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Alain Badiou’s “Being and Event” and “Ethics”

When I first read Alain Badiou’s Ethics, and then later Being and Event, my philosophical worldview forever changed. Reading Ethics hit me like lightning in the face. It was the first time since Letters to a Young Poet that I knew a book would become central to my life for years to come. Everything I thought I knew got turned upside down. Badiou gave me a new definition of Truth. He introduced me to the concept of “the Void.” And most importantly, he gave me a new way to think about my own dark unknowns. No longer holes to be filled, these were voids to be explored in order to bring Truth into the world.

The Event – Redefining Truth

Being and Event is Alain Badiou’s central work of philosophy. This book is a rigorous and formal exploration of what can be known – being – and the conditions surrounding ruptures of the known – the event. This book is extremely difficult because it uses set-theory mathematics as its formal language, which means it gives a one-to-one correlation between its philosophical ideas and equations in set theory math. This gives Badiou a robust system of metaphor and allows him to make startling new inferences, but it also makes the book very dense. Rather, I would first recommend Ethics as an introduction, which essentially takes all the ideas from Being and Event, states them more clearly and directly without the math, and relates them to the ethical question of, “What can a human being do in the world?”

Badiou’s central question can be stated as,

“How will I, as some-one, continue to exceed my own being? How will I link the things I know, in a consistent fashion, via the effects of being seized by the not-known?”1

Following directly from this, his ethics can be summarized as,

“Do not give up on that part of yourself that you do not know.”2

What does Badiou mean by the “not-known” and why is it so important to him? The answer to this question undoes the past 2,000 years of western philosophy. In short, you can conceptualize Truth since Plato as a hierarchical system. All of knowledge is a company, and Truth is its CEO. Knowledge is a pyramid and Truth sits at the top, the reigning king of all things. In this sense, Truth is the “most pure” or “best” kind of knowledge. Badiou rejects this, and thinks that the top of the knowledge-pile is just the most powerful piece of knowledge. It’s not special or “true,” it’s just the reigning king. Badiou, however, is not interested in kings. He wants a revolution. Thus, he defines Truth as a rupture in knowledge. As Badiou writes, “A truth punches a ‘hole’ in knowledges.”3

From here we can build Badiou’s philosophical worldview (and I’m skipping all of his mathematical proofs for the sake of simplicity). It goes like this: Our day-to-day situations are formed by everything we know. These situations are coherent structures of knowledge. We could write encyclopedias about this content, because it all fits within language. However, reality is much more vast than our encyclopedias. There’s stuff out there that we simply don’t know, and I’m not just saying, “There are some facts we haven’t discovered yet.” Rather, Badiou is saying that the “unknowable” itself is sitting right outside our house. We can feel its dark breath beneath our front door like a winter wind. This “not-known” is the void. Yet, precisely because the encyclopedia can’t contain everything, it is vulnerable to attack. The void can rupture the known. Like the ancient god Loki, the unknown will break into the situation and cause trouble. Badiou names such moments “events” because they’re so strange we don’t even know what to call them. They just simply happen.

Now, here’s the key: This moment would blink by like a quark in space if it weren’t for the subject – you. There you are, living life as if everything makes sense, until suddenly something arrives, something new that can’t be spoken, because it has no name, not yet. You cannot articulate it but you can feel it, and you know, in the deepest pit of your heart, that now, nothing will ever be the same. This is what it means to fall in love. This is what it means to encounter great art. This is what it means, politically, to bring change into the world. This is the definition of an “event.” And all you need to do is make a decision.

Finally I can tell you Badiou’s re-definition of Truth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t some pure form sitting at the top of a hierarchy, but a process. Truth, as Badiou defines it, is the very process of being true to an event. Truth is the decision to be true to the unknown, and to have the fidelity to bring the unknown to bear on the situation as it used to be, and thus build a new situation that is more true to the void than the previous situation had been. Truth thus brings each moment a little closer in touch with the infinite. Truth is a constant becoming.

What This Book Means to Me

Why do I like this book so much? First, it’s because Badiou isn’t afraid to speak in grand and far reaching terms. This boldness is exciting to hear, and reading his books is like getting encouragement from the great beyond. When I first finished Ethics I remember throwing my fists in the air, and felt full of fire for all the possibilities to come.

Second, his philosophy introduces some amazing concepts, such as the idea of Truth as a rupture of knowledge, the Void as a dark but infinite reservoir of new possibilities, and the empowering fact that the human individual can become the subject of Truth through a process of being true to the unknown.

Finally, even though the metaphor system of set theory math is hard at first to grasp, it does give a rich system of inference that I’ve found to be deeply intuitive. For instance, I’ve found Badiou’s theory of the Void throughout the Tao Te Ching, and his theory of the Event perfectly maps to the conscious / unconscious interface.

Key Ideas for Being & Death

Badiou’s core ideas, as they pertain to Being & Death, are the following:

  • The Void
    • Badiou calls the void the “nothing from which everything proceeds.”4
    • This points to the most salient fact about the void, for me: that there can be an emptiness of infinite fullness. The lack we feel isn’t some nihilistic nothingness, but rather an overflowing cup of energy. The void seems “empty” since it doesn’t contain difference, which means we have no way of discerning things from other things. Without difference, the void appears black and vacant. However, I like to conceptualize the void as a bowl full of String Theory strings. It is raw source material, or pure potentiality. The darkness of the void, then, isn’t a scary emptiness to be avoided or filled, but rather a source of infinite possibility to be explored.
  • The Event
    • Badiou writes: “The event names the void inasmuch as it names the not-known of the situation.”5
    • I like the idea of the “event,” since it gives me a schema for encountering the unknown. The void isn’t some abstract thing “out there,” but is the very heart of every situation, like the center of the Void Mandala diagram. The “not-known” of a situation is encountered and felt. These moments of feeling the void are “events” which mustn’t be passed up, but seized as a window into new truths.
  • Truth is a Process
    • Badiou writes: “A subject is thus, by the grace of names, both the real of the procedure and the hypothesis that its unfinishable result will introduce some newness into presentation. A subject emptily names the universe to-come which is obtained by the supplementation of the situation with an indiscernible truth.”6
    • For me, this is deeply empowering. The ideas of the “void” and “event” and “truth” aren’t abstracts, but real procedures that a human, like me, can participate in. Truth is thus taken from its feudal throne and placed in the hands of the people. Truth is no longer a thing to be bought and sold to the highest bidder, but rather a populist process of being true to the unknown, and bringing forth the new “universe to-come.”
  • Fidelity to the Unknown
    • Badiou writes: “The striking paradox of our undertaking is that we are going to try to name the very thing which is impossible to discern. We are searching for a language for the unnamable.”7
    • And earlier he says, “Decide from the standpoint of the undecidable.”8
    • This is one of the central problematics of Being & Death. How do we name the unnamable? How do we speak the unspeakable? We must do something in order to bring newness and truth into the world, but what does this look like and what does it feel like? Badiou empowers us to practice the not-known, and to be true to that which we do not yet know.
  • Set Theory Math and Ontology
    • Badiou writes: “Mathematics = ontology.”9
    • Ontology is the study of “being from the standpoint of being.” So, studying French literature or studying geology would be studying “being from the standpoint of books or rocks.” Ontology hopes to study being not through things, but on its own terms. Obviously, humans are embodied creatures who reason with language and metaphor, so we’ll need to use something with which to talk about being. Badiou picks set theory math, since it doesn’t talk about “things” but rather the way things are organized and presented. It’s very “operational.” I like this thought process, because it gives us a clean source domain (set theory math) that allows for rich inferences about the structure of being. In my mind, math is a great model for ontology, but in its attempt to be disembodied it loses the fullness of human experience (which is what being is all about). This is why I’ve drawn the Void Mandala, which presents the conscious / unconscious interface as its central ontology.

Inspiration

What do these ideas inspire in you?

The core of Badiou’s philosophy is about felt encounters with the unknown, and the human process of trying to bring truth into the world by being true to these moments. Have you felt unknowns in your life? What do they feel like?

Do you run from them, or do you lean into the discomfort they bring? For instance, falling in love often feels like, “I don’t know what this is, but I know that if I don’t run from this, and instead try to integrate this feeling into my life, then my life will be forever changed for the better.” Have you felt this way about other experiences?

What else feels this way, be it in art, in science, in politics, or in philosophy? Have there been events in your life? Are you being true to them? And if so, what newness are you bringing into the world?

Finally, what systems or philosophies or authors do you use to help yourself understand your own introspection process? What other books or ideas have you come across that link up with “the void” or “the event”?


Footnotes:

1. [Alain Badiou, Ethics, p. 50, Verso, 2002.]
2. [Ibid., p. 47.]
3. [Ibid., p. 70.]
4. [Alain Badiou, Being and Event, p. 59, Continuum, 2007.]
5. [Badiou, Ethics, p. 69.]
6. [Badiou, Being and Event, p. 399.]
7. [Ibid., p. 376.]
8. [Ibid., p. 197.]
9. [Ibid., p. 6.]

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