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Materialism Today

Ash Sharma | Journal: Issues | Race/Matter [2] | Reviews | Jul 2007

This review of the ‘Materialism Today’ conference is the first post of my new theory blog tabula rasa

It seems timely to start this theory blog after attending the recent Materialism Today conference in London. The event, if nothing else, was another provocation to the contemporary doxa of academic left-liberal thinking and democratic politics. Organized under Birbeck College’s Institute of Humanities banner the conference’s principal catalyst was the irrepressible Slavoj Zizek.

Similar to the earlier conference, ‘Is The Politics of Truth Still Possible?’ in 2005, this gathering essentially brought together disciples of Lacan (and Zizek), with the followers of the French philosopher, Alain Badiou. In both conferences, while one could discern a tension between this these two orientations in terms of their theoretical priorities, they shared a common commitment to expounding a universalist politics through a philosophy of truth. While it was undoubtedly the manic drive of Zizek that gave both events an unique feeling of a public seminar, religious gathering and pub comedy evening in equal measure, (the comic sight of Zizek running in all directions around the hall with the mic undermined all those critiques which position Zizek as some sort of absolute master), it was Badiou’s challenging philosophical system that provided the matrix for the contributions at both conferences.

The non-appearance of Alan Badiou this time created a (Badiouian) void that produced a set of unanswered critiques of the absent master’s system. To take Badiou’s own conceptual terminology further, there was a strong fidelity to the event of Badiou writings, even when there were significant differences. This fidelity is one of the productive elements of this collective thinking project. The commitment to an uncompromising prescriptive ontological praxis is without doubt a necessary wager in times where the interminable, hermetic academic debates of a (de)constructionist epistemology seem inadequate to challenge the modality of contemporary geo-power. The Badiou-Zizek tendency, whatever ones critique, (and I have many), is one of the only sustained politicised thought emanating from western philosophy at present. Whether it can be developed in a radically global, anti-imperialist direction, in spite of the assertive claims to universality, needs to be rigorously tested. tabla rasa sets out to be a sort of postcolonial thought-laboratory for this form of incisive dissection…at once inside and outside the assemblage of philosophy as its practiced in the overdeveloped west. Its not about adding another voice to the debate in some ineffectual attempt to pluralize academic thinking, or even to deconstruct the conceptual frameworks but to try and re-orient the very conditions in which this philosophical thought is being conducted. Nothing else has any political purchase.

In this initial post, I won’t go into a comprehensive or rigorous overview of the conference or undertake detailed elaborations upon the increasing body of literature on Badiou’s work, which has become a potentially productive space for my own rethinking of anti-racism, culture and geo-politics. Or elaborate on Zizek’s recent attempts to engage with Badiou’s militancy, but to use the conference to outline some interesting problematics that repeatedly appeared in quite unsystematic and unresolved ways during the event. I will hopefully work through these in more detail as my thinking develops:


The relationship between materialism and idealism was configured, unsurprisingly, partially through an interrogation of the theological register, especially Christianity. What for me needs to be immediately addressed are the implications of the elevation of Christianity as the only universalist religion and hence paradigmatic model for a militant atheism. At the conference two speakers, John Milbank and Creston Davies, presented the theological Christian view (and not a model) as the political solution to the failures of liberal democracy itself. These were very strange presentations – Milbank, especially with his disconcerting assertive mode, critiqued democracy from what could be rightly called Christian authoritarianism. The unapologetic, near fascism of this undemocratic position raised explicitly the potential problems of the logical construction of a militant politics inside the prescriptive contours of a reworked Marxism through Christianity. The narrow formulation of these still euro-centred Christian polemics also indicated clearly for me how the claim to universality in philosophy is still enunciated in a narrowly western register, where a straight linear line is drawn from ancient Greek philosophy, through Christianity, modernity and global world order with little reference to the constitutive role of ‘Afro-Asiatic’ history and thought in the very formation of Europe as the West.

The place of Maoism in Badiou and Zizek’s thinking could be seen as an exception to this historicism – while there is much to be gained evaluating Maoism and I welcome the critical attention – doesn’t this risk another version of post-68 ‘western Maoism’- an abstracted appropriation of Maoism as a signifier of Otherness of European militancy totally de-linked from its material situation? Why no serious engagement with the ‘really existing Maoism’- in Nepal, India, Philippines or Peru? Is it when faced with the ‘real thing’ even the militant western philosopher recoils from the brutality of its implications? Is it enough to make these theoretical assertions without facing the violent consequences?

It was only Ali Alizadeh’s attempt to formulate the Iranian revolution as an Event, that began to challenge the rather comfortable presumptions of a Christian hegemony that has become orthodox in these materialist philosophical circles. It was shame, but maybe significant, that there was so little discussion of Islam or the Iranian example. It seemed, in spite of Alizadeh’s assertions, that the Islamic revolution was not the sort of event that the radical white Europeans could commit to. The underlying presumption remains that Christianity, and not Islam or any other religion, provides the basis for a true, modern universality. I am not actually claiming at present that the Iranian revolution should be named as an Event in terms of Badiou’s truth procedure, but what does the lack of engagement with the ‘non-European’ situations say about the philosophy and production of truth. As Alizadeh pointed out even the exhortations of Foucault in Iran are reduced to a mistake, an aberration, a seduction. For Foucault also, couldn’t go all the way and embrace the revolution as a modern political Event.


If Mao is somewhat polemically proclaimed by Zizek as the poster boy of a new philosophical militancy, is the more substantial turn to Leninism the fundamental basis for the theorist’s renewed leftism. Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism century in 2008, provided the basis for this conference and has been the subject of many of Zizek’s recent writings. Is Zizek serious about his Leninism or does it remain at the order of a posturing of ‘reactionary orthodoxy’ in the face of the ‘liberal multiculturalist academia’ that Zizek is so fond of baiting? While I will be examining more carefully Zizek’s writings, especially in relation to his critique of difference and politics of identity, here I would just mention it is the field of Cultural Studies, especially in its British neo-Gramscian orientation , that is the real target of Zizek and some of the others. It was the New Left that broke with Leninism, and led to the rise of social and cultural struggles across race, gender, sexuality. It is against this ‘culturalist Marxism’ that Lenin, Mao and Badiou become Zizek’s fellow travelers. While this theoretical-political axis converges on the centrality of a revolutionary act or event, as opposed to the idea of reformist struggles, there is some divergence in terms of how this is to be achieved. For Badiou, politics is an act of subtraction from the state of the situation. Badiou in-spite of his recent attempts to slightly soften his absolute anti-statism remains committed to singular social change outside of the norms of society. For Zizek, while he speaks of subtractive politics remains essentially within an ideological critique of the dominant order. Here Zizek, with his theory of ideology, more than Badiou with his mathematical ontology, is attentive to how culture operates in neo-liberal capitalism. While there remains a dismissal of culture as a site of politics, it remains unclear to me how any form of social uprising is possible, unless one is committed to some sort of vangardism and a ‘politics of the few’ or to an anarchic libertarianism or commutaranism. This I suspect is the implication of this political theorisation if there is no notion such as hegemony to conceptualise the formations of new social and political blocs.

It is true to say that any opposition to global capitalism has to be organised through a class analysis, but why assume that class is structured outside the realms of race, gender, sexuality? There is no pure singular class that is also not working through social differences. This is the very logic of late capitalism. No opposition to capitalism can be effective without this entangled social and cultural politics. One does not have to advocate a post-Marxist equivalences of particularities or the singularity of the multitude to create this new revolutionary class based subject, what is being suggested is a reworking and extension of Marxist thought for the new millennium. There have been numerous examples of this in anti-colonial, anti-racist and feminist struggles. For example in the writings of figures such as CLR James or Frantz Fanon – one only needs to read a few pages of The Wretched of the Earth to appreciate that Marxist thought is necessary but not adequate to producing a new world after the shattering event of colonialism.


The conference rightfully asked if materialism is always on the side of progressive politics. It gave no clear answers. It did provide a set of interventions that outlined some of elements of a necessary materialist thinking. In particular, Alberto Toscano, Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward were impressive in their encyclopedia way of disseminating and working with Badiou’s corpus. Whether their arguments can be reconciled with Zizek’s position is questionable. In the end it was Zizek who stole the show. He was literally the embodiment of the figure of comedy that was presented by Robert Pfaller – where materialist comedy, in the form of a paganism, was opposed to the tragedy of an idealist Christianity, with the pathetic, sad figure of Jesus at the heart of its cosmology. While I wouldn’t totally go along with Pfaller’s binarisms it did call into question the primacy of a European rooted theology as the only universal project. As Hallward said materialism is essentially a theoretical question. We need to ask the right questions or at least do more comedy. Isn’t this the appeal of Zizek – the comic fool that tells through (theoretical) fictions the material truth?

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