Thursday, September 24, 2009

Echoes of Bergson

Biopolitics, in contrast to biopower, has the character of an event first of all in the sense that the “intransigence of freedom” disrupts the normative system. The biopolitical event comes from the outside insofar as it ruptures the continuity of history and the existing order, but it should be understood not only negatively, as rupture, but also as innovation, which emerges, so to speak, from the inside. Foucault grasps the creative character of the event in his earlier work on linguistics: la parole intervenes in and disrupts la langue as an event that also extends beyond it as a moment of linguistic invention. For the biopolitical context, though, we need to understand the event on not only the linguistic and epistemological but also the anthropological and ontological terrain, as an act of freedom. In this context the event marked by the innovative disruption of la parole beyond la langue translates to an intervention in the field of subjectivity, with its accumulation of norms and modes of life, by a force of subjectification, a new production of subjectivity. This irrpution of the biopolitical event is the source of innovation and also the criterion of truth. A materialist teleology, that is, a conception of history that emerges from below guided by the desires of those who make it and their search for freedom, connects here, paradoxically, with a Nietzschean idea of eternal return. The singularity of the event, driven by the will to power, demonstrates the truth of the eternal; the event, and the subjectivity that animates it, constructs and gives meaning to history, displacing any notion of history as a linear progression defined by determinate causes. Grasping this relation between the event and truth allows us to cast aside the accusation of relativism that is too often lodged against Foucault’s biopolitics. And recognizing biopolitics as an event allows us both to understand life as a fabric woven by constitutive actions and to comprehend time in terms of strategy.

Foucault’s notion of the event is at this point easily distinguishable from the one proposed by Alain Badiou. Badiou has done a great service by posing the event as the central question of contemporary philosophy, proposing it as the locus of truth. The event, with its irreducible multiplicity, that is, its “equivocal” nature subtracts, according to Badiou, the examination of truths from the mere form of judgment. The difference between Badiou and Foucault in this respect is most clearly revealed by looking at where, temporally, each author focuses attention with respect to the event. In Badiou an event—such as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the French Revolution, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to cite his most frequent examples—acquires value and meaning primarily after it takes place. He thus concentrates on the intervention that retrospectively gives meaning to the event and the fidelity and generic procedures that continually refer to it. Foucault, in contrast, emphasizes the production and productivity of the event, which requires a forward- rather than backward-looking gaze. The event is, so to speak, inside existence and the strategies that traverse it. What Badiou’s approach to the event fails to grasp, in other words, is the link between freedom and power that Foucault emphasizes from within the event. A retrospective approach to the event in fact does not give us access to the rationality of insurrectional activity, which must strive within the historical process to create revolutionary events and break from the dominant political subjectivities. Without the internal logic of making events, one can only affirm them from the outside as a matter of faith repeating the paradox commonly attributed to Tertullian, credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd.”

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth [2009], pgs 59-61.

These are two paragraphs, about a one and a half pages, from Hardt and Negri’s new book. I read Empire a few months ago, and have just run through Multitude, and begun on this. This particular passage is from the “concluding discussion” of the first part of the book. The section generally is concerned to elaborate the authors’ reading of Foucault, in particular the distinction between biopower and biopolitics that they believe Foucault ultimately makes, even if his usage doesn’t reflect it. Biopower is the power to ‘make live’ that Foucault spent much of the 1970s discussing. Biopolitics is the resistance to this power. But, as this passage makes plain, it is more than that. I wonder to what purpose the authors have decided to enter into a discussion of the event. Although one would need more textual support (and perhaps this will be clearer when I have read the next 300 pages of the book), it seems to me that this is a turn back to Bergson. Biopolitics is the counter to biopower in the same way that the élan vital is a counter to simple matière. The first is innovation and freedom (literally) incarnate, while the second is predictability and fatality. I paused over this because they criticize Badiou for what I found the single most compelling schema presented in Being and Event. Subjectivity as fidelity to an event is interesting only because the event is past, and the conflict—and for Badiou this conflict is legitimate—is over what it means to practice fidelity to this event. This conflict is what constitutes the event as an event. It is wrong to say, as Hardt and Negri do, that meaning is given to the event retrospectively. It seems to me that the event exists only retrospectively. Hardt and Negri seek to avoid relativism. I applaud Badiou most for what is in fact a courageous head-on admission of a certain kind of relativism. Oddly for an engagé (but perhaps not for a Sartrean engagé), Badiou’s relativism is political—ontic—while his metaphysics, his ontology, are not relativistic. Hardt and Negri base their politics in the same way, it seems to me, that Marx did. They have performed an empirical analysis of the world, guided by a certain critical-philosophical perspective, and made a judgment about what the past and contemporary world means will happen in the future. There is great value in this. But it is not what Badiou is about. Certainly Badiou does not grasp the link between freedom and power, but Badiou at no point, as far as I know, even attempts such an analysis. In my no doubt partial and impoverished reading, Badiou has provided us with a way to think about the nature of the subjectivities to which some people still aspire, although they often are not able to explain why.

Again, it seems to me that Hardt and Negri have reproduced here (and perhaps more broadly) the conceptual scheme Bergson presents in which, in a sense, freedom is the force that rises against the falling force of material. The forms of life, constantly diversifying, are like the spray of a fountain, always reaching up. Except that Hardt and Negri do not see a contradiction, as Bergson so clearly did, between the radical freedom of the élan vital (the biopolitics of the multitude) and any kind of rationality. Perhaps, for Hardt and Negri, the material against which life moves is already cracked and grooved in ways that make it possible to predict to some extent the form that new subjectivities will take as they break it apart. It might be that this cracking-apart constitutes a biopolitical event; and certainly their perspective on it differs from Badiou’s. I would, myself, call Hardt and Negri’s approach historical and objectivist in a way that Badiou’s is not. But I do not see the contradiction suggested by these paragraphs between the two ways of thinking. This is perhaps because of how broadly Hardt and Negri are using the term ‘event,’ and how muddled may be my recollections of Badiou. I will end recklessly: Hardt and Negri must accuse Badiou’s event of constituting a credo quia absurdum because their perspective of immanence does not allow what seems to me one of Badiou’s basic principles: we are always outside ourselves.

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