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Introduction Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou is interested in nothing short of revolution, both in theory and in practice. Indeed, Badiou’s most concise description of philosophy is as a kind of “logical revolt,” and he invariably argues that “there is no philosophy without the discontent of thinking in its confrontation with the world as it is.” The present “world as it is” (and specifically the state of philosophy within it), demands a revolution in philosophical thought which, in Badiou’s view, has thoroughly given itself over to the regime of sophistry.

If French philosophy abandoned the pursuit of ontology and the philosophy of the subject for structuralism, Badiou, a former pupil of Sartre, can be seen as engaged in simultaneous projects of revitalization and reinvention of that forgotten philosophy. In his view, philosophy was deeply wounded when it decided to replace the question of truth with the question of meaning in the face of the horrors of the 20th century. This decision ultimately condemned all of thought to the domains of linguistics (language) and theology (transcendence), the touchstones of variously designated “anti-philosophers” (including Lacan, Levinas and Lyotard, to name a few).

Thus, Badiou argues that philosophy must reclaim its universal address, but not by simply reverting to Enlightenment rationalisms or logic, nor by dismissing the humbling developments of post-structuralist or postmodern thought and their warnings of totalization—the regime of the One over the multiple, the Subject over the other. Rather, as Peter Hallward explains with amazing brevity, Badiou seeks to elaborate an intricate philosophical revolt which will allow us to:

salvage reason from positivism, the subject from deconstruction, being from Heidegger, the infinite from theology, the event from Deleuze, revolution from Stalin, a critique of the state from Foucault, … and the affirmation of love from American popular culture. He asserts a philosophy of the subject without recourse to phenomenology, a philosophy of truth without recourse to adequation, a philosophy of the event without recourse to historicism.

For Badiou, the most fundamental imperative underlying all of these antagonisms is that philosophy must secure a space for thought, that it enables us to continue to think. In order to make a successful return to truth and reinvigorate philosophical thought against its current passivity, Badiou argues that philosophy must establish itself somewhere outside representation (language), while also resisting appeal to any mystical Other (transcendence). This is an ontological problem which demands a reconciliation of ontology with a new doctrine of the subject.

In his seminal work, Being and Event (1988), Badiou advances such a project, drawing on developments in mathematics and its axiomatic treatment of infinity to establish a way for philosophy to think pure multiplicity, avoiding Levinasian recourse to a mystical infinite (Other) as well as Deleuzian recourse to an empirical, pragmatic multiplicity. According to Badiou, Cantor’s transfinite set theory woke him from his “Sartrean slumber” and provided what he calls an “event” of truth that opened up and broke from the stagnant situation of modern ontology. Seized by this truth, Badiou examines the efficacy of axioms established in set theory in Being and Event, arguing for a mathematical conception of infinity over all metaphysical or ethical conceptions in ontological inquiry. For Badiou, ontology is mathematics, and mathematics as “pure presentation” (or “the presentation of presentation,” and hence of nothing) allows us to think “inconsistent multiplicity,” a pure multiple without recourse to the One—“without-oneness.” With this establishment, Badiou sees a way to save the subject (and philosophy) from passivity toward and slavery to the Other on the one hand, and the violent totalizing imperialism of the cogito and Being on the other.

Alain BadiouFrom Being and Event onward, Badiou’s thought can be read as an articulation of an innovative philosophy that engages three general (and classical) topics: Being, the domain of ontology (as mathematics) as the inspiration for thinking pure multiplicity and the infinity of truths; Truth, the domain of philosophy which identifies the event (of a truth) and, possibly, inducing a subject; and finally, Subject, the domain of ethics which describes the fidelity of induced subjects seized by an event of truth, and the engagement in what he calls “truth-procedures.”

Readers will quickly find that although Badiou’s writing is very clear, concise, structured, and aphoristic, he is also very polemic and provocative, drawing on classical terms that possibly bring with them negative connotations and simplified meanings. The danger is to oversimplify his use of classical concepts and to assume their legacy of meanings. This can always be claimed by any philosopher, but it is a particular danger in Badiou’s case given the current rhetorical “climate” of academia and philosophical discourse. In short, Badiou’s other task is to save terms like ethics, truths, and the subject, from rhetorical disavowal.

Badiou’s philosophy is one of the radically new, of possibility and innovation (and hence, revolution)—of “events” of truths that rupture or break from the given situation (things as they simply are). Echoing “his master,” the “greatest among our dead,” Jacques Lacan, Badiou argues that truth “punches a hole” in the situation, and this truth-event that breaks from the situation induces a subject, which is a bearer of a truth. Ultimately, Badiou will conclude, philosophy demands nothing less than a new doctrine of the subject.

Badiou argues that all conceptions of subjectivity that spring from the various forms of an ethics of the Other can be read as an a priori designation of the individual as victim. This construction of the subject as victim simply “sanction the gunboats of Law.” For Badiou, the contemporary situation demands a return to the “ethics of the Same,” remarking that infinite differences and otherness is simply what there is, and the more difficult question of ethics is concerned with trying to see the Same, the truth-event in a given situation that opens it up to what is to be—to possibility. The various post-Marxisms fail, according to Badiou, because they set equality as a goal, when in fact equality is an axiom—an idea that demands fidelity from a deciding subject, one who is seized and bears a truth. For Badiou, there is no substance to ethics (ethics does not “exist”), and there is no Ethics in general, but only axioms and an ethics-of, a claim he explores at length in his work.

If, along with Badiou, we see truth as breaking from accepted knowledge, and the subject of an event of truth as breaking from the situation as such (from things as they are), we may view Badiou as a philosopher who seeks to open up and maintain a space for thought to think these breaks. Badiou can be characterized as a philosopher of revolt and possibility, and his thought is a document to an unwavering commitment to maintaining the possibility of thinking—to borrow Levinasian phrasing—otherwise-than-knowledge.

Biography at EGS: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/badiou.html
Wikipedia Entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Badiou

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Alternate Introductions

Below are links to electronic introductions excerpted from publications on Badiou in English. In order to access these texts you must have a UW NetID. Entries are listed by date of publication.

Hallward, Peter. Badiou: A Subject to Truth. (Minnesota: MUP, 2003)
+Hallward Introduction [ access ]

Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thøught: Truth and the Return to Philosophy. tr. O. Feltham, J. Clemens (London: Continuum, 2003)
+Clemens Introduction [ access ]

Barker, Jason. Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction. (London: Pluto Press, 2002)
+Barker Introduction [ access ]

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Quotations

"Justice is something like the truth of politics, or truth in the political field."

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© 2006 Terry Schenold | about