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Alain Badiou: Politics: A Non-Expressive Dialectics
Politics: A Non-Expressive Dialectics
(p. 13 – 22)

Truth is separated from knowledge

Alain Badiou

Politics: A Non-Expressive Dialectics

PDF, 10 pages

Saturday, 26 November 2005,
Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London

I think that we can speak today, after the last century, of a classical revolutionary politics. And my thesis is that we are beyond this classical revolutionary politics, the most important characteristic of which is, in my conviction, what I call expressive dialectics. Certainly, political struggle, insurrection, revolution are not structural effects – neither in the classical conception – they are moments, and we have to grasp the moment, name the circumstances, and so on. But finally, the moment, the political struggle, expresses, concentrates the social contradictions. And that’s why an insurrection can be purely singular and universal. Purely singular because it’s a moment, the pure moment, and universal because finally this moment expresses the generality of fundamental contradictions.

In the same way – and it’s another part of expressive dialectics – the revolutionary party, the revolutionary organisation represents the working class. And finally we have the famous sentence of Lenin about the very heart of Marxism: “The masses are divided into classes, classes are represented or expressed by parties, and parties are held by leaders.” So finally we have something which goes from historical action of masses to some proper names. The name of a big leader is the symbolic expression of the whole becoming of the political process. Technically we can say that to go from the moment of creativity of masses to a real consideration of contradiction of classes we have to be under the potency of the proper name. And that’s why all the political tendencies of the last century are under proper names: Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Castroism, Maoism. And that’s also why the question of leadership, the question of the place of proper names in the political field is today a very important question. Because this conception of masses, classes, proper names – which is also the conception of the relation between singularity and universality, singularity of the proper name and absolute universality of the action of masses – is a very strong one. But probably it’s saturated, or finished. So my goal today is simply to try to open the way for a non-expressive conception of political dialectics, for a conception of political dialectics without that sort of becoming-proper-name of the action of masses. And in this new conception, revolutionary politics is not the expression of concentration of social contradictions, it’s a new way of thinking and doing collective actions.

So, the political process is not an expression, a singular expression, of objective reality but it is in some sense separated from this reality. The political process is not a process of expression, but a process of separation. Exactly like in the Platonic vision of dialectics, a truth is separated from opinions. Or also, like in the Lacanian conception, truth is separated from knowledge. It’s not a contradiction, it’s not a negation, it’s a separation.

So, as you can see, I’m really speaking of a politics of truth, because I am speaking of the possibility – the logical and real possibility – of a politics of separation. In the real field of politics today, which is a sort of destroyed field, or a battlefield without armies, we often oppose a reactionary politics on one side – let say, liberalism – the crucial concept of which is law and order, which are the protectors of power and richness, and on the other side a revolutionary politics the crucial concept of which is collective desire, the desire for a new world of peace and justice. And the expressive dialectics today is the relation between the conservative dimension of the law and the creative dimension of desire. We have to show that in the field of non-expressive dialectics the real political truth is beyond this opposition, beyond the opposition of law and desire, or beyond the identity of law and desire.

I shall begin from a very distant point. In fact I shall begin with a logical joke. Suppose you have a dish, generally full of delicious fruits: apples, pears, strawberries, plums… As you can see, it’s the beginning of a real desire, that sort of dish! But one day, we don’t know why, the dish is completely changed. We find apples, pears, strawberries and plums in it, but also, like a vile mixture, stones, snails, pieces of dried mud, dead frogs, and prickles. As you can see, it’s the beginning of a demand for order: immediate separation of what is good from what is disgusting. The problem here is the problem of classification. And it’s the real beginning of my logical joke. What are exactly the correct parts of the contents of the dish after the metamorphosis in question?

Consider the contents of the dish as a set, a pure set. The elements of this set, the elements of the contents of the dish, are clearly apples, strawberries, prickles, dried mud, dead frogs. No problem. But what are the parts of the dish; or, if you want, the subsets of the set which are the contents of the dish? On one side, we have some parts which have a clear name. Take for example the part of the dish including all the strawberries, it’s a part of the dish, it’s a clear part. You can also take as a part of the dish all the dead frogs. It’s a disgusting part, but it’s a part, and a part which has a clear name. You can also have a bigger part, a more general part, for example all the fruits, strawberries, pears and plums. It’s also a part that has a clear name. We can say that that sort of part is associated in language with a clear predicate; it’s, if you will, a predicative part. But, on the other side, you have some very strange multiplicities. What can we say about a part composed of two apples, three prickles, one dead frog, one strawberry and seven pieces of dried mud? Certainly it’s a part of the contents of the dish. But, certainly too, it’s a part without a name, without a clear name. You can make a list of the elements of this sort of part, of that sort of subset, you can say there is that, and that, and that… But you cannot have a synthetic name, only enumeration and not a synthetic and clear name. Generally speaking, a law – what we call a law – is the prescription of reasonable order in that sort of situation, when you have that sort of dish. A law is a decision to accept as really existing only some parts of the dish of collective life. Naturally the easiest decision is to accept only the parts which have a clear name: strawberries, pears, fruit, prickles, mud; and to prohibit the parts which have no name at all, like the mixture of apples, prickles and dead frogs. So the law is always saying not only what is permitted and what is forbidden, but in fact what exists under a clear name and which is normal, and what is unnameable and so doesn’t really exist, that is, an abnormal part of the practical totality. And it’s very important to notice that finally a law is always a decision about existence.

The problem is that a certain part of the collective totality does not exist properly in the legal conception. The question of the law is finally not only a juridical and a classical question, but an ontological one: it’s a question of existence. And it’s finally a question of relation between language and things and their existence which is constructed from the relation between words and things, to speak like Foucault. Finally, in the field of the law, there exists only what has a clear description. The problem is now on the side of desire. Because we can certainly say that desire is always desire of what does not exist in this sense. Desire is the search for something which is beyond the normality of the law. The real object of true desire is always something like an apple which is also a prickle. That is the real object of a true desire; true desire is always the desire for a monster. And why? Because desire is affirmation of the pure singularity across and beyond normality.

There is a very clear and simple mathematical example of this relation between desire and law, between different forms of existence. Suppose that we are in the theory of sets – we have a theory of pure multiplicity – and suppose we consider one set, no matter which one; an absolutely ordinary multiplicity. The interesting thing is that with some technical means we can formalise the idea of a subset of this set which has a clear name. So the question of the relation between existence and clear name has a possible formalisation in the field of the mathematical theory of sets. More precisely, to have a clear name is to be defined by one clear formula. It was an invention of the greatest logician of the last century, Kurt Gödel. He named that sort of subset a ‘constructible’ subset; a constructible subset of a set is a set which has a clear description. And generally speaking we name constructible set a set which is a constructible subset of another set.

So, we have here the possibility of what I name a great law. What is a great law? A great law is a law of laws, if you will, the law of what is really the possibility of a law. And we have a sort of mathematical example of what that sort of law is, which is not only a law of things or subjects, but a law for laws. The great law takes the form of an axiom, the name of which is the axiom of constructibility and which is very simple. This axiom is: all sets are constructible. That is a decision about existence: you decide that only sets that are constructible exist, and you have as a simple formula a simple decision about existence. All sets are constructible, that is the law of laws. And this is really a possibility. You can decide that all sets are constructible. Why? Because all mathematical theorems which can be demonstrated in the general theory of sets can also be demonstrated in the field of constructible sets. So all that is true of sets in general is in fact only true for constructible sets. So – and it’s very important for the general question of the law – we can decide that all sets are constructible, or, if you like, that every multiplicity is under the law, and we lose nothing: all that is true in general is true with the restriction to constructible sets. If we lose nothing, if the field of truth is the same under the axiom of constructibility, we can conclude something like: the law is not a restriction of life and thinking; under the law, the liberty of living and thinking is the same. And the mathematical model of it is that we don’t lose anything when we have the affirmation that all sets are constructible, that is to say that all parts of sets are constructible, that is to say that finally all parts have a clear definition. And we have thus a general classification of parts, a rational classification of parts – classification of society if you want – without any loss of truth.

At this point there is a very interesting fact, a pure fact. Practically, no mathematician admits the axiom of constructibility. It’s a beautiful order, in fact, it’s a beautiful world: everything is constructible. But this beautiful order does not stimulate the desire of the mathematician, as conservative as he might be. And why? Because the desire of the mathematician is to go beyond the clear order of nomination and constructibility. The desire of the mathematician is also the desire for a mathematical monster. He wants a law, certainly – difficult to do mathematics without laws – but the desire to find some new mathematical monster is beyond this law.

And at this point, modern mathematics and classical theology say the same thing. You probably know the famous text of Saint Paul in Romans 7. The direct correlation of law and desire appears here under the name of sin. I quote: “If it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said you shall not covet.” Sin is that dimension of desire which finds its object beyond the prescription of the law and after the prescription of the law. That is, finally, to find the object which is without name.

The mathematical example is very striking. After Gödel, the definition of constructible sets and the refusal of the axiom of constructibility by the majority of mathematicians, the question of the mathematician’s desire becomes: how can I find a non-constructible set? And you see the difficulty, which is of great political consequence. The difficulty is, how can we find some mathematical object without clear description, without name, without place in the classification: how are we to find an object, the characteristic of which is to have no name, to be not constructible. In the sixties Paul Cohen found the very complex and elegant solution to name, to identify a set which is not constructible, which has no name, which has no place in the great classification of predicates, a set which is without specific predicate. It was a great victory of desire against law, in the field of law itself, the mathematical field. And like many things, many victories of this type, it was in the sixties. Cohen gave the non-constructible sets the very beautiful name of ‘generic’ sets. This invention of generic sets takes place in the revolutionary actions of the sixties.

You know that Marx calls humanity in the movement of its own emancipation ‘generic humanity’; and ‘proletariat,’ the name ‘proletariat’ is the name of the possibility of generic humanity in an affirmative form. For Marx, ‘generic’ names the becoming of the universality of human beings, and the proletarian historical function is to deliver the generic form of the human being. So Marx’s political truth is on the side of genericity, and never on the side of particularity. It’s formally a matter of desire, creation or invention, and not a matter of law, necessity or conservation. Cohen – like Marx, finally – was saying that the pure universality of multiplicity, of sets, is not on the side of correct definition, of clear description, but on the side of non-constructibility. The truth of sets is generic.

Let us now speak about the political consequences of all that. The field of politics, in concrete situations, is always the dialectical field of law and constructibility on one side, desire and genericity on the other side. But this is not a political division. There are no people anywhere who are in favour of desire against people who are in favour of law. The political struggle is not directly the struggle between genericity and constructibility. This vision is purely formal. In fact we have compositions, complex compositions between law, order, desire, genericity, constructibility. For instance, fascism is not at all on the side of pure law. Fascism is in fact, as empirical studies show, the complete destruction of the law, in favour of a special conception of desire, which is not at all a desire of the generic, but on the contrary a desire for a completely particular object. This object, which is national, racial, is neither constructible nor generic. It is only the negation of some other objects, the destruction of these others. So there is finally in fascism the mythic desire of an object, the very essence of which is death. And the real of fascism is something like a law of death, which is the result of a special composition of genericity and constructibility. Significantly, in the classical conception, revolutionary vision is not at all on the side of pure desire, because the content of revolutionary desire is the realisation of generic humanity, which is in fact the end of the separate relation between law and desire. In that case, the goal is something like the fusion of law and desire in something that is the creative affirmation of humanity as such. We can say that that sort of vision is a law of life. So the classical contradiction between fascism and the revolutionary conception proposes to us two different compositions between genericity and constructibility, the law of death on one side and the law of life on the other side.

What we have today is in fact two great paradigms of the dialectical relation between law and desire; it’s a description of our situation. The first one is the idea of the unity of law and desire, by the strict imitation of the legality of desire as such, by the delimitation of correct desire. In fact, it is the axiom of constructibility. And we are today under the axiom of constructibility: you restrain existing desires to the clear nomination of normal desires. And the reactionary conception today is the reactionary conception of desire itself, and not the pure opposition, the oppressive opposition between law and desire. The key concept is not law against desire. It is, on the contrary, the dictatorship of normal desires – with a very open conception of normal, but not as big as one thinks sometimes. You can suppose, for example, that representative democracy is the normal desire of all the people in the world. That is, strictly speaking, a constructible conception of political desire: only one type of political figure is admitted as a constructible subset of all the political possibilities. And, for example, you can embark in a terrible war to impose this form of state on everybody. It’s not a matter of law, as you can see in fact. Because it causes great disorder. It’s not a matter of law and order in Iraq, it’s a question of blood and total disorder. But it’s a constructible choice. What is intended is to impose the construction of a supposed completely clear political name everywhere.

That was the first position. The second position is the idea of desire as a search beyond the law for something illegal but generic. It’s the idea that political universality is always the process of a new conception, a new composition, of social reality – the change of the dish, if you will, the complete change of the dish. A new composition is really the aim of political change: black with white, male and female, different nationalities, rich and poor, and so on. All that can go beyond clear names and separations. It’s a fighting process which creates something generic. For the second conception a political process is always the local creation of something which is generic. Like Cohen, finally: to find or to create a part of the totality of life which is generic. In that case, there is also something like a dictatorship which is what Rousseau called the despotism of liberty, but which nowadays is much more the despotism of equality. Against the idea of normal desires, we must sustain the fighting idea of a desire which always affirms as existing what is without name. Because it is the common part of our historical existence, we must affirm the existence of what is without name as the generic part of this historical existence: that is probably the revolutionary conception today, with the possibility that that sort of transformation would be a local one, and not always a general one or a total one. And, as you can see, it’s not at all desire against law. The formula is generic will against normal desires. And I agree completely with Slavoj Žižek, for whom the question of volonté générale is the central question of politics today. I simply propose a change of the adjective: not general will but generic will, against normal desires.

The third paradigm, which is not completely constituted, is probably a paradigm which finds the constructible part of the generic will. For we know that the pure opposition of generic will against normal desires is not yet a real process. To have a real process of generic will against normal desires we need to find the constructible part of the generic will. Because we cannot find a generic part without being completely clear about what is a constructible part. There exists a correlation between the definition of what is constructible and the possibility to create generic will.

And so, my conclusion will not completely be a political one. As often, when I am in the field of pure possibility, my conclusion is a poetic one, with the great American poet Wallace Stevens. Simon Critchley recently wrote a beautiful book about Wallace Stevens, the title of which is Things Merely Are. “Things Merely Are” is a typically poetical affirmation and a typically non-political affirmation. Because in the political field it cannot be said that things “merely are” – they are not. In one poem of Wallace Stevens we find this sentence: “the final belief must be in a fiction.” And in fact I think that the most difficult problem today is the problem of a new fiction. We must distinguish between fiction and ideology. Because, generally speaking, ideology is something which is opposed to science, or to truth or to reality. But as we know after Lacan, the truth itself is in a structure of fiction. The process of truth is also the process of a new fiction. So, to find the new great fiction is the possibility to have a final, political belief.

In fact, when the world is dull and confusing, as it is today, we have to sustain our final belief by a magnificent fiction. The problem of the youngsters of the cities, in Paris, was the lack of fiction. It’s not a social problem at all. The problem is the lack of a great fiction as the support of a great belief. So, the final belief in generic truths, the final possibility to oppose generic will to normal desires, that sort of possibility and the final belief in that sort of possibility, in generic truths, has to be our new fiction. The difficulty today is probably that we have to find a great fiction without a proper name. It’s my conviction, even if I cannot demonstrate exactly this point. In the last century all great fictional dispositions of the political field have had proper names. For me the problem today is not to abandon fiction – because without great fiction we have no final belief and no great politics – but probably to have fiction without proper names. And so, another disposition between masses, classes, parties; another composition of the political field, because a great fiction is always something like the name of a new composition of the political field in itself. The great fiction of communism, which goes from masses to proper names by the mediation or class struggle, is the form of the classical revolutionary composition of the political field. We have to find a new fiction, to find our final belief in a local possibility of finding something generic.

In the same poem Wallace Stevens also writes – he is speaking about fiction, about final belief which is a fiction, and he writes: “It is possible, possible, possible, it must be possible.” It is our problem today. It must be possible. It’s probably the question of a new form of courage. We have to create the real possibility of our fiction, certainly. Create the real possibility of our fiction which is a generic fiction in a new form. The new localisation is probably a question of a new political courage. Finding the fiction is a question of justice and hope. But the question of the possibility of fiction is the question of courage. And courage is the name of something which is not reducible either to law or desire. Courage is the name for subjectivity which is irreducible to the dialectics of law and desire in its usual form. And today the place of political action – not of political theory, conception or representation, but of political action as such – is exactly something which, irreducible to law and desire, creates the place, the local place, for something generic, for something like the generic will. And about this place, let us say, like Stevens, it’s possible, possible, possible, it must be possible. Maybe. We hope, we must hope that it will be possible to find the possibility of our new fiction.

  • change
  • justice
  • politics
  • ethics
  • potentiality
  • emancipation / liberation

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Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou

is a philosopher, dramaturg, novelist, and mathematician. He taught philosophy at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes-Saint Denis), at the École Normale Supérieure, and at the  Collège international de philosophie. He is the author of several novels and plays as well as more than a dozen philosophical works.

Other texts by Alain Badiou for DIAPHANES
Mark Potocnik (ed.), Frank Ruda (ed.), ...: Beyond Potentialities?

Nearly the whole history of political thought is spanned between two poles: one of founding, establishing, and justifying a stable and just order on one side and of justified transformation and necessary break with that same order on the other side. Between institution and emancipation, reform and revolution, the question of possibility is always arising for politics. Are there possibilities to change the order of society? Are there possibilities for a different justice? Where to find them and how to define them? Are they already present in the situation, or do they have to be actively created? Or does one have to rethink collective emancipation in a way that it does not rely upon given possibilities?

The question of possibility is raised in philosophy itself in different terms: as a question of potentiality and potentials but also as a question of the impossibilities of changing political order. In recent political discussions this question is more present than ever and is newly posed in fundamental ways by thinkers such as Agamben, Badiou, and Deleuze, or Lacan and Žižek. The present volume assembles articles that investigate this question and the new guise it took from different perspectives and highlight its relevance for contemporary political thought.

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