Being and Event, Part 5: Fidelity and Pascal

This will be the reading for October 6.

Last time, we saw that the intervention is a matter of deciding upon undecidability; the evental multiple is a paradoxical multiple that both belongs to the situation and to itself, thus interposing itself between itself and the void, creating a wholly different sort of openness than the otherwise decidable openness of the infinite limit ordinal.  The act of naming this multiple begins a “long critical trial of action,” a “discipline of time.”

This week, we will look at the anatomy of this discipline.  FIrst, a reading of Pascal will give us a tailor-made example of fidelity in the form of Christianity, as well as hints at the actual “conversion” process.  Second, we will see how fidelity is essentially a matter of deciding which multiples depend upon the evental multiple for their existence; this is Badiou’s concept of ethics.


“Lacan used to say that if no religion were true, Christianity, nevertheless, was the religion which came closest to the question of truth. . . .I take it to mean the following: in Christianity and in it alone it is said that the essence of truth supposes the evental-ultra one, and that relating to truth is not a matter of contemplation – or immobile knowledge – but of intervention.  For at the heart of Christianity there is that event – situated, exemplary – that is the death of the son of God on the cross.  By the same token, belief does not relate centrally to the one-being of God, to his infinite power; its interventional kernel is rather the constitution of the meaning of that death, and the organization of a fidelity to that meaning.  As Pascal says: ‘Except in Jesus Christ, we do not know the meaning of our life, or death, or God, or ourselves.'” (212)

The two key points here seem to be that truth is something different from knowledge; knowledge is a passive activity that we could say takes place in an isolated mind, while truth is something more akin to motivation for action.  Second, Badiou claims that Christianity is less about God and God’s power than the death of God, and the consequences that flow from it.

This death of God has all the characteristics of an event, albeit mixed with an ontology of presence that confuses Greek finitude with a genuine infinity.  The evental multiple is God’s death, which is declared to belong to the site of the cross.  Rather than just being any old death, this is a singular death; the event belongs to itself.  As for the state, the Romans do not quite know how to handle any of this; first, Pilate washes his hands, and later, the pre-Constantinian Emperors can’t seem to figure out a consistent response to Christianity.  It remains a troublesome exception.  Finally, Christianity was the first institution in human history to pretend to universality.

Blaise Pascal’s project was to renovate Christianity and the meaning of this death of God under modern conditions – that is, the newly arisen world of science.  The demonstrative, rational edifice that Augustine and Aquinas built had been ruined.  Christianity needed to belong to a different logic.  He had two obvious choices.  First, one could take use of the mathematics of infinite and rational mechanics to prove the existence of God.  Pascal rejects this on the basis that it leads to an abstract God.  Second, one could make science and religion completely indifferent to one another; this is essentially Kant’s move, placing God in the noumenal realm.  Pascal rejects this because of his desire for a unified doctrine.

His ultimate answer does seem to be close to the second option, however.  Badiou says that after the rise of science, “the Christian God could only remain at the center of the subjective experience if it belonged to an entirely different logic, if the ‘proofs of the existence of God’ were abandoned, and if the pure evental force of faith were restituted.” (214)

Pascal has two questions.  First, what is a Christian subject today, and second, “What could cause an atheist, a libertine, to pass from disbelief to Christianity?” (215)  At stake here is the persuasive force of an avant-garde decision in the name of an event, or rather, the nature of the famous wager.

He has more sympathy for libertines, much more than for lukewarm believers; “And for what reason, if not that the nihilist libertine appears to him to be significant and modern in a different manner from the amateurs of compromise, who adapt themselves to both the social authority of religion, and to the ruptures in the edifice of rationalism.” (215)#

Pascal emphasizes the miraculous when attempting to convert these nihilistic atheists.  Why does this openminded scientist insist on justifying Christianity through its weakest aspect, the miracles?

“Let’s say, without proceeding any further, that the miracle – like Mallarme’s chance – is the emblem of the pure event as resource of truth.  Its function – to be in excess of proof – pinpoints and factualizes the ground from which there originates both the possibility of believing in truth, and God not being reducible to this pure object of knowledge with which the deist satisfies himself.  The miracle is the symbol of an interruption of the law in which the interventional capacity is announced.” (216)

The central dialectic of his argument is the relation between the prophecy and the miracle.  Messianic prophecies are only retroactively discernible; they mark the time of waiting for an event.  They look forward to it, but nonetheless, the event must be submitted to chance.  “. . . the Christian subject is the one who decides from the standpoint of undecidability, rather than the one who is crushed by the power of either a demonstration. . . or some prodigious occurrence, the latter being reserved for the last judgement.” (218)  While the prophecies looked to the event, the event is still a surprise, and never necessary.  More than this, the prophecies do not dictate the meaning of the event – it is the avant-garde that decides on the event’s meaning.

Pascal wants the libertine to re-intervene on this event’s meaning.  ‘What the Apostles did against the law, the atheist nihilist (who possess the advantage of not being engaged in a conservative pact with the world) can re-do.” (219)  More so, the libertine has always already chosen:

“The famous text on the wager – whose real title is ‘Infinite – nothing” –  indicates solely that, since the heart of the truth is that the event in which it originates is undecidable, choice, in regard to this event, is ineluctable.  Once an avant-garde of intercessors – the true Christians – has decided that Christ was the reason of the world, you cannot continue as though there were no choice to be made.” (220-221)

Our libertine cannot say “I do not blame them for their choice, but for making a choice at all. . . the right thing to do is not to wager.”  However, the libertine can always say “‘I am forced to wager. . . and I am made in such a way that I cannot believe.’  The interventional concept of truth permits the complete refusal of its effects.  The avant-garde, but its existence alone, imposes choice, but not its choice.”  Finally, Badiou recognizes that “Everything can founder on the rock of nihilism.” (221)

Fidelity and the Operator of Connection

Fidelity is the set of procedures which decide which elements of a situation are dependent upon the evental multiple.  The word “fidelity” seems to refer to love, but rather it is love which refers to the dialectic of being and event.  He says of this word,

“Amorous fidelity is precisely the measure to be taken, in a return to the situation whose emblem, for a long time, was marriage, of multiples of life  and the intervention in which the one of the encounter was delivered.  How, from the standpoint of the event-love, can one separate out, under the law of time, what organizes – beyond its simple occurrence – the world of love?  Such is the employment of fidelity, and it is here that the almost impossible agreement of a man and a woman will be necessary, an agreement on the criteria which distinguishes, amidst everything presented, the effects of love from the ordinary run of affairs.”  (232/233)

Badiou makes three qualified points about fidelity.  A fidelity is always particular and depends on an event.  “There is no general faithful disposition.  Fidelity must not be understood in any way as a capacity, a subjective quality, or a virtue.  Fidelity is a situated operation which depends on the examination of situations.  Fidelity is a functional relation to the event.” (233)  This being said, one must still think the universal form of a fidelity: “In the same situation, and for the same event, different criteria can exist which define different fidelities, inasmuch as their results – multiples grouped together due to their connection with the event – do not necessarily make up identical parts…”  (233)

We know that at the empirical level, there is more than one way to skin a cat.  The non-violence of Martin Luther King competed with the more “assertive” activities of the Black Panthers.  The peaceful protestors of Occupy Wallstreet are often accompanied by those engaging in Black Block tactics.  One couple’s love may be characterized by wild sexual experimentation, while another’s may be centered around quiet companionship.

Second, fidelity is not a term of a multiple.  Like the count-as-one, it is an operation.  “Strictly speaking, fidelity is not.” (233)  However, at any given point in the fidelity, there is a set of marked multiples, those which depend on the event.  This is a sort of provisional result.

Third, it counts the parts of a set.  It can appear as a counter state, which we might be able to describe as a competing representation of the situation.

A fidelity has three parts.  A situation, in which the effects are linked by a count. A particular multiple, the named event.  Finally, the rule of connection – which multiples are relevant to the event?  The connector is written thusly: ⟩.  So if we say α⟩Ex, then α depends upon the event; we can call it a positive atom.  If we say ~(α⟩Ex), then α is unconnected, and it is called a negative atom.  “A fidelity, in its real being, its non-existent being, is a chain of positive or negative atoms.” (234)

The positive atoms are included in the situation; this is a state concept.  But this is not the ontological foundation of the fidelity itself.  The positive atoms are a finite set, but every situation is infinite.  Therefore, “It follows that the state projection of a fidelity – the grouping of a finite number of multiples connected to the event – is incommensurable with the situation, and thus with the fidelity itself.”  This also means that “No particular multiple limits, in principle, the exercise of fidelity.” (235)  Finally,  “A fidelity is thus always in non-existent excess over its being.  Beneath itself, it exists; beyond itself, it inexists.”  (236)  The upshot is that the fidelity is an almost nothing: we are nothing, we must become everything.

Another reason fidelity escapes the state: ⟩ has not a priori tie to ∈ or ⊂.  It can have a greater or lesser connection to ∈ and ⊂.  The closer a fidelity comes to ∈ or ⊂, the more statist it is.  If ⟩ is identical to ∈, then it is a statist redundancy.

There are two ways that the connector can be identical to belonging.  The first is the spontaneist thesis: only those who began a fidelity can take part in it.  Any latecomers are bandwagon jumpers.  The second is the  dogmatic thesis: there are no negative atoms.  The world world depends on the event.  Both are statist theses because they entirely take over the function of the state.

One example of a dogmatic thesis (not Badiou’s own) could be that every last element of our lives is somehow determined in the last instance by race, class or sex.  Is the claim that the personal is political a dogmatic thesis?  An example of a spontaneist thesis might be that only those who founded a movement may dictate its movements: this seems to be the case in American popular feminism, wherein the younger members complain that the older members – those who remember the heyday of the second way – marginalize their concerns.

On the other hand, “A real fidelity establishes dependences which for the state are without concept, and it splits – via successive finite states – the situation in two, because it also discerns a mass of multiples which are indifferent to the event.” (237)  Fidelity organizes a counter-state: “another legitimacy of inclusions.” (238)  It produces a new kind of situation, split between positive and negative atoms.  This produces the institutional temptation, which is to believe that the current state of the fidelity is the true situation.

There is a  profound question for philosophy here: does an event prescribe a particular fidelity?  Are some fidelities necessarily spontaneist or dogmatic?  Badiou says, “Philosophically speaking, the ‘topos’ of this question is that of wisdom, or Ethics, in their relation to a central illumination obtained without concept at the end of an initiatory groundwork, whatever the means may be (The Platonic ascension, Cartesian doubt, the Husserlian epoche . . .).  It is always a matter of knowing whether one can deduce, from the evental conversion, the rules of the infinite fidelity.” (230)

In his short book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Good and Evil, he expands on this point, arguing that ethics is not only the discernment of a fidelity, but also the confidence or strength to continue in it. Evil takes one of three forms: the failure to follow through, the “forcing” of the situation, which roughly corresponds to the dogmatic thesis run amuck, or a fidelity to a pseudo-event such as Nazism. Good and evil are wholly related to events; daily life is “beneath good and evil.”


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