U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Necessary Slowness: Ferguson, Salaita, and the Politics of Durational Non-Compliance

“There is nothing is more important than to declare that our time is not Capital’s time.”*

Alain Badiou offered this principle as a benediction to the conference called “Communism: A New Beginning,” held at the Cooper Union in New York on October 14-16, 2011. The immediate historical provocation was the apparent failure of 2011’s uprisings and popular mobilizations (the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, etc.).

In the text of this talk published last year, Badiou continues by insisting that at the root of any radical politics is the project of constructing a  new political time:  a time during which a new collective configuration might come into being. He elaborates on this proposition with characteristic Maoist lyricism:

The main lesson learned from last century’s revolutions can be expressed as follows: the political time of the communist Idea must never compete with the established time of domination and its urgencies… For the communist Idea is not in competition with capitalism; it is an absolute asymmetric relationship with it…There is a necessary slowness, both democratic and popular in nature, which is particularly the time of the correct handling of contradictions among the people.

One need not share the precise coordinates of Badiou’s ideological moorings to find a good deal of wisdom in these sentiments. I have been thinking about Badiou’s text in light of the ongoing, nightly struggles for justice in Ferguson, MO and the continuing campaign for justice in the case of Steven Salaita. 

What we see in the work of extraordinarily diligent activists and protestors, in both instances, is the insistence on a new temporal envelope: durational parameters incommensurable with the schedules of cable news, quarterly earnings reports, and campaign cycles.

The heroic persistence in Ferguson––and on the part of activists engaged on behalf of Salaita’s cause––cuts against conservative laments about the decline of political investiture. It renders inert reactionary romances with the theme of the inevitability of collective subjective collapse under late capitalism.

We see, in these instances, not affective withdrawal, but sentimental abundance. We see not disordered attention deficits, but a surplus of principled concern for detail, accuracy, and accountability in regard to the machinations of the powerful: “a necessary slowness, both democratic and popular in nature…” A new time of politics, if we are lucky.



 *Alain Badiou, “The Communist Idea and the Question of Terror” in Slavoj Žižek, ed. The Idea of Communism. Volume 2. London: Verso, 2013, modified slightly.  I have excised from this comment the word that is probably most important to Badiou: “communists.” The original quote goes: “Nothing is more important for communists than to declare that our time is not Capital’s time.” I have less hope than Badiou, and the other participants at a series of conferences on “The Idea of Communism” over the past few years, that the word “communist” can be rehabilitated. If the intention is to index the value of “things held in common,” we need a new word.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Badiou’s assessment that any lasting revolution (or evolution for that matter) needs to claim its own time. The challenge Badiou faces with this argument is one that has confronted Marxists since Marx: if it is impossible to judge or evaluate revolutionary success by a capitalist timetable, how can a revolutionary know when conditions are ripe for revolution and, when commenced, that it’s proceeding at an even pace? Lenin, among others, have pointed out that questions of time have been used be Marxist theoreticians as an excuse for inaction. At the same time, those theoreticians including many Western Marxists, might argue that Lenin’s untimeliness and ‘pushing’ of the Russian revolution undermined it materially and ideologically, paving the way for Stalinism.

    I am curious how (if?) Badiou attacks this problem. I would imagine capitalists would be quite happy with his ‘slow is better’ approach, since it gives them more time to accumulate profits and put legal and infrastructural barriers in the proletariat’s path.

    • What a great insight.

      Yes, the call for “a necessary slowness” might well be seen as identical with “reformism,” if not an anti-political quietism. (That point has been made against certain thinkers with whom Badiou has been close, like the philosopher Simon Critchley).

      As I see it, what Badiou is writing about here is in direct response to the demoralization that set in on the left after the failed mobilizations of 2011. He was, in effect, telling other leftists: don’t demand “demands,” don’t say “there is nothing new here” until you have given the movements time to develop, and don’t jump to the easy cynical conclusions.

      Badiou’s political theory is such that I don’t think he thinks philosophers have anything useful to tell radicals (although radicals do have useful things to tell philosophers). Programmatically, the philosopher can only offer formal maxims and encouragement: “continue to keep the alternate temporality that you have developed open!”

      If Badiou’s address, then, is to other intellectuals, it might be summarIzed as something like: don’t fall for Time magazine’s conclusion that these movements are about new technology and social media and Twitter; don’t get caught up in the surface resemblances of this moment to a previous one (e.g., I see peace signs and hand drums, so this must be the ’60s all over again); don’t get caught up in the fetishization of communitarian mechanisms of consensus building (which often seemed cloying and, frankly, conservative in effect if not intent). Pay attention to what’s new here on the level of time and temporal politics.

      In that light, something like OWS was very novel. For one thing, it opened up, in a new way, the night time as a political temporality. So much of politics remains determined by sunlight; this was decisively broken (and remains so, as Ferguson attests).

      OWS also opened up *continuity* as a dimension of political time: the thing just kept going, without a break. Finally, it opened up a new temporality of *crisis,* very different from the neoliberal instrumentalization of crisis. To my mind, the saddest disappointment of OWS was that it could not get its head around what was original about its own sense of crisis, and at some point reverted to an NGO/nonprofit/corporate campaign language of crisis, oddly congruent with that of the Simpson-Bowles austerity cult).

      I have to think more about this, but I hope that this provides a starting point, at least, for situating the kind of temporal politics about which Badiou speaks as a radical rather than reformist investment. Would love to hear your thoughts!

  2. I will say it, this is my favorite Badiou post from you: short and sweet.

    I have two questions. I really like how you bring affect into the discussion of both the Salaita and Ferguson affairs, but is “sentimental abundance” necessarily synonymous with a “principled concern for detail, accuracy, and accountability in regard to the machinations of the powerful”? There is a broad spectrum of conflicted affects in these contexts, from communal love to rage and melancholy. How can we parse out the politics of these individual and social feelings?

    Also, could you explain more in detail your critique of Occupy Wall Street? From what I have read here–and in other instances–it seems to me that you’re not offering a very fair representation when you suggest that they “reverted to an NGO/nonprofit/corporate campaign language of crisis, oddly congruent with that of the Simpson-Bowles austerity cult.” What actions and language are you referring to?The very multiform character of the people who actively participated and aligned themselves with Occupy goes against this characterization. If it is Occupy Sandy and the negotiation for economic relief through non profits, etc. that you allude to, the truth is many of the people involved weren’t even part of the original Occupy actions. They are distinct phenomena. True, many people participated in both, but my impression is that these people mostly dedicated themselves–after 2011-to community and grassroots activism and not brandishing the discourse you mention. They are not very visible, but you can find them in many pockets throughout New York City, in movements against real state speculation in Crown Heights, organizing food workers across the city, etc. The reverberations of OWS are with us today, throughout the globe. Its fragmentary, unstructured character is perhaps its deepest weakness. But at the same time, in this decentralized fluidity lies its strength and how it can continue to inspire other movements (unlike communism, which will always have to confront the specters of totalitarian violence).

  3. Kahlil, thanks so much, as always, for these wonderful comments.

    Re: the connection between the non-waning of affect and the pushback against Jeremiads about everyone becoming a Facebooking airhead–I admit that I had thought of these as separate points, but I wonder if secretly I meant to suggest an interleafing of some sort? Have to think about this more. Here, I should list, precisely, the critiques i am thinking about. So, for the neo-Jamesonian “waning of affect” wing, I am thinking particularly of Mark Fisher’s book on “capitalist realism,” and the work of Bernard Stiegler (even though I find a lot to like in the books of Fisher and Stiegler, too). For the “everyone has ADD and politics is impossible” wing, I am thinking of many orthodox Lacanians (J-A Miller perhaps above all), Critchley, and many NLR types (Wolfgang Streeck, for example, another author whose work is very valuable in other respects).

    What your comment nudges me towards (we have to talk about “nudging” these days, right, pace Cass Sunstein?) is a fuller look at affect. And I do think that the best work on affect, like Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, would help establish a link between intensely-felt and easily-transmitted affects like boredom, restlessness, and giddiness, on the one hand, and a certain devotion to diligence, on the other. This is was also true of the first New Left. Grace Hale’s book on the New Left, which takes affect seriously, is valuable on this. And this makes me think that what really must be reckoned with in historicizing the original New Left is “surplus affect” + a drive for knowledge.

    Re: OWS, point taken. You are right. I will try to be very clear about what I mean: speaking specifically about capitalism and the abuses of the FIRE sector, every discursive mobilization of “crisis” that I have seen from OWS-affiliated folks, post-Zuccotti, has reminded me greatly of the way “crisis” is used by ed reformers or the Kony guys or the “fix the debt” austerians or J Street in its most recent “we can make a 2 state solution happen!” mobilization. “Crisis” is part of a marketing platform, a key component of the product rollout, meant to create a situation of such urgency that questions and debate stop and everybody simply acts in conformity with the corporate campaign. I don’t deny that this can be effective (though I worry about the pain it inflicts on those who are, eventually, disappointed). In some cases I might agree that it is the best strategy, under current constraints. But it is–and this I think is Badiou’s point–a reflection of institutional capture, at the level of temporal consciousness.

    An alternative would be an insistence on a different temporality at the level of both protest and narrativization. This, I think, was a genuine accomplishment of the early OWS project, but I do not see it as having survived the toxic combination of police repression and internal disagreement about what capitalism is, at what level its moral torts should be situated, and what might replace it.

    What do you think?

    • Thanks for the clarifications! Lots to munch on here, very helpful. I think the accomplishment you rightfully see in OWS lives on, but not through OWS. In my eyes, it is not specific to Occupy, you could point back to flashes in Seattle and more intensified enactments through the Zapatistas in Chiapas and, closer to the present, the student movement in Chile. In the US I feel that the ghosts of Occupy accompany us even if the actual force of the movement has dissolved, they are with us in different ways and in diverse intensities, in our everyday language regarding capital and the state, the interventions I mentioned, etc. After all, history has taught us that such flashes are not necessarily finite; they do not follow a teleology of life and death. And this ties in with Ferguson and the affective tension surrounding it, where you can see echoes of the unaccomplished promises of the Civil Rights Movement and its affects (the MLK-Carmichael dialectic). About crisis, I hear you. More and more I believe we have to be very careful about how we use this word and even wonder how useful it can be to reflect on the contemporary world. Once it served a critical function, as Kosselleck points out in his study of the Enlightenment, Critique and Crisis, but to my eyes it has become an empty signifier, to be exploited by the forces you mention.

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