7.3.12

Simon Critchley Interview: The Faith of the Faithless

Why a counterfactual faith is so important to modern politics
Simon Critchley, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology
Jonny Gordon-Farleigh of Stir (stirtoaction.com) interviews the philosopher Simon Critchley to mark the publication of his new book, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology:
It has been reasoned that the recent theological revival is because of a “theoretical deficit, not a theological need” (Alberto Toscano). Are there more reasons for this unexpected if not unusual upturn in interest in political theology than the catastrophic failure of the communist projects of the previous century?

Simon Critchley: The interest in political theology comes out of a dissatisfaction with liberalism. The notion of political theology as a category or term actually originates in Bakunin. So, it originates in Italian thought in the mid-nineteenth century and is also first used as an abusive term. And when Carl Schmitt picks it up in the 1920s he gives it a different valence but the object of attack for both Bakunin and Schmitt, on the left and on the right, is the same liberalism.

Periodising that, you have the aftermath of the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union, and the period in the early 90s when there is a lot of optimism about the potential within democracy for emancipatory energies that then quickly exhausts itself. Then, there is a return to the theological concerns at that moment, which isn’t so much a return to communist ideas as an attempt to find something at the level of the deep motivational structure of what it means to be a human self and what selves might be together. If you are interested in that question then the history of religious thought is really a place to look — maybe the place to look.

For me, I’ve never been a particularly secularist thinker and I’ve never had a strong faith in the ideas of secular modernity. I’ve had a huge interest, as long as I’ve been aware of such things, in religious thinkers like Paul, Pascal, Augustine and many others. It seems to me that if you start from some idea that philosophy or theory has to do without religion then you are cutting yourself off from that incredibly useful archive of possibilities. So, I think that philosophy is inconceivable without religion, or shouldn’t be done without religion as it shouldn’t be done only with religion. I am not a theist in that sense. It means using the best and most powerful ideas in that tradition for other ends. Of the people who have gone back to using religious sources to think about politics, then I would say that Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul is the most powerful.

The question for me is two-fold. Firstly, it is diagnostic: to understand the nature of political forms is to think of them as different forms of sacralisation. In my view, I have this idea that the history of political forms — fascism, liberal democracy, Stalinism — is different forms of the sacral. There is always some sacred object: the nation, the people, the race, or whatever it might be. So, rather than seeing the history of politics as the movement from the religious to the secular, I see politics as a shift in the meaning of the sacred.

For me, that is an incredibly useful diagnostic tool when you are, say, looking at political forms in a country like the one I am living in (the US), where an incredibly powerful political theology exists in terms of American civil religion which is able to exert a unusual power over citizens and using that to find out how that works. So, there is a diagnostic category that is very important, and then there is a more normative one.

Politics for me, to put it in a crude formula, is “association without representation”. I adapted this from Rousseau. The notion of association for me is not just, but nonetheless still, a religious idea. Religion is linked to the idea of Renegare who asks what is it that binds fast? What is it that binds fast an association? For me, that is a question that the left has been grappling with for the last couple of centuries. So, I don’t think you can just slough off the religious tradition or say it’s just nonsense. That is a philistine gesture that is counter-productive in all sorts of ways. [Read More]
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