New Lacanian Symptoms in Contemporary Radical Philosophy (Part One)

The New Hysterical Question

Lacanian psychoanalysts necessarily express an interest in at least one of three clinical structures: neuroses, perversions, or psychoses. Typically, analysands come to analysis with a problem which relates to one of the two key neuroses – either hysterical or obsessional. Within this rubric, hysterically neurotic analysands are far more likely to seek out an analyst than obsessional neurotics. This is due primarily to the fact that hysterical analysands have as a part of their symptom a demand for knowledge about themselves. This is a demand made toward the symbolic Other incarnated as the analyst. The strangeness of the hysterical symptom occurs as a consequence of the analysand’s paradoxical refusal of the analyst’s offerings: the analysand demands knowledge from the analyst while simultaneously rejecting all of the knowledge that the analyst might offer. It is for this reason that hysterical analysts are typically motivated toward profound discoveries. Recall Lacan’s claim that hysterics were responsible for Freud’s early discovery of the unconscious, the transference, and the nature of signifiers. Might this explain why hysterics are often well situated within the fields of science and philosophy – and most especially within the university?

The question that I ask is the following: whom, amongst recent noteworthy philosophers within the new fields of radical philosophy, are the philosophical hysterics? To approach an answer to this question requires that one embark upon an eisigesis of the question of hysteria within Lacan’s teachings. This method assumes that there is some continuity or systematization to Lacan’s life-long teaching. It further assumes that a careful reading of Lacan’s texts reveals key themes about the general trajectory and dogma of his teaching. These twin assumptions allow us to formulate a generalized dogma on the question of hysteria. My research in this area has revealed that the phallic function has, within Lacan’s system, the unique responsibility of institutionalizing that which puts all of language into motion for the individual. In other words, the phallic function operates upon the signification of castration or lack – insofar as what is lacking is the phallus – and it returns the function of language cut by objet petit a. We might construct a preliminary matheme for this claim as follows: S2/a←AxΦx. It is the objet petit a (a), as a cut within language (S2), which sets the foundation for the traditional hysterical questions of central import within the Lacanian field: “What am I?,” “What am I for the Other?,” and “Am I a man or am I a woman?” These are the traditional questions that analysis reveals within the hysterical analysand’s latent symbolic relationship to the Other.

The new hysterical questions are similar to the traditional questions in terms of their syntactical form but different in terms of their philosophical form. The new latent questions begin with the assumption that the phallic function, and consequently the assertion that the point of departure for philosophy is always that language is cut by objet petit a, ought not be at the center of philosophical speculation. The new hysterics begin by speculating on things [das Ding] outside of language and then pose the question of language cut by objet petit a. The new hysterical questions are best summed up in the following ways: “What is a Thing?,” “What am I for the Thing?,” and “Am I a Subject or am I a Thing?” These questions are exemplified in the writings of Levi Bryant (e.g., “What am I for the Cow?”), Ian Bogost (e.g., “What am I for the Alien?”), and Alain Badiou (e.g., “Am I an Object or am I a Thing?”). I want to rethink Lacanian dogma according to the discoveries of the new hysterics: is it possible that das Ding is something more than simply a less mature or less developed version of the Lacanian objet petit a? If this is the case then perhaps das Ding offers us a new point of departure for thinking objects in the world and how it is that Subjects appear in the world from Objects. The new hysterical Lacanian question is therefore not what is the Ding for the Subject?, but what is the Subject for the Ding? My research finds that it is possible to be faithful to Lacanian orthodoxy while nonetheless changing the point of departure from the Subject of the phallic function to das Ding.

The New Obsessional Question

In contrast to hysterically neurotic analysands, obsessional neurotics are typically quite difficult to analyze. This is the case for a number of reasons: first, they seldom care to undergo analysis; second, they frequently speak at length without allowing any space for analytical intervention, and; third, they frequently prepare and rehearse their discussion points well in advance so that they do not have any spontaneous associations. This thereby ensures that the parapraxes are scattered widely and scarcely discerned by an analyst. In point of fact, the free speech of the obsessional analysand is almost entirely suspended. If analysts are not careful they could very well spend an entire session listening to the analysand’s rhapsodies. The point of analysis, then, must be to shift the analysand’s discourse from the obsessional framework toward the hysterical framework. In other words, the obsessional analysand must be temporarily hystericized. The analyst must make some effort to ensure that the temporarily hystericized analysand remains within that new framework for an extended period of time; only the hystericized analysand is capable of approaching truth and thereby producing change. This latter point is important because, as I have claimed in project one, only the hysterical analysand is truly aware of the symbolic Other’s presence and desires, only the hystericized analysand is capable of becoming attentive to the analyst’s interventions and calling them into question.

It might be worth distinguishing between hysteria and obsession in the following way: whereas the hysteric’s question is aimed at the cause of his or her desire (i.e., the Other as the cause of her desire), the obsessional analysand’s question is aimed at his or her very being. The hysteric’s question is thereby essentially epistemological because it is directed toward some knowledge about the cause of her desire and the obsessional’s question is essentially existential because it is fixated on the dimension of his or her own being or his or her own death. We might compare the two forms of latent questions, between hysteria and obsession, as follows:

Latent Neurotic Questions



  • What am I?

  • What am I for the Other?

  • Am I a man or am I a woman?

    Ethical Question:

  • To be a man or to be a woman?

  • Am I?

  • What am I vis-a-vis my Death?

  • Am I alive or Am I dead?

    Ethical Question:

  • To be or not to be?

Another way to frame the discussion is to focus on the difference between the masculine and feminine formulae of sexuation in Lacan’s work from the 1970s. Recall that Lacan believed that hysterical neuroses are essentially feminine in structure and that obsessional neuroses are essentially masculine in structure. In this way the obsessional structure, like masculine sexuation, is focused on the universal affirmative dimension: only one human animal exists outside of language, the rest of us are entirely submitted to language and the phallic function. The obsessional neurotic has being as his problematic because he is entirely submitted to and alienated by the phallic function. Consider, for example, the fact that, on the masculine side of the Lacanian formulae of sexuation, there is the $ (s-barred). This means that the Subject must choose between thinking, or language, and being itself. The problem is therefore one of being or not being. We know that there exists one whom is not submitted to the phallic function (e.g., God, the father of the primal horde, and so on); that is, there exists one whose objet a is not barred by language. However, it is precisely on this condition that the rest of us, universally, are barred by language and the phallic function ($). On the other hand, the hysterical structure, like feminine sexuation, is focused on the universal negative dimension: not all human animals are submitted to language and the phallic function. In this way, hysterics are not entirely alienated by the phallic function and by language. Because they are free, to some degree, of the phallic function, they essentially ask the question of the phallic function itself: what signifies?, what qualifies as truth?, and so on. The obsessional man is thereby troubled by existential alienation and the hysterical woman is troubled by epistemological or moral alienation.

In some ways, the obsessional analysand is to the clinical situation what the conservative is to the political field: the obsessional does not desire change of any kind. The obsessional finds himself not under the condition of lack but under the condition of abundance. That is to say, the obsessional believes that he has severed all attachments to the Other, to the unconscious, and to language itself, and can produce freely and spontaneously. In this way, the obsessional political actor believes himself to be (capable of being) absolutely autonomous from the field of power. We can find many examples of this position within the contemporary political Left – they are both the most dangerous positions and the most seductive: they preach self-mastery, absolute autonomy, spontaneous decision-making, and so on. Whereas the traditional obsessional questions were “Am I dead or alive?,” “Why do I exist?,” “To be or not to be?,” the new obsessional questions in the field of political philosophy are: “Do I have any political power?,” “Why does the State exist?,” “To be a communist or not to be a communist?” The distinction between the hysterical questions and the obsessional questions are subtle but important: whereas the hysterical political actor makes new discoveries – I thereby designate the hysterical political actor as fundamentally progressive, reforming, and revolutionary – the obsessional political actor (perhaps unknowingly) prefers to embark upon repetitions in thinking. Moreover, while the hysterical political actor prefers to make claims about (or critically investigate into) reality, identity, knowledge, and morals, the obsessional political actor prefers to offer ostensibly innovative speculations on the nature of power itself but precisely through a latent conservatism which ensures that the system, and his place within the system, continues to function without any significant changes.

Obsessional tendencies within the political field are often diagnosed, in non-clinical terms, by the New Lacanian Communists. This is a position that the new communists rightly won over the anarchists; in fact, my research demonstrate that their accusations about the problematic tendencies of contemporary anarchism are mostly correct and that post-anarchism, as a case in point, has indeed suffered from obsessional tendencies. For example, post-anarchism has as its point of departure, the naïve belief that it can produce something outside of power, or, rather, that it can produce tactical zones of autonomy outside of the influence of any hegemonic political forms. However, one should keep in mind Lacan’s point that obsessional symptoms do not always reveal obsessional structures. My research problem is thus: is post-anarchism necessarily obsessional by design? Or, is there, harbored within it, a more foundational hysterical structure? Is it possible to hystericize post-anarchism? I proclaim, with great optimism, that contemporary anarchist philosophy, with post-anarchism as its exemplary form, has the potential to become hystericized.

The New Perverts

While perversion and obsession are two different clinical structures they nonetheless share a similar political effect. It might be the case that the symptomatic behaviors are more engrained for the pervert than for the obsessional neurotic. This is due to the fact that perversions are often thought to be “stuck” within an earlier stage of psychical development – a stage that that occurs – temporally and logically speaking – earlier than (or before) the higher level neuroses have a chance to develop. Thus, perversion often occurs within the repetitive circuit of the drive rather than the goal-oriented trajectory of neurotic desire. The clinical task is therefore to have the perverted analysand advance toward a more purely neurotic symptom (and then, if possible, toward a traversal of the neurotic fantasy). It is important to point out that each of the three clinical structures (neurosis, perversion, and psychosis) involve different primary operations: repression in the case of neuroses, disavowal in the case of perversions, and foreclosure in the case of psychoses. These primary operations are helpful for understanding what is at stake in each of the structures: the neurotic’s problem relates to the coordinates of the symbolic Other (the hysterical carries the Other’s desire around wherever she goes, like gum to the heel of her shoes, and the obsessional refuses the Other’s advancements wherever he goes); the pervert’s relationship to the Other is much more tenuous – whereas the neurotic’s relationship to the Other is repressed because the Other is embedded deep within the unconscious, the pervert’s relationship to the Other is disavowed because it is there within the conscious structure of perception itself.

In my own work I tend to follow Bruce Fink’s thinking about the nature of perversion which reveals that the pervert disavows his understanding of his perceptions of external reality. I discovered, with a little help from the new hysterics, the centrality of the phallic function for all psychoanalytic thinking. I find this insight crucial in understanding perversion as a clinical structure precisely because all perverts – like all neurotics – pass through the phallic function and have thereby been properly submitted to language. However, we shall see that the new psychotics have an entirely different relationship to the phallic function. In any case, the point is that neurotics have as their problem separation vis-a-vis the Other (I have demonstrated that hysterics manage that problem in a different way than obsessionals), and perverts have as their problem an inability to properly separate. We can therefore amend our previous claim about the pervert’s relationship to the phallic function (and hence language) by stating that the pervert is stuck somewhere in the middle of the phallic function: he can speak language and yet can not adequately separate himself from reality and the law. If the pervert does not believe his eyes, disavows material reality, then it is because he still requires an Other to define the boundaries or laws that separate him from this reality. In other words, the pervert disavows reality because reality is not clearly delimited for him by an Other. The Other must be either provoked into spelling out the rules/law as in the case of masochist perversions or else the Other must observe the analysand himself defining the law as in the case of sadist perversions.

Thus, for the pervert we do not find a latent question but rather something closer to a qualifying statement in the form of “I know very well …, but …” In other words, the pervert knows that the reality or law of the situation is problematic, but he makes himself the instrument of the law of the situation anyway. For example, the perverted anarchist might know that the police arrest trouble-makers and yet he might continue to press the police to pronounce or articulate that law anyway. A much more interesting case – especially with respect to Jodi Dean’s recent analysis of public protests (in her Parallax article, “Politics without Politics” – occurs in relation to the scopophilic drive. I name the scopophilic dimension of politics, scopophilic activism: the scopophilic activist is the one who enjoys making his or her protest into an exhibition on display for other people to watch from the sidelines. I believe that Kierkegaard was the first to diagnose this political position when he wrote:

Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is […] the most unthinkable. […] A political virtuoso […] might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled after which they would all go quietly home – having spent a very pleasant evening.

This is perversion at the scopic level insofar as the circuit of the drive operates in such a way that vision becomes the primary domain within which the perverse acts are repetitively played out. (It is important to point out that Lacan distinguished between perverse acts and perverse structures. A perverse act might be engaged in by non-perverse analysands, but perverse structures remain in place long after the acts have completed.) In all cases, the pervert becomes the instrument or object of the other’s enjoyment and disavows all responsibility for his or her actions: either the pervert enjoys purely for the Other or, somewhat like the obsessional neurotic, the pervert enjoys purely for himself. If the pervert enjoys for the Other then it is because he has not yet been properly separated from the Other and strives toward that destiny. To bring the perverted analysand toward his proper neuroses implies that the analyst introduce this separation for the analysand. Separation can be introduced by way of symbolization, that is, the analysand can achieve a level of separation through symbolic abstraction. It is by symbolizing the pervert’s enjoyment that the analysand is effectively separated from the Other and prohibited from enjoying. This is an inherently difficult task for the analyst because, in many respects, the pervert attempts to become the objet a of the analyst, the instrument of the analyst’s enjoyment. Thus, the pervert enjoys having the analyst, as Other, enjoy him. However, what the pervert does not realize, and what the analyst must come to make the analysand realize, is that the pervert is actually striving to bring the Other to exist as a separate entity through his perverse actions. Perversion thereby occurs essentially at the level of the phallic function itself – it is the inability of the phallic function to go all the way and produce language cut by objet a. This is what I mean when I suggest that the pervert is between or in the middle of the phallic function.

In the political field, disavowal might be understood as a putting out of mind that the police are winning, that the repressive state apparatus continues to have the upper hand, that the revolution is not happening, that one’s political practices are working in the interests of the state, and so on. Black bloc anarchists continue to push against the forces of the state and find themselves scattered across the geography of protest zones and city-scapes, they find themselves continually locked up and prohibited from further political activity, they find themselves repeating the political failures of the Spanish Revolution, and so on. Perverted symptoms in post-anarchist discourse imply that, for political actors, “seeing is not believing”: anarchists often see that they are losing but they continue to act as if if they are not. It is as if they get off on failing to some extent. The perverted anarchist desires that the state produce boundaries, enjoy his body by beating it and placing it in prison, and so on.


Affirming the Core of Negation

In After Post-anarchism (Repartee/LBC Books), I made a number of problematic assumptions and claims. I do not believe that this is the venue to discuss them at length or in detail but I nonetheless believe that it would be important to make a few blanket remarks about where my thinking has changed over the last few years.

I was challenged by Alejandro de Acosta’s review of my book (“Its Core is the Negation”) in the most recent issue of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. I have long admired Alejandro’s work for its experimental vivacity and by his ability to short-circuit stale dogmas. Notably, his “Anarchist Meditations, or, Three Wild Interstices of Anarchy and Philosophy”, helped to inaugurate a new trend in post-anarchist thinking (he would certainly debate this claim) – a move which I have called, half joking, post-post-anarchism or after post-anarchism. Alejandro de Acosta is not a traditionalist and neither would he consider himself “post-tradition”. In any case, what I would like to do is to provide a few brief remarks on my book and then some remarks, which serve as a bit of a response to Alejandro, about the nature of the project itself.

My problem, during the time of writing After Post-anarchism, was that anarchist philosophy seemed beset by a false choice between universalism and relativism. During the time of post-anarchism the meta-ethical position was one of ethics rather than morality, and the political practice was one of tactics rather than strategy. The traditionalists were concerned by post-anarchism because it eschewed any notion of Revolution (with a capital “R”) in favor of temporary and/or selective gains across a number of micro-political registers. Thus, criticisms from traditionalists (a designation I use lightly) such as Sasha K and Benjamin Franks involved an attack on post-anarchism for being “post-Revolution” and “post-class” (respectively). Indeed, one of the earliest post-anarchists within the scholarly world was Andrew Koch and his argument was that anarchists need to follow Stirner and Nietzsche by embracing epistemological pluralism against the ontological essentialism of traditional anarchism.

The game had been set. Thereafter, post-anarchism was erected as a body of thought which forever suspected all ontological projects as authoritarian, representative, and essentialist. All post-anarchist projects embraced epistemological claims about a multiplicity of truth claims within the general game of language and communication. Post-anarchism became something like anarchisms’ discursive play-ground. In After Post-Anarchism, I wanted to push post-anarchism a little bit further and allow it to have its own ontological project indebted to Bataille’s laws of the general economy. I believed that there could be a distinctively anarchist “general state” which would oppose itself to restrictive state economies. In the end, this state was metaphysical insofar as it embraced the nihilist third-way – it was neither universalism nor relativism – as the rejection of subjectivity. This nihilist third-way operated on many scales and could easily be conceived of as a project of negation. This was the secret solidarity that I believed always existed between anarchism and (meta-ethical) nihilism – anarchisms’ core was the negation. Negation, in my book, was a subjective project which brought the anarchist in line with the anarchist state and it was also a non-subjective project insofar as it operated according to its own laws and provoked the subject from the alterity of anarchy.

I note with interest the tension that exists here between epistemology and ontology, between the existence of the human animal and being. Upon reflection, it seems to me, I was operating within an provisional dialectic which reduced either position to its other. In other words, either the world was entirely reduced to a multiplicity of language games or it was reduced to the negativity of pure being. Within the former project there is little hope for change because it remains within the repetition of the world of capitalism, ever securing fleeting degrees of freedom within the interstices of restrictive power games, and so on. Within the latter project, there is the problem of being short-sighted. It seems to me that nihilism is the proper place to begin insofar as it rejects the banal repetitions of the traditional games of power but it also naively promotes a direct connection with the anarchist state. Anarchism, then, remains trapped within a form of mysticism. On this point I invite readers to skim over the notes I made about Badiou’s discussion of mysticism. The old epistemological project cleaved to the pole of a strange sort of positivism. Positivists, according to Badiou (who uses the word very broadly), naively believe that certain types of knowledge exhaust all of the possibilities of being (see the notes to Badiou’s other lecture on positivism here). And, to repeat myself, the new ontological project cleaved to the pole of mysticism. And so we have a tension within anarchism between positivism and nihilism, and positivism and mysticism.

Anarchism is only a beginning precisely because its core is the negation. If it is to return to its revolutionary roots then it will most likely require some sort of affirmative position. It seems to me that this is what post-anarchism ought to have offered to the anarchist tradition. Allow me to provide an example. Whilst introducing myself to Slavoj Zizek last summer, he interrupted to ask me: “What is post-anarchism? Is that when the anarchists finally take control of the state?” In many ways, I believe that he is correct – but not for any authoritarian reasons. I believe that anarchists must take control of the general state and affirm a new tradition for themselves. Those who have read my book know that the “general state” is not a political state – the latter is actually a restrictive state. It seems to me that what Alejandro missed in my book was the part about the general economy/state which is not reducible to the will or inter-activity of human animals. In many ways Alejandro was seduced by the claim that an ethics is something we, as human animals, hold onto. But I wanted to make the case that a meta-ethics is something that describes the place from which our ethics derive and the process through which they become manifest. I answered negatively to both – ethics derive from a non-place (something like a constitutive lack) and are validated as truth-claims through a non-process. I thus opened up a source of contingency and thereby displaced the human animal from his place of privilege in anarchist political philosophy.

Today I want to argue that this is the philosophical position that we ought to begin with (i.e., nihilism, or the position I outlined in my book)But it is not the position that we ought to to end with. Anarchists have long been within the phase of only beginning, but if we are serious about Revolution then it is time that we do more than only begin. However, I haven’t the faintest idea as to what that actually meansIt seems to me that the best option we have at this point is to continue to open up these beginnings even while encouraging others to pass through them and toward their own affirmations. We need anarchism to open itself up to others as an institution capable of radicalizing them and then sending them back into the ordinary world thus changed. We need to do this in such a way that those who go back into the world changed are nevertheless ostracized by the institution which radicalized them in the first place. In my view, anarchism is not a social club – it is a dogma. And its philosophical dogma is to destroy the subjects of the old world and replace them with subjects ready for the new world. Anarchism needs to prepare people for the future by making them agents of the future. Perhaps that was why the nihilists of the Russian Revolution called themselves “New People”.

This is why “The Revolutionary Catechism”  should be revived as the foundation document of anarchism. Not because of its meta-ethical consequentialism, but because of its attempt to begin with the absolute destruction of subjectivity. Here are the first three theses:

1. The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

2. The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.

3. The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.

I realize that I haven’t offered any specific answer. I have merely stated that the negation, being its core, is simply not good enough to constitute a philosophical position. That is how my position has changed.

Alain Badiou: Mysticism, Philosophy, and the Two Cuts

I want to pick up from where I left off in my last overview of Badiou’s 2010 lectures at the European Graduate School. I am going to provide an overview of Badiou’s lecture on mysticism and philosophy.

I would like to recapitulate some of the most important points from my last post. First, Badiou believed that philosophy always begins in the void. Thus, philosophy begins with pure experience, negativity, and nihilism. Second, philosophy does not remain within nihilism but rather approaches the moment of affirmation through dialectics. Badiou’s new point is that philosophy can only reach the affirmation by a sort of movement. And so philosophy is a movement. The question which helps us to compare and contrast mysticism and philosophy follows: what sort of movement is philosophy?

Philosophy has its beginning in the void but it also moves toward the goal of affirmation. The goal of the affirmation is nothing less than the transformation of subjectivity. What distinguishes philosophy from mysticism is the nature of the movement: philosophy moves toward its goal through different stages or passages while mysticism moves toward its goal through a smooth and reciprocal pass. Philosophy, unlike mysticism, can not reduce its movement to the revelation of the pure instant, it doesn’t happen all at once. Mysticism, on the other hand, begins with the destruction of subjectivity and the world of the subject – that is, it begins with nihilism – and moves toward an infinite affirmation through that same experience. Infinity and the void coincide without any mediation along the way.

Mysticism is a form of transmission that occurs outside of the rational transmission or communication of language. It consists of a pure experience of the infinite or, if you like, god, within the nothingness of being. The mystic immediately finds god when he destroys himself, his ego, and so on. It is only by accepting our finitude and accepting our fundamental and primordial nothingness that we can open up access to the glory of god. Badiou calls this the “law of access” to the infinite.

What are the fundamental steps inherent to the movement of philosophy? First of all, it is important to point out that the negative beginning of philosophy does not provide us with an experience of god. If we imagine the void as “0” and the infinite as “w” then we can understand the trajectory of philosophy abstractly as follows:

0                    ->                           w

There are two possible movements toward the infinite (“w”). The first movement from “0” to “w” can be drawn like this:

0 —————————-> w

This movement is a smooth line from the void to the infinite. It represents mysticism. The second movement can be drawn like this:

0|-|-|||||||||||||> w

Here, there is no smooth transition. Rather, there are stages.

Given the last lecture, we might be tempted to argue that mysticism and nihilism are similar experiences. They certainly both begin with nothingness, but mysticism is in all actuality not reducible to nihilism. It is much rather a specific experience of nothingness. Unlike nihilism, mysticism (claims to) transform its relationship into a law of access toward the infinite. It does not move rationally like philosophy but rather assumes that the movement beyond nihilism occurs irrationally or through the experience of nothingness itself. This is why the mystic is destined to solitude, because the experience can not be rationally shared or transmitted to others. It is a form of radical solitude with god. This is why mystics often claim that they can not explain their experience to others – that others have to experience it themselves to fully appreciate it. Mystics can compare affective experiences but really there is nothing tangible – no object – that can be compared or measured against one another. Mysticism is philosophy without patience. It is an immediate experience with god and a pure movement toward the infinite.

What is the relationship between philosophy and mysticism? Surprisingly, the two are not opposed to one another. In other words, the relationship between philosophy and mysticism is not the same as the relationship between philosophy and nihilism or positivism (as described in the previous lecture). Philosophy is not against mysticism nor does philosophy subsume mysticism into its fold like it does with nihilism. Neither does philosophy aim to destroy mystical experience. In the end, the movement toward the infinite from the void is a shared goal. Badiou is not against mysticism at all – he even seems to respect mysticism. The problem is that mysticism is only for some while philosophy is for everybody. Badiou observes that it would be difficult for there to be a society in which everybody is a mystic and completely captured by god. If angels exist, then this might be their situation. A pure angel might be within the constant experience of the mystic. But philosophy claims that not all of us are angels – while equally admitted that perhaps some of us are angels.

Philosophy and mysticism both begin with the experience of nothingness and they both intend to go beyond the nothingness toward the infinite. However, philosophy is more susceptible to conceptualization and to rational steps and processes toward the infinite. The movement of philosophy is always systematic, and consists of definite steps toward the infinite. In the previous lecture Badiou demonstrated that all philosophers describe a passage from nothing to the infinite within their work – but seldom has it been an immediate revelation. Philosophers are patient and they allow time for understanding and learning. Moreover, they also accept that repetition occurs.

How does repetition figure into all of this? Within the number system there is a movement from zero or the void to the infinite – from “0” to “w”. It looks something like this:

0 1 2 3 ….. w

Each number is a new construction from the standpoint of the previous and there is no last number. The operation which allows us to move from 1 to 2 and from 2 to 3, and so on, is a repetition of n+1. So the repetition looks something like this:

n = 1, n + 1 = 2, n + n + 1 = 3, ….. w

And so what is repeated is not the concrete number but the operation or process itself. Philosophy is quite like this sort of numerical succession insofar as it demonstrates a systematic passage from zero to the infinite with new numerical constructions based on the repetition of an operation. The passage from one number or object to another number or object always involves the same procedure even while it produces something new. We know, for example, that 3 is not the same number as 2; 3 is not the repetition of the number 2 but rather the construction of a new number. In this way, it is always possible to create something new inside of a repetition and by the means of a repetition. If philosophy is to allow itself to move beyond nihilism then it will always be by this sort of process of repetition or dialectics.

We should notice that “w” is not the result of a repetition insofar as it can never be constructed by any operation such as n+1. The operation of n+1 always constructs another finite number and never something infinite like “w”.  It is the direction of the movement that “w” provides – n+1 moves toward infinity without ever reaching it. The number after a number is always another finite number. This problematic is solved by drawing a cut before infinity such that we understand that infinity is barred by the repetition of operations. This cut or wall is an interruption in the process of repetition or counting. Badiou claims that the process or operation is oriented by the infinite but the infinite is not produced by the process or operation. To put is rather simply, the process always displaces the infinite by placing it further ahead – renewing it, so to speak. I am tempted to call this the “first cut”.

In the movement of philosophy from pure negativity toward absolute affirmation, there are two operations. First, there is the repetition operation hitherto described. Within any philosophical system, be that system Hegel’s, Kant’s, or Descartes’, we can always identify something that is constantly repeated on their part and which has been rather fruitful for their work. This operation moves from notion to notion, always creating a new notion by the same operation. But Badiou maintains that there is yet another operation which involves interrupting the repetition itself. This is an operation which ruptures the repetition from within and cuts the whole number system from the infinite. Mathematically, and philosophically, this is the limit point of the system. This cut opens up the possibility of no longer repeating the operation of that philosophy.

Plato was the first to make this cut. The method of dialectical discussion moves step by step and through successive refutations. Plato offered a different image of philosophy by offering his stories. It was no longer n+1 operation but a cut at the edge or limit of the discussion. When the repetitions of the past can no longer be held, they must be replaced with something new. This “something new” is “truth”. The passage from n+1 to n+n+1 is a “creative repetition” and is really kind of a regular sort of change. Indeed, Badiou, in later years, will describe this as “regular change”. The second cut is what he calls an “event”. An event completely interrupts the first position – it is something like a movement from philosophy to non-philosophy insofar as it opens up a new zero. When one is within the event of non-philosophy (I chose this concept) and one begins with ever new creative repetitions then this is what Badiou calls “fidelity”.

And so we have two cuts. The first cut is there before the infinite. The second is there before zero, or the void. The latter is a result of the pure experience of negativity. We can imagine it as a cut in our own life, the sudden onset of anxiety and nihilism. This cut is a difficult one insofar as it invites us to remain in fidelity to the anxiety and to work courageously through it rather than to succumb to nihilism. And, once again, the first cut is the cut of truth.

0 ——> w

Event ——> Truth

And so we can begin to see the stages or passageways that philosophy necessarily moves through. At the beginning, there is the dialectical between existence and being. This was discussed in the previous blog post. Next, there is an event which is a rupture within the dialectical of existence and being. This event opens up a new possibility. Fidelity involves the organization of the consequences of the event for the future truth. This sort of organization, with any luck, produces a subject and that subject creates a truth.

Existence   |       Event         |          Fidelity         |   Subject         |    Truth

Being            |

Alain Badiou: From Being to Existence

The following is a summary of a lecture that Alain Badiou gave at the European Graduate School in 2010. The video is freely available on youtube.

Alain Badiou delineates his philosophical system with utmost precision. He begins at the beginning of philosophy – and this, he claims, is itself a philosophical position (to begin at the beginning) because philosophy is always at the beginning. This is part of what makes philosophy unique. Unlike mathematics, physics, or any number of other fields, philosophy has it within itself to question its own essence. Contrarily, it is not a mathematical question to ask what the essence of mathematics is. That sort of question shifts the register somewhere outside of mathematics. What mathematics is is not a mathematical question. But what philosophy is is a philosophical question. Philosophy is therefore an exceptional field which allows itself to ask the question of its own essence within itself. Philosophy can ask itself this question because it is always a beginning – it never has for itself a knowledge which is at the beginning.

This raises the subsequent question: what is knowledge? According to Badiou, knowledge is always determined by its object insofar as knowledge is always a knowledge of some-thing. Insofar as the knowledge is knowledge of something it necessarily has a distance from that some-thing. There is thus a distinction between the object of the knowledge and the knowledge of that object. Philosophy is not itself the knowledge of an object because philosophy, being a question raised against itself, is not an object. Philosophy is thereby distinguished also from science insofar as science assumes a positive knowledge (of its object) for itself. Philosophy just doesn’t assume for itself an absolute knowledge of objects.

What is the status of analytic philosophy? Analytic philosophy has as its basic premise or claim the knowledge of definite objects. More often than not, this operates at the stratum of language: what is a sentence?, what is meaning?, what is nonsense? These restrictive questions define the perimeters of analytic philosophy and thereby go against the definition of philosophy that Badiou is attempting to uphold. Philosophy is not itself knowledge. One beginning: Socrates claims that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. Already, at the beginning, there is a knowledge of nothing – and so it is not a knowledge, purely speaking. It is much more dialectical. Socrates knows that he knows nothing. There is thus an equivalence made between something and nothing. Nothing is the paradoxical unit of knowledge. This nothing is the foundation of philosophy insofar as it operates according to a negation of what is known. The great question of philosophy, at the beginning, is about nothingness and negativity.

To know nothing is not the same as to know an object. Knowledge of something that doesn’t exist does not constitute knowledge of an object. It just proposes that nothing exists. Philosophy compels us to affirm that something is which does not exist as an object of the world. Herein we can discern the crucial distinction that Badiou makes between being (what is) and existence (what is there). There is a difference affirmed by philosophers between “to be” and “to exist.” Badiou argues that the distance between being and existence is the important question of philosophy today; it is the same as asking what the distance is between things and nothingness. If philosophy is dialectical then it can not be reduced to the sole question of the knowledge of an object, it must also include the possibility of the being of something which does not exist in the form of an object. It is the hypothesis of philosophy, that being exists outside of the knowledge of an object.

It is important for Badiou to outline the difference between his mathematics based philosophy and the late tradition of positivism within the social sciences. Positivism, for Badiou, is a broad tradition (it is much broader than most would like to admit). It is something like the extreme pole to the right of philosophy. It affirms that only knowledge exists and that, therefore, to be and to exist are absolutely coincidental. Positivism is the belief that what exists is only that which is objectively discernible. Science is therefore the only true form of knowledge. Being and existence are conflated into objects. For the positivists, and those who share similar sentiments, philosophy is purely imaginary, illusory, or, in psychoanalysis, it is mediated always by transferential fantasies. According to Badiou, positivism is the only truly consistent form of analytic philosophy. Metaphysics is a dream, or a joke.

But Badiou maintains that metaphysics is integral to the dialectical vision of philosophy. Positivism does truly exist but it does not cover the whole terrain of philosophical dialectics. Rather, it is a small part of dialecticity. It is a point of view within existence. Thus, when the analytic point of view criticizes the dialectical point of view it does so without realizing the extent to which it is situated within the dialectical point of view itself.

The real philosophical question is a question aimed at the distance between being and existence. It does not involve a conflation of the one into the other, at least not initially. The ontological question must not be avoided within philosophy. The ontological question asks what is being qua being? It deals with the verb to be and insists on the philosophical examination of being outside of existence. In fact, ontology allows for the decoupling of the positivist conflation. Thus, to be is not reducible in any way to knowledge – ontology and epistemology are separate but integral domains of philosophical dialectics.

The problem is that we can not begin with any knowledge of being because knowledge always presumes an object. Moreover, an object of knowledge can be easily transmittable from point A to point B. When an object moves from point A to point B the object still equals itself. The transmission of the object of knowledge therefore necessarily implies a repetition. The positivist ideology insists on this type of transmission. Knowledge repeats, history repeats, and the domain of known objects increases steadily. Philosophy, which is without an object, can not continue in this way. And so it always begins. If we examine the history of philosophy we can discover a history of beginnings. Philosophy looks at the past of its knowledge and says to itself: “I can not continue to repeat that.” Philosophy therefore occurs as a rupture in the repetitive transmission of knowledge within a field. To be sure, philosophy re-interprets the past – Badiou himself has reinterpreted Plato, Heraclitus, Aristotle, and others – but this re-interpretation is always a new interpretation and therefore a new beginning.

The beginning of knowledge is already known. It is the object and it is clearly discernible. But in philosophy the beginning is always a desire for negativity. If philosophy does not begin in the field of knowledge and existence then it is because it begins in negativity, without an object. It begins with nothing. For Socrates it was a positive affirmation: he knows nothing. But can you really know nothing? It is difficult because nothing is not an object, and therefore not a knowledge. It is impossible to know nothing because knowing nothing is more like an experience. Knowing nothing is a subjective experience. Badiou claims that this Socratic affirmation of nothing, which is a subjective experience rather than a knowledge, is the primitive experience of philosophy. Descartes’ beginning was absolute, radical, doubt.

Descartes claimed that he really knew nothing. Radical doubt involves the subjective destruction of the world. If we begin by doubt, we are left with a purely negative subjective experience. This is the primitive philosophical subject. You can find similar, powerful, examples in Kierkegaard and Heideggar. For example, the experience of anxiety is radically negative. It has nothing to do with the positive and clear discovery of an object in the world. The problem is that this really is only a beginning. Within doubt or anxiety it can be difficult to move beyond the experience of negativity. Often times, we may not know if its possible to move outside of the experience. This is the experience of nihilism. Nihilism, unlike positivism, wants to remain within the beginning of philosophy. Philosophy, claims Badiou, can not begin without anxiety, doubt, or, more broadly, negativity and nihilism. But the victory of philosophy involves the birth of a subject which emerges beyond the anxiety.Husserl created a similar experience with the concept of epocheEpoche involves the suspension or bracketing of any knowledgable relationship to objectivity. Thus, all of existence is reduced to pure sense perception. The experience is always the same – the negative philosophical gesture which births the philosophical subject.

On the far right pole of philosophy is positivism. It is the triumph of knowledge and objects over nothingness and being. On the far left pole of philosophy is nihilism. It is the victory of radical doubt, anxiety, and pure being. The victory of philosophy is to go from nothingness to existence, from being to existence, from doubt to the existence of the subject. This can happen in any number of ways, or any number of beginnings. And it has. The jump from being to existence is what is called an affirmation. Without the victory of philosophy there is only anti-philosophical philosophy or nihilism. Nihilism claims that there is no beyond the experience of negativity, there is only being.

And so there are two enemies to philosophy. The conservative enemy is positivism and all that that word entails for Badiou. The ultra-left enemy, or the enemy within, is what he calls nihilism. For positivists, philosophy is nothing but a collection of jokes and non-sensical statements. Metaphysics itself must be ignored, it is nonsense. Philosophy, for the positivists, is nothing but a beautiful story, narrative, or language game. The nihilist remains at the level of being and enjoys his being in self-destructive habits (drinking, smoking, etc). Positivism involves thinking without any experience of the negativity, nihilism involves the experience of negativity without thinking, and philosophy involves the movement from the experience of negativity toward true thinking.

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