Notes on Badiou’s ‘Affirmative Dialectics’

Soyez réalistic demandez l'impossible '68


The fundamental problem in philosophy today, for Alain Badiou, is the creation of a new logic “or more precisely, a new dialectics” (1). It is this new logic that precedes any considerations regarding “politics, life, creation, or action” (1). For Badiou, the two main problems that Marx dealt with (revolutionary politics and a new dialectical framework) are our problems today. Thus, Badiou’s search for a new form of dialectics is characterized by his concern with rectifying revolutionary politics “after two centuries of success and failures in revolutionary politics, and in particular, after the failure of the State-form of socialism” and by articulating a new logic which corresponds to “a new philosophical proposition adequate to all forms or creative novelty” (1). This can be summed up, as Badiou himself does, in one word: negativity. “If you want, our problem is the problem of negativity” (1).

For Badiou, when we think of political action in a dialectical manner, we find ourselves already immersed and committed to the classical dialectical logic which privileges negation and understands novelty to arise from this process. In this framework, “The development of the political struggle is fundamentally something like ‘revolt against’, ‘opposition to’, ‘negation of’, and the newness – the creation of the new State, or the creation of the new law – is always a result of the process of negation. This is the Hegelian framework; you have a relation between affirmation and negation, construction and negation, in which the real principle of movement, and the real principle of creation, is negation” (1-2). If we commit ourselves to the classical dialectical logic, then we are necessarily committed to understanding “the very definition of the revolutionary class” as that which is “against the present State or against the present law in the precise sense that revolutionary consciousness, as Vladimir Lenin would say, is basically the consciousness that one stands in a relation of negation to the existing order” (2). Therefore, in classical dialectical logic, negation is the principle of creativity, novelty, and political action is characterized by the oppositional manner in which the proletariat engages with the bourgeois state.

For Badiou, the classical dialectical logic “cannot be sustained today” (2). The crisis of the ‘trust in the power of negativity’ is characterized by a critique which claims, on the one hand, Hegelian dialectics being too affirmative (e.g., Adorno), and on the other, Hegelian dialectics being too negative (e.g., Negri and Althusser). The crisis, then, is characterized by either side that Hegelian dialectics goes too far in either the direction of negativity or affirmation: one either risks submitting to “the potency of the Totality and of the One’ or one risks forgoing the model of philosophy set forth by Spinoza, who is the main source of the anti-Hegelian critiques of Negri and Althusser. With the latter group of neo-Spinozists, Badiou writes “They find in Spinoza a model of philosophy which is finally without negation. We know today that in this way, we have an accepting of the dominant order, through the conviction that this order is full of newness and creativity, and that finally modern capitalism is the immediate strength which works, beyond the empire, in the direction of a sort of communism” (2). While not the most accurate of portrayals of the positions taken by Negri and Althusser, what is essential for Badiou is underscoring the full affirmation, the abandoning of the role played by negation, in analyzing and making sense of contemporary capitalism. It is true that both Negri and Althusser opt for Spinoza’s substance in opposition to Hegelian dialectics, and for this, Badiou remains skeptical since he remains convinced that the role of the negative retains a certain importance in thinking revolutionary politics and a new form of dialectics which can account for creative novelty without relying on negation pure and simple. To choose the paths of Adorno, or Negri and Althusser result in either “the aesthetics of human rights” or a “Nietzschean ‘Gay Science’ of History” which destroys all forms of dialectical thought, respectively (3).

Given the crisis of our trust in the power of negativity, Badiou writes, “I think the problem today is to find a way of reversing the classical dialectical logic inside itself so that the affirmation, or the positive proposition, comes before the negation instead of after it. In some sense, my attempt is to find a dialectical framework where something or the future comes before the negative present. I’m not suggesting the suppression of the relation between affirmation and negation – certainly revolt and class struggle remain essential – and I’m not suggesting a pacifistic direction or anything like that. The question is not whether we need to struggle or oppose, but concerns more precisely the relation between negation and affirmation. So when I say that there is something non-dialectical…formal it’s the same idea” (3). Ultimately, for Badiou, the answer to this crisis in the negative is the understand that it is, what he calls “primitive affirmation” that comes before negation and therefore, the principle of change and novelty is not negation (although it has its role to play) but rather affirmation (Affirmative Dialectics) (3).

Affirmation Precedes Negation: From St. Paul to Democracy

In order to understand how positivity precedes the negative, Badiou relies on his vocabulary of Event and Subject. So, how do we account for how affirmation precedes negation? For Badiou, it begins with understanding how Events transpire in Worlds. For Badiou, it is with an Event that we can begin to understand how affirmation precedes negation. As he writes, “an event is not initially the creation of a new situation. It is the creation of a new possibility, which is not the same thing. In fact, the event takes place in a situation that remains the same, but this same situation is inside the new possibility” (3).

Thus, with an Event we have the existence of a new possibility within a world, while at the same time having that world remain fundamentally unaltered by the event. These are the Events two defining characteristics, for Badiou. Second, and following from this definition of an Event, we have the understanding of the subject, or a “new subjective body:” “A new subjective body is the realization of the possibility that is opened by the event in a concrete form, and which develops some consequences of a the possibility. Naturally, among these consequences there are different forms of negation…but there forms of negation are consequences of the birth of the new subjectivity, and not the other way around; it is not the new subjectivity that is a consequence of the negation. So there is something really non-dialectical – in the sense of Hegel and Marx – about this logic, because we do not start with the creativity of negation as such, even if the site of negativity is certainly included in the consequences of something which is affirmative” (4).

This idea, that affirmation and the positivity of an event precedes the various forms of negation is what Badiou understands to be at stake in figures like St. Paul. As Badiou writes, “what is interesting in the example of Paul is that the very beginning of something new is always something like a pure affirmation of the new possibility as such. There is a resurrection; you have to affirm that! And when you affirm the resurrection, and you organize that sort of affirmation – because affirmation is with others and in the direction of others – you create something absolutely new, not in the form of a negation of what exists, but in the form of the newness inside what exists. And so there is no longer negation on the one hand and affirmation on the other. There is rather affirmation and division, or the creation that grounds the independence of new subject from within the situation of the old. This is the general orientation of the new logic” (5).

Paul, by virtue of the fundamental change instituted by the resurrection regarding his own existence, becomes the figure of Badiou’s affirmative dialectics: the principle of change is affirmation, whereby negation takes a secondary role. The example of Paul, because he is the figure of this new logic, is exemplary of a new relationship to Power and a new conception of resistance. As Badiou goes on to inquire, “is there today a possible good use of the word ‘democracy’?”(5). This simple question is what allows Badiou to unfold the difference between classical Hegelian and Marxist dialectics and Badiou’s affirmative dialectical logic. The further we begin to inquire into the debate between the good and bad use of the word democracy, its political relevance and the debates political importance, we may often find ourselves in a particularly defensive position, if we want to retain the word ‘democracy’ in our political vocabulary. Badiou opts for this position, while outlining the possible trap laying at the end of the road for those who remain committed to the classical version of dialectical thought:

“I have decided ultimately to keep the word, ‘democracy’. It’s generally a good thing to keep the word, because there is something problematic about leftists saying, ‘I am not interested in ‘democracy’ at all, because it has become practically meaningless’…The situation is difficult because we have to criticize the actual ‘democracies’ in one sense and in a different sense we have to criticize the political propaganda made today about the term ‘democracy’. If we do not do this we are paralyzed. In this case we would be saying ‘yes, we are in a democracy, but democracy can do something else’ and we would ultimately be in a defensive position. And this is the opposite of my conception, because my position is to begin by affirmation, not at all by a defensive position. So, if we keep the world, we must divide the signification of the world classically and differentiate between good democracy and bad democracy, between the reactionary conception of democracy and the progressive conception of democracy” (6).

Thus, everything rests on the division: the division between good and bad democracy, between reactionary and progressive democracy, etc. While in the traditional Marxist framework this division is grounded on class divisions, which then allowed on to understand popular democracy as distinct from bourgeois democracy. However, for Badiou, “this strict duality, however, is not convincing in the framework of a new dialectical thinking; it’s too easy to determine negatively the popular democracy as being everything the state democracy is not” (6-7). In order to evade the trap and the inefficient logic of Hegelian dialectics, Badiou offers “three understandings of democracy” (7). These ‘three understandings of democracy’ are all rooted in this new logic which has four terms, instead of Hegel’s three: “Hegel has three terms, because after the negation and the negation of negation, he has the totality of the process, the becoming of the absolute knowledge as a third term, but for me, after two different affirmation [Event and Subject], the conservative one and the affirmation of the new possibility, I have two different negations. It’s because the conservative negation of novelty by the reaction is not the same as the negative part, against the conservative position, of the new affirmation” (7).

Thus the three understandings of Democracy: 1) Democracy = a form of State (representative or parliamentary). 2) Democracy = “movement…which is not democracy directly in the political sense, but perhaps more in the historical sense.” So when democracy takes place, it is democracy in the form of an event. This is the sense of democracy in the work of Jacques Rancière, for example. For Rancière, as for me, democracy is the activation of the principle of equality. When the principle of equality is really active, you have some version of our understanding of democracy: that is, democracy as the irruption of collective equality in a concrete form, which can be protest or insurrection or popular assembly or any other form in which equality is effectively active” (7).

Badiou notes that this second definition of democracy is less understood as a system of governance than a “form of a sudden emergence in history, and ultimately of the event” (8). That is to say, when democracy signals collective equality within a situation understood as a movement, democracy is present insofar as democracy means, in this instance, “collective equality in a concrete form” (7). However, the third form of democracy is still different from these two understandings. As Badiou writes, “we have to find a third sense of democracy, which is properly the democracy of the determination of the new political subject as such. This is my ultimate conception. Democracy for me is another name for the elaboration of the consequences of collective action and for determining the new political subject” (8). It is from these three articulations of democracy (State, political action in relation to an Event, and Determination of New Subjects) that Badiou arrives at his 4 terms:

i) classical representative democracy (form of State power)

ii) mass movement democracy (historical)

iii) democracy as a political subject

iv) Communism (vanishing of the State, which is the historical and negative inscription of politics in History).

Badiou provides another example – the relationship between politics and power – to illustrate how affirmation precedes negation in his affirmative dialectics. Here Badiou takes as an example his own political activism regarding sans papiers  and one’s relation to the State in this circumstance. If we are to struggle for the livelihood and political power of immigrants coming into France, “we will have to confront new laws and decisions of the State, and we will have to create something that will be face to face with the State-not inside the State, but face to ace with it. So, we will have a ‘discussion’ with the State, or we will organize various forms of disruption. In any case, we will have to prescribe something about the State from outside” (9). Here we see the role of “struggle” as it appears in affirmative dialectics: in confronting State power, and particularly, a State which excludes and perpetuates violence against a portion of its population, what is necessary is not simple negation, mere opposition to the State. Rather, Badiou claims, resistance to State power begins with a prescription, from those who resist and addressed to the State, all from the outside. Here we are reminded of what Badiou writes in his text Metapolitics regarding the relationship between the power of the State and the truth procedure of politics, which alludes to the same thought: “The real characteristic of the political event and the truth procedure that it sets off is that a political event fixes the errancy and assigns a measure to the superpower of the State. It fixes the power of the State. Consequently, the political event interrupts the subjective errancy of the power of the State. It configures the state of the situation. It gives it a figure; it configures its power; it measures it” (Metapolitics, 145).This is, for Badiou, what characterizes politics: the prescription and measure of the power of the State by a mass or movement which has “collective equality in a concrete form” as its axiom.

If struggle, in accord with this new dialectical framework with two affirmations and two negations, does not privilege negation as its creative principle, it is because, as Badiou writes, “to be somebody is to be inside the State, otherwise you cannot be heard at all. So there are two possible outcomes. Either finally there is a discussion and some political results or else there is no room for discussion because we are nobody. It is once more the precise question of affirmation: how can we be somebody without being on the inside? We must affirm our existence, our principles, our action, always from outside” (10). That is to say, there is a ‘primitive’ affirmation which precedes negation when we understand political activity as finding its place outside of the State. It is outside of the state that characterizes Badiou’s conception of ‘class struggle.’ For Badiou, class struggle is no longer internal to State power, and therefore the contradiction of bourgeois society is not between Labor and Capital. Rather, for Badiou, if resistance always begins, and comes from, the outside, this new logic must articulate the relationship between the State and those who resist the state. Articulating the logic of resistance as first, beginning with affirmation which precedes all negation, and second, operates as an ‘outside’ to Capital can be seen in the passages of Tiqqun, which seems to dovetail nicely with Badiou’s project to think beyond the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic:

“…under Empire, negation comes from outside, that it intervenes not as heterogeneity in relation to homogeneity, but as heterogeneity itself, as heterogeneity in which the forms-of-life play in their difference. The Imaginary Party can never be individuated as a subject, a body, a thing or a substance, nor even as an ensemble of subjects, bodies, things and substances, but only as the occurrence of all of that. The Imaginary Party is not substantially a remainder of the social totality but the fact of this remainder, the fact that there is a remainder, that the represented always exceeds its representation, that upon which power exercises itself forever escapes it. Here lies the dialectic. All our condolences.”

In the end, Badiou’s article provides one with many starting points, and various ways to begin to pose the question according to his ‘affirmative dialectics,’ and allows us to understood what is at stake and how processes of truth relate to Events on account of the affirmation which precedes negation.