I’ve just been reading a paper called “The Problem of Suffering and the Sociological Task of Theodicy,” written by David Morgan and Iain Wilkinson, at the same time as re-reading Levinas’ “Useless Suffering“, mostly to find juicy quotes (Levinas has to be one of the least quotable philosophers I know of – well, that’ s not quite right. He’s very quotable, but only at length. It’s an issue). I guess I’m back to thinking about suffering. I suspect I’ll never escape it!

But the paper from Morgan and Wilkinson I found a bit troubling. First of all, there’s a bit of a lack of clarity in the way that they differentiate ‘theodicy’ and ‘sociodicy’ and ‘inverted sociodicies’ (?). They claim that the first is, as we might be familiar with already, the justification for the belief in god despite the existence of suffering. The second, they suggest, is kind of like the same, only it’s about the belief in, y’know, progress. As Levinas puts it in “Useless Suffering,” this is mostly about the faith in a ‘kingdom of transcendent ends’, which of course for me evokes the Nietzschean critique of the ‘two worlds’ in Platonic Christianity. And the final, ‘inverted sociodicies’, is “brings from obscurity the ‘hidden hurts, fears and desperate cravings’ without which the ‘real story’ of the twentieth century cannot be told (Graubard)”. (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 205). This would be the one that Morgan and Wilkinson see their own project as part of. I have a lot of sympathy with their position on this, really I do, although there’s a bit of carrying-on about how no one else (except a select inner circle) has been doing these ‘inverted sociodicies’ before which I think is indicative of a real failure to grasp what precisely is going on here. I am not convinced that no one else in academia has, at the centre of the drive for their work, a desire to name sufferings that have not been named, or a desire to alleviate those sufferings in some way. Maybe I’m just hopeful, but I honestly find it very difficult to believe. I think that one of the things that’s interesting about a lot of academic work is the various manifestations of that ethical impulse, and the ways that institutions so commonly fail to sustain it. Anyway.

What’s interesting to me, though, about their desire to participate in these ‘inverted sociodicies’ (which, to be upfront here, I’m going to argue are less ‘inverted’ as failing to grasp how thorough-going theodicy/sociodicy are in the commitment to the grand narratives) is that it hangs on a very particular conception of knowledge and language.

Despite numerous well-respected claims to the contrary – from Levinas, from Elaine Scarry, from Schopenhauer, amongst others – they argue that suffering can and should be articulated, be made meaningful, be made, specifically, the object of knowledge. Not knowledge of where and how suffering occurs, but knowledge of what suffering is like. The experience of it. In one of the bits that made me particularly indignant, they suggest first that suffering ‘lies in our “capacity for knowledge”, and then declare that “there is a paradox here, for whilst suffering appears to depend on the need to impose meaning on our lives, suffering is often at its most unbearable when meaning is the very thing it negates.’ (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 203).  They then refer to Levinas, whose description of the phenomenology of suffering contains this (as I’ll show) erroneous quote:  “Taken as an experienced content, the denial and refusal of meaning which is imposed as a sensible quality is the way in which the unbearable is precisely borne by consciosuness, the way this not-being-borne is, paradoxically, itself a sensation or a given.” In this quote, they leave out a key word: “the way in which the unbearable is precisely not borne.” This is not about stocism, and nor is it about an underlying subject who is capable of bearing the unbearable sensation, who will always persist. This is about the sensation of the complete decimation of the subject. This is, as I’ve described it elsewhere, about the breaking apart of a world (which is meaningful, though not in the way that Wilkinson and Morgan argue it is (rationalish) but in the way that Levinas describes – a world opened to the other).

But Levinas also makes a distinction between suffering-in-me-for-the-suffering-other (which has as its meaning compassion, according to him: ethics, in some sense), whilst the suffering other is an outrage, a useless, meaningless evil which cannot be given meaning without doing (more) violence.  But Wilkinson and Morgan go on to suggest that the problem is that we just haven’t yet come up with the proper, adequate language yet. And when we do, we will be able to really progress forward, according to them. This, I think, is a complete failure to grasp what’s going on, but more than this, it subjects suffering to precisely the same modernist endeavour that has shaped the ideals of progress that they are apparently so wary of. KNOW EVERYTHING.

Suffering hasn’t arisen as the dark-but-expungable underside of modernist progressive drives. In fact, most of those modernist progressive drives take as their justification the relief of suffering. Look at Lyotard’s two grand narratives: the March to Freedom (thanks Marx!) and the Progress of the Spirit (shout out to (not) my boy, Hegel!). These are not motivated by a selfish desire to ‘enhance’ the world, not really. They are motivated, at least in part, precisely by the desire to alleviate suffering. Let’s make no mistake: the reason that Nazism, source of such suffering, became comprehensible to everyday Germans wasn’t through simple irrationality, through a straightforward failure to be concerned with suffering. It was precisely because it was made rational. As Foucault put it, what we saw in the 19th and 20th centuries was the development of a very particular kind of racism, supported by the ‘avalanche of numbers’ (Hacking). This racism divided the world into the subracial and the superracial. We can see where this is going. But the point here is that the genocide of the subracial was precisely justified as a strengthening  of the population, as a future-focussed, utopian drive towards a world in which no one suffered, in which everyone was strong, and able-bodied, and strong of mind, and fertile, and strong. A world in which none would have to suffer, and indeed, in which one may be maximally free. Foucault has some really nice ways of describing it in Society Must Be Defended – something about how the ‘vital principle’ was sustained through the excision of the subracial. And these stories, which were never delimited to Nazi Germany anyway, Western Nurembergian protests notwithstanding,  go on and on and on, now! The story we tell now is that you wouldn’t suffer if you’d just be whiter, more masculine, more able-bodied, more neurotypical, more more more ideal, more normal.

The point here is that I really do sympathise with Morgan and Wilkinson’s attempt to try and shed some light on the mucky and often-obscured underside of the shiny story of progress. But to do this in the name of that progress, to claim that progress and suffering are here simply in “an irreconcilable and destabilizing tension between the civilizing ideals of reason and the record of exploitation, violence and suffering which has been inflicted upon nations, ethinic communities and globally vulnerable groups” (p. 210), well, that seems to me to be a complete failure to grasp precisely what is at stake here. This shiny story of progress is earned on the backs of that suffering, because the shiny story of progress has no time, nor space, for difference, as Lyotard was so at pains to point out. It plays a key role in producing, manifesting, concealing and, yes, justifying, that suffering.

I don’t have the answers here. These are not simple matters. Part of why they are not simple is because it is so very easy to get so caught up in the commitment to the ethical alleviation of suffering that one puts faith in whatever brings that alleviation closer quicker, without really engaging fully with the genealogy of the complex structures within which we’re operating.  But the seductive ease of the equation of knowing more with progress in negotiating suffering… we need, desparately, to remain critical about that. Because theodicy structures our cultural logics, promising utopias (if we could all just become one, become equal, become same) and sustaining anguish and suffering in the here and now…