‘Universal Emancipation: Race Beyond Badiou’ by Elizabeth Paquette reviewed by Daniel Badenhorst


Universal Emancipation: Race Beyond Badiou

University of Minnesota Press, London, 2020. 204 pp., £17.88 pb
ISBN 9781517909444

Reviewed by Daniel Badenhorst

About the reviewer

Daniel Badenhorst is a graduate student at Macquarie University Sydney whose MA concerned the …

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Universal Emancipation: Race After Badiou is difficult to summarise. Elizabeth Paquette purportedly writes this book to investigate how the ‘logic of race’ is at work in Alain Badiou’s philosophy. Paquette asks: ‘is there an implicit notion of race operating within Badiou’s conception of politics? And does his theory of emancipation employ a notion of emancipation for only a particular racial category?’ (6). As such one would expect what follows to be a detailed reading of Badiou’s ontology, phenomenology and political pronouncements. Perhaps an investigation into Badiou’s life-long insistence on centring the figure of the sans-papiers and the nomadic proletariat in our communist practices, his split with the PCF over their racist and colonial attitude toward the Algerian war or his heated debates with Islamophobes, Anti-Semites and Zionists. Even more interesting would be an investigation into the way Badiou’s Sartrean commitment to anti-racist politics and engagement with Fanon, Mao and Lenin structed his orientation to the colonial question and racialisation. Alas, Universal Emancipation does none of these things. In fact, on the closing page, Paquette agonises over why she even read Badiou in the first place. Her ultimate conclusion is that people shouldn’t. The lesson she wants her readers to learn is ‘the importance of reading decolonial theory writ large’ (165).

One gets the impression from these closing lines that this book is far from an investigation into the implicit notion of race in Badiou’s philosophy. In fact, to parrot George Ciccariello-Maher’s blurb, it ‘is not a book about Badiou at all’. Now this is an audacious thing to say, and it would be more so if it wasn’t proudly proclaimed on the back cover. Why would a book entitled Universal Emancipation: Race After Badiou not even deal with its titular figure?

The main point of Universal Emancipation runs as follows. Badiou’s theory of truths and hence of politics requires that political truth procedures be indifferent to differences. This idea of politics seems to exclude political movements which are based on identities and differences. Now, there is a long tradition of criticism of a theory of politics and political action which sees identity – and in particular race-based issues – as incidental to politics or not real politics. It is Paquette’s claim that these criticisms apply with equal force to Badiou, and she therefore stages in chapter two Fanon’s critique of Sartre (who is supposed to share an affinity with Badiou) and in chapter three a broad critique of Marxism (Badiou’s ‘tradition’) as a way of showing the error of Badiou’s ways. In particular, chapter three develops a critique of Marxism, Sartre and Badiou on the ground that they only have a negative idea of race – that is, race as something which ought to be done away with – and not, as she does, a positive one which could take on an affirmative political value. In chapter four, Paquette tests her now evident hypothesis – that Badiou’s idea of politics is implicitly Eurocentric and excludes race-based struggles – by asking whether the Haitian revolution would count as political for Badiou. Her finding is that Badiou could only celebrate the moment in which whites were included and the values of the French revolution deferred to. With this Paquette rests her case and moves to an elaboration of Sylvia Wynter’s philosophy, who supplies a better account of politics and the role of liminal peoples within it.

In what sense is this not about Badiou? Perhaps the reader can surmise one way in which the statement is true. Most of the argument is made against Sartre, an amorphous Marxism and then finally against Nick Nesbitt’s analysis of the Haitian revolution, not Badiou himself. I will return to problems pertaining to this indirect argumentation momentarily. Immediately, this point can made by way of a comment on Paquette’s opening chapter. Intended to present a fair and comprehensive account of the position to be criticised, here this presentation of Badiou’s philosophy leaves both the uninitiated and the expert deeply dissatisfied.

Ranging from an inability to articulate the relation between Badiou’s ontology and phenomenology or logic, the conspicuous absence of Metapolitics as the one text dedicated to Badiou’s thinking of politics (this absence being the reason she calls Badiou a ‘political theorist’ (123) despite his violent and extensive critique of the notion of political theory) and his political writings more generally, there are simply too many problems to deal with in detail. Perhaps an indication of one problem may serve to raise the reader’s suspicions of Paquette proclamations about Badiou.

This problem relates to Paquette’s understanding of Badiou’s concept of the universal. Paquette is content, when discussing this concept, to cite the pithy maxims found in Badiou’s Ethics or Saint Paul which say that a truth is indifferent to difference, and therefore universal. What she does not provide the reader, is an account of the being of a truth or technical conception of universality that Badiou provides in his Being and Event. This is a grave error. For it is in his ontology that the question of the form of truth, its universality – of its being generic set – is unpacked in extensive detail. Without this understanding, the proclamations of the smaller books lack context and more importantly, their proper meaning. As Adam Bartlett and Justin Clemens put it summarily in their introduction to Badiou’s Happiness, ‘the small books are an instance of internalising, enacting, extending and transmitting what is formalised by the big books’ (Bartlett and Clemens 2019: 13-14). Lacking a serious engagement with Badiou’s ontology, Paquette is left to use ‘universal’ and ‘universality’ in senses unfamiliar to Badiou. The universalism she argues against may be someone’s, but it is certainly not Badiou’s.

The second sense in which Paquette’s book is not about Badiou flows from its argumentative strategy and – borrowing from Fanon, what I will call – her methodological Manichaeism (that is, good/bad or black/white thinking). In this way, Paquette presents a series of stark alternatives to her readers: Badiou against Wynter, Sartre against Fanon, Marxism against the Black Radical Tradition, Nesbit against Paquette etc. Opposition is not a problem in itself. It is problematic when the opposites are predetermined. What is supposed to be a scholarly investigation is revealed to be a mock trial, a formality.

Such Manichaeism colours Paquette’s reading of the thinkers on both sides of the divide. When critiquing the (bad) Marxism, for instance, Paquette deploys the (good) Black Radical Tradition, but in so doing covers over major theoretical differences between, say, Robinson and Césaire. And when critiquing the (bad) Sartre with the help of the (good) Fanon, Paquette is forced to create or exaggerate differences to such an extent that neither Fanon nor Sartre’s position is properly portraited. As a result, the Manichaeism of her method is blinding. It either acts as an implicit bias – wherein, for instance, a good thinker only appears to Paquette as good – or as a set of categories into which Paquette has consciously forced her content.

In a particularly evident moment of this blindness, Paquette cites Alcoff’s critique of a type of politics which demands that people cast off their particular identities. Alcoff writes, ‘this solution is no different from the liberal approach Sartre excoriated in Anti-Semite and Jew when he said, the liberal wants to save the man by leaving the Jew behind’. Paquette is then quick to comment, ‘Alcoff is here drawing her readers’ attention to Sartre’s claim that the emancipation of the Jewish man is possible when he gives up the particularity of his Jewishness’ (68). Is this interpretation not directly at odds with the quoted text? Sartre excoriated the liberal gesture of wanting to include people on the condition they give up their identities. He is not, pace Paquette, suggesting it! In moments such as this – of which this is one of many – it becomes evident that Paquette is less interested in what Sartre and his analogue Badiou actually say and has instead decided in advance that these thinkers are to be dismissed, the evidence be damned.

The problem of argumentative strategy is directly linked to this methodological limitation. Paquette wagers that Fanon’s critique of Sartre’s Black Orpheus applies equally to Badiou. She thus posits an identity (unsubstantiated) between Badiou and Sartre’s positions and a non-identity between these two and Fanon. Now, such argumentation – a critique of new debates according to the coordinates of old ones – is not in itself problematic. It does however depend on the proposed identity sticking. In this instance it doesn’t and hence conceals more than it reveals.

The first section of chapter two looks in particular at Badiou’s reading of Négritude. Paquette shows – correctly – that Badiou has a very shallow reading of Négritude, which pales in comparison to the excellent scholarly work being done today. But the problem is that – and here the proposed identity falls apart – Badiou’s reading of Négritude is almost identical to Fanon’s. For Fanon’s criticism of Négritude is harsh and unrelenting. Negritude is – Fanon argues – oriented, systematically, toward the white other and, in its very attempt to creatively appropriate blackness, cannot escape relation to whiteness. Négritude, Fanon claims, is concerned with revalorising racial differences which do not exist. In Black Skin, White Masks, after admitting Négritude was a necessary refuge for a time (an admission both Sartre and Badiou make), Fanon engages in a ruthless self-criticism, the outcome of which is to see Négritude as a misguided political movement. Famously Fanon writes of Négritude, ‘[w]e shall see that this attitude, so heroically absolute, renounces the present and the future in the name of a mystical past’ (Fanon 2008: 6), and that ‘the black soul’ – a thematic of much Négritude poetry – ‘is in fact a white man’s artifact’ (Fanon 2008: 7). Fanon and Badiou are not opposed on this point. Both of these thinkers see Négritude as valuable yet limited. And Paquette’s suggestion later in the book that Badiou sees Négritude as neither political nor progressive (146) is at odds with his text Black, wherein Badiou upholds the importance and value of Négritude while maintaining that it is not political.

To lump Badiou with Sartre and then treat Fanon as opposed to both is thus a serious methodological error and it compromises a central building block of Paquette’s argument. If this Manichaean opposition doesn’t hold, how certain can the reader be that Badiou easily fits in with the amorphous crowd of Marxists addressed in chapter three? Lacking detailed and thorough engagement with Badiou’s thought, alongside its debts both cited and uncited, this book does not live up to its intended aims nor its title. Had Paquette attended her sources more closely perhaps she would have noted the following similarity between Wynter and Badiou in her closing chapter.

Badiou does, despite Paquette’s assertions to the contrary, think that identity has no bearing on politics. For Badiou those who inexist politically – that is, who have no say, no real determination over their lives – ought to be at the heart of our thinking of politics and be those with whom we practice and build this thought. Their particular oppression, their particular place within the world makes them vital to the work of thinking politics and central agents in this process. Badiou takes these people to be the nomadic proletariat, those mostly racialised and feminised peoples from the Global South who are forced to live most precariously, and on whose backs the middle classes of the Western world have grown decadent (see Badiou’s Migrants and Militants). These are the people most politically marginal, and it is with and as them that Badiou claims any serious militant today must organise. Liminality – or inexistence – is thus a central concern for Badiou, he is not opposed to Wynter on this point.

Despite proclaiming to be, this book is not really about Badiou (nor Marxism, Sartre and Fanon). It tilts at windmills and strawmen while believing it slays giants. It shares this quixotic character with the sophists of old, those purveyors of speeches who laid claim to wisdom yet who were ultimately ignorant of their real ignorance regarding the things about which they spoke. In closing all I can suggest is that perhaps Universal Emancipation – supposedly but not really about a contemporary Platonist – could have done with a healthy dose of Socratic ignorance.

26 May 2021

References

  • Bartlett, A.J. and Clemens, Justin 2019 Translators’ Foreword: Happiness is Revolting Happiness Alain Badiou (London: Bloomsbury): 1-32.
  • Fanon, Frantz 2008 Black Skin, White Masks trans. C.L. Markmann, (London: Pluto Press).

One comment

  1. “Badiou does, despite Paquette’s assertions to the contrary, think that identity has no bearing on politics.”

    Don’t you mean the opposite? That identity for Badiou, qua structurally marginalised positionality, _does_ have bearing on “politics,” as you go on to argue in the para that follows?

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