Interview with John W.P. Phillips on Badiou, Rancière…and Žižek

Simon Dawes interviews TCS Editorial Board member John W.P. Phillips on his article, ‘Art, Politics, and Philosophy: Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière’, which was published in the July issue of TCS (volume 27, issue number 4).

In this interview, John discusses aesthetics, the relationship between Badiou and Rancière, and between them and the French intellectual tradition…and then criticises Žižek’s selective reading of the two thinkers

Image: John W.P. Phillips

Simon Dawes: Why did you make this attempt to read these two contemporary French thinkers together? Is it because you see similarities in their application of aesthetics to art and politics, despite the differences in their approach to aesthetics itself?

John Phillips: I see these two thinkers as being almost at the limit of a certain, quite current, thinking about politics and aesthetics. Their thought is grounded differently but in each case on what might be called classically necessary principles. There are some obvious and yet very important similarities in their respective approaches to politics and art. What has become interesting, though, is the question of where such thinking might lead. In what ways can it be developed? The question is pertinent largely in the context of Anglo-American intellectual life and, more particularly, institutions (I’ll say a bit more about this later). What might be especially interesting is that the question can be located in the space of their disagreement or incompatibility. The question can be formulated in other ways too but I think there may be a procedural advantage to be gained in the impasse between Badiou’s way of reading art, under the rubric of inaesthetics, and Rancière’s understanding of aesthetics and of the so called aesthetic regime. These two distinct methodologies, or modes of operation, represent different sides of the same problem: how can that force designated by aesthetics (art, freedom, genius, opposition, etc.) but always neutered, neutralized, controlled, valorized, dismissed or in some other way contained by traditional philosophical aesthetics and modern cultural theory alike, become effective in spheres of thought and politics? The ancient connection between art and politics remains to be understood. It remains to be understood in its current configuration.

We can look a bit schematically at the differences between how Badiou and how Rancière would guide us here. Badiou’s logical consistency can be traced quite easily across approaches to the four domains into which he divides his philosophical activities: politics, art, mathematics and love. The first principle, if I can call it that, is that each domain prescribes for philosophy its mode of operation. There’s no philosophical work at all in a sense that would identify an independent philosophical domain: thought thinking thought itself in the classical metaphysical sense. Oddly, perhaps, it’s close to this because Badiou, quite correctly in my view, teaches philosophy as the universal and unchanging activity of philosophizing (which is what Hegel taught). Philosophy goes to work only in tracing movements prescribed by the domains whose operations it follows. Accordingly philosophy becomes a kind of doubling articulation–it puts into the logical form of a language the operations of politics, art, etc. That could make it sound like another radical empiricism bound to things and to the logic of things in a classical anti-philosophical gesture. It is possible to recognize in this elements of Heraclitus, of Epicurus and atomism, even Marx, and most recently of Nietzsche’s heritage in thinkers as diverse as Bataille and Deleuze.

But a second principle (again if I’m allowed to call it that) causes things to shape up quite differently: that of subtraction. Each domain is marked by the operational subtraction of its origin. Accordingly each operation that a domain prescribes tends to repeat the process, step by step, of (a priori) subtraction. The operation inflicts on a domain that would otherwise be controlling (the laws of a political regime, the rules of an art, etc) an inability at its very core: the inability to emerge from itself to reveal its own origin. It is not the same as saying that the origin is absent. Rather, what happens is the origin–regarded as a process of origination–must be rethought as an operation of subtraction. The inaesthetics book provides a clear sense of how this process of subtraction operates, in many repetitions and through several exemplary (independent and privileged) cases. A poem, for instance, describes its own power by failing to describe its own power. This failure, then, is the mode by which a poem can be produced. Instead of “process of origination” (my clumsy formulation) we can use Badiou’s: “event.” An event thus describes a process of origination as an operation of subtraction. What goes missing is the very element that would authenticate and justify the operation that nonetheless proceeds as if it did have this justice, this justification. None of this would be at all clear in Badiou’s work if it were not for the connection between operations in the domain of mathematics and those in the domain of the poem.

Rancière, by contrast, contests philosophizing aesthetics by a kind of inversion. With Rancière as a guide we are led to the conclusion that it is not possible to philosophize independently of an aesthetic regime that governs not only art but every activity. The aesthetic regime is no less controlling or aporetic than other kinds of regime concerning art and cannot be accounted for without reference to those other regimes (a situation that places Rancière in a stylized “three kinds” mode of thinking):

1. The classical regime, of which Plato is the emblem, confines art to the sphere of empty mimesis. It represents neither the skills that would be descriptive of a techne nor the wisdom that emanates from a philosopher. It simply repeats in an empty form some prior operation that would be effective if only it was to be found in its proper domain. A slightly trivial example: Homer’s heroic evocation of the skills of the charioteer cannot be taken as if it was an instruction manual for driving chariots.

2. The poetic regime, on the contrary, regards the artwork as a product of a specific kind of techne. The “poetic regime” (Aristotle’s poetics and the entire corpus of classical aesthetics and literary criticism, extending well into the 17th century and beyond in the western tradition) conceives of the artwork in terms of formal requirements, rules of construction, appropriate subject matter, prosody, generic distinctions, etc.

3. Only with what we can identify (provisionally and with some caution) as a kind of romanticism does a new regime assert itself: the aesthetic regime. Schiller’s notion of an “aesthetic education” provides Rancière with an exemplary mark of this no doubt at first subtle but ultimately devastating shift. Two kinds of instruction are at length abandoned: first that the artist and artwork perform according to certain definite rules of production, of good form; second that the principles that govern the production of an artwork are limited to the production of artworks themselves. The principles that do govern the production of an artwork now apply equally to every activity of social (ethical, political) life.

One confusion that is supposedly perpetuated under the direction of an aesthetic regime is that a distinction still remains, on a practical and economic level, between the realm of the artwork (of artists and works, spectators, readers, critics, and so on, and of what an artist is expected to do and what they are to make) and those other realms of contemporary existence (political, ethical etc.). Effectively, however, the principles we may understand as aesthetic, looked at in a certain way, turn out to be those that govern these other modes of social interaction. Like Badiou, therefore, Rancière guides us by a certain mode of reading that takes the so called aesthetic text as primary, not in terms of its intrinsic value alone, of course, but in terms of the ways in which its own paradoxes and aprorias instruct us as to the paradoxes and aporias of political, intellectual and ethical life. Again the key notion would be something like “event.” An artwork produces its event not simply by exemplifying certain rules of art that might be thought to apply–even when we include the rule that prescribes the necessary ability to transgress the aesthetic rule. It’s not about the transgression of rules. Rather it operates in such a way that renders the domain of the sensible (everything we can see or think–the empirical in the larger sense as aisthesis) as irremediably flawed in its containments, its exclusions and its (legal, political, material) immunities.

Also, I’m inclined to understand the differences between Badiou and Rancière as emerging from an actual historical and intellectual fissure in the heritage. Because it requires rather painstaking analysis this fissure can be rendered more clearly by reference to specific writers who might provisionally be regarded as exemplary. The work of rereading Lacan, for instance, has still to be done, especially in connection with these questions, and yet Lacan must be taken for granted if we are to claim to understand Badiou at all. References for Rancière are yet more diffuse. But for all their idiosyncrasies they share a heritage (as many of us do to greater or lesser extents) in western, specifically European, thought. It requires the acknowledgement simultaneously of the historical character of our modes of thinking and yet at the same time a sense of what it is that equalizes things and thus relates to the universal or, as we once would have put it, the absolute. Both thinkers are important in this regard today, when the dominant intellectual forces in the social sciences and humanities (there’s much less difference between them than might be imagined) tend either to hold rather dogmatically to skeptical and often blandly hostile attitudes towards the great metaphysical themes of right, beauty, truth, and so on, or conservatively assume the rule in each case as axiomatic. The critical shadow that hangs over us today takes the form of an imperative: continue to save metaphysics by putting it fatally to the test. The result is endless revision, new truths, new forms of art, new calculi of justice: endless circles. So the question of how thought can develop seems more urgent than ever.

SD: Could you briefly explain the significance of, and the differences between, Badiou’s notion of ‘the empty set’ and Rancière’s notion of ‘the axiom of equality’?

JP: The empty set is not, of course, Badiou’s notion. What happens is that, taking Lacan’s lead, Badiou adopts the operations of classical mathematical logic (that is “modern” logic beginning with Frege and Russell) as indispensable for philosophical work. In this respect he supplements Heidegger, who was highly critical, not to say dismissive, of ta mathema as a viable way to ontology. In fact Heidegger interprets the history and metaphysical foundations of mathematical logic as a classical impasse for fundamental ontology. What does Badiou see in it that Heidegger missed?

Lacan showed the way already by 1965, the year before the publication of his Écrits. Lacan was fascinated by the fact that cardinals take precedence, both in prehistory and in logic, over ordinals; and he saw the difference between them as indicating the difference between the symbolic and imaginary structures of the subject and of desire. What happens with the mathematical, then, pertains to the so called symbolic order. In the logicist ambitions of Frege and Russell the empty set plays an indispensable role. In order to show that mathematics was an extension of logic (the logicist project was to subsume all of mathematics under logic) they developed a theory of classes, set theory. Numbers would define classes of classes, beginning with the set with no members, or zero: “The class of all classes with as many members as the class of objects not identical with themselves” (=0). If zero is the class whose only member is the class with no members, then the number one would be “the class of classes with as many members as the class of null-classes” (whose sole member is zero = 1). The logical consequence of this dependence on a theory of classes of classes leads to Russell’s paradox (x: x ≠ x). An endless problem for philosophical logic but a situation exactly in accordance with Lacan’s theory of the repeatability of the signifier. Badiou alludes to his when he puts the axioms of set theory to work in a very developed way in The Theory of the Subject (written in the 1970s) as a kind of critique of the inability of mathematics to cope with irreducible multiplicities (grasped simultaneously in political, poetic and mathematical terms). What do Mao and the militant trade unions, Stephane Mallarmé and Jacques Lacan have in common with mathematics? … the paradox at the heart of any attempt to number the individuals of a multiplicity.

If the empty set implicates the event with an inability (lack, gap, blank) at its origin then Rancière’s account of equality might seem to move in the other direction: towards an inability to fulfill the demands of an absolutely egalitarian principle. The notion “axiom of equality” is Badiou’s amusing classification but it derives from Rancière’s book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which Rancière considers Joseph Jacotot’s theories of equality of intelligence and the desire for intellectual emancipation. The point is that it would not be possible to construct a social order or a community of any kind on this principle of equality. Intellectual equality is neutered with any and every form of institutionalization. The principle applies, not least as a condition for the fact–everywhere evident–of inequality. It can also be applied as an act or event; but each time this would be a one-off thing, a “one-off performance,” as Rancière puts it. An act, precisely. All forms of organization are inevitably exclusive and built on subtle and unsubtle layers of unequal rights, distributions of goods, etc. The egalitarian principle has, instead, to do with intellectual and linguistic ability (intrinsic competence). Both Rancière and Badiou insist on this, in different ways sometimes, but it comes to the same thing: a ground in universal competence with regard to language, thought, and so on. As Rancière points out, the principle has an intimate kinship with Descartes’s ego cogito. Equality takes shape politically in the form of what Rancière calls “wrong.” The “performance” part of the equation can lead, of course, to certain kinds of emancipation, from this or that bond, but it will never lead to an institution that guarantees freedom or equality in social relations. Institutions are able only to deny freedom, to constrain, to police. This is politics. The axiom of equality therefore falls outside politics in its disturbance of what always figures as the “common” of whatever communities prevail.

The difference I think is very important and will take some time to unravel. I can only offer a hint here. But the principle on which Rancière operates has to do with Plato’s notion of analogia–the absence of logos–used by Plato in The Republic to describe “the people” as an inarticulate mob. The analogy (as The Phaedrus famously confirms) is with the aimless and empty inscriptions of writing as opposed to the full speech of those who have a logos (a part to play). Rather literally, the written mark offers the best example from moment to moment of a trivial egalitarian principle that no institution could have done without, but which every institution must do its utmost to suppress or to constrain in some way. An unexplored connection between the so called “axiom of equality” and Jacques Derrida’s notions of dissemination and pharmakon (derived from the same Platonic texts) is overdue. It might represent one side of the fissure I mentioned earlier. In this light it should be possible to rethink the heritage of Heidegger and Lacan (philosophers of the signifier) in Badiou’s work as representative of the other side. I am currently pursuing this problem and look forward to seeing where it might lead … .

SD: Slavov Žižek has referred to Ranciére and Badiou as ‘post-Althusserian’. You seem to disagree, and briefly refer to the French thinkers’ own readings of Althusser. Could you tell us more about their views on, and interpretations of, Althusser, and set out why you think Žižek has got it wrong?

JP: I disagree mainly with the organizing logic of the category. I also part company with Žižek (among many other things) on his expositions of both thinkers. Obviously both Badiou and Rancière have done time years ago as Althusserians in the sense that both played parts in a loose Athusserian circle. Both have since taken pains to distinguish their own positions from anything that might be identified as Althusserian. Thus they both are “post-Althusserians.” However it doesn’t much help.

Rancière’s complaint is something like this (very schematically): The principle that ties the militant intellectual to the demands of struggling workers is betrayed by the intellectuals of the university post ’68. The betrayal occurs with Althusser in particular, who fails to distinguish the discourse of the intellectual from that of the worker, and thus appropriates for his own discourse the discourse of the other. The intellectual speaks “in the name of” the proletariat and so reestablishes the old order of representation.

Badiou, on the contrary, often identifies Althusser as one of his masters. (Lacan and Althusser are situated in a tradition that includes Hegel and Marx). In his Metapolitics for instance, he offers a painstaking and attentive critical reading based on a teaching that was Athusser’s own. Badiou’s idea that philosophy must correspond, even adapt to, conditions that have changed–in science (transfinite numbers), in love (the psychoanalytic dialectic of desire), in art (the poems of Mallarmé, the films of Wim Wenders) and in politics (metapolitics): this was one of the basic ideas behind For Marx and Reading Capital. Althusser’s reading of Marx identifies the ways in which dialectical materialism emerged from political economy’s failure of to identify the question to which its labours were nonetheless the response (the question of labour). Science changes, so philosophy adapts to those changes in ways that science could never grasp. Much of this kind of thing is still questionable, but the point is that Althusser is acknowledged in a particular way, for a peculiar contribution, within the philosophical tradition.

I couldn’t set out why I think Žižek has got it wrong very easily because there’s so much to say about it. It’s difficult to know where to begin. Again it would have to be worth the effort, but I think his influence is stamped on so much contemporary work that it’s difficult to ignore. The post-Althusser category does some work of excluding and including that seems to serve particular polemical aims. There’s more at stake in this intellectual partition than just the question of thought and of which thinkers we should be following, a question that doesn’t make much sense to me. Effective intellectual engagement depends on painstaking historical analysis and this in turn depends on knowing how to read (and of course reading more or less everything). Sadly there’s no expertise possible here. A text worth reading makes impossible demands of its readers. Reading is always learning how to read. Badiou and Rancière each exemplify in different ways these two conditions. They perform painstaking historical analysis and produce critical readings that are peculiar–at once surprising and yet persuasive, disturbing and yet generous. I miss the sense of “pains taken” in Žižek’s writing about them. He tends to read selectively, finding what he’s looking for but seldom what might disturb the sense of what he’s looking for. I have a similar response when he writes about Lacan or about Hegel. Alternatively I think Žižek is surprising too, but that’s another question for another time.

SD: How do you think these thinkers stand apart from the French intellectual tradition, and to what extent do you see them as being embedded within it? And can you explain why these thinkers are becoming so influential in Anglo-American thinking at the moment?

JP: When we say “the French intellectual tradition” it’s probably wise to specify a bit. They do belong to a tradition in France that combines certain influences that can be generalized just a bit with reference to a few names. On one side: the modernist avant-garde with Mallarmé as the chief example; the Freudian influence (more wide ranging than can even be approached); Heidegger and the various spheres of existential, phenomenological, hermeneutic, destructive philosophy, without which thought would simply not be what it is today, anywhere; the school of Sociology; Nietzsche (presupposed by all of the above). We could dare a small categorizing of this entire historical movement: structuralism (or poststructuralism, if you like). On the other side: strands of Hegelian influence, at first selective, at length practically scholastic. That goes without saying and there’s no question of any “standing apart.” The shadow of this tradition falls on anyone whether they are critical or supportive of this or that strand of it. The majority of French thinkers coming to prominence in the 1960s share this quite confusing heritage. To an extent, though, if you wanted to pick a figure within the tradition (Lyotard, Baudrillard, Kristeva, anyone) then “standing apart from” would have to be the most apparent and obvious angle of their standpoint. What marks my justifiable but very particular reading of a certain French intellectual tradition better than that each of the figures responsible for its evolution stands apart from it in a certain way? So, no, I don’t think that they do stand apart particularly. Neither has a body of work that amounts to anything like the astounding singularity of Lacan’s or Derrida’s. But from that era there a few current survivors (there are others of course, Jean-Luc Nancy’s work could stand more serious scrutiny today). This may be one reason why (I’m not sure) they are becoming so influential in Anglo-American thinking at the moment. Badiou, and the connection with philosophical logic, is highly significant, too, at a time when there are signs of a renewal of relations between the Anglo-American and the continental traditions in philosophy. But that’s a stretch.

More conservatively what is beautifully confirmed by these thinkers is a focus on politics and aesthetics. Exactly this marks the dominant strand of the reception of continental thought in England and America for at least the last 50 years. It’s one of the reasons that continental thought in English Universities was able to exert such a hold in otherwise very resistant institutions in the 1970s and 80s. It’s also what gave the polytechnics (and now the new universities) their edge. In a very different way in American institutions the emphasis on race, gender, sexuality–the formations of identity politics–were often linked and allied to continental thought. Seminars on Derrida’s reading of Plato alongside the history of feminism, and so on. Now here these two thinkers do somewhat stand apart. (I think this is perhaps one of the reasons why Žižek felt the need to engage with them critically in his ticklish subject book). If “theory” has become dominated by a kind of cultural studies then Rancière and Badiou offer viable alternatives with as rigorous an approach to political situations as might be desired. They represent a politically viable position in the critical tradition, with reference to Marx, Adorno, Benjamin and so on, that is nevertheless a refusal of what is often taken (rightly or wrongly–I’m not necessarily agreeing or taking a stand) as identity politics, cultural studies, forms of relativism, the sloppy celebration of differences. This of course embeds them more deeply in the French intellectual tradition I discussed just now, but does distinguish them in terms of the reception of French theory in Anglo-American institutions.

John W.P. Phillips is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, and an editorial board member of TCS. He writes on philosophy, literature, critical theory, aesthetics, psychoanalysis, urbanism and military technology. He is co-author with Ryan Bishop of the forthcoming Modernist Avant-garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology: Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), and he is currently researching a project on autoimmunity in biotechnology and political philosophy.

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

You can access the article, ‘Art, Politics, and Philosophy: Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière’ (TCS 27.4) by John W.P. Phillips here

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