The rhetorical question “Is this all there is?” belongs to a story in which the lure of transcendence and wholeness leads to disappointment. It expresses disillusionment at what is perceived as a broken promise or a reality that turned out to be less enchanting than one hoped. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor refers to the famous song performed by Peggy Lee to describe the “malaise of immanence” that characterizes secular modernity. A common assumption underlying numerous critiques of secularism is that some form of transcendence (something more, else, or different) should be recovered and revived.
This view is gaining influence in current debates about violent extremists, be they fascist white supremacists as in Charlottesville or ISIS fighters in Syria. It is often suggested that the success of extremist organizations is an inevitable consequence of the managerial meaninglessness produced by secular liberal democracy. The argument goes something like this: Liberal secular democracy only offers hollow and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, and is incapable of addressing fundamental questions about the meaning of life, let alone articulating any answers. In this desolate context, it is only normal that fragile and unassimilated individuals are drawn toward radical ideologies that provide them with the comfort of a community and a theory of life.
In this reasoning, the relationship between religion and politics is understood as a zero-sum game. When politics ousts all sense of sacredness and transcendence, religion or spirituality turns into radical, possibly violent, politics. To be safer, it is argued, the disheartened world of secular democracy needs to be re-enchanted. Religious leaders, activists, intellectuals, and community organizers across Europe, the United States, and the Middle East have warned policymakers, parties, and organizations about the pitfalls of promoting procedural moderation as the only aim people should aspire to. People need dreams, not just objectives. When leftists call for a revalorization of the notion of radical politics, or when religious activists call for a spiritual revival, they suggest that violent ideologies and movements can only be fought through a counter-ideology that proposes a similar combination of emotional intensity, moral intransigence, and intellectual clarity.
Calling for the revival of comprehensive forms of belief systems, the primary purpose of which would be to terminate macabre ideologies, is somewhat paradoxical and very likely to fail. One may argue that one of the reasons for the unexpected success of extremist worldviews is their appearance of unmanufacturability. There is obviously a significant amount of mundane planning and orchestration that allows for the widespread appeal of the jihadist or far-right culture of violence. But these movements have successfully given the impression that they defend authentic worldviews and movements, born out of the needs of the grassroots and the subjugated. The global failure of deradicalization centers and counter-radicalization projects suggests that, no matter how well intended, the preemptive engineering of alternative ideologies and belief systems aimed at moderating behaviors and reforming beliefs is inconclusive at best.
The political invocation of a curative transcendence that would address the ills of liberal secular democracies is not only impractical, but also normatively flawed. Critiques of secularism and liberalism, whatever the politics they serve—progressive, Marxist, conservative—often share a nostalgia for comprehensive projects that would belie the grim realization that “this is all there is.” The problem with these types of pleas is that they share with the very form of managerial secular politics they denounce a similar denial of the meaning of loss and mourning in contemporary societies. If only, it is assumed, individuals in declining Western societies could be provided with all-encompassing belief systems—from renewed Marxian radical politics to public Christianity—they would regain hope and refrain from engaging in deviant social behaviors.
Could it be, though, that instead of calling for people’s salvation through the restoration of grand narratives and moral systems, one should pay closer attention to the fact that loss and mourning are turning into hegemonic forms of political and social identities? From anti-Muslim groups opposing the building of an Islamic community center in Manhattan (the so-called Ground Zero Mosque) to white supremacist movements protesting the removal of statues of Confederate generals, loss and mourning play an increasingly prominent role in disputes about free speech, race, and religious freedom. A key challenge for the survival of peaceful democracies is to properly understand the social phenomenon of (perceived) loss and mourning while resisting the risk of defining communities solely according to what/how much they lost. How does one take loss seriously and figure out how to transform it into action rather than identity?
French philosopher Michael Foessel has written a book on consolation that presents essential insights to think about how to engage with some of the pitfalls of secular liberal societies, while resisting the temptation to call for a quick transcendental fix. A politics of consolation, Foessel argues, is based neither on a denial of what has been lost nor on an attempt at restoring a golden past. Acknowledging the loss makes one able to perceive the possibility of a future. Consolation prioritizes lucidity over conviction and brings a positive connotation to the claim that “this is all there is.” The realization that “there is nothing more to” a given reality, no matter how dire, that there is no overarching intent, project, or conspiracy to be feared or expected, has important political implications for the present. Relieving individuals from the pressure to prematurely let go of their pain and freeing communities from the illusion or re-enacting mythical pasts such as the Caliphate or the Confederacy may contribute to building more peaceful societies. “Not to be reconciled with one’s past may be the only way to have a future,” says Foessel.
Consolation takes place through dialogue, and helps the aggrieved person to see her reality as something she can transform rather than as an inescapable fate. Consolation, in Foessel’s view, is not a call to resignation but a condition for self-transformation. It does not bring back what the other has lost, but it suppresses the “suffering of the act of suffering”; that is, the feelings of loneliness, guilt, and withdrawal that people may feel when mourning or recovering.
The strength of Foessel’s analysis is that it stops short of making any policy recommendation about ways to institutionalize a politics of consolation. Indeed, a successful consolation is meant to last for a limited period of time. Trying to institutionalize consolation would amount to turning what is meant to be a provisionally unequal relation of power between the consoling and the consoled person into a stable structure or institution. The political potential of consolation, Foessel suggests, lies in an ethical attitude rather than an institution. It is linked to the belief that “another path is possible, beyond the fake alternative between . . . reconciliation and melancholy.”
While a large spectrum of motives and conditions explains the success of current extremist ideologies, a central aspect of their success lies in their capacity to speak to individuals who are motivated by a strong feeling of loss (of status, identity, employment, cultural certainty). Many individuals who join ISIS or fascist and racist groups have a profile similar to that of the “radical loser” described by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Foessel’s analysis of consolation is by no means a policy guidebook explaining to politicians and administrations how to cure this feeling. It suggests, however, that it is possible to think about the social phenomenon of loss beyond pathologization (“they are crazy”) and contempt (“they are losers”).
Consolation does not deny the importance of what has been lost by promoting a hedonistic celebration of the present; and it is different from the melancholic lament on which reactionary ideologies are based. It is an ethical practice that converts sadness into fresh claims and innovative movements.
The objective of consolation is not restoration but “diversion without forgetfulness.” Metaphors are a key component of this rhetorical effort to divert and convert pain, to help the consoled envisage her reality from another lens than the one of her sorrow. The consoling voice does not deny the fact that the afflicted person has lost something or someone, and does not try to diminish the importance of this loss by promising salvation through adherence to grand narratives. Rather, she helps her interlocutor to appreciate the possibility of perceiving the reality of this loss differently.
Polemics about religious freedom and free speech have been marked by an inflation of false symmetries such as: “Why do you want to build a mosque in Tennessee when we can’t build a church in Riyadh?” or “Why do your women want to wear burqinis in Marseille when our women can’t wear bikinis in Mecca?” Such statements have been rightly criticized as based on ignorance, bad faith, and hate mongering. A more generous understanding of the attitude of individuals resorting to such false symmetries and analogies is that it expresses a sheer incapacity to redescribe the world in order to reappropriate it.
The ability to redescribe a situation that causes pain or resentment allows the afflicted person or group not to feel abandoned to their fate. Paul Ricoeur has demonstrated the emancipatory and equalizing power of metaphors that allow one to imagine one’s reality differently, and ultimately to grasp sameness in difference. Whereas false analogies used by populists and violent jihadists reify difference, metaphors that adequately capture a situation or an emotion create the possibility of an encounter in this very difference.
Consolation is effective to the extent that it elaborates, not a truth, but a persuasive case, based on likely evidence and relevant metaphors. It belongs to a provisional ethics rather than to a restorative metaphysics. As impermanent and precarious as it may seem, the ethics of consolation and metaphor represents a sobering, honest, and possibly emancipatory perspective on the acknowledgment that this is all there is. Rather than calling for restoration of a golden past, or for the re-enchantment of the secular world, it creates the condition for its transformation.