Apr/May 2009

Nothing But the Truths

Badiou’s recent writings expand his commitment to classical philosophy

Martin Puchner

On November 7, three days after Election Day, Alain Badiou gave a lecture at New York University on theater and philosophy. The discussion afterward, conducted in a mixture of French and English, quickly turned to the president-elect. “Obama?” Badiou replied. “As actor or as politician?” When the audience laughed, he explained that he did not mean the distinction negatively. While it was too soon to judge Obama as politician, Badiou stipulated, we could already judge him as actor, one who had broken with modern modes of self-presentation by returning to a classical style: sober, thoughtful, deliberate.

The same could be said of Badiou. He is of roughly the same generation as the French poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophers who studied Lacan and Althusser, but his style is markedly different from Derrida’s literary punning and Deleuze’s seductive frenzy. Badiou’s language can be forbiddingly austere, especially when he uses mathematics and logic to formalize his claims. His latest treatise, Logics of Worlds, comes in at more than six hundred pages of small print and includes axioms, definitions, and a summary of sixty-six statements, as well as charts, a dictionary of concepts, and an exceedingly high number of pages of logical deduction. If you thought Derrida was hard, think again.

The difference between Badiou and his contemporaries, however, concerns more than style. He disagrees with the basic assumptions of poststructuralism, postmodernism, and indeed much twentieth-century thought. Chief among his targets are cultural relativism and the critical fixation on the body—the belief, as he puts it, that “there are only bodies and languages.” The first part of this doctrine, the focus on the body, was particularly prominent in the United States, taking such forms as the sexual solo shows of Annie Sprinkle and other provocative performance artists, who tended to reduce cultural matters to the Body (the term is characteristically used in the singular and often capitalized, as if the body were simply a given, requiring no justification or analysis). The second part holds that we are trapped in language as in a prison, reduced to playing different “language games,” as Wittgenstein put it, without recourse to standards of judgment. In the latter half of the past century, thinkers in the poststructuralist vein translated this principle into cultural relativism, resulting in a strange agreement across the political divide: respect for cultural difference on the left and fear of it as a source of conflict on the right (Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations), but a shared assumption that it cannot (and should not) be overcome.

Badiou opposes the body/language doctrine not only for its political consequences, which are ambiguous, but also for its effect on the discipline of philosophy itself. Whether articulated by Nietzsche or Heidegger, Wittgenstein or Lyotard, this doctrine often went hand in hand with the declaration that philosophy was dead and should be replaced by the study of the body (anthropology, cultural studies) or of language (literary study, linguistics, rhetoric). Even though Badiou supports some of the political results of the doctrine, such as the ideal of a multicultural society, he seeks a return to a more classical conception of philosophy, one centered on truths. He signals this return by adding a crucial third term: “There are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths.” If we want to revive philosophy as an independent discipline, we must search for the truth above and beyond bodies and language games.

Badiou’s classical understanding of philosophy leads him to reconstruct the world—indeed, multiple worlds—and its inhabitants as if from scratch. He discusses its component parts and provides these with philosophical foundation and justification. Here, mathematics, especially set theory, plays a central role, allowing Badiou to specify how different types of objects relate to the set, or world, in which they are located, and also why there is not just one world but many. Building on his grand book Being and Event (1988; published in English in 2006), Badiou furnishes his worlds with objects, subjects, and events taken from history, everyday life, and literature. This seems simple enough, but as so often in philosophy, simple things get complicated very quickly.

Event is a term that has been central to Badiou’s thinking for some time. An event is a happening, produced by the “subject” of this philosophical scene, that changes everything around it, altering the world in which it occurs. This talk of subjects, events, and worlds becomes more concrete when one turns to Badiou’s examples, many of which stem from the history of politics or, more precisely, from revolutionary history. The Spartacus-led uprising of slaves against their Roman masters, the French Revolution, and the 1871 Paris Commune are among the events Badiou evokes most frequently, and they betray his political leanings; Badiou’s worlds, with their revolutionary heroes who bring about events, are suffused with leftist politics. Not all significant occurrences that make history are events; only the rare moments of genuine revolutionary upheaval qualify for that distinction. Periods of reaction, however violent and sudden, such as the overthrow of the Paris Commune, are not events, but acts of barbarism. May ’68, on the other hand, was an event, an episode in the glorious history of emancipation.

Politics is not all there is to Badiou’s worlds; there is also art—decidedly not the revolutionary kind. The most elaborate example he offers is a 1907 opera based on the 1901 play Ariadne and Bluebeard by Maurice Maeterlinck, a writer associated with aestheticism and symbolism rather than leftism. Like Badiou’s philosophical reconstruction, Maeterlinck’s fairy tale presents a simplified world, stripped of its clutter and reduced to a few significant actors and scenes. Badiou is also a playwright, and extensive discussions of drama are among his most remarkable engagements with art. His philosophy of the event tends toward theater because the event is a live occurrence and based on performative actions and actors. Small wonder he is highly attuned to the theater of politics.

Given his predilection for revolutions, it may not be surprising that Badiou has resuscitated the Marxist term “materialist dialectics” as a name for his philosophy. In my opinion, however, this is a misnomer for a system that rejects the body/language doctrine and insists instead on truth and Idea, a term Badiou capitalizes as if to counterbalance Body. A better characterization of his approach can be found in Conditions, a collection of essays written between 1989 and the early ’90s and translated into English last year. Here, Badiou places at the center of his philosophy not Marx’s dialectics but Plato’s. Alfred North Whitehead once said that the history of Western philosophy is nothing but a series of footnotes to Plato. This is still true, although in the twentieth century the footnotes tended to be critical. In this context, Conditions undertakes a bold revival of Plato. Badiou is drawn to Plato because he insisted that truths be contingent not on bodies or languages but only on the disciplined pursuit of philosophical thought.

The collection shows the range of Badiou’s interests, which cut across the four domains he deems essential reference points for philosophy: art, love, mathematics, and politics. In the domain of art, Badiou writes eloquently on minimalist writers such as Mallarmé and Beckett; when it comes to love, he engages psychoanalysis in the excellent essay “Plato and Lacan”; to highlight the importance of mathematics, he elaborates on its crucial role with the history of philosophy, from Plato to Wittgenstein; and with respect to politics, we find, once again, the history of revolutions, including discussions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Conditions is a pleasure to read, composed not of axioms, deductions, and mathematics but of lectures, essays, and brief meditations. Classical philosophy does not always have to be hard; it can also be fun, as it was for Plato, whose dialogues Badiou admires for their dramatic verve.

But if Conditions, at just over three hundred densely printed pages, is still too heavy, there is The Meaning of Sarkozy, Badiou’s brief polemic against the sitting president of France. Engagement in current affairs is another feature of the classical philosopher, at least in the French model. We find in this book the “other” history of France: the account not of glorious revolution but of odious reaction. Sarkozy, for Badiou, is the latest incarnation of a politics of fear, dressed up in a postmodern, unserious media demeanor. (One might think of the spectacle surrounding his relationship to Carla Bruni.) This is precisely the style of politics now put on hold by Obama. Sarkozy, in other words, does not rise to the level of an event but must be dismissed as one more incarnation of France’s dark, counterrevolutionary history. For many, this may be a reason for despair: “If I consider those inspired by a minimum of genuine thought, a conviction, a few fragments of historical knowledge, I seem to discover in them, after Sarkozy’s untroubled victory, a somewhat depressive subjectivity,” Badiou writes. But he tells us not to lose hope and to take heart in historical and philosophical analysis.

The Meaning of Sarkozy, then, is not a rueful account of the rightward drift of France but the work of a nonconformist philosopher who has returned to Plato. In this sense, Badiou is not the unreconstructed communist he is sometimes portrayed as being. Instead, he reconstructs Marx with Plato and formulates communism as an Idea. Even after Stalin, the gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Badiou wants to hold on to an alternative to capitalism and parliamentary democracy. We may not always share his assumptions—such as his romantic view of revolutionary history, however mathematically formalized—but we must acknowledge the powerful gesture of his thought. If philosophy is the discipline charged with the construction of alternative worlds, few practice it with more determination and élan.

Martin Puchner is H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes (Princeton University Press, 2006).