Now that I’m home again I have been busily pulling together material for my article on Zizek and Badiou. In particular, I have been reading Adrian Johnston’s article “The Quick and the Dead: Alain Badiou and the Split Seeds of Transformation” and an earlier piece he was kind enough to share with me, entitled “From the Spectacular Act to the Vanishing Act: Badiou, Zizek, and the Politics of Lacanian Theory”, which is forthcoming in an anthology entitled Slavoj Zizek in a Post-Ideological Universe (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007). I have to confess that I feel a bit of envy, coupled with admiration, with respect to Johnston’s work. Both of us graduated about the same time and have similar research orientations. Last year he published his first book, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive, has a second book forthcoming with Northwestern entitled Zizek’s Ontology, and a third under review tentatively titled The Cadence of Change: Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations. All of this coupled with numerous and lengthy articles floating about various journals. Johnston’s work is characterized by an exceptional degree of clarity, coupled with a penetrating and deep understanding of Lacanian psychoanalysis and German idealism, and an astonishing mastery of Lacan’s seminar (published and unpublished), and Zizek’s and Badiou’s respective bodies of work. I suspect that we’ll be hearing Johnston’s name a good deal in the future.

What I find particularly interesting in Johnston’s latest article is the idea of forcing an event. As those of you familiar with his work know, Badiou’s idea is that truth proceeds from a sudden event that erupts within a situation only to disappear just as quickly. The event is that which is not counted by the structure or encyclopedia governing the situation, and stands on the edge of the void foundational to the situation. The idea is that the event is unmediated by the historical and semiotic space structuring a social situation and thus provides a point of leverage outside of power for producing a truth. A “truth-procedure” is thus that activity that consists in reconfiguring the elements of a situation in terms of the event. The key point is that the event is unconditioned by the situation in which it occurs. It cannot be explained on the basis of what came before, nor can it even be demonstrated to have taken place. It’s only through the nomination of those that discern the event and bear fidelity to its implications that the event is sustained. Thus, for instance, from the standpoint of dominant power something like the French Revolution simply looks like a chaotic eruption of disorder such that social relations need to be returned to ordinary order. From the standpoint of the revolutionaries, however, the revolution is a break with all prior history demonstrating concretely the contingency of reigning social relations and announcing the possibility of an egalitarian alternative. The revolutionaries can never demonstrate that the revolution was truly a revolution (and not just chaos erupting from such and such historical and semiotic conditions), but nonetheless sustain this event through their subsequent activism– The work of reconfiguring and reconceptualizing society according to the egalitarian promise of the revolution. The agents of this reconfiguration are what Badiou refers to as “subjects” (prior to your subjectivization by such an event you’re merely an individual, according to Badiou), and the activism of these subjects is what Badiou refers to as “truth-procedures”. The advantage of Badiou’s approach is, I think, obvious. In one fell swoop he has managed to side-step reigning claims of historicism, postmodern thought, and ordinary language philosophy, all of which, in one way or another, attempt to show how every phenomenon is mediated by a horizon of relations that overdetermine their being. All of this is done through a sort of performative notion of truth (in Austin’s sense) that shows how it is possible to subtract something from a situation that then becomes a sort of self-referential organization unfolding its own implications (Badiou demonstrates the possibility of such a subtraction with exceptional rigor in Being and Event and Logiques des mondes).

The standard criticism of Badiou’s work (coming from exemplary scholars of his work such as Peter Hallward) is that despite its attempt to redeem a universalist politics (genuine events are addressed to everyone, i.e., everyone can be taken up as a subject of a true event or an activist) there’s a way in which this conception of the political risks producing its opposite: a quietistic defeatism. If this is the case, then it is because we must await an event in order to engage in the process of a truth-procedure as a subject. In my view, this criticism is less worrisome than it immediately sounds as there are still events we can participate in today as subjects such as the Greek event of philosophy, the implications that continue to reverberate from the French and Russian revolutions, the Galileo event in science, etc. Nonetheless, Hallward and Johnston do have a point.

What Johnston proposes is the possibility of forcing an event itself. Under my reading we can ask does Badiou give an accurate account of how revolutionary change truly takes place? For Badiou truth-procedures follow an event. Thus we have the eruption of the French Revolution and the truth-procedure is the arduous work that follows this eruption in transforming society according to the ideals announced therein. But is this an accurate picture of what takes place with regard to something like the French Revolution? Badiou’s concern seems to be with the manner in which historicism tends to conceptualize everything in terms of continuity, thereby undermining the possibility of something genuinely new appearing in history (as every event is overdetermined by its past). Under this reading, every event would be one more formation of what Badiou calls “the state of a situation” or the transcendental regime governing what is counted as belonging to a situation (something akin to Foucaultian epistemes and power-structures– in an interview Badiou explicitly refers to Foucault as a philosopher of the encyclopedia).

However, it seems to me that this conception of history is deeply underdetermined and misses the polysemy characterizing our relationship to the historical. On the one hand, given that history is mediated by the signifier, I do not think it can be legitimately argued that history is unidirectional and monolithic in its conditioning. Just as in the case of psychoanalysis where the history of an analysand is “what will have been” through the narration that takes place in the analytic setting such that we cannot say that the past was already there determining the symptoms of the analysand, so too does social history produce itself as history through the narrativization of those agents in the social field. It was Hegel, of course, who argued that we’re never simply determined by grounds but always posit our own grounds or determinations. For instance, I am not simply influenced by this or that body of texts, but must, as it were, make the prior decision (even if not ever explicitly before consciousness) to be influenced by something. No doubt many of us are familiar with reading texts (perhaps as graduate students) that slid off our backs like water on a duck, not because we didn’t understand these texts but because we had no libidinal and transferential relation to these texts that would allow them to be influences in our intellectual development. Indeed, there’s something uncanny in that experience where one suddenly finds that a text that did not “address” us at all suddenly comes to address us, as if the grounds we posit for ourselves have changed entirely.

The relation of influence is thus not unidirectional such that we’re thrown into an environment and are simply formed in a passive fashion by that environment. Rather, there’s a way in which we always already have chosen the way in which we’re open to the world. And, I think, the case is not dissimilar at the level of the social. Social movements posit their own grounds in history, as can be seen in the way Christo-Nationalist Fundamentalists attempt to read United States history as unfolding on Christian grounds (“the United States was founded as a Christian nation”). Through this sort of auto-historicization the agents of a situation temporalize and produce their present and their being-towards-the-future. The point I’m rather clumsily trying to make, is that, on these grounds, it becomes possible to think a pluralism of historical universes unfolding simultaneously according to regular chronological time such that the agents of these historical universes cannot be said to inhabit one and the same historical universe yet still somehow interact with one another. I, for instance, tend to temporalize my present in terms of a particular historicization of the Enlightenment that is very different than the one I encounter often among my fellow citizins where time is historized in terms of a Christian legacy.

The point I want to make is thus two-fold: On the one hand, historism need not be understood as a way of conceiving everything as hegemonically governed by the “transcendental regime” or structure governing a situation. Rather, the production of a history can be understood as a way of producing a separation or subtraction from the dominant constraints of a situation. Thus, for instance, if we look at the history of the Enlightenment we discover that Enlightenment thinkers constructed a counter-history against the history dominated by Scripture and Aristotle, that made reference to thinkers such as Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius (a huge presence once a rotting copy of his De Rerum Natura was rescued from a heap of books at a Seminary that was used to rip scraps of paper from), Diogenes, Tacitus, and especially Cicero and Seneca. In producing this history, the Rennaissance thinkers and Enlightenment thinkers created libidinal and transferential relations, identifications, for themselves that gave them the capacity to re-imagine their social universe or universe of meaning. They simultaneously posited their own grounds and were produced in and out of these grounds. Here the production of a counter-history allowed them, as it were, to step out of the dominant historical currents of the situation in which they emerged.

This brings me to my second point: Assuming that Badiou treats the French Revolution as an event, perhaps the true political work isn’t to be seen in the activities that followed this sudden eruption, but rather, in all the efforts that led up to the major revolutions. That is, on the basis of the history they were constructing for themselves (and by which they were also being constructed), the Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers busily set about re-interpreting the dominant elements of their situation in terms of what they were discovering in the Ancients (albeit in a way that didn’t simply repeat these ancients in a scholarly way… One need only read Hume as a repetition of Epicurus, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, and the Roman rhetors– of whom he had almost encyclopedic knowledge –to see how repetition produces a difference or isn’t just repetition of the same). This recoding of the social space led to a transformation of instutions, reigning doxa and assumptions, and produced entirely new communities of people (such as the Salons that Acephalous recently spoke of). Moreover, the case can be made that in many cases those Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers certainly didn’t see themselves as sowing the seeds of eventual revolution (especially in the case of the Rennaissance thinkers) nor even as contesting the primacy of theological conceptions of the world (in many cases such thinkers defended these conceptions). All that is required is not a commitment to producing a revolution, but rather the repetition of certain arguments, certain ways of thinking, certain themes, that have the effect of effectuating this change themselves through their repetition and subsequent elaboration. That is, the high church apologist that calls for compromise and who points out that some of the Enlightenment ideas should be embraced while still championing traditional Scriptural inerrancy has already lost the game without realizing it simply by repeating the arguments and endorsing them. He’s like the coyote that has run over the cliff and just hasn’t yet looked down. If there should be no worry over flat-earth intelligent design folk, then this is because their very decision to endorse scientific methodology (even if a cynical rhetorical deception) means that they’ve lost the game from the outset… Subsequent history will take care of them as their students, who unlike them take their rhetoric seriously and honestly, attempt to repeat their claims according to scientific methology and fail. The moment they adopted the rhetoric of science they had already lost at the level of form, even if at the level of content they nonetheless believe themselves to be significantly challenging established science. They have converted without realizing they’ve converted in much the same way that the believer who takes anti-depressents and buys life and disaster insurance reveals more truthfully their own beliefs even if not before self-aware consciousness.

Viewed in this light, the event of the revolutions themselves comes to be viewed not so much as the inaugural moment where a politics was instantiated and subjects of truth-procedures emerged, but rather as the “dotting of the i’s” marking the culmination of the real work that had already been done, where the social sphere suddenly became self-reflexively aware that everything had changed when it wasn’t looking, that the old order no longer existed. What we have here is something very much like a speciation through geographical isolation in biology, but where the operative dimension is speciation through historization of a particular type of temporalization.

Zizek gives a nice example of what I’m trying to get at apropos his reading of Hegel’s analysis of the beautiful soul in The Sublime Object of Ideology. There Zizek writes,

To exemplify this logic of ‘positing the presuppositions’, let us take one of the most famous ‘figures of consciousness’ from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: the ‘beautiful soul’. How does Hegel undermine the position of the ‘beautiful soul’, of this gentle, fragile, sensitive form of subjectivity which, from its safe position as innocent observer, deplores the wicked ways of the world? The false of the ‘beautiful soul’ lies not in its inactivity, in the fact that it only complains of a depravity without doing something to remedy it; it consists, on the contrary, in the very mode of activity implied by this position of inactivity– in the way the ‘beautiful soul’ structures the ‘objective’ social world in advance so that it is able to assume, to play in it the role of the fragile, innocent and passive victim. this, then, is Hegel’s fundamental lesson: when we are active, when we intervene in the world through a particular act, the real act is not this particular, empirical, factual intervention (or non-intervention); the real act is of a strictly symbolic nature, it consists in the very mode in which we structure the world, our perception of it, in advance, in order to make our intervention possible, in order to open in it the space for our activity (or inactivity). The real act thus precedes the (particular factual activity; it consists in the previous restructuring of our symbolic universe into which our (factual, particular) act will be inscribed.

To make this clear, let us take the care of the suffering mother as the ‘pillar of the family’: all other members of the family– her husband, her children –exploit her mercilessly; she does all the domestic work and she is of course continually growning, complaining of how her life is nothing but mute suffering, sacrifice without reward. The point, however, is that this ‘silent sacrifice’ is her imaginary identification: it gives consistency to her self-identity– if we take this incessant sacrificing from her, nothing remains; she literally ‘loses ground’. (215-6)

Viewed from this perspective, it is the “act before the act”, the symbolic act that first opens the world as a space for a particular type of action that political engagement should focus upon. Indeed, we can ask, contra Badiou, how those engaged in the revolution first became capable of perceiving a particular situation as a revolutionary situation without first having undergoing some fundamental transformation at the level of the symbolic structuration that rendered them open to such a perception and action. Or, at least, this is the direction in which my thoughts are currently moving… A praxis that targets symbolic structuration itself, thereby opening the space for an event yet to come.