This is a short thought, but it struck me when reading a post on the Event (a la Badiou) over at Fractal Ontology. As I have mentioned before, I find Badiou’s conception of the Event to be somewhat troubling, precisely insofar as it suspends the principle of sufficient reason, and appeals to the ever present possibility of some occurrence which comes without reason, changing the given state of affairs. It seems that a lot of the appeal of this kind of position is political. This is because it holds out the promise of something, anything, that could change the current political state of affairs of which we are currently sick. Moreover, because this change will come in a way which is unthinkable from within the present situation, we are thereby excused the burden of trying to think how such a change could come about.
As I have stated before (here), this kind of position, in which an Event irrupts literally ex nihilo, i.e., out of ‘the Void’, to be a negative theology. Badiou’s conception of the Void seems to push Levinas’ Absolute Other even further than he was willing, stripping it of all possible predicates, be they divine (e.g., perfection, benevolence, etc.) or otherwise (e.g., hardness, warmth, etc), until we are left with pure nothingness. But nonetheless, we find ourselves hoping, praying to this Nothingness that it will deliver unto us some change, because even though there is no reason for it to do so, there is no reason for it not to.
This negative theology is not really something other than onto-theology, as much as it is the limit-point, or ‘degree zero’ (a popular phrase these days) of onto-theology, wherein everything is grounded in an un-ground, an abyss, but nonetheless something, even if it is distinctly other than beings. This otherness has two dimensions: the denial of any of the determinations of beings to the ground (as indicated above), but also the separation of the ground from beings.
However, what struck me just now is how much this harks back to Descartes. It is as if we have abandoned all hope of proving that whatever it is that has power over the apparent (or presented) world is really benevolent, and yet in our desperation we are praying to the evil demon to bring us change, to overturn the apparent world, because we are so thoroughly sick of it.
Of course, there is some virtue to the Event for Badiou, insofar as it is the irruption of Truth, rather than a mere rejigging of appearances for its own sake. Still, even this just gives the Void a minimum of ‘benevolence’ and it still strikes me as theological, and the corresponding language of fidelity as precisely eschatological.
Maybe I am being too harsh, but I cannot but help see this in appeals to the power of Events to bring us change.
5 thoughts on “Praying to the Evil Demon”
Badiou’s own ‘popular’ explication of his theory gives this ‘ex nihilo’ impression, as do the various secondary explications both inside and outside the blogosphere. Yet going back to Being and Event (Meditation 20, I think), he is actually quite clear that events not only do not ‘come from nowhere’, he vehemently denounces this position. Instead, he claims that events have as their condition the repetition of the traces of prior truth-procedures. It is only when the present situation ‘enters into a constellation’ (as Benjamin might say) with a past fidelity that an event can occur, and one might say (going a bit further than Badiou) that the event is nothing but the way in which these traces are recognized as such in a subjective decision. (He reiterates this position in Logics of Worlds.)
This does not amount to the perilous reduction of an event to the conditions of the situation in which it emerges, because the traces of prior truth procedures only appear as such in the advent of a decision that ‘resurrects’ them (importantly, the traces take the form of ‘names’ that are some how alluded to in the naming of the new event). From the perspective of the state of the situation, there are no such traces. They are present without being represented, they belong without being included, they are singularities or inexistents. The event is the ‘flash’ in which these null elements appear as such, or in which the subject becomes subject in recognizing the inconsistency (or historicity, or non-naturalness) of the situation.
So the event doesn’t really come from nowhere or from the void; it is simply the manner in which a singularity or inexistent element appears as such, and can thereby be leveraged to undermine the state of the situation. These inexistents ‘resemble’ the void, or seem to be on the edge of the void, and hence reveal the groundless character of the situation for a subject, but they are not the void itself, which cannot appear at all.
There are certainly problems with this account, but not the ones you indicate here. This historical criterion does create a strange problem of historical regress, which must terminate on some ‘first event’, or else undermine the anthropocentric ambit of the subject’s body (not that Badiou a priori limits subjectivity to humans, but there seemingly was no lifeform on earth before man capable of cognition adequately complex for subjective fidelity). This is why I think Zizek’s reading, in which the event of Christ’s resurrection is invoked in far more than a ‘figurative’ manner, in fact serving as the ‘ur-event’, the prototype on whose basis all others depend.
As for the ostensibly virtuous character of events…I again sympathize, but I don’t think it follows. For a great many people (reactive and obscure subjects), evental forcing would have horribly vicious consequences. I think he favors evental consequences, on the contrary, because he prefers a form of life whose only end is an endless exposure to uncertainty, rather than an attempt to assert and enforce any certainty. I have great affinity for this sort of preference, although he seemingly cannot justify it without placing himself in the unaccountable position of a simultaneously meta-ontological and meta-evental discourse… In other words, he doesn’t seem to offer a place for himself, or for philosophers in general, in his typology of subjects, and therefore cannot account for intrinsically virtuous character of faithful subjects over other types…
Looking back, this brief thought is somewhat over-simplistic. Of course, I’ve entirely ignored Badiou’s account of the evental site, and the conditions under which an Event takes place. The above somewhat assimilates his position to the other negative theological position I identified in my earlier post – that of Meillassoux – for whom radical change can occur at any point whatsoever without any prior conditions (other than the the structure of contingency itself of course). I suppose I should engage with Being and Event further, before making such broad brush claims.
Nonetheless, it still strikes me that despite the more limited character of the Event’s contingency compared to Meillassoux’s radical notion of contingency, or to put it a different way, the more qualified character of Badiou’s rejection of the principle of sufficient reason, there is still a certain appeal to a some supplement to the situation itself. This must always be grounded in the situation, in the conditions that allow for an Event, but is not thereby determined by those conditions. This isn’t to say that the Void is thereby presented as this supplement, but it seems to play some role in the supplementation. I should however, read more before presenting such half-baked thoughts.
Don’t get me wrong – I think your criticisms here are certainly appropriate. I just think they’d be more effective if targeting the precise mechanics of his account, a focus I tried to hint at. But I’m not trying to play reading-police here…I was more trying to express solidarity with the sentiment while skeptical regarding the effectiveness of its formulation.
Don’t worry, I’ve taken no offense. Your remarks are entirely legitimate, and your skepticism about the effectiveness of the formulation of the above worries is entirely justified. My only wish is that I had the time to go away and dedicate time making them more precise. I began reading Being and Event over the summer (I’ve dipped into it before, and have read the essay collections), but have had to abandon it to do more pressing thesis work.
Such is the precariousness of blogging. Wanting to at once express all of ones ideas and yet not always having the time to chase them up (and importantly, justify them) in the way that they (and one’s readers) deserve. I am always in two minds about saying anything about Badiou, and I think I may have jumped the gun here (though I’d stand by some of my more well thought out comments in the post on the Plane of Immanence).
Hopefully, when I’ve had some more time to actually work through Badiou’s work, we can further discuss the precise mechanics, and the potential problems they present, in more detail.
A half position is actually a way towards some of this stuff; you have learned something about your own positions just by saying this!
There’s a certain amount of grandiosity that comes with ignoring yourself, as philosophers can sometimes do, but this also leads to an inability to find a place for yourself within the ideas when trying to absorb them. You have to dig hard to find the point at which the differences between you and him become visible, and you have to consider whether this idea will actually change you, or whether it’s just a new way to say what you already think.
For me, not coming to that point has a sort of timeless playfulness that means you pretty much forget what you read, and can’t reconstruct what you wrote about it when you come back, it’s all just swimming words without a human experience in sight!