The following is the first of a three-part series.
Though Kierkegaard is typically considered to be the consummate philosopher of the single individual, his critique of secular modernity and institutional Christendom provide us with greater insight into the place of the social and political spheres in the trajectory of his authorship and existential thought. His criticism of the modern notion of “the public” may appear as an attack upon sociality in general—indeed, he doubts whether the modern age will “be saved by the idea of sociality, of community”—but we must qualify this accordingly (EK 267).
Rather than wholly disparaging sociality as such, Kierkegaard targets modernity’s descent into sectarian fanaticism and militant nationalism. His objections regard certain modes of sociality where processes of abstraction and equivocation have produced cultural spheres that have annihilated the single individual, damaged interpersonal relations, and have turned away from a sense of the eternal. Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the individual does not promote subjectivism, psychologism, or monasticism, nor does it dualistically affirm a mode of turning-inward that would reject concrete sociality. In fact, as is most evident in his later works, Kierkegaard’s social ontology rejects solipsistic separatism and liberal individualism as well as emphatic communitarianism and sectarian solidarity in favor of affirming a monadic congregation of individuals who participate in a perpetually renewed lived corrective to the leveling effects of modernity.
Kierkegaard argues that religious inwardness and a properly qualified mode of intersubjective relation can serve as a corrective to contemporary religious sectarianism, political partisanship, and violent fundamentalism—both sacred and secular. He writes that on the modern political stage, individuals “do not essentially relate to each other in the relation, but the relation itself has become a problem in which the parties like rivals in a game watch each other instead of relating to each other” (EK 256).
For Kierkegaard, this can be accounted for by a lack of religious inwardness, humility, and a willingness to be self-sacrificing. He claims that our contemporary inauthentic notions of equality are a component of the public’s mode of leveling and contributes to the impotence and meaninglessness of social organizations and institutions. We must replace our abstract, leveling conception of equality with “the full sense of equality” which is “the idea of religiousness” (EK 260). Community building and the domain of the political, then, are not themselves the target of Kierkegaard’s critique; rather, he intends to offer the movement toward the religious—where the single individual’s relation to the other is of paramount importance—as a corrective to the leveling effects of modern equivocation and lack of inwardness.
The leveling notion of the public evinces the absence of strong communal life and the existence of unified, substantial individuals in a congregational whole (EK 267, 262). Authentic community building—which Kierkegaard argues is essential for the single individual and for the true Christian—and the promotion of a robust socio-political solidarity is possible only by promoting the concrete over the abstract, by turning towards the other and the world.
The “public,” for Kierkegaard, is neither a community nor a congregation, but is rather a vacuum, a “monstrous nonentity” (EK 262). This is to say that community and political upbuilding are not antithetical to existential transformation or the single individual’s capacity to stand alone, quite the contrary. Rather, it is the individual’s movement into the religious that will allow for the creation of a unified community where the Christian command for neighborly love is translated into the social whole. For Kierkegaard, we may only remedy the deficiency of modernity where individuals have forgotten how to suffer for the other when the individual can learn how to engage in a proper relation to the other. This education will allow sectarianism and partisanship to be replaced by solidarity and a “deliberative union of individuals” (Matuštik 240).
Kierkegaard claims that in order to begin living the religious corrective to the leveling effects of modernity—those that have instantiated violent international antagonism among differing cultural value spheres (be they doctrinal, economic, or territorial) and stifled the existential maturation of individuals—“an entirely different revolution…must take place” (WOL 102). Particularly in Works of Love, Kierkegaard reveals the contours of this corrective, where he makes subtle use of the dual sense of revolution [omdrejning], both as political upheaval and resistance to the established order (in regard to both the State and the Church), in addition to the existential sense of a turning [omdrejning] (away from externality, toward the other, inwardness, God, and love), or the perpetual re/turn to the difficult beginnings of the lived corrective.
Kierkegaard’s existential/religious revolution is one that must be built from the ground up, beginning with the turn to inwardness. But we must recall that turning inward is not the existential equivalent of sticking one’s head in the sand in order to turn away from the world. Rather, inwardness is a religious relation and as such requires that one turn toward the other and to God as well as to the self. The revolutionary self-other-God relation is complex and often seemingly paradoxical, or as Kierkegaard has put it, appears to be both too much and too little, but deliberating on this relation, we find that Kierkegaard proposes that an earnestly agapic gift economy, perpetually re/turned to its difficult beginnings, will serve as the lived corrective to modern mass culture, fanaticism, and the negation of the individual.
For Kierkegaard, an existential revolution built up from an agapic gift economy is superior to any that remains immersed in the relations of political economy, as the latter—even when it is enacted to liberate—still functions in the existential mode of entitlement, self-love, and envy. The latter revolutionary mode still plays on the surface of things, “as it were, upon the back of a tiger,” and attempts to re-effectuate a leveling equality among individuals rather than the equality of eternity.
From Leveling Reciprocity to Eternity’s Equality
It is Kierkegaard’s emphasis on correcting the existential mode of self-other relation that connects his various critiques of the secular public and the Church. Each sphere is being damaged by misrelation, which can be remedied by re/turning to the religious mode of intersubjective inwardness. It is crucial to remember that, for Kierkegaard, inwardness is a relation and must be distinguished from naval-gazing or a disavowal of the world. Therefore, when he speaks of inwardness and outwardness, and of externality, these qualities must be recognized as existential modalities rather than dualistic distinctions like subject/object or inside/outside.
The revolutionary relation, he writes, “belongs to this world of inwardness. It turns itself away and will turn you away from externality (but without taking you out of the world), will turn you upward and inward” (emphasis added, WOL 384). It is in the mode of relationality that Kierkegaard locates his critique of the modern public. He argues that the modern notion of the public is the “monstrous abstraction” that acts as the “master of leveling” and constitutes, in the modern era, the renunciation of the concrete, of self-sacrifice, and has instantiated the evacuation of meaning from public social structures and positions of political and religious authority through a subtle process of equivocation (TA 84, 76). He writes that the “abstraction of leveling is a principle that forms no personal, intimate relation to any particular individual, but only the relation of abstractions, which is the same for all” (TA 83).
In this sense, the public is not a community or a congregation but is an abstraction that serves to sever authentic intersubjectivity and to prevent the formation of transformative relations between individuals. Turning to abstraction and reflection, then, are not aspects of inwardness—as one might characterize the reduction to interiority—but is rather the nature of the leveling equivocation of the public which, instead of seeing single individuals, only relates to others as to an abstract numerical component of the undifferentiated whole. Kierkegaard prophetically warns, “take away the relations, and there will be chaos…remove the relation and we have the tumultuous self-relating of the mass to an idea” (TA 63). For, when the individual is not “essentially turned inward” in the proper relation to the other and to the self, “everything becomes meaningless externality” (TA 62). When each citizen becomes an abstraction, equivocated with the public itself, each one ceases to be “that single individual.”
But, one might ask, if Kierkegaard locates the loss of individual autonomy and self-affirmation in the individual’s association with a cultural whole, polis, or congregation, then would he not claim that community is antithetical to the individual’s capacity to stand alone? We must recall though that revolutionary religious inwardness is not Kantian autonomy or liberal individualism. The individual’s ability to be weaned from mass culture necessitates, not separatism, but the proper mode of relation with others in the formation of a unified congregation of differentiated individuals who become unified by an ideal, but one that is lived and continually re/turns to its beginnings.
He writes, “the public is not a people, not a generation, not one’s age, not a congregation, not an association, not some particular persons, for all these are what they are only by being concretions” (TA 92-93). This process of abstraction, then, does not facilitate solidarity among those within the homogeneous collective because “individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity” (qtd. in Matuštik 236). This is because the notion of the public is a fiction created by the media to conjure communal unification where there only exists a numerical collection. He writes, “only when there is no strong communal life to give substance to the concretion will the press create this abstraction ‘the public,’ made up of unsubstantial individuals who are never united or never can be united in the simultaneity of any situation or organization and yet are claimed to be a whole” (TA 91).
The public, then, is a sum of undifferentiated individuals who are subsumed in leveling abstraction, and as such become nothing, whereas a congregation is composed of a “deliberative union of individuals in their difference” whose “unanimity of separation” reconciles unification with existential differentiation (Matuštik 240). The public, for Kierkegaard, is not a congregation. The former is only able to develop in the absence of the mode of relation that constitutes the latter. Rather than hindering existential/religious inwardness, communities built from the ground of sacrificial economy—which will be further defined below—secure the individual’s capacity to stand alone; the latter being only truly possible when she can relate to others is the proper manner.
For Kierkegaard, the same lack of a “relation of inwardness” that damages interpersonal relations becomes translated into large-scale political upheavals, forms of life, and systems of value. The lack of earnest revolutionary inwardness characterizes both the abstract equivocation characteristic of communist revolutions as well as sectarian fundamentalism and militant nationalism. Communist revolutions have often been “marked by leveling” insofar as they “forge equality by making the crowd the sovereign” (Matuštik 240).
The single individual becomes negated in the leveling of the crowd; whereas in the congregation, individuals remain unified in their mutual separation. Further, insofar as Marxist revolutions are carried out in the mode of resentful entitlement and are fought to invert the holdings of “mine and yours,” “envy”—rather than the relation of inwardness and love—“becomes the negatively unifying principle” (TA 81). Similarly, when there is an absence of an earnest, asymmetrically agapic relation to the other, as is the proper mode of religious inwardness, opposing spheres of cultural, national, or doctrinal value “do not relate to each other but stand, as it were, and carefully watch each other, and this tension is actually the termination of the relation” (TA 78).
Both violent sectarian (religious and class) antagonism and the leveling effects of the public are a consequence of an intersubjective misrelation. Insofar as this misrelation remains unrecognized, it is carried over into the very revolutions that attempt to liberate the people from the effects of the misrelation. The retained misrelation is evident both in the form of political upheavals and in processes of religious fundamentalism that serve as a defensive response to them. Kierkegaard proposes—as a permanently lived corrective to these processes and the rebellions that retain the dysfunctions they oppose—an agapic revolution where an earnestly asymmetrical gift economy characterizes the mode of self-other relations.
Andrew Ball is associate editor of Screen Bodies and editorial assistant for Communications in Mathematical Physics at Harvard University. He has published in a variety of academic journals such as Religion & Literature, American Literary Realism, and The Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics.