To certain of Badiou's dedicated exegetes (among whom we can name the excellent Peter Hallward), Theory of the Subject is little more than a historical curiosity, a transitional stage that finds Badiou formulating positions that he would later abandon in a decisive and irrevocable way. Badiou himself, in the extensive exercise of 'self-criticism' that prefaces Being and Event, gives weight to such a substantiation.
Yet, for all that, those of us who have passed through the forbidding gates of Logics of Worlds should remain incredulous. Having read Bruno Bosteels' incisive introduction to this English translation, as well as Badiou's somewhat reserved endorsement of this reading in The Communist Hypothesis, I believe that this text can be regarded as a keystone for the rest of Badiou's philosophical edifice. Just as the Critique of Judgment serves as the mediating link between Kant's First and Second critiques while, at the very same time (a point that Deleuze and Adorno were keenly aware of), indicating a virtual excess that cannot be domesticated by Kant's system, Theory of the Subject remains of inestimable importance if we are to understand the central problematic of his thought, a thought that is uniquely his own. Bosteels wants us to see that it is in this book, heretofore regarded as a curio of intellectual history, the Swann's Way of Badiou's ongoing bildungsroman, that this singularity can be seen for the very first time. I would like, then, to show why this is.
We all remember that famous axiom in Logics of Worlds, which indicates in an unprecedented way the slight-but-momentous difference that distinguishes Badiou from democratic-materialist-historicism: 'There are bodies and languages, EXCEPT there are truths'. All of Badiou's thought is contigent upon this state of exception: "Further, and more profoundly, philosophy, confronted with such circumstances, seeks the link between the three types of situations: it seeks the link between a choice, a distance and an exception. A philosophical concept, in Deleuze's sense, that is a creation, is, I maintain, always that which knots together a problem of choice (or of decision), a problem of distance (or of gap), and a problem of exception (or of event).'
This definition of philosophy, which Badiou has remained faithful to since Theory of the Subject and Manifesto for Philosophy, is absolutely crucial if we are to understand Badiou's relation/non-relation to the Marxist tradition at large, particularly his eschewal of political economy (Das Kapital Volumes 1-3) in favor of 'interventionist' (some would say propagandistic) texts written by militants in a critical conjuncture. Keeping this conjunctural focus in mind, we can understand (just as we can understand Althusser's theoretical anti-humanism as a polemical position assumed in opposition to the blithe Young Marx humanism of Sartre and the post-Stalinist Soviets, a theoretical regression of the highest order if there ever was one) Badiou's demarcation of the frontiers between his philosophy and the dominant discourses of the time- structuralism and post-structuralism. Badiou's thought has inhered in this break for more than three decades now, and this book outlines the consequences of this rupture in the clearest possible fashion.
Zizek, whose glowing, somewhat hyperbolic sales-blurb on the dust jacket affirms the revolutionary aspect of this book, has often taken Badiou to task for neglecting the structural analytic of Marxist political economy in favor of a theory of subjectivity that, in its preoccupation with interiority, subtraction and fidelity, dispenses with the 'real' of the economy. There is a certain irony in this, considering this is the same Zizek who, in his impassioned pleas for a renewal of economic analysis, has shown little evidence of this in his own work, in its brilliant revival of ideological analysis/ re-formulation of the hackneyed dialectic between base and superstructure. Is Zizek's entire ontology, premised as it is upon a groundbreaking and refreshingly counter-intuitive reading of German Idealism, not a forceful demonstration of the untenability of such vulgar Marxist binarizations? Has he not illustrated, with unflinching rigor, the relationship between 'superstructural' idealism and its 'material ground', creating in the process a robust, sophisticated materialism that assesses the very materiality of ideological constructs as real abstractions that have relative autonomy from their economic ground?
Not that I am, in any way, opposed to Zizek's proposed rehabilitation of Marxist political economy. I too agree that cultural studies- that formidable academic industry- has, in its fetishization of ideology critique and its fascination with cultural forms, has forgotten that it is the real of the economy that opens and overdetermines the transcendental frame for these kaleidoscopic condensations.
An aside: It is a bit of a farce that, while taking its departure from some of the principal findings of post-structuralism, the historicist hermeneutics of cultural studies forgets one of the most powerful lessons propounded by the late Foucault: if power is monistic and resistance forms the reverse side of power, then one can properly say that the dialectic of Kantian critique with its object is ultimately static. While 'deconstructing' the heritage of Western 'metaphysics' with such fierce licence, exposing their operations in contemporary culture, these radical hermeneuts remain firmly within the Kantian-Hegelian dialectic of State and civil society. Foucault, for all of his anti-Hegelianism, was not oblivious to this problem, a problem that he probes in the self-reflexive interviews that he granted near the end of his life: if we are to think non-dialectical difference, political singularity and becomings unauthorized by a synchronic/structuralist analytic, we need to rethink critique's relationship with power in the light of criticism's intrinsic impasses. I paraphrase Foucault: 'For so long, politics has subsisted on complaint and sentiment- you can submit an impassioned, lyrical plea to the State, but remember that the State is never obliged to listen.' THIS is the 'cutting edge' of Foucault that tips towards the 'historical dialectic' that Badiou speaks of, the face that is turned towards the opening of militant truths.
So, translating this into Badiou's terminology, what can we say about cultural studies and its interpretative practices? Simply put, criticism is PLACED within the status quo- for all of its radicality, the university discourse merely performs the regulative function that power allots to it, circumambulating around its inherited place instead of enacting a DISPLACEMENT of the very system of places through creative praxis. Kant's brutal maxim expresses this with unparalleled clarity: "Criticize all you want, but OBEY!" An inertia in the guise of a deterritorialization, a mysticism of the Last Man- little wonder that many of Derrida's progeny wear the threadbare garb of the 'sad militant', exulting in the obscurantist religiosity of 'weak thought' and its vague eschatological supplications to 'radical Otherness'. The very dangers of the 'postmodern hypothesis', which post-structuralist epigones pretend to attack while exulting in the closure that it institutes, are all enacted here: if we are a civilization without history and without historicity, then all we can do is put our hands together and pray for the Messiah while tacitly accepting the endess perpetuation of the worst. All while satiating our consciences by wearing alter-globalist sneakers, listening to pseudo-dylanic alt-country, harping on the virtues of 'cultural hybridity' and deconstructing the pop culture that endlessly fascinates us. Postmodernism is the ultimate alibi for the petit bourgeois.
So, let us repeat with Zizek, with Badiou, with Laclau, that it is imperative that we return to revolutionary theory, of which political economy is a crucial part. At the same time, I can't help but ponder upon the contradiction between Zizek's vague, reductive declarations and the
properly philosophical complexity of his generaltheory. While I am ambivalent towards many of Ernesto Laclau's recent work, I think his reservations towards Zizek's polemical proclamations in 'Contingency, Hegemony, Universality' were entirely justified. These confrontational declaratives have yet to be fleshed out with concrete content.
It is also surprising that Zizek, whose 'Revolution At The Gates' and preface to Trotsky's 'Communism and Terrorism' allowed us to THINK the relevance of Leninism to contemporary politics again, chastises Badiou for doing the same. Badiou, in Theory of the Subject, makes it perfectly clear that his Marxism is a TRUTH PROCEDURE that sustains its subjective process by assuming its intrinsic PRECARITY. Kierkegaard had already shown us that Hegelian dialectics was unable to think interiority and the singular/molecular intensities that constitute it, operating exclusively with unitary, pre-constituted molarities seized from the outside. Hegelianism, in expelling the singularities that emerge in time by making them comparable with one another, had rendered itself incapable of thinking historicity. In order to think the passion of the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious, it was necessary to punctuate the unilateral process of Hegelian history with so many points of subjectivation, each of which opened up so many virtual, uniquely differentiated trajectories of time, possibilities that remain imperceptible to the placid, inhuman eye of the Hegelian dialectic. Nietzsche's own objections to the Hegelian procedure is just as widely known- the Hegelian dialectic is the method of the professor who conceptualizes while keeping his hands clean; what matters is the tragic dialectic that is LIVED on an existential level. Cue Difference & Repetition....
When we keep all this in mind, we can better understand where Badiou is going when he disjoins the structural, 'algebraic' dialectic of Das Kapital and Althusser's Reading Capital from the 'historical dialectic' of every subjective process. Put simply, the topographical, 'birds eye view' captured by structural analysis only leaves the truth of Marxism 'half-said', in the same way that any societal configuration (contingent on a static repertoire of functions and places) disavows the split subject by reducing him/her to a mere symbolic placemarker.
In Marxist terms, the structural dialectic renders itself amenable to the regimes of accepted knowledge because it merely treats the transcendental SYMBOLIC frame that capitalism opens up. As we have seen with Levi-Strauss, there is also the structuralist temptation to regard this symbolic arrangement as the unconscious of the Real itself- Levi-Strauss, in his comprehensive analyses of mythology, fabricates another myth of his own by absolutizing an invariable symbolic configuration as the 'deep structure' of social reality. Marx himself is not exempt from these troubling ambiguities- his assertion that the anatomy of the man is the key to the ape has led some to believe that he facilitated a universal structural key to understanding every pre-capitalist society as tending, asymptotically, toward capitalist organization.
To be sure, Marx's analyses of the crises and contradictions of capitalism indicate the Real that the market attempts to circumvent by all sorts of disavowals, foreclosures and repressions, all of which exact catastrophic costs from those who devote their lives to defending it. Badiou's rejoinder to this obvious fact is double, as we shall see. Its salience to those of us who lament endlessly about the indestructibility of capitalism in the wake of yet ANOTHER disastrous crisis is sobering indeed. Let us set out these two co-dependent theses in simple terms:
1. If, as Badiou affirms with such unequivocal virulence, 'There is no History' and all History is a History of the State (echoing Sylvain Lazarus and Nietzsche on the 'Uses of History'), then every invocation of the so-called 'logic of History' amounts to a cheap eschatology instrumentalized by the State. Between the knowledge that the structural dialectic affords and the emergence of subjectivity there is NO RELATIONSHIP. Jacques Ranciere, in his brilliant reading of Brecht and other forms of 'dialectical art' in 'Aesthetics and its Discontents' already outlined this crucial argument: the problem with commodity fetish is not that people are unaware, but that they are capable of disavowing their awareness. "Je sais bien, mais quand meme..."Class consciousness does not happen through mere knowing- it is perfectly plausible that an acute knowledge of exploitation could lead to nothing more than the endless statist negotiation that characterises trade unionism.
2. The structural dialectic takes as its object an order that Marxism, through the Real of political praxis, seeks to obliterate entirely. This is the order of PRODUCTION, a historical stage that Marxism is dedicated to abolishing. What the structural dialectic presents is the dialectic of this order's internal evolution- hence we can map the dialectic of critique and its absorption by the State, worker struggles and the State, crises and the market, insofar as they are sublated and recovered by this order's historical preservation. What results in this dialectic is a conservation of the same invariant terms and the relations between them (working class, lumpenproletariat, capitalists, rentiers). But what about those transversal processes that reject this grammar and this vocabulary? Processes that bracket this symbolic frame, establishing a 'plane of composition' that, by creating an inalienable distance from its despotic operation, suspends it in order to construct a new symbolic space, one that finds its ultimate telos in the consummate destruction of the old one?
This is why Badiou says that the enemy of the proletariat (which is NOT reducible to the symbolic, sociological category of the 'working class' but, as Marx showed, cuts transversally across class frontiers) is not the bourgeoisie, which would reduce Marxism to being little more than a dimestore Manicheism, but the VERY SYSTEM that determines the symbolic places of bourgeoisie and proletariat. In this way, Badiou is a true Lacanian- he exhorts us to remember that the subject is constitutively SPLIT, that it cannot be bound by its symbolic predicates and its imaginary traits/qualities.
So, let us retrieve the frayed thread of this argument. It is not that Badiou places the significance of political economy in question (though his prophecies that this objective, 'structural dialectic' could be appropriated tout court by the academic machines of mainsstream economics and sociology while purging it of its revolutionary, subjective content), it is simply that he wants to highlight the other dimension that Althusser had opened up with his thinking of historicity- the 'concrete analysis of the concrete situation' that political subjectivity would have to engage with, point by point. Badiou's insistence that there is NO transitivity between the structural dialectic and the singular subjective dialectics that open up in the seamless ontological fabric of being plainly articulates the orientation that his later work would take.
This is why Theory of the Subject is, in a fashion similar to Lenin's Materialism & Empirico-Criticism, at once a work of philosophy and a polemical treatise written 'in the conjuncture'. I firmly believe that we remain within this conjuncture. Difficult as it is (and this is by FAR the most difficult of Badiou's major works), this is an invaluable evaluation of our philosophical present.
Addendum 1. This book contains the very best reading of Lacan and his relationship to a 'third materialism', the materialist dialectic. There is a concerted engagement with the insurpassable limits of Lacan's 'anti-philosophy', limits that, I would say, can be understood if we remember that psychoanalysis was before all else a clinical practice. Prior to Zizek's astonishing reappraisal of the Hegelian dialectic and its relationship with Lacan's conceptions of subjectivity and truth, Badiou engaged in a sustained analysis of Lacan's thought, an analysis that is commendably sensitive to the periodizations in Lacan's evolving problematic. The sections on Lacan are extraordinarily dense, written in a ludic style that flirts with Lacan's propensity for oracular utterances. However, as far as I can tell, Badiou takes Lacan to task for remaining within the ambit of the structural dialectic, adhering to Freud's static topography where the Real is that which always return to its place (ergo Lacan's suggestion that May '68 was little more than an Oedipal provocation).
These are limits that, as we know, are sidestepped by Zizek's coupling of Lacan with Hegel. It is for this reason that all refutations of Zizek's readings of Lacan and Hegel ("but Hegel wasn't a pan-logicist! Lacan is so phallocentric!") are rather counterproductive. It seems to bother no-one that Derrida's Nietzsche and Heidegger are deeply problematic and reductive in their own way. Perhaps it would be more useful to understand Zizek's unique take on Hegelian dialectics?
Addendum 2. We are all very much aware of Badiou's contempt for the 'ethical turn' that spawned the likes of the 'new philosophers' and Lyotard. Yet- and this has been troubling me for some time- can we not say that Lyotard's hyper-Levinasian retrieval of the Kantian sublime as passivity before the Law fulfills all of the criteria of a truth process? His aesthetics, as suffused as they are with a nauseating pathos, charge us, as ethical witnesses, to consecrate our lives to the inhuman Law. This Law, of course, was born of the traumatic irruption of the Real, the Holocaust that broke the continuity of tme in two. I think this book, with its ethical categories of anxiety (at the point of subjectivation) and the superego (as the bedrock of castration underlying the subjective process), goes a long way to answering that question.