Becky Vartabedian on Pfeifer’s ‘The New Materialism’

To formally begin our book event on Geoff Pfeifer’s The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek, we have our first response, which is from Dr. Becky Vartabedian of Regis University.

On The New Materialism, by Becky Vartabedian 

In Chapters 3 and 4, of The New Materialism, Geoff Pfeifer takes up Alain Badiou’s accounting of stasis and change. Pfeifer is especially interested in Badiou’s prospects for correcting a problematic dependence in Althusser on a “metaphysical invariant” in the form of a “rule of structural causality” (56). The structure(s) that interpellate subjects – in spite of their contingent status – still operate as the apparatus “through which, and only through which, history proceeds and subjectivity comes into being” (57). Pfeifer locates Badiou’s remedy to this problem in three key texts: “The (Re)Commencement of Dialectical Materialism” (1967), Theory of Contradiction (1975), and Theory of the Subject (1982). In these works, Pfeifer traces the evolution of Badiou’s claims that both structure and subject are split in such a way to support the possibility for transformation in each figure.

Broadly, it is the insight of ‘co-constitution’ that marks Badiou’s move away from Althusser. This position, developed initially in “The (Re)Commencement of Dialectical Materialism,” maintains that materialist science and ideology emerge together. As Pfeifer says, “in the founding of the possibility of science as science – or dialectical materialism – we also have the founding of ideology as ideology. In this way, the two are inextricably linked” (55). In light of this insight, Pfeifer traces the expression of this co-constitutive procedure in Badiou’s split subject and his split situation. That is, the transformative power of the event is recognizable only in relation to the situation from which it emerges; similarly, the subject faithful to the event (e.g., the Saint Paul of the Christ Event) is only legible against a static background.

In Chapter 4, Pfeifer explains that Badiou’s ‘split subject’ is informed by the twin poles of “Althusserian anti-humanism and Sartrean subjective freedom” (75). Following a reading of this pairing by Nina Power, Pfeifer explains that Badiou’s account of the split subject mobilizes Sartrean insights of “serialized isolation between individuals” on the one hand, and the transformative “group in-fusion,” by which this serialized isolation is broken down by “pursuit of a common goal or a common work” on the other (78-79). Pfeifer helpfully points out that Sartre’s influence on Badiou is decisive as “what allows Badiou to account for the possibility of radical change (and true subjective agency) in a way that Althusser cannot,” without giving up “much of the Althusserian edifice” (79).

One of the strengths of Pfeifer’s work with Badiou is the clear presentation of the way Badiou’s commitment to Sartre informs the concept of the ‘split subject.’ It is especially clear that this is an innovation designed to correct limitations Badiou sees in Althusser. However, in spite of the advances these early works accomplish for Badiou contra. Althusser, claims in more contemporary texts challenge Badiou’s success in this enterprise. The hitch in Badiou’s project concerns the split situation or structure; the problem consists in the way situations are formed in the first place, using the principle of the count-as-one.

Pfeifer identifies two issues with Badiou’s account of situation, which he sees as plaguing both Being and Event and Logics of Worlds. Pfeifer draws the first issue from Peter Osborne, who claims that the situation is largely ahistorical; because the count-as-one operates on inconsistent multiplicity, it is abstracted from and so dislocated from contingent historical events. The second issue, which Pfeifer links to Adrian Johnston’s work, is that the count-as-one stands as an ideal (and immaterial) structure that has tremendous power – it structures objects of appearing in Logics of Worlds, and is the means by which being is presented to thought in Being and Event – but it is not clear who exercises this power or from whence it is exercised.

Pfeifer’s innovation is to re-cast these issues in relation to certain tenets of Althusserian materialism. He explains that the problematic status of the count is magnified by the ahistorical functioning of Badiou’s ontology, since it it is a law or a rule that operates regardless of the contingent situation in which it may come to apply. This aligns Badiou’s work as a (retrospective) target of Althusser’s critique of structuralism:

Althusser argues that for many the all-important concept of ‘structure,’ in its being reified and uninterrogated, becomes and (sic) ideological impediment to a truly scientific (and materialist) understanding of the conjuncture. In the same way, insofar as the count-as-one remains uninterrogated, it becomes endowed with a quasi-intelligence as that which ensures the ordering of multiples across situations/worlds (89).

Pfeifer’s assessment here, that the count-as-one functions as precisely the kind of ideological impediment that blocks understanding of the “conjuncture” (or the radical contingency connecting subjects and structure), is a welcome as means of assessing this crucial operation in Badiou’s work. We may have good reason for rejecting the axiomatic project Badiou proffers in the mature texts on account of the nuts-and-bolts deployment of set theory; however, Pfeifer’s text asks us to examine this turn in light of a much broader commitment to materialism, a commitment that runs consistently from Badiou’s earliest work to his most contemporary.

In light of the foregoing, which is only a partial treatment of the complex assessment Pfeifer brings to Badiou’s work, my comments on Pfeifer’s text are intended more as an invitation to conversation.

Pfeifer’s critique led me to re-consider Badiou’s early The Concept of Model. In this text, we see an example of the interrogation apropos of a materialist scientific project. Badiou begins by rejecting a view of models constructed according to the formal/empirical description as “bourgeois.” The formal/empirical distinction describes the relationship between a formal scientific model and the empirical instances to which it is said to correlate. The problem, per Badiou, is that this relationship describes a “certain ideological formation, which partitions the discourse of science” according to the formal/empirical distinction (The Concept of Model, 5). In other words, the materialist sees that the forms deployed in the bourgeois paradigm are ideologically charged and, as such, are designed to preserve stasis.

Badiou’s competing model consists in a particular syntax, “or stock of marks … the pieces of the game” (The Concept of Model, 23) and “the initial formulae,” which Badiou calls “axioms” (27). In other words, the epistemological model Badiou describes cannot get off the ground without some form of axiomatic paradigm. He says that axioms “must be selected. This choice characterizes the theory in question and signals its particularity, since all the other rules of our language (formation and deduction) are general. The choice of axioms makes the demonstrative difference” (27).

Most generally, these claims reveal an historical preoccupation and preference for axiomatic structures as conditions productive of novel results and change. Badiou claims that the formal demonstration of the model itself shows that “the construction of the concept of model is strictly dependent, in all of its successive stages, on the mathematical theory of sets” (The Concept of Model, 42). This summary suggests that between the Badiou of The Concept of Model and the explicitly ‘ontological’ Badiou of Being and Event, we find an insistence on the efficacy of the set-theoretic paradigm as productive of an epistemological model in the former, and an entire ontological structure in the latter. (I note that this insight follows certain claims from Zachary Fraser in The Concept of Model’s Introduction.)

I raise The Concept of Model not as an example counter to Pfeifer’s critique, but one that potentially reinforces the argument that the count-as-one is “reified and uninterrogated” in the vein of structuralism and not materialism. Put another way, we may wonder whether the axiomatic model, having once been interrogated is sufficient to underwrite an ontological paradigm that stretches nearly four decades? I introduce this example to suggest that Badiou’s work does involve an adoption of axiomatics that has been interrogated, but perhaps it has not been interrogated frequently or recently enough to maintain the materialism it professes to serve.

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5 thoughts on “Becky Vartabedian on Pfeifer’s ‘The New Materialism’

  1. This post usefully sets up some distinctions and questions that are still with us in the wake of structuralism and “post”-structuralism. I think it is deliberately one-sided in its comments on the relation between Althusser and Badiou. Certainly Badiou has a deep problem in regards to the relation between stasis and change. (I have commented on this problem at a more general level in terms of the relation between diachronic ontology and synchronic ontology here: https://www.academia.edu/1955628/IS_ONTOLOGY_MAKING_US_STUPID). However, I do not think that Althusser is in a position to give lessons in avoiding the idealist tendencies implicit in structuralism. Much post-Althusserian thought was devoted to finding a principle of de-stabilisation of structures tied to subjectivity: Kristeva’s subject-in-process, Lyotard’s drift, Deleuze and Guattari’s group-in-fusion and later their process of subjectivation, Foucault’s care of self. Badiou’s project clearly inscribed within this field of responses to the perceived excessive determination of the subject by the structure and the link with the problem of change. Another problem with inheriting from Althusser is his scientism. Badiou mitigates this excessive privilege given to science as truth production (one must remember that for Badiou truth is linked to change, where knowledge is linked to stasis) by asserting the contemporary existence of four figures of truth production (science, love, politics, art).

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  2. On the queston of the priority given to axiomatics by Badiou, this is an ambiguous move. Axiomatics refers to a structure and so is a force of stabilisation, but also to the (subective) decision to adopt certain axioms. This priority of axiomatics comes under fire from François Laruelle, who proposes “quantum” thinking in its place. Quantum thinking is more process-oriented, as compared to structure-oriented axiomatics. Yet this critique ignores Badiou’s more recent work-in-progress on the “immanence of truths”, an enquiry into how truths (and not knowledge) modify and transform worlds from within.

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  3. Another difference between Badiou and Althusser worth discussing is that Badiou emphasises that science as a truth procedure exists only in diverse “crossings” with other truth procedures, some of which are legitimate (this acceptance of the legitimacy of crossings distinguishes Badiou’s position from Althusser’s policing of frontiers): this theorisation of crossings can be found in Badiou’s latest seminar, class of October 19th 2015 (http://www.entretemps.asso.fr/Badiou/15-16.htm, French transcription).

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  4. Pingback: Geoff Pfeifer responds to Vartabedian | Working Group on Contemporary Materialism

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