Ethics of the Idea

[The following is a translation of Alain Badiou’s seminar from February 15, 2016, part of his last series of lectures on the Immanence of Truths. The video in French is here and the transcript (which I have added to in parts) here. For ease of reading, I’ve divided the text into sections: [1] Introduction to oppression as covering; [2] Finitude and constructible sets; [3] Infinity and non-constructible sets; and [4] Fundamental ethics of the Idea.]

[1] General Introduction to Covering

The major idea we are working with for the moment, I recall, is that ultimately every figure of oppression comes down to an imprisonment in a finite figure of existence, right there where an infinite perspective could have been upheld. In other words, we are transforming the problem of emancipation, or the process of liberating human possibilities, by no longer treating it directly under the form of an explicit contradiction between loose or separated terms like the oppressors and the oppressed. In fact, we believe that what attracts oppression upon oneself, oppression in all its figures, is always the fear, doubt, risk, or possibility that something will emerge that would be radically in excess over the order whose guardians are the masters. If the order functions without supposing its opposite, then specific methods of oppression will not even have to be used. Order itself then constitutes the oppressive figure. What we will discuss is the specific, identifiable figure of oppression that is required once order–in its own functioning, in the only machine it constitutes–no longer appears sufficient (or so it fears) to contain in the finite closure of oppression the figure that it represents.

Our intuitive point of departure is that oppression manifests itself whenever something that could extract itself from the order that contains it dares to appear. This is one possible meaning of the strong old revolutionary statement: “Where there is oppression, there is revolt.” Unfortunately, this is not quite true; it is not mechanically true. What is certain, on the contrary, is that where there is revolt, there is oppression. Where something surges up that appears to disturb the general order, that order will immediately and always put in place precise and specific figures. How is an antagonistic possibility is contained?

My hypothesis, which has an ontological character, is that the dialectic adequate for thinking this in its being is the dialectic of the finite and the infinite. The ambition of a closed order, whatever its nature might be, is to perpetuate itself, to maintain its closure as such, that is, to prevent the manifestation of something qualitatively foreign to this closure. This closed order can always be described as the maintenance of a certain type of finitude. Everything that appears as being beyond the dominant conception of finitude, everything that appears in excess of it, as deregulating this closure, is perceived as a perilous in-finitization of the situation. And, in particular, of the in-finitization of possibles. Because locking-down what is possible is the key to maintaining order. That is why, in general, order begins by saying that nothing other than itself is possible, blocking the possible itself, in a precise point, through this very fact. What we are doing is finding the deep underlying logic whereby order seeks to actually break that which appears to go beyond the norm and the rule. For this logic is even more fundamental than the system of means, which we all know so well (mechanisms of propaganda, policing, open oppression, etc.).

My second hypothesis has to do with an extremely important procedure that I call covering. At the most general level, it is the attempt to neutralize the possible emergence of a new infinity by covering it over with preexisting significations, already given in the situation, which aim to forbid its development, on the one hand, but also its internal meaning, the immanent sense of this infinite, of this excess, this new infinity. It is not a matter of declaring that it did not happen or that nothing happened, but rather that this something does not have the signification it gives to itself. It is possible, in effect, to analyze this situation in terms of oppression itself: it is to cover up in some way, as if one had put a sack over the top of it, the set of that which is said and done in the name of this novelty with old, generally stereotypical significations internal to the situation, and in such a way that the very intelligibility of what has happened is annihilated, such that even those who participate in it wind up no longer really knowing if what they are doing is truly what they say it is. For this procedure also aims at an intrinsic demoralization of the agents of the novelty, by convincing them, through numerous artifices, that what they believe is new is in fact old, and not just old, but harmfully antiquated. That is the general operation of covering. In order to cover something up, one has to plaster already-existing significations over its advent, its upsurge, its embryonic instances. In that way one kills the pioneering intensity of the upsurging or novel figure of infinity. Continue reading

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The Christian Topic

[The following is a translation of the Epilogue from Jean-Louis Chrétien’s 2014 book, L’espace intérieur. It is slightly abridged in the middle, splitting it into two parts. The text is then supplemented with a number of “footnotes”; these lead to other quotations from the rest of the book chosen simply for their beauty and wisdom, as well as for the light they shed on the Epilogue itself. The result, I hope, is an adequate representation of the author’s main ideas and intentions. To prepare the reader, a brief note is in order. The problematic at play here involves the self, subjectivity, and interiority. Chrétien wants to show that the modern version of this problematic has lost touch with its origin and its founding moments, which he traces to numerous Christian theologians and mystics. The crucial difference is this: where contemporary thought sees an increasingly isolated psyche struggling to gain control of its unconscious tendencies and become master of self and world, the Christian “topic” instead focuses on the edification, exploration, and expansion of an interior space in which God may dwell. Of prime importance here is the presence of infinity or alterity that we “house” potentially within ourselves, or even more strongly, whose residence we are. The book draws on numerous figures present in the Christian tradtion from its inception, from the chamber of the heart (Matt. 6:6) to St. Theresa’s Interior Castle, to illustrate the energetic, dramatic, and libidinal-economic dynamics at play in this Christian topic of interior space. Each chapter ends by showing how modern thinkers appropriated and twisted these figures, stripping of them of their God-orientation and tipping them progressively toward the “kingdom of subjectivity” we know so well today. Chrétien’s aim, however, is not proselytistic, but philosophical and schematic: to show the intelligibility of this model of inhabitable personal identity and how it might inform impasses that have proved intransigent for modern thought. I hope the reader will enjoy the contemplation of this text as much as I have.] Read from Interior Space

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Les effets-Levinas, by François Laruelle
trans. by Timothy Lavenz

Pointless to talk about and comment upon Levinas, an enterprise he does not tolerate very well and, besides, there are colloquia for that. In the most decisive part of his work, he himself does not comment upon a tradition of philosophy. Husserl and Heidegger only serve him as foils. It’s not even certain that he does a reading of phenomenology in the rabbinical style. He does something that some philosophers do but with many mediations and ruminations of style, of which Derrida gave us an idea. He registers and “translates” as closely as possible, annulling the translation, the trauma of the Shoah, echoing it immediately “with” or rather “in” the means of a language whose intelligibility is no longer classic, even if these means are paradoxically the effects or affects of a globally ontological mode of intelligibility. If we don’t want to think ourselves capable of appropriating him in an erudite commentary, we also have a duty to simply register some Levinas-effects, which are those of a text as inadmissible as it is irrefutable. Levinas is impossible: there it is, without delay, i.e., without différance, the point of the situation. He will have persecuted us, we philosophers. Regarding this Levinas-persecution, here are some traits: Continue reading

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A Mind in Relief

Writing is perhaps the last best way to give broad thought form, for the mind itself can hardly extend its grasp beyond the singular detail drawing its attention just right now, though it sense at the periphery the many nebulous associations it provokes. Limited by its own power of mobile concentration, the mind does not, cannot stablize what it grasps; it can only dance around rippling circles of sense, meeting the tiny waves gingerly and purposefully, smoothing some and roughing up others, while the liquid itself is wicked away by time, lost between the fleeting fathom of the dance. By contrast, a written text, by dint of its basic inertia, can hold frozen an almost endless number of instances at attention, ideally in their most becoming flourishes and postures, approximating a photo album of the mind’s best takes. It lets stills lie flat together as on a contact sheet, concealing the chaos of the mind’s frenetic snap, the wild dilations of its aperture. Then, in the darkroom of editing, where zooming reigns, the developed captures can be enlarged, cropped, stitched, collaged, colored, rearranged, etc. Thus is the influence between each element made continuous, text-flow matched to thought-flow, though they be incompatible. An illusion as regards the mind’s process, it nonetheless renders the truth of its labor concrete in the lasting, legible form of a writing, accessible to any mind that can read and think.

Because the mind’s activity is necessarily in rapid dispersal, darting at slants and diffracting its energy around myriad thought-bulbs, it is essential that it leave footprints everywhere, shades of its arrows. It must pour out inscriptions at a breakneck pace, lest it lose heart in the endless race, or persuade itself it is winning. Without these pathmarks, these “facts” of thinking–detailed attention distilled into attentive details that can be grasped–the mind has only its own useless pride, built upon a heritage of errors. Pride deludes the mind into thinking it could stand up on its own, without the thousandfold externalized supplement; that it has a substance of its own to call home or defend, an inside or a depth dignified in itself; that it could retain something apart from its own refinement process, its labor on the details, which has only an outward face. Those who esteem their mind with pride accomplish little, believing there is something essential to it “behind” the accidents it handles. But the mind is not found in the abstract dimension of Self, where every shoot is stunted by an identity poisoning the roots; it abhors ambitions that only claw at importance and recognition, that fantasize about grand ideas too good for spadework. No, it is only between the lines–in the lining of a sequence that is yet to be sequenced through–that mind occurs. Outside of its work on the materials, its pursuit of breakthroughs and follow-ups, there is only a delusion of intelligence and its dead letter–half-hearted efforts and half-assed conclusions. Anyone satisfied thus, with verdicts and vindications, is doomed to a lifeless winter, however much fame they might accrue; while others, scared off by the bombast and conceit, default into an anxiety that paralyzes and postpones even further the fresh, inaugural gesture of writing proper, where the mind is activated by what could be, not what is. Faith must back this invisible wager, must testify to the truth the process engages, lest the mind seek itself in products and freeze.

And so, when seeking new details in uncharted territories, the mind can only really trust its orienteering gear, its nose and charting skill, its compass of intuition and will. From  maps of adventures it has already plotted, it reads off the mystery of its own search and desire, the unfinished history that makes possible its future. Relying on its native audacity, using references like walking sticks collected along the way–or whittled into masterpieces when fatigue made new hikes impossible–, the mind grows page by page in curiosity and skill, extending its exploration confidently, free from the past steps it loves to leave behind thankfully. Its gratitude for its “text”–rethought here as the tactile texture of the spirit in which it moves and lives–is an appreciation of its “death”–rethought here as the line of departure, infinite and without closure, that the mind’s massive journey represents to the world. Nothing static, no established sense, ever comes out of this; only the spark to venture farther into the distance that its love opens up to the incommensurable, which the mind only ever comprehends by overflowing itself. Though these concrete traces make up the framework of every move, the mind forgets them effortlessly, glued to the detail it can only just now pursue, and to the rhythm its pursuit composes–the new trail.

The work of the mind is entirely in these steps, in the quiet crunch of the traveler’s evanescence. In the physical effort each step takes and in the physical mark each step makes, we find the only manifestation of the mind’s roving span. Should we then think that broadness in thought is measured by the volume of traces? Or by the weight of their imprint, the stack of the maps? These would be superficial indicators. Mass is more an effect of time’s stretch than of mental sharpness, which on the contrary knows precisely how to strip time’s mass away, or to approach every volume through the weightless; this is in order to do justice to thought’s inherent liquidity, which is also its innocence. In any given moment, there is but a taste of the mind’s future consummation, when the climax of epiphany will pervade the whole human fabric. Besides, no mind has ever comprehended the “scope” of a thought at once, or ever. Such all-encompassing views are the province of illusory sovereigns who dread losing control over their domain; whereas the mind remains a wanderer in both foreign and familiar territory, content to bring to each encounter a humble tone, a word of insight, a knowing smile or a bit of laughter. The grace of its minor gestures relieves it of the pressure to own, impose, prove, or attain. Lightness is its only moniker, for it reports on time’s forgiveness, the mind’s ability to regain innocence after so many enslavements, and to let things be other than they have been.

Upon closer inspection, then, nearly everything but the presently swimming memory is lost to oblivion, and it is only with the support of a technical apparatus that all the lost pieces gather together. But through its patient work on the paper trail, the mind can make a force of this oblivion–not to master it, but to liberate it from the despair of its limitation, its inevitable incompleteness. In this act, memory embraces oblivion as essential to its own chance, since without it it would be stuck in what was, in a chain of consequences. If the mind could not let go of its mappings, it would be a trap, a prison. It would be confused with the object, monument or shelter that lends it concrete manifestation, which it needs but which never equals it. The mind’s act–equaling, essentially, zero, the void without which no inspired construction is possible–has to be in excess of the memorable, since otherwise memory would be no more than an account of facts, an adherence to the state of the situation. It would lose its redemptive impulse: to ensure that the memory in creation is not just welcoming of past traces, but generative of future ones that will soon come to reerase and reframe those past. Despite the finite evidence that the mind leaves in its wake, with each stroke it affirms this actual infinity, the passion of its escape velocity, which is its gift to humanity. Broadness of thought can only be gauged by reengaging the mind’s own broadening effort to think, and that takes all of us, our ardor and our patience. Only by binding and releasing detail after detail does the mind prepare its resting place, wherein its absurd destiny is perceived: to dwell in the majestic present of thinking.
Read the Addendum

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Doubts and Honesties

The urge to flee the confines of limited identity plagues me. I dream of discourses that would spread lightly through bustling channels of thousands of people, messages that would change the way they operated on a daily basis, the way they thought of “self,” and brought them peace; to turn them away from the bogus world discourse, the circus of politics and market, toward the work of justice, art, thinking, mercy, love–whatever brings to them the highest intensity of release from whatever limitation.

But instead of traveling out, instead of hitting the streets and commingling with persons, I gravitate always to the palace of words, study and writing, thinking perhaps naively that it is possible to draw everyone in. Placing my heart at the distance of art and language, I use the internet as my point of contact to an audience potentially universal, favoring the virtual over the actual forum because it is less combative and imposing, more composed and dispersive, like a book ought to be. I strive to deepen my discipline, improve the quality of my sentences, drown myself in complexity and detail to give them voice, seek out the untamed beauty of historical intelligence; then I submit my findings to an ethic of (nearly instantaneous) sharing, preferring the webpost to the book form because of the immediacy of its reach. Nothing lessens my desire to represent this effort as a work of art, and to seduce others to similar risks and enrichments of aesthetic engagement, knowing that, because of worldly constraints, most do not have the time and freedom to make such commitments. Yet it is precisely this situation of oppression, of harassment by a society built on the exploitation of classified and atomized individuals, that I wish to combat with my inventions.

My deepest ambition has been: to neutralize the “I” of thinking, to stage its destiny in the other’s epiphany, believing that this was the avenue to both an explosive creativity and an emancipatory “community,” founded not upon bonds but unbinding, upon a deep and rigorous release from all ontological determinism. Grounded in the “symbiotic kenosis” of creative energies, I’ve curated myself into self-vacating, staged an open space of non-identity, hoping in practice to merge the written “I” with this generic procedure, which is admittedly at odds with the conventional realites and discourses of the “world” I too must still contend with. But beyond my grasp, at the breakdown of knowledge, custom and memory, my faith is transported, the words raise me into you. I have such little guiding influence on this, suspended as I am on their clang and disappearance. Even to acknowledge this now, I am fictioned by them in a way I know seems self-absorbed, overdone, pretentious. But the elegance of the word’s solutions implore me, and I cannot fight the savor of their long-prepared taste, for it feels right to take this tone, the truest I could take, though it issue from the seemingly inhuman distance of poetry.

In myself I recognize, as I do in figures like Walter Benjamin, the struggle between a compassion for the universal that would love to proclaim a liberating message before an expansive populace, and the orneriness of a book-bound lifestyle dedicated to a “for all time” influence, with all the reclusiveness, dissimulation, and obsession this can entail. Every evolutionary energy, the ecstasy of entanglement with others, is funneled into a prose that can only pose a challenge to the singular listener, in a style appearing to aspire to the timelessness of literature—not a manifesto, nor purely theoretical, nor preachy or programmatic or analytical, but in the language of birds, of celebration, anticipating the end-time redemption today, pleading and affirmative and confessional.

Does this mode jeopardize my chance of reaching all? Does it sacrifice the simplicity of the street (something I’ve never known)? Is it all just an ornament to privilege? Or is it right to speak to humanity’s highest intellect and make them pause? Is it enough to pursue an artform and trust in the universalizability of its truth? Is it enough to heed a call and not look back? This I ask myself, aware of the social conditions of my own production. Into them I was fated, and I must put them to use as honestly and faithfully as I can, returning to others more than I’ve received, hopefully. Alas, I know there will never be proof of that, and that moreover any proof would have to be disregarded; thus does the horizon stretch to infinity, and I into vigiliant blindness.

When I meditate upon the severe limitations of my approach, upon the “loftiness” that might be preceived in it–an elevation I cannot help but love and pursue vigorously, with all my health and soul–my one consolation is the notion that we are all different members of one body, with different skills and stations and duties in the overall development of the socio-spiritual organism. But still I feel the doom of art–of unwittingly backing the victor’s spoils, of being disqualified by a lack of direct intervention into the situation of injustice (though I have tried at that too, and failed), or of speaking in a way that only a specialist might understand (though I strongly refute any claim to authority). This is an internal ordeal, raging between doubts and honesties, to craft an original form while remembering the “anyone” to whom it must be consecrated, whom it must welcome openly. It is upon the strength of anyone–my anticipation of you coming to my heart already–that I stand firm in my conviction: it is possible for the word to reach farther, to be more than just the echo or sepulcre of some dumb writer.

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Emptying Recurrence

The self is due–to be emptied.

How to read this interrupted sentence? How to read the hyphen that splits it in two? How to determine the status of these two divided parts? Does one command the other? Or do they arrive together? Or do they both state simply the case? But then when? To whom? To what self is this sentence due to arrive? And what does it mean, in this passive formation, “to be emptied”?

The self is due–to be emptied. As if nothing could be simpler than that.

The self is due–to be emptied. On the one hand, it seems to name an event that befalls the self: it empties itself, it is emptied, it’s due to happen, that’s all that happens, nothing could ever prevent it. On the other hand, and at the same time, it seems to name a duty: the self must empty itself or let itself be emptied, this debt to empty falls due, it has already fallen due, it can no longer be postponed. There’s no catching up to it, you’re already too late. Already, the self’s debt–to be emptied–is overdue.

The self is due–to be emptied. This sentence is open from the beginning to a repetition without end. Whatever it means (and at every instant, upon every repetition, it means something different–if it isn’t perhaps even a name for differance itself), it holds true to infinity. It holds the self’s truth–to infinity. For as long as there is a self, somewhere, in some form, in whatever state, it is due–to be emptied. It falls due, infinitely: “to empty” is how the self is itself, how it renders itself. To empty itself or to let itself be emptied: to render what is due. To be emptied: to render what is due to the other: the self itself as that empty space wherein the other might live…
Read On

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The Law’s Curse

Today’s mantra is: we must restore law and order. But without backing that mandate with an intelligent targeting of failing areas, of those areas in need of extra resources or attention, the illusion soon spreads that there is no law and order whatsoever anywhere (“an environment of lawless chaos”), and that a heavy-handed intervention must be made, since terror threatens every doorstep. In this way, every public space is rendered a potential check-point or quarantined area, but without any actual necessity to the excessive surveillance, save to assuage inflated fears that a grave danger is imminent. Continue reading

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