‘Theory of the Subject’ reviewed by Tom Eyers

Theory of the Subject

Translated by Bruno Bosteels, Continuum, London, 2009. 367 pp., £22.99 hb.
ISBN 9780826496737

Reviewed by Tom Eyers

About the reviewer

Tom Eyers is a post-doctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His …


The reputation of Alain Badiou’s philosophy in Anglophone academia has risen exponentially in the last decade. With the death of most of the leading lights of French structuralism, Badiou’s work has filled the gap, although generationally he can be situated slightly after the heyday of post-War French Left anti-humanism, remaining its fiercest defender during the long years of reaction and non-thought that blighted French philosophy in the 1970s and 1980s. If, as Peter Hallward enjoins us, we divide the tradition of 20th Century French thought into two broad camps, one defined by the active subject of experience as analysed by phenomenology and existentialism, the other by a turn to formalism and the rejection of phenomenal experience as the basis of any rigorous philosophy, Badiou can be associated very much with the latter, although his work is distinctive enough in its treatment of ontology, and in particular its use of mathematics, for it to suggest a break from the structural tradition as much as a continuity with it. Unlike a number of his near contemporaries, Badiou stridently rejects the turn to language as the cornerstone of philosophical enquiry, resuscitating a grand, Platonic concept of truth through the equation of ontology with mathematics. The latter ‘discovery’ was announced in what remains Badiou’s masterwork, Being and Event, from 1988. There, Badiou fused a complex ontology of ‘inconsistent multiplicity’ with a new, philosophical account of radical change, the ‘Event’, that, under the four potential conditions of love, art, science or politics, reorders the prevailing situation and produces a universal truth.

It is his uncompromising political radicalism, intially expressed via a fervent Maoism and now manifested in his compelling critique of liberal parliamentarianism, that lifts Badiou far above the level of fame that would normally befall a philosopher with a predilection for Cantorian set theory. His most ferociously political work of philosophy, Theory of the Subject, predates his equation of ontology with mathematics, but it is almost certainly Badiou’s most successful marriage of rigorous philosophical rationalism and political polemic. It’s a rich, strange, often highly abstract text, delivered in 1978 as a series of seminars, the high oratorical style of which is undoubtedly modelled on one of Badiou’s most important influences, Jacques Lacan. Readers most used to the patient, systematic clarity of Badiou’s later work may be shocked by the tone here, equally allusive and strident, but the rhetorical edge rings in harmony with the text’s sense of theoretical experimentation, and especially with the flinty political resolve that lies behind even the book’s most abstract passages.

Badiou’s aim is to delineate the theoretical basis of a subject of radical post-Marxist politics, through an inventive appropriation and critique of Lacan’s ‘logic of the signifer’. If the Badiou of Being and Event and the recent Logics of Worlds signals a firm distance from a focus on signification as the locus of critical philosophical practise, the model of significatory analysis in this text cleaves to the expanded and singular linguistic materialism that dominated Lacan’s late seminars. In a broad sense, Theory of the Subject is one of the most important documents of the brief but fruitful collaboration between French post-Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the book stands simultaneously as perhaps the most inventive and convincing philosophical appropriation of what Badiou today calls Lacan’s ‘anti-philosophy’ to date. Commenting on the centrality of an understanding of Lacan for any rigorous theoretical project, Badiou writes: “Like Hegel for Marx, Lacan for us is essential and divisible. The primacy of the structure, which makes of the symbolic the general algebra of the subject … is countered ever more clearly with a topological obsession in which what moves and progresses pertains to the primacy of the real.” (133)

In this short passage, Badiou hints at both his appropriation and critique of Lacanian theory. Lacan, Badiou argues, moves from a static concept of the subject as defined by its constitution in the Symbolic, broadly within the domain of language conceived as the subject’s immovable transcendental horizon, to a topologically derived search for the ‘consistency’ of the subject in its shifting relationship to contingency, to the movement and displacement that characterises the Real. Whilst Badiou endorses the move from the reification of the signifier in Lacan to the complexity of a topological figuration of the subject, such a move remains insufficiently materialist. If Marx stripped Hegel of his idealism, so too must Lacan be purified, and the ‘scission’ proper to the revolutionary subject in its relationship with any prevailing Symbol context must be acknowledged.

Badiou introduces the term ‘scission’ in an original reading of Hegel’s Logic, a reading that seeks to assert the centrality of irresolvable antagonism and ‘force’ in any truly materialist dialectic. “It is a major strength of the dialectic”, Badiou writes, with overtones of Mao, “to grasp how the One of the unity of contraries supports contrariness in its very being.” (9) To theorise this antagonism is, for Badiou, to theorise the constitutivity for revolutionary politics of that which is inherently ‘out of place’. Indeed, Badiou makes much in Theory of the Subject of those eccentric elements which cannot be assimilated to a structural or topological mapping, elements that must be sustained for any revolutionary project to succeed. As Bruno Bosteels notes in his excellent translator’s introduction, Badiou borrows the concept of ‘force’ from Hegel’s Science of Logic to oppose the logic of place or spacing, the ordering of elements that precludes radical change. In turn, the potentially voluntarist associations of subjective forcing will be replaced by the time of the publication of Being and Event with the systematic conceptualisation of the Event, as the breach with the static ‘state of the situation’.

This is by no means the only point of continuity between this ‘early’ work and Badiou’s later, more familiar books. As in his recent Logics of Worlds (2006), Badiou elaborates a number of subjective features common to revolutionary praxis. Anxiety, Badiou writes, “is that inevitable side of subjectivization which, caught in the web of the dead order, makes an appeal to the reinforced sustenance of the law.” (292) The anxious subject appeals to the superego, Freud’s internalised representative of the Law, and the maintenance of a revolutionary moment is threatened. The alternative, if not antithetical, subjective position is courage, persistence in the face of the threat of change that will, in Badiou’s later works, be conceptualised as fidelity to a revolutionary Truth. When courage sustains the irruption of disorder into the placing of elements, the subject reaches its full manifestation, as that which, “subservient to the rule that determines a place … nevertheless punctuates the latter with the interruption of its effect.” (259) If Lacan, by virtue of his concept of the Real as the order that disturbs the consistency of the Symbolic, leaves open the potential for radical change while foreclosing any positive definition of its features, Badiou insists on precisely such a positive elaboration of the subjective agent of change.

Intermingled within Badiou’s innovative readings of Lacan, Hegel, Lenin and Marx are compelling reflections on the status of the revolutionary party, a treatment of Greek ontology through a reading of Sophocles and Aeschlylus, and barbed references to his contemporary opponents on the liberal wing of the French academy and in the French political establishment. The text has the flavour of a bricolage, teeming with potential lines of enquiry that frequently remain unresolved, and there are some frustrating inconsistencies in the overall architecture of the argument. Chief among these is Badiou’s treatment of Lacan, who at the very time of the writing of this text was, in his seminar, questioning the division between an ‘algebraic’ and ‘topological’ treatment of the subject that Badiou insists on throughout the text and that he credits to Lacan. Badiou accuses the so-called ‘early Lacan’ of idealism as a result of his theory of signification, but it is Badiou who makes the idealist error of assuming an irrevocable antimony between an insistence on the primacy of the signifier in subjectivity and the materialist potential for agency and change. Lacan’s seminars in the late 1970s, with their critique of a static model of structural theory and their conjoining of the non-linguistic elements of bodily existence with an exploration of the material, non-signifying elements central to language, are, for all their flaws, more radical in their subversion from within of the structural tradition than Badiou’s efforts here.

That said, Theory of the Subject, impeccably translated by Bruno Bosteels, stands as one of the most successful attempts to integrate a psychoanalytic appreciation of subjectivity with the demands of revolutionary politics, and for that alone, and for its signal importance in the broader sweep of Badiou’s philosophical project, it remains necessary reading.

19 October 2010

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