Thursday, May 8, 2008

Badiou's Ethics

Perhaps reading Being and Event before any of Alain Badiou’s other books means that I read his smaller essays more sympathetically. Certainly, I would have taken a different attitude to the (quite lucid) sketches and condensations of his larger philosophy that Badiou gives here and there in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, if I did not know in what detail he worked them out earlier.

Verso has bundled together with the essay on ethics a long interview with translator and Badiou scholar/interpreter Peter Hallward. The interview is in some ways quite a different thing, and at first appears tacked-on; however, it answered, or tried to answer, questions about politics that the main essay left me asking. There is also an introduction from Hallward, which on principle I did not read. Judging by the questions that he asks of Badiou in the interview, it’s probably a good introduction. However, since this book already seems to be a kind of introduction to Badiou, I would strongly recommend that new readers go directly to the beginning of the main text.

Badiou writes against the ideology of human rights, in particular the discourse that takes as its organizing point Nazism and the Holocaust. According to this facile way of thinking, he says, evil is self-evident, and the great ethical task is to intervene in the world to stop these evident evils (which tend to be genocides). This whole ‘ethical turn,’ he argues in the first chapter, is a regression from the anti-humanist and specific engagement of the 1960s.

The second chapter is devoted to a critique not so much of Levinas, but of the distortions, simplifications, and misunderstandings of his work that circulate. Interestingly, Badiou takes as fairly obvious that Levinas’ ethics as first philosophy rests on an essentially theological foundation—this is a matter of some debate, and arrived at only painfully in other circles. Badiou argues that it is in fact impossible to attach any permanent rights to humans-as-animals. That is, against Levinas (or a version of him), there are no rights or obligations for others tattooed on our human faces.

For Badiou ethics as a struggle to avoid radical evil, which is how it is usually posed, is a “figure” of nihilism. He makes a series of arguments here, especially having to do with the repeated invocation of the Holocaust as both that which is absolutely singular and also something constantly to be struggled against. In the end, though, his real problem is with ethics as negative. It is not an ethical position, in his view, to simply try to mitigate cases of the most massive human suffering (never mind the enormous potential for self-serving, hypocrisy, and voyeurism inherent in the current way of thinking about this—I wonder what he thinks about Myanmar, about this specific case of ‘human rights interventionism’?). For Badiou, it is only meaningful to understand ethics as somehow a positive imperative, and it is only from this perspective that it is possible to understand Evil.

Now, I myself have run across the argument, which Badiou must always brush aside, that Evil occurs when people try to change the world in radical or utopian ways. This is Arendt; this is any number of less worthy lights from the postwar period. It is either a liberal or a conservative, and in any case a deeply anti-Marxian position. Although I’m not exactly convinced by most of Badiou’s brief comments on historical specifics—for instance: the Terror was really the result of the pressure of external war on the Revolutionary situation—I appreciate the search for a positive ethics, and his courageous acceptance of the principle that with positive ethical imperatives comes positive evil. How does this work?

Only subjects are able to reach (up to) Good, and so also Evil. A subject is not the same as an individual human organism, though they sometimes overlap. A subject is formed always and only through fidelity to an event via a truth-procedure. The fourth chapter of Ethics sets this out in terms of an ethics of this truth-bearing subject—which is infinite in its variety, but may take one of Badiou’s four famous forms of truth: political, scientific, amorous, artistic. Of course all this, and its relation to the event, is central to Badiou’s thinking. The chapter seems to me like a good way in, though I won’t pretend to have grasped things so well as to be able to make such a judgment. At any rate, people who want to know more are referred to Being and Event and other books.

If the Good is thought of in terms of successful fidelity to an event through the bearing of a truth-procedure, ethics will always be specific to the situation of the fidelity. So, again, there is no universal principle, except perhaps that of specificity. For me, there are some problems hooking this into any meaningful analysis of global capitalism—I suspect that for Badiou these analyses would be scientific, and no doubt very important, but would not have the kind of radical meaning that Marxists of an older stripe would give them. This is discussed in the interview, and is something for which (the incorrigible) Zizek has criticized him. Badiou does not privilege economics. The emancipatory struggle must be political. Capital, despite the empirical power that it wields today, should not be granted any metaphysical status. I haven’t decided quite what I think about this yet.

Evil, then, which is related to the Good of the truth-process, is to be understood in terms of a typology of failures of fidelity to the event. This is all set out in the long fifth chapter, and I won’t try to recap it here. Suffice to say that this is where Badiou’s own philosophy does the most work. We end up with three names, or kinds, of Evil. The first is “to believe that an event convokes not the void of the earlier situation, but its plenitude” (71). Badiou here discusses the Nazis, who are after all the inescapable point of reference. It is crucially important for Badiou that Nazism was not fidelity to a real event, but rather was real fidelity to the simulacrum of an event. Rather than practice fidelity to the name of the void of the event (which seems to be 1917—shades of Ernst Nolte?), which is always emancipatory because empty, Nazis were faithful to a plenitude (Aryan-ness) and were therefore obliged to exteriorize the void, especially around the name ‘Jew.’ If one does not embrace and practice fidelity to the void as possibility, then it becomes necessary to eject this void and enforce it around one’s self. In this way, the Evil Nazi subject contained in its essence the genocidal impulse, enforcing the void.

I’m playing a bit fast and loose with Badiou’s vocabulary here, which is dangerous, but this is an excellent example of something that Hallward presses him on in the interview: the void is a concept taken from set theory, and is crucial for Badiou’s ontology. Here it slides very quickly from the ontological to the ontic and goes from being a name for the constitutively nameless to a sort of neologism for killing human animals. Badiou’s answer to Hallward was not, for me, entirely satisfactory.

The next form of Evil—or, rather, name of Evil—is betrayal. This is less well developed than the other names of Evil, and seems to me in fact the most salient one. It can occur when one convinces one’s self that the truth one is practicing is in fact a terror. That is, you betray the fidelity you have been practicing, and, crucially, deny the very possibility of subject-hood associated with it. This is understood as a failure of courage, but it seems to me just as easy to read as an empirically-based decision. This is a major problem, I think, for Badiou—there is no way to know, or test, a truth, since it exists only as it is born by a subject. So how is a well-meaning person to be certain that they are not a Nazi, practicing what appears to be fidelity to the universalizable void of a situation (as, he says, Heidegger briefly and foolishly thought), while in fact they are externalizing the void in order to give place to the particular plenitude? In short, how do we know what is a universalizable and an immortal truth-procedure, and what is a scam? Badiou’s answer seems to be a kind of secular faith, or courage. At a certain point, one must decide.

There’s more to say here, but I want to pause and point out my problem with two sorts of words that Badiou uses that bother me. The first is his mobilization of the universal/particular. This, I think, is justified by, or at least connected to, math. Many systems and modes are universalizable, he suggests. Politics, further, is always about the universal. I’m not certain what the import of these claims are, and especially how one thinks about this universalist impulse within the situation, which is always where his ethics stays. The answer, I suppose, is a kind of ontological proceduralism? It’s the fidelity that is universal, and the subject that is immortal, rather than their content? What does he mean by Immortal? Plato, I think, is the reference point here, but I’m not familiar enough with all that to know what he might be making of it. It seems to me that Immortal is what we in fact are, as subjects, according to Badiou. Humans are different from other animals because they can be subjects of truth, and therefore immortal. Fine, but again I’d like to hear more about—though it sounds ridiculous—the content of this immortality.

The last name of Evil is the disaster—or, the temptation of totality. Again, it seems that this has to do with the void and the nature of the situation. It is an ontological rule that descriptions of situations are not co-extensive with the situation. A disaster is when fidelity to the truth-procedure attempts to name every element of the situation, which in principle cannot be totally named by any language. I believe it is here that Badiou mentions Gödel’s theorem. It is Evil, then, to take one’s fidelity to a truth-procedure, and march it into every corner of the situation. This is to say, no truth is total, and so no one fidelity may be used to organize the entire world. The distinction here is between what Badiou calls ‘opinion,’ which is what we normally use to operate in the world, and the truth-procedure. The first is incoherent and messy, the later is totally consistent. Evil happens with this consistency is enforced.

Especially here at the end, I’m simplifying considerably and stripping away most of Badiou’s language. I’ve signaled most of the places where there seem things left out to me, where gaps or failures seem especially clear. Some of this no doubt comes from my unfamiliarity with the larger body of his work, some no doubt from failure to read well enough. As to whether I think this is a good way of understanding the world...well, this is another question.

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