- Bosteels’s BadiouPolitics, Dialectics, and Ontology
In a sense, Bruno Bosteels is making the case in this outstanding book that Alain Badiou is still more of a Marxist than he is the Platonist he frequently makes himself out to be and is taken to be by others. As Bosteels has claimed in his earlier articles, some of which are included here, it is still that very Marxist notion of dialectics that must be used to perceive the relationships between the major concepts in Badiou’s philosophy, such as beings and events. And, despite using different terminology at times, the dialectical relationship between such things is pretty much what Badiou has always been trying to explicate. (A pleasant surprise here is the depth of Bosteels’s treatment of Badiou’s relation to Jacques Lacan, an important interlocutor for Badiou when he was trying to hammer out the distinctness of his dialectical vision of things, especially in Theory of the Subject.)
In its first half, in chapters called “The Absent Cause,” “Lack and Destruction,” and “One Divides into Two,” the book focuses on Badiou’s earliest works and their mixture of themes from Louis Althusser, Lacan, and Mao Tse-tung. It is in these chapters that Bosteels lays out the nature of Badiou’s vision of dialectics. Then Bosteels shifts into discussing the more familiar Badiou of Being and Event and beyond, in chapters called “The Ontological Impasse,” “Forcing the Truth,” and “Logics of Change.” Here he shows how Badiou’s interest in dialectics persists in these works in which it is hardly ever mentioned by name. The last few chapters focus on the relative merits of Badiou’s politics: “From Potentiality to Inexistence,” “For Lack of Politics,” and a [End Page 101] conclusion called “The Speculative Left.” Two interviews between Bosteels and Badiou close the book, one of which was given along with Peter Hallward.
Apart from providing a valuable reading of his earliest works and promoting the importance of Badiou as a dialectical thinker, Badiou and Politics makes some other much needed contributions to scholarship on Badiou’s philosophy. One is its sustained engagement with one particular theme, and the one that is probably of interest to most currently—politics, precisely. The main claim here is that Badiou’s political thought is significant not just for promoting an idea of communism but for grounding that idea in elements crucial to the Marxist tradition. Many thinkers today may be on board with a vague “idea of communism” but not some of its Marxist inflections. According to Bosteels, in Badiou’s philosophy “communism names the real movement that abolishes the present state of injustice only when it is historically tied to the various stages of Marxism”; by this Bosteels has in mind the particular terms, such as class struggle, in which the “communist invariants” have historically been articulated (280). (Yet it is worth noting that “Marxist” for Bosteels seems to be about things like materialism, history, and dialectics and not so much an analysis of economics and a critique of capitalism. I return to this point in my conclusion.)
The other main contribution of this work is its corrective reading of Badiou, which targets a mistake made by those who are everything from sympathetic, hostile, or indifferent to it. The mistake in question is the tendency to misunderstand the upshot of the famous equation of mathematics and ontology—a misunderstanding that makes Badiou out to be the very sort of dualist, or absolutist, or dogmatist, that he has been at pains to separate himself from for decades. But what is the correct take on the status of mathematics in Badiou’s philosophy, according to Bosteels? He does not deviate from the obviously correct reading: that mathematics (set theory in particular) provides the tools needed for doing ontology. But once that is said, Bosteels observes that what can be overlooked is what this means for everything that is not ontology. Set theory gives us...