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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French Philosophy Today to join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourI’ve just learned that French Philosophy Today will shortly join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online.

This, I hope, will come as good news to at least some of those who have been in touch with me about the price of the hardback edition.

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.

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).

French Philosophy Today: New figures of the Human, low-res cover

Today I received the first low resolution mock-up of the cover for my new book: French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. Many thanks to Rebecca Mackenzie and Julien Palast for your wonderful work.

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

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.