CONTRA BADIOU: Althusserian « New » Materialism

There is an interesting-looking blog event organised around Geoff Pfeifer’s book « THE NEW MATERIALISM: Althusser, Badiou, and Zizek« . So far, the discussion has been slow getting started, and for the moment has turned around the rather strange consensus that Badiou’s philosophy represents a regression compared to Althusser’s on the questions of structuralism, materialism, scientificity, the subject, and change. These issues are all intertwined, but allow us to compare Badiou’s and Althusser’s ideas fruitfully.

(1) structuralism: Althusser is cited by Pfeifer as making the elementary anti-essentialist point that there is no structuralism as such, but only diverse, variable,and conjuncturally specific structuralisms. This seems to be enough, in Pfeifer’s eyes, to exonerate Althusser from the charge of structuralism. Yet Althusser’s ideal of scientificity, his demarcationism with respect to science (and to the differentiation of structures in general), his inability to account for paradigm-change (not only in the sciences, but also in other domains), and his treatment of the subject as a mere passive support of the active structures, all constitute a specifically Althusserian structuralism.

Certainly, Badiou has a deep problem, carried over from Althusser’s structuralism, in regards to the relation between stasis and change, synchrony and diachrony, repetition and transformation. (I have commented on this problem at a more general level, in terms of the relation between diachronic and synchronic ontology, in my article IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID? However, I do not think that Althusser is in a position to give Badiou lessons in avoiding the idealist tendencies implicit in structuralism.

(2) scientism: another problem that comes with inheriting from Althusser’s philosophy is his structuralist scientism. Badiou attempts to mitigate this excessively static and monlolithic privilege given to science in several ways:

a) by characterising science as as a site of truth production, rather than simply of knowledge production. One must remember that for Badiou truth is linked to change, whereas knowledge is linked to stasis.

b)  by asserting the contemporary existence of four figures of truth production (science, love, politics, art) rather than just one (Althusser’s scientistic presuppostion).

c) by incorporating the subject within the scientific process of truth production, and more generally within all of the processes of truth production.

d) by emphasising that science as a truth procedure exists only in diverse “crossings” with other truth procedures, some of which are legitimate (this acceptance of the legitimacy of crossings distinguishes Badiou’s position from Althusser’s policing of frontiers): this theorisation of crossings can be found in Badiou’s latest seminar, class of October 19th 2015.

(3) the subject and change: These two themes are linked, in that the excessive emphasis on the effectivity of the structure demotes subjectivity to an epiphenomenon and makes radical change unthinkable.

On the queston of the priority given to axiomatics by Badiou, this is an ambiguous move in terms of the stasis/change (or synchronic/diachronic) distinction. “Axiomatics” refers to a formal structure and so is a force of stabilisation, but also to the (subjective) decision to adopt certain axioms against the established doxa, and so is a motor of change.

Much post-Althusserian thought was devoted to finding a principle of de-stabilisation of structures tied to subjectivity: Derrida’s writing, Kristeva’s subject-in-process, Lyotard’s drift, Deleuze and Guattari’s group-in-fusion and later their process of subjectivation, and Foucault’s care of self. Badiou’s project is clearly inscribed within this field of responses to the perceived excessive determination of the subject by the structure and to its link with the problem of change.

Badiou’s recent thinking represents a significant advance over Althusser’s on all these points, but some problems remain.

(1) anti-structuralism: Althusser’s historical materialism is supposedly, at least in intention, more process-oriented, than structure-oriented axiomatics. This critique is valid for the Badiou of BEING AND EVENT, but less so for LOGICS OF WORLDS. It ignores Badiou’s more recent work-in-progress on the “immanence of truths”, an enquiry into how truths (and not knowledge) modify and transform worlds from within. Badiou’s most recent thinking, presented in his seminars, represents a diachronic turn, but his account of the historical dimension of mathematics and of science, and more generally his account of change, is still insufficient.

(2) anti-scientism: Badiou’s use of ZFC set theory, and later of category theory, is not a scientific “imposture”, in the sense of Sokal and Bricmont, but it is scientifically tangential. It does not carry forward, or elucidate, the discipline it borrows from. Badiou wishes to avoid Althusser’s scientism, but is unable to break with it completely.

(3) anti-authoritarianism: Badiou attempts to ground his system of ideas on a scientific reference that functions as a form of theoretical intimidation and legitimation of intellectual authority, despite constantly talking about equality and democracy. These concepts (equality, democracy) can be given even more importance so as to deconstruct from within the scientistic remnants.

(4) becoming-active of the subject: for Badiou, one becomes a subject by being incorporated into a truth and by participating actively in its transformation of the world. This places the subject on the side of transformation, in contrast to Althusser’s posing it on the side of repetition.

(5) anti-fundamentalism or transversal ontology: An ontological use of a mathematical theory is almost inevitably transversal, unless one is content to limit oneself to proposing a one dimensional commentary on a regional ontology. On this point Badiou’s position is particularly fragile, as he proclaims that mathematics is ontology and proceeds to found this ontology on ZFC set theory. He thus seems to invite the scientistic critique that his vision of mathematics is anachronic and incomplete.

Badiou has occasionally stated that his use of mathematical concepts is metaphorical, a name for the transversal deployment of concepts extracted out of one truth procedure and adapted and applied to the analysis of all truth procedures. So much the better, as he is at his most interesting when he is at his most transversal.

In conclusion, I think the criteria that Pfeifer and Vartabedian set up (structuralism, materialism, scientificity, the subject, and change) are interesting and useful, but their discussion does not suffice to show an inferiority of Badiou to Althusser in their terms.

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