Alain Badiou: Theory of the Subject
Standing Before the Door, A Structural Marxist:
When there’s a fire in the building, you have to be wary of doors. Grab hold of the wrong doorknob and you might earn a searing memento of your own foolishness. If we imagine that Theory of the Subject is one door among many in a telescoped hallway, we have to assume that trying to open the door will get us burned, at least a little. In Bruno Bosteel’s introduction to the English translation, he cites a number of authors who call this the most forbidding of the French philosopher’s three big books (Being and Event and its sequel Logics of Worlds being its younger siblings), a confounding volume that rifles through Symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis, Greek tragedy, and youth insurgencies looking for pieces of a renewed, well, theory of the subject.
Fortunately, I didn’t read the introduction until I had already finished the book. “Fools rush in,” and all that. You could criticize me for having a cavalier attitude towards Badiou, and I would confess that I’ve never taken him all that seriously as either a historian or a political subject. I have appreciated his fierce polemics against puppets of the French status quo and devoured his recent Ethics, which I reviewed previously. All the same, I was in no hurry to read his major works, mainly because I was passingly aware of their forbidding austerity and highly technical mathematical constructions. I hate reading Derrida, but at least the author seems to have fun conjuring up those tentacular sentences.
But after devouring both volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia I wanted to engage with one of Deleuze’s most famous sparring partners. So I opened the door of Theory of the Subject heedless of whatever difficulties might lie in my way.
Long-time readers might be aware that I have an affinity for Althusser and structural Marxism. In fact, I spent a great deal of time defending his legacy and using his theory as a framework for my historical investigations in undergrad. I’ve read and re-read all of his canonical essays and marked up my copy of On the Reproduction of Capitalism almost beyond readability. I’ve found his work, and that of Nicos Poulantzas, of great utility in developing my own theories of how to write Marxist history. Of course, the central attraction of the Althusserian approach is its conception of Marxism as a science of history (hold that thought for awhile) that can analyze modes of production and their development with uncanny precision. It’s a wonderful tool for understanding a given situation and placing its elements in their proper locations.
And so you can see my particular line of approach in reading Badiou, the set of questions I brought to my first reading of Theory of the Subject:
- What is its relationship to Deleuze and Guattari and their own views on subjectivity and structure?
- What does Badiou do with Althusser and the structural approach? Given that he’s a former student of Monsieur A., I have to assume that’s going to be on this book’s mind.
- What’s in it for me? As a historian? As a Marxist?
Because these are the questions I brought to the text, my most coherent impressions of Theory of the Subject concern these three topics. Before continuing with the review proper, I should mention the limitations of my reading:
I have no background in either Symbolist poetry or Lacan, and only a cursory knowledge of Greek tragedy. I know my Marxism quite well, particularly the Big Three and Althusser, but I am not trained as a philosopher nor in mathematics so my grasp of these threads is relatively tenuous.
Now let’s walk through the door!
Philosophy as Polemic:
First, Badiou embraces the conception of philosophy that Althusser (after Lenin) established in his own work. That is, every position a philosopher takes is both an affirmation and the act of drawing a line against an opposing line. Philosophy is a theoretical struggle that has its own separate arena, and its purpose is to defend scientific thought against incursions and ideological impurities. It reminds one of Machiavelli. For the Althusser of For Marx, the vital campaign is to defend the materialist dialectic against humanism and Hegel, to draw a firm line between Marx and Hegel in an effort to critique Stalin-esque politics from the Left. In Theory of the Subject, Badiou draws many lines––sometimes literally!––to distinguish the true political essence of Marxism from deviations.
His method for doing so is to do a number of philosophical readings to establish the nature of dialectics and the place of the subject as a radical break with what he calls the space of placement or “splace,” the rare emergence of the truly new within a structured reality. He reads Hegel, the poet Mallarmé, Lacan, and so on in the context of the aftermath of May, 1968. The result is a formulation of Marxism that rejects Althusser’s idea of history as a “process without a subject” (for if there is no subject how can revolutionary change take place?) as well as the conception of Marxism as a “science of history.”
“‘Science of history?’ Marxism is the discourse with which the proletariat sustains itself as subject. We must never let go of this idea.”¹
Marxism is therefore a guide to action, and the subject that it guides is the revolutionary party of a new type that anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninism sought to build. And the account of its subjectivity, of the process by which this subject comes into being, is largely derived from a run-in with Lacan. Indeed, Badiou calls Lacan “our Hegel,” and argues that Marxism has to reckon with and purify Lacan of idealism in order to properly conceive of a revolutionary subject. This subject is not simply found readymade, but it does include elements that cannot simply be mapped and understood in advance. Overall, Badiou’s account of the subject endorses a certain voluntarism, a belief in the primacy of the political line and of subjective struggle against revisionism and for a new rupture.
“The party is the support of the complete subject, by which the proletariat, built on the working class, aims at the dissolution of the algebraic frame in which this class is placed…In the proletariat, the working class has disappeared.”²
Thus Badiou rearticulates the Marxist split between “class in itself” and “class for itself,” favouring the latter and consigning the academic uses for the term “class” to a second-rate prop. His method of historical periodization, likewise, is punctuated not by concepts like modes of production or social formations but by revolutionary ruptures. 1871. 1917. 1967-8. And though the professional historian in me complains about the inadequacy of such categories for sober analysis, I love that Badiou is linking his philosophical project so closely with the history and practice of militant politics. It certainly ameliorates my bewilderment at his lengthy readings of Lacan, and gave me a vantage point for understanding his aims that I would have otherwise lacked.
“Like Hegel for Marx, Lacan for us is essential and divisible. The primacy of the structure, which makes of the symbolic the general algebra of the subject … is countered ever more clearly with a topological obsession in which what moves and progresses pertains to the primacy of the real.”³
These political passages, along with his elaboration of an ethics of courage and persistence and against the anxious paranoia that can so easily beset revolutionaries, were my favourite bits, the points where I felt Badiou’s and my own interests coincided most.
Crumbs for the Academic Historians:
What Badiou does not have, unlike his teacher Althusser (and even Deleuze), is a bounty of tools for historians to pick up and work with. His emphases here are overwhelmingly on radical shifts and rare volcanic eruptions. It would be easy for a given historian (me for instance) to argue that history is instead composed largely of smooth and subtle shifts, little tectonic slips that happen because of structural contradictions. What need does history have for the subject? But while I certainly don’t reject, as Badiou does, the idea of Marxism as a science of history, I do think that historians can utilize his notion of rupturing subjects.
In my own work, for instance, I can look at the creation of the Chinese middle class “in itself,” in other words its objective placement within the structure of Chinese and global society and the conditions of its emergence. But, on the other hand, we have to have a notion of subjectivity or agency if we want to explain how this middle layer’s political consciousness is expressed and why it gravitates to certain forms of political action and organization. Even though Badiou’s elaboration of these concepts is largely concerned with the proletariat and the M-L “party of a new type” the same energetic political subjects also appear out of other class formations, and I’ll certainly keep this in mind going forward with my work.
Reading Theory of the Subject’s many seminar-format chapters left a wildly mixed impression. I have been befuddled, inspired, irritated, and bored in equal measure. It’s been awhile since a book exposed my own intellectual limitations with such glee (Malabou was the last writer to do so). Hopefully I’ll be able to grow and re-read this book with a more mature outlook sometime in the future. In the meantime, I look forward with great anticipation to the next great world-historical rupture and the subject I’m sure to become.
I couldn’t find a real space for a discussion of Badiou’s polemic with Deleuze, since it’s more of a peripheral concern in the book. My own position is that Badiou shares some of the same problems with Deleuze concerning more speculative elements in their philosophies. I also reject the way that Deleuze and Guattari use Nietzsche and the notion of debt to ground their reading of political economy. But if I’m asked where my heart leads me, I would say it prefers the path of Spinoza and the radical anti-Hegelian positions of D&G. Time will tell if that proves to be a sustainable position, but I’m excited by the possibilities that Deleuze opens up for, say, environmental history and ecological studies of humanity’s role in the world at this point.
- Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject (New York: Continuum, 2009), xix.
- Ibid, 238.
- Ibid, 133.