Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

1. Immortality

For Badiou, our mystical participation in the heroic Event is our triumph over mortality.

Badiou’s Ethics includes a sustained polemic against a contemporary ideology of human rights that juxtaposes the “passive, pathetic or reflexive subject,” the mere suffering victim, to the “active, determining subject of judgment” that fights on behalf of the hapless victim. This ideology, Badiou asserts, subordinates politics to ethics, has no positive conception of the good, seeing it only as an absence of “Evil,” and defines human rights as nothing more than “rights to non-Evil.”

Badiou never reveals exactly which theorists or theories hold such depressing and idiotic tenets. He includes no citations and analyzes no texts. No doubt, some hold such views, but many, including most of the leading theorists of human rights today, do not.  His method of attack, the attribution of vague and often preposterous generalities and the deduction of disastrous consequences from them, is strikingly similar to that of some of his favorite opponents, such as Luc Ferry.  However, let’s put aside the details of Badiou’s sloppy and abusive attack on his poor opponent. (Should we call them his poor pathetic victims who are never allowed to speak for themselves?) Instead, let us focus on the way in which this attack is symptomatic of something to which Badiou has himself fallen victim.

Badiou’s polemic is certainly correct in attacking victimology, one of the banes of the contemporary world. However, there is a danger both in reducing the person to a mere victim and also in negating absolutely the phenomenon of victimhood. Badiou’s attack goes suspiciously too far in latter direction. This philosopher of the heroic event seems deathly afraid of the very category of victimhood. For example, he states that “the status of victim, of suffering beast, of emaciated, dying body, equates man with his animal substructure, it reduces him to the level of a living organism pure and simple.”  But why this excessive reaction to any attribution of victimhood, this deafness to much of what human rights advocates often say and do? This statement makes sense only if it is seen as an aspect of the affirmation of a heroic, masculinist, Promethean conception of selfhood. An expression of masculinist anxiety in the face of threat of castration or feminization. A Promethean panic reaction.

We should remember that in the phallocratic French language “la victime” is one of the few generic words that is feminine. For Badiou it is not sufficient that one combat the process of reduction of humans to mere victims. Rather one must always see humans as other than victims. For Badiou, l’Homme, “Man,” must never fall to level of “la victime.” “He” must seek to prove himself to be “un Immortel.” As Badiou states it, “An immortal: this is what the worst situations that can be inflicted upon Man show him to be, in so far as he distinguishes himself within the varied and rapacious flux of life…”

Note the typical Promethean view of nature or life as a hostile consuming power that threatens and limits heroic “Man” and challenges him to raise himself up above it, to “distinguish” himself. He cannot bear to be “la nature,” “la vie.” He cannot escape from dependence on his “lower nature,: but he must do his best to transcend it. “So,” Badiou continues, “if ‘rights of man’ exist . . . [t]hey are the rights of the Immortal, affirmed in their own right, or the rights of the Infinite, exercised over the contingency of suffering and death. The fact that in the end we all die, that only dust remains, in no way alters Man’s identity as immortal at the instant in which he affirms himself as someone who runs counter to the temptation of wanting-to-be-an-animal to which circumstances may expose him.”

So for Badiou the disgrace of ordinary humanity is that it exists in a sinful, fallen, animalistic condition from which it must be saved through accepting its higher calling to attain immortality.

“In each case,” he says, “subjectivation is immortal, and makes Man. Beyond this there is only a biological species, a ‘biped without feathers’, whose charms are not obvious.”  Here we have it. Bipeds without feathers are not charming. Thus spoke Badiou.

Perhaps he has a point. This why in New Orleans we so often dress up in utterly charming feathers. But I fear that even this would not satisfy Badiou.  To be honest, I’m not sure if life could ever be charming in Badiou’s fantasized evental world, which at best can only tolerate the richness of human cultural creativity as occasionally useful baggage. I’m not sure if life can ever be charming without the emergence of the carnivalesque, the magical, the marvelous in the midst of the ordinary. Admittedly, a cultural revolution at its most ecstatically nihilistic can rise to the level of cannibalism, but Carnival is the true festival of carnality, of immanence, of celebration of our glorious materiality and embodiedness, of animality with imagination. It shows that the outside is always inside and vice versa. Structure may walk the streets occasionally but the dialectic marches through them on many important occasions. A multitude of small non-Badouian events show that excess, supplementarity, the rambunctious remainder are at the heart of everyday life.

There runs through Badiou’s thought a certain Gnostic contempt for human nature; a positing of a need to prove oneself truly human by transcending our embodied condition and our ordinary humanity, the dangerousness of our cultural and  communal being. I can imagine the militants of Badiou’s groupuscule arriving at a gathering of foreign workers.  They begin, “greetings animals, we are here to help you make yourselves into human beings.”

2. Death

For Badiou, our mystical participation in the heroic Event is our victory over death.

In his Ethics, Badiou states that “I shall call ‘truth’ (a truth) the real process of a fidelity to an event: that which this fidelity produces in the situation. For example, the politics of the French Maoists between 1966 and 1976, which tried to think and practice a fidelity to two entangled events: the Cultural Revolution in China, and May ’68 in France.” (42)

But fidelity to May ‘68 is also an illusion.  Let’s be grateful to Philippe Garrel for his excruciatingly magnificent film “Regular Lovers,” the greatest of all May 68 films. In some ways  I would  like to say that the greatest was Tanner’s “Jonas Qui Aura 25 Ans en l’An 2000,” which is really about a kind of fragile and more human form of fidelity to May 68.  But the masterpiece is Garell’s work of honest and profound infidelity to May ‘68.  As I viewed it, wholly entranced, I thought, how can Garrell inflict so much pain on us, so much truth?  He tells us, with great insight, that the price of fidelity to May ‘68 is death.

In the very long first episode of the film, we see the non-heroic hero, François, at the barricades. There he is, in legendary May ’68 itself, but he is not there.  He cannot fully be in May ’68 because he is at the same time living in his fantasy of 1792. If Garrell had taken us to the barricades of 1792 we would perhaps have found a young non-hero living in his fantasy of 1776, a 1776 that those who were living there in 1776 could have even vaguely recognized.

Garrel inserts in the midst of the film the Kinks’ haunting tune “This Time Tomorrow,” in a scene which was used as a trailer for the film. As we hear this great Kinks song we see young Parisian radical youth, dancing, looking supercool and knowing it, living their fundamental fantasy. Living it and not living it, as the Kinks’ lyrics ominously and tragically hint to us. It was already tomorrow. Their fidelity to the event was their death sentence.  As the story plays out, François remains true to his political event and to his subsequent amorous one. The events are over. The void of uneventful ordinary life remains. His truth procedure leads to a dead end—in this case quite literalyl. How can Garrell do this to us?  How can he tell the truth so cruelly?  It is perhaps an even crueler truth if we do not take the death literally. The symbolic message is that fidelity to the event means surrender to the death drive. It means the kind of death to which Badiou, technically alive, so often surrenders.

This time tomorrow

where will we be

On a spaceship somewhere sailing across an empty sea
This time tomorrow what will we know
Will we still be here watching an in-flight movie show

Will we, like Badiou, still be lost in our fundamental evental fantasy?

3. Life

For Badiou, our mystical participation in the heroic Event is our triumph over nature.

In December of 2007 Badiou did an interview in which he discussed his view of nature and ecology. His comments are quite revealing. They show the degree to which he is blind to whatever does not fit into the narrow bounds of his abstract eventism.

Ecology he says, ‘is a contemporary form of the opium of the people . . . an only slightly camouflaged religion.” He does not, however, present any coherent and informed analysis of the religious dimensions of contemporary ecology movement to perhaps help us a little in assessing the merits of his claim. Instead, he offers a stream of consciousness listing of things he imagines about ecology and does not like: “the millenarian terror, concern for everything save the properly political destiny of peoples, new instruments for the control of everyday life, the obsession with hygiene, the fear of death and of catastrophes.”  Thus, we are to conclude, ecology is “a gigantic operation in the depoliticization of subjects.”  An operation by whom we are not told.  By ecofeminists, eco-Marxists, eco-anarchists, bioregionalists, neo-primitivists, liberal environmentalists, FBI and CIA infiltrators of these movements? Who knows and who really cares?

Obviously, not Badiou.  “It’s the whole vibe of the thing.” One must simply view this ecology thing as a vague amorphous conspiracy. He assures us that “behind it there is the idea that with strict ecological obligations one can prevent the emerging countries from competing too rapidly with the established imperial powers.”  Is there any particular someone who actually has this idea or does the idea somehow do this on its own.  Do Chico Mendes’s rubber tappers have it?  Do the Amungme tribe in Papua fighting against transnational corporations have it? Did the women of the Chipko Movement in India who fought against the destruction of their forests have it?  Don’t ask Badiou.  He obviously opts for the safer Platonoid  theory that the idea does it all on its own.  Next he tells us that “the fact that ecology is practically consensual in our ‘developed’ countries is a bad sign. This is a rule: everything which is consensual is without a doubt bad for human emancipation.” Needless to say Badiou looked at no mere empirical evidence to determine the possible existence and nature of such a consensus. New York Times polls of voters consistently show ecological concerns at the bottom of these voters list of priorities. After decades of presentation of scientific evidence barely half of the US populace believes in anthropogenic climate change, and the percentage has been dropping quickly. This is even more the case in England. So much for the consensus.

Badiou finally delivers his punch line. “I am Cartesian: man is the master and possessor of nature. That has never been as true as today.”  He does not have the slightest suspicion that this ludicrous article of his own arid religious faith is at all problematical, and actually proposes a proof of it.  “The proof,” he says, “is that in order to save a particular species of beetle or tulip, one does not make use of nature, but of State regulations! Nature is therefore in no way a norm situated above humanity.” Notice that in the course of this brief proof this trained mathematician has substituted a quite different conclusion for the original thesis he proposed for proof. There is no possible interpretation of his argument in which the conclusion follows. There is in fact  no inconsistency between grounding norms in nature and humanity being the master of nature. Norms have no way of automatically enforcing compliance by human beings. In any case, the two propositions can certainly not be equated.  Furthermore, nature could generate norms that are consistent with human mastery, so natural norms and mastery are not contradictory as Badiou implies.

But putting aside this incoherence in his argument, what can we say about his key point that the existence of state regulations demonstrates human mastery of nature, which is his central point in the argument. This argument fails miserably. State regulation only demonstrates the existence of an attempt to control some aspect of nature, and in no ways proves that “mastery” exists.  In fact, despite various laws and regulations perhaps as many as 50,000 species are now going extinct each year, and the Sixth Great Mass Extinction in the history of life on earth continues unabated.  Thus Badiou is left with the bizarre contention that state regulation aimed at preventing extinction, which is a monumental failure globally, is evidence of human “mastery of nature,” rather than of humanity’s obvious failure in its attempts to shape nature according to its will. What mass extinction does in fact demonstrate is that humanity is much more capable of destruction of the natural world than of “mastery” of it. As Hegel showed long ago, destruction or annihilation is not only not a form of mastery, it in fact makes mastery impossible.

But in the absence of real mastery, those who aspire to it have another recourse. It is called fantasy.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kurt Jacobsen: A Rambling Introduction

By Paul Hoover: The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

By Andrey Gritsman: Stranger at Home: Poetic Sensibility across Cultures and Languages

By John Nichols: Epistles from the Roadside

By Leonard Quart: Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

By John Long: Got My Kicks on Route 66

By Max Vanzi: Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

By Phaedra Greenwood: Two for the Road

By Warren Leming: Looking for Woody

By John Sinclair: Still on the Road

By Anne Waldman: Interview with Anne Waldman: On All Kinds of Roads

By Thomas de Zengotita: Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

By Vincent Czyz: Plato’s Gospel

By Joseph Lowndes: Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

By Stephen Eric Bronner: On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

By John Clark: Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

By Carmen Francesca Banciu: Pollen and Diamonds

By Aaron Leonard: Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

By Lawrence Davidson: Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Denise Poche Jetter: Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

By Jason Scott: Megan Boler, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times