Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 156: Badiou, Universalism & Racial Politics — with Elisabeth Paquette

Speakers: Alyha Bardi, Am Johal, Elisabeth Paquette

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Alyha Bardi  0:02
Hello listeners! I’m Alyha with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by Elisabeth Paquette, a continental philosopher and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina. In this episode, Elisabeth speaks about her latest book Universal Emancipation: Race Beyond Badiou, as she critiques Marxian thinking that centers whiteness, and discusses how ideas of emancipation need to be filled with the varied and particular knowledges of racialized folks. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:50
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar — delighted that you could join us again this week. Really excited to have Elizabeth Paquette joining us from University of North Carolina. She's written a new book that takes on some of the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou. Welcome, Elizabeth.

Elisabeth Paquette  1:09
Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Am Johal  1:12 
I'm wondering if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Elisabeth Paquette  1:17 
Yeah, absolutely. So I am an assistant professor of Philosophy and Women Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, my pronouns are she/her and hers. I'm also affiliated faculty with the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights program and Africana Studies, and I've been here since 2015. I'm the co-founder of the LGBTQ Staff and Faculty Caucus at UNC Charlotte, which was founded in 2015. I'm the director of the Decolonial Feminist Politics workshop, which was established in 2015. In Montreal was our first event. I'm also a French and Anglo-Canadian. I've been living in the US South for about six years now. In Charlotte, its on the traditional territories of the Catawba, Sara/Cheraw, Waxhaw, and Sugeree peoples. Unrelated to all of this, as a person, I also like rock climbing and salsa dancing.

Am Johal  2:09
Well, I'm delighted you could join us this morning, Elizabeth. When I reached out —when I'd heard about the book coming out, I didn't realize you're a Canadian connection. I’m wondering if we can just sort of begin with how you first encountered the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou. And what you found interesting about it?

Elisabeth Paquette  2:29
Yeah, absolutely. So I think back about this, this process or this, my coming to Badiou's work. And it started in undergrad. When I was at Trent University, I read Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, in a class that was called Return of the Religious. And I think something about that texts stuck with me. My training was very continental philosophy. And I always lean toward French political theory. So I read a lot of Hegel and Heidegger, and I moved throughout Althusser and Balibar, and then eventually to Badiou. And Balibar and Althusser were — Althusser was Badiou’s teacher and Balibar was in the student group with Badiou. So there's a lot of parallels and it seemed as though Badiou was a sort of a natural progression for me as a student of French political continental philosophy. And so I always enjoyed thinking about emancipation and what emancipation was, instead of the big concepts about justice, and truth and rights in these kinds of things. I was originally thinking about Badiou and feminist theory when I started out reading his work, and started thinking about it more seriously. And thinking about how it is that my training in French feminist theory, through scholars like Luce Irigaray, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, could fit with the kinds of things that Badiou was talking about. So that was kind of the progression, you know, I started in undergrad, I was very much introduced to his work. And then once I got to grad school and did my PhD at York University, I started reading more and more of his work in particular.

Am Johal  3:59
And in terms of your specific project, how did you get started on the writing project itself?

Elisabeth Paquette  4:07
So the book is on Badiou and race. I mean, that's the title — it points everyone in that direction right away. And so I think that with that particular project, there are a number of events that pushed me in that direction. So, in 2014, I went to this conference, it was called Diverse Lineages of Essentialism. It was in St. Louis, Missouri. And I saw Paget Henry, who was a wonderful scholar, and Sylvia Wynter — gave a paper on Wynter there. And so I was drawn to his account of Wynter. And so I started thinking about how it is that the writings of Sylvia Wynter relate to Alain Badiou. At the same conference, I gave a paper on Beauvoir, I wasn't working on critical race theory at that time. And following in my paper, Paget Henry asked me, why should we be interested in your project? And that shook me as a graduate student, I was very unsure of myself already. And so this question, which I think is a really important and fundamental question about what is it that my work is doing? Or what do I hope to do with something that I wrestled with for a good, good amount of time. In 2015, I moved to the US South, and I realized coming from Ontario, I didn't know anything about the US South. And so I spent several years, and I'm continuing to do this work, to think about where it is that I'm located, and the history and the politics that informed the places that I am. So I'd be having conversations with people and I don't know, sort of the key texts, or the things that people read in high school to inform the kinds of locations out there. And so I've been doing that kind of project to think through specific political histories where I am. And then, perhaps finally, in September 2016, I was sitting in a coffee shop, and I was reading Alain Badiou’s political work on revolution. And just a few days before that, Keith Lamont Scott whose an African American man living in Charlotte, was killed by police officers. And so there were big protests in the city. And they happened night after night, for weeks on end. And so I was reminded of Paget Henry's question about, what does [your research] do? And why does this matter? And I was thinking what is a function of reading Alain Badiou on revolution when there are calls for revolutions happening in the streets? So I left the coffee shop, I went to the organizing meeting, that was 20 minutes away. And then I learned a great deal from people who are organizing Charlotte at that time, and then about a month later, I came back to Badiou with a very different set of questions. And specifically, how is it that Badiou responds to the moments that are happening here, and now, in the place that I was living?

Am Johal  6:45
Now, the book brings in a critique of how Badiou he presents his concept of universalism, and what it potentially leaves out in the way that it's articulated. And there have been a number of critiques of Badiou, particularly around matters related to race and gender and I'm wondering if you can speak to your critique around his operationalization of the concept of universalism.

Elisabeth Paquette  7:14
Yeah, yeah. So I mean, this, this idea about universiality, and how it operates, and what it looks like, has been something that I have been thinking through continental philosophy for a long time. And so I think that that's something that I found particularly interesting about what Badiou was trying to do. And so with that comes thinking about also what particularity is, and, and how it relates to universality. And so that's very much my focus with Badiou, and how he's working through those ideas. When he's talking about universality, you know, he's talking about a number of different things, and he uses set theory. And so it gets very specific in the book in some instances. But like, generally the point is, what is justice and what does it look like? And how is it constituted, and who constitutes it? And are there ways in which justice fails to be just — given how it's constituted, and ways in which it can be emancipatory. And in this, in the way that Badiou is talking about it — was it can be universal. And so for him, justice doesn't come from the states. And so states that are inherently oppressive, can't provide justice. And so what he says is that justice needs to exceed the state, and needs to come from something that is outside the structure of the state of the logic of the state, or how its organized. And so he makes a distinction here, on the one hand, he says that additive politics are thinking about expanding the power of the state. And so we could think about, like notions of becoming more inclusive, but not changing the overall structure of how the state's organized, as doing that kind of work. And juxtapose against this, he calls for subtractive politics. And so subtractive politics, while in a certain sense, it's located in the moments of things that are happening, it exceeds the state. And so the sources for what counts as justice, are beyond or outside the political state. And so he does this because he recognizes that states are problematic and fallible. And that will continually attempt to maintain their own power, rather than provide this universal justice for all people. And so the expansion of it doesn't actually address a problem. And instead, we need to think about new states with this radical changes that become possible. And so I think the goals for what he's talking about are important. You know, and so I could think of various ways. For instance, there's an author, an Indigenous author, Coulthard, who wrote the book, Red Skin, White Masks. And so in that he's saying, in a certain sense, we need not to perpetuate or expand the colonial nation-state. The colonial nation-state is itself the problem. We need something else instead. And so, I think that makes sense. I think it's really important, especially thinking about decolonization within the context of US and Canada in particular. But the problem that I have with this articulation of subjective politics and how the justice gets constructed, are the means through which he's trying to do this kind of work. And I think this is where he runs into problems. And he articulates it as — he calls it an indifference to difference. And so this is a concept that comes up repeatedly throughout the book, there's a special issue that focuses on that as well. But I think that's sort of the place where I — that I pay particular attention. And so in a certain sense, what he says is that in order to get to the subjective politics, in order to get to justice that's outside the state, we need to be indifferent to differences. And the differences that he names here are race and culture. And so he creates this juxtaposition between race and culture on one hand, and politics and justice on the other hand, as though they're incommensurable with each other. So the reasons why he does this, is he says that race and culture are constituted through the state. And so that in order to address the problems of the state, we need to get beyond it. And that these things are constitutive of the state itself, and therefore can't be political, and can't be emancipatory.

Am Johal  11:06
Yeah, I'm glad you brought up Glen Coulthard's work, he's been a guest on this podcast before. He's located here, in Vancouver. I'm wondering when Badiou has been pressed on this point around race and gender-related to an egalitarian emancipatory project, he oftentimes speaks about — that the uncounted have to be counted as part of the project. So he brings this up in set theory, but in that articulation, it seems, as you said, the indifference to difference piece, it smooths over, or doesn't quite capture the radical potential. And I think this is going to be a long debate within people who read Badiou. But I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit to what you find limiting in Badiou’s approach in his articulation around this, particularly in its relationship to a radical emancipatory project.

Elisabeth Paquette  12:06
Yeah, yeah. So I think that there's a number was different ways to approach it. And I think in the book, I tried to approach it in several different ways. But I think the overall point has been argued before — I want to say that this is not something new that I'm bringing about. When he's offering a conception of Marxism, that assumes that race is something that's particular, and that it's been argued previously, that class is something that's universal. So class impacts everyone — and also following the revolution, class will no longer exist. And, in other ways race will no longer exist. And so it assumes that kind of relationship, which is something that's been consistent with Marxism for the past. But what is failed to recognize in these instances, are the debates that have existed in black Marxism for a very long time. So Aimé Césaire in 1956, in his letters to Maurice Torres, which is when he was he resigned from the Communist Party. He says that Marxism fails to account for race, and that we need to complete Marx in particular as communism. Right in 1952, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, talks about needs to stress Marxism — critiquing Sartre, who in a way that is very similar to what Badiou has said, that race is something that one needs to get over, to get to class, which is the universal thing in order to achieve emancipation. And so I use that debate, in a certain sense to say, like this debate already exists. There are strong similarities between what Sartre was saying and what Badiou was saying, and that we need to be paying attention to these conversations. In 1933, Leon Trotsky in an interview notes that the American Communist Party has said in 1928, that is for a black Republic, and that failing to support black communists is centering whiteness. Right? And so in 1933, this argument has already existed by Leon Trotsky. And then also, Cedric J. Robinson’s Black Marxism in 1983, also offers the ways in which Marxism is limited, because of its failure to account for race. And so repeatedly, we see these amazing scholars who are providing the argument that if one does not account for the ways in which race needs to be part of the conversation, for thinking about emancipation, in the way that Badiou is saying is something that we get over, it's something we move past. Then it's going to be a recentering of whiteness, and a recentering of Eurocentrism. And so if we're talking about universality, if we're talking about ways of thinking about emancipation, for all people — failing to account for race is going to mean that we fail to achieve these kinds of universality. Right? And so these people written in the past, Charles Mills wrote in 1987, an essay on race and class. In 2003, From Class to Race, Kathryn Sophia Belle and Angela Davis are also making these arguments. So in a certain sense, I think it's really unfortunate that Badiou himself and Badiou's scholars are not engaging in this research. And have not found ways to respond to the critique that he, at this point, Badiou and I think Badiou scholars, should be able to respond should be able to account for the history of black Marxism in the arguments that are being provided. I think on top of that, there are two other points that I bring up in the book that have been so central. One point is that when Badiou talks about race, he's talking about a negative conception of race, whereby races is constituted through racism. And you know, I think that that social constructivist view of the relationship between race and racism is really important. But also at the same time, there are a number of scholars who are talking about why it's also really important to think about the positive conceptions of race. And so W. E. B. Du Bois in 1897, The Conservation of Races is talking about why race isn't just something that's negative, and that also can be things that are positive. Lucius T. Outlaw and Chike Jeffers — Chike Jeffers, is Canadian on the East Coast — Afro Canadian in the East Coast. And so he's also talking about ways in which positive conceptions become really important. And really, Lucius T. Outlaw, particularly he's talking about why race becomes something that's important politically. And so it's not just something that exists between people, but it becomes something that's really important for thinking about moving political movements forward. You know, we look at social movements today we can see why that's certainly the case.

Am Johal  16:26
I was gonna ask in the book, you bring up the work of the great writer, Sylvia Wynter. And I'm wondering what drew you to her work and making your argument related Badiou?

Elisabeth Paquette  16:39
I was introduced to Sylvia Wynter by the writings of Paget Henry in 2014. And Sylvia Wynter, who's an Afro-Caribbean theorist, who was based in California, later on. And she's a system thinker, so she writes these really long and complicated essays, which I have always had a soft spot in my heart for —  long and complicated essays, apparently. But then also, she's thinking about the relationship between universality and particularity in a way that is not inconsistent what Badiou was talking about. And so in some ways, they have similar goals, they want to think about how it is that one can end oppression based from the state, and what's needed for justice or emancipation, you know, broadly construed. But what I thought was really interesting about Wynter, is that when she thinks about universality and particularities, she doesn't see them as opposite are juxtaposed in the same way that Badiou does. So Badiou says, these are opposed, and you can't have particularity to achieve the universality. So she says that universality needs to be filled with particularity. And so I thought that was a really compelling way of approaching the question. And what that does, in the way that Badiou doesn't do those things, is it imbues value in the experiences and the knowledges of marginalized people. Right? So in addressing oppression through the states, you know, broadly construed, people who are marginalized by the state will have, you know, particular knowledge and experience that is extremely valuable in thinking about how the state should operate differently. And I think that, for a number of scholars working in critical race theory, Indigenous theory, decolonial theory — broadly construed, that's not surprising. But I think that, I think that this way of thinking about universality, as filled with knowledge from multiple perspectives is really compelling. And really important. And so she draws this from C. L. R. James, but she extends it in important ways. And it's called the pluri-conceptual framework that she's using. And so through it, my understanding is that she can think about multiple forms of oppression, multiplicity of identities. And that there are multiple ways of thinking and knowing that become really important for thinking about what new worlds are gonna look like. It also means that it's not a one size fits all — and something that be can be prescribed, through treaties, necessarily.  And so her essays are super complicated. She's very interdisciplinary. She goes from physics to chemistry, to neurobiology, to literature, to dance. And so I think she brings such richness to thinking about these concepts of universality, and particularly, for me, anyway, those are the things that are important for me.

Am Johal  19:28
One question that I have for you is, in thinking about continental philosophy, which has such a rich history — it does come from a situatedness, and a geographic location. And so when questions of the universal and others come up, there can tend to be blind spots. And I'm wondering if, within the continental tradition is there something salvageable, or are some of these blind spots a fundamental feature of it? I know, that's a large question, but I’m wondering, given how you've approached these questions around Badiou, what your perspective is.

Elisabeth Paquette  20:06
Yeah, I think that's a great question. So thank you for asking it. And it's something that I wrestle with a lot, because my training is very much in a very traditional continental approach. And so when I teach, when I research, I asked questions about why I'm doing this as opposed to something else. And so, keeping in mind, Sylvia Wynter, I guess my first response is to think that it's really important to read a multiplicity of positionalities. And sort of, have that framing how it is that we come to know and think. And so this is for me the reason why I think reading back Marxists is really important, reading Indigenous scholars on Marxism, becomes really important. And doing work that is not just within a particular training. Pedagogically, I don't do teach continental philosophy in that traditional way anymore. And that's in part because my students are overarchingly not that interested in it, which I think is great. And that there's also so many other researchers that we can turn to that are more applicable to the kinds of things that they're interested in, and the kinds of experiences that they're having. And so I think that, for me, that's been something that I've been learning alongside my students, and having wonderful conversations with my students in that way. And then, in terms of thinking about my research and what I'm working on, in some ways, I still publish on Badiou. Right? I wrote a book on Badiou. So I'm very much in conversation with continental philosophy. And, you know, that's not done. I work in continental philosophy in my research more broadly. And, in a certain sense of, there's a bit of a political commitment with that. And it's in part because Badiou had a very big following, and then a lot of people are working on his work. And I think that, again, it's really unfortunate that Badiou scholars aren't reading more of critical race theory of black Marxists on these questions. And so in some ways, I keep working on a continental philosophy as a way of thinking about interventions, or broadening conversations. And that's something that I will likely continue to do for at least for a little bit. And it's been as for those reasons.

Am Johal  22:16
Great, great. Anything you'd like to add? 

Elisabeth Paquette  22:19
I think very generally — thank you for the work that you all are doing. I think that it's really important in as many means as possible to have conversations around topics that are not mainstream. And I think podcasts are a wonderful way of doing that right now. And so I think that conversations are shifting in a lot of places. And so it's wonderful that you all are making this available to folks. And so I appreciate that. And so thank you. 

Am Johal  22:46
Yeah, thank you so much for joining us. We're radically committed to being Below the Radar. So thank you so much for joining us.

Elisabeth Paquette  22:54
Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

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Alyha Bardi  22:58
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to this episode with Elisabeth Paquette. For more about her latest book, check out the show notes.
Don’t forget to stay up to date with Below the Radar by visiting us online at, or following us on our various social channels; on Instagram and Twitter @sfu_voce, or on facebook @sfuvoce. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
January 25, 2022

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