Of Late, there is quite a vogue among philosophers for reading Paul. At a recent conference at Syracuse University, such luminaries as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek spoke o"Saint Paul Among the Philosophers." Having myself written a book some fifteen years ago that asks theoretical, if not philosophical, questions of the Pauline corpus, I have a certain interest in what the luminaries are saying. I share with Badiou the sense of Paul as a radical thinker but differ significantly in what that means. While for me, he is a radical Jew in a particular time and historical clime, metaphorically the first Bolshevik, for Badiou, Paul is simply an instantiation of the Idea of the radical, the militant, per se, almost literally Lenin himself. At the very outset of Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Badiou lays out the possibility of a philosophical reading of Paul: "Basically, I have never really connected Paul with religion. It is not according to this register, or to bear witness to any sort of faith, or even antifaith, that I have, for a long time, been interested in him." Badiou goes further, however, characterizing Paul's specific religious commitments and methods as irrelevant, as so much noise, along with everything else that renders Saul/Paul a particular historical individual: "Anyway, the crucible in which what will become a work of art and thought burns is brimful with nameless impurities; it comprises obsessions, beliefs, infantile puzzles, various perversions, undivulgeable memories, haphazard reading, and quite a few idiocies and chimeras. Analyzing this alchemy is of little use." For Badiou, Paul is instead a "subjective figure of primary importance," not, that is, a Jew (or even a Christian) but pure subject.

We need to pay attention to the particular sense that subject has in Badiou's thought: "For Badiou," translators Justin Clemens and Oliver Feltham write in the introduction to the philosopher's Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy (2003), "the question of agency is not so much a question of how a subject can initiate an action in an autonomous manner but rather how a subject emerges through an autonomous chain of actions within a changing situation. That is, it is not everyday actions or decisions that provide evidence of agency for Badiou. It is rather those extraordinary decisions and actions which isolate an actor from their [sic] context, those actions which show that a human can actually be a free agent that supports new chains of actions and reactions. For this reason, not every human being is always a subject, yet some human beings become subjects; those who act in fidelity to a chance encounter with an event which disrupts the situation they find themselves in." Not only, then, is Paul a subject entirely abstracted from the "accidents" of specific religious ideas and sociocultural, historical entanglements, but this abstracted (or "subtracted," as Badiou terms the operation by which such "accidents" are drained from being) subjectivity is also a kind of incarnation of a Platonic idea, namely, the idea of the militant: "For me, Paul is a poet-thinker of the event," Badiou writes in Saint Paul, "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 a rupture, an overturning, and that of a thought-practice that is this rupture's subjective materiality" (my emphasis). Materiality as it is generally understood is, however, of no interest, finally, to Badiou, remaining so much "alchemy," unworthy of analysis, just as for Paul (my formulation) the accidents of Jewishness and its particular practices of kinship, community, and custom are adiaphoric, of no moral significance.

It is hard for me to conceive of a more radically Platonic basis for a philosophy of the subject (or of any other part of philosophy) than this one, in which a Form—not Beauty but Militancy—is so embodied in the figure of an erstwhile human being that contemplation of that human being—nay, that subject—can lead thought beyond to the very idea of militancy itself. Thus, though Clemens and Feltham argue that Badiou's subtractive ontology offers a way out of Plato's and Aristotle's ontologies and a way to speak of "beings without reference to their attributes or their identity" ("there is neither cosmos nor phenomena, neither cause nor substance"), nonetheless, there seems to me to be a very Platonic moment in this ontology, precisely in its ascription of "invariant traits" to a "general idea of a rupture,"an ontological insistence, as it were, on the possibility of truth. Indeed, as Badiou himself asserts in his Manifesto for Philosophy (1999), "the philosophical gesture that I propose is Platonic."

For Badiou, Paul's great contribution is epistemological, that is, to a theory of truth, and the epistemology of his contribution is precisely homologous with Paul's own subjective figuration as articulated by Badiou: "Paul's unprecedented gesture consists in subtracting truth from the communitarian grasp, be it that of a people, a city, an empire, a territory, or a social class." For Badiou subtraction is a term of art. What sutures any given situation to being is subtractive in a double sense. "The first is that it is subtracted from presentation and, second, it does not participate in any of the qualities of the situation—although it is proper to the situation, it is as if all of the particularities of the situation are removed or subtracted from it." That is, Paul does not participate in any of the qualities of the situation that he is in, and he calls for a new People—equally subjective figures as a People—who also will not and do not participate in any of the qualities of their situation, as if all these particularities of their situation were subtracted from it.

It needs to be said, contra a certain mood or tendency among Paul scholars, that Badiou is frequently enough a very good and close reader of Paul, even though he does not perform the close reading before our eyes. Badiou's language of event and militant captures something about Paul's texts (and especially the crucial Letter to the Galatians, in which, along with Romans, Paul most fully articulates the distinction between the Old Law and the new faith) that more properly theological language misses. The notion of fidelity to the event and the absolute rupture that it occasions, occurring out of history while constituting a total reconfiguration of history, seems to me to gloss Paul's language of fidelity to the cross better than any other I've seen. Indeed, while Badiou is accused (as we all are) of making a Paul in the image of his own thought, I am tempted, against Badiou's own declarations, to imagine Badiou's thought being formed by Paul, so fine, to my eyes, is this fit.

Badiou indeed captures something vital about Paul that even the most uncompromising of theological interpretations miss. This can be exemplified by looking more closely at the crucial passage at the end of Galatians 2, in which Paul argues most forcefully that keeping the Law at all renders the death of Christ to no avail. I will quote the passage in the familiar Revised Standard Version translation:

15 We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16 yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. 17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor. . . . 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.

There are deep flaws in Paul's logic here, for there is nothing in what he says that successfully discredits the Jacobean idea—the so-called Judeo-Christian notion (what an unfortunate choice of terminology in this context!)—that faith in Christ adds to the Law and doesn't subtract the Law entirely, that when Jesus says (as, to be sure, he will only say a generation after Paul, when the Gospels are produced) that he comes to fulfill the Law, he means just that, to supply its meaning and fulfillment, to complete it, not to abrogate it. Keeping the Law and having faith in Jesus Christ would not be, on that account, in any way contradictory, and, I repeat, there is nothing in Paul's argument as it is usually understood that disproves such a theology. Badiou's Paul, however, makes sense of this passage. Faith here means not belief in Christ, or even trust in his faithfulness to us, in any conventional sense, but fidelity to the event of the absolute newness that has entered the world with the crucifixion. (By the way, I find that Badiou's reading of Paul strangely de-emphasizes the importance of the cross for the resurrection, but it is the death of Christ here, the "death-event," to which Paul appeals, not the resurrection.) In that sense, anything that would suggest that the world has not been entirely transformed through this event (including the preservation in any form of the Law) will precisely make the event not an event at all; Christ will have died for nothing. Badiou's thought makes clear the Paulinian claim that the event is such only by virtue of the militant subjective response. Without that fidelity, nothing will have taken place; the world will not have changed at all. The faith of which Paul speaks here is militant fidelity to the event. It is not that anything less than militancy will compromise the event; it disqualifies it entirely as event and throws us back into the situation. Yes, Badiou has read Paul well, even brilliantly, here—insofar as Paul is a theologian, something like this reading seems imperative to me. Badiou's language gives us a vocabulary that makes theological sense of Paul, paradoxically a traditionalist sense—according to one sort of Pauline tradition. It is Badiou's reading, then, that I would adduce as showing that at least sometimes precisely when we don't read Paul theologically, we read him at his strongest.

In his insistence, however, on finding only philosophical meaning in Paul, meaning that is philosophical (antihistoricist) in its antiphilosophicality, elegantly reproducing in his reading the operation of subtraction that he is taking Paul to be exemplifying, Badiou partly loses sight of some of the political stakes of Paul's writing. It is not, of course, that Badiou ignores the political dimension of Paul's writing—indeed, Paul is a veritable poster boy for the political as event in Badiou. Rather, Badiou's own notion of the political itself seems to me to evacuate the latter of import as praxis, in its very substitution of militancy for praxis. Let me emphasize that I am arguing not for a cynically political Paul—not political in that sense—but for a Paul for whom the Christ event has distinct and political stakes in his immediate, historical, and concrete real world, stakes that have to do with the concrete relations, discursive and enacted, between concrete groups of people, named Jews and Greeks, with each other every day. If Badiou, paradoxically, loses the practice from praxis in his reading of I Corinthians, the theologians, it seems, lose the theory.

Badiou takes Paul's famous statement in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek," as being about theories of discourse (not, however, in any Foucauldian sense), modalities of truth, about the subtractability of Truth from any communitarian grasp. For him, when Paul says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek," he "institutes ‘Christian discourse' only by distinguishing its operations from those of Jewish discourse and Greek discourse." Badiou argues that Jewish and Greek discourses are two sides of the same symbolon: Greek discourse allegedly bases itself "on the cosmic order so as to adjust itself to it, while Jewish discourse bases itself on the exception to this order so as to turn divine transcendence into a sign." Therefore, "Paul's profound idea is that Jewish discourse and Greek discourse are the two aspects of the same figure of mastery." Moreover, "neither of the two discourses can be universal, because . . . the two discourses share the presupposition that the key to salvation is given to us within the universe."

Badiou, in sum, has demonstrated that Paul can best be understood in his own terms sometimes precisely by ignoring the particular theological claims he seems to be making. At the same time, something vital is lost when Paul is read in a way so disrespectful of time, place, and circumstance, simply repeating Paul's own gesture as if indicative of the nonbeing of ethnicity, gender, and class. It's not, then, paradoxical that I think that Badiou gets Paul wrong inasmuch as he misunderstands Lenin. The radically thematized dehistoricizing that constitutes for Badiou the very structure of the event renders all revolution the same revolution and all militancy the same militancy. It seems to me not unfair to see in this an instantiation of a modernist Platonism of a radical sort, in which the event is, unbearably, a newness in the noumenal world that changes nothing, that can change nothing, in the phenomenal world. Paul and Lenin are both embodied avatars of the Form of Militancy in precisely the same sense that Agathon and Antinöus are embodied avatars of the Form of Beauty.

Badiou is entirely on the side of the philosophers in his insistence that whatever truth is—Paul's truth, Badiou's true reading of Paul, Badiou's truth—it cannot be a matter of a particular time, place, or historical set of circumstances, conflicts, and possibilities. It has to be radically subtracted from anything "communitarian." While having been made out to be an antiphilosopher, Badiou's Paul ends up strangely philosophical precisely in the insistence that what Badiou calls the Truth Procedure involves the radical subtraction of history. As Badiou quite openly states of his own thinking, "The statement ‘truths are, for thought, compossible' determines philosophy to the thinking of a unique time of thought, namely, what Plato calls ‘the always of time', or eternity, a strictly philosophical concept, which inevitably accompanies the setting-up of the category of Truth." For Badiou, it might be said, Paul, even as antiphilosopher, operates precisely in that always of time in which communal identity is impossible as well as it is necessarily diachronic. The so-called communitarian is, for Badiou, a matter only of mere rhetoric: "No real distinguishes the first two discourses [Jew and Greek] . . . and their distinction collapses into rhetoric." Badiou reveals his own philosophical (Platonic) understanding of rhetoric here, one that is uncannily like that of Emmanuel Lévinas, who wrote in Totality and Infinity: "Our pedagogical or psychagogical discourse is rhetoric, taking the position of him who approaches his neighbor with ruse. And this is why the art of the sophist is a theme with reference to which the true conversation concerning truth, or philosophical discourse, is defined. Rhetoric, absent from no discourse, and which philosophical discourse seeks to overcome, resists discourse. . . . But the specific nature of rhetoric (of propaganda, flattery, diplomacy, etc.) consists in corrupting this freedom. It is for this that it is preeminently violence, that is, injustice. . . . And in this sense justice coincides with the overcoming of rhetoric." Badiou, like Lévinas and so many others, has bought Plato's notion of rhetoric and sophistry whole, one in which the mere characterization of speech as "collapsing into rhetoric" is sufficient to discredit it. Given such a view, the charge of rhetoricity consists of a charge of cynical manipulation of opinion that has no purchase in "the real."

In a crucial passage in Saint Paul, Badiou misreads Pascal, the antiphilosopher, on Paul. Pascal (cited by Badiou as a philosophical foil) writes, "And thus Saint Paul, who came in wisdom and signs, says he came neither in wisdom nor signs, because he came to convert. But those who come only to convince can say that they come in wisdom and signs." Badiou, himself still in thrall, I think, to the philosophical condemnation of rhetoric, can only see Pascal's "reticence in the face of Pauline radicalism" as the attribution of an insincerity or a manipulation on the part of Paul: "For Pascal, Paul hides his true identity." For Badiou, this hiding of identity could only represent a lack of fidelity to the event. But what if precisely that which is being denied is the very concept of a "true identity"—there is, after all, no Jew or Greek, no enslaved or free, no man or woman—and Pascal has understood Paul perfectly in this? Pascal's own radicalism would appear in the denial of true identity itself, a denial that is the contribution of rhetoric to the germane discourse of antiphilosophy. This reading of
Pascal, at any rate, can be supported by attention to another text of his, a parable:

A man was cast by a tempest upon an unknown island, the inhabitants of which were [anxious] to find their king, who was lost; and [bearing] a strong resemblance [both corporally and facially] to this king, he was taken for him, and acknowledged in this capacity by all the people. At first he knew not what course to take; but finally he resolved to give himself up to his good fortune. He received all the homage that they chose to render him, and suffered himself to be treated as a king.

In Louis Marin's brilliant interpretation of this text, the conclusion (or better, one consequence) of the parable is "One must act as a king and think as a man, but not because the sociopolitical order, even an upright one, is the truth of man, the place of judgment." But also, I hasten to add, not because it is false; it is no more false than true. One must act as a Greek (or as a Jew), says Pascalian Paul, but not because the ethnic order is the truth of humanity: As Marin writes, "It is because the notion of representation articulates the whole of the astute man's Discourse that this discourse can turn the notion of representation back against itself in its contents." For Pascal, I think, we all hide our "true" identities, and the astute man, such as Paul, knows this.


If all identity is performative, as Paul/Pascal would seem to suggest, then being in Greek drag is as good as being in under-the-law drag; both are equally drag performances. The point has been made, of course, by Judith Butler: "To understand identity as a practice, and as a signifying practice, is to understand culturally intelligible subjects as the resulting effects of a rule-bound discourse that inserts itself in the pervasive and mundane signifying acts of linguistic life. Abstractly considered, language refers to an open system of signs by which intelligibility is insistently created and contested. As historically specific organizations of language, discourses present themselves in the plural, coexisting within temporal frames." This is precisely how Paul enacts being neither Greek nor Jew. Pascal captures something important about Paul that Badiou's own Platonic Gedanken seems unable to grasp. For there are, of course, Greek thinkers, Gorgias and Protagoras for instance, whose thought was shaped by denial of a metaphysically underpinned epistemology. This denial is the explicit argument of Gorgias's founding text against Parmenides (and parodying his title): "On That Which is Not; or, On Nature." For thinkers such as these, rhetoricians indeed, the statement "No real distinguishes the first two discourses [Jew and Greek] . . . and their distinction collapses into rhetoric" is either nonsense or a tautology. Badiou is, of course, well aware of the possibility of such recuperation and dismisses it a priori: "Philosophy today, caught in its historicist malaise, is very weak in the face of modern sophists. Most often, it even considers the great sophists—for there are great sophists—as great philosophers. Exactly as if we were to consider that the great philosophers of Antiquity were not Plato and Aristotle, but Gorgias and Protagoras." Well, yes. Yes, I am moved to respond, precisely, that's it; they were.


Daniel Boyarin is the author, most recently, of Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

 
     
     
 
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SAINT PAUL: THE FOUNDATION OF UNIVERSALISM BY ALAIN BADIOU. STANFORD, CA: STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. 128 PAGES. $17. BUY NOW