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Monthly Archives: September 2009

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…A remark on Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude (after Colletti)

This paper seeks to explore a very stark and simple question elicited by Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: are materialism and speculation compatible? In order to outline a response I will take what might initially seem a somewhat arbitrary detour through a seemingly disparate line of thought, namely that of the Italian anti-Hegelian Marxist Lucio Colletti, focussing in particular on his 1969 Marxism and Hegel – a book which in its time had a remarkable impact on the discussion of historical and dialectical materialism. By means of this theoretical contrast, I will try to elucidate what appear to me as some of the stakes of Meillassoux’s powerful book. In this regard my guiding question will open onto some subsidiary ones, two of them being of particular significance: ‘Is non-metaphysical speculation possible?’ and ‘What is the difference between realism and materialism (and indeed between these two and naturalism)?’ In the background of these questions lies the issue of demarcation – especially the three-way demarcation between science, philosophy and ideology. The contrast with a line of inquiry within twentieth-century Marxism which bears a number of affinities with Meillassoux’s proposal is also significant, to my mind, because it allows us to address one of the strong rhetorical gestures that lends this short book its polemical, and one might even say political character, to the extent that can speak of a politics immanent to philosophy as a Kampfplatz, a battlefield, a Kantian image dear to Althusser. This gesture involves enlisting a speculative materialism against the pernicious extra-philosophical effects of correlationism, encapsulated by the notion of fideism. When it comes to these arguments, principally rehearsed in Chapter 2 of After Finitude, I think it is fair to say, in terms of the aforementioned issue of demarcation, that Meillassoux is engaging in an ideological struggle founded on the specific demarcation between philosophy and science, as the two relate to the questions of necessity and belief. Speculative materialism is here also an ideological operation, aimed at terminating correlationism’s collusion with irrationalism (‘Dialectical Materialism and Irrationalism’, incidentally, was the subtitle of Colletti’s book).

Meillassoux brings his investigation into explicitly contact with the issue of ideology when he characterizes speculative materialism as an approach that does away with any ‘dogmatic metaphysics’, as a rejection of real necessity and sufficient reason grounded in the following operation: ‘to reject dogmatic metaphysics means to reject all real necessity, and a fortiori to reject the principle of sufficient reason, as well as the ontological argument, which is the keystone that allows the system of real necessity to close in upon itself’. He goes on to declare that ‘such a refusal of dogmatism furnishes the minimal condition for every critique of ideology, insofar as an ideology cannot be identified with just any variety of deceptive representation, but is rather any form of pseudo-rationality whose aim is to establish that what exists as a matter of fact exists necessarily’ (33-4). At bottom, Meillassoux wishes to combine and revitalise two aspects of the Enlightenment critique of metaphysics and religion. On the one hand, a speculative materialism is aimed at undermining the dogmatism of necessary entities, the dogmatism of classical metaphysics, rationalism included. On the other, speculative materialism is targeted against the way in which correlationism makes any belief equally legitimate by rejecting the absoluteness of reality (i.e. by making the archi-fossil unthinkable). But this entails that the critique of metaphysics not be a deflationary, relativist or conventionalist critique, in other words that it not be a correlationist critique. The brilliance (but as I will suggest also the problematic character) of Meillassoux’s enterprise stems from the manner in which he articulates the two seemingly antinomic requirements of anti-dogmatism and speculation. Accordingly, as he writes ‘we must uncover an absolute necessity that does not reinstate any form of absolute necessary entity’, thus demarcating absolutising from absolutist thought, and speculation from metaphysics. This requires resisting what Meillassoux calls the ‘de-absolutizing implication’, which posits that ‘if metaphysics is obsolete, so is the absolute’ (34). Kantianism, or, in Meillassoux’s vocabulary ‘weak correlationism’, is partially responsible for this, though the fact that it maintains an uncorrelated non-contradictory real as thinkable entails that it does not harbour the same irrationalist consequences as strong correlationism, especially in the latter’s Heideggerian or Wittgensteinian varieties. It is in discussing strong correlationism that Meillassoux attempt to infuse speculative materialism with the polemical spirit of the radical Enlightenment is particularly in evidence, leading to the formulation of what we could call an absolute Enlightenment. Meillassoux’s indictment of strong correlationism as a new obscurantism, as a kind of carte blanche for any and all superstitions centres on the category of facticity. The latter designates those structural invariants or transcendental parameters which govern a given world or domain of correlation without themselves being open to rational explanation, deduction or derivation. In this respect, facticity is a form of reflexive ignorance. In Meillassoux’s words, it ‘consists in not knowing why the correlational structure has to be thus’ (39). Facticity is here synonymous with finitude and with a form of anti-foundationalism whose converse, as Meillassoux writes, ‘is that nothing can be said to be absolutely impossible, not even the unthinkable’. Strong correlationism generates a form of philosophically-vouchsafed permissiveness, which makes it impossible to establish the very criteria that might make it possible to ‘disqualify’ irrational discourses. As he notes, while weak correlationism had done away with naïve realism, strong correlationism further undoes a notion of the absolute by pitting the facticity of the correlation against any speculative idealism.

It is the complicity of strong correlationism with a return of religiosity that lends Meillassoux’s speculative denunciation its ideological urgency. Its ‘contemporary predominance’, he writes, is ‘intimately connected to the immunity from the constraints of conceptual rationality which religious belief currently seems to enjoy’ (43). According to After Finitude, we live in a time where the ideological hegemony of strong correlationist philosophies, with their assertion of a facticity beyond explanation, their dumb wonderment at things as they are, has revoked any of the rational instruments available for refuting or dismissing irrational beliefs. Intriguingly, and I’ll return to this when I move to Colletti, for Meillassoux correlationist irrationalism is founded on its termination of the Parmenidean identity of being and thought, the consequence that it draws from facticity that ‘being and thinking must be thought as capable of being wholly other’ (44). From such a vantage point, is impossible to rule out the radical incommensurability between the in-itself and thought. What is the consequence of this? That thought’s claim to think the absolute is drastically withdrawn but irrational absolutes remain, indeed proliferate. Hence the basically unchallenged contemporary sway of a sceptically permissive and pluralistic ‘fideism of any belief whatsoever’. It is not clear whether Meillassoux actually thinks that correlationism has played a causal part in abetting the current return of the religious, but he does draw out very neatly the manner in which it implies it. In his own words:

The end of metaphysics, understood as the ‘de-absolutization of thought’, is thereby seen to consist in the rational legitimation of any and every variety of religious (or ‘poetico-religious’) belief in the absolute, so long as the latter invokes no authority beside itself. To put it in other words: by forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return to the religious. (45)

On the basis of this argument, Meillassoux frames his own project in the classical terms of the French lumières, especially of Voltaire, as a struggle against fanaticism (characteristically, Meillassoux does not use the Kantian definition of fanaticism, or Schwärmerei, which for Kant involves the hyper-rationalist delusion of ‘seeing the infinite’, against which the critical philosophy erects its iconoclastic proscriptions). The relation between fideism and fanaticism is somewhat fuzzy, but it is intriguing, and one might argue somewhat worrying, that Meillassoux flirts with the conservative thesis that a relativistic proliferation of beliefs, beyond any horizon of legitimacy, is a form of de-Christianization, the obverse of his equally questionable conviction that critical Western rationality is a ‘progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’ (47). In pure Enlightenment style, Meillassoux wants to argue that strong correlationism, in colluding with the religionization of reason, has left us powerless to argue rationally – rather than on ad hoc moral grounds – against all varieties of fanaticism, including, in an odd allusion, those which may deal out ‘the worst forms of violence’, whose claim to access an irrational absolute correlationist fideism cannot allow itself to disqualify. At the end of Chapter 2 of After Finitude, Meillassoux even goes so far as to claim that contemporary ‘fanaticism’ is the effect of critical rationality, a by-product of the latter’s effectively emancipatory attack on dogmatism, which has in removed any fetter on the claims of ‘blind faith’. Without dwelling on the under-determined and exceedingly allusive references to contemporary fanaticism which lend Meillassoux’s claims their charge of urgency, as well as on the rather dubious claims made about the relation between Christianity and Western reason, in the rest of this presentation I want to challenge the plausibility of Meillassoux’s Enlightenment reloaded, as I mentioned by a detour through Colletti’s Marxism and Hegel. I want to put forward two inter-related arguments. First, that attending to the distinction between Kant and Hegel as formulated by Colletti, allows us to cast doubt on the very possibility of a speculative materialism, and provides a qualified Marxian defence for weak Kantian correlationism as a component of a genuine materialist thinking. Second, and much more briefly, that Colletti’s related discussion of hypostasis and ‘real abstraction’ demonstrates the weakness of Meillassoux’s attempt to revitalise the Enlightenment attack on fanaticism. Behind these two claims lies the conviction that, despite its undeniable subtlety, Meillassoux’s attack on the idealist parameters of correlationism is ultimately idealist in form, a problem which also affects it attempt to ideologically intervene, through a recasting of the Enlightenment fight against fanaticism, in the contemporary ‘return to the religious’.

The reasons that govern the contrast I will propose with Colletti are several. To begin with, I want to use this disjunctive exercise to begin to think through the relationship between Meillassoux’s speculative materialism and the kinds of materialisms of practice or history that refer back to Marx. The choice of Colletti is dictated by the very nature of his intervention in Marxism and Hegel and related pieces: it was designed to counter the obfuscatory idealism and rejection of science which he saw as the Hegelian legacy within Western Marxism. In this respect its spirit, if not its specific targets, is not so distant from Meillassoux. What’s more, Colletti bears a more specific affinity with Meillassoux (1). Both regard scientific thought as inextricable from an affirmation of the principle of non-contradiction. Meillassoux argues, towards the end of chapter 3 of After Finitude that: ‘Dialectics and paraconsistent logics would be shown to be studies of the ways in which the contradictions of thought produce effects in thought, rather than studies of the supposedly ontological contradictions which thought discovers in the surrounding world’ (79). The distinction between contradictions in thought and in reality is so central to Colletti’s work that it eventually led to his abandonment of Marxism, guilty in his eyes of maintaining the possibility of contradictions in the real. But the different ways of arguing against contradictions in reality in Colletti and Meillassoux are already indicative of the broader differences in their philosophical defences of science against idealism. Colletti turns to Kant’s 1763 essay on negative magnitudes to argue that:

The fundamental principle of materialism and of science … is the principle of non-contradiction. Reality cannot contain dialectical contradictions but only real oppositions, conflicts between forces, relations of contrariety. The latter are ohne Widerspruch, i.e. non-contradictory oppositions, and not dialectical contradictions. These assertions must be sustained, because they constitute the principle of science itself. Now science is the only means of apprehending reality, the only means of gaining knowledge of the world. There cannot be two (qualitatively different) forms of knowledge. A philosophy which claims a status for itself superior to that of science, is an edifying philosophy – that is, a scarcely disguised religion. (‘Marxism and the Dialectic’, 28–9).

Rather than relying on a notion of material reality for the argument against dialectical contradiction, Meillassoux’s argument regarding non-contradiction is wholly intra-speculative. Non-contradiction must be respected to ward off the metaphysical spectre of an absolutely necessary entity that forfeiting this principle would involve. Thus, contrary to the customary link between dialectical contradiction and an ontology of flux or process, for Meillassoux a contradictory entity ‘could never become other than it is because there would be no alterity for it in which to become’ (69). In other words, and I’ll try to develop this point, while Colletti takes a materialist critique of the dialectic to imply the extra-logical character of reality, the fact that deriving the dynamics of the real from the logical is illegitimate and idealist, for Meillassoux the denial of real contradiction takes place on intra-logical grounds. But to develop this point further, it is worth looking further at the rationale behind Colletti’s anti-Hegelian revision of Marxism.

Let’s begin where the contrast appears greatest: Colletti’s plea for a pro-scientific materialism takes the form of a defence of the finite. At the very start of his book, he isolates the crux of idealism in Hegel’s statement from the Science of Logic according to which: ‘The idealism of philosophy consists in nothing else than in recognizing that the finite has no veritable being’ (7). Consequently, ‘the finite is ideal’, in two senses: it is a mere abstraction, a fleeting isolation from the concrete universality of the Whole, and, conversely, it is only granted its true being when comprised as a moment of the ideal. In Hegel’s formulation, from the Encyclopaedia: ‘The truth of the finite is … its ideality. … This ideality of the finite is the chief maxim of philosophy’ (14). The labour of speculative reason (Vernunft), as opposed to the intellect or understanding (Verstand), is to traverse the various configurations of the finite and to undo its separateness. Colletti will diagnose this contempt towards the isolated thing and the thought which thinks it (mere intellect as opposed to reason) as a constant within idealist philosophy, including that of dialectical materialism – the polemical object of his book. For Colletti, sympathy towards the Hegelian critique of the intellect and of the Kantian restrictions placed on reason – which he encounters in a motley host of thinkers, from Rickert to Marcuse, from Bergson to Lukacs – is a sign of an abdication of materialism and of a position towards science which, in according philosophy the sovereign right to legislate about reality, turns the former it into a ‘scarcely disguised religion’. What’s more, to the extent that science is seen to isolate entities and treat them as both finite and external to the mind it is paradigmatically a product of the intellect, and is consequently viewed as a merely abstract and incomplete form of thinking – a feature most evident in Bergsonism, but present, as Colletti demonstrates, in a broad range of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy. For Colletti, speculation, conceived as the pretension of philosophical thought to logically encompass being, is fundamentally incompatible with materialism. Indeed, he insists on Hegel’s conviction that he was returning to rationalism, but stripping it of its reliance on a materialist, or scientific form of argument. In passing, we could note that Meillassoux’s return to rationalism, and to Descartes in particular, takes the inverse approach: maintaining the materialist form of rationalism, and stripping it of its idealist or theological content.

Thus, it is the repudiation of the finite as separate and self-standing, and the attempt to overcome finitude, understood as the inability for thought or logic to determine being, which for Colletti marks idealism’s hostility to scientific materialism. In other words, it is because of a denial of finitude, and not because of its assertion, that for idealism ‘an independent material world no longer exists’ (19). The idea of real opposition, Kant’s Realrepugnanz, is significant because it is only by upholding the principle of non-contradiction and the idea of real exteriority in the material world that materialism can avert being enveloped by an idealism for which the material world is merely an incarnation of a fundamentally inclusive and unlimited reason. As Colletti remarks, ‘since Hegel transforms the logical inclusion of opposites that is reason into the very principle of idealism (reason is the sole reality, there is nothing outside it), he excludes precisely that exclusion of opposites (the externality of being in relation to thought) that is the very principle of materialism)’ (34).

In Marxism and Hegel, idealism qua speculation is identified with ‘the negation of any extralogical existence’ (49). This is also why materialism is always to some extent an Unphilosophie, an anti-philosophy, based on the idea of an externality of thought to being, and on a related irreducibility of scientific epistemology to speculative logic. While, in Colletti’s formulation, ‘Kant constantly remarks that if one wants to have knowledge, one must refer thought back to that which is other than itself’ (202), Meillassoux’s attempt to break out of a correlationist circle of Kantian provenance into what he calls ‘the great outdoors’ involves generating a new figure, under the aegis of a necessary and radical contingency, of thought’s Parmenidean identity with being, or, as he very lucidly outlines, inventing a novel type of non-metaphysical speculation.

Let’s sum up the results of this contrast. In Meillassoux’s work, a speculative materialism counters correlationism by undermining the thesis of finitude (or rather, via the passage from facticity to factuality, by turning correlationist finitude against itself), and by engaging in a non-metaphysical deployment of a ‘logos of contingency’ relying on the intra-logical principle of non-contradiction and the ultimate identity of being and thought. In Colletti, on the contrary, a critical materialism depends on asserting the extra-logical character of reality, and the related and irreducible distinction between logical contradiction and real opposition. What’s more, for Colletti it is precisely by turning the finite into an ideality, which is in turn encompassed by logical thinking, that speculation – which form him can only be idealist – transforms the world into an ‘ephemeral’ entity, something which Meillassoux’s logos of contingency would seem to do as well. It is worth quoting here at length from Colletti’s exposition of his critical materialism:

Dogmatism is metaphysics; critical thought is materialism. The antithesis, with respect to Hegel, could not be more pronounced. Metaphysics is the identity of thought and being; its contents are ‘already’ within thought, they are independent of experience, i.e. supersensible. Ergo, form and content are forever united, knowledge is already formed, and it is impossible to pose the problem of the origin of the knowledge that we possess. Critical thought, contrariwise, identifies itself with the position that presupposes the heterogeneity, i.e. a real and not formal (or purely ‘logical’) difference, between being and thought. Thereby one can pose the ‘critical’ problem of the origin of our knowledge, inasmuch as knowledge itself is not already given. Which in turn presupposes, in a word, that the sources of knowledge are two: the spontaneity of the mind and whatever data are given to the receptivity of our senses. (91)

In Colletti, the scientific content of Kantian finitude – severed from its moral dimension – is to prohibit the self-sufficient of thought, i.e. speculation. In his words: ‘If one denies that there exist premises in reality for thought, then one is forced to take up knowledge itself as a presupposed and given reality’ (89). Accordingly, it is imperative that epistemology, understood as the study of thought’s relation to being as relates to the scientific enterprise, not be reduced to logic, the theory of thought’s coherent relation to itself.

Among the issues at stake in this contrast is the standing of the absolute. Colletti and Meillassoux seem to converge on the notion of the absolute as something which is separate from what the latter would refer to as a correlationist circle. As is stated at the beginning of Chapter 2 of After Finitude, the task of speculative materialism ‘consists in trying to understand how thought is able to access the uncorrelated, which is to say, a world capable of subsisting without being given. But to say this is just to day that we must grasp how thought is able to access an absolute, i.e. a being whose severance (the original meaning of absolutus) and whose separateness from thought is such that it presents itself to us as non-relative to us, and hence as capable of existing whether we exist or not’ (28). In Colletti’s account it is precisely this absoluteness of extra-logical reality which is the nemesis of idealism. As he notes: ‘For Hegel, the ‘“intellect” is dogmatic because it makes the finite absolute. The meaning of this term is the same as its etymology: solutus ab…, freed from limitations, existing on its own, and therefore unrestricted and independent’ (82). But, and this is the important point, Meillassoux does not limit himself to the severance of extra-logical reality, precisely because his refutation of correlationism is a logical, or speculative one.

Looking through the prism of Colletti’s critique of Hegelianism, we can recognise two sense of the absolute in After Finitude: on the one hand, the absoluteness of the archi-fossil, an absoluteness that fits quite well with Colletti’s defence of the finite against its idealist sublations; on the other, the absoluteness of a reason or logic which is assumed to be congruent with being, and which can legislate about modality and change with no reference to anything extrinsic to it, be it experience or matter. The uniqueness of Meillassoux’s account lies of course in the dextrous and fascinating manner in which he seems to need the second absolute, the absolute of speculation (or what we might call the absolute absolute) to shore up the second (the relative or negative absolute, the absolute from thought) and defeat correlationism. Viewed from the vantage point of Colletti’s argument, Meillassoux poses the ontological presuppositions of correlationist epistemology, but resolves it by logical means, thus obviating his own materialist aims, and creating something like a detotalised and contingent ‘logical mysticism’, to employ Marx’s characterisation of Hegel’s system. We could thus articulate this contrast in terms of the distinction between a materialism of the intellect and a materialism of reason, or a realism of the intellect and a realism of reason. From the vantage point of Colletti’s defence of intellect against reason, After Finitude’s attempt at defending the expansive and speculative uses of a ‘totally a-subjective’ reason by getting rid of fideism throw out with it the criticism, revision and scientificity that marks the extra-logical character of reality in a Kant-inspired materialist epistemology.

But is a restatement of Kantian epistemology as a materialist precursor all that there is to Colletti’s position? No. Crucial to Marxism and Hegel is the highlighting of Marx’s theory of real abstraction, to wit the idea that the excesses of speculation and the hypostases of idealism are not merely cognitive problems, but are deeply entangled with abstractions that have a real existence in what, following Hegel, Marx was wont to call an upside-down world. Thus the State, and its philosophical expression in Hegel, and Capital, and its theoretical capture in the political economy of Smith and Ricardo, are not simply thought-forms that could be dispelled by some enlightened emendation of the intellect, or a valiant combat against superstitions. As Colletti writes: ‘For Marx, in fact, metaphysics is the realism of universals; it is a logical totality which posits itself as self-subsisting, transforms itself into the subject, and which (since it must be self-subsisting) identifies and confuses itself acritically with the particular, turning the latter – i.e. the actual subject of reality – into its own predicate or manifestation’ (198). Again, this is not a merely logical but a real process. To return to the earlier remarks on Meillassoux’s attempt to revive the Enlightenment war on fanaticism within his broader critique of correlationist fideism, what Marx’s notion of real abstraction permits us to think – and the reason why it is an important advance with respect to the idea of ideology as a merely cognitive matter – is that ideologies, including those of correlationism, fideism and fanaticism, are social facts.

In trying to maintain the speculative sovereignty of philosophical reason, albeit advocating a principle of unreason and breaking correlationist self-sufficiency, Meillassoux can be seen to reintroduce idealism at the level of form at the same time as he valiantly seeks to defeat it at the level of content. In two senses. First, by presuming the possibility of drawing ontological conclusions from logical intuitions – something which can be registered in the inconsistent use of the notion of the absolute: as the absolute absolute of the logos of contingency, and as the relative absolute of the entity severed from correlation. The former, logical absolute leads to a variant of Hegel’s transubstantiation of material or effective causality into a moment within ideal causality – though of course in Meillassoux this is explicitly an acausality, stripped of teleology. Second, by presuming that a speculative philosophy in conjunction with a mathematised science can struggle against abstractions that are perceived as mere errors of the intellect, and not as abstractions that have any basis in a social, material and extra-logical reality. Logical form undermines materialist content, the struggle against finitude reproduces the ideality of the finite, the intellectualist defence of the Enlightenment conceals the reality of abstractions. The antidote to a post-Kantian catastrophe threatens to be a neo-Hegelian reverie.

1. There is a further convergence in these two attempts to recast materialism. As their discussions of non-contradictions suggest, both rely on a preliminary ‘atomization’ of things, objects and laws. In the case of Meillassoux one could perhaps critically refer to Anton Pannekoek’s critique of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in Lenin as Philosopher: ‘for Lenin “nature” consists not only in matter but also in natural laws directing its behaviour, floating somehow in the world as commanders who must be obeyed by the things.’ In order for Meillassoux’s reasoning to operate, is there not a need to pre-emptively reduce the real to a domain of entities rather than relations, such that arguments based on the principle of non-contradiction can have their purchase? And is there not a parallel weakness in Colletti’s refusal to consider the point that a materialist ontology may be concerned with processes, not things?

Alberto Toscano

via Nina Power’s infinite thought

Today’s radical political (or metapolitical) theory is the offspring of a contorted dialectic of defeat and reinvention.1 Though it is common to take contemporary ideas on emancipation and political subjectivity at face value, many of the defining characteristics of these recent writings are obscured if we fail to address how they emerged out of a reckoning with the failure or  distortion of Marxist politics, and, moreover, if we disregard the extent to which they maintain an underlying commitment to the Marxist impulse whence they arose.

The mode of separation, as it were, from the organisational and theoretical tenets of Marxism (in whichever guise) can tell us a lot about the present resources and limitations of theoretical contributions to the contemporary thinking of politics which drew initial sustenance from that tradition, even if they are now allegedly “beyond” Marx and Marxism. This is certainly the case with the work of Alain Badiou, whose knotty relationship to his own Marxist-Leninist militancy and to Marxist theory has recently become the object of rich and detailed investigation, above all in several essays by Bruno Bosteels. Bosteels’ characterisation of Badiou’s metapolitical trajectory in terms of “post-Maoism’2 already suggests that what makes Badiou’s theoretical biography distinctive is at a considerable remove from the entire “post-Marxist” tendency, chiefly encapsulated in Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and persuasively dismantled in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Retreat from Class.3 Having said that, the echoes of a common “post-structuralist” theoretical conjuncture, and a critique of (or separation from) “thick” Hegelian-Marxist versions of dialectics and social ontology, might make one suspect that “the theoretical edifices of Laclau and Badiou are united by a deep homology”.4 This “deep homology”, which Zizek identifies in the notion of a contingent, subjective rupture of ontological closure, is nevertheless offset, still according to Zizek, by a fundamental divergence, inasmuch as, in the last instance, Badiou’s “post-Marxism” has nothing whatsoever to do with the fashionable deconstructionist dismissal of the alleged Marxist “essentialism”; on the contrary, he is unique in radically rejecting the deconstructionist doxa as a new form of pseudo-thought, as a contemporary version of sophism”.5 Rather than either homology, or frontal opposition, it might be more precise to argue that Badiou’s post-Maoism and the post-Marxism of Laclau et al. intersect in manners that generate, from the peculiar perspective of contemporary radical thought, a kind of “family resemblance” effect, but that, when push comes to shove, they are really indifferent to one another, born of divergent assessments of the end or crisis of Marxism. To a certain extent, they connect the same dots but the resulting pictures differ radically. In order better to delineate the specific difference of Badiou’s project, and of the problems that generated it, it is of considerable interest to examine the period between the highest speculative product of Badiou’s heterodox Maoism, Théorie du sujet (1982), and L’être et l’événement (1988), in particular the book Peut-on penser la politique?, published in 1985, which is to say contemporaneously with Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony.

Like many post-Marxists, and indeed anticommunists, Badiou attacks the “metaphysics” that contaminate Marxist politics. In a Heideggerian pastiche, he even describes Marxism-Leninism as the “metaphysical epoch of Marxist political ontology”.6 Most “deconstructions” of the Marxist canon have looked for this metaphysics in Marx’s supposed reductionist “economism” or in what they take to be an imaginary constitution of the social, and of class structure in particular, whose correlate is the putative transparency of the post-revolutionary social bond. While some of these points may be registered in Badiou’s texts from the mid-eighties, the emphasis is firmly on a conceptual dyad that persists even in more recent works like Metapolitics. This is the distinction between politics and the political. The thesis that lies at the core of Badiou’s call to counter the supposed “crisis” of Marxism through its “destruction” and “recomposition”, is that Marxism has succumbed to the homogenising political fiction that imagines the possibility of measuring, anticipating and representing political action. According to this framework, “the political has never been anything but the fiction which politics punctures through the hole of the event”.7 One’s first impression is of a substantial overlap with Laclau in terms of the notions of working class, proletariat or people as fictions of the social bond, signifying fictions in which political action could find its guarantee. Indeed, the fundamental political fiction for Badiou is that of the “alliance of the social relation and its measure” (where, as the treatment of the concept of “state” in Being and Event suggests, measure is equivalent to representation). However, from the idea whereby the crisis of the political reveals that (in his vocabulary) all sets are inconsistent,8 Badiou does not draw the customary post-Marxist lessons regarding the transcendental horizon of discursively generated identities and the a priori of antagonism as an intractable impediment to social revolution. In other words, he does not espouse the post-Marxist mix of strategic populism, sociological description, discursive ontology and cynical liberalism. Rather, the assault on the fiction of the social, and on Marxism’s foundational commitment to a critique of political economy, is viewed by Badiou as the occasion for a renovation, and a kind of purification, of the politics of emancipation. Marxism, according to Peut-on penser la politique?, is unable to critique its own critique of political economy,9 leaving its original political impetus cloaked and perverted, binding it to the mediations, however antagonistic, of economic and social relations. The maintenance of categories of totality and system within this approach is what imprisons the encounter and creation of a politics in the fiction of the political, which always comes down to “the alliance of the social relation and its measure”.10 Marxism – this is Badiou’s verdict – was destroyed by its history, the subordination of politics to the fiction of a social measure. The political is a kind of metaphorical cloaking of the hiatus between state and civil society,  representation and presentation. The aim of an emancipatory politics should not lie in the creation of a new bond; the inconsistency of the social does not open onto ever-renegotiated (and formally identical) disputes over its content, but on the idea of an autonomy and heterogeneity of politics, which occurs at a remove from any relational dialectic: “What is dissipated is the thesis of an essence of the relations internal to the city, an essence representable in the exercise of a sovereignty, be it the dictatorship of the slaves, even if the relation is that of civil war within the class structure”.11

So, while there is a convergence or homology around a certain anti-essentialism, what follows from Badiou’s own attack on essential relations is a link between inconsistency and event, which still maintains an emancipatory, rationalist reference to transmissible decision and a communist reference to the generic (in the axiom of equality) – rather than a generalised undecidability oscillating between a sociologistic account of discursive plurality and a political ontology of fundamental antagonisms. In other words, the “destruction” of the political fiction that Badiou diagnoses within metaphysical Marxism is not an opportunity to affirm the pluralism of political  struggles, but rather to argue simultaneously for their singularity and their prescriptive homogeneity. Badiou insists, during this period, in writing of the recomposition of Marxism, in putting his work under the aegis of “Marxist politics” because of the unsurpassable character of the Marxist hypothesis, the hypothesis of a politics of non-domination which is not reducible to the state. Rescinding the fiction of the political, from within Marxism, is presented as a kind of prolegomenon to the emancipation of a (Marxist) politics. In Peut-on penser la politique? we can thus observe, in a quasi-deductive manner, the passage from an internal dislocation of Marxism to a metapolitical thinking of the event: “the determination of the essence of politics, unable to find a guarantee either in structure (inconsistency of sets, unbinding), nor sense (History does not make a whole), has no other benchmark than the event”. Note that it is through this “ultra-one” of the event, that Badiou maintains “the essence of politics’: “The firmness of essentialisation rests on the precariousness of what happens.’12

Keeping this move in mind, we can elucidate a number of supplementary differences with the ideological attitude of post-Marxism, as well as shed some light on the direction taken by Badiou’s further work. A particularly significant issue in this regard involves the difference between an ontology of the multiple and the kind of pluralist notion of hegemony put forward in post-Marxism. Whilst in both instances the undermining of unity (at the level of class identity and of party leadership, for instance, as well as in terms of the category of social totality) is used to articulate a movement beyond the supposedly Hegelian or totalising character of Marxist theory, Badiou’s set theoretical meontology of the multiple is of a wholly different order than the discursive pluralism of Laclau et al. – indeed, the theme of the generic, running (explicitly or otherwise) through the whole of Badiou’s work from the 1980s onwards, can be understood in terms of the need to maintain communism as an intrinsic property of truth and subjective fidelity. This is not an immanent critique of Marxism as a science of capitalism and revolution, but a displacement to a dissimilar practical and theoretical framework (one in which politics and philosophy are de-sutured, as Badiou’s 1989 Manifesto for Philosophy proposes) in order to sustain the retention of a minimal Marxism conjoining the hypothesis of non-domination with the rational identification of the sites of subversion, without trapping politics in a teleological, revolutionary or programmatic framework. We will return to the question of whether maintaining the name Marxism is tenable once these theoretical options have been taken – especially bidding farewell to the concept of revolution. For the time being, it is worth noting that the emphasis on the subjective element in Marxist politics – already a prominent trait in Badiou’s Maoism and still present in the 1980s concern with political “forms of consciousness’13 – is fully at odds with the post-Marxist concern with “subject-positions” and the hegemonic negotiations of “identity”. This anti-essentialist discursive ontology of the (empty) social is absent from Badiou, whose concern, as demonstrated quite consistently even in more recent books like the Ethics, is not with the political interplay between identity and difference. Rather, Badiou’s thought works at the interface between, on the one hand, the fact of identity-and-difference as a feature of the encyclopaedia of knowledges,14 and, on the other hand, the production of the Same.15

Despite the deceptive resonance, this is not to be confused with the two logics of Laclau and Mouffe, differential and equivalential. Why? Because in the latter these two logics remain transitive to one another and map out the transcendental horizon of political dispute, whilst in Badiou the production of sameness in the political field is a real production of truth which does not involve the strategic rearrangement and occupation of the language of the situation, but an organised subtraction from its very terms.

Instead of shifting the terrain from that of (the taking of) political power, of classical revolutionary politics, to the domain of discourse (the post-Marxist strategy whose fundamental “electoralism” is persuasively ferreted out by Wood), the shift made by Badiou and his political comrades is marked by the attempt, in order to maintain the hypothesis of non-domination, to consolidate and purify the subject of politics. In a distinction that would obviously strike the likes of Wood as spurious, inasmuch as it characteristically bypasses the level of class, for Badiou it is not the state but proletarian capacity which lies at the heart of Marxist politics. Regarding the question of class struggle and antagonism as a crucial node in the so-called crisis of Marxism, and the possibility of a “party of a new type”, Paul Sandevince (a.k.a. Sylvain Lazarus) writes in Le Perroquet (the publication of Badiou’s group, the UCFML), that: “For Lenin, the essential is not struggle, but “antagonism against the entirety of the existent political and social order”.” This is read fundamentally as a warning against the logic of the absorption of the party into the state, whilst the “other path” involves assigning “the process of politics to the masses/State contradiction grasped in terms of consciousness [conscience]”.16 This is one of the sources of Badiou’s own insistence on politics viewed not as strategy for power, or a way of ordering the social, but as an organised practice of thought (a “truth procedure”, in the later work). The link between the hypothesis of nondomination, the egalitarian and organised capacity for thought, and a separation from the state thus appears as one of the key tenets of this self-avowed “Marxist politics”. This gives us an inkling as to why the appellations post-Maoism or post-Leninism (the one favoured by the various authors in Le Perroquet17) are more appropriate than post-Marxism. Having already decided that Marxist politics is not the consequence of a critical analysis of capitalism, but is rather the means, within capitalist conditions, for the production of communism (so that the critique of political economy is wholly subsidiary to the project of emancipation), the direction taken in the 1980s by Badiou and his comrades is primarily born out of the crisis of the Marxist political subject (i.e. the party), and not, as with “traditional” post-Marxism, out of a critique of the metaphysical tenets and sociological shortcomings of Marxism as a science of capitalism. If Badiou’s Théorie du sujet had declared that the every subject is political and that subject equals party, what is at stake in this period (1982-88) which oscillates between the option for a “party of a new type” and that of “politics without a party’?

Jameson contends that Marxism qua science of capitalism gives rise to post-Marxism at moments of systemic crisis. Whatever the links between such crises and forms of political organisation, it is clear that for Badiou it is the party qua subject which is the focus of the crisis, not the ability of “Marxism” to cope with social and economic transformations, or the shifts and turns in class composition. Indeed, Badiou is generally rather sanguine about the Marxist understanding of capitalism, and does not seem to think that Marx has really been surpassed in this domain. In any instance, Badiou is immunised against the stance according to which the failure of social ontology or economic analysis would debilitate Marxist politics. Indeed, he mocks this very possibility in a vicious piece caricaturing the “old Marxist”, the one who waits for the proper study of “social formations” before acting, who thinks that “one of these days the “workers” movement” will give us something to talk about”.18 To the contrary:

Marx starts, absolutely, not from the architecture of the social, in which he will, after the fact, deploy his assurance and his guarantee, but from the interpretation-cut of a symptom of social hysteria, uprisings and workers’ parties. (…) For the symptom that hystericises the social to be thus grasped, without pinning it to the fiction of the political, proletarian political capacity – as a radical hypothesis of truth and a reduction to fiction of every foregoing notion of the political – must be excepted from any approach via the communitarian and the social.19

By now, Badiou’s philosophy is renowned as a philosophy of the event. But, in terms of what I referred to above as the dialectic of defeat and reinvention, could we also say that there are events of closure, failure, saturation? Without entering into doctrinal details, Badiou does overtly mark his treatment of the “destruction and recomposition” of Marxism in terms of what he terms “the end of referents”, a position presaged by an article of the same name in Le Perroquet, penned by Sandevince-Lazarus.20 This passage through history is inexorable, inasmuch as “Marxism alone presented itself as a revolutionary political doctrine which, if not historically confirmed, was at least historically active”.21 If Marxist politics, in its Marxist-Leninist phase, was crystallised around the figure of the party as subject, and suffused by an essential historicity, then this figure is seen to suffer from the collapse of its three primary referents: (1) the statist referent: the actual existence of Marxist states, as emblems of the possible victory of a Marxist politics, and of “the domination of non-domination’22; (2) wars of national liberation as an other emblem of actually victorious Marxist politics, and the “fusion of the national principle and the popular principle’23 in the invention of new ways of linking politics and war; (3) the workers’ movement, especially in its incarnation in “working class parties” with an explicit Marxist reference, “mixed figures of a distant revolutionary Idea and the proximity of an oppositional activity”.24

Once again, it is not the analytical force of Marxism qua science of capital that is paramount for Badiou, but the collapse of its singularity as a revolutionary thinking and a politics that was fundamentally “self-referential” (its instances were, to various degrees, homogeneous with its theory) and massively historically inscribed. Though Badiou will always maintain (as he does in D’un désastre obscur) the “eternity of communism”, what is at stake here is the historicity of Marxism and the impossibility, in his view, for Marxism to continue to draw any value from its actual history in the present. As Badiou puts it, “its credit has run out”.25 Note that, contrary to all specimens of post-Marxism, this has nothing to do with the explanatory capacity of Marxism (Badiou treats it strictly as a politics, not a doctrine, and only secondarily and strategically as an analysis of the social).

The “crisis of Marxism” is to be located in the collapse of its real referents: it is an immanent, and thoroughly political crisis, for which the analytical force of the critique of political economy remains of little import. Along with this collapse of referents, this political death, which seems to suggest the separation of a communist hypothesis from moribund Marxist politics, Badiou also points to certain symptoms – larval and obscure political subjects which indicate that if a Marxist politics is to be “recomposed”, it can no longer be so in terms of political processes that take it as an explicit reference-point. Marxism has not only lost its historical foothold, it is no longer an internal referent for nascent forms of emancipatory politics. This is what is meant by the expatriation of Marxism, as the key aspect of the crisis that we must destructively traverse (let us not forget that for the Badiou of Théorie du sujet, the becoming of a subject, and of a proletarian subject especially, is intimately linked to its own destruction, so that the call to be heeded here is for Marxism to truly subjectivise itself, after having gone through the “subjective destitution” of its referents). In a piece from 1983, Badiou declares:

Today, the referents of Marxist politics are not Marxist. There is a fundamental delocalisation of Marxism. Previously, there was a kind of selfreference, because Marxism drew its general credit from States that called themselves Marxist, from wars of national liberation under the direction of Marxist parties, from workers’ movements framed by Marxist unionists. But this referential apparatus is gone. The great mass historical pulsations no longer refer to Marxism, after, at least, the end of the cultural revolution in China: see Poland, or Iran. Therefore, there is an expatriation of Marxism. Its historical territoriality is no longer transitive to it. The era of self-reference is closed. Marxism no longer has a historical home. All the political referents endowed with a worker and popular life are, with regard to Marxism, atypical, delocalised, errant. Any orthodox Marxist today will object that the Polish movement is national and religious, that the Iranian movement is religious and fanatical, that there is nothing there that fundamentally matters for Marxism. And this orthodox Marxism will be nothing but an empty object in the process of the destruction of Marxism.26

This theme of expatriation thus allows Badiou to maintain, albeit in a problematic register, the reference to “worker and popular life”, as well as the crucial (communist) hypothesis of non-domination, in the face of some of the very events that served as grist to the post-Marxist mill. By thinking in terms of the dislocation of Marxist politics and the tentative invention of new forms of consciousness, rather than in terms of the analytic and ideological failure of Marxism, Badiou can turn the political conjuncture of the 1980s – the death throes of historical communism and the birth of heterogeneous political forms – into an opportunity for the recomposition of a politics of emancipation.27 Crucially, this is not done in relation to a return to logics of electoral alliance or the articulation of group demands outside of the working class referent, but in terms of the possibility of a new workers” politics at a distance from the State, a non-classist, non-systemic experience of proletarian capacity. Rather than seeing the “crisis of Marxism” as a chance for singing the praises of political plurality, Badiou seems to grasp in it the possibility of a further singularisation of emancipatory politics. The wager then, is to look for the traits of a new politics of anti-statist emancipation in these mass symptoms, these hysterias of the social. Though it transcends the limits of this paper, it would be fruitful to follow the attempts – ultimately frustrated by the religious and populist sclerosis of the Polish and Iranian situations – made in Le Perroquet to track moments of organisational invention and worker capacity in non-Marxist political scenarios. Contrary to post-Marxism, which sees in the rise of “new social movements” a radical-democratic pluralism beyond universalist28 and communist hypotheses, Badiou’s post-Leninism is committed, from the 1980s onwards, to producing a metapolitical framework for thinking the persistence of communism as a minimal, universalising hypothesis even in political scenarios where the name “communism” is anathema.

The requirement that the destruction and recomposition of Marxist politics be internal – which is to say not dictated by its supposed explanatory shortcomings,  its political disasters, or novel sociological facts – is motivated by an appraisal of the  subjectivity that dominates the post-revolutionary Restoration of the virtues of liberalism and parliamentary democracy.29 The peculiarity of the reactive (or renegade) subjects that, from the mid-seventies onwards, publicised the return to liberty on the basis of their own failures lies instead in the fact that they perceived the “crisis of Marxism” simply as the subjective discovery of an objective fact (crystallised by Badiou in the typical utterances: “we tried, it was a catastrophe” and “I fail, therefore I am’): the fact of the impossibility of emancipation. But for Badiou all that these failures and disasters prove is that the opposition to existent society is a “difficult” problem. Just like a mathematician who fails in a proof does not thereby declare as inexistent the problem that proof stemmed from, so a political militant does not make failure into either a necessity or a virtue: “So that what is presented to us as a conjoined progress of morality (liberating us from the totalitarian phantasm) and of realism (seeing the objective virtues of the existent state of things) is in fact a confession of incapacity. The essence of reneging is incompetence”.30 Badiou here intervenes directly in the anti-Marxist philosophy of the Restoration, which sees the defence of the “negative liberties” at the heart of parliamentary democracy (or capitalist parliamentarianism, as he will later dub it). He repeats the idea of a termination of the Marxist-Leninist sequence, of its arrangement of certain political factors,31 but, crucially, contends that we cannot disregard the fact that antagonism to the status quo is still at the heart of any politics of emancipation and that a return to the Enlightenment thematic of liberty is simply insufficient, since the question of equality, which determines “a current stage of the political question”, cannot be evaded.

The question, in the legacy and destruction of what he dubs the Marxist/Leninist “montage”, is how to practice, under the conditions of a nondespotic State, a politics whose axiom is equality: a contemporary politics beyond the modern debate between the State of right and law (parliamentary constitutional liberal democracy) and tyranny. We cannot turn away from “contemporary” politics, initially marked by the entrance of the signifier “worker” into the political field, for the sake of a merely “modern” anti-despotic politics of democracy. Following Badiou’s hazardous “de-socialisation” of Marxism, however, equality must not be thought in terms of equality of “material positions” (‘economistically’), but in strictly political terms. The maxim of equality becomes the following: “what must the world be such that an inegalitarian statement is impossible within it?” Badiou here draws a crucial difference between the modern politics of liberty, which, ever since Saint-Just, functions in a symbolic register, as a form of non-prohibition, and a contemporary politics of equality, whose aim is to really make impossible the production of inegalitarian statements (this will remain the chief characteristic of Badiou’s later concept of the generic). What is surprising here, especially in terms of the earlier commitment to a communist dialectic of destruction, is the idea of a complementarity between the politics of liberty and the politics of equality, along with the stipulation of the general problem of equality in “times of peace”, as detached from the revolutionary problematic of power, war and the state: “under the general conditions of a nondespotic State, how can one think and practice a politics whose overarching philosophical category is equality?’32

A politics of equality, in this framework, works within the symbolic politics of prohibition for the sake of real-impossible equality. It is as if, albeit “at a distance”, Badiou sees the project of emancipation as conditioned to some extent by the apolitical horizon of a liberal polity. This bears two interesting, and problematic consequences. The first is that politics cannot be primarily or directly concerned with the betterment of the polity itself, since “politics must be thinkable as a conjoined excess over the State and civil society, even if these are good or excellent”.33

But the second consequence lies in the implicit suggestion that the politics of emancipation, having rescinded the project of power (in short, the dictatorship of the proletariat) is externally conditioned (‘in times of peace’) by a kind of liberal frame. Here lies the entire ambiguity of Badiou’s later problematic of “politics at a distance from the State’34 – which both maintains the antagonism against “existing society” and, to an extent, the problem of how to change it, but (perhaps in a simply provisional way) combines this seemingly stark antagonism with the toleration of the symbolic framework provided by the very same society: “We therefore continue to demand modern freedom (symbolic according to nonprohibition) from within which we work towards contemporary equality (real, according to the impossible)”.35 Is this to say that Marxist politics can only persist from within a liberal envelope? Can we “reformulate from within politics the synthetic vision of the backwards and nefarious character of our society and its representations” and maintain the “difficult” problem of “changing existing society”, if we do not unequivocally pose the problem of the tension between liberty (in the state) and equality (in politics), together with their mediation by issues of power and authority? To put it otherwise, can a post-Leninist radical politics of equality afford to be entirely post-revolutionary?

At times, Badiou’s 1980s “expatriation” of Marxism, which already presupposes a distance between Marxist politics and the Marxist critique of political economy, seems entirely to dissolve any consistency characterising the Marxist project, casting doubt on the very possibility of holding onto the term Marxism. After all, won’t Badiou, in Metapolitics, peremptorily declare that “Marxism doesn’t exist”,36 in the sense that its political instances – its “historical modes” to use Sylvain Lazarus’s terminology – are absolutely inconsistent? And yet, throughout the 1980s, prior to the publication of Being and Event, Badiou seems to maintain the liminal validity of the notion of “Marxist politics”, at least in the sense that it is only by rigorously undergoing its destruction (and not its ironic deconstruction) that a new politics of emancipation will be “recomposed”. What is at stake in this retention, in extremis, of the name of Marxism (or of “Marxist politics’)? If anything, the Anglophone vogue for post-Marxism was driven by a rejection of the articulation between social class and revolutionary politics, which reduced the idea of the proletariat to a mere contested and hegemonically posited identity among others.

Once again, despite surface similarities, the move beyond class operated by Badiou and his cohorts is based on an intra-political and historical judgment, i.e. on the idea of a lost efficacy of the “classist” mode of politics (dominated by the category of contradiction, and the transitivity between society and politics).37 This also why Badiou declares that there are more things in the crisis of Marxism than anti-Marxism can dream of – in the main because anti-Marxism merely registers an objective crisis without being able to think through its primary, subjective aspect.38This means, on the one hand, that an orthodox defence of Marxism comes down to repeating the old refutation of old objections, therefore remaining on the terrain of anti-Marxism, and, on the other, that the crisis must be experienced not as a way of merely pluralising or dissolving Marxism, but as an opportunity to radicalise its emancipatory, egalitarian core.39 This  radicalisation or purification of Marxism into a minimal, heterodox Marxist politics (what Badiou has elsewhere referred to as a communism of singularities), is all the more interesting to us inasmuch as it explicitly wards off the possibility of a post-Marxist turn. For whilst Badiou and his comrades appear definite about the end of the working class as a sociopolitical class (making no such claims for the end of social class per se), they are equally definite that no emancipatory politics can bypass workers.

This plea for a minimal Marxism can be observed in two steps. The first involves what Badiou, explicitly harking back to the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason, calls a “refutation of idealism”. If Marxist politics is detached from the social as the “places of bonds” [les lieux des liens], what prevents the kind of idealist pluralism according to which any site and any subject, unbound from the requirements of transitivity with an ordered and ontologically grounded social structure, can be the locus of emancipation? Badiou is very aware that having abandoned a dialectics of social latency and political subjectivation he cannot depend on the “substantial presupposition” of a political privilege of workers. And yet, he knows that a “maximal” interpretation of his political axiomatic could lead to declaring the emergence of a political subject to be possible at any point. To counter this prospect, Badiou engages in a minimal inscription of the egalitarian wager-intervention on an event, in what he calls “prepolitical situations”.40 Whilst this minimal, anticipatory interregnum between the social and politics does not allow a pre-emptive construction of political subjectivity (e.g. the party of the working class), it allows, by analogy with Kant, a merely negative reductio ad absurdum of the maximal claim of political contingency (any subjects, anywhere).

Forbidding himself any substantive resort to social ontology, Badiou nevertheless wants to argue that to elude “worker singularities” in the formation of a political subject would be to suppose that a politics of emancipation could deploy itself without including in its trajectory any of the places or points where the dominated are the majority of the inhabitants. Whence the following “theorem”:

Political intervention under current conditions, i.e. modern politics, cannot strategically avoid being faithful to events, whose site is worker or popular. Let us suppose that it can. Since the axiomatic hypothesis is that of a politics of emancipation, that is, of a non-statist subjective politics under the aegis of non-domination, it would follow that this politics could deploy itself without ever including in its immediate field places where the mass (whatever its number) of the dominated – in modern conditions – materially exists, i.e. in factories, in the estates in the banlieues, in immigrant housing, in the offices of repetitive IT work. Especially if we consider factories, the exception would be radical, since we can easily establish that factories are separated from civil society and from the moderating laws that sustain its social relations. According to this supposition, the politics of non-domination would only exist, for the dominated themselves, in the form of representation, since no event giving rise to an intervention would include them in terms of its site.41

The point is not simply that an emancipatory politics must include the lowest rungs, the excluded, the oppressed, but that they and their “site” must be directly involved – in other words “presented” – by the emergent political subject. Otherwise, we remain at the level of the State, or, in Badiou’s politico-philosophical terms, of representation. So this refutation of idealism does not simply attack (or literally reduce to absurdity) the “new social movements” ideology according to which emancipation may take place anywhere, anytime, by anyone. It also undermines any Left (or even Marxist) notion that the dominated may be represented in a political programme without partaking of political action themselves.42

It is moving from this idea of a pre-political “site”, and warding off both an idealist pluralism and any kind of “speculative leftism”,43 that Badiou will give a metaontological solution to these problems of Marxist politics in Being and Event. Starting from the intuition of a reductio ad absurdum of anti-worker political idealism, Badiou initially develops his theory of the event-site – a crucial component of his mature philosophy – in terms of the factory and of the worker as the subjective figure of politics. This is the second step, as it were, in the argument for a Marxist politics that would be capable of following its own metaphysical destruction. In “The Factory as Event-Site”, a text published in Le Perroquet in 1987 and originally intended for inclusion in Being and Event, we encounter both a potent distillate of Badiou’s overall doctrine and his last explicit attempt to defend, in however minimal a fashion, a notion of Marxist politics.44 That article’s argument is philosophically far more intricate and challenging than the prescriptive and axiomatic positions rehearsed hitherto, showing a speculative daring far greater than the clever repetition of Kant’s refutation. In a sense, what my own presentation has sought to do is to demonstrate the internal theoretical and political necessity leading to this work on the event-site and, in so doing, to show how Badiou’s intimate confrontation with Marxism is at the very foundation (albeit a vanishing one, since he eventually chose to omit this “example’) of the project crystallised in Being and Event. A closer investigation of the links between “The Factory as Event-Site” and Badiou’s further work should of course be carried out, but for the purposes of this paper, I would simply like to indicate the work that the concept of the event-site does in Badiou’s attempt to maintain a minimal, liminal Marxism.

Far more than any of the other texts in Le Perroquet, this excised fragment of Being and Event pleads for a return to Marx (and Engels) that would even seem to bypass the post-Leninist reference. In “The Factory as Event-Site” Badiou puts his metaontological and metapolitical investigation under the aegis of two  conceptual inheritances of the Marxian thinking of worker politics, which the attempt to “recompose” a Marxist politics seeks to weave together. These are the void, which in the Marxist apparatus is connected to the peculiarity of the proletarian (having nothing to sell but his labour-power, the proletarian is the bearer of a generic capacity), and the site, which Badiou links to Engels’s inquiries into the localised conditions whereby exploitation is organised and countered. In a pithy declaration, Badiou will define his philosophical undertaking precisely in terms of a different articulation, a different dialectic, of these two terms, one that moves beyond the “fictions” of orthodox Marxism: “at the very heart of the objectivist version of the necessity of a worker reference, we encounter two terms, the void and the site, which as we will see only acquire their full meaning once we decentre toward the subjective the vision of politics”.45 Without entering into the details of Badiou’s exposition, we should note that in asserting that a political event can only take place if it takes into account the factory as event-site, Badiou aims to provide a kind of minimal objectivity (i.e. another refutation of idealism) without making the intervention of politics and of political subjectivation transitive to a socio-economic datum. As he puts it: “The paradoxical statement I am defending is finally that the factory, by which I mean the factory as a workers” place, belongs without doubt to the socio-historical presentation (it is counted-as-one within it), but not the workers, to the extent that they belong to the factory. So that the factory – as a workers” place – is not included in society, and the workers (of a factory) do not form a pertinent “part”,  available for State counting.’46This is the sense in which the factory is not the hidden abode of a production that could be reappropriated and disalienated, but a pre-political site “at the edge of the void” (of the unpresented fact of domination), into which politics can intervene. The correlate of this notion is that the (proletarian) void itself is detached from an expressive logic of (dis)alienation and rearticulated to the notion of a production of the Same, a production of communism no longer immanently bound to a communism of production.47It is on the basis of the speculative trajectory laid out in “The Factory as Event-Site” that Badiou can then reassert his (contorted, heterodox, errant) fidelity to Marxism:

Reduced to its bare bones, Marxism is jointly the hypothesis of a politics of non-domination – a politics subtracted from the statist count of the count – and the designation of the most significant event sites of modernity, those whose singularity is maximal, which are worker sites. From this twofold gesture there follows that the intervening and organised experimentation of the hypothesis must ceaselessly prepare itself for the consideration of these sites, and that the worker reference is a feature of politics, without which one has already given up subtracting oneself from the State count. That is the reason why it remains legitimate to call oneself a Marxist, if one maintains that politics is possible.48

To the extent that Badiou’s subsequent work remains more or less wholly consistent with the research programme of this 1987 article, we could consequently hazard to read it as an attempt to think Marxism “reduced to its bare bones”.

Inasmuch as the above has added some intelligibility to the vicissitudes of Badiou’s (meta)political thinking, its leave-taking from Marxism-Leninism and its (re)commencement of Marxism, I hope it has also given rise to certain perplexities which can be made to resonate with the rest of Badiou’s work and its ongoing political interpretations. Simply by way of conclusion, I would like to touch on two problems that are especially acute in this phase of Badiou’s production. The first concerns the manner in which Badiou remains faithful to a certain intuition of Marx’s about proletarian subjectivity and its political dynamics. Badiou, after all, defines the continuity-in-separation between the Marxian legacy and his (re)commencement as follows: “we (re)formulate the hypothesis of a proletarian political capacity”.49 However, the refutation of idealism and maintenance of the “worker reference” in other texts seems to demand the evacuation of any  pre-political subjective privilege to workers per se (politics must touch on their sites, but they are not latent political subjects qua workers). Can the void of the situation be equated with a political capacity? And if this capacity is only the retroactive effect of a postevental intervention (the politicisation of the factory axiomatically determines that “workers think’) is the term “capacity” really viable, considering its inescapable links to notions of disposition and potential and to the theory of (dis)alienation? I would suggest that Badiou’s philosophical conceptualisation of the concept of the generic in Being and Event may be read as an attempt to transcend what appear to be tensions in his earlier “Marxist politics” by maintaining the link between the void, equality and the subject without relying on any latency whatsoever.50

The second problem is connected to the sources, as it were, of emancipatory politics. Badiou obviously wishes to purify and politicise the concept of equality, sever its dependence on merely material criteria. But, in his allergy to the socialising fictions of orthodox Marxism, he seems to step back from contemporary criteria of politics to merely modern ones by framing his entire vision of Marxist politics in terms of the politico-philosophical concepts of exclusion, domination and representation. In a manner which is perhaps most obvious in the section on the “ontology of the site” in “The Factory as Event-Site”, Badiou seems to deny the possibility that the concept of exploitation may be an uncircumventable touchstone of any contemporary politics. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the difference between a politics at a distance from the state and a politics against capital might lie in the fact that the latter cannot be encompassed by the question of representation, inasmuch as capitalist power, while reliant on mechanisms of representation, also works “directly” on singularities themselves, in ways that cannot be easily mapped in terms of exclusion, invisibility or domination.51 This is precisely what is at stake in the vicissitudes of the concept of value in the critique of political economy, a concept which I would suggest cannot be easily harnessed by the logic of re/presentation. The resulting (and rather formidable) challenge would be to combine the immediate politicisation of exploitation that characterises Marx’s own work,52with some of the metaontological and metapolitical tools provided by texts such as “The Factory as Event-Site”. A traversal of the logic of exploitation and its effects on our  thinking of political subjectivity would also allow us to ward off the possibility of an “aristocratic” solution, distantly reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s republican and councilist advocacy of the autonomy of politics against the disastrous impingements of the “social question”.53 This would of course force us to face head on one of the most arresting questions raised by Badiou’s “expatriation” of Marxism: is contemporary politics (the politics of positive equality) compatible with the continuation of modern, statist politics (the politics of negative freedom)? Or must it risk being “anti-modern”, and work on equality not just at a distance from, but against the State? This is not to suggest that Marx, like a political Odysseus, may soon be repatriated, and that we, faithful Penelopes warding off our post-Marxist suitors, can finally recognise him under unfamiliar garb. More modestly, let us suggest that Badiou’s connection between the expatriation of Marxism and the (re)commencement of a Marxist politics is a salutary alternative to the quarrels between the antiquarians and the renegades, as well as a unique philosophical platform from which to (re)think Marx’s politics.


1 It is worth noting from the outset that Badiou – who does not seem to hold much truck with the term nowadays – put his work in the mid-1980s under the aegis of “radicalism”, often in terms redolent of a certain Kantian atmosphere that suffused the French debate on the retreat of the political and political judgment: “What is a radical politics, which goes to the root, which refuses the administration of the necessary, which reflects on ends, upholding and practicing justice and equality, and which nevertheless assumes the time of peace, and is not like the empty wait for a cataclysm? What is a radicalism that is at the same time an infinite task?” (Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique?, Paris, Seuil, 1985, p. 106). Showing the momentary influence of Lyotard, Badiou even links his notion of an axiomatic politics to Kant’s treatment of aesthetic judgment in terms of “reflective universality” (which, we could hazard, also affects the temporality of the future perfect, which is still at work in the concept of the generic). See Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 76. It should also not be forgotten that Peut-on penser la politique?, like Lyotard’s L’enthousiasme, was occasioned by an invitation from Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe’s Centre d’étude philosophique du politique, and is in (polemical) dialogue with the problems identified by these philosophers.

2 Bruno Bosteels, “Post-Maoism: Badiou and Politics”, positions: east asia cultures critique vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 575-634. This is arguably the most thorough engagement with Badiou’s politics to date.

3 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, London, Verso, 1985; Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism, 2nd ed. London: Verso, 1998. As a future task, it would be very interesting indeed to gauge how well Badiou’s own post-Leninist turn would fare under Wood’s criticism – especially insofar as Wood, rather than simply rehashing “orthodox” criticism, is able, in a Marxian spirit, really to bring out the importance of the Marxian critique of political economy to a definition of such crucial concepts as freedom and equality.

4 Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, London: Verso, 1999, p. 172.

5 Slavoj Zizek, “Psychoanalysis in Post-Marxism: The Case of Alain Badiou”, The South Atlantic Quarterly 97, 2, 1998, pp. 235-61.

6 “La figure du (re)commencement”, Le Perroquet 42, 1984, p. 8 or Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 61.

7 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 12.

8 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 13.

9 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 14.

10 Ibid.

11 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 13. See also the Mallarmé quote that Badiou adduces for this stance: “le rapport social et sa mesure momentanée, qu’on la serre ou l’allonge en vue de gouverner, est une fiction.”

12 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 67. On the event as “ultra-one”, see Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham, London: Continuum, 2006, pp. 178-83.

13 See Paul Sandevince (a.k.a. Sylvain Lazarus), “Les formes de conscience” (Octobre 1980), Le Perroquet 42, 1984.

14 Being and Event, pp. 327-43.

15 Alain Badiou, Ethics, trans. Peter Hallward, London: Verso, 2001, pp. 25-7.

16“Les formes de conscience”, p. 5. UCFML refers to the “Groupe pour la formation d’une Union des communistes de France marxiste-leniniste”. In 1985, the UCFML disbanded and was succeeded by L’Organisation politique, a non-party organisation. See Hallward’s Badiou and Bosteels’s “Post-Maoism” for more detailed information.

17 This is argued in particular in Sandevince’s “La politique sous condition”, Le Perroquet 42, pp. 1-3. According to him, there is no positive meaning of Marxism-Leninism after the termination of the Cultural Revolution, and in the end “one cannot extirpate Marxism-Leninism from its Stalinist matrix”. But the line taken by Le Perroquet is that it is necessary to maintain the Leninist break or division between social being and political consciousness. Thus, while moving beyond Lenin in terms of organisation (and indeed in terms of the link between class and revolution) there is a fidelity to a kind of Leninism of capacities, of thought. Politics under condition, in Sandevince-Lazarus’ definition, is politics separated from the social. Can a certain Leninism be maintained beyond the partyform? Is the party-form a restraint on the virtuosity of political subjectivity? This of course raises the question of how political capacity can be fostered and rendered efficacious outside of the party-form.

18 Georges Peyrol (a.k.a. Alain Badiou), “30 moyens de reconnaître à coup sûr un vieux-marxiste”, Le Perroquet 29-30, 1983, p. 5. in Peut-on penser la politique?, Badiou puts the point as follows: “Communist politics must be wagered: you will never deduce it from Capital” (p. 87). Of course, it could be argued that far from signalling a caesura, this “long wager” (p. 90) is a feature of Marx’s own original thought, which never held to such a chimerical “deduction”. See Stathis Kouvelakis, “Marx et sa critique de la politique. Des révolutions de 1848 à la Commune de Paris, ou le travail de la rectification”, available at: <;. The idea of Marxism as promoting a “deduction” of politics from the critique of Capital runs the risk of converging with the “straw-Marxism” denounced by Wood. See The Retreat from Class, p. 187.

19 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 20. This rethinking of the notion of capacity, it should be noted, is “eventally” bound to the Polish workers’ movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. See the section of Peut-on penser la politique? precisely entitled “Universal meaning of the Polish workers” movement”, pp. 45-8, as well as Renée Lebovici, “Shangaï et Gdansk”, Le Perroquet 29-30, and many other pieces in the same publication throughout the 1980s.

20 However, Sandevince-Lazarus’ way of posing the crisis is slightly more theoretical than historical. In fact he too designates three referents, but substitutes Marxism-Leninism itself for Badiou’s focus on anti-imperialist wars: “The referents are principally of three orders”, he writes, “the socialist State, the worker capacity to practice and formulate a revolutionary politics, and finally Marxism-Leninism”. Marxism-Leninism is also defined here as a “precarious political amalgam”, and there is a sense in some of the work in Le Perroquet of a political “return to Marx”, a (re)commencement of Marx that would sublate the Leninist experience. Moreover, Sandevince-Lazarus also emphasises that this is a political crisis: “Marxism is in its nature a politics – as Marx himself clearly specifies in his letter to Weydemeyer – communist politics (for communism, the abolition of the wage, the reduction of great differences, the extinction of the State and political parties), a communist politics that is irreducibly antagonistic to bourgeois politics (for capitalism, imperialism, and the State). If there is a crisis of Marxism, it is the crisis of a politics, of a politics for communism, what we call, strictly speaking, Marxist politics.” “La fin des références” (May 1982), Le Perroquet 42, 1984, p. 10. But see especially “Le Marxisme comme politique, Interview, par Le Perroquet, du Sécretariat central de l’U.C.F.”, Le Perroquet 29-30, 1983, pp. 1-3. The whole issue, under the heading “Un Perroquet-Marx”, marking the hundredth anniversary of Marx’s death, is devoted to these questions.

21 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 26.

22 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 27. Post-Leninism is thus defined by the break with “reason of state” in all its forms, a break that draws its sustenance from the founding drive of Marxism itself: “It is not the State which is the principle of universality of Marxist politics, but rather the communist process in the deployment of class struggles and revolutions”. “La fin des références”, p. 10.

23 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 28.

24 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 29.

25 Ibid.

26 “La figure du (re)commencement”, p. 1. Badiou also refers to this issue in terms of the separation of Marxism from the history of the “marxisation” of the workers’ movement, now that it is no longer “a power of structuration of real history”, meaning that politics may be freed from “the marxed [marxisée] form of the political philosopheme”. Hence the radical caesura vis-à-vis the previous periodisation of Marxist politics, and the proposal of the figure of  (re)commencement. See Peut-on penser la politique?, pp. 58-59.

27 Another crucial moment is of course to be registered in the death-knell of the sequence begun in the Cultural Revolution. See Bosteels’s “Post-Maoism” and Badiou’s Le Monde editorial on the trial of the Gang of Four, “The Triumphant Restoration”, trans. Alberto Toscano, positions: east asia cultures critique vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 659-62.

28 See, for instance, this characteristic pronouncement: “The discourse of radical democracy is no longer the discourse of the universal; the epistemological niche from which “universal” classes and subjects spoke had been eradicated, and it has been replaced by a polyphony of voices, each of which constructs its own irreducible discursive identity. This point is decisive: there is no radical and plural democracy without renouncing the discourse of the universal and its implicit assumption of a privileged point of access to “the truth”, which can be reached only by a limited number of subjects.” Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 191.

29 Badiou’s condemnation of the past two decades as a new post-revolutionary “Restoration” is summed up in Le siécle, Paris: Seuil, 2005.

30 Alain Badiou, “À bas la société existante! (1)”, Le Perroquet 69, 1987, p. 2. See also the section in Peut-on penser la politique? entitled “The reactive meaning of contemporary anti-Marxism”, pp. 48-51.

31 “It is certain that [the Marxist] montage is exhausted. There are no longer socio-political subjects, the revolutionary theme is desubjectivated, History has no objective meaning. All of a sudden, the antagonism of two camps is no longer the right projection for global hostility to existing society”. “À bas la société existante! (1)”, p. 3.

32 Ibid.

33 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 20.

34 Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker, London: Verso, 2005, pp. 150-1. It is worth noting that Badiou does maintain that this thematic of distance is not simply placed “after” historical communism, but is intrinsically post-Leninist. In an interview following the publication of Being and Event, he declares that his “horizon remains that of the withering away of the State” and is driven by the attempt to generate an “intra-popular democratic process”. See Alain Badiou, “L’être, l’événement, la militance” (interview with Nicole-Édith Thévenin), Futur Antérieur 8, 1991, available at: <;. But this withering away is detached from the question of taking power, as the state is transformed into a non-political referent in the field of politics, so that an intrapopular process does not issue into a Leninist notion of proletarian democracy, which would require not a distance from, but the smashing of the State.

35 “À bas la société existante! (1)”, p. 3. In the French revolutionary triad, equality always maintains precedence for Badiou. As “the authority of the Same”, it trumps freedom (which is too close to opinion) and fraternity (which flirts too much with the substance of community). In brief, the virtue of equality lies in its abstraction – the very abstraction that Badiou will describe in terms of a prescriptive axiom of equality. See “Philosophie et politique”, in Conditions, Paris: Seuil, 1991, p. 248.

36 Metapolitics, p. 58.

37 See Sylvain Lazarus, “Dans quel temps de la politique sommes nous? (éditorial)”, Le Journal Politique 2, March 2005, available at: < 7>. This theme of “classism” is dealt with in numerous interventions in Le Perroquet, its successor publication La Distance politique, and now in Le Journal politique.

38 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 51.

39 Which is why Badiou declares, paradoxically, that “the contemporary being of what will articulate the new figure of politics, and which will still be able to call itself “Marxism” in being able to continue the emancipatory hypothesis, is nothing other than the complete thinking of its destruction” (ibid.). Badiou can say this to the extent that Marxism has always been for him synonymous with political militancy and not social analysis; it is not a doctrine, but “the life of a hypothesis”, and this life can take the form of a protracted process of destruction and recomposition.

40“I call pre-political situation a complex of facts and statements in which the collective involvement of worker and popular singularities is felt, and in which the failure of the regime of the One is discernable”. Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 76.

41Peut-on penser la politique?, pp. 81-2.

42In this sense, though Wood’s arguments, levied against post-Marxism, regarding the evacuation of power and exploitation from its political horizon might be thrown at Badiou, the latter is certainly immune to the devastating conjunctural charge made by Wood against the post-Marxists, or new “true” socialists, to wit: that their “deconstruction” of Marxist metaphysics is functional to an option for ideological battles and alliances focalised around electoral contests, and “the logic of their argument is an electoralist logic” (The Retreat from Class, p. 190). While post-Marxism, with its open sympathies for Austro-Marxism and the second International, signals a definite, if particularly elliptical, option for reform over revolution, Badiou’s “Marxist politics” of the 1980s – and, we could argue, his current thinking and practice – appears entirely indifferent to this alternative. However, such a stance is founded on a drastic separation from the idea of a political “programme” (as a mediation between subjective will and objective transformation) which would render his position deeply inimical to the likes of Wood.

43See Bruno Bosteels, “The Speculative Left”, South Atlantic Quarterly 104, 4, 2005, pp. 751-67. All of Bosteels’ work, and especially his forthcoming book Badiou and Politics (Duke University Press), should be consulted for further insights into the questions sketched out in this paper. See also, for background and analysis, Peter Hallward’s chapter on politics in Badiou: A Subject to Truth, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004, as well as his important article on “The Politics of Prescription” in the same issue of SAQ.

44 “L’usine comme site événementiel”, Le Perroquet 62-63, pp. 1 and 4-6.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 On these terms, and many of the issues having to do with the shifts in Badiou’s thinking, see my article in Prelom No. 6/7.

48 “L’usine comme site événementiel”.

49 “La figure du (re)commencement”, p. 8.

50 At the same time, I think that Badiou’s farewell to political anthropology may be somewhat premature. For an initial statement of this problem, see Nina Power and Alberto Toscano, “Think, Pig!: An Introduction to Badiou’s Beckett”, in Alain Badiou, On Beckett, Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003. See also Nina Power, “What is Generic Humanity?: Badiou and Feuerbach”, Subject Matters vol. 2, No. 1, 2005, pp. 35-46.

51 See “From the State to the World?: Badiou and Anti-capitalism”, Communication and Cognition vol. 37, No. 3/4, 2004, pp. 199-224, also available at: <;.

52 See Kouvelakis, op. cit., as well as Massimiliano Tomba’s “Differentials of Surplus-Value”, Historical Materialism (forthcoming).

53Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, London: Penguin, 1963, chapter 6: “The Revolutionary Tradition and its Lost Treasure”.

via khukuri

“Love beyond Law” involves a “feminine” sublimation of drives into love…[love] is here no longer merely a narcissistic (mis)recognition to be opposed to desire as the subject’s ‘truth’ but a unique case of direct asexual sublimation (integration into the order of the signifier) of drives, of their jouissance, in the guise of the asexual Thing (music, religion, etc.) experienced in the ecstatic surrender. What one should bear in mind apropos of this love beyond Law, this direct asexual sublimation of drive, is that it is inherently nonsensical, beyond meaning: meaning can only take place within the (symbolic) Law; the moment we trespass the domain of Law, meaning changes into enjoy-meant, jouis-sense.
Insofar as, according to Lacan, at the conclusion of psychoanalytic treatment, the subject assumes the drive beyond fantasy and beyond (the Law of) desire, this problematic also compels us to confront the question of the conclusion of treatment in all its urgency. If we discard the discredited standard formulas (“reintegration into the symbolic space”, etc.), only two options remain open: desire or drive. That is to say, either we conceive the conclusion of treatment as the assertion of the subject’s radical openness to the enigma of the Other’s desire no longer veiled by fantasmatic formations, or we risk the step beyond desire itself and adopt the position of the saint who is no longer bothered by the Other’s desire as its decentred cause. In the case of the saint, the subject, in an unheard-of way, “causes itself”, becomes its own cause. Its cause is no longer decentred, i.e., the enigma of the Other’s desire no longer has any hold over it. How are we to understand this strange reversal? In principle, things are clear enough: by way of positing itself as its own cause, the subject fully assumes the fact that the object-cause of its desire is not a cause that precedes its effects but is retroactively posited by the network of its effects: an event is never simply in itself traumatic, it only becomes a trauma retroactively, by being ‘secreted’ from the subject’s symbolic space as its inassimilable point of reference. In this precise sense, the subject “causes itself” by way of retroactively positing that X which acts as the object-cause of its desire. This loop is constitutive of the subject. That is, an entity that does not ’cause itself’ is precisely not a subject but an object. However, one should avoid conceiving this assumption as a kind of symbolic integration of the decentred Real, whereby the subject ‘symbolizes’, assumes as an act of its free choice, the imposed trauma of the contingent encounter with the Real. One should always bear in mind that the status of the subject as such is hysterical: the subject ‘is’ only insofar as it confronts the enigma of Che vuoi? – “What do you want?” – insofar as the Other’s desire remains impenetrable, insofar as the subject doesn’t know what kind of object it is for the Other. Suspending this decentring of the cause is thus strictly equivalent to what Lacan called “subjective destitution”, the de- hystericization by means of which the subject loses its status as subject.
The most elementary matrix of fantasy, of its temporal loop, is that of the “impossible” gaze by means of which the subject is present at the act of his/her own conception. What is at stake in it is the enigma of the Other’s desire: by means of the fantasy-formation, the subject provides an answer to the question, ‘What am I for my parents, for their desire?’ and thus endeavours to arrive at the ‘deeper meaning’ of his or her existence, to discern the Fate involved in it. The reassuring lesson of fantasy is that “I was brought about with a special purpose”. Consequently, when, at the end of psychoanalytic treatment, I “traverse my fundamental fantasy”, the point of it is not that, instead of being bothered by the enigma of the Other’s desire, of what I am for the others, I “subjectivize” my fate in the sense of its symbolization, of recognizing myself in a symbolic network or narrative for which I am fully responsible, but rather that I fully assume the uttermost contingency of my being. The subject becomes ’cause of itself’ in the sense of no longer looking for a guarantee of his or her existence in another’s desire.
Another way to put it is to say that the “subjective destitution” changes the register from desire to drive. Desire is historical and subjectivized, always and by definition unsatisfied, metonymical, shifting from one object to another, since I do not actually desire what I want. What I actually desire is to sustain desire itself, to postpone the dreaded moment of its satisfaction. Drive, on the other hand, involves a kind of inert satisfaction which always finds its way. Drive is non-subjectivized (“acephalic”); perhaps its paradigmatic expressions are the repulsive private rituals (sniffing one’s own sweat, sticking one’s finger into one’s nose, etc.) that bring us intense satisfaction without our being aware of it-or, insofar as we are aware of it, without our being able to do anything to prevent it.
In Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes, an impoverished young woman puts on a pair of magical shoes and almost dies when her feet won’t stop dancing. She is only saved when an executioner cuts off her feet with his axe. Her still-shod feet dance on, whereas she is given wooden feet and finds peace in religion. These shoes stand for drive at its purest: an ‘undead’ partial object that functions as a kind of impersonal willing: ‘it wants’, it persists in its repetitive movement (of dancing), it follows its path and exacts its satisfaction at any price, irrespective of the subject’s well-being. This drive is that which is ‘in the subject more than herself’: although the subject cannot ever ‘subjectivize’ it, assume it as ‘her own’ by way of saying ‘It is I who want to do this!’ it nonetheless operates in her very kernel. Lacan’s wager is that it is possible to sublimate this dull satisfaction. This is what, ultimately, art and religion are about.
– Slavoj Zizek

My Father was accustomed to say, “we must begin by the beginning.” So, I must begin this lecture about the subject of art by its beginning. But, what is this beginning? I think we have to begin with the oldest question—the question of being, the question of being as being, of being qua being. What is being? What are we saying when we say something is, something of art is…? Something of art is a joy forever, for example. What are we saying? I begin by a fundamental distinction between three levels of the signification of being.

First, when I say something is, I just say something is a pure multiplicity. ‘Something is’ and ‘something is a multiplicity’ is the same sentence. So, it’s a level of being qua being. Being as such is pure multiplicity. And the thinking of a pure multiplicity is finally mathematics.

The second level is when we are saying something exists. It is the question of existence as a distinct question of the question of being as such. When we are saying something exists we are not speaking of a pure multiplicity. We are speaking of something which is here, which is in a world. So existence is being in a world, being here or, if you want, appearing, really appearing in a concrete situation. That is ‘something exists.’

And finally, the third level is when we are saying that something happens. When something happens we are not only saying that it is a multiplicity—a pure multiplicity, and we are not only saying that it is something in a world—something which exists here and now. ‘Something happens’ is something like a cut in the continuum of the world, something which is new, something also which disappears—which appears, but also which disappears. Because happening is when appearing is the same thing as disappearing.

And so we have to understand the relation between the three levels, the relation between being qua being (pure multiplicity), existence (multiplicity but in a world, here and now), and happening or event. And so we can see that in a concrete situation we have, finally, two terms: first, a world, a world situation—something where all things exist; and after that, an event, sometimes, an event—which is something which happens for this world, not in this world, but for this world. And I call a subject ‘a relation between an event and the world.’ Subject is exactly what happens when as the consequence of an event in a world we have a creation, a new process, the event of something. And so we have something like that. It’s something like in a protest…

The point is that the relation, the subjective relation between an event and the world cannot be a direct relation. Why? Because an event disappears on one side, and on the other side we never have a relation with the totality of the world. So when I say that the subject is a relation between an event and the world we have to understand that as an indirect relation between something of the event and something of the world. The relation, finally, is between a trace and the body. I call trace ‘what subsists in the world when the event disappears.’ It’s something of the event, but not the event as such; it is the trace, a mark, a symptom. And on the other side, the support of the subject—the reality of the subject in the world—I call ‘a new body.’ So we can say that the subject is always a new relation between a trace and a body. It is the construction in a world, of a new body, and jurisdiction—the commitment of a trace; and the process of the relationship between the trace and the body is, properly, the new subject.

So when you have to speak of the subject of art you have to speak about a lot of things. First, what is a world of art? What is a world for artistic creation? It’s not the world in general. It is a specific world for the artistic creation… ah! the police. So this is the first question. The second question is—what is an artistic event? What is the new singularity in the development of the art world? Third, what is a trace? What is the trace of an event in the art field? And after all that—what is the construction of the new art body?

But before all that, I want to clarify by some examples the question of the subject as a relation between trace of an event and construction of the body in a concrete world. And I want to refer to our situation today—to our world today—because I think that there are today two subjective paradigms. I can propose that the concrete situation of our world today is something like a war between two subjective paradigms, two norms of what is a subject. The first one is a strictly materialist and monist philosophy of the subject. And what is, finally, a monist philosophy of the subject? It is the affirmation that there is no distinction, no real distinction between the subject and the body. If you want, in the first paradigm, I show… (drawing figure). The first paradigm… the subject is something which is finally identified to the body as such. So the subjective creation as a sort of paradigm is only experimentation of the limits of the body. The subject is something like an experience of its proper limits, an experience of finitude, an experience of the limits of the concrete unity of the body. But finally, what is a limit of the body, a limit of the living body? The strongest limit of the living body is death. So we can say that in the form of the subjective paradigm the subject is experimentation of death as final limit of the body. And I think, for example, that there is something like that in the extremist form of body art. Body art is experimentation, direct experimentation of the limits of the body as exposition of itself. But, in fact, the absolute limit of something like body art is experimentation of death as such; and the real and final experimentation in the field of body art can be to commit suicide in public. And it’s a philosophical determination, because a long time ago Heidegger said that finally Dasein or subject is a subject for death. I can name, in general, the subjective paradigm which is experimentation of the limits of the body something like enjoyment because enjoyment is the name of experimentation of death in life, experimentation of the big thing (das Ding) as death in life itself. So we can say that the first paradigm of subjectivity in our world is the paradigm of subjectivity as enjoyment. But in enjoyment we have to hear the French jouissance—that is exactly the same word. And the definition of enjoyment is experimentation of death in life with experimentation of the limits of the body. And naturally enjoyment is beyond pleasure. Pleasure is something like experimentation of life in life, but enjoyment is beyond pleasure because it’s experimentation of the limit of the body as death. So we can say that the sort of subjectivity, the paradigm of subjectivity is a subject for enjoyment. And I think it is the Western paradigm today; it is, in fact, our paradigm—subject for enjoyment and the experimentation of the limits of the body.

The second one, the second paradigm is an idealistic, theological, metaphysical philosophy of the subject. The subject can be completely separated from its body. In the first paradigm the subject is finally the body itself. In the second paradigm, the subject is completely separated from its body; it is against the subject as subject for enjoyment, the revival of a profound desire of separation, the desire of existence of the subject as separated of its body. The goal is to find—in life, in action—the point where the body is only the instrument of the new separation. And you see, it is not experimentation of death in life as in enjoyment, but it’s assumption of a new subjective life by the mean of death itself. So we can say that that sort of subjective paradigm is experience of life in death, which is opposed to the experience of death in life. And we can name sacrifice that sort of subjective experience of life in death.

And the contemporary world is a war between enjoyment and sacrifice. And the war against terrorism is, finally the war between enjoyment and sacrifice. But in this war there is something in common. There is something in common between the two paradigms. What is common to enjoyment and to sacrifice, finally, what is common is the power of death, the power of death as experimentation of the limits of the body on one side but experimentation of death as the means for a new life on the other side. So with the war between enjoyment and sacrifice, we have finally confronted the power of death. And there is no real place for artistic creation in that sort of war—I am convinced of this point—neither on the side of the power of death as enjoyment neither on the side of the power of death as sacrifice. There is no real opening for new artistic creation. So we have to find a third possibility, a third paradigm. We have to propose something as a new subjective paradigm which is outside the power of death—which is neither enjoyment (that is pleasure beyond pleasure and limits of the body) nor satisfaction in the sacrifice (that is enjoyment in another world, of pleasure beyond suffering). We can say that—neither pleasure beyond pleasure nor pleasure beyond suffering, neither enjoyment nor sacrifice. In a much more theoretical framework we can say something like that.

We have three possibilities of relation between a subject and its body. Three possibilities. And so, we have three possibilities for a subjective paradigm. The first one—reducibility. Reducibility. The subject can be reduced to its body. We can say that we have, in that case, an immanent identity of the subject, immanent identity because there is no separation at all, but complete identification between the process of the subject and the becoming of its body. In that case the norm—the final norm is enjoyment, the experimentation of death in life. The second is separability. Separability… The subject can be separated completely from its body. There is, in that case, transcendent difference, transcendent difference because the subject experiments itself in the transcendent world and not in the sacrifice of its proper world. The third possibility that I propose is something like immanent difference, not immanent identity, not transcendent difference, but immanent difference. In that case, the subject is not reducible to its body, so there is something like an independent subjective process. There really is a creation, which is not reducible to the experimentation of the limits of the body. But it’s impossible that there exists some separation between the subject and its body. So there is neither separation nor reducibility. And that is the situation of the subject when we can understand it as a process of creation, a process of production, a process, which really organizes the relation between the trace of an event and the construction of a new body in the world. And so we have to find something which is not in the field of the contemporary war between enjoyment and sacrifice. And I think the question of the subject of art is today this question—to find something like a new subjective paradigm, which is outside the contemporary war between enjoyment and sacrifice. And we have a lot of problems to organize in this new paradigm—a new paradigm, which has to understand completely how a new body can be oriented by a subjective process without separation and without identification. So we have to maintain the distance between the trace of an event and the construction of the body.

I show you once more my revendication which is, you can understand now, is a revendification of a new subjective paradigm. Give me a new subjective paradigm. And so you can see that if the subject is completely an identity with the body there is no real difference between the trace and the body. And so, finally, the subject is completely in the world. If you have a complete separation between the subject and the body, the subject is completely on the side of the trace, and so it is completely dependent on the event as an absolute event, an event which is outside the world. So on one side, the subject is completely in the world and it is an experimentation of the limit of the world, and on the other side, it is completely outside the world and so it is on the side of something like an absolute event, and so something as god, like god. Can you understand? So in the two subjective paradigms of the contemporary war we find the subjective process as a complete immanent situation and in distinction with the world, or complete separation and in distinction with the radical absolute event. We can see in the two paradigms that we cannot have something like a real process of production without experimentation of the limits, finally, of death in the life of the world, or you have something like transcendency and religious determination. So the question of the subject of art is really to maintain the distinction between the body on one side and the trace of the event on the other side. And so we have, I think, to solve something like five problems. So it’s a criterium of size that I give to you to solve five problems.

First one, first problem—if really the subjective process as a process of creation is in the field of a distance (but an un-separated distance) between the trace and the body we have to interpret the event as an affirmative one and not as a purely disappearing or transcendent thing. If really the trace of the event is in the constitution of the subject, but not reducible to the body, we have to understand that an event, a real event is something affirmative. And it’s a complex question because certainly there is a sort of disappearing of the event, and event is a split, a break of the law of the world. So what is the relation in a real event between the negative dimension—rupture, break, split, as you want—and the affirmative necessity if really an event is not absolute and real event? So we have to think of an event, and for example, of an artistic event, as something like an affirmative split. It’s the first problem.

The second problem is the very nature of the trace—the trace of an event if an event is something like an affirmative split. What is a trace? And it is a very complex distinction because a trace has to be in the world. The event is not exactly in the world, but the trace has to be in the world. And so, what is the trace? What is the real trace, which is in the world but which is in relation with the event as affirmative split? It’s the second big problem.

The third problem is—what is the constitution of the new body? Because naturally we have in the case of the subjective process something like the new body. Only a new body is in the possible disposition to have something new in the creation in relation to the trace of the event. The trace of the event is not reducible to the body, but the body is not reducible to the world. Once more, once more. (showing figure) You can see that if the subjective process is really in the distance of the trace and the body, we have to interpret the construction of the body as the new body because if the body is not the new body it is completely in the world and it’s not in relation, in complete relation to the trace of the event as an affirmative split in direction of the world. So the third problem is—what is a new body in the world? What is a new composition of multiplicities? What is really something, which is the support of the subjective process, the support of a trace? That is the third problem.

The fourth problem is the question of consequences. We have a new body. We have a relation to the trace of an event, so we have something which is materialist creation, the process of materialist creation of something new. What are the consequences of all that and how can we be in the discipline of the consequences? Because naturally, if there is something new in the subjective process we have to accept the incorporation in the new body and so the discipline of the consequences, of the practical consequences of the new body.

And the final problem is to find something like an immanent infinity because if the subjective process is something like a new creation in the world we have an infinity of consequences. We cannot have an experimentation of the limits, precisely. We are not in the first paradigm which is experimentation of the limits. In fact, there are no limits. There are potentially—virtually (to speak as Deleuze)—we have virtually an infinity of consequences. But this infinity is not a transcendent one; it’s an immanent infinity. It is the infinity of the body itself in relation to the trace. So we have to understand what is an immanent infinity and not a transcendent infinity.

So our five problems are: event as an affirmative split. What is exactly the trace of an event? What does the constitution in the world of the new body mean? How can we accept the discipline of consequences? And what is an immanent infinity? And that is the questions we have to solve to say something about the artistic subject.

So I have to solve the five problems. Or I have to say something about the possibility of solving the five problems, but in the artistic field, not in general—not in general since the problem is absolute… It concerns all types of subjective processes. But what is the question in the artistic field? (drawing diagram)…

First, we have to say what is an artistic world. What is a world of art? Something like that is our first question, our preliminary question. I propose to say that a world is an artistic one, a situation of art, a world of art when it proposes to us a relation between chaotic disposition of sensibility and what is acceptable as a form. So an artistic situation, in general, is always something like relation between a chaotic disposition of sensibility in general (what is in the physical, what is in the audible, and in general) and what is a form. So it’s a relation (an artistic world) between sensibility and form. And it’s finally a proposition between the split of sensibility, between what is formalism—what can be formalized of the sensibility—and what cannot. So, it’s something like that. (drawing diagram) ‘S’ is sensibility, ‘F’ is form, so the general formula for an artistic world is sensibility in the disposition of relation between what is a form and what is not a form. So something like that, very simple. So when we have something like an experimentation of relation of that type between sensibility and form we have something like general artistic situation. It’s a completely abstract definition, but you can see the nature of the definition. So, if you want, the state of affairs in the artistic world is always a relation between something like our experimentation of chaotic sensibility in general, and the distinction, which is a moving distinction, between form and inform, or something like that. And so we experiment with an artistic situation when we experiment with something which is in the relation between sensibility, form, and inform.

But if this is true, what is an artistic event? What is the general formula for an artistic event? We can say that, generally speaking, an artistic event, a real artistic event is a change in the formula of the world. So it’s a fundamental transformation of that sort of formula. So it’s something like the becoming formal of something which was not. It’s the emergence of a new possibility of formalization, or if you want, it’s an acceptance like form of something which was inform. It’s the becoming form of something which was not a form. And so it’s a new current in the chaotic sensibility. It’s a new disposition of the immanent relation between chaotic sensibility and formalization. And we can have something like that, which is, if you want, the event—the artistic event as an affirmative split. (drawing figure) This time, ‘S’ is always sensibility, ‘F’ is form and ‘F1’ is the new disponibilité of the formalization. And so you have something like that when you have an artistic event. Sensibility is organized in a new way because something which was inform—that is, a symbol of negation, we have negation (drawing) yeah?—something which was inform, or no formalization is accepted as a new form. So we have here the becoming of inform in something which is formalism and the split is with the new negation of form, which is the negation of F1. So that is exactly the general form of an artistic event as an affirmative split.

Why is it an affirmative split? It’s a split because we always have relation between affirmative form and negative one. What is formalist—what is accepted as a form and what is not accepted as a form. So it’s a split in the chaotic sensibility between form and inform, but it’s a new determination of the split, affirmative split, because something which was in negation is in affirmation. Something which was not a form becomes something like a form. So we are really in an artistic event. Something (showing diagram)… so we can see the affirmative idea of the split is when something which was in the negation, part of the formalist impossibility, becomes affirmative possibility. So we can say that in the field of artistic creation the affirmative split is finally something like a new disposition between what is a form and what is not. And the becoming in a positive form of something which was not a form is the affirmative dimension of an artistic event.

What is a body? What is the construction of a new body? A new body in the artistic field is something like a real concrete creation—a work of art, performances, all that you want—but which are in relation with the trace of the event. The trace of the event is something like that—the declaration always that something really is a form, that something new of the dignity of the work of art—and that is the trace. The trace is something like a manifesto, if you want, something like a new declaration, something which says, “this was not a form and it’s really now a form.” That is the declaration, so the trace of the event. And a new body is something like a work of art, which is in relation with that sort of trace. And often in the field of artistic creation is a new school, a new tendency. There is, generally speaking, some names—names of a school, names of a tendency, names of a new fashion as a dimension of artistic creation—and that is a new body. It’s a new body, which is in the world, in the artistic world, in the new artistic world. It’s the creation of something new in the artistic world in correlation to the trace. And we understand what is the discipline of consequences in the artistic field—discipline of consequences is a new subjective process, is something like really a new experimentation, a new experimentation of the forms, a new experimentation of the relation between the forms and chaotic sensibility. And so it’s the same of the new school, of the new tendency, of the new forms of creation, of artistic creation.

And the very interesting problem is the final problem: what is, in all that, the immanent infinity? What is the creation, in an artistic subjective field, of a new existence of infinite? I think in the artistic field the immanent infinity is finally something like the infinity of the form itself. And what is infinity of the form itself? It’s the possibility that the new form—the new possibility of the form—is in relation, in direct relation with the chaotic sensibility. And a new form is always a new access, a new manner, a new entry, a new access in the chaotic of sensibility. And so we can say that in the artistic field the creation of forms is really the movement of immanent infinity, is really an access of the infinity of the world as such. And so we are really in the development of a new tendency, so, of a new body in the artistic field, something like a new development of immanent infinity. It’s not only something else; it’s a new manner of thinking of the infinite itself. And it is why it is very important today to have something like new artistic experimentation because I think that the political question today is very obscure. I was saying that our problem is to find something which is not in the field of the war between enjoyment and sacrifice, to find something which is really a third subjective paradigm. I think that is the specific responsibility of artistic creation—this search—because often when political determination are obscure artistic determinations clarify the situation. And so as a philosopher, I can say to you (and I think a number of you have a relation to the artistic world, the artistic field) there really is today a specific responsibility of artistic creation, which is to help humanity to find the new subjective paradigm. So the subject of art is not only the creation of a new process in its proper field, but it’s also a question of war and peace, because if we don’t find the new paradigm—the new subjective paradigm—the war will be endless. And if we want peace—real peace—we have to find the possibility that subjectivity is really in infinite creation, infinite development, and not in the terrible choice between one form of the power of death (experimentation of the limits of pleasure) and another form of the power of death (which is sacrifice for an idea, for an abstract idea). That is I think, the contemporary responsibility of artistic creation. Thank you.

– Alain Badiou

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