in Frieze | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

Event Horizon

Love, truth and radical politics in the philosophy of Alain Badiou

in Frieze | 11 NOV 02

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is. Not yet, not now, not here: in the midst of things, before the smoke has cleared, dust settled, witnesses been grilled, accounts tallied. None the less, something occurs, something beyond the frontiers of what was previously thought possible (or even imaginable), something unprecedented: an event. Will it make sense? Later, maybe: given a lull, an interval, the sober effort of reflection, thought and sedulous fidelity to the shock of the new.

The history of literature is full of such moments. Michel de Montaigne recounts in his Essays (1580) how he was thrown from his horse and lay bloodied and swooning, literally no longer himself: 'me thought, my selfe had no other hold of me, but of my lips-ends'. In the solitude of his study his accident is transformed into a whole new attitude towards his own death. William Wordsworth, in the summer of 1790, intoxicated by the revolution in France, scaled Mont Blanc and, lost in expectant reverie, failed to recognize the summit; only later, in the pages of The Prelude (1805), will this moment of sublime disarray take its place in his narrative of poetic rebirth.

Alain Badiou's philosophy suggests a rigorous taxonomy of such instants: those moments when the plates of certainty shift, the map crumples and the landscape is reborn. The event is the uncertain point at which everything changes. Its territory is mapped according to the compass points of what he calls the 'conditions of philosophy': art, politics, love and science. The artistic, political, amorous or scientific event is something wholly unpredicted, a breach in calm chronology, a kind of temporal seizure. Only when the revolutionary spasm has subsided may we begin to understand what it was that grasped us. The role of the artist, political militant, lover and scientist is to bear witness to the cataclysm of the event, to pledge a certain fidelity to whatever it was that just happened. The proper name for this process, says Badiou, is truth. The job of the philosopher is to judge of this fidelity, to pay attention to the variety of truths emerging from each discrete but related sector. 1

Born in Morocco in 1937 and educated from 1956 to 1961 at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Badiou's first major political allegiance was to the United Socialist Party, with whom he campaigned against France's colonial war in Algeria. In the 1960s he came under the influence of Louis Althusser's re-reading of Marx and Jacques Lacan's return to Freud. In the 1970s, after that Freudian-Marxist conjunction seemed to have failed in May 1968, he occupied an increasingly marginal position: a Maoist with a very traditional faith in philosophical rigour, surrounded by contemporaries intent on either a neo-conservative volte-face or a post-Marxist falling away from faith in militant truths.

But Badiou endured: the great scandal of his thought is his continued faith in philosophy. Where much philosophical and critical thought of the last 30 years has taken on a melancholic tone, a language of mourning dedicated to raking over the ashes of Reason, Progress and History (those big words that frighten us, as James Joyce put it), Badiou refuses to join in the wake.

Philosophy, he believes, is only just getting started. Hence his faith in the category of the event: the unguessable arrival of something else. In the realm of art this means holding true to the rigours of experiment, the total dedication to the uninvited that drove the 20th-century avant-gardes. We could speak of a Duchamp event, a Joyce event: constellations of works, texts, innovations whose meaning would only later become clear. In the realm of love the proper fidelity is to the astonishing event of the amorous encounter, the intimate duality of the couple: a duo that is never subsumed into comforting unity: one plus one does not equal one.

But it is in the field of the political that Badiou's work is most resonant. He scorns the contemporary liberal piety that tries to base a politics of liberation on the concept of the 'other'. The notion of otherness, he says, is just a convenient way of dressing up exoticism, 'the genuine fascination of the tourist for the diversity of morals, customs and beliefs'. With ruthless clarity Badiou declares such differences of no political significance; the real problem, 'incredibly difficult', lies in recognizing our similarities. That recognition is precisely what politicians routinely declare impossible, while making pious noises about diversity and plurality.

Western 'democracy' announces that politics is the art of the possible; Badiou counters that any emancipatory politics worth its name 'always consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible'. Revolutionary politics means making visible the unthought void at the heart of the political situation: the greatness of Marx is to have made the proletariat visible as the unacknowledged void of capital. Contemporary Europe consigns asylum seekers to the same chasm: the supposed impossibility of extending hospitality to those dismissed as 'economic migrants' (those others who are improperly other).

At the same time power borrows the vocabulary of emancipation: 'radical' governments institute reactionary 'reforms'. Ministers filch the revolutionary's language of crisis and emergency: it is 'time for' this or that untimely abomination. As with his use of 'love' and 'truth', Badiou describes this process with a word rescued from its moralistic usage: it is nothing less than 'evil'. Evil refuses the reality of the situation, then dresses that refusal up as a simulacrum of truth. The nihilist response to this would be to give up on truth entirely, retreat into melancholy and nostalgia; Badiou instead turns to those artists and writers whose work is nothing but an openness to truth, to the event as uninvited guest.

He turns, for example, to Samuel Beckett, not usually recruited to the side of hope. But his Beckett is a paradoxical optimist, who wrote in 1948 of having 'nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express'. We must, says Badiou with Beckett, go on. Something, anything, might happen.

1. Badiou's major work, L'Être et l'événement, will be published by Continuum as Being and Event in 2004. Already translated are: Manifesto for Philosophy (1999), Deleuze: The Clamour of Being (1999) and Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (2001).