Elisabeth Paquette, Universal Emancipation: Race Beyond Badiou. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020; 211 pages. ISBN: 978-1517909444

Reviewed by Sterling Hall, Villanova University

Elisabeth Paquette’s book Universal Emancipation: Race Beyond Badiou is an important intervention into our current understanding of the limits and potentials of Alain Badiou’s work, as well as general attempts to develop a political theory of “generic universality.” Her work aims to be an account of the role that race plays (or fails to play) in Badiou’s work, something which is sorely needed given the current absence of similar work. This account is pursued through an interesting attempt to symptomatically read Badiou and his commentator’s statements about the Négritude movement, the Haitian Revolution, and decolonial theory broadly. Further, in analyzing the way that race fits, or doesn’t fit, into Badiou’s philosophical system, she puts his work into dialogue with “francophone Black studies” (as she says in her conclusion) and with the American Black feminist tradition. In doing so, Paquette puts Badiou into a broader political and historical conversation and presents a refreshing approach to Badiou’s work, one that attempts to move beyond mere commentaries on Badiou’s system and into a  robust critique and extension of this system.

The book can be broken down into three sections. The first (Chapter 1) is most directly concerned with Badiou’s work and gives an account of his justification for supporting a politics that is “indifferent to difference”—that is, universal by virtue of not being subject to the domain of what appears in the present—and of his unique account of the nature of “states”. The second section (Chapters 2–4) critiques this position of “indifference to difference” by showing how it ignores various aspects of our contemporary political situation. Paquette does this in chapter 2 by trying to map the dispute between Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre over the value of the Négritude movement onto Badiou’s own conception of race. Chapter 3 takes this critique further, appealing to various critiques that Black theorists have made of a kind of colorblind Marxism and arguing that emancipatory political theory must have a “positive” account of race—that is, an account which shows the positive, life-affirming side of racial differentiation that can generate solidarity. Chapter 4 moves into different territory and claims that Badiou’s indifference to a politics grounded in identity can be equated with his general disdain for “mere culture” rather than “politics.” In the final section (Chapter 5), Paquette puts Badiou in dialogue with the work of Sylvia Wynter and tries to show that Wynter’s account of universality, which is more sympathetic to identity, should be preferred over Badiou’s own account.

At the outset, it is worth noting that Paquette’s book addresses a real issue in Badiou’s philosophy. There is a marked tension between the supposed universality of truth for Badiou and the overwhelming particularity of his examples. For instance, he uses almost exclusively European examples of art when discussing artistic universality (one is led to wonder why these universal truths never seem to be produced in the Philippines, or in Bolivia, or anywhere else) and his account of love is entirely rooted in Lacanian theory, ignoring decades of feminist and other work on love and sexual difference (even ignoring Lacanian feminists). Badiou, and those inspired by him, should address why a theory of universality is often explained through aggressively Western examples and Paquette’s book can be seen as a preliminary attempt to address this gap.

The issue is that while Paquette sees this tension in Badiou’s work, her attempts to address it often come up short. This becomes apparent even in the first chapter, which is meant to be a summary of Badiou’s philosophical system. A key component of her summary is a reconstruction of Badiou’s theory of the “state,” since he thinks that most forms of identity politics are just a rearrangement of the current state. But Paquette’s summary of this essential component of Badiou’s work relies entirely on secondary literature and there are no references to Badiou’s first major work, Being and Event, where his theory of the state is developed. (In fact, for reasons that are never articulated, Paquette mostly works with his second major work, Logics of Worlds). This leads her to treat Badiou’s use of “state” as equivalent to the political “nation state,” when it is much closer to a “state of affairs.” For Badiou, there is just as much of a state at work in political affairs as there is in artistic creation or during an evening walk. A state is simply that which secures identity and factuality in any situation whatsoever.

In misconstruing Badiou’s conception of the state in this way, Paquette is led into several subsequent errors. For example, to illustrate Badiou’s concept of the state, she provides the example of a family where one of its members is undocumented (18–20). Of this example, she writes that such an undocumented person “appears in the world of the family and thus exists in that world, [but] because he is undocumented, he is not represented by the state, and thus does not exist according to the state” (19). The problem is that there are multiple states at work here: while such an undocumented person is not represented by the nation state, they are absolutely represented by the state of the family—otherwise they could not be said to be a member of the family recognized as an undocumented family member. This mistake about the nature of statehood in Badiou has a cascading effect for Paquette’s work, since Badiou’s “indifference to difference” (the main point of contention for Paquette) stems from his claim that identity politics form a state in this broad sense. By reducing “state” to “nation state,” Paquette analysis fails to argue against the actual substance of Badiou’s theory.

In addition, her reliance on secondary work as a stand-in for Badiou’s own writing continues throughout the text. Take, for example, the basic structure of the argument Paquette makes in her second chapter, which is concerned with the dispute between Sartre and Fanon over the Négritude movement:

  1. The dominant view of the Négritude movement is that it essentializes race (59).
  2. Paquette disagrees and argues that this movement is anti-essentialist and a creative (not just reactive) endeavor.
  3. She argues that Fanon shares this positive view of the Négritude movement.
  4. Fanon’s view of Négritude contrasts with Sartre’s in Black Orpheus, where he argues that race is a subjective concern against the universal standpoint of the proletariat (52–53).
  5. Sartre’s distinction between race (subjective, ephemeral) and class (objective, universal) maps onto Badiou’s own distinction between race/identity and evental politics (54).

While this is an interesting defense of a supposedly minority position in the literature about Négritude, only the last part has anything to do with Badiou and the question of race. And this point relies on drawing an equivalence between Sartre’s claim that only the (homogenous) proletariat occupy a position of universality and Badiou’s claim that events produce universal truths. Such an equivalence is tenuous at best and Paquette never provides an argument for why we should treat Sartre’s proletariat and Badiou’s evental politics as interchangeable.

These sorts of issues stem from the way in which Paquette’s book assumes that Badiou’s political theory is misguided on the issue of race and then works backwards to make the evidence fit her conclusion. In one of the most egregious examples of this, in the third chapter (concerned with a positive conception of race) she quotes the following from Linda Martin Alcoff: “This solution [the rejection of identity politics] is no different from the liberal approach Sartre excoriated in AntiSemite and Jew when he said, the liberal wants to save the man by leaving the Jew behind” (68, emphasis mine). Commenting on this quote, Paquette writes, “Alcoff is drawing her readers’ attention to Sartre’s claim that the emancipation of the Jewish man is possible when he gives up the particularity of his Jewishness” (emphasis mine). Yet, this is  exactly the opposite of what Sartre claims. Moreover, since Sartre’s account of race was already deemed insufficient by Paquette in the previous chapter, this positive presentation of Sartre by Alcoff must be twisted into its opposite in order to make it fit Paquette’s account.

A similar issue appears near the end of this chapter when Paquette writes that “the central claim of my argument in this project is not the misrepresentation of Négritude by Sartre or Badiou, rather I am concerned with the importance of a positive conception of race for a theory of emancipation” (84), and she goes on to argue that Badiou does not have a positive conception of race (86). Yet early in the next chapter (chapter 4), discussing why Badiou’s account of Négritude is insufficient, she contends that Badiou “recognizes the importance of the rearticulation of what it means to be Black as something that is affirming and liberating” (98), a claim that seems to articulate exactly the positive conception of race that she denied was present in Badiou’s work. Here we see another example of the way in which Paquette’s argument seems to waver depending on the current focus of her critique, this wavering leading her into moments of obfuscatory self-contradiction. These contradictions rob the text of its polemical force. What Paquette intends to be knockdown arguments against Badiou’s account of race end up reinforcing this account. In fact by the end of the book, largely due to these kinds of contradictions and omissions, Badiou’s account of race actually seems stronger than it did in the beginning.

The most promising aspect of Paquette’s book comes in the final chapter, where she compares and contrasts the accounts of universality provided by Wynter and Badiou. Since this chapter also must develop Wynter’s theory though, it spends little time putting the two thinkers in dialogue (around 20 pages or so)—a tragedy, given that Paquette states that the “central feature of this project in its current iteration” is developing such a dialogue (155). This is especially disappointing given that Paquette has already published an essay on Badiou and Wynter (“Humanism at Its Limits”) and the claims of the book do not go much further than what was presented there. Even so, this chapter opens the most possibilities for thinking about Badiou’s concept of race, given that him and Wynter both adopt a theory of universality (meaning that the standard critique which simply points to the supposed impossibility of a theory of universality has no purchase here). Moreover, they both offer interpretations of the Négritude movement and both have been influential in decolonial theory in various ways. There is a lot of potential in putting these thinkers into dialogue, especially in attempting to go beyond the account provided in this work. For example, given that Paquette ultimately sympathizes more with Wynter’s work, it would be useful to tease out Wynter’s Foucauldian influences in relation to Badiou’s own critique of Foucault’s nominalism (most directly present in Being and Event)—such work would help clarify what is at stake in taking either Wynter or Badiou’s approach to universality.

The problem with Paquette’s book is ultimately that the work tried to do too much: not only reconstructing Badiou and Wynter’s theories but also engage in long-standing debates in the philosophy of race, commentary on the Haitian Revolution, accounts of Négritude, and decolonial theory writ large. This wide focus even puts Paquette in a position of questioning her own focus on Badiou. Near the end of her work, she tries to respond to the hypothetical question of why one should spend time reading Badiou given the problems she has raised. She responds by saying that she is not sure she can give a good answer to this question and even goes on to say that her goal in this book has not been to give an account of the role that “race” plays in Badiou’s work, as one would expect given the framing, but has been to “demonstrate the importance of reading decolonial theory writ large” (165). Had this book been broken into separate projects—and had Paquette given space for a more subtle and faithful reconstruction of the texts she works with—this could have been a delightful and important contribution. As it stands though, Universal Emancipation is a work of unfulfilled promise and potential: while it does open important lines of thinking, it leaves incomplete the most pressing arguments it provokes. 

Additional Works Cited:

Elisabeth Paquette, “Humanism at Its Limits: A Conversation Between Alain Badiou and Sylvia Wynter,” Philosophy Today, 62, no. 4 (2018): 1069–88, https://doi.org/10.5840/philtoday2019226246.