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The Arab uprisings and the dawn of emancipatory history

Book Review: Alain Badiou. The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings. New York: Verso, 2012.

Daniel Tutt

Platypus Review 50 | October 2012



Alain Badiou claims that the twenty first century has yet to begin. We stand mired in the ideology of democratic materialism, which insists there are only bodies and language, and that we can persist without an idea. Our “atonal” environment of weak differences is riddled with a type of nihilism that crushes every master signifier, even those struggling to point in the direction of equality. Emancipatory politics is confronted with the nearly impossible task of going beyond the subject of the market, but with no clear means by which to do so. Thus, at the turn of the twenty first century, Badiou claims, in no uncertain terms, “there are not yet events in the philosophical sense of the word,” but only “the constitution of zones of precariousness, of partial movement that one can interpret as announcing that something will happen.”[1] To make matters worse, Badiou’s agent of change, the militant subject, runs headlong into a political deadlock in which the militant are forced to strike blindly against the capitalist system merely to demonstrate their strike capacity. Badiou characterized emancipatory resistance in the following terms: “what is at stake are bloody and nihilistic games of power without purpose and without truth.”[2]

Badiou’s “prescriptive politics” has been criticized for distancing itself from the state and from economic resistance to capitalism, insisting that resistance must be waged with respect to democracy. Even Badiou’s finest reader, Peter Hallward, has pointed out that, “so long as it works within the element of this subtraction, Badiou’s philosophy forever risks its restriction to the empty realm of prescription pure and simple.”[3] There is thus an inherent risk that Badiou’s subtractive purity will result only in a rarefied metapolitics, purified to the point of being politics without politics. However, in his latest text, The Rebirth of History: Time of Riots and Uprisings, Badiou leaves his apoliticism at the door and ushers in a fresh set of thinking for the introduction of a new political sequence against the backdrop of a failing capitalist system. One part manifesto, and one part doctrinal guidebook for political organization following the Arab uprisings, Badiou presents a logical taxonomy of the riot as a form of political struggle in the context of his evental politics. The Arab uprisings, or what the West has perhaps condescendingly dubbed “The Arab Spring,” are placed in the context of world historical protests for equality; Badiou even elevates them to the level of the 1848 European worker riots that gave birth to the Communist Manifesto.

The Arab riots present a pre-political sign of a formerly inexistent political body and signal a new epochal opening of emancipatory history. Like the 1848 riots, the Arab uprisings had origins that were seemingly random (a shopkeeper’s suicide) and, also like 1848, they ultimately ended in failure, with a new repressive political order assuming power. While the 1848 riots did not cause an event in the formal sense, which for Badiou constitutes “a rupture in the transcendental world of the state,” they did usher in a new political sequence, one that ended only around 1990, with the collapse of “really existing socialism.” In the Badiouian lexicon, the 1848 riots, like the Arab uprisings, represent a “strong singularity” that presents a formerly inexistent subjectivity in a mode of intensity that contains the capacity for an evental explosion. The Arab uprisings have become for Badiou the guardians of a pre-evental or pre-political opening, an opportunity to re-begin time.

In this review I will examine Badiou’s reading of the Arab uprisings in particular, which constitutes the central part of The Rebirth of History, and place the text in dialogue both with Badiou’s own political thought and that of the Arab psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan, whose book, Why Are the Arabs Not Free?, presents two distinct models for thinking political change in the Arab world today. It should be noted, however, that Badiou’s text does not offer a substantive reflection on recent western movements against capitalism, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Quebec student movement, as these only emerged after the publication of the text.


The historical riot: The guardian of emancipatory history

In Badiou’s taxonomy, there are three types of riots. The immediate riot tends to be youth-driven, located in the territory of those who take part, and typically consists of a “weak localization” (24). The immediate riot lacks the ability to displace itself and usually remains caught within a ghetto or the site of some grave injustice; this is what happened during the French riots of 2006. The second type of riot is a latent riot, which is what Great Britain experienced in the summer of 2011: a riot that contains the “possibility of possibility,” but ultimately lacks discipline, and remains merely quasi-riotous. More optimistically, the latent riot only requires an insignificant spark to set the whole thing back in motion (32). The final type of riot is the historical riot, which is what constitutes the transition from immediate to pre-political riot. For an historical riot to take place, there must be a moment of imitation, or “qualitative extension” of the site into something universal, which, as Badiou puts it, can develop “in a blink of an eye” (69). Thus, for Badiou, a pre-political event (historical riot) has a universal register of address.

Badiou invokes the term universality out of three related concepts, all of which were exhibited by the Arab uprisings. Following the logical and phenomenological proofs found in Badiou’s 2006 magnum opus Logics of Worlds, the three necessary components that propelled the Arab uprisings from immediate to historical are intensification, contraction, and localization. Firstly, the historical riot maintains intensification by presenting to the state a formerly inexistent subject in an intensified form that exceeds the ability of the state to represent it. There were only one million Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square, which in a state of tens of millions did not represent a consensus or even a majority, but the riots nonetheless presented a sort of universality due to the intensity of their singular demand. Secondly, the Arab uprisings, in presenting this intensified existence, affirmed a generic being[4] that refused identitarian objectification by the power of the state to represent differences. The subjects of the riot were Egyptians of all different identities, religions, etc., and in their radical refusal to be divided by these seemingly arbitrary designations, they affirmed a generic being and negated the modes of representation that the state promulgates in order to ensure its own existence. Badiou calls this second quality of the historical riot “contraction,” meaning that it presents a genericity of itself, to itself, and thus enables the riot to become the symbolic master of its own site. Genericity leads to the final necessary component of the historical riot, localization, which can be seen in the politics of naming that took place in Tahrir Square. Badiou’s politics of naming does not start with an idea but with a messy and spontaneous clinging to genericity.

In previous work on emancipatory politics, Badiou has pointed out how militant subjects generate nominations or statements posed in a future anterior tense, towards a situation to come. As a continuation of Badiou’s politics of naming, which he dedicated the short text Metapolitics to perfecting, Badiou remarks “the ill said words of the subject(s) in fidelity to an event forms the basis of courage that forces the truth of a new situation.”[5] We might look at the American civil rights movement as a pre-evental riot of naming pointed towards universal equality in the words written on the protest banner that read, “Ain’t I a man?” As Badiou remarks in Metapolitics, the first condition of any metapolitical sequence is that its collective is able to serve as a universal receptacle for all, which means that for every X, there is thought. In the Tahrir Square riots that succeeded in forcing Mubarak to step down, the protest signs read, “Clear off Mubarak” and other slogans that affirmed a certain symbolic ownership of Egypt by its people and not the state.


Capitalism against the democratic materialists

Badiou’s metapolitics haunts today’s revolutionary imagination, waiting in the shadows, standing out against the “democratic materialists” who claim we can persist without allegiance to an idea. Badiou has gone so far as to bifurcate emancipatory movements along the oldest philosophical dichotomy available, between Plato and Aristotle. The Aristotelian democratic materialists end up enveloping revolutionary momentum into a flat ontology of descriptions that do not open onto Platonic axioms. The “multitude” approach to emancipation, popularized by Hardt and Negri, or what Badiou has referred to as the “movementists,” are simply obsessed with continually adapting to the ruptures that the state-capitalist system produces. Like Foucault, their primary intellectual antecedent, they refuse to “localize the break” of the topology of situations around a single point—that is, around statements that usher in a new metapolitical sequence.

For Badiou, Negri’s multitude mode of resistance to Empire (capitalism) is flawed because it remains caught in an infinite creative process of adaptation to capitalism, of counterposing to Empire a reified form of what Empire already knows. In The Rebirth of History, Badiou affirms that capitalism has both returned and moved on to a new status, a cartel-like “gangsterism capitalism”; what Marx called “a retrograde consummation of the essence of capitalism” has taken effect. We can read into this critique both a renewed political urgency to strike at capitalism as well as certain strategic conclusions about political organizing. In sync with paraconsistent logic that argues the order of capitalism gets caught up in its own negation and produces its own transgression, Badiou has gone so far as to declare that, “progressive politics must operate at a level that can rival that of capitalism and ensure that this rivalry unfolds on a plane other than that dominated by capital.” Badiou comments in no uncertain terms that “there can be no economic battle against the economy… [the battle] can only be political.”[6] The point of all emancipatory politics today is to resurrect once again the dignity of the name of equality from both the class politics that controls it as well as the economism that surrounds it. The Arab uprisings and this new gangster form of capitalism reveal a new opening for political organizing, and this is why the Rebirth of History reads as much as a strategy guide as it does a theoretical diagnostic of the Arab uprisings. With the Arab uprisings, we stand on a precipice of global outrage against capitalism, and the riot becomes the core tool, or “guardian,” for a new historical epoch, what Badiou deems the “intervallic period” of emancipatory history (41).


The state and politics: Identity and genericity

Badiou’s theory of identitarian objects sets the backdrop for how the riot must situate itself towards a non-identitarian object, or “genericity.” Genericity is located at the origin of liberalism. The origin of “citizen” was based on the maxim, “whoever proves themselves committed to the betterment of humanity is admitted to be one of us.”[7] Badiou has insisted that the terms liberty and freedom have been co-opted to such a degree that, for use in any contemporary politics of naming, we must stick to equality. Genericity lies at the heart of politics in the intervallic period that the riots have ushered in. The success of the riot’s fidelity to the generic is in inverse relation to the riot’s overall success: when genericity from the riots is “qualitatively extended” into the larger society, the movement has moved toward a pre-political event.[8] The movement thus stands for and presents the generic in its at first spontaneous, but eventually politically organized intensity of existence, and once the state around it has incorporated the generic it has moved the point of a political truth and “invented a world,” to use Badiou’s key terms. An organized politics then is that which uses the riot as an operable tool, preserving the contraction, localization, and intensification of the political movement to the extent that it can call forth a real generic project to replace an identitarian object and push beyond a politics of naming that is geared toward separation.[9]

Readers of The Rebirth of History who are unfamiliar with Badiou’s formulation of truth may find it authoritarian and aloof. Truth for Badiou must be made eternal through a metapolitical sequencing. The liberal model of consensus and plural opinion-based dialogue is predicated upon opinions and not truths. Truth is a process, not a judgment. An historical truth does not emerge in the riot, but it emerges in the generic potential the riot envelops over the society around it. The emergence of a political truth is taken by Badiou in dialogue with Rousseau’s general will, in that mass democracy imposes a general will based on a majority. But the majority under democracy does not produce the emergence of a truth. On the contrary, it occurs on the margins of the riot, where there is the emergence of a truth by a small singularity of subjects expressing intensity. The authority that this truth presents is always a part of the absolute justice that the historical riot initially presents. Truth is presented in an authoritarian mode because it cannot be defeated by opinion.[10]

At the level of representation, it’s clear that the state generates imaginary objects through a process of naming; the immigrant becomes the alien, the Muslim becomes the terrorist, and so on. Naming is central to the power of the state’s capacity to represent being. This capacity of identitarian naming of citizens-as-objects points to a certain “excess” people amongst the state, who can only be represented, and as such, the state holds ontological claim and the power of invention of an otherwise inexistent being within the state. Faced with what the Italian jurist and thinker Giorgio Agamben has referred to as “bare life,” these inexistent elements of the state are thrust into a subjectivity that lacks any potential for presenting the intensity of their existence outside of terror or the riot. The riot poses a rupture to this regime of identitarian representation by presenting an inexistent that isseeking an identification with a generic truth of identity that is outside of the state’s representation. Taken a step further, the riot is only able to produce a truth if it is able to put forth a genericity that confronts identitarian objectification and separation through naming.

What makes the riots across the Arab world in 2011 homologous to the workers’ riots across Europe in 1848 is linked to Badiou’s conception of universality developed in Logics of Worlds. While Badiou distinguishes his axiomatic conception of truth from the classical Marxist paradigm that is typically concerned with antagonism and destruction (theoretical approaches that Badiou himself remained loyal to in Theory of the Subject), he has created a position more informed by rationalist methods that consider equality purely in terms of declared axioms and principles. There is thus the capacity for equality to emerge and reemerge in an entirely different world, and this emergence itself indicates the ability for truth to realize itself. Before we accuse Badiou of deploying a latent Orientalism by considering the Arab uprisings in light of this notion of equality, let’s visit the preeminent Arab political theorist Mustapha Safouan and his approach to emancipation in an Arab context.

In Why Are the Arabs Not Free?, Safouan provides a helpful contrast to Badiou’s text. Safouan argues that what has led to an internalization of despotism, and of the Arab population’s reliance on the sacred despot, is directly tied to the fact that the common “mother” vernacular was never translated into the realm of literature, poetry, or art. While Badiou insists that the key to successfully maintaining the genericity of the Arab uprisings is the ability for the Arabs to shrug off the “desire of the West,” Safouan bases his entire theory of emancipation on the model of enlightenment of the West, specifically on the relation of writing and authorial control of books to political empowerment of the proletariat. When the people can create books, poems, letters, and plays in their own language, i.e., when the people develop an autonomous culture, they are then able to develop a new relation to the transcendent power of the sovereign. In the case of the Arab world, this includes the dictator. In Safouan’s home country of Egypt, the retention of classical Arabic in the hands of the elites has created a wedge that separates the proletariat from political empowerment, which not only exacerbates class divisions and poverty, but also impedes collective political mobilization. While not negating the role of Islam in this process of creating new relations to writing and authority, Safouan seeks to develop a culture running alongside Islam. Many Arab intellectuals have argued that Safouan’s privileging of classical Arabic as an elite and esoteric language is exaggerated, pointing to examples such as Egyptian poet Adonis’s great work “The Book,” a tract about challenging monarchial power. But for Safouan, even Adonis’s translations into classical Arabic have failed to expose the nuance of the language and have ended up contributing to a confinement of the thinking process.[11]

Both Safouan and Badiou’s conception of equality are rooted in the western model, and especially in Spinoza; thus we find in Badiou a theory of the human in terms of the human relation to thought. For Badiou, “thought is the one and only uniquely human capacity and thought, strictly speaking, is simply that through which the human animal is seized and traversed by the trajectory of a truth… [P]eople think, people are capable of truth.”[12] For Safouan, by naturalizing the transcendent realm, Spinoza brought finitude into a new relation towards power. The people in an Arab political context must convert their relation to authority from a transcendent relation to an immanent one. This new relation to the sovereignty of the lawgiver (dictator) will,mutatis mutandis, lead to a new level of sovereignty for the excluded people as a result. The duty falls on the secular intellectual to bring the culture to the people so that they can use their own language, and not merely to speak truth to power.

For Badiou, it is the rationality of the axiom itself that presents the means for discovering universality through a politics of naming, and in the case of the Arab uprising, it was the riot that was used as the tool for the expression of universality. Political change, for Safouan, is contingent a priori on the invention of a culture that is distinct from the elite’s hegemony. By contrast, Badiou sees the people through a Marxian lens of the generic, as an excess that must be maintained over the representation of the state. For Badiou, the politics of naming, the precondition to equality,

[h]as nothing to do with the social, or social justice, but with the regime of statements and prescriptions, and is therefore the latent principle, not of simple scrawls on the parchment of proletarian history, but of every politics of emancipation.[13]

We thus find in both Safouan and in Badiou a tendency to develop a theory of emancipation, universality, and equality out of a distinctly western meta-narrative. In this manner, both thinkers diverge significantly from postmodern positions that reject the possibility of meta-narratives as such. Badiou and Safouan overlap, on the other hand, at the point of genericity and identification with the non-identitarian object—that is, with the excluded people. But for Safouan, the creation of a specific cultural identity from within the excluded class that is particular to Arab cultural and artistic heritage is what will lead to the dethroning of the transcendent status of the lawgiver and usher in emancipation. For Badiou, the politics of naming and the development of axioms already suggested through the historical riot on the streets of Cairo, Tunisia, and Libya, are what hold the global sign for a new era of emancipatory politics. The Arab uprisings have proven that universality can indeed arise without needing as its precondition the sort of transfer of cultural power into the hands of the people that Safouan calls for. |P

[1]. Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2005), 120.
[2]. Adrian Johnston, Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change (Boston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 3.
[3]. Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject To Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), xxxi.
[4]. Generic being or genericity is a concept that Badiou develops at length in Logics of Worlds.
[5]. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics (London: Verso 2012), 61.
[6]. Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject To Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 237.
[7]. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (London: Verso), 13.
[8]. Ibid, 78.
[9]. Ibid, 81.
[10]. Ibid, 81.
[11]. Moustapha Safouan, Why Are the Arabs Not Free: The Politics of Writing (New York: Critical Quarterly Book Series, 2007), 46.
[12]. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics trans. Jason Barker (London: Verso), 98–99.
[13]. Ibid, 115.


  • Posted 4 years ago

    Just a note.Adonis is not an Egyptian poet. He is Syrian.

    by dida on September 3, 2013 2:24 pm

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