Alain Badiou’s universalism:
Between Marxism and identity politics.
What exactly is the truth of politics and the truth of a political position? Why do we have left, right and a whole spectrum in between?
Do we humans really have the power of abstraction to reduce seemingly infinite positions to a binary opposition? Do we have the necessary capacity to position ourselves as unique individuals vis-à-vis a collective and establish a one-to-one relationship with that collective while becoming spokespersons for that collective?
If so, we should be able to understand why we have the power to reduce ideas to binary relations from which, in turn, derive multiple relations capable of producing unity and creating a unilateral political topology (left/right) that acts as two narrow and abrasive worldviews.
Let us ask the question again. Why do we have left and right ideologies in politics as conflicting binary positions that constantly contest their rights to objective truth by embarking on subsequent one-to-many, one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many relationships around the never-ending attempt to represent the majority through party politics?
How can we have a general objective consensus in science on the basis of rational understanding, but can only obtain a one-sided consensus in politics on the same rational basis of understanding?
How do we resolve truth in politics when its validation comes from binary on/off ideological positions in which what is “on” and what is “off” obeys a mutual democratic right to be right even when one of the two positions in dispute should be invalid and the other valid if for each case what is considered true in one is the exact opposite of what is considered true in the other?
What to do when the two positions are both valid and invalid, but one of them has more validity or less validity than the other?
And is the one that has more validity so due to accidental circumstances or because its own principles of operation give it a better chance of being valid more often than its opponents?
If that were the case, that should not give the current more valid position the right to nullify or completely suppress its opponents, since these might one day become the new standard-bearers of a new, more valid position.
Why is it that the “centrist” position that is so much preached in politics no longer has much to contribute to the current political truth?
The answers to all these questions are easier to give than we might think. Truth in politics is universally one-sided and does not, therefore, cease to be objective or lack sufficient ontological weight. It is true that we have yet to answer whether political truth is left-wing or right-wing.
Political truth does not care whether it is on the left or on the right of politics, and in that sense, and only in that sense, political truth does not take sides. Political truth takes sides, but it only stays long enough to say the best of a universal truth in a unilateral way. There is no inclusiveness in politics more than the right to exercise freely your views.
An analysis of political truth as militant truth in Alain Badiou’s political universalism would have to be made at another time considering that his universalism attempts to devalue the necessary unilaterality of the political and leaves much to be desired about truth itself in the terms described by his philosophy.
Political truth is neither left-wing nor right-wing but embodies the left or the right according to the historical position that offers better conditions for the truth to flourish universally unilateral, always unilateral. Politics can be neither bilateral nor multilateral but unilateral in its universality. That’s the only way to keep it free of fascism, communism and totalitarianism.
When truth universally flourishes unilaterally and another equally legitimate party opposes it, truth is political truth. In any other realm, the truth may be universally one-sided but not opposed.
A universally one-sided truth may be a truth that is in decline or that is flourishing. When a universally one-sided truth is in decline, it usually means that it has taken over the status quo and has become a manufactured consent.
When a universally one-sided truth is flourishing, it usually means that it receives a lot of resistance from the mainstream media and is far from resonating with the status quo.
Both the political left and the political right have seized on universally one-sided truth in both its decline and its flourishing phase.
In the 21st century, the political left, also known as progressive and liberal, is more on the universally one-sided side of the truth that is in decline as a result of representing the status quo and its manufactured consent.
If this declining political left does not reform sufficiently, it will be a political right that will cause another new universally one-sided truth to flourish.
In such a process it is natural that such a flowering will receive much resistance from the mainstream media and the status quo.
Identity Politics and Marxism.
If we could say that there is something radically different that distinguishes identity politics from the Marxist tradition, it is the total lack of universalism that is proper to Marxism.
When Marxism elaborated the concepts of exploiting class and exploited class, the latter with almost no privileges or rights, it was referring to a class formed and existing in any capitalist society regardless of gender, race, age, disabilities or particularities unique to any social group. Marx had a universalist concept of class and class struggle.
For Marx, the working class included any human being selling his or her labor power as a wage earner in the capitalist market system. This condition of being a wage earner belonged to a universal attribute of every human being in capitalist countries.
Radical changes, however, have happened to the nature and understanding of this class struggle that Marx analyzed. In the meantime, the anti-capitalist spirit has not waned to this day.
The historical classes described by Marx no longer exist, or rather, they have ceased to be homogeneous, while at the same time they have become fragmented and atomized. Basically, they no longer exist in the universal Marxist framework.
The big problem that has remained, however, is that anti-capitalism has continued without the bourgeois class and the working class of Marx’s time.
Why then do we still have a Marxist and communist tradition in the world today, or is it that, beyond its academic existence, Marxism has not ended, or is there another form of anti-capitalism different from the Marxist one?
Any non-Marxist critique of capitalism is doomed to be classified as revisionist if Marxism is really the most radical critique of capitalism. Thus, revisionism of capitalism cannot be considered as anti-capitalism, unless with all these waves of spectrums in definitions of identity politics Marxism itself has also become a political identity and the definition of anti-capitalism becomes extremely elastic like that of sex, race, disability, working-class and bourgeois class.
Theoretically, Marxism has expired and to expire here does not mean that it has gone out of fashion, but that it already lacks an emancipatory theory for the working class of today precisely because that working class is today totally fragmented and atomized and this situation of the working class is not something passing or conjunctural. It has been part and parcel of the natural development of capitalism itself.
So, if the emancipatory theory of the proletariat is no longer valid because that proletariat does not exist, who are the new emancipators today within the Western political academic environment?
For the new Marxists, the fact that there is no proletariat does not mean that there are no emancipatory vanguards because now the problem is that there are still rich and poor and anti-capitalism has become a catch-all to refer to any struggle against the dominant status quo of capital.
This struggle, however, which has already become another minority, can be described as a “phantom limb”. A “phantom limb” is the feeling that an amputated or lost limb is still attached. Marxists today still believe that there is a Marxist exploited class still united with its theoretical vanguard and still hope for a return to its universal unity all over the planet.
We live in a fractal distortion of what a majority is. Today we define the majority by groups or by identity politics. As soon as we zoom in, the lens of our perception automatically and like a magnet zooms out to the level of a group. The individual, in fact, has disappeared. The individual is the group.
In the famous dystopian movie about humans, Wall-E, the billboard reads:
“Try blue, it’s the new red!”.
On today’s western billboards it reads:
“Try the group, it’s the new communist fantasy.”
One of today’s great Marxists and communists, Alain Badiou, is precisely one of those who not only still hope for the return of this Marxist universalization of the oppressed class but whose hope is based on an open and direct rejection of identity politics based on sex, race and disability. Nothing could be further from Badiou’s philosophy than the twisted concept of intersectionality.
Badiou has strongly denounced the “false” emancipators of the oppressed for their sneaky theft of Marxism’s theoretical and political tools to carry out their anti-capitalist struggles with a total lack of visibility of the Marxist tradition and the lessons that could be learned from it.
But what exactly have identity politics stolen from Marxism and what is Badiou’s just denunciation of them as part of their so-called “anti-capitalist” struggles?
At first glance, it is easy to see that Marxism and identity politics are two worlds apart. The first thing that stands out is the emphasis on the segregationist group experience of identity politics where the individual, as in Marxism, plays a secondary role.
It is important to note that although identity politics tout inclusiveness and multicultural, multiracial and multi-everything integration that is status quo and segregated, the results they bring about are actually the opposite. They want to bring to their knees all those they consider to be dominant privileges. At the same time, these minorities begin to gain the very same dominant privileges that their political activism started criticizing in the first place.
What is extremely clear in both is that they claim to fight in favor of the underprivileged from an anti-capitalist position but while Marxism is based on a universalism of its conceptual apparatus, identity politics is based on a conceptual particularism that wants to be universalized in favor of the underprivileged as long as the conditions that cause the lack of privilege to become the universal yardstick by which all should be measured.
Both, however, accept that oppression of the underprivileged is constitutive of human history. Identity politics calls it patriarchy or white supremacy, Marxism bourgeoisie or exploiting class.
Both equally believe that only a radical stance would bring real change to society, but the changes required by identity politics are more about normalizing and subjecting the public sphere to the standards of identity particularisms, while the changes required by Marxism are about normalizing and subjecting the public sphere to the standards of Marxist universalism.
The curious thing here is that in both is absent some concern for the individual. Typically, one finds a defence of the universal or the individual but not a defence of the particular as in identity politics.
However, the real problem with identity politics is not only that they opt for the particular against the universal and the individual, but above all that they want to give universal status to the particular, against the already normalized universal.
All three, however, are valid. There is nothing that tells us that there has to be a polarization between the individual, the particular and the universal, nor that one has to be above or more favored than the other. There are no policies between them but structural heuristic relationships.
Badiou and Universalism.
Why then does Badiou have a marked interest, not only politically but philosophically, in giving priority to the Marxist universal over the identitarian particular and the liberal individual?
This is precisely what I will attempt to elucidate in my annotated reading of Badiou’s book, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism.
I generally tend to read philosophers in a different way than when I read a novel or a non-fiction text. I try to see, as I read, whether the thinker is using the structural content of his ideas to fill in the skeleton of his theoretical apparatus or trying to mould the content of the book to the structure and categories of his own philosophical method.
I do not believe that discovering patterns and finding philosophical categories that synchronize with certain content is the wrong approach. However, once it becomes an unquestioned and often overlooked philosophical “habit” I believe that such an approach begins to be limited.
In the case of Alain Badiou, I only take as a reference Being and Event, a work considered key to become familiar with the terms and categories of his philosophy.
If we were to be consistent with Badiou’s philosophy we would have to expect that what Badiou classifies as “event” would not only have to happen in one of his books, Being and Event but would militantly continue to happen throughout the rest of his works. Everything seems, however, to say that the rest of Badiou’s work is not an application or materialization of the “ecclesiastical” institution of Being and event.
In St. Paul (The Foundation of Universalism), however, one can already detect the frequent use of the category of “event”. This is what initially begins to be problematic, which could be reduced to the following question.
Is Badiou showing us or, if you will, describing to us his own philosophical categories in St. Paul or is Badiou’s philosophy playing the role of demiurge and exorcist in order to bring forth, resurrect and cause anastasis to St. Paul’s texts themselves as St. Paul’s Gospels inform us of Christ’s resurrection?
And then we begin to encounter other collateral questions: Could we speak of the resurrection of Badiou’s “event” in the Gospels of St. Paul? How is the word resurrection violently replaced by the word event in the name of a universalism that neither etymologically, historically nor conceptually validates a more effective or even affective alliance with the truth of the world and less with the truth of Christ?
Would it be fair to speak of the resurrection of the “event” in Badiou’s text on St. Paul in the same sense that St. Paul speaks of the resurrection of Christ in the Gospels? Badiou wants at all costs to secularize Christ and if he does not do very well it is not because Badiou is not religious but because Christ is not Badiou.
Christ and what Paul’s Gospels represent overfly all of Badiou’s categories. In this sense, we should ask Badiou how his anti-philosophy can be next to Paul’s anti-philosophy when Badiou is not religious?
The sun radiates light which turns into heat when it strikes the rocks on the earth. The word “event” is to the word resurrection what sunlight is to the heat of earthly rocks. How else could we accept Badiou’s conceptualization of St. Paul’s resurrection if not by understanding Badiou’s “event” as the heat of the light emanating from Christ’s resurrection? Heat is a degraded form of light.
What philosophical and philological move allows the transfer and transference of Badiou’s anti-philosophy to the anti-philosophy of the Gospels when Badiou tells us that, “Paul is an important figure of anti-philosophy”?
It would be good to analyze and deepen Badiou’s relationship with Kierkegaard making the caveat in relation to the immense rejection that Kierkegaard had for Christianity as an institution embodied in the Church.
Many of Kierkegaard’s writings were a direct attack against Christianity as a political and social entity and in particular the Danish State Church. Badiou turns the operability of the ecclesiastical institution into a motif of infinite fidelity that can always be renewed.
It is this operation of the “event” that allows Badiou to give an unconditional or, if you will, transcendental immanence to anything that is an “event.” For Badiou, once the “event” occurs it is like a fractal historical universe self-absorbed in its own immanent unlimited unfolding. It does not really matter whether it is Christ, St. Paul or Lenin.
What acquires the quality of “event” has an eternal universe in itself and for itself. So it is, according to Badiou, with the Christian religion and communism. We well know, however, that the Church as an institution no longer plays the political and military role it played when it was fused with the State. Is this not the same secular future that awaits communism, that is, its total separation from the State?
Badiou speaks to us of the militancy of truth and it is impossible to overlook again Soren Kierkegaard in this respect. There are great differences between Kierkegaard’s knight of faith and Badiou’s militant of truth, but even recognizing the limitations in which Kierkegaard places us with his universality overcome in the return to the individual (an ill-deserved tribute to Hegel), Badiou’s universalism does not seem to be the same as Kierkegaard’s universalism. Badiou’s universalism does not seem to go beyond the Kantian categorical imperative which acts as a kind of dogmatic nirvana towards a constitutive truth which in its philosophical fidelity is stoic but in its political reality is pure ontologized stubbornness.
St. Paul, through Badiou’s philosophical gaze, contains a religious caviar that militantly marinates the philosophical secularization of the communist idea. In the end, if we follow Badiou’s event to its ultimate consequences, there is no convincing reason to believe that communism is the event most worthy of fidelity in history.
There are certain words that, as is the case with every philosopher, Badiou intensifies. Some words are random and casual and others make us think more closely about Badiou’s conceptual apparatus.
The random word in this case that is intensified is “betrayal” and the one that makes us think more closely about Badiou’s conceptual apparatus is “Church” and “Party”. This is neither the first nor the last time Badiou plays with these conceptual operations.
Badiou tells us:
“The main aspect in this trajectory gradually becomes that of betrayal, its wellspring is that what Paul creates (the Church, the Organization, the Party) turns against his own inner holiness.”
Betrayal here, from the moment it becomes part of a dialectical movement of inner holiness, ceases to be seen as something to be rejected or considered alien to one’s own holiness.
If the Church can be created again and again no matter how much it can be corrupted or how much it has already been corrupted, communism and the communist state can be created again and again no matter how much it can be corrupted. This seems to be the key idea that allows Badiou to make transfers from Christ to Paul, from Paul to Lenin and from Lenin to the eternal operative ideality of communism.
Badiou tells us what to see in Paul,
“…not so much a theorist of the Christian event as the tireless creator of the Church”.
In other words, Badiou gives the same creative intensity to both the theoretical and the institutional that sustains it, as if the very institution of certain ideas sustained by the “event” could last forever.
The Church, in this case like communism, is corrupted and betrayed but it is all part of its dialectic and its recovery, all part of an immanent process that Badiou has invented to eternalize at a stroke both the Christian tradition and communism. Will communism be a secular heir of Christianity? In Badiou’s philosophy, this is possible and more than possible it is its most concrete ontological reality.
Badiou tells us:
“History, reveals itself as an essential corruption, that of the saint by the priest. It is the almost necessary movement of an internal betrayal. And this internal betrayal is captured by an external betrayal…”
Again here we see clearly that this kind of dialectic of Badiou’s event can be applied not only to the Church and Paul but to any kind of event generating radical thinkers who radicalize equally the existence and operability of the very institutions on which they are sustained.
Badiou tells us:
“That the discourse has to be that of the son means that one must be neither Judeo-Christian (prophetic domain), nor Greco-Christian (philosophical domain), nor even a synthesis of the two. The opposition of a diagonalization of discourses to their synthesis is a constant preoccupation of Paul”.
Here what is neglected by Badiou, and not hastily nor consciously, is that even when Paul takes into consideration the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Christian, the very universality in Paul’s spirit transcends both in the name of Christ but not by the name of Christ. From the very moment that Christ represents all humanity, Christ does so beyond “Christianity” and beyond any identity politics with his name.
In this sense, not only is there something anti-philosophical in Badiou’s approach to Paul’s Gospels, but there is also something anti-Christian in the universalism that Badiou wants to attribute to Paul. However, this anti-Christianity does not echo with Christ insofar as Christ surpasses his own name and image. This anti-Christianity of Badiou is a secularization of Christ and Paul by Badiou and belongs entirely to Badiou's own immanent philosophy.
Badiou tells us:
“Paul will be neither prophet nor philosopher. Consequently, the triangulation he proposes is prophet, philosopher, apostle”.
We know perfectly well that Badiou is neither a prophet nor an apostle and it is more than obvious that Badiou is a philosopher. Therefore, this triangulation that Badiou gives us does not make it clear and neglects to make it clear that Paul is above all an apostle in the same sense that Badiou is above all a philosopher.
Badiou tells us:
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Here we see once again Badiou given to his oxymoronic games but only to apply oxymorons to certain words and not to others. This is precisely a philosophical policy, namely, to apply oxymorons to certain words but not to the totality of the words in use in his own philosophical narration.
There is wisdom in certain forms of “madness” and there is great strength in certain forms of weakness, but there is no wisdom in madness in general as there is no strength in weakness in general. That kind of oxymoron is unacceptable and Badiou passes over it in silence, giving us to understand that there is nothing unacceptable in that God’s madness, in general, is wisdom.
Badiou tells us:
“The underlying thesis is that one of the phenomena by which an event is recognized is that the event is like a point of the real that puts language at a deadlock. This dead point is madness (moria) for the Greek, which is a discourse of reason, and it is a scandal for Jewish discourse, which insists on a sign of divine power and sees in Christ nothing but weakness…”
The problem here with Badiou finding dead points in history is that these dead points pass and even when they can be revived as an event we will always be in a different event that can no longer bear the same name nor have the same madness nor discourse.
If there is one fundamental reality that has changed about Christianity it is that it has completely dissociated itself from the State and therefore the Church as an institution has radically changed its nature and social function. Paul’s Church no longer exists.
Badiou tells us:
“One must come, in Paul’s logic, to say that the Christ-event testifies that God is not the God of Being, is not Being. Paul prescribes an anticipatory critique of what Heidegger calls onto-theology, in which God is thought of as supreme being, and therefore as the measure of what Being as such is capable of.”
As long as we cannot say that religion is philosophy and Christianity in Paul is anti-philosophy we cannot put Paul’s reflections on the level of Heidegger’s philosophical reflections on the onto-theological. For the sake of the secularization and universalization of Paul to which Badiou is so devoted Badiou seems to forget not only that Paul is fundamentally religious but essentially Christian.
Badiou tells us:
“The most radical affirmation of the text we are commenting on is, in fact, the following: ‘God has chosen the things that are not in order to annul the things that are’.” That the Christ-event brings forth non-beings instead of beings as a testimony to God; that it consists in the abolition of what all previous discourses took to exist, or to be, gives the measure of the ontological subversion to which Paul’s antiphilosophy invites the declarer or militant.”
There is no doubt that the “Christ-event” contains all the radicality that Badiou attributes to it when referring to Paul but Christianity and the church that accompanied it also had, always had and always have had a great force of positive and political positioning that cannot be ignored. Christianity was, has been and always will be above all a force of affirmation and positive positioning. We see it in masses, prayer, baptism and many other Christian practices.
Christianity did not continue to have the speculative and conceptual freedom that philosophy and especially Badiou’s philosophy has.
Badiou tells us:
“This is the driving force of Paul’s universalist conviction: that the “ethnic” or cultural difference, of which the opposition between Greek and Jew is in his time, the prototype, is no longer significant with respect to the real, or to the new object that establishes a new discourse.”
Badiou tries to make us reflect on a universalism in which the overcoming of its markers, Greek and Jew, are evidence of St. Paul’s universalist devotion, but an obvious question becomes necessary. If the markers of the Christian tradition are Greek and Jewish, why can St. Paul’s universalism appeal to the whole of humanity when such universalism is circumscribed only to the Greek and Jewish?
Badiou does not refer to a specific universalism when he refers to St. Paul but to an abstract universalist universalism when in fact it is a particular universalism in its universality. Badiou goes to such great lengths to present us with a St. Paul so universalistic that he is in his essence above the individual and above any minority or group whether Greek or Jewish.
However, the problem with Badiou’s universalism is much more serious than the label of abstract even though the critical work he does with identity politics is of the utmost value.
Badiou tells us:
“This Nietzschean laughter, in the sense of the Antichrist, expresses a disjunction, and not an opposition. The disjunctive formula is ‘the stupidity of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’… The primacy of stupidity over wisdom, and of weakness over strength, commands the dissipation of the formula of mastery, without which philosophy cannot exist.”
Badiou makes a conceptual distortion here. It is not stupidity in general and not weakness in general that are above wisdom and strength. It is two universal qualities of God that are above two universal qualities of men. Therefore, there are two kinds of stupidity and two kinds of weakness.
Thus, in God stupidity and weakness are exact opposites and this being so Badiou speaks to us of a type of stupidity that is wise and a type of weakness that is strong. This is not the first time we will see these kinds of conceptual juggling in Badiou. I don’t think there is anything invalid about it, but Badiou is not transparent enough to let his reader know.
It is certainly true that,
“Nietzsche harbors a genuine derangement for universalism.”
but we could also say that Badiou harbors a real derangement for individualism.
When Badiou tells us:
“The relation between master and servant differs absolutely from the relation between master and disciple, as well as from the relation between master and slave.”
Here we find again a change in the meaning of certain words when they are related to religious experience and to the exchange between human beings. Badiou describes authentic exchange in the one and erroneous in the other.
But Badiou tells us even more revealing things by preparing a language that is not his own but that of St. Paul and perhaps of Christ himself.
“Death as such counts for nothing in the operation of salvation. It functions as a condition of immanence… Paul calls this immanentization a “reconciliation.””
It is clearer now Badiou’s philosophical plans and how his analysis of St. Paul helped him and served him marvellously to generate a whole philosophy of imminence, if you will, in the same sense as his contemporary, Gilles Deleuze. This is a philosophy of imminence that delights in bringing the whole transcendent apparatus of thinking into a quasi-fractal world where everything is a matter of enlarging or shrinking the lens of significations.
And to avoid any dialectical maneuver Badiou already comes prepared in his discourse by telling us:
“Resurrection is neither a sublation nor an overcoming of death. They are two distinct functions, whose articulation contains no necessity.”
And here the resurrection of Christ will once again be used to rekindle the tension no longer between life and death but between many other opposites that Badiou will use later on.
Once again Badiou delights us with the points of connection that he observes between St. Paul and Nietzsche.
“The truth is that both brought antiphilosophy to the point where it no longer consists in a ‘critique’, however radical, of the whims and pettiness of the metaphysician or sage. A much more serious matter is at issue: that of bringing about through the event an unqualified affirmation of life against the reign of death and the negative.”
How is it possible that Badiou can perform this operation of connecting Nietzsche’s thoughts and St. Paul’s as if they could have a register on the same plane?
Let us not forget that Badiou has long since embarked on the sailboat of immanence not only to refer to the two dimensions of Christ between life and death with the resurrection but also to apply it to any other conceptual or philosophical referent. In this case, Badiou wants to show us an immanent connection between St. Paul and Nietzsche and uses his immanentist method to achieve it.
Badiou, however, wants much more. Badiou wants a universal for all humanity.
“The One is that which inscribes no difference in the subject to which it is addressed. The One is only insofar as it is for all: such is the maxim of universality when it has its root in the event.”
The existence of a universal that is for all in a literal way is not possible. The One may very well be for all but we are not all for the One. And not only that. Badiou seems to ignore that the One and the universal are always a One and a universal for a specific whole. Ignoring this remains the metaphysical error that all universalism incurs and continues to incur.
Badiou seems to enlighten us and give us more clarity about his philosophical vision when he says:
“That every procedure of truth collapses differences, infinitely unfolding a purely generic multiplicity, does not allow us to lose sight of the fact that, in the situation…, there are differences. One can even maintain that there is nothing else.”
What exactly does this collapsing of differences mean? Badiou does not seem very clear about it but considering that it in no way means the acceptance of different totalities, the differences Badiou refers to are differences as part of a totality.
And this seems to be even clearer when he gives us an example of the collective feeling in China:
“…pushed to its highest expression in service to the people. It consists in supposing that, whatever the opinions and customs of the people, once caught by the post-event work of a truth, their thought becomes capable of traversing and transcending those opinions and customs without having to renounce the differences that allow them to recognize themselves in the world.”
If Badiou calls differences “opinions and customs,” it is clear that he is referring to cosmetic differences and not differences in distinct types of universalities. The multiple for Badiou in truth refers to the anecdotal and to opinions but not to universal ideas in their multiplicity.
However, if there is any valuable interiority in Badiou’s analysis it is the one encapsulated in this quotation:
“What matters, man or woman, Jew or Greek, slave or free man, is that differences carry the universal that befalls them like a grace. Conversely, only by recognizing in differences their capacity to carry the universal that happens to them, can the universal itself verify its own reality.”
While there is much truth in what Badiou says here, there is also total neglect of the concrete universal that manifests itself in the different ecosystems of truth that make up types of universalisms of that same truth.
Badiou is not clear when he writes:
“Anti-philosopher of genius, Paul warns the philosopher that the conditions of the universal cannot be conceptual, neither in origin nor in destination.”
Badiou may or may not be expressing his own philosophical views through his analysis of Paul, but it is clear to us that he is constructing his own conceptual framework as he navigates Paul’s text. However, in the world of immanence in which Badiou’s text is already immersed, the conceptual can have its own oxymoronic counterpart to be interpreted as not quite conceptual. This is the very conceptual license Badiou grants himself in order to protect his ideas quite well from any criticism by saying:
“There is no authority before which the outcome of a truth procedure can be judged. A truth never belongs to Critique. It rests only on itself and is the correlate of a new kind of subject, neither transcendental nor substantial, entirely defined as a militant of the truth in question.”
The truth that Badiou expresses through his reflections on Paul’s text is undoubtedly conceptual. Another thing is that Badiou recognizes it instead of silencing it.
Below, as a final note, Badiou tells us:
“Paul’s maxim, which is that of the dissolution of the identity of the universalizing subject in the universal, makes of the Same that which must be attained, even if it includes, when necessary, altering our own otherness.”
Undoubtedly, Badiou’s truth of the event bets on a universality that dissolves the individual and the group or community in the “universal” existence of that truth as an event. There is no need to dissolve the individual or his community in order to be open to the universal.
The individual and his community could open to the universal beyond himself and beyond his community in their present states but this is not a necessary condition for the experience of the universal. The universal is already in us as individuals and as communities. To expand beyond is both to expand beyond ourselves as individuals and communities and to expand beyond our present universality.
Is there nonsense in Badiou's discourse?
We will always have those who are doomed to understand philosophy in a “scholarly” manner even if they have never been scholars.
Alain Badiou, nor any philosopher for that matter, cannot be understood as “scholarly” nor with the philosophical skills of the “expert”. And yet, on behalf of such principle is that Badiou falls into some unforgiving logical mishaps.
Badiou’s philosophy validates side by side any two seemingly contradictory statements he invests in until it finds from what is wrong in both a particular case while finding from what is valid in both two universal cases. This is the typical win-win situation of the prisoners' dilemma brought to philosophical discourse.
And this is Badiou's philosophical mishap. He validates particular cases as universal cases instead of particularizing the universal cases. This is the case of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy's universalism becoming socialist as a result of their feudal heritage.
But let's see this in an example.
“We Must Jump Off Cliffs and Build Our Wings on the Way Down”
- Kurt Vonnegut
“We Must Not Build the plane As We Fly It.
- S.O.L.I.D. principles of software engineering.
The first thing that raises our eyebrows in these two quotes is this: Every single truism of a highly inspiring quote has its equally reverse inspiring quote counterpart. Is that true?
This is exactly the spirit that underlies the entire body of Badiou’s work. But this spirit is not nonsensical per se. It is simply nonsensical because Badiou always creates two abstract universal concepts out of any two opposing meanings and then plays dialectical jujitsu in a looping mechanism of compensating and decompensating each opposing element.
These two quotations, however, are universal but with limits. Their universality is limited for both quotations but they are nonetheless universal, a universally individuated.
Badiou adopts similar dual stands when at once asserts the traditional modernist notion (A) that truths are eternal and the postmodernist notion (B) that truths are a social construct.
Thus, Badiou achieves a conceptual blend that disentangles the eternal (A) from self-evidence and at the same time disentangles truths as a social construct (B) from postmodern relativism.
Then, if we can disentangle any concept from any overloaded signification we can actually filter it into any other signification or at least bring them quite close if the other concepts which oppose it are equally disentangled from their respective overloaded significations.
In other words, we can disentangle words, concepts and meanings to make them say a particular depth of content or any depth for that matter. Badiou wants us to know a particular depth of content, namely, his philosophy, even when from his approach we can extract any depth of content.
Badiou is not the philosopher to tell us that we can express many depths with his philosophy. Badiou is not a thinking platform as Facebook is a communication platform.
Badiou is not the one giving the bakery ingredients formula to the baking art of thinking. No, Badiou is delivering a baked bread and he calls it his philosophy. In that sense, Facebook, as a platform for communication, is far more advanced than Badiou’s philosophy even when what Badiou does with thinking has more depths than Mark Zuckerberg's zombie consumers business.
Philosophy can no longer be a bread to be baked but a bakery capable of producing thinking energy to bake anything even at the risk of having to always give us one baked bread. This is Badiou one universal individuated baked bread.
But let’s be as forthcoming as we can with Badiou. When we strip down all the content of his philosophical meanderings we are left with one clear intention, or should I say reasoning. Badiou and many other philosophers of his generation wanted to achieve one philosophical feast.
Badiou's philosophy appears as if his assertions are not violating not only the old logical principle of non-contradiction but worse not violating the principle of the excluded middle.
And I say that “it appears as if” because even when I’m more often than not reluctant about the validity of the duck test, in this case, as it is equally the case with many other philosophers of his generation, the duck test applies, namely, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
However, to transition with Badiou from it is probably a duck to it is certainly a duck can turn into very cumbersome labour if we get distracted by Badiou overwhelming erudition and a sharp dynamic mind able to connect the most distant topics with admirable and cohesive dexterity.
We cannot assert in one sentence one thing and in another one its opposite and not to expect one of them to be false, and also not to expect refusing a third possibility, namely, both cannot be false and both cannot be true. No, we not only have to expect one of them to be false and the other one true, but also, we cannot have a third choice.
In the philosophical narrative of Badiou, however, we see all these logical rules constantly violated. They are violated, however, through a web of intricate metaphorization of literal meanings and literalization of metaphorical meanings.
Yet, this plasticization and contraction of meanings are done under string rules and discipline of producing a philosophy. What does this mean exactly? Badiou will go back to the starting point where A is true and B is false and A is not so much A and B is not so much B, but still, A prevails. In other words, Badiou’s philosophy becomes the set of all sets that can contain themselves in a perfect immanent manner.
A, to say Badiou’s philosophy itself, represents that philosophy and B all other philosophy that is and should be subsumed as part of Badiou’s voracious and militant immanentism. The bake is ready and Badiou delivers his bread. Philosophy is still not a driving force to become the bakery with a very erudite intellectual bread.
A useless clarification in one sense, though pertinent in another.
Communism is not the event in Alain Badiou.
Communism in Badiou is what happens the day after the anti-capitalist revolution.
The terms of that revolution today continue to manifest themselves as long as those faithful to its truth remain eternally faithful to the event that was October 1917 in Russia.
Thus, communism for Badiou is to Christ what Christ was to his resurrection, that is, what happens after the resurrection.
We have to be militantly faithful to the meaning of the resurrection so that as an event the resurrection brings us salvation, be it called the kingdom of God in the case of Christians or communism in the case of communists.
The resurrection of Christ, however, does not correlate with Badiou’s immanentist theory of the event.
Christ and St. Paul in Badiou’s philosophical hands are victims of a radical make-up. Badiou’s Christ is neither the Christ of St. Paul nor the historical Christ we know. And here everything connects with Badiou’s conception of truth.
For Badiou truth is not just the ordinary truth we all know. Truth for Badiou is fundamentally a glimpse that we witness in a unique event.
Once we have witnessed that event we have to remain militantly faithful to that glimpse in order to be able to name it as truth in the ordinary world.
That is to say, from the event a truth is glimpsed and that truth, for example, Badiou calls communism. Thus communism is a glimpse extracted from the event that was the revolution of October 1917.
This truth for Badiou in this case, as the foundational truth of the event, treats knowledge and scholarship as mere instruments of that truth. In other words, it treats other truths of knowledge as secondary.
Badiou disguises it very well but this truth of truths that is the event repeats the same history of the old metaphysics, that is, philosophy and philosophical discourse as a seeker of ultimate and essential truths that makes all other knowledge secondary or not so essential without the assistance of philosophical thinking.
But there is something even more troubling in Badiou’s philosophy with regard to the search for truth. This truth that reveals the event, which is undoubtedly the truth of truths, can only be manifested under the maintenance of militant fidelity to it.
For Badiou this truth fundamentally comes out of uncertainty, of the undecidable, straight from Schrödinger’s cat, and that is why it has no greater heuristic value than the same that is given to Sony’s advertising campaign: “make.believe”.
The curious thing here is that in the advertising campaign Sony underlines the importance of the point between “make” and “believe”, saying that it is where imagination and reality collide.
In Badiou there is no such clash. The glimpse of what was the event in Russia in 1917 does not clash with what became the days and years after. Badiou’s “make-believe” is a militant fidelity that while being interested in the event as such in Russia in 1917, has lost all interest in what happened the days after until today.
Badiou’s “make-believe”, his fidelity to the communist cause is a capricious and stubborn fidelity that in its more concrete manifestations as real political activism in the streets or party militancy does not even have the humility of contemporary Christian fidelity.
The only thing that interests Badiou’s fidelity is the event as such and not the failures of the days after because the days after have been forced to be the present and future days on which we must militantly maintain our fidelity to the communist cause in the face of capitalist uncertainty.
Without going too much into his logical-mathematical disquisitions, because it is not necessary, let us express briefly what Badiou’s theory of truth consists of.
Badiou postulates A and B as two opposite concepts, and he is right that both are valid insofar as each of them can be understood in its valid version and not in its erroneous version.
The first question to be asked is this, is there a valid and wrong version to every concept and its opposite? Yes, if we treat their relations as transcendental and immanent, which is the case of Badiou’s conceptual analysis from a logical point of view.
Thus, if we have A and B as two opposite concepts and A appears as valid and B appears as erroneous, then what is involved is to “deconstruct” both concepts and show that both have in fact been misunderstood and that there is a valid form associated with each in which both can be understood and even reconciled as part of a universal process of “trial and error”, in which the valid is always a work in progress and the erroneous an error from which it has not been possible to extract its valid side.
The second question to be asked here is obviously, how far can this immanentist and reversible logic be extended to all the opposite terms involved? One can always give an etymological and semantic “shake” to each word until not only finding in some of its palimpsests the meaning that would be more on the valid side than on the erroneous side but even making the erroneous part of the dialectical process towards the valid.
This immanentist playfulness obviously stops once we try to apply it to Badiou’s philosophy itself and in particular to his own theory of truth. Yes, this brings us to the Russell-Zermelo paradox with which Badiou delights so much. Briefly, it naively questions whether or not the set of all sets can contain themselves.
Badiou adopts at once the traditional modernist notion (A) that truths are eternal and immutable and the incisively postmodernist notion (B) that truths are constructed through processes. Thus Badiou achieves a conceptual blend that disentangles the eternal and immutable (A) from self-evidence and at the same time disentangles truths that are constructed through processes (B) from postmodern relativism.
This is how we return to the starting point with A and B as two opposite concepts and A appears as valid and B appears as erroneous but this time without immanentism since it is Badiou’s philosophy that becomes the set of all sets that can contain themselves in their immanentism.
A, to say Badiou’s philosophy itself, represents that philosophy and B all other philosophy that is and should be subsumed as part of Badiou’s voracious and militant immanentism.
Badiou does not actually solve the Russell-Zermelo paradox, and the paradox has been mathematically solved already, but he takes advantage of it to speculatively invent an “undecidable” that finally gives us the opportunity to be solved by militant faith in the glimpse of an event that makes Badiou’s philosophy the most reliable answer to the fundamental truth of our time.
Badiou, however, forgot to tell us something crucial. The day after the event as truth is like Schrödinger’s cat with the difference that in the case of Badiou’s communism we all know that the cat is dead and what remains to be discovered the day after, for those who are faithful to Badiou’s philosophy, is whether we can revive it or not.
At the end what Badiou shows us is his refined erudition and exquisite dialectical intelligence. In philosophical terms Badiou has nothing, absolutely nothing new, to tell us that Hegel and Heidegger have not already said.
Badiou is best read as one would read Humberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, that is, full of conspiracy theories not about the Knights Templar but about future communism.
For a scholarly critical analysis of Badiou see:
Badiou’s Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology. Ricardo L. Nirenberg and David Nirenberg