Badiou Interview from 1994, skip the intro: Secularization of Infinity, Set Theory, Truth, Philosophy, Situations, Disaster, Love, Emancipation…
Posted by voidmanufacturing on September 10, 2008
Being by numbers – interview with artists and philosopher Alain Badiou – Interview
Alain Badiou is an anomaly. What he has attempted has all the allure of the obviously impossible. That’s the fascination of the thing. Judge it retrograde or eminently contemporary, aberrant or a stroke of genius, but take it squarely for what it is: the painstaking effort on the part of an Althusserian Marxist, longtime Maoist, and unanalyzed disciple of Lacan to quit the confines that several generations of “limit-makers” have erected around philosophical practice.
Wittgenstein’s fragmentary sophistics is merely a symptom. Revolutionary political theorizing, the various positivisms, and the vast textualization of the world all share the same restrictive modus operandi of suturing philosophy to some other, seemingly stronger, extrinsic body of thought. What’s more, Jacques Derrida’s interminable perambulations inside Western metaphysics involve a swap of one kind of system for another: the compelling demonstrative logic of systematic philosophy for the latent tissue of relations embedded in language. With the revelation of writing as the long-repressed factor–and its ultimate fetishization–the issue of demonstrability has curiously vanished from the horizon. Odd, wouldn’t you say, in a century thoroughly dominated by mathematization? Badiou emerges right here, with a singular question: how do we advance, proceed, reinsert ourselves into a pattern of succession, the “plus-one” established by taking “one step more”?
In a word, Badiou has founded a philosophy. Take “founded” in the full philosophical sense. And that philosophy is rigorously systematic. Take “systematic” in the full philosophical sense. What does it require to reanimate a dead tradition? A single consolidating intuition permitting the kind of strategic move, in its elegance and simplicity, most often associated with a game of chess. It goes like this: ontology is mathematics. DON’T RECOIL. NOT YET. Some people don’t know what ontology is, and even those who do, don’t. (For confirmation, read the opening pages of Heidegger’s Being and Time.) The word “Being” has always resonated with a mysterious attribution of some extra added value to “what simply is,” and its science has remained philosophy’s foremost red herring. By slipping mathematics into that eerie slot, Badiou snaps the file shut with assurance of ontology’s thorough rationality. “What is” is pure multiplicity. As for what can be said about it, the mathematicians are still at work.
In his massive L’Etre et l’evenement (Being and the event), Badiou makes mathematical set theory the reader’s guide to some 2,500 years of problems raised by ontology. From the axioms of set theory he not only recapitulates the history of philosophy but derives all the concepts of his system. DON’T RECOIL. NOT EVEN NOW: his prose is so tight and lucid that even in your relative mathematical illiteracy you’ll be surprised to discover, like Plato’s Meno, that you already knew how to draw the inferences. And in those inferences the stakes are revealed. What were the devastating criticisms forever leveled against systematic philosophy? That the system was invented and arbitrary, its propositions unverifiable. In Badiou’s reformulation of philosophy as a contemporary systematics, only mathematics, the unassailable archetype of demonstrability, intelligibility, and transmissibility, can offer sufficient authority, sufficient legitimacy–not as a model but as the very armature of the system itself.
Badiou’s philosophy, however, is not a philosophy of mathematics. For him there is no such thing. Nor is it about the world or consciousness or knowledge. He calls it a philosophy of time. Forget teleologies and historical determinisms, the Kantian a priori, Husserl’s time consciousness, Bergson’s duration. Think of it rather, to risk a neologism, as a neology. Set theory’s closing chapter, the generic set, the set with no ascertainable identifying characteristic, the “set without qualities,” provides Badiou with a unique and provocative prototype for theorizing the emergence of the new. The event is no more than an extraneous, evanescent incident–but it may make waves. When it does, it involves the active participation of subjectivities in a process whose contours and destiny elude and exceed them. To grossly reduce the subtleties of Badiou’s argument, call the sum total of activity in that formative stage a generic set. The time traced there is the discrete time of random, heterogeneous advances, indiscernible quantum leaps that jolt science, politics, art, and love, the four Platonic conditions on which Badiou’s system reposes. Yes, Platonic–Badiou is an unabashed Platonist, as may be surmised from the mathematical premise.
What’s happened to his Marxism? This, I think: change is precisely the issue. Badiou fixes his attention on disruptions of the status quo, the kind that have the power to activate human agency. The essence of history’s movement, we now know, boils down to these unpredictable, disparate, indeterminate countercurrents that circumscribe times of truths in the making, truths that lose their truth value once fully acknowledged and fully accepted. Times, truths, heterogeneity, pure multiplicity. No totalizing here. No forcing of the venture, no specific investments. Philosophy, in Badiou’s terms, stands outside these temporal ramifications. It guarantees only its aptitude to seize what’s happening and provide an aftermath for calculating what it will have been worth–in a future perfect tense that underscores endurance.
LAUREN SEDOFSKY: The return to systematic philosophy today might seem archaic, if not impossible. How do you explain your conviction not only that the systematic thinking that runs through the history of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger is still possible, but also that this architecture serves some purpose?
ALAIN BADIOU: Philosophy is always systematic. Naturally, if by “system” you mean an architecture necessarily endowed with a keystone or a center, then you can say, to employ Heidegger’s vocabulary, that it’s a matter of an ontotheological systematicity, and therefore no longer valid. But if by “system” you mean, first, that philosophy is conceived as an argumentative discipline with a requirement of coherence, and second, that philosophy never takes the form of a singular body of knowledge but, to use my own vocabulary, exists conditionally with respect to a complex set of truths, then it is the very essence of philosophy to be systematic.
The distinctive service that philosophy renders thought is the evaluation of time. The issue is whether we can say, and according to what principles, that this time, our time, has value. For that the systematic dimension is necessary. To my mind, it’s one and the same question to ask whether philosophy can be systematic and whether philosophy can exist at all.
LS: Your project is strictly philosophical, “a thesis about discourse, not about the world.”
AB: Absolutely. Strictly speaking, philosophy doesn’t take the form of knowledge about the world. What’s more, like Lacan, I’m inclined to think that the idea of the world is itself in the final analysis a phantasy. My project makes claims on the strictly philosophical, within a general logic of delimitation. Philosophy is irreducible to other forms of thought. And it should maintain this criterion of delimitation as one of its most precious possessions. The threat that has loomed throughout its history is a confusion between what philosophy is in itself and what it is not, for example political, or esthetic, or scientific discourse.
It should be understood that philosophy, in itself, has no object. It isn’t and mustn’t become a body of knowledge. Here I remain faithful to Louis Althusser, who was the first to have pointed this out with perfect clarity. What’s astonishing is that the thesis “philosophy is philosophy” seems original today. However tautological, it’s a militant thesis, and not at all accepted. We are in a period when philosophy is marked by doubt, or even by a conviction that it is extinct.
LS: The striking equation “ontology = mathematics” has the immense merit of eradicating the mystification that clings to the word “being.” You’ve identified this choice as an exit from romanticism and a program for the death of God.
AB: We’re far from having exhausted the consequences of the question of the death of God. The philosophical destiny of atheism, in a radical sense, lies in the interplay between the question of being and the question of infinity. The real romantic heritage–which is still with us today–is the theme of finitude. The idea that an apprehension of the human condition occurs primordially in the understanding of its finitude maintains infinity at a distance that’s both evanescent and sacred, and holds it in the vicinity of a vision of being that’s still theological. That’s why I think the only really contemporary requirement for philosophy since Nietzsche is the secularization of infinity.
If we take “ontology,” as we must, literally or etymologically, that is, as what can be said about being qua being, then we ought to say that it’s mathematics. Mathematics secularizes infinity in the clearest way, by formalizing it. The thesis that mathematics is ontology has the double-negative virtue of disconnecting philosophy from the questioning of being and freeing it from the theme of finitude. That’s why it represents a powerful break.
LS: In your magnum opus, L’Etre et l’evenement (Being and the event, 1988), you manage, in an astounding way, to elaborate all the concepts of your system inside a presentation of the axioms of set theory. What led you to this improbable wager?
AB: [laughs] To a degree, this performance is easy–once you’ve thought of it. The moment it occurs to you that mathematics is ontology, that idea itself has a considerable capacity to clarify mathematics. I was astonished myself. If we begin with the thesis that being is fundamentally pure multiplicity, including infinite chains of multiplicities, and if we consider that the most formalized, most complete framework of axioms of the multiple today is set theory, then why not examine set theory, axiom by axiom? What do those axioms say about being qua being? The mathematician doesn’t need to ask himself this kind of question. He can be an ontologist without knowing it.
If the philosopher examines set-theory axioms with the idea that they are statements about being qua being, he sees an unexpected pertinence emerge. Let’s take the simplest possible example, the axiom of extensionality, which says that two sets are equivalent when they have the same elements. It’s very straightforward. But if we look at it closely, we realize that this is in fact a theoretical deployment of the old question of identity and difference, same and other, that any thinking about being qua being must inevitably address. And it’s the same for the entire set of axioms. They constitute a coherent body of propositions about being qua being, based on the implicit supposition that being is reducible to pure multiplicity.
LS: In Le Nombre et les nombres (Number and numbers, 1990), you write, “A number is neither a characteristic of a concept, nor an operational fiction, nor an empirical given, nor a constitutive or transcendental category, nor a syntax or a language game, nor even an abstraction of our idea of order. A number is a form of Being … the infinite profusion of Being in Numbers.” What is mathematics, then?
AB: Ultimately, being qua being is nothing but the multiple as such. What there is is the multiple. Mathematics is the kind of thought, and consequently the kind of discourse, that apprehends the configurations of multiplicity independently of any characteristic other than their multiplicity. As a thought procedure, mathematics will be subject to general laws. It will be scanned by events, radical innovations, breaks, and interruptions.
From the moment that what is being taken into account is being qua being, that is, pure multiplicity, it is indispensable that language rid itself of its equivocalness. (There we are with Lacan.) Formalization, this way of tearing language away from its status of mother tongue, this transformation of the mother tongue into a tongue that no longer offers any natural reception for the speaker, is the discipline through which thought appropriates the form of the pure multiple.
LS: You make another rather audacious wager on the possibility of resurrecting a philosophical concept of truth.
AB: The relative discredit of the category of truth today has two sources. For a long time, philosophy suspended the question of truth on the protocol of the question of being, with the Supreme Being as an ultimate guarantor. The death of God, then, as Nietzsche saw, amounts to a checkmate of truth. The second source is the vast contemporary movement to anthropologize philosophy–the idea that philosophy deals with more or less heterogeneous linguistic or cultural organizations of thought, and is itself the result or production of one such organization. This movement obviously entails a relativism, what could be called “a pragmatics of exactitude.”
Mathematics dismantles the perilous theological connection Truth-Being-One. And quite apart from anthropological thought, I’m deeply convinced that procedures of a universal kind do exist. That’s why I’ve undertaken to reorganize philosophy in its entirety, entrusting it to the category of truth, at the price of a radical reformulation of the notion.
For me, paradoxically, truths are the nonphilosophical, even truths about being qua being when they’re mathematical. At the same time, the nonphilosophical is precisely what provides for the existence of philosophy. As a category specific to philosophy, truth is what I call an operator for seizing truths. Philosophy is active; at the heart of its discursive organization is an act, the particular act of seizing truths, principally the truths of its time, truths in progress, incipient truths, truths in the process of constituting themselves, the truths that indicate what our time is really made of. It is philosophy’s seizing of these truths that designates them as truths; they don’t appear as such in themselves. A work of art appears as a work of art, a mathematical theorem as a mathematical theorem, a great love as a great love, a political revolution as a political revolution. For philosophy, these are truths in my own special sense: they are truth procedures. Philosophy’s task is to show why and under what conditions these absolutely heterogeneous truths are, at least, compossible.
LS: What does “compossible” mean?
AB: Compossibility, a true philosophical creation, can’t be understood simply as empirical collection. Truths are compossible because philosophy’s seizing of them simultaneously designates them as truths. Truths are multiple and heterogeneous, but the philosophical act displays them together. In doing so, it evaluates its time. By “evaluating time,” I mean evaluating how far this particular time has gotten in its capacity to generate truths. It’s a matter of measuring our time according to an idea of what that time contains that exceeds it. A truth is what within time exceeds time. And the philosophical act is its active witness.
LS: These truths emerge inside “the situation.” How do you put a mathematical construction on such a simple word?
AB: The situation is an ordinary multiple, a multiple that is obviously infinite because all situations in reality are infinite. It can be a historical, political, artistic, or mathematical situation; it can even be a subjective situation. I take the situation in an exceptionally open sense, and to capture that openness I say it’s a multiplicity.
I also posit that every situation is accompanied by a language, a capacity to name that situation’s elements, their relations, their qualities, their properties. And in every situation there is also what I call “the state of the situation”–the order of its subsets. The situation’s language aims at showing how an element belongs to such and such a subset. The situation is what presents the elements that constitute it; the state of the situation is what presents, not the situation’s elements, but its subsets.
From this point of view the situation is a form of presentation, the state of the situation a form of representation. And knowledge, being the way we organize the situation’s elements linguistically, is always a certain relation between presentation and representation. Knowledge is most simply defined as the linguistic determination of the general system of connections between presentation and representation. The set of a situation’s various bodies of knowledge I call “the encyclopedia” of the situation. Insofar as it refers only to itself, however, the situation is organically without truth.
Considering the privilege I give to Plato–out of coquetry, or to go against the current–
LS: Coquetry? And I’ve been taking you seriously!
AB: [laughs] And you were right to–I mean, out of serious coquetry! Our century is fundamentally anti-Platonist. So there’s an element of coquetry in calling yourself a Platonist, which I am, profoundly.
In any case, as a Platonist I don’t make a clear distinction between knowledge and opinion. So the encyclopedia is the anarchy of our knowledge. You’ll find things in it that are correct, things that are incorrect, interesting classifications, lively opinions and sterile ones, reactive ideas and active ones. But this is all still without truth.
LS: So how do you bring truth into the situation?
AB: My system’s second major thesis, after “ontology = mathematics,” is: in order for there to be truth, there has to be something other than the situation. Now I am absolutely an immanentist–I am convinced that if there is truth, it isn’t something transcendent, it’s in the situation–but I am nevertheless led to the conclusion that the situation, as such, is without truth. This antinomy must be resolved. That’s where I turn to the category of “the event,” which pushes the system in another direction.
LS: Everything hinges on the event, this possibility of the new that emerges in the situation and gives it a temporal, even transtemporal, dimension. How should we understand the event?
AB: The event has posed formidable problems for me, and still does. Here, following both Mallarme and Lacan, I have recourse to the logic of the term “the evanescent”–something whose very being is to disappear.I think of the event as a totally chance, incalculable, disconnected supplement to the situation. It will be recorded in its very disappearance only in the form of a linguistic trace, which I call the “name” of the event, and will supplement the situation with next to nothing. You might say my thinking on this point is a minimalism of the new.
LS: Still, the evanescent has to fit the system’s mathematical base.
AB: Through a kind of miraculous convergence–but that’s how philosophy works–I found what I needed in mathematics. In 1964, the American mathematician Paul Cohen elaborated a doctrine concerning the generic subsets of a given set. That doctrine provided me with the concept of a subset whose particularity is precisely to have no particularity. This was truly a moment of discovery for me, a moment of real illumination. We were getting to the thesis that a truth is not in a simple regime of opposition to knowledge; as a generic subset, it’s really a gap or break in the encyclopedic organization of knowledge. It constitutes the void specific to this encyclopedia. All of this clarified the fact that a truth is a truth about the whole situation, not simply a truth about this or that.
LS: A set with no apparent shared property among its elements must necessarily remain invisible or, to use your key word, indiscernible. Faced with the indiscernible, what do you do?
AB: Take a simple event like the encounter of love. The encounter is the event’s specific mode in the truth procedure called “love,” the procedure that renders the truth of that totally particular situation, sexuation. The event itself is the encounter. The encounter does not constitute the situation, it supplements it: there is what there was before, and then there’s the encounter.
Next comes the truth procedure of love itself. Its name is marked by the various forms that the declaration of love can take; the declaration of love is strictly what constitutes the name, the enduring trace, of the event of love. We have to explore the situation with respect to this new entity in such a way as to find out what is related or unrelated or difficult to relate to this primordial event. In so doing, we will trace a subset of the situation, little by little over time–because the extraordinarily ramified activities of love necessarily circumscribe a particular time. The subset is generic and, therefore, indiscernible. This means that the lovers cannot discern the subset that they themselves constitute. It’s in this sense that I’d say they are its subject.
LS: In entering into the truth procedures that activate the four Platonic conditions of philosophy–mathematics, politics, art, and love–are we exclusively in the realm of thought?
AB: A truth procedure is the experience of thought, or thought as experience. All the possible elements of human activity–sensitivity, emotion, concepts, practice, violence–can be mobilized by the deployment of a truth. The doctrine of truth I propose has the merit of ending the confrontation between thought and experience, theory and practice. Those dichotomies are subverted by this conception of truth and of its subject.
LS: What kind of subject is this exactly?
AB: Truth induces the notion of a subject in a totally singular manner. The subject of a truth is the term or terms (here, the lovers) of the situation that are seized or engaged by a truth procedure, and that constitute the generic subset–that is, they trace the path by which this subset emerges as a truth. They are factors of the indiscernible. At the same time, it is only because there is this process of indiscernibility that the subject, in this singular moment, finds itself constituted. The subject of a truth is certainly not in a position of mastery over a truth. The only subject is the subject of truth. What is not the subject of truth is only an inhabitant of the situation.
LS: The procedure has more being than the subject?
AB: Inevitably. Because a single generic set of the situation, even if it’s always incomplete, is in its being essentially infinite. The subject, though, is only engaged in finite operations. The subject is always the differential or finite dimension of the truth procedure.
LS: You characterize your system as a “philosophy of time of this time.” How do you situate the time you’re theorizing within the history of philosophy?
AB: That’s an immense question. Every event constitutes its own time. Consequently, every truth also involves the constitution of a time. So there are times, not one time. On the other hand, philosophy doesn’t constitute time. That’s why I was led to reintroduce the old word “eternity,” which was even less used than “truth” was. I sought it out to designate the singularity of philosophy’s relationship to time.
Philosophy has a relation to the different heterogeneous times of truths, since those are what it seizes. It exposes these times to precisely the aspect of time that is not temporal. Because what within time is constituted as truth both marks a new time and, strictly speaking, exceeds the singularity of its time. What is specific to truth, after all, is that it endures. Philosophy tries to seize truth’s endurance, to capture the eternity contained within time.
LS: What about the event’s historical dimension?
AB: The fact that events belong to history signifies only that they can be located in arrangements of before and after. Those arrangements offer no reason to argue that they constitute a history. Historicism consists in referring the singularity of a procession of events to a historical meaning that penetrates it and goes beyond it. I’m not at all a historicist, in that I don’t think events are linked in a global system. That would deny their essentially random character, which I absolutely maintain.
LS: Michel Foucault drew our attention to the breaks, the discontinuities, the nonlinear aspect of history, without proposing a thesis about the jolting of what you call the situation. Might you be the philosopher that many take Foucault to be?
AB: Foucault is a theoretician of encyclopedias. He was never really interested in the question of knowing whether, within situations, anything existed that might deserve to be called a “truth.” With his usual corrosiveness, he would say that he didn’t have to deal with this kind of thing. He wasn’t interested in the protocol of either the appearance or the disappearance of a given epistemic organization. As long as you don’t have an immanent doctrine of what in the situation exceeds the situation, you can’t be concerned about answering the question of how we pass from one system to another.
LS: In your Manifeste (1989), you propose the following program of compossibilization: mathematics from Cantor to Cohen, Paul Celan’s poems, love under the sign of Lacan, and, in politics, the “obscure incidents” of the period 1968-80. In the framework of a “philosophy of time of this time,” are these events really on the breach?
AB: Today, I would certainly rework this mapping of events, which was meant only as an indication. Anything empirical is always only indicative, and rapidly contestable. In mathematics, something else would be needed to be on the breach; that would be the theory of categories, which has led me to further systematic developments that I hope one day to write as a sequel to L’Etre et l’evenement. In the arts, we would have to examine how arts other than poetry function as conditions for philosophy. Gilles Deleuze wasn’t wrong to consider film philosophically important; I’d like to say something a bit more elaborate about it. And music, in its complexity and relative uncertainty, interests me. And then of course there would be the visual arts. Supplementary deployments also need to be made in relation to the “obscure incidents” of politics. Politically the ’80s were strongly reactionary, and in no way clarified the new.
LS: Mathematics is only one of the four conditions of philosophy, yet it constitutes the concepts and structure of your system. Isn’t your philosophy sutured to mathematics?
AB: It’s an obvious objection. The impression that I privilege mathematics comes from my announcement that mathematics is the science of being qua being. But just as the declaration separates philosophy from ontology, from a questioning of being, it also separates philosophy radically from mathematics. It’s a protocol of distinction, not of suture at all.
The mathematical thread was absolutely necessary in L’Etre et l’evenement, but not in everything I’ve written. There, I wanted to convince my reader that mathematics is the science of being qua being. I couldn’t do that without making abundant use of mathematics. I also wanted to assure myself that the theory of truth I was proposing was mathematically consistent. But you mustn’t think that mathematics occupies such a privileged place in the whole of my philosophical program.
LS: I would have thought that the strategic move of putting mathematics in the place of ontology would at last open the way to a philosophical seizing of the theoretical sciences, written in the same formal mathematical language and possessing an oblique, if not to say blind, relation to phenomena. You have remained silent on this point.
AB: My silence about science is entirely temporary and contingent. There’s absolutely no principle involved. A whole series of aspects of the sciences, and particularly of contemporary physics, are of great philosophical interest. I had launched into arid studies of quantum mechanics years ago. But for the moment I still don’t feel sufficiently experienced or intimately acquainted with what’s in question there to talk about it. You can’t do everything!
LS: Forgetting for the moment the military/industrial establishment, is there a better example of the truth procedure than the scientific community?
AB: If the scientific community designates the system of protocols for evaluating scientific innovations, you’re quite right. Scientists are a body of the faithful. But the scientific community sometimes designates something more institutional: efforts to impose State control–which falls into the order of subsets that I refer to as the state of the situation–on the truth procedure. The relation between the state of the situation and the truth procedure is always complex, since the truth procedure disrupts the state of the situation, feeding on that situation’s void, not its closure. This makes for an ambivalence in the scientific community. On the truth side, it’s a community of the faithful. On the state side, it will always involve an attempt to sell its fidelity to the State.
LS: Concerning politics, why have you seized on the “obscure incidents” of the period 1968-80 rather than a namable event?
AB: I call these happenings obscure because I’m not convinced they have received their name yet. Nomination takes place in an aftermath. It can be left in abeyance for a long time. I have the feeling that what happened in the ’60s received a series of false names, because it wasn’t clearly perceived that what was at stake in these happenings was, precisely, a calling into question of the previous protocols of political nomination. (That’s why they’re obscure.) A lot of young activists in this period spontaneously tried to name what was happening through the Marxist vocabulary of class, or to inscribe it in the logic of a new party, or used the signifier “revolution,” etc. But these words were inadequate for what was happening. What events showed was exactly the opposite: even and especially in revolutionary politics, there was something used up, inoperative, and outdated in this protocol of nomination.
LS: It’s possible there was no event at all?
AB: It’s entirely possible that there was no event at all. I really don’t know.
LS: You must know, or you wouldn’t have designated that obscure time for examination.
AB: No, I really don’t know, because it’s possible that we’re in a time, itself uncertain, when we’re going to be able to find names for a whole series of events that have disappeared into the past. Although they remain undecided for the moment, they may become fixed as events. Undecidability is an intrinsic attribute of an event.
LS: What was the last namable event?
AB: In politics, the revolution of October 1917.
LS: We’re very far behind.
AB: We’re very far behind. But that’s the situation of politics.
LS: In the U.S. right now, the left is splintered into communities organizing to promote the rights of those who are denied them. These subcommunities have spawned sectarian modes of thought. How do you see this situation?
AB: As one of the most catastrophic imaginable. Some day it will be necessary to review this communitarian venture and the considerable damage it entails for thought itself. In order for there to be emancipatory politics, it is absolutely necessary that the substantiality of the community remain unnamable. If emancipatory politics claims to proceed in the name of any predicative characteristic, it denies itself the possibility of being generic. When you’re for African-Americans, women, and others having the same fights as anyone else, it’s absolutely indispensable to support that on other grounds than the existence of a community of African-Americans or women.
The theme of equal rights is really progressive and really political, that is, emancipatory, only if it finds its arguments in a space open to everyone, a space of universality. If not, despite all the apparent radicalism a community puts into its system of demands, we have a profound submission to the figure of the state of the situation. To every generic procedure I attach a limit, a term I call its “unnamable point.” More and more, I am tempted to think that in emancipatory politics the community in a racial or biological sense is strictly an unnamable point. In order for politics to remain emancipatory, the community must not be named as such.
LS: Marxist from the outset, Maoist for a long time, would you accept the accusation of having yielded to a philosophical idealism?
AB: Not at all. To be an idealist you have to distinguish between thought and matter, transcendence and immanence, the high and the low, pure thought and empirical thought. None of these distinctions function in the system I propose. Actually, I would submit that my system is the most rigorously materialist in ambition that we’ve seen since Lucretius.
LS: Concerning the condition of love, is the event situated in the encounter of love or in Lacan’s renovation of Freud?
AB: In the truth procedure that is love, the immanent event is the encounter of love. If I mention Lacan as a theoretical event, it’s because Lacan represents psychoanalysis’ contemporary time, when the question of love, in a modern form, has returned to the scene of thought as a real theoretical issue. Lacan tried to grant a quasi-ontological significance to the encounter of love. He inscribed love in its real terrain, the formula of sexuation. And he also tried to disentangle the extraordinarily complex web that ties and unties love and desire. For all these reasons, he made invaluable contributions to restoring love to its function as a truth procedure, a point that had been partially forgotten since Plato.
LS: You’ve found a generic set and truth inside the analytic situation.
AB: Until now, my interest in Lacan and psychoanalysis has been confined to showing that what I was saying in philosophy was compatible with Lacanian thought. In doing this, I was led to say a number of things about the situation of the analytic cure. But I’ve never resolved the issue of whether the analytic cure represents an independent, autonomous truth procedure. The difficulty is that there’s something in the analytic situation that’s analogous to the love situation. Transference, after all, is an encounter that is supposed to take the form of knowledge. Lacan himself was unable to clarify transference except by referring to the great philosophical works on love. The determination of the analytic situation’s exact point of autonomy requires research on my part that is not yet complete.
LS: Sexuation enters your system as a radical disjunction between the fundamental Two. Expelling all pathos, you equate feminine jouissance with the structure of an axiom, and a woman with the generic function.
AB: Given my relationship to the axiom, it’s hardly an insult to say that feminine jouissance is axiomatic. What interests me in feminine sexuality is its singular link to infinity. It’s a quasi-ontological process, a test of infinity, that seems subtracted from the finite regime prescribed by phallic logic. I don’t see how the irreducibility of this jouissance could be a source of any pathos whatever. That’s the price of a deromanticization of infinity.
LS: How do you identify the unity of an pertinent for philosophy, what you call a “configuration”?
AB: In music there is a sequence that starts with Arnold Schonberg and renders the truth of the tonal system retroactively by proposing an essentially different figure of musical composition. This sequence has all the attributes of a truth procedure. The protocol of the break is grouped around certain works by Schonberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern, the uncertain progressive protocol of nomination, dodecaphonic, then later serial music, and the labor of fidelity to that event. I would call this set a “configuration.” It’s not the work of an artist, or even of several artists, but a sequential constellation of works, inaugurated by an event and tracing a singular trajectory. In the investigation of art, we should completely abandon the notion of the auteur. Because of the encyclopedia, however, the auteur continues to paralyze our thinking.
LS: You’ve explicitly rejected the kind of suture of philosophy to the visual arts that we find in the works of Deleuze and Jean-Francois Lyotard, among others. Is that why you’re kept a distance from visual art?
AB: Of all the arts, it’s the one that intimidates me the most. Its intellectual charge is the greatest. In front of great painting, contemporary as well as past, I’m often seized with emotion. So turning to visual art philosophically has always been rather difficult for me. It’s not a feeling of ignorance at all, but a feeling that the mode in which intellectuality proceeds irreducibly into complex and powerful sensory forms . . . really, painting intimidates me. That’s why I never talk about it.
What’s more, I’ve never been very satisfied by the attempts of my predecessors to place themselves under the condition of painting. Nor have I ever found a regime of prose adequate to talk about painting. Where phenomenology is concerned, it isn’t badly deployed, but it hasn’t brought anything really decisive to the problem, even in texts of great quality like Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s on Cezanne. Even if we take Lacan’s brilliant analyses, or Foucault on Velazquez, we see that painting is missing somehow, that it isn’t really the issue. Where my program is concerned, I don’t know if I’m capable of including it. I like painting too much, perhaps. Or it’s a lack of inventiveness on my part.
LS: In the Manifeste, however, you propose an approach to painting: “exhibit what in painting is the gesture of all painting or, precisely, what is the nonspecifiable in painting as such,” by asking “where is the indiscernible in this affair.”
AB: I think I see it in what I know about painting, which is incomplete, fragmentary, and now perhaps outmoded. The movement to disengage painting from mimetic space consisted in producing the pictorial configuration’s genericity, not as an induced or secondary effect, but as the central volition. When I propose exhibiting pictorially the act of painting itself, and showing its specific intellectuality in the work’s visible form, that obviously means rendering the generic truth of painting’s singular situation. That gesture is indiscernible in the sense that it will not allow itself to be captured by any of the encyclopedia’s previously constituted predicates for the recognition of forms.
LS: As reference points in the arts you take Mallarme, Rimbaud, Osip Mandelstam, Fernando Pessoa, Kasimir Malevich, and Schonberg. How is it that a philosophy of time of this time remains faithful to the high Modernism of the early century?
AB: I don’t in any way think the high Modernism of the early century has gone without breaks up to the present–that we can still refer to it as a notion of the contemporary. I don’t at all maintain that nothing is happening, that there are no new works. It must be remembered, however, that what philosophy designates as susceptible of being seized in truth procedures are generic truths, rather vast subsets, vaster generally than is imagined within the interior movements of these arts. I take these examples as testimony or metonymy of the configuration; I could take other, more contemporary ones. But in terms of configurations, is there an essential break? Of that I’m not completely convinced.
In the last twenty or thirty years, what intrigues me is: what is emerging? I can see this a bit in terms of works, but it’s much harder in terms of configurations.
LS: Since the truth of each condition of philosophy is both immanent and singular, can we speak of political art?
AB: Yes, we can, because there are different ways of singularizing the types of generic procedures. There is a matheme of politics; in its events, its names, its protocols of fidelity, its slogans, etc., every singular political sequence is irreducible to any other. But there is also the singularity of the unnamable term that remains the limit point of a generic procedure–for politics, the substantial community. Providing the matheme of each of the procedures–which I haven’t done in any of my published works–is a very important task. It’s what I call “time-two” of the event.
LS: And if I were to ask you for the matheme of art?
AB: Right now, I don’t think I can go any further.
LS: You’ve made the choice, not without grave consequences, to situate ethics inside the generic procedures. Why?
AB: Obviously, the idea of a general ethics overhanging ordinary situations would take me out of my general philosophical organization, which is under the merciless rule of immanence. Moreover, if ethics, in the real sense of the term, exists, it must be attached to what is not the ordinary regime of the situation’s pure and simple living multiplicity. In this way, ethics must be connected to truth procedures. There will be as many ethical forms as there are truth procedures, as many singular, ethical actions or determinations as there are singular truths.
LS: But can one seriously confide and confine ethics to mathematicians, political activists, lovers, and artists? Is the ordinary person, by definition, excluded from the ethical field?
AB: Why should we think that ethics convokes us all? The idea of ethics’ universal convocation supposes the assignment of universality. I maintain that the only immanent universality is found in the truth procedure. We are seized by the really ethical dimension only inside a truth procedure. Does this mean that the encounter of ethical situations or propositions is restricted to the actors of a truth procedure? I understand that this point is debatable.
Of course, it can happen to anyone. Anyone can be seized by a political event, anyone can be seized by love. Most of the time, the great majority of us live outside ethics. We live in the living multiplicity of the situation. When we are engaged in a truth procedure, however, we are seized by it and follow the maxim of fidelity to it. There is no ethical imperative other than “Continue!,” “Continue in your fidelity!”
LS: If we find ethics inside the truth procedure, evil must inhabit the same space.
AB: That’s the problem with which the trajectory ends. It’s necessary to understand how evil is connected to the existence of truth procedures: there can be an imitation, what I call a “simulacrum,” of the truth event, convoking not the void but the plenum. It’s a pseudoevent that has a substance as its agenda. Any closed community always approaches this kind of racial, biological, or territorial conception. In connection with fidelity, evil presents itself in the choice of fidelity. Only a fidelity offers the possibility of what I call “betrayal.” In connection with the unnamable, evil takes the form of the idea that a truth can be total, that a truth is not just a subset of the situation but can englobe the entire situation, ignoring the points that must remain unnamable. When a truth is forced beyond its unnamable point, the consequences are necessarily ruinous, even criminal. That’s what I call “disaster.”
LS: As your ultimate wager, you acknowledge that philosophy itself can expose us to disaster.
AB: In seizing truths, philosophy may come to consider itself the sole, synthetic source of all possible truth. Once it dominates, directs, or subsumes, it can constrain truths to make claims to totality, breaking their limits, smashing their unnamable points. When philosophy articulates its seizing of truths in the form of identity or fusion, it exposes us to disaster.