‘Lacan: Anti-Philosophy 3’ by Alain Badiou reviewed by Anthony Ballas

Lacan: Anti-Philosophy 3

Columbia University Press, New York, 2018. 312 pp., $30 hb
ISBN 9780231171489

Reviewed by Anthony Ballas

About the reviewer

Anthony Ballas studied philosophy, English, and religious studies at the University of Colorado at …


With the recent publication of Lacan: Anti-philosophy 3, the anglophone world has been granted access to Alain Badiou’s insights on one of the (arguably the) key influence(s) behind his ‘tetralogy’: The Theory of the Subject, Being and Event, Logics of Worlds, and (forthcoming in English sometime in the future) L’immanence des vérités. In the present volume, composed of nine sessions delivered between November 1994 through June 1995, Badiou, always the champion of a certain brand of living philosophy—of the dialogic form so reminiscent of Plato—echoes a similar style and structure to the Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Badiou’s self-professed master. For Badiou, ‘a contemporary philosopher… is indeed someone who has the unfaltering courage to work through Lacan’s anti-philosophy’ (xxiii), which is why the crucial object of investigation in this book is, ‘what is passed down to philosophy by Lacanian anti-philosophy as a closure’ (3, Badiou’s emphasis).

According to Badiou, the fundamental gesture of any anti-philosophy is the destitution of the truth—a disparaging of the category of truth for which philosophy alleges to maintain a monopoly. Session 1 is dedicated to enumerating the details of this destitution in service to what Badiou describes as the ‘act’ and ‘material’ of Lacan’s anti-philosophy: the former being ‘archi-scientific’ and the latter, simply, love. It is the hegemony of the truth/knowledge coupling of philosophy which Badiou believes Lacan reopens with his act by introducing the category of the real, after which the truth/knowledge/real triad will, according to Badiou, supersede its philosophic, dyadic predecessor. This is why the ‘analyst’s desire is the matheme’, or the demonstration of how the real functions to disrupt knowledge of truth (34).

For Badiou, the matheme is the key to understanding the problem of certain ‘blockages’ that philosophy faces: ‘Mathematics is the science a philosopher can only be blocked by’ and ‘Metaphysics has never been anything and can only continue by plugging the hole of politics’ (39). Session 2 elaborates on these blockages through a detailed account of the two philosophers Badiou believes come the closest to the anti-philosophical position, Kant and Heidegger. Although Badiou acknowledges how both introduce new modes of thinking and inaugurate new epochs in the history of philosophy (Kant’s Critique and Heidegger’s onto-theology), ultimately neither denounce philosophy nor produce a ‘proposition of [its] radical surpassing’ (43), and this is for Badiou the crucial difference between metaphysics and anti-philosophy. Whereas Heidegger, for instance, conceives his onto-theology as One, Lacan subverts the One with his (in)famous “il y a d’l’Un” [there is something of the One], or ‘there is an operation of the One’, though no unified One qua being (55). This division between Heidegger and Lacan fundamentally hinges upon the fact that, for Lacan, ‘there’s no one history of being… there’s no one history of being that can bear the name “metaphysics”’ (59).

Metaphysics for Lacan—as the philosophical and religious, hermeneutic project of truth—is blocked by mathematics, and itself plugs the hole of politics, almost as though it were a fetish object implemented to make sense and meaning of the division of being. It is precisely upon the binary of sense/nonsense that Badiou will insist Lacan delivers us from the regime of meaning. It is the concept of the act, which he goes into further detail in Session 3, which will provide a counter measure to the hermeneutic impulses of philosophy. Whereas meaning takes the form of the written, the act cannot take the form of a written proposition, and thus its register is no longer transcendent, but immanent. This is what prompts Badiou to contrast Lacan to another anti-philosopher, Wittgenstein, for whom the sense/nonsense (sayable, unsayable) binarism famously enumerated in the final lines of his Tractatus, reigns supreme. Lacan, by contrast, will produce the notion of ‘ab-sense’ in L’Étourdit, or ‘ab-sex sense’ which exemplifies the fundamental fact that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. The significance of this third register is the following: ‘if there is a knowledge and an integrally transmissible knowledge, and ultimately if it’s a matheme — then, it must be a touch of the real, even if in impasse’ (78).

In Session 4 we get to some of the political significance of Badiou’s reading of Lacan. Although as Badiou points out later on in the book, that the reason ‘people are still fighting over Lacan’s ‘political’ teaching’ is due to the fact that ‘it’s transmitted in an essentially metaphorical way’, there are still valuable political insights to be found in Lacan’s anti-philosophy (127). This is also why Badiou champions the mathematical over the hermeneutic, given that the former allows a pure saying, in a Platonic sense, escaping the unreliability and tyranny of meaning elevated by both religion and philosophy: ‘Lacan will oppose the path of the matheme to the irremediably religious nature of meaning’, Badiou writes (99). This is, again, why philosophy is blocked by mathematics, which has the capacity to formalize being with respect to the real, or the impasse of the symbolic, and as well why philosophy plugs the hole of the political by professing a ‘supposedly hole-less discourse’, an ‘ideal politics, good politics, or politics finally grounded in its concept’ (123).

Fundamentally, for Lacan, political philosophy plugs the ‘political hole’ by alleging a fecund, and hole-less discourse, represented by the group. Badiou continues his discussion on the political in Session 5, commenting on the fragmented multiplicity of politics as identified by Plato. It is given this condition, and Lacan’s diagnosis of the group effect as plugging the political hole, that Badiou instructs us on Lacan’s decision to disband Le Cause freudienne; a political act which prevented, paradoxically, the ossification of a group politics. When Lacan says that ‘Le Cause freudienne is not a School but a Field’ he suggests, ‘the implicit norm is that there’s no more place at all. That’s truly what the field, the swirling, is: is a space without a place. A space that’s essentially full of holes, made up of holes’ (129). It is in this conception that the core impetus (a profoundly Hegelian one) of Lacanian anti-philosophy is detectable: to turn toward the hole, the gap, the void, rather than seal over it with meaning, with political theory. This is why Badiou describes Lacan’s political vision as ‘tyrannical anarchism’, one in which dissolution is simultaneously the norm and the goal (129).

In Sessions 6 and 7, Badiou transitions from politics back to philosophy, commenting on the contention between philosophy’s conception since Parmenides that ‘Being thinks’—for instance in Husserl’s return to things-in-themselves—and Lacan’s conception of thinking as ‘only where being is absent’ (140). The axiom of philosophy, ‘Being and thinking are the same’ has for Lacan fundamentally distorted the ‘topos of thinking’ (140). From this Badiou begins his commentary on psychoanalytic practice, the outcome of which, for Lacan, is the production of the analyst’s desire, or the matheme, a kind of transmissible knowledge without remainder (readers of Lacan will immediately detect the echo in Badiou’s language to the function of sublimation as the satisfaction of the drive without repression). Badiou treats the path toward the production of the matheme as at least similar to the Keirkegaardian concept of anxiety; indeed, for both Kierkegaard and Lacan, anxiety does not deceive, but rather tells the truth. Thus, anxiety in some sense indicates a formal shift that is taking place in the analysis, namely, the raising of imaginary impotence to the level of real impossibility, or, the point of logical impossibility which presents the truth in the form of a choice.

In Session 8 Badiou details his main contention with Lacan’s practice, indicting the Lacanian concept of time—an already provocative and somewhat quarrelsome concept, particularly Lacan’s idea of ‘variable length sessions’. After a couple of outbursts from audience members (presumably clinicians), Badiou ruminates briefly on Lacan’s self-understanding of his relation to Freud as being similar to that of Lenin to Marx, a ridiculous ratio which Badiou swiftly dispenses with. If there is a ‘Leninist’ question of psychoanalysis—which Badiou contends Lacan leaves unanswered—it is not ‘what is to be done?’ but rather ‘what is to be thought?’ (189). To this formulation, an implicit question comes into the equation: how to produce this thought without recourse to the ‘methods of philosophical persuasion?’ (191). Perhaps this accounts for why Lacan opted for the dissolution of Le Cause freudienne rather than a programmatic account of analytic practice: to ensure not to risk capitulation to the hermeneutic impulse of philosophy. This choice, for Badiou, ‘is the act itself. Dissolution is the sudden cut in the twisted spatial configuration’ (199).

The final chapter, Session 9, reads a bit like a ‘sudden cut’ itself, as Badiou invites another voice to comment at length on Lacan. This voice is Jean-Claude Milner, not himself an analyst, but a self-professed ‘friend of psychoanalysis’ who discusses his book LOeuvre claire: Lacan, la science, la philosophie with Badiou. Milner’s work is concerned with extracting an axiom out of Lacan’s body of work which can stand up to an almost scientific scrutiny on its own. Milner explains that such an axiom will answer the question of whether or not ‘there is thought of some sort in Lacan’ (206). One of the most intriguing of Milner’s comments is his conviction that Lacan’s Seminar is not important to answering this question, but that it is rather Lacan’s Ecrits (and later writings in Scilicet) that are crucial (this is certainly a heterodox idea as far as most Lacanians are concerned—among them Todd McGowan, who in fact maintains almost the exact opposite).

This volume is crucial for getting oriented to Badiou’s own orientation to Lacan, the ‘triangulation of love, politics, and mathematics’ in particular, as well as his suspicion of the hermeneutic impulses of philosophy (65). This volume may strengthen readers orientations toward Lacan for those already familiar with Badiou and for whom the daunting task of reading through Lacan has proven difficult. However this is not to say that Badiou’s seminar will demystify Lacan for newcomers; rather, those of us familiar with Lacan will be granted a new perspective on certain of Lacan’s more difficult late innovations, while for those familiar with Badiou, this work will clarify Badiou’s position on Lacan and anti-philosophy, but will not clarify Lacan himself. Needless to say, this volume is not an introduction to Lacan’s work, and should therefore be read carefully so as not to conflate Badiou with his master; Badiou is a philosopher through and through, whereas Lacan was, in his own words, ‘not developing any sort of philosophy’, and, ‘even mistrust[ed] philosophizing like the plague’.

20 August 2019


  1. May I second this as an entry for this year’s Alan Sokal Award. I do realise there is serious competition, but this – the review and its object is surely a serious contender.

  2. There exists an online “postmodernism generator” program nowadays which randomly creates a postmodern article by sticking together words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. At one touch of a button, you can create your very own “deep and meaningful” postmodern essay.

    The program “was written in 1996 by Andrew C. Bulhak of Monash University using the Dada Engine, a system for generating random text from recursive grammars. The essays are produced from a formal grammar defined by a recursive transition network. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about “Monte Carlo generators” in his 2001 book Fooled by Randomness as a real instance of the reverse Turing test: a human can be declared unintelligent if his or her writing cannot be told apart from a generated one. It was mentioned by biologist Richard Dawkins in the conclusion to his article “Postmodernism Disrobed” (1998) for the scientific journal Nature, reprinted in his book A Devil’s Chaplain (2004). https://www.revolvy.com/page/Postmodernism-Generator

  3. Good reads on this type of literature are Chomsky on charlatanism http://www.critical-theory.com/noam-chomsky-calls-jacques-lacan-a-charlatan/ Sherry Turkle on Psychoanalytic politics http://freudians.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sherry-turkle-psychoanalytic-politics.pdf François Roustang on The Lacanian delusion http://bactra.org/reviews/lacanian-delusion/ and François Cusset on French Theory.

    American and British academics often borrow from Continental philosophy and social science, but they usually borrow the worst and most obscure bits, rather than the very best which Continental thought has to offer.

    The texts which really deserve translation, often do not get translated, while obscure third-rate texts written by weirdo’s, conmen, thugs and criminals make it into print.

    The consequences are usually disastrous for the Left, and for society: good philosophy and good social science are derailed by fads, misleaders, charlatans and cults.

    What the psychological motives behind the fascination with obscurantist philosophy are, is a moot point. I suppose continental philosophy can often provide concepts which allow one to understand and reflect on the banalities of everyday life in a very different way, going beyond the limits of crass functionalism, pragmatism and empiricism.

    • Sometimes it has to do with a (possibly religious or scriptural) quest for a deeper meaning and esotericism (continental philosophy effectively takes the place of bible study and theology).
    • Sometimes it has to do with the wish to reach a higher level of consciousness or a deeper erudition and profundity, the belief being that this can be unlocked via specific texts.
    • And sometimes it has to do with the desire to acquire an air of refinement, sophistication and culture etc. (to distinguish oneself in the intellectual marketplace with a bit of “class”).

  4. It takes a special kind of unintelligence to deride anything of even modest difficulty under the catch-all of postmodernism, but an extreme case rests their own case on Richard Dawkins of all people. Well, at least you’ve got the support of Jordan Peterson perhaps. Is Memetics the most rigorous critique of ideology to date or pseudoscience, I don’t remember? And let’s not forget Dawkin’s most important discovery: Harry Potter is corrupting the youth. Badiou by his own admission is trying to corrupt the youth. That bee in your bonnet is just evidence that it’s working.

  5. Insofar as Sally’s comment is directed at me – I did not write about Dawkins myself, this was said in a piece I cited from Revolvy.com that explains the digital random “postmodernism generator”.

    True, I am personally highly skeptical of Lacan and Badiou, and not particularly keen on Dawkins either.

    Some of Derrida’s , Baudrillard’s and Lyotard’s original writing was admittedly pretty coherent, it made a real case.

    But in my experience most of the allegedly “scientific” pomo literature is just a nonsense, or a new age religion.

    I think you have to fight pomo obscurantism, if you are interested in scientific progress.

  6. Scientism of the Sokal/Dawkins variety is hardly consistent with dialectical thought. Chomsky, who has never claimed to be a Marxist, also falls prey to scientism in his all-too-facile dismissal of European critical theory.

  7. There is a class of words whose presence is invaribly a signifier of the absence of their object (there may be a name for this, but I do not know it ). Some examples are ‘community’ and ‘spiritual’. The outstanding example is ‘dialectical’; a fine example of this Roy Bhaskar’s absurd *Dialectics – The Pulse of Freedom*; this uses the word ‘dialectical’ c 40 times in the 1st 3 pages.

    As for Dawkins work being scientistic and inconsistent with marxism: Just how is, for eg *The Blind Watchmaker*, inconsistent with the logic of *Capital*?

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