Research Hacks #23: Three Microsoft Word macros for quick mark-up of articles, essays and thesis chapters

For academics who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

I have the pleasure of reading a lot of student essays and supervising a number of research students, and over the years I have found that marking up an essay or thesis chapter before I read it helps me to focus and read effectively. The technique also speeds up the reading of articles in Microsoft Word format (I’ll deal with PDF in a future post). Below are three Microsoft Word macros I have written or adapted, and that I regularly use all three for performing a quick mark-up of essays and chapters before I read them.

To use the macros below:

  • Within Microsoft Word press ALT + F8 to get a list of the current macros in your normal.dotm template.
  • Click “edit” for any of the macros you see (it doesn’t matter which one). This will bring up the Visual Basic editor.
  • Scroll down to the bottom of the window and paste in the code I provide below.
  • Close the Visual Basic window. Simple! You might (but probably won’t) need to restart Word for the macros to take effect.
  • If you want to add keyboard shortcuts for the macros you will need to do so manually, as I can’t find a way to incorporate keyboard shortcuts into the macros themselves. Here’s how to assign the shortcuts, courtesy of Lorien on this page:
    • Click the Microsoft Office Button , and then click Word Options.
    • Click Customize.
    • Next to Keyboard shortcuts, click Customize.
    • In the Categories list, click Macros.
    • In the Macros list, click the macro that you want to change.
    • In the Press new shortcut key box, type the key combination that you want to choose.
    • Check the Current keys box to make sure that you aren’t assigning a key combination that you already use to perform a different task.
    • In the Save changes in list, click the option that matches where you want to run your macro. Important   To make your macro available in all documents, be sure to click Normal.dotm.
    • Click Close.
  • When you next quit Word you will see a prompt saying something like “Changes have been made that affect the global template, Normal.dot. Do you want to save those changes?”. Click “yes” if you want your new macros to be available next time you open Word.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

1. Change the text colour of all quotations to orange:

I like using this because it shows me at a glance not only how many direct in-line quotations are being used, but how they are bunched or distributed throughout the document.

NB: this also converts all straight single and double quotation marks to curly quotation marks.


Sub AllQuotationsOrange()
'
' AllQuotationsOrange Macro

'First do a replace to make sure quotes are all smartquotes
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
With Selection.Find
.Text = "'"
.Replacement.Text = "'"
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = False
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchKashida = False
.MatchDiacritics = False
.MatchAlefHamza = False
.MatchControl = False
.MatchByte = False
.CorrectHangulEndings = False
.HanjaPhoneticHangul = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchFuzzy = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
With Selection.Find
.Text = """"
.Replacement.Text = """"
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = False
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchKashida = False
.MatchDiacritics = False
.MatchAlefHamza = False
.MatchControl = False
.MatchByte = False
.CorrectHangulEndings = False
.HanjaPhoneticHangul = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchFuzzy = False
End With

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = -654245889
With Selection.Find
.Text = ChrW(8220) & "*" & ChrW(8221)
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = True
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = -654245889
With Selection.Find
.Text = "‘*’"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindAsk
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = True
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = -654245889
With Selection.Find
.Text = "«*»"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindAsk
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = True
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

End Sub

2. Highlight all punctuation (full stops highlighted in yellow; text colour of other punctuation changed to light purple):

This is useful for checking signposting as well as monitoring sentence length and following arguments across paragraphs.


Sub HighlightAllPunctuation()
'
' Highlight All Punctuation Macro
'***********************************************************

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow


'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = "."
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdPink

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow


'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = "?"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow


'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = "!"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ","
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ";"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ":"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll


'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = "("
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ")"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

End Sub

Highlight key words:

Allows the user to enter words in an input box, and highlights all occurrences of those words in the open document. It is quicker than using the search and replace box to highlight key words, and great for drawing your attention to key concepts as you read through an essay/chapter.


Sub BulkHighlight()
'
' BulkHighlight Macro
Do
'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow

'ask for the word to highlight
sPrompt = "Please enter a word to be highlighted (leave blank and press 'OK' to exit)"
sWordToSearch = InputBox(sPrompt)
If sWordToSearch = "" Then Exit Sub
'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = sWordToSearch
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
Loop

End Sub

CC Image courtesy of eltpics on Flickr.
What academic Word macros save your time? Feel free to post them in the “Comments” section below.

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Research hacks #22: Come to terms with a new theory or thinker by using an ‘assumptions pyramid’

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

After a few posts on planning and presenting research findings, it’s time to return to the core of the research process: understanding, ordering and refining ideas. Let’s think of a particular research scenario: you have to come to terms with a new theory in your discipline. This is a phase of research that can sometimes feel overwhelming. The first book you read seems incredibly persuasive and just plain common sense, and you find yourself thinking “of course this is the way it is”. Then you begin to read critiques of the position and you find these, also, very persuasive: “what a dumb and dangerous theory it is!” With each new tome you digest, your attitude to the theory yo-yos once again, and you are left drowning in a sea of texts with no idea in which direction you ought to be swimming.

One way to avoid being blown to and fro as you come to terms with a new theory or philosophy in your area is to spend a few minutes drawing up an “assumptions pyramid” for it.

The assumptions pyramid is a tool that will help you to appreciate the theory more roundly, in its own terms, and come to your own opinion about it rather than hanging on to the coat tails of the eulogy or demolition job you have read. The principle is a simple one:

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

  • In the top-most triangle of the pyramid, write an explicit position that the theory holds (or an abbreviation if the position is too complex to write out in full). Try to find something as central to the theory as you can. It must be clear, explicit and unambiguous.
  • Then ask yourself: what is it necessary to assume or believe in order to hold that position? Use the following categories to help you. What must I think about
    • the way the world is (ontology)
    • what human beings are and should be (anthropology)
    • what it means to live a good life (ethics)
    • how society should be organized and governed (politics)
  • Write each necessary assumption in the second row down of the pyramid. If you find more than three, continue off to the right of the pyramid.
  • Now take each of these necessary assumptions and repeat the exercise for them: ask yourself what it is necessary to assume or believe in order to hold those assumptions.
  • Keep repeating this exercise, moving down the levels of the pyramid, until you reach the theory’s axioms: positions that cannot be proven either way but simply require commitment on the basis of an intuition.
  • Then consider the whole pyramid and ask yourself:
    • Are the assumptions reasonable?
    • What might motivate the assumptions?
    • Does the position reasonably follow from the assumptions?
    • Might those same assumptions plausibly lead to different positions?
    • Might the position be equally well supported by different or even opposing assumptions?

 

How do you go about analysing a new theory or philosophical position in your research?
CC Image courtesy of Nancepants on Flickr.

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French Philosophy Today paperback now on Amazon pre-order

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

I am delighted to announce that the paperback edition of French Philosophy Today is now (finally!) available for pre-order on Amazon. The U.S. site has it at $39.95 and most European sites set the price at around €25. Curiously, amazon.co.uk has the paperback at £150, which I assume is a mistake soon to be corrected.

Here is a series of posts I wrote when the book was first published, summarising its content chapter by chapter.

Research hacks #21: One to-do list to rule them all

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In a previous post I commended the virtues of planning your research, but one problem with such a laudable aim is that it only holds sway over one part of your life. Bluntly, you can plan all the work you like, but the rest of life has a habit of turning up unannounced and shredding your carefully devised schemes. Academics and research students are more than research-producing machines, and if we only plan our work then we run the danger of making a reality of the subtle but insidious idea that only our work is important and the rest of our lives don’t matter that much. In a future post I want to explore more thoroughly how to be and remain a rounded human being in academia, but today I just want to widen the question of planning to embrace the whole of life.

Have you read David Allen’s Getting Things Done? I did, and I found his system of capturing all your impending tasks too complicated for my needs. One principle I did take away from Allen, however, is that all my tasks need to be listed in one single place. I can’t have to-do lists here and reminders there; I can’t have some notes on the computer and others stuck on the fridge. I need one place where I note everything I have to do, from buying nappies to writing articles.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

About a year ago I started using Todoist. It’s a free web- and app-based to-do list manager that I’ve found immensely helpful for gathering all my tasks in one place. Let me tell you why I like it, and then invite you to watch the intro video below:

  • It syncs across my phone and laptop. If I add a task on one device it appears on all my devices. I use the Android app, but it is also available for iOS.
  • Because Todoist is on my phone I can update my to-do list on the go and don’t need to remember to add tasks later. As soon as I think of something to add, I can do so there and then.
  • I can create colour-coded categories and sub-categories for my tasks. I have categories including Family, Shopping, Research, Grant Applications, and Physical Health.
  • It’s easy to set a deadline for a task and assign it to a project.
  • It’s easy to see an overview of all my tasks and upcoming deadlines.
  • It integrates with Gmail: I can turn individual emails into tasks with deadlines, and then access the emails with a single click from within Todoist (what a great feature!)
  • It integrates with Outlook.

Here is Todoist’s own introductory video:

If you are interested, there are lots more explanatory videos here. If you are persuaded and want to give it a try, sign up for a free account here.

How do you organise and keep track of everything you have to do?

CC Image courtesy of Ali Nassiri on Flickr.

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What is a theological concept? Part 5: Quentin Meillassoux, reason, and hyperchaos

This is the final post summarizing some conclusions from Difficult Atheism, before this series launches out into new territory. In previous posts I have introduced the series, discussed a schema for distinguishing between different atheisms, sketched Alain Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Christmas Projection”, and reflected upon Nancy’s own idea that there is “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity” itself. I now turn to Quentin Meillassoux and ask once more, in a preliminary way, whether there might be a moment in his thought that can be considered “theological”.

Meillassoux avoids both Badiou’s assertion of the unchangeable nature of philosophy and Nancy’s recourse to a Christian notion of the archetype in his “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”. He does this by insisting that the only starting point for his philosophy is that there is no necessity. Note that this is his starting point, not his final position. We shall see below that a certain necessity does enter Meillassoux’s thinking (the necessity of contingency, and the necessity of the law of non-contradiction), but it is made necessary, precisely, by the need for there to be no necessary being or necessary law.

The radical nature of his position becomes apparent if we consider the import of this “only”. There are no eo ipso necessary laws, either of nature or of logic, and certainly no necessary being or beings. Why does Meillassoux insist on this starting point? Because allowing any necessity into philosophy would, in fact, be opening wide the door to religion. A belief in perennial laws is religious because it makes some transcendent action necessary in order to maintain the laws over time. Without such a metaphysical intervention there is nothing to guarantee that (natural or logical) laws may not change. Concomitantly, Meillassoux warns that ‘We have removed the gods, but we have kept the belief in the divine solidity of laws’ (L’Inexistence divine[1] 4), reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”[2]

For his own part, Meillassoux insists that these constants can be abolished, for the simple reason that nothing sustains them from the outside (ID 4).  He deals at length with the obvious objections that could be raised to this adherence to the contingency of natural and logical laws, not least among which is the observation that natural laws have remained constant over a long period. We might resist Meillassoux’s notion that natural laws could change at any instant with the simple observation that they do not, in fact, change: Eppur non si muove! Meillassoux’s argument, in brief, hinges on the difference between chance (understood in terms of a finite and known number of possibilities, like a dice throw) and contingency (for which there is no known number of possible outcomes). Whereas chance presupposes a prior structure within which it operates (for example the structure of the faces of a die), contingency obeys no law and works within no such structure (ID 13). It follows, Meillassoux argues, that we cannot use probabilistic reasoning about the set of all possible worlds, because there is no set of all possible worlds (ID 36-38). Contingency is the appearance of a new universe of cases, not the appearance of any given universe (ID 16). We are therefore mistaken to refute Meillassoux’s thesis on the basis that the chance of a given law not having changed over a very long period of time (the argument that “if it can change, it would have changed by now”), because chance itself is only thinkable under a regime of the stability of physical laws, and so the objection assumes the stability it intends to prove.

Meillassoux builds his position as follows. First, there can be no real necessity, no necessary being, on pain of theology. Secondly it follows that the facticity of a thing is not itself a fact (Après la finitude 107/After Finitude 79)[3], because if facticity were itself a fact (that is to say, contingent and not necessary) there could be a necessary being, and the door would once more be open to religious fideism. So, the only necessity is contingency itself:

what is, is factical, but that what is is factical, this itself cannot be a fact. Only the facticity of what is cannot be factical. Or again, in other words: it cannot be a fact that what is is a fact… The contingency of beings, and it alone, cannot be a contingent property of that being (ID 44).

Factiality, in other words, is the non-facticity of facticity (AF 107/AfF 79). Contingency is itself necessary in order to avoid a necessary being which, after the death of God, we have no grounds to admit into our thinking. We may say that an object is de facto red, but not that it is de facto de facto (ID 46).

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

And what is necessity? Necessity consists in the impossibility of qualifying contingency as contingent (ID 47). Contingency is necessarily non-contingent, because if it were contingent then there could be a necessary being, which Meillassoux has already ruled out. In order to avoid falling back into metaphysics, Meillassoux stresses that the principle of factiality does not maintain that contingency is necessary, but that only contingency is necessary (AF 108/AfF 80), as a direct correlate of the absence of any necessary being, event or law.

It follows from the principle of factiality that a radical change in the laws of nature, what Meillassoux calls a hyperchaotic change, is quite possible. Whereas mere chaos is ‘disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything’, hyperchaos (surcontingence) is a contingency ‘so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity’, or again it is ‘the equal contingency of order and disorder, of becoming and sempiternity’ (‘Time Without Being’). Meillassoux evokes ‘a hyperchaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be impossible, not even the unthinkable’ (AF 87/AfF 64).

This hyperchaos itself issues in a residual necessity for Meillassoux because it is contingency which, unlimited and absolute, becomes its own norm (‘se norme elle-même’, ID 239 ; cf AF 90/AfF 66). Metaphysics announces ‘necessity is’, and relativism counters ‘there is no necessity’, but the principle of factiality stakes out a fresh position: there is necessity because necessity cannot be (‘il y a de la nécessité parce que la nécessité ne peut être’, ID 239 ; QM’s italics)).

 

Meillassoux’s ‘split rationality’: a theological moment?

What Meillassoux is trying to prove is his principle of factiality and the law of non-contradiction that he derives from it (a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite because then it would, after all, be necessary). In Après la finitude he makes it clear in a way that remained obscure in ‘L’Inexistence divine’ that the laws of logic are just as contingent as the laws of nature: ‘Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws’ (AfF 53). Nevertheless, non-contradiction is derived from the principle of factiality and so stands, or so Meillassoux claims, as absolute, because it must be assumed in any attempt to contradict it.

But there is a problem with this, a problem I have called the ‘split rationality critique’ of Meillassoux’s proof, namely that he acknowledges that what is thought about (trees, stars, laws) is absolutely contingent, but he exempts from hyperchaotic contingency the thinking itself. The problem for Meillassoux is that, in order to be consistent, the laws of his own thinking should be subject to the same conditions as the natural and logical laws that thinking describes. In other words, the processes by which he arrives at the notions of ‘necessity’, ‘contingency’ and ‘factiality’ must themselves be able to be replaced by other, currently unimaginable, processes, and other ways of thinking.

In order to walk through this argument a little more slowly, let us consider Meillassoux’s reconstruction of facticity. In this reconstruction, he draws a necessity out of the strong correlationist model itself, where the strong model of correlationism is summarised as ‘it is unthinkable that the unthinkable is impossible’. In this correlationist model, the ‘logicity’ of the world does not conform to the structures of logical reason, and the givenness of the world in a representation does not conform to the structures of representative reason (AF 55/AfF 40). We cannot be sure that things are not Wholly Other to how they are represented to us. This uncertainty, the canonical limit of the rational, also legitimates faith in a God who transcends the limits of the thinkable (ID 49).

This reasoning yields a ‘precise and remarkable’ consequence: ‘it becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality’ (AF 56/AfF 41).[i] Let us try to reconstruct in our turn what is at stake here. There are two instances of rationality in play in this quotation. First, the ‘non-rational discourse on the absolute’ which cannot be disqualified, and secondly the ‘rational illegitimacy’ of such a disqualification. It is the second of these two instances that shall detain us, because it is this second instance that Meillassoux fails to take into account in his argument for absolute contingency. In order to know whether or not it is rationally legitimate or illegitimate to suppose p, I must have some notion of rational legitimacy. But this notion of rational legitimacy, just as much as the ‘non rational discourse’ that is its object, must be contingent. Like gravity, it may be stable enough for the moment, but it is not necessary that it remain for ever thus.

So, to rephrase Meillassoux’s reconstruction of strong correlationism with this proviso inserted: it is rationally illegitimate, according to the contingent norms of rationality that prevail at the moment, to disqualify a non-rational discourse on the absolute on pretext of its irrationality. What would different norms of rationality look like? We do not know, and that’s the point. By thinking of them as “different” and as “norms” we are already projecting our current norms and our current understanding of difference onto them, domesticating hyperchaotic change.

This insertion of ‘according to the contingent norms of rationality that prevail at the moment’ is a modest proviso, perhaps, but one with the deepest consequences for Meillassoux’s principle of factiality. The very decision as to what may or may not be ‘rationally legitimate’ must not be unaccountably exempted from a possible future contingent rationality that in the present remains radically unforeseeable, on pain once more of fideism in the enduring necessity of rationality as it is currently understood and practised.

We cannot bootstrap rationality out of contingency, and to protect one’s own rationality from hyperchaotic contingency in this way is Meillassoux’s theological moment. Something is raised above and exempted from hyperchaotic change, namely Meillassoux’s own reasoning, and rationality is ‘split’ between, on the one hand, the object of thought (which is subject to hyperchaotic change), and the categories and reasoning of that thought, including concepts of ‘necessity’ and ‘contingency’ themselves (which appears not to be subject to that same change). Hyperchaotic change ceases at the cranium. Let Meillassoux be true and every man a liar; heaven and earth may pass away, but his words will never pass away (see Romans 3:4; Matthew 24:35).

 

[1] Hereafter: ID. All translations from ‘L’Inexistence divine’ are my own.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 170.

[3] Hereafter: AF/AfF.

[i] ‘it becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality’ (AfF 41).

cc image courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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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.

cc image courtesy of Morgan on Flickr

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Guest Post: Albert Camus and Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree

By Jess Phillips, Honours Candidate in Literary Studies, Monash University

The Red Tree is a picture book, written and illustrated by Australian artist Shaun Tan. It depicts a young, redheaded girl journeying from her bedroom through a series of surreal and what Tan and other critics have termed, ‘absurd’ landscapes. Our protagonist encounters a giant groper suspended above a city street, is submerged in a wine bottle within an old-fashioned scuba suit on the sea’s edge and in another spread, we witness her seated atop a giant snail, tallying her wait time on its shell. And yet our protagonist never smiles, not until the final pages where the red tree literally makes a home in her bedroom where it is at once bright, vivid and quietly waiting.

The Red Tree’s images are ambiguous and indeterminate, and the reader is never quite sure what Tan is attempting to convey. And yet the second person pronouns used in what little written text there is (you, your), the anonymity of our protagonist coupled with the unspecified time markers (sometimes, some days), convey something universal about the predicament facing the young girl: that her experience of not knowing who she is supposed to be, or what she is supposed to do are predicaments that can overcome anyone at any time. Her predicament is your predicament, my predicament and our predicament.

The Red Tree has long been a favourite book of mine, and one that I’ve gifted to my parents and my nephew. The images are bizarre, but in their bizarreness they most vividly and precisely capture what it is to feel lost, confused, isolated and as though “the world is a deaf machine.”[1] It’s a comforting read and one that eases the sense of feeling as though ‘nobody understands,’ without pathologising or minimising darker emotions.[2]

Recently I wrote an essay about The Red Tree and in my research, I was struck by one critic’s contradictory reading of the text that erased the very things I loved and valued most about it.

Sylvia Pantaleo begins her article by discussing the inherent value in The Red Tree’s plurality. She uses Roland Bathes’s theory of writerly and readerly texts to argue that The Red Tree is a ‘writerly’ text because it invites readers to invest themselves in “experiencing, understanding and interpreting Tan’s polysemous picturebook.”[3] She praises the text for its inherent indeterminacy, while at the same time imposing a definitive reading on it, as a picture book that “respectfully and thoughtfully explores childhood depression.”[4] So, while championing its ‘writerly’ qualities Pantaleo simultaneously argues that The Red Tree depicts a single experience. Her position becomes even more troubling when she describes the context for a study in which she ventured into a primary school classroom and over a series of weeks conducted workshops with the children wherein they were invited to work in groups to discuss what they felt the text ‘meant.’ This exercise felt to me terribly tokenistic. For if Pantaleo was so assured that the text depicted childhood depression, and was intending to write this in a critical paper, why seek out young people’s responses at all, if only to erase their interpretations with a definitive one that trumped their findings?

Pantaleo’s stance therefore erases the very things I love most about The Red Tree. Tan doesn’t pathologise the experiences of the young girl, but instead, through his use of second person pronouns, the anonymity of our protagonist and unspecified time markers, he implicates the reader in the experience. It is our predicament, not an isolated event happening to a fictional character and so it may help to alleviate the experience of feeling downtrodden when the “day begins with nothing to look forward to,” as the reader comes to appreciate that they are not alone in feeling this way. It is human to feel confused, sad and lonely; it’s not a pathology. By rendering what The Red Tree depicts as pathological, this has the effect of closing down subsequent engagement with the philosophical ideas that Tan is attempting to convey about meaninglessness and indeterminacy as aspects of the human condition. In short, positions like Pantaleo’s erase The Red Tree’s complexity.

I sought to remedy this erasure by using Albert Camus’ theory of the absurd as my lens for reading The Red Tree. He seemed to be the perfect theorist to use not only for the relevance of his philosophy to what is depicted in The Red Tree, but also because several critics, and Tan himself, have used the term ‘absurd’ to refer to the text’s contents, yet it has not been correlated or connected in any way with Camus.

In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus contends that the most important question in philosophy is suicide. That is, judging whether life is worth living.[5] He argues that dying of your own volition implies that you have recognised that life lacks any fundamental meaning or worthwhile reason for continuing.[6] For Camus, the realisation that the universe lacks meaning leaves one feeling alone and estranged. This sense of the absurd is then precisely the recognition of the divorce between the absence of unity, cohesion and absolute meaning in this world and the constant human yearning for it.[7]

Camus argues that upon sensing the absurd one must undergo a journey or process of self-explication to reach the point at which one has developed adequate self-knowledge and awareness either to embrace the absurd and live on despite life lacking an essential meaning, or deny the absurd by committing metaphysical or physical suicide. When Camus’ theory is applied to a reading of The Red Tree, it is clear that inadvertent parallels exist between Tan and Camus and that both writers offer up a kind of reciprocal basis for understanding the other.

In an online essay, Tan extends an invitation to his readers to make meaning (in The Red Tree) from a work that “doesn’t mean anything in particular.”[8] While I don’t agree that Tan has no concern for what The Red Tree’s arresting visuals and prosaic text suggest in terms of meaning to readers, his claims about the meaning of his work serve to reveal an inadvertent parallel between himself and Camus. Tan strives for plurality of meaning whilst claiming that picture books are good for using one’s imagination to find personal meaning and significance in “ordinary, day to day experiences that may otherwise remain unnoticed,” and this implies that there is no absolute meaning to be found in his work. A reader hungry for cohesion, unity and the familiar will not be rewarded by a reading of The Red Tree; it is simply to indeterminate. This desire for ultimate unity, for absolutes and cohesion is however precisely what Camus claims debilitates man. Tan offers no explanation at the end of the text; he offers nothing that will clarify, summarise or make connections that would unify and generate an absolute understanding of The Red Tree. This is concurrent with Camus’ view that man will always be a stranger to himself; attempts at summarising, unifying and cohering will be “nothing but water slipping through my fingers… the gaps will never be filled.”[9]

In reading The Red Tree as charting the process of self-explication necessary for our protagonist to either embrace or deny the absurd, Tan’s work is afforded a richness and complexity that is otherwise erased by the imposition of closed interpretations such as Pantaleo’s. While by no means a definitive reading, the application of the thought of Camus to a reading of The Red Tree enables new insight about Tan to be revealed and likewise provides an opening for readers to develop new knowledge into and about Camus’ philosophy, thus enabling a book that may be demarcated as just for children or about a single experience such as ‘depression’ to have a much more nuanced resonance and importance for readers regardless of age.

 

Jess Phillips is an Honours candidate in Literary Studies at Monash University. Her major thesis explores the use of metaphor and simile in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar to represent and describe the experience of madness. http://www.jessp.net

 

[1] Shaun Tan, The Red Tree, (Sydney: Lothian Children’s Books, 2001), n.p.

[2] Ibid, n.p.

[3] Sylvia Pantaleo, “Filling the Gaps: Exploring the Writerly Metaphors in Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree,” in Challenging and Controversial Children’s Books Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts, edited by Janet Evans, 272 (New York: Routledge, 2015); Ronald Bathes, S/Z. (1970), translated by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

[4] Ibid, 240

[5] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien, (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 3. Camus argues that this is the most urgent of questions. Having witnessed many people end their lives because they judge life to not be worth living and having witnessed many more be killed for the very ideals that gave them a reason to live, he regards all other questions as futile.

[6] Ibid, 5-6.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Shaun Tan, “Picture Books: Who are they for?” (n.d). http://www.shauntan.net/essay1.html

[9] Ibid, 19.

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.

cc image courtesy of Cindy Villaseñor on Flickr

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How art can create a new future: Stephen Zepke, Sublime Art

Stephen Zepke's Sublime Art forthcoming in EUP Crosscurrents series

I am delighted to report that Stephen Zepke’s Sublime Art is nearing publication, with the cover now being proofed.

How art can create a new future
Sublime art exceeds the present. It is an undetermined expression that in coming into being creates new universals, new modes of life and new coefficients of freedom.
Stephen Zepke tracks this movement from its beginnings in Kant to its flowering in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He shows that in the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière and finally in the recent philosophy of Speculative Realism the idea of sublime art waxes and wanes, and with it a visionary politics of art that seeks to give it the most creative power possible, the power to overcome our conditions and embrace the unknown.

 

‘Stephen Zepke is already known as a considerable philosopher of the new. In these pages he expertly navigates the inconsistent legacies of Kantian aesthetics with the goal of regaining the political and philosophical potentialities of sublime art and its role in difficult eruptions of the new. Zepke’s analyses range across a continuum of discomfort attributed to the sublime through exquisitely crafted chapters that counterpoise Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Rancière. This book may have absorbed its subject so well that its readers will be left in tatters.’
Gary Genosko, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

 

‘A remarkable book that explores the reception of Kant’s theory of the sublime in Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Rancière and Derrida, as well as in more recent philosophical movements such as Speculative Realism and Accelerationism. But Zepke is an equally astute observer of the art world, and he simultaneously examines the role that this “sublime aesthetics” has (or has not) played in contemporary artistic production and political struggles. Sublime Art is not only the definitive analysis of the reception of the Kantian sublime, but a visionary manifesto for the aesthetics of the future.’
Daniel W. Smith, Purdue University

 

Sublime Art is available for pre-order on Amazon here, and a full list of titles in the Crosscurrents series, as well as instructions on how to submit a proposal, can be found here.

What is a theological concept? Part 2: A schema for distinguishing between different atheisms

In Difficult Atheism I offered a schema for understanding varieties of contemporary French philosophical atheism. In this post I want briefly to summarise that schema (adding some diagrams not included in Difficult Atheism), before going on to develop it further in the future. If you want to explore these ideas in greater length, please refer to the longer descriptions in Difficult Atheism itself.

It is a tripartite schema of imitative (or parasitic) atheism, ascetic (or residual) atheism, and theological integration.

 

“Imitative” or “parasitic” atheism

In DA I summarised this first variety of atheism in the following way:

‘imitative atheism’, merely replaces ‘God’ with a supposedly atheistic placeholder such as ‘Man’ or ‘Reason’, explicitly rejecting but implicitly imitating theology’s categories of thinking, changing merely the terms in which those categories are articulated. The placeholder might furnish the reason and the end – the Alpha and the Omega – of the world, provide the source of Truth or Value, or stand, god-like, outside the flux of intramundane becoming. [1]

 

Care, however, should be taken to distinguish imitative atheism from the casual use of religious or theological terms within an atheistic context. If a philosopher uses terms such as ‘miracle’, ‘faith’ or even ‘God’, it does not necessarily follow that her thought is imitative. An atheism is parasitic upon theology only when it deploys concepts that cannot be accounted for in exclusively atheistic terms but require assumptions proper to theology, whether or not those concepts happen to carry theological labels. This, of course, raises the question of what assumptions are proper to theology. This is a question that receives different, often contradictory answers; it will be one focus of this series of posts.

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

Camus as a bridge

The existentialism of the mid twentieth century marks a significant moment in the rejection of imitative atheism. Albert Camus struggles in the tension between the old imitation and a new refusal of parasitic thinking:

I continue to believe that the world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning, and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man and our task is to provide its justification against faith itself. [2]

Camus’s absurd holds itself in the impossible breach of imitative atheism, claiming concepts to which it knows it has no right. It is, he writes, ‘sin without God’ [3] (‘le péché sans Dieu’). His thought adumbrates the second tendency within post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that arises in part as a critique of imitative atheism.

 

“Residual” or “ascetic” atheism

Maurice Blanchot takes Camus’s absurd to task, chiding the existentialist for clinging to concepts to which he has no intellectual right and calling on him to renounce them in the name of intellectual honesty. In DA I summarise the Blanchotian position in the following terms:

This call to systematic renunciation exemplifies the second tendency in post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that we shall call ‘residual atheism’, an atheism that seeks, with a heroic or despairing asceticism, to make do with the meagre residue left over after the departure of God, Truth, Justice, Beauty and so on. Residual atheism traces its genealogy back through Heidegger’s Dasein to Nietzsche’s pronouncements of the death of God. Nietzsche’s madman in the marketplace is speaking to unbelievers, the imitative atheists who do not yet realise their continued parasitism on the God they reject. [4]

In The Gay Science Nietzsche warns of the extent to which modern thought still relies on the God it has replaced:

It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if . . . God should prove to be our most enduring lie? [5]

It is imitative atheism’s ‘faith in Plato’ that must be challenged, the faith in the ‘heavenly place’ (topos ouranios) of Truth, Justice, and Meaning. In resisting imitative atheism, Nietzsche’s own position is deprived of the certainties and horizons of the Platonic or Judaeo-Christian suprasensory by the death of God. In addition to morality, the Christian eschatological and redemptive view of history must be jettisoned, along with the Platonic idea of truth and hypostatised Reason and Meaning, which cannot survive the washing away of the horizon that comes with the death of God: ‘“Reason” in language – oh, what an old deceptive female she is! I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.’ [6]

Even so, this asceticism does not succeed in disengaging residual atheism from the parasitism it denounces. In limiting itself to the sensory world as opposed to the suprasensory, the immanent as opposed to the transcendent, residual atheism finds itself – just like imitative atheism – defined in terms of that which it seeks to escape. This is the thrust of Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche in ‘Nietzsche’s word: God is dead’. [7] For Heidegger, the very way in which Nietzsche understands the death of God inscribes it ineluctably in terms of reference dictated by the theology of the God whose death is declared.

Glossing Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, Heidegger warns us not to forget ‘what is said at the beginning of the passage that has been elucidated: that the madman “cried incessantly: I seek God! I seek God!”’ [8] The madman’s exclamation ‘God is dead’ is not a simple cry of triumph but a lament, issuing in his requiem aeternam deo. The problem for Nietzsche, as far as Heidegger is concerned, is that ‘the terms “God” and “Christian god” in Nietzsche’s thinking are used to designate the suprasensory world in general’, [9] and Nietzsche himself parasitises that Platonic-Christian dichotomy of, on one hand, the ‘suprasensory’ or ‘true and genuinely real’ world of Ideas and Ideals, and on the other hand the sensory world which is by contrast ‘changeable, and therefore the merely apparent, unreal world’.

In seeking to wipe away the theological suprasensory, residual atheism struggles to articulate itself in terms other than as the negative residue of theology’s plenitude or a renunciation, along with theology, of truth and goodness.

 

Post-Theological Integration

If thinking without God is to move beyond the impasse of parasitism and asceticism it cannot simply produce – to adopt a Lyotardian idiom – a new move in atheism’s old game of the sensory and the suprasensory. It cannot simply take religion’s categories for its own, but neither can it afford to leave religion alone, merely expelling it beyond atheism’s own sensory or rational bounds. It must learn from the post-secular colonisation of atheism itself in order not to resist but to occupy theism’s territory, re-deploying theism’s notions for its own purposes, just as the post-secular co-opts atheism to do its own work of denouncing idols. Only this will allow atheism to shake its status as theology’s parasitic or ascetic poor relation. It is this project of escaping theism’s shadow, I will argue, that makes sense of French philosophy’s attempt, in the opening decades of the third millennium, to follow the death of God more rigorously than before.

As I describe it in Difficult Atheism:

The common impulse of the three post-theological philosophies we shall consider [Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux] is that they seek 1 ) to move beyond imitative and residual atheism in order fundamentally to re-think philosophy without God or the gods and without parasitising any assumptions dependent on them (hence post-theological, not merely post-theistic), while nevertheless 2 ) refusing ascetically to renounce the notions associated with such gods – namely, truth and justice – relinquished by residual atheism. A thinking radically without God is integrated with a retention of the notions otherwise associated with God. These two ideas taken together account for our characterisation of thinking after atheism as a ‘post-theological integration’. It is this integration that makes the new post-theological thought truly new: it is a turn to religion in order to turn the page on religion. [10]

Imitative atheism, residual atheism, and theological integration. These are the options for philosophies that would position themselves as a-theological. What is at stake in such a positioning is how to avoid theological parasitism without falling into atheistic asceticism. With these ideas in place we are now in a position, in future posts, to begin considering specific concepts and moves in the thought of Alain Badiou, jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux.

 

[1] Christopher Watkin, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011) 2-3.

[2] Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, ed. and trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 22.

[3] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955) 38.

[4] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 4-5.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 344.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 170.

[7] Martin Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. and trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977) 53-114.

[8] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 111.

[9] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 61.

[10] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 13.

cc image courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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