Badiou and Politics

An earlier version of this post was published at Indigenous Ink

In the introduction to Badiou and Politics, Bruno Bosteels (2011) gives an all-around account of Badiou’s treatment of politics that, as I will track throughout the following, is congenial to a theory of minor politics. Suffice it here to say that Badiou’s thought is, in a first approximation, characterized by two fundamental approaches: the first a strictly ontological domain and the second a formal exposition of the subject. Or, in the parlance of Badiou, being and event. The former, roughly speaking, is the restricted study of order, situations, structures, knowledge, nature and so on whereas the latter, again in its widest connotation, is the consideration of chance, novelty, change, history, and subjects.

The most important contribution of Badiou’s mode of thinking, as Bosteels correctly argues, is the rejection of a rigid divide between ontological reason and the theory of the subject. Rather than juxtaposing two orders, with event firmly on the other side of being, Badiou gives a renewed articulation of this commonplace opposition, suggesting that it is the conjunctive ‘and’ that really matters.

The real issue for Badiou is how the new arises from within the old. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, how novelty can be conceived from within the ordinary situations we live in. This full-blown account of “how a given situation can be thoroughly transformed in the event of a new and unpredictable path” is articulated in terms of an immanent excess, something from within the situation itself that has no part yet nonetheless intervenes in a situation to cause a break in continuity (ibid.: 5). Therefore, to again echo Bosteels, any typology of change must give account of what is old and repetitious in the situation as much as what passes into existence that is novel. Excess must be thought as immanent to the situation itself.

This is not to say that Badiou is exonerated from the accusation that his work seems to operate with such oppositions. The reader, after all, cannot be blamed for thinking that Badiou overemphasizes the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new over what is commonplace. Indeed the logic of change endorsed by Badiou often does seem to confirm the hypothesis that the sudden changeover of one thing into another is more relevant than how a political sequence is anchored in a given world. But Bosteels rightly detects that such misconceptions surrounding his work might be avoided if we reconsider Badiou’s form of dialectical thinking.

In the first instance, Badiou does seem to reject all modes of dialectical interpretation. However, it is more accurate to say that Badiou tips his hat to a reformulation of the dialectic rather than pass over it altogether. In its restricted austere form, for Bosteels, the dialectical understanding involves a subordination of rupture, negation, scission, and so on to an “overarching sense or meaningful direction of time and history” (ibid.: 10). According to this assessment, the dialectic always returns into itself, what Hegel names sublation.

The relation of Badiou to the dialectic, on the other hand, overturns this familiar schema by insisting upon negation without the negation of negation, that is, the torsion of split identities without folding back to itself. Or, to put it in the words of Bosteels, a new understanding of the dialectic must be thought “ in terms of void and excess rather than of totalizaiton” (ibid.: 11).

This alternative use of the dialectical notion accurately fits the radical, innovative experiments in politics, art, science, etc. of the past century, characterized by the primacy of the instantaneous act or ecstatic break, which Badiou clearly prefers to dwell on. But still, or so the argument goes, the dialectical tradition is nonetheless worth revisiting, as advocated by Bosteels, “as a way of opening up concrete alternatives to the predominance of those tragically unresolved, and most often extremely violent, cases of disjunctive synthesis” (ibid.: 14). In short, Bosteels wants to insist that the the discourse of being is compatible with a theory of the subject in the work of Badiou.

To present another dichotomy between two different approaches, as was signaled (artificially) among being and event above, I propose in the following to differentiate, following Badiou, among political philosophy and metapolitics. The tradition of political philosophy, on the one hand, designates the formal science of political judgment. For Badiou, it is the study of what constitutes the essence of politics. This is typically pursued as a thought experiment, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of various abstract regimes of power or state forms, such as democracy, tyranny, monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, and so on.

Insofar as political philosophy forms clear and distinct ideas about the timeless nature of politics, according to Bruno Bosteels in Badiou and Politics, it “tends to obscure, displace, or supplant instances of ‘real politics’” (2011: 19). This lofty mode of politics, according to Badiou, contemplates the political apart from specific political acts. The position of the political philosopher is as “an outside observer or belated spectator” (ibid.: 19). All of this suggests that really existing instances of political practice will typically be judged and criticized from the perspective of the fundamental roots of politics. Concrete forms of emancipatory politics, in other words, will be dismissed as not sufficiently approximating the founding ideals of politics.

Surprisingly, this verdict applies even, and especially, to Marx. Bosteels reminds us that, for Marx, all existing forms of politics, even revolutionary ones, fall short of true revolutionary politics: “all…political emancipation can always be found wanting and subjected to criticism…from the vantage point of a true, properly human emancipation yet to come” (ibid.: 23). In short, by setting up transcendental principles above and beyond the muddy realm of politics, the falseness of existing forms of political sequences can always be criticized.

Badiou on the other hand identifies a different political process worthy of the name, what he refers to as metapolitics. Rather than reducing the political to an established idea, Badiou conceives of the political as an unfolding process in the middle of the event. As opposed to the political philosopher who evaluates a situation in the way of an onlooker, the metapolitical orientation puts the philosopher under specific political conditions. This type of analysis, otherwise stated, is thought from within a mode of doing politics. Or, in the words of Bosteels, “philosophy should come to seize politics from within, without referring the process to any explanatory data that would serve as its external guarantee” (ibid.: 26). And inasmuch as this orientation puts politics in the events themselves instead of raising itself up to the heights of speculative reason, metapolitics is based on a broad materialism.

This form of political process is intended to reflect the conviction of Badiou that ‘the masses think’ or, more accurately, that ‘the masses think justly’. Here is how Bosteels describes it: “an event in politics is one that puts people to think and, moreover, one that produces collective forms of thought that are essentially just” (ibid.: 18). Politics, as described here, is a way of thinking. The task of the philosopher, in this regard, is “to investigate which conceptual tools it should develop in order to be able to register in its midst the consequences of a political event”, rather than to judge which typical image of politics ought to be put into practice (ibid.: 20). Philosophy, as a result, produces no political truths of its own. The possibility of political philosophy depends instead on conditions that take place “behind the philosopher’s back” (ibid.: 24). Only as a consequence of unpredictable events outside of itself is philosophy animated at all.


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3 responses to “Badiou and Politics”

  1. necessaryagitation says :

    This is a standard reading of Bosteels’ standard reading of Badiou – a very convenient image in keeping with the spirit of our time where the intellectual is supposed to play no more than a cheerleading role, egging on whatever ‘real’ forces happen to be on the street at any moment.

    Yet this scarcely captures the reality of Badiou’s theory, which sets high formal standards for what counts as an event. Little too does it account for Badiou’s ultra-left radicalism and the implicit assumption – a hang over from ’68 – that the masses must be more radical than the supposed intellectual vanguard. What if, through a historical inversion, the opposite has become the case? Or what if, in a more problematic inversion for Badiou’s theory, the need for the subjective and objective has swapped places, and precisely what the masses are crying out for are alternative ideas by intellectuals about how the economy and politics can be done differently?

    • Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

      I appreciate your response. Indeed, I discovered something of the same thought in Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations wherein Adrian Johnston problematizes the insistence that “the direction of influence between philosophy and politics can or should invaraibly flow in one and only one direction, no matter the time, place, or circumstances.” His alternative is, which to my mind is right: “Sometimes philosophers should listen to politicians (as per metapolitics), and sometimes politicians should listen to philosophers (as per political philosophy).” No doubt masses need at times novel radical ideas but then at other times intellectuals will need their scholarly activity stimulated by first-hand political engagement.

  2. necessaryagitation says :

    That sounds very reasonable, yes, agreed.

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