Badiou’s Saint Paul

May 18, 2010

Kvond’s remarks in this conversation at Carl’s prompted me to read Badiou’s Saint Paul. I’ve not read much Badiou before. A few unsystematic remarks, unrelated to the original conversation.

1) Badiou appears to use the word ‘secular’ as an honorific, its meaning more or less unconnected to the term’s usual content. For example:

This de-dialectization of the Christ-event allows us to extract a formal, wholly secularized conception of grace from the mythological core. Everything hinges on knowing whether an ordinary existence, breaking with time’s cruel routine, encounters the material chance of serving a truth, thereby becoming, through subjective division and beyond the human animal’s survival imperatives, an immortal. (p. 66)

This set of ideas is in no sense secular.

2) A fair bit of Badiou’s work’s appeal in the English-language Theory space seems to be connected to its identification as communist and/or militant. Yet one of the main teachings that Badiou extracts from Paul is that:

1. Faith is what saves us, not works. (p. 75)

Which is a notably non-praxis(-in-the-political-sense)-oriented maxim.

3) Badiou distinguishes his discourse (of revelation, or fidelity to the event) from mysticism or miraculism (what he calls “obscurantism”, p. 52). But this differentiation is a matter of self-consistency: mystical discourse is, Badiou believes, self-undermining, because the discursive expression of the unutterable necessarily relapses into the symbolic discourse of prophecy (“Jewish discourse”, p. 53). Badiou’s differentiation of his own discourse from that of mysticism is therefore akin to Wittgenstein’s “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent” – it is not a rejection of mystical experience or of religion based on such an experience, but rather the opposite: an attempt to make one’s faithful words adequate to that mystical vision.

4) Badiou is one of a number of figures in recent continental philosophy who use the terms “immanence” or “radical immanence” to mean something much closer to “transcendence” or “radical transcendence” (c.f. my remarks on Ray Brassier, the book’s translator, here). The Badiouian-Pauline Christ-event is transcendent in a strong sense – it ruptures the world of everyday experience, and permits access to a Real beyond the empirical that cannot even be denoted by our usual philosophical or ordinary-language discursive resources. Yet because Badiou’s Paul does not draw a strong boundary between Christ the Son and a radically transcendent God the Father, Badiou argues that the Christ-event is an “immanentization”, a “condition of immanence” (p. 70). This is not, in my judgement, a helpful or particularly coherent philosophical position.

5) Badiou’s apologetics for Paul’s “pronouncements about women” are amusingly at odds with the stated aims of the book.

But all things considered, there is something absurd about bringing him to trial before the tribunal of contemporary feminism. The only question worth asking is whether Paul, given the conditions of his time, is a progressive or a reactionary so far as the status of women is concerned. (p. 104)

No matter that the meaning of Paul’s work is, for Badiou, the foundation of universalism; what matters when it comes to feminist critiques of Paul are “the conditions of his time”.

This is not the only way in which Badiou aims to rebut the feminist critique of Paul. Having explained that Paul reverses the inegalitarian discourses he participates in by the method of rhetorical symmetrization, Badiou remarks:

Take marriage, for example. Obviously, Paul begins with the inegalitarian rule “I give charge… that the wife should not separate from her husband” (Cor.I.7.10). But he immediately adds “and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (Cor.I.7.10).

Because neither party should break this legal relation, Paul’s discourse is emancipatory!

A little later:

…Paul does declare that “the chief of every man is Christ, the chief of a woman is her husband, and the chief of Christ is God” (Cor.I.II.13)…. As expected, the basis is provided by the narrative in Genesis: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (8). The question seems settled: Paul proposes a solid religious basis for the subjugation of women. Well actually, not at all. Three lines further down, a vigorous “nevertheless” (plēn) introduces the subsequent symmetrization, which, opportunely reminding us that every man is born of a woman, leads the whole of this inegalitarian edifice back to an essential equality: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman” (Cor.I.II.II). (p. 106)

So – on the one hand “the chief of a woman is her husband”; on the other hand “man is now born of woman”. Glad we’ve established an essential equality there.

Such passages should perhaps make us wonder if Badiou’s Pauline “universalism” in fact represents (as the “culturalist” theorists Badiou is concerned to refute might suggest) the interests and preoccupations of a quite specific cultural space.

6) Although Badiou’s conceptual apparatus is based on an opposition between the empirical world and the evental rupture of that world, the most problematic passages of Saint Paul appear to reject this distinction, proposing instead that every aspect of our historical existence – including the straightforwardly empirical – should be understood in mystical-subjectivist terms. Thus:

I see a number of informed people, some of them historians, conclude on the basis of their memory of the Occupation and the documents they have accumulated, that Pétain had many virtues. Whence the obvious conclusion that “memory” cannot settle any issue. There invariably comes a moment when what matters is to declare in one’s own name that what took place took place, and to do so because what one envisages with regard to the actual possibilities of a situation requires it. This is certainly Paul’s conviction: the debate about the Resurrection is no more a debate between historians and witnesses in his eyes than that about the existence of the gas chambers is in mine. We will not ask for proofs or counterproofs. We will not enter into debate with erudite anti-Semites, Nazis under the skin, with their superabundance of “proofs” that no Jew was ever mistreated by Hitler. (p. 44)

Badiou argues here that the existence or non-existence of the Nazi death camps is not an empirical question – that it is not a question answerable by historical research; rather, one needs simply to make a subjective choice, and have (mystical or religious) faith in the reality or non-reality of Auschwitz, just as Christians must have faith in the reality or non-reality of Christ’s resurrection. This is a profoundly wrong, irrationalist and sinister opinion. I have absolutely no time for anyone who believes this.

NB: This piece about Badiou by Daniel Bensaïd is really good.

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16 Responses to “Badiou’s Saint Paul

  1. JCD Says:

    In my first semester at The New School, I took a class that featured several seminar lectures by Badiou; it was the beginning of the end of my fascination with recent “philosophical” Marxism and radicalism. Its fixation with faith rubs my ex-Catholic flesh the wrong way.

  2. JCD Says:

    For instance, one of my friends asked B.–the seminar was on the idea of the law–what advice he would give to supreme court justices. His response was (I am reaching back into memory here) something along the lines of “They should remember that _they_ are not _the law_.” Fucking brilliant. Not a remark about how the judiciary wields certain social powers through its ability to standardize certain practices, not a historical analysis about past actions of justices and their effects, but a trite cautionary maxim: you representatives of the law are not the law! Whatever.

  3. duncan Says:

    Ha, thanks JCD, that’s interesting. I too find all this stuff sort of extraordinary in the way it’s so actively anti-historical and anti-materialist, while presenting itself as Marxist & secular, etc. I wouldn’t mind it at all if Badiou were just trying to build his own little religious sect. But like you say, he’s actively intervening within left critical discourse trying to direct attention away from concrete analysis and towards the mystically-revealed Real. I dunno why people take it seriously – except as religion.

  4. ktismatics Says:

    “Badiou argues here that the existence or non-existence of the Nazi death camps is not an empirical question – that it is not a question answerable by historical research”

    In the same paragraph you cite Badiou writes this: “I do not doubt the necessity of remembering the extermination of the Jews… There invariably comes a moment when what matters is to declare in one’s own name that what took place took place.” He’s saying that at some point one must decide: yes, this happened; yes, it was a terrible thing. What’s odd though is that Badiou presumably does not believe that the resurrection of Christ happened. Neither Badiou nor Paul witnessed it, just as Badiou did not witness the Holocaust. That Badiou would equate Paul’s subjective acceptance to the truth-event of the resurrection with his own of the Holocaust — the implication is that he could just as easily accept the resurrection and deny the Holocaust if those subjective commitments opened up more possibilities for him.

    I guess you’re right, Duncan: empirical realism is sacrificed on the altar of subjective realism. It seems though that for Paul/Badiou the commitment to universalism trumps subjectivity, or rather determines the proper subjective orientation. So maybe that’s the reconciliation: accept as truth those events that open one subjectively into a universal equality of all men — and okay, maybe women too.

    I see a parallel with Badiou’s transcendent event and some of our realist friends’ enthusiasm for difference and emergence. For Badiou the event takes precedent over the empirical trail it leaves behind itself and the meanings people ascribe to it. So too with emergence as it is often characterized: a primary differentiating event occurs, which precedes and defines the empirical differences-from that result from it. Emergence seems to come from nowhere, without cause, not unlike a Badiouan event. To me too this seems more like transcendence than immanence.

  5. duncan Says:

    Hey ktismatics – thanks – yes – sacrificing empirical realism on the altar of subjective realism is it exactly. I think he’s got a shaky enough case on this w/r/t political ideals, etc. But when he starts applying it to historical questions – which are just exemplarily empirical, not subjective (/mystically accessible) – the whole thing becomes too bonkers for words.

    accept as truth those events that open one subjectively into a universal equality of all men

    Yes Badiou might say something like this – I don’t know his work well enough to really say – sorry. Apart from the question of what a subjective opening to a putative universality beyond the particular really consists in, though (whether it’s fantasised, for instance; whether it’s really channeling quite particular circumstances and preferences while claiming not to) – there’s also just the issue that this is a really bad method for deciding what’s empirically true and what isn’t. Historical events, after all, either happened or they didn’t; whether an (empirical) event took place or not, is really not a question that can be settled by asking ‘does my belief in this event open me, subjectively, to universal equality’?

    Sorry to be snarky. I just find all this stuff infuriating.

    I’m not 100% confident we have the same stuff in mind w/r/t emergence & realism. But I like this a lot:

    Emergence seems to come from nowhere, without cause, not unlike a Badiouan event.

    Yes – exactly. To me, of course, the big difference is that emergent phenomena can be analysed empirically – the apparent ‘out of nowhereness’ and indeed non-empiricalness of the emergent thing can be shown to be just a function of the unpredictable (or at least unpredicted) interaction of a lot of different stuff in a new way – and the apparent disconnect between the emergent phenomenon and the parts that produce it. To me, this sort of approach could actually go a long way towards ‘debunking’ Badiouian type analyses of ‘The Event’, by giving an empirical account of the stuff that seems so transcendent and bizarre. I suspect there’s stuff Badiou’s ascribing to basically mystical non-empirical-causal effects, because his empirical/historical/social analysis isn’t up to the job of accounting for it. I’d need to do more work on Badiou than I’m likely to, to try to cash that out properly, though.

    (NP‘s written about emergence stuff a lot w/r/t social theory – but you may have other work in mind.)

    (Accounts of emergent phenomena can themselves be sorta supernatural, of course; I remember a lot of the analytic philosophy of mind space engaging in that sort of thing, talking about strong emergence in a way that basically makes it into a supernatural force, exerting downward causation on the physical phenomena it supposedly ’emerges’ from. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.)

  6. ktismatics Says:

    “too bonkers for words” perhaps, but of course that rarely stops the words from flowing 😉

    It’s been awhile since I read Badiou’s Paul, and I might be conflating his reading of Paul with my own, but here’s my understanding. The event transcends and causes both its own historical materiality and subjective responses to it. From Being and Event, here is Badiou’s Axiom 1:

    “An event is never the concentration of a vital continuity, or the immanent intensification of a becoming. It is never coextensive with becoming. It is, on the contrary, on the side of a pure break with the becoming of an object of the world, through the auto-apparition of this object. Correlatively, it is the supplementation of apparition by the emergence of a trace: what formerly inexisted becomes intense existence.”

    It seems that the emergent object comes out of nowhere. Not only are the emergent material properties of the event unexpected and unpredicted: the material “trace” is discontinuous with the materiality that precedes it. So there can be no causality of emergence identifiable in the material conditions leading up to the event. This is an even more radical transcendence than Deleuze, for whom the event’s emergence isn’t just continuous with material becoming but is itself the force of becoming. Despite their differences, both Deleuze and Badiou sound quite mystical and supernatural in these forumulations of the immateriality of the event.

    For Badiou, it’s not just that Paul subjectively believes that the resurrection took place and so he commits himself by faith to the possibilities the resurrection affords for himself and for all humanity. Rather, the objective Christ event itself has brought about the emergence of a new kind of subjectivity. This new subjective state is “real”: it exists outside of Paul’s mind. Paul can enter into this alternate subjective reality via faith in the Christ event.

    Now I read Paul this way before I ever read Badiou. It’s what makes me think that Badiou’s philosophy is at least partly Pauline. I.e., it’s not just that Badiou is giving Paul his own special treatment, but rather than Badiou had already undergone the Pauline treatment long before he wrote this book.

    The “other kettle of fish” of strong emergence does seem to characterize some of the object-oriented realism I’ve been reading.

    “the apparent ‘out of nowhereness’ and indeed non-empiricalness of the emergent thing can be shown to be just a function of the unpredictable (or at least unpredicted) interaction of a lot of different stuff in a new way – and the apparent disconnect between the emergent phenomenon and the parts that produce it.”

    I agree, Duncan. An emergent thing that wasn’t predicted a priori by humans, something never happened before in the history of the universe: that doesn’t mean it transcended the usual cause-effect sorts of relationships that occur in the material universe. There’s some sense of strong emergentists intentionally trying to transcend materialism; e.g., emergence is the supernatural cause of all materiality, with cause-effect being relevant only within the material traces left behind by supernatural emergence.

  7. N. Pepperell Says:

    Yeah – the distinction between strong and weak concepts of emergence is important here. In my reading, Marx deploys a weak concept of emergence in his analysis of the commodity fetish: a phenomenon that confronts social actors as mysterious and self-grounding – but which, in Marx’s analysis, is shown (at least, this is the goal…) to be a perfectly secular and mundane result of human practice. It’s just that the way in which the phenomenon results from human practice is very complex – you only get the result that Marx calls the “fetish character” of the commodity when lots of different kinds of social practices operate in tandem to produce a very specific aggregate emergent effect. It doesn’t initially occur to social actors that their own practice is the cause of this emergent result because any individual practice – looked at by itself or in more local configurations – isn’t aiming at producing the aggregate result, and doesn’t appear capable of producing the aggregate result. The mystery disappears, however (or, at least, this is the goal…) when Marx lines up a whopping great list of all the huge number of practices required to generate the aggregate result, and shows how all these micrological activities, when brought together just so, generate an overarching result that these practices wouldn’t generate and haven’t generated in any other configuration.

    Within this sort of framework, attempting to reduce the aggregate result down to any individual aspect of social experience figures as reductionist and naturalising – even markets, within Marx’s analysis, don’t have the dynamic character they currently exhibit until places into this specific configuration; ditto “labour”, “money”, and a whole range of other dimensions of social experience.

    I can make metaphoric use of categories put forward by e.g. Deleuze or Badiou to talk about some of the things Marx was trying to argue – but, as has been discussed here, find myself baffled at the essentially mystical character of the systems within which those metaphorics are being deployed in these authors’ work. It feels like a vast step backwards – a sort of “embrace the fetish!” approach – one that, effectively, reads off very specific properties of capitalist social practices as the ontological properties of Being – worse, as the desirable standpoints of critique… No wonder it’s so difficult for critique to find purchase… ;-P

    Apologies if this isn’t very coherent – writing in a late-night bout of insomnia brought on by a terrible cold…

  8. duncan Says:

    Hey guys, thanks. (Sorry to drag you in NP 🙂 – I just wasn’t sure what theorisations of emergence ktismatics had in mind, and of course I’m already using yours…)

    it’s not just that Paul subjectively believes that the resurrection took place and so he commits himself by faith to the possibilities the resurrection affords for himself and for all humanity. Rather, the objective Christ event itself has brought about the emergence of a new kind of subjectivity.

    Yes – I agree with this. Badiou does think the Event has non-subjective reality & meaning – & that subjective faithfulness to the Event is created by the Event. It’s just that he has no mode of knowledge of the Event other than revelation. From the ‘outside’, then (from my pov, say), there’s really no way to tell the difference between fidelity to the Event and fidelity to some wholly subjective fantasy. Badiou would accept that, I think.

    Now this is the perennial lot of mystics, and I don’t think it gives one (as somebody other than the mystic) much room for complaint – maybe Badiou (or whoever) really has experienced revelation. Who am I to say otherwise? On the other hand, I think it gives Badiou (or whoever) somewhat limited legitimate purchase on public discourse (w/r/t discussion of the Event). He can tell us about his revelation, sure – but he really can’t engage in many of the other kinds of communal discussion (appealing to collectively agreed standards of proof or to specific community norms, etc.) without taking his own discourse out of the domain of revelation, and into more empirical and I guess banal modes of conversation. Badiou recognises this, I think. (And in a way the whole of Saint Paul is about the task of how to build a robust community of practice out of an experience that’s fundamentally mystical and individual-subjectivist.) At times, I think, Badiou’s comfortable limiting the scope of revelation – contrasting it with empirical modes of knowledge (even if the Event then influences the empirical world via militant practice of the faithful.) But at other times – as in the passage related to the Holocaust – Badiou seem, bizarrely, to want to negate the empirical, and claim that even historical events can only be known via subjective decision and fidelity. That’s just wrong, even if you accept the mystical framework.

    I don’t myself really know Paul, unfortunately, and so I don’t have a view on how good or bad a reading it is; I find what you say about Badiou’s work already being influenced by Pauline stuff really plausible & interesting though – in the sense that the book reads to me at least as much like an attempt to turn ‘secular’ discourse towards religion, as the opposite. I’m quite curious about this, in a way – Meillassoux, who was Badiou’s student, also strikes me as religious in inclination (Meillassoux is quite clear that one of the goals of his philosophy is to guarantee the possibility of physical resurrection; for all the discussion that his work’s generated, everyone seems to avoid this claim like the plague). I wonder how overt this goal is for Badiou & the folks around him – how they understand their own work.

    (The odd thing, of course, is that there’s a big difference between Paul’s and Badiou’s Events. Paul (if he’s right) is talking about an actual miracle: Christ rose from the dead; of course we need to move beyond regular cause and effect explanation to discuss that. Badiou doesn’t seem – at least on the face of it – to have obvious miracles in mind, when he talks about the Event, though; he seems to have in mind stuff like May ’68. But then this desire to move beyond cause and effect looks sorta weird. Why would you want to model your explanation for a general strike on the explanation for a miracle? It doesn’t seem helpful, analytically or politically. It’s like modelling our analysis of airplanes on the analysis of angels: suggestive or poetic, perhaps, but it’s not going to help you fly.)

  9. Tom Says:

    Hello Duncan, I’m sorry as this is completely off topic but I couldn’t find any other way to contact you. In short do you know where I can find any work by the ‘Comte de Rotherhithe’? Your references to his online blog are the only trace of him left on line. Those fragments of prose you published completely mesmerised me and I am absolutely desperate to read more by him. All I have is 3 near perfect paragraphs!

  10. duncan Says:

    Hey Tom – don’t worry about being off topic… Re: the Comte, I believe he’s working on new stuff, but I don’t know if any of his older stuff is still around. I’ll find out & get back to you.

  11. ktismatics Says:

    The Comte de Rotherhithe? 3 near perfect paragraphs? This mystery sounds far more intriguing than Badiou or Paul. However, returning briefly to “more banal modes of conversation”…

    There seems to be something miraculous about Badiou’s emergent events regardless of the material or subjective traces they leave behind. It’s this miracle that’s real, the irruption of some sort of differentiating vitality into the world: the rest is just preparation and aftermath. The event, says Badiou, is “a vanishing mediator, an intemporal instant which renders disjunct the previous state of an object and the state that follows… For me, the event is the immanent principal of exceptions to becoming, or of Truths.” This sort of abrupt disjuncture in the temporal sequences of the world seems supernatural, even if that discontinuity results in the most mundane sort of difference from what came before. Resurrection? Miraculous, but not different in kind from other Badiouan events. Or at least it looks that way to me.

    “Meillassoux is quite clear that one of the goals of his philosophy is to guarantee the possibility of physical resurrection”

    Really? I wouldn’t have guessed from After Finitude, unless I missed something, which is a distinct possibility. At the end of that book I thought he was building toward a real consisting exclusively of mathematics.

    In economics the main enthusiast for weak emergence that I know of was Hayek: “spontaneous order,” “the result of human action but not of human design,” “self-organizing systems,” etc. Does anyone accuse you of being a closet neoliberal apologist, NB? It seems to me that accounting for the emergence of structures from smaller elements, even if that accounting can never be complete, seems a worthy undertaking for any microeconomics worth its salt. Of course Hayek seemed to be a zealot for emergent order, which was always preferable to planned order. I don’t know if he also celebrated the emergence of commodity fetish value, or if he regarded the concept as itself a fetishistic obsession of the socialistic central planners. But now we’ve veered pretty far off the Pauline discussion.

  12. duncan Says:

    lol – we’re all neoliberals now, ktismatics, haven’t you heard? There is no alternative.

    I should really let NP answer on emergence instead of blundering in – but for my quick tuppence ha’penny – some of the differences with Hayekian stuff would I think be (a) the characterisation of what the emergent properties of capitalist society are; (b) disagreement about whether they’re good or not. There’s also the fact that, the way a lot of microeconomic analysis functions, it sort of denies the existence of large-scale macro phenomena even while it blathers on about the ‘invisible hand’; plus a lot of micro stuff just has the ‘micro-foundations’ wrong. There’s nothing intrinsically un-Marxist or bad about building up analysis of large-scale social processes from analysis of the small-scale interactions that produce them; but mainstream econ generally involves rational choice Robinsonades instead of actual micro analysis. [I guess there’s also the fact that you can’t do really good micro analysis without discussing how individuals (and groups) respond to the properties of the system as a whole. And those responses may be more deep-rooted than just interest-rate-change-in / saving-investment-decision-out type thing. ‘Responses’ may involve the constitution of aspects of the self (including partial collective identities), for instance.]

    But sorry to barge in on your space, NP. (This is all NP’s stuff I’m messing with.)

    Back to Badiou… yes, sorry, I wasn’t meaning to suggest that Badiou’s events aren’t miraculous – I agree with you that they are. It just seems to me that, given how much of his motivation seems to be political, this is a really weird place to go. On Meillassoux – I don’t think he talks about resurrection in After Finitude (though I think the religious structure of the argument is clear from the book – he basically wants himself a new ontological argument, that’s part of his argument with Kant over the turn to epistemology). But in his essay Spectral Dilemma he really lays it out. It’s in Collapse volume IV – here it is on scribd, you might find it interesting, it’s very short:

    Here’s the conclusion anyway:

    If one supposes granted [what Meillassoux believes he’s demonstrated] the real eventuality of emergences in rupture with the present laws of nature, what will be the most singular possible divinity, the most interesting, the most ‘noble’ in a sense (paradoxically) close to Nietzsche’s? Must this future and immanent god be personal, or consist in a ‘harmony’, a becalmed community of living, of dead, and of reborn? We believe that precise responses to these questions can be envisaged, and that they determine an original regime of thought, in rupture with both atheism and theology: a divinology, yet to be constituted, through which will be fabricated, perhaps, new links between men and those who haunt them.

    This is his project, this divinology. It’s sort of weird, given that he simply out and says it, how many folk treat his stuff as contributing to atheistic/nihilistic/materialist debunking.

  13. N. Pepperell Says:

    Does anyone accuse you of being a closet neoliberal apologist, NB?

    Do you think it hurts my defense that I quote Ayn Rand in my thesis? ;-P

    More seriously: from Marx’s point of view, Hayek would be seen as mystifying the market by treating it solely as a decentralised system for coordinating collective practices by means of price signals – something the market does do, but, for Marx, focussing solely on this aspect of the market fails to recognise how the market itself is only a subset of the much more complex whole that is capitalist production.

    For Marx, an analysis like Hayek’s gets caught in the “fetish character” of the phenomena Hayek is trying to analyse – i.e., it looks at one consequence of a set of practices, and it recognises a layer of social experience by focussing on that consequence. But then the analysis stops. Hayek doesn’t follow things further downstream. If he had, he would be able to see that the very same social practices that seem to generate positive implications in one layer of social experience, generate very different sorts of implications further downstream, when operating in tandem with other dimensions of a complex whole.

    I’ve discussed this issue elsewhere by looking at a brief passage where Marx discusses the figure of the ellipse. Marx begins by saying that it sounds contradictory to say that there exists a relation between two objects that is defined by the objects both rushing towards one another, and at the same time flying away from one another. This contradictory form, however, is achieved in practice – by the elliptical orbit.

    For Marx, many forms of social analysis operate like a theorist who looks at the objects related by the elliptical orbit, notices that the objects have a tendency to fly apart – and predicts that the objects will therefore continue to get farther and farther away from one another as time goes on. A competing form of theory then arises and says, no, it’s the exact opposite: the objects tend to move closer and closer together, and we can therefore predict that they will crash! Endless oscillations of theoretical production revolve around this contradiction – each of which can cite elements of “empirical” experience to prove its point. But they both miss the relation that makes it possible to explain the same empirical phenomena – but also to see why the predictions never seem to come true, no matter how “valid” is the observation that a specific “tendency” exists.

    For Marx, political economic theory suffers from a similar sort of problem: different theories pick up on bits and pieces of genuine social trends – and then extrapolate them wildly, without recognising the existence of countervailing trends that are part and parcel of the same social whole. What Marx tries to provide, whether successfully or not, is an approach that is more open to the multi-vocality of social experience – that recognises that the “same” social context can quite comfortably incorporate wildly contradictory tendencies, which interact and interfere with one another to generate complex non-linear patterns.

    His work is compatible with something like Hayek in the sense that there is an analysis of something like “microfoundations” – someone like Jon Elster picks up on this. But Marx’s “microfoundations” are hugely more complex than those analysed by the game theoretic Marxists. So someone like Elster can recognise that Marx might, in places, be picking up on “fallacies of composition” – situations where, say, an action might be perfectly “rational” on an individual level, but generate disastrous results on a collective level. And Marx will comment on phenomena like this. But he also comments on many other sorts of indirect and complicated interactions of collective practice that simply cannot be analysed properly in game-theoretic terms – one I’ve focussed on particularly is a hideously complex analysis of how everyday social experience primes the perception that humans might in some intangible way be equal to one another – something that figures in Marx’s account as an unintended aggregate effect of the constant regeneration of the requirement that human labour power be expended in commodity production. (Apologies if this sounds cryptic – it took me damn near 300 pages to spell the argument out in the thesis, so the example is probably not well-suited for comment-box discussion… 🙂 )

    I suspect I’m rambling badly – apologies – I finally went this evening to get the cold medicated, and the result is probably not beneficial for clear exposition… ;-P But the basic point is: I’m more sympathetic than many people who work on Marx might be to the notion that some sort of “microfoundations” analysis is integral to Marx’s work – it’s just that I think Marx leapfrogs any other sort of microfoundational analysis by a long ways, attempting, successfully or not, to analyse the way in which a motley collection of social practices, some of them quite ancient in provenance, fall into a configuration with a very historically specific aggregate result only recently.

    By picking apart the practices that generate the aggregate results, Marx is seeking the opposite of someone like Hayek: not to stand back in awe at the fact that order can unintentionally emerge spontaneously from our aggregate actions, but precisely to undermine this awe – this fetishistic mystification – by showing how the aggregate effect is produced.

    Once this is done, Marx hopes – perhaps over-optimistically – that we can begin exploring these various contradictory tendencies that are currently checking and balancing one another within capitalism’s complex ellipse. If we want particular tendencies to realise themselves more fully, we need to transform the elliptical orbit within which our collective practices are currently bound – reassembling and reconfiguring the accidental detritus of capitalist history into some new form, to tease out different possibilities for historical development.

    Ramble ramble ramble… When I’m not feverish, I promise it makes more sense… 🙂

  14. ktismatics Says:

    I finally noticed and read the Bensaid article linked in the post — at least in my comments I’ve not contradicted what had already been explained more clearly. And I see that I referred to NP as NB — sorry. Your exposition is clear if obviously too brief: if this is feverish rambling, maybe you shouldn’t take those pills.

    “By picking apart the practices that generate the aggregate results, Marx is seeking the opposite of someone like Hayek: not to stand back in awe at the fact that order can unintentionally emerge spontaneously from our aggregate actions, but precisely to undermine this awe – this fetishistic mystification – by showing how the aggregate effect is produced.”

    That makes great sense. Hayek always sounds so entranced by emergence, so committed to its workings not only economically but ethically and politically. “In a free society, the general good consists principally in the facilitation of the pursuit of unknown individual purposes” — this being the very first sentence of The Mirage of Social Justice. But Hayek is blind to, or refuses to recognize, the backflow of emergent systems in shaping the individual components that led to its emergence. I like this idea of elliptical orbits, of the oscillation between push and pull that keeps things from either exploding or imploding. Hayek believed in the explosive power of emergence while seeming to ignore the emergent system’s self-structuring, self-perpetuating, equilibrating, constraining properties.

    Returning briefly to Paul, I suspect that someone has done a weak-emergent analysis of the “miracle” of Christian subjectivity. Paul writers of transformation from the inside out, but more than once he enjoins his readers to “put on the new man” — as if the emergent Christian subjectivity exists somewhere outside the self and that one must step into it like a new set of clothes. Contemporary Western Christians tend to emphasize the bottom-up inner transformation, compatible with a Hayekian bottom-up emergence, rather than the collective subjectivity (some might call it false consciousness) of the putting-on procedure.

    Since Badiou regards emergent subjectivity as a rare and miraculous event, he’s fine with Pauline psychology. Surely in this he echoes Lacan, for whom the subject never develops from ego or imaginary or symbolic but is always an unprecedented and perhaps miraculous strong emergence of the Real. “God is unconscious,” waiting to break through into consciousness, and so on. But this gets us back also to the context of the discussion on Carl’s post, where ideas like Badiou’s and Lacan’s (and Meillassoux’s too, evidenty) can readily be adopted by “postmodern” Christians.

  15. duncan Says:

    God is unconsious

    oh that’s interesting – I’d never seen that before – shows how much I know about Lacan. But yes, I think there’s a definite echo – it’s interesting how widespread Lacan’s influence seems to be I think, it sometimes seems like every French theorist out there attended those seminars. And yes, if Lacan’s one of the canonical ‘pomos’ then it’s just one more thing suggesting there’s nothing so very incompatible between ‘pomo’ theory and Christianity. (Lacan uses Augustine all over the place doesn’t he, too?)

  16. duncan Says:

    Tom – re: the Comte again – I’ve had a gander, and I’m afraid I can’t find anything else. It looks like those three paragraphs really are the extent of his extant work. I feel a bit strange about that – like I’m one of those medieval scribes, who passed down the only know fragments from some masterpiece of antiquity, in the course of commenting on some unrelated local controversy. Interesting that such things happen in the digital age. But sorry – I don’t think there’s anything else Comte-related out there.

    best…


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