Geoff Pfeifer responds to Vartabedian

Sorry for the delays, but we are going to pick up where we left off in our on-going event on Geoff Pfeifer’s The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. Our last post was a response to the book by Dr. Becky Vartabedian, and below we have Geoff Pfeifer’s response. There will more to come in the next 2-3 weeks on this event, so please do jump in the comments and participate.

Response to Vartabedian by Pfeifer:

I want to thank Professor Vartabedian for her comments here and also for the invitation to discuss Badiou’s first book in relation to my analysis of his later work. It is both interesting and helpful to think about what Badiou does in The Concept of Model as forming the backdrop for what Zizek has called Badiou’s “move from history to ontology” which I see as, in many ways, a nice encapsulation of my overall concerns related to Badiou’s work in both Being and Event and Logics of Worlds (Žižek, 2012 p. 842). I have tended, in the past, to see Concept as more in line with Badiou’s earlier work especially since, as we know, it was intended to be a part of the Althusserian project of the philosophy course for scientists which began in 1967 and was never completed due to the May 68 student revolts (Badiou’s text was never taught because of this). I will briefly give a few of my other reasons for having considered this text as a part of the early corpus (and so, more sensitive to what I see as proper materialist concerns) before returning to Vartabedian’s suggestion that we see it retrospectively in relation to the more ontological works of the mature Badiou.

As Vartabedian points out, in my book I link Althusser’s critique of structuralism to Johnston’s critique of Badiou’s concept of the ‘count as one’ in an attempt to show the un-thought (and hence, Ideological) nature of this concept as it becomes reified in Badiou’s ontology and to also show how Althusser himself had already offered a way to avoid this problem via his critique of the (also reified) concept of ‘structuralism’. Recalling that one of Althusser’s main claims in his critique of the notion of a structuralist movement, is that what is referred to as ‘structuralism’ is not a unified or singular body of thought, but that what we refer to in the singular—as ‘structuralism’—emerges in a historical context in different ways and in relation to different social and scientific phenomena and questions (See Althusser, 1976 pp. 128-129 and Pfeifer, 2015a p. 39). And so as I point out in my discussion of this in the book, according to Althusser, there is no structuralism as such; to think that there is, is to fall into ideology. There are, rather, multiple ‘structuralisms’ that are different, particular, and contingent on/in particular investigations, temporal contexts, and questions and that these are, in this way, related but also distinct from one another (Pfeifer, 2015a p. 39).

In returning to Badiou’s Concept of Model on Vartabedian’s suggestion (a text that admittedly, I have not spent all that much time with) it is striking to be reminded that Badiou echoes here this Althusserian claim about the nature of structuralism but he does so in relation to the sciences. Here is Badiou’s citation and adaptation:

It has been shown that to speak of Science (la science) is an ideological symptom—as it is, in truth, to speak of ideology in the singular. Science and Ideology are plural. But their types of multiplicity are different: the sciences form a discrete system of articulated differences; the ideologies form a continuous combination of variations. (Badiou, 2007 p. 7)

We might take this distinction drawn by Badiou here as a frame for the question of the differences between this text and Badiou’s texts that emerge in 1988 and beyond. In doing this, we should once again affirm the closeness between what Badiou says in the quote above and how Althusser understands the distinction between science and ideology.

To put this understanding very briefly, for Althusser, science is what works on, and ultimately transforms, ideology by bringing to light the workings of the ideological. It does this, in large part, by unearthing the repetitive nature of one’s relation to and understanding of the world via the concepts, meanings, and practices that one uses in cognizing and appropriating the variety of experiences one has in a given set of situations, and also via the practices which both support and are supported by this cognition. So, as I have pointed out elsewhere also, for Althusser, the distinction between the scientific and the ideological is the distinction between repetition and transformation (Pfeifer, 2015b). This is because science—as both Althusser and Badiou (at least at this time) understand it, makes possible the recognition of the ideological as ideological, or repetition as repetition, in such a way as to make transformation possible in a very material sense- in that, once made visible, ideological practices can be transformed via other practices that act against repetition in favor of this transformation (and so, ultimately- to recognize a practice as ideological is to have already transformed it- this is why ideology and science are linked). So here, when Badiou calls science a “discrete system of articulated differences” what he means is that science allows for the recognition—or ‘articulation’—of such differences within a system whereas ideology both covers over these differences and simply repeats a given set of meanings/understandings via a series of variations of/on repetition itself.

In light of this, returning both to Badiou’s and to Vartabedian’s comments, we can see how what Badiou does in The Concept of Model is to engage in an Althusserian scientific practice in relation to the concept of ‘model’ itself, coming to the conclusion here that—as Vartebedian points out—any adequate concept of ‘model’ depends on a theory of sets (at the time in which Badiou was engaging in his critique of this concept anyway). This investigation has, if I am right, the sole aim of engaging in a scientific practice in relation to the notion of model and modeling with regard to the particular moment or conjuncture in which the text was written. This is to say that, Badiou’s text here is not an exercise in ahistorical system building (as are both Being and Event and Logics of Worlds) but rather an intervention in a moment in history, which attempts, in an Althusserian fashion, to unearth the ideological in the practical work of scientists so as to make possible a transformation that is also grounded in the moment. What makes Vartebedian’s comments so helpful is that it really does seem to be the case that the scientific process Badiou engages in here in this early text becomes that which, through its repetition, underwrites the deployment of the set-theoretic concepts in his later work—and along with that the all important (and in dispute) concept of the ‘count-as-one’—that becomes the repeated (and hence ideological) structure through which Badiou builds his mature system.

But we should make no mistake about the differences between the deployment of the mathematical model in these two instances- one is used in such a way (in the early work under question here) as to act as a scientific concept which disrupts the everyday practices of the scientists, and the other is deployed for the opposite reasons- as an ahistorical explanation for how various worlds and situations are seemingly organized even though there are differing combinations and variations of objects in different situations/worlds. So this gets us back to Vartebedian’s helpful point: the investigation of mathematics as the exemplar of a scientific discipline as that which could cut through the ideological field becomes, itself, the reified and repeated way in which the mature Badiou makes sense of the organization of worlds/situations. What was once a work of transformation, becomes a work (in this regard anyway) of repetition.

Works Cited:

Althusser. Louis. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays. Translated by Ben Brewster, James Kavanagh, Thomas Lewis, Grahame Lock, and Warren Montag. London and New York: Verso, 1990.

Badiou, Alain. The Concept of Model: An Introduction to the Materialist Epistemology of Mathematics. Edited and translated by Zachary Luke Fraser and Tzuchien Tho. Melbourne: Re.press, 2007.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. New York: Routledge, 2015.

— “On Althusser, Science, and Ideology, Or Why We Should Continue to Read Reading Capital” Crisis and Critique Volume 2, Issue 3 (Forthcoming, 2015)

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