The God That Failed

Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

Verso, 291pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781844677375

reviewed by Benjamin Noys

The current obsession with religion in contemporary theory is hard to miss – what had seemed a secular enterprise has turned out more books concerning Saint Paul than the average theology faculty. Simon Critchley’s new take on religion is, like many of these efforts, also an attempt, or as he prefers experiment, in ‘political theology’. At the heart of the work is God-envy; an envy of believers for the motivational power of religion, which is not dissimilar to those annoying reports that religious believers are happier and have better community support than any benighted atheists or agnostics. Writing from the self-proclaimed position of ‘post-Kantian, metropolitan, cosmopolitan metrosexual’, a position readers are presumed to share, Critchley aims to take back this claimed motivational power without any of the irritating impediments of actual belief.

What is different about Critchley’s experiment is that it tries to rework a ‘faith of the faithless’ for an anarchist politics. This book might be taken as an expansion of his previous work Infinitely Demanding (Verso, 2007), which set out a politics based on the weakness and frailty of the individual subject to an infinite ethical demand. Now, at much greater if not exhausting length, The Faith of the Faithless aims to cash out what that experience might look like, as well as modifying and reflecting on the ‘anarchist’ politics previously outlined. In particular, the core of this work is Critchley’s suggestion of a ‘politics of love’ that can concretely embody this anarchist ‘weak politics’.

Critchley’s politics of love is ranged against the fetishisation of the state and power in political thought. He sees the limits of contemporary debate as being between Carl Schmitt – an ideologue of Nazism in the 1930s, and theorist of politics as a matter of sovereign decision - at one end, and ‘Obamaism’ – the ‘liberalism’ of Barack Obama - at the other. Critchley’s anxiety concerning state power leads him to further dubious historical judgements, such as his claim that ‘Jacobinism’, which he characterises as a dictatorial political form operating through purifying violence, links together the violent excesses of 20th century politics, from Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler to al Qaeda. This kind of unnuanced collapsing of different movements and political forms repeats a similar gesture from Infinitely Demanding, and is unworthy of Critchley’s project. It panders to conservative and reactionary tropes, and does not serve a proper historical awareness of the forms of state violence.

Matters are made more complex when Critchley chooses to articulate his alternative politics of love, a gesture of absolute spiritual daring, through what he calls ‘mystical anarchism’. The confusion I felt is that this kind of ‘mystical anarchism’, associated with medieval mystics and the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’, itself seems like an absolute and abstract politics. Certainly Critchley stresses its self-abnegating nature, and is careful to distance himself from more recent manifestations of ‘absolute politics’, but there remains a sense of envy or desire for an absolute radicalism that is constantly warded off. This sits somewhat uncomfortably with his recognition that any contemporary radical politics must involve a sense of the complex mediations involved in political activity and provide a careful mapping of forms of power and resistance. I’d certainly agree, but what is striking is that Critchley doesn’t reference any real examples of such mappings, and so leaves the confused impression that somehow we can have the cake of absolute radicalism and eat it with an unspecified sense of ‘concrete’ nuance.

This strikes more generally at the tension in the book between the weak and powerless subject and the demand of the infinite Other. How is a demand supposed to come down to an earthly politics? The most interesting reflection on this question comes in Critchley’s discussion of the ‘heresy’ of the Marcionist doctrine. In this form of Christianity, inspired by Saint Paul, there is an absolute split between faith and knowledge, the New Testament and the Old Testament, redemption and creation. Our world is a fallen one, and our only redemption comes through an absolute detachment from this world and our faith in a moment of redemption.

This stress on the absolute novelty of redemption is used by Critchley to diagnose a ‘crypto-Marcionism’ in certain forms of contemporary theory; he has in mind Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben. While I don’t think this criticism quite hits its putative targets I do think it accurately identifies the tension in Critchley’s own project. It suggests his awareness of the temptations of novelty and the extremity of a self-authorised politics of love. This potential self-criticism could be developed further, perhaps in a reflection on the dangerous ‘concrete’ results that can result from the ‘absolute spiritual daring’ of a politics of love. Here, as an aside, a viewing of Paul Schrader’s Calvinist epic Hardcore (1979), with its Calvinist father trying to find and ‘rescue’ his daughter from the world of hardcore pornography, might illustrate the possible perverse results of such an approach.

These tensions come to a head in the chapter devoted to the debate between Critchley and Slavoj Žižek on the question of violence. Despite the seemingly high stakes of the debate, which Critchley represents as a restaging of that between Marx and Bakunin, something comic surrounds it. There is little more amusing than watching intellectuals descend into playground-level insults, especially when Žižek is renowned for his recourse to off-colour jokes and Critchley has written on comedy. In Critchley’s telling, Žižek’s defence of violence is another Leninist fantasy that leaves Žižek caught in a deadlock between endorsing withdrawn reflection and fantasising apocalyptic violence. Leaving aside the accuracy of this judgement, Critchley’s own attempt to mediate a thinking of non-violence that can guide us politically seems noticeably problematic.

First, we have the strange instance of an ‘anarchist’ thinker commending the Bolivian president Evo Morales against Žižek’s choice of Hugo Chávez. Moving on, Critchley’s attempt to articulate a more nuanced thinking of non-violence which is not absolutist leads to a ‘nonviolent violence’ in which our decisions are always guided by non-violence but may involve violence. While this is not necessarily bad, it hardly provides much in the way of political or ethical guidance or assessment; even the US military professes the desire to reduce violence to a minimum in its operations. Of course, Critchley argues that our own sense of powerlessness tied to the demand of the ‘infinite Other’ should produce better ethics than that. I was struck, however, that as the chapter went on it seemed harder and harder to detect any difference between Žižek and Critchley’s respective positions, despite their ‘violent’ differences. Both seem to be saying - which is only what most of us would agree with - that violence is needed where necessary, but not too much violence.

This certainly speaks to a common impasse, as it is difficult to answer such questions at a time when the left and radical movements are in a state of weakness. The weakness in question is not Critchley’s metaphysical weakness of the suffering self, so much as an empirical weakness. Debates concerning violence or non-violence, our respect or not for the ‘infinite Other’, and whether we are intrinsically powerful or powerless, obviously seem highly abstract in the absence of actual political action. Also, the problem of state violence seems much more pressing than the violence of the left, although accusations of ‘violence’ against protestors are endemic – as seen in the current and continuing prosecution of student protestors. In this situation the analysis of how state violence presents itself as the lawful ‘non-violent’ restraint of ‘violent protest’ is the key problem.

Certainly Critchley has modified profoundly his anarchist views – including his doctrinaire and abstract claim to ‘non-violence’ – but so much so that they might not be regarded as anarchist any longer. His suggestion that we think more deeply about the locations of radical politics, and his suspicion of claims to novelty and absolute change, are vital in the present moment. What I doubt is whether invoking our powerless nature and the infinite demand of the Other really answers these demands.
Benjamin Noys teaches critical theory at the University of Chichester. His most recent book is Malign Velocities: Accelerationism & Capitalism.