Lars Iyer’s Misreading of Badiou

by Daniel Hartley

In many ways Alain Badiou and Lars Iyer constitute the existential extremities of the present political conjuncture. Where the latter has raised bathos to a fine but torturous art (too bathetic, too fine and too torturous for my tastes), the former has reinvented the heroic for the post-heroic age. If I have time, I will write more on this opposition but for now I want merely to point out that Lars Iyer’s reading of Badiou (if this extract from his latest novel is anything to go by) is mistaken. I say this with no particular malice since it was a (mis)reading I more or less shared until being set straight by Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism.

The excerpt from Iyer’s novel ends thus:

But what would Alain Badiou make of us? What would he conclude? Enemies, he would think. No, not even that, Badiou would think. – ‘Pas enemies. Les tosseurs’. But perhaps he wouldn’t think anything at all. Perhaps he’d just look through us, as if, as with evil for Plato, we didn’t really exist.

For the mathematical philosopher, vagueness doesn’t exist, not really; it’s only a deficiency of precision. And pathos doesn’t exist for the political philosopher, not unless it is the glint of starlight, impersonal and remote, on the eyeglasses of the militant, brick in hand, charging the police.

This is wrong: vagueness does exist for Badiou. In his Ethics, for example, he makes it clear that those forms of politics which attempt to expunge “opinion” – here a synonym for (Gramscian) “common sense” or the sedimentation of habit (i.e., the vagueness of Platonic doxa) – amount to Evil. As Bosteels has it:

…in Badiou’s Ethics both the temptation of “total reeducation” dreamed of by some of Mao’s Red Guards and Nietzsche’s mad dream of a “grand politics” are diagnosed as disastrous forms of extremism. These are attempts to draw a rigid and dogmatic line of demarcation between truth and opinion, in the name of which all immanence to the existing state of things is denied as sheer decadence or bourgeois revisionism. To be more precise, these are attempts to perform a complete tabula rasa of the past for the sake of truth’s absolute present. “When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life; or when certain Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution proclaim, in 1967, the complete suppression of self-interest, they are indeed inspired by a vision of a situation in which all opinions have been replaced by the truth to which Nietzsche and the Red Guards are committed,” claims Badiou. But these are forms of absolutization of the power of truth that amount to a disastrous Evil: “Not only does this Evil destroy the situation (for the will to eliminate opinion is, fundamentally, the same as the will to eliminate, in the human animal, its very animality, i.e. its being), but it also interrupts the truth-process in whose name it proceeds, since it fails to preserve, within the composition of the subject, the duality [duplicité] of interests (disinterested-interest and interest pure and simple).” To avoid the trap of speculative leftism, therefore, a certain degree of duplicity and impurity must be preserved in the articulation between the old state of things and the new emancipatory truth.

The worst that can be said of Badiou is that he deals with vagueness precisely – but between this and the eradication of vagueness tout court, there is a world of difference.