BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 01 NOV 10
Featured in
Issue 135

A Kind of Faith

Dan Fox talks to Simon Critchley about community, avant-garde rituals and being ‘religious without religion’

BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 01 NOV 10

Dan Fox  Your forthcoming book is called Faith of the Faithless. Could you explain its central themes? 

Simon Critchley  Part of it is on experimentalism in art and politics: are Utopian conceptions of community practicable? I look at the history of certain heretical groups – such as the Cathars, the Diggers, 19th-century Utopian socialism – and the Situationists. I talk about The Invisible Committee, the French group who wrote The Coming Insurrection [2008] – who are trying to recover a conception of Communism – and make a link between them and various activities in contemporary art around the idea of collective intelligence. What sense can we make of collaboration as an artistic practice? Part of it is an almost mystical idea of the group, what Sartre called the ‘group-in-fusion’. I’m looking at a number of artists associated with what has been branded ‘relational aesthetics’, as well as the idea that collaboration – anonymity – is sustained by a faith that something will come about through those processes. Artistically and politically, the avant-garde has always been concerned with figuring ideas of the group based around a kind of faith.

DF  I understand the title of your book comes from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis [1905], which he wrote whilst imprisoned in Reading Gaol.

SC  There’s this wonderful line in the text: ‘When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.’ Wilde fancies himself as a sort of Hellenistic individualist in his work. In his essay ‘The Soul of A Man Under Socialism’ [1891], he writes that socialism would save us from ‘the complaints of the poor’ and that the poor would be taken care of; socialism would be the achievement of individualism. But when he writes De Profundis in prison, something much deeper takes hold. Wilde, the individual in crisis, turns not towards some outside transcendence or deity, but rather towards an inner process of self-realization and humility: it is by drawing on the suffering within himself that he can produce an externalized art.

DF  As brave as it seemed for Wilde to not just resort to conventional concepts of salvation, isn’t that an all-too therapeutic model? Is the problem today not the opposite: the obsessive self-referentiality of the modern self? One of the ways in which contemporary capitalism works, for instance, is by appealing to the inner self of the consumer, insisting that products or lifestyle choices can help your feelings.

SC  I think the way authenticity plays out these days around notions of well-being, and practices that are meant to produce happiness, such as new age spirituality, is the enemy. What I’m trying to put in its place is the idea of a radically inauthentic dividual, a self who is divided from itself in relation to a demand, and that demand is what you have faith in – that’s the sustaining belief or pledge. It’s like the sort of exorbitant demand Christ made in his Sermon on the Mount: to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies. We become ethical selves by attempting to live in accordance with an asymmetrical and unfulfillable ideal, the demand to be Christ-like while knowing that we are all too human. You can see Wilde struggling to construct a self in relation to this demand and for me that’s what’s essential.

Mark E. Smith, 1990. Courtesy: Getty Images / Steve Pyke

DF  Do you think that this gap, the infinite demands of the ethical self, relates to something you wrote in your book Very Little … Almost Nothing [1997] about how philosophy begins in disappointment: ‘the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled’? Although our culture is full of Promethean tales of overcoming the human condition, we are limited and fallible. Is this what drives philosophy?

SC  Totally. Philosophy can allow us to know our limits.

DF  How about the limits of knowledge? In the catalogue for the 2009 exhibition ‘For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Looking for the Black Cat That Isn’t There’, curator Anthony Huberman asks: ‘Can one imagine a new epistemological map that reaches outside and beyond the familiar north/south poles of knowing and not-knowing?’ Do you think art can provide that productive third position of non-knowledge?

SC  Yes. On the one hand we want to question the authority of knowledge, or the faith that we will be in a position to know everything at some point, but in a banal way people want a theory of everything that can bring together, say, religious belief with Darwinism or theoretical physics. There’s a hunger for that which has to be frustrated. The flipside is an obscurantist affirmation of non-knowledge: we can never know the whole so we must affirm not-knowing, the nothing. That’s also to be refused.

DF  Why?

SC  It’s a form of passive nihilism. You accept the world is meaningless and so you withdraw within the privacy and comfort of your sense of self, whilst blood is being spilled on the streets ‘in the merriest way, as if it were champagne’, as Dostoevsky would say. A third option for me would be something like faith: not faith in God, but faith as an experience of fidelity to a demand that I hold to be true. So, to get out of the north/south of knowing and non-knowing, the third option would be truth, not conceived of in a scientific or logical way, but truth as that which I’m faithful to …

DF  Or betrothed to...?

SC  Yes, truth as ‘troth’ – faith as something that structures my life, be it politically or artistically, or how you choose to deal with people.

DF  Isn’t there a danger that such principles become dogma?

SC  There’s a danger of any kind of demand becoming a fixed ideology. In many ways that’s the history of religion: how a radical experience of faith congeals over time into ideology – the dogmas of the Catholic Church, for instance. That’s why there was a Reformation. In order to prevent faith from becoming ideology, there has to be a constant Reformation. I see the history of artistic avant-gardes as maybe a way to think about that act of Reformation – analogous to religion without being religious.

The Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, 2009. Courtesy: Tate Images

DF  You’ve described philosophy as a form of atheism, and said that if you had religious faith, you would stop being a philosopher. How do you feel about the absolutist atheism advanced by people such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens?

SC  James Wood wrote a review in The New Yorker of Terry Eagleton’s book Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate [2009] in which Eagleton has a go at Hitchens and Dawkins by fusing them into one being called Ditchkins. Wood writes: ‘What is needed is a theologically engaged atheism, that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity.’ I think that’s perfect. To jettison the traditions of religious thinking – people like Augustine, Pascal or Kierkegaard – is ludicrous. These thinkers are raising the right questions even if I don’t agree with their answers. If scientific rationality alone cannot touch the visceral register of what it means to be human, we have to engage in a language of affects and passions. It’s those affects that motivate humans to do stuff in the world. One can read philosophers of religion without having to sign up to their metaphysical commitments. To jettison those traditions in the name of some kind of scientific rationality is simply philistine and counter-productive, so it becomes a question of inhabiting and mobilizing religion for interesting or radical ends. For me, the question that religion allows us to think is the question of human commonality, of being together. What I want is religion without God, where religion is understood as a form of association.

DF  Do you think the militant atheism of the Ditchkins camp is as problematic as the US Christian right or militant Islam?

SC  It’s a liberal counter movement to that. There’s a crazy religious fundamentalism in countries such as the US, so you can understand why college educated liberals don’t want to go down that route. Intellectuals such as Dawkins have had a hugely transformative effect in the US on the way a certain class of people thinks. Science becomes the new God. I suspect Darwinians like Dawkins are throwing one conception of theology out and replacing it with another: we give up a theological idea of providence, that human history is shaped by divine intention, and we replace that with the theory that evolution is driving history.

DF  Are we replacing the comforts of religion with the comforts of philosophy?

SC  The comforts of science, I think. Philosophy for me has to be an experience of not knowing, of discomfort – that’s just axiomatic.

DF  To paraphrase something you wrote, art has ‘an uneasy godlessness with a religious memory’. Do you think art is trapped in a feedback loop between artist and audience, kept in a perpetual position of having to provide some kind of ‘sublime’ experience, nurturing our ‘spiritual’ side?

SC  Maybe. I think we are prisoners of Romanticism. It goes back to that moment in the late 18th century when, for whatever complex reasons, there’s a shift from religion being able to hold questions of meaning to the aesthetic. The book of God becomes the book of the human being and Romanticism attempts to write a secular Bible. We still expect the artist to be that titanic figure who is divinely inspired and who satisfies our yearning for meaning. Again, why I’m interested in things such as collaboration and collective praxis is because it’s a way of disappointing that expectation. It’s a way of saying there won’t be an artist, there’ll be a plurality of people working in related ways.

DF  Art arguably requires a belief that an object or image might hold meaning. That meaning has a social aspect, since it has to be agreed upon by more than one person in order for the art work to have currency. This socially productive meaning is emphasized, even powerfully controlled, by the ways in which it is distributed: the authority of galleries, museums, arbiters of taste. Does art reproduce religious models, in a doctrinal sense?

SC  Absolutely and that’s to a large extent pernicious. At a certain point in western history people stopped going to churches at weekends and started going to museums, so you could say that religion was reduced to a set of comforting rituals. The rituals of the art world are a comfort too. They’re sustained by a set of beliefs. What interests me is when those rituals that provide comfort are undermined and broken down systematically. The avant-garde in its most challenging ways has done that. Hegel said ‘reading the newspaper is the morning prayer of the atheist’ and I think that going to a museum or gallery is the sabbath of the atheist.

DF  Don’t you think those avant-garde challenges – revolution and radicalism – are fetishized in the art world to the point of being rituals? Recuperated as some kind of institutionally sanctioned critique?

SC  I’ve got no single answer to this question. It seems to me that the dominant category for artistic production of recent time has been re-enactment; you don’t stage a real bank heist, you re-enact Patty Hearst’s heist with the Symbionese Liberation Army in a warehouse in Brooklyn and invite your friends to watch your performance of it. Re-enactment is problematic because everything becomes a mannerist gesture. The Renaissance was a re-enactment, right? The Greeks and Romans had all this great stuff – all those domes, all those books – so let’s do it all again and call it the Renaissance! So there’s this idea that the way we make something is by making it again; as Mark E. Smith says, the three R’s are ‘repetition, repetition, repetition’. But I also don’t believe there can be absolute novelty. What’s powerful in the world of art or thought comes through the re-appropriation of the past in a certain way. Re-enactment is a danger and a possibility, but at this point mostly a danger. What do you think?

DF  Re-enactment can be a way of avoiding commitment. We can experience a significant historical event without actually having to deal with it.

SC  I agree. What I most despise artistically and intellectually is ironic distance: the idea that we can formally construct something that is a perfect re-enactment and feel at a safe distance what it must’ve been like.

DF  It’s also about using the aura of that original event in order to generate false commitment: if you’re making work about a particularly iconic moment from pop music or politics, that you somehow absorb its aura because you noticed it. You bewitch yourself that you are part of its lineage.

SC  The ‘infinitely demanding’ is about one key concept: commitment. That’s what all my stuff about the demand, about faith, is concerned with. Re-enactment prevents you from having to expose yourself, you’re just re-appropriating a radical past. It’s complicated in that we have to be students of history, but if all that does is to produce a series of mannerist gestures where we whip ourselves into some kind of pseudo commitment on the basis of our erudition, then that’s terrible. It raises the question of what an art practice that doesn’t do all that might look like, and I don’t have an answer to that! I think it requires a certain naivety. In philosophy you come across the attitude that you shouldn’t really say what it is you want to do and you learn to describe your work in a certain conceptual language that builds fortifications around yourself. The writers I enjoy reading are those that don’t do that.

DF  People are scared of saying they believe in something.

SC  Which brings us back to Wilde: the need for a ‘confraternity of the faithless’, a religion for non-believers. It seems to me we still absolutely require faith, belief without irony, distance and knowingness.

Simon Critchley is Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of many books, including Very Little … Almost Nothing (1997), On Humour (2002), Things Merely Are (2005), Infinitely Demanding (2007) and How to Stop Living and Start Worrying (2010). He moderates a philosophy column for The New York Times and is also Chief Philosopher of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. He has collaborated closely with the novelist Tom McCarthy, who is ‘General Secretary’ of the INS, on numerous projects.

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).