Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Prayers for the Precariat

Tonight, on Facebook and Twitter, I posted that I was "praying" for Minneapolis, for Chicago, for #BlackLivesMatters, for refugees fleeing violence and seeking safety and, more generically, for anyone and everyone who loves justice, defends and protects the most vulnerable among us, who is under assault, in danger and in need of not only our supportive solidarity, but our active advocacy. This was an uncommon, if not entirely idiosyncratic, expression on my part, as I am not "religious" in what might be called any meaningful sense (though I am a PK and was raised in a religious household). I suspect that many who were brought up in "the (Christian) church" or in some other observant faith opted for divergent paths in their adulthood, as I did, for many different reasons.  My particular reason, as unsatisfying as it is unaccountable for, even to myself, is simply that I was never capable of forcing my own mind to accede to certain fundamental requirements of the the most basic articles of theistic "faith." For that reason, I hardly ever claim to "pray" for anyone or anything because it seems to me to be, if not outright duplicitous, at the very least disrespectful.

That said, I do pray.  I pray for friends and strangers, for the virtuous and the vicious. I pray for them by their proper names and, much more often, anonymously.  I pray for them, for you, for all of us, frequently, passionately and sincerely.

Not that I am ever called upon to do so, but I sometimes wonder how I might explain what I mean when I say that "I pray" to those who would insist that prayer requires, first, a resolute belief in the effective power of prayer or, in what amounts to the same thing, a confidence in the effective power of some supernatural Being to make real the events, things or states of affairs that my prayers solicit, become actual. What follows are some brief, incomplete reflections on what I might say.

Why do I pray?  Why do we, why ought we-- all of us, believers and unbelievers alike-- pray? Especially now, when the the solicitations of many prayers are so dangerous, in fact deadly, and when the confidence of believers in the power of prayer ought rightly to be doubted, if not also condemned. what is left that is worth preserving in this bizarre human practice of prayer?

A Beneficent Arrangement in Our Nature
I am often reminded of the similarities between faith, as a habitus of practical reason, and prayers/wishes, so persuasively articulated by philosopher Immanuel Kant.  In a footnote (III, n.18) to his Introduction to Critique of Judgment, Kant defends himself against critics of his Critique of Practical Reason who claimed that his definition of the power of desire (as “the power of being the cause, through one’s presentations, of the actuality of the objects of those presentations”) suggested that mere wishes would be able to produce their objects.  Kant’s rejoinder was that this could not the case, for mere wishes (and even some forms of prayer) simply present unattainable objects as their aim.  While one might reasonably argue that, pace Kant, desires also do the same, I think both the theist and the atheist (or the agnostic) must necessarily concede Kant's point here about prayers/wishes: even if the specific content of a prayer's solicitation is attainable by other means, the cases that make "prayerful" solicitations distinctive qua "prayers" involve solicitations that are or are perceived to be unattainable by other means. (Similarly, as Kant details in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals with regard to "morally good actions," we may concede that the person who does the "right" thing out of inclination or self-interest has indeed accomplished the "correct" action, but we would not generally credit that action with the distinct characteristic of "moral goodness" for having been done so.)  My point, and Kant's point, here is not to say that we never pray for things that we could not otherwise accomplish by our own natural powers, but rather that what is distinctive about the solicitations of prayer are their (real or apparent) impossibility.  We "pray" for things that are or appear to be unattainable without some supernatural intervention. Prayers are a kind of desire, yes, but a uniquely distinctive kind.

Kant acknowledges, however, that even though “some of man’s [sic] desires involve him [sic] in self-contradiction” and “this relation is such that even an awareness of its insufficiency for producing the effect cannot keep it from striving for the effect”-- Kant's talking about "vain wishes" and "prayers" here-- nevertheless these (apparently futile) desires can sometimes provoke us to apply our forces in productive ways.  As a result, Kant concludes, "the deception contained in vain wishes is only the result of a beneficent arrangement in our nature.”  That is to say, human Reason is arranged in such a way that it always seeks to exceed its own limits.  We desire to know things we do not (and, in some case, could not) understand.  We desire to see realized things that are not and, in many cases, could not be possible. This is what motivates, first, curiosity-- but is is that very same thing that motivates "vain" wishes, hopes and prayers.  

Is it frustrating and disappointing?  For the most part, yes. Might those frustrations and disappointments sometimes "provoke us to apply our forces in productive ways"?  If we're sufficiently attentive and motivated enough by our frustration and disappointment, yes. Is the desire-frustration-disappointment- provocation-production cycle a "beneficent arrangement of our nature"? Absolutely yes.

So, REASON #1 TO PRAY: in doing so, you are activating one aspect of the beneficent arrangement of human Reason itself.  Because it is nested in a body and a being that also desires, wishes and hopes, human Reason also possesses the incredible capacity to aim for that which is beyond the limit of what it can know or understand.[1]   

Weak Humanism
In large part thanks to the widespread uptake of Judith Butler’s work over the last decade, considerable academic attention has been paid to the very human—perhaps, uniquely “human”—phenomenon of precariousness. Our current usage of the word “precarious” is inherited from a mid-17th Century legal term, originally intended to indicate a juridical or economic status of dependence (literally, “held through the favor of another” or “dependent on the will of another”), though it has since come to designate a broader, more ambivalent and multivalent status of being at risk, in danger, vulnerable or powerless. It is the latter sense that Judith Butler, for the most part, employs in her works of the last decade [2] dealing with mourning, violence, self-constitution and our various formations of relationality vis-à-vis the State and one another. That is also the sense, for the most part, that French sociologists in the 1980’s intended when they coined the term “precariat,” a portmanteau combining “precarious” and “proletariat” and referring to the social class of (seasonal, intermittent, temporary or undocumented) workers for whom predictability or security in their employment was lacking. 

“Precarious” shares a root with, and in fact is a derivative of, the word “prayer,” an interesting etymological kinship that has gone largely unacknowledged in recent literature surrounding both Butler’s work and, more broadly, analyses of the lived-experience of workers, citizens and other “Others” living on the economic, political and social periphery.(The Latin adjective precarious--“obtained by prayer, given as a favor”-- derives from the Latin precari--“to ask, beg, pray”--and serves as the root for both “precarious” and “prayer.”)  The disassociation of these two terms, in current treatments of both precariousness and the precariat, calls for closer examination. I think the re-association of these terms is necessary because, in part, we have lost sight of the manner in which "human" being is most essentially and characteristically defined by (and understood via) humans' constitutive weakness and vulnerability.  I cannot go into my whole argument to that end here, but please listen to my interview with Chris Long on what I have called "weak humanism." In sum, I argue that it is out finitude, our vulnerability, our dependence and interdependence, our capriciousness and unpredictability, our impotence in the face of pain and suffering, our always-as-yet-undetermined possibility to perfect or pervert our collective endeavors that define us, rather than our so-called "strengths" (as defined by the traditional European Enlightenment narrative) of rationality, autonomy and freedom.

As the linguist Francis Johnson noted in his 1852 Dictionary of Persian, Arabic and English: “No word is more unskillfully used than [“precarious”] with its derivatives. It is used for uncertain in all its senses; but it only means uncertain, as dependent on others." To redouble Johnson’s objection more precisely, I would add that “precarious” only means “uncertain” or “dependent on others” in a particular way, that is, in the way that a person soliciting, petitioning, begging or praying is uncertain and dependent. So, it is worth reconsidering what exactly we understand by “prayer” in this sense, what the position of the supplicant is in our time and what role, if any, that understanding ought to have in our theoretical articulations of not only precariousness, but also the lived-experiences of those who count themselves among (or solicit on behalf of) the precariat. 

I’m interested in reconnecting these etymological kin (“precarious” and “prayer”) because it is a kinship worth rekindling for both socio-political (strategic) reasons and also normative (philosophical) reasons. There are a number of ways to do so, not least of which is through French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida, who once described himself as “rightly pass[ing] for an atheist.” What we find in Derrida’s cryptic, enigmatic and at times utterly idiosyncratic treatments of prayer (and, though he never names it as such, also the precariat) is something like a trail of philosophical breadcrumbs that lead us not back to some Sovereign God, s’il y en a, but rather to a profound understanding of the inescapable, impossible and ever-present demand of response-ability, the manner in which we must and do respond to that demand when confronted with situations of undecidability and, correspondingly, to a more resolute understanding of the kinship between precariousness and prayer. 

Hence, Reason #2 To Pray: because exactly like you, others are weak, vulnerable, precarious and in need of petitions on their behalf. To deny your responsibility for petitioning on the behalf of others is to deny your own humanity,i.e., your own vulnerability and weakness.

God Has No Hands But Yours
There is an old, well-known and oft-employed aphorism that conjectures: “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Another of its correlates—“as long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools”—makes the same point, namely, that in times of stress or duress, in situations of precarity, even otherwise non-religious people not only "believe" in a transcendent power, but effectively verify that belief by praying, that is, by mimicking, or engaging in full faith, the behavior of true believers. Many philosophers, who either are or rightly-pass-for atheists, tend to disavow these aphorisms as the passive-aggressive rhetoric of the naively religious, those constitutionally-inclined to be ever in search of “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And/yet/but (as Derrida was fond of saying), I am unconvinced that this disavowal is as simple to level as we may want it to be, a suspicion that I think also troubled Derrida. Even philosophers, Derrida chief among them, acknowledge in the phenomena of everyday human life a number of practices, activities, behaviors, dispositions and engagements that are very difficult to distinguish, theoretically and structurally, from prayer. 

What is a prayer, after all, but a solicitation, a petition, a request directed toward what is not-yet-known, toward that which may-or-may-not-come-to-pass, toward what may or may not be "to come" (a venir)? Sometimes prayer comes in the form of thanksgiving, sometimes in the form of a question or overture, sometimes in the form of supplication, sometimes in the form of confession, but in every instance prayer is, structurally speaking, an address. In every instance, prayer (as its etymology indicates) is a solicitation

That is to say, prayer begs.  And who begs but the needy?

Prayer is the acknowledgment of powerlessness, of deficiency or insufficiency, and of one's constitutional inability to make of the world what one needs it to be.  Prayer is the expression of a desire vis-à-vis a more or less determinative formation of what-is-to-come and a petition that that desire be heard, if not also acknowledged and confirmed, regardless of the content of the what-is-to-be-heard. As such, the “genuinely” or “authentically” faithful prayer in the foxhole or by the test-taker in the classroom is structurally indistinguishable from the “baby needs a new pair of shoes” prayer of the craps-shooter or the “I wish I had a million dollars” prayer of the birthday-candle-blower-outer.  Each of them wishes the world otherwise, desires the world otherwise, hopes the world otherwise. They are all "prayers" in their own way and, irrespective of the merits or demerits of the faith of the petitioners, they are all the same.

Except in this way
: the genuine believer's prayer posits a definite addressee where the nonbeliever's prayer need not and does not posit the same. But how important, really, is the “addressee” in the act of prayer?  

This, I contend, is the question that must be answered before we can say anything else, philosophically, about what prayer is or does. What if it were the case that the actual "real" existence of a prayer’s addressee is ultimately insignificant to understanding what “prayer” is or does? What if the belief in the existence of the prayer’s addressee were likewise ancillary, insignificant even? What if dispensing with this focus on the addressee of prayer (or the belief in the existence or potency of the addressee of prayer) opens up a space for us to think about the lived-experience of the practice of prayer (and structurally identical practices) as a testament to our fundamentally-existential situation of precarity in a way that those who are or rightly-pass-for atheists consistently, if not also intentionally, misunderstand? 

For what it’s worth, I am not a “religious” person, by which I mean primarily that I neither believe in the existence of some Being or God transcendent to/of we humans, nor do I regularly engage in practices that might confirm a belief in such. Nevertheless, I do recognize that sometimes, in spite of myself, especially in times of stress or duress, I find myself engaging in what more or less amounts to something structurally identical to the foxhole-prayer. I regularly express my desire that—for lack of a better formulation—things be otherwise, an activity that I am fully confident that I share with every other (to borrow Kierkegaard’s formulation) “actually existing individual.” I petition the future, a venir, sometimes in the form of a specific articulation of my desire for what-I-wish-may-come and other times (more often) in the form of vague hopes or address-less entreaties for my desire-for-something-otherwise to be brought about. 

As a philosopher and a non-believer, I can recognize my prayers, if they may be properly called such, as a fundamentally constitutive activity of rational, language-capable animals—the reach of Reason, as we learned from Kant, must and does always exceed its grasp—though I am ever aware, of course, that wishing or hoping for a certain state of affairs cannot make it so. As Kant articulated in his Critique of Judgment, some of our desires involve us in self-contradiction and, quite often, the relationship between us and our desire that things-be-otherwise “is such that even an awareness of [our desire’s] insufficiency for producing the effect cannot keep it from striving for the effect.” Nevertheless, even the most futile desires for something-otherwise, which aim to determine the a venir even where one knows it cannot be determined in advance, can and do provoke us to apply the forces of Reason in actually productive ways.

Are my prayers, my entreaties, any different in form or substance than those of the saints? Saint Teresa of Avila prayed: Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.  Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people. Tonight, I pray for men and women and children to be protected and comforted as if by a God, in a world that provides no respite for them, and I know, even as I speak the words of that prayer, that it is only my hands, my feet, my body, my will and the actual actions that my will direct meto undertake than can contribute anything at all towards securing that wish.

Reason #3 To Pray: Because if I do not believe in a God who intervenes, I am the only one responsible for making the world otherwise than ot is, and the very articulation of my prayer (even if it is only in private, to myself) serves to draw the concrete borders of a compossible world, a world as I would wish it and, understanding through my own prayer the outline of an imagined world, I can begin to make it.  If, on the other hand, I do believe in a God who could or would intervene in the events of its Creation, a God that is Good and that desires Good, I must also believe that that same God,who has invested me with the capacity to makes the world better or worse, desires (in fact, requires) me to not only solicit, but to actually do God's work-- to diminish ugliness and create beauty, to alleviate pain and suffering, to amend errors, and to set wrongs right.

Prayer Does Not Help.  Help Helps.
At the risk of overemphasis, let me reiterate Kant’s point again: the “strange impulse” that Reason compels us to discharge in the form of wishes and hopes and prayers, despite each of their inability to be satisfied by Reason, is the consequence of “a beneficent arrangement in our nature.” That arrangement of Reason, which does (and ought) reject on principle whatever cannot be known, nevertheless always desires to accomplish more than it can possibly know. Reason is compelled by its own nature to press (even transgress) its limits. It posits for itself all manners of things that it cannot confirm, as a way of testing itself, but also of realizing itself. To paraphrase Hegel (no friend of Kant, to be sure) on the same point, the strange core impulse of Reason compels us to desire that when we look rationally upon the world, the world looks rationally back.  

And, paraphrasing Marx, when we look upon the world and it does not look rationally back, we ought be compelled to do the work necessary to change the world.

That impulse is constitutive of Reason itself. Plato recognized the same in his Allegory of the Cave, Aristotle in his account of Virtue, Augustine in his account of Love, Rousseau in his account of the General Will, Sartre in his account of being-with-others, Husserl in his account of intentionality. And philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st Century (see Du Bois, Fanon, de Beauvoir, Anzaldúa, Mills, Lorde, Alcoff, et al)  are perhaps most acutely aware—the recent attention to precariousness so astutely articulated by Judith Butler et al attests to as much, I think—that this deep-seated orientation of rational agents to constantly employ, and be frustrated by, a desire to know and determine what by definition can neither be known or determined, is testament not only to our fundamental orientation toward the future, the a venir, but also to our default stipulation that we engage both unknowns and unknowables primarily in the form of solicitations, requests and petitions. In our time, regrettably, those solicitation, requests and petitions are not primarily epistemological or metaphysical questions, but real social, political, and moral questions.

Also, as we are seeing right not in Minneapolis and Chicago, which are only the most recent iterations of an unremitting, insistent, demanding call for attention to such, these are questions of  life and death.

We are always already engaging the future, the unknown/unknowable, the place/time toward which we direct our intentions/desires in a manner that, it seems to me, is structurally indistinguishable from  whatever it is that is done in prayer. Everything we posit, every speculation, every utterance or symbolic creation is a solicitation, a request, a begging—all of which amount to an implicit or explicit confirmation that we are, constitutionally, always already held in the favor of another, subject to the will of another...in fact, at the mercy of another.  All of our positions and dispositions are matters of life and death.

Reason #4 To Pray: What matters, in this world and in this life, which we can and do know, is that there are Others who, if their sensitivity to our prayers can be heightened and if their powers to effect change can be directed in productive ways, are in fact capable of making prayers come true. 

If we're going to pray, believers and unbelievers alike, let us pray LOUD, in communion, together, in the streets and in massive, deafening choruses that decry injustice.

And if "they," whoever they are, elect not to make our prayers true, it is left to us to direct our powers and our courage toward making our own prayers come true.



[1] It is crucial to remember that the failure of theoretical reason is not a negative aspect of faith for Kant, but a constitutive and productive element.  Theoretical reason must fail, it must reach its limit, in matters of faith in order for the fact of freedom to be called forth.  Hence, Kant negatively defines an unbelieving person as one who denies validity to the rational ideas of God, the highest good, and immortality, merely because those ideas lack a theoretical foundation.  But Kant adds that, in so doing, the unbelieving person is acting dogmatically.  Dogmatic unbelief is simply the mirror opposite of faith; it is a way of resolving the oscillation between practical commands and theoretical doubts.  The dogmatic unbeliever decides the conflict in the favor of theoretical reason, but in so doing, they leave themself “incompatible with having a moral maxim prevail in [his] way of thinking” because, lacking a theoretical basis, the unbeliever has denied the only other possible basis for morality, namely practical reason.  

On the other hand, Kant looks positively upon the skeptic.  For the skeptic, the failure of speculative reason to provide a basis for the validity of matters of faith is “only an obstacle.”  Consequently, skepticism provides a “critical insight into the limits of speculative reason.”  In Kant’s estimation, the skeptic is better equipped to realize this failure as “only an obstacle” and his practical assent to the moral law (as a substitute for that which theoretical reason cannot think) can only be stronger.  The freedom that one must assume in the practical assent of faith, then, is not dogmatic but creative.  The failure of speculative reason takes away the compulsion to assent to things that are determinations and instead frees the agent to use his or her freedom to overcome the obstacle of that failure.  The skeptic is the most free, if it made sense to quantify such a thing, because s/he acts out of the failure of theoretical reason.  

[2] See Judith Butler, Precarious Live: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2006); Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler, Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging (Seagull Books, 2011);  Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Greivable? (Verso, 2010); Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Columbia UP, 2013); Judith Butler, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Polity, 2013).

1 comment:

The Clapp said...

I will add the eastern tradition's reason for prayer - meditation and its ilk help calm the mind, passions, desires, and thinking. Prayer - singular focus on one object (or even better, nothing) allows one to stop thinking, and then, in a seeming miracle, watch thoughts (usually about sex, food, or fear) arise as one emerges from that calm state. Meditation and prayer help people become a better humans, more aware of surroundings and self. Teaching cops and prisoners to meditate would go a long way. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dhamma_Brothers.