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NothingReview - Nothing
Something to Believe In
by Nica Lalli
Prometheus Books, 2007
Review by Tom Grimwood
Dec 30th 2008 (Volume 13, Issue 1)

Since Nietzsche wrote of the death of God, the question of valuing 'value' itself has been a central concern of western thinking. In many ways, the current ethical debate -- certainly in the 'continental' arena of philosophy -- is fixated on this problem of the foundation of value, or, rather, how one values without foundation, as witnessed in the discussions and debates between the likes of Jean-Luc Nancy, Alain Badiou, and Jacques Ranciere. At the same time, the political rhetoric following 9/11 continues to demonstrate that God and State are far from detached. But their precise relation is heavily ambiguous. Here in the United Kingdom, for example, where the ritual acts such as 'queuing' and 'being rained on' are far more culturally ingrained than weekly Sunday worship, the relation of religion to society is murkier than the political speeches of Tony Blair would suggest, discoverable in tones and traces rather than doctrine and policy.

It is refreshing, then, to read an approach to thinking through a world without God outside of the academic and often technical discourses which can dominate such discussions. Nica Lalli's book is a first person perspective charting her encounters with a world entangled in religion, whilst having no essential attachment to the divine. Of course, by prefiguring my review with such an introduction, I am guilty of throwing the book too far into an area for which it was never intended. Lalli makes no pretence to be offering a sustained systematic account of the 'nothing' which she identifies with, and I would praise its efforts to work through the problem in a uniquely 'lived' way. The book is written for a lay audience, in a lively and entertaining style. Written as a memoir, it is also more than a memoir: it is charting an attempt to think through a particular problem, a problem also being thought through in the different contexts mentioned above. And, if we are to believe the back cover, it is an 'edgy quest for meaning', and one that 'theists in America should all read'.

Lalli documents her views of the religious from the outsider's perspective through various scenarios: for example, as a child she is introduced to God as an almighty punisher of truancy (20); in her teen years she encounters some ferocious born-again Christians (97); she tries attending a church service at college but feels alienated (131); she argues with her Christian in-laws over toleration and its limits (199); and she recoils at the religious fanaticism following 9/11 (259). In each different event, Lalli struggles to come to terms with the experiences of attempting to be 'good' without invoking 'God'. Certainly more charming and often more graceful than Nietzsche or Sartre, Lalli attempts to offer a unique account of the mind's encounter with the conflicting and ambiguous social formations of religion in the modern world.

But if this is its strength, it is also something of a weakness. As a memoir per se it is entertaining, at points cute; as an attempt to think through the problem of 'nothing' or non-belief, it encounters two obstacles in particular. In detailing these, I once again fully emphasise that neither of these are obstacles for a memoir alone: the book is not written as a work of philosophy, and as such these points may well not be deemed relevant. Nevertheless, they are points which are worth noting, as they feature throughout.

First, one finds oneself persistent frustration with the fact that the numerous scenarios Lalli presents -- while often amusing and quite warming -- do not lead to any sustained reflection on the problem. When she declares conclusively that 'I could never value gods above humans' (269), this declaration could be fitted in at any previous point of the book, and as such does not quite ring with the profundity it wants. Lalli raises a number of searching and intriguing questions: but without such detailed reflection, the answers she finds can come across as slightly facile.

Second, in her continual emphasis on the fact that she is, as a 'nothing', an outsider in American culture, there is a strong sense in which Lalli's story commits what Nietzsche termed ressentiment. In other words, by identifying herself as being on the 'outside', she seems also commit to an idea of the 'inside' -- a stable notion of 'religion' or 'Christianity' -- as a solid, immovable structure. Because she is not on this inside, she is nothing. But what makes this presupposition of a stable entity surprising is that her anecdotes frequently reveal the practices of the religious to be no less obscure and confused than her own. However, the issue of what this might reveal of 'religion', or whether this religion might even be considered as a coherent entity, is too often passed over. In doing so, Lalli's 'nothing' is only ever really consolidated as 'not religion', and religion, in its turn, becomes something far more systematic than the evidence Lalli provides would suggest. The Christian characters appearing in the book, confused and ambiguous as their message is, effectively must be part of a coherent (and undeniably loathsome) whole, or else Lalli's emotional response as an 'outsider' will not make sense. This is, again, frustrating, because it is on this issue, I would argue -- investigating these very instabilities which exist between the dualities of belief and non-belief, good and evil, value and non-value -- that an approach such as Lalli's could make a genuine contribution. Unfortunately, it does not.

The implication of these two points can be seen clearly in the culmination of the book, where Lalli documents her struggle with being both an American and a 'nothing', in terms of the turmoil of feelings following 9/11 as she watches the members of the senate sing 'God Bless America' (256-260). This picture, in itself, speaks volumes of the significant turn in political rhetoric of the era: it carries the implications of an enforced affirmation of core values, the dissolution of irony, the ending of the 'postmodern' celebration of ambiguity and the over-emphasis of the nation as a unity. But it is also well known that such a turn has produced far more ambiguity and irony in the political sphere, and raised far more questions over the appropriation of 'unity' as a value in a globalised society, than existed before. It is at this point which Lalli's book might carve a space to provide reflective insight on her first person experience of such ambiguity. Yet, frustratingly, we remain held up in front of the picture, even in the penultimate chapter remaining squarely inside the book's premise that being 'nothing' is -- unsurprisingly -- quite alienating. We are not given the space to think through what being 'nothing', or being 'outside', might enable or where it might take us other than an antithesis to what is, in itself, a dubious thesis (for example, surely being 'sick of George Bush and his smug certainty that we were God's chosen people and that prayer would get us through this terrible time' (258) is not limited to the non-believer). Rather, we are merely re-affirmed that Lalli does not believe, feels excluded, but can get through such events because 'people are all I really have' (268).

In the end, one is never really sure what one is supposed to be taking from this book: whether one is reading the memoirs of someone who has shared a significant number of curious, thought provoking moments with the religious, or whether one is meant to be engaging in something like an 'edgy quest for meaning'. In any case, the experience may well leave one with their own sense of 'nothing'. For the reader who identifies themselves with Lalli's experiences, there seems to be no springboard here for moving beyond the initial problem. For the reader who does not identify -- and, given the structure of identification Lalli's narrative depends upon, this reader may be atheist, agnostic or theist -- but is interested in the themes of the book, there is not much to elucidate the existing discussions about just such issues.

© 2008 Tom Grimwood

Tom Grimwood, Department of Philosophy, Lancaster University


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