What is to be Abandoned
Back in the Garage # 2
A friend of mine asked what I was speaking about at the garage. I said ‘Badiou and ethics.’ She frowned at me and said ‘why don’t you talk about something else, like music or something.’
1992 Alain Badiou wrote a book for high school students: Ethics: On the Understanding of Evil. In this little book Badiou says 'the whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned. For the real question - and it is an extraordinarily difficult one – is much more that of recognising the same.' This paper will take a look at this 'abandonment' and that 'real question' and link it to other aspects of Badiou's 'exceptional' anti–humanism and anti–humanitarianism and to his recent essays on the Riot.
1.What is to be abandoned?
a) The quote I have extracted from Ethics had a sort of evental impact on me. A while ago, but not so long ago, 2000 in fact, I was working away on the question of alterity, precisely in its Levinasian conception. I was at the University of QLD. It’s accurate to say that the Other was everywhere and so I was doing nothing original. I used to subscribe to a journal called Radical Philosophy, it’s still going, its pretty good. I used to just read everything in it and so it happened that I was reading an essay, called ‘Politics and Philosophy’ and I came upon this quote. juts cited - ‘the whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned…’ etc.
It was a lightning bolt – it just struck me as absolutely true. Of course, in Badiou’s philosophy any truth – which is absolute of course – nevertheless has to become so, and so it means a lot of work has to be done. Unfortunately, I was too much into that one part of my thesis project to simply abandon it there and then, but in the immediately subsequent parts I took up this abandonment. For better or worse, here I am at the Garage still trying to work out how to take this up.
There was no doubt for me that Levinas’s Other led to God as the ultimate guarantee of the possibility of radical otherness. Levinas does not hide the fact, even if he does like to stress that he keeps apart his Talmudic studies – when Levinas speaks of the Law he means Jewish Law – from his ontological studies. God has to be the guarantee of this absolute alterity precisely because it cannot be defined against any conception of the same. This is the Greek aspect he seeks to have done with – the philosophy he wants to replace with the idea of ‘ethics as first philosophy’ – which would at least make chronological sense because God comes first.
For Levinas, for the other to be Other means it cannot be subject to some form of relation i.e., it is not other because it is not the Same – it is absolutely Other. It is what there is before there is the Same. The ethical individual – and I’m reducing things profoundly here – is what lives out this impossible relation to the Other, or in the face of the Other, which is nevertheless its absolute guarantee. That the Other is absolutely other however means that the impossibility of the relation to it is also absolute. In other words, the impossible cannot be thought, it cannot itself be an ontological or philosophical question; nothing can come to supplement – to use a psychoanalytic term - this impossibility because it cannot be conceived.
The key thing here is this notion that there exists – and already it is un-Levinasian to say ‘there exists’ in this manner – what cannot be thought. In Levinas, who is far from being an idiot, this impossibility has a rigorous framework – even if its irrefutability would lie in the real of God; which is to say, in his ineffability as purely Other. So, the approach to the other always has this religious dimension whose point really, is to reserve something from thought – to save God from the philosophers. For Badiou, there is no ineffable – we can come to know all we do not. This is mathematical objection by the way –not in the first instance a philosophical one – but is one to which any philosophy must be faithful. Which is why Levinas is a theologian.
b) In the early 1970’s, in the wake of the period inaugurated by May 68, a gang of influential idiots dubbed the New Philosophers made the Parisian scene – renegade leftists, some, pretend renegade leftists, others. These Television heroes proclaimed to have discovered the gulag and also the suffering third world too, at least according to Bernard Kouchner co-creator of the paratrooper doctors MSF, famous for prescribing the correct dosages of medicine and bombs. One should read Jessica Whyte on this. There are several others of this gang –Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, Pacal Bruckner, Alain Finkelkraut, Éric Marty, among others – who lead and still lead the European humanitarian charge – which was already described in the early 80’s ‘as the moral rearmament of capitalism’. We can’t underestimate these idiots however – at the level of ideas none of their work holds up or is read seriously and Deleuze had already said that they couldn’t be confronted at the level of ideas because they had none. Though Foucault had a weird association with them for a while.
Their power lies in their occupation of a certain space; a mediated space, where a whole heterogeneous series of historical, intellectual, economic and political vectors intersect. The details are too many to go into but they essentially begin – in the French context and it is an influential context – the process of ethics as first politics. This displacement or renunciation of politics – which their association with the political process of May paradoxically provided legitimation for – means turning attention to individuals and not processes or collectives and hence to our comportment and not our conditions. If it’s not the state of the political situation that needs to be thought in terms of distribution, the division of labour and so on as the conditions of possibility for collective life, then that individuals suffer must be something to do with an ethical failing – theirs or ours. That is to say, they just don’t comport themselves to the world in the right manner. This is their second occupation – the globe as a whole – there is only one logic after all. They articulate as ethics the comportment of all individuals to the order of the world as it goes. I can state categorically, by the way, that today this is the basis of all education. Their aim then is to establish this ethics. Let’s note the French aspect in all this: after all, it’s the home of the rights of man. But also note that this same ethics provides the winners – those who don’t suffer – their justification too.
This gang also operates on the basis of an ineffability of sorts. In a TV appearance in the 70’s BHL was praising his fellow NPs for their discovery of the Gulag via Solzhenitsyn – they have never cared about historical accuracy these guys – though they do like to cite numbers. These guys are performers and so everything is sort of staged as a drama, and in this appearance BHL has an Oedipal sort of moment. Referring to the ‘tormented intellectuals’ of Les Temps Modernes, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s journal, Levy says: ‘Such articles [those of Les temps] lack that aspect of myth, of fiction, of the symbolic that makes it possible that Evil, which cannot be thought, can be represented’.
For the New Philosophers, as Kristin Ross recounts in her book, May 68 and its Afterlives, ‘the figure of the suffering individual could then be mobilized to show the primacy of the ethical or moral dimension over the political, the superiority of insight over cognition, as well as the superior value of aesthetic modes of representation over the scientism or rationality of the social sciences. It was that blanket of cold rationality—all the facts and figures about the camps, all the information that existed before Solzhenitsyn—that had in fact helped to stifle the cries of the victims. The figure of individual suffering, baptized “the pleb” in the writings of André Glucksmann, would quickly evolve in the 1980s into the figure of the starving victim in the discourse of human rights.’
What cannot be thought – but can be represented. This is the key motif that ties this new ethical moment to the Levinasian thematic. Everything in contemporary ethics is built on this rejection of thought – simply that situations are thinkable, that real change is thinkable – and this embrace of representation or even the pathos of representation; especially insofar as by representation the Other becomes the suffering other, the victim other of those with the power and the means of representation.
As Badiou himself will say, it’s not really Levinas that this discourse of the Other takes up. They are less interested in the absolute Other than in the control of the relation to its ineffability. That is to say, the other they can construct as absolute and in so doing keep all thought at bay . Whereas to think, to say it again, means that one considers not only the image, the spectacle or the symptom but the situation, the conditions, the context in which what there is emerges and that on that basis the truly new is not impossible. But the goal of the representers is to make this truly new impossible and in the most extensive sense to make thought into an evil in itself. All thought – of what the situation is and what can be done – leads, the representers say, to the Gulag to terror, to totalitarianism.
Again, Ross articulates this force of representation clearly: ‘the colonial or third-world other of the 1960s is refigured and transformed from militant and articulate fighter and thinker to “victim” by a defense of human rights strictly identified as the rights of the victim, the rights of those who do not have the means to argue their rights or to create a political solution to their own problems. The interest awakened by the third world in the West is thus now in inverse proportion to its political force, to its capacity to construct its own future or to have any remote bearing upon our own. The pathos of the victim rivets attention onto the effects of the crisis immediately at hand, blocking any analysis of the processes that led to such a crisis; a rhetoric of emergency reinforces the paralysis of thought’.
Lacan identified the imperialist paradox in this: ‘For if we consider human rights from the vantage point of philosophy, we see what, in any case, everyone now knows about their truth. They boil down to the freedom to desire in vain.’
What we see here in this example of ‘the great liberal counterreformation’ of the 1970’s and 80’s – that we live out today, it having been institutionalised – is also the productive force of representation. Representation – as BHL celebrates, constructed of myth, fiction, and the symbolic is – and this by the very type of exposure it is – the capacity to occlude and cover over and so to produce a memory not of what happened but as what happened itself. The memory of the ‘what happened’ is ‘what happened’ and this, the representers produce as common ethical knowledge.
Note how Ross speaks of a certain form of the relation to the other – the political relation –i.e., what can make of the other and the other to the other the same – without at all reducing one to the other in any identitarian way.
What the representers claim is that what presents itself cannot be thought; it can only be spoken for. Quite immediately this is then a matter of the power of language or as they say these days, of communication and so the best narrative wins. In terms also abused by these New Philosophers – new only because they were on TV – it’s a language game. But in fact, it’s not only the best narrative, for that itself is a matter of contest and so of contingency at some level, rather it’s a matter of publicity – of making a knowledge known. This is the true power of discourses of representation – this very fact of being representative. Nothing transmits or communicates so effortlessly as representation. The medium is the message after all and indeed the very confusion or diffusion representation includes within in it, that is the say, that our representations may not coincide is the very guarantee of difference that representation thrives on. All differences are included in representation and they are included insofar as they are representations. All clamours for recognition need to think about how such recognition is already inscribed within the parameters of representation.
So, Badiou’s little book is an intervention onto this scene of the other; itself an intense effort to occlude both the actualities of the anti-colonial struggles, the events of May 68 in Paris and across the globe, and the possibility of their re-surrection or reaffirmation. Ethics, in this sense, then, stands for Reaction – pure and simple. The subjective process of reaction is restoration – to return Europe or the ‘west’ or the occident to the role of ‘all humanity’. To quote Pascal Bruckner’s revolting Tears of the White Man, ‘The ridiculous plea of Frantz Fanon was to “go beyond” Europe. . .. It is impossible to “go beyond” democracy. If the peoples of the third world are to become themselves, they must become more Western. . .. [Europe] is the only culture that has been capable of seeing itself through others’ eyes (even though its perceptions may be mistaken). Because there has been no doubt about its identity, it has been able to grant a great deal to other cultures’.
So, democracy, the occident, the power to reflect, the consequent power to grant, the power to determine rightful becoming. What does an ethics look like to such a master? If we think about the ethics of Aristotle, we remember that ethics was, strictly speaking, the domain of the master – everyone else just lived out the effects. Ethics is always referred to an order or a technique even, a way of doing something, namely work, and one of course works for a master. As Lacan says in Seminar 7, addressing Aristotle’s Ethics, ‘Thus the problem is raised of the way in which that order may be established in a subject. How can a form of adequation be achieved in a subject so that he will enter that order and submit himself to it? ‘
It’s different today, though, in a society of little masters, masters of choice and knowledge, for now it is ethically proper to live out the effects of the ethics of the master and thus there is no master at all, so the ethicists tell us. This is true, to the extent that a master is at a distance from the normal running of things and that is why a master, really, is not a bad thing. But the absence of masters, singular, is the horror of an implacable mastery: or in other words a global adaptation of egos to the ‘American Good Housekeeping way of life’ – the superego of our times. The key to an ethics – if that word can be recuperated at all today – is its point of orientation, if you like. What is the point at which a subject can be sutured to an order.
Let me restate – ethics is the name of reaction. If so, then it’s a reaction to something that was not a reaction. This was a process in the real – to use a Lacanian form. So, the suture point for this reactionary ethics is in the effort to re-member what must not be. So, the tale must be told of what it is in reaction too, in such a way that it is never thought. To ‘make a period illegible’, Badiou says in an essay from Le Monde, ‘is much more than to simply condemn it. One of the effects of illegibility is to make it impossible to find in the period in question the very principles capable of remedying its impasses. If the period is declared to be pathological nothing can be extracted from it for the sake of orientation, and the conclusion, whose pernicious effects confront us every day, is that one must resign oneself to disorientation as a lesser evil.’
Contrarily, but concerning the same impossible point, an ethics of truths, such is what Badiou proposes as Ethics, this ‘process in the real’ is what is to be thought. Thus, the process and thought are indiscernible as such. This is what the representers keep apart at all costs – hence the aesthetics of the victim. So, in order to affirm a point of orientation, an impossible point as existing for us, we need to find the means to abandon this disorientation, this acceptance of the ethical primacy of the demand of the ‘lesser-evil’. We need as Badiou says, an Idea – which is not a knowledge – and the courage to make it manifest.
So, let’s break down the new ethics:
The term ‘human rights’ expresses a couple of ideas already in Aristotle. The question of the human – its essence, its nature and rights, as that which somehow corrects the excesses of nature. There is no getting away from nature, so this correction is simply a check and as such is what actually gives the human its definition within the natural world. As a being capable of right, it is specific. This capacity is what makes an animal human – not, not an animal but a human animal. A human is a being of rights. This nice balance though is upset at every turn and conceptually by the assumption of its necessity. Aristotle’s fondness for the middle way means that anything monstrous is a problem. That all existence conforms to a pre-established harmony or balance is the singular effect of Aristotle today. We like to confirm the natural balance and ascribe to it things like the economy and the rights it ensures. As long as there is balance then all is right with the humans. You hear it all the time, ‘we have to strike a balance’: of course, a few fat billionaires are all it takes to counterweight several billions of undernourished poor.
The problem though is the exception. If this regime of balance has to a priori exclude its monsters of imbalance, then what account of the generic can be given. What we have is an account of man on the basis of some imaginary conditions of man itself – an inclusion on the basis of the exclusion that makes the inclusion count.
In other words, does man exist?
Badiou gives a succinct summary of the death of this concept. Indeed, that it is a concept is the first mark of its death. For Foucault, man is nothing but a discursive construct perceivable in relation to a specific historical time bearing nothing essential to it – and as Badiou says, certainly not capable of founding human rights or a universal ethics. Once the discursive arrangements had changed, man was dead. For Althusser, history was simply process without a subject – thus the bourgeois version of man as the self-constituted self-identical knowing subject etc., was an impossible fiction or rather, another object of history mistaken for its effect. The subject was merely ideological and what science demanded was a theoretical anti-humanism. For Lacan, the subject was an imaginary unity, the normed effect an originary division for whom nothing natural could be prescribed. ‘The subject had no substance, no 'nature', being a function both of the contingent laws of language and of the always singular history of objects of desire’.
‘What was contested in this way was the idea of a natural or spiritual identity of Man, and with it, as a consequence, the very foundation of an 'ethical' doctrine in today's sense of the word’, which is to say, ‘a consensual law-making concerning human beings in general, their needs, their lives, and their deaths and, by extension, the self-evident, universal demarcation of evil, of what is incompatible with the human essence.’
So, the question is then, under what conditions and why has man come back? There is for Badiou two aspects to this: the material real of capitalism which needs individuals capable of making their way, as Thatcher said, and of knowing themselves as in their essence such creatures that make their way, individually. Thus, there needs to be something that sustains this capacity for individuality that does not interfere with it – hence nature. Rights are of course what allow us to correct even the excesses of nature to which humans are prone: so when some Gadhafi gets too demanding we have the right, which is to say, the duty, as humans – and as humans the right to choose this duty – to act in the name of our common communicable humanity to correct this excess. Note, Gadhafi is not an exception but an excess. It would be evil itself to think Gadhafi an exception: the only exception is God, after all. But Gadhafi or the recalcitrant poor from the outer suburbs – for we have internal monsters too – must be re-presented, which simply means, referred to the order of recognition. For treating with the internal monsters, we have sociologists, psychologists and teachers.
The other aspect is theoretical – I have already mentioned Levinas but there is also Kant or as Badiou says, an image of Kant as represented by theorists of natural law. In essence, there exist formal cases of evil such that the recognition of them requires no investigation of situations, sequences etc., and that they must be punished. Again, in the name of our common humanity and thus by international law etc., and moreover these offences allow for intervention to make sure this happens. Thus, ethics is what knows evil – a priori and all the time and as such is the ultimate principle of judgment. There is a complex array of interactions: to know evil a priori is, as a consequence, to know the good. This knowledge of the good confers the right to intervene on evil such that law is always, then, law against evil.
‘If 'the rule of law' [a literal translation of Badiou’s French here would be the ‘right of the state’ ] is obligatory, that is because it alone authorises a space for the identification of Evil (this is the 'freedom of opinion' which, in the ethical vision, is first and foremost the freedom to designate Evil) and provides the means of arbitration when the issue is not clear (the apparatus of judicial precautions).’
So, when man is effected by evil, which is always universally recognisable, he is a suffering animal and yet man is he who is also capable of judging and intervening. As such, ethics, knowing evil and thus alone capable of judgment, is prior to politics. We know ‘good’ only because we know evil. ‘Human rights are rights to non-Evil: rights not to be offended or mistreated with respect to one's life (the horrors of murder and execution), one's body (the horrors of torture, cruelty and famine), or one's cultural identity (the horrors of the humiliation of women, of minorities, etc.)’
So, Badiou says, ‘man is the being who is capable of recognising himself as a victim.’ This way we get the victim part and the agency part. What Badiou leaves open here is the question of orientation. Under the force of an ethical ideology man recognises himself as victim and begins his efforts from that recognition. For if our only agenda is an ethical engagement against an Evil, we recognise a priori, how are we to envisage any transformation of the way things are? You can see the ‘Caucasian chalk circle’ here. Anything that smells of not conforming to the way things are, as known and understood by the ethical ideology is already suspect a priori, no matter what it might be. Recall, judgment is not the same as thought – judgment works on the basis of a priori orders of recognition, not on the basis of situated enquiry. This is what the representers already said over and again; that is to say, ‘if the ethical 'consensus' is founded on the recognition of Evil, it follows that 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 stigmatised 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.’
But should another orientation be found, man might in fact become something other than this creature shackled to its mortality or finitude as an animal built for death. ‘From what source will man draw the strength to be the immortal that he is?’
So, I talked about the Other of Levinas. Now just a little about the other of those others who are not Levinas but know the other in exactly the way Levinas said you cannot. This other is basically the other of the ethicists of difference – everywhere we proclaim this relation to difference. But it’s sort of weird to bang on about a relation when in fact difference is simply constitutive of our entire situation. In Badiou’s words: ‘Rimbaud was certainly not wrong when he said: I am an other. There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself.
As many, but also, then, neither more nor less.’
If it’s a relation we have to this difference then somehow, we are not in it ourselves, whoever these selves may be and so it appears that the ethic of difference relies on the other ethical construction of man as a specified animal – mortal, individual, Subject. But if this man is not everyone – because everyone is different, then who is that man – this was the problem Levinas fixes with God. Of course, this is what the ethics of difference hopes to have done with, this self-identical, western, white, authoritarian, rationalist, bon-homme. This ethics contains these tropes, Badiou says: 'recognition of the other (against racism, which would deny this other), or to 'the ethics of differences' (against substantialist nationalism, which would exclude immigrants, or sexism, which would deny feminine-being), or to 'multiculturalism' (against the imposition of a unified model of behaviour and intellectual approach). Or, quite simply, to good old-fashioned 'tolerance’, which consists of not being offended by the fact that others think and act differently from you.’
The upshot for Badiou, and this refers us back to Levinas, is that the real predicate of an ethics of the other is God. Thus, again a principal of operation is founded in an ineffability that is off limits to thought. It can be represented, indeed, is only representative and that’s what all good democrats want, after all. But without this predicate in what cannot be thought as guarantee, what is an ethics of difference or a recognition of the other? Well, Hallward translates what Badiou writes as ‘a dog’s breakfast’; which is a clever idiomatic translation but he misses an excellent pun. The French is de la bouillie pour les chats – so more literally ‘of the broth for cats’. But bouille – so bouillie without the I – but sounding the same – means face. Levinas’ big thing in Totality and Infinity is the ‘face of the other’. Badiou translates this dog’s breakfast as: ‘We are left with a pious discourse without piety, a spiritual supplement for incompetent governments, and a cultural sociology preached, in line with the new-style sermons, in lieu of the late class struggle. Of course, other inconsistencies arise: when we see real sustained difference – Islamic fundamentalists, Chinese totalitarians, African customs, we forget all notions of respect and tolerance.’
An aside on tolerance:
Of course, I am all for intolerance myself but what I want to know is when liberal humanitarians talk about tolerance is there only one sort? It makes me wonder: is communist intolerance for example – that is, the refusal to tolerate inequality – the same as fascist intolerance? More importantly, can liberals be tolerant? Wouldn’t being tolerant be intolerant of intolerance such that tolerance only tolerates tolerance? What of those who are intolerant? Are they not thereby different and so others? Are not the truly intolerant, the truly different? Then how can our ethics be predicated on the intolerant? That is obviously too different to tolerate and so the best thing is to have a criterion for difference – true alterity is too tricky a thing and anyway, only God guarantees alterity as such. But for the secular ethicists of difference there can be no God because that would be to be intolerant of differences (all Gods are equal) and so difference will have to be posited in such a way that it doesn’t so get out of hand. Hence what is different is either a victim – the suffering human animal as such and so ‘good different’ or the terrorist barbarian intolerant who is available for death. The latter cannot ever be anything but radically different or evil and so has to go. The former can, with our aid and comfort, become the same as us and so their difference is good, manageable and in the best of all possible worlds they will actually go on reproducing themselves as victim others so that we can go on saving them from themselves and thus, being neither a victim nor intolerant, we can remain good and liberal. But of course, we are all human, right?
‘Respect for differences, of course! But on condition that the different be parliamentary, democratic, pro free-market economics, in favour of freedom of opinion, feminism, the environment. ...’
Ok that’s enough fun with differences.
It’s around now in Ethics that Badiou writes the quote that all those years ago set me on the path to this Garage. Let me just note that in Ross’ book she says of the New Philosophers that ‘they speak out from their garage of lost illusions?’ Of course, they love their lost illusions, it’s what sustains them in their ridiculous pathos whose aura of passivity is so marketable and hence so aggressive that it translates directly into capital, affording them the comfort of expensive seaside holiday houses, giving them the solitude, all great men need in order to properly represent the suffering of the masses.
This garage has no such illusions.
Given that it’s all a dog’s breakfast, that is to say, nothing intrinsic to any of it guarantees it any consistency, what holds it together. This is the figure of Nihilism or the submission to necessity. What is the only necessity today – in a world without God or the Subject of consciousness? The modern name for necessity is, as everyone knows, 'economics'. ‘Economic objectivity; the logic of Capital. It is the basis from which our parliamentary regimes organise a subjectivity and a public opinion condemned in advance to ratify what seems necessary.’
Thus, if necessary, there is nothing to be done; sit back complain or enjoy, it’s all the same. In the words of Tom Waits ‘drive out nature with a pitchfork it always comes rolling back again’. Capitalism is the natural form of the way of things and so it’s futile, we know it’s futile in advance, to seek to hold it at bay or have done with it. ‘For the possibilities whose development it pretends to organise are in reality circumscribed and annulled, in advance, by the external neutrality of the economic referent, in such a way that subjectivity in general is inevitably dragged down into a kind of belligerent impotence, the emptiness of which is filled by elections and the 'sound-bites' of party leaders.’ This is why the Greens are so ineffective – they too idolise ‘nature’.
The point for ethics, as we should already be able to see, is that it accords with this logic of submission. No possible project can be thought because any effort to organise collectively, any effort toward the Good without prior sanction of evil, any effort to subject oneself or others to a discipline of principle, and, especially, of equality is doomed in advance. Not only does it break with ethical procedures of recognition and difference, it is fundamentally evil insofar as it even assumes these can be other than what they are. ‘The very idea of a consensual 'ethics’, stemming from the general feeling provoked by the sight of atrocities, which replaces the 'old ideological divisions', is a powerful contributor to subjective resignation and acceptance of the status quo.’
To quote Ross: ‘The new figuration of the victim occurs in a regime of pure actuality created by the rhetoric of emergency, an eternal present that not only dispossesses the victim of her own history, but removes her from history itself. In the new politics of emotion, subject and object are described in different, indeed invidious terms, with the objects of the relationship—the victims—bearing distinctive, and distinctively less equal, qualities than the subjects from the West. In fact, to call it a politics of emotion is some-thing of a misnomer. For to what extent can the figure of suffering—the new generic figure of alterity in the 1980s and 1990s appearing nightly on television screens in the West—lead in and of itself to a politics? Are pity and moral indignation political emotions?’
Hence capital as what is inviolable and operates by necessity and, as such, cannot be thought, sustains the dogma of an ethics of pity and suffering: the dogma against all dogma and at the same time of course provides its very conditions. It’s a virtuous circle and I do mean virtuous in this ethical context. Nothing is better for western man, as Bruckner and his apogees everywhere know, than the possession of the right to end suffering and so in order that this right be protected as all such human rights should be, and certainly European democratic man is human, then someone has to suffer somewhere. It’s a happy coincidence, then, that the new nature, the economy, that producer of excess is so implacable in its logic and in going about its business because it alone affords the Good man his share of the fight against evil. Which is to say, his share of making sure that all the changes that go on everyday under the force of necessity, and even the celebration of them is reducible to this same force, is to make sure that fuck all ever changes.
Ever the optimist, as every communist must be, Badiou says: ‘What every emancipatory project does, what every emergence of hitherto unknown possibilities does, is to put an end to consensus.’
2. So The Real Question:
So, all this is to be abandoned. In fact, it’s an abandoning of an abandonment. In Theory of the Subject, a work that appeared in 1982 but was written in the middle of the severe reactionary period of the 1970s, Badiou says simply. ‘When one abandons universality, one obtains universal horror’ (TS, 197). Today, every keystroke you make, every button you press is in the service of the economy. It’s not a trade-off either. You punch some keys to see a funny cat, you think there is an equality there. No, every keystroke is mined, collated, interpreted and sold back to you – the price of logging on is the work of logging on – so you can be sold. You go to the supermarket, you check out your own groceries, you process your own bill payments, you think about which provider you will use, will I change, how many texts, what kind of phone, you concern yourselves with the economy even more so when you don’t even know you are doing it.
There is no way out today of this totalitarian logic for all, this democratic totalitarianism called the market. Except that there is always an except that that marks the point of that which is universally an except that for all. It’s this that provides the possibility of some new orientation to the world that is not that of individual submission as the price of our enjoyment to the necessity of the economy and its managing democrats. Otherness won’t cut it; we need to produce the Same. The name of the Same is truth. Don’t panic when you hear the word truth – that is the panic the representers have represented to you – you think you will be a victim of evil. This to me is the symptom of the success of capital in the last 40 years. Everyone believes that truths and authority are the same thing and its capital that preaches freedom of desire for all. It’s the greatest ruse, and so the left spent ages mistaking its enemy.
I remember when I was growing up, the worst crime was ‘to be the same as everyone else’. Hilarious. Not only is it impossible to be the same as everyone else, everyone else was saying the same thing. They used to show us pictures of the Soviets or the Chinese where ‘everyone was the same’ – watch out! they would tell us, if we don’t all reject this sameness stuff, we’ll all be the same – that’s communism! Even though it has a real aesthetic dimension, its aim was to terrify: the Nazis knew about the aestheticisation of terror.
First thing is to differentiate this Same from the One. Same is simply the name for the advent of some truth and truth is always situational for Badiou, singular insofar as it is constrained to appear in a situation – hence there are only truths – plural. So, the same or the truth must come to be in a situation. It’s a work of generic construction. Generic because it touches all and this is possible because everyone shares the capacity to not be counted by the state; which in this context is to say, the capacity to be indifferent to differences. The non-one is thereby what there is.
If differences are what there is – purely and simply – then, as we have seen, it’s inconsistent, even dangerous to base a Law on this ineffable contingency. When you turn what there is into a Law of being you have a bio-ethics or politics – a totalisation of life but based on life itself. Again, the thesis has to be ‘say no to life’; say no to nature.
So, the capacity to be indifferent to differences. I said this is a capacity everyone shares. I’m anthropomorphising a formal deduction. Rancière has a version – called the part of no part. It’s too much to go into the details, suffice to say that in the representative regime of ethics there is always a little bit left over which representation by is very nature cannot touch – it gets the state really upset this bit – that there always is what it re-presents – which is why it likes to say ‘its ineffable’. Badiou names this the void of a situation – the bit that deosnt belong in every inclusion. Every element of a situation has such a void part and given the void can’t be represented in any way as what it is, it is what everyone shares equally – this generic capacity to not be known by the state.
Let me just give a quick anecdote on this. UNESCO put out a document last year. They are ethical UNESCO – helping the other and all that. It was about what they call ‘Low Development Capacity Countries’. This is the new name for the third world – note the conception of agency. Anyway, to cut a long story short they are pissed off with these Africans because they won’t comport themselves to the right order. Again, and again, they have been told what they need to do – you know, modernise, have done with old ways, adapt to the global market etc. Basically, get proper educated. This is UNESCO’s remit. They say all this of course in the most suitable way – ‘narratives and stories’ the Director General says, because the Africans themselves asked that the report not be theoretical!!!
Seriously, this is what he said. The point is that this low development capacity is precisely the capacity manifestly existing in the global state to not be known by the state. If you know anything about the historical struggle of Africa, it’s hardly that they lack capacity or subjectivity. What we see here is that capacity to not be – being known to us, represented for us– is marked by the UN ethicists as incapacity and in fact an incapacity which is grounded in some evil. As such, the west can ride in and return capacity to them in the way we do. In this ‘story’ Bill and Melinda Gates play the angels. The same analysis could be done on Australia’s Northern Territory ‘ethical’ intervention by the way.
So, this capacity can be formally described but it is historically attested to in all sorts of ways. Without going into examples, the point of change is when the change is for all – such that there is a new orientation to the situation or world itself. You all know the example of love. So, the equal capacity to not be known by the state is the basis of the possibility of such an orientation. For Badiou, this equality is revealed in a situation by an event. Now I read the tweets of the garage when I can’t make it and I read something stupid from one of your earlier speakers about Badiou’s event – that his notion is you can’t do anything but wait around for it. Apart from it being a dumb insult to the actual work Badiou has put in to political change since the 1950’s – a record our speaker could not even conceive of comparing his own too – blogging with a funny name doesn’t count I’m afraid – it betrays a total ignorance of the concept. But it’s by our ignorance’s that we maintain our individual differences I suppose.
The event happens of course. And to be sure you can’t make an event as such but this is because you can’t know what one is a priori nor where it will happen, otherwise it’s a matter of knowledge and secondly, its status as event relies on the work one puts in to establish its consequences. But rest assured all the work you may have put into changing the situation for all will be rewarded nevertheless but that is not to say you can impose all that on the new situation. That’s what ‘renegades’ do; those who love their knowledge more than change itself.
What an event is, and it’s not much in itself, is expose the void capacity of all to being thought. Basically, the event shows that the knowledge of the state is not all there is – and so to think the situation truly we need to think what the state doesn’t know. Note, of course, that via the thinkable concept of the void the question of the ineffable as limit to all knowledge is done away with. We can think what is not known! Every revolutionary thinks exactly this – hence their ‘compact with Evil’.
The subject is that which takes up this practice of thinking into being this unknown capacity and by doing so, inserting this generic capacity back into the situation. It effectively constructs the situation anew from the perspective of what is true to it; that everyone shares the capacity to not be ‘ethical’. The event is what marks the existing site of the truth of our shared incapacity to be totalised by any knowledge, law or order or norm.
OK that’s a very truncated version.
Truths are not knowledge – they break with the ethical regime but are for all; thus, the point is, if you want an ethics – which by definition should be universal – then it can only be an ethics of truths – plural. ‘[O]r, more precisely, the only ethics is of processes of truth, of the labour that brings some truths into the world’. An ethics then is ‘that which lends consistency to the presence of some-one in the composition of the subject induced by the process of this truth. The subjective name for consistency is fidelity – so the subject is faithful to a fidelity. When all is said and done, consistency is the engagement of one's singularity (the animal 'some-one') in the continuation of a subject of truth. Or again: it is to submit the perseverance of what is known to a duration peculiar to the not-known.’
The anyone that we ‘naturally’ are becomes the subject in and by the decision to think alongside the event which has seized them. The event implies its own consistency of appearing and so the subject is faithful to this consistency of appearing and as such exceeds his animal being whose only consistency pure perseverance with regard to its animal interests. In The Century, Badiou calls this ‘a formalized in-humanism’.
So, for every truth that becomes so, and this becoming so is the work of the subject – those who say yes to what happened, that it happened – there is this ethics. And of course, there is not one Subject (capital S) but as many subjects as there are truths. Badiou follows Lacan’s own ethics of psychoanalysis – itself universal on the basis of lack and against the ego-psychology so amenable to western capitalism – which is ‘never give way on your desire’. Desire, for Lacan, is constitutive of the subject of the unconscious; it is thus the not-known par excellence, such that 'do not give up on your desire' rightly means: 'do not give up on that part of yourself that you do not know'.
Remember earlier I said that Lacan named human rights the freedom to desire in vain – is this not capitalist ethics, for all except the rich – an ethics precisely of knowing over and over again?
So Badiou’s only ethical imperative is Continue – keep going. Keep going in what you have decided for; do not give up on your own seizure by a truth-process. Basically, for Badiou, the ethical predication in the other is another prescription to non-thought. Its reactionary, as we have seen, predicated on the exhaustion of one sequence of subjective struggle. This is a period of restoration, an ‘intervallic or pointless period’, as he calls it. Ethics is the soul supplement to the having given up on this political process of revolutionary, egalitarian struggle.
So, to finish, a quick thing about the threefold articulation of the riots. In Logics of Worlds, his big book about appearing, which is nevertheless organised around the thought of undoing what he calls ‘democratic materialism’ whose maxim is: ‘there are only body and languages’ and which is, in other words, ethical, he proposes a new configuration of forms of change.
Already in Ethics he sort of tried to respond to the question of how you know a truth procedure is true and if it can go bad. I’ll let you read that, it’s to do with the subject, really, and in Logics he proposes a four-fold subjectivity which takes this up.
But also in Logics is a new articulation of change. In our ‘pointless world’, change is ubiquitous. Everything is reformed all the time. The most hilarious recent example – chilling really – is from the UK . A few days ago, a Thatcher wannabe – now she is dead the mantle is up for grabs and watch the women and men running – suggested that pre-schools were in need of dire reform because children as old as three were running around with ‘no discernible purpose’. Obviously, we can’t have that. And she is right. We cannot have that! In the UK at the moment, as you know, they are kicking the so-called welfare state to death. The logic of the good woman from the Surrey mansion is implacable. If three-year old’s have no discernible purpose, they will grow into welfare dependents that set fire to their children. This is the knowledge of the state and it knows evil when it sees it – and its job is to see it everywhere. Of course, three-year olds in Afghanistan are understood by 23-year-old non-commissioned officers in the mid-west of the USA to have discernible purpose and so they are blown to bits so that you and I can ‘democracy safely’ ‘all night long’.
So, there are three predominant forms of Change – modifications, facts and real change.
They are distinguished in terms of their intensity or affect and their relation to the transcendental specific to their world, which is to say, ‘established knowledge’. Modifications are akin to reform and so sustain our everyday existence. A world stabilised by an established knowledge is always already the operation of a modification; facts are akin to recoverable disruptions – like an earthquake or the discovery of a new grape; and real change to transformation or the instance of the new – when an event attains maximal intensity.
In his book on the recent Riots, Badiou categorises them in a similar fashion. There is the immediate riot, the latent riot and the historical riot.
In short, the first is usually localised, intensive and ultimately without extension. Mostly, they are precipitated by some form of state brutality, or murder. In the UK riots of the last decade there were imitations of the original rising, but these were just that – there was no extension of what the riots made appear. The state, as we see, reacts with all the brutality and law it can muster; not against the violence per se but against the possibility of it being anything but immediate.
The latent Riot is like a fact in some ways. It exists beneath the surface of things – subsists, threatens to appear and so on. Badiou’s example is the trade union style march. Its organised planned, co-ordinated by the officials in league with their political allies and even the police but there is always the chance of it getting away from them. They have to stage these marches – hell, everyone is for the right to march, the human right to march – but they are fraught. New facts may emerge: that the workers do not confirm the orientation of that of their officers. Symptomatically, unofficial slogans might be chanted, breakaways formed etc. There is a violence and effect latent in these staged Marches.
Thirdly, what he calls the historical riot. In essence history as process – which is already not nothing in a world of ethics – returns to the fore in these. For Badiou, following Sylvain Lazarus, history is always the thought of politics anyway, of what politics ‘seizes as its own’, so the idea here is that politics – one of the four possible conditions in which a new truth is possible – makes itself known in a historical riot. Like all riots, it’s situated, it begins as a riot somewhere but the key difference is its extension. Every riot has this capacity for such an extension but the extension is this capacity established, made real in and for that situation. A historical riot becomes so in and by the capacity to extend itself – temporally, and spatially too. A Historical riot is an event. It’s an event because the revolutionary capacity it reveals retroactively affirms it as such. In other words: ‘A political truth is a series of consequences organized on the condition of an Idea, a massive popular event in which intensification, contraction and localization replace an identitarian object, and the separating names bound up with it, with a real presentation of the generic power of the multiple.’
The Historical riot is an Idea and its consequence, and so an event and the truth a subject brings to bear. The only virtue the present needs is courage.
‘Courage is the virtue that manifests itself, without regard for the laws of the world, by the endurance of the impossible. It’s a question of holding the impossible point without needing to account for the whole of the situation: courage, to the extent that it’s a matter of treating the point as such, is a local virtue. It partakes of a morality of the place, and its horizon is the slow reestablishment of the communist hypothesis.’
So don’t ‘just do it’ BUT keep going!