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The Force of Resistance: Religious Events and Political Discourse

An earlier version of the following paper was presented at the 2017 Telos Conference, held on January 14–15, 2017, in New York City. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Although a frustrating incalculable for the engineers of government, religion must be acknowledged as that without which the techniques and technologies of human subjectivity would not exist. I am not here arguing for the adoption of certain religious practices or beliefs, but simply qualifying the centrality of the political by insisting on the necessity of the religious. I maintain that the asymmetry characteristic of all civilizations stems from ruptures that I describe as religious, or evental—terms that I maintain are equivalent. To probe the intricacies of asymmetrical warfare in the twenty-first century is to ask, “Whence and whither the Event?”

In Security, Territory, Population, Michel Foucault does not specifically connect events to religion, but he does identify religious practices as paradigm examples of “counter-conducts.” Unlike “misconduct,” which “only refers to the passive sense of the word,” counter-conduct suggests an active struggle against the “processes implemented for conducting others.” Additionally, it does not easily lend itself to reification and thus, remains aloof from the hero-worship that accompanies dissidents. As Foucault sees it, this “makes it possible to pick out the dimension or component of counter-conduct” that is shared by a variety of figures related to the history of protest.[1]

I want to make explicit the connection between these modalities of resistance and Foucault’s analysis of security. As it concerns the relation of government to the event, the word was scarcity. Governments could even be thought of as anti-scarcity systems; at least until the advent of security apparatuses aimed at managing populations. In contrast to prevention, techniques of security accepted the reality of fluctuations in supply and only sought to ameliorate their harm. However, these measures actually deny the event as such. And under these new conditions of governance, “scarcity that causes the death of individuals not only does not disappear, it must not disappear.”[2] This open split between those who will live through scarcity and those who will not erases both the collective and individual sense of persons, since the population that will now be managed is neither.

But some people will resist. In this case, the people “comprise those who conduct themselves in relation to the management of the population, at the level of the population, as if they were not part of the population as a collective subject-object . . . and consequently the people are those who, refusing to be the population, disrupt the system.”[3] This refusal might be defined as a renewal of affective intensities that are counter-conductive.

So, while resistance defines counter-conductivity, a better word might be re-direction. It is my claim that resistant practices stem from fundamental elements in governance. These “border-elements” are simply taken in a different direction by the aforementioned “people” and thus, the struggle does not assume the form of absolute exteriority; it functions within the phenomenological horizon of possible experience.[4]

However, the force of resistance is not accounted for by simply pointing out class disparities. Mobilization is only effective to the extent that a converted, or counter-conductive, population is compelled to act. This is precisely why a theory of the event is necessary, and while Foucault does offer an analysis of events, these are limited to historical epochs. According to Alain Badiou, without truth there is no subjectivation, and without a subject there is no politics.[5]

However, it is not a Cartesian subject for which Badiou is arguing in his work. To the contrary, it is usually an ensemble that creatively intervenes with the excessive effects-of-truth to produce a body.[6] Truth is an immaterial eternal. It cannot be represented, since in this case it would become the “bodies and languages” that it exceeds. Yet, it manifests itself through the efforts of faithful subjects. Unlike the democratic materialism that Badiou repudiates, his theory focuses on the exceptionality of truth. This sharply distinguishes his focus from that of Foucault.

For my purposes, the primary function of a subject is the formalization of the “effects of a body in accordance with a certain logic, whether productive or counter-productive.”[7] The present is what is produced by the faithful subject, the first of three types he introduces—the other two being reactionary and obscure. The subject imposes meaning on a random composite, a multiple of multiples, thereby creating a world. By living in relation to the truth-event, the subject is operational fidelity. Temporally, the subject is a relation to a present still to come. Though unseen, and thus, unrepresented by the state, the formalization of a possibility hitherto unrecognized is the movement of a body into an-other time. This metapolitical rupture, I contend, is religious as much as evental.

But there remains a problem. If epistemological concerns are invalid for metapolitical reasoning, how is the situation effectively restructured? Put another way, how is an affect registered so as to generate a decision resulting in a subject? Badiou’s formalism seems to get in the way of the politics he commends. “Like his theory of the subject, Badiou’s theory of affect is also post-Cartesian, which is to say that it treats the subject as a formalization and an aleatory trajectory, meaning that ‘affect’ does not refer to an experience, a capacity, a spiritual or mental disposition.”[8] To address these concerns, I will propose an unlikely marriage between his work and that of Emmanuel Levinas.[9] What is particularly fruitful in Badiou’s approach is the relation of subject to event, which, as a traumatic opening, “permits ethics to be approached as a subjective process or, better perhaps, a process of the formation of ethical subjectivity . . . a singular occurrence that places a demand on the self.”[10] Motivation comes from this demand, which I argue is infinite, heteronomous, and inescapable. Similarly, Levinas’s subject is formed by an event, namely the approach of the Other. But putting it this way is somewhat misleading, since for Levinas the event has always already occurred; it is the condition for subjectivity rather than an experiential datum. And while constitutive alterity is shared by Badiou, the heroic decision of Badiou’s militant contrasts sharply with Levinas’s “being-held-hostage.” Whereas in Badiou, the subject is a consequence of the decision, in Levinas the emerging subject is a consequence of a demand to which she is compelled to respond. This demand is infinite, as is the task of responsibility for Levinas. For him, the exceptionality of the truth-event can never evade answerability. On the contrary, it is precisely this justification for my existence that I am compelled to give, at each moment, with each action.

Counter-conductive redirection of border elements in opposition to centralized power implies a metapolitical rupture. And while Levinas and Badiou intervene metaphysically, Olivier Roy helps us to see how these “new” or “renewed” subjectivities operate in a determinate political space.[11] To borrow from his phraseology, the internal divide represented by counter-conducts can be viewed as a form of “deculturation.” This religious delinking from culture enables the diffusion of ideas and practices across countless geopolitical boundaries. No longer operating within a solely conventional framework, these geographically unmoored subjects are faithful to a different master signifier, namely the truth-event that constitutes them as subjects. The surrounding culture/s, then, move from profane or secular to pagan. This shift in perception is accompanied by a shift in hostility towards dominant forms of what I here name “conduction.”

From what I have presented thus far, it would seem the situation is beyond the power of the political. But this is only true under a particular definition of the political. A Levinasian perspective suggests that politics remains open and must do so to avoid the dogmatic, often elitist practices of self-proclaimed vanguards, be they religious or secular. Levinas recognizes the inevitable betrayal of religion lived as culture, but the interruption of the third, or illeity—which is the site of politics in his thought—is inextricably bound to the ethical relation. Infinite answerability is responsible subjectivity, which is the “condition for” and “motivation of” political life.

As it concerns the subject of the political, Levinas refuses to endorse the abolition of affective life. If Badiou has affect, it is rather de-affected.[12] Foucault, on the contrary, has a rich understanding of the body as a site of transformation, but his concept of the event is purely historical. Levinas grants a certain mediation between the formalism of Badiou and the materialism of Foucault. And in doing so, he acknowledges the asymmetrical relation between subject and event as well as the importance of concretizing what he describes as the ethical event par excellence, the infinite demand of the other.

In this paper, I have tried to show how asymmetry is constitutive of society, from the religious/evental seizure and constitution of a subject to the counter-conducts engendered by the very governmentality they are resisting. To explore the issue strategically is to also explore the issue philosophically, historically, and arguably theologically. The motivation for asymmetrical resistance is a contestation over the truth-event. Pretending otherwise conceals one’s own evental constitution and exacerbates the problems of strategy and discursive tactics.


1. Michel Foucault, Lectures at the College de France, 1977–1978, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Michel Senellart (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 201–2.

2. Ibid., pp. 41–42.

3. Ibid., pp. 43–44.

4. While Foucault always wants to distance himself from phenomenology, his work betrays a debt not only to Heidegger but to Husserl as well.

5. See Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. Alberto Toscano (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

6. Ibid., p. 45.

7. Ibid.

8. Alberto Toscano, “The Bourgeois and the Islamist, or, The Other Subjects of Politics,” in The Praxis of Alain Badiou, ed. Paul Ashton, A.J. Bartlett, and Justin Clemens (Melbourne:, 2006), p. 344; cited by Adrian Johnston, “The Right Left: Alain Badiou and the Disruption of Political Identities,” Yale French Studies, no. 116/117, Turns to the Right? (2009): 55–78.

9. See also Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (London: Verso, 2007).

10. Ibid., p. 49.

11. Olivier Roy, Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways, trans. Ros Schwartz (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2010).

12. Johnston, “The Right Left,” p. 68.

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