Work, Work, Work; The Embrace of Self-Obliteration

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.

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Loosely – The Structure of Belief

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!

Daesh

When you call a child names what reaction does this usually elicit? An impassioned ‘don’t call me that!’, a furious ‘I’m not [x]!’, a tantrum of sorts. Certainly hostility and anger, especially if you’re in a role of authority over the child in question (a parent, a guardian, simply someone older). It is the child’s powerlessness in the face of what is essentially bullying which leads to this intense response. In a tantrum, the child asserts dominance over the only things it can (its toys, its clothes, other inanimate objects, even its own body) hurling things and itself on the ground, tearing down nearby structures like curtains and tablecloths. In a teenager, or even a young adult, such instances of failed self-actualisation take more internal forms – sulking, brooding, long periods of seclusion, angry diary writing, secret drinking, substance abuse, self-harm, sometimes even the abuse of others and those close to them. In the adult whose sense of authenticity and identity is eroded and constrained by circumstances outside her control, it is easy enough to find solace in drink, perhaps to fall into depression, or lose yourself in work and the rhythm of the everyday – keeping on keeping on. And of course, the adult, too, much like the child and teenager, exerts his anger in an attempt to escape his out-of-control-ness, on whatever he has power over, including children and teenagers.

For the thinker of ethics and politics Simon Critchley, one of the foundations of politics is the nominalisation of a political subjectivity (2012). Without a political subject, a unified identity around which to articulate political and social struggles, a body politic dissolves into inefficacy and impotence. The act of naming is the act of defining political autonomy, the act of claiming agency. In denying Daesh the name of its own choosing, what is denied is the right to exist on its own terms, it is the right to self-define, self-actualise, and remain autonomous. The threats issued by Daesh to those who use the term only serve to affirm the fragility of the group’s political subjectivity. Yet, even still, Daesh is a name, a name which unifies and designates a group and, even though it is not one of their choosing, it does reinscribe their solidity as an entity.

And it would be grievous to forget that Daesh also has a name for its enemies too, one of them being ‘The West’. This name is itself riven from within with innumerable cracks and inconsistencies making it as shattered and ineffectual a political entity as if it had not been named at all. ‘The West’ does not and never has referred to a concrete political body – its political subjectivity is segmented across Europe and the USA with wildly varying degrees of influence, not to mention each individual nation is composed of enormous swathes of heterogeneous people, many of whom would not necessarily identify with many of the others. In this light, Daesh is a much more concrete and locally well defined political entity than the lumbering, massive, and nebulous ‘The West’.

Within this nebulous ‘West’, what Daesh has succeeded unsettling well in doing, is encouraging xenophobia, racism, and discrimination, leading to an upsurge in a small yet vocal extreme rightism. Whether or not this group is representative of the vast majority of society, it speaks loudly enough that it deepens the cracks already evident within the societies of ‘The West’. Those already disenfranchised and isolated are further frightened and segregated. Those already denied a name, denied self-definition, are further imposed upon; ‘immigrant’, ‘alien’, ‘foreigner’, names which themselves may not be derogatory become burdens when imposed on the subject, a shackle rather than the freedom that naming and self-determination should confer.

When David Cameron claims that the ‘real problem’ is the ‘extremist ideology’ of Daesh and that there is a moral obligation to destroy it with airstrikes, he makes a number of distressing errors. The first is that Daesh’s ‘extremist ideology’ is not the ‘real problem’ and the second is that ideology has never been vulnerable to airstrikes (much like terror has never been harmed by wars waged against it). Radicalisation does not happen because a belief system worms its way into a subject’s brain like a parasite or a slug and transforms them into an helpless, brainwashed radical. Those who are targets of radicalisation are not unthinking, hapless victims, they are thinking and feeling human subjects. How does such a subject then, decide that murder and martyrdom is a sensible course of action?

Like the child called names but denied its own, or the youth split between belonging and not belonging, or the fully grown member of the workforce disenchantedly persisting, automatic but not autonomous, the subject which is isolated, disempowered and afraid seeks validation, seeks an environment where it can exert its selfhood, where it can claim a sense of sovereignty. The vulnerable of society are nameless, ‘the subaltern’ as Gayatri Spivak [famous postcolonial and deconstructionist writer] would call them. They have no name through which to politically articulate, and no dignity or autonomy as a sovereign subject in and of themselves. Spivak would speak of India’s caste system and the ‘untouchables’ – who really become ‘unspeakables’ – those who fall outside of a caste, outside of a group who will identify with them, and who therefore belong nowhere in society, detritus. The ‘developed’ ‘West’ has vulnerable people too, all the moreso because it fails to acknowledge their existence. When an individual looks at their life and feels as if they do not belong in their society, a society which appears to reject them at every turn, and Daesh offers an alternative which seems somehow better, which seems to give them purpose and justice and a raison d’etre at all, it is the duty of government to question how conditions have been allowed to develop which make that possible.

Daesh is like the tantruming child or moody teenager of its region. It hurls its weight around, harming everything in its way in a bitter plea for both attention and validation. Like the rebellious youth, it claims it would have its dad in a fight (an appropriate analogy, given that, father like, Euro-American intervention did provide the conditions to birth and nurture Daesh in the first place), but shrinks from open conflict, instead choosing to pick on the vulnerable and weak. The group is made of such individuals, a gang of the disempowered and disillusioned who see no place for themselves in contemporary society and instead choose to attempt to destroy it in a final bid for self-actualisation. Critchley says that a politics of fear assures the order of the political unit through appeal to the threat of an enemy. In order to end such a politics of fear which pervades both Daesh (who names ‘The West’ its enemy) and our own societies (who name Daesh) and end the conditions which make radicalisation possible, the political undertaking is to offer people dignity, self-determination, a sense of belonging, and a sense of justice in their political and social life. It is to offer the silent, deprived, and isolated a community, a commonality, a name for themselves, an identity. Like when speaking to a child, government, and society as a whole, will have to get down on its hands and knees to look the lost and found in the eyes and treat them as equals. If, as was suggested earlier, the act of naming is the act of claiming agency, the perhaps ironic truth is that what will serve as lethal anathema to Daesh is the act of giving those vulnerable whom it preys on, the chance to find a name.