Photo by EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA courtesy LA Times

Response to Vangeesa Sumanasekara’s Badiou’s Event and the defeat of the Tigers: A Brief Response to Dayan Jayatilleka

My literate young critic Vangeesa Sumanasekara, a serious student of philosophy, seems to say that the focus of his disputation with my essay is not primarily the political but rather the philosophical. He concedes the link between the two, by referring to Badiou’s point that philosophy can be of “indirect help” to politics.

I see it differently. I should preface my remarks with the admission that my understanding of the relationship between politics and philosophy is considerably distinct from that of Vangeesa, or Badiou for that matter. I take my cue from Gramsci who interprets Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach to mean “in other words, that philosophy must become ‘politics’ or ‘practice’ in order for it to continue to be philosophy”. (Prison Notebooks, Eighth Notebook, 208). At the risk of overstatement, politics, in this reading, is the salvation of philosophy.

Though it appears to be a dispute on a philosophical interpretation or of my political appropriation of the philosophical, at the heart of Vangeesa’s disagreement with my perspective is a fundamentally political matter and a fundamental matter of politics. Not entirely coincidentally, the issue also marks the main weakness — the Achilles Heel—of the Left and progressive intelligentsia in Sri Lanka today.

Before we move to the political heart of the matter let us dispose of the methodological and philosophical weeds and brambles. Vangessa itemizes “Jayatilleka’s conflation of Badiou with the decisionism of Schmitt, his problematic re-articulation of three subjective responses to an event, and the sheer absurdity of identifying the military victory of the Sri Lankan state over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a Badiouian event.”

I am sorry to say that by accident or design, Vangeesa has set up a straw man which he proceeds to flog.

Vangeesa quotes Badiou’s refutation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s description of him as a decisionist; a new Carl Schmitt. While Badiou’s rejection does not in and of itself refute Lyotard’s description, my use of Schmitt and Badiou was, as a cursory re-reading will show, not the same as that of Lyotard. I did not present nor do I consider Badiou a Schmittian decisionist. However I differ from Badiou inasmuch as I consider Schmitt’s decisionism as compatible with Badiou’s Event— and in that sense I admit I incline more to Lyotard on the issue. Compatibility and in a stronger sense, location on a continuum, are by no means conflation, contrary to Vangeesa’s view.

As it turns out, and contrary to Vangeesa’s effort to set me right, I am in exceedingly good philosophical company. He might wish to consider the fact that Giorgio Agamben sees more than a continuum (as I do) between Schmitt and Badiou and posits a structural correspondence: “Badiou’s thought is, from this perspective, a rigorous thought of the exception. His central category of the event corresponds to the structure of the exception.” (Agamben, Homo Sacer) What is more, as one who is a keen student of the work of Peter Hallward, Vangeesa must surely be aware that Hallward regards ‘the decision’ as very much a part of the Badiouian perspective. Talking about “Badiou’s mature ontology” Peter Hallward writes that “what comes first is the decision and its decider, the subject who answers the axiom’ (Hallward, Badiou). In turn this leads Alex Callinicos to comment that if Hallward “is right…Badiou’s is a much more radical decisionism than, say, Schmitt’s: its decisions all the way down”. (Callinicos, The Resources of Critique).

Vangeesa goes on to depict my rendition of the three schools of thought as my distortion of the views of Badiou, and he proceeds to admonish and correct me on my interpretation. Now that, I’m afraid, is a sleight of hand, of the sort used in ‘three-card monte’ (the three card trick). He writes: “To be fair to Jayatilleka, he does not explicitly state that he is delineating Badiou’s three subjective positions apropos an event. But the narrative structure of his argument seriously justifies such an assumption, for he articulates his position immediately after he gives a detailed list of examples of Badiouian event.” Come, come. Because my threefold delineation of possible perspectives comes after a reference to Badiou— in fact it is restated later as well— the “narrative structure seriously justifies such an assumption”? I rather think not. If I haven’t said it is Badiouian, it is because it is not. If I quote Marx and then go on to make a point of my own, after the quote, with no mention that these are Marx’s points, is one therefore to assume that they are indeed Marx’s? Going by that “serious” assumption, Althusser’s tripartite segmentation (which followed, preceded and was studded with lines from Marx) of the (Hegelian) Early Marx, the Marx of the Break and the mature Marx of Capital, was actually that of Karl Marx himself! Of course Marx, Engels and Lenin never set out such a triptych.

Vangeesa has been a little careless in his reading or rendition—which undermines his argument to a considerable extent. Contrary to his version, I did not refer to the Sri Lankan military victory of May 2009 as “a Badiouian Event”, but as precisely a “neo-Badiouian Event”, which implies a creative extension/application.

Vangeesa’s application to the subject of love, of my three strand differentiation is unintentionally funny because it proves my point rather than disproves it. A couple elopes and years later break up. So what is our attitude? Blame them for having fallen in love and eloping, and endorsing their conservative parents criticism that had the marriage proposals they fetched been taken up, none of this would have happened? Or do we simply shrug and say about both the eloping and the breakup that shit happens? Or do we celebrate the original non-conformist decision of the lovers and try to understand the contradictions that led to a break up or worse? Only the third perspective (mine, not Badiou’s or Vangeesa’s) enables an appreciation of the Romantic and a grasp of the tragic.

Vangeesa writes that “An event, in other words, is not a subjective phenomenon – it is a real occurrence in the outside world.” In the first place, while this may be a refutation of my interpretation of the crucifixion and the resurrection, if Vangeesa’s criterion is that the event has to be a real occurrence in the outside world, it only upholds my identification of the decisive victory of May 2009 as such an event: let me assure Vangeesa that it was real. In the second place Vangeesa’s identification of the Event as defined by its occurrence in the outside world, is strikingly at variance with that of the philosopher who has engaged most generously with Badiou, namely Slavoj Zizek: “ Badiou is fully justified in insisting that —to use the term with its full theological weight— miracles do happen.” (Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, my underscore-DJ)

I fear that Vangeesa has either misunderstood or underestimated Badiou’s own reading of St Paul and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as an Event. Badiou not only refers to St Paul as the ‘Lenin of the Universal Church’; ‘one of the very first theoreticians of the universal’, he returns to Paul in search of a new post–Lenin model of militancy. Contrary to Vangeesa’s dismissal of my reading, Alex Callinicos notes that “in Theorie du sujet Badiou identifies the Christian event with the Incarnation, while in his work on St Paul he says that ‘Paul’s thought dissolves the Incarnation into the Resurrection’ ”. Completely contrary to Vangeesa’s version, Badiou refers to Paul’s universalization of Christianity by focusing on the Resurrection as “pure event, opening of an epoch, change in the relations between the possible and the impossible.” Callinicos renders Badiou as saying that “Paul recognised that if Judaism was the site of the Christ-Event’, the event nevertheless transcended its site”.

Totally aware of Badiou’s reference to the Resurrection as a fable, Zizek nonetheless suggests that Badiou can be read as the last great author in the French tradition of Catholic dogmaticists”. Again, quite contrary to Vangeesa’s definition of the Badiouian event as a “real event in the outside world”, Callinicos comments, having noted Badiou’s discussion of Grace: “This means that why an event happens becomes a mystery—like the Resurrection or Christ’s appearing to Paul on the road to Damascus”.

Now to the core political disputation, which Vangeesa sees as a philosophical one. He writes that:“Badiou is an anti-statist thinker, and a political event, for Badiou, can never be a victory of the state! Politics, for Badiou, is something that happens at a distance from the state. I would even say that, ultimately, for Badiou, the state is the enemy of true – emancipatory – politics. It is from the state that the oppressed have to win their demands.”

That is precisely Badiou’s weakness. How could anyone make sense of the defeat of Nazi Germany or the victory of Vietnam over the USA, by means of this anti–state fundamentalism? For the impoverished children in the border villages in Sri Lanka who were hacked to death while sleeping by squads of marauding Tiger women, the “demand” that they as oppressed had to win from the state, was that of protecting their lives and communities by eliminating the secessionist fascists. Any kind of politics, emancipatory or otherwise is possible only if the state has cleared the space for it, by defeating barbarism and restoring some semblance of law and order. This Hobbesian insistence has been proven by the fact that until the state coercively restored order, the finest champions of emancipatory politics such as Vijaya Kumaratunga and K Pathmanabha were mown down by neo-barbarism of South and North. Political space has reopened in the North and East precisely because of the state’s re-imposition of order.

Marx, Engels (‘On Authoritarianism’), Lenin and Che were hardly against all forms of state at all times. This surely was the main disagreement between Marx and Bakunin. It is Badiou’s very weakness, of fundamentalist anti-statism, that places him close to the classic positions of the Anarchists, and makes him repeatedly celebrate the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of China, which was lamented at the time by Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap and denounced by Fidel Castro, whose positions would surely be safe from critique by Vangeesa as “not a one of militant engagement but a position of safe critical distance”.

The problem with those of Badiou’s ideas that Vangeesa quotes and endorses in his critique, is not merely that they are anti-state, but that by being so centrally anti-state, this body of ideas make it absolutely impossible to engage in serious, consequential political intervention or praxis. As Gramsci says “Machiavelli, rightly, brings everything back to politics, that is, to the art of governing men, of securing their permanent consent, and hence of founding ‘great states’”. (Notebook Five, 127) And again: “Big politics encompasses issues related to the founding of new states and to the struggle for the defense and preservation of a given socio-political structure”. (Notebook Eight, 8).

My perspective and framework is in the main, neo-Gramscian, not Badiouian and therefore I cannot be evaluated by the criterion of fidelity to Badiou. My recourse to Badiou is as a point of reference, or as Althusser confessed of his use of Spinoza, a ‘detour’. As for my essay in this collection and indeed my work as a whole, when one articulates a line and perspective that have not been articulated before, one is obliged to think the matter through alone. Althusser says those who work in such “theoretical solitude” are obligated to “weave the net with threads intuitively borrowed right and left” (‘Machiavelli’s Solitude’ 1988). To borrow Althusser’s own explanation: “The urgent thing was to ‘think at the limit’ and…to bend the rod of theory in the other direction, to open the way against the dominant ideas, for completely new political thought…I remembered Machiavelli whose rule of Method rarely stated but always practised was that one must think in extremes, which means within a position from which one states borderline theses, or to make the thought possible, one occupies the place of the impossible.” (‘Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists’1990).

Though as Vangeesa knows, at least one young British communist intellectual and reviewer has perhaps over-generously bracketed my work with the views of Badiou, Zizek and Jacob Taubes, my introduction to my latest book contains explicitly critical remarks on Badiou and Zizek. (See ‘The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counter-narrative From the South’, Palgrave Macmillan, London 2014)

I reiterate that the Sri Lankan military defeat of the Tigers is the closest we come in our lifetimes to the magnitude and quality of the Event that can be understood in a neo-Badiouian sense. It is a source of the crisis of the Left and progressive project in Sri Lanka that the ‘human emancipatory’ character of the military defeat of the Tigers and the heroism of the Sri Lankan armed forces and people have not been recognised. That is completely at variance with the attitude of the Left intellectuals (e.g. Sartre, Camus) and movements, to the struggle against Nazi fascism and the achievement of the resistance movements as well as the Red Army.

In fairness to Alain Badiou, his non-militaristic but celebratory philosophical take on ‘The Figure of The Soldier’ (‘Philosophy for Militants’ 2012) is a very far cry indeed from the implicit aversion and antipathy towards the figure of a soldier that Vangeesa’s thinly disguised derisive dismissal of the war and the military victory indicate.

The Sri Lankan Left intelligentsia have failed the Gramscian test of a deep “passionate” connection with the “national-popular”. Thus the space has been cleared for the radical Right, nationalist–populists and neoconservatives. It is the ideologically and philosophically fundamentalist anti-statism (as represented here by Vangeesa) that prevents the left intelligentsia and therefore the Left from intervening in the current and historical crisis of Sri Lanka: the organic crisis of the State.

Let us bring the discussion home to Sri Lanka five years after the war, the main theme of my essay, the failure of the elites and the intelligentsia. The young Nietzsche concluded in his thesis ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ that the highest achievement of Greek drama was possible when and because of a fusion of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The nationalist Sinhala and Tamil intelligentsia celebrated the Dionysian passions of their respective nationalisms, failing to submit them to the cooling restraint of the Apollonian. Conversely the cosmopolitan intelligentsia of the left and the human rights constituencies (my young critic Vangeesa being an example) delegitimize the Dionysian passions of the national-popular and patriotic, celebrating instead an Apollonian universalism. I for one, argue for a 21st century Lankan intelligentsia and elite exemplifying a (neo-Nietzschean) synthesis of the warm militant Dionysian passions of the patriotic and the cool Apollonian aspects of the intellectual, the conceptual, the global and the universal. I see the crisis as residing (philosophically) in the absence of such a perspective, such a synthesis of values and socio-political type.


This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.