Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Du contrat social and Badiou

I put Du contrat social down, and needed a little distance. For whatever reason, I turned to Badiou’s chapter on Rousseau in L’être et l’événement for a second understanding, a second voice. Badiou, it seems to me, is remarkably effective in re-reading Rousseau in his own language. Perhaps, though, the chapter is more about Badiou than Rousseau. It reminds me the extent to which Badiou’s project is to found politics (and philosophy) in a post-foundationalist environment. I wonder if Rousseau’s original problem was not formulated in the opposite context: that is, in an environment of over-many competing and plausible foundational claims. Still, the quick reformulation is worth reciting here. The decisive observation, which makes the rest possible, seems to me to be that Rousseau does indeed see the formation of the general will, of the people, as taking place at a particular moment, but curiously out of history, since the will cannot be represented, and cannot be changed or even, in a sense, destroyed. Badiou has three points to make to begin the movement of the little essay.

First, “Le pact”—that is, the contrat social—“est l’événement qui supplémente au hasard l’état de nature.” Now, Badiou is obviously correct to point to the temporal and yet a-historical dimension of the formation of a people. I am not so certain about the rest of this clause.

Second, “le corps politique, ou peuple, est l’ultra-un événementiel qui s’interpose entre le vide (car, pour la politique, la nature est le vide) et lui-même.” Du contrat social is the only book to date, so far as I can recall, that induced me to draw diagrams in an attempt to understand just what was being said. The Souverain ended up always on the outside of my diagrams, with arrows to and from (one arrow to, and a symbolic three from, actually). The sovereign general will has a number of odd properties, and is easy to understand as ‘next to the void’ in Badiou’s sense.

Third, “la volonté générale est l’opérateur de fidélité qui commande une procédure générique.”

Badiou says that the last point is the difficult one. In fact, given my understanding what all these technical terms mean here, I do not think there is any real problem. There are some striking resemblances between the way Rousseau discusses how to follow or know the general will and Badiou’s ethics of fidelity. If we could stage one of those inane intro-level ‘conversations’ between political thinkers, it seems to me that Rousseau would, within limits, agree with Badiou’s descriptions.

My problem is not with the third, but with the first ‘translation’ of Rousseau into Badiou. For Rousseau, I would say that the ‘event’ of the social contract has a historical beginning that is not open to later re-interpretation in the same way that I understand the Badiou-ian event to be. For Rousseau, the event is not “au hasard.” Badiou’s fidelities give us a way of understanding certain forms of human action that would otherwise appear groundless, but they are not, themselves, exactly a reason for these programs. Badiou, and it is understandable, is not so much interested in why we pursue politics, love, science, art. But Rousseau is; according to Rousseau, all individuals strive to preserve themselves. This is the nature of the individual, and it is replicated in the ‘moral individuals’ of the government on one level, and the state on a higher level. Indeed, Rousseau even suggests that it is important that the government have a limited drive to self-preservation qua government. So it seems to me that if the volonté générale can be an object of the practice of fidelity, the formation of people always takes the form of the creation of a self-preserving entity, which is not at all the same thing as Badiou’s politics. There is a broader objective structure—an anthropology, however peculiar—behind Rousseau’s instantiation of politics.

At any rate, Badiou helped me to think a bit about Rousseau. Next, perhaps, I will look at what Althusser has written. The pile of books is too large not to have a principle, and Marxian readings are more sensible at the moment than other ones.

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