User:Joe Spencer/Four Discourses

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Thinking the Mormon Hermeneutic Situation

In his remarkable little book, Saint Paul, Alain Badiou works out what he calls Paul’s “theory of discourses.” [1] Badiou explains: “Paul is in fact presenting us with a schema of discourses . . . . Like Lacan, who considers analytical discourse only in order to inscribe it within a mobile schema wherein it is connected to the discourses of the master, the hysteric, and the university, Paul institutes ‘Christian discourse’ only by distinguishing its operations from those of Jewish discourse and Greek discourse . . . [and] by defining a fourth discourse, which could be called mystical, as the margin for his own.” [2] I would like to draw on the basic structure of this quadrangle of discourses in order to think carefully about what is at stake in what might be called a uniquely Mormon discourse, perhaps even a uniquely Mormon hermeneutics. [3]

The fourfold schema of discourses Badiou finds in Paul’s writings is actually rather simple. Christian or apostolic discourse ruptures the tight circle formed by two other discourses: “Greek discourse is essentially the discourse of totality,” while “Jewish discourse is a discourse of exception.” [4] But because exception excepts itself precisely from totality, it is clear that, for Paul, “Jewish discourse and Greek discourse are the two aspects of the same figure of mastery.” [5] That is, while Jewish discourse rightly attempts to speak otherwise than according to the totalizing logic of Greek thought, it ultimately fails to do so inasmuch as it defines itself against—and therefore by—totality. Hence, Badiou explains, “There invariably comes a moment when what matters is to declare in one’s own name [rather than in the name of exception] that what took place took place [for Badiou, note, it is the event that mobilizes a third discourse], and to do so because what one envisages with regard to the actual possibilities of a situation requires it.” [6]

One is immediately reminded of Joseph Smith’s history, where the Prophet dares to compare himself to Paul:

  I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense 
  before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he 
  saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed 
  him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed 
  and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had 
  seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not 
  make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he 
  knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and 
  heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think 
  or believe otherwise. So it was with me. [7]

This passage is striking not only because of Joseph’s subjective fidelity to an event that is ultimately “without proof or visibility,” [8] but because Joseph only inscribed it eventually, at that moment that, as Badiou says, “invariably comes . . . when what matters is to declare . . . that what took place took place . . . because what one envisages with regard to the actual possibilities of a situation requires it.” As Joseph Smith himself put it, “I have been induced to write this history, to . . . put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts . . . [and] I shall present the various events in relation to this Church, in truth and righteousness.” [9]

In short, apostolic discourse was as much a question for Joseph as it was for Paul of “mobilizing a universal singularity both against the prevailing abstractions” of conservative discourse and “against [the] communitarian or particularist protest” of liberal discourse. [10] Mormon discourse is a revolutionary discourse, [11] an always third discourse that at once speaks within the present situation and yet otherwise than the two discourses of the situated present.

Badiou detects also in Paul, “as if in shadowy outline,” the delineation of a fourth, mystical discourse, “the discourse of the ineffable, the discourse of nondiscourse.” [12] It is a genuinely fourth discourse in that it “must remain unaddressed, which is to say that it cannot enter into the realm of preaching.” [13] In Paul’s writings, as much as in those of Joseph, it takes the form of speaking in tongues, experiences in the Spirit, visions, and the like. As Badiou points out, Paul “refuses to let addressed discourse, which is that of the declaration of faith, justify itself through an unaddressed discourse, whose substance consists in unutterable utterances.” [14] The same must be said for Joseph: “You may speak in tongues for your own comfort but I lay this down for a rule that if any thing is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.” [15] Again: “When you see a vision pray for the interpretation if you get not this, shut it up. There must be certainty in this matter.” [16]

Four discourses, then: the dialectical play of the primary discourse of conservativism and the secondary (or derivative) discourse of liberalism is transgressed by a revolutionary third discourse of the event that is always conversant in, but never justified by, a fourth, unaddressed discourse. This schema of discourses quite nicely delineates the position from which Mormonism—at least as embodied in Joseph Smith’s discourse—speaks.

And here a very real danger deserves attention: does this positioning of Mormon discourse not ultimately suggest that Mormonism is just one of so many revolutionary movements, that though Mormons speak, when they speak as Mormons, in a way that distracts the dialectical play of prevailing contemporary voices, they do not, in the end, do so in a particularly unique way? Does this analysis not lead, in a word, to the inevitable conclusion that while Mormonism is commendably revolutionary, the ritual, scriptural, doctrinal, and historical baggage it brings with it must remain an essential embarrassment, if not the source of a constant temptation to lapse into particularism? [17]

I am convinced that the answer to these questions is negative: there is a uniquely Mormon discourse, in fact a uniquely Mormon hermeneutics, [18] though it is structurally identical to other revolutionary discourses. What distinguishes Mormon interpretation from that of other revolutionary movements is the unique event to which Mormon discourse is incessantly and uniquely faithful and in the light of which Mormon hermeneutics interprets every text, an event I will refer to somewhat enigmatically here simply as “Adam-ondi-Ahman.” [19] Enigmatically, because an infinite hermeneutic alone—and it is precisely this infinite hermeneutic that I am here calling a uniquely Mormon discourse—could speak of this event faithfully. And what place could faith find, after all, in a paper like this?

But perhaps it can be seen fit to allow me here—simply for purposes, one might say, of illustration—to assume my own subjectivity so as to speak a few revolutionary words, a bit of an infinite hermeneutic, to bear—in a word—my rather complicated testimony. I would like to do so by offering, just briefly, an interpretation of the history of the Church. Through this hermeneutic and testimony—that is, from the rhetorical position of a radically faithful Latter-day Saint—I would like to lay out another quadrangle of discourses. [20] This second fourfold schema of discourses will prove to be a self-elaboration of what I have already identified as the uniquely Mormon discourse: in fidelity to the event I am elliptically naming “Adam-ondi-Ahman,” Mormon discourse assumes four historical shapes, which collectively function to secure its radicality.

Testimony: A Revolutionary Hermeneutic

Though all four discourses of which I would now like to speak are clearly rooted in the uniquely Mormon discourse of radical fidelity to the event of Adam-ondi-Ahman, only one of them is that discourse itself, what I will now call simply evental discourse. This was, it seems to me, the only addressed discourse of early—that is, pre-1835—Mormonism. Paired with it in those early years, as the historical record shows, [21] was an unaddressed discourse essentially parallel to Paul’s mystical or unutterable discourse, which I will here call fundamentalist discourse. I thus understand Mormonism to have been, during the stretch from the First Vision to the publication of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, split between two discourses: one addressed, offering to any who would hear a scriptural hermeneutic grounded in fidelity to Adam-Ondi-Ahman; and one unaddressed, that of tongues, prophecies, rods and stones.

At two points in the subsequent history of the Church, another uniquely Mormon discourse was introduced, what I here call ecumenical discourse. This discourse was introduced at two times when, due to real threats from American ideologues, militantly revolutionary discourse was about to turn into militarily revolutionary action. Ecumenical discourse thus emerged in both cases as a means of deferring imminent physical violence. Importantly, it was introduced into Mormonism in both instances by revelation, the first time in the form of what is now Doctrine and Covenants 105, and the second time in the form of the Manifesto, now Official Declaration 1. [22] This third uniquely Mormon discourse led eventually to the generation of a fourth—what I here call institutional discourse—though it will be necessary to trace carefully the history of ecumenical discourse to see how this happened.

The fundamental difference between evental and ecumenical discourse must first be clearly identified: while evental discourse is addressed to any who will hear, ecumenical discourse was prescribed by revelation as a discourse addressed to a specific kind of person in a specific situation. From the revelation:

  Talk not of judgments, neither boast of faith nor of mighty works, 
  but carefully gather together, as much in one region as can be, 
  consistently with the feelings of the people; And behold, I will 
  give unto you favor and grace in their eyes, that you may rest in  
  peace and safety, while you are saying unto the people: Execute 
  judgment and justice for us according to law, and redress us of   
  our wrongs. Now, behold, I say unto you, my friends, in this way 
  you may find favor in the eyes of the people, until the army of 
  Israel becomes very great. [23]

The revelation amounts to a kind of replacement of evental discourse [24] when speaking with neighbors: local settlement is impossible when one preaches to the locals with unsettling fidelity to the uniquely Mormon event of Adam-ondi-Ahman. Ecumenical discourse therefore involves a kind of willful discursive suspension of belief, perhaps a kind of unfaithfulness usually called wisdom.

Addressable Mormon discourse was thus split in two, and though the revelation, wisely followed, might have reduced the threat of external conflict, the sudden implicit contradiction between two public faces of Mormonism immediately led to serious internal conflict. Some members of the Church detected in the introduction of an alternative discourse a kind of concession to worldly ideologies. Others, quite comfortable with the political acceptability of ecumenical discourse, perhaps hoped to rid the Church once and for all of embarrassing earlier beliefs. In the end, these two positions amount to the same mistake: they are both de-radicalizations of Mormon discourse, ways of turning Mormonism into something non-revolutionary. The appeal to Christian primitivism reduced Mormonism to fundamentalism, while the appeal to American republicanism reduced Mormonism to ecumenism. [25]

The survivors of the disasters of 1834-1838, who went on to ground the Nauvoo church—and eventually the Utah church—were thus primarily the consistently radical, which is to say, the consistently faithful, [26] though the internal conflicts introduced by the presence of ecumenical discourse continued right through the Mormon stay in Nauvoo. That stay was, of course, remarkably short: despite Joseph’s attempts during his years in Nauvoo to use ecumenical discourse to make space in the United States for Mormonism’s revolutionary evental discourse, [27] Illinois became just another stop on the trail blazed in Mormonism’s “quest for refuge.” [28] The presence of an alternative ecumenical discourse ironically did nothing to secure the freedom of speaking eventally: one could speak freely of Adam-ondi-Ahman only from distant Mormon Utah. The ineffectiveness of ecumenical discourse, coupled with the distance between Utah and the settled states of the Union, eventually pressed Mormon ecumenism into a period of latency.

It reemerged in the face of the full-blown federal attack of the late 1880s, and it reintroduced, with the same remarkable fury, the predictable internal conflicts that again threatened to tear the Church apart. This time the internal struggle of the Church—set in motion by the 1890 presentation of the Manifesto that announced the cessation of polygamy—lasted for a full fifteen years, a period that has been helpfully chronicled by Carmon Hardy [29] and Thomas Alexander. [30] The difficulty seems to have lasted so long in this second instance primarily because there was nowhere else for Mormons to go: because it was no longer possible to flee physically into the wilderness in order to avoid the political contact that necessitated an ecumenical discourse, the Church was forced to grapple with the internal tensions created by the revelation commanding the Saints to speak ecumenically as well as eventally. Faithfulness to the revelations would have to reconcile the three revealed discourses in some way.

What finally resolved these tensions was the Second Manifesto of 1904, which amounted to the introduction of a fourth and final uniquely Mormon discourse: that of the institution. This move has of course been consistently regarded as the Mormon instance of the inevitable shift from charisma to office, [31] but such an interpretation is, I would suggest—or rather, I would testify—not radical enough. What, then, is at stake in this seemingly statist move, in the development, that is, of a discourse that is explicitly, unapologetically, and ultimately quite forcefully institutional, in the establishment of a modern church whose relationship to the pre-modern church would seem to hover between imposition and imposture?

Actually, the question that must be asked is this: What is it about the introduction of ecumenism into Mormon discourse that profoundly unsettles it? The answer: ecumenism de-universalizes Mormon discourse by giving it a particularist voice. That is, ecumenical language gives the Church a place in the world as church, but it can only do so by making a self-contradictory move: ecumenism affirms the truth of the Church only by denying its uniqueness, by historicizing an un-historical—or even anti-historical—event. While the revolutionary offers a textual hermeneutic that is faithful to the uniquely Mormon event of Adam-ondi-Ahman, the ecumenist (or apologist) testifies to the truth of the Church, of the historico-political entity that is the ecclesiastical unit. The tension between radical fidelity and apologetic ecumenism arises because Mormons fail to distinguish between history and the event. While the event finds itself in the radically faithful discourse of a uniquely Mormon hermeneutics, which is addressed to absolutely everyone in the form of a call, history finds itself only in the politically charged discourse of ecumenical apology, which is always addressed to a non-member by a member.

It is the introduction of institutional discourse that definitively separates history from eventality. It does this primarily by introducing a discourse that is essentially parallel to ecumenism: as ecumenical discourse is the discourse of member to non-member, institutional discourse is that of member to member. Institutional discourse thus completes ecumenical discourse by combining with it to totalize historical Mormon discourse: when member-to-non-member discourse is paired with member-to-member discourse, it would appear that everyone has been addressed, and nothing else remains to be said.

The difficult years 1890-1904 trace the development of this dialectic in a fascinating way: the eminently ecumenical manifesto of 1890—it was, of course, addressed to the world, in fact, “to whom it may concern,” and does little more than make public claims about historical facts—was eventually doubled by the explicitly institutional manifesto of 1904—which was, importantly enough, addressed directly to the saints and presented as nothing less than an institutional policy. Having announced the cessation of plural marriage both to the world of non-members—in the first manifesto—and to the members—in the second manifesto—all that needed to be said about the practice had been said.

But does this opening of a doubly—and so totally—historical discourse for Mormonism not compromise or even repress the revolutionary discourse of the event? I would say, rather—and I say this always and only by way of testimony—that it displaces it, that is, subtracts it, quite appropriately, from history, from the realm of members and non-members, and thus restores to it (as a discourse that entirely ignores the member/non-member difference) [32] its universality: Mormon discourse again—by virtue of, indeed, thanks to, the imposition of the institution—is given to preach its uniquely faithful hermeneutic to all who will hear.

If evental discourse was thus given its unique voice again, fundamentalist discourse—which had become curiously vocal—was again restored to silence: fundamentalist discourse was moved definitively to the temple, where it could be bound by sacred covenants. [33] Indeed, wherever fundamentalist discourse attempted to remain vocal—attempted to become an addressed rather than an unaddressed discourse—institutional excommunication inevitably followed. And hence the rise, beginning in 1904 precisely, of fundamentalist Mormon churches.

Could it possibly be, then, that everything is going according to plan? That “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise”? [34] That “we speak the wisdom of God,” even today, this very moment, “in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory”? [35] Is such a thing possible? Not that possibility much matters here: I can—and will—only testify: Adam will sit; the Son of Man will come; and the Kingdom will be borne off triumphant.

“And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!” [36]


[1]Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 40-54.

[2]Ibid., 41.

[3] It is of interest, but perhaps little more, that Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens say, regarding Badiou’s understanding of subjectivity, in their introduction to Infinite Thought: “On the one side, you have human beings, nothing much distinguishing them from animals in their pursuit of their interests, and then, on the other side, you have the new elect, the new elite of faithful subjects. This has a dangerous ring, and one could be forgiven for comparing it at first glance to Mormon doctrine.” Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (New York: Continuum, 2003), 7. Perhaps more to the point, however: “There is not one of these [Pauline] maxims which, setting aside the content of the [resurrection] event, cannot be appropriated for our situation and our philosophical tasks.” Badiou, Saint Paul, 15.

[4] Badiou, Saint Paul, 41.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 44, emphasis added.

[7] Joseph Smith-History 1:24-25.

[8] Badiou, Saint Paul, 45.

[9] Joseph Smith-History 1:1-2.

[10] Badiou, Saint Paul, 14. Cf. Hugh W. Nibley, “Assembly and Atonement,” in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 119-145; and Jon M. Duncan, “Multiple Discourses in Early Mormon Religion,” Masters Thesis (Brigham Young University, 1998), 47.

[11] Cf. Joseph Smith Jr., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, eds. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 367: “I calculate to be one of the Instruments of setting up the Kingdom of Daniel, by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.” Was Joseph drawing, in making this statement, on the words of his paternal grandfather? While the History of the Church reports concerning the latter, “My grandfather, Asael Smith, long ago predicted that there would be a prophet raised up in his family, and my grandmother was fully satisfied that it was fulfilled in me. My grandfather Asael died in East Stockholm, St. Lawrence county, New York, after having received the Book of Mormon, and read it nearly through; and he declared that I was the very Prophet that he had long known would come in his family,” George A. Smith, Joseph’s cousin, phrased Asael’s prophecy in terms of revolution: “My grandfather, Asahel Smith, heard of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and he said it was true, for he knew that something would turn up in his family that would revolutionize the world.” Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. Brigham H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1971), 2:443; George D. Watts, ed., Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Millennial Star, 1854-86), 5:102.

[12] Badiou, Saint Paul, 51.

[13] Ibid., 52.

[14] Ibid., 52.

[15] Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, 119.

[16] Ibid., 12. Is Joseph summarizing his own obedience to these “rules” when he states, in the King Follett discourse, “You never knew my heart. No man knows my hist[ory]”? Ibid., 355.

[17] Cf. Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s, 2001), 148: “Just as some Ulster Unionists, having picked up the language of the cultural studies departments, have the cheek these days to define their Britishness as a commitment to a multi-ethnic society, so a few Mormons are no doubt now spouting on about ‘marital pluralism’ or ‘flexible multi-choice gender affiliations’ when they mean polygamy.”

[18] In his monumental Being and Event, Badiou describes faithful or revolutionary discourse as a kind of hermeneutic: “In sum, a fidelity is the apparatus which separates out within the set of presented multiples, those which depend upon an event. To be faithful is to gather together and distinguish the becoming legal of a chance.” Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2006), 232. Because Badiou consistently argues that it is in the operation of such a hermeneutic that truth is created (rather than, say, comprehended or understood), there seems to be reason to link up, as curious as it might sound, the thought of Badiou with the thought of Paul Ricoeur: one might take Ricoeur’s work on hermeneutics as a kind of fleshing out of the method or operation according to which a revolutionary hermeneutic proceeds. The connection between the two thinkers might be pressed further: their common interest in the Freudian model of subjectivity as well as their curiously similar approaches to the nature of history deserves attention. The amenity between Mormonism and Badiou’s thought that I am outlining in this paper would thus, I think, equally suggest an amenity between Mormon hermeneutics and thought of Paul Ricoeur. The particulars of such a project must be outlined elsewhere.

[19] Adam Miller has also spoken—and, importantly, in connection with Badiou—of a “uniquely Mormon event,” though I remain unsure about how my own conception of this event maps onto his, which he formulates entirely in terms of immanent manifestation. See his “The Gospel as an Earthen Vessel,” Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology 1:2 (Fall 2005), 56-8. I suspect that the distance between our positions has more to do with the distance between our respective philosophical heritages than it has to do with actual content. The testimony I offer in the second part of the present paper is perhaps closely related to his claim that “Mormonism has not been ‘watering itself down’ and moving ever farther from its original impetus”; rather, it “has done nothing other than self-consciously and consistently purify and universalize its own potent inflection of our ultimately generic declaration of the universality of God’s love for all his children.” Ibid., 59. I will confess, however, that Miller’s words here seem to me to move so close to the line between ecumenical and evental discourse that I am not sure that he doesn’t cross that line here and there in the course of his summary statement. That is, while I agree with Miller that “if Mormonism genuinely intends to universally revolutionize the world, then it must render itself sufficiently generic in order for the entirety of [the] world to be transformed by it,” I wonder whether his way of phrasing this point doesn’t too easily collapse the distinctions between the three addressed discourses of Mormonism. Ibid.

[20] This second quadrangle will prove to be roughly parallel to the quadrangle I have already drawn from Badiou’s reading of Paul. But because I will articulate this second quadrangle through an interpretation of Mormon history, they will appear in a different order.

[21] The most revealing record on this point is perhaps Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1983).

[22] Appended to the Doctrine and Covenants in the current edition.

[23] Doctrine and Covenants 105:24-25.

[24] Verse 23 of the passage quoted makes this replacement clear: “And let all my people who dwell in the regions round about be very faithful, and prayerful, and humble before me, and reveal not the things which I have revealed unto them, until it is wisdom in me that they should be revealed.”

[25] David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery nicely demonstrate the equivalence of these two positions: it is never clear which of these two positions grounded their leaving the Church during the Missouri persecutions. David Whitmer seems to have leaned more heavily in the direction of fundamentalism, and Oliver Cowdery more in the direction of ecumenism, but they ultimately left Far West arm in arm.

[26] The exchange between John Taylor and Parley P. Pratt during the Kirtland apostasy seems to me to be the most revealing confirmation of this fact. Brigham H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1892), 39-41.

[27] Joseph’s brilliant interweaving of ecumenical and evental discourse is perhaps what is behind the several Josephs that are now read into his Nauvoo sermons: one can just as easily extract an ecumenical as an evental Joseph from his words. Joseph’s language often even anticipated institutional discourse, thus grounding another modern interpretation of the Prophet.

[28] Marvin S. Hill, “Quest for Refuge: An Hypothesis as to the Social Origins and Development of the Mormon Political Kingdom,” Journal of Mormon History 2 (1975), 3-20.

[29] B. Carmon Hardy. Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

[30] Thomas G. Alexander. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

[31] This interpretation is what justifies the fascinating project of Jan Shipps, 'Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

[32] M. Russell Ballard’s words during the November 2001 General Conference are interesting in this regard: “I believe it would be good if we eliminated a couple of phrases from our vocabulary: ‘nonmember’ and ‘non-Mormon.’”

[33] The argument could of course be made that because the ordinances of the temple were always connected with covenants of secrecy, something like an institution had been in place since the Nauvoo period. While it should not be denied that Joseph employed something like institutional discourse during the Nauvoo years, it is quite equally clear that these ordinances—as well as other, so-called mystical experiences—were spoken of far more freely during the pre-institutional era of Utah Mormonism. The early decades of the twentieth century can quite easily be seen as a history of institutional attempts to silence—quite appropriately—what had become an overly vocal fundamentalist discourse.

[34] 1 Corinthians 1:27.

[35] 1 Corinthians 2:7.

[36] Doctrine and Covenants 128:23.