- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 30 March 2008 12:13
- Written by John Steele
By John Steele
What about Alain Badiou, the contemporary philosopher? Like Zizek, he has attracted much attention among people looking for new avenues both intellectually and politically. A friend in Latin American studies has told me his name is everywhere in Latin American intellectual circles.
Badiou’s background is within Marxism and Maoism. He was a student of the French communist philosopher Louis Althusser in the early sixties, an activist within the French uprisings of May 1968, and a Maoist activist and theorist in the 1970s. He has concluded, beginning in the 1980s and for a nest of reasons both political and philosophical, that this tradition of political practice (that is, basically, the international communist movement as it had emerged that far), has reached a point of “saturation,” as he terms it, and that a new beginning – a new truth-process, as he calls it – is necessary. He has gone on since then to outline a new approach in some very basic fields of philosophy.
In a February 2006 interview at University of Washington, he summed up:
Paul is generally viewed as a deeply reactionary character by Marxists and even by many progressive Christians. One could say that Paul took an early egalitarian Jewish sect, and played a pivotal role in transforming it into an established Church with a novel, codified doctrine, and the ability to “take over” the Roman empire, Europe and beyond.
So why does a revolutionary like Badiou write about Paul? Well – we don’t need to just examine an historical figure like this from the point of view of “was his doctrine correct?” or “do we see him as reactionary?”
Badiou is examining Paul as an archetype of militancy – as a person with “fidelity” to a world historic “event” and the “truth-process” emerging from it (in this case, a resurrection [undocumented to be sure] and a certain universal set of messages that were unprecedented for their times.)
On the second page of this book, Badiou characterizes Paul as someone who “practices and states the invariant features of what can be called the militant figure.”
Badiou goes on to say, “there is currently a widespread search for a new militant figure¼called upon to succeed the one installed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the century, which can be said to have been that of the party militant.”
He thinks that now, when such a step forward is needed, a look back at the distant and apparently very dissimilar case of Paul is highly illuminating.
Badiou says he wants to trace the connection, embodied in Paul, “between the general idea of a rupture, an overturning, and that of a thought-process which is this rupture’s subjective materiality.” It’s the connection, in other words, between an event and the truth-process and the subject which are both born out of it. The “militant figure” is the militant of a truth-process and part of a new subjectivity. (Subjectivity in this philosophical sense does not mean, as in Maoist usage, being un-objective or anti-scientific. It means in this case, being a new subject (or part of a new social subject), a newly defined and awakened actor on the social stage and within the new process of truth-formation.)
To rephrase slightly, Badiou’s quest is for a new way to be a revolutionary in our present circumstances. He approaches Paul in this light, for those reasons, and interprets Paul’s life and practice in terms of his own (Badiou’s) philosophy of event, subject, truth-process, and fidelity. A “new militant figure” would be the militant of a new truth process.
That’s the background of his concern with Paul. He goes on to say that what he’s going to focus on in Paul’s work is “a singular connection, which it is formally possible to disjoin from the fable [that is, Christianity] and of which Paul is...the inventor: the connection that establishes a passage between a proposition concerning a subject and an interrogation concerning the law.”
What Paul contributed, Badiou believes, is the insight and practice of separating truths (and truth-processes) from their particular historical context. Badiou opposes this to the contemporary practices of dissolving truths into forms of cultural, linguistic or historical relativisms.
A Universal Singularity
In the world today, Badiou says, on the one hand there is a vast “extension of the automatisms of capital,” which imposes “the rule of an abstract homogenization,” while “on the other side there is a process of fragmentation into closed identities, and the culturalist and relativist ideology that accompanies this fragmentation.” Both of these processes, and their ideological expressions, are inimical and deadly to the creation of new truth today. Moreover, the two processes are complementary: , page 99] What to think? Well, let’s take a more familiar political example. Suppose you are a revolutionary militant or cadre. You have been grasped in your life and activated by a great eruption in the world, and the experience has completely up-ended the conventional system of facts and categories and hierarchies – all that you thought you knew. You have entered into a process of synthesizing and recognizing and establishing new truths in the world, a process which is not just yours, but yours along with many others. I am sure many of us on this site have experienced this, and have entered into such processes, and have had this shape our lives.
Let’s say that these new truths are universal (in the sense of being “addressed to all” as Badiou often puts it). These truths demand to be made real in the world, which means changing the world. Wrong ways of approaching this demand: either preaching to people (“here’s the truth; accept it, believe it”), or enforcing it as truth, if you have the power to do that (“here’s the truth; you must accept it or else”). Rather, the truth has to be made real in the world, not by opposing itself abstractly to the differences and particularities of people and groups, but through them. This would be what the mass line is about, as Badiou is interpreting it here. “From the masses, to the masses” – taking “the ideas of the masses,” synthesizing them through the universal truth in a way that does not dissolve their particularity, and bringing them “back to the masses.”
And this is what Badiou sees in this text of Paul: an expression of how a truth, universal in character and sweep, can come to “seize the masses” in a way which does not obliterate or abolish “the differences that allow them to recognize themselves in the world.”
Mao’s “mass line” has often been understood as addressing questions of methods of leadership (“learning while leading, leading while learning”) or political work (concentrating and sifting out correct from incorrect in the ideas of the masses, then “returning” them in the form of line and policy). As such, it remains on the level of means and policy. Badiou, however, is seeing it as a way in which the universal becomes particular, and how a new truth becomes materially expressive within and through individual people and groups. It is a profound philosophical question, as well as profoundly political.
There’s much more to his thinking, which is very rich and variegated. There’s a lot in Badiou that one can argue with, and I am still grappling with his thought. But he’s one of the very few really original, deep, and path-breaking philosophers of the present – and someone who’s seriously trying to think or rethink the questions of revolution (or of a truly emancipatory politics, as he prefers to say). These ideas are not repackagings of our own familiar Marxisms… they are often strange to us, as if the same world and problems are suddenly seen from a new angle with fresh eyes. It is provocative and thought-provoking. And for those reasons alone, there’s a lot of value in his work (we need it, in fact) and he needs to be seriously engaged -- irrespective of whether we adopt his philosophical system as a whole, or any particular aspects of it.