“For a ‘True Life’:  A Few Remarks on Politics as One of Philosophy’s Condition” by Gabriel Riera

“Philosophy, which requires the deployment of four conditions, cannot specialize in any one of them.” -Alain Badiou, Metapolitics.

“[…] la détermination de l’essence de la politique, ne pouvant s’assurer ni de la structure (inconsistance des ensembles, dé-liaison) ni du sens (l’Histoire ne fait pas tout), n’a d’autre repère que l’événement.” -Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique?

 

A Platonist, a Christian (albeit secular) eschatologist, a (post) Maoist, a Marxist who seldom refers to Marx, these have been some of the labels applied to one of the most demanding thinkers of the moment: Alain Badiou. None of them are totally false. In fact, Badiou himself has at times promoted some of them, but neither are they totally true, as they seek to stabilize a system of thought that is always evolving and changing.

Badiou’s philosophy combines a materialist ontology of the multiple with a Platonism of the Idea (Eternal) and the Good (Truth) necessarily deprived of the One. This rather odd combination is the source of a conceptual montage in which a series of heterogeneous conceptual personae cohabit uneasily: the fierce and courageous militant of a bygone era, the detached mathematician for whom axiomatic decisions have very little existential weight, the poet guetteur of the traces of the unknown, and the apostle who announces the coming of the new and follows the consequences of the Good News.

Badiou’s Platonism is a strange conceptual montage that imposes mathematical axiomatic decisions upon a more nuanced hypothetical form of reasoning (dialectic). However, in Plato’s dialogues dialectic suspends hypotheses understood as absolute beginnings. A case in point is Parmenides, the source of Badiou’s ontological decision on multiplicity, in which there is no decision to favor in advance one hypothesis over the other. Badiou cuts short his interpretation of Plato’s text and axiomatically chooses one hypothesis (“The One is not”) over the others. So, if in Manifesto for Philosophy, Badiou claims that the anti-platonism that characterizes twentieth century philosophy is incoherent, the price to pay for a coherent contemporary Platonism is rather high. Not only because Badiou’s reading of Plato is as idiosyncratic as those of some of his contemporaries, but also because he conflates anti-Platonism with being anti-Plato. [1] In any case, in Badiou “Plato” is the extemporaneous name of a war machine against “democratic materialism” and its major interpreter, cultural relativism, as it signals the exception of the Idea: eternal, immanent and immediate; a way of thinking the absolute in its immanent production. Platonic-inflected criticism allows Badiou to oppose politics understood as a condition of thinking to the confrontation without truth of the plurality of opinions that is the norm in Western democracies.

As to the Christian eschatological bent in Badiou’s thinking, much ink has been used in proving that his philosophy amounts to a secularized doctrine of Paulian grace.  But things are a bit more complex. For Badiou the foundation of universalism in Paul takes the form of a universal logic of redemption that originates in the “event [of resurrection] as such” (Badiou 1997, 45) in order to both reconfigure the subject and its real. However, it should be noted that this reconfiguration occurs in a totally immanent way, here and now, and without any hope for an event to come. (Badiou 1997, 99) Badiou isolates in Paul a formalization of the universal that he separates from the content of the Christian fable. Consequently, the universal is severed from time; we are dealing with an a-temporal absolute, for which the ideas of beginning and end have no currency.

Finally, Badiou’s Maoism amounts to an attempt to conceive philosophy as an enterprise of cultural transformation. During the sixties and seventies, and not unlike many other French intellectuals in the aftermath of May 68, Badiou subscribes to a more militant and activist form of Maoism. From this period very little is left, in spite of the proclaimed resurrection of “la dialectique materialiste,” in Logics of Worlds. Here Badiou presents “materialist dialectic” as an alternative to “democratic materialism,” but doing so entails broadening the scope of his philosophy in order to promote a new life, the life of the Idea.  The critical assessment of Badiou’s Maoism oscillates between its being a lost cause,[2] all the way to an effective re-commencement of dialectical materialism, a form of post-Maoism whose legacy allows an alternative to current forms of post-Marxism, in spite of the many commonalities that these approaches share with Badiou’s. [3]

Finally, when it comes to Marx and to the ensuing discourse called Marxism, Badiou claims that the latter “does not exist” (Badiou 1998, 35). This statement goes hand in hand with separating and isolating this philosophy’s descriptive capacity from its political value. The crisis of Marxism is understood as a political crisis, but this crisis does not preclude the possibility of thinking a “communist hypothesis”. Badiou thus separates emancipatory politics from its concretization by the state, a gesture that, as Toscano argues, may raise questions not only about the very consistency of Marxist thinking, but also about the very pertinence of the term Marxist when applied to Badiou’s own thinking. [4]

What seems to be certain is that a philosophy that revolves around a rather limited constellation of concepts (being, event, fidelity, subject in Being and Event and world, appearing, existence in Logics of Worlds) was able to shake some of the most ingrained certainties of the intellectual doxa of our fin de siècle and, perhaps, give way to a thought that opens a new century, as some have claimed. This can be seen in how Badiou understands and establishes the rapport between philosophy and its four non-philosophical conditions (science, the poem, politics and love) and his contributions to an understanding of each of these.

In what follows I will articulate some remarks regarding politics as a condition of philosophy—as one among the four. In so doing, I will keep in mind the two strands that have marked the reception of Badiou’s philosophical approach to politics without aiming to bridge this difference, nor providing a middle ground. On the one hand, we have those who, like Bensaïd, Calcagno, Hallward, and Marchart, object to Badiou’s separation of the time elicited by the event (the evental or strong Time in which a fragment of the absolute materializes itself, the time of real change) from the monotonous time of the everyday or pre-evental, and those who, on the other hand, stress that what is essential in Badiou is what ensues after real change is registered: the ensuing subjective discipline of fidelity to the event (Bosteels, Tarby and Toscano).

Both as an actor and a witness of the avatars of emancipatory politics during the turn of the last century, Badiou’s way of rephrasing the question of politics does mark a break with the fossilized and exhausted certainties of orthodox Marxism and opens up an alternative path to the prevalence of different forms of post-Marxism in the Continental tradition.

Badiou conceives of politics neither as a strategy in view of power, nor as a technique to administer society, but rather as an organized practice of thinking he calls a condition of philosophy. This means first, that politics is a name for a truth procedure that touches on the being of the collective. ‘Collective’ is not a quantitative predicate, it is not a matter of numbers and percentages. The “collective” is established in the relation of the subjects engaged in a given situation to universality. A political event, its truth, is addressed to everybody. Second, that politics [la politique] is thinkable and, most importantly, it is a thought that goes along with a practice, as is the case with the other three conditions –the sciences, the poem (or, rather, the arts) and love. Finally, as a condition, politics has no privileged position above the other three: “There is certainly a ‘doing’ of politics, but it is immediately the pure and simple experience of a thought,its localization. Doing politics cannot be distinguished from thinking politics” (Badiou 1998, 46).

One of the most remarkable gestures in Badiou’s thorough and persistent reconceiving of the rapport between philosophy and politics, as a corollary to the deconstruction of the metaphysics of Marxism carried out in Can Politics be Thought?, is that the praxis in question cannot be elucidated without rethinking its ontological basis. A return to the question of being is thus unavoidable in order to think what both exceeds being and its discourse (ontology): the event, the operator of its having taken place (the subject), and its consequences.

This decisive gesture in Badiou’s philosophy means that the rapport being / action is a crucial one and, furthermore, that a constellation of notions that previously were deemed to belong to the sphere of action turn up at the very heart of ontology. As a corollary, the ethos of thinking toward action becomes also a question for thought. This also means that the connection between the mathematical formalism that helps to think being qua being and the excessive regime of the event is unavoidable and should neither be underestimated nor overestimated. There is a disjunctive synthesis between being and the event, and it is the mathematical formalism that enables Badiou to conceive a dialectic of scission to account for it.

The mathematical formalism is not the tip of an iceberg underneath which one may encounter an emancipatory politics overlooked by the zeal of a mathematically oriented reading of Badiou. Far from it, the Dupin-like figure of Badiou, both a mathematician and a poet, indicates that everything is in plain sight and that there is no need for a trope that inscribes an epistemology of the hidden/latent versus the visible/active. If the return to Plato that authorizes a “return of philosophy to itself” means anything more than a mere programmatic statement, the metaphor of the iceberg with which to justify an approach to politics without accounting for the mathematical formalism is highly problematic.

After all, as in Plato’s Academy, one cannot enter Badiou’s systematic philosophy without doing mathematics. For both, Plato and Badiou or Badiouplato, to judge by the recent rewriting of The Republic and its impending super-production by Hollywood, mathematics is ‘foundational’. It is the singular discourse that, “in one and the same gesture, breaks with the sensible and posits the intelligible” (Badiou 2006, 30). The gesture that triggers the metaphor of the iceberg as justifying a reading of politics without the mathematic-ontological formalism may very well be commended by academic politics, which has little to do with politics as a condition of philosophy.  Further, the key equation state of the situation/State that organizes Badiou’s conception of politics seems to be the result of a rigorous mathematic formalism, and not a simple verbal pun. To put it differently, political orientation and mathematical formalism are inextricably linked. If it is true that a scholarly gesture that recovers the openly political texts and tracts is necessary to provide a more balanced assessment of Badiou’s thinking, little can be gained by favoring them over the more speculative ones.

In the age of the withdrawal (retrait) of politics, Badiou seeks to think, to retreat implement a new approach (retrait) to the essence of the political. [5] In order to do so he can no longer look for points of reference in history or in objective givens (“History [with a big H] does not exist” he writes twice, the first time in Theory of the Subject, in a particular objection to Hegelian, (read: Marxist-Hegelian) totalizing history and the second time in Logics of Worlds as an objection to what is essentially the absorption of eternal truths in contemporary historical relativism), but only in the event. The determination of the essence of the political is posited on the precariousness of a contingent occurrence. In the end, politics is rare (not unlike the event and the subject that ensues from it) and singular.

Set theory provides the ontological structures for the elucidation of the subjective procedures that result from the upsurge of the event, an excess that eludes the very fabric of the ontological structure. In this sense, Being and Event completes the work began in Theory of the Subject where Badiou adduced the existence of a subject without ever grounding it. It also mitigates the claim according to which “every subject is political”; a statement that went against the grain of his understanding of the relationship of philosophy and its conditions, as it amounted to the suturing of philosophy to only one of its conditions.

Subject is the name for the procedure of naming and deciding (later on it becomes the operator of a lasting discipline of time in response to the consequences of the event). Subject should not be confused with agency (as often happens, whether inadvertently or not, with some of the finest commentators on Badiou, as if his philosophy could be reduced to a theory of the subject understood as equivalent to ‘an active intervention’. It should be remembered that the relationship event/subject is as twisted and problematic as Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle: no subject without event, no persistence of the event’s consequences without a subject. As in Lacan, in Badiou we are dealing with a split subject: it is a Two that both belongs to the situation and acts on this situation. A subject is simply an interval between an event to be elucidated and an elucidating event. Phrasing it à la Lacan, a subject is what an event represents for another event. In the end, the ‘interventionist’ bent of Badiou’s systematic philosophy amounts to no more than a form of recognition proper to the event’s passage.  The subject is not a universal or given category, neither a transcendental nor empirical subject, even less a constructed one. In Being and Event the subject is conceived as a finite fragment of a truth-procedure, or as a finite instance of an infinite process.

Logics of Worlds instead proposes a different distribution of subject and truth that no longer coincides with a finite/infinite distribution. Badiou here introduces the fundamental notion of consequence. Badiou shows that the subject is identified by a type of marking, a post-evental effect, whose system of operations is infinite, which means that once the subject is constituted under the mark of the event, subjective capacity is infinite. This occurs because subjective capacity amounts to drawing the consequences of a change and, if this change is evental, its consequences are infinite.

In Being and Event, subjectivization fades away; its status remains indeterminate outside the problematic of the event’s name, which makes it difficult to conceive of subjective capacity in an immanent way. In Logics of Worlds the notion of consequence is bound to the subject and, therefore, immanence becomes possible. The subject is an active and identifiable form of the production of truths. The logic of consequences replaces the logic of naming.

Badiou wants to provide a model of real change and wants to show how the event gives way to a subjective procedure of fidelity to its consequences. Fidelity is the operation (enquiry) by which the subject judges whether or not an element belonging to the situation can be connected to the name of the event. It should be noted that the event is beyond the situation: it is a virtuality that prescribes nothing. It is neither the ground nor the reason for the subject’s positioning in a given situation. Fidelity names the attitude of thinking when faced with contingency. It is an attitude that supposes an ethical stance: Continuer! This means there is rupture in the fabric of the symbolic order, but also a re-organization, although without any recourse to either narratives, or to judgments. Instead, we find, at least in Being and Event, a reflection on naming that is later abandoned in Logics of Worlds in favor of the evaluation of the intensity common to the appearing of different beings.

Badiou’s idea of truth exceeds what can be proved or demonstrated. It does not depend upon the internal coherence of discourse and less upon the correspondence of words and things. Truth cannot be verified according to normal logical protocols. However, truth is not transcendental: there are only local truths, situated truths that are nonetheless oriented toward an atemporal eternity. Each truth is singular and universalizable. But a truth is only a truth through a process of subjectivization.

In light of the above, if it is true that the figure of the fierce militant tends to be mobilized by Badiou, one which occasionally justifies the use of the syntagm ‘active intervention,’ it would appear that the process of subjectivation that ensues from the shock of the event calls forth a subjective figure more akin to the “guetteur du vide qu’ instruit l’evenement” [Badiou 2005] than to an individual interpellated in the social networks in view of a revolt whose outcome can be easily neutralized. [6] Deprived of the objective certainties of orthodox Marxism, of History understood as a meaningful process, of the ‘legal’ framework of the State that looks more and more as a rogue band of thieves, the subject of a political event is as much deprived of certainties as the subject of the other three conditions and must also be as inventive as the others.

If Badiou understands philosophy as a practice able to think the present and to extract from it the exception to the established (represented) order, its way of conceiving politics as a condition of thinking necessarily amounts to an ethics: his question is not only how to change the world, but also, and perhaps more decisively, how to live with an Idea—how to undergo a change in subjective positioning or, at best, an inner revolt.

Badiou’s way of conceiving politics as a condition of thinking provides us with a formalism to stipulate when something new happens in this domain. By stating that true politics is rare and that there are long periods of time when no political event may take place, his understanding of politics has the salutary effect of confronting us with the limitations of the speculative left, as well as freeing us from many of the fantasies that populate academia and that are fed by a discourse in which Lacan, Hegel, Lenin and Marx are all blended together and scattered with the season’s blockbusters. This becomes much clearer when one pays heed first, to Badiou’s diagnostic of our present as an interval of time for which no predicates are at our disposal to name politics and second, to the teaching program Badiou developed in the last decade in his seminars in Paris and that responds to this situation. [7]

So one wonders why there are some who still read Badiou as the Don Quixote of emancipatory politics who seeks to re-enchant the world and why they continue to conceive of the event as a miracle. The least one can say is that Badiou has managed to re-enchant philosophy—even at the price of importing the insights of anti-philosophy into philosophy— by forcing us, against the established chatter that passes for critical discourse, to think the vitality of the non-philosophical fields.  Further, the discipline of time and the fidelity to the consequences of the event’s passage, its truth, supposes an inner revolt. In other words, Badiou tackles the perennial question of philosophy: what is true life? His resounding answer is that the true life is one that accepts its incorporation into the becoming of a truth or living with an Idea. Only then when can speak of a true life.

 

Notes

[1] See Riera (2005).

[2] See Laruelle (2011).

[3] See Bosteels (2000).

[4] See Bosteels (2000).

[5] For the question of the retrait du politique as well as the difference between politics and the political, see Marchart (2007).

[6] It justifies its use up to a certain point. However, it does not justify its overuse, as a lexical analysis of Bosteels’s Badiou and Politics can easily reveal. In that book the frequency of the phrase ends up reducing it to a kind of crutch, particularly at crucial moments where argumentation falters. Is this something one can ignore in favor of its many insightful findings or is it a symptom that perhaps Lacan has been shown the door much too quickly, even more so than in Badiou himself?

[7] Badiou’s most recent seminar on the immanence of truth is presented as an ethical investigation: “Ce qui va donc être proposé, c’est une expérimentation du monde vu du point du sujet des vérités, vu du point de l’exercice du mode selon lequel les vérités traversent le monde. C’est une enquête qui n’est pas exactement analytique comme on peut le dire pour les deux autres livres (analytique au sens kantien de l’analytique transcendantale, puisqu’il s’agissait de l’analyse des conditions de possibilité des vérités, ontologique dans le premier, existentielle dans le second); en un certain sens, c’est une enquête de type éthique, car, en fin de compte, il s’agira de voir quelles sont les orientations dans l’existence, quel est le type de sens à donner au monde, quand on se place du point des vérités.” See Alain Badiou, Seminaire L’Immanence de la Vérité, séance du 24 de ocutbre 2012.

 

Gabriel Riera is Associate Professor in the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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