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EthicsReview - Ethics
An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
by Alain Badiou
Verso Books, 2001
Review by Petar Jevremovic
Oct 12th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 41)

Alain Badiou is one of the most intriguing modern French philosophers. His main interests include rather divergent intellectual spheres: social theory and criticism, highly speculative mathematics (set theory and topology), psychoanalysis (mainly Lacanian), economics, philosophy (theory of subjectivity), literature, even theology. These days he is mainly known thanks to his books Théorie du sujet (Seuil, Paris 1982), L 'Etre et l'évément (Seuil, Paris 1988), Manifeste pour la philosophie, (Seuil, Paris 1989), Saint Paul et la foundation de l' universalisme (PUF, Paris 1997). His style is idiosyncratic, seductive, original, highly allusive and deeply associative. His text is not always easy to follow, his style is highly demanding for his readers, but almost always it is live, exciting and literary well shaped.

His new book (originally published in France as L'éthique: Essai sur la conscience du Mal, Editions Hatier 1998), recently translated and published by Verso as Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, could be seen as a highly sublimated (speculative, discursive) challenge to all that could be named as totalitarian, univocal, metaphysics of our time. The main political context of this book implies feeling for a tension between America and Europe. Thinking about actual Western concept of the democracy (for Badiou) implies really serious thinking about its dark side, about special kind of (not yet recognized) totalitarism. He calls it democratic totalitarism. In good old tradition of famous European (French) Left, he is talking about American imperialism and European (cultural and economic) slavery. There is a lot of (intellectual) activism and criticism in this book. And while doing that he is (almost) never pathetic and romantic.

This book is concerned with ethics. The question of ethics is, for Badiou the question of a principle that governs us in our solving the problem of how do we relate to what is going on. The ethical is actual, it is (fundamentally) with actuality of that what is going on with us and around us. And something more -- this question of actuality is a question of concrete intellectual engagement. The world we are living in is never static, so there could be no static ethics. The notion of situation is the author's conceptual tool for better understanding the dynamics of the world, its political and its ethical dimensions. The real question for Badiou is of how do we, common mortals, understand our (always particular -- never abstract) situation? And this question is the ethical one. It is concern with the ultimate basis of our political (or we could say just social) existence.

For Badiou there is no ethics in general. There could be no abstractly postulated, highly formal, ethics. We need something other than formal ethics. We need (in Badiou's words) the ethics of truth. The ethics is, speaking in the other words, not a matter of formalism. All of the modern formalistic imperatives in ethics, being Kantian or non-Kantian, could be seen as an illusion, as a very dangerous (always potentially totalitarian) illusion. Something (Lacan would say) imaginary, narcissistic. For Badiou, there is lot of misunderstanding in our  understanding of the ethics. His critical discussion of Levinas could be seen as one of his main theoretical contributions to the subject of understanding the ethical matters.

What is it all about? Where to start? The contemporary return to ethics, I already have mentioned Levinas, uses the word ethics in an obviously fuzzy way, but one that is closer to Kant (the ethics of judgment) than to Hegel (the ethics of decision). Ethics today is a matter of a judgment. It could be seen as a vague way of regulating our commentary on historical situations (the ethics of human rights), techno-scientific situations (medical ethics, bio ethics), social situations (the ethics of being together), media situations (the ethics of communications) etc. Ethics today is a matter of commenting, of judging and commenting. All that ethical commenting is deeply metaphysically grounded. Basically it is articulated so that it constantly misses the point. Truth is always somewhere else, never it is in the sphere of the judgment. Highly formalized ethics has its axiological dimension, it openly deals with the question of what is right and what is wrong. It could be more or less coherent... But this is not the whole story. Badiou goes further. All of this has its own social dimension. Every (known) formalization of social or political is blind for the actuality of the concrete. Possible consequences of this could be repression and violence, alienation and suffering. In his way Badiou is telling us his story about civilization and its discontents. Freud was talking about drives and about frustrating necessity of law. For Badiou, in the context of his post-Marxist vocabulary, the modern name for necessity is economics -- the economics of social dominance and alienation. Economics seen as a matter of understanding of (socially constitutive) inter-relatedness of mutual exchange of everything that could be exchanged among individuals. In this sense, we could speak about love, power and desire, sense and meaning, information, signification...

For Badiou, we live in the world of multilevel exchange. We live in the world of multilevel inter-relatedness. This inter-relatedness is far from being chaotic. The place of the logic of this exchange could be (topologically) located on the place of the normative discourse. There is always some kind of the Law. In this sense, the normative is the ethical, and the ethical pretends to be the normative. The normative pretends to be the total. Absolute. The One. Any real plurality is excluded from the One. The mere idea of absoluteness is unavoidable restrictive.

We must face influence and repression of society. We must face official institutions and their values. The norm, the domain of values, is backed up by official institutions, and carries its own univocal authority. Every norm is a matter of inter-relatedness. Every norm is a matter of signification. Every norm presupposes its symbolic articulation. Its way of being commented.The actual state of affairs in contemporary ethics is seen as (not always self-consciously) an attempt to rationalize this situation of necessity of commenting something that has status of the norm, of the Law. The norms are, in the other words, far from being self-evident. There is always a need for commenting, for rationalizing. So we live in the world of various ethical commissions. These commissions are concerned with this commenting-job. They are like New Testament scribes. Typical for them is to sacrifice the truth for their own (Lacan would say paranoid) representation of reality. Oppressiveness of their discourse is metaphysical in its essence. Metaphysical discourse of our time is dominantly ethical, metaphysical oppressiveness is in its root. Its face is impersonal, its nature is institutional. It is discourse of various (institutionalized or not) commissions, institutional commissions. Their products are judgments, and (of course, from the perspective of the normative ethics) judgments is something absolutely fundamental. Submission is something that is expected.

The concept of the Other is one of the basic concepts in most of the current intellectual debates. Marginal groups, minorities -- everything today is intended to prize some kind of otherness. Even we have, Badiou tells us, military expeditions in the name of the ethics of human rights. The dark side of this ethics of human rights is the economics of human submission.

Everything today is done in the name of the Other... Actual theory is full of it. Just think about Levinas. Or think about Lacan, Liotar, Habermas or Derrida. Broadly speaking, theory today is the theory of the Other. Human subjectivity is seen today as an imprint of otherness. In this sense, position of Badiou is rather clearly articulated. For him, the current concept of the Other is deeply problematic. The Kantian (and all post-Kantian) ethics of judgment presupposes something like the subject of the judgment, the subject in absolute sense. Where there is such subject, there must be always some kind of oppressiveness or repression. And where ever there is a such subject, the truth must be sacrificed. There is no ethics in general apart the framework of the subject in general. Ideality of Kantian judgment presupposes ideality of Kantian subject. The totality of judgment needs total (absolute) subject. And his mere absoluteness implicates his repressiveness.

Totalization of ethical discourse stands on abstractly totalized subject æ the subject of modernity. Formal coherence of judgment, something that still sounds like an ultimate ideal of Kantian ethics, keeps hidden in itself something fundamentally ideologic, narcissistic, restrictive and totalitarian. The celebrated Other, holy cow of our time, could be acceptable only if he is a good other... The bad Other could not even be the Other. There is no place for him. Every possible ideology of univocal One excludes him from its world. No-good-other is always excluded. There are no human rights for him. There is no humanity for him.

For Badiou all of the (narcissistically highly invested) respect for differences is a kind of simulacrum. It is nothing real, it is phantasmatic. It is just a matter of illusion, illusion deeply rooted in current state of humanity. "Become like me and I will respect your difference." Not without a bitter irony, this is the way Badiou articulates one of the basic imperatives of our time. Other could be (accepted as) the Other only if he is not (really) the Other. Losing his real otherness would be his way of submission to the universal Law of political and economical dominance.

Everybody today is talking about the Other. Their discourse is, as Badiou tell us, deeply misleading. Contrary to them, Badiou is mainly talking about the Same. His main concern is ontological status of the Same, of the plural and particular. For Badiou there is no single subject. Always there is multiplicity of them. The multiplicity of subjects implies multiplicity of truths. The truth proceeds in the particular situations. In the concrete (particular) situations, there is no platonic heaven of truth. There is no abstract order. There is no abstract Other. The actual subject lives in the world of the many. There could be no one referential Other. Always there are many others, their multiplicity. The world we are living in is no world of otherness, it is the world of the multiplicity. Here Badiou is thinking in the terms of Kantor's theory of infinity. Actual experience of our living multiplicity could be symbolically articulated with the help of Kantor's highly speculative extension of the set theory. For Badiou, even every representation of subject himself is the fictional imposition of a unity upon infinite component of multiples. Badiou is here having in the mind something that he calls an immanent brake, the brake of the immanence.

What is the immanence? The immanence is other side of infinity. The infinite is (no matter do we recognize it or not) immanent. In Badiou's world, immanence is something analogous the Lacanian concept of Real. This immanence (this actual infinity) could never be really totalized. There is no way to avoid no-totality of particular, of immanent. It could never be logically integrated in any kind of discourse. Consequences of this are rather far reaching.

There is no judgment that can formally articulate this immanence. There is no stabile good. There is no abstractly stabilized evil. The world we are living in is not the world of binarity. The multiplicity is more fundamental than any possible binary opposition. Truth is not pre-given transcendent norm. Truth is something that happens. Possible modalities of its happenings are infinite. Every truth is singular. Its singularity is potentially always infinite. Every singular truth has its origin in some singular event. Always it is pluralistic and turbulent, deeply subversive for any possible representation of totality. Never is it static; it could never be caught in the words, in the order of the law. Also there is always something that could never be articulated and symbolically communicated to the other.

The main importance of this book, I believe, lays in its author's courage to see things from rather different perspectives. It is not necessary to agree with him in all of his ideas and to accept all of his theses. On the contrary, priority is on questions not on answers. And the questions that are posed here represents the best richness of this book.
 

© 2001 Petar Jevremovic
 

Petar Jevremovic: Clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, author of two books (Psychoanalysis and Ontology, Lacan and Psychoanalysis), translator of Aristotle and Maximus the Confessor, editor of the Serbian editions of selected works of Heintz Kohut, Lacques Lacan and Melane Klein, autor of warious texts that are concerned with psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and theology. He lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716