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Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of EvilEthics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil by Alain Badiou


Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. and intro. Peter Hallward. London: Verso.

I will say from the outset that I found this book opaque in its argumentation and fundamentally alien to my own philosophical stance. Thus I am happy to stand corrected on any of the points I make here. From my perspective at least, Alain Badiou comes across as an old-fashioned existentialist with a few postmodern trimmings around the edges. His other work enlisting esoteric mathematical and set theory in the discussion of philosophical problems does nothing to alter this impression.

I’ll begin by making a few points of comparison with another thinker with whom I’m more familiar, namely Foucault. Foucault is interested in how truth emerges in and through quite specific historical experiences and the historical complexities of the interaction of truth with power relations, whereas Badiou seems more interested in proposing a number of abstract and eternal ontological principles. Even if the latter are only able to manifest in history and in specific instances and through embodied subjectivities, they effectively transcend time and culture and are universal. As Badiou remarks: ‘I think there are truth-procedures everywhere and they are universal; that a Chinese novel, Arabic algebra, Iranian music … that all this is, in the end universal by right’ (pp.140-1).

Badiou mentions Foucault in his book to applaud his rejection of humanism in the 1960s. He notes that this didn’t mean that Foucault and other anti-humanists of the 1960s were amoral nihilists as they took an activist stance in favour of the oppressed. He doesn’t mention, however, the reasoning Foucault used to support his anti-humanist position. This was precisely that ‘humanism’ provided a very limited and abstract definition of what it was to be human, with the end result that large numbers of people were actually excluded from the ranks of the human. In short, humanism was not inclusive or ethical enough.

Badiou makes the assertion that if the human animal is certainly mortal, humans can transcend that limited animal condition and achieve a immortality through accessing the truth. This ‘immortality’ is guaranteed by the fact that the truths being accessed are eternal and exist across time – even if they still need to be historically embodied or brought into history in order to exist. So individual humans remain mortal, but the truth they bring into history transcends time and culture and makes them (metaphorically) immortal in general and in theory. Thus, we have immortality of some kind of abstract human spirit rather than the human individual.

Unfortunately, I can see no good reason to be convinced by these assertions or by the convoluted arguments around what constitutes an ‘event’, where truth somehow emerges in history and then persists through subjective practices of ‘fidelity’. Interesting ideas, but without any detailed historical or empirical grounding to provide some kind of real world purchase, I remain sceptical.

Badiou makes the interesting point that popular contemporary ethics makes the tacit assumption that Evil, rather than Good is primary. By this, he means that ethics doesn’t crank into gear unless it has an evil (oppression of minorities, discrimination etc) to rail against. This leads essentially to a loss of hope and a diminishment of truth. If we start from ideas of the Good or a Utopian stance against which to measure things then we have a more viable ethics. Fair enough, but again this is all terribly vague. Badiou firmly states that there is no God in his schema (p. 25), but he offers a range of abstract concepts which, it could be argued, do nothing but stand in as problematic substitutes requiring an equal amount of belief and whose power effects remain unclear, for all Badiou’s declared radical political stance.

For a more extensive and perhaps more sympathetic review see Andrew McGettigan on The Philosopher site (Interactive electronic incarnation of the Journal of the Philosophical Society of England)

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

I shall sum up […] the critical operations which I have undertaken [To question] these three themes of the origin, the subject and the implicit meaning, is to undertake – a difficult task, very strong resistance indeed proves it – to liberate the discursive field from the historico-transcendental structure which the philosophy of the 19th century has imposed on it […]

There where one used to tell the history of tradition and of invention, of the old and the new, of the dead and the living, of the closed and the open, of the static and the dynamic, I have undertaken to tell the history of perpetual difference; more precisely to recount the history of ideas as the sum of the specified and descriptive forms of non-identity.

Michel Foucault, (1996) [1968]. “History, discourse and discontinuity” S. Lotringer, ed., Foucault live (interviews, 1961-1984) (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), Translated by Anthony Nazarro, pp. 41-2. Translation modified.

Random thoughts in response
Foucault defines the event as something that has a beginning and an end. Every human experience, activity, idea and cultural form can be analysed as an event or as a series of events. Foucault uses this concept as a way of arguing against metaphysical essences in history. It is important to emphasise that his notion of the ‘event’ shares little in common with the event as it has been defined by other forms of philosophy which define it as the rare and earth shattering eruption of transcendence (or the eternal) into history.

If each event has a discrete beginning and end, it does not exist on its own, it can only exist in relation to other events and to other levels of events. An event when it begins, is already part of a history and a social and cultural structure. It both perpetuates and marks a break or difference – no matter how small – from those structures. It is both the Same and the Other.

Foucault also applies notions of the event, of difference, to his discussion of the formation of the self. The self is likewise an ‘event’. We are born into a language, culture and historical situation and we are trained by, and train ourselves, with the tools produced by our history and culture. At the same time, however, we have the capacity to modify how we belong, to make a unique contribution.

People are continually trying to tie things down and render them the Same so as to maintain social and other forms of order, but the Other, that which is different, keeps on dissolving these orders. One could argue, using worn out and questionable philosophical terms, that in Foucault’s work, this Other is ‘immanent’ rather than ‘transcendent’. Hence the Other is something that is constantly present and in dialogue with what is going on here and now and in ordinary lives. Continual difference pervades our existence, opening up the possibility for transgression at every moment, not just exceptionally. Of course, whether or not people take up the opportunities offered is another matter.

Thus one can oppose the terms ‘difference’ and ‘transcendence’. There is a vast tangle of moral judgment and elitism attached to the notion of ‘transcendence’, given only some people and some situations have access to it or are effected by it. Transcendence also reductively subsumes everything into itself and removes it from history. The term difference never operates this reduction and has far fewer grand pretensions. It doesn’t merely emerge in chosen moments but remains stubbornly historical and of this world. Transcendence has reductive and elitist overtones and is rare, whereas difference is multiple, common and accessible to everybody. Transcendence tends towards a gnostic rejection of the world, a removal to an eternal outside place (or non-place), difference tends towards an active engagement in history and the recognition of injustice.

For thinkers such as Arendt, Agamben and Badiou if the event is indeed singular, only certain events count and those events are rare. These events take on the status of crisis, revolution, exception, the extra-ordinary, the definitive break, wholesale political transformation, the departure from biological or animal necessity. Other occurences simply exist in the shadow of these rare or formative events.

Hannah Arendt, while eliminating the notion of causality and championing the cause of history, posits the idea of the division of action into two forms – one that is characterised as everyday and concerned with the mere maintenance of biological life and the social and cultural status quo and the other as ‘extraordinary action’, which has political and innovative effects. The second form of action is clearly more highly valued than the first.

The risks of elitism in proposing such a divide are high – as has of course been pointed out in various ways by Arendt’s critics. Some people become capable of producing worthy social and historical action, whereas others are condemned to spend their lives as anonymous drones. And disappointingly, especially given Arendt is a woman, those concerned with the biological continuation of the species rather than grand politics, often happen to be women.

Foucault, on the other hand, argues that all actions, thoughts, experiences and physical happenings are historical events which at one and the same time both maintain the status quo and depart from it to varying degrees. Every event by sheer virtue of the fact that it appears in time (history) both belongs to what has gone before and marks a departure from it. This departure or difference can be either virtually non-existent or large – but there is no division in what qualifies as an event and what doesn’t. There are no fundamental ontological differences between types of events, just differences in levels and strategic placement and degrees to which actions or events are transgressive (or not). And further, one has to think very carefully about how one valorises the transgressive.

So rather than a metaphysical reading of the event – where the transcendent comes down and erupts into history or negates history altogether in the maintenance of transhistorical essences, Foucault offers a historical reading where difference permeates everyday existence from moment to moment. This is not to say that the notion of difference is at a fundamental ontological level any more explicable than transcendence or less intriguing, but it is certainly far less pretentious in its ambit and a far more operable and empirically observable notion in terms of the analysis of micro-events and practices.

With thanks to Eduardo Duarte for starting the discussion which prompted these ideas.

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Les philosophes et l'amour: aimer de Socrate à Simone de BeauvoirLes philosophes et l’amour: aimer de Socrate à Simone de Beauvoir by Aude Lancelin

My rating: ***

Aude Lancelin et Marie Lemonnier (2008) Les philosophes et l’amour: Aimer de Socrate à Simone de Beauvoir. Paris: Plon

I was prompted to read this book by Alain Badiou’s reference to it in his essay In Praise of Love. Written by two female journalists working for the prominent French intellectual and cultural weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, this book is a lively, well-written and often subtly ironic account aimed at an educated general public.

The authors point out that love and philosophy have never made happy bed fellows with philosophers engaging in only limited discussion on the notion of love. Further, what discussion does exist, is very one-sided as most philosophers historically have been male.

The philosophers the two authors examine, with numerous additional references to both historical and contemporary works of fiction and other philosophers, include Socrates, Lucretius, Epicurius, Montaigne,Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant. Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Arendt, Sartre and de Beauvoir.

For all the generosity of the authors in trying to render justice to these thinkers, they cannot help but highlight the outrageous hypocrisy and frequently toxic practices and ideas of the chosen philosophers. The two female philosophers, Arendt and De Beavoir, are unfortunately on a par with the men. If one is looking for positive, insightful or even helpful writing on love and male female relations this book demonstrates that one should under no circumstances turn to mainstream Western philosophy (for all Alain de Botton’s attempts to reinstate Schopenhauer in his book The Consolations of Philosophy).

If however, one is interested in some of the less pleasant byways of the human psyche or insights into the historical ideas that have aided and abetted ongoing hostilities between the sexes and the denigration of women, then a reading of mainstream Western philosophy is an instructive if somewhat gloomy experience.

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In Praise Of LoveIn Praise Of Love by Alain Badiou

My rating: ***

Badiou, Alain with Truong, Nicolas (2012) In Praise Of Love. Trans. Peter Bush, London: Serpent’s Tail

I approached this short essay interview about the notion of love (as it is enacted between lovers) with caution. I was not expecting a 75 year old male philosopher to have much to say that would resonate from a female point of view. There was however slightly more on the table than I expected and some of the discussion provided potential food for thought which crossed gender lines.

I was particularly interested by Badiou’s comments criticising the portrayal of love as something that exists in a moment outside of time. This is a view that pervades romantic literature. It is a love that cannot be enacted in the real world or survive through time. It is also reductive, fusing the difference of two into one. A philosopher like Levinas (whose religious focus Badiou rejects but adapts for more secular purposes) would argue, of course, that love presumes difference and can only exist where difference exists, it is never reduction to the Same. Badiou remarks:

‘I think many people still cling to a romantic conception of love that in a way absorbs love in the encounter. Love is simultaneously ignited, consummated and consumed in the meeting in a magical moment outside the world as it really is. something happens that is in the nature of a miracle, an existential intensity, an encounter leading to meltdown.’ (p. 23)

He cites Tristan and Isolde as an example, continuing that we need to challenge this romantic conception which although it might be beautiful in art fails to make the transition to real life. He notes:  ‘Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world’. (p. 24) The duration of love is seldom dealt with in fiction (p. 50) which usually focuses on the ‘ecstasy of [..] beginnings’ (love at first sight, the ‘encounter’) and ends with ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’. He mentions Samuel Beckett as a somewhat unexpected exception. (I might add paranthetically that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is of course a demonstration of the pitfalls of trying to apply the myths of romantic fiction to everyday existence.)

One can look at this problem in relation to a variety of TV series and films. The stock standard romantic comedy of course usually falls within the expected boundaries of the magical encounter and then the happy end. Another ploy is to kill off one or both partners in order to preserve the purity of their love and happiness from the ravages of time. Many American TV series try the strategy of indefinitely postponing what the writers seem to regard as the inevitable suburban and domestic doom of all relationships, by failing to get the couples together in an infinitely prolonged process which fans commonly label as UST or unresolved sexual tension. Henry Jenkins, the noted scholar of fandom, complains about this common fan frustration in a post on his blog titled ‘A Rant About Television’s Difficulty in Representing Committed Relationships’. He observes:

I often suspect that Hollywood’s inability to depict relationships that grow over time has everything to do with the divorce rate in the entertainment capital, very little to do with the constraints of the medium (given how well television depicts the unfolding of interpersonal relationships over time) and even less to do with the desire of fans. (One of the things to pay attention to is how many of the “commitment” episodes for television series are written by a small handful of writers who have consistently ruined every couple they touched.)

He also adds interestingly that ‘contemporary writers seem incapable of writing such relationships — could it be because they are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup?’ The convenient (American) production myth has it that if you get two characters together in a series, viewers will lose interest. Perhaps this is because the writers can’t seem to imagine a relationship other than a white picket fence with both partners doomed to the drudgery of ball and chain domesticity. (Perhaps these writers could read up a bit on alternative models for relationships such as the ‘commuter marriage’, popular in academic circles). A couple of series which readily spring to mind in terms of being unable to come to a sensible resolution on this front are Remington Steele and La Femme Nikita (the 1990s series).  There are many others. Jenkins cites Castle as perhaps an exception, but I beg to differ. Like Bones, I find that if the writing in this series is able to sustain fairly basic (and not terribly adventurous) characterisation, it is less successful in demonstrating how those characters are modified by their relationships with each other.

Attempts to show long(ish) committed relationships in romantic comedies like Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) can also be dreary, unconvincing and unbearably saccharine. One can only wonder what demographic this particular film was addressing.  The story takes place from the point of view of a rich executive male (Nicholas Cage) with a Ferrari and a string of one night stands, who slips into a parallel world of ghastly suburban domesticity of seemingly volontary semi-poverty with a one time girlfriend. The film – or writers – seem irretrievably torn between (what they regard as) the moral example which is life in the suburbs versus the guilty but exhilarating freedom of a high-flying Christmas-neglecting single life.

Returning to Badiou’s terminology, there is good material out there which shows love between couples (of any orientation) as duration rather than the momentary eruption of the eternal into the real, but one has to search for those rare examples amidst the mountains of dross which foreground the love/romance event with all its artificial boundaries and dubious links to the transcendent eternal.

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