I presented this paper at the recent North Texas Philosophical Association Conference, where it didn’t receive much response. Here in Texas I’m mostly surrounded by phenomenologists, hermeneuticians, and Anglo-American philosophers, so I saw this as a bit of an intervention. It’s always difficult to introduce a new philosopher to an audience who is unfamiliar with their work (they actually asked me to present on Deleuze), so I did my best. Sadly, between me and my colleague (who presented a far more brilliant paper on Badiou and Marion, he vexes me that way), we ran out of any time for discussion. The essay is long, but any comments and criticisms would be appreciated. In a nutshell, I was making an earnest plea to see truth as an activity, rather than something to be represented in an already existing situation. I was especially arguing against the discursive constructivists who so populate our academies today. Hopefully readers won’t object to the length and will find it useful, helpful, or illuminating.

Hermeneutics and Subtraction: Badiou’s Anti-Constructivist Theory
of the Event

Truth punches a hole in knowledge.
~Jacques Lacan

It is no exaggeration to claim that constructivism is the reigning philosophical consensus in our time. Whether we are speaking of Anglo-American ordinary language philosophy, hermeneutic phenomenology, structuralism, variants of postmodernism, pragmatism, communicative social theory, or sociological systems theory, all major philosophical schools of thought are united in advocating some variant of the linguistic turn. While there are indeed important differences among these divergent paths of thought, all of these positions share the thesis that language functions as a transcendental authority for what constitutes legal and illegal expressions within a particular regime of discourse. A number of important consequences follow from the constructivist orientation of thought regardless of its particular flavor. First, because thought is subordinated to language or history as the transcendental court before which it must make its appeal, it becomes impossible to explain how radical change or historical discontinuity is possible a priori insofar as discontinuity would require the introduction of something new which could not be recognized within the constraints of language. The truly new is necessarily indiscernible to the linguistic condition. Constructivists, of course, recognize that language games change and develop over time, but these changes are rendered possible by the internal organization of the regime of language in question, by drift, not by fundamental ruptures or breaks. Heidegger, for instance, understands the history of philosophy as the unfolding of a series of possibilities that are already present as possible in its origins, and not as a series of ruptures irreducible to what came before. It is perhaps this that leads him to claim that only a god can save us, as our embeddedness within a particular hermeneutic horizon renders the introduction of a truly new possibility unthinkable. Second, the constructivist orientation of thought renders it impossible to see how a universal would be possible for the simple reason that there are a plurality of different linguistic horizons and language games without any transcendental term providing the means to decide among these different regimes of language. This pluralism is reflected, in turn, in the multiculturalist ethic of tolerating differences and communicative rationality, which obviously finds itself enmeshed in aporia insofar as tolerance is unable to tolerate that difference that doesn’t tolerate difference. That is to say, it begins from the premise that only certain differences are to be tolerated. In what follows, I would like to show how Badiou’s account of the event and the truth-procedures that follows from the event provides a viable means for understanding both how something genuinely new can be introduced into a situation and how a universal, not subordinated to a hidden particularity, is possible. As I hope to show, what Badiou refers to as a “truth-procedure” opens the possibility of subtracting a term from a linguistic situation such that the differences organizing a linguistic situation become in-different. Here the universal is to be understood not as something that is already there in the situation, but as the result of an active intervention. That is, the mistake of the constructivist is to search for the universal in what is already present within the field of discourse, rather than seeing the universal as the result of a unique operation.

Before proceeding to discuss Badiou’s account of the event and truth-procedures, it’s necessary to say a bit more as to just how he understands constructivism. While there are indeed many different constructivist orientations of thought, according to Badiou the structure common to all constructivists orientations of thought lies in maintaining and demonstrating that “…through the medium of language… inclusion stays as close as possible to belonging” (EE, 288). Initially this point is obscure and unrecognizable, yet what Badiou is getting at becomes clear once we understand the set-theoretical concepts of membership and inclusion. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the distinction between membership and inclusion is absolutely crucial for all of Badiou’s thought. In set theory, an element is said to belong to a set when it enters into the composition of that set. Thus, to take a perfectly banal example, if we have a set composed of a hat, a cup of coffee, and the moon, each of these elements belongs to the set. By contrast, the concept of inclusion refers to the subsets or parts that compose a set. Returning to the banal example of the set composed of a hat, cup of coffee, and the moon, this set includes as subsets all possible combinations of the elements of the initial set (23) or subsets composed of {{hat}, {coffee}, {moon}, {hat, coffee}, {hat, moon}, {moon, coffee}, {hat, moon, coffee}, and {0}}.

Initially the difference between membership and inclusion seems remote from the concerns of the constructivist; however, a bit of reflection indicates just how useful this distinction is for characterizing the problem motivating various constructivist orientations and how the different constructivist orientations approach this problem differently. What the difference between membership and parts (inclusion) allows us to see is that the parts of a set always outnumber the elements of a set. That is, the parts of a set are always greater than the original set itself or are 2nth, where the n = the number of elements belonging to the initial set from which the parts are drawn by the power-set axiom or the axiom of subsets. What we have here is the most schematic possible representation of the problem of interpretation. Given that the subsets of any set are greater than the set itself, or that the possibilities of interpretation are always greater than what’s presented in the text, how do we determine those parts that are legally included in the initial set and those parts that were they included would constitute an illegality?

Some examples help to clarify matters here. In his famous essay “The Structural Study of Myth”, Levi-Strauss argues that anthropologists should not look for the one true and original version of a myth, but should understand all myths as variants of the same permutation structure, working to solve a logical problem. In this connection, he points out that the trickster (coyotes, ravens) in American mythology have posed serious difficulties for anthropologists as it’s not precisely clear as to why this figure so often appears in these stories. In this connection, we thus have something that is a member of a particular set (the trickster belonging to the set of American myths) and the question is that of how we are to understand the inclusion of this part. To resolve this problem, Levi-Strauss reminds the reader that, “we need only assume that two opposite terms with no intermediary always tend to be replaced by two equivalent terms which admit of a third one as a mediator” (224). According to Levi-Strauss, the presence of carrion eating animals in these myths mediates between hunting and agriculture in that the coyote is like hunters in that it eats meat, but also like agriculture in that it does not hunt its food but finds it. In short, the common appearance of the trickster in these myths is not random or by chance, but resolves a dialectical deadlock. It cannot appear in any old way, but must, according to Levi-Strauss, necessarily appear in relation to myths depicting agriculture and hunting.

Perhaps a more readily familiar example is to be found in Derrida’s reading of Nietzsche in Spurs, where he raises the question of how a footnote saying “I have forgotten my umbrella” is to be included in Nietzsche’s text. Here Derrida is exploring the limits of our ability to determine the rule governing the relationship between membership and inclusion and thus approaches claims Badiou will make about the nature of an event, but is nonetheless preceding on the premise that for anything that appears in a situation or is an element belonging to a situation there must be a constructable rule for how it is included in that situation. In a very different context, early Wittgestein, advocating logical atomism, might approach Plato’s Republic by seeking to determine whether each statement obeys the rules of first order logic. Here logicity becomes the principle of inclusion or of sanctioned and unsanctioned combinations of parts. By contrast, someone who advocates hermeneutics might seek to determine how the names of the characters, the settings in which the dialogues occur, and the various myths refer to Greek language, history, and culture and contribute to the overall meaning of the text, thereby arguing, contrary to the Wittgensteinian, that these parts are included in the text. Similarly, a psychoanalyst might proceed on the premise that there is a rule governing dreams, slips of the tongue, symptoms, and bungled actions, such that they are included in the set composing a person’s life and not just random accidents or misfirings. Of course, here it is a question of the subject’s singular relationship to language and not categorization as in the case of the DSM-IV.

Although the principles governing these various forms of constructivism are very different from one another, the basic problem is the same: what constitutes legal and illegal inclusion, what constitutes a legitimate combination of parts and an illegitimate combination of parts? We can thus see what Badiou has in mind in claiming that the constructivist orientation of thought attempts to establish the maximal proximity between membership and inclusion. The question of constructivism is that of how the excess of parts over elements, or subsets over the initial set can be managed without falling into an uncontrollable chaos; or, as Badiou puts it, “It is this bond, this proximity that language builds between presentation (membership/elements) and representation (parts/inclusion), which ground the conviction that the state does not exceed the situation by too much, or that it remains commensurable” (EE, 288). From this point of view, the battle cry of the constructivist is that there is no unconstructable part, or that there is no part of a situation that is not named and which does not have a rule governing the manner in which it is included. Badiou refers to this regime of rules that governs the relationship between membership and inclusion variously as language, knowledge, and the encyclopedia, and rigorously distinguishes it from truth. As Badiou describes it, “…the ‘encyclopedia’ [is] the general system of predicative knowledge internal to a situation: i.e., what everyone knows about politics, sexual difference, culture, art, technology, etc.” (TW, 146). This function of the encyclopedia can be seen, perhaps, most clearly when it doesn’t clearly function as in Derrida’s reading of Nietzsche where even a random comment demands a rule defining how it is to be included in the body of Nietzsche’s texts. In this regard, constructivism ultimately comes to legislate over existence and police language. As Badiou puts it,

What the constructivist vision of being and presentation hunts out is the ‘indeterminate’, unnameable part, the conceptless link. The ambiguity of its relation to the state is thus quite remarkable. On the one hand, in restricting the statist metastructure’s count-as-one to nameable parts, it seems to reduce its power; yet, on the other hand, it specifies its police and increases its authority by the connection that it establishes between mastery of the included one-multiple and mastery of language. What has to be understood here is that for this orientation in thought, a grouping of presented multiples which is indiscernible in terms of an immanent relation does not exist. From this point of view, the state legislates on existence. What it loses on the side of excess it gains on the side of the ‘right over being’. (EE, 288)

By the “state” Badiou is here referring to the subsets that belong to any set. By “metastructure” Badiou is referring to that mechanism or organization presiding over legal and illegal combinations among parts such as kinship structures defining sanctioned and unsanctioned mates. These would consist of the rules governing a language along with the names belonging to a language. If the language of a situation presides here over existence, then this is because it does not recognize any element that is indiscernible to the rules governing that language or the nominations belonging to that language, as can be readily seen in Leibniz’s ideal of a complete language. Perhaps the most extreme example of this would be Lacan’s example of the two identical doors named “Ladies” and Gentleman” in his article “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”, where it is not the object that introduces the difference into the language (as the doors are identical), but the signifier that introduces the difference into existence.

Badiou is far from dismissing constructivism, nor does he believe that it is possible to refute this position. As Badiou puts it,

From the Greek sophists to the Anglo-Saxon logical empiricists (even to Foucault), this is what has invariably made out of it the critical– or anti-philosophical –philosophy par excellence. To refute the doctrine that a part of the situation solely exists if it is constructed on the basis of properties and terms which are discernible in the language, would it not be necessary to indicate an absolute undifferentiated, anonymous, indeterminate part? But how could such a part be indicated, if not by constructing this very indication? (EE, 288-289)

Consequently, from within the constructivist orientation it is impossible to think something genuinely new for the simple reason that this would require the introduction of a non-constructed element into the situation. But from the constructivist point of view, if an element can be discerned in the situation, then it is already nameable by the language of that situation and is thus not genuinely new at all, but already constructed.

Similarly, from the constructivist point of view it is impossible to conceive a genuine universal for the simple reason that there are a plurality of different regimes of language and no transcendental decision procedures that would allow one of these languages to legislate over another. From this standpoint, any proposed universal is already a disguised particularity. Thus, for example, critics of international human rights agendas often criticize these positions not because they are for the maltreatment of human beings, but because universal human rights are implicitly based on the particularism of first world countries and those who control the means of production. In a related vein, the purported universalism of the Cartesian cogito is often criticized for being based on the implicit particularism of masculine sexuality, thereby failing to take into account the unique relation women are said to entertain to their bodies.

In light of the foregoing, it thus becomes clear that our questions pertaining to the possibility of genuine change and a genuine universal must meet two requirements: First, if genuine change is to be possible, then it is necessary for it to be possible that an element appear that is indiscernible to the transcendental regime governing the situation. Second, if genuine universality is to be possible, then it is necessary to show that a difference is possible that is indifferent to the differences that compose the transcendental regime governing the situation. That is, a genuine universal must be indifferent to the predicative differences that preside over legal inclusion. As such, something genuinely new and universal would have to be subtracted from the constraints governing the structure of the situation. As we shall see, the new and the universal are not unconnected for Badiou, and the true, to which both of these terms are connected, is, as Lacan said, that which punches a hole in knowledge or which departs from the doxa of the encyclopedia.

Due to constraints of time I will have to move quickly through the features of Badiou’s conception of the event and the truth-procedures that follow from the emergence of an event. The first requirement for the emergence of something new is that something must appear in the situation that cannot be classified according to the encyclopedic determinants defining inclusion or legal arrangements within the situation. It is the appearance of such an element, an element that belongs to itself, that Badiou calls an event. It is of crucial importance in understanding Badiou that such a presentation can never be demonstrated to have taken place, but can only be declared to have taken place. Generally we can detect the appearance of such a self-belonging element in the language surrounding this element: it is always described in negative terms, as being somehow deficient or excessive. This “too much” or “too little” could be thought as a trace of the manner in which this element evades the determinations of the encyclopedia or the knowledge-structure that governs the situation. Like Nietzsche’s remark that he has forgotten his umbrella, one can find no clear rule in the encyclopedia of the situation for determining whether the statement is included or not.

From the standpoint of the situation, the inclusion of this self-belonging element is, strictly speaking, undecidable, and therefore falls outside of what counts as knowledge in the situation. There is no rule for deciding whether it is veridical or non-veridical, meaningful or meaningless. One of Badiou’s favorite and clearer examples pertains to illegal immigration:

…are those workers who do not have proper papers but who are working here, in France (or the United Kingdom, or the United States…) part of this country? Do they belong here? Yes, probably, since they live and work here. No, since they don’t have the necessary papers to show that they are French (or British, or American), or living here legally. The expression ‘illegal immigrant’ designates the uncertainty of valence, or the non-valence of valence: it designates people who are living here, but don’t really belong here, and hence people who can be thrown out of the country, people who can be exposed to the non-valence of the valence of the presence here as workers. (TW, 147)

What we have here is not yet an event, but rather a part of the situation (the French situation) that evades the determinants of the situation or that can’t clearly be counted as being included or not included. Such an element is undecidable.

The event occurs when this element announces itself as belonging to the situation, as in the case of illegal immigrant workers occupying the church of St. Bernard in Paris and declaring their existence, or the recent immigrant protests in the United States (TW, 147). What we have here is an anonymous element– anonymous because it evades all the determinants of the encyclopedia necessary for establishing inclusion in the situation –standing up and declaring itself as belonging. In short, something appears in such events that is indiscernible from the standpoint of the predicates or categories governing the structure of inclusion in the situation. Indeed, from the standpoint of the encyclopedia of the situation or the state, events like the occupation of St. Bernard or the protests in Los Angeles often appear as so much meaningless chaos, testifying once again to the sense in which they appear as excess or deficiency. It will be objected that certainly we know what an illegal immigrant is, certainly the illegal immigrant occupies a category within the situation. However, this misses the point insofar as the illegal immigrant is precisely that person with respect to whom we are unable to decide whether they are to be included or whether they are not to be included. In other words, they indicate the infinite excess of parts over membership with regard to the encyclopedia of the situation and thus evade the knowledge that governs the situation.

It is in relation to this undecidability and indiscernibility– in relation to that which is subtracted from the situation –that we begin to approach the question of how something new can be introduced into the situation. The common assumption belonging to constructivist orientations of thought is that we must look to what is already there in the situation, what is given in the encyclopedia of the situation, to determine whether something new is possible and whether universality is possible. As we have already seen, however, the rule of constructivism is that any statement produced within a situation must be constructable according to the law or encyclopedia governing that situation. In relation to the undecidable event, claims Badiou, we must make a pure decision without authorization or rule from the encyclopedia that 1) the event took place and was not simply chaos, and 2) that the element to which the event pertains belongs to the situation. Badiou refers to this as an “evental statement”. One decides to include that which is not included. “The evental statement is implied by the event’s appearing-disappearing and declares that an undecidable has been decided or that what was without valence now has a valence” (TW, 148). In the instance of illegal immigration, the evental statement declares that “those who live here are from here.” Something new has been introduced into the situation, but how does it change the situation or introduce the universal into the situation?

In the wake of an evental statement Badiou contends that a truth-procedure and a subject of truth appears. It is important to here emphasize that for Badiou truth is not a representation, adequation between word and object, or play of revealing-concealing, but rather an activity that progressively transforms the structure of the situation through its intervention, progressively creating a subset of the situation or new configuration of parts that did not exist before. The declaration that an event has taken place and that elements that were formerly included without belonging are now counted as belonging, has implications for the structure of the entirety of the situation. As Badiou puts it, an event has an implicative structure of an if/then form. The difference between knowledge and truth with regard to the event could be characterized as follows: where knowledge evaluates the potential event in terms of whether it can be subsumed under one or more of the predicative determinants of the encyclopedia, a truth-procedure evaluates the predicates composing the encyclopedia in terms of the declared event. The question of a truth-procedure is that of how the situation must be transformed in light of the evental declaration.

It is in relation to the truth-procedure that progressively transform the elements of a situation that the dimension of the universal appears. Initially the choice of illegal immigration might appear poor insofar as we are inclined to think of the illegal immigrant as a particular identity within the situation. That is, the decision to include the illegal immigrant might appear as yet another instance of identity politics and of a particular group fighting for specific rights. However, this is to forget that the illegal immigrant is anonymous, without predicate, the very absence of predicates when viewed from the standpoint of the encyclopedic determinants of the situation. In short, the illegal immigrant, when counted as belonging to the situation, indicates the excess of inclusion over all predicative determination and thereby renders predicative determinations “in-different” as a principle of counting and membership. As Badiou puts this in his study of Paul’s universalism in Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, “The One [of an evental declaration] is that which inscribes no difference in the subjects to which it addresses itself. The One is only insofar as it is for all: such is the maxim of universality when it has its root in the event” (SP, 76). Needless to say, it is not Paul’s theology that interests Badiou (who describes himself as a militant atheist and the only contemporary philosopher to think through the consequences of the death of God), but rather Paul’s truth-procedure as described in the epistles. What interests Badiou in Paul, is the manner in which the difference between Jew and Gentile becomes in-different in Paul’s truth-procedure, allowing Jew and Gentile to be counted alike, regardless of custom or cultural difference. It is not that Paul is against custom or cultural difference– he says that if one is Jew then get circumcised and if one is Gentile then don’t –but rather that these differences have become irrelevant.

We can thus see the manner in which an evental declaration and the truth-procedure that follows upon it, punches a hole in knowledge by indiscerning the differences that otherwise compose the situation from the standpoint of knowledge and opening the possibility of an open-ended universality that can never be completed. As Badiou puts it,

What can measure up to the universality of an address? Not legality, in any case. The law is always predicative, particular, and partial. Paul is perfectly aware of the law’s unfailingly “statist” character. By “statist” I mean that which enumerates, names, and controls the parts of a situation. If a truth is to surge forth eventually, it must be nondenumerable, impredicable, uncontrollable. This is precisely what Paul calls grace: that which occurs without being couched in any predicate, that which is translegal, that which happens to everyone without assignable reason. (SP 76-77)

The universal is necessarily infinite and open because there is no assignable predicate that could finally define membership within the set progressively unfolded through the truth-procedure. It is that which traverses all differences composing a situation, rather than that which instates a particular difference. Through the unfolding of the evental declaration the situation is progressively transformed in light of this infinite openness, in much the same way that Galileo, the declarer of another truth-event, declared an unlimited investigation of nature in terms of mathematics that continues to this day. Here the difference between the celestial spheres and the earth or corrupt corporeal world became in-different from the standpoint of physics.

Similarly, Badiou contends that the real rupture of Greek thought is not to be found in the poem or the play of revealing-concealing (which can be found in Asian and Indian thought as well), but in the matheme or the subordination of thought to the mathematical condition already Parmenides apagogic reasoning (EE, 10). The transformation of a situation is not to be found in the predicates governing membership in the situation, but in and through an active intervention in the situation that indiscerns the differences of the situation, punching a hole in the encyclopedia governing the situation, and producing a truth that is not, but which will have been through this activism on behalf of the event. In a manner reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, this intervention is based on an ultimately groundless decision, without warrant by the encyclopedia, on the order of a wager, in which the subject faithfully re-evaluates the elements of the situation in fidelity to the evental declaration. It is through this militant commitment, that situations are progressively transformed in science, art, love, and politics.