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.