Badiou and Žižek on Paul and Perversity

Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, St Paul (c.1515)

I always disliked St Paul, earlier Saul the Pharisee, later the Apostle to the Gentiles, because I thought he was a born-again, misogynist/misosomatic technocrat (master of the pen and the sword), the systematizer and propagandist of early Christianity. But Badiou and Žižek see him differently.

Here I adapt Carl Packman, “The Perverse Core of Christianity,” TPM [The Philosophers’ Magazine] 48 (1 Mar. 2010) . . .


For Badiou, “Paul is the poet-thinker of the event . . . as well as [the epitome of] the militant figure.” He is the thinker of “universal singularity” (the “universal subject”), of a universalism that shatters the paternal (or master/slave) discourses of

  • the logos [reason] of the Greeks (characterized by wisdom, the philosopher and cosmic order) and
  • the law in Judaism (characterized by the sign, the prophet and exceptionalism).

This results in a universalism that is a filial (or co-worker) discourse of egalitarianism that respects difference, i.e.,

  • grace in Christianity (characterized by love, the apostle and subjective fidelity, i.e., declaration, universalization, forcing), which appears to the rational Greeks as irrational and to the Jewish authorities as weak.
(There is a fourth quasi-discourse:
  • the miraculous in mysticism [characterized by ineffability, glorification and rapture].)

There are four cardinal qualities of the truth of Christianity (see Peter Hallward):

  1. it is evental, i.e., “The Christian subject does not pre-exist the event he declares (the resurrection)”—it doesn’t matter who they were previously (14);
  2. it is “entirely subjective,” a matter of pure conviction not conformity to cosmic order or law (ibid.);
  3. it is not an illumination but a process requiring faith (“conviction”), hope (“certainty”) and charity (“love”) (91);
  4. it is “indifferent to the situation,” i.e. the world as it is, i.e. the Roman state or the Jewish religion, because it springs from a moment of grace (15).

In his conversion and practice, Paul exhibits “the entirely human connection . . . between the general idea of a rupture, an overturning, and that of a thought-practice that is this rupture’s subjective materiality.” And he offers us a new “militant figure” to succeed the “party militant” of Bolshevism, the Lenin to Christ’s Marx (2).

For Badiou, then, the advent or “event” of Pauline Christianity overturns Greek philosophy/reason and Jewish prophecy/law.

For Žižek, however, Jewish law serves as the superego of Christianity:

  1. not its conscience or moral ideal à la Freud (das Über-ich: a paternal or, more loosely, parental introject [Freud 1923b, 30-31]), but
  2. its injunction to transgress à la Lacan (le surmoi: “at one and the same time the Law and its destruction”—or “speech itself, the commandment of law, [and] the You must, which is speech deprived of all its meaning” [Lacan 1953-54 (Seminar 1), 102], perverse, because its rules invite rule-breaking): “Nothing forces anyone to enjoy [jouir] except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance—Enjoy [Jouez]!” (Lacan 1972-73 [Seminar XX], 3).

(For Lacan’s refinement of Freud’s ambiguous trio of ideal-ego [how I want to be seen; the imaginary little other], Ego-Ideal [whose gaze I’m trying to impress with my ideal-ego; the symbolic big Other] and superego (in whose eyes I am more guilty the more I try to prove my innocence; the Real), see Žižek’s “How to Read Lacan.” The Ego-Ideal forces us to betray the “law of desire” [Enjoy!] by adopting the “reasonable” demands of the existing socio-symbolic order; the superego pressures us to admit we are guilty of betraying the “law of desire” [Enjoy!].)

Jewish law—the law against sin that creates sin—is thus the “perverse core of Christianity,” to cite the subtitle of Žižek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf (2003), a necessary and constitutive element of Christianity. The key passage in The Monstrosity of Christ is pp. 270-75, where Žižek explains, via Badiou’s reading of St Paul, how “Christianity ‘accomplished/fulfilled’ the Jewish Law: not by supplementing it with the dimension of love, but by fully realizing the Law itself” (271). And Paul is the vanishing mediator: he marks “the violent gesture of positing [Christianity]” from within the Jewish tradition; what is repressed in Christianity is “not so much its Jewish roots, but, rather, the break itself, the true location of Christianity’s rupture with Judaism” (Puppet 10).

Viz., the inauguration of a theological system that Žižek calls “material theology” . . .

Law, Judaism (and idealism); the “masculine”: the universal/All and its exception

The subject of Law is “caught in the self-destructive vicious cycle of sin [the “constitutive exception”] and Law [“the All”] in which one pole engenders its opposite”: “I want to follow Law, and I end up in sin” (270; see Romans 7.14-24). There is no real gap between Law and sin; they are indistinct and mediated.

And, likewise, God is “a monstrosity,” i.e. “everything obeys natural causality [the All]—with the exception of God, the central Mystery [the “constitutive exception”],” “the unexplainable X who enables us to explain everything else” (88). (When he uses “monstrosity,” Žižek has in mind the Latin etymology: monstrum, “monster, omen, sign,” from the root monere, “to warn.”)

All is order and reason but God.

Love, Christianity (and materialism); the “feminine”: the multiversal/not-All that is without exception

Leo Vuyk’s Raspberry Multiverse

But the subject can break out of this cycle through love, or rather, when they truly experience the gap between Law and love. Paradoxically, “Love . . . articulates itself as the stance of total immersion in the Law.” Law loses its dominance over them “the moment [they] renounce [their] attachment to the pathological agalma [Gk “icon,” i.e., ideal-ego] deep within [themselves], the notion that there is deep inside [them] some precious treasure which can only be loved and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law” (271). Law and love are distinct and unmediated. “Life is sin when submitted to Law, and love is pure life extracted from the domain of Law” (273; see Romans 7.1-4).

And, thereby, God is “overwhelmed by the overflowing miracle of his Creation,” i.e., “everything, every small thing that is, is a miraculous exception” and “the ‘totality’ of rational causal order itself [the apparent All] . . . is ‘irrational,’ non-All” (88).

Not all is order and reason.

Christianity is not the closed system of Law and sin it seems; it is an open “system” (that, not unexpectedly, mirrors the mature ontology of Lacan, which, not unexpectedly, reflects his sexology, in particular his view of women).

See also
  • Žižek on Christians’ debt to Christ in “‘Father, Why Did You Forsake Me?'” from On Belief (2001), and on Badiou’s reading of St Paul in “The Politics of Truth, or, Alain Badiou as a Reader of St Paul” from The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology (1999).

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