Reading Badiou’s 15 Theses on Art
For Camberwell College of Art
Reading Badiou’s 15 Theses on Art
These notes are written as an immediate response to Badiou’s theses; they are an attempt to grapple with his ideas and the way they are deployed in art. As such, they are neither a learned exposition of Badiou’s position nor a critique of his ideas but, above all, an attempt at understanding. In other words, I’m not an expert on Badiou and I’m not going to give you a philosophical account of Badiou’s thought. What follows is a reading of a philosopher’s engagement with contemporary art, from the perspective of an artist. If I am often lost or confused reading Badiou then I think this can be a constructive confusion. Here, I think the difficulty of Badiou’s thought needs to be defended against the fast and loose way in which his ideas are often applied. If we take on Badiou’s thought as a whole, rather than borrowing a few key terms, I think it can help in forming a radical conception of art.
Why Badiou? When I read Badiou on art, unlike almost every other philosopher on art, I think he is engaging with the same thing as me, when he writes about art. In the hands of philosophers, art is so often reduced to a mere illustration or demonstration of something philosophical. Badiou, at least, treats art as a site of change: somewhere not only where things happen but where things are made to happen.
1. Art is not the sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and sexuality. It is the production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of a material subtraction.
So art is not the descent of the infinite into the finite. It may seem obvious that art is the finite – that art exists as particular artworks. But art is also an idea: a set of assumptions and ideals which transcend the particular artwork; art is, in this sense, infinite. In philosophical terms, we have a contrast between the concrete Particular (the artwork) and the abstract Universal (the idea of art, or what we might call Art with a capital A). This tension is played out all the time in art criticism, as elsewhere. There is an oscillation between describing art in terms of the particular material qualities of the thing at hand and describing the general, overarching ideas embodied in these particular qualities.
In order to illustrate the relationship between the abstract Universal and the concrete Particular, I’m going to use a theory of comedy put forward by Alenka Zupancic, in a quite brilliant essay in the book Lacan: the Silent Partners. Let’s take an archetypal comedic situation. A baron, his Highness, is walking along when he slips, perhaps on a banana skin, and falls into a muddy puddle. His Highness is brought low, literally brought down to Earth. Now, conventional accounts of comedy tend to stop at this point. That is, they interpret the comic as the pricking of pretension; as the Earthly reminder of our own limitations and finitude. In this case, the Baron, who no doubt walked around with his nose in the air, thought he was above the rest of us; when he slips and falls in the puddle, events conspire to show him that he is merely human, like the rest of us. But, as Zupancic points out, this is not comedy at all: its tragedy. The subject who loses his or her power, whether through human weakness or mere fate, is properly tragic. Imagine carrying on the scene of the Baron in the puddle, so that he realises his whole life has been a lie, that his former belief in his own Highness has led to nothing but alienation and cruelty, and so on. This scene could always be played for laughs but in its structure it is tragedy. In comedy, on the contrary, the Baron gets up again and carries on as though nothing had happened. This is why Zupancic says that conventional accounts of comedy stop too soon: the truly comedic dimension is not the fall to Earth but the carrying on despite the fall. This is to say that the true object of comedy is the Baron’s unshakeable belief in his own Highness: nothing, absolutely nothing, could happen to the Baron to shift his self-belief.
Indeed, the secret that good comedy is onto, is that what is truly most human about us is our absolute refusal to accept our human finitude. As Zupancic says, not only are we not infinite, we are not even finite. And, generally speaking, the comic universe is the universe of the indestructible. We only have to think of cartoons, say Tom and Jerry. Every time Tom is run over by a steamroller he is flattened but pops back into shape immediately and carries on. Imagine, once again, if instead we got a mess of broken skin and bones, oozing flesh and blood. The indestructible is marked by a certain insistence, something that insists and repeats unwaveringly.
For Zupancic, following Hegel, this is all a question of the Universal. The comedic is the indestructible because it is the universal in action: it is the concrete universal. Before the puddle, the abstract Universal of the Highness of the Baron was far removed from the Particulars of the material world. However, in a truly comic movement or transformation, the Universal and the Particular swap places. In the encounter with the puddle, those things that were most concrete – the banana skin, the puddle – become mere abstract props for staging what is now most concrete: the Barons unshakeable belief in his own Highness.
To illustrate the difference between a multiplicity of particulars and the concrete universal, we could look at the tentative distinction Zupancic makes between bad comedy and good comedy. Bad or conservative comedy, is when the Universal comes down to Earth only to reassert its universal character in contrast to the Particular. This is a formula of addition. The Baron is also human. In medieval times it was common to have a day of misrule, where the village idiot ruled for the day and the Baron was the idiot. But far from undermining his rule, this was a way that the Baron asserted his power. Everyone knew that tomorrow things would be back to normal. Good comedy, in contrast, has to pull off the trick of showing that it is at the moments when the Baron believes most in his Baronness that he is most human. Before he fades away into history, we can use the example of George W. Bush to illustrates this. When, in carefully orchestrated media opportunities, Bush jokes about his golf whilst also talking about serious policy decisions, he demonstrated the formula of addition. He may be the President but he is also an ordinary guy. This is cynical, reactionary ideology at its purest. On the other hand, when he is trying his hardest to be the President and yet what comes out of his mouth are Bushisms, we get the formula of him carrying on as President despite being up to his neck in the muddy puddles of language.
So if the concrete universal is about movement, it is not the sublime descent of the Universal into finite abjection. One form of bad art, like bad comedy, has Art encounter that which is excluded from Art, only for Art to refresh and reassert itself. Good art has to do something else; it has to leave behind the abstract Universal Art, which is to say the very idea of Art – Art the ultimate guarantor of what the artist does – but nevertheless keep going without guarantees, without the comfort that what one is doing is Art. So the concrete universal is not the descent of the Idea; it is nothing but movement: some excess, something insistent and indestructible, that emerges from the movement of particulars.
And this is how I think we should read “the production of an infinite subjective series.” Art is not the totality of particular artworks but that which emergence from a series of artworks. Art is a process that transcends the individual artwork but not as something pre-given but as something that arises out of the “finite means” of the artwork.
Perhaps we could say that art emerges out of the work the artwork does but this work is not done alone but as part of a series. But if art is work, it must be work upon something. And here we come to “material subtraction.” Subtraction has a very particular meaning for Badiou. Like so much of Badiou’s thought, it is drawn from the rigour of mathematics but it does not simply mean taking away. Badiou equates mathematics with ontology – with what there is. And a key insight he takes from mathematics is that any mathematical universe is necessarily open: there is no way of making a complete or closed mathematical system. In this respect, he gives four points of openness. First there is the undecidable, where the categories of a system cannot locate a particular term without contradiction. Second there is the indiscernible, where the categories of a system cannot tell the difference between two different terms. Third, there is the generic. A generic set is one that is infinite and whose terms cannot be brought under a description. And finally there is the unnameable – that which cannot be named within a particular situation without destroying what is named. The point is not to understand the mathematical necessity of these four terms – the undecidable, the indiscernible, the generic and the unnameable – but to point out how Badiou deploys them to show that any structure or system is necessarily open and incomplete.
For Badiou, these four points of openness are points of subtraction. In general, subtraction implies that within any given system of thought or practice there are necessarily and fundamentally points, which we might call absences or blind spots or excesses, which cannot be contained within that system. It is by working from these absences within art, rather than in confirming and reproducing that which is given, that art must proceed. I want to emphasise this idea of proceeding via the negative – or of subtracting what one does from what already exists – within Badiou’s thought.
To put my own gloss on this, I would like to emphasise a process of two negations here. I would argue that art, necessarily, has absences within it. This is to say that what art lacks, or what it isn’t, is not merely accidental. Art is built around what is absent from it. From this point of view, a process of subtraction is work upon those absences. And to work on what is absent from art is to transform art in a radical way. It is to work in such a way that those absences are made absence. For example, prior to Dada, art defined itself by its separation and distinction from the everyday; which is to say, the Readymade was something unthinkable yet central to art: an absence within art.
However, by relying on mathematics, Badiou can sound as though the absences within art are purely logical necessities rather than relations of division, exclusion and hegemony. This is not something that could be said of his political thought, where a critique of what is excluded and repressed by dominant thought is always to the fore. I think we need to look at art in the same way Badiou looks at politics, as somehow founded and sustained by what it excludes. From this point of view, Art, as it stands, is not so much something which enables one set of possibilities but something which negates another set of possibilities. If Art is negation, then subtraction is the negation of this negation.
I have spent so long on the first thesis because I want to emphasise the extent to which Badiou calls for a different conception of art: the extent to which his thought goes against our habitual ways of thinking. I hope to have put something in place that will help us work through the rest of the text.
2. Art cannot merely be the expression of a particularity (be it ethnic or personal). Art is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to everyone.
So once again, art is not about the particular: it is not about identity nor expression nor representation. These are ideas that reproduce and confirm the conventional idea of art. On the contrary, art is impersonal, not in the sense that the artist is detached from her work but rather in the sense that art is work upon a truth that is external to the artist but to which the artist is completely committed. Perhaps the best analogy here is with a political cause. The suffragettes, for example, were not committed to personal expression but to the truth of a political idea. Incidentally, we could say that the idea that women could vote for themselves, rather than have their husbands and fathers represent their interests for them, was a subtraction from the dominant political discourse. That discourse could not discern the difference between a woman’s interests and those of the men to which she was necessarily attached.
Sooner or later when reading Badiou, one comes to the idea of truth. Postmodernist attacks on truth have left us with a general air of relativism and distrust of truth as an overarching principle. But for Badiou, truth is not about representation: not about some putative fit between ideas and the world. In talking of truth, Badiou is not trying to rescue the idea of truth attacked by postmodernism; but Badiou is also vehemently opposed to postmodern relativism. For Badiou, truth is a process: being true to something. Truth is fidelity. If we take the example of love, one of four great areas in Badiou’s thought where truth is possible (the others being science, politics and art), fidelity is being true but not just being true to the person with which one falls in love but being true to the Event of falling in love.
We can also begin to think of truth in a different way if we take the example of psychoanalysis. The radical french psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan is a central figure for Badiou’s thought. In psychoanalysis, truth is not on the same register as knowledge. Knowledge is at the level of the encyclopedia, or of consciousness. The procedures of knowledge are those of rationalisation and representation. Truth, however, is elsewhere: it is what escapes the individual. For psychoanalysis, we are opaque to ourselves: we cannot know ourselves because we all have an unconscious. By definition, one cannot know one’s unconscious. Knowing you have an unconscious is not the same as knowing what’s in it. Truth, we might say, is at the level of the unconscious. The analyst does not engage in a rational conversation with the analysand: she is not listening for reasons.
Another way of saying this, is that in analysis truth is immanent and not transcendental. Truth is made in the analytic situation: formed in the very particular circumstances of analytic discourse. And, contrary to popular misconception, this is not about uncovering and coming to terms with deep or hidden desires, traumas or so on. We could think of it this way: psychoanalysis does not provide answers to the analysand’s questions – rather tries to cure the analysand of the need for answers.
Zupancic recounts the following lacanian joke:
A man believes he is a grain of seed. He is taken to a mental institution, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. As soon as he leaves the hospital, he comes back very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and that he is afraid that it will eat him. ‘Dear fellow,’ says his doctor, ‘you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.’ ‘Of course I know that,’ replies the patient, ‘but does the chicken?’
Psychoanalysis, of course, is a way of addressing the unconscious. But it is not a dialogue or conversation. It is a long and interminable process. As such, it is a good demonstration of the difficulty of truth.
This leads onto the idea that art is addressed to everyone. If art is not about expression nor representation, it is neither giving voice to a particular constituency, nor aimed at a particular constituency. But more than this, inasmuch as it is a commitment to truth, art does not seek any recognition at all. We could say that it is addressed neither to a particular audience nor to the abstract Universal Art. In this sense, being addressed to everyone is exactly the same as being addressed to no-one.
Art must not think about a public or an audience. Inasmuch as art is the process of, and commitment to, a truth, it calls forth a new audience, whom we might say are collaborators in the process of a truth. Art is the search for collaborators rather than the search for an audience.
So if thesis 1 could be summed up by the slogan Art Does Not Exist, then thesis 2 could be summed up by the slogan, The Public Does Not Exist. I give you these slogans, once again, to cut against the routine ways in which we think about art.
3. Art is the process of a truth, and this truth is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible as sensible. This means: the transformation of the sensible into a happening of the Idea.
Thesis 3 does not add much to thesis 1 & 2, given the gloss I have given. What it introduces is the idea of the sensible, meaning ‘of the senses.’ It is at moments such as these that there seems to be a great ambiguity in Badiou’s thought on art. Nothing sounds more conservative than the idea that the truth of art is always the truth of the sensible or sensual. For example, the idea that the truth of art might be the perceptual or the visual sounds not only dull but a way of containing and limiting the possibilities of art: a way of demarcating boundaries rather than opening up an infinite process of truth. And I’m not sure if the qualification that the sensible is transformed into the happening of the Idea saves Badiou here.
4. There is necessarily a plurality of arts, and however we may imagine the ways in which the arts might intersect there is no imaginable way of totalizing this plurality.
This one sounds quite straightforward. However, I think I should spell out that there are two ways in which the arts might not form a totality. The first model is a static view of the arts. Proponents of this view, such as Greenberg, claim that each artform has a particular set of concerns which are unique to it. The second model is a dynamic view of the arts, which emphasises that every art is subject to transformation.
Once more, I would like to hear a little more from Badiou. Despite his constant emphasis on art as a process of truth, there is a lingering doubt in my mind that he is holding on to some positive core of art. For me, the difference between the first model and the second, is that the first model defines art in terms of a set of its existing traits, whilst the second looks at art in terms of what is absent from it: in terms of its lacks, ills, divisions, exclusions, conflicts and so on. The first is positive, the second is negative; the first is necessary for a conservative view of art; the second, I would argue, is necessary for a revolutionary view of art.
It is this distinction, between a positive or a negative conception of art, which, I think, Badiou fails to draw out. Instead, he seems to skirt around it. For all the talk of subtraction, transformation, fidelity to a process, and so on, Badiou does not provide the tools that would nail down the operations and relationships of absence, division, exclusion, conflict and so on, which, from the point of view of a negative conception of art, are the very things which constitute art. In the Handbook of Inaesthetics, for example, Badiou seems very close to putting forward a positive essence for various artforms, regardless of how he reads the contents of particular works as dwelling in subtraction. Of Theatre he says: “it separates what is mixed and confused and this separation guides the truths of which theatre is capable.”
5. Every art develops from an impure form, and the progressive purification of this impurity shapes the history both of a particular artistic truth and of its exhaustion.
Now this really does sound like Greenberg. But Badiou is not talking about the purity of a medium, such as painting, but the progress of a particular artistic truth. For Badiou, every truth is connected to an Event. The idea of an Event is another key term of Badiou’s philosophy. It is one which is easy to appropriate and use in all manner of ways. An Event, quite obviously, denotes that something has happened. But for Badiou, an Event is not simply the addition of something new to what already exists. On the contrary, an Event is traumatic and revolutionary: it reconfigures the very co-ordinates of the structures out of which it came. Once again, let’s choose love as an example of one of the four areas in which Badiou says an Event is possible. Falling in love is cataclysmic. This is to say that falling in love is not an addition to one’s life, like joining an evening class, nor a shift in focus and location, like getting a new job. Falling in love changes not what you do, but who you are.
The other three areas where an Event is possible are science, art and politics. It is, perhaps, politics that shows most clearly the violence and struggle involved not only in the Event but also in the process of truth and fidelity that follow. In a nutshell, in a political revolution, such as the Russian revolution, it is not enough to seize power and leave the structures and relations of society the same: the old society will simply reassemble itself in a new form. To be true to the political Event means reconstituting society as such, not just putting someone new in charge. It means forcibly breaking old habits; inventing new ways of doing everything. The Event is violent in that it must constitute something new against that whichalready exists. In the early years of the Soviet Union, there were serious debates as to how one should celebrate a birthday, for example. This might not seem the most violent thing that could happen to you but what is traumatic is having nothing upon which one could rely. The truth, as fidelity to an Event, is liberating and terrifying because one cannot rely on one’s old intuitions.
Having said this, I would prefer to talk about the history of a particular artistic truth in terms of violence and negation, rather than purification, which, for me, has all the wrong associations and makes me suspicious that Badiou is far more conservative when it comes to art than he is when it comes to politics.
6. The subject of an artistic truth is the set of the works which compose it.
The question here is quite what Badiou means by the “subject of an artistic truth?” I’m not at all sure but I think we are back to the concrete universal here: artistic truth emerges from a set of artworks but it is not simply the totality of those works. The subject of an artistic truth exists neither at the level of an abstract, transcendental idea nor at the level of the individual work; it comes out of a process but this is not a process of the individual work but a process of a set of works which transcend the individual work.
7. This composition is an infinite configuration, which, in our own contemporary artistic context, is a generic totality.
Artistic truth is infinite, just as political truth is. If, for politics, this means reconfiguring all our old habits and rituals because the values and ideology of the old society operate precisely in the way they structure everyday life, then for art, this means examining all our most basic assumptions about what it is that we do as artists. This process is without limits or boundaries.
We might ask how this infinite configuration fits with Badiou’s idea of purification and exhaustion? The latter seem to imply limits and boundaries.
Perhaps the answer lies in the idea of a “generic totality.” This is Badiou coming over all mathematical again. The generic is that which is infinite but cannot be constructed. A constructed set is one that can be brought under a description, even if this is simply a list of all the things in the set. This is why the generic must be infinite; you can’t have a list of an infinite number of things. But some infinite sets can be constructed: for example, the set of whole numbers is infinite but constructible – it is constructed by the phrase “the set of whole numbers.” A generic set is one that cannot be constructed, which cannot be brought under such a description. It is, therefore, impossible to give a simple example. Yet art is generic in this sense. There is no description, nor set of descriptions, that would allow one to construct a set of artworks. Art is infinitely diverse: there is no essence.
But the point to be emphasised here is that this does not lead to relativism. Art is made in relation to the existing structures of art. And the generic quality of art comes through the process of subtraction from what already exists. Against relativism, as the freedom to choose, Badiou would posit fidelity as the necessity of truth.
8. The real of art is ideal impurity conceived through the immanent process of its purification. In other words, the raw material of art is determined by the contingent inception of a form. Art is the secondary formalization of the advent of a hitherto formless form.
The real is here used in a lacanian sense. It has nothing to do with reality. The real is that which cannot be symbolised: an impossibility, or gap, or excess within a system of symbolisation. Take, for example, the face. We relate to other people through their faces: we recognise all manner of looks and expressions. In this sense, the face is symbolic. Now the real is not simply the failure to make sense, for example an expression we cannot read. Instead, to get at the real we have to move onto a register of horror films. Imagine my face, since this is the one you’re looking at, without its surface, without its skin. Instead of a readable face you have oozing flesh and blood and bones. The extent to which this scene is horrible shows the extent to which the symbolic has broken down. Of course a doctor, for example, might be able to re-symbolise this by naming and understanding the oozing flesh and blood and bones.
Now the real is not necessarily horror but it is always difficult because it is a rupture in our symbolic universe: not simply that which does not make sense but that which is outside of sense. We could also think, for example, of the digital: if we get too close to the digital all we have is a meaningless bunch of “ones” and “zeros.” No amount of rummaging around inside your computer gets you to a more fundamental level of understanding.
So what is “ideal impurity,” which is also “the raw material of art” and “a hitherto formless form?” I think the way in here, is to think of what has been impossible within art as it has hitherto been thought and practised. It is only by inventing something radically new that what was impossible becomes possible. But as we’veseen, this newness is not an addition but comes out of a point of absence or excess, which is what I hope Badiou is getting at with the term impurity, a term which I wish he hadn’t used.
I also wish he hadn’t used the word form. This word is so overloaded in art discourse that it is practically meaningless. Here, I think it introduces doubt and confusion as to what Badiou is talking about. In particular, it makes me worry as to whether Badiou continues to equate art with its objects, despite the ways in which I’ve been reading him against this position.
That art is secondary reiterates Badiou’s ideas of truth and the Event. Truth is secondary as fidelity to an Event that is always already over. An Event is a flash, a moment. But there is a circularity here, in that an Event is only constituted by the subsequent processes of truth that are loyal to it. An Event never “is” but always “will have been.” If an event is something that changes things in the future, it can only be seen to have been an event after things have changed.
9. The only maxim of contemporary art is not to be imperial. This also means: it does not have to be democratic, if democracy implies conformity with the imperial idea of political liberty.
Thesis 9 introduces an overtly political register, which runs through the remaining six thesis. This raises the question of the relationship between art and politics. For Badiou they are quite distinct, in that they each have their own truths: they are two of the four areas in which a truth procedure is possible. But I think we have to be quite precise here. Politics is not the general social circumstances in which we find ourselves. Politics, as an area in which truth procedures are possible, is political action. It is not about policy decisions nor representation within the existing social structures but action which is aimed at changing those structures. What exists, the social, is part of the situation in which politics is possible. But from this thesis and the ones that follow it is also evident that, for Badiou, the situation of politics is also the situation of art.
Empire is one of the names that can be given to this situation. Empire is the global system of Capital, power and liberal democracy that structures every part of the world. Do not be imperial means do not accept the terms and conditions of Empire. Representational democracy is part of Empire. Empire imposes a hegemonic idea of the free market: as long as the so-called free market is secure, Empire does not care about politics. Indeed, the representation of marginalised, repressed groups is good not only for securing the free market but also for expanding its scope. In other words, identity politics is the politics of Empire because it allows everyone to become invested in Empire – to have a stake. Having a stake is in no sense having any power. It’s a bit like supporting a football team. Once you start supporting a particular team, you also have a stake in football as a whole. From this point of view,the football authorities don’t care which team you support and, indeed, it is in their interests to include as many teams as possible within their ambit of power.
For art this means, do not accept things as they are. In other words, Badiou is saying that one has a stark choice: to accept a stake in Empire or to refuse it.
10. Non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art, in this sense: it abstracts itself from all particularity, and formalizes this gesture of abstraction.
Empire encourages representation in this sense: the representation of what already exists. We could think of representation in this sense as akin to recognition: for example, the struggle of repressed and marginalised groups to gain political representation is the same as the demand to be recognised. But here, to be recognised is to be included within existing political structures. As such, representation is opposed to change: indeed, one could even see it as a mechanism to stop thing from really changing. So when Badiou talks of abstract art this has nothing to do with non-figuration or the content of artworks in general. It is against representation in the sense of accepting the boundaries and possibilities of what already exists.
Elsewhere, Badiou has remarked that our real difficulty is not to account for ‘difference’ but ‘the same.’ In order to get to ‘the same’ we have to overcome particularity; for example, in order to see all humans as equal, we have to abstract from the particularities which define each individual.
11. The abstraction of non-imperial art is not concerned with any particular public or audience. Non-imperial art is related to a kind of aristocratic-proletarian ethic : Alone, it does what it says, without distinguishing between kinds of people.
This point reiterates what I said in relation to thesis 2. To address art to no-one is the same as to address art to everyone. Brecht once said that the East German government acted as though it wanted to dissolve the people and elect a new one. Slavoj Zizek has replied that surely this is exactly what a revolutionary party should be doing. The old society, which has been overthrown in Law, nevertheless persists in the everyday habits and customs of the people. So a revolutionary government must change people, call forth a new people, if it is to make a new society. And radical art cannot be addressed to an existing public.
12. Non-imperial art must be as rigourous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.
Really? Could radical art not be contingent, insistent and impure? If we invert Badiou’s terms in one sense, we could say that we don’t want art which is sloppy, predictable and mundane – but this doesn’t seem to tell us much. Here, Badiou’s similes just seem to get in the way.
13. Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn’t exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this inexistence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art : the effort to render visible to everyone that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn’t exist.
This reiterates that abstract art comes from the absences and contradictions within art as it exists. It should be added that art is immersed in the social: the contradictions and conflicts of the social are present in art as they are everywhere else.
But here I find the idea of “rendering visible” problematic. Is this to be taken literally? I am unclear as to whether we should be taking art, as a whole, as a kind of example; that is, is it art that Empire renders inexistent and needs to be made visible? Or is it that art should be revealing the absences and inexistences at the heart of Empire?The trouble with both options is that the idea of making visible implies a certain distance from the problem, as though art were somehow separate from Empire. What’s more, I think, in this context, the idea of what does not exist is quite vague. There can be lots of different kinds of inexistence. Contrary to Badiou, I would say that art works upon the absences, lacks, ills, divisions, exclusions and conflicts within art, which are predicated upon the absences, lacks, ills, divisions, exclusions and conflicts within society. “Working upon” is a different thing to “rendering visible.”
14. Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.
In the original film version of the Manchurian Candidate, Senator John Yerkes Iselin is a U.S. senator prone to denouncing Communists in the Defence Department. Each time he gives a speech, he claims that the Defence Department has been infiltrated by a precise number of Communists: however, each time he does this, the precise number he gives is different. The Senator, it turns out, is a puppet controlled by his wife. In one scene he complains to her about how difficult it is to remember a different number each time: “I mean, the way you keep changing the figures on me all the time. It makes me look like some kind of a nut, like an idiot.” She replies by holding up a newspaper: “Who are they writing about all over this country and what are they saying? Are they saying: ‘Are there any Communists in the Defence Department?’ No, of course not, they’re saying: ‘How many Communists are there in the Defence Department?’” Ideology is cynical: it does not seek to persuade you but rather to make you detached and cynical. It operates in the assumptions that sneak in, so to speak, as the ground on which it offers you false, cynical choices.
The permissiveness of Empire – the fact that anything at all can be made and enjoyed as art – is grounded on the assumption that art is something to be consumed, and that consumption is a matter of individual choice. In a discourse stuck on permissiveness there is no way to think of art as process or production, and thus as truth, nor any way of thinking of art as social and collective, rather than as a question of taste and tolerance. A discourse which conflates freedom and choice renders change unthinkable.
Contemporary capitalism has done everything it can to render the word capitalism obsolete. If we cannot name capitalism, how are we to fight against it? Capitalism can tolerate and incorporate anything, except its own demise; it can turn anything into a question of individual liberty, as long as the free circulation of capital and the operations of the so-called free market remain sacrosanct. It is in these conditions that we should refuse to choose: refuse the grounds upon which choice is founded.
15. It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognises as existent.
The last thing we need is more choice.