Badiou Post 1: Particularity, Violence and Theology

“the fundamental ontological characteristic of an event is to inscribe, to name, the situated void of that for which it is an event”[1]


In his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Alain Badiou offers a critical analysis of that nebulous, and oft abused philosophical subset, ‘ethics’. Badiou proceeds to offer his own constructive concept of an ‘Ethics of Truth’. Both this critical analysis and succeeding construction are, in addition to being a militant challenge to the bourgeois ‘ethics’ of liberal-democratic societies, immanently relevant, critically, to current discussions regarding theological language, method, metaphysics, lack thereof etc. (insert any other vogue approach specific only to theology). I will now (very) briefly exegete a few points Badiou makes in this book before proceeding to the main point of this post; theology’s recourse to its own particularity as the most insidious form of violent oppression.

Badiou first offers the reader a critical description of what he labels the ‘ethical ideology’.  In short, this ideology is that pious brand of thinking endemic to the western world in which we conceive of humanity as essentially powerless before an evil presupposed a priori to exist. This presupposition of the state of humanity neutralizes all attempts for constructive good, leading us to even denounce all such attempts as evil in themselves. Thus, humanity is forced into a static place of simple subsistence; the status quo of the state is preserved in the never-ending process of defense rather than liberation.[2] Badiou correctly notes, “This is sophistry at its most devastating. For if our only agenda is an ethical engagement against an Evil we recognize a priori, how are we to envisage any transformation of the way things are?”[3] There are other negative consequences associated with this particular ideological instantiation, however, for the purposes of this post we will table those until next week.

Simultaneous to this poor state of the human, each person and society has as its ethical directive a responsibility for the care, respect and upholding of the untouchable, impossible to understand and, ironically and most contradictory, self-mimetic ‘other’. [4] Again tabling for now some of the more poignant aspects of Badiou’s analysis here, i.e. highlighting the inherently religious character of conceiving of ‘ethics’ in the principled sense[5], the important point to note is that this false construction of the ‘other’ leaves all discourse regarding ethics in a stagnant place. Differences are ontologically basic. Sameness is where the real work of truth lies, according to Badiou. Yet, constructive acts of good, defined outside the parameter of maintenance and defense of the current ‘state’, are affectively neutralized now in a two-fold sense of the powerless human faced with the ever present evil and with the ever evasive ‘other’ keeping the person constantly in place.

Badiou aims to construct his own way forward via a reformation of the question of ethics into one, which corresponds to his theory of ‘truth process’. In short, truth processes contain three major elements:

  • the event, which brings to pass ‘something other’ than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the event is a hazardous [hasardeux], unpredictable supplement
  • the fidelity, which is the name of the process: it amounts to a sustained investigation of the situation, under the imperative of the event itself; it is an immanent and continuing break
  • the truth as such, that is, the multiple, internal to the situation, that the fidelity constructs, bit by bit, it is what the fidelity gathers together and produces[6]

The event is both a situated event, reliant upon the current ‘state’ or status quo context, and a radical breaking with such a situation. The text cited at the top of this post names that particular relationship of the event to the state. The event names that void within the current situation, that visceral lacking thereof that can only be experienced in a revelatory moment to which the subject of truth wills her fidelity after this experience has passed.

This brief analysis of how Badiou situates the contemporary situation of the ethical ideology, in addition to his subsequent proposal for its upheaval, is I think important for theological discourse for at least one reason. It adequately describes how much of contemporary theology functions. The current ‘state’ of theology is one premised upon a similar recourse to ‘otherness’. Here this discourse insidiously traps its human agents within a triumphalism of the in-breaking and rupturing act of the supreme ‘other’. This move, I wish to maintain, is similar to the aforementioned concern for the allusive other in the realm of ethics. Concern for humility, acknowledgment of human limitation and fetishizing of difference serve not a liberative function but to bind and control both the human side of discourse and the divine. Radical difference defines the boundaries of discourse. Transgressing this boundary with talk of constructive metaphysics[7] or anything else becomes a violent act.

In this sense, the state of theological discourse is once again a violent maintenance of the status quo, deceptively masquerading as true emancipation and dynamic breaking. Theology champions its particularity while those outside the fold struggle for something of concrete emancipatory value. What sort of event might emerge from within this ‘state’? I think that is an important question, especially since the event that may require fidelity in this case is the leaving behind of that particularity and the embrace of something more universally real.

[1] Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.  London; New York: Verso, 2001. 69.

[2] Badiou. Ethics. 13. “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. Such is the accusation so often repeated over the last fifteen years: every revolutionary project stigmatized as ‘utopian’ turns, we are told, into totalitarian nightmare. Every will to inscribe an idea of justice of equality turns bad. Every collective will to the Good creates Evil (bold print mine).

[3] Badiou. Ethics. 14.

[4] Badiou. Ethics. 24. The mimetic nature of this permeated concept of the other, an essential characteristic of the ‘ethical ideology’, manifests in what Badiou is able to illustrate as the very controlled and co-opted ‘other’; culturally/ideologically relative sameness bearing down upon the practical application of such a concern for the, now insidiously mythical, ‘other’. “Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the self-declared apostles of ethics and of the ‘right to difference’ are clearly horrified by any vigorously sustained difference…(here Badiou references Muslims and other non-western peoples whom are unacceptable as the ‘other’)… “Respect for differences, of course! But on the condition that the different be parliamentary-democratic, pro free-market economics, in favour of freedom of opinion, feminism, the environment…”

[5] Badiou. Ethics. 23. Interestingly Badiou actually points to the irreligious appropriation of this ideology of the other, taking off of but somewhat distinct from Levinas’ own concept, as the that which he is attacking in this particular instance. “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.” It is not difficult here to see the connection between the aforementioned stagnation of emancipatory theory/action rooted in the weak human/a priori evil and this conception of the ‘other’.  This is not however, to say that the religious roots of such a notion of the ‘other’ really give this anymore authorities validity.

[6] Badiou. Ethics. 67-68.

[7] This is not to say that there are not also issues associated with this approach.


8 thoughts on “Badiou Post 1: Particularity, Violence and Theology

  1. Lucas, I have some clarification questions. Could you further explicate what Badiou means by “otherness?” I’m especially curious to know what this means: “Sameness is where the real work of truth lies, according to Badiou.”

    It’s obvious Badiou is trying to move beyond the wall that “difference” erects. But I’m wondering how, ontologically, the other is constructed for Badiou. Surely there ARE other people–and the otherness he decries sounds like a progressive Christian version of otherness based on Levinas rather than the banal liberal-democratic version. In the first, the other constantly makes demands on you and draws you away from yourself; thus, to act ethically for Levinas is to answer the demand of the other (I hope I’m getting that right.) The latter version is to say that engagement with the other is a matter of homogeneity, i.e. the ethical imperative is to recognize ourselves in the other in order to eliminate our fear of otherness, which is essentially imperialism. THAT to me is the self-mimetic ethics of otherness–but I don’t see how Levinas’ other is self-mimetic: “Simultaneous to this poor state of the human, each person and society has as its ethical directive a responsibility for the care, respect and upholding of the untouchable, impossible to understand and, ironically and most contradictory, self-mimetic ‘other’.” So–that’s one question, haha.

    “Concern for humility, acknowledgment of human limitation and fetishizing of difference serve not a liberative function but to bind and control both the human side of discourse and the divine. Radical difference defines the boundaries of discourse. Transgressing this boundary with talk of constructive metaphysics or anything else becomes a violent act.”

    I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am by this. My post on Schelling next week is a stab at this problem as well. BUT here’s my concern: How can a constructive metaphysical theology exist WITHOUT the violence that seems to be necessarily entailed in metaphysical discourse (e.g. in Vattimo.) I’m having trouble seeing what Badiou would propose instead of a postliberal or radical (i.e. Caputo, et. al.) approach since it seems like the critique of metaphysics via the problem of language still has to be taken seriously. Badiou thinks it doesn’t?

    • My first post will probably be on a similar nexus of questions to this one; hell, it seems like all I DO anymore is think about this problem (which can be phrased in a number of ways, but which, for me, comes down to theology’s ability to receive other discourses without doing them violence).

      I have a number of problems with Badiou’s approach here, and I may address those in a later post, but since I do think his critique of the ethical Other (and you’re right to think Levinas here) has yet to be adequately addressed, I’ll try to supplement Lucas a bit here as to *why* it’s not just sociological Otherness but Levinas’ ethical Otherness that is threatened by Badiou:

      As you phrased it, “the other constantly makes demands on you and draws you away from yourself; thus, to act ethically for Levinas is to answer the demand of the other.” I’d add that for Levinas, the face of the Other, in her irreducibility to me, is where I meet the infinite Other who places a wedge between myself and my own self-unity/self-identity. So the face of the Other, insofar as it is not reduced, but taken as a demand, functions also as the place of an inbreaking of the totally Other; the irreducible Otherness that is never captured within the horizon of the situation (to inject some of Badiou’s terms). Thus, the demand is always simultaneously concrete and impossible to concretize; concrete insofar as it is the hungry’s cry: “feed me” and impossible to concretize insofar as every attempt to change the state of the situation is always still subject to the infinite demand. Thus, there are at least two ways, it seems to me, that Levinasian Otherness tends towards a return of the “same.” On the side of the infinite, there’s a resignation. The new state can never be better with regard to the infinite, because the demand upon it remains infinite. On the side of the concrete, there’s a stopping short. With the infinite foreclosed, we have only the direct demand to respond to directly, and the direct demand is always-already conditioned by the state of the situation. So, in Levinas’ paradigmatic example of the hungry, Levinasian ethics can only, taken on their own, support feeding the hungry, and can’t (without serious modification/supplement) account for or respond to the conditions that create hunger in the first place.

  2. Hi Luke,

    Thanks for this solid, clear post. I guess I agree with the spirit of the approach (i.e. trying to avoid the tyranny of fideistic appeals), but in my mind there is good (perhaps even better) reason to apply a similar sort of criticism to the whole French Marxist revolutionary thing. I mean, Eric Voegelin essentially dedicated an entire [amazing] career to the idea. I’m not a Marxist, and I’ve found it really difficult to dialogue with Marxists because the response is usually that this and this assumption underwrites this and this market exchange logic, etc. It often seems as though “underwriting market exchange logic” is employed as a synonym for “bad” or “false.” I realize that you guys read Marx very favorably (and fair enough), so I think it would be really interesting if we could have a forum for discussing, say, Marx’s labor theory of value over and against competing theories (i.e. classical labor, subjective, monetary, etc.) without the violence of “you’re just implicated in capitalism, blah blah.”

    • Now, I’m probably not a Marxist (or at least not an orthodox one) but I do draw very prominently and explicitly *from* Marxism, and thus read Marx extremely positively. I think you’re right, though, that there’s a certain supercessionist logic to Marxist thought that makes it very capable of colonizing any thought it encounters. For me, that necessitates a certain going beyond Marx; I take Marx to be basically right, or at least on the right trajectory in his diagnosis of the complicity of various types of thought in reproducing the economic base, but I don’t think that Marx offers a real way out. It’s for this reason that I tend to be more interested in indigenous critiques of Marxism and Western theories of value than in alternative Western theories of value.

      • I think there’s a certain supercessionist logic to any critical theory–done badly. That was a danger that Horkheimer and Adorno recognized from the beginning of the neo-Marxist movement. They saw immediately that theory could easily become the very ideological epiphenomenon it was seeking to undo.

        The same critique is there for deconstruction: “Oh you’re just saying that language can mean anything so it really means nothing so there’s no such thing as truth.” That’s maybe what a really bad deconstructionist reading would say, but it’s not an accurate description of what deconstruction does.

        I agree that descriptive Marxist projects are really important and severely lacking. There is one I know of that’s written in the analytic Marxist tradition (which I didn’t even know existed until I read the book.) It’s called _Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense_ by G.A. Cohen. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, and I’m typically opposed to functionalist accounts of anything, but speaking functionally actually makes a decent amount of sense when it comes to Marxism. It’s a good read.

  3. Thanks, guys. I think that’s helpful. Right on with the point about deconstruction, too. It’s probably my fault for not being well-read in various Marxist traditions. I’ve just never been interested enough in Marx to give him a fair shake, I guess–mostly because his critiques are anticipated very well already in the classical liberal tradition (i.e. the alienation of labor is spelled out very clearly in Adam Smith). Maybe there’s hope for me yet, though!

  4. Pingback: A Modest Plea Against Theological Inclusiveness | fluxofthought

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