We cannot, on this newspaper’s pages, offer you a complete, coherent introduction into the work of Alain Badiou, who is one of the most significant and original thinkers of our time. We can only clarify a few things that the “proletarian aristocrat” Badiou did not find necessary to explain.
In his first thesis, Badiou is obviously referring to the psychoanalytical interpretation of art. He agrees with Lacan that art’s main gesture is subtraction, abjection, and ellipsis. But he also opposes Lacan’s Kantian ontologism of the Infinite and Unreachable “Real” and its constructive pathos: subtraction affords the possibility for the appearance of the subject, the subject of event, truth and political action.
In his second thesis, Badiou introduces his polemic universalism. The primal negative gesture of subtraction serves universalism, not the abstract universal of Empire, but as the third thesis clearly shows a universalism that departs from a concrete historical event. This event does not come to the world; instead, the world, history itself gives rise to an endless truth-procedure. The fact that this truth is addressed to everyone does not mean that it is universally accessible, but implies the possibility for anybody’s identification through taking risks in action.
From Badiou’s point of view, psychoanalysis and Aristotelian aesthetics belong to one and same the “classical” tradition. In this tradition, art is only similar to truth (i.e. it is believable or plausible) but it is not truth. However, at the same time, it aims at effecting a kind of sensory therapy. Although Badiou is critical as far as this tradition is concerned for him, art is truth and not simply plausibility he clearly feels far closer to its view than to any other aesthetic conception. The fifth and eight theses are actually hidden appeals to the Aristotelian theory of catharsis as the theory of immanent purification in the tragic theater. Art begins with exterior effects such as those of religion or politics, for an example. However, at the same time, art is inherently historical, and history aims toward autonomy and purity, self-sufficient subjectivity, in other words.
In the sixth and seventh theses, Badiou connects the theory of art to his general philosophical doctrine in general. In this doctrine, Badiou points toward the event as the place that generates both truth and the basis for subjectivity as such. At the same time, the event does not exist without the subject, who needs to take a risk toward the event. The work of art is not an event in and of itself. Instead, an event occurs with the appearance of an entire artistic movement or an epoch that makes a decisive break with past. Through its subject i.e. its artworks, in this case, the event forms a configuration, a certain genre, for an instance, or an artistic discipline. Taken as a whole, this configuration (the novel, for an example, or abstract art) is a unified truth of sorts. Badiou defines truth as something “generic” (following the mathematician P. Cohen) in the sense that it cannot be reduced to any logical rule or quality; instead, it “runs through” all possible rules and qualities of its given context. This quasi-Platonic could be an artistic genre, but it cannot be defined other than by using the event and its subject as a point of departure, since this relation actively constructs the “generic” truth.
The event as well as the “generic” truth that it produces bring to light and name those elements of social life that usually fall out of the “normal”, coherent image of the world as a state or an empire, leading a spectral life. Here, Badiou’s thinking comes close to that of Benjamin, Derrida and Ranciere. He proves mathematically that such “superfluous” elements exist in each historical-political situation, forgotten, uncounted, only considered en masse: missed chances, rejected classes, doubts, and resistance. Arising from the event, art is called upon to supply these elements with visibility, without including them into the Empire’s “encyclopedia”, mechanical and endless. This, in short, is art’s “generic” procedure.
The sequences of theses that deal with Empire speak for themselves. Once again, Badiou is insisting upon the operations and subtractions of truth, especially in light of a situation of unfettered exposure and accumulation. He is calling upon both artists and philosophers to resist capitalism’s plasticity and permissiveness, and (in the ninth thesis) to make methodical, strict art, even if this strictness cannot be expressed in any set of rules, on the strength of what was said above.
Badiou indicates which kind of art he is thinking about. He is quite obviously arguing in favor of formal and reflexive art abstraction, not in its strict art-historical sense, but as a necessary formalization molding reflexively the formative passions that exists in any artwork in an unconscious, unformed shape. By the way, he also makes similar demands on philosophy as well as politics. All of these procedures should reveal and universalize the principle that gives them form.
Many of Badiou’s deliberations may seem traditional. True, his demand for faithfulness toward the event is loaded with a certain type of conservatism. But the main meaning of this call lies in the necessity to go forward constructively without shrinking back, providing for the formal strictness of connection between movement and the event that it induced.