What is required in order to end systemic forms of oppression, and in what ways should political theorists interpret systemic forms of oppression and their solutions? This book proposes two divergent responses to these questions through the works of Alain Badiou, a twentieth-century French political theorist, and Sylvia Wynter, a twentieth-century decolonial theorist. Badiou, who is influenced by authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and Jacques Lacan, seeks to provide a new and innovative approach to the concept of political revolution. His project weaves together set theory (a “branch of mathematics that deals with the properties of well-defined collections of objects, which may or may not be of a mathematical nature, such as numbers or functions” [Enderton and Stoll 2016]), drawing from Georg Cantor, with a number of notable political events (such as the Maoist peasant revolt and the French Revolution) to theoretically engage the concept of revolution. Wynter, who is an Afro-Caribbean decolonial theorist, is influenced by such figures as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and C. L. R. James. Both Badiou and Wynter are concerned with systemic forms of oppression that can take place through political bodies such as a nation-state or a colonial state. Similarly, both authors offer analyses of the correlations between the structures of oppressive institutions and the formation of who counts within a state (whether nation-state or colonial state). In this sense they agree that oppressive institutions and formations of who counts in a state are often instrumental in the maintenance of political bodies. Additionally, they both seek to address ways to remedy structural forms of oppression. However, this project argues that the means through which each author proceeds to bring about emancipation, and their respective conceptualizations of the political, are markedly distinct. Most importantly, their respective treatments of race distinguish their projects. Notably, for Badiou, without rejecting the concrete existence of a socially constructed notion of race, a politics of emancipation ought not center race. Race is furthermore excluded from his account of emancipation and the political. In contrast, Wynter maintains an important role for race in her theory of emancipation and the political. A comparative analysis of their respective theories of emancipation and the political in relation to their theorizations of race is important for understanding the (unintended) consequences of their respective projects. To each theorist, we might then ask, “For whom is emancipation possible?”
With increasing frequency, contemporary theorists are returning to texts in the history of Western philosophy in an attempt to investigate the role that race and gender play in a given theorist’s overall project. The Penn State University Press series Feminist Interpretations of X, for instance, offers a rereading of various Western philosophical theorists, such as G. W. F. Hegel, Jacques Derrida, Plato, and Simone de Beauvoir, through the lens of feminist theory. Such engagements with the history of Western philosophy are becoming increasingly commonplace and important to critical philosophical inquiry.
The goal of the following project is to perform a similar kind of analysis regarding the role race plays in the work of Alain Badiou. To analyze the conception of race in his work, we ought first to consider how such an endeavor is possible and the kind of approach that would be desired for such a project. In what follows I outline three approaches that are employed in critical philosophical investigations of race, and I defend one such approach that is most suitable for my project.1
The first approach begins with the question of the moral character of a given theorist. For instance, in Barbara Hall’s 2005 essay “Race and Hobbes,” she begins with the following statement: “In this chapter I examine the question of whether Thomas Hobbes . . . was a racist” (43). This kind of investigation can take the form of looking at the actions of a theorist and then drawing a correlation between what that theorist did and what they said in their philosophical writings. For instance, it is now well-known that John Locke profited from the transatlantic slave trade. How then are we to make sense of his writings on slavery in his Two Treatises of Government and his conception of natural and inherent human rights (Bernasconi and Mann 2005)? The additional implication of Hall’s question, whether Hobbes was a racist, extends beyond the analysis of his texts and actions during his lifetime to say something about his character. While there might be various reasons to support such a method, this method is not employed in the following project. The justification for declining such a method is, in part, because it might offer a strong prescriptivist stance on those texts that ought to be read and those that ought not to be read. This project is not concerned with providing an answer to the question: “Is Badiou a racist?”
A second approach focuses on the language or specific comments an author uses to discuss race and gender, or racialized and gendered subjects. This kind of investigation can also explicitly address a philosopher’s method of theorizing marginalized subjects. For instance, we can think here of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (1822–28), in which he argues that Africa as a whole is a “state of innocence . . . [whereby] man is as yet unconscious of himself” (1997, 128). In addition, he writes, “Man is not truly a human being until he knows what goodness is, has experienced opposition, and become divided within himself” (128). As a result, as readers of Hegel have argued, he appears to propose that the peoples of Africa are not truly human beings. In a similar vein, Immanuel Kant’s “On the Different Races of Man” (1775) describes what he believes are four distinct races, and in his “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime” (1764), he ascribes different moral and aesthetic sensibilities to these four distinct races (Eze 1997, 38–64). Such lines of critical philosophical investigation regarding race often shed light on texts that have been historically dismissed as peripheral writings. More often, such texts regarding race have been overlooked by a number of philosophers, seemingly for the purpose of absolving a given theorist from having made derogatory statements about groups of non-European peoples (see Eze 1997; Bernasconi and Lott 2000). This kind of investigation, however, is often times a more feasible approach for theorists in the history of Western philosophy as opposed to a method of critique aimed at a given present-day theorist. Badiou, like most present-day philosophers, is far less likely to write an ethnology or philosophical anthropology that characterizes particular groups of people.
A variation on this second line of investigation would be to provide an account of a given author’s use of racialized language or racialized tropes. The purpose of such a method would be to come to an understanding of what a given theorist believes to be the case about race or racialized subjects. One could conceivably provide a critical analysis of Badiou’s work on the basis of his statements regarding racialized or gendered subjects or regarding racial tropes and stereotypes. For instance, regarding his book titled Black: The Brilliance of a Non-color (2017), one could analyze Badiou’s use of (a) the “dark continent” (25), (b) the “dark Phallus” (39),(c) his discussion of blackness as dirty (3),(d) blackness as subverting virginity (16), or (e) blackness as connoting an impurity when juxtaposed against whiteness (a color that connotes both purity and female virginity) (38). While each of these five examples introduced by Badiou are located in the first part of this book, which does not specifically discuss race but is instead focused on “color,”2 his intentions in this instance can neither wholly dictate whether these concepts are imbued with racial significance nor whether they can be dissociated from race. For instance, the term “dark continent” used by Henry M. Stanley, a U.S. explorer, in his 1878 book Through the Dark Continent refers to the continent of Africa. According to Lucy Jarosz, “This metaphor identifies and incorporates an entire continent as Other in a way that reaffirms Western dominance and reveals hostile and racist valuations of Africa and Africans in travel accounts, news reports, and academic writing” (1992, 105). In addition, examples b through e provided above all have sexual overtones that invoke historically saturated symbolic representations of white women, Black men, and the absence of Black women, all of which cannot be disassociated from histories of race and processes of racialization. For example, as noted by Barbara Smith, “black and white women were defined as polar opposites, locked together within the social context of the Jim Crow South. . . . Whereas elite white women in particular were constructed as chaste and pious, the symbol of virtue and civilization, black women, within the oppositional logic of the race-gender contrasts, became depravity incarnate: unclean, promiscuous, savage” (1999, 22–23). The symbol of the white female virgin also served to reinforce the justification for the lynching of “the beastial black male rapist” (23), reinforcing the “symbolic power of the black male as a terrifying racial signifier, whose menace rested both on blackness and on masculinity [, and] conversely, the white woman stood alone in her ‘pure’ claim to femininity” (23).3 Thus these connotations of blackness cannot be extricated from the racialized contexts of the U.S. South, for instance. That said, while I make note of Badiou’s use of racialized tropes and note that such statements are worthy of additional analysis, this project is not wholly concerned with that particular aim either. Rather, as I argue below, I propose that his use of racialized tropes points to a larger and more systemic problem in his work. This second approach is thereby not entirely suitable for my project.
A third approach to philosophically studying race is to analyze the role of race in the overall structure of a theorist’s project. This would mean focusing on how race might function as an implicit or explicit presence or notable absence in a theorist’s work. In this vein, for instance, it may be useful to consider the unintended consequences a theory can have for marginalized subjectivities. One might ask, “How might the conception of freedom offered in this view impact someone living within a marginalized socio-political location?” or “What kind of freedom is being offered in this theorist’s work and does that conception of freedom have any implications for marginalized subjects?” The following project adopts this third approach.
In the realm of Badiou scholarship, there is a growing field of literature that offers analyses of Badiou on the basis of gender, sexual difference, and race. On the topic of race, various theorists have considered the implications of Badiou’s project for political movements in the Caribbean (see Wright 2009, 2013, 2018; Nesbitt 2008, 2013; Hallward 2001, 2007; Paquette 2018), Latin America (see Mentinis 2006; Cerdeiras 2003), and South Africa (see Farred 2018; Neoscomos 2012, 2016, 2018). Similarly, there are theorists who develop an analysis of Badiou’s work on the basis of queer theory (see Menon 2015), and French feminism and psychoanalysis (see Paquette 2015; Burchill 2018; Jöttkandt 2010, 2018).4
My analysis of Badiou’s work developed below is situated within the abovementioned literature by scholars working on race explicitly. My project will not offer a robust analysis of his project on the basis of sexual difference and gender. While an analysis of his account of sexual difference is surely important, and understanding the unintended consequences of these concepts is illuminating for his overall project, there are various reasons why I have not included a robust analysis of his use of sexual difference in this book. Generally speaking, Badiou’s construction of sexual difference is based upon Lacanian psychoanalysis. In order to provide an analysis of sexual difference in Badiou’s project, one would need to provide a treatment of Lacanian psychoanalysis in addition to offering an account of his theorization of race. While race and gender do importantly intersect as historical, social, philosophical, and embodied categories, there is insufficient space in this book to properly address both within the framework of Badiou’s work. That said, throughout this project, my analysis will reference some of the analytical efforts of theorists working on sexual difference and Badiou. However, I do so only when a given scholar’s theoretical efforts offer explicit connections to an analysis of race.
This third approach to a critical analysis on the basis of race in Badiou allows us to understand how he conceives of race and the role that race plays in his overall project. Specifically, this approach allows us to develop an analysis that extends beyond the author’s explicit discussions of race and instead affords us the opportunity to explore other concepts that are relevantly linked to systems of oppression and emancipation. This approach thus allows us to ask questions such as: Is there an implicit notion of race operating within Badiou’s conception of politics? And does his theory of emancipation employ a notion of emancipation for only a particular racial category? Through such questions I propose that we can come to a better understanding of the function of race within Badiou’s overarching project, and it is to this task that I now turn.
A central goal of this book is to demonstrate that Badiou’s theorization of emancipation and his political theory are limited because they cannot account for race or racial emancipation. For Badiou, all politics is emancipatory. Politics takes place when a collective of people are fighting for justice (or what he calls political emancipation) against an oppressive system. One might ask: What then is justice? Or how is it determined? Generally speaking, Badiou states that justice designates “the possible truth of a political orientation” (2005b, 53). Justice is the goal of a collective, but the content of that goal cannot be prescribed from within an oppressive system. The possible truth of politics always transcends a given oppressive framework. Justice is thus what is brought about by a collective of people against the oppressive logic of the state. Insofar as justice transcends the logic of the state, it cannot be beholden to particular interests that are inherent to the state. It is for this reason that Badiou invokes a conception of equality that refers solely to a “generic humanity”—that is, not a conception of humanity that is founded in any particular interest but one that is subtracted from all specific interests (53).
For Badiou—within his articulation of emancipation, truth, and generic humanity—race is conceptualized as particular and concrete. As a result, race is not included in his theorization of political emancipation premised on equality and justice. It follows that race must be overcome in order to attain universal emancipation—that is, universal justice and equality. Given that race is excluded from his theorization of emancipation, and all politics are emancipatory, it follows that race is also excluded from politics.
Race is conceptualized as particular and concrete because Badiou posits that race is solely a product of racism, and as a result, race is deemed unimportant for emancipation, politics, or thought. In an attempt to combat such an articulation of race, I demonstrate in a two-step process that Badiou portrays an inadequate and limited conception of race. First, I argue that race is not a particularity that needs to be overcome in order to achieve universal emancipation. To defend this view, I turn to various readings of the Négritude movement and also to historical and contemporary articulations of race in the United States. Second, I argue that race ought to be regarded as important for a politics of emancipation and by extension ought not to be excluded from politics. To clarify this claim, I turn to the Haitian Revolution as an example of a political emancipatory movement that centralizes race. The conclusion that I come to following this line of investigation is that there are structural issues with Badiou’s conception of emancipation and thus politics in light of his articulation of race. Specifically, his project perpetuates a Eurocentric framework for politics that circulates around a conception of whiteness. For instance, if it is the case that the Haitian Revolution is only political (and emancipatory) if it exists in proximity to the French Revolution (a claim that is manifest in Badiou scholarship, which I demonstrate below), then the value that is attributed to the Haitian Revolution only exists to the extent that it coincides with a European conception of liberty; all that is distinct about the Haitian Revolution becomes inoperative. Kimberlé Crenshaw offers a similar critique in her 1989 paper titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” whereby she locates a concern that, given the language of the definition of discrimination at that time, Black women could only be discriminated against (legally) when white women faced the same form of discrimination; all that was distinct about how Black women experience discrimination gets denied, except when it coincides with the experience of white women.
Returning to the question with which I began this book—for whom is emancipation possible in Badiou’s political project?—I argue that Badiou does not offer a theory of emancipation that is universal but rather one that is Eurocentric. An issue that lies at the heart of Badiou’s political project is how he conceptualizes the relation between particularity and universality. As I demonstrate below, he argues that particularity and universality operate at odds with each other, thus requiring the exclusion of particularity (such as race) from a properly universal (and political) project. However, I also aim to demonstrate that such an articulation of the relation between particularity and universality is misplaced. To defend this view, I turn to the work of Sylvia Wynter, or more specifically, I conclude this project by demonstrating that Wynter’s decolonial theory provides a possible solution to the limitations of Badiou’s project. Namely, she demonstrates that it is possible to construct a theory of political emancipation that maintains the importance of particularities (such as race) alongside universality. To demonstrate this point, I discuss Wynter’s articulation of the Négritude movement, and therein her conception of race, as providing the foundation for a political theory of emancipation. Furthermore, I develop her analysis of James’s “pluri-conceptual” framework for political emancipation in which she articulates “particularities” not at odds with universal emancipation but rather providing the content for it.
The remainder of this project is broken down in the following manner. Chapter 1 develops an analysis of Badiou’s conception of race in relation to his political theory. For instance, in Ethics (2001) Badiou argues that an ethics of emancipation should be structured on the basis of what he calls an “indifference to difference.” As I describe in greater detail below, an “indifference to difference” is a rejection of identity categories, such as race, in order to maintain an appeal to universality that exceeds what are considered to be problematic divisions. In order to develop this account of indifference to difference, I incorporate Madhavi Menon’s book Indifference to Difference (2015), in which she develops Badiou’s ethics for the purpose of developing what she calls a queer universalism. While Badiou admits that one might have the experience of being racialized, this experience cannot inform political truths. The juxtaposition of race and truth is premised on race being immanent to the oppressive state it seeks to upend and political truth transcending it. Furthermore, emancipation necessitates transcending the logic of the oppressive state. It is for this reason that Badiou argues that race cannot be central to political emancipation. In other words, this chapter describes Badiou’s politics of indifference to difference and develops the unintended consequences of this politics for racialized subjects.
Regarding the role of race in politics, I suggest that the tension I highlight between Badiou and Wynter reflects a historical debate concerning the role of race in political emancipation that took place between Sartre and Fanon. As such, in chapter 2 I focus on the respective readings of Négritude by Sartre and Fanon to provide an analysis of the divergent roles they assign to race and race consciousness. This debate is further exemplified in chapter 3, wherein I turn to the work of Kathryn Sophia Belle, Lewis R. Gordon, and Robert Bernasconi to develop the implications of Fanon’s critique. Drawing from the works of Kathryn Sophia Belle (Gines 2003), I propose that a positive conception of race/racial emancipation can be understood as maintaining (at least) the following three characteristics: (1) race is understood as something that maintains relevance in peoples’ lived experiences and in family and cultural relationships, (2) race ought not be reduced to racism, and (3) race and racial emancipation ought not be construed as things that are politically deficient that subsequently need to be fulfilled by something other than themselves. While situating Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” in relation to Badiou’s own writings,5 I argue (alongside Fanon) that Sartre’s project is limited insofar as it fails to provide a positive conception of race. This chapter furthermore provides a robust account of Fanon’s critique of Sartre, in relation to his own writings,6 alongside an analysis of Césaire.7 I thus offer a justification for the inclusion of race and race consciousness for theories of emancipation. This point is echoed by Négritude poet Aimé Césaire, who stated that race should be a central (1972, 27) and a persistent question (31) for a theory of emancipation. Given the influence of Sartre on Badiou, and Fanon on Wynter, the Fanon–Sartre debate provides a fruitful opening for developing an analysis of Badiou and Wynter and provides an example that I return to throughout this project.
Chapter 4 addresses the distinction Badiou makes between “culture” and “politics.” For instance, Badiou states that the Négritude movement emanating from Paris in the 1930s was “cultural” but not “political.” Drawing upon the conception of the political developed in chapters 1 and 2 and the Fanon–Sartre debate developed in chapters 2 and 3, I examine why movements that centralize race are cultural for Badiou. In particular, chapter 4 discusses Colin Wright’s Badiou in Jamaica (2013), which addresses the divergent roles of culture and politics. In response to this book, I argue in agreement with Linda Martín Alcoff, Kathryn Sophia Belle, Michael Monahan, and Frantz Fanon that there are various problematic implications that emanate from this distinction. Put briefly: First, it presupposes a conception of race that forecloses the importance of race consciousness and collective memory for political movements. Second, such a view runs the risk of falling into patterns of Eurocentrism whereby the knowledge that emanates from race consciousness becomes inconsequential for emancipation. I then offer the Haitian Revolution as a problem case for Badiou’s theory of emancipation. Following present-day scholarship by such authors as David Geggus and George Ciccariello-Maher, I argue that if Badiou’s theory cannot consider the Haitian slave revolt a political movement, then his theory is severely limited.
Chapter 5 introduces the work of decolonial theorist Sylvia Wynter. The chapter focuses on what she claims are problematic conceptions of the subject and the knowledge structures that serve to maintain hierarchical and oppressive structures of power. Furthermore, like Badiou, her goal is to develop a theory of emancipation that provides the conditions for overthrowing systems of oppression. However, unlike Badiou, she argues that particular identities, such as race, are central to a theory of emancipation. This point becomes evident in her discussion of Négritude, as a movement that is both political and centered on race. The conception of race that she offers is not merely a product of an oppressive system, as it is for Badiou. Instead, she argues that the recognition and affirmation of marginalized positions are important for overturning oppressive systems. In this sense, while Badiou appeals to an indifference to difference, Wynter proposes instead that particular forms of liminality or marginal positionalities ought to maintain a pivotal role for a theory of emancipation.