A Note on Alain Badiou’s “The Question of Being Today.”

Compared to some Badiouans, I am not a Badiouan—or I am, but I prefer not to compare.  Of all contemporary thinkers, I think Badiou offers the most promise, and a lot of that promise comes in the seminars, which are only now being published, and only some of which have been translated.  From the position I favor, which is that of an antiphilosophy committed to finding resources in thought for a general critique of the metaphysical apparatus that would enable a change in one’s conditions of life (including of course political conditions), I have been finding Badiou, of late, more useful than, say, Deleuze, or even Derrida.   I would even contest Badiou’s own claims still to be a metaphysician.  He ain’t a metaphysician, or not primarily, or he is a metaphysician without metaphysics, which is a curious way of being one.  And I would even claim that he is not primarily a political thinker—he is a political thinker, but secondarily so.  I would posit that his primary task, more or less self-assigned, or rather, encountered, is still within the Nietzschean-Heideggerian remit: to destroy the history of metaphysics in order to clear the ground for a new position of thought connected to existence. 

I cannot go into it in this short note, but let me say that Badiou’s thought has been done a disservice by the Badiouans who read him primarily as a thinker of the political subject.  Of course it was under that false determination that Badiou had his moment of glory in United States academic circles a few years ago.  But everything passes, and today mentioning Badiou in most circles only makes one gain mostly bad looks and condescension.  This is precisely the reason why I think the time to read Badiou is now. 

My purpose here is to present the short essay entitled “The Question of Being Today,” and for a specific reason.  The essay, first published in 1998, is included in Badiou’s Theoretical Writings (Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano eds., London: Continuum, 2004, 39-48).   My reason is my recent involvement in conversations where, quite surprisingly, I have witnessed folks from whose theoretical trajectory something else could be expected engage in what we could call, following Badiou, a “destinal constraint” under the sign, or the power, of the One.  These folks—is it the Zeitgeist?—want to be saved, perhaps ultimately from themselves, and they think they want to recover, or have already recovered, belief as well as faith in a saving power, a saving reversal.  But it is time to bring back old Hölderlin’s line about the sobriety of thought and claim that there is and there will be no saving reversal, or if there is to be one it will not come as a result of positions taken in thought, even if those positions make a big deal of taking thought into praxis, politicizing everything, and so forth. 

Of course Badiou himself attributes the commitment to a saving reversal to Heideggerianism.  He might be right as far as Heideggerianism goes, that is, in terms of the average Heideggerian out there, but I think Heidegger’s thought can be used today, as Badiou himself does, in quite a different direction.  Heidegger is after all the one who denounced metaphysics as “the commandeering of philosophy by the one” (40), which is Badiou’s starting point.  This is his critique, however: “can one undo this bond between being and the one, break with the one’s metaphysical domination of being, without thereby ensnaring oneself in Heidegger’s destinal apparatus, without handing thinking over to the unfounded promise of a saving reversal?  For in Heidegger himself the characterization of metaphysics as history of being is inseparable from a proclamation whose ultimate expression . . . is that ‘only a God can save us’” (40).  But this is not entirely fair.   First of all, Heidegger did not think any god would save us—not at all.  And, second, there is in Heidegger no promise of a saving reversal.  The most that can be said is that he posited the possibility that the last epoch of metaphysics, in its very exhaustion, might show on its reverse side a way out.  He quoted Hölderlin on “the saving power” that comes with danger, but it is a quotation, for god’s sake, and its metaphorics do not belong to Heidegger. 

The way out is what Badiou himself is searching for, and he thinks he can find it, for philosophy, in one of its conditions, namely, mathematics in its Cantorian and post-Cantorian form, since mathematics offers the example of a pure “ontology” of the “multiple-without-oneness” (41).  The point is then to pursue a philosophy based on the renunciation of the power of the one, on the renunciation of any hermeneutical Versammlung, not necessarily for the sake of “dissemination” in the Derridean sense, rather for the sake of getting rid of the “historial constraint of ontotheology” (41). 

Badiou accepts the effects of ontotheological metaphysics as diagnosed by Heidegger in, say, Introduction to Metaphysics (in some other place he actually linked them to the conclusions Marx and Engels reach in The Communist Manifesto), namely, “the flight of the gods, the destruction of the Earth, the vulgarization of man, the preponderance of the mediocre” (40).  And Badiou finds in those very effects a “saving” power as well: “Thus the flight of the gods is also the beneficial event of men’s taking-leave of them; the destruction of the Earth is also the conversion that renders it amenable to active thinking; the vulgarization of man is also the egalitarian irruption of the masses onto the stage of history; and the preponderance of the mediocre is also the dense lustre of what Mallarmé called ‘restrained action’” (40).  Philosophy’s task, in order to produce whatever philosophy can produce in the way of “saving” or beneficial effects, goes for Badiou through thinking “the immemorial attempt to subtract being from the grip of the one” (40).  So, yes, one could say that this is an announcement of a metaphysics of subtraction over against any metaphysics of presence.  But it would be wrong, because subtraction does not found a metaphysics, it rather destroys it, and because presence, perhaps attributable partly to Heidegger and partly to Heideggerians, is certainly not the only conclusion one can derive from Heideggerian thought (see on this Derrida’s “Ousia and Gramme: Note on a Note to Being and Time”).  I think it is perfectly possible to accept subtraction as an extremely effective way into the destruction of any metaphysics of presence, always linked to the presenting of the one, and I think such a procedure of thought is not alien, certainly not incompatible, with a Heideggerian inheritance. 

Badiou’s essay goes on into a fascinating reading of Plato’s correction to Parmenides on the notion that only being is, that being is the one, and that the one can only be–the one is not, and what about it?–, which he has also discussed in several of his seminars, and then on to examine the impossibility for any definition of the multiple (“definition is the linguistic way of establishing the predominance of the entity,” 43), as testified by Lucretius and then by axiomatic, mathematical thought.   There is no particular reason for me to summarize it, so I will only say that in mathematical ontology, which is not philosophy, only a condition of philosophy, Badiou finds the necessary resource to move away from destinal constraints into a freedom of thought which is the task of philosophy, moreover the task of philosophy in the present.  Subtractive thought is primarily an-archic thought: “once ontology embraces . . . a thinking of pure inconsistent multiplicity, it has to abandon every appeal to principles.  And conversely, . . . every attempt to establish a principle prevents the multiple from being exhibited exclusively in accordance with the immanence of its multiplicity,” 45). 

How is Badiou’s thought then inconsistent with the Heideggerian inheritance, which is also the Nietzschean inheritance?  This is Badiou:

Thought—albeit at the price of the inexplicit or of the impotence of nominations—tears itself from everything that still ties it to the commonplace, to generality, which is the root of its own metaphysical temptation.  And it is in this tearing away that I perceive thought’s freedom with regard to its destinal constraint, what could be called its metaphysical tendency. (44-45)

But, of course, this is a Heideggerianism with a bite, and not the pious one of those who are still awaiting the salvific arrival of the god.  To my mind, it is the only Heideggerianism that matters. 

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