Alain Badiou’s Interstitial Thought of Philosophy, Politics, and Psychoanalysis

The Emergence of New Truths and the Vicissitudes of Old Thoughts

Truth is neither only out there nor resides solely within. Truth is the effect of a conflict-event between the subject and the world of objects. Diving into oneself from time to time may indeed be necessary for touching the truth of being, but one also has to come back up to the surface from the mystical depths and transmit the being of truth in such a way as to initiate a transformative intervention at the level of percepts as well as affects.

Ultimately life is the wager, made on a body that has entered into appearing, that one will faithfully entrust this body with a new temporality, keeping at a distance the conservative drive (the ill-named ‘life’ instinct) as well as the mortifying drive (the death instinct). Life is what gets the better of the drives. (Badiou, Logics of Worlds 509)

In his essay entitled Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (19-26) as well as in the final part of Being and Event and the last book of Logics of Worlds, Badiou investigates the relationship between science, philosophy, politics and psychoanalysis in relation to the legacies of Plato, Descartes, and Lacan. In these three texts by Badiou what’s at stake is the correlation of being-thinking/truth-event in conjunction with the logic of appearance, the critique of phenomenology and the emergence of the subject. Although Badiou calls thinking the non-dialectical unity of theory and practice, and compares the act of thinking as it takes place in science, politics, philosophy and psychoanalysis, here I will limit my rendering of his stance particularly to the interaction between politics and psychoanalysis, with philosophy as the mediator in-between.

In psychoanalysis the goal is to think the singularity of the human subject confronted by language and sexuality, hence there is a tension between the universal and the particular at work. Psychoanalytic thinking searches for a new possibility of the subject suffering from symptoms and the aim of the cure is to reduce suffering to a minimum. Psychoanalysis works towards the normal functioning of the subjective structure. The subject’s accommodating its real is the aim, so that the symptom of the real is displaced and the subject is re-accommodated in relation to its real. For psychoanalysis the relation to the real is inscribed in the structure, but in politics the real is subtracted from the state. While political action displaces the real itself and not only the symptom of the real, psychoanalysis wants to think the difference of the sexes as the real. So Lacan can say that “there is no sexual relation.” For psychoanalysis the real is negative, a source of scepticism. There is always a conflict between the real life of individuals and the symbolic order of the state. In this sense if psychoanalysis listens to politics it is exposed to scepticism (negative axiom), and if politics listens to psychoanalysis it is exposed to dogmatism (affirmative axiom). Politics and psychoanalysis, however, can encounter each other in a productive manner in and through philosophy. Being neither an imaginary construction or empty symbol, truth can touch the real of the subject’s desire as well as transcending the regime of opinions. Rather than being a correspondence between thought and thing, for Heidegger truth is unveiling, for Althusser production, and for Badiou it is a process. As for Lacan, truth is not adequation between language and thing but the “depositing of speech in the big Other.” Precisely because thought has no direct access to the real, truth is the effect of a separation, not a correspondence. Consequently, truth is nothing but an encounter with the real by way of which the void is mediated, generating a rupture between the thought of the subject and the object of thought.

At the end of this process truth appears as the disappearance of absolute knowledge; truth emerges as absolute knowledge absolves itself. For Heidegger, truth is the structure of the forgetting of being, whereas for Badiou truth emerges with the disappearance of the event which gives birth to it, the event becomes the absent cause of truth, just as for Lacan what founds the truth is the big Other as a void in symbolic knowledge, a result of the separation between thought and the Real…

The Difference Between Being and Existence

In his essay entitled Existence and Death as well as in Logics of Worlds, Badiou makes it explicit why being and existence are not the same thing. According to Badiou existence is an ontic category, it is being-there as a substantial object, or being-in-the-world as Heidegger would put it, whereas being is an ontological category which does not require an earthly subsistence, it resides in the domain of the subject without a substance.

It is this “Cartesian” motif of the subject as infinite-existence in and by freedom that supports the famous Sartrean definition of consciousness, that is to say of existence: “a being that is in its being the question of its being, insofar as this being implies a being other than itself.” A definition about which a humorist once remarked that it used the word “being” five times only to designate nothingness. The immediate consequence of this definition is indeed that consciousness is not what it is, and is what it is not. If existence is infinite freedom, it is the constant putting back into question of its being, never identifying itself with the forms of being that it takes on, and holding itself beyond these forms which are nothing but its singular outside, or its transitory objectifications. (Badiou, Existence and Death 63-73)

In Kierkegaard and Heidegger at the beginning there is anxiety which is a subjective experience of negativity, but philosophy cannot continue ad infinitum at an individual level. Husserl’s époché involves the suspension of any relation to objectivity, he, too, begins with pure being separated from existence. The movement is from being to existence, from that which is not here to that which is there. Husserl equates being and experience. In this case phenomenology turns out to be the idea that we cannot go from being as experience to being as existence, or from subjective non-being to objective being. When Husserl removes consciousness and intentionality from the scene he drifts towards nihilism, which is the conviction that the experience of negativity cannot be interrupted, that anxiety cannot be overcome, that suffering is inevitable as a condition of philosophical novelty, that affirmation is impossible, that nothing other than experience exists. Badiou, however, affirms that truths exist. His is a positive affirmation of existence, claiming that there is a distance between being and existence which has to be traversed. The immortal subject of truth goes beyond the lived experience, negative distance between being and existence is turned into a positive gap, a thinking of negativity and not only an experience of it is at stake. Although Husserl’s thought is immanent it is still a negative relation to infinity within finitude. A dialectical reading reveals that Husserly goes from nothing to one and Badiou goes from void to infinity.

Badiou’s being is not a solid, organically self-integrated and homogenous domain of reality, but rather inconsistent multiplicity. There is no ultimate being qua being, being is a non-totalisable multitude stricken with tensions and antagonisms which initiate the event and make change possible. Being introduces a split in the order of becoming, a rupture, a discontinuity, which is why Badiou has to explicate the structure of being in and through set theory according to which the singular in-itself doesn’t exist. It is at this point that the notion of universal singularity becomes an effect and a function of the advent of a novel idea in the present.

According to Kant we cannot know the real of being but we can think it nevertheless. He identifies the a priori in his Introduction to The Critique of Pure Reason, and in the way of a non-metaphysical ontology introduces the notion of a priori synthesis. At the beginning Kant thinks that knowing the distance between to be and to exist is impossible, but then he goes on to construct the knowledge of this distance. The distinction Badiou makes between being and existence becomes clearer as it is situated in relation to Kant in Logics of Worlds.

I have posed that existence is nothing other than the degree of self-identity of a multiple-being, such as it is established by a transcendental indexing. With regard to the multiple-being as thought in its being, it follows that its existence is contingent, since it depends—as a measurable intensity—on the world where the being, which is said to exist, appears. This contingency of existence is crucial for Kant, because it intervenes as a determination of the transcendental operation itself. This operation is effectively defined as ‘the application of the pure concepts of the understanding to possible experience’. In my vocabulary—and obviously with no reference to any ‘application’—this can be put as follows: the logical constitution of pure appearing, the indexing of a pure multiple on a worldly transcendental. But, just as with the object, Kant will immediately distinguish within this operation its properly transcendental or a priori facet from its receptive or empirical one. (Badiou, Logics of Worlds, 237)

An object is a being which appears in the world and is measured by its degree of existence. In Kant the object is different from being, true being cannot be known as an object, pure being is always a subjective experience. Kant distinguishes between the ontic and the ontological, but for Badiou this difference has degrees. Pure materialism considers the being and the object to be the same thing. There is no difference between being and its appearance in the world. The object is a subjective creation for Kant, being as such is present in the object itself. For Badiou being as such cannot be reduced to the object in the world but mathematics has access to pure being as pure multiplicity although this pure multiplicity cannot be reduced to an object or a thing that exists. So Badiou can say that death is being in the world with zero degree of existence and life is a process of disappearance in the world. Living/Dying is a movement towards a minimal degree of existence. In an event we have the appearing of being in the world. According to Marx, for instance, proletariat is the true being of society and a revolution is the becoming visible of the truth of society. Identity of the object and the thing requires revolutionary action to initiate a becoming equal of thing and object, to cause a change of places in the hierarchy of being, object and thing, an effectuation of being in existence resulting in an emergence of a new truth as a consequence of a fidelity to an event which changes the coordinates of a given situation.

In what it would instead call an ideological conception of Life, democratic materialism sees nothing but fanaticism and the death instinct. It is true that, if there is nothing but bodies and languages, to live for an Idea necessarily implies the arbitrary absolutization of one language, which bodies must comply with. Only the material recognition of the ‘except that’ of truths allows us to declare, not that bodies are submitted to the authority of a language, far from it, but that a new body is the organization in the present of an unprecedented subjective life. I maintain that the real experience of such a life, the comprehension of a theorem or the force of an encounter, the contemplation of a drawing or the momentum of a meeting, is irresistibly universal. This means that, for the form of incorporation that corresponds to it, the advent of the Idea is the very opposite of a submission. Depending on the type of truth that we are dealing with, it is joy, happiness, pleasure or enthusiasm. (Badiou, Logics of Worlds, 511)

Badiou attributes four distinct affects corresponding to the faithful subjects of the four conditions of philosophy: enthusiasm for the political subject, pleasure for the subject of art, happiness for the subject of love, and joy for the scientific subject. These affects characterizing the individual generic procedures are then supplemented with a universal process of four other affects which signal the incorporation of a human animal into the process of becoming the subject of truth: terror, anxiety, courage, and justice.

To oppose the value of courage and justice to the ‘Evil’ of anxiety and terror is to succumb to mere opinion. All the affects are necessary in order for the incorporation of a human animal to unfold in a subjective process, so that the grace of being Immortal may be accorded to this animal, in the discipline of a Subject and the construction of a truth. (Ibid. 87)

The constitutive link which has come to be considered missing between the mental phenomena and the physical entities is actually a non-relation rather than an absence of relation, for it is neither transcendent nor immanent to the subject, but is rather the manifestation of phenomenal affectivity supplemented with mathematical ontology intervening in the ordinary flow of things and thereby initiating a rupture in time itself.

But the ontological break, whether mathematizing or vitalist, does not suffice. We must also establish that the mode of appearing of truths is singular and that it plots out subjective operations whose complexity is not even broached in the purely ontological treatment of Being and Event. What the 1988 book did at the level of pure being—determining the ontological type of truths and the abstract form of the subject that activates them—this book (Logics of Worlds) aims to do at the level of being-there, or of appearing, or of worlds. (Ibid. 8)

An event is that which causes affection which creates the possibility of a new truth. Being a rupture in becoming, the event can only be realised retroactively. The process of a truth is necessary for the recognition of an event as an event. Situation is a pure multiplicity which is turned into a cause by way of which a fidelity to truth is actualised, thereby turning the pure multiplicity into a generic multiplicity. Badiou passes from theory of sets (Being and Event) to theory of categories (Logics of Worlds). Positive affirmation of a new intensity of existence, a qualitative difference signifies the passage from ontology of being to existential intensity by way of a fidelity to an event.

As the degree of the subject’s intensity of existence increases, so does its pain and anxiety in the face of death. This causes hopelessness and despair which may or may not lead to a total devastation of the project of inverting and putting into the spotlight the void at the centre of the subject. Heidegger repeatedly puts all this down in Being and Time when he says that “being-towards-death is angst.” One cure for expelling anxiety has been to believe in God, any other metaphysical construct, or in some cases it has even taken the form of a materialist system of thought; in all these cases, however, an escape is seen as a solution when in fact it is the problem itself. For our concerns, an escapist attitude striving to go beyond that which is here and now does not work at all, since what we are looking for is a way of learning to make use of the reality of the death drive as an interior exteriority constitutive of the subject as a creatively generative agent of change at present, in the time of the living and the dead at once, that is. The Lacanian definition of the subject referred to by Badiou towards the very end of Being and Event sums it all up: “I am not, there where I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am, there where I do not think I am thinking.” (Lacan quoted in Badiou, Being and Event, 431)

At the current conjuncture we don’t know if it is still worth mentioning that neither Badiou nor Henry propose a full blown return to Marx and Hegel, but rather a reversal of the dialectical process in such a way that affirmation comes before negation within the dialectical process itself. Their thoughts signify not a total negation of the dialectical correlation of thought and being but its partial affirmation. Badiou’s thought is Henry’s thought without the affective and qualitative dimension of being and Henry’s thought is Badiou’s thought without the logical and quantitative dimension of being as John Mullarkey puts it in his Post-Continental Philosophy. Henry’s and Badiou’s enterprise as a whole aims at a new conceptualisation of the subjective body and thereby a new subjective mind within and without the capitalist axiomatics at the same time. In both cases the law of the market as the law of finitude based on the exploitation of mortality must be overcome for the sustenance of the conditions for the possibility of transforming the human-animal-machine into the immortal subject beyond the life-death-drives.


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