Zizek Versus Badiou: Is Lacan an Anti-Philosopher?

What follows is a hyper-transcription of a debate that occurred in 2010 between Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou. It was called “Is Lacan an Anti-Philosopher?” Most of hyper-links will bring you to other pages in my blog which further develop various concepts, and so I encourage those of you who are first encountering this material to follow them and read them through one at a time.

Badiou, unlike Zizek, provides us with a very nice definition of anti-philosophy. Anti-philosophy is any system of thought (or thinking) which opposes the singularity of its experience to the properly philosophical category of truth. Anti-philosophy thereby lives somewhere in between the contradiction between philosophy and the pure activity or creative aspect of life. Thus, the common strategy of an anti-philosopher is to draw from personal experience in order to launch an attack on the universal abstractions of philosophical discourse. Badiou names three great classical anti-philosophers: Pascal against Descartes, Rousseau against Voltaire and Hume, and Kierkegaard against Hegel. There are also three great modern anti-philosophers who launched an attack on the entire philosophical tradition: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and, perhaps, to some extent, Lacan.

Nietzsche, for example, was perhaps the most important modern thinker during the last century. Notably, he was important for Deleuze and Foucault. Nietzsche was the horizon of their experience. Nietzsche wrote something like: “We have abolished the world as truth. This abolition of truth is the negative condition for the Dionysian affirmation.” The justification that Nietzsche used to affirm the Dionysian affirmation was his own proper existence. This was the decisive rupture with the philosophical tradition. Nietzsche wrote, in a letter, the following: “It is not inconceivable that I am [Nietzsche] the first philosopher of the age, perhaps even a little more. I am something decisive and fatal that springs up between two millennia.” This, Badiou maintains, is the pure form of anti-philosophy. It is always an act involving violent subjectivity and which destroys the philosophical tradition and its enclosure of life by truth. Thus, what the anti-philosopher arms himself with is his experience and his act – this is his radical potency of life. It is the uprising of the anti-philosopher’s life against the dead and dying philosophical rhetoric.

For Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, the victory of the real – which is also the victory of psychoanalysis to some extent – always comes at the price of the complete destruction or abandonment of the philosophical category of truth. This does not imply that anti-philosophers have as their goal the critique of truth. Anti-philosophy is not primarily a critique. Anti-philosophy is rather about therapy: man must be cured of the philosophical illness. Wittgenstein suggested that philosophical truth is necessarily linked to non-sense. This, of course, implies that it is harmful. The victory of the real, for Wittgenstein, therefore consisted of an aesthetic act which completely eliminates metaphysical nonsense.

The problem is much more complex for Lacan. Lacan, unlike the anti-philosophers, does not want to destroy the category of truth. On the contrary, he wants to preserve it. Truth is an important word in the Lacanian toolbox. Not only does Lacan intend to preserve the category of truth, he wants to rethink it. Within this preservation and reformulation of the category of truth, Lacan embarks upon a long and tortuous journey toward a dismissal and a rethinking of it. Beginning in the 1970s, there was a slow movement in Lacan’s thinking toward the destitution and dismissal of truth. In seminar XX, for example, there are two quotes from Lacan:

There is some rapport of being that can not be known (May 15th, 1973: Lacan).


What is specific to analysis is that it can constitute for itself knowledge concerning the truth (May 20th, 1973: Lacan).

There is a tension between these two statements. On the one hand, truth is secret and unknown. The truth of the subject is produced by the subject and yet the subject himself has no knowledge of this truth. This is why, for example, the truth is always unconscious. On the other hand, the aim of psychoanalysis is to generate knowledge about the unknown. The paradoxical position concerning truth is therefore that there is no knowledge of truth but that there is a psychoanalytic knowledge precisely concerning this absence of knowledge. This is the great paradox of psychoanalysis and of the unconscious.

The way that Lacan resolves this paradox is through the Matheme (discussed here and here). What is a Matheme? To answer this question we must return to the psychoanalytic notion of the act. For Lacan, the analysand can experience its own proper real only through the psychoanalytic act. Thus, there is really no abstract knowledge of the real. It is much rather a revelation or experience which occurs in the form of an act. The act is therefore something like a cut in the ordinary representation of the world. On this point, as we shall see, Zizek will make one of his strongest rebuttals (regarding the distinction that Badiou makes between presentation and re-presentation). An act is always a cut in language and a cut in the ordinary representation of a world. Thus, representations are always imaginary, in the strictly Lacanian sense of the term. The act isolates the real from its normal connection to the imaginary and symbolic orders. The essence of the act, then, is a verb which separates the real from the symbolic and imaginary contexts. It is a psychoanalytic notion but not reducible to the experience of psychoanalysis. The act occurs when you face the real as it actually is, without the mediation of the imaginary of symbolic representations. It is therefore not a knowledge or an abstract language. The real, in this conception, is not continuity, such as the imaginary and symbolic formations, but rather a point.

The question is: is there a possible knowledge of the result of this sudden apparition of the real point?, Is there a connection between knowledge and the real point? Or, rather, is there a sort of mysticism of the real? – which is an experience, but without any knowledge. Lacan’s answer was that knowledge of the real can exist, but the price we pay for it is with rigorous formalization. This is the point of the matheme. It is through the strict form of the letter that we perform the operation of separating the real from its common imaginary presentation. Formalization, through the matheme, allows us to not only touch or experience the real but to also transmit that sort of experience. This is why Lacan affirmed that mathematical formalization is our goal and our ideal. It always involves the integral transmission of the real. The matheme is a form of transmission of knowledge of the real but it is not a transmission of truth. Lacan’s anti-philosophical movement, during the 1970s, goes from truth to knowledge concerning the real. Finally, it moves to knowledge all by itself. It was his goodbye to philosophy: he moved from truth to knowledge concerning truth and finally to only knowledge. Philosophy, on the other hand, affirms, from the very beginning, the existence of the truth of the real. Thus, the goal of philosophy is to find something which can be named a truth concerning the real. Lacan affirms that there is knowledge of truth, knowledge of the act, and a transmission of the act by that which the subject faces as the real. It is not as truth, by itself, but as knowledge. Lacan claimed, during the foundation of the Freudian School in 1970, that “truth can not convince knowledge because act.” It was a strange and dense formulation, but clear in its effect. Truth can not convince because we don’t know if truth touches the real. But knowledge, because of the act, can have a certain relationship to the real by the mediation of the matheme of an act.

The point is that this was neither a properly philosophical position nor a properly mystical position. That is the point. It is not a philosophical position because there is no truth concerning the real for Lacan. But is is also not a mystical position because the experience of the real can be transmitted through formalization. So if Lacan was anti-philosophical he was also, for that same reason, anti-mystical. For Lacan, the point was not to make a choice between faith and rational knowledge. There is another way, a way which is rational but not reducible to philosophy and mystical experience.

Philosophy supposes that there is a law of truth, that there is a truth concerning the real and that we ought to love that experience of truth. The philosophical imperative is that we must love truth. This was Lacan’s impression of philosophy. So we must ask, through Lacan, what it means to love truth if there is no truth of the real? Lacan’s answer is very unique: love of truth is a love of weakness and impotency. Truth, in its philosophical sense, is for Lacan castration, loss, imperfection, and all of the forms of weakness and impotency that are the radical conditions of human existence and human knowledge. In its philosophical form, the love of truth is the love of what which does not say everything, and the love of that which is impotent in our knowledge. But for the analyst, it is useless to love the truth. However, it is necessary that we love knowledge and that we, for that reason, desire the matheme.

The problem for philosophy is that it pretends to love truth as power and not as impotency or weakness. The philosophical illusion resides in this game of pretend. The philosophical claim is that the love of truth is the origin of a new power of knowledge and human existence. The philosophical game of loving truth as power is by necessity always a complete failure. Lacan’s anti-philosophical thesis is the following: if we pretend to love truth as power, if we occlude the fact that any love of truth is by necessity the love of weakness, then we will be impotent with respect to knowledge itself. Finally, the philosophical illusion exposes us to the passion of/for ignorance.

This is where the psychoanalytic act justified Lacan’s claim to have risen up, in arms, against philosophy. It is because, at the end of his career, he believed that philosophy was a sophisticated form of ignorance.

Badiou of course describes himself as a philosopher.

Zizek’s position is a little different. It is perhaps a matter of difference with regard to the precise signification of the term “anti-philosophy.” Zizek believes that the first breakthrough of anti-philosophy was in all actuality a profoundly philosophical position. It was Kant’s ethical system. For the first time, with Kant, there was a clear position of the domain of truth and access to the real via the ethical act. On the basis of this, the following question is raised: “Have you noticed that, within the history of philosophy from the Kantian revolution onward, practically all of philosophy refuses to be called philosophy?” For Kant, the interest was no longer in metaphysics but in the transcendental critique of the conditions of metaphysics. Fichte was interested in the teaching of science, not philosophy itself. Schelling privileged art, and Hegel was no longer interested in the love of wisdom but of wisdom itself. Zizek thereby claims, in the case of Lacan, that the anti-philosophical position is a profoundly, and paradoxically, philosophical position. Welcome to the camp of philosophers! All philosophers from Kant onward are most interested in an insurgence against philosophy. Nobody wants to be a philosopher anymore.

At this point in the debate Badiou interjects and claims: “Except for me!” And Zizek responds, “precisely!”

What could this mean? Is Zizek, in his own way, suggesting that Badiou, by not reacting against philosophy is perhaps not a true philosopher? Does this mean that Zizek believes that Badiou is actually outside of the club? Or does he mean that Badiou is an anti-anti-philosopher? The latter claim is quite interesting in that it does not necessarily imply that Badiou is not a philosopher in a way that the first claim does.

In any case, Zizek claims that the great breakthrough of anti-philosophy occurs somewhere within the anti-Hegelian turn. There were three forms of this anti-philosophy: first, the late Schelling and the young Schopenhauer, then Kierkegaard, and finally, Marx. In all three forms the Badiouian conditions are met: philosophy is, within all three versions, denounced as caught inside of its own circle of representation, abstract contextual thinking, and there is a call for some kind of a return to positive singular life. Is this not what we are experience today with the seduction of Francois Laruelle’s work? Recall that Laruelle’s so-called non-philosophy is a “science of philosophy” which calls the decisional structure of all of (transcendental) philosophy into question by exposing the closed circuit through which it operates. This is precisely why I am slowly move away from Laruelle’s non-philosophy, it seems to me closer to an anti-philosophy which calls for “radical immanence“, making it very close to a form of mysticism. In any case, anti-philosophy catches philosophy within its own circle of representation – and this is the important point.

Zizek’s claim is that anti-philosophers are not interested in the Real in any Lacanian sense. On this point, I disagree. I believe that there are two (related) versions of the Real within Lacan’s work (see this).  Admittedly, most Lacanians believe that there is only one real and only one object of the real (objet petit a). This is Zizek’s position (although, at times, he falls back into admitting a difference). Badiou, on the other hand, is more prone to accept that there are two versions of the Real within Lacan’s work. However, he does not examine these two versions in any satisfying way. Zizek maintains that Kierkegaard’s Real, for example, is the unique individual escaping philosophy, for Heidegger, on the other hand, there is a pre-logical abyss outside of philosophical truth, and, finally, for Marx, there are the actual life processes of actual people in their everyday circumstances. What defines the opposition of anti-philosophy is a false opposition between presence and re-representation. Although Zizek does not come out and say it, he is referring to his own critique of Badiou’s work (i.e., the event, on the one hand, and the logics of worlds on the other).

Zizek believes that we ought to disband from any discussions of the closed circle of representation. We ought not to discuss any possibility of breaking out of re-presentation toward something more direct, productive, and present. Alenka Zupancic, for example, demonstrated that the denunciation of re-presentation became a central motif of the 19th century. We became increasingly interested in problematizing representation. In love, for example, the problem was: can love be properly represented by the institution of marriage? The inevitable response has been that marriage can not fully recuperate love, there is always an excess. Take, for example, the anarchist Emma Goldman’s claim that marriage does not result from love but love asserts itself over marriage. The idea is that love is an excess escaping the re-presentation of the institution of marriage. Of course, we have the same discourse in the domain of politics. Can parliamentary representation adequately represent the social base? Doesn’t something in the social base escape representation? This core framing of the tension, from anti-philosophers, must be dropped today. Zizek’s claim is that Badiou, in this respect, remains committed too much to anti-philosophy. Badiou, for example, mobilizes the tension between re-presentation and the real of productive presence.

On this point, there is something remarkable about Derrida’s critique of Georges Bataille‘s work. Bataille situates himself against Hegelian totalization and in favour of sovereignty. Foucault, like Bataille, attempts to break out too quickly by asserting madness against the Cartesian cogito. Levinas also breaks out too quickly by reacting against totality in favor of infinity in our relations with others/alterity. Here, Derrida is an anti-anti-philosopher inasmuch as he demonstrates how all of these attempts to break out nonetheless remain secretly determined by the very fields they attempt to undermine. His point is that it is much more difficult than we often expect it to be to break out of relationships to the philosophical field.

For Zizek, then, we must be very precise when we are locating Lacan’s anti-philosophical claims. The missing dimension within Badiou’s work is clearly Jouissancethe excess of enjoyment. If we begin with Parmenides, as Lacan often did, then we notice that there is a pre-established harmony between discourse and being. But Lacan introduces a crack between them. In 1966, for example, Lacan said:

I challenge whichever philosopher to account now for the relation that is between the emergence of the signifier and the way jouissance relates to being.…No philosophy, I say, meets us here today. The wretched aborted freaks of philosophy which we drag behind us from the beginning of the last nineteenth century as the habits that are falling apart, are nothing but a way to frisk rather than to confront this question which is the only question about truth and which is called, and named by Freud, the death drive, the primordial masochism of jouissance.…All philosophical speech escapes and withdraws here.

What Lacan does is add he adds a missing dimension to Heidegger’s thinking. Language, for Lacan, is not just the house of being, as it is for Heidegger – it is the torture house of being. We are basically tortured by language – that is, we are tortured by castration, distortion, etc. Of course, this is a very obvious Lacanian position insofar as it is by language that the cut of the real inscribes itself. Thus, we are never truly at home in the house of language. This is the traumatic discourse of jouissance.

How, then, ought we respond to all of this? Zizek believes that we ought to torture language to tell the truth. Of course, we should drop all of this hermeneutic stuff which calls for us to open ourselves up to the message inherent to language. Rather, we should torture truth out of language. We could even read poetry and the arts in this way. They are different methods of torturing language. To write a simple poem we have to cut words, squeeze them together, and so on. Even within the practices of cinema there are great works of violence such as montage, which involves stitching and cutting, among other things. Even the passive attitude of “just filming” is a different mode of torture: it is slow torture. It is a bit like tying somebody up and slowly stretching them by the wrists and ankles.

Which is the best way to squeeze out the truth?

So, on this point, Zizek believes that language is not our horizon. We can do more, like the truly great poets and artists: we can torture our language and force it to go beyond. Thus, we can use language against language in order to arrive at the true universality.

Zizek’s second point concerns a certain rejection of third terms in Badiou’s philosophy. If it is true that Lacan was an anti-philosopher because he found philosophy too tied to the correlation of thinking and being, then what was the place of jouissance as the nameless? This is an important part of Lacan’s work that is not discussed very well by Badiou. Zizek cites Meillassoux‘s work on the arche-fossil. The arche-fossil is a third element which breaks out of the transcendental correlation in the same way that jouissance is the third element in Lacan’s work. For Lacan, you do not necessarily have to go outside, the true force is the objet petit a, it is here within us. The problem with Meillassoux, according to Zizek, is that he remains trapped within the problem of re-presentation again: can we reach outside of re-presentation to a direct presentation of reality in itself, or not?

Once again, this is not the correct question to be asking, according to Zizek. The problem that we have today does not concern the question of the possibility of reaching being in itself. The problem is almost the reverse: how can something like god or appearance emerge from the stupid real? How can a world emerge from within the flat stupidity of the real? The problem is not: how can we break out of representation or appearance, but how is representation or appearance possible in the first place?

Zizek therefore accepts the tension between truth and the human animal but insists that a third term or third ring is required. The thing terms include death drive, anxiety, and so on. These terms should allow us to properly locate the event and the world. Badiou, of course, does have a place for anxiety within his system, but the anxiety is always within a world, it is on one side of the split between being and existence, and not linking the two sides.

Badiou, in his rejoinder to Zizek, cautions Zizek on conflating anti-philosophy with the project of critique or critical philosophy. Badiou believes that these are not the same position. The anti-philosophical position does not question the limits of rational thinking, as Kant does, it is much more radical in that it places experience above rational thinking. In other words, there is an experience of a “distance without measure” – a non-identity between objects within a world, for example. For this reason, it is an ontological affirmation. There is a distance which can not be measured between the finite and the infinite, man and god, and so on. This is why there are so many philosophers who situated themselves within the religious context. For example, Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, and many others. Wittgenstein can also be situated here – he had a mystical vision. We can not escape the Lacanian question of the big Other in Lacan’s work. This question opens up to purely religious interpretations of Lacan. This is why there are really no big contradictions between Lacan and most Christian interpretations of psychoanalysis. Lacan’s position is very complex.

The first question of anti-philosophy concerns the distance without measure and the production of something new concerning this distance without purely conceptual means. This is worth repeating for emphasis. Anti-philosophy includes two positions: first, the affirmation of a distance without measure, and; second, the production of something concerning this distance without the use of concepts or rational formalizations. Within anti-philosophy we are concerned with the destiny of the anti-philosopher him or herself, as a singularity or singular experience. This is certainly the case for Pascal. For Rousseau, it was the pure confession. For Kierkegaard, it was the leap to faith.

We must distinguish between four types:

  1. Philosophers. For philosophers, there is a conviction that it is possible to make a connection between truth and the real. For example, Badiou believes that there is a touch of the real in the form of truth.
  2. Sophist. For Sophists, there is the conviction that truth does not exist. There is no knowledge of truth. All that exists is rhetoric. Thus, the adequate response is to carry out a war within language where the stronger is the better and wins out over the weaker. Sophists are not Skeptics. Skeptics only admit that we can not know the truth, not that there is no truth. The skeptic is therefore actually inside of philosophy, while the Sophist is not. All that exists, for the Sophist, is language.
  3. Critic. The critic is not exactly a philosopher because he claims that we can not know the truth. The critic perhaps the pervasive figure of the last two centuries. It was the vision of deconstruction, for example. This position admits the end of philosophy and metaphysics as such. However, the critic typically confines his work to written essays because he is not interested in “big books” of systems and constructions. Perhaps this is where we might situate some of the Object Oriented Philosophers of the last few years? I have claimed that they are hysterics and hysterics are similar in form to critics. However, the situation of hysterics is much more complicated.
  4. Anti-philosopher. The anti-philosopher is different from the other three insofar as he remarks upon his pure experience of his proper life in order to arrive at a testimony regarding the distance without measure. Kierkegaard, for example, remarked upon his relationship with women and claimed that it was a constitutive part of the development of his thinking. It is the singularity of one’s existence which provides the foundation for the anti-philosophical testimony. Lacan, of course, sometimes is an anti-philosopher, because he claims, for example, that he declares the foundation of a new school. He opens up one of his seminars describing the situation he has been placed in during his excommunication and how this explains some of his philosophy, and so on.

All of this is to claim that Badiou agrees to some extent with Zizek. There is, in fact, some remarkable ambiguity on the question of anti-philosophy within Lacan’s work. However, there is a real direction toward classical rationalism, toward the matheme, and toward knowledge.

The point of anti-philosophy – the second point – is that the distance without measure can not be demonstrated by any conceptual means. However, an Event, for example, is not something without conceptual possibilities. Both Badiou and Lacan are therefore either both anti-philosophical and philosophical, or else they are, as Zizek maintains, neither anti-philosophical nor philosophical.


9 thoughts on “Zizek Versus Badiou: Is Lacan an Anti-Philosopher?

  1. Pingback: Zizek Versus Badiou: Is Lacan an Anti-Philosopher? | Research Material

  2. The torture house of language indeed! Earlier this evening I came across a famous letter Gustav Flaubert wrote to George Sand on March 27, 1875: “I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to write… the simplest sentence, like ‘he went out’ requires incredible artistic ruses…. perhaps it is the work that is making me ill…. despair is my normal state… how can I rest? What to do while I am resting? … what is diabolical about prose is that it is never finished…. I must be absolutely mad to undertake a book like this one… I am afraid that in its very conception it is radically impossible…. what terror! I feel as though I’m about to embark on a very long voyage toward unknown regions, and that I won’t be coming back…. It feels to me as though I were crossing an endless solitude, going I know not where. And I am at once the desert, the traveller and the camel.”

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  4. Pingback: Alain Badiou: The Three Fundamental Logics of Negation (Hyper-Transcription) | dingpolitik

  5. Pingback: Alain Badiou: Two Names for Infinity | dingpolitik

  6. Pingback: NOTES – LACAN’S SEMINAR ON ANXIETY (X): 8 MAY 1963 | dingpolitik

  7. Pingback: Žižek and Badiou on Anti-philosophy | Senselogi©

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