Impossible Monism

Since the early days of my concentrated theological study and reflection I’ve been trying to feel my way through the different school’s of theological reflection. In the beginning I was still sort of constrained by this loose, generic evangelicalism with which I was extremely disillusioned. Thanks to some folks like Hauerwas and Barth and an early foray into Postructuralism through Derrida, DeSausure and Foucault I was un-tethered pretty early in the process. Once I became free of a school to which I would hold firm allegiance it became possible to try to read and discover without feeling a bunch of pressure to pick a school. I’m really not yet smart enough to pick a school. But, I’ve come across a new school lately called Radical Orthodoxy. I’m going to blog about it a little bit just in order to try and get my mind around what these guys are saying. I’m a neophyte, so I’m sure there are significant issues with my understanding. Nevertheless…

I’m going to interact with an article written by Conor Cunningham called “Nothing Is, Something Must Be: Lacan and Creation from No One.” This article is from a book called Theology and the Political: The New Debate, (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2005). He deals with a concept he calls the “impossible monism.” Cunningham’s notion of the impossible monism is in that non-Platonic philosophy always ends up generating dualisms which are “concomitantly monist.”[1] He uses as an example Jastrow’s figure of the duck-rabbit, which is a simple black and white drawing that can be seen as a rabbit and a duck, but not at the same time exactly. So when one looks at the picture one can either conjure the image of the duck or the rabbit but the actual “one upon which they are made manifest remains forever beyond our attention.”[2] The impossible monism summed is “nothing is, so something must be, for only if nothing is as something, will an impoverished immediacy be avoided, one that would require the thought of transcendence for it to be otherwise.”[3] The Monism is “a One that expresses itself as two.”[4]

He then turns to Plotinus’ Metaphysics which posits “the One” as Plato’s “the good,” or the ineffable, transcendent, perfect, knowable only through what is not. It also posits the Intellect as the realm of being; the realm of the Forms and ideas.[5] This concept is based upon the idea that what grounds an explanation of any phenomenon must be simpler relative to the observed phenomenon. Thus, what grounds an explanation must be different from the sorts of things it explains. Explanations (words) are complex but are not the rudimentary or ultimate. Thus, Cunningham says that Lacan and Badiou insist that “l’un n’est pas,” yet “il y a de l’un,”[6]

What Cunningham is playing with here is the concept of Difference. He says Difference arises from a negation – it comes only after a certain destruction. Even positive projects such as philosophy are rudimentarily destructive. This is his thesis one: “all, non-Platonic philosophical construction follows after a foundational destruction.”[7] Following Hegel: “The world is nullified;” following Eugen Fink: “deworlding,;” following Sartre’s notion of “anneantisant;” Cunningham says the argument basically goes like this: there exists a preceding unity “devoid of intelligence as it is before the presence of any ‘Text,’”[8] such that there is a separation between being and thought. Quoting Lacan, “The Discordance between knowledge and being is my subject.”[9] Thus we view a text of some sort, say the bible, but there is also a text which is animated by my language. Cunningham uses Lacan, Sartre, Heidegger and Hegel to show that “all intelligibility will be born from some sort of negation, or violence, as thought will have to impose itself.”[10] Thus these philosophers see the world as not coming to us in any articulated form (what Lacan calls “dumb reality”[11]) He sees Lacan as saying that being lacks a logos. The “thing” [the One] does not create Difference because it is “full positivity,”[12] Only by negating the One can Difference (or thought) be possible. “By murdering the Thing, things can exist, as it were; here we have the strict opposition between being and thought.”[13] Consequently, as Valery puts it, “I think, therefore, I am not.”[14]

Lacan, Cunningham says, tells us that “the being of language is the non-being of objects.”[15] Being does not speak, it comes before language. When a signifier is used to symbolize Being, it doesn’t describe the thing itself. The thing itself is lost in our symbolic representation of it. So if I look at a tree and say “tree” there is not a one to one correspondence between actual tree and the words I use to say “tree.” When this happens, “the signifier, must step in and become that about which it means to speak, and this is possible only if the signified is absent.”[16] Thus, unless we wish to say that the only thing our language can tell us is what is not, then we have to discern that our intelligibility requires a “gap, a space of difference so that noesis is possible.”[17] This gap is the place of knowing, as Lacan says, “the reality of our words serves only to let the silence of the real appear.”[18] This, Cunningham says, is Lacan’s doctrine of ex nihilo. There is no need for God in his system of thought because creation “is from nothing to such a degree that it exceeds the need for a creator.”[19] Being comes from nothing and remains nothing, which is to say, the negated fabrication of the signifier. Hence we exist without an ontology in what Lacan calls a “lack of being.” We now understand thesis two which states that “philosophy generally has a nothing outside its text, (italics mine) one that allows for the formation of that text.”[20] This concept leads to what Badiou calls “the desubstantialization of truth.”[21]

Truth is found in the text so completely so as to lead Lacan to say “I always speak the truth.”[22] There is no objective criteria for truth and thus a sort of pragmatism rules as all knowledge is essentially man-made. We do exist, but only by lacking ontology or lacking being. Since the “word murders the thing,”[23] and only by this act does the thing exist, then as Bourdieu says “the sign creates the thing signified.”[24] Slightly more complexly stated, the non-existent or “No” to Being affords us the being of non-being. For, as Cunningham writes, “For it is our language, our nomination, which Lacan says makes a hole [gap], and it is this hole, this hollowing out, that generates difference.”[25] This is thesis three: “transcendental nothing renders all identities real.”[26]

It is from this concept that philosophers such as William Burroughs or Lyotard come to see all language as violent in nature, and that which is outside of thought as “excremental, a horrific remainder.”[27] This remainder is “the gap between thought and being, the real and reality.”[28] Naming is violent but necessary because being is thoughtless. Again, as Lacan asserts, we have being without ontology or only as we lack being. Thus, “the real does not have any real difference…and here is the crux – the real and reality (the symbolic) are also in this way but aspects of a mutual one, an impossible monism.”[29] Now Cunningham has arrived at the fourth thesis: “a consequence of this ideality is mereological nihilism.” Whether we speak of the ‘being of non-being’ as Lacan does, or the ‘nothing that is’ as Fink does, or ‘No to the One’ as Badiou does, what we have here is an inescapable nihilism, an impossible monism. To understand the complete progression up to here we turn to Cunningham’s summary:

“To repeat: being and thought are in opposition; thought then negates being, but then we find that being is but a moment of the absolute which is nonbeing, so being is twice negated. Consequently, thought now stands in for being, tempting us into existence by conjuring up signifiers “thick” enough to make idealized moments, which subsist for a time: such “thick” signifiers are akin to what Lacan calls point de caption. We now can see that the real and reality, being and though, infinite and finite…are but aspects of the absolute, namely, “non-being,” and the movement we see is but the self-movement of this meontic One.” 85

This is the impossible monism. Not only that, but Cunningham shows via the syllogisms of the man before the law, they eye ripped form the face and the cake consumed, what Lacan and Badiou hold to as a monism is ever only a negative monism. Here Cunningham sees the first five of his eight thesis, the only one not explicitly mentioned thus far being the positing of a basic element, or a “stuff.”[30]

Into this model there can be two conceivable ways in which difference is available to the philosophical text. “The first is a block into which we dig our meaningful holes, while the second is the flux that must be arrested if sense is to be forthcoming.”[31] What Cunningham asserts is that within Lacan’s impossible monism, (as well as that of Badiou and Deleuze) the flux must “perform a citizen’s arrest on itself – hence the masochistic eye ripped from the face, or the cake consumed, so allowing for the idea of the cake but one that is retroactive and so impossible,”[32] or as Delueze characterizes it: “Self-differentiation is the movement of a virtuality which actualizes itself. Life differs from itself.”[33] The problem with this conception is that the members of the set maintain priority over the set and thus negate the possibility of a structuring principle (Hallett). Thus “to say that sets exist is nothing but a ‘bald statement.’ But this is mereological nihilism, affording only identity by way of aggregation.”[34]

Badiou conceieves of this simply as an “arrest of movement,”[35] wherein we exist only in contemplation. Difference is achieved “only by arresting the flux, for we must ‘section’ chaos, “wresting’ sense from it.”[36] This analogy of ‘wresting’ sense out of the chaos for Deleuze takes the form of science or philosophy as they “cast planes over the chaos.” For Badiou they take the form of the void, or “the inconsistent multiplicity that is arrested.”[37] This inconsistency is the “stuff” of “every consistent presentation.”[38] For Badiou – it is his base element.

What Cunningham draws this to is the idea that the impossible monism “ceases, as equivocity is all that is forthcoming. This is a univocity of nonbeing.”[39] Thus, these philosophies in effect, say that “I am,” providing consistency, and “I am not,” (just as the sign cannot be what it signifies, yet only refers to what it is not). It is here that Cunningham draws together his assertions:

“Nothing is, so something must be, and this something must signify the nothing; the no-thing of the text. Here then, is the impossible desire of the impossible One – who can construct difference only by ontological misrecognition. This leaves difference as the violent fruit of a perpetual dialectic between narcissism and self-loathing…As Baudelaire puts it, ‘I am the wound and the knife.’”93

It is here that Cunningham turns the heat up on Badiou, criticizing his philosophy for failing to be the guarding of the void. He says that his mistake is to consider infinity central to theology, and that this is the same mistake as Scotus, Suarez and Wolff, which can only be the ground for a purely secular state. He asserts that the crucial point is that “the more is less… something we maybe should have suspected when we realized that sanity requires insanity, the law lawlessness, and so on.”[40] The idea that difference comes from violent cutting, slicing, etc., can only be the outcome of pure immanence – nihilism.

Theology, Cunningham says (finally) does not envisage difference from the two possible models of the hole in the block or the flux. Theology sees meaning as “specific and open.”[41] According to theology there is a real communion between being and thought. He asserts that “unless we have been thought, that is, unless we subsist as the lived non-identical repetition of divine thought, then we will lapse into either of the two problematic models of difference.”[42] We have been thought by God and thus called into existence. In this way we see the nihilistic philosophies as bastard trinities. “I am a recollection,”[43] of the call of the divine – “the being of being thought by God.”[44]
Cunningham suggests a whole different framework for being or ontology. It suggests that there is the possibility of difference because of love. What this suggests for the realm of the political is that there is ontology, there is language or difference which is at once real and not based in violence. It is rather, based in peace. Reality need not be the playing out of this violent mythos which they have constructed. “The immanent requires the mediation of transcendence to afford it peaceful distinction.”[45] This seems to lend a hopeful shape to the character of what Radical Orthodoxy hopes to offer in terms of political reflection.
A quick note of criticism on form: I am not qualified to make any substantive critique of Conor Cunningham in terms of his philosophical assertion, I’m just not well read enough in philosophy. However, I did attempt to do a close reading of this chapter as well as a couple of journal articles he has written and an excerpt from his book Genealogy of Nihilism. In the other writings I found his explanations to be creative and clear, but his writing in this chapter feels like an exercise in obscurantism. The frequent slips into other languages – French, Greek, German – without translation and his assumptions that the reader has read as much philosophy as he has makes this a near impossible read. The erudition in this article actually seemed a bit exaggerated and contrived at points. I labored over this article to an absurd degree and still feel as though I’m only nipping at the heels of these concepts. Nevertheless, I’m so gratified to know that sincere theologians who obviously posses a superior intellect are willing to crawl through the mire of philosophical minutia in defense of an ontology of peace.
[1] Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek, eds., Theology and the Political: The New Debate, (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2005)., 73.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 74.
[5] Lloyd, Gerson, “Plotinus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
[6] Ibid., 73. Meaning “there is not, there is one.”
[7] Ibid., 72.
[8] Ibid., 73.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 74.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid. 75
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 76.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 72.
[21] Ibid., 77.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., 78.
[24] Ibid., 79.
[25] Ibid., 81.
[26] Ibid. 72.
[27] Ibid. 83.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 90.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid. 90.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid. 91.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid., 92.
[40] Ibid., 94.
[41] Ibid., 95.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid., 96.
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  • interesting. i look forward to trying to dialogue with you more as i dive deeper into theology this semester.

    i posted a first entry on my blog about the visit to new melleray abbey, so feel free to check it out!


  • Hey Casey,

    where’s your blog and i’ll put up a link.



  • NJ

    Challenging stuff. Was there any discussion regarding the nature of Western vs. Eastern language?

  • Not explicitly in this article anyway. Some of the western dualistic tendencies draw their heritage to Greek-Hellenistic thought. In my mind I attach some of that to the patristic church fathers. Honestly I haven’t read enough of them to know if this dualism is part of their idiom or not. I know that I’m trying to root it out. What they are pushing here is a totally new epistemological starting point, not just for theological reflection but for the very patterns of thinking, feeling and acting which we all share. I think it’s pretty ambitious and stunning.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for posting! I really enjoyed the report. I've already bookmark

    this article.