Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes
Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes

Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes


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In this provocative and necessary work, Roland Boer, a leading biblical scholar and cultural theorist, develops a political myth for the Left: a powerful narrative to be harnessed in support of progressive policy. Boer focuses on foundational stories in the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible, from Genesis through Joshua. He contends that the “primal story” that runs from Creation, through the Exodus, and to the Promised Land is a complex political myth, one that has been appropriated recently by the Right to advance reactionary political agendas. To reclaim it in support of progressive political ends, Boer maintains, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of political myth.

Boer elaborates a theory of political myth in dialogue with Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Alain Badiou, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Žižek. Through close readings of well-known biblical stories he then scrutinizes the nature of political myth in light of feminism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. Turning to contemporary politics, he examines the statements of prominent American and Australian politicians to show how the stories of Creation, conquest, Paradise, and the Promised Land have been distorted into a fantasy of Israel as a perpetual state in the making and a land in need of protection. Boer explains how this fantasy of Israel shapes U.S. and Australian foreign and domestic policies, and he highlights the links between it and the fantasy of unfettered global capitalism. Contending that political myths have repressed dimensions which if exposed undermine the myths’ authority, Boer urges the Left to expose the weakness in the Right’s mythos. He suggests that the Left make clear what the world would look like were the dream of unconstrained capitalism to be realized.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822343356
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/25/2009
Series: New Slant: Religion, Politics, Ontology Series
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Roland Boer is a Research Professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His many books include Rescuing the Bible, Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology, Marxist Criticism of the Bible, Last Stop before Antarctica: The Bible and Postcolonialism in Australia, and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: The Bible and Popular Culture. He is the founding editor of the journal The Bible and Critical Theory.

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Political Myth

On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes
By Roland Boer


Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4369-1

Chapter One

Toward a Theory of Political Myth

The best definition of myth is the shortest: an important story. Beyond that we move into the endless variations that one would expect. Rather than some catchall definition, my agenda requires something quite different, for I am after a theory of myth that brings out its political dimension in a usable form. In order to do so, I begin with two problems. First, what is the place of myth for the Left, especially in light of the profound suspicion that myth conjures up, suspicion specifically of "mystification" and religion? Second, is myth posterior to the political event, trying to make sense of it and preserve it, or does myth also have a virtual power in producing the event itself?


I want to deal with these problems via Alain Badiou, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, and Sigmund Freud. Badiou first. In focusing on the stark purity of the event, Badiou positions himself outside the realms of representation, fabulation, and myth. His theory of the event, especially his resort to mathematics as ontology, functions as one of the clearest, most systematic expressions of this need to banish any last trace of suspicion, religion, and mystification from within political thought. Or at least it initially seems to do so. For those not familiar with Badiou's thinking, let me outline what is quickly becoming the canonical reception of that thought (Badiou 2006). Whether in the realm of politics, art, love, or science, an event bursts into, punches a hole into the status quo, which Badiou variously names the Order of Being, the situation, the "there is." The terms cluster heavily around the event, which Badiou also describes in terms of a supplement to or excess of a situation, or (and here his mathematical bent comes to the fore) a subtraction from the "there is." His favored examples are falling in love, political insurrection, scientific discovery, and the great moment of a work of art. But the pure event can never be apprehended directly; it can be named only after the fact, identified as an event only after it has actually happened. Thus "I love you," May '68, Galileo, and Mallarmé are inadequate statements of an event that has already happened, linguistic traces of something that happened and then disappeared just as abruptly. Yet an event leaves behind what Badiou calls procedures of truth, certain patterns by which truth is constituted in all its contingent particularity (hence what he at times calls the "Truth-Event"). These patterns involve the naming of the event, the constitution of the subject as a result of the event, and fidelity to the event that will draw others in. If an event generates a thorough rearrangement of the coordinates of the way things are, we can know that an event has happened only through its effects, like an earthquake perhaps. Things will never be the same as the result of the event and the truth procedures it sets in motion.

You will perhaps have noticed that philosophy has not made an appearance thus far. It is not one of the conditions of the event (art, love, politics, and science), nor does it generate truth, nor indeed is it the bearer of truth. In fact, the very description or summary that I have culled from Badiou constitutes the task of philosophy, which is to discern the procedures of truth that an event sets in motion. Philosophy's task is very much after the fact, a second-order reflection. Or, as Louise Burchill (2000: ix), the translator of Badiou's Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, puts it:

As a totally chance, incalculable, disconnected supplement that surges forth in a situation and instantly disappears, the event is only recorded in its very disappearance in the form of the linguistic trace that it leaves behind. It is on the basis of these traces that are instigated the procedures of truth that it is philosophy's task to seize and organize. In other words, philosophy is not a production of "Truth" but an operation on the basis of the local truths, or procedures of truth, that, relative to a situation, always originate in an event.

For Badiou, then, philosophy is a second-order activity, explicating the consequences of the event. But I want to draw out a second point. As the champion of a reconstituted Platonism, Badiou argues that the philosophical task is mathematical at its core. Or, as he puts it, if philosophy is concerned with ontology, and if mathematics is ontology (and not just a species of ontology), then one cannot shirk the necessity of mathematics in any philosophical endeavor. But why mathematics? One reason, I suggest, is that this is the most thoroughgoing way to banish anything that even vaguely smells of mystification, religion, or myth from philosophy, let alone any political philosophy of the Left.

Badiou (2004: 93; see also 2006: 112-20) makes this explicit in an extraordinary discussion of Spinoza: "God has to be understood as mathematicity itself." Mathematics, if you like, consummates the death of God. Or, in mathematical terms, the banishment of the One and the dominance of multiplicity as the reality of our existence ensure that religion will simply not be part of the equation. Any discussion of the infinite, therefore, takes place in a thoroughly secular manner, that is, by means of the matheme (the smallest intelligible mathematical unit, like the phoneme in language).

So we have reached the point where one of the greatest political philosophers writing today, and a former Maoist committed to political possibilities for the Left-is not his theory of the event precisely such a thing?-systematically excludes any possibility of religion, let alone myth, from political thought.

Well, not quite.

By contrast, it seems to me that Badiou himself provides us with the beginnings of a theory of political myth, or the fable, as he puts it. If I may put my position as starkly as possible: the idea of a necessary fable, one that is unverifiable, unpredictable, or, in Badiou's terms, undecidable and indiscernible, emerges from the very midst of his discussions of Truth.

At this point Badiou is the worthy successor of Sorel. Alongside Sorel's argument that political myth is irrational and motivational, we also find that he pushes for the unverifiable nature of such myths. His primary distinction is the troubled one between rational and irrational, calm planning and emotive power. All of the rational programs for change he found wanting, failing to provide the deep and irrefutable motivation for continued political action in the face of repeated failures. But riding along with reason and motivation is the far more interesting idea that political myth is unverifiable: it will not be deflated by this or that failure. As an example, Sorel (1961: 125) cites the failed apocalyptic hopes of the first Christians-based on the myth of the immanent return of Christ-as the necessary and yet wholly fictional motivation for their achievements.

Back to Badiou: since I remain for all my sins a biblical scholar, let me come at this question from the side of Badiou's biblical reflections. This is the real test, for Badiou (2003c) attempts to read the letters of Paul, especially the epistle to the Romans, in a thoroughly secular manner, as a source of political insight. What interests me about this book, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, apart from what I take to be a fascinating but unwitting Calvinist flavor, is the way Paul's Truth-Event-that which radically disrupts the everyday, run-of-the-mill "Order of Being"-is inextricably tied up with a pure fable. And that fable is the resurrection of Christ. Indeed, Paul's central proclamation is that Christ has been raised, a claim about which the New Testament obsesses. Paul identifies the Truth-Event of Christ's resurrection only after the fact, only in his outright militancy, in occasional pieces written on the run (the epistles). But the event in question, the resurrection, is pure fable; it has no verifiable or historical truth (Badiou is, after all, a resolute atheist). He professes not to be interested in it, though I must confess that I am. But what draws my attention in Badiou's book on Paul is a comment barely made: that the resurrection is not merely a fable, but a necessary fable.

I want to push Badiou here and suggest that the very strength of Paul's central claim-that Jesus is resurrected-is that it is pure fable, that it is not tied to any element of the "earthly" life of Jesus, or, more generally, any historical conditions or causes. It is not falsifiable or verifiable in terms of the order of fact, according to any of the canons of scientific or historical inquiry.

I will shortly argue that Badiou's Paul book reveals the truth of his position as a whole. But first, let us see how Badiou might respond to my suggestion that fable necessarily lies at the heart of his theory of the event. Such a response might go as follows. Fable is in fact fiction, as one would expect in the realm of religion. Thus, when we are dealing with religion, the event has the structure of fiction. Even though it is named as an event, even though it produces all of the procedures of truth, even though we find people who act in fidelity to the event, the event itself must be fiction. And so we would expect fable and myth to play a central role in formulating and determining the "truth" of the event. By contrast, in other cases, such as May '68 or the Chinese Revolution, the event has the structure of fact, so there is no room for fable.

Note carefully what happens in Badiou's response (and I do not set him up as a caricature in order to criticize him). Fable slides into fiction, which in turn slides into religion. Once we are in the realm of fable-fiction-religion, we can then quarantine religion as a special instance of the Truth-Event that does not affect the other types. We might read this as an effort to avoid being threatened by hermeneutics or the pious discourse of the phenomenologists, or indeed to forestall the danger of substantializing the category of Truth as a sacred Name, as Presence and a return to the One (see Badiou 1999: 127-32; 2002: 84-85). But what lies beneath Badiou's response is a profound wariness of the idea of fable: the problem is not so much that fable means fiction as that it is tainted with religion. For this reason fable must have a limited and peripheral space.

I have rushed on too quickly, however, assuming that myth and fable are interchangeable, neglecting to ask what should in fact be the prior question: What is a fable? In terms of genre, the definition is straightforward: a fable is a story that takes place in the world of animals, plants, or inanimate objects with a point to make about human society (see Yassif 1999: 23-26). As a genre, fable does of course differ from myth. However, I am intrigued by the fact that the adjectives of fable, fabled and fabulous, break out of the strict confines of fable itself. "Fabled" designates the legendary and mythical, while "fabulous" touches on such meanings and then moves on to suggest the tremendous and extraordinary. Badiou's usage falls in with the fabled and fabulous rather than fable itself, and I will assume an interchange between fable and myth that brings them close to one another. To put it as plainly as possible, my discussion of fable in Badiou is in fact a consideration of myth itself. Thus, in the same way that fable inevitably appears in the midst of Badiou's discussions of Truth, so also does myth turn up, often uninvited, in the thick of politics.

Let me return to Badiou's response. Does he avoid fable as much as he would like? Is he able to keep fable under lock and key, under quarantine, so that it will not taint the philosophical task of dealing with the event?

It seems not. For fable, event and Truth constantly mingle and rub up against one another in Badiou's thought. The first instance comes, tellingly, from mathematics, Badiou's favored mode of thought. I cannot help but notice that in a variety of texts he broaches what can only be described as a fabulous wonder at the beauty of mathematics precisely when he asserts the ontological priority of mathematics. Out of a number of such moments, those of Mallarmé and Fernando Pessoa (in the persona of Álvaro De Campo) stand out. As for Mallarmé, Badiou (2004: 20; see also 2006: 191-98) writes, "The injunction to mathematical beauty intersects with the injunction to poetic truth." But a brief poem from Pessoa is even more to the point: "Newton's binomial is as beautiful as the Venus de Milo. The truth is few people notice it" (20). It is not merely the oft-made observation that underlying Plato's rigorous philosophy lie the Orphic Mysteries, the music of the spheres, and so forth, nor even that Plato struggles desperately with the quarrel between philosophy and art, resorting to images, metaphors, and myths at the limit of thought (Badiou 2005: 19-20), but that at the heart of the stark and courageous discipline of mathematics we happen upon a Platonic wonder at the beauty of mathematics (Badiou 1999: 11-13). It reminds me of the mathematician, whose name escapes me, who was overcome with the beauty of the simplest of formulas. Is it perhaps a wonder at the fabulous-and here I take the word in all its nuances-nature of mathematics?

The second instance of fable's unavoidable presence follows from this first example. Let me put a question to Badiou: Is mathematics the only way to identify the procedures of truth that follow the event?

I have always conceived truth as a random course or as a kind of escapade, posterior to the event and free of any external law, such that the resources of narration are required simultaneously with those of mathematization for its comprehension. There is a constant circulation from fiction to argument, from image to formula, from poem to matheme-as indeed the work of Borges strikingly illustrates. (Badiou 2000: 58)

The play of oppositions is crucial here: narration and mathematization, fiction and argument, image and formula, poem and matheme. And, I would add, myth and Truth, as Plato's myth of Er the Pamphylian at the end of the Republic with all its "traps and bifurcations" (Badiou 2000: 58) shows only too well. Except that they are not so much oppositions as a series of points in a continual circulation, or perhaps an Adornoesque dialectic (that will come soon enough). So it seems that narration, fiction, image, poem, and myth, all of these are as necessary for dealing with the Truth of an event as are argument, formula, and matheme.

I would love to tarry much longer in the militant detail of Badiou's philosophy, but that is another task (see Boer in press). But I do want to stress that I seek the theoretical necessity of fable, or what I will call more generally myth, in the midst of politics, especially the political events that interest Badiou so much. Thus far it seems that Badiou's own thought provides some of the philosophical backing for such a position, however much I have read Badiou against himself. But then there is always the precedent of Badiou's reading of Deleuze, if not Deleuze's own practice of sneaking up behind other philosophers and seeing what unexpected thought he gives birth to.

If we go back to my initial questions-the suspicion of myth, fable, and religion on the Left, and the question of whether myth is posterior to the political event or productive of it-then I have really concerned myself only with the former. And on that score I found that for all Badiou's efforts to quarantine myth and fable from his philosophy of the event, they are integral to that thought. But they remain posterior, after the fact, trying to account for what has happened. Is there, however, a productive or virtual power of myth, one that may in fact generate an event by whatever means? Or, to put it in Sorel's terms, is there a motivational as well as a reflective power in myth?


Excerpted from Political Myth by Roland Boer Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction 1

1. Toward a Theory of Political Myth 9

2. Women First? On the Legacy of "Primitive Communism" 36

3. The Fantasy of Myth 62

4. The Sacred Economy 89

5. Foreign Policy and the Fantasy of Israel in Australia 116

6. Christianity, Capitalism, and the Fantasy of Israel in the United States 144

7. Mythmaking for the Left 168

Conclusion 189

Appendix 193

Notes 213

Bibliography 227

Indexes 245

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