On Badiou’s Universalism: Notes & Thoughts on Chapter 1 of Alain Badou’s St. Paul

March 31, 2016 § Leave a comment


Badiou st paul

In Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Alain Badiou sets up his defense of universalism against the relativism of “monetary abstraction, whose false universality has absolutely no difficulty accommodating the kaleidoscope of communitarianisms.”[1] According to his narrative, the bloody and ultimately flawed 20th century incarnations of Marxist thought were the only “genuine enemy” that kept such empty universalism at bay. The biological decay of the Soviet Union as a paradigm of socialist States eased capitalist liberal fears in the early 1990s, but it also ushered in a new thoughtlessness where claims for minority rights cannot produce enough revolutionary and critical potential against “monetarist free exchange,” veiled by an increasingly false use of the term “democracy.” The “thoughtlessness” of identitarian politics language may initially set off a “spider sense” for anyone committed to cultural preservation or multiculturalism, especially in the United States. I, however, believe that Badiou’s critique ought not be confused with the kind of conservative “color-blindness” or neo-liberal “post-race” positions. Similarly his thought should not be too quickly confused with a kind of human rights universalism as employed by groups like the United Nations. Badiou’s position in returning to St. Paul may not escape an inherent confidence in “the Western” tradition, but he certainly writes at a time when the idea of “the West” or the occident is being challenged. In these few paragraphs, I briefly explore why Badiou might find rhetorics of inclusivity to be lacking in times of liberal crises.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Badiou is his unwillingness to give up on the idea of the subject, especially as a political entity with the ability to revolt in fidelity to an “event” that would both transcend and instantiate some sort of multiplicity in the subject. It is important to his thought that the rupture of the event produces possible subjectivities, and within each subjects there is a will and a choice wo be made concerning fidelity to the event. Unlike committed liberals in the discourse of political theology in the United States, who in the post 9/11 years returned to the foundations of liberalism to find what Jurgen Habermas calls in a book of the same title, An Awareness of What is Missing,[2] Badiou returns to the foundation of Christianity. Why?

He claims in his prologue, his interest in St. Paul is not so much historical as it is in Paul being “the poet-thinker of the event, as well as one who practices and states the invariant traits of what can be called the militant figure.”[3] I, however, think that his return to a pre-modern example of the event has more rhetorical weight as an obscuring of liberal-secular notions of rights. Badiou needs a version of subjectivity that is not merely inflected by modernity or by the cogito’s “I think.” Badiou needs a truth procedure exemplary of the event that cannot be merely co-opted by liberalism’s secularization narrative, yet one could argue that his confidence in the efficaciousness of his own atheism relies on “radical Enlightenment” rhetoric. Studying St. Paul obfuscates such reductive reading but does not (he hopes) mystify Badiou’s thought. In other places Badiou lessens his distance from the French Revolution. For example, in Metapolitics his explication of the Thermidorian reaction to Robespierre which exacerbated the Reign or Terror and the French Revolution, which was released in French in 1998 (St. Paul was published in French in 1997). His point is that not all blood spilt within a revolution can be attributed to fidelity of the event.

Badiou’s ultimate point is to present the “logic” of the “site” which may or may not turn into and “event.” Such logic transcends “identitarian fanaticism,” especially as foregrounded under French politicians like Philippe Petain and the Vichy government during WWII: “Abandoning all universal principle, identitarian verification – which is never anything but police monitoring – comes to take precedence over the definition or application of law.”[4] In other words, this kind of identitarianism results in the state of exception where “all legislation would be accompanied by the required identitarian protocols, and subsets of the population would come to be defined each time by their special status.”[5] American defenders of multi-ethnic and multiculturalism would do well to understand the distinction Badiou is making and not reduce his thought to domestic politics.

Simultaneously, however, Badiou would do well to take heed what critiques are being made in the U.S., even under the guise of such popular performances as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s Super Bowl show, which brought up anxieties for mainstream whites due to its overt references to Black Panthers. Or take, for example, Black Lives Matter, which as a campaign has had to distance itself from the inclusive rhetoric of 1960s activism while simultaneously building on that tradition’s achievements – achievements which have themselves been operating as a kind of status quo badge of honor for “post-racism.” If Badiou were to do so, he might find better ways to affectively track fidelity (or dissolution of fidelity) to the event.

Why Black history in particular? If we take a broader look at African American history, as narrated through collections such as Clayborne Carson et al.’s Eyes on The Prize Civil Rights Reader, we can see that the narrative of the book tells a story of the early affinity that Black people in the United States had with Communism. During both “World” wars, however, Black Americans’ civil rights struggles took a backseat because of “the Party’s” larger agenda. By the end of WWII, Black activists had to largely give up commitments to a Communism that had left them out in the cold. At the same time, the Soviets rhetorically capitalized on Black suffering in America as a way to critique the hypocrisies of liberalism on an international stage. The international embarrassment over the racist situations in the South caused both the United States government and Blacks to vie for more inclusive civil rights for Blacks in America. So, for example, in order to play Pollyanna to such critiques, the U.S. State Department began sending jazz bands (including both Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie) to follow-up diplomatic missions to spread the agenda of liberalism internationally.[6] Jazz music thus became an ideologically “American” art form during a period in the U.S. when Jim Crow was dismantled based on unequal access to education and the psychological effects of segregation. Communism lost Black support for the same reasons “All Lives Matter” rhetoric dilutes and misconstrues the exigence of and fidelity to Black Lives Matter.

Eyes on prize reader

Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, addresses the fact that the liberal inclusivity of the Civil Rights Movement unfortunately does not go far enough. Yet it maintains its stance based on what seems at first glance like purely “identitarian” concern. Defensive, privileged whites wonder why their lives are not included, opting for a kind of “human rights universalism” that dissolves both existing inequity and their complicity in such inequity. The recognition of the identity in Black Lives Matter is more than simply identitarian calls for inclusivity; it is a militant stance meant to call awareness to fidelity to the event, the same kind of fidelity Badiou often points to with respect to the Paris Commune in 1871.

An ongoing problem exists with regard to the very militancy of the concerns of Black Lives Matter campaigns in the university structures of the United States. Partly this is because universities often try to domesticate the values of Black Lives Matter based on a long-standing program of inclusivity based on the rights of liberal subjects. (The efforts of the Africana Studies Department at Metro State University, where I teach, is a happy exception here). As increasing crises in liberalism have arisen during the early 21st century, inclusion in liberal subjectivity is a double-edge sword. It is an exacerbation and intensification of a process by which mostly white, liberal subjects, “protected” by their racial and class privileges, explore the dismantling of liberal subjectivity as a constraint imposed by what Badiou calls the “empty universality” of monetary capitalism. Simultaneously, groups who identify as non-white are often under the material pressures to vie for inclusivity as a survival mechanism. This is why it is important to understand that the revolutionary potential of Black Lives Matter is not just a plea for inclusivity, even if its adherents might at times accept what little gains the dominant society offers. Their fidelity, like Badiou’s maintains a kind of subjectivity rather than dissimulating the subject.

Privileged folks in liberal society, white or non-white, can “afford” to critique their subjective privileges; but marginalized folks need to both advocate for their separate existence and their inclusion. This is perhaps even more extreme for indigenous peoples. Alain Badiou’s universalism does not speak well to these issues, but it does speak to the processes of intensification by which a kind of thinking and fidelity to an event might create an affective unification between privileged “critics” of the limits of liberal subjectivity and marginalized “saints” who rely on the witnessing of the privileged for their inclusion. The flaw of relying on such inclusion remain the privilege of the already-included, and this is where both witnessing and martyrdom are undone – and St. Paul with them. But part of Badiou’s point with returning to St. Paul is the antinomian nature of his writing with respect to Jewish law, because it is law (nomos) that ultimately needs to change in order to go beyond the domination through a manufactured martyrdom that makes Black bodies the sacrificial victims and excrescence of capitalism’s killing floor.

Before any critique of martyrdom itself, I must say that I think Badiou is correct to say, “capitalist monetary abstraction is certainly a singularity, but a singularity that has no consideration any singularity whatsoever: singularity as indifferent to the persistent infinity of existence as it is to the evental becoming of truths.”[7] In other words, capitalism has no fidelity for Badiou, the atheist philosopher. That said, I also think Badiou jumps to a conclusion when he says, “The capitalist logic of the general equivalent and the identitarian and cultural logic of communities or minorities form an articulated whole” which is “organically without truth.” I agree that the untruth here could be made thematic with the term “post-racism.” However, it can only be Badiou’s own privilege of critique that affords his conflation of subjective experiences under the regime of the empty universality of monetary capitalism. He is performing a witnessing that confines while exalting and even making sacred the subjects through its gaze, but his atheism masks this impulse. This is evident when he says, “Universalizable singularity necessarily breaks with identitarian singularity.”[8] Again, to be fair to Badiou, the logic of the event precedes the subjective will. One did not “decide” to join the French resitance, he explains in Philosophy of Militancy. Nevertheless, to an American like myself this appears to retain the grossest form of Enlightenment secularist wish fulfillment. Back to St. Paul, Badiou quickly counters such thinking by way of his critique of cosmopolitanism:

Contemporary cosmopolitanism is a beneficent reality. We simply ask that its partisans not get themselves worked up at the sight of a young veiled woman, lest we begin to fear that what they really desire, far from a real web of shifting differences, is the uniform dictatorship of what they take to be “modernitiy.”

Badiou is calling for something different than an even-keeled tolerant modernity. This makes sense with respect to his comments on homosexuality. He laments, for example, “when homosexual protest concerns the right to be reincluded in the grand traditionalism of marriage and the family, or to take responsibility for the defrocking of a priest with the Pope’s blessing.”[9] Many Americans will recognize this sentiment as a critique of heteronormativity, certainly not a typically conservative position. Nevertheless, and this is a current problem among young people in the U.S. who do not identify as “heterosexual,” the progress of the GLBTQ+ communities in the U.S. have often benefited from racial and class privileges, which may be one reason why “gay rights” have advanced so quickly in the post civil rights movement era while Black Lives Matter has simultaneously had to distinguish itself from earlier Civil Rights Movement tactics. The GLBTQ+ tactics announce increasingly new identity-categories only to deconstruct an endless multiplicity of identities – a process which challenges subjectivity itself. As the ever-expanding sexual identities expresses reluctance to be located by existing liberal subjectivities, the willingness to be identified while not being codified rests on an already included position within liberalism while critiquing liberal subjectivity. Badiou appears to support such critique of hetero-normative binaries of bourgeois relationships and family. At the same time, he also requires a kind of political subjectivity, so the impulse toward all aversion to identification must hypothetically have some limit.

It seems that, according to Badiou’s thought, such a limit might have revolutionary potential if it were able to find a meeting ground between the critique of liberal subjectivity and the wish to be included within the rights discourse of liberalism, and that’s why I think Black Lives Matter rhetoric is so important here. It is from this flipside of liberal identity categories, that Badiou works his way toward a different notion of universal singularity than the standard European univeralist or “human rights” variety. It is also, weirdly, here that he returns to St. Paul.

Badiou reads Paul as a militant political archetype counterpoising between Jewish and Roman authorities but also extending beyond them. He sees Paul as a subjectivity that “constitutes a necessary distance from the State and from what corresponds to the State in people’s consciousness: the apparatus of opinion. One must not argue about opinions, Paul says. A truth is a concentrated and serious procedure, which must never enter into competition with established opinions.”[10] And this is why, without recourse to Christian theology, Badiou calls St. Paul “our contemporary.” Such philosophical truth-telling nevertheless maintains an element of historical thinking, even if downplayed to move beyond modernity. I have highlighted briefly with respect to Black Lives Matter and GLBTQ+ communities in the United States, why Badiou is both right to be critical of rhetorics of inclusivity and could benefit from movements that cannot be reduced to just that. Simultaneously, and this is to his credit, Badiou is not just one in a long stream of white male Europeans espousing universalism.

[1] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Trans. Ray Brassier, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 6-7.

[2] Jurgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).

[3] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Trans. Ray Brassier, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] See Iain Anderson, This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, (University of Pennsylvania Press).

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] Ibid., 15.


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