Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change

Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change

by Adrian Johnston

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Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek together have emerged as two of Europe’s most significant living philosophers. In a shared spirit of resistance to global capitalism, both are committed to bringing philosophical reflection to bear upon present-day political circumstances. These thinkers are especially interested in asking what consequences the supposed


Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek together have emerged as two of Europe’s most significant living philosophers. In a shared spirit of resistance to global capitalism, both are committed to bringing philosophical reflection to bear upon present-day political circumstances. These thinkers are especially interested in asking what consequences the supposed twentieth-century demise of communism entails for leftist political theory in the early twenty-first century.

Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations examines Badiouian and Žižekian depictions of change, particularly as deployed at the intersection of philosophy and politics. The book details the origins of Badiou’s concept of the event and Žižek’s concept of the act as related theoretical visions of revolutionary happenings, delineating a number of difficulties arising from these similar concepts. Johnston finds that Badiou and Žižek tend to favor models of transformation that risk discouraging in advance precisely the efforts at changing the world of today that these uncompromising leftists so ardently desire. Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations will surely join Johnston’s Žižek’s Ontology as an instant classic in its field.

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"Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations examines a topic mostly ignored by philosophers, left to pre-theoretical pragmatic considerations: how does a political transformation occur, what is its inherent logic? Johnston mobilizes his vast knowledge of German Idealism and of psychoanalysis and provides a detailed account of how changes are prepared, explode, are repeated, delayed or missed. There simply is no other way to put it: with his last book, Johnston confirmed himself as the leading political philosopher—not only of the younger generation, but of them all.”—Slavoj Žižek

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Northwestern University Press
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Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy Series
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The Cadence of Change
By Adrian Johnston

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2009 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2570-4

Chapter One

The Quick and the Dead: Badiou and the Split Speeds of Transformation

§1 The Challenge of Change: Alterations from Within

Two particular lowest common denominators, among many, of Badiou and Zizek's ways of thinking politics are of interest here: one, their shared conviction that any genuine reworking of a system, in terms of real and true political transformations, can issue only from the unprecedented occurrence of a gesture separate or subtracted from the ordinary, quotidian run of things in the status quo of a given situated socio-symbolic reality; and two, their penchant, especially at the level of their choices of adjectives and metaphors helping to structure the articulation of their political discourses, for sharply splitting the speeds of collective transformation between the stagnant stasis of system-complicit behaviors and the kinetic lightning flash of system-shattering interventions. This study begins, in part 1, with a focus on Badiou, after which, in part 2, attention will be turned to Zizek—not for the reasonless reason that B alphabetically comes before Z, but rather because Zizek's politics draws much inspiration, both implicitly as well as explicitly, from Badiou's philosophy. For instance, apart from enthusiastically appropriating the Badiouian concept of event, Zizek borrows his denunciations of the liberal democratic use of the word totalitarianism as a form of ideological blackmail, a "prohibition against thinking" ultimately aimed at preventing the contemplation of alternatives to present-day late-capitalism, from Badiou's 1985 book Peut-on penser la politique? (Moreover, this particular borrowing from Badiou involves Zizek being implicitly self-critical of his initial radical democratic sympathies, a symptom of which is the fact that Ernesto Laclau wrote a preface to Zizek's 1989 debut book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology.) Given the complications arising from the fact that Badiou has changed his mind several times as regards various ideas and topics linked to the terrain of politics (and given that this analysis isn't meant to be primarily an exhaustive summary of Badiouian politics as an isolated whole), the interpretation proffered here will strategically limit itself to basing its assertions mainly on Badiou's writings from 1985 up through the present (thereby largely neglecting such early Maoist texts as Théorie de la contradiction [1975] and De l'idéologie [1976]). Remarks found in the 1996 book Anthropologie du nom, written by Badiou's ally and fellow activist Sylvain Lazarus, will also be taken into consideration here, given the extent to which Badiou acknowledges relying on the ideas of Lazarus apropos several key matters in political thought.

In Being and Event, Badiou links his theory of the event to the thesis that "there is some newness in being." And, in a recently published interview entitled "Can Change Be Thought?" he declares that all of his philosophical endeavors ultimately are animated by a desire to theorize how it's possible for novelty to surface within situations. (At least as early as his youthful Maoist texts Théorie de la contradiction and Le noyau rationnel de la dialectique hégélienne from the 1970s, a concern with the New is quite evident.) He explains himself thus:

Really, in the end, I have only one question: what is the new in a situation? My unique philosophical question, I would say, is the following: can we think that there is something new in the situation, not outside the situation nor the new somewhere else, but can we really think through novelty and treat it in the situation? The system of philosophical answers that I elaborate, whatever its complexity may be, is subordinated to that question and to no other. Even when there is event, structure, formalism, mathematics, multiplicity, and so on, this is exclusively destined, in my eyes, to think through the new in terms of the situation.

The most important feature to note in this statement is the constraint Badiou places upon himself in relation to this task of philosophically grasping newness in its strongest sense: the new must be conceived as immanently arising out of specific "situations," rather than as swooping in from some unspecified transcendent other place in order to modify externally the coordinates of a particular status quo reality as an agent of alteration essentially foreign to the given site of change. However, certain of what might be described as Badiou's "aesthetic" preferences in his political vocabulary—both he and Zizek have a shared taste for a circumscribed constellation of discursive motifs bound together by a set of cross-resonating family resemblances—are in danger of preventing him from taking into consideration possible types of transformation that exemplify precisely the sort of change he claims to be most interested in thinking through, namely, transformations immanently generated from within the internal parameters of a specific situation and/or a given world.

One striking feature of both the aesthetics of Badiou's political discourse as well as this discourse's conceptual-argumentative content is the recurrent emphasis on figures of abrupt discontinuity. Here are just a few examples: an authentic intervention in politics involves a "cut" establishing a separation from communitarian links and relationships; any genuine event establishing a political sequence marks a moment of "rupture" in relation to the sociohistorical contextual terrain within which this evental detonation occurs; political pronouncements "spring up" in spaces left uncounted and uncovered by existing configurations of society or state; singular events of declaration creating the stratified histories of politics each amount to an "eruption" exploding (out of) the continuum of the status quo; politics as such entails a decisive "break" with that which is in the current state of affairs; ... and so on. In his 1998 text on metapolitics, Badiou speaks of "the suddenly emergent materiality of a universalisable collective." He repeatedly invokes the evocative figures of "rupture" and "sudden emergence." In so doing, Badiou endorses a sharp contrast between "repetition" (i.e., the static inertia of what is) and "interruption" (i.e., the kinetic gesture of separating from what is). Various thinkers engaged with Badiou, including both sympathetic commentators and skeptical critics, have picked up on this thematic thread appearing to entail that the initiation of real political trajectories is to be pinpointed in an irruptive happening that emerges with a surprising, shocking, and stunning degree of rapidity. Similarly, the same set of motifs operates throughout Lazarus's Anthropologie du nom, in which Lazarus describes the event of politics as a "caesura" and "irruption"; he maintains that, politically speaking, "the subjective is not continuous. It arises suddenly, then ceases to be."

Despite the general thrust of these images and metaphors portraying true change as shining new light on the world through brief, intermittent flashes blinking on and off in an unconditioned, unpredictable fashion, Badiou, in the 1998 essay "Of an Obscure Disaster," articulates a crucial qualification to be kept in mind as regards the issues at stake in this discussion. He clarifies that

an abrupt and complete change in a situation does not at all mean that the grace of an event has happened to it ... In the serenity of the concept, let's say that everything that changes is not an event, and that surprise, velocity, disorder, may only be simulacra of the event, not its promise of truth.

Or, as he succinctly puts it in his Ethics, "not every 'novelty' is an event." So it would seem to be safe simply to say that although every event has the power to lead to changes exhibiting "surprise, velocity, disorder," not everything that exhibits these features qualifies as an event. Furthermore, Badiou's above caveat indicates that both events and their simulacra can and do involve change. Hence, the question to pose now is: what general account of change is to be found in Badiouian philosophy?

Such an account sits at the center of some of Badiou's most recent work. In the interview "Beyond Formalisation," conducted in 2002, Badiou delineates four distinct categories of change:

I distinguish between four types of change: modifications (which are consistent with the existing transcendental regime), weak singularities (or novelties with no strong existential consequences), strong singularities (which imply an important existential change but whose consequences remain measurable), and, finally, events (strong singularities whose consequences are virtually infinite).

This fourfold typology of transformation, succinctly sketched in the course of a rapidly moving conversation, clearly foreshadows the much more detailed and sustained treatment of this topic four years later in "Book V" (entitled "The Four Forms of Change") of Logiques des mondes. Therein, as visually encapsulated and summarized by a helpful graph, Badiou begins with the general category of "becoming" (devenir), which initially is subdivided into "modification," qua becoming without real change, and "site," qua a locus/ place with the potential to give rise to real change. Incidentally, unlike in Being and Event, the concept-term "site" in Logiques des mondes doesn't invariably designate the locus of an event; in Being and Event, a site is always an evental site, whereas in Logiques des mondes a site can be, but isn't necessarily, the site of an event (and yet, in an interview dealing with, among other things, the renovated philosophical architecture of Logiques des mondes, Badiou voices his intention "to retain the theory of the event-site [site événementiel]," rather than simply jettison it in an abrupt turn away from certain key aspects of Being and Event). The category of site, as distinguished from that of modification, is then further subdivided into "deed/ occurrence" (noting that the term "fait" can be translated either way—it could even be rendered in English as "act"), qua site lacking a maximal degree of existential intensity in a given situation/ world; and "singularity," qua site endowed with a maximal degree of existential intensity in a given situation/ world. Finally, the category of singularity is itself subdivided into "weak singularity," qua maximally existent singularity whose ensuing situational/ worldly consequences aren't maximal (although such a singularity, while not [yet] an effective change in the authentic sense of evental transformation, retains the possibility of eventually becoming stronger); and "event," qua maximally existent singularity (i.e., "strong singularity") whose ensuing situational/ worldly consequences are indeed maximal. Simply put, an event doesn't just happen within a world as one occurrence among others in this world's history. Rather, an event changes a world so radically that, at one and the same time, an old world is destroyed and a new one is assembled in the clearing opened up by the demolition of what was. Weak singularities, occurrences, and modifications all fall short, in their own ways, of attaining a properly evental status.

Obviously, the greatest contrast exists between, on the one hand, modification (as simple becoming comfortably and compatibly going with the normal flow of stable reality as regulated by an already existent "state of the situation" or "transcendental regime" ordering a particular "world"), and, on the other hand, event (as a genuine transformation of what exists dictated by the unforeseen and unanticipated upsurge of an X that, before the event, didn't exist for the situation's state or the world's transcendental regime, while, after the event, the implications of this upsurge are so potent and powerful as to force the situation or world to be razed and rebuilt as a place wherein the previously inexistent is accorded the most intense degree of existence—with Badiou claiming that the strongest existential-transcendental consequence is to make what was before an invisible inexistent be the most visible of existents). Highlighting this stark contrast between modification and event, the title of the first section of "Book V" of Logiques des mondes is "Simple Becoming and True Change." This axis of tension between "simple becoming" (i.e., modification) and "true change" (i.e., event) is an enduring theoretical motif throughout Badiou's writings over the years. As regards the problem of philosophically grasping change, the novel, innovative contribution of Logiques des mondes consists primarily in the nuance added to the Badiouian account of processes of transformation by his admission that there are intermediary forms of change between modifications and events. It's worth asking whether this added nuance makes a significant difference specifically to Badiou's (meta)politics. As will be seen, Badiou continues persistently to invoke sharp black-and-white distinctions apropos shifts in political domains despite, in Logiques des mondes, the insertions of shades of grey between non-evental inertia and evental momentum.

In an interview broadcast on French radio in April 2006 to mark the publication of Logiques des mondes, Badiou, when asked about his relationship to Deleuze—the latter allegedly is enthralled by a Bergsonian variety of vitalist becoming which amounts to, in Badiou's language, nothing more than mere modification—maintains that the question of continuity versus discontinuity, of a philosophical choice between models favoring images of transformation as fluid dynamics of uninterrupted movement (i.e., gradual becoming) or as staccato rhythms of abrupt shifts (i.e., punctuated change), is an absolutely central thematic in contemporary philosophy. (Perhaps this choice could be said to be "axiomatic" in Badiou's sense—namely, the decision to bet on one or the other model is an underivable, undeducible ground for any and every philosophical system today.) In this radio interview he again confirms, during a discussion of the various categories of change outlined in Logiques des mondes, that his focus is on figures of rupture, going so far as to affirm the occurrence of instances of "radical discontinuity" (i.e., events). Indeed, "Book V" of Logiques des mondes departs from the assertion that "real change," as a happening that isn't authorized either by the mathematical-ontological order of "being qua being" (l'être en tant qu'être) or by the logical system of transcendental structures regulating the play of appearances within circumstances in a given world, necessarily includes the imposition of discontinuity upon a world. For Badiou, faced with the challenge of conceptualizing change, "it is necessary to think discontinuity as such, as that which nothing reabsorbs into any creative univocity, however indistinct, or chaotic, the concept of it would be." But what would be involved in this thinking of "discontinuity as such" (especially considering that, relatively early in Logiques des mondes, Badiou describes post-evental subjects-of-events as embodying a mixture of "continuities and discontinuities")? And what are its implications specifically for thinking through politics, especially in terms of questions concerning the conditions and consequences of processes of political transformation? Answering these important queries requires outlining Badiou's interlinked philosophical constructions of history and temporality.

§2 "History Does Not Exist": Evental Times

In the 1982 volume Théorie du sujet, Badiou issues a declaration whose foundational status and various ramifications he has adhered to ever since: "History does not exist" (the history in question here being that of simplistic, teleological Hegelian Marxism). Broadly speaking, this means (invoking Badiou's later identification of the four "generic procedures" producing the truths handled by philosophy) that the sequences of humanity's amorous, artistic, political, and scientific activities do not unfold in the all-encompassing medium of a neutral, homogeneous, and single historical time, the chronological continuum of a unified temporal One-All. What alternative vision of historical temporality does Badiou propose? By tying his account of real change to events, Badiou is prompted to argue that, as he nicely summarizes this particular point from Being and Event during an interview, "every event constitutes its own time. Consequently, every truth also involves the constitution of a time. So there are times, not one time." As he puts it more recently, "An event establishes a singular time ... the event outlines in the situation—in the 'there is'—both a before and an after. A time starts to exist." Hallward christens this "the beginning of a new time." Similarly, "history" is nonexistent precisely because what exists instead are histories in the plural (there is evidence Badiou draws inspiration here from Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason), namely, multiple strata of temporalized truth-trajectories (in the realms of love, art, politics, and science) that cannot be compared and integrated with each other on the basis of reference to an overarching historical totality as a standard yardstick of mutual measurement. Badiou fragments both history and time into a heterogeneous jumble of incomparable, autonomous sequences. For him, truths that have appeared form a nontemporal ("temporal" being understood here as an enveloping, homogeneous, linear chronology) meta-history (as the succession of singular flashes in which eternal truths burst forth into the temporal defiles of banal, humdrum historical becoming); Badiou speaks of an "intemporal meta-history."


Excerpted from BADIOU, ZIZEK, AND POLITICAL TRANSFORMATIONS by Adrian Johnston Copyright © 2009 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Adrian Johnston is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque and an assistant teaching analyst at the Emory Psychoanalytic Institute in Atlanta. He is author, most recently, of Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (2008), also from Northwestern University Press.

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