Being and Event, Part 5: The Event

This is the reading for September 22.

Every situation we find ourselves in appears to be stable, in the sense that there are no fundamental surprises.  For example, your partner might dump you out of the blue, but being dumped was always in the cards, even if you didn’t actually consider it.  It is not some kind of fundamental novelty.  This stability is the result of the omnipresence of the count-as-one: every situation answers to a basic structure, and that structure only allows for so many possibilities.  In this sense, the author of Ecclesiastes was correct: there is nothing new under the sun.

The core of Alain Badiou’s project is to refute Ecclesiastes.  There are times, incidents wholly submitted to chance, that something genuinely new has the potential to occur.  The singular multiple can act as a site for this newness; something in a given situation can be completed unnoticed, but once named and acted upon, can offer a wild, unpredictable and new view of the world.  These week, we will look at the conditions of such an event.

Singular Multiples

Previously, we’ve described natural multiples as those multiples whose terms are both presented in a given situation, and re-presented at the level of the state.  In an increasingly charming example, Badiou points out that most families are a natural multiple: they are registered voters, pay taxes, go to school and have jobs.  So the mother, the father and the children all have their own immediate situations, and then their representations at the state level.  Another easy example of a natural multiple is nature itself; the laws of physics are stable and allow for no grand changes.

The singular multiple, on the other hand, has at least one term which is not represented.  Take the family again, and imagine that one member of that family has no connection with the state at all; Badiou describes this family member as “clandestine.”  So while the family is a multiple presented in its situation (its neighborhood, etc), one of its terms is not represented by the state.  Now, to be an evental site, the entire family would have to be unrepresented.

The evental site is the minimal effect of structure.  The site itself belongs to the wider state of the world, but the parts of the site are completely irrelevant or invisible to the state.  Badiou says this multiple borders the void; this touching “originates in its consisting (its one-multiple) being composed solely what, with respect to the situation, in-consists.  Within the situation, this multiple is, but that of which it is multiple is not.” (177)  He will also say that the site is “on the edge of the void,” because there is nothing below it – only the void. This “in-consisting” is the irrelevance or invisibility of its parts, and these parts, once pointed out, offer the opportunity for change and newness.  These parts are invisible because unlike other multiples, the site is a primal-one, admitted into the situation with no previous count.

However, the mere existence of these invisible parts is not enough to bring about change.  He says, “The confusion of the existence of the site (for example, the working class, or a given state of artistic tendencies, or a scientific impasse) with the necessity of the site itself…” is a determinist thesis.  He adds, “It is always possible that no event actually occur.  Strictly speaking, a site is only “evental” insofar as it is retroactively qualified as such by the occurrence of an event.” (179)

The Event

So far, we’ve seen two multiples that are unlike any other, each one arrived at by a decision.  First, we saw that the void is unique, yet included in every set.  It is composed of nothing, and founded on the decision “the one is not.”  Then we saw that natural multiples have a limit ordinal, or rather an infinite Otherness.  The infinite Other is composed of a sequences of natural ordinal multiples, and founded on the decision “there is some infinity,” or better, “there are some open sequences.”  Now, we will see a third crucial multiple: an event is composed of elements of its site and itself, and is characterized by undecidability.

The event is formalized thusly: Ex = {x∈X, Ex}.  E is the event, while X is the site.  Ex indicates that an event is always the event of a situation; it is always contextualized.  Ex is composed of the elements of the site, and itself.  In this sense, it is a competitor against the state’s representation of the situation – because rather than been included in the state, the elements of the event are only redoubled in the event itself.

There is a strange problem here to be cleared up.  An event is the possibility of a grand newness, yet it always takes place in the context of a particular situation.  But if it is always within a situation, why can’t we just say that the apparently new thing (political movement, artistic form, etc) is just a consequence of the situation as it was, and took place according to whatever degree of determinacy or chance that you wish?  In other words, are all changes just a matter of some latent potentiality being actualized, or is there a kind of newness that did not exist in seed form before hand?

The Occupy movement may be an instructive example.  Is the movement simply the logical result of anger over the American bailouts, or the result of college kids having too much time on their hands, or a minor protest that did a great job of marketing itself?  Or is it possible that Occupy offered everyone a genuinely new way to think the political situations of their cities, their countries and the world, while including populist anger, trust fund kids who’ve read too many books, and a great sales pitch (“we are the 99%”)?

Badiou’s answer to the question of genuine novelty vs. latent potentiality is that the event’s belonging to itself is undecidable from the situation itself.  Maybe the event is something new, maybe it is not.  The difficulty is that there is a circularity at work: “In order to verify whether an event is presented in a situation, it is first necessary to verify whether it is presented as an element of itself. . . . only an interpretive intervention can declare that an event is presented in a situation; as the arrival in being of non-being, the arrival amidst the visible of the invisible.” (191)  So in order to say that an event has taken place, it is not enough to catalogue facts – a certain interpretive jump is necessary.  Newspaper reports will never tell us on their own if OWS is, indeed, a new form of politics.  We must decide for ourselves.

There are two possibilities, and they must be taken together. First, we could say that an event does belong to the situation.  To say the “event belongs” is to say “that it is conceptually distinguished from its site by the interposition of itself between the void and itself.” (182)  An event does double duty; it is both itself and outside itself, between itself and the void.

The second possibility is that the event does not belong to the situation.  Since the event is meant to present both itself and the terms of its site, if the event does not belong to the situation, then it is not presented anywhere.  We find ourselves with a normal multiple.  This is equivalent to the claim that a situation is wholly natural, and that no fundamental change is possible.

One thing we can be sure of is that ontology is of no help in deciding whether or not the event belongs.  As said above, the event’s peculiar characteristic is that it belongs to itself; yet none of the axioms we have discussed allow such a thing.  We will never be able to say that our decision is ratified by being as such.  The American Civil Rights movement, the love between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise and the development of Cubism all took place over and against the axioms that govern the count of their situations.  In other words, the pure science of being, mathematics, cannot tell us anything about how we should behave we regards to science, love, art or politics.

The Intervention

Because of the circularity involved in deciding whether the event belongs, and because ontology itself is of no help, there can be no firmly grounded decision on the matter.  Any decision on the matter will thus be a wager.  In earlier part of the book, Badiou claimed,

“Ordinarily, conceptual construction is reserved for structures whilst the event is interjected into the pure empiricity of what-happens.  My method is the inverse.  The count-as-one is in my eyes the evidence of presentation.  It is the event which belongs to conceptual construction, n the double sense that it can only be thought by anticipating its abstract form, and it can only be revealed in the retroaction of an interventional practice which is itself entirely thought through.” (178)

So instead of an event just being a thing that happens, it needs to be constructed and its consequences worked out.  How does this process begin?  We cannot simply look at the situation for the seeds of an event, because then this event would be decidable, an actualizable potentiality.  An event has no specific origin, and there is no procedure for deciding upon its existence.  The only things visible are the consequences of the event.

The intervention is described as “any procedure by which a multiple is recognized as an event.” (202)  This act of recognition involves two things. First, a multiple is both a part of itself and part of the situation.  There is some undecidability. Second, the multiple is seen as part of the situation: it belongs.

Here’s the odd thing: saying the event belongs may cancel out the undecidability.   If the whole point is that the event is undecidable, then doesn’t a decision annul it as event?  It becomes just another term of the situation.  It appears that the decision annuls its own meaning.  Rather than being a novelty, the event would just be an easily representable part of the situation.  There are both reactionary and left-wing versions of this; the reactionary version is easily seen in Time Magazine’s vicious photoshop job of this protestor.  The name of the un-presented (99%) is removed, and the eyes are tweaked to make her look like a “jihadist”.  Any sign that the woman might be a part of something new and progressive is erased in favour of making her look like one of the “same old malcontents” that have troubled the world so much.

The consequences of this annulment are more severe than a lousy photoshop job, however.  Once the decision is made, what provoked the decision is completely lost “in the uniformity of multiple-presentation.”  It is a “paradox of action”; partly, this means that every progressive moment must deal with the possibility of being co-opted.  The chance of the event and the possibilities it offers are “reduced to the common lot and submitted to the effect of structure.”  The force of the movement would be nothing other than the will-to-power of its participants.  Of course we see how often the claim is made that revolutionaries are concerned with nothing other than gaining power, and this is a real danger:

“The will to power, which is the interpretive capacity of the decision, would bear within itself a certitude that its ineluctable consequence be the prolonged repetition of the laws of the situation.  Its destiny would be be that of wanting the Other only in its capacity as a new support for the Same. . . . It is well known what kind of pessimistic political conclusions and nihilistic cult of art are drawn from this evaluation of the will in ‘moderate’ (let’s say: non-Nazi) Nietzscheism.” (202-203)

The leftist danger of this annulment of the event is “speculative leftism,” which “imagines that an intervention authorizes itself on the basis of will alone; that it breaks with the situation without any other support than its own negative will.” (210)  It is the attempt to break the history of the world in two: everything before the event becomes irrelevant.  This ends up in Manicheanism, and it desires only the capital-R Revolution or the Apocalypse.

The antidote to this problem of annulment is that both senses of recognition must be retained.  In other words, the undecidability of the event must not be lost.  The name of the event, (“Occupy” or “the 99%”) which is what circulates in the situation, is drawn from the edge of the void, or what is unnoticed or “irrelevant.”  The insistence on retaining undecidability has several consequences, only a few of which we will look at here.

First, we can’t confuse the un-presented with its name.  The multiple exists as two: as an absence and a name subtracted from the count.  The 99% names those ignored in the political or economic situation, and are not named as such in accordance with any of the old rules.  Second, there is no there is no one name; then the count-as-one would govern the intervention.  That is, the event would be reduced to and counted as a single term when in fact it is fundamentally two.  Because no rules govern the naming of the un-presented, the act naming is “illegal” – it is a choice without any rules.

More importantly, the intervention is only recognized in the situation by its consequences.  The name is presented, its support is not.  “It will therefore always remain doubtful whether there has been an event or not, except to those who intervene, who decide its belonging to the situation.”  So from the outside, it will always appear as if a few trouble-makers are acting up, or that the problems are just the logical result of a bad situation.  This is especially true from the perspective of the state; all the state sees is the site (smelly hippies in Zucotti Park) and the name (pictures on the internet of people saying “I am the 99%”).  Trouble is always the work of outsiders: the lazy unemployed, foreign agitators, illegal immigrants.

How does an intervention commence, then?  Badiou says, “What is at stake here is the commencement of a long critical trial of the reality of action, and the foundation of the thesis: there is some newness in being – an antagonistic thesis ‘with respect to the maxim from Ecclesiastes…” (209)

As we’ve said, there is a circle: in order to decide that there something undecidable in the situation, one must first decide that there is something undecidable.  Badiou’s answer to this circularity is that “There is actually no other recourse against the circle than that of splitting the point at which it rejoins itself,” and “The possibility of the intervention must be assigned to the consequences of another event.  It is evental recurrence which founds intervention.” (209)

In other words, the way out of the circle is to say that the naming of the event is actually founded upon a previous event.  In a seeming acceptance of eternal regress, Badiou says that there is no primal event or origin.  The speculative leftism described above is precisely the insistence on radical commencement.  The whole effort lies in the following out the event’s consequences, not in glorifying its occurrence.  “This is why its sole foundation lies in a discipline of time” – fidelity.  Next time, we’ll look at the anatomy of this discipline of time via his reading of Blaise Pascal.


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