garage talk: Alain Badiou

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On May 25, 2010 collaborated with the Visual Arts Department of to present the Garage Talk  ‘Cultures & Truths’ with world-renowned French philosopher Alain Badiou.

About Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou, Ph.D., born in Rabat, Morocco in 1937, holds the Rene Descartes Chair at the European Graduate School EGS. Alain Badiou was a student at the École Normale Supérieure in the 1950s. He taught at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes-Saint Denis) from 1969 until 1999, when he returned to ENS as the Chair of the philosophy department. He continues to teach a popular seminar at the Collège International de Philosophie, on topics ranging from the great ‘antiphilosophers’ (Saint-Paul, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Lacan) to the major conceptual innovations of the twentieth century. Much of Badiou’s life has been shaped by his dedication to the consequences of the May 1968 revolt in Paris. Long a leading member of Union des jeunesses communistes de France (marxistes-léninistes), he remains with Sylvain Lazarus and Natacha Michel at the center of L’Organisation Politique, a post-party organization concerned with direct popular intervention in a wide range of issues (including immigration, labor, and housing). He is the author of several successful novels and plays as well as more than a dozen philosophical works.

Trained as a mathematician, Alain Badiou is one of the most original French philosophers today. Influenced by Plato, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze, he is an outspoken critic of both the analytic as well as the postmodern schools of thoughts. His philosophy seeks to expose and make sense of the potential of radical innovation (revolution, invention, transfiguration) in every situation.

Unlike many of those schooled in the anti-humanist principles of Louis Pierre Althusser and Jacques Lacan , Alain Badiou has never been tempted to celebrate the apparent end of philosophy, to question the possibility of metaphysics, or to qualify the classical attributes of truth: rigor, clarity, and eternity.

As Alain Badiou explains in detail in his major work to date L’Etre et l’événement (1988), truths are militant processes which, beginning from a specific time and place within a situation, pursue the step-by-step transformation of that situation in line with new forms of broadly egalitarian principles. Only a pure commitment, one detached from any psychological, social, or ‘objective’ mediation, can qualify as the adequate vehicle for a truth, but reciprocally, only a properly universal truth qualifies as worthy of such a commitment. Only a truth can ‘induce’ the subject of a genuine commitment.

Badiou’s most general goal can be described, then, as the effort to expose and make sense of the potential for profound, transformative innovation in any situation. Every such innovation can only begin with some sort of exceptional (though invariably ephemeral) break with the status quo, an ‘event’. An event can occur at any time but not in just any place; an event will generally be located close to the edge of whatever qualifies as ‘void’ or indistinguishable in the situation, i.e. in that part of the situation where for literally fundamental reasons the prevailing forms of discernment and recognition cease to have any significant purchase. A truth then expands out of this ‘evental site’ (site événementiel) insofar as it elicits the militant conviction of certain individuals who develop the revolutionary implications of the event, and by doing so constitute themselves as the subjects of its truth. A subject is thus anyone carried by his or her fidelity to the consequences, as rigorous as they are haphazard, of an event, while a truth is nothing other than the cumulative collection of such post-evental consequences. The laborious, case-by-case application of these consequences will then serve to transform the entire way the situation organizes and represents itself, in keeping with the implications of the event.

An ordinary individual, or ‘some-one,’ only becomes a genuine subject insofar as he or she is caught up in a materially transformative procedure of this kind. By the same token (for reasons sketched in Badiou’s most accessible short work, L’Ethique (1993), subjects only remain subjects insofar as their fidelity is in turn equipped to resist the various sorts of corruption it must inevitably face: fatigue, confusion, and dogmatism. For example, those mobilized by the civil rights, feminist, or anti-colonial movements remain true subjects insofar as these movements, initially sparked by certain events affecting particular groups of people in particular situations, call for the transformation of the situation as a whole in terms that can be directly and universally affirmed by its every inhabitant. But should such a movement seek simply the promotion of a particular group for its own sake, then its partisans act only as the proponents of an interest in competition with other interests. The identification of suffering victims is not by itself the sufficient basis, Alain Badiou insists, for a genuine political movement. Like all truths, politics must proceed in a sphere of rigorous universality, on the basis of statements that literally anyone could make or affirm.

This does not mean, however, that truth operates in the domain of consensus or communication. Every genuinely universal principle has its origin in an active and precisely situated taking of sides; every true affirmation of the universal interest begins as divisive. There is no philosopher more opposed to the ‘ethical’ coordination of opinions or differences than Badiou.

Alain Badiou distinguishes four general fields of truth, or four domains of subjectivation (which in turn operate as the four generic ‘conditions’ of philosophy itself): politics, science, art and love. These are the only four fields in which a pure subjective commitment is possible, i.e. one indifferent to procedures of interpretation, representation, or verification. Alain Badiou provides his most concise overview of the generic procedures in his Manifeste pour la philosophie (1989). True politics is a matter of collective mobilization guided by a ‘general will’ in something like Rousseau’s sense, and not the business of bureaucratic administration or the socialized negotiation of interests. Within the limits of the private sphere, genuine love begins in the wake of an unpredictable encounter that escapes the conventional representation of sexual roles, continues as a fidelity to the consequences of that encounter, and is sustained through an unrepresentable exposure to what Lacan famously described as the ‘impossibility of a sexual relationship’. True art and true science proceed in somewhat the same way, through a searching experimental fidelity to a line of inquiry opened up by a new discovery or break with tradition. Mathematics is then the most ‘truthful’ component of science simply because, thanks to its axiomatic foundation in the basic postulates of set theory, it is the most securely abstracted from any natural or objective mediation.

In the end, every truth is ‘founded’ only on the fundamental ‘inconsistency’ that Alain Badiou discerns as the exclusive and insubstantial stuff of pure being qua being — the generic being of all that is simply insofar as it is, but that is only exceptionally accessible, through the rare commitment of those who become subjects in the wake of its evental exposure.

*Biography as posted on the European Graduate School EGS