Ward Blanton: Paula Versus the New Philosophers, or, Incident in Beijing

The Incident at Antioch

This week Columbia University Press goes Badiou! Our featured books are The Incident at Antioch/L’Incident d’Antioche: A Tragedy in Three Acts / Tragédie en trois actes and Plato’s Republic by Alain Badiou, both translated by Susan Spitzer with introductions by Kenneth Reinhard. In today’s post, Ward Blanton discusses the importance of The Incident at Antioch in “rethinking … those old, old questions about ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ which seem to lodge so naturally around the figure of Paul.”

Professor Blanton is a Reader in Biblical Cultures & European Thought in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent. Among other books and collections, he spearheaded Columbia’s translation of Stanislas Breton’s A Radical Philosophy of Saint Paul. His next book, A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life, is in press with Columbia’s series Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture.

Paula Versus the New Philosophers, or, Incident in Beijing

Ward Blanton, University of Kent

I’m not sure whether others have been struck by some of the public interactions of Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley, interactions which invariably start to circulate around the question of whether or how political creation relates to political disappointment. The more the matter is tabled the more memory of older conflicts—for and against Kant, for and against Levinas, or for and against a Lutheran inflection of newness and identity within the Pauline legacy—begin to churn toward the surface. I confess I like such moments as we continue to struggle with how we imagine or conceptualize the political—as we speculate on our own political chances. As if to stir gently what has always for me been a pleasing pot, I could begin by naming a disappointment I have undergone in relation to that remarkable play, The Incident at Antioch. Above all, I was sorry when I realized we couldn’t include portions of it in our Paul and the Philosophers (Fordham, 2013). True enough, it didn’t make any sense to publish a short selection of Susan Spitzer’s beautiful translation at the very moment that the entire play would become available… but for my disappointment logistics are generally beside the point entirely! In truth, I was disappointed that I would no longer have a great excuse to say there what I really wanted to say about Badiou’s play, namely, that I think The Incident at Antioch is one of the most important contemporary spurs for a rethinking of those old, old questions about ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ which seem to lodge so naturally around the figure of Paul.

I should add that, as a provocation to rework inherited limits of “religion” or the “secular” or “philosophy” or the “biblical,” I find the Incident a much more profound contribution than Badiou’s (also important) book, Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism. Just consider the ways we cannot at all hear Badiou’s 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 complexity seems to me a crucial theoretical and comparative point. 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’), this mapping moreover bearing 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. Of course, to say this is not at all 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’.

So, fairness aside, let’s instead just blurt it out: as an intervention into the ongoing machinations of the Pauline legacy, compared to Saint Paul the Incident is much richer, much more powerful, is it not? After all, in the Saint Paul book there is no comparable complexity around the Paul(a)ine moment as we get it so wonderfully in the play. For example, there is in Saint Paul 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.

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 about Saint Paul (forthcoming with Verso).

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. (No wonder that I’m also very moved, and for the same reasons, by Badiou’s complete ‘working over’ of Plato’s Republic.)

Above all, however, I would like to lodge a related modest hope for this remarkable piece of theater. Over the years I have been lucky enough to be part of discussion around some of the initial readings, and then stagings, of the English translation of the play. But perhaps it was only when I sat for these conversations in Copenhagen and Newcastle, Australia alongside Roland Boer and also Yang Huilin and Geng Youzhang of Renmin University in Beijing that my thinking about the ‘stage’ of this text began to find, strangely, its proper home. Together we began to wonder about how to grasp the stakes of Paula’s rewiring of a Parisian Maoism and her (and perhaps Badiou’s) becoming-apostle in this act of political thought. During my conversations with Chinese colleagues, especially, I started to fall out of the grip of some of my favorite tales (secular European philosophy’s peculiar obsession with biblical touchstones; a ‘Western’ repetition compulsion which ‘scripturalizes’ radical moments of political transformation, etc). In their place I started to wonder about what my updated ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ stories would indicate when thought not from Paris or Berlin or London—but rather from Beijing.

In this light I started to take more seriously the way Badiou’s biblicization of his own philosophy of difference and event was itself competing against other gestures toward the biblical which were themselves articulating very different ways of reworking a European understanding of Mao, but also very different ways of grasping the significance of ’68. Those who recognize the specific names, or the general conflict surrounding the French “new philosophers,” will not be surprised when I say that Badiou’s Paula is not the Paul of Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambet (cf. L’Ange) or the Paul—or Lacan—of Bernard Sichère (cf. Le Moment lacanien and Le jour est proche). Nor is Paula the philosophical “testament” of Bernard-Henri Lévy (cf. The Testament of God; Left in Dark Times). But this is all to say that the struggle to name the significance of European Maoist hopes after ’68 was also a struggle to name the significance of the biblical. The implications of this intertwining of struggles have still not been deeply explore—above all because we continue to imagine that some kind of identity politics could ultimately ground our discussions (as if nomenclature like ‘religious tradition’ or ‘European secularists’ or ‘communists’ were capable of fixing the limits or predicting the movement of these stories).

So, we thought, in order to make this thought even clearer, what if we enacted a quasi-Paulinist theoretical intervention of our own, this time displacing not Jerusalem for Antioch but the cities of our earlier European conversations for Beijing and Shanghai? Ah, what a liberation to forget for a while discussions of the secular, philosophical atheism, European “returns” of religion, or motifs of the “post-secular”, all our tried and true (and overly rehearsed) topoi of European and North American discussion which seem necessarily foreign (and often inconsequential) there!

Our guess for the most likely academic department to house this theoretical discussion around a performance of The Incident at Antioch? Naturally, a Chinese department for the study of “Marxism Abroad.”

To that event we now look forward.

1 Response

  1. Very stimulating to read of the current debate on Paul from various fields and scholars. Is Paul still a “saint”? Is he still “Paul”? Those are the questions I have in 2013 after I edited the book “From Rome to Beijing?” on Jewett’s hermeneia commentary on Romans. The tentative answers I have is quite “Chinese”–more than a saint and more than Paul.

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