Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction

Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction

by Jason Barker
Pub. Date:
Pluto Press


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Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction

A clear and concise introduction to the political philosophy of Alain Badiou, centred in a political context.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745318011
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 12/20/2001
Series: Modern European Thinkers Series
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.49(w) x 8.81(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Jason Barker is a freelance writer. Alain Badiou is Professor of Philosophy at Universite de Paris VIII (Vincennes at Saint-Denis) and is also Conference Director at the College International de Philosophie. He has published many books including novels and political texts. Manifesto for Philosophy, Deleuze and Ethics have already been translated into English.

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Maoist Beginnings

The appearance of Alain Badiou on the intellectual scene does not immediately stand out for us amidst the philosophy of the late 1960s. His profile was first raised in 1967 with his recruitment to Althusser's 'Philosophy Course for Scientists', where he briefly joined the likes of Pierre Macherey, Étienne Balibar, François Regnault and Michel Pêcheux. The next couple of years were to see a temporary meeting of minds, and Badiou's assignment in developing a Marxist theory of mathematics, The Concept of Model, finally appeared in 1969. What was to mark Badiou's most decisive contribution of the period, however, arguably came with his article of 1967, published in the French journal Critique, 'Le (Re)Commencement du Matérialisme Dialectique'. Ostensibly a review of Althusser's founding studies in Marxism (For Marx, Reading Capital volumes I and II, and 'Matérialisme historique et matérialisme dialectique') this article threw down the philosophical gauntlet to Althusser and his most committed followers, and also set the parameters for Badiou's own style of Marxist-Leninist interventions which would soon follow. There is also a strong indication here of the mathematical themes which would eventually crystallise some twenty years later in Badiou's major work, Being and the Event

Hegel or Sartre?

In 1967 Althusser was leading a struggle against 'theoretical sterility' in the French Communist Party. It was a struggle made all the more urgent and yet immensely difficult due to the French Party's inheritance of 'official [Soviet] platitudes' after the Second World War. Then, following the death of Stalin, a challenge beckoned Marxists of a new generation to think through 'the end of philosophy' that Marx had proclaimed famously in the 1844 Manuscripts. For Althusser the task was twofold: to recover Marxist philosophy as an authentic discipline worthy of renewed investigation, while simultaneously combating the theoretical misunderstandings which had grown up around Marx's writings. Thanks to Althusser, Marxism had finally entered its field of struggle and place of recovery.

In his article Badiou agrees that the years of Soviet revisionism had helped bring about three variants of Marxist philosophy. The 'analogical Marxism' that Althusser presides over views 'the relationship between the structures of the base and the "superstructures", not on the model of linear causality (totalitarian Marxism), nor on that of expressive mediation (fundamental Marxism), but as pure isomorphism' ('Le (Re)commencement', 441). The advance of Althusser, in other words, is to conceive the social totality in terms of different structural arrangements, or combinations, of the same complex whole. This, then, is a 'Marxism of identity' (by no means the first in history) and, we might add, a Marxism of identification, which seeks an alternative explanation for causality (what is it?) quite apart from the 'vulgar Marxism' which accepts that the economy is the driving force of every society.

Althusser famously downplays the idea of a linear or teleological causality when it comes to the determination of economic phenomena. According to Althusser, the originality of Marx's scientific revolution lies in the hidden unity which Marx ascribes to such phenomena, a set of hidden relations which are destined to remain unknowable to empirical science. Similarly there is, in the history of Marxist philosophy and particularly in the 'variants of vulgar Marxism', a profound silence on the 'ancient question of the "relations" between Marx and Hegel'. However, to reclaim the proper identity of Marx, the one so often suppressed by Marxist intellectuals (especially the French existentialists led by Sartre after the war), is to recognise first and foremost that 'the problem of the "relations" between the theoretical enterprise of Marx and the Hegelian or post-Hegelian ideology is in all rigour insoluble, that is to say it cannot be formulated' (442). The difference Althusser aims to establish for Marxist science is the pure difference of a 'space', a difference which forms itself, quite paradoxically, from the 'radical lack' of the Hegelian dialectic. This making-of-difference in the history of science is not so paradoxical, however, if one considers that every scientific revolution does indeed evolve from the lack of what previous theories could not detect. The history of science throws up numerous 'epistemological breaks' which, although they initially defy all common sense, in time revise the very idea of what constitutes causal relations between objects (consider, for instance, Einstein's special theory of relativity which is born from the positive deficiencies of Newtonian physics). Crucially, for Althusser, the identity or specific difference of Marx's philosophy (dialectical materialism) is not limited to the latter's discovery of a new science (historical materialism), but extends to the meta-theoretical reading strategies which are employed in order to prove whether a science can truly be regarded as scientific or not.

The potential problems start here. For to claim, as Althusser does, that the science of history depends for its existence on a philosophy which Marx never managed to formulate in person – and could not have done so himself – is to admit that the identity of historical materialism is essentially 'impure' (447). With Marx we must therefore assume that identity is an altogether 'different' phenomenon, not limited to the object of historical materialism (which in Capital is political economy), but which includes the concept of that object. The impurity of historical materialism is especially worthy of attention. Althusser's eclectic borrowing from philosophical traditions which clearly have nothing whatsoever to do with the Marxist heritage (Spinoza, Lacan, Bachelard) claims to present us with a science of ideology – or the 'complexity of the relations between science and ideology, their organic mobility' (452) – if not science itself. We might say that what Althusser aims to reveal is the 'measure' of Marx's scientific discovery in terms which Marx himself would have been unfamiliar with, yet nonetheless still manage to convey something (an ideology) of the revolutionary significance of Marx's epistemological break as a pure 'knowledge effect'. (This is arguably the most original aspect of Althusser's return to Marx, a return not to Marx's actual world-view, but to the epistemological conditions that enabled a discovery as groundbreaking as Marx's to occur.) As such, the concept of political economy, and of understanding how such an object functions in the real world, requires us first of all to keep pace with the 'time-lag' (décalage) which necessarily separates every truly scientific system from its 'order of presentation-connection' (452-3). This is a question of how to maintain the consistency of a scientific system, a question which, as Badiou notes, has no straightforward solution for Marxism since 'the theoretical presentation of the system of a science does not belong to this science' (453). In the case of Marxism, we must assume that historical materialism can only gain its consistency by importing its theory of knowledge from outside it, and in Althusser's case from conventionally non-Marxist discourses at that (e.g. Spinozism, Lacanianism ...). This is the only way that Marxism could ever hope to produce adequate knowledge of its conjuncture.

What Althusser means, then, by 'dialectical materialism' is a mechanism for the production of conjunctures. There is an infinity of phases ('attributes' for Spinoza) of the conjuncture, but in general each conjuncture (is there more than one?) is made up of a set of 'relatively autonomous' instances. One of these instances will be 'dominant', as in the case of the ideology of the Church during the Middle Ages. However, such an instance or 'structure in dominance' cannot determine the social reality which it otherwise appears to govern. Like every great event of historical importance, the conjuncture always runs ahead of itself in the sense that its practices (scientific, political, ideological, etc.) always fall short of their combined efficacy. This shortfall might equal the 'overdetermination' of a political situation (e.g. the Weimar Republic) where the conditions for its transformation (e.g. Nazism) remain unseen and can only be re-presented once the transformation has actually occurred. The determinant practice of every conjuncture is therefore the absent cause of an 'already structured whole' (457).

What Althusser envisages with his theory of determinant practice ('economism') is Spinoza's theory of substance. The social totality is completely invested by the economy, although the latter shows up only in its 'effects' (specific practices). In other words we might say that the economy is the very substance of eternity. (As Althusser often remarks, following Engels, the economy is always determinant 'in the last instance', but a last instance whose 'lonely hour' 'never comes'.) The task facing Althusser is therefore to come up with an 'adequate idea' of this structural arrangement, an idea which, as Badiou says, would actually be a conjuncture (458). However, before such a task can even begin there is a more pressing problem to contend with. For if determination is an absent cause, a cause gauged only in its effects, then how is it really possible to think it adequately? In Spinoza, determination is the thing already determined, or rather the process of determination remains invisible. And so any claim to be able to distinguish accurately between different aspects of a whole, or modes of a conjuncture, would appear to depend on an adequate idea of what distinction actually is. As Badiou says:

The distinction of the levels of a social formation (political, aesthetic, economic, etc.) is presupposed in the construction itself of the concept of determination, since determination is nothing other than the structure in dominance defined by the set of instances. (461)

Unless Althusser is claiming to be able to produce a conjuncture practically out of thin air – in the act of thinking or writing perhaps – it would appear that (the absent cause of) the conjuncture depends for its existence on some kind of 'preliminary formal discipline' where the concept of determination could be worked out. To this end Badiou proposes a 'theory of historical sets', which – as we shall see in the following chapters – would amount to a kind of formal logic enabling us to construct the conjuncture theoretically, axiom by axiom. 'This discipline,' Badiou asserts, is 'strictly dependent in its complete development on the mathematics of sets.'

Of course, at this stage Badiou's critique becomes more than just a critique. For in proposing a set of mathematical operators which regulate the sets of relations between dominant and determinant practices, etc., Badiou is anticipating a separate theoretical project. Can we not say therefore – despite the benefit of hindsight which affords us a sense of perspective here – that the 'problems' Badiou identifies on Althusser's behalf belong to an altogether different problematic from the one in which Althusser's work is actually situated? This is hardly a straightforward question, since it presumes an adequate conception of the 'object of knowledge' upon which Althusser's philosophical system depends. We might as well ask, What constitutes an identity? By what set of determinate criteria is a conjuncture one? What would constitute the effective limits of a problematic? In fact, Badiou's criticisms are far more modest as far as the sweeping ambition of Althusser's return to Marx is concerned. In a long footnote, however, it becomes clear that Badiou's support is qualified when it comes to the detail, and namely the general question of science. Badiou highlights at this point Althusser's tendency in Reading Capital to distinguish between the 'concept' (of the economy) on the one hand, and the '"mathematical" protocols of its manipulation' ('the instruments of econometrics') on the other. Badiou is in no doubt that Althusser is making a grave error here. Mathematics is not employed for the purposes of defining, expressing or vouchsafing the existence of an already formed concept since, in Badiou's words, 'mathematics is. ... in physics, in biology, etc., ... a productive activity' (464, 28n.; translation modified).

In Badiou's estimation, Althusser's return to Marx nevertheless marks, in and of its time, the beginning of the road to renewal in Marxist theory. Althusser enables us to see that the theoretical sterility afflicting Marxist philosophy in the post-war period is the inverse measure of its renewal. Never again after Althusser will it be possible for Marxists to pretend that work is always and in all circumstances the dominant factor under capitalism, or that work is a contest staged by the bourgeoisie. It is largely down to Sartre that this crude gladiatorial portrait of man the 'species being' stifles Marxist philosophy after the war. Like Althusser, Badiou regards this image as a profound deformation requiring careful exposure. However, as far as Althusser's anti-Hegelian polemic is concerned, Badiou distances himself from any outright renunciation of Hegelian principles. Whilst acknowledging the 'major Hegelian tyranny' which has invaded Marxism down the years, Badiou is unwilling merely 'to declare oneself outside Hegel in order to exit effectively from a confounded realm' (465). The true extent of Marx's philosophical debt to Hegel may well have become confused down the years, but such confusion is the inevitable side-effect, rather than the cause, of Marxism's history of repression. What the conjuncture urgently required in the meantime was a theory of politics to accompany Althusser's theory of science, a theory capable of 'reflecting the political conjuncture in our theoretical conjuncture, and vice versa'. It would not be too long before Badiou's demand signalled the parting of the ways between himself and Althusser.

Subjects of Contradiction

In the event the call of the conjuncture went unheeded by Althusser. The need to drive out the last vestiges of Hegel – from Lenin's Notebooks this time – had, by 1968, become a personal obsession. In his essay 'Lenin and Philosophy', Althusser began to redefine philosophy as the 'battle' for scientific knowledge, and as 'the class struggle in theory'. For Badiou, on the other hand, everything had already changed. The events of May 68 had, in his own frank admission, 'transformed from top to bottom the content and forms of the ideological struggle and of the theoretical investigation' (TC, 8). By the following year Badiou had begun teaching courses in Marxism, Leninism and Maoism at Vincennes, and in 1970 set up a Marxist-Leninist splinter group, the UCFML (Group for the Foundation of the Union of Marxist-Leninist Communists of France). These were the years of wholesale transition – the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the NLF in Vietnam – which demanded clear, partisan commitments from French communists. The anti-revisionist and anti-imperialist struggles, both at home and abroad, could only be waged successfully with the aid of a fully integrated understanding – a combined strategy no less – of theory and practice. The time for science had well and truly been put on hold.

Althusser's major Maoist-inspired work is well known. 'Ideology and ideological state apparatuses' (1970) emerges as the preliminary sketch for a theory of 'ideology in general', ideology which 'represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence' and which 'interpellates individuals as subjects'. The essay lends itself, as countless criticisms have repeated down the years, to an 'unduly functionalist' interpretation of human agency. The subject, in recognising the absolute Subject, misrecognises the objective fact of his or her personal identity (that it is structured as a fantasy) and so willingly enters into the circuits and rituals of social reproduction governed by the I.S.A.s (the Church, the school, the family, etc.). Althusser's approach to subjectivity could be stretched to parodic limits here (the Cultural Revolution as mass hysteria), and today tends to be regarded – a little unfairly perhaps – less as an accurate reflection of a political conjuncture, and more as the symptom of impending crisis in the internal politics of the French Communist Party. By stark contrast, in 1970, having already split from the PSU (United Socialist Party), Badiou had freed himself from any hint of political compromise. The theoretical battle-lines were now drawn.


Excerpted from "Alain Badiou"
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Copyright © 2002 Jason Barker.
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Table of Contents

1. Maoist Beginnings
2. The Science of Being
3. The Event of Non-Being
4. The Politics of Truth
5. The Cult of Deleuze
6. The Ethics of Philosophy
Notes and References

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