The Spirit of Nihilism — Review by Alexander R. Galloway

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The Spirit of Nihilism
Mehdi Belhaj Kacem
L’esprit du nihilisme: Une ontologique de l’Histoire
Paris: Fayard, 2009
Alexander R. Galloway

The story is often told of Marx that he was the product of a specific tripartite European formation: British political economy, German idealism, and French socialism. The Europe of today is different: in Germany we have media theory, in Italy we have political theory, and in France we have philosophy. The period of crisis and retrenchment that began in French philosophy around 1975 or 1976, and that lasted for twenty-five years, is, happily, coming to an end. The children of the ’68ers are now of age. And they are writing.

There are two figures poised to emerge as important young voices in France. They could not be more different. The first is already known in the English-speaking world. He is Quentin Meillassoux, the author of After Finitude (Continuum, 2008). The second is almost entirely unknown outside of France. His name is Mehdi Belhaj Kacem but he often goes by his initials, MBK. Both Meillassoux and MBK have been propelled in part by the vast intellectual richness and patronage of Alain Badiou. While Meillassoux is a rigorous scientist and, as an intellectual presence at the École Normale Supérieure, already an institutional insider, MBK is a self-styled outsider, a trickster, an autodidact, or, in his own words, an “anti-scholastic,” an “anti-philosopher.”

There are still challenges ahead for both Meillassoux and MBK. Meillassoux’s hyper-technical interventions are perhaps too specialized to gain much influence beyond the microcosm of academic philosophy. If After Finitude is any indicator, he does not appear to have much interest in classical political categories such as history or the social. MBK aims for a slightly wider appeal, writing about video games, film, literature, and philosophy. More acolyte than guru, his writing tends to emulate the philosophers he most admires — priority is given to Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben, but Martin Heidegger, G. W. F. Hegel, Reiner Schürmann, Christian Jambet, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan also play leading roles. Meillassoux and MBK are young, full of ideas, and exploding with energy. Their best work is ahead of them.
MBK’s new book, L’esprit du nihilisme: Une ontologique de l’Histoire [The Spirit of Nihilism: An Ontologic of History] (Paris: Fayard, 2009), appears in Badiou’s book series, the same venerable collection formerly housed at Seuil and coedited by Barbara Cassin, the well-known classicist. L’esprit du nihilisme seems to be MBK’s attempt to write a so-called great work of philosophy — to write his own Being and Event, his own Phenomenology of Spirit, his own Broken Hegemonies. With several books published already, L’esprit du nihilisme was to be MBK’s explication of a true philosophical system. Though if it fails to achieve such lofty heights, L’esprit du nihilisme nevertheless contains a fabulous consolation prize: an intriguing series of philosophical provocations that will disrupt continental philosophy, a discourse experiencing dramatic reorganization in the wake of “the failure of theory.”

MBK’s central goal in L’esprit du nihilisme is to merge Agamben and Badiou under a single philosophical project. He has been preparing for this argument in his recent books, rehearsing what it would take to make such a claim. The discovery of Badiou was a formative event for MBK, a kind of philosophical catachism as transformative as MBK’s earlier discoveries of Lacan and Friedrich Nietzsche. The best illustration of his interest in Badiou (particularly in Badiou’s mathematics-based ontology) was probably MBK’s 2004 book Événement et répétition [Event and Repetition] (Tristram). Ostensibly an attempt to work through the ontological claims of Deleuze and Badiou, Événement et répétition contains the same kind of set theory formulae found in Badiou’s more technical work. MBK also has great admiration for Agamben, particularly for what is generally considered the central conceit of Agamben’s work: the interrelated concepts of the exception, banishment (the ban), profanation, bare life, and the figure of homo sacer. MBK wrote on these themes in an appealing little book titled La psychose française — Les banlieues: le ban de la République [The French Psychosis] (2006), which was published by Gallimard, indicating that he could be taken seriously by the French publishing establishment. La psychose française is a direct response to the 2005 riots in France and focuses on a number of puns involving the terms ban-lieues, ban, and banishment. In America today a single date returns repeatedly to define political life: 11 September 2001. But contemporary French political discourse pivots around two dates: 21 April 2002, when the far right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round of the presidential election, signaling the abject failure of the socialist party; and November 2005, when the French government declared a state of emergency in response to several days of sustained unrest in the suburban banlieues and elsewhere. MBK’s treatment of Agamben is not particularly original, but La psychose française carries a quiet rage emanating from within a young writer who is not only profoundly affected by the negligence of the French state, but is also deeply offended that no one cared to interview him about it
I begin with a simple personal observation: no one in the French media, not in television or the major daily and weekly publications, not even radio, thought it would be a good idea to consult a certain young French intellectual of Tunisian extraction, one of the best known in his generation in the areas of literature and philosophy. An intellectual, even, who spent a part of his adolescence in one of these miserable banlieues, and who has tried in various ways to consider the question of the nonproductive [désœuvrement] as a completely new political category. [1]

MBK lived in Tunisia until the age of twelve, before moving to France. He learned French in grade school and was thirty-two years old during the 2005 riots. The miserable banlieue he lived in is Fosses — north of Paris on the dreary “D” rapid transit line. Perhaps miserable, Fosses is certainly not the most squalid of the Parisian suburban ghettos. MBK did not spend long in Fosses; he made a name for himself by publishing two novels, Cancer and 1993, when he was only twenty-one. A third novel followed two years later, Vies et morts d’Irène Lepic. He then turned to philosophy and began a rigorous reading of the classics, including Immanuel Kant, Hegel, Deleuze, and Lacan. Around the turn of the millennium he was one of the animating forces behind the review EvidenZ. Since then he has written steadily, starred in a film, and even taught a few seminars — all the while cultivating a profile as the leading antiphilosopher of his generation.

Rehearsed in his earlier works, MBK’s attempt to merge Agamben and Badiou under a single philosophical project reaches full force in L’esprit du nihilisme. But what points of overlap exist between these two authors? Agamben provides the politics and Badiou the ontology. From Agamben comes the “state of exception,” and from Badiou the “evental site.” The merger is a simple one that can be summarized by a question: Why is it that, in the modern world, the evental site and the state of exception are so often the same thing? This is a powerful question, one that Badiou has had to defend on a number of occasions (for example, why was Bolshevism an event, but not Nazism? The answer is simply that Badiou’s eventism does not obey a law of symmetry going from left to right).

MBK’s central question in L’esprit du nihilisme is, “Why is the evental site so often a state of exception, and why politically does the event so often sew the seeds of the state of exception, lending to the confusion that often arises between the ‘positive’ event (revolutionary let’s call it) and the ‘negative’ event (genocide, State crime)?” (46). In other words, why are events today more often riots than revolutions? Or as Roberto Esposito put it in his splendid book Bíos, “Why does a politics of life always risk being reversed into a work of death?” Perhaps what MBK is doing to Badiou is awakening a theory of the “dark event,” the event that does not call for the fidelity of a subject, but instead indicates a foundational evil, an inaugurating tragedy. This is why Badiou’s void is so appealing to MBK, who argues that “[w]hat is at stake in our endeavor is to tell of the ‘nature’ of this presence [the void]” (80).

By merging Agamben with Badiou, MBK adds the notion of the abject to the evental site. Heidegger is introduced as a foil along the way. “Being is not ‘dissimulation'” (123), MBK writes, meaning that being itself becomes clear and open only when rewritten (by Badiou) in the clear and open language of math. To be sure, Badiou is not the first to do this, only the most recent. This puts Badiou in sharp distinction with Heideggerian phenomenology, which tends to consider being as something cloaked, obscure, or withdrawn. “The neoplatonic paradigm is thus the best” (123), MBK concludes, agreeing again with Badiou. Still, MBK devotes long sections of L’esprit du nihilisme to Heidegger, responding specifically to Heidegger’s lesser known book, Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis), which was written in the 1930s but not published in English until 1989. The term Ereignis is of particular interest to MBK vis-a-vis Badiou. While Ereignis is translated awkwardly in Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly’s English edition as “enowning” (Contributions to Philosophy [From Enowning]), the term also means simply “event,” as in “the Event of Appropriation” [2]. MBK makes a clear separation between Heidegger and Badiou:
The two key metaphysicians of the twentieth century, Heidegger and Badiou, employ exactly the same categories, formerly unseen in the history of philosophy: Being, event, singularity, site, decision of the undecidable, etc. What must be examined more closely, then, is the difference between the two positions: the first, hermeneutics, reckons that it is possible to found the site, the site that will give rise to the event. We will call this metaphysical tendency the ontological far right. The second tendency holds that it is absolutely impossible to found the site. Rather, it is the site that “founds,” meaning that it gives rise to, without any preparation, any willfulness, or any decision, the event. We will call this metaphysical tendency the ontological far left. (125)

Though he calls Heidegger’s book an “internal critique of national socialism” (127), MBK’s references to “the ontological far right” serve as a prelude to his eventual indictment of Heidegger’s nazism. MBK claims that it is only in fascism that the conditions for the event are forced into existence through the rational will. In contrast, for Badiou the condition of the event ontologically preexists any notion of “founding” whatsoever, for the condition is Being itself, apart from which stands the event. As others have done before him, MBK paints a broad target on Heidegger, suggesting that the desire to build events will lead eventually to the construction of gas chambers: “It is in national socialism, in buildability, in wanting to eliminate ‘abjection’…that one ends up perpetrating the worst abjections” (126). While MBK’s argument may win applause politically, philosophically it leaves a number of things undone. For instance, it is unclear how far MBK will go to defend the notion of a radical anti-constructivism, and further, whether this position would make him vulnerable to the kinds of anti-essentialist critiques popular during the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. Or is MBK simply restating Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty” under a new name? In other words, is MBK making the old liberal claim that any attempt to sculpt society is always protofascist? Shall we sit back and let the absolute laws take over — if not markets then mathematics or ontology? The stalwart idealist concepts of the absolute, infinity, or spirit were most certainly some of the great casualties of the twentieth century. By the 1960s in France it had become extremely unfashionable in certain circles to read Hegel or Plato. But today, with the rise of figures like Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and Meillassoux, that has all changed. As I see it, the burning question is, “Will the absolute ever return to its former position as the left’s political enemy, and, if so, how fierce and fast will the backlash be?”
Agamben is MBK’s lifeline out of this tricky situation. Beyond his interest in Agamben’s analysis of the state of exception and bare life, MBK has been one of the first theorists to embrace Agamben’s notion of profanation. In chapter ten of L’esprit du nihilisme, “Nihilism, Parody, and Profanation,” MBK grants a philosophical privilege to the concept of profanation, presenting it as the Agambenian counterpart to Badiou’s concept of the event. Just as the event is an appropriation, profanation is a reappropriation; just as the event signals an excess, profanation indicates a return (of what was removed). As MBK argues, “The event is the pure appropriation of the inappropriable; profanation is the reappropriation of what was expropriated within the ‘sacred’ sphere” (223). The idea of profanation is key because it allows MBK to theorize the present state of world affairs, what he calls the state of “democratic nihilism” (a term roughly synonymous with Badiou’s “democratic materialism”). We are the first profane generation, he writes, “Profanation is thus nothing less than the absolute singularity of the age in which we’ve grown up…iconoclasm and iconolatry appear very strictly as the same thing” (226). The contemporary cult of the profane, which he blames on both the “vitalist leftists” of May 1968 and the exigencies of neoliberal capitalism (for after all they are now thoroughly unified), is one in which a number of old virtues are held up as true, but nevertheless appear sinister and lifeless. For example, we have equality, but it is a blanket equality that produces a flat world of flat individuals. And we have transparency, but it is a transparency so rigorously enforced that it feels more pornographic (show everything!) than transcendent. “All truth must appear,” he writes, echoing the 1960s critiques of commodities and spectacle, “All appearance, and nothing but appearance, is truth” (227).
Theology is a recurrent theme in L’esprit du nihilisme, due largely to the influence of Jambet. An important middle chapter, “The Ruptured One in Shiism,” consists of a periodization theory for the three great monotheisms. MBK calls it his “history…of the topologies of Being” (403). Jews, Christians, and Muslims are conditioned by “the rationality native to each of their historical periods” (401), he writes. The goal, then, is to historicize religion itself, and ultimately to describe how the three monotheistic religions deal with the relationship between Being (Être) and being (étant). In the first topology of being, Judaism, he describes Being and being as two parallel planes separated by an infinite boundary line. In MBK’s formulation, the Jew stands as a disruption of the line, as the exception, as the objet a, as the figure of the exodus (403-406). The second topology of being, Christianity, performs a double action. First, it universalizes Being as God the Father, and second, it condenses being into a single abject representation, the martyred body of Christ the Son. As MBK explains, “Christianity undoes the node of Being=event by universalizing the access-to-Being…Christ is the appearance of the supreme Being” (405). If the Jew is a line, the Christian is a point. Christ is “the ontic support-center of the circular totality of Being” (406). The third topology of being, Islam and in particular Shiism, which he calls the “avant-garde” of Islam, transcends Christianity’s dualistic divination of being/Being (as Son/Father) by placing God behind Being. There are thus three terms at play, not two: being, Being, and God (or the One): “The originality of this construction is thus that the non-being of the One is behind Being, just as we see, in the most dramatic intuitions of Heidegger during the 1936-1938 period, that nothing is ‘behind’ Being” (410). In this way the One (God) is not reducible to Being in Islam. The Shiite iteration allows MBK a link back to Badiou, via the notion that nothing (the void) serves as a baseline condition for Being (from which may arise beings as “events”).
MBK’s analysis of religion leads him to a discussion of contemporary geopolitics. For example, he engages directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, criticizing what he sees as the hypocrisy of the Jewish state and arguing that Israel is the impossible outcome of the same impossible logic that Israel currently imposes on the Palestinians. “This is the Zionist psychosis par excellence,” he writes, referring to Zionist claims about the nonexistence of Palestine, and the tendency to think in terms of “Arabs,” an ethnocultural category, rather than “Palestinians,” a political category. “Prior to the founding of the State of Israel,” MBK continues, “what would one have thought of someone who would have claimed that the Jews did not exist simply because they didn’t have a state?” (173). The historical transformation from stateless Jew to stateless Palestinian is thus symptomatic for him. Yet the outcome of these claims is not entirely clear, and it remains to be seen if MBK will become the object of the kind of criticism that has been leveled against Badiou and Žižek for their writings on Zionism and the figure of the Jew.
MBK is a grand synthesizer. His talent is recombination. He does to philosophy — and this is both a strength and a weakness — what a deejay does to music. He has the confidence to read the great philosophers and make dramatic macroscopic claims. For some this might seem indiscreet or virtuosic. Sometimes his slicing pronouncements are the result of a deeply felt ontological commitment: “Deleuze is wrong and Badiou is right” (35). At other times they sound forced, like an overly opportunistic snipe: “Heidegger is wrong, Lacoue-Labarthe right” (484). The practice of erecting and maintaining relationships bound by apprenticeship and patronage is strong in France. Buoyed by such relationships, MBK is also trapped by them at a fundamental level. Ironically, this “anti-scholastic” outsider is more beholden to his library than someone like Meillassoux, who engages David Hume or Kant directly, with the same facility and passion as a mechanic performing an oil change.
France is currently undergoing a broad new wave of philosophical research and development, a movement that goes far beyond MBK and Meillassoux. For example, Catherine Malabou has proven herself to be a leading interpreter of Hegel, having studied under Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion. The work of various “neo-situationist” collectives such as Tiqqun, the Invisible Committee, Claire Fontaine, and others illustrates that the spirit of political rebellion is alive and well. MBK will certainly be a major voice in this new generation. The problem is that he considers himself to be the next Badiou. He is not that; he is not a maker of systems and he has not yet identified a vocabulary that resonates beyond academic circles, as Badiou has done with his “fidelity,” or his “tense” and “atonal” worlds. But if not the next Badiou, perhaps MBK is the next Žižek. L’esprit du nihilisme feels a bit like Žižek’s 2008 book, In Defense of Lost Causes. Like Žižek’s text, the strength of L’esprit du nihilisme is less in the brilliance of a single argument or philosophical breakthrough (leave that to Meillassoux) but more in the energetic refrain of hyperbolic commentary that MBK maintains for dozens of pages. This tendency may help to explain why MBK’s best book, or at least his most entertaining one, is Pop philosophie [Pop Philosophy] (Denoël, 2005), a book of extended interviews conducted by Philippe Nassif in 2003. There is amazing material in L’esprit du nihilisme, and at least two of the long sections, “Event and Profanation” and “Algebra of Tragedy,” should probably have been published as stand alone books. Perhaps an overseas translator will save MBK from himself by filtering his sprawling oeuvre to extract and organize the most important essays. A book of selected writings would be ideal. Until then, volumes like L’esprit du nihilisme (and there will be more like it) will fail to get the attention they deserve — dismissed as the automatic writing of a hyperactive philosopher, but one who nevertheless is under served by being systematically under-read.
[1] Mehdi Belhaj Kacem. La psychose française — Les banlieues: le ban de la République (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), 9-10.
[2] See in particular: Martin Heidegger. On Time and Being, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
Alexander R. Galloway is a writer and programmer. His most recent book, written with Eugene Thacker, is The Exploit: A Theory of Networks.