Afternoon Dust

Reading notes: Alain Badiou

I’ve just finished reading Alain Badiou’s Being and Event, a somewhat weighty tome that excited and frustrated me in equal measure. The exciting parts were the numerous philosophical insights that seemed to confirm and extend various vague intuitions I had held for some years, to an extent that no other work of philosophy so far has. The frustrating parts were the ones in which Badiou attempted to demonstrate the logic of these insights using a mathematical language that remained, despite the author’s best efforts and patient encouragement, mostly beyond my ability to grasp.

The book can be thought of as an attempt to address two key questions, upon which the whole of Western philosophy arguably hinges. These questions are, “how is there something rather than nothing?” (the question of being) and “how do things change?” (the question of time). For Badiou, it seems that these two questions are fundamentally linked. However, the second question for him seems to be not so much related to time as we normally think of it, as to a notion he calls the event. By this he doesn’t mean any old everyday occurrence: Badiou’s event seems rather like a pebble tossed into a pond, sending out ripples that disrupt the whole surface of a situation, with profound consequences for being.

In order for something to be, an event must occur within the bounds of a situation; it is by means of a certain fidelity to this event that a thing could be said to have being. However, the event is undecidable in terms of the situation, and it is the fidelity of being to the event that decides, purely as an intervention in the form of a wager, whether the event in fact occurs or not. And so we end up with the following formulation:

“The ‘there is’ of the subject is the coming-to-being of the event, via the ideal occurrence of a truth, in its finite modalities.” 1

What Badiou appears to be saying here is that subjectivity is the outcome of a procedure (a “truth procedure”, as he calls it), through which an event comes to be by way of a being-faithful to its having happened. All of which may sound completely arcane and obscure, though perhaps it is possible to detect, lurking behind these words, the silencing of all those arguments we used to have regarding subjectivity versus objectivity. As it happens, the sentence quoted above, and the book in general, reminds me of something once uttered by the author Andreï Makine in an interview I first read in the early Noughties, and transcribe here from memory:

“Think of all the years we [writers] spent agonising over questions such as: what is it that I must say? and in what way?. All of this is now forgotten. And what are we left with? A handful of moments, moments of love and of beauty [and, Badiou would add, of politics and of science]. And only through them do we rediscover the truth.”

  1. Badiou, Alain. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham, p.456. Bloomsbury Revelations.) ↩︎