Badiou the Left Heideggerian: Some thoughts

I have only begun to think this through, so maybe it will turn out to be entirely wrong — but I think that Badiou essentially belongs in the series of “left Heideggerians” that includes Agamben and Nancy. As far as I understand it, the big point that supposedly separates Badiou from Heidegger is that Badiou embraces the infinite while Heidegger is stuck with the pathos of finitude. Yet I think there are nonetheless very significant structural similarities and that this distinction isn’t doing as much work to distance Badiou from Heidegger as he thinks.

Obviously there’s the Event. More importantly — and it took Agamben to really make me see this as I was rereading Being and Time this summer — there is the emphasis on potentiality over actuality. Badiou claims that set theory allows us to grasp the infinite (and hence the infinite potentiality the Event brings in its train) and secularize it, but Heidegger was already thinking in terms of grasping pure potentiality as such in being-toward-death. And the seemingly inevitable betrayal of the Event, along with its emergence out of what is present without being represented, seems to bear strong structural affinities with the primordial “forgetting of Being” and truth as “un-concealment,” etc.

One might also risk an analogy with Heidegger’s political judgment. Just as Heidegger can gesture toward an “inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” that was betrayed, it seems that Badiou is comfortable embracing his chosen political Truth-Events in almost a perverse denial of their practical outcome. His piece in The Idea of Communism is a case in point, where he bizarrely denounces Khrushchev for not remaining faithful to Stalin’s terrorist violence and claims that Mao was developing the more authentic critique of the cult of personality [sic!]. Similarly, the moment of austere revolutionary truth in the Cultural Revolution seems much more important than the seemingly total nihilism of how the “event” actually unfolded.

Two considerations, given my philosophical sympathies:

  1. I know someone is going to come along and say, “But isn’t Zizek the exact same way?” — but I make the case in Zizek and Theology that this kind of empty revolution for revolution’s sake is exactly what he’s trying to get past through his encounter with Badiou and his rereading of Christian origins. In general, as long as I’ve been writing about Zizek I’ve been concerned to demonstrate his distance from Badiou, to whom he seems to me to stand in a Derrida-to-Levinas type of relationship.
  2. How can I have such sympathy for Agamben but such an allergy (I must confess!) to Badiou, though both stand within the same basic trajectory according to this post? I think it’s Agamben’s reticence with regard to proposing solutions, his focus on critique. Certainly there’s a sense in which his project is hugely arrogant, etc., but he does show a countervailing humility in not proposing that he knows (in anything more than the most formal terms) how to solve the problems he diagnoses and in not insisting that he can isolate some kind of pure authenticity in any of the “positive” examples he investigates (he evinces no anxiety about finding some kind “pure Paul” that then gets abused in the development of the economy of salvation in early Catholicism, for instance, and he’s quite happy to admit that the Franciscans were probably doomed to sell out from day one).

Of course, plenty of people read Agamben as proposing all kinds of solutions, just as they read Zizek as all but a popularizer of Badiou, so who knows?

11 thoughts on “Badiou the Left Heideggerian: Some thoughts

  1. Interesting post. Do you feel Badiou has a Maoist plan that we need to follow? Is fidelity to an event too totalitarian? Also is there a survey out regarding what is common to “left Heidegerrains”?

  2. (de-lurking) I have similar feelings about their relationship, though I’ve read far more Agamben than Badiou; their respective relationships to the notion of universality seem almost rhetorical or strategic. Agamben just won’t go along with universality because it ends up being too propositional, too content-based, while others (I’m thinking of Butler’s turn to strategic essentialism, for example) are willing to do so for the sake of the community it might bring about. Interestingly enough, in an interview in _The Journal of Philosophy and Scripture_ about his Paul book (, Badiou says he doesn’t think he and Agamben are as far apart on Paul and universality as Agamben seems to think.

  3. No disrespect, but this line of thought can only be developed so far. There is more than a little bit of “you are knocking on the open door here”. Secondly, please do not bulldoze the nuance contained in “For the non-veiling whose proximity is lost, we substitute this aura-less proposition: nature is what is rigorously normal in being.”

  4. I hope this isn’t too trite a two pence. Although Heidegger is massively important for Badiou, and there are certainly places at which they resonate together in terms of structure, I’d hesitate to refer to Badiou as Heideggerian. It seems to me that Badiou’s thought takes its point of departure from Heidegger but enacts a complete reversal of the latter’s thought. Beyond the obvious distinctions formed in Being and Event, Manifesto for Philosophy and Briefings on Existence – the radical subtraction of being from presentation, philosophy’s inauguration in the matheme, the disavowal of poetry as privileged point of access to being, radical secularisation of withdrawn Gods, etc. – I wonder if The Century offers a key distinction relating to these thinkers’ political differences insofar as it distinguishes violent attempts to force through authenticity based on identity (see Heidegger on Holderlin too – German people, Greek myth, etc.) from attempts to present the real as a gap based on a subtractive procedure.

  5. I’m not sure how Badiou’s truth bears strong affinities with Heidegger’s “unconcealment” or resembles something close to a reversal. Badiou’s entire basis of Being is completely against concealment. The whole point of endorsing set theory as ontology is to eradicate anything hidden from presentation (sets are completely immanent and anti-constructivist for Badiou) whilst at the same time allowing novelty to be presented and named within it.

    Ironically, Kacem’s ‘L’esprit du nihilisme’, says a lot about the political consequences of this distinction, between the non-constructed, and random “left” event of Badiou vs. the fascist, concealed, hidden constructed “right” of Heidegger.

  6. ‘Reversal’ was an ill-chosen word so apologies for that. In any case, I think the radical subtraction of being from presentation is enough to ensure the respective ‘schemas’ of the the two thinkers remain absolutely distinct, despite various resonances here and there.

  7. There’s a nice note on the differences between Badiou and Heidegger in Frank Ruda’s Hegel’s Rabble that goes like this : “the irruption of indeterminacy into structures that distribute determinations is always the same truth of being, whereas the irruption in Badiou is a place where something inexisting previously, after the event, must be unfolded by a subject, and thus truth is always a subjective construction, in each historical situation. It’s the difference between the multiplicity of singular events as ruptures of the given, or a multiplicity of singular events in singular situations which enable a multiplicity of truths unfolded by a faithful subject.”

  8. The present parley noted, perhaps three further twitches:

    1. Badiou is explicit (Logic of Worlds, 7) in rejecting both the piety of the phenomenological tradition (figured in Heidegger’s “authenticity”) and the skepticism of analytic philosophy (condensed in Wittgenstein’s epistemic humility). If he bears more than a lexical or gestural relation to Heidegger, it is also that, as a Marxist thinker, he wants to resist the dangers of a dehistoricizing being and time, which would occlude ruptures into the new.

    2. On the same page in the LoW, Badiou duly lists his materialist dialectic as being doubly descended from the “mathematizing idealism” of Brunschvicg and the “vitalist mysticism” of Bergson, the former including Althusser and Lacan, and the latter Foucault and Deleuze. To this may be added the longer specters of Bruno and Spinoza as a historical and conceptual vice grip (what he extols as terror!) on his Cartesianism (Badiou as Left Cartesian – and even Pascalian?!), as well as other, more recent, ancestors: Sorel, Adorno and Benjamin, Bloch. To this latter clan he owes much of his revolutionary “leftness.” Of these, however, I’d say Sorel and Benjamin (perhaps as a set) are much more deeply incised in his thought than is Heidegger, to whom Agamben is more clearly indebted both in ambit and style (ok, Agamben and Severino as left Heideggerians makes some sense to me). Badiou’s commitment to the rupture of (structured) time, whether effected through myth or messianism, underlies also his deference to Mao, however tendentious or abstracted that might be.

    3. All said, Badiou seems no more a “left Heideggerian” than a “left Paulist” or “left Platonist,” and arguably somewhat less. To be a “left Heideggerian” in the way that Marx and Feuerbach were “left Hegelians,” one would need to be, selon moi, clearly struggling out of the overwhelming shadow of the titular figure in question. In the case of Badiou, there are simply too many uniquely – and even rivalrously – intersecting lines of intervention in his thought to call him a left Heideggerian. But by the same token, perhaps even Marx and Feuerbach were too complex in their making (if one took a closer historical look) to be considered mere “left Hegelians.”

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