A subject is formed by something that does not exist

As some of you know, I’m in a reading group that centers on the work of Zizek, Lacan, and Badiou. Lately, the project has taken on a new life. We are currently working towards the possible publication of a reader’s guide to Badiou’s extremely intimidating Magnum Opus: Being and Event. In it, Badiou claims that mathematics is ontology. In other words, our discourse about the world requires us to make distinctions between beings, and since mathematics is the most rigorous method for making distinctions, the next step is to claim that mathematics is the study of being.

This has led me towards a few thoughts.

If Mathematics is ontology, then Being can, to a large extent, also be predicted. It is calculable. This leads Badiou to ask “how is a subject possible within a universe that is radically predictable?” It turns out that events alone are what constitute a subject. The subject’s allegiance to an event is what constitutes a subject. The event re-aligns the subject’s framework for interacting with the world because we interact with beings in our world according to a certain importance, according to a relationship to something else (like an event). So, being able to truly say that I love someone, commits me to a lifestyle and manner of interacting with people that orients my entire existence. Thus, how I distinguish and interact with beings is re-oriented. In Badiou speak, how I count things is re-oriented. But Badiou uses the passive voice almost entirely throughout his work. Which leads us to ask “Who is doing the counting?” The answer seems to be: the event is doing the counting. Therefore, a subject is constituted on the basis of how faithful s/he is to the event’s count/the organization of beings.

However, events only appear for a short while, like the vanishing isle on the back of a giant turtle which never appears in the same place twice. And it is only after the island/event has disappeared that one can recognize it as such. In this sense, events don’t actually exist because one can never name an event as such, only after the fact. This means that events don’t actually exist. Thus leading to a troubling conclusion: if events don’t exist, then, at bottom, are subjects formed by something that does not exist?

Now, is counting (set theory), even if it is guided by an event, really the fundamental movement of ontology?

Heidegger claimed that once a specific being was looked at in a calculative manner, the being is gone. It is no longer possible to see it in terms of our condition, in terms of Da-sein.  By privileging the calculative analysis (the count), the many colors of Being are white washed into a single tone. The sole criteria for determining the worth, or meaning of beings is reduced to a calculation, a mode of thought that only views a beings as resources to be mined and placed in an network of utility. Is it possible, as Badiou claims, for calculative thought to be reconciled with a phenomenological hermeneutic? How does one balance these two modes of analysis?

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

8 thoughts on “A subject is formed by something that does not exist

  1. I like this post a lot. It helps me understand and appreciate Badiou. Sorry to get to commenting so long after the fact, but here are two thoughts.

    “However,events only appear for a short while, like the vanishing isle on the back of a giant turtle which never appears in the same place twice. And it is only after the island/event has disappeared that one can recognize it as such. In this sense, events don’t actually exist because one can never name an event as such, only after the fact.” How important is recognition of the event at any point? Consider Paul: the event of Christ resurrected is not something recognized or finished, is it? It is an ongoing lived reality that compels Paul’s fidelity. Once one has recognized, evaluated, considered an event from an objective space then does that preclude the possibility of the kind of fidelity Badiou is talking about? Or loving someone in a committed relationship – it remains at all times something outside of our rationality and is always present to us such that we should be able to say that it exists. But perhaps this line of thinking also expands and changes how Badiou articulates the event – such that the event does have content and has to be cultivated by our practices and attitudes.

    As far as calculative analysis and phenomenological hermeneutic goes: could we say that an event has its own logics such that we start from those ways of seeing and making distinctions rather than an objective count that simply plugs in different variables (events) into the same formula? That is, cannot the variables shape the formula?

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  2. Responses are welcome at all times, but the sooner the better.

    “Consider Paul: the event of Christ resurrected is not something recognized or finished, is it?” If I understand you correctly, I think that you’re defining “event” differently than Badiou, or at least you might be quoting Paul using the term event in a different sense than Badiou does. An event changes the co-ordinates of one’s view of reality (for people, or for a person). And by reality I mean, past, present and future work. For Paul, history is understood in anew: Faith can now be allotted to Jews and Gentiles in light of his reading of Abraham. As for the present and future work that he gets involved in, the distinction between the already and the not yet becomes a central part of his theology; he sees the world through a different set of God-eyes, than he did when he was persecuting the Christians. In Badiou’s eyes: The event for Paul is Paul’s conversion. That was the moment where he did not know that what was happening was going to rupture his reality and his current goals.

    “It is an ongoing lived reality that compels Paul’s fidelity.” Again, this would be to misunderstand what event is for Badiou. Fidelity to an event is what a subject is for Badiou. Different types of fidelity (In B&E there are three: spontaneous, dogmatic and generic) to events form different subjects. Paul’s new work does convince him of the truth in his event. But his new work could not have happened without his conversion. His fidelity does get reinforced but it would be a misreading of Badiou to suggest that the work of the church is one massive event. If another definition of event and ontology is better suited for theology, than It’d be interested in what that would be. One would probably have to say that their has only been one or two events: the world and Christ. And maybe this is the case.

    “Once one has recognized, evaluated, considered an event from an objective space then does that preclude the possibility of the kind of fidelity Badiou is talking about?” Not really sure what you mean here. An event prompts a new course of action pretty much without you know it. After you have been on this course for a little while and the dust settles, only than can you name it as an event. But you cannot have a fixed name of the event when the dust is flying around, only tentative names.

    As for your second question: probably yes. I have had further thoughts since this post. And since there is interest, I will try and post soon.

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  3. Thanks for the corrections and clarifications on Badiou’s thought. From what I’ve read of Badiou I think you give a much better reading than my scattered comment. I tend to find Badiou’s event more compelling as a philosophy and as a reading of St. Paul if I adjust it – to give it content, a longer and more ambiguous time-frame, and make it mutually dependent on our cultivated actions and ideas. Given this, one thing I’d like to push you on is your example of loving a person. What’s the pure event that one is being loyal to in this case? If it’s the event of “falling in love” or something like that, isn’t that a gross distortion of love which should be directed at a person, not at a one-time event or at a person for the sake of a one-time event? I guess I’m suggesting that that example is helpful for articulating a compelling phenomenology but less so for understanding Badiou’s philosophy (and may also have led to the misreading in my question). If so, it probably also suggests a continuing divide between the two.

    With that reservation, though, I do like the way your latest post addresses my second question.

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  4. Thanks for pushing me on this. Badiou has written a book on Love which would no doubt clarify a lot of this discussion. Unfortunately I haven’t read it yet.
    I will try and answer though.
    I think you’re trying to blend Badiou’s understanding of “subject” and “event.” I would say, though, that for Badiou “Falling in Love” may be an event in the sense that one says, “yes, I love this person.” What happens AFTER this declaration, this naming of a certain experience, is what constitutes the subject: have they continued to be faithful to naming this commitment? So people date, or know each other for awhile, and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. When it does work, eventually two lovers can basically say “yes, these moments here are what ignited our love.” A lover will then say something like, “I recognize that event (dating time period) and I have a name for it: this is when began to love each other intensely and this person, based on our experiences together, will make a good partner, I and I will be a good partner for them.”

    1. date (normal everyday experience basically)
    2. Something happens between people that changes their reality (but they are not really sure yet until after the dust has begun to settle)
    3. The lovers name the event of their love together.
    4. Both subjects are constituted based on their fidelity to this commitment. To they give up right away after the “feeling is gone” ? If so, that’s the sort of subjects they turned out to be: spontaneous. Have they decided to just “make it work” and ignore obvious problems? If so: they are dogmatic. OR ar they generic? Problems like “the loss of infatuation” or career conflicts are never true problems they always are able to work them out in someway — even, and especially, if they cannot name the solution. The generic fidelity of a subject seems to always include an element of the unknown but a confidence that if one keeps going, solutions will arise.

    Does this help?

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  5. Yes. It definitely helps me to see what’s going on. I accept now that your example is apt for Badiou’s philosophy. I still don’t like it much though. It’s the fidelity to the commitment or to the event rather than to the person that seems backwards to me.

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  6. “It’s the fidelity to the commitment or to the event rather than to the person that seems backwards to me.”

    I’ve been thinking about your comment quite a bit and I’m not entirely sure I understand it. It seems that you are saying that I am separating the people and bodies from the situations themselves and replacing them with a contract of some sort. Make no mistake, the commitment to an extraordinary situation (fidelity to the event) does not happen without bodies, nor does it continue on without them. The faithful realization of the event (the lovers’ goals and promises) does not happen happen without the lovers themselves. Indeed, the event of lovers must entail the other as a part of the realization of their event of love together. In the case of art, politics, or science, the realization of these events must be realized through art, politics or science. What would a commitment of love be without the acknowledgement of the person. Maybe I’m not reading you correctly.

    Can you say more about what you think is backwards?

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  7. Ya. I’m not trying to say that bodies etc. aren’t involved and important. Let me try to say more by asking a question. In a marriage that has lasted 50 years, can each spouse, – in their full and evolving personhood, character, choices, and loyalties, – be considered an ongoing, 50+ year event to the other? If not, whatever the event that underlies this commitment to and relationship with the other person is what I am suspicious of – at least insofar as it underlies.

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    1. Yes, I think it can be considered a 50+ year event to other. I think I take issue with saying that it is an “ongoing event.” Badiou never speaks about an ongoing event because an event by (his) definition is not really known to the subjects involved. Otherwise we can say that we are always in ongoing event and we deny any existence of a possible rupture of our world and we might as well throw out the word “event” altogether.

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