Cover

Table of Contents

Cover

Serises Page

Title page

Copyright page

Guide to Abbreviations of Badiou’s Publications

Introduction

1 Badiou’s Philosophical Background

Badiou’s Maoist May

A philosophical Maoism: Theory of the Subject (1982)

A pivotal work: Can Politics Be Thought? (1985)

The major system: Being and Event (1988)

After Being and Event

2 Being and Event

Badiou’s return to Plato: being is neither one, nor multiple

On presentation

On situations

On being as void

Set theory’s contribution to ontology

Set theory’s axioms as “laws of being”

Conclusion

3 Situations and Events

More on the empty set and the void

On presentation and representation

The power-set axiom and the point of excess

Types of multiples in situations: normal, excrescent, and singular

Singular multiples and evental sites

Situations and evental sites

On an event as a violation of the laws of being

Conclusion

4 Logics of Worlds

Logic as a study of transcendentals

The theory of objects, and Badiou’s refutation of idealism

The basic structure of a transcendental

Objective phenomenology

On phenomenon and existence

Against phenomenology

Practical effects of a logic

What inexists

The revised theory of events: on changes and modifications

Conclusion

5 Infinity and Truth

On infinity

Some basic points about truth in Badiou’s philosophy

Ways of thinking about situations and states: on names and encyclopedias

Interventions, names for the event, and the divisiveness of truths

The problem of deviations, and other problems

The solution: fidelity and the generic

Forcing and some problems

Conclusion

6 Badiou’s Theories of the Subject

The legacy of the philosophical subject

The subject in Theory of the Subject

Subjectivation and subject-process in Theory of the Subject

Subject in Being and Event

A truth splits but no longer destroys a situation

Theory of the subject in Ethics

Subject in Logics of Worlds

Conclusion

7 Ethics and Affects

On affects and ethics in Theory of the Subject: anxiety, courage, superego, justice

Confidence versus belief

Ethics on the basis of Being and Event

On evil: Badiou’s practical humanism against ethics

Faithful, reactive, and obscure subjects in Logics of Worlds

Subjective destinations

Art

Love

Science

Conclusion: affects and ethics in Logics of Worlds

8 Politics

Badiou’s un-orthodox non-Marxism?

Politics as a truth procedure

Division as a political strategy

Death and destruction

Away from death and destruction: subtraction and separation in politics

Can Politics Be Thought? as the beginning of a self-critique

Against identity and for the universal

Against democracy and voting

Conclusion

Conclusion

A new subjective paradigm: a theory of living

Select Bibliography

Index

Published:

Jeremy Ahearne, Michel de Certeau

Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929–1989

Michael Caesar, Umberto Eco

M. J. Cain, Fodor

Filipe Carreira da Silva, G. H. Mead

Rosemary Cowan, Cornel West

George Crowder, Isaiah Berlin

Maximilian de Gaynesford, John McDowell

Reidar Andreas Due, Deleuze

Eric Dunning, Norbert Elias

Matthew Elton, Daniel Dennett

Chris Fleming, Rene Girard

Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook, Simone de Beauvoir

Andrew Gamble, Hayek

Neil Gascoigne, Richard Rorty

Nigel Gibson, Fanon

Graeme Gilloch, Walter Benjamin

Karen Green, Dummett

Espen Hammer, Stanley Cavell

Christina Howells, Derrida

Fred Inglis, Clifford Geertz

Simon Jarvis, Adorno

Sarah Kay, Žižek

Valerie Kennedy, Edward Said

Chandran Kukathas and Philip Pettit, Rawls

Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler

James McGilvray, Chomsky

Lois McNay, Foucault

Dermot Moran, Edmund Husserl

Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes

Stephen Morton, Gayatri Spivak

Harold W. Noonan, Frege

James O’Shea, Wilfrid Sellars

William Outhwaite, Habermas, 2nd Edition

Kari Palonen, Quentin Skinner

John Preston, Feyerabend

Chris Rojek, Stuart Hall

William Scheuerman, Morgenthau

Severin Schroeder, Wittgenstein

Susan Sellers, Helene Cixous

Wes Sharrock and Rupert Read, Kuhn

David Silverman, Harvey Sacks

Dennis Smith, Zygmunt Bauman

James Smith, Terry Eagleton

Nicholas H. Smith, Charles Taylor

Felix Stalder Manuel Castells

Geoffrey Stokes, Popper

Georgia Warnke, Gadamer

James Williams, Lyotard

Jonathan Wolff, Robert Nozick

Title page

Guide to Abbreviations of Badiou’s Publications

AF   “The Adventure of French Philosophy” 
B   Briefings on Existence 
BE   Being and Event 
C   The Century 
Con   Conditions 
E   Ethics 
I   De l’idéologie 
IT   Infinite Thought 
LM   Logiques des mondes 
M   Manifesto for Philosophy 
Meta   Metapolitics 
NN   Number and Numbers 
NR   Le Noyau rationnel de la dialectique hégélienne 
P   Polemics 
PB   “Philosophy as Biography” 
Po   “Politics: A Non-Expressive Dialectics” 
PP   Peut-on penser la politique? 
S   De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? 
SA   “The Subject of Art” 
SP   Saint Paul 
TC   Théorie de la contradiction 
TS   Théorie du sujet 
TW   Theoretical Writings 
WL   “What is to Live?” 

Introduction

Ni Dieu ni homme [Neither god nor man]

(C 216n53)

“One is right to revolt against the reactionaries … ”

In a candid moment at a recent conference, Alain Badiou expressed his frustration and surprise at the fact that so many of his peers – he had in mind the generation of student and worker activists known as soixante-huitards, or “68ers” – developed a strong hostility toward their former militant engagement. Although his comment was delivered almost as a passing remark, it was more than that: his dismay about people turning against something they once believed is directly connected to one of his philosophy’s overarching concerns. Badiou is interested in the conditions of conversion, conviction, resolution, persistence, and then, on the other side, wavering, doubt, and retreat. His philosophy is interested in describing the conditions under which a militant engagement changes into a reaction against that engagement itself, and how someone can suddenly become opposed to the very possibility of a similar engagement ever happening again. And what are the conditions under which a militant engagement can continue, instead of burning out or reversing? Badiou came up with a little ethical formula once that captures his orientation quite nicely: “love what you will never believe twice.” It is a bit obscure, but it should mean something like “do not be ashamed about being convinced of something that you feel you actually should not be convinced of, and have great difficulty justifying … ”

Badiou asks these kinds of questions not only with respect to political movements (although these do seem to have pride of place) but also for all sorts of things that enthuse human beings every so often, such as romances, scientific discoveries, and artistic innovations. In fact, along with politics, love, science, and art are the four fields of human practice in which what he calls “truths” are possible. And although his experience with lapses in faith may have been the trigger for much of his philosophical activity, it is safe to say that he is actually more concerned with describing (and defending) the possibility of fidelity within all of these domains; fidelity to those events that can lead human beings to put their happiness, and sometimes even their livelihood at stake, often against their better judgment, for what appears to be (and may well be) nothing more than a stupid idea: something as silly, say, as a new way of doing mathematics, or a hunch that a new way of making sound has musical value.

The most common reference in Badiou’s work is, as I mentioned, politics, and most of his key examples, and many of his key concepts, come from political theory and political history, with a strongly Marxist inflection. But not always. Using an unfamiliar but colorful term, Badiou describes as Thermidorian the type of reaction he witnessed, and was vexed by, among members of his generation after 1968. Students of the French Revolution would recognize the term, since it is usually used to describe the period just after Robespierre’s infamous reign of terror. The Thermidorian period (named after one of the months of the French Revolutionary calendar – covering mid-July to mid-August) was characterized by social and political moderation. Now, Badiou is not saying that anything about May 1968 and its long aftershocks compares to the intensity of the French Revolution, as far as its achievements and actual historical significance goes. Nor does it compare to other revolutionary events of the twentieth century – the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Cultural Revolution in China, to use two more of Badiou’s standard references. Badiou does want to say, however, that despite the difficulty in determining the significance of May 1968, the period that followed can be characterized as another Thermidorian reaction. And to such a period corresponds a distinctive form of subjectivity, one based on the cessation of a previous and also always possible revolutionary fervor. Thus, the Thermidorian is not just any political conservative, but someone who is saying no to something he or she once encountered, to something he or she once was, or to something he or she once believed. A Thermidorian is someone who “renounces his revolutionary enthusiasm and sells his rallying to the order of proprietors” (P 85). A more typical conservative might be opposed to certain social movements for any number of reasons; but the Thermidorian is a distinct type who brings a particular sort of passion to her reaction, one that is motivated by a subjective experience with the other side.

We see in this discussion of Thermidorian reaction how two interests are present in Alain Badiou’s work, and I will be making a similar point about Badiou’s philosophy throughout this introduction. On the one hand, it shows how he is interested in studying different types of subject-positions, each expressing a different attitude about its world: some will be characterized by a fidelity to a new development (in a situation such as art, think of Cubism, or twelve-tone music) and some will be reacting against one, like the Thermidorians of the French Revolution in politics. And, on the other hand, Badiou is interested in mapping out the resemblances among different historical periods and discerning something like the overall structure of such situations. Thus, there are two distinct interests in Badiou’s philosophy: an interest in a theory of the subject, and a theory that details the structures within which subjects appear. It is his study of both that is crucial to his ability to build a case for fidelity, or faithful subjectivity.

A large part of Badiou’s work, then, is interested in pursuing the formal resemblances among different historical periods. This results in the production of a conceptual framework, a philosophical system, that can be used to outline the structure of such disparate situations as the living things in a park, the works that make up a twentieth-century artistic movement, the geology of a mountain range millions of years ago, and the love between Abélard and Héloïse in the eleventh century. Yet another significant part of Badiou’s work studies something altogether different from structure – what are called events, truths, and subjects.

This makes Badiou’s philosophy rather distinctive on the contemporary scene. Badiou himself has proposed thinking of twentieth-century French philosophy in terms of an ongoing debate between vitalism and formalism. Vitalism could be described as a philosophy that promotes the centrality of things like life, change, nature, and becoming (Badiou thinks of the early twentieth-century philosopher Henri Bergson as well as the more recent Gilles Deleuze in these terms), while formalism is a philosophical orientation interested in issues like the organization of objects, their identities and differences, or the overall structures in which they fit (Lévi-Strauss, the early Foucault, Lacan – structuralism, in a word). Thinking of the debate in French philosophy this way is almost like thinking of it in terms of a debate that goes back to the pre-Socratics, when Heraclitus argued that you can never step into the same river twice – nothing stays the same, all is flux – and Parmenides argued that all is one, and change and movement are illusions. Badiou sees himself bringing these two sides of an old debate together. Putting the debates that went on during his formative years yet another way, he writes:

From the start of the [twentieth] century, then, French philosophy presents a divided and dialectical character. On one side, a philosophy of life; on the other, a philosophy of the concept. This debate between life and concept will be absolutely central to the period that follows. At stake in any such discussion is the question of the human subject, for it is here that the two orientations coincide. (AF 69)

The claim that the two orientations “coincide” in a theory of the subject is critical to Badiou, and to his own contribution to his history – for this coincidence was also being hammered out in the mid-1960s by people such as Sartre, Althusser, and Lacan, all of whom made important and differing claims about the nature of the subject. If the key conflict on the theory of the subject during Badiou’s philosophical training was “Sartre versus Althusser” – as he has claimed – this is like saying the conflict was between the assertion of the rights and privileges of the free, conscious human subject (Sartre) versus the assertion of the predominance of a-subjective, non-conscious processes and systems, with a devaluing of the (humanist) subject as a thing of pure ideology (Althusser). A theory of the subject (as such) would be about how to think of the mixture of the two, of vitalism and formalism. This is where Badiou’s main philosophical contribution will reside: in thinking of the subject as something like a site where vitalism and formalism, life and structure, change and being, come together.

Yet despite all the ink Badiou has spilled in the presentation of his philosophical system – worked out so far in the two massive tomes of a series called Being and Event – he claims that “the motif of the subject unifies in the long run my endeavor in thought” (LM 548). And accompanying this interest in developing an ambitious philosophical system has been a series of studies of (which are always equally defenses of) what he calls a “faithful subjectivity”; a type of subject that is characterized not by reaction but by the embrace of, or, perhaps better, possession by, a transforming encounter with an event and its consequences.

On the faithful subject

What is faithful subjectivity supposed to be about? Going back to another historical moment, this time the slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 BC, Badiou describes how this revolt was, from a certain perspective, perhaps nothing all that new or special: slave revolts were not uncommon in the Roman world. But, subjectively, Badiou wants to say that this particular revolt was something different. To see this, one has to look at the way the members of the revolt saw what they were doing, and how this related to the situation they were in. When this is taken into account, Badiou thinks we can see that what these slaves were doing amounted to “the realization in the present of a previously unknown possible” (LM 60). The slaves were actively demonstrating the existence of, and were already living in, a present that was different from the social and political “present” that had constituted their lives as slaves; they were creating a present that rivaled and effectively split in two the social and political situation they were living in.

In a few words, this is what a faithful subjectivity always does – it is engaged in the construction of a new present: a construction whose process and end result Badiou also calls a truth. Such is what Badiou has in mind when he writes of the human capacity to be seized by an eternal truth. A truth is in large part defined by the way in which its construction contests the reigning present not simply with a critique, but with the actual presence of an alternative within that present itself. This alternative scrambles the situation in question: it redraws the relations among members or inhabitants of that situation. It organizes the world in question differently. For example, in the case of the Spartacan rebellion there was the actualization of an idea that was itself highly dubious, or perhaps deemed to be beyond the pale, unacceptable in their present moment: the idea of equality among members of the human community, slaves and citizens. It is as if the members of the revolt were saying “we are already no longer simply the slaves you say we are, and that we indeed are, officially; but we are also, right now, already something else.”

Badiou’s fusion of a study of structures with a study of events, along with an interest in discerning the position of the subject in each, is really an attempt then to develop a theory of change, or a theory of the emergence of genuine novelty in human situations. And this theory – quite detailed and complex, as we shall see – is able to develop an ethic, one that Badiou thinks could be useful to individuals when they are involved in truth procedures.

But why would they need such help? Why aren’t they fine on their own? In other words, why is Badiou doing what he is doing? Does it stem from mere intellectual curiosity? A consideration of Badiou’s encounter with his philosophical nemeses, the nouveaux philosophes, or “new philosophers,” provides an answer to these questions – these are the contemporary Thermidorians to which Badiou frequently alludes. Some in this group of thinkers that emerged in the late 1970s had indeed been involved in radical political movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and they gained media attention for writing repentant books that claimed to see in these student and workers’ movements a direct route to the Gulag. One of them even claimed that the Soviet Gulag was “the logical application of Marxism,” the inevitable end result of the Marxism many of the students and workers were embracing. One of the key ideas promoted by them – and a basic reactionary technique, according to Badiou – is that periods of terror and social-political repression are not mere accidents that follow from periods of revolutionary fervor, but rather are their logical outcomes, and are even what the movements are really about, no matter how much the members of the movements claim to be rallying for emancipation and equality. In this way, the nouveaux philosophes were able to portray themselves as defenders of the humanist values of the liberal, parliamentarian nation-state. From their perspective, Badiou writes,

every effort to unite people around a positive idea of the Good, let alone to identify Man with projects of this kind, becomes in fact the real source of evil itself. […] Every revolutionary project stigmatized as “utopian” turns, we are told, into totalitarian nightmare. Every will to inscribe an idea of justice or equality turns bad. Every collective will to the Good creates Evil. (E 13)

Terrorists, totalitarians, religious fundamentalists, and leftist radicals are all cut out of the same cloth according to the Thermidorian point of view: their utopian ambitions are really just a pretext for the realization of a violent desire to destroy the present, and to destroy human life.

There is, of course, something to such fears, given the experiences of the twentieth century. As Badiou himself notes:

the century was haunted by the idea of changing man, of creating a new man. It’s true that this idea circulates between the various fascisms and communisms, that their statues are more or less the same: on the one hand, the proletarian standing at the threshold of an emancipated world, on the other, the exemplary Aryan, Siegfried bringing down the dragons of decadence. Creating a new humanity always comes down to demanding that the old one be destroyed. (C 8)

The dreams of destruction and renewal that pervaded the twentieth century are now the stuff of our political nightmares. Badiou adds:

What is intriguing is that today these categories are dead and buried, that no one gets involved any more with the political creation of a new man. On the contrary, what we hear from all sides is the demand for the conservation of the old humanity, and of all endangered species to boot. (C 20–21)

Such a claim is of a piece with Badiou’s view that reaction has become a dominant mode of subjectivity today. In his defense of fidelity over reaction, Badiou claims to have learned a different lesson from the twentieth century: it is that human beings can do remarkable things as they already are. The twentieth-century desire to destroy one version of being human in order to replace it with another can be abandoned, he thinks, while something of the revolutionary creativity and fidelity that blossomed in the past century can still be preserved. In this respect, Badiou does not wish to succumb to the well-grounded fears of the reactionary, who can be said to be giving up on the creation of a new present, wishing instead to preserve the present roughly as it is, since all the alternatives are terror-prone, and thus far worse.

While destruction is no longer something Badiou can be said to be an advocate of – at one time, he was, as we shall see – he does hold that a romance with destruction remains a key temptation for any faithful subject. But it is a temptation that Badiou believes is still worth risking. In a much-cited phrase, he wrote that a disaster is better than a dis-being [désêtre] – by which he means a dismantling and abandoning of what is genuinely and uniquely human. The reactionary wishes to avoid the temptation of destruction altogether, but at too high a cost: at the cost of our very capacity to create a new present and expose ourselves to our intrinsically human capacity to produce truth. Thus, Badiou wishes to turn the tables, and announces that there is an unexpected threat in the protective and pro-life ethic of the reactionary; it is a hedge against terror, yes, but at the same time, it blocks our capacity to experience and develop what he calls truths.

Badiou’s philosophy as an anti-humanism in defense of the human

Thus, from his perspective, our contemporary respect for life and human rights (and even animal rights) comes along with a rejection of what is in fact crucial about being human, which is precisely the ability to be seized by an eternal truth, as potentially destructive as that is. Without this exposure to the risk of destruction what we are left with is a life Badiou describes in a variety of sharply negative ways: as a basically animal life, a life of “passive nihilism” endorsing an “artificial individualism” (C 98), tinged with an obsession over security (C 124) while amusing ourselves with what he describes as a “Tibetan pornography”:

Lenin remarked that during times when critical and revolutionary political activity is very weak, what the sorry arrogance of imperialism produces is a mixture of mysticism and pornography. That’s exactly what we are getting today in the form of formal romantic vitalism. We have universal sex, and we have oriental wisdom. A Tibetan pornography: that would fulfill the wish of this century, which is putting off inventing its birth. (P 139)

This is not a very flattering and upbeat assessment of the current moment; indeed, Badiou’s assessment sounds rather dour and even moralistic. What’s wrong with creature comforts and Tibetan pornography, whatever the latter would be? But what Badiou is saying here is that our interest in security, our interest in avoiding division, our defense of pleasures that harm no one as the private good and divine right of each individual … all of this is actually de-humanizing us. We know well the risks that an exposure to what Badiou calls truths entails: an overzealous enthusiasm, an intolerance of difference, a disregard for simple happiness and simple pleasures, and an inability to compromise with others and find common ground. (I should note that Badiou does not exactly buy this: he thinks a truth is in principle a unifying thing, because it is universal and addressed to all – all can become subject to it, there is no elitism here. Nevertheless, he is keenly aware of the divisiveness of what he calls a truth procedure; this, in fact, is one of its hallmarks.) To worry about this too much is to succumb to a false dilemma. He wants to say that we can risk terror, without having terror. We can be militants for a truth in a particular situation, without becoming zealots or succumbing to the urge to let destruction and intolerance run rampant. In fact, Badiou believes that his philosophy can even provide guidelines for avoiding what, in his own terms, would really be evil: the disappearance or non-existence of any truth whatsoever, or the disappearance of the value of truth. And, in this respect, his philosophy is as much about developing an ethic of truths as it is about settling obscure issues concerning being, structures, and the nature of the subject.

On philosophy’s status and task

If Alain Badiou has any notoriety today (and this is still mostly in France), it is perhaps for the positions he has staked out on current events and politics, and not for the subtle and complex positions he stakes out on being, multiplicity, truth, and the subject. His enemies consider him to be either a kind of quaint and antiquated leftist, dreaming of destruction, who imagines himself to be an old-school public intellectual; or else a dangerous terrorist sympathizer, who is politically and morally wildly irresponsible by still advocating for communism, and for being unapologetic about his Maoist past.

His positions on current events are easy to grasp, and easy to surprise. This is not the case for his philosophy. Yet his philosophical orientation does guide his position on politics and current events. Badiou’s positions on any number of contemporary issues – take his claim that cinema is not really an art form, or that not voting is a significant political gesture – rest firmly on the foundations that his philosophy provides. Badiou has intriguing positions on the nature of being (it is radically multiple, but also identical to “the void”), on infinity (it exists, and there are even an infinite number of infinities), on existence itself (there are degrees of it, which means that for any given situation or world some things can be said to exist more than others), mathematics (it is the study of being qua being), logic (it tells us about the consistency of worlds), and immortality (although humans are mortal creatures, their relation to truths allows them to become immortals). One might think it possible to arrive at all of Badiou’s conclusions on contemporary issues without having to ground them or argue for them in the way he does. Perhaps it is. But Badiou certainly feels that his philosophical labors in areas such as mathematics have allowed him to gain clarity on the positions he takes now, and he undoubtedly feels – he has argued as much – that it is partly due to a philosophical shortcoming, a theoretical oversight, that faithful subjectivity is so objectionable and difficult today. If philosophers had taken note of developments in mathematics earlier, Badiou’s hunch is that perhaps reaction would be a little less tempting.

This amounts to saying that philosophy has not been doing its job, and has, for quite a long time, misunderstood its job. Badiou argues that philosophy has been genuflecting before the superiority of either the sciences (in anglophone philosophy, generally) or the arts, and poetry in particular (in the Romantic tradition, strongest in continental philosophy). Yet the resources of philosophy, and philosophy alone, are required to preserve and detect the emergence of truths: Badiou can call himself a follower of Plato on this point, who famously opposed mere opinion to truth. Philosophy cannot push the emergence and development of a truth, but without a certain type of philosophy the pursuit of truths in politics, art, science, or love may wither away, for a lack of advocacy and a lack of justification.

It may sound, then, as if Badiou is ready to give a vigorous defense of philosophy, and that he is eager to restore it to its position as Queen of the sciences. But there are some rather unexpected things he has to say about it that would rule such a reinstatement out. For example, he holds that there is no such thing as a philosophical truth. Philosophy “does not establish any truth but it sets a locus of truths” (M 37). In other words, philosophy itself does not lead us to any truths of its own. It relies on, is parasitic upon, the truths that are developed in particular situations.

The practice of philosophy for Badiou is not about developing a credo, then, that would lead one to a truth about the way the world is. Philosophy will not tell one what particular position to take in politics or the sciences, for example. Truths are produced in these other, non-philosophical walks of life: in particular, in the four situations of love, art, politics, and science. Badiou says little about the status of his own philosophy: while his own philosophy cannot be true in the sense he uses, because that term pertains only to a particular type of process in a particular type of situation, it would seem as if Badiou is committed to at least the correctness of his philosophy’s description of being, event, situations, and so on. In this respect, he is neither a skeptic, nor a relativist. (It is likely the case that he would describe his own philosophy as “veridical” rather than true: the distinction between veridical and true is discussed in chapter 5.)

To get an idea of how Badiou sees the relation between his philosophical endeavors and human practice, broadly construed, consider Badiou’s discussion of a figure from the Paris Commune of 1871 (another one of Badiou’s preferred historical reference points) who, at a crucial and pressure-filled moment at the end of the Commune’s turbulent existence, was not able to give the Communards at the barricades, starting to panic and about to face down an onslaught from government troops invading from Versailles, a simple order – any order at all. At a moment that required speed and ingenuity, this figure, faced with people demanding to know what the orders were, could only manage to say that he needed to be left alone: he needed some peace in order to think things over, he claimed. Badiou’s point is that this poor man did not have a theory, a general framework, that allowed him to see quickly what should be done. His hesitation exemplifies the tragedy that can occur when theory and philosophy fail to do their job. At the end of his preface to Theory of the Subject, in which this example is first given, Badiou claims that he wrote the work in the hopes that neither he, nor his readers, would ever become those who “at the great due dates of history, can once and for all only distribute herring vouchers” (TS 15). For that is what this figure was reduced to – passing out food coupons in desperation; nice, perhaps, but nothing that would save them from the coming slaughter! Badiou makes the same point about his work in a more recent text, Polemics, which also contains a study of the Paris Commune of 1871: “all of my philosophical efforts aimed to contribute, however slightly, to preventing us (as the inheritors of the Cultural Revolution and May 1968) from becoming ‘dealers in herring vouchers’ ” (P 281).

And given that philosophy is, by Badiou’s own account, parasitic upon other things, what is it that a philosophy can do, then, when it is not doing something as useless as distributing herring vouchers? Philosophy is able to isolate the truths that are emerging in human practice, and is able to give some kind of support to their novelty. To strike another Platonic note, philosophy’s job is to defend truth against established opinions and conventional wisdom. And, without a proper philosophical defense, it may well be the case that no one bothers to advocate for a truth – preferring, rather, to avoid the conflict, division, uncertainty, and frequent isolation that truth creates.

Badiou is arguing, then, that we live in an ideological climate in which any militants for a truth will naturally worry that they are flirting with some kind of terror or madness by continuing with their projects. They will be tempted by the subjectivities of reaction and obscurity, tempted to avoid the apparent inhumanity of what their projects are doing not only to them but to others. Lovers will balk at the changes to their lives that their love entails, and will succumb to the pressure to pursue easy pleasure and routine in their everyday lives; artists will be tempted to produce the familiar and marketable, when they secretly believe they are on to something else no one understands, but the pursuit of it is fast condemning them to isolation and poverty.

Thus, apart from its interest in giving a purely formal study of the structure and genesis of truths – the conditions of their emergence, the effects that they generate – Badiou’s philosophy has another aim: that of developing an ethic that will enable individuals to cultivate the courage necessary to continue the pursuit of a truth procedure, making faithful subjectivity more viable, and reactionary and obscurantist subjectivity less tempting. Philosophy’s task then is “to produce, in the world such as it is, new forms for the reception of the arrogance of the inhuman” (LM 16). This is why I will argue in this book that Badiou’s work remains very close to the project proposed by his teacher, Louis Althusser, who advocated a fusion of theoretical anti-humanism and practical humanism. In Badiou’s work, we have a philosophical defense of the human as a practical possibility, as a possible way of living; a defense that is enabled by a theoretical account of the inhuman structures and conditions in which human beings are what they are. Plus, Badiou makes the strong suggestion that it is perhaps not possible to encourage the former without the latter as a framework. Why this should be so is one of the mysteries I hope to clear up through the course of this book.

Philosophy is supposed to elaborate on “the ways of saying ‘yes!’ to the previously unknown thoughts that hesitate to become the truths that they are” (LM 11). The reference to hesitation here is as important as the emphasis on truth itself. Philosophy, Badiou is saying, should be able to carve out a space for a type of practice that much in the contemporary world tends to disallow. Our reigning ideology holds that there is nothing better than the creature comforts we hold dear, the pursuit of an individual happiness that frustrates and eludes us so much, the pursuit of a wealth that never seems to be enough, and that there is nothing worse than daring to live the kind of life only a human being can live – a life dedicated to an eternal truth. Such a life may well come at great individual expense (although it does not have to), and it may well come at the price of happiness (although it does not have to either). Nevertheless, Badiou thinks such a way of being is a truly human life.

Chapter outline

Is there a fundamental principle for Badiou’s work, in the manner of those German Idealists who found it necessary to begin their systems with an incontrovertible truth, from which everything else about their systems could be somehow derived? If there is, it would probably be the claim that “the one is not,” and its (seemingly contradictory) companion claim “there is something of the one.” I am not convinced that everything about Badiou’s philosophy can be derived from these claims, but they do condition quite a bit of it. Therefore, I begin my treatment of Badiou’s philosophy proper with what I have been referring to in this introduction as the structural and formal side of his philosophy: with a study of his claims about ontology, being, multiples, sets, situations, and finally evental sites and events themselves.

There is some risk involved in this way of presenting Badiou’s work, for one may get the mistaken impression that such discussions are what Badiou’s philosophy is primarily about. This is not the case. Badiou is far more concerned with promoting things such as the notion of a faithful subject procedure, or the idea of a generic truth. And by spending roughly half of this book discussing the structural aspects of his philosophy, I am afraid that I may give the reader precisely this altogether inaccurate impression. Yet, to see how Badiou’s positions on ethics and politics are grounded on philosophical principles, the systemic part of his work needs to be given a certain amount of attention.

Chapter 1 is something like an introductory chapter again, although it looks at Badiou’s philosophical background, his activism, and some events in his life that have been central to the development of his philosophy. My argument in this chapter is that Badiou, initially inclined to develop what I call a philosophical Maoism, has long been interested in developing a materialist theory of the subject, first within the framework of a dialectical philosophy, and then within the framework of a philosophy informed by the insights of set theory. I do not mean to suggest any incompatibility between these two projects. Bruno Bosteels argues convincingly that the model of dialectics is not at all supplanted by the turn to set theory in Being and Event – a claim that is borne out by Badiou’s recent use of the phrase “dialectical materialism” to describe his position in Logics of Worlds (Bosteels 2004: 150–64). I conclude this chapter with brief descriptions of Badiou’s major works, details of which are explored in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2 focuses on some of the main theses of Being and Event, which promotes the view that mathematics, and set theory in particular, is ontology. I consider here the two key claims I just mentioned: that the one is not, and that there is something of the one, or a one-effect, after all. This sets up the basic idea that being is subtracted from presentation. The nature of a situation is discussed here, and I consider some of the lessons Badiou draws from the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory. Why Badiou uses set theory at all, and whether he really needs to, is a question with which I conclude the chapter.

A discussion of further axioms from set theory used by Being and Event occurs in chapter 3, and this chapter also addresses some of the more complex matters raised by Being and Event such as the distinction between belonging and inclusion, between a situation and a state, the different types of multiples in a situation (normal, excrescent, and singular), and finally the notion of an evental site. These are difficult matters, but a discussion of them is required in order to appreciate the importance that events and evental sites have for Badiou’s philosophy. I also introduce here Badiou’s claim that events are multiples that contain themselves as members: this seems to be their most significant property, and their most perplexing one.

In chapter 4 I consider the modifications Badiou makes to the theory of the event in Logics of Worlds. There are some terminological changes in this text too, and the overall task of Logics is to do something different, and supplementary, to the task in Being and Event, but the implications for the status of the event itself are clear. Badiou is explicit about the fact that he thinks he has in Logics of Worlds come up with a better theory of the event by focusing on the status of its effects in a situation, rather than on an event’s intrinsic properties. According to the theory developed in Logics of Worlds events are changes in a world that involve changes in the very manner in which appearances in that world are ordered (by what he calls a transcendental). He describes his method in this work as an objective phenomenology, and I explore how this constitutes a refutation of philosophical idealism, while also being an important part of his theoretical anti-humanism.

After an account of Badiou’s views on infinity and truth, chapter 5 considers the concepts in Being and Event that address how inhabitants of historical situations (human individuals) handle events. Foremost among these concepts is the notion of an intervention, but the issue of naming an event, and the status of that name in a situation is also discussed, as well as the forcing of a subject. These are notions which start to raise questions about the rigor of Badiou’s theoretical anti-humanism. To what extent is Badiou really avoiding aspects of the idealist tradition? To what extent can his philosophy do without references to a human consciousness that constitutes situations and worlds? I use this chapter, then, to set up the issues that are treated by Badiou’s theory of the subject.

In chapter 6 I present my interpretation of Badiou’s theory of the subject. My thesis is that the subject is his term for the real presence of change in a situation or world. I explore the anti-Cartesian and anti-phenomenological aspects of this theory, and consider whether his subject is active or passive (or both or neither). I also consider whether there are one or many subjects. I argue that there is really one type of subject in Badiou’s philosophy until the publication of Logics of Worlds, which pluralizes the subject’s forms. The significance of this is discussed in chapter 7. In the conclusion to chapter 6, I consider the problems raised by some of Badiou’s terminology which often suggests the kind of philosophy of the subject that he wishes to avoid – especially when he writes about decisions, choices, interventions, beliefs, and the like.

Chapter 7 continues filling in the picture of the subject in Badiou’s work, yet it does so from a slightly different perspective by focusing not on the subject as such but on the different styles, deviations, tendencies, or forms that subjects take on. I chose to approach this from the perspective of ethics and affects. As anti-humanist as his theory of the subject is, his philosophy is still a philosophy about what it means to be human. With an important terminological distinction, Badiou posits that individuals or “some-ones” or “inhabitants of situations” are distinct from subjects, and are the ones who are affected by events and by truth procedures, and react to them in various ways – including carrying them out, continuing with them, covering them up, or reacting against them. With this distinction, the practical import – the ethic – of Badiou’s philosophy can be considered. I also include in this chapter discussions of the fields in which truth procedures occur – particularly art, love, and science.

Badiou’s views on politics I deemed worthy of a separate chapter, given the importance of his views on politics for so many other aspects of his work. In chapter 8 I address the constant themes found in his writings on this topic, such as the presence of communist universals or invariants in history and his suspicion of parliamentary politics, party politics, and even voting itself. I also track his shift away from what he calls the insurrectionary paradigm in politics and from the theme of destruction, which is replaced by the idea of subtraction. Also, I consider in this chapter what is living and what is dead about Marx for Badiou.

Finally, in my conclusion, I discuss again the link between Badiou’s theoretical anti-humanism and his practical humanism. Unlike the theoretical anti-humanism of the 1960s (found in Althusser, Foucault, and Lacan), Badiou’s is not working out the “death of Man” – hence my exergue for this introduction, “neither god nor man.” His work entails instead an ironic resurrection of the concept of the human, and an ironic return to themes from the religious tradition – such as immortality, infinity, and, of course, fidelity. This has led him recently to develop an intriguing theory of what it means to live, and of how a human life differs from other animal lives.