This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil Verso: London and New York 2001, £18, hardback 166 pp, 1 85984 297 6
SUBJECTS AND TRUTHS
There is a paradox in the idea of transformation. If a transformation is deepseated enough, it might also transform the very criteria by which we could identify it, thus making it unintelligible to us. But if it is intelligible, it might be because the transformation was not radical enough. If we can talk about the change then it is not full-blooded enough; but if it is full-blooded enough, it threatens to fall outside our comprehension. Change must presuppose continuity—a subject to whom the alteration occurs—if we are not to be left merely with two incommensurable states; but how can such continuity be compatible with revolutionary upheaval? One might risk the generalization that French radical thought has, on the whole, plumped for unintelligibility rather than continuity. From Rimbaud’s ‘Il faut être absolument moderne’ to Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the paralogical innovation, which creates its own law, this vein of avant-gardist theory would rather be opaque than old-fashioned. From Sorel and the Surrealists to Jean-Paul Sartre, from Levinas to Lyotard and Derrida, such thought returns incessantly to the break, crisis, disruption or epiphany of otherness that will tear you free of everyday inauthenticity—of doxa, das Mann, the consensual, the practico-inert or the être-en-soi—and throw open for you instead the portals of truth, freedom and authenticity. It is a current of thought suspicious of the German and dialectical, for which a certain revolutionary continuity would still appear possible. The result is a series of sharp oppositions between the kingdom of necessity and the realm of freedom: between otherness and identity, truth and knowledge, sublimity and beauty, history and Nature, freedom and bad faith, Vernunft and Verstand; the crisis-ridden truth of the subject and the stabilities of the sym-
new left review 9
may jun 2001
ethical consensus and political conformity for the heady milieu of liberty. the more positivist Foucault soberly dismissed all talk of absence. There is a sense in which Michel Foucault hedged his bets here. On the one hand. in the shape of given regimes of objects and discourses. What is required is some acte gratuit. is a matter of absolute decisions. decisions which are utterly vital. by contrast. giving free rein for a moment to a clenched refusal of all regime and positivity in the name of something which trembled on the brink of articulation but could not yet speak its name. a kind of implacable destiny for which.bolic order. quite impervious to reason. yet which completely evade conceptualization. It is not quite clear how this bears on such questions as whether to eat meat or strike for better conditions. that the metaphysical or identitarian are not simply to be given the slip. engagement and authentic selfhood. Derrida’s view is both fideistic and Kierkegaardian. the emancipatory impulse and the positive disposition of objects. has always been far more ready to share with us his thoughts on the unthinkable. leaving behind the drearily deterministic narrative of tradition. One can lend a deconstructive twist to this born-again narrative by insisting that nothing simply escapes or is left behind. and in such works as Donner la mort has been busy providing us with an extravagant parody of an ethics of otherness. It is a new-fangled version of the fideistic heresy that faith is merely some blind leap in the dark. Gayatri Spivak repeats the position. repression. we are nevertheless entirely to blame. that each pole of the opposition inexorably implicates the other. that can never be conceptually formulated but must be lived in fear and trembling. the disruptively Dionysian and the smug Apollonian certainties of the civic arena. Ethics. But it is still obvious enough which pole is most to be valorized. the reviews 156 nlr 9 . act of faith. Jacques Derrida. incommunicable crises of judgement. The ethical thought of Alain Badiou. leaving us with the spectacle of ‘an impossible social justice glimpsed through remote and secret encounters with singular figures’. ‘we fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible’. Such ethical choices are at once necessary and ‘impossible’. for the later Derrida. and it has a remarkable resemblance to Kierkegaard’s conception of faith as an incommunicable holding fast to an opaque. But the more Dionysian Foucault could always be felt lurking around the edges of these sombre investigations. One can only hope that he is not on the jury when one’s case comes up in court. bursting out here and there in some extravagant praise of Bataille or sudden purple poetic flight. biology. silence and negation in the name of taking supremely seriously what actually existed. political conversion or existential commitment that will catapult you out of the one realm into the other. like Oedipus. which must be made outside all given norms and forms of knowledge. impossibly paradoxical Otherness. wholly mine yet ‘the decision of the other in me’. Confronted in our solitude with such asocial.
In an audacious return to the universal. Badiou claims instead that difference. Or rather. in the name of the revolutionary universal. the disappearance or extreme fragility of emancipatory politics. there are as many human subjects as there are truths. unpredictably. is what is summoned into being by a response of persistent fidelity to an eternally enduring ‘truth event’. is what we actually have. hardly à la mode among the Parisian intelligentsia. unequal. The political problem is one of struggling against the current of dominant. differentiating. His judgement on this whole Levinasian legacy is terse and scurrilous: ‘a dog’s dinner’. since a subject. are the same for everyone. and defiantly evoking such anti-humanist 1960s luminaries as Althusser. This is a timely assault on the post-structuralist fetishism of ‘subject-positions’. for Badiou. which is to say. infinite alterity. The sameness he has in mind is more one of truth than equality.former French Maoist who is now a member of the militant ultra-leftist group L’Organisation Politique. consensus and conventional understanding. and the universality of unbridled competition’. and that the real question is one of achieving sameness. he insists. It has no respect for the difference of those who do not respect its own cherished differences. that genetic fallacy or epistemological reductionism which would judge the truthcontent of a proposition wholly in the light of its enunciator—a habit common to both post-structuralists and the upper classes. his assault on the conventional ethical response to this dispiriting condition is more striking. If this is scarcely an original portrait. into the given in all of its irreducible. as a bogus humanitarian ideology of victimage. On the one hand. Ethics. particularist interests. he believes. Denouncing the ideology of Man in deliberately old-fashioned theoretical anti-humanist terms. beyond all law. The ideology of human rights divides the world between helpless victims and self-satisfied benefactors. Lacan and Foucault. The idiom of difference and otherness that accompanies it reflects a ‘tourist’s fascination’ for moral and cultural diversity. And this is the reviews eagleton: Badiou 157 . it accepts only those others who are ‘good’ others—which is to say. and is splendidly savage in his onslaught on them. he is at one with them in this. If he differs from the Kierkegaards and Derridas in his Kantian universalism. there are as many truths for Badiou as there are human subjects. incommunicable singularity. have now come to displace politics (one might say much the same about culture). and implies a contempt for those on whose behalf it intervenes. otherness and ‘human rights’ thrusts aside collective political projects. might best be seen as both supporting and subverting this model. truths may—must—be universalized. and anyone at all can proclaim them. which breaks disruptively. For one thing. But the kind of truth Badiou is thinking of is not of a propositional kind. but in themselves they are stubbornly singular. the multiplication of “ethnic” conflicts. Truths. Badiou has no time at all for fashionable postmodern ideas of otherness. Badiou characterizes the political situation today as ‘the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest. not other at all. In fact. those like myself.
negotiate the passage between truth event and everyday life. which might suggest that he is not yet an entirely recovered Maoist. the epiphany has faded and the moment of jouissance is no more than a fond middle-aged memory. It is a question of ‘persevering in the disruption’. in writing of the ordinary. revelatory. too. and his language on this topic has much in common with. But he rejoins some of his political and theoretical enemies on the distinctly un-Kantian ground of the non-conceptualizable. Though he has produced an avant-gardist ethics. world-shaking kind is a point worth considering.other way in which Badiou’s thought runs in the same theoretical grooves as some of the very acolytes of otherness he most scathingly opposes. to insert the eternal into time. or what in Badiou’s language would be the ‘immortal’ and the ‘mortal’. a phrase which clips together both innovation and continuity. as though to distance himself demotically reviews 158 nlr 9 . a Lacanian ‘Keep Going!’ or ‘Don’t give up on your desire!’ in spite of losing the thread and feeling the original event fade into obscurity. from the resurrection of Jesus to Jacobinism. He does not mean. He wants. to be sure. otherness has been duly intuited. as Hegel and Marx do. Indeed. As far as that goes. visionary crisis and dogged consistency. for all his undoubted political zeal. which is what we know as politics. is clearly a universal ethics derived from a highly specific situation. the Dadaist happening is over. he puts the word in scare quotes. evental. In fact. he is aware of the perils of absolutizing a truth event. Lyotard’s. it is rather the business of striving to remain loyal to it. ethics is not identical with the revelation of truth. wields a quasi-Kantian universalism against the multiculturalists—though a Kantianism shorn of its deontology and normativity. and thus a practical form of life rather than a lonely epiphany. He sees the need for truth and politics to be immanent in the given situation. is as much caught in an elitist sort of antithesis between the ordinary and epiphanic as Derrida. Badiou. that there are forces which are part of the situation but which also have the power to transform it. subject-constituting character of truth. falling in love to making a scientific discovery. in short. It is blocked by the fact that Badiou. At one point. but what he means by ‘immanent’ is not simply parachuted in from some transcendent outer space. among the various candidates for truth events he throws in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. the Bolshevik Revolution to Badiou’s own personal subject-constituting truth event of May 68. irreducibly singular. The big bang of truth and the steady state of ethics can thus be combined in a single theory. He does not trust the quotidian world sufficiently to believe that. then. Truth events come in various shapes and sizes. say. Here. the public clocks have been shot at. For Badiou. which is hardly much of a Kantianism at all. for whom the problem is knowing what to do once the General Strike is finished. his thought is a curious mixture of Enlightenment universalism and Romantic particularism. Badiou differs from some of his confrères. a dogged fidelity to an originary revelation. Whether all significant truths are of such a sublime. But the passage is not easily effected.
he might need a less exalted alternative. then indeed. Christianity encompasses both registers. Badiou characterizes everyday life in quasi-biological terms as a realm of appetite. it is more akin to learning how to play the trombone than it is to some beatific vision. Indeed. One needs. For Aristotle. as much as for Sartre. his philosophy reads rather like a bizarre conjuncture of Hobbes and St. extraordinary endurance? Or do we need to resort for such virtues to the numinous sphere of our fidelity to nonnormative. is for Badiou. rather than a more imposing. Badiou shares the banal conviction of the post-structuralists he berates that all social consensus is inherently negative. be less dismissive of the idea of what the latter calls our ‘species being’ entering into ethical questions. constitute truth events. to be sure. enforcing in Sartrian style too rigid an ontological gap between our routine biological being and the death-defying leap into history and freedom. not just some static. Yet the disdain is in fact distinctly present. Commonplace social life. but so should one avoid Badiou’s antithetical error of humanism. partly because they are concerned with happiness or well-being rather than truth. but one must be reviews eagleton: Badiou 159 . little short of a quantum leap out of it into a higher dimension of truth is going to suffice. He might do well to rethink this prejudice against the notion of happiness. forgetting perhaps the popular solidarity that overthrew apartheid or Communist rule. If this is the case. to be sure. but one which perpetually breaks with itself? Not all innovations. a question of getting proficient at certain social practices. compassion. But if he had a less jaundiced view of the everyday. exceptionalist truth events? Badiou gives short shrift to Aristotelian virtue ethics. and there is as sharp a gap for him between doxa and truth as there is for Plato. He might also. dully consensual regime with which one must break. But what if the situation within which one is innovating is already marked by a militant or revolutionary consensus—or is such a phrase simply oxymoronic for those who value disruption per se and despise consensus as such? Yet why should the word be confined to the polite opinion of the suburbs? Badiou remarks at one point that all consensus seeks to avoid divisions. Paul. epiphanic affair. self-interest and dull compulsion. Common knowledge is just idle opinion.from any implication of disdain.) Virtue ethics can remind us that the good is a common-or-garden matter. a zone of inauthenticity. to avoid some naive naturalism here. And is not capitalism the most innovatory mode of production of all. finding the signs of metanoia or spiritual conversion in such sublunary affairs as whether you feed the hungry and visit the sick. As it is. in that most Gallic of motifs. (‘Death-defying’ is exact for Badiou: it is through this commitment that one becomes an ‘immortal’ subject rather than a mere death-oriented animal. which is certainly central to Marx’s own ethico-political thought. along with the modernist platitude that truth consists in breaking with such tedious traditionalism. Are there really no contradictions in this quotidian realm? Is there no selflessness. as indeed is Aristotle. through Aristotle and Marx.
under the name ‘proletariat’. Badiou speaks of love as though it is a self-evident experience. to give his avant-garde theory an old-fashioned 1960s name (for him. which does not implicate general categories? There are problems. and well served by its English translator. as Badiou seems to imagine? And is there any way of analysing. perhaps a little late in the day. it must be because he is judging it according to a notion of truth rather more humdrum than the French Revolution or the empty tomb. the whole end of moral discourse. This rather conventional position raises some familiar problems. on one view. As for valuing disruption or innovation as such. Badiou himself. which deserves to evoke a persisting response. written—of all things!—for schoolchildren. Truth as accuracy cannot be so drastically subordinated to truth as disclosure. But the proletariat was not always in fact either. there is no ethics as such. and who decides? Are there really any ‘singular situations’. or even identifying one. as well as what is to count as persevering in one’s loyalty to it. Its procedures must already be in place to determine what is to count as such an event. He maintains. Badiou has now. then. Ethics is a ferociously polemical essay. Badiou has launched a transformative new intervention. But scarcely any other moral thinker of our day is as politically clear-sighted and courageously polemical. as there are with anyone else’s. Peter Hallward. confronted with the transnational corporations. In this book. for example. altered his view on the matter. with Badiou’s ethics. As for the resurrection of Jesus as a valid truth event. the central void of early bourgeois societies—the proletariat being ‘entirely dispossessed and absent from the political stage’. Truth. does not give it literal credence. The question ‘What counts as love in this situation?’ is. Terry Eagleton teaches cultural theory at Manchester University. while being in fact mere ‘simulacra’ of the genuine article. and he does this somewhat implausibly by claiming that a genuine truth event always evokes and names the central ‘void’ implicit in the situation from which it springs. as an atheist. so swingeingly radical in his assessment of the sorry ideological mess into which ethical thought has lapsed in its haste to confiscate the political. in short. that Marxism is an authentic truth event because Marx designates. But this is not wholly to endorse Badiou’s own ‘situation ethics’. who also provides a lengthy interview with the author. What is to count as a situation. reviews 160 nlr 9 . which may be true for Parisians but not for the rest of us. so prepared to put notions of truth and universality back on the agenda. he accepts that such phenomena as Nazism may fulfil many of his criteria for truth events. But he must of course produce some criteria by which authentic truth events are to be distinguished from bogus ones. just the ethics of this or that practice or situation). and the fact that it was not does not invalidate Marxism. But if he does not.cautious about admiring the disruptive and boldly inventive. cannot just be the product of an event.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.