Expanding a bit on my last post, I recall that my initial impression of Harman’s Tool-Being was that it was a strange Badiouianism. This is certainly an odd claim to make as Badiou is nowhere a key reference in Graham’s work, nor does he deploy concepts like multiplicity, event, truth-procedure, or set in his ontology. So given such profound differences between these two thinkers, what could have led me to discern such a profound proximity between the two of them? Simply put, both Harman and Badiou are profound anti-relationists and subtractive thinkers. Badiou’s multiplicities are militantly anti-relational and, moreover, everything in his thought revolves around what can be subtracted from situations: events and truth-procedures. Likewise, while we find nothing like events or truth-procedures as Badiou understands them, Harman’s objects are nonetheless subtracted from all relation by virtue of the fact that they are radically withdrawn.

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Setting aside Harman’s variant of OOO for the moment, Badiou ontology, I think, arises as a response to a specific historical situation in philosophy. As a result of the rise of structuralism and Hegelianism, the neo-Marxists coming out of the Althusserian school of Marxist thought found themselves beset with the question of how change is possible. Our question should be that of how change became a problem or a question in the first place. For thinkers like Ranciere, Badiou, Balibar, and later Zizek, I don’t think the issue here was that capitalism seemed to be an unbeatable beast, thereby generating questions of how to change it. Indeed, during the sixties the prospects of overturning capitalism appeared much more optimistic in many respects.

No, the motivation behind this set of questions was far more philosophical and arose directly from both the reigning Hegelianism of the day, as well as the dominance of structuralism. If both Hegelianism and structuralism generated questions of how change is possible, then this is because both positions are strict internalists where relations are concerned. By “internalism” I mean any ontological position that holds that relations are internal to their terms, or that terms are their relations. Recall the celebrated example of the phoneme from structural linguistics. The phoneme /b/ is nothing independent of the phoneme /p/, rather we only have the reciprocal determination of b and p in the relation b/p. Such is the core hypothesis of every internalism. There is no entity that is not reciprocally determined by other entities. Or, rather, entities are nothing apart from their reciprocal determinations.

Althusser pushed this thesis very far, going so far as to say that individuals are just effects of social relations. From a Marxist point of view this thesis was attractive because it undermined the core thesis of neoliberal ideology to the effect that societies don’t exist, but rather there are just individuals. Althusser effectively underlined the manner in which persons are always entangled in social relations. Moreover, all sorts of delightful analytic tools arose from this thesis as can be readily seen in Althusser, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Barthes, and Jakobson.

The problem was that this ontological thesis worked directly contrary to the stated aims of Marxist thought. For if internalism is true, there can be no question of social change because every change and action is immediately a function of its relations to the whole of which it is a part. Thereby every action merely reproduces the whole. It came to appear that there was no means of escape. This wasn’t a problem restricted to Foucault’s depiction of power in volume one of A History of Sexuality, but was already there in the thought of the arche-structuralists as in the case of Levi-Strauss, Jakobson, and Althusser. Structuralism seemed to dissolve every possibility of agency precisely because agents already are but elements internally determined by structure. As my beloved professor Adrian Pepperzak used to say regarding his courses with Levi-Strauss, “we learned that all myths ultimately say exactly the same thing.” This too would hold in the case of social action.

It was for this reason that the sons of Althusser (Rancierre, Balibar, and Badiou, then later Zizek) all began to search for a void point within structure. What was needed was something that was simultaneously internal to structure yet at odds with all internalist determinations of structure. And I believe they found this not in Lacan, but rather in a very early work by Levi-Strauss which also had a decisive impact on Lacan’s thought. This influence was subterranean, but nonetheless can everywhere be detected in the thought of these figures. Speaking of mana, Levi-Strauss writes,

I believe that notions of the mana type, however diverse they may be, and viewed in terms of their most general function (which, as we have seen, has not vanished from our mentality and our form of society) represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought (but also the surety of all art, all poetry, every mythic and aesthetic invention), even though scientific knowledge is capable, if not of staunching it, at least of controlling it partially. Moreover, magical thinking offers other, different methods of channeling and containment, with different results, and all these methods can very well coexist. In other words, accepting the inspiration of Mauss’s precept that all social phenomena can be assimilated to language, I see in mana, wakan, orenda, and other notions of the same type, the conscious expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it. That explains the apparently insoluble antinomies attaching to the notion of mana, which struck ethnographers so forcibly, and on which Mauss shed light: force and action; quality and state, substantive, adjective and verb all at once; abstract and concrete; omnipresent and localised. And, indeed, mana is all those things together; but is that not precisely because it is none of those things, but a simple form, or to be more accurate, a symbol in its pure state, therefore liable to take on any symbolic content whatever? In the system of symbols which makes up any cosmology, it would just be a zero symbolic value, that is, a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains, which can be any value at all, provided it is still part of the available reserve, and is not already, as the phonologists say, a term in a set. (Introduction to Marcel Mauss, 63 – 64)

We can refer to all of the sons of Althusser as thinkers of supplementarity or this degree-zero signifier that marks the limit of the symbolic order. And if Levi-Strauss’s analysis seemed so promising as a way out of the deadlock generated by internalism, then this is precisely because it is able to take on any symbolic content whatsoever, thereby introducing a degree of freedom into the symbolic order. Thus we can say that “the act”, “the event”, and “the part-of-no-part” are all names for mana.

For Badiou thinking mana would consist in the deployment of two strategies. On the one hand, being would now be defined as consisting of purely non-relational multiplicities. One emancipatory aspect of Badiou’s thought lies in the manner in which he vigorously refuses any sort of internalism at the level of multiplicities. This comes through in his strictly extensionalist conception of sets. For Badiou the set {a, b, c} is strictly equivalent to the set {b, c, a} or the set {c, a, b} because sets are defined by their extension, by the terms that belong to them, and not by any sort of internal relations between these elements. In this way, Badiou affirms ontologically the radical contingency of any relations among elements and thus, by implication, provides an ontological rationale for the contingency of social structures. And here we should not hesitate to recall that one of the key gestures of any critical thought is to show that social formations are not natural (sic.), where the natural is construed as the inevitable or essential, but are historically contingent and therefore capable of being otherwise. Second, where structured situations are concerned, Badiou affirms the possibility of a mana signifier at odds with all structuring principles of the situation, and therefore capable of being subtracted from the structure of the situation. In this way he hopes to guarantee a possibility of freedom for overturning historically contingent situations. But all of this is dependent on a radically externalist doctrine of relations where relations are not internal to their terms, but external to their terms thereby grounding the possibility of arranging things differently.

However, the “mana solution”, of which Badiou’s articulation is probably the most well developed, comes at a heavy price. On the one hand, precisely because the mana signifier is a zero-degree signifier, a signifier that is completely undetermined, we are left without any principle of determination for determining this void point within the social structure. This problem comes out most clearly, I believe, in Zizek’s discussions of the Act where we’re to imagine a pure decision without any sort of foundation or ground; a decision so pure that it abolishes the subject itself and generates an entirely new subject as a result. We’re told that this Act is supposed to promise some sort of revolutionary transformation, yet it is difficult to see why it should have any particular outcome at all given that it is completely groundless and at odds with all contents of the situation. It is difficult to escape the impression that some sort of decision-criteria is being covertly smuggled into all these discussions of the event and the act.

Second, if we follow the route of Badiou, because 1) we have adopted extensionalism where sets or multiplicities are concerned, and because 2) we have placed all our emphasis on mana, we renounce the task of analyzing the structuration of situations. Here we begin with the a priori that because sets are defined extensionally rather than intensionally, we have nothing of significance to learn from the analysis of the structuration of situations. And because the thesis runs that real change is produced through the zero-degree signifier or mana, we have nothing to gain from a knowledge of situations. That this is not an unfair portrayal of Badiou can be seen in 1) his disdainful remarks about knowledge as contrasted with truth, 2) his militant rejection and scathing critiques of the social sciences, and 3) his remarks in interview rejecting Marx’s analyses of economy. But moreover, because these strategies have drawn more from structural linguistics than simply the principle of reciprocal determination or internalism, we also get a political practice premised on the analysis of the signifier alone.

With Badiou, OOO shares the externalist thesis where relations are concerned, and is therefore sympathetic to claims about subtraction. For OOO relations are external to their terms and are therefore contingent. Onticology, at least, sees externalism as the only way to account for how change is possible and how it is possible to challenge forms of domination and oppression. However, OOO rejects the extensionalism of Badiou’s concept of sets, instead favoring an intensionalist conception of objects. Extensionalism argues that sets are purely determined by the members that belong to them, such that ordering principles or relations among these elements are irrelevant. {a, b, c} is extensionally equivalent to {b, a, c}. Intensionalism, by contrast, holds that the ordering relations within a set are all important and cannot be ignored. {a, b, c} might have the same extension as {c, a, b}, but they are different objects by virtue of the fact that they have different endo-relational structures or are composed of different domestic relations. And here the thesis would be that these different intensions or endo-relations generate different powers or capacities to act.

However, setting all this aside, I think the real place where OOO thrives over its Badiouian cousin is that it doesn’t lead us to ignore situations or entanglements among objects, but situates our attention directly in situations. OOO wants to get at the rustle of being, how objects rub against one another at the level of their sensuous qualities, and how foreign or exo-relations generate particular qualities. It does not believe that we can ignore these relations, but rather that our attention should be squarely situated in these entanglements and how they function. However, in holding that objects are in excess of any of their relations, it also promises a way out of these entanglements through the liberation of subterranean powers harbored deep within objects.