Whether in the name of "first causes," "originary principles," or "fundamental concepts," it is what stands at the origin or beginning that interests them first and foremost. From Hegel to Heidegger, and from Nietzsche to Foucault, there even exists a long and well-established tradition that consists in differentiating between the good and the bad uses of the beginning as principle, start, initiation, genesis, emergence, origin, or provenance. A philosophy seeking to be worthy of the name materialism, however, must begin by recalling that philosophy itself never begins anything. Instead, insofar as philosophy is preceded by different practices that are not themselves philosophical, this beginning has always already happened elsewhere. It is not something that philosophical thought can muster simply from within its own resources but something that faces it, confronts it, and sometimes even affronts it, from the outside. For example, in the case of so-called political philosophy since at least Plato, this effort of the philosopher has never been anything other than the belated response to the scandal of democracy.
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It is not just a book about Badiou but rather uses his career as both philosopher and militant as a focal point for an epic history of French radicalism since May of Indeed, for Badiou, philosophy is always subordinated to other practices- such as science or art. Political philosophy is doomed to be reactionary, it can only think about politics as historically practiced. Metapolitics, on the other hand, attempts to learn new philosophical lessons from the practice of politics in the present.
Every living situation, for Badiou, has more that one possible outcome, just as every mathematical set creates the possibility of multiple sub-sets within it. The State is that which tries to represent the situation through the denial of the possibility of certain outcomes, of certain sub-sets within the set or situation.
The recognition of the excess of possibilities, or sub-sets, within a certain situation or set, the realization that the representation of the situation is not totalizing, gives rise to the political subject.
This subject realizes that the truth of the situation, of being, is multiplicity. Yet the political subject must also come to understand that the outcome of the situation has universal implications.
The outcome will ultimately effect the entire nature of the set, of being, and so the identity of the political subject must be generic. Instead of thinking of the Event, the breakdown of one State of representation and the rise of a new one, as a truth procedure that declares, anew, the boundaries of the Real, the political subject must instead understand that a new situation presents itself in a static field of being as a result of the articulation of the multiplicity of truth.
They both held that philosophy, political or otherwise, could never hope to discover anything meaningful on its own but felt that philosophy can illuminate newly discovered truths from science by applying them in intellectual practice. While Badiou agreed with Althusser that science produced new forms of rationality that revolutionize philosophy, he also held that not every scientific break registers efficiently with philosophy.
For Badiou, rather, science and ideology are intertwined. In attempting to think through a radical Maoist line, Althusser had instead, thought Badiou, retreated to a kind of Stalinist metaphysics, in which only inevitablist laws of history could change the subject from above.
There was something worth preserving in the Althusserian project, thought Badiou, but it was going to need to be radically transformed. Badiou would use dialectics not to show the irreversible direction of Society, but rather show why a given society can only present itself in certain ways without being radically transformed from within.
The radicality of both is dependent on the transfer from the politicization of history to the historicization of politics. The task of the revolutionary was to articulate a mass line of what revolution meant in an exact time and place. If for Althusser, the super-structure was unalterable and would change only according to its own inner logic, Badiou held that structure, he would later re-name it the representation-of-a-given-world, is only the movement of its own loss.
Dialectics, held Badiou, was itself dialectical. As Mao held, contradictions were always acting upon one another, and what was revolutionary in one position may become reactionary in another.
Force and place are in a constant dialectic of struggle. Rightists communists, such as Badiou held Althusser to be, held place, structure, to be unalterable. They ignored the role of force in social change.
Those Badiou identified as ultra-leftists, such as Guiles Deleuze, were guilty of the opposite sin of omission. They wanted to ignore the role of place completely and rely on pure force, pure desire, to change the world, reducing action to an end in itself. Badiou held that both force and place had to be articulated without equating one with the other.
Maoist thought seemed to Badiou the best mode of inquiry for such a task. His ability to elucidate the key concepts from these three huge and difficult works in thirty to fifty pages is quite impressive. Structuralism, for Badiou, is just another idealism- it elevates language to a Divine that cannot be questioned or altered. Structuralism, then, must be challenged by a new materialism.
Badiou spends much of the book dividing Lacan into his materialist and idealist tendencies, much as Althusser had done to Marx. For Badiou, the useful, materialist concepts in Lacan include his notions of anxiety and the real. For Lacan, anxiety denoted the sub-conscious suspicion on the part of the subject that the real- the totality of reality- contained an excess beyond the limits of presentation in the symbolic world.
In other words, the self knows on some unspoken level that the gaze that unifies the subject is imaginary- the world, and the self along with it, is incoherent. The super-ego, thought Lacan, fills the uncertainty left by anxiety with the sheer force by the self against the self of non-law presented as law. Anxiety, thought Badiou, could guide the self to the revelation of a new truth beyond its subjected status to the Big Other. Badiou proposed new concepts to describe these unappreciated capacities of subjectivity.
Anxiety is now no longer merely the terrifying notion that all is incoherent and that the true nature of self is lack, but rather the understanding of the lack of lack, a revelation itself terrifying albeit in an empowering way.
For now the formerly passive subject is transformed into an active force, one that understands that nothing really separates it from its determining place, the imaginary, yet powerfully radical perspective of the Big Other that shapes the world from its imaginary perspective.
Force can, in rare instances, inhabit its own determining place and disrupt the order of things. First, the subject, rather than being structural, arises from a rare and contingent event. Second, there may indeed be an other other than the Big Other, and that other may start off as the subject itself, later transformed by courage and justice into Force. The dialectic of force is seen very much as one of destruction of the old by the new. Bosteels, however, argues that the book should instead be understood as a radical refashioning of the Maoist intellectual project.
In an intellectual environment that condemned dialectics for leading to the totalitarian disasters of the twentieth century, and that sometimes declared philosophy, itself, to be dead, Badiou declares that ontology survives modernity.
In truly Platonic fashion, Badiou asserts that ontology is and has always been rooted in mathematics and set theory.
To socially exist is to be counted as an element of a set, and any set that contains any one element necessarily contains a multiplicity, as one can always be divided. To socially exist, then, is to exist as a multiple of multiples. The existential notion that nothingness is at the core of all being helped lead Badiou to set theory.
All mathematical sets, and therefor all ontology, proceeds from the empty set, from nothingness, which is included in every set but contains in and of itself as itself a set no elements. The empty set is, therefor, both foundational and invisible. The role of the state, which is to be understood as the totality of factors that make a world, or set, represented in a given way is, according to Badiou, to obscure the foundational void.
The count of the count thereby creates an excess of representation over the situation. The excess of representation may sound like it would make an element count for more than itself. Anything that can be counted as belonging to a set implies the non-belonging of certain other elements.
Indeed, the non-belonging nature of certain elements is itself counted, itself an element of the set. The not-counting of the inexistent is literally counted within the count of the count.
Thus, the empty set at the heart of all that can be counted is unevenly distributed within the different elements. The inertia created by the excess of representation inspires anxiety in the subject. An element counted by the state as inexistent is revealed to in fact exist fully, and the entire count of the count is invalidated. When representation breaks down in a radical way- in historical moments that Badiou has famously labeled radical events, the void at the foundation of every set is revealed, and the fluid, multiplicitous nature of being is realized.
One state breaks down, and another eventually comes into being. But during the course of the Event itself, the situation is stateless and possibility is infinite. An event is not the destruction of the set, it is the realization of its multiplicitous nature.
A subject,for Badiou, is a body capable of producing effects experiencing the revelation of truths that a given world deems impossible. As we have already seen, anxiety causes the subject to realize that the real is not as it is represented by the state. A site disappears quickly but one can recover the truths of a site by following the series of consequences that arise from it after its disappearance. An event is the most intense and transformational of sites.
It proves the truth that the old world had deemed impossible, thereby invalidating the old representation of the real. Again, the event does not "create" a new truth, but uncovers what had always been true, but not understood. For Badiou, politics is always the art of the impossible. Truths, such as that the Earth revolves around the sun, are eternal and universal.
But they are also revealed historically and subjectively. One cannot separate the concept from the genealogy of its revelation. Badiou thinks that if we trace the history of past events, we can see how the impossible is overcome by infinite truths. That which a world deems impossible, is also the key to historically understanding a particular world.
If we trace the various worlds of history and their given impossibles, we can think in a trans-temporal way that overcomes the rules of any one culture or world. We can begin to understand, through history, the eternal and universal platonic form of truth and think not as mortal individuals but as agents of infinite existence- the idea that outlives any individual, and indeed, any world.
Badiou and Politics
Bruno Bosteels archive