Lying awake at night I pondered that oft-quoted line of Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘I am responsible for everything, except for my very responsibility’. In a moment of gripped curiosity I reached for a phone, laptop or anything connected to the Wi-Fi in order to google the reference. Yes there it was, but it was, like almost all famous quotations, off by a little: in Existentialism and Human Emotions, Sartre had written,
[…] Someone will say, “I did not ask to be born.” This is a naive way of throwing greater emphasis on our facticity. I am responsible for everything, in fact, except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world, not in the sense that I might remain abandoned and passive in a hostile universe like a board floating on the water, but rather in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant. For I am responsible for my very desire of fleeing responsibilities
Context being (almost) everything, seeing the words against the referential background leaves me feeling a little robbed of meaning. And in a way, I prefer the remembered, popular version much more, not least because it is in its apparent simplicity and comprehensiveness ironically far more open and unfinished and pliable to my ever-scheming mind to give it deviant, shifting meanings. Yes, ultimately it will be about facticity and thrown-nesss, I know I cannot escape this. But I still find myself able to twist and turn and relate it to slightly modified concerns. While Sartre goes on to relate the discovery of his responsibility and his lack of foundation to the experiences of shame and guilt, I am unwilling to conflate the two. I know that while the one is theological, the other is economistic, and that it is precisely the hook of neoliberalism to cash in on this equivocation between the two. Let me elaborate.
Parsing the mnemohistorical version rather than the original as being the better formulation, we arrive at the following corollary: while I am irresistibly coerced into accepting culpability for everything in life that happens to me, it has to be objected that the very metric by which I am morally and ontologically evaluated as a being has an ultimately external locus. While I am forced—by my situation as a being with a self-reflexive consciousness aware of my finitude—into a subjectifying moralism by which I simultaneously conjure and condemn a subjective self, I cannot (at least not without an inauthentic perversion of intention, a great pretence that vastly inflates and exaggerates the field of the ego’s operation) assume responsibility for the system of judgements to which I subject this self. Sartre knew this only too well as does psychoanalysis: the guilt or indebtedness in which the subject arrives at an awareness of its own inception is not ahistorical, but saturated in still-operative cultural and linguistic bearers of theological judgement.
While one man cannot separate his ‘existential guilt’ from his ‘Catholic guilt’, another woman can no more do so from her ‘Protestant shame’ or still another person, purportedly secular, from her ‘human potential’. They all feel the indebtedness—the guilt—about which existential phenomenology and the hermeneutics of subjectivity have for a century now been writing so eloquently and piquantly, but at the same time each is in their own way unable to unravel the same experience from a more basic underlying feeling that although everything in life has been ‘their fault’, it was not their fault that it was ‘their fault’. Which is to say, the sense of condemnation and indebtedness felt, even for being inescapable, is never absolute. It cannot go all the way and engulf the subject completely because this ‘self’ was not there when the possibility of judgement arose; indeed this kind of guilty subject is only the subject insofar it is subject to judgement. This guilty self is not so much an ‘authentic’ self, then, as the by-product of a process of subjection to a set of criteria that has always come from elsewhere, from the historical accretion of many layers of social and culturally reproduced judgements, often disguised and displaced in language and thought, and which pre-exist everything about the biological individual; yet which it has had to absorb and learn. And this incompleteness and inconsistency of responsibility as something to be simplistically owned as if it were private property is precisely the space in which something like the light of Christian absolution can shine.
As the phenomenological theologian Paul Tillich demonstrated in his seminal text The Courage to Be, it is not that one can forgive oneself, cancel one’s indebtedness—indeed this is a futile idea—but far more that one can admit the possibility of one for whom oneself is forgiven. For Tillich of course that one is called God, but as a materialist I do not feel the necessity of naming it such. All that which is for me, with my inherited cultural mores and the theological baggage which my very language carries in its belly, unacceptable about myself—all which falls short of my potential for being—is of course acceptable for another whom I posit as possible. That is all.
But it makes a massive difference. And it holds a secret radical key to undoing the conflation of theological shame, the experience of being naked and exposed to a history that I have arrived in and can only assimilate in order to have a social existence, with that sense of indebtedness—of not being ‘big’ enough, of not being ‘enough’, not being all that I always ‘could’ have been—which neoliberalism insidiously instrumentalises in order to financialise lives and generate its own debtor-subjects (as was well foreseen by Marx, and beautifully illustrated more recently by both Maurizio Lazzarato and the late David Graeber). Put more prosaically: within Christianity of all things has long existed a radical, anarchic resistance to the debtor-subjection process. (Perhaps too it is there in other religions, but I am most familiar with Christianity and so that is where I can most easily locate it).
To return to the mind-worm that, in the middle of the night, summoned this train of thought: ‘I am responsible for everything, except my very responsibility’. This means: “my” debts are really another’s. It is another who has captured my process of subjectivation in their circuits of symbolic obligation. And thus it is not for me to ‘absolve’ myself; rather I am absolved from within that same virtual field. Nothing I am capable of doing changes this; all I can do is accept that from somewhere in the field of the virtual is one (or many, it does not matter) for whom I am not deficient in my being, for whom I am accepted entirely as I am.
No matter what is owed to creditors, landlords, private individuals, companies even governments, there is one in whose eyes all such debts or obligations are morally irrelevant. I am not that one—and could never realistically and unproblematically assume such an identity—but I am capable of the realistic figuration of such a one, capable without effort of imagining such a one, of an admission that yes, it would always be entirely possible. It is on this terrain, the terrain of the virtual, in which neoliberalism has so deeply damaged us all. This is the terrain on which it is possible—metapossible—that neoliberalism, as a system of debtor-subjection, is defeated. Because the first thing that revolutionary subjects of the near future must begin to feel as they emerge from their universities and workplaces, is that their horrendous debts do not mean anything about them. That they are not thereby obligated anything, that they are not morally obliged to do this or that. In other words, the possibility of one for whom their debts are as nothing is fully real. Whether we call that one God, the spirit of community, the flame of solidarity, radical democracy, socialism or anarchism, or whatever, is the least of my concerns.
Dedicated to David Rolfe Graeber 1961-2020
Image: Guido van Nispen, Netherlands – L1002769, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60143017