Identification in Lacanian Psychoanalysis – Audio Lecture

As part of the clinical Wednesday series with the DC Lacanian Forum, I gave my third presentation to the group, this time on the theme of identification. I begin with an analysis of identification in Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and look at Borch-Jacobsen’s critique of Freud in his controversial The Freudian Subject. From there, I move on to Lacan’s theory of identification from his 1961 – 62 Seminar IX on Identification. In conclusion, I turn to the work of Raul Moncayo, a San Francisco based Lacanian analyst who has written on the role of nonidentification and emptiness. Using his distinction between unary trace and unary trait I look at how a collective group identity on the side of the unary trace might function in today’s political landscape.

Lecture Audio: 


New essay on Deleuze and Islamic Philosophy

I have a review essay that explores Deleuze and Islamic philosophy. It focuses on the thought of Mulla Sadrā and his theory of the act of being in relation to Deleuze’s theory of immanence. The essay is based on a reading of two new books on Deleuze and theology: Daniel Colucciello Barber’s, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence, and F. LeRon Shults’, Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism. 

You can read it at the journal, Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (SCTIW).

This essay was difficult to write, but most certainly rewarding. It was difficult because I struggled to find a point of contrast within Deleuze’s theology which is adamantly atheist and Islamic philosophy which stands in many ways impervious to the secretion of atheism.

I picked up a theme from Barber’s text around his debate with Milbank on the important distinction he makes between peaceful and violent ontologies. To what extent can we explore Islam as a peaceful ontology? To answer this question, we must examine the relation of immanence and transcendence within Islamic philosophy and determine to what extent Islamic philosophy can be mapped onto this distinction. You’ll have to read my essay to discover the answer.


Identification and emancipation: unary trait or unary trace?

Political philosophy has considered its project of thinking to be ‘emancipatory’ since the enlightenment. Emancipation is a term that refers to the idea of a total freedom from ignorance, from animality, or from a state of ‘self-imposed tutelage’ – as Kant would say in What is Enlightenment. Today, the question of emancipation has taken new prescience. But that is not to say it doesn’t come with a deep suspicion of the very act of making oneself free, as breaking with or emancipating from a dominant mode of subjectivity or discourse often implies a new capture, a new mode of subjection to the very apparatus one was seeking to break free from. As we know from Foucault, this is the elementary position of resistance as such. In a different way for Lacan, at the end of the psychoanalysis, the analysand can have both benevolent as well as malevolent modes of ego loss and depersonalization.

Ego emancipation is, you could say, a fascination of our culture writ large, and this fetishization of ego emancipation represents a new social reality. The psychoanalytic response to this turn is to point out that we have lost the capacity to think emancipation at the level of superego. This distinction between ego emancipation and superego emancipation brings us directly into the consideration of political emancipation and the question of identity politics.

But before we invoke the way that identity plays into this question, we have to recognize that for psychoanalysis, the difficulty in which we have today in thinking emancipation at the level of superego is tied to a larger shift at the level of paternal authority that situates the ego. This shift in authority represents an opportunity as much as it forecloses a space for darker social symptoms to emerge.

By way of a review of Raul Moncayo’s text, The Emptiness of Oedipus: Identification and Non-Identification in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, I want to examine this question of emancipation as it introduces the function of identification as a possible strategy for thinking through political emancipation.

“Just as early modernity and the Protestant ethic suffered from neurotic forms of inhibition and avowals of the law of the imaginary father, and rejections of the feminine and homosexuality, the postmodern condition of the consumer society of late capitalism suffers from the disavowal of the symbolic father and avowals of the desires of the imaginary mother” (11).

Whether you accept this historical turn or not, or whether you are hesitant to make this hard distinction between modern and postmodern, which I myself am a bit ambivalent about, let us follow the argument. The modern culture experienced a situation where the id creeped up into the super-ego despite repression, whereas in the postmodern culture, the super-ego creeps up into the ego and repression is thus caught up within the ego. Thus, the postmodern culture suffers from a super-ego that has re-positioned itself relative to the ego – but that re-positioning is one in which, if you wish to think it topographically, is in fact much more proximate to the ego itself. This internalization of the superego is what leads to a problem with being able to recognize lack, limits, and boundaries. Thus, when we think ego loss today, it is ambiguous whether we are able to think superego loss – or simply ego loss as the blurring between them often seems as if they are conflated at worst. We will return to this question momentarily, but before we do, I want to look at the way that identification functions.

Freud describes the phenomenon of identification as a process by which a subject assimilates an aspect or a trait of another subject. In the process, the subject becomes transformed in the likeness of the other. The subject also becomes differentiated from the other they identify with by the partial nature of every mode of identification.

Building on this, Lacan remarks on two types of identification: ego ideal identification, whereby the ego is represented by identification as if the identity provided by the identification was of his/her own making – i.e. ego ideal identification takes place at the level of the imaginary and at the level of the body and not at the level of the signifier or the symbolic. Once the ego ideal is consolidated Moncayo says, and the child takes place in a shared unary trait, “the ambivalence is transferred from the super-ego to the id, and from the parents to the social Other (represented by minority groups). The social Other becomes the target of the anger that the child had towards the parents. When you have angry and cruel discipline on the part of the parents, what happens is that “instead of the super-ego yoking the anger and turning it against itself, the anger will be turned against the content of the super-ego itself, the id will become the standard of the super-ego instead of the ego-ideal being the standard of the drives” (147).

“Identity politics becomes a form of ego identity if it is used to cancel the self-cancellation necessary for a symbolic identity. If identity politics fails to theorize a necessary negative moment in relationship to culture, because all negativity is reduced to oppression, then the view of ethnic, racial, or gender identity in relationship to the dominant culture turns out to be purely imaginary or idealized” (148 – 149).

To think this moment of negativity one requires a process or a strategy that is missing in Moncayo’s work, one that I would refer to as irony. How might one develop this negative moment in relation to one’s own identity without falling back into a sort of mockery of injustice and not fall into cynicism, or the idea that there is a relative equality of suffering and thus de-privilege a particular identity? The way one goes about this is through creating the social conditions for a new mode of identification to function at the level of political identities.

To extend Moncayo’s work on the second mode of identification, which is basically symbolic identification, or what Lacan called the unary trace, which has to do with the relationship between subject and signifier, wherein the subject becomes replaced by the agency of the letter and the signifier rather than by the figure of the ego of a social master – is the basis for this mode of thinking beyond identity politics, but still maintaining a great deal of respect to the necessary identity basis of political action. Although in speech, words may be those of the subject or the Other, the subject does not own the signifier any more than the signifier owns the subject qua nothing. Symbolic identification, according to Moncayo presents a democratic and rhetorical positive potential as it seeks identification with the other qua signifier and not qua ego ideal. Moncayo states:

“Emptiness at the level of the subject ($ or 8), rather than the Other (O), is what causes the subject to be civil qua signifying subject within a democratic system of signifiers.”[1]

Civil means three things: equanimity, reasonableness in the sense of the recognition of the rules of the order (each signifier is different yet related to other signifiers), and the capability for love on the basis of the emptiness that all subjects and signifiers share (similitude rather than similarity) (143). This mode of identification represents subjective destitution at the political and social level, while the unary trait is the name of identification that represents ego-ideal identification as it remains caught within the insignia of the ego-Ideal and the medals of honor of the Other (27). What identity politics represents is ego-Ideal identification, whereas a more emancipatory mode of politics represents unary trace on the side of the emptiness of the Other at the level of the signifier.

What unary trace enables us to think is a mode of identification located at the level of the emptiness of non-being, and it opens the space for a radical type of identificatory potential. Moncayo argues that subjective emptiness at the level of the subject enables a greater capacity for democratic identification and a newfound source of equality that the absence of the Name-of-the-Father as unary trace makes possible. Labeling this positive potential as a ‘civil’ capacity amongst diverse subjects is however difficult to envision. How could a situation of non-identification enable more harmonious living in diverse cultural and political situations, when political identities are fraught with built in violence?

As we know from Lacan, the unary trace is the little empty part (the not-All) that contains the All that incorporates the sinthome to re-knot the core dimensions of symptoms. As Moncayo states, “for the sinthome to stop being a symptom or erase itself as a semblance, and take the step that crosses over from being to unbeing, the name has to be used to unlock the mysteries of jouissance. The semblant or the face no longer masks anything: the knot, the no, and the name (nom), are in fact the luminous face of the void (naught).”[2]

Moncayo reads Lacan’s late work on the sinthome as presenting a way out of the problem of this postmodern inverted superego problem and its resultant pre-Oedipal subjectivity. In the sinthome, the symptom now appears in the place where the desire of the mother or the function of the father fails: instead of a father, there is a symptom that reveals/conceals the jouissance of the Other.

Moncayo’s work in developing the unary trace as a form of identity politics gone terribly wrong and posing an alternative symbolic or unary trace alternative is valuable. It encourages me to return once again the dialectic of emancipation from Badiou’s Theory of the Subject, specifically the Antigone-Athena dialectic as it poses the question of emancipation beyond the subject of language and rhetorical civilness at the level of democratic relations. It might be that thinking emancipation at the level of superego concerns how we go about making a symptom of the old social totality that we negated. Lacan said that the superego is ‘speech deprived of all its meaning’ and this empty speech is what gives us access to the root of the law itself. It used to be that the subject of the bourgeoisie, and its invention from the apparatus of psychoanalysis, the neurotic subject, was that figure by which we might usurp and re-position relative to the superego – however, in its absence, we face a more daunting and ambiguous task regarding how thus usurpation is to take place.

[1] Moncayo, Raul 143

[2] Ibid, 71

David Foster Wallace and the Politics of Existential Loneliness

The David Foster Wallace movie “The End of the Tour” is generally pretty good. The acting was superb and I like the way the dialogue and the relationship between DFW and the Rolling Stone magazine journalist played out. I read Infinite Jest in my early 20’s and funny enough the film noted several times that the prime audience for the book was, not surprisingly, white men in their early 20’s. About ten minutes into the movie, Wallace, played by Jason Segel says (to paraphrase):

“My writing speaks to a super privileged, mostly white, over-educated generation of people who found themselves really lonely in America.”

There is a basic point I want to make here. It’s just simply irritating: why is Wallace’s experience in this cocoon of privileged American social life taken to be emblematic of an entire generation? Of course it isn’t, but the politics (or lack thereof) behind this assumption that Wallace’s aesthetic and writing speaks to a generation is really irritating. You may be thinking: why does Wallace have to be political? He doesn’t have to be, but he is. From his tombs, Infinite Jest, to the Pale King, to many of his essays, Wallace actually has a very political project in his fiction. But first let me say a positive word about the experience of reading Infinite Jest itself.

The cerebral rush of Infinite Jest is, in a certain sense, one gigantic attempt to weave together the radically plural strands of American social life into a huge dysfunctional tapestry. The book achieves this feat and its politics is just that: a primer on how one enters into the (infinite) space of late capitalist American civic democracy, full of strange sub-cultures and collective idiosyncrasies. It’s like Whitman’s leaves of grass in prose form, but wildly overgrown from way too much water Gatorade and sunlight.

The highlights of the book occur in the bizarre tours you are taken through, from an alcoholics anonymous community structured like a religious cult, to a highly insulated teenage competitive tennis group and into the minds of dozens of sub-characters that are all in different ways fighting off this common existential loneliness that hovers over American life.

In the Pale King, this problem of social fragmentation is posed as the central problem of civic participation in postmodern America. So the commentary that Wallace seems to make is that solipsism is what creates a culture of massive distraction and atomization of social life. Wallace presents us with a politics to address this social fragmentation that is in fact conservative and he poses the solution to social fragmentation as a problem of attention and individual choice.

Wallace wants the reader (citizen) to find contentment with bureaucratic conformism and status quo adaptation and then search for minor individual liberation hidden in civic participation in the mundanities of American life.

What is the problem here? It’s not so much where his politics ends up, as much as it is that his original audience (the white educated upper class reader) no longer really exists as a social totality that is hegemonic. If it does exist, the fact that subsequent generations since Wallace (he himself is a Gen X’er) have really experienced a great deal more social and political precarity in their lives. Thus, loneliness and boredom with American life is no longer the primary existential predicament of contemporary American life. The seismic social and economic changes mean that a writer such as Wallace, highly self-conscious and directly identified with this upper class, probably wouldn’t resonate as much today as he could in the 90’s. Nor could such a writer be seen as the voice of a generation.

What I want to suggest is that any writer in our present time would have a hard time aligning their politics with this imaginary class of over-educated suburbanite white bourgeoisie as Wallace did. Wallace’s audience is too fragmented today, and the last thing it (we) need is a false universalization of its existential loneliness as being somehow definitive of American life writ large.

Should Critical Theory Be Accessible?

It’s widely held that critical theory and left theory more generally is too opaque for a wide audience and that’s a bad thing. It’s bad for a number of reasons. The more accessible one’s writing, the wider your audience will be. The wider your audience, the more potential your thought has to enact change.

The premise behind these claims is that any intellectual or community of intellectuals whose writing deals (whether directly or indirectly) with politics or matters of justice, has a duty to make their mode of address accessible to the public. This is an argument that Martha Nussbaum makes against Derrida and French theory in general. Opaque theory, they argue, walls itself off from revolutionary agents: poor people, wage laborers, and others without an education in the humanities or political theory etc.

The other side of this debate, which is an internal critique of critical and leftist theory is that it forms a shibboleth for the humanities and radical politics itself because even within this culture, it has become too technical. I believe that this critique is tied into the previous critique as I will seek to show in what follows.

What’s the problem with these diagnoses of critical theory and its demand to be made more accessible? At first blush, it seems correct, and certainly presents the grounds for a fair demand to make of intellectuals: write more accessibly so that you can reach a larger reading audience, otherwise your thought won’t be truly democratic and nor will it reach people outside of academe.  The implications of this argument are threefold:

  1. It assumes that potential agents or readers will come from a public that is composed of the mass public, and that this target audience will more readily and easily put to use accessible and clear writing towards a political project.
  2. They understand impact through the lens of the quantity of intellectual output as a matter of marketing reach. The more in-reach you have to diverse audiences, the more impact your writing is able to exert political change. Thus, it conceives of the public as a singular construct that one must comport their writing to, and not as a point that one must resist comporting to. More on this below.
  3. They claim that the presentation of intellectual transparency is more usable to the masses, although there is largely little proof of this. Conservative intellectuals are never accused of using too much jargon. This is always a claim made of left theorists – that their writing is too opaque. We expect engineers and scientists to use opaque jargon, but when it comes to matters of justice they claim there is a universality that must be adhered to. But to what end?

One of the ways to broach these assumptions is to begin by asking what the role of the intellectual is stretching back to the enlightenment where the intellectual first made a presence. The enlightenment intellectual was writing in a solitary mode, understanding the private individual to be the centerpiece of a public – the public was composed of a set of isolated and private individuals communicating as strangers. The intellectual sought to constantly re-define the common sense basis from which a public was constructed around. So the intellectual was, since its inception, not communicating with the public but often re-inventing the public and pointing towards a new way to think in the public, not with the public. The intellectual was formed as a mode of critiquing what common sense had turned into – encouraging people to think outside of the public, not necessarily with it.

Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics is an essential text in this regards. Warner helps me to understand left theory as what he calls an “intellectual counterpublic” rooted in this critique of common sense. Because the intellectual has historically been a figure that relies on the invention of a counterpublic (as the language the intellectual creates is meant to challenge the idioms and the modes of address of the given common public) what is an intellectual or a community of intellectuals good for if they are not inventing a new counterpublic?

For Adorno, in Minima Moralia, mass culture possesses the worst idealization of commonsense because it is based on an operation of the commodity that affects judgment and thought itself (Warner, 134). An intellectual counterpublic is therefore based on the premise that people are alienated from their labor of judgment in the common public. Common sense must therefore be critiqued with a new idiom of language that is capable of providing a set of tools for re-fashioning reality. So we can say that since the enlightenment to today, an intellectual counterpublic is premised on the creation of a language that is intentionally distinct from common sense speech and writing — even though the mass public is so radically different now in the age of mass media (social, entertainment, etc.)

But before we continue on this thread, let me provide some background on what a public and a counterpublic is. For Warner, the public is another name for the people. It is self-organized and it exists discursively, as a series of texts: websites,commercials, slogans, books, and other media are all the material stuff of publics or the texts of publics. A public is constituted through mere attention, which means that public address is different than gossip because gossip has to do with breaking down the bonds of secrecy and trust that a public does not require us to have. In the self-understanding that makes them work, publics thus resemble the model of voluntary association that is central to civil society. The address of public speech is both personal and impersonal because public speech is addressed to the stranger. Warner says, “a public is a relation among strangers” and goes on to note that:

“A public unites strangers through participation alone. Strangers are not exotic, but they must be a part of the world. Strangers in a community are placed towards commonality, but in a public, the stranger does not need to be on a path towards commonality” (Warner, 89).

Counterpublics, on the other hand, are formed by their conflict with the norms and contexts of their cultural environment, and this context of domination inevitably entails distortion. Warner is correct to point out that counterpublics are formed in relation not only to the common pubic, that imaginary discursive set of texts, but it is also formed in relation to the state. The state thus forms both publics and counterpublics, but in the case of the counterpublic, the state is situated as a threat/enemy to the proliferation of texts within the space of the counterpublic and the fashioning of any counterpublic is based on a desire to abolish the state or to re-structure its own relation to the state.

Critical Theory as a Counterpublic 

For Adorno, the way to understand the demand left intellectuals face to turn their writing into a more accessible mode of address comes down to a question of  style and not content. Any demand to appeal to the common public would is, for Adorno, expressive of the need for belonging, which is dictated by the commodity logic of commonsense. For Adorno, it would be an oxymoron to argue that one must make their address adhere to the common mass public as the masses would only erode and commodify one’s address, turning it into a style.

A counterpublic must therefore formulate their address to a different type of stranger than the stranger of the mass public.

Warner shows that intellectual counterpublics in the age of the mass public tend to write in a dense and opaque way in part because their mode of address is to a public that does not yet exist (Warner, 130). Furthermore, Warner argues that intellectual counterpublics understand their own revolutionary potential to be directed towards a future public, one whose language will be enacted in the idiom of its present obscurity in a future time. This tendency to write to a set of strangers who will understand evokes a certain messianism of left intellectual theory – addressing its project towards an apocalyptic horizon.

While I think it is possible to use clear theoretical language and critique commonsense without being subsumed back into the logic of commodification of the mass public, I also want to point out the value that left theory has in its development of new idioms and concepts. Critical theory is often addressed to a counterpublic, or a set of strangers that require no need for belonging, and not to a community that does require belonging. In other words, critical theory should be clear that it is not built around the attempt to cultivate a reading counterpublic that refuses to adopt its theory as a matter of style and belonging — but that critically tests and develops the content as something more serious. This is the ethics of readership in the counterpublic of critical theory – one must resist the temptation to fall into a stylistic mode of receiving/consuming critical theory.

The truth is that today, the widely accepted view that critical theory has no real connection to politics is no longer an acceptable position. It was acceptable throughout the 1990’s, when theory had no real ties to political movements, but in more recent times, this argument is not possible given the active role of critical theory in political movements such as the Occupy movement, anti-austerity and a whole range of other movements. So critics that continue to argue that opaque and obscure theory writing is occluded from politics are missing the empirical reality of how critical theory is actually impacting political movements today. Even when presented with this argument, they continue to beat the horse that, ‘if only the writing was more accessible than just look at what more success we would all have.’

This critique is reactionary because it still insists that an intellectual counterpublics and its idiom/language must be adopted by the masses in order to affect change even though its has managed to invent a new counterpublic. My point is that the purpose is not to affect change with the masses but to invent a new counterpublic. What is ultimately at stake in this critique is a nostalgia for the return of the cult of the intellectual. This nostalgia for the leader intellectual makes this positions surprisingly conservative and authoritative as it sees the intellectual as the permission grantor of revolution, or as the proper diagnostician of present circumstances, or the widely followed and celebrated figure of resistance. There may be no arguing with people who hold this view of the intellectual. They will always argue that if the theory was truly impactful then it would have a wider reach, i.e. they use the same logic of the common public against an intellectual counterpublic, therefore neglecting the way that every intellectual counterpublic tends to form itself in opposition to this logic by necessity.

Within intellectual counterpublics, there is another internal conflict that often takes place. Some argue that once a set or school of theory is adopted widely by the common public than it becomes calcified and the terms/concepts are raised to the level of banal brands and slogans. So for the internal, more puritanical community of readers, (typically highly well trained academics) the problem of theory is that it always risks touching the mass public of commonsense and when it does it loses its power because it then produces jargon, which occurs when a community of readers has not adequately understood the material they are seeking to enact in a new, properly revolutionary idiom. This failure makes theory incapable of properly diagnosing politics in the present as well as incapable of actual political change. The 20th century Marxist community of readers and revolutionaries often determined party and sectarian membership based on poor readings of Marxism in the present. They would accuse materialists as failures or improper materialists because their reading into the present conditions were secretly idealist, or speculative leftists, etc. This tendency exists today, but it really has no bearing on the question of public versus counterpublic in part because it is a conflict internal to a very particular strand of theorists within a counterpublic.

Worldmaking: Polemic or Problematization?

if we accept the notion that left theory is opaque as a matter of a. challenging the hegemony of the public and b. to invent a new counterpublic and enact it through new texts and a new language, then we can understand this process as a process of worldmaking, not as a problem of communication with a public. Warner argues that Foucault arrived at a mode of worldmaking that escaped the internal polemical tension I outlined above. In his later years, Foucault argued that we should abandon the use of polemics altogether. For Foucault, speech is not grounded in the transcendental, but in the history of polemics and other modes of discourse (Warner, 153). 

Thus, Foucault recognized that arriving at truth is a procedure that involves sifting back through the history of contentious polemics which form the very basis of discourse and its potential linkage to truth. But to move beyond this polemical stranglehold, Foucault famously proposes an ethics of dialogue as a counterweight to polemics, which is based on the development of his notion of problematization. Problemitization arose after May 68 as a way of appreciating the changes in Marxist discourse that were occurring at the individual and intimate levels. Problemitization entails a new public to develop acts and practices, i.e. it involves the development of a new public scene that must have a different temporality from the public of polemic because it is designed for its ability to pose problems for politics. A counterpublic of problemitization that is formed around speech that is aimed at the creation of a future public is however, difficult to imagine.

With the return of acute capitalist crisis in the last decade, Marxist intellectuals have returned to a critique of idealism vs. materialism. It is of utmost importance for Marxist intellectuals to determine who is a proper materialist as the proper materialist is able to present the most apt critique of existing material conditions. But it seems to me that the wider field of critical theory is primarily about a critique of commonsense that is understood as a deeply political critique. This means that critical theory does not only imply a proper critique of capitalism but a wider critique of ideology and commonsense towards the end of creating a new world or what Warner calls “worldmaking”.

The stakes of worldmaking for critical theory are such that worldmaking entails a break with the state. As Warner states, “it may only be through its imaginary coupling with a state that a public acts” (124). When alternative publics act this means they acquire agency in relation to the state. Perhaps an effective way to understand the potential impact of an intellectual counterpublic is the degree to which it is able to perform an alternative worldmaking project.

Islam as Empty Signifier and the Caliphate as Zero Institution: On Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate

Sayyid Qutb famously argued that Islam is in a state of jahaliya, or pre-Islamic ignorance in the modern world. This condition was total, extending both within and outside of Islamic majority societies. Qutb is considered a godfather of Islamist intellectuals because his position opened Islam to the political, and the consequence of Qutub’s idea calls for a remedy that is political in nature.

Is it fair to say that other colonial era and postcolonial era Muslim thinkers have largely failed in presenting models for thinking a break with the political encirclement of the Islamicate identity and world? This is, in many ways part of Salman Sayyid’s claim in Recalling the Caliphate. For Sayyid, contemporary Islamic thinkers, from traditionally trained ulama to Islamists, to ‘Islamic liberation’ theologians have certainly developed all sorts of proposals for transforming this condition. Maududi, for example, developed an idea of Islamic universalism in the sphere of economics and finance. More recently, Islamic liberation theologians such as Hamid Dabashi and Tariq Ramadan have argued that the only way to escape the political is to reformulate our understanding of Islam as a moral-ethical-legal system, and to avoid engagement with Islam and the political (Sayyid, 174).

In Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order, Sayyid presents Islam and Muslim subjectivity to be uniquely situated in the political. He understands the political in the way that Schmitt used the term, wherein something is political when it has entered into and recognized the world as split between friend and enemy. Sayyid argues that the political condition of Muslim subjectivity must not be abandoned, nor can it be replaced by the moral and the legal alone, for without facing and traversing the political – Islam remains at the level of a finite extension of being, or what he calls the ontic.

Sayyid is urging us to confront the political, but he ultimately wants to think of a situation wherein the political is traversed. The name he gives to this traversal of the political is the caliphate. The caliphate is “a domestication of the political on an ummatic scale through the institution of the politics of Islam” (183). The caliphate itself does not have to be ethical and nor is it political, but is a space that might allow the development of an ethical life for Muslims. The caliphate “has to be capable of building a world in which Muslims are not a scandalous presence” (182). Where Islamic liberation theology failed was that it situated Islam in an ahistorical manner by privileging the legal and the transcendent and ignored the political, the result being that they ended up condemning Muslims to the fate of “a people without history” (179).

Sayyid thus seeks a deeper ontological ground for Islam; one that is realized in the caliphate. Importantly, we should understand the caliphate as a site (not necessarily geographical and not necessarily a state power) where an Islamicate identity can imbue Muslim subjectivity with an ethical horizon. Ethics is understood as post-political, and politics is understood as the stuff that is transformed after an antagonistic or hegemonic struggle with(in) the political. Politics is not what we face now, what we face now is the political frontier. The political frontier is the only immutable frontier, whereas the frontiers of discursive struggle such as the west and Islam are fictional constructs – signifiers in a hegemonic struggle.

The political frontier is based on an “ontological distinction” between the ontic and the ontological, neither of which are adequately defined, but which find their origin in a Heideggerian project. An example of an ontic expression of Islam is an attempt to define an Islamic financial or economic system as uniquely Islamic in the context of the current neoliberal order of capitalism. Such an attempt will always remain partial and never universal because the current order does not provide an ontological ground for a fuller realization of such a project. Another example of an ontic expression of Islam today is one that defines Islam in the way that many neo-classical scholars and ulama seek to make Islam as a “way of life” definable by rules and laws. What Sayyid is after is a thinking of a form of Islam that will enable a deeper connection to the establishment of a much larger ground where an Islamicate identity can produce a “fresh world of ideas” similar to the way in which the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established the first Muslim community. This establishment can only be done as a political act (169).

Although it is not defined, a clear definition of the ontological is the autonomy of a post-foundational ground wherein Muslim subjectivity has the capacity to define itself beyond ontic (finite) being. Such an ontological realization of the Islamicate transforms the friend/enemy distinction into politics, or what Sayyid calls “the domestication of the political”. Since “politics is the way in which any social order establishes processes by which the gap between signifiers and signifieds can be policed, marshaled and given the appearance of suture” (171) – politics is utopian, while the political is the site of hegemonic struggle.

Although he does not note it in the text, Sayyid’s philosophical framework is indebted to left-Heideggerianism and post-Marxism. In Oliver Marchart’s reading of Laclau, Žižek, Badiou and Nancy he identifies a common reading of their idea of the political as that which “can step in as a radical supplement to an absent ground” (Marchart, 164). But unlike Sayyid’s conception of the political as an ever-present reality for Muslim subjectivity, the political is understood by neo-left ontology in a much rarer sense. The political is what jolts subjects into a new mode of subjectivization based on a decisional or evental eruption in the social. As Marchart states regarding the “moment of the political”:

“What is given in the moment of the political is not only a crisis within a particular discourse (which leads to conceptual change only), but the encounter with the crisis of breakdown of discursive signification as such – in political terms, the encounter with society’s abyss or absent ground” (Marchart, Post-Foundational Political Ontology 32 – 33).

One of the main reasons why Sayyid’s version of the political differs from more contemporary left ontology is in the way that he reads the failure of western universalism. While neo-left ontologists read the failure of the western project as universally affecting all, Sayyid argues that it uniquely affects Muslims. This is no doubt true and an omission that is the source of much neo-Orientalism in critical theory. Islam served (and still serves) as the point of realization of the empty signifiers of the western project, i.e. what it means to be human, democracy and freedom are all realized in relation to Islam. In the wake of the collapse of western universalism – we should note that Sayyid does not analyze transformations of capitalist modes of production and the way in which they situate subjectivity – it is unclear which hegemonic struggle in the political is actually taking place. I have identified three possible struggles: firstly, an interior struggle within the ummah, secondly a hegemonic struggle between the west and Islam, or thirdly, a struggle in which other underdogs and underrepresented (outside of the Islamicate, but including Muslims and non-Muslims) play a role in the establishment of the caliphate? The third form of struggle is reminiscent of early twentieth century radical socialist Zionist proposals for the state of Israel as a socialist utopia capable of gathering together a number of discarded identities to eventually eradicate the state and witness its withering away.

Sayyid is wise to show that previous attempts to unite an ummatic identity under the Westphalian order failed in that they were not permitted to rally around the signifier of Islam as an identity marker for the creation of a state because such a project is barred by the Westphalian secular project as such. Sayyid cites the historic examples of the way in which Pakistan limited its points of unified nation-state identity to ethno-linguistic signifiers and failed to rally the state around Islam. Such a project of the Islamists or the Kemalists are both deeply flawed and what Sayyid calls for is a thinking of the ummah as a people disarticulated from the homeland or the state. The ummah is thus a global presence that “subverts, hyphenates and hybridizes national identity” (Sayyid, 109). Sayyid wishes to think a future caliphate or ummatic identity construction project around the rallying point of a unified Muslim identity in part because that project remains unthinkable today, and thus a perfect candidate for hegemonic struggle.

“The assertion that Muslim identity is less sturdy, less authentic and far more fictional than ethnicity or class and is therefore incapable of constituting and sustaining a collective identity is little more than a reflection of the idea that the political is impossible for the non-West” (Sayyid, 125).


Islam as Empty Signifier, Calip as Zero Institution

Due to the distinctively political nature of Sayyid’s thinking of ummatic identity and the caliphate, his text should be read with Ernesto Laclau’s work on populism, hegemony and the creation of the people. Sayyid’s understanding of the caliphate can be supplemented by a Laclauian reading. For starters, there is a good deal of compatibility between Laclau and Sayyid’s core concepts of the political, the social and the people. Laclau defines the difference between politics and the political as the political being the ‘instituting moment of society’, and politics as ‘the acts of political institution’ (1996b: 47). Therefore, the ontological moment of the political and the latter’s ontic enactment which is termed politics is quite similar to Sayyid’s notion of the Islamicate realization of the absent ground of the ontological.

However, it is in the definition of the ontological that we find an important contrast between Sayyid and Laclau. For Lacalu, the social is the ‘sleeping mode of the political’ – and this is why he claims that the political is at the root of social relations. The social is ontological because it is based on power relations – all social identity is tied up with power relations. In this sense, being is power. For Laclau, the difference between the political and politics is that political is ontological and politics is the ontic (149) – a reversal of Sayyid’s position.

“Since there is no original fiat of power, no moment of radical foundation in which something beyond, any objectivity is constituted as the absolute ground on which the being of objects is based, the relationship between power and objectivity cannot be that of the creator and the ens creatum. The creator has already been partially created through his or her forms of identification with a structure into which h/she has been thrown. But as this structure is dislocated, the identification never reaches the point of a full identity: any act is an act of reconstruction, which is to say that the creator will search in vain for the seventh day of rest” (Laclau, 1990a: 60).

What separates Sayyid’s understanding of the ontological from Laclau’s is that he posits a day of rest wherein an ontological foundation of the Islamicate can serve as a final ground, wherein signifying reconciliation is possible. For Laclau, what is impossible is not the grounding, but the arrival of a final ground. Is it possible to think the caliphate other than a final ground? Taking his cue from Lacanian psychoanalysis, the ontologically realized thing, what Freud called das ding or the maternal thing is not achievable in a discursive chain and it remains embodied by partial objects. Thus, the ontological distinction between the ontic and the ontological, mapped onto hegemony theory reveals that the ontological is only ever reached as a series of partial objects, i.e. through the ontic. Every ontic element might play the role of the ontological, but only as a stand-in for the ontological because its signifier is internally split between a differential and an equivalential side (Laclau, 145 Rhetorical Foundations of Society). When Heidegger spoke of the being of beings, what he calls beying, there is a sense in which the ontological, despite its inaccessibility at the level of ground (grund) is a specter that haunts every social or political formation. But for Laclau, there is no beyond the play of differences – between the ontic and ontological and within the ontic, and this is why any theory of discourse contains “no ground that would privilege a priori some part of the whole over another” (Laclau, On Populist Reason, 68 – 69).

Laclau says there are three conditions for the creation of a people: the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of ‘the people’ possible; and the unification of these demands into the formation of a vague solidarity (Laclau, On Populist Reason, 74).

In Laclau’s framework, the caliphate is a “zero institution” and Islam an “empty signifier” The empty signifier has no determinate meaning because it signifies only the presence of meaning as such, in opposition to its absence. In this sense, the ummah has no positive, determinate function – its only function is the purely negative one of signaling the presence and actuality of social institution as such, in opposition to it absence, to pre-social chaos. Towards the end of Recalling the Caliphate, Sayyid argues that we can think the ummah as a cultural revolution, as a counter public outside the sphere of representation, but conscious of its place outside of representation. But Lacalu cautions against such an understanding of the caliphate as counter public when he argues being outside of a space of representation does not endow a group with any particular universality (Rhetorical Foundations of Society, 159). So the notion of the caliphate as a counter public, outside the sphere of representation of the dominant paradigm of culture, etc. does not necessarily imply the creation of a new form of universality. What the idea of the caliphate as counter public shows is that there is a strong role for dialectics in any thinking of the caliphate. Dialectics enters only when there is a failure of totality, or when there is some break in the totality itself. This is what Laclau refers to as heterogeneity, or the process of how equivalential demands form metonymic chains and lead to antagonisms.

There is something within a saturated terrain that always escapes dialectical mastery and this is what can be called a “people without history” or what Lacan calls the left over in a lab tube experiment. If we understand the ummah as inclusive of people without history, which according to Sayyid is the lot of Muslims in today’s post-Westphalian order – the ummah must be thought, not of the fullness of the community, but as the receptacle for any number of people’s without history.

The caliphate as zero-institution is a (non)place, a neutral place, where all social antagonism(s) are obliterated, a place in which all members of society can recognize themselves. For Laclau, it is an ideology to think that one can achieve the fullness of the community, that the community can be realized in a totality. I take this to apply to the project of the caliphate, even if the caliphate involves the transcendent truth of the texts of Islam, for which they do provide a ground. The ummah must be thought as a ‘symptomal torsion’ or the void of the situation. Thinking the ummah in this way can provide a new conception of ethics prior to the ontological establishment of the Islamicate.

We can also develop a number of proper ways of establishing the caliphate beyond the traditional uses of shura or democratic agreement on behalf of the ummah and or ulama. The inauthentic act of establishing the ummah would be that act which negates or disavows the ummah as a symptomal torsion or void. The inauthentic act of establishing the caliphate is clearly what ISIS has done in their perfunctory declaration of the caliphate, a classic example of a passage a la act – one that is unable to penetrate to the real trauma of the ummah as symptomatic void and receptacle of all underdogs and plebs. The question that remains open in the case of ISIS is what sort of disavowed libidinal investment are they latching onto? As we know in the case of fascism, it is often the figure of the Jew that plays the role of the disavowed libidinal investment – but it is less clear what the alterity of ISIS is really all about.

Philosophy as Confession

My philosophical writing goes through cycles. I experience low points where my exhaustion with philosophy and the project of mastering logos and the Real is made so acute that I fall-back on writing narrative, poetry, or fiction. This fall-back is always confessional in nature. It feels as if I am confessing to the master who has turned away from me, so my confessions quickly turn to scorn. I name this confession, philosophy as confession — it is as if I am writing a secret down or encoding something I haven’t been able to express from a deeper part of my subjective experience that has gone deprived and muted for far too long.

Philosophy is a war staged around the struggle for mastery and the promise of liberation from philosophy itself. The philosopher who has invented something new after having outflanked philosophy is the philosopher who is free. Philosophy must overcome philosophy in order to invent the new. If, as Deleuze writes, we need new weapons in the war of philosophy, what is available to the solitary philosopher that seeks to import his own subjective struggle with its unique social relations and material conditions? What will his life and the way that he uses philosophy to fend off the specter of a life-as-depression, or a life-as-mediocrity mean to the war? How will this confession not become reified identity politics once it is completed? Philosophy requires that he transpose this subjective experience onto ideas and master names of philosophical relevance to the war, and that he not confess the illegal importation of his own subjective struggle.

But we learn early on that philosophy needs this repressed confessional aspect in order to master itself. As a system of schematization, or of organizing thoughts and concepts, philosophy neglects to tell you that its schemas become saturated with thought. But what if the very thing that outflanks philosophy is a refusal of philosophy at the point at which thought creeps along with little hope, and great inertia?

The paradox of this situation is that such a stultifying condition of thought is what jolts the philosopher out of philosophy and into a freer, albeit more precarious place.

This death of philosophy, not as mastery or traversal and triumphant parasitism, but the death of philosophy as an act of refusal. This is where confession arises. Philosophy would like to think that when it stultifies, it creates a new connection to some other philosopher, to some other master name, or that it makes a cross-connection between one schema to another. Philosophy would like to think that it produces new masters that create new schemas or sub-masters that show how one prior schema is no longer the privileged mode of the emancipation of thought. Philosophy stages a schema of thought so that it can be traveled through and eventually traversed.

But what happens to the schema when the traversal is refused? What happens when the repressed agressivity of the philosopher can no longer handle its lack of outlet? Such a refusal of the subjective dimension in philosophy is immediately thought, not as a heresy, but as no longer the work of philosophy as such. It is thus of no interest. This refusal of philosophy comes about on the side of weakness, and not on the side of truth. It should be clear by now that the philosopher is the thinker who finds a constant need to suture thought to philosophy itself. The notion being that such a suture presents the only source of liberation that philosophy is able to posit or even think.

Philosophy sets a high bar for emancipation when it thinks of liberation as necessitating such a passageway through philosophy. It is commonly held that the truly original philosopher has performed a parasitic operation on his master, as well as a traversal of the thought of philosophy itself. What comes out on the other side of this traversal is thought – released from its encrusted paralysis of influence, etc. But herein lies the great knot and the repetition of philosophy itself. Emancipation of thought becomes rarer and rarer indeed.

This place outside of philosophy is often un-expressible except through narrative, fiction and poetry. When the philosopher makes a foray into this world of non-philosophy, she can only remain there for so long. For if she is truly a philosopher, she will find this place to be limited and solipsistic and will inevitably return to the war of philosophy.

For me, this break with philosophy is always a confessional break. One confesses everything without the aid of philosophy and its several approving or disapproving gazes. One is able to no longer internalize these gazes and self-police one’s discourse when they have turned on philosophy. The philosopher who has turned to the confessional apparatus is like a virgin expressing his disdain for sex, albeit secretly desiring it all the same. Speaking wildly until order comes through time and boredom. For philosophy will lasso you back in, it’s just a matter of time. But while you’re off-range, the confessional will do you good. The philosopher who speaks of his own truths without reference to the master’s discourse is an anxious animal, loose and transitory, but percolating with hidden wisdom all the same.

Is All Identity a Social Construct? Towards a Political Taxonomy of Rachel Dolezal

The #RachelDolezal story has sent social media into a tailspin. The details of the story are covered well in this original article from the local Spokane, WA newspaper where Rachel is based. We learn that Rachel Dolezal, a black woman artist and activist, married to a black man with adopted black babies and leader of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, WA — is actually white, posing as black.

The story is a lot to get one’s head around and everyone is baffled. I want to trace the immediate ideological positions people are taking to it, because in them, I see some important contradictions. If, as many on the left like to claim, identity politics is a thorn in our side, it seems to me that the Rachel story pricks us fairly deeply.

So, we ask, what made Rachel want to do this — why would she choose to be black — and by doing so, is she expressing intimate solidarity with black people, or is she acting on the same basis of hundreds of years of white supremacist power over black bodies? Is Rachel Dolezal a new, more insidious form of appropriation of black identity?

Her parents have assumed that she made a trans racial cross-over out of a deep solidarity that she has with the black struggle. They also feel that she would have had more impact on the struggle if she would have remained true to her white identity. Which is worse? Is identity still caught up in the question of authenticity? Hasn’t Judith Butler pushed us further along than this? Why aren’t we post-identity politics on the left?

I can understand the feeling that some activists have that such an embrace is offensive because the truth is, there is a very naturalized element to black identity that such an act fundamentally disturbs. But what precisely does her act disturb? Well, yes, in fact, racial identity is live and real and systemic oppression is still a result of it. Let’s not go down the road of showing how such an identity is malleable – we know that it is already. Look at Eminem, for example. Any such appropriation is in fact always destined to power, oppression and to getting it wrong, quite simply because you can’t choose this.

However, the elephant in the room question, which of course the right has already been posing on Twitter, is:  how is Caitlyn Jenner different from Rachel Dolezal? Explain yourself, they demand!

The right is thus now offering a counter argument to the authenticity critique of the Dolezal affair. You claim identity is not authentic and can be chosen – well, stay consistent damnit! The right is thus claiming that all race is in fact a social construct and they claim, the left is refusing to admit it, remaining caught in an inconsistent framework. Race is an exception to the postmodern malleability of identity. It is not that malleable you see, because race, and blackness is tied to a real struggle that white people have for centuries abused.

Towards a Limited Taxonomy of Views on Rachel:

  • The militant-liberal identity politics puritan view: Rachel has co-opted a struggle that she doesn’t have the right to co-opt and she is a joke.
  • The white do-gooder liberal argument: Rachel would have been a better advocate if she would have stayed true to her white identity.
  • The neutral liberal argument: Rachel shows America that we are indeed post-racial.
  • The sympathetic apolitical argument: Rachel should be given sympathy because she chose a form of solidarity that went all the way.
  • The right wing reactionary argument: Rachel proves that the left is opportunistic and inconsistent.
  • The leftist, anti identity politics view: Rachel is uninteresting and simply points to the distracting category of identity and is merely a hyperbolic example of America’s insane and highly individualized culture.

I’m definitely in the first category and in the last category – the problem is that there is very little chance of bridging these two divides because for anti-racism activists and so on, race is an exception to the “all identity is a social construct” argument.

Religion and Communitas: Structure and Anti-Structure

One of the reasons that religion persists in human civilization is because it is able to incorporate what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas into structure, or normal society. Turner is a philosophical anthropologist, and in his classic study The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, he points out how the liminal or transitional experiences of rituals across different cultures and religions is something that can never find a home in what he calls structure. Structure is another word for hierarchy, order, authority and different cognitive forms of organizing human society. Anti-structure is what he calls communitas, a liminal and existential revolt against structure that seeks catharsis from the immunization of life and experience that structure imposes.  Liminality is a transitional phase and existential position of the subject. While I recognize that the concept of liminality is limited in that it understands human action from an existential/phenomenological position and ignores the way in which material conditions determine action, I find the larger dialectic between communitas and structure to be interesting.

In my dissertation, I examine how in today’s global capitalist empire, there are four ways in which structure limits communitas, however, I tend to de-limit the role of religion and communitas. I am convinced that today’s religious communities are almost fully absorbed by structure and thus experience communitas in ephemeral liminal rituals. In other words, liminality is not institutionally integrated in any meaningful sense, which is why religious communities that turn to literalist readings of scripture have literally no ability to find a balance or commensurate relation with the global capitalist empire.

The word ‘religion’, comes from the Latin relegere, which means to bind and to re-unite. Relegere seeks to connect that which negates life with that which affirms life. Religion thus sees itself as a way to escape the extreme form of annihilation that structure poses to life by partially incorporating this power of negation into its very edifice. But religion has become too integrated into the negative side, blurring its lines of differentiation with this structure.

In Christianity, the Christian is meant to be a stranger to the world, and this is meant to be a permanent condition of the Christian experience. But how can this command, which requires a turn to communitas and liminality be institutionalized? This question drives much of my research into the Middle Ages pre-capitalist peasant revolts and communities that formed on the margins of the dominant social order. Movements and communities such as the Cathars, the Johachites and the Waldensians were Apostolic movements seeking to create a radical communitas outside of all structure.

Importantly, the Mendicant orders of the Latin church such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans were deployed as a counter-measures to these movements. Some of the most radical were the Beghards or the men of the free spirit, who were later called the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The Brethren of the Free Spirit developed, for the first time, the doctrine of mystical anarchism, which posited that untrammelled freedom can be reached only when man lives a life indistinguishable from God and self. They believed that all things are common and that they are therefore eligible to steal. They purported to hold a six stage view of the soul. By the sixth stage, the soul had attained complete union with God and there was no distinction. At the highest point of this being, God is abandoned himself to himself.

If you’re interested in these movements, I’d recommend Norman Cohn’s, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages — an absolute must-read.



The Infantilization of Evangelicals in American Politics

When Karl Rove mobilized the Evangelical vote in the 2000 election, he opened a Pandora’s Box that everyone would subsequently try to close — or master. Evangelicals didn’t know they had such power politically, and it scared them. This fear has led them to retreat from politics — on a large scale — over the last eight years. But, low and behold, it appears that the Evangelical leadership is once again preparing to become more politically engaged as this New York Times article notes. The upcoming election will bring them out of the woodworks.

We could say they retreated into spirituality, but that distinction between politically engaged and spiritually engaged, or being inner-directed and more outwardly or politically engaged, is false when it comes to Evangelicals. For starters, the Evangelical base is incredibly diverse and very few are actually politically active in a strong sense. Secondly, Evangelicals aren’t spiritual in the sense that we define spiritual. They are spiritual in a way that is outside of a technology of the self — they don’t treat spirituality as an instrumentalized act for improving the body as in most spiritual practices. I would argue that they are more serious than this when it comes to spirituality and they desire a sort of total catharsis. They express spirituality in a way that is from another time, and this is part of the reason why they scare us. But this is a point for another post all together.

Here are some assumptions about Evangelicals, politically speaking:  Evangelicals are exceedingly easy to convey messaging to politically. They receive messaging in a top-down pastor-dissemination-model that harkens back to old pre-mass media days. This assumption, albeit correct in some sense, is precisely why Evangelicals are infantilized by political and social change activists: they are perceived as a distinct mass that might absorb a given act or political platform. The logic goes something like this: if only we can find that one pastor who “gets” our social issue (engaging Muslims, the environment, anti-war, anti-nuclear issues) we can make a major impact!

The interesting premise that undergirds all of this is the assumption that Evangelicals, despite their views of Biblical inerrancy, might be made more progressive on single-issues. The truth is they are more progressive on single-issues. But the question is why? Is it because a few pastors endorsed the talking points by some D.C. lobbyist. No, in fact, the Evangelical base is protesting this infantilization and pandering they have been put under. This protest is evidenced by the growth of the global-oriented church, the turn towards more experimental theology a la Rob Bell, and the more pro-environment and pro global warming trends that young Evangelicals are showing.

The infantilization of the Evangelical bloc plays a very particular function in the American imaginary. The idea of a shape-less mass of ignorant “folk” remind us of our past. They remind us of where we came from. Who we were. This is why we are nostalgic about them. Their simplicity is slightly prosaic and profound. We might hold their views if our lives weren’t so a mess with urban living, technology and over-education. This is the fantasy that keeps the Evangelicals both powerful and infantilized.

The Crowd and the Collective: Some Speculative Points

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud says that “each individual taken independently is a constitutive part of different crowds.” I understand this in two ways: the individual is a part of different crowds in the abstract sense that the crowd is a part of the subjective process in some way. The crowd is a chaotic assemblage that must be dealt with in the process of becoming an I and in the dissolution of the I (more on this later). Secondly, in a more empirical sense, the crowd is a collective formation that provides an important ground for understanding man’s relationship to sociality and the way that desire, affect and identification function.

Some opening premises:  the crowd is constitutive of the individual. The individual possesses an inner crowd which is never commensurate with the intersubjective relation between different I’s in any given group. The crowd bursts the seams of intersubjectivity, exposing the individual to the dimension of the Real. This excessive dimension of the other is revealed in the prisoner’s dilemma, a classic thought experiment influenced by game theory.

As is well known, the prisoner’s dilemma provides the means by which a theory of ethics and time emerge for Lacan and for Badiou. The basis of the dissolution of the I and the basis of subjectivization in an ideal sense is realized in a proper solution to the prisoner’s dilemma. I want to argue that this solution helps to solve the problem of the crowd and its negative difference from the collective. In other words, the prisoner’s dilemma helps us to understand how logical time is produced and it shows a proper way of dealing with the crowd.

As Porge has noted, the difference between the Freudian crowd and a collective (think here a militant collective or a psychoanalytic cartel) is dependent on numbers. For Lacan, the cartel is structured on the idea of the plus one, making the collective either 5 (4 + 1) or 6 (5 + 1) — no more and no less. The plus one here functions as an absent leader in a certain sense. Remember that for Freud, what verifies that you have a crowd is the panic induced by not having a leader. Thus, a crowd is realized in the relation between the I’s of the individuals and its leader. Logical time, on the other hand, is different than the crowd in that it finds its temporality with the dissolution of the I’s, or of the individuals. This dissolution of the I’s is, paradoxically, is what creates a social link out of something that is not in-common.

The first question that comes to mind here is whether the scenario of the prisoner’s dilemma actually has a leader? In some sense this is an ambiguous question because the warden sets the place, i.e. the symbolic, but he does not occupy an ego ideal where identification occurs as you have with the leader in the scenario of a crowd. The crowd is further ambiguous because the leader is absent, so the question is more like: in what sense do the prisoner’s need a leader? The answer is that they do not need a leader in fact in part because the entire point of the leaderless crowd is that the individual narcissistic relation functions as a stand-in for identification with a master leader or chief. This is a point that would have to be examined in a separate essay all together.

It is more accurate to say that the warden is an assembler and not a leader as he chooses the prisoners, and he is a witness to their logical process. The warden does not decide if the prisoner’s are correct in their logic by standards that are concealed to the prisoners themselves. Rather, the logical answer(s) provided by the prisoners, or the means by which they escape the prison is of their own making, and not idiosyncratically decided by the warden. The rules are transparently given in the prisoner’s dilemma whereas in a crowd the absence of the leader leaves the collective with no means by which to escape the anxiety or the panic left in the wake of the leader.

This latter point is important to Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen in his text, The Freudian Subject, he argues that the crowd is what dissolves the I because the operation of identification is rooted in a rivalrous impulse to replace the other. So instead of desire being about ‘to have’ an object as we find in Lacan, desire is about ‘to be’ in Borch-Jacobsen’s reading of Freud. Identification is what annihilates the I, not an object identification that is outside of this interior rivalry-based identification. So in some sense, for Borch-Jacobsen, the subject never quite escapes imaginary aggression as it remains the constitutive aspect of the subject.

Why is the crowd important for Freud? In Massenpsycholygie the crowd is after all, “seemingly a marginal phenomenon or even a transgressive one with respect to normal sociality – manifests the deepest essence of normal sociality better than social institutions do.”[1] In opposition to Le Bon’s landmark text, The Crowd, Freud argues that sociality is reduced to its zero degree in the formation of the crowd. The crowd, Freud says, “lays bare the unconscious substratum” that all its members have in common and through which they belong to a single “race.” The crowd acts as a single individual because its members are driven by an “ancestral unconscious”. What the crowd then presents is a restless and open question for the subject and its relation to sociality as such

Importantly, the crowd has an affective and an identification procedure.  For Borch-Jacobsen, it is identification that precedes affect, whereas for Lacan and for Freud, the opposite is the case. Borch-Jacobsen argues:

“We must make no mistake about it: by declaring that sympathy proceeds from identification, Freud in no way means to make affect an effect of mimesis; quite the contrary. The concept of identification, as he uses it, has precisely the function of reversing the mimesis-affect relation implied in the concept of sympathy. It signifies that affect precedes mimesis instead of being produced or induced by it.[1]

The prisoner’s dilemma interests me in this regard because it deals with the problem of identification first and foremost, although the affect of anxiety (which is induced by haste) is important, I would argue that what interests psychoanalytic readings of the prisoner’s dilemma is the question of identification and how subjectivization functions within the various scenarios of the dilemma.

Let’s lay out the basic parameters of the prisoner’s dilemma:

Three prisoners are given discs by the prison warden placed on their back and one is unable to see what color their own disc is, so they have to infer based on the other two’s reactions and the visible color of the discs of the others what the color of their own disc is. There are black discs or there are white discs. What we know and the prisoner’s do not know is that each of them are given white discs. They are required to give a logical account to the warden of what the color of their own disc is and if they are correct they are set free. You can see how this presents a number of intersubjective tropes and themes at the outset.

The way that this is broken down and analyzed by Lacan is broken down in three moments, or step-by-step logical options that are followed. The general structure is as follows:

  1. The instant of the glance — each prisoner glances at the other’s colors.
  2. The time for comprehending what their own color may be.
  3. The moment of concluding. This is the moment of subjectivizing, when I must seize myself as “I.” At this moment, the subject must act on an insufficient knowledge of the other. This point of insufficient knowledge is the basis of every ethical act. It is at this point that several options come about.

Firstly, there is the logic of “I see two white discs” which is the same for all three prisoner’s, so they all start to walk at the same time. But this walking at the same time annuls their conclusion because they still have insufficient knowledge to arrive at an answer, so doubt is introduced. They are all forced to stop again because they are all in the same situation at this point and they realize a certain equality formed on an inherent lack of knowledge.

They think again, which is what Lacan calls the suspended moment. This suspension or scansion is ‘immanent to the logical process’ and it presupposes a certain panopticism that is in fact blind to time. For Badiou, this reading is wrong because if A sees that B and C are also headed towards the door, he can no longer conclude logically, because his reasoning included the immobility of the other two.

At this point, if we assign identity to each of them as A, B and C.

1. What happens to A during this process of reasoning is ‘the ontological form of anxiety’ according to Lacan, and what causes anxiety is that he will not be able to reach a conclusion.

2. The hesitation of B and C do not show anything but a sense of anxiety as well, and what A realizes here is that he can deduce nothing logically so he has to close the time for comprehending by acting. A has to end his thinking by an act. A is sure of his act but not of his reasoning. This is the anticipatory certitude element to the dilemma.

The conclusion here is that A’s line of reasoning depends on B’s and C’s hesitation. Badiou breaks down five logical moments of the subjective process:

  1. The time to understand: before mobility sets in. I don’t see black discs and I therefore decide.
  2. The time to conclude: when I step forward as to my own mark in front of the others subjectivation occurs for Badiou — importantly, step four is where subjectivization occurs for Lacan because for Badiou, this prior moment of haste is the first moment of real induction of the subject. Ultimately, the difference comes down to two different reading os anxiety.
  3. The representation of haste: when I see that the others have begun to move, I now anticipate certainty.
  4. The scansion: all of the others stop again and objectify the premises of their reasoning. For both Lacan and Badiou, it is in the halts that come after the act where intersubjective truth begins to emerge. A now reaches a universal truth from his subjective decision, and these halts are what make the act universal.
  5. The reinitiating of their walk, this time governed by a certainty of their logical proof.

For Badiou, what is most important is the moment of haste which exposes the subject to the real. What this means is that the subject exceeds the symbolic (splace) by exposing himself to the real and he opens an alternative for action and a new time. The subject opens this space through the decision and and act that occurs as an excess because the subject can only wager on the time of the other (on his time to understand) hurried as he is by the real of the situation which will set free only the first one to exit.

The problem of identification is therefore solved when the I in question defines itself through a subjectication of competition with the other. But this is a psychological and temporary holding pattern, it is not the ultimate fate of identification. In fact, through the act we open a new time, we have the basis of ethics and we have the basis of a new social link. The subject for Badiou is founded in haste and then has to put into consistency the haste of the situation he finds himself in, which is a situation where there is an insufficiency of knowledge. So the (s)place that is set by the warden is not exactly an encyclopedic too-much of the symbolic, but in fact is a situation that is governed by an inherent lack of knowledge of what to do. There is a necessity to do something albeit there are procedures and ethical ways of acting on the lack of knowledge. While the first act is one that is based in rivalry, the second act is one that is based on a decision that annihilates the I — or moves past it in a certain sense. The first act for A is simply this: I have to conclude that I am white out of fear that the others will leave me behind, making any conclusion impossible’

After A moves, B and C hesitate, and this then leads him to conclude the universality of ‘we are three whites because there were two halts.’ The act thus has a line of reasoning and it has a certain spontaneity. This is why Badiou calls an act “a real that interrupts the symbolic.” Later in Badiou’s work, the act cannot simply be a wager on the negative, but it has to also have a naming procedure as the act is the beginning of a truth process and what Badiou will later develop as a generic procedure.

By now we have arrived at a point where we can present a few speculative lessons:

1. One can never mistake the warden for the real of the place. The real of the place is established in the anxiety of the inherent lack of knowledge as produced in the intersubjective relation of aggression. This is an imaginary process and should be seen as primary.

2. One must wager on the real and not on the rules as developed by the warden, which is the basis of the symbolic. The two should not be confused. One remains an isolated individual if one relies on the rules of the place. This aspect, I want to stress, is the logical basis for the entirety of ethics, an ethics beyond all possible rational calculation and the temporality that it establishes.

3. After one has moved past imaginary aggression, through the second scansion as we saw above, the collective can block the rigid law (of the warden) under the effect of too-much-of-the-real — through an act. This is the true moment of collective solidarity, but it cannot be calculated in advance and thus it cannot be formalized or made normative in any sense.

4. The crowd is homologous to the masses at the societal level and to the subject. The crowd can be superimposed onto these logical moments in such a way that we can understand how a collective might relate to a crowd. But the question as to what the dissolution of the crowd should or ought to be is a different matter all together in that the collective is capable of setting a new temporality and it then has effects on the structure of the crowd. So the inter-relation between collective and crowd emerges as something of great interest.

[1] Borch-Jacobsen, 108

Becoming Your Own Boss. On Nightcrawler

How do we situate the film Nightcrawler by Dan Gilroy both in terms of its social commentary and genre? At a certain level, it’s like American Psycho for the post 2008 economic downturn and late finance capitalism period. Both films are ostensibly about how capitalist competition creates an intense sociopathy when subjects identify with the explicit demands of the given system. In the case of American Psycho it’s Wall Street, while in the case of Nightcrawler it’s the self-made entrepreneur. One system functions at the highest level of performance and produces sociopathy, while the other has failed, but identification with both systems and logics seem to generate sociopathy.

Where Nightcrawler differs from American Psycho, is that Lou (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes a sociopath by fulfilling the demand to become an entrepreneur, but such a demand can’t be met without full bore ruthlessness in this economy. In American Psycho, Christian Bale is made sociopathic as a result of identification with the highest level of performance and perfection of the Wall Street system as such. In both cases, it entails strict identification with competitive logic and the disastrous consequences of this literal identification. While Lou achieves his dream of becoming his own boss by the end of the film, we should understand the violence and sadistic actions that it took to get him there as indicative of the failure of neoliberalism.

The dark humor of the film comes about in the way in which Gyllenhaal rationalizes his brutal actions — murdering the other video company competition as well as his own employee — both done in order to further the goal of elimination of risk and competition–and expand his company. He rationalizes all of this by channeling a guidebook of entrepreneurial self-help discourse. This channeling makes his attitude and behavior no longer outwardly sadistic because it always has a gloss of self-help business manual speech tied to it. It seems as if he is continually channelling some sort of banal community-college Business 101 mantras directly to the letter.

We are told nothing of Lou’s personal family relationships, an omission that I think is brilliant. Rather, we are shown a sociopathic character who has literally converted all of his relationally to business logic. This is taken to gruesome extremes when he forces his main client, the TV Executive Nina (played by Rene Russo) to sleep with him, which may be about fulfilling a sexual desire, but is really about companionship. This is a larger commentary on how the very idea of companionship and intimacy is eligible for commodification. As Lou says to Nina over dinner, “a friend is a gift you give yourself” — a line that reveals this new form of neoliberal narcissism, a type of narcissism that is no longer produced by repressed family issues as much as it is tied to the very failure of market and economic subjectivization. 

The dream of 20th century economists such as Von Mises and Hayek of the Austrian School, whose ideas formed the very core of neoliberal ideology, was one that sought to make competition a mode of conduct on subjects — in all areas of social life. The idea of competition was literally meant to invade even the sphere of civil society and personal relations, so that society could regulate itself and there is no institution required to regulate human action outside of the market, such as the state. This is the world that has now failed us, and it is the neo-noir Los Angeles that Nightcrawler captures so well.

In Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity by Maurizio Lazzarato, the argument being made is that capitalist subjectivity is formed in revolt of the very failure of the model of the entrepreneur and self-made man that originally underpinned the ideology of neoliberalism. Furthermore, neoliberal economic policy has failed to offer a compelling means of subjectivization, or a new model and we remain caught in a web of semiotic signifying and asignifying subjections to this failed discourse. As an interesting aside, Lazzarato argues that thinkers such as Badiou, Butler, Zizek and Ranciere insist on a separation between the economic sphere and that of the political sphere, but for Lazzarato, this distinction is false because it results in an idealist conception of the subject (11 – 12). In other words, it is the sphere of the economic that holds hegemonic sway over subjectivization today and it is not that of the political alone according to Lazzarato. Whether this rather even-handed account of their theory of subjectivity is accurate is another question all together, however, he does make a compelling case for the non-linguistic means of subjection that reign in today’s neoliberalism.


More generally, Lazzarato argues that neoliberalism has failed because it has been unwilling to take on the risks that might enable the full realization of the precarious entrepreneur. The entrepreneur cannot properly flourish and so instead of a life of upward mobility and a life of pleasure, the entrepreneur now has to take on the risks that the state will not take on.

Nightcrawler should thus be seen along with Breaking Bad, as a protest against the failure to become one’s own boss and entrepreneur. Whereas Breaking Bad maintains heroic and comedic story arcs, Nightcrawler plummets down a darker hole, showing the inherent criminality that it takes to now identify with the becoming entrepreneur.

On the Gaze, Violence and Shame (or lack thereof)  

Another line of analysis of Nightcrawler that I would recommend would be to look at how voyeurism, violence and the gaze operate in the film. I think the danger to this analysis would be that one overly emphasize it to the detriment of missing the way in which the violence is itself drawn from the larger material and economic picture. The reason I think this is the more salient way to understand the film is because Lou was driven to succeed as an entrepreneur first and the occupation was merely incidental and not relevant. It was this separate demand that drove him, not the violence. If anything, it was the violence that drove the viewer and the news/media, but that’s an entirely separate point. He gained no perverse pleasure from documenting the violence, he rather did it because he was following the codes of conduct and the duty to become an entrepreneur.

Excerpt: Thinking Islamic Governance with Continental Philosophy

I have a new essay on Wael Hallaq’s book, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament at the very excellent publication Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World ( coming out on February 10th.

My main interest in this essay, in addition to reviewing the book, is to start a dialogue with Islam and continental philosophy and to critique Hallaq’s use of communitarian ethics and virtue ethics.  Here is an excerpt (below) and you can read my full essay here.

A painting by Wael Hallaq called "Agent of Colonial Death".  In addition to being a scholar of shariah law and Islamic studies, he's also a surrealist painter.
A painting by Wael Hallaq called “Agent of Colonial Death”. In addition to being a scholar of shariah law and Islamic studies, he’s also a surrealist painter.


Thinking Islamic Governance with Continental Philosophy

One area where Hallaq can find additional connections to western traditions of ethics and philosophy is in the philosophy of community found in thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Roberto Esposito, Giorgio Agamben, and Ernesto Laclau. This rich set of thought offers conceptual resources for thinking about the crisis of modernity as well as Islamic governance. While Hallaq does not avoid the Continental tradition outright as his references to Foucault and Schmitt amply show, there is a more general resistance between Continental and contemporary Islamic thought. In many ways, this resistance is not surprising as most Continental thinkers are avowed atheists, Continental thought tends to de-privilege the domain of the moral in its ethical frameworks, and, many Continental thinkers have moved beyond metaphysical conceptions of the subject.

Despite these differences, Hallaq’s argument can find theoretical synergy in works such as the Inoperative Community, where Nancy thinks community as, similar to the Sharī‘a model, coming about before the law and sovereignty. For Nancy, the sphere of the political, or what he calls “being-together,” is brought about through a decision that eschews the Schmittian state of exception, as it is not built around the establishment of the sovereignty or a social contract, but rather, a decision is as Nancy states, “existence as such, and existence, inasmuch as it does not take place for one alone or for two but for many, decides itself as a certain in of the in-common.”3 Decision consists precisely in what the community, or the ‘we’ have to decide on, in and for our world, and thus, first of all, to decide on the ‘we,’ on who ‘we’ are, we have to first decide how we call ourselves a ‘we.’ Unlike the communitarian question of belonging, Nancy’s thinking on community argues that we must think community as a demand beyond idenitarian models, a thinking that must also abandon any thinking of the subject. The invocation of a non-idenitarian community is also present in Agamben’s Coming Community through his reading of St. Paul,4 and it bears questioning the extent to which the Muslim umma can think community beyond the categories of cultural, racial and ethnic identity.

The very idea of community is inoperative for Nancy because the beings (subjects) that inhabit the community do not arise out of the diversity of a community, but arise out of a singular being that is always other. As Nancy writes in the Inoperative Community, “a community is not formed when a set of previously independent and self-sufficient beings unite and form a collective enterprise, as say, social contract theorists would have it.”5 In order for the community to have an identity that is immanent to it, it needs to be brought out and put to work, which means that while the community is inoperative, it is also producible. The community-as-subject means that the community is developed through work. The community is inoperative precisely because “it contains no subjects, it is idle, because it lacks an essence that can be put to work.”6 Nancy’s finite community strikes many points of similarity with the ideal pre-modern Sharī‘a umma, as it was the umma that performed the work of the larger society, and perhaps his thinking of community can aid contemporary discussions on the Islamic state.

Another area where Hallaq’s work would benefit from a closer connection to Continental thought is around the definition of the moral domain as such. Hallaq defines the lack of any moral center in modern liberalism as a failure of the ‘Is/Ought’ distinction, meaning that the ‘ought’ has been replaced with the positivism of the ‘is’ in modernity. In other words, we have lost the ability to declare ‘ought’ statements with any force of legitimacy in the modern period and have privileged the bare existence of what is. For Continental thought, too, this is a problem; however, the solution for rectifying it is treated in the sphere of the political and not the domain of the moral. Since we do not have a world where the ‘ought’ can be invoked, this changes the very nature of ethics. Ethics, as a discipline of philosophy that thinks a conception of the good life, or eudemonia in the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics, cannot be realized, and this inability of ethics to make moral claims places politics, and political interventions in a privileged theoretical position. This tendency has led some to claim that politics now precedes ethics as first philosophy for a wide array of Continental thinkers on the left including Badiou, Nancy, Žižek, Laclau, and Agamben.7 The consequence of politics replacing ethics as first philosophy means that any thinking on community must be pre-political, and politics therefore shifts its relation to ethics. A larger consequence of this theoretical shift is that ethics is no longer about the commitment, care, or duty to the Other, as we find for instance in Heidegger, Levinas, or Derrida, and the ethical turn is overturned, as it were, opening to a new, political turn in ethics. Whether Hallaq can think such a political mode of Islamic governance seems to be unlikely; however, based on the events in the Middle East today, such thinking seems more and more necessary.


3 Jean-Luc Nancy, Politics I and Politics II, in Deconstruction: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, Volume 4, edited by Jonathan Culler (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 98. Emphasis in original.
4 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Theory Out of Bounds, Vol. 1, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
5 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 144.
6 Ibid., 148.
7 Carsten Strathausen, “A Critique of Neo-Left Ontology,” Postmodern Culture, Volume 16, Number 3 (May 2006).

The Amputated Father: Kojève’s Theory of Revolution and Authority

With Agamben’s recent invoking of Kojève’s idea of the Latin empire against the German dominance in Europe, and with the recent translation of the short manifesto on authority Kojève wrote amidst the Second World War, it is worth revisiting exactly what sort of theory of revolution Kojève was concerned with.

My review of The Notion of Authority: A Brief Presentation, published by Philosophy Now, looks at how revolution without the guarantee of the father’s divine authority is re-thought by Kojève. In short, I find this study on authority relevant today, but it must be put into conversation with psychoanalysis, something that Kojève did not examine. Below is a version of my essay.

Book Review: Alexandre Kojève The Notion of Authority: A Brief Presentation, translated by Hager Weslati and introduced by François Terré, Verso Books: London and New York, 2014, 107 pp.

Title: “The Amputated Father: Kojève’s Theory of Revolution and Authority”

notion-book cover

The recent English translation of Alexandre Kojève’s, The Notion of Authority: A brief Presentation is an important addition to philosophical studies of authority and an essential text for understanding Kojève’s political thought. While Kojève’s influential lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit left an indelible mark on continental figures such as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Jean Paul Sartre as well as American philosophers such as Leo Strauss, his text on authority was written primarily for a European political and diplomatic audience amidst the Second World War. The book presents a framework for understanding authority from a philosophical point of view, and a blueprint for thinking revolution outside of the model of what he names ‘divine authority.’ It contains a comprehensive introduction by François Terré, a jurisprudence and legal scholar who is responsible for the original French publication of the text.

Kojève’s study should be put into conversation with Hannah Arendt’s essay, What is Authority? and Herbert Marcuse’s Study on Authority, both of which provide important mid-twentieth century philosophical accounts of authority. Kojève’s study is less speculative than these other studies as it presents a clear definition of authority from metaphysical, phenomenological and ontological positions, and not merely a hermeneutical account of authority as found in Arendt and Marcuse. While Arendt and Marcuse favored grounding authority in the negative, Kojève sought a positive definition of authority, one that would be usable for his political present. The debates between Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin on the state of exception also informed the ideas of this text, and given the ongoing current interest in these questions, Kojève’s text remains relevant for a wide continental audience.

As the text provides a schematic blueprint for understanding authority, it is essential that the key terms and definitions be summarized. After providing a brief summary of the text, I will analyze how Kojève constructs a model of authority that forecloses divine authority, or the authority of the Father, and show how this vision is conceived of as a revolutionary project. Surprisingly, the centrality of the father’s authority does not provoke a reflection on psychoanalysis even though Kojève was no doubt familiar with Freud’s conception of the father’s authority in situating the social bond. Marcuse would identify the unit of the family as, “one of the key bulwarks of revolution,[i]” and similarly, Kojève presents a vision of revolution able to persist with the amputation of the father’s “divine authority.”[ii] This review aims to develop the key ways in which this vision of revolution without the guarantee of the father’s divine authority is developed in the text.

Kojève quickly moves to define authority in the opening of the text as, “that which can ‘react’, that is to say, that which can change according to what or who represents (‘embodies’, realizes, or exercises) Authority.”[iii] Authority thus belongs to the person who can effect change and not to the one subjected to change, which is why “authority is the possibility of acting without making compromises.”[iv] In short, authority is acting on others without those others being acted upon, despite their being capable of doing so. This definition of authority implies that a truly authoritarian act does not encounter opposition from those it imposes upon, and as such, authority is unlike a right, where opposition can be had.

Kojève identifies four ‘pure’ types of authority that include the authority of the father, master, leader and judge. Each of these four types of authority has a distinctive ontology, metaphysics and philosophical school of thought that refined it over time. The most original form of authority is divine authority, which is developed by the Scholastics and embodied in the authority of the father over the child, but for most of history it was the rule of God over all. For the Scholastics, every human authority has a divine essence, but with the death of God, although Kojève does not develop this, the Father replaces the divine mode of authority. The authority of the father is ultimately a theological type of authority as the father is placed into the original cause of the universe and as Kojève writes, “the ontological proof of God is an attempt at an ontological analysis of the same Authority of the Father-cause.”[v]

The second pure type of authority is that of the master, developed in Hegel’s theory of consciousness and the master slave dialectic. Hegel’s theory of authority is the most fully developed philosophical account of authority, however its weakness lies in the fact that it reduces the relationship of authority to master and slave alone. As is well known, the master slave dialectic in Hegel is one where the slave has chosen submission over death while the master is ready to risk his life to be recognized. Hegel saw all forms of authority as derivative of that between master and slave and mastery that arises in the struggle to the death for recognition. Hegel’s theory of authority has no place for a theory of the leader or the father, and is thus the most important contribution to authority ever developed philosophically.

The third pure type of authority is the authority of the leader developed first by Aristotle. The leader includes figures such as “the Soothsayer, the Prophet and the Oracle” and “the director, supervisor, Master over the Pupil, the Prophet, etc.” The authority of the leader is based on a future-oriented project or idea that the leader presents. While the authority of the leader includes the election of a candidate, it is important to note that the election of a candidate in a democratic election is not what grants authority, but authority is already present in the candidate, the election simply manifests this authority. Therefore, authority must not be confused with the external signs of recognition.

The fourth pure type of authority is the authority of the judge, which Kojève identifies with Plato’s theory of justice. For Plato, power that does not rest on justice is a pseudo type of authority, and anything other than authority as justice is just brute force. Overall, each of the four types of authority is ontologically incomplete because they were developed originally as a way to account for authority in a universal sense. Hegel’s ontology of negativity and totality can only account for the ontology of the master in the same sense that Aristotle’s prime mover theory can only account for the ontology of the leader.[vi] Overall, there are sixty-four possible combinations of authority based on the four pure types and eleven compound types from these four.

With this framework developed, Kojève presents a brief, and perhaps incomplete set of ideas for revolution, which entails an overthrow of divine authority and for the proper balance of the different types of authority in this context. To perform this amputation of the father, Kojève re-defines the relation of the whole to the parts of society, and as such seeks to create a mode of authority that is not contingent upon social contract theory. Secondly, he proposes a new metaphysical combination of the authority of the judge with that of the master to overcome the authority of the father, which finally entails a temporal change to the status of authority this offers a new definition of revolution that is anti-utopian and no longer grounded on a future-oriented project or a divine foundation.

Kojève attacks social contract theory and Rousseau for privileging the majority with a sui generis type of authority that privileges the whole over the parts. For Kojève, social contract theory is based on a “combination of the father and the judge, but it is never invested with the character of the authority of the leader.”[vii] The reason that he prefers the authority of the leader over the authority of the general will is because it is perceived as too tied to tradition and to the preservation of identity with itself. The notions of authority implicit in Rousseau’s idea of the general will are therefore the authority of the father doubled with that of the judge. To solve this persistence of the father’s authority at the heart of social contract theory, he proposes a re-definition of the social on the metaphor of the organism.

“We cannot speak of the Authority of the Whole over its Parts except in so far as society (or the State) is thought of analogous to an organism. It is therefore this analogy that must guide the phenomenological analysis of the Authority attributed to the ‘general will’.”[viii]

Since social contract theory relies on a biological idea of the whole of the masses as a material reality, this leads to a society based on heredity and the oppressive authority of the father. Thus, what the authority of the general will and the struggle over the whole and the parts misses is the struggle of the master over his slave. In a dialectical sense, what Kojève is seeking to overturn are three aspects of social contract theory: firstly, to reintroduce of the authority of the master and the leader. Secondly, because the master’s struggle to the death and the risk it presents to existence is what brings about revolution or war, this is what brings about the figure of the leader – it is thus necessary to have a stage of mastery in the realm of the state. The master is a temporary moment in the eventual embodiment of authority in the figure of the judge. Thirdly, there is a danger in social contract theory that if we move to the authority of the majority over that of the whole, the authority of the judge disappears and the transmission of authority either takes place through heredity, election or nomination.

Since all authority must envision a world in which reaction is not possible, Kojève totalitarian leaders such as Stalin and Hitler are not necessarily exerting the authority of the father but of the leader, but they lack the authority of the judge to temper their future-oriented political project. Since they do not posses authority in the eternal mode, but they possess only a primacy on the future, the judge must balance the authority of the leader as the judge is outside of time but is not bringing the authority of an eternal establishment of authority as the father’s authority does.

“The suppression of the Authority of the Father has a character that is unequivocally ‘revolutionary’: the ‘constitutional’ theory is born out of the spirit of revolt and revolution, and it generates the (‘bourgeois’) revolution in as much as it is realized.”[ix]

Paradoxically, it is through revolution that the authority of the father returns in bourgeois revolutions. The bourgeoisie want to forget their origins a commoners, to disown their shameful past and they amputate the father.[x] The amputation of the authority of the father necessarily leads to the emergence of the authority of the leader and this is the origin of the era of bourgeois domination. But ultimately, this present-oriented mode of authority fails because it is what Kojève calls “non-human”; it does not have a past or a future, food and sex are paramount and such a society will bring about the end of history as Kojève defined it in his lectures on Hegel.

Kojève’s vision of revolution is thus developed in an antithetical relation to bourgeois revolution, and entails a combination of the Master, Leader and Judge and the foreclosure of the Father. As Kojève states:

 “The Authority of the Leader, isolated from that of the Master, takes a ‘utopian’ character: the legislation that is separated from its execution constructs a ‘Utopia’ with no ties with the Present (that is to say, it fails to remain in force in the Present), and it drags along with it in its downfall the Authority that has produced it – and, with it, the State itself in its ‘separated’ form.”[xi]

There is little of Kojève’s vision of revolution that is applicable to today’s revolutionary situation, and what he calls the ‘révolution nationale’ is proposed for the situation of Vichy occupied France. Revolution is thought dialectically in the idea of “a complete negation of the given-present” and one that is “carried out without any solution of continuity with the totality of the past.”[xii] This leader-directed vision of revolution is founded in a program that is both anti-utopian, because it is against the present, and also against the divine authority of the father as it refuses any return to a glorious past that would ground the meaning of revolutionary calls to action.

Importantly, one should not read this vision of revolution as identical to the conservative Révolution nationale implemented by Marshal Petain under the Vichy government, which held the motto of “Work, family, fatherland.” Kojève’s notion of revolution is anathema to Petain’s conservative program as it clearly remained tethered to the authority of the past and to the paradigm of the father. At the same time, the fact that Kojève supports a state that is founded on the “Master-Leader” authority model implies that the state must be founded on the risk of the master slave dialectic. While Kojève refuses to cede the authority to go to war with a single head of state or “Marshal,” it is a progressive sign that he places war-granting authority in the hands of what he calls the “manifest assembly,” a congress-like body composed by the people.


[i] Marcuse, Herbert A Study on Authority, Verso Books: London and New York, 2008, 76.

[ii] For further speculation about Kojève’s relation to psychoanalysis in this text, see Avital Ronell’s Loser Sons: Politics and Authority

[iii] Alexandre Kojève The Notion of Authority: A Brief Presentation, trans. Hager Weslati and introduced by François Terré, Verso Books: London and New York, 2014, 7.

[iv] Ibid, 9.

[v] Ibid, 26.

[vi] Ibid, 57.

[vii] Ibid, 41.

[viii] Ibid, 41.

[ix] Ibid, 64.

[x] Ibid, 64.

[xi] Ibid, 75.

[xii] Ibid, 101.


My Book Review of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today

My review of Remzig Keucheyan’s, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today is up at the Huffington Post. As you can see from my review, I found the book to be a tremendous contribution to the field of left politics and organization and to the academic field of critical theory. Has critical theory begun to shrug off the stereotype that its disconnected from concrete social problems? Has the critical public intellectual begun to make a comeback?

The Resurgence of the Leftist Public Intellectual

The American philosopher Richard Rorty once wrote that academe’s obsession with theory creates a ‘shibboleth’ in the university system, sheltering and confining its debates and polemics from the public sphere. Rorty made this accusation back in the mid-1990’s, right as the movement of ‘theory’ began to make its heyday following the immense influence of French philosophers Derrida and Foucault. The consequence of this shibboleth was that the jargon and the obscurity of theory created a profound disconnect with the working class and non-academics became marginal to revolutionary ideas. Since the decline of the New Left starting in the late 1970’s, leftist and progressive intellectuals have become more and more absorbed into the institution of academe and as a result, the figure of the public critical intellectual, which formerly had a role in major debates from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, lost its cultural hegemony and moral force in the wider culture. The politics of tenure began to outweigh the politics of the larger culture and the public critical intellectual became a dinosaur, something from another time all together.

Concurrent with the decline of the left, the figure of the ‘expert’ public intellectual filled the void and eventually replaced the critical intellectual in terms of prominence and moral authority on issues of the day. Leftist intellectuals used to be so central to intellectual life in America, for example, that even today’s neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, William Cristol and Paul Wolfowitz were all former Trotskyite intellectuals, enamored with leftist polemics and debate. But today, the expert dominates the very meaning and public image of what an intellectual is. The expert provides commentary on social and political policy, which ends up being watered down consultation to elites on matters of governance and crisis management. The expert informs the public about how to improve their lifestyle choices. The stepbrother of the expert intellectual is the TED-talk intellectual who provides what one writer refers to as ‘magical thinking‘ for tech-entrepreneurs and the wealthy elite. Where the policy expert and the TED-talk entrepreneur fail is that they disregard the traditional role that intellectuals played in public life, of serving as agents of resistance to the status quo, often offering systemic and radical critiques of capitalism. Today’s intellectual is rarely allowed to offer critiques that point to solutions requiring structural changes to the status quo of neoliberal life.

Despite the decline of the critical intellectual over the last several decades, the field of academic critical theory has expanded its influence both within academe, (in fields outside of the humanities such as economics and ecology) but more importantly, the critical public intellectual has been influencing social movements beyond the confines of the ivory tower since the 1990’s to the present. As the American Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson argues, the left can only begin to overcome its defeat by providing what he calls a ‘cognitive mapping’ of its key ideas and strategies. Remzig Keucheyan’s, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today is an important contribution to the field of critical theory today as it provides such a cognitive mapping. Not only is the book an excellent introduction to the burgeoning field of critical theory as it surveys the key ideas of master thinkers such as Jacques Rancière, Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, Gayatri Spivak and Slavoj Žižek, it also sheds light on lesser known thinkers such as Elmar Altavater and Yann Moulier Boutang. Keucheyan situates contemporary critical theory historically and links its resurgence to the resurgence of leftist political movements globally and he goes beyond merely summarizing the salient ideas of key thinkers but effectively highlights the most important debates within critical theory.

The field of critical theory is broken down into two very general categories in the book: critiques of the system of global capitalism such as imperialism, the nation-state, and citizenship are analyzed and secondly, critiques of the subject of emancipation, i.e. how questions of revolutionary agency, equality, freedom, rights and gender are being thought by critical theorists. Today’s critical theorists are most often working with classical Marxist categories such as exploitation, wage labor and accumulation; however, many thinkers have re-formulated these categories and reflect upon problems of ecology, neoliberalism and other contemporary problems of capitalism.

Keucheyan charts the origin of today’s critical theory with the emergence of the global New Left in the late 1950’s to the late 1970’s. In Europe and America, the New Left period witnessed the rise of a centralized base of leftist organizations, from labor unions to socialist parties. What this meant for critical thinking was that the struggle for emancipation from capitalist domination was waged first and foremost from the factory and the agents of this struggle were the worker and the party form. While the New Left did not attain much political power during this time, it did see the rise of the May 68’s global protest movements against capitalism, which had their epicenter in France. Paris served as the center of the world for critical thinkers, whereas today it is the United States and New York City. Major French thinkers such as Sartre, Derrida and Foucault played a seminal role in the intellectual development of today’s critical thinkers, many of whom were students of these thinkers, such as Gayatri Spivak was of Derrida. While fewer critical theorists from the New Left period are still writing and publishing today, the names of Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou are two of the most prominent examples of thinkers from the May 1968 protests that are still engaged in and active with publishing books of political theory and philosophy.

The decline of the New Left is a story of betrayal and resilience. This period of decline occurs from 1977 to 1993, with the rise of the alter-globalization movements. On the side of betrayal, what occurred during this period is that many formerly committed critical intellectuals abandoned their fidelity to radical ideas and chose to become integrated into various movements of liberal thought such as the French New Philosophers movement. In France, former Maoist intellectuals such as Andre Glucksman and the Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti began to adopt neoliberal ideals. Similarly, in China, many critical intellectuals abandoned Marxist ideas as Deng Xiaoping ushered in neoliberal reforms in the 1980’s. In Argentina, critical intellectuals veered away from the radical Marxist tradition and modified their thought to adapt to changing dynamics in their country. While not an outright betrayal to radical left ideas, some critical intellectuals, most notably in Argentina, (where the passive revolution known as Peronism occurred) argued that a new theory of seizing power must be created because the proletariat had lost its organization. This modified theory of leftist revolutionary moved away from the more classical Leninist notions and many critical thinkers have similarly expanded their range of references and tactics for thinking revolution in an age when the left has all but lost its party and worker base of power. This innovation of leftist theory and strategy is evident in the thought of the late critical theorist Ernesto Lacalu. For Laclau, the thought of Gramsci, particularly the concept of hegemony, presented a radically new way to think of the different ways that identity groups such as labor unions, minorities and others contest for attaining the status of ‘the people’ and how seizing power at the level of civil society might occur, instead of seizing power at the state level (242).

The early 1990’s witnessed a rise in critical theory from its slumber as many critical thinkers gained a foothold as commentators and analysts of various social movements, most notably the alter-globalization protests, the anti-war movement and more recently with Occupy and a number of indigenous anti-capitalist movements. While Kuecheyan does not provide an exhaustive genealogy of the relation between critical thought and social movements and today’s leftist militancy, it is clear that a dialectical relation exists between critical theory and a centralized strengthened leftist base. More research into this dialectical relation would make for a fascinating continuation of this study.

Thinking a New Subject of Emancipation:

A preoccupation with the theme of the subject in critical theory is central to the work of many thinkers, from Alain Badiou’s theory of the militant subject, to Giorgio Agamben’s idea of homo saccer. This preoccupation with the subject can be traced to historical and theoretical forces. For starters, the left no longer has a privileged subject of revolution, as the figure of the worker and of the working class has disappeared as a unit of empirical reality and thus they no longer contain the same potency of agency and hence they are no longer viable subjects for producing social change (169). What destroyed the working class as the agent of emancipation was the overwhelming success of neoliberal ideology and the fragmentation of the industrial working class (169).

With the evaporation of the figure of the worker as the subject of emancipation and the shift away from the factory as the site of contestation, critical thinkers have expanded their range of references to historical figures of emancipation. Although overwhelmingly atheist, critical thinkers have invoked religious figures such as St. Paul, Thomas Müntzer, Gandhi and they include references to the Book of Job, the Old Testament and even the American founding fathers. Religion is invoked in order to think through different problems that the ‘end of ideology’ presents to our world today. One of the premises of this return to thinking a more emancipatory form of religious thought is that such a thinking might prove a tonic to the fundamentalist turn that has affected Christianity and Islam over the last several decades, providing it with a set of alternative narratives, histories and figures of radicalism. Invoking religious thought also enables thinkers to probe the more complex nature of belief and ideology, in an age of capitalism that lacks compelling alternative ideologies to global capitalism.

The theme of identity and ways of thinking outside of and beyond the limitations that identity politics presents is another important topic addressed by critical theorists such as Habermas, Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, and Jacques Rancière. Interestingly, Kuecheyan notes how the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who questioned different regimes of normality and subjects outside of the norm, such as subjects classified with mental illness, prisoners, etc. is what in part led to a larger fascination with an expansive category of identity. More generally, critical theorists that examine the question of identity are concerned with different ways it is ontologically possible through an encounter with others or through a procedure of recognition to arrive at different states of emancipation from psychical servitude.

On the topic of feminist theory in today’s critical theory, Keucheyan highlights the work of Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler and Donna Harraway and characterizes their thought as “post-feminist” in that they break with the mold of feminism. For Harraway, the very category of ‘women’ does not exist. In a different but related way, there is no representational politics that does not create exclusion for Judith Butler. Both of these positions are tied up in a larger critique of gender norms (199). In terms of the field of postcolonial studies, which has transformed greatly in recent years, Kuecheyan highlights the important concept of ‘strategic essentialism,’ developed by a branch of postcolonial studies called subaltern studies. It argues that essentialism is still deployed despite its waning effect in reality. One of the most often deployed critiques in critical theory therefore various critiques of essentialism and universalism, both of which haunt Eurocentric discourses and systems of thought, from metaphysics to ethics. Strategic essentialism maintains that identities do not refer to anything substantive and essentialism still operates on all subjects and they aren’t able escape it. The ubiquity of essentialism is often useful for political action, however in the realm of critical theory one of the things critiques of essentialism has led to is the idea that the category of class is itself that which underlies all forms of domination, and thus it is not one social antagonism on par with another form of oppression. This is a matter of debate amongst critical thinkers where thinkers such as Žižek argue that class antagonism is a priori the site of social antagonism, whereas Ernesto Lacalu argues that social antagonisms should be understood along a more nuanced spectrum of struggles.

Critiques of the System of Global Capitalism:

In the ‘system’ chapter of the book, Kuecheyan examines debates about the status of capitalism and offers insight into schools of thought such as cognitive capitalism, historical materialism, and radical ecological thought. Cognitive capitalism owes much of its thinking to the long tradition of Italian operaismo, or autonomism, which posits that knowledge becomes a central domain for production with the innovations in capitalism following the 1970’s. With the ascendancy of knowledge value, the worker ceases to be the central figure in the process of production. For Negri, a central proponent of autonomism, the workers movements won against capitalism in the 60’s and 70’s and a new version of capitalism was created. The implication is that class struggle extends to all of society, and power functions in a dualistic manner. There is power over (potere) something and power to (potenza). It is this latter power to, where Negri identifies what he calls the multitude, and the former mode of power over is what he calls empire, or the large system of global capitalism. In his famous text, Empire, co-written with Michael Hardt, Negri argues that imperialism is over and power is now exerted across all territories.

David Harvey, the well-known Marxist geographer, makes a similar point when he argues that capitalism produces a “space-time compression” that annihilates public space and the commons. Unlike Hardt and Negri, Harvey submits that imperialism is still operative in today’s global capitalism, even though the nation-state form is in decline. Harvey argues that imperialism is triggered when under-consumption is created as a result of the exploitation of workers in the countries at the center of the world economy. Under-consumption creates insufficient demand and then forces the exploiting countries to shift overseas, thus imperialism shifts grounds from the nation-state to the private market taking the hegemonic role (105 – 106).

Perhaps the most developed theory of cognitive capitalism is found in the work of Yann Moulier Boutang who argues that contemporary capitalism has transitioned to a third age of capitalism following mercantislism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and industrial capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This new era is one of cognitive capitalism, and the ‘cognitariat’ are the new proletarian subjects who are exploited by their brain and their labor is reduced to immaterial labor (92 – 93). Critics of cognitive capitalism insist that the opposition between capital and labor remains formative and they argue that there is no transition from labor value to knowledge value (140). Michel Husson, for example, argues that the dislocation of the Fordist wage relation has resulted in what he calls ‘pure capitalism’ and the appropriate measure must be the abolition of the wage earning class and a reduction in working hours (142).

Other critics of cognitive capitalism are thinkers such as Elmar Altvater who wrote the important ecological Marxist essay, “Is there an ecological Marxism?” Altvater also developed the idea of “fossil capitalism” and points out that the source of energy supply is the sin qua non of capitalist production and accumulation. The conclusion to be drawn from this theory is that investment in the green economy is doomed from the outset because it does not provide an adequate level of investment for profit making, which means that neoliberalism is unable to adequately sustain the expansion of a green economy. Altavater also developed the idea of the Entropy Law that looks at how energy depletion is tied to economic processes, shattering the assumption that growth is infinitely possible. For Altvater, the law of value makes labor value the main surplus value there is. Altvater claims that only major state-based investments in a solar economy and a solar revolution can alter the Entropy Law.

Since its birth, capitalism has gone through four stages or cycles of accumulation and each stage has a material and a financial stage. As a result of the inevitable fall of profit rates, capital enters a financial stage to continue to reap profits. The United States is currently at the center of today’s global financial capitalism. World-systems theorists develop this theory of financial capital, most notably Giovanni Arrighi, who argues that American imperialism has reached an ossified state where it exerts domination but it no longer has economic hegemony, rather only military hegemony. What signaled the decline of the U.S. as a global hegemon was its imperial blunders in Vietnam and later in the Iraq war. Structurally, the problem is that financialization does not fix the problem of the rate of profit and a cycle of crisis and major social unrest unfurl during a period of financialization (154).

What will follow the U.S. empire? Many argue that China is emerging as the next economic hegemon, and one hypothesis is that the coming decades will unleash a period of intense chaos until a new mode of capital accumulation will be developed. The consequences of this shift will be multiple, but it will entail the destruction of decayed cities and neighborhoods in its wake, such as what is occurring in Detroit today and it will lead to an increase in riots and protests. The theme of accumulation is addressed by a number of critical theorists and one of the main ideas of accumulation is that capitalism always needs an exterior to overcome its crises of over-accumulation, thus accumulation entails the usurpation of former communal areas, and lays the slate clean for accumulation through war (107). War takes over existing sites of production and refurbishes them, a concept that draws on Marx’s notion of original accumulation – always following capital like its shadow.


What does critical theory tell us about the future of social struggles? Keucheyan is wise to point to the central role that ecology and the ever-growing ecological crisis will play as a site of social antagonism and political conflict. He identifies the ecological movement as a ‘worksite’ of future engagement. In a fascinating point towards the end of the text, he argues that the ecological movement is waiting for its very own Marx to provide a mature theoretical account of the social relations that underpin today’s ecological crisis and the oppression that it wreaks. Following the development of the theory of today’s material conditions, a set of organizing principles connected to that thought would have to then follow. The other worksite he identifies is the party form of politics, which is beginning to make a comeback with the rise of Syriza in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain, two far left parties vying for political power.

Public Series of Lectures on Resistance, Protest and Social Struggles

I’m hosting a public series for GCAS on the topic of Resistance, Protest and Social Struggles. This free and open to the public series will feature weekly lectures from philosophers, theorists and activists. We will meet weekly on Saturday’s starting February 7th to May 2nd. To register for this free series go here.

The series is free and open to the GCAS community of researchers, students and the general public. Registration is required but there is no cost.

The series will kickoff with a lecture from theorist and poet Joshua Clover on the emerging age of riots. It will be followed by two lectures from the philosopher Farhang Erfani on the late theorist Ernesto Laclau and today’s social struggles.

Lecture #1:

“Riot Material”

Instructor: Joshua Clover

Joshua Clover specializes in 20th Century anglophone poetry and poetics, political economy, crisis theory, with an emphasis on political struggle in literature, environment, feminism, and cultures of finance. He has two books of cultural theory, routed through film and popular music respectively. His book Of Riot, a theorization of riot as historical phenomenon, is forthcoming from Verso in 2016.


February 7th and February 14th at 10 am PST / 1 pm EST. Each session will meet for two hours online in the GCAS BigBlue Button online classroom. Courses will include lecture and class discussion.



The emerging “Age of Riots” has begun to throw off its own theories, often trying to taxonomize these increasingly significant events and to situate them within political sequences. Our goal will be to understand them first as expressions not of given political subjectivities but of global capital’s necessary restructurations over the long durée, plotting a trajectory from the 17th century to the present. In so doing, we will try to understand riots neither as foreshortened revolt nor as irrational spasm, but as a genre within a larger material struggle with its own historical logic, one which will allow us to make certain predictions about the future of lived political antagonism. We will start with the simplest question: why, on November 24th of last year, did the riots that settled on the hashtag #blacklivesmatter take the form of freeway shutdowns in 20 cities? What does this have to do with bread riots before the Industrial Revolution? And what can this tell us about the revolutionary horizon before us?

An Interview with Dr. Daniel Tutt about his GCAS Series, “Badiou & Philosophy”

Here is an interview with the Global Center for Advanced Studies.


GCAS Interview with Daniel Tutt on Badiou and Philosophy–To register and study with Alain Badiou & Daniel Tutt please follow this link:

Daniel Tutt, PhD Daniel Tutt, PhD

January 11, 2015

Q:  What is your relationship with Alain Badiou?

Daniel Tutt:  I am a student of Alain Badiou. After attending a couple of his seminars at the European Graduate School, I asked if he would advise my dissertation and he agreed. During the process of working on my dissertation, which looked at the question of community and subjectivity in contemporary thought, I put together the idea of making a film about philosophy, inspired largely by Badiou’s thought. Film is a really long and often-brutal process of discovery, and this film is still ongoing, but Badiou agreed early on to be interviewed for the film. This film is looking at what philosophers have to say about the return of massive social struggles…

View original post 1,913 more words

Why Do the Masses Posses Reason?

The figure of the masses in protest takes on a near mystical and highly rational logic in post-Leninist thought during the twentieth century. For example, one of the things that Althusser abandoned in his theory of overdetermination was that the general contradiction between forces of production and relations of production–embodied in the antagonistic relation between the two classes–was not a sufficient contradiction to provoke a revolutionary situation.

The concept of overdetermination, much like the idea of the ‘weakest link’ was a way of accounting for how revolutionary Russia presented the weakest point within imperial states but still revolted successfully. This is because Russia had the largest sum of historical contradictions that tipped over into a core principle of revolt, and it was at this objective stage of development that the figure of the masses present the power of a new type of logic.

Overdetermination was an attempt to identify the masses as a new “ruptural principal” — and for some time, Althusser adopted Mao’s notion that the principal contradiction was on the side of the masses in revolt, and not on the side of the organized proletariat (labor unions, the existing party, etc.). But Althusser abandoned this idea in favor of the idea that a revolution of the infrastructure does not ipso facto modify the existing superstructures and particularly the ideologies of the state. While Althusser was influenced by the Cultural Revolution, he ended up deviating from much of its theoretical project of purification and came to abandon the core dialectical approach of the “one divides into two” in his rejection of Hegel in favor of a scientific Marxism.

But despite the complete transformation of twentieth century Maoism and its questionable legacy today, I argue that there are several highly important lessons to glean from this pre-Theory of the Subject set of theoretical work, particularly in Alain Badiou’s set of essays, “On Ideology,” “Theory of Contradiction,” “The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic,” and the “Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism.” These pre-Theory of the Subject texts are instructive to today’s situation of global riots and insurrections as they reveal how the figure of the masses possess a logic that is too often dismissed in contemporary theory. Putting aside the fact that we no longer have a party politics framework on the left, can we still rely on the logic and the reason of the figure of the masses as subject?

Class Struggle vs. Class Conflict

To revisit the central claims of these texts, we can start with the difference between the class struggle and class conflict. Class conflict is embodied in the fundamental capitalist contradiction between relations of production and forces of production. This is the first-level contradiction, but to think a rupture within this contradiction would not effectively result in a modification to the situation. The more fundamental contradiction had become saturated. The more significant, principal contradiction, is on the side of the class struggle, which is embodied in the conflicts over power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

This is the principal contradiction because it contains a strong inequality of the Two classes, but within each class, there is an additional set of contradictions over the appropriation of the figure of the masses. As Mao argued, the principal contradiction is always on the side of the masses, and the figure of the masses in revolt against the status quo, or against the bosses, labor unions, or the party, etc. present, if not the outward sign of a communist name or slogan, a set of implicit ‘communist invariants.’ As Badiou writes, “there exists, regardless of the epoch under consideration,” a set of “egalitarian, anti-proprietary and anti-statist aspirations” in every revolt by the masses.

In Theory of the Subject, Badiou will revise this model of the two contradictions and show how there is both a class contradiction, which is a structural fact, and there is class struggle, which is a political process under certain conditions. The second principal contradiction is not deducible from a weak correlation, but rather, the class struggle is a strong correlation because it results in the ruin of the One. At any given time, there is a historical (strong correlation and strong difference) and a structural contradiction (weak correlation).

But the class struggle between the ruling class and the oppressed class is still dominant–in terms of the place of positioning in the class struggle–on the side of the bourgeois ruling class. The struggle between the two classes is often over the figure of the masses, and every contradiction divides the people into two. This is one of the central ways to understand the very definition of the “one divides into two.” The conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat is such that it possesses reality only insofar as each one of them organizes the people (masses) on its own terms.

The concrete example of the Peasant Revolt in the late 1920’s in China is one of the primary empirical mutations to class struggle that presented the figure of the masses in a new light. Here, the masses revealed a new way of overcoming the contradictions inherent both in the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Because the peasant masses defied the corruption of the existing revolutionary party and brought about a successful revolt, Mao placed a new level of trust in the masses and this is why Badiou will develop a new Kantian sense of reason on the radical chance of the masses.

Revolt as Reason

What does it mean to say that the revolt is reason? There are two types of reason. The first is based on the dictum that “it is right to rebel against the reactionaries.” This formula does not mean in the first place that “one must rebel against the reactionaries” but rather that “one rebels against the reactionaries”—it is a fact, and this fact is reason. What the formula states is the primacy of practice at the level of reason.

In addition to the development of a logic and a reason of the masses revolt, their radical contingent logic is also central to re-periodizing Marxist historiography. As Badiou states, it is the masses that “condense one rational time and deploy another.” What this framework of the principal contradiction gives us – in regards to historical periodization, is that it highlights a historical contradiction. The result being that the current place of the subjective is on the side of a historical contradiction. The lesson of the masses reinforces the Leninist dictum that “politics is the concentration of the economy” which means that politics must take precedence over the economic sphere. The conclusion here is that ‘every subject is political’ and not economic. Every subject is on the side of the principal contradiction, which is a political contradiction.

In the Margins of Anti-Oedipus 

One way to understand what it means to privilege the logic of the masses is to examine Badiou’s theory in relation to Deleuze and Guattari. The short polemical essay written in response to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus called “The Flux and the Party: In the Margins of Anti-Oedipus” gets at this question. In this short text, Badiou is opposed to Deleuze and Guatarri’s ‘positivizing’ of the revolutionary subject. He is arguing that Deleuze and Guattari are thinking a subject of revolution that can be posited by its own immanent position through a re-configuration of desire.

Such a structure of thinking the subject fails as it assigns the future revolt, and places the masses in a position of what Badiou would later come to call “the place” in Theory of the Subject. What the “professors of desire” prefer in their nomadic assemblage is the utopian ‘outplace’ that perfunctorily assumes the outplace without a proper rupture from the place or ‘splace’ that is inhabited by the state/bourgeoisie. This situation will always fall back into the logic of the bourgeoisie and fail to capture the masses logic. One of the more interesting things that Badiou claims is that Deleuze and Guattari are returning to Kant in that they are putting forth a false binary between subjugated groups and the other by subject-groups.

What is striking in this polemic against Deleuze and Guattari is how it resembles the same polemic that Badiou wages against Negri post Arab spring. I wrote about this in a review of Badiou’s latest text on the four forms of the riot, however, it is striking to see the same general positioning of the masses then as now.

Announcing New Badiou and Philosophy Seminars

I’m teaching three seminars on the work of Alain Badiou and philosophy for the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS). The seminars will open with a consideration of Badiou’s relation to politics and psychoanalysis, a part of Badiou’s work I am the most drawn to, and which I have spent the most time studying. Then in early 2015, the seminar will turn to the question of art, aesthetics and more recent work by Badiou on these topics. At some point in 2015, Badiou will offer a guest lecture during the course. Finally, we will examine how Badiou’s work on the antiphilosophers informs and shapes his own idea of philosophy.

The first part of these seminars began with a set of lectures by Badiou on the evolution of his philosophy entitled “Badiou on Badiou.” The seminars can be attended by non-students and I will be posting readings and other syllabi information on the Facebook group.

If you have any questions about the seminars, and if you are not on Facebook, but wish to receive more information, please feel free to email me.

To register, go here

GCAS Badiou and Philosophy Series


The series is delivered in English and will serve as a continuation of the “Badiou On Badiou” seminars delivered by Alain Badiou on the key stages of his philosophical project.

The goal of the series is to provide an immersion into the key concepts of Badiou’s thought by looking at his work in relation to contemporary philosophers and philosophical trends more generally, key themes raised in his work, and ways to apply his thinking to politics, art and other fields.

Badiou Series-final

Seminar 1: Politics, Psychoanalysis and the Subject 

In this seminar, we will focus on Badiou’s political and ethical thought in the context of his larger re-formulation of philosophical categories of truth, the subject, universality and logic. Beginning with Badiou’s early, and politically charged philosophical text, Theory of the Subject and on through to his more recent texts on ethics and politics, including St. Paul, the Ethics, this seminar will place Badiou’s politics in relation to the larger turn to political ontology in continental philosophy. The seminar will compare and contrast Badiou’s political and ethical thought in with his contemporaries Deleuze, Derrida, Nancy, Žižek, Meillassoux and Rancière. It will take special focus on Badiou’s political break with Lacan in Theory of the Subject and trace the consequences of this political break with psychoanalysis and its relation to Badiou’s unique theory of the subject. Badiou’s ongoing debates with Žižek, Miller and the larger field of post-Lacanian thought will also be examined in relation to concepts such as the psychoanalytic institution, the drives, politics and desire.

October 12th
October 26th
November 9th
November 23rd
December 7th
December 21st

Seminar 2: Inaesthetics: Cinema, Poetry and Art  

This seminar will closely read Badiou’s interventions into art, poetry, theater and cinema as a means of exploring his larger philosophical project. Pulling from a wide range of Badiou’s essays and excerpts from his major philosophical texts, we will examine Badiou’s reading of Hölderlin, Mallarme, Pessoa, Beckett and we will examine writings from these authors. This course will develop a core understanding of the relation of art to the Idea, the truth condition of art, and art’s relation to thinking. Students will be asked to write on the condition of art and apply Badiou’s thinking to contemporary topics and themes in the art world, popular culture, cinema, theater etc. A visiting artist and theorist will guest lecture during this seminar to help place Badiou’s ideas on art in relation to new trends in the art world.

January 4th
January 18th
February 1st
February 15th
March 1st

Seminar 3: Decision, Act, Event: Philosophy and Antiphilosophy

The category of antiphilosophy has provoked considerable debate and discussions in contemporary philosophy, and Badiou’s seminars on the antiphilosophers St. Paul, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Lacan have added an important contribution to the topic. What does it mean for the philosopher to stay in close contact with the antiphilosopher? What is the meaning of the decision, act and the event for the antiphilosopher, compared to the philosopher? This course will examine Badiou’s definition of philosophy, the event and truth in relation to antiphilosophy, and will work to develop new understandings around Badiou’s idea and re-definition of philosophy. Readings from Being and Event, Logics of Worlds, Manifesto for Philosophy,Second Manifesto for Philosophy, Conditions as well as excerpts from Badiou’s seminar on antiphilosophy, and other writing on antiphilosophy from Lacan, Boris Groys and Justin Clemens will be required.

March 15th
March 29th
April 12th (skip Easter on April 5th)
April 26th
May 3rd