The best books I read in 2016

With 2016 now entering its final days, it’s time to give this brutish year a proper send off by taking inventory of some of the best books I’ve read over the span of the year. While not every book one reads delivers on its promise or even manages to leave an impact, some books certainly do deliver. Upon deeper reflection, I think I had a pretty good year of study and reading overall. I had less of a great year in terms of writing, but I hope that balances itself out in 2017.

I realize now that I have been committed to reading rigorously in philosophy, theology, psychoanalysis and theory for the past 14 years. For a book to really connect it must make an original contribution to the field or concept the author is writing about, and more importantly, the text must take a position on the topic which is practically and theoretically compelling. These texts all seem to do these two things very well.

Hopefully you find something here which is of interest to your own reading and work. Although it is difficult, I try to list the books in order of importance within each of these categories: “theory and philosophy” and “Islamic thought.”


1. Capital and Community
Jacques Camatte

Camatte dives deep into unpublished material of Marx and comes to the surface with a theory of the way that community constitutes itself under the latter stages of capitalism. This text has significantly helped me in working through and finishing my own book on community, which should be coming out in 2017.

2. The Disenchantment of the Secular: A Political History of Religion
Marcel Gauchet

Gauchet gives us a theory of atheism and of Christianity that is absolutely incredible and surprising. I don’t know that I agree with everything in this text, but I find his method very helpful. The link above goes into more detail on the text.

3. Search for a Method and Critique of Dialectical Reason 
Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre’s Marxist later work is essential. I tried to avoid reading it for years, but this year I really got around to taking it seriously. I have not finished volume II of the Critique, but I have thoroughly enjoyed his work and have found all sorts of ways to think institutions, ontology and politics with his framework in mind.

4. The Trouble with Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis 
Aaron Schuster

One of the perplexing topics that psychoanalysis opens up is that of vitalism. Schuster gives us a theory of how vitalism is dealt with in Deleuze and in Lacan. For all the talk of how the late Lacan adopted Deleuze, this book is arguably the best one in actually setting the record straight. I also gained a great deal from his discussion of the ethics of Deleuze and Lacan.

5. Anthropology of the Name
Sylvain Lazarus

One has to read Lazarus in order to understand Badiou’s idea of politics. My review (linked above) should give you a better sense of the value and importance of this text.

6. The World Interior to Capital and You Must Change Your Life 
Peter Sloterdijk

Sloterdijk is the most important conservative philosopher working today. Every Marxist, continental theorist, value form communist or left Heideggerian should read him. His ideas are formidable because they are aphoristic, compact and tight. One can rebut him on many grounds, mainly in regards his Eurocentrism, but he lays out the most scathing and most challenging philosophical critique of revolutionary leftist thought I have ever read.

7. Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy
Justin Clemens

Clemens is one of my favorite writers and essayists of the Melbourne Lacanian school. In this collection of essays he makes a series of very incisive interventions which connect psychoanalysis to thinkers one doesn’t normally relate to psychoanalysis such as Agamben. I’m not sure that I agree with his reading of Lacan on the topic of antiphilosophy but Clemens makes a well argued case.

8. Lacanian Affects: The Function of Affect in Lacanian Psychoanalysis
Colette Soler

Affect is not dead. In fact, one could say that in Lacan and psychoanalysis, affect has been under-theorized. Soler’s book is an excellent corrective and overview of the concept.

9. Riot. Strike. Riot. The New Era of Uprisings
Joshua Clover

The sequence of movements opened by the Arab spring, the Indignados movement, protests against the 08′ economic downturn and other crises of capitalism all started around 2011 and they came to an end recently, or have they? Clover’s text helps us to think these movements with excellent references to the major theoretical debates that have taken place within Marxist thought.

10. Life Against Death and Apocalypse and or Metamorphosis 
Norman O. Brown

Norman O. Brown or “Normie” as a friend called him, is a lesser known American classic. A mystic, psychoanalyst, a close reader of Marx and of what I would call the field of “critical humanities,” Brown is worth reading. I found his Life Against Death very interesting for my own project in coming up with a way to read periodization in history through the lens of psychoanalysis.

11. Transgression and the Inexistent: A Philosophical Vocabulary
Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

Kacem is an original thinker despite his reputation as being un-rigorous. I actually find his work to be an excellent supplement to Badiou and in many ways he has taken Badiou’s project the farthest in terms of building new ground. My review of his latest and first book translated into English is at the link above.

12. Anti-Nietzsche
Malcolm Bull

Bull is an exceptionally cogent writer. He makes Nietzsche no longer redeemable politically and ethically. Perhaps the only way to return to Nietzsche after Bull is by way of French Pierre Klossowski’s and Deleuze’s Nietzsche? I think the analytic Nietzsche and the continental Nietzsche is dead after Bull.

13. For Badiou: Idealism Without Idealism
Frank Ruda

Ruda’s text is short but powerful. It’s not the final word on Badiou and nor is it the best secondary literature book on Badiou, but it does a good job in reading the stakes of Badiou’s project vis a vis psychoanalysis and he’s a much clearer writer than Zizek and they are after many of the same questions. So be sure to read Ruda.



14. The Taymiyyan Moment: Politics, Community, Law
Ovamir Anjum

This book was the focus of an excellent book club I participated in. I highly recommend it to anyone that is interested in gaining a wider sense of Islamic intellectual history and in understanding the way that philosophy and theology intersects with political power.

15. What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic
Shahab Ahmed

Ahmed’s magnum opus is nothing less than a major achievement for the field of Islamic studies. Many people have criticized this book for offering a version of Islam that non-Muslims will gravitate towards: a new theory of a non-legalistic Islam, where the normative basis of the law transformed into something more ethical and expressive. It’s worth reading this book if nothing less than to gain a better footing into the major intellectual discourses involved in Islamic thought today. The chapter on Talal Asad is very engaging and fascinating.

Ahmed gives us a definition of the Islamic as, “the dynamic that renders things, despite their differences, mutually implicated in a shared process and relation of meaning” (344). So Islam is not merely what any Muslims says that it is — Islam is developed in a hermeneutic milieu where debate, contention and disagreement over what divine revelation actually is takes place. Wherever you have this taking place, you have Islam.

16. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam
Muhammad Iqbal

Iqbal is worth reading. He’s somewhat dated in terms of his philosophical allegiances (Bergson and William James on the western philosophy side) but that doesn’t make his lectures in this text not highly fascinating. He makes me wonder if the pinnacle of Islamic thought, that which it must contend with, is and remains vitalism.

17. The Failure of Political Islam
Olivier Roy

Roy gives us a new periodization of political Islam that is worth reading. Salman Sayyid’s work has over-turned much of Roy’s framework in his own work on Islamism, but he remains an essential theorist of political Islam. I have an essay on Roy coming out soon.


Caliban and the Witch
Silvia Federici

Cannibal Metaphysics
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Seminars on Fantasy and Transference
Jacques Lacan

Karl Marx

Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History
Domenico Losurdo

Jameson on Badiou: Ships Passing in the Night

The American Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson’s latest article in the New Left Review, “Badiou and the French Tradition” (full PDF here) ends by noting the most important omissions Badiou makes throughout his oeuvre. I find Jameson’s reading of Badiou highly contradictory and sloppy at times. Jameson gives us a reading of Badiou that takes his thought from the ground of a schizophrenic position, a pastiche of philosophy in restless dialogue with all of the various major interlocutors of twentieth century Marxist and continental thought.

At times, Badiou owes his concepts to Husserl, at other times he remains caught within a Sartrean theory of the subject (Jameson isn’t convinced by either Sartre or Badiou on this topic), while still at other times Badiou’s truth procedures risk a Heideggerian reading of humanist authenticity – as virtuous modes of accessing one’s own historical truth in an authentic manner. Jameson doesn’t accept certain major interlocutors for Badiou, mainly Lacan and Mao, which makes him at loggerheads to begin with. This loggerheads division between the two Marxist thinkers is reminiscent of the famous Longfellow poem, “Ships Passing in the Night.

Towards the end of the article, Jameson weighs several critiques or ‘omissions’ in Badiou’s work. I want to reply to each of these critiques, not out of a desperate support for Badiou ‘s position, but rather to clarify a few things and exert my own view on the matter. If there are other errors or omissions that I have missed, please feel free to add them in the comments section.

1. Badiou disregards the economic dimension of Marxism. I agree, this is a major shortcoming of Badiou’s oeuvre and I think it makes Badiou a pretty vulgar voluntarist. But does this shortcoming then lead Badiou to not have something compelling to say about how class struggle functions today, or how the dialectic functions today? This leads to his second critique:

2. Badiou does not think the contemporary relevance of the dialectic and of the rich tradition of ideology analysis, i.e. it’s not clear how Badiou helps us to think class struggle in the age of globalization. But Jameson contradicts himself here because he shows how through his reading of Theory of the Subject, we’re able to think an immanent class beyond place — we are able to think class as a scission within the proletariat itself. Jameson affirms this as still relevant today but then takes that back at the end of his article.

Furthermore, why would Jameson not say a thing about the materialist dialectic and its immanent relation to democratic materialism? Wouldn’t the arch-theorist of postmodernism want to mention Badiou’s own theory of postmodernism, as found in democratic materialism?

3. Badiou makes the problem of the Other no longer a problem. Here, Jameson shows how he remains wedded to a Sartrean pessimism around alterity. A good place to start with this difference between Sartre and Badiou is to read how they theorize the French Revolution, Sartre in The Critique of Dialectical Reason and Badiou in Being and Event.

I discuss these differences in a previous post here on how Badiou revises Sartre’s concept of the fused group.

4. The lingering problem of Maoism which Jameson reads as making Badiou an anti-state anarchist Marxist. Here, I think we have to go back and understand that world does not replace situation in Logics of Worlds, but in fact there remains situations within the world. Badiou presents a one world theory – to think otherwise is to reduce Badiou to an anti-statist thinker.

Jameson should re-visit the concept of site in Badiou. It is important to note that for Badiou, it is no longer the masses which are the privileged mover of revolutionary activity. In Being and Event Badiou thinks intervention as a complete subtraction from social relations and from the state. Here we have to understand this subtraction from the state in Lacanian terms, i.e. Badiou presents a completely different theory of the imaginary and the way the state’s imaginary count can be re-presented by the evental multiplicity.

It would be interesting to note the revision of the unconscious and heyting algebra here which is the basis by which he is able to think an imaginary that does not reify misrecognition. This is the psychoanalytic source for how Badiou escapes history too. But all of that is too mathematical for Jameson. Fair enough.

5. Jameson asks, “What differentiates the absolute event from its humdrum quotidian varieties, except our retroactive devotion to it?” — this is slightly annoying because the question is answered towards the end of Logics of Worlds around the concepts of trace of the event, intensity of singularities and an entire framework for gauging an event in a world is put forward.


The Theory of the Social Bond in Gauchet

I finished a careful reading of Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. He works with a method that is quite innovative, one part genealogy, one part philosophical anthropology. Gauchet is a working class liberal in terms of his politics. However he pulls from a rich set of post WW II French lines of thought in his work and his poetic form of writing is a rare treat in dense theoretical works such as this one.

Gauchet is interested in mapping out a history of collective being. He re-reads the history of religion away from the Marxist emphasis on class struggle and material social relations as the motor of history and periodization. He develops this philosophical anthropology by analyzing the way in which human collectives at different moments in history, sought to negotiate and form meaning. This consists of a dialectic between the visible and the invisible forces of the sacred. This dialectical unfurling of the sacred occurs at the level of the “superstructure” whereas the material relations and technology of society is the “infrastructural”. The superstructural is what moves history for Gauchet.

The question of power and of the dynamic movement of history is re-centered around the way that human collectives relate to the sacred and to their own collective being — both of which are managed by the social bond.

In Gauchet’s framework, religion comes about in history at a certain point in which the fusion of nature with the sacred completely broke down. Before the religious, primitive religion posed a total unity between the realm of nature with that of the sacred. With this in mind, he problematizes the periodization of the Axial Age, where religion was said to have been born and with it our conception of the individual, reason and monotheism. Gauchet insists that the periodization of history is centered less on the “infrastructural” revolutions of technology and material relations, as much as it is on the way in which collectives relate to and form meaning.

Religion emerges when the state arises in history. The state forms a new dialectic between the visible and the invisible, wherein the state seeks to maintain the transcendent operation of the social bond and to dictate the terms of the invisible sacred realm.

The social bond is a sort of dispotif, a capture where power forms over the collective organization that exceeds the individual will of the people involved (27). It is this point of excess that the religious bond seeks to master, a mastery that is ultimately conservative as it attempts to institutionalize humans against themselves. The social bond is the site where great potency is effectuated, where, “the logic is that of a reflexive social functioning which transcends and is unconscious of the individual it affects” (198). Gauchet’s theory of the social bond is thus anti-humanist in some regards in that the bond itself captures a certain potency that exceeds the very basis of the subjects agency.

The religious bond poses a confrontational posture towards things as they are [the visible order], making it structurally impossible for human beings to entrench themselves and settle down, all the while steadfastly condemning them to a transformative nonacceptance of things (22). Religion is the power of negation deployed to protest law, or what Gauchet calls “the principle of movement within inertia.”

The dialectic of the social bond thus becomes one of managing the visible/invisible dichotomy. It was Christianity that ultimately severs this dialectic through the advent of monasticism in the 11th century to the 13th century as it actively refused to render the visible as the site of a deeper illusion and developed a theory of salvation with the brute real of the realm of the visible. Unlike Buddhism that insists on a fundamental maya, or illusion behind the visible order, Christianity destroys the careful maintenance of the dialectic between the visible and the invisible precisely through the embrace of the visible as sacred. What allows this embrace is the advent of the incarnation; a concept cannot be dialectically managed. The incarnation de-dialectizes salvation and ends up creating the grounds for atheism in that the transcendent bond which was formerly managed by the state gradually became immanent and thus the transcendent disappears from the social bond.

With Christianity, Gauchet remarks, “love was the interior distance of individuals from the social bond, their inner release from the original communal obligation” (120). Jesus “created individuals who, judged from the code they followed and the ends they pursued, were internally removed from the law of inclusion ruling the world” (121). Each of the monotheistic religions originally formed as protest collectives to the sovereignty of the state, but it was Christianity that took the religious form of the social bond the farthest, no longer needing any reliance on the state to ensure meaning for the collective.

Where is the religious bond in our current structure of society? Gauchet only hints at some answers to this in the last section of the text, where he discusses the way in which the human figure has taken on the social bond. Here, Gauchet recognizes that what stands as the primary challenge to the social bond in a post-religious age such as ours is the way in which meaning is unable to be held in-common within the collective. Here is an illuminating passage to illustrate this point:

“Everything takes place between humans—and the state’s all-pervasiveness is there to substantiate the complete repossession of collective-being. But everything also occurs through it in such a way that the social actors cannot possibly appropriate the ultimate meaning of collective-being—whether in individual, dictatorial, collective, or self-managed form—because meaning would then no longer be among them, but in them. Both representative impersonality and the open exchange it calls for excludes this very appropriation” (199).

Whatever holds humans together becomes the state’s exclusive domain and what is left is the autonomous social domain, but this domain is left with a facing of the social bond that is fated to the same dynamic that Freud discusses in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: every bond is a narcissistic bond, i.e. the only bond is with oneself. The religious, as Gauchet defines it, lives on in our thought processes, it dominates the organization of our imagination, and it orients the problems of the self, but it remains there, inert. As he remarks, “concepts for thinking about post-religious man do not yet exist” (172).

Theory Without an Enemy

Enemy-creation is the enterprise of contemporary politics. Temporary enemies proliferate all around us, from the immigrant, the bureaucrat, to the Mexican, to the Muslim–we all know these figures are little false flags which hide a more confused politics. The temporary enemy is a substitute for the true enemy as they offer an object by which some affective, pumped up negative identification can take place. They re-route the problem(s) to some other scene. This sort of enemy-creation is a result of the negative effects of the technocratic takeover of politics and the evacuation of a politics that aims to project a new space of possibility. Temporary enemy-creation is the sign of the inability to create a true alternative.

Political belief in an enemy only produces something new within the field of political life when that enemy is something different than the ruling order, when it presents a truly different proposal for society. The 1930’s fascists had a true enemy first and foremost from which all other struggle proceeded, and that true enemy was communism. A true enemy is not something you invent. A true enemy is never an extension of the given world order; like you, a real enemy challenges the world order, it comes from outside the world. A true enemy is thus not the world as it is, it is the other ideological pole that fights over which new world we must create. All of this is to say that the true enemy has perhaps never been liberalism. The political horizon is opened by the creation or existence of a true enemy.

Today, the re-activated fascisms face no real left opposition. To become a true enemy to contemporary fascism may mean that a new, more solidified leftism must rise out of an ideological fight with the new fascism. But on both the right and the left today, there is ambivalence and debate about whether liberalism, or neoliberalism is in fact the true enemy. Will Trump take the world beyond neoliberalism and towards something more nationally focused, where the globalist supremacy of integrated markets and centralized financial decisions no longer decide the fate of workers across the globe? Most critics seem to agree that Trumpism cannot upend these intricate global alliances. But that is not meant to underestimate the profound effect of the opening of something new that Trump ushered in. Trump is now the crowning far right advance in a series of electoral successes, from the Eurasian bloc in Hungary and Russia, to Brexit in the UK, to the possible electoral successes of the far right National Front in France, we find are-invigorated fascism. We must probe the debates, identify the contradictions and point out the inconsistencies of this new fascism.

It’s not only Carl Schmitt that we owe the great insight that politics is a battle over the creation of the space of the political once you have the ‘friend-enemy’ distinction established. The first Godfather of this hegemony politics is the prophet Johachim of Fiore, the thirteenth century theologian that invented political theology. He prophesied an immanent Kingdom of God that was based on the re-arrangement of actually existing political blocs within society. Johachimite theology posited a coming Age of Spirit where the consciousness of Christian monasticism would usher in an altered spiritual awareness able to bring about a new relation to sovereignty. Fiore is thus the first materialist political theologian as his approach necessitates a dialectical theory of history wherein different stages [ideological blocs] transition and struggle over the teleological creation of a new world.

Dugin and His Critics:

Alexander Dugin is revered as the arch-theorist of the far-right fascism that has been steadily uniting the western European bloc with the Eurasian and now the American. His thought is written about and considered mostly positively by these far right blocs. The idea of a master fascist thinker whose authority stems from the fact that he actually reads high theory is the basis of his success. He also has a big beard and looks like Rasputin. He has a television network and some power within the Putin administration. But I am more intersted in his actual political philosophy, not with his GeoStrategic ideas.

The best place to start to pick apart the ideas that permeate the far right today is to analyze the critiques Dugin has received by conservative thought leaders. While Dugin’s political theories have received criticism within fascist thought leaders particularly different western European and American fascists and conservative thinkers, these criticisms gained popular alarm when Glenn Beck placed Dugin at the center of a global far-right ideological network that he argued represents a truly scary version of politics in that it has subverted Anglo-Christian values. To Beck and American fascist figures like Richard Spencer, Dugin is perceived as a Pagan, anti-American theorist who neglects the underpinnings of a western, white power based superiority politics. He has been critiqued for being too open to diversity, as he argues in his landmark popular text, The Fourth Political Theory.

In this text, Dugin is largely indifferent towards identity politics but he advocates a return to “Traditionalism” based on a recognition that our era is one of transition where people cling to identity in a false way. So the embrace of Tradition is a necessity, i.e. across the world groups will return to tradition and this facing of tradition will strategically serve to orient humanity towards the new fourth option of politics. The question is still aligned along the Schmittian axis for the American and British fascists that critique Dugin. For they still insist that racism and racial exclusion remain the central organizing principal of the new political space. For Richard Spencer, the new political space will be opened by a white superiority approach over Dugin ‘Evental politics’ approach. In Spencer’s critique of Dugin, liberalism needs to be preserved but purified from its cross-cultural encrustations. Liberalism needs to align itself with a pride in western civilization from which a new cultural superiority will emerge. But Spencer’s enemy is not liberalism as such, it is not capitalism, it is the perverted direction that liberalism has taken after its turn to identity politics and multiculturalism. Spencer thus settles for a partial enemy in liberalism, a strategy to purify liberalism and return it to its Greco-Roman white supremacist origins. Spencer cannot think a true rupture with liberalism as such.

Dugin holds no punches and refuses to announce liberalism as the enemy itself. Liberalism must be overcome, but there is a collapse of any enemy that might rival the scene wherein a new fourth political theory will emerge. The sphere of the political, of the new politics, is one that rises based on a new ideological orientation towards chaos and destruction. From the immanent destruction of the liberal order a mystical Event will take place that ushers humanity towards a new relation to being.

Dugin makes enemies with Beck and Spencer in that he advocates a break from the core of the western Greco-Roman tradition in his argument that the current world structured around Logos must be converted into a world structured around a new relation to Chaos. The Fourth Political Theory is a manifesto for how to comport one’s thinking towards mystical being–it is a prolemegona to a mystical thinking to come, a preparatory text that lays out some nascent ideas before the Event will come to open the space of the political.

Dugin recognizes that the ideological scene of politics is in search for a proper enemy. But to properly arrive at the political, to open a cleavage for something truly new to take place at the level of political ideology, he abandons dialectics and opts for mysticism. Only an obscure “Political Angelology” approach to the realization of a more fundamental ground of being will lift humanity into a new orientation towards the political. He thus replaces political theology (Carl Schmitt) with political angelology. All strategic considerations of actually doing politics in this interregnum period–before the immanent collapse of globalist capitalism (Neoliberalism) led by the United States–must be directed towards the embrace of Traditiaonlism, the return to hierarchical religion and other obscure forms of politics.

In this sense, Dugin recognizes that the alignment and growing success of these far-right parties throughout Eurasia, the UK after Brexit, to the National Front in France and now to the Trump ascendancy in the United States are all merely an early beginning of the decline of the globalist world order and an affirmation of national-centric politics. These conservative successes do not represent the more mystical Heideggerian Event in which humanity reaches the rock-bottom of nihilism and rises from their blighted existential position into something more Radical. Dugin’s “Radical Subject” is ushered into existence as a triumphal return of being in that moment when mankind finally and irreversibly will forget about itself. Dugin’s vision is to force the anti-globalist struggles to reach rock-bottom, to push them to the point of total collapse wherein a new “ultimate historic catastrophe, in the traumatic experience of the ‘short circuit’” breaks the subject outside of time.

Dugin’s theory of the Event is contingent on catastrophe and destruction:

“Globalisation and the end of history cannot be reduced to the will of someone other than he who is the source of the creation of time, at least not within the limits of immanent philosophy. Consequently, this can mean only one thing: that within the depths of transcendental subjectivity, there lies another layer which Husserl had not uncovered. Husserl was convinced that the layer he discovered was the last one. But it turns out that this is not so. There has to be another dimension yet to be found — the most hidden one. We can designate it as the Radical Subject. If Husserl’s transcendental subjectivity constitutes reality through the experience of a manifestation of self-awareness, the Radical Subject is to be found, not on the way out, but on the way in. It shows itself only in the moment of ultimate historic catastrophe, in the traumatic experience of the ‘short circuit’ which is stronger, and lasts for a moment longer than it is possible to endure. The same experience that makes the transcendental subjectivity manifest itself and deploy its content, thus creating time with its intrinsic music, is regarded by the Radical Subject as an invitation to reveal itself in another manner — on the other side of time.”

The praxis of Dugin becomes directed towards the rock bottom nihilism on the ashes of Neoliberalism. he writes, “the end of days should come; but it will not come by itself. This is a task, it is not a certainty. It is active metaphysics. It is a practice. And it can be a potential and rational solution of the enigmatic layers that are discovered while talking about Fourth Political Practice.” This syncretic culling together of different strands of fascist vitalism, Heideggerian mysticism and a strange, Bergsonian theory of time where the mysterious Event is ushers humanity towards a new nihilism all indicates two things:

Firstly, the fact that Dugin exists and that he writes in the way that he does indicates that the authority of his vision, despite its absolutely dismal theoretical ingenuity and shallow proposals –all flow from his willingness to throw down high theory. Because he questions our global predicament from the standpoint of high theory, the far right fetishizes him as the missing great thinker, despite the fact that he has no real thinking to offer. The deficit of far-right master thinkers makes the space open for someone such as Dugin–an imposter charlatan figure–that is able to enter the scene and piece together obscure and highly destructive political visions.  Secondly, the figure of Dugin shows the degree to which conservative and fascist thought is reliant on leftist philosophy, despite the nonexistence of the left in any actual political sense. From this reliance what is missed is the necessity to overcome capitalism as such.

Islamophobia and the Coming Trump Era

What we know right now is that the Trump era lies ahead of us. The immediate intervallic period between now and late January when he assumes office will be a time of increasing fear met with protest and resistance against the way things turned out on 11/9 and against the sinking reality that we face four years of Trump.

My work with the Muslim community started during the Iraq war and I moved to Washington, DC during a time that was dominated by neoconservatives. The Bush era neocon approach to working with Muslims looks nuanced and progressive in the face of a Trump presidency.

What do we know about Islamophobia in a post 9/11 period, specifically, how does the tone of the US president influence Islamophobia? I wrote a very practically minded article in the Islamic Monthly where I address this question. I wrote this with the Muslim community in mind, and really just wanted to throw some important questions out on the table regarding how to proceed under a Trump presidency.

Help Fund My Documentary Film on Philosophy and Revolt

Dear Reader,
I am writing you a more personal post to ask for your help. If you have enjoyed my writing, if it has been helpful to you in any way, I ask that you consider helping my crowdfunding campaign to bring the world of ideas to film.
As you may know, I have been working on creating a documentary film called Insurrections. Well, we now have a teaser and we’re trying to make it into a real film. It brings together the two things I am most passionate about: philosophy and the world of ideas with social change and activism. The film was inspired by my experience working with Alain Badiou during my Ph.D. studies. He is the most important living philosopher and I wanted to get his ideas onto film.
Today, the film has grown far beyond this initial vision. I am happy to report that we have just launched a teaser and crowdfunding campaign to support taking this film to the next level and completing it. Will you support this campaign by making a contribution? Any amount, from $5 – $50 will help us reach our goal. You can watch the teaser and contribute at this link:
Imagine a film like this airing on television and going into film festivals. It will help to create the kinds of discussions and spark the sorts of debates that we desperately need in our dark times.
The project has been self-funded thus far but we have managed to film 6 interviews with different philosophers and theorists in Paris, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Along with my incredibly talented partner Jesse Achtenberg, the Director of Photography, we have created a vision for the film that we think is really going to inspire new thinking on the movements of our time.
Thanks for your support.
Yours in thought and struggle,

Is Conversion Possible?

What if we began to view leftist revolutionary thought as inextricably tied up with the problem of religious conversion? After all, a convert to revolutionary positions is far different than the merely philosophical conversionary model of Plato and St. Augustine, which is a cognitive level conversion. For Plato, conversion is when the individual develops a newfound commitment to a different regime of sense; conversion means that the individual sees the light of truth in a different way. This is, in fact, not enough for leftist conversion. Revolutionary conversion must not only abandon the world as it is, it demands a two-part commitment: that one take up the spiritual re-setting of their life along the direction of the revolution (this we find in traditional religious conversion), and secondly, one must commit to revolutionizing the material and social relations of the world (this we do not find in traditional religious conversion and is the most important addition of leftist philosophy to the phenomenon of conversion). This latter commitment gives conversion an ontological affectivity, i.e. converting entails a complete break with an individuals previous life when one becomes a revolutionary and a material mutation then follows.

We can therefore perform a re-reading of leftist ethico-political thought along the question of conversion into the revolutionary imperative. In this re-reading, leftist ethicists that fail to develop a theory of conversion fail precisely in that their theory fails to meet the demands of the revolution. Sartre is one example of such a failure. In his late turn to Marxism, Sartre said that true morality consists of a permanent conversion into revolutionary action, thereby punting on what it in fact means to convert. One must lead a life of constant conversion. In this position, Sartre effectively suspended the question of politics and morals, where to convert is to enter into a space in which the ethical imperative itself becomes eligible to be re-formatted along the creation of a new revolutionary subject. We find something like this in Lukács’ ethics as well.

In the recent work on St. Paul which was begun with the deconstructive master Jacob Taubes in the early 1990’s, followed then by Derrida and extended by Agamben, Zizek and Badiou — we are presented with a theory of Paul’s conversion that set the grounds for a genealogy of secular leftist conversion. In other words, these texts argue in different ways that St. Paul gave leftist thought a new form of universality, and the means by which a new theory of the ‘all’, beyond the limited confines of Jewish chosenness, functioned. But is this in fact an accurate genealogical claim?

In Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life, a philosophical self-help tomb — he strongly argues that these readings of Paul, what he terms as ‘neo-Jacobin readings’, are in fact false. I won’t provide a book review of Sloterdijk’s text because Nina Power already gave a good summary of the book here. Rather, I want to look at his theory of conversion, particularly of how he reads conversion as a seminal aspect of leftist and post-Marxist thought.

Sloterdijk is tempted to agree with the conservative Heideggerian historian-philosopher Oswald Spengler, who argued that conversion does not exist. Spengler maintained there are only re-occupations of vacant positions in the fixed structure of a culture’s field of options. Conversion should therefore be re-designated as metanoia, a Greek term that means ‘a change of heart’, where the individual seeks out a new trainer and adopts a new vertical regime which entails a different Big Other. Sloterdijk argues that true conversions involve secessions from life, where the individual engages in an ascetic acrobatics — thus conversions happen all over the place in modernity but they are metanoetic shifts into a new regime of symbolic immunology. Thus, he argues, St. Paul’s conversion was not something that presented a new form of universality to the world of his time, it was an individual shift at the level of Jewish zealotry to a newfound Apostolic devotion. Since Paul already had relations with Christians for some time prior to his experience on the Road to Damascus, when he was overwhelmed with the light he called out to his Lord, using the very language of the Christians, before he had even accepted the Christ as his savior. This subtle point allows Sloterdijk to show that all religious conversion is plain and simple metanoia, which is given its first basis in Plato’s cave allegory, where conversion is,

“meant to lead from the corrupt sensible world to the incorruptible world of the spirit. To carry it out a change of sight from the dark to the light is required, a change that cannot take place ‘without turning the whole body’” (299).

The idea of conversion entailing a coincidence with the revolution of material and social relations would come about, in an interesting way, only after the scientific development of anesthetics. Anesthetics, for the first time, allowed man to enter into willfull states of un-consciousness – which was soon modified into a new form of bourgeois asceticism that turned against life and against asceticism itself in the form of laughing gas and opiates. Socialist and communist thought would eventually propose a model of conversion based on the necessity of man to develop a new awareness of what Sloterdijk calls the ‘vertical axis’. The vertical axis in modernity is steadily in decline and this creates a spiritual crisis — leftist thought thus enters into the fray to re-claim the vertical but devoid of the transcendent God. In an ingenious conservative reading of the October Revolution, Sloterdijk indictes the Soviet philosophers as the first ‘saints devoid of conscience’ which he argues is the most significant contribution of the Leninist moment to moral history.

With Sloterdijk’s periodization of conversion, he argues that metanoia changed after 1968 to something more concerned with bringing the commonplace back — to a horizontal re-adjustment from a sick and violent prior period obsessed with the secular vertical. Post 68, according to Sloterdijk, metanoia is no longer compelling at the level of revolutionary temptation — this is, incidentally a central part of Badiou’s philosophical fidelity thesis for which St. Paul provides the model. There is today a realization that “one does not save oneself by changing the world” to quote Godard’s 1982 film, Passion. What we lack is a desire for the passionate conversion that would ontologically affect the world — this itself helps explain why the question of St. Paul has returned to captivate leftist philosophical thought.

Insurrections and the Role of Philosophy

Here is the abstract of my talk at the upcoming Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World conference happening July 23rd-27 at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. My talk will include a rough trailer and some clips from the film Insurrections that I am directing. I welcome your feedback on this abstract.

“Insurrections and the Role of Philosophy”

In this paper, I compare three theoretical models for thinking the intensification of riots and protests in our current times, including: the neo-autonomist thought of Franco “Bifo” Berardi who theorizes the return of the riot as an affective-emotional response to depression and anxiety under cognitive capitalism; the Marxist/Lacanian thought of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and Jodi Dean which theorizes the riot as an attempt to bring about an inexistent worker subject, presenting a sign of nascent revolutionary subjectivity; and the descriptive account of the communization theorists including Joshua Clover and Endnotes that theorize the riot as surplus labor struggles at the site of circulation.

The apparent tensions across these theoretical models arise at the level not only of their descriptive accounts, but also more significantly at the level of their prescriptive accounts. It is these prescriptive tensions and differences that shed insight into the challenge of political organization, the question of the subject produced by the riot or insurrection, and the potential direction these struggles are headed.

This presentation includes a short excerpt of a documentary film in production entitled Insurrections that features philosophers discussing the return of riots and massive social movements.

The Political Appeal of Ibn Taymiyyah

Ibn Taymiyyah looms large in today’s imaginary; he is an untouchable authority in the minds of many Muslims. If you watch Salafi videos on YouTube, you’ll notice the hagiography around the man clouds many of his followers from engaging him on a serious or critical level. Some scholars are told to avoid him outright, while others say that he had a screw loose. He was known to have a bad temper and an erratic personality. But his legend is rightly deserved, for he defies the standard image of a quiet, contemplative scholar. He was a soldier, a jurist, and a philosopher; a sort of renaissance man who lived amid the brutal invasion of the Mongols during the late 13th century. He encouraged people to take up arms and fight, and he himself fought

I want to avoid the hagiography and mythicizing discourses around Ibn Taymiyyah and discuss his philosophical and theological ideas and how they pertain to politics. My premise here is that we can get a glimpse of the allure of what we today call political Islam, or Islamism by understanding the way in which Ibn Taymiyyah dealt with philosophical and theological debates, particularly his debates with the Ash’ari school.

I have been reading three texts on Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought: John Hoover’s Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism, Wael Hallaq’s Ibn Taymiyya Against the Greek Logicians, and I finished a close reading of Ovamir Anjum’s book, The Taymiyyan Moment which was the focus of an excellent book club organized by my friends Mohammed and Rashid. 

This post is an attempt to organize my own thoughts on Ibn Taymiyyah and I aim to expand on this and continue to read his work and the growing secondary literature on his work.

Ovamir Anjum starts his text with an analysis of how political authority in Islamic history has oscillated around two models of rule: a caliph centric and an ummah or community centric model. The history of Islamic political life, following the reign of the caliph Mu’awiyah, who many argue represents the end of the period of the rightly guided caliphs, is a story of decline in the community centric model of rule and the rise of a jurist class that increasingly excluded the masses of Muslims from political decisions as well as the way in which theology interacted with ethical life.

The Taymiyyan moment consists of this: the attempt to bring the position of the community centric model of rule back to the heart of Islamic political life. Moreover, the Taymiyyan moment is an attempt to empower Muslims in the domain of political agency. This political project of Ibn Taymiyyah, Anjum maintains, is grounded in philosophical and theological rebuking of the codified elitism found in the school of Ash’arism.

While Ibn Taymiyyah critiqued every school of thought, including the philosophers Ibn Sina and Ibn Arabi, the rationalists or the Mutazilites, and the Shi’ites, the most significant critique he wagered was against the Ash’arites. The Ash’arite school had come to represent the very failure of the caliph-centric model of rule, a problem that was deeply tied into their core metaphysics, a metaphysics which Anjum claims promotes a ‘fatalist voluntarism’ that places God’s will outside of ethics and morality.

The crux of Ibn Taymiyyah’s debate with the Ash’ari’s is around the proof of God’s existence. The Ash’ari school argued that God is not of temporality, his existence is not born in time like that of a body. As such, how does one arrive at a proof of God’s existence? It actually requires speculative reflection and the refinement of nazar or an advanced type of reasoning available only to scholars.

In the Ash’ari way of formulating the question of God’s existence, the entire problem became an exercise reserved for scholars alone, or those who have mastered reasoning. It is worth noting that the two major scholars of the Ash’ari school Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and Imam al-Ghazali, by the end of their lives openly argued against everyday Muslims engaging in the science of kalam or theology. This elitism is a natural offshoot, not of their flirtations with sufism and mystical quietism as much as it is with the very core of the voluntarist and fatalist metaphysics of Ash’arism. We should further note the timeliness of this debate between the Ash’ari’s and Ibn Taymiyyah and the way that it mirrors much of the debate Salafi’s have today with the system of taqlid, or blind following of a madhab or an Imam without effectively questioning that authority for oneself.

In addition to his critique of Ash’arism, Ibn Taymiyyah laid into the philosophers, mainly Ibn Sina, who put forward an argument for God’s existence that claimed God exists as al wujud al mutlaq – as absolute existence. To arrive at this absolute existence of God one must posses haqiqa or wisdom, but once again, this limits how one knows God to the mind alone and to the elite possession of a form of wisdom only the philosopher or jurist is able to obtain. Ibn Taymiyyah argued that individuals are so distinct and different from one another that they cannot form a universal across their minds or with haqiqa. An essence has no existence other than in the mind, leading Ibn Taymiyyah to adopt what Hallaq calls a ‘nominalist realism’. To define God as the necessary existent forecloses God from cause and effect, and like the Ash’ari’s who posit a voluntarist God outside of time, the philosophers had obscuratinized God and falsely assumed that ascertaining his existence through haqiqa would allow for the development of a shared universal truth, when the mind is incapable of producing universals. The philosophers had created a situation that blocked the common believer from possessing knowledge of God and his existence, for he could not attain proper ilm or knowledge, without possessing haqiqa. Ibn Taymiyyah’s argued that the greater the need a people has to know a truth, the easier God makes it for the intellects of the people to know its proofs.

But more politically important than the question of God’s existence is the way in which the Ash’ari ethical vision argued that political acts have no essential ethical value, but only acquire value upon divine command. Ultimately, good and bad can only be ascertained via revelation. Ibn Taymiyyah posits what Anjum calls “a moderate voluntarism” which accepted the view of the Ashari’s that good and evil are contingent while also accepting the Mutazalia view that unaided reason has the capacity to ethical verities.

The most important concept, indeed the secret way to understand Ibn Taymiyyah’s allure and radical vision and response to the philosophers, the Ashari’s and the rationalists is found in how he theorizes the concept of fitra, or natural reasoning. Fitra, according to Wael Hallaq is defined as:

“The faculty of natural intelligence, or the innate faculty of perception which stands in contrast to the acquired methods of reasoning that bring about perceptions in our mind” (Hallaq 55 Against the Greek Logicians).

Fitna is God’s way to make reason incline towards truth; it is thus an inborn type of knowledge that requires no reason to possess. Fitra is the foundation of reason. It is that which contains the knowledge of the truth, and is ma’rifa or knowledge that has not been obtained, as opposed to obtained knowledge or ilm. The fitra has an urge both for goodness and for understanding tawhid, or the divine unity of God. This natural reason, as Anjum notes, “separates right reason from reason’s misguided uses. The knowledge of good and evil is not ascertained through reason but is in fact only accessible through revelation.” Fitra is both the way that a common Muslim grasps revelation, and it is the foundation of ethical judgment that enables Ibn Taymiyyah to arrive at a reason-based approach to good and evil. Where the philosophers claimed haqiqa brought about the universal, fitra is what truly turns the believer towards universals because it is based on a predisposition to the good. This means that the good is located in the self, making the good ascertainable through subjective empiricism. Ibn Taymiyyah is more David Hume than Kant.

Ibn Taymiyyah is a deeply philosophical thinker, defying all conventions, as I have briefly outlined. But in his main political text, Siyasa al-Shariah he was concerned with politics being threatened by two sides: the tyranny of rulers who ignored the shari’a and mainstream jurists who neglected public welfare. But his argument was that it is the ummah, the community that must be the guardian of the shar’. This is specifically because the prophet is the last prophet, so the community can be trusted without an Imam to give it guidance. This makes his vision no longer that of a theocracy because it does not condone dictatorship.

The Psychopolitics of the Oriental Father

I have been reading The Psychopolitics of the Oriental Father: Between Omnipotence and Emasculation by Bülent Somay, a text which has provided some new theoretical perspective that is different and in some ways more compelling than what is found in the work of Fethi Bensalama in his canon-forming text, Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam. Benslama, Moustapha Safouan and other Lacanians that have written on Islam and psychoanalysis have been accused of peddling in a form of neo-Oriental racism by Joseph Massad in his chapter on psychoanalysis and liberalism in his latest Islam in Liberalism work.

Psychoanalysis and Islam has long been of interest to me. You can read my notes and thoughts on the topic here and here.

But Massad refuses to confront psychoanalysis at the level of its own theoretical propositions. He neglects to perform a deeper investigation into the theoretical models that psychoanalysis deploys to theorize the libidinal structure of subjectivity in Muslim societies. Massad’s text thus shuts the door on psychoanalysis and Islam all together, arguing that psychoanalysis attempts to laïcitizé Islam, secularizing the psyche of Muslims. Derrida argued much the same. I think Somay opens some new insights on the topic and he does so my linking psychoanalysis to political power and to capitalism. In what follows, I am not planning an extensive review of his very excellent text, but rather want to highlight some key points that I find novel in his work.

Somay’s text is a historiography of political authority focused on Turkish intellectuals during the colonial period from a Lacanian perspective. This psychohistory of the colonial period and its residue on the psychopolitics of the Turkish intellectual culture also makes claims that are applicable to other Muslim majority societies, and other colonized Muslim societies. He provides a theoretical model for thinking Islam and psychoanalysis. His argument is that the imaginary of the Oriental father is a trans-Orient-Occident construct, imposed by the Occidental west but imaginarily embodied by the Orient. The Oriental father is now dormant, but his imaginary rise was the construct of the conflictual colonial meeting between the two cultures.

The Oriental father is made into an imaginary body that is both omnipresent and omniscient; he is not killed in a fratricidal primal moment as the Occidental father is. The fact that he is not killed in the mythology found in the Qur’an, the Oriental father prevents any equilibrium or equality with his presence and rule. As a side note, we should mention that the position of the father is foreclosed in Islam according to Benslama, which leads to a perversion of origins around the figure of Hagar. This reading of the father in Islam I find to be riddled with problems, but it nonetheless is something to think about. We will discover how Somay adds an important twist to this narrative precisely by historicizing the father.

For Somay, revolt is denied to the brothers, i.e. to the society, which is another way of looking at the issue of what is now called sunni quietism. In Lacanian terms, the father is kept at the level of the imaginary and does not enter into to the law of the symbolic after his murder by the brothers. One cannot identify with the father who still possess the jouissance or enjoyment of the community. Muslims are stuck in having to imitate the father’s desire, and this leads to the development of a split, hysteric desire. As Somay writes:

“The uninterrupted omnipresence of the father figure locks the Oriental subject in a permanent semi-infantile state, in the throes of a non-resolved (and irresovable) Oedipus complex, regressing the Oedipal settlement from the symbolic to the imaginary (or rather not allowing it to advance from the latter to the former) and hence threatens to stunt superego formation almost permanently” (75).

The father’s omnipresence and omniscience means that politically speaking, his subjects, (what Freud refers to in Totem and Taboo as the ‘brothers’) cannot create an equilibrium with him. Revolt is denied outright. The western version gives the brothers some equality while the father retreats to a spectral symbolic presence. In the Oriental version of the myth of the primal father, the brothers compete against one another to gain favor in the father’s eyes, and they do not commit a patricide — this is for example the structure of Cain and Abel: they do not kill the father, they compete for his attention and admiration. The result of the brothers not performing a patricide on the father is that their identification with the father as we have in Freud’s Group Psychology, which is formed around the Ideal Ego, is a non-castrated identification, forming an identification around the Ego-Ideal, that takes on the desire of the father as one’s own as opposed to an identification around the ideal of the ego.

What makes Somay’s text valuable, and ultimately what prevents it from peddling in Orientalist cliches itself — i.e. ascribing Muslims a status of perverted subjects that secretly desire to be ruled — is that he extends this structure of the Oriental Oedipal function into the colonial period showing how it falls apart and fragments into something else. Unlike Benslama, who presents a static reading of libidinal subjectivity and the function of the father based solely in the Qur’an and in the tradition of Islam, Somay’s Oriental Oedipus breaks apart when the colonial powers kill the father from outside, bringing the father into a position of an absentee presence. The locus of mediation is now the colonial capitalist structure, and no longer is it the primal father scene, although this scene still haunts the social and comes in the form of competing primal fathers.

The colonial period emasculated the father, replacing him with a capitalist big other system where enjoyment was extracted from the sphere of commodities, where commodities became the substitute for the big other. Somay argues that the old Oriental father, like the pervert who is supposed to know precisely what he desires, (and the moment his desire becomes uncertain his position becomes problematic) disappears from the social scene entirely. This creates a situation where the Turkish intellectual developed a ‘conflicted fascination’ with the European gaze. It was the European an culture during the Victorian period that transferred their pleasures which were forbidden onto the Muslims. This is where we get the overly sexualized despot in the harem who steals all the jouissance. The politics of enjoyment thus begin with the threat that the Muslims have stolen the jouissance of the westerners.

Somay’s Oriental father now lies dormant, having been emasculated, but not killed, by European colonialism and replaced with a market logic that promotes a type of hysteria. In the concluding chapter he shows how the Gezi park demonstrations and occupation were unique in that they presented a type of politics that denied the old Oriental Islamist father from returning as you had secular anti-capitalist practicing Muslims participate, alongside secular non-Muslim Turks — both rejecting the neoliberal father in the figure of Erdogan whose rule presents serious cracks in the edifice of the very illusion that the father is necessary at all.



Equality and Nihilism

We are ambivalent about calling today’s far right movements fascist. The verdict will remain out on this for some time. But as we speculate into our own ambivalence, let me suggest that a leading reason that we do not describe these movements as fascist is because they do not have an intellectual determinism about them.

The twentieth century fascisms, from Hitler to Mussolini, fetishized the intellectual in such a way that he came to serve as the expository and articulate spokesperson of the aesthetic side of the movement. The intellectual was the harbinger of the secret code of libidinal energy which sustained the fascist community. The intellectual was lower than the fuhrer on the pecking order of course, but his function was important: to serve as the embodiment of the rational mythology of the community. The Nazis fought tooth and nail to gain support from German philosophers such as Heidegger and Spengler, but both opted to be quiet members, remaining ambivalent about adopting a public relations role in the movement.

As Adorno and Horkheimer argue in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the catastrophe of twentieth century fascism was a result of the decline of the enlightenment narrative and the invention of new mythologies and ghostly projections from the very ground of pure reason on which such folklore was meant to eradicate. The rationality of the intellectual balanced the libidinal investments of the fascist body of the community, a frenzied assemblage of repressive agitation and anxiety. The intellectual was thus an instrument of balance to what Wilhelm Reich in the Mass Psychology of Fascism notes as the core of the fascist impulse — a sexual excitation sublimation, wherein the group identification with the leader resolves pervasive repression and functions as a release from this pressure.

Today’s new fascism is less about libidinal ties, rational mythology and sexual sublimation. The superego position is now different. Not to be glib, but I put stock in this idea. The period of the repressed Protestant subconscious produced a revolt against repression which took reactionary at its peak in fascist movements. The superego demand today is an inward demand to ‘realize your true self’, ‘exceed all constraints’ but do so while being sure to enjoy at the proper amount. Becoming a node of self-valuation in the flexible gig economy does not induce repression but overwhelms the subject with a misery of never satisfying the demand. This is why we should speak more about the shame that comes with never being enough in our time rather than the guilt of the repressive society. The release we seek is one centered around the position of the other that no longer approves, judges, or provides. The state, the family, the institutions which grounded sociality in the Protestant era has now fundamentally changed.

The problem of the other and the third others (society, state, family etc.) is one of proximity to the monstrous other. This is a problem exacerbated by the crisis of global capitalism as well as this new absence of the old superego that judged, imposed guilt and repressed you. That man is gone now. Sort of.

The refugee, the migrant laborer, the Muslim. These are the fantasy figures which haunt the neo-fascist movements, and the question as to why comes down to how they read the problem of equality itself. The question hinges on why we now have such radical inequality. I don’t want to examine equality from the perspective of the post-Occupy narrative of the 1% as the sole source of class inequality. Such a script is tired, to say the least, and with Nietzschian eyes, such a script produces a new slave morality. But I don’t want to push the extremes too far.

Rather, I want to examine the concept of equality from the perspective of the quiet (neo-fascist?) intellectual movement known as the dark enlightenment, or the neo-reactionary movement. These are people chiefly interested in facilitating a return to societies of hierarchy in the strict sense, somewhere between anarcho-capitalism and neo-feudalism. Like the communist and radical left, they too recognize capital is in a crisis situation and we will not be able to return to the glory days of industrial labor where the worker was represented in a wage labour relation that afforded a modicum of social stability. This is a big part why they can have no tenable or effective connection to the neo-liberal right parties because these movements (Trump, etc.) rely on the false promise of a return to industrial labor, but without the New Deal. The neo-reactionaries want to push the antinomies of capitalism to its breaking point. But what comes after the break?

The fundamental insight of the Genealogy of Morals is that social inequality is the source of our value concepts, and the necessary condition of value itself. Nietzsche states that “equality for equals, inequality for unequals – that would be the true voice of justice”. Nietzsche thus reads nihilism as a socially constructed leveling out, or as Malcolm Bull states in Anti-Nietzsche, “a way humans join together to become less than they might otherwise be” (170).

In many ways, Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche is an excellent place to start to understand the aversion the neo-reactionaries have to equality. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Nietzsche is their foundational or most central thinker. I am suggesting that if we follow the logical conclusions of Nietzsche’s theory of social value and nihilism, we come to learn that the question which drives the nascent neo-fascist community and their quiet intellectual handmaiden –the neoreactionaires– is a problem that is centered on how nihilism comes from capitalisms attempt to impose a type of equality that levels equality out.  The problem of equality for Nietzsche does have a solution which the left could co-opt, and thus save Nietzsche from being a total fascist himself. This solution came in the form of the aesthetic community. Through the will of the Dionysian man, the uncompassionate strong have the capacity to will a new relation to the aesthetic, to shrug off the moral entirely and to affirm beauty.

But we have to understand the problem of equality in a more utilitarian sense before arriving at a better understanding of how Nietzsche thought equality produced nihilism. As a thought experiment, let’s say that you start with a population of equals at a high level. Then you add some extra people at a lower level outside the existing population (refugees for example). You then have to equalize the two groups separately, without necessarily leveling them down, but the consequence based on Parfit’s mere addition paradox is that when you unite the two populations to form a single larger population that collective population is now at a lower level than the first equal population was. This downward trend happens in a utilitarian matrix the more you add.

This utilitarian thesis takes all available goods and distributes them ever more thinly among the largest number of the population as possible, which results in the famous idea of the tragedy of commons. The tragedy of the commons understands the issue of resource allocation to be one based on scarcity and as such equality suffers from being spread too thin.  When you add extra people at each step, there no limit to how low you can go.

Why have these people that demand inclusion come about in the first place? This is the question which drives much of the hysteria of today’s neo-fascism. Nietzsche’s answer is that this negative community formed around equality squashes the strong morality and transforms it into a counter-interest of the relatively strong to sustain them: Christian compassion or total utilitarianism. Equality thus becomes nihilistic when the less than equal are introduced into the equation. This creates what Bull terms “extraegalitarianism” which represents not a good being distributed such as citizenship, property or equality itself but a form of social skepticism about value itself (167). The only uncertainty in extraegalitrianism is ‘how far can it go’ — how far can the society of unequals go until it reaches a point where the balance is affected?

The central problem with equality and an egalitarian ordering of society (to the neo-reactionaries and to Nietzsche) is that it removes the inequalities necessary in order to generate particular things of value. But herein lies the failure of the dark enlightenment itself: they propose nothing of value to replace the existing nihilist value. If leveling out progressively removes all possibility of higher forms of value from the world, they propose no higher aesthetic community based on some new form of mythology or pleasure. On the contrary, the neo-reactionaires present us with a re-doubled nihilism at its most final point. Nihilism stunted from re-valorizing any alternative to itself only offers a beastly and excessive vision of destruction.

It is more difficult (for me at least) to face the problem of nihilism within the left and revolutionary thought than it is on the reactionary right side of things. Bull shows how the left mirrors these struggles of the right, albeit in different ways. As Bull notes, the question the drives more contemporary thinkers such as Nancy and Agamben is the question of the human at the ends of nihilism. At the ends of being able to will the aesthetic community, the question of nihilism is found (for Agamben) in the figure of the sub-human. Agamben argues that nihilism turns back on itself in the subhuman; the human survives in bare life, an interstitial zone before the subhuman. The subhuman has moved out of the capacity to will the eternal return, he has entered into a sub consciousness and a hibernation.

In terms of the way that equality produces nihilism, there are indeed moments of ‘leveling down’ followed by ‘leveling out’ (or nihilism) within the revolutionary tradition itself. Since the French revolution, the move from revolution to permanent revolution, to an inevitable passive revolution is what leads to the leveling out. Interestingly, Bull shows how Gramsci’s conceptual framework is between the war of movement and the war of position – the latter is hegemony while the former is permanent revolution – but the war of maneuver gives way to the war of position – this is Gramsci’s contention. But what happens is that the passive revolution goes on forever, resulting in a distinctive form of revolutionary nihilism, where ‘everything speaks for it: its ideas speak for it, its prejudices, its customs, its needs’ (171). This passive revolution is the very definition of what Bull calls the negative community:

“Negative community, the great beast, passive revolution – all are potentially a means of arriving and extending the desert of nihilism, their very limitlessness the model of permanent revolution spreading out across the empty space of the universe” (175).

Philosophy in Saturated Times

Frank Ruda’s For Badiou: Idealism Without Idealism probes the question that has driven a number of interventions into Badiou’s thought: what is the role of philosophy in non-evental or saturated times? Saturation is a state of atonality, a state in which the exception is not made actual. Saturation implies the end of a process or procedure of thought from the standpoint of its consequences.

As Sylvain Lazarus notes, the position of the worker under the sequence of revolutionary Leninism reached a point of saturation in the 1970’s. By the 1970’s, it had become clear that to experiment with the resources of Leninism, mainly the party form in revolutionary action, was equivalent to fishing in a pond with no fish. Lazarus argues that a period of saturation is one in which the primary prescriptive aspect to the mode is no longer effectual.

Every historical sequence ends with saturation, forcing a re-questioning of a given historical mode of politics (or art, science, music, etc.) from within this mode itself. Saturation indicates a new role for philosophy, one in which philosophy acts and intervenes to hold the place open for a new subject to come. How does one think the idea in the context of a saturated mode? Badiou’s idealism without idealism lies precisely here, in the wager that in saturated times we must develop the Idea of the Idea. Turning to Badiou’s critique of what he calls democratic materialism in Logics of Worlds, Ruda shows how it is Descartes who provides the basis by which we overthrow the false monism of democratic materialism.

Democratic materialism says yes to the proposition that there are only bodies and languages but it denies a fundamental dualism. It denies the exception by presenting a simultaneous yes and no to the Two – it is thus paraconsistent in its logic. The Cartesian dualism, on the other hand, relies on an exclusion, it relies on the void. A truly materialist thought is one that relies on the void and as such brings truth in the form of a three, not a falsely conflated Two. Materialist thought needs the three: one/multiple/void. There needs to be two ‘there is’s’ in order to arrive at materialism – you need to move through the first false materialism which has ossified into idealism in order to arrive at the materialist conception of the Idea.

To return to our example of philosophy in a saturated mode. What philosophy does is that it brings the Idea (in the case of leninism, the Idea of the party) to a position of idealism and then begins an operation of forcing on that Idea. Ruda argues that the idealist position is enveloped with a fundamental forgetting, whcih is why the task of philosophy is one of intervention into the Idea so as to disturb this forgetting, forcing the Idea towards a confrontation with conditions outside of philosophy proper.

Herein lies Badiou’s contribution to philosophy — by presenting four conditions in which philosophy can hold open new subjects of thought (art, love, politics and science) philosophy itself plays a very central role in saturated times. There are no philosophical subjects, Ruda correctly maintains, but there are philosophical acts that open a space of remembering and then repeating the Idea.

Philosophy is a creative invention of new problems, a decision that implies a new hierarchy. Philosophy does not think the there is, it does not think ontology, it rather thinks that which supplements being: the exception (121). Philosophy is an action without a subject, holding a space open for the subject to come.

The more dense part of Ruda’s text involves his reading of Badiou’s relation to Hegel. In a similar line to the two Two’s of Descartes and the exception being the third, he argues that Badiou abandons Hegel because Hegel presents a one world theory in which being appears according to one law. In essence, Hegel is not a thinker for saturated times. As Ruda states:

“Hegel is abandoned by Badiou because he is a proponent of a one world theory in which one being appears according to one law (of the negative) which is grounded in his denial, or rather masking of any form of (true, ontologically classical) decision and he thereby simply cannot account for multiplicity, true difference, history, and anything but repetition” (149).

Because Hegel is the thinker of the whole, of a constant return to the concept, he cannot think multiplicity and he cannot adequately think the rupture of the idealism of the idea (if you will). Ruda spends some time showing how the dispute between Badiou and Zizek goes back to Hegel, and specifically it goes back to how they both consider philosophy and its conditions.

For Zizek, the movement of philosophy is from the false yes or no of ideology to the yes or no of contradiction or antagonism and ultimately to the true affirmation of the death drive. Ruda asks whether Zizek’s system fall sway to a sublation of all forms of non-philosophical conditions into philosophy, i.e. in Zizek philosophy sutures (retroactive) ontology of the drive (77). The problem with this is that it relies on philosophy to condition itself. The in-itself is what becomes the determining basis for the other half–the less than nothing is the entire process of determination. So you have: first process of determination, first retroaction, splitting of the in-itself, second retroaction (79). Only in the second retroaction do we have drive. The first retroaction is a split, the second is a drive.

One can therefore say that for Zizek, nothing qua nothing is the same as being qua being for Badiou. From a Badiousian perspective, this amounts to the same thing. Is there a retroactive force, a real real, of the posited presupposition, and can it be depicted in terms of symbolic determinations or not? Positing presuppositions implies movements, the presuppositions themselves do not.

Zizek seems to suggest that there is movement independent from pure repetition and from absolute non-movement. While Zizek and Badiou both affirm a split in the beginning, a primacy of the Two, Zizek opens philosophy to non-philosophical practices in order to re-affirm philosophy, while Badiou opens non-philosophical practices to philosophy so as to hold open the space for the exception.

Badiou’s Revision of Sartre’s Fused Group

In his late Marxist work, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre was pessimistic about revolutionary politics. He theorized the subject of history in the figure of the group in revolt, what he termed the ‘fused group’. The fused group, through their acts of negation (revolt), develop a new interior, untranscedable position. In a Lacanian sense, Sartre’s fused group is able to persist without the big Other. They have, as Sartre would say, dissolved the inert being of alienated social existence.

In the fused group, each member inhabits the role of what Sartre calls the third party, escaping the institutional inertia and transcending (Sartre’s words) ordinary social being. I read this as an ontological change which starts a new dialectic, what he calls the constituted dialectic based in a resurgence of a new knowledge of being. The dialectic that the fused group unleashes brings the subject back into the world, a move which was counter to the dominant dialectical materialism of his time which had ‘thrown man out of the picture’ where the world unfolds itself and by itself to no one (27). Re-constituting the dialectic is ultimately a radical individualist wager. Sartre’s existentialist individualism is apparent when he writes:

“On the level of ontology, the dialectic appears as the only type of relation which individuals, situated and constituted in a certain way, and on account of their very constitution, can establish among themselves” (37).

The whole, or totalizing act, of a particular agent within society becomes the means by which a new dialectic is established. The revolt establishes a ‘new totality’ as much as it breaks from dialectics as such. The individual in the world lives in a potential communal praxis, he/she is a member of a class, or what Sartre calls a series. The individual forms bonds of interiority with the social world around them (what Sartre calls ‘series arrangements’) which are completely passive, leaving social being in a position of alienation or ‘inert being’. Man is thrown into this inert social being and can only regain his humanity through acts of negation or revolt.

The social facts of man’s existence (scarcity, poverty, exploitation) are forces of material significance that objectify and alienate man but they are also what make man. Man only realizes himself through a transcendence of these material conditions. As Sartre remarks:

“One has the feeling that man only exists in flashes, in a savage discontinuity that is, ultimately, always absorbed into inertia and the law of separation. Collective action is the pure moment of revolt. Everything else is an expression of man’s inevitable inhumanity, which is passivity.”

It is at the point of what happens after the revolt that we can locate Sartre’s pessimism. While man finds meaning from moments of transcendence (or revolt) from the social materiality — he falls back onto an alterity where he is unable to escape from a master slave dialectic with the Other. Sartre’s pessimism comes about in the way that he theorizes the fraternity of the fused group. The fused group forms a temporary bond based on an oath with one another so as to avoid violence. The necessity of forming an oath is tied to the premise that each member of the political organization must protect one another from betrayal. Sartre fails to theorize a form of revolutionary fidelity to the rupture of the fused group. The collective fraternity is ephemeral, destined to disintegrate into a passivity of social being, facing the inevitability of being swallowed by the social entity.

What fuses the group in the revolutionary rupture is what Sartre calls a slogan. This is significant as prior to the turn to theoretical work on the way that the name (or slogan) cathects groups at the level of collective affects (Spinoza would present the core material for thinking this as would Lacan and later Sylvian Lazarus) Sartre argued that the fusion of the group around a slogan functions to re-direct the group’s authority towards a regulating third party. Fusion is the term of the name, which in the case of the French revolution was ‘To the Bastille!’

Fusion is a historical and revolutionary concept and not a political concept. The oath brings the fused group into an institution and is formed around the negative possibility that one of the members may cheat or break the fusion. The organizational process is therefore based on a fear of betrayal, which makes Sartre’s fraternal group into what he calls ‘a dictatorship of freedom’.

Sartre invokes quasi religious terminology in referring to the break with the series and the formation of the fused group, calling this break an ‘apocalypse’.  As we stated above, the break re-orientates the subjects in revolt towards the third party. The third party functions as a regulator of the group, making the fused group no longer alienated from the common object.

The Torsion Group

For both Sartre and the early Badiou of Theory of the Subject, praxis was formed around the logic of the masses in revolt. But as we saw above, Sartre remained pessimistic about the movement from protest to political organization, doubting the extent to which fraternal revolutionary agents can sustain revolutionary enthusiasm without falling back into what he terms ‘seriality’, or the inertia of institutional atomization. In Theory of the Subject, Badiou develops a theory of the masses in revolt through his use of the concept pf torsion which opens a thinking of loyalty to the name beyond the pessimist direction that Sartre takes it down, i.e. not trusting the movement from revolt to political organization.

Badiou remains heavily indebted to Sartre’s notion of the passivity of all social being in that for Badiou, the social is what Badiou calls the “neurosis of politics” (141). In fact, you could say that Badiou’s definition of the ruling class is that class that finds the law of the repeatable and then ‘guarantees the perennial conservation of the world’ (140). What the ruling class found is ‘society’ as such, a society that is structured around the law of desire and the pair of ‘perversion/neurosis.’ This is why Badiou says the social is the neurosis of politics. Against Lacan, Badiou will argue that what it means to become a subject in the analytic setting is far too much of a normalization of the neurotic subject.

Badiou is after a theory of the subject that cannot be inscribed into the splaced ground of repetition (ordinary social being) to use Sartre’s terminology. The process of revolt is to “make a symptom out of the old totality, and a total truth out of the symptom – out of the crisis” (144).

Ultimately, what Badiou will do is conflate the subject with the party around the notion of the torsion group. Badiou argues there is an internal correctness [justice] of the masses which is not present in the fused group. The figure of the masses are presented in two ways in Theory of the Subject: they are the being of history and they are the vanishing term endowed with causal power.

Everything hinges on the real. Everything relies on the disruption of repetition and the establishment of a new coherence. Torsion is what ‘interrupts the repetition’ – and this is what defines its dialectical status. It refuses to be swept back into the repetition of the whole, while you cannot pinpoint a primacy of practice, but you can pinpoint a torsion.

Badiou’s revision of Sartre’s fused group is a materialist revision: i.e. to assume that you have a subject in the immediacy of the revolt reeks of idealism as it does not formalize the new knowledge of the revolt at the level of being, but keeps it only at the Idea.

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem: A Catharsis of Pleonexia

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem is a highly enigmatic thinker: an autodidact in the history of philosophy, a well known actor in French cinema and self-proclaimed anti-philosopher who had a major public break with his former mentor Alain Badiou around the same time as the Arab spring was taking off. I just finished his first major work translated into English, Transgression and the Inexistent: A Philosophical Vocabulary, a dictionary of his philosophical position on concepts from Event, Desire, Parody, Transgression, Mathematics, Science, to Play.

Kacem’s thought is wildly creative and independent, un-sutured from philosophy proper, yet deeply concerned with surpassing philosophy. Genealogically, we might locate him along an anarchist line of influence politically speaking, yet we have to throw in a deep interest in aesthetics and libertinism into the mix. He is an artist-philosopher. He is nostalgic for the transgressive artist such as Artaud and he despises the postmodern ironism of contemporary art.

Philosophically, his master is Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, whose very interesting Aristotelian reading of Hegel remains very central to Kacem. He is deeply indebted to Adorno, Reiner Schürmann and Agamben as well. Badiou is the philosopher who opens all the major problematics of Kacem’s thought, however. And so my first observation is that Kacem is not somehow past Badiou, as the title of his popular work, After Badiou attests. On the contrary, I find his thought to be deeply situated within the Badiouian fold and questionably, if not problematically breaking from it.

Kacem does not reject the doctrine of the event, he re-theorizes the event as a singularity of identity, not as something that occurs along the axis of being. He argues every event is a catharsis of identity, yielding a monstrous singularity. Kacem therefore revises Badiou’s set theoretical inspired position on the event as self-belonging that exceeds any inclusion in a particular situation to focus on how identity is event. He argues that it is identity; not being, that produces a new singularity. Identity produces what he calls, “non-assumed difference that is always perceived as monstrous”—it is this monstrous difference that is the origin of nihilism, the existence of concentrated points of being: witches, subalterns, misfits, those excluded from capital, the lumpenproletariat, etc.

The event is the concentration of being, but it is not outside of being—it is a break from repetition and a surpassing of repetition. The speculative totality of his dialectic goes from suppression-preservation-surpassing, where a divergence of each singularity always remains. Kacem prides himself as a thinker of the waste that comes in the wake of an event. He is the thinker of the negative event if you like. Curiously, he says nothing of Lacan’s concept of the objet small a.

The enemy of Kacem’s evental singularization is philosophy, and more precisely, the philosopher him or herself. To quote the text:

“Philosophy nihilates the purely given difference (physis) that metaphysics unwittingly, will have created an infinity of not only “positive” (the Good, the Immortal, the Eternal, etc.) but also along accursed differences, insisting as a malediction in all the figures of deadly singularizations and transgressive incongruities that have haunted History like the nightmare it did not want to awake from…” (147).

Man is differentiated from animal species because he repeats repetition, and in his singularization: he fictionalizes his identity. This fictionalization of identity is the basis of man’s relation to mimesis and to play. Kacem argues we must go further than the Deleuzian notion that repetition produces difference – we must acknowledge that repetition is itself mimesis. What this produces is an ironic double negation that never leaves intact that which it grabs holds of. The semblance of identity, the ironic self-negation of oneself, reaches a limit point and cannot be doubled except by showing itself as purloined letter that which it is the semblance of. This inability to produce a semblance of one’s own singularity is his definition of irony (137 – 138). The post avant garde is caught in this vacuous trap of irony. Foucault understood this inherent transgressive structure to the event, he understood that difference can only affirm itself by a transgressive negativity.

As we stated above, Kacem theorizes the evental subject as a monstrous singularization, pointing to the example of sodomits during the Middle Ages, or to use an example he does not cite, the drag queen. The Platonic philosopher (Badiou) seeks to divide and organize these subjects. This is the origin of Badiou’s (and all edietic Platonic interventions) avoidance of the pleonectic in man, of Badiou’s naivety of jouissance (in Kacem’s view). More precisely, what the philosopher seeks to organize is the jouissance of the subject, or to use the Greek term that Kacem makes commensurate with jouissance, the philosopher seeks to rid the pleonexia, the internal impulse to greed and avarice in man.

It is here that Kacem falls back on a theory of jouissance influenced by Lacan that is a very tragic theory of the real and of jouissance. Like Lacoue-Labarthe, Kacem seems at times to have stopped his reading of Lacan at the ethics seminar, which Jacques Alain-Miller refers to as the paradigm of impossible jouissance, where desire finds no rapport with jouissance in the symbolic. As Kacem states,

“Sexual jouissance is a paradigm of our own pleonexia, and more essentially than alimentary necessity. This is because, unlike most other mammals, we can pervert this jouissance by all the convolutions of possible technological repetitions” (163).

The philosopher never escapes from pleonectic jouissance despite her/his obsession with questions of the universal – a concept which is rendered impossible in Kacem’s framework. The only way man escapes what Kacem calls the anthropological closure of ‘techno-mimetic expropriation of their being’ is by entering into relations of play and mimesis, i.e. through art and aesthetics.

Just as every event is a singularization that enters into a mimesis with a more positive side of singularization–a simulacra–every event also has a structure of parody. For example, agriculture is a parody of food gathering, hunting a parody of predation, etc. This mimetic structure means that all of our affects are also infused with parody–everything has a parodic structure.

Where Badiou presents a neo-Platonic framework that lifts man out of this negative singularization (through his theory of ethics and fidelity), Kacem proposes a theory of play and parody to deal with monstrous singularity. Through play and the aesthetic collective community that Kacem turns to, he argues that,

“What we need is a political representation of the pleonectic motor that is fundamental for us, which would actually be a catharsis of the following: a preservation which is a suppression, and not a suppression which is a shameful preservation” (88).

If, as this quote indicates, Kacem wants to develop a new theory of representation of jouissance, we must face the aporia of his very conflating of pleonexia with jouissance itself. This is an aporia that is in fact overcome if you follow the line of the sinthome in the work of the late Lacan. Furthermore, one could argue that Badiou himself follows this line from Lacan, which makes Kacem’s position inherently self-contradictory.

How to Win an Aesthetic War: On Bernard Stiegler’s Symbolic Misery

How do we think political conflict that impacts all aspects of social life, from the family to public institutions? What domains of private and public life are affected by a form of conflict which is ubiquitous? The Greek term stasis has been invoked to theorize this form of ever-present conflict by a number of contemporary political philosophers from Giorgio Agamben, to the radical anonymous collective Tiqqun, to Bernard Stiegler.

Aristotle understood stasis as a form of conflict where two domains of social life overlap: family relations and private life (oikeios) with external social conflict (polemos). This dual structure to stasis blurs the line where the conflict originates and where it ends.

In Symbolic Misery: Volume I: The Hyperindustrial Epoch, the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler introduces a theory of stasis based on a deterioration of the aesthetic field first and foremost. The aesthetic is the site of a war, not of bullets or direct violence, but of symbolic violence resulting from the total dominance of the market over human life and consciousness.

Stigler’s thesis is that the stasis of contemporary life is tied to a historical shift in capital and its relation to the development of retentional apparatuses which prevent people form forming meaningful affective attachments to symbols. Picking up on Deleuze’s notion of ‘control society,’ which makes consciousness no longer singular or distinctive, Stiegler argues that we suffer from an inability to form what he calls a ‘distinctive consciousness.’ We remain caught in a retentional apparatus that produces our attention for us. The retentional apparatus is one way to understand what is often called the attention economy, where every segment of our time is commodified and made eligible for the temporary attention we expend towards it. Stiegler’s proposal is that this attention economy is emblematic of a much larger absorption of the economic mode of production into the aesthetic sphere, which is the source of the misery we experience.

Our ‘hyper-industrial era’ has temporalized objects along the time of marketing consumption and this is why we suffer from a new form of alienation and impossibility to identify with objects. While this theory of temporalized consumption objects gives us a new way to understand Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, Stigler argues that the time of consumption annuls the basis of the I/We relationship. What is left is not a subject, but an empty one – a one of misery of thought – located only at the level of one’s own existence (59).

To think this loss, this empty one at the heat of our social existence, Stiegler turns to the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, whose theory of individuation presents us with a way to resuscitate collective existence , presenting a way to think the re-merging of the ‘I with the We’ under late capitalism.

How do we move beyond the misery of contemporary life? Stiegler turns to psychoanalysis, particularly post Lacanian and Deleuzian thought. Psychoanalysis shows that the formation of an interior ‘we’ within the self is necessary before the self can form a community with others. This interior movement is what Freud calls primary narcissism, a prerequisite for the self-forming a bond with the community.

With all the talk we have of the rise of narcissism today, Stiegler’s thesis is refreshingly different, he argues that our problem is that we lack the the capacity to develop a primordial narcissism. He thus links our inability to form aesthetic attachments to singularities or singular objects to our inability to form community, with self and others. This inability to form attachments to objects kills the circuit of desire because it can no longer be a gift. As Stiegler notes:

“The liquidation of narcissism resulting from the submission of consciousness to the time of temporal objects affects the I just as much as the We” (61).


Dialogue with the New Barbarians: 

The aesthetic war affects us all, but there are some for whom it affects to a greater degree. Those most in misery, the ‘new barbarians’ as Stiegler calls them are not ISIS or al-Qaeda but they are found amongst the followers of the new fascist movements, from Trump to the National Front. Stiegler proposes that the left has lost its way because it fails to understand the affective dimension this misery has wrought on these people.

Prescriptively, Stiegler thinks at the level of dialogue and community to move out of symbolic misery. Fending off the stasis that lies at our gates comes about by re-thinking the formation of community. But he present a theory of community that is apolitical, however, beyond partisan and or ideological lines aimed at bringing philia back to the heart of our civic life. His conception of philia lacks a militant edge and it is difficult to see how we might defeat the new fascism through building some common ground around our shared misery.

Time and Voluntarism in Badiou and Lazarus

How do we locate voluntarism in the political thought of Sylvain Lazarus and Alain Badiou? First, what do I mean by voluntarism. Two things mainly: voluntarism posits that consciousness declares antagonism, not that antagonism declares consciousness. Voluntarism posits that the possibility of political decisions and acts occurs from within the sphere of consciousness subtracted from capitalist time. It refuses a thinking of political acts as necessarily driven by crisis, by structure or by the repetition of the exterior. It thinks political novelty and action as a highly subjective matter. As such, voluntarism involves a theory of consciousness that is subtracted from time and history.

For Lazarus, this subtraction of consciousness is one where consciousness enters into an interior relation to the real from which it forms the subjective possibility of decision and of political acts. Consider these two quotes from Lazarus:

“It is not antagonism that produces consciousness but consciousness that declares antagonism” and “consciousness is not so much an historical space as a political and prescriptive space” (44).

I want to examine this prescriptive space of the political and its relation to time in Lazarus’ most important work, Anthropology of the Name. In this text, Lazarus argues that politics is not given in the form of an object or in the form of a revolution. The subjective is not connected to the objective (or to what Lazarus calls the state) in any way what so ever. Lazarus makes it clear: the subjective has no dialectical relation to the objective only an interior relation to thought. This means that thought as such is thinkable. Thus, his first axiomatic statement is people think. The second statement is that thought is a relation to the real. Once thought enters into a thinking process separate, or interior to thought itself, and outside of the state, thought develops names which can only be located (topographically) by their places. Lazarus aims to connect these two propositions in the text, asking how we might understand statement two from within statement one.

Politics in interiority has a different relation to time than does politics in exteriority. Any politics posited from the state and economics separated from capital is a politics that is exterior for Lazarus. Exterior politics exists in movement politics, such as populism which does not require an anthropology of the name to arrive at thoughts relation to the real and he posits parlimentarism functions at the sam level. Exterior politics undergoes a dialectical relation to the state but it remains unable to generate a rupture with the objective side of the state. For Badiou, this is what he means by non-evental politics. The politics of interiority presents two relations of the real in politics: there is an initial heterogeneous real (objective) followed by a homogenous (subjective) real (33).

The latter subjective real is what’s most central to the prescriptive space. Alongside human groups exists a separate autonomous time that stresses what will come is open. Largely influenced by the intellectual historian Bloch, Lazarus claims “the unicity of time is unrepeatable” (130). We deal with unnameable names within the space of the prescriptive and we separate the problematic of the name from any occurrence related to time (137). Here is a nice quote from Lazarus that stresses the centrality of time in his vision:

“Alongside the social existence of humans, a category of time is present, a subjective category, specifying that what will come is open. There is no counter-example. When what will come seems completely closed in the order of myths, rules or rites, then myths, rules and rites, while asserting the closure of this opening, actually assert its possibility. What will come, the opening, is the mark of the spirit of human beings and of the social world” (56).

Lazarus further makes a distinction between the political site, which is not dialectizable, with that of the site of time — the site of time combines three elements:  capital, consciousness and experience. As such, the site of time is opposed to the sphere of the political in capitalism. Time is thus for Lazarus a problem of the subject and he argues that Marx understood the subject under capitalism to be a subject constituted by time. The figure of the worker is not a problem of the subject – the worker is a problem linked to time because it is the time of the worker that the surplus relation extracts. Time is what articulates labor with capital.

Time for Badiou:

Both Badiou and Lazarus have taken the problem of the subject as one that is re-constituted outside of capitalism in a new relation to time. For Badiou, going all the way back to Theory of the Subject, time is an adjunct to what happens. Time is what makes way for the production of truths—an event opens a new time, where the discipline of the subject gathers and controls this new time. More recently, in Logics of Worlds, time is what presents a new present: time is split by what is not being qua being. The key thesis remains the same throughout his work, which is that the subject keeps time. As A.J. Bartlett, Justin Clemens and Jon Roffe note, time is not a concept at all for Badiou but remains the ground of being. Time is what gives being its strength, and it cannot be formalized. Time exists as a sophistic concept to be overcome, displaced and subjectivated, which is why if the subject is coextensive with time, the subject is lacking in being.

The subject is a friend or lover of time and works to construct a true present under conditions of an evental rupturing of time and place. Time is overcome under what Badiou calls a subjectivation of time as ‘future anterior.’ Going back to his analysis of the prisoner’s dilemma in Theory of the Subject, we see the first attempt to get out of the differential return of repetition. This requires the affect of courage to anticipate against the logic of time what will have been certain. What is at stake is the subjective control of time.

In the later Badiou of Being and Event, Bartlett, Clemens and Roffe point out: “The link between temporalization and place, the proper place for the thought of the infinite, is key to comprehending Badiou’s aversion to the concept of time” (91). Time is what guarantees that everything be decidable, within the framework of finitude. A decision is thus concentrated where one faces a cut — and this cut is what severs time. This is where I locate Badiou’s voluntarism.

By Logics of Worlds, time is completely objectified in his so-called objective phenomenology. Time is made into another object in a world that appears for a world and not just for any subject. As the Badiouian project proceeds, and we wonder how time will be treated in the Immanence of Truths final book, it is of utmost importance to parse this relationship between time and time is that which must be taken down by the subject.

Riots and Neoliberalism

In Riot. Strike. Riot. The New Era of UprisingsJoshua Clover argues that riots have taken off and will continue with intensity due in large part to the fact that capital can no longer afford to buy off the social peace. Capital no longer has the need to invest in producing a situation of social stability among its pool of potential labor. This is tied to the stage of capitalist development we are currently living in. Within our present moment, the riot will only gather steam and the militarization of dissent will not be able to contain the riots. These riots, which we can periodize in their latest and most recent sequence beginning in 2011 in London and continuing up to the more recent Baltimore 2015 riots have an interesting relationship to the movement of the squares: Occupy, Taqsim, Tahrir and others. These riots also have a relation to the political movements and parties which have appeared in their wake: PODEMOS, Syriza’s rise, the Five Star Movement in Italy etc.

This relation presents a contradiction between two forms of struggle. The riot is principally on the side of an anti-capitalist impulse, what Clover calls “circulation riots” while the movement of the squares and their vague/nascent parties are primarily anti-neoliberal movements. How do we theorize both of these forms of struggle? 

First, let’s turn to the riot. Clover shows that the riot as the primary form of struggle is something that is specific to financial capitalism, and we can historically identify different financial periods of capitalist development in previous world-systems under the Venetian and British world-systems, where the riot emerged. The logic basically goes like this:  once the base of material production erodes and money begins to make money off of money (i.e. financial capitalism) that world system moves from the strike to the riot as the primary mode of struggle on behalf of the surplus worker population. The strike is about specific demands located at the level of the factory. Under financial capital, the factory moves to the sphere of circulation, which is why our riots today see blockades of shipment, of transportation and of looting shops.

This historical framework of financial capitalism and riots has been put forward by Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi and the world-system theorists throughout the 1990’s, but Clover adds a few important twists and locates the riot as particularly seminal during this period of capitalism. As background, the world-systems theorists argue that in today’s constellation of American hegemony, we are witnessing a waning of the entire world-system in such a manner that we may be entering into an entirely different configuration of the world-system that has no historical analogue. In other words, with the death of financial capitalism in America, which is dependent in large measure on the degree to which the accumulation of capital proceeds in its current mode and also on the extent to which America is able to remain in its position of hegemony, which today consists of military hegemony and some degree of cultural hegemony. 

I must confess: I have not yet finished Clover’s book, but I have interviewed him twice over the last two years for Insurrections as he was writing the book. The last time we spoke was in April 2016, and in our conversation, he rejected the idea that capital carries with it an ideology that compels subjects to follow or adopt it. I disagree with this assessment and I follow some more recent literature on the ideology of neoliberalism to make my case. I want to argue that today’s struggles are very much tied to the ideology of neoliberalism, particularly the disaffected and educated class of professionals and students that are subjectivated into these movements.

I contend that the riot, as a momentary and aleatory figure of struggle, is most certainly directed towards the sphere of circulation, as Clover maintains, but what comes out of the post-riot is a facing of and a struggle against the regime of power which subjects must return to and face as part of their everyday lives. This is the regime of neoliberalism, which is an assault on everyday life as such. Yes, the wage labour regiment is a part of this, and yes we can identify lines of continuity with capitalist exploitation stretching back to post French revolution. But neoliberalism is a new form of this exploitation. It leads many anarchist thinkers such as Bifo to view the current movement of riots as struggles over affect, a resistance to the degradation and shame of contemporary neoliberal life and the riot or movement activity is a way to fight off this depression.

As I noted before, the parties and movements mentioned above should be understood as anti-neoliberal, rather than anti-capitalist. As Perry Anderson points out, today’s anti-systemic movements of the right are in fact more anti-capital than are their left counterpart movements. The right parties throughout Europe call for alternative currency to the Euro (something the left movements aren’t comfortable proposing with the exception of the Five Star Movement) and the right parties have much wider support from the workers throughout Europe than does the left movements.

The Rise and Decline of the Neoliberal Opt-In

The riot functions as a handmaiden to these left movements, and as Clover notes, one of the signs of the riots success is the potential unification of two populations in the riot: those excluded from work, or the surplus population, and those excluded from the promise of a socially stable existence; students and disgruntled professionals. It is this latter, more educated demographic, that capital presents what I am calling the opt-in model. The opt-in is the ideological attempt to induce subjects into voluntary relations of self-governance realized through the market. The neoliberal version of the opt-in compels subjects to adopt a certain mode of self-realization, which means that one must accept the inevitability of capitalist realism and resign oneself to the shattered promise of the neoliberal vision of man’s social realization. The neoliberal opt-in argues that man’s self-realization occurs via the market. But the opt-in dies when the hegemony of the market dies and we are currently witnessing the waning of the efficacy of the opt-in.

The opt-in is based on the premise that the individual can flourish as an independent node of wealth-making, which comes in the avatar of the entrepreneur. One of the hallmarks of neoliberal ideology that we find in the writings of Hayek and Von Mises is that the market is treated as a field of self-discovery, a process of learning. The promise the neoliberals present is thus a limited and and particular form of self-realization that seeks to make economic relations internal to the market mechanism as the foundation of ‘society as a whole’. To achieve this opt-in, the neoliberals must maintain their motto of “free economy, strong state!”

As Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval argue in The New Way of the World, neoliberalism is a result in a change in capitalism that was taken advantage of by the rulers. The main way we must understand neoliberalism is through the deployment of techniques of discipline and systems of compulsion, economic and social that sought to compel individuals to govern themselves. The neoliberal document called the Trilateral Commission as far back as 1973 pointed to a large swath of absolutely apathetic citizens who must remain that way. We should not forget that this anti-democratic tendency is a hallmark of neoliberalism.

The other hallmark of neoliberalism is competition which has come to serve as the negative mode of discipline; “competition comes to serve as a mode of internalizing the constraints of capital’s profitability, making it possible to reduce the chain of command and constant control by means of intermediate supervision, introducing unlimited disciplinary pressure” write Dardot and Laval. It is no longer about guiding structures but about guiding people with knowledge so that they produce as much as possible. Everyone is the instrument of themselves. To achieve the opt-in, neoliberal policies were implemented, not out of market fundamentalism but out of management techniques, as such, we should understand neoliberalism as a switch in bureaucratic rationalization rather than as a withdrawal of the state. The state is stronger than ever in neoliberalism.

Starting in the early 1970’s, before neoliberalim was adopted and implemented, the new left began to adopt its fundamental realism, it accepted Thatcher’s statement before she made it, that there is no alternative. But today, in the form of these movements, many of which have already failed (Syriza, for example) what they are challenging is the neoliberal social bond that was based on human capital and equality of opportunity and individual responsibility and not on the prior Keynesian bond founded on solidarity and greater equality. The neoliberal bond tried to work against all of this logic, and it remains tied to the matrices of the promise of Keynesian capitalism.

The riot operates outside of this logic all together, but it comes into contact with the anti-neoliberal movements. The rise of the Sanders movement in the U.S. is the latest form of this anti-neoliberal tendency in the west. It is clear that the opt-in is defective today. Capital has retreated both its surplus labor force and its tools for coercive opt-in have all but proven to be unappealing. But what is not clear is how these two forms of struggle will interact.

Confessions of a Mystical Freudian

Of all the different directions Freudian-Marxism took during the twentieth century, Norman O. Brown, the American philosopher, stands out as presenting a particularly compelling version. The first thing to note about Brown is that his project is distinctively American. His thought falls in line with the transcendentalists and with a certain strand of American idealism. He is widely influenced by the German idealists and Christian mysticism, and he was a careful reader of Marx as well as of French thought, even though he had a secret aversion to French poststructuralism.

Brown believed that psychoanalysis provided the necessary intellectual equipment for ushering humanity towards a mystical break from the bondage of the death drive. His project has just recently begun to preoccupy my time, and I have just finished a careful reading of his Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. This text is the first in a wider trilogy which includes two other quasi-spiritual titles: Love’s Body and Apocalypse and or Metamorphosis.

Brown’s work is deeply concerned with the problem of the body and its historically situated predicament, under different regimes of repression. Repression is the bug bear of civilization which Brown reads as ‘neurotic history’.  Brown writes: “Repression and the repetition compulsion generate historical time” (93). Only repressed life is in time, and eternity is the mode of unrepressed bodies, for which Brown sees psychoanalysis as being able to arrive at. Brown periodizes the era of Protestantism with modernity and capitalism, however he does not present a theory that we have entered into a new era, whether that be postmodern, or a post-Protestant era. Modernity is deeply Protestant and what remains paramount in this modern period is a suppression of the life instinct (217). The foreclosure of the life instinct is another way of saying a foreclosure of sublimation.

Capitalism captures the drive to work in man which is tied to the death drive to produce a surplus. This drive towards surplus is something that existed in pre-capitalist, or archaic economies, but it was not appropriated into private interests as it is under capitalism. Work is thus split between nonenjoyment and enjoyment, and the drive to surplus is a death drive which man remains stuck with at an instinctual level. Brown states that, “the drive to sublimate is the same drive as that tied to the drive to surplus” (259). Sublimation is thus life (enjoyment) entering consciousness on condition that it is denied (172).

His analysis of the dialectic of life and death is thus mapped onto the field of work and split between thinking work as enjoyment and nonenjoyment. The question is thus how one appropriates the negative side of work as nonenjoyment towards libidinal investments. He finds Mauss’ theory of the gift economy to be one such example of this positive appropriation of nonenjoyment because the gift economy is about forming social solidarity, not about producing private use-value.

Where I found Brown’s critique of capitalism to be most dangerous is in his reduction of the question of power to myth and neurosis. Since repression is in-built, the question of revolution is one bent on overcoming neurotic delusions:

“If there is a class which has nothing to lose but its chains, the chains that bind it are self-imposed, sacred obligations which appear as objective realities with all the force of a neurotic delusion.”

Brown thus reduces the question of power to a set of sacred myths and neurosis. What this does is reduce capitalism to a temporary illness of avarice. This individualizes the problem of capital and it lacks a structural analysis of the way that capitalist social relations operate on commodity fetishism.

Beyond Repression:

In the first part of Life Against Death, he argues that, “Spinoza’s intellectual love of God is identical with Freud’s polymorphous perversity of children” (48). What psychoanalysis indicates is that man is the species that must put aside its own childhood in order to be saved, this is the less on of the Oedipus complex: each child wishes to be their own father. Thus childhood is the origin of the repressive apparatus and importantly, Brown thinks repression as an interiorized relation to the reality principle. He thus sees human liberation as one focused on how to change the reality principle so that one may discover unknown sources of pleasure.

Brown is not naïve enough to suggest that psychoanalysis presents us with a utopia, yet he does want to argue that it offers a way out of repression. This is the launching point of Brown’s work and it is in this regard that he attempts to tie psychoanalysis into Marxism and develop a new theory of sublimation. Brown’s theory of sublimation is non-dualist and non-dialectical, what he refers to as Dionysian. Dionysian existence is one in which negation has been resolved and subjectivity enters into a state of play and there is no longer a repressive apparatus that situates the time of man.

Apollo is the God of sublimation Brown claims, “the God of form, of plastic form in art, rational form in thought, of civilized form in life” (174). Apollo is form negating matter – he is the God of sublimation, while Dionysus is the God of life of complete and immediate. The essence of the Dionysian faith is that he does not negate anymore. Instead of negating, Dionysus affirms the great contradiction of the instinctual opposites.

In the last chapter of the text, Brown develops this idea which he calls his theory of resurrection, where he declares a new form of consciousness that does not observe the limit, but overflows; it is consciousness which does not negate any more.

“The resurrection of the body is a social project facing mankind as a whole, and it will become a practical political problem when the statesmen of the world are called upon to deliver happiness instead of power, when political economy becomes a science of use-values instead of exchange-values—a science of enjoyment instead of a science of accumulation” (317 – 318).

Just what we can preserve of Brown’s project, and what we should reject are becoming more and more clear to me. Let this review be a start of something more to come.

Affects and Lacanian Theology

One of the more admirable aspects of Colette Soler’s work is her allegiance to theological concepts, which we should remember, Lacan himself took very seriously. In Lacanian Affects: The Function of Affect in Lacan’s Thought, theological and philosophical concepts such as sin, guilt, God, and the ethics of virtue–all of which were crucial to Lacan’s understanding of the four discourses and to the contemporary symbolic–are thought in the context of our contemporary capitalist juncture. I want to talk about how this makes her text an especially valuable contribution to Lacanian thought.

Soler reads Lacan as an analyst and she reads his ethics as one formed around modesty (which is the primary virtue in the era of a decline in the S1 or master signifier). This line of an ethics of modesty in Lacan is notably absent in Marxist Lacanians who prefer to formalize Lacan’s ethical maxim from the Ethics seminar, which states that the subject must never compromise on their desire. We find this in Badiou’s ethics starting in Theory of the Subject, where the professors of desire don’t perform an adequate destruction of the symbolic or splace of class domination.

The ethics of modesty, on the other hand, and much of Soler’s reading of Lacan, is based on an ethics of interpretation of the symptom, it is based in a conception of capitalism that argues there can be no social bond without symbolic productions or semblances. Anguish is the most central/important affect of capitalism as it is the affect the subject feels when he perceives himself as an object. Lacan sought to provide a matheme for capitalism which implied that what is at work in capitalist discourse is a situation wherein there are no bonds formed between human partners (38 – 39). The capitalist discourse has no Other – it is only subjects and what is produced. The capitalist bond leaves all ties broken and forces each of us to come face-to-face with plus de joir object.

In Soler’s reading of Lacan’s ethics, it is a sin to not want to know anything about your unconscious desire (71) and this can go so far as a mortal sin of foreclosure as we find in mania, which risks the very survival of the body. What Lacan’s ethics of modesty aims towards is the production of a joyful knowledge which is based on resisting the meaning of textual knowledge, but all the same tethering with it.

In other words, the ethics of deciphering the text around us is the goal. This ethics is formed out of the analytic act itself — wherein we must constantly decipher the signifiers and images that determine our symptoms over and above the capitalist demand to perfect one’s story. This difference is what makes psychoanalysis different than the capitalist version of self we find in the narrative of neoliberalism which states the pinnacle of human freedom is found in the figure of the entrepreneur, or the self-autonomous subject shaped by the market. Such a subject, which is the pinnacle of the capitalist discourse, is a subject that thinks it can persist without any reliance on a relation with the Other. We find this figure appear in the TED-talk model, which insists that the self can be discovered through perfecting one’s story. The flip side of this tendency arises in repressive tolerance in its neoliberal variation, which insists that an enemy can be eliminated as an illusion if only the enemy’s story is able to be uttered to the Other.

Our discontent in the era of the decline of the S1 is tied also to the fact that jouissance does not constitute a relationship (80) and as such, there is no semblance that is made up to manage the couple crisis, or lack thereof. The only virtue, assuming there is no sexual relationship, is modesty. Just as the only virtue is tied to modesty, the only sin for Lacan is found in the subject who finds no place of nomination in the symbolic.

One of the more helpful ways that Soler introduces the question of God and of belief in God is in her analysis of the decline of the S1, or the master signifier in late capitalism. This decline brings about a shame at being alive as the S1 is responsible for the creation and furthering of values and morals and in such a social situation, the subject is faced with a shame of being alive. This shame is tied to the fact that the S1 has wavered in our present culture.

In university discourse, on the other hand, which places knowledge in the position of the master. What Lacan sought to point out is that the master does not operate on brute force, but operates on the power of the Word. So Soler helps us to understand the famous statement of Lacan to the students of May 68 whom he told “As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master.” We can locate shame at the level of having to bring back the S1.

But there is a different, more revolutionary type of shame that Soler identifies, one that awakens the subject to being riveted to oneself, to a foreign self inside oneself (97). This type of shame is interesting insofar as it is connected to an ‘unknown affect’ that does not attest to what escapes from the signifier. This enigmatic affect attests to knowledge that remains foreign to the subject, or more precisely, to knowledge that is enjoyed, “in the enjoying, the conquest of this knowledge is renewed every time it is exercised” (Lacan 1998, p. 89).

Enigmatic affects are potentially revolutionary, or to use a term that Soler uses which I found interesting, they are “dissident affects” that produce incredulity (112). To be incredulous about something means to not believe. It is here that we return to God. There are two different forms of believing: first, there is believing when there is a hole in the symbolic, when the lack throws in the towel, we believe by inventing something to fill over this lack. This is belief at the level of primal repression, or what Lacan calls “God in person,” and what Soler calls “the religion of the hole” (Soler, 2010). Interestingly, my understanding of religion of the hole is that it is the normative mode by which we believe today. There is a moment of resignation with the decline of the S1 and every act of belief is a wager to fill the hole that the absent S1 leaves.

The second mode of belief is a more refined belief tied back into the ethics of deciphering, modesty and ultimately to the sinthome. This mode of belief finds enjoyment of the real outside of meaning. It creates a myth outside of meaning and this version of belief is one that you might call the pinnacle of a new category of refined belief–a new faithful subject.

Elements of Islamophobia: The State, Class and Capital

I have a new essay up at Heathwood Press as part of their special series on Crisis Capitalism and Creeping Fascism – Bigotry, Racism, and the Rise of the Right in the Age of Neoliberal Barbarism. Please support Heathwood Press, an important new publisher working to revive the project of critical theory for today.

Here is the abstract:

Adorno and Horkheimer, in their famous “Elements of Anti-Semitism” essay, argued that anti-Semitism has a specific economic purpose: to conceal domination in production and capitalist exploitation. Contemporary Islamophobia can be understood from the same functional perspective, despite many important differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This essay presents two Marxist theoretical models for thinking Islamophobia and racism, what I call the ‘failed revolutionary’ and the ‘projection of resentment’ models.