Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

From Theoretical Antihumanism and Practical Humanism to Practical Antihumanism and Theoretical Humanism: Badiou After Althusser

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That Badiou continues with Althusser’s terms of “practical humanism” and “theoretical antihumanism” — terms whose explication we can read in ‘Marxism and Humanism’, the last essay of Althusser’s For Marx — is there for all to see. But if we attend a little closely to how Badiou adopts those terms by having them pass through Lacan’s affirmation of the “in-human” as the basis of his “ethics of psychoanalysis (ethics being nothing but the question of practice and practical reason) we will see the radical shift that is effected in the conceptual valences of those terms in Badiou’s deployment of them. As a result, Badiou’s redeployment of the Althusserian term of practical humanism conceptually renders it a practice that articulates the non-human in its human embodiment and thereby is an affirmation of a radically new concept of generic humanity as a subtractive construction with regard to what Nietzsche critically designated “Human, All too Human”.

In Althusser, practical humanism is seen as the effect of theoretical antihumanism that is its thwarted immanence. In Badiou’s redeployment, practical humanism is meant to be the reflexive subjectivisation of its own immanent antihumanist thinking in order to be the actuality of that immanent thought in its (unthwarted, uninterrupted) action. A move that, therefore, makes it practical antihumanism precisely when it’s practical humanism. And what this would amount to in terms of theoretical fidelity to itself is a to-be-actualised generic humanity that is radically new in being a constructionist adventure.

Hence, theoretical humanism is, in this sense, conceptual fidelity to the truth of practical antihumanism that the Althusserian practical humanism has become in Badiou’s inimitable redeployment of it. Badiou’s universal-singularity as nonrelational relationality — or the human under the condition of the non-human — is what this practical antihumanism (the immanent thought of antihumanism in action in its human embodiment) as the condition of the (radically new) theoretical humanism amounts to This is clearly a philosophical manoeuvre — a thought-procedure if you will — of epistemology-ontology short-circuit that underlies Badiou’s engagement and explication of politics as prescriptive thought. A thought that, in Lacan’s words, is the thought that finds and not one that seeks itself in its own cogitative capture. This, if you will, is precisely what is at stake in Badiou’s thinking of “subjectivity without subject” from within Althusser’s “process without subject” but against and beyond it.

That Badiou is a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense I’ve tried to argue above is most clearly evident in his Ethics and the last chapter of The Century — “The joint disappearances of Man and God’ — where he engages with Sartre’s “radical humanism” and Foucault’s “radical antihumanism” by attempting to read them in their dialectical encounter with one another. I will make two brief citations from that chapter here in the hope that they will somewhat demonstrate Badiou to be a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense that I have tried to bring out above:

“As is the wont of the dialectical thinking of contradictions, there is a unity of the two conflicting orientations. That is because both of them treat this question: What becomes of man without God? And they are both programmatic. Sartre wishes to ground a new anthropology in the immediacy of praxis. Foucault declares that the disappearance of the figure of man is ‘the unfolding of a space in which it is once more possible to think’. Radical humanism and radical anti-humanism agree on the theme of Godless man as opening, possibility, programme of thought. That is why the two orientations will intersect in a number of situations, in particular in all the revolutionary episodes.

“In a certain sense the politics of the century or revolutionary politics more generally, creates situations that are subjectively undecidable between radical humanism and radical anti-humanism. As Merleau-Ponty saw perfectly – but only to draw from the undecidable indecisive conclusions —the general heading could very well take a conjunctive allure: ‘humanism and terror’. While the twenty-first century opens with a disjunctive morality: ‘humanism or terror. [Humanist] war against terrorism.

“This conjunctive dimension, this ‘and’, which can already be registered in the thinking of Robespierre or Saint-Just (Terror and Virtue) – a conjunction that authorizes us, forty years later, to write, without a hint of paradox, ‘Sartre and Foucault’ – does not hinder, but rather demands, in order that we may be worthy of what happens to formalize the conflict of radical orientations….”

And then again the following from the end of the same chapter:

“Through the great voices of Sartre and Foucault, the century asked: The coming man, the man who must come, in the guise of an existence or of a thought, is he a superhuman or an inhuman figure? Is the figure of man to be dialecticized, surmounted? Where else will we install ourselves? In an ‘elsewhere’ that Deleuze declared to be ‘interstellar’.

“At the century’s end, animal humanism wants to abolish the discussion itself. Its main argument, whose obstinacy we have already encountered several times, is that the political will of the overhuman (or of the new type of man, or of radical emancipation) has engendered nothing but inhumanity.

“But that’s because it was necessary to start from the inhuman: from the truths to which it may happen that we partake. And only from there can we envisage the overhuman.

“About these inhuman truths, Foucault was right to say (as was Althusser with his ‘theoretical antihumanism’ or Lacan and his radical dehumanization of the True) that they oblige us to ‘formalize without anthropologizing’.

Let call our philosophical task, on the shores of the new century, and against the animal humanism that besieges us, that of a formalized in-humanism.”

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