CONCEPTUAL HOMONYMY: Rancière and Badiou on “politics”

Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding“, Samuel Johnson.

Supposedly for Badiou “politics” is something totally separate from ontology and also something rare, but is this in fact the case? Certainly in MANIFESTO FOR PHILOSOPHY the answer seems to be rather easy. Mathematics is ontology, it is just one of the four truth conditions posited by Badiou (matheme, poem, inventive politics, love). These procedures produce inside a situation a truth of that situation under the guise of a generic multiple – this is why Badiou declares that a possible name for his philosophy would be not pluralism, which he thinks is just the banal and self-evident way of things, but genericism. Such a production of truths depends on the happening of an event, ie of something rare and exceptional, in the situation, otherwise there is just the ordinary conformity to the rules that govern the situation.

However, one may notice an interesting verbal tick in MANIFESTO FOR PHILOSOPHY: instead of speaking of “politics” in the same way he speaks of science, the poem, or love, Badiou very consistently speaks of “political invention” or of “inventive politics” (cf p38 for both forms). In the writings around the time of this book Badiou sticks to these terms, or sometimes he will say “politics in the sense that I’m using it”, or “emancipatory politics”. Sometimes he drops the qualification, but it is clear that it is usually presupposed when he states a major thesis about “politics”. The aim is to distinguish between two sorts of politics, normal and inventive, in much the same way that Thomas Kuhn distinguished (and Badiou accepts this distinction, see below) between normal science in conformity with the prevailing paradigm and revolutionary science. To drive home the point Badiou will often deprive normal politics of the name “politics” and call it something else, most often administration or management, but later, in its full extension, he will call it “democratic materialism”.

So when Badiou says that (invented) politics is rare, he is not making some amazing contribution to our knowledge of politics, he is not laying before us some surprising results of the correct analysis of the meaning of the word “politics”. He is developping the consequences of his stipulated definition, which is no doubt motivated by the requirements of his thought, but which is of the order of a conceptual creation and not an explication of a pre-existent sense. It is a philosophical statement that can only be understood by understanding the sense of “politics” employed, the concept it refers to.

Does Badiou ever use the word in a more extended sense? The answer is yes, of course, all the time. A nice example is in an interview called “Philosophy & politics” published in 1992, only 3 years after MANIFESTO FOR PHILOSOPHY. The question posed is

“How do you interpret the evolution of Vincennes University from its foundation up to now? Must this evolution be understood in terms of the evolution of a society that is becoming progressively *depoliticised*?” (p125)

Badiou discusses the case of Vincennes, and then goes on:

“I do not believe in the *depoliticisation*. The truth is that there is a certain politics, parliamentarianism, which dominates today, and which seems to be the subjectivation of modern capital. The question is to think and to practice another politics” (p127, quoted from Badiou’s collected interviews, ENTRETIENS I 1981-1986, published in 2011 by NOUS, my translation).

None of this mealy-mouthed “politics is rare and exceptional, it has nothing to do with the mere existence of power relations” that some would like to attribute to him. No, politics exists in the current state of affairs, only it is not generic, it is not inventive, it is not emancipatory – it is the nihilistic management of the status quo and the repression of attempts at emancipation.

Jacques Rancière, in a very interesting debate between Badiou and his critics published in 1989, highlights this special status given to politics in the very attempt to banalise it as just one truth-condition alongside the other three:

“The constitutive opposition between a true politics and that which is ordinarily practiced persists nonetheless, as is shown for example by the enumerations of generic procedures where what corresponds to the matheme, the poem, and love is not politics but *invented politics*. As if the existence of the matheme and of the poem could be sufficiently known by ordinary experience, and love itself did not need to be reinvented; as if only politics were threatened by a homonymy that is harmless in other cases, obliged to distinguish itself from what one commonly understands by this word” (p216, le cahier du collège international de philosophie, Osiris, October 1989, my translation).

Rancière insinuates that this highly constructed sense of the word “politics” may be trying to mask the fact that Badiou’s invented politics only exists in the discourse that enounces its difference from the ordinary sense and that this distinction may serve to hide a Platonic rejection of democracy.  Rancière also highlights the “avoidance” of the term “revolution” in Badiou’s texts of this period and diagnoses what may be a hidden political agenda of BEING AND EVENT:

“BEING AND EVENT is a book of ontology that wants to return politics to its specificity and break with the *dialectical* suture of the philosophical to the political. But this ontology is itself governed by concepts (event, intervention, fidelity…) which go back and forth between the two orders…it sketches a meta-politics of the act, of the intervention, and of the intervening multiplicity which sidesteps in a very specific way democratic facticity and revolutionary eventality”  (ibid, 217).

In his reply Badiou has no trouble conceding that this particular terminological invention is just one amongst other envisageable solutions:

“As to *invented politics* it is one possible expression to alert us to the radical distinction between politics (as autonomous thought) and the management of the State…The danger of confusion between (generic) truth and (state) representation is particularly grave in politics”. However, he adds that this danger of homonymic confusion is in no sense limited to politics (invented or administered): “distinctions of the same order exist for each procedure” (ibid, 249).

Lest one remain with the impression that all this is but a conflict of words, I would like to end with a concrete example given by Badiou in the interview “Philosophy and politics”, concerning the struggle over the closing of the Renaut factory at Boulogne-Billancourt. He talks about how an effective invented politics must operate by “prescription” outside of parliamentary procedures or programmes. Very quickly obstacles arise produced by the existing administrative politics: “It is impossible to affirm a prescription in a given situation without encountering another prescription” (ENTRETIENS I, 137). It is important to note that politics is defined here in terms of conflicting prescriptions and no longer in terms of invention, so it is valid to analyse a situation in terms of the opposition between invented and administrative politics.

Badiou explains a combat over the status of the category of “worker”, which the Organisation Politique of which Badiou was a member wanted to attribute  to all those who worked in the factory, including those who the State wanted to define as merely “immigrants”:

“The parliamentary (government, direction of the Administration, trade unions) optic oriented towards the abolition of any significant figure of the worker in politics, maintains that on the contrary the worker must deny himself, abolish himself (along with all the timespent at the factory) by signing a paper to the effect that he wants of his own free will to go into pre-retirement or to attend a (fake) training course, whereas in fact he is fired since the factory is closing! Here there is an irreconcilable conflict between two politics” (ibid, 137).

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2 Responses to CONCEPTUAL HOMONYMY: Rancière and Badiou on “politics”

  1. I wonder where Bryant got the Badiouan inspiration to speak of the rarity of politics. I agree with you. His use of the term politics is somehow deliberately discriminated from an ensemble of terminologies that Badiou utilized and explored in his various texts . Bryant’s analysis doesn’t seem to make sense to me, well, as far as I have understood my “Badiou”.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    Badiou does talk of the rarity of politics in a number of places, but he makes it clear that the word must be taken in a very special sense to make such statements meaningful. I think Bryant wants to block Galloway’s argument (but it’s not just Galloway, many people think the same) that (1) OOO is homologous to speculative capitalism and that (2) this is a serious problem with that type of ontology. I think that Badiou agrees with Galloway, and that it is useless to cherry-pick in Badiou what seems to go in a different direction if you ignore the concepts and just go with verbal quibbles.

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