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Badiou and the Materialism of the Idea

Lecturer: Steven Corcoran

Originally Taught: Summer School 2015

11am-1pm | 2-6 Feb

From the 1960s till today, the divisions in thought and politics have undergone seismic shifts. The old political categories no longer have an effective hold, and things seem to turn into their opposite: the preservation of our ‘democratic’ societies coincides with a reduction of freedom, democratic interventions abroad perpetuate the very ‘evil’ they claim to be fighting against, and political analysis, confined to critique, becomes part of, a discursive supplement to, the very power it seeks to undermine. In Groucho Marx’s words politics is thus easily dismissed as ‘the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies’.

In these circumstances the philosophical question becomes one of how to redraw the divisions of thought such that we can anticipate an end to this general disorientation. How is it possible, i.e. under which conditions, can philosophy grasp, for example, political movements that are heterogeneous – i.e. genuinely emancipatory – to the current organization of society.

Formerly, the philosophy that took on this task went by the name of dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism understood the relation between philosophy and politics in terms of a negation (opposition to, critique of) of ideology and its reality as a prelude to further creation. In its Althusserian form this materialism understood itself as engaged in drawing a line between it and idealism.

Yet the ‘crisis of negation’ happened to render obsolete both traditional forms of emancipatory political organization and dialectical materialism itself in its opposition to idealism. If thought is to have truly transformative potential, it cannot reside in negation understood as a destructive prelude to creation. Negation does not create anything.

Badiou’s materialist dialectic proposes a series of guidelines to anticipate a way out of this crisis. While not without affinities to the old dialectical materialism, the materialist dialectic inverts some key aspects, such that it is far more than a reapplication. There are at least two main points of theoretical novelty: first, a new dialectic that is centered on affirmation. For Badiou, it is essential that, in dialectics, affirmation or creation come first and that destruction or negation be about defending this novelty. Second, because affirmation comes first, the essential philosophical task is no longer to critique, to draw a dividing line in its battle with idealism; rather, it is to provide a new materialist thinking that draws on the lessons of idealism: what materialism has hitherto been missing is precisely the Idea, or rather the materiality of the idea. Only by seeing this are we effectively able, thinks Badiou, to counter today’s hegemonic discourse, which he calls ‘democratic materialism’. If the struggle against idealism is no longer required, it is because the particular emphasis on negation it implied is obsolete, or otherwise put, because materialism – of the democratic variety – has actually already won out.  But it is crucial, if we are to think points of transformative potential within today’s world, that this materialism not be all there is, since it reduces the present to the finitude of what there is.

Badiou’s thinking stands or falls on its attempt to renew dialectics. This course will thus discuss this wager on a dialectics beyond ‘democratic materialism’ by examining Badiou’s paradoxical return to a sort of Platonic Idea. In so doing, we will detail the stakes and problems connected with what Badiou sees as a genuinely contemporary materialist thinking.

Recommended Readings TBA, but at least:
Badiou, Alain, Logics of Worlds, trans. Alberto Toscano, Continuum, 2009. Esp Preface, Bk III and Bk IV.