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Comments on Geoff Pfeifers The New Materialism

Becky Vartabedian, Ph.D


Assistant Professor, Regis University (Regis College) Philosophy Department

In Chapters 3 and 4, of The New Materialism, Geoff Pfeifer takes up Alain Badious accounting of stasis
and change. Pfeifer is especially interested in Badious prospects for correcting a problematic
dependence in Althusser on a metaphysical invariant in the form of a rule of structural causality
(56). The structure(s) that interpellate subjects in spite of their contingent status still operate as the
apparatus through which, and only through which, history proceeds and subjectivity comes into being
(57). Pfeifer locates Badious remedy to this problem in three key texts: The (Re)Commencement of
Dialectical Materialism (1967), Theory of Contradiction (1975), and Theory of the Subject (1982). In these
works, Pfeifer traces the evolution of Badious claims that both structure and subject are split in such a
way to support the possibility for transformation in each figure.
Broadly, it is the insight of co-constitution that marks Badious move away from Althusser. This
position, developed initially in The (Re)Commencement of Dialectical Materialism, maintains that
materialist science and ideology emerge together. As Pfeifer says, in the founding of the possibility of
science as science or dialectical materialism we also have the founding of ideology as ideology. In this
way, the two are inextricably linked (55). In light of this insight, Pfeifer traces the expression of this coconstitutive procedure in Badious split subject and his split situation. That is, the transformative power
of the event is recognizable only in relation to the situation from which it emerges; similarly, the subject
faithful to the event (e.g., the Saint Paul of the Christ Event) is only legible against a static background.
In Chapter 4, Pfeifer explains that Badious split subject is informed by the twin poles of Althusserian
anti-humanism and Sartrean subjective freedom (75). Following a reading of this pairing by Nina
Power, Pfeifer explains that Badious account of the split subject mobilizes Sartrean insights of
serialized isolation between individuals on the one hand, and the transformative group in-fusion, by
which this serialized isolation is broken down by pursuit of a common goal or a common work on the
other (78-79). Pfeifer helpfully points out that Sartres influence on Badiou is decisive as what allows
Badiou to account for the possibility of radical change (and true subjective agency) in a way that
Althusser cannot, without giving up much of the Althusserian edifice (79).
One of the strengths of Pfeifers work with Badiou is the clear presentation of the way Badious
commitment to Sartre informs the concept of the split subject. It is especially clear that this is an
innovation designed to correct limitations Badiou sees in Althusser. However, in spite of the advances
these early works accomplish for Badiou contra. Althusser, claims in more contemporary texts challenge
Badious success in this enterprise. The hitch in Badious project concerns the split situation or
structure; the problem consists in the way situations are formed in the first place, using the principle of
the count-as-one.

Pfeifer identifies two issues with Badious account of situation, which he sees as plaguing both Being and
Event and Logics of Worlds. Pfeifer draws the first issue from Peter Osborne, who claims that the
situation is largely ahistorical; because the count-as-one operates on inconsistent multiplicity, it is
abstracted from and so dislocated from contingent historical events. The second issue, which Pfeifer
links to Adrian Johnstons work, is that the count-as-one stands as an ideal (and immaterial) structure
that has tremendous power it structures objects of appearing in Logics of Worlds, and is the means by
which being is presented to thought in Being and Event but it is not clear who exercises this power or
from whence it is exercised.
Pfeifers innovation is to re-cast these issues in relation to certain tenets of Althusserian materialism.
He explains that the problematic status of the count is magnified by the ahistorical functioning of
Badious ontology, since it it is a law or a rule that operates regardless of the contingent situation in
which it may come to apply. This aligns Badious work as a (retrospective) target of Althussers critique
of structuralism:
Althusser argues that for many the all-important concept of structure, in its being reified and
uninterrogated, becomes and (sic) ideological impediment to a truly scientific (and materialist)
understanding of the conjuncture. In the same way, insofar as the count-as-one remains
uninterrogated, it becomes endowed with a quasi-intelligence as that which ensures the
ordering of multiples across situations/worlds (89).
Pfeifers assessment here, that the count-as-one functions as precisely the kind of ideological
impediment that blocks understanding of the conjuncture (or the radical contingency connecting
subjects and structure), is a welcome as means of assessing this crucial operation in Badious work. We
may have good reason for rejecting the axiomatic project Badiou proffers in the mature texts on account
of the nuts-and-bolts deployment of set theory; however, Pfeifers text asks us to examine this turn in
light of a much broader commitment to materialism, a commitment that runs consistently from
Badious earliest work to his most contemporary.
In light of the foregoing, which is only a partial treatment of the complex assessment Pfeifer brings to
Badious work, my comments on Pfeifers text are intended more as an invitation to conversation.
Pfeifers critique led me to re-consider Badious early The Concept of Model. In this text,
we see an example of the interrogation apropos of a materialist scientific project. Badiou begins by
rejecting a view of models constructed according to the formal/empirical description as bourgeois. The
formal/empirical distinction describes the relationship between a formal scientific model and the
empirical instances to which it is said to correlate. The problem, per Badiou, is that this relationship
describes a certain ideological formation, which partitions the discourse of science according to the
formal/empirical distinction (The Concept of Model, 5). In other words, the materialist sees that the
forms deployed in the bourgeois paradigm are ideologically charged and, as such, are designed to
preserve stasis.

Badious competing model consists in a particular syntax, or stock of marks the pieces of the game
(The Concept of Model, 23) and the initial formulae, which Badiou calls axioms (27). In other words,
the epistemological model Badiou describes cannot get off the ground without some form of axiomatic
paradigm. He says that axioms must be selected. This choice characterizes the theory in question and
signals its particularity, since all the other rules of our language (formation and deduction) are general.
The choice of axioms makes the demonstrative difference (27).
Most generally, these claims reveal an historical preoccupation and preference for axiomatic structures
as conditions productive of novel results and change. Badiou claims that the formal demonstration of
the model itself shows that the construction of the concept of model is strictly dependent, in all of its
successive stages, on the mathematical theory of sets (The Concept of Model, 42). This summary
suggests that between the Badiou of The Concept of Model and the explicitly ontological Badiou of Being
and Event, we find an insistence on the efficacy of the set-theoretic paradigm as productive of an
epistemological model in the former, and an entire ontological structure in the latter. (I note that this
insight follows certain claims from Zachary Fraser in The Concept of Models Introduction.)
I raise The Concept of Model not as an example counter to Pfeifers critique, but one that potentially
reinforces the argument that the count-as-one is reified and uninterrogated in the vein of
structuralism and not materialism. Put another way, we may wonder whether the axiomatic model,
having once been interrogated is sufficient to underwrite an ontological paradigm that stretches nearly
four decades? I introduce this example to suggest that Badious work does involve an adoption of
axiomatics that has been interrogated, but perhaps it has not been interrogated frequently or recently
enough to maintain the materialism it professes to serve.