What is It To Live?

This is the reading for June 2nd. We will meet in Itaewon at Bless U at 4:00.

“Several times in its brief existence, every human animal is granted the chance to incorporate itself into the subjective present of a truth.  The grace of living for an Idea, that is of living as such, is accorded to everyone and for several types of procedures.”

“I am sometimes told that I see in philosophy only a means to reestablish, against the contemporary apologia of the futile and the everyday, the rights of heroism.  Why not?  Having said that, ancient heroism claimed to justify life through sacrifice.  My wish is to make heroism exist through the alternative joy which is universally generated by following consequences through.  We could say that the epic heroism of the one who gives his life is supplanted by the mathematical heroism of the one who creates life, point by point.”

– Logics of Worlds, pg 514

The above quotes nutshell Alain Badiou’s answer to the question of the good life.  His project is the re-assertion of truths against the enforced banality of everyday life.  Over the next few meetings, we’ll be discussing the themes in these passages.  Today, we will look at Badiou’s concept of living for a truth, as compared to average everydayness.

Our Natural Belief: Democratic Materialism

What is the spontaneous, knee-jerk belief of today’s western culture?  That is, what do we good liberals think when we are not putting deliberate effort into being critical?  Badiou thinks our natural, everyday belief should be labeled democratic materialism.   Democratic materialism asserts that only two things exist: bodies and languages.  In other words, there are only individuals and their varied cultures.    He is not claiming that everyone is always a democratic materialist, but rather that this is the belief most easily accepted and taught in cultures that consider themselves modern in a recognizably western sense.

Our natural belief is a materialism because it only recognizes the existence of bodies, that is, individual people and things.  For now, let’s say the word “body” refers to individual people.  There are no souls, no free floating minds.  Ultimately, what we can hope for is enjoyment, and what we must avoid is suffering and death.  The attainment of enjoyment and the avoidance of suffering and death form the twin goals of our projects, especially political ones; anything that may interfere with enjoyment (in a very broad sense) is held in suspicion.  Hence, the importance of sexual freedom: as a form of intense enjoyment, the right to sexual expression is considered a core value.

Our natural belief is democratic because it recognizes the plurality of languages.  For now, we can think of languages as synonymous with culture or ways of thinking, broadly construed.  Every language is considered equal, so the greatest possible sin is to claim that there is one language (or way of thinking) that must dominate all the others.  Any language that claims to be superior to the rest is called totalitarian or intolerant.  A totalitarian language, therefore, does not enjoy the protection of tolerance that other languages do.  In these cases, a “right of intervention” is exercised, whether legal or militaristic.  The offending language is curbed by law or cruise missiles.  As Badiou says, “Bodies will have to pay for their excesses of language.”

One curious effect of democratic materialism is its tendency to reduce the world to a series of conflicts between two things: east vs. west, democracy vs. totalitarianism, legitimate military force vs. terrorism, and the entirety of the cold war.   The alleged plurality of languages is actually reduced to two kinds: good and bad.

To summarize, democratic materialism claims that all we can hope for is enjoyment – sex, movies, wealth.  The best humanity can hope for is comfort and pleasure.  The suffering of individuals and claims to a singular way of thinking (that is, a truth) are the two greatest evils.  So, we talk about art in terms of how much fun it is.  We discuss politics in terms of who benefits and who gets hurt, in terms of what is pragmatically possible, instead of what is just.  Science becomes the practical handmaiden of technology, rather than a matter of pure discovery.  Love is valued to the extent that it provides enjoyment; if your significant other is a bad lay, or if a serious difficulty arises, then we break up.

A Different Materialism: Truths, Situations and States

Badiou’s alternative is a materialist dialectic.  It is materialist because he actually does accept the statement “there are only bodies and languages.”  There are no souls, no other worlds beyond our own.

What introduces something new is the dialectical part.  In order for a difference between two things to be marked, there must be a third term.  He modifies the statement to read “There are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths.”  The syntax is strange, and it indicates the strange place of what he will call truths.

A truth in Badiou’s sense is not a synthesis or combination of truths and bodies.  Rather, truths are an exception to what exists.  He does not use the word “truth” to refer to correct statements, such as “the current President of the United States is Barack Obama.”  Correct statements can, in principle, be fully recognized within a situation.  We may be ignorant of or mistaken about a particular fact such as the number of chairs in the next room.  We may even resist the correctness of a fact.  For example, one side or the other is doing this with regards to global warming. But in principle, correct statements can circulate freely among people and can be accepted by all without great existential difficulty.

In contrast, a truth is that which points towards the possibility of fundamental change within a situation.  “Situation” is also a technical term for Badiou, but it is not radically different from the common sense of the word.  We are always in multiple situations: this philosophy club meeting, the current political climate of Korea, our own financial situations, or the roles we play in our jobs.  All of these things are situations.  Every situation is “one.”  This club meeting is one situation.

Now, every situation is included in a state.  We can think of a state as a wider, more encompassing multiple that re-presents the elements of various situations.  The situation of this philosophy club is perhaps represented in several states:  again, the Korean political state, or the state of relations between foreigners and Koreans, or the state of Itaewon as a cultural intersection.

Evental Sites, Events and Subjects

Sometimes, there are elements within a situation that are not represented at the level of a state.  There can be something in a situation that makes no sense in any wider context.  Put another way, these un-represented elements form an exception to the state.

One easy example of this is homosexuality, at least in decades past.  Before the successes of the gay rights movement, gay relationships could make no sense for the wider state of the family, because there was no marriage or reproduction involved, which were the primary marks of a loving relationship.  Gay relationships were – and to some extent, still are – an exception to the recognized state of things (family, marriage).

A situation that contains these exceptional elements is an evental site.  They lurk about the edges of the state, and can threaten to destabilize it.  In this sense, conservatives are somewhat correct in their fears about homosexuality – the growing recognition of gay rights actually does threaten the traditional family.

Evental sites offer people the chance to point out these exceptions, and to claim that these exceptional elements are in fact the truth of the situation.  An individual or a group can seize upon these elements and declare themselves to be subjects of this truth.  When this takes place, we can speak of an event.  An event can be an actual thing that takes place – in the context of gay rights, the Stonewall riots that kicked off the visible gay rights movement was an event.  Or, an event could be the realization of equality, taking place entirely in thought.  The African-American civil rights movement did not begin because a particular thing happened, but because African-Americans decided that they were in fact equal, and began to demand that equality.

An event is the sign that change is possible within a situation, but they only exist when recognized by a subject.  In a very real sense, events only take place because someone says they did.  There is no reason why the Stonewall riots had to begin the gay rights movement – the patrons of New York gay bars could have beaten up a few cops and then been forgotten by history.  And there is no reason why African-Americans ever had to recognize and demand their equality.

Declaring oneself to be the subject of an event begins a process; subjectification is the process of working out the logical consequences of an event.  It is not entirely false to see a relation to religious conversion here – thinkers of religious conversion such as St. Paul, Pascal and Kierkegaard are among Badiou’s influences.  At this point, the quoted passages above should make a little more sense.

Truth Procedures

For Badiou, truths are always related to one of four things: science, love, politics or art.  These four things, and only these four, offer the possibility of truths.  The truly, radically new always arises from one of these four areas.

Truths are limited to these four realms because they alone offer the possibility of universality.   The declaration that an event took place, saying “this is a truth and I will carry out its consequences,” is made to all.  There is something in every truth procedure, regardless of personal background, that everyone may affirm.  And everyone, regardless of background, may participate in any given procedure.

This kind of universality can also be described as being generic.  Becoming subject to a truth means becoming a generic human – cultural, psychological and gender differences exist, but they are entirely secondary, irrelevant to truths.  These differences are nothing other than a set of correct facts, and as such are represented in the state of the situation.  They cannot be exceptions; when a group attempts to make a truth out of their own specific difference (e.g., nationality) it is a disaster, another technical term that is comfortably close to the standard usage of the word.

Another mark of a truth is that it involves consequences.  One’s daily practices shift; time and room must be made for the new lover, the political cause, the scientific work, or the creation of a new work of art.  This is what the term “truth procedure” refers to.  Remember, an event only exists because someone says it does.  It is the same with a truth; because they are not synonymous with correct statements, truths require subjects in order to exist.  This is what Badiou refers to above as “the grace of living for an Idea” and “the joy which is universally generated by following consequences through.”

To live as something other than a human animal, as something other than an intersection of pragmatic interests and the circulation of correct statements, is to live for a truth.  Follow all the consequences through; keep going.  Badiou describes the ongoing truth procedure as a matter of fidelity – one must have fidelity to the consequences of the event.  The english expression “hold something to be true” is useful here; the declaration that began the procedure (e.g., “I love you”) is held to be true by a faithful subject.  The subject’s conviction is the only support for the truth, and that conviction must be ongoing.

What is it to live?  To live is to live for a truth, or in other words for an Idea.  Enjoyment and suffering are subordinated to the consequences of a truth.  The plurality of languages is subordinated to the universality of truths.  In the coming weeks, we’ll look at love, politics, the relation of math to philosophy, and Badiou’s understanding of good and evil.


5 thoughts on “What is It To Live?

  1. Straight Being and Event. I was going to skip the ontology and just do the more existentially stuff in Logics of Worlds, but changed my mind.

    I’m going to try and pick out one or two of the most important points from mediations 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9. Maybe 16.

    After that, we’ll do the newly published interview “In Praise of Love,” which is available cheaply for the kindle. Then politics, but I haven’t decided on the sources for that yet. Finally, we’ll do a week on the Ethics book.

    I’ll put up a proper schedule soon.

  2. To be clear, I’ll rely very heavily on meditation 1 to sketch out why math is ontology. It will also be an explanation of the term “subtractive ontology.” The other meditations might provide supplemental points.

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