Between aesthetics and ethics
Spanish poet Federico García Lorca said “To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” but I would argue it is the decision to keep quiet itself that is harder.
In his later work Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores anxiety that arises in people when they have to make a decision. He did this by analysing the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac. It sounds like a bad trip on acid when you read it, god appears as a goat, there are angels, he builds a temple. But to cut a strange story short, Abraham had waited many years for his son as he never had children. So, you could say Isaac was the apple of his eye. Abraham is often referred to as the father of faith and this is why. God decided to test his faith by asking him to murder his beloved son. A son he believed he had been blessed with. Why would God give him something he so desired and then brutally take it away? Abraham plans to do it anyway. Kierkegaard wants to know why he would do it and why he has so much faith in god. He writes four possible versions but in the end, after he has explored all possible options, he concludes that there is no way we can understand why he would do it.
Here Kierkegaard is looking into the anxiety that arises when you have to make a decision between your ethical life and, what is the third sphere, faith or a religious life. Quick point: this is not clinical anxiety– in the I need citalopram kind of anxiety – but more dread or angst for a better word. The feeling you get when you are unsure of yourself and the others around you. In short, this dread arises when we have to make a decision for others or ourselves that goes against some of our beliefs or wants.
Now without spoilers, Barbara makes Jon do something that he does not feel right with, but he does it anyway for the good of the relationship. It goes against some of his beliefs. This is why Kierkegaard writes the four possible endings of the story to try and understand, but he cannot and that is his point. He does not think we can comprehend the relationship between a person and their god. He was writing in response to other philosophers who think that we can. Here is where the most famous of Kierkegaard’s philosophies comes out: the leap of faith.
Kierkegaard explains that people can decide to suspend their ethical beliefs when they have to make a decision that collides with their faith, or firmly held beliefs, hence they take a leap into the unknown. Reminds me of the vaccine a bit, but also our faith in society that it does work. It is our faith, not belief, that keeps that current system going and reproducing itself.
This sphere is often seen as the highest of the three and it is often suggested that Kierkegaard left his fiance as he wanted a life living in faith. No one can live in this sphere all the time and you can live an ethical life without believing in god. The two spheres are thoroughly interlinked. However when you do enter this sphere you come up against another barrier: despair. This is caused by knowing you will die, not just knowing that you will die but realising that you are a finite being. For Kierkegaard the only way to get relief from this is faith in god.
So, basically, unless we believe in god we are stuffed… Well that depends how you practice your faith, remember, Kierkegaard was fighting against people taking faith for granted. Pascal’s famous wager says that it is better to live believing in god. Because when you die, if god exists, you win, and if he doesn’t exist, you lose nothing. But if you don’t believe and he does exist. Well, you are going to hell. Bit back then before good ole science, religion was the prism through which many people understood the world, it’s fair to say that science is today’s grand narrative. Capitalism likes to claim to be part of the natural order of things or just ‘how things are’. Whilst that may work in the eyes of many who live in late capitalist countries, does that view sit with people from places where capitalism has mangled their way of life? By not challenging the narrative internally we continue to act in away that allows the system to keep reproducing itself. Is this what keeps people believing? And what if we all just stopped using money? Is it better to believe in capitalism than not, even if we really don’t ‘believe’. Are we going to church but playing on our phones?
Couldn’t the same be said for why we follow the rules of Covid. I mean obviously the threat of the repressive state apparatus and fines exists but isn’t it better to believe in the virus than not? There are plenty that would disagree I am sure and it is healthy to question the state and the ethics of society. But using this change to reflect upon our desires and our mode of living has been a chance that I don’t think the world will get again for a while. It could also be a valid explanation of why we continue to live as we do both individually and as a society. We keep getting told what is bad for us, the planet is dying and that capitalism isn’t working. But is it our faith in the system, its ethical foundations, that keeps us all going. Do we need to break from this? Maybe everything won’t be alright.
For Kierkegaard the ascetic sphere is the level of the individual and their search for what they desire. The second sphere is still related to desire but it is less personal and based on our social structure. Jacques Lacan a French psychoanalyst, who has been given a home by many different thinkers including philosophers, adds a dimension to this that I think adds a fundamental layer to understanding anxiety and boredom.
Unconscious or latent desire is something we can never fully fulfil, this is how Lacan sees the human subject. To him we are missing something in us and we are looking for it to make us whole. We desire an object, a thing that is outside of us, to make us whole. Our desire is a search for that object, we look to people for it, online, in work, relationships and even bad philosophy books, but we never find it because it does not exist in the material sense. Lacan calls this the objet petit a.
Now it may manifest like a specific object like a phone or a blowjob, but it is more than this, it is something that you desire to make you whole. For Lacan we can never get the objet petit a and we can never be whole. Even if we do identify our desire, like a pair of Reebok trainers, it is not the trainers we desire but an idealised image of ourselves wearing the trainers and acting how we would like to act. But when we buy them, put them on and we don’t change, our desire moves. We think we need a jacket to go with the trainers to reach that idealised version of ourselves, our ‘ideal- I’. Our image of us that we have that is complete in the future. Our desire is not a want and it is more than the trainers. Our desire is for the objet petit a which we think will make us complete and become our ideal-I. But we can never fill that desire and never reach our ideal-I. To be a human subject is to be a desiring subject.
For me this explains the boredom we find in the ascetic sphere. Our desire stimulates us out of boredom to reach our ideal-I. Remember how the film starts with Jon jacking off just after having had sex. He is imagining himself, his ideal self, in the porn. And later after meeting Barbara, he tries to go back to his old habits of going out partying, but he has had an experience that has changed him. His ideal-I has changed. He no longer has any desire for that old life. I think this is a similar experience to moving country, town or even out of your parents home. We shift in our desires and when we go back it is not the same as we are not the same people.
The above does not necessarily mean we switch our spheres though, but I am sure for many people this happens, for example if you were to move out with your partner. Remaining in the ascetic is not something to frown upon and it is easy to see how people relate it to being immature. Often people that live in this sphere are not reflective and they are normally people that live in a more carefree manner. Not just airheads or ravers, they can also be book worms or your best friend. From the outside, maybe we all look like that. It should be a subjective judgement of yourself, as opposed to a way in which we judge others.
However in the context of critiquing capitalism, the need for accumulation and the satisfaction we gain from it is one of the central pullers holding up our system often to the expense of the planet and people that are exploited in the global south. Capitalism needs to drag us into the sphere of the aesthetic so that we buy things if we don’t then would it function? The question on that is out to be answered. And if we never had capitalism, which is the best system at creating commodities of desire, what would we desire?
Moving onto the ethical and anxiety. Lacan uses a very strange analogy of a praying mantis, the green stick-like insect that is famous for the female biting off the head of her male partner after they have finished mating. He asks us to pretend we are facing a praying mantis whilst also wearing the mask of another praying mantis. How do you know if you are the male or female? Will your head get bitten off? This is angst. Lacan talks about anxiety appearing in various ways, but here in the most basic of his formulations, he explains that the anxiety arises when we don’t know what other people want from us, or to put it another way, we realise that they want something from us but we don’t know what they want or if we are it. We lose our sense of who we are, this is where the anxiety begins.
We get that feeling of dread you get when you see your ex coming towards you to speak to you, or someone in a foreign language shouting at you. We don’t know what they want from us or who they want us to be. Also remember the other person is also a human subject that doesn’t know what they desire. Lacan also claims that if the other person’s desire gets too close we also get anxious, so we need to keep a space between us and the other’s desire.
Do you remember I said that in the film Barbara asks Jon to stop doing something that he enjoys. Well it was cleaning his room. Jon enjoys cleaning his room and she asks him to stop because it is not manly. Jon feels uneasy about this but does it anyway. You can see that her desire for him to be more manly is too close for comfort for Jon and it makes him uneasy. He also gets flustered by who Barbara wants him to be. He is trying to be an improved version for her but he can not attain that perfection, he loses his sense of self because of this.
This is a common problem for children and their parents or in couples. It is hard to apply Kierkegaard’s three spheres to modern day life as the third sphere of faith is hard to pin down. Faith in capitalism? society? God? the belief you will be a star? We do have some faith in our ideal-I. A faith, or more a desire, to achieve that. But is that faith or a drive? If this image is disrupted, or we need to make a choice that may change our image of who we are, or who we think we are, then anxiety arises. Changes to the fictional narrative of our lives does this.
The common idea that capitalism works has been disturbed. Not only does this interrupt our narrative of what we have accomplished in our lives but it also disrupts what we see as our trajectory for the future. When narratives are shifted so is our version of the past and what an ideal future would look like. Walter Benjamin said “Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.” but what if we lose our idea of redemption. Is redemption a designer outfit? The system we have helps mold the social strata that we have grown up in. It places things in symbolic places and these anchor points help us navigate the complexity of the world and our subjectivity. We are told by society what to desire.
With covid we have all been stopped and have no choice but to come to terms with the fact we are a part of this world, society and that in the end we are all biological beings. It also highlights that we have class distinctions based on how many imaginary numbers you have in your bank account or which flag you have on your passport. We can all catch the virus, yes, but some of us have to work outside on the frontline and many will have been forced to choose between their health or a paycheck. Guess which one feeds the kids?
So if now we can see the system is flawed, unequal and killing the planet, why don’t we change it?
Furthermore I would argue that capitalism pulls us into the aesthetic sphere even when we are in the ethical with our loved ones. Remember when Boxing day was the day after Christmas for spending time with family and getting over the hangover, not a time for sales and queueing outside a shop three hours before it opened. As Todd McGowan points out in his book Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, capitalism feeds our desire. It was the first system to bring about the idea of equality and thus opened itself up to critique. Whilst much of this early critique was based on capitalism’s oppressive manner (not allowing workers the full profits of their work) it’s in fact capitalism’s ability to nearly meet (but not completely) our desires that keeps us going back for more. This repetition of not quite meeting our satisfaction keeps the system ticking over. Capitalism is the bad ex that we know we shouldn’t be with. It is a barrier to an emancipatory future where we can find desires outside of our meritocratic brand obsessed societies. Does that link to the explosion in recent years of burnout and depression? Never being fully satisfied and not being able to put your finger on why. The constant striving for more, or for many just to stay afloat and maintain some form of dignified significance, but sadly feeling that you are not quite there. The angst of not knowing what people want from us. It may also explain the lucrative and growingly obscure self help market and mindfulness apps.
We can find hobbies outside of capitalism. Politics, reading groups, friends and so on. But they aren’t there all the time. Where do we get the narratives, images and values from that help create our ideal-I. Increasing capitalism has more to do with it. Furthermore, as Kierkegaard pointed out repetition can lead to boredom which is a problem for us and why capitalism continues to spread into every sphere of our existence. Economic laws state that it has to grow but it also needs to meet our desires and satisfy our boredom, hence the growing of ‘experience’ commodities. We strive for that commodity that will make us fulfilled but it doesn’t exist and nor does the perfect version of us. The object petite a is always skipping from one desire to another. This makes us act, even though we know that after we fill this desire another will come. We are brought into the ascetic sphere often against our will. It’s only by moving beyond this that we can move forward. The satisfaction we get from the chase is often better than the commodity itself, so maybe we need to move to the next sphere and change what we desire. Hopefully we can have a system that meets our collective needs rather than individual desires. Let us move to the ethical. Who knows maybe the Beatles were right all you need is love (and a bit of communism)
But what does this have to do with coronavirus and making decisions and ethics? If we were to change our priorities (or society) and not put economic decisions above the cost of human life (as was done in the first year of the pandemic) then the framework in which we make ethical decisions and who we desire to be would change.
Kierkegaard, Soren. 1992. Either/or : a fragment of life. Edited by Soren Kierkegaard and Victor Eremita. Translated by Alastair Hannay. N.p.: Penguin Publishing Group.
Kierkegaard, Soren, and Soren A. Kierkegaard. 1985. Fear and Trembling. Edited by Alastair Hannay. Translated by Alastair Hannay. N.p.: Penguin Publishing Group.
Lacan, Jacques. 2016. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. N.p.: Wiley.
McGowan, Todd. 2016. Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. N.p.: Columbia University Press.