Alain Badiou on Pasolini


Alain Badiou will situate his discourse on Pier Paolo Pasolini between destruction and subtraction, never forgetting that it is negation that works within them both. Speaking of that Poet, Marxist and full of the innocence of the sacred, saying,

His question was: is the revolutionary becoming of History, the political negativity, a destruction of the tragic beauty of the Greek myths and of the peaceful promise of Christianity? Or do we have to speak of a subtraction, whereby an affirmative reconciliation of beauty and peace becomes possible in a new egalitarian world?1

Isn’t this our question as well? When many would bury this ancient past as dead and to be forgotten in a world where the drift of things has shifted from the monocular vision of Western Civilization to a complex and international realm of late capitalism and the lost and poverty stricken Third World what should be done? Ours is a time when the post-colonial and multicultural identity politics has brought more divisiveness than recognition, more war and strife, racial tensions, and embittered battalions of the disaffected into a world where such things as beauty and peace seem a dream of ancient utopian failures rather than the real of our political moment. Is an egalitarian vision still viable, or is it an impossible dream at our late hour?

Before there was a LGBT movement such men as Pasolini had already drawn the line between art and politics, ideology and the world of the poor and gay men and women into his film, plays, and poetry. As Badiou suggests, once more, the “task is to inscribe sexual desire in the political negativity not as a purely subversive and destructive feature, but as a creative displacement of the line that separates the individual subjectivity from the collective one” (KL 1980). This sense that the lines of flight must not be away from the political, the city, the nation, the world as in Emerson or those who seek solitude and self-reliance, but rather that ours is a time to commit to community, to others, to a larger sense of trust and openness in the world we all share with each other and everything else on this planet.

Badiou makes no qualms about it saying that beyond all his other artistic and political endeavors “Pasolini is the greatest poet of his generation”. Badiou will divide this poet’s oeuvre into three phases: his youthful poetry with its turn toward dialect and the common lingua of the tribe and family, of region (Friuli) and land;  his turn toward Marxism with The Ashes of Gramsci with its deep meditations of land, history, and politics; and, then the years of disappointment, the failure of the Left first to bring about solidarity with the thousands of young men against fascism, then to organize the workers into a viable Party after the war. This last phase would bring Pasolini back to his childhood beliefs in religious vision and an awareness of last things and finitude.

The poem Badiou chooses to typify this turn away from the failure of the Left to produce a viable change in the world will show the conflicts and struggles, defeats and betrayals. His brother Guido would die not at the hands of the fascists, but at the hands of the Communists as a partisan, a resistant fighter killed over border disputes between rival communists in Italy and Yugoslavia.  As well Badiou brings out the truth of his sexuality, of Pasolini’s real and constant relationships with very poor young workers, or with the unemployed of the suburbs. That is why many of Pasolini’s poems speak of the contradiction between history, politics and the concrete existence of proletarian youth. (KL 2001)

The poem Victory (of which it is too long for me to quote at length) is chosen by Badiou because above all it asks of us to question the political at the level of the Real:

But what is the real for politics? The real is History. The real is the concrete becoming of struggle and negation. But how is it possible to understand or know History? We can do so if we know the rules of History, the great laws of becoming. This is the lesson of Marxism. (KL 2025)

What Pasolini discovers is that History has become impossible. Why? Because we and our enemy are both following it blindly. “We are in the situation where destruction being suppressed – the subtraction itself, the opposition, if you want – becomes complicity (KL 2028).” He goes on to say:

So, if the young dead of the last war could see the present political situation, they would not agree with this complicity. Finally, they cannot accept their political fathers, the leaders of the Communist Party. And they become by necessity barbarian and nihilistic people, exactly like the young unemployed of the suburbs. (KL 2030)

Are we not the opposite of these dead: wandering the ruins of capital, complicit in accepting our barbarity, a nihilistic people? The poem Victory becomes an ironic portrayal of defeat, one of pure negation: “subtraction is separated from destruction, we have as a result hate and despair” (KL 2034). So what we get is the opposite of the hero, rather the dead and the poor fuse in the figure of the anarchist, the terrorist. Yet, when this happens as Badiou will amplify, when destruction is separated from subtraction, we have as a result the impossibility of politics, because young people are absorbed in a sort of nihilistic collective suicide, which is without thinking or destination (KL 2035).

Fathers abandon their sons on behalf of the real, while sons abandon their fathers on behalf of despair. (KL 2037) If we would bring a new vision wherein the Fathers and sons reunite then we must follow another path. Otherwise the figure of the terrorist which we see in many of the bewildering mass suicides around the planet will become the end-game of two-hundred years of Romantic Idealism Pasolini “describes the terrorist subjectivity. He indicates with astonishing precision that the possibility of this subjectivity among young men or women is the lack of any rational hope of changing the world. That is why he creates a poetic equivalence between desperation (the nihilistic consequence of false negation), anarchy (the purely destructive political version) and ‘free love of Holiness’, which is the religious context of terrorism, with the figure of the martyr.” (KL 2061-2065)

When we think of the suicidal poets of German and English Romanticsm with their inward turn toward Mind, and their embattled stance against oppression turned outward we see their nihilistic heirs blowing up the world theatre across the globe in mass killings and martyristic annihilation.

For Badiou the political problems of the contemporary world cannot be solved, neither in the weak context of democratic opposition, which in fact abandons millions of people to a nihilistic destiny, nor in the mystical context of destructive negation, which is another form of power, the power of death. Neither subtraction without destruction, nor destruction without subtraction. It is in fact the problem of violence today.

Violence is not, as has been said during the last century, the creative and revolutionary part of negation. The way of freedom is a subtractive one. But to protect the subtraction itself, to defend the new kingdom of emancipatory politics, we cannot radically exclude all forms of violence. The future is not on the side of the savage young men and women of popular suburbs – we cannot abandon them to themselves. But neither is the future on the side of the democratic wisdom of mothers and fathers with their law. We have to learn something of nihilistic subjectivity. (KL 2066-2075)

Rather than a world of Law and Order we should follow Pasolini and the path of the fathers and sons who once again instigate the law of desire, and as Badiou quotes, not to be ‘absorbed in a mysterious debate with power’, not to abandon millions of young men and women either ‘in the white mountains’ or ‘on the serene plains’. (KL 2077) Most of all this is a poetry that turns back toward the other, toward community rather than continue a heritage that has proved bankrupt in its quest into solipsistic grandeur and silence. Today more than at anytime in history we need to reconcile the world of the fathers and sons, not in some unified soup of sameness, but rather in the real of struggle and life, contradiction and becoming; a vision at once plural and multiple in which the multitudes of the disaffected, the poor, the lost, the lame, the forgotten can share in an egalitarian future at once political and real.


  1. Badiou, Alain (2014-11-04). The Age of the Poets: And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose (Kindle Locations 1974-1977). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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