God is Dead

It would not be an exaggeration to say the aforementioned opposition between duty and pleasure (life in that case) is mostly an imaginary contradiction nowadays. In our largely hedonistic contemporary society, what we have is an obverse that the pursuit of pleasure itself turns into duty. This is what Nietzsche’s criticism of the ascetic ideal1 was aiming at: the ascetic ideal is not a renouncement of pleasure per se, but the pursuit of a special kind of pleasure. Suffice to recall the distinguishment between pleasure and enjoyment in psychoanalysis: enjoyment is not pleasure – the simple satisfaction of needs – but something that derives from the postponement or dissatisfaction of needs – or in Freud’s terms – beyond the pleasure principle.

As the insufficiency of words (“Tell the truth in any condition”) is disclosed in the above discussion of ethics, the basic declaration of the Reformation is the insufficiency of the symbolic rituals. In Catholicism, the symbolic rituals play the role of mediator between this world and its beyond: when I receive absolution in churches for sin, that sin is simultaneously forgiven by God; when a couple gets married in a church, their marriage is also registered in heaven. As the vitality of the traditional Christianity comes to its end, the privileged power of the symbolic as a mediator (church) is denied by Protestantism, purposing instead the indeterminability/unattainability of the beyond and placing the subject directly before God without the means of any symbolic ritual or institution. If we perceive the traditional symbolic rituals as some kind of positive power – as long as I buy the indulgence, for example, I may be forgiven by God – the Protestantism power situates rather in differentiation. There is no more gesture in this world that can guarantee my salvation. The question of my sin and forgiveness expels any symbolic exchange – I can no longer pay for my sin or ask for forgiveness in churches. I am instead placed in the uncertain domain of conscience and have to bear the heavy responsibility im-mediately before God.

The question at stake becomes: how can this kind of faith sustain itself without any sort of support in reality? If the beyond becomes a Beyond in its totality, cutting all symbolic links and leaving no chance of interference from this world whatsoever, why does not this result in faint-heartedness and end up being dismissed as a religion without practical values? To take Calvinism as an example to answer this question, it is believed that the Last Judgement has already happened. Whatever we do, there is no way we can change God’s decision of who will be saved and who will not. However – here comes the catch – there are signs that bear witness to the question of whether or not we are chosen. One of the signs of not being chosen is faint-heartedness, lack of faith. In contrast, success in professional occupations is considered a sign of being chosen. Thus this absolute determinism evokes passionate engagements with secular life. As a famous example, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism attempts to elucidate how religious ethics, which used to be the main obstacle, becomes the very force of the economic field.2 What should be noted is that while salvation, the supposed wish people want is suspended as unattainable, it does not stop people from deriving a certain passion from it. Or, in a psychoanalytic perspective, it is its very unattainability that makes it valuable, for only then it can promise an endless enjoyment (of never reaching its presupposed goal). In other words, the Reformation is a revolution that aims for the re-activation or excitation of faith, a reinvention of enjoyment so that the subject can live its life in this world while feeling alive.

In the light of Nietzsche’s ascetic ideal, it is not difficult to discern that the commonplace that religions promise an ideal afterworld for the suffering in exchange for their faith, thus forcing them to endure the pain and suffering in this world, is after all merely its appearance. The true power, not in the other world, lies rather in its transformation of pain into enjoyment in this world, while the articulation of the afterlife is only necessary insofar as the religious discourse can be effective. Similar to the situation of duty, the choice of “faith or pleasure” is only an illusionary one. What we are confronted with is not disjunction but rather the injunction of duty/faith and enjoyment, an imperative of enjoyment. The unattainability or prohibition of pleasures (due to religious doctrines, social taboo, unavailability in reality, etc.) creates a surface of beyond on the earthly bodies where this surplus enjoyment finds its place.3

Nietzsche’s proclamation of “God is dead” is far from a superficial observation that most people no longer believe in God. The place of God in the form of nihilism continues to remain barely changed, only to replace God, higher values with “human, all too human” values. (For example, the humanism morality replaces the religious values; utopian visions of this world replace the afterworld; values of utility and progress replace the old divine teleology.4 In the fourth book of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche created several metaphors of those whom he calls “the higher men”.5 Those men want to replace God with creative, positive human values, but they are in fact the last effort of the nihilism culture. In the famous section 125 in The Joyous Science, Nietzsche is clearly aware that the death of God has yet reached the point where the culture acknowledges this event: “This tremendous event is still on its way and headed towards them – word of it has not yet reached men’s ears.”6 In the contemporary society, where religion is dead in appearance, religion achieves its true success by self-negating to a vanishing mediator – religion becomes the invisible universal foundation of all cultures.

Unsurprisingly, the examination of religion above can fitly be applied to the ethics of various ongoing political movements. In his book Ethics, Alain Badiou divided the term ethics, according to the way it is generally used today, into twofold: the ethics of human rights and the ethics of the other, and presented his criticisms respectively.7 For the ethics of human rights, of the shared notion of the Good, his criticisms can be summarized as follows:

  1. There is no universal subject on which we can ground the ethics of human rights.
  2. Evil is the a priori substance from and against which the Good forms. Human rights are the rights to non-Evil.
  3. Man, the subject of human rights, becomes “the being who is capable of recognizing himself as a victim”,8 while the Good, the intervention and enforcement of non-Evil, becomes the self-satisfaction in the “West”.

Not difficult to notice, the ethics of human rights is structurally analogous to the Protestantism ethics: the Protestantism ethics forms its attainable enjoyment (i.e., accumulation of wealth) against its unattainable kernel (God and the Beyond); the ethics of human rights constructs its seemingly positive Good against Evil as its necessary constitutive element, which brings us to my criticism on the ethics of human rights – Evil now becomes the foundation of such ethics. Continuing parasitizing on its shadowy Other (Evil), the ethics of human rights is merely a Revolution without revolution, a revolution only in its name. To keep this culture alive, the advocators need to secretly stick to a culture that remains problematic and thus reserves the space for a revolution. The identity of subjects in such an ethical-political stance is a defensive reaction to what threatens it, or to use anti-Semitism as an example, what is a Nazi without a Jew? By setting the Jew as an external enemy, the anti-Semitism subject avoids facing the inherent kernel of social struggles and fantasizes about a harmonious society without its illusionary enemy. Do we not see propositions with similar structures in political correctness movements? Wendy Brown provoked a caution against the resentment in identity politics: “Politicized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics; it can hold out no future—for itself or others—that triumphs over this pain.”9 Also in Foucault’s comments on the same topic, he regarded it as “useful” but also claimed that “it limits us”.10 The point here is not that we should keep a cynical distance from political engagement – needless to say, many activities are necessary and useful – but that we need to think beyond this reactive identity, otherwise we would be stuck in a self-destructive maxim of failed universality.

On the other hand, Badiou describes “the ethics of the other” as the ethics against racism, sexism, substantialist nationalism, and imperialism.11 In philosophy and Jewish traditions, God occupies the place of the absolute Otherness, a total Other that is beyond our finitude and thus prohibits us from perceiving God as our resemblance. In other words, it is God that supports the foundation of a theory of the other. However, according to Badiou, in the contemporary ethics of the other, this religious character is suppressed and thus only the apparent and empty structure is left. Not able to sustain itself, the ethics of the other regresses to the ethics of the same:

“[T]he ethical primacy of the Other over the Same requires that the experience of alterity be ontologically “guaranteed” as the experience of a distance, or of an essential non-identity. But nothing in the simple phenomenon of the other contains such a guarantee. And this simply because the finitude of the other’s appearing certainly can be conceived as resemblance, or as imitation, and thus lead back to the logic of the Same.”12

What better demonstrates this limitation than the liberal’s fear towards fundamentalism, who firmly asserts its identity without any reference to the other, to the extent that they become incompatible with the Western way? One can be recognized as other only insofar as it is a qualified other, in other words, the same. Everything outside this tolerance will only be regarded as barbaric. In psychoanalysis, mostly in the neurotic scenario, the subject develops its ego through the mirrory identification with the other, and the otherness is only to the extent that it is identifiable for the subject, that is to say, already part of the subject. Suffice to recall the church metaphor in Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: the church is centered around equal love from Christ. It is meant to be an encompassing and inclusive group, sharing the love equally among all its “brothers”.13 As history shows, the church is usually an institution of cruelty and antagonism. Recall the religious tension in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the wave of monastic reform threatens the church’s established place with the social order. This was also not missed by Freud, as he wrote,

“[D]uring the kingdom of Christ those people who do not belong to the community of believers, who do not love him, and whom he does not love, stand outside this tie. Therefore a religion, even if it calls itself the religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it. Fundamentally indeed every religion is in this same way a religion of love for all those whom it embraces; while cruelty and intolerance towards those who do not belong to it are natural to every religion.”14

Are not the ethics of human rights and the ethics of the other moralities created by the slave and the priest, whom Nietzsche sees as the main subject of the reactive nihilism movement? In the ethics of human rights, the creation of values is supported by the reactive-negative force against Evil, and simultaneously an ideal of harmony is posited as the embodiment of full satisfaction, which fits perfectly with Nietzsche’s description of slave morality:

“The slaves’ revolt in morality begins when resentment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values – a resentment experienced by those who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to obtain their satisfaction in imaginary acts of vengeance… the slave morality says ‘no’ ab initio to what is ‘outside itself’, ‘different from itself’ and ‘not itself’.”15

On the other hand, the ethics of the other is generated by the guilt of the ‘West’. The priest in Nietzschian terms stands for the masters who feel guilty of their power. “Only in the hands of the priest, the real artist in manipulating the feelings of guilt, did it assume its final form – and oh, what a work of art it was!”16 There is no better example than the cultural phenomena that the more marginal one’s identity is, the more welcomed it is to assert its political identity, while the assertion of the dominant positions (white, male, hetero, etc.) is prohibited strictly. However, the crucial catch is that such reversed attitudes towards different identities are not natural. The repression of the particular of the dominant groups only makes them all the more universal to the extent that it does not even need to be spoken of. For Nietzsche, the values created by the priest are after all values in their perspective. As we see the ethics of the other is in fact the ethics of the same, the imaginary (mirrory) other in ethical dimension is the result of the rationalist/humanist endeavor to reduce the Other’s traumatic abyss by rationalizing it as the result of social, economical, historical, etc., factors. However, the ineluctable shortcoming is that the true Otherness (in the Holocaust, for example) is left impossible to be comprehended in terms of these social factors. The ethics of the other is thus not the abandonment of one’s identity, but the invention of the secret enjoyment of maintaining one’s identity, by socially repressing it into the invisible universal and consciously escaping into the shelter of guilt.

Therefore, to summarize, the ascetic ideal is a special kind of enjoyment, and various kinds of moralities are its outcomes. The seeming disjunction between duty and enjoyment is in fact an overlapping: instead of “You must do your duty even if your duty goes against your interest”, what we have is the imperative of enjoyment, “You must enjoy!”. Thus for anyone who advocates an ethics of the good, we have to ask the following question: For the good of whom? From a philosophical point of view, there is no neutral Good, only enjoyment from different perspectives; every positive determination of the ‘Good’ involves us in an inescapable deadlock of its limitation of particularity. It should be avoided to understand my position as we should care little about the Good, as a rebellious reaction. My attacks have focused on not the Good but the Good as the universal. Imagine the situation when a doctor sees a patient who needs medical assistance. The emerging feeling of obligation in the doctor’s heart that he or she is willing to save the patient’s life by any means does not derive from some rules that he or she has to follow. It is a clinical situation, an event of singularity, which the above attempts fail to take into account in formulating the Good into the universal – the situation in which one is confronted with and called forth by an event of singularity.

  1. Nietzsche, “What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?”, in On the Genealogy of Morality.↩︎
  2. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.↩︎
  3. Here I am referring to the Deleuzian opposition of surface event and bodily depth presented in The Logic of Sense.↩︎
  4. See Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God Is Dead’” and “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays for further discussion.↩︎
  5. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.↩︎
  6. Nietzsche, The Joyous Science, 134.↩︎
  7. Badiou, Ethics.↩︎
  8. Ibid., 10.↩︎
  9. Brown, States of Injury, 74.↩︎
  10. Foucault, Ethics, 166.↩︎
  11. Badiou, Ethics, 20.↩︎
  12. Ibid., 21-22.↩︎
  13. Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.↩︎
  14. Ibid., 50-1.↩︎
  15. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, 25.↩︎
  16. Ibid., 126.↩︎