Alain Badiou

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Alain Badiou (born 1937, Rabat, Morocco) is a prominent French left-wing philosopher formerly chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS).


Badiou was trained formally as a philosopher as a student at the 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 United Socialist Party (PSU), an offshoot of the French Communist Party. 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 had a huge impact on Badiou. While 1968 politicized many intellectuals, it served to reinforce Badiou's commitment to the far left, and he continued to organize 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 leftist philosophy he considered an unhealthy deviation of more main-line Marxism. In 1988 he published what is now considered by many to be his major statement, L'être et l'événement. He took up his current position at the ENS in 1999. He is also associated with a number of other institutions, such as the European Graduate School and 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.

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In the work of Slavoj Žižek

The French philosopher Alain Badiou has played a crucial role in Žižek’s work, particularly since 1999, when he devoted an entire chapter of The Ticklish Subject to Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (1997). In recent years, Žižek’s dialogue with Badiou has become increasingly active, culminating in The Parallax View and In Defense of Lost Causes, both of which include detailed responses to Badiou’s Logics of Worlds (2006).

Why is Badiou’s work so important to Žižek? Broadly, Badiou’s political and philosophical engagement as a revolutionary leftist has been a key influence on Žižek in his attempt to think a political project that constitutes an “alternative to global capitalism and its ideological supplement, liberal-democratic multiculturalism” (TS: 4). Badiou, like Žižek, sees the discourse of multiculturalism as an impediment to authentic forms of resistance (Badiou 2001: 20). Like Žižek, too, he is a universalist, an “anti-anti-essentialist” who vindicates the possibility of a universal, immortal Truth (PV: 323). These points of contact, though, are conjugated with divergences: among other things, Žižek criticizes Badiou for his supposed Kantian idealism, his omission of Marxism from his otherwise communist perspective and even his philosophy’s lack of radical potential.

How are these ambivalent relations played out in Žižek’s texts? In The Ticklish Subject, Žižek upholds Badiou’s politics of Truth and his “pathbreaking reading of St Paul” (TS: 3), while re-inscribing them into a Lacanian psychoanalytical framework. As Žižek points out, the core of Badiou’s philosophy is the opposition between Being and Event, which he theorizes in mathematical terms, using Cantorian set theory. Being, or Being-as-Being, is for Badiou an “irreducible multiplicity” (Badiou 1999: 104), a pure, inconsistent, unstructured multitude of elements. These existent elements form a “situation”, a positive ontological order accessible to Knowledge, a “consistent presented multiplicity” (ibid. 2005: 522), or what Žižek in Lacanian terms calls the symbolic order. When these elements are collected together under a shared term (like Victorian society, modern art or capitalism), they are, in Badiou’s terms, “counted as One” (ibid.: 24). From this count-as-One arises a representation of the presented multiplicity, a metastructure that Badiou terms the “state of the situation”, referring at once to the political state and the general status quo. Since “it is formally impossible … for everything which is included (every subset) to belong to the situation” (ibid.: 97), there is an excess of representation over presentation, of the state over the situation.

This excess is reformulated in Žižek’s terms as the “symptom”, and exemplified by an economic crisis in the system of capitalism (TS: 131). It is this excess that opens the space for an Event, or in Žižek’s terms the “traumatic encounter with the Real”, the Lacanian objet petit a (TS: 141). The Event, which belongs to the domain of non-Being, suddenly renders visible what was repressed or made invisible by the state. In turn, the Truth is constituted through the active intervention of a subject, who chooses to be faithful to its potential for disrupting consensual knowledge and instituting a new order of Being. In Badiou’s Christian paradigm, Christ’s Resurrection is the Event that emerges from the foundational void of Being-as-Being, and St Paul is the subject of the Truth-Event.

Although the Badiouian Truth relies upon a subjective intervention, this is not to say that it is personal or contingent. In Badiou’s own terms, “he who is a militant of truth identif[ies] himself … on the basis of the universal” (Badiou 2003: 109). Žižek insists on this point: although Truth is contingent in so far as it emerges from a concrete historical situation, “in every concrete and contingent situation there is one and only Truth” (TS: 131). For Žižek, Badiou’s notion of a universal, infinite truth is a crucial retort to deconstructionism and to the advocates of anti-essentialist postmodernism. Badiou’s insight also allows Žižek to distinguish between historicism and “historicity proper”: whereas the former refers to a specific set of historical circumstances that lead to, and explain, the Event, the latter “involves the specific temporality of the Event and its aftermath, the span between the Event and its final End” (TS: 133) – between Christ’s death and the Last Judgement, between revolution and communism, and so forth.

It is the relation between Event and mortality that drives a wedge between Žižek and Badiou. Badiou’s theoretical edifice is built upon an anti-dialectical – and what Žižek criticizes as Kantian – opposition between two orders, Being and Event, and therefore finitude and immortality. His Event is radically separated from the death-drive, and linked instead with infinity, immortality and subjective constitution. Lacan’s act, on the contrary, is inextricable from mortality, the death-drive and, to use Lacan’s own words, “destruction beyond putrefaction” (SVII: 268). Instead of an opposition between Being and Event, Lacan insists on an “in-between” space – the “between two deaths”, the monstrous state of lamella – that bridges this gap. The subject’s immortality, for Lacan and Žižek after him, can emerge only from human finitude. Badiou’s distance from Lacan on this point is the principal weakness of his philosophy according to Žižek: “What remains beyond Badiou’s reach is [the] ‘domain beyond the good’, in which a human being encounters the death-drive at the utmost limit of human experience, and pays the price by undergoing a radical ‘subjective destitution’, by being reduced to an excremental remainder” (TS: 161). For Žižek, the Lacanian subject’s “limit-experience” sets them apart from the Badiouian subject (ibid.). Since the death-drive is essential to any rupture from the symbolic order, the Lacanian act is a better basis for Badiou’s notions of a new political practice than his own Event.

In The Parallax View, Žižek moves beyond negotiating between Lacan’s and Badiou’s theories and places himself in a more direct relationship with Badiou’s then-unpublished Logic of Worlds. Žižek’s primary focus is on Badiou’s politics of prescription, mediated through Peter Hallward’s essay on that subject (Hallward 2005). As he explains, the Truth-Event is posited in Badiou’s theory as a point of departure from which new codes of action are directly put into place (PV: 322). The Badiouian Truth, in this sense, is treated as already realized. Its future power is anticipated by the subject’s fidelity in the present. Hence Badiou’s primary example of a subject of/to Truth is Paul, an apostle rather than a prophet: he announces that the Event has come, not that it is to come. Žižek finds this politics useful on a number of levels. First, it allows a clear distinction between radical emancipatory politics and the predominant status quo politics: whereas the former is an Event that at once stems from, and leads to, a universal Truth, the latter is a State, which according to Žižek is enforced and (im)mobilized by means of fear, whether of immigrants, crime or ecological catastrophes (PV: 323). Second, the possibility of a universal, immortal Truth serves him in his struggle against the humorously termed “gang of democracy-to-come deconstructionist-postsecular-Levinasian-respect-for-Otherness suspects” (PV: 11). Žižek offers two examples of successful practitioners of prescriptive political acts: John Brown in the context of abolitionism in nineteenth-century America, and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in the context of political equality of women in twenty-first-century Spain.

As in The Ticklish Subject, though, Žižek raises several points of contention. Expanding on his previous criticism of Badiou’s disavowed Kantianism, Žižek criticizes his continued insistence on the opposition between the Real and the subject, between existent Being and emergent Truth, and his consequent refusal of any Lacanian ontologization of the subject. On the one hand, Žižek agrees that the excess of the Unnameable – which he translates as the “stupidity of the Real” (PV: 325) – should not be essentialized. On the other hand, he finds the maintenance of this unbridgeable gap problematic, since it jars with Badiou’s politics of prescription: since the Truth cannot be reinserted into the ontological domain of Being, Žižek argues, it remains to-come, it refuses actualization, it is a constantly deferred possibility in the future rather than a present actuality (ibid.). In other words, the notion of the Event is too idealistic, because the infinite immaterial order of the Truth-Event is privileged above the material, finite order of Being (PV: 166). His second problem with Badiou’s politics of prescription is that it is grounded in the concept of equality. According to Žižek, Badiou’s egalitarian political extremism (or what he terms “enforced ‘terrorist’ equality”) is “a phenomenon of ideologico-political displacement: an index of its opposite, of a limitation, of a refusal actually to ‘go to the end’” (PV: 326). We thus return to his aforementioned suggestion that Badiou’s philosophy is not radical enough. Th is time, though, Žižek insists that Badiou’s lack of radicalism is due to his abandonment not of Lacan, but of Marx. Against Marx’s crucial insertion of political emancipation into the sphere of economics, Badiou refuses to regard the economy as a potential site for an Event. As Žižek points out, his four “generic procedures” – his four principal categories for Truth-processes, art, love, mathematics and politics – exclude economics.

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48, 106, 107, 108, 128-9, 135-6, 137, 144-5, 158

TICKLISH Badiou, Alain America and Roman Empire 211 anti-communitarian communitarian 172 Being and Truth-Event 128-35,237-8 beyond the Good 161 Christianity and psychoanalysis 145-51 differences with Lacan 3, 159-64 fidelity to the Truth-Event 164,166-7 ideology and the Truth-Event 141-5 influence of Althusser 128 is the gap the subject? 158-9 Master/Hysteric/University 164-5 return to the Substance 209 St Paul and psychoanalysis 153-4 subjectivity 182-4 transformation of Truth-Event into universal 157-8 undecidability of the Event 135-41