Three Monkeys Online

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Crimea and the kenosis of the European soul

“You write down in your newspaper articles that Russia and Ukraine will never be separated,” said Kolya, sticking his index-finger for emphasis like a boxer sticks the jab, “You tell them that!” Then he continued “I hope that you’re not here to debase the moral order of our society” – rumours about “provocateurs,” both foreign and domestic, have been rife here. I answered “Well, Kolya, it’s funny you should mention that, because debasing the moral order of your society is actually the sole purpose of my visit.” Then I apologised for my infantile sense of humour, and we got down to business over vodka, black bread and Crimean tomatoes.

It’s important for us to understand why people like Kolya don’t want any part of the European Union. Until we do, we will continue to hide from the internal contradictions of what the European project has become, and therefore fail to understand the reasons for the rapid deterioration of the EU’s standing in the world. Kolya detests what he calls “western liberalism,” and maintains that Europe “has become an incubator, a place for babies.” It is not that he disagrees with the political principles of liberalism as such – rather, he disdains the manner in which the civic values upon which the European Union was ostensibly founded have “self-negated.” He explains “You had formal, legalistic freedom in the west, and you still do. Nobody pushing you around, nobody prodding a machine-gun into your chest, not as many people paying you exploitative wages. Well, we’ve always had to deal with that stuff, and that’s why 99% of us, everyone except our political and economic elites, stuck together. It’s because we’ve always been under the kosh that we’re glued together. People are more good-humoured here.” I’m particularly interested in this aspect of the Russian nationalist position here in Ukraine – the perception of an inversely proportional relationship between the level of social justice and the level of cultural vitality – because one of its core elements is a critique very similar to the one which Nietzsche offered of “European nihilism” 130 years ago.

The deterioration of academic standards throughout the western world is not lost on people like Kolya, himself a master’s graduate in economics. He says “The proposed association agreement with the EU was a terrible idea for Ukraine.”

The concept of “self-negation” was first employed by Hegel. He and Nietzsche are conventionally understood to be trans-historical opponents, the former an enlightenment-thinker and system-builder, the latter stridently anti-systematic and the champion of the counter-enlightenment. I believe that counterpointing them within a relationship primarily characterized by opposition is shallow – there is a deeper synthesis which most movers and shakers in the contemporary Nietzsche-industry seem determined to ignore.

For a start, Hegel and Nietzsche articulate distinct but mutually interdependent phases of that trans-historical process which philosophers usually refer to as “the death of God.” Hegel’s mature philosophy of religion outlines how, with each successive phase of religious development, each new conception of divinity to appear on the historical stage, man reformulated his prototype-ego, internalized new psychological infrastructure through a new set of allegories, centrally the predicates of the deity in question. Finally, a religion evolves which is implicitly aware of itself as performing precisely this function. He had first announced the death of God in his 1804 essay Glauben und Wissen, and it remained central to his thinking for the remainder of his career. Hegel’s “death of God” is, as he sees it, necessarily the central subtext of Christianity itself – the Transcendental Father implicitly dies with the coming of the immanent Son, whose death on the cross prepares the way for the historical “shape” of divinity to once again morph into its most self-realised (internalized, existential) shape, namely the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the soul. He saw this theme (the necessity of the historical death of the Transcendental Father for the full coming-to-be of the Soul) as implicit in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (4:3-4:7). For Hegel, the first two persons of the Trinity are largely only genealogical threads which help us to allegorically understand how “the Soul” emerged gradually from the World-Historical process, and Christianity’s truth lies principally in its implicit self-awareness on this point, as expressed through the Trinity. Hegel’s Christian deity necessarily “dies” insofar as the New Testament is a narrative which tells the story of how he becomes aware of the basis of his own existence, namely, that he is a human existential project. For Hegel, the god of Christianity is a self-de-metaphysicalizing god, or in Pauline terms, a “kenotic” (self-emptying) god. Paul had first observed in Philippians 2:7 that this (formerly transcendental) deity had “emptied himself into the world.” Alternate English renderings of this line from Philippians translate it so that God had “made himself nothing.” Slavoj Žižek goes further than most interpreters of Hegel on this point, arguing that Hegel, as per Pauline textual support, saw Christianity as a paradigmatically atheistic religion.

To what extent might Europe’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation and geo-strategic position in the world be understood as manifestations of this decay, to use a somewhat synthetic Hegelian-Nietzschean phrase, “the kenosis of the European soul?”

For Nietzsche, this implicit reconciliation of humanity to the divine principal only results in a more sophisticated level of alienation – having internalized this god, we remain alienated from our bodies, all the more so for having internalized “the Soul.” So Nietzsche’s “death of God” is the death of the soul. It is highly arguable that this is the implication in Hegel’s phenomenology of religion which Hegel himself had not seen. If our deities principally serve as prototypes for our own processes of ego-formation, and the deity of Christianity is implicitly kenotic, “self-emptying” (he himself comes to realise that there is no metaphysical basis for his existence, that he is a human existential project), then is the ego historically built in the image of such a deity (the European soul) not also historically destined to hollow itself out?

My contention is that a contemporary re-reading of Hegel’s phenomenology of religion might well conclude that pathological narcissism was a historical “shape of consciousness” in classically Hegelian terms, and that such a contemporary reading of Hegel might not look very different to a de-allegorized reading of Nietzsche. Even though Hegel had first formulated the concept of “determinate negation,” he had not envisaged the historical self-negation of his own system. Enter Nietzsche. However, there is a double-irony at work here, for Nietzsche himself had not seen that, in negating Hegel’s system (or, more-precisely, in being the thinker who served as the locus of the self-negation of Hegel’s system), he also preserves Hegel’s system. The concept of Aufhebung (“sublation,” being raised up) is also central to Hegel’s thought – subsequent phases negate previous phases, but in so doing, preserve them by distilling their principles to a higher level of truth. There is a necessary dialectical relationship between negation and Aufhebung. This is the crux of what I see as a Hegel-Nietzsche synthesis – in exposing Hegel’s philosophy as just a secularization of “the soul-superstition” and as merely providing the conceptual framework on which to ground a more sophisticated level of alienation from the body, Nietzsche nonetheless stays within Hegel’s frame of reference and inadvertently carries Hegel’s philosophy to a fuller realisation of its implications. Through Nietzsche, Hegel’s thought is aufgehoben. Unfortunately, the Nietzsche-industry tends to prefer the mad-ranting-poet Nietzsche to the Nietzsche who skilfully employs Hegelian categories contra Hegel – it makes Nietzsche more saleable to bohemians.

When Kolya thinks out loud, I hear a deceptively sophisticated para-phrasal of the diagnoses of Europe’s cultural ills which Nietzsche offered in “Beyond Good and Evil” and in the “Will to Power” notebooks. In these works, Nietzsche makes his tightest, most cogent arguments for the claim that Christian morality is “historically self-negating.” Nietzsche was particularly concerned about the castration of punitive justice in Christian societies, meaning that Christianity (and by extension, both liberalism and socialism), in the end, leaves itself with no effective means by which to enforce its own lofty humanistic standards at the societal level – he discerned in European culture what he referred to as “the end of Christianity – at the hands of its own morality,” having previously noted that “distress always permits a variety of interpretations. Rather, it is in one particular interpretation, the Christian-moral one, that nihilism is rooted.” Nietzsche sees the internal logic of this decay as being partially epistemological in nature – morality grounds an impulse toward truthfulness, a will to truth, and it is this will to truth which drives us to entertain sceptical doubts concerning, among other things, the basis of our social morality itself – he maintains that “this realization (of the untenability of our highest values) is a consequence of “truthfulness” – thus itself a consequence of the faith in morality.” Eventually, this degenerates into a situation wherein, as Nietzsche puts it, “society itself takes the part of him who injures it, the part of the criminal.” One of Kolya’s more recent western-decadence hobby-horses has been the film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He doesn’t seriously entertain the suggestion that the film is a satire. Such a suggestion, he maintains, merely satisfies the moral vanities of an audience which is ashamed of itself, and the point may be made with some fairness that we do tend to over-use irony as a moral anaesthetic. Just as Laurence O’Toole once claimed that “erotica is porn which is ashamed of itself,” it may very well be argued that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a celebration of sociopathy masquerading as a satire. In other words, it’s a primo manifestation of the cultural complex which Nietzsche referred to as “passive nihilism.”

To what extent might Europe’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation and geo-strategic position in the world be understood as manifestations of this decay, to use a somewhat synthetic Hegelian-Nietzschean phrase, “the kenosis of the European soul?” Having spent the better part of a decade teaching bubble-wrapped middle-class millennials at secondary and tertiary level, Europe’s lack of economic competitiveness and debt-contagion don’t surprise me in the least. Our youth are largely a product of our expectations. I went to a perfectly ordinary secondary-school, before secondary education in Ireland had started to become economically segregated. If memory serves, then it was expected that a perfectly ordinary 13 year-old of my generation should be able to thematically deconstruct poetry written in their second language. The overwhelming majority of students met that standard.

A couple of years ago, France 24 did a feature on the news that unemployment in Spain had reached 23%. Having quoted this statistic, the journalist presenting the feature (apparently without irony) proceeded to inform the audience that “23% is almost one out of every four workers.” My mouth fell open. I was thinking that, if it was now considered mundane for journalists to explain stuff like this to a European TV audience, then it was hardly any surprise that unemployment in Spain was 23%. Every month in India, 15,000 engineers graduate from university. What must they be thinking when they watch European TV news? One of the reasons I came to Ukraine was because I didn’t want to continue as a collaborator whose professional role was to preside over facile exam-structures merely to apply a veneer of normalcy to the programmatic infantilization of middle-class millennials in Europe.

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4 Responses to “Crimea and the kenosis of the European soul”

  1. Tomas says:

    “all Europe ever does in the face of humanitarian crises is to send a special representative”
    – Sorry, but I find this a bit harsh. I’m not some kind of EU-fanatic, but it took me just a few click to find this: And I believe more of this is done on a country level, for example like this: I wonder what would Kolya think about this.

    Secondly, the idea about highly qualified Ukrainians is OK, but you might also consider that thousands of Ukrainians do unqualified jobs within EU. (I have nothing against work migration, just let’s not pretend that every Ukrainian has MA.) Incidentally, you maybe know that PISA results are quite stable in case of e.g. Spain:
    – I understand the knowledge/literacy may be getting worse in some aspects/countries (and I presume not only within EU), but freefall?

    But most importantly, I would like to hear from you not only what does EU wrong, but what would you expect it to be/do, or which country could serve as a positive role model?

    • Padraig McGrath says:

      The EU tolerates the Orbanization of Hungary, and the full range of manifestations ofretrograde racism and xenophobia throughout post-communist central Europe. We have decided to normalize these things by incorporating them into our economic/political union. So I stand over my point that the EU has a hypocritical self-image when it comes to human rights
      and civil rights norms. As an interviewee quoted in a previous article which I wrote on the Ukrainian situation said, “European enlargement was just about business – it had nothing to do with civic values.”

      Regarding your point on literacy…. Firstly, having spent a decade working in the educational sector, I’m hugely sceptical about most pedagogical methodologies and standardized testing-methodologies. I firmly believe that, for the most part, these things are merely euphemisms for programmatic infantilization. Furthermore, I was not zeroing in on literacy-rates in Spain
      specifically – my point in citing the France 24 feature was that, if it is now considered normal for journalists in Europe to infantilize a trans-continental TV audience in the manner described, then it it’s hardly surprising that several regions of the EU have become unemployment black-spots. Once we start explaining painfully obvious stuff to the ordinary citizen as in the instance described, it’s natural to expect that nation-states who do not infantilize
      their citizenry to the same extent will begin to out-compete us. In addition, I’m highly sceptical on the trans-generational consistency with which the criteria for testing different types of cognitive ability are applied. And certain aspects of literacy are not testable – for example, I would say that the ability to recognise a text as allegorical was certainly an aspect of a broader “literacy.” But the rise of both Christian fundamentalism and the new atheism (both
      equally naïve, both equally guilty of literalism, both equally lacking in nuance) is highly indicative that this aspect of literacy is in freefall.

      As to your question about what can be done…. Well, I believe that the Hegel-Nietzsche coordinates around which I built my argument commit me to the following answer: nothing can be done. The economic, political, moral and intellectual problems which the EU faces are inevitable manifestations of our collective psychological (or, more precisely, phenomenological) meltdown. The
      hollowing-out of European self-consciousness, resulting in the level of geostrategic ineptitude which the EU has shown over the past 20 years, is our shared psychological trajectory. That’s why I moved.

      • Tomas says:

        I made my comment about humanitarian crises in a specific (quoted) context. “Hungarian case” is no proof about how EU allegedly never provides any humanitarian aid. These are two different topics (and you yourself distinguished between them in the article). If you want to support your statement about how the only thing EU does in case of humanitarian crises is sending a representative, please use something more relevant.

        Secondly, I would like to hear about one country in the world that has no issues with racism or xenophobia. I feel this is not a EU/Europe-specific problem, but rather a problem of humanity. USA, which you mention in the article, could be labelled as hypocritical in some aspects just as well (not only in relation to racism). If your point was that EU is going down the dumper, OK. But if you meant to share some message behind, please can you elaborate on what is your benchmark/positive model? Thanks.

        (By the way, I’m not sure why are you concerned specifically about central Europe – I believe you are well aware about violent racial outbursts in France and the UK during the past decade; I don’t think – but I may be wrong – something like that happened on such a scale in CE. NB I don’t mean that as an excuse to racial violence etc. at any level anywhere.)

        • Padraig McGrath says:

          Okay, so you’re holding me to the letter when I say that “all the EU ever does is to send a special representative….” Well, in that case, let me concede this point – I do not deny that the EU sends humanitarian aid, but humanitarian aid is, in itself an aspect of Europe’s track-record of moral cowardice. Humanitarian aid is, essentially just a band-aid – it’s a poor substitute for meaningful intervention. I’m every bit as critical of the appalling misadventures of United States foreign policy as most other people, but at least the US meaningfully intervened in Kosovo. So if you’re looking for a historical example which can be positively compared to European passivity in the face of large-scale humanitarian crises, then that’s the one I’m offering.

          Secondly, while you quite correctly observe that every country in the world has problems with racism and xenophobia, my contention is that, in the EU, our liberal hubris essentially exacerbates these problems – liberal rhetoric now primarily serves the purpose of sweeping this stuff under the carpet. By comparison, Russians tend to be suspicious of outsiders at first (hardly surprising, considering how most westerners have been culturally trained to see Russians as uncivilized alcoholic rabble – another manifestation of our self-congratulatory attitude on civic values), but those suspicions usually get broken down quickly on the interpersonal level. Russians tend to be quite open-hearted people.

          In contradistinction to this, the kind of pathological racism which festers within the liberal private sphere of western post-industrial societies is much more difficult to break down insofar as it manifests itself primarily on the interpersonal level. Its consequences are no less damaging than the social effects of legislatively enshrined racism, but the liberal private sphere ultimately now serves as an incubator for it. For Russians, racism is an attitude which is rooted in a sense of cultural prestige and a sense of themselves as a great civilization, but it doesn’t prevent most Russians having trusting relationships with members of other ethnic groups. By comparison, inter-ethnic trust in Hungary and the Czech Republic is practically unknown – for Czechs and Hungarians (for example), racism is pathologically hardwired into the process of ego-formation itself, making it completely impervious to reasoned argumentation, re-education, social engineering or editing. The Czech Republic is the mother of all “emperor’s new clothes” liberal democracies.

          Finally, yes, I’m well aware of the flashpoints of racism which have manifested in countries like France and Britain over the past decade. But at least in countries like France and Britain, a meaningful social debate and critique/analysis of racism is possible. This kind of deep analysis and critique is hardly possible in societies where the tradition of education and upbringing is so programmatically infantilizing as to prevent most people from developing the basic levels of self-awareness which might enable them to critically examine their attitudes and the implicature of their attitudes. So the result is that while, in France and Britain, racial tensions sometimes openly manifest themselves in rioting (at least provoking a public debate), in much of post-communist central Europe, racism festers unexamined, incubated by a particularly glib adherence to the rhetorical norms of liberalism. Russia is certainly not a democracy, and most Russians are openly anti-liberal, but nobody could ever plausibly maintain that Russia has no public sphere – Russians never stop having major arguments about history, politics, identity, etc…. By comparison, the banalization of Czech and Hungarian public culture enabled by post-communist consumerism and the resultant total absence of a meaningful public sphere in places like Hungary and the Czech Republic make pathological racism all the more socially corrosive.

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