Alain Badiou: Philosophy For Militants
Philosophy for Militants
Alain Badiou (trans. Bruno Bosteels)
The title of this little book is a little sad. The stench of cheap marketing settles around it. The title may also seem, on hasty first reading, a bit ambiguous. After all, it’s pegged to a book that wasn’t written to teach militants anything. “Philosophy for militants,” in this case, speaks to philosophy’s location in relation to militancy. How should philosophy be understood by militants?––could be the clunkier alternative title, the click of “add to cart” buttons not echoing automatically behind it of course. But it would rhyme more easily with the book’s lesson, which is one that Alain Badiou repeats often: It’s not militancy than needs philosophy, but philosophical thinking that needs militants. Four fields or practices––politics, science, art, and love––are essential for philosophical production. They set the conditions for its possibility. It is only the ruptures that these practices are capable of generating (and have generated in the past), the new truths that they give birth to and their demands for new architectures of subjectivity, that feed thinking rich raw material to turn over.
The book collects three lectures. It’s rounded off by a throw-away interview––sad filler to get close to the 100 page mark?––that pivots on the current situation in Quebec and a “Translator’s Foreword” by Bruno Bosteels, who’s become a significant voice in Left discourse himself and instrumental in introducing Badiou to Anglo audiences.
“The Enigmatic Relationship between Philosophy and Politics” is the heftiest of the lectures. Taking up half the book and covering a lot of ground, it begins where philosophers like to begin: explaining the death of philosophy, and the more rigorous program that they each, freeing themselves of the shackles of tradition and faulty thinking, are ushering in. For Badiou, ambiguously poised between repeating this gesture and side-stepping it, the problem with this sort of discourse is that it isn’t ultimately up to philosophical thinkers to determine if there is a future in their line of work. Since philosophy finds the conditions of its possibility, the fuel for its production, in other fields, it’s the fate of those fields that determines the fate of philosophy. Philosophy is only a rigorous conceptual sifting through and meshing of the “non-philosophical innovations” of politics, science, art, and love. Its renewal is bound to what is new in those fields.
This conceptual sifting and meshing matters if it can affect life in turn. For Badiou, there are two ways in which philosophy functions. The first is philosophy as a professional practice, housed in university departments and beholden to established pedagogical protocols. The second is philosophy as rogue street discourse. “The second possibility holds that philosophy is not really a form of knowledge, whether theoretical or practical. Rather, it consists in the direct transformation of a subject, being a radical conversion of sorts––a complete upheaval of existence… It is a free address from someone to someone else. Like Socrates addressing the youth in the streets of Athens…” Socrates stands here as paradigmatic representative of philosophy as “not the rules of a discourse but the singularity of an act.” The act, in his case, is the famous “corrupting of the youth,” which is infused with a positive charge: “To corrupt here means to teach the possibility of refusing all blind submission to established opinions. To corrupt means to give the youth certain means to change their opinion with regards to social norms, to substitute debate and rational critique for imitation and approval, and even, if the question is a matter of principle, to substitute revolt for obedience.”
If (or when) philosophy is an act, it is also always a distancing from a rotten status quo. As such, this act is the production of a hierarchy, of a normative division: something is revealed as more desirable and necessary than what already exists. And it is here where the two strands that Badiou works––philosophy as conditioned by other fields, and philosophy as act––braid. The act generates a normative division by working through and relating the innovations that come to it from non-philosophical fields. And this normative division “inverts an established intellectual order and promotes new values beyond the commonly accepted ones.”
All this merely sets the stage for the lecture’s main point: philosophy is a democratic activity, but it doesn’t hold to the tenets we usually associate with democracy––freedom of opinion, individuality, etc. It can organize itself, when necessary, around “authoritarian frameworks.” Like mathematics, philosophy may be practiced by anyone, but its truths are not open to debate. There is no negotiating with an Idea; one adheres to it, without exception, or one simply lives in falsehood and corruption. This conception of philosophy replaces freedom as a cardinal virtue with justice and equality. “Justice means examining any situation from the point of view of an egalitarian norm validated as universal.” And: “if justice is the philosophical name of politics as truth of the collective, then justice is more important than freedom.”
From the second half of the lecture we may glean not a philosophy for militants but a justification of the discipline expected of them. The militant is impelled to act––and the nature of her actions are determined––by an understanding of justice as universal equality. This conception of justice allows for the world to exist as either virtuous or corrupt. Our contemporary world with its “monstrous inequality” is absolutely corrupt in Badiou’s estimation. The militant’s task is to turn this corrupt world into a virtuous one, and the metamorphosis often, maybe always, passes through a state of terror. Shades of a scary fundamentalism may be curling at the edges of the discourse here, sharpening its teeth. Having decided to adhere to the truth of justice, the militant must “accept all the consequences of [this] first choice. And this acceptance does not amount to a form of liberty; it is a constraint, a necessity… [T]he organization, the harsh struggles, the sacrifices: this is no freedom of opinion and lifestyles, but discipline and prolonged work to find the strategic means of victory.”
There is, then, an “obscure knot” between philosophy and democracy, and it is untied by understanding democracy in two different ways––as a formal condition of philosophy (it is open to anyone) and as the name of popular action to bring about egalitarian justice––something that may demand undemocratic frameworks happen. Communism is the name that Badiou gives to the “subjective state in which the liberatory projection of collective action would be somehow indiscernible from the protocols of thinking that philosophy requires in order to exist.” Or, in a clever turn, which is also a kind of curling in of Badiou’s thought on itself: “wherever a human collective is working in the direction of equality, the conditions are met for everyone to be a philosopher.”
The second lecture, “The Figure of the Soldier,” pivots on the potential to produce symbolic representations for our creative capacity to bind what is inhuman, what is not us yet, “what exceeds our possibilities,” like full equality, into our pictures of the world. Badiou calls these symbolic representations heroic figures. And if they are a site of concern, it’s because we’ve nothing but negative ones around these days, engendering a general disorientation which ensnares and squanders young bodies in sectarian wars, fanatical thought, ethnic feuds, and other non-emancipatory tragedies. The pressing task of the lecture is to point us to a positive heroic figure––and, more obliquely, to set the stage for the introduction of a new one, fit for our times.
Badiou appeals to the soldier as a positive figure. It’s a special kind of soldier: not the hero of action movies, but the anonymous and obedient marcher in the people’s armies and the motivated barricade-maker in the commune, perennially exposed to death without any guarantee of personal glory. Having transcended the individual warrior of feudal times, the protagonist of epics, El Cid and Roland, the soldier, as someone who has formalized “a disciplined relationship to an idea,” i.e., who has pledged himself to bring equality and suffer all the consequences and sacrifices that this entails, emerges as heroic figure. Where the warrior assumes his destiny and basks in personal glory, the soldier is the anonymous creative machine, “the democratic and collective figure,” that incorporates the inhuman. He is a mobilized revolutionary front. The spirit of war embodied. A paradigm that speaks to the human capacity to travel beyond its limitations; an affirmation of the impossible. Lyrical poetry names him. The problem is that the time of the soldier has passed; it came to an end with Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A new positive figure must replace him. One imagines, although it isn’t explicitly expressed, that the candidate for this is the Militant, the anonymous figure, steeled to look past the disasters of the last century committed in the name of emancipation, who can commit herself to the still-inhuman Idea of egalitarian justice.
At the end of all this, Badiou leaves a question dangling that is rather intriguing: If the epic was the form of the warrior and lyric poetry that of the soldier, what is the form of the militant? Here, Badiou’s beloved Beckett and Stevens and Pessoa and other modernist heroes may have to yield to writers (and non-writers––maybe the militant needs a soundtrack and not a poem) whose names and forms are foreign to the old Mandarin Maoist.
The final lecture turns to mathematics. After sketching a concise overview of set theory, Badiou proposes that current struggle articulates itself between “normal desires” and “generic will.” Normal desires are what everyone seems to want: representative democracy, for instance. And being so seemingly good in a common-sense kind of way, these desires edge out other political possibilities. And, by the same token, we justify spreading them, their “goodness,” by any means. We take democracy to Iraq in a deluge of missiles and fly drones into Pakistan. Desire, then, cannot provide the gravitational pull that guides liberatory efforts. In its place, we need the generic will. The idea of the generic has a long history in Badiou’s work. It is something like the becoming universal, “the common part of our historical existence,” of the human being in her struggle for equality, in her recomposing of the social field in a way that ushers in an egalitarian world. This other world solicited by the generic will, this still-inexistent condition, reopens the need for new narratives to capture popular imagination. We need ”a great fiction for a great belief”––the belief in truths, like universal equality, that the generic will drags from the Outside into the space of possibility. The challenge for these new narratives is that they can no longer be bound to proper names (Lenin, Mao, etc.), like those of earlier emancipatory efforts, because this mode of expression is bankrupt. A new way of activating fictions needs to be worked out, and perhaps the militant, as a courageous Subject in the trenches, is laying down the road for this.
Although impressively cohesive, a massive and fissure-less ship, Badiou’s conceptual edifice also feels vacuum-sealed. It is at once open to taking its cues from actual political action, but it also determines the legitimate conditions for this action. A closed circle of mutual constitution is produced. This barricades external input from gaining any purchase on it. It’s not very audacious to say that the question of how Badiou meshes with the decentralized organization of many activist and militant groups is far from settled. This, however, if it’s a criticism at all, is an ambiguous one, for as much as we claim to want a certain flexibility in theory so that it finds multiple applications in practice, we also expect the unbendable bones of coherence to scaffold deep thinking.
A different kind of criticism may be that something missing in these lectures is a hint of an empirical picture of the world. Militancy, like science and art, needs cognitive and concrete maps from which to work. There is empirical work to be done and imaginative reconstitutions of resistance to a new global totality to piece together. The very nature of the activity of the militant may need a status update at our historical juncture. And this update may itself need a new horizon that incorporates the massive changes that have occurred in the last few decades, as well as new version of the future, in order to unfold in the most useful direction.
Badiou yields little space here to working out how political will and power are institutionalized and atrophied. He alludes in passing to changing educational policy in France and the police harassment of poor, colored kids, but that’s about it. He sidesteps addressing institutional and technological embodiments of corruption. This is unfortunate, because we know that free-trade zones, integrated communication systems, transnational economic entities, police and private security meshing, and other unprecedented formations have generated a new planetary condition that we don’t yet grasp completely. Nor have we produced an inventory of the potentials for liberation it may render available. Badiou, of course, at no point denies the need for such maps. He just doesn’t produce any. The Idea of communism, the invariable horizon of full human equality, is the North Star that guides all action for him. To which all one can say is that odes to the militant and analytical probing of truth-procedures have their use, and some of the concepts that Badiou trades in are invaluable, but there is also use for an intimate understanding of how transcontinental fiber optic cables distribute power and how Singapore’s ecophagic assaults in the form of sand harvesting on Cambodia are inseparable from swelling transmodular shipping networks and the inequality they sustain. It is a question in the end of the place from where one thinks one should begin: from a normative division underwritten by an Idea or from empirical understanding of concrete, historical formations and the openings that these may offer disciplined scrutiny. Though perhaps not incompatible, these two stances mark different places in which to invest energy and from where to aid in shaping programs of resistance and rebuilding.
Philosophy for Militants is available from Verso Books.