Review: Adrian Johnston’s “Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations”

Johnston describes his procedure in this book as conducting equally immanent critiques and defenses of Badiouian and Zizekian political theory. This takes the form of shining a spotlight on the gray zones and inconsistencies which appear in both bodies of thought, finding the keys to overcome certain weaknesses as already residing in the tension and knots internal to each thinker. This is how we will treat Johnston’s work as well.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book. I tend to be a slow reader, but Johnston’s skill at summarizing complex arguments coupled with what, among dense theoretical texts, is certainly an entertaining style, made this a quick read instead of a chore. Anybody interested in contemporary theory invoking the names Benjamin, Brecht, Deleuze, Freud, Hegel, Lacan, Lenin, and of course Zizek and Badiou (as well as many of Badiou’s interlocutors — Bosteels, Hallward, Eagleton, Kacem…) will find this work rewarding. In fact, for reasons I will soon get to, I find Johnston’s ongoing work to be some of the most exciting that the present-day cross section of philosophy and psychoanalysis has to offer.

While this work benefits from Johnston’s knowledge and style, it is also a mixed display of strong and interesting arguments coexisting alongside a few weak arguments and contradictory formulations. This internal clash is announced as early as the introduction itself, in which Johnston writes:

“First, [this book] traces in detail the philosophical and political origins of Badiou’s concept of the event and Zizek’s concept of the act. Second, it delineates the philosophical and political problems plaguing these two similar, related concepts. The central thesis here is that Badiou and Zizek tend to favor models of change that risk discouraging in advance precisely the sorts of efforts at transforming the world of today that they so ardently desire.”

This line of argumentation is undermined only 3 pages later, when Johnston adds an important qualification: These “theories of the relations between ideologies and transformations offered by Badiou, Zizek, and this project are all equally vulnerable to the danger of perverting quietist appropriations of such theories, namely, the twisting of theories that aim to provoke radical changes into rationalizations for perpetually postponing any such changes. Correct theories of political transformations by themselves are unable to inoculate and immunize themselves against this omnipresent, ubiquitous risk. Something more is necessary, something at stake in the related forces of affect and will.”

Instead of the openness to misappropriation being a central weakness of Badiou’s and Zizek’s theoretical efforts, it is now (more accurately) recast as being a threat which haunts any and every theoretical elaboration, including Johnston’s. The entire purpose of the work shifts on this understanding: Is Johnston interested in attempting to craft a theoretical apparatus which precludes the possibility of misappropriation by concrete political actors (a goal implied by contrasting one’s own work with that of others on the ground of their inability to avoid inadvertently inspiring attitudes of resignation), or does he wish to pursue particular theoretical arguments alongside Zizek and Badiou regardless of the fact that analytical rigor will never be enough to ensure that one’s work is not misused politically? Thankfully, the content of the book does not suffer too much from these vacillations. As far as they go, we should simply treat Johnston’s gray zones and inconsistencies as he treats those of Badiou and Zizek, insisting that one formulation bears more fruit than the other. If anyone wishes to pursue the task of constructing a theoretical edifice able to avoid the ‘ubiquitous’ and ‘omnipresent’, they are welcome to do so. That is not the path we take in this review.

P1: Badiou

With that out of the way, let us ask: Just what is Johnston’s intervention into the philosophical world of Acts and Events? On the back cover of Johnston’s 2018 work A New German Idealism, Zizek provides a blurb worth keeping in mind: “Although we share the same basic orientation (Lacan and German idealism), we differ in some central points: Johnston privileges evolutionary biology as a scientific reference, while I privilege quantum physics…” In a sentence, we can understand Johnston as working towards an understanding of the evolutionary processes which culminate in the ruptural points of Events and Acts. To be sure, this is not a task which has never been declared before — Badiou himself offers a similar sounding summary of his project: “My unique philosophical question, I would say, is the following: can we think that there is something new in the situation, not outside the situation nor the new somewhere else, but can we really think through novelty and treat it in the situation?” One of Johnston’s main contentions, though, is that Badiou fails to live up to this task precisely insofar as he remains happy to elaborate upon the ‘post-evental’ while leaving the evolutionary process of the ‘pre-evental’ murky and unclear. Returning to Johnston’s description of his method as conducting an immanent defense alongside his critiques, we will find that even though Badiou fails to fully perform the task he has set himself, he does sometimes make gestures which point towards the way out of the impasse.

One of these gestures is Badiou’s classification of different categories of change. Instead of reality being understood simply in terms of a static ‘being’ with no change vs an evental rupture which introduces change to a radical and immeasurable degree, there are different levels of change (Badiou lists these as modifications, weak singularities, strong singularities, and events proper). The point Johnston makes here (and which I’ve seen Zizek make as well) is that the existing State presents these different kinds of change as accomplishing their opposite. For example, it is in the interest of a given State to present mere modifications as radical changes ushering in something new (an easy example here would be the fanfare surrounding elections which simply shuffle around the misrepresentatives of the people). The twist to all of this is that the possibility of consciously approaching and presenting categories of change in this way implies that we can also speak of opposing presentations of change categories, including that conducted by “militants working against the state, trying to fulminate in advance, during pre-evental time, an evental split with the status quo.” The schema of change category classification logically results in the ability of pre-evental actors to consciously search for, at the least, precarious zones of change which may end up as harboring evental potential. This all fits neatly enough into the Badiouian framework, but Badiou himself is hesitant to make the foray into describing pre-conditions of events, since events are precisely the eruption of elements not counted in a given situation. What Johnston demonstrates is that it is possible to wade a little further into the pre-evental fog without falling into the illusion of being able to successfully plan or account for the Event.

Another example of Johnston taking Badiou’s post-evental theorization and applying it to pre-evental evolution can be seen in Badiou’s list of four general affects characterizing the subject of an event. Badiou lists these as terror, justice, courage, and anxiety. “In the Badiouian fashion of pairing anxiety and courage, anxiety is associated with the instability of an event and courage with both the strength to endure this anxiety and the ability to respond to this upsetting affect in ways that entail faithfully tarrying with the evental cause of anxiety (through the militant fidelity of post-evental subjective labors on behalf of the given event-cause)… [but] Badiou’s cataloguing of affects arguably ignores another variety of anxiety, one which palpably hangs in the air today: not the anxiety of evental instability, but the anxiety of non-evental claustrophobia, the agitated, nervous feeling of being trapped in the stasis of a system that seems to be highly resistant to extreme and extensive modifications.” Obviously, this form of anxiety is painfully relevant today, as is the corresponding form of pre-evental courage necessary for subjectivity to be open to the next evental transformation. (As Badiou points out, an Event simply dissipates if there is no subjective fidelity to ‘forcing’ its truths.)

One last example we’ll cite is Badiou’s notion of ‘anticipations’, which are hypotheses posited by the subject of an event after the evental opening, but before the situation has been radically transformed by subjectivity engaged in forcing new truths; that is, hypotheses posited by a subject acting as if an event has happened without any guarantee that it has. For Johnston, such hypotheses should function in a similar way prior to an event as well — militants committed to anticipating the event are able to posit hypotheses that something will happen just as those anticipating the impact of an event are able to hypothesize that something has happened.

To come back to Johnston’s introductory claims, in these examples we can see at work his estimation of the importance of ‘affect’ and ‘will’. Freed from the unnecessary baggage of painting a picture of a philosophical account of affect which cannot be politically misused, Johnston makes a strong argument on the basis of Badiou’s thought itself for a tentative account of pre-evental conditions in the form of an evolutionary/processual understanding of subjective dispositions (affect and will) which remain at work regardless of whether or not an evental opening has occurred.

Beyond Johnston’s pre-evental application of some of Badiou’s post-evental theory, he also wants to offer a corrective of Badiou’s ‘metapolitics’. Metapolitics is, for Badiou, a response to the classical error of political philosophy: the idea that philosophy should dictate truths to politics. For Badiou, the relationship is almost exactly opposite: politics is an independent domain which produces its own truths and events; philosophy’s role is to learn from these in its own operations. Johnston here accuses Badiou of falling into the same trap which characterizes this classical mode of political philosophy in the form of “hastily generalizing a given model.” In other words, both metapolitics and political philosophy are hastily generalizing a one-way relationship between politics and philosophy, simply disagreeing about the order by which one dictates and one receives lessons. Here Johnston’s plea is for, of course, a more nuanced relationship, where both fields are capable of dictating to and learning from the other, with the appropriate procedure simply depending on the context. It is worth noting that Badiou does explicitly argue against philosophy ‘suturing’ itself to one of its conditions (politics, science, art, and love), so the minimal gap separating politics and philosophy is of fundamental importance to Badiou as well. It is this separation which ensures that philosophy maintains its own operations as well as occupying the theoretical space to learn from each autonomous domain — if philosophy were to become sutured to politics, it would not just lose sight of its own categories for political categories, but would also lose its privileged connection to art, science, and love. Perhaps the most accurate diagnosis of the difference between Badiou and Johnston, then, does not involve a dispute between rigidity and nuance, but between two different conceptions of the role of philosophy itself.

Despite his awareness of the predominance of hasty generalizations, Johnston does not escape the gravitational pull of prematurely declaring novelty himself. For example, he asserts the importance of a “new pre-evental discipline of time,” but this new discipline is simply another version of walking the narrow pass between dogmatic assurance and defeatist pessimism, an age-old dichotomy familiar to anyone who has been involved in would-be revolutionary organizing over the last hundred years. Johnston’s philosophical analysis itself may be new, and the discipline necessary, but it’s hard to tell what would be new in the practical application of disciplined organizing which defines itself against the twin errors of dumb practice and sophisticated quietism. (In fact, even a basic theorist like Stalin has summarized this problem when he said that “practice without theory is blind and theory without practice is impotent.”)

On top of his own interventions and original gestures, Johnston does a good job assimilating a decent amount of the secondary literature on Badiou. One of the most repeated critiques from these authors is that Badiou relies on an almost religious account of the occurrence of an event. Johnston largely agrees with the assessment that Badiou has a tendency to fall into these easy theological motifs, but seeks to provide materialist correctives to these depictions while still standing on the ground of Badiouian philosophy itself. The steadying provided by a consistent materialism and atheism is also a key part of how Johnston treats Lacan, Badiou, and Meillassoux in the first volume of his Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, and is another example of a much stronger argument lurking beneath the flimsier notion of a political theory avoiding practical misuse. As I mentioned earlier, I do actively follow Johnston’s work, and it is this project of a materialist psychoanalytic philosophy which confronts the religious blindspots cropping up in the work of those three thinkers as well as Zizek which strikes me as being one of the most compelling and interesting projects of the current day.

P2: Zizek

The section on Zizek is where more of the Lacanian themes are touched. One example is the symmetry between Zizek’s treatment of the ‘big Other’ and Badiou’s treatment of the State. To quote Zizek: “In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition. It exists only in so far as subjects act as if it exists.” Similarly, a big political topic for Badiou is the inherent fragility of state power, and the most powerful aspect of state power is simultaneously that which shrouds its weaknesses: the virtual and immeasurable aspect. The threat of state power is most captivating when not on full display (Johnston’s example here is of the secret police: they exercise power while preserving the mysterious immeasurability associated with power as potentiality). One effect of a true political Event, then, is to force the state to publicly shift from the potential of power in the shadows to the actuality of state power on display, which paradoxically results in the weakening of this power in the public eye as it becomes something measured as a finite power. In everyday terms: the devil one doesn’t know is feared more than the devil one does know (and an Event removes the devil from the shadows that it lurks in). As Johnston puts it in his usual style: “Destructive, enraged outbursts of undiluted brutality are often symptomatic manifestations of an underlying impotence on the verge of being revealed, desperate last resorts to protect an insubstantial Symbolic authority (beneath which lies nothing more than the physically violent means of blatant suppression).”

On the question of the logical impact of a Lacanian orientation in general, Johnston notes that several critics of Zizek (such as Dews and Butler) consider Lacanianism to be unavoidably conservative. This reading focuses on an interpretation hinging on Lacan as a theorist of inherent limitations resulting in a pessimistic conception of any efforts of social and political change. (Lacan himself does not help rebuff such charges, as for example in the infamous incident in 1968 when he told a group of radical students that what they truly sought was a Master figure. Though, given the various results of ’68, I would think there’s something to be gleaned from Lacan’s criticism without ourselves foreclosing on the potential of the radically new.) Not surprisingly, Johnston has a diametrically opposed view on the political implications of Lacanian theory. In fact, he accuses Zizek of conceding too much to such critiques in various ways, insisting that the discontent at the heart of human desire is a basic force in compelling us to perpetually modify the status quo. The psychoanalytic diagnosis of desire as inherently restless does not describe an obstacle to radical change, then, but a crucial mechanism for bringing it about.

From here, Johnston segues into what I find to be one of the weakest aspects of his analysis. In painting the picture of the insight into capitalism which psychoanalysis has to offer, Johnston invokes Marx in a rushed and imprecise way, playing off of a supposed overlap between Marx’s and Freud’s usage of the word “fetishism” which does not really exist. He begins with the notion of the psychoanalytically diagnosed form of restlessness we just discussed, and considers this in relation to the capitalist domain of “ever-multiplying, superfluous consumer wants,” which neutralizes the lack in desire as a possible factor of destabilization by realizing it instead as an aspect of market-mediated consumption. Insofar as psychoanalysis does not exist in some abstract realm of pure human essences, but instead in the global capitalist world with everything and everyone else, one certainly would be hard pressed to argue that there is no intersection of anxiety, desire, repetition, etc. with the capitalist objects of commodities, capital, money, and so on. However, Johnston takes the leap from this to the homogenous treatment of concepts in Freudian psychoanalysis and the Marxian critique of political economy. This is most strongly expressed when Johnston claims that the fundamental question today is “how to cure people of commodity fetishism?”

Already, the way this question is posed reveals serious misunderstanding of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. Johnston here joins in on the widespread misreading which interprets ‘commodity fetishism’ as ‘fetishizing commodities,’ thereby stepping away from Marx’s usage to Freud’s, as well as displacing the focus of fetishization from the ensemble of economic relations to the (mis)perception of individual subjects. Let us simply quote Marx himself: “[Fetishism] attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and it is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.” We can also quote Balibar as a contemporary philosopher who has worked with this notion more carefully: “Fetishism is not a subjective phenomenon or a false perception of reality, as an optical illusion or superstitious belief would be. It constitutes, rather, the way in which a reality (a certain form or social structure) cannot but appear.”

Commodity fetishism is a component part of generalized commodity production itself, and the end of commodity production does not come out of a psychoanalytic session — it is not a problem for the domain of psychoanalysis. In fact, Johnston’s gesture towards psychoanalyzing commodity fetishism can even be contrasted with how Zizek has treated the subject, for example saying “[In] Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism, the fetishist illusion resides in our real social life, not in our perception of it — a bourgeois subject knows very well that there is nothing magic about money, that money is just an object which stands for a set of social relations, but he nevertheless ACTS in real life as if he were to believe that money is a magic thing.”

Zizek does waver in this regard, as there are other times when he treats commodity fetishism as a cultural phenomenon. There is not enough space here to get into this in more detail, but I’ve come to think that with the theorists operating within the Hegel — Lacan — Marx cipher, they tend to be at their weakest with Marx. The reasons for this would make for an interesting study. For now, let us just conclude that it is certainly a weakness in this particular work, as Johnston seems to have read Marx through psychoanalysis, overriding shared terms along the way.

In closing, the most succinct way of putting it might be to say that I enjoyed reading this book, but that I do not think it’s one of Johnston’s best. In fact, it is my suspicion that the strongest aspects of this book are better captured in other works of his:

1) For Johnston’s materialist psychoanalysis, he has written a chapter-by-chapter interpretation of Lacan’s seminar on ‘The Freudian Thing’, as well as the ongoing Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism.

2) Johnston is more incisive in dialogue with Zizek than with Badiou, as he shares more foundational assumptions about philosophy (including a similar analysis of the merits and weaknesses of Badiou’s thought) with the former. For this reason, both Zizek’s Ontology and A New German Idealism are better examples of focused engagement, while a book dealing with both Badiou and Zizek in around 200 pages limits the scope of what can be done.

3) Not directly related to the work being reviewed, but Johnston is also at his best as a partisan in the ongoing Hegel wars, and many of his articles arguing against Brandom, Pippin, etc. are available for free download on Johnston’s page.

Thoughts, gestures, provocations