Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, April 15, 2013

Alain Badiou, _Metapolitics_, concluded

I AM GLAD I read this, despite its taking me a while, and despite having some reservations about his conclusions.

And despite my simply being unable to follow the last chapter, which Badiou signals in his preface is "the most important essay in the book." The mathematical terminology simply defeated me. Here is an example: "If we call [sigma] the fixed infinite cardinality of the situation, and [epsilon] the cardinality that measures the power of the State, then apart from politics, we have no means of knowing anything other than; [epsilon] is superior to [sigma]." (Sorry about the brackets--I don't know how to make my computer type Greek characters.) Not knowing what fixed infinite cardinality is, nor how a situation could be said to have it, I got badly lost here.

Even so, I felt Badiou was addressing the most urgent of political questions, to wit, where does the revolution live if we are now post-Marxist, or at least post-Communist? I was struck by Badiou's statement of the problem in the essay "Politics Unbound":

Why do the most heroic popular uprisings, the most persistent wars of liberation, the most indisputable mobilisations in the name of justice and liberty end--even if this is something beyond the confines of their own internalised sequence--in opaque statist constructions wherein none of the factors that gave meaning and possibility to their historical genesis is decipherable?

The quick answer that this question typically gets--that capitalism with democratic elections and  the classic set of civil liberties must be the best of all possible societies--Badiou refuses to settle for:

Those who imagine themselves being able to settle these questions with a few evasive replies on totalitarian ideology would be more convincing if only it were not so apparent that they had simply abandoned the idea of justice and the emancipation of humanity and had joined the eternal cohort of conservatives bent on preserving the "lesser evil."

These are the good folks he later calls "Thermidoreans." The Thermidoreans, in the account we usually get of the French Revolution, get credit for ending the "Reign of Terror," but Badiou reminds us the Thermidoreans were no slouches at terror themselves, perfectly willing to break heads and kill to preserve property, law, and order. There were post-1989 Thermidoreans, he suggests, as willing as their 1794 predecessors to declare the search for justice and emancipation over. But, he insists, we have to keep looking.

These questions can only be clarified by affirming the hypothesis according to which emancipatory politics, however rare and sequential it may be, does indeed exist, lest we start to resemble a doctor who, unable to comprehend the workings of cancer, ultimately declares it better to stick to herbal teas, crystal therapy or prayers to the Virgin Mary.

As we keep looking, where do we look? We ought not to identify this emancipatory politics with the state: "Contrary to what was previously maintained, politics conceived in this way would, in a certain manner, be the movement of thought and action that frees itself from dominant statist subjectivity and that proposes, summons and organises projects that cannot be reflected or represented by those norms under which the State operates " ("A Speculative Disquisition").

Nor with a party: "As we have been repeating for years, the question worth highlighting is one of a politics without party, which in no sense means unorganised, but rather one organised through the intellectual discipline of political processes, and not according to a form correlated with that of the State" ("Rancière and Politics").

So much for what it is not, but what about what it is?  Here is where I wish I had gotten a bit further beyond trigonometry than I did and could grasp that last chapter.

Some of the examples Badiou cites give one pause--Saint-Just, okay, but the Cultural Revolution (98)?  Really? Then again, I live in the United States, that paragon of democracy and human rights, and haven't we done as bad or worse to other peoples and our own as was done during the Cultural Revolution? And quite recently, too?

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