Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alain Badiou Reading St. Paul

In this great year of St. Paul, it would do all of us well to be aware of his celebrity status within the philosophical world. Especially within the French speaking philosophical cosmos, the so-called "theological turn" in phenomenology has led to a fascination with the figure of Paul. From Breton to Chretien to Henri to Marion, he has become a father of philosophical thought. Alain Badiou too has tossed in his two cents in a little book entitled St. Paul: the Foundation of Universalism. It is a fascinating little work, especially from a man who has no interest in Paul's christianity per se, being himself, akin to Slavoj Zizek, something of a cultural Marxist interested in what Paul can do for his own project. Here I will lay out what he takes to be the salient aspects of Paul's thought for the contemporary world along with a few objections to his thought. This may take a few days, but hang with me.

In Saint Paul, Badiou reads Paul as a new theoretician of the universal singular. In Paul’s understanding of the Christ event, Badiou discovers a complete break with the past that inscribes within history a new understanding of universality, subjectivity, and human praxis. Here I examine these three distinct readings of Paul by Badiou. Badiou’s Saint Paul is not a linear text. It reads best by dividing the text into two parts: chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-10. Like Paul, Badiou’s text works retroactively: chapter 4 corresponds to chapter 1; chapters 5-6 to chapter 2; and chapters 7-9 to chapter 3. Chapter 10 functions as an application of Paul to his own time and to ours. The Conclusion restates these three fundamental claims by responding to objections. The Conclusion, then, will function for us as a threefold guide for reading the text.

The first objection to Badiou’s project is his understanding of the nature of Paul’s break with the past in the theorizing of a new universality. To cite Paul as the foundation of universalism for Badiou is to understand this in a specific way. In Paul, Badiou discovers a “powerful break” (107). This break, however, is not of the kind of any past form of universalism. “Real universalism” is already present, for example, in the theorems of Archimedes. Claims such as “there is a limitless succession of prime numbers” are universally indubitable (ibid). Furthermore, Paul’s claim, for “us” is a “narrative statement that we cannot assume to be historical” (ibid). But this is not a problem. Paul’s break “has a bearing upon the formal conditions and the inevitable consequences of a consciousness-of-truth rooted in a pure event, detached from every objectivist assignation to the particular laws of a world or society” (ibid). Paul does not base himself upon the production of a universal. Paul’s break is theoretical as opposed to real. For Paul, the conditions for the universal cannot be conceptual, in terms of Archimedes “real” universal theorems. This would entail the work of a philosopher. Rather, the conditions of the universal are set by the pure event, the pure act, which is a “sort of grace supernumerary to every particularity” (109).

For Paul, the event comes forth in relation to two regimes of discourse: that of the Greeks and of the Jews. He introduces his own discourse as a third by distinguishing its operations from that of the Greeks and the Jews as well as by distinguishing it from a fourth discourse that he describes as the mystical, the limit of his own discourse. The Jewish discourse is that of the sign. Its subjective figure is the prophet. This discourse is a “discourse of exception” (41) since the prophetic sign lies beyond the natural totality. It is a discourse of transcendence. The problem with Jewish discourse for Paul is that it functions as not Greek discourse. The “logic of the exceptional sign is only valid for the Greek cosmic totality” (42). The discourse of the Greeks on the other hand is a “matching of the logos to being,” knowledge basing itself on the cosmic order. Its subjective figure is the wise man.

Paul has two fundamental problems with both forms of discourse. The first problem for Paul is that neither one can be universal. Each presupposes the other. The second problem is that for both, “the key to salvation is given to us within the universe” (42). Whether this is understood as nature or as the Torah, salvation is tied to things within the universe whose meanings must be read by the prophet or the wise man. These are both discourses of the Father. It is Paul’s “discourse of the son” that constitutes a break in history, so that it is neither Jewish nor Greek nor a synthesis of the two (43). Badiou points us here back to the well known passage from I Corinthians 1. Christian discourse, he insists, “legitimates neither the God of wisdom…nor the God of power” (47). Both are attributes of God insofar as they are attributes of being. But the event of Christ testifies that “God is not the God of being, is not being” (ibid). This is Paul’s early rejection of onto-theology. In it is a rejection of “knowledge” so complete, that for Badiou, even Pascal falls far short. For Paul, the event is pure beginning. It is “neither an argument nor an accomplishment. There is no proof of the event; nor is the event a proof” (49). It is precisely the lack of proof that constrains faith.

Paul’s understanding of faith and the Christ event precludes any belief in a fourth discourse. For Paul, miracles do exist, but to preach on the basis of them is to submit to the fourth discourse, the “discourse of miracles.” But “Christian discourse must, unwaveringly, refuse to be the discourse of miracles, so as to be the discourse of the conviction that bears a weakness within itself” (51). Paul will not allow the “addressed discourse” to justify itself through an “unaddressed discourse” (52). He will not allow the “ineffable” to justify the Christian declaration. There is a profound coherence here. To invoke the fourth discourse is to relapse into the discourse of sign, since a miracle is a sign. Yet there can be no proof based on anything other than the pure weakness of the event. Inverse intentionality in this case is complete: “It is not the singularity of the subject that validates what the subject says; it is what he says that founds the singularity of the subject” (53). This leads us back to chapter 1 concerning the conditions for a universal singularity. The Christian does not “preexist the event he declares” (14); he is rather constituted by it through an "inverse intentionality" akin to that of Marion and many in the field of "theological" phenomenology.

Markel, SJ

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