(Christian) theology as mathesis universalis

The Spinozist heresy is to have violated the hierarchy of the Aristotelian categories: God is not one being among many but Being itself. But there is more than one way to blur the ontological difference, i.e., as many ways as there are to count. There is, for example, the dialectic of the one and the nothing in Neoplatonic mathematics by which infinite progression telescopes to the one. It was the Christians, however, who taught us how to count directly from one to three: “we do not say that union is begotten from oneness or from equality of oneness, since union is not from oneness either through repetition or through multiplication. And although equality of oneness is begotten from oneness and although union proceeds from both [of these], nevertheless oneness, equality of oneness, and the union proceeding from both are one and the same thing …” (Cusanus).

The trinity is not only an ontological but a mathematical mystery: the simplicity and unicity of God is also the unicity of order. God is not only the infinite geometer, according to Plutarch, but infinitely arithmetizes; creation proceeds not from the word but from the number. “Number was the principal exemplar in the mind of the creator”, Boethius says (long before Leibniz’ “divine mathematician”), which is in itself a substance to which no other substance is joined (which is thus how number is then the measure of all things but not of itself). The echoes of Neoplatonic mathematics are clear: the unity of a being is at once its limit.

Cusanus gives us a clue to the passage from the ontological to the mathematical: “God is the being of things; for He is the Form of things and, hence, is also being”. For Plotinus, being consists of emanation from the one. Cusanus, however, following Thierry of Chartes (who was himself inspired by Boethius), introduces the concept of the fold into philosophy and mathematics:

a point is the enfolding of a line as oneness is the enfolding of a number. For anywhere in a line is found nothing but a point, even as in number there is nowhere found anything but oneness … Movement is the unfolding of rest, because in movement there is found nothing but rest. Similarly, the now is unfolded by way of time, because in time there is found nothing but the now.

All of these are images of the enfoldings of the Infinite Simplicity; in other words, Cusanus explains divine simplicity as nothing other than the enfolding of all things. Since, moreover, divine simplicity is the infinite mind, such that the thought of the divine mind is the creation of all things, our thought is an image of the eternal unfolding, hence guaranteeing the unity of thought and being.

The fold places multiplicity at the heart of being such that “God is so one that He is, actually, everything which is”. Cusanus is explicit in denying that oneness is number, “for number, which can be comparatively greater, cannot at all be either an unqualifiedly minimum or an unqualifiedly maximum. Rather, oneness is the beginning of all number, because it is the minimum; and it is the end of all number, because it is the maximum”. This proposition supports the paradoxes of De Docta Ignorantia: the coincidence of the absolute maximum and minimum and the assertion that “if there were an infinite line, it would be a straight line, a triangle, a circle, and a sphere” (so too Cusanus invokes an image of the divine trinity as a triangle whose angles are all right angles). More importantly, like Conway’s notion of the “intimate presence” of God to all creatures (“without any increase” in their being), the union of oneness and multiplicity folds all things in the divine without reducing being to the being of the divine (God is not-other). Against the Aristotelian convertibility of being and unity, then, Platonism in mathematics asserts not the being of number but the subordination of being to number. “The whole of nature is akin” (Meno 81d) only if the being of beings proceeds from the equality of one to one.

The dirty (big) secret of capital

1. In the Confessions, Rousseau famously describes his secret desire as a child of eight for the punishment given to him by a nursemaid, whose hand “determined my tastes, my desires, my passions, myself for the rest of my life” and that when he entered puberty, “tormented for a long time without knowing by what, I devoured beautiful women with an ardent eye; solely to make use of them in my fashion, and to make so many Mlle Lamberciers out of them”. After the first instance, Rousseau “required all the truth of that affection [for Mme. Lambercier] and all my natural goodness to keep me from seeking the repetition of the same treatment by deserving it: for I had found in the suffering, even in the shame, an admixture of sensuality which had left me with more desire than fear to experience it a second time from the same hand”. The spanking would only occur one other time, after which Rousseau and his brother, who had previously slept in her room, were sent to sleep in a separate room, the honor of which he “could very well have dispensed” but, nevertheless, was regretfully that of “being treated by her as a big boy”.

Rousseau’s infatuation with older women would continue into his teenage years when, at about the age of sixteen or seventeen, inflamed by desire and fantasies of women, and yet unwilling to act, he would instead skulk in “dark alleys [and] hidden nooks where I could expose myself from afar to persons of the opposite sex”. However, Rousseau immediately notes that he “would not dream” of flashing them the “obscene object”; rather, they saw “the ridiculous object”, which had been spanked as a child, and “the foolish pleasure I had in displaying it to their eyes cannot be described. There was only one step to take from that to feeling the desired treatment, and I do not doubt that some bold one would have given me this amusement while passing by, if I had had the audacity to wait” (one can only imagine Rousseau giggling and scurrying away).

Rousseau wants for no audacity in these confessions, admitting that the memory of pissing into the cooking pot of a neighbor while she was at church as a child “still makes me laugh”. Rousseau understands that, as Foucault argues, those who enjoin us to confess “what one is and what one does … what one is thinking and what one thinks he is not thinking—are [not] speaking to us of freedom”. Unlike the priestly confession, however, Rousseau’s confessions lack the sacramental seal of shame and humility and, thus, the “shimmering mirage” (Foucault) of the truth between the confessor’s words. There are only the words and a defiant smirk; Rousseau never becomes “the subject of the statement” to one who prescribes the ritual of confession and who is thus liberated by it (compare, for example, the objections to the misunderstandings of his work in the Reveries and Dialogues). Rousseau, of course, was fully aware of the dialectic of liberation and subjection (e.g., in the famous statement of bondage in The Social Contract) and affirms their identity-in-difference by his insistence that the truth of his confessions lies not in what is meant by his words but simply in what is said (“I have nothing to hide”).

2. In an essay made famous by Auerbach, Montaigne admits that “I very rarely repent, and that my conscience is satisfied with itself, not as the conscience of an angel, or that of a horse, but as the conscience of a man”. The angel’s will is immovable, Aquinas says, and so the virtues that satisfy us would be of disinterest to a higher nature. Sin, “which is lodged in us as in its own proper habitation” thus admits of no true repentance: “one may disown and retract the vices that surprise us, and to which we are hurried by passions; but those which be a long habit are rooted in a strong and vigorous will are not subject to contradiction [and thus no repentance]. Repentance is no other but a recanting of the will and an opposition to our fancies, which lead us which way they please” (emphasis added). Thus the true moral dictate is not that of repentance but sincerity, particularly in the face of the contingencies of our nature and our fate. We cannot reveal ourselves in our essential truth:

I cannot fix my object; ‘tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness … I do not paint its being, I paint its passage … I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune but also by intention. ‘Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations: so it is that I may peradventure contradict myself, but, as Demades said, I never contradict the truth. Could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve: but it is always learning and making trial [emphases added].

The self-representation that Montaigne offers – as a representation of the human condition or “my universal being” – therefore admits of no “inner” truth whose general form is inaccessible to others. That which is admired or reviled of our public semblance is of less consequence than the mundane habits of our private life (no one is a hero to the chambermaid, Montaigne observes). The truth of a life lies not in its honors, deeds, or ideals – and much less in its approbations and validations – in short, not in its truth but in its inanity. The most for which one can hope is not rightness nor redemption but the sincerity of speaking of one’s “ill-fashioned” nature that, “if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is but that’s past recalling”, i.e., not from the regret of what might have been but the tranquility of an ordinary life.

3. What Montaigne never saw, however, are the conditions of modern life that not only generate the compulsory demands of truth but the structures that render the most ordinary truths about ourselves unspeakable and simultaneously alienating while expressing perhaps the fundamental truth of capital.

Lazzarato has described the asignifying semiotics of the economy that “act on things. They connect an organ, a system of perception, an intellectual activity, and so on, directly to a machine, procedures, and signs, bypassing the representations of a subject … Stock market indicies, unemployment statistics, scientific diagrams and functions, and computer languages produce neither discourses nor narratives” and act directly on the material flows that comprise the fundamental ontology of capital, bypassing the classical subjects of knowledge or labor. Lazzarato’s analysis thus indicates that to grasp the truth of capital we must look neither to its meaning or its content (e.g., in alienation) but to its form:

what matters to capitalism is controlling the asignifying semiotic apparatuses (economic, scientific, technical, stock-market, etc.) through which it aims to depoliticize and depersonalize power relations. The strength of asignifying semiotics lies in the fact that, on the one hand, they are forces of ‘automatic’ evaluation and measurement and, on the other hand, they unite and make ‘formally’ equivalent heterogeneous spheres of asymmetrical force and power by integrating them into and rationalizing them for economic accumulation.

Individuals are thus de-subjectivized and dissolved by these apparatuses; “if our societies are no longer based on individuals, they are not based on language either” (as Nietzsche observed, we have rid ourselves of neither God nor our selves because we still believe in grammar).

Lazzarato’s insight can be generalized: the autonomy of capital from the individual is at once ontological, semiotic, and logical. This truth of capital is one that can be neither represented nor spoken in the language of capitalism except through the cultural (hence “unofficial”) prohibitions on revealing the most ordinary and ubiquitous facts about ourselves. We are enjoined, for example, never to ask what someone else makes nor to volunteer that information; we are compelled to hide the truth. Of course, this practice serves familiar bourgeois interests of management and preserves the importance of pecuniary conspicuousness described by Veblen. But, more than that, this fact about ourselves can only be expressed as both a confession but also as a penitence, given that no matter what our answer, we must face the shame that it is insufficient or the guilt that it is too much. We can never give a right answer since, of course, the truth that we are obliged to reveal is not a truth about us at all; it is a truth about the indifference of capital to the value of a human life, which cannot be expressed by capitalism and yet that must be constructed as the only truth about the individual that matters (“what do you do?”), since it is the only truth that can be encoded into the signifying apparatuses of its machines. As Foucault observed, rather than being a rebellion against the repressive demand to stay silent, our confession produces the structures of power that render the truth unspeakable in the first place. The intolerable presumption of capital is that it foists its secret upon us while demanding at every turn that we wear it on our sleeves; unlike Rousseau, however, we do not have the luxury of insolence.

Democratic politics at the limit of liberalism

1. Following the Kantian formulation of the idea of moral freedom, after A Theory of Justice, in Rawls’ considerations of the properly political (i.e., non-metaphysical) conception of justice, we are faced with what we might call the fact of pluralism: “the diversity of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical condition that may soon pass away … it is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy”. This diversity is both the presupposition and the end of liberal politics. The diversity consists not of antagonisms to be overcome or sublated but as the irreducible multiplicity of forms of human life. This plurality is a fact in a twofold Kantian sense: (1) it is not deduced but given and (2) it is forced upon us as the condition and manifestation of freedom (freedom both demands this plurality and is made possible by it). The domain of the political, according to Rawls, is therefore “distinct from the associational [emphasis added], which is voluntary in ways that the political is not …” given that, in his preferred formulation, we enter the domain of the political at birth and only leave it at death.

Rawls is consistent with the contract tradition (with the possible exception of Locke), even as he takes it to its limit by reducing the ideal of contract into its basic form not as reciprocity but as blind equality. The ideal construction of political equality is, however, only the first half of the twin problems of legitimacy and stability. The latter requires the overlapping consensus of a specifically political conception of justice as an overriding value in cases of conflict. It is precisely because “a political conception of justice [is] regarded not as a consequence of a comprehensive doctrine but as in itself sufficient to express values that normally outweigh whatever other values oppose them …” that the present crises of liberalism have exposed its inability to manage the contradictions of separating the ethical from the political. We only acquire an allegiance to liberal institutions when, over time, the civic institutions of justice “normally counterbalance whatever [other] values may oppose them” because they make possible the background conditions of private life. Liberalism fails, then, in one of two cases: either the collapse of fairness in those institutions or when the virtues of social cooperation – perhaps as a result of the former – are no longer taken to be ultimate.

The normative autonomy of the political, in Rawls’ conception, is abrogated by the inherent ambiguity of the fact of pluralism. On the one hand, “history tells of a plurality of not unreasonable comprehensive doctrines. That these comprehensive doctrines are divergent makes an overlapping consensus necessary”; yet the existence of such diversity is insufficient to account for their reasonableness. Plurality is in the relevant sense not an empirical fact but a fact of reason. An overlapping consensus is not only necessary because of the diversity of comprehensive doctrines but it is only possible because of their divergence. The limitation of Rawls’ analysis is to have taken the divergence of comprehensive doctrines to be one of content but not of form. If the diversity of comprehensive doctrines were merely empirical, then the paradoxes of toleration become inescapable and the libertarian conflict of interpretations erodes both the content and the force of the overlapping consensus necessary to maintain the separation of the political from the ethical; the skeptical epoché is fatal to the possibility of politics. The fundamental fact of reason is not that there are many truths but that the truth of truth is the plurality of its expression.

(Similarly, the limitation of liberalism in general is to have mistaken that to which we owe our allegiance (e.g., civic institutions) with that from which we declare our allegiances; only a bureaucrat can assert with a straight face that we can owe allegiance to an institution.)

The virtue of Rawls’ analysis, on the other hand, is to have recognized that the construction of the political requires not only a commitment to freedom in its negative sense but the existence of a community of shared values (in short, to have recognized the abstractions to which a Lockean account is suspect). The question, however, is in what sense those shared values are taken to be political. Rawls’ insight that politics is non-voluntary is a recognition of the fact that, fundamentally, our existence is not solitary but shared (we neither die alone nor are born alone); in other words, the materiality of our existence implicates us within the flesh and fabric of a world that touches and shelters us. Politics is an expression of this shared (singular-plural, in Nancy’s terms) existence; thus, the processes and expressions of individuation are intrinsically non-political and the reductio of politics to the maintenance of a modus vivendi is the only possible consequence of the ideology of liberal individualism (whose dissolution immediately invites fascism). The fundamental predicament of politics is not that we must merely live with (viz., tolerate) others who have different – and equally reasonable – conceptions of the good; it is that, in Deleuzian terms, nomadic subjects are sundered by divergences and yet belong to the same world: the inconsistencies that must be managed are not between conflicting conceptions of the good but internal to any subjective capacities from which we might find our bearings.

2. Rawlsian constructivism is the site of the familiar tensions of liberalism, which can break in either direction, as the point of the dialectical inversion of the universal and the particular, circumventing the theologico-political problem but at the cost of founding the possibility of democratic politics on the public use of reason. The problem with reason, of course, is not that whatever might pass for it is too narrow but that it is easily susceptible to counterfeit.

In her own criticism of the models of deliberative democracy proposed by Rawls and Habermas, Mouffe observes that

what is really at stake in the allegiance to democratic institutions is the constitution of an ensemble of practices that make the constitution of democratic citizens possible. This is not a matter of rational justification but of availability of democratic forms of individuality and subjectivity. … The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject, which sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects [whether communicative, public, etc.]. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible.

Therefore, Mouffe claims, all rationalist machinations must break against the ontological limit of pluralism as the very condition of possibility for deliberation but at the same time that which undermines the possibility of the necessary consensus to bind the allegiance of democratic subjects to institutions that must simultaneously enable and subordinate them.

Mouffe’s solution embraces the antagonisms constitutive of pluralism through the recognition of adversaries as a “legitimate” enemy, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality”. The agon of politics takes place not discursively but through the formation of power relations that are constitutive of democratic subjects themselves; therefore, “our shared language of politics is entangled with power and needs to be apprehended in terms of hegemonic relations”, i.e., the “point of convergence – or rather mutual collapse – between objectivity and power”. Power striates but it can also be recursive; we can be overpowered but also empowered (freedom from is the uncanny photo negative of freedom to). Antagonism does not erase equality but, rather, presupposes it. Antagonism, however, also only produces equality on the condition that in conflict we aspire to the universal. It is this tension between agonistic desires and the claim to universality that produces the aporetic condition of politics that Balibar has dubbed “equaliberty”. On the one hand, through an Aristotelian elenchos, Balibar argues that the structural coupling of equality and liberty can be demonstrated by mutual subtraction: “if freedom is not equality, then either it is superiority—mastery—or it is subjection and dependence on some power, which is absurd. Thus, correlatively, equality must be thought as the general form of the radical negation of all subjection and mastery, that is, as the liberation of freedom itself from an external or internal power that takes it over and transforms it into its opposite”. On the other hand, the demands for equality and liberty “cannot be enunciated in the same language, in terms of the same discourse”. In particular, Balibar proposes a tetradic structure of mediation between equality and liberty by property and community (fratnerity), where the one easily degrades into liberal individualism and the other into reactionary nationalism. For this reason, “there will be permanent tension between the conditions that historically determine the construction of institutions that conform to the proposition of equaliberty and the excessive, hyperbolic universality of the statement”.

The perennial aporia of democratic politics, then, is not only that the people do not know what they want. As Zizek observes, “the people is still here, but no longer as the mythical sovereign Subject whose will is to be enacted. Hegel was right in his critique of the democratic power of the people: ‘the people’ should be re-conceived as the passive background of the political process—the majority is always and by definition passive, there is no guarantee that it is right, and the most it can do is acknowledge and recognize itself in a project imposed by political agents. As such, the role of the people is ultimately a negative one: ‘free elections’ (or a referendum) serve as a check on the party movements, as an impediment designed to prevent what Badiou calls the brutal and destructive ‘forçage’ (enforcement) of the Truth onto the positive order of Being regulated by opinions”. As Deleuze and Guattari have also observed, one of the primary forms of repressive forces is doxa, of which the (democratic) state is one important expression. As Hobbes so keenly foresaw, a democracy suited to the negotiations of interests is merely a return to the state of nature.

The more fundamental aporia of agonistic politics consists not in the failure of negotiations but in the fact that the indeterminacy of the statement of equaliberty – in its negative universality – is incommensurate with its enunciation or its plural reference indexed to the subjects capable of asserting it. The people both do not but also cannot know what they want. The material consequences of the statement of equaliberty “depend entirely on relations of forces and their evolution within the conjecture, within which it will always be necessary to practically construct individual and collective referents for equaliberty, with more or less prudence and precision, but also audacity and insolence against the established powers”.