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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The Return of Religion, Kettle Logic, and the Secular Dilemma

lambert-return-statementsAt this year’s Australasian Society of Continental Philosophy conference I had the pleasure of responding to Gregg Lambert’s new book Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary PhilosophyI chose to focus on the very idea of the “return of religion”, its multiple senses, and their potential conflicts. The paper is downloadable from academia.edu and researchgate.net.

Here is the abstract:

There are at least three distinct senses of the “return of religion” in recent Continental thought. Taken together, they obey a sort of kettle logic, and they leave the secularist with a dilemma about how to avoid returning to religion in the very attempt to escape it. The paper discusses Gregg Lambert’s Return Statements, and engages mainly with Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy, touching briefly on Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Quentin Meillassoux.

French Philosophy Today reviewed at NDPR

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

French Philosophy Today has just been reviewed over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here are some highlights:

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famously defined philosophical production as concept creation. If they are correct, then Watkin’s work is not just a scholarly commentary of philosophy but also itself an inventive philosophical work.

If Alain Badiou, the first French thinker analyzed in the book, is to be believed, then philosophers are his country’s greatest export. Certainly those who want to keep abreast about what is happening in France today in regards to this export should pick up Watkin’s book.

This book is relevant to anyone who is interested in the scholarly methodology and creative enterprise of syntopically reading multiple philosophical oeuvres together. Watkin’s bibliographic thoroughness and analytic meticulousness is impressive. It appears that he has read almost anything of relevance to the topic. The texts he references include not just philosophical works from various eras, schools and geographies but also works from theology, the humanities, social science, natural sciences and mathematics.

Watkin’s formulations are rigorous and precise. Through his careful reading and evaluation of the texts by the five French philosophers, Watkin introduces an arsenal of new conceptual technologies and divisional schemas for understanding the question of the human.

See here for chapter summaries of the book.

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.

French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 1 – Badiou

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourOver the coming days I will be posting brief summaries of the argument of French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour, chapter by chapter. Here is the main argument of Chapter 1, on Badiou.

This first chapter probes the limits of Badiou’s “formalised inhumanism”. It argues that it is wrong to characterise the figure of the human that emerges in Badiou’s thought as radically new, and traces its similarities with other figures which Badiou rejects. For both Badiou and his antagonists, the human is irreducibly composite: it cannot be what it is without a constitutive relation to an instance of inhumanity or non-humanity outside itself. Badiou’s split anthropology of the “human animal” and the “immortal” faces one major structural and ethical problem, which arises from the way in which he seeks to understand the relation between the animal and immortal: he makes fidelity to a truth, and therefore humanity in its full sense, contingent upon an individual’s possession of what he calls “the one and only uniquely human capacity” (Métapolitique111/ Metapolitics 97-8), namely the capacity for affirmative thought. Such thought functions for Badiou as a “host capacity”, a boundary marker or a gatekeeper of the uniqueness of humanity among animal, organic and non-organic entities. Despite exploring several creative ways to overcome the problems caused by Badiou’s “host capacity” account of humanity, I conclude that it remains a thorn in the flesh of his claim that “several times in its brief existence, every human animal is granted the chance to incorporate itself into the subjective present of a truth” (Logiques des mondes 536 n11/Logics of Worlds 514 n11).

Modernism Unit: Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape and “the space that lies between French and English”

To accompany the lecture on Beckett in the modernism unit, here is a lecture by Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape, in which he also reflects on “the space that lies between French and English”, a space he describes as “a perpetual torment”. He provides a commentary not only upon the play, but also on the negotiation of working in and between multiple languages, which is of course also an important consideration for us in this international unit.

Working across languages is a irreducibly ethical undertaking of hospitality and welcome that implicates the reader both as host and guest. To read across languages is to welcome the foreigner, to welcome difference, to permit linguistic and cultural immigration, and it lays upon the shoulders of the reader the ethico-political responsibility that inevitably comes with the double possibility of welcome and rejection. To read across languages is also to set out on a voyage, to emigrate, to make oneself vulnerable, to be exposed as (and to) the foreigner, to risk incomprehension, and to become beholden to the hospitality of another way of thinking and writing. It is an existential voyage that brings about a change in the voyager, creating a “before” and “after” that is only ever the effect of a genuine encounter. There is something both beautiful and visceral about this privilege and responsibility of reading what has come to be called “world literature”: it is not to be taken lightly.

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.

 

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Current Research: The Human Remains

Leonardo skullI am currently working on a book provisionally entitled The Human Remains: French Philosophy in the Image of God. The first part of the book looks at the ways in which the imago dei motif is explicitly taken up in contemporary French thought. The second, longer part takes debates from the philosophical reception of the imago dei motif and uses them to provide a fresh comparative reading of contemporary French philosophical anthropology in its humanist, post-humanist, neuroscientific and ecological guises. Chapters discuss Catherine Malabou, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Pierre Changeux, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Luc Marion and Michel Serres. The book’s thesis is that the human persists in contemporary thought, however radically altered its trace might be from traditional philosophical understandings. In order to argue that point it shows how reading contemporary thought through the lens of the imago dei motif helps us see how very different accounts of the human can be made to talk to and critique one another.