Mehdi Belhaj Kacem broke with his mentor Alain Badiou in an act of philosophical parricide. But is the father dead?
To call Après Badiou an Oedipal undertaking is about as controversial a statement as to say that the book, by the young French philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, is 423 pages long, written in French, and published in March of last year. The father in question is the Badiou of the title, “one of the most powerful voices in French philosophy” (as Badiou’s English publisher calls him), a set-theoretician, ontologist, and one of the last major exponents of the post-‘68 generation. In the early 2000s, on the merits of Belhaj Kacem’s early autodidactic work, Alain Badiou brought the younger man into his circle of confidants and admirers and helped him find publishers for his own works of philosophy. After about a decade of such treatment, Belhaj Kacem (or MBK, as I’ll call him) betrayed his mentor in a very public way.
Après Badiou opens with a letter from MBK to himself, written in the formal vous. In it, he expresses gratitude to those who helped him along his “Nietzschean recovery,” alerting readers that what follows will be a “sort of Ecce Homo for our time.” The allusion, not wholly fanciful, is to Nietzsche’s break with Wagner, about whom Badiou has written favorably. MBK then turns outward to address his ex-co-religionists, counseling them to reject, on the basis of Badiou’s swollen ego, the philosopher’s domination of their minds. Partisan readers itching for tu quoque might relax and let themselves follow this man’s impressively fluent harangue, which succeeds in being accurate if not always true, and useful if not always good.
The book was put out by Éditions Grasset, a publishing house associated with Bernard Henri-Lévi, who wrote a lengthy jacket blurb. BHL, as he is known natively, is a grotesque: a soixante-huitard who when faced with defeat recanted his revolutionary pretensions but never declined the invitations to talk shows, and so invented a new philosophy (he called it New Philosophy) to justify his new position. One of Badiou’s more appealing moves has been to flay toadies of the Restoration like BHL as only another ex-Maoist student leader can. And now here was his protégé calling him a misogynist, a failed novelist, and a baboon from the protégé’s new perch chez BHL.
Badiou released a curt response in L’Express, a French newsweekly:
Regarding the book titled Après Badiou
An ex-disciple cared to publish a work where he “explains” in a particularly vulgar, anecdotic and ignorant fashion, the reasons for his rupture with me. It is correct that I was at one time interested in the work of Mehdi Belhaj Kacem. I wrote a preface for one of his books, I invited him to my seminar, I was his editor at Fayard . . . One could have thought that all of that would create fidelity. It was the case for me, but not for him. Clearly, he thought that being my friend didn’t bring him enough, or quickly enough, and that being my enemy would bring him more; it would suffice to sell his renegacy to those, numerous and powerful, who have long been against me. Once again, all can see for themselves that the mix of treason, megalomania and laziness never brings more than a meager broth. I have no other commentary to make on this banal story of mental corruption. Moreover, I don’t usually comment on the many books devoted to me.
You could tell he didn’t even care.
To see a philosopher of Badiou’s stature engaged in such sniping is a shock, given the operatic architectonics of much of his work, but it is also to see him as MBK saw him: petty, self-aggrandizing and paranoid (not unjustly) about betrayal. This is one of the troubling things about MBK’s book: Belhaj Kacem charges Badiou with a number of misbehaviors and seems to be telling the truth. And yet it’s also true, as Badiou counters, that he tells it in an anecdotic and even vulgar fashion.
Dismissing a philosopher’s entire system on the basis of his personal conduct is generally a foolish way to go, simply because very few philosophers weren’t world-historical dicks
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Badiou’s most robust philosophical work stems from his contention that mathematics expresses ontology, or more precisely that set theory is the description of pure being qua being. He is concerned with an ontology that can account for the fact that things and situations change. For him, an Event is the name of a true change, and Truth is the un-assured work of a human subject who maintains fidelity to that Event. The particulars of his ontology, laid out in his opus Being and Event, rest on the fundamental axiom that “the One is not.” That is, there is no set of all sets, no unity of being. Pure being qua being has holes; any instance of beings being is also an instance of a void.
These theories were received in the English-speaking world with pomp and frisson, enjoying the approval of an academy employing French theory as replacement Marxish critique. Fans thrilled to Badiou’s resounding defense of universalism against textual relativism, his fidelity to his political engagement, and his striking equation of mathematics to ontology. Who cared that the work was neither particularly historical nor particularly materialist? A new, better French master had arrived on the scene.
Not according to Belhaj Kacem, who seizes on Badiou’s political thought as both irresponsible and insignificant, indicting it as the symptom of the mathematically purified philosophy Badiou advances. By calling Badiou’s philosophy of the void itself void, Belhaj Kacem attempts to do the thing Badiou only describes: to found an event.
The cornerstone of MBK’s attack lies in his criticism of Badiou’s lay “metaphysical Catholicism” or Pauline Platonism, which allows the subject to be redeemed by the Event of Truth. The Event cannot be summoned or prefigured, only awaited. Against this, he claims a metaphysical Lutheranism:
The historical genius of Luther was to re-seize the Jewish origin of monotheism, brandishing against Rome the fact that original sin and it alone unifies the human species as Subject.
MBK’s project is to secularize this story of Evil as the origin of any reference to a single humanity. For him, Badiou’s universalism — Catholic is, after all, the Greek word for “universal” — is both too religious and too particular to really deal with the fact that no matter how much he has philosophically vindicated the concepts of resurrection and immortality, they remain irrelevant to the “crushing majority of humanity” whose mortal lives need uplift before they die.
The Arab Spring gives the polemic a heavy subtext. Belhaj Kacem is Tunisian-French, and writes about family members who would have been tortured had he spoken, even from the safety of France, against the now-fallen dictator Ben Ali. Badiou took his time to positively assess the ongoing upheaval which spread outward from Tunisia, declining to name the popular overthrow of Western client dictators as one of his Events. For MBK, who (absurdly) finds cryptogrammic significance in Alain Badiou’s initials reflecting Ben Ali’s, this appears as final evidence of the political uselessness of Badiou’s thought. Post-Spring, MBK is no longer afraid to speak about the tyranny this A.B. has held him under. The fall of one dictator gives the unhappy son the courage to topple the other.
In his efforts to do this, MBK holds Badiou guilty of a variety of sins: Of having innovated “precisely zero” new philosophical concepts, of improperly applying Lacan’s analysis directly to the political sphere, of covertly deploying a “secular Catholicism” in the guise of a revived Platonic idealism, of being not a petit but a grand bourgeois and of universalizing his own bourgeois prejudices, of spreading a rancid version of ‘68 politics, condescending to tell Mehdi not to bother with the “left anarcho-situationists”
Now, this last, at least, is not strictly true. Badiou’s short book Ethics is subtitled An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, and contains a more elaborated definition of Evil than of Good. In his more recent Logics of Worlds, Badiou produces mathemes to describe two additional subjective figures of Evil. To my mind, his relation of Truth to Evil, despite the majuscule, is a subtle and forceful way out of vacuous, circular moralisms, and a reaffirmation along the way of the power of thought itself. But Belhaj Kacem claims repeatedly to be “the only one of [his] generation to have actually read Badiou,” so perhaps I’ve gotten it totally wrong.
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For MBK, evil is something very much like original sin. Humans departed from the realm of pure animal being by aping nature, thereby doubling it and opening it to mastery and appropriation beyond simple necessity. This was the dual discovery through mimesis of both Science and excess, an event he names the Archetransgression
To apprehend this singular state philosophically, MBK says, means to be astonished at Evil’s continued presence. Politics is nothing other than the attempt to accommodate the excess which this mimesis produces: excess luxury and leisure on the side of the appropriators, excess misery and death on the side of the appropriated. And art, primarily in the form of tragic drama, reminds the polis of its ongoing failure to accommodate it. Since de Sade and Goya, art has contented itself with delectating in this dark consequence of the mimetic urge, substituting astonishment at the accommodation of Evil for astonishment at Evil itself. But philosophy, whose role is not to astonish others so much as to be itself astonished, has left the thought of Evil to religion and art, and for too long taken the Good as its guiding sign.
No longer, if Belhaj Kacem gets his wish. Après Badiou is divided into three sections: The System of Evil, The Badiou Case, and The Political Symptom. The first is subtitled Plea for the Birth of a Philosophical Twenty-First Century. This century would be past Badiou, natch. It would be nihilist, in the sense that MBK has elaborated in his previous volume, The Spirit of Nihilism. And it would involve a polar switch from the hegemony of what MBK calls the eudaemonists, the philosophers who take it upon themselves to laud the Good. These philosophers, of whom Badiou is of course the highest exponent, are also all professors. Since Kant, MBK says, the philosopher has always been affiliated with the university, which has meant that the guardianship of the crucial human activity of prompting “astonishment at that which no one had thought to be astonished before” is in the hands of the least astonished kind of people around, the “professionals of profession.”
The antiphilosopher or antischolastic, on the other hand, in whose lineage MBK places himself, is always at a remove from the academy. He names Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Benjamin, Blanchot, Bataille, Lacan and Marx as his forbearers here, though Spinoza and any woman at all might have been good to include, too. The antiphilosopher’s role is as a “thinker of the singularity irreducible to the ‘philosophical’ turnstiles of the abstract Universal,” withers Belhaj Kacem. These singularities left out by the philosophical Universal have, in MBK’s telling, been eagerly taken up by religion and then politics. If philosophers are so smart, he asks, then why does no one believe them? Why does religion still dominate in this self-proclaimed secular age?
Relying a bit impishly on Lacan, one of Badiou’s own intellectual fathers, MBK draws strained lines between Badiou’s egoism and the universalism of his system. In the chapter titled The Badiou Case
Then there is the supposed stranglehold on a generation’s mind that MBK wishes to loose. Here, the question of Après Badiou’s Frenchness poses itself. MBK’s derision of Badiou and his garret on the Rue d’Ulm
Alexander Galloway begins his essay on MBK’s previous work, The Spirit of Nihilism, with the observation that “the children of the ‘68ers are now of age. And they are writing.” What do children who are of age need to do to no longer be children, and what might they write about? The generational agon is an old one.
He isn’t. At the end of the book, once you bracket the extensive ad hominem attacks, the self-aggrandizing on the author’s part, the personal correspondence revealed and the somewhat shaky attempts at casting a nihilist origin myth, what’s left is little more than a grand, brave gesture. And yet a gesture isn’t nothing. As another of MBK’s intellectual fathers, Giorgio Agamben, explains, gestures can be supremely important acts, resolving the false distinction