On Christian Essentialism, Structural Correspondences and Philosophical Companionships

Photo by EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA courtesy LA Times

It is quite possible to give detailed responses to all the questions that my learned friend Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has asked me. Nevertheless, I will only attempt to respond to those questions that I feel are in need of further clarifications and, ones that I feel are of importance, beyond the scope of our theoretical disagreements. I shall begin with the dispute apropos the place of Christianity, especially the Resurrection of Christ, in Badiou’s edifice, for it is, for me, the most important and controversial preliminary point before any serious discussion of Badiou can take place in Sri Lanka. I shall then move on to a brief discussion of Dayan’s reference to Agamben, for I take it to be a symptomatic example of Dayan’s appropriation of political philosophy including Badiou’s thought. And I shall conclude with some questions that, as far I am concerned, Dayan has not sufficiently dealt with, but are of crucial importance for a fruitful theoretical discussion on contemporary political philosophy.

Let me start with the burning question of Badiou’s appropriation of Christianity. Dayan writes: “I fear that Vangeesa has either misunderstood or underestimated Badiou’s own reading of St Paul and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as an Event.”

Now, I do not for a moment say that one cannot find in Badiou’s vast writings, constant references to Christianity, Saint Paul, Pascal, and similar theological figures and concepts, making them exemplary cases of this or that Badiouian notion. Nor do I claim that the same is true of the rapidly growing secondary literature on Badiou. In fact, this is not something limited to Badiou, but is common to almost all of Left wing political philosophy from Agamben to Zizek. There are two things, in my opinion, worth remembering when we are confronted by these thinkers, coming as we do from countries whose cultures are not predominantly Christian, but also whose societies are not predominantly secular. One may argue that these are obvious, or even more strongly, superficial readings. But I do not think so.

I think it is not insignificant, first of all, to remind ourselves repeatedly that these writers are all, one way or another, linked to European modernity, whose essential factor was the dethroning of religion – i.e. Christianity – from the position of the guarantor of truth and meaning to human existence. Simplifying things, we can say that these thinkers as well as the overwhelming majority of their intended readers do not believe that there is even a grain of truth in the Christian doctrine of a redemptive Trinity.

One of the results of this de-religionization of philosophy is that philosophers have become accustomed to take up their cultural heritage, appropriating it to serve their own ends, interpreting them and revising them to come up with unheard of readings. In the process, they leave highly provocative statements that, taken out of context, would only appear to be ridiculous to a non-religious reader. It is true that most of them are careful enough to remind their readers that they do not believe in these religious notions; as Badiou does in his book on Saint Paul, which I quoted last time. Badiou said very clearly, he does not believe in the resurrection of the Crucified, and he is merely using the Christian narrative as a fable. Yet, Dayan still has doubts that I may have ‘misunderstood or underestimated’ Badiou’s reading.

Responding to Dayan’s doubt is not difficult. Now, as is clear from the quote I have given in my first rejoinder, Badiou explicitly states that he is merely using this Christian narrative as a fable and he does not believe it actually happened. It is certainly not sufficient to quote Callinicos as Dayan does and quoting some provocative statements from Badiou of how Paul is the Lenin of the Universal Church is equally pointless. The essential question is: Does Dayan think that according to Badiou the resurrection of the Crucified is an event in the Badiouian sense or not? If the answer is the first, then we have only one conclusion: Badiou is a Christian! Should I conclude that Dayan does not understand the difference between a fable and a real story? Is Dayan suggesting that the October revolution, which is not a fable according to Badiou, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a fable, are equally events to Badiou? Is it not a sheer absurdity to say that according to Badiou’s theory of events, the most iconic event out of all the events is a fable?

What is significant, however, is the danger this Christianization of Badiou poses for those of us, including Dayan, who are attempting to introduce, discuss and engage with these thinkers in the Sri Lankan context, both politically and in the fields of art. One of the standard accusations that are held against us by the lazy conservatives, nationalists and patriotic pundits of all hues, is that these are, ultimately, ‘Western’ philosophers who are essentially trained to think according to ‘Christian thought’ and that their theories are based on and biased towards ‘their way of life’, incompatible with the essential destiny and ethos of the Sri Lankan – and by Sri Lankan they actually mean ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ – culture. The difficulty, however, is that, in the wake of all those postmodern and postcolonial critiques, we now know that no one can entirely exempt oneself from one’s history and the challenge is for the reader to extract the universal and eternal, from within the muddy water of the historical. The real danger of Dayan’s hasty conclusions is that it takes us away from this ‘universal’ that is fundamental for Badiou’s philosophy, and I would add, to philosophy in general.

On the other hand, I do not think that Badiou (along with many others) is entirely innocent here, with their endless flirtations with religious wordplay, and pointless ‘dialogues’ with theologians. This is why Dayan’s refusal to admit that the Christ-event is only a fable, can always be supported with an enormous number of Badiou-quotes referring to it as an event. Peter Hallward, one of the biggest authorities on Badiou in the world, once remarked, referring to Badiou’s book on Saint Paul and his constant reference to Christianity: “this is playing with fire”.

Consider, for example, Dayan’s following ambiguous passage, which I believe is extremely symptomatic of this dangerous tendency in contemporary thought:

“Vangeesa’s identification of the Event as defined by its occurrence in the outside world, is strikingly at variance with that of the philosopher who has engaged most generously with Badiou, namely Slavoj Zizek: “ Badiou is fully justified in insisting that —to use the term with its full theological weight— miracles do happen.”

Now, any attentive reader would understand that there is something wrong in the way Dayan understands this Zizek-qoute. It should be quite obvious that this quote does not disprove my argument that events are real occurrences in the outside world. When Jesus changed water in to wine, that water was actually changed, whether there was an observer to perceive it or not. Put in the terms of the old philosophical debate between materialism and idealism, water was changed in a material way. When Zizek writes ‘miracle do happen’, he is merely trying to emphasize the theological nature of the Badiouian notion of the event (this is a claim, I must add, that would not fare well with contemporary Badiouian scholarship but it is not an issue that concerns us here), not that it is not a real occurrence.

One must pay close attention to what Zizek says here. When he writes ‘to use the term [miracle] with its full theological weight’ what does that mean, first and foremost? It means that, according to Zizek, it is also possible to use it without its theological weight. We all know how often we hear the word ‘miracle’ in our day to day conversations, like when we say ‘that was a miraculous escape for the Sri Lankan Cricket team’? In those instances, we do not actually mean that there was a divine intervention, but just that it was an extremely rare occurrence, in terms of probability. When one adds the ‘theological weight’ to that word, that means, very simply that God interfered to stop the law of probability of the world. Badiou’s notion of the event, too, in a certain sense, is similar to a divine intervention – at least according to Zizek – insofar as an event is something that defies the range of possibilities in any given situation; it appears to be something impossible with regard to the range of possibilities in any given situation.

So, why does Dayan fail to understand this rather straightforward point and think it says something that disproves the materiality of the event. I believe this equivocation is caused by the extremely sensible nature of religious metaphors. At a first glance, a ‘miracle’ would appear as different from a ‘real occurrence’, because it carries with it that ‘theological weight’ referred by Zizek; but, Badiou, among many others, uses them precisely as metaphors for real events. This is the eternal danger of ‘playing with fire’. Anyone familiar with the old Marxian notion of ideology – and according to Marx religion is ideology par excellence – would know that ideologies are never simply false beliefs. They are very actual experiences, embodied in our material practices and social structures. As the philosopher who elaborated on a practical, engaging notion of truth Badiou must be aware of it more than anyone. Instead of admitting that our childhood religious memories were simply mistaken illusions it is much more easy and comfortable to think of them as ideas containing ‘deeper philosophical’ meanings. I believe that this is a much unexplored area and I am merely hoping that this would be an opening for an expanded discussion on this topic. With the advancement of information flows and the configuration of the world as a global market, for the first time in history, it is possible, for example, for someone in Sri Lanka to be in touch with contemporary French philosophy, in the same way someone living in France can. It is, I believe, a novel challenge to the philosopher who above all else seeks the universal and the eternal.

We are touching upon an issue that has far serious consequences than the theoretical dispute between Dayan and me. For it has almost become natural for us to think of European colonialism that began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and European enlightenment project in the wake of Galilean physics and post-Kantian philosophy, as two branches of a single process. Over the years, it has become clear to me that this is nothing more than a blanket generalization to avoid the difficult labor of engaging with the canonical modern thinkers. It is time now – to stick to my own discipline – that we gear up to assess the contributions of these great thinkers, from Kant to Badiou, with honest critical reflection they deserve and an important first step in this direction is to leave aside the cheap accusation that these thinkers are, ‘deep down, ultimately’, Christian thinkers. Dayan’s hasty conclusions about Badiou’s reflections on Paul are, in this regard, the other extreme to be avoided – to plead guilty to the crime of Christian colonialism when one is actually innocent.

Let me turn my attention now to what appears to be the more complicated question of Dayan’s reference to Agamben, for it is illuminating in more than one way. He writes:

“As it turns out, and contrary to Vangeesa’s effort to set me right, I am in exceedingly good philosophical company. He might wish to consider the fact that Giorgio Agamben sees more than a continuum (as I do) between Schmitt and Badiou and posits a structural correspondence: “Badiou’s thought is, from this perspective, a rigorous thought of the exception. His central category of the event corresponds to the structure of the exception.”

First of all, let me unravel how Agamben places Schmitt and Badiou, within a same narrative.

It is important to remember that our dispute is not concerning whether it is possible to discuss both Badiou and Schmitt in a single line of argument, but something much more precise. In his initial piece, Dayan wrote that the decision in the sense Carl Schmitt uses it is a prerequisite and a precursor for Badiou’s event. I argued that this is wrong and the event happens first and the decision of the faithful subject comes afterword.

Keeping this in mind, let us now return to Agamben. Within the bounds of this article, let me try to formulate what is, in my opinion, the most uncontestable of summaries of Agamben’s major work of political philosophy: “Homo Sacer”. Through his masterful analysis of the notion of ‘biopolitics’, borrowed from the work of Foucault, Agamben argues that what distinguishes modern political era is that, in it the line of demarcation between the socio-cultural life (what the Greeks called ‘bios’) and our utterly biological – ‘bare’ – life (Greek word ‘zeo’) becomes blurred and ultimately indistinguishable. This is the result of a process whereby the ‘state of exception’ becomes more and more the norm, making the biopolitical paradigm of our era the concentration camp. This is why the figure of Homo Sacer is important to Agamben. It’s a figure from ancient Roman law, where an individual, as punishment to a serious crime, is banished from the city. Afterword, he can be killed by anyone with impunity but he cannot be used in sacrificial rituals that require the taking of a life. In short Homo Sacer is a man stripped of his ‘bios’ that only possesses ‘zeo’. As it should be clear, the figure of the homo sacer reappears in the twentieth century concentration camps where the man is reduced to his bare life, stripped of all of the ‘human dignity’. Agamben’s thesis is that we are entering an epoch where the overwhelming majority of the world’s population are becoming virtual homines sacri – a thesis Zizek endorsed, in his typical sensationalism, claiming today “ultimately, we are all homo sacer” (Zizek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”, p100).

The cause of this ominous fate, to simplify things again, is that, according to Agamben, in modern politics, the state of emergency is becoming, more and more, the normal state of things and this makes it imperative for us to study the structure of this ‘state of exception’. This is why Carl Schmitt’s reflections on nature of the sovereign decision which declares the state of emergency are important for Agamben.

“All law is ‘situational law’. The sovereign creates and guarantees the situation as a whole in its totality. He has the monopoly over the final decision. Therein consists the essence of State sovereignty, which must therefore be properly juridically defined not as the monopoly to sanction or to rule but as the monopoly to decide, where the word ‘monopoly’ is used in a general sense that is still to be developed. The decision reveals the essence of State authority. Here the decision must be distinguished from the juridical regulation, and (to formulate it paradoxically) authority proves itself not to need law to create law… The exception is more interesting than the regular case. The latter proves nothing; the exception proves everything. The exception does not only confirm the rule; the rule as such lives off the exception alone”. (Carl Schmitt, quoted in Agamben, Homo Sacer, p 16)

This leads Agamben to explore the exact topological structure and the paradoxes involved in ‘exception’. What is an exception to a law? What is its position with regard to the law? It is both inside and outside the law simultaneously and in order to think this paradoxical nature where inside and outside is intertwined, like the structure of a Mobius strip, Agamben turns to Badiou’s use of set theory. Instead of making an attempt to summarize Badiou’s use of mathematics here, which simply requires too many technical details well beyond the scope of this essay, let me just state the relevant points, once again simplifying things considerably. Through the set theoretical distinction between the concepts of ‘inclusion’ and ‘belonging’, Badiou shows, to take up a political example, that certain social groups can belong to a particular situation but they are not included in it. To take Marx’s canonical example, the proletariat belong to the capitalist situation but they are not included in any of its ‘parts’ (parts like ‘those who go for evening walks at Independent Square’, ‘those who have cars’, ‘those who eat at KFC’ and so on). According to Badiou, an event can occur only within a social situation where there is a ‘set’ whose elements belong to that situation although they are not included in it. Simplifying things further, we can say that although they belong to the situation they are not recognized by the State as a legitimate part of that situation.

What interests Agamben in Badiou is this attempt to think of an element which is both inside and outside the same situation, at the same time. Let me finish the Agamben-quote that Dayan himself started, to clarify this:

“Badiou’s thought is, from this perspective, a rigorous thought of the exception. His central category of the event corresponds to the structure of the exception. Badiou defines the event as an element of a situation such that its membership in the situation is undecidable from the perspective of the situation. To the State, the event thus necessarily appears as an excrescence.” (Agamben, Homo Sacer, p 25, my emphasis).

Now, Dayan is correct in saying that there is a structural correspondence between Schmitt and Badiou, but what kind of a structural correspondence is it? For Schmitt, the sovereign stands both outside and inside the law. For Badiou the post evental subject stands both outside and inside the law. In the first case we have the sovereign state, while in the second we have those who oppose the state. To simplify things I am tempted here to put this in ‘Hollywoodian’ terms: in the first case we have (Agamben’s) Villain, in the second case we have (Badiou’s) Hero! I shall simply let the reader come to his/her own conclusion upon Dayan’s claim that “Giorgio Agamben sees more than a continuum (as I do) between Schmitt and Badiou and posits a structural correspondence”.

I shall end my response to Dayan with a final critical remark. What interests me is the exact status of Dayan’s use of these key contemporary thinkers, whose ‘exceedingly good philosophical company’ he likes to enjoy. I am not disrespecting Dayan’s attempt to use these important thinkers in his political analyses: in a country where what passes as ‘political analysis’, by and large, oscillates between a liberal legalism and a dogmatic Marxism, Dayan should be endorsed for his attempt to bring contemporary political philosophy back in to the negotiation table.

But my only fear is that by doing so Dayan is cherry picking some ideas of these thinkers as mere decorations for his own political analyses without engaging with the political positions advanced by these thinkers. How can Dayan ignore the fact that Agamben, through his ideas, is fighting a fierce battle over, what he sees as the growing excessive power of state sovereigns? Does Dayan think that the Sri Lankan State is by no means a part of this general tendency that Agamben notices, and in no respect qualifies as a ‘state of exception’? Is it not important to consider the possibility of applying the figure of homo sacer to some, if not all, in the Sri Lankan society? Is Dayan simply going to say he disagrees with Agamben here too? If so, then at what point does he agree with Agamben?

Similarly, and most importantly I am yet to see how Dayan clarifies at what point is he a Badiouian and how. Thus, after Dayan claimed that the Sri Lankan state’s military victory over the tigers is a neo-Badiouian event this is how he has responded to my question as per this claim:

“Vangeesa has been a little careless in his reading or rendition—which undermines his argument to a considerable extent. Contrary to his version, I did not refer to the Sri Lankan military victory of May 2009 as “a Badiouian Event”, but as precisely a “neo-Badiouian Event”, which implies a creative extension/application”

I admit that Dayan did not refer to the military victory as a Badiouian event tout court, and he did say that it is a neo-Badiouian event. However, the onus is on Dayan’s part to explain which part of that state’s military victory makes it neo-Badiouian event, when an event, for Badiou, is something that happens against the order of the state? Simply stating that it is a “creative extension/application” of Badiou’s notion, does not make it clear what warrants that interpretation. Is Dayan suggesting that because the military victory is a drastic change in Sri Lankan politics, it amounts to an event in a Badiouian sense? Dayan needs to tell us the Badiouian part in this neo-Badiouian event.

As I was finalizing my response to Dayan, I came across his latest article defending the state’s military victory celebrations: “A Response to the Critiques of the Victory Celebrations”. And his initial justification of the celebrations immediately reminded me of a powerful line from the Introduction to Badiou’s book “In Praise of Love”. If there is any doubt that Dayan’s political position is one of complete opposite to that of Badiou’s, I think this will resolve it for once and for all. Let me first quote Dayan:

“July [14th], Bastille Day is France’s National Day. That is of course the day that the prison, the Bastille was stormed. In other words, France marks as its National Day, the day that the Revolution triumphed. Though the storming of the Bastille was itself relatively bloodless, the Revolution was a very violent civil conflict which had an even bloodier aftermath. Bastille Day July [14th] is celebrated and not only by receptions. As I have been privileged to witness during my tenure as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France, it is marked by a most impressive display of military might, culminating in parachute drops and a spectacular fly past by advanced military aircraft of all categories.”

Now compare this with the following passage from Badiou where he explains, in his own unique polemical style, why he agreed to have a public dialogue, in France, with Nicolas Truong on the theme of love:

“Besides, it was going to be held on 14 July (2008) and I was excited by the idea of celebrating love, a cosmopolitan, subversive, sexual energy that transgresses frontiers and social status at a time normally devoted to the Army, the Nation and the State” (Badiou, “In Praise of Love”, p2).

I do not believe we need to discuss this any further – although Dayan claims that he enjoys the ‘philosophical company’ of thinkers like Badiou and Agamben, it should be clear by now that he is better off considering them as ‘philosophical opponents or enemies’ of his own political positions. For more than anything, it is abundantly clear that Badiou – who keeps his distance from the celebrations devoted to the Army, the Nation, and the State – would certainly not consider Dayan as a philosophical companion.

Nor, I am sorry to say, would Agamben.

Note: This response was delayed until the 19th of May at the request of the Editor of Groundviews.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.

  • Fitzpatrick

    Dayan being exposed on all sides. As Kalana Senaratne tweeted, thankfully SL has serious phil. students !!!!

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    A note to let readers and Vangeesa know that I’ve exercised my right of reply and just sent in my (concluding) rejoinder to the Editor, GV.