1968-2018: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose(?)

may 68 barricade bordeaux

A working (and incomplete) draft of my talk for the ‘’68 & its Double-binds’ conference (University of Kent)

[ intro ]

50 years on and who would have thought that France’s very own Christophe Castaner (Minister for Parliamentary Relations) would be the one to mark the occasion and set the mood. For Castaner and the institutions which he so valiantly defends, there will be little difference in how the State commemorates its 50th anniversary when, speaking to BFM TV, he assuredly claims that “There will be no lawless zones in France.” And just as it was for De Gaulle’s government in ’68, so too is it for Macron’s: 50 years on and the events of May persist in their significance insofar as they take on the form of a problem. In light of these events, the legacy of ’68 appears to be something more than any presentation of a set of political solutions or prescriptions. Rather, May ’68 persists in the present in the guise of a problem (i.e. the essence of 68 as the form of Problems themselves). Reason being that for thinkers such as Badiou, the problem posed by 68 belongs strictly to the order of politics, while others such as Guattari conceive of ‘68’s problematic as socio-economic in essence. And for others still, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, the problem of May is a decidedly metaphysical problem in nature. So it seems that the fate of ’68 was to become an eternal site of contested historical remembering, always irreducible to any single political issue (i.e. students, workers, filmmakers, youth, women, etc.). Hence the suggestion that “the meaning of May” signifies less a resolution of contradictions and more so a formulation of a set of problems. However, from the vantage point of our present, it is necessary to reopen this debate in order to inquire as to whether or not we still remain ’68’s contemporaries, as Badiou has claimed. In other words, is it as simple as recognizing the fact that contemporary struggles continue to lack the relevant forms and organization of political subjectivity capable of ushering in a qualitative transformation of the forces/relations of production, alongside with the attendant social relations of capital? In what follows, we will see how even this fidelity to ‘68-as-problem a la Badiou must itself be problematized; since, unlike ‘68, the current cycle of struggles find themselves circumscribed by a qualitatively different composition of race, gender, nationality, capital, and class. For our present is defined not only by a ‘crisis’ of capital, but by a direct confrontation with the increasing impossibility of self-reproduction for an ever growing number of surplus populations. And as we will see, contra Badiou and ’68’s discovery regarding the inefficiency of the traditional figure of revolutionary subjectivity, the present appears to be defined more by what Marx termed ‘the multiplication of the proletariat;’ a multiplication, that is, of the number of potentially revolutionary social-positions relative to capital.

[ 1 ]

“I would like to begin by asking a very simple question: why all this fuss about May ‘68 – articles, broadcasts, discussions and commemorations of all kinds – 40 years after the event? There was nothing of the kind for the thirtieth or twentieth anniversary”(Communist Hypothesis, 33). Thus begins Badiou’s reflections on the 40th anniversary of the events, which transpired across the country during that month of May in 1968. And not without justification, for it is indeed strange that May ’68 has become worthy of national commemoration only once 40 years of silence has come to pass (and which to some would be better understood as four decades of historical forgetting). Beginning with this question what we are able to see is that there have been two dominant ways of answering this question. On the one hand, there are a set of answers that can be said to be pessimistic & propose the idea that it is possible to commemorate May ’68 precisely because it no longer has any socio-political influence on the present . Or we could say that this commemoration is possible because what was really achieved through the events of May was the establishment of the conditions of possibility for neoliberalism. On the other hand, there are those answers that are decidedly optimistic – ranging from arguments that view this commemorative moment as a looking towards the past for the inspiration needed to change the present, to those who still hold on to an image of political upheaval that held out the promise of another world is possible. Now, in contradistinction to these positions, and by emphasizing what he takes to be May ‘68’s irreducibly complex character, Badiou argues that there are not two but four different May’s:

…the reason why this commemoration is complicated and gives rise to contradictory hypotheses is that May ’68 itself was an event of great complexity. It is impossible to reduce it to a conveniently unitary image. I would like to transmit to you this internal division, the heterogeneous multiplicity that was May ’68. There were in fact four different May ‘68’s. The strength and the distinctive feature of the French May ’68 is that it entwined, combined and superimposed four processes that are, in the final analysis, quite heterogeneous. (Communist Hypothesis, pp. 34-5)

In place of both optimistic and pessimistic mystification, what goes by the name ‘May 1968’ was a political sequence that was effectuated due to the interplay of (i) the student/university uprising, (ii) the general strike organized by workers and unions, and (iii) the cultural protestations which arose most notably from young people and filmmakers. And it is for this reason, says Badiou, that it comes as no surprise that the symbolic sites of ‘68 are “the occupied Sorbonne for students, the big car plants (and especially Billancourt) for the workers, and the occupation of the Odéon theatre” (39).  Now, while each of these segments of ‘68 correspond to the first three iterations of May’68, what constitutes this supposed ‘fourth’ May? And what is its relation to the university, factory, and the struggles of everyday life? Straightforwardly, this ‘fourth May’ was the generalization of a refusal, or rejection, that crystalized with respect to ‘68’s social movements relationship to the history of the workers movement. It was a disavowal  of a certain set of assumptions about just what it is that must be done; an absolute rejection of the Dogmatic Image of (Political) Thought that Badiou perfectly describes in the following terms:

At the time we assumed that the politics of emancipation was neither a pure idea, an expression of the will nor a moral dictate, but that it was inscribed in, and almost programmed by, historical and social reality. One of that convictions implications was that this objective agent had to be transformed into a subjective power, that a social entity had to become a subjective actor. For that to happen, it had to be represented by a specific organization, and that is precisely what we called a party, a working-class or people’s party. That party had to be present wherever there were site of power or intervention. There were certainly wide-ranging discussion about what the party was…But there was a basic agreement that there a historical agent, and that that agent had to be organized. That political organization obviously had a social basis in mass organizations that plunged their roots into an immediate social reality…This gives us something that still survives today: the idea that there are two sides to emancipatory political action. First there are social movements…[T]hen there is the party element. (Communist Hypothesis, p. 40-41)

This fourth iteration of May, then, was the movements rejection of the Marxist-Leninist outline of how revolutions were to be carried out – replete with its workers’ parties seizing state power with professional revolutionaries organizing the masses and founded on a confidence in the power of Party led unions and a belief in the transformative potential of electoral politics. Moreover, this rejection of revolutionary orthodoxy doubled as the grounds for the unification of ’68’s various movements. Thus, Badiou will define this fourth May as the collective attempt to construct“a vision of politics that was trying to wrench itself away from the old vision… [a politics] seeking to find that which might exist beyond the confines of classic revolutionism” (43). In addition to distancing itself from ‘the confines of classic revolutionism,’ the other decisive factor of the fourth May was its rejection of working-class identity as being the sole determinant of one’s revolutionary potential. So what must understood regarding the ‘events of May’ is that 1968 was that it was political sequence that was able to be realized due to students, workers, cultural producers, and historically marginalized identity groups sharing the same horizon of struggle, which rejected both the politics of parliamentarianism, party led unions, and transitional programs and the figure of the proletariat as the sole bearer of revolutionary potential. A sequence, says Badiou, whose guiding question was the following: “What would a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like? A political practice that accepted new trajectories…and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other?” (45). Thus, we can say that ’68 marks the birth of a political subjectivity defined by an unrelenting defiance of the social positions (‘places’) allotted to it by Capital – so much so that Kristin Ross will go on to describe this ‘68-subject’ in a manner quite similar to that of the Badiouian militant who remains ever faithful to its Evental origins:

What has come to be called “the events of May” consisted mainly in students ceasing to function as students, workers as workers, and farmers as farmers: May was a crisis in functionalism. The movement took the form of political experiments in declassification, in disrupting the natural “givenness” of places; it consisted of displacements that took students outside of the university, meetings that brought farmers and workers together, or students to the countryside—trajectories outside of the Latin Quarter, to workers’ housing and popular neighborhoods, a new kind of mass organizing (against the Algerian War in the early 1960s, and later against the Vietnam War) that involved physical dislocation. And in that physical dislocation lay a dislocation in the very idea of politics — moving it out of its…proper place, which was for the left at that time the Communist Party(May 68 And Its Afterlives, p25, emphasis mine)  

And so… Badiou’s framework of there being not two but four May’s retain its usefulness since it allows us to conceive of ‘68 on its own terms, as a form of politics whose horizon of struggle was one that rejected past and present iterations of left-wing politics and gave consistency to its collectivity via the fourth-May-as-diagonal ‘that links the other three [to one another].’ In this way we are led to the conclusion that it was only by virtue of the diagonal function of the fourth May that ‘68 succeeded in giving a new meaning to struggle itself; a vision of struggle no longer subordinate to any party line; no longer in want or need of recognition from the established institutions of the Left; no longer faithful to a notion of revolutionary agency confined to the point of production; and thereby making it possible to (briefly) live in reality what we have long been said to be in truth: non-alienated, collective, and thus free.

[ 2 ]

Unlike the movements of 1968, those of 2018 increasingly find themselves confronted with the crisis of (social) reproduction for both capital and labour; and unlike our present moment, the struggles born out of ’68 found themselves in that postwar period, which saw the annual growth rate of France’s GDP continuously outperform its G7 counterparts (and it was only at the beginning of the 1980s that France’s annual growth fell below this postwar growth rate):

Taking economic growth as a key indicator, France can be seen to have outperformed other G7 states consistently in the postwar period, right until the early 80s. In the period of 1960 to 1967 the French annual growth rate was 5.4 percent, as compared with a G7 average of 5.0 percent….from 1968 to 1973 France moved even further ahead of the G7 average, with its rate of 5.5 percent as against the G7 average of 4.4 percent; while in the globally depressed market is the 1970s, France grew at 2.8 percent each year in the period 1974-1979, as compared with 2.7 percent across the G7 states. (Gallois, After the Deluge, p. 56)

That said, the conclusion to be drawn is not the banal fact that France’s underperformance vis-a-vis it’s postwar boom demonstrates how the contemporary terrain of struggle is different from that of ’68. Rather, the implicit point being made is that the decline in France’s annual growth rate is indicative of the structural shift accumulation away from production and toward circulation – for it is this turn away from production and toward circulation as dominant site of accumulation and realization of value that has been identified as the key factor in understanding the particular way in which the capital-labour relation has been reconstituted as the contemporary terrain upon which struggles are played out. And according to the recent work of theorists such as Joshua Clover, what is perhaps the chief consequence of this recomposition of capital according to the logic of circulation is the transformation in the form resistance takes, where collective action turns away from the strike as tactic and assumes a revitalized riot-form (i.e. riotprime). Contra Badiou, it is better to say that the current cycle of struggles are defined less by ’68’s realization of the insufficiency at the heart of the traditional figure of emancipatory politics and more so by the fact that, as Clover puts it, we are witnessing what Marx called the multiplication of the proletariat:

It is by now impossible to suppose…a labor market that tends toward “full employment”…The long-term tendencies are apparent, and the signs we might expect to indicate a secular reversal [are] nowhere to be seen. There are no sails on the horizon. In this context class might be rethought…Given the relative dwindling of this form of labor [industrial/factory based], Marx must have meant something else when, arriving at this conclusion regarding surplus populations, he proposes that “accumulation of capital is therefore multiplication of the proletariat. (Riot. Strike. Riot., p. 159, my emphasis)

Rather than any absence of emancipatory subjectivity, our present is defined by its proliferation (‘multiplication’); ours is an era defined by a substantive re-working regarding who does and does not count as those said to harbor within themselves the potential for communism; that is, the potential for becoming one more participant in “the real movement that abolishes itself and the present state of things” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology). And so, to recap: we are not the contemporaries of ‘68 precisely because this ‘multiplication of the proletariat’ characteristic of circulation struggles suggests, however vague, the possible existence of emancipatory figures, or forms, revolutionary subjectivity (and despite the current cycle of struggle exhibiting analogous attempts at building a movement premised on the notion that the problems of students are also the problems of workers and vice versa). If 1968 was defined by its confrontation with the impotence of the fabled subject of history, 2018 appears to be defined by the possibility of realizing a form of subjectivity that is, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all” (‘Letter to Maurice Thorez’).

fuck may 68 fight now

[…]

 

Bibliography

Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, tr. David Macey and Steve Corcoran, (Verso: London, 2015)
Aimé Césaire, Letter to Maurice Thorez (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1957), p. 6, p. 7, pp. 14-15.
Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso: London, 2016)
William Gallois, ‘Against Capitalism? French Theory and Economy After 1945,’ in After the Deluge: New Perspectives on the Intellectual and Cultural History of Postwar France, ed. Julian Bourg (Lexington Books: London, 2004), pp. 49-72.
Karl Marx and Frederic Engels, The German Ideology
Kristin Ross, May 68 And Its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2002)

 

 

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Au Revoir Aux Enfants… de Mai! (Abstract)

may 68 barricade bordeaux
working draft of an abstract for a conference on May 1968

In the December of 1968, Maurice Blanchot issued a warning that was to be repeated in the years to come: “May, a revolution by idea, desire, and imagination, risks becoming a purely ideal and imaginary event if this revolution does not…yield to new organization and strategies.”[1] And so, we find in an issue of the Frankfurter Rundschau, dated January 17, 1973, the following analysis by Félix Guattari: the events of May demonstrated that revolutionary movements could no longer proceed by assuming the existence of “one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospital, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in ’68, the problem of the university is…the problem of society as a whole.”[2] And approximately thirty years after Guattari, it would be Alain Badiou’s turn to offer a similar line of inquiry: “What [would] a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like? A political practice that accepted new trajectories…and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other?”[3] Comparing these remarks reveals the kernel of truth shared by these thinkers: namely, that May ‘68 succeeded in forcing society as a whole to confront the problems which serve as the condition for its existence while also posing, to itself, the problem of discovering the necessary forms struggles must take in order to ward off state capture and its commodification by the market. In light of these remarks this presentation argues the following thesis: if one of the key double-binds of ‘68 is the dialectic between nostalgic commemoration and farcical repetition, its nullification will be achieved only with the realization of a form of collective struggle capable of substantially transforming the forces and relations of production. By beginning with a comparative analysis of Badiou’s, Guattari’s, and Blanchot’s analyses this presentation will show how, if left unresolved, the problems posed by the movements of ‘68 risk becoming the very limitations of contemporary struggles. For just as it was in 1968, these problems are all the more urgent in 2018 since the present cycle of struggle (at least in Western Europe) has again taken the form of federated networks of various local struggles where students take to the streets alongside workers, unions call for strike actions alongside strikes led by grass roots organizations and centered around social issues (transportation, gentrification, rent, the police, land). And so it appears that Badiou is right to underscore our contemporaneity with ’68 since we have yet to find an adequate solution to “the problem revealed by May ’68: [namely, that] the classical figure of the politics of emancipation was ineffective.”[4]


[1] Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings: 1953-1993, tr. Zakir Paul (Fordham University Press: New York, 2010), 106, my emphasis.
[2] Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, tr. Rosemary Sheed (Penguin: New York, 1984), 255.
[3] Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, tr. David Macey and Steve Corcoran (Verso: New York, 2015), 45.
[4] Ibid, 47.

Notes on Christian Jambet & the Question of the One

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If there is one conviction shared by the majority of contemporary philosophers, this is it: the one is not [l’un n’est pas]. . .Once affirmed, this conviction converts smoothly into various systems of thought, until either every attestation of the real is renounced, or at least until the real is thoroughly separated from its theological identity with the one. . .Whatever the merits of this decision may be, its unavoidable consequence is to conceal what is at stake, metaphysically, when the mind acknowledges that the highest power resides in the one. [1]

“Que peut la philosophie? « cette pensée avec laquelle on ne peut essentiellement rien entreprendre et à propos de laquelle les servantes ne peuvent s’empêcher de rire (Heidegger). Je suis voué à l’impuissance traditionnelle de la philosophie, plus simplement de la vie contemplative. Longtemps prisée en Occident comme le privilège, la meilleure part de l’homme, ce dont tout être qui mérite le nom d’homme ne peut être privé, ce par quoi l’on touche à l’éternité, cette heureuse impuissance a vu son sens renversé. Thalès ne vaut plus la servante. La vérité, séparée de la vie, ne vaut pas la vie qu’elle contribue à opprimer. [2]

Y a-t-il une philosophie française?

It would seem that Christian Jambet’s intervention in the history of philosophy have largely escaped the attention of the Anglophone reception of  contemporary “French philosophy.” Hence the importance of Peter Hallward’s reflections on Jambet’s life and work in his 2003 introduction to Jambet’s ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One’ published in Angelaki. [3] For Hallward, this relative neglect of Jambet’s work is a disservice to ourselves and to the image of French theory/philosophy that continues to be faithfully passed down within academia – especially given a person who was influenced by “Mao and Lacan” while also serving as “the translator of Rumi and Oscar Wilde” and “an attentive reader of Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou.” Given this range and diversity of Jambet’s thought, and as Hallward puts it, Jambet quite frankly “makes mainstream work in comparative philosophy look positively parochial” [4] and constitutes a blindspot regarding our understanding of the developments specific to the French tradition.

According to Hallward, Jambet’s intervention can be understood as constituted by its two main concerns: revolution and philosophy. Regarding the latter, Jambet defends a view of philosophy, not as the pursuit of knowledge or opinion, but as the reflexive undertaking that, when applied to oneself (“an entering into discord with oneself”), transforms both the subject and its image of thought. That is, philosophy is to be found in all those acts, which pursue a line of inquiry that is also defined by its qualitative break with every prejudice and acculturated habit that is recognizable by its belonging to a certain ‘common sense.’ As Hallward writes: “a genuine “philosophical act takes place when its subjects overturn their conception of the world,” when, breaking with prejudice or habit, they devise ways of thinking along lines indifferent to all received representations of the world. Philosophy…is a reflexive work of transformation applied upon oneself…so as to accord with a way of thinking that holds, in principle for anyone at all.”[5] For Jambet, what is at stake in the practice of philosophy is the transformation of the thinking subject such that this subject’s mode of thought is marked by a break with those forms of thought sustained by either tradition (“good sense”) or convention (“common sense”).

Qu’est–ce que la revolution?

Given Jambet’s experiences as a member of the Maoist groups Union des Jeunesses Communistes and Gauche Prolétarienne and ultimate disappointment with the direction taken by Maoism in both China and France, he returns to and refashions a theory of revolutionary subjectivity (as developed in his text L’Ange from 1976 and furthered in his 1978 work Le Monde) which allows him to begin theorizing revolution as a “spiritual affair” – a revolution whose “most immediate enemies are those…who seek to harness its forces to merely social or historical ends.”[6] However, we should not understand this spiritual definition of revolution as a regression or inherent mysticism regarding Jambet’s political thought. Rather, for Jambet, revolution belongs to the category of Spirit precisely because it is Spirit that is said to be the locus of the genesis of novel forms of both thinking and living. This revolutionary spiritualism opposed to a theory of revolution bound by the dictates of History (world), says Hallward, allows Jambet to directly address what is at stake in both emancipatory politics as well as the history of Islam:

“Jambet’s decisive encounter with Corbin…is what determined him to look for such points of reference primarily in esoteric Shi’ite philosophy, in which the struggle between world and spirit (between a literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran and one that urges the invention of new forms of interpretation) is particularly acute. The question posed today by the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden is the question that has divided Islam from the beginning: is God’s will essentially mediated by rules and institutions and thus caught up in the enforcement of law, or “is God creative freedom, pure spontaneity, such that true believers express this divine freedom in their own spiritual practice,” as so many instances of “boundless spontaneity”?” [7]

So, for Jambet, revolution is decidedly ‘spiritual’ insofar as it is precisely those instances which belong to Spirit that are also acts/moments/thoughts/lives/etc., that realizes that novel and creative force, which expresses, not the relative and particular intentions of human agents, but the logic of that which can only be said to be absolutely free, creative, and spontaneous. If Revolution no longer answers to the demands of realizing historical institutions such as law, or the state, this is because to do so would ultimately mean reversing the relation between the absolute and what is relative to it – which, as Hallward notes, when translated in practical terms is a reversal defined by the very agendas set forth by Khomeini and bin Laden since each, in their own way, valorize a policing relation based on a ‘literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran’ (a metaphysical reversal whose political correlate is categorized as World). So, if revolution is to mean anything it must necessarily be so many instances (i.e. so many moments of a coming-into-being and in accordance with substance and attributes of which it is an expression) of the divine attribute of “boundless spontaneity.” And in this manner, says Jambet, revolution is nothing if not a spiritual affair.

However it is at this point in Jambet’s reconsideration of the fundamental features of revolution that we would be right to ask the following: what leads Jambet to think revolution from the vantage point of a substance based metaphysics? What is it that compels Jambet to deny the dictum that l’un n’est pas [the one is not] and to recuperate the existence of ‘the One’? In any event, it is the radical transformation of oneself and the world that remains at stake. And as Jambet will show, it is only by virtue of ‘the One’ that (i) Thought has access to the reality of revolution just as (ii) it is by virtue of ‘the One’ that revolution becomes a real possibility in Practice.

So, on what basis is Jambet able to claim that Revolution is only said of Spirit and not of the World? On what grounds does Jambet’s theory of revolution avoid turning into a politics founded upon an underlying mysticism and whose subject is characterized by a properly agnostic paralysis; or a less prosaic variant of a heavily mediated idealism? These questions become all the more serious since Jambet’s position seems to go against the very method (historical materialism) that allowed Marx and Engels to develop a theory of revolution whose promise was the universal emancipation of humanity. So, all of this is to ask: ‘can revolution be accomplished in thought and action if we abjure our relation History, which would be, for Jambet, an attribute, not of Spirit, but of the World?‘ On this point Hallward is again instructive since, for Jambet, revolution undoubtedly belongs to ‘Spirit’ insofar as its defining characteristics are only many expressions, or emanations, of its attributes:

“Any conception of spirit as absolute creativity must have at least three fundamental attributes…In the first place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Spinoza)…an unlimited creative force can only be singular, unique…In the second place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Hegel)…pure creativity can only be thought as subject rather than an object, and the only subject adequate to the One is God himself…In the third place, then (for reasons similar to those embraced by Bergson), we ourselves can know God only in so far as God thinks through us…The only true principle immune to radical doubt here is not “think” but “I am thought (by God)” – cogitor rather than cogito.”[8]

 

endnotes
[1] Christian Jambet, ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One,’ Angelaki vol. 8, no. 2, (August, 2003), 36-41, 36.

[2] Christian Jambet, Apologie de Platon. 11.
[3]For more see Hallward’s introduction in Angelaki vol 8, no. 2, August 2003, 33-35.
[4] Ibid, 33.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 34.
[8] Ibid.

Between Badiou and Spinoza: On Epistemic Conditioning and The Doctrine of Parallelism

L'Avenç - Ramón Casas

“The true is generic, even when being is the power of singularities.”

— Alain Badiou, ‘Spinoza’s Closed Ontology’

(short essay currently in progress…)

0. Intro

In a short essay from the 1990’s, Alain Badiou addresses the persuasive force and fundamental shortcoming of Spinoza’s philosophy: it’s force, says Badiou, is that Spinoza has thoroughly proven that ‘Being can only be thought more geometrico.’ Spinoza’s shortcoming, however, stems from his treatment of Being independent from temporal determination by way of the Event. It is for this reason that Badiou claims that a theory of the event is the necessary supplement to Spinozism, in order to account for categories such as ‘indeterminacy, difference, subject, undecidability…” and so on. In a certain sense, Badiou’s criticism of Spinoza is reminiscent of the charge leveled by Hegel, which claimed that while philosophy must begin with Spinozism since it directs thought toward the Absolute, Spinoza must be rendered as a moment within the progression of dialectical thought since Spinoza’s Substance, by itself, remains static. Badiou formulates the criticism in the following manner: “The true is generic, even when being is the power of singularities.” In other words, the problem of Spinozism is how to account for the movement from the Infinite to the finite, from infinite intellect to finite intellect, and from substance to subject. However, what I want to show is that Badiou’s critique of Spinoza rests on several reconceptualizations of Spinoza’s own concepts; some reconceptualizations which are justifiable and some which remain untenable from the perspective of Spinozism.

Badiou will insist on treating the infinite intellect and extended things as separate, and on claiming that infinite intellection has an additional form of determination that is not found in extended things. Additionally, Badiou insists that there are three additional assumptions behind the arguments for the status of substance, substance’s relation to itself and things in the world, and its essence: namely, what is assumed in substance is a ‘proof of difference,’ what is assumed regarding the relation of substance and its modes additional to causality is ‘coupling’ and ‘inclusion,’ and what is assumed in the essence, or identity, of substance is an exceptional subject that is ‘heterogenous’ to Being itself. By reconstructing how this critique proceeds, we will be able to see that while it appears to be plausible that we can justifiably treat the infinite intellect and extended things as separate and coupled, Badiou’s claim that an infinite intellect has an additional form of determination that is not found in extended things misses all the necessary theoretical justifications found in the doctrine of parallelism; a mistake on Badiou’s part that at the same time grounds his entire critique.

1. The Implicit Assumption Of A ‘Proof of Difference’

Problems arise for Spinoza with the status of the relationship between substance and its attributes. That is, what underlies the relationship between substance and its attributes isn’t simply logical identity (e.g., substance is its attributes). Rather, this relation is constituted by some notion of difference, which gives rational grounding for the existence of an infinite number of attributes. This notion of difference is defined in two main ways. Implicit in Spinoza’s thought, this idea of ‘infinite substance’ conveys what Badiou calls a ‘determination of the indeterminate.’ That is, the role played by the term Infinite is one of Substances own internal determinations of itself, by virtue of its essence (causa sui). Second, the infinite nature of substance is expressed, numerically/quantitatively, through an infinite number of attributes. This means, then, that each attribute must be different in kind from, and therefore cannot be collapsed back into, every other attribute.

Now, while it might not seem like a real obstacle given the implication of difference in kind between the attributes of substance, Badiou underscores that the problem of the relation between attributes and substance arises because of how Spinoza conceives of attributes themselves; namely, as “operations of the intellect” that “give meaning to God’s existential singularization as infinite substance.” That is to say, if attributes are simply the conceptual mediators which arise from the intellects attempt to know and understand Substance, what is it about the intellect itself that gives it this specific function and capacity? That is, in Badiou’s own words, “the intellect is operative, but what is the ontological status of its operation?” It is by raising the question of the metaphysical status of the intellect itself that Badiou will build his critique of Spinoza.

In order to do this, Badiou begins by affirming Spinoza’s own definition of the intellect as a mode of the attribute of thought, and by affirming that the infinite intellect is a mode, also infinite, and follows logically and necessarily from the attribute of thought itself. Additionally, the intellect functions as a ‘measure of the power of God’ insofar as God is a thinking thing, and when considered under the attribute of Thought, God’s power is understood to be infinite: ‘All the things that it can intellect…are held to exist.’ However, Badiou takes this idea of God’s infinite intellection being equivalent to the infinite power of God as being separable and distinct from any other attribute of substance. It is this claim that sets up Badiou’s critique and should be quoted at length:

“Clearly, no other infinite mode imaginable by us posses such a capacity for measuring God’s power. This holds in particular for the other example of an immediate infinite mode given by Spinoza, movement and rest, which is supposed to be the correlate of infinite intellect on the side of extension. For it is obvious that no general prescription about God’s power follows from the pure concept of movement and rest.”

What is the possible justification for Badiou’s claim that it is only the powers of the infinite intellect that can serve as an adequate, and true, measure of God’s power? It is, for Badiou, the fact that what differentiates the metaphysical status of infinite modes of Thought from those infinite modes Extension is that an “infinite intellect presupposes an entirely different determination, one which is extrinsic. For the intellect, whose components are ideas, is equally well determined by what it intellects, or by what the idea is an idea of. ” Badiou’s reading is in fact corroborated by Spinoza in Part II of the Ethics in the propositions where he deals with the nature of the mind as the idea we have of our body (extended thing) in its relation to other bodies (extended things). For Spinoza, it is true that the ideas we have of bodies are conditioned by their relation to my own body and their relations to other extended things: “A human mind perceives the nature of many bodies together with the nature of its own body” (EIIP16Cor1); “The ideas that we have of external bodies are more informative about the condition of our own body than about the nature of the external bodies. I have explained this by many examples in the Appendix of Part I” (EIIP16Cor2).

In other words, on Badiou’s reading, the intellect is privileged precisely because it exists as a mode which is determined internally according to its attribute and externally according to the objects of the intellect. Here we begin to see what is at stake in beginning with the relationship between substance and its attributes: if the attributes are the conceptual mediators through which the intellect gains knowledge of substance, and if the infinite number of attributes are truly distinct from one another, then there will be certain properties of each attribute that cannot be found in others. In this case, the property that is specific to the infinite intellect is being determined by the attribute to which it belongs (Thought) and by the object of its activity (extended things). However, as we will see, it is from this idea that there is a type of extrinsic conditioning of the mind by extended things in the operations of the intellect that give Badiou the suspicion that the doctrine of parallelism is untenable since it fails to correctly thematize the minds dependence on extended things.

2. ‘Coupling’ contra Parallelism

Now, even if we are to accept this reading of the relationship between the infinite intellect and things in the world, the first major critique leveled against Spinoza by Badiou, is the following: while Spinoza’s argument for the parallelism between ideas and things seems to ensure the unity between the mind and the body, between our knowledge of the world and the essence of the world itself, Badiou insists that what grounds this union must be found in something other than the essential form of relation that substance has with itself; namely, causality. In other words, Badiou’s first major criticism of Spinoza regards the very connection between ideas and things themselves and is built upon his first claim that the mind is not only internally determined by the attribute of Thought but also extrinsically determined by the attribute of Extension. If Spinoza has barred any causal relation between Thought and Extension (since substance is the only true cause of things), and if causality is the essential and necessary way in which substance relates to itself, then how do the attributes of Thought and Extension relate to one another if not through a causal connection?

Regarding this problem of the unity of the attributes of substance, Badiou posits that what needs to supplement the thesis of parallelism is what he terms ‘coupling.’ This term, which is derived from Spinoza’s claim that a true idea is an idea that agrees with its object (EIA6), suggests that while Spinoza does not have an explicit account for how thought and extension are united, Spinoza holds the belief that what gives an idea its truth-value is an ideas agreement with its ideatum. It is because this argument hinges on the term agreement that Badiou will call ‘coupling’ a normative practice. That is, the coupling of mind and body is normative insofar as the criteria for the truth-value of ideas is their ‘agreement’ with their objects. Here we arrive at Badiou’s second major criticism: it is because the norm of agreement, which constitutes a true ideas, cannot be said to have a causal relationship with an infinite intellect that the idea of ‘coupling’ becomes necessary.

Now, if this operation of ‘coupling’ becomes necessary for an infinite intellect, then this underscores the fact of the difference in kind between attributes and gives Badiou reason to conclude that there is something specific to the infinite intellect that cannot be found in any other attribute. That is, if the thesis of parallelism were in fact true – that the same order and connection underlies both ideas and things – then the process of coupling with its norm of agreement would not be necessary. The fact of its necessity in Spinoza’s account leads Badiou to claim that

“…it is impossible to conceive of (or for the intellect to represent) a structure isomorphic with that of the intellect itself in any attribute other than thought. Consequently, the attribute of thought is not isomorphic with any of the other attributes, not even in terms of the relation of causality alone.”

Therefore, on Badiou’s reading of Spinoza, not only does the parallelism thesis fail at the level of uniting the attributes of substance with substance itself; Spinoza’s argument for parallelism even fails to overcome what many have thought Spinoza of resolving: namely, the existence of a difference in kind between mind and body, between res cogita and res extensa. On the Badiouian reading, the difference which guarantees that each attribute of substance is not simply interchangeable with every other one ensures that each attribute of substance will have something particular to itself. It is from these specific determinations proper to each attribute, and from Spinoza’s refutation of the idea that any two attributes have a causal relationship to one another, that the unity of the mind with the body, of Thought with Extension in substance, cannot be rationalized in the form of causality and must be said to be a relation of ‘coupling.’

3. Substance’s Heterogeneity

The third and final criticism of Spinoza regards the passage from the infinite to the finite; a problem, which according to Badiou, “constitutes the greatest impediment for Spinozist ontology.” In connection with the prior discussion regarding the infinite intellect, Badiou’s suspicion regarding this passage from the infinite to the finite can be formulated in the following way: Spinoza provides his understanding of the passage from the finite to the infinite, via the intellect, in part II of the Ethics. In propositions 38 to 40, Spinoza argues that what constitutes ‘reason’ is the construction of common notions; whose characteristic of being ‘common’ is derived from the shared properties of various things in the world. That is to say, on the basis of these common notions, rational activity is made possible. However, says Badiou, the status of truth in this Spinozist view ultimately renders Truth itself general and universal. As Badiou writes, “there is no true knowledge of that singular body of which our mind is the idea. But the finite intellect necessarily has a true idea of what is common to all bodies, and consequently of what is not singular, as soon as it is able to couple with it.”

While the claim that Spinozist truth is only ever general and universal may be seen, from within Spinoza’s system, as a virtue, it is here where Badiou’s ultimate objection can be understood. If truth can never be said of singular, finite, and particular things (Badiou’s claim that being is the power of singularities) and only of those things which are ‘most common’ to all things, then Spinoza has merely demonstrated the basic determinations of substance – infinite, eternal, etc. – without having given us the reasons, or causes, by which we can think and understand the particularity of things. It is for this reason that Badiou gives the title of a ‘closed ontology’ to his essay on Spinoza and concludes, in a critical light: ‘All truth is generic. Alternatively: what is thinkable of being is mathematical.’ Thus, when Badiou criticizes Spinoza for assuming that Substance is in fact heterogenous to Being itself, it is to indicate how the general and universal determinations of things via the second kind of knowledge (reason) do not in fact give us access to Substance itself. Rather, the type of knowledge derived through ‘common notions’ can only be said in a general manner, excluding the possibility of us having knowledge of particular and singular things on their own terms.

4. Critiquing Badiou’s Critique

What should be clear by now is that Badiou’s critique of Spinoza rests, fundamentally, on his disagreement with the sufficiency of Spinoza’s understanding of the relationship between the attributes of Thought and Extension and how their relationship is played out in terms of the doctrine of parallelism. For Badiou, while no two attributes of substance can be interchangeable with any other, Badiou’s argument is that what is true of the attribute of Thought (intrinsic and extrinsic determination) is not true of Extension (mere extrinsic determination). It is Thoughts dual determination – internally via its attribute and externally via the bodies it cognizes – that renders suspect the doctrine of parallelism since parallelism appears to claim that what is true of Thought is also true of Extension. It is the same order and connection of things which is found, each time, whether we consider things from the vantage point of Thought or from the perspective of Extension. However, this cannot be the case for Badiou since Thought appears to have an additional form of determination viz-á-viz extended things and thus, what is true for Thought cannot be said to be true for Extension. Thus, for Badiou, a more robust theory of ‘coupling’ will need to supplant Spinoza’s theory of parallelism. Now, very quickly, I want to underscore that while Badiou’s criticisms are persuasive, they overlook crucial features of Spinoza’s doctrine of parallelism and thus lead more to a misunderstanding between Badiou and Spinoza than any type of critique proper.

The reason why Badiou’s critique of Spinoza’s parallelism leads to so many misunderstandings is due to a certain type of confusion, or a certain equivocation between what Badiou calls ‘determination’ and what Spinoza calls ‘causality’. For Badiou, as we saw, Thought is determined in two directions while Extension is merely determined according to its own attribute. However, the claim that the mind is determined both by its attribute and by the modes of Extension in no way contradict Spinoza’s thesis of parallelism since what Spinoza denies in terms of the relationship between the mind and extended things is not ‘determination’ understood as conditions for thoughts operations. Rather, what Spinoza denies is any ‘causal’ connection between the mind and extended things, where ‘causality’ here means nothing other than ‘the reasons for why something exists’. That is, the body does not cause the mind nor does the mind cause the body simply because neither one nor the other brings their correlate into existence. In other words, the very fact that human cognition is conditioned by the very nature of cognitive activity as well as by the objects of its activity is explicitly affirmed and accepted by Spinoza unproblematically since this plurality of conditionality does not give us the reasons, or the causal connections adequate for understanding things from the point of view of Substance, for what gives existence to thought and extension respectively. Thus, the thesis of parallelism is less a thesis about the co-constituting, or co-conditioning, of the mind and the body and rather a thesis about how each term in the relation is not what gives existence to the other (to assume that one term in fact gives existence to its correlate is to move from Spinoza to Descartes, since for Descartes it was the operations of the mind that explained the nature of the body).

Towards a Feminist “Axiomatics”

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The title of this post, Feminist ‘Axiomatics,’ is a term I will use to explain and articulate a specific gesture within feminist theory – mainly found in the work of Elizabeth Grosz and Sara Ahmed. This gesture consists in this: to understand that there is something specific and distinct about feminist theory – where for Grosz it is understanding the historical specificity of feminist theory as a body of work that stands apart from other competing theories (Marxism, structuralism, etc.), and for Ahmed it is a certain preoccupation with the future and the attempt to not repeat the past. Based on this initial claim, Grosz and Ahmed then make the following move: feminist theory takes as its object of critique every theoretical project claiming for itself the path toward emancipation in order to understand and deconstruct every patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic assumption which help found the very project in question. It is in the combination of these two claims that we can come to understand the axiomatic quality of feminist theory and its relationship with other, and sometimes seen as competing, thinkers and ideas.

From Equality to Autonomy

For Grosz, this move begins in the 1960’s; specifically with the rise of Feminist Theory in universities as distinct from Feminism as a political movement. “In the sixties, feminists began to question various images, representations, ideas, and presumptions traditional theories developed about women and the feminine” (Grosz, 1986). Given the already established presence of the struggle for women’s emancipation, what was specific about this time period was the rise of what Grosz calls a ‘politics of autonomy’ as opposed to a ‘politics of equality.’ A politics of equality was based on two basic ideas: the inclusion of women into the intellectual concerns of theorists and the intellectual treatment of women as legitimate objects of inquiry as being equal to the way in which intellectuals have long since treated men as objects of study. Against these two claims, a politics of autonomy understood that equality does not go far enough since equality would only grant women and the feminine equal treatment insofar as certain aspects of the lives of women and feminine lives were like the lives of men: “The project of women’s equal inclusion meant that only women’s sameness to men, only women’s humanity and not their womanliness could be discussed” (Grosz, 1986).
The politics of autonomy, means not undertaking an emancipatory project on the basis of women’s sameness to men. Rather, “struggle for autonomy…imply the right to reject such standards and create new ones”(Grosz, 1986). It is this politics of autonomy that constituted the heart of Feminist Theory as a distinct and specific intellectual movement. By understanding that equality is the attempt to grant women the privileges enjoyed by men as long as they emulated men/masculine lives, the politics of autonomy attempt to not only reject this move but also posit the idea that the dogmatic assumption of the equivalence of maleness with rationality and womanliness with irrationality was too a bankrupt framework. Feminist Theory, understood through the lens of autonomy, then means 4 things:

  • 1). Women are both the subjects and objects of knowledge – they ought to be granted the same standing as men and the lives of men in terms of theoretical inquiry as well as granting the idea that one cannot easily separate reason from desire.
    2). Due to the first point, there is undertaken by Feminist Theorists a radical questioning of all methods, theory’s, and ideas in the attempt to bring under critical analysis each of their main axioms and tenants. This critical attitude which constitutes the heart of Feminist Theory brings under close scrutiny commonly held beliefs of intellectual’s of the left in order to show how even the most liberatory projects can still reinforce and perpetuate anti-feminist ideas and practices.
    3). The politics of autonomy feminists ‘work through’ all objects of study, sometimes in order to subvert and detourn them.
    4). All of this, plus the alternatives developed through Feminist analysis, constitutes what Grosz calls Feminist Theory.

Thus, as Grosz says, the goal of Feminist Theory is to render patriarchical theories and institutions incapable of exercising domination and power over women and the feminine. Ultimately, for Grosz, Feminist Theory as a politics of autonomy is an attempt to counter patriarchical paradigms as well as establish alternative theories and institutions based on the principles of Feminist Theory itself.

Feeling Differently

Extending Grosz’s insights into the question ‘What is Feminist Theory?’ and concluding with a politics of autonomy that takes up a critical attitude toward all ideas, theories, and intellectual projects which present themselves as emancipatory, Ahmed’s essay ‘Feminist Futures’ acts as a further reflection on the status of Feminist Theory itself. For Ahmed, writing after Butler’s Gender Trouble which brought to the attention of Feminist Theory the crisis in the category of Woman, acknowledges the differences which separate feminists of all stripes while also acknowledging that what all feminists share is a “concern with the future; that is, a desire that the future should not simply be a repetition of the past, given that feminism comes into being as a critique of, and resistance to, the ways in which the world has already taken shape” (Ahmed, 2008).

To be concerned with the future and to avoid repeating the past, Ahmed highlights the way in which she, as a feminist, can write her coming into being a feminist through various emotions: anger, pain, love, joy, wonder, and hope. Briefly, in this section, I want to reconstruct Ahmed’s main argument regarding the relationship between emotion and feminist theory/politics since I believe it is an extension of Grosz’s prior claims about the emergence and foundation of Feminist Theory as a theory in its own right. Ahmed’s main argument is as follows:

  • 1). Gender permeates all aspects of social life, hence it is constitutive of our being-in-the-world in a fundamental way.
    2). Feminist anger is directed towards an object that has gone by various names (patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, sexual division of labor) but shares the same quality of pain and oppression constituting women’s everyday lives.
    3). Anger already implies a reading of the world, thus it begins with a reading of a specific object and moves on toward the world itself (due to point 1).
    4). When Feminist anger becomes a critique of “what is,” it becomes “a critique that loses an object.” Through this loss of an object, Feminism opens up the potentials that are not found in the present organization of society.

It is from these four main claims, and read in relation to Elizabeth Grosz’s definition of Feminist Theory, that we come to understand the concept of a Feminist AxiomaticsThrough the reading of Grosz and Ahmed, we can come to a set of conclusions as to what constitutes Feminist Theory as Theory and why is Feminist Theory, in this line of thinking, understood to be “axiomatic.” Simply stated: when Feminism becomes a critique without an object, a critique waged against the world as such, it becomes once again a Theory a la Grosz; that is to say, when one aims at a critique of the world as such, the task is not to name, describe, and diagnose the world (although this may be done along the way). Rather, the project of a feminist axiomatics becomes the creation and establishment of a world where gender and sexuality no longer operate as oppressive relations, no longer perpetuate and continuously solidify stratified and socialized inequality, where this project is founded on the principles of Feminist Theory itself.

Towards a Feminist Axiomatics

So, what is ‘axiomatic’ about this understanding of Feminist Theory and “Feminist” about ‘axiomatics’? The term axiomatics, indebted to the concept of the axiom, is borrowed from Alain Badiou’s own understanding of the relationship between politics and justice – where politics is the collective and voluntaristic decision making of the body politic and justice does not signify a unity or stability, but an instability, a rupture, with the current state of affairs. For Badiou, the status of the axiom in his ontology, just as it is with the status of choice in politics and metapolitics, is not something taken for granted or assumed to be true prior to investigation. Rather, axioms are only ‘true,’ or gain the status of intelligible through their application in the process of which they are a part. That is to say, the intelligibility of an axiom cannot be separated from the demonstration of its Truth: “choice has its intelligibility neither in the objective collective nor in a subjectivity of opinion. Its intelligibility is internal, in the sequential process of action, just as an axiom is intelligible only through the application of the theory that it supports” (Badiou, 2005).

In regards to Feminism and Feminist Theory, what makes Grosz’s and Ahmed’s feminism a feminist axiomatics is due to their shared investment in the idea that what is axiomatic and foundational for theory and politics does precede the process of politics itself. As Grosz writes, a feminist axiomatics is not simply one method among others. It is the search for a new method where theory is sexual, political, gender infused, and understood as historically and politically produced – that there is, at bottom, not simply truth but a ‘politics of truth:’ “feminist theory is involved in continuing explorations of and experimentation with new forms of writing, new methods of analysis, new positions of enunciation, new kinds of discourse…Instead of attempting to establish a new theoretical norm, feminist theory seeks a new discursive space, a space where women can write, read and think as women” (Grosz, 1986). In a similar sentiment, Ahmed writes at the end of her essay: “And so, everyday, we might be compelled to declare “I am/we are feminists,’ even when the meaning of the word is not decided in advance, indeed because it is not decided and because it has effects that are, as yet, not lived. So we say it, and we say it with a certain kind of love, a love that is impure, and not easy, but one that might give us life, a life that has all the vitality of the living, even if it is a life that has yet to take form” (Ahmed, 2008).

It is this idea, of a feminism that remains faithful to all the ways in which it is yet to be decided what it means to be a feminist at this specific historical, political, social, and economic situation that constitutes the axiomatics of Grosz’s and Ahmed’s feminism. For each show us, in their own way, that what is most important about “being a feminist” is the relationship between the lived experience of women and the feminine and the coupling of that experience with intellectual work. To be clear, feminists (political and/or intellectual) do not need Badiou to educate them on the various ways being a feminist constitutes a yet to be decided position with regards to the world as such. The bringing together of Badiou and Feminist Theory is an attempt to show how a thinker such as Badiou has the potential to be brought into conversation with feminist intellectuals and activists, and for this reason, must take into account the claims and method of feminist theory itself. Hence the “towards” in the title of this post: bringing together Badiou with Grosz and Ahmed is a first attempt to move toward a conversation where each can benefit, intellectually and politically, from their shared commitments to the axiomatic quality of their thought. Each thinker, in their own way, is a subject of a truth (where they are faithful to an Event – be it May ’68, the birth of Feminist Theory as a necessary counter part to feminist politics, or the commitment to a future that does not replicate the past) that aims to derive its Truth, as a subject, immanently from the situation itself. Thus, we say once more and along with Ahmed: “And so, everyday, we might be compelled to declare “I am/we are feminists,” even when it has effects that are, as yet, not lived” (Ahmed, 2008).

 

 

 

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.

No Dialogue Is Possible: Badiou, Vergès, and the Question of Rupture


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No Dialogue

(This post is a continuation of some previous thoughts on Badiou’s essay ‘The Three Negations,’ which can be found here)

Perhaps one of Alain Badiou’s strongest allies in his articulation of the Event is an anachronistic one. Jacques Vergès, French-Vietnamese lawyer, was made famous by his defense of Djamila Bouhired, Algerian nationalist and fighter in the National Liberation Army in Algeria in the late 50’s. Using the ‘rupture defense,’ Vergès claimed that the French State had no grounds to try Bouhired due to its history of colonial violence against the Alergian people. Thus, instead of defending Bouhired in terms of the French legal system, Vergès approached the trial from the ‘outside.’ As he stated in an interview with Der Spiegel,

The other French attorneys who had taken over the defense in Algiers tried to begin a dialogue with the military judges there. The judges saw the FLN as a criminal group. But the Algerian defendants saw their attacks as a necessary act of resistance. In other words, there was no consensus over the principles that were to be applied in reaching a verdict. For me, it meant that I had to shift the events to outside the courtroom and win over public opinion for the defendants.

This lack of consensus marks the paraconsistent nature of the trial: it is both the case that Bouhired was guilty and innocent; guilty from the point of view of the State and innocent from the point of view of the FLN. It is this confrontation of view points that Vergès brought to the forefront of the trial. As critical legal theorist Emilios Christodoulidis writes, “the defense of ‘rupture’ aims at a confrontation with the system that is represented by the prosecution’s case. In its confrontation with the law of the State, its main aim is to derail the process all the time both using and contesting it…”(SR). Or as Vergès himself writes “rupture traverses the whole structure of the trial. Facts as well as circumstances of the action pass onto a secondary plane; in the forefront suddenly appears the brutal contestation with the order of the state”(SR). Ultimately, the strategy of rupture aims at a confrontation between defense and prosecution that, “excludes all compromise”(SR). It is here that we arrive at the classical logic that underpins Vergès approach: in defending Bouhired through the contestation of the legitimacy of the French legal system, by putting their judgment of Bouhired into contrast with France’s history of colonialism, and their use of torture on Algerian’s despite the State’s acknowledgment of the rights of the subjects of French colonies, Vergès disrupts the State’s legitimacy by positing its actual illegitimacy. That is to say, either France is guilty of ongoing colonial violence and thus revokes its legitimacy as a supposed, neutral, judicial third party; or France is not guilty of ongoing colonial violence and retains its authority, with no third possibility. The rupture defense, then, is an Event in the classical sense.

This defense which constitutes a rupture, is only a rupture (or an Event), since it achieves a critique which contests and posits “new rules of appearing”; since for Badiou, “an event is a sudden change of the rules of appearing; a change of the degrees of existence of a lot of multiplicities which appear in a world” (TTN). As seen above, Vergès led a defense of Bouhired not on the terms articulated by the court, but on the grounds of the principles which defined the legitimacy of the court itself. That is to say, what Vergès sought was a new set of ‘rules of appearing.’ Instead of terrorists, Bouhired was part of the resistance against colonialism; instead of a criminal, Bouhired was a revolutionary; instead of a murderer, she executed a traitor. And here we can see Vergès, and Badiou after him as an articulation of Fanon’s decolonial principle that “challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal” (WE). By establishing the incommensurability between the lives of colonized peoples and the legal structure of the French state, Vergès showed how the tactics of the FLN “could no longer be rationally contained within the context of the operations of the French municipal system of justice,” once France was seen for what it was: “a facilitator of the colonial brutality against an emergent people no longer subsumable to ‘le peuple’ (SR). Thus, Fanon’s argument about race and class relations in colonized Algeria takes on a new meaning: not only is one rich because one is white, and white because one is rich; within the French system of justice, one is just because one is white, and white because one is just. Within this logic of colonialism, there is no category by which the Algerian resistor can be recognized by except by the notions of an irrational ‘animal,’ a ‘terrorist,’ and a ‘criminal.’