An A to Z of Theory | Alain Badiou: Truth, Subjectivity, and Fidelity
In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 10:54 - 1 Comment
In his last column, Andrew Robinson examined Badiou’s central political concept: the Event. This discussion covers three key Badoiousian concepts: the Truth and truth-procedure which give meaning to an Event, the revolutionary subject which carries the force of an Event, and the ethical principle of fidelity to an Event.
In Badiou’s theory, Truth is closely connected to Events. Basically, a Truth is a particular set of statements and discourses which are set off by an Event, and follow from it. A Truth is always the “truth of a particular situation”. It is the truth of the situation because it speaks from or about the excluded part. A Truth is never recognisable by the state of the situation – including the dominant regime of knowledge. However, a Truth is only the truth for its particular situation. It is only the truth because this particular part is currently excluded. Past Truths are not less true than today’s. It is just that today’s truths are more true “for us” – more immediately pressing.
Badiou suggests that Truth ultimately comes from practice and struggle. In his early work, Badiou saw Events as effects of material forces in the discursive sphere. It is within experiences of revolt arising from the real, material level that new thought is forged. This is coextensive with Mao’s theory of the emergence of knowledge through practice and contradiction.
Truths include statements which are inadmissible in the situation, but refer to its excluded part. Statements of a Truth can be statements such as “workers are human beings”, “all men are equal”, “undocumented migrants belong here”, “nobody is a slave” or “people are equal regardless of gender”. These statements have the effect of bridging between a present world, in which the statement is untrue as a description of people’s place in the state of the situation (but is felt as true as a justice-claim), and a future world, in which the statement will be recognised as true.
Truth is also closely connected to agency. Truth is about action, or “intervention”. One does not simply know or contemplate a truth. One acts on it as a “subject”.
The division between Truth and knowledge, or Truth and doxa, is a distinction between something apparent after choosing the excluded part, and something which can be demonstrated within the situation. Any situation only allows as valid statements those claims which obey its count-for-one. According to Badiou, such claims are never true, because they cannot relate to the real nature of the situation. They cannot refer to the inconsistent multiplicity and the excluded part. These claims therefore count as “knowledge” and not as “Truth”. To become adequate to a Truth requires that someone becomes indifferent to “knowledge”, and to the existing order of belief.
A Truth initiates a body of discourse which arises from a truth-procedure or generic procedure. But it is not reducible to this process or its outcome. A Truth always exceeds the “investigations” or processes it instigates. It provides a kind of driving desire or project which unfolds in different expressions.
Badiou’s view of change and agency is always collective, not individual. But it is not based on a particular collective identity. In his writings on St Paul, Badiou insists that a Truth is not “communal”. It does not belong to a particular group, nation, people, class, etc. Rather, it is universal to everyone (provided they accept its calling). It is also characterised by a formal process, rather than an intense personal experience.
The unfolding of an Event into a Truth is a process which brings the Event, and the excluded, into the field of representation. It destroys the existing regime of representation, but instead unfolds a new regime, based on the Truth itself. It might be argued that this is actually a recuperation of movements. For instance, St Paul offers an institutional Christianity which is discontinuous with the religion’s millenarian, immersive popular roots, and with the “Free Spirit” variants practiced by peasant dissidents. The relationship of Lenin to Marx would be another example of a Badiousian formalisation which ultimately turns into a recuperation. Whether a return to a regime of representation, with a ‘count-for-one’ and a ‘state’, is ultimately desirable is a big point of contention between Badiousians and radical critics, such as Deleuzians and autonomists.
Subjects and Truths
The term subject has a special meaning in Badiou’s work. It does not refer to any and all social actors. It is reserved only for those social actors who are acting on an Event and a Truth. To be a subject is thus radically contrary to being aligned to a state or a dominant discourse.
Badiou uses the word ‘subject’ to refer to individual and collective actors. But he does not define these actors as primary in Events. Rather, the subject is an effect of an Event and a Truth. A subject is part of a truth-procedure. It is a particular process or moment within such a procedure. It is not that a subject makes a decision. Rather, a subject can only exist after a decision, as its effect. As elsewhere, Badiou unfolds the actual from the formal.
A subject is an effect of change, not a cause of change. It is a synthesis of processes which produce change. The subject is produced through what Badiou called praxis in his early work – a type of action which changes the actor. In Logic of Worlds, the crucial question is not whether an Event happens, but what consequences are drawn from it by subjects. It is inhabitants of a situation who determine whether an Event will actually change the order of appearances or not.
Subjects don’t choose a Truth. Rather, a Truth creates its subjects. A subject does not precede a Truth. Rather, someone is ‘subjectivated’ (made a subject) in a sudden conversion to a Truth. Once someone is a subject, they experience the Truth as a compulsion or necessity.
Badiou seems to treat actions not as freely willed, but as constructions or effects of unknown forces. An Event differs from normal causality in that what is unfolding is a currently unexpressed underlying force. One is carried along by a truth-procedure if one recognises that the Event is connected to the situation.
While it does not stem from an individual or a group, the status of a subject is not entirely determined either. On the one hand, the position of a Truth is logically immanent to a situation. On the other hand, it can only ‘present itself’, or become active, through an ungrounded action.
Subjectivity in Badiou’s work entails an escape from the otherwise determinist order of structuralism. In his early work – arguing with Althusser, Deleuze and Guattari – Badiou insisted that there must be a possibility of a class viewpoint of the oppressed. Otherwise revolt would be impossible. Therefore, people cannot be entirely caught-up in the dominant ideology. Something must escape this ideology. The early Badiou theorises this in terms of a kind of spontaneous knowledge of class struggle on both sides. This spontaneous knowledge – a kind of inner drive for communism – underpins particular struggles.
If Badiou had taken this insight into everyday resistance in a more empirical direction, he might have ended up at something like James Scott’s theory of hidden transcripts. As it is, he took it in the direction of an early version of his theory of subjectivity.
In his early work, the Party was the privileged subject of revolutionary struggle. It was needed in order to articulate, develop, represent and unfold the implications of revolts – the procedures Badiou today terms ‘intervention’. Badiou saw the Party as simply a concentration of particular imperatives for struggle. It is this concentration which allows ‘periodisation’, or the passage between historical stages (Events and their alterations of the situation in his current terms).
The Party is the ‘body’ of politics, analogous to a physical body. It is necessary but not sufficient for subjectivity. Without it, the decisive scission cannot be made. However, the Party does not have knowledge of the revolt in advance. It can prepare for revolt. But it must let itself be transformed and carried away by new revolts and Events. The Party is treated not as an organisation, but as a logical or structural moment; for instance, ‘the Party is the dialectic’. Badiou seems to have faith that the Party will be held in fidelity by its discursive constructions and interpellations as proletarian.
The role of the subject is division. It carries out global change by carving the field. In his early work, Badiou saw this division in terms of the Party dividing working-class ideas into revolutionary and reactionary ideas. This was theorised as a Hegelian process of internalising and then rejecting one’s outer determinations. Roughly, this means accepting that one is socially constructed in a certain way (and thus internal to the system), and then turning against and rejecting these ways in which one is constructed.
The process of concentration focuses what is new in a historical force. For example, the proletariat emerged as a subject by rejecting its own earlier attachments to bourgeois forms of politics. The revolutionary masses, proletarian class, and Party were three names for the ‘subject’ in these early works. The Party was taken to organise and systematise those of the masses’ ideas which are “correct”. It takes the masses’ existing consciousness and returns it to them in a purified form – like Mao’s ‘from the masses, to the masses’, also known as the ‘mass line’.
A subject must also go beyond this concentration of novelty, and actually destroy the existing order of places (in current terminology, the state of the situation). The structural dialectic (later, ontology) is insufficient to account for change and revolution (later, the Event). The concept of the subject as a distortion or ‘torsion’ of the social structure is necessary to create a historical dialectic able to account for change.
I won’t go into details here on the problems with vanguardism. For some anarchist critiques see here, here, here and here. One of the biggest issues in Badiou’s case is that he treats the party as part of the masses, when it is organisationally separate. How can the Party be trusted to do its assigned job of scissioning out the best of the masses’ revolt, instead of substituting for them? Another objection is that mass movements are quite capable of doing their own organising and systematising, without a vanguard. In any case, Badiou abandons his orientation to the Party in his better-known recent works. This suggests that he has reluctantly accepted that it is an inappropriate form of subjectivity.
Nevertheless, his current view of the subject is similar in terms of its role to his earlier theory of the Party. The main change between early and late works is that in the early works, a pre-existing organisation channels revolts, whereas in later works, the new subject emerges from and as a consequence of a revolt or Event. Also, in his more recent work, a subject is no longer ‘decided’. It unfolds over time.
In Theory of the Subject, Badiou argued for a ‘topological’ theory of the Party. The effects of an Event are to rearrange the proximity of different elements in a situation – moving them closer together or further apart. The role of a Party or other subject is to map the points where a new ‘topological consistency’, or set of localised connections, can occur. Any particular point can be seen to have smaller and larger neighbourhoods. Its neighbourhoods are also constitutive of the point itself, not external to it. This means that an individual is constituted by her or his relations. Change can be thought about from within a structural way of thinking.
Later, Badiou rejects the view that political positions persist through structure. Instead, he insists that they persist as a process.
A revolution becomes an Event at the point where people see themselves as subjects of the revolution, rather than members of any particular group. The general will of the revolution is subtracted from particular wills, and not mediated by them. A critic might see this as a kind of alienation from substantive being. Badiou sees it as a release from existing categories which are inherent to the dominant order.
In principle, we can all be subjects – Badiou is very egalitarian in this regard. In politics in particular, a Truth must assert that everyone could in principle think it. In practice, however, it is usually a small number who initially become subjects. Badiou maintains that passionate commitment, even by very few people, has powerful social effects.
The Event calls a subject to a “militant vocation” as its follower. Tenacity in pursuit of a Truth is absolutely central to Badiou’s ethics. Badiou demands that a subject keep going, no matter the cost, no matter the circumstances. A subject must be indifferent to what others think. Subjects never direct an Event from afar. They have to be constituted as subjects by the Event. So even if someone is a revolutionary, they have to be transformed by the revolution into a different person.
This is not, however, simply a matter of following one’s own path. The subject is called to decide a new measure. This measure will limit the ordinarily unlimited excess of the state. It will turn habitually accepted state power into something contested. And the new subject will also have to measure itself, testing its capabilities through action.
Subjects seem to be converted to a Truth all at once – like St Paul on the road to Damascus (one of Badiou’s examples). This is a logical effect of Badiou’s view of Truths emerging from a point of ontological exclusion. In practice, there seems to be a lot more space for the emergence of Truths from hidden transcripts, nodes of “good sense”, and track-jumping by existing actors than Badiou allows.
Indeed, Badiou is critical of attempts to suggest that subjectivity might stem from particular personal traits or alignments. Badiou denies that there are psychological or natural underpinnings of subjectivation (the process of becoming a subject). A subject has neither an inner interiority nor a dialectical connection to an outside. It literally comes from nothing. In effect, its formal existence is its entire existence.
Subjects show fidelity to an Event. This means that they interpret and explore an Event without denying its Evental nature. They do this by mapping a new element in the situation, an element which is ‘generic’. Such an element is mapped by taking elements from different parts of the situation, and forming them into a new set which is unknowable.
Only some elements will turn out to be connected to the Event. They form together into a new arrangement. This new arrangement is something which ‘works’, but is alien to the current way of doing things. It seems to hold together without guarantees or secure knowledge. It is unfolded or constructed through a series of interventions or enquiries. To take part in such a process is to believe, or guess, that there is something there to be unpacked or unfolded.
The possibility of a subjective intervention comes from the possibility of arbitrary choice within set theory. A generic or ‘anarchic representation’ is possible because sets are extensional, i.e. simply defined by their members. Each Event also has to invent new ways to motivate and discipline its ‘operators of connection’ – the people who carry out its investigations and extensions. It forms a new type of social connection.
The process of unfolding a Truth occurs in the field of the futur antérieur. If something belongs to the ‘generic multiple’, the set elaborated by the Event, then it will be possible to make a statement about it in the situation to come, which will have been true. Such unfoldings expand the domain of the possible and thinkable. The belief that an Event at once expresses an excluded part and unfolds connections across many different spheres or ‘subsets’ is an effect of set theory, in which the generic subset both contains an element of each subset and is unrepresentable.
In earlier works, ‘subject’ refers exclusively to people who are in positive relations of fidelity to an Event and its Truth. In his recent work, Badiou speaks of multiple subjective figures. The “hysteric” is stuck in the moment of the initial statement – such as, “a revolution has happened”. This statement seems impossible, chaotic, catastrophic. The “master” is someone who puts the initial claim to work. Masters unfold the consequences of Events. The “reactionary” and “obscurantist” relate to Events in bad ways, and yet are still effects of the Event. There is also a fifth figure who returns to, or “desediments”, an Event which has become institutionalised.
A good fidelity is a ‘generic’ fidelity. Such a fidelity starts from a position of not claiming knowledge of which parts of the situation are connected to the Event. This is contrasted to two kinds of bad fidelity. A dogmatic fidelity insists that everything is connected to the Event. A spontaneist fidelity insists that only the Evental site itself is connected to the Event. Both of these positions are wrong according to Badiou. Connection or non-connection needs to be investigated, not assumed.
Badiou’s theory of the subject is deeply anti-individualist. Badiou talks in terms of individuals being dissipated or dissolved in situations. After the Event, only the “we” constituted by the Event is real. The individual’s former identity no longer has any reality for them. Indeed, Badiou speaks of the individual as ‘the nothing that must be dissipated in a we-subject’. Hallward refers to Events as ‘cruelly indifferent to the private as such’.
The individual matters only to the extent that s/he is subsumed in a collective subjective process, such as a political party or a scientific research group. This said, there may well be different, diverse types of fidelity which different people show. Fidelity does not always have to take the same form.
Badiou identifies the individual with fixity and the existing order, and the Evental collective or “we” with flow, transformation and becoming. This runs against the more usual framing (in Deleuze, Stirner, Reich, Marcuse and so on) in which the collective is a fixed, repressive order and in which flows which run against this order occur on a sub-individual or trans-individual level.
This makes sense in terms of a quasi-structuralist methodology in which individuals are assumed to be effects of a particular situation. If people’s identities come from the dominant discourse, then smashing the dominant discourse will also abolish or reconfigure existing identities. And it is often the case that revolutionary movements sweep people up in things they could never have foreseen.
However, Badiou’s anti-individualism is too extreme. It is politically worrying because it opens the door to sacrifices of some people for the general good. And it is of dubious explanatory value, because social movements often involve individual desires.
In Badiou’s account, an Event is never something like a personal liberation where someone becomes free to follow their inner desire or path. Yet liberation from particular constraints relating to their needs – whether sexual liberation, gay rights, food shortages or lack of land – is often what drives people to take part in social movements. These kinds of demands may lead to movements which unfold the movement further, and which effectively transform social subjects. But this transformation is usually continuous with the part of subjectivity which already orients towards these desires. No wonder Badiou wants to ignore psychological roots of subjectivity!
Badiou arguably retains the renunciation typical of classical communist thought. This is clearest in his early work, as when he writes: ‘yes: apparatus, hierarchy, discipline, renunciation. And so much the better!’
People are supposed to become completely submerged in a collective, to the exclusion of substantive, qualitative difference. His argument is very close to the viewpoint criticised in Vaneigem’s critique of the abstractions of the “cause” and the “militant”. Where Vaneigem differs from Badiou is that his approach is ultimately rooted in a qualitative goal of human flourishing.
Another interesting contrast is with the idea of a ‘warrior of the light’. This idea is similar to a Badiousian Event in that the ‘warrior of the light’ shows constant fidelity to a vision or path. S/he ignores the opposition of the status quo, instead following her/his own project to the utmost. Badiou would reject this approach as too individualist. For him, a true Evental calling is completely dismissive of the individual’s becoming. Badiousian Truths are always impersonal, universal and abstract. They are never eccentric or introspective.
In Badiou’s project, the problem of the subject seems to arise from the necessity and failure of the Party. Badiou theorises a subject which is carried along by a Truth as a way to preserve a conception of a separate political force from the crisis which the post-Maoist development of China has forced on western Maoism. The problem of the Party is, however, broader. Party Marxists all confront it sooner or later. The difficulty is that the Party is meant to be a representative of the best in the working-class – its revolutionary essence. It needs this status so as to escape the hegemonic determinations which otherwise de-radicalise the real working-class.
However, it is also well-known that it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep organisations from becoming separate from those they claim to represent. This is termed the “principal-actor problem” in mainstream political theory, the “crisis of representation” in poststructuralism, and “substitutionism” in Marxism. It’s encountered in cynical terms in political science, as the cumulative bureaucratisation of organisations (Weber), the iron law of oligarchy (Michels), the self-expanding nature of bureaucracy (Parkinson) – even as a theory of a new bureaucratic or managerial class (Djilas, Burnham, etc).
Liberals and reformists try to resolve the problem in terms of accountability mechanisms and checks and balances on bureaucratic institutions. For instance, the election of leaders is meant to keep them from betraying their supporters. Anarchists generally claim that the problem is insoluble. Representative organisation – including the Party form – is itself the problem. The solution is to rely on direct, horizontal relationships instead. Or, if representation is used at all, a very high level of accountability is upheld.
These lines of response are unavailable to structuralist Marxists like Badiou. This is because they usurp the ability of the Party or subject to perform an operation of ‘scission’. Badiou is thus forced to try to elaborate a discursive/mathematical theory of how a subject can be kept in ‘fidelity’ to its ‘Event’. If one rejects his insistence on the Party (or a Party-like group) as operator of Truth, this entire account becomes unnecessary. It is possible, instead, for people to perform the structural role of ‘subjectivity’ within their own everyday relationships. For instance, this is what happens when self-organised movements undergo internal changes through critical pedagogy and reclaiming everyday life. We can dispense with a Party-like subject by starting from the qualitative.
The subject is a procedure or process, rather than individuals or even groups. It is the process through which a Truth unfolds. It unfolds as what Badiou terms a ‘truth-procedure’ or generic procedure.
An Event has to involve a new use of language. New terms must be invented, or reclaimed, to express something which cannot currently be expressed. This use of language is more poetic than empirical. It is through a truth-procedure that this new language is elaborated, and made more precise.
There is often an initial claim which seems unthinkable. For instance, someone might say “a revolution has taken place here” (Hallward’s example). This is distressing and confusing. Surely a revolution cannot happen here! But gradually, the truth of the statement unfolds. The distress it involves then recedes. Similarly the claim “undocumented migrants belong here” is distressing and confusing for mainstreamers. It is sure to produce howls of outrage if voiced on discussion sites.
An Event is based on decision rather than deduction. The ‘investigations’ which follow from it are not, therefore, academic in nature. They are a ‘militant’ process. Badiou means by this that they are attempts to convert each element in the situation to the new Event. For instance, if May 1968 is an Event, then its consequences can be unfolded in the revolutionising of workplaces, universities, culture, and so on.
A truth-procedure must be read in its own terms, as a sequence based on a homogeneous singularity. It should not be read through its heterogeneous empirical context. A truth-procedure unfolds at an unpredictable rate, depending on the commitment and movement of its subjects.
The procedure concludes with a transformation of the situation. The situation is redefined so the Truth can be included in it. The entire situation has to be rearranged to make room for the formerly excluded part. Reality must bend to the new subject. However, this transformation does not necessarily entail substantive changes. Its nature is formal and structural.
The situation is modified initially through its language. New terms are created (or old ones redefined) to designate things which did not exist in the previous situation. The splitting of the situation is supplemented by a synthesis or addition to it. A class struggle approach, for instance, might add terms like capitalism, commodity fetishism, alienation, exploitation and so on. Some terms might simply name possibilities in the new situation – classless society, communism, social justice. Others will re-name parts of the situation to accord with the new event – saying “capitalist system” instead of “society”, “bourgeois justice” or “repressive state apparatus” instead of “justice system” or “security forces.
The process of unfolding of a truth-procedure has four stages: nomination, intervention, fidelity and forcing. Nomination is the initial naming of an Event. Interventions are the investigations and actions which unfold an Event. Fidelity occurs when an Event is conceptualised without denying its Evental character. This set of stages, with a slow process of unfolding, is new in Badiou’s more recent work. In his earlier work, the act of naming or ‘nominating’ an event is taken as decisive in itself.
The fourth stage of the process is known as “forcing” (after an operation in set theory; the implications of violence are not necessarily intended). Unlike the previous stages, this stage can be verified by knowledge – but only because knowledge has been transformed by the Event.
As we have seen, ontology cannot think the Event. It cannot conceive the subject’s ‘being’, because this being occurs outside any situation. However, ontology can think the operation of a subject and a Truth. This operation can be thought of in terms of forcing, which is a recognisable operation in set theory.
The idea of forcing marks a move from a mainly ruptural view of the Event, to a theory where an Event is a mainly slow, piecemeal, gradual but nonetheless fundamental change. Forcing steadily expands the zone affected by the Event. It involves performative statements which position particular enquiries within an Evental frame.
Forcing involves attempting to combine the new element with each possible element in the previous situation. It is analogous to the procedure of forcing in set theory, which creates a larger set from the possible relations of the initial set. In maths, it is through forcing that one can arrive at a generic set, and therefore create a distinction from a previous formulation of a set. It involves adding one element of each subset into the new, generic set. Forcing reveals possible subsets which were invisible but present in the initial set. Forcing seems to be a way of making a process of change more consistent, and expanding it across a wider range of fields than would otherwise occur.
An Event only has its truth-effects if it can be unfolded in terms of its implications and connections. This may be why something like the 2011 unrest in the UK did not have the effects it might have had. There was a lack of unfolding of its implications, as the apparatuses of control dominated the aftermath. In contrast, new subjects emerged from the Caracazo, the Arab Spring and the Greek revolt of 2008. The difference may well have been in the process of subjectivation rather than the Event itself.
Truth-procedures – the effects of Events which produce new ways of seeing – unfold through the activity of subjects in the four primary fields of politics, science, art and love. The particular role of philosophy is to specify the Truth which has emerged from a particular Event and its truth-procedure. Philosophy must not try to dictate to the four primary fields, otherwise it might prevent a Truth from emerging. This would be an ‘evil’ or ‘disaster’ in Badiou’s terms.
For the rest of the essays in this series, visit the In Theory page.
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