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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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