The Millenarian Platonism of Alain Badiou (Part II)

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Plato’s RepublicAlain Badiou with Susan Spitzer, trans. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2015.

 

Part 2: Voegelin and Girard on Badiou.

This is the second instalment in a three-part essay on the millenarian Platonism of the French philosopher Alain Badiou. What is most interesting is that Badiou has at least some conception of the millenarian question. In his little book Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism he argues that while he finds God and Christ unimportant, it is Paul’s loyalty to the Idea of Christ as Event he finds of World-Historical importance. [1] It is Saint Paul’s adamant faith in the coming of universalism one should be concerned with. In the same way Badiou has a deep infatuation with Blaise Pascal, if only for his wager. [2] Badiou is all about fideism preserved at any cost. The only “immortality” he believes in is being alive to participate in an Event.

The fact is, however, that Badiou is only one among many big Marxist thinkers of our era who are now more than willing to admit their millenarian ancestry.[3] This is very interesting. Another example is Antonio Negri, who repurposes the kenosis (emptying out) of God into the immanent to produce an open revolutionary future.[4] The metaphysics of Christ’s coming (and return) is retooled into the epochal break of a promised soterical communism. But perhaps the most influential is Slavoj Žižek, who seems to take his beginning from Walter Benjamin’s late Theories on History, in which the thinker speaks of communism having its basis in messianic theology. Žižek, writing by himself or in conjunction with others, returns to concepts such as Hegel’s understanding of Christ as God literally dying on the cross so that the immanent community might live. This produces an atheist theology centred upon the anxious moral imperative that humanity and God, sublimated by Christ, continue to suffer and must be saved through communist universalism and egalitarianism.[5]

To Žižek Christ becomes a kind of ultimate monstrous Other, never reducible to man, God or even animal – an invitation towards transforming the world into something terrifyingly different. For him we have entered apocalyptic times, epitomised by climate change and people’s certainty that the end of the world is more likely than any alternative to “end of history” liberalism. The choices are communism or extinction and that is that. Messianism appearing at the very last minute, a second before midnight, as Benjamin said, becomes the only solution.

This all may seem a little odd. This is the sort of stuff that someone like Voegelin would have once had to tease out of the history of Christianity and its secular descendants. But here it is in plain sight. In the minute of fame Voegelin had with The New Political Religions a few conservatives discovered that “Gnostic” was a good insult for communists and that was that. I think we’re a little bit beyond this. I think we even were back when Situationist Guy Debord replied to Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium with the glad admission of communism’s ancestry in millenarianism. The problem with the mediaeval millenarians, said Debord, is that that they were waiting on God to solve things for them:

“The peasant class could not attain a clear understanding of the workings of society or of how to conduct its own struggle, and because it lacked these conditions for unifying its action and consciousness, it expressed its project and waged its wars with the imagery of an earthly paradise.”[6]

From one superego imperative to another, so one might say, one still always needs the permission of the power that steers the world.

All of these millenarian leftist thinkers are without a doubt thoroughly atheist, though some like Žižek, seem to believe very much in God’s continuation in the form of an evil liberal superego keeping out the belief that communism is still tenable. The idea of God as omniscient judge is not dead, even if the Christian God is simply passé to our philosophers, or, in the spirit of Hegel, committed suicide and no one realised this until “enlightened” moderns came along. These thinkers return to a Gnostic position, a being-against-God in a secularised sense in order to then force the millennium. In the language of Žižek one must instead say that this Big Other is “asleep” so that one can disobey the current order and find a new one, because the current order offers nothing more than consumerism and the fear of death. Stay healthy, says the Big Other. But for what if there is nothing to look forward to?

“After history”, with no God and the “justice” of communism become impossibility, there is nothing to look forward to, if one is Žižek or Badiou. If anything, what all this seems to show, if one hadn’t already long perceived it, is that the atheist existentialism of the 20th century is long dead – it didn’t give anyone anything. Only a “Kierkegaardian Marxism” remains – the zealous “leap of faith” into the idea that no matter what communism is still possible. Otherwise, like Benjamin, the Marxist materialist is now compelled to realise that history has been one great piling up of wreckage, that in the Darwinian scheme of things man is meaningless.[7] Perhaps only after Marxism’s death, when Benjamin’s communist funfair puppet has rusted up, does it become possible to see it for the millenarianism it was. The only choice for the materialist is to either simply sink down into the Nirvana of matter, or to rediscover the Judaeo-Christian narrative that had given history an order and meaning to it.

These sorts of thinkers are thoroughly immanentist, and self-conscious of the fact to the point of Deleuzians/Spinozans like Negri insisting on “absolute immanence” because of Nietzschean and Spinozan fear that any transcendence is simply hierarchy and slavery, the “Judgement of God”. Even “Deleuzian theology” now exists. Some of it self-consciously admits that it is Gnostic for its terror at God and the transcendent. Some of it just seems to be kitschy pantheism – “process theology” at its nicest and naffest.[8] Negri and Hardt are notable exceptions. They play with the millenarian desire to replace Augustine’s City of God with a “material mythology” of the labouring “multitude” of the Earthly City.[9]  Nonetheless, there at very least seems to have been some interest coming from the other direction, from theologists attempting to negotiate with the Spinozist and Deleuzian ideas of people like Negri.

A good example is Boris Gunjević, who attempts to turn Hardt and Negri’s book Empire back further towards Augustine’s City of God. Augustine’s understandings of the rise of the Roman Empire and its decay is God’s way for the coming of a Catholic world community can be applied to today. To Gunjević the only alternative to a nihilistic world of global capital circulation is a global Catholic community of fellow travellers seeking community, God and justice – though they will never quite know if they are saved and members of the Heavenly City. To Gunjević, Negri and Hardt remain “pagans” – their subject of the global “multitude” or “posse” is underdeveloped, with no ecclesiastical practices to bind them.[10] This is perhaps too true. The migrating posthuman “multitude” of these thinkers simply seems to drift into the global north as a kind of mass without any organised purpose, like molecules through diffusion. One wonders how their dreamed of world government is supposed to happen, except though some form of saturation.

Let us now return to Badiou. When Badiou approaches Plato, as he does in his Republic redo, he is compelled to read history backwards. Justice is all about expansive universal community and faith in the future, which is certainly not what Plato seems to have had in mind with his city state. We are dealing with Plato the millenarian, a Plato who is already Christian. While Voegelin perspicaciously noted that Plato in his Laws utilises a tripartite age system, announcing the coming of the Third God – the Age of Nous (intellect) – he did not seem to believe that this Age had to be forced. For that matter Plato (and Aristotle too) understood that symbolic psyche and nous had long existed and governed the rise and fall of other cultures, even if they had not meditated upon them.[11] Knowing about such things is not enough to imagine that a society might be able to avoid decline. For Badiou, however, it is all about the return of the promise of absolute egalitarianism in each Event. It was betrayed in the past, but it can be done properly next time.

Now one of the things that apparently often happens to Badiou is that some student or other says “But what if Nazism was an Event?” To this a great deal of sweaty obfuscating about “simulacra” (fake events) has to be offered. In the end this comes down to little more than Nazism excluded people. [12] This often works very well of course, because Nazism is the central moral evil of the post-war period, the great “never again” around which so much negative politics (we are not-X) is based.

But in all earnestness, what Utopian scheme (or society of any sort, for that matter), whether a mere speculation like Plato’s – which excluded the poets from the city – to the immanentism of Fascism, Communism and Liberalism is not based around the idea of only being possible if it necessarily excludes someone (the bourgeoisie, aristocrats, church, Jews, communists, fascists, Muslims, the “intolerant”, the white cishetero-patriarch)? Voegelin’s understanding of Gnostic “plans” was that the thinker deliberately “eliminates” anything that would make “the program appear hopeless and foolish” – he has to ignore basic aspects of reality to make a “second reality”.[13] Thus Voegelin talks about More and superbia, Hobbes lowering the bar to the summum malum and so on.  But I think he is missing something here, which he is very close to in discussing the Gnostic elsewhere – the resentment of reality. This resentment, I think, is projected onto certain scapegoat groups who come to be viewed as being responsible for the fallenness of reality and keeping the Gnostic vision from fruition. If they can be removed, then the “second reality” of course becomes possible.

I

But I think we are dealing with something far wider than merely Gnostic thought here, something which pre-existed it and which it merely hypertrophies. I would follow René Girard at this point. The only way to bind any social system together, in all its competitive “difference”, is for a sacrifice or a scapegoating to be made now and then to diffuse competition and violence. This is not Hobbesian,[14] it is simply an acknowledgment that, to a fair degree, human beings are jealous, resentful, factional and competitive creatures with a great deal of ontological insecurity. This is man’s “post-Fall” or “Iron Age” state. Through ritual he forms society and learns to turn his attention back towards a transcendental God, because he can never be free on Earth from some aspect violence. Job epitomises this, prefiguring Christ as the innocent victim before a distant God. But the scapegoat as a way of soaking up violence was always viewed as evil until Christ changed this. Thereafter we cannot help but think of it as something innocent. This causes us to become very confused. We prioritise the Christian “victimology” of those whom society seems to gang up on, but a society still needs to denounce some scapegoats as evil in order to reassert its collective sense of justice.

I think that Voegelin, for all his talk of human nature and speculations of living dikaion physei (just by nature), did not take the victimological nature of millenarianism adequately into account. Perhaps some societies have been able to produce stable conceptions of order or “natural law” for a while, but all symbolisations are mortal. Very rare indeed is it for a sacred moment to occur, usually one of natural or social disaster, in which people can transcend themselves and their factionalism and put all their differences aside for the sake of their community. I think it is this Event that rules more than that of the rara avis of revolution, which is merely a species within this much larger phylum.

Millenarianism is a special kind of scapegoating, a very ironic one, because it is fathered by Christ’s colossal scapegoating to save the world, but emerges out of the perceived incompleteness of this action. Christ is yet to return to finish the job to free us from mimetic violence – there shall be no more tears nor pain. The need to throw off the Earthly City and katechon and cut straight to the apocalypse and millennium demands the destructive scapegoating of all those who symbolise the Gnostic kosmokratores – those archon “rulers of the world” who keep it fallen. Two supreme victims emerge: those who for their sacred suffering are righteously destined to inherit the world after the Devil is driven out, and those who as scapegoats must perish for this to be the case. But there cannot be any identification with the mirror victim, for this shows up the flimsy “second reality” of the forced eschatology. And a very big sacrifice is needed indeed, an apocalyptic destruction of the entire current order, to force an immanentised perfection and equalisation of mankind. Once the Gnostic stream of thought latched onto eschatology to write its own “third testaments”, then the kosmokratores could become anyone who seemed to stand in the way of the prophet’s system for a remade reality.

But what about Socrates as victim? Girard seems to have believed that Socrates is to a degree guilty of what he has been accused of and Plato knows it – he is not the totally innocent “scapegoat”. Only Christ “has cancelled [his] accusation; he has set it aside. He nails the accusation to the Cross, which is to say reveals its falsity.”[15] The hemlock Socrates drank and writing too may have both been pharmakos, a word which means poison, medicine and scapegoat at the same time in Greek, as Derrida famously discussed,[16] but Voegelin does not note anything like this. Voegelin is more interested in Plato’s ideas that are put in the mouth of Socrates than Socrates himself. For that matter, when it comes to Jesus, like Badiou Voegelin seems more interested in the symbolisation of the “Pauline vision of the resurrection” than on the resurrection itself. In short I do not think we should write Girard and his theories off so easily. I think he’s on to something, especially with regard to the importance of the turn towards the scapegoat as innocent and sacred hero, prefigured by Job and Socrates but fulfilled by Christ. I do not think we can ignore that and what it means for the world we live in today.

One accusation that has been thrown at Girdard’s ideas is that they contain a sense of the pre-religious “sacred” that is fundamentally abstract, or as Slavoj Žižek has observed, even “neo-pagan”.[17] Indeed today the “sacred”, like the “spiritual” is often invoked as something “living” to avoid what seems like the undead prison-houses of exoteric religion. Girardian thinkers like Jean-Pierre Dupuy,[18] who attempt to apply Girard’s ideas to our current world and what it finds “sacred”, are obviously a little contradictory. I would like to modify this a little. Christianity as “cataclysm” comes to demystify the “sacred” of the old order, as Dupuy says. Yet, ironically, because of this Christianity becomes the “religion of exiting religion” through secular millenarianism. This opens up a kind of gap, especially in turn when the millenarian “political religions” too seem to have perished and left behind a hole where the soterical future was. This collapse reveals a strange underlayer, the fact that we have never quite been Christian – that “folk beliefs” co-existed all along.

Just as millenarianism is secularised eschatology, so too, might one say, there are secularised “folk beliefs” that never quite absorbed the idea that victimology might come completely to an end on Earth or in Heaven. The most important of these might be the concept of luck, good and bad. One could put patron saints over the top of the old household gods and providence over the top of Tyche, but this in turn meant that “official” Christianity was conquered from the inside by the everydayness of human existence. Philosophers of history tend to forget these small things. The only way they will be covered up again is by a “revival” of religion or secularised political religion.

However, Jack Trotter may well be right when he says that Voegelin would “detect an odour of nineteenth century positivism” in Girard’s ideas. [19] Often they do indeed seem preoccupied with old themes reminiscent of people like James Fraser: the founding tragedy, reliance on the imagining of a pre-social, pre-religious “primaeval scene”, as we might find in Freud or down to the Cambridge “ritualists”. The “primaeval scene” is simply a modern attempt to understand the aetiological myths which the Greeks and others lived by – those deeds which had taken place in the distant past that had created institutions, places and conceptions of justice and order in the cosmos that led down to a people’s world in the present.

If we ignore the “founding crimes” of Oedipus, Prometheus, Lucifer, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Romulus and Remus, the fitna and so on, then we do a disservice to how these peoples understood why the nature of things was. So too do we also erase how later peoples have attempted to reappropriate these to explain their own conceptions and symbolisations of divine and human nature. Early positivist anthropology especially latched on to these myths and perhaps went a bit far, of course positing that the sacred was just humans making things up, misunderstanding cause and effect. But how could they not latch on to these myths, even to mangle them, when there are so many myths which tell the origins and stability of things as built in blood? We should at least attempt to be open minded in our exploration.  Back in 2001 Charles K. Bellinger said that Girard should “drop the pretence of the methodological atheism of social science”, but acknowledged that he was moving in the direction of MacIntyre, Voegelin and John Milbank.[20] Now Girard is far more widely-known and applied by thinkers, I think that there is a good opportunity for a bit of dialogue between Voegelin and Girard especially. Thus what follows in an attempt to produce a Girard avec Voegelin on Badiou’s millenarianism.

II

In Voegelin’s understanding of the polis, the figure who is imitated is not the “scapegoat”, but he or she who comes with a new symbolisation of dike (justice) to bind the people together. This is readily apparent in his understanding of Greek tragedy. For instance Voegelin reads Aeschylus’ Suppliants as functioning as a “liturgy that re-enacts the great decision of Dike”. This to Voegelin seems to have typified the “impasse” when rival understandings of justice affect a society.[21] Curiously, Badiou also has an interest in Aeschylus, but not as a thinker of deliberation as Voegelin does. He views the playwright’s Oresteia as an example of the hero’s “institutive disruption”- the coming of something new, the “turning away from any return” to the old order. He writes: “courage and justice dialecticize anxiety and the superego, allow[ing] for divisibility and eluciadat[ing] the possibility of deliverance.”[22]

To Badiou Aeschylus never returns to an old order. He is the diametrical opposite of Sophocles and his Antigone in which the imperative is to uphold the existing social “superego”. Yet, like Badiou’s millenarian Plato, one cannot help but think that Badiou is reading history backwards to produce an Orestes who is some great “anti-oedipal” millenarian hero of the revolution. In context he is a man who is sent by the gods to kill his mother for killing his father, and is then protected by the same gods from the Furies and the mob of Athenians. If Orestes represents “courage” to Badiou and Athena represents “justice”, then the latter does not become simply the aetiological installer of the Athenian legal system in some “primeval scene” that reached down to the Athenians watching Aeschylus’ play, but what we might call a “messianic justice.” Athens and Jerusalem have been utterly confused.

Both Voegelin and Badiou are speaking of the “coming of the new” in Aeschylus, but their emphases could not be more different: the ritualization of the cohesion of the social order under new conditions vs. the courage to destroy the old order.  I would maintain that what Aeschylus is talking about in the Eumenides – Athena creating Athens’ first court and changing the Furies into guardians of the city with a new euphemistic name (“the kindly ones”) – has nothing to do with some conscious intention to destroy the old. It is all about having to adjust things in order to compromise with the unprecedented “founding crime” Orestes has committed – one that is fundamentally dissonant – both just and unjust (matricide of his father’s parricide).

Through a Girardian lens one might say that the violent blood-feud “arms race” that comes from Agamemnon’s death has to the be patched with the sacrificial compromise of a new Athenian legal system to prevent further violence. The Furies, the spirits of blood-feud, have to become civilised and let Orestes go. This emerges out of a moral exception for which no laws exist to stop the escalation of revenge. A re-evaluation of dike and its divine and human institutions have to be renegotiated, which holds to the audience’s present. It’s hard to think of anything less revolutionary than an enduring origin myth like this. In no way did it encourage people to think that they could apply Orestes’ example to overturn the current Athenian legal system (that I’ve ever heard of anyway). All one need do is read Athena’s speech to the Athenians in the Eumenides, as she installs the city’s first court:

“citizens of Athens! As you try this first case of bloodshed, hear the constitution of your court. From this day forward this judicial council shall for Aegeus’ race hear every trial of homicide…so do not taint pure laws with new expediency. Guard well that form of government which will eschew alike violence and slavery; and from your polity do not wholly banish fear. For what man living, freed from fear, will still be just? Hold fast such upright fear of the law’s sanctity, and you will have a bulwark of your city’s strength, a rampart around your soil, such as no other race possesses between Scythian and the Peloponnese. I hear establish you a court inviolable, holy and quick to anger, keeping faithful watch that men may sleep in peace.”[23]

If ever there was a clear symbol of Athenian exceptionalism rather than a universalism, then here it is. For that matter, the installation of a “court inviolable” brings with it the installation of that which Badiou wishes to have overturned – anxiety, fear and a moral “superego” against modification of the system in the name of “expediency”. A bulwark against mimetic violence has been founded and to interfere with it would mean unparalleled chaos and destruction. It seems that Badiou is about a wrong as it is possible to be.

However, on the other hand, Voegelin’s problem is that he does not move his understanding of “practical” communal dike beyond the example of Aeschylus and his audience. As “speculative thinkers” clearly Plato and Aristotle did not deal with having their new understandings of dike accepted as they new way of doing things in their societies. Philosophy remained something on the edge of society, as Leo Strauss would probably put it. Voegelin was a realist, perhaps even a “quietist”, some might say. Thus he has little to say about how the modern world might get something practical out of ancient Greek conceptions of dike. He was able to recognise that ideal political subjects such as those speculated by Plato and Aristotle were basically impossible, including the democratic liberal “patrician” capable of looking at society holistically, rather than just through the lens of culture war “hobby horses”.[24]

But far rarer, in fact fantastical, is the Badiouian millenarian Event and its Subject destined to bring about Utopia through an act of destruction. One tends to get as far as an imitatio of the apocalypse and then simply a different katechon that hold’s back its coming. If anything, it proves Aeschylus right in a certain manner. An “exception” to law leads to the formation of a new “founding” to prevent such an exception happening again. The last place one would expect a communist revolution to happen today would probably be in Russia or China. It is as though they have been immunised by the process, integrated it into their history, and continued on towards something else (whether this magically means “progress” or simply the open process of history).

III

This said, let us return to Girard to see what he thinks about social cohesion and modernity, because I think it has a lot to say about Badiou’s millenarian aspirations, our current world and the “Nazi question” which began this current investigation. Girard says of Enlightenment modernity, by which he would seem to largely mean post-war liberalism, and its ability to absorb the problems of social “difference” and competition:

“What would have acted as a deadly poison in other societies, giving rise to a crescendo of mimetic rivalry, can indeed produce terrifying convulsions within our own society. But up to now these have proved to be merely temporary. The modern world has got over them; it has drawn from them new strength… while developing its capacity to assimilate cultural elements and whole populations that had remained outside its sphere.” [25]

How might this be so? Perhaps people have simply been too busy consuming to be interested in one another except to try to bring them inside to allow them to be assimilated into the system. This, to me at least, certainly seems to have been the spirit of the part thirty years and its “end of history”, epitomised by the ironic relativism and “pragmatist” tolerance of Richard Rorty. Nonetheless, in the past few years, victimological identity politics concerning gender and race have certainly accelerated, especially as the far right have learned that they too could produce their own identity politics that could plug into the mana of being a victim. The legitimacy of “identity” is a new prioritised good – the thing to desire and imitate from others – and it has very sharp edges. It cannot quite simply be reduced to and tamed into a toothless “lifestyle” marketing and perspectivist studies in the humanities any longer – it is worth more social and cultural capital than anything that is directly for sale.

It might well seem that we have entered a mimetic arms race between victimological camps that can only end badly. The endlessly infighting of the “cultural left” and its “rainbow coalition” of victimological identities is perhaps the furthest thing from the sort of universalism someone like Badiou dreams of. In fact he has a profound tendency to blame the whole of post-modern liberal “relativism”, obsessions with identity and slow piecemeal social modification on Immanuel Kant, of all people. This is for a couple of reasons. The first is simply that Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy tries to reduce the Truth to purely human dimensions. This is too true and in the end of course it cannot help but aid in closing up spiritual reality to a totalising immanence. In comparison Badiou’s mathematics of Event is one which is “recognition-transcendent” – it always is, even if you don’t know about it, just like the slave boy in Plato’s Meno who is coaxed to “remember” the truth of Pythagoras’ theorem.[26] Instead of some rare Subject capable of catching a glimpse of this and breaking with history through Event, Kant gives us the permanent subject of human rights who is compelled to always be ethical without change. Kant closes up any possibility of social rupture or the coming of any new transcendental luminescence, as immanentist, secularised and millenarian as Badiou’s might be in practice.

To Badiou the (Neo)Kantianism of human rights and the UN is “reactionary”, because human rights can only ever be a negative ethics – the prevention of worse harm and evil. Perhaps from a millenarian “progressive” perspective he is not wrong. As Robert Meister has said on the issue, post-war human rights have been based around a “never again” of Nazism and genocide rather than a “positive” millenarian sense of a coming justice, a “not yet.”[27] Badiou goes as far as to claim that such Kantianism simply affirms whoever is epistemologically dominant and forms an imperative to become like them, namely the “white man.”[28] To Badiou it’s a lie for keeping people down so that a few benefit. Everyone else has to become like them if they are to be moral (or even survive). We might call it katechontic, an attempt to hold back the millennium by trying to produce a flawed but commensurate “cultural Christian” morality for the Earthly City. As Scruton notes, what Badiou is throwing out when he casts out Kant and Lévinas, is a history going back to the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule.[29] Badiou wants millenarianism because the universalism of the Earthly City and its compromises aren’t good enough and that’s that.

For Badiou it then only gets worse when the post-modern linguistic turn arrives. Now the Truth is completely occluded by relativistic “language games”, hermeneutics and attempts to just “let people get along”, so to speak.[30] As I’ve said before elsewhere, all that post-structural denigration of “humanism” for being exclusive of various minorities simply seems to mean the producing of a larger “progressive” humanism as though no break has really been made. Once again the values behind this stem from a secularised Christianity and its appeal to the sacred victim. But in short it looks like Badiou is trying to outflank the post-humanist cultural relativists at their own game of inclusion. The only way to envision such a universal gathering up of people is through revolution – not a liberal leftist modification of the system. Those who abandoned Marxism for this are guilty of sophistry, reaction and Evil – the betrayal of the last true revolutionary Event of May ’68.

This is even if Badiou too is guilty of abandoning Marxism, but in a slightly different way. He has no interest in economics whatsoever. Just like Slavoj Žižek, Badiou’s Marxism isn’t really a Marxism in the old conventionally understood sense anymore – it’s a millenarian emperor with no clothes on, the theological dwarf popping out of Walter Benjamin’s funfair puppet to give the game away. The cultural superstructure seems to have developed so much “relative independence” that it has simply flown off into outer space. What remains has got more in common with the psychoanalytic desire to shrink people’s brains – to make them disobey the katechontic liberal superego and believe in that of revolutionary messianic violence instead. In this I think Badiou’s mathematical ontologies become secondary. They are devices to produce the conviction that millenarianism remains possible and can be forced to take place when so many people believe that “there is no alternative” to the current system. In the end, like Kant, Badiou is all about the will to enact the Good.

Nonetheless, Badiou certainly seems to dodge the question over who gets killed for this to happen. In his system the only morality is loyalty to the Event and the only evil is betraying it, as I have said. When there is no Event there is no historical Subject. Most of history is confined simply to a kind of “profane” lower reality, so one might say, concerning which there is nothing moral or immoral to speak of. He sneers at the contemporary world because it seems to believe that there’s nothing eviler than simply dying.[31] He may be right about this, and it may be a little sad to say the least. But it’s a very odd to find a contemporary thinker basically drawing a de facto demarcation of what would have once been sacred and profane – kairos and akairos – versions of morality and history like this. The Good for Badiou is engaging in the “generic procedure” of naming the Event (the French Revolution, Russian Revolution etc.), keeping faith with it and allowing it to flower into permanent revolution. There’s more than enough room for it to be totally okay to slaughter an awful lot of people – just so long as they are standing in the way of the imagined trajectory of the Event and its coming age of universality.

The chance of such an Event seems absurdly unlikely. However, this does not necessarily mean that violence is off the cards regarding the current mores of victimology and identity. Girard, in a darker moment even pondered whether perhaps Freud, Marx and Nietzsche (those favourites of leftist “hermeneutics of suspicion”) had paved the way for the coming of the omnipresent victim, “delayed since time immemorial”. An entity that just wants to kill for the sake of a confused belief in liberation from everything because it has become convinced that it is totally entrapped: by religion, family, race, society etc. Girard worried that we might be running out of sacrificial rituals to deal with this. [32] This sort of situation is the last place we might ever imagine some great universal Event coming to knit together just about everyone for the sake of a shared scapegoat, even the obvious and popular enemy of the left called the straight-rich-white-man.

IV

Yet, I think that we have seen a moment of the sacred, a sacrificial ritual in recent times. After the Nazi rally at Charlottesville in mid-2017, during which a girl died, just about everyone seemed supportive of Big Tech (at least temporarily) banishing the far right from social media, let alone the thought that punching Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” was a pretty reasonable idea. The sensus communis decided that far right victimology and ressentiment about overt “white nationalism” and confederate statues was illegitimate. As a “simulacrum” (one might say) of what the sensus communis takes to be the legitimate “innocent” victim, its mimetic challenge had to be publicly and sacrificially cast out of the public sphere of the polis into “bare life”, as the guilty scapegoat needed to rebind society. The pharmakos (scapegoat) remains both poison and medicine. The “alt right” and satellites immediately realised that they had blown it. If the “movement” wasn’t already dead (at least since it ran out of gas after Trump was elected), then it now was. Anything seen to even vaguely tick the box of “Nazism/Reaction” will be occluded from the public sphere for at least a while to come. It will be back, but now everyone knows about it, and call itself whatever it might, it will tick the box of “Nazism” to the public sphere.

This realisation and banning wasn’t a millenarian revolution against the far right, though more than a little “hermeneutics of suspicion” about “whiteness” and an acceleration of removing confederate statues ensued when people began to ask how America could have produced such a thing in 2017. This was a katechontic negative politics, a reminder of the sanctity of “never again” in post-war society and how “it couldn’t happen here” remains a deep, dark fear. Because Charlottesville so firmly conjured up symbols of Nazism against which the post-war order has defined itself it could produce a massive ritualistic occurrence. This is just the sort of “Kantian” or “liberal” thing Badiou would hate.

But can such a negative politics really keep out the worst? Marxist Slavoj Žižek certainly finds the Girardian ideas of Jean-Pierre Dupuy to be contradictory when it comes to the idea that liberalism can prevent the coming of violence more than any other system. To Dupuy one is supposed to stave off the violence of revolution with liberalism’s negotiation about wages and social equality.[33] Yet, Žižek thinks that this repression of envy and resentment will only lead to the coming of greater fundamentalisms. Žižek wants his messianic communist violence because he believes, as Walter Benjamin did, that every fascism is a failed revolution. Instead, says Žižek, one should follow Dupuy’s observation that Christianity comes to bring “the sword” and destroy the “sacred” – the prior order.[34] If not, fascism and Christian and Islamic brands of reaction will fester in the dark. It is as though it becomes an arms race over who can co-opt the most envy in the hope that it will give way to a transformative violence.

We have indeed seen the coming of these “new fundamentalisms”. But what happened at Charlottesville may well be the closest thing one will get to a political Event today that binds people more than some fleeting internet neo-tribe or half-ironic Occupy protest, I think. What should stay with us, and which there is no room to talk about here, is simply the possibility that as the internet increasingly seems to diffuse “society” and the public sphere into “difference”, perhaps it is only if Big Tech is there with the liberalism’s primordial “lizard brain” – the Hobbesian “ban hammer” – that it will continue to be possible under some “toleration act v. 2.0”. This is a chilling thought. Google and friends have become a necessary wing of governance, expected to act as the sensus communis dictates. The side effects of this is that it aids in keeping any revolutionary Event out and that Silicon Valley has been handed the colossal responsibility to perform the task of prudent judgements of Solomon. Let’s see how this relationship progresses.

In part three of this essay we will look at Badiou’s rewrite of Plato’s Republic.

 

Notes

[1] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier, Stanford University Press, New York, 2003.

[2] Idem, Being and Event, pp. 213-22.

[3] For an overview of contemporary leftist millenarian language see: Rocco Gangle, “Messianic Media: Benjamin’s Cinema, Badiou’s Matheme, Negri’s Multitude,” JCRT 10.1, 2009, pp. 26-41.

[4] Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution, trans. Matteo Mandarini, Continuum, New York, 2005;

[5] Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2003; idem and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2009; idem and Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012.

[6] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Black and Red, Michigan, 1983, section 138.

[7] See: Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Concept of History,” trans. Dennis Redman, 2005, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm

[8] Christopher Ben Simpson, Deleuze and Theology, Bloomsbury, London, 2012. Cf. Daniel Colucciello Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2014. Also see: Peter Hallward, Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation, Verso, New York and London, 2006 which seems to have started the trend of recognising that if Deleuze is a Spinozan atheist to the point that sees no difference between God and the immanent world, one arrives at a kind of pantheism.

[9] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, London, 2000, p. 396.

[10] Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012, pp. 98-102.

[11] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, trans. and ed. Gerhart Niemeyer, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1990, p. 90.

[12] Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward, Verso, London, 2001, esp. p. 74. See also: Elad Lapidot, entry “Jew, uses of the word,” in Steven Corcoran et al, The Badiou Dictionary, Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

[13] Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol 5: Modernity Without Restraint, ed. Manfred Henningson, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2000, p. 305f.

[14] In fact Girard seems to find Hobbes’ lack of consideration of the spiritual origins of society and his “contract theory” to be insufficient to explain social formation. It is through scapegoating that the war of all against all is avoided. See: Michael Kirwan, Discovering Girard, Cowley Books, Lanham, New York, Toronto, London, 2005, pp. 43-7; Ysavel Johnston, “Mimesis and Ritual: Girardian Critique of the Social Contract,” Res Cogitans, 5.1, 2014, pp. 169-77.

[15] René Girard, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams, Orbis Books, New York, 2001, p. 138. See also: Wm. Blake Tyrell, The Sacrifice of Socrates: Athens, Plato, Girard, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing MI, 2012.

[16] Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1981.

[17] Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012, pp. 66-70.

[18] See: Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mark of the Sacred, trans. M. B. Debevoise, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2013.

[19] Jack E. Trotter, “Tragedy and the Polis in Eric Voegelin’s Order and History,” in Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin, eds. Glenn Hughes et al, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield UK, 2001, pp. 516-44. esp. pp. 538-42.

[20] Charles K. Bellinger, The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom and Evil, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 88.

[21] Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol 5: Modernity Without Restraint, ed. Manfred Henningson, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2000, pp. 144-6.

[22] Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, pp. 164-7.

[23] Aeschulus, The Eumenides, 681-706. Pp. 170-1. The Oresteian Trilogy, trans. Philip Vellacott, Penguin Classics, London, 1977.

[24] Eric Voegelin, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 31: Hitler and the Germans, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1999, pp. 84-5.

[25] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1987, p. 285.

[26] See: Christopher Norris, Derrida, Badiou and the Formal Imperative, Bloomsbury, London, 2012, p. 103f.

[27] Robert Meister, After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights, Columbia University Press, Columbia, 2012.

[28] Alain Badiou, Ethics, p. 13.

[29] Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, p. 254.

[30] See esp. Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens, Continuum, London, 2003.

[31] Alain Badiou, Plato’s Republic, p. 35.

[32] Ibid, p. 287.

[33] See: Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mark of the Sacred.

[34] Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain, pp. 66-70.

 

This is the second of two parts. Part one and three are available.

Jonathan Ratcliffe

Written by

Jonathan Ratcliffe is Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a doctoral candidate in Asian History at the Australian National University. He is working with Chris Heggie-Brown on a history of technology and politics, provisionally titled "Voegelin Among the Machines."