On Alain Badiou’s The Century


Not so long ago, the final implosion of Communism prompted some bold new variations on an older discourse of lost epochal illusions. Coming from across the spectrum, these forays into the philosophy of history typically concluded with some disquieting judgments on the victorious world of elections, families, and money. Alain Badiou’s The Century, a collection of lectures given from 1998 to 2000, first published in France in 2005, and translated into English in 2007, takes us back to this moment, but stands out as a document of a less recognizable provenance.

Its grandiose portrait of the century as an epic war of the spirit was troubling enough to have deterred many of his most ardent English speaking admirers from giving it the reception that it arguably deserved. A glance at its first pages might convey a sense of why readers may have experienced a certain unease. Badiou begins by maintaining that the moral commonplaces of contemporary democratic opinion prevent any understanding of the “totalitarian” states and movements of the past century. This past persists, in a haze of complacent interpretation, as an uncomprehended aftermath because our conventions of measuring and classifying evil make it impossible to understand the motive ideas behind these states and movements. Uncomprehended, they threaten to return in some unrecognizable form, and the moral universe of the simultaneously cynical and humanitarian West circulates around the problem of this spectral return. What has to be grasped is not, of course, the intellectually negligible and barbarous official jargon of National Socialism, but its underlying philosophical statute, so to speak. This can only be done  when we have under-stood it as a reactive or obscurantist variant of the of the Century’s self-destroying revolutionary movements in politics and art, as well as the “inner truth and greatness” of this self-destruction. This is what The Century claims to provide, in frontal opposition to the legitimating myths of the “anti-totalitarian” west.


The Parisian Maoist milieu from which Badiou emerged underwent its own flight forward and self-destruction, a privileged vantage point, in his view, for understanding the same process unfolding in the larger story of the century. An intellectual history of this scene might provide an illuminating backdrop to his subsequent trajectory, but it would be hard to identify any single formative context that would anticipate the shape of his later philosophical work. In any event, the French “Maoism” of this time had an intellectually idiosyncratic character, and in his case drew inspiration more from Lacan and Plato than from the  author  of Capital. It could be said that part of the difficulty of understanding Badiou today revolves around the opacity of this distance from Marxism. While the idea of communism assumes a prominent place in his work, there is little to suggest that he has any interest in revisiting deeper problems of this tradition. In part, this can be explained by the nearly complete “de-Marxification” of French intellectual life that set in after the 70’s, but his longstanding hostility to the ideological climate that subsequently emerged separates him from this wider story of accommodation to the times. The reasons for this distance from Marx must be understood as largely internal to his project and its trajectory. In a nutshell, Badiou defends a classical ideal of philosophy and the actuality of its metaphysical problems, which Marx thought had been superseded with the new relationship between categories of thought and social being that an unprecedented capitalist society was bringing into existence.


Skepticism regarding the relevance of philosophical ontology from a broadly post-metaphysical perspective has not been the main barrier to a critical reception of Badiou’s major works. This has hinged on the more serious problem posed by their decipherability. Even his most admiring commentators have found it difficult to explain the significance of the forbidding apparatus of mathematical metaphysics at the of the larger philosophical project. Even those who have got a handle on the fundamentals have found it difficult to explain the relationship between the math and the vivid examples and conclusions that clearly form the basis of the intellectual appeal of Being and Event and The Logic of Worlds. Not understanding the history of the philosophical problems that Badiou’s axioms attempt to solve or declare to be closed, much of the discussion surrounding this side of his work takes place in a state of nearly complete incomprehension, where its propositions can be treated as articles of faith, mere definitions, and then subject to some quibbles regarding their consequences.


What part of his systematic philosophy comes into play in understanding The  Century? Badiou upholds an ideal of philosophy as a system that coordinates ontology to the virtues of the subject in a manner reminiscent of Platonic Dialogues or Spinoza’s Ethics. Like the latter, Badiou holds that time, to put it simplistically, is not a fundamental determination of being. How is it possible from this ontological starting point even to approach the seemingly historical questions that The Century raises? His systematic philosophy culminates in an attempt to establish new, more precise conditions for thinking about the category of “the subject” outside of the problematic of German idealism and the attempt to transcend its antinomies by historicizing them. Badiou rejects the historicist claim that the subject is historical, in the sense of being in some encompassing, unfolding time, or as that encompassing unfolding time.


History, conceived as the horizon of dasein’s enveloping and unfolding hermeneutics, is a chimera, an obscure synthesis of autonomous worlds that arises out of the struggles to bring some new truth into existence—in politics, art, science and the region of life arising out of the problem of sexual difference—taking the form of histories whose terms are irreducible to one another. There can then only ever be a mythical History of these autonomous histories. “History” is no more than the bombastic name that various openings in thought, mainly in politics and art, posited as their own condition of possibility, thereby imparting the temporal semblance of unity to the constellation of these disparate openings. History was never, then, the actual condition of the innovations associated with modernism and revolutionary politics, but merely the rhetoric of temporality deployed to protect a fragile, innovative present from a menacing past by enclosing it in an imaginary future. From the perspective of a certain unspecified present, we might now see that History was the necessary ground and, simultaneously, the false consciousness of the will to absolutize an unprotected, innovative present. Badiou concedes that one may have to make do with such fictions when trying to think about dubious temporal unities that Althusser once referred to as “expressive totalities”—periods composed out of heterogenous, even incommensurable elements, obscure syntheses of the subjective and objective. Indeed, in this vein, he refers throughout the work to the century as a meta-subject that thinks and struggles to overcome an internal impasse, before finally collapsing in exhaustion and defeat. Despite its author’s manifest opposition to historicism, The Century might be described then as a Hegelian tale of a certain shape of spirit as it was expressed in the politico-philosophical jargon of modernism. But because he does not explain the necessity of this concession to this unifying Hegelian historicism the final status of the Historical remains obscure. In contrast to previous reflections on the end of history, The Century is skeptical of the status of its own theme.


Badiou establishes an alternate, provisional method for tracing the contours of this vanguardist, program era. Following Sylvain Lazarus, he employs the method of “maximum interiority” in compiling an album of citations from contemporaries on the capacity of the present age to endure the construction of a new order of things. The basic premise of this approach is that we cannot understand subjective movements of thought through any reference to objective series: capitalism, state formation, demographics, etc. The latter form a kind of imponderable dark background to the disparate subjective pursuits of truth and does not explain them, even as their conditions of possibility. Perhaps it need not be pointed out that the method of “maximum interiority,” like Benedetto Croce’s “dialectic of distincts,” excludes any consideration of Marxism and its conception of the historicity of thought. We can only ever grasp the century in statements that touch on what was previously unthinkable in art, politics and sexual difference. But these statements can be related to one another in that they exhibited a common form, as distinct from the singular truths they announce, which have no such relation to one another. It is these isomorphic forms or shapes of truths that can be historicized, if only from the vantage point of a certain unspecified “eternal,” or alternately ”post-historical,” present. The shape, the categorical forms, of these truths, in art, politics, etc., constitutes a self-historicizing “Subject,” in the Hegelian, not ordinary, empirical sense—what Badiou calls the “passion for the real.”


This passion for the real was the way in which contemporaries thought what was previously unthinkable. By definition, what was previously unthinkable lacks a ground, and so its existence, in its seeming impossibility, depends upon the subjective fortitude of its partisans. The ascetic project of life seeking to transcend itself, life as a project of overcoming, constantly grapples with the ontological question: what is actually living and dead? “Life” and “History” were two names for the same movement of overcoming death through a frontal encounter with it, where death means life in decline, nihilism. From a certain Marxist perspective this might be reformulated as: Life was the name for the compulsion of self-valorizing Value, and History the combined and uneven development of the vital or “productive forces” that this compulsion set into motion.  Infused with the will to change, the century brooded on its ability to follow through. Badiou cites Mandelstam’s poem “The Century” to demonstrate the anatomy of this conflicted impetus. History, so conceived, was inexorably culminating in nihilist catastrophe—in the form of inter-imperialist war and barbarism for the Left, or as The Decline of the West for the Right—and the will to confront this inescapable decline was, non-dialectically, the will for an absolute rupture from it. This took the form of projects of transcendence, the creation of a new man, understood either as the construction of an unprecedented universality, communism, or as a return to the vanished origin, fascism. It is important to note that Badiou never implies that this idea of creating a new man could or should ever be resurrected, for it was “undoubtedly a bad project.”


The 19th century conception of History, romantic and dialectical, implied submission to its inexorable course, while the 20th century conception entailed a political mastery of it. But this distinction is porous enough throughout the text, and the early 19th century Hegel is cited to explain the phenomenology of the later passion for the real. The real manifests itself in a violent mise en scène of the true or Absolute Idea, a conception distilled from the experience of the original Terror but no less apparent in subsequent reincarnations of it. As this account of the Terror made evident, the real is never real enough to avoid the suspicion of being a semblance. It is therefore necessary to test its consistency through purges of false semblances. But the real always appears in the form of semblances, so this drive to purify, to get to the real beyond the semblance, is unrealizable, a figure of the bad infinity. In this spiral, the century was incapable of breaking with romantic, quasi-religious conceptions in which the infinite is ultimately unattainable, the beyond of thought. The century, despite its atheism, was preoccupied with a Christian paradox: how can the eternal, the absolute, be incarnated in history?


In the grip of this obscure question, the Century could only answer it circularly: Life as history is the measure of life. Partisans of the defining causes of the century externalized or displaced the impasse of this circularity in various flights forward towards the horizon of a final struggle culminating in the unification of the planet. The final struggle was conceived as being between classes, or between race-nations, or, alternately, between the fascist race-nations and their common enemies, the western bourgeoisie and the Communists. These hot and cold wars assumed an epic form in the collective imagination of contemporaries. What were the literary articulations of this Homeric experience of war, of superimposed Gold and Iron Ages? In Badiou’s account we shift from an initial moment in which this experience could be rendered in the figure of seafaring piracy (Pessoa, Perce) to a later moment, whose only figure is a somber Long March. This shift in epic shape of the subject is aligned to an underlying material breakdown of the old Eurocentric nomos of the earth: at the beginning of the century, the times could be rendered as a journey in which the horror was in a colonial background, at a distance; at a later point, the horror has come to the metropole in the form of the camps. The status of the destination of the epic journey, the homeland on the horizon, becomes, at this point, undecidable. This was the contemporary significance of the word “Anabasis,” in Celan’s poem. “Anabasis” was the title of a first hand account written by Xenophon, a companion of Plato’s, on the fate of ten thousand Greek mercenaries, stranded in alien lands, fighting their way back home. In this shift from joyous imperial nihilism to radical estrangement and disorientation, to time out of joint, the subject of this epic changes from a We conceived in terms of I, a collective bonded by terror—in the fascist mode of an ecstatic fusion of the I into the We, or as communist inseparability of the We and I—to a later disjunction between the We and I. Badiou argues that today we have no experience of the real because this dialectic of fraternity and terror

is proscribed.


The dialectic of terror and fraternity is one of the final forms of an encounter with the real conceived as the Absolute, in a sequence of subjective forms that goes back to the beginning of “modernity.” The story of the century, of its defining passion for the real, is inserted into a wider and more familiar framework of the history of a philosophically conceived modernity. In this story, the subject form of the link between man and the absolute moves from Descartes to Kant and on to Hegel. As we pass from one to the next, the absolute goes from being the subjective attainment of, first, epistemic certainty, then moral autonomy, and finally the historical experience of thought’s comprehensive sef-intelligibility. In this sequence, modernity as secularization generated a succession of pred-icates of transcendence. Badiou’s politico-philosophical genealogy extends past the first half of the century, when History was the final struggle, to a more local history of the post war French political and intellectual scene, where a radical humanism (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty) contended with a radical anti-humanism (Althusser, Foucault). For Badiou, this battle was the last great episode within the wider story of philosophical modernity, in which the terms of the opposition between man and the predicate of transcendence begin to break down. For radical humanism, the overman is humanity without this external figure of transcendence. The death of the transcendental—the ab-solute as an alienated foundational figure of knowledge and ethics—reveals a groundless condition of human freedom, experienced as anxiety and the necessity of deciding on programs of dis-alienation. “Man” is the name of the historical-monumental project of dis-alienation or emancipation. But the death of god, the external transcendent, also opens up the prospect of the death or displacement of man. Radical anti-humanism was the orientation in thought that worked through some of the consequences of this displacement. The re-jection of the humanist Left Hegelian problematic with its dialectic of alienation and disalienation resulted in a far ranging problematization of the category of history, and gave rise to a structuralism of discontinuous, singular histories. In this post-humanist situation, the only imperative that crosses over from the time of metaphysical illusions is the will to knowledge, the project of advancing “the space for thought,” that the ongoing break with the unifying figure of  Man opens up.


Far from wholly identifying with the latter, Badiou’s work can, in part, be seen as an attempt to neutralize the terms of this opposition. Indeed the problematic status of the historical in The Century arguably reflects Badiou’s commitments to the monumental universalism and intense pathos of struggle for truths coming from Sartrean humanism, as well as the “structuralist” conception of discontinuous sequences and worlds not limited by a normative ideology of the merely human. Perhaps this explains the reversal of valences surrounding the term “historical” near the end of the work. At its beginning, historicism was identified as the dominant ideology of the contemporary west, and the temporal construction of a century a possible dubious concession to a pre-given theme; by its end, the present has become decidedly post-historical and authentic temporality is precisely what can no longer be thought:


The century proposed its own vision of historical time. It derived a genealogical vision of great breadth from political confrontations, following in that respect Marx, who wrote that all history is that of the struggle of classes. Even the academic historians practiced the longue durée and took the level of human life for a derisory quantity… it is very striking to see that today we have practically no concept of time. More or less everywhere, the day after tomorrow is abstract, and the day before yesterday incomprehensible. We have entered into an atemporal period which testifies that far from being an individually shared experience, time is a construction, and even, one could maintain, a political construction.


The concluding formulation is ambiguous: What does it mean to say that we have practically no conception of time, when it is at least possible to conceive of it as a political construction? Does this post-historical atemporality testify to the truth that time is a political construction? What is a political construction?  To whom does it testify this? What is the character of this present: is it out of history; is this being outside of historical intelligibility a new kind of historical situation? In another essay, discussing an idea around which an epoch took shape, Badiou reverts to a simpler solution, bypassing these antinomies of periodization:


In many respects we are closer today to the questions of the 19th century than to the revolutionary history of the 20th. A wide variety of 19th-century phenomena are reappearing: vast zones of poverty, widening inequalities, politics dissolved into the “service of wealth,” the nihilism of large sections of the young, the servility of much of the intelligentsia; the cramped, besieged experimentalism of a few groups seeking ways to express the communist hypothesis . . . Which is no doubt why, as in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at stake today, but the conditions of its existence.


The implication seems to be that the neo-liberal present is a reversion back to an earlier era of classical liberalism, and that therefore the Marxist critique of political economy may now assume a centrality that it had lost in the subsequent vanguardist age of “what is to be done?” This is clearly an inadequate characterization of the specificity of the present, as if it were even possible that it could be a mere throwback to the 19th century, minus the ability to conceive of time historically, alongside some other characteristics. The entanglements and contortions of some of these formulations suggest that this great and distinctive thinker needs to more rigorously work through the Marxist corpus and situate his own thought in some more determinate relations to its conceptions of an epochal sequence structured by an unfolding “objective” logic of capital, and the historicity of thought forms it suggests. The current world economic disorder establishes a criteria of actuality for thought. Badiou’s lectures from a decade ago reveal the outlines of a deceased modernist century, polarized between Communist and fascist responses to the collapse of bourgeois civilization. A comprehensive account of the period would make it clear that this story unfolded within another one, that of the erratic, violent universalization of capitalist civilization. This is an account of the past that might better prepare us to explore the objective and subjective dimensions of an enigmatic present of stasis and impending catastrophe.

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