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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Oh, I see...I think...Well, perhaps not....

It took awhile, but I think I finally get the gist of Alain Badiou's approach to ethics. Or at least for the moment I think I get it….

The problem has not been his writing, although the translation of some terms makes for awkward reading at points. Rather, it is the radical departure from the conventional approach to ethics that he proposes. We are so use to the standard perspective -- one that posits ethics (in the Kantian tradition) as a subject unto itself, a set of universal imperatives -- that any contrary position, especially when strongly asserted (as Badiou does in this work), becomes difficult to comprehend despite its inherent sensibility and simplicity.

The key to Badiou's ethics (or at least my oversimplified understanding of it) is that it that it is always an "ethics of" -- that it is always in relation to the situation or circumstance in which one becomes a subject. For him ethics involves fidelity to the "truth" of the situation -- the historical "event" of which you are a part. Reflecting his radical (marxist) materialist assumptions, Badiou declares "there is no heaven of truths" (p. 43), only those that manifest themselves within the "immanent break" of the situation. This logic drives him to deny the relevance of factors that other approaches assume and build upon, i.e. psychological predispositions, human nature, etc. Whatever a "some-one" brings to a situation is "exceeded" by the truth of the event, the situation, and that is context that defines the "ethic of truth" that is central to Badiou's perspective. To persevere in the truth of the event -- to be faithful and consistent to the situation in which the some-one finds himself/herself defined for the moment -- is the nature of the ethic.

Badiou highlights four arenas for the ethic of truth: politics, science, art, love. And I must admit to flashbacks of watching Last Year at Marienbad
while reading his examples. Yet there is something intriguing (and perhaps a bit scary) about this argument. Even if I am completely misinterpreting it, the process of attempting to unravel it is an interesting exercise.

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