[b]ut philosophy teaches us that none of these affects is in any way a good response, for they instead testify and even pay tribute, negatively and from our side, to the victory of the enemy. We must therefore think beyond these inevitable affects, beyond fear, disappointment, and depression. We must reflect on the political situation today, the situation of our world, and respond rationally to a question that is indeed urgent and haunting: what must the contemporary world be such that last night could have turned into such a horror?
I like to imagine Badiou writing these words in a hotel room, a glass of red wine in hand as a calming influence. While many of us (myself included) were scrolling through social media feeds awash in anxiety, Badiou was preaching the gospel of clearheaded thinking: Trump is the symptom of a larger problem, not the cause. He is a symptom of global capitalism’s corruption of politics. He’s also a symptom of the absence of any “great Idea” for responding to this corruption. Trump is nothing new. If there is anything new about him, it’s only the intensity with which he mobilizes old ideas — nativism, racism, misogyny, and so on. Less old wine in new bottles than a gold-plated toilet filled with history’s unflushed feces.
Don’t confuse Badiou’s words with mere stoicism, however. He’s not suggesting equanimity, not asking that we ease into the historical moment like a sunbather soaking up rays. No, Badiou points toward a pressing question: What is to be done? Or, more precisely: How, in the midst of disaster, do we think our way toward what is to be done? And Badiou is saying that, whatever is to be done, it will be ineffective, it will be shallow, if it doesn’t involve lucid thought. No hope without the light of truth. Hence, the need for philosophy.
Badiou’s diagnosis is so doggedly rational as to be un-American. Un-American, because a flat-tasting cocktail of relativism, skepticism, cynicism, and pragmatism has become received wisdom in the United States. If there’s truth in America, surely it’s relative to individuals and interest groups, and surely these individuals and groups are in it for themselves, so what remains of the dated idea of truth is really just tactics and strategy — gaming out the possibilities in pursuit of one’s own interests. Badiou, by contrast, writes about truth, communism, and living for an Idea. He wants a revival of Plato, of the Plato who’s a militant for truth against the shadows of mere opinion.
Born in 1937, Badiou is a contemporary of better-known French theorists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Like them, he finished his education at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and like them, he had that most rigorous Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, as a teacher. Yet Badiou has never quite received the same level of reception, at least not in English-speaking contexts. Since the 1960s, Badiou has dedicated short treatises to art, politics, love, and science (the four conditions of truth, as he calls them), while also writing lengthy philosophical tomes demonstrating how eternal truth can be reconciled with a materialist approach to things. Badiou doesn’t believe in God, but his most recent book translated into English, The Immanence of Truths (2018; newly translated for 2022 by Susan Spitzer and Kenneth Reinhard), makes the case for a human claim to the absolute. Badiou asks that age-old philosophical question — what are the creative capacities of human beings? — and he answers, anything: the possibilities opened up by truth, by working through the consequences of, say, the French Revolution, impressionism, or quantum physics, are infinite. Such truths invent not just new ways of seeing, being, or doing, but entirely new worlds. Badiou has dedicated his life to “the knowledge of the existential possibility of truth,” to the painstaking demonstration not only that humans are capable of truth but also that this capacity promises another way of living — a “true life.”
What saves Badiou from being a starry-eyed romantic is mathematics. Yes, numbers, formulae, abstract symbols, diagrams. For Badiou, mathematics is ontology, meaning that math, and only math, describes the nature of reality (“being qua being”). I won’t try to convey the long itinerary that leads Badiou to this thesis except to say that it’s meant as an antidote to 20th-century philosophy’s obsession with language and poetry. For the German philosopher Martin Heidegger — a towering figure in the field — there was no better vehicle for getting at the nature of reality than the poem: its profundity, its mystery, and its promise of meaning were like an invitation into the heart of things. Heidegger’s thinking is the height of Romanticism, according to Badiou, an attempt to fold the infinite, the divine, into history. On the other hand, as Badiou writes in his essay “Philosophy and Mathematics,”
[math] came to localize [the] infinit[e] in the indifference of the pure multiple. It came to deal with the actual infinite in the banality of the cardinal number. It neutralized and wholly deconsecrated the infinite […] and wrested it from the reign of the One to disseminate it […] in a typology of multiplicities that is free of any aura.
Mathematics strips reality of mystery. The “pure multiple” is another name for the generic stuff of being, the indifferent matter making up reality. There’s nothing special about the world, no God, no “One,” imbuing reality with significance. The infinite exists, but there’s nothing divine about it. In fact, there are different kinds of infinity. There’s the indifferent infinity of being qua being, but there are also the infinite trajectories of truth opened up by art, science, love, and politics.
It’s difficult to overstate how much mathematics informs Badiou’s philosophy. His longer books, like Being and Event (1988), are punctuated by long mathematical demonstrations, explaining concepts in the most abstract manner possible. This abstraction isn’t incidental; it’s central to Badiou’s arguments against relativism, skepticism, and cynicism. Badiou’s voyages through set theory, category theory, and topology are meant to clarify the conditions of truth, to elucidate how truth is possible in a world resigned to opinion. You can, of course, skip the mathematical portions of Badiou’s writings. In the introduction to The Immanence of Truths, Badiou even sketches a way of reading the book that’s light on math. He warns, however, “When you avoid making the utmost effort of the intellect, it is not entirely clear whether, as Plato showed, truths alone can bestow the true life. If we forgo [mathematical] proofs, we will not be completely able to experience that we are eternal. And that is a shame.”
Badiou demands a lot from his readers, but he offers nothing less than the universal, the eternal, the absolute in return. Mathematics may offer the most technical version of Badiou’s arguments, but his writings on art, love, science, and politics are just as significant. These are the worldly conditions of truth. Badiou writes about truth in terms of events: truth arises from an event in the world. As he puts it in his 2006 book Logics of Worlds, it’s “what insists in exception to the forms of the ‘there is,’” meaning that truth isn’t accurate knowledge of reality (veracity) but a break with the way things are, the irruption of new possibilities. And a truth is only as good as what it becomes. Truth requires subjects — people who don’t just believe in the truth (“faithful subjects”) but put it into practice.
Take an example dear to me: the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855. If Leaves of Grass is an event, it’s because it invents a new relationship between language and reality, because it suggests that the power of poetry lies in how it moves a body, and because it passionately declares equality the supreme value (I could go on!). Whitman’s poetry isn’t merely a document testifying to the historical realities of the United States in the 1800s. It’s a free channel, to borrow Whitman’s language, for the eternal reinvention of the world and its inhabitants. A work of art is “particularly compelling evidence of what humanity, always and everywhere, is capable of,” Badiou writes in Immanence. Art reaches into the abyss, pulling out proof that humans are more than they can possibly know.
It has become unfashionable to treat art as universal or absolute, but critics sometimes tolerate it because audiences still trade in these terms. But a universal politics? A politics of the absolute? A true politics? What could that possibly mean? In a word, communism: it means holding on to the possibility of communism, understood as the reinvention of humanity in the name of equality, against the false promises of liberal democracy. For Badiou, democracy is the dominant ideology of the day, even during moments of political reaction like our own. We might be grateful to Biden for not being Trump, for restoring confidence in US political institutions, but the quest to save democracy — the imperative to vote for Democrats, lest the dam holding back right-wing anarchy break — holds little hope of resolving urgent matters like climate change, police violence, or economic inequality. Even if Trump hadn’t exposed the precariousness of US political institutions, the last 40 years or so — the neoliberal era — have been one long lesson in the insufficiency of democracy to address the injustices and inequalities plaguing the planet.
Yet Badiou is not antidemocratic. If he insists (in his 2005 book À la recherche du réel perdu) that we need to “tear the mask off of our fake democracy,” he adds that this means “experimenting, under the Idea of communism, with completely different forms of democracy,” with “real democracy.” Communism shouldn’t be confused with the Soviet Union or Maoist China, as inextricable as it might be from the history of actually existing socialism. It is, instead (as he argues in his 2007 pamphlet The Meaning of Sarkozy), a “pure Idea of equality,” a “regulatory function, rather than a programme,” a set of “intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion, that serve to produce lines of demarcation between different forms of politics.” Communism is universal because it suggests an alternative to the reigning system of the day, global capitalism. It’s absolute because it reinvents the meaning of human existence, making an entirely new world in the process. But it’s also singular, the consequence of an event — a break with the status quo — and of people practicing their faith in that event. Badiou is the first to admit that communism might go under other names — certainly, the Occupy movement was one of them — while still insisting that, whatever its name, it must imagine power without the state, the end of private property’s dominance, and the institution of pure equality. No small task.
But why Badiou? And why now? What makes his thought more than a mere delicacy, yet another French import in that academic supply chain known as “French Theory”?
Because Badiou is immodest. In The Immanence of Truths, after listing the book’s central questions — questions like “what should be understood by the absoluteness of truth, given that the gods are dead?” — Badiou writes with some cheek: “These are the questions to which, immodest as I am, I think this book will provide some rational answers.” In the United States, so much thinking, critical or otherwise, is so modest. Truth, universality, the absolute, communism, revolution — ideas like these are treated as absurd relics of some naïve era or, worse, as dangerous temptations leading to totalitarianism. Art is a document of culture, not a vessel of truth. Its value is representation, its function indistinguishable from entertainment. Science is something you believe in, or not, and it’s married to the corporate pursuit of profit. And love, well, there’s an app for that.
From this perspective, art, politics, love, and science are all modest endeavors: they aim for the good but only insofar as it preserves the status quo. Their slogan is well enough. And, in many respects, such modesty is fine. It works. Sometimes, it even makes things better. Biden > Trump. Absolutely. Tinder > loneliness. Why not? Electric cars > gas guzzlers. Of course! These modest equations are well enough. But they’re no more than that. They abandon from the get-go what Badiou asks of philosophy: the happiness of the true life in this world, the experience of the infinite within our brief span on earth. Immodest thinker that he is, Badiou even suggests that, having written Immanence of Truths, the capstone of his life’s work, he can now claim that “[p]hilosophy, it’s me” (“La philosophie, c’est moi”). Arrogance? Perhaps. Immodesty? Most definitely. But reading Badiou offers something rare and, dare I say it, precious: a reminder that the world doesn’t have to be this way, an adventure in reimagining what humans are capable of, and a sustained exercise in proving that truth is still and always will be possible.
Of course, reading Badiou is difficult. It’s difficult because philosophy is difficult and because truth is a difficult thing to come by in a world dominated by ideology and opinion. So, I will conclude with a few suggestions for those interested in Badiou’s adventure in philosophy:
(1) Start with the small books. Badiou has written a number of short books that are excellent, if incomplete, introductions to his thought. His political writings are the clearest and most cutting examples of his thinking. The Meaning of Sarkozy still feels timely, as does The Communist Hypothesis (2009). Badiou’s book on St. Paul (Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 1997) offers the best sense of what Badiou wants from politics. And of course, there’s Trump, a salutary reduction of the huckster to a symptom. Beyond his political writings, Badiou has a book of conversations with Nicolas Truong on love (In Praise of Love, 2012), as well as books on art: Handbook of Inaesthetics (1998) and The Age of the Poets (2014).
(2) But read the big books, too! After you’ve read one or two of Badiou’s short books, undertake the admittedly monumental task of reading Being and Event. Take your time and, yes, read the sections entirely devoted to mathematics (set theory). You won’t understand everything your first time through, and that’s fine, but you’ll find that Badiou makes a lot more sense when you see how many of his terms, like infinity or situation, have mathematical as well as philosophical meanings. The big books provide proofs for the claims that Badiou advances in his shorter books. Even if you don’t agree with them, or find them bewildering, your own thinking will be sharpened by the effort.
(3) Read recursively. You should really read the Being and Event trilogy in order (Being and Event, Logics of Worlds, The Immanence of Truths), but you should also read Badiou in loops. Read some of his shorter books between the bigger books. Conditions (1992) is a great collection of essays on the different genres of truth. Badiou by Badiou (2021), recently published in an English translation, offers a great overview of the philosopher’s career. Reading recursively also means rereading the math sections in the big books.
(4) Read weird. Badiou’s lectures are strange beasts, meandering through poetry, politics, philosophy, and science in an idiosyncratic manner. I recommend Images of the Present Time, a collection of seminars that will be published in English later this year, for the way it wrestles with the value of philosophy in the present moment. Badiou has also written plays and novels. Ahmed the Philosopher: Thirty-Four Short Plays for Children & Everyone Else (2014) is a sardonic set of sketches that sends up Badiou’s own concepts. Read one play at a time, between other writings by Badiou, like an amuse-bouche. I would also suggest Badiou’s version of Plato’s Republic (2012), which is less a translation than an adaptation that tries to demonstrate, once and for all, that Plato’s truths remain eternal.
Christian Haines is an associate professor of English at Penn State University and a managing editor of Gamers with Glasses.