The French-Tunisian philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem wants to show us the path towards good by sharpening our insight into evil.
Transgression and the Inexistent: A Philosophical Vocabulary
Mehdi Belhaj Kacem first broke through with a novel written when he was just 21. He then won an award for his role in the film Wild Innocence (2001) after which he withdrew to the countryside to devote himself to philosophy, a process that culminated with the literary patricide of his mentor Alain Badiou. In his book Après Badiou from 2011, Kacem attacks the notion that philosophy can serve as a recipe for the good life, as no one can employ its lessons in their personal lives. This, says Kacem, is particularly true in today’s society, where technology reigns supreme. So is there anything in contemporary philosophy that is worth listening to? «If the philosophers are so smart,» asks Kacem, «why doesn’t anyone believe in them? Why is our avowedly secular age dominated by religion?»
Like Lenin, Kacem asks: What is to be done? His answer is that we must try to understand evil as a part of nature, civilization and man’s own dramatic process. As a self-taught anti-philosopher, he challenges us to abandon the various schools of academic philosophy and instead, like Reiner Schürmann (the deceased German-French philosopher), turn our attention to the tragic conflict and tension that characterises existence itself.
We’re used to thinking of evil as a moral flaw, as a deficiency of the good. But you don’t need to bother the devil in order to understand evil, as Rüdiger Safranski once put it. Evil is part of the great drama of human freedom. Man isn’t pure nature, but unshackles himself, breaks free, and finds himself faced with a horizon of possibilities. In doing so he gains something but also loses something, namely the unconditional sense of being a part of all living things. Hence the struggle within man between the two competing principles: between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
Within animals there is no similar contradiction, God having created them undivided. Within man, however, the precarious contradiction remains. The question is: Can man surpass himself through self-enlightenment, with self-transcendence, by conquering egotism or, in other words, with love, the force of light? Preserving the right order of principles thus becomes the challenge of human freedom. Like Schelling said, man is free because he can choose between good and evil.
«Man is free because he can choose between good and evil.»
But the dread felt by man makes him betray the fundamental principles. He betrays the spirit because he neglects the remaining, ungovernable element in the order of things, which cannot be resolved through reason. This brutalisation forms part of the structure of evil. Exceeding mere moral reprehensibility, it is associated with sinning against the Holy Ghost, a spiritual force. To Kacem, however, the problem isn’t solved through Christianity’s concept of original sin, in which human consciousness has liberated itself from the sacred and the Garden of Eden. Religion cannot see healing as the creative element it is. This is where philosophy must step in. Its first task is to tackle the root of modern society’s woes, which is nihilism.
The weak being
By pulling away from the pure animalist existence, man started imitating nature. Agriculture imitates the hunter-gatherer culture, natural science imitates the laws of nature, and today politics is imitating technology. Man is an adaptive, or annexing, animal. Man compensates for his lack of strength and instinct through mimetic supplements and technological skills. Imitation (mimesis) results in technology that creates its own dangerous supplement. The problem arises in what Kacem describes as «the tragedy of the new», acquisition beyond any necessity. It’s this that inspires Kacem’s theory of transgression, the source of so much unnecessary suffering and evil today.
According to Kacem, politics has ended up as the technological administration of mimesis and the excess it produces: Fake needs, abundant luxury, unbridled consumption, forced entertainment, forced irony and the parodying of life. Art, too, is content with wallowing in the darkness of transgression without getting anywhere. The very idea of transgression, running from Romanticism to the avant-garde, with its baiting of the bourgeoisie and its Rimbaud epigones, is dead. Transgression today has been reduced to an ironic parody: the vulgarity of the Russian nouveau riche, the immortality promised by neurotechnology, art’s empty performances. To Kacem, irony is a symptom of nihilism.
Modern politics has become a «language of the ventriloquist.» We live our lives surrounded by mediocrity, without any important events in sight. Discovering what is really interesting in our time has become a challenge in itself – an anti-fascist challenge. Evil today assumes many forms. One of them is the mediocre thought-for-market, another the reluctance to think at all.
What really interests Kacem is the healing process or catharsis around which art’s tragic drama and elegy traditionally revolved, reminding political society about its failures and generating new insights. But now we have ended up in a cul-de-sac of «empty repetition» in which we merely produce more suffering and human waste than ever before. How do we move on? The answer: We should not give up but confront the original sin, or the powerlessness of the spirit, in our own lives. «We shall bring the human consciousness back to life on earth.» Not as pure vitalism, but recognising the fact that all life is an anomaly. Life is an event that necessitates a conversion in that it entails a fear for death and evil, a fear that provides resonance and meaning to life.
We can no longer base our ethics on disowning evil and death (Spinoza, Deleuze). Perhaps humanism is only possible as a grief process, as in Kacem’s reading of Reiner Schürmann’s Broken Hegemonies. Hence Kacem’s attempt to turn play into a method of healing. Play represents a transgression of war because it’s the only activity that allows man a sense of joyful abandon while still following rules. To imagine evil (the spirit in its powerlessness) Kacem urges us to go back to the ancient texts – to the writings of the Jews, the Egyptian nomads, the Sumerians, Indians, Incans, Babylonians. Despite some hasty conclusions and loose threads, Kacem is on the track of something important. Whether he becomes the spokesman for a new ecological consciousness and/or a new self-critical awareness, only time can tell.