Alain Badiou’s resolute commitment to communism and revolution placed him in the wilderness in the 1980s and ’90s. Since the economic crisis, however, his ideas have become more germane as part of broader resurgence of interest in the concept of communism. Samuel Grove interviewed Colin Wright, author of Badiou in Jamaica: The Politics of Conflict and Lecturer in Critical Theory at Nottingham University, about Badiou’s ideas. This is the first part of their discussion, the second will follow soon.
You describe Alain Badiou’s philosophy as revolving around three key questions: i) How does genuine novelty enter the world? ii) How is it distinct from mundane change? iii) And how can it be made to endure? And yet capitalism has become so hegemonic in recent years that it has become pretty difficult to even imagine an alternative to it.
I think the problem you describe, of the commodification of the political imaginary by capitalism, is a very serious one, especially given that this extends to images of resistance to capitalism as well (I refer to this in Badiou in Jamaica a few times as 'rebel chic'). Zizek's reading of the epidemic of apocalyptic Hollywood disaster movies is relevant here. He suggests that capitalism's hold on the collective imaginary is such that it is now far easier, particularly in the face of mounting evidence of environmental catastrophe, to picture the whole planet going up in flames, than it is to conceive of the end of capitalism. So it's a serious problem. I also think that part of addressing this problem does indeed have to take place on the level of the political imaginary itself. For all its many problems, at least the motto of the World Social Forum that 'Another World is Possible' acknowledges the need for an imaginative space in which alternatives to capitalism can be elaborated. But it certainly can't be addressed only at that level, since enormous amounts of energy can be wasted on building utopian visions, when significant change, at least from a Marxist perspective, never comes only from ideas.
Does Badiou offer us such an imaginary?
Well, this is exactly where Badiou both offers a useful, powerful intervention. A 'subject' for Badiou does not attempt to impose a blueprint for an improved world: it is a force for change, in its actions, not an advocate for this or that kind of ideal society. In his book The Century, Badiou is in fact very critical of how dangerous this can be (he calls it a 'passion for real'). Because the subject is faithful to a truth which is not in any way meaningful in its world, it can't really know quite what it is doing or why, and certainly doesn't have a blueprint for how it will all end up.
Badiou would be more in line with Paulo Freire's idea that 'we make the way by walking it'. This doesn't imply that you have a map telling you where you're going, or indeed an idea of where you want to be that would orient your journey. I think this is useful in steering us away from locating everything at the level of the political imaginary, of the need for a map (in the absence of which, you might not take that first step), as if the idea that 'Another World is Possible', in and of itself, brings that possibility closer to being realised. You have to do something to make an idea, or its implication, real in the world.
But even if we don’t always know what we do, or what its consequences might be—can’t we only recognise the significance of an action if we at least have an inclination that there is an idea embedded in it in the first place?
Yes. One thing I wanted to criticise in Badiou was the extent to which, for a time, he starkly excluded any role whatsoever for the political imaginary in what he calls the 'subject process'. This strikes me as a useful polemical intervention into a certain context, but it also threatens to become divorced from the experience of engaged activists (some of whom may be 'subjects' in Badiou's rarefied sense; many of whom, it has to be said, will certainly not be). For me, it is a question of how the idea or image of change can interact with and sustain the activities of subjects that actually realise change. I found one key area in Badiou's work where this link is acknowledged. Of all places, it’s in his idiosyncratic reading of Samuel Beckett. Beckett's great at zooming in on a stubborn will to keep going even in the absolute absence of any evidence for rational optimism. In these difficult times, this idea of a kind of dogged, excessive hope strikes me as important. But the practical point, even in Beckett, is that this attitude opens one up to being ready to realise change when its possibility actually comes along. Badiou's later work has further addressed this issue, so that when he talks about the 'Idea of Communism', he is both recognising the importance of that Idea for galvanizing political subjects, and distinguishing it, as Idea, from the history of attempts to realise it. This has been an important way of revitalising the notion of revolution.
I am struck by your use of the term ‘subject’. In traditional philosophy the ‘subject’ is associated with the individual or, in the Cartesian sense, the human mind. But you just said that not all of us are ‘subjects’ from a Badiouean perspective...
A ‘subject’ for Badiou is really anything that can force active change onto a world. Because he is interested in change in fields other than politics alone, he uses the same word for non-human things such as certain groups of paintings or mathematical formulae, anything that can push a readjustment of what counts as, say, art or mathematics or science. So it might be a strange idea but with Badiou, the notion of ‘subject’ really has nothing directly to do with what we think of as ‘people’. Of course, in the field of politics, nothing can take place without people as the agents of change. But the reverse isn’t true: just because there are people, even gathered together in great numbers, doesn’t mean that politics is happening. As we know from regrettable experience, even a really big protest march doesn’t necessarily change anything. With politics then, Badiou emphasises what he calls ‘subject bodies’ which are collectives that alter something in the world. Such collectives cannot be reduced to the individuals from which they are composed – arguably a basic idea of Communism.
However, it’s important that I clarify your claim that not all of us are ‘subjects’. Everything rests for Badiou on the opposite idea, namely, that anybody, absolutely anybody, can become a subject. The truth to which a subject has to be faithful, in order no longer to be only an individual, must be universal and open to all. This means there are no prior qualifications that would exclude people from getting involved in politics, such as age or levels of property ownership or citizenship. This is why Badiou is very far from advocating identity politics or single-issue politics.
A standard criticism from postmodernists, Michel Foucault for instance, is that ‘truth’, or ‘regimes of truth’, are inextricably tied to practices of division and exclusion.
Badiou makes a distinction between knowledge and truth. For him, knowledge is what structures our world and helps to keep everything more or less in its place. Activists know this when they have to engage with ‘expert’ forms of knowledge backed by the state (legal, scientific, bureaucratic etc.) which really entrench a position they want to contest, and then find their discourse dismissed as irrational. If it can be known through the existing forms of knowledge then, Badiou would say it cannot be true in his sense. Conversely, if it is true it cannot be known because truth is a novelty that breaks completely with all the existing ways of understanding the world. This is what he means by an ‘event’.
Can you explain further what Badiou means by an ‘event’? Perhaps in relation to the ‘subject’.
The connection between ‘subject’ and ‘event’ is probably the most complex but original aspects of Badiou’s philosophy, and it’s very difficult to go in to it without talking about his ontology (which there’s no question of doing here). However, it boils down to something like this. An event is something that happens for which there is no precedent, which is completely unpredictable, and which can’t be explained using the given forms of knowledge. In particular, an event is something the State can’t make sense of. However, this also means that it’s very easy for an event to pass more or less un-noticed. What the event needs is to be given a name, and this helps it to at least be visible in the world, to leave some kind of trace. It is already the subject who gives this anomalous event a name, because even though the subject, like everyone else, has no way of knowing what the event has been or rather could be, the subject is the one that wagers on the idea that it can have some far-reaching consequences which it commits to realising. So the storming of the Bastille, for example, could of course be seen as a riotous mob merely attacking a symbol of authority, but because that incident and the ones leading up to it took on the name ‘revolution’, militants were able to gather around that name, and commit themselves to egalitarian principles (open to all) which had an enormous impact on France and beyond. By Badiou’s criteria then, we can call the French Revolution an event. Its subjects were those who tried to pursue as far as possible the implications of the idea that all men are created equal. One of the most important aspects of Badiou’s theory of the subject, however, is the ease with which subjects lapse back into being individuals, hijacking such movements by turning them into vehicles for their own interests (the bourgeoisie for example).
So we have ‘history’ and we have ‘truth’ and when the two coincide we have an ‘event’?
Broadly, but the way you pose your question implies an opposition between ‘truth’ and ‘history’. To follow what Badiou means, you have to suspend that way of seeing things. He is appealing to Plato when making this distinction, but not the usual Plato who is supposed to talk about an otherworldly realm beyond the senses etc. Instead, the Idea is Badiou’s way of explaining how something so novel and enigmatic as an event can be realised in a world at all, especially one that is shaped by its history. Early in his work, Badiou had talked about a ‘Communist invariant’, meaning that any truly egalitarian politics, no matter when it irrupts, has an unchanging logic.
There is something very appealing about the idea that there are no prior qualifications to be a 'subject of politics'. At the same time is it a little idealistic? If for example we take the realm of science of mathematics there is a great deal of technical training that goes into becoming the sort of person that can make innovations in these fields (training that may well involve the imparting of state sanctioned knowledge I would add).
It is definitely true that it is difficult to make an innovation in the field of science without some technical training, but conversely, one could say that it is this training itself—this mastery of a given, accepted, state-sanctioned paradigm—that makes innovation so difficult insofar as it is ‘disciplined’ out of contention. The ambiguity rests on that phrase ‘in the field of’, since a truth necessarily unsettles a field so it will be completely unclear as to whether this ‘truth’ really belongs to a particular field or not (is this really science? Is this really art? etc.). In this sense, having the sociological status of a ‘scientist’ is almost a disadvantage when it comes to producing a scientific truth.
OK, but I guess my real reason for asking this question is political. Surely education in the form of 'consciousness raising' is a vital part of becoming politicised?
There is a well-known problem with the model of an intellectual vanguard whose job it is to educate the ignorant masses, to the extent that it presupposes a pre-existing body of expert knowledge, for example Marxist social theory, and those who know it and those who don’t. Early Badiou takes from Mao the lesson that the relationship is more the other way around: revolutionary action is already a kind of immanent knowledge that intellectuals have to learn from. In Badiou’s own later post-Maoist work, this will take the form of the idea that philosophy must be what he calls ‘conditioned’ by events, not the other way around. Philosophy can’t make events happen then. It can turn their implications into concepts, participating in extending and sustaining their implications only in that way.
Having said that, I personally think there should be more room in Badiou’s work for a kind of critical pedagogy that informs people both about the politics of dominant forms of knowledge and the history of other kinds of what Foucault termed ‘subjugated knowledges’. Given that he argues Ideas give a certain form to novelty in the world as it is, this kind of education should surely introduce people to what could be called, playing a little bit on Badiou’s word, the history of Ideas? Nonetheless, by his very strict criteria, there would still be no guarantees that this kind of education about past events would increase the likelihood of subjects emerging, if and when they occur. Although events have happened, and some could be underway right now, each one is nonetheless completely specific to the world in which it irrupts.
Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist.