On Badiou’s Notion of the ‘Site’

March 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

One of the most distinguishing elements of Badiou’s work is his work on the ‘subject’ as both a critique of political regimes and a necessary formal element of being. He works within both Marxist and structuralist traditions to do so, but his emphasis on ‘event’ often takes historical situations as examples. To me, Badiou retains some elements of French structuralism before the genealogical analyses of Foucault that are important in understanding his use of historical examples. In a recent interview and conversation with Marcel Gauchet, Badiou distinguishes himself from Althusser, saying with respect to history, “For me, there is a subject, and that notion must be retained, while also taking account of structuralism’s advances. If the subject is definitively eliminated, political activism is no longer tenable.”[1] Activism and action are also a particular theme in Badiou. In Metapolitics, he regards as thought in actu (philosophy) and a politics in actu, as a politics that knows its own limits: “In politics, let us strive to be militants of restricted action. In philosophy, let us strive to be those who externalize the figure of this action through a categorical framework wherein the word ‘justice’ remains essential.”[2] Important for Badiou here is the incompatibility of justice and the State: “The State, in its being, is indifferent to justice. Conversely, every politics which is a thought in actu entails, in proportion to its force and tenacity, serious trouble for the State.”[3] Because of this, “‘justice’ cannot be, for philosophy, a State programme. ‘Justice’ is the qualification of an egalitarian moment of politics in actu.”[4] Badiou is concerned with historical moments where these actualities emerge. He often refers to moments in French history to make his points. In “Logic of the Site,” he focuses on the Paris Commune during the spring of 1871. The concept of ‘site’ appears important because a site may become a ‘singularity,’ one of Badiou’s major concepts. Here I will trace Badiou’s description of ‘site’ in a diacritics article that later appeared in Logics of Worlds.

Badiou Gauchet

Badiou identifies the working class defense of Paris1871 and refusal to give up arms as a site “because, apart from whatever else appears here under the ambiguous transcendental of the world ‘Paris in spring 1871,’ it appears as the striking, and totally unforeseeable, beginning of a rupture (true, still without concept) with even that which has been the norm for its appearing.[5] This uprising, “resulted in the imperative appearing of an unknown capacity, of an unprecedented power.”[6]

It is essential to understand that March 18 is a site because it imposes itself on all the elements that participate in its existence as that which, contrary to the indistinct content of worker-being, “forcibly” calls for an entirely new transcendental evaluation of the intensity of worker-being.

 

It is not merely the emergence of something new; it is the activation of an emergent potential that did not necessarily exist before the site. That alone, however, is not “enough” for an event. He goes on: “a site must be thought not simply in terms of the ontological particularity that I have just recognized in it but also according to the logical unfolding of its consequences.[7] Logic as temporality is a prior necessity to hold the space of the site. Unfolding of sequences requires a notion of intensity: “The degree to which one thing is the consequence of another is thus never independent of the intensity of existence they have in the situation under consideration.” But the site itself appears to be a kind of cipher: “The logic of the site involves the distribution of intensities around the vanished point which the site is.” Badiou nevertheless uses the “vanished point” as a marker for contingency: “We will call a site whose intensity of existence is not maximal a fact. We will call a site whose intensity of existence is maximal a singularity.”[8] In Aristotelian terms, this is a distinction between inartistic and artistic proofs. In this sense, the singularity is artistic. How then, is the singularity “made”? What is the poetic gesture? and is there an “author” to the artistic gesture? Badiou says, “notice that there is no stronger a transcendental consequence than that of making something appear in a world which had not existed in it before.”[9] This “force” is essentially generative for the atheistic philosopher; it is a “transcendent consequence,” like an arising of a thought that transcends individual subjects yet nevertheless appears to them. He says, “we will say that this site is a strong singularity, or an event, if, in consequence of the (maximal) intensity of the site, something whose value of existence was null in the situation takes on a positive value of existence.” Yet he does not discuss the idea of potential.

I think that it may be that such a power-invoking term lends itself too easily to utilization or an instrumental capability tied to a subject for Badiou. To me, it is more about an aesthetic movement but not an aesthetics “of the senses.” I think Badiou is after a post-Heideggerian sense of aesthetics that demands and even perhaps makes the subject. He is trying, however, to avoid facile moves toward “culture.” I think cultivation is too premeditated a concept here; nevertheless, there is this active element tied to thought and subjects capable of seeing what appears in the rupture of the event: “This is also to say that today a rupture is a rupture with the representative form of politics, or, if one wants to go further in the way of founded provocation, a rupture with “democracy.”[10] Badiou’s sense of democracy here is importantly not American or French political culture. It is something arising from his concept of ‘metapolitics.”

To understand this we could connect the notion of site as a “vanished point” to Badiou’s concept of the “state of a situaion” when he says, An inexistent part is the possible support of the following – which would ruin structure – the one, somewhere, is not, inconsistency is the law of being, the essence of structure is void.”[11] He then clarifies: “given a situation whose structure delivers consistent one-multiples, there is always a metastructure – the state of the situation – which counts as any composition of these consistent multiplicities.[12] What this means is a “metastructure,” produced by the situation, which in its maximum form is an event, delivers both single “ones” or subjects but simultaneously multiplicities of that one from the metastructure. If we take this at both the aesthetic and political registers one both waits for and thinks in actu toward the coming of the rupture. The event produces the appearance of the authentically new. Badiou traces this kairotic description historically to Christianity and calls St. Paul the thinker of the event. In his meditation on Pascal, Badiou praises Pascal for illuminating the “choice-driven” nature of fidelity to the Christian event by way of the libertine. The crux here is the vanishing point of the “sky” of liberalism and the “ground” of democracy. As it vanishes the new “subjectivity” appears, not as rapture or second-coming (parousia), however, but as the “necessary inconsistency in the law of being.” It appears that for Badiou, there are lots of comings and goings, sometimes as artistic events, sometimes as inartistic “facts.” Like the Paris Commune in 1871, they do not always have staying power in material conditions, but they perhaps live on in metastructure as something that could be active potential willed by thinking subjects.

Notes

[1] Alain Badiou and Marcel Gauchet, What is to be Done? A Dialogue on Communism, Capitalism, and the Future of Democracy, Trans. Susan Spitzer, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2016), 8-9.

[2] Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, New York: Verso, 2005, p. 104.

[3] Ibid., p. 100.

[4] Ibid., p. 99.

[5] Alain Badiou, “Logic of the Site,” diacritics, (fall / winter 33.3-4: 2003), 143.

[6] Ibid., 143.

[7] Ibid., 144.

[8] Ibid., 146.

[9] Ibid., 147.

[10] Ibid., 149.

[11] Alain Badiou, Being and Event, Trans. Oliver Feltham, (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 101.

[12] Ibid., 102.

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