Monday, May 7, 2012

A relation to end all relations: On Badiou’s scandalous closeness to Levinas and Buber

The central aporia of Badiou’s philosophy, the unavowed kernel of his thought, is the paradoxical relationality of unrelation. As Peter Hallward remarks – albeit only in passing – in his excellent book on Badiou: the latter stumbles “over the problem of relationality in its broadest sense” (2003: 180). Despite his subtractive conception of thought, despite his rejection of all relation in favor of the axiomatic punctuality of truth, despite his stress on the infinite multiplicity of isolated singularities, Badiou cannot prevent to single out one relation as all-important: the impossible interrelation of the Two – viz. the subject and the real – an interrelation that ‘takes place’ in the truth event; an interrelation Badiou variously thinks as love, address and response, subjectivization, encounter, and of course fidelity. It is a paradoxical relation not just because it is founded on the impossibility of relation but also because it is a relation that suspends all other relations: it is the ‘relation to end all relations’, like the never-ending ‘war to end all wars’. For it is this impossible relation to the void of the real – taking place in the evacuation of place – that tears both subject and real away from all existing structure and community, away from their re-presentation by the State. It is thus the relation to the real which establishes the absolute universality of absolute singularity. Sure, Badiou declares explicitly that there can be no relation with the void, that a truth event should not be understood in relational terms, and that the subject is nothing more than a finite fragment of the infinite void itself as it erupts in a truth event. Nevertheless, relational language keeps creeping up in Badiou’s conceptualization of the truth event. Ultimately, after all, his is a philosophy of the encounter with the real – and that is surely to say: of the encounter as such and thereby of the relation as such. In short, this crucial relation is the repressed real of Badiou’s anti-relational thought. And given the centrality of such essentially linguistic activities as address, response and naming in the truth event, Badiou appears to be committed to a thoroughly linguistic conception of the truth event as a form of communication, indeed as communication par excellence, where the absolutely bifurcated somehow make contact. The truth event seems to be an event happing first and foremost in language, despite Badiou's emphatic rejection of hermeneutics and the linguistic turn. 

Badiou as a philosopher of communication?
In the following I would like to corroborate this immanent critique of Badiou’s thought by relating him to such arch-relational philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. I realize that this must seem ridiculous to those ‘Badiouians’ who substitute fashionable epigonism for real fidelity to the truth. Yet Badiou's closeness to Levinas and especially Buber cannot be ignored. It is indeed this unexpected closeness – willy-nilly – which testifies to the central aporia of Badiou’s thought, the unresolved issue of the paradoxical relationality of unrelation. The point is that Levinas’ and Buber’s variations on the theme of the linguistic encounter with the absolute Other find many surprising echoes in Badiou's thought. Much like them Badiou conceives of the encounter with the real – that is, the happening of the truth event – in surprisingly communicative terms like responding, naming and subjectivization. For Badiou, the subject becomes subject only by responding to and naming the truth event by which she/he is addressed. Subjectivization by the truth event, then, presupposes an at least minimally linguistic relation between the event and its “addressee,” the subject-to-come.

This relation of address and response in Badiou’s conception of the truth event has been noted before, notably by Žižek who in The Ticklish Subject critically remarked that Badiou is paradoxically close here to Althusser’s notion of ideological interpellation, where an individual is subjectivized by responding to the call of the other – paradigmatically exemplified by the “Hey you!” of the policeman – who represents the big Other sustaining the symbolic order (Žižek 1999: 128, 141). Obviously, if Badiou’s truth event were indeed just a variant of ideological interpellation, then that would be disastrous for his militant project to separate truth from the State of being. For the truth event would then be nothing but the re-integration of the subject into the State as re-presented by the symbolic order. I think, however, Žižek has overemphasized Badiou’s association with Althusser in this regard. As I said, Badiou seems much closer here to Levinas and Buber, whose conceptions of the encounter with the Other are – in contrast to Althusserian interpellation – primarily subversive, as the encounter tears the subject away from the ruling State of being (ontology for Levinas, the I-It relation for Buber).

“relation without relation” – Badiou’s closeness to Levinas
To start with Badiou's relation to Levinas, the latter's conception of subjectivity as response-ability, and of the subject as an ethical response to the call of the Other, seems strangely echoed by Badiou’s insistence on the subjectivizing power of fidelity. What is fidelity if not a properly ethical relation to the øther, that is, to the real? Badiou’s conception of fidelity as a “passion for the real” also tallies well with Levinas’s emphasis on the passivity of the ethical relation to the Other. Like Badiou’s truth event, the Levinasian call of the Other comes from beyond being and tears the subject away from the prevailing order of things, thus disrupting the “totality” that represses the “infinity” of the Other. On the basis of this absolute otherness of the Other, escaping the totality of ontology (compare Badiou’s count-as-one), Levinas conceives the ethical relation to the Other as a “relation without relation”, that is, a relation that derives its ethical force precisely from its own impossibility: “In metaphysics [as opposed to ontology, PS] a being separated from the Infinite nonetheless relates to it, with a relation that does not nullify the infinite interval of the separation – which thus differs from every interval.” (Levinas 2001: 80) It is perhaps in this respect that Badiou is closest to Levinas, since fidelity as a relation to the real is precisely like that: a relation without relation, founded on the impossibility of relation, on the lack of common measure. Thus for Badiou the encounter with the real operates “in the element of non-rapport, of the un-related” (1989: 64).

The symmetry of the truth event – Badiou’s closeness to Buber
Yet what in the end distinguishes Badiou’s position from that of Levinas is the strict symmetry envisaged by Badiou between a truth event and the subject that proclaims it, in contrast to Levinas who emphasizes the asymmetry of the ethical relation to the Other. We can also put this by saying that whereas Levinas conceives of the ethical relation as a supreme heteronomy, where the spontaneous autonomy of the subject is “called into question” by the infinite defenselessness of the Other, for Badiou in contrast the impossible relation to the real is precisely what founds the autonomy of the subject, his unjustified freedom, literally based on nothing, on the void of the real. It is precisely the symmetry involved in the truth event which allows this absolutely liberating character of the encounter with the real. For in Badiou’s system it is not just the subject who is called into being by the truth event – this constitutive process works the other way around as well, since a truth event can only be said to take place insofar as it is recognized and “named” by a subject. Thus the subject axiomatically posits itself – note the Fichtean connotation – when it declares the happening of a truth event. In set-theoretic terms this means: a truth event counts its own name as one of its elements, thereby violating the prohibition of self-reference that holds for normal, structured sets. It is indeed through this axiomatic self-positing – mediated by the subject’s naming response – that the truth event explodes the established structure of a situation. The relation between truth event and subject is therefore one of reciprocal (chiastic) constitution: the truth event subjectivizes the subject, and at the same time the subject calls the truth event into being, axiomatically, by naming it. One is reminded here of the constitutive symmetry or “mutuality” of the I-You relation in Buber’s dialogical philosophy, where both I and You only come into existence through their meeting. With respect to the reciprocity between truth event and subject, then, Badiou seems closer to Buber than to Levinas, who after all severely criticized Buber for ignoring the hierarchic asymmetry of the ethical relation as it is dominated by the “height of the Other”. Buber's emphasis on the symmetric equality of I and You in their irreducible difference (what Buber calls their “arch-distantiation”) is therefore more in line with the strict egalitarianism of Badiou's approach.

Love as the reciprocity of the Two
Buber's dialogical focus on the arch-distantiated intimacy (ex-timacy?) of the I-You relation is moreover strangely echoed by Badiou's insistence on love as a (or even the) paradigmatic truth event. In love erupts the truth of sexual difference and more generally the truth of the “Two” as such. The “Two” is a central concept in Badiou's thought, although it is also – as Hallward remarks – one of its “most elusive aspects” (2003: 45). The Two seems to play for Badiou a similarly foundational role as the I-You relation does for Buber. In Badiou's though, the Two appears to indicate the pure bifurcation or absolute lack of common measure that separates a situation from its real. Hallward: “At its most abstract, it is this notion of a pure two, without the third element that would be the relation between the two, that lies at the heart of Badiou's alternative to dialectical or relational philosophy.” (2003: 46) With respect to individuals the Two indicates their absolute strangeness to each other, which is precisely the strangeness of the real in the other (or øther) loved by the subject. Thus love for Badiou reflects, in the individual sphere, the “evental status of the Two” (1989: 18). In that sense love for Badiou can be defined as fidelity to the øther, to her/his irreducibility to my situation, her/his je ne sais quois that unsettles me. Love, then, is a paradigmatic case of the encounter with the real. Hallward: “Love is, first and foremost, a matter of literally unjustified commitment to an encounter with another person. Everything begins with the encounter.” (2003: 187) The last sentence –  “Everything begins with the encounter” –  certainly reads as one of the poetic-religious lines from Buber's Ich und Du. This association with Buber is further reinforced by Badiou himself when he writes: “the sexes do not preexist the loving encounter but are rather its result” (Badiou 1995: 56). Or more elaborate: “Before this chance encounter, there was nothing but solitudes. No two preexisted the encounter, in particular no duality of the sexes... The encounter is the originary power of the Two [...].” (Badiou 1992: 357) This, of course, is much like Buber's claim that it is only through their encounter or meeting that I and You come into existence.

The mathematics of love vs. the intimacy of the Between?
In other words: the reciprocal constitution which, as we have seen, takes place between subject and truth event, also takes place in love where subject and øther call each other into existence, axiomatically, through a mutually mediated self-positing. As Hallward puts it: “Love proclaims the truth of sexual difference, or, in other words, love effects the axiomatic disjunction of sexual positions” (2003: 186 – pun apparently not intended). Yet this closeness to Buber – this focus on reciprocal constitution – is also apparently the site of Badiou’s distance from Buber. At least on the superficial level of style, Badiou substitutes an anti-sentimental mathematization of love (Lacanian in origin) for the soggy and cliché-ridden language of the I-You relation practiced by Buber – an unbearable language which, as Adorno once remarked, has “the oily tone of unbeleived theology” (1973: 277). It is not so clear, however, whether this stylistic difference also corresponds to a real systematic difference on the level of philosophical content.

At first sight, such a systematic difference appears to be obvious. For isn’t Buber the philosopher of “the Between” par excellence? The reciprocal constitution of I and You in dialogue implies for Buber the ontological primacy of the Between, of the intermediation as the source from which both I and You derive. In contrast, Badiou’s position is precisely based on the rejection of any between, of any common measure or medium between the Two. Hallward: “The essential thing to remember is that the configuration of a two always eliminations relations between two elements. Such relations are indeed, as Badiou argues, describable only from the position of an implicit third element. The “between” is external to the two.” (2003: 47) This lack of an intrinsic Between is precisely what constitutes the relation of the Two as an un-relation, an impossible relation based on absolute bifurcation. In this regard, with respect to love, Badiou sticks to the Lacanian claim that “there is no sexual relationship,” that is, no common measure between the sexes. As Badiou writes: “far from governing ‘naturally’ the supposed relation of the sexes, love is what makes truth of their unrelation” (1997: 261). Yet, paradoxically, love effectuates a relation (for it would be absurd to deny that love – like fidelity – is a relation) on this impossibility of any sexual relationship. Love precisely is a sexual relationship that celebrates its own impossibility or absence or permanent crisis. Here, of course, we meet again the central aporia of Badiou’s though, its unavowed kernel: the paradoxical relationality of unrelation as the relation to ends all relations. In this respect, then, Badiou seems less closer to Buber than he is to Levinas, who at least conceived of the ethical relation to the Other as a “relation without relation”.

God and the love of truth
Yet Buber cannot be written off so easily. His language of the soggy intimacy of I and You and the primacy of their Between might be misleading insofar as it covers over their elementary disjunction – their “arch-distantiation” as Buber says – which conditions the dialogical encounter in the first place. Buber is quite clear on the fact that true dialogue (and hence language) only takes place when the I is confronted by absolute otherness, that is, the infinite Other, who Buber – like Levinas – ultimately conceives as God. The You is ‘simply’ absolute otherness as it appeals or speaks to (‘interpellates’) the I. One can say, then, that what establishes the primacy of the Between for Buber is precisely the arch-distantiation, the absence of any bridging between I and You. In other words: the true Between is the absence of any positive between which could act as common ground. Isn’t this precisely what Badiou’s position is in the end all about?  

What makes this closeness to Buber all the more ‘incriminating’ for Badiou is the fundamental importance of love for his entire philosophy. The point is that love occupies an ambiguous position in his system, being both one kind of truth procedure among others and at the same time being the overarching ‘structure’ of all truth procedures in general. For fidelity to a truth event, as the driving force behind any of the four truth procedures (love, science, art and politics), is itself also a kind of love, a love for truth. As Badiou writes: “the subjective process of a truth is one and the same thing as the love for that truth” (1997: 97). Or as Hallward puts it: “what motivates any subject is always a love of truth” (2003: 185). More generally, philosophy – as the discipline drawing the consequences from love, science, art and politics – is for Badiou “love of truth” as such (1992: 196). Doesn’t this mean that love is the highest set, encompassing all other sets, while at the same time including itself as its own part? Isn’t love then the One the existence of which Badiou so emphatically denies? Here I am reminded of the Gospel of John (4:8) where it is said: “God is love.” Add to this Jesus’ claim that “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword” (Matthew 10:34), and it seems we have all the elements for a Badiouian position beyond Badiou.

Theodor Adorno (1973), Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Alain Badiou (1989), Manifeste pour la philosophie. Paris: Seuil.
Alain Badiou (1992), Conditions. Paris: Seuil.
Alain Badiou (1995), Beckett: L’incrévable désir. Paris: Hachette.
Alain Badiou (1997), Saint Paul et la foundation de l’universalisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris.
Emmanuel Levinas (2001), Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Slavoj Žižek (1999), The Ticklish Subject. London: Verso.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting!!! I'm not a Baidou guy but I'm familiar with his thought and I always felt there was something bizarre about a philosophy that so vigorously denies relationality and oneness, yet makes love its overarching ethical concept and subjective "fidelity" to events its ethical procedure. This only further convinces me that there is little of value in his work. If we become-subject by responding to events, by "loving" the truth of events, then faith and love bind us to the world in some way. I see that as transcendening or transforming subjectivity through relation, even if the relation happens across an abyss. If "the true Between is the absence of any positive between which could act as common ground," what exactly does Baidou's axiomatic, materialistic thought have to offer? Don't we have to move into the spiritual realm to work with this paradox? Your position here is definitely a "Baidou beyond Baidou." It actually reminds me of Clayton Crockett's "Deleuze beyond Baidou," too...