Borenstein: Beyond Belief

This essay was written by Eliot Borenstein (Professor, Russian Slavic Studies, New York U) for the 2019 Presidential Plenary on the topic "Belief".

When I was in high school, I knew someone who lived on the streets of San Francisco, dedicating her life to telling people about “Confucius and other Buddhists,” before moving to Hawaii and shacking up on a marijuana farm with a man who claimed to be God.  When I was in college, a particularly obnoxious pair of evangelists named Brother Jed and Sister Cindy visited our campus every year, informing us that all the “girls” at Oberlin were whores, and all the “boys” were dirty little masturbators.  Though I initially mistook them for performance artists, they were apparently the real deal.  Jed claimed to have been a hippy who saw God during an acid trip at a Burger King.  When I was in graduate school and running an academic exchange program in Russia, one of our scholars was convinced that the KGB had implanted a transmitter in her skull and was following her around the world.  It took me a long time to learn about this, since she wouldn’t talk about it over the phone.  

With the exception of the unshakably dogmatic Brother Jed and Sister Cindy, all the rest displayed a rather weak capacity to sustain belief.  It came and went, it contradicted itself in ways they didn’t acknowledge.  Eventually, my acquaintance settled down in Arizona, where she teaches Sabbath school and is a pillar of the Jewish community, thereby proving that God continues to find clever ways to inflict suffering on His chosen people.  I don’t know what happened to the Fulbright scholar.  Brother Jed is still Brother Jed, gleefully reminding everyone that we’re all going to hell.  

You may ask yourself, what does all this have to do with Russia, the country I allegedly study? A number of things.  For one, as we turn to Russia, these examples serve as a reminder that, whatever fringe Russian idea I might invoke, there is no monopoly on crazy. Second, and more important, it calls into question the role of belief in research conducted by skeptics.  As contemporary Russian discourse moves further and further not just to the right, but to a world in which even the most improbable conspiracy theories can be publicly entertained with a straight face, questions of intent and belief inevitably come to the fore.  In Russia, as in America, liberal intellectuals bash their pointy but figurative heads against an equally figurative wall, half-asking, half-lamenting, “How can people really believe all this?” Or its corollary: “Do these people really believe what they’re saying?” 

These are not quite the right questions. Moreover, they can’t be met with a satisfactory answer. After all, how much do we really trust the answers people give in opinion polls (see Thomas M. Disch’s 1969 short story, “Vote Yes” which ends with the sense that ordinary, liberal people around the country find themselves voting for a referendum instituting fascism because, once they’re in the voting booth, they can’t resist the impulse)?.  Both belief and intent are politically important, but discursively close to irrelevant. This is partly an extrapolation of the intentional fallacy multiplied by skepticism about human psychology and a belief (yes, I said it: belief) in the dogged perversity of the unconscious.  But it can also be simplified:  people lie, so their true feelings are subject to external doubt.   

What we have instead are utterances that, sincere or not, function in the world regardless of original intent, or memes, basic units of information whose dissemination and survival depend not on accuracy or truth value, but on catchiness.  With all this in mind, I argue that what looks like belief systems (in my case, conspiracy theories), are best viewed as a set of memes or utterances that, rather than reflect the speaker’s inner world, construct what could be the momentary subject position of the speaker.  We all adopt conspiratorial subject positions all the time, primarily as consumers of narratives that presume both intent and the necessity that everything that happens in the narrative is connected and happens for a reason. We believe in impossible things when the genre requires us to (alien abductions on The X-Files, spontaneous synchronized dancing on Glee).  

We can be part-time crackpots, or only partly-committed ones.  What the Russian media have been doing for a decade is creating an informational genre (TV news) whose rules are internalized by its viewers, and whose more dubious claims are legitimated by the informational context (the genre) that surrounds them. These claims might as well have been focus-group tested, since they tend to stay within the confines of what the intended viewer might find congenial (which is in turn conditioned by the genre itself).   “Belief” here does not have to mean total or rational commitment, but a momentary acceptance or inclination to entertain the idea.   By analogy to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” one might call it “beliefiness”.  As for the people spreading the information in the media, they could be sincere, they could be cynical, and they could be engaging in styob(the over identification with the object of satire pioneered in late Soviet times and responsible for much of Stephen Colbert’s success).  But it doesn’t matter all that much. 

Thus, attempts at debunking are usually futile, since they’re attacking the problem from a losing position.  Hence the longtime actionist approach to political opposition, which refuses to engage with the dominant discourse on its own terms (unlike Soviet dissidents, who couldn’t seem to help themselves).  Pussy Riot continued this tradition in its actions, only to switch to a logic- and sincerity-based approach once on trial.  And the result?  They were told that their apologies to believers were insincere.  And how could the defendants prove otherwise?   

Nadya Tolokonnikova claimed on her group’s behalf a “naive, child-like sincerity,” but it couldn’t be proven with words.  We are on the territory of apophatic religious practice, or the famous phrase “мысль изреченное есть ложь (“a thought, once spoken, is a lie”) Believing in sincerity becomes an extralingustic act of faith.  Because words have a sad tendency to devolve into bullshit.   

Tolokonnikova is also a careful wordsmith who moved from composing scandalous lyrics to impassioned, politically sophisticated speeches and essays.  Clearly, she hasn’t given up on words, nor, given the extensive coverage of her every utterance, have words given up on her. But she is also an avowed radical feminist who modeled for a fashion photo shoot not long after leaving prison, and an opponent of sexual violence whose earliest feminist action, “Kiss the Pigs,” in which women activists threw themselves at female police officers and forcibly kissed them, looks disturbingly like assault. In my forthcoming book on Pussy Riot, I make what seems to me an obvious argument that consistency is antithetical to a feminist/anarchic aesthetic, but perhaps I am thinking too narrowly.  Why do we expect people’s beliefs to be consistent?  

Non-Believers express shock and indignation when people’s beliefs appear to contradict themselves: you’re pro-life, but fine with kids in cages on the border?  You’re piously Russian Orthodox, but are indignant whenever Stalin comes up for criticism? The Russian Orthodox example is instructive, because the objection assumes a coherent, integrated self whose inner world is maximally aligned with its outer expressions, and whose pious actions are the result of faith, and whose faith motivates pious actions.  In other words, we speak not just as Westerners, but as Protestants.   

Thus, I would argue that we tend to make two major mistakes when considering belief, one global, the other local.  The global mistake is to see belief as something coherent, consistent, and integral; the local mistake is to ignore all the historical and discursive forces of the past century that would make belief in Russia partial, short-term, and most of all performative.  Mikhail Epstein argues for a post-atheistic alternative to the “churched” (воцерковленный) formal adherence to an organized religion: minimal or poor religion.  It is spirituality stripped down to its essence, centered entirely on the believer’s relationship to a client, but listening God. It is closer to a long-term, consistent notion of belief than what I am speaking about here, and it strikes me as more of a goal or a limit case, something to be approached but rarely reached.  The very need for such an alternative speaks to the lived reality of late- and post-Soviet faith: partial, site-specific, and in no way saturating all parts of the believer’s life.  

The problem with this sort of belief is that it is rarely articulated, and almost never by the believers themselves. On the contrary, one of the things we all seem to be willing to believe in is the capacity of other people to irrationally believe something we know to be nonsense.  In one of the chapters of Plots against Russia, I trace the rise to prominence of a particularly important discursive framework: what in English we call “brainwashing,” and what in Russian is termed “зомбирование” (zombification). Original a Cold War bogeyman in the West, brainwashing/zombification arrived in the post-Soviet space initially as a way to explain the rise of so-called “totalitarian sects” (“cults”); the media and “experts” wholeheartedly adopted the “brainwashing” paradigm that is highly disputed in contemporary Western religious studies scholarship.  From there, it made its way into the political realm, with “zombification” becoming a trope to explain why people believe the propaganda they hear on the “zomboiashchik” (the idiot box).  When you look at the rhetoric of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, you find that each side accuses the other of being brainwashed.  Ukrainians and liberals scorn the “vatniki” whose minds have been warped by Russian state television, while Russian state television constantly reminds its viewers that Ukrainian nationalists have been zombified by Ukrainian state propaganda with the help of the American State Department.  Somewhere in Ukraine, in the company of the bloodthirsty Nazis who presumably absconded with Hillary Clinton’s email server, there is a nationalist brain trust making sure that average Ukrainians hate Russians, for whom they should only feel fraternal love.  

The rhetoric of zombification should remind us of the fundamental impossibility of talking about belief with any certainty or accuracy. Belief tends to be exalted (as sublime, as truth) if it matches one’s own professed belief, and demonized or ridiculed if it does not. This is a roundtable, so no formal titles have been announced for our presentations, but I do have one for mine: “Beyond Belief; Conspiracy, Dissent, and the Trouble with Sincerity.”  I bring this up because I want to explain something about the idea of being “beyond belief.” Initially, I wanted to suggest that we need to come up with a paradigm about subjectivity that moves beyond the idea of belief, but now I realize something else.  “Beyond belief” is a phrase meaning “unbelievable,” yet the concept that is most clearly beyond belief is…belief.   

We do not believe the beliefs of others; or, when we do, we believe in their belief too much: the belief is real, but the subject of the believing, the self, recedes into unbelievability. Who, after all, are these crazy, stupid, brainwashed people who believe this nonsense?  How can we believe in both the believer and the belief?  

But we also fail when required to profess our own belief as part of an empirical, data-driven, survey-obsessed social scientific project for collecting and collating information. Remember:  “мысль изреченное есть ложь.” Whenever I am in a situation to respond to a set of survey questions, I find the task of rendering my own subjective self (belief system and all) within the narrow parameters of multiple choice an odious and impossible task.  Lately, in response to discussions in the press about trust in government, I’ve imagined how I would answer the question: “Do you trust the government?”  My gut reaction is no.  I don’t trust any big, impersonal organization, and I don’t trust the apparatus of state to have my best interests at heart.  But why is the question being asked?  And when?  If I say that I don’t trust the government, does that become a data point about post-Reagan lack of faith in the state (as opposed to the glories of private industry)?  Is this a sign that I’m ready to burn the whole thing down?  How can I say that I trust the government under Trump, but if I say I don’t trust the government, don’t I sound like a Trump supporter?   

Confronted by a positivism that pretends to have no agenda, I choose to keep my belief to myself.  Anything else is distortion.  The survey says: speak, but I can only respond with silent, civic prayer.