Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragmentary Ontological Temptations

For some reason, I’ve been exhausted since the conference. I don’t think it is a reaction to the conference itself, but probably more to the way in which the process of writing the paper for this event, provided an excuse to pull together much of what I’ve been working on over the past few months. The event therefore had a certain “life passing before my eyes” quality that I think has left me in only a semi-responsive state… ;-P

There’s a seminar at Melbourne Uni all week this week on Badiou’s Being and Event – I had booked myself into this, figuring I would want a break from Hegel and Marx after the conference, and also figuring it would be a chance finally to tackle this work. The lecturer is one of the folks who had been involved in the excellent series on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition back in July – an event I had used similarly, as a spur to get myself to work through something I had been meaning to read for some time. Both events have been organised under the auspices of the truly fantastic Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, which runs events like this over the term breaks, and is about to start running an “evening school” during the term as well.

I’m only around a hundred pages into Badiou’s text – planning on reading enough to stay a bit ahead of the lectures, and to finish by the end of the week. And of course, in spite of reading this because I want a break from Marx and Hegel, I’m finding myself thinking about Marx and Hegel as I read. I’ll leave Hegel aside for the moment, but I did want to toss something up on parallels with Marx, mainly because it gives me an excuse to leave a placeholder for myself about something that came up at the conference, and about which I’ll want to write more later.

When I wrote the conference paper, I think I was expecting people to contest the sorts of links I draw between Hegel and Marx – not so much because it’s terribly controversial to claim that Marx is borrowing from Hegel’s concept of “science” in writing Capital, but because of the specific way I extend this claim by also drawing attention to some parallels between Capital and Phenomenology. On the one hand, this extension allows me to make sense of a lot of what’s going on in the first chapter of Capital in particular – and specifically to argue, as I did in the paper,

Shifts in perspective are particularly rapid in the first chapter of Capital, making this chapter a rich source for illustrating Marx’s analytical techniques. The text opens, as I have discussed above, with an “empiricist” perspective that limits itself to material and social phenomena that can be directly perceived by the senses. This empiricist perspective is adequate to introduce the opening category of the commodity, but the text must shift to a different perspective – a “transcendental” one – in order to unfold the categories of value and abstract labour, which are intangible social structures and therefore cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Their existence must therefore be intuited by reason. Finally, the text shifts to a “dialectical” perspective over the course of the derivation of the money form.

On the other hand, this extension also opens up what I would expect to be one of my more controversial claims about how I understand the critical standpoint of Capital to operate:

In Hegel, it is the confrontation with the inverted world that drives consciousness finally to recognise that its object does not reside in some separate substance or world outside itself, but is rather consciousness itself. Consciousness comes to recognise its own implicatedness in its object – comes to see that it has, in fact, been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s text, consciousness becomes reflexive – becomes self-consciousness.

Marx traces a similar sort of narrative in his analysis of the genesis of the money form, a narrative that culminates in a series of inversions of the distinctions with which the analysis begins. Significantly, after drawing attention to these inversions, Marx opens the concluding section of the chapter, where he discusses commodity fetishism. Here Marx finally voices explicitly that the forms of thought expressed earlier in the chapter are examples of what he calls fetishised forms of consciousness: forms that are valid for a specific social situation, but which have failed to grasp their own social conditions of possibility, and have therefore naturalised the contingent features of capitalist society.

By breaking into a more explicitly critical voice at this point in the text, Marx hints that, like Hegel, he endorses the position that more adequate forms of consciousness can arise immanently, through the confrontation with the contradictions and “inversions” generated by the reproduction of capital. Marx then structures Capital to draw attention to the ways in which later categories “invert” the conclusions the text had derived from earlier categories. As with Hegel’s argument about the “inverted world”, Marx’s “inversions” are intended, not to suggest that the “inverted” conclusions are “true” and the original conclusions are “false” – this would be to allocate “appearance” and “essence” to separate substances or worlds. Instead, the point is to illustrate that the same social context generates opposing potentials – that the process of the reproduction of capital is contradictory – and therefore that critical reflexivity is generated as an immanent possibility.

I expect this claim to be controversial because many interpretations of Capital see the form of critique expressed in the text to be a kind of unveiling, whereby an illusory dimension of discourse or social practice is penetrated by the critique in order to reveal an underlying reality that provides the standpoint of critique. In my approach, critique does not rely on an underlying reality: it is, so to speak, fetish all the way down. In this reading, however, the fetish is reinterpreted as a distinctive (and complex) structure of social experience that generates conflictual potentials, some of which are more likely to be recognised by social actors than others. I won’t rehash the entire argument here, as the paper covers it in brief, and the thesis will cover it in detail, but the basic claim is that Marx is not criticising the political economists for their failure to penetrate the fetish, but rather for their failure to explore how the fetish is generated in social practice – and, relatedly, what the various potentials of the practices that generate the fetish might be. The aim here is Benjaminian: to make our own history citable in (more of) its moments, and therefore to make political decisions possible based on a fuller sense of the potentials immanently available to us, rather than to conceive of political action as necessarily requiring a step outside of history, in order to criticise our society against normative ideals provided by some socially non-specific truth.

The conference paper necessarily covered this argument in a very condensed way and, because of the focus of the event on Hegel, spent much more time, relatively speaking, talking about Marx’s relationship to Hegel, than it did about how I understand the complex question of the sort of critical standpoint Capital makes available. One consequence of this, I realised during the discussion, is a few people were perhaps a bit too persuaded by my argument about Marx’s close ties to Hegel, and therefore came away with the sense that I am arguing that Capital is essentially an “idealist” work or an analysis of the internal contradictions and tensions within the discourse of political economy. Whether people then liked, or disliked, the implications of this, depended on their personal political and theoretical commitments. Regardless, it wasn’t quite what I was trying to argue.

Marx does organise the text to expose contradictions within political economic discourse, and understanding his relationship to Hegel helps in clarifying why he organises the text the way he does. The tacit metatheory underlying his critique of political economy, however, is more Durkheimian than it is Hegelian. I mean by this that, like Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Marx takes the position that we do not organise our social life in a specific way because we believe certain things or hold certain ideals, but rather we believe certain things or hold certain ideals, because we organise our social life in a specific way. This argument isn’t causal – the claim is not that we engage in certain practices, which then externally cause us to think certain ways: this would involve a dualism I think Marx rejects. The argument also isn’t functional – that we think certain ways because these forms of thought are useful for some social purpose. The argument is rather that practices are intrinsically bound together with tacit dispositions, such that the qualitative characteristics of our practices necessarily implicate the qualitative character of how we experience ourselves, perceive, think, etc. – and explicit theoretical reflection then tends to work, bricoleur-like, with the raw materials generated by our practical experiences. I’m reasonably certain this metatheoretical stance is what Marx has in mind, when he talks about how Hegel has everything “standing on its head” – i.e., has ideas driving practice – while Marx has turned things right side up again. (I’ll leave aside whether this is fair to Hegel, and also my own critique of the way in which Marx then emphasises one particular dimension of social practice – a move that, arguably, implicates his own analysis in some of the things he criticises in writing about the fetish.)

In this context, the analysis of “discourse” provides a window onto collective practices in a very general sense – and the contradictions and tensions within a discourse open onto contradictions and tensions in practice. A great deal of the legwork in Capital therefore consists in leveraging the tensions of political economic discourse, by using those tensions to unearth the lumpy and conflictual character of the sorts of practices that contribute in various ways to the process of the reproduction of capital.

So what does all this have to do with Badiou?

I couldn’t help but be struck by how much Badiou’s argument about being qua being, echoes Marx’s argument about value. (And please note I am only a quarter of the way through the text, and am not trying to make any serious point about Badiou, as I don’t have the basis to understand his argument in full. My interest is more in thinking through an issue in relation to Marx, by means of the different vocabulary set out in Badiou’s text.) I’ve now dog-eared a great many passages that struck me in this way – I’ll just pull out a single longish example for attention here:

Take any situation in particular. It has been said that its structure – the regime of the count-as-one – splits the multiple which is presented there: splits it into consistency (the composition of ones) and inconsistency (the inertia of the domain). However, inconsistency is not actually presented as such since all presentation is under the law of the count. Inconsistency as pure multiple is solely the presupposition that prior to the count the one is not. Yet what is explicit in any situation is rather that the one is. In general, a situation is not such that the thesis ‘the one is not’ can be presented therein. On the contrary, because the law is the count-as-one, nothing is presented in a situation which is not counted: the situation envelops existence with the one. Nothing is presentable in a situation otherwise than under the effect of structure, that is, under the form of the one and its composition in consistent multiplicities. The one is thereby not only the regime of structured presentation but also the regime of the possible of presentation itself. In a non-ontological (thus non-mathematical) situation, the multiple is possible only insofar as it is explicitly ordered by the law according to the one of the count. Inside the situation there is no graspable inconsistency which would be subtracted from the count and thus a-structured. Any situation, seized in its immanence, thus reverses the inaugural axiom of our entire procedure. It states that the one is and that the pure multiplicity – inconsistency – is not. This is entirely natural because an indeterminate situation, not being the presentation of presentation, necessarily identifies being with what is presentable, thus with the possibility of the one.

It is therefore veridical… that, inside what a situation establishes as a form of knowledge, being is being in the possibility of the one. It is Leibniz’s thesis (‘What is not a being is not a being‘) which literally governs the immanence of a situation and its horizon of verity. It is a thesis of the law.

This thesis exposes us to the following difficulty: if, in the immanence of a situation, its inconsistency does not come to light, nevertheless, its count-as-one being an operation itself indicates that the one is a result. Insofar as the one is a result, by necessity ‘something’ of the multiple does not absolutely coincide with the result. To be sure, there is no antecedence of the multiple which would give rise to presentation because the latter is always already-structured such that there is only oneness or consistent multiples. But this ‘there is’ leaves a remainder: the law in which it is deployed is discernible as an operation. And though there is never anything other – in a situation – than the result (everything, in the situation, is counted), what thereby results marks out, before the operation, a must-be-counted. It is the latter that causes the structured presentation to waver toward the phantom of inconsistency.

Of course, it remains certain that this phantom – which, on the basis of the fact that being-one results, subtly unhinges the one from being in the very midst of the situational thesis that only the one is – cannot in any manner be presented itself, because the regime of presentation is consistent multiplicity, the result of the count.

I’m realising as I finish typing this monster that I’m getting very tired, and won’t be able to write a proper argument to flesh out my point. Just a few quick notes then, and perhaps I’ll come back to this issue when I’ve read Badiou properly.

Leaving aside for the moment the context in which Badiou is asserting these sorts of claims, this and similar passages wouldn’t be a terrible way of trying to express what Marx is after with categories like “value” – categories which are dynamic structures that manifest themselves in and through the transformations of the objects of our immediate experience. As structures that manifest only through the transformations of more mundane objects of experience, such categories can never be “presented” in their own right – they possess no separate substance – but are instead “phantoms” that “haunt” the objects of our immediate experience. Viewed synchronically, there is nothing in the objects of immediate experience that would allow such “inconsistencies” – what I tend to call the “counterfactual” dimension of these categories – to be directly perceived or grasped.

Marx, however, views his counterfactual categories as socially specific – and tries to link them back to the practices that generate them. Something like value is generated in collective practice when social actors engage in a vast array of empirical labouring activities, without being able to know in advance which activities will successfully “assert themselves” to become part of “social labour”. The process by which activities succeed or fail in becoming successfully incorporated into “social labour” operates behind the backs of social actors. This process whereby the universe of activities undertaken, is forcibly reduced down to the much smaller subset of activities that get to “count”, is one of the bases for what Marx calls the fetish. Our collective behaviour, Marx argues, is tantamount to treating the products of labour as though they possess a supersensible substance (value) and treating labour as though it participates in a supersensible world (of abstract labour). Value and abstract labour thus become constituted in social practice as supersensible, counterfactual categories, because we behave as though such supersensibile entities exist. Having first simply “practiced” as though such entities exist, we eventually “deduce” their existence. Deduction is required because we are not consciously setting out to create such entities, and because these entities are intangible “structural” elements that can be perceived only through the lawlike deflection of the objects of our immediate sense experience.

Marx’s argument about the fetish suggests that the ontological status of these is particularly difficult for social actors to discern – this is the point of his joke about Dame Quickly in the first chapter of Capital: we don’t know “where to have them”. Confusion over the ontological status of the categories does not reflect a conceptual error: the qualitative characteristics of the categories themselves generate the risk that they will be “read off” onto some separate substance, something that resides behind the flux of our sensible experience of either the material or the (overtly) social world. Another way to come at this same point, from a different direction, is to say that it’s structurally tempting to treat certain categories of our social experience as “negations”, or categories that arise only once we subtract from everything that is specific to what we plausibly perceive as our determinate social experience. Marx wants to reposition these categories as “positivities” – to help us to recognise how they are constituted in some determinate qualitative form, rather than failing to perceive their determinate qualitative character because we are treating such categories as the results of a process of subtraction or abstraction from other sorts of entities.

In other words, according to Marx (and recognising that I’m skipping through this much too quickly), we are “primed” by at least one dimension of our social practice, to find elements of a Badiou-style ontology plausible. It’s important that this point not be made reductively: we are also “primed” by dimensions of our social practice, in Marx’s argument, to be receptive to notions of a material world governed by universal laws – this priming no doubt tells us something about the timing of the historical emergence of a particular style of scientific enquiry, but it would be a category error to jump from this historical insight, to any immediate judgement on the truth or falsehood of particular scientific claims. The same holds for other forms of thought whose emergence might seem to resonate particularly strongly with some element of Marx’s social critique.

Nevertheless, where we can demonstrate (and I don’t claim to have demonstrated in this post – again, these comments are just rapid placeholders before sleep overtakes me) that we might be primed by social practices to experience a form of thought as familiar, we can be conscious that we might find that form of thought persuasive, because it is familiar – as resonating with our existing habits of perception and thought – as being something we “recognise” as salient, without being fully aware of how or why. On another level, particularly when trying to develop critical theories or philosophies with an emancipatory intent, it can be helpful to play claims about socially nonspecific potentials, off against analyses of socially specific ones: Marx’s “structural” categories, for example, are the targets, not the standpoints, of his critique – the things he wants to abolish, not the things in whose name his critique speaks. Categories like value certainly do disrupt the “count” of the situation – they react corrosively back against what is – but this is not an emancipatory disruption, but rather a constitutive one. This doesn’t at all mean that Badiou can’t develop something critical using his own categories – only that the peculiarly dynamic and counterfactual character of the reproduction of capital might also need to be kept in mind, in order to prevent a kind of normative underdetermination that might suggest that any counterfactual category is, by dint of sitting outside presentation, automatically critical. Badiou may well thematise this issue – always a problem with commenting on such a text while only a fragment of the way through… I write as part of a process of thinking out loud, and without the intention of making anything resembling an argument at this stage. 🙂

7 responses to “Fragmentary Ontological Temptations

  1. Nate February 19, 2008 at 10:38 am

    hey NP,
    Interesting stuff. Badiou puzzles me but I remember thinking often about Marx as I read him, particularly resonances between Badiou on counting (establishing units, I think the phase is “count as one”) and Marx on socially necessary labor time, where some actual labors – which are actually socially necessary – don’t count as socially necessary labor. Gotta run.
    take care,

  2. N Pepperell February 19, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Hey Nate – I have the same association – it’s part of what lurks in the background of what I’ve written above. What then strikes me is that Marx “localises” the existence of this kind of “count” and tries to determine the specific sorts of practices that generate this process of social “selection”, whereas Badiou seems to be treating this sort of process as something operative in any sort of “situation” and having nothing specifically to do with determinate forms of human practice. So one question becomes, is Badiou offering a kind of hypostatisation onto being qua being, of the determinate characteristics of our quite specific forms of social being? Or is he onto something of more general significance, even if one could make a case that it isn’t accidental that someone should stumble across this particular kind of ontology given the confrontation with the social experiences generally available in capitalism? There are elements of what I’ve seen in Badiou’s system that are very similar to forms of thought that Marx criticises in Capital – but critique, for Marx, isn’t a straightforward dismissal, but more an attempt to grasp the practical genesis of a form of thought, so by itself the fact that Marx criticises certain sorts of analytical moves as symptomatic or expressive of features of capitalism, doesn’t predetermine that such moves are “wrong” in their substantive conclusions, if that makes sense…

  3. Nick February 26, 2008 at 7:11 am

    Hey Nate and N Pepperell,
    What I take Badiou to mean by the ‘count-as-one’ is a very general ontological operation, perhaps the most fundamental one (insofar as he argues somewhere that inconsistent multiples necessarily manifest themselves in situations, i.e. consistent, counted multiples). I believe it’s a matter of general ontological determination, whereby the classical thesis that all being is individuated being, is produced. In this sense, it’s akin to Deleuze’s focus on how differential structures generate actual beings.

    I do, however, also think that your associations with Marx are on the mark. The big question left at the end of Being & Event is how does all of this translate into concrete situations, e.g. socio-political situations. The problem is that Being & Event is focused solely on the ontological aspects – what can be said via set theory – to the detriment of any specific determinations. All beings are ontologically equivalent in this work, because all beings are simply multiples (albeit, with each multiple-being having different elements belonging to them). But beyond this very abstract presentation, nothing can really be said.

    So his new work, Logiques des Mondes tries to supplement this with a logic of how beings appear (with phenomenological appearance being one mode). In this work he takes account of how each being appears not only in distinction from its pure being (qua multiple) but also its difference from all other beings in a ‘world’ (which is, roughly, the equivalent of a situation). Through this, specific and historical social concerns can, I think, be integrated into his ontology. “The Transcendental” essay in his Theoretical Writings is probably the best English source for more information on this.

    The big question I have, is whether or not he commits any more work to the count-as-one. I think you’re right to link it to specific social practices, since the count-as-one determines what counts as a being from the perspective of the state of the situation (which, politically, is often the State itself). In Being & Event, this idea of the count is left largely untheorized beyond its operational use. But it makes sense that counts have historically changed (as the result of events, Badiou would say), and so the question is of how to relate this to real situations. Moreover, and this is something I’m grappling with myself right now, it would seem to suggest that we can perhaps change the count in a world, and thereby affect the being of a situation – without necessarily relying on an evental supplement.

    Anyways, hopefully that helps situate and answer some of your questions! Cheers,

  4. N Pepperell February 26, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Hey Nick! Many thanks for this. If it makes sense, I hadn’t mistaken Badiou as intending to talk about social phenomena – I understood the ontological reference of his argument. What strikes me, however, is that the terms he uses to describe “being qua being” – the terms he uses to make his ontological argument – are actually very similar to certain moves Marx makes to describe social being in capitalism specifically. Since Marx also makes an argument that certain aspects of social being are structurally likely to be read off onto “being as such”, it opens a question about whether what Badiou takes to be an argument about ontology – in which inconsistent multiplicities are “counted” via a process, which generates the count-as-one, which is then itself represented in a metastructure – whether this whole structure of argument might seem more intuitive, because there is a socially specific sense in which a homologous set of relationships confronts us in capitalism specifically. Even if this could be shown, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Badiou’s ontological claims are incorrect – it just suggests a reason we might find this sort of ontology particularly intuitive or thinkable now – a reason that isn’t confined to our confrontation with the development of Cantorian set theory. I don’t know if this makes any more sense of what I was talking about above 🙂

    I have a question for you, though 🙂 Something that came up in the Badiou seminar I was attending. There was a moment in the seminar – I don’t know if I can express this clearly, so apologies in advance – where Badiou was represented as saying that a process of transformation involves a reconfiguration of the metastructure or of representation, but not a reconfiguration of the count-as-one. My question here may be very naive, but I heard Badiou’s argument in a different way. He distinguishes between the event, as something made possible by the existence of an evental site that is presented – that is part of the count-as-one – but which for whatever reason is not represented in the state or metastructure. As subjects faithful to the event confront their experience of something not accounted for in the state, not expressable in terms of existing knowledge or language, they participate in the creation of a Truth – which, unlike the event, is something present in representation (for subjects at least?), but does not exist at the level of presentation – is not part of the original count-as-one.

    The way I understood this argument, is that a Truth pointed to the possibility, via a configuration of representation, to react back on presentation – to change the count-as-one? So Truths are in a sense addressed to a future situation in which what is currently represented, will at some point also be presented? I took the argument as an attempt to explain how, within a structured (and even, to some degree, hyper-structured) situation, the conditions of possibility could be found to change the structure (and not simply the representation of the structure) at a fundamental level, so as to introduce something into a situation, that would not have been included in that situation in any sense at the outset – without, however, asserting that situations are unstructured to begin with.

    I suggested this in the seminar, but the response was very strongly that any transformation occurs at the level of a reshuffling of the metastructure alone. I don’t know Badiou well enough to know – I had been assuming what I’ve outlined above was his position, as it seemed the reason he would want to introduce the specific distinction he draws between the event (presented, but not represented) and a truth (not presented, but represented) – to explain how a fully structured situation could nevertheless become the site for the genesis of something new. But I’m probably just completely misunderstanding the nature of the argument. I just thought I’d have another go, and see if someone else wants to tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about 🙂 This question hits in some sense on what you’ve raised above in terms of counts (and not just metastructures) changing over time – I guess I had taken for granted, when I was reading, that this was the intention. But the reaction I received when I suggested this, implies that maybe I’m completely off target.

    In terms of the comments you make above about relating Badiou to actual situations: in a way, I wonder whether he doesn’t make this deliberately difficult – it’s tempting to see in his approach a strong reaction against the sort of legislation undertaken in May ’68, where organised parties attempted to rule over whether a revolution was or was not imminent. The emphasis Badiou places on the unknowability and unverifiability of events would seem designed to guard against that sort of outcome. This places his system in a position where it can be used to think events, but not to adjudicate them… The system then refers back to a “messy retail business” how we want to orient ourselves to particular potential events…

    Apologies if all of this is very unclear or ill-thought…

  5. Nick February 26, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    Yes, I see now the way you were reading Badiou, and I think there are certainly relationships in contemporary capitalism that could present a similar structure. Speaking for Badiou, I’m sure he would agree to some degree (since philosophy, for him, is always conditioned), but he would more than likely point up the mathematical basis of his thought. That is to say, the various paths taken in the development of set theory provide him with his basis ontological framework, not social formations. Although, pushing the trail farther back, it could be possible to argue that set theory itself is in some way reliant on the social structures it finds itself in. I’m not sure it’d be correct, but it is a possibility.

    Hmm, I’m working my way through Badiou in more depth lately too, so I’m trying to figure out precisely where my general idea of him is wrong. I think the section you point out – in which way exactly a truth changes a situation – I’ve been less than clear on myself. So going back to these sections, I think I can outline (in a very simplified way) the steps involved:

    [1] a truth is constructed as a represented part of the situation; specifically, as a generic set that collects together all the presented elements of the old situation that connect with the declared event, including the evental site and the event

    -now, importantly for what we’re talking about here, the generic set does not group its elements according to any established rule, i.e. by a count

    [2] the generic set is then ‘forced’, meaning (again, very simply) what was merely represented as a truth beforehand is made to be presented in a new situation, through the use of language and naming that anticipates its presentation

    -but this means that post-forcing, the count of the situation must have changed, in order to be able to recognize the new elements

    So your intuition is right – the presentation does change as the result of a truth-procedure and, specifically, through forcing.

    As for your last comment, I think that’s a useful way of looking at Badiou’s relation to actual politics, and certainly a plausible reading. But does this entail that we just twiddle our thumbs until an event occurs? I don’t think Badiou subscribes to that view, and I have textual evidence for that, but I’m wondering what exactly his system entails for periods where events are absent. Is this a serious flaw, or can his own conceptual resources be used to overcome it? I’m not sure yet…

  6. Nate February 26, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Not sure I’m really adding anything that hasn’t been said, but …

    the main place where I have a sense of resonance between Badiou and Marx is on the determination of countable units, that there’s a sort of determination of what counts as something prior to those somethings being counted. I think it’s a sort of methodological similarity. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s deliberate – Badiou was a marxist since way back, both philosophically and politically – but it may also be just a coincidence or me reading in or a sort of influence of his early milieu. I also think there’s some resonance between B’s truth as the boring of holes in bodies of knowledge and M’s critique and social upheaval as practical critique. (I should also say, can’t recall if I’ve said this before, I read Badiou pretty much exclusively for use in a deflationary move against pressure from some people I know who want to push conversations into being about ontology, I’m not sure Badiou would like that this is what I like about his work.)

    As for B not saying let’s just twiddle our thumbs, his activity in L’Organisation Politique (sp?) and other groups prior to that definitely suggests that this is not the case. So either his philosophy says twiddle our thumbs but he fails to listen, or his philosophy doesn’t say anything about whether or not to twiddle our thumbs, or it says don’t do so. In any case, Badiou does not seem to do so.

    take care,

  7. N Pepperell February 26, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Hey folks 🙂

    Nate – When I have been writing above, I was also thinking of resonances with Marx, but one other thing I’ve been thinking about (but haven’t written on yet) has been resonances, as well, with particular forms of Marxism. There’s a sense in which the distinction Badiou draws between the presentation and representation reinscribes a base-superstucture distinction – once again, my intention in saying this isn’t to reduce Badiou back to a sociological argument – I don’t mean that he’s literally talking about base and superstructure in any sociological sense, or trying to talk about economy vs. culture or state. Only that there is a homology between the sort of argument he makes about the count and the metastructure, that echoes the sorts of distinctions people make in a much more sociological space, when discussing base-superstructure distinctions. Again, I’m not mentioning it to reduce what Badiou is doing back to this sort of approach – I would see it more as a matter that theorists tend to reinscribe the sorts of theory to which they have some sympathy, trying to develop a system that can do what those sorts of theories also do, but within the framework of something broader…

    In any event, this point is neither here nor there, as the major resonances I think are more directly to Marx – so the question becomes more one of how deliberate this is, and in what sense it’s intended.

    Nick – I’m not trying, if this makes sense, to undermine Badiou’s claim of drawing his material from a confrontation with the implications of set theory – I know that I’m speaking, in a sense, from outside Badiou’s system. It is, though, one of the things that perhaps troubles me the most about the image of social movements that seems to lie in the background of Badiou’s work? As in, he treats events as something radically outside the contours of the representable context, and yet, at least with reference to something like set theory, I suspect I could draw parallels – homologies? – between the forms of thought expressed in the mathematics, and the forms of thought that might be finding expression in other sorts of social practices at around the same time? My argument here isn’t intended to be a causal or reductive one: I’m not trying to say that there is some sociological “base” that primes transformations in thought. I tend, though, to think that things become increasingly easy for us to intuit, to think, to perceive, the more dimensions of social practice give us a kind of experiential exposure to those forms of thought. On a certain level, Badiou’s approach – the way it conceptualises transformation – would seem compatible with this – with the exception of how he seems to conceptualise the event. I guess I’d be somewhat more prone to think of events as sort of transfigurative articulations of these sorts of tacit homologies that have already been quietly (and often accidentally) constituted in social practice all along?

    I realise my approach loses the sort of hard break that maybe Badiou wants to introduce? I suppose this goes hand-in-hand for me with not tending to conceptualise situations as structured in such a strong sense? As in, I tend to see situations as already pointing in different directions to begin with, such that multiple sorts of developments of situations are possible, and such that the situation itself is easier to transform – and this then may make me value the hard break represented by an event, less than Badiou does?

    All of this is somewhat beside the point, though, as I’m mainly trying to understand what Badiou is trying to do, and why, rather than offer a criticism of his approach.

    On the issue of sitting around waiting for an event, I don’t know. As in, many people seem to react to Badiou’s work this way – it’s a comment I see often. And yet, as Nate says, it’s not the conclusion Badiou himself seems to draw in practice. I wonder if this is in a sense an unintended side effect – where his target is more to provide a theoretically articulated defence against attempts of organised groups to rule on whether or not an event has happened, so this is where his argument focusses, not attending to the problem that this approach seems to confine the possibility for fundamental transformation to the experience of an event, which carries its own potentially disempowering implications – I wonder, in a sense, if it might not have been intended that people focus on this aspect of the argument or draw this conclusion from the argument? Even if this somewhat seems to be an implication?

    But yes – your outline of the concept of forcing is what would seem to me to be implied in the way he sets up his categories from the beginning. I’m wondering whether what happened in the seminar was maybe a difference of emphasis, where I was interested in your step 2, where the person leading the session was more interested in step 1? So he was portraying the generic set as gathering together elements from the existing (non-transformed) situation – but, given that the metastructure had already been described as something that captured all possible combinations of elements from the existing situation, it looked as though the generic set could only be a reconfiguration of those same elements? So this looked like something that could never possibly react back on the count? Whereas I took the issue to be more than something about the reconfiguration of existing elements, in order to try to make expressible what initially did not fall within representation, sort of carves out a space of possibility, not simply for new representation, but for the development of a kind of pointer or index to what might in the future exist? As presented in the seminar, it was discussed less like this, as more as a sort of broadening of existing definitions or categories to combine terms that hadn’t been combined before – which didn’t seem to me to be the extent of what Badiou was reaching for?

    Many thanks for this…

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