Is Conversion Possible?

Daniel Avatar

What if we began to view leftist revolutionary thought as inextricably tied up with the problem of religious conversion? After all, a convert to revolutionary positions is far different than the merely philosophical conversionary model of Plato and St. Augustine, which is a cognitive level conversion. For Plato, conversion is when the individual develops a newfound commitment to a different regime of sense; conversion means that the individual sees the light of truth in a different way. This is, in fact, not enough for leftist conversion. Revolutionary conversion must not only abandon the world as it is, it demands a two-part commitment: that one take up the spiritual re-setting of their life along the direction of the revolution (this we find in traditional religious conversion), and secondly, one must commit to revolutionizing the material and social relations of the world (this we do not find in traditional religious conversion and is the most important addition of leftist philosophy to the phenomenon of conversion). This latter commitment gives conversion an ontological affectivity, i.e. converting entails a complete break with an individuals previous life when one becomes a revolutionary and a material mutation then follows.

We can therefore perform a re-reading of leftist ethico-political thought along the question of conversion into the revolutionary imperative. In this re-reading, leftist ethicists that fail to develop a theory of conversion fail precisely in that their theory fails to meet the demands of the revolution. Sartre is one example of such a failure. In his late turn to Marxism, Sartre said that true morality consists of a permanent conversion into revolutionary action, thereby punting on what it in fact means to convert. One must lead a life of constant conversion. In this position, Sartre effectively suspended the question of politics and morals, where to convert is to enter into a space in which the ethical imperative itself becomes eligible to be re-formatted along the creation of a new revolutionary subject. We find something like this in Lukács’ ethics as well.

In the recent work on St. Paul which was begun with the deconstructive master Jacob Taubes in the early 1990’s, followed then by Derrida and extended by Agamben, Zizek and Badiou — we are presented with a theory of Paul’s conversion that set the grounds for a genealogy of secular leftist conversion. In other words, these texts argue in different ways that St. Paul gave leftist thought a new form of universality, and the means by which a new theory of the ‘all’, beyond the limited confines of Jewish chosenness, functioned. But is this in fact an accurate genealogical claim?

In Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life, a philosophical self-help tomb — he strongly argues that these readings of Paul, what he terms as ‘neo-Jacobin readings’, are in fact false. I won’t provide a book review of Sloterdijk’s text because Nina Power already gave a good summary of the book here. Rather, I want to look at his theory of conversion, particularly of how he reads conversion as a seminal aspect of leftist and post-Marxist thought.

Sloterdijk is tempted to agree with the conservative Heideggerian historian-philosopher Oswald Spengler, who argued that conversion does not exist. Spengler maintained there are only re-occupations of vacant positions in the fixed structure of a culture’s field of options. Conversion should therefore be re-designated as metanoia, a Greek term that means ‘a change of heart’, where the individual seeks out a new trainer and adopts a new vertical regime which entails a different Big Other. Sloterdijk argues that true conversions involve secessions from life, where the individual engages in an ascetic acrobatics — thus conversions happen all over the place in modernity but they are metanoetic shifts into a new regime of symbolic immunology. Thus, he argues, St. Paul’s conversion was not something that presented a new form of universality to the world of his time, it was an individual shift at the level of Jewish zealotry to a newfound Apostolic devotion. Since Paul already had relations with Christians for some time prior to his experience on the Road to Damascus, when he was overwhelmed with the light he called out to his Lord, using the very language of the Christians, before he had even accepted the Christ as his savior. This subtle point allows Sloterdijk to show that all religious conversion is plain and simple metanoia, which is given its first basis in Plato’s cave allegory, where conversion is,

“meant to lead from the corrupt sensible world to the incorruptible world of the spirit. To carry it out a change of sight from the dark to the light is required, a change that cannot take place ‘without turning the whole body’” (299).

The idea of conversion entailing a coincidence with the revolution of material and social relations would come about, in an interesting way, only after the scientific development of anesthetics. Anesthetics, for the first time, allowed man to enter into willfull states of un-consciousness – which was soon modified into a new form of bourgeois asceticism that turned against life and against asceticism itself in the form of laughing gas and opiates. Socialist and communist thought would eventually propose a model of conversion based on the necessity of man to develop a new awareness of what Sloterdijk calls the ‘vertical axis’. The vertical axis in modernity is steadily in decline and this creates a spiritual crisis — leftist thought thus enters into the fray to re-claim the vertical but devoid of the transcendent God. In an ingenious conservative reading of the October Revolution, Sloterdijk indictes the Soviet philosophers as the first ‘saints devoid of conscience’ which he argues is the most significant contribution of the Leninist moment to moral history.

With Sloterdijk’s periodization of conversion, he argues that metanoia changed after 1968 to something more concerned with bringing the commonplace back — to a horizontal re-adjustment from a sick and violent prior period obsessed with the secular vertical. Post 68, according to Sloterdijk, metanoia is no longer compelling at the level of revolutionary temptation — this is, incidentally a central part of Badiou’s philosophical fidelity thesis for which St. Paul provides the model. There is today a realization that “one does not save oneself by changing the world” to quote Godard’s 1982 film, Passion. What we lack is a desire for the passionate conversion that would ontologically affect the world — this itself helps explain why the question of St. Paul has returned to captivate leftist philosophical thought.

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