The Spectre of Totality and the Human Opening On It

What I find interesting is that all social movements, from 1968 onwards, tend to confidently assert that they are ‘not a unified social movement’. This even goes for the latest neoreactionary groups like the ‘Dark Enlightenment’. Indeed the fact that a deep unease over asserting any kind of unity, long used as a kind of shibboleth for the new social movements, can so easily be accommodated to the new political Right, is deeply troubling. After this point, whatever was distinctly politically Leftist about the systematic rejection of ‘totalising’ forms of social unity, especially when the rhetoric is uncritically and unthinkingly reproduced by groups on the Left, begins to evaporate. How many accounts of social movements and groups begin by including the disclaimer, ‘of course, _____ is not, and never was, a unified social force’? In this ubiquitous and flippant usage, not even functioning as a token Deleuzean valorisation of ‘difference’ over ‘dialectic’, it risks meaning virtually nothing. It risks shading into continuity with late capitalism, which has itself functioned perfectly ‘through the management and distribution of differences’ (Noys 2010:x)

Is the spectre of ‘totality’ really this haunting? Do we really envisage ourselves becoming ‘totalitarian’ merely because we dared to represent a unison of voices over a nontotalisable multiplicity? How can we ever produce the vox populi, a coherent demand, and how can we live by the basic Left-wing truth that ‘the people think’ (les gens pensent) if we refuse any abstraction or simplification which might mediate the particular and the universal?

It seems to me that Badiou’s foray into axiomatic set theory (as ontology) is precisely an engagement with this dilemma, although I am less confident about how his adventures in category theory (as logical phenomenology) elaborates upon it. While multiplicity is always open to supplementation in the process of adding ‘one more’ voice or factor to an ever-growing diversity and inclusiveness, the idea of the set is that of drawing around this potentially infinite process the brackets of a fully completed history, without having to ever enumerate this process. Sets are, in the sense, the site of a dialectical agency or intervention in a runaway enumeration of difference. And this does indeed appear to be Badiou’s position: just as the Real of an irrational decimal expansion must be ultimately denoted by ellipsis or given a proper name in any symbolic system in order to be communicated, so the bad Deleuzean multiple (a multiple of units), and the late-capitalist ‘multiplicity’ of individuals and their interests, must be recaptured in thought as genuine multiplicity, which is to say, as a set which is amenable to a thought of generality and axiomatically capable of taking (or including) a generic form. Badiou tends to frame this in terms of the Idea, which distinguishes potential subjects from mere human animality, but in this Platonic move I also see something akin to the reasoning underpinning the analytic philosopher Wilfred Sellars’ distinction between sapience and sentience. For Sellars sapient beings (i.e. humans) are marked out by the rule of inference, and so in contrast to the merely sentient, they are able to abstract the idea or concept and arraign it before thought on the same level as other cognitively manipulable objects. So in Sellars’ terms, what Badiou calls the reign of markets, the endless distribution of difference, and the domain of ‘human animality’, merely constitutes a level of sentience and not sapience. To become sapient beings, it is necessary to place this endless flowering and unfolding of difference (which for Deleuze’s problematic vitalism still held some radical potentials), in brackets, which is to say to abstract it and view it from the point of view of an Idea it absolutely cannot think–i.e. itself. In Badiou’s vision, the reign of market difference and competing voices becomes known as Democratic Materialism, and it can be reduced to this rule: there is no Truth; there are only bodies and languages (Badiou 2005).

Here the parallel comes unstuck, however. For Sellars, sentient beings follow rules without knowing that they are following rules, whereas only sapient beings can follow a rule on the basis of it being a rule. Well, it is perfectly possible, if not the norm, that ‘human animals’ know perfectly well what they are doing when they fall in with the endless reproduction and diversification of capital. We endlessly agonise about how we follow the rules. What marks out the critical awareness of becoming-subjects would be something over and above ‘knowing’ versus ‘not knowing what they do’. It would have to be something like–and Sellars himself points in this direction–having a metalanguage or grammar which allows the normalisation of the rule to become a communicable and manipulable object capable of being opposed or negated.

Here we might say that the bracketing of the elements of a set adds to them only the halo of their facticity, their specific haecceity. This is something subtly beyond ‘the inference rule’, or mathematical induction, or symbolisation or anything like that. It is true that the set constitutes what Dupuy analyses as a ‘tangled hierarchy’ in which levels are crossed (Dupuy 2013), and I believe that this is indeed best understood through the mathematical set which is at once both a multiple and an element, and also that Badiou is correct to assert here that ontology is mathematics.

The set adds nothing to that which it is a set of; a set is defined solely by its extension. Yet it is that by which even the nondenumerable can itself be considered an element among others (such as the sequence of alephs or cardinals which Cantorian mathematics uncovered). In a brilliant analysis, this ‘relativising’ capacity of Set Theory has been described by Peter Hallward as the ‘laicization of the infinite’ (Hallward 2003), It constitutes a further step in the unfinished business of the Death of God (beyond, for example, a simplistic rejection of God that would preserve intact all the unifying structural supports, so that some other metaphysical contender–perhaps physics–might occupy the position of ‘the One’) Indeed, this laicization of ‘the’ infinite is a profanation of an absolute, recasting infinity in relation to ‘the space of its inscription’, opening the One-All to its position as merely an infinite collection among untold others, some of which vastly exceed it. In this way ‘the’ infinite slips, as in a tangled hierarchy, from being an overarching all-inclusive and absolutely unique One-All, a ‘bad’ infinity if you like, to being just another element in a greatly expanded infinity (the transfinite). This fall is a fortunate one, a felix culpa; and everything that a unified politico-theological vision of the One-All supported falls with it. As such, a historical situation such as Democratic Materialism is not, and could never attain to be, all that there is. Neither is it the complete field of determination of what can be. This means that inherent to the edifice of Democratic Materialism exists the fissure or crack of what would remain only ‘metapossible’ there, but which within the expanded horizon of the Materialist Dialectic would become a new and ‘real’ possibility.

Mathematical induction and the rule of inference is the ability to extract a rule from repetition. Democratic Materialism is, despite its vitalistic ever-flourishing diversity, essentially repetition. It can be abstracted, projected to the point of completion and set in brackets. Its particular unfolding–its denumeration–can be elided, since for all its emphasis on difference it cannot ever do anything different to what it does, which is to reproduce itself. There are no Truths, only bodies and languages; but around this rule can be seen the glow of this very specification, marking it off from what it lacks. The ‘encyclopaedic’ totality of knowledges which Democratic Materialism produces always lacks that which is capable of puncturing it: the fundamentally qualitative difference of a Truth.

Consequently, against Democratic Materialism can be elaborated a new rule, which Badiou names the Materialist Dialectic, and which is not really ‘new’, but has been at the basis of every genuine social revolution: there are only bodies and languages, except that there are also Truths.

Here Badiou’s elaboration of the becoming subject begins in earnest. Over and above being able to see what it is doing and know that the rules it follows are rules, the escape from ‘human animality’ minimally involves a schematic thought in which the rules it follows say nothing about a Truth-Event. For Badiou it will only be through a process of fidelity to this Truth, which Democratic Materialism cannot account for, that the subject will be a subject. Fidelity here does not mean faith or still less belief, and more a commitment to live with all the consequences of the reality of the Truth. The incorporation of this Truth into the domain of activity and life, in which formerly there was nothing but bodies and languages, is the task of the subject and also the task that makes the subject.

This curious reflexivity, I would say, results from the mathematical/ontological basis, the ‘tangled hierarchy’ of axiomatic set theory in which a set is at once both multiplicity and a multiple (ontologically the same) and not at all owing to a held-over influence from Sartre (who was one of Badiou’s teachers) insisting that the subject must become itself and exists only ‘in becoming’. Like the Subject, the (axiomatic, non-naive) set cannot be represented graphically, without resorting to inventive ways of representing its inherent two-ness, its co-extensiveness with itself in a further, undecidable space of inscription.

The philosophical delineation of this process is also reflexive in that the Materialist Dialectic, as that Other anthropology which differs in its admission of Truths, appears itself to be a Truth–or perhaps a meta-Truth, a Truth which admits the other Truths. I doubt that Badiou would consider it in these terms, but his own determinations still presuppose nonetheless a certain open-ness of the ‘human animal’, perhaps a residual ‘anxiety’, that the regime of Democratic Materialism, the market of bodies and languages, is not all that there is. How could the human animal, without the anxious bridge of this sapience–which allows it to cognitively externalise the rules of capital, move externally with respect to them, abstract them and make of them an object towards which it could open itself in a relation of contingency?

What I am suggesting really is that it is possible to align the threshold between sapience and sentience as outlined by Sellars with a ‘missed step’ or vanishing mediator in Badiou, and furthermore that Badiou’s reticence in elaborating on the anxiety of the human animal in confrontation with the contingency of its situation is entirely coincident with his reluctance to theoretise the death-drive (something already pointed out by Zizek). The ability of the sapient species to subject its own processing to a process of self-differentiation and re-uptake in order to produce contingency is what is at stake here. An inclusion of this consideration would not alter the theoretisation of the subject as a process of fidelity to a Truth; on the contrary it would concern only an opening on Truth that ‘troubles’ the human animal. It raises other issues, such as how ‘animal’ this troubled animal would truly be, and of course, this will cascade into becoming the whole problematic of just what an animal would be in the first place and how we could know anything about its motivation and cognitive mapping, especially from a vantage point which has always already presupposed the animal life but never really defined it, such as was beginning to be explored by Derrida in his last days, and which Agamben has, from an opposing point of view, visited much too briefly and fragmentarily. I’m saying that there is an inadequacy in the analytic philosophy of Sellars which reflects an ancient presupposition or undertheoretisation of animal life in Western metaphysics and that it could be fruitful to interrogate Badiou’s ‘human animal’ on the same basis, since it concerns a threshold where a mysterious resource, an opening on abstraction, conceptuality, totality and finally Truth, appears.

It interests me because I also see here the possibility of a fruitful (re)engagement with Marx’s anthropology on Badiou’s part, in an area in which others (such as Paolo Virno, for one) have dared to tread.


Badiou, A., (2006) [seminar] Bodies, Languages, Truths, originally delivered at the Victoria College of Arts, University of Melbourne, on September 9th 2006, available online at, retrieved 12/03/2014 @ 13:45
Dupuy, J.P. (2013) The Mark of the Sacred, Stanford University Press
Hallward, P. (2003) Badiou: A Subject to Truth, University of Minnesota Press
Noys, B. (2012) The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh University Press
Sellars, W. (1956) Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Harvard University Press

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.