A CONVERSATION ON WHAT PHILOSOPHY CAN TELL US ABOUT POLITICS TODAY
On February 21, 2018, Dr. Leon Brenner (Ph.D), a teacher and a scholar specializing in the fields of Lacanian psychoanalysis, contemporary French philosophy and autism research gave a lecture at Stillpoint Spaces Berlin entitled Political Truth in the Age of Populism.
The invitation to the lecture read:
“Basing ourselves on the philosophy of Alain Badiou we will explore an innovative conception of “Truth” which can guide our politics beyond the devastating power of the populist right. Going beyond relativism and moralism, we will insist that Badiou’s new conception of the universality of truth can give shape to contemporary politics, enabling us to distinguish between “truthful” political actions, and “corrupt” or “obscure” forms of politics.”
In unpacking Badiou’s concept of truth in politics, Brenner laid down in accessible terms the coordinates for understanding how political change in the world unfolds, and what it can mean. Throughout this dense, intricate and rewarding interview—which we are publishing in three parts over the next three weeks—I sought to engage both with Brenner and Badiou in posing questions relevant to my own experiences of politics, and those that currently make the political news. As such, the interview became an extended dialogue on issues ranging from the commodification of public space to the pursuit of political independence.
At the heart of this philosophical exchange lies the preoccupation with the event, a complex Badiouan concept, developed through decades of theorising in works such as Being and Event (1988) or Logic of Worlds (2006) (on which this lecture and interview are mostly based). It is a concept he derived from set theory in mathematics, with the aim of accounting for an ontology of being. How does the being of anything come to be? Far from pretending to grasp it in its depth, my humble attempts to use this concept throughout this interview/dialogue resemble, on the one hand, approximations of a novice towards a beguiling, yet potent, concept. On the other, the elucidating elaborations of Brenner make these movements of approximation less daunting and, often enough, make one see that philosophy, despite its complexity, offers a tremendously liberating perspective on reality.
SF: I remember the first text I read by Badiou more than a decade ago. It was a printed copy of an essay called Philosophy and Desire (from Infinite Thought) where he says that philosophy is a logical revolt, it pits thought against injustice. To do philosophy means to do something to injustice by thinking. That phrase stuck in my mind. I came back to this text today, and Badiou goes on to define philosophy as a desire for revolt, a desire for logic, a desire for universality and a desire for risk. When was your first contact with Badiou?
LB: I encountered him first while studying aesthetics, so it wasn’t only in the political field. In Handbook of Inaesthetics he has an essay called Art and Philosophy. It’s a very interesting essay. It displays a kind of ethics in art, giving a philosophical argument to what is the Good in art. Not good as in good or bad, or pleasing, but an ethics. And that was very interesting for me. It hooked me. At that time I was very much into Foucault, but I had hit a sort of dead end in my revolutionary thought. Especially in his Archeological period, when power is everywhere. Then, ethics is hard to describe. That was after I had started with Marx, so Marx was a bigger master, compared to Foucault. Badiou was a way out of Foucault. Badiou provided an ethics that still took the subject into account, which with Foucault is lost: the subject is defined as a construct of discourse, as a manifestation or byproduct of discourse. Badiou brings it to the foreground again. So for me that was very exciting.
SF: Because in Foucault, as far as I remember, the subject is completely subsumed into power. So it has no agency in Foucault, and then it gains an agency in Badiou?
LB: Yes, I would agree. Still, we should be very clear because Foucault has also his late period, what Butler makes into performativity. So there is some freedom there. I wouldn’t use the word agency, just because…
SF: …it’s loaded.
LB: Yes, it’s loaded. But, let us say, the subject as a non-discourse, something which is extimate to discourse. Being on the inside, but nevertheless remaining exterior.
SF: Do you mean in Foucault, or Badiou?
LB: Badiou talks about non-being. I believe he adopts that from Lacan. But the subject for Badiou is something completely different from what Foucault is talking about.
SF: Yes, I noticed that. If I were to throw some associations here…sounds like Deleuze’s “body without organs”. I don’t want to compare, but just as an association, the subject as presented in his Logics of Worlds, seems like it is inherent to the structure of the event, a template. And then it gets filled in with meanings through time, through and by individuals and bodies.
LB: I think that’s the point, yes.
SF: It’s like a template which moves in time.
LB: Template is a structure, right. But then we say the subject is not subsumed in the structure. You correctly mentioned the bodies. Badiou is a dialectical materialist, so the body is very important for him. The subject is whatever is carrying this impossible relationship between the trace of the event and the body, which supports it in reality. The subject is an impossibility, because it is an intersection, or a juxtapositioning of whatever is not in the body and is not in the trace of the event, or the idea. It makes, in a very impossible way, these two things work together. And that’s the subject: the movement in time, or the movement of creation, of these two things together. If you can, remember the first formula (from the lecture) of the faithful subject. The subject is what brings into play a new present. But it cannot be a structure, because structures don’t speak! There is something about the subject which exceeds structure, and that’s exactly the point with Badiou.
SF: I wanted to ask you about Lacan and Badiou, but to stay close to the event, the production of the event, and the faithful subject. As you said in Populism in The Age of Post-Truth, when we liberals demand a change, we demand a semantic change. How does Badiou name this semantic change?
LB: Yes, the diluted present, or castrated sometimes.
Sokol: You put it in rather suggestive terms in your lecture: the fake present. So when we liberals demand change, we demand semantic change. To use an example, I just came back from a bakery around the corner, where a signature list was lying by the counter. The purpose of this signature-collection initiative was to reduce the visibility of advertising in city spaces. Though I supported the initiative, I also thought that there was something prohibitive about seeing an invitation for change put forward so straightforwardly. It struck me as one of a million examples of how we in liberal society ask for a semantic change. You think this example illustrates a kind of fake event?
LB: A fake novelty, I would say, when we think of it in terms of ethics. Liberalism, parliamentary democracy, this discourse of human rights, they’re all products of an event, of the French Revolution. It’s all speculative, but we can use it in our thinking. There was an event, and this is the new present which it created. Parliamentary democracy was excellent, it gave us women’s rights, human rights, it gave us revolution in the United States where African-Americans established an identity and fought for their rights. So it did a lot of good. But today, we mistake the product of the event—parliamentary democracy—with the event itself. So we think that this will manifest in novelty, but in actuality this product is a mere tool. We can only work with this tool inside the system that the event has created. But one crucial point for Badiou is that no event, no truth, or no novelty, which is the product of the event, is all-encompassing. There is no totality of truth that can happen. There is no end to history.
SF: Is that because the subject, or everything that exists, is a multiplicity?
LB: Yes, there is no—what Lacan calls—discourse of all discourses, so there is no truth of all truths. There are only truths, in plural. Something that Badiou insists on. So the French Revolution is a sequence of a truth, is part of a sequence of a truth, and this sequence has a potency, it can create novelty all along history. But it is specific. It grows from a particular point. Liberal logic is part of it, but to grasp liberal logic as a revolutionary event is to be reactionary (to the event). Because what you create in liberal logic is semantic change.
What is the issue here, again, in this liberal logic? It is about that which would oppose evil. That’s the ethics in liberal politics: what is good is whatever opposes the bad. You see it in identity politics discourse. Now, we need to fight against oppression, which is true, but then this is not the ethics that Badiou is proposing. Badiou is asking what is the good? The good is not defined as a negation of the bad. On the contrary—and we’re talking ethically here—the bad is a reaction to the good. It’s not the other way around. So let’s talk about the advertising. These guys are trying to fight the bad, which is advertising, but then let’s ask ourselves, what is the good that we’re looking for?
SF: Well, I assume this has to do with the spirit of citizenship, of community (as opposed to corporations, property speculators, etc.) owning the city. In Berlin, as in other cities, this idea often manifests itself in calls for new legislation that would regulate use of public and living spaces. (i.e. in Berlin, AirBnB has been limited in its action by law). I mean the idea that we, the community of people, give meaning to, or decide, how we want to experience life in the city. Advertising, for instance, we don’t want to see it, we don’t want to “sell out” our city. All this citizens’ consciousness….can we locate it in Badiou’s terms?
LB: I’m thinking about the commodification of space: the fact that space is, essentially, commodified space. I think this is a question of commodification in general. Again this is a speculative discussion we’re having together, but if we want to think of the sequence, of where in the sequence of this specific event this idea has manifested itself, I’m thinking about the commune in Paris in ’68, when the people of the city took space into their hands. They created this space owned by the citizens. So we can say: “the sequence of May ’68”. We give it a name and we see it manifest there, and we see it manifest many times in history. When people are collecting signatures in Berlin, that’s what they’re investigating—the appearance of the sequence of May ‘68 in our time. But what they’re also doing is diluting it. Because this question of the abolishment of private property, the idea that private property is preposterous, or the idea that the commodification of ‘our’ space is preposterous, entails an invention. This invention has a name, as we said, “the sequence of May ’68”. But today it is not part of the present.
What these guys are doing, and I appreciate it, is that they are asking themselves: how can we create this sequence in the present? But what they offer is a present with less advertising. When what we would be talking about, in Badiou’s terms, is the actual cancellation, or the abolishing, of the commodification of living space, the creation of a new political space. That was precisely what the sequence of May ’68 was about. So the signature-collectors are taking up something which is universal, which entails a deep paradigmatic change in the way humanity organises itself, and they are making it into a specific, semantic change, namely: for the citizens of Berlin, on the subject of public advertising. So that is why we would say this would be a reactive approach (to the event).
On the other hand, we should not cancel any specific manifestation of the event. Because everything starts from something specific. I gave several examples for an event in my lecture. For example, in politics it never happens that everybody immediately and suddenly unites for something. It first affects the workers, let’s say. And the workers start working on that. But the political body of workers grows because this idea/action has a potency which surpasses the workers alone. It can become a question of its universal potency: is this certain initiative something which has this potency and can surpass the purpose of advertising alone? Maybe, I don’t know! As a militant, as an ethical political person, you should investigate that. But when we talk about liberal ethics, and if we situate that idea/action/initiative in the domain of liberal ethics, we are prone to believe that they do not carry universalising potency.
SF: When I arrived in Berlin in 2008, I left Kosovo as a very politicized reality, which it still is: the whole post-war international protectorate, its culmination with the declaration of independence same year, and then, just recently, the 10th anniversary of that declaration. So this entire political process has followed me throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. The question I have is: How does one, and why does one, become politically active and committed? If I am participating in an open, citizens’ initiative, do I have to really believe in the cause, or can I support it simply by being a citizen, by sympathising? In other words, is it a matter of mere identification? I’m wondering, then, how does political commitment come about from Badiou’s perspective? The example of Spartacus and the slaves’ uprising he led— an example Badiou uses in his Logic of Worlds—was presented as a spontaneous act. Some slaves decided that enough is enough and we can, and we will, be free. But how does it become collective? If a lot of individuals decide to give up, to withdraw their support, what happens to the event? Those who withdraw from the event are the reactionaries? Or, is there something like an ethical duty—beyond emotional/personal convictions—towards the event?
LB: So let’s walk backwards. Let’s start from what we’re used to doing. There is a protest against the deportation of immigrants. You mentioned political commitment. So as a political activist in Berlin, or wherever, you see this mobilization—there’s a rally, let’s say—and you need to ask yourself, do I participate? How do you decide? Within the confines of the reactive approach, or let’s say, our liberal approach, you make a pragmatic choice, which is based on your knowledge, on your feelings, on your general disposition, and you get to a conclusion: this is actually true, this cause is important and I should support it with my presence and I’ll make sure to find that time. So this is one way to approach it, but in line with Badiou’s argument, we would call this a reactive approach. Because it’s calculated. There is a good reason, very articulated reason you give yourself to this. What you do is rationalize, to put it in psychoanalytic terms.
However, this not the way Badiou would say it goes. What first happens is an event… It takes the form of an act, but we shouldn’t use the word act in its classical, philosophical way (the way Hannah Arendt uses it, for instance). Badiou does not use the word act. But something happens, and it has material manifestation. As you mentioned, Spartacus rebels. So the moment something happens in reality, its investigation begins. An investigation of an event is a process, it’s a procedure, it’s not something that happens and then everybody is on board.
SF: If we assume that this process of investigation can encompass lifetimes, generations, and exceed them, perhaps it can be said that there are generations which are doomed to be reactive, to live in reactive times?
LB: We can say that, but maybe a better way to put it would be to say that the event started, but was extinguished, and then resurrected. In the meantime, we didn’t have an investigation of this truth. But again an investigation is a process which leads you from the faithful subject to the occultation of the event. Sometimes an event creates a novelty, a new present, so it doesn’t end with occultation. Let’s say the investigation of the French Revolution (FR) might have ended in its terms, or the sequence that the FR started, has ended. But its potency still manifests in a different domain of politics. We are not talking about parliamentary politics again. We have created that novelty. So what you have is many points in this procedure, on this trajectory of the event, where the event is investigated.
So let’s say something happens, and let’s go back to the workers. The workers ask themselves: this maxim that carries the event, do we take part in it, is it for us? The answer can only be yes or no. There is no actual way to know that that’s true. Think about scientists. Sometimes they have a theory which hasn’t been proven. They just have this hypothesis which shoots into the future, and says this is the future. They cannot know what it really is, but they choose to take part in it, and, what’s more, to base their science on that theory as well as their experiments. So in politics it’s the same. Badiou calls this a forcing: we decide justice! Imagine people knocking on your door, saying, Sokol this is happening, join us! You say, What is it? They say, Justice! And so you choose: Yes, this is happening. Or, yes, this is happening, but revolution is not the way. Or, yes, but taking over the Reichstag is not the way. The way is signing a bill, or signing for less commercials in the streets.
SF: Which is reactive.
LB: Right. Or, you say, This is not happening, what you’re saying is a lie. With your false “justice” you are betraying the country, or betraying religion, or betraying, let’s say, the true German way. You say, that justice, the emancipation of our space from all sources of power, which are exterior to our movement, is not true, is betrayal, is treachery. And if the idea is perceived as betrayal, then the body—following the occultist stance—needs to die. As a consequence, this stance maintains the following: the logic which belongs to those people who march in the streets, which aim at the emancipation of our space, it is a criminal logic, because they are betraying the State, or the way of the fathers, or whatever, and force must be used to extinguish them. And if this succeeds, then the event is extinguished.
So you see the sorts of trajectories that different reactions to the event can make out. These are investigations, these are all products (the protests, movements) of the investigations of the event. Because it could be that the workers will take a reactive stance, and the students will take a faithful stance, and the church an occultist stance, these are all just examples, but it could just as well be that all the workers, students, and the church, would take a faithful stance, and then a new present would happen, a new political definition of space.
SF: I’d like to know if faithfulness to the event can be influenced by the context. To venture out from one of my first thoughts, there is something like Western values and, let’s say, Russian, Orthodox values. At least in Europe such a difference can be observed. Let’s say, Russian Orthodox political values are experienced as a sequential accretion of faithful reactions to the event….which would be the Russian political scene today. Can this political reality be seen as faithful to a given event in its own terms and context? Because, if you look at this political reality from the Western perspective, it’s often not seen as being faithful to the (sequence of) event we call parliamentary democracy, and, perhaps, the other way around.
In other words, is it possible, in Badiou’s sense, that a faithful event can happen, but is not universal? Despite hesitations to use such a politicized example, I have the example of Kosovo, having lived there throughout the repressive regime of Serbia. In Kosovo, the Serbian politics were often understood as an offshoot of Russian-Orthodox politics (a tendency of large swathes of society to share and support obscurantist political agendas backed by religious establishment and together enacting oppressive practices). It made me think, when you said that there can be cases when the workers, the students, and the church are involved, and they come together, becoming more faithful. They would be “all behind” the event, as it were. I would often see Serbian church leaders, the large population, the state representatives, and the military, coming together in support of some government agenda. What you describe hypothetically sounds similar, a monolithic coming together of State, Church, and the majority, coming behind a political stance. So is it possible that a faithful event is faithful in a context? And if so, what are we to do with the universal side of it?
LB: OK…so we’ll start with a resounding No! Badiou saves us from these perspectives, which relativise truth. Truth is for humanity. Truth is not for the white man, truth is multiple by definition, therefore for everybody. An event is for everybody. That’s first. Second, it’s important to make a distinction….an event is not faithful per se. An event…it happens. It’s a happening in reality. The subjective position that is accomplished in relation to the event can be faithful, reactive, or obscure (occultist). So it’s the question of which position the subject takes.
We had many movements in the history of humanity, which were mass movements, but they were obscure movements, they were manifestations of the obscure subject. It’s easy to name them, a good example is Fascism. The masses—everybody—was united under that. You can say that there were some reluctant people, it’s true that there are always reluctant people, but it has been a mass movement, in many countries. You can see the films from Germany, from Italy, from Spain, you see the masses, and a mass of people can be oppressive. The fact that a lot of people agree on something, doesn’t mean that it is true. And now we need to emphasize two points: a truth, or the truthfulness of an event, is not a matter of opinion. So let’s say, when the idea that the world should turn into a German world—right, let’s put it like that—the fact that so many people thought it should happen, didn’t make it true.
Now, the question you were asking was actually about the universality of it all, the way the event traces itself out in history. What is this universality? You can actually characterise it. It’s an all-inclusive universality, and you can compare it with an all-exclusive universality. So an all-inclusive universality is the nature of the event, it’s the nature of the trace of the event, and would be the nature of the new present that would be created. This all-inclusive universality means, in the field of politics, that it is true for every single person in the world. So it is true for every person in the world that no man or woman is a slave. That is absolutely true for everyone.
SF: That’s where my thoughts were going now. In the times of identity politics you cannot say that a specific truth, of a specific social or political group, is true for everyone. And to try to sell it like that, which is the spirit of our times, it’s hard, you know, to universalise. Because what is true for a specific ethnic or sexual group, or political group, whatever, it’s just not true for the others, so all other groups might want to say ‘we support or sympathise with your cause”, but deep down there is no connection, really, between different groups. So it’s a bit like, there’s a diversity of truths, which exist underneath the universal truth, which by the way, instinctively, I would say is the case, and seems like Badiou is also saying. But then is it that a particular truth is somehow evaporating into a universal one, what he calls the universal truth?
LB: Feminism, the struggle of women, is a struggle which could be put within the confines of identity politics, but is not necessarily a struggle which belongs to identity politics. This is just a translation. This is a reactive translation of the feminist event, which is a sequence that has been happening since the days of the Bible. Noa was a feminist in the Bible, a woman who decided to inherit the land of her father. So the feminist struggle has been happening ever since. The new present that feminism will create is a present for humanity.
Now, a reactive approach would say, what sexual difference means is that there is no difference, that men and women should be equal, which is true. They should have all their rights in parliamentary democracy, they should have equal rights in everything, there should be no difference in the bureaucracy and relationships of everyday life. But there is another form of feminism which says, there is a difference. There is something which is feminine. And that something is the “not-all” (a Lacanian term) encapsulated in the masculine translation of whatever woman is.
So, the struggle for equal rights is a struggle that needs signatures. Like that struggle with the commercials. It needs us to be educated and make this happen. This is crucial for the struggle. In our democracies, that would be the state of affairs. But the idea that femininity is something different, that it is not included in this discourse, and nevertheless has to be included in it, entails a forcing. Not a signing, not an intellectual deliberation and necessary legislation, but a forcing. Because it is beyond what we can conceive of today. And that would constitute the new present. The new present is a paradigmatic change, it is something that is created and becomes generic, becomes part of our life, and we say, of course this is true, but it entailed a deep transformation of what we know about our political reality.
SF: So it assumes its meaning only retrospectively. This was one of the amazing lessons coming from Badiou, also discussed in your lecture. This resonates so much with psychoanalysis for me: that only in retrospect does something become meaningful, even the most direct forcing, even the forcing which can be a short-lived event, a spontaneous act, you know, something is happening, but only the effects will linger. Is there any container which can contain these effects of an event? Can legislation serve this purpose of containment? In other words, what brings us to that point where we become aware of the effects of an event?
LB: Because Badiou is a materialist, the materialisation of the event is not a matter of knowing more than it is a reorganisation of knowledge. In politics, this materialisation of the event would be a new form, or a new way that we organise ourselves. Bitcoin, for example, it challenges our whole conception of currency, of money. The truth of Bitcoin, or the logic of Bitcoin, makes the stock-market, currency, banks, completely obsolete. If the logic of bitcoin would be incorporated on the scale of humanity, all of these things would evaporate. Bitcoin is the hole in the logic of our market, of our conception of coins, and of material value and worth. Now, how will it manifest in politics? That is a question that is not answered yet. I said Bitcoin, but I meant cryptocurrency. But what happened with Bitcoin? It is traded in the Stock Market. This is a complete reactive approach to the logic of cryptocurrency—instead of a real alternative, cryptocurrency has been incorporated. That’s what a lot of critiques of capitalism say, that it incorporates the crises. Today you hear “yeah you should buy some bitcoins”, but this is exactly the opposite from what this invention is aiming at.
SF: I sense here an element of the idea of recognition. So for the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin in this case, it wanted to say “hey I’m here,” like the guys who brought it to the Stock Market. How do you actually articulate this “I’m here,” since to actually make yourself visible, to merely shout your presence within a context, seems to consign one to the reactive approach, in Badiou’s terms. This brings me back to the issue of political independence, Kosovo’s case specifically, and its need for recognition of its new statehood by other states. It’s the talk of the town since 2008 when independence was declared. Now and then, local news excitedly declares another country’s recognition of Kosovo. Even now, many political discussions there circle around the idea that ‘we have only been recognised by this and this number of countries.” Consequently, the criticisms landed against the government there also follow this reactive line, you haven’t done enough to secure more recognitions. This has so far-reaching implications, and come to think of it, the idea of recognition can be seen as a Hegelian notion, a dialectical perspective. But for Badiou, is this important, to be recognised? You will be recognised if the position taken towards the event is faithful, right?
LB: Yes, but not necessarily.
SF: So you will become present, but not necessarily recognised?
LB: We have seen many events come into being in history, which then are extinguished, or actually create change in humanity on the political scale. Still, we’ve had in the last hundred years, even more than a hundred years, no actual paradigmatic change in the field of politics. It’s as though Capitalism is the only way… There was a sequence starting in the USSR, which failed miserably and became another fascism, another occultation. The Party was the universal body that completely destroyed human life. So we didn’t have any novelty, really. But we critically need one, because our democracies are failing, they are creating occultists, that is to say, leaders who are fascists. That is the trend right now. The beautiful reactionaries, Macron or Obama, these charming guys, well-educated, giving us legislation, and more legislation, but also saying don’t worry, we’ll keep the market going as it’s going, the wealthy become wealthier, but keep calm, I’m eloquent and nice-looking. And then we have these Trumps, we have Erdogan, Netanyahu, Putin, the leaders in Poland, Hungary.
SF: They are the third in the chain of reactiveness to the event, the obscurantists. So from reactiveness can result in outright denial, which in turn leads to occultation. There is to obscurantists a degree of intensity which one can’t see in the other subjective positions, say Obama, and suchlike…and here we arrive at populism, with the irresistible appeal it has when leaders speak from their guts, and become powerful. They swallow attention.
LB: We can give this a psychoanalytical interpretation. I would say the power of populists, their universality, their offering, is much more accessible than the universality the faithful subject offers. The faithful subject is the subject of forcing, who does not gain this knowledge, or satisfaction, or whatever, in the procedure of truth, but after. Only after we have created something new, after the event has materialised, do we have a product. But populists, their universality is very easy to grasp: “Being German: you’re not German, you’re not German, you’re not German”. It’s easy, it’s an exclusive universality. Like in Brecht’s poem, Bertold Brecht, inspired by Emil Gustav Friedrich Martin Niemöller: “First of all, they came to take the gypsies/and I was happy because they pilfered./Then they came to take the Jews and I said nothing,/ because they were unpleasant to me./Then they came to take homosexuals,/and I was relieved, because they were annoying me./Then they came to take the Communists,/and I said nothing because I was not a Communist./One day they came to take me, /and there was nobody left to protest.” So one is left alone, if you’re lucky, and then you are killed as well. Eventually, the Führer kills himself. That’s the end of this sequence of occultation.
This is what the Marquis de Sade writes in his books. He tries to find something in the bodies of his victims, but he can gain his pleasure only as long as they are alive. But they have to die, because there is a limit to the torment they can take. So eventually he goes and excludes more and more bodies. That is what the occultists do, exclude more and more bodies. If we go back to psychoanalysis, this is what perverse enjoyment (jouissance) is. And what these obscurantist political figures are offering, psychoanalytically speaking, is a perverse form of enjoyment. And that is where Obama and Macron don’t offer anything. They offer nothing because they only ask us to hold back. Like Merkel is telling us: Be adults, don’t enjoy!
SF: I wanted to go back to the question of recognition. I would like to enlarge it a bit, more than just Kosovo. I have been affected, for a short period of time, by the Catalan struggle for independence. Perhaps also because I find myself in the Spanish-speaking community here in Berlin, and my partner is Spanish. But also for reasons having to do with the time I was a refugee as a kid. During the demonstrations for and against the Catalan independence referendum at end of last year, and the political consequences they unleashed, I found myself in a sort of mental deadlock. In conversations, not sure by what sort of political reasoning, I ended up identifying with the aggressor, in this case the central government in Madrid. I did so by hanging on to only one element, the recognition of state structure, the constitution, pretty much sharing the EU position. That is, within the constitution you (Catalonia) are an autonomous region within this nation-state (Spain), and you are going against the constitution, if you want to secede. It was very painful for me to see the police battering people in the streets of Barcelona. It actually evoked in me a lot of memories of growing up as a child and participating, all the time, in the violent demonstrations for independence in Kosovo. They were as common as family visits. When I look back, I can safely say that’s what I did all my life, with everyone, friends, family, fellow Kosovo Albanians.
In the case of the upheaval in Catalonia, I found a space in my mind to say that this is what the police do, defending the law, defending the constitution. Not to minimise the pain, but to state what seemed to me obvious (now at the adult age of 31). So I ended up rationalising what was happening, and lost contact—for the duration of these violent events—with the Catalan cause for independence, which taken in its pure form, is comparable to the cause of Albanians for independence in Kosovo: the universal right for self-determination of a people. But then, just like Madrid, I remember that it was exactly on this basis that the Serbian government under MIlosevic, in 1989, justified the occupation of Kosovo: in the name of the violation of constitutional law. Kosovo was an autonomous region of Yugoslavia and, by wanting to be out of it, it was breaking the law, the Yugoslav law. When I realised this, something in me stopped, I didn’t know where I stood. I did some further thinking, and reading, but only ended up with particularities of each case.
Perhaps what I’m trying to articulate into a question does not have to do with the particularities of these two struggles, rather, are we really stuck so much in the reactive approach that you cannot help but rationalise one position, or the other? In other words: if there is a law, a constitution, that you have signed, and then break, does this mean you aren’t you inviting police force and intervention? It feels to me like a double-bind: the right to self-determination on one hand, and respect of law on the other. Further on, what is independence, in the context of dependence? This is a larger question I’m trying to explore and is one of the reasons for this interview.
I realise, now, for myself, what for those on the outside might have seemed obvious—that facilitating Kosovo’s independence was a geopolitical solution for the Western powers that enacted it, in the sense that there was really nothing better to do, given the ethnic cleansing in the wake of the fall of communism. Add to it the need, from the perspective of Western Europe, to prevent the redrawing of borders in the Balkans. So giving Kosovo independence was a technical solution to a larger geopolitical problem. I didn’t think like this when I was younger. I really thought we, Kosovo Albanians, wanted to be independent, in the sense many Catalans want independence today. But what I realise now, asking myself faithfully, and listening deeply to what I have heard from my childhood on, from my parents, from political commentators, historians, and other adults, is that Kosovo always wanted to be part of Albania proper. That is, to reverse the political situation of Kosovo to the point before The First World War, when the current map of the Balkans was drawn through redistribution of territories (to Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece) based on political interests of Russia and the so-called Great Powers (France, Germany, US, England). In other words, the essential historical desire of Albanians was not unlike that of any nation-state being formed in the end of XIX century, for Albanians to be under one state.
This sounds like a preposterous desire today, the drive of a monoethnic state, but that was the historical drive then. (Yet, this cannot be understood, from contemporary lens, as a perverse desire for mono-ethnic state leading to the exclusion of all other ethnicities. Multi-ethnicity belongs naturally to the order of all nation-states, and such is the case with both Albania and Kosovo today.) Back to the nineties and the outbreak of wars in the Balkans, the call for independence was a call to be independent, and then join Albania proper, on the basis of a majority vote. With all these considerations, I doubt even more the drive for independence at the heart of Kosovo’s struggle. All these thoughts and emotional memories apart, looking from a distance, all independence movements today, including Kosovo’s and Catalonia’s, seem to me reactive approaches to a historical event which was the inception of nation-states in the end of XIX century.
First, would it be right to call such a historical development an event, in Badiou’s terms? If so, isn’t the failure to negotiate another form of being among distinct collectivities sharing a territory (Kosovo-Serbia, Catalonia-Spain), and a historical event (the nation-state), a failure of imagination at best, and the constant calls for independence, on one hand, as a reactive approach to that (already problematic) event which is the nation-state, with its concomitant and cultish defense of territorial integrity, on the other? Because my thoughts often go in the direction of political independence being useless, in the context of such complex dependencies in the global world.
LB: It seems to me that calls for independence are calls for yet another, smaller, nation-state. It’s interesting that you pinpointed the 19th century. And I would definitely call it a reaction. I would call it a reaction in response to a call for universalisation in Marxism, and the Marxist movement. I would also venture to say that this was a reaction which took the face of an obscure subject in the 20th century, when it became Fascism. Before that it was a question of identity, and the independence of citizens, and the answer was a nation state. That’s how you could get your rights, your legislation and so on. I think Kosovo is an excellent example for something like this happening today. The Catalan example, as well. In my lecture I gave the example of the Palestinian struggle, creating an identity, demanding a national state, demanding a belongingness.
When you take it to the direction you’re hinting at, you can say that this is reactive, yes. But you can also say the question of identity, and the question of self-organization, is a question answered by tautology: we are the people! Well, every people are the people. It’s true for everybody. It’s a generic truth. Saying: “We are the people!” Or: “We are Catalans and we need our own state!” would dilute the universal and the revolutionary dimension of saying we are the people. Because it is true: “We are the people!” Humanity! We are humanity, and politics is for us. It is not for some of us, it is not for the rich, or strictly for Catalonia, but it is for all of us. The Catalan example is a good one in the context of the European Union. The Kosovo one preceded it, but still there was war, while in Catalonia there was different kind of oppression. They shouldn’t…
SF: …right they shouldn’t be compared…
LB:…but I mean, you have things which are part of this sequence. Intifada is part of this sequence. We have situated the Kosovo struggle also in this sequence. I think these are all part of a sequence in which the reactive answer would be, yes, you are the people, here’s your nation, enjoy. But I think the beginning, the spark of this whole process is the idea of the universalisation of the state, but the national state is at the same time a reduction of this universalisation. And I think, today, the EU is not giving a good answer to that. The EU today is a tool to regulate economic pressure, whereas, on the other side, we see today why it is so crucial to give an answer which is not Kosovo, Catalonia, or Palestine per se. But Humanity. We see it in the state of our Earth, of environmental catastrophe, which is happening in front of our eyes. Climate change is a fact, even if Trump doesn’t agree with that. If only Catalonia would work on climate change, or if only the EU would work on climate change, but Trump would say, we don’t care, and China and Russia would say the same, then the world will change for the worse. It’s a fact. We will not be able to live here for long. So this is a global problem, and the only way to solve it is to say: “We are the people of Earth.”
SF: You mean to always resist reference to particularity?
LB: There is always particularity, and a person from Kosovo, or Catalonia, should do whatever they can in the scope of their identity and whatever they identify with, but as a people, as a humanity, this is the trajectory we have to take in order address our contemporary political problems, which include environmental catastrophe, which include the question of immigration. These are global effects which can only be answered globally. Look at the solutions the question of immigration receives in the EU. People arrive and naturally say: “We are people“. What they get in response is: “You know what, you are probably the people of Turkey.” This is the way the nation-state solves this, but only temporarily. So we’ll have less advertising on the streets, but our space will still be appropriated. This is what Badiou calls, a non-progressive movement. Its end is the castrated presence. It’s semantic change. Today, in the 21st century, we see more than ever—because we have access to information—the fact that politics has to re-articulate itself on the global scale, or else, there will be no politics in the future, because there will be no humanity.
SF: I was wondering about what Badiou says, that a faithful subject has a chance to resurrect, as you mentioned in the lecture. When this resurrection of the faithful subject happens, that constitutes the universality of truth, that becomes a truth. Like the example of Spartacus and the insurrection of slaves, the fact that something like that happened once, being as it was investigated throughout history (i.e. there followed other struggles against slavery), and, by reappearing in other historical contexts, it installed itself in the world consciousness. Today we live in anti-slavery consciousness, and that is the universal truth.
LB: This resurrection, this distance between the first and the universalising second, is a bridge between two singular events. These are not two parts of the same event, they are two singular events. Whatever connects them is the potency of the truth that stands behind them. Potency of a truth, as Badiou says, depends on a hypothetical forcing, and is that which connects that truth’s particular appearances. There is something universalizing in what Spartacus was fighting for, that’s why the fight against slavery was resurrected. And the connection between these events, is that they are all manifestations of that specific political truth. This is not the truth, but a truth.
SF: Opening the ground to psychoanalysis and the emergence of truth, could we say that this process is similar there, or to put it like this: we live, we are individuals with our own experiences and memories and dreams, and then only when we go through psychoanalysis, when our experiences, memories and dreams are investigated, in the context of the talking cure, the dyad, in the presence of a psychoanalyst, that’s when we become aware of the meaning of our experiences, and our dreams.
Could we say, for lack of better expression, a “cured subject” is a subject who becomes aware what these memories and dreams are about, or could be about? Is there any parallel that can be drawn alongside this truth-procedure we call an event, in Badiou, and the awareness of that event, when the event becomes the truth for that individual, so to speak? Is there a line that can be drawn between the psychoanalytic investigation and the truth-procedure?
LB: OK, let’s put some things in order. What we’d have to do in this case is an illegal translation of concepts. So we’d have to start with Lacan, since Badiou bases himself in some level, on Lacan’s conceptions. So we’d have to stick to the framework that Lacan presents.
But, for our purposes today, we can maintain our focus on Badiou and say first, truth for him manifests in a process, in a procedure which creates a new present, materially. So we situate the truth in the psyche, but truth is not what is created; what is created is the symptom. Somewhere in the beginning of your life you became a subject, when your body encountered the necessity to use language. At that point something happened, a break—an event is a rupture in reality—and this process accumulated into a symptom. The symptom became a structure, and according to Freud, these structures are neurosis, perversion and psychosis. You said that awareness is the point of psychoanalysis, but I disagree.
There is a unique kind of knowledge that is sought in an analysis. For example, Lacan differentiates between savoir and connaissance. I would say it’s not what we might call conscious knowledge—you said awareness—that is sought. Rather, it’s unconscious knowledge. Unconscious knowledge has an effect, it affects your symptom. So you can say you learn something in analysis, but definitely not consciously. I would even say that you don’t learn to remember, (some people would say you remember things in analysis), but actually you learn how to forget in a way that helps you to suffer less, or to suffer in a different way. Not everybody needs to go to analysis, because some people suffer really nicely. So what you do through the articulation of this unconscious knowledge, not consciously, is you have an effect on the symptom. As I said, not everybody needs to go to analysis, but according to Badiou every person needs to, if you want to be human, participate in the event. In politics, in arts, etc.
SF: If you don’t, you are not faithful?
LB: Right! For Badiou, if you are not partaking of the event, you’re just an animal. But if you become part of the event, you take part in the subject, and you manifest what is most human in you. Badiou goes to great lengths and says that you become immortal when you participate in the event. This is going completely against Lacan. Because death is very crucial in psychoanalysis. There is an inevitabile relation of our unconscious to the death drive.
SF: Badiou overcomes this, then, from finite to infinite, back to finite, therefore immortal. As a participant of the event, the individual…
LB:…partakes of immortality.
SF: This makes sense to me. For example, every struggle of every single woman in history, accumulated into what feminism brought about in 20th century. So in a sense every single woman with her own personal struggle has contributed to the position of women today in society. In other words, every particular woman in history has immortalised herself by her own struggle.
LB: Yes, absolutely, but again, the subject is the carrier of the truth of the event. In psychoanalysis, the subject is a by-product of the encounter between the organism, our body, and language. Lacan says that we took the subject and made out of it a Cartesian subject, but the subject is actually something else. And Badiou takes that from Lacan, putting the subject front-stage, but not in a Cartesian way. But then Badiou’s is a different subject than Lacan’s. So I would say the comparison of the two falls short at the moment they are born. Once Badiou takes it from Lacan, it becomes something else.
SF: I was wondering about the fact. I was reading an essay by Christopher Bollas on The Functions of History and that in psychoanalysis a fact, in a patient’s life, needs to be interpreted. If it is goes uninterpreted, the fact becomes what he calls “a dumb fact”, something you can do nothing with in analysis. A patient brings a fact, something that took place in their life, and this is where the work starts in psychoanalysis. An analyst “takes” these facts and sees where are they coming from, like what is the reaction of the patient to what happened to him or to her in life. So there’s this idea of fact in psychoanalysis and what one does with it. It might be a long shot to ask, but I was wondering, for Badiou, an event is also somehow a fact, a material happening, as in: there is a happening, and individuals, groups or bodies react differently to it. My question would be if psychoanalysis and philosophy, in this case Badiou and Lacan, deal differently with the fact?
LB: I’m not sure about this concept fact.
SF: Well, I mean a happening which gains reality in a point of time, in history. So a patient in psychoanalysis might say, when I was 8 years old, my brother was born, and then a path is opened for the interpretation of sibling dynamics.
LB: Well, that is definitely not an event. When the event happens we cannot say, this has happened. It’s always indiscernible in time, you don’t know when it will happen, when it’s happening, if it’s actually happening, and even after it happens, there ensues a multiplicity of interpretations. I would compare, though it may be far-fetched, the event to an encounter in the Real. Which could be translated in Freudian terms as a trauma. Trauma is a place where a hole is carved out in the history of the subject, or the body. The first event, or maybe the only event, because it’s hard to know, is castration. That is to say, initiation into the Oedipus complex, the split in the subject, the rupture. That would be an event in psychoanalysis. For Badiou there is not one first event and that’s it. Rather, multiple events are happening, encounters with the Real that we organise in unconscious knowledge, because they have no answer in the conscious.
SF: In psychoanalysis, the argument is often that a traumatic event can, if not should, be relived in the context of the analysis. That is to say, a traumatic experience, or memory, can be triggered in analysis, and though it appears differently (transferentially) in the analytic context, there is a certain resurrection of what has been lived before.
LB: It is interpreted, it is articulated retroactively, and that is the way the symptom is changed, because the symptom is affected by the trauma. When we elaborate it, when we use words, it has an effect on the unconscious, and therefore it also affects the way the unconscious is organised.
SF: Could psychoanalysis be seen as a trace, or an event, or a truth procedure?
LB: I don’t know…it’s a hard question.
SF: Personally, if I would situate it in one of the four of Badiou’s truth procedures (science, art, politics and love), psychoanalysis would be in the amorous one.
LB: But, you know, for Badiou amorous truth is about the two. And it’s true, psychoanalysis is about the subject and the other, but then for Badiou this amourous truth it means something for the amorous couple.
SF: It’s a bit…old-fashioned, for lack of a better word, this conception of love happening only in the couple, don’t you think? I tend to think so, as much as I think it’s a delicious concept of love, but it restricts what love can be…its open-endedness.
LB: It’s about the two, because two is a philosophical concept. Three is something else.
SF: But in Lacan, as in psychoanalysis, there is no two without three. The condition for the two is a third term. Which is the child in the couple, for instance.
LB: Right, we’re talking about the Oedipus complex here. But, you know, we’re talking about two individuals in Badiou, who fall in love. Let me try to answer this question from another perspective. I would say that psychoanalysis is a discourse. A discourse that Freud gave birth to, that he invented, the event Freud, let’s say, which created this discourse. Also, I wouldn’t confine it to strictly political, scientific, or amorous, because these are the three of four conditions for truth, for Badiou. But if we come back to the Foucauldian way of thinking, psychoanalysis is a discourse, and psychology is a discourse. I would say psychology is a discourse of science. Every discourse has the power to create and to explain, but also has blind spots. The scientific discourse has its strengths and its weaknesses, and one of its blind spots is that it is used in the policing of the body. Psychoanalysis is about something else; it’s about leaving a space for the subject in this saying. Whereas psychology says, this is you, you are like that, you like that, you’re like that, Freud would say, where you say I am like that, this is exactly where you are not. And this is why psychoanalysis is powerful, why it is subversive. Because in the scientific discourse, they ignore that space. They study people from whatever criteria they can break down: behaviour, chemical interactions, etc, we have lists. What psychoanalysis says is that you are exactly where this list is not. This is its subversive potency.
Interview with LEON BRENNER
by SOKOL FERIZI
Originally published APRIL 2018
Artwork by KATE HOLFORD