‘PHILOSOPHY: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and… Badiou!’ by Slavoj Žižek

Essay as published on lacan.com (with a few typographical errors corrected)

Section I: Introduction – Spinoza


One of the unwritten rules of today’s academia from France to the US is the injunction to love Spinoza. Everyone loves him, from the Althusserian strict “scientific materialists” to Deleuzean schizo-anarchists, from rationalist critics of religion to the partisans of liberal freedoms and tolerances, not to mention feminists like Genevieve Lloyd who propose to decipher the mysterious third type of knowledge in Ethics as feminine intuitive knowledge surpassing the male analytic understanding… Is it, then, possible at all not to love Spinoza? Who can be against a lone Jew who, on the top of it, was excommunicated by the “official” Jewish community itself? One of the most touching expressions of this love is how one often attributes to him almost divine capacities – like Pierre Macherey who (in his otherwise admirable Hegel ou Spinoza), against the Hegelian critique of Spinoza, claims that one cannot avoid the impression that Spinoza had already read Hegel and in advance answered his reproaches… Perhaps, the most appropriate first step to render problematic this status of Spinoza is to draw attention to the fact that it is totally incompatible with what is arguably the hegemonic stance in today’s Cultural Studies, that of the ethico-theological “Judaic” turn of deconstruction best exemplified by the couple Derrida/Levinas – is there a philosopher more foreign to this orientation than Spinoza? Or, even, more foreign to the Jewish universe which, precisely, is the universe of God as radical Otherness, of the enigma of the divine, of the God of negative prohibitions instead of positive injunctions? Were, then, the Jewish priests in a way not RIGHT to excommunicate Spinoza?

Yet, instead of engaging in this rather boring academic exercise of opposing Spinoza and Levinas, what I want to accomplish is a consciously old-fashioned Hegelian reading of Spinoza – what both Spinozeans and Levinasians share is radical anti-Hegelianism. My starting hypothesis is that, in the history of modern thought, the triad of paganism-Judaism-Christianity repeats itself twice, first as Spinoza-Kant-Hegel, then as Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Deleuze deploys the One-Substance as the indifferent medium of multitude; Derrida inverts it into the radical Otherness which differs from itself; finally, in a kind of “negation of negation,” Lacan brings back the cut, the gap, into the One itself. The point is not so much to play Spinoza and Kant against each other, thus securing the triumph of Hegel; it is rather to present the three philosophical positions in all their unheard-of radicality – in a way, the triad Spinoza-Kant-Hegel DOES encompass the whole of philosophy…

(This simplified picture should, of course, be further elaborated. What about the interesting mediate role of Lyotard who passed from paganism to the celebration of Jewish Otherness? And do we not find in Derrida’s development a shift symmetrical to that of Lyotard, from Hegel back to Kant? That is to say, in his otherwise unreadable professorial What Is Neo-Structuralism?, Manfred Frank was right at one point: in his insistence on the link between Derrida’s differance and the Hegelian self-differentiating movement of the absolute Concept – in the early Derrida, there is no place for “deconstruction as justice” in the sense of justice-to-come, of justice as the the “indeconstructible condition of deconstruction,” of the Messianic promise of total redemption… One of the commonplaces about Lacan is that the same goes also for him: the Lacan of the early 1950s was Hegelian (under the influence of Kojeve and Hyppolite, of course), often directly designates the analyst as the figure of the Hegelian philosopher, the work of analysus as following the Hegelian “cunning of reason,” the end of analysis as “absolute knowledge,” the mediation of all particular content in the universal symbolic medium, etc.; in clear contrast, the “Lacan of the Real” asserts some traumatic core of the Real which forever resists being integrated into the Symbolic – and he does this by way of linking the Freudian das Ding with the Kantian Thing-in-itself. [1] We can clearly discern here the contours of the Lacan of symbolic castration: the Thing is prohibited, and this prohibition, far from thwarting desire, sustains it – in short, the symbolic order functions like Kant’s transcendental screen through which renders reality accessible and simultaneously prevents our direct access to it?

Seminar XI, Lacan struggled to overcome this Kantian horizon – the clearest indication of it is his reactualization of the concept of drive. Drive functions beyond symbolic castration, as an inherent detour, topological twist, of the Real itself – and Lacan’s path from desire to drive is the path from Kant to Hegel. This shift in late Lacan from the “transcendental” logic (symbolic castration as the ultimate horizon of our experience, emptying the place of the Thing and thus opening up the space for our desire) to the dimension “beyond castration,” i.e., to a position which claims that, “beyond castration,” there is not only the abyss of the Night of the Thing which swallows us, also has direct political consequences: the “transcendental” Lacan is obviously the “Lacan of democracy” (the empty place of Power for whose temporary occupancy multiple political subjects compete, against the “totalitarian” subject who claims to act directly for the Other’s jouissance), while Lacan “beyond castration” points towards a post-democratic politics. – There are thus three phases in the relationship of Lacan towards the tension between Kant and Hegel: from the universal-Hegelian self-mediation in the totality of the Symbolic, he passes to the Kantian notion of the transcendent Thing which resists this mediation, and then, in an additional twist, he transposes the gap that separates all signifying traces from the Otherness into the immanence itself, as its inherent cut.)


So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies…) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute – “substance” is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the “dark precursor,” the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary “twist” of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc. What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called “death drive”: the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity’s striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is – what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls “categorical imperative,” an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, “beyond the pleasure-principle,” and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.

The first philosophical consequence of this notion of Substance is the motif on which Deleuze insists so much: the univocity of being; among other things, this univocity means that the mechanisms of establishing ontological links which Spinoza describes are thoroughly NEUTRAL with regard to their “good” or “bad” effects. Spinoza thus avoids both traps of the standard approach: he neither dismisses the mechanism which constitutes a multitude as the source of irrational destructive mob, nor does he celebrate it as the source of altruistic self-overcoming and solidarity. Of course, he was deeply and painfully aware of the destructive potential of the “multitude” – recall THE big political trauma of his life, a wild mob lynching de Witt brothers, his political allies; however, he was aware that the noblest collective acts are generated by exactly the same mechanism – in short, democracy and a lynching mob have the same source. It is with regard to this neutrality that the gap which separates Negri and Hardt from Spinoza becomes palpable: in The Empire, we find a celebration of multitude as the force of resistance, while in Spinoza, the concept of multitude qua crowd is fundamentally ambiguous: multitude is resistance to the imposing One, but, at the same time, it designates what we call “mob,” a wild, “irrational” explosion of violence which, through imitatio afecti, feeds on itself and self-propels itself. This profound insight of Spinoza gets lost in today’s ideology of multitude: the thorough “undecidability” of the crowd – “crowd” designates a certain mechanism which engenders social link, and THIS VERY SAME mechanism which supports, say, the enthusiastic formation of social solidarity, also supports the explosive spread of racist violence. What the “imitation of affects” introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozean vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level “beneath” intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls “partial objects.”

The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization – every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without. What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau – the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s). What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality – only within a symbolic universe is the fact that the dog did not bark an event… This is what Spinoza want to dispense with – all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role. Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge – say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is “imaginary,” the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain – what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a “generative” absence.

It is this assertion of the positivity of Being which grounds Spinoza’s radical equation of power and right: justice means that every entity is allowed to freely deploy its inherent power-potentials, i.e., the amount of justice due to me equals my power. Spinoza’s ultimate thrust is here anti-legalistic: the model of political impotence is for him the reference to an abstract law which ignores the concrete differential network and relationship of forces. A “right” is for Spinoza always a right to “do,” to act upon things according to one’s nature, not the (judicial) right to “have,” to possess things. It is precisely this equation of power and right which, in the very last page of his Tractatus Politicus, Spinoza evokes as the key argument for the “natural” inferiority of women:

/…/ if by nature women were equal to men, and were equally distinguished by force of character and ability, in which human power and therefore human right chiefly consist; surely among nations so many and different some would be found, where both sexes rule alike, and others, where men are ruled by women, and so brought up, that they can make less use of their abilities. And since this is nowhere the case, one may assert with perfect propriety, that women have not by nature equal right with men. [2]

Rather than score easy points with such passages, one should oppose here Spinoza to the standard bourgeois liberal ideology, which would publicly guarantee to women the same legal status as to men, relegating their inferiority to a legally irrelevant “pathological” fact (and, in fact, all great bourgeois anti-feminists from Fichte up to Otto Weininger were always careful to emphasize that, “of course,” this does not mean that the inequality of sexes should be translated into inequality in the eyes of the law…). Furthermore, one should read this Spinozean equation of power and right against the background of Pascal’s famous pensee: “Equality of possessions is no doubt right, but, as men could not make might obey right, they have made right obey might. As they could not fortify justice they have justified force, so that right and might live together and peace reigns, the sovereign good.” [3] Crucial in this passage is the underlying FORMALIST logic: the FORM of justice matters more than its content – the form of justice should be maintained even if it is, as to its content, the form of its opposite, of injustice. And, one might add, this discrepancy between form and content is not just the result of particular unfortunate circumstances, but constitutive of the very notion of justice: justice is “in itself,” in its very notion, the form of injustice, i.e. a “justified force.” Usually, when we are dealing with a fake trial in which the outcome is fixed in advance by political and power interests, we speak of a ãtravesty of justice” – it pretends to be justice, while it is just a display of raw power or corruption posing as justice. What, however, is justice is “as such,” in its very notion, a travesty? Is this not what Pascal implies when he concludes, in a resigned way, that if power cannot come to justice, then justice should come to power?

Kant gets involved into a similar predicament when he distinguishes between the “ordinary” evil (the violation of morality on behalf of some “pathological” motivation, like greed, lust, ambition, etc.), the “radical” evil, and the “diabolical” evil. It may seem that we are dealing with a simple linear graduation: “normal” evil, more “radical” evil, and, finally, the unthinkable “diabolical” evil. However, upon a closer look, it becomes clear that the three species are not at the same level, i.e., that Kant confuses different principles of classification. [4] “Radical” evil does not designate a specific type of evil acts, but an a priori propensity of the human nature (to act egotistically, to give preference to pathological motivations over universal ethical duty) which opens up the very space for “normal” evil acts, i.e., which roots them in human nature. In contrast to it, “diabolical” evil does designate a specific type of evil acts: acts which are not motivated by any pathological motivation, but are done “just for the sake of it,” elevating evil itself into an apriori non-pathological motivation – something akin to Poe’s “imp of perversity.” While Kant claims that “diabolical evil” cannot actually occur (it is not possible for a human being to elevate evil itself into a universal ethical norm), he nonetheles asserts that one should posit it as an abstract possibility. Interestingly enough, the concrete case he mentions (in Part I of his Metaphysics of Mores) is that of the judicial regicide, the murder of a king executed as a punishment pronounced by a court: Kant’s claim is that, in contrast to a simple rebellion in which the mob kills only the person of a king, the judicial process which condemns to death the king (this embodiment of the rule of law) destroys from within the very form of the (rule of) law, turning it into a terrifying travesty – which is why, as Kant put it, such an act is an “indelible crime” which cannot ever be pardoned. However, in a second step, Kant desperately argues that in the two historical cases of such an act (under Cromwell and in the 1973 France), we were dealing just with a mob taking revenge… Why this oscillation and classificatory confusion in Kant? Because, if he were to assert the actual possibility of “diabolical evil,” he would found it impossible to distinguish it from the Good – since both acts would be non-pathologically motivated, the travesty of justice would become indistinguishable from justice itself. And the shift from Kant to Hegel is simply the shift from this Kantian inconsistency to Hegel’s reckless assuming of the identity of “diabolical” evil with the Good itself. Far from involving a clear classification, the distinction between “radical” and “diabolical” evil is thus the distinction between the general irreducible propensity of human nature and a series of particular acts (which, although impossible, are thinkable). Why, then, does Kant need this excess over the “normal” pathological evil? Because, without it, his theory would amount to no more than the traditional notion of the conflict between good and evil as the conflict of two tendencies in human nature: the tendency to act freely and autonomously, and the tendency to act out of pathological egotistic motivations [5] – from this perspective, the choice between good and evil is not itself a free choice, since we only act in a truly free way when we act autonomously, for the sake of duty (when we follow pathological motivations, we are enslaved to our nature). However, this goes against the fundamental thrust of the Kantian ethics, according to which the very choice of evil is an autonomous free decision.

Back to Pascal: is his version of the unity of right and might not homologous to Nietzsche’s amor fati and eternal return of the same? Since, in this unique life of mine, I am constrained by the burden of the past weighing on me, the assertion of my unconditional will to power is always thwarted by that which, in the finitude of being thrown into a particular situation, I was forced to assume as given. Consequently, the only way to effectively assert my will to power is to transpose myself into a state in which I am able to freely will, assert as the outcome of my will, what I otherwise experience as imposed on me by external fate; and the only way to accomplish this is to imagine that, in the FUTURE “returns of the same,” repetitions of my present predicament, I am fully ready to assume it freely. However, does this reasoning not also conceal the same formalism as that of Pascal? Is its hidden premise not “if I cannot freely chose my reality and thus overcome the necessity which determines me, I should formally elevate this necessity itself into something freely assumed by me”? Or, as Wagner, Nietzshe’s great nemesis, put it in The Twilight of Gods: “Fear of the gods’ downfall grieves me not, / since now I will it so! / What once I resolved in despair, / in the wild anguish of dissension, / now I will freely perform, gladly and gaily.” And does the Spinozean position not rely on the same resigned identification? Is therefore Spinoza not at the extreme opposite of the Jewish-Levinasian-Derridean-Adornian hope of the final Redemption, of the idea that this world of ours cannot be “all there is,” the last and ultimate Truth, that we should stick to the promise of some Messianic Otherness?

The final feature in which all the previous ones culminate is Spinoza’s radical suspension of any “deontological” dimension, i.e., of what we usually understand by the term “ethical” (norms which proscribe us how we should act when we have a choice) – in a book called Ethics, which is an achievement in itself. In his famous reading of the Fall, Spinoza claims God had to utter the prohibition “You should not eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge!” because our capacity to know the true causal connection was limited: for those who know, one should say: “Eating from the Tree of Knowledge is dangerous for your health.” This complete translation of injunction into cognitive statements again desubjectivizes the universe, implying that true freedom is not the freedom of choice but the true insight into necessities which determine us – here is the key passage from his Theologico-Political Treatise:

/…/ the affirmations and the negations of God always involve necessity or truth; so that, for example, if God said to Adam that He did not wish him to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it would have involved a contradiction that Adam should have been able to eat of it, and would therefore have been impossible that he should have so eaten, for the Divine command would have involved an eternal necessity and truth. But since Scripture nevertheless narrates that God did give this command to Adam, and yet that none the less Adam ate of the tree, we must perforce say that God revealed to Adam the evil which would surely follow if he should eat of the tree, but did not disclose that such evil would of necessity come to pass. Thus it was that Adam took the revelation to be not an eternal and necessary truth, but a law – that is, an ordinance followed by gain or loss, not depending necessarily on the nature of the act performed, but solely on the will and absolute power of some potentate, so that the revelation in question was solely in relation to Adam, and solely through his lack of knowledge a law, and God was, as it were, a lawgiver and potentate. From the same cause, namely, from lack of knowledge, the Decalogue in relation to the Hebrews was a law. /…/ We conclude, therefore, that God is described as a lawgiver or prince, and styled just, merciful, etc., merely in concession to popular understanding, and the imperfection of popular knowledge; that in reality God acts and directs all things simply by the necessity of His nature and perfection, and that His decrees and volitions are eternal truths, and always involve necessity. [6]

Two levels are opposed here, that of imagination/opinions and that of true knowledge. The level of imagination is anthropomorphic: we are dealing with a narrative about agents giving orders that we are free to obey or disobey, etc.; god himself is here the highest prince who dispenses mercy. The true knowledge, on the contrary, delivers the totally non-anthropomorphic causal nexus of impersonal truths. One is tempted to say that Spinoza here out-Jews Jews themselves: he extends iconoclasm to man himself – not only “do not paint god in man’s image,” but “do not paint man himself in man’s image.” In other words, Spinoza moves here a step beyond the standard warning not to project onto nature human notions like goal, mercy, good an evil, etc. – we should not use them to conceive man itself. The key words in the quoted passage are: “solely through the lack of knowledge” – the whole “anthropomorphic” domain of law, injunction, moral command, etc., is based on our ignorance. What Spinoza thus rejects is the necessity of what Lacan calls “Master Signifier,” the reflexive signifier which fills in the very lack of the signifier. Spinoza’s own supreme example of “God” is here crucial: when conceived as a mighty person, god merely embodies our ignorance of the true causality. One should recall here notions like “flogiston” or Marx’s “Asiatic mode of production” or, as a matter of fact, today’s popular “postindustrial society” – notions which, while they appear to designate a positive content, merely signal our ignorance. Spinoza’s unheard-of endeavor is to think ethics itself outside the “anthropomorphic” morality categories of intentions, commandments, etc. – what he proposes is stricto sensu an ontological ethics, an ethics deprived of the deontological dimension, an ethics of “is” without “ought.” (What, then, is the price paid for this suspension of the ethical dimension of commandment, of the Master Signifier? The psychoanalytic answer is clear: superego. Superego is on the side of knowledge; like Kafka’s law, it wants nothing from you, it is just there if you come to it. This is the command operative in the warning we see everywhere today: “Smoking may be dangerous to your health.” Nothing is prohibited, you are just informed of a causal link. Along the same lines, the injunction “Only have sex if you really want to enjoy it!” is the best way to sabotage enjoyment…).


1 It was Bernard Bass who articulated in detail such a Kantian reading of Lacan – see Bernard Baas, De la Chose a l’objet, Leuven: Pieters 1998.

2 Baruch Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise, New York: Dover Publications 1951, p. 387.

3 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1965, p. 51.

4 I rely here on Alenka Zupančič, The Ethics of the Real, London: Verso 2001.

5 According to Kant, if one finds oneself alone in the sea with another survivor of the sinken ship, near a floating piece of wood which can keep afloat only one person, moral considerations are no longer valid – there is no moral law preventing me from fighting to death with the other survivor for the place on the raft, I can engage in it with moral impunity. It is here that, perhaps, one encounters the limit of the Kantian ethics: what about someone who would willingly sacrifice himself in order to give the other person a chance to survive – and, furthermore, is ready to do it for no pathological reasons? Since there is no moral law commanding me to do this, does this mean that such an act has no ethical status proper? Does this strange exception not demonstrate that the ruthless egotism, the care for personal survival and gain, is the silent “pathological” presupposition of the Kantian ethics – i.e., that the Kantean ethical edifice can only maintain itself if we silently presuppose the “pathological” image of man as a ruthless utilitarian egotist?

6 Spinoza, op.cit., p. 63-65.

Section II: Kant – Hegel


It is at this precise point that Kant, the Kantian break, sets in. What Spinoza and Kant share is the idea that virtue is its own reward, and needs no other: they both reject with contempt the popular idea that our good deeds will be renumerated and our bad deeds punished in the afterlife. However, Kant’s thesis is that the Spinozean position of knowledge without deontological dimension of an unconditional Ought is impossible to sustain: there is an irreducible crack in the edifice of Being, and it is at this crack that the “deontological” dimension of “Ought” intervenes – the “Ought” fills in the incompleteness of “Is,” of Being. When Kant says that he reduced the domain of knowledge in order to make space for religious faith, he is to be taken quite literally, in the radically anti-Spinozist way: from the Kantian view, Spinoza’s position appears as a nightmarish vision of subjects reduced to marionettes. What, exactly, does a marionette stand for – as a subjective stance? In Kant, we find the term “Marionette” in a mysterious subchapter of his Critique of Practical Reason entitled “Of the Wise Adaptation of Man’s Cognitive Faculties to His Practical Vocation”, in which he endeavours to answer the question of what would happen to us if we were to gain access to the noumenal domain, to the Ding an sich:

… instead of the conflict which now the moral disposition has to wage with inclinations and in which, after some defeats, moral strength of mind may be gradually won, God and eternity in their awful majesty would stand unceasingly before our eyes. /…/ Thus most actions conforming to the law would be done from fear, few would be done from hope, none from duty. The moral worth of actions, on which alone the worth of the person and even of the world depends in the eyes of supreme wisdom, would not exist at all. The conduct of man, so long as his nature remained as it is now, would be changed into mere mechanism, where, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but no life would be found in the figures. [1]

So, for Kant, the direct access to the noumenal domain would deprive us of the very “spontaneity” which forms the kernel of transcendental freedom: it would turn us into lifeless automata, or, to put it in today’s terms, into “thinking machines.” – The basic gesture of Kant’s transcendental turn is thus to invert the obstacle into a positive condition. In the standard Leibnizean ontology, we, finite subjects, can act freely IN SPITE OF our finitude, since freedom is the spark which unites us with the infinite God; in Kant, this finitude, our separation from the Absolute, is the POSITIVE condition of our freedom. In short, the condition of impossibility is the condition of possibility. In this sense, Susan Neiman is right to remark that “the worry that fueled debates about the difference between appearance and reality was not the fear that the world might not turn out to be the way it seems to us – but rather the fear that it would.” [2] This fear is ultimately ethical: the closure of the gap between appearance and reality would deprive us of our freedom and thus of our ethical dignity. What this means is that the gap between noumenal reality and appearance is redoubled: one has to distinguish between noumenal reality ãin itself” and the way noumenal reality APPEARS within the domain of appearance (say, in our experience of freedom and the moral Law). This tiny edge which distinguishes the two is the edge between sublime and horrible: God is sublime for us, from our finite perspective – experienced in itself, it would turn into a mortifying horror.

However, one should be very careful not to miss what Kant is aiming at. In a first approach, it may appear that he merely assumes a certain place prefigured by Spinoza: unable to sustain the non-anthropomorphic position of true knowledge, he proclaims the substantial order of Being inaccessible, out of bounds for our reason, and thus opens up the space for morality. (And, incidentally, is the same stance not clearly discernible in today’s neo-Kantian reactions to biogenetics? Basically, what Habermas is saying is: although we now know that our dispositions depend on meaningless genetic contingency, let us pretend and act as if this is not the case, so that we can maintain our sense of dignity and autonomy – the paradox is here that autonomy can only be maintained by prohibiting the access to the blind natural contingency which determines us, i.e., ultimately, by LIMITING our autonomy and freedom of scientific intervention.) However, things are more complex. In his Les mots et les choses, Foucault introduced the notion of “empirico-transcendental doublet”: in the modern philosophy of subjectivity, the subject is by definition split between an inner-worldly entity, empirical person, object of positive sciences and political administration, and the transcendental subject, the constitutive agent of the world itself – the problem is the umbilical cord that links the two in an irreducible way. (And it is against this background that one can measure Heidegger’s achievement: he grounded the “transcendental” dimension (Dasein as the site of the opening of the world) in the very finitude of man. Mortality is no longer a stain, an index of factual limitation, of the otherwise ideal-eternal Subject, it is the very source of its unique place. There is no longer any place here for the neo-Kantian (Cassirer) assertion of man as inhabiting two realms, the eternal realm of ideal values and the empirical realm of nature; there is no longer any place even for Husserl’s morbid imagine of the whole of humanity succumbing to a pest and the transcendental ego surviving it.) One should insist here on the split between this doublet and the pre-Kantian metaphysical problematic of particular/sensual/animal and universal/rational/divine aspect of man: the Kantian transcendental is irreducibly rooted in the empirical/temporal/finite, it is the trans-phenomenal AS IT APPEARS WITHIN THE FINITE HORIZON OF TEMPORALITY. And this dimension of the transcendental as opposed to noumenal is what is missing in Spinoza.

Consequently, do we not find the distinction between how things appear to me and how things EFFECTIVELY appear to me in the very heart of Kant’s transcendental turn? The phenomenal reality is not simply the way things appear to me, it designates the way things “really” appear to me, the way they constitute phenomenal reality, as opposed to a mere subjective illusory appearance. Consequently, when I misperceive some object in my phenomenal reality, when I mistake it for a different object, what is wrong is that I am not aware not of how things “really are in themselves,” but of how they ãreally appear” to me. One cannot overestimate the importance of this Kantian move – ultimately, philosophy as such is Kantian, it should be read from the vantage point of the Kantian revolution: not as a naive attempt at “absolute knowledge,” at a total description of the entire reality, but as the work of deploying the horizon of pre-understanding presupposed in every engagement with entities in the world. It is only with Kant (with his notion of the transcendental) that true philosophy begins: what we had before was a simple global ontology, the knowledge about All, not yet the notion of the transcendental-hermeneutic horizon of the World. Consequently, the basic task of the post-Kantian thought was “only” to think Kant to the end. This is what, among others, Heidegger’s intention was in Being and Time: to read the history of ontology (Descartes, Aristotle) backwards from Kant – say, to interpret Aristotle’s physics as the hermeneutic deployment of what being, life, etc. meant for the Greeks. (Later, unfortunately, Heidegger renounced this idea of pursuing to the end the Kantian breakthrough, dismissing Kant’s transcendental turn to a further step in the course of the subjectivist forgetting of Being.) And the ultimate irony is that Deleuze was in a way fully aware of this fact: in his 1978 lectures on Kant, he claims that, for Kant, “there is no longer an essence behind appearance, there is rather the sense or non-sense of what appears”; what this bears witness to is “a radically new atmosphere of thought, to the point where I can say that in this respect we are all Kantians.” [3]


So what does Hegel bring to this constellation? Let us approach this question through an unexpected detour: a profoundly Hegelian motif of Deleuze, his reversal of the standard relationship between a problem and its solution(s), his affirmation of an irreducible EXCCESS of the problem over its solution(s), which is the same as the excess of the virtual over its actualizations:

In Deleuze’s approach the relation between well-posed explanatory problems and their true or false solutions is the epistemological counterpart of the ontological relation between the virtual and the actual. Explanatory problems would be the counterpart of virtual multiplicities since, as he says, ‘the virtual possesses the reality of a task to be performed or a problem to be solved’. Individual solutions, on the other hand, would be the counterpart of actual individual beings: ‘An organism is nothing if not the solution to a problem, as are each of its differenciated organs, such as the eye which solves a light problem. [4]

The philosophical consequences of this “intimate relation between epistemology and ontology” are crucial: the traditional opposition between epistemology and ontology should be left behind. It is no longer that we, subjects of a scientific investigation, engaged in the difficult path of getting to know objective reality, gradually approaching it, formulate and solve problems, while reality just IS out there, fully constituted and given, unconcerned by our slow progress. In a properly Hegelian way, our painful progress of knowledge, our confusions, our search for solutions – that is to say: precisely that which seems to SEPARATE us from the way reality really is out there – is already the innermost constituent of reality itself. When we try to establish the function of some organ in an animal, we are thereby repeating the “objective” process itself through which the animal “invented” this organ as the solution of some problem. Our process of approaching constituted objective reality repeats the virtual process of Becoming of this reality itself. The fact that we cannot ever “fully know” reality is thus not a sign of the limitation of our knowledge, but the sign that reality itself is “incomplete,” open, an actualization of the underlying virtual process of Becoming. [5]

Such a reflective twist by means of which the subject assumes the inexistence of the big Other defines the subjective position of the analyst, what Lacan calls the “discourse of the analyst” – and he does give a clear hint that this, effectively, is Hegel’s position. In his Seminar XVII (L’envers de la psychanalyse), Lacan, in an apparently inconsistent way, first designates Hegel as the “most sublime of hysterics,” then, a couple of pages later, as an exemplary figure of the Master, and, finally, a dozen or so pages later, as the model of the discourse of university [6] – and it is easy to see how each of these designations is justifiedn in its own terms: Hegel’s system is the extreme case of the all-encompassing university Knowledge, allocating each particular topic to its own proper place; if there ever was a figure of the towering Master in the history of philosophy, it is Hegel; and Hegel’s dialectical procedure can best be determined as the permanent hystericization – hysterical questioning – of the hegemonic figure of the Master. So which of these three positions is the “real” Hegel? The answer is obvious: the fourth one, the discours of the analyst – as if to point in this direction, Lacan – in this seminar dedicated to the four discourses – applies on Hegel the first three positions (Master, Hysteric, University), leaving out the fourth position. Do we not get here a clear case of the logic of the borrowed kettle, mentioned by Freud in order to render the strange procedure of the dreams, namely the enumeration of mutually exclusive answers to a reproach (that I returned to a friend a broken kettle): (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you? For Freud, such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments of course confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny: that I returned you a broken kettle – or, in Hegel’s case, the he occupies the position of the analyst. A further proof of this fact is Lacan’s claim that the discourse of the analyst is not simply one among the four – it is simultaneously a discourse which emerges when we pass from one to another discourse (say, from that of the Master to that of the University). If, then, the discourse of the analyst is located in the very passage, shift, from one to another discourse, is the true position of Hegel, who is a Master, a Hysteric, and the agent of the discourse of University, not that of an incessant passage between these three – that is to say, that of the analyst?

It is here that we can clearly pinpoint what is arguably Deleuze’s crucial misunderstanding of Hegel’s move against/beyond Kant: Deleuze continues to read Hegel in a traditional way, as the one who returned from Kant to absolute metaphysics which articulates the totally self-transparent and fully actualized logical structure of Being. Already in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze interpretes Kant’s transcendental Ideas from the perspective of his notion of “problematicity” as the excess of the question over answers to it: a transcendental Idea designates not an ideal, but a problem, a question, a task, which no answer, no actualization, can fully meet. So Deleuze can only read the excess of the problem over its solutions as an anti-Hegelian motif, insofar as he perceives Hegel as the one who as it were filled in the gaps of the Kantian system and passed from Kant’s openness and indeterminacy to the notion’s complete actualization/determination. [7] What, however, if Hegel does not ADD any positive content to Kant, does not fill in the gaps, what if he just accomplishes a shift of perspective from which the problem already appears at its own solution? What if, for Hegel, “absolute Knowing” is not the absurd position of “knowing everything,” but the insight into how the path towards Truth is already Truth itself, into how the Absolute is precisely – to put it in Deleuzean terms – the virtuality of the eternal process of actualization?

We are thereby in the very heart of the problem of freedom: the only way to save freedom is through this short-circuit between epistemology and ontology – the moment we reduce our process of knowledge to a process external to the thing itself, to an endless approximation to the thing, freedom is lost, because “reality” is conceived of as a completed, ontologically fully constituted, positive order of Being. The inconsistency of Kant apropos freedom is here crucial in its structural necessity. On the one hand, the subject is free in the noumenal sense – its freedom attests to the fact that it does not belong to the domain of phenomenal enchainment of causes and effects, that it is capable of absolute spontaneity; on the other hand, spontaneity is transcendental, not transcendent, it is the way the subject appears to itself – as we learn in the final paragraphs of the Part I of Critique of Practical Reason, it may well be that, in itself, at the noumenal level, we are just marionettes in the hands of the all-powerful God. The only solution is here the Hegelo-Deleuzian (sic!) one: to transpose the incompleteness, openness (the surplus of the virtual over the actual, of the problem over its solution(s)), into the thing itself.

It is in this precise sense that one should agree with Brecht who once wrote that there is no dialectics without humor: the dialectical reversals are deeply connected to comical twists and unexpected shifts of perspective. In his book on jokes, Freud refers to the well-known story of a middleman who tries to convince a young man to marry a woman he represents; his strategy is to reinterptrete every objection into a praise. When the man says “But the woman is ugly!”, he answers: “So you will not have to worry that she will deceive you with others!” “She is poor!” “So she will be used not to spend too much of your money!”, and so on, until, finally, when a man formulates a reproach impossible to reinterprete in this way, the middleman explodes: “But what do you want? Perfection? Nobody is totally without a fault!” [8] Would it not also be possible to discern in this joke the underlying structure of the legitmization of a Real Socialist regime? “There is not enough meat and rich food in the stores!” “So you don’t have to worry about getting fat and suffering a heart attack!” “There is not enough interesting theatrical and cinema performances or good books available!” “Does this not enable you to cultivate all the more the art of intense social life, visiting friends and neighbors?” “The secret police exerts total control over my life!” “So you can just relax and lead a life safe from worries!”, and so on, till… “But the air is so polluted from the nearby factory that all my children have life-threatening lung diseases!” “What do you want? No system is without a fault!”

So what, precisely, is the thin line which divides tragedy from comedy, the final tragic insight from the final twist of a joke? In many a good joke, the unexpected final twist occurs when the position of enunciation itself falls into the enunciated content – recall the well-known story about a Pole and a Jew sharing the same train compartment, with the Pole starting the conversation by asking the Jew: “Tell me, how do you Jews manage to squeeze the last bit of money from the people?” “OK,” replies the Jew, “but this will cost you 10 $!” Upon getting the money, the Jews goes on: “Well, at midnight, you go to the cemetery, you burn there a fire of special wood…” “What wood?” eagerly asks the Pole. “This will call you another 10$!” snaps back the Jew, and so on endlessly, till the Pole explodes: “But there is no final secret, no end to this story, you are just trying to squeeze all the money from me…” “Now you see how we Jews…” replies the Jew calmly. In short, what the poor Pole, eager to learn and focused to the secret to which he expected to be initiated, forgot to take into account was the very process into which he was involved while searching for the secret. The question is: what would make such a story (if not a tragedy proper, then at least) a non-joke, a story with a painful final twist which brings no release in laughter? Would it be enough for the Pole himself to come to the insight, so that, at a certain moment, HE exclaims: “My god, now I know how you Jews…”? Or would a simple more dramatic twist be sufficient – imagine the Pole deprived of his last penny, his family ruined, he himself lying ill and anouncing that he no longer has any money, when the Jew (caricaturized as the evil figure) tells him with a vicious smile: “There is no secret! I just wanted to taught you a lesson and really show you how we Jews…”? Or, to ask the same question the other way around, since the Oedipus story involves a homologous twist (in his search, the hero forgets to include himself), what change would suffice to make it a comedy? One can effectively imagine a similar story along the lines of The Marriage of Figaro, with the hero all of a sudden discovering that the older rich widow he married because of her money is effectively his own mother… Would it not be possible to retell in this way the elementary story of Christianity, namely as a joke with the final unexpected twist? A believer is complaining: “I was promised contact with god, divine grace, but I am now totally alone, abandoned by god, destitude, suffering, with only a miserable death awaiting me!” The divine voice then answers him: “You see, now you are effectively one with god, with Christ suffering on the cross!”

If we take into account the radical consequences of this elementary dialectical move, then the Hegelian “absolute knowing” itself appears in a new light: no longer as a madly megalomaniac claim by the individual called “Hegel” who, in 1820s, stated that he “knows and is able to deduce everything there is to know,” but as an attempt at delineating the radical closure/finitude of a knowledge grounded in its historical constellation. In “absolute knowing,” the limitations of our knowledge are correlated to the limitations of the known constellation itself, its “absolute” character thus emerging from the intersection of these two limitations.

Hegel’s stance is thus not any kind of “mediatior” between the two extremes, Spinoza and Kant; on the contrary, from a truly Hegelian perspective, the problem with Kant is that he remains all too Spinozean: the crack-less, seamless, positivity of Being is just transposed into the inaccessible In-Itself. In other words, from the Hegelian standpoint, this very fascination with the horrible Noumenon in itself is the ultimate lure: the thing to do here is not to rehabilitate the old Leibnizean metaphysics, even in the guise of heroically forcing one’s way into the noumenal “heart of darkness” and confronting its horror, but to transpose this absolute gap which separates us from the noumenal Absolute into the Absolute itself. So when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming that he can overcome the Kantian gap and gain access to Absolute Knowledge in the style of a pre-critical metaphysics; what he claims is that the Kantian gap already IS the solution: the Being itself is incomplete. THIS is what Hegel’s motto “one should conceive the Absolute not only as Substance, but also as Subject” means: “subject” is the name for a crack in the edifice of Being.


The standard topos of the critique of idealism is that, at the point where the conceptual deployment/presentation (logos) fails, touches its limit, a narrative (mythos) has to intervene – this holds from Plato through Schelling (who, in his Weltalter, aimed at supplementing the Hegelian conceptual self-development with the narrative of the Absolute prior to logos) up to Marx (the narrative of the primordial accumulation of the capital) and Freud (the narrative of the primordial horde). In the face of the constant theological motive of the ineffable obscure mystery in the very heart of the divine, of what Chesterton called “a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss /…/ a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach,” [9] one is tempted to propose the opposite path: far from pointing towards the dimension of the “irrational,” this mystery irrepresentable in the form of a narrative (except in the terms of a “heretic” notion (of God himself as the source of Evil, etc.) is simply the negative of the clarity of the Concept itself, i.e., the only way the self-division that characterizes the immanent self-movement of the Concept can be represented in the medium of a narrative. In other words, when (what Hegel called) the thought constrained to the domain of Representation and/or Understanding mentions the Ineffable, a Beyond which eludes its grasp, one can be sure that this Beyond is nothing but the oncept itself – it is the highest irony of the “mere Understanding” that it prerceives as “irrational” Reason itself. [10]

And here Hegel rejoins Spinoza: Spinoza’s opposition of imagination and true knowledge becomes the opposition of mere Vorstellung (representation) with its ‘stories’ and the self-development of a Notion. It is the irony of the history of philosophy that it is Schelling, the one who is considered a “Spinozean” among the German Idealists, who accomplishes the return to (philosophy as) narrative. In what does Schelling’s true philosophical revolution consist? According to the standard academic doxa, Schelling broke out of the idealist closure of the Notion’s self-mediation by way of asserting a more balance bi-polarity of the Ideal and the Real: the “negative philosophy” (the analysis of the notional essence) must be supplemented by the “positive philosophy” which deals with the positive order of existence. In nature as well as in human history, the ideal rational order can only thrive against the background of the impenetrable Ground of “irrational” drives and passions. The climax of philosophical development, the very standpoint of the Absolute, is thus not the “sublation /Aufhebung/” of all reality in its ideal Notion, but the neutral medium of the two dimensions – the Absolute is ideal-real… Such a reading, however, obfuscates Schelling’s true breakthrough, his distinction, first introduced in essay on human freedom from 1807, [11] between (logical) Existence and the impenetrable Ground of Existence, the Real of pre-logical drives: this proto-ontological domain of drives is not simply “nature,” but the spectral domain of the not-yet fully constituted reality. Schelling’s opposition of the proto-ontological Real of drives (the Ground of being) and the ontologically fully constituted Being itself (which, of course, is “sexed” as the opposition of the Feminine and the Masculine) thus radically displaces the standard philosophical couples of Nature and Spirit, the Real and the Idea, Existence and Essence, etc. The real Ground of Existence is impenetrable, dense, inert, yet at the same time spectral, “irreal,” ontologically not fully constituted, while Existence is ideal, yet at the same time, in contrast to the Ground, fully “real,” fully existing. [12] This opposition – between the fully existing reality and its proto-ontological spectral shadow – is thus irreducible to the standard metaphysical oppositions between the Real and the Ideal, Nature and Spirit, Existence and Essence, etc. (And one should recall here how the space for this spectral domain of the pre-ontological “Undead” was opened up by the Kantian transcendental revolution.) In his late “philosophy of revelation,” Schelling withdraws from the difficulty of thinking to the end this opposition, and “regresses” (retranslates it) into traditional ontological couples of essence and existence, ideal and real, etc. [13] The triangle of Spinoza-Hegel-Schelling is thus not as unambiguous as it may appear: although Spinoza and Hegel are solidary in their effort to formulate the truth of religion in conceptual form, there is nonetheless a level at which Spinoza is solidary with Schelling – more precisely, instead of Schelling, let us mention Richard Wagner, who, with regard to our topic, shares Schelling’s fundamental attitude. Recall the famous beginning of Wagner’s Religion and Art:

One could say that when religion becomes artificial it is for art to salvage the essence of religion by construing the mythical symbols which religion wants us to believe to be literal truth in terms of their figurative value, so as to let us see their profound hidden truth through idealized representation. Whereas the priest is concerned only that the religious allegories should be regarded as factual truths, this is of no concern to the artist, since he presents his work frankly and openly as his invention. [14]

Everything is false here, in this passage which is anti-Kierkegaard par excellence: its disgusting aestheticization of religion, its misleading anti-fetishism, i.e., its rejection of the belief in the factual/literal truth on behalf of the “inner” spiritual truth… what if the true fetishism is this very belief in the “profound hidden truth” beneath the literal truth? – Wagner is here the oppposite of Spinoza who, in his Theologico-Political Tractatus, was the first to propose a historico-critical reading of the Bible grounded in the Enlightenment notion of universal Reason: one should distinguish between the inner true meaning of the Bible (accessible to us today through philosophical analysis) and the mythical, imaginary, narrative, mode of its presentation which is conditioned by the immature state of humanity in the period when the Bible was written. As Spinoza puts it pointedly: if someone holds to the rational inner truth of the Bible, while ignoring its explicit narrative content, he should be counted as a perfect believer; and vice versa, if someone slavishly follows all ritualistic prescripts of the Bible, while ignoring the rational inner truth, he should be counted as unbeliever. It is against such a stance that one should reassert the Jewish obedience of rules. Even more pointedly, it is against such a stance that one should with all force assert the Kierkegaardian point of pure dogma: even if one follows all the ethical rules of Christianity, if one does not do it on account of one’s belief that they were revealed by the divine authority of Christ, one is lost.

Although opposed, these two readings are complementary in that they both search for a “deeper” truth beneath the figurative surface: in one case, this truth is the inner ineffable spiritual message, in the other case, it is the rational conceptual insight. What they both miss is, to put it with Marx, the level of form as such: the inner necessity of the content to assume such a form. The relationship between form and content is here dialectical in the strict Hegelian sense: the form articulates what is repressed in the content, its disavowed kernel – which is why, when we replace the religious form with the direct formulation of its “inner” content, we feel somehow cheated, deprived of the essential. [15] What is missing in both Spinoza and Wagner is thus the inner torsion by means of which the form itself is included (or, rather, inscribes itself) into content – and this, perhaps, is the minimal definition of an EVENT. This is why, neither in Spinoza nor in Wagner, is there any space for an Event proper, for a shattering intervention that would introduce a radical cut in the substantial content. As we shall see, it follows now the crucial reference to Alain Badiou – THE philosopher of the Event.


1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, New York: Macmillan 1956, p. 152-153.

2 Susan Neuman, Evil in Modern Thought, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2002, p. 11.

3 Gilles Deleuze, Seminar 1, available on the internet at http://www.deleuze.fr.st.

4 Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, New York: Continuum 2002, p. 135.

5 This is also how Deleuze determines the difference between philosophy and science: science aims at solutions, while philosophy tries to extract problems which orientate scientists in their search for solutions. There is, however, a fundamental ambiguity in how Deleuze characterizes philosophy as syntagmatic, in contrast to Kuhn’s notion of a scientific paradigm, i.e., of science as paradigmatic: science is a slow-motion, freeze-frame procedure, reduction to a fixed system of functional coordinates, in contrast to philosophical acceleration of motion; on the other hand, Deleuze claims that science operates in a serial time (linear development, rupture, reconnection), while philosophy operates according to a “stratigraphic” time in which what comes after is always superimposed on what comes before. But is serial time not precisely SYNTAGMATIC (linear succession in time), in contrast to the “stratigraphic” crystallization, i.e., PARADIGMATIC superimposition? The key resides in the exact implications of these two modalities of time: the “stratigraphic” paradigmatic superimposition is precisely the ultimate result of time catching up with itself in an inner fold, of a past crystal-image superimposing itself on a future image, while the time of science is that of linear temporal movement of the constituted reality IN time, which means, precisely, WITHIN a certain given paradigm of what reality is. The true opposition is thus not simply between movement and static structure, but between movement IN time, correlative to a paradigmatic order, and movement OF time itself in a short-circuit of past and present. The ultimate movement, the ultimate subversion of static order, is the very “stratigraphic” stasis in which past and future coincide in a superimposed crystallized image.

6 See Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre XVII: L’envers de la psychanalyse, Paris: Editions du Seuil 1991.

7 For a succinct account of the complex, shifting, and often inconsistent way Deleuze relates to the triad of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, see Christian Kerslake, “The Vertigo of Philosophy: Deleuze and the Problem of Immanence,” in Radical Philosophy 38.

8 It is interesting to note that, when, in his Seminar V on Les formations de l’inconscient (Paris: Editions du Seuil 1998), Lacan retells this story, he omits the final inversion – the very feature which appears to us today as its properly “Lacanian” point, and just says that the game of critical remarks and answers goes on indefinitely. Is this slip not the best proof of how, in that period (mid-1950s), Lacan was still in the thrall of the signifying process of endless interpretation, unable to properly conceptualize the structural necessity of a cut which interrupts this unending signifying drift..

9 G.K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1995, p. 145.

10 What is a concept? It is not only that, often, we are dealing with pseudo-concepts, with mere representations (Vorstellungen) posing as concepts; sometimes, much more interestingly, a concept can reside in what appears to be a mere common expression, even a vulgar one. In 1922, Lenin dismissed “the intellectuals, the lackeys of capital, who think they’re the brains of the nation. In fact, they’re not its brains, they’re its shit.” (Quoted in Helene Carrere D’Encausse, Lenin, New York: Holmes & Meier 2001, p. 308.) As Badiou did apropos of Sartre’s (in)famous claim that “anti-communists are dogs,” one should, instead of shamefully ignoring this statement, take the risk and elaborate the underlying CONCEPT of shit.

11 See F.W.J. Schelling, “Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom and Related Matters,” in Philosophy of German Idealism, ed. Ernst Behler, New York: Continuum 1987.

12 The notion of pre-ontological Real is crucial not only with regard to the history of ideas, but even with regard to art and our daily experience of reality. Is the entire contemporary popular (but not only popular) culture not populated by entities located in this pre-ontological domain? Recall, from Stephen King horror tradition, the spectral figure of a young boy, not yet sexualized, who is “undead,” a living dead, utterly corrupted AND innocent, infinitely fragile AND all-powerful, the embodiment of Evil in his very purity. Do we not encounter the same figure in modern art a century ago, from the poems of Georg Trakl to the paintings of Edvard Munch, in the guise of the asexual spectral young boy, this “unborn” who stands simultaneously for vulnerable innocence and utter corruption?

13 And does, as we have already seen, the same not go also for Deleuze? In The Logic of Sense, he deploys the opposition of corporeal Being – the complex network of causes and effects – and the separate level of Becoming – its pure effect, the sterile impassive flow of immaterial Sense -, the opposition irreducible to the traditional ontological couples; later, however – with Anti-Oedipus -, in order to avoid the difficulty of sustaining this position, he reinscribes it into the traditional couple of Becoming versus Being, of the dynamic productive movement versus the “reified” order of its effects..

14 Quoted from Bryan Magee, The Tristan Chord, New York: Henry Holt and Company 2000, p. 281.

15 Which is why Wagner’s or Spinoza’s reading of the bible has nothing whatsoever to do with psychoanalysis, with psychoanalytic interpretation. If one wants to learn what a truly psychoanalytic reading is, one should look for it in, say, the dialogue between Joseph K. and the Priest which, in Kafka’s The Trial, follows the “parable” on the door of the law.

Section III: Badiou!


What, already in a first approach, Alain Badiou shares with Gilles Deleuze is that both their philosophies focus on the notion of Event which cannot be reduced to the positive order of Being. We already saw, apropos a series of examples, from Italian neo-Realism to political revolutions, how, for Deleuze, an Event (the emergence of the New) transcends its positive causes; along the same lines, for Badiou, Event introduces a radical break into the order of Being. The difference between them is that, while Deleuze remains a vitalist who asserts the absolute immanence of the Event to Being, the Event as the One-All, the encompassing medium of the thriving differences of Life, Badiou, in a “dualist” fashion, posits Event as radically heterogeneous with regard to Being. However, instead of this difference, they both perform the same paradoxical philosophical gesture of defending, AS MATERIALISTS, the autonomy of the “immaterial” order of the Event. As a materialist, in order to be thoroughly materialist, Badiou focuses on the IDEALIST topos par excellence: How can a human animal forsake its animality and put its life in the service of a transcendent Truth? How can the “transubstantiation” from the pleasure-oriented life of an individual to the life of a subject dedicated to a Cause occur? In other words, how is a free act possible? How can one break the network of the causal connections of positive reality and conceive of an act which begins by and in itself? In short, Badiou repeats within the materialist frame the elementary gesture of idealist anti-reductionism: human Reason cannot be reduced to the result of evolutionary adaptation; art is not just a heightened procedure of providing sensual pleasures, but a medium of Truth; etc. And, against the false appearance that this gesture is aimed at also psychoanalysis (is not the point of the notion of “sublimation” that the allegedly “higher” human activities are just a roundabout “sublimated” way to realize a “lower” goal?), therein resides already the big achievement of psychoanalysis: its claim is that sexuality itself, sexual drives which pertain to the human animal, cannot be accounted for in evolutionary terms. [1] This makes clear the true stakes of Badiou’s gesture: in order for materialism to truly win over idealism, it is not enough to succeed in the “reductionist” approach and demonstrate how mind, consciousness, etc., can nonetheless somehow be accounted for within the evolutionary-positivist materialist frame; on the contrary, the materialist claim should be much stronger: it is ONLY materialism which can accurately explain the very phenomena of mind, consciousness, etc.; and, conversely, it is idealism which is “vulgar,” which always-already “reifies” them.

Badiou identifies four possible domains in which a Truth-Event can occur, four domains in which subjects emerge as “operators” of a truth-procedure: science, art, politics, love. This theory of the four “conditions” of philosophy allows us to approach in a new way the old problem of the “role” of philosophy. Often, other disciplines take over (at least part of) the “normal” role of philosophy: in some of the 19th century nations like Hungary or Poland, it was literature which played the role of philosophy (that of articulating the ultimate horizon of meaning of the nation in the process of its full constitution); in US today – in the conditions of the predominance of cognitivism and brain studies in philosophy departments -, most of “Continental Philosophy” takes place in Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, English, French and German departments (as they are saying, if you analyze a rat’s vertebra, you are doing philosophy; if you analyze Hegel, you belong to CompLit); in Slovenia of the 1970s, the “dissident” philosophy took place in sociology departments and institutes. There is also the other extreme of philosophy itself taking over the tasks of other academic (or even non-academic) practices and discipline: again, in the late Yugoslavia and some other Socialist countries, philosophy was one of the spaces of the first articulation of “dissident” political projects, it effectively was “politics pursued with other means” (as Althusser put it apropos Lenin). So where did philosophy play its “normal role”? One usually evokes Germany – however, is it not already a commonplace that the extraordinary role of philosophy in German history was grounded in the belatedness of the realization of the German national political project? As already Marx put it (taking the cue from Heine), Germans had their philosophical revolution (the German Idealism) because they missed the political revolution (which took place in France). Is, then, there a norm at all? The closest one can comes to it is if one looks upon the anemic established academic philosophy like the neo-Kantianism 100 years ago in Germany or the French Cartesian epistemology (Leon Brunschvicg, etc.) of the first half of the XXth century – which was precisely philosophy at its most stale, academic, “dead,” irrelevant. (No wonder that, in 2002, Luc Ferry, a neo-Kantian, was nominated the Minister of Education in the new Center-Right French government.) What if, then, there is no “normal role”? What if it is exceptions themselves which retroactively create the illusion of the “norm” they allegedly violate? What if not only, in philosophy, exception is the rule, but also philosophy – the need for the authentic philosophical thought – arises precisely in those moments when (other) parts-constituents of the social edifice cannot play their “proper role”? What if the “proper” space for philosophy ARE these very gaps and interstices opened up by the “pathological” displacements in the social edifice? Along these lines, the first great merit of Badiou is that, for the first time, he systematically deployed the four modes of this reference of philosophy (to science, art, politics, and love).

Here the first critical reflection imposes itself: one is tempted to risk the hypothesis that Badiou’s first three truth-procedures (science, art, politics) follow the classic logic of the triad of True-Beautiful-Good: the science of truth, the art of beauty, the politics of the good) – so what about the forth procedure, love? Is it not clear that it sticks out from the series, being somehow more fundamental and “universal,” always possible to break out. There are thus not simply four truth-procedures, but three plus one – a fact perhaps not emphasized enough by Badiou (although, apropos sexual difference, he does remark that women tend to color all other truth-procedures through love). What is encompassed by this fourth procedure is not just the miracle of love, but also psychoanalysis, theology, and philosophy itself (the LOVE of wisdom). Is, then, love not Badiou’s “Asiatic mode of production” – the category into which he throws all truth procedures which do not fit the other three modes? This fourth procedure also serves as a kind of underlying formal principle or matrix of all of them (which accounts for the fact that, although Badiou denies to religion the status of truth-procedure, he nonetheless claims that Paul was the first to deploy the very formal matrix of the Truth-Event). [2]

Insofar as, for Badiou, the science of love – this fourth, excessive, truth-procedure – is psychoanalysis, one should not be surprised to find that Badiou’s relationship with Lacan is the nodal point of his thought. How, exactly, does Badiou’s philosophy relate to Lacan’s theory? One should begin by unequivocally stating that Badiou is right in rejecting Lacan’s “anti-philosophy.” In fact, when Lacan endlessly varies the motif of how philosophy tries to “fill in the holes,” to present a totalizing view of the universe, to cover up all the gaps, ruptures and inconsistencies (say, in the total self-transparency of self-consciousness), and how, against philosophy, psychoanalysis asserts the constitutive gap/rupture/inconsistency, etc.etc., he simply misses the point of what the most fundamental philosophical gesture is: not to close the gap, but, on the contrary, to OPEN UP a radical gap in the very edifice of the universe, the “ontological difference,” the gap between the empirical and the transcendental, where none of the two levels can be reduced to the other (as we know from Kant, transcendental constitution is a mark of our – human – finitude and has nothing to do with “creating reality”; on the other hand, reality only appears to us within the transcendental horizon, so we cannot generate the emergence of the transcendental horizon from the ontic self-development of reality). [3]

This general statement does not allow us to dispense with the work of a more detailed confrontation. It was Bruno Bosteels who provided the hitherto most detailed account of the difference between Badiou’s and the Lacanian approach. [4] What the two approaches share is the focus on the shattering encounter of the Real: on the “symptomal torsion” at which the given symbolic situation breaks down. What, then, happens at this point of the intrusion of utmost negativity? According to Badiou, the opposition is here the one between impasse and passe. For Lacan, the ultimate authentic experience (the “traversing of fantasy”) is that of fully confronting the fundamental impasse of the symbolic order; this tragic encounter of the impossible Real is the limit-experience of a human being: one can only sustain it, one cannot force a passage through it. The political implications of this stance are easily discernible: while Lacan enables us to gain an insight into the falsity of the existing State, this insight is already “it,” there is no way to pass through it, every attempt to impose a new order is denounced as illusory: “From the point of the real as absent cause, indeed, any ordered consistency must necessarily appear to be imaginary insofar as it conceals this fundamental lack itself.” Is this not the arch-conservative vision according to which, the ultimate truth of being is the nullity of every Truth, the primordial vortex which threatens to draw us into its abyss? All we can do, after this shattering insight, is to return to the semblance, to the texture of illusions which allow us to temporarily avoid the view of the terrifying abyss, humbly aware of the fragility of this texture… While, for Lacan, Truth is this shattering experience of the Void – a sudden insight into the abyss of Being, “not a process so much as a brief traumatic encounter, or illuminating shock, in the midst of common reality” -, for Badiou, Truth is what comes afterward: the long arduous work of fidelity, of enforcing a new law onto the situation. [5] The choice is thus: “whether a vanishing apparition of the real as absent cause (for Lacan) or a forceful transformation of the real into a consistent truth (for Badiou)”:

the problem with this /Lacan’s/ doctrine is precisely that, while never ceasing to be dialectical in pinpointing the absent cause and its divisive effects on the whole, it nevertheless remains tied to this whole itself and is thus unable to account for the latter’s possible transformation. /…/ Surely anchored in the real as a lack of being, a truth procedure is that which gives being to this very lack. Pinpointing the absent cause or constitutive outside of a situation, in other words, remains a dialectical yet idealist tactic, unless this evanescent point of the real is forced, distorted, and extended, in order to give consistency to the real as a new generic truth.

Bosteels recalls here Badiou’s opposition between Sophocles and Aeschylus. Not only Lacan, psychoanalysis as such in its entire history was focused on the Sophoclean topic of the Oedipus’ family: from Oedipus confronting the unbearable Thing, the horror of his crime, the horror impossible to sustain – when one becomes aware what one did, one can only blind oneself -, to Antigone’s fateful step into the lethal zone between the two deaths, which provokes Creon’s superego rage destined to conceal the void of the Thing. To this Sophoclean couple of superego/anxiety, Badiou opposes the Aeschylean couple of courage and justice: the courage of Orestes who risks his act, the justice (re)established by the new Law of Athena. Convincing as this example is, one cannot avoid asking the obvious question: is not this new Law imposed by Athena the patriarchal Law based on the exclusion/repression of what then returns as the obscene superego fury? However, the more fundamental issue is: is Lacan really unable to think a procedure which gives being to the very lack? Is this not the work of sublimation? Does sublimation not precisely “give being to this very lack,” to the lack as/of the impossible Thing, insofar as sublimation is “an object elevated to the dignity of a Thing” (Lacan’s standard definition of sublimation from his Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis)? This is why Lacan links death drive and creative sublimation: death drive does the negative work of destruction, of suspending the existing order of Law, thereby as it were clearing the table, opening up the space for sublimation which can (re)starts the work of creation. Both Lacan and Badiou thus share the notion of a radical cut/rupture, “event,” encounter of the Real, which opens up the space for the work of sublimation, of creating the new order; the distance which separates them is to be sought elsewhere – where? Here is how Bosteels describes the modality of the truth-procedure:

Setting out from the void which prior to the event remains indiscernible in the language of established knowledge, a subjective intervention names the event which disappears no sooner than it appears; /it/ faithfully connects as many elements of the situation as possible to this name which is the only trace of the vanished event, and subsequently forces the extended situation from the bias of the new truth as if the latter were indeed already generally applicable.

The key words in this faithful rendering of Badiou’s positions are the seemingly innocent “AS IF”: in order to avoid the Stalinist desastre, which is grounded in the misreading of the new truth as directly applicable to the situation, as its ontological order, one should only proceed AS IF the new truth is applicable… can one imagine a more direct application of the Kantian distinction between constitutive principles (a priori categories which directly constitute reality) and regulative ideas, which should only be applied to reality in the AS IF mode (one should act AS IF reality is sustained by a teleological order, AS IF there is a God and immortal soul, etc.). When Badiou asserts the “unnameable” as the resisting point of the Real, the “indivisible remainder” which prevents the “forceful transformation” to conclude its work, this assertion is strictly correlative to the AS IF mode of the post-evental work of forcing the real: it is because of this remainder that the work of truth cannot ever leave behind this conditional mode.

So when Bosteels claims that “there is something more than just awkward in the criticism according to which Badiou’s Being and Event would later get trapped in a naive undialectical, or even pre-critical separation of these two spheres – being and event, knowledge and truth, the finite animal and the immortal subject,” one can only add: yes, and that “more” is that this criticism is up to the point. Already for Kant, there is no subjective impurity (such a position is accessible only to a saint, and, due to its finitude, no human being can attain this position): the Kantian subject is the name for an interminable ethical work, and purity is just the negative measure of our everlasting impurity (when we accomplish an ethical act, we cannot ever pretend or know that we were effectively not moved by some pathological motivation). And it is Badiou who is deeply Kantian in his gap between the “eternity” of, say, the idea of justice, and the interminable work of forcing it into a situation. And what about Badiou’s repeated insistence that “consequences in reality” do not matter, that – say, apropos of the passage from Leninism to Stalinism – one cannot conceive of Stalinism as the revealed truth of Leninism? What about his insistence that the process of truth is not in any way affected by what goes on at the level of being? For Badiou, a certain truth-procedure ceases for strictly inherent reasons, when its sequence is exhausted – what matters is sequence, not consequence. What this means is that the irreducible impurity has its measure in the eternity of the pure Truth as its inherent measure: although the Idea of egalitarian Justice is always realized in an impure way, through the arduous work of forcing it upon the multiplicity of the order of being, these vicissitudes do not affect the Idea itself which shines through them.

The key to Badiou’s opposition of Being and Event is the preceding split, within the order of Being itself, between the pure multitude of the presence of beings (accessible to mathematical ontology) and their re-presentation in some determinate State of Being: all of the multitude of Being cannot ever be adequately represented in a State of Being, and an Event always occurs at the site of this surplus/remainder which eludes the grasp of the State. The question is therefore that of the exact status of this gap between the pure multitude of presence and its representation in State(s). Again, the hidden Kantian reference is crucial here: the gap which separates the pure multiplicity of the Real from the appearing of a “world” whose coordinates are given in a set of categories which predetermine its horizon, is the very gap which, in Kant, separates the Thing-in-itself from our phenomenal reality, i.e., from the way things appear to us as objects of our experience. The basic problem remains unsolved by Kant as well as by Badiou: how does the gap between the pure multiplicity of being and its appearance in the multitude of worlds arise? How does being appear to itself? Or, to put it in “Leninist” terms: the problem is not if there is some reality beneath the phenomenal world of our experience; the true problem is exactly the opposite one – how does the gap open up within the absolute closure of the Real, within which elements of the Real can appear? Why the need for the pure multitude to be re-presented in a State? When Bosteels writes that the state of a situation is “an imposing defense mechanism set up to guard against the perils of the void,” one should therefore raise a naive, but nonetheless crucial, question: where does this need for defense come from? Why are we not able to simply dwell in the void? Is it not that there already has to be some tension/antagonism operative within the pure multitude of Being itself? In other words, is Badiou, in his overlooking of this topic, not close to Deleuze, his great opponent? Furthermore, in contrast to the pure indifferent multitude of Being, there is a conflicting multiplicity of States of Being; an Event emerges at the site of the interstices of States – the second key issue is thus the nature of the conflicting co-existence of States.

Badiou’s oscillation apropos of the Event is crucial here: while linking the Event to its nomination and opposing any mystical direct access to it, any Romantic rhetorics of immersion into the Nameless Absolute Thing, Badiou is nonetheless continuously gnawed by doubts about the appropriateness of nominations (say, apropos of Marxism, he claims that we still lack the proper name for what effectively occurred in the revolutionary turbulences of the last centuries, i.e. that “class struggle” is NOT an appropriate nomination). This deadlock appears at its purest when Badiou defines the “perverse” position of those who try to behave as if there was no Event: Badiou’s “official” position is that the Event is radically subjective (it exists only for those who engage themselves on its behalf); how, then, can the pervert ignore something which is not there at all for him? Is it not that the Event must then have a status which cannot be reduced to the circle of subjective recognition/nomination, so that also those who, WITHIN the situation our of which the Event emerged, ignore the Event, are affected by it? In short, what Badiou seems to miss here is the minimal structure of historicity (as opposed to mere historicism), which resides in what Adorno called die Verbindlichkeit des Neuen, “the power of the New to bind us/” [6] : when something truly New emerges, one cannot go on as if it did not happen, since the very fact of this New changes the entire coordinates. After Schoenberg, one cannot continue to write musical pieces in the old Romantic tonal mode; after Kandinsky and Picasso, one cannot paint in the old figurative way; after Kafka and Joyce, one cannot write in the old realist way. More precisely: of course, one can do it, but if one does it, these old forms are no longer the same, they have lost their innocence and now appear as a nostalgic fake. – From these remarks, we can return to Bosteels basic reproach, according to which, psychoanalysis

collapses into an instantaneous act what is in reality an ongoing and impure procedure, which from a singular event leads to a generic truth by way of a forced return upon the initial situation. Whereas for Žižek, the empty place of the real that is impossible to symbolize is somehow already the act of truth itself, for Badiou a truth comes about only by forcing the real and by displacing the empty place, so as to make the impossible possible. ‘Every truth is post-evental,’ Badiou writes.

The first misunderstanding to be dispelled here is that, for Lacan, the Event (or Act, or encounter of the Real) does not occur in the dimension of truth. For Lacan also, “truth is post-evental,” although in a different sense than for Badiou: truth comes afterwards, as the Event’s symbolization. Along the same lines, when Bosteels quotes the lines from my Sublime Object about “traversing the fantasy” as the “almost nothing” of the anamorphic shift of perspective, as the unique shattering moment of the thorough symbolic alteration in which, although nothing changed in reality, all of a sudden “nothing remains the same,” one should not forget that this instantaneous reversal is not the end, but the beginning, the shift which opens up the space for the “post-evental” work; to put it in Hegelese, it is the “positing of the presupposition” which opens the actual work of positing. [7]


Nowhere is the gap which separates Badiou from Lacan more clearly discernible as apropos four discourses; through a criticism of Lacan, Badiou recently (in his last seminars) proposed his own version of the four discourses. At the outset, there is the hysteric’s discourse: in the hysterical subject, the new truth explodes in an event, it is articulated in the guise of an inconsistent provocation, and the subject itself is blind for the true dimension of what it stumbled upon – recall the proverbial unexpected outburst to the beloved “I love you!” which surprises even its author. It is the master’s task to properly elaborate the truth into a consistent discourse, to work out its sequence. The pervert, on the contrary, works as if there was no truth-event, it categorizes the effects of this event as if they can be accounted for in the order of knowledge (say, a historian of the French Revolution like Francois Furet who explains it as the outcome of the complexity of the French situation in the late XVIII century, depriving it of its universal scope). To these three, one should add the mystical discourse, the position of clinging to the pure In-Itself of the truth beyond the grasp of any discourse.

There is a series of interconnected differences between this notion of four discourses and Lacan’s matrix of four discourses; [8] the main two concern the opposition of Master and Analyst. First, in Lacan, it is not the hysteric but the Master who performs the act of nomination: he pronounces the new Master-Signifier which restructures the entire field; the Master’s intervention is momentary, unique, singular, like the magic touch which shifts the perspective and all of a sudden transforms chaos into the New Order – in contrast to the discourse of University which elaborates the sequence from the new Master-Signifier (the new system of knowledge). [9] The second difference is that, in Badiou’s account, there is no place for the discourse of the analyst – its place is held by the mystical discourse fixated on the unnameable Event, resisting its discursive elaboration as unauthentic. For Lacan, there is no place for an additional mystical discourse, for the simple reason that such a mystical stance is not a discourse (a social link) – and the discourse of the analyst is precisely a discourse which takes as its “agent,” its structuring principle, the traumatic kernel of the real which serves as an irreducible obstacle to the discursive link, introducing in it an indelible antagonism, impossibility, destabilizing gap. Therein resides the true difference between Badiou and Lacan: what Badiou precludes is the possibility to devise a discourse which has as its structuring principle the unnameable “indivisible remainder” eluding a discursive grasp, i.e. for Badiou, when we are confronted with this remainder, we should either name it, transpose it into the master’s discourse, or stare at it in the mystifying awe. What this means is that one should turn Badiou’s reproach to Lacan back against Badiou himself: it is Badiou who is unable to expand the encounter of the Real into a discourse, i.e., for whom, this encounter, in order to start to function as a discourse, has to be transposed into a Master’s discourse.

The ultimate difference between Badiou and Lacan thus concerns the relationship between the shattering encounter of the Real and the ensuing arduous work of transforming this explosion of negativity into a new order: for Badiou, this new order “sublates” the exploding negativity into a new consistent truth, while for Lacan, every Truth displays the structure of a (symbolic) fiction, i.e., it is unable to touch the Real. Does this mean that Badiou is right – namely in his reproach that, in a paradigmatic gesture of what Badiou calls “anti-philosophy,” Lacan relativizes truth to just another narrative/symbolic fiction which forever fails to grasp the “irrational” hard kernel of the Real?

One should recall here that the Lacanian triad Real-Imaginary-Symbolic reflects itself within each of its three elements. There are three modalities of the Real: the “real Real” (the horrifying Thing, the primordial object, from Irma’s throat to the Alien), the “symbolic Real” (the real as consistency: the signifier reduced to a senseless formula, like the quantum physics formulas which can no longer be translated back into – or related to – the everyday experience of our life-world), and the “imaginary Real” (the mysterious je ne sais quoi, the unfathomable “something” on account of which the sublime dimension shines through an ordinary object). The Real is thus effectively all three dimensions at the same time: the abyssal vortex which ruins every consistent structure; the mathematized consistent structure of reality; the fragile pure appearance. And, in a strictly homologous way, there are three modalities of the Symbolic (the real – the signifier reduced to a senseless formula -, the imaginary – the Jungian “symbols” – and the symbolic – speech, meaningful language), and three modalities of the Imaginary (the real – fantasy, which is precisely an imaginary scenario occupying the place of the Real -, the imaginary – image as such in its fundamental function of a decoy -, and the symbolic – again, the Jungian “symbols” or New Age archetypes). Far from being reduced to the traumatic void of the Thing which resists symbolization, the Lacanian Real thus designates also the senseless symbolic consistency (of the “mathem”), as well as the pure appearance irreducible to its causes (“the real of an illusion”). Consequently, Lacan not only does supplement the Real as the void of the absent cause with the Real as consistency; he adds a third term, that of the Real as pure appearing, which is also operative in Badiou in the guise of what he calls the “minimal difference” which arises when we subtract all fake particular difference – from the minimal “pure” difference between figure and background in Malevitch’s “White square on black surface,” up to the unfathomable minimal difference between Christ and other men.

In Le siècle, [10] Badiou deploys two modes of what he calls the “passion of the real” as the defining passion of the XXth century, that of “purification” (of violently discarding the deceiving layers of false reality in order to arrive at the kernel of the real) and that of “subtraction” (of isolating the minimal difference which becomes palpable in the symptomal point of the existing order of reality) – is it not, then, that we should supplement Badiou’s two passions of the Real (the passion of purification and the passion of subtraction) with that of scientific-theoretical FORMALIZATION as the third approach to the Real? The Real can be isolated through violent purification, the shedding away of false layers of deceptive reality; it can be isolated as the singular universal which marks the minimal difference; and it can also be isolated in the guise of a formalization which renders the subjectless “knowledge in the Real.” It is easy to discern here again the triad of Real, Imaginary, Symbolic: the Real attained through violent purification, the Imaginary of the minimal difference, the Symbolic of the pure formal matrix.

The political consequences of this deadlock are crucial. In Le siecle, Badiou seems to oscillate between the plea for a direct fidelity to the XXth century “passion of the real,” and the prospect of passing from the politics of purification to the politics of subtraction – while he makes it fully clear that the horrors of the XXth century, from the holocaust to gulag, are a necessary outcome of the purification-mode of the “passion of the Real,” and while he admits that protests against it are fully legitimate (see his admiration for Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales), he nonetheless stops short of renouncing it – why? Because the consequent following of the logic of subtraction would have forced him to abandon the very frame of the opposition between Being and Event: within the logic of subtraction, the Event is not external to the order of Being, but located in the “minimal difference” inherent to the order of Being itself. The parallel is here strict between Badiou’s two versions of the “passion of the Real” and the two main versions of the Real in Lacan: the Real as the destructive vortex, the inaccessible/impossible hard kernel which we cannot approach too much (if we get too close to it, we get burned, as in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun, the movie about a Soviet hero-general caught in a Stalinist purge and “burnt by the sun” of the Revolution), and the Real as the pure Schein of a minimal difference, as another dimension which shines through in the gaps of the inconsistent reality.

If Badiou were to accomplish this step, he would, perhaps, choose to conceive of the XXIth century as the displaced repetition of the XXth century: after the (self)destructive climax of the logic of purification, the passion of the Real should be reinvented as the politics of subtraction. There is a necessity in this blunder: subtraction is possible only after the fiasco of purification, as its repetition, in which the “passion of the Real” is sublated, freed of its (self)destructive potential. In the absence of this step, Badiou is left with only two options: either to remain faithful to the destructive ethics of purification, or to take refuge in the Kantian distinction between a normative regulative Ideal and the constituted order of reality – say, to claim that the Stalinist desastre occurs, that the (self)destructive violence explodes, when the gap which forever separates the Event from the order of Being is closed, when the Truth-Event is posited as fully realized in the order of Being.

Along these lines, Badiou recently proposed as (one of) the definition(s) of Evil: the total forcing of the unnameable, the accomplished naming of it, the dream of total Nomination (“everything can be named within the field of the given generic truth procedure”)- the fiction (the Kantian regulative Idea?) of the accomplished truth-procedure is taken for reality (it starts to function as constitutive). According to Badiou, what such forcing obliterates is the inherent limitation of the generic truth-procedure (its undecidability, indiscernability…): the accomplished truth destroys itself, the accomplished political truth turns into totalitarianism. The ethics of Truth is thus the ethics of the respect for the unnameable Real which cannot be forced. [11] However, the problem here is: how to avoid the Kantian reading of this limitation? Although Badiou rejects the ontological-transcendental status of finitude as the ultimate horizon of our existence, is his limitation of truth-procedure ultimately not grounded in the fact that it is the finite Significantly, Badiou, the great critic of the notion of totalitarianism, resorts here to this notion in a way very similar to the Kantian liberal critics of the “Hegelian totalitarianism.” subject, the operator of the infinite truth-procedure, who, in an act of pure decision/choice, proclaims the Event as the starting point of reference of a truth-procedure (statements like “I love you,” “Christ has arisen from the dead”). So, although Badiou subordinates subject to the infinite truth-procedure, the place of this procedure is silently constrained by the subject’s finitude. And does Badiou, THE anti-Levinas, with this topic of the respect for the unnameable not come dangerously close precisely to the Levinasian topic of the respect for Otherness – the topic which is, against all appearances, politically totally inoperative? Recall the well-known fiasco of Levinas when, a week after the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut, he participated in a radio broadcast with Shlomo Malka and Alain Finkelkraut. Malka asked him the obvious “Levinasian” question: “Emmanuel Levinas, you are the philosopher of the ‘other.’ Isn’t history, isn’t politics the very site of the encounter with the ‘other,’ and for the Israeli, isn’t the ‘other’ above all the Palestinian?” To this, Levinas answered:

My definition of the other is completely different. The other is the neighbor, who is not necessary kin, but who can be. And in that sense, if you’re for the other, you’re for the neighbor. But if your neighbor attacks another neighbor or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least then we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust. There are people who are wrong. [12]

The problem with these lines is not their potential Zionist anti-Palestinian attitude, but, quite on the contrary, the unexpected shift from high theory to vulgar commonsensical reflections – what Levinas is basically saying is that, as a principle, respect for alterity is unconditional, the highest one, but, when faced with a concrete other, one should nonetheless see if he is a friend or an enemy… in short, in practical politics, the respect for alterity strictly means nothing. No wonder, then, that Levinas also perceived alterity also as radical strangeness which poses a threat and where hospitality is suspended, is clear from the following passage about the “yellow peril” from what is arguably his weirdest text, “The Russo-Chinese Debate and the Dialectic” (1960), a comment on the Soviet-Chinese conflict:

The yellow peril! It is not racial, it is spiritual. It does not involve inferior values; it involves a radical strangeness, a stranger to the weight of its past, from where there does not filter any familiar voice or inflection, a lunar or Martian past. [13]

Does this not recall Heidegger insistence, throughout the 1930s, that the main task of the Western thought today is to defend the Greek breakthrough, the founding gesture of the “West,” the overcoming of the pre-philosophical mythical “Asiatic” universe, against the renewed “Asiatic” threat – the greatest opposite of the West is “the mythical in general and the Asiatic in particular”? [14] Back to Badiou, what all this means is that there is a Kantian problem with Badiou which is grounded in his dualism of Being and Event, and which has to be surpassed. The only way out of this predicament is to assert that the unnameable Real is not an external limitation, but an ABSOLUTELY INHERENT limitation. Truth is a generic procedure which cannot comprise its own concept-name that would totalize it (as Lacan put it, “there is no meta-language,” or, as Heidegger put it, “the name for a name is always lacking,” and this lack, far from being a limitation of language, is its positive condition, i.e., it is only because-through this lack that we have language). So, like the Lacanian Real which is not external to the Symbolic, but makes it non-all from within (as Laclau put it: in an antagonism, the external limit coincides with the internal one), the unnameable is inherent to the domain of names. (This is why, for Badiou as for Heidegger, poetry is the experience/articulation of the limits of the potency of language, of the limits of what we can force through and with language.) THIS and only this is the proper passage from Kant to Hegel: not the passage from limited/incomplete to full/completed nomination (“absolute knowledge”), but the passage of the very limit of nomination from the exterior to the interior.

The materialist solution is thus that the Event is NOTHING BUT its own inscription into the order of Being, a cut/rupture in the order of Being on account of which Being cannot ever form a consistent All. There is no Beyond of Being which inscribes itself into the order of Being – there “is” nothing but the order of Being. One should recall here yet again the paradox of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, in which matters does not curve the space, but is an effect of the space’s curvature: an Event does not curve the space of Being through its inscription into it – on the contrary, an Event is NOTHING BUT this curvature of the space of Being. “All there is” is the interstice, the non-self-coincidence, of Being, i.e., the ontological non-closure of the order of Being.

Badiou’s counter-argument to Lacan (formulated, among others, by Boostels) is that what really matters is not the Event as such, the encounter with the Real, but its consequences, its inscription, the consistency of the new discourse which emerges from the Event… one is tempted to turn this counter-argument against Badiou himself, against his “oppositional” stance of advocating the impossible goal of pure presence without the state of representation: one should gather the strength to “take over” and assume power, no longer just to persist in the safety of the oppositional stance. If one is not ready to do this, then one continues to rely on state power as that against which one defines one’s own position. What this means at the ontological level is that, ultimately, one should reject Badiou’s notion of mathematics (the theory of pure multitude) as the only consistent ontology (science of Being): if mathematics is ontology, then, in order to account for the GAP between Being and Event, one should remain stuck in dualism OR dismiss the Event as an ultimately illusory local occurrence within the encompassing order of Being. Badiou is here anti-Deleuze, but he remains within the same field: while Deleuze asserts the substantial One as the background-medium of the multitude, Badiou opposes the multitude of Being to the One-ness of the singular Event. Against this notion of multitude, one should assert as the ultimate ontological given the gap which separates the One from within.


1 This is how one should locate the shift from the biological instinct to drive: instinct is just part of the physics of animal LIFE, while drive (DEATH drive) introduces a meta-physical dimension. In Marx, we find the homologous implicit distinction between working class and proletariat: “working class” is the empirical social category, accessible to sociological knowledge, while “proletariat” is the subject-agent of revolutionary Truth. Along the same lines, Lacan claims that drive is an ETHICAL category.

2 Furthermore, is there not a key difference between love and other truth-procedures, in that, in contrast to others which try to force the unnameable, in “true love,” one endorses-accepts the loved Other ON BEHALF OF THE VERY UNNAMEABLE X IN HIM/HER. In other words, “love” designates the respect of the lover for what should remain unnameable in the beloved – “whereof one cannot talk about, thereof one should remain silent” is perhaps the fundamental proscription of love.

3 Perhaps, along these lines, one should even take the risk of proposing that psychoanalysis – the subject’s confrontation with its innermost fantasmatic kernel – is no longer to be accepted as the ultimate gesture of subjective authenticity

4 See Bruno Boostels, “Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject: The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism?” (2001), in The Warwick Journal of Philosophy.

5 Badiou’s notion of subjectivization as the engagement on behalf of Truth, as the fidelity to Truth-Event, is clearly indebted to the Kierkegaardian existential commitment “experienced as gripping our whole being. Political and religious movements can grip us in this way, as can love relationships and, for certain people, such ‘vocations’ as science and art. When we respond to such a summons with what Kierkegaard calls infinite passion – that is, when we respond by accepting an unconditional commitment – this commitment determines what will be the significant issue for us for the rest of our life.”(Hubert Dreyfus, On the Internet, London: Routledge 2001, p. 86) What Dreyfus enumerates in this resume of Kierkegaard’s position are precisely Badiou’s four domains of Truth (politics, love, art, science), PLUS religion as their “repressed” model.

6 See Theodor W. Adorno, “Verbindlichkeit des Neuen,” Musikalische Schriften V, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 1998, p. 832-833.

7 Not to mention the obvious fact that, in the psychoanalytic treatment, truth is not an instant insight, but the “impure” process of working-through which can last for years.

8 As to this matrix, see See Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre XVII: L’envers de la psychanalyse.

9 In philosophical terms, Lacan introduces here a distinction, absent in Badiou, between symbolic truth and knowledge in the Real: Badiou clings to the difference between objective-neutral Knowledge which concerns the order of Being, and the subjectively-engaged Truth (one of the standard topoi of the modern thought from Kierkegaard onwards), while Lacan renders thematic another, unheard-of, level, that of the unbearable fantasmatic kernel. Although – or, rather, precisely because – this kernel forms the very heart of subjective identity, it cannot ever be subjectivized, subjectively assumed: it can only be retroactively reconstructed in a desubjectivized knowledge. As to this crucial distinction, see the first chapter in my The Plague of Fantasies, London: Verso Books 1997.

10 See Alain Badiou, Le siècle, Paris; Seuil, 2002.

11 It also seems problematic to conceive of “Stalinism” as a too radical “forcing” of the order of being (the existing society): the paradox of the 1928 “Stalinist revolution” was rather that, in all its brutal radicality, it was not radical enough in effectively transforming the social substance – its brutal destructiveness has to be read as an impottent passage a l’acte. Far from simply standing for a total forcing of the unnameable Real on behalf of the Truth, the Stalinist “totalitarianism” rather designates the attitude of absolutely ruthless “pragmatism,” of manipulating and sacrificing all “principles” on behalf of maintaining power.

12 The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Blackwell 1989, p. 294.

13 Emmanuel Levinas, Les imprevus de l’histoire, Fata Morgana 1994, p. 172.

14 Martin Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise on Human Freedom, Athens: Ohio University Press 1985, p. 146.

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