- The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings by Alain Badiou
A man sets himself on fire in Tunisia. His self-immolation sparks a wildfire that transforms the Middle East and the world. What just happened? How are we to think and talk about these days of rage and hope, these potentially epoch-defining events? News cycles, with their commitment to reducing the most important events to little more than banal commodities, provide little help in the matter. Academics too often fail us, offering theoretical and methodological devotion at the expense of a commitment to the realities of emergent resistance. French philosopher Alain Badiou proves an exception, bringing equal parts rage and insight to his thinking of the events transforming our world.
In The Rebirth of History, Badiou provides a provocative and illuminating engagement with the events of the Arab Spring while also offering an accessible and relatively concise introduction to his larger political and philosophical project. In it, Badiou steps away from his more commonly used anecdotes—particularly that of May 1968. Paying particular attention to the 2011 Egyptian protest in Tahrir Square that would ultimately lead to the resignation of the country’s president, Badiou contends that these movements represent “a time of riots wherein a rebirth of History, as opposed to the pure and simple repetition of the worst, is signaled and takes shape” (5). In his typically provocative, polemical, and often humorous style, Badiou seizes his opportunity to dress his theoretical commitments in new clothes and in the process, unwittingly, highlights various links to the field of rhetoric and the material implications of his most abstract theorizations.
Among Badiou’s crucial theoretical concepts articulated here is the event. Events are foundational breaks with the repetition and order of the world. They affirm profound political change and the unfolding of a [End Page 104] new potential course of action. The event is something that appears but immediately disappears, supplementing the world with a new way of thinking and acting. The early twenty-first century is a time of great potential in this regard. The increase in riots around the world, both ones that are highly visible and ones that are relatively invisible, constitutes a phenomenon that does not properly have a name in the existing order of the world. This phenomenon lacks a name because the current configuration of epistemology fails to recognize its potential. This potential implicates the riot’s relationship to events.
While many of Badiou’s contemporaries have discussed the event or analogous concepts, none of them have fully developed a formalized theory of the event in quite the same way Badiou has. In most cases, Badiou discusses events in abstract theoretical terms (2002; 2005; 2006ba; 2006ba; 2009a; 2000), depending heavily on his mathematical take regarding ontology. At other times the event is applied specifically to a given truth process or field of possible evental emergence (2012; 2004) or case study as in the Rebirth of History and Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Herein lies the value of The Rebirth of History: its ability to link the event to action and meaning in more tangible and digestible ways by using contemporary objects of analysis.
In The Rebirth of History, Badiou posits the event in relationship to three types of riot: immanent, latent, and, most importantly to this text, historical. Each type of riot is discussed in terms of its potential to produce new political order and lasting material change. By articulating the event in relationship to riots that have immediate resonance, Badiou demonstrates how actions, resistance, and social unrest can produce the conditions of an event, extrapolating the relationship between communicative or rhetorical practice and his brand of thinking about change.1
Early in the text, Badiou simultaneously establishes two key constructs, communism and capitalism. His undeniable Marxism is pronounced, but he distances himself from some of his Marxist contemporaries, such as Antonio Negri. For Badiou, Marxism is “the organized knowledge of the political means required to undo existing society and fully realize an...