While popular unrest was spreading inside out towards the Mediterranean coastal cities of Tunisia, Alain Badiou was half way through his seminar uncannily titled “What it means to change the world”.
According to Badiou, permanent or continuous ‘change’ has to be measured against fixed landmarks lest it becomes perpetual movement without a ‘witness’. Unlike the idea of the Universe, the World or monde is multiplicity without a synthesis. It obeys what Badiou calls ‘ontology of invariance’, a non-world of worlds working against the principle of perfection and the ideology of progress.
Neither Heideggerian nor Spinozist, and even less so Deleuzean or vitalist, the Being (One) Badiou sought to ‘localize’ as the ultimate guarantor of the ontological invariance which bears witness to ‘changing the world’ is a ‘neutral’ category that can be defined, he says, only in mathematical terms.
Badiou’s idea of pure and neutral ‘multiplicity’ will also have to remain unrealized and unrealizable by way of avoiding the oppressive totality of Kantian or Hegelian philosophies. A World, he concludes, is that which is always already engaged in the process of ‘localizing the Dasein of pure multiplicities’ like the dêmiourgos of Plato’s Timaeus.
The stark contrast between the beautiful Action of Plato’s divine craftsman and the ugly Idea of the victorious outcome of the Tunisian ‘riots’ was not lost on Badiou in his January 19 seminar. The Platonic invariable and eternal Idea seems to have parted ways with the action it is supposed to measure, moderate and restrain. The violence of the ‘emotive’ and rioting crowds (hence his insistence on using the word émeutes), remains, according to Badiou, ‘fundamentally illegal’. In a broader sense, Badiou prescribes the global contemporary propensity to rioting and taking to the streets in what he calls ‘intervallic period’.
For Badiou, the ‘intervallic period’ comes between a ‘sequence during which the revolutionary logic is elucidated and defined as a clear alternative’ to a given condition, and a third revolutionary sequence (which links up with the first one) where the initial revolutionary alternative once again gathers momentum.
In other words, the in-between of the revolution must neither be mistaken for a revolution in its own right nor perceived as a sequence with independent outcomes. In that sense, the Tunisian riots are contingencies within the wider scheme of a revolutionary logic that does not only predate them but is necessarily bound to surpass them as such.
A month later, in a journalistic piece addressing the reading public of Le Monde, Badiou flaunts the Tunisian events in the face of Western complacency and its endemic ‘colonial arrogance’. The West, he says, is perhaps re-entering the twilight of its Dark Ages and should listen to its ‘pupils’.
In a different context back in 1983, Derrida used this pun on the French word for ‘pupil’ in “Les pupilles de l’Université” to reflect on academic responsibility with respect to the paradox of foundational principles, which fail to guarantee their own (invisible and unthinkable) foundations. Far from reiterating the aporias of the Derridean pun and more in line with the essentialist tenets of his philosophical project, Badiou was wishing for the pupil’s ‘black’ circular opening in the center of the eye (of the Arab revolt) to pass some light to the ‘dusky’ retina of the West.
One of the ‘pupils’ of the French university and former student of Badiou himself, Tunisian-French philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem describes Badiou’s nostalgia for hierarchy and discipline as a symptomatic position of the ‘radical chic’.
The ultra-leftist discourses of the most quintessential contemporary philosophers of the West, says Badiou’s pupil, are incapable of understanding or commenting on the Arab revolution. It is no random coincidence that Zizek’s audience meets in the comfort of the lecture venues of Europe and the United States rather than in those of Cuba or North Korea. Under Maoist China, M.B. Kacem adds, ‘Badiou would be at best a gardener, and in the worst case scenarios a man doomed to end up with a bullet in his head.’ As for Agamben, apparently, ‘there is little difference between taking a casual metro ride around Paris, and boarding a train to Auschwitz’.
In reality, such seemingly reactionary and anecdotal comments of M.B. Kacem on the intellectual legacy of the ‘radical chic’ predate the Tunisian events and reiterate positions discussed in very specialized philosophical terms in his recent publications from Événement et Répétition (2004), prefaced by Badiou himself, to L’esprit du nihilism (2009).
It is however, La Psychose française (2006), which presciently warned against the lack of viable intellectual or political discourses to account for, or deal with the disenfranchised youth of the Parisian banlieues. Unwittingly, the ‘radical chic’ joined forces with governments greasing the wheel of the free market in writing off the revolutionary potential of their cities’ pariahs.
Badiou’s ‘intervallic period’ is a time of ‘unstructured discontent’ without a shared idea. The cri de coeur of the Tunisian street: ‘dégage’ (clear off) which was later relayed by protestors in Egypt with the chanting chorus “Irhal” (leave), are according to Badiou acts of pure negativity. Riots, he predicts, will be the only form of collective action the masses can engage in during this interlude, this in-between of the revolution.
After the first two (African) Arab dictators have been removed, the reality on the ground in both Tunisia and Egypt refutes Badiou’s predictions. A self-organized citizenry policed the streets and neighborhoods. In Yemen’s ongoing sit-ins, the people are overseeing the practical civic needs in terms of security, food, information and such other tasks traditionally performed by the ‘State’. It is the collective action of Tunisians and Egyptians on the borders with Libya, which is currently dealing with the extraordinary number of immigrant workers fleeing Libya.
A revolution is either a conceptually undetermined yet-to-come, an Idea for the future of action and for a future action; or an aftermath, an outcome whose extent and scope will only be measured in purely historical terms. In a different usage of the term, a revolution is a cyclical return of a moving object to a given point within its orbit. The latter etymological reference of the word evokes a predictable sequence of events that seldom veers from its course.
If the elusive image of the labyrinth and the literal meaning of the narrow mountain pass are lost in translations of the Arabic word for people, such semantic blind spots are even more prominent in the word revolution. To Arab ears, the word revolution bears a completely different resonance. It evokes a different set of affects, which are totally excluded from Badiou’s mathematical metaphysics. The Arabic word for revolution, thawra refers explicitly to the bestial image of thawr, which literally means a ‘bull’.
Far from suggesting any explicit connections with the Minotaur of Greek mythology, the image of the bull links the region of the ‘Middle East’ and ‘North Africa’ with a pre-Islamic past. The original word of this pagan deity for ancient Semite tribes or the Carthaginians has been preserved in modern usages of the word for male partner, head of family or husband (baal) in Arabic and Hebrew.
No wonder then, many Arab commentators found the idea of a ‘jasmine revolution’ rather insulting. Their Western counterparts (in the media, in politics and in the wider arena of public opinion) have been left with two options: either dismiss the ‘bull’ of the Arab street or resign themselves to take the bull by the horns and look into the pupils of the Arab revolt.