The Absolute Difference (Between Life and Politics) of Which No Expert May Talk
Catedrático de Estudios Hispánicos en la Universidad de Texas A&M. Miembro del Colectivo de Deconstrucción Infrapolítica (infrapolitica.wordpress.com). Coeditor de Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, Política común y Res publica, y coeditor de Border Hispanisms, una serie de University of Texas Press. Autor de Piel de lobo. Infrapolítica y posthegemonía, (Biblioteca Nueva 2017).
I think Alain Badiou is right when, in his short essay on May 1968, There is a reason to revolt, he says: «what is primarily decisive is to maintain the historical hypothesis of a world delivered from the law of profit and of private interest» (Raison 51). Badiou says that a «fidelity» to May 1968 hinges on that. It is well known that he will call his «historical hypothesis» the «communist hypothesis» (51), but we should recognize that the «communist hypothesis,» under that determination, remains a merely negative one: yes, we may want to exit capture by the commodity and by the common equivalent, money. How communist is that? For Badiou an «idea» is necessary today for the reformulation of the communist hypothesis and to escape «corruption» (55). We will see how this could become a problem. For Badiou–and he does claim in his little pamphlet that May 68, «c’est moi,» he claims to be, «with some others,» the embodiment of its survival (35)–the communist idea is the embrace of what he terms a «true politics» and a «true life» (56). I have tremendous respect for Alain Badiou, and also for the other thinkers I will bring up in the course of this short presentation. My hypothesis, however, is the following: the notion of a «true politics» and the notion of a «true life» do not necessarily imply each other. Politics and life are not co-extensive. To think that politics and life are in fact co-extensive–a common conceit today in our academic world even if nowhere else–implies life’s sacrifice and it is a reactive position itself thoroughly dependent upon capitalist discourse and its principle of general equivalence. There will be no sundering from the law of profit and of private interest, no exit from capitalist discourse, if we persist in the deluded presumption that politics and life are coextensive. The true legacy of May 1968 might in fact be the dissolution–the cutting–of the link between the notion of politics and the notion of life in favor of a reformulation of the notion of existence.
Let me invoke an old word of Heraclitus to underline my hypothesis. Heidegger mentions it in his as yet untranslated seminar on Heraclitus, from 1943-44. In R. D. Hicks’ translation Diogenes Laertius’s paragraph reads: «[Heraclitus] would retire to the temple of Artemis and play at knuckle-bones with the boys; and when the Ephesians stood around him and looked on, ‘Why, you rascals, he said, ‘are you astonished?’ Is it not better to do this than to take part in your civil life?» (Diogenes 9.3). Touto poiein, to play knuckle-bones with the kids, that is better than politeuesthai, to take care of the polis. Politeuma, the substantive, refers to the business of government, to administrative issues, and politeuo, the verb, goes from meaning «to live like a citizen, polités» to «getting involved in politics» or «to concern oneself with the business of city management,» etc. Heraclitus says, according to Diogenes Laertius, that playing with the kids in the temple of Artemis is better, kreitton, that is, «stronger» and «more powerful,» than devoting oneself to politics, than assuming the condition of the citizen. There is a non-trivial context, which according to Diogenes has to do with the banishment from the city of Heraclitus’ old friend Hermodorus. Heraclitus thought his city, Ephesus, was badly run, there was no proper politeuma there. He had no respect for the politicians, for those near him who filled their mouths with political talk. «The Ephesians,» Heraclitus said, «would do well to end their lives, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless boys» (9.2). So he preferred to play with the kids. We will never know, and can only imagine, what old Heraclitus thought of the kakoi, the rascals and scoundrels that stand around him and pretend to be surprised that such a great and lofty man, a philosopher, would waste his time in such a way. But something translates. I am not interested in recreating the Heraclitean moment, but only in what translates into our own time–when the shrinking of experience has reached such proportions that many among us, even, would think that nobody should talk of anything but politics, nobody should do anything but politics. Politicize, always politicize! And yet is it still possible to hear Heraclitus say that sometimes it is better to play knuckle-bones than politicize? Even for the sake of a better politics? Can we take it seriously?
Jacques Lacan gave a lecture at the University of Milan, in Italy, in May 1972, where he claimed he was rescuing notes from three years earlier (1), putting therefore his lecture’s materials chronologically very close to 1968. It is an enigmatic lecture, but some things in it are clearly comprehensible. He says at one point: «The crisis, not of the master’s discourse, but of capitalist discourse, which is its substitute, is open» (10). A minute earlier, and talking to the students at Milan, Lacan had re-taken his old 1968 lines. He says: «To make revolution . . . you should have understood that that means . . . to return to the point of departure» (9) and «there is no master’s discourse as severe as the one that obtains where revolution is made» (9). But what is more seriously striking in this lecture «On Psychoanalytic Discourse» is the assertion that «it is now too late» (10). There is a capitalist discourse that has left the master’s discourse behind, that has substituted for it, that promises to «march like on a roulette, could not march any better, but precisely it marches too fast, it consummates itself, it consummates itself to such an extent that it consumes itself» (10). This does not mean that it will come to an end–rather that it consumes itself to the extent that it has left all limits behind–and what may be paired to it is perhaps no longer an oppositional analytic discourse, critical and alternative, as the case may have been a few years earlier, but rather some «pestiferous» discourse, Lacan says, «at the service of capitalist discourse» (10).
It is up to us to determine what kind of discourses can be classified as pestiferous–what the range is. Let me constrain the reach of the adjective a bit: a «pestiferous» discourse is a discourse that serves capitalist discourse in the sense that it will not move towards an exit from it. No doubt we can be certain about some discourses, but we may not be able to be so certain about others. What about, for instance, and with all due respect, Etienne Balibar’s recent insistence on the renovation of a philosophical anthropology? Is philosophical anthropology a discourse at the service of an exit from capitalist discourse? Or does it serve it, no matter how equivocally or counter-intentionally? Balibar’s position–on the basis of the old hermeneutical rule about criticizing a position at its strongest, not weakest–will have to stand here for a host of other positions that are quite common in US university discourse, and in Europe as well.
Balibar’s mantra is: «the becoming-citizen of the subject and the becoming-subject of the citizen» (17). There is a silent articulation here of a total historical project based on a philosophy of history, even if it is more tenuous than Hegelian phenomenology. Balibar invokes an «anthropological difference» that becomes foundational for philosophical anthropology, itself the cipher of his new politics. Balibar is not seeking to establish philosophical anthropology as a regional ontology, his attempt has little to do with responding to the old Kantian question «What is man?» through a series of precise theoretical determinations that would allow for a disciplinary object among others. The attempt is, however, still perhaps essentially Kantian, in a specific, transcendental way: to place the anthropological question at the very center of philosophical reflection in the present. This is not trivial. And it requires a radical torsion of the philosophical enterprise, which is perhaps no longer so Kantian. Balibar posits a necessary supplementation of philosophy that dislocates the latter and makes it synonymous with thought in general. Balibar’s «philosophical anthropology» emerges in that way as a theoretically totalizing attempt concerning philosophy (it does not much matter that the totalization refers to an unfinishable task, a totalization of the plus d’un or of the pas tout.) This is the sentence that gives Balibar away: «the adjective ‘anthropological,’ more than a given field or a regulative idea, designates a critical question apropos of the necessary but ambivalent relation that exists between philosophical or sociological concepts and modern politics» (17). That is, as the context will make clear, he is saying that philosophical anthropology’s task is the suturing of practico-theoretical reflection, that is, modern theoretical practice, to politics. It announces that there is no thought outside politics and that there is no politics outside thought. And he is, in my opinion, wrong on both counts (but the former matters more). Is it a harmless mistake, or does it make Balibar become complicit in a reading of history that will end up strengthening the claim of capitalist discourse in its Lacanian characterization (which I have not yet properly discussed)? I know this is no minor question.
«Modernity is the age or rather the ‘moment’ defined by the overlapping and contradictory processes of the becoming-citizen of the subject and the becoming-subject of the citizen» (17). Balibar is moving towards a final formulation that will make things taut and clear: «modernity is the ‘moment’ at which the human can only become coextensive with the political (which no society has ever known)» (17). This is the dead center of Balibar’s project–to establish the non-simple «co-extensiveness» of humanity and politics, itself «overlapping and contradictory,» never lineal, never merely progressive or merely reactionary, but at the end of the day normative for the Balibarian tenuous or dissembled version of a philosophy of history: Balibar is offering us in his book a phenomenology of the forms of consciousness (yes, indeed, a sort of phantom summary of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, no less) that may regulate the interpretation of the posited co-extensiveness. From there it is no longer possible and it will no longer be possible to affirm any Kehre, any turn, any radical exit from the historical continuum. Modernity continues through the present its old itinerary and there is no room in it to speak of any alternative beginning for thought. The idea is here, then–and you will tell me whether this is consistent with Badiou’s communist hypothesis or yet something else; would Badiou’s hypothesis also be impossibly at the service of the reproduction and advancement of capitalist discourse?–, to continue the old, to revitalize a form of thinking whose ambition is to dissolve the frontier between political praxis and theory making the two not just the same and more of the same, but subordinating both to an ontologico-historical sameness that no society has known until now, but that ours may indeed start to know: the identity between humanity and politics is of course the corollary to the deceitful alternative «becoming-citizen of the subject/becoming-subject of the citizen.» This is a grand ambition to restore and restitute metaphysical thought, without compunctions, in the modern tradition. I have to take exception to it.
The Lacanian discourse of the master is sometimes assimilated to Absolute Knowledge, that is, to philosophy in a Hegelian vein. Balibar’s discourse, by making philosophy co-extensive with politics, indeed by making humanity, the subject of philosophy, co-extensive with politics, removes a final barrier and makes philosophy circular–the citizen-subject is the subject-citizen is the citizen-subject, etc. There is no longer a limit. A revolution has been accomplished that may mean, however, that we are more or less back where we started, at the point of departure, that is, no longer in the discourse of the master, but now in its substitute and successor, capitalist discourse. There is no exit, only a meek acceptance of a dialectic that triumphantly moves forward into total assimilation, which is also total transparency–assimilation into transparency, radical consummation of an accumulation without remainder, full-blown equivalence, total disponibility. And what has been excluded is the possibility of taking a step back, looking for a sheltered place, breathing freely, and playing knuckle-bones in open dismissal of the makers of politics, the Heraclitean rascals. Is there no longer a function for thought that may vindicate its own extreme politicity otherwise, namely, in its rejection of the pretension of a unity in the field of the real now granted by a (quasi-)totalizing philosophical anthropology? Our freedom does not depend on any «anthropological difference» but rather in an absolute difference that subtracts itself from the anthropological closure of the world (and refuses the discourse of transparency in favor of a phenomenology of the inapparent, but that is something else.)
I use «absolute difference,» a Freudian expression, in the sense invoked by Jorge Alemán (Lacan 56). I confess I am not able to interpret the Lacanian algorithm for capitalist discourse, which of course depends on its difference from the algorithms for the other four discourses, namely, the master’s, university discourse, the analyst’s discourse, and the discourse of the hysteric. So I trust Alemán to interpret for me. He notes that capitalist discourse thrives on the logic or the law of the superego–that is, it forces us to give up on our pleasure in order to feed the instance that takes pleasure in the renunciation itself. Or, in other words, «to accumulate a satisfaction that nurtures itself from the satisfaction on which the subject gives up» (Alemán, Lacan 22). Alemán’s «absolute difference»–the expression of an existential jouissance not controlled by the superego or the death drive–is the counterpart to the «absolute rationality» of capitalist discourse, which he assimilates to the Heideggerian notion of technology–both of them discourses of the unlimited, without a limit. But the absolute rationality of capitalist discourse–and its supplement: a philosophical anthropology that feeds the subject into politics with no way out, feeds politics into the subject as its apotheosis and final consummation– is also the absolute rationality of an unhinged death drive that will «make the world uninhabitable» (Alemán, Lacan 28). Philosophical anthropology, in Balibar’s terms, as an index of the exhaustive co-extensiveness of humanity and politics, is the voiding and uniformization of existence.
Absolute difference refers to whatever obtains in the constitution of a mortal, sexuated, and speaking existence that cannot be «absorbed by the circular and unlimited movement of Capital» (Alemán, En la frontera 124-25). Alemán calls this «the Common,» and defines it brilliantly as «that of which no expert may talk» (Lacan 60). Alemán is referring to a facticity of existence that will not be reached by any totalizing anthropology. I call it the infrapolitical region. The infrapolitical region is an exception to political existence–for instance, the zone of the Ephesian temple to which Heraclitus could withdraw with the kids, under the protection of no lesser god than Artemis–that nevertheless holds the secret of a radical politicity. In that secret of which no one–no other–can talk–the secret that opens a caesura in every politicization of existence and that offers itself to it as its most intimate exception and its final radical impossibility–the common of an other beginning that will not be reduced to Absolute Knowledge opens up.
I will return to Alain Badiou and his notion of a true life, which he thinks must arise in the context of an «egalitarian symbolization» (Badiou, True Life 54). This egalitarian symbolization would be the region of absolute difference, of the rupture of the principle of equivalence, of the exit from the commodity and private interest: the place of communism. It is interesting that also in Badiou there is a recourse to the kids, as in Heraclitus. Badiou talks about two errancies. The first errancy is the errancy of those who have a confused destiny ahead, crossed by the death drive, inhabited only by a proliferation of empty jouissance, consumerist, senseless, «suspended in the immediacy of time» (16)–the errancy of the young. But there is a second errancy, the errancy without errancy, the immobile errancy of the old ones without authority, condemned to await their second death (since their first death, the death of old age, has already happened) in medicalized living spaces (residences, hospices, sanatoriums). The question is, how can we secure a true life, in the militant conjunction of the two errancies in favor of the communist idea, how can we go about egalitarian symbolization? Surprisingly, Badiou says that it is not primarily a question of politics–he says it without saying it, by simply bracketing for a moment the question of finality, by omitting the political dimension in favor of a gender-based assignation of the «true life.» To conclude: Badiou’s communism, based on the production of an idea that will replace the equivalence of bodies by a common militant faith, may still be or sound very much like a communism of equivalence in the reduction of absolute difference based on political finality, on the joint commitment to a militant fidelity. Of that we can speak, and every expert speaks. Through it, and perhaps counterintentionally, Badiou’s common subjectivation to truth may after all be not very far from the unlimitedness of the superegoic law of capitalist discourse. This deserves further treatment.
Still, we might be able, hoping not to be reading Badiou against himself, to use the two errancies not in order to request from them the construction of an idea–rather to move towards an explicitation of their truths in infrapolitical destruction. Is this not a condition–the very condition–of a clearing in which all politics must test itself? The old and the young recover the common instance of the truth of existence as a knuckle-bone game, as the enigmatic region of thought, against both politics and life, against their co-extensiveness, and that is no refuge from politics–it is rather an act of extreme politicity without which all politics will end up where they started. That is, in the first place, badly.
Texas A&M University
Alemán, Jorge. En la frontera. Sujeto y capitalismo. Conversaciones con María Victoria Gimbel.
Barcelona: Gedisa, 2014.
—. Lacan y el capitalismo. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 2018.
Badiou, Alain. On a raison de se révolter. Paris: Fayard, 2018.
—. La vraie vie. Paris: Fayard, 2016.
Balibar, Etienne. Citizen Subject. Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology. New York:
Fordham UP, 2017.
Heidegger, Martin. Heraklit. GA 55. Manfred S. Frings ed. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1979, 1987 (rev.).
Lacan, Jacques. «Du discours psychoanalytique.» http://ecole-lacanienne.net/wp-c ontent/uploads/2016/04/1972-05-12.pdf
—. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII. Russell Grigg transl. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2007.
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 This paper was first presented at the Conference entitled Buffalo: Transatlantic Crossroads of a Critical Insurrection, held at the University of Buffalo in October 2018. I thank Jorge Alemán for his interest in publishing it in its humble condition as a «paper,» that is, incomplete, provisional.
 Cf. Heidegger, Heraklit. The first part of the seminar, from Summer 1943, starts as an extended commentary on the knuckle-bone fragment.
 Cf. Lacan, «The Other Side of Psychoanalysis,» passim.