The other day I posited a revamped version of the Faustian Question to a friend as a thought experiment. You may be familiar with the story, or at least its more well-known neologism, the Faustian Bargain. The tale of Dr. Faust — sometimes Faustus — told and retold dozens of times with several variations is essentially thus: An intellectual named Dr. Faust surrenders his soul to Satan in order to achieve infinite knowledge. For my purposes here we can understand Faust as not only forfeiting his soul but also his capacity to enact and pursue change in the world, have sex and seek profit, electing instead for a scholarly hermitage. My question was this: Can you list three things for which you would seriously consider forfeiting sex, money and power? I added the caveat that they don’t necessarily have to be sure that they would make the deal, just that they would have to thoroughly weigh their values before making a decision. The second caveat, yes, you can still masturbate. Per request, I will not post the friend’s response, but I can give you mine instead. My bicycle, my writing, and my ability to learn and teach. I was immediately reprimanded by my peer.
“Sex. You would forfeit sex? … For your bicycle?” I reiterated that I only said I would have to seriously consider it.
In an era facing catastrophic climate change, political polarization, terrorism, police brutality, racism, rising inequality and undue influence of money in politics, is it OK to be a Faust? The reason the tale has prevailed through hundreds of years is its core question: What is the value of knowledge and personal fulfillment at the expense of your soul? At the expense of action? At the expense of sex? Are we allowed to, instead of pursuing action through protests, voting or advocacy and activism, retract into thought?
Not only can we brood on our bicycles instead of barging out of the barracks, but we must do so in order to face the increasingly complex and even paradoxical issues our world faces. We are being told by the Noam Chomskys, Bernie Sanderses, Naomi Kleins and Saul Alinskys of the world that we have to act now, that the world is — sometimes literally — on fire, that the cost of inaction will be grave and is hence immoral. But solutions are not at hand.
We have seen the utter failures of communism across the world, and are now witnessing the catastrophic excess of capitalism following the 2008 financial crisis and the minimal reactions to climate change due to an aversion to the loss of profit — largely in oil, coal, agriculture, and plastics. Yet the End of History appears nowhere in sight, with democracies rolling back across the world, even here at home. We are witnessing the Fragmentation of History; all the lines we once trusted have been hurled out the window.
The simplistic left wing-right wing spectrum no longer satisfactorily provides solutions to our dilemmas. Given our current trajectory of income inequality and the rise of independent expenditure-only committees — Super PACs — undermining this American Republic, we are nearing an oligarchic ordering of society. The only third way we are offered is the old third way, that of fascism, that of transparent lust for power, now in the guise of the confusing (dis)orientation of Donald Trump’s nativist political philosophy.
We no longer have the Soviets or the Klan to kick around anymore. Legal barriers against the LGBTQ community, women and African Americans, are almost completely gone — with notable exceptions as in the case of gays in the workplace, among others. Racism is no longer transparent. It is opaque in its micro-aggressive, culturally appropriating and subconscious manifestations in contemporary society. How do we act for change when we are facing problems that are no longer embodied by a single villain, but rather destructive systems, with no one to directly blame? Paradoxes abound in the troubling postmodern 21st century political and cultural questions. Simple calls for “tolerance” or “understanding” are underwhelming if not entirely inept responses to the increasingly paradoxical and paranoiac nature of contemporary issues. Liberal or conservative, the idea that you could have non-dogmatic solutions to these problems that fully realize the nuance of modern issues — or more precisely postmodern ones — is unreasonable. Thus a call to the labs, libraries and think tanks and away from the streets is more than valid — it is mandatory.
I have no solutions to all the aforementioned problems, save one: Yes, it is OK to be a Faust.
This is not to say avoid all political action. Rather, it is to take the Zizekian Line: a plea for retractivism and more nuanced debate before action. But we must never forget, Dr. Faust is condemned — in the most classical sense, to Hell — by his scholarly seclusion. It is not acceptable for us to learn for learning’s sake, as it is for children. We must constantly ask ourselves throughout our studies the hermeneutic questions: Why does thinking about this matter? Will my considerations of this issue be capable of begetting a reasonable alternative? Only then can we avoid the Faustian Failure.
Jack Bennett is a junior in the College. Culture Warped appears every other Friday.