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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

G-d and Phenomenology.


Perhaps as a consequence of the close ties between phenomenology and existentialism in the 20th Century so it may be associated with atheism. This association of existentialism with atheism is not unfounded as existentialists such as Albert Camus subscribed to the view of life as totally meaningless. And indeed Jean-Paul Sartre was a vehement atheist. The same may be said of Nietzsche though in many respects it may be argued he remained firmly within Lutheranism.[1] Then there is Kierkegaard, a man who may even be deemed a Christian fundamentalist by some. The most significant reaction to Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology came from Martin Heidegger was a student of theology before he moved onto philosophy and developed hermeneutical phenomenology. But it was the reactions to Heidegger which took the most overt stances on the question of God. It may safely be said from the outset that there is no reason phenomenology can be strictly either theistic or atheistic.

The reactions to Heidegger took both theistic and atheistic forms. In Sartre’s reaction to Heidegger he presented an existential phenomenology which was atheistic as it acknowledged the human desire for God. Then Emmanuel Levinas introduced an ethical element into phenomenology which went further than a mere acknowledgement of the desire for God. If we take phenomenology as the study of appearances, as Heidegger did, then it may seem as though it begins at a secular point and doesn’t necessarily rule out the existence of God. As it would seem that the study of appearances could well be agnostic on the question of God, as it is beyond appearances, phenomenology may be better described as non-theistic rather than atheistic in this sense. We might be able to maintain this stance on Husserl and Heidegger, but it is disputable and even more so when we move to the later phenomenologists.

The explicitly atheist phenomenology can be found in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, where God is a contradiction as God would have to exist at the modes of in-itself and for-itself. Being-in-itself is the mode of being held by inanimate objects, whereas being-for-itself is integral to human freedom – a human being is not a human being in the sense that a stone is a stone.[2] The for-itself arises once in-itself has been negated by it, then it rushes into the future as the human subject strives towards authenticity. In this process then the for-itself becomes what it isn’t – being-in-itself – and negates what it was. This is the exact condition of human freedom from which the desire for God emerges. There is a hypothetical being-in-itself-for-itself and that is God, it implies a coincidence of the self with the self and absence of the negation that it takes to form the self. But it is the instability of the subject, which Sartre described, that opens up a temptation to ‘flee from being’ and into bad faith. This is where the desire for God comes from and it is followed by the futile attempts to reach out to this impossible mode of being.

Of course, it may be said, it is the framework in which Sartre works that has closed off any space for God from the outset. So it is the framework which is to be questioned here. But not to revert to a non-existent ‘neutral’ space from which we can see whether there is or isn’t a God. Rather we should look assess the problems with Sartre’s framework and then look at a rival framework. The problem might be down to some of the vestments of Cartesianism that Sartre brings to the table. The conception of freedom that Sartre develops is predicated on a notion of consciousness as nothingness.[3] Because freedom is consciousness it is detached from the causal forces of the external world. There is literally nothing which traps the self ‘inside’ consciousness because there is nothing there. It boils down to a modified version of the mind-body distinction that Descartes drew. It’s precisely this aspect of the Cartesian tradition that Heidegger wanted to throw out completely.

It is this levelled plain of radically free individuals, with the subject as an unstable moral agent – lacking any objective moral values – whose relations with others is typified by feelings such as shame. Sartre was preoccupied with the ‘look’ which separates the subject off from the world and turns them into a thing. The Other raises the instability of our already fragile consciousness.[4] The existence of the Other is not problematic, though the Other is a potential threat to the freedom of the subject.[5] The subject exists as in-itself and for-itself but does not exist in isolation, to the contrary the subject must coexist with others and so the subject is not just for-itself it is being-for-others. The Other reduces the for-itself subject to a thing-like in-itself existence, the subject is deprived of its autonomy and freedom. The relationship with the Other is inevitably prone to conflict, the subject can only dominate or be dominated. As Garcin says famously at the end of Sartre’s No Exit “There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is – other people.”[6]

The important thing to remember about Sartre is that he was writing in reaction to Heidegger, who had thoroughly rejected the Cartesian tradition. To do this Heidegger had questioned the basic claim that the knowledge we have of ourselves differs from the knowledge we have of others at a fundamental level. Heidegger used the word Dasein to signify not just the subject, but the temporal unfolding of existence – we might think of it as experience. In this way we are embodied experiencers of a world that we are thoroughly wrapped up in and share with others who compose the They.[7] The mind-body distinction is something to be thrown aside, along with the notion that there is an external world from which we can retreat. Heidegger had conceived of being-in-the-world to signify the human existence as bound up with reality, both as constitutive and constituted by it. For Heideggerians then Sartre fails insofar as he doesn’t totally reject Cartesianism, even if it only survives in modified form.


This is where Emmanuel Levinas enters the picture with a take on the Other which is in opposition to the position that Sartre had carved out. Levinas shared Heidegger’s worries about the implications of a selfhood which is cut-off from the world in its autonomy. And at the same time Levinas was concerned about the absence of an ethics in Heidegger’s project. For Levinas the Other is not a threat to one’s freedom, that we can only dominate or be dominated by. Rather the face-to-face encounter with the Other is positive as it challenges the self-assurance and self-containment of the subject. It inaugurates the possibility of an ethical code.[8] The naked face of the Other appeals to the subject in a way that cannot be ignored or forgotten. It is an appeal for the subject to go towards, to welcome and to take responsibility for the Other. The identity of the subject is dependent on the Otherness that is always and already present before the subject is constituted, it is founded by the ethical demand to take responsibility for the Other. This is where a space for God is prised open.

Recall the words of Terry Eagleton that “To move from Husserl to Heidegger is to move from the terrain of pure intellect to a philosophy which meditates on what it feels like to be alive.”[9]  We might add that Levinas takes off from ‘what it feels like to be alive’ to the realm of the ethical. The encounter with the Other is a mere glimpse of the Infinite, or more bluntly God, from which the most we can receive is an imperative.[10] The only means of relation to God is through moral conduct and this is especially the case in regards to the Other. Levinas was one of a line of Jewish phenomenologists, which began with Husserl and included such unlikely bedfellows as Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. But Levinas may have been the first in this line to introduce a Judaic turn to phenomenology. The trace of the ever elusive Infinite which we detect in the face of the Other comes in the form of an obligation in the same way that all Moses received from God at Mount Sinai were the mitzvoth – the commandments.[11] The Infinite seems to hold no content for us, but what we can relate to and that is moral in character.

There is a moment in A Serious Man (2009) which holds some relevance as Rabbi Nachtner says “Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” God has left us to our own devices, which is why we can and must do His work. We might even go to the end and conclude that God does not intervene because we are the intervention. For Sartre it is the Other which is presupposed, for Levinas it is the Infinite which is presupposed. But it is Levinas who grounds our moral obligations in theistic terms. In doing so, Levinas reformulated the Cartesian case for the existence of God by substituting the Infinite for the Other. And so we could charge him, as we would Sartre, with bringing back the old baggage as part of his bid to bring morality into phenomenology. Though it should be noted that Levinas called for a revision of intersubjectivity as developed in the Cartesian tradition and by Husserl. This means that the basic concept of the subject: a mind which grasps what it confronts in experience and turns it into its content. The troubling assumption being that everything is ‘given’ as representation, even though everything is ultimately other than the mind it can be possessed by the mind.[12]

There is a more direct way whereby the subject can stand in such relations, e.g. face-to-face with another person. For Levinas the relation to the Other is essential to what it means to be human, it is irreducible. It’s a negative theology of sorts as Levinas shirked from a theorisation of God. If you can theorise about him then he isn’t God, this view that we cannot theorise Him seems compatible with the Heideggerian view of phenomenology as a study of appearances. Deliberately Levinas avoided the game of providing an argument for the existence of God as that would be ‘bad theology’. So the idea of a practical atheism may have had its use in terms of coming to grips with what it means to be human. This differs with the early work of Heidegger which carries the panentheistic tones of Heidegger's Christian background. But it also differs sharply with Heidegger's later nostalgia for the Pagan plethora of Greek gods. By contrast Levinas refuses any compromise with polytheism and insists on a universalist approach tempered by particularism.


[1] Jackson, R: Nietzsche the Key Ideas (Hachette UK, 2010) pg.118-124
[2] Macey, D: Dictionary of Critical Theory (Penguin Reference, 2001) pg.201-203
[3] Solomon, RC; Sartre’s Phenomenology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vGzpEqKK-Y
[4] Wartenberg, T; Existentialism (Oneworld Publications, 2008) pg.60-69
[5] Macey, D; Dictionary of Critical Theory (Penguin Reference, 2001) pg.284-286
[6] Sartre, JP; No Exit (Samuel French, Inc. 1958) pg.46-47
[7] Wartenberg, T; Existentialism (Oneworld Publications, 2008) pg.51-60
[8] Macey, D; Dictionary of Critical Theory (Penguin Reference, 2001) pg.284-286
[9] Eagleton, T; Literary Theory: An Introduction (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1983 | Second Edition, 1983) pg.47-57
[10] Putnam, H; Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to life (Indiana University Press, 2008) pg.68-82
[11] Putnam, H; Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to life (Indiana University Press, 2008) pg.87-94
[12] Mautner, T; Dictionary of Philosophy (Penguin Reference, 2001) pg.348-349

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Belief and Action.


The centenary of Ronald Reagan's birth was marked with empty words of admiration from the incumbent President, but will the 100th year since the birth of Bayard Rustin be distinguished with comparable veneration? I doubt it. Even though the man came out of the Mahatma Gandhi school of non-violent resistance to battle for the kind of rights and freedoms that are taken for granted today. The commitment Bayard Rustin showed to the cause of human liberation went much further than the shallow words of every conservative icon in American history. It wasn't libertarians who bestowed freedom unto the black man of the South. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were the faces of the respectable reaction against the struggle for equal rights. And these men had the temerity to speak of liberty! In Rustin's own words "The proof that one truly believes is in action."

With those words in mind it cannot be said that Bayard Rustin did not believe. For around six decades Bayard Rustin served as an activist to a multiplicity of causes - from civil rights to anti-imperialism. And in doing so he demonstrated that these causes could potentially be linked together in a common struggle. Rustin had been a member of the Communist Party until Stalin ordered it to give up on the civil rights struggle to back American entry into World War II. He remained a leftist and moved on to the Socialist Party of America and later would lead it as it became Social Democrats USA in the 1970s. All of this made him a primary target of right-wing attacks on the Civil Rights movement. But he was easily scapegoated within the movement itself as he was openly gay. He found himself forced from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because of his sexuality.

Nevertheless, Rustin was unofficially the primary organiser of the March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP did not want to see Bayard Rustin take any credit for the march whatsoever. At the march itself Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream..." speech, the all-American rhetoric of which served to distance himself from the anti-American figure who had organised the march. He was exceptional in that he was at the forefront of so many struggles and yet he was never a public face in the same way as his contemporaries. We shouldn't forget that Malcolm X was a spokesman of the Nation of Islam, which provided him with a remote platform from power where it was safe to speak from. The Nation of Islam languishes in comfort from power, where it is easy to talk tough. It has shirked from any direct confrontation with the US government since Elijah Mohammed was imprisoned for supporting the Japanese in World War II.

Bayard Rustin never joined this particular black nationalist crowd with its anti-Semitic populism and peculiar understanding of the Qu'ran. These were the symptoms of an impotent organisation and Rustin never succumbed to such powerlessness. Rather he was the sort of guy willing to be dragged off to a jail cell dozens of times in the struggle for equal rights and freedoms. A resistant position is by definition uncomfortable. Rustin was never a public face in the same way as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X even though he rubbed shoulders with them - as a mentor in the case of King. We may not know of Rustin but we certainly know of his influence. Just think of the politics of non-violent resistance and the slogan that the "new niggers are gays". People forget that the 1963 March on Washington was a march for jobs and freedom, economic justice loomed in the background of calls for equal rights and universal suffrage.

The radical spirit of Rustin reemerged in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967. Then at the Riverside Church the Reverend talked about of "true revolution in values" which "will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth" and went further to speak of Western capitalists investing in Asia and Africa only before taking the profits out with no concern for these countries. King went on to say "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than programmes of social uplift was approaching spiritual death." Then came the stinging line for the elites "The United States government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." It provoked merciless attacks, he was charged as a leftist demagogue by the mainstream media and the establishment. King had crossed the line. This is the figure that we aren't supposed to revere, though we are meant to pay lipservice to "I have a dream..." and nothing more.

By then Malcolm X had been wasted by hired thugs and soon enough King would meet a violent end too. Bayard Rustin did not meet this fate, but he would become a convenient victim of America's cultural amnesia. The case of Bayard Rustin tells one a lot about bigotry, how it penetrated both sides of the civil rights struggle in the 60s. The point at which civil rights for blacks and gays may converge with the struggle for working-class emancipation is something that could never be accepted. Everything from race, sexuality and gender can be incorporated into capitalism at the shallow level of 'sameness'. But when it comes to class, the system cannot even speak its name. The politics of class-war are something to move beyond apparently, whereas there is plenty of time for talk of positive discrimination and quotas to make sure there are women on the board of directors. If anything Bayard Rustin embodies the relentless spirit which made the impossible possible and has yet to fully triumph in the United States.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Make Bradford British?


If you heard about Make Bradford British a couple of weeks ago on Twitter you might be excused for mistaking it for a racist slogan. But then you might have found a link to the Channel 4 citizenship test and discovered that if you wouldn't pass the tests immigrants go through to get into this country. This was a step-up from the pinhead documentary Proud and Prejudiced, which almost portrayed the crypto-Nazi EDL as defenders of multicultural Britain against radical Islam. The stated point of Make Bradford British was the standard concern about the lack of integration in a racially tense place like Bradford to create a model for a multicultural Britain. The line that the liberal intelligentsia was the main proponent behind multiculturalism was quickly trotted out, but in terms that the mission had failed to deliver integration outside of London. The emphasis on a set of 'common values' came out at the beginning and end of the episodes.

A pair of 'diversity experts' invite us to watch this search for an answer to the question "What does it mean to be British nowadays?" The problem with this is that it assumes there is or should be a thing called 'Britishness'. We have forgotten that Great Britain is composed of a union between the English, the Scottish, the Welsh and the Irish. It is a marriage of convenience that has lasted a very long time. It was never about a nation, tradition or identity. It is almost as absurd as the French having a fit over the disappearance of the King of France. The standard spectrum on this debate runs from the view that we ought to respect 'other cultures' to the position that we need to reassert 'our values'. These are just empty signifiers and that remains so even if we are calling for a return to the values of Boudica. At best we can only tolerate the Other, which is especially easy if they fit into a neat unit which renders them 'one of us'.

Rashid and Damon were the most interesting to see 'interact', the rest was a standard mash up of fake lessons regurgitated for the camera upon command. The copper had to learn to look beyond the blackness of Desmond and the liberal bint had to find someone who won't tolerate her sinuous nonsense. Rashid and Damon are set up to share the same bedroom, but they move one bed out of the room so that the two can sleep separately from one another. It was an agreement that they both reached. Rashid was presented as a Muslim absorbed by his faith to the point of inconveniencing the team with the call to prayer. The cheap lesson in the first episode was Rashid putting aside going to his mosque to pray in order to go on an outing with the team. Whereas, Damon came out with the predictable lines about the Muslim community - the lack of integration demonstrated by women wearing headscarves etc. - that you can enjoy in our fine press. He went as far as to defend the use of the slur 'Paki' at dinner and admits that he viewed mosques as 'terrorist centres'.

Then Damon started to go to the gym with Rashid and visits the mosque in a predominantly Asian area which Damon had avoided for so long. It was warming to see these two men paint the bedroom of Damon's daughter. Even more heartening was the scene where Damon tells Rashid that it is he - the bearded Muslim - who is in fact closer to his grandparents and their 'British values' than he is. Damon has since attended the wedding of Rashid's sister. This moment went beyond the multicultural trite of liberals and the white whines of conservatives. Even though the rest of the participants regurgitated the same old platitudes and shallow ideas of what it means to live in a multicultural democracy. It may have meant to just reenforce the old narrative that there needs to be a national centre to a plurality of cultures in contemporary Britain. But it included a moment of great potential.