DIVERGENT FIDELITY: Badiou’s non-relation with Deleuze

Some people have objected that for me to translate and to comment on Badiou’s letter to Deleuze is to take part in a macabre academic recuperation of Deleuze’s fragility in the final phase of his life. On this issue of “academic recuperation” my own personal record is clean. I am not an academic but a high school English teacher, in a French technical lycée. Why am I living and working in France? Because I read Deleuze in 1978-9 and I put my life on the line, immigrating from Australia to France to be able to attend his seminars in 1980. I am a historic (anglophone) Deleuzian, even if I am not a Deleuze scholar.

In the introduction to his book on Deleuze, Badiou does a good job of describing the different phases of a”divergent” or “non-fusional” relation with a philosopher who functions as intercessor in our own thought. Badiou calls this a “non-relation”, and one cannot but hear in that expression an allusion to Bachelard’s “philosophy of non-“, as in “non-Euclidean geometry” (This use of “non-” as a pluralising rather than a negating prefix was later taken up by Laruelle in his “non-philosophy, but he is by no means the only thinker to have explored its ambiguities and multiple resonances, going from “anti-“, through “para-” to “meta-“).

The first phase, dating from the early sixties, Badiou describes as one of youthful enthusiasm in the context of a non-encounter. Deleuze was 12 years older, already a lecturing while Badiou was still a student, their “canonical references” were different. Strangely, there was a deeper link, in that Badiou  his “explorations” in reconciling his “Sartrean adolescence”, his structuralist frequentations (Althusser and Lacan), and his passion for mathematics. Yet Deleuze remained alien to his concerns, neither a help nor a hindrance, neither an ally nor an adversary, a singular figure: an inventor of concepts, “extraordinary” and “arresting” rather than useful. Something began then that has continued to affect Badiou ever since.

I think this singular mixture of fascination, enthusiasm, perplexity, and estrangement is characteristic of many an encounter that initiates a new becoming in our lives. In the case of philosophy we feel wonder at the invention of concepts, before being able to make use of them in any way. We are impressed, astonished, arrested, dumb-founded – a rupture that takes us out of our ordinary utilitarian calculus.

Certainly, when I first read Deleuze I was wildly excited but perplexed, even paralysed. I had no idea what to make of him or what to do with him. I shared some of his canonical references (Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche) but others had held almost no interest for me up till then (the Stoics, Bergson). My immediate references, and passion, were Popperian and post-Popperian philosophy of science. Like Badiou I was frequenting Lacan and Althusser, but unlike him I quickly found them too limited, and so Deleuze acted as a bridge between that passion and my more ambivalent “frequentation”. As with Badiou, this encounter was the beginning of a new becoming, that has unfolded slowly over my whole life. Unlike him, I wished to encounter also the “astonishing corporeal presence that bore the invention of concepts”, and so I came to study in Paris and to attend Deleuze’s seminars.

When I arrived in France in 1980 I read everything to do with Deleuze, so I read at that time Badiou’s THE FLUX AND THE PARTY, and I was outraged. This text was written in what Badiou describes as the period of “political antagonism”. The style was, as Badiou describes in his introduction to DELEUZE THE CLAMOR OF BEING, one of “polemics” and “invectives”, which he justifies in terms of refusing consensus and of expressing the “vitality of movements”. Both of these are Deleuzian values.

I was not aware of all this intense political positioning during the “red years”, and can only have an outsider’s view on what happened then. Badiou is intent on showing that Deleuze too was just as imbricated in power tactics as himself and just as guilty of “invectives”. The implication is that the enmity was not based on any eternal hostility, but on a conjunctural conflict over the correct strategy within a common movement. Badiou tells us that

Deleuze…was an enemy all the more formidable for being internal to the “movement”.

There is no resentment, but rather a process of sublimation going on in this retrospective account, as he describes their “non-relation” in Deleuzian categories. Badiou recounts the change from political antagonism to political alliance, at least in his own attitude, with the rise of the New Philosophers, of the hegemony of publicity, of the communicative model, and of the Mitterandian consensus. Deleuze was as consterned and engaged in combating this new set of enemies as Badiou.A turning point that Badiou cites was Deleuze’s article “On the New Philosophers”, published in 1977.

This non-philosophical affinity, of affect and of combat, between them served to render possible the later philosophical approach, confrontation, exchange, and continuing influence. What linked them was a shared but divergent fidelity, to philosophy as passionate invention of concepts and to politics as invention of equality.

The previously hostile political positioning and manouevering was coming to an end when I arrived in 1980. Lyotard renewed contact with Badiou, and invited him to review LE DIFFEREND, and various other openings were made for Badiou. Unaware of all this, I read Badiou’s militant tracts and was understandably shocked by their content and style. Nonetheless, I could see that there was some conceptual potential in his writing, and so two years later I read Badiou’s THEORIE DU SUJET when it came out (in 1982).

I liked this new book for its refusal to totally relegate the subject to the domain of ideology, but I found it too tame conceptually. I had already made a critique of Althusser’s version of the science/ideology distinction, and a defence of the necessary and positive role of the subject in scientific practice in my BA Honours dissertation in 1975,  written within a very Althusserian philosophy department. I had also begun to look around for a non-Lacanian account of the subject, and I had been able to move further along this conceptual path thanks to reading ANTI-OEDIPUS and A THOUSAND PLATEAUS.

For me Badiou’s book represented a theoretical regression, but the quality and proportion of conceptual invention was increasing. As Badiou recounts, Deleuze sent him a “small favorable note”, which touched him greatly given the intellectual hostility, public isolation, contemptuous silence he was condemned to. Sometimes that’s all the encouragement it takes to go on, receiving a small favorable sign in the midst of silence, indifference, and mute hostility, to free your becoming from extraneous shackles, to help you overcome an obstacle that is just as much inside you as in the outside world.

Despite hating THE FLUX AND THE PARTY and liking only a little THEORY OF THE SUBJECT, I read BEING AND EVENT as soon as it came out, in 1988. Once again, I was very impressed by Badiou’s conceptual ambition, but I saw it mainly as a tardy response, 20 years too late, to Deleuze’s DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION (1968). The continuing Lacanian reference and conceptual infrastructure dissatisfied me, as if Badiou were still implementing Lacan’s original prescription to ignore ANTI-OEDIPUS into oblivion.

During that period I read every newspaper article and interview, and listened to Badiou on the radio. I found what he had to say about Heidegger particularly interesting. And I noted already that although Badiou’s technical thesis (or decision) that mathematics is ontology is very unsatisfying, his allegorical use of his conceptual apparatus is far more acceptable.

I followed the discussions around the book with great interest, in particular the dialogue with Lyotard (1989):

Lyotard 1Lyotard 2

Badiou 1

Badiou 2

and also Badiou’s review of Deleuze’s THE FOLD, which was published in the same year as his MANIFESTO FOR PHILOSOPHY (1989).



The next year Les Temps Modernes (mai, 1990) published a long interview with Badiou, along with Simont’s, Terray’s, Desanti’s and Rancière’s responses to BEING AND EVENT:

Badiou Temps Modernes

This was a very rich period of philosophy in France, culminating with the publication of Deleuze and Guattari’s WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? and of Lyotard’s LESSONS ON THE ANALYTIC OF THE SUBLIME. Lyotard is unjustly forgotten, but I think his concept of different “phrase-régimes” in LE DIFFEREND had an important influence on Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of the different planes in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? and on Badiou’s treatment of truth procedures in BEING AND EVENT. This unacknowledged influence continues to this day, as Bruno Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE is under the same influence.

In his “Introduction” Badiou describes how, thinking that the political and philosophical conjuncture had changed sufficiently to permit them to engage in an explicit dialogue, he proposed the undertaking of a divergent exchange to Deleuze, who accepted. The exchange was to follow a protocol of conceptual investigation and took the form of an “epistolary controversy” (on the basis of the commonality of a “shared conviction” as to the need, in the present conjuncture, for an “immanent conceptualization of the multiple”) extending over a two year period, from 1992 to 1994.

(This motif of pluralism, of a conceptual investigation of the thought of the multiple, is the common theme of all my philosophical work, for over forty years now. I have investigated the many forms of pluralism, their achievements and failures, their compromises and their struggles with their adversaries. This is behind my engagement with Deleuze’s thought, and also the source of my continuing interest in Badiou’s philosophical evolution).

This common investigation was pursued by Badiou and Deleuze, despite the very difficult circumstances of Deleuze’s life during that time. One can only suppose that Deleuze, like Badiou, was convinced of the interest and of the utility of such an exchange. The common, but divergent, conceptual “sequence” lasted two years, but then came to an end. However, we must be careful here, as Deleuze warns us not to judge a process solely by its end. The collaboration ceased by common accord that the “work of clarification” had been effected, that the task had been completed. There was no rupture, the collaborative sequence with its protocol of conceptual investigation had reached its natural term.

Later, Deleuze declared that he was opposed to the letters he had written being published. Logically, he had no say in the publication of Badiou’s letters, and I cannot imagine him objecting to Badiou publishing his own letters, as long as there is no citation of or allusion to the content of Deleuze’s letters. Badiou recounts his feeling of being disavowed, his fear of outside interference, his bitterness and his suspicion of “external influence”, all sad affects that needed to be transmuted. All this in response to an “enigma provoked by distance”.

One has the feeling that the whole relation from the beginning was one of enigma. Badiou found Deleuze’s conceptual creations first fascinating, then dangerous, and finally decisive for his own development. When Deleuze talks of Badiou’s militant engagement as being a form of “intellectual suicide”, when later he finds the whole discussion with Badiou “too abstract”, we see that Deleuze too found his interlcutor an enigma.

Deleuze and Guattari’s WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? was already a reply to Badiou, in a far larger and more enduring dialogue than the two years of correspondence. This is so not just in the passage devoted to Badiou, but in the whole style and structure of the book, which is of a much more classical facture than ANTI-OEDIPUS or A THOUSAND PLATEAUS.

Perhaps Deleuze too suspected some “obscure calculation” on Badiou’s part, giving in to a modicum of resentment at the end. Perhaps Deleuze became alarmed at the becoming induced by his dialogue with Badiou, and held back. This fear and rejection of becoming too “abstract” may show more a limitation in Deleuze than in Badiou. Today we may judge that Deleuze was not in fact as he believed himself to be, despite his many calls for the concrete. Deleuze seems to have been “hung up” here, refusing a different style of abstraction to his own.

Nevertheless, it would seem that their larger dialogue was fruitful to both of them, and allowed them “clarification”. Badiou’s initial response was bitterness and suspicion, but it gave way to a sentiment of “generosity”. I do not know who manipulated who, but I think that Badiou came out transformed from this exchange, and is still undergoing the effects today. Since his divergent dialogue with Deleuze Badiou has improved, becoming very slowly more Deleuzian.

From the very beginning Badiou’s (non-)relation to Deleuze was one of both fascination and resistance, deliberately not attending his lectures, boycotting him, vituperating him, combating his “vitalism” still today. He was not absorbed by Deleuze, did not become a Deleuzian, but he has been becoming more and more Deleuzian all this time. Nor has he absorbed Deleuze, despite enormous efforts to do so. I think this precarious combination of commonality and divergence is a good emblem of a fruitful relation to the philosophers we read and are inspired by.

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