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The Poison and the Cure – Experiments in Political Theology: Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless
Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. Verso, 2012. US $24.95 (cloth). 291 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1844677375

Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless makes an important contribution to current debates on the increasing presence of religion in political theory and practice. This is a timely subject if ever there was one. The return of religion in politics has become one of the most hotly debated topics in contemporary theory over the past few years. Recent publications such as Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (1997), Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul (2004), Giorgio Agamben’s The Time that Remains (2005), John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution (2009), Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times (2010) and numerous writings on the political theology of Carl Schmitt by the likes of Agamben, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are just some noteworthy studies in this area. Critchley adds doubly to this growing body of work. On the one hand, he offers a superb set of synthetic readings of developments in theologico-political theory and numerous insights into intrications of religion and politics from the medieval period to the present. This is the diagnostic aspect of Critchley’s study, which is timely and compelling. On the other hand, Critchley takes a strong, if not altogether convincing, position on the importance of theologizing politics in order to motivate the faithless nihilists of the world. This is the normative side of the book, which seems at times to run counter to the incisive diagnosis Critchley proposes in the analytical portions of his study. These two strands – a critical analysis of the role of religion in political theory and practice, and an attempt to theologize politics – are intertwined throughout Critchley’s book. For heuristic purposes, I propose to examine the work first as a critical commentary on the raging politico-theological debate, then as a position piece that situates itself within it.

Critchley’s book is divided into four main chapters. The first one, entitled “The Catechism of the Citizen” after an expression used by J.-J. Rousseau in a letter to Voltaire, takes as its point of departure Rousseau’s “On Civil Religion,” a chapter scribbled in a nearly illegible hand at the end of an otherwise clearly penned manuscript draft of The Social Contract. Critchley argues that this chapter on civil religion, appended seemingly as an afterthought to The Social Contract, contains the impossible solution to the political problem Rousseau was trying to solve in his book. This double affirmation – that a tagged-on treatise on religion offers the solution to Rousseau’s political problem, and that this solution is impossible within Rousseau’s system – marks the first in a series of décalages, displacements or disjunctions, in Rousseau’s text that Critchley painstakingly maps out. The idea that Rousseau’s text is a machine à décalage comes from Louis Althusser, to whom Critchley refers throughout his chapter. But the décalages Critchley focuses on are different than the one that most concerns Althusser. For Althusser, the primary internal contradiction that both structures and undermines Rousseau’s system entails his failure to think through “the real,” by which Althusser, the last in a long tradition of French Marxist theorists, means the dialectical relationship between the forces of production and the relations of production. For Critchley, by contrast, the slippages that render Rousseau’s system both possible and impossible, and which he finds directly relevant to thinking through our current conjuncture, pertain to intrications of religion, politics and law.

Critchley patiently teases out these décalages in Rousseau’s political system through detailed analyses of key passages in both the manuscript version and the published version of The Social Contract. I will briefly highlight two of the most important dislocations Critchley brings to light. The first occurs within Rousseau’s concept of sovereignty. Although Rousseau proposes an immanent conception of political legitimacy based on popular sovereignty and the general will, he also maintains that a transcendent presence is required to legitimize the laws that the polity creates. The self-authorized law needs to appeal to an external authority, embodied by the fictional figure of the “legislator,” who stands outside of the community and is not subject to the laws he declares, in order for the decrees of the people to gain popular legitimacy. This is the Rousseauist “paradox of sovereignty,” which Critchley relates to both Carl Schmitt’s famous treatise on the state of exception and the Roman iustitium that Agamben has analyzed with such eloquence in recent years. Secondly, and crucially, Critchley reminds us that in an early draft of The Social Contract Rousseau insists that political legitimacy cannot be established theologically. Yet the final draft concludes with a treatise on civil religion – the “catechism of the citizen” that Rousseau calls for in his letter to Voltaire – which would bind together the members of the community by way of popular festivals, public spectacles and children’s games that would teach people the love of the fatherland and instil a set of commonly held beliefs, including belief in a beneficent deity and an afterlife. In both of these cases, Rousseau is confronting the challenge of lending his system legitimacy and making it effective. He manages to solve what he perceives to be these major political problems, of sovereignty in one case, and of the social bond in the other, by appealing to an external transcendental force. The catch is that Rousseau’s theory of the social contract is a resolutely internal and immanentist political model in which sovereign power resides in the hands of the people, not in an external force, be it a fictive lawmaker or a make-believe deity. Rousseau’s proposed solution therefore effectively undermines the political system it is meant to legitimize and render effective. To say that this is a timely issue of immediate concern for western democracies, which Critchley’s analysis helps us think through it all its complexity, strikes me as a gross understatement.

Critchley relates Rousseau’s appeal for the invention of a fictional legislator and the fabrication of a set of commonly held beliefs to what he calls, in homage to Wallace Stevens, a “supreme fiction.” A “supreme fiction” in Critchley’s use of the term is “a fiction that we know to be a fiction – there being nothing else – but in which we nevertheless believe” (91). The formula sounds remarkably like the phrase that Octave Mannoni famously uses to characterize fetishism: Je sais bien mais quand même (I know very well [that my mother does not have a penis] but nonetheless [she has one]). Critchley makes a compelling case for the extent to which such willful suspensions of disbelief are operative in world politics. Perhaps his most convincing example is Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which, Critchley reminds us, was sometimes reduced to a single word: “Believe!” Indeed, Obama’s political genius, Critchley maintains, resides precisely in his ability to infuse traditional American constitutional liberalism with the rhetoric of religion, in particular that of a historically African American Christianity.

Weaved into the chapter on Rousseau are countless insights into world politics and religion. We learn, for example, about “the invention of the American people” by the aristocrats who ruled them; how Obama’s 2008 bid for the presidency self-consciously mimed Abraham Lincoln’s providential political theology; how the political religion of the United States is instilled in the pledge of allegiance to the flag and is borne out on the American dollar bill; how the flag of the European Union reflects its own political theology; and the ways in which Zionism, jihadism, military neo-liberalism and social democratic conservatism all mobilize in their own ways the entanglements of law, religion and politics that Rousseau was grappling with.

If the first main chapter of Critchley’s book takes Rousseau’s writings on civil religion as a lens through which to read developments in world politics, the following chapter takes an almost diametrically opposed approach. It begins with a section on Carl Schmitt’s political theology, which it rejects, and a section on John Gray’s political realism, which it also rejects, and then proposes what Critchley calls “mystical anarchism” as an alternative to Schmitt’s and Gray’s conservatism. What unites Schmitt and Gray in Critchley’s reading is their shared pessimism regarding human nature and their common reliance on the concept of original sin, which is precisely what the mystical anarchists reject. Critchley’s prime example of mystical anarchism is the Free Spirit movement in medieval Europe, and in particular Marguerite Porente’s The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls, which presents a seven-step method to internalize the divine. Porente’s process of “auto-theism,” through which, by a violent process of self-derealization, one effectively becomes God, posed serious threats to the established orders of the church and the state. One no longer needed such institutions to govern one’s actions if God was internal to the soul. Moreover, groups like the Free Spirit, which were ruthlessly persecuted by the Inquisition for obvious reasons, were also dedicated to abolishing private property and establishing what Critchley says “can only be described as an anarcho-communist micropolitics based on the annihilation of the self in the experience of the divine” (137). Critchley sketches a brief history of similarly-minded groups, enumerated below, culminating in an examination of the so-called Invisible Committee, whose 2007 The Coming Insurrection led to the arrest of nine of its members for the crime that the French judicial system called, in an expression that sounds right out of a Philip K. Dick novel, “pre-terrorism.”

The chapter on mystical anarchism covers a wide array of material, touching on such diverse “mystical anarchists” as Meister Eckhart, Angela of Foligno, Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich; the Shakers of upstate New York and western Massachusetts; Gustav Landauer, a German anarcho-socialist whose conception of the connection between self-annihilation and anarchism Critchley finds particularly significant; Georges Bataille, whose communitarian projects during the inter-war period in France Critchley mentions in passing; Raoul Vaneigem, a situationist who sees the Free Spirit movement as a precursor to the insurrectional movements of the 1960s such as the Situationist International; revolutionary groups such as the Weather Underground Organization, the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigade in the 1970s; and a number of contemporary artists whose re-enactments of civil unrest perpetuate, according to Critchley, the spectacular society of commodification they strive to subvert. It is also perhaps the weakest of the four main chapters. The readings of Schmitt and Gray feel perfunctory, almost as though Critchley were setting them up as foils for his mystical anarchists. The cursory reading of Schmitt is particularly surprising given the importance of his work in the recent surge of interest in political theology, a term he coined in his 1922 book of that title. Moreover, Critchley’s category of mystical anarchism is perhaps too narrow to account for the diversity figures, some more mystical, others more anarchistic, that he places under this umbrella. The chapter moves quickly, covering a lot of ground in few pages, and occasionally leaves the reader yearning for further development.

The third main chapter in Critchley’s book offers a highly original and provocative interpretation of the recent turn to St. Paul in continental theory. Studies such as Eleanor Kaufman’s “The Saturday of Messianic Time,” Elizabeth A. Castelli’s “The Philosophers’ Paul in the Frame of the Global” (both published in South Atlantic Quarterly, in 2008 and 2010 respectively) and the essays collected by Douglas Harink under the title Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision (2010) have offered critical analyses of the St. Paul phenomenon, but what Critchley adds to the debate breaks new ground. Critchley’s central thesis is that the current turn to Paul is in fact a turn to Marcion of Sinope, whose radicalization of Paul’s teachings led to his excommunication from the church in the second century. Marcion presented a dualist belief system which separated the wrathful God of the Old Testament from the merciful God of the Gospel, creation from redemption and the orders of faith, grace and spirit from those of law, works and the flesh. In Critchley’s reading, both Agamben, who presents Paul as a radical Jewish mystic, and Badiou, who takes Paul as a model for the militant of the universal, are crypto-Marcionites. For Agamben, it is the distinction between law and life, a Benjaminian trope that runs throughout his work, where the Messianic entails the revolutionary suspension of law, that bespeaks his crypto-Marcionism. For Badiou, it is the crucial distinction between being and event, the central tenet of his mature philosophy, where being represents the sum total of what is and the event is the emergence of something absolutely new that breaks with the established order of being, that reads like a Marcionite radicalization of Paul. Even Heidegger’s interpretation of Paul in his lectures of 1920–21, which Critchley interestingly maps onto the discussion of conscience in Division 2 of Being and Time, betrays a certain Marcionism. In Heidegger’s case, it is the centrality of the proclamation of faith as opposed to a reliance on proof, prophecy or even theology that, Critchley argues, makes of the Catholic Heidegger an ultra-Protestant crypto-Marcionite. As for Jacob Taubes, whose writings on Paul profoundly influenced Agamben, he is not a crypto-Marcionite but an outright Marcionite. The return to Paul is, in fact, a return to Marcion.

Yet it is precisely to the extent that the current return to Paul constitutes a return to Marcion that it must be rejected, Critchley argues. Paul is not a dualist whose teachings would enable us to abandon the corrupt world of locusts and mosquitoes in favor of a blessed alien land, as Marcion proposes. Rather, Critchley suggests, what Paul’s writings bear witness to is a dialectical struggle of an individual – and a world – radically divided from itself. Paul offers hope for redemption without the certainty of redemption. Rather than the heroism one finds in Badiou, Critchley’s reading of Paul reveals a self that is “broken, impotent and wretched” (206). In contrast to the antinomianism Agamben attributes to Paul, Critchley presents Paul’s writings as a struggle between two laws: “the law of the Spirit” and “the law of sin and death” (205). This acknowledgement of human weakness and of the internal struggle of the individual with itself constitutes the force of Paul’s writings, in Critchley’s view, and the reason why contemporary crypto-Marcionite readings of Paul must be rejected.

Critchley then presents, under the title “Nonviolent Violence,” the latest instalment in a polemical debate that has been raging between him and Slavoj Žižek over the nature of political action since Žižek published a fiery critique of Critchley’s previous book, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, in a 2007 issue of the London Review of Books. The polemic makes for fascinating reading, with both sides defining their position against the other. Critchley accurately characterizes the two sides of the debate as anarchism and authoritarianism, with Critchley taking the side of anarchism and Žižek arguing for the necessity of seizing state power if one wishes to effect real change in the world. This is indeed one of the most pressing questions that the left faces today: Is it necessary to intervene at the level of the state, as Žižek suggests, in order to change the social conditions of the growing number of dispossessed people in the world, or can one work within the state against the state by creating what Critchley calls “interstitial” spaces of resistance? In support of his position, Critchley cites such cases as the indigenous rights movements in Mexico and Australia, actions around the sans papiers in France, the alternate-world and anti-war protest movements of recent years, and the ongoing struggles around questions of immigration in North America and Europe, to which one could add a movement like Occupy Wall Street. Žižek tellingly refers to the Jacobin Terror of 1793–94, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the moment in the 1990s when the dispossessed of Rio de Janeiro descended from their favelas and started burning and looting the rich parts of the city like a swarm of Biblical locusts. These examples are telling for two reasons: (1) they highlight the fundamental difference between Žižekian Revolution and Critchley’s politics of resistance, and (2) they mark the very different role that each of the theorists attributes to violence in his conception of political action.

The latter difference is central to the dispute between Critchley and Žižek. Indeed, the focal point of their debate involves their contrasting interpretations of the obscure and provocative concept of “divine violence” that Walter Benjamin puts forth in the closing pages of his dense and difficult “Critique of Violence.” For Žižek, divine violence is like the popular insurrections mentioned above, which strike out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning. For Critchley, on the contrary, divine violence is a “nonviolent violence” that breaks the cycle of violence. In this vein, Critchley underlines the fact that the title of Benjamin’s piece is “Critique of Violence.” However, as readers of Benjamin will know, “Critique of Violence” reads more like an analysis of violence – and even an apology for the type of violence that Benjamin calls “divine” – than a critique per se. Taking inspiration from Critchley’s fine reading of Rousseau, one might go so far as to suggest that the title of Benjamin’s piece bears witness to a décalage of sorts, which may or may not structure his thoughts on violence. Critchley also places great emphasis on the fact that Benjamin allows for the possibility of nonviolent resolution to conflict in the case of extra-legal agreements analogous to those among private persons. However, agreements such as these stand in contrast to divine violence; they are not examples of it. Divine violence is violent. It is a law-destroying violence directed against both law-preserving violence and the law-making violence that Benjamin identifies as “mythic,” but it is violent nonetheless. Critchley acknowledges this when he calls it “violence against violence” (217), but to go from there to calling it a “nonviolent violence” is to offer us a sanitized, politically corrected Benjamin. One would think from reading Critchley that Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” is a treatise on nonviolence, which it is not.

Critchley concludes his discussion of nonviolent violence with a moving meditation on the relation between violence and nonviolence in the neo-anarchist politics he wants to promote. Taking as his point of departure Benjamin’s affirmation that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” represents a rough guideline rather than a categorical law to be followed in all cases, Critchley acknowledges that the cause of nonviolence can in some circumstances best be furthered through violent means. Here he sharply contrasts himself with Žižek, who dreams of revolutionary violence but in fact counsels us, in the final paragraphs of his book Violence, to do nothing. Critchley’s position is the diametrical opposite: he dreams of a world of nonviolence but is prepared to engage in violent action in order to bring it about.

As can be seen from this brief overview of the book, Faith of the Faithless covers a vast array of material. It tends to wander down unforeseen pathways and occasionally loses focus. The chapter on nonviolent violence, for example, belongs more logically in a book like Infinitely Demanding than in Faith of the Faithless, although, as we will see momentarily, the two books are intimately related. That being said, what Faith of the Faithless lacks in overall structure it more than makes up for in fascinating mini-readings. In its wide-ranging breadth, its brilliant and occasionally counterintuitive insights, its ability to make theory vital and relevant, its clear and engaging style and its ability to condense the thoughts of some notoriously difficult authors into very readable prose, it is virtually unrivalled. Ironically, the author whose methodology is closest to Critchley’s may well be his archrival, Žižek. Critchley occasionally forces texts to work within his paradigm, but such violence often occurs when a strong argument is advanced, and strong misreadings of this sort can be highly productive, as is, in my opinion, the case here. Critchley’s book makes a powerful case for neo-anarchism. Along with authors like Todd May, whose work from The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (1994) to The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality (2008) has attempted to create a synergy between contemporary continental theory and the anarchist tradition, Critchley is helping to build the theoretical framework for a vital and viable neo-anarchist politics.

Critchley’s book is also, of course, a position piece of sorts on political theology. If there is a single overarching argument in Faith of the Faithless, it is that the left needs to capitalize on the motivational potential of religion and use it to its advantage. “It seems to me that the left has all too easily ceded the religious ground to the right,” Critchley argues at the beginning of his chapter on Rousseau, “and it is this ground that needs to be regained in a coherent, long-term, and tenacious political war of position, as Gramsci would say” (25). The argument here harks back to the Introduction of Infinitely Demanding, where Critchley argues that there is a “motivational deficit” at the heart of secular liberal democracy. In that Introduction, Critchley makes the case that philosophy is born from disappointment, and he states that the two forms of disappointment that concern him most urgently are religious and political. Infinitely Demanding then goes on to address and attempt to remedy political disappointment. Faith of the Faithless is arguably the second tome in a two-volume study of disappointment, following a line of inquiry announced in the opening pages of the first book.

The justification for a book like Faith of the Faithless is laid out early in the text: “Is politics conceivable without religion? The answer is obviously affirmative as the evidence of various secular political theories testifies. But is politics practicable without religion? [...] I do not think so” (24). This is a remarkable statement. Politics is impracticable without religion. One could cite numerous theorists in an attempt to refute Critchley’s claim here, but perhaps the one who would be most helpful in this context is Jacques Rancière, whose politics of emancipation resemble in many ways Critchley’s neo-anarchism. What separates the two thinkers, I would argue, is precisely the question of faith. At first sight, it might appear that Rancière, who has refrained from jumping on the politico-theological bandwagon, has little faith, but I would argue otherwise. To the extent that Rancière’s radical democratic politics are based on the supposition of equality, and in particular the equality of intelligence, which is the cornerstone of his political theory, I would argue that he does have faith, perhaps more than any philosopher I have ever read. But what he has faith in is human intelligence, not a divine being or supreme power. Critchley does not seem to share this faith and so feels compelled to turn to “supreme fictions” in order to motivate people to engage in political action.

Critchley’s argument that the left should catechise the faithless in order to motivate them to engage politically is surprising given his own professed atheism and especially given the grave concerns he expresses about the infusion of religion into politics that is currently taking place in the world. “We are living through a chronic re-theologization of politics,” he writes, “which makes this time certainly the darkest period in my lifetime” (25). Clichés about the hair of dog – or the god – that bit you come to mind. In the spirit of the subtitle of Critchley’s book, Experiments in Political Theology, let us end with a laboratory metaphor. In his magnificent chapter on the décalages in Rousseau’s system, Critchley compares Rousseau’s account of the art of politics to Derrida’s analysis in “Plato’s Pharmacy” of the pharmakon, which, Critchley reminds us, means both poison and cure. “We must endeavor to ‘derive from the evil the remedy which will cure it,’” Critchley writes, citing Rousseau (33). The analysis could be extended to the general argument of Critchley’s book. If the theologization of politics is a dangerous phenomenon defined by the violence and intolerance one finds in the religious fundamentalisms that have taken hold of large sectors of the world’s population, then the solution to the problem, Critchley tells us, is to be sought in re-theologizing politics. In Critchley’s pharmacy, the poison is the cure.

Milo Sweedler  

Milo Sweedler is Associate Professor of French and Cultural Analysis & Social Theory at Wilfrid Laurier University. His work on political and cultural theories and the French literary avant-garde has appeared in diverse journals and numerous edited volumes. His first book, The Dismembered Community: Bataille, Blanchot, Leiris, and the Remains of Laure, was published in 2009 by University of Delaware Press. He is currently working on a book-length manuscript on theories of revolution in contemporary French thought. Milo can be reached at msweedler@wlu.ca