Meillassoux on Alain Badiou’s Being and Event

“I will thus attempt to explain a nodal and seemingly paradoxical thesis of Badiou’s: that there is only a history of the eternal, because only the eternal proceeds from the event. In other words: there is only a history of truths insofar as all truth is strictly eternal and impossible to reduce to any relativism.”
– Quentin Meillassoux, History and Event in Alain Badiou

Quentin Meillassoux in this essay tells us that Alain Badiou in Being and Event (BE) maintains that there are eternal truths, but that they are not unifiable in a metaphysical system, because they are distributed among four truth procedures: science, art, politics, and love—philosophy itself not having the capacity to produce truths. The idea that the production of truth occurs only within science, art, politics and love, but not in philosophy might seem counter to most philosophical discourse as we’ve come to know it, yet this is exactly what Badiou affirms. Furthermore these truths do not situate themselves in some perfect heavenly world of Ideas (Plato), instead they arise out of an undecidable event and from a fideltiy of subjects that attempt to investigate their world in light of it Meillassoux also relates that Logic of World (LW) reveals to us that all processes lacking truth are not historical in the true sense, but have been reduced to a simple temporal modification without the capacity for truth and the subjects who adhere to it.

He tells us that the three principle terms of BE are history, event, eternity but that to understand them we will need to understand the two “constitutive theses” of Badiouian philosphy:

1. Mathematics is ontology

His ontology is based on set-theory and reveals that any mathematical entity is multiple. To be is to be a set: pure multiplicity.As Meillassoux explicates: “Being is not therefore a multiplicity composed of stable and ultimate unities, but a multiplicity that is in turn composed of multiplicities. Indeed, mathematical sets have for their elements not unities but other sets, and so on indefinitely. When a set is not empty, it is composed of multiple sets.” That he admits to a Platonized world, it is not a unity of the One, but of mulitplicity where being, far from being a stable foundation for a phenomena that would be perishable in relation to it, is “pure dissemination, withdrawn from our immediate experience of reality, where we discover on the contrary, in daily life, consistent multiplicities”.

No longer being concerned with what is the philosopher can now concentrate on “being’s exception” – the event: a “multiple belonging to itself” – something, Meillassoux tells us, is forbidden for set theory and referred to by mathematicians as  extraordinary. This strange multiple emerges from within art, science, politics, and love which for Badiou are “truth procedures” – the “four fields of thought where genuine events can be produced, and as a result—eternal truths”. One of the best explications of Badiou’s term event is described in detail by Meillassoux:

“The political example is, as it often is with Badiou, the most immediately accessible. What exactly do we mean, when we say that “May 68” was an event? In this expression, we are not merely designating the set of facts that have punctuated this collective sequence (student demonstrations, the occupation of the Sorbonne, massive strikes, etc.). Such facts, even when joined together in an exhaustive way, do not allow us to say that something like an event took place, rather than a mere conjunction of facts without any particular significance. If “May 68” was an event, it is precisely because it earned its name: that is to say that May 68, produced not only a number of facts, but also produced May 68. In May 68, a site, in addition to its own elements (demonstrations, strikes, etc.), presented itself.”

The key to the event is “precisely that an event is the taking place of a pure rupture that nothing in the situation allows us to classify under a list of facts.” He formulates it as this: “the event is that multiple which, presenting itself, exhibits the inconsistency underlying all situations, and in a flash throws into a panic, their constituted classifications. The novelty of an event is expressed in the fact that it interrupts the normal regime of the description of knowledge, that always rests on the classification of the well known, and imposes another kind of procedure on whomever admits that, right here in this place, something hitherto unnamed really and truly occurred.” Speaking of the French Revolution he tells us that to call “a Revolution the Revolution, is thus to affirm the sense in which one remains faithful to a hypothesis: the hypothesis, the wager, that something fundamental is being produced in the political field that is worth being faithful to, while trying to draw out that which, at the heart of the situation, upholds an emancipatory truth in the process of elaboration, and which opposes all the forces of the old world”.

2. All truth is post-evental

This is how all truth is post-evental: “we understand in what way a truth, being the patient result of a series of local inquiries under a wagered hypothesis of an undecidable event, cannot exist outside the concrete history of subjects. But how is it that such truths can be at once eternal, and yet the bearers of history, the only genuine history? It is because a truth is the bearer, by right, of an infinite number of consequences: a set of inquiries therefore, by right, inexhaustible, and capable of being extended to historical moments in profoundly different contexts. In other words, a truth is the bearer of theoretical movements that form among themselves a historicity both profound and discontinuous”.

He tells us that truths are eternal and historical, eternal because they are historical: they insist in history, tying together temporal segments across the centuries, always unfolding more profoundly the infinity of their potential consequences, through captivated subjects, separated sometimes by distant epochs, but all equally transfixed by the urgent eventality that illuminates their present. They “give birth to history itself through their reactivation, making their inexhaustible potential for novelty intervene in the monotonous train of daily work, ordinary oppressions, and current opinions”.

1. Quentin Meillassoux. HISTORY AND EVENT IN ALAIN BADIOU, translated by Thomas Nail (PARRHESIA NUMBER 12 • 2011 • 1 – 11) – (warning: pdf)

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