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.

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