Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Badiou's Biopolitics: The Human Animal and the Body of Truth

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Badiou's Biopolitics: The Human Animal and the Body of Truth

Article excerpt

Abstract. The paper addresses Alain Badiou's attempts to overcome the biopolitical tendency in contemporary Western societies by redefining politics as a 'truth procedure', transcending the mere existence of human beings and exposing them to the dimension of eternal truths. I argue that Badiou's account of the formation of the 'body of truth' fails to break with the biopolitical logic and instead corresponds to Agamben's definition of biopolitics in terms of the inclusive exclusion of bare life from the political order of 'good life'. While Badiou's claims to overcome biopolitics are problematic, his politics of truth nonetheless exemplifies a genuine alternative to the 'democratic-materialist' biopolitics that he criticizes. Through a reading of Badiou's account of the generation of truths I demonstrate that the content of truths is neither arbitrary nor transcendent in relation to the bodies of human beings but rather affirms their ontological equality against every form of hierarchy or exclusion. Badiou's 'body of truth' is thus nothing other than the living bodies themselves, plus the truth of their equality. Insofar as in this figure 'good life' and 'mere life' become indistinct, Badiou's politics of truth accords with Agamben's idea of affirmative biopolitics of a life inseparable from its form.

Keywords: biopolitics, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, body, materialism


Alain Badiou has long been a principled opponent of biopolitics (Johnston, 2013, pages 89-91; Lewis, 2007, pages 55-58; Livingston, 2012, page 240). His political writings since the 1982 Theory of the Subject (2009a, page 311) onwards have featured passionate polemics against the reduction of politics--which Badiou ranks among the four 'truth procedures' along with art, science, and love--to the management of the bare existence of human beings. For Badiou biopolitics is one of the manifestations of contemporary nihilism, a time devoid of truths. To the ethico-political discourses that valorize the 'human animal' and assign the supreme value to its life Badiou has famously opposed a militant politics of fidelity to the event that ruptures the existing forms of life in any given world. This politics, whose variations Badiou finds throughout human history from the slave rebellions of antiquity and the peasant wars of the Reformation to the revolutionary war in China, produces in the world what Badiou calls its truth, which transcends the particular features of worldly beings and transforms the world in its entirety on the basis of the idea of equality.

Badiou is certainly not alone in being critical of the phenomena usually placed under the rubric of biopolitics. Most of the scholars of biopolitics (Agamben, 1998; Esposito, 2008; Foucault, 1990) have also been less than optimistic with respect to the transformations in the government of life they have analyzed. Yet, for all their criticism, these authors nonetheless approach biopolitics as the inescapable tendency of late-modern politics that can be transformed only its own terrain and in its own terms. In contrast, Badiou finds nothing inescapable about biopolitics and quite unapologetically proceeds to escape it in favor of the politics of militant activism that sets the concerns of the 'mere life' of the human animal aside in favor of the constitution of a new life in the 'body of truth'.

In this paper I argue that it is precisely this move of setting mere life aside that makes problematic Badiou's claim to abandon or overcome the biopolitical paradigm and that renders his own politics of truth paradigmatically biopolitical. My argument unfolds in three steps. In the first section I reconstruct Badiou's account of the contemporary biopolitical regime that he terms 'democratic materialism' and his alternative to biopolitics in the form of political life in the subjective 'body of truth'. In the second section I demonstrate that Badiou's 'anti-biopolitics' replicates the basic logic of biopolitics as formulated by Giorgio Agamben: the inclusive exclusion of bare life, which figures in the political order of bios solely in the mode of being set aside to the margins of that order. …

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