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Alain Badiou, the “event”, and political subjectivity

Alain Badiou, whose work is, as far as I can tell, not widely known in the English-speaking world – where Peter Hallward has done a lot to compensate for this lack – is a contemporary thinker who has done much to refine the philosophical understanding of the human subject. As Hallward observes (in the Translator’s Introduction to Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil; 2002), Badiou’s philosophy continually uncovers the potential for “radical transformation”, for “renewal” and for “revolution” in every situation, as a reminder that things do not have to stay the way they are, and that, instead of being the captives of the status quo, it may be shattered through what he terms the “event” (a concept put to a variety of uses by poststructuralist thinkers).

For Badiou, “events” are points of convergence (“quilting-points”, as it were), generated by the concerted action of a plurality of subjects, as a result of which the constitution of the body politic – its very texture, as evidenced in prevailing conceptions of rationality, discourses or disciplines – is changed fundamentally. An “event”, which cannot, by its very nature, be reduced to the domain of familiar things, may therefore be understood as a portal or gateway to future possibilities. Hence its transformational character, which inaugurates a novel mode of being-in-the-world. “[T]he event … compels us to decide a new way of being,” says Badiou (2002: 41).

Fine words, critics of this kind of Continental Philosophy (and there are many) would exclaim, insisting (usually in neo-positivist manner) on “facts” to support Badiou’s claims, refusing to acknowledge that “facts” are merely agreed-upon interpretations of what happens in the world. Indeed, one can point to many such “events” in the course of history, which have introduced such novelty into the world that, once they had occurred, certain political or social (or scientific) practices could no longer be conducted as before. For instance, says Badiou (2002: 41-42), after the French Revolution of 1789-1792, or the Cultural Revolution in China in the mid-20th century, politics could not be practised in exactly the same way as before. Nor can a science like physics, after the “event” of quantum mechanics, be practised as it was the case before, or linguistics, after the “event” of Ferdinand de Saussure’s revolutionary structural linguistics (which transformed ethnology and philosophy, to mention only two disciplines). Doing things in a new key in the wake of an “event” involves a kind of “truth” or “fidelity”, according to Badiou (2002: 42): “… a truth … the real process of a fidelity to an event: that which this fidelity produces in the situation”.

If it is objected that some of these examples involve the action or work of solitary subjects, and not the “concerted action of a plurality of subjects” (Heisenberg in quantum mechanics, Einstein in relativity physics), one need only recall that no work of such a nature is ever done in solitary confinement, as it were – even Einstein’s famous formula for Energy, “E = mc squared”, was an imaginative modification of the older formula, E = mv squared (the result of the combined work of people like Newton, Leibniz and Emily de Chatelet, if I recall Voltaire’s famous physicist lover’s name correctly).

Another example of such a relationship between an “event” and the ensuing “fidelity” to it, is (the “event” of) Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. Dismissed by the logical positivists as “non-sense”, Heidegger’s thinking has influenced virtually every one of the human sciences, as evidenced in the ubiquity (in the human sciences) of paradigmatic concepts such as “being-in-the-world”, “Dasein”, “everydayness”, “idle talk”, “letting-be”, the “fourfold”, “enframing”, and so on. This is the case to such a degree that George Steiner, in his book, “Martin Heidegger”, relates how he tried to ignore Heidegger for years (no doubt because of Heidegger’s earlier association with the Nazis), but eventually could do so no longer, because of the massive presence of Heidegger’s work in every discipline he encountered (from psychology to theology), and had to confront the import of Heidegger’s philosophy head-on. (Steiner learned the lesson everyone should learn sooner or later, that one should distinguish between a thinker and her or his work – the two are not identical, which is why “ad hominem” attempts to derogate a person’s work never succeed.)

One could use a number of other important thinkers, including Badiou himself, as well as Derrida (think of differánce”, “logocentrism” or the “trace”), Kristeva (the “semiotic” and the “abject”) and Foucault (“epistemé”, “genealogy”, “panopticism”, “power-knowledge”, etc.) to make the same point about the accuracy of Badiou’s notion of the “event” as something that transforms the world of human practices irrevocably.

It is not difficult to understand the recent, and continuing events in the Arab world – beginning with the Tunisia rebellion and the Tahrir Square protests early in 2011 – as an instantiation of an “event” of far-reaching political and social import, brought about by the collective action of a plurality of subjects. (This is not to deny the role played by the decisive action of individuals, such as Mohammed Bouazizi and Wael Ghonim, in these uprisings – but again, it is in the interconnectedness of transformative individual and collective action that the possibility of the “event” lies.) It is undeniable that these occurrences have already, in light of other happenings that have occurred since their advent, proved to be something irreducible and transformative of politics itself. On several occasions – for instance in the context of the Occupy Wall Street-movement, which has spread around the world since its first appearance – there have been references to the Egyptian uprising as significant precursor to protests happening elsewhere in the world, indicating that “Tahrir Square” has become a kind of paradigm for protest action aimed at dislodging what is perceived as an unjustifiable hegemony or dictatorship of any kind.

One might say that the political “truth” metonymically represented by “Tahrir Square” is the “fidelity” to its character which has been, and is being “reproduced” in the social and political sphere since its advent. The fact that, in its wake, the people of several other Arabic countries (Yemen, Syria) have rebelled against their governments (with varying degrees of success), and that the “Occupy”-movement draws inspiration from it, is a confirmation of the reproductive power of what Badiou calls the “event”, transforming the sphere of its provenance in society from the time of its “advent”.