Political Truth in the Age of Populism: Part 1

A conversation on what philosophy can tell us about politics today

On February 21, 2018, Leon Brenner,  a Ph.D. candidate at Tel Aviv University and a guest scholar at the Freie Universität Institute of Philosophy in Berlin, specialising in the fields of Lacanian psychoanalysis, philosophy and epistemology, gave a lecture at Stillpoint Spaces Berlin entitled Political Truth in the Age of Populism.

The invitation to the lecture read: “Basing ourselves on the philosophy of Alain Badiou we will explore an innovative conception of “Truth” which can guide our politics beyond the devastating power of the populist right. Going beyond relativism and moralism, we will insist that Badiou’s new conception of the universality of truth can give shape to contemporary politics, enabling us to distinguish between “truthful” political actions, and “corrupt” or “obscure” forms of politics.”

In unpacking Badiou’s concept of truth in politics, Brenner laid down in accessible terms the coordinates for understanding how political change in the world unfolds, and what it can mean. Throughout this dense, intricate and rewarding interview—which we are publishing in three parts over the next three weeks—I sought to engage both with Brenner and Badiou in posing questions relevant to my own experiences of politics, and those that currently make the political news. As such, the interview became an extended  dialogue on issues ranging from the commodification of public space to the pursuit of political independence.

At the heart of this philosophical exchange lies the preoccupation with the event, a complex Badiouan concept, developed through decades of theorising in works such as Being and Event (1988) or Logic of Worlds (2006) (on which this lecture and interview are mostly based). It is a concept he derived from set theory in mathematics, with the aim of accounting for an ontology of being. How does the being of anything come to be?  Far from pretending to grasp it in its depth, my humble attempts to use this concept throughout this interview/dialogue resemble, on the one hand, approximations of a novice towards a beguiling, yet potent, concept. On the other, the elucidating elaborations of Brenner make these movements of approximation less daunting and, often enough, make one see that philosophy, despite its complexity, offers a tremendously liberating perspective on reality.

~Sokol Ferizi 



Sokol: I remember the first text I read by Badiou more than a decade ago. It was a printed copy of an essay called Philosophy and Desire (from Infinite Thought) where he says that philosophy is a logical revolt, it pits thought against injustice. To do philosophy means to do something to injustice by thinking. That phrase stuck in my mind. I came back to this text today, and Badiou goes on to define philosophy as a desire for revolt, a desire for logic, a desire for universality and a desire for risk. When was your first contact with Badiou?

Leon: I encountered him first while studying aesthetics, so it wasn’t only in the political field. In Handbook of Inaesthetics he has an essay called “Art and Philosophy”.  It’s a very interesting essay. It displays a kind of ethics in art, giving a philosophical argument to what is the Good in art. Not good as in good or bad, or pleasing, but an ethics. And that was very interesting for me. It hooked me. At that time I was very much into Foucault, but I had hit a sort of dead end in my revolutionary thought. Especially in his Archeological period, when power is everywhere. Then, ethics is hard to describe. That was after I had started with Marx, so Marx was a bigger master, compared to Foucault. Badiou was a way out of Foucault. Badiou provided an ethics that still took the subject into account, which with Foucault is lost: the subject is defined as a construct of discourse, as a manifestation or byproduct of discourse. Badiou brings it to the foreground again. So for me that was very exciting.

Sokol: Because in Foucault, as far as I remember, the subject is completely subsumed into power. So it has no agency in Foucault, and then it gains an agency in Badiou?

Leon: Yes, I would agree. Still, we should be very clear because Foucault has also his late period, what Butler makes into performativity. So there is some freedom there. I wouldn’t use the word agency, just because…

Sokol: …it’s loaded.

Leon: Yes, it’s loaded. But, let us say, the subject as a non-discourse, something which is extimate to discourse. Being on the inside, but nevertheless remaining exterior.

Sokol: Do you mean in Foucault, or Badiou?

Leon: Badiou talks about non-being. I believe he adopts that from Lacan. But the subject for Badiou is something completely different from what Foucault is talking about.

Sokol: Yes, I noticed that. If I were to throw some associations here…sounds like Deleuze’s “body without organs”. I don’t want to compare, but just as an association, the subject as presented in his Logics of Worlds, seems like it is inherent to the structure of the event, a template. And then it gets filled in with meanings through time, through and by individuals and bodies.

Leon: I think that’s the point, yes.

Sokol: It’s like a template which moves in time.

Leon: Template is a structure, right. But then we say the subject is not subsumed in the structure. You correctly mentioned the bodies. Badiou is a dialectical materialist, so the body is very important for him. The subject is whatever is carrying this impossible relationship between the trace of the event and the body, which supports it in reality. The subject is an impossibility, because it is an intersection, or a juxtapositioning of whatever is not in the body and is not in the trace of the event, or the idea. It makes, in a very impossible way, these two things work together. And that’s the subject: the movement in time, or the movement of creation, of these two things together. If you can, remember the first formula (from the lecture) of the faithful subject. The subject is what brings into play a new present. But it cannot be a structure, because structures don’t speak! There is something about the subject which exceeds structure, and that’s exactly the point with Badiou. 

Sokol: I wanted to ask you about Lacan and Badiou, but to stay close to the event, the production of the event, and the faithful subject. As you said in Populism in The Age of Post-Truth, when we liberals demand a change, we demand a semantic change. How does Badiou name this semantic change?

Leon: Yes, the diluted present, or castrated sometimes.

Sokol: You put it in rather suggestive terms in your lecture: the fake present. So when we liberals demand change, we demand semantic change. To use an example, I just came back from a bakery around the corner, where a signature list was lying by the counter. The purpose of this signature-collection initiative was to reduce the visibility of advertising in city spaces. Though I supported the initiative, I also thought that there was something prohibitive about seeing an invitation for change put forward so straightforwardly. It struck me as one of a million examples of how we in liberal society ask for a semantic change. You think this example illustrates a kind of fake event?

Leon: A fake novelty, I would say, when we think of it in terms of ethics. Liberalism, parliamentary democracy, this discourse of human rights, they’re all products of an event, of the French Revolution. It’s all speculative, but we can use it in our thinking. There was an event, and this is the new present which it created. Parliamentary democracy was excellent, it gave us women’s rights, human rights, it gave us revolution in the United States where African-Americans established an identity and fought for their rights. So it did a lot of good. But today, we mistake the product of the event—parliamentary democracy—with the event itself. So we think that this will manifest in novelty, but in actuality this product is a mere tool. We can only work with this tool inside the system that the event has created. But one crucial point for Badiou is that no event, no truth, or no novelty, which is the product of the event, is all-encompassing. There is no totality of truth that can happen. There is no end to history.

Sokol: Is that because the subject, or everything that exists, is a multiplicity?

Leon: Yes, there is no—what Lacan calls—discourse of all discourses, so there is no truth of all truths. There are only truths, in plural. Something that Badiou insists on. So the French Revolution is a sequence of a truth, is part of a sequence of a truth, and this sequence has a potency, it can create novelty all along history. But it is specific. It grows from a particular point. Liberal logic is part of it, but to grasp liberal logic as a revolutionary event is to be reactionary (to the event). Because what you create in liberal logic is semantic change.

What is the issue here, again, in this liberal logic? It is about that which would oppose evil. That’s the ethics in liberal politics: what is good is whatever opposes the bad. You see it in identity politics discourse. Now, we need to fight against oppression, which is true, but then this is not the ethics that Badiou is proposing. Badiou is asking what is the good? The good is not defined as a negation of the bad. On the contrary—and we’re talking ethically here—the bad is a reaction to the good. It’s not the other way around. So let’s talk about the advertising. These guys are trying to fight the bad, which is advertising, but then let’s ask ourselves, what is the good that we’re looking for?

Sokol: Well, I assume this has to do with the spirit of citizenship, of community (as opposed to corporations, property speculators, etc.) owning the city. In Berlin, as in other cities,  this idea often manifests itself in calls for new legislation that would regulate use of public and living spaces. (i.e. in Berlin, AirBnB has been limited in its action by law). I mean the idea that we, the community of people, give meaning to, or decide, how we want to experience life in the city. Advertising, for instance, we don’t want to see it, we don’t want to “sell out” our city. All this citizens’ consciousness….can we locate it in Badiou’s terms?

Leon: I’m thinking about the commodification of space: the fact that space is, essentially, commodified space. I think this is a question of commodification in general. Again this is a speculative discussion we’re having together, but if we want to think of the sequence, of where in the sequence of this specific event this idea has manifested itself, I’m thinking about the commune in Paris in ’68, when the people of the city took space into their hands. They created this space owned by the citizens. So we can say: “the sequence of May ’68”. We give it a name and we see it manifest there, and we see it manifest many times in history. When people are collecting  signatures in Berlin, that’s what they’re investigating—the appearance of the sequence of May ‘68 in our time. But what they’re also doing is diluting it. Because this question of the abolishment of private property, the idea that private property is preposterous, or the idea that the commodification of ‘our’ space is preposterous, entails an invention. This invention has a name, as we said, “the sequence of May ’68”. But today it is not part of the present.

What these guys are doing, and I appreciate it, is that they are asking themselves: how can we create this sequence in the present? But what they offer is a present with less advertising. When what we would be talking about, in Badiou’s terms, is the actual cancellation, or the abolishing, of the commodification of living space, the creation of a new political space. That was precisely what the sequence of May ’68 was about. So the signature-collectors are taking up something which is universal, which entails a deep paradigmatic change in the way humanity organises itself, and they are making it into a specific, semantic change, namely: for the citizens of Berlin, on the subject of public advertising. So that is why we would say this would be a reactive approach (to the event).

On the other hand, we should not cancel any specific manifestation of the event. Because everything starts from something specific. I gave several examples for an event in my lecture. For example, in politics it never happens that everybody immediately and suddenly unites for something. It first affects the workers, let’s say. And the workers start working on that. But the political body of workers grows because this idea/action has a potency which surpasses the workers alone. It can become a question of its universal potency: is this certain initiative something which has this potency and can surpass the purpose of advertising alone? Maybe, I don’t know! As a militant, as an ethical political person, you should investigate that. But when we talk about liberal ethics, and if we situate that idea/action/initiative in the domain of liberal ethics, we are prone to believe that they do not carry universalising potency.

Sokol: When I arrived in Berlin in 2008, I left  Kosovo as a very politicized reality, which it still is: the whole post-war international protectorate, its culmination with the declaration of independence same year, and then, just recently, the 10th anniversary of that declaration. So this entire political process has followed me throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. The question I have is: How does one, and why does one, become politically active and committed? If I am participating in an open, citizens’ initiative, do I have to really believe in the cause, or can I support it simply by being a citizen, by sympathising? In other words, is it a matter of mere identification? I’m wondering, then, how does political commitment come about from Badiou’s perspective? The example of Spartacus and the slaves’ uprising he led— an example Badiou uses in his Logic of Worlds—was presented as a spontaneous act. Some slaves decided that enough is enough and we can, and we will, be free. But how does it become collective? If a lot of individuals decide to give up, to withdraw their support, what happens to the event? Those who withdraw from the event are the reactionaries? Or, is there something like an ethical duty—beyond emotional/personal convictions—towards the event?

Leon: So let’s walk backwards. Let’s start from what we’re used to doing. There is a protest against the deportation of immigrants. You mentioned political commitment. So as a political activist in Berlin, or wherever, you see this mobilization—there’s a rally, let’s say—and you need to ask yourself, do I participate? How do you decide? Within the confines of the reactive approach, or let’s say, our liberal approach, you make a pragmatic choice, which is based on your knowledge, on your feelings, on your general disposition, and you get to a conclusion: this is actually true, this cause is important and I should support it with my presence and I’ll make sure to find that time. So this is one way to approach it, but in line with Badiou’s argument, we would call this a reactive approach. Because it’s calculated. There is a good reason, very articulated reason you give yourself to this. What you do is rationalize, to put it in psychoanalytic terms.

However, this not the way Badiou would say it goes. What first happens is an event… It takes the form of an act, but we shouldn’t use the word act in its classical, philosophical way (the way Hannah Arendt uses it, for instance). Badiou does not use the word act. But something happens, and it has material manifestation. As you mentioned, Spartacus rebels. So the moment something happens in reality, its investigation begins. An investigation of an event is a process, it’s a procedure, it’s not something that happens and then everybody is on board.

Sokol: If we assume that this process of investigation can encompass lifetimes, generations, and exceed them, perhaps it can be said that there are generations which are doomed to be reactive, to live in reactive times?

Leon: We can say that, but maybe a better way to put it would be to say that the event started, but was extinguished, and then resurrected. In the meantime, we didn’t have an investigation of this truth. But again an investigation is a process which leads you from the faithful subject to the occultation of the event. Sometimes an event creates a novelty, a new present, so it doesn’t end with occultation. Let’s say the investigation of the French Revolution (FR) might have ended in its terms, or the sequence that the FR started, has ended. But its potency still manifests in a different domain of politics. We are not talking about parliamentary politics again. We have created that novelty. So what you have is many points in this procedure, on this trajectory of the event, where the event is investigated.

So let’s say something happens, and let’s go back to the workers. The workers ask themselves: this maxim that carries the event, do we take part in it, is it for us? The answer can only be yes or no. There is no actual way to know that that’s true. Think about scientists. Sometimes they have a theory which hasn’t been proven. They just have this hypothesis which shoots into the future, and says this is the future. They cannot know what it really is, but they choose to take part in it, and, what’s more, to base their science on that theory as well as their experiments. So in politics it’s the same. Badiou calls this a forcing: we decide justice! Imagine people knocking on your door, saying, Sokol this is happening, join us! You say, What is it? They say, Justice! And so you choose: Yes, this is happening. Or, yes, this is happening, but revolution is not the way. Or, yes, but taking over the Reichstag is not the way. The way is signing a bill, or signing for less commercials in the streets. 

Sokol: Which is reactive. 

Leon: Right. Or, you say, This is not happening, what you’re saying is a lie. With your false “justice” you are betraying the country, or betraying religion, or betraying, let’s say, the true German way. You say, that justice, the emancipation of our space from all sources of power, which are exterior to our movement, is not true, is betrayal, is treachery. And if the idea is perceived as betrayal, then the body—following the occultist stance—needs to die. As a consequence, this stance maintains the following: the logic which belongs to those people who march in the streets, which aim at the emancipation of our space, it is a criminal logic, because they are betraying the State, or the way of the fathers, or whatever, and force must be used to extinguish them. And if this succeeds, then the event is extinguished.

So you see the sorts of trajectories that different reactions to the event can make out. These are investigations, these are all products (the protests, movements) of the investigations of the event. Because it could be that the workers will take a reactive stance, and the students will take a faithful stance, and the church an occultist stance, these are all just examples, but it could just as well be that all the workers, students, and the church, would take a faithful stance, and then a new present would happen, a new political definition of space.

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