in Interview

What Is a Paulinist To Do? An Interview with Ward Blanton

Dr. Ward Blanton is Reader in Biblical Cultures and European Thought at the University of Kent. He is one of an increasing number of scholars who are (re)reading Paul in conversation with continental philosophy and social theory. He recently published a book entitled, A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life, where he continues to develop his thinking and reads Paul along with the likes of Freud, Nietzsche, Breton, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Pasolini and others (see here for more about the book). After reading the book, I contacted Ward and asked him if he would be willing to engage in an interview about some of the matters he discussed. What follows, below, is the exchange that we had. Along the way, I discovered that not only is Ward an intelligent fellow (something obvious to anybody familiar with his work), but he is also incredibly passionate and gracious. Thank you, Ward, for your participation in this. I look forward to those things that are to come.
(1A) In your preface, you say that you often feel you are asking only a few fundamental political questions. The questions you then mention, involved the throwing of rocks or organizing groups of rock throwers (xv-xvi). In what follows, you don’t ever explicitly return to this question. David Graeber is a fan of rock throwing (especially organized rock throwing), Chris Hedges thinks the opposite. Jensen, Churchill, and Gelderloos think we should be throwing more than rocks, but Chenoweth, Stephan and Sharp argue that it’s a mistake to throw anything at all. Rock throwing seems a bit complicated but, what I really want to know is: can we start throwing rocks now?
When the time is right for rock throwing no one ever asks permission!
But I think this is a very important question about my book, and about my Paul.

Regarding that good old standby of a topic which is “Paulinist rock throwing,” we should never forget how much of the contemporary fascination with Paul amongst the philosophers emerges against the backdrop of Paul’s very strange discourse on lawlessness which always has overtones of violence and counter-violence. I mean, on the one hand, it is precisely “lawlessness” which is the spur for Paul’s critiques of culture and (I also believe very strongly) of the nascent ‘globalization’ being enforced by Roman colonialism, a colonialism entirely underwritten by a very developed political theology (cf. Romans 1.28ff; 2 Thess 2.7). Biblical scholarship is only just beginning to unpack the necessary comparisons, and there remains a great deal of work to be done (a really nice recent step, Michael Peppard’s The Son of God in the Roman World).
Against the violence of this everyday, but also governmental, lawlessness Paul ends up promoting zones of something like a counter-lawlessness, minor scandals against identitarian norms which nevertheless end up signaling something like unexpected solidarities. (This is one of the ways I read Paul as very much like some of his Hellenistic philosophical contemporaries—more on that another time.)
This way of thinking about Paul’s strategy is useful, I think, and it’s important not only for understanding why it felt cool to join up with an ancient Pauline community, but also what it might look like to have a useful contemporary repetition of a “Paulinist moment”. Here you go: I fantasize about hanging out with Paul, Freud, and Slavoj Zizek all at one go, particularly as I think all three of these figures are really ingenious in the way they explore the buzz of a solidarity which involves a kind of managed or limited violence of the transgression of norms. Each of these three thinkers has a knack for seeing those kinds of minimal “lawlessness” without which our solidarities are reduced to the category of the politely indifferent quaint little human animals sipping tea together and completely bored out of their skulls. Maybe you’ve seen this phenomenon, and from what I know of your work, you have!
But I’ve sometimes been intrigued, for example, to see how Slavoj Zizek both signals and invites important forms of solidarity in a room by making that oh so perfectly (mis)placed, and absolutely jaw-dropping, filthy joke. Like Zizek, Paul was also inviting people to solidarities which constituted wholistically challenging alternatives to inherited everyday life, and—let’s face it—Paul does so by inviting you to eat a little pork, inviting you to play with political agencies by stealing the ‘son of God’ language from the emperor cult, inviting you to forget about your prick for a while (whatever your obsession with it, circumcised or no), encouraging you to let the idiot spouse walk out of your life as “an unbeliever” rather than clamor to keep the inherited family unit together. On and on, but in a word: Paulinist communities were marked consistently by a very buzzy and vibrant creation of solidarity which expressed itself frequently as a more or less significant offense against the various laws and norms of the pre-existing identities now in question.
I take this kind of phenomenon very seriously, and it’s for me a testimony to contemporary Christianity’s near total forgetfulness of the way that solidarities around the truth always involve a cut, a scandal, a drawing of division. That it wills itself or disciplines itself to believe that the question of rock throwing is not an essential contemporary topic, for example, is an indication of this forgetfulness, the dogged will to believe that Paulinist rock throwing would be strange! Compare the effort to keep the Paulinist experiment in Rome off the radar in Romans 13: pay your taxes or the authorities are gonna hammer you!
Against this kind of forgetfulness, recent philosophical fascination with Paul can be read as an extended meditation on 1 Corinthians 1, 2, a kind of recuperation of this aspect of Paulinism (truth appears as stupidity, as scandal, as a nothing which threateningly becomes a something). Some people complain about philosophy’s recent “hero worship” of Paul, etc., but the real issue isn’t heroism but precisely the category of truth as scandal. 1 Corinthians 1, 2 could be read as having “afterlives” or repetitions in Martin Heidegger’s sense of truth as always involving a “withdrawal” of what appears into a very touchy, provocative, and awkward hiddenness, a sort of repression. Better, because closer to Paul, I think, is Michel Foucault’s late interest in truth as parrhēsia or bold and risky speech, as if we’ve always got to “pay” extra for truth by way of risky challenges to reigning normalcies. Truth just is this lived, challenging risk, and that’s very Pauline.
I’ve been intrigued to hear about some of the things Pete Rollins and the Ikon bunch were enacting, provoking: Omega courses which undo the automata the Alpha courses seem to want to manufacture, practices for giving up theism for Lent, etc. I don’t know these groups well, and no doubt there is a lot of other stuff going on you could explore much more effectively than I can—but these are communities which haven’t lost the always minimally transgressive buzz of creative life. I’d even say: everyone has been oohing and ahhing about the strangeness of “Paul among the philosophers” in recent years—but the amazing thing to me is the crazy juxtaposition of categories involved in reading “Paul among the Christians”! But, as these groups force me to remember, maybe there are some contemporary Paulinists out there amongst the Christians.
But, by and large, the contemporary deadness and stultification of Christianity has inverted and repressed all the important indications of vibrant life in ancient Pauline communities. For example, contemporary Christian groups should take it as a sign of real shame that, unlike Paul, their teachings don’t inspire real movements of scandalous sexual experimentation as part of their wonder about, or enthusiasm for, what a transformed world might look like. On the other hand we encounter Paul’s sense that the experiment is getting away from itself, approaching unsustainable limits, in 1 Corinthians 5. You’ll remember the passage. It’s not just that these Paulinists were not ashamed at their transgressive behavior– as good Paulinists they had instead learned how to “boast” in it (paradoxically, of course!). They had learned from Paul how to make a minimal lawlessness into a badge of honor, a marker of in-group solidarity. They’d learned their Paulinist lessons (about food taboos, about circumcision anxieties, about making slightly ominous pronouncements against Roman imperial powers (e.g., 1 Cor 2.6; 15.24), about bragging that you are—contrary to all identitarian reason—actually one of ‘Abraham’s kids’ as a kind of experimental/fictive ethnicity).
Is it a sign of health that experimental community now among the would-be ‘protectors’ of Paul’s legacy in ecclesiastical circles is at such a low ebb that none of these excesses ever really breaks out? No, it’s an indication that “Paul” has become an apparatus of normalization, safety, and carefully managed or merely spectatorial excitement. It’s a sign of a lack of vigor, it shows in how readers interpret a passage like this, and Paulinist readers of Paul should let the dead bury their own dead, I say.
A couple more points before returning from Corinthian scandal to contemporary rock throwing. This kind of dynamic is how I read Jacob Taubes’ fascination with Paul as a kind of answer, “from below”, to Carl Schmitt’s political theology of a sovereign dictator who rules by breaking the laws “from above”. Paul—Taubes’ hero (and I admire his subversive enthusiasm for this)—was a thinker of the “lawlessness” of solidarities which emerge as the only creative response to counteract the crushing freedom from law clearly exerted at the level of governance. And all the talk about a “messianic time” during which “laws” great and small are suspended can be condensed to this statement: sometimes the violent lawlessness of governance is such that the only creative response is a kind of minimally lawless creation of new solidarities. (There is a book due out soon by L. L. Welborn, Paul’s Summons to the Messianic Life, and it develops some really good ways to read these dynamics in Romans. I like it very much.)
At any rate, people lose themselves, become different, associate with different people, reorient their families, ethnicities, articulate these things differently in relation to the inherited genealogies of political association. I think all of these things were sort of breathtakingly erotic in their way, transgressive, and as I say at least minimally “lawless”.
I guess I’d summarize: the messiah is dead, strung up like an idiot who needed imperial punishing. And that’s where the minimal lawlessnesses—and maybe rocks– will always come in as new solidarities emerge to get around the massive lawlessness of the governing bodies.
I’ve said too much already and don’t want to go on too long—but I want to be clear, so a couple of other points as we get back to the concreteness of rock throwing.
The two “questions” you refer to that were associated with my wonder about throwing rocks were very specific questions about the violence of a Schmittian lawlessness “from above”, one militaristic and the other economic. On the one hand, the “chance opportunity” of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 provided a pretext for a US sovereignty (though not just that) which was already keen to “operationalize” the Middle East for its own profits and future influence. As much as was the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq under Bush Jr. was of course justified by evidently manufactured untruths to mislead the public. And then when this collective body, a better angel of the global governmental machinery, arose in the form of millions of people around the world protesting against the looming threat of invasion, the governing bodies willfully closed their eyes to the light this angel could have made available to them. It was in this sense that in those pages you’re referring to I said Paul was a thinker for a moment when the machineries of the manufacture of profitable death were “more real” than those protesting against them. It was a sustained moment of striking lawlessness “from above”. On the other hand, the other “question” I referred to involved a different type of lawless exceptionalism “from above”, the clear hierarchy of private corporations over the individualized or atomized public which works for them. It’s not a new story: even the crises of capitalism seem to feed back into the vampiric machinery as the corporate world “seizes the chance opportunity” and makes thousands poor so that it can be rich. On both counts, for me Paul is somebody you want in your political and conceptual repertoire for moments like these: when the machineries of the manufacture of profitable death are more real than the living who protest against them; but also when it becomes hard to distinguish freedom from slavery in relation to one’s work, what Maurizzio Lazzarato calls The Making of Indebted Man.
So you see my point. When there is lawlessness of this sort “from above” there will be a movement of a minimally “lawless” creativity from below. It’s miraculous, amazing, but also something that can happen all the time. People’s roles, their souls, their associations, their schēmata of the world (cf. Romans 12.2) or their paradigms of worldhood will shift. In the “messianic time” of these moments there is simply no other option than to think, feel, act differently. The real is breaking out, exceptions are tearing the usual symbolic fabric of people’s lives, and this pressure—this violence—forces out of us new associations, new ideas, new desires, new ways of living.
Graeber, Jensen, Hedges, Gelderloos, etc., say rocks or no rocks (or even ‘biggie sized’ rocks). I’m saying it is not so much a question of whether there should be rocks. The “messianic” moment is more remarkable than that. There will be rocks, and precisely more types of rocks than the solidarity was aware of before the “messianic” creation, more types of rocks than those earlier imagined as necessary for effective action. I read Pauline community as a form of experimentation, under the pressure of a necessity—but also as a forced freedom — to become otherwise than one was before. This becoming involves by definition an at least minimally violent “lawlessness”. In that lawlessness there will emerge new solidarities, new visions of what it means to be in solidarity, and that’s what I’m looking for.
And, absolutely, some people are going to pick up rocks, and when they do they won’t ask permission. And that’s because Paulinist messianism won’t be controlled, even if you or I wanted to try it. Taubes was aware of this, and that’s one of the reasons I like him. In Pauline language, when the moment arrives the very selves which would have refused rock throwing, or some other minimal lawlessness from below, will have already been experienced as lost or “crucified” in the cataract of lawlessness constituting the governance “from above”. But– and here my Paulinist thinking remains ever faithful to the crazy trust in the excess and creativity of our being that I find in the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and others like Hardt & Negri, too—experimental or creative solidarities may find they get buzzy, vibrant or “subjectivated” not with rocks but with, say, a rock that has become a book, a new way of reading religion and politics, a new understanding of economics. And that’s not just stupid, that’s messianic metamorphosis.
Good thought for the next experimental protest action: a book bloc of Paulinist literature for truncheoning by the appropriate state-recognized wielder of the billy stick. It won’t be the first or last time someone wanted to club A Materialism for the Masses! And how amazing would it be to start seeing a book bloc of shields inscribed as Epistle to the Romans or some such. These things are going to come; they are already on the way.
Final word: Nietzsche (and, ha, like most every other classicist since!) for me has Paul totally wrong. Paul wasn’t non-violent (if that’s the right word?) because he was meek and humble. He was ‘non-violent’ because he was a Hellenistic philosopher, slightly nerdy and deeply committed to solidarities which stole fire from the sovereign lawlessness “from above” in order to cook new recipes (and to taste them, indeed, to drink them down to the dregs!) for the enactment of a nous or mind which is rebellious to the “paradigms” constituting the current world order (Ro 12). I don’t generally knock my ecstatic philosopher Paul for this weakness of not knowing immediately how to “strike back” after the messiah has been killed. Marx says: the point of philosophy isn’t to interpret the world but to change it; my Paul says: gamble on the outworking of a “messianic” pressure of “lawlessness” in our own lives, attend to the creative solidarities appearing as transgressions against what you were before. In this is a kind of spiritual practice of a revolution which will come in forms we’re not aware of yet. (And that’s necessary, that’s clear: whatever will come will come in ways we’re not yet aware of– otherwise the messiah wouldn’t be dead…)
Paul the purveyor of philosophical-messianic exercises is for me tough medicine, austere in its way. But, hey, sometimes a rock isn’t really a rock anyway.
(1B) I want to pick up on what you say about contemporary interest in Paulinist lawlessness (or counter-lawnessness) because of the overtones you identify in relation to violence (or counter-violence). My impression of the conversation that is building around contemporary philosophical readings of Paul is quite the opposite – I don’t see a lot of Paulinists blockading rail lines or highways, or burning down bridges to mine sites, or bombing banks or attacking Parliament (just to name some relatively recent violent events that have taken place in my part of the world). The lawlessness of the philosophers seems to be fairly passive and one that actually seems to situate itself quite comfortably in places of privilege. How much of this rhetoric is just bluster – a way of having one’s cake and eating it, too, going on here (here, one might be inclined to say that finding Paul amongst the philosophers is just as unlikely as finding Paul amongst the Christians – what do any of these groups have to do with the on-the-ground grassroots community mobilization and struggle engaged by Paul and his co-workers with and amongst an uprising of those left for dead)?
I think we may have a big disagreement here, and one that comes up again a little later, too.
Let me start with a couple of thoughts, not really an answer but a beginning of an engagement. Of course, the real issue for you (and for me) might be in the specifics of the events you mention—I suspect it is – but if so then you’d be better to enlighten us on the issues than I am, as I’m only familiar with a few of the possible comparisons you’re suggesting.
Still, even the question of “not” being a Paulinist in the way I’ve described it just now is something I wouldn’t even know how to delineate clearly in relation to some of these groups, because what would that really mean today, “not” to be a Paulinist? Not being a Christian? Not being Jewish? Not being underwritten by some church or other? Not citing Pauline texts specifically? I’m quite serious when I say: we do not yet know what a Paulinist can do! Who knows which indications of political life, which emergences of sovereignties and solidarities “from below” might radiate outward to rename, to reorient what might count as the inside or outside of this legacy?
But that they would need to radiate is I think a problem for simple valorization of the concrete. I’ll come back to this, because I also want to say about this question: really, don’t you see totally surprising Paulinists emerging in surprising places, Paulinisms precisely not underwritten or appropriately stamped by any straightforward ‘identity checks’ of the Christian, the Jewish, the ecclesiastical, the Western, etc.
These two go together for me, the Paulinist need for “news”, which is essential for any messianic inventions of solidarities, but also “news” in the sense that we simply need to know what’s happening, where, how, in what names, with which vibrancies. They both go together and, in that sense, absolutely, someone needs to be expressing the potential Paulinisms (if that’s to be a name worth fighting for) of some of the movements of the sort you mention.
I think today it’s part of the problem that Paulinisms of resistance aren’t ready to hand, on the tips of our tongues. That’s changing, I think, and will do so more and more. By the time any “news” worthy of the name begins to take shape, the invitation to solidarity/trust one is able to extend through the name Paul will be “in our hearts and on our lips”, so to speak, in the simple sense that we’ll have more examples burbling out of us as if automatically. For now it’s not automatic, sometimes difficult, even rebellious, and one still needs to do some scrabbling through texts and histories for the news. That this news must be “stolen” in some sense from the dominant archives is itself an issue endemic to the repressive schēmata of the world as they’ve come to consolidate themselves.
So I think I disagree in the sense that I think you’re being too hard on what is there as forms of contemporary Paulinist happenings. And I think I disagree also in the sense that I think there is more out there that you could be bringing into your own Paulinist purview.
A few random examples. Why has it been forgotten (or never widely known) that the Black Panthers engaged self-conscious strategies of a ‘becoming-Paul’, with Huey Newton reading Nietzsche on the apostle and then subversively reading the philosophers’ own diagnoses of Paulinist ‘sickness’ against the grain? So Nietzsche excoriates the apostle for revaluing Roman success or power as a form of weakness, a kind of ugliness, and then Long and the Panthers sit around wondering how to become, precisely, a kind of Nietzschean Paul working to invert the symbolic meanings of their own murderous “Roman empire.” And they hit on one spiritual practice which is still with us today, a re-naming the police forces in order to solicit the inversion of the everyday symbolic associations people have for the police: there was, as Howard Caygill argues compellingly (On Resistance: a Philosophy of Defiance), therefore a specifically Paulinist birth of the word “pig” for a cop. But it was also there as Caygill shows, in the very notion of “power to the people”, this pressure of a kind of Paulinist immanence. This is just a random example, but I think, increasingly, we should go on and on in this vein, building “news” by rewiring the archive, challenging the schēmata by unearthing the repressed Paulinisms constitutive of church, synagogue, the “great books of Western culture” etc. It’s not the only task, and it’s a task easily lampooned from the vision of immediacy you have for some of these other groups, but in the end there will be no “news” without new “letter” writers and their announcements of a rewired archive.
I want work on all fronts. But I also think it’s wrong to see the new Paulinists as merely wordsmiths writing themselves into privilege, selling down the river the more difficult path, etc. So I question the limits of our archive for that reason, too. For example, I’d say that it is the Paulinisms of The Coming Insurrection which are there in the alleged “horseshoes” which shorted out the electrical grids of the French commuter trains. The Paulinism of this happening is all the more with us if in fact none of the Invisible Committee or Tiqqun or the Tarnac 9 (or whoever) ever had anything to do with the train delays. It’s even juicier that way, scores of special troops descending by night onto the little town of Tarnac and its communist experiments with carrot farms and a cheap pub for the people, etc. Without the horseshoes, what is there for these suspicions of “terror” in Tarnac? Only their quasi-Paulinist manifesto, their little epistle to the Romans.
Or, to mention only one more at random, how is it even possible to read Slavoj Zizek’s correspondence with Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Comradely Greetings, which I’ll mention later) without seeing its profoundly Paulinist tilt? Of course, Tolokonnikova’s abuse in Putin’s Gulag seems anything but the way of privilege and comfort. And this news is much more important than the usual spectatorial judgments of the coverage on television, and people reading Zizek’s reflection on messianic “violence” in a contemporary Gulag or Tolokonnikova taking solace in tales of the sly Paul is a kind of Paulinist internationalism that seems important to me.
Anyway, I think it’s clear that there is a lot going on, and that without mediating links in the form of information relays and comparative networks—my fascination with a testimonia collection – any mobilization of a minimal “lawlessness” through these generally unremarked moments is simply lost in repressive forms of cultural memory, a “cultural memory in the present” (as the brilliant Stanford book series goes) which is as it were, programmed to forget a lot of this stuff. And it does so very, very effectively, with entire academic disciplines participating in the burial.
Anyway, I think we could say similar things about many others. Badiou’s Paul is one which clearly bears the marks of Badiou’s specific community activism among the sans-papiers in France, something which appears much more clearly in his Paulinist political theater (Incident at Antioch) than his more formal Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism.
But the real reason to stick up for a questionably rooted cosmopolitan “news”man like Paul isn’t just because the difficulties and commitments of these individuals puts them beyond criticism. I think the real issue is more abstract. So, to be clear: I totally agree about the fact that, for any “Paulinism” worthy of the name, its forcefulness or fruitfulness would only today be found “in between” the usual spheres of speaking, saying, gesturing about Paul—that’s in fact essential for me, precisely what I meant by the scandal, the parrhesiastic aspect of it. Where a disagreement might exist between us is in the way that, for me, the forced freedom of (messianic) “becoming” is genuinely a displacement of the pre-existing categories in question. I mean, without this, a rock is just a rock and all it’s ever gonna smash is a window. Some of the outbreaks of lawlessness you refer to seem obviously in that category as I’m sure you’d readily agree.
That’s my problem with the gesture to the “concrete” today. Yes, sure, let’s get to the grass (so to speak), to the ground, to the local, the immediate, the real. Nothing important ever happens without incorporating this level of becoming, of chance and change. But we can just as easily lose the real zest and verve (the productive clinamen), of a Paulinist movement in the concrete and readymade as we could were we to remain stuck ever in academic proliferations of new ways to conceptualize action in the abstract. I mean, there’s just no way around what I referred to as the messianic “forced freedom” of a becoming which opens up into a perception of significance “news” for others as well. And I think the truth is brutal on this one: without abstraction and dislocation, perhaps without the risk of “mere talk” there simply is no “news”.
I think we could say the same thing also by saying that Paulinism without this zest of a radiation of “news” which yields new solidarities across spheres is simply a Paulinism without the one essential quality of its odd groupings, that peculiarly awkward lust for minimally unlawful solidarities that Paul called, I think in dialogue with Hellenistic philosophical discussions of antinomianism and the politics of friendship, pistis or trust.
I would even say that it is the necessity of inventing the solidarity which might radiate with all the force of “news” across divisions of labor, identity, and economic interest, which is why Paul has returned today. Because in the name of what, exactly, do we otherwise call for solidarity? Paul is simply a name for the elusiveness, even the miraculousness, of the emergence of names-as-news.
But I don’t even need to make the point this way, because everyone on the ground and pulling at the grassroots already embodies this good old Paulinist paradox of the local-and-the-uprooted because they are reading about other eco-warriors, studying the colonial histories which capture them, taking a crack at understandings of globalization so they can address the local effects of world markets, etc. And even if some individuals are not trying to “frame” their dramas in these more abstract modes, key figures in their movements are, even if those figures are dead and gone.
Without this we fall into a kind of autism which may, in some cases, be intense and focused – but it’s not really communicable, it’s not really “news”.
This is why I like the discipline of a new Paulinist montage, a new testimonia collection, because there is simply no convincing transformation of the schēmata without it. But my testimonia event would mean that precisely the kinds of groups you’re so keen to discuss could be absolutely essential in fomenting a more “universal” name of the solidarity in which we believe. The crucified messiah needs a Paul, otherwise it’s only sad, not really news at all. Without Paul, a sovereign lawlessness “from above” doesn’t find itself with a viable movement of becoming or lawlessness “from below”.
And while I won’t go on about it, I think it is in this sense that truly Paulinist rocks must become something other than mere rocks. Otherwise Paulinism becomes the worst moments of the Weather Underground. Otherwise the awkward Paulinist discipline of transformation becomes merely militaristic, merely “concrete”, and therefore on one or another side of the suicide-persecution machine I sometimes talk about and which I’ll bring up again below.
(2) You argue that Paul was engaged in the embodied proclamation of a materialism for the masses, but you write in such a way that only a small élite body of people will be able to understand what you are saying. Is this odd to you? Doesn’t this method seem to rely upon a kind of vanguardism that has been rejected in a lot of post-Marxist theory and praxis? Further to that point, you speak of a materialism “for” the masses, but it seems that Paul’s materialism was one “of” the masses. There seems to be a sort of messianism – perhaps even a Platonic (egad!) messianism of philosopher kings – at work in what you are proposing. What’s up with that?
Ha, yes, my life and work is always very odd to me!
It’s a good question, though, and I think there are several important things to say. First, this book, as I try to say a lot, was always experienced by me as a kind of forceful “beginning” to a cultural metanoia or transforming of mind about the function of Paul within the cultural memory. And, as I try to make clear in the early chapters, that’s a massive transformation, an almost geological shift in how life organizes itself. This wasn’t just bluster for me—I think it’s totally crucial for the future of any Paulinisms worthy of the name. As Roland Boer sometimes says, Karl Marx was already describing what he called the “massive phenomenon” that is modern Christianity, a phenomenon he believed to be endemic to everyday economic assumptions as much as a sense of belonging (or not) to a church or a dogma of eternal life or whatever. The question of ‘getting Paul’ or ‘understanding Paul’ in such a context would involve a kind of massive excavation of the archaeology of the Western soul, and any ‘doing things differently’ would be by definition a complete failure if it only addressed Paul as a kind of single cog within the larger European or Western cultural machinery. Freud was a similar kind of thinker, which is why he was so interested in a kind of “repetition compulsion” of biblical dramas (and often their textual violences) in modern lives. Just when we think we have ‘liberated Paul’ (or ourselves) we find we’re stuck in the same old stories…
This sense of the massiveness of the histories shaping our lives also makes my work very closely aligned to movements like the ‘anthropology of Christianity’ or ‘anthropology of secularism’ agendas (e.g., Talal Asad, Gil Anidjar). Now more than ever we should really question whether we “know” the limits, thresholds, or borders of “Christianity”, that massive phenomenon which may be better described as economics, as international politics, as class relations—and vice versa. And, when we find ourselves at a moment of not knowing what the inheritance of “Christian origins” stories underwrite in this culture, then—as I repeat a lot in the book—we do not yet know what a Paulinist can do.
So, at one level, sure, it’s actually comedic to talk about such a demanding book as “for” a wider audience– and in fact I first asserted the title as a provocative joke about subverting Nietzsche and his “Platonism for the masses”. But I think jokes are really important, and also that the implications of recent work on Paul and philosophy are both massive and unknown. We will need to plumb the depths of a new Paulinism, rewire entire genealogies of who we are, who the friends/enemies are, what our political demands are, and so on. And, for that, we need it all, loads of creative work firing off in multiple directions, testing the emergence of new solidarities in which, finally, we believe (a belief that will shift in a “messianic” now as much as rocks do). No doubt, it’s a difficult and major task, and I don’t mind asking a lot of readers, clearly. My classes are hard, too, I’m told, and I regularly dump students into the deep end of major conceptual or historical issues which have yet to be mapped out clearly. It’s not because I want to play theory games but because I want to get all hands on deck. So I sometimes show people a heap of things we don’t yet quite know how to manage, and I sketch what we might do with it.
But, that said, two things in defense of my comedy of philosophy “for” a larger movement! First, I have been working very hard for some years to get up and running a popular documentary about the new Paulinism, and I’m also trying to develop other more popular writing projects. If I get there, it’s absolutely wonderful—I’ll be totally thrilled. If not, though, maybe others will do better, and I’ll be psyched about that too. In any case, I think the links will be made, and not just between ‘ideas’ but between spheres of activity, experimental processes of thought and action, different mediaspheres as Régis Debray says. There is no one, no one sphere or even mode of life, which can escape this problem. We are all caught within the same fragmented hurly burly, but in different modes.
One final word: of course it’s also the case that there is no “getting it right” for all spheres, and here, too, I’m quite taken with Paul as an interesting interlocutor. He was totally stranded: between the Jerusalem bunch he wanted to please but also wanted to dismiss; between a desire for recognition and a desire to chart new territories; between wanting to “be a philosopher” (I definitely read him as wanting that, he’s selling the same wares, so to speak, as other Hellenistic philosophers—check out Stanley Stowers or Troels Engberg-Pedersen, definitely the Ancient Philosophical Commentary on Romans when it’s finished). But Paul is also ‘democratizing’ a lot of the philosophical stuff in subversive ways. The philosophers would easily have snubbed him for sure. So to be “trapped” or even excluded on all sides as one navigates the force of thought today isn’t something I think can easily be fixed. On the contrary, it’s part of the “messianic” pressure to force creation of new ways of talking, writing, acting, and I’m really glad other people are approaching this becoming from very different places. I want them to take freely whatever they find buzzy about my work, to go and do better, and then to offer the gift of their lives back to me as an excessive, even monstrous, insight that must transform me. In solidarity amidst the messianic pressures of invention… I’ll say more of this later.
(3) I recently learned of a new book about Jesus and homelessness. I did some inquiries and learned that the author isn’t “interested in homelessness per se, but in how a certain neoliberal perspective has influenced the interpretations of biblical scholars on Jesus’ (non-)homelessness”. So homelessness is engaged, not because the author cares to be involved with folks who are experiencing homelessness, but because a gap has become apparent in scholarship and s/he saw a way to advance his or her own brand status by writing on that subject. To me, this is simply another way that people of privilege exploit those who are experiencing poverty. A lot of so called “radical” theory seems to do the same thing. So, with that in mind, how does your book tangibly assist the masses to “snatch an undying life from the imperial apparatuses” (pxvi)? How does this book help us to discover if there is for us “the possibility that we can avail ourselves of the freedom of the unsurveilled” (p90)?
It’s an important moment in the life of Paulinisms and philosophical interventions into the contemporary cultural scene, and there’s a ton of work to be done.
At one level, it’s because of this “ton” of work needing to be invented, enacted, that we just can’t be bothered too much by the fantasy of immediacy or pure presence, as if—ta da!—like a rabbit out of the hat we’ve linked new theories of economics, formulated perfectly weighed responses to recent political and social injustices, and have helped some specific person screwed over into poverty get a new job to pay the next bill. The messiah is definitely crucified in this respect and will remain so. But, at the same time, the forced necessity to accomplish this miracle of uniting all these disparate levels is precisely what I mean when I speak of any interesting notion of “messianic time”. It’s where a Paulinist movement begins.
Below in the interview you mention Slavoj Zizek, who has made all kinds of remarks of late to the tune you describe, like basically stop doing and start thinking! It’s a possible response to the current state of things, maybe even a Paulinist one, and at some level it can’t be wrong. I mean, the most certain way to assure that nothing ever happens is to demand that what’s in the works of a messianic time now happens immediately. The call for immediacy and directness of action is almost always a call for a repetition of the same. This is what I like by the Paulinist discussions of messianic temporality. Sure, our usual sense of things gets scrambled by messianic temporalities (e.g., messiahs are dead, inherited identities start to live out “outlaw” versions of themselves, as you and Theodore Jennings have discussed). But messianic time can also be read as a transformative force in the other direction, like, we have to steal time until we can figure out how to scramble the implacable machineries of the present!
Here Giorgio Agamben’s constant references to Bartleby the Scrivener seems not to say it clearly enough. Yes, the “time that remains” or messianic time is a pale, listless refusal to be incorporated into the operational mechanisms of the present schēmata of the world. But Bartleby, that strange pale bastard, needs to realize that he has “preferred not to” participate in the present… precisely so that he can drop out and study his stupid head right off! It’s one way to go, and one we need some people to make big sacrifices for. So better than Agamben’s Bartleby, what I really love about Agamben is when he specifies that the “inoperative” community of the messianic time is the community which actually studies everything incessantly. Agamben says this a lot, here borrowing from the rabbis who thought that the kingdom had come precisely when the law was understood to be not for applying or operativity….but for studying. It’s a messianic epochē (or bracketing or suspension) of normalcy so that we can give time to the new creations emerging, the creations we’ll have to force.
As I say, I think it’s not stupid. We may need a period of seriously nerding out in order move ahead. In its way, for all their fierce disagreements, this is what Alain Badiou (in The Incident at Antioch) learns from Paul, too, the capacity to “drop out” from the present field of battle in order to reconfigure it. Badiou’s Paula will be an interesting interlocutor for your concerns about cutting to the core of things in our political interventions, and I look forward sometime to hearing what you think of it.
In terms of my book and your question, though, I think there are some important stories about stealing undying life from apparatuses of suppression. Some readers are already huffing and puffing in fury that my harsh reading of Acts and early Christian anti-Judaism is too harsh. But increasingly I think it’s really important that Paulinism be emancipated more aggressively from a massive machinery of ancient Christian anti-Judaism which was– on my reading– completely indistinguishable from dominant forms of the historical narration of Paul’s place within Christian origins. These forms, we must always remember, are dominant right down to the present moment. And, given that the cultural memory has produced philosophies in keeping with these brutal histories, I wanted to say some things in my book to help some of my philosophical compadres out of these traps. Our concepts are always tied up with the implicit historical paradigms we rely on. The early Christian persecution machine, the invention of “the Jewish question” as a question which is not “about me”, is a schēmata of the modern world which has huge implications and which must be (again, in Pauline language) resisted and transformed.
Additionally, I think the question of how to link important topoi of Paulinism with crucially significant topics of recent philosophy is major. Can Paul be thought as a model of contemporary philosophical intervention?
I guess if I thought the world were just brimming over with people who could lead the way on the kind of creative interdisciplinary I feel we need today then I’d back off and do something else– but it’s just not what’s happening. On the contrary, the interest of “radical philosophy” in Paul has evoked a profound reaction and backlash intending to return “Paul” to his place in the academic church library, that little mausoleum where some crucial ideas and political resources have gone to die. And, to this day, most of the philosophers glaze over when interesting historical work on Paul is discussed, which means they stay just as trapped in the “massive phenomenon” that are the inherited determinations of Christianity, philosophy, etc. And, to this moment, most of the interesting historians sound like complete numpties when they try to engage the philosophers.
Don’t get me wrong, all this is totally fine!!
I think everyone to date should be let off the hook for this. It’s just a testimony to the cultural moment in which we live, a testimony to how much amazing work is still to come, still on the way. And this new work, these new Paulinisms, are on the way, burbling up through the cracks of the institutional and ideological edifices constituting the schēmata of our time, easing into the pipeline of our publishing venues like so many rockets into the launcher. It’s there in the books that are under press review (or soon to be), in the subversive creative communities I mentioned, but especially in the Paulinists who ask in all seriousness whether it’s time to get the rocks out.
(4) I like your reading of Paul and agree with your thesis that those like Nietzsche and Freud – along with the dominant imperial forms of Christianity – have misunderstood Paul. Imperial forms of Christianity had to misunderstand Paul in order to co-opt his legacy. Consequently in their resistance to Christian imperialism, Nietzsche and Freud and others whom you mention (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser), make the mistake of attacking Paul rather than finding in Paul an ally who shares strikingly similar priorities and perspectives. I agree with all of this. However, whenever I read philosophical readings of Paul (as opposed to the kind of exegesis one reads in biblical studies), I am always struck by how much the author assumes can be said about Paul without demonstrating how those assumptions are supported by the texts associated with Paul. I think that this is a large barrier to many of those who do not come to your text already convinced of your thesis and it risks making your book (and others like it) another form of “preaching to the choir”. How might you respond to this and to those who want you to back up everything you say with reference to (and discussion of) the letters attributed to Paul?
Here I’m with those desiring also more meticulous forms of explication of the Pauline texts at many different historical moments in the cultural life of these texts. There is a lot of interesting work to come, of that I feel very confident. At the moment I’m working on a patient reading of Romans as a Hellenistic philosophical text of the first century, so it’s all like line by line of endless wonder about how to compare this or that turn of phrase in Paul to the idea, inflection, or characteristic mode of speaking on this or that philosophical school.
Of course, A Materialism for the Masses is a very different kind of intervention than a commentary like that, which is fine, even absolutely essential. I don’t think that Christianity, Paulinism, or biblical scholarship are “given” in the sense that they come with unquestionable (or certainly known) limits and rules. So, my book was always encouraging everyone to see what could happen if we say that “we do not yet know what a Paulinist can do”—and in order to do that I needed to creatively shake up the question of “what a biblical scholar can do”. I’ve always been like that, and in many different modes of my life. I’ve been like for reasons I don’t totally understand. Truthfully, I think this aspect of my own biography is part of my affinity for Paul.
And, at the level of writing and research, or at the level of the genres of writing about biblical texts which you mention, we need a lot more of this kind of activity. The field of academic biblical scholarship, for example, is an historically determined field of activity which shifts and flexes and sometimes revolutionizes its basic assumptions about what it does, how it does it, and where it should belong in relation to other academic and cultural fields of production. Good Paulinists, as it were, we shouldn’t ever be afraid to shoulder the weight of creative invention. A little creative lawlessness within academic fields is also necessary.
As I say, too, it’s a demanding book which assumes, as you point out, quite a lot. I wrote it while working on the ancient philosophical commentary on the side and, truth be told, I think it’s precisely in respect to what you point out that writing A Materialism for the Masses felt to me precisely to be like I imagine Paul’s wrote his letter to the Romans—in the sense that Romans is a strange and bizarre tract, a kind of messianic manifesto oddly displaced in time, in geographical space, and within different cultural conversations. This isn’t just a problem, the usual confession of limits and finitudes, etc.—it’s also a characteristic of the forcing of a truth event. Sometimes categories must be scrambled.
I was keen to speak the truth in this book—but I never dreamed of saying everything. It was enough for me to open up some paths, perhaps to enact some parrhesiastic scandals, to call for others to follow a path of a kind of Paulinist insurrection. Again, like Romans, this book was self-consciously a protrepsis, a call to the Paulinist-philosophical life.
(5) You speak about the need to “revive the early Christian practice of producing testimonia collections, little assemblages that effect the solicitation, repetition, and dissemination of new communal formulae, so man virtual constitutions of questionably political bodies” (p40). I’m curious as to what you have in mind here – in part, because I wonder if such collections are already in existence and circulating amongst communities of resistance and creativity (from indigenous land defenders in Coast Salish territories, to encyclicals being released by the Zapatistas, to literature that is produced by and circulates amongst urban anarchist collective – i.e. from various federations that have emerged from “disparate nothings knitted together into a social experience” [p44]). Care to speak in a little more detail about this (perhaps you see these examples as more caught up in the revolutionary/nonrevolutionary binary that you wish to escape via some sort of (not very well described…) “new creation” [p134])?
Yes, absolutely, those would be great comparisons for the sort of thing I had in mind. I’ve always been really intrigued by questions of religion and media very broadly conceived, and the ancient practices of testimonia collections were always very striking to me, perhaps in ways which flowed from my interest in modern industrial media and modern categories of religion in Displacing Christian Origins. These two were twinned, clearly linked together in an economy of information which we’re only beginning to unpack in any serious way, I think. But, as for testimonia collections, I’m intrigued by the way they function for the dissemination of a series of shorthand points of orientation for much larger territories of conversation, political realities, or textual traditions.
I didn’t say it this way in the book, but I think your question shows clearly how we could read my interest in testimonia collections (and my sense that we must continue to manufacture of new ones) as a variation of my fascination in that book with the philosophical tradition of problēmata or problems, which I also described as the “signature” or even the “apparatus” of thinking (references to which seem to be everywhere in A Materialism—as I say, it was sort of an obsession). In philosophical contexts, with the problem, the signature, or the apparatus, there has been a focus on how a specific instance or example begins to bear the pressure of a major “issue” which ends up constituting a defining or orienting struggle. It’s like the ‘instance’ or ‘example’ of a protest movement, or a speech or even a turn of phrase comes to stand in as the issue on which everything hinges.
And, on hearing your question, I’m immediately struck by how the testimonia collections relate very closely to these philosophical discussions that were so interesting to me. Testimonia collections disseminate freely and quickly, functioning to capture our attention within a specific field of challenge and conflict.
At any rate, in the book I gave in to my longstanding fascination with these collections, so I stuck some of Paul’s lines about calling next to philosophical traditions about “singularization” or “subjectivation”. I even intentionally, and sort of violently, subsumed in my testimonia collections philosophical schools which recently have spilled a lot of ink trying to distinguish themselves polemically from each other (e.g., the Lacanians versus the Deleuzeans). This is the provocative violence of the testimonia collection, a kind of messianic forcing of an issue by way of the mediatic juxtaposition of texts, names, turns of phrase.
You’re pushing for specific traditions of the ‘thumbnail sketch’, though, and there is probably loads to say. In addition to the things you mention, you could add Pier Paolo Pasolini’s very interesting and only recently translated script for a film about Paul (Saint Paul: a Screenplay) in which Pasolini sometimes hoped to make collages of biblical text, communist songs, or spliced images of newsreels. The montage effect, the layering of all these media onto each other, force new ways of sensing what the “big issue” is, and that’s the real drama of the testimonia. Paul, but also Pasolini, communism, politics, consumerism, revolution, are all “pressurized”—the become different, as if blurring, bleeding, into some new thing.
And the Zapatistas or the indigenous of the Coast Salish territories would be excellent interlocutors here. Precisely because dominant normalities want to normalize the suppressions and violences on which they are founded, they develop forms of narration, forms of understanding, forms of historiography, etc., which function to keep quiet the things they want to forget. And, in that kind of context, the repressed can return in the testimonia collection, a subversive gathering of disparate fragements to force an awareness, the problēmata, which normalcy elides, refuses.
(6A) You seem to prioritize what you appear to take to be the transformative potential of thoughts and of words. I will cite a few examples: “Internal to immanent, causal realities from which we will not be saved by another world or outside agency, there is nevertheless a chance, the very chance of thought itself, which is indicative of a minor freedom, a minimal swerve, a line around which we might spin ourselves in a metanoia that will itself feed back into the otherwise ironclad ground from which it emerged” (p61), which leads to this: “What, then, is material thinking? It is the après coup loss of balance and the overwhelming fascination of a new thought, a new life, that is indistinguishable from our lack of resistance to it” (p66 – on p130 you also use “thought” and “life” interchangeably, as though they are the same thing?). You then go on to speak about Breton’s performative speech acts, paired with Althusser’s reflections on individuals as those who are always-already-subject to an ideology (p73). If we are to reconsider Chernyshevsky’s famous question, “What is to be done?” (which Lenin borrowed), it seems like your answer is: “Think and speak!” I’m a bit skeptical about this. I tend to sympathise with Bakunin in his split from the Jura Federation (i.e. we’ve got enough ideas about how and when and where and why to save the world – enough with the ideas, let’s get out there and start throwing some rocks!). I think Paul might take issue with this, too. For a book claiming to be about the practical questions mentioned above, there seems to be little consideration of any other kind of action or, indeed, of the concrete actions of Paul and his co-workers (say the sibling-based practice of transnational economic mutuality practiced across all kinds of previously existing boundaries which we discover in the collection). I imagine Zizek being happy with this approach (“Want to save the world? Do nothing.” – rough paraphrase!) but maybe you want to distinguish your position from Zizek’s on this point or, perhaps, suggest that I’m looking at Paul (or your text) the wrong way? Or are thinking and speaking really so important, so central, and so interchangeable with life itself?
I blabbed about this above and so won’t say much.
You’re definitely right that I like to seduce and to challenge others to a kind of metanoia or change of mind by way of words and images which come to function in ways beyond what we have been habituated to expect.
Here I love philosophy, simple as that, and it is in friendship and solidarity with philosophy ancient and contemporary I find myself with the best resources for living, thinking, dying. In the Euthyphro of Plato there are some great lines about Socratic cultural critique. Basically, Socrates was the one who set discourses and words in a kind of horrific motion, as if these dead and disconnected words would start to twitch and to move of their own accord, against our will, like some disembodied hand from an old 1950’s horror film. What I like about the section in Plato is that it is so basic and revealing about what philosophy can do, which is actually not much, except that it has this creepy power to show how things are more, in excess, of what we want them to be. The first assertion of Euthyphro is that Socrates is like Daedalus whose statues were so good that they could start moving on their own accord, as if alive. Socrates is like, hell no, it’s creepier than that, because I’m not in control– and nor are others– of the un-dead movements which start to twitch to life in this process. Philosopher’s words as uncanny guests, that’s the philosophy I go for.
Is it effective? Well, yes and no, but even more important than the on/off switch of efficiency-as-effect is the way an encounter with this haunted philosopher yields a third term: a believer. And it does—philosophy worth its salt has always been about the invitation to a transformed philosophical life, an invitation it sends out by staging these creepy demonstrations about how there is in our discourses more life than we want or intend or know them to have. We know more than we know, we might say, which is why Freud and Lacan were in the end really good disciples of this Socrates. His creepy automata, moving of their own accord, was a revelation of the unconscious of our everyday modes of knowing. And that’s disconcerting, but once you’ve seen it you believe it and it changes you. You don’t get from philosophy answers so much as a kind of “taste” for these excesses, an eye for them. I’ve always been very intrigued that Hent de Vries almost called one of his earlier books Horror Religiosus—he’s a philosopher who knows how to “do” philosophical living.
Read through Socrates-as-Stephen-King, the difference maybe between “what is to be done” and “what is to be thought” are only uneasily distinguishable options. I didn’t really speak of it this way in the book, but I think the impossibility of distinguishing clearly between these options was a driving question for me about the forceful return of Paul in post 1968 continental philosophy which I was thinking about in the Pasolini chapter. How to enact emancipatory Paulinisms in, as it were, a world without end? Which is to say, in a worldly mode but also in a world without readymade limits?
Or, as you point out, if ideology is, simply, the mode in which world is constituted (meaning: there’s no terra firma to step out onto outside of ideology), then what is to be done? How should we live? Here I’m more than ever an avowed Paulinist: experiment, attend to the lawless excesses in identities and actions, intervene, find the things which—as wholistic encounters with or interventions into the world—we believe. Here I think recent historical work on Paul meets seamlessly with work on philosophy and critical theory after the collapse of foundationalism or a sense that emancipation and cultural critique could be based on a given, stable ground. So it’s obvious in relation to the historical Paul that pistis or belief is more akin to ‘trust’ or ‘inclination’ or ‘tilt’ than to the usual talk about Faith in dogmatic realities existing out there somewhere, as if faith were a kind of stand-in for traditional forms of knowledge. On the other hand, the contemporary question is how to hit on vibrant, significant forms of being and action once it’s no longer assumed that there is, under there, or out there, a firmly fixed ground or cause or end-game which can tell us what is to be done. So, Paul is really a very interesting interlocutor for post-foundationalist political thought. No wonder he has returned, as if waiting for this very moment.
But yes yes, all this sort of thing aside, what’s nevertheless to be done, even if doing is already a form of thinking and vice versa? Here I think, for a start, that there should be some new efforts to develop solidarities across forms of vibrant contemporary Paulinist practice.
If Paul is an important name to fight for today—and I think it is—then where is the experimental Paulinist presence at vibrantly developing protest movements? Precisely because of its “messianic” weirdness and ambiguity, I was always looking for the Paulinisms in the Occupy movement, for example. In a way, I often felt that a little Paulinism in those contexts could be good medicine, particularly when the press gathered around and said condescendingly, Yes, but apart from impossible demands, what is it that you really want? The Paulinist response is multiple. First, well, the Occupy Paulinists want the impossible, a world in which crucified messiahs are nevertheless living on in those who tilt toward a refusal to submit to the violence which would otherwise have silenced them. Secondly, the Occupy Paulinists are also aware that the messianic movement is already the “end” of the demand, and they perform already the messianic becomings, the minimal lawlessness or strange becoming-new, of the Occupy identity. Occupy wasn’t about barricades around measurable zones of protest. It was a kind of stage on which were being performed so many secessions from violent normalcies, secessions (or suspensions , the panoply of the epochē) which went hand in hand with weird transmogrifications of everyday identities: the 99% helping themselves to some of the topoi, self-descriptions, and real estate of the elite. It was only one minor example, but I’m not surprised that it was here that Slavoj Zizek gave his famous speech on Wall Street whereby the Occupy movement became the new Paulinism against the domineering complacencies of a corrupt “pagan” establishment of bankers and stock brokers (see here). This wasn’t the most creative neo-Paulinism I observed in the Occupy movement, but it’s not a stupid form of “becoming,” a way of restaging what is the drama of Paulinism by staging it there, at the Occupy demonstration. Read that way, Zizek’s almost comical intervention was a good example of the testimonia or staged problēmata of the Paulinist performance: the montage or juxtaposition forces the “real issue” of Paulinism to be something pressing and present.
I’d very much like to see in the next few years conferences and indie documentaries about an emerging movement, precisely, experimenting with “what is to be done”. It would be a matter of comparing notes from movements of this sort, from movements in Palestine, Athens, Paris, Berlin, the reservations of Nevada, in producing a collage or montage of high theory, philosophy, historiography with the stratagems of book blocs, throwing rocks, and anti-kettling manoeuvers in London and Cairo. Speaking of Zizek (who seems more than most others to be breaching so many of the limitations constituting the spheres which affect so much of our work and life), could we not read his recent correspondence with Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Comradely Greetings) as a kind of Paulinist testimonia collection?
We need more, that’s what’s to be done, and by this I don’t mean simply a proliferation of ideas but rather a proliferation of testimonia in the sense of experiments in what, today, a “Paulinist can do.”
(6B) You speak about the need for experimentation as we explore how we should live, find out what we believe, and attend to the lawless excesses in identities and actions. You also speak here, and several other places, about the need for developing surprising solidarities across all kinds of lines. But then when you speak more concretely, the things you speak of are conferences, indie documentaries, and various collections of writings (with some reference also given to Occupy and standard protest type activity). None of this strikes me as particularly experimental or new. Nor do the solidarities seem to be all that striking to me – is an interdisciplinary gathering of those who appear in the wet dreams of hipsters everywhere (where indie filmmakers meet artists meet musicians meet cultural theorists – all carefully selected from amongst those who have created some buzz amongst the bourgeois Left), really what we are all waiting for? Is reading the exchange between Zizek and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova really that which will liberate us? Whatever happened to the kind of experimentation suggested by the liberation theologians or the Narodnaya Volya or (most especially) the Unis’tot’en? That kind of experimentation is costly, labourious, dangerous, and often unglamourous – in other words, very much akin to the work of Paul and his co-labourers. How come it doesn’t seem to register here? Because, for these people, the “most expensive part of the entry fee” (to anticipate what you say in response to Q7, below) is not “becoming-different” (many of them already are different) but is, rather, their lives and the lives of their children. It is their physical health and the ability to live outside a jail cell. It is the heath of the land which is a part of them. Here, it seems to me that you are losing sight of the materialism you wish to speak of – how does “becoming-different” end up with a higher status than the very real, tangible, physical risks faced by those who left for dead who dare to assert themselves as risen?
That there are gaps between the spheres we’re mentioning is precisely why just these kinds of juxtapositions you mention—these kinds of testimonia montages—are important to develop and to circulate. That’s everything to me, the very possibility of political thinking today, for a political event today, worthy of the name.
And remember, too, that for me, it’s precisely the gaps and differences between these spheres which suggest the interesting comparison with someone like Paul. It’s these differences, their minor lawlessness in relation to the roles, protocols, sensibilities, and straits of the other spheres which invite the appearance of the Paulinists, those who intuit “lawless” buzz of solidarity across spheres which might not otherwise be viable or recognizable. Paulinism worth speaking of is thinking in this sense. For me, Paulinism is a tribute to all those stuck between spheres, all those weaving together new experiences and experimentations which, yes, sometimes spark new associations and collective capacities.
And if the sparks don’t make it over the gaps, or if the differences leave everyone merely indifferent in relation to each other, well, then the terror of the possibility that our news will fall into the cracks and effect nothing across spheres shows up as brutal ever. We face it. But, of course on my reading, such experiences (common, part of our everyday life, indeed life’s dominant mode) are just a devastating baseline which may yet induce a messianic experience, this effect of a forced freedom of invention which we could only ever approach without guarantee. (Otherwise it’s not thinking, otherwise it’s not my Paulinist messianism.) The Paul of A Materialism for the Masses is about a chance, just that chance on which we are forced to gamble a great deal, those chances for which we’d stake everything. And, to come back to your specific examples, some will feel such pressure to invent creatively new solidarities afforded by just the specific communities and interventions you name here. But that won’t happen without the “news” folk for the movements in question, as everyone is well aware.
I think I’m not so interested in the distinction between, if I may put it this way, “serious” and “poser” Paulinisms as you play with here, especially when it comes to a simple distinction between “real” activisms and others. That would make sense if the world, if being, if the political, had a center or ground, but I don’t think it does. The point of the “materialism of the encounter” which I thought through in the book is precisely a question about how to think political solidarity without these foundational starting points. And my answer, of course, was: Paul never was so interesting as he becomes for a materialism of the encounter.
And in this respect, I’ll just say that I think there’s too much to do, and with so few people are soliciting effectively the kinds of elements I have in mind as a kind of Paulinist internationalism I’m not inclined to ignore what seems to be some of the massively important tasks ahead (like some of the ones I mentioned) for the sake of valorizing only particular types of experimentation, intervention, struggle.
This is in fact essential for me. If the “news” is soliciting and responding to uncoerced or roguish energies, weaving them into a sense of a collective subject, a solidarity, then it’s just impossible to name one aspect of a movement—certainly one physical event or strategy– as its “real” in the sense you mention. Nor do I, as some earlier proponents of materialist thinking, think there is any one moment in our intertwined materialities, which can except itself from its relations (and reliances) on the others in order to become the terra firma for the rest, as if some privileged Archimedean point. The way things become central, the hinge as I said earlier, is through an event of the testimonia montage—it’s evental, the emergence of the issue which seems to name an Us or a We which didn’t exist before. And for that we need “news” folk rather than just a valorization of some form of the “concrete” or other.
But, that said, of all people, I’m not at all mysterious about it: I’m totally committed to the university and the history of ideas, it’s as simple as that. It’s not everything, and it does not now or in the future play the role of the philosopher-king you worried about above. That’s totally clear. But I believe very strongly in teaching, writing, publishing in academicky modes as crucial pieces of the mediatic, archival aspects of any important movement. So I don’t mind at all working within some of the grand forms of the university’s thinking activism: lectures, articles, books, scholarships, institutional developments, new graduate school programs, skewed conferences for the production of testimonia yielding a kind of Documenta catalog for the cultivation of new associations, pacts, alliances, tilts, ideas, strategies.
When all the avenues I’ve suggested are “full up” and happily done by anyone so easily that they no longer need to be done, well, then at that point I’ll be the first to say that the knowledge of a Paulinist internationalism has flooded the world , that it’s ubiquitous, completed! But until then I wonder who else will work to do what’s on my mind to try to do? Maybe you! Ha, but then you’d be guilty…
So I’m thinking of something like an event which exceeds spheres, levels, with everyone getting to play at being the teacher, the center, the buzz which radiates out and energizes the others. So the academic stuff you poke fun at isn’t a “representation” of a movement which lives elsewhere, and it’s certainly not its primary encapsulation, but it’s an important piece of a complex montage.
A topic for another time: why I am not often turned on by the word “theology” or by the work of “theologians”, even of the “liberation” stripe. I have a long history of this, and I think it’s why I locate Paul as a philosophical figure primarily. Sure, some amazing stuff has happened with some liberation theologians, and, hey, some of my best friends are theologians. But I generally feel—apart from a few of the ones who won’t let me escape their clutches!—that their institutional affiliations often strike me as maddeningly, suffocatingly closed off, cloistered. Ach. In the Hegelian terms I always like a lot: theology as a medium I often feel to be obstructive in relation to my productive desires and also desire to organize a new Paulinist internationalism. I try, but I think Paul needs to be stripped from the ecclesiastical representatives in a similar way as was ecclesiastical property during the French Revolution. There needs to be a redistribution of Paulinist wealth, so to speak.
Yet another topic for another time: Stanislas Breton’s very interesting occasional references to God’s wet dreams. God has wet dreams for Breton, little nocturnal bursts of ecstasy which are—it’s a very Catholic reading—without “productive” effect. It’s an interesting idea about God, or about Being as Breton would eventually claim: we live, move, and have our being in something that has wet dreams. Ha, anyway, so it’s not just bookish hipsters who have wet dreams. And, okay okay, I guess there’s at least one theological topic that interests me.
(7) In Chapter Four, you explore (with Foucault) the ubiquitous reality produced by power and wonder how we might escape from this. With Baudrillard, you suggest that “”we need a symbolic violence more powerful than any political violence“… deploying perverse (almost non-) strategies for a reflecting back to power, as in a mirror, a void… a peripatetic “turn” within a plane of immanence, a turning around which itself threatens the very hinge along which domination and submission remain operable” (p148). You then go on to explore the perverse and immanent nature of this with Deleuze’s masochist and his folds within immanence which help to produce a politics of new creation freed from the dialectics of resistance and repetition that are a part of the reality produced by the current hierarchies of power (pp149-53). So, all this sounds really great. I like it a lot. But where exactly do I sign up to participate within this? Or, if I’ve got to start working on this with a group of folks here, what exactly does this look like? Where might one begin? (I mean, dangit, you ask the question yourself: “what does it look like to think beyond the political, oppositional model of a Foucauldian biopolitics and resistance?” [p154] but I’m not entirely sure you answered that question all that well with your remarks about grounding critiques of power in failed political ventures! Nor do comments about the “way radical dispossession irrupts in the contestation of existing, world-constituting logics, allowing for the emergence of a different political masquerade oriented around the formerly uncountable, zero-level status of the excluded” [p156] really give me all that much that is tangible to go on here!).
I’d say the Paulinist answer is: we’re already there in our very unsatisfied desires about what is not yet or no longer taking place.
Let’s organize a meeting of twenty-five Paulinist activists from the intentional Christianity movement, the emerging church movement, from among those expert pitchers of rocks, from the consistently unremarked Paulinists among the Anonymous collective, from among the international set of writers (most yet to be published) who are writing about Paulinisms of “the real” or “a new materialism”, pairing them with actors and writers working on creative interventions within the Paulinist legacy (e.g., Pasolini’s screenplay, which some are already hoping to make into a feature length film; Alain Badiou’s Paulinization of political theater in The Incident at Antioch, which has been staged in LA, Berlin, Glasgow with discussions about Beijing); the Paulinisms around Pussy Riot or the creative messianic suspensions abounding in Palestinian-Israeli contexts or the now-forgotten Tarnac 9 in France (what happened to Tiqqun, the Invisible Committee, those careful readers of the Paul of Giorgio Agamben?).
A big, fat testimonia collection of practice and ideas, that’s what I want, so let’s call for it. And the most expensive part of the entry fee? Risk, becoming-different, Paulinist messianisms, minimal lawlessness.
(8) You say that we need to find a way of creatively grasping the Kairos missed by those like Foucault (p128). You then go into this in more detail in Chapter 5 – “Seizures of Chance”. Here, you quote Romans 7.8, and speak about seizing a chance opportunity “to create a surplus desire or excess of relation within the otherwise fixed poles of the juridical scene” which is an act of “transforming the nature of sovereignty in a kairological moment of opportunity that effects new orders of power” (p170 and p172, respectively). Seizing these moments is when “radical transformation may be effected” (p175). Where are these chances today? It seems to me that you are not simply speaking of random chance events or encounters over which one has no control – your discussion of the law mitigates against this understanding of chance since the chance to twist the law from within is always present where law is present (“whether one intends to fulfill the law or transgress it, there is “another law” in excess of law capable of subverting both intentions” [p175]). So, I’m wondering about what chances you think are present with us now and how we might go about seizing them.
In good Paulinist fashion, weakness is also a weapon, a form of strength. And the flip side of the fact that there is not a single point on a fixed plane where we could enact “what is to be done” (the whole problem of post-foundationalism) is that there are multiple, and therefore uncontainable, points by which to effect the kinds of Paulinist experimentations—those community-becomings—we are talking about.
That said, while it’s a vague answer I personally feel the crucial things happening at the moment, the things we need to incite, are happening “between” spheres, between readymade identitarian options, and between geographically national borders. We need, and here again in a kind of forced freedom of the Paulinist, to hit upon a singularized or vibrant new Paulinist internationalism which explodes the false universalisms currently represented by Christianity, “religion” and indeed “philosophy”.
Paul “seized” an opportunity, so to speak, in a failed messiah, at any rate a messiah who was, for Paul, a messiah about which nothing is important save that he “was crucified” (as per Galatians). In turn, Paul focused on how this crucifixion was (undoubtedly through the perverse dog-and-pony show of colonial legal proceedings) the effect of a juridical pronouncement, a becoming-sin of this crucified messiah. Again, the “lawlessness” “from above” opened an opportunity, “from below” for a minimally “lawless” becoming or creative new movement—the messiah became “sin” somehow, unthinkably, but this unthinkable effect of violence opens up a space we can inhabit (you are the crucified messiah, too, crucified with him!), an inhabitation (let’s not forget) of the space of lawlessness which can give rise to new becomings which escape the repetition-of-the-same which currently govern our place in the schēmata of the world.
(9A) In your conclusion, you twice describe Paulinism as “suicidal” (p192). If that’s the case, what might be an example of contemporary Paulinism?
I’m glad you asked, because it’s a crucial topic for me, this whole question of the massive phenomenon of Christanity and its legacy as a suicide-persecution machine.
At the beginning of the book I argued that, in making “Paul” a value as the “last Jew and first Christian”, early Christians constructed a persecution machine pure and simple—what was vibrant in Paul must be paid for by the sacrifice of something imagined to be obstructive and recalcitrant in “the Jew”. It’s not just a religious or ethnic question, though such things are already of course unspeakably (and I mean unspeakably) massive. But the operations of the machine are also easily transferrable. Modern revolutionaries, too, are sometimes ecclesiastic-Paulinists or imperialist-Paulinists of this sort and in the same persecutorial mode: what is good about the new needs to be purchased by the purging of the old in you.
But there is a flip side of this Christian machine, this “apparatus” of persecution, and that’s the same machine’s suicide-function. Here, too, I find the machinery being put in place in the early Christian tradition. (Ha, admittedly, I’m often very hard on the early Christians, but only because I’m inheriting the world of ideas, governance, and solidarities they did so much to set in place!) And on this occasion in the conclusion (p. 192) I was thinking of the sexual politics of Paulinist becoming. So, whereas Paul was strangely indifferent to some important questions about sexual propriety and marital status that were obsessing others (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7), within a generation there was imagined, reactively, a “Paulinist” mode of living which buried people in a persecutorial model of possible sexual roles (1 Timothy: women should be silent, if they want to be saved they’ll be saved by bearing children!), or one which—in a suicidal fashion—withdrew from worldly normalcies apparently without any vibrant hope of worldly transformation (Acts of Thecla: only the virgins shall be saved!).
That’s a specifically sexual variation of the story, but I find that Paul often evokes in many different historical moments the same type of response, either coping with Paulinist ambiguities of becoming by conservatively concretizing a given set of identities (thus making the present into a suppressive, persecutorial device) or by withdrawing “radically” from the present but in a kind of suicidal gesture. (This was one of the things I found very interesting and useful about Stanislas Breton’s discussion of how to deal with the strange “zero level” of Pauline discourse, its bearing of a kind of neutral, un-owned and un-coopted excess of being. Breton confessed that he suspected that the “zero level” had a kind of maddening effect on life, that it could easily evoke persecuting violence toward imagined “terrorists” on the outside or, alternatively, that it could evoke a self-directed version of the same violence—that it could become a persecution-suicide machine.)
Here again, Paulinism for me is strong medicine. In it there is a strangely austere commitment to the in-between of identity (or of a minimally violent “lawlessness” toward inherited identities, a kind of “covenantal comedy” I described). And, always, there are these two tendencies of coping with the buzzy (but also scary, minimally scandalous), vibrant (but also uncertain, demanding) becomings of Paulinist or messianic life. The two tendencies are to “fix” the indeterminacies, the shift in the fundamental “playing field” of life and politics, and this by tilting toward persecutorial or suicidal modes.
So maybe I should conclude by giving two examples of this Janus-faced failure of true Paulinism today. On the one hand there are the dominant forms of Christianity today, which are basically persecutorial machines, apparatuses of an enforced acquiescence to the boredom and endlessness of workaday and consumerist life, the paranoid anxiety on behalf of sexual normalization or indeed against any community experimentation worthy of the name, the perpetuation of ongoing violences through the banalization of political options it knows it cannot represent. On the other hand there are movements which seem perfectly happy to render themselves completely pointless, capable of being ignored (or, what is the same, easily predicted and therefore controlled). In any case, it is as if there were a will to non-existence in this latter option.
And, maybe to end on this note, the flip side of persecutorial Christendom is a kind of old-fashioned secularity of the sort I sometimes come across here in the guise of a foundationalist Marxism. If Christendom wants to guarantee its place as a contemporary power-that-be, flat-footedly retro Leftism is just a form of self-sequestration, self-annihilating self-protection: only the virgins shall be saved!
Today we need rather a discipline of experimental solidarity which remains recalcitrant to the persecution-suicide machine in order to force more awkward experiences of becoming-new in which we find ourselves to be believing. And, lacking another name for it, what we need is today: a new Paulinist Internationalism.
(9B) Several times you have mentioned this Paulinist Internationalism. I’ve already pushed back somewhat against how you seem to understand the constituents of this Internationale. As I was thinking more about this, I kept thinking, not of Paul, but of Jesus. Tax-collectors, sex workers, migrant labourers, insurgents, this is surely an odd collective of people gathering with Jesus – although they do have some key things in common. Notably, they have been vanquished and colonized by a foreign imperial force and their clients operating out of Jerusalem. All those who gathering with Jesus had probably seen the scorched earth campaign that the Romans waged in Galilee, they all probably knew people who had been killed, or been raped, or been taken away as slaves. A lot of them were working jobs – sex work, migrant labour, even tax collecting – that were taken on as a result of displacement, as a result of the loss of a secure family unit, as a result of a loss of land, as a result of multiple traumas. Much like the original peoples of Turtle Island, there were many people, a great diversity, and many experiences, but all know what it is to be colonized and left for dead by a foreign power. And so the solidarities that begin to form across boundaries of gender and purity and social status and religious practice are solidarities that are possible because each and every person is dead and yet still alive and, consequently, ways to seize life and resist death begin to be explored in this community of revenants. This, I think, is the kind of Internationale that Paul and his co-workers began to rhizomatically expand and spread like a virus amongst other vanquished, colonized, and enslaved populations through the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire. Yet it sounds markedly different than the Internationale you have described (so far). This makes me wonder: although you want Paul to be more properly situated within the Judaisms of his day (which is all well and good and a point that I take to be well established by now in Pauline scholarship), how does your Paul relate to Jesus? Why this broader philosophical interest in Paul without some kind of concomitant interest in Jesus amongst the philosophers? After all, for arguments related to things like violent resistance, it seems like Jesus is the more obvious ally (Jesus has always struck me as more violent than Paul – from his tacit support of those who tore a hole in the roof of a homeowner in order to have their friend healed, to his own acts of violent property destruction when he drove a herd of pigs into the sea, thereby causing significant financial loss to the absentee landowner and leading the locals to beg him to leave their area out of their fear of that landowner, to the direct action in the Temple during Passover, Jesus seems much more violent than Paul). So can you conclude by speaking more of your understanding of Paulinist Internationalism in light of these things?
An interesting question to end on! First, thanks for the discussion you’ve staged, and I really appreciate your shrewd attention to the book. I look forward to see the Paulinisms which are happening to you and those with whom you have been working.
I won’t go on about it much as the question of Jesus seems so vast, but I’m intrigued by the way this question about the ancient figures sort of doubles as a way of reading what are perhaps some of our differences in this conversation about theory and politics. Is your exemplum, your primary touchstone, a different one from mine?
I don’t know. I do often find that it’s generally Paul who interests me more than Jesus. I mean, Jesus is wild, some kind of Jewish apocalyptic ‘Cynic’ I reckon, and that’s a good link that I like: Jesus as a kind of Critique of Cynical Reason as Peter Sloterdijk once had it. And, in keeping with those kinds of associations, some of the stuff the Gospels remember him doing are fascinating for sure, precisely the things you mention.
And, hey, I don’t even doubt that there are some aspects of Jesus’ local mission in Galilee which moved Paul’s also very interesting practices of economic sharing in the name of isonomia or equality. (That’s an open question, I think, worth mapping more vigorously than I’ve worked through in any way I’d be excited about, but and I’m glad that Gerd Theissen, Richard Horsley and others like the Stegemann brothers have pressed for a kind of wholistic “movement” reading in relation to Jesus and Paul.)
But in general I find them worlds apart in the way they approach almost everything. Even at the level of ancient media networks, which I mentioned to be an interest of mine, Paul intentionally produced a letter collection in order to become a “news” man with an ‘oeuvre’ if you will, something that Jesus was either unable or uninterested in having. By comparison to the localist Jesus, Paul seems to me a worker of the information networks, the dispersed trade routes, a competitor in the Greco-Roman world of “philosophies for sale” (as the ever hilarious Lucian puts it), and a patron-client system which Paul exploited but which sometimes seemed to be exploiting him.
And, however we cut it, on my reading of Paul there must be some accounting of why Paul was effectively, if unofficially, given his walking papers from Jesus’ Jerusalem bunch.
So you see – good mirrors! – I think there was a gap in the spheres separating Jesus’ activism from Paul’s! I also think Jesus was more trenchant, even brutal, than Paul, in keeping with a kind of parrhesiastic “bite” which tilts more toward the Cynics than Paul’s philosophical stylings, which are sometimes harsh but not nearly on the order of Jesus’.
I do think that, for me, I’d be more interested in the gap between Jesus and Paul, the innumerable sacrifices, losses, displacements alienating these figures in relation to each other.
Because then there would still be the potential for a messianic pressure of becoming. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing, as local Palestinian politics—tax collectors, displaced farmers, sex workers, and all – will invariably need to be mapped into the more diffuse and internationalist Paulinist vision—then and now. So something to come then.

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  1. NB: In Question (3) above, I mention a certain book about Jesus and homelessness as an example of something I find problematical with the Academy. It appears that I may have misunderstood that book to a certain degree. The author does, in fact, care about contemporary homelessness as an issue but, as far as I can tell, still engages the topic from a distance and not out of the some kind of shared experience of struggle, community, or the pursuit of lived mutuality with people experiencing homelessness (although, who knows, I may be wrong about that, too — regardless, the broader point stands, I think).

  2. Dear Dan,
    Ward pointed me to this interview after you published it here way back in 2016. I’m a doctoral student of his. I had forgotten about this interview until earlier today reading your interaction with Hurtado.
    It may be of some interest to you, but I recently recorded one of Ward’s (to be published) lectures on Paulinism, Agamben, and anarchic communities. Ive recorded, as well, some interesting stuff with Ward, James Crossley, and Robert Myles (who had a great book on the homeless Jesus).
    In case these are of interest to you, here is a link to the Ward lecture. You can find the other videos on my YouTube page.