Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

II. The Phenomenology of Demonization

The challenge to secularization narratives posed by a focus on demonization appears nowhere more strikingly than in the portrayal of inter-subjectivity by one of the most influential twentieth century philosophers of the human condition, the militantly atheist Sartre. At the risk of drastically oversimplifying: for Sartre, human experience is primarily divided between “being-for-self,” in which the world is organized around one’s own free projects, and “being-for-others.” The latter experience “surges up,” as a “factual” encounter rather than an a priori structure, when one discovers oneself to be the target of the “gaze of the Other,” and thereby becomes transformed into an object in the world of objects.2 “Suddenly,” the world, which was previously organized as a terrain for my projects, becomes organized by the subjectivity of the Other. I am “no longer master of the situation,” but rather experience the “alienation of all my possibilities.”3 The “suddenness” of this experience, its unpredictable facticity, marks the shock undergone by the subject objectified, the master subordinated, the respected denigrated.

It is telling that, for Sartre, the paradigmatic illustration of this upsurge of the “Other,” with its objectification of the “I,” is the paralyzing experience of shame – as illustrated in his famous example of being caught watching at a keyhole. It is even more telling that Sartre describes this experience as that of finding oneself as a demonized object in a demonized world:

The appearance of the Other makes an aspect of the situation appear which I did not will, of which I am not the master, and which escapes me in principle, because it is for the Other. This is what Gide has felicitously called “the Devil’s share.” It is the unpredictable, and nonetheless real, underside.4

Sartre’s is a dualist world, one in which everything has two meanings: one which “properly belongs” to the subject, and another meaning, the “underside” meaning, which “constantly escapes” it. Under the gaze of the Other, this alien aspect of the world is its “true meaning which the subject will “never know.”5 Sartre refers us to the main protagonists of Kafka’s Trial and Castle who repeatedly initiate actions to gain control of their situation, but continually endure the experience that the meaning of those actions eludes them in a world standing under the gaze of an unknown Other.

The equivalent in political debate to being caught at the keyhole is to find oneself accused of demonizing – an experience of paralyzing shame that suddenly displaces the alleged demonizer as masterful subject, as the one who controls the meaning of the debate, by revealing to him or her that the meaning of his or her words has been objectified and denigrated (as mere “demonization”) by the Other. The speaker can regain his or her position as the master of meaning only by seeking to turn the tables (“I demonize? It is you!”, etc.), an often hopeless quest. Once the cycle of charges and counter-charges of demonization has been inaugurated, the participants have entered into a world of Sartrean dualism, a zero-sum game in which it is either the “I” or the “Other” who is the transcendent agent around which “meaning” is organized.

The theological cast of this portrayal is striking. Indeed, Sartre tells us that it is through the “gaze of the Other” that I undergo the undeniable experience, the “concrete ordeal,” that attests that “the world has a ‘beyond.’”6 The world revealed when it is reorganized by the subjectivity of the Other is the “underside” of the very world organized by the I; it is the world whose master, for Sartre’s Gide, is that “Devil” whose “share” it is. The valence of the two worlds depends, of course, on where one stands in this face-off. Indeed, it is significant that Sartre’s quotation of Gide is actually a misquotation: for Gide, the aspect revealed by the Other and concealed from the I is “God’s share.”7 The symptomatic misquotation participates in that indeterminacy which often afflicts theological discourse about the divine/demonic divide, an indeterminacy which Sartre might say stems from the table-turning between I and Other in the inevitable struggle to organize the world.

Of course, in this passage, as so often, Sartre is clearly trying to “secularize” a religious theme, to explain its phenomenological basis, its origin in human experience.8 He thus portrays Satanism (“Black masses, desecrations of the hosts, demonic associations, etc.”) as originating in an attempt to undo the paralyzing effect of the “gaze of the Other” by means of “conferring the character of object on the absolute Subject”9 – i.e., to cast God as an object in a world organized around the Devil’s subjectivity, or, to use other terms, to demonize God while deifying the Devil. Conversely, from Sartrean premises, one may suggest that theistic religion itself may be an attempt to undo the experience of objectification/demonization by the Other – theology as a back-formation from demonology, or, more precisely, from the ordeal of demonization.

Nonetheless, the ambiguity of the term “secularization,” familiar from the Löwith-Blumenberg debates, is particularly acute in relation to Sartre. Among other things, this term has oscillated between referring to: (i) the separation between the secular and the religious domains, the social decline of religion, and the rupture between secular thought and theology; and (ii) the translation and “transfer” of religious contents into secular form, while preserving their basic structure and core concerns. One way of understanding Sartre’s insistence on using theological language in his early work is to read it as an ironic usage of secularization/“transfer” in the service of an agenda of secularization/rupture. His notorious portrayal of all human projects as ultimately yielding only a “Dieu manqué”, a “frustrated” (or “wannabe”) God, would be an example of this strategy of ironic oscillation.11 Yet, this irony seems to falter in the “concrete ordeal” in which the Other appears as the “Devil” who casts the subject as one of the alienated objects of the “underside” world. The persistence, indeed centrality, of the experience of demonization in Sartre’s phenomenology of being-for-others is a disruption of the secular at its very core.

In Sartre, the ordeal of demonization is an unavoidable feature of the human condition, bringing to the fore a dimension of that condition in which the subject is not, and cannot be, transparent to itself. One can understand the effect of rationalist critiques of demonization that I highlighted in the first part – that they end up in a demonization-of-demonization – as a veiled effort at exercising power against the Other who upends the world of the I. The silencing of alleged demonizers is an effort to stop the table-turning dialectic portrayed by Sartre, to keep the I in a position of power against the Other, to deny even the possibility that one can become the Other’s object, de-subjectified in paralyzing shame. In a performative contradiction, it is an attempt to secure the self-possession of the autonomous subject of Enlightenment reason by means of a hyperbolically passionate attack on an Other who threatens from “beyond the world.”

This re-situating of Sartre’s discourse in an ambivalent relationship to rationalist versions of secularity has continually, if implicitly, come up against the problematic of “projection,” key to the rationalist critique of demonization. In his overtly atheist (and a-diabolical) pronouncements, Sartre implies that the notion of an existence of an absolute (good or evil) Subject is a projection into a personified, positive existence of features of “quotidian” experiences, experiences which should be explored without reference to any such “religious or mystical unknowable.”12 My analysis, however, shows that it is unclear from which standpoint projection can be granted such power. A central implication of Sartre’s phenomenology of inter-subjectivity is precisely that the subject is not an omnipotent constitutor of its “world,” but rather discovers through the “gaze of the Other” that it is also an object among objects, in the “underside” world that is the “Devil’s share.” Of course, Sartre’s (mis)quotation of the phrase from Gide was intended ironically, but again one can ask, from what standpoint? Only if one has already escaped from the “gaze of the Other” and the “true meanings” it reveals, can one make ironic assertions about those caught within it.

The problematics of projection and the standpoint from which one might analyze it brings us, of course, to the discipline of projection and its analysis, to wit, psychoanalysis.

2. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant : Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique (Paris : Gallimard, 1943), 292-345, esp. 300, 315. All translations mine unless otherwise noted.

3. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 304.

4.Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 305.

5. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 305. (italics in the original).

6. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 309. (“l’épreuve concrète qu’il y a un au-delà du monde.”)

7. André Gide, Paludes (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 91. This misquotation is pointed out in H. W. Wardman, ‘Aesthetics and Humanism in Sartre’, Modern Language Review, 82:2 (1987), 337.

8. There is a large literature on Sartre’s insistence on using theological language for anti-theological goals. See, e.g., Jasper Hopkins, ‘Theological Language and the Nature of Man in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Philosophy’, Harvard Theological Review, 61:1 (1968), 27-38; Christina Howells, ‘Sartre and Negative Theology’, Modern Language Review, 76:3 (1981), 49-55.

9. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 329.

10. See J.-C. Monod, La querelle de la sécularisation: Théologie politique et philosophies de l’histoire de Hegel à Blumenberg (2002), passim, esp. 22. I believe that it is less a question of a choice between the two senses as of a variety of discursive relationships between them, including ambiguity, dialectic, and supplementarity.

11. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 671.

12. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 293.

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