish not noticing it lives in water, and the latter speaks with an arrogance that posits that water is all that could possibly exist. Only in the considered and measured doubt of self-criticism and the firm and thoughtful listening of commitment is true belief to be found.
This has been somewhat apart from my usual style, far more philosophical in tone and rhetoric, so I hope it was not too much to bear with for the casual reader. For those well-versed in the literature I have discussed, I also ask that you bear with my interpretations: I am not formally trained in philosophy and approach these works from the direction of literature, so if the nuances of the extremely rich positions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are lost in my writing, I hope you will forgive me. Lastly, to my interlocutor, I hope you have found this an informative and entertaining read and I’d welcome a response should you feel so inclined.
Thanks for reading!