The British Troupe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, is justly known for its biting and irreverent humor. But Monty Python’s send-ups have other virtues as well. By way of illustration consider a scene from the movie Life of Brian which shows the Brian the prophet (a Jesus-like Messiah-manqué) addressing the crowd of faithful worshippers. Brian urges them to think for themselves. The worshippers respond faithfully by repeating Brian’s commandments in acquiescence: “Yes, we must all think for ourselves.” Here’s the clip:
Now for psychological insight and philosophical acuity, this scene is hard to beat. The crowd just doesn’t get it. For the crowd, the “it-to-get” (so to speak) is the prophet’s statements. And for them, getting it is at once confirmed and actualized through the performance of pious and vocal assent to Brian’s statements. Indeed, here it almost doesn’t matter what Brian says. Brian, the prophet, could have said, “Please don’t repeat this word.” And the crowd would have said back, in all piety and reverence: “We must not repeat this word.”
If the assembled worshippers don’t get it, neither does Brian. For him, the “it-to-get” goes far beyond his commands to some action that the worshippers are to undertake—an action (i.e. working things out for themselves) which, would, paradoxically take them out of the worship business altogether. But much as Brian tries, every time he points to this elusive something beyond worship (i.e., independent thought) the crowd hears it as a prompt to engage in yet another act of worship—another display of acquiescence and repetition.
There’s more than one way to understand all this. Consider the possibilities:
The paradox: The whole thing can be understood if one realizes the paradox at the core here: In essence (a dangerous expression) Brian is commanding his followers not to be commanded by him. So, of course, they can’t win and neither can he.
The resilience of worship: Worship is sufficient onto the day—meaning here that religion’s resilience comes in part from the ability of the faithful to recuperate and reappropriate into its own performance (the performance of worship) even the most heretical and dangerous religious teaching.
The imperviousness of practice to theory: Brian think he’s got it. Only “it” is not an “it” at all, but a practice—the practice of independent thought, the sort of practice which can no more be commanded into actualization than an injunction to be funny.
Déformation Professionelle: Brian is a prophet. He proselytizes and commands. That’s his job—and so this is what he does regardless of context and regardless of objective. But, what he doesn’t understand (it’s his déformation professionelle that leads him astray) is that certain things (independence of thought for one) cannot be commanded. They must be created or enabled (if at all) in other ways
Derridean Deconstruction: Once again the absence of the transcendental signified
O.K. Enough of this. (At the very least, the implications for constitutional theory should be at once straightforward and very helpful.)