In my view, Badiou brings something valuable to the table with his concept of “truth-procedures”. This can best be understood, I think, by looking at some of the United States and English political axioms of the 90s. Increasingly, people on the center-left came to the conclusion that communism and socialism are impossible. The failure of the Soviet state, coupled with the horrors of things like the Khmer Rouge and the Gulags, led people to believe not only were these forms of social organization impossible to realize in practice, but that any attempt to do so would end in catastrophic disaster. As a consequence, we saw a rise of “political pragmatism”. The political pragmatist– not to be confused with the philosophical school from which it derives its name –was a hard-nosed realist about what is and is not possible politically (we saw the rise of this rhetoric again following the election of Obama). Arguing that these other political systems are impossible and lead to horror if pursued, the political pragmatist restricted his activism to promoting what is possible. This amounted to working within the system of neoliberal capitalism, promoting policies that would still be slightly left leaning, while leaving that economic system intact. Of course, the outcome of this politics is that policy has increasingly moved to the right, continuously eroding the rights, benefits, and salaries of workers, while also undermining the ability of workers to voice their grievances. The political pragmatist defends a gradualism, arguing that if we do what is possible now, preventing the perfect from being an enemy of the possible, we will slowly establish a more worker-friendly economy and political system. On the one hand, this politics is completely ineffectual in dealing with something like climate change which requires dramatic action that will clearly challenge neoliberal capitalism. On the other hand, the track record of political pragmatism reveals the emptiness of its hypothesis. Things haven’t moved left. They’ve gone further and further to the right, eroding worker protections, jobs, salaries, and ceding disproportionate power and representation to big corporations. Meanwhile, we’ve also witnessed the pervasive explosion of a police state, as well as a world characterized by perpetual warfare.
While issues of truth might seem remote from these political issues, political pragmatism is, in fact, based on a particular epistemology or theory of knowledge. Representationalist and empiricist, political pragmatism derives the ground of its political prescriptions from the assertion of reality. It appeals to the spectacular and catastrophic failure of the Soviet state as evidence of what is and is not possible. When we reflect on this a bit, we notice that it’s a strange sort of argument. Somehow an appeal to a fact (“the Soviet State was a failure that led to horror”) is supposed to generate a modal conclusion or conclusion about what is possible. Clearly facts can allow us to deduce impossibilities in some circumstances because the properties of a thing will constrain how it can interact with other things, e.g., the properties of an atom like nitrogen will determine what it can and cannot interact with. However, it’s hard to see how facts about Soviet socialism allow us to infer what is possible for socialism as such. The claim is somehow that socialism inevitably leads to the Gulag, failed economy, and the Khmer Rouge. Yet how can that follow from an instance? We’re never told, nor does the centrist ever engage in an onto-cartographical analysis of the specific circumstances and conditions that led to the Gulags and Khmer Rouge. No, it’s just the ideology.
Badiou’s theory of truth challenges this empiricist epistemology. Truth, for Badiou, is a commitment to something that cannot be proven in the present. It is not, as we say, a “commitment to truth”, but is rather a sort of project or activity. In this respect, it is very similar to what Paul describes as “faith” in the epistles. Here we have to be careful, for “faith” has come to signify “belief or conviction without evidence.” However, when you read Paul, this is not what faith sounds like. Rather, faith sounds like a sort of activity; in particular, an activity involved in construction. What is the work of faith? What is it constructing? For Paul, what is being constructed appears to be a society based on love, not law, that does not require tribal identity (being Jewish, Greek, or Roman) for membership or participation. The work of faith is the ongoing activity of building that community. It might consist of continuously resolving two questions: 1) what is the appropriate response to the circumstances of this person in these circumstances (relating to others in terms of love, which is always singular and specific). For example, someone has stolen. The law sanctions a particular punishment in all circumstances. Love looks at the specific circumstances. Are they starving? Do they have a neurosis? Are they just covetous? The response will be different in each case. There won’t be a single rule telling us what to do in all circumstances. 2) How do you form a community composed of different identities that doesn’t require one to have a particular identity to be a member? If this interpretation of Paul is right, and Paul is the origin of “Christianity”, then I can think of few things more un-Christian than calling oneself a Christian. For in this nomination, one has created a tribe that implicitly excludes other tribes. The real “Christian” community, I would think, would be one that contains Hindus, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, Jews, pagans, Muslims, etc as Hindus, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, Jews, pagans, Muslims, etc. It wouldn’t be a community organized around a belief, but a community committed to forging a set of relations between these differences as differences.
Clearly such a community and form of governance (love) seems impossible. This dimension of impossibility is the mark of Badiou’s truth-procedures. In Paul’s case, a truth-procedure is the work of trying to produce such a thing, despite the fact that it seems impossible. It is the daily work of attempting to produce a society composed of differences, without shared tribal identity, and to relate to persons based on the singularity of who they are and their circumstances (love) rather than abstract laws that are to hold in all cases. A truth-procedure is not a representation, but a composition, an activity of building (sometimes I think there’s an odd resemblance between Badiou and Latour). We can clearly see Badiou’s argument in relation to centrist political pragmatism: So long as we believe something is impossible and act accordingly, we will ensure that it is impossible and that things will continuously lurch to the right. The valences of truth as Badiou uses the term are therefore “fidelity” and “infidelity”. You bear fidelity to a truth procedure when you keep working towards making something a reality despite all of the odds stacked against you. You fall into infidelity whenever you betray that work, bowing to the exigencies of what is possible and abandoning the project.
Badiou gives other examples. There is love, for example. Here we might think of Romeo and Juliet. Their love seems impossible because of their families. Yet they reconfigure their life in every way possible to be true to that love. That activity of reconfiguration is the truth-procedure of love. The Two in love are different. The truth-procedure of love consists in the exploration of that difference and reconfiguration of life in relation to that difference. Infidelity occurs not so much when a person cheats– though that too –but when they cease that work. For example, they stop talking because there are often fights. There is science. Galileo said all of nature is mathematizable. The dominant Aristotleans thought this was absurd, because for them science consisted in articulating essences. The truth-procedure of Galilean science consisted in the work, the experimentation, that increasingly mathematized nature. Lacanianism would be another example. He was excommunicated from the International Psychoanalytic Association. This did not defeat him. He started his own school that trained analysts and gave analyses. This was a heresy. The truth-procedure of the Lacanian consists in continuing the creation of that school and in conducting Lacanian analyses. Were the Lacanian to bow to the law of the French Government and follow the rule that sessions must be no less than 50 minutes, he would fall into infidelity. There’s art. The music establishment rejected the possibility of atonal music. The truth-procedure of atonal music consisted in progressively producing compositions that were atonal. A truth, for Badiou, is not a representation, but an activity. There’s a lot more to Badiou’s theory of truth, but I’ll set that aside here.
Clearly Badiou’s model of truth is religious and evangelical in character. And here is where questions emerge. There’s a heroism in commitment to a political cause, a scientific hypothesis, an artistic movement, and love. Badiou writes a great deal about heroism in his ethical writings. However, there’s also a danger in commitment or fidelity. In religion, we often see the rise of the false profit. We see the cult leader that leads people to their death. The false prophet that uses his pronouncements and people’s fidelity to get them to go to war or fleece them of their money or to get them to support politicians and causes that are against their interests. Religion perpetually struggles with the question of what the true teaching is, who the true prophet is, and those teachings that are designed to manipulate and control others and those leaders or prophets that have ends quite different than the spiritual ones they claim. The same thing arises from Badiou’s truth-procedures. The mark of a truth-procedure is that in situ it is impossible to demonstrate. Paul’s community seems absurd. Romeo and Juliet’s love seems ridiculous. Galileo’s science seems preposterous (a thing is what is is– has the same essence –regardless of whether it’s going 10mph or 50mph). Yet the subject commits in each circumstance and gradually, through their acts, through their fidelity despite odds, shows the truth of these things. There’s no way, Badiou tirelessly repeats, to show in advance that one’s fidelity is reasonable. Yet the question of reasonable fidelity nonetheless arises. There are “false” political movements that are organized around exploiting those who commit to them. Sometimes the beloved is a sociopath who is just using us. There is pseudo-science that can destroy lives. How might we go about distinguishing between those things we should commit ourselves to and those things that are just simulacra of truths? Can we at all? Or is there only faith and risk?