Alain Badiou: The Apprenticeship to Signs

It will forever be the case that we must endure our thoughts for as long as the night lasts. … Among such nocturnal thoughts, none is probably more worrying for us today than those that are tied to the political condition.

– Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Miltants

Confronting the inevitable apathy at the heart of leftist political struggle around the world Zizek asks:

What are we to do in such depressive times when dreams seem to fade away? Is the only choice we have between the nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance of sublime moments of enthusiasm and the cynical-realist explanation of why these attempts to change the situation inevitably had to fail? 1

Zizek suggests that these small explosions of emancipatory politics that have thrust themselves to the surface of our world are actually subliminal fragments from the utopic future. Our dystopian times should be exposed to a divinatory hermeneutics that allows these strange signs to be read as the distorted (sometimes even perverted) fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential. But what is this hidden potential? How can we release it into the world, bring about such emancipatory energy to transform our world? What kind of world would that entail? Does philosophy have an answer?

Badiou tells us that the future of philosophy “lies in its past”.2 He sees two tendencies within philosophy: the power of the Academy and the power of the Militant. The academic philosopher is the great transmitter of knowledge and tradition; while the militant is the confrontational antagonist of all knowledge and academic pretensions who offers the challenge of both individual and social change. As Badiou emphasizes the Militant philosophy corrupts; that is to say:

To corrupt here means to teach the possibility of refusing all blind submission to established opinions. To corrupt means to give the youth certain means to change their opinion with regard to social norms, to substitute debate and rational critique for imitation and approval, and even, if the question is a matter of principle, to substitute revolt for obedience. (10)

This is the philosophy of action, as act. He borrows a term from the poet Rimbaud ‘logical revolts’ as a good working definition of this action philosophy. He tempts a program out of Althusser suggesting that a philosophy of action promotes divisiveness in theoretical activities: it is a division among the opinions about scientific knowledge – or, more generally, among theoretical activities (12).

He tells us that the philosophical act is decisionary and normative: that is, it separates, cuts, and divides knowledge from opinion; as well as imposes new forms of hierarchization between good and bad ethical and political forms and dimensions.  Ultimately this entails a transformation in both philosophy and subjectivity:

Philosophy is the act of reorganizing all theoretical and practical experiments by proposing a great new normative division, which inverts an established intellectual order and promotes new values beyond the commonly accepted ones. The form all this takes is of a more or less free address to each and everyone, but first and foremost to the youth, because a philosopher knows perfectly well that young people are the ones who must make decisions about their lives and who are most often ready to accept the risks of a logical revolt. (13-14)

This almost seems a return to Badiou’s roots in the sixties, a sort of latter-day Socrates emerging from the rubble of late-capitalist society entering its streets preaching a new philosophy of action and militancy. He tells us there is nothing new in this and that it is actually very old approach: the eternal return of the Same in its usual guise of revolt, inversion, and transformation or emancipation of youthful energies. Philosophy is a “repetition of its act” (14), a movement from the present through the past and back again. Nothing new there. Yet, if this is true, he asks then how do we account for new truths emerging? How do we “assume the consequences of a new event within the actual conditions of philosophy” (15).

Creative repetition. The crux of the matter is the movement of truths between theme and variation: the repetition that emerges as change, as an event. The movement of the future in the present, the divinatory philosopher must read this future as signs of the event. Deleuze in his Proust and Signs once offered this: the “worldly sign appears as the replacement of an action or a thought. It stands for action and for thought (6).” Deleuze in another passage explains:

…memory intervenes only as the means of an apprenticeship that transcends recollection both by its goals and by its principles…. [it] is oriented to the future, not to the past. … Everything that teaches us something emits signs, every act of learning is an interpretation of signs or hieroglyphs. … [it] is an apprenticeship to signs (4).

But what does this apprenticeship to signs entail? Badiou tells us that we must distinguish between fiction and ideology. Because, generally speaking, ideology is opposed to science, to truth or to reality. And the best way to do this he continues is by “finding the new great fiction that offers the possibility of having a final political belief” (77). That the “process of truth is also the process of a new fiction” (77).

And in fact, when the world is somber and confused, as it is today, we must sustain our final belief by a symbolic fiction. The problem of young people in poor neighborhoods or cities is the problem of the absence of a fiction. It has nothing to do with a social problem. The problem is the lack of a great fiction as support for a great belief. Thus, the final belief in generic truths, the final possibility of opposing the generic will to normal desires, this type of possibility and the belief in this sort of possibility, in generic truths, has to be our new fiction. (77-78)

He says we need a grand fiction, but one without a “proper name” (78). The “great fiction of communism, which goes from masses to proper names through the mediation of class struggles, is the form of the classical revolutionary recomposition of the political field” (78). Instead we need local possibilities, generic fictions that are not bound to the great names of the past. The localization of the generic calls for a new “political courage”:

To find the fiction is a question of justice and hope. But the question of the real possibility of a fiction is a question of courage. Courage is the name of something that cannot be reduced to either law or desire. It is the name of subjectivity irreducible to the dialectics of law and desire in its ordinary form. Now, today, the place of political action – not that of political theory, political conceptions or representations, but political action as such – is precisely something irreducible to either law or desire, which creates the place, the local place, for something like the generic will. (80)

So it seems a call to creative repetition, a return to those philosophies of subjectivity and will, but with a difference: this is a militant turn that is not to be encased in academic quests for knowledge and tradition, but the movement of a generic will, a will to localized fictions of political courage irreducible to the ‘dialectics of law or desire’.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-10-02). The Year of Dreaming Dangerously Norton.
2. Badiou, Alain (2012-12-03). Philosophy for Militants (Pocket Communism) . Norton.

15 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: The Apprenticeship to Signs

  1. In his essay On a Finally Objectless Subject, Badiou identifies the free subject as the “autonym of an empty idiom,” precisely the kind of subject that is to receive this new fiction. The only thing that bothers me is this–we can only receive from the future, not from the past. We have already accommodated the past in the impossible presencing of our being in the margins of the present. It is this very impossibility of our presencing that is the idiom itself, empty, unilaterally naked but as such, owing to the creative power of the nothing, a silent contraction of the past into the livable that is the ‘now’ (yet livable only to the extent that the now escapes any temporal reductionism: it is characteristically volatile) becomes the force-possibility of any new present which is no less the future–also an empty idiom–arriving in all its improbability. No doubt, the future arrives as ‘event’.

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    • The way I read it is that if it is a ‘fiction’ it never arrives to begin with, it is always process and becoming, movement, act, and happening. It does not stop, or arrive, or rest in some final pleroma of fulfilled being. And, in the earlier part he emphasizes that this future is always already to be found in the past…. that is the gist of creative repetition. A repetition that swerves, alters, changes, becomes something different.

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      • Yes. That’s a faithful reading of Badiou. What interests me here is his difference with Laruelle’s emphasis on the future, or the stranger-subject (the two are synonymous for Laruelle). Unsurprisingly, Laruelle also takes Deleuze to task for his creative repetition which in a nutshell glorifies the past, or something like an absolute memory that acts, singularities, or foldings–these creative repetitions–imitate by germination in a differential sense. Brassier has also made this point in his criticism of Deleuze. On closer examination, creative repetition ‘repeats’ the vitalism of auto-affectivity of Henry. This leads Deleuze to assume that monism (an absolute anorganic precursor which can be folded in memory) equals pluralism (the repeatable creative foldings of an otherwise unrepeatable memory). All these clearly celebrate a precursor (past) that retains its pure form of the negative in the intensive flow of the present, such that there is no present nor future but the pure negative form of the past virtualized in every new present. This is deterministic, I should say.

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      • I think that both Laruelle and Brassier in the sense that you have stated are absolutely wrong in their reading of Deleuze. The whole point of a creative repetition is its non-deterministic character, that it is irreducible to some pure instant of time at all. This is the time of becoming for Deleuze that is neither past, present, or future. Deleuze is no organicist, no romantic, he does not see the past as some organic totalized whole from which we draw some essence, some determined form (precursor, dark or otherwise) into the present. One does not repeat the dark precursors steps: this is a resurrection not a zombiefest. Deleuze on page 119 of Proust and Signs is about as explicit as one can get:

        “The content [past] is so completely lost, having never been possessed, that its reconquest is a creation. And it is precisely because Essence as individuating viewpoint surmounts the entire chain of individual association with which it breaks that it has the power not simply to remind us, however intensely, of the self that has experienced [dark precursor] the entire chain, but to make that self relive, by reindividuating it, a pure existence that it has never experienced. Every “explication” of something in this sense is the resurrection of a self.” (119-120)

        Further on page (122) he tells us that even “when the past is given back to us in essences, the pairing of the present moment and the past one is more like a struggle [agon] than an agreement, and what is given us is neither a totality [determined] nor an eternity [infinite, mathematized], but “a bit of time in the pure state,” that is, a fragment”. There is no unity of past or present, no whole or determinable totality from which one can draw on or from which it might derive. On page 129 when he speaks of incommensurability and noncommunication as distances, but distances that fit together and intersect. He says this is time: “that system of non-spatial distances, that distance proper to the contiguous or to the continuous, distances without intervals.”(129)

        Such an incongruity of time as non-spatial distance is at the center of his conception of the ‘vertigo of immanence’. The irreducible, indeterminable, incommensurability, and noncommuncativeness of time as distances that still intersect and bind the paradox of intervals and becoming.

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    • I was reading the introduction from _Between Deleuze and Derrida_ and Protevi discussed the particular way in which the event of May ’68 sparked the “generation” of thought as a whole. If it is the case that I do agree with you, I would say it is because this “generation” is characterized perhaps by the absence of an event, by the non-event. Why, for instance, didn’t the deaths of *1.5 million* innocent Iraqi due to economic sanctions spark an event, or even the slightest modicum of outrage?

      It is here where the lack of an event becomes eventful in itself. I think the advantage of Laruelle over Derrida is to realize that the absence of a specter is itself spectral if one has the proper vision. Beyond mere Derridean/Lukacsian spectral ontology, we have also non-spectral ontology which is also revealed to be of highest importance.

      Adorno, here, was perhaps right in thinking that it was far worse than we think it is. Instead of collateral damage, it is time for collateral healing. And this means seeing the invisible, realizing and listening to the various traumas we routinely and (perhaps more controversially) systematically undergo in this “generation”.

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    • That Deleuze is no organicist is exactly the point I was expanding on. He tried to overcome Bergson’s vitalism by pushing the history of vitality further back into the anorganic, chaos. Chaos is the absolute past which causally determines the plane of immanence. I think Deleuze does not deny this. What he introduces anew within this chaos/complexity theory is, as Steven Shaviro explains (in The Force of the Virtual: Deleuze, Science and Philosophy) is that this determinism “is sensitive to differences in initial conditions [that is] too slight to be measured,” thus “not actually determinable ahead of time pragmatically” (from “Interstitial Life: Remarks on the Causality and Purpose in Biology, p.338). We can deduce two tentative conclusions here: 1) ‘determinism is not actually determinable pragmatically speaking’ does not deny that it is determinable already in the pre-subjective dimension of singularity which represents the pragmatic function of creative repetition; which leads us to, 2) ‘determinism is sensitive to differences in initial conditions’. That this sensitivity is too slight to be measured certainly allows for emergence which is the anathema of objective reconstruction, even by science. But emergence does not emerge accidentally. If I have to bring Meillasoux in the discussion, certainly there are pre-emergent properties already at work before the actual rising forth of singularity. This is the context of the determinism I spoke of.

      The ‘paradox of intervals and becomings’ that you rather beautifully spoke of does not in any way guarantee that Deleuze is freed of the determinism in the sense I mentioned. Certainly, freedom is located in this site, the in-between (past and future) as the site of impossible creation. I mentioned Laruelle’s emphasis on the future not to valorize him against Deleuze’s creative repetition of the past, but simply to point out that Deleuze remained stuck in the vitalist terrain, which, perhaps, as David noted in between our conversations here, is responsible for the non-recognition of the lack of event to move us. Events are absent in vitalistic immanence in an uninterrupted flux of becoming. As Nietzsche once noted, pure becoming is pure evil. We cannot absolutely stay awake at all time to see the world completely unfold as the Heraclitean flux demands. Ironically, we can only encounter an event when seeing ceases as an activity, and contemplation sets in, that is, seeing inward. I am not saying vitalism is wrong, which nonetheless has obvious limitations, one of which is its absolutistic demand to pay attention to the flux as it flux-es, dive into its whirlpool, or we miss the ‘moment’, perhaps, the volcano where once a philosopher chose to free-fall.

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      • Yes, exactly, and this is the reason Deleuze returned in The Fold to Leibniz, Whitehead, and the Event. The thing that is fascinating about Deleuze is that the moment you think you’ve tied him down he springs up somewhere else. In that short chapter, What is an Event? (and I’m sure this is nothing new to you)

        “What are the conditions that make an event possible?” he asks. (76)

        “Events are produced in a chaos, in a chaotic multiplicity, but only under the condition that a sort of screen intervenes.” (We will come back to this ‘screen’.) He continues telling us that chaos doesn’t exist, its a fiction, an abstraction: “because it is inseparable from a screen that makes something – something rather than nothing – emerge from it.” (76)

        But how does this singularity come about? How can the Many (multiplicity) become One? “A great screen has to be placed between them. Like a formless elastic membrane, an electromagnetic field, or the receptacle of the Timaeus, the screen makes something issue from chaos, and even if this something differs only slightly.” One is reminded of quantum theory and of Schrodinger’s box in the next statement: “According to cosmological approximation, chaos would be the sum of all possibles, that is, all individual essences insofar as each tends to existence on its own account; but the screen only allows s- and only the best combination of compossibles – to be sifted through (76-77).”

        He likens the screen to an “infinitely refined machine that is the basis of Nature (77).” And to sum up he says:

        “If chaos does not exist, it is merely because it is the bottom side of the great screen, and because the latter composes infinite series of wholes and parts, which appear chaotic to us (as aleatory development) only because we are incapable of following them, or because of the insufficiency of our own screen (77).”

        The conception of the ‘screen’ (which needs further explication) is what separated Deleuze from vitalism and earmarked creativity as a central component of both Leibniz and Whitehead’s thought even though the two philosophers came by way of different paths. “For Whitehead the individual is creativity, the formation of the NEW (77).” At the center of this was Deleuze’s return to Whitehead’s concept of ‘prehension’. (78) The sense of self-awareness, of perception in things is there alright, and he tells us that its this that will haunt philosophy from Leibniz to Whitehead and Bergson: “not how to attain eternity, but in what conditions does the objective world allow for a subjective production of novelty, that is of creativity?”(79) To go further is to bring in the ‘chaosmos’ that Deleuze sees in Joyce, Gombrowicz, Borges, LeBlanc, etc. Of divergences and bifurcations in Leibniz and Whitehead and of the incompossibles, etc. What he would term following a fibered conception according to which “monads” test the paths in the universe and enter in syntheses associated with each path. A world of captures instead of closures. A perpetual Baroque of transitional states rather than closed off spheres locked in their own narcissistic dreams. Prehensions and events in perpetual rout. Are using a musical analogy as he does from Boulez: a “polyphony of polyphonies” (82).

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      • I have to admit … in the process this year of rereading and working through Deleuze’s complete oeuvre you’ve helped me define certain themes and variations as I struggle with his conceptuality. He was like many philosophers moving through a set of concepts always seeking a refinement of certain conceptions, notions, etc. One cannot, as I’ve begun to notice, take one or two of his works and explicate a philosophy… one must finally confront the inventions of his oeuvre in their extravagance.

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  2. “The ‘New International’ is an untimely link, without status … without coordination, without party, without country, without national community, without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class. The name of New International is given here to what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution among those who … continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism.
    It is a call for them to ally themselves, in a new, concrete and real way, even if this alliance no longer takes the form of a party or a workers’ international, in the critique of the state of international law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth: in order to renew this critique, and especially to radicalise it.”

    JACQUES DERRIDA.

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  3. If there is one reason I still read and still is a fan of Deleuze, both for his rigor and extravagance, it is that his fabulations or his appeal to the powers of the false, which also apply to his own works, provides philosophy with a counter-image of itself, certainly more helpful than Heidegger’s destining or ‘releasement to mystery’ hoping that by this openness philosophy can banish its ghosts. For as you emphasize Deleuze encourages a polyphonic approach to ontology. If Heidegger allowed poetry to penetrate philosophy, Deleuze practically allowed the multivalent structures of life to influence philosophy’s direction. Still, in light of Laruelle’s critique of Deleuze, this benevolence toward the non-philosophical remains caught up in a decisional circle.But I am not willing to embrace Laruelle’s critique of Deleuze for everything it’s worth for because I still see in Deleuze the honesty of his decisional relation to the non-philosophical. (One can say here that ‘expressions’ after Deleuze (and Guattari) simply test this ‘honesty’ in the manner of fabulation as Deleuze himself carried out in relation to materials of culture–this idiom that he is after all, that by all philosophical accounts cannot remain unproblematic). Laruelle’s critique strongly applies, I guess, to philosophical works that elevate the value of forgetfulness (of their own hallucinatory tendencies) to the level of principles, such that a philosopher can say with confidence that a principled philosophy takes our obliviousness to the unknown (doxa as the Greeks had it) as the guarantor of knowledge. It is in this sense that Laruelle criticizes philosophy to be no different with opinion-making.

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  4. Pingback: Alain Badiou: The Politics of Hope | noir realism

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