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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Critical theory’s ‘return to religion’

I’m reading Simon Critchley’s most recent book, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. It’s an interesting read, not least because I had no idea that the critical theory movement beloved of Critchley (Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Badiou, Lacan, Agamben, Eagleton and so on) has taken a ‘religious turn’. Apparently so.

‘The return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliche of contemporary theory’, Critchley writes,  suppressing a yawn, though that doesn’t stop him from spending the rest of the book exploring the radicalism of St Paul, the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit and other forms of what he calls ‘mystical anarchism’.

Who would have predicted that critical theory, which conservative philosophers like Charles Taylor and Roger Scruton blamed for spreading vogue-ish moral relativism in the 1960s and 70s, would itself return to religious communitarianism? However, the kind of ‘faith of the faithless’ which critical theory serves up seems unlikely to inspire any mass Millennial uprisings. Take this passage, where Critchley tries to define what faith could mean to him:

Faith is a word, a word whose force consists in the event of its proclamation. The proclamation finds no support within being, whether conceived as existence or essence. Agamben links this thought to Foucault’s idea of veridiction or truth-telling, where the truth lies in the telling aloe. But the thought could equally be linked to Lacan’s distinction, inherited from Benveniste, between the orders of enonciation (the subject’s act of speaking) and the enonce (the formulation of this speech-act into a statement or proposition). Indeed, there are significant echoes between this idea of faith as proclamation and Levinas’ conception of the Saying (le Dire), which is the performative act of addressing and being addressed by an other, and the Said (le Dit), which is the formulation of that act into a proposition of the form S is P.

Wow, preach it Simon!  Surely this is the uplifting testimony that new religions are built on!

In fact critical theory does seem to me a sort of religion – full of meaningless terms, which are yet granted deep significance by the faithful and endlessly repeated to one another until they must mean something (mustn’t they?) and likewise certain holy names (Foucault, Badiou, Lacan) who must have great spiritual wisdom, who couldn’t possibly be charlatans, because we have invested them with such significance and authority over our minds.

Anyway, Critchley is actually pretty interesting in the book when he writes about, say, Rousseau or the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit. It’s still just talk (it’s easy to talk about ‘mystical anarchism’ from a cushty job in New York academia), but interesting talk nonetheless. It’s just when he goes glassy-eyed and starts genuflecting before French critical theory that it gets ridiculous. Anyway, I review his book at greater length here.

Can you make a living from ‘street philosophy’?

I’m in Holland again, this time in Utrecht, where yesterday I did a three-hour workshop at the University of Humanistic Studies. It was gratifying to have lots of bright students scrutinising my ideas, though also grueling in so far as the students very intelligently saw the limitations of Stoic philosophy.  The main message I got was that Stoicism is very much a ‘defensive philosophy’, which is all very well if you’re in a crisis, but we also need a more optimistic and expansive philosophy of flourishing, love and politics for the good times. Which I pretty much agree with.

The book, which I wrote back in 2010, is really philosophy ‘for dangerous situations’, and when I think of it, most of the examples in the book are of people using philosophy to survive and endure crises – imprisonment, abuse, life-threatening illness. I wanted to show that philosophy can work not just for bored yuppies suffering from ‘status anxiety’ or ‘affluenza’, but for people in the very worst experiences. As Major Thomas Jarrett puts it in the book, ‘if your philosophy doesn’t work in the worst situations, then it’s a cafe philosophy’. And I also wanted to tell my story – how philosophy helped me (and lots of people like me) overcome emotional disorders like depression and PTSD, to show again how philosophy can really help you when you’re in the shit.

But that focus on crisis-management means the general thrust of the book is pretty ‘defensive’, and the book doesn’t talk enough about flourishing, joy, love, about the importance of relationships and opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt. I end the book by saying something like ‘we are not, and should not strive to be, Stoic supermen, safely cut off in our self-sufficient fortresses of solitude. We need one another’.  That’s why, since the book came out, I’ve been exploring Christianity as a philosophy of love, relationships and mutual dependence. Though I still find a lot of Christianity weird – the relationship with God is so much more intense and personal in Christianity, compared to the chilly pantheism of Stoicism or the mystic maths of Plato and Pythagoras. As a detached Stoic, I’m like, Dude, not so close!

Joep Dohmen

Anyway, the University of Humanistic Studies is an interesting institution, founded in 1989, making it the youngest university in Holland, and also the smallest with just 400 students. Students take BAs and MAs in ‘humanistics’, which is a combination of philosophy, psychology and social science, and which trains students to consider the meaning of life, the good society, and so forth. A third of the students then become ‘moral counselors’, who are basically like humanist chaplains, in the army, hospitals and so on. Interesting eh? A seminary school for humanists.  The professor of ethics at the University is Joep Dohmen, who is the leading ‘philosopher of life’ in Holland. He was one of the founders of Filosofie magazine in 1992 (it’s grown to a circulation of around 20,000), and has since written 10 very successful books on the ‘art of living’. Now, he tells me he is setting up a ‘Senior Academy’, teaching art of living classes to the elderly. Smart move.

I’m in Holland until Sunday evening, when I am giving a sort of ‘secular sermon’ in a church here. Then next Sunday I’m speaking at Holy Trinity Brompton about my experience of the Alpha course. One Sunday in a humanist church, the next in HTB. I feel a bit schizophrenic at the moment.

Unusually, I’m actually being paid to give the talk tomorrow. Writers are in a slightly tricky position at the moment of being expected to do more and more talks and festival appearances to promote their books, while not necessarily or even usually being paid to do them. There was a line of thinking that, as the publishing industry follows the record industry and becomes more digital, public speaking will become a more and more important revenue stream for authors.

The reality is, as in the rest of the publishing industry, the top-end authors earn big bucks, and the rest get a bottle of wine. So, right at the top of the speaker chart is someone like Tony Blair, who reportedly charges £190,000 for a speech, or Hilary Clinton, who charges $125,000 for a two-hour talk. Then, among professional writers, you have Malcolm Gladwell, who reportedly charges around $80,000, or Thomas Friedman, who charges around the same. In self-help and philosophy, the biggest names – Deepak Chopra, Alain de Botton, Michael Sandel – can charge tens of thousands for talks to corporates (though they might do some talks for free too).

Then there are lots of ‘mid-list’ writers who are happy to do talks for free. A school, a student philosophy society, a regional philosophy club or a festival invite you to talk, and you think, ‘wow how flattering, sure!’ Last year I must have done 40-50 talks, sometimes two a day, mainly to philosophy clubs and festivals. I did it partly out of an evangelical zeal to ‘get the message out’ and support grassroots philosophy, partly because I was flattered to be asked and I enjoyed it, and partly because I thought all the talks would be good for book sales and general publicity. And they were. However, the royalties authors now get from books – around 7.5% per trade paperback – means even if a book sells, say, 10,000 copies in a year, that will only translate to around £4K in annual royalties. So it’s not worth it, from a strictly economic perspective, to do loads of free talks, even if you sell say 20-40 copies after the talk.

I can’t complain too much, as I ask philosophers who are far more experienced and better-known than me to come and give talks for free to the London Philosophy Club (and they do: John Gray, Robert Skidelsky, Angie Hobbs, all happily come and talk for free). I think it’s wise to learn to charge some audiences (corporates, particularly) thereby enabling yourself to give other talks for free (to student philosophy societies for example). What I also need to do, next week, is sign myself up for organisations like The Speakers Agency, which book speakers for corporate audiences. Though I wonder if doing lots of talks to a corporate audience is going to turn me into Tim Ferriss. Well, hopefully not.

More broadly, the question of ‘how should a philosopher make a living’ has always been at the heart of philosophy. There’s a story that Pythagoras struggled so hard to find students, at the beginning of his career, that he actually paid his first student to study geometry! Plato of course famously criticised Sophists for charging for their lessons – but surely he charged students to his Academy? Aristotle raised some eyebrows making a living by becoming tutor to a dictator’s son (it probably contributed to him being exiled from Athens).  19th century authors like Marx and Mill made their living mainly from journalism (and were better writers as a result). Then, in the modern era, the invention of the university philosophy department supported a vast expansion of ‘professional philosophers’, though perhaps the comfier philosophers became, the more boring the philosophy they produced.

In the last decade, we’ve seen the return of the extra-academic philosopher – the pre-eminent example is Alain de Botton, the philosopher-as-entrepreneur. But can the free market support thinkers who have dangerous or difficult ideas? Perhaps it can – two of the most successful extra-academic philosophers are John Gray and Slavoj Zizek, both of whom are sort of professional insulters of free market capitalism. It seems there is market demand for anti-market polemics.

Well, I’ll continue trying to work it out as I go along – I’m trying to create a sort of ‘mixed model’ of academic, media and speaking work. In the meantime, the new edition of my book comes out next Thursday, it is smaller and slightly cheaper than the trade-paperback. It would be AMAZING if all my British readers would pop into their local bookstore and order it – you don’t have to buy it, just order it! The new cover looks so great that it will sell once it’s in the bookstore anyway.


In other news:

Avant garde composer Richard Carrick talks about how his new work, ‘Flow Cycle for Strings’, was inspired by Positive Psychology.

Here’s a little article I did for the Faculty of Public Health’s magazine on the politics of well-being.

Here’s a good review of a new book called Infinite Progress, a prime example of Techno-utopianism, which argues we can banish poverty, ignorance and want by uploading all our details into a global super-computer.

Democracy will fail because the Left is too weak, argues this essay by Henry Farrell in Aeon magazine. I blame critical theory! The Left became fatally seduced by critical theory in the 1960s, and by poseurs like Alain Badiou and Jacques Lacan. No wonder it failed to stand up to Neo-Liberalism. The Right had graphs and data, while the Left had ‘the mirror phase’ and ‘the event’. It was always going to lose.

Talking of critical theory, I’m reading a good book by Simon Critchley, a leading British philosopher (although he lives in New York) and a big fan of critical theory. The book is called Faith of the Faithless, and is all about how modern political ideologies are really re-formulations of the sacred, and quasi-religious fictions. He writes: ‘The return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliche of contemporary theory’. It has? Who knew! I realised that Terry Eagleton had ‘returned to religion’, I didn’t realise the likes of Badiou had as well. Anyway, I’ll try and write a review of the book for next week’s newsletter.

See you next week – and don’t forget, go to Waterstones and #askforjules !