Occupy Wall St. – Žižek’s Act or Badiou’s Event?

I was downtown talking with people at Occupy Chicago last Monday, and I met a man named Les, who I mistook for the leader of the movement.  I’m sure you all know that OWS is leaderless, but I’ve always assumed this is reall just code for Leader-Les, who happened to be a 67 year old man, retired and concerned about the future (or lack of) we are leaving for the future generations.

Anyway, this movement has so far put the mainstream media into the role of the hysteric asking, “What do you want?” “What are your goals?”  Without clear demands, without a clear object-ive, the media is left without an object to represent, to summarize, to digest, to reduce into sound-bites positioned within well-established coordinates.  But what are we to make of the Occupy movements and there attempts to do something impossible?  It reminded me of two ways of thinking change: Žižek’s Act or Badiou’s Event.


Žižek’s Act?

On the one hand OWS seems to fit perfectly with Žižek’s understanding of the “subjective destitution”, the act of separating one’s self from symbolic support, the act of cutting ties to socially defined roles and expectations, the act of dying to the symbolic order, and therefore in a sense, dying to oneself. This is the “hysterical” position where on doubts the efficacy of the the established order (the status quo) and therefore puts one’s own subjective position into doubt, causing what may seem to be irrational outbursts (as opposed to the “perverse” position and it’s more rational transgressions).  This systematic doubt derails the power of the ruling order, opening a new horizon for action, even if (or especially because) it might seem ‘unrealistic’. And this is what Žižek’s means when he speaks of subjective destitution as death, for only when one considers oneself dead to the existing order will you be able to actually act freely with regard to it.[1] Only then will you move from piecemeal forms of transgressive resistance against the existing order toward creating the possibility of another order altogether.

And doesn’t this rough and ready summary seem to fit the Occupy movements?  They don’t have a definitive request to make of the ruling political order; there are no directives or objectives.  Indeed, OWS has attempted indifference toward party politics and has engaged Wall Street instead of Washington.  Its leaderlessness is a type of unplugging from the organizational demands so often and easily co-opted by the ruling powers.

Badiou’s Event

On the other hand OWS also seems to fit Badiou’s understanding of the political event.  For Badiou an event does not attempt to define (financial) equality but declares (financial) equality against the corporate strangle hold on economics and politics.  A true political event does not merely concern itself with ambiguous realms within political discourse (in this case, various gradations of economic liberalism: conservative-, neo-conservative-, or liberal-liberalism), but actively decides in favor of the singular existing outsides such discourse (i.e. media discourse, lobbying discourse, Capital Hill discourses, etc). These decisions witness to the fact that something new can come into existence within a situation, declaring and discerning its consequences.  Badiou calls these eruptions ‘events’, an event (in this case a political event) is the revealing or acknowledging of something within the situation that had not been previously represented by the state, and not only not represented by also repressed by the state.  In this way, an event disrupts the smooth functioning of the state when political subjects decide in favor of an event (i.e. that OWS exists) which calls for theirs involvement in declaring and discerning the event’s consequences within the political situation. This fidelity to an event puts into positive circulation what had been previously excluded by the state, calling into existence what the state did not allow.  In this way, a political truth (or truth-event) always works its way through particular subjects, faithful to a singular event, investigating its results and connections.

Doesn’t this also seem to fit the Occupy movements?  Calling into questions politics as normal, ditching the party system and its reality and its definitions of possibility, OWS is actively deciding in favor of the 99% as those who should be counted as/in themselves rather than merely accounted for through financial calculations (of debt) or political calculations (of voter responses).  OWS could be thought of as a political event (but perhaps it is too early to tell) that is calling into existence new political subjects which act at a distance to politics as usual.

Of Death and Resurrection

One way of telling the difference between Žižek’s Act and Badiou’s Event could be thought as the difference between death and resurrection.

The political act for Žižek is death to the symbolic order, a persisting in death while still alive, which allows for freedom from ruling ideology.  This is the formation of a subjectivity which persists between and beyond any formal system of order, or rather, it persists both after the fall of one symbolic order and before the creation of a new order.  This understanding protects against an over-hasty production of another oppressive order (the old master is gone…say hello to the new master!).  With a movement calling into question the global capitalist order like OWS, persisting in the negative moment of thought, of discussion, of consensus building without clear goals might be the only way to ensure lasting change.  In this way, it is wrong for those who complain about the lack of objectives because this complaint is either just a reversion back to the normal order of politics or an over-zealous attempting at building something new.

From the New Yorker

The political event for Badiou is more like resurrection, because for him “death as such counts for nothing in the operation of salvation” because death can only be the site of an event, not its cause or ground.[2]  What always counts for Badiou is the emergence of something new, not the possibility but the reality of something new happening in the world, which for him is more resurrection than death.  The authentic political subject is suspended by an event, is resurrection by an event, which declares that something new is happening here.  The political event for Badiou declares with the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear.”  For Badiou, the emergence of the new (beyond and indifferent to old binaries) is the sole concern of a political subject, building a new society amid the rubble of the old.

With the loss of Zuccotti Park it is difficult to know how to conceptualize Occupy movements.  Are they (will they take) the form of Žižek Act, creating a community of activist willing and capable of persisting in a liminal situation (political zombies) out side the party system, or are they (will they take) the form of Badiou’s Event, building a new way of living in small, concentrated actions.

Between Death and Resurrection

When asked by Pilate if he was a king Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”  Or maybe is we could politicize the Message version, “My kingdom doesn’t consist of the socio-economic political options you see around you. If it did, my activist followers would terrorize you so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of party politician. I’m not the typical activist of this world.”

That Jesus kingdom is not of this world resonates well with OWS persistence that its is not an ordinary social movement.  But this other-(than politics as usual)-worldliness has not been the sole purview of social movements for some (unfortunately not most) corners of the church have practices an alternative political formation for quite some time.  These ecclesial movements (see new monasticism or jesus radicals) perhaps exist between death and resurrection, a type of baptismal participation in the kingdom of Jesus, as Paul says,

“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6.4-5)

For political subjectivity is neither being suspended by a truth-event, nor suspending the symbolic law, but rather a suspension between death and resurrection according to our baptismal incorporation in Christ. In other words, political subjectivity is neither hysterical nor evental, but baptismal.

[1] Žižek ,The Ticklish Subject, pp. 260-264.

[2] Badiou, Saint Paul, 69–70 (emphasis added).

  • John

    What about a third possibility, namely the first signs of the spontaneous emergence of something completely new, or of “everybody all at once”


  • Jason Clark

    Luke Bretherton makes a case for understanding the Occupy Movement as the establishing of ‘temporary autonomous zones’, the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control, a la Hakim Bey.

    See: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/luke-bretherton/the-real-battle-of-st-pau_b_1065214.html

    • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

      Thanks for the link to Bretherton’s article. That was really good, especially the talk about London being the center of the international financial web. How to break that network, or exist beyond it is the question.

  • David Congdon

    Except for the sacramental turn at the end, this is an excellent post. I am partial to Badiou, but that’s because I don’t see it as strictly resurrection — that is, I don’t quite accept the death/resurrection binary you’ve set up here, though it’s illuminating on a basic level. Badiou’s Second Manifesto helps to nuance things, I think.

    • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh


      Thanks for the comment. Besides the sacramental turn (you can definitely read Romans 6 differently), I agree that the binary is somewhat artificial, but it is a rough way to compare the two. Badiou is certainly more dialectical than most Anglo-Americans give him credit for (mostly because they read him through Zizek’s interpretation and its serves Z. to make Badiou into a modern Kantian).

      But especially regarding politics, I think the characterization is apt.

      But I do think Paul links death and resurrection better than both, even if I follow Badiou quite a ways (which I do).

      How do you think Badiou nuances things here?

  • Ashe_garr

    Thanks for your thoughts Geoff,

    I totally agree that Christianity does create this ‘third way’ of thinking change, which totally subverts both Zizek and Badiou and the world as a whole (recapulates). Both Zizek and Badiou as you present there understanding of the ‘new’ as an ‘act’ or ‘event’ end up just bad in the old (symbolic support) and this clearly seen inn their understanding of death and resurrection which Christainity subverts.

    Because both Ziziek and Badiou hold both death and resurrection together as a totality, they miss the true subversive realityof the resurrection which reveal the ‘new’ to bring about the change they desire (the universal). It is only when the resurrection reveals the truth of the cross, the new is revealed and this new is the ‘innocent self-giving victim’. So by both Zizek and badioou who both need this death (murder) of Jesus to bering about the new – they end up falling back into the symbolic once more. and back into a sacrificial ecomony and mythology and so reject the ‘gospel’.

    So by Jesus being vindicated by the father in the resurrection, it re eals that the cross is nothing more than a ‘scapegoat mechanism’ of human violence. So the cross is not a sacrifice par excellence (death drive), but the ‘sacrifice of sacrifice’, and so the new is created around the ‘innocent self-giving victim’ – which is the body of Christ.

    Garreth Ashe

  • Ashe_garr

    To add to what I wrote in my last post is thet tha resurrection reveals what James Alison calls God’s deathlessness, and so reveals our human deathfulness. So in relation to Peter Rollins insurrection, the cross isnt a place of Godforsakenness/abandonment, because the Father doesnt abandon the Son on the cross for a second, and by vindicating the Son through the resurrection reveals our true deathful condition, and by the victim being reveal as innocent and not as guilty as the lynchers claim, the cross is nothing but a mechanism of death and voilence which reveals the intelligence of the victim, so Pete is right the cross and resurrection does reveal our symbolic support but unfortunately for Pete he covers it up again by needed the death of Jesus and so leave us in a place where we are victims. So sin is not ontological but contingent, and by the cross and resurrection revealibg the victim we no longer need to be victimers and can leave the symbolic support behind and so participate in God non violent Kingdom and make a real historical change here and now.

    Garreth Ashe

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