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  • Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology by Hollis Phelps
  • Christopher Watkin
Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology. By Hollis Phelps. Durham: Acumen, 2013. 192 pp.

In this latest addition to the growing number of titles treating theological themes in Badiou’s work, Hollis Phelps seeks to establish that ‘the question of the role of theology in Badiou’s philosophy is more complicated than often assumed’ (p. 50). The book has four main chapters, of which the fourth, ‘Badiou’s Theology’, presents the main arguments. The first three chapters take the reader through the philosopher’s mathematical ontology, the void, and the infinite (Chapter 1), the event, truth, and the subject (Chapter 2), and the four conditions for philosophy: politics, science, art, and love (Chapter 3). Direct engagement with theology in these chapters is intermittent, and readers familiar with the Badiouian system may be inclined to skim over some of the explanations of familiar themes. These first chapters also stage helpful engagements with much of the extant work on Badiou and theology, notably challenging Frederiek Depoortere’s appeal to Georg Cantor’s distinction between the transfinite and the absolute infinite, and nuancing Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s contention that Badiou’s fidelity is a figure of Christian faith. In the fourth chapter Phelps’s own argument comes to rest on two principal points. First, and following a familiar line of criticism, Badiou’s event bears a strong resemblance to Carl Schmitt’s notion of the exception, which Schmitt likens to a miracle. Secondly—and here Phelps is less reliant on previous criticism—the structure of Badiou’s thought is ‘eschatological’, though not in terms of a totalized history with a climactic parousia. It is eschatological first because the ‘resurrection’ of truths at different historical moments is in conformity with ‘a teleological form of thought that finds the truth of the present in its relationship to the past and its confirmation in the future’ (p. 165), and secondly because of the necessity of a future anterior ‘confidence’ that an event will have taken place. Badiou’s thought is ‘between’ theology and anti-theology because it is between philosophy and what Badiou calls ‘anti-philosophy’, relying as it does on a close proximity with, and borrowings from, a range of anti-philosophers, most notably Pascal and Kierkegaard. In combination with the premise that anti-philosophy is itself theological, Phelps can conclude that Badiou’s philosophy ‘contains an anti-philosophical core that coincides with theology’ (p. 85). While Phelps reflects on the extent to which Badiou ‘relies on’ Christian theology, if there is an assumption underlying his approach it is that theology ‘owns’ the structures it deploys to the exclusion of the possibility that ‘theology’ itself may not always be irreducibly theological. Phelps comes close to engaging this assumption in his discussion of the event of the Fall in relation to redemption and when he asks ‘to what extent this notion of the remainder, whose theological name is grace, informs Badiou’s philosophy’ (p. 120). If grace is the theological name for a remainder that has other names, is the remainder always theological? Whatever the answer to this question, this book provides us with a concise summation of, and important contribution to, the ongoing challenge to Badiou’s avowed rejection of the theological.

Christopher Watkin
Monash University


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