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?
Is the most rigorous form of making distinctions located in mathematics? Badiou seems to think so. How is it that there is a world that can guide our making of distinctions? What are the conditions for us saying that something can exist in the first place? These are Heidegger’s questions.
In other words, if Badiou is right, then is math, and should math be, primary in our distinction making? Another way to look at the question would be to turn to art. How is it that a style emerges from an artist that is somehow distinct from the rest of the canon? Can mathematics help us here?