July 31, 2010

Badiou’s Politics, Nihilism, and a Solution!

As I have my MA thesis defence next week, I thought it would be good to post a short outline of what I discuss therein. Of course, along the way, I develop a Badiouian theory of historical change, a humanist anthropology that demarcates the political sphere from others, and all kinds of other lines of inquiry. Here is just the main idea that inspired the thesis from the start. This will be old hat for those who’ve attended my talks on this topic.

For Badiou, what is, strictly speaking, is a multiplicity of multiplicities, cashed out in terms of set theory. There are sets within sets within sets, all the way, with one exception: the null set, or the void. Every well-founded set contains the empty set as an element. The situations in which we exist are this sort of set. So, in every socio-historical situation, there will be some part (sub-set) whose elements do not belong to the situation. This is the void of the situation, much like the null-set element in any founded set.

Badiou has a famous conception of the “event”, as a rupture with the situation. This rupture or break from the structure of this situation out of which it arises can occur because of this part that escapes the count/structure of the situation. Since there is a kind of “outside” within each situation, there is a latent possibility of an event. When something happens on the edge of the void, someone or ones (political subjectivity is/can be collective) may be hailed to decide upon the significance of the event. When a protest erupts, seemingly out of nowhere, a witness, either within or without, must “decide” upon the significance of the event.

This decision is either an interpretation according to the means of understanding available from within the situation, in which case it will not have been an event; or, the decision will be a declaration without concept of the evental significance of the happening. The former might be to think or say, “this is just another protest like all the rest.” The latter would be to give the happening a name, and commit oneself to tracing out the consequences of its truth in and through making true this declaration.

A potential political actor has two options for genuine political engagement: either one happens across what will have been an event in the making, or one enters into an already open procedure of truth (the procedure of tracing out the consequences of the evental decision). But, since Badiou’s presentation seems to intentionally lead the reader to believe that events are incredibly rare, his examples number five in over two hundred years, there are few opportunities for engagement of the first sort. This leaves the possibility of entering into an already open procedure of truth, which is equally unlikely for some, especially young, potential political actors.

Truth is this open procedure of investigating the situation and changing it according to one’s commitment to the event. Subjectivity is collective. Thus, people not subject from the outset can become subject later. But, as truth forces the situation to change, that is, as a new situation structured in part by this truth is brought into being, the truth ceases to be this open procedure, and is instead crystallized as knowledge of a new situation. It becomes the means for understanding-away any new possible event.

If events are incredibly rare, then it is reasonable to expect (though we cannot know for sure) large tracts of time to pass between events. If the subjectivity to the political events nearest in our past are successful in transforming the situation out of which they arise, then the situation for young people today is a different one from that out of which the event sprang. What I mean to say is that, Badiou’s situation – that of the ’68 generation – is not the same as mine. The truths of his time are now crystallized as knowledge in mine, and so it is not likely that there is an open procedure of truth available for me to enter into. Though the truth Badiou is subject to will always be open so long as it has a subjective maintenance, it may be closed off to me.

If this is the case, as I argue it is, then a problem of political nihilism arises: with no reason to believe that we will have opportunities to engage meaningfully, and more strongly, with an absence of truth (remember truth is always this subjective engagement), we find ourselves in a state of nihilism. I won’t say anymore about what this nihilism looks like here.

But, if we can imagine this as problematic (and I can spell out in more detail why it is problematic if anyone wants me to), then we will need to seek ways out of this problem. The obvious way is to find a reason to expect more opportunities for engagement – all while making sure not to trivialize politics (as is arguably the case with theories that see politics in all of our everyday interactions and discourses). One suggestion would be to see if Badiou is wrong in his choice of examples. Perhaps there are many more events than what Badiou sees? This is actually fairly likely, but it is unlikely to provide the resources to really do much to the worry.

The other option, the one I prefer, is to recast politics this time with attention to the scale upon which we see politics. Badiou’s examples are all of the scale of the nation-state. But, since a political event is this happening out of the void of a situation – based very closely on the underlying set-theoretic ontology – why is it that politics seems limited to this one scale? Sets are couched within larger-scale sets and composed of smaller ones. If our account of socio-historic situations is supposed to map onto the ontology, then we should find situations of all sizes, each with the same kind of structural void.

Thus, I recast politics in a way that is faithful both to Badiou’s formal conception of politics, and to the underlying ontology. Allowing for political events on the scale of say a classroom, community center, or even a one-to-one encounter, provides greater resources for possible political action. Of course, since we cannot know when or how and event will occur, or what the likelihood of one happening is, we cannot say for sure how much better off we are. Thus, mine is a “weak” solution (not to be confused with a “poor” solution).

Still, if we take the likelihood of an event on the large scale, and add to it the likelihood of all subsequently smaller scales, then we should have many more opportunities to engage meaningfully in political truth procedures. This is my small-scale solution to the problem of political nihilism in Badiou.


  1. If anyone is wondering.... I passed on the first round. That is, no revisions (save typos!). Yay me.

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