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  • Event or Exception?: Disentangling Badiou from Schmitt, or, Towards a Politics of the Void
  • Colin Wright (bio)

Jean-François Lyotard was among the first to accuse Alain Badiou's evental philosophy of advocating a dangerous decisionism by labelling him "a sort of new Carl Schmitt" (Badiou: 2004a, p.172). Under the provocative subheading 'Badiou Absolutiste?', Peter Hallward has pursued a related line of critique by gesturing towards formal overlaps between Badiou's notion of the subject of truth and absolutist theories of sovereignty (Hallward: 2003, pp.285-286). Nina Power has also explored common elements between Badiou's and Schmitt's critiques of Rousseau (Powers in Ashton et al.: 2006. pp.309-338). It is clear, then, that the spectre of Schmitt has haunted Badiou's project since its starkest, and arguably most brilliant, exposition in L'être et l'événement (1988).

In what follows, I attempt to exorcise this spectre by disentangling Badiou's notion of the event from Schmitt's logic of the exception. My aim is to dispel any prima facie similarities between the two concepts that might reduce what I will call Badiou's 'politics of the void' to the reactionary tradition he sets himself against, and upon which Schmitt draws. I identify numerous apparent proximities between the event and the exception before separating the two concepts by contrasting their respective theories of naming. I then explore the possible contours of this politics of the void in its confrontation with those of the exception with reference to the global 'Not in Our Name' movement which has arisen in response to the 'War on Terror'. My broad claim is that this subtractive, universal politics of the void indicates a pacific but genuine alternative to the politics of the exception that, precisely in its legitimisation of the use of extra-legal violence, dominates the current international political conjuncture.

I. Schmitt's Logic of the Exception

So widespread has been the post-9/11 recourse to the neo-Hobbesian theory of sovereignty proposed by Carl Schmitt that it might seem unnecessary to rehearse it here. Yet such a rehearsal is necessary precisely because a strategic ambiguity within Political Theology has led to an overly 'evental' interpretation of Schmitt's logic of the exception. Long before Schmitt's particular intervention, the exception was already understood as something like an unprecedented occurrence exceeding the norms governing all procedural legal codification, and therefore calling forth a power of decision outside or beyond the law. As is well known, Schmitt follows his philosophical mentor, Hobbes, in resolving this apparent aporia through the transcendent power of a sovereign: hence the infamous dictum, "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception" (Schmitt: 2005, p.5). There is a very long tradition -- running from monarchical absolutism, through Jacobin theories of the autonomy of the political, and on to dictatorial authoritarianisms -- that understands sovereign power precisely as the capacity to decide in the context of radical undecidability. This tradition insists that when the state is in imminent and unprecedented danger, only the Hobbesian Leviathan, the Rousseauian Legislator, or, indeed, the Caesar or Führer, is authorised to make the decisions required to restore law and order, and to save the kingdom from destruction. As such, this tradition figures the exception as both descriptive of, and responsive to, an exceptional empirical event such as a siege, epidemic or civil war.

There are thus two overlapping 'states' discernible in this logic of the exception, which account for Schmitt's insistence that sovereignty is a "borderline concept" (p.5):

These two dimensions are linked because the sovereign power to decide what constitutes the state of exception already presupposes an exceptional state with regard to the law that is being suspended. There is thus a fundamental ambivalence around the calling forth of the sovereign by the exceptional event, and the calling exceptional of the event by the sovereign himself. The sovereign is the necessary embodiment of this ambivalence, yet draws his legitimacy from his supposed power to resolve it.

However, for Schmitt, this strange double articulation remains prey to the tendency of constitutional liberalism to mortgage the exception to something like the 'state of emergency', that is, to a...