Symposium Introduction

Hollis Phelps

Response

Theo-Political Myths and Diffuse Origins

On Blanton’s Paul

By now we are probably all at least nominally familiar with the renaissance that Paul and his thought have seen in certain academic quarters. Numerous philosophers (some religious, some not), critical theorists (again, some religious, some not), and theologians (some radical, some orthodox, and some in between) have (re)turned to the Pauline corpus, seeking within it resources for thought and practice that would allow us to disrupt and reconfigure the present.

The attention recently given to the apostle may come across as odd, even misguided, to some, especially to those who associate Paul with authority and stasis, with the maintenance of a broadly construed theological and ecclesiastical conservatism. In this sense, it is perhaps even a more suspicious undertaking when thinkers who are on the whole not theologically inclined, at least in the traditional sense, get involved in Paul’s revival. Have they not understood what Nietzsche said, that Paulinism is little more than a “Platonism for the masses” and, hence, a slave morality shot through with ressentiment? Yet, if Paul has often been associated with the status quo, he has also been a source of critical insight and praxis and, at times, revolution—for believers, nonbelievers, and the indifferent alike.1 It is this other Paul, for instance, that is behind Alain Badiou’s claim that Paul is for us a “new militant figure” because of the way he thinks the relationship between truth and the subject and Giorgio Agamben’s claim that Paul’s letters constitute “the fundamental messianic text of the Western tradition.”2

Blanton’s own reading of Paul in A Materialism for the Masses3 clearly has more in common with the latter, more subversive reading of Paul. Yet he is also critical of recent philosophical appropriations of Paul, because they tend to unwittingly repeat elements that make up the theological-political myth undergirding Christendom and, more generally, the idea of the West. That myth retroactively establishes Paul as the founder of a new religion called “Christianity,” a religion that constitutes itself in opposition to “Judaism” while simultaneously aligning itself with the intellectual, cultural, and political machinery of empire.

Blanton notes that this myth begins to develop early on; we see its nascent form in Acts, for example, and it is well established by the time of Eusebius’s Platonizing history of Christian origins. But its structuring element, the equation of Paul with the institution of a religious break in history, abides, and even so among critics of that myth and those who would repurpose the apostle for more radical ends. When Nietzsche criticizes Paulinism as a “Platonism for the masses,” he does so on the assumption that the name “Paul” is synonymous with the opening of an entirely new and exclusive trajectory. Likewise, although the current (re)turn to Paul has sought to evaluate the apostle’s thought otherwise—though in light of—Nietzsche’s critique, much of the literature related to Paul’s resurgence continues to assume the anachronistic distinction between “Christianity” and “Judaism,” formally and often in content.4

Blanton wants to unearth or “resurrect” another Paul, a Paul that the theological tradition and, to some extent, Paul’s contemporary apostles have repressed. Blanton’s Paul is not at the origin of anything, certainly not a new “religion” called “Christianity.”5 Blanton’s Paul is rather one source among many, in his own context and ours, that allows us to think a “materialism for the masses.” Paul certainly remains exemplary for Blanton, but his significance lies not in the authority of a theological-political foundation but in the contingent and differential interplay between Paul’s texts and our context, mediated through a philosophical archive that includes, among others, Althusser, Breton, Foucault, Delueze, Baudrillard, and Lacan. Blanton flattens the relationship between Paul, Paul’s interlocutors, and our context,6 which allows him to find in Paul a surplus of life, an excess of life subtracted from its biopolitical capture in the disciplinary mechanisms that allow late capitalism to function.

It is difficult to do justice to Blanton’s argument in this context. Blanton’s book is important as an intervention into Paul’s current resurgence and reception and, indeed, it is one of the more sophisticated and creative appropriations of the apostle out there, which is no doubt partly the result of his skill at seamlessly pairing philosophical acumen with critical historical scholarship. Blanton’s use of Paul also has broader implications, in that Blanton’s criticism of the common reception and interpretation of Paul simultaneously functions as a postsecular critique of the modern constructions of “religion” and the “secular.” In short, there is much that I agree with and find useful in this book, and I hope that it gets the broad reading that it deserves.

That said, just as Blanton wants to think with Paul along the lines mentioned above, in what follows I want to think with Blanton along two interrelated trajectories. To begin with, Blanton’s use of Paul as an exemplary source for thinking an excess of life takes place within a more general shift in how power functions. This is the shift that Foucault spent much of his energy documenting and theorizing, from power as fundamentally repressive to power as fundamentally constructive and creative, from power as a concentrated, sovereign force that coerces bodies to power as a productive, biopolitical force that traverses and constitutes bodies. Foucault’s genealogical investigations into this shift are, of course, not only descriptive but constructive as well: the goal is to harness the constitutive force of power for liberative ends through the development of technologies of the self.

As Blanton discusses, in the conclusion to the third volume of A History of Sexuality, Paul surfaces as an instrumental thinker of this shift, but Foucault’s evaluation is largely negative. Blanton notes that Foucault consigns Paul to “the founder of a form of Christian moral system whose inventive machinations will engender a ‘self’ constituted by its being turned against itself, at once constitutively guilty, fallen, and also profoundly normalized by the universalization of its underlying metaphysical narrative.”7 In understanding Paul in these terms, however, Foucault uncritically repeats the theological-political myth mentioned above. If Foucault had not couched his understanding of Paul within the terms of this traditional narrative, he would, perhaps, have seen Paul in a more subversive light, as an archive for a material politics of the self that resists biopolitical normalization.

I find Blanton’s criticism of Foucault convincing, here, but I bring it up primarily to focus on the understanding of power involved and how it shapes Blanton’s reading of Paul and his sense of Paul’s importance. Although numerous influences and factors shape Blanton’s understanding and use of Paul, the shift to a biopolitical understanding of power is a crucial element. Blanton, for instance, writes that today “Paul returns as a peculiarly forceful touchstone within an economy whereby we are all subjects of, and subject to, the capacity to seize on a chance opportunity in order to destabilize the very force of normativity.”8 The emphasis on biopower as the political condition for understanding Paul and his importance for us, in this sense, determines the form of Blanton’s reading of Paul.

I think it is safe to say that the traditional reading of Paul that Blanton criticizes is a reading that assumes sovereignty as its horizon: Paul is correlated with a foundational exception that is at the origin of relatively stable, unified trajectory, a trajectory whose terms clearly delineate what and who is in and what and who is out.9 Such an understanding of Paul, in turn, lends itself to a more systematic reading, in which Paul’s thought is considered a consistent and clearly defined corpus that can be reiterated as a theology or a philosophy.

Contrary to this more systematic approach—which, we should add, is favored by many of Paul’s current advocates—Blanton’s approach takes place in a field of immanence and is more piecemeal, and this is consistent with the shift from sovereignty to biopower.10 Paul, for Blanton, provides a lexicon of overdetermined tropes that can be used ad hoc to intervene in and consequently disrupt equally overdetermined biopolitical networks. Otherwise put, Paul is not an authority for Blanton but an exemplary thinker of excess, which also means that Paul does not bequeath us a theological or philosophical doctrine but instead incites us to experimentation. This is why, simultaneously channeling Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, Blanton insists that we “do not yet know . . . what a Paulinist can do.”11

Blanton’s approach to Paul, in this sense, is significant and compelling, and it opens up Paul’s texts to uses that have for numerous reasons been repressed, if not simply ignored, by a theological and ecclesiastical tradition that values stasis and continuity. Blanton’s reading of Paul, in other words, makes Paul available for uses that are indifferent to the usual demarcations that would sanitize the apostle and his thought, demarcations between, for example, “religion” and the “secular,” “spiritual” and “material.”

As much as I appreciate Blanton’s approach and what it enables us to do, I do wonder if it does not move too quickly in certain respects. Specifically, although I think a reading of Paul that correlates with the biopolitical dispersion of power is necessary, it seems that Blanton elides or, at the very least, downplays the various ways that power also continues to operate through sovereign, juridical means.12 Blanton does at times rely on conceptual schemes and language that would seem to lend itself to a reading of power that takes it as a repressive force set over against the subject, as is the case in his discussion of death as subtraction.13 But what is left unclear is the relationship between these forms of power and what role a more classical understanding of power-as-sovereignty might play in the deployment of the Pauline corpus.

It is in relation to this point that I still find formal aspects of the theological-political myth of Paul that Blanton criticizes useful, precisely because of the “sovereign” evental disjunction that it allows us to think. To be clear, in making this claim I am primarily making a claim about the form of the myth rather than its content. To the extent that the content of the “Christian origins” story provides theological justification for Christian anti-Semitism, colonialism, and imperialism—both past and present—then Blanton is certainly right that it must be criticized and dismissed.

Nevertheless, I think it is theoretically and practically possible to separate the form of the myth from its content. One could object, of course, that form is irrevocably linked to content, and in this sense, it remains unclear to me whether Blanton’s criticism is ultimately directed toward the content of the myth, its form, or both. I think that for Blanton it is both, but I also think that it is possible to avoid what might be taken as the necessary entanglement of a specific content (in this case, the content of the theological-political myth) and form so long as the contingency of its narrative trajectory is taken into account, both theoretically and practically. Indeed, it is exactly the lack of awareness of its own contingency that is one of the main problems with the traditional “Christian origins” story.

I would suggest that, ironically, Badiou’s reading of Paul in Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism accounts for that contingency. I say that this is ironic because among current philosophical readings of Paul, Badiou’s is often considered one of the worst offenders when it comes to recapitulating the theological-political myth of Paul.14 A cursory reading of Badiou’s “reactivation” of Paul would seem to confirm this. On Badiou’s account, Paul’s militant fidelity to the resurrection-event is of the order of the absolutely new, taking the form of a “Christian” break with “Judaism.”15

When read in light of Badiou’s philosophy as a whole, however, I would suggest that Badiou’s reading of Paul is far more complicated. I cannot here go into the detail necessary to make this claim fully, but it hinges on the retroactive recognition of the evental break. For Badiou, there is always a lag between an event and its recognition as event, meaning that what we recognize as an historical rupture is, in a way, always a retroactive construction that is subtracted from its situation. This is why Badiou claims in Being and Event that the form of fidelity to an event is the future anterior: the truth of an event will have been presented.16 What this implies is that the activity of a subject in relation to an event is always in excess of the subject him-, her-, or itself, but this excess is only legible retroactively, behind the back of the subject, so to speak. In the case of Paul, Paul can, along with Blanton, thus function simultaneously as a Jewish partisan with no designs for establishing “Christianity” as a novel trajectory over against “Judaism” and as the architect of that evental trajectory, even if the latter role may remain consciously unknown to Paul himself. The differences between these two views of Paul cannot, on this view, be reduced to a matter of interpretation: both “Pauls” are in Paul himself, circulating in the irreducible excess of his thought and practice.

Badiou’s Saint Paul, I would suggest, is an exhibition of such retroactive construction, (Badiou calls it a “reactivation”), an exhibition that is to some extent aware that it is a construction. In raising the possibility of reading Badiou’s Saint Paul in this way, I am not suggesting that we choose one Paul over the other but acknowledge and deploy both critically and constructively: Blanton’s diffuse, biopolitical Paul and Badiou’s more straightforward, evental Paul. Despite Blanton’s correct observation that the latter often tends toward simplification, thinking in, through, and ultimately against the operations of sovereign power sometimes requires that move; as Badiou says elsewhere, “Sometimes we must know how to simplify the world.”17 What differentiates this articulation of an evental Paul from its more conservative theological counterparts is, however, the awareness of its own contingency, which leaves its narrative trajectory open to reconfiguration and interruption from its others, in both the past, present and future. Both Pauls then, and the encounter between them, may generate a thinking that can simultaneously address biopower and juridical sovereignty. Indeed, the terms of such an encounter, I would suggest, are already present in Blanton’s own use of Paul, as in, for instance, his discussion of death as transformative subtraction, which resonates to some extent with Badiou’s own theory of the event.18

I also think, however, that this emphasis on Paul needs to be diversified, which is the second trajectory that I want to explore briefly by way of conclusion. Blanton, I have discussed, wants to unearth a Paul that has been repressed by the theological-political myth of “Christian origins.” By unearthing an other Paul, Blanton hopes to dislodge Paul from the site of Christianity’s origins, which also has the effect of making that site itself diffuse, scattered among multiple overlapping sites. Yet, like the theological-political myth that he calls into question, Blanton’s focus is still on Paul. Paul is certainly read otherwise, but it is still Paul that Blanton—and, it seems, everyone else—is reading.

On the one hand, it may come across as a little unfair to criticize Blanton on this point, since the book does not pretend to be about anything other than Paul and Paul’s legacies. But on the other hand, if the goal to scatter the site of Christianity’s origin for radical political ends, then at some point we must actually scatter those origins by doing the same operation on other “founders” of Christianity, to the extent that we can.

And here, I want to make a plea for Jesus, though let me be clear: my plea is not for (re)turning to the divine Jesus of the theological tradition or for some sort of pious discipleship. Rather, what I am interested in—and what I think is vital if we are to (re)think “Christian” sources beyond received categories for more radical ends—is to read Jesus as presented in the gospels in similar fashion to the way that Blanton and others have read Paul. Call it, to borrow from Badiou, a “reactivation” of Jesus.

Indeed, as Blanton’s Paul is the repressed content of the Paul of “Christian origins,” I would say that Jesus, especially his thought and life, is the repressed content of both and, indeed, the theological and ecclesiastical tradition itself.19 Important here, for instance, are Paul’s emphasis on identification with the crucified and Blanton’s own use of this trope to think “undying life” as an “undoing of the power of power.”20 This biopolitical emphasis on death—Jesus’s actual death and Paul’s/our identification with it—is, in many ways, quite traditional, in that it repeats the theological tradition’s emphasis on that death’s salvific character. Ironically, even if read otherwise, what an emphasis on crucifixion conceals or represses is life, the material life of Jesus: in similar fashion to the theological-political myth of the Pauline origin, crucifixion condenses Jesus’ life and its complexity into a single event. Thus in Paul we hear nothing about what Jesus said and did and in Blanton Paul sometimes seem to slide into the place of Jesus.21 Complicating the Christian story of origins and disrupting the theological, ecclesiastical, and political traditions and institutions that derive from it also involves, I would suggest, unearthing Jesus’ repressed life as well. If read in similar fashion to the way in which Paul has lately been read, I would suggest that that life, what Jesus said and did, provides just as many resources for blurring our categories and thinking (bio)politically, resources that are, perhaps, even more radical than what Paul offers us.


  1. Hence in a review of some of the recent literature on Paul, Jeffrey Robbins observes, “No religious resurgence seems complete without its own critical reappraisal of the apostle Paul.” See Jeffrey Robbins, “The Politics of Paul,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 6:2 (Spring 2005): 89.

  2. Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2; Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 1.

  3. Ward Blanton, A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

  4. Blanton’s list of offenders is long: “As in Nietzsche and Freud, more recent work by Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Itzhak Benyamini, Daniel Boyarin, Stanislas Breton, Simon Critchley, Michel Foucault, Theodore Jennings, Michel Onfray, Jean-Michel Rey, Bernard Sichère, Jacob Taubes, and Slavoj Žižek (just to name a few of the authors of a few other texts I admire deeply) still seems to me to remain starstruck to one degree or another by a narrativized spectacle, an instauration of a particular biblical and early Christian tradition that Freud’s Moses already taught us in 1939 to suspect as the ghostly or sublimated afterimage of a brutal act of repression” (4).

  5. Blanton uses the language of resurrection early on to describe his intervention. See, for example, xiii. I return to this below.

  6. In my use of the term “flattens” here, I have in mind something like Manuel DeLanda’s notion of flat ontology: “[While] an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status” (original emphasis). See Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 51.

  7. Blanton, 101.

  8. Ibid., 178.

  9. Such a claim is, generally speaking, consistent with how Carl Schmitt understands sovereignty and the political. See Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Carl Schmitt,The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

  10. Blanton indicates this distinction in reference to Schmitt and Taubes as follows: “Jacob Taubes earlier intervened in the political history of Pauline reception to develop a genealogical subversion of the dictatorial exceptionalism of Carl Schmitt, Taubes looking to Paulinism for a mode of attending to transformative contingency or the (as if ex nihilosurprise and openness of transformative sovereignty, just as Schmitt did. But Paulinism, Taubes argued, enables a way of attending to the same rogue potentials, except that one could think of them, he stated famously, “from below” rather than from the position of Schmittian institutions or dictators” (173; original emphasis).

  11. Ibid., 125; original emphasis.

  12. Giorgio Agamben’s work is essential, here, in that he seeks to understand the relationship between sovereignty and biopolitical power. See, for example, Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

  13. For instance, Blanton notes that the Pauline “seizure of chance is itself the unformed, deforming moment in the economy of identity, sovereignty, and commandment whereby radical transformation may be effected” (175); likewise, Blanton identifies Paul’s seizure of the crucifixion as a biopolitical move against “the effective operation of imperial juridical power” (175).

  14. This is the subject of many historically-informed critiques of Badiou in, for instance, John D. Caputo and Linda Martin Alcoff, eds., St. Paul among the Philosophers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

  15. This is most clearly stated in Chapter 4 of Saint Paul, where Badiou develops his “theory of discourses.” See Badiou, Saint Paul, 40–54. Blanton mentions Badiou frequently in passing, though he does not provide any sustained discussion of Saint Paul. Nevertheless, it seems to me that much of A Materialism of the Masses is at least implicitly directed against Badiou’s reading specifically.

  16. Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (London: Continuum, 2005), 391–409.

  17. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels (London: Continuum, 2009), 116.

  18. See Blanton, 163­–181.

  19. I want to be clear that I am not making an historical claim, about the recovery of the “historical Jesus” in contradistinction from the Jesus of tradition. It is rather about reading Jesus as present in the sources we have over against both history and theological tradition.

  20. Blanton, 178.

  21. For example, “In fact, we need to go a step further in order to be more precise than general talk of ignoring the distinction between the inside/outside of ‘religion’ and in my case we can do so by saying that one exemplary figure in particular has returned with remarkable forcefulness, as if summoned back from the dead by, precisely, unflinching efforts to move forward with a philosophy oriented around both difference or multiplicity and immanence” (191; my emphasis).

  • Ward Blanton

    Ward Blanton

    Reply

    A Response to Hollis Phelps

    I first stumbled on Hollis Phelps’ excellent Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology after I had sent A Materialism for the Masses to press.  And, as I read it, I knew that one day it was sure to be the case that Phelps would end up giving me a good Badiouean trouncing for my Paul.  Before I say a few things in my defence against the kind of reading Phelps and Badiou urge us to accept of contemporary Paulinisms, I’ll add a few things about Phelps’ very perceptive sense that my book was written as a kind of counteractive to the Paul of Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism.

    It was, actually, though I had not really intended the book to be so.  But, on sending out the book, I did note (as of a kind of surprise at myself) its developed affinities with Foucault and Deleuze.  I was especially struck by the way the book both begins and ends on a distinctly Deleuzean note, something which struck me as quite revealing, almost like I’d made a confession that surprised me.  To be sure, I am an admirer of Badiou’s work, his dedicated activism, and indeed of his profoundly significant and influential efforts to situate the “Paulinist question” as an essential one for our time.  For what Alain Badiou has done on this last score—for his own moments of “becoming Paul” (and, truth be told, I don’t know who outdoes Badiou in this quirky identification)—biblical scholars struggling to express the importance of their work within the contemporary university or college scene should count their lucky stars!  I have even pointed out to a few campus ministers—who never seem to take me very seriously—that it is largely Badiou, Agamben, Taubes, et. al. to whom they owe a great deal of campus interest in Paul.

    Moreover, when I was in Scotland at the University of Glasgow some years ago I organized a kind of roundtable and interview with Badiou, Susan Spitzer, Kenneth Reinhard, John Barclay and others because I felt Badiou’s piece of political theater, The Incident at Antioch, was really significant.

    In the years after that event I found increasingly that the Incident became for me a much more profound contribution than Badiou’s book, Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism. It may be that A Materialism for the Masses is even an effort to promote the one rather than the other type of Paul.  Above all, Badiou’s piece of political theater is much more interestingly and sophisticatedly (or comparatively) historicized than his more formal articulation of Paul in Saint Paul.  Just consider the ways we cannot at all hear Badiou’s Paul-become-Paula without hearing alongside her, or through her, a complex rush and rustling of a multitude of other political options, agencies, threats, legacies, anxieties, and dead-ends. It is not simply that the theatrical Paula chats with the neo-conservatives, the de Gaullists, the Parisian Maoists, the post-Maoist media-philosophers, the new Right, the new Left, and on and on.  Even Paula herself instigates her theatrical presentation as an echo, a knock-on effect, if you will, of an event which seems to disperse itself in (or to collect itself through) a panoply of other political inventions and political elsewheres (recall all those lovely rhapsodic lists of people and places interspersed throughout the play).

    This question concerning historical complexity seems to me a crucial theoretical and comparative point, an issue which is at the end of the day not just about history as an academic field but about our understanding of who we are, how we come to be. Consider, for example, what a different theoretical performance is thus involved in the Incident as compared to the Paulinism imagined in the book, Saint Paul. By comparison, Saint Paul is almost monochromatic in the way formal theoretical structures (say, ‘being’ and ‘event’) become mapped onto Pauline rhetoric (say, ‘law’ and ‘grace’).  That’s fine, particularly when it comes from someone who claims that difference, multiplicity is the baseline of what is.  But there is an implicit politics within Badiou’s more traditional reading in Saint Paul which we can do much better to elude and challenge, and this in the name of ongoing political subjectivities.

    For example, I think at this point I just have a strong conviction that there is no way to redeem the tradition Paul-as-first-Christian narrative without falling into the trap of an anti-Jewish repetition compulsion.  So much more problematic for me than the grace/event couplings, etc.—a huge and essential problem—is that this traditional mapping bears an implicit suggestion that such formal or rhetorical structures could also be mapped rather seamlessly onto an historical narrative about the invention of Christian universalism over against Jewish identity politics. Ouch.  Here I just refuse the game and demand it be rewired, and there are important openings in the Incident.

    Of course, to say this is not entirely fair to Badiou, who is explicit about not wanting his reading in Saint Paul to be taken as an historical narrative. But the book always seemed here too docile to me, not yet rebellious or creative enough in throwing off even the hints and allegations of more traditional (and very Lutheran) historical narrations of ‘Christian origins’.

    I wanted to present a serious alternative to the “Lutheran” reading on offer in Badiou’s Saint Paul, but I should add that my reading seems much more amenable to the excellently, endlessly complex locations of Paul in The Incident at Antioch.  And, again, it’s not just about historical complexity as an empirical (or disciplinary) given.  It’s about whether the “return” of Paul has sufficient comparative resources for our own efforts to figure out where we stand, where we are, what we dare to believe in today.

    So I think my book is also an invitation to a more advanced interdisciplinary encounter than the Saint Paul book made possible in its historical aspects.  There is in Saint Paul, for example, no competing Augustan political rhetoric of peace or familial stability; no anxious memories of a Claudian expulsion of Jews from Rome; no proliferation of divinization and worship of imperial figures as so many (other) sons of a god; no questions about colonial tactics or poverty unsettling the Corinthian banlieue; indeed, precious little indication of the endlessly proliferating multiplicities and political tactics which come to be in the book so easily summarized under that unifying nomination of an early “Judaism”, a nomination which seems so naturally to become a foil for a Paul (or a Jesus) fantasized as its most exemplary exception.  We could go on and on, ultimately about really great specific conversations we could develop between these disciplines but also between activists reading Paul and wondering about the contemporary philosophical scene.

    To hear the formal “event” of Saint Paul with echoes of these issues in mind, it would be imperative to read Badiou’s Paul book alongside, say, those of Brigitte Kahl, L.L. Welborn, Jorunn Okland, Davina Lopez, or George van Kooten. To say such a thing isn’t really fair to Badiou’s stated formal interests (we should remember)—but it does highlight why I think the Incident is ultimately the more important political cut into the Pauline legacy. The complexities of the political in the theatrical piece are so much richer and more deeply suggestive in their comparative implications, even if or when such comparative tendencies would themselves exceed the limits of Badiou’s historical understanding of first century life in the Mediterranean basin (and why should that bother anyone? Badiou, after all, seems quite hospitable despite our sometimes blank looks or our evident failures to pick up on comparative associations he clearly hears, say, from the history of mathematics…). As someone who has followed with great interest the conversations about ‘Paul and the philosophers’ for a long time now, it’s my sense that—precisely because of the issue of evental complexity—The Incident at Antioch is the most important thing to have been written about Paul and contemporary philosophy in recent decades, closely rivaled perhaps only by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s screenplay for a film aboutSaint Paul.

    So, ironically, there may be a Badiouean impulse to my interest in comparative complexity here. Above all, it seems to me that Badiou’s interest in mathematical formalization as a privileged site for philosophical pronouncements emerges much more forcefully through his theatrical figure of Paula than through his book on Paul, above all because the theatre confronts us (as the book does not) with the vertigo of difference and multiplicity. Paradoxically, it is precisely the rather stripped down historical account of Saint Paul which threatens (for me) to collapse into a rather ‘formulaic’ reading of the political complexities of a moment of political creativity. On the other hand, the sheer overload of echoes and associations in the theatrical figure of Paula makes us, as it were, begin to sense the audacity of a creative formalization which would exceed in intensity and compulsion the very complexities in relation to which it emerged.  In the end, we are speaking here of a kind of uncanny experience, and I find this uncanny sense easier to pick up in the piece of theater than in the book.

    More harshly, however, and here I would gesture toward the many intense and heated debates about Israel and Palestine in Paris, I think the idea that Paul was the “foundation of Christianity” over against Jewish identity politics just necessarily evokes a peculiar kind of obsession with Jews and Judaism as particularly particular, and that’s something which seems to me supremely unhelpful.  The style of those debates is, I think, very intimately related to the fascination with the traditional Christian narrative devices about the superseding of particularist Judaism by a universalist Christianity.  I take your point about the way Badiou’s work has the capacity of a “retroactive” eventalising of Paul, but I just think that once the traditional tale comes out of the bag it’s hard to keep it from being anything but a crass bludgeon against Jews and Judaism.

    But overall I think a key issue to highlight is also where the important future conversations and juxtapositions are going to come from, and that’s what I was trying to set up in my book which pairs an anti-ecclesiastical or non-triumphalist Paul with philosophies of difference and related efforts to think the common, the global, or the universal nevertheless.  On this score, I’m sure: it’s time to stop juxtaposing history versus philosophical formalisms and get on with constructing another really compelling synthesis, one more important than the old Lutheran tales of Paulinist foundations of the church.  Of the many issues we might highlight, how might we integrate recent philosophical concerns about “the commons” with Paul’s financial rhetoric of equality as in, say, L L Welborn’s   If we step outside of the inherited obsessions with “Christian origins” (which are always a double for anxieties about “Jewish particularity”), I think we’re able to get on with unpacking Pauline traditions in relation to the specifics of the contemporary philosophical task of the creation of new solidarities.  And for this we need to start with the innumerable particularities of Paulinist experimentation, and we need to start there with Paul so we can begin to get a sense comparatively of where we must start with our own efforts to hit on generalities, universals worthy of the name.  So, here I stand: a kind of Badiouean against Badiou’s more formal Paul!

    There’s more fodder in Phelps’ cannon, I am quite sure, but that’s my sense of why I try to orient Paul the way I do!

Beatrice Marovich

Response

Undead, or Undying?

Why are there celebratory banquets for the undead rather than nothing? (65)

I was interested in what Ward Blanton had to say about life. This is, as the title promises, A Materialism for the Masses that is also about Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life. It was this life, and its undying, that I was most after.

In his preface, Blanton seductively illuminates facets of this (Pauline) materialism that eternally returns, without dying. Blanton is interested, he tells us, not in how this materialism will offer salvation but rather how it might be an “emancipation of the ephemeral,” an undying life that is not captured by the mechanics of metaphysics. This “world without end, this eternal life” that we struggle now to invent seems to be constructed primarily by “calling on old archival allies to weave together promising collectivities” (xv). There is also some suggestion that these collectivities are part of this “religion of the future” that he also briefly evokes, one that will “be keyed to difference, ecological interrelations, and the emancipation of new kinds of worldliness” (xiv).

There is much I like about all of this. I, too, want the ephemeral to be emancipated. It sounds like such a good idea, whatever it might mean. I, too, want to learn to do this most difficult of all things: to be worldly in the affirmative sense, to learn finally to love this difficult world. I, too, want to be able to confess my dependence on these old archival allies as I seek to imagine these new conditions for living. But all of this is not, ultimately, what the rest of Blanton’s book is about. All of this is, it seems, what Blanton hopes and waits for. This book is a project for the meantime—it is a project to “emancipate Paul” from “a few of the metaphysical and sacrificially controlling apparatuses constitutive of western governance” (xvii). This emancipation, perhaps, is to be understood as a kind of building block in the more eventual emancipations.

Ultimately this also means, I think, that the nature and shape of this undying life to which Blanton’s title refers gets a bit lost. There are a few reasons that, I surmise, this happens. One is simply the nature of the project. Blanton’s Albert Schweitzeresque radical historicization of the Paul of the philosophers is a complex undertaking. It takes us on many winding paths, into many live conversations, and hands us many axes to grind. It is rich, and thick, and dense. I hope I will be forgiven for side-stepping much of that as I give in to my own myopia and continue to think about these little flickers and glimmers that Blanton hands us, of undying life. But the other reason, it seem to me, that the undying that his title refers to is a bit obscured is partly due to the fact that—as I see it—undying is a bit overshadowed by the undead.

To be sure the suggestion that we might find, in Paul, an undying life that eternally returns without end is also just one of Blanton’s rhetorical devices for bringing Paul into more intimate proximity with the Nietzchean eternal return (and all the disciples of immanence it has since generated). For Paul is not, as Blanton argues in his most determined gripe against Nietzsche, a pop Platonist who freezes us into the icy cold hypostasized regions of the dreary metaphysical afterlife. It is from Nietzsche above all, perhaps, that Blanton wants to emancipate Paul. And so to suggest that Paul presents us with an undying life is clearly not a gesture disconnected from this particular emancipation that Blanton is attempting to perform.

It does seem to me, however, that in the end I am left with a feeling that the undead Paul—as one of the undead messiahs—has become more salient than the undying life that Blanton suggests will be revealed. This is not to say that I think Blanton fails to address this undying life. Indeed, particularly toward the end of the book, it seems to blend and fuse with his discussion of chance and become something like the “attentiveness to this open space of transformation” that Blanton argues the Pauline “drama of divinity” confronts us with (175). This undying life seems to become a kind of kairological surplus, a manner of reconceiving power that Blanton ultimately finds in Paul. It hovers, elusively, over the closure of the book. But perhaps it seems to me, ultimately, that the ephemerality of this undying life and its processual quality is never quite emancipated.

What Blanton seeks to emancipate is Paul—and what ultimately seems emancipated here, then, is a figure. The contingency of Paul, himself, is revealed. And Paul begins to walk among the “old archival allies” again, in a new way. Paul—always an undead messiah—is even more freshly undead. I want to spend a moment thinking about what this means.

Blanton asks us, playfully, why there are “celebratory banquets for the undead rather than nothing” (65). When he speaks of the undead, I hear him evoking those figures who may have—before the critique of ontotheology—understood themselves as building their immortality into our books (or, at the very least, in the word). This book, in its own way, is a kind of celebratory banquet for the undead, evoking these figures not in the immortality they might have hoped for but into a less settling undeadness. And, I think, although this question evokes a philosophical concern (aping the old concern over why there is something, rather than nothing), it is in the particular sort of banquet that Blanton hosts here that this project reveals itself as a philosophical or theoretical project with what seem like ultimately theological stakes. For, it seems to me, that the celebratory banquet for the undead person, or the undead philosopher, is never quite the same thing as the celebratory banquet for the undead messiah.

Among these ancestors who present themselves to us, as archival allies, the messiah is something other than the philosopher. Whoever they are—these friends and rivals who are enshrined in the undeadness of text—they are lively, they live through us in some manner, they fail to go away. But the particular way in which messiahs live on in us is unique. The affective stakes seem distinct. The messiahs—no matter how undead they are—make different (more extreme) claims over our bodies and our loyalties. Our dependence on them, their dependence on us, has higher stakes. I have suggested that this banquet that we host, when we want to commune with them, has stakes that appear almost more theological in part because it seems to me that our mode of relating to them seizes us more completely—heart, soul, might. Their undeadness makes more totalizing demands.

Beyond that, it also seems to me that the undeadness of these messiahs like Paul, the undeadness of the philosophers with whom (and for whom) we host banquets, is not necessarily an undeadness generated by the kairos of what Blanton is calling undying life. If undying life is about open spaces of transformation, or chance encounters, or modes of reconceiving power, those figures who we hold to be undead seem to remain in their undeadness through another sort of process or exercise.

What ultimately makes a messiah like Paul so undead seems less about chance, and contingency, and more about the way that we focus on them, iconize them, devote ourselves to them with discipline, commit ourselves to them. What makes them undead, then, is deliberation and fidelity. They are undead not because life itself is undying and the world is without end—because there are, ultimately, so many human bodies who are not hanging their hats in the halls of undeadness. Instead, it seems to me, they become undead (and remain undead) because of their own refusals to be dispersed by chance, and because of our fervent commitment to prevent their dissolutions under the pressures of contingency.

Perhaps I am here revealing the extent to which I have read undeadness as a kind of cognate for immortality. I don’t wish to suggest that they are, in fact, the same thing. But it may be the case that I do see undeadness and immortality resonating with more affinity than Blanton does. Perhaps undeadness is less hypostasized than immortality, but there is still something stiff and immobile—almost like a corpse, something like a zombie—that the term undeadness evokes. I don’t, necessarily, see undeadness as a wholesale rejection of the dynamics of classical metaphysics. It seems to me there is more continuity there. Nor, I suppose, do I see this as a terrible, horrible, problem. I should add that the notion of undying, too, seems to pull us back toward realms that are eternal in their basic nature. At the very least, it keeps us in their shadows. And, I suppose, this is why we are attracted to them. What interests me about undying life (more than the undead) has little to do with which is more metaphysical than the other. I think it has more to do with the zombie masks of the undead. I am more interested in—allured by—the spark, the liveliness, the churning quality of an undying life than I am in the stiffness and coldness of an undead figure.

But these are simply questions being funneled through my own myopias. Just a few notes, perhaps, to file away for the religion of the future.

  • Ward Blanton

    Ward Blanton

    Reply

    A Response to Beatrice Marovich

    Beatrice Marovich focuses quite rightly on the topic of life and, in the process, she produces some really useful readings of the book. For example, Marovich is the one who points up the way the project can be read as a kind of repetition of Schweitzer’s fin-de-siècle engagement with Jesus, a “radical historicization” which unearths something like a transformative alterity in the biblical figure we thought we knew so well. No revaluation without self-transformation, yes, that’s my Schweitzer whose affections for Nietzschean genealogy were as strong as Foucault’s or Klossowski’s.

    But, true, true. I confess I have kind of a “thing” for Schweitzer. It’s not that I simply like him directly, and there are so many laughably outdated or useless things in Schweitzer’s writings as will soon be the case for all of us. For example, how is it that, after falling madly in love with a Jesus who was so crazily singular and so hyper-Kantian (“I am the law, I will force the universal!”), Schweitzer could turn around and complain that Gandhi pressed too hard and too quickly for political change! It’s completely and comically absurd, in fact, Jesus being the exaltation of a sublime effort to affect the transformation of the world resulting in his own properly tragic death—and Gandhi being chided to calm down and not be too demanding about colonial occupation! Perhaps he thought that only a “good European” could lead the way in such a moment! One could only laugh at the ridiculousness of Schweitzer’s hypocrisy here, and we could multiply examples of this type of thing.

    Nevertheless, I have always found in Schweitzer something profoundly haunting and—if I can speak even more casually and personally—even disconcertingly close to home. No doubt my sensibilities on this score shine through in the book. But even earlier in Displacing Christian Origins I wrote a lot about Schweitzer trying to make a career in New Testament Studies even while being completely obsessed with continental philosophy and the collapse of European modes of political philosophy and self-understanding. This was quite striking to me as a grad student sitting around in the coffee shops reading people like Schweitzer next to Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger. Later I made a kind of mini-pilgrimage to work on another biblical-philosophical figure in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris where Schweitzer had become so annoyed with the librarians. They wouldn’t allow the imperious Schweitzer to pile his books up into big piles which he could then leave out on the study tables for his return, and young Albert was so outraged that he wrote his entire dissertation on Kant using only Kant’s own books! (And, yes, of course, in solidarity on mini-pilgrimage I found the librarians there a little persnickety for my tastes as well!)

    But, more seriously, Schweitzer remained for me precisely the kind of détournement of contemporary biblical scholarship I was hoping to promote also—I felt he knew something about me in ways I didn’t often find elsewhere. A little untimely in a banal sense, I sometimes preferred a home in the earlier generations of scholarship—when it seemed to me biblical scholars still were an important part of a struggle to formulate academic and popular philosophies—than I did amidst the more advanced specializations and sub-sub-sub-disciplines of contemporary biblical scholarship. In their specialist myopias, more recent personifications of the field seemed premised on an almost willful neglect of their own intellectual history as a field of cultural production, a premise which seemed to me to bear fruits in keeping with a diminishment of intellectual resources, above all in the diminution of both creativity and capacity for biblical scholarship to “pull its weight” within pressing contemporary discussions about life, culture, politics.

    At the same time, this shallowing of the disciplinary waters meant that a lot of really good historians of early Judaism and Christianity were trapped between solipsism, on the one hand, or subservience to some of the least intelligent forms of contemporary theology, on the other. And this state of affairs was a real shame, disaffecting or making jaded and cynical a lot of excellent biblical scholars. I mean, historians in this field had already begun to take up as its blazon, a kind of self-protective or apotropaic device, the idea that their great virtue as practitioners of history was that they spoke to no one about contemporary parallels and contrasts or that they ascetically refused all “interest” of other fields in their own historical reconstructions! This state of affairs was for me an indication of human beings weirdly located between irrelevance and co-optation by theologies not really worthy of the name. The discipline has really had to struggle with this, but allowing things to stay there seemed a terrible strategy for the future of the field within the universities. In fact, I think the field even now at an international level limps unnecessarily because of allowing this state of affairs to go on so long. At any rate, Schweitzer was one of the figures who helped me see how the field could be situated otherwise. Somewhere, somehow we needed to reclaim the kinds of vibrant “interdisciplinary” (or perhaps just intellectual) potentials of someone like Schweitzer. So, yes, for two books now I have in some respects mourned the passing of the age of Schweitzer, that oddly biblical philosopher and genealogist.

    Just one more thing about this which is not irrelevant to the main title of my book. Of course, for all his hard institutional work, there was also Schweitzer’s lingering madness of a desire which never stopped plaguing him, provoking him more radically to enact an odd judgment against the militarisms and stupidities of his home states. This is something I understand, too, though here I think I won’t provide details! But it was a madness which provoked a question not just of intensities, though Schweitzer was certainly someone whose thinking was always as much about the intensities as it was about the content of his conceptual interventions. But even more than intensities, his madness forced him to become someone always wondering about the mediatic forms of his cultural interventions and the limits of that fairly simple machine which is the modern academic. Here, too, I find something awkwardly relevant about the guy, something I can’t quite elude and which I don’t want to encourage others to elude either.

    Closer to Marovich’s concerns are her excellent provocations about the role of “undying life” in the book. At one level, I don’t have a great answer to her sense that the “life” of the volume, its explorations of the immanent vibrancies of the everyday, comes through only in “glimmers” rather than as consistently sustained stories in their own right. I agree with Marovich’s reading and even concur with this reading’s desire for more! I felt very acutely as I wrote the book that the “materiality” of the volume was fairly formal, that it was about categories of chance, contingency, and event rather than more detailed or phenomenological experiments in writing about Paul or Paulinists’ worlds.

    Interestingly, one of the moments when the book wasn’t so formal was when I played around with a juxtaposition of Cicero’s condemnation of Epicurus and Hal Taussig’s excellent In the Beginning was the Meal, which I really admire for its unpacking of some of the affective dimensions of Paulinist social experimentation. Why was it buzzy to go to the Paulinist dinner party, or as I say in the book: “why are there celebratory banquets for the undead rather than nothing?”

    Even here, though, Marovich seems not to be getting enough of a glimmer of “undying life” in the book! Tough audience, these thinkers of life and vibrant living! As I understand it, she wants more emancipation of precisely the “ephemerality” and “processual” quality of “undying life”, further emancipation from—I think—both the formal and also historical constraints of my project. Fair enough, I say, right on. I think one could even make the point much more harshly about the book, though perhaps Marovich would resist me here. I mean (perhaps in yet another echo of Schweitzer), my Paul is a tragi-comic figure whose legacy is fairly austere. After all, for me Paul’s own experimentations were relatively short lived and then largely repressed by an early Christian machinery which made him, almost cruelly, into the last-Jew-first-Christian archetype.

    The risk and precariousness inherent in Paul’s interethnic and inter-discursive locations were almost completely sacrificed, and I mean here butchered and burned, on the altar of a Christian triumphalism which preferred to see Paul as founding a great edifice which would know of itself this above all: that it was not Jewish. In other words, the glimmers of undying life I see shimmering in Paul were those which sparked up somewhere between the imperial execution of a messianic figure and Paul’s own symbolic death at the hands of an early Christian triumphalism which repressed him by valorizing him as something he wasn’t. Fairly grim—but perhaps for this reason it’s no wonder that I’m so full of praise for the moments in this historical progress when glimmers of life appear, when these moments of being sold down the river shelter some like a community becoming, a coming to life despite likelihoods and odds and the rationalities which accompany them. It is these moments which are “undying” in the sense that they afford an escape from “belonging” to a situation which is sometimes crushingly oppressive—but also because they sometimes escape the normalities of death itself, like when a group of artisans start calling themselves the crucifieds or keeping another celebratory birthday of a dead hero. I wonder if Marovich likes or laments this aspect of the “life” I find in the book, or whether it seems perhaps too dialectical or even just too closely coded next to that great term “sad”!

    About the specific juxtaposition of the meals celebrating Jesus and those celebrating the birthday of dead Epicurus, I think I agree with Marovich’s formal point, but perhaps not with the historical point. That is, yes, some events, some escapes or secessions from the routines (even the routine of dying hopes and perishing heroes), “seize” us more—and also more wholistically—than others. But I wouldn’t say (and maybe you are not either) that as a “messiah” Jesus’ un-dying banquet means more than Epicurus’. If so, I’d just say that clearly you have never been an Epicurean! But perhaps that’s not the distinction which interests you.

    If I could jest in order to crystallize the issues: even more offensive than your hard-hearted denigration of the memorializing of Epicurus in comparison to Jesus is your hardheartedness toward the “undying life” of my zombies! I may be wrong, but I suspect that you think there is an “immortal life” which is superior to “chance” in the same way that there is a mode of “undying life” (resurrection?) which is superior to “zombie” life. After all, you say that what makes a “messiah like Paul so undead seems less about chance and contingency, and more about the way we focus on them, iconize them, devote ourselves to them . . .” Is this the moment when the tried and true stabilities of ecclesiastical or theological forms will trump the uncertainties of chance and contingency? If so, we are enemies on this matter of chance! I would even say that it is precisely chance which is able, unlike the stable ecclesiasticisms of transcendence, which give the suppleness and life to the happenings of undying life for which you seem to be looking.

    On the other hand, if the point is how, precisely, to hold on to chance and contingency so it is not reified (“stiff and immobile” like a zombie), then I’m with you. Here, as cheap self-justification against your criticism, I will only confess that I sometimes felt a moment of real anxiety about the title of the book, both because I allowed it to refer to “Saint Paul” (the very figure I wanted to undo so we might democratize him, so we might become him in fact), but also because I wondered if “undying life” would sound like a static metaphysical category, something that might seem to defuse all my otherwise incessant talk about ephemerality, immanent limits, and transformations.

    On this score, I claim allegiance to Parmenides and to his reception in Heidegger and Deleuze: perhaps there is a One but, if so, it would be a One which constantly differs from itself. Clayton Crockett does justice to the conundrum in Deleuze Beyond Badiou, I think. That is to say (on my reading), I’m not sure how we could escape the possibility of that great philosophical option: having our cake and eating it, too!

    • Beatrice Marovich

      Beatrice Marovich

      Reply

      A Reply to Ward Blanton

      Thanks to Blanton, for this generous response. Interesting to get more context on the Schweitzer influence.

      At the end of his response he poses a question to me: are we enemies on the matter of chance? Am I holding out for immortality, and revering it at the expense of the contingent undead? Or is my critique precisely a critique that attempts to affirm contingency and chance against the potential reification of even categories such as undying life and undeadness?

      I’d like to offer a little more clarity on my own position by suggesting that I’m probably closer to the second position (i.e.; that the critical questions I’m posing to him are reflecting on the extent to which contingency continues to be excised). But, like most things, I think it’s more complicated than simply being on one team or the other, so I want to explain.

      One of the things I don’t state explicitly in my reading is that, informing it, is a particular way of thinking about figures (particularly figures such as Paul, or undead messiahs). I’m thinking, on the one hand, of the critique against figuration that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari launch in What is Philosophy? Figures, here, become part and parcel of the imperialism of religion. They reify immanence and enforce transcendence. Philosophy allegedly creates concepts, while religions are like machines for figures. I do find the reifying potential of figures problematic. And yet, I am unconvinced that there can be such a line of speciation drawn between figures and concepts. The relation between these modes of thought seems more fluid, to me.

      Donna Haraway’s critique of figuration. as a method of Christian supercessionism (configuring Christ as the messianic overlay, masking the movements and figures of Jewish texts), resonates with Deleuze and Guattari to some extent. In a very obvious sense, Christ as messianic figure captures the messianic potentiality and reifies it. So Haraway is critical of the reifying functions of figuration. But Haraway’s relation to the inheritance of the Christian tradition is complex, and one of the complex elements of this inheritance is the way she inhabits figurative processes. Through figures like the cyborg, or OncoMouse as a kind of suffering martyr, Haraway inhabits figures with an intent to perform them differently. She sees figuration as troubling, dangerous, and yet sometimes potentially powerful. Crucial to her approach, I should also note, is the fact that she’s inhabiting figures like the cyborg ironically. She inhabits the cyborg, in an attempt to turn it into a feminist icon, precisely because it’s the most unlikely thing to hold up as a feminist icon (at least in the 1980s, when she wrote this manifesto). It’s because of this unlikeliness that the cyborg was subversive.

      While I see resonances between these perspectives on figuration, I ultimately see myself as more aligned with Haraway. Figuration may be problematic, but I’m not convinced that there’s a conceptual pure space where we can go, to be entirely done with it. With that said, I do think figuration should be approached with caution, given its potency. There is something alluring about the deeply aesthetic nature of figures that, I think, can lead to a celebration of figures that forgets or ignores what power dynamics these figures are abetting. More, figures are multivalent and functionally ambiguous, therefore they can harbor many different alliances at once.

      I do think Blanton is aware of the multivalent range of powers and associations Paul comes bearing, as a figure. And I do think that part of what Blanton’s own figuration of Paul is doing is accepting the messiness and, to some extent, the ambivalence of this figure. By advancing a figuration of Paul that differs from that of Nietzsche – and others who accept the figure of Paul as a pop Platonist – Blanton presents us with a Paul who is on the side of contingency, and the undying life that is a sign of contingency in flux. Or, at least, this seems to me to be the aim. But it is here that questions start to build in my mind: namely, whether Paul himself – as a figure – can effectively be the icon of contingency that Blanton presents him as.

      It’s not that I don’t think it’s possible for there to be any icon of contingency whatsoever (though I confess that I don’t really even know what that figure would look like: sub-atomic, perhaps?) I just don’t know that it’s possible to shed the centuries of associations that have built up and accrued around Paul as a figure: one who is on the side of the universal, the immortal, the civilizational. This is not because I don’t think that Blanton makes a strong case that we can see so many other things in Paul, too. I think he does that. But, convincing as his case may be, the figure of Paul continues on in its complex multivalence. Paul is a figure and, therefore, cannot help but be much more than Blanton might ask us to see in him. And I do think that these traces of another Paul remain, even still, accruing in the cracks and crevices of this book. The image on the cover, for instance: a spooky, white-faced specter in a bowler hat. I realize that it’s kind of trite to talk about book covers, but on one level I confess that it’s difficult for me not to read in this image the eternal return of white, male, philosophical subjectivity. I’m not saying that this is what Blanton is trying to present us with, but I do think that the figure of Paul (particularly in the wake of the spate of contemporary readings) is riddled with so much of this, that even the figuration of a more contingent Paul can’t shake it. Figures don’t clean up so easily.

      Perhaps, then, the questions I’m raising in my original piece might be stated like this: is it possible that Blanton’s book is committed to a figure (Paul, the undead messiah) almost at the expense of the dynamics that might be called up by the figurative process (an undying life)? If life itself is undying, why is it that the figure must be newly reified, or saved? Would it have, instead, been possible to point to a particular movement, or affect, or embodiable position that the figurative dynamics of undying life call up, rather than the figure itself? Wresting Paul free of the legacy of figuration that developed in the wake of a Nietzchean philosophical inheritance doesn’t, necessarily, wrest this figure free of the powers and potencies associated with figures, themselves.

    • Ward Blanton

      Ward Blanton

      Reply

      A Reply to Beatrice Marovich

      Lots of really interesting things going on here, and I hope that some others will map onto Beatrice’s interventions. For example, I think the concerns (and also the Badioueanism!) of Hollis Phelps would be interesting to tease out in relation to your Deleuzean anxieties about the reification of thought in the figure.

      As is probably clear from my new response to Hollis, I am in complete agreement with your concern that the danger of a Paulinism of undying life, a Paulinism of contingency, is that it would bring with it all the trappings of the saintly Saint Paul, all the foundationalist triumphalisms and mere idealisms of freedom that I hack on in the early part of the book. I think this possibility, even the likelihood, that an “escape” would reinscribe the brutal powers one is trying to undo, is why I so love Freud as a reader of biblical traditions in Europe. Everywhere there is repetition compulsion, everywhere the possibility that we find ourselves accomplices of the murders we intended to condemn. Still, sometimes breakthroughs happen!

      More happily, though, it’s precisely this risk which allows the really juicy possibility that the “figure” of Paul could undergo a kind of archival revolution, becoming differently “located” in the whole history of Western thought and action. So with the risk is also the promise of a “materialist” (as per my discussions of young Derrida, Althusser) rewiring of Paul’s hegemonic reception, and I want Paul to undergo the same krisis of a judgement that Plato underwent in the 1980’s. In “becoming Plato” as an inversion of their inherited figures of Plato, both Derrida and Deleuze made their early careers, unleashed an otherwise effectively repressed thought of the simulacrum (Deleuze) or of writing/difference (Derrida). We don’t yet know what a Paulinist can do, I always say: what I want is to know what happens when we, not just as individuals but as institutions, as modes of contemporary life, “become Paul” in and with contingency and further focus on Paul in relation to strategies grappling with worldliness and immanence. You say, watch out, figures do not clean up so easily! I say, yes, and don’t think that even my small steps have come easily—I have in several disciplines now chiselled away at his “concrete shoes” for years! There is much, much more to be done, and I want to see a radiation across cultural spheres for the construction of a new figure of Paulinism. At every level, the process is slow and disciplined—it takes time to come to see worthwhile stories of a materially embedded, contingently fuelled life of Paulinism, and I think there remains a great deal to be done even at the level of historical renderings of the figure.

      And the risk of co-optation, failure, repetition of the same is everywhere alive—there is no escaping it, above all when one enters the roped off precincts of the way the “massive phenomenon” of Christianity wants retroactively to justify its own assertions of power. Actually, I think we should be very clear and forceful about this aspect of what is happening now. For me, it is no surprise at all that it has taken another thirty years for the figure of Paul to begin to undergo the same kinds of rewiring as were founding and funding the rise of philosophies of difference like those of Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault. As I try to make clear in the book, they couldn’t yet even see the ways they could begin to enact the way Paul, like Plato, was a “founding figure” who was only so by virtue of a massive repression and controlling ownership of the figure’s legacy. They didn’t yet see that they could “become Paul” in a way they were becoming (a new) Plato (transforming philosophy in the process). For me this isn’t at all a mere accident. It’s a very clear indication of the way cultural systems and institutional controls have rendered the inherited Paul much more resistant to the new lines of philosophical thought than even Plato! It’s astonishing really, and when I say that a transformation of the legacy entails a demanding self-transformation I’m really serious about it.

      But it’s that demand, in the end, which I think makes me want to stick with the figure of Paul—precisely because his cultural locations are not easily “cleaned up”—rather than to go elsewhere. Because the other fights we have these days will also demand similarly disciplined and risky self-transformations in order for us really to emancipate and preserve new ways of seeing, thinking, living. Paulinism of a new materialism is for me, above all, an exercise, a discipline, a little hothouse of experimentations we’ll also need elsewhere.

Phil Ziegler

Response

Transcendence in the Midst of Life?

I am grateful to Ward Blanton for this energetic, challenging and suggestive work from which I have learned much. With these few remarks I hope to express my appreciation for what the author has undertaken in A Materialism for the Masses—Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life, and to test my understanding of the gist of its argument.

The argument builds upon and reflects key features of his previous book Displacing Christian Origins (University of Chicago Press, 2007). In that work, Blanton had suggested that whatever else they may be, accounts of Christian origins are always also performances of cultural power which negotiate contemporary philosophical matters and construe disciplinary terrain precisely by way of their representations. Representations of the origin of Christianity are effectively placeholders for our competing stakes in—and attitudes towards—the cultural and institutional politics of our own moment. In analysing a number of such performances from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Blanton pressed for the dissolution of the mutually entangling logic of “religious” and “secular” takes on the matter of biblical studies. His aim there was finally to contend for the status of the study of religion as critical thinkingby attaining to a “purely immanent, secularizing—or this-worlding—critique” of the field and its objects of study beyond the “ephemeral banality” of the constructed contrast between “religion” and “secularity” (p. 170 of that volume). The ambition, in short, was to attain to a properly critical practice of biblical studies whose naturalism was not contrastive but simply absolute.

In this new book, Blanton focusses in upon the figure of Paul and the nature of Paulinism. He asks whether we can encounter Paul afresh and do so outwith the controlling frameworks of the predominant cultural memory of the West. These frameworks, he argues, deliver Paul to us as either the sublime originator of an exceptional and super-cessionist Christianity (theology), or the purveyor of a pernicious “Platonism for the masses,” as Nietzsche famously styled it (philosophy). Is there another Paul with another teaching that can be excavated from beneath these cultural edifices? Blanton’s answer is yes. And he pursues the trail of a Paul ungoverned and ungovernable by the “controlling apparatuses constitutive of Western governance,” a prophet of “materialist spirituality” (xvii), a hopeful insurgent for the concrete possibilities for freedom, engagement and solidarity even in our bio-political era, and a “site” upon which to turn analyses of the power dynamics that constitute contemporary social life. Discerning and displaying this other Paul is the central labour of the book as a whole.

Blanton’s is a work of critical theory and his choice of interlocutors reflects this. Much conceptual aid and provocation is drawn from the thought of Deleuze, Lacan, Agamben and Zižek in particular. The argument advances by way of critical readings of the fate of Paul at the hands of other leading theorists of earlier generations. Blanton argues that in a series of missed opportunities Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida and others ultimately failed to trace the true “signature of Paul” in their various engagements with his figure and teaching. These readings admitted all-too uncritically the “retrospective” co-option of Paul by the architects of Christian collaboration with Greco-Roman culture and political power, a project Blanton detects already in the narrative strategy of Acts. The picture is one in which the figure of Paul is made to be the “first Christian . . . for very questionable ends” and winds up a sacred corpse safely buried away “in the “foundations” of an emerging church” (37). This “bad Paul” is thus an epiphenomenon of particular ancient economies of human desire and power; he is an iconic cog in the gears of a an enduring cultural politics whose true form escaped detection by even the great genealogists, who on this score often read “like the most traditional church theologian” (41). Blanton himself looks to prosecute a more thoroughgoing genealogy that espies and penetrates beneath these machinations, in order to discern clearly the features of the suppressed Paul long in our cultural memory, a Paul we were meant to forget.

Blanton’s method for securing this hyper-critical insight is to experiment with reading Paul as a figure in the “underground stream” of materialist thinking that runs through the history of western thought. The epicurean concept of the clinamen and its contemporary theoretical exploitation proves decisive. The notion is drawn from Lucretius” de rerum natura where it names the inexplicable deviation—the “swerve’—of moving atoms which produce the collisions which lie at the root of all physical movement. Two features of the clinamen are of supreme relevance for its theoretical exploitation here. The first is its a-causal nature: just as the atomic “swerve” is spontaneous, without cause, so too Blanton suggests we can understand the Pauline “calling” at the root of Paulinism as something singular, entirely uncalled for, excessive, emerging as it were “out of nothing.” A theologically inclined reader might imagine that in this epicurean idea Blanton has alighted upon is a philosophical category well-suited to articulate important features of the logic of divine grace. Such a judgment would be premature, however, in view of the second feature of the clinamen, namely its utterly material immanence. For the mysterious and unpredictable deviation at the root of all things—the source of dynamism, of movement, particularity and thus also joy—is itself a material and immanent cause. It is not a transcendent Unmoved Mover, but rather the random twitching of the smallest and most elemental features of our constitutive materiality, which provides the arch-metaphor for the inexplicable source of human singularity, psychic events, transgressive agency and so also of freedom. It is the force of this idea to encourage, nay demand, that a contemporary materialist account of religion—including Paul’s religion—proceed “without rehearsing the same fantasies about that entity which religion itself (sometimes at least) peddles” (49–50). With this category and its ramifications, it appears that a materialist metaphysics can provide at once the realist ontological basis for a fully immanent, naturalised explanation of such human phenomena, as well as funding the most fruitful theoretical tropes with which we can and ought to understand ourselves on this score. In a rather elegant passage, Blanton summarises the claim:

Internal to immanent, causal realities from which we will not be saved by another world or outside agency, there is nevertheless a chance, the very chance of thought itself, which is indicative of a minor freedom, a minimal swerve, a line around which we might spin ourselves in a metanoia that will itself feed back into the otherwise ironclad ground from which it emerged. (61)

In a world without old-fashion transcendence, idealistic fairy tales of heroic salvation ab extra have only ideological and certainly not emancipatory power. But, as this passage suggests, there is a new-fashioned kind of transcendence afoot in the world, a materially produced force fully immanent within the midst of earthly life that represents “subjective openness within material causality as such” (68) and which gives rise to the only possibilities we have for resisting our fate.

Blanton advocates for a reading of Paul as an event of this kind of material spirituality, and the better part of the volume trials ways of conceiving and giving voice to just how this is so. In this he takes singular inspiration from Stanislas Breton’s writings on the apostle. Breton’s thinking draws contemporary theory and materialist metaphysics into an encounter with “the apocalyptic and mystical world of Paulinist insurgency” (70–71). Paul and Althusser make for unexpected bedfellows to be sure, but Breton leads Blanton to discern meaningful connections between the philosopher’s notion of the interpellation of subjectivity and the apostle’s notion of the klesis that veritably calls us into being. The gain is to see in Paul’s proclamation of a crucified messiah and its consequence an exemplary instance of the subversion of the givenness of things arising from the sorts of irrepressible instabilities at the base of reality. The extended exposition is shot through with language aimed to evoke just this: the talk is of gaps, of dispossession, of disruption, of unpredictable and irrepressible voids, of the form of the messianic as the “potential detachment, unhinging, or bracketing of the “special kind of obviousness” by which our world” owns and makes us (79).

Here we arrive at what I take to be centre of gravity in the argument of the book as a whole, namely the final pages of the chapter entitled, “On Being Called Dead,” where Blanton sets out Breton’s account of the kenosis of the Paulinist God and the concomitant negative anthropology to which it gives rise (83–95). Paul’s theology of the cross is taken to underwrite the overthrow of ideology tout court, as Blanton puts it: by placing a kenotic “pale void” at the heart of reality itself, i.e., by making “the dispossessing madness of love within Pauline divinity” (89) the fundament of Paul’s teaching, the enclosure of all cultural forms, ideological totalities and biopolitical embrace are broken open and destabilised. Analogous to the clinamen there is founding rupture, a self-dispossession, something meontological placed at the root of it all, undermining the triumphal logics of identity and “destroying” the forms of power that make the world and we in it. These theological ideas of Paul’s in fact articulate a materialist politics of resistance, authorising a “lived surging of transformative insurgency into the paradeigmata of cultural setup” (88). In the figure of the messiah on the cross believers encounter and are overcome by an “unjustified nature [ ] which does not temper its forceful emergence,” an uncanny force which unhinges lived life so as to enjoin “intensive, self-forgetful enthusiasm” and thereby threatens to break open and change everything (89–90). Paul thereby announces a destabilising absence, a revolutionary “subtraction” that mimics at the level of human identity and agency that inestimable atomic deflection from which all motion and so possibility as such arise. Such is the unwelcome teaching of the apostle, a teaching subsequently silenced by an act of ideological “sanctification” constitutive of both the institution of the church, and western onto-theology. Such is the good news of Blanton’s materialist spirituality and the heart of its political imperative. We have here, as the final chapters go on to make manifest, a programmatic sketch of a highly theoretical materialist philosophy of human hope fully at home within the “immanent frame” with Paul as its patron saint.

For a theologically inclined reader like myself, the argument offers significant provocation and gives rise to many questions, only a few of which we are able to raise here.

(1)  Would Blanton have us understand Paul’s proclamation as an actual historical religious refraction of epicurean materialism, such that, while we might find it rhetorically bracing and historically interesting, it is ultimately fully reducible as regards to its truth to a properly theorised materialist metaphysics? Is Paul’s teaching, in other words, rightly heard as the “strong poetry” (Rorty) of an ancient soul well attuned to the atomic glitch at the base of all things? Do we have influence or merely analogy on display here?

(2)  Would Blanton have us take materialist metaphysics or the discursive business of cultural political theory as “first philosophy’? Can the latter rightly be reduced to an epiphenomenon of atomic deviation, even if a vast and complex one? Or, does the prominence of contemporary theory in the argument suggest rather that materialist metaphysics is but another discursive trace of what are fundamentally and irreducibly human psycho-social and cultural dynamics? Ought we to understand the vision as a materialist spirituality or a spiritualist materialism? Is there anything at stake in such questions?

(3)  Can we be serious about Paul and the humane insurrection against the “powers that be” that his teaching represents, enjoins and enables without being equally serious about the God who Paul acknowledges and proclaims to be the sole whence of such genuinely transgressive agency? What would it look like to attempt to do so within the ambit of a theoretical project such as this? Does a methodical commitment to “purely immanent, secularizing—or this-worlding—critique” mean that we must in principle be unable and/or unwilling to take Paul on his own terms in this regard, and so are required to translate such talk of God without remainder into new naturalised tropes for our always evasive and uncanny experience of “transcendence” in the midst of life? Or beyond such discursive manoeuvres, does critical theory in fact properly explain away Paul’s talk of deity in fully immanent terms, as one might consider is done in the many of the psychoanalytic and philosophical sources upon which the project draws? Colin Gunton once observed that Karl Barth had effectively dismissed the theological significance of Rudolf Otto’s concept of God’s holiness with the remark that “holiness is not a shudder down the spine.” 1Could it perhaps be asked whether and why, on Blanton’s account, we ought to place lay our hope for free human action and the liberation of human lives upon the ambient flicker at the edge of our consciousness brought about the random deviations and fissures that haunt material causality? Do the psychic traces of the clinamen really afford the basis and means on which to venture of disposed life of faith, hope and love in the teeth of the apparatuses of late modern capitalism?

(4)  The discussion of Romans 7 (157–61) in relation to Pasolini’s screenplay Saint Paul raises the question of the form or moral horizon of the idea of transgression. The question is, “How are we able to think, to be, transgression, sin, crime, once power becomes identified with normalizing bios, with life itself?” (159). As the subsequent discussion makes clear what it is issue for Blanton is the sheer possibility of transgression as such, whether the irrepressible eruption of the “other law” of sin or the unearned advent of divine grace and salvation “apart from the law,” seems neither here nor there at this juncture. Whether sin or grace, it is the prospect and reality of the uncontrolled, the ill-disciplined per se that excites the theorist here. This formalism of “transgression” seems to run counter to the previously positive recommendation of the very specifically formed notions of the dispossessed self that is drawn from Breton. Is it possible that the argument at this point reduplicates the antinomian moment in Paul’s own work—”shall we sin all the more?’—but without following the apostle’s own answer, namely the suggestion that the promeity of divine grace that transgresses the law can and will give rise to a correspondingly transgressive love that pours out one’s life for others? Must the telos of transgression not be taken fundamentally into account if we hope to keep faith with Paul here?

(5)  Finally, I wonder whether Blanton’s work illumines in any way the central point at issue in the debate played out between J.L. Martyn and Troels Engberg-Pedersen concerning Paul’s relation to Stoicism.2 Both scholars charge the other with illegimate katachronistic interpretations of Paul. Martyn contests the historiographical propriety and interpretative value of Engberg-Pedersen’s reading of Paul “from without” and in “naturalististic” terms and categories drawn from modern self-understanding. Engberg-Pedersen in turn charges that Martyn’s reading was inappropriately theological by virtue of bringing Paul’s first-century categories and modes of thought forward into the present as if they were plausible modes of contemporary thought. On one reading, Blanton’s interpretative posture would seem to move in both these directions, with contemporary categories of thought bringing to light aspects of Pauline teaching and the elements of that ancient teaching illuminating contemporary reflection on the possibilities of living humanely in our day and age. However, in other respects Blanton is also open to being taken to be a variation solely of Engberg-Pedersen’s posture without the reciprocal movement. However this may be, ought we to worry about the prospect for, and legitimacy of, katachronistic readings of Paul, or katachronistic readings of our contemporary situation in light of Paul?

Whether such questions and concerns are well formed, or whether they betray a perspective on Blanton’s book which ineptly hopes to understand and appreciate it from a perspective which the work itself imagines to have overreached, I myself am unsure. In any event, I look forward to learning more from the exchanges with the author to which these remarks and the other reviews in this series give rise.


  1. Colin Gunton, “Holiness, Difference and the Order of Creation,” in Intellect and Action: Elucidations of Christian Theology and the Life of Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 83.

  2. J.L. Martyn, “De-apocalypticizing Paul: An Essay Focused on Paul and the Stoics by Troels Engberg-Pedersen,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 86 (2002) 61–102; and Troels Engberg-Pedersen “Response to Martyn,” JSNT 86 (2002) 103–14.

  • Ward Blanton

    Ward Blanton

    Reply

    A Response to Philip Ziegler

    Ziegler develops really excellent interventions into the structures and flow of my work, for which I am very appreciative and which I hope to engage more thoughtfully as I move forward. As one might expect from an eminent scholar on the topic, throughout these interventions one hears echoes of the legacy of Karl Barth. This in itself is worth a symposium, as it seems to me to remain an important encounter to come, not only in relation to my own work on Paul and philosophy but also for the topic more generally. I will begin by doing the easy thing, pointing up what may, in the end, be simple differences between our respective readings of Paul and theology. I will then try to pick up on some of the more difficult issues about how to press forward along some of the crucial tracks that Ziegler’s theological challenge might open up for us.

    At one level, I think we may differ in our respective interests in the category of chance as a name for the opening onto difference, alterity, transformation—indeed, transcendence of a sort. Ziegler questions whether, for example, it is really that useful to pick up on the redemptive gestures of Paul (e.g., his taking a crucified messiah for an index of redemption; our “becoming sin” as an opening onto a becoming free) without signing onto Paul’s God as a non-materialist source or ground of these gestures.

    In this respect I suspect we may differ, with my question being why an intensive Barthian should be concerned about it. For me, what I found so interesting about reading chance with Paul was, as I explore most thoroughly perhaps in the chapter on Pasolini (“Seizures of Chance”), the intriguing way in which chance becomes precisely indistinguishable or interchangeable with Pauline discourse about the economies of redemption that of course Paul often situates in relation to the God of Abraham. In that sense I think it’s clear that my project incites the temptation (at least) to take the “aleatory materialism” explored in the book as a kind of first philosophy, as I think, say, Slavoj Zizek (Absolute Recoil), Catherine Malabou (Plasticity of Being), or Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins (New Materialism) are all trying to do in very different registers.

    What’s more, with the book I also wanted to say that the recent “turn to Paul” is in fact a consequence of continental philosophy’s valorization of chance, that chance is what Paulinized contemporary continental philosophy. If we might say it this way, it is because it believes in chance that philosophy it is able to believe again at all, and that belief—as self-grounded or singular swerve or declination—is what allows philosophers to find themselves to be like Paul, in solidarity with him. To take only the example of that grand Paulinist, Alain Badiou, it is because he is a committed advocate of Louis Althusser’s aleatory materialism that he also thinks he is himself a kind of Pauline figure. To put it comically just to make the point, I think we could even say of the recent encounters of ‘Paul and the philosophers’ that they are (as per the acknowledgements on public radio) “brought to you by” aleatory materialism even more than by more expected representatives of ecclesiastical structures who are (as Ziegler knows even better than I do) often so quick to be named as the bearers of the legacy of Paul’s God.

    And, I wonder, what are the solidarities indicated by this surprising shift? Who is speaking in and through this Paulinism which seems to want to secede from the churches? And who, and for what reasons, will this desire be disciplined, refused, sequestered? The question is perhaps all the more acute for a Barth expert, given the particularities of his watershed reading of Romans. How might we locate the desire which drove Barth to find in Romans a secession or escape from ecclesiastical systems, structures, and politics and at such a time as he did? Or, how might we locate a contemporary Paulinist secession from a particular theological metaphysics as an enactment of a judgment on contemporary political economies (as per the Paulinist “communisms” of Badiou, Agamben, Zizek, et. al.)? At the very least, I think the question of Paul’s God would be indistinguishable from these questions about which distant “child” will inherit from this God or from his doppelgänger chance. These names (and I think this is my primary interest in them) are about inheritance and ownership rather than simply about correctness in our representation of the historical Paul.

    As you suggest quite rightly, I think, we might distinguish ancient Epicurean atomism from the more recent interest in a “materialism” of evolutionary chance that we find in Louis Althusser or the young Derrida. Here I found that Derrida (in his fascinating early pronouncements on materialism and writing) or Althusser (in his efforts to unearth a repressed “materialism of the encounter”) engaged Epicurus selectively and not without substantive criticism. So if there is a materialism which is going for “all the marbles” metaphysically, I think it would be the modern/contemporary one they espouse rather than one with the precise contours of the ancient atomism.

    By the same token, the question of reading Paul with Epicurus or Epicurus’ latter day disciples would be a conceptual but also an historical question, in the sense that we would need to wonder about how our own vision of a figure like Paul is determined by the early reception histories which tended to see in Paulinist turns of phrase indices of a Platonic or Stoic ontology rather than an Epicurean one. It’s not that I would say Paul was an Epicurean, as I would not say he was simply Stoic or Platonic either (though quite Stoic on my reading). But it’s a matter of how we locate Paul within a sea of potential interlocutors, and not many people early on (and hence since) took up the comparative cause for the Epicureans—with all due respect to the very interesting historical work of Clarence Glad!

    Finally, I am really very keen to pronounce on your bringing up of J L Martyn and Troels Engberg-Pedersen, two authors I have at different points read with great interest and admiration on Paul and his many legacies. Indeed, I plan to speak about these things more elaborately soon, but at the moment I feel I need to think the matter through more carefully. I want (I suspect) to stir the pot with the recent “apocalyptic” readers of Paul, as I feel their apocalypticism too readily elides some of the crucial philosophical and political issues being raised by those comparing Paul to ancient and contemporary philosophers. But that encounter, and that gentle pot stirring, is to come. I think that in relation to both interpreters you mention, my own tendency is to refuse the idea that Paul’s texts are indicative of something like grand conceptual systems which are policed by Paul’s imagined consciousness, all those classic assumptions that Paul is the “one who knows” in relation to the innumerable fragmentation, excesses, and “lines of flight” in his own life and ways of speaking. Paul was great, amazing, and I admire him very much as a thinker and political actor (something I hope to address more specifically soon). But he was no more “together” than we are, and we don’t always have to go along with his own self-presentations or self-understandings. This is also why I don’t think the question is God-or-chance in the sense that we would need everything in Paul to “pay back” to these metaphysical or systemic options. And then maybe these sensibilities affect my own “mission” too, in the sense that—throughout the book—I want people not to become Christians, Jews, theists, or atheists so much as to become Paulinists, indeed to invent new ways of becoming so and then to offer these inventions and tactics into “the commons” freely and without copyright. For that I probably prefer tactically the name “chance” inasmuch as the name “God” has often been, now more than ever perhaps, the very Name of property, of proprietorial right, and of the right of ownership over Paul. On the other hand, what I do with “chance” is simply to re-open some of the drama of a Pauline text, so I’m under no illusions that I have eluded theology with my self-designations! Plus, there is so much work to do, so many useful ways to go to it.

    It’s on this score that I think we may disagree, too, when it comes to the telos of transgression. I think your reading is right on, which is why I’m not sure how helpful it is to name God as a kind of final “keeper” of the ends and goals of all the moments of messianic lawlessness in Taubes’ sense. In the moment, in the event, isn’t really the question of moving forward in hope of a “chance” a more useful way of speaking about an act of faith than to declare that God knows, possesses or controls the outcomes? I mean, apart from the formal question, historically or even just biblically it is “God” who plays the role not of the one who always makes “the letter arrive at its destination” but who, just as frequently, shows up after things have gone wrong but with some surprise inversion of values? Isn’t this once more a useful pressing on a kind of Barthian problematic in the sense that the danger isn’t so much antinomianism as a sense that one’s actions or intentions are guaranteed metaphysically? I would be keen to hear your thoughts on that question, again, the issue being a sort of riff on what Barthian ‘secession’ was so that one might come up with useful coordinates by which to grapple with the contemporary moment. Hent de Vries says some brilliant things in his concluding piece in Paul and the Philosophers about Barth and Taubes, but it’s probably too far afield to start working it through here. But it’s your own thoughts I’d like to hear on this question.

    Finally, it does make me smile when after his thoughtful articulation of the issues, Ziegler wonders whether—read from Martyn and Engberg-Pedersen—I am not at some level doubly transgressive, doing “the worst” that both accuse each other of doing! The worst of all worlds, true sinner, sounds like my idea of a fresh start, and I will try soon.

Jeff Robbins

Response

Unearthing the Dead

A More Radical Paul and a More Insurrectionary Politics

Nearly a decade ago I reported on the Religion, Postmodernism, and Culture conference held at Syracuse University on the topic of the contemporary interest in and appropriation of the figure of the Apostle Paul amongst Continental philosophers.1 My report began with Nietzsche’s critique of, and contempt for, Paul—for his role as the presumed originator of Christianity and as the progenitor of a certain Platonism for the masses, and even more fundamentally, for what Nietzsche interprets as his “relentless logic of hatred” and the grand irony of how Paul, the chief messenger of Christ, is in fact the figure of the anti-Christ par excellence. Nietzsche’s condemnation still looms large. Even with the contemporary “reactivation of Paul” led by the likes of Alain Badiou that has centered on the revolutionary political dimension of Paul’s thought, what I failed to understand then was just how docile, uncritical, and predictable the (re)reading of Paul has been. If it is true that everything is a footnote to Plato, then so too is it the case that the reception and invocation of Paul—whether it is sympathetic or critical, whether traditional or deconstructive—can be read like an annotated bibliography with the parameters well-established and the contours well-tread. What is missing, and perhaps even unthinkable, is the shock of the new, not for the sake of novelty, but to prove there might still be some life in this worked-over corpse.

It is with this in mind that I suggest we recall how utterly startling were the claims from Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, both in terms of how adventurous and unsubstantiated: Moses was not actually a Hebrew, but an Egyptian prince; he did not worship Yahweh, but the Egyptian sun god Aten; he did not die a natural death, but was murdered by the very people he delivered from captivity. The Moses received by the tradition is a myth retroactively developed, an act of collective repression that all but erased the memory not only of the man, but also of the strict moral-monotheism that stood in such stark contrast to the tribal cult of the violent deity Yahweh and the bloody sacrificial rituals Yahweh required. In the words of Daniel Pals, “There is no question that this quite extraordinary retelling of Hebrew history as Freud sees it rests on a number of adventurous connections and eye-opening historical conjectures that would trouble both the historian and the biblical scholar.” Nevertheless, Pals continues, “Much more interesting to [Freud] is the mystery of how, over many centuries, a true monotheism was somehow born, apparently died, and then came back to life. How can it be, he asks, that the faith of the original Moses virtually disappeared from the life of his people, only to revive centuries later in dramatic fashion and win back the hearts and minds of the entire Jewish community?”2

More than any other, it is this work from Freud, rich in theory and full of conjecture, that I regard as the true inspiration for Ward Blanton’s radical recasting of the Apostle Paul in his most recent book, A Materialism for the Masses. The difference, and it is not an insignificant one, is where Freud’s conjectures are presented as facts, Blanton’s are offered as a gambit, or as an extended thought experiment that cuts through and beneath the layers of generational, ideological, institutional, cultural and theological sediment to unearth not so much the “original” or “historical” Paul, but more the possibility of an insurrectionary Paulism. Less a retrieval than a new creation, Blanton’s Paul is a new Paul for a new, non-reductive and non-representational materialism. In so being, Blanton delivers on the nearly unthinkable: the shock of the new by unearthing the undead, or even better, the undying life, of Paul.

Which brings me to my title: if not a retrieval of the original Paul, then who or what is being unearthed in this unearthing of the dead? In Heideggerian fashion, it is partly no doubt a certain forgotten, neglected, or obscured Paul. This is decidedly not the Paul as received into the tradition as the founder of a supersessionist (read: anti-Jewish) new religion by the name of Christianity. This is not the Paul of The Acts of the Apostles, which, in the words of Blanton, by its “archetypical reification of identity” performs “identity’s retroactive sublimation or imagination as a given, unchanging foundation” (23) through and by the figure of Paul who thereby becomes the culprit and purveyor of the conflation of “those Jews” with “bad Israelites” and the formal distantiation of nascent Christianity from Judaism. This is neither the heroic Paul of Eusebius, Augustine, Luther, or Barth, nor the anti-heroic Paul of Nietzsche, Freud, Derrida, or Foucault—and this is the surprise: whether Paul is regarded as a hero or anti-hero, whether he is invoked or retrieved as a means to restore Christianity to its essence, or rejected or repudiated as the great swindler trafficking in metaphysical dualisms and an otherworldly escapism, these representations of Paul amount to one and the same thing.

Blanton, by contrast, refuses the machinations of this “beatification-and-occultation” Paul complex; he refuses to repeat this engrained Paulism. Beyond the hero worship and likewise beyond the dismissal and excoriation, Blanton shows how this historical archive is more like a tomb. Meanwhile, Paul’s corpse is hidden in plain sight—buried, unearthed, and buried over again. The script is well-known: Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, the true founder of Christianity as a religion of its own separate and distinct from Judaism, the one who translates Jesus’ messianic movement in Greco-Hellenistic terms by baptizing a kind of pop-Platonism for the masses, and thereby one of the architects of Western civilization as we know it by encoding such categories as the West, Christianity, Judaism, and religion with as clear and certain a meaning as its legacy.

But it is not this dead and worked-over corpse that Blanton is interested in. On the contrary, Blanton invokes what he calls the “undying life” that has only been only hinted at in fits and starts and that is marked above all by its ephemerality. Again, the surprise is where Nietzsche reads Paul’s talk of the scandal of the cross and the making of weakness as a virtue as resentiment, Blanton shows how this apparent otherworldliness is not the product of Paul’s metaphysical dualism, but a statement of Paul’s actual political stance. He does not hate the world in general, but the specific world of Roman colonial power and imperial oppression. He is not otherworldly, but an immanent insurrectionist. In other words, Paul’s supposed slave morality that defies Nietzsche’s will-to-power might just as well be an expression of Paul’s solidarity with a militarily suppressed minority. By making a virtue out of weakness, Paul is charting a form of theo-political resistance to instrumental control.

To be sure, Nietzsche is not the only culprit of this (mis)representation of Paul. Blanton also shows the ways that both Derrida and Foucault are guilty of “docility,” “laziness,” “dogmatism,” “conservatism,” and an “unreflective traditionalism” when it comes to their rather uncritical reading of Paul. These words are not often used to describe either Derrida or Foucault, but as Blanton persuasively argues, their respective readings of Paul are derivative of Nietzsche. They accept without question the representation of Paul as the founder of the Christian identity. And as such, they stand in basic agreement with a figure such as the nineteenth-century antimodernist German biblical scholar Theodor Zahn, repeating and reifying, even while repudiating, a certain Christian identity as representation. So while Zahn champions and seeks to restore this representative identity, Derrida and Foucault leave the identity intact and unscathed by what amounts to a simple and straightforward rejection of Paul that does not nearly rise to a proper deconstructive standard. As Blanton puts it, they merely refuse, rather than resituate the coordinates of the terrain, even while giving a diametrically opposed value judgment of its legacy.

The problem here is that their failure represents a missed opportunity to undercut the true basis of the Christian ontotheological claims to truth and power. Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault must be read against themselves. Witness here the contrast of Stanislas Breton: by his reading of Paul, we understand how we may come to see Paul not as the founder of the Christian identity, but as Christianity’s first and greatest critic of identitarian forms of thought altogether. Paul represents a “founding rupture” (83), or the “dispossession and failure of identity” (91). Breton’s Paul is a theo-political thinker of the void. And the lesson Blanton draws from this is how Breton’s reactivation of Paul is not under some reformational guise, as if to restore pristine Christianity in its original purity. On the contrary, it is an act of creation. As Breton once said, which Blanton invokes both here and elsewhere, “Authentic Christianity is not behind us: it is in front of us.”3 This is the truly radical act of dispossession of Christian identity and displacement of Christian origins that Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault have in mind, but never achieve thanks to their essentially straightforward acceptance of a representation of an identity of Paul as retroactively constructed by a tradition that he himself might have preemptively deconstructed and short-circuited.4

To me, the real value in this startling act of conjecture on the part of Blanton is the way that Paul might be read for his political theology of power and resistance. More specifically, Blanton’s Paul, who is not just post-Lutheran or post-Nietzschean (which amounts to the same thing), and who is post-Christian as much as he is pre-Christian (which again amounts to the same thing), provides a historically actualized theory of insurrection. By drawing on Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler and with repeated reference to the Italian radical political filmmaker Pier Paulo Pasolini, Blanton takes their point about the nature of resistance in the culture of late capitalism wherein the biopolitical indicates “the impossibility of (‘classical’) emancipation” (134). What analysis shows, according to Lacan, “is very precisely the fact that we don’t ever transgress” (168). Likewise for Pasolini, his works become increasingly preoccupied with what the false idea of freedom; or as Blanton puts it, an “awareness of the structural or economic ambiguity of transgression” (169) in the new economy of power that leaves us with the question:

How, after all, does one resist when mechanisms of power are imagined not to come from a repressive outside but to emerge by way of a new and populace-wide apparatuses of measurement, all those mechanisms by which the new economy of power attempts to more effectively proliferate “life”? Much more pointedly, . . . the real question for resistance in the new economy of power is this: how does one resist when power is that which is imagined to be making the mode or way life is the way life is? (136)

But while we might not ever transgress, there are nevertheless “detours of power” (179) that Blanton labels in the final section of the final chapter as “seizures of chance” (179–81). These chance opportunities provide the permanent possibility to undo, or render ineffective, the power of power, or “to destabilize the very force of normativity” (178) in a “world without transgression” (179). “You have died,” Blanton has Paul translated to say, so “Why do you submit?” Paul is preaching a “virtue of recalcitrance” (159) that originates not from outside of the law or power, but from within. This is a powerful insurrectionary force that in the words of Baudrillard contains “the incalculable force of the implosion” (160). By considering yourself already dead, you are then free to make a mockery of the biopolitical machinations of control, which is precisely what Blanton suggests Paul was up to as a “wandering vagabond of a crucified messiah [who] organized a cell of little ‘crucifieds,’ parodically taking the sting out of the effective imperial forcefulness that counted Jesus as one of the serial repressions constitutive of the maintenance of empire” (161).

This is the “Paulinist insurgency” that Blanton has in mind. It is a theo-political theory and praxis of power and resistance that is as ephemeral as it is risky due to its admission to its own extreme vulnerability and more generally to the precariousness of life. More radical than repudiation (read: Nietzsche) or reformation (read: Luther), this is the shock of the new that may just be what is left behind after this particular unearthing of the dead.


  1. See Jeffrey W. Robbins, “The Politics of Paul,” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, vol. 6, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 98-94. PURL: http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.jcrt.org/archives/06.2/robbins.pdf.

  2. Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 73–74.

  3. See Stanislas Breton, A Radical Philosophy of Saint Paul, translated by Joseph N. Ballan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 1.

  4. See Ward Blanton, Displacing Christian Origins: Philosophy, Secularity, and the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

  • Ward Blanton

    Ward Blanton

    Reply

    A Response to Jeffrey W. Robbins

    What will biblical figures like Paul mean for a political theology like Robbins’s, an insurrectionist and radically democratic political theology after the death of God? Here, as ever, I return to my sense that we do not yet know what a Paulinist can do, by which I mean to indicate not a cheery disposition about open horizons so much as to name a conceptual and historical problem, namely, that we do not yet know the limits, the lives and afterlives, of that “massive phenomenon” (as Marx put it and as Roland Boer sometimes reminds us) which is Christianity.

    As Marx argues (though we could place Robbins’s own work in this camp, too), the massive phenomenon is endemic to everyday economic assumptions as much as a sense of belonging (or not) to a church or a dogma of eternal life or whatever. The question of “getting Paul” or “understanding Paul” in such a context would involve a kind of massive excavation of the archaeology of the Western soul, and any “doing things differently” would be by definition a complete failure if it only addressed Paul as a kind of single cog within the larger European or Western cultural machinery. Freud was a similar kind of thinker, which is why he was so interested in a kind of “repetition compulsion” of biblical dramas (and often their textual violences) in modern lives. Just when we think we have “liberated Paul” (or ourselves) we find we’re stuck in the same old stories.

    In my own work this sense of “place” within the massive phenomenon, inhabiting it like a polar bear on a massive ice flow, meant that I often pointed out that the very distinction between hero and anti-hero Paul (or Christian and ant-Christian readings, etc.) basically rehearsed many of the same structures. Polar bear on ice flow may fight polar bear on ice flow, but they are both headed to Greenland on the same melting ice pack.

    Indeed, there is a specifically Paulinist riff to Derrida’s globalatinization, a Paulinist inflection to the way that kenosis and critique of a tradition allow it to expand in a particular vein. It is this sense of the massiveness of the histories shaping our lives that also makes A Materialism for the Masses very closely aligned to movements like the ‘anthropology of Christianity’ or “anthropology of secularism” agendas (e.g., Talal Asad, Gil Anidjar). Now more than ever we should really question whether we “know” the limits, thresholds, or borders of “Christianity,” that massive phenomenon which may be better described as economics, as international politics, as class relations—and vice versa. And, when we find ourselves at a moment of not knowing what the inheritance of “Christian origins” stories underwrite in this culture, then—as I repeat a lot in the book—we do not yet know what a Paulinist can do.

    So, at one level we do not yet know what Paul will be for a political theology like Robbins’s. On the other hand, we do know something, which Robbins points out. Early on he hits a Heideggerian note, asking who or what unearths a neo-Paulinism worth our while? If there is the serial return of a Paulinism worthy of the name, what is the force and nature of this serializing power, above all if the serial repetition always comes with a difference, a newness, even a subversion of what went before? In this respect, I think the issues are clear, which is perhaps also to say that I know what will be the relationship between a biblical figure like Paul and a radical theology like Robbins’s. In a few words, the answer will come down to the buzz, the vibrancies of solidarity. New solidarities are the entities which shelter the viable or worthwhile relationship between these discourses.

    This means that our researches are in some sense kerygmatic in the sense that they are tests, experimental invitations to a way of inhabiting the “massive phenomenon” or our moment of “globalatinization” in a way which neither resists nor constructs anew so much as reconfigures and rewires from within, working from surprising—even minimally transgressive or even lawless—solidarities outward, toward the invention of unprecedented commons and commonalities. Everywhere there must be a messianic becoming otherwise, which is why “sin” and redemption will always go hand in hand.

    For all my Deleuzean fascinations and affinities (and here Robbins and I have a great deal in common), at the moment it is Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou who seem to be saying most clearly that what “we” need is a new discipline, a new askēsis which is a praxis of a new commons, a new global subject of emancipatory politics, which we do not yet know. And I think Paulinism today is one of the most important terrains on which these new exercises are being developed.

    This aspect of the project to relate biblical studies and radical theology then also relates to that sometimes horrific situation I diagnose (through Pasolini and Lacan), namely, that we live at a moment when, in good capitalist fashion, the collapse and reinforcement of power seem to go hand in hand without allowing any simple stepping outside. Without the fresh air, so to speak, which would afford a clear reconstitution of ourselves and our political futures, how are we to live? We will live by breathing the air of the solidarities we “unearth” not from an archaeological past but from a place and time without name, calendar, or locale. And, without these orienting spheres, we will instead find ourselves both seized by and seizing a chance, gripped with and gripping onto the solidarities which knock us flat as if by a paroxysm of desire rather than by the clarities of representation.

    All this is to say that the relationship between this biblical figure and the field of radical politics will be only what it can be, a paroxysm of desire for solidarities coming to light or, in a word, our own becoming Paul. We’ll know them only in our kerygmata, our always minimally transgressive calls for (new) solidarities. That’s why, at the end of the day, I wanted a book which demanded that everyone in some sense become Paul.

    This democratizing of Paul, if we might say it this way, is about a redistribution of ecclesiastical and theological wealth, yes. But it is also about batonning down the hatches for difficult tasks ahead, and one punch of the book is that it is our kerygmatic solidarities which will help us to understand whether, in the end, this capitalist world without ground or foreseeable limit will be for us a heaven or a hell.

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