24 June 2008

Why Saint Paul?

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:37 am

Strange enterprise.

That’s how Alain Badiou introduces his short 2003 book Saint Paul. Badiou is an atheist; Paul was a self-appointed Christian apostle. But, Badiou avers,

I never really connected Paul with religion… For me, Paul is a poet-thinker of the event, as well as one who practices and states the invariant traits of what can be called the militant figure. He brings forth the entirely human connection, whose destiny fascinates me, between the general idea of rupture, an overturning, and that of a thought-practice that is this rupture’s subjective materiality. (pp. 1-2)

But Badiou doesn’t focus on whatever Paul reveals of his own personality in the letters he writes. In fact, Badiou observes that Paul rarely talks about himself, his blinding vision of Christ on the road to Damascus that converted him from persecutor to leader of the nascent Church, his mystical communion with God, the signs and wonders that Luke attributes to him in the Acts of the Apostles. Instead, Paul talks about the nature and consequences of the “Christ event”: the death and resurrection that opens up the possibility of a new life.

The subtitle of Badiou’s book is The Foundation of Universalism. Badiou identifies parallels between Paul’s circumstances as a Jew living in the Roman Empire and our own situation. Israel was an exclusionary culture, separated from the surrounding nations by geographic boundaries, ethnic purity, and distinctive laws and traditions and cultic practices. In contrast, Rome was the great assimilator, absorbing little countries like Israel into itself. Rome didn’t care about local traditions as long as everybody paid their tribute to Rome and submitted to its overarching political and military authority. Greece provided a theoretical rationale for Rome’s pragmatic universalism: every local difference constitutes an imperfect manifestation of the one ideal — hence local variations aren’t really important.

Badiou regards the contemporary scene as a bland synthesis of exclusivity and universalism, in which tolerant multi-culti “communitarianism” becomes the universal solvent.

What, in effect, does our contemporary situation consist of? The progressive reduction of the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment… ends up in a cultural and historical relativism that today constitutes at once a topic of public opinion, a “political” motivation, and a framework for research in the human sciences. The extreme forms of this relativism, already at work, claim to relegate mathematics itself to an “Occidental” setup, to which any number of obscurantist or symbolically trivial apparatuses could be rendered equivalent, provided one is able to name the subset of humanity that supports this apparatus, and, better still, that one has reasons for believing this subset to be made up of victims. All access to the universal, which neither tolerates assignation to the particular, nor maintains any direct relation with the status — whether it be that of dominator or victim — of the sites from which its propagation emerges, collapses when confronted with this intersection between culturalist ideology and the “victimist” conception of man.

What is the real unifying factor behind this attempt to promote the cultural virtue of oppressed subjects, this invocation of language in order to extol communitarian particularisms (which, besides language, always ultimately refer back to race, religion, or gender)? It is, evidently, monetary abstraction, whose false universality has absolutely no difficulty accommodating the kaleidoscope of communitarianisms. (pp. 6-7)

Badiou seeks a better way for the individual subject to participate in the universal. As far as Badiou is concerned, the only new political phenomenon of any import in France is LePen’s ultrarightist “France for the French” exclusivism. In contrast, the national government struggles with the issue of whether Islamic schoolgirls should be able to wear the headscarf as an expression of cultural distinction, or whether this subjective expression of identity constitutes a fundamental right of the universal citizen.

What is being constructed before our very eyes is the communitarization of the public sphere, the renunciation of the law’s neutrality. The State is supposed to assure itself primarily and permanently of the genealogically, religiously, and racially verifiable identity of those for whom it is responsible… The law thereby falls under the control of a “national” model devoid of any real principle… Abandoning all universal principle, identitarian verification — which is never anything but police monitoring — comes to take precedence over the definition or application of the law…

How clearly Paul’s statement rings out under these conditions! A genuinely stupefying statement when one knows the rules of the ancient world: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28)! (p. 9)

As in the days of the Roman Empire, the contemporary scene is composed of a loose agglomeration of communitarian entitities subsumed under a universal economic system that not only tolerates but profits from these distinct identity groupings. As a consequence, the multiple identitarian communities never join forces in pursuit of more important universals like truth and beauty, justice and love. Badiou wants to investigate Paul’s praxis of shifting subjectivity from identitarian communitarianism to participation in the universalizing event.


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