Sunday, May 14, 2006

Badiou's Anti-Dialectics

Must an emancipatory politics of antagonism steal its tools from the laboratories of its nemeses (Hobbes, De Maistre, Heidegger, Schmitt, Junger...)?

Though persuaded that there is often more to be gained from an (abstract) acquaintance with revolutionary conservatives than with reformists liberals, I think it also remains imperative to, as it were, draw the line between "our" way of drawing the line and theirs.

Badiou puts the point persuasively, if somewhat elliptically, in this excerpt from The Century:

I have insisted on the singularity of the theory of the Two, which drives the intellectual life of the century in all its domains. This is an anti-dialectical Two, a Two without synthesis. Now, in every demonstration of fraternity there is an essential Two: That of the ‘we’ and of the ‘not-we’. The century arranges the confrontation between two manners of conceiving the not-we. Either one sees it as a polymorphous formlessness – a disordered reality – or else one sees it as an other we, an external and consequently antagonistic subject. The conflict between these two conceptions is fundamental, setting out the dialectics of the anti-dialectical. If in effect the ‘we’ relates externally to the formless, its task is that of formalising it. Fraternity becomes the subjective moment of the in-formation of its formless exterior. According to this model of antagonism, one will declare things like: The apathetic must be rallied to the Party; the left must unite with the centre to isolate the right; the artistic avant-garde must find forms of address perceivable by everyone. But then the century sees itself as a formalist century, in the sense that any we-subject is a production of forms. In the end this means that access to the real is secured through form, as was argued by the Lenin of What is to be Done? (the party is the form of the political real), by the Russian ‘formalists’ after the Revolution, by the mathematicians of the Bourbaki school, or, as we’ve already demonstrated, by Brecht and Pirandello. If, on the contrary, the ‘not-we’ is necessarily always already formalised as antagonistic subjectivity, the first task of any fraternity is combat, the object of which is the destruction of the other. One will then announce that whoever is not with the Party is against it, that the left must terrorise the centre to defeat the right, or that an artistic avant-garde must seek out dissidence and isolation so as not to be ‘alienated’ within the society of the spectacle.

At the heart of the century, and for reasons pertaining to the anti-dialectics of any primordial duality, the properly dialectical contradiction between formalisation and destruction plays itself out. It is this contradiction that Mao gave shape to, in an altogether innovative text, by distinguishing the antagonistic contradictions – which are in fact anti-dialectical or without synthesis – from the contradictions within the people, which bear on how the antagonistic contradictions themselves are to be dealt with, and in the end concern the choice between formalisation and destruction. Mao’s essential directive is never to treat the ‘contradictions at the heart of the people’ in an antagonistic manner, to resolve the conflict between formalisation and destruction by means of formalisation.

This is perhaps one of the most profound lessons, but also one of the most difficult, that the century has bequeathed to us.


Blogger bat020 said...

in every demonstration of fraternity there is an essential Two: That of the ‘we’ and of the ‘not-we’

Worth underlining the contrast here with Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction - he starts from enemy (which is basically someone who can be killed, or "existentially negated" as Schmitt puts it) - "friend" simply means "not-enemy" ie enemy's enemy. The leftist Two starts from solidarity, the rightist Two starts from death.

1:41 AM  
Blogger Savonarola said...

It might be more precise to say that he starts from (the possibility of) conflict, i.e. he cannot simply start from the enemy because, in order for that enemy not to be primarily defined by 'extraneous' factors (religious, racial, economic...) it needs to be revealed by an "existential" conflict.

In that sense, when he writes that the enemy is "the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible" (CP, 27). And, with shades of Blair, Schmitt defines the definition of the enemy as "motivated by an existential threat to one's own way of life" (CP, 49).

Now, it is clear that this existential antagonism must rely on a substantial, or indeed essential, definition of the "friend", and that Schmitt's supposed demarcation of the political, lacking any criteria of formalisation (such as those given by Badiou's notion of politics as a truth procedure, for instance) must fall back, as it does in State, Movement, People on an ethnocratic definition.

That being said, I think the point about solidarity is well taken to the extent that it signals the leftist need to formalise an open "we" rather than identified a presupposed "we". Interestingly in his move from destructive-purifying fraternity-terror to a notion of subtractive politics, Badiou does not formulate anything like a concept of solidarity - which might indeed provide a way out of the collapse of antagonism into manicheanism...

7:33 AM  
Blogger Savonarola said...

Looking further at The Century, one of the reasons why Badiou does not produce a thinking of solidarity might have to do with the ontological and subjective discontinuity that, in line with a venerable tradition, from Democritus to Bachelard's anti-Bergsonist The Dialectic of Duration, he espouses. See the following passage, from ch. 9:

"Representation and fictional legitimisation on the basis of inert totalities are employed to fill in the gaps of what is really presented, which is always discontinuous. Philosophically, the root of the problem is that the real is discontinuous. Lacan puts it figuratively: What there is are 'grains of the real'. In my own vocabulary: There are only multiple procedures of truth, multiple creative sequences, and nothing to arrange a continuity between them. Fraternity itself is a discontinuous passion. Only 'moments' of fraternity truly exist. The protocols of representative legitimisation attempt to render continuous what is not, to give disparate sequences a unique name, such as the ‘great proletarian leader’ or the ‘great founder of artistic modernity’, names that are actually borrowed from fictional objectivities."

The question then is what kind of concept of solidarity can cut across and rearticulate such solidarity without falling into the tropes of identity, shared human essence, the people vs the oligarchy, and so on...

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But why does he decide to use the word 'fraternity' rather than 'solidarity'?
Why not say 'solidarity' 'itself is a discontinuous passion. Only 'moments' of solidarity truly exist'?
I say so because to me the idea of ‘fraternity’ (as contract between equals?) is quite problematic. Pateman sees the liberal concept of ‘fraternity’ (as contract between equals) as an attempt to substitute one term (patriarchy) for another (fraternity) leaving women’s constructed subordination intact (Pateman in Arnel, 1999: 54).

10:47 AM  
Blogger Savonarola said...

That question of terminology, and of issues of gender that may underlie it, is certainly significant. The first point, I suppose, is that Badiou is relying on the classic Jacobin triplet and that he wouldn't recognise "fraternity" as a primarily "liberal" concept . In appendix to a crucial text by Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, recently a favourite of Rancière in his arguments against Agamben and Arendt, she interestingly refers, it seems, to an egalitarian marriage as a "fraternal union"... Having said that, I think Pateman's point is worth taking on, and perhaps thinking through in terms of the functions of continuity and discontinuity that Badiou assigns to the sexual positions (rather than to gender differences) in texts like 'What is Love?'
As far as The Century is concerned, I do think it suffers in some respects from treating feminism, and anti-racism to a lesser extent, as an afterthought, rather than, perhaps, as one of the key products of the century. In that line, I hope at some point to write a post on Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette, co-founder of the Communist Workers' International, and anti-colonial activist against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia...

7:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! L.F.T. reading it.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

What is an antagonistic and nonantagonistic contradiction in the heart of the people mean?

I found this blog surfing. I'm impressed with the creativity, and level of discussion.

The Trotsky-Zombie post, is classic.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Savonarola said...

Well, Renegade, the source is Mao Tsetung's 1937 essay 'On Contradiction', fodder for a number of commentaries over the years, including Althusser's 'Contradiction and Overdetermination', in For Marx, Badiou's Theory of Contradiction, Philippe Sollers's On Materialism.

Very pleased you got here by chance, and yes, I was pretty happy with the Trotsky post myself. Unfortunately, such finds are few and far, so I must fill the time and space with long ontological and political disquisitions...

8:21 PM  
Blogger Savonarola said...

I might answer about the meaning of this difference between contradictions a little later, but exhaustion is setting in and my militant intellect is in no fit shape to confront the thoughts of the Chairman...

8:24 PM  
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4:42 PM  
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