Beyond Monotheism — 10. Thinking multiplicity

[The following is a guest post by frequent commenter Andy, who regularly blogs at ad absurdum.]

Schneider is really laying her cards on the table in this chapter, which provides a happy philosophical release from the anticipation built up by all the necessary but preliminary historical work in the first part of the book. Here she weighs in with appraisals, assessments, and expressions of solidarity. The basic question of the chapter is: how to think multiplicity and so work our way out of theology’s dead end?

I think some of Schneider’s greatness is revealed in this chapter, and it is a greatness of compilation. She puts together series of formulations that change the way theology is thought, and draws insights from a variety of backgrounds in order to apply them to old questions. She also takes steps towards putting together some canons of thinkers that we might not have put together otherwise. These tools of thought help us to see similarities and so new interpretations of their work.

And the first way in which we may think a logic of multiplicity in theology is to take the incarnation seriously (and the failure to do so are is apparently initiated by Pelagius and broken by Ruether). This means not just reflecting on what it was that took flesh, but also examining the implications of the fleshiness that became divinised. Schneider claims that the recent return of the body to theology allows us to see other sexualities as divine, God as in solidarity with the tortured, enslaved and oppressed, and the goodness of divine development (over against stasis). All these moves may awake in us an awe regarding the unprescribed mystery and potential of the body (and here she perhaps surprisingly draws in Spinoza to provide the conclusion of these developments within liberation, process and feminist theology).

One major problem with the bodiless God is its lack of particularity. God becomes the fulfilment of everything in the abstract, but nothing in particular. As such the word God loses its power of reference to reality. It becomes removed and powerless. I found Schneider’s understanding of the body helpful here insofar as it did not fall into a dualism (as often) as other ‘body theology’ does: ‘divinity conceived as a primordial principle or a completion – even as a transcendent lure – can easily remain aloof to what makes particular bodies particular, namely their utter unrepeatability. With this avoidance of particularity by virtue of a summation of all particularities, the logic of the One remains intact and satisfied, if somewhat humbled.’ (pp140-1)

At the same time, the effort to think particularity is forever frustrated by the fact that in order to attain to particular people, events, characteristics (this dog, that day, this colour), you have to use general concepts that are shared with the rest of the world (this small brown dog, that day in September, this light blue). Schneider falls, with the early modern philosophers, on the problem of general ideas. But this very implication of the general in the particular leads us to an understanding of multiplicity. When we describe something particular, it is as if we wish to attain to a logical atom (and here her work does smack of Wittgenstein’s early desctruction of Russell’s misunderstood logical atomism), but the more detailed our analysis, the less we are able to distinguish between predicates and substantives.

Schneider follows this up with a brief (oh, so brief!) discussion of multiplicity among her continental canonical philosophers, Braidotti, Irigaray, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Nancy, Badiou, and Baudrillard. Here she makes important elucidations of her thesis of multiplicity, whereby one is not subordinate to the many, the notion of number is necessary but not necessarily as built on the number one. She also aspires to write a logic of multiplicity, unwilling as she is to be marginalised to a dialect or idiom. This of course parallels her concern for ontology, and the last chapter’s resistance to leaving established ontologies in place.

The final section of the chapter sketches out a history of ways in which theology can and has thought ontologies of multiplicity, together with the accusations directed at the logic of the One since theology’s withdrawal from ontological debate with Kierkegaard and in response to Heidegger. The list of positive responses (which also act as motivations for thinking multiplicity) is a curious bag: firstly, physicists working after Einstein’s theory of relativity and Gödel’s incompleteness theory; secondly, thinkers reacting to the Eurocentric (and Pythagorean-inspired) tradition; thirdly, existentialist and phenomenologist theory who think ‘Multiplicity as the simultaneity and presence of unique becomings and passings away’ (p149); and fourthly, black, postcolonial, and white feminist psychoanalytic thinkers responding to the oppression of dark-skinned and female bodies.

Schneider closes by asking what ‘embodied thought’ might mean. One constructive suggestion is the non-demythologising interpretation of parallels. Instead of abstracting from Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God in order to ascertain some abstract lesson, she wants to take these life-stories as direct stories of what it actually is. To resist transferring the stories to some metaphysical context of bodiless bliss and to see the divine in life stories.

Thoughts for reflection: No doubt others are able to assess Schneider’s interpretation of Deleuze, Nancy and Badiou better than I. I found her attempts at getting beyond the dualisms of the logic of the One either only partially successful or over-ambitious. They were partially successful when she asks to focus on the “carnation” rather than the “in”, which of course re-instates the distinction. And this is one of the problems of any discussion of the body. Perhaps it is a merely pedagogical problem. They were over-ambitious when trying to retain a logic, but discard the true/false dualism and embrace ‘meaningful contradiction.’ It is certainly unclear what logic can be without those. However, her work on locally circumscribing theological characteristics and the ontology of the multiple was excellent.

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9 Responses to “Beyond Monotheism — 10. Thinking multiplicity”

  1. Hill Says:

    I really need to read this book. Your summary expressed some of my concerns, having only read these summaries, that the more things get down to brass tacks, the less sense it makes. I’m thinking in particular about a “logic of multiplicity,” e.g. and I say that as someone sympathetic to the attempts to get around “the law of noncontradiction.” My concern is just that so far they seem trapped in the realm of the poetical, and I feel like Schneider is, too. I think we all realize that there is a certain rhetorical zealousness, closely associated with Continental thought, that while it allows us to stride rapidly (if haphazardly) over lots of conceptual terrain, it often leaves us discombobulated once the rubber needs to hit the road.

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’m a little confused as to what you mean Hill. The rubber hits the road rather well with Schneider I think in terms of talking about these little enclaves of resistance as instances of the Kingdom of God. I also think that a thinker like Deleuze, with his (in Schneider’s terms) logic of multiplicity actually makes more sense of reality than seemingly unpoetic common sense philosophies. This isn’t an argument as such, it’s a comment, but you can see this in the way that science discloses the world as infinitely more weird, and in that way miraculous in itself, than we could have expected under those philosophers concerned with what they take to be some rubber hitting a road somewhere in this world.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Oh, and as one of the Deleuzians here I will say I thought Schneider’s use of Deleuze completely adequate. There is something unsatisfying about the length of the book, but that seems to have a purpose, so I can’t really complain too much about the brevity with which she treats Deleuze, et al.

  4. Hill Says:

    Like I said, I haven’t read the book… it’s just that, like Andy, when I hear things about trying to get past the true/false dualism… while I feel in my heart that this might be cool, I can’t say in good faith that I have any idea what it means in practical terms or otherwise.

  5. Hill Says:

    Another reflection: I’m with you about “logics” of multiplicity (e.g. Deleuze) making more sense of the world. I actually agree in some sense… but the word “logic” is not used in the technical sense here. I actually require the true/false dualism to do the science that elucidates the weirdness of the world, and there may be some sense in which we wouldn’t even know what weird is if the true/false dualism (et al.) didn’t actually have some sort of privilege. So can there really be a logic of multiplicity? Or does it have to remain a kind of apophatic grappling with the excess of reality to “monological” modes of conceptualizing it.

  6. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    For one quite clear presentation of the logical problems associated with the law of contradiction (leading to the denial of the reality of multiplicity/duration), one can read Bergson, ch. 4 “the idea of nothing” section, in Creative Evolution (available online, check at archive.org). Bergson is quite far from any kind of “apophatic grappling” here.

  7. Hill Says:

    I do think that Bergson, although I have read incredibly little, screams out to me with promise in thinking through these things in a methodical and philosophically rigorous way.

  8. Dominic Says:

    When Schneider talks about a multiplicity not derived from “the one”, is she talking about consistent multiplicity, or inconsistent multiplicity?

    It seems to me that “the one” supplies the basic criterion of consistency: that which can be counted-as-one is that which can be formed into a consistent multiple. “Determination of unity” – of oneness – is the operation which specifies an entity as the one that it is and not some other, according to the ontological rule “everything is what it is, and not some other thing”.

    So if one is talking about entities not subject to this rule, if one suspends the criterion of consistency, one is then talking about inconsistent multiplicities: things which are both what they are, and some other thing (which in turn is not solely what it is), things whose very being is a palimpsest of self-being and unself-being, self grafted to unself.

    Set-theoretic ontology, in Badiou’s formulation, effectively says that such things are just not things; but it also says, at the same time, that things (unitary entities) are just the effects of unit operations (counting-as-one) which stabilize them and put them into play within the hierarchy of presentation and representation. Being qua being is not a collection of things: it’s absolutely unthingly. To try to come up with an ontology of inconsistent multiplicities, non-unitary entities that are both distinct (individuated) and non-distinct (disseminated) from each other, is to try to talk about unthingly things – a notion that we might treat with the same skepticism Hobbes extended towards that of “incorporeal substance”.

    Or, we might not. A concept of numericality not based on counting-as-one might help us get over our skepticism: how can we make distinctions of order or quantity when talking about unthingly-things? Trinitarian theology, for example, seems to be able to talk about God in exactly three persons, in spite of the apparently limitlessly complex manifold co-implications of these persons (and the occasional appearance of Sophia as a kind of implicit norm or emergent artifact). Is there a mathematics of the unthingly?

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Dominic, There is a possibility that Schneider will write a post responding to the event and to specific questions — if so, I will definitely direct her attention to this one.


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