choosing leaping and uncertainty with Deleuze and Kierkegaard

This post by Tim Snediker showed up in my twitter feed last week, and as I’m a sucker for postmodernism generally and Zizek in particular, I’ve had it sitting open in my browser to read for a while.

I don’t know a lot about Deleuze or Kirkegaard (the latter being considerably higher on my to-read list at the moment), nor am I a trained theologian, but I’m intrigued by the author’s turn to him her looking at the choice to believe in God and what that means for a life. I’m going to have to quote at length, as I walk myself through this – and I think it is worth struggling with as I struggle with how I relate to God.

But, again, the argument over whether or not there is a God is a banal repetition. More profoundly, the whole debate concerns the different planes of immanence which the theist and atheist each occupy. This is where Deleuze can perhaps be of some use to us… I’d like to quote Deleuze at length here:

“ …We see clearly that choice is increasingly identified with living thought, and with an unfathomable decision. Choice no longer concerns a particular term, but the mode of existence of the one who chooses. This was already the sense of Pascal’s wager: the problem was not that of choosing between the existence or non-existence of God, but between the mode of existence of the one who believes in God, and the mode of existence of the one who does not. … In short, choice covered as great an area as thought, because it went from non-choice to choice, and was itself formed between choosing and not choosing. (Cinema 2, 177)”

It is not the “particular term” (God) that matters in the choice, but the immanent life of the person who chooses. Which is to say, according to Deleuze: the problem depends on the plane of immanence occupied by the one who chooses.

“Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” he who makes the leap, or Pascal’s gambler, he who throws the dice, are men of a transcendence or a faith. But they constantly recharge immanence…[and] are concerned no longer with the transcendent existence of God but only with the infinite immanent possibilities brought by the one who believes that God exists. (What is Philosophy?, 74)”

If I’m understanding this right then the argument is that it’s not what we choose to believe that matters, but what we do with it – how we live in and out of that choice to believe (which many of us make and remake frequently). Because that choosing moves us into a new plane of immanence – or a new understanding of the world and how it works / is – which changes our possibilities and the possibilities we see ahead of us in the world.

Then we move on to this: 

Thus, on the (old) theistic plane of immanence, only the believer who believes in God can effectively choose and choose therefore to work for a better world. However

“The problem would change if it were another plane of immanence. It is not that the person who does not believe God exists would gain the upper hand, since he would still belong to the old plane as a negative movement. But, on the new plane, it is possible that the problem now concerns the one who believes in the world, and not even in the existence of the world but in its possibilities of movements and intensities, so as once again to give birth to new modes of existence … The problem has indeed changed. (ibid.)”

(yeah, I’m getting lost here)

We no longer believe in the world. “We’ve lost the world,” says Deleuze, “worse than a fiancée or a god.” Thus, the task for us in our so-called post-secular age, is not to return wholesale to the “good old God” of Milbank and his so-called “radical” Orthodoxy, because in this instance an atheist would only belong to that plane as a “negative movement.” Rather, in Zizek’s terms, we should “tarry with the negative” in order to see (from the perspective of the new plane of immanence) the parallax shift from one plane to the other. What was negative movement on the old plane of immanence picks up speed until it reaches infinite speed on the new plane and becomes generative of new possibilities, new modes of existence, and most importantly new modes of resistance to the hegemony of global Capital, of which both theologians (Zizek and Milbank) are fierce critics.

This last paragraph of this is, I think, the only hope I have of unpacking some of this planes stuff (and I’m still lost in negative movements and infinite speeds) – but I think that what is being argued for is that we don’t focus on the ‘for’ and ’against’s or the ‘them’ and ’us’s in a way that talks past each other and denies each other any validity but that we look to retain the connection that comes in the choice and which says that belief (and unbelief – which is a form of belief) has a power to open up possibilites as a person’s life reflects their choice.(?)

Hence:

Belief in the world does not mean belief in another world or a transformed world, although these could result from belief in the world. “It is only, it is simply believing in the body,” writes Deleuze. Which is to say, to believe in the world is to practice materialism. Which is to say, further, that here on this plane of immanence we find ourselves scattered across, universally schizophrenic and bereft of a world and belief in the world: only an atheist can be a Christian, and vice versa—and only such a perspective (the parallax between planes) reveals the gap or the interstice at the heart of the overlapping planes: choice.

But how does this choice happen?

But, Deleuze asks, “this point of the outside, is it grace or chance?” And it is here that we confront the paradox that Milbank is entirely unable to grasp: the identity of grace and chance. What Milbank cannot think is absolute contingency—the All of chance. Deleuze writes of chance: “each throw of the dice affirms the whole of chance each time.” (Difference & Repetition, 198). Deleuze notes that Pascal’s wager, on the one hand, is the model of fragmenting chance, distributing different modes of existence (the theist, the atheist, the agnostic), always presupposing a God to which these modes relate; but, on the other hand, if chance as such is affirmed as a whole, then the throw is necessarily a winning throw, and the “in-between” named choice becomes indistinguishable from a choice by another,** “the other’s decision in me” (Derrida), or, simply, grace.**

I get a little lost in the Pascal bit – but I think I’m on board with the Deleuzian idea that every time you choose you effectively choose all over again. Or to go back to Kirkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’, you just keep leaping (or not leaping). Because I get lost in Pascal, I’m not sure how we end up at the Derrida quote, or if it works, but I do like the idea that at some point my choosing and leaping gets caught up with another – with God’s choosing and leaping towards me.

I imagine that there are libraries full of books and articles trying to work out how grace work – but I might be tempted to abandon them all in favour of the following sentence:

Thus, we can no longer tell whether we choose to choose or have been chosen to choose—grace and chance radically coincide and it is the “we” that constitutes the “I” which chooses. “Only he who is chosen chooses well or effectively,” writes Deleuze…

I find that a little beautiful, because it is at once unfathomable and delightfully simple in that way that unfathomability can be once you give yourself over to living with it.

But Snediker goes on:

and this is what the death of God means: there is no guarantor of our identity, and there is no pre-existing Whole. The only Whole is the Whole of Chance, the outside, which Deleuze calls chaos.

Which brings us, finally, to the real difference between Zizek and Milbank: the latter proposes a “radical orthodoxy” because he presupposes an Urdoxa, either in the form of a original harmony of Being, or of an ultimate and absolute Truth that can only be participated in asymmetrically via grace given from God. For Milbank the logos is precisely this Urdoxa, and it admits no chaos, which is to say, admits no difference(s). All comes from the One and returns to the One.

Zizek, on the other hand, refuses such a pre-existing Whole. On the contrary, for Zizek, “the very process through which necessity arises out of necessity is a contingent process” (Monstrosity, 78), and can only be apprehended as necessary retroactively, after the fact. If there is a Whole for Zizek, it is always not-Whole (non-All), formed as if step-by-step by a constitutive distortion or fracture.

Chaos is not, therefore, our friend, but it (absolute contingency) can be our weapon in the fight against Urdoxa, against Capital, and against the “powers and principalities” who have rendered our world lost. Against the umbrella of “right opinion” that supposedly shelters us from chaos, we should “tear open the firmament and plunge into chaos.We defeat it only at this price.” (WP, 202) Deleuze writes of philosophy, art and science as three secant planes of immanence that cross chaos in order to weaponize it against the vagaries and violences of “opinion.” What the dialogue between Zizek and Milbank should show us is that theology is perhaps capable of laying such a plane: a composed chaos, chaosmos. (Perhaps the word “God” names such a concept.)

I fall somewhere between Milbank and Zizek, I think, in that I’m choosing to go towards the idea of a pre-existing whole like Milbank, but with a more complicated sense that grace is not just one-sided and a belief that the ‘pre-existing whole’ is in three parts, rather than one unfied, somewhat static entity, and that I share Zizek’s affection for a continual process in which everything opens up a new set of possibilities. I like Snediker’s idea that it’s in a dialogue and a continual process of choosing and exploring our choices that we’re most likely to find a way through the challenges we face – that it opens up new possibilities rather than shutting them down – and allows us to challenge the current certainties and hegemonies. Because continual certainty is getting us nowhere.

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