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The Spirit of Nihilism by Alexander R. Galloway

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem
L'esprit du nihilisme: Une ontologique de l'Histoire
Paris: Fayard, 2009

The story is often told of Marx that he was the product of a specific
tripartite European formation: British political economy, German
idealism, and French socialism. The Europe of today is different: in
Germany we have media theory, in Italy we have political theory, and
in France we have philosophy. The period of crisis and retrenchment
that began in French philosophy around 1975 or 1976, and that lasted
for twenty-five years, is, happily, coming to an end. The children of
the '68ers are now of age. And they are writing.

There are two figures poised to emerge as important young voices in
France. They could not be more different. The first is already known
in the English-speaking world. He is Quentin Meillassoux, the author
of _After Finitude_ (Continuum, 2008). The second is almost entirely
unknown outside of France. His name is Mehdi Belhaj Kacem but he
often goes by his initials, MBK. Both Meillassoux and MBK have been
propelled in part by the vast intellectual richness and patronage of
Alain Badiou. While Meillassoux is a rigorous scientist and, as an
intellectual presence at the Ecole Normale Superieure, already an
institutional insider, MBK is a self-styled outsider, a trickster, an
autodidact, or, in his own words, an "anti-scholastic," an

There are still challenges ahead for both Meillassoux and MBK.
Meillassoux's hyper-technical interventions are perhaps too
specialized to gain much influence beyond the microcosm of academic
philosophy. If _After Finitude_ is any indicator, he does not appear
to have much interest in classical political categories such as
history or the social. MBK aims for a slightly wider appeal, writing
about video games, film, literature, and philosophy. More acolyte
than guru, his writing tends to emulate the philosophers he most
admires -- priority is given to Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben, but
Martin Heidegger, G. W. F. Hegel, Reiner Schurmann, Christian Jambet,
Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan also play leading roles.
Meillassoux and MBK are young, full of ideas, and exploding with
energy. Their best work is ahead of them.

MBK's new book, _L'esprit du nihilisme: Une ontologique de
l'Histoire_ [_The Spirit of Nihilism: An Ontologic of History_]
(Paris: Fayard, 2009), appears in Badiou's book series, the same
venerable collection formerly housed at Seuil and coedited by Barbara
Cassin, the well-known classicist. _L'esprit du nihilisme_ seems to
be MBK's attempt to write a so-called great work of philosophy -- to
write his own _Being and Event_, his own _Phenomenology of Spirit_,
his own _Broken Hegemonies_. With several books published already,
_L'esprit du nihilisme_ was to be MBK's explication of a true
philosophical system. Though if it fails to achieve such lofty
heights, _L'esprit du nihilisme_ nevertheless contains a fabulous
consolation prize: an intriguing series of philosophical provocations
that will disrupt continental philosophy, a discourse experiencing
dramatic reorganization in the wake of "the failure of theory."

MBK's central goal in _L'esprit du nihilisme_ is to merge Agamben and
Badiou under a single philosophical project. He has been preparing
for this argument in his recent books, rehearsing what it would take
to make such a claim. The discovery of Badiou was a formative event
for MBK, a kind of philosophical catachism as transformative as MBK's
earlier discoveries of Lacan and Friedrich Nietzsche. The best
illustration of his interest in Badiou (particularly in Badiou's
mathematics-based ontology) was probably MBK's 2004 book _Evenement
et repetition_ [_Event and Repetition_] (Tristram). Ostensibly an
attempt to work through the ontological claims of Deleuze and Badiou,
_Evenement et repetition_ contains the same kind of set theory
formulae found in Badiou's more technical work. MBK also has great
admiration for Agamben, particularly for what is generally considered
the central conceit of Agamben's work: the interrelated concepts of
the exception, banishment (the ban), profanation, bare life, and the
figure of ~homo sacer~. MBK wrote on these themes in an appealing
little book titled _La psychose francaise -- Les banlieues: le ban de
la Republique_ [_The French Psychosis_] (2006), which was published
by Gallimard, indicating that he could be taken seriously by the
French publishing establishment. _La psychose francaise_ is a direct
response to the 2005 riots in France and focuses on a number of puns
involving the terms ~ban-lieues~, ban, and banishment. In America
today a single date returns repeatedly to define political life: 11
September 2001. But contemporary French political discourse pivots
around two dates: 21 April 2002, when the far right-wing candidate
Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round of the presidential
election, signaling the abject failure of the socialist party; and
November 2005, when the French government declared a state of
emergency in response to several days of sustained unrest in the
suburban ~banlieues~ and elsewhere. MBK's treatment of Agamben is not
particularly original, but _La psychose francaise_ carries a quiet
rage emanating from within a young writer who is not only profoundly
affected by the negligence of the French state, but is also deeply
offended that no one cared to interview him about it

I begin with a simple personal observation: no one in the French
media, not in television or the major daily and weekly
publications, not even radio, thought it would be a good idea to
consult a certain young French intellectual of Tunisian
extraction, one of the best known in his generation in the areas
of literature and philosophy. An intellectual, even, who spent a
part of his adolescence in one of these miserable ~banlieues~,
and who has tried in various ways to consider the question of
*the nonproductive* [~desoeuvrement~] as a completely new
political category. [1]

MBK lived in Tunisia until the age of twelve, before moving to
France. He learned French in grade school and was thirty-two years
old during the 2005 riots. The miserable ~banlieue~ he lived in is
Fosses -- north of Paris on the dreary "D" rapid transit line.
Perhaps miserable, Fosses is certainly not the most squalid of the
Parisian suburban ghettos. MBK did not spend long in Fosses; he made
a name for himself by publishing two novels, _Cancer_ and _1993_,
when he was only twenty-one. A third novel followed two years later,
_Vies et morts d'Irene Lepic_. He then turned to philosophy and began
a rigorous reading of the classics, including Immanuel Kant, Hegel,
Deleuze, and Lacan. Around the turn of the millennium he was one of
the animating forces behind the review _EvidenZ_. Since then he has
written steadily, starred in a film, and even taught a few seminars
-- all the while cultivating a profile as the leading antiphilosopher
of his generation.

Rehearsed in his earlier works, MBK's attempt to merge Agamben and
Badiou under a single philosophical project reaches full force in
_L'esprit du nihilisme_. But what points of overlap exist between
these two authors? Agamben provides the politics and Badiou the
ontology. From Agamben comes the "state of exception," and from
Badiou the "evental site." The merger is a simple one that can be
summarized by a question: Why is it that, in the modern world, the
evental site and the state of exception are so often the *same
thing*? This is a powerful question, one that Badiou has had to
defend on a number of occasions (for example, why was Bolshevism an
event, but not Nazism? The answer is simply that Badiou's eventism
does not obey a law of symmetry going from left to right).

MBK's central question in _L'esprit du nihilisme_ is, "Why is the
evental site so often a state of exception, and why politically does
the event so often *sew the seeds* of the state of exception, lending
to the confusion that often arises between the 'positive' event
(revolutionary let's call it) and the 'negative' event (genocide,
State crime)?" (46). In other words, why are events today more often
riots than revolutions? Or as Roberto Esposito put it in his splendid
book _Bios_, "Why does a politics of life always risk being reversed
into a work of death?" Perhaps what MBK is doing to Badiou is
awakening a theory of the "dark event," the event that does not call
for the fidelity of a subject, but instead indicates a foundational
evil, an inaugurating tragedy. This is why Badiou's void is so
appealing to MBK, who argues that "[w]hat is at stake in our endeavor
is to tell of the 'nature' of this presence [the void]" (80).

By merging Agamben with Badiou, MBK adds the notion of the abject to
the evental site. Heidegger is introduced as a foil along the way.
"Being is not 'dissimulation'" (123), MBK writes, meaning that being
itself becomes clear and open only when rewritten (by Badiou) in the
clear and open language of math. To be sure, Badiou is not the first
to do this, only the most recent. This puts Badiou in sharp
distinction with Heideggerian phenomenology, which tends to consider
being as something cloaked, obscure, or withdrawn. "The neoplatonic
paradigm is thus the best" (123), MBK concludes, agreeing again with
Badiou. Still, MBK devotes long sections of _L'esprit du nihilisme_
to Heidegger, responding specifically to Heidegger's lesser known
book, _Beitrage zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)_, which was written in
the 1930s but not published in English until 1989. The term
~Ereignis~ is of particular interest to MBK ~vis-a-vis~ Badiou. While
~Ereignis~ is translated awkwardly in Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly's
English edition as "enowning" (_Contributions to Philosophy [From
Enowning]_), the term also means simply "event," as in "the Event of
Appropriation" [2]. MBK makes a clear separation between Heidegger
and Badiou:

The two key metaphysicians of the twenFtieth century, Heidegger
and Badiou, employ exactly the same categories, formerly unseen
in the history of philosophy: Being, event, singularity, site,
decision of the undecidable, etc. What must be examined more
closely, then, is the difference between the two positions: the
first, hermeneutics, reckons that it is possible to *found the
site*, the site that will give rise to the event. We will call
this metaphysical tendency *the ontological far right*. The
second tendency holds that it is absolutely impossible to found
the site. Rather, it is the site that "founds," meaning that it
gives rise to, without any preparation, any willfulness, or any
decision, the event. We will call this metaphysical tendency
*the ontological far left*. (125)

Though he calls Heidegger's book an "*internal* critique of national
socialism" (127), MBK's references to "the ontological far right"
serve as a prelude to his eventual indictment of Heidegger's nazism.
MBK claims that it is only in fascism that the conditions for the
event are forced into existence through the rational will. In
contrast, for Badiou the condition of the event ontologically
preexists any notion of "founding" whatsoever, for the condition *is*
Being itself, apart from which stands the event. As others have done
before him, MBK paints a broad target on Heidegger, suggesting that
the desire to build events will lead eventually to the construction
of gas chambers: "It is in national socialism, in buildability, in
wanting to eliminate 'abjection'...that one ends up perpetrating the
worst abjections" (126). While MBK's argument may win applause
politically, philosophically it leaves a number of things undone. For
instance, it is unclear how far MBK will go to defend the notion of a
radical anti-constructivism, and further, whether this position would
make him vulnerable to the kinds of anti-essentialist critiques
popular during the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. Or is
MBK simply restating Isaiah Berlin's concept of "negative liberty"
under a new name? In other words, is MBK making the old liberal claim
that any attempt to sculpt society is always protofascist? Shall we
sit back and let the absolute laws take over -- if not markets then
mathematics or ontology? The stalwart idealist concepts of the
absolute, infinity, or spirit were most certainly some of the great
casualties of the twentieth century. By the 1960s in France it had
become extremely unfashionable in certain circles to read Hegel or
Plato. But today, with the rise of figures like Badiou, Slavoj Zizek,
and Meillassoux, that has all changed. As I see it, the burning
question is, "Will the absolute ever return to its former position as
the left's political enemy, and, if so, how fierce and fast will the
backlash be?"

Agamben is MBK's lifeline out of this tricky situation. Beyond his
interest in Agamben's analysis of the state of exception and bare
life, MBK has been one of the first theorists to embrace Agamben's
notion of profanation. In chapter ten of _L'esprit du nihilisme_,
"Nihilism, Parody, and Profanation," MBK grants a philosophical
privilege to the concept of profanation, presenting it as the
Agambenian counterpart to Badiou's concept of the event. Just as the
event is an appropriation, profanation is a reappropriation; just as
the event signals an excess, profanation indicates a return (of what
was removed). As MBK argues, "The event is the pure appropriation of
the inappropriable; profanation is the reappropriation of what *was*
expropriated within the 'sacred' sphere" (223). The idea of
profanation is key because it allows MBK to theorize the present
state of world affairs, what he calls the state of "democratic
nihilism" (a term roughly synonymous with Badiou's "democratic
materialism"). We are the first profane generation, he writes,
"Profanation is thus nothing less than the absolute singularity of
the age in which we've grown up...iconoclasm and iconolatry *appear
very strictly as the same thing*" (226). The contemporary cult of the
profane, which he blames on both the "vitalist leftists" of May 1968
and the exigencies of neoliberal capitalism (for after all they are
now thoroughly unified), is one in which a number of old virtues are
held up as true, but nevertheless appear sinister and lifeless. For
example, we have equality, but it is a blanket equality that produces
a flat world of flat individuals. And we have transparency, but it is
a transparency so rigorously enforced that it feels more pornographic
(show everything!) than transcendent. "*All truth must appear*," he
writes, echoing the 1960s critiques of commodities and spectacle,
"*All appearance*, and nothing but appearance, is truth" (227).

Theology is a recurrent theme in _L'esprit du nihilisme_, due largely
to the influence of Jambet. An important middle chapter, "The
Ruptured One in Shiism," consists of a periodization theory for the
three great monotheisms. MBK calls it his "history...of the
topologies of Being" (403). Jews, Christians, and Muslims are
conditioned by "the *rationality* native to each of their historical
periods" (401), he writes. The goal, then, is to historicize religion
itself, and ultimately to describe how the three monotheistic
religions deal with the relationship between Being (~Etre~) and being
(~etant~). In the first topology of being, Judaism, he describes
Being and being as two parallel planes separated by an infinite
boundary line. In MBK's formulation, the Jew stands as a disruption
of the line, as the exception, as the ~objet a~, as the figure of the
exodus (403-406). The second topology of being, Christianity,
performs a double action. First, it universalizes Being as God the
Father, and second, it condenses being into a single abject
representation, the martyred body of Christ the Son. As MBK explains,
"Christianity undoes the node of Being=event by *universalizing* the
access-to-Being...Christ *is* the appearance *of* the supreme Being"
(405). If the Jew is a line, the Christian is a point. Christ is "the
ontic support-center of the circular totality of Being" (406). The
third topology of being, Islam and in particular Shiism, which he
calls the "avant-garde" of Islam, transcends Christianity's dualistic
divination of being/Being (as Son/Father) by placing God *behind*
Being. There are thus three terms at play, not two: being, Being, and
God (or the One): "The originality of this construction is thus that
the *non-being of the One* is *behind* Being, just as we see, in the
most dramatic intuitions of Heidegger during the 1936-1938 period,
that nothing is 'behind' Being" (410). In this way the One (God) is
not reducible to Being in Islam. The Shiite iteration allows MBK a
link back to Badiou, via the notion that nothing (the void) serves as
a baseline condition for Being (from which may arise beings as

MBK's analysis of religion leads him to a discussion of contemporary
geopolitics. For example, he engages directly with the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, criticizing what he sees as the
hypocrisy of the Jewish state and arguing that Israel is the
impossible outcome of the same impossible logic that Israel currently
imposes on the Palestinians. "This is the Zionist psychosis par
excellence," he writes, referring to Zionist claims about the
nonexistence of Palestine, and the tendency to think in terms of
"Arabs," an ethnocultural category, rather than "Palestinians," a
political category. "Prior to the founding of the State of Israel,"
MBK continues, "*what would one have thought of someone who would
have claimed that the Jews did not exist simply because they didn't
have a state*?" (173). The historical transformation from stateless
Jew to stateless Palestinian is thus symptomatic for him. Yet the
outcome of these claims is not entirely clear, and it remains to be
seen if MBK will become the object of the kind of criticism that has
been leveled against Badiou and Zizek for their writings on Zionism
and the figure of the Jew.

MBK is a grand synthesizer. His talent is recombination. He does to
philosophy -- and this is both a strength and a weakness -- what a
deejay does to music. He has the confidence to read the great
philosophers and make dramatic macroscopic claims. For some this
might seem indiscreet or virtuosic. Sometimes his slicing
pronouncements are the result of a deeply felt ontological
commitment: "Deleuze is wrong and Badiou is right" (35). At other
times they sound forced, like an overly opportunistic snipe:
"Heidegger is wrong, Lacoue-Labarthe right" (484). The practice of
erecting and maintaining relationships bound by apprenticeship and
patronage is strong in France. Buoyed by such relationships, MBK is
also trapped by them at a fundamental level. Ironically, this
"anti-scholastic" outsider is more beholden to his library than
someone like Meillassoux, who engages David Hume or Kant directly,
with the same facility and passion as a mechanic performing an oil

France is currently undergoing a broad new wave of philosophical
research and development, a movement that goes far beyond MBK and
Meillassoux. For example, Catherine Malabou has proven herself to be
a leading interpreter of Hegel, having studied under Derrida and
Jean-Luc Marion. The work of various "neo-situationist" collectives
such as Tiqqun, the Invisible Committee, Claire Fontaine, and others
illustrates that the spirit of political rebellion is alive and well.
MBK will certainly be a major voice in this new generation. The
problem is that he considers himself to be the next Badiou. He is not
that; he is not a maker of systems and he has not yet identified a
vocabulary that resonates beyond academic circles, as Badiou has done
with his "fidelity," or his "tense" and "atonal" worlds. But if not
the next Badiou, perhaps MBK is the next Zizek. _L'esprit du
nihilisme_ feels a bit like Zizek's 2008 book, _In Defense of Lost
Causes_. Like Zizek's text, the strength of _L'esprit du nihilisme_
is less in the brilliance of a single argument or philosophical
breakthrough (leave that to Meillassoux) but more in the energetic
refrain of hyperbolic commentary that MBK maintains for dozens of
pages. This tendency may help to explain why MBK's best book, or at
least his most entertaining one, is _Pop philosophie_ [_Pop
Philosophy_] (Denoel, 2005), a book of extended interviews conducted
by Philippe Nassif in 2003. There is amazing material in _L'esprit du
nihilisme_, and at least two of the long sections, "Event and
Profanation" and "Algebra of Tragedy," should probably have been
published as stand alone books. Perhaps an overseas translator will
save MBK from himself by filtering his sprawling oeuvre to extract
and organize the most important essays. A book of selected writings
would be ideal. Until then, volumes like _L'esprit du nihilisme_ (and
there will be more like it) will fail to get the attention they
deserve -- dismissed as the automatic writing of a hyperactive
philosopher, but one who nevertheless is under served by being
systematically under-read.



[1] Mehdi Belhaj Kacem. _La psychose francaise -- Les banlieues: le
ban de la Republique_ (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), 9-10.

[2] See in particular: Martin Heidegger. _On Time and Being_, trans.
Joan Stambaugh (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).


Alexander R. Galloway is a writer and programmer. His most recent
book, written with Eugene Thacker, is _The Exploit: A Theory of