Collective, universal

(Another in my intermittent series of notes on Badiou. I swear, all this is leading somewhere. I think.)

In his essay “Politics as Truth Procedure,” Badiou asks the question “When, and under what conditions, can an event be said to be political?” He answers that it must meet three basic conditions: it must consist of or be formed by a collective; it must create and display an infinite character; it must summon the infinity of the state of the situation, which the event then must overcome. In this post, I’ll look at the first of these.

Badiou stresses that his idea of collectivity is not a “numerical concept,” which is to say that he’s not interested in determining who or what composes the collective, in enumerating its revolutionaries, because those that do make it up, what he calls militants, are “a subjective determination without identity.” Instead, his idea of collectivity has a less vanguardist tenor: It “provides the vehicle for a virtual summoning of all. ‘Collective’ means immediately universalizing.”

Badiou clarifies that the universality of politics is “not simply a question of address” but is intrinsic to its process. In this respect, politics is different from his other truth procedures — art, science, and love — which are not essentially universal but only potentially so, that is, only in the fact that can be addressed to and heeded by all. In their process, in their “regime,” however, art, science, and love do not require universal participation, a “summoning of all.” Politics, on the other hand, is universal in its procedure; if an event does not embody and strive for universality, it cannot properly be deemed political.

The substance of this universality, it would seem, is thought: “That the political event is collective prescribes that all are the virtual militants of the thought that proceeds on the basis of the event.” “Only politics is intrinsically required to declare that the thought that it is is the thought of all. This declaration is its constitutive prerequisite….Politics is impossible without the statement that people, taken indistinctly, are capable of the thought that constitutes the post-evental political subject.” Thought, besides being universal, both is the result of the political event and constitutes the subjectivity that results from the event.

I have several (disconnected and incomplete) responses to this.

*In an essay on Deleuze, Badiou asks “how is it possible that, for Deleuze, politics is not an autonomous form of thought, a singular section of chaos, one that differs from art, science, and philosophy?” Of course the question could be turned on Badiou. How is possible to so easily divide and compartmentalize existence? How, for example, can it be claimed definitively that politics is universal while love “need only assume two,” as Badiou says? Each one of a loving couple already implies an entire sociality, and each of them necessarily brings to the relationship a whole history of others, friends, family, former lovers. In other words, aren’t the lovers “political” in that the truths they decide on are an expression of their (quasi)universal genealogies? Can love really exist with just two?

*Badiou’s probable answer to these questions points to a distinction that animates much of his political thought: the separation of expression and being. As noted above, he stresses that in politics, as in the other truth procedures, there is a difference between the form of “address” and the “intrinsic” process. I can’t abide by this distinction. To me, enunciation is at the same time production, and a modification in the intrinsic is simultaneously a change in expression. (While this could just be me insisting on principle, Badiou’s distinction plays out in his ambiguous relation to the state, which I’ll get to in the future.)

*I can’t help but read Badiou’s claim that politics is marked by the universal as a normative claim, as saying that the necessary foundation of any truly political event is its claim of universality. This becomes clearer when he applies his theory to actual political sequences, which include events such as the Soviet Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, the sixties, etc. These events were really political because they were addressed to everyone. Of course one could argue about their true universality, but I think the more interesting point to be made is what he apparently doesn’t consider “political” because they lack universality: migrant and labor struggles, so-called identity politics, micropolitical practices, etc.

*Badiou’s insistence on thought as the stuff of politics would seem to exclude other forms of bonding: bodies, movement, affect, emotion, etc. Thought, the political substance of the Euroamerican male.


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