Alain Badiou: The Soldier as Metaphor

Today, this configuration is in a state of total crisis. One of the symptoms of this crisis is the return of the old traditions and the seeming resurrection of old dead gods.

– Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Militants

Is this it? Is this our problem: a return of the old sacrificial gods that bespeak a disjunction between the human and the inhuman?  And not an integration of the inhuman into a new sequence of the historical existence of humanity. “Within our own humanity, we must come to terms with the obscure, violent, and – at the same time – luminous and peaceful element of inhumanity within the human element itself” (41).1 Are the rights of humans also as Badiou suggests the ‘rights of the infinite’ (Lyotard)? He reminds us that humans are irreducible to ‘animality’, that the inhuman is a creative potential, the element which does not yet exist but must become. “Humanity as a natural totality does not exist, since humanity is identical to the local victories that it obtains over its immanent element of inhumanity.”(42)

In my last post on Badiou we seemed to be moving toward a politics of hope…we are moving within this next movement toward the figure of the heroic. Now he tells us that the ‘Heroic’ is properly the act of the infinite at work in human actions, while ‘Heroism’ is the luminous appearance, in a concrete situation, of something that assumes its humanity beyond the natural limits of the human animal.

To accept and support this experience of the inhuman element within ourselves, we must, all of us, human animals that we are, make use of certain immaterial means. We must create a symbolic representation of this humanity that exists beyond itself, in the fearsome and fertile element of the inhuman. I call that sort of representation a heroic figure. (42)

Badiou tells us to bid good riddance to the heroic figures of old: we can neither the return to the old figure of religious or national sacrifice nor the nihilistic figure of the last man. Then he asks: “Is there a place, in a disoriented world, for a new style of heroism?”(45) He traces the recent history of the a specific figure, the Soldier, through its lineage in historical events up to our time as typifying all that is erroneous and detrimental to our future hopes and dreams.

As Badiou explicates it the soldier has been the modern symbol of two very important features of the capacity of human animals to create something beyond their own limits, and thus to participate in the creation of a few eternal truths. First, in the figure of the soldier, we know that this creation can be immanent and collective, without depending on religious faith. Second, we know that this creation is eternal within time itself, and not after time.(57-58)

In our day this symbol or figure of the heroic is synonymous with the repetition of acts of death and resurrection (“But what happens if God is dead, as Nietzsche teaches all of us?”); as well as, the romantic figure of the survivor who transfigures death and wounds (“But what happens if war, in our days, has become one giant obscure slaughter?”). (58) He turns to the poets Hopkins and Stevens for a revisioning of this figure and discovers in the end something unexpected:

The poetic transfiguration of the soldier is also the splendid beginning of the end of this figure. We thus know our task to be a very precise one. The period of the aristocratic warrior is behind us, as is the period of the democratic soldier. So much is certain, but we do not find ourselves for this reason at the peaceful end of History. On the contrary, we live in confusion, violence and injustice. We must create new symbolic forms for our collective actions. We cannot do so in a context of global negation and ‘final war’, as was the case for much of the twentieth century. We are bound to uphold the new truths in the context of their local affirmation, encircled by endless conflicts. We must find a new sun – in other words, a new mental country. As Stevens says: ‘The sun is the country wherever he is’.(58-60)

Find a new Sun? A new mental country? Poetry? The end of this essay leaves one perplexed wanting more, wanting a definitive argument, something we can grasp and struggle with rather than the poetics of new suns and mental countries…. What is Badiou up too? Is this turn toward idealism an answer? Are we suddenly to enter some parallel realm or utopian nowhere/elsewhere and find the truth of our future coming toward us? Tell us Badiou, just what are you really up too? What symbolic forms will these collective actions take?  What new truths for new local affirmations? The embattle cry of militant philosophers in the streets? Something else altogether Badiou offers:

In the end we can say that the soldier is a metaphor that contains three fundamental features of the human being when he or she is seized by a truth: First, it is an example for everybody, a universal address; second, it is the very type of what can be done by somebody when it was thought that nothing was possible – it is the creation of a new possibility; third, it is an example of what is immortal, or eternal, in an action which is at the service of a true idea – it is the creation of an immanent immortality.(52)

By universal address I assume his reading of Paul of a universal address of a truth: “So there is no body of the generic as such to be found in Paul, though there is a theory of the universal address of a truth.”(Interview) So it seems we have a universal address for a truth procedure, a course of action with hope in the optative mood, and the enduring at the heart of the immanent movement or becoming of an event-action. So through the service of a truth as truth procedure we have a figure of a new humanity, embattled in local struggles, affirming the truth of these actions and their enduring valence as pledge of a future that is immanent and pregnant with hope and emancipatory energy.  A figure of humanity rising like phoenixes from the ashes of an unbound history that is neither universal nor already written but like figures in the sands of time still to be formulated as revolutionary events to be told in future tense.

1. Badiou, Alain (2012-12-03). Philosophy for Militants (Pocket Communism). Norton.

11 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: The Soldier as Metaphor

  1. I’m actually inclined to agree with him on this point. We need a positive and non-heroic project – a politics of Hope indeed. I think Laruelle’s performative take on the Utopian is great in this regard. Thanks for these posts. What do you think is the first step to pulling together these fragments?

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    • Well, for me at the moment it is a return to critical dystopian fiction: Marge Piercy He, She, It; Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Talents; the Young Adult explosion of fiction… working through so many differing aspects! Keeps me going and interested… Between rereading Deleuze, Zizek, Badiou for this years along with the extended sub literature… haha and endless task!

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  2. Badiou stands in need of a hefty dose of taoism. Or to put it more bluntly, he needs to chill out. Why is up to us, philosophers, to amend the world if we didn’t fuck it up in the first place? Don’t get me wrong, I believe a different world is both possible and desirable, but is any of it my responsibility? For any given political issue, say the Israeli-Palestine conflict or the war in Iraq, I find it very easy understand the arguments from both sides, but why would I even have to take sides if it’s none of my business? Once again, I’d love to see the human suffering diminish, but I don’t see how force is going to get us there. All we can do is heartily behest people to stop their folly, their silly customs, their religion etc. etc., but if they don’t heed that call, what more can we philosophers do?

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    • “what more can we philosophers do?”

      What philosophers have always done: think, reflect, contemplate, speak, and sometimes write.

      That said, I sometimes think that, if Badiou got his head out of his ass, he could change (1) the course of continental philosophy and (2), much more importantly, the way we’ve all complacently begun to think and accept the horrors that surround us, from the violence in my neighborhood all the way up to international thuggery over oil. If, again, Badiou got his head out of his ass, I think he’d have a lot to say, behind his catch-phrases and neologistic vocabulary. It’s a lot easier to read him alongside Plato and Aristotle than his contemporaries or Kant and Hegel. But, at the end of the day, it’s that head-up-my-ass way of thinking and expressing himself that doesn’t get very far in today’s world and culture. His metaphysics is beautiful, his epistemology not really existent, his ethics befuddling, and his ontology weirdly resonant, but it’s unheard through the sounding of his own horn and the legions of Novelty and whatnot. I mean, seriously, we’re here to be happy. We’re here to live. And I feel like he gets that, but I don’t hear it. He gets it more than any other contemporary, but he never says it. He only says things simply in interviews, and it’s like watching the monument of his thought bear itself naked, rather than cloaked in Academy. I think the first step to transforming continental philosophy is linguistic. But that won’t happen if you can’t listen to people, listen to the culture, hear each other out on the most basic components of human life. No number of political theories of emancipation can replace getting to know each other, and Badiou knows that and has spoken on it from his time in May ’68. Socrates knew that people knew things, that you just had to work through their walls to get it out. I’d kill for that opportunity with Badiou, to talk to him man to man and face to face and get it all down in simple Franglish. He has so much vision, but I want sense, too. Sometimes things have to make sense.

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      • Yes, they do! Thanks for your input… yea, we live in such ignorance, that as Badiou himself has said many a time: “Truth has the structure of a fiction!” The implication is that we live by language, by abstractions that in themselves imply ignorance and blindness as our best defense against the unknown vastation that surrounds us. As you suggest “Sometimes things have to make sense.” Obviously this is a personal need, a necessary need on you part; one that in itself will, as I assert, keep you seeking, driving, questioning, mobile, unsatisfied with the run-of-the-mill answers: but, instead open to the unknowns, the incompleteness that surrounds us. Good Luck!

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  3. I think my view is pretty much in line with ‘ Laruelle’s performative take on the Utopian’ which inthesaltmine mentioned. Show how a different world is possible, don’t tell. And certainly don’t force.

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    • Where do you get that Badiou is trying to ‘force’ anyone? Are you speaking of some of his earlier more polemic writings in the pre-68 era of his stringent alliance with militant forms of Communism?

      Most of his later writings have a different take on the Communist Idea… and, of course, with his return to Plato he became converted to a pure materialist idealism…. its hard to judge a philosopher from just one book, one must confront the concourse of ideas and events that make up his arsenal of notions and concepts.

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    • In his Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil his argument in a nutshell is that most of what we call ‘ethics’ in western civilization is in itself the cause of violence and terror. Against this he offers instead an ethics of truth, whose axiom or maxim proclaims in its general form: ‘Keep Going’. Be the subject-of-truth rather than the victim of those who would impose their violent modes of being on your being in the world. Yet, the corollary to this is the absolute figure of Evil:

      1. the simulacrum – to be the follower of a false event or ideology, a terrorist shaped by another, rather than by the truth of one’s own being;
      2. the betrayer – to give up the truth of one’s own being to an Other, to allow one’s own truth-being to be shaped to the violence of another’s will;
      3. the unameable – to become one of the faithful, to believe in the absolute truth of an Other and give one’s on truth-being over to this absolute totality.

      Yet, to keep going, to be truth to the truth-being one’s self this ethics of truth needs the tools of discernment, courage, and moderation: 1) discernment: to not allow simulacra to sway you – learn to discern the ideologies of entrapment; 2) courage – keep going, continue, never give up; 3) moderation – do not allow one’s on truth to become the Totality (i.e., to become once again the repetition of a false ideology, a violence against others truth-being).

      As Badiou situates this: “The ethic of truths aims neither to submit the world to the abstract rule of Law, nor to struggle against an external and radical Evil. On the contrary, it strives, through its own fidelity to truths, to ward off Evil – that Evil which it recognizes as the underside, or dark side, of these very truths.” (Ethics, 91)

      So there must be an acknowledgment that even truth is a two-edged sword: that truth has both a positive and negative aspect, and can be used for both good and ill depending on the type of being who applies it. Truth is not neutral.

      Violence is the measure of the shadow of truth in the hands of simulacrum who have betrayed the very truth-being of their own truth, allowing the totalization of a truth to shadow forth from the underbelly of a monstrous and unameable Other whose name goes by the simulacra: Good.

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  4. Fair enough. I see the consistency and worth in all of that, but my problem with Badiou is still that he’s too ambitious. Somewhere, I don’t know exactly where, I’m quoting from the top of my head, he chides a ‘nihilism that’s hostile to every thought and action’. Well, in my view the world would be a lot better off if people weren’t consistently striving for all sorts of things, but were happy to lapse in a sort of dolce far niente. I have the feeling Badiou wants to commandeer the course of history, which would implicate him in the ways of the world, i.e. evil. I think that anarchism, especially the anti-stachanovistic strand, were you try not too get involved in the world too much, keep your own hands clean and not assume responsibility for the world at large, is the big, unspoken-of Other for Badiou, the same way Bakunin was for Marx.

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