Alain Badiou: The Ethics of Truth

It is a difficult task, for the philosopher, to pull names away from a usage that prostitutes them. Already Plato had to take all possible pains to hold his ground with the word justice, against the sophist’s quibbling and devious usage.

– Alain Badiou, Ethics

Against its misappropriation of an ethics deemed a smug nihilism, a conservative order that has proclaimed its own universal ethical dementia through economic enforcement and unbridled conquest of financial resources, Badiou martials the plaintiff case of a an impossible possible: an ethics of truths by which “every loving encounter, every scientific re-foundation, every artistic invention and every sequence of emancipatory politics” tears itself away from such nihilistic smugness.(39)1

Badiou tells us that only a particular kind of animal, the human animal, has – so far as we know, entered into that composition that composes a subject that enables the “passing of a truth along its path”(40). “This is when the human animal is convoked to be the immortal that he was not” (40). But what does Badiou mean by immortal? Badiou explicates:

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. … So if the ‘rights of man’ exist, they are surely not rights of life against death, or rights of survival against misery. They 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. (12)

What are these ‘circumstances’? He tells us they are the circumstances of a truth.(41) He affirms that what convokes the composition of a subject is an excess, something that the behavior of animals going about their normal existence cannot account for, some remainder that goes beyond these habits of life. Something has to have happened to cause an animal to convoke the compositional need for the subjectival. What might that be? He terms it the ‘event’: this excess, remainder, supplement is that which compels the animal to decide on a new way of being.(41). Out of the spectrum of the differing conditions of philosophy he lists the specificity of events: the French Revolution of 1792, the meeting of Heloise and Abelard, Galileo’s creation of classical physics, Haydn’s invention of the classical musical style … as well as the Cultural Revolution in China (1965-67), a personal amorous passion, the creation of Topos theory by the mathematician Grothendieck, the invention of the twelve-tone scale by Schoenberg… (41).

A truth-procedure, a decision, a relation to this event, entering into the situation of its supplement through thinking it, being faithful to its truth, a fidelity to its supplemental excess brings about this new mode of being. “I shall call ‘truth’ (a truth) the real process of a fidelity to an event: that which this fidelity produces in the situation”(42). He goes on to explicate:

Essentially, a truth is the material course traced, within the situation, by the eventual supplementation. It is thus an immanent break. ‘Immanent’ because a truth proceeds in the situation, and nowhere else – there is no heaven of truths. ‘Break’ because what enables the truth-process – the event – meant nothing according to the prevailing language and established knowledge of the situation.(42-43)

He then tells us that it is the ‘subject’ that bears this process, this fidelity to the truth-procedure or event. Yet, this subject does not precede the event, it is not to be confused with the psychological, social, or any other usual connotation we might have of what a subject is; no, this subject is not the reflexive subject (Descartes), nor the transcendental subject (Kant). Instead this conception of the subject could be drawn from one of the several conditions of philosophy. From love we might see this subject as the ‘loving subject’ described by classical moralists; from revolutionary politics one might conceive this subject under differing names (ie., Marxist, Leninist, sometimes Party, sometimes not); or, finally, even as the subject of an artistic truth-process or event (i.e., the art object as subject in which the artist enters into the composition of these subjects, without in anyway being able to reduce them to his own physical animality). (43-44)

What is interesting in this truth-process is how the idea of these subject not pre-existing the truth event, and that out of each of these various conditions of philosophy they are part of the excess of the compositional process itself, that what appears under the epistemic guise as subject could also under the aegis of an ontological insight be an object as well. In conclusion to this preamble he tells us that events are irreducible singularities, they exist in a state ‘beyond-the-law’ of situations. Each of these truth-processes arise as pure immanent inventions, as ‘breaks’, and ‘ruptures’ within the situation itself. That the subjects delimited through a process of induction by way of this truth-process are local occurrences of what he terms the ‘ethics of truths’.

As Peter Hallward comments:

Event, subject, truth are thus all aspects of a single process of affirmation: a truth comes into being through those subjects who maintain a resilient fidelity to the consequences of an event that took place in a situation but was not of it. Fidelity, the commitment to a truth, amounts to something like a disinterested enthusiasm, absorption in a compelling task or cause, a sense of elation, of being caught up in something that transcends all petty, private, or material concerns.  … Every subject is only an ‘objective’ individual, an ordinary mortal, become ‘immortal’ through his or her affirmation of a truth that coheres at a level entirely beyond this mortal objectivity. (x)

1. Alain Badiou. Peter Hallward trans. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso; Underlining edition December 2002)

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