“Politics in the Wake of Actually Existing Zeal: Badiou, Bosteels, and the Question of Political Affect” by Andrew Pendakis

Today’s first impressions leave us little room for doubt that between philosophy and politics there is nothing more to be said. Insofar as the former names a beleaguered, culturally peripheral disciplinary practice, it shares with stenography and bowling that dusty sense of lost necessity proper to all extinct, but once glowingly actual life-forms and habits. When it is not simply outright forgotten philosophy, like military history or Sudoku, fulfills the role of an involving cultural ‘pastime’. Obama famously huddled over Seneca at midnight: our moment’s dominant conception of the relationship between politics and philosophy defaults onto the grimly literal image of a presidential reading list. Such anecdotes, of course, consign philosophy to the same space reserved for religion and yoga, a marginal zone of leisured reflection where the vigorous actuality of politics can be regenerated by healing slowness and spirit. However bureaucratized its imperatives, however automated its contemporary forms, politics remains symptomatically attached to the Romantic particularity of the lawgiver, a mind and body that must periodically exit the bustle of policy to later return refreshed from discourse in the sober fora of the ancients.  Such is seemingly the best possible destiny of the philosopher: court whisperer, scratchy voice of reason, high-flown ancient wisdom on the margins of actually existing power.

This is the case, however, only for as long as we continue to confuse philosophy with what Jean Paul Sartre once called “a determined segment of culture,” “the Grey Eminence of humanity” (3). If, following Gramsci, we insist on the inherently philosophical nature of thinking politics once again finds itself solicited, inflected by, and even shamed by philosophy proper. It ceases to function as a wise, but impotent supplement to the serious business of politics and instead becomes nothing more or less than the latter’s medium, its substance. It is not simply that philosophy breathes in the norms of its time and is thereby deemed ‘political’(‘conditioned by the social’ as we so often say); it is that philosophy itself has been a frequent site for the gestation of concepts that will only much later come to be registered as commonplace or imperceptible. Though this argument can tend in the direction of an idealism (a tendency still present, incidentally, in Sartre’s Search a for Method), it is undeniable that texts like Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise or Rousseau’s The Social Contract (to say nothing of the great 18th C declarations and constitutions) have had afterlives with direct (if not ramifying and subtle) effects on the common sense of later periods. The social complexity of postmodern societies is such that this linear, almost mechanist linkage between an act of writing and its (or a later) time appears unrecognizable. Interestingly, however, even a cursory sense for contemporary business culture makes clear the extent to which we continue to posit a relationship between the ‘Idea’ and ‘changing the world’: this is the very imago, the hard platitudinous core of knowledge capitalism. Philosophy proper, however, stands to the informational or digital Idea in the form of a negating opposite: weighed down by tradition, too systematic, philosophy here takes the form of a ‘worldview’ or ‘ideology’ that precisely forestalls or represses the anarchy of the fragmented ‘Eureka’, the one-off invention or solution (I-Pod, solar toilet, etc.) that changes social being, but without any explicit dependence on ‘concepts’ or intellectual traditions. Ideas, in this sense, are anything but philosophical: they are the ‘next big thing’, they are anti-philosophers.

What does it mean in this context to insist on the fact that our moment in some very real sense needs Badiou? That a politics or time could need a thought strikes us as bad religion: the only possible end-point for such a notion is messianism. Yet it is possible to conserve the urgency suggested by ‘necessity’ without drawing on its connotations of inevitability; from one angle, dialectical necessity is surely nothing more or less than the urgency produced in a time by its epistemic and political vacuums: it is the seriousness with which every driven procedure of thinking addresses alternative or foreclosed shapes of consciousness. It is not just Badiou’s distance from the spirit of our time which authorizes this necessity—textbook Trotskyists, UFOlogists and unrepentant Nazis also stand apart from what is in a dramatic or oppositional manner. One might say, however, that they do so statically: their positions are not the effects of a difficult dialectical stretch, but operated in the mode of a repetition of the past or via a mesmerized, unmediated transcendence. We might say of his work then that no contemporary thought calls into question at the same time as many disparate existing consenses than Badiou’s. Badiou’s negativity has nothing in it of the formal simplicity of skepticism, one which can be deployed in the form of an infinite series of abstract negations, but takes the form of a determinate negation grounded in the ‘positive’ necessity of a system (this positivity, however, is complicated by its being grounded ultimately in multiples of nothing and the ungrounded role of the dice of axioms). Badiou is difficult to assimilate not because his work sets out to produce, like Derrida or Adorno, epistemically useful confusion, rather it is unintelligible, logically unintelligible, on the basis of its strangeness vis-à-vis the field into which it intervenes. One does not sense in Badiou that bad modernist impulse to self-differentiation so characteristic of post-Nietzschean thought, that game of extremity by which each idea attempts to empty itself in more dramatic ways of the metaphysical content of its predecessors (with the last thought standing that which has the least metaphysics in it). Badiou’s difference from the present does not take the form of a reflex, the “rage to distinction” described by Rousseau in his first discourse and despised so thoroughly by both himself and Hegel; nor does it pass through the contemporary only to arrive unblemished at an earlier wholeness (18). It is the systematicity of Badiou’s alienation from the spirit of the present, the shame (but also the possible ecstasy) he ushers into our experience of ourselves as contemporary beings that lies at the heart of this claim to the relation between a thought and its necessity.

If Badiou is, precisely by virtue of this nuanced differing, the thinker par excellance of our moment’s composition politically, Bruno Bosteels has come to be an essential interlocutor in this conjuncture. His book, Badiou and Politics, is the first in-depth treatment of the problematic named in its title and functions as an indispensible point of intersection for any serious attempt to come to terms with Badiou’s ‘political philosophy’ (a formulation Badiou himself would hate).  Bosteels builds his book around one central thesis: the standard (critical) image of Badiou as a philosopher who hypostasizes the difference between truth and knowledge, events and situations, subjective intensity and objective inertia is exaggerated and founded on a bad tendency to deduce too much from Badiou’s later identification of mathematics with ontology (formulated fully only in his 1982 text Being and Event). Badiou, according to the account critiqued by Bosteels, is essentially the latest in a long line of philosophical dualists, his work articulated around an untenable divide between the abstract multiplicity of being and the site specific induction of (purely subjective) truths. Events, such critics go on to insist, are essentially mystical affairs, de-linked from any concrete imbrication in concrete social being of the present, and truths dogmatic, voluntarist acts of faith devoid of circumspection, critique, or dialectical mediation. For Bosteels this reading not only hyperbolizes the difference between early, explicitly dialectical texts like Theory of the Subject or Of Ideology and the mathematical turn of Being and Event, it simultaneously fails to take into account Badiou’s more recent attempt to explicitly address and correct this caricature in Logics of Worlds. For Bosteels, Badiou is not merely interested in the production of the new, but in the ways something new emerges dialectically from within the textured specificity of a historical situation. Badiou’s subject, then, is not anti- or post-dialectical, pure scintillating subjective will, but a creature intimately bound up in and related to the situation it resists and changes.

Bosteels’s work represents a theoretically sophisticated, incredibly useful intervention into the conversations taking place around Badiou’s politics. His book, though not really a continuous intellectual history of Badiou’s development as a theorist of the political, instead isolates discrete knots or tensions in his work in need of clarification or unpacking. The approach, here, is not so much expository as it is a continual movement between exegesis and polemics.  In this first mode, Bosteels’s impulses are primarily genealogical, tracing out, for example, the shifting usages of the term  “metapolitics” from its origins in early German liberal thought through to its most recent usage in the works of Badiou and Ranciere. Or, in another instance of this genealogical approach, Bosteels comprehensively maps out the various positions within French Maoism and the influence these positions exerted on the formation of Badiou’s early ideas about politics. In a second mode, Bosteels makes very articulate polemical intrusions into the field of contemporary theory. His most significant and sustained intervention takes place on the margins of the ambient concept of “radical democracy”, a re-inscription of democracy as a togetherness without society or community one Bosteels sees at work in thinkers like Laclau and Mouffe, Nancy, Derrida, and early Zizek. His claim, echoing Badiou, is that it is not enough merely to expose the vanishing cause of a social order, its origins in difference or nothingness, its founding symptomological complex; that order must itself be displaced and ruptured by a truth which remains faithful to this nothingness, by the paradoxical capacity to construct and sustain a new dispensation.

Like all good books Bosteels’s leaves us flush with irritating questions. Four strike me as particularly pertinent with respect to the knot tying Badiou to politics.

I

Though it is commonly asserted that Aristotle privileges the ‘theoretical sciences’—those which pertain to knowledge for its own sake—he insists in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics that it is statesmanship–an art he designates as practical science–which has the highest ‘authority’. Politics, separated from the domain of higher things (unmoved movers, Being qua being, the objects of theology), is nevertheless the science which definitively organizes the social distribution of knowledge, that which mandates the diffusion of practices and arts in the polis. In this sense, Aristotle sees politics as the “master art” (3). Statecraft, indeed, is “finer” (and more “god-like”) than ethics insofar as the former exercises on the level of the whole that which in the latter remains confined to the purview of the part: a practical science of the good, the art of genuine well-being (3). If between Aristotle and Machiavelli (who momentarily isolates and exalts the virtue of the political), ecclesiastical authority came to subordinate politics to ethics, we have endured since a time in which science has come to displace and limit the potentialities ascribed to politics by the ancients. This waning of the sovereignty of the political has been abetted both by the de-territorialized historical power of capital, that is, by the birth (and fantasy) of the autonomy of the economic, but also by the emergence of liberal political philosophy which precisely curtails political power within the limits demarcated by the methodological individualism it takes to be axiomatic. The fate of twentieth century communist experiments appears to have permanently discredited any claim of a collective to explicit politico-juridical control over its own destiny; the very thought of an affirmation of political will over the autonomy of the economy–an idea we once called ‘planning’–engenders immediate suspicions of totalitarian overreach and excess.

This state of affairs echoes throughout the contemporary theoretical scene. Positions inflected by Heidegger have concentrated on his later work, substituting an early emphasis on resoluteness and destiny for the authority of art, silence, waiting and poetry. Deconstruction and cultural studies have both worked from various angles to de-legitimate the sovereignty of politics, opting for a rhetoric built around the casualness of friendship or the inherently political nature of reading or insisting on a definition of culture as itself all the politics one could need or imagine. Neoconservative culture has rendered politics a by-word for tricks, perfecting an association of its practice with partisanship, inefficiency, or mere speech.  Coeval with this, is the paradoxical neoliberal spectacle of a state politically organized around the project of its own dissolution, a sovereignty which dramatically (and only selectively) undoes the conditions of its own legitimacy and power. From so many angles we live in the ruin of politics or at the very least of a classical conception of the political as the art/power of deciding what continues to have a right to exist (or not) in a time.

How might Badiou’s own work fit into this genealogy? We know that in The Theory of the Subject it is clear that Badiou still unequivocally privileges the condition and authority of politics: the only genuine subject is one who has been traversed by and induces a political truth. Does Badiou’s later insistence on the difference between the conditions represent a productive refusal to subordinate other essential human domains to the authority of the political or should it be contested as a door sneakily ajar onto an art or love withdrawn from every ‘responsibility’ to politics (an odd kind of liberal pluralism)? Or is it the case that in some sense art, love, and science are all already intrinsically political? When Badiou, in The Century, pits “science against technics, love against the family, art against culture” the terrain of the political seems to infect from the outside the autonomy of the conditions (4?). Or might we say that art, science, and love are also always conditions of the political? That there can be no politics which is not simultaneously a science, an art and a way of loving? At the same time, does Badiou’s claim that it is only politics which opens up the infinity of the situation in the form of a subjective universality not grant it a certain priority vis-à-visthe other conditions, a claim to what can and cannot exist within the construction of a new situation never quite granted to the “aristocratic” (perhaps even sectoral or domain-limited) procedures of art, science and love (2005, 142)? Is there not an echo from that old Aristotelian insistence on the priority of the political here, albeit delinked from Aristotle’s specialist and statist conception of politics?

II

What precisely is at stake in the affirmation of dialectical materialism for Badiou? If politics is not a theory that is simply put into practice (a point Bosteels readily concedes), what is the precise status of a ‘worldview’ like dialectical materialism vis-à-visthe production and maintenance of local truth-procedures? What does it mean to be a dialectical materialist and how might this being relate to the doing of politics? If praxis is not an idea put into practice what prevents the possibility of an idealist theory–Christianity, for example–from producing properly materialist political effects or outcomes?  Is dialectical materialism the sin qua non of the irruption (and maintenance) of truths, one which does not so much legislate their content or periodicity, but which functions as the orientation necessary to recognize a truth? I am thinking here, of Badiou’s agreement with Lacan on the fundamental incompatibility of truth and religion. Is every truth dialectical materialist in the sense of affirming again the deaths of God, progress, and meaning? Do events in some sense teach us these deaths again and again, teach us the impossibility of God? Would there not, then, be something ultimately cumulative about this process, a reliance on the knowledge of nature accumulated by the natural sciences? Would dialectical materialism, then, simply be the best name for the whole ensemble linking being, event, subject, truth, the name for a trans-historical meta-philosophy of truth or is it rather the code-word merely for our moment’s truth one theoretically reversible by the irruption of some future, hitherto unimaginable event?

 

III

This question has to do with nature of political formalization. Badiou is clear that what matters in the production of political truth are not ‘plans’, but axioms. Justice is not an end reached in the object, an order properly outfitted with checks and balances, but instead spontaneously affirmed at the edge of the void in the full, collective indeterminacy of a general will.  Is there not a way in which this emphasis on the axiom, on declarative immanence, on a justice that is affirmed in the here and now, side steps the power, productivity and even the useful seductiveness of ‘utopias’? Plans, of course, are never merely exclusionary or de-potentiating, but themselves specific universals capable of entangling the desire and will of anybody. They engender political desire to the same extent that they limit it, perhaps engendering it precisely in and through this mechanism of limitation.

There appears to me to be a number of factors at work in Badiou’s suspicion of the program. First, I wonder if there is not in Badiou a certain anti-statist terror of totality that borders on a fear of stasis itself, of an order, any order, which persists or endures. Badiou’s ontology undoes an older Sartrean distinction between being and consciousness, between pure positivity and subjective nihilation, but in his insistence on the axiom I am not sure it does not return with the in-itself now reconfigured as the body of the inertial state. Is there not a secondary echo from Sartre here as well, an echo from his claim that the group-in-fusion is forever destined to fall back into the bad faith of serial passivity? We are forced to ask whether Badiou’s philosophy is organized more fundamentally around a protection of the new than it is the birthing of a specific (post-capitalist) world-historical dispensation. In this his philosophy shares more in common with the range of positions packaged under the rubric of ‘post-structuralism’ than he might want to admit. At the core of the tradition which links Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida was always the summum bonum of the new, a certain undialectical prostration before the hitherto unimagined (be it creation, the virtual, self-difference, experimentation, the outside, etc.). We can, of course, sympathize with the conditions that rendered this insistence intelligible and urgent (in part, of course, the dominance of a dismal hegemony of ‘planners’!). However, we must today asses this position on the basis of a very important re-coalescence of our conjuncture around precisely an erotics and phenomenology of the forever new. That is, what if what we need today is not the permanent (that is formally static and in this sense dogmatic) curation of the new, a perpetual safeguarding of invention (one which borders on a banal commercial rhetoric of ‘innovation’), but very specific, concrete constructions that may in fact be quite old (a re-assessment, for example, of the continuing relevance and possibilities inherent in the concept of a global political party)?

Second, I wonder if there is not in Badiou’s resistance to the program a second idealist vestige, namely, a fear of something like the modality of engineering, of profane knowledge itself. Badiou’s reasons politically for preferring the axiom to the plan are fairly obvious–the former doesn’t need expertise (or so we are led to believe), but is delivered over to everybody in the same way a properly generic poem is (itself a contention that someone like Bourdieu would find totally untenable). But I worry that there is in this an old idealist hierarchy separating high from low things, the scintillating clarity and dignity of the concept (or ontology) from the low banality of applied science, the base materialism of levers, pipes, and functions. The nobility of pure mathematics over the boring scrum of counting objects, things and people: this is an old and tired story. Certainly, the relentless ‘pragmatism’ of neoliberalism makes Badiou’s intervention a timely one, but we cannot ignore the way the purity of the axiom seems to echo—absolutely against its will and intention—a certain contempt for what Aristotle called the ‘useful’ (a concept Badiou sees as always arriving from the inside of a situation’s own blind understanding of itself).

What exists on the other side of the program (and not the immortality of the axiom) is mere existence, individuality, suffering bodies, hunger, all of the banal physiologies of the world consigned to the domain of knowledge by Badiou. Engineering and medicine are the sciences of confused and finite animals; to take them seriously, to use them to help sketch out in detail the boring specificities of an imagined future economy endangers the tone of eternity struck by Badiouian Truth (to say nothing of our cherished phenomenological sense for the rich ‘infinity’ of things, a world without limits). Such speculative programs and plans make contact with a profane particularity that borders threateningly on the daily accounting practices of bureaucrats, all of thought’s minor civil servants and ‘mere’ technicians. Perhaps, more than ever before, however, we do not need to merely affirm equality, we need to demonstrate to people from myriad political persuasions how an economy grounded in communist equality (and liberty!) might conceivably work (a question wholly bracketed by Badiou). What makes Plato so precious is precisely his incapacity to know precisely where to locate the difference between philosophy and politics, the line that separates the purity of the idea from the profane (even embarrassing) specificity of practice. That discussion of the ideal society might involve ranging from topics as seemingly removed from each other as the food we eat and the songs we sing to the organizational structure of a magistracy is not (as Aristotle seems to have thought) one of the failures of the Republic, but its very genius, the very heart of its continuing power and allure. Even worse, however, than the way Badiou’s position on the pre-determined societal ‘blue-print’ functions as a brake on the speculative imagination—that child’s pleasure taken in envisioning whole new worlds, the delight of the mechanic or tinkerer or any good scientist experienced in front of a blank page—is its proximity to the now utterly exhausted ‘post-structuralist’ identification of planning with totalitarianism (as if any political consistency could exist at all without an inherent aversion to and repression of ‘difference’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘chaos’, etc. or as if our present market societies weren’t multiply and inveterately planned, both on macro and micro levels).

All of which is only to say that every plan is inherently abject. The disjunction between the scale of a plan’s ambition and the embarrassing finitude of its origins at the heart of the actual—a parent’s basement, a tentative page of doodles—ensures that it has about it the feel of a promise that has already been broken. The gap between the big and the small, between there and here, between the immediacy of the now and the indiscernibility of the then: this is, of course, the perennial dimension of all good comedy and at the very root of the very earliest attempts to humiliate and negate the speculative instinct itself (see this is the case as early as Aristophanes). Yet it is only in and through something like a new philosophy (and practice) of the plan, a new capacity to inventively curate the mundane details of a fully global scheme/schemata that any possible economic alternative to ecocide will become possible. Though Marxism has always been accused of over-planning things, of an inorganic will-to-totality that can only ever generate immense catastrophes and error, the irony is that Marx was perhaps guilty of being overly inattentive to the determinacy of communism: his faith in the factory of praxis and reluctance to specify the details has about it a strangely religious quality, a refusal to utter the name of the God one craves, a faith that it will all come out ok in the end. Perhaps, Picketty is the barometer of a subtle, almost imperceptible shift in our thinking on these matters (though one that will surely not be enough to avoid the worst our present’s trajectory has in store for us). Until something like this comes into view the world will surely continue to be divided (and re-divided) along the seams of a thousand miserable Tahirs.

IV

Since the mid 19th C psychiatrists have described a condition calledaboulia, one characterized by the absence of motivation and the capacity to sustain ‘purposeful’ action. Aboulia points not just to a disconnect between will and action—what the Greeks called akrasia and which is commonly understood today as ‘weakness of the will’—but a more fundamental absence of will itself, the foreclosure of any clearly defined volitional core. Aboulia is the appearance of a void where there should be an intention or desire; akrasia the miserable encounter of a subject with the continual misfiring between an intention and its outcome. The first lacks a discernible conception of the Good, the latter exists in perennial misapprehension of it. Though our time’s ‘apathy’ has been endlessly documented by commentators ranging from conservative Christians to ego psychologists, and though this commentary always risks sliding back into an extremely uninteresting traditionalist moralism, it nevertheless is clear that postmodernity has induced a shift in the composition of the nexus linking will, affect and action. We can’t help but suspect that our moment is abulic or akrasic in an historically new sense.

Badiou’s response to this has been to creatively re-animate Truth and with it the subject that sustains it. There is no doubt that Badiou’s subject is one of the most beautiful and engrossing figures of late twentieth century thought. Overnight, it seems, he has made it possible again to at least imagine sustaining a subjective tone–“here, now, and forever”–long thought lost to the indeterminacies of ‘post-structuralism’ (30, 2003a). I am speaking, of course, of truth in the magisterial register, the affective scale and intensity that characterizes the militant at the moment of its risky dice-roll.

What, however, if something in our postmodern make-ups simply renders the figure of the immortal subjectively and strategically unworkable? I am thinking here of the fate of zeal in an age of wall to wall commercial hyperbole as well as the humiliatingly aboulic effects of what Heidegger lamented as the indifferentiating power of American (but also Soviet) consumerism, a power which places softdrinks and atrocity in Syria into the same endlessly undulating band of images and affects. There are three dimensions at work in this suggestion of a limit inherent to the figure of Badiou’s militant: 1) philosophical dissatisfaction with Badiou’s insistence on the trans-historical appearance of the bearer of truth (from St. Paul to Mao) 2) a purely strategic aspect that sees in the militant a figure that works at cross-purposes with the viability of the very truth it aspires to activate 3) a question pertaining to relations between the contemporary subject and itself, to do with the psychological or subjective operability of truth in the context of postmodern consumer societies.

Badiou’s political subject is a subject of the barricade: it is the subjectivity necessary for the moment of crisis, when everything around us is tipping terrifyingly and ecstatically into the void. There is no denying the relevance of the militant in such contexts of total rupture. However, it seems fairly certain that however disrupted our moment is by protest and sporadic moments of contestation we are still broadly within a temporality of simulacrul ‘peace’ (the brackets here designate not only the violence pre-supposed by continual unchecked capital accumulation, but also the long-term environmental consequences of this time of ‘harmony’). Greece alone is all the evidence required to substantiate this point: nothing in the crisis there has placed on the table a progressive re-inscription of the possible politically (with our shock being reserved not for the appearance again of militancy there, but of how little of it there is).

Here, in this interregnum, doesn’t the heroic tone and its impossible-to-sustain intensity ensure that in practice today we are all largely consigned to a kind of permanent, low-level indignity, a mundane abjection comprised of stolen naps, bank account numbers and banal internet memes (undertaken in the towering shadow of a Norman Bethune)? Is there not in this, despite Badiou’s atheism, despite precisely the rigor of his materialism, an unwitting reproduction of the oldest Christian/Platonist/Augustinian abasements (with the grandeur of truth consigned to moments of intensity that are largely sedentary and laughably inconsistent with the general content of our daily lives)? Our moment—and this is the case as much in Lagos or Tegucigalpa as it is in Toronto or Detroit—lacks utterly the immediacy, the generalized intensity, of a classically pre-revolutionary context (especially vis-à-viswhat we once called ‘political consciousness’); to think it is the militant that is the figure best able to close this ‘consciousness’ gap is, I suspect, to misunderstand the extent of our moment’s break with the scenography of radical modern politics and the seriousness of our morass. What is required of our bodies today are not electric feats of escape or strength–the kind of bodily intelligence and genius undertaken by Shanghai communists under the rule of the Guomindang in the late 1920s, or the almost impossible stories that come out of Argentina between 1975 and 1978–but something entirely different: a capacity to focus and to write, to effectively endure monotony, to enter into conversations with people largely indifferent to you again and again. Revolution, in the era of what Jameson once called the “super-state” does not grow out of the barrel of a gun, it grows out of the far less spectacular, utterly imperceptible warfare of dinner parties. It is not so much the full-frontal intensity of the barricade that demarcates the site of our moment’s ‘weakest-link’, but the middling temporality of the comments thread. There is certainly a ‘long march’ in every thread war–dimensions of endurance and stamina, the intense burst of a thinly veiled hatred–, but it is hard to know just what the subjective figure which accompanies such engagements looks like and whether they are in any way abetted by the accouterments of militancy.

Is it possible to think a politics without the mood of truth, a politics that cynically and ‘efficiently’ gets its work done, but without the historical trappings (Christian, Platonist, hyper-heroic) of fidelity? One that organizes, makes, speaks, persuades, and even systematically tears things down but cynically? This is a political doing that endures inertially, an action that combines self-legislated Kantian dutifulness (without any need for recourse to universal legality) with something like the force of an Aristotelian ethical habit (the latter, of course, separated from any notion of an essential human ergon). One can affirm, for example, a commitment to a world in which there are no sweatshops, one populated by more rather than less libraries, one, even, in which the law of exchange has been abolished, without necessarily subscribing to the whole subjective infrastructure of militancy. This would be a doing that endures, living somewhere between engagement and boredom, but which nevertheless retains the ability to forgo or repress ‘personal’ desires to rest or sleep or drift. After all, is this not the way the vast majority of us already relate to the reality of work, a kind of subsistence in and through the intolerable, a ‘putting in the hours’, that finds itself unexpectedly tessellated from time to time by moments of pleasure, camaraderie, and everyday joy?

What if it is this emaciated Kantian figure of duty, less noble, primly functional, one which speaks moderately, (like the language of the news), that is better able to alter the composition of the present and not the Badiouian militant who casts its die regardless of the numbers? What—and I write this dejectedly—if political possibility today had to pass through the empty affect of the technocrat to be seen or heard at all? What if this were our necessary contemporary misery, one we had to work within rather than rupture from without? Such a political practice requires a Nietzschean openness to deception and strategic deferral very foreign to the affective habits of most Leftists (a break, too, however, with every sincere Deleuzian intensity and all of the usual fantasies of an unequivocal immanence between political means and ends). What if ‘learning from the masses’–words Bosteels sees as coded evidence of Badiou’s post-Maoist dialectical orientation–is not just a matter of binding theory and practice, political ideals and pragmatic local conditions, but of matching political affect with the subjectivity of an age in such a way that it becomes actualisable? This point is underscored by Bosteels when he claims that between Badiou’s early proposal of a “party of a new type” and a later “politics without the party” there exists a continuity grounded in “forms of militantism that on the whole and in actual practice are nearly identical” (127). The fact that the “organizational form of politics remains fairly consistent for Badiou” must be expanded to reflect on militantism proper as Badiou’s idee fixe, one which actually borders suspiciously undialectical, trans-historical terrain (128). To put it another way: isn’t militantism too full of signs and wonders to be consistently subtractive?

Let me repeat myself to ensure I am not misunderstood. I am in no way resurrecting that oldest of gestures, with us since Aristotle, in which a politics is valorized in direct proportion to its distance from a logic of the sensible middle. Far from it. The manuscript I am presently at work on—entitled A Critique of Centrist Reason—is precisely built around a sustained critical analysis of all of the ways our notions of an idealized political ‘middle’ or ‘centre’ blind us to foreclosed political possibilities and experiments. This has nothing to do with any ostensible terror imagined as intrinsic to the extreme nor some normative, liberal-humanist account of ‘acceptable’ politics. It is a question of strategy (and all good strategy, remember, has an esoteric and exoteric dimension). One cannot but be transfixed by the ‘greatness’ of this century’s iconic militants. The tantalizing escapes, the close calls, the concentrated periods of study undertaken between long durations of ‘praxis’, the charismatic invention, the logistical and strategic victories: how can one observe the life of a Li Kenong or Omar Cabezas, a Rosa Luxembourg or Luis Carlos Prestes without experiencing a kind of transfixed attentiveness and admiration. No doubt, this is precisely the jouissance produced by any genuine encounter with political virtue (with this latter term used here in the precise sense of Virtù intended by Machiavelli: the excellence proper to a ‘great deed’ that is to some extent beyond good and evil). Interestingly, this admiration for the deeds of the amoral great is often popularly reserved for famous (de-politicized) generals like Napoleon or Frederick the Great, or even—laughably—Hitler, but conspicuously disappears in the context of Left figures with similarly monumental profiles. I want to emphatically reject such gestures by which all of the exigent, risky ingenuity exercised in any one of a thousand global Sierra Maestras is negated under the monotonous insignia of failure. The bracketing of these figures as violent extremists, or as blind idealists, as dead revolutionary machines entirely erases the intense existential weight and grandeur of their lives (to say nothing of the health care or improved living standards often left in their wake). But it is quite another thing to re-frame our moment’s political language around the atmospherics of the militant. How can such a gesture—at least in the context of the ‘First-World’ and during this interregnum of miserable ‘peace’—be anything but phantasmatic and imaginary for a generation of students, workers, and teachers caught up in business-as-usual?  This is the absurdity, the utter inanity of Zizek’s infamous living-room portrait of Stalin (the ultimate prankster’s trick, a nihilist extension of Situationist play into the deadly serious context of our own moment’s life and death struggles over political meaning). Do not such gestures precisely play into the hands of a globally hegemonic centrism that is always turning mildly aberrant political positions into radicalized (and thereby illegitimate) vectors of violence and catastrophe (for evidence, here, note the frequency with which any popular article on Zizek mentions this otherwise totally irrelevant detail)? To put it otherwise, we do not need today, yet another groupuscle-pamphlet replete with totalist invective and ‘shocking’ pseudo-modernist design elements (think Adbusters): we need a global journal of the Left capable of occupying the same tonal register of The Economist, one with the same level of visibility and prestige that perhaps even shares with the latter a tendency to outright intellectual haughtiness.

Sometimes it feels like Badiou’s new “foundational style” is caught up in an excessive desire to differentiate itself from the generalized grey thought to characterize the basic working colour of ‘normal’ situations (50, 2003b). Though Badiou is clear that his own philosophy exists under the conditions of Cantor, Lacan, etc., that his own meta-history of truth could not have been thought apart from these structuring coordinates, one wonders if he does fully acknowledge the difference between other periods of ‘reaction’ (thought to occur cyclically at the edges of the exhaustion of truths) and our own. Is there a danger in Badiou of a truth pursued for its own sake and of a philosophy that safeguards the perpetual irruption of new truths, but at the cost of a concrete sense for the genuine newness of the structure of feeling of the present? In other words, what if placing politics into the pitch of truth today precisely works against the possibility of its own ‘success’ as a discourse and practice? Is fidelity to the “eternal concept of rebellious subjectivity” more important than our capacity to actually engender the kind of generalized ‘political consciousness’ needed to dramatically alter the trajectory of the present (131, 2003b)?

That said, it is important—‘esoterically’—to add a portentous, “for now”, in all of this (or, better, Chavez’s infamous por ahora, spoken shortly after the failure of his 1992 coup attempt). None of us can anticipate what political situations await us (nor the comportments suddenly rendered necessary by sudden shifts in the weight and tone of a conjuncture). Por ahora:  not Mao Tse-Tung (the militant at war), nor Deng Xiaoping (a pragmatism of the void), but Zhou Enlai (the non-oxymoronic revolutionary-diplomat).

 

IV

The transition Bosteels hopes to induce from an absolutist/subjectivist Badiou to one better understood as a dialectical materialist crosses between two figures of knowledge, but also two ways of doing politics. The shift of the accent from subject to dialectics, then, is also a shift from the flash of the event, from the abjection of revolutionary rupture (the void of the Real), to a less exotic time of process, the time, we might say, of re-construction. The dialectic, in this sense, falls away from its classical moorings–a sometimes transcendental, sometimes immanent structure shared (or not) by nature and history–and is instead the hard work left in the wake of a truth, the laborious “articulation of an ongoing process” (Bosteels, 14). We are, then, in a conceptual space very far from the negative dialectics of Adorno, where dialecticity is bound to the movement of failed thought, to a kind of restless mental shuttling delinked from the field of “practice” or to a crypto-political gesture in which the spectre of mass horribleness induces a desire for politics retrieved. Dialectics, for Badiou, is not the guilt of thought vis-à-visits own insufficiency, but the slow time of praxis, the research and codification needed to render fidelity actual, effective, and socially consistent. How do things stand between Adorno’s mournful, meandering dialectic and Badiou’s dialectical conception of formalization? What role is there for epistemic negativity in the actual production of a Badiouian truth? How does the elaboration of a truth manage the kind of insufficiency of thought to itself that Adorno identifies with the genuinely dialectical gesture? Perhaps, these questions do little than echo those broached above: what forms of politico-affective fuel remain available to us in an age the dominant emotional rhythm of which is the meme?  What is the political form appropriate to the era of the split-screen?

 

Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Badiou, Alain. The Century. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Metapolitics. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Saint-Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Stanford University Press, 2003a.

Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought. London: Continuum, 2003b. Print.

Bosteels, Bruno. Badiou and Politics. Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Discourses and other early political writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Search for A Method. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963. Print.

 

Andrew Pendakis is Assistant Professor of Theory and Rhetoric at Brock University.

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