interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by GIASCO BERTOLI
In 2004 the French philosopher Alain Badiou described the young writer and thinker MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM as a pirate, “a solitary and ferocious bandit … who gives no mercy and works solely for his own benefit,” pillaging philosophy as he creates a new anti-philosophy for his generation. For the last decade MBK was Badiou’s most enthusiastic supporter, and was deeply influenced by Badiou’s ontology and radical politics. But, in his latest book, After Badiou, MBK surprisingly turned on his idol. We thought we should talk to MBK, a long-time collaborator of Purple, to find out about this sudden change of heart, this intellectual parricide.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your first two novels, Cancer and 1993, were published one right after another, when you were still a teenager.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Yes, they came out about four months apart. Cancer was published in 1994. I wrote it when I was in high school, when I was 17 or 18. I wrote 1993 when I was 19.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Who were your literary influences when you were an adolescent?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Antonin Artaud; Isidore Ducasse, who was the Count of Lautréamont; and the Marquis de Sade. I was also into the Situationists. Later on, when I began studying philosophy, I regretted not having embraced my university courses and pursuing an academic career, because 90% of philosophy is done in universities. It was difficult to be working in the field without the support of a university. Of course, at the age of 18 I thought university was a waste of time. I pretended to go there for a year or two, so my parents would give me money, but I chose to live a rock and roll life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You made your decision.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Oh yes. I was 18 and I had already published a piece in L’Immature, the literary supplement of the music magazine, Les Inrockuptibles. A young editor liked it. Two or three years later my novels were published.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You didn’t think about trying to launch yourself as a philosopher?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM— That came later. I published other novels that had a certain success. I was part of a group of trendy young writers of the early ’90s. Michel Houellebecq was another. But he was lucky enough to be older, and therefore more mature. You know better what you want at 30 than you do at 20. I wanted to smash everything, which, as objectives go, falls rather short!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Being a young, trendy writer, how did you handle the attention and recognition you received?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Dealing with all the hype scared me to death. I was a little lost. I fled Paris. I started taking hash and LSD, and I locked onto a rather extremist perspec- tive, which became L’Antéforme.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That book came out in 1997. It was an inspired, but rather strange novel.
mehdi belhaj kacem — It was a giant interior monologue, a solitary styling, with almost no punctuation — commas, but no periods — written at a breathless pace, probably a drugged-out sprint. During the year I wrote it I lost 15 kilos. When I finished it I went back to Paris looking like a zombie, but happy to have written it. It was a spiritual, nearly mythical, performance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was when we met, at the beginning of the zero years, just when you decided to bail out of literature. You wrote two books, one after the other, Esthétique du chaos (Aesthetic of Chaos) (2000) and Society (2001), which represented the thinking of the ’90s. Two cult books that re-launched philosophy for your generation. They were, for me, the two best philosophical essays of the last decade of the 20th century.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It’s rather odd. The first time we met you said, “The new decade begins with Society.” Now you are saying it completed the ’90s. It’s a book of punk philosophy, which was lauded at the time, by you, by my generation, by Derrida, who said a lot of nice things about it, and by Jean-Luc Nancy. Esthétique du chaos is also about the punk life as a concept. In other words, my rather megalomaniac ambitions were to recreate Antonin Artaud as a concept. I think that’s why Derrida and the others liked the book.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now, a decade later, do you feel like you’ve been accepted by the philosophy community?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Alain Badiou spoke highly of my first essays, even if they were not at all his cup of tea. He hates anything he thinks is connected to Sade or Artaud, or what he calls the Prosopopia of abjection. He’s such a Puritan. But yes, today my philosophical work is acknowledged by professionals, and accepted as a real conceptual construction. At the same time, I still scare them a little.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the time, you loved to describe yourself as an anti-philosopher.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Now I refuse the label of anti-philosophy, and even the category of that name. Unfortunately, it became a category at university, to designate all the philosophers who didn’t go through the university system, all those who Alain Badiou calls “anti-philosophers.” They conveniently include Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot, Lacan, and Debord. That’s absolutely clear. Anti-philosophy means nothing more than a written philosophy that’s practised differently, and freely, outside the framework imposed by university courses and conferences, with scholarly treatises, etc.
OLIVIER ZAHM— Badiou says this about you: “He tinkers with a new kind of anti-nihilistic nihilism under the great rejected shadow of Situationism.” This follows along the lines of the genealogical historicism of Michel Foucault and the transcendental anarchism of Gilles Deleuze, before you converted to the ontology according to Badiou.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Where did he say that?
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the introduction to your book, Evènement et répétition (Event and repetition). I think he still situated you in the nihilism camp, in the postmodern disillusion of a somewhat lost post-Situationist generation, of which you were a part.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Society says perhaps something else, but in Esthétique du chaos I didn’t really reject Situationism. I wanted to represent a kind of Artaud-like Situationism and deconstruction together.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You say you didn’t overshoot Situationism. I’m not entirely sure that’s true, because in those two books you invented word-game concepts, like eXistenZ (written the way Cronenberg did) and interception and vampirism, relative to the idea of “spectacle,” which they modify considerably. According to you, spectacle is no longer a terminal condition, but one that sits in the interior of the texts and images, contaminating and infecting us, re-appropriating , incorporating, and metabolizing, like Cronenberg’s eXistenZ going against the film Matrix: the tyranny of the never-ending spectacle behind the spectacle itself.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — You’re confusing Esthétique du chaos with Society. We must date them. Esthétique du chaos was something like Antonin Artaud versus Guy Debord. There is a chapter in it called Original Alienation, in which I develop the idea that alienation does not come upon us at a specific time, at a given stage of advancement, because of capitalism or technology; alienation is original and constituent in the human being.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s true. I mix up the two books because in my view they were written in the same vein, propelled by the same impulse. I also retain the concept of vampirism — that is, an unexpected way of emerging from depression and the nihilism of the post-Baudrillardian sham. Can you say something about that?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It was totally experimental philosophy. The text I wrote on vampirism in Society was a reading of an appendix of Aristotelian Physics called On Generation and Corruption. It was also a response to Derrida’s concept of a specter. As a text it was a little delirious, though very structured and conceptually rigorous. In any case, it was somewhere between philosophy and literature. It was a conceptual novel. Esthétique du chaos and Society were my way of leaving “ literature,” but they are still stories, conceptual novels, written almost in the first person.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was your capacity to seize the essential philosophical concepts, personally and existentially, which suddenly brought conceptual power to the forefront.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I was talking about myself conceptually. When I was describing the history of vampirism, I was talking about something quite raw in philosophical terms, concerning the way we cannibalize each other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the way you cannibalize philosophy itself, its authors, texts, and history?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — There was a film that really got to me, The Addiction, by Abel Ferrara. I wrote about it in Esthétique du chaos. I watched it as though hypnotized, feeling as if I was watching myself. But now that I’m older, the character with whom I most identify in it is Christopher Walken’s — the old vampire! The first time we see him appear in the film, he hasn’t drunk blood for 65 years. He’s walking around with a black-and-white elegance worthy of Murnau. In the middle of the street he says, “I didn’t read Proust when he was first published. I had other problems at the time.” Then he meets the young heroine, played by Lili Taylor — she’s such a great actress — and he talks to her about Baudelaire, Burroughs, and Nietzsche. On the soundtrack we hear a cello piece written by Nietzsche himself — but if you don’t look at the credits you won’t realize it was Nietzsche who wrote it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can we say that philosophy is dead, and that you came to feed on the cadaver while it was still warm, sucking the last drops of blood out of the philosophical life?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Absolutely — over a rap track in the style of Old Dirty Bastard. It was really saying, “Let’s have fun with philosophy,” but with the so-called death of philosophy. I was very close to what contemporary art was doing with debris, garbage, dead bodies, and so on — trying to make something joyful out of it all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was something joyful and dark at the same time, at least in the magazine EvidenZ, which you founded at that time.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — We built some true friendships. I think those friendships from EvidenZ have lasted until today because we shared magical moments as well as horrible, infernal ones. Our “Bataillean” community went to the mat. Even today it’s as if we still communicate by telepathy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was your idea to take EvidenZ magazine and your close friends into the radical Leftist group, Tiqqun, led by Julien Coupat. This group’s criticism of capitalism elaborated the Theory of Bloom, the idea of the total loss of the identity of the postmodern individual, and the irony about the youth of the “Theory of the Young Girl.” The group was both metaphysical and nihilist. Why did you join them?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I never really agreed with any of that “end of the experience” thing — nor with Giorgio Agamben, their writer of choice. The ultra-negativism of the Tiqqun, their pathos of anonymity, and their clandestination seemed problematic, even at that time. Each of us has a singular experience, which is why I’m so ready to fight for myself, and against the label of nihilism.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Back then it seemed to me that you were still wrestling with that question.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — My “big” book of metaphysics, from 2009, L’esprit du nihilisme, is purely and simply a deconstruction of the concept of nihilism. When I read in Purple and elsewhere that Badiou sees nihilism everywhere, I disagree. My idea is the opposite: nihilism doesn’t exist. The only serious question is the one about Evil, about suffering, and the horror Man introduced to the world. In my opinion, nihilism is just a reactionary concept used to avoid that question. Badiou, from that point of view, is even more reactionary than Nietzsche and Heidegger. He remains a wonderfully 19th Century soul. The grand question that sidesteps the concept of nihilism is the question of Evil. How can we remove the question of Evil from religion and theology, so that it can become the principal question of philosophy? It’s the philosopher’s question to which I feel the closest — it and the philosophers who seem to be “cursed” or unread: Theodor Adorno, of the Frankfurt School, whom everyone knows but no one reads; Reiner Schürmann of New York; and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe of Strasbourg.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Badiou says that you’re a “nihilist anti-nihilist.”
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — What does that mean? Nothing. For me it’s null and void, since my mature philosophical efforts of the last three or four years have been about refusing the idea of nihilism. To get away from nihilism, all you have to do is deconstruct the concept. As long as people continue to ask, as they have for more than a century, “How do you get away from nihilism?” it never ends! The concept itself is false. Objective reality is not at all nihilist. Our generation is not at all nihilist. There is, however, an absolutely useless suffering that the human animal, the metaphysical being, has introduced into the world. It’s the only truthful one. Nihilism is a poor way to address the question.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did this question of nihilism allow you to escape the influence of Badiou?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Yes, ultimately that’s what separates me from Badiou. Nihilism suits him as a means to label our generation and our time. He’s a Puritan misanthrope, which allows him to peacefully scorn the entire universe. It’s for the exact same reason that I never took most of the Tiqqun texts too seriously. As you said, they went too far on nihilism with nihilism. For them, there was no way out. That’s not thinking, only condemnation, to say that everything is fucked, etc. The nega- tive philosophers, like Adorno and Schür- mann, are not at all like that. It isn’t abstract denunciation, but sophisticated conceptual construction, one that explains how we got here, to this horror.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tiqqun was nonetheless the last ultra-militant moment in France. They metaphysically justified destructive and rebellious gestures — as the last possible political agenda. They instigated the last speech of the radical Left, no?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — No. Later on, in France, with my trickster-like instigation, I re-launched Badiou. There’s a sort of neo- Maoist, neo-Stalinian hype, which will wind down quickly, in my humble opinion. It kind of got away from me. I defended Badiou for strictly metaphysical reasons, because he’s a great metaphysician. And he profited from the hype I created about him. Propagating postmodern neo-Maoism, though rather trivial, had its effect.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that the difference between Tiqqun and EvidenZ? And between them and you?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — The Theory of Bloom written by the Tiquun group would only have made sense if it had become a giant bestseller, used by all the alienated masses and empty subjectivities. But for philosophers, it’s just a cliché. We know only too well that subjectivity is hollow, that there is no identity, etc. On the other hand, the unique entities — me, you, and everybody else — are not empty. It’s very easy for a white radical leftist bourgeois intellectual in Tiqqun to say to a black person, a homosexual, or a woman, “There are no more black people, only Blooms pretending to be black; there are no women, only Blooms pretending to be women.” At another speculative height, Badiou does the same thing with his theory of the subject. It’s a metaphysical discourse that cancels out the idea of uniqueness, which is merely a pretext for the universal positive, for Communism. A woman, a black person, or a gay person could not have written either the Theory of Bloom or Badiou’s Theory of the Subject. This statement alone refutes them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you never discarded singularity or uniqueness, especially since it’s still linked to the body and to sexual jouissance?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Let’s say that there’s also a machismo that takes refuge in metaphysical abstraction, in order to better humiliate the singular individuals, the perverts, the twisted and “sick” people. I have become rather Foucault-like again, on the side of the twisted and the sick — not on the side of the straight people in excellent health. In any case, at the time my way of reacting to that, since I don’t have a dominating sexuality, was to say that I’m heterosexual because I fall in love with women. I also feel very bisexual. I knew Badiou quite well personally. He’s very violent about this, without being aware of it, because it’s borderline insulting. At the time, when we were still friends, I called it “transcendental machismo!”
OLIVIER ZAHM — You definitely side with the polymorphous pervert.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Polymorphous — like everyone else, which is more and more obvious. That’s what the heterosexuals of abstract universalism still don’t get. They don’t grasp their own uniqueness, unless it’s immediately pushed to the universal column. Jean-Claude Milner attacked Badiou, calling his ideas facile universalism, and nailing him in the name of Saint Paul. In any case, from that point of view, I’m a Paulian, because Saint Paul does not say, “Get rid of your singularities as you would habits and communions, which are all attached to this colorless subjectivity.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — You did, however, reconcile with Tiqqun and the community that Julien Coupat founded in Tarnac in Corez. In 2008, when he did six months of preventive detention for being linked to sabotaging a TGV train line, you supported him publicly.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — There was absolutely no proof of this supposed terrorist attack. Of course it was necessary to support Julien. It was a scandal, a crime of opinion, pure and simple. We are truly living in what Guy Debord, in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, calls a “preventive Civil War.” The state does not respond to a war that’s delivered to it as effectively as Action Directe or the RAF was, whose actions fell under the banner of general law. Instead the state responds to it intellectually. It regresses into the crime of opinion, which means that the state, in its paranoia, admits that there are reasons why one should declare open war against it. Anyway, I wasn’t the only one to mobilize. The entire Radical Left did. But, except for Giorgio Agamben, they did it with kid gloves. Badiou scorns all that. It’s the politics that don’t exist. It’s “petit bourgeois politics,” as he said on television. According to Badiou, the entire Western World consists of a monochrome petit bourgeois. And it’s he, in the end, who’s all alone. I feel like saying, “Petits bourgeois of the world, unite!”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now you defend Julien Coupat against Alain Badiou, but back then you turned to Badiou to find conceptual bases for your revolt.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Badiou and Tiqqun represent the Puritanism of the abstract denunciation of Capitalism, which leads nowhere. But when Badiou called Julien’s community in Tarnac petit bourgeois politics, I was really shocked. One has to say that he and his “Communism” today are stereotypi- cally Leninist. It’s the intellectual Commu- nism of the grand bourgeois professor who pretends to educate the people and lead them by the nose toward the Revolution.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you define yourself politically?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I’m deeply Marxist- Situationist, which is to say I’m an original Marxist or Bakounist. The only Subject is the people, the proletariat, not the little father of the people or the great helmsman. I detest this conception of politics. From this single unique point of view, the community experience of the Tiqqun in Tarnac, in a small village in the Corrèze, even reduced, is nevertheless a true concrete experience of Communism. They planted their vegetables; they opened a restaurant for the people there. Badiou never did this kind of thing. He’s an academic who went into a factory the way others go on a safari — and then he dares to come and give us lessons. He’s never experienced real Communism. Bataille, Blanchot, and Nancy — they were much more useful for the coming of Communism than anything Badiou or Žižek say, which is only stupid liturgical recitations of Stalin or Mao. The Spanish anarcho-unionists and May ’68: those were real. They weren’t intellectuals dictating what Communism should be for us all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was The Theory of the Trickster (2002) an answer to, or a positive version of, the negative figure of Tiqqun’s Bloom — the man of no quality, which we have all become, according to them?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — The Trickster came from Society, but he’s a conceptual character I invented to go up against Tiqqun. It means a “divine rascal,” or “man of the thousand tricks.” He’s Peter Pan. He’s the player. He’s the scoundrel who takes on the system, the media- friendly, the philosophical man, the artistic man — all of them. There’s a pile of broken toys around him and he brings them back to life. Sometimes he brings mummies back to life, like Mao or Stalin, but not necessarily on purpose. To simplify, you have to make do with what’s there. Including performances, the media, etc. The conceptual character of the Trickster is always based on intuition, on the question of law, rules, and philosophical transgression.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Trickster defeats the law with his playing, or by making the best of a bad post- spectacular situation. But is he not also a manipulator of this point of view — a hysterical manipulator, opposed to the schizophrenics of Deleuze and Guattari?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — One day my partner said to me, “Really, Mehdi — you manipulate yourself.” That’s very Kleist-ian, to be your own puppet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t manipulate anyone other than yourself, even with your writing, which incorporates your body and soul into an experimental subject.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I hate any kind of manipulation of others. I only manipulate myself. That’s another reason for my current critique of Badiou. He has such a manipulative approach to others. And we must remember that it was his extreme Leninism that led him to support Pol Pot in the ’70s, in Cambodia. The secret, omnipotent organization pulling strings in the shadows was called Angkar Padevat. It exterminated half the population of that country, for no apparent reason. Finally, this is Badiou’s philosophy: generalized manipulation and extermination of singularities. For me, the game is something totally different from political strategy or manipulation. It’s almost antinomian. My ethics are: “Do not manipulate anyone except yourself.” I refuse politics based on domination, or on the enlightened leader giving orders that result only in abstract generalizations and a cortege of massacres.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can this auto-manipulation be considered a transgression, in a philosophical sense?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Not any more. I’ve been thinking about that recently: the end of transgressive heroism; that’s what it’s about. That’s our generation’s experience. In art, from Sade to, let’s say, Pasolini, there was transgressive heroism. During the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, and then for us, from the French Revolution to the middle of the 1970s, it was all transgressive heroism. We’re its sons. For 30 years now transgression has gone nowhere, and it’s lost its subversive charge. We see the result today: its cynicism. We shock the bourgeois, but we do it cynically, in a bourgeoisie fashion, in order to make more money. This is the single subject of my philosophy. If you have to sum it up in a single sentence it would be this: What do we do in the age of the end of transgressive heroism?
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you begin again?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I haven’t gotten there yet, but I use a play on words, with the French words “je” (I) and “jeu” (game). Why not play with both words? A multiple transgression — that’s it. I don’t know, yet, how to say it more precisely. I know intuitively, without being able to theorize it exactly, that the future lies in something like a multiple transgression. It’s rhizomatic in nature. And I’m involved in it, of course.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your relationship to philosophy is also something like multiple transgression, with all the U-turns in your writing, and your way of detaching yourself in abrupt turns.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — What I call the Trickster is basically my experience in philosophy: the double game of choosing the most demanding philosophy — like a pirate who comes to pillage the philosophic corpus, from outside the university system, or like a vampire who comes to steal a few concepts. To end up becoming a philosopher as credible as the established ones, dialoguing with them, but never entering the academic realm of philosophy, is, in fact, a multiple game of transgressions. It’s an art, and it’s my way of doing things. I’m now in my Stradivarius Trickster period. I’ve mastered my instrument, and I see that the young generation of 20- and 30-year-old philosophers are following me, taking up my example. They understand my philosophical position much better than the university academics do — especially if they’re already academics!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s go back to 2001/2002, when you discovered the philosophy of Alain Badiou. We were surprised at your sudden focusing on the metaphysical mathematics of this still rather unknown philosopher. We no longer recognized your style, your freedom, your chaotic and inspired writing.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM— You guys were pretty pissed off. But it must be said that I was the first person in France to say, “Hey, we’re not talking only about Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze. There’s someone else who is as great as they are — Alain Badiou. Certainly he’s known, but the full extent of his discoveries aren’t.” At the time I felt obliged to say that he was better than all the others. I needed to create an effect.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Following you was rather confusing.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — At the time I was already considered self-centered and pretentious. People were saying I’d gone off my rocker — why is MBK foisting this old Maoist metaphysicist from the Ecole Normale Supérieure onto us? They made me pay for it. But I’m proud of doing it, because what I said was true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was reading Badiou’s Being and Event a shock for you?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — An enormous shock — a dazzling feeling I won’t deny today. I spent four months reading it. At the same time I was in pre-production for the film, Sauvage Innocence, by Philippe Garrel, in which I played the principal part. It was the first time I read a contemporary of mine the way I read a classic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it hard to read?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It’s a philosophy book, so I read it the way I read Aristotle’s Physics or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I took notes. It isn’t a book you can read like that, skipping around. You have to have a pen in your hand, and read it in a scholarly fashion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you do The Cell, the seminar you did at Purple?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Because it was circular. In order to understand the book, I needed to communicate it to others. And the group around EvidenZ had kind of fallen apart. On weekends I could find some of my friends at Purple — my closest friends, and my students — thanks to you, of course. We’re the non-academic philosophers. We always have to find different techniques of communication and transmission, which do not take place in a classroom or at a conference.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With Badiou, you rediscovered the possibility of a return to Metaphysics — this when we were all more or less Deleuzeans — into multiplicity and the whole rhizome thing, far from the question of Being and Truth.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Badiou is still without a doubt the greatest creator of contemporary metaphysics, and also an extraordinary technician of the concept. Badiou, Deleuze, and Heidegger were probably the three greatest metaphysicists of our time, at least in the academic sense. But there’s also Schurmann, Blanchot, and Lacan — meaning non-systematic, labyrinthine thought, with dispersed, chaotic constructions. In reality, they invented just as many things, but they were much less academic. They were heretics, and, in fact, I’m on their side.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did the ontology of Badiou influence you? Was it his thinking about Being and Emptiness that you retained — the equation that says that the Being is not the One, but the Zero.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — On this ontological point, Badiou is right. He is an amazing metaphysician, because mathematical identification equals ontology — that was his discovery. If we must choose between the chaos of multiplicity and the void, it’s sure that the void is ontologically stronger. But now it’s up to us to grab hold of the void. Happily, it’s not trademarked “Made in Badiou.” [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember that during The Cell you were becoming increasingly paranoid and you cut yourself off from other people. One morning you left Purple without warning, carrying all your books off in garbage bags, and just disappeared.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — That’s true. I ran away. I left Paris, Purple, and my friends. I definitely became paranoid. I felt persecuted.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I probably needed to be alone. I needed some kind of psychotic pretext. I felt unjustly attacked after I did my philosophical focusing on Badiou. And there were other, deeper things going on, things I only untangled many years later, after working on it for a long time. Already Badiou had become too invasive a presence in my life. I became close to him. He was helping me to write. He was reading the drafts and preparations of my next book. He gave me notes. In the media I became “the Badiou guy,” even though I had my own, entirely different way of thinking. But it was necessary for me to carry this all the way to its systematic maturity. That’s why I ran.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Perhaps your focusing on Badiou was too radical, putting you into contradiction with yourself. This is what we felt about you then, even if we were ready to follow you in your interest in this philosopher.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It’s clear that Badiou pulls you toward a sort of abstract Puritanism, which does not fit me at all. So along with my paranoia, there was a division between what Badiou had brought me and the direction I wanted to take. I was cut in two parts. It got worse later, because by then Badiou was much better known, and I was becoming more and more embarrassed by the spectacle he was making of himself in the media. It wasn’t just me; a lot of young people who had read him and followed him at the time couldn’t stand what he’d been saying for the previous two years. Even his old friends have left him. It became ridiculous.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What led you to your recent and extremely violent parricide of Badiou?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — The history of philosophy is full of parricides. Mine may be a little more spectacular, but in the end it’s only one among many others. As Badiou will- ingly accepts being a paternal figure, deliber- ately crushing others, I obviously had to do it violently, spectacularly, to make it clear to everyone, including him. Otherwise, he would have continued to brood over us like a hen, choking us with his “eternal positive truths,” fueled by Mao and machismo, until we suf- focated. [Laughs] When you’re the vassal of such a hotshot philosopher, you can’t just snap your fingers when you want to leave him. You have to use philosophical tools. It takes years. I truly think my paranoid period began be- cause I was refusing parts of the philosophy and aesthetics of Badiou, which have unac- ceptable and even scandalous things in them. It took me years to work up the courage to say it, and to have the conceptual means of refuting his delirium.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What were the terms of your attack on Badiou? What do you reproach yourself the most for today?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — We fought for him, and in the end he posed as the philosopher — “the great philosopher.” He said philosophy is this, philosophy is that, meaning “Philosophy is me!” Yes, Badiou did re-launch ontology for a certain time, for myself and for my generation. But no, he isn’t philosophy! It will get away from him completely now, which is a good thing. When he says, “Philosophy with a capital P is me,” “The Good is me,” “The Truth is me,” “The Virtue is me,” he makes himself ridiculous. In addition, it’s just not true. He’s been shown to be so wrong, in art and in politics.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t this what we expect of a Sartreian philosopher? That he should bring us a certain vision, that he should embody the critique of the present, or that he should tell us what should be, against that which the “spectacle” tells us to do — or politics orders us to do.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It’s true that from the outside, people are still interested in a philosopher who speaks in beautiful words about how to go toward Goodness, healing, good politics, and the right ethics. The “negative” philosophers have said No. This is now on the agenda, which is why we have inflicted this useless suffering on ourselves. Why we’ve done so is a serious question. I find it frivolous that a philosopher would give positive lessons. That’s philosophy for bored housewives, the abstract points of view of someone who has lived only in privileged sociological conditions, which are worthless. Let me give you an example. Badiou says, “Death doesn’t exist; it’s a change in the function of appearance.” How does that help someone who was deported to Auschwitz, or a Vietnamese kid deformed by Agent Orange? It’s obscene. I would love to see Badiou give his speech on Death not existing to the survivors of the earthquakes in Haiti. I find it utterly obscene. You can’t speak of Death as though it were one disappearance regime among others. But that’s Badiou. It’s also the limitation of ontology, meaning we don’t need him to know that when we die we disappear like a cube of sugar in a cup of coffee. Death is something else. From this point of view, even Heidegger is much superior to Badiou when dealing with Life and Death — Deleuze is too, and Blanchot, and myself. When a philosopher has an entirely original conception of death, we can give him the “magic number.” Badiou only sees death from the perspective of the tyrannical bureaucrat.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, do you believe that a philosopher can no longer have a powerful role?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Well, Lacoue- Labarthe is right: philosophy is dead. This is the failure at the end of Badiou’s career. He wanted us to believe in the resurrection of philosophy, like Wagner’s renaissance of Tragedy. But it’s a fraud, the great philosophical swindle! There’s a loyalty, a probity, in Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy, and Lacoue-Labarthe which does not exist in the Maoist generation. It’s been sacrificed. What a waste. Badiou was the genius of his generation. But you don’t get over ten years of fanatic group militantism. You still have the reflexes of a charlatan.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Beyond his fidelity to Maoism, what else do you condemn in Badiou’s politics?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Right now I’m thinking a lot about the Garden of Epicurus. Epicurus was the biggest atheist of all the Greek philosophers, and the one who told the fewest lies. I would exchange the entire Republic of Plato for Lucretius’s De natura rerum, a poem much more essential to our time than the Republic, which we know by heart. If we were to transform the world into a giant cave, okay, we would get it. The world is already a giant concentration camp, one that will only get worse. Badiou presents The Republic to us as Paradise, but it’s only a pretext to express his misanthropy. He insults everyone! [Laughs] You, me, Žižek! “It’ll be great. We’re gonna take them all out, by God.” Obviously, what you get from this are concentrated catastrophes. Inversely, Epicurus and the great poem that Lucretius wrote about him are not lies: the sky is empty, there are no gods, and the world is a cortege of horrors, disasters, orgies, and endogamy. So, that’s the end of Badiou. I’ve read it all and understood it all — and no thanks.
OLIVIER ZAHM — From the French revolutionary slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” America has chosen freedom — over equality. Is Badiou’s communism the reverse of this?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It’s as plain as the nose on your face: with Badiou, the question of freedom doesn’t even exist. It’s all equality, equality, and more equality. And we’ve seen what equality does to you under certain conditions: the lies of the state in China, and then in Cambodia.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Beyond the philosophic and anti-philosophic opposition that you reject, isn’t the difference between you and Badiou just a question of style? Specifically, with the refusal to create a system, subjective writing, and the relationship to madness?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — For me, Badiou’s “trial” is not his paying attention to madness, but his playing at being a “rationalist” in the 19th century mode. It’s only a pose, by the purely rational, positive philosopher, who is always on the side of Good. It doesn’t exist anymore and it can’t go any further. By his posing as an absolutely white, scientific, virtuous, rational philosopher, even if he does protest in the streets with the African illegals, you realize you have a raving madman in front of you! Sometimes I feel like sticking a funnel in him. For two hundred years, since Hegel, who was crazy in the years before he was able to write The Phenomenology of the Spirit, and since Hölderlin, the simple position of the “rational philosopher” has been terminated. That is Badiou’s fraud and his “Platonic resurrection.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — On the question of madness in 2011, how do you position yourself ?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Well, I don’t propose a regression, but I do propose a synthesis of the relationship of madness to philosophy. There have been mad philosophers like Hölderlin and Nietzsche; but also Bataille, or Artaud, whom I consider a kind of philosopher. Then there was the second wave, the “French moment,” with Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, Derrida, etc., which was the integration of madness into philosophical reflection. By accepting the madness they reached a certain degree of “wisdom.” Then there’s the parricide of Badiou, the anti-Badiou movement, which I’m starting. I’m attempting a philosophy in which madness is King, and rationality emerges from madness, not the reverse. After “folisophy” (a play on words combining the French word for madness, “folie,” with “philosophy”) as Jacques-Alain Miller calls it, modern philosophers who went mad, like Hölderlin and Nietzsche, were considered quite justified in doing so, considering the historical mess that the 20th century was going to be, especially in Germany. Their madness was true wisdom. It was a great idea: better to go mad than posing or pretending rationality, which may bring even more catastrophes — not a small problem. I think that the dialectic paradox consists of saying that Evil is first, that madness and psychosis are first. I call this original psychosis. Rub two flints together when you think you’re something close to an animal — as if you’d ever see an animal making fire.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, there would be questions asked.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — You’d call in a vet! You’d say, “They’re crazy!” Rationality begins with an act of madness. Which is why you only see psychosis or schizophrenia in humans.
OLIVIER ZAHM— So, if Badiou is no longer the greatest living philosopher, who is?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Badiou, alas! Someone asked André Gide, “Who was the greatest poet of the 19th century?” He answered, “Victor Hugo, alas!” In the 19th century there were freaks like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Lautréamont. But, with their fragile, unhealthy, sickly work they were already entering the 20th century. Victor Hugo was still in the 19th. You can re-read with the greatest of pleasure La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Centuries), but it’s truly a 19th century work. For me, Badiou is a bit like Victor Hugo. Philosophers like Lacoue-Labarthe, Theodor Adorno, and Schurmann are a little like what Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Lautréamont were compared to Hugo. They’re philosophers of the 20th century, not the 19th.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What has your research into these negative philosophies given you?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I’m proud to try to make a system based on what these great negative philosophies give me. Adorno is the philosopher to whom I feel closest, ethically, politically, and aesthetically. He remains unread today, still undiscovered. But it was Lacoue-Labarthe who got me completely away from Badiou. He led me toward a concept of the event that entirely separated me from the event in Badiou’s sense. It isn’t that Lacoue-Labarthie proposes specific concepts of events, but thanks to his genius readings of Hölderlin and Rousseau I found my own concept of the event, which is as original and complex as those of Heidegger, Deleuze, and Badiou. I read and re-read Reiner Schürmann, a philosopher I revered for a long time — ever since Esthétique du chaos. He’s the greatest Heideggerian of the 20th century. His thinking is the most negative, the darkest in the history of philosophy, which is why he is no longer read, and why he must, in my opinion, be read. His The Broken Hegemonies, the greatest philosophy book of the last 25 or 30 years, was published in 1996. Adorno’s The Aesthetic Theory was only published in France in 1995. So, you see, it’s come full circle: here I’m speaking of books that were published in France when I myself was beginning to be published. I only came to these books recently. There’s always some kind of setback.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In your last book, Inesthétique et Mimésis (Unaesthetic and Mimesis), which is about art, you return to reflecting upon the things which link art to politics. It’s very anti-Badiou.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — What the philosopher can offer the artist, the scientist, or the politician is to show him or her how things connect. It’s so academic with Badiou, as with Plato. There’s no other way to say this: their idea is to separate, to say that there’s love on one side and politics on the other — here’s art, there’s science. When Badiou descends from his metaphysical platform, he’s so disappointing. The things he writes about art are just not satisfying. His comments on Mallarmé may be great, but there’s not much else. They published what he wrote about film and it’s really quite bad. Even Deleuze’s books on cinema are useful, at least for criticizing cinema. In fact, they’re books on philosophy, which you should read if you love philosophy. It’s an aesthetic pleasure. They’re excellent philosophy books. The most important thing philosophy can offer, as it does with Adorno and Lacoue- Labarthe, is to show the aesthetical-political suture, which is extremely dangerous, and something of which artists and politicians alike prefer to know nothing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The link between art and politics is Lacoue-Labarthe’s main question.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It’s his only subject. He writes, rereading Nietzsche, that, “Bayreuth isn’t only a pre-figuration of Nazism, Bayreuth was the birth of Nazism.” That line says it all. It’s not a fantasy; it’s a demonstration. He’s a great philosopher. He worked his whole life to show us that. Yet he spent half his life in psychiatric hospitals, or in deep depression, because he saw what we don’t want to see. He’s a tragic philosopher.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It wasn’t that long ago that you yourself were in a psychiatric hospital.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Yes, I was quite paranoid for a number of years. And last year I was hit with a major depression, just after Inesthétique et mimésis (Unaesthetic and mimesis) was published. I did what Lacoue-Labarthe did. I went to a clinic. I didn’t stay very long, thank God. I’m not nearly as depressed as Adorno, Schürmaan or Lacoue-Labarthe. But I do feel a responsibility to pursue them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You came back to an idea you always had about the suture between art and politics. By art, you mean contemporary art, art of your time; and by politics, the politics of today. How do we bring out in contemporary art that which borders on the convention of transgression?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Now that we’ve arrived at the academicism of transgression, I have no advice to give. If this entire up- and-down adventure has taught me anything, it’s absolute contempt for a philosopher who dares to give advice. I think the idea of “multiple transgression” is perhaps a hint, but it’s not advice. Once again, in art, as elsewhere, the important question is not about nihilism, it’s the question of Evil. Contemporary art is the positive exposition of Evil, from Sade and Goya to today’s television series, rock, rap, film, and death metal. We’re surrounded by positive expositions of Evil, while we live in the most pacifist societies that ever existed, just 65 years after the last World War. From this point of view, and here again I’m being guided by Lacoue-Labarthe, art is both mimesis and catharsis. With violence omnipresent in entertainment, we live in a generalized catharsis.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you see a connection between Greek tragedy, which for you is not theater in the sense that we know it today, and contemporary performance art?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — It’s not just that I think that — it’s a fact. Greek theater became theater with the advent of Euripides and Aristotle. Before that it was just religious rite and performance. We need to have the time to enter into that connection of mimesis-catharsis. Of course, that’s all in my books.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which performances today would be worthy of Greek tragedy?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Listening to you, I realize what’s missing in current performance, relative to the Greeks. But that’s my polemic with the Wagnerian or Mallarmean revivals. These people are looking for ceremony. I seek ritual, and I remain Bataillean, or Artaudean. Bataille is extremely important, and hasn’t been cited enough. Ceremony and ritual are not at all the same thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the difference between ceremony and ritual?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Ceremony is Catholic. It’s the Church. Someone reads or says the liturgy and people follow it.It’s the discipline of the masses. Ritual is something everyone can participate in. It’s organized just enough to leave room for singularity. But if I pay attention to what’s happening in the art of my time, even from far away, I still don’t want to give advice to the artists. What’s important for me is to produce a philosophical discourse that can help an artist, should he or she be interested, meaning that he or she does not have to apply my theses.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve been working on a book on sexuality for several years now, right?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — I finished it a year and a half ago. It’s sitting in a drawer. Since I myself was kind of put into a drawer, my books went in there as well. Now I’m resurfacing. I’m cured of my long illness. We’ll see what they make of this book. It’s a thesis of which I am enormously proud. But it has certainly shocked people who have read the text. I posted it on the Internet. Young people got it; older people didn’t. Old people asked me, “What are you talking about? It’s madness. Or maybe you’ve been taken in by the female appearance.” Thanks, but no. It’s a rather audacious thesis on the question of sexuality, a shocking thesis. It took me seven or eight months to explain it to my girlfriend. She’d say, “But that’s filthy!” She understood it later, because we could speak concretely about our sexuality, and I could argue successfully. Afterward, you realize it’s no longer shocking. You see your own sexuality, your way of making love, of having an orgasm, much more clearly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me more about your supposedly shocking theory on women’s sexuality.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — The question is, why is it that, unlike men, women do not come systematically? What is an orgasm for women? Why do we speak of all different kinds of orgasms for women? It’s a thesis that explains why everything concerning human sexuality is so complicated. The hypothesis is very simple: I place humans at the original, animal level, the one to which we no longer have access. If you look carefully at mammals, you’ll see some- thing very simple: desire and orgasm for the female are the same thing. There’s no difference. It’s what’s called the rutting female, and it’s why it’s so unbearable when they’re in heat. When your cat is in heat, she drives you crazy, rubbing up against everything, meowing away.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are a woman’s desire and jouissance the same thing, then?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — A woman comes when she desires someone sexually. She desires at the same time she comes. That’s why things stop when the male shows up, grabs her, does his thing, and then leaves. When he leaves it’s over for her. Men are the ones who cover things up right away. It’s because of this that women become hysterical and frigid. But this doesn’t stop them from having a happy sexuality. They just don’t have the mechanical access to orgasm that men have.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Aren’t you reducing women’s sexuality to female sexuality, meaning the undeniabely animal part of it. Some people might find it shocking that you make the woman more “the female.”
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — The idea has shocked a lot of people. But what I’m talking about is the caesura, the break in origins, and the animal origin from which we are entirely separated. It’s the same separation you make between eating grains and farming. Human mammals do not rut, because they have language, mimesis, technique, and sexual and erotic repetition. All the other animals are more instinctual than we are. We’ve lost our instinct. We repeat the rut, and because of this we make a parody of rutting, whether it be in the courting phase or in the goriest S&M. We have urges and depressions, but it’s never balanced, the way it is for animals, who are in harmony with their environment, who have perfect reflexes. Why are we like this? We’re limp. We’re overexcited. We’re decadent. Like you are, Zahm! It depends on the person. We’re hysterical. I’m not taking the male or the female back to their animal origins. But I think that with this thesis we may begin to understand many things about sexuality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is your thesis anti-phallic?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Yes. I am, in fact, a feminist fanatic — the reverse of the transcendental machismo of Badiou and Žižek. Badiou still says things like, “the woman half exists,” or — even more weirdly — “the woman exists in me.” For me, the woman over-exists. [Laughs] Even if not in the stereotypical discourse of feminists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think we’ll have a second sexual revolution, or is the utopia of ’68 over?
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Badiou says, “It’s sad — the festive sexual ideology of ’68 still overwhelms us.” Well, no, I’m not the least bit overwhelmed. For years that whole line of thought, and the Puritanism, have bothered me.Who could find the joy of ’68 a sad thing? A second sexual revolution? I don’t know if it will happen, but it seems to me that the first one hasn’t yet ended. The emancipating change in morals that occurred in the ’60s was an event, and I’m its son. There’s no going back. We go with what we have. Often we’re flailing, just doing whatever, in the generalized presence of pornography, in the sexual freedom in our lives. In any case, we can’t go backwards. Solutions like “We must find the correct balance between the fused couple and debauchery” are just abstractions, just platitudes. We may as well look for local, temporary solutions, because this freedom is essential. It’s part of us.
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