Lunch with Billy Collins & Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek & Billy Collins

Slavoj Zizek & Billy Collins

This afternoon Dr. Denise Cummings, Dr. Julian Chambliss and I had lunch with the poet Billy Collins and the philosopher Slavoj Zizek at the Winter Park Institute.  The conversation was fast and furious and ranged from the role and function of the poet and philosopher, to the origin of language and music and from politics in Cuba to the Gulags in Russia.  Overall it was a very enjoyable and stimulating conversation.  Thanks to Dr. Gail Sinclair for arranging this for us.

At one point, Slavoj brought up the idea of “genius.”  And then he asked Billy:  “What kind of genius are you?”  Are you like Bach who was a genius, no doubt, but nevertheless diligently worked at perfecting his gift from 9-5 everyday?  Or are you like Mozart who simply showed up with no work and, viola….  Or finally are you like Beethoven whose genius alighted from the result of a fundamental internal struggle.

Zizek's "Silhouette"

Zizek's "Silhouette"

Billy’s response was, (and I’m paraphrasing)… “I enjoy writing because it flows out of me and gives me deep satisfaction.”  We concluded, Billy’s “genius” must be like Mozart’s then.  Whereas Slavoj’s genius is like the origin of language: it is a direct result of total failures that give birth to insights that simply cannot appear ad hoc, but only emerges out of the appearances of the world precisely by getting it wrong.  Thus, we must conclude with the most vulgar form of homological analysis.

It was a good time!

From Left to Right:  Julian, Billy, Me, Denise, and Slavoj

From Left to Right: Julian, Billy, Me, Denise, and Slavoj

On Paul–Ward Blanton & Creston Davis

ON PAUL IN RECENT PHILOSOPHY[1]

The Conversion of St. Paul

The Conversion of St. Paul

On the face of it, it seems really bizarre for atheist philosophers to be obsessed with Paul.  Indeed, like Hegel these philosophers are particularly interested in Pauline experiences or proclamations of time, subjectivity, and above all the cataclysmic event that transforms the normal (fake “universal”) logic of the world.  Moreover, like these earlier thinkers, more recent philosophers have wondered whether these Pauline topics may be formalized, decontextualized, or abstracted in order to provide exemplary models not of a specifically religious experience (in the Protestant Liberal sense) so much as a model of time, subjectivity, and the political event.

There are three main figures responsible for the return of Pauline motifs within contemporary continental philosophy: Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek.[2]

Badiou--by The Dooper

Badiou--by The Dooper

For Badiou, Paul is a perfect model or mouthpiece by which to explicate Badiou’s entire philosophical system and political hopes.  In Badiou’s formalizing version of Paul, the apostle is one who remains faithful to the unprovable (and properly speaking, impossible) event of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, allowing this event to call into existence a communal boundaries deform traditional identitarian limits.  Precisely because it undoes these usual identitarian boundaries (“in Christ is neither Jew nor Greek”), the apostolic proclamation constitutes an open-ended address whose potential is not reducible to identity politics.  What’s more, this rupture that the Christ Event announces cannot be accounted for by the means of the accepted coordinates of the world.  The Incarnation literally shocks the world off kilter the wake of which resists total comprehension.

Over against Badiou’s Paul, Giorgio Agamben tries to show that Paul does not function as the purveyer of a universalistic address over against ethnic particularity.  Rather, Paul opposes a simple distinction between Jew and Greek to a more fundamental distinction between flesh and spirit.  As this distinction is more fundamental, however, it cuts across (and divides once more) the distinction between Jew and Greek.  What follows from this model is a whole series of divisions that can never fully catalog the Pauline remainder (or “remnant”) that itself threatens to undo all ethnic distinctions and all universalistic overcoming of ethnic particularity.  In a shrewd reading of 1 Corinthians and Romans, Agamben links this notion of the Pauline remainder to the way Christ’s “remnant” renders all categories of law inoperative.

agambenIn this fashion, the profound thrust of the Pauline legacy is not so much a question of the undoing of ethnic law that leads to the introduction to a new revolutionary order of Love, as it was in Badiou.  Rather the profundity of the Pauline legacy, Agamben suggests, is to proclaim a deadlock or suspension of the dialectic between law and guilt that renders the dialectic inoperative.

These two versions of Paul are important to understand not only because each supports a very different ethico-political project:  for Badiou the system is defined by its revolutionary possibility, whereas for Agamben, Paul embodies a “postmodern” logic of illimitable differance whereby truth is sacrificed for political indifference.  One might even risk the formulation that, in Badiou’s system, Paul becomes a revolutionary hero, while, in Agamben’s, Paul becomes a liberal ironist.

Zizek

Zizek

Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of Paul introduces a twist:  For Žižek, Paul is the revolutionary figure, but instead of offering the truth of the world in Christ’s resurrection, that “truth” is now only carried on by the believers, the Church.  Reading Paul in a Hegelian tradition of the death of God, Žižek finds in Paul a system where God, in Christ, truly dies on the cross, with the power of resurrected life appearing only in that community that organizes itself around this divine death.  Thus, Christianity is anything but a simple overcoming of death, this limitation remaining fully intact for Žižek’s Paul.  Pauline Christianity is left to become that community fully committed to a truth that can never arrive (as if God had not died or the messiah fallen into Roman hands), but that nevertheless perpetually haunts every culture as an excess that it desires to attain.  In political terms, it is this kind of Christianity, whose potential Žižek identities with the position of the psychoanalytic critic of culture, is neither traditionally Leftist nor content with the idea that contemporary global capitalism represents humanity’s attainment of a kind of messianic end of history.  Zizek’s idea of St. Paul will be fully expressed in the forthcoming book that he co-wrote with Creston Davis & John Milbank (Brazos Press).

From one of Christianity’s principal founding figures, three different philosophical and political perspectives emerge:  revolution, political indifference, and an endless journey for the Real that remains impossible to realize.   The encounter with this principal figure by secular philosophers invites an engagement with contemporary Christian theology, not only because these new “Pauls” frequently challenge what passes for a contemporary Christian version of Paul, but also because it challenges Christianity to take up some of the radical implications of this founding Christian thinker.  In the writings of these thinkers, after all, Paul functions as a kind of last ditch effort to imagine a political “Event” that does what traditional Leftist philosophy can do no longer, ground a break with the logic of global capitalism.  The sheer weight of what one is tempted to call faith in Pauline thought, as it drives forward these ostensibly secular receptions of the Christian legacy, generates significant paradoxes.  Who is on the inside or outside of  Christian identity here?  What does it mean for contemporary Christianity that some of the most searching, not to mention theoretically and politically relevant, readings of its texts are thus arising from thinkers who designate themselves to be “outside” of this tradition?  Is Christianity experiencing, in short, a Pauline moment of its own, when the radical implications of a religious tradition seem intolerable to most of the religious community itself, evoking from that community a disavowal of those who, unexpectedly, become fascinated with these same implications?

Ward Blanton is Lecture in New Testament Studies at the University Glasgow and the author of the award winning book Displacing Christian Origins: Philosophy, Secularity and the New Testament published by the University of Chicago Press.

Creston Davis is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religion at Rollins College.  He has co-written a book on Paul with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek forthcoming with Brazos Press.


[1] This post is informed by Eleanor Kaufman’s recent arguments about Badiou and Agamben and Paul in her article, The Saturday of Messianic Time.  South Atlantic Quarterly Winter 2008.

[2] Mary-Jane Rubinstein writes about Nancy “he is the first significant post-Heideggerian to reopen the question of ontology (rather than defer to ethics, or to literature, or to deferral), and that he does so by retrieving what he thinks to be a strand of thinking that Heidegger opened up only to cover over. That is, he retrieves the Mitsein of the first sections of Being and Time over against the purportedly “nonrelational” being-toward-death with which it ultimately rests. In a different context, one could see Nancy as reviving the ancient Madhyamika teaching of sunyata (emptiness) and pratitya-samutpada (codependent origination): the inessentiality of all that is amounts to their irreducible interrelation.”