Thursday, February 5, 2009
Oliver Feltham: Alain Badiou, Live Theory (2008)
Badiou, from the brief interview that concludes the book: "Junior high school should be abolished: between eleven and fifteen years old all young people without exception should be integrated into productive work, with perhaps half the time spent studying, or a quarter. They will come back to full-time study once they are sixteen years old, having all acquired a tenacious 'worker' configuration. These later studies will not decide their future but provide an initiation to truth procedures. After which, work should be organized in such a manner that is be multi-form, that each and everyone be a 'polyvalent' worker. In actual fact, this is the communist programme." Feltham's short book, while nominally an introduction to Badiou, is a dense periodizing of Badiou's ideas. It can't really compete with Peter Hallward's stellar Subject to Truth, but it succeeds in producing bold comparisons between terms and mathematical arguments from quite different parts of Badiou’s oeuvre (though this necessarily results in a certain amount of conceptual fuzziness/imprecision, evident in Badiou’s resistance in the four page interview at the book’s end to some of Feltham’s proposals). Feltham divides Badiou’s work into three periods: "the early period of materialist epistemology, the Maoist period of the historical dialectic, the current period of philosophy and its conditions." The first chapter discusses "the Althusserian years" and proves that a close reading of Althusser's For Marx and Reading Capital is essential for understanding the problematic and concepts Badiou grapples with at the beginning of his career, what Feltham terms Badiou's "reconstruction of Althusser." The starting point is Althusser’s replacement of a Hegelian general dialectic (such as the teleology of economism) with an account of society as a complex structured totality with multiple overdetermined contradictions (see my blog on For Marx below). Feltham argues that, for Badiou, Althusser fails to develop a “concept of the totality of social practices”: he fails to think the space in which the multiplicity of social contradictions are placed. It is here that Badiou makes his first use of mathematics in order to think the consistency and hierarchy of Althusser’s complex structure. “Badiou uses the mathematical concept of function to order a set of ‘instances’ where each is an articulation of two practices: a practice placing another practice.” This “relational” construction allows change while reducing change to being merely “the reshuffling of the same practices into a different order” (as opposed to the evental emergence of novelty in his later work). At this point, Badiou hasn’t yet entered into a critique of totality that would allow him to think a “full-scale transformation” of the situation. But by the 1968 essay, “Subversion Infinitesimale,” Badiou, drawing from Lacan on the real, has clearly developed “a concept of a transformative naming of the impossible” reliant on the belief that “the initial point of change has to be in a position of internal exclusion, a practice present in the structure but not represented.” Feltham concludes that this notion of “internal exclusion” becomes a tendency that runs through all of Badiou’s subsequent work. The second chapter discusses Badiou's Maoist period, noting that the mathematical investigations of the previous period now are rejected as ideological or take the form of analogies (but eventually are "rehabilitated" with Being & Event). In the 1970s, Badiou drops the Althusserian "science of history" in favor of "the systematization of the militant experience of class struggle" (that is, Badiou’s Marxism subjects itself to the Maoist axiom of “the primacy of practice”). But rather than simply promoting the Leninist conception of a central party, Badiou subjects the question of political organization to logic (showing the continued relevance of mathematics to his thought), claiming "the proletariat is a logical force" or "the proletarian organization is the body of a new logic." After briefly summarizing some of Badiou's uncredited Maoist publications, Feltham turns to an extended analysis of Theory of the Subject (whose English translation should arrive in a few months). In that book, the structural dialectic is replaced by a "historical dialectic, capable of thinking qualitative change by means of a concept of the subject as the torsion of structure." In this "materialist theory of the subject," "The subject is conceived as a moment of change that closes one dialectical sequence of political history and opens another. . . . Badiou’s argument promises no less than a theory of history as a discontinuous multiplicity of discrete sequences, linked only by contingent events." Here we can see a resemblance to Ranciere, as the torsion of structure results “in the dissolution of the order of places,” which requires of thought a “topology of destruction” and the recognition (which becomes central to Badiou’s later work) that “all truth is new.” Badiou's book continually develops ideas only to drop them or completely transform them, and Feltham's summary gets lost in the chaos of the original text. Readers wanting a more clear and systematic account of Badiou's argument will be motivated to go to the original (as Feltham himself suggests at points), but Feltham at least isolates the key elements that later become important in Being & Event. Feltham positions Theory of the Subject as a transitional work, or, what Feltham terms using Badiou's own ideas, a work that "periodizes" Badiou's ouevre, finishing one period and opening the next one. Badiou begins to use set theory in Theory of the Subject, but according to Feltham he uses it primarily "for thinking immanent heterogeneity in structure" through the idea of a generic subset of a set. Set theory provides a "topology of incompletion" whose full implications aren’t developed. Feltham concludes, Theory of the Subject “contains almost all of Being and Event in germ form: set-theory ontology, the event and the intervention, the generic set, forcing, and Badiou’s favorite instances of the four conditions: poetry, psychoanalysis, mathematics and revolutions.” The final chapter on Being & Event is the least revelatory, at least because that period is best known to Anglophone readers. Badiou's essays in Infinite Thought still provide the most accessible condensation of the ideas of Being & Event. Feltham claims that between Theory of the Subject and Being & Event, Badiou "subtracts" from his work the Marxist framework and terminology while "multiplying" Maoism (which is never publicly denounced or rejected by Badiou) by extending the "primacy of change and division" into non-political realms, such as art, science and love. Feltham argues that Badiou performs his claim that philosophy is now conditioned by set theory when Badiou has to give up the radical hope for the end of the state, since the state in set theory is a ubiquitous representation of the multiples presented in the situation. Badiou therefore develops the idea of a "counter-state," though he risks what Feltham terms "Right-Badiousianism," in which the necessity of a counter-state replacing another state might allow current political institutions (such as parliamentary democracy) to be justified as the consequence of an event.