“Badiou and Beyond: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation” by Bruno Bosteels

In “Politics in the Wake of Actually Existing Zeal,” after trying to explain some of the reasons for the urgency and necessity of Alain Badiou’s interventions in the current debate over philosophy and politics, Andrew Pendakis in his inimitable style—just look at the devastating sarcasm of the title alone—raises a set of “irritating questions” with which my book Badiou and Politics left him flush and unsettled. Though I may have provoked them, these questions seem less aimed at my work than at the thought of Badiou, so that it may seem presumptuous and out of place for me to try to answer them here. Badiou is certainly capable of speaking for himself, and I am less and less inclined to accept to be put in the position of having to defend or represent him. Nevertheless, insofar as several of the questions before us expand on doubts, criticisms, and polemical objections that I myself raise in Badiou and Politics, perhaps this is a good moment to reflect and comment on where I stand now and what I would do or am doing differently today.

First of all, as should have been clear from the book, I am in agreement that there is an idealist temptation lurking in Badiou’s treatment of the discourse of philosophy. For all his avowedly materialist insistence on the fact that philosophy cannot produce any truths of its own, only the empty category of truth with which to seize on and be seized by the truths of politics, love, science, or art, there is indeed a sense in which the category of philosophy itself is a timeless, universal and transhistorical invariant. This is why in Badiou and Politics and even more so in Marx and Freud in Latin America, I plead in favor of theory, or critical theory, as an inherently unstable and historically pliable category to describe the production of thought or intellectuality from within concrete practices.

Second, the difference in tone or orientation between philosophy and theory is linked to the difference in style or the mode of investigation and exposition between dialectical materialism (or what Badiou after Althusser prefers to call the materialist dialectic) and historical materialism (or what with Walter Benjamin I would prefer to call materialist historiography). While I would not follow Pendakis in labeling the former a “worldview,”–a term we all know to be a disparagement ever since Freud and Heidegger resisted seeing psychoanalysis or phenomenology as a philosophical Weltanschauung or Weltbild–I see greater urgency and use for the latter, at least in my own work.

Third, I still hold on to the thesis that Badiou’s Theory of the Subject, because of its experimental nature and its being still so closely tied to the sequence of French Maoism (not to be confused by the way with Maoist China) is an indispensable stepping stone for anyone who wants to grasp the persistence of the dialectic, including the question of the relation between theory or philosophy and history, in Being and Event and its follow-up Logics of Worlds. However, I would go a step further by arguing for the plural theories of the subject. This is not meant as a liberal-tolerant corrective to the axiomatic dogmatism of the singular. The point is not to multiply various theories into an eclectic rainbow coalition, but to invest the theory of the subject with the rigor and depth of its historical becoming.

To give but one example of the problems at issue in this regard: when Badiou, in his hypertranslation of Plato’s Republic decides to translate the Greek psychè not as soul but as Subject; or when he translates logos not as speech or reason but as discourse, he is in fact erasing the historicity of these concepts. This obviously has the advantage of making Socrates into an exhilarating contemporary of Jacques Lacan or Judith Butler, but the drawback is also a loss of critical leverage in the sense that we no longer even feel the need to understand how Platonism became Christian, or how language acquired a density and an autonomy all of its own that for the so-called linguistic turn ran counter to the logocentrism of speech or self-consciousness.

Fourth, while I would not be so quick to oppose the profane level of run-of-the-mill operations to the stellar heights of axiomatic formalizations, given that for Badiou mathematics is something anyone anywhere can do with pencil and paper in hand, I would take the argument about historicity, too, one step further by arguing that the possibility of abstraction itself is of course linked to material and historical processes. Absolutely crucial here would be Marx’s descriptions in the notebooks for the Grundrisse, especially, of how capital is capable of positing its historic presuppositions as though they were its own products, and not its conditions; and how, as a result, capital can erase its own past and present itself as a natural and eternal being in the name of production, labor, circulation etc. in general, rather than as the result of violent, historic processes of becoming. Even more convoluted is the process—hinted at but not thematized by Marx—by which capitalist ideology then begins to entail a celebration of becoming, contingency, chance, and so on, except of course when it comes to the material necessity of this generalized logic of contingency itself. Just think of the belated rebirth of interest in ancient atomism, the clinamen, and so on—all phenomena that Badiou already discussed and criticized in Theory of the Subject, long before the posthumous publication of Althusser’s manuscripts on aleatory materialism would drive a whole generation of students back to Marx’s doctoral dissertation on the difference between Democritean and Epicurean philosophies of nature.

Fifth, a further complication arises when we begin to intimate that the fundamental moves or operations that we associate today with the subject, that is, a certain turning back upon itself, a conversion or torsion of the subject upon its own conditioning, corresponds rather ominously with the circuitous paths by which capital posits its own presuppositions and, so to speak, wills itself into existence. When Marx, in the third of his “Theses on Feuerbach,” defines praxis as the simultaneous changing of one’s circumstances and the self-activity of changing oneself, is he too not using this same figure which we see repeated over and over again, not just among Young Hegelians but today as well, from Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection to Michel Foucault posthumously published lectures at the Collège de France on The Hermeneutics of the Subject? Currently, this is one of the directions in which in a series of seminars I am continuing the work begun in Badiou and Politics, namely, as an effort to expand and supplement what I would call the structural or formal theory of the subject (shared by Badiou, Butler, but also Zizek) with a historical or genealogical theory of the coming-into-being of this formal theory of the subject (a historical or genealogical account for which elements can be found not only in Marx or Foucault but also in Freud or in the work of León Rozitchner that I started analyzing in Marx and Freud in Latin America).

Sixth, where I begin to be in greater disagreement is with regard to the otherwise seductive formulation of the affective mood or tone of our times. Here Pendakis raises a timely question about the feasibility of what he calls the whole subjective infrastructure of militancy, which he feels threatens to work against its own chances for success and for which he proposes to substitute something like a subdued worker bee’s ethic fusing a Kantian sense of duty with the inertia and boredom of habit. While in this case the objection against Badiou’s idée fixe of militancy seems meant to promote a communism without all the religious zeal, I cannot help but wonder, if what we want is less red and more grey, then why turn to Badiou? A strange psychic but also political investment—in the sense of the Freudian Besetzung which we probably ought to consider translating as “occupation” rather than as “cathexis”—is at work in this common attack upon the excesses of militant fidelity, something like a rebound effect whereby what otherwise might seem a grey and drab plea for political moderation, through the process of attacking excessive radicalism, nonetheless enjoys letting some of this radicalism rub off on it. Thus, over the past two decades or so, Badiou has enabled a whole slew of critics—Pendakis may not be one of them but his arguments echo those of numerous others—to produce something like an artificially enhanced reformism: reformism, because we would settle for the lesser evil or the smaller good; but also artificially enhanced because the blind utopianism of the dogmatic opponent—the overzealous militant—nevertheless has been affectively reabsorbed and mobilized, that is, occupied, in the same gesture with which Badiou-the-closet-Sartrean is unmasked and pilloried. In fact, since I wrote Badiou and Politics this trend has not declined but only become more common: more common and more banal. And so here I decided to turn the tables: not so as to pay much attention to the latter-day Derrideans or Levinasians, who merely jumped on the bandwagon of lambasting the dangerously totalitarian, mystical or voluntaristic Badiou and his acolytes so that by a strange rebound effect they could augment their own credentials as good democrats or even leftists who at least stay clear of the worst; but in order directly to tackle the best of post-Heideggerian and Derridean thought, in the work of Jacques Derrida himself as well as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben and so on. For the philosophical and affective functioning of this argument does seem to me to be an essential component part of the sorry state of affairs in which we find ourselves today and, in this sense, certainly worth unraveling. And so, as I will argue in the book Philosophies of Defeat: The Jargon of Finitude, concepts such as difference, retreat, inoperativity, affect, or community can be read not only as philosophical responses to the defeat of 1960s radicalism but also as active, even if unwitting, participants in the perpetuation of the situation that led to this defeat.

Incidentally, and going back to my first point, I believe that the actual passage from theory to the return of philosophy that we have witnessed since the mid-1980s, aside from entailing a decidedly Eurocentric regression, is also a symptomatic expression of the same historical trend toward the restoration of the institutional status quo, at least at the level of thought’s philosophical self-image, as opposed to the inherent instability and increasing globality of the category of theory. Consider, for example, how Althusser’s different “groups of theoretical reflection” from the 1960s were succeeded two decades later by entities such as the “Center for Philosophical Research into the Political” that Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe founded in the same elite space of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in rue d’Ulm; or how even Badiou moved on from his Maoist-inspired books, significantly titled Theory of Contradiction and Theory of the Subject, to writing a Manifesto for Philosophy in the name of a neoclassical return to Platonism. And when I say that there is something decidedly Eurocentrist in this move, this also means that philosophy today has not just become a culturally peripheral practice alongside stenography or bowling. No matter how exquisitely funny this description is, such an image of philosophy is also oblivious to the geopolitical unevenness of the status of this discipline. Just think of how any course or handbook about philosophy in Latin America begins—and often ends—with a question that no French or German philosopher ever needs to ask: Is there such a thing as a Latin American (Mexican, Argentinean, Brazilian, etc.) philosophy?

Finally, as for the anti-statist emphasis on the axiom as opposed to the program, this objection certainly downplays the importance of organization, consistency, and even planning in all of Badiou’s work, including his recent The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, in which he argues precisely for the need to anchor a lasting political organization in the spontaneous but ultimately short-lived flares of mass violence and revolt that shook the world since Tahrir Square and the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Here my response would be two-fold. On one hand, in keeping with the historical—though not merely historicist-archival—emphasis, the forms, tactics and strategies of political mobilizations deserve to be revisited and analyzed in the wake of the discrediting of the party-form, which has become absorbed into electoral and/or state-oriented politics. In particular, the figure of the commune is clearly making a comeback. This return is not necessarily modeled only upon the Paris Commune but hearkens back to the question of the commons or community torn asunder in the ongoing process of primitive or originary accumulation as described in the crucial section of the Grundrisse on “Pre-capitalist economic forms” that was so influential in the so-called Third World (even though it was ignored by Althusser in favor of the 1857 Introduction).  And there are good reasons to believe that in contexts such as Latin America, from the various slave and indigenous revolts of comuneros in the eighteenth century in Nueva Granada or the Andes to the role of the comunas in Salvador Allende’s Chile or post-Chávez Venezuela, the commune demands to be revisited as the basis for a subterranean current in the region’s political history: something like the political equivalent to the philosophy of Althusser’s aleatory materialism of the encounter on the other side of the Atlantic. And thus, while I continue to translate works by Badiou, I am actually more interested in this work on the ground and for some time now I have been preparing a study of The Mexican Commune in which the theoretical references are no longer Badiou or Derrida but Adolfo Gilly, Bolívar Echeverría, or Raquel Gutiérrez; in which the meridian of contemporary thought no longer runs through a select few arrondissements or neighborhoods in Paris or Berlin but through Morelos or the city and state of Oaxaca; in which the anonymous masses or plebes are in fact fully capable of theoretical acts—what José Revueltas referring to 1968 in Mexico calls precisely actos teóricos—without needing the intervention of the philosopher as lawgiver or master-thinker; and in which anarchists and communists, social democrats and dogmatists are not yet throwing just insults at each other but find a precarious common ground on the barricades, in formations like libertarian socialism, anarcho-communism, or what Andrej Grubacic more recently has called the Haymarket synthesis.

Bruno Bosteels is Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University.

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