Alain Badiou, Deleuze, Hans-Jurg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things

Minor note on the newness of the new beyond/below Badiou

While reading Hans Jürg Rheinberger’s already seminal Toward a History of Epistemic Things – he is becoming something of a hero to me these days – I couldn’t prevent myself from constantly highlighting the Badiouian touch of his arguments. That is, I was struck by the fact that so many of Badiou’s themes (at least those which could be consider his most important; everything between and inside the mathematics of being and the laws of appearing) come to the fore when Rheinberger discusses what he calls an ‘epistemology of time’ that is to answer the question how – in the context of scientific experimentation – we can speak of history without invoking origins and grounds. As he formulates it: ‘Are they looking at a past that is the transformation of another, foregoing past? Or are they looking at a past that is the product of a past deferred, that is, of a future present?‘ (p. 176).
His task is more than debunking Whiggish accounts of the history of science; it is to describe the microdynamics of scientific activity on the basis of the assertion that at the point of the emergence of the new (in scientific experiments), the new is not the new, but ‘becomes a novelty only by a transformation which makes it a trace of something to which it has given rise’. The radicalism of these questions became clear to me, since they move beyond a traditional Kuhnian frame that is – dispite obvious differences – quite like Badiou’s logic of ruptures and immanent breaks. To put it differently; they indicate that what Badiou localizes on the scale of the absolute (Truth, Eternity) is actually happening in the rather artificial, dirty and vibrant practices of experimental science. Even more interesting is the fact that Rheinberger discusses the newness and emergence of the new in terms of the problematic of its conditions – something that, at least as far as I can see, still haunts Badiouian ontology given the character of his examples of what he calls Events (Mao, Schönberg etc.). Consider, for instance, the following; ‘[the] new [..] can be approached only in the mode of a future perfect. Of course, we may try to unearth the conditions of their emergence. But these conditions, and so the new, seem accessible only by way of a recurrence that requires the existence of a product as a prerequisite for assessing the conditions of its production’ What Rheinberger most vigorously stresses is the consequences this has for notions of (the linearity etc.) of time in relation to scientific objects; he introduces – following Prigogine – a notion of ‘operational’ time to indicate that objects do not reside or develop inside time, but fold a certain scheme of time around itself. As an example he remarks that ‘the age of the system [of the time an object folds around itself] is measured by its capacity to produce differences that counts as unprecedented events [..] Thus we end up with a field of systems of time that has a rather complex time structure, or shape of time. The systems or reproductive series retain their own ‘ages’ as long as they differentially replicate’. Obviously, this reinvokes the debate between Deleuzian and Badiouan accounts of time – discusses, for instance, by Sam Gillespie. What matters to me is that Rheinberger’s take allows for a much more micro-immanent account of the way in which the new has a history – an account of the ‘time of the new’. He himself tries to trace and follow the traces of the object that will be transformed and create through their action (their ‘shifting and drifting’) the origin of their nonorigin. ‘The after becomes constitutive of the before’.


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