Politics of Quotations: Concluding Rejoinder to Dayan Jayatilleka

Image courtesy RNW

In this concluding rejoinder to my friend Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka I shall begin by what appears to me to be the core of our dispute, i.e. Dayan’s highly problematical designation of the Sri Lankan state’s military victory as a neo-Badiouian event. Then I shall make some brief remarks concerning Dayan’s reference to Zizek, which is, like his previous reference to Agamben, symptomatic of what I call Dayan’s ‘politics of quotations’. By the latter phrase, I intend to demonstrate that Dayan’s use of quotes is something that defies the standard academic conventions and acts as a pretext to justify his positions appealing to philosophical authorities, yet distorting their ideas in order to serve Dayan’s own positions.

Naturally the most striking example I have for this is also the one at the centre of our dispute. I contested, and continue to contest, Dayan’s designation that the Sri Lankan state’s military victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is a neo-Badiouian event. In order to make this as clear as possible, let me point out the development of this argument.

Dayan’s initial response, after I demanded an explanation for this designation, was that he did not simply say that it was a Badiouian event but rather that it is a neo-Badiouian event. I agreed that he did not say it is a Badiouian event per se but rather a neo-Badiouian event. However, since it was still not clear what made it a neo-Badiouian event, I asked him to explain the Badiouian part of this neo-Badiouian event. Put differently, I wanted to know what similarities Dayan see in the military victory of the Sri Lankan state with regard to Badiou’s theory of events.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what Dayan has not done in his response and instead he has merely given yet another abstract quote from Badiou, which, taken out of context, does not help us clarify anything about Badiou’s notion of the event or the possibility of using it to understand the Sri Lankan state’s military victory. I simply ask the readers to consider Dayan’s concluding response to this claim, which I am quoting here in its entirety now:

“In order to evaluate whether or not I was way off the mark in describing the Sri Lankan military victory as a neo-Badiouian Event, let us examine what constitutes a Badiouian Event. What better authority than Alain Badiou himself and what better text than one he has entitled ‘Thinking the Event’?

“…Third, to throw light on the value of exception. The value of the event. The value of the break…I argue that a philosophical concept , in the sense that Deleuze speaks of it— which is to say as a creation— is always what knots together a problem of choice (or decision), a problem of distance (or gap), and a problem of the exception (or event)…” (‘Philosophy in the Present’, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, Polity , 2010, pp. 12-13)

“Finally, you do not have the hypothesis of a veritable event, you do not have the feeling of exception…” (Badiou, Ibid, p. 19)

Thus for Badiou, The Event is on a continuum with, clustered with, ‘the exception’‘the decision’ (which sound Schmittian to me!) and ‘the break’. To me there’s quite enough in there to warrant the description of the great victory of May 2009 as a neo-Badiouian Event than not”

Can someone explain to me how this abstract quote from Badiou is ‘quite enough’ to ‘warrant the description of the great victory of May 2009 as a neo-Badiouian Event’? Is Dayan suggesting that anything whatsoever that can be considered as an exception to the normal way of things, anything that contains a decision in its midst, anything that can be considered as a break from the existing situation, is an event? Really? Someone decides to commit suicide and jumps off a tall building (as Deleuze did, unfortunately, after struggling for many years with an illness) – now this incident contains all the above ingredients. There is a decision (to end the life), an exception (from the day to day routine of that individual) and a break (from the ordinary flow of happenings). Now can we say that a suicide is a Badiouian event, or, for that matter, a neo-Badiouian event? Take the inverse case of committing a murder and we find all the above requirements: the exception, the decision, the break. Does that warrant the description of a murder as a neo-Badiouian event? I am sorry to say this Dayan, but this is mumbo jumbo, pure and simple!

Moreover, I hoped Dayan would be a little careful after I pointed out last time that the same paragraph he quoted from Agamben (of whom Dayan has not said a word, by the way) was incomplete, in the context of this dispute, for it also contained Agamben’s explicit remark that an event, for Badiou, happens against the order of the state. Well, I am mistaken. He starts his quote, as is clear, from the ‘third’ point (“Third, to throw light…”) of a series of points Badiou makes apropos what can be designated as a ‘philosophical situation’. But Dayan, what about the ‘second’?

“Second, to throw light on the distance between thinking and power, between truths and the state. To measure this distance. To know whether or not it can be crossed.” (Badiou and Zizek, “Philosophy in the Present”, p12, my emphasis)

As is the usual pattern in this entire debate with Dayan, where he would give a quote out of context, and I would contextualize it, let me contextualize these quotes from Badiou’s essay “Thinking the Event”. Badiou begins his essay by making a distinction between philosophical situations (which are rare) and ordinary situations. Put simply, a philosophical situation has three characteristics: first, there is a choice between a truth which does not serve any practical purpose and a very useful albeit wrong opinion, and philosophy always means we choose the first and face the consequences of this choice; second, there has to be a distance between the state and thought, between those who has power and those who think; and third, there has to be a break from the existing law of the situation. Now, Dayan is completely silent about this second requirement and this has been the key question that I have repeatedly asked: for Badiou an event can never be a victory of the state. It is certainly not enough to say that Dayan disagrees with Badiou here insofar as it is he who designated the Sri Lankan state’s military victory as a neo-Badiouian event. If you disagree with Badiou on this point then why call this state victory a neo-Badiouian event? Once again, what is the Badiouian part here?

It should be clear by now that Dayan has no answer to this key question: there is nothing Badiouian about the Sri Lankan state’s military victory in 2009, ‘neo’ or otherwise. Should one require further clarification, let me dwell a little more on this essay “Thinking the Event” that Dayan himself has brought into this debate, for I find it both astonishing and amusing. In the essay, Badiou gives three examples of what he considers to be philosophical situations, and the second of those examples is extremely illuminative in the context of the current discussion.

This example is of the death of the Greek mathematician Archimedes. One day when the Archimedes was working on a mathematical problem, drawing geometrical shapes on the beach, a Roman soldier visits him carrying a message from the Roman General Marcellus. By then Rome had occupied Sicily and the Roman General, it seems, had an interest in the works of this curious set of individuals called “Greek thinkers”. The soldier demands from Archimedes to accompany him to see the General but Archimedes does not respond, occupied as he was in his mathematical problem. After repeated questionings of the soldier Archimedes simply says that he would come after finishing his mathematical problem. Naturally the soldier does not understand how someone can keep the mighty General waiting and draws the sword and kills Archimedes. Here is Badiou’s analysis of this incident:

“Why is this a philosophical situation? Because it shows that between the right of the state and creative thought, especially the pure ontological thought embodied in mathematics, there is no common measure, no real discussion. In the end, power is violence, while the only constraints creative thought recognizes are its own immanent rules. When it comes to the law of his thought, Archimedes remains outside of the action of power. The temporality proper to the demonstration cannot integrate the urgent summons of military victors. That is why violence is eventually wrought, testifying that there is no common measure and no common chronology between the power of one side and the truths of the other. Truths as creation. We can say that between power and truths there is a distance: the distance between Marcellus and Archimedes. A distance which the courier – no doubt an obtuse but disciplined soldier – does not manage to cross. Philosophy’s mission is here to shed light on this distance. It must reflect upon and think a distance without measure, or a distance whose measure philosophy itself must invent.” (Badiou, Ibid, my emphasis)

I think I have provided more than sufficient evidence from Badiou to demonstrate that the problem with Dayan’s designation of the Sri Lankan state’s military victory as a neo-Badiouian event is not merely that it is “way off the mark”, but more strongly that it is a downright abuse of the great man’s most renowned concept. Other than simply providing highly abstract quotes from Badiou, Dayan has failed give any explanation as to how he came to this shocking conclusion, when all evidence suggests that Dayan should actually consider Badiou as an opponent with regard to Dayan’s defense of the state’s military victory.

Responding to this proposition that Dayan should consider thinkers like Agamben and Badiou as his enemies, Dayan has given several instances of writers placing Dayan, allegedly, in the company of these thinkers. Since Dayan has not provided any details of Colin Wright’s summary of Dayan’s views in an essay on Badiou, I cannot say how had Collin Wright “placed” Dayan in the company of Badiou. The same is true of Nick Hewlett. I hope my learned friend would understand that simply because his ideas have been discussed within an essay on Badiou does not necessarily mean that he has been placed in the company of Badiou.

As per the two quotes by Nathan Coombs, I hope Dayan would remember that we have argued about this before. In a personal email sent to me, this is how Coombs explained this dispute:

“This citation [by Dayan] seems to speak volumes to me about the problematic relationship between Western critical theory and how it is received elsewhere in the world. I should think it enough for you to point to the fact that: (1) it was a passing reference (2) his work was framed within a problematic strain of ‘Christian essentialist’ thought by some writers on the Left, and (3) I am no authority for him to be citing as evidence.”

Instead of hiding behind quotes from the works of others, why can’t Dayan explain how his ideas can be placed with those of Badiou? When it comes to that explanation, Dayan’s argument is remarkably thin and only manages to say that he is ‘creatively applying/extending’ Badiou’s notion. What is lacking in Dayan’s writings, however, is precisely this ‘application’. Instead of making any serious attempt at engaging with the philosophical positions advanced by thinkers like Badiou, Dayan, it seems to, is hiding behind quotes taken out of context, as proof of his argument, when in fact, they actually turn out to mean the complete opposite.

Let me give one final example: Dayan’s reference to Zizek.

“As for my own view of the State in contradistinction to that of Vangeesa and his co-thinkers, I shall conclude by echoing Zizek. In the anthology ‘The Idea of Communism’ Slavoj Zizek is unambiguously explicit about the state and strategies for transformation, going on to criticise the Badiouian perspective. He declared that:

“Consequently, I want to propose two axioms concerning the relationship between the State and politics… If you do not have an idea of what you want to replace the State with, you have no right to subtract/withdraw from the State.” (‘How to Begin from the Beginning’, in ‘The Idea of Communism’, 2010: 219)”

Let us do the drill and contextualize this quote. First thing to note here is that Dayan only quotes one of the two ‘axioms’ forwarded by Zizek, i.e. the second one – concerning the unavoidability of the state unless one can propose an alternative. Here is the first axiom that Dayan has chosen to omit:

“The failure of the Communist State- Party politics is above all and primarily the failure of anti-statist politics, of the endeavor to break out of the constraints of State, to replace statal forms of organization with ‘direct’ non-representative forms of self-organization (‘councils’).”

Taken together, with these two axioms, Zizek is proposing, in contrast to much of the contemporary political philosophy which is against the idea of fighting for state power, that one should hold firm to the Marxian notion of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. This does not mean that Zizek is defending the territorial integrity of nation states! One can, for instance, refer to Zizek’s recent piece on the Ukraine crisis ( where he in ‘unambiguously explicit’ terms endorses the Leninist principle on unconditional acceptance of the right to self-determination.

In the same essay quoted by Dayan, Zizek is extremely critical of the highly authoritarian states, modeled on Lee Quan Yew’s ‘capitalism with Asian values’, for which China is the most dynamic example. He further notices that with this latest development, the traditional union between capitalism and democracy is no longer guaranteed and argues that far from being a result of mere cultural differences – “Asian values” – this is caused by an inner necessity of the expansion of capitalism itself. Once again simplifying things, we can say that with the development of the internet and similar communication technologies and the hegemonic role played by intellectual or immaterial labor, it is increasingly difficult to ‘privatize’ property (anyone, for instance, with an internet connection today can download almost all the books – so called ‘pirate copies – quoted in this exchange between Dayan and me!). This is the inner necessity of paving the way to powerful authoritarian states that thrives on neo-liberal reforms. As Zizek writes:

“within this framework, exploitation in the classic Marxist sense is no longer possible — which is why it has to be enforced more and more by direct legal measures, i.e., by a non-economic force. This is why, today, the exploitation increasingly takes the form of rent: as Carlo Vercellone put it, post-industrial capitalism is characterized by the ‘becoming-rent of profit’. And this is why direct authority is needed: it is needed in order to impose the (arbitrary) legal conditions for extracting rent, conditions which are no longer ‘spontaneously’ generated by the market. Perhaps therein resides the fundamental ‘contradiction’ of today s ‘postmodern’ capitalism: while its logic is deregulatory, ‘anti-statal’, nomadic/deterritorializing, etc., its key tendency towards the ‘becoming-rent-of-profit’ signals the strengthening role of the State whose (not only) regulatory function is ever more omnipresent. Dynamic de-territorialization coexists with and relies on increasingly authoritarian interventions of the State and its legal and other apparatuses. What can be discerned at the horizon of our historical becoming is thus a society in which personal libertarianism and hedonism coexist with (and are sustained by) a complex web of regulatory state mechanisms. Far from disappearing, the State is today gaining in strength.” (Zizek, in “The Idea of Communism”, p224)

Does Dayan think that Zizek is in support of this State? And how would one understand the Sri Lankan state with regard to this analysis by Zizek? It is, once again, abundantly clear that Dayan is merely misusing a quote from Zizek, plucked out of context, and in support of the very thing actually opposed by Zizek – an authoritarian state employing neo-liberal restructuration to the Sri Lankan society.

The same can be said of the second quote – and once again, allow me to continue with the quote Dayan himself has started:

“By the way, I believe that the theory of civil society is completely mistaken. At any rate, I should say that in the break-up of Yugoslavia just as in most other conflicts between the state and civil society, I was regularly on the side of the state. Civil society meant democratic opposition; it also meant, however, violent nationalism.” (my emphasis)

What, according to Zizek, is the reason he was on the side of the Yugoslavian state during its break up? It is because the civil society was powerfully controlled by violent nationalism, and in his opposition to violent nationalism Zizek stood on the side of the state. It is far from clear how this passing remark by Zizek can be a justification of Dayan’s political positions. Once again, curiously enough, when it comes to that explication, there is virtually no argument from Dayan.

This is, in short, the troubling tendency I see in Dayan – instead of defending his own political positions with the aid of conceptual apparatuses borrowed from contemporary philosophers Dayan is using quotes from the latter thinkers to justify his own positions. When he is questioned as to the exact relationship he has to the theories of these thinkers he claims he disagrees with these thinkers. When asked on the points on which he agrees with these thinkers he simply responds with quotes, which, in themselves, appear to be compatible with Dayan’s argument, but when put in their proper context, become, almost in all instances, points in opposition to Dayan’s arguments. What is the Badiouian part in that neo-Badiouian event? What is Dayan’s position with regard to Agamben’s analysis of contemporary states? What are the Zizekian positions with which Dayan agrees? Explanations and clarifications are in need, not quotations. However, Dayan is curiously silent in this regard.

Since Dayan has begun his last rejoinder, once again, with Zizek’s quote ‘philosophy is not a dialogue’, I hope readers would pardon me for ending this debate with one final quote that has always been dear to me, from Giles Deleuze, in whose ideas the above Zizek-quote has its source.

“Negotiations sometimes last so long you don’t know whether they’re still part of the war or the beginning of peace. And philosophy’s always caught between an anger with the way things are and the serenity it brings. But philosophy isn’t a Power. Religions, states, capitalism, science, the law, public opinion, and television are powers, but not philosophy. Philosophy may have its great internal battles (between idealism and realism, and so on), but they’re mock battles. Not being a power, philosophy can’t battle with the powers that be, but it fights a war without battles, a guerrilla campaign against them. And it can’t converse with them, it’s got nothing to tell them, nothing to communicate, and can only negotiate. Since the powers aren’t just external things, but permeate each of us, philosophy throws us all into constant negotiations with, and a guerrilla campaign against, ourselves.” (Deleuze, “Negotiations”,1995, opening remarks)


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.