Misreading the Adversary: an Open Mind Prequel

I’ve been oppressively busy since the return from Buenos Aires and hadn’t a clue what I might have time to post about today. Yesterday, because the Jewel is beyond oppressively busy with some shindig she’s hosting, project ally and friend S drove me down to San Diego to collect Obelisk from its repair facility. (We’ve been, meanwhile, transient in a Venice Beach hotel, gazing always gladly at palm, beach, and Pacific.) The facility is just beside the Miramar Naval Air Station, and while S and I caught a quick lunch we declined every other minute to talk over the fighter jets taking off. These made not the mingled whine and roar of a commercial jumbo jet, but a piercing Ferrari howl that seemed synesthetically to envelope the sky.

During one delay in conversation, S and I both contemplated the assault on our senses. She spoke first when the sky was returned to us. What struck her, she said, was that anyone thought those jets could solve anything. What struck me was the difference in our thoughts. I had been trying to imagine the visceral experience of that ferocious speed and ascent. Somewhere in the brief elaboration that followed came the analogy of a guy coming after you. Kill him, said S, and then you have to deal with his family. Don’t kill him, I replied, and his family will be one of the worries you no longer have.

Somewhere around the time S and I are having this conversation, Shrinkwrapped is posting What Are You Willing to Die For? When I get to reading it, I begin to misread it. Misreading is an important concept in both literary studies and psychoanalysis. In the latter, mistakes of all kinds are eruptions of the unconscious to the surface. In the former, the misreading authorizes the text, separating it from the presumed intentionality of its inscriber. Of course, the reader is participating in the misreading, but the text has allowed for it and so assumes that authority, from which follows various possibilities, including claims that the meaning of a text is unstable.

Shrink’s true end in his post (as I now read it) is to inveigh against the cognitive egocentrism of Western elites as they project their expectation of rational decision making on others who may not themselves partake of it. Shrink is here thinking of Islamists, particularly Iran. The set up for this argument lies in some preliminaries about the depth of conviction in true religious belief, and the willingness to die arising from the dictates of that belief – and this is where, at the start, I misread the post.

Shrink appears – still, to me – to be making a case, at the start, against the atheistic secularism of modernity. From this condition follow the beliefs that reside too shallowly in progressive elites for those elites to be willing to die in the name, and for the propagation, of those beliefs. Thus, you see, modern progressive elites cannot comprehend the fatal – diplomatically irrational – convictions of adherents to Islam. However, this end is not clearly in sight at the beginning of the argument, and I anticipated – part of the act of reading, and of misreading – that the failures of true conviction (that to which you will commit your life, or its loss) inherent in secular modernity was Shrink’s real subject. Thinking this, I was already conceiving, as I read – and not as a good thing, you can see – all of the fraudulent and phantasmagorical beliefs and convictions for which, out of religious (and ersatz religious) faith, so many people have given their lives over the millennia. However, the presence of this impulse in the faithful to commit their very lives out of deeply held religious conviction is offered as an apparent hallmark, later in the post, of the Mullah’s irrationality, while it is identified first as a moral deficiency, for its lack, in Western progressive elites.

Curiously, one can find a similar argument in, of all places, the writing of Slavoj Zizek. I mentioned in Politics and Shame Zizek’s odious “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” posted to the internet within days of 9/11. In it, he states that “we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life[.]” Zizek doesn’t make the distinction in this assertion between elites and ordinary folk that SW regularly pursues, so the response to Zizek’s moral blindness – the hundreds of thousands, or more, of just American soldiers who have given or risked their lives in recent decades in no selfish pursuit, but in commitment to some belief or other – needs no proffer to Shrink, whose family is fulfilling the military commitment for several.

Still, it’s an interesting convergence of perception, about the flabbiness of Western moral character, from such far-flung positions on the political spectrum. Zizek offers another fascinating insight into his moral nature elsewhere, in his preface to the Zizek Reader, where he offers, “[W]hat I find theoretically and politically engaging in the religious legacy is not the abstract messianic promise of some redemptive Otherness, but, on the contrary, religion in its properly dogmatic and institutional aspect [emphasis added].” Of course, this is exactly the element in religious faith we should most abjure, very significantly because it does lead people to commit their own, and sacrifice others’, lives.

As I headed all this, however, it is prequel. I suppose because Shrink and I are now engaged in these debates, we’ve developed some kind of Jungian collective phenomenon, because some of these are themes I had already planned to address in the Open Mind V, coming Monday.


1 thought on “Misreading the Adversary: an Open Mind Prequel

  1. I am a religious person. I share with Kierkegaard the perception that the most toxic danger to genuine religion is not the athiest but the faithless friend of religion.

    I’ve had several conversations at Shrinkwrapped in which several conservative commentators who acknowledge they have no church involvement and no religious faith nevertheless rail against the universal hostility to religion they perceive from “the left.”

    What is genuinely at stake in this kind of defense is rich and subtle. There is a projection of the responsibility for their own lack of faith onto the forces of modernity represented by a misreading of “the left.”

    In this way, these conservatives have a similar relationship to “the left” that Islamic radicals have to America. America and the left are both symbols of modernity onto which they can project their anxieties about the tenousness of their religious faith.

    But what can be defended by people in this position is never genuine faith and genuine religion. As Kierkegaard argued, these people can only succeed in defending a conventional christendom that is truly toxic to the possibility of genuine Christian faith.

    On another note, I also commend Harold Bloom and his Nietzchean model of literary criticism. Though, a danger is that it has no moral core to it and it can degenerate into attention grabbing gasbaggery like Camille Paglia.

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