The Millenarian Platonism of Alain Badiou (Part I)

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

 

Plenty of books have been written about Plato’s Republic. However, as far as I can tell, there have only been a couple of efforts to rewrite it entirely. One is Douglas Woodruff’s amusing old skit Plato’s American Republic in which a Toquevillean Socrates visits the country during the prohibition era.[1] A more recent attempt is that of French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou.[2] Contemporary trades replace the ancient technai, Adeimanthus becomes a female student Amantha; Socrates becomes an avowed communist whose Ideas are no longer the transcendental Platonic Forms, but loyalty to the idea of the revolutionary Event.

The concept is utterly bizarre. A weird, self-indulgent act of pneumatopathological sacrilege perhaps. Nonetheless, this isn’t going to be a review to encourage people to “hate-read” a book, nor simply an attempt to knock it down for fun. I want to look at Badiou’s ideas in detail. Thus, what was supposed to be a small review has become, as things I write often do, a rather long investigation attempting to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Badiou is actually quite fascinating. I think we might learn a thing or two by looking at how someone attempts to translate Plato into contemporary symbolism – where it fails, and where it might almost succeed at understanding a few things. In this first part of the essay I will undertake an overview of Badiou’s Platonism, in the second his millenarianism and in the third we will put them together in a detailed review of his Plato’s Republic.

I

For a Maoist to “update” Plato is in itself a pretty amusing idea. When was the last time the reader met an actual Maoist? Didn’t they all just disappear at some point by the mid-1970s after their “cultural revolution” heyday in the 1960s? In spite of recent grumblings that efforts to pull down confederate statues in the US are a new “cultural revolution”,[3] or links old communists would tell us exist that show liberal “safespace” culture is a descendant of an identitarian “soft Maoism” imported into the US in the 1960s,[4] Maoism isn’t really a thing anymore. In China Xi Jinping may have recently been elevated to having his own “thought” like Mao,[5] yet one is hard pressed to think of contemporary “state capitalist” China as anything even vaguely akin to the incensed Maoism of the old days. But that’s exactly what Badiou is – a leftover Maoist. He is of the same generation as all those French post-modernists/post-structuralists like Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault and Deleuze. However, unlike their embrace of the death of metanarratives (including Marxism), Badiou remained a communist. He is Plato, the maintainer of Truth, or at least so he thinks; his enemies are the Sophists, those who revel in opinion, rhetoric and cynicism.

Badiou’s relationship with Gilles Deleuze, for instance, is quite famous. Badiou’s rejection of the latter’s vitalist philosophy of desire and acceleration as “fascist” for getting rid of dialectics (and thereby able to absorb unmediated any influence or occurrence that comes along) can be felt echoing down to his version of Plato’s Republic. [6] Much will be said on this in part 3 of this essay. A major part of the quarrel between Badiou and Deleuze is their squabbling over the idea of the “event”, which comes from Heidegger’s late concept of Ereignis. The event is a very important and disputed idea in contemporary continental thought. As one might expect, there is a profound tendency to use the term to illustrate the idea that Being inherently produces millenarian collectivist politics which break with the present.[7] But what did Heidegger mean by this word Ereignis? He himself connected it with eigen (one’s own) – trying to remain authentic to yourself by “owning” the things that befall you; others with the possibility of something becoming visible to people – an ontological opening up which allows events to take place and be perceived. [8] However, both Badiou and Deleuze have taken this into very different territory.

Deleuze, for starters, was not a phenomenologist like Heidegger, but a kind of process thinker keen to leave behind the anthropocentrism of Kant’s “Copernican revolution in philosophy”. His concept of event is drawn from Whitehead’s “occasion”-  a proto-chaos theory view of sprawling actuality, concrescence and becoming. This, in turn, took much of its reference from a return to Plato’s concept of the “receptacle” in the Timaeus, but with the Form universals replaced by “eternal objects” – particulars that might or might not ever be actualised into being.[9] Deleuze went further, inverting Platonism into a becoming of multiplicity and difference in which there is no such thing as identity any longer. The Deleuzian “event” is not some World-Historical Event. It is simply the name for how particulars – people, objects – conjoin and disjoin from one another in assemblages and flows of becoming. Everything is bound up in a flat ontology of “chaosmos” – an organismic process of interpenetration and emergence. Events are ubiquitous, mundane even, and people do not really mean an awful lot. For all their desires, they are simply part of a much larger mass of chaotic vitalist matter.

Badiou in rivalry to this attempted in Being and Event to create his own philosophy of multiplicity based upon Plato. He goes back to Plato’s thorniest of dialogues: the Parmenides. With the seeming irresolution of the problem of one/many and being/non-being in this text, Badiou decides that if only Plato had modern mathematics available to him, 20th c. set theory to be precise, he would have been able to try to gather up the void of multiplicity into “count as one” Events. [10] These do not totalise Being – they are always a subtraction from a Void that can never quite be grasped, a Not-All. Thus, the Truth/Good cannot be accessed as a whole, but the small t truth of naming and gathering up and Event can, as Badiou makes clear in his version of the Republic.[11] Badiou even had the cheek to write a book in which he claimed that Deleuze remained a Neo-Platonist because he was unable to break free of the One.[12] Deleuzians like Clayton Crockett lash back claiming that: “. . . Badiou favours fewer grander events over smaller and more numerous ones. He charges Deleuze with sanctioning too many events, which for Badiou end up all being one event rather than a multiplicity.”[13] This is where rivalry gets you.

Back in the 60s Badiou used to send students to disrupt Deleuze’s classes, and throughout the 70s and 80s when everyone else had lost faith after May ’68, he desperately attempted to “keep the faith”. It is this idea that is the centre of Badiou’s sprawling philosophical project composed of inscrutable maths puzzles, all set out to prove that revolutionary communist Event is still somehow possible. Through books such as Theory of the Subject and Being and Event and its sequel The Logic of Worlds, Badiou sets out to show that human beings are basically wired to perceive and name revolutionary Events.[14] In this he remains a kind of anthropocentric “humanist” and “phenomenologist”, one might say, because his fixation is on how human politics engages with ontology.

Badiou presents a historicism without historicism – all that matters is looking at previous Events such as the French and Russian Revolutions, those who were loyal to them and where they went wrong. Political “Subjects” (capital S) only come into existence in relation to such Events and are then have to remain loyal to them and their natural unfolding and mutation. The only true evil is the “betrayal” of an Event. This sits at the core of Badiou’s version of Plato’s Republic. Rather than the Platonic history of the decay of political paradigms from philosopher Guardians, to timocrats, plutocrats, democracy and then tyranny, Badiou’s version is the history of the “betrayal” of communist revolution into militaristic nationalism, plutocracy, collapse into Western liberal democracy and finally into a coming fascism. The book is certainly a strange read – something which could only be written after the failure of “real existing communism”.

II

But why would a Maoist be interested in Plato? Didn’t communists like Stalin and Mao characterise Plato’s entire philosophy as nothing more than the ideology of slaveowners? Nevertheless, Badiou sees in Plato two things he likes very much. The first is that he regards Plato as the father of communism. Plato’s political speculations about the just society outlined in the Republic are indeed often regarded as the ancestor of communism, if not also fascism – especially for those who seem to think Karl Popper’s first volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies has something to say. Voegelin of course did not. If anyone ever wished to read some of the most interesting abuse ever written, then perhaps he or she might like to read Voegelin and Strauss’ correspondence on Popper’s book. [15] Voegelin basically calls Popper a Starbucks hipster. It’s a little funny.

To Voegelin Plato was simply speculating and making myths about what a just order that overcame mere opinion and aligned with the divine Good might look like. Yet, this was always going to be hypostatised. There’s an old story (however true) that Plotinus tried unsuccessfully to get a Roman Emperor to build an experimental Republic community. Then there’s Thomas More’s Utopia, where if it were not for superbia (pride) a “Platonic” society would be totally possible. To end in Mussolini walking around with a copy of the Republic under his arm (as he occasionally apparently did) is an odd outcome, but not totally unexpected. As a Platonist teacher of mine once darkly said on the communist and fascist question: “I sometimes think that the best thing about Plato is that his ideas are in a book.”

Nonetheless, I think it has to be said that one of the great marks of genius in Plato’s Republic is that it is a speculation about a society which manages to overcome the destructive aspects of the economic for the sake of moral excellence, justice and community. I would say that there’s more than a little truth in Kojin Karatani’s theory that the “Axial Age” and its attempts to make a “leap into the universal” must at least be partially understood as an economic age as much as an ecumenic one. The acceleration of urban society and markets brings about the realisation in several cultures at once across Eurasia that one does not live in a small tribe of gift-economies any longer. The task is how to think a “humanity” that puts everyone back into the same tribe again. [16]

For Plato that meant the idea of a city state ruled by warrior-philosophers, in which current understandings of music, wealth, poetry, education and even the family would have to be changed to re-harmonise with the cosmos. For someone like Confucius, “order under heaven” meant the idea of a city with no gates because there would no longer be any enemies.[17] All would be at peace. Yet, while both philosophers were realists, and learned the hard truth that kings could not be taught to be philosophers so easily, someone like Badiou is of course far closer to Mao’s “there is great disorder under heaven and the situation is excellent.”

The second thing Badiou finds so attractive about Plato is the high place the father of philosophy gives to mathematics. Badiou goes as far as to call mathematics the precision added to the “Marxist razor” with which the “bourgeois pigs” will be slaughtered.[18] In spite of the banal bombast here, it is of course possible to look at Plato’s positing geometric proportion as the highest form of learning in several ways. One is simply that Plato is a kind of naïve clunky foundationalist, which has been a popular negative interpretation along with characterising his Theory of Forms as “essentialist”. Voegelin, in comparison, viewed Plato as more of a transcendental speculative “process thinker”, but in order to do this he seems to have gone out of his way to ignore the Forms and Plato’s mathematics. [19]

Perhaps Voegelin’s shying away from the Forms was in line with his comments concerning the “closed” cosmology of Aristotle and Aquinas. Such things had been superseded by modern physics and astronomy and we can no longer speak the old cosmological language. Nonetheless, he emphasised that a “solid core” of symbols, mostly political, could still be salvaged.[20] With the superseding of Euclidean geometry it became a little harder to be a Platonist perhaps (though this never stopped my old Guénonian Platonist teacher Roger Sworder). That is unless of course one might be like Albert Lautmann and believe that mathematics continued to dialectically evolve.[21] Badiou is such a thinker. He believes that Plato was right in spirit, but that as maths unfolds it can show us new tools for thinking about how the world might be structured. But most importantly Badiou believes that there should be no division between the mathematical, ontological and political – just as Plato did.

Badiou’s “Platonism” is centred upon set theory – a taxonomical attempt to organise mathematical objects into well-defined groups or “sets”, and in the case of Zermelo-Frankel set theory, even to try to produce a foundational grammar for all of mathematics. The very idea of someone like Badiou trying to use Zermelo-Frankel set theory to talk about Being qua Being may indeed seem very strange. Analytical philosophers, the masters of set theory, are not usually so interested in the “Being” question that Heidegger revived. They tend to agree with Kant that Being just means whether something is or isn’t and nothing more. As British philosopher Roger Scruton says concerning Badiou’s idea that all arithmetic can be constructed from φ, the empty set:

“Set theory does not presuppose the existence of anything . . . since we can construct mathematics from no ontological assumptions, it would be natural that it is not mathematics, but physics, say, which tells us what ultimately exists. But, no, this is not Badiou’s conclusion. Since mathematics is ontology, he argues, we can conclude that the world consists in multiplicity and the void.”[22]

For Badiou, φ becomes the ontological “Void” of multiplicity out of which sets can be conjured as “count as one” Events. This is very interesting because continental philosophers don’t tend to be interested in things like set theory. However, this has changed a little in recent times. Deleuze’s philosophy made use of the calculus and Mandelbrot’s chaos theory, at very least as aesthetics for talking about complexity, multiplicity and dynamic relations. We should not forget that from Descartes to Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz early modern philosophy was closely bound to mathematics – especially the nature of infinity.[23] Yet, one of the most interesting things about Badiou and Deleuze is that while both Georg Cantor with his sets and Leibniz and Newton with their calculus were deeply religious men, who, in the tradition of Plato, saw their discoveries as evidence for the existence of God, Deleuze and Badiou are of course avowed atheists. In fact their obsession with multiplicity to avoid the One, is on both counts deeply linked to a need to be free of anything like God. Monism belongs to the tyrant, to “The Judgement of God”. It is not only the fact that the Gnostic loathes the “order of things”, it is that after so many failed prior millenarian visions, he also has to deal with how to avoid their past mistakes.

After Heidegger continental thinkers talking about Being have become deeply paranoid that their ontology might be able to become fascist or reactionary, which, so one expects, accounts for Badiou’s need to call Deleuze’s vitalism of desire “fascist”; so too the phenomenon of François Laruelle’s impenetrable “non-philosophy” with its neurosis about “decisionism” – philosophers deciding that such and such might be the case.[24] After what became of Nazism and “real existing” Communism, much of the post-war period in continental thought has deliberately emphasised the immanence and multiplicity of entities and the inability to gather up a totalising Whole. Voegelin belonged to this same era too of course and his speculative anti-foundationalism possesses similar “post-modern” echoes. Nonetheless, he went off in a completely different direction, towards the pre-intentional nature of religious experience and the “cataclysm” of eschatological immanentism. But to Badiou because mathematics universalises it is the best way to ground universalism. It just needs an escape hatch, a Void of multiplicity that can never be wholly gathered up. This is to prevent it from totalising so that the New can always emerge, no matter how deadlocked against Event a society might seem, whether a failed revolution that becomes a fascism or the neo-liberal “end of history”.

A big influence on Badiou seems to be post-structural psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. For instance, in Badiou’s version of the Republic all references to the gods become the Other – the superego. But most important is Badiou’s use of the Lacanian concept of “mathemes” – the reappropriation of mathematical and structuralist symbols to represent concepts in Freudian psychology. Lacan is often regarded by people outside of continental philosophical circles as one of the biggest quacks of the twentieth century, and his weird system of post-structuralist symbols is no exception. Who could forget Lacan’s arcane representation of the phallus as the square root of -1?[25]

Badiou takes this a step further. In works like Theory of the Subject he blurs references to geometric topology and psycho-political “topology”. Thus, when Badiou deploys the word “site”, it’s hard to tell, for me at least, whether he means a literal place where a revolution starts, or whether he means some sort of set of psycho-political conditions in a society. Either way, the site seems to be all about trying to force “torsion” upon something called “splace” (Fr. esplace – it’s a neologism). This appears to be a spatial metaphor (?) for people erroneously thinking that they have managed to structure reality completely.[26] That’s the best I can do with that. Basically, revolutions have to be forced through wherever a historical gap in social order might appear. To deal with all this Badiou constructs strange graphs of belief, courage, and loyalty to outline the processes his revolutionary subject goes through.[27] He invents his own set theory symbols like the tiny “ex” for event and its “site”. This symbol is apparently always true, is always impossible until it is possible, and breaks the Zermelo-Frankel set theory imperative that no set can contain itself.[28] This is guaranteed to annoy the mathematicians and analyticals no end.

FIG 1. Theory of the Subject, p. 307 illustrating the “conceptual mapping of the subjective process.”

Thus, at once Badiou’s system(s) is very, very easily dismissible as nonsense. It is so idiosyncratic that it verges on the Gnosticism of only Badiou and those who at least accept most of his premises being able to judge the system. As to whether the reader laughs at it, pities it a little for the fact that Marxism has sunk to this level to keep itself on ice, or can even wrap their head around what’s going on, will depend on their degree of patience and curiosity. It’s a millenarian maths test and that’s that.

III

But the truth is that Badiou’s popularity can only really be explained, I think, in light of the fact that there are a lot of young people out there who are at least romantically attracted to the idea of truly believing in something purposeful that transforms victimhood into a hero subjectivity, at least as a novelty – a LARPing of fideism. I have certainly been party to what a book like Theory of the Subject can do to online philosophy groups. It can turn cynical post-modern defeatists murmuring about “late capitalism” into utter zealots.[29] The point is to cast a spell of absolute conviction. But that’s the thing. This isn’t the sort of leftist philosophy one can explain to everyday people with a bit of poster agitprop. For starters Badiou only recognises four legitimate philosophical Subjects able to engage in his revolutionary “generic process”: the artist, the scientist, the politician and lover (?!?). These exist to name the “Event” and drive it. Everyone else is basically along for the ride.

Now one could say a great deal here about “Western Marxism” here, the bourgeois leftist “creative”, the old insult of the baizuo (white leftist), which Chinese Maoists used to deploy in the 60s when romantic Western Maoists would turn up on their doorstep wanting to be part of the great “cultural revolution”.[30] Badiou appeals to academics with a romantic thirst to belong to a period in time with an Event like the hippy days of May ’68 as much as his work equally appeals to academics simply hungry for something new and hard to play with after exhausting all those French post-structuralists. One isn’t sure if Badiou’s appeal is simply because it is a puzzle and people like to believe most things that go over their heads (as Aristotle said), or whether it is a matter of recalcitrant post-Christian fideism – the old credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd). A strong dose of both seems the only logical answer.

Nonetheless, it took a very long time for Badiou to reach the English-speaking world compared with his post-structural contemporaries and he seems to be at his peak of influence at present. His version of Plato’s Republic from 2012 was actually written over several years in conjunction with his English translator at the same time, so that both a French and English addition would appear simultaneously. Badiou now pitches his ideas to the increasingly America-centric world of “continental” thought.[31] As Francois Cusset’s history of French “post-modernism” in America, French Theory, makes clear, by the mid-1970s the influence in France of the “generation of ‘68” had been and gone and a series of neo-liberal “new philosophers” had replaced them. [32] Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and friends only “got big” when their ideas were imported into the American university system.

This reception reshaped these “French ideas” towards pre-existing American liberal fixations- especially race and second wave feminism. This edifice became what is today called “theory” or “critical theory”. This “critical theory” bears hardly any resemblance to what the Frankfurt Hegelians meant by the term when they criticised technology and the entertainment industry in the name of Reason. On a personal aside I will say that I don’t believe in the conspiracy of “cultural Marxism” that the miserable old Frankfurters often seemed to get tarred with online today. Is not everyone a cultural critic now, revolted at the culture industry and its attempts at moralism and irony, even if they nonetheless remain eager consumers? I call the current cultural situation “cultural neo-liberalism” because that’s exactly what it is: an academic and media “culture war” complaint industry powerless to do anything but produce new “identity” markets – a parochial moral superstructure to the American Century’s declared “end of history”, a “soft power” if one would dare go so far.

To understand all the current identitarian “social justice warrior” stuff, I think one at very least has to go back a long way and understand America as a nation settled and built on a millenarian optimism, as the exceptionalist land where to the settler protestants Revelation would play out. This was increasingly secularised throughout the nineteenth century into the pursuit of equality in matters such as race, as Jonathan Kirsch shows so well in his A History of the End of the World. As Kirsch says, America is unique in the West as a land of two millenarian “tectonic plates” – one a secularised future-directed optimism, and the other a kind of primordial religiosity that takes things like the Rapture deadly seriously.[33] One does not find this sort of climate elsewhere and it is not the sort of place where communism or fascism with their great revolutionary Events ever really had a purchase. Voegelin understood this uniqueness very well – he aptly noted that the Anglosphere, but the US in particular, had received a “second reformation” in the form of Wesleyanism and other later protestant movements. This had “immunised” it against the worst of communism, fascism and positivism by emphasising a shared, democratic public sphere descended from the “covenant community”, in which the whole population played an active role.[34]

Instead of a single millenarian telos, there has been a curious assumption about a piecemeal constant dawning of the “third age” of freedom, that enlarges the valid political community along with opportunity, wealth and technology. One of the odder aspects of this is a recurrent belief that everyone is the real libertarian individual with the real elect community and anyone who opposes you is the Man. In the 60’s the New Left, with their “neither Marx nor Jesus” drew their social mana from the legitimacy of disobedience against the WASP “One Dimensional Man” – even if this ended up producing the industry of commercial selfism and identity we see today.[35] Even the recent US “alt right” seem to have largely been the product of right wing libertarians gone-haywire against the left as the Man.

If there are strange pathologies to this culture then they are ones with very old roots and cannot be wholly blamed on some morose French or German “other” that has been added later on and corrupted a naïve and optimistic culture, as an Allan Bloom or Jordan Peterson would claim. Conservatives seem to spend an awful lot of time talking about left liberals “hating America” and being “thankless” because of their constant critique of every aspect of its culture, as though somehow prior to the 1960s no one was very critical at all. Voegelin in the 1950s saw that there was a certain kind of cynicism inherent in the very nature of American liberal democracy and its mass communication systems – both tend to fragment, exaggerate and breed disappointment.[36] Since then we have entered rapid mutations into a public sphere of hyper-critique, in which everyone has become the “chattering classes” –  a news producer, entertainer and opinion maker. To not critique threatens a loss of the self, of falling back down into a mass of just so many others shouting that they exist.

But a curious progressive optimism, sometimes more than a little creepy and mendacious to the cynic, also seems to shine through. “Progressive” history in the Anglo Whig sense (including its conservatives) always hates the past for the sake of the present and imminent/immanent future and most people seem at least reasonably okay with the majority of such progresses. Even the most stolid American reactionary seems willing to believe that it was all good progress till a chosen point when it all “went too far”. Not even neo-reactionary thinker Mencius Moldbug, who understands a little of the secularisation of protestant egalitarianism in the history of America (“Creeping Calvinism” etc.), seems unable to realise that American optimism about technology and capitalism has a distinctly progressive and millenarian fervour to it, unique in the world. One cannot have the constant dawning of the techno-millennium without the social-millennium too.

Nonetheless, thinkers of all stripes (especially the Gnostic) are very often prone to saturnine and melancholy humours – it comes with the territory. Yet for each miserable post-modern leftist academic pessimistically thundering about structural racism, climate change, capitalism, gender or whatever, the popular mass-reception of such ideas seems to be translated into a naïve liberal optimism, a Whig historicism, about being on the “right side of history”. The past was Hell on Earth until ten minutes ago, but now we are so terribly good. If anything, this may well be the best thing ever invented for keeping the academic communists down. They can invent all the ideas they like – the liberals disarm them by reshaping them. Some of then even have a term for this, the “vampire’s castle”, a sort of curious unintended mirror of the Moldbuggian reactionary resentment of the touted “Cathedral” of liberal elites.[37] Outside the “Overton Window” everyone is bitter.

The fact is that the American reappropriation of a relativist and deconstructive post-modernism that was far from “progressive”, “universalist” or “humanist” in situ, secured an afterlife for such ideas as simply a continuation, expansion and mutation of American progressive, universalist and humanist historical narratives, seen to form a chain leading back at least as far as the abolition of slavery, and perhaps of course to the Constitution and its “self-evidence” that all men are born free and equal. Perhaps post-modern pragmatist Richard Rorty epitomised this most strongly – there is no objective truth, just perspectives, but somehow a progressive imperative towards inclusion and fairness survives for its own sake, and not merely a relativist stalemate. The touted post-modernists very easily forget their own supposed deconstruction of progress and reason, and so too never question the central sanctity and destiny of the oppressed which they inherited from the metaphysics of Christianity – we might call it victimocentrism – which is bound to annoy people, even if I intend it as a matter of speculative observation rather than an insult.

The species-being of “Man” has simply been widened to include woman, non-whites and different sexualities, which come to be prioritised almost as sacred to some.[38] Through the colossal influence of American academia liberal democratic “post-structuralism” has been proselytised world-wide as a global industry, a “left Fukuyama” attempting to universalise an “end of history” moral system, always updating itself with the latest piecemeal political causes. Nonetheless, preoccupations with ideals such as gay marriage, gender spectrums, whiteness as original sun and “cultural appropriation” must seem very parochial and alien indeed to much of the world outside this immediate Americacentric circle and its satellites. If there is one thing Voegelin understood almost too well, it is that all ecumenic universalisms are parochial, mortal, and just about all of them the product of empires. So it goes.

All the while a phatic cynicism and faithlessness seems to dominate most beyond (and often simultaneously in the same person) as this “normal” progressive worldview. Plato and Tocqueville knew all too astutely that democracy breeds venality and economic injustice. People are clearly not happy with their lot, perhaps because they have been promised a great deal but do not seem to be able to attain it, or even form a coherent image of the future, human purpose and just community they desire. This is the grand irony of a millenarian liberal democratic system with a constant piecemeal “dawning of the third age” rather than some single great teleology like Badiou’s – purpose can evaporate easily, especially when religion does, and so too faith in being part of an exceptionalist political religion such as American republicanism.

Occasionally this metastasises into a futureless lashing out, as we have seen with the rise of white identitarianism, Black Lives Matter, online “meme war”, and the protest vote of Trump in the past couple of years. Post-modern philosophy (however liberalised or neo-Marxist) should not be confused with a far more general post-modern condition – a taedium vitae (tiredness at life), that has been steadily building after a century of miserable wars, the reduction of everything to infotainment, the growth of crippling personal and national debt, and the loss of faith in authority, religion and social “progress” after so many broken promises about the soterical future. It’s all the rage to call it “late capitalism”, but it may well be simply the “late American century” before something stranger takes centre stage ecumenically. That could still be quite a long way off. When it comes to disenchantment and the politicising of social media as a Gnostic consolation to try to escape this, the truth is that we may well have seen nothing yet.

However, so it seems, the kairos moment has currently come for “post-structuralism’s” contemporary enemy, Badiou, to be received. One wonders what will become of him and his magical spells of mathematical conviction. Probably not very much except a few PhD theses. One should however note his student Quentin Meillassoux’s “speculative realism”/“object orientated ontology”, which thinks of the world as forever incomplete – a Not-All- another ontology with an escape hatch like that of Badiou.[39] Meillassoux’s is an anti-humanist and naturalistic philosophy, which views human beings as totally unimportant in the scheme of things, right down to the dismissal of any kind of anthropic principle as “correlationist”. It’s hard to think of something more opposed to Badiou’s very anthropocentric political ontology (in fact it appears far more post-Deleuzian in content and spirit), but that is that. Currently, at least, it seems far easier for most of the newer continental philosophers to fall into an anti-humanist naturalism as a consolation for political powerlessness (especially regarding climate change) than it is for them to ever believe in something as arcane as Badiou’s Event.

In the second part of this essay we will look closely at the specifically millenarian nature of Badiou’s thought and his own critique of post-modern philosophy and politics. We will also look closely at the ideas of anthropologist René Girard in conjunction with those of Voegelin as a contrast to the millenarian Platonism of Badiou.

 

Notes

[1] Douglas Woodfruff, Plato’s American Republic, Kegan Paul, New York and London, 1927.

[2] Alain Badiou, Plato’s Republic, trans. Susan Spitzer, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, [2012] 2015.

[3] Federalist Staff, “Davidson: The Left’s Impulse to Tear Down Confederate Statues is like Mao’s Cultural Revolution,” Federalist, 16th August 2017, http://thefederalist.com/2017/08/16/davidson-lefts-impulse-tear-confederate-statues-like-maos-cultural-revolution/

[4] Mike McNair, “Left Unity and Safespaces,” Communist Party of Great Britain, 2014, https://vimeo.com/109559639

[5] Chris Buckley, “China Enshrines Xi Jinping Thought, Elevating Leading to Mao-like Status,” New York Times, 24th October 2017,  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/world/asia/china-xi-jinping-communist-party.html

[6] Alain Badiou, “The Fascism of the Potato.Review of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari “Rhizome” Minuit Paris 1976,” in Alain Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy,  ed. and trans.  Bruno Bosteels, Verso Books, London and New York, 2012.

[7] Brian Massumi, The Power at the End of the Economy, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2015. Cf. Slavoj Žižek, In Defence of Lost Causes, Verso, New York, 2008, pp. 148-53. Here Žižek argues for Heidegger’s “openness” towards being to be transformed into a communist “messianic violence”. He argues that it was Heidegger’s “allergy” to morality which made him support and condone Nazism rather than to have the courage to attack capitalism. Heidegger is remade into a Stalinist.

[8] See especially: Claude Romano, Event and World, trans. Shane MacKinlay, Fordham University Press, 2009, pp. 11-20.

[9] A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, Free Press New York, 1961, esp. pp. 150-9; Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, esp. pp. 76-82 Cf. a combination of Deleuze, Whitehead and William James to talk about the “event” in the first chapter of this book: Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and Occurent Arts, MIT Press, London, 2013.

[10] Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham, Continuum, New York, [1987] 2005, pp. 52-9.

[11] Idem, Plato’s Republic, p. 207.

[12] Alain Badiou: Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, trans. Louise Burchill, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000. See this reply by a Deleuzian which seem to vindicate the idea that Badiou didn’t really know what he was talking about concerning the difference between univocity and the One in relation to Being: Jon Roffe, Badiou’s Deleuze, Acumen, Durham UK, 2012.

[13] Clayton Crockett, Deleuze Beyond Badiou: Ontology, Multiplicity and Event. Columbia University Press, New York, 2013, p. 131.

[14] Alain Badiou, Being and Event, idem, Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels, Continuum, New York, [1982] 2009; idem, The Logic of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. Alberto Toscano, Bloomsbury Academic, London, [2007] 2013.

[15] Peter Emberly and Barry Cooper, Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2004.

[16] Kojin Karatani, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, trans. Joseph A. Murphy, Duke University Press, Durham and London, [2012] 2017, pp. 1-10.

[17] On this see: Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres II: Globes, trans. Wieland Hoban, Semiotext(e), South Pasadena CA, [1999] 2014, pp. 300-03.

[18] Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, p. 210.

[19] One of the elephants in the room in Voegelin’s understanding of Plato, especially his Timaeus, is that he shies away from Platonic cosmology and mathematics, especially the Forms. See: Eric Voegelin, Plato, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1966, p. 201 which talks about the “receptacle” but not the Forms. These are ignored completely. Mind you Leo Strauss, The City and Man, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1964, p. 51 seems unable to have taken the theory seriously and called it “fantastic”. Plato did after all let Parmenides knock down the theory with the “third man argument”, one should recall. Why did he do this? Either way, both Strauss and Voegelin seem to have been keener to salvage a political Plato for today, than anything of his cosmology. Thus, whereas Strauss seems to imagine a “sceptical Plato” drawing attention to problems, Voegelin is of course far more interested in a “process theory” reading of Plato’s Phaedrus. Yet it is utterly bizarre that he does not see the “process” of the Theory of Forms and Receptacle, which A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, pp. 150-9 so clearly did. I plan to write an essay on this at some point.

[20] Eric Voegelin, “On Debate and Existence,” in Collected Works Volume 12: Published Essays 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1990, p. 40

[21] Albert Lautmann, Essai sur les notions de structure d’existence en mathématiques, Hermann, Paris, 1938.

[22] Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Bloomsbury, London, 2015, p. 246.

[23] See this old book: Carl B. Boyer, The History of the Calculus and Its Conceptual Development, Dover, New York, 1959, esp. 178-80.

[24] Don’t expect to understand much of this, but here it is anyway: François Laruelle et al, Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, trans. Taylor Adkins, Univocal, Minneapolis, [1998] 2013.

[25] For an explanation of this and Lacanian “algebra” in general see: Bruce Fink, Lacan To The Letter, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004, pp. 129-40.

[26] Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, esp. pp. 10-11, 210.

[27] Ibid, p.117, 122, 328.

[28] Idem, Being and Event, pp. 77, 179-80. Cf. Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds, p. 250.

[29] The book has long had the reputation for doing this in France, as the introduction to Theory of the Subject, p. viii points out.

[30] Apparently Baizuo is going through a bit of a revival on Chinese social media in relation to Western “social justice warriors”, whom Chinese leftists are said to have a hard time trying to understand.

[31] Compare this to the seventeen years it took Being and Event to make the journey from French into English. It took even longer for Theory of the Subject and the myriad of smaller works Badiou has been writing since the 60s, from plays to philosophy books for kids.

[32] François Cussett, French Theory, trans. Jeff Fort, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, [2003] 2008.

[33] Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World: How The Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, Harper One, New York, 2006, p. 182.

[34] Eric Voegelin,Published Essays 1953-1965,  Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 11, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2000, pp. 61-2, 69-70, 185-7.

[35] I would heartily recommend the following two books, one by a conservative and one by a Marxist, on the commercialising of the New Left ideals of the 1960s and how these have produced the world of “identity” and “selfism” we live in today: Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, William B. Eerdmans, Paternoster Press, Carlisle UK, [1977] 1994; Marie Moran, Identity and Capitalism, Sage Publications, London and LA, 2014.

[36] See: Eric Voegelin, “Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in a Democracy,” in Published Essays 1953-1965. Like Habermas’s “communicative reason” Voegelin believed that “noetic reason” should be able to overcome problems with miscommunication. However, he does not really say how, except by returning to Athens and Jerusalem to look at the roots of spiritual-political organisation. One is left wondering what he would say about the world of social media today.

[37] Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle,” The North Star, 22nd November 2017, http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11299

[38] Only the Deleuzians seem “post-modern” in a completely alien sense, attempting to do away with “man” to replace the human being with “flows”, “rhizomes” and what basically amounts to a kind of edgy science fiction chaos theory. Everything becomes a kind of metaphysical mudpie that wishes it was a “body without organs” free from being forced into systemic structures.

[39] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, Bloomsbury, London, 2009.

 

This is the first of three parts, with part two and part three available.

Jonathan Ratcliffe

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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."