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Badiou's Critique of 'Speculative Leftism.

' Ian Jakobi

In Being and Event speculative leftism is defined as 'any thought of being which bases itself upon the theme of an absolute commencement.' Badiou notes three further features of this 'thought.' First, speculative leftism 'imagines that intervention authorises itself on the basis of itself alone.' Second, this intervention involves a 'wager upon absolute novelty.' Third, it follows from the above features that speculative leftism would be 'fascinated by the evental ultra-one' which allows it to reject any 'immanence to the structured regime of the count-as-one.'1 Taking into account these various features we can say that the main implication of a critique of speculative leftism is that Badiou must show how the new arises immanently in a situation. The way Badiou does this is to show how the intervention of a subject, which is founded on evental recurrence, brings multiples into connection with the event in a generic procedure.

A Question of Immanence: Truth and event

Badiou declares that his 'unique philosophical question' is this: 'can we think that there is something new in the situation?'2 The point is to show how the new can arise in and from a situation, and not some external source. This question is so fundamental that Badiou has 'subordinated' all parts of his system to giving a sufficient answer to it.3 The key concept here is, of course, the event: it is the event as 'supplement' to the situation that enables true novelty to emerge. 4 This is not to say that all novelty is an event.5 Indeed Badiou develops a range of ways in which situations can change, from

1 2

Alain Badiou, Being and Event (BE), 2005, Continuum, 210 Bruno Bosteels, 'Can Change be Thought? A dialogue with Alain Badiou' (CCBT) in Alain Badiou, ed. Gabriel Riera, 2005, SUNY Press, 252-3 3 CCBT, 253 4 Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, 1999, SUNY Press, 106-7 cf. BE, 406 5 Alain Badiou, Ethics, 2002,Verso, 72

mere modification to true evental ruptures.6 The question of the immanence of the event is not so clear. Badiou confesses that the event is a concept that has always 'posed formidable problems.'7 Perhaps this is reflected in Badiou's focus on the situation after the event: 'in the end, what interests me is the situational unfolding of the event, and not the transcendence or the entrenchment of the event itself.'8 However, the concept of an 'evental site' could allow Badiou to claim some immanence for the event.9 For Badiou, 'Every radical transformative action originates in a point, which, inside a situation, is an evental site.'10 The evental site 'is a strict condition of immanence, since the site is a part of the situation.' 11 It is precisely this immanence of the evental site that ties the event to a situation, and stops it being an effect of something outside.12 But the nature of the evental site its being situated on the edge of the void which prevents its parts being 'resecured' by the count of the state means we cannot appeal to 'inclusion of the event in order to conclude its belonging.'13 We must look elsewhere for this decision. If the event isn't necessarily to be thought of as immanent, the truth procedure that follows certainly is: 'if there is truth, it isn't unfolding something transcendent, it's in the situation.' 14 This distinction between event and truth is crucial and clearly separates Badiou from Heidegger, for whom truth is 'unconcealed' in a 'happening.'15 Misunderstanding is caused by not respecting this distinction, as is the case in iek's early analysis.16 For Badiou truth is not any form of correspondence, coherence or confirmation the standard models it is, rather a process; more specifically truth is a generic procedure.17 It is a process

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Alain Badiou (2003), 'Beyond Formalism, an interview,' Angelaki, 8, 132 Lauren Sedofsky, (1994) 'Being by Numbers (interview with Alain Badiou), Artforum International, 33, unpaginated 8 CCBT, 252 (my italics). 9 cf. Peter Hallward, Badiou: A subject to truth, 2003, MIT Press, 121 10 BE, 176 11 Quoted in Hallward, 116; cf. BE, 176 12 Bruno Bosteels (2002) 'Alain Badiou's Theory of the Subject: The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism? (Part II), Pli, 13, 204 13 BE, 202 14 Sedofsky (1994), unpaginated 15 Martin Hediegger, 'The Origin of the Work of Art,' in Basic Writings, 1978, Routlege,180 16 See Slavoj iek, The Ticklish Subject, 2000, Verso, pp. 127-170 17 Hallward, 153

because it involves an 'enquiry': truth is 'subtracted' from the 'encyclopaedia of knowledge' in the situation and so a subject must investigate whether multiples belong to the event in a process of fidelity. 18 The genericity of truth is then a result of this very indifference to the encyclopaedia: multiples are gathered with indifference to the extant structure of the situation.19 It is this fidelity to truth that is the form of time initiated by the intervention which 'traverses the existing knowledge.'20 The relation of truth to event can then be characterised as an enabling one: 'in order for there to be truth, there has to be something other than the situation.'21 Truth is a 'configuration initiated by an event and unfolded through chance.'22 We can discern here the influence of Mao persisting on Badiou's thought since this seems to employ Mao's dictum that a new system cannot be 'consolidated the moment it is established it has to be consolidated step by step.'23 We can see then an apparent division in Badiou's thought. We have the evental interruption followed by a long labour of truth, and we can add that many criticisms come from privileging one of these moments over the other.24

Enter the Subject: Intervention and nomination

We must say more about the intervention of the subject since it is 'subjectivization' that makes truth possible.25 Badiou defines intervention as 'any procedure by which a multiple is recognized as an event.'26 Intervention comes down to the simple choice as to whether the event has taken place, yes or no.27 It is the inherent nature of the event that its belonging to the situation cannot be decided from the standpoint of the state of the situation.28 This means that deciding the event's belonging is

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BE, 329, 331, 406 BE, 336-7 20 BE, 327 21 Sedorfsky (1994), unpaginated 22 Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaethetics, 2004, Stanford University Press, 12 23 Mao Tse-Tung, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, 1966, Peking Foreign Languages Press, 27 24 See Adrian Johnston (2007), 'Quick and the Dead,' International Journal of iek Studies, 2, 10 25 BE, 393 26 BE, 202 27 Hallward, 125 28 BE, 208

always in the form of a wager that the event did take place. If this was not the case, then a happening would not be an event since it would be reducible to the prevailing structure of the situation and would not introduce true novelty.29 In this formulation of 'deciding the undecidable,' Badiou notes an apparent paradox. The decision that an event took place, which is based on its undecidability, seems to preclude the decision of its belonging. This paradox, Badiou claims, is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of event and declaration, or designation, of the event.30 It is in relation to this precise point that Badiou embarks on a critique of Nietzsche. Badiou dismisses Nietzsche's doctrines of 'will to power' and 'eternal return of the same' as achieving no more that a return to a primordial order. The two important features of this critique are, first, it is the announcement that man must be overcome that does all the work, that effects the overcoming itself, and second, that this overcoming is really no more than a re-identification, a return to oneself.31 Badiou says, to counter such a Nietzschean position: 'The act of nomination of the event is what constitutes it, not as real but as susceptible to a decision concerning its belonging to the situation.' The phrase 'not as real' is crucial since, for Badiou, events happen.32 This is in contrast to the speculative leftism which confuses its pronouncement with the occurrence of an event. If there is only an event insofar as its belonging to the situation cannot be decided, we may now add that the event's name must not be a term that is presented in the situation, rather it is what the situation 'unpresents.'33 The name of the event 'is drawn from the void at the edge of which stands the intra-situational presentation of its site.' 34 This requires an act of intervention qua nomination: 'The initial operation of an intervention is to make a name out of an unpresented element of the site.'35 But the name of the site itself cannot provide the name of the event. This is because the site belongs to the situation, and so if it provided the name of the event this would mean
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BE, 201 BE, 202-3 31 BE, 202-3 32 BE, 203 33 BE, 204 34 BE, 204 35 BE, 204

that the name could not then be the situations unpresented.36 Instead, the naming of the event must itself be illegal and anonymous. Illegal since it must not fall under to rules of the current state; anonymous since it comes from the void in which nothing, by definition, can be distinguished.37 Importantly, the announcement of the event that causes a 'rupture' and its naming are not dependent on the person of the announcer, hence why there 'is no hero of the event.'38 This can again be compared to Nietzsche, or any antiphilosopher in general, who relies on his person for the force of his enunciation.39 It is the intervention of the subject connects the name of the event and the evental site as an 'irrational couple.'40 The state will attempt to block the immanence of the void insofar as it can only think together the site and the event as an intervention of some external element: 'The state blocks the apparition of the immanence of the void by the transcendence of the guilty.' 41 Although Badiou is more concerned with speculative leftism, we may term this move as a right, or 'statist,' deviation.

Evental Recurrence

Badiou introduces the critique of speculative leftism by first laying out the condition of possibility of an intervention which is 'the foundation of the thesis: there is some newness in being.' 42 The problem is that the intervention and the event seem to be co-dependent since the event 'can only be authorized on the basis of that other event, equally void for structure, which is the intervention itself.' 43 While the event must come first in order to make intervention possible, without that intervention the event 'subtracted from the count-as-one does not exist.'44 It is against this 'curious mirroring' that Badiou proposes his doctrine of 'evental recurrence':

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BE, 203 BE, 205 38 BE, 206 39 Alain Badiou (2005), 'Who is Nietzsche,' Pli, 11, 3 40 BE, 208 41 BE, 208 42 BE, 209 43 BE, 209 44 BE, 209

'the possibility of the intervention must be assigned to the consequences of another event.' It is evental recurrence which 'founds intervention.'45 Evental recurrence is the doctrine that events are always circulating in the situation. 46 There is no intervention or naming of an event without a previous event's nomination that forms a 'network of consequences.'47 The example Badiou gives is that the event of Christ's death and resurrection which is only an event in the situation in which the event of Adam's original sin is already circulating.48 Hence 'the theory of intervention forms the kernel of any theory of time.' 49 It is the new 'discipline of time' that Badiou will name 'fidelity' and will become the important notion for the working out of the consequences of the event.50

Speculative Leftism

It merely remains to set this discussion against the thought of speculative leftism that was outlined in the introduction of the present work. First, no intervention can be based on a 'primal event.' Second, the intervention is authorised, not by itself, but by an already circulating event. Third, there is no 'absolute novelty' since each intervention is only insofar as it is in a chain of previous interventions. Fourth, the event cannot be thought in isolation, it only has existence as it is taken up by a procedure of intervention.51 This last point should be lingered over. According to Badiou 'the event only exists insofar as it is submitted, by an intervention whose possibility requires recurrence.' It is far less interesting to inquire into the nature of the event and its occurrence than it is to inquire into the event's consequences. 52 Badiou criticises speculative leftism for treating the event as absolutely independent of the situation by calling it a 'Manichean hypostasis.'53 This links directly to

45 46

BE, 209 BE, 210 47 BE, 209 48 BE, 213; cf. TS, 12 49 BE, 210 50 BE, 211 51 BE, 210 52 BE, 210 53 BE, 210

the discussion of 'left deviation' which we find in Theory of the Subject where Badiou describes the Manichean deviation as treating the event as something that is totally pure and must not be molested by earthly advances.54 It is perhaps ironic then that one of the best descriptions of such a view is made as a critique of Badiou's own position. For example, Daniel Bensad claims that the event becomes a 'pure diamond of truth,' the purity of which obsesses Badiou's thought. 55 However, we have seen that in some ways Badiou is an agnostic as to the event's status (transcendent or immanent). But there is another part of Badiou's philosophy that may be susceptible to this critique, namely whether he went too far in his effort to renounce his earlier emphasis on destruction.56 We see in his criticism of speculative leftism that it imagines its intervention can 'break in two the history of the world.' 57 A reference to Nietzsche's 'archi-politics' that Badiou criticises as thinking that philosophy can replace politics as an actor of radical change.58 But we must now consider whether Badious alternative in the move to a politics of 'subtraction' brings its own problems.


We have seen that Badiou tries to avoid the critique of speculative leftism by prioritising the unfolding of a truth procedure in the situation. However, even if we accept this argument, it is elsewhere in Badiou's thought, in his concept of 'subtraction,' that we find him most at risk of the critique of speculative leftism.59 We can see what is at stake in the notion of subtraction if we view it in terms of the problem of how negation relates to the creation of the new. Badiou identifies two aspects of negation. First, there is a negative moment of the destruction of the state of the situation. Second, a positive,
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TS, 17 Daniel Bensad, 'Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event,' in Think Again, ed. Peter Hallward, 2004, Continuum, 101 56 BE, 407 57 BE, 410 58 See Badiou (2005b), 8-10. 59 Hallward, xxxiii; cf. Johnston, 29

creative moment of subtraction in which one separates oneself from the rules that govern a situation in order to form a 'point of autonomy' from which to act.60 Badiou rejects the claim that a Hegelian determinate negation can, on its own, create the truly new, since there must be a moment of negation independent of the negated.61 However, one of the two moments will always dominate. For example, in the last century, under the banner of the 'passion for the real,' destruction was dominant. The thought was that destruction in and of itself would lead to the creation of the new. For Badiou this line of thought is closed. The task now 'is precisely to maintain the complete concept of negation from the point of view of subtraction.' However, the danger then becomes a subtraction without destruction that amounts to complicity.62 The question is whether Badiou himself falls into such complicity in trying to avoid speculative leftism, and has ended up merely keeping the real 'at arms length.'63 As Bensad notes, politically Badiou seems to end up privileging 'prescription over programme,' preferring dogmatic maxims to getting one's hands dirty with everyday political action.64 Badiou seems aware of this problem and admits that although 'destruction' may be too one sided, missing the creativity of the event, he still needs a concept of the annulment of the law of the situation: 'It is absolutely indispensable that there be a breaking of the rule, because otherwise there is nothing more than a recognition.' He thus turns to the notion of 'deregulation' (dereglement).65 But if we focus on subtraction, we can go back to the doctrine of evental recurrence for a way in which Badiou can avoid the criticism of speculative leftism. According to this doctrine there is always an event circulating in the situation which has already had its belonging decided. This is not to say that such an event has come to structure the situation. Indeed we can say that it is only the new event that will make this previous event consist.66


Alain Badiou, Negation, Destruction, Subtraction, Lecture at Graduate Seminar - Art Center College of Design in Pasadena - February 6 2007. 61 Alain Badiou (2008), 'We Need a Popular Resistance,' Critical Inquiry, 34, 652, cf. iek, In Defense of Lost Casues, 2008, Verso, pp. 381-419 62 Badiou (2007), unpaginated 63 Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, 2005, Verso, 10 64 Bensad, 103 65 CCBT, 248-9 66 Hallward, 36

This idea has certain similarities with the concept of repetition that has been suggested as a better tool for showing the emergence of the new. According to this approach the only way the truly new can emerge is by repeating a possibility that was betrayed in the actuality of the past. 67 However, it is unclear to what extent this would add anything that isn't already accounted for by evental recurrence. Evental recurrence means that, in some sense, the old is reconfigured into the new. It is also unclear to what level the idea of repetition makes clearer any sort of political project that can avoid falling into the speculative leftism of waiting for an 'absolute commencement.' 68 Finally, Badiou's doctrine of evental recurrence need not rely on the failure of previous attempts, but on the small successes of new victories.69 The doctrine of evental recurrence means that we are not reduced to waiting for the event to happen, rather, there has already been an event, the consequences of which are infinite, never exhausted. 70 The real task before us today is not simply to wait for the event that will change everything, which results in our dumb staring into nothing.71 To be open to the 'network of circulating events' it is important that we subtract from the temporality of the State.72 When the State only counts certain things, and disregards those things that make no measurable contribution when what cannot be measured counts for nothing we must subtract ourselves from such a State and its regulations. This subtraction is creative: it does not merely attack the state, it also creates a new space in which a victory, no matter how small, can be had a victory which can open the situation to events that already circulate therein so that we can test connections in a chain which, as infinite, escapes determination by the States encyclopaedia.73 The main implication of the critique of speculative leftism is thus that there can be no

67 68

Slavoj iek, Organs Without Bodies, 2003, Routlege, 12 cf. Johnston, 29 69 cf. iek (2000), 74, 89, 304 70 BE, 335 71 Bensad, 103 72 Badiou (2008), 651 73 BE, 396

'absolute beginning.'74 Instead of waiting for such a commencement, we must 're-begin.'75 Or as Badiou puts it, the only ethical maxim is, in the end, 'Continue! Continue in your fidelity!'76

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cf. Bensad, 98 Bosteels (2002), 206 76 Badiou (1994), unpaginated