What is a theological concept? Part 4: Jean-Luc Nancy’s “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”

In the previous post I explored Nancy’s reading of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme as a theological moment in Badiou’s thought. But what about Nancy himself? Does his own atheism—for atheist he indeed professes to be, providing that atheism is understood in a way that avoids the Christmas projection—avoid theological concepts? In this post I want to suggest one moment in Nancy’s thought that could well be considered theological. As with Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme, my aim in these early posts in the series is not to adjudicate in any definitive way whether these philosophical moves are or are not ‘theological’; my concern here is to sketch some contours of the territory we shall be surveying in more detail in future posts, and to consider what sorts of philosophical concepts, moments and moves are liable to be called ‘theological’.

Nancy himself does not see atheism as a decision that ruptures from theistic thought, but as contemporaneous with—as well as the consummation of—monotheism: monotheism is an atheism (La Déclosion[1] 27/Dis-Enclosure[2] 14). The trajectory of atheistic thought for Nancy begins as far back as Xenophanes and his tirades against the anthropomorphic gods, a rejection of immanent deity that is only accelerated by the singular theos of Plato which replaces the paradigm of gods and mortals inhabiting the same space with the ontological distance that the name ‘God’ will henceforth measure (DDC 29/DisDC 16). The invention of atheism and the invention of theism are contemporaneous and correlative, because they both rely on what Nancy calls ‘le paradigme principiel’ (DDC 29/DisDC 16), the principial paradigm, which seeks to establish, or to put into question, the principle or archē of the world, the axiological reason for what is given. Theism and atheism are bound by their complicity in this principial paradigm in a way that the assertion of atheism and the denial of theism simply reinforces. Here, theism and atheism stand or fall together; neither can survive the other.

Nancy critiques this logic of the principle, shared by theism and atheism alike, as being either inconsistent or incomplete. Its great weakness is at the moment of the positing of the principle itself, the ‘in the beginning there was (not)…’ Whether it is affirmed or denied, this originary moment can only ever collapse into its own affirmation or denial (DDC 37/DisDC 22). Either 1) a principle must make itself an exception to its own ‘principiality’ in an ever-repeated (bad infinite) gesture, or 2) it must confirm itself as an equally recurring bad infinite. It must except itself from its own ‘principiality’ in the sense that, while everything that follows it must be accounted for in its terms (in terms of ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ or ‘All is matter…’ or ‘All is history…’ etc.), no such constraint is demanded (or indeed possible) in the case of the principle itself. Or it must confirm itself infinitely in the sense of an infinite regress: it must account for its own principle, and the principle of that principle, and so on to infinity… If the principle is complete, it is not consistent, and if it is consistent, it is not complete.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.


Nancy and the self-surpassing of religion

Nancy’s own position is framed by the need to, and impossibility of, escaping this theo-logic of parasitic imitation, as Derrida warns in On Touching: ‘This is not about being free from harm, safe, and saved, seeking one’s salvation or immunity outside of Christianity. These values would still be Christian’ (On Touching 220).

Nancy is aware of this danger of seeking to bootstrap his way to post-theological thinking, and in L’Adoration he articulates his own position not in terms of a rupture with Christianity but rather as a claim to be faithful to something in Christianity deeper than Christianity itself, for which God is only the ‘front man’ (Adoration[3] 31-2):

Whereas the Qu’ran states that God created mankind in order to be adored, modern man is ready to condemn the nullity of this vain operation, the exorbitant presumptuousness of such a Narcissus. But what if we were called upon to understand the Qu’ran’s statement altogether differently? What if it meant that “God” is only the name adopted by a pure excess—indeed vain, indeed exorbitant—of the world and existence over themselves, in themselves? Of a purely and simply infinite relationship to infinity? (ADC 20)

It is the movement of self-surpassing, of pure excess, in itself that is crucial for Nancy’s purposes, not the fact that this self-surpassing happens to be, in this instance, Christian:

It is necessary to extract from Christianity what bore us and produced us: it is necessary, if possible, to extract from a ground deeper than the ground of the religious thing [la chose religieuse] that of which religion will have been a form and a misrecognition. (ADC, 26)

 Indeed, Nancy is not interested in Christianity for itself, for any religious, moral, spiritual or salvific virtue (ADC 39), and the self-surpassing he discerns only in some currents of the Christian tradition (most prominently the Reformation, ADC 50-1) is deeper than religion itself.

The idea that we must search in religion for something deeper than the religion itself, of which religion is perhaps only a misrecognition, is a familiar enough move. It is the move of Derrida’s ‘messianicity without messinaism’ or indeed ‘religion without religion’. It is also a Kantian move, the Kant who in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone discerns in the determinate historical husk of Christian religion the kernel of the universal archetype which alone is worthy of imitation. As a trajectory, Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ can also be brought into productive conversation with Marcel Gauchet’s idea of ‘the religion of the egress from religion’ in The Disenchantment of the World, as Nancy himself notes in Dis-Enclosure.

However, Nancy’s idea of ‘something in Christianity deeper than Christianity’ can itself be considered a characteristically Christian move: a search for the animating spirit beyond the letter of the law.[4] It is the gesture of ad fontes, of semper reformanda, of circumcision of the heart rather than circumcision of the flesh (Colossians 2:11), of the reality rather than the shadow (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17), of the antitype rather than the type (Romans 5:14).

So in seeking to escape Badiou’s imitation of the theological entry of the eternal into the temporal, Nancy performs a theological gesture. There is, of course, a conversation to be had about whether this gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’ is irreducibly or contingently theological, and we shall return to this in a future post. Derrida, in On Touching, suspects that it may reveal Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity to have been ‘Christian hyperbole’, but I do not want to be too hasty either in echoing or rejecting that claim. For now, I simply note that the gesture of finding ‘something in x deeper than x’ it is both present in Nancy’s navigation of the Christian legacy and also a repeated and prominent move within the Christian tradition itself.


Raising the stakes

But this is not simply the swapping of one theological imitation for a second, equivalent imitation. In repeating the Christian gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’, Nancy has escalated the philosophical stakes. Badiou’s imitation is local: his understanding of the birth of philosophy can be viewed as a theological moment. But Nancy’s imitation, precisely because it rejects any determinate figure of self-surpassing but seeks to imitate the movement itself, is not local but limitless. Nancy’s rejection of Badiou’s theological imitation turns out to be a much more radical gesture of imitation than that which it dismisses.

Rather than avoiding the question of philosophy’s imitation of theology, Nancy has succeeded only in playing out that same question on the much broader canvas of the notion of imitation itself, and all the questions that can be asked of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme can be asked of the gesture of Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’.

Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ infinitises the gesture of imitation, performing the sublation of the example in the imitation of exemplarity. Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ is not an alternative to Badiou’s Christmas projection at all, but its hyperbolisation and its paroxysm.

[1] Hereafter: DDC.

[2] Hereafter: DisDC.

[3] Hereafter: ADC.

[4] I will develop this claim more in a future post when I engage at length with Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment.

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What is a theological concept? Part 3: Alain Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Christmas Projection”

In this third post in the “what is a theological concept?” series I focus for the first time on a specific philosophical moment: Alain Badiou’s account of the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme. I am particularly interested in Jean-Luc Nancy’s reading of this Badiouian move, for Nancy sees in the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme a quintessentially theological moment in Badiou’s thought. Our analysis of Nancy’s reading of Badiou here will provide us with the first example—and perhaps also the first model—of what it can mean to call a philosophical move “theological”.

The birth of philosophy for Badiou relies on the difference between what, in Conditions, he calls the matheme and the mytheme. The mytheme trades in opinion and narrative, in cosmogony and poetic richness. For the matheme, by contrast, it is a question not of opinion but of truth. The matheme is non-narrative, non-hermeneutic, and abstract.

The philosophical miracle of Greece, Badiou insists, is to be ascribed not to the mythic and poetic richness of that culture, nor to its poetry’s grasp of the sacred, but rather to the interruption, chiefly by Plato, of sacred cosmogonies and opinion by secularised and abstract mathematical thought (Manifeste de la philosophie 14/Manifesto of philosophy 34): ‘mathematics is the only point of rupture with doxa that is given as existent or constituted. The absolute singularity of mathematics is basically its existence’ (Conditions 102).

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

Although this Platonic interruption of the mytheme by the matheme took place within a given historico-cultural context, Badiou insists that it must not be viewed in a historicist perspective. In fact, in the essay ‘Le (re)tour de la philosophie elle-même’ (Conditions French[1] 57-78/Conditions English[2] 3-22), he expands on five propositions concerning the relation of philosophy to history, five propositions that will help us understand both his claim to be non-theological and Nancy’s counter-claim that he imitates the theological after all. The five propositions amount to an attack on what Badiou sees as the danger of inscribing philosophy within a finite historical horizon.

  1. Philosophy today is paralysed by its relation to its own history (proposition 1) because it no longer knows whether it has a place of its own, scattered and subordinated as it is in a host of disciplines including art, poetry, science, political action and psychoanalysis, with the desultory consequence that philosophy has become little more than its own museum (C 57/Con 3).
  2. It therefore becomes imperative for philosophy to break decisively with historicism (proposition 2), which means that philosophy’s self-presentation must in the first instance make no reference to its history; its concepts must be presented without having to appear before the tribunal of their historical moment, for it is philosophy which judges history, and not the reverse (C 58/Con 5).
  3. If philosophy is thus to be freed from the vicissitudes of historicism it must be defined in a historically invariable way (proposition 3),
  4. and in a way that distinguishes it from sophism (proposition 4)
  5. So philosophy as understood by Plato is both possible and necessary (proposition 5) in the face of the modern sophism of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Vattimo and Rorty.


Nancy, Badiou and the “Christmas projection”

Despite Badiou’s categorical professions of atheism, for some of his readers it is in the very idea of a rupture with, and interruption of, historical opinion by ahistorical truth that Badiou is imitating a theological gesture. Jean-Luc Nancy is one of those readers.

Nancy sees in Badiou’s thought what he calls the ‘Christmas projection’, which he characterises as ‘a pure and simple birth of Christianity, which one fine day comes along and changes everything’ (Dis-Enclosure 145). Like the incarnation of Christ, the Christmas projection interrupts the regular course of events with a bolt from the blue, an intervention from outside that cannot be accounted for in terms of the situation into which it intervenes and that performs a decisive break, creating a ‘before’ and ‘after’. For Nancy, it is in repeating this Christmas projection that our tradition remains Christian: ‘our whole tradition, as unchristian as it would like to be, still retains something of the “Christmas projection”: at a given moment “that” takes place, and we find ourselves thereafter in a Christmas condition’ (Dis-Enclosure 145).

Badiou’s account of philosophy’s ahistorical condition, crucial as it is for his reading of the death of God, is in Nancy’s eyes just such a Christmas projection, for it suggests that, at a given moment, the matheme interrupted the mytheme: ‘that’ takes place, philosophy comes into the world, full of light and truth. Philosophy itself may be ahistorical, but Badiou nevertheless requires it to effect a rupture with the mytheme at a particular historical moment.

So, for Nancy, Badiou’s literal and categorical understanding of the proposition that ‘God is dead’–‘I take the formula “God is dead” literally. […] God is finished. And religion is finished, too’ (Briefings on Existence 23)–re-inscribes itself into the same metaphysical, arche-teleological structure from which it is ostensibly seeking to extricate itself.

[1] Hereafter: C.

[2] Hereafter: Con.

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Difficult Atheism reviewed in Derrida Today

derrida-todayThe latest issue of Derrida Today includes a review of my Difficult Atheism by Christina Smerick. You can read the whole review online for free here.

Watkin’s thesis is bold and unapologetic, and shapes the path of his reading and thinking with intense focus. His main concern, bordering on a battle cry, is that the ground gained by atheism is being lost once more to a new ‘colonisation’ by theism.

Watkin proceeds systematically and with an admirable thoroughness.

Reading Meillassoux produces ‘aha!’ moments, where he turns a philosophical concept on its head (as when he advocates for radical possibility, which must be if everything is necessarily contigent); Watkin does an admirable job of waking us up from our thrall and pointing out the deep problems with such seemingly magical moves.

Watkin accomplishes a daunting task in this book, managing to summarize and explain some of the most complicated, complicating works we have from these thinkers while at the same time issuing forth his own provocative thesis, thus finding points of commonality in unlikely places.

Talk at UD Melbourne on Aug 5 – Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux

On August 5 at 11am Difficult AtheismI will have the pleasure of speaking at the Melbourne University of Divinity philosophy seminar on the subject “Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux”. The talk seeks to synthesise and develop some of the main lines of thinking from Difficult Atheism and to open the argument of the book to a wider audience.

Here is the abstract:

This paper summarises and extends the argument of my 2011 book Difficult Atheism to argue that contemporary “atheism” is an umbrella term used to describe three distinct positions. I briefly explore these three positions in the work of French philosophers Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux, showing that they seek to position themselves in relation to the theological in three mutually exclusive ways. As well as being of interest to scholars working in contemporary French thought, the talk aims to offer to a broader audience a framework for understanding and evaluating modern atheisms.

Third Derrida Podcast: Derrida, Atheism and Theology

The third of the podcasts on Derrida and Reformed theology has now been released. The first considered questions of metaphysics and the second focused on Derrida’s ethics; this final podcast discusses Derrida’s engagement with theological themes.

I begin by discussing Derrida’s cautious affirmation that “I rightly pass for an atheist”, and try to dismantle the myth that, for Derrida, God can be whatever you want him/her/it to be. I trace Derrida’s rejection of the god of onto-theology and then explain why he returns to the trope of “x without x” (religion without religion, God without God…), using the example of “messianicity without messianism” and his affirmation of a democracy to come.

I note that, while Reformed theology shares with Derrida a rejection of the God of onto-theology, absolute personality theism is nevertheless very different from both the God of metaphysics and Derrida’s own position, and that introducing absolute personality Trinitarianism into the conversation shows that ontotheology and Derrida have a number of key commitments in common. After a brief discussion of divine accommodation in Calvin I contrast messianicity without messinaism with the account of predestination in Ephesians 1, offering a note of caution with respect to Derridean openness to the other-to-come. I finish by summing up some of the principles that I have found helpful in staging an engagement between Derrida and Reformed theology.

Derrida's theology

Bookending the crisis of modernity: Latour is finishing what Nietzsche mistakenly started

Nietzsche Latour

I’m currently writing the final chapter of The Human Remains, addressing Bruno Latour’s modes of existence project and work on Gaia in relation to Serres, Malabou, Meillassoux and Badiou’s accounts of the human. It’s all hands to the pump and there is little time to expatiate on this blog, but I couldn’t resist quickly drawing attention to one striking Neitzschean resonance in Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. One passage in NM struck me as reading inescapably like a “translation” (to use that pregnant Latourian term) of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman from Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, and handily enough this resonance provides a convenient vignette of something larger at stake in Latour’s thought: Nietzsche and Latour stand as bookends to the crisis of modernity. Here are the two passages side by side, Nietzsche first…

Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.  How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?[1]

Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and Formica?  Haven’t  we  felt  sorry  enough  for  the  consumer  who  leaves  the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?![2]

Nietzsche and the other preachers of the death of God are, according to the Latour of Facing Gaia, cosy “Epicurean tourists” who offer us a meal of disenchantment and meaninglessness, the taste of which is extinguished for Latour by stronger foods, namely Gaia and the anthropocene:

But it is only now, when geostory unfolds, that we realize how cosy it was to preach the ‘death of God,’ to frighten ourselves with the ‘absurdity’ of life, and to delight in the happy task of critique and deconstruction: those who used to enjoy those games remained like epicurean tourists comfortably seated on the shore, safely protected by the ultimate certainty that Nature at least will always be there, offering them a totally indifferent but also a solid, eternal ground. ‘Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.’ This time: ‘Shipwreck with spectators!’[3]

Latour is finishing what Nietzsche (mistakenly) started, using some of the German’s own stylistic tools to get the job done.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)  115.

[3] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, 110.

New review of Difficult Atheism at Marx and Philosophy

Over at Marx&Philosophy, Bryan Cooke (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference) has posted a review of Difficult Atheism.

The opening paragraph gives a flavour of the review’s tone and also of Bryan’s style, which, for all the right reasons, is best left undescribed:

Christopher Watkin’s thoughtful, learned and above all deeply nuanced book about three major contemporary French philosophers brings a welcome depth, conceptual deftness and almost unprecedented sobriety to a topic (namely the relationship between philosophy, religion and politics) which more often than not is completely swallowed in a kind of bathetic tennis match between the ideological nostrums du jour.

It is clear that Bryan found the chapters on Meillassoux most engaging, and after gently questioning the way I bring in Jean-Luc Nancy to sit alongside (and against) Badiou and Meillassoux, he concludes thus:

Difficult Atheism is a first-rate, profoundly illuminating book. Scholarly without being portentous, rigorous without being dry, it is the kind of book which retroactively renders whole shelves redundant. And while it is in no way a manifesto, nor a political tract in a conventional sense, I think that its reflections on justice and religion will be of interest to Marxists, for whom, after all – following Marx, and against 19th century positivism – atheism has always been difficult, precisely because it is tied to the project of a world where religious opiates will not be necessary.

It is a very gracious and elegant review, and I am grateful to Bryan for the time and care he clearly spent considering the book’s arguments.


Of ornitheology

flightless birdsHow do we decide if a particular philosophy is covertly theological? One all-too-common response to this question boils down to little more than a theological bird-watching expedition in which we don our binoculars, pick up our guide books and descend upon an unsuspecting article or book in the hope of catching sight of a Lesser Spotted Miracle or a Great Crested Messiah in the long grass. If we are lucky—or inventive—enough to clap eyes on a theological ornithoid, we tick it off our list, conclude that the terrain definitely smells of incense, and return home contended but, ultimately, none the wiser.

Let’s call this curious practice ‘ornitheology’. Like the quarry they stalk, ornitheologians have their own distinctive calls that can be heard echoing through the philosophical canopy: such and such a concept ‘bears a striking resemblance to’, ‘has all the markings of’, is an atheistic ‘version’ of, ‘is quintessentially’, ‘repeats’, ‘imitates’ or ‘follows’ a theological ‘pattern’ or ‘paradigm’.

One of the problems with ornitheology (there are many, I fear) is that it smuggles a hidden premise under its moss-green waxed jacket, a premise that concerns the nature of imitation: If something looks like a miracle then it must be a miracle, and if it is a miracle then it must be theological. This hides a further assumption: that theology owns the intellectual copyright on everything it touches. Any motif or way of thinking deployed by theology will remain always and forever theological. But we need to be wary of this jump; perhaps it will remain forever theological, and perhaps it won’t, but it’s at least worth asking the question.

We need more sophisticated ways of thinking about God and theology in relation to philosophical writing, ways that can account a little more satisfactorily for what some contemporary philosophers are trying to achieve. Part of the problem is the tired ideology of conflict between philosophy and theology. In a piece I have coming out on Kevin Hart soon I call this the topographical model. In topographical thinking, philosophy and theology are each exhaustive in their own domain, able to say everything that is to be said, but impotent outside the confines of what are assumed to be their respective frontiers. When one discipline seeks to exert what it sees as its own sovereign right over all or part of a foreign territory, all sorts of hackles are raised by the critical border police. It is a land-grabbing paradigm that serves neither philosophy nor theology well.

3 ornithologists

One way to ask the question of the relation between philosophy and theology in a way that moves us beyond the tram-line logic of the ornitheologian (the more it looks like a miracle, the more theological it must be) is to focus not on which theological trope is imitated in a particular philosophy (here a god, there a god, everywhere a faith in god) but to think also about the complex nature of imitation itself. Might there not be ways of understanding what it means to imitate theology other than saying that imitating theology is always theological? Doesn’t that depend as much on what imitation is as on what theology is? If, for example, Western universalism or the idea of revolution or equality or deconstruction or whatever else owe much to Christianity (and there are of course arguments on both sides) it doesn’t necessarily mean that all revolutions are Christian revolutions or that all universalism is Christian universalism. Or at the very least it doesn’t mean that we should assume to know from the outset what ‘Christian’ means if we do say that all revolutions are Christian.

For one sketch of what rethinking imitation and challenging ornitheology might look like, see my post on Meillassoux as Oedipus. I hope that the line I take in that piece can begin to make sense of why Meillassoux would say, in ‘The Divine Inexistence’, that the only way to banish the religious is for the universal to be incarnated, or why in The Number and the Siren he insists that the only way that Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés… can be unique is by being Christic and imitating Christ’s glorious body and the Catholic mass. If imitation always equals complicity, as it does for the ornitheologian, then these images and moves in Meillassoux just can’t make much sense, or else they need to be done away with in an ungainly critical pirouette which sees reader trying to explain away in an puff of Orwellian pseudo-logic what nevertheless stands clear on the page: it may look like a miracle, quack like a miracle and swim like a miracle, but don’t let that fool you…

In the meantime, listen out for the distinctive calls of the ornitheologians; they are a common species in our parts.

Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism

‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’: Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism

In Difficult Atheism I left the discussion of Meillassoux’s divine inexistence after having sketched a series of arguments detailing why I think he does not succeed in demonstrating the principle of factiality in the way I think he intends. In this post I want to take these arguments a stage further and ask ‘so what?’ If, as I think is the case, Meillassoux does not pull off the grand challenge he sets himself, what then? Is it all over? Do we leave him move on? Is there nothing more to say?


I don’t think so. So far we have tended to take Meillassoux au pied de la lettre and work on the principle that his ‘divinology’ must either succeed or fail in its own terms, with no third option, but here I want to suggest a different reading of Meillassoux, one that starts where Difficult Atheism finishes.

This reading begins with two premises. The first I have already stated: in my opinion Meillassoux fails in his explicit aim of demonstrating divine inexistence, for reasons I won’t rehearse again here. The second premise is that any reading of Meillassoux’s ‘The Divine Inexistence’ must come to terms with, and provide some sort of accounting for, why his thought imitates theological terms and theological structures as much as it does. Meillassoux’s divinology is so close to theology, not only in its motifs (think of Meillassoux’s Child of Man, the rebirth of the dead and the bringing of justice, conversion, the ex nihilo) but also in its overall structure (with its arc of a secularised creation—redemption—consummation/judgment) that any comprehensive reading of ‘The Divine Inexistence’ has to have an answer to the question of ‘why so much imitation?’ I am not saying there is only one answer to that question, but it seems to me that every reading of Meillassoux has to have something to offer in that department.

Discussion to date has centred mostly around whether one or another Meillassouxian motif still has the whiff of incense about it (Peter Hallward on the ex nihilo in his Radical Philosophy review of After Finitude is the first example that springs to mind). The reading I am proposing here does not pick through these motifs again, one by one, but seeks to understand them as a whole, not as a series of propositions but as a coherent gesture that traces itself in such a series. I want to explore not whether this or that motif is still trading on its theological capital, but what we can say about Meillassoux’s imitation of theological motifs per se, regardless of whether we end up concluding they remain theological or not.

Starting from these two premises—Meillassoux imitates a remarkably comprehensive theological structure, and he fails in his explicit aim—I offer the following reading of ‘DI’ with the intention of making sense of the imitation and not writing him off because of the failure. In other words I aim to make sense of his imitation of theological motifs and structures as a coherent gesture and not just as a set of atomisable propositions, and I also aim to make constructive sense of his failure to come good on his promise to demonstrate divine inexistence, rather than merely dismissing it, or him.

More broadly, the possibility I want to open here is that, even if ‘The Divine Inexistence’ is not successful in its own terms, that very failure can itself help us to understand what different forms post-theological thinking might take. To be clear, I am not saying we should all from now on read Meillassoux in this new way, but I am offering it as a way of broadening the debate beyond the simple (sometimes simplistic) question of whether his divinology works in its own terms or not. There is more to Meillassoux’s engagement with theology than a yes/no answer to that question.

The reading has two moments: 1) What I have elsewhere identified in the ‘split rationality critique’ can be read as a moment of Meillassouxian tragic hubris, and 2) his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence can be read not as a proof his divinology in its success, but as a catharsis of the divine in its failure.

This reading is elaborated in conversation with themes of imitation, failure and catharsis in Hölderlin’s ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, as glossed by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in Typographies 2: l’imitation des modernes, partially translated into English as Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. Lacoue-Labarthe’s thoughts on Hölderlin are set alongside other treatments of the theme of imitation in Western thought and literature, and they help us to approach Meillassoux with an eye not simply to whether this or that motif imitates of theological thinking, but through a consideration of the significance of imitation itself.

Lacoue-Labarthe on Hölderlin’s Oedipus

Oedipus, it is well known, describes himself in Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus after his fall as atheos, without god or abandoned by the gods: ‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’.[1] It is usually assumed that Oedipus’ nefas, his infringement of divine law, is the murder of his father and an incestuous relationship with his mother, but Hölderlin discerns a different cause of his downfall: an unwarranted trust in his own power to interpret. Oedipus arrogates to himself the divine role of prophecy in his interpretation of  the following oracular words:

King Phoebus in plain words commanded us,

drive out the pollution of the land, nourished on this ground,

do not nourish the unholy.[2]

This oracle need not have had anything to do with King Laius’ death, Hölderlin insists, but could simply mean that Oedipus should ‘generally create a strong and pure court and keep order among the citizens’. Oedipus’ nefas is to interpret it ‘in a priestly fashion’, in other words taking upon himself a divine role, bringing together the saying of the oracle and the story of Laius’ death. Hölderlin summarizes:

in the immediately following scene the spirit of Oedipus, knowing all, expresses, in angry premonition, the nefas itself by interpreting the general command as pertaining to the particular and then applying it to the murderer of Laius, and then casting the sin as infinite.[3]

Oedipus’ nefas, then, is to assume the prerogative of the divine and ‘interpret the statement of the oracle towards infinity’ as Hölderlin says elsewhere. He is guilty of hermeneutic hubris, according a divine certainty to his own powers of interpretation or, in Lacoue-Labarthe’s terms, ‘The tragic fault is the imitation of God’.[4] I have shown in my ‘split rationality critique’ of Meillassoux how he similarly interprets the notions of contingency and hyperchaos towards infinity, like Oedipus elevating his own reasoning above the mortal sphere of change and contingency. It is in Meillassoux’s trust in his own logic to survive any hyperchaotic change that he imitates the divine.

Oedipus at ColonusYet it is this failed imitation of the divine, Lacoue-Labarthe argues, that leads Oedipus be atheos. It is through striving, and in a measure succeeding, to imitate the gods that Oedipus is estranged from the gods. This logic, according to which Oedipus’ imitation of the divine both brings him close to the divine and estranges him from the gods, is for Lacoue-Labarthe an instance of hyperbology, the paradoxical logic of imitation he identifies in a number of Western thinkers of mimesis from Aristotle through Diderot to Nietzsche, and of course including Hölderlin himself. Oedipus’ atheistic condition is hyperbological because it is through his mimetic proximity to the infinity of the gods that he finds them most absent. The logic of hyperbology is ‘the more x, the less x’: the closer Oedipus is to the divine, the more he will find himself abandoned by the gods.

However, Oedipus atheos provokes, for Lacoue-Labarthe, a catharsis of the divine. His imitation ‘towards infinity’ of the divine oracle is not merely offset by his subsequent abandonment by the gods; the essence of the tragic is the monstrous coupling of god and man in an unlimited becoming-one that is purified (katharei) by a limitless separation.[5] Tragedy presents the necessary cathartic purification of all hubristic imitation of of the divine; it is a catharsis of desiring to imitate the divine, achieved through a hyperbolic mimesis resulting in hyperbolic abandonment.

This condition of Oedipal abandonment is, Lacoue-Labarthe insists, a turning of humankind to the earth and an opening of an a-theistic space that is unrelated in any way whatsoever to the ‘death of God’, in either its speculative-Lutheran or Nietzschean guises,[6] and therefore free of the problems of theological imitation that haunt the death of God in Western thought. The catharsis of the divine does not consist in the death of God but in a ‘categorical turning away [détournement]’ form God.[7] Détournement, it is worth pointing out, not only means ‘turning away’ but also ‘(mis)appropriation’; it is what the SItuationists did with the images of Gaullist France in May 68, and what unnamed photoshoppers did with Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘La France Forte’ poster in the 2012 French Presidential elections. The term captures the double sense of a turning-away-as-imitation and, in a way I don’t have time to elaborate more here, it opens a way to think the post-theological in the West that does not rely on the problematic notion of the death of God.

This catharsis is crucially, for Lacoue-Labarthe, not a dialectic but a paradox; it issues not in a sublation of the theological into the a-theological but in a tension maintained between infinite imitation and infinite separation. Catharsis is a paradoxical logic that maintains the contradiction of ‘the more… the less…’: ‘the more unlimited the becoming-one, the more unlimited the separation itself ’.[8] The desire to imitate the divine leads to an utter separation from the divine, with imitation and separation frozen in a non-dialectised relationship.

This atheism is not a proof of divine non-existence (understood in the terms of traditional atheism, not Meillassoux’s divine inexistence), for this would once again be a bid for the infinite. Rather Lacoue-Labarthe describes this mimetic logic in terms of a homeopathic medicine or an animal sacrifice that expels violence from the polis by the simulacrum of a spectacular transfer of the murderous desire to an animal.[9]

If Meillassoux’s nefas is his imitation ‘towards the infinite’ of his own rationality, then as in the case of Oedipus it is this imitation of the divine that leaves him without god. If Meillassoux’s claims are correct then he can legitimately expect the coming of the Child of Man and the future existence of the divine in the fourth world, as ‘The Divine Inexistence’ describes. But if he cannot then he is bereft of any such future hope, bereft of hope in the rebirth of the dead, in justice for past wrongs. Like the Oedipus of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus he suffers a state of unremitting abandonment. It is because of Meillassoux’s failed imitation of the divine that he is atheos. If Meillassoux’s system in ‘The Divine Inexistence’ paints a picture of a universe in which God is currently absent but can be hoped for and expected  in the future, then the Meillassouxian nefas brings about a double absence, taking away not only the presence of the divine but also any sanctioned hope in future divine existence.

The question that remains, however, is over the extent to which Meillassoux’s failed imitation may, like that of Oedipus of Typographies 2, issue in a catharsis of the divine. In answering this question we may first note that the logic of the catharsis of the divine is that it is necessary to over-reach and fail. If we read ‘The Divine Inexistence’ in terms of such a catharsis, then, it is not in the least an embarrassment that Meillassoux draws on so much theological material and such a comprehensive theological structure. It could not be any other way; it is his felix culpa. Oedipus would not be atheos had he not failed in his attempt to become like the gods by interpreting ‘to infinity’. In the same way, Meillassoux would not be without god if he had not failed in his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence. Both Oedipus and Meillassoux are ‘without God’ as a result of their own failure.

And what about the catharsis of the divine for Meillassoux? We might say that it is because his imitation of theology is so wholesale that, when it fails, he is left nowhere to go, no hope for redemption in some as yet unexploited theological motif or structure of thought to keep alive the divine hope.  If post-theological thought merely imitates this or that theological motif then there is always more theology waiting around the corner, more hope for a theological redemption in the ideas not yet exploited, but only an attempt to incorporate and imitate the whole arc and structure of (Christian) theology as such, when it has failed, is left with nothing. Oedipus is only atheos because his imitation of the divine was so grand, so infinite. So also Meillassoux, in seeking to imitate not this or that element of theological thinking but its overall structure finds himself, when he fails, an abandoned Oedipus without hope but, also, without god.

[1] Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro (eds.), The Complete Sophocles, Volume I: The Theban Plays

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 278.

[2] Friedrich Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, in J. M. Bernstein (ed.), Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 196.

[3] Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’ 196.

[4] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Typographies 2 : L’Imitation des modernes (Paris : Galilée, 1986) 128. CW’s translation.

[5] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.

[6] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.

[7] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.

[8] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.

[9] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 208.

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