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BadiouReview - Badiou
A Subject to Truth
by Peter Hallward
University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Aug 4th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 32)

Why, thus far, has the sizable corpus of a major contemporary philosophical figure in France (someone now installed in the prestigious École Normale Supérieure) been left largely untranslated into English?  Whereas the writings of various French postmodernists have been available in translation for quite some time--for instance, nowadays, Derrida's texts are translated nearly as soon as they appear in the original--the oeuvre of Alain Badiou has been almost totally passed over in silence by Anglo-American continental philosophy.  Thanks in large part to Slavoj Zizek's enthusiastic engagement with Badiou's thought, an engagement that has served to alert English-speaking readers to the importance of his thought, this oversight is beginning to be corrected.  Three shorter books (Manifesto for Philosophy, Deleuze, and Ethics--the last one translated by Hallward) have recently appeared in translation, and more are on the way (including, most importantly, Badiou's 1988 magnum opus, Being and Event [L'être et l'événement]).

One of the many strengths of Peter Hallward's lucid and thorough study of Badiou (a study weighing in at almost five-hundred pages) is the way in which it highlights the uniqueness of Badiou's philosophical position, thus lending support to the suspicion that the odd neglect of this prolific author by normally Europhilic intellectuals enamored of all theories French is far from accidental.  Badiou simply doesn't fit into any of the current, familiar categories according to which the terrain of thought is mapped.  He isn't a transcendental or existential phenomenologist, a structuralist or poststructuralist, a deconstructionist, a semiotician, a psychoanalytic theorist, a traditional Marxist ideologue, or even an analytic philosopher (despite his heavy reliance upon mathematics and logic).  Thus, in the parlance of his philosophy, Badiou is his own "event"--that is, an unrepresented "x" situated "on the edge of the void" and yet ready to disrupt the reigning philosophical "state of the situation" by forcing this state's representational meta-structure to reconfigure itself so as to take account of something novel and unprecedented, something that, thus far, has remained invisible in the eyes of the hegemonic intellectual order.  Badiou is a philosopher for whom a new category must be invented, whose theoretical identity (to be established après-coup) is yet-to-come in a philosophical future that will have been transformed by his own intervention in this field.

The fourteen chapters of Hallward's book are grouped together into four parts.  The first part ("Matters of Principle") charts Badiou's development starting from his early association with Althusser and Maoism up to his "mathematical turn" (a turn that sets the stage for L'être et l'événement as the foundation for all his subsequent work up through the present).  The second part ("Being and Truth") delineates the core structure of Badiou's mature system, explaining the essential components of both his ontology (grounded on post-Cantorian set theory) as well as, to put it somewhat awkwardly, his non- or trans-ontology (i.e., the level, irreducible to being as such, involving the related concepts of event, subject, forcing, and truth).  For Badiou, ontology does not fall under the jurisdiction of philosophy;  rather, ontology is, in his view, a mathematical affair, whereas philosophy's attention should be directed to that which exceeds "being qua being" (l'être-en-tant-qu'être).  The third part ("The Generic Procedures") touches upon, chapter-by-chapter, Badiou's four truth processes, namely, his "generic procedures" as the apparatuses and domains through which subjects, in fidelity to the events that found their subjectivity, draw out truths exceeding the strictures of recognized and legitimated knowledge (one could say "state sanctioned" knowledge, using the word "state" in its broad Badiouian sense).  According to Badiou, love, art, science, and politics are the four spheres through which truths can shine forth and be explored.  The task of philosophy (in this third part of the book, Hallward includes a chapter on Badiou's answer to the question "What is philosophy?") isn't to produce its own truths, but to carefully think through the manner in which the amorous, artistic, scientific, and political truths of the here-and-now are possible in conjunction with each other;  Badiou maintains that philosophy is externally conditioned by, instead of internally conditioning, the truths produced through the generic procedures.  In part four ("Complications"), Hallward moves in two directions.  First, he carefully explains the quite recent twists and turns of Badiou's ongoing work, including those places where Badiou has changed his mind about some of his earlier positions (Hallward provides readers with tantalizing previews of Badiou's forthcoming texts in which these developments unfold, including Le siècle and Logiques des mondes--as well as the unpublished seminars entitled Théorie axiomatique du sujet).  Second, Hallward articulates a series of criticisms bearing upon some of Badiou's most central philosophical axioms.  He tends to attach the caveat to these criticisms that Badiou is still in the process of resolving these difficulties.  However, in the case of Hallward's more telling blows, it's hard to see how the Badiouian system might cope with such challenges.

            Hallward portrays the essence of Badiou's philosophy as residing in its "subtractive" character.  That is to say, Badiou defines the key terms of his system (being, event, subject, and truth) as being inherently anti-relational, withdrawn from the densely tangled structural web of interconnected relations constituted by the state of the situation (i.e., the presentational and representational regime governing what entities within a given situation "count" as known, recognized, and legitimated).  The anonymous synthesizing operation of "counting-for-one" (always-already presumed from within a situation rather than performed as an active gesture) stands between being qua being (as "inconsistent multiplicity" incapable of being presented or represented in and of itself) and the situation with its accompanying state (as "consistent multiplicity," namely, circumscribed sets of one-ified elements that, through the one-ification of counting, become [re]presentable).

As noted, Badiou claims that ontology is mathematics, more specifically, post-Cantorian set theory.  Badiou's reasons for this claim include the idea that mathematical structures, in their sheer abstractness, are indifferent to the same specific qualitative differences to which being as such is also indifferent--"Badiou equates ontology with mathematics because mathematics isolates the pure gesture of presentation as such, that is, the presenting of something such that the question of what exactly this presented thing is, let alone what it re-presents, never comes up" (pg. 57).  For the typical connoisseur of recent French theory (i.e., a mathematically illiterate humanities scholar), this aspect of Badiou's work is likely to be perceived as too high a barrier to entry.  However, the basic points made by Badiou vis-à-vis set theoretic reflections on the nature of infinity can be grasped even by those allergic to all things mathematical (and, for the more complex issues at stake involving a more nuanced employment of mathematics, Hallward not only goes to great lengths to enumerate these matters in as straightforward a fashion as possible--he also provides an accessible appendix explaining the fundaments of transfinite set theory).  As Hallward explains in the appendix, prior to Cantor, infinity is cast as a never-actually-attained, grand One-All, a notion with a long philosophical and theological history.  A single infinity presumably serves either as an all-encompassing absolute holding everything finite within its embrace or as a transcendent pinnacle existing beyond humanity's reach--a mystical potential, something forever evading the firm grasp of thought.  Cantor's discovery of the infinite variety of infinities, a discovery precisely delineated in the most rational and exact terms possible, destroys this:  there is no One-All, no culminating point wherein the proliferation of number comes to a halt.  If mathematics is the only ontological discourse, then the consequences of this discovery are quite significant.  As Badiou observes, Cantor effectively kills God, shattering the infinite One into infinite fragments--"As soon as we accept a mathematical rather than a metaphysical or 'ethical' conception of infinity, the very notion of a (divinely) inclusive 'One-All' is made irredeemably incoherent...  Badiou's philosophy, we might say, is ontologically atheist" (pg. 62).  So, if ontology is set theory, and if set theory compels the renunciation of the singularity of infinity, then being qua being is without a unifying one, without a containing boundary-limit.  In other words, being qua being is, as Badiou designates it, an inconsistent multiplicity, that is, a multitude of infinitely multiplying multitudes lacking ultimate atoms or aggregates and proliferating in every direction.  However, Badiou also stipulates that situations, as fields of phenomenal disclosure, require for disclosure to occur that this inconsistent multiplicity be rendered consistent through the synthesizing effectuated via the operation of counting-for-one.  Thus, being qua being subtracts itself from any and every situation and its corresponding state.  The mark of this subtractive withdrawal (i.e., Badiou's "void" as the "proper name of being") subsists within the state of the situation as a trace of the necessarily occluded ontological ground invisibly underpinning what occludes it--"Although the being of what was thus counted cannot be presented as the inconsistent multiplicity that it is, its multiplicity continues to hover like a shadowy 'phantom' or remainder on the horizon of every situation" (pg. 64).  Hence, Badiou advances what could be called a "subtractive ontology."

But, as Hallward observes, Badiou's entire philosophy, rather than just his ontology, is subtractive.  The non/trans-ontological plane opened up by the miraculous, ex nihilo upsurge of the event--events are occurrences disrupting the normal "run of things" as dictated by the state of the situation--also involves subtraction.  Both Badiouian ontology and non/trans-ontology are subtractive;  both are subtracted from the domain of relationality, a domain consisting of a regulated status quo order of one-ified presentations and representations.  An event is an intrusion of something foreclosed by a situational state within the interior of this very state, confronting this state with its unrecognized, disavowed ground.  The state doesn't recognize the event as an event--it's dismissed as an anomalous glitch, an aberrant malfunctioning of the established system calling merely for correction (or, at most, some minor technical adjustments).  But, for those who choose to discern in this disruption of present affairs something more, the inauguration of some sort of "revolutionary" shift, the event ushers in a truth demanding of its partisans a faithful labor on its behalf (i.e., the sustained transformative process of "forcing" [forçage], whereby the consequences of an event and its truth are brought to bear upon the framework of extant knowledge vouched for by a reigning state of the situation).  The event generates subjects-of-the-event as those who choose to define themselves in and through their recognition of a particular event as an event per se.  Badiou goes so far as to maintain that subjectivity proper only comes into existence through the occurrence of events, and that every subject is a subject of a particular event.  Subjectivity is always "post-evental," an effect of an event.  The thus-constituted subjects name the event, thereby putting into circulation inscriptions serving as the coordinates that guide the ensuing struggle to alter the state of the situation in the wake of the event--"evental nomination is the creation of terms that, without referents in the situation as it stands, express elements that will have been presented in a new situation to come, that is, in the situation considered, hypothetically, once it has been transformed by truth" (pg. 124).

Badiou's entire system orients itself around a set of points of subtraction:  being's withdrawal, as inconsistent multiplicity, from the consistent multiplicities of situations;  the event's intrusive disruption, both unanticipated and unpredictable, of the present state of affairs;  the subject's breaking, achieved through its decision to relate to its founding event as a proper event, with its human animality, with its petty individuality as an entity specified by a state;  the truth's puncturing of holes in knowledge by confronting knowledge with that for which it cannot and will not account.  Hallward observes that this subtractive approach is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it epitomizes the startling originality and seductive strength of a philosophy that dares to reaffirm a robust notion of universal and ahistorical truth in an era of jaded postmodern relativism (as Badiou puts it, sophistical anti-philosophy's linguistic constructivism holds sway on both sides of the Atlantic).  On the other hand, it's in danger of rationalizing an irrationally stubborn refusal to think through and explain both the pre-conditions for evental sequences (as a pre-evental dimension) as well as the details involved in bringing the ramifications of such sequences to bear on existent relational structures (as a post-evental dimension).  Near the end of his introduction, Hallward states:

This déliaison underlies both the extraordinary ambition of Badiou's philosophy, its unflinching determination, and its own peculiar difficulty--the difficulty it has in describing any possible relation between truth and knowledge, any dialectic linking subject and object.  Rather than seek to transform relations, to convert oppressive relations into liberating relations, Badiou seeks subtraction from the relational tout court.  So long as it works within the element of this subtraction, Badiou's philosophy forever risks its restriction to the empty realm of prescription pure and simple (pg. xxxiii).

As Hallward points out repeatedly, the Badiouian subtractive conception of truth--truth is heralded by an event and forcefully extended in its implications by a militantly faithful subject--stipulates that although events are always situated in "evental sites" (i.e., contextually specific socio-historical configurations in which events first come to light), the truths to which events give rise rupture and transcend the continuums in which their evental sites are embedded.  Badiou, in his efforts to philosophize the New as such, seeks to demonstrate how ahistorical universality immanently emerges out of historical particularity and subsequently explodes the frame of this same particularity--"The singularly true retrospectively eliminates the merely specific circumstances of its advent" (pg. 37).  Or, "Truth is what happens in history, but as a subtraction from history" (pg. 50).  Badiou convincingly demolishes the untenable presumption that truth is socio-historically relative just because its genesis is associated with a particular socio-historical locale (as a given situational state and its "encyclopedia" of knowledge).  In Lacanian-Zizekian parlance, evental sites, as socio-historical locales, contain within themselves "something in them more than them."  The advent of a truth-event (along with the form of subjectivity it engenders) erupts in a sudden flash within the structured regularities of an established order.  And yet, this immanently produced break cannot and must not, Badiou argues, be dialectically reincorporated/reintegrated back into the consistent continuity with which it has definitively and decisively broken (doing so entails failing to recognize the event as an event per se, since, according to Badiou's definition of event, an event is something so new that it confounds attempts to understand its import in terms of the old coordinates of the situational state of its evental site).  The truth-event subtracts itself from its surrounding socio-historical situation, just as the subject-of-the-event, engaged in the work of forcing the event's truth, subtracts itself from the mediating matrix of established objects and forms of knowledge in which the individual supporting this subjectivity just so happens to be located.

            Hallward suggests that Badiou's subtractive approach to truth, despite its various merits, risks remaining strictly prescriptive.  Badiou writes as though he's describing what truth is, but Hallward indicates that subtraction is more an ideal, an imperative guiding how one ought to situate oneself as the subject of a truth-event:  the event ought to be recognized as utterly irreducible to its context of emergence;  the truth ought to be treated as fundamentally incommensurate with extant knowledge;  the subject ought to operate independently of the contingent characteristics of the all-too-human individual.  From Hallward's perspective, Badiou limits the power of his system by refusing to discuss the detailed dynamics through which, for instance, the truth of an event comes to be placed in relation to the encyclopedia of established knowledge (however, Badiou's notion of forcing and the related distinction between truth [vérité] and veridicality [véridicité]--veridicalities are new elements of knowledge yet-to-come, alterations in the situational encyclopedia brought about by virtue of a subjective forcing of an evental truth--at least hint at the unavoidable necessity of positing some sort of relation between truth and knowledge).

In the course of his critical assessment, Hallward offers a way out of this conundrum:  differentiating between the "specified" (as whatever is determined by its situational milieu) and the "specific" (as something particular to a given situational milieu, but, nonetheless, not wholly determined by it).  Hallward contends that "Badiou's system" is governed by a strict dichotomy between "state-driven operations of inclusion or classification, and truth-driven operations of separation or subtraction" (pg. 274).  He then argues that this is, essentially, a false dilemma:  being specific to a state of a situation (i.e., included within a situational state's network of relations) need not automatically entail, as Badiou sometimes seems to assume, being specified by this inclusion (i.e., dominated and controlled by a "state").  But, at the same time, Hallward also acknowledges that Badiou's conception of truth is "firmly situation specific" (pg. 272) and that the evental site, linked to the void of being subsisting within each and every situation, always has an "edge" as a region of contact with its specific situation.  Perhaps Hallward can be construed as saying that Badiou's anti-relational, subtractive thought both explicitly rejects and, all the while, implicitly presupposes something along the lines of the distinction between the specific and the specified.

            The bulk of Hallward's criticisms deal with the post-evental dimension of the problems with Badiou's devaluation of relationality (i.e., queries concerning how the disruptive consequences of the truth-event are brought back into productive connections with situations and their states).  However, Badiou is plagued by difficulties at the pre-evental level too.  In fact, these difficulties might well be the most serious shortcomings of his philosophy.  Hallward again reminds readers that, for Badiou, "Truth subtracts itself from the circumstances in which it is produced, be they social, psychological, or cognitive" (pg. 250).  Simply put, if something is universally and truly true, then it cannot be reduced to the mere background against which it surfaces (this being why, for instance, all the myriad varieties of ad hominem arguments, seeking to de-legitimize a truth by pointing to its positional locus of articulation/production, are fallacious).  What's more, according to Badiou, the empirically delineable features of human beings are incidental with regard to their potential status as subjects faithful to truths.  This blanket dismissal of the relevance of "human nature" in a theory of subjectivity is, as Hallward observes, quite unsatisfactory:

...Badiou's firm dissociation of the process of subjectivation from its enabling 'natural' or 'psychological' conditions may do more to simplify our understanding of that process than explain it.  He defines the human in terms of our exceptional 'capacity for thought,' but shows little interest in the origin and nature of that capacity...  No amount of insistence upon the exceptional or nonnatural status of the subject, however, accounts for or justifies dismissal of the nature of that being which is uniquely able to become exceptional, any more than it helps us understand how and why certain individuals actually become subjects (pg. 284-285).

Correlative to the dichotomy between inclusion and subtraction, Badiou posits a sharp binary division between, on the one hand, the individual (i.e., the human animal, a creature shaped and specified by various situational elements), and, on the other hand, the subject (i.e., an agency exceeding the mere individual, transcending the empirical features of the human animal).  The individual is included in a situation, whereas the subject subtracts itself from its situation.  The individual isn't always-already a subject;  subjectivity is conjured into effective existence through the individual being, as it were, interpellated by an event and its truth.  For Badiou, individuals become subjects, and, as he describes it, subjectivity is something occasional and momentary--in short, the subject is "rare," something literally extra-ordinary.  And yet, Badiou's philosophy fails to furnish any account whatsoever of human nature, a nature that Badiou dismisses as irrelevant to evental subjectivity qua subtracted from situated innerworldly individuality.  Thus, a major question, one that insistently demands a response, is left unanswered:  What is it about human nature that makes individuals intrinsically capable of (at least potentially) becoming subjects?  There has to be something in the constitution of individuals that sustains the possibility of heeding the summons of truth-events.  If, in terms of other aspects of his system, Badiou allows for, broadly speaking, the immanent genesis of the transcendent (i.e., the event arises out of an evental site, trans-historical truth arises out of the defiles of history, etc.), then why not similarly develop an account of human nature that explains how it is that this nature contains within itself the potentiality to transcend itself?  What is it within the individual that enables this individual to step outside of him/her-self in responding to an event?  Hallward remarks that Badiou's "philosophy effectively proscribes thought from considering the production of an event" (pg. 371).  Badiou pronounces a prohibition against all attempts at explaining the preconditions and enabling circumstances precipitating events.  Consequently, in refusing to spell out the particular features of human nature making possible the production of subjectivation-effects, Badiou is at least being consistent.  However, the prescriptive injunction of subtraction (subtract the event from situations, subtract the truth from knowledges, subtract the subject from objects) both hobbles and eclipses the necessary-yet-neglected task of, at a minimum, explaining how and why humanity is able, from time to time, to inhabit those infinite planes opened up by events.  What mediates between the evental site and the event?  What mediates between the individual and the subject?  Badiou remains silent.

            Although critical of Badiou towards the end of his study, Hallward is, by and large, an enthusiastic and eloquent advocate on behalf of Badiouian thought.  The bulk of the book consists of clear and detailed explications of the various facets of Badiou's rich and provocative corpus.  Furthermore, Hallward traces the outlines of those works-in-progress in which Badiou is currently grappling with the sorts of objections and difficulties enumerated here.  Even if his system is judged to be somewhat flawed, nobody who reads Hallward's Badiou could plausibly deny that Badiou forcefully and productively challenges many of the central assumptions cherished by reigning theoretical sensibilities.  Rather than having subtracted Badiou from his environs by engaging in idiosyncratically obscure and hyper-technical exegesis--this is always a risk with a complex systematic philosopher unfamiliar to many of the readers being addressed--Hallward succeeds in putting Badiou's ideas into relation with the key questions of the philosophical present, questions of burning concern to anyone who thinks.




© 2003 Adrian Johnston


Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. holds a position as interdisciplinary research fellow in psychoanalysis at Emory.


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