The Autonomy of the Aesthetic Process

After achieving considerable critical acclaim with Almageste and Portulans – two avant-garde novels that promptly caught the attention of his long-time intellectual model Jean-Paul Sartre – Alain Badiou published ‘The Autonomy of the Aesthetic Process’, his first work as a philosopher.1 Written in 1965 as part of a seminar presented under the aegis of his other proclaimed master, Louis Althusser, and published the following year in a special issue of the Cahiers Marxistes-Leninistes on ‘Art, Language and Class Struggle, edited by members of the UJCML at the Ecole Normale Superieure in rue d’Ulm, the essay shows Badiou taking his distance from the discussions about art and ideology taking shape at the time – in the immediate wake of the 1965 publication of For Marx and Reading Capital – most notably an essay from the same year by Pierre Macherey, ‘Lenin, Critic of Tolstoy’.2

Anticipating what would soon thereafter become his core proposal in A Theory of Literary Production, Macherey follows Althusser in arguing for art and literature’s special status in comparison to other ideological forms. While clearly unable to produce the kind of knowledge associated with science, art also cannot be equated with the purely imaginary effects of ideology. Macherey and Althusser ‘solve’ this enigma of the specific difference of artistic production by positing within art a relation of internal distancing, or redoubling, with regard to its own ideological nature. Art, in a sense, ‘shows’ the functioning of ideology, rendering its operations visible and breaking the spontaneous effects of closure, recognition and misrecognition characteristic of ideology in general. ‘Art, or at least literature, because it naturally scorns the credulous view of the world, establishes myth and illusion as visible objects’, Macherey concludes his commentary on Lenin and Tolstoy. ‘By means of the text it becomes possible to escape from the domain of spontaneous ideology, to escape from the false consciousness of self, of history, and of time.’3

Badiou problematizes Macherey’s principal thesis about the internal displacement of ideology in art, all the while making his own a secondary and apparently contradictory thesis, concerning the autonomy of art’s form-giving processes. For Macherey, ‘it could be said that the work has an ideological content, but that it endows this content with a specific form. Even if this form is itself ideological there is an internal displacement of ideology by virtue of this redoubling; this is not ideology contemplating itself, but the mirror-effect which exposes its insufficiency, revealing differences and discordances, or a significant incongruity.’4 Focus­ing his attention on the process of the elaboration of a specifically aesthetic form irreducible to the ideological content on which it is supposed to work, Badiou goes a step further by arguing that, far from ‘redoubling’ and ‘demystifying’ ideology as if in a broken mirror, art only ever ‘turns’ or ‘reverts’ already aestheticized elements into a kind of self-sufficient reality. Thus, instead of a redoublement as in Macherey and Althusser, Badiou speaks of a retournement as the key to the autonomy of the aesthetic process.

The pertinent unit for this kind of analysis is no longer the unique work of art, let alone the genial artist-creator, but rather what Badiou calls an aes­thetic mode of production. The example he chooses to elaborate is the novel, or the novelistic mode of production. In fact, Badiou envisaged elaborating the present essay into a monograph on L’effet romanesque (‘The Novelistic Effect’), which was to be published in the same Theorie book series edited by Althusser in which Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production would eventually appear in 1971 – perhaps taking the wind out of Badiou’s sails. Even so, Badiou would sub­sequently revisit some of the same problems addressed here, particularly in a little-known series of book reviews about the novelistic production of his friend and fellow Maoist militant Natacha Michel.5



  1. Alain Badiou, ‘L’autonomie du processus esthetique’, Cahiers Marxistes-Leninistes 12-13, July 1966, pp. 77-89. For further context and discussion, see Peter Hallward, ‘Badiou and the Logic of Interruption’, Con­cept and Form, vol. 2. Interviews and Essays on Cahiers pour {‘Analyse, ed. Peter Hallward and Knox Peden, Verso, London and New York, 2012, pp. 123-45.
  2. Pierre Macherey, ‘Lenin, Critic of Tolstoy’, in A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1978, pp. 105-19
  3. Ibid., pp. 132-3. See also Louis Althusser, ‘Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre’, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, New Left Books, London, 1971, p. 222.
  4. Macherey, ‘Lenin, Critic of Tolstoy’, p. 133.
  5. These reviews and other texts on poetry and prose are forthcoming in Alain Badiou, The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Bruno Bosteels, Verso, London and New York.

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