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Towards a New Dialectical Materialism: Politics and Dialectics in the Early Work of Alain Badiou

Lecturers: Robert Boncardo and Bryan Cooke

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2016

In this four-part workshop we will pose and provide a provisional answer to the following question: what can dialectical materialism be today?

To do this, we will work through the difficult yet, in our view, essential early work of the contemporary philosopher, Alain Badiou, with a particular focus on his 1982 masterpiece, Theory of the Subject. We will present the initial results of a joint book project we are currently undertaking on Theory of the Subject, which we hope to present to an interested and critically-minded audience. While the workshop will involve detailed exegeses of the philosophical inventions from Theory of the Subject, specifically with respect to dialectical materialism, as well as an account of the historico-political context out of which the work grew, we will invite participants to actively engage the material — and, indeed, to ruthlessly critique our reading of it.

Today, the most frequent critique made of Badiou's political thought is that it is too abstract. Since politics is thought to be the domain par excellence of mediation, of conflict and of complexity, the abstract formalisms of his philosophy are, it is argued, singularly incapable of dealing with politics. From a philosophical perspective, Badiou is held to invest too heavily in motifs of rupture and heterogeneity, thereby making political action unintelligible or implausible. From a more traditional Marxist perspective, Badiou is denounced for having fatally neglected the sphere of the economy and the way it is irreducibly interwoven with politics.

In this workshop, we will attempt to defend Badiou's perspective by rendering intelligible the logic, as well as the questions, impasses and decisions which inform it. Rather than measuring his thought against a pre-conception of what dialecticity or concreteness means we will attempt to understand how Badiou comes to fundamentally rethink such notions in the face of the exigencies of a particular historical conjuncture. In elucidating this conjuncture, we will pay particular attention to both Badiou's actual political interventions — specifically those of the Red Years, which run from 1966 to 1979 — and the philosophical decisions which are their concomitant.

Workshops participants will therefore be invited to follow us as we attempt to reconstruct Theory of the Subject on its own terms. We will pay particular attention to the way Badiou attempts to reinvigorate dialectical materialism not at the ecstatic high noon of a political sequence but rather at the moment of its twilight — a twilight that arguably extends to our time. In doing so, we will provide a thorough exegesis of the philosophical arguments of Theory of the Subject; elucidate its relation to its key interlocutors, in particular Hegel, Mallarmé and Lacan; and offer an interpretation of its relation to the French and global political conjuncture from which it emerged. Workshop participants will therefore also have the opportunity to engage with lesser-known philosophical writings such as Theory of Contradiction (1975), On Ideology (1976) and The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic (1972), in addition to circumstantial writings on the political context, including On the Murder of Pierre Overney (1972), The Political History of the Movement of the Sonacotra Hostels (1981), and the retrospective text Ten Years of Maoism (1981).