Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Picked up this novel for £3 at Spitalfields Market. Highly stylised writing, full of intellectual-sounding snippets that either borrow heavily from Baudrillard, or must be considered a parallel evolution of consciousness.

If I make it sound slightly unappetising, it's unintentional. There is more to fascinate than I can adequately express here, and my admiration rose when it became clear that one of the central topics is eerily in step with the recent stock market crash that started in the US ... A warning ahead of the event?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Alain Badiou - An Introduction - Part I

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to aproximate the original.

Badiou challenges the apoliticism of poststructuralism through an attempted recovery of the subject. There is a distant parallel with Deleuze. Deleuze aimed to re-establish a realist position in epistemology, and found his possibilities in,for instance, the mathematical theory of manifolds. Badiou attempts to reconcile a contemporary view of the subject with ontology by translating the concepts of set theory into a philosophical language.

The importance of investigating thinkers who find counter-arguments to some of the weaknesses of post-structuralism deserve attention. If the reader does not find this statement immediately appealing, this introduction is probably not for him or her. I am very much in the position of a student of Badiou, and at this stage my stance is not critical, but rather an attempt to understand. My companion is the valued text “Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy” by Alain Badiou, translated by Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. I can do no better then, than to summarise for the reader the main points as set out in the informative introduction section.


This is Badiou's guiding question in all of his thought: How can a modern doctrine of the subject be reconciled with an ontology?

In poststructuralism there is no clear distinction between the being of the subject and being in general, in other words the theory of the subject falls under the general field of ontology without clear differentiation. This creates certain problems in poststructuralism—two in particular are relevant to the present discussion: the problem of identity (the source of the mind-body problem) and the problem of agency (responsible for the free will versus determinism debate).

Poststructuralism's investigations into the former problem typically concludes that the subject has no significant identity. It is said that the representational methods the subject uses in an effort to establish its identity, create merely the illusion of identity. The subject is thereby relegated to the domain of a general ontology, with no special status. When Derrida says that “there is no outside text” the subject is included.

As a result of this conclusion about identity, poststructuralism has often been accused of taking agency away from the subject, hence “the infamous jibe that poststructuralism leads down a slippery slope to apoliticism” (p. 4).

As can be demonstrated (for instance with reference to Foucault) poststructuralists run into problems even when the problem of agency is addressed directly.

Badiou's approach with regards to the aforementioned issues is twofold. Firstly, he maintains a tension between the general domain of ontology and the theory of the subject. Secondly, he defers the problem of identity while he addresses the problem of agency.

He investigates how it comes about that the actor emerges from an “autonomous chain of actions within a changing situation” and becomes a subject. Therefore in his theory, humans are not all free, and those that act freely only do so some of the time. Those who become subjects “act in fidelity to a chance encounter with an event which disrupts the situation they find themselves in” (p. 5). These terms all require definition, and they find their correlatory context within set theory with the notion of indiscernibility, which will be described later.

A human being decides that an event belongs to a situation and cannot be ignored. The consequences of such a marked event is investigated continuously by the subject. The investigation gradually transforms the situation as well as the human being, from which the subject emerges through a process of subjectivisation. For example two people who fall in love mark such an event. Through their fidelity to their love, they change with respect to themselves, their relation to each other, and to the world around them (which includes other people such as friends and family).

Another example, this time in the scientific field, may be that of the Copernican revolution. Modern physics evolved through fidelity to this investigated event.

The editor observes that Badiou's thesis appears to give subjects a special status, because only some people can be subjects, namely those who act in fidelity to a significant event. Nevertheless, it is differentiated from a religious doctrine such as mormonism by the fact that there is no predestination. There are only chance encounters, and subjecthood can be attained for a time after which it can also be lost.

The problem of agency is displaced from the level of the subject to that of being (multiplicity of situations). The subject is no longer problematised as the potential locus of agency that initiates actions, because the subject itself only emerges from being after such a series of actions. Instead, Badiou's problem becomes the ancient one of how to account for the occurrence of the new. In “L'Etre et l'evenement” (Being and Event) his solution is to postulate that “events happen” (p. 6) without themselveshaving directly identifiable causes. A subject, in turn, can investigate such events and so be involved in the creation of new situations.

This event, therefore, does not come under the umbrella of Badiou's general ontology. There is a contingent relationship between the subject and Badiou's ontology, dependent on the event and a subject's fidelity to it.

Modern ontology: being as multiple multiplicities

Although Badiou takes as his starting point Heidegger's distinction between beings and Being, he suggests the alternative term “situation”, which is before the differentiation between entities and relations. It is a “presented multiplicity” and “the place of taking place”. (p. 7)

Thus, in contrast to Aristotle's supposition that “there are substances”, Badiou would say “there are situations”. (p. 8). For Badiou, the important break with classical ontology is to disown the idea of unity at the level of individuality, as well as at the level of totality. In other words, in Aristotle's definition there would be a cosmos that represents the greatest element of unity, and encompasses all the individual elements (“substances”) available. This guarantees the modernity of Badiou's ontology.

Nevertheless, Badiou recognises that situations do have a certain unity in the way that they are presented to us. This is what he calls the count-for-one and he finds the reason in the situation's structure. The structure both unifies at the level of the whole situation, and determines which elements are part of the situation. Unity is therefore not the fundamental quality, but rather the effect of structuration. As a result, multiples can be included in more than one situation: the identities of situations are not mutually exclusive.

The being of a situation is simply the situation before the count-for-one, as a non-unified, inconsistent multiplicity. We may think of, say, a bowl of seafood soup. At the level of the soup, all the ingredients are unified into a tasty whole, with various identifiable ingredients such as ginger, water, prawns, squid, etc. At the level of being we find a confusing multiplicity of elements that are in turn constituted of tissues, leaves, organic cells, and all the way down to their chemical and biological elements. The level of being is completely indifferent.

Normally, philosophers would consider “something” that has been relieved of its identity and its properties to be more or less nothing, but Badiou finds being.

But “inconsistent multiplicity” isn't simply Aristotelian “prime matter”--that would be to identify and label it already. We have no direct access to what was there before the situation became a count-for-one, because we can only investigate using methods and definitions available after the situation was already structured so.

In part 2 I will look at set theory through which Badiou provides these ontological concepts with a solid basis.