In a recent post over at “Agent Swarm” Terrance Blake linked to a translation by Timothy Lavenz of a section of Badiou’s “Immanence of Truths”. The piece set me thinking about the way Badiou’s thought, in as much as I have been able to grasp it, engenders contrary responses: I admire his massive eruditeness and his unflinching anti-capitalism; at the same time, I feel an almost visceral aversion to his overtly systematic philosophical bent and his admiration for Mao.
Why should we care about Badiou’s thought or his attitude to a long dead Stalinist politican? Well, the underlying issues – philosophical sufficiency, old style political dogmatism and anti-capitalism – should be of interest to anyone concerned with finding an adequate response to our predicament visa vie the climate crisis, if only because the ideology of unending development, east and west, and it’s undoing in the interests of species survival is bound up with the theory and practice of Left politics.
During my teens and early twenties I shared Badiou’s admiration for Maoism, a leftist tendency I now regard as an irrational form of politics akin to a religious cult. Mention of religion is apt too in relation to Badiou’s philosophical adventure with the concept of the infinite, although there it results in a less vicious set of ideas. That the two – political stance and philosophy – are invariably linked, Badiou insists upon by deriving his anti-capitalism not from experiential, empirical or structural/historical analysis but directly from his philosophical speculations.
That the two – political stance and his philosophy – are invariably linked, Badiou insists upon by deriving his anti-capitalism not from experiential, empirical or structural/historical analysis but directly from his philosophical speculations.
“I demonstrated previously that the ontology of every oppressive figure organizes itself based on an imperative of finitude. Now I launch into the counterpart of this negative observation: the aim is to establish that wherever human action liberates itself from the order that constraints it, it is a matter of an encounter with the infinite, in the figure of a work”.
This encounter with the infinite has four modes:
“Coming to my aid indeed will be the sophisticated mathematics of entangled infinities, the artistic appreciation for the finished work without finitude, the existential experience of amorous infinity, and the finished political sequences of the infinite communist strategy.”
If the “sophisticated mathematics of entangled infinities” and “the finished political sequences of the infinite communist strategy” are inextricably linked in Badiou’s thought, the allegiance to Maoism is not. Rather it is the result of an inexplicable decision on the part of Badiou, and one that flies against all the historical evidence.
Badiou’s philosophy is an attempt to give an account of the relation of the truth of mathematics to materiel entities, historical process and the lives of individuals. There are two distinct aspects here — Badiou says something about number and something about what we can do with that truth of number, or rather what that truth does with and through us.
The first aspect concerns a mathematical operation on number — the set theoretic science of number- the second a philosophical extrapolation from science to material entities, historical processes, social structures and individuals etc. According to Badiou, Cantorian set theory enables a mathematical thinking co–equivalent with Being : we can think being as given immanently to an operation on number that enacts, performs or actualises an invariant set of relations.
Although the universe as envisaged by Badiou is divided between an invariant truth (the matheme) and the indeterminate lives of human beings (bodies and languages), Badiou insists he is not positing a dualism at a fundamental level. Viewed from the finite perspective as it were, one can conceive the realm of the sensuous, the experiential and the empirically accessible as only apparently relative and processional –- in actuality “ to appear is only to come, as a multiple, to a place where absoluteness is topologically particularized.”
This is a form of platonic idealism but subjected to a rigorous immanentisation.
It is in the mode of politics that Badiou’s extrapolations prove to be vicious. His pronouncements amounts to a white wash of Mao under “cover” of a purely philosophical imposition in which historical analysis is sacrificed for idealist speculation. Paradoxically, it is this concept of “covering” that Badiou elevates to try to justify his own “covering” of the Maoist dictatorship.
It would be too boring to articulate here the evidence for the rightness of the accusations against Mao, an analysis offered not only by bourgeois apologists for capitalism but also by left communist, democratic socialist and anarchist critics, and , more importantly, by the accounts of Mao’s victims, inside and outside the Party; not to mention a host of historians who try simply to get at the facts of the “great leap forward” and the “cultural revolution” both of which subjected people already rendered powerless to massive and unnecessary suffering.
Presumably, even left critique falls under the blanket accusation of “covering” with which Badiou condemns every anti-capitalist bar himself.
There is, of course a lot that is interesting about Badiou’s speculations. I like his flirtations with the idea of the infinite, if only because they have the opposite effect from the sort of philosophical appropriation which Badiou tries to accomplish – they infinitise a non-totalising image/concept of the human and put it, in thought at least, beyond the reach of the sort of philosophical capture which Badiou’s “Immanence of Truths” paradoxically implies.
As is always the case with polar opposites, the tables can be turned, so that it is the “figure” of infinitude that becomes the oppressor; in the person, for example, of the theologians who Badiou extols as (literally) “above” the “naive” charge of being complicit in the oppression of finite individuals by way of absolutist theological dogmatism grounded on that very same concern with the infinite. Or, more sinisterly, in the person of Mao, whose pronouncements about contradictions among the people and their resolution and his political practice did not shy away form a programme of mass intimidation, forced labour and political (and sometimes) bodily assassination; not to mention rule by personal declaration in the style of a pseudo-emperor battling against the enemies of revealed truth; or at least of a truth procedure immanentised in the person of Mao :
The word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Badiou, alone among the legion of French intellectuals who flirted with Moaism, persists in his irrationality, to the extent that one would be loathe to trust him or his followers with even a modicum of political or administrative power
All in all, I think it would be safer to approach Badiou’s thought in the context of what Terence Blake calls a comparative programme of metaphysical research using “a loose partially overlapping set of criteria: openness, pluralism, testability, realism, diachronicity, apophaticism, place and role of the absolute and democracy”.
On the last count – democracy – Badiou’s political thought, invariably linked to his philosophical sufficiency in turn linked to his Maoism – fails to convince one that, when it comes to the distribution of power and the ethics of ends and means, he is anything more than an old style Stalinist.
Here is a link to a fair and comprehensive essay on Maoism and the cultural revolution..