What Is Communism Anyway? 2: Come and Join the Collective, Research Time, 24/02/2014

Continued from previous. Ultimately, as a philosophical matter, my biggest problem with Alain Badiou is his conception of the subject as collective. That is, individuality is only ontologically possible insofar as a person is counted as one, counted as a member of a collective. That collective can even contain just one, but it is still a collective. This may sound like some dogmatic Maoism, one more fool uncritically following a doctrine which they believe on the basis of faith. In his political writings, Badiou does discuss how an individual must have total faith in the movement to bring about a just world and change human character along the lines of justice and true material equality among people. But those words about faith do not seem to be for him. Badiou himself has already discovered the reasons why the subject is necessarily constituted through a collective. I think it lies at the fundamental basis of his entire philosophy.

Badiou can be quite difficult, especially in his ontology,
but he deserves his reputation as a tantalizing author.
You see, the first I read of Badiou was Being and Event, a copy that I picked up while on vacation in Toronto back in 2006. It was a Book City bookstore, which is why I’ve always had good feelings about that franchise: most relatively commercial bookstores have pretty miserable philosophy sections, and this one had an esoteric, huge, and complex account of set theory as the original ontology of existence itself, and how political devotion to a revolutionary cause arises from our encounters with events that are incommensurable with previous orders of being and re-inscribe participants into a new collective. Being and Event is one hell of a book, and I consider it one of the greatest philosophical achievements that a single person has made since the Second World War.

However, we don’t always agree with that we admire. Sadly, I don’t see enough admiring critique in philosophy. Young partisans and fans of Badiou tend to lionize and worship him too much. But the grounds of my disagreement lie in Badiou’s conception of the subject.

A detour that isn’t really a digression. The hallmark of Being and Event was, for me, Badiou’s account of set theory as fundamental ontology. Basically, because at its most basic level, in terms of a body’s mere existence, it can always be counted as a member of a set — the most we can do is count them. He spun several more elaborate ontological principles from applying the operations of set theory in an ontological context, but my story today only requires that basic starting point. Even if a body is counted only as one, it is still one only insofar as it is a set; it would simply be a member of a set with one member. Even nothingness counts as one: the null set. 

So every body is only an individual insofar as it is part of a collective; in the most fundamental aspect of its ontology, its mere existence, a body is part of a collective. So it goes for the subject; even at the individual level, it exists only as part of a collective. To deny this status as a collectivity ignores the most fundamental aspect of its very ontology: that it is only what it is insofar as it is a member of a set. Even a set of one, or a set of nothing, is still a collective. And every individual is a set.

Badiou has done something quite remarkable in following through the implications of his approach to fundamental ontology completely into an ethical and political philosophy, his theory of the subject. Bear in mind that this is only speculation after a partial reading of his work. I don’t speak as an expert on the corpus of Badiou (that may never happen, depending on your standard of expertise), but as an expert on philosophical research and reading exploring an idea of Badiou’s in some essays. So any categorical statements I make now will be provisional (and elaborated a little more tomorrow, but not in the sense some of you might think). 

In an essay in The Communist Hypothesis, Badiou describes
China's Cultural Revolution, particularly is first three years,
as a properly subjectivizing event.
In a political sense, the event, that incommensurable opportunity to change the character of one’s existence, is a moment in a subject’s life when he can actually subjectivize himself. It is a moment when he can change who he is: from a self-conscious individual who believes in his separateness from all others, he realizes that he is a member of a set. The event is the kind of moment that wakes a person up to understand that he only exists as a member of a collective. 

One of the earliest criticisms I made of Badiou was that a person’s formative event need not be one that lets someone actualize himself as a radical/communist egalitarian, but could instead have inspired Nazi nationalism, robber-baron capitalism with absolute contempt for the poor, or some other repugnant ideology or faith. Now that I have a better handle on the implicative relationships of the ontology to the politics, I think I understand how the communist political philosophy follows from it. 

Communism is the only political form that is adequate to the fundamental nature of a body’s existence, existing only as a member of a set, a collective. So the only authentic subject is one who struggles for communism, the radical material equality that counts every person as one, just as every being is counted as one.

My central problem with this, and the topic of tomorrow’s post: There is more to the subject than its existence alone.

No comments:

Post a Comment