Voyou Désœuvré

K-punk writes:

One of the strange things about Badiou is the curious retrospective temporality of his literally post-modernist philosophy – this is what it was to be a militant, this is what it was to fall in love… well, yes, but, now what? What’s rousing about The Meaning Of Sarkozy is precisely the call to start again from nothing.

The apparent oddity of this paragraph—that k-punk criticizes Badiou for something for which Badiou himself is held up as the alternative—actually demonstrates something interesting about Badiou. One of Badiou’s most important ideas is his insistence on separating politics and philosophy, a position which evidences a certain modesty about philosophy; despite his avowed Platonism, Badiou would agree with Hegel’s criticism:

To bring to order the endlessly varied relations, which constitute the outer appearance of the rational essence is not the task of philosophy. Such material is not suitable for it, and it can well abstain from giving good advice about these things. Plato could refrain from recommending to the nurses not to stand still with children, but always to dandle them in their arms. (The Philosophy of Right, Preface)

Badiou’s circumscription of philosophy rules out philosophy giving practical recommendations or specific prescriptions. So the lack of reference to contemporary politics in Badiou’s philosophy might be expected; the references to previous political events aren’t intended as discussions of politics as such, but merely as illustrations of philosophical concepts, and why not use older, better known and better understood, examples?

But Badiou can’t actually get off the hook so easily. The basis of the restricted role he gives philosophy is the idea the philosophy is conditioned, it is subordinate to the domains that produce truths (science, art, love and politics). Philosophy involves thinking out certain consequences of events in these spheres. Philosophy on Badiou’s terms does have a responsibility to respond to contemporary political events even as it makes no claim to direct them. It’s here that I think k-punk is right that Badiou’s choice of political subject matter is a weakness, which points to a larger weakness, if not in his philosophy, then in his presentation of it. While philosophy is supposed to have four conditions, Being and Event is particularly conditioned by events in science, specifically mathematics. It’s maybe interesting that the mathematical event that is at the center of Being and Event dates, like his political commitments, from the 60s; Paul Cohen’s 1962 proof of the independence of the continuum hypothesis. Perhaps the 60s was the appropriate time to condition a work written in 1988, as Being and Event was, but it would clearly be remiss of us, a further 20 years later, to take these conditions of our own.

Approaching philosophy in a Badiouian manner from our own starting point is made more difficult, however,  by the fact that we lack from Badiou an example of how philosophy would be conditioned by politics, and this may stem from a more surprising lack: I’m not sure Badiou actually has a conception of politics. Badiou’s rejection of political economy makes his political vocabulary strangely thin, leaving it hard to conceptualize in anything but the most formal way what being a political subject involves: Badiou tells us that politics takes place in a situation, but is indifferent to the means we might use to grasp that situation, locate ourselves and our political activity within it. This political problem must then also be understood as a philosophical problem, because if we lack the concepts to enage with politics,  our philosophy cannot be conditioned by it.

Likewise, I wonder what it looks like when philosophy is conditioned by a truth in the domain of love; and, can any philosophy which claims to be so conditioned ignore the changes in forms of relationships and sexualities that have occured since the 60s?


  1. bat020, 11:16 am, June 27, 2009

    I agree that the separation of politics from philosophy is crucial in Badiou. I’d add that this is a point on which Badiou is far more rigorously Marxist than many people realise.

    With this distinction in mind, I’d suggest that Badiou’s weakness lie not so much in his philosophy but in his politics. His peculiar brand of left Maoism had pretty much run out of steam by the mid-1970s and left him thoroughly ill-equipped to understand, say, the uprisings in Eastern Europe in the 1980s (uprisings he pretty much ignores in his woeful “obscure disaster” take on the collapse of the USSR). So in that sense it’s not surprising that the last political Event that Badiou recognises was 1968 – no reason why we should be limited in such a manner tho.

    One small point: I don’t think it’s right to speak of philosophy being “subordinate” to its conditions. In fact Badiou argues that one of the ways philosophy goes wrong is to subordinate itself to one of its conditions, a phenomenon he calls “suture”. Rather he talks of philosophy as a “procuress of truths”. There’s a lot that can one read into this rather racy metaphor, but it doesn’t smack of subordination.

  2. Michael, 3:53 pm, June 28, 2009

    Isn’t a philosophy conditioned by love precisely those that take the truth of the event of psychoanalysis as their starting point, as Badiou seemingly does with Lacan (Zizek would then fall into this category as well, as would many of the Freudo-Marxists, etc)?

  3. voyou, 11:33 pm, June 29, 2009

    Thanks, Michael, that makes a lot of sense.

    Bat, I basically agree that Badiou’s problem is political rather than philosophical; except that it seems to me that that might itself be, or lead to, a philosophical problem. And thanks for the point about conditioning not being subordination.

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