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.

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.

Jean-Luc Nancy and Visual Culture just published, with my chapter on Nancy, dance and equality

Just published: Nancy and Visual CultureHere is the abstract for my chapter, entitled “Dancing Equality: Image, Imitation and Participation”.Nancy and visual culture

‘We are facing a very new demand in terms of art’ remarks Nancy in Allitérations, ‘the demand that art be “made by everyone”’. And yet we also know very well that the arts require individuality, singularity and difference. How can art satisfy both of these two demands: that it issue from the collective or the common and that it also satisfy the requirement for isolation and secrecy? The question becomes broader and more pressing with Nancy’s conclusion:  ‘We have here an aspect of our general difficulty with equality and democracy’.

Taking Nancy’s remark as a provocation, this chapter probes how dance in particular, and visual culture more broadly, not only perform or reflect but also develop and advance Nancy’s thinking and writing on equality. Throughout Allitérations, Nancy is careful not to reduce thought to dance or movement to description, nor simply to translate between the two, but to give each its singular and untranslatable sense. Though dance is visual, Nancy repeatedly distances it from the image, which he associates with a mimetic paradigm, in order to develop an understanding of dance as a visual methexis that is neither object nor image.

The performance recorded in Allitérations seeks to work at the limit between movement and text, with exscription and bodily sense sitting at the threshold of thought and dance, but Nancy’s own movements as recorded in Allitérations – both physical and philosophical – not only resist being reduced to signifying thought but also place themselves at the foremost limit of his thinking of equality as it is elaborated in Être singulier pluriel and elsewhere. This, then, is the pattern for our investigation of equality: how can the visual methexis of dance and art more broadly ‘speak’ and ‘think’ about equality without being immediately reduced to thought, and beyond the customary limits of thought? How can thought and dance together elaborate and, in so doing, move beyond the terms of an equality that marries the demand for the ‘by everyone’ with the requirement of secret individuality?


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.

Article on Jean-Luc Nancy and dance now available in Korean

Dancemomm244My article on Jean-Luc Nancy and dance entitled “When I think, I dance”  has been translated into Korean and appears serialised in issues 243 and 244 of Dance Magazine MOMM. Many thanks to Philipa Rothfield and Yewoon at DanceMOMM for their collaboration.

A longer title for the article would be “When I think I dance I don’t dance, but when I think, I dance”.


On Michel Serres’ Paper at SEP-FEP: Plato, Jules Verne, and the Johannine Counterpoint

There was a great sadness this morning at the conference that Michel Serres’ health has not permitted him to travel to Utrecht in person, but also a deep thankfulness and appreciation that, despite his failing health, he had taken the time to pre-record his address. The discussion that followed his paper (recorded at his house in Vincennes and played to the conference on a series of television screens around the meeting room in St Martin’s Cathedral, pictured below) certainly lacked for nothing in terms of liveliness.

20140903_175104 20140903_175124

Serres delivered his address in French, and English translation (entitled ‘Information and Thinking’) was handed round to the delegates.

In the address Serres elaborates upon a theme that punctuates his work from the Hermes series onward: information. It strikes me that Serres’ notion of information and communication circulating between all entities (human, animal, vegetable and mineral) could be interestingly and profitably compared with Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ in L’Adoration. In particular, I wonder whether Serres could (or would want to) include within the ambit of communicative circulation not only all physical entities but also ideas as well, as Nancy does in some of his characteristic lists un/closed with aposiopeses.

In the video address, Serres quoted at length from Jules Verne’s The Star of the South, a passage describing the glittering luminescence of a cave studded with precious stones (I reproduce the quotation in full at the foot of this post, from the Internet Archive version)[1]. The proliferation of precious stones in the Verne passage dovetails nicely of course with Serres’ insistence, in La Distribution (p271) and elsewhere, that nothing distinguishes me, ontologically, from a crystal, since we are both receive, store, process and emit information.

Plato’s sun and Verne’s cave

There was some discussion after the paper about the contrast between the light in Verne’s cave and Plato’s parable of the cave in Republic VII: for Plato the prisoners must leave the cave/the material earth to find the light of the Eidos, whereas for Verne the light is in the cave. Françoise Balibar voiced some concern, if I understood her intervention correctly, about the politics of the Verne passage (the white explorers liberating the black man from the prison of the cave), but there was one crucial reference that, to my eyes at least, was overlooked in the discussion after the paper, and that provides an important context for Serres’ remarks about light and truth. Two paragraphs after the extended Verne quotation, Serres says the following:

“Philosophy loves light, and has turned it into a model of excellent knowledge, especially the splash of daytime sunshine. Sparkling with truth, light is supposed to chase away the darkness of obscurantism. That is an absurd and rather counter-intuitive idea, as we all know that any candle, as weakly as it may shine, immediately pushes back the shadow of the night, while no one has ever seen darkness overcome any source of light.” (CW’s emphasis)

Serres concludes the thought by saying ‘no to the tyranny’ of ‘one unique and totalitarian truth’, the sun in the sky of the Platonic topos ouranios. It seems to me that the latent dialogue partner at this point in Serres’ paper—the interlocutor in the shadows, we might say—is the writer of the fourth gospel, and specifically the first seventeen verses, usually known as the prologue:

1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2  He was in the beginning with God.
3  All things were made through him,
and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.
8  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9  The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
10  He was in the world, and the world was made through him,
yet the world did not know him.
11  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
12  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God,
13  who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man,
but of God.
14  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15  (John bore witness about him, and cried out,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'”)
16  For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
17  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Preliminary note on translation

The Greek translated as ‘overcome’ in verse 5 (‘and the darkness has not overcome it), the verb katalambano, has a semantic range covering ‘take’, ‘seize’, ‘possess’ and ‘apprehend’, (the KJV renders the verse ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not ’). So when Serres says that ‘no-one has ever seen darkness overcome any source of light’, we might also note that there are plenty of examples of ‘darkness’ failing to apprehend or grasp ‘light’. In the context of verses 10 and 11–‘yet the world did not know him’, ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him’–a case could be made that the translation of the katelaben of verse 5 as ‘grasped’ or ‘understood’ cuts more with the grain of the ideas in the surrounding verses than does translating it as ‘overcome’.

1) The Johannine counterpoint to Republic VII

First, reading Serres’ comments as a latent reference to John’s prologue makes a lot of sense in the context of his quotation from Verne, because in both the Verne passage and the Johannine prologue the light sparkles in the midst of the darkness, not at a solar remove from it. As I argued in From Plato to Postmodernism, the Johannine prologue provides an ‘illuminating’ counterpoint to Republic VII in that the direction of travel is reversed: Plato’s prisoner must leave the darkness and ascend to the light, whereas for John ‘the word became flesh’ and the light descends to ‘shines in the darkness’.

2) The Johannine alternative to totalitarian lumophilia

In addition, John’s détournement of the Greek (Heraclitean, Stoic) logos into the ‘Word’ of the prologue gestures towards a response to Serres’ fears of totalitarianism. In contradistinction to Plato’s eternal, unchanging and ultimately inhuman, unique Sun (the Form of the Good), and in contradistinction to both the Heraclitean and Stoic impersonal logos-principles, John re-writes the logos as a person whose personhood is irreducible to more simple or more fundamental (and inhuman or non-human/infra-human) parts, and he rewrites Truth-as-Form and Truth-As-Law as Truth-as-Divine-Character. This personalisation (not personification, for as Nancy points out in Verbum caro factum, the word BECAME flesh: logos sarx egeneto) of the logos imbues it with all the subtlety, suppleness, wisdom, ipse-identity and dynamic faithfulness of a human character, a character furthermore in which truth/faithfulness can never legitimately be parsed from grace/love, as the prologue repeatedly insists: “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 14, 17). It is the Johannine distinctive that the arche, the beginning or source of all things, the logos, is an inextricable and irreducible marriage of grace and truth in the dynamism of a personal character that ‘shines in the darkness’, and furthermore it is that this personal, dynamic logos that offers an alternative to Serres’ reading of light-as-truth imagery as necessarily and monolithically ‘totalitarian’.

John does not offer us truth as the Sun, but truth in the Son, and the difference is irreducible.



Dazzled with the light after so long a darkness, Barthes and Cyprien thought at first they were the prey of some ecstatic illusion, so splendid and unexpected was the sight that greeted their eyes.

They were in the center of an immense grotto. The ground was covered with fine sand bespangled with gold. The vault was as high as that of a Gothic cathedral, and stretched away out of sight into the distant darkness. The walls were covered with stalactites of varied hue and wondrous richness, and from them the light of the torches as reflected, flashing back with all the colors of the rainbow, with the glow of a furnace fire and the wealth of the aurora.

Colors of the most dazzling, shapes the most extraordinary, dimensions the most unexpected, distinguished these innumerable crystals. They were not, as in most grottoes, pendants, monotonously similar to each other, but nature had given free scope to fancy, and seemed to have exhausted every combination of tint and effect to which the marvelous brilliancy of the rocks could lend itself.

Blocks of amethyst, walls of sardonyx, masses of rubies, needles of emeralds, colonnades of sapphires deep and slender as forest pines, bergs of aquamarine, whorls of turquoise, mirrors of opal, masses of rose gypsum, and gold-veined lapis lazuli all that the crystal kingdom could offer that was precious and rare and bright and dazzling had served as the materials for this astonishing specimen of architecture; and, further, every form, even of the vegetable kingdom, seemed to have been laid under contribution in the wondrous work. Carpets of mineral mosses soft and velvety as the finest gauze, crystalline trees loaded with flowers and fruits of jewels recalling the fairy gardens of Japanese art, lakes of diamonds, palaces of chalcedony, turrets and minarets of beryl and topaz, rose pile upon pile, and heaped together so many splendors that the eye refused to grasp them. The decomposition of the luminous rays by the thousands of prisms, the showers of brilliancy that flashed and flowed from every side, produced the most astonishing combination of light and color that had ever dazzled the eyes of man.

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!