[This post concludes a series of four on Saint Paul by Alain Badiou.]
“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the grounds of their faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Paul in Romans 3:28-30)
God is One, not as an abstract Greek principle of Oneness but as the one God for everyone without exception. Israel is the exception, and the Mosaic Law marks its particularity. Law functions according to an economy of what is due, establishing conditions of righteousness on the basis of mutual obligations. The Christ event operates outside of law as an act of grace, a gift that exceeds all contractual and juridical exchange. Likewise participation in the Christ event entails no fulfillment of contractual rights or duties: this act of subjectivation takes place outside of law. The place of the universal, of the oneness of God, is to be encountered not in universal law but in the gratuitous event that surpasses Law. And it is through this unlawful encounter with the universal that the subject escapes from his static legal coordinates on the structural grid and emerges as a revolutionary agent of the unprecedented and the underdetermined. In surpassing the intricate structure of particularities prescribed by law, the gracious event of the resurrection opens up the possibility of difference on a universal scale.
The profound ontological thesis here is that universalism supposes one be able to think the multiple not as a part, but as in excess of itself, as that which is out of place, as a nomadism of gratuitousness. If by “sin” one understands the subjective exercise of death as path of existence, and hence the legal cult of particularity, one thereby understands that what is maintained of the event (which is to say, a truth, whatever it may be) is always in impredictable excess of everything circumscribed by “sin.” (Badiou, Saint Paul, p. 78 )
In other words, the law establishes a reticulum of obligations which defines violation and its consequences. It’s this whole system that turns the person into a dead object of impersonal systemic operations. Badiou contends that this whole economy of dead life is what Paul means by “sin.” The two subjective paths, death and life, whose nonrelation constitutes the divided subject, are also two types of multiplicity. The particularizing multiplicity of the law prescribes its own limits; the universal multiplicity of the event exceeds the legal limit, exceeds its own limit.
But why is law so closely associated with sin? Here Badiou picks up the complex theme of desire by exploring the labyrinth of what he calls Paul’s most famous, yet also most intricate text : Romans 7.
“If it had not been for the Law, i should never have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the Law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment that promised life proved death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, seduced me and by it killed me.” (Romans 7:7-11)
Paul says that, before he became aware of the Law, he was alive: his desire was free and he was free to desire. So sin isn’t desire; rather,
Sin is the life of desire as autonomy, as automatism. The law is required in order to unleash the automatic life of desire, the automatism of repetition. For only law fixes the object of desire, binding desire to it regardless of the subject’s will. It is this objectal automatism of desire, inconceivable without the law, that assigns the subject to the carnal path of death. Clearly, what is at issue here is nothing less than the problem of the unconscious (Paul calls it the involuntary, what I do not want). The life of desire fixed and unleashed by the law is that which, decentered from the subject, accomplishes itself as an unconscious automatism. (p. 79)
The law defines prohibition; transgression takes place when the object of prohibition becomes the object of desire. It’s in this way that the law produces desire in the subject, regardless of what the subject wants. The subject loses his autonomy and instead becomes a dead object in the automatic operation of the law that links prohibition to desire. In order to break with the automatized death of the prohibition/desire/sin complex, Paul concludes that it’s necessary to break with the law.
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate… So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.” (Romans 6:16-17)
The extreme tension running through this text comes from the fact that Paul is striving to articulate a de-centering of the subject, a particularly contorted form of its division. Since the subject of life is in the place of death and vice versa, it follows that knowledge and will, on the one hand, agency and action, on the other are entirely disconnected. This is the empirically verifiable essence of existence according to the law. Moreover, a parallel can be drawn between this de-centering and the Lacanian interpretation of the cogito (there where I think, I am not, and there where I am, I do not think.) Let us generalize a little. For Paul, the man of the law is one in whom doing is separated from thinking. Such is the consequence of seduction by commandment. This figure of the subject, wherein the division lies between the dead Self and the involuntary automation of living desire, is, for thought, a figure of powerlessness. Basically, sin is not so much a fault as living thought’s inability to prescribe action. Under the effect of the law, thought disintegrates into powerlessness and endless cogitation, because the subject (the dead Self) is disconnected from a limitless power, that of desire’s living automation. (p. 83)
In Badiou’s reading of Paul, salvation is the empowerment of the subject when thinking is no longer divided from doing. Instead of being incapable of controlling the movement of autonomous desires that animate him like a zombie, the saved person knows what he wants and is able to do it. But thought can only be raised up to the position of power by something that exceeds static thought. “Grace” is the name of the excess; “resurrection” is the source of the power, and “love” is its name.
The Self is a closed form of the subject, divided against itself, impotent in its cogitations, animated by outside forces operating beneath conscious awareness, occupying the place of the dead. “Christ” is the name of the resurrected subject, open to the grace that exceeds all fixed boundaries assigned by the letter of the law. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” There is a law of the spirit (Romans 7:14), universal but nonliteral, that gives consistency to the life of the resurrected subject. The subject is faithful to the truth of the event that brings him life, and it is this faithfulness that is the unwritten law of love. Life itself becomes the universal law, a law of possibility made manifest in the unique trajectory of each subject who lives it.
Faith publicly acknowledges that the subjective apparatus commanded by the law is not the only possible one. But it becomes apparent that faith, confessing the resurrection of one man, merely declares a possibility for everyone. That a new assemblage of life and death is possible is borne out by resurrection, and this is what must first be declared. But this conviction leaves the universalization of the “new man” in suspense and says nothing as to the content of the reconciliation between living thought and action. Faith says: We can escape powerlessness and rediscover that from which the law separated us. Faith prescribes a new possibility, on that, although real in Christ, is not, as yet, in effect for everyone. (p. 88 )
“He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law,” Paul says in Romans 13:8. To love your neighbor as yourself is to apprehend the neighbor by faith and hope, according to the universal law of possibility, not as a dead self but as a living subject. In Paul’s thought, says Badiou, love is precisely fidelity to the Christ-event… love bears the force of salvation. The resurrection life is not a solitary one; it is relational, and militantly so. Love is the work we do together that actualizes the possibility of grace universally.