Alain Badiou

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Alain Badiou
French philosophy
Contemporary philosophy
Full name Alain Badiou
School/tradition Continental philosophy
Main interests Set Theory, Mathematics, Metapolitics, Ontology
Notable ideas Event, truths

Alain Badiou (born 17 January 1937 in Rabat, Morocco) is a prominent French philosopher, formerly chair of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). Along with Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Zizek, Badiou is a prominent figure in an anti-postmodern strand of continental philosophy. Particularly through a creative appropriation of set theory from his early interest in mathematics, Badiou seeks to recover the concepts of being, truth and the subject in a way that is neither postmodern nor simply a repetition of modernity.


[edit] Biography

Badiou was trained formally as a philosopher as a student at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) from 1956 to 1961, a period during which he took courses at the Sorbonne. He had a lively and constant interest in mathematics. He was politically active very early on, and was one of the founding members of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU). The PSU was particularly active in the struggle for the decolonization of Algeria. He wrote his first novel, Almagestes, in 1964. In 1967 he joined a study group organized by Louis Althusser and grew increasingly influenced by Jacques Lacan.

The student uprisings of May 1968 reinforced Badiou's commitment to the far Left, and he participated in increasingly radical communist and Maoist groups, such as the UCFML. In 1969 he joined the faculty of University of Paris VIII (Vincennes-Saint Denis), which was a bastion of counter-cultural thought. There he engaged in fierce intellectual debates with fellow professors Gilles Deleuze and Jean-François Lyotard, whose philosophical works he considered unhealthy deviations from the Althusserian program of a scientific Marxism.

In the 1980s, as both Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis went into decline (with Lacan dead and Althusser in an asylum), Badiou published more technical and abstract philosophical works, such as Théorie du sujet (1982), and his magnum opus, Being and Event (1988). Nonetheless, Badiou has never renounced Althusser or Lacan, and sympathetic references to Marxism and psychoanalysis are not uncommon in his more recent works.

He took up his current position at the ENS in 1999. He is also associated with a number of other institutions, such as the Collège International de Philosophie. He is now a member of "L'Organisation Politique" which he founded with some comrades from the Maoist UCFML in 1985. Badiou has also enjoyed success as a dramatist with plays such as Ahmed le Subtil.

In the last decade, an increasing number of Badiou's works have been translated into English, such as Ethics, Deleuze, Manifesto for Philosophy, Metapolitics, and Being and Event. Short pieces by Badiou have likewise appeared in American and English periodicals, such as Lacanian Ink, New Left Review, Radical Philosophy, Cosmos and History [1] and Parrhesia. Unusually for a contemporary European philosopher his work is increasingly being taken up by militants in movements of the poor in countries like India, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa where he is often read together with Frantz Fanon.

Lately Badiou got into a fierce controversy within the confines of Parisian intellectual life. It started in 2005 with the publication of his "Circonstances 3: Portées du mot 'juif'" - The Uses of the Word "Jew" [2]. This book generated a strong response with calls of Badiou being labelled Anti-Semitic. The wrangling became a cause célèbre with articles going back and forth in the French newspaper Le Monde and in the cultural journal "Les temps modernes." Another philosopher Jean-Claude Milner has accused Badiou of Anti-Semitism.[1]

[edit] Key concepts

Badiou makes repeated use of several concepts throughout his philosophy. One of the aims of his thought is to show that his categories of truth are useful for any type of philosophical critique. Therefore, he uses them to interrogate art and history as well as ontology and scientific discovery. Johannes Thumfart argues that Badiou's philosophy can be regarded as a contemporary reinterpretation of Platonism.[2]

[edit] Four discourses

According to Badiou, philosophy takes place under four conditions (Art, Love, Politics, and Science), which he maintains are truth procedures, in the sense that they can, under the right conditions, produce truths. Badiou consistently maintains throughout his work that philosophy must avoid the temptation to attach its own truth to that of any of the discourses, a process he terms a philosophical "disaster". Badiou often attempts to find 'points of suture', or places of exceptional connection between the truths produced by the various discourses. It should be noted that Badiou's concept of truth procedure does not imply a denial of external reality. Badiou, following Lacan, uses "the real" to designate the space of existing but unsymbolizable reality that can only be thought retroactively through the truth procedures. Thus, while a truth procedure is required to access the real, the real also serves as an external limit on the possibility of its production of truth.

[edit] Inaesthetic

In Handbook of Inaesthetics Badiou coins the phrase "inaesthetic" to refer to a concept of artistic creation that denies "the reflection/object relation". Reacting against the idea of mimesis, or poetic reflection of "nature", Badiou claims that art is "immanent" and "singular". It is immanent in the sense that its truth is given in its immediacy in a given work of art, and singular in that its truth is found in art and art alone. His view of the link between philosophy and art is tied into the motif of pedagogy, which he claims functions so as to "arrange the forms of knowledge in a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole in them". He develops these ideas with examples from the prose of Samuel Beckett and the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and Fernando Pessoa (who he argues has developed a body of work that philosophy is currently incapable of incorporating), among others.

[edit] Introduction to Being and Event

Drawing from 8 March 2006 "Art's Imperative" lecture

The major propositions of Badiou's philosophy all find their basis in Being and Event, in which he continues his attempt (which he began in Théorie du sujet) to reconcile a notion of the subject with ontology, and in particular post-structuralist and constructivist ontologies.[3] A frequent criticism of post structuralist work is that it prohibits, through its fixation on semiotics and language, any notion of a subject. Badiou's work is, by his own admission,[4] an attempt to break out of contemporary philosophy's fixation upon language, which he sees almost as a straitjacket. This effort leads him, in Being and Event, to combine rigorous mathematical formulae with his readings of poets such as Mallarmé and Hölderlin and religious thinkers such as Pascal. His philosophy draws equally upon 'analytical' and 'continental' traditions. In Badiou's own opinion, this combination places him awkwardly relative to his contemporaries, meaning that his work had been only slowly taken up.[5] Being and Event offers an example of this slow uptake, in fact: it was translated into English only in 2005, a full seventeen years after its French publication.

As is implied in the title of the book, two elements mark the thesis of Being and Event: the place of ontology, or 'the science of being qua being' (being in itself), and the place of the event — which is seen as a rupture in ontology — through which the subject finds his or her realization and reconciliation with truth. This situation of being and the rupture which characterizes the event are thought in terms of set theory, and specifically Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (with the axiom of choice), to which Badiou accords a fundamental role in a manner quite distinct from the majority of either mathematicians or philosophers.

[edit] Mathematics as ontology

For Badiou the problem which the Greek tradition of philosophy has faced and never satisfactorily dealt with is the problem that while beings themselves are plural, and thought in terms of multiplicity, being itself is thought to be singular; that is, it is thought in terms of the one. He proposes as the solution to this impasse the following declaration: that the one is not. This is why Badiou accords set theory (the axioms of which he refers to as the Ideas of the multiple) such stature, and refers to mathematics as the very place of ontology: Only set theory allows one to conceive a 'pure doctrine of the multiple'. Set theory does not operate in terms of definite individual elements in groupings but only functions insofar as what belongs to a set is of the same relation as that set (that is, another set too). What separates sets out therefore is not an existential positive proposition, but other multiples whose properties validate its presentation; which is to say their structural relation. The structure of being thus secures the regime of the count-as-one. So if one is to think of a set — for instance, the set of people, or humanity — as counting as one the elements which belong to that set, it can then secure the multiple (the multiplicities of humans) as one consistent concept (humanity), but only in terms of what does not belong to that set. What is, in following, crucial for Badiou is that the structural form of the count-as-one, which makes multiplicities thinkable, implies that the proper name of being does not belong to an element as such (an original 'one'), but rather the void set (written Ø), the set to which nothing (not even the void set itself) belongs. It may help to understand the concept 'count-as-one' if it is associated with the concept of 'terming': a multiple is not one, but it is referred to with 'multiple': one word. To count a set as one is to mention that set. How the being of terms such as 'multiple' does not contradict the non-being of the one can be understood by considering the multiple nature of terminology: for there to be a term without there also being a system of terminology, within which the difference between terms gives context and meaning to any one term, does not coincide with what is understood by 'terminology', which is precisely difference (thus multiplicity) conditioning meaning. Since the idea of conceiving of a term without meaning does not compute, the count-as-one is a structural effect or a situational operation and not an event of truth. Multiples which are 'composed' or 'consistent' are count-effects; inconsistent multiplicity is the presentation of presentation.

Badiou's use of set theory in this manner is not just illustrative or heuristic. Badiou uses the axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory to identify the relationship of being to history, Nature, the State, and God. Most significantly this use means that (as with set theory) there is a strict prohibition on self-belonging; a set cannot contain or belong to itself. Russell's paradox famously ruled that possibility out of formal logic. (This paradox can be thought through in terms of a 'list of lists that do not contain themselves': if such a list does not write itself on the list the property is incomplete, as there will be one missing; if it does, it is no longer a list that does not contain itself.) So too does the axiom of foundation — or to give an alternative name the axiom of regularity — enact such a prohibition (cf. p. 190 in Being and Event). (This axiom states that all sets contain an element for which only the void [empty] set names what is common to both the set and its element.) Badiou's philosophy draws two major implications from this prohibition. Firstly, it secures the inexistence of the 'one': there cannot be a grand overarching set, and thus it is fallacious to conceive of a grand cosmos, a whole Nature, or a Being of God. Badiou is therefore — against Cantor, from whom he draws heavily — staunchly atheist. However, secondly, this prohibition prompts him to introduce the event. Because, according to Badiou, the axiom of foundation 'founds' all sets in the void, it ties all being to the historico-social situation of the multiplicities of de-centred sets — thereby effacing the positivity of subjective action, or an entirely 'new' occurrence. And whilst this is acceptable ontologically (the axiom of foundation is not regarded as particularly useful in set theory), it is unacceptable, Badiou holds, philosophically. Set theory mathematics has consequently 'pragmatically abandoned' an area which philosophy cannot. And so, Badiou argues, there is therefore only one possibility remaining: that ontology can say nothing about the event.

[edit] The event and the subject

Drawing from 18 November 2006 "Truth procedure in politics" lecture

The principle of the event is where Badiou diverges from the majority of late twentieth century philosophy and social thought, and in particular the likes of Foucault, Butler, Lacan and Deleuze, among others. In short, it represents that which is outside of ontology. Badiou's problem here is, unsurprisingly, the question of how to 'make use' of that which cannot be discerned. But it is a problem he views as vital, because if one constructs the world only from that which can be discerned and therefore given a name, it results in either the destitution of subjectivity and the removal of the subject from ontology (the criticism continually leveled at Foucault's discursive universe), or the Panglossian solution of Leibniz: that God is language in its supposed completion.

Badiou again turns here to mathematics and set theory — Badiou's language of ontology — to study the possibility of an indiscernible element existing extrinsically to the situation of ontology. He employs the strategy of the mathematician Paul J. Cohen, using what are called the conditions of sets. These conditions are thought of in terms of domination, a domination being that which defines a set. (If one takes, in binary language, the set with the condition 'items marked only with ones', any item marked with zero negates the property of the set. The condition which has only ones is thus dominated by any condition which has zeros in it [cf. p. 367-71 in Being and Event].) Badiou reasons using these conditions that every discernible (nameable or constructible) set is dominated by the conditions which don't possess the property that makes it discernible as a set. (The property 'one' is always dominated by 'not one'.) These sets are, in line with constructible ontology, relative to one's being-in-the-world and one's being in language (where sets and concepts, such as the concept 'humanity', get their names). However, he continues, the dominations themselves are, whilst being relative concepts, not necessarily intrinsic to language and constructible thought; rather one can axiomatically define a domination — in the terms of mathematical ontology — as a set of conditions such that any condition outside the domination is dominated by at least one term inside the domination. One does not necessarily need to refer to constructible language to conceive of a 'set of dominations', which he refers to as the indiscernible set, or the generic set. It is therefore, he continues, possible to think beyond the strictures of the relativistic constructible universe of language, by a process Cohen calls forcing. And he concludes in following that while ontology can mark out a space for an inhabitant of the constructible situation to decide upon the indiscernible, it falls to the subject — about which the ontological situation cannot comment — to nominate this indiscernible, this generic point; and thus nominate, and give name to, the undecidable event. Badiou thereby marks out a philosophy by which to refute the apparent relativism or apoliticism in post-structuralist thought.

Badiou's ultimate ethical maxim is therefore one of: 'decide upon the undecidable'. It is to name the indiscernible, the generic set, and thus name the event that re-casts ontology in a new light. He identifies four domains in which a subject (who, it is important to note, becomes a subject through this process) can potentially witness an event: love, science, politics and art. By enacting fidelity to the event within these four domains one performs a 'generic procedure', which in its undecideability is necessarily experimental, and one potentially recasts the situation in which being takes place. Through this maintenance of fidelity, truth has the potentiality to emerge.

In line with his concept of the event, Badiou maintains, politics is not about politicians, but activism based on the present situation and the 'evental' (his translators' neologism) rupture. So too does love have this characteristic of becoming anew. Even in science the guesswork that marks the event is prominent. He vigorously rejects the tag of 'decisionist' (the idea that once something is decided it 'becomes true'), but rather argues that the recasting of a truth comes prior to its veracity or verifiability. As he says of Galileo (p. 401):

When Galileo announced the principle of inertia, he was still separated from the truth of the new physics by all the chance encounters that are named in subjects such as Descartes or Newton. How could he, with the names he fabricated and displaced (because they were at hand — ‘movement’, ‘equal proportion’, etc.), have supposed the veracity of his principle for the situation to-come that was the establishment of modern science; that is, the supplementation of his situation with the indiscernible and unfinishable part that one has to name ‘rational physics’?

Badiou, whilst keen to stress the non-equivalence between politics and philosophy, thus finds his political approach — one of activism, militancy, and scepticism of parliamentary-democratic process — backed up by his philosophy based around singular, situated truths, and potential revolutions.

[edit] Works

[edit] Philosophy

  • Le concept de modèle (1969 , 2007)
  • Théorie du sujet (1982)
  • Peut-on penser la politique? (1985)
  • L'Être et l'Événement (1988)
  • Manifeste pour la philosophie (1989)
  • Le nombre et les nombres (1990)
  • Conditions (1992)
  • L'Éthique (1993, 2005)
  • Deleuze (1997)
  • Saint Paul. La fondation de l'universalisme (1997, 2002)
  • Abrégé de métapolitique (1998)
  • Court traité d'ontologie transitoire (1998)
  • Petit manuel d'inesthétique (1998)
  • D'un désastre obscur (1998)
  • Le siècle (2005)
  • Logiques des mondes. L'être et l'événement, 2. (2006)

[edit] Critical essays

  • Rhapsodie pour le théâtre (1990)
  • Beckett, l'increvable désir (1995)
  • Le Siècle (2005)

[edit] Literature and drama

  • Almagestes (1964)
  • Portulans (1967)
  • L'Écharpe rouge (1979)
  • Ahmed le subtil (1994)
  • Ahmed Philosophe, followed by Ahmed se fâche (1995)
  • Les Citrouilles, a comedy (1996)
  • Calme bloc ici-bas (1997)

[edit] Political essays

  • Théorie de la contradiction (1975)
  • De l'idéologie, with F. Balmès (1976)
  • Le Noyau rationnel de la dialectique hégelienne, with L. Mossot and J. Bellassen (1977)
  • Circonstances 1 (2003)
  • Circonstances 2 (2004)
  • Circonstances 3 (2005)
  • Circonstances 4: De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom ? (2007)

[edit] English translations

[edit] Books

[edit] DVD

  • Democracy and Disappointment: On the Politics of Resistance: Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley in Conversation, (Event Date: Thursday, November 15, 2007); Location: Slought Foundation, Conversations in Theory Series | Organized by Aaron Levy | Studio: Microcinema in collaboration with Slought Foundation | DVD Release Date: August 26, 2008

[edit] Lectures

[edit] Further reading

[edit] Secondary Literature on Badiou's Work in English (Books)

  • Jason Barker, Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction, London, Pluto Press, 2002.
  • Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
  • Peter Hallward (ed.), Think Again: Badiou and the Future of Philosophy", London, Continuum, 2004.
  • Paul Ashton (Editor), A. J. Bartlett (Editor), Justin Clemens (Editor): The Praxis of Alain Badiou; (Melbourne:, 2006).
  • Adam Miller, Badiou, Marion, and St. Paul: Immanent Grace, London, Continuum, 2008.
  • Bruno Bosteels, Badiou and Politics, Durham, Duke University Press, forthcoming.
  • Oliver Feltham, Alain Badiou: Live Theory, London, Continuum, 2008.
  • Adrian Johnston, Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2009, forthcoming.
  • Gabriel Riera (Editor), Alain Badiou: Philosophy and its Conditions, Albany: New York, SUNY Press, 2005.

[edit] Secondary Literature on Badiou's Work in French (Books)

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ On that subject, see articles against Badiou by:
    • Roger-Pol Droit ("Le Monde des livres", 25 November 2005) and Frédéric Nef ("Le Monde des livres", 23 December 2005), and in defense of Badiou by: Daniel Bensaid ("Le Monde des Livres", 26 January 2006);
    against Badiou by:
  2. ^ Johannes Thumfart: Learning from Las Vegas: Badiou's Platonism Today, in: The Symptom 9.
  3. ^ See here Feltham and Clamens's introduction in Badiou's book Infinite Thought, Continuum (2004)
  4. ^ See Badiou's book Infinite Thought, Continuum (2004)
  5. ^ See here Badiou's comments in the introduction to the English version of Being and Event, Continuum (2005)
  6. ^ Includes:
    • ‘Mathematics and Philosophy: The Grand Style and the Little Style’, (unpublished)
    • ‘Philosophy and Mathematics: Infinity and the End of Romanticism’, (from Conditions, Paris, Seuil, 1992).
    • ‘The Question of Being Today’, (from Briefings on Existence, )
    • ‘Platonism and Mathematical Ontology’, (from Briefings on Existence)
    • ‘The Being of Number’, (from Briefings on Existence)
    • ‘One, Multiple, Multiplicities’, (from multitudes, 1, 2000)
    • ‘Spinoza’s Closed Ontology’, (from Briefings on Existence)
    • ‘The Event as Trans-Being’, (revised and expanded version of an essay of the same title from Briefings on Existence)
    • ‘On Subtraction’, (from Conditions, Paris, Seuil, 1992)
    • ‘Truth: Forcing and the Unnamable’, (from Conditions, Paris,Seuil, 1992)
    • ‘Kant’s Subtractive Ontology’, (from Briefings on Existence)
    • ‘Eight Theses on the Universal’, (from Jelica Sumic (ed.) Universal, Singulier, Subjet, Paris, Kimé, 2000)
    • ‘Politics as a Truth Procedure’, (from Metapolitics)
    • ‘Being and Appearance’, (from Briefings on Existence)
    • ‘Notes Toward Thinking Appearance’, (unpublished)
    • ‘The Transcendental’, (from a draft manuscript [now published] of Logiques des mondes, Paris, Seuil)
    • ‘Hegel and the Whole’, (from a draft manuscript [now published] of Logiques des mondes, Paris, Seuil)
    • ‘Language, Thought, Poetry’, (unpublished)

[edit] External links

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