Matthew Wilkens (ed.) (2005) ‘The Philosophy of Alain Badiou’, Polygraph 17

ISSN 1533-9793

Encountering Badiou

Benjamin Noys

‘While dialogues are commonplace, encounters are rare’. (Zizek, 2004: xi)

In his book on Deleuze Alain Badiou notes, with obvious approval, that Deleuze ‘felt only contempt for debates’ (2000: 17), preferring instead disputatio — dispute. It is only fitting then that Badiou’s work has generated so much dispute and so much antagonism. True to his own Maoist roots Badiou does not seek to settle safely within the regulated spaces of academic debate but rather seeks to divide: ‘one divides into two’ (Badiou, 2002a). In fact, following the lead of Badiou’s writing on Saint Paul (2003), we could apply to him Christ’s words, ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Mt 10:34). The centrality of being (ontology), the event, the subject, and truths are what serve to divide Badiou’s ultra-modernist philosophy from all the main currents of both Continental and analytic philosophy. For Anglophone readers the resulting disputes have been traced in a number of recent collections devoted to Badiou’s work: Peter Hallward’s Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy (2004); two special issues of the journalCommunication & Cognition edited by Dominiek Hoens, ‘The True is Always New’ (2003) and ‘Miracles Do Happen’ (2004); and the collection Alain Badiou: Philosophy and its Conditions (forthcoming 2005), edited by Gabriel Riera. I want to consider a recent contribution to this ‘wave’, the special issue of the journal Polygraph edited by Matthew Wilkens, which comes with the appropriately uncompromising title ‘The Philosophy of Alain Badiou’ and with an impressive list of contributors.

The dominant dispute staged in this collection lies between Badiou’s radically subtractive philosophy and the various ‘discourses of alterity’ (Barker, 2005: 1); that is discourses which emphasise the problem of the Other or Otherness. The nature of the dispute is played out here particularly through the question of pathos: the emotion or affect that Badiou seems to leave outside of philosophy, or, to be more accurate, beneath philosophical consideration. To trace the dispute I will take a selective snapshot of the essays through this question of pathos.1 Peter Hallward’s essay ‘Depending on Inconsistency’ elegantly sets out the terms of the dispute, as well as providing one of the best short introductions to Badiou that I have read. As he explains, Badiou begins from multiplicity ‘without-One’: a multiplicity that lacks a unifying principle or identity. Taking this starting point immediately puts Badiou at odds with ‘the spontaneous philosophy of most contemporary work in cultural and literary studies — work marked by the effort to map complex identities or itineraries, to cultivate more sensitive forms of recognition and representation, more nuanced appreciations of context and perspective, and so on’ (11). This is one form of the discourses of alterity: the further and closer specification of the forms of historical and cultural difference.

For Badiou ‘Infinite alterity is quite simply what there is‘ (2001: 25). That is, the world is made up, fundamentally, of the ‘stuff’ of differences. Instead of analysing the complexity of the representation of these differences Badiou moves ‘downward’ to their pure presentation as multiplicity. This movement is a reversal of our usual common-sense understanding, as Oliver Feltham makes clear in his essay ‘And Being And Event And. . .’. Representation is not the simplified reproduction of the complexity of lived experience, instead representation is always more complex than the presentation of multiplicity. For Badiou we must subtract thought from the complexity of representation because representation always represents things as they are. It allows no basis for anything new to take place, for what Badiou calls the event. At the same time this subtraction also leaves Badiou opposed to the other major form of the discourses of alterity. This discourse does disrupt representation, but in a movement further upwards, beyond representation and towards the alterity of the ‘altogether Other’, towards the ‘most high’ (Blanchot, 2001). The obvious reference here is the work of the later Derrida and of Emmanuel Levinas, although it can be extended to a range of other thinkers. Badiou’s problem with it is that although it disrupts representation it tends to fill out that disruption with ‘the vehemently experiential quality of jouissance or its equivalent’ (Hallward, 16). In doing so it re-instates transcendence – alterity is ‘above’ experience, and also the mystical pathos of the One – alterity is singular and ineffable.

Badiou fights a war on two fronts, against two different modes of the discourses of alterity: on the one hand the alterity of historical and cultural differences and, on the other hand, against the infinite alterity of the ‘altogether Other’. In both cases there is also an objection to the pathos attached to these forms of alterity, which for Badiou remain unnecessary to philosophy. On the one hand, we have the pathos of the negotiations and encounters with specific others and, on the other hand, the extreme pathos of the disruptive effects of radical alterity. What is Badiou’s alternative? As Hallward explains, it depends on the thinking of being as an inconsistent multiplicity. But it does not rest at this level of the presentation of multiplicity as, simply, what there is. This is because there is something else, not the excess of radical alterity but the excess of an event that ‘connotes’ this inconsistency, and which breaks with representation. Events, which are multiple, take place in four ‘sites’: science, politics, love, and art. It is out of these events that we must construct the same, not the affirmation of difference but the affirmation of the ‘universal’ inconsistency of being.

This manoeuvre can appear unjustified; why should we choose the same rather than the other? As Hallward and others have explained, Badiou’s work rests on an axiomatic decision, deciding on the multiplicity ‘without-one’. This takes place through the fundamental recourse to mathematics, especially set theory. What set theory provides is an ontology, a science of being, which allows us to think multiplicities that are infinite. Set theory puts these infinities to work, we can compare them, analyse them, and in doing so it provides a thinking of multiplicity ‘without-one’. As Andrew Gibson puts it ‘[s]et theory presents us with an infinity of infinities’ (177). While Nietzsche declared the death of God for Badiou it is mathematics that has really put an end to God, through putting an end to the One and secularising the infinite. Unlike in Nietzsche there is no pathos in this, no lamentation or celebration of this ‘death’. Badiou’s use of mathematics makes it possible to construct a subtractive discourse that does not ‘fill-out’ the event, but that demonstrates how the event is subtracted from representation. It is this use of mathematics which accounts for the rigour and austerity of Badiou’s philosophy, and which is also essential to understanding his work.

One of the strengths of this collection is that it does not shy away from the mathematical dimension of Badiou’s thought. For those unfamiliar with modern set theory Andrew Gibson’s essay provides the most accessible introduction, while Oliver Feltham offers a more technical discussion of its application in Badiou’s writing. B. Madison Mount also provides a lengthy and fascinating account of Badiou’s debt to the ‘Cantorian revolution’, that is the development of modern set theory from Cantor. In each case they show the importance of set theory for Badiou’s thinking outside of representation and outside of the problem of alterity. All we have are sets and the elements of sets to work with, and concrete or mystical differences find no place here. As Gibson notes this ontology of multiplicity offers both the richness of infinities and monotony or sameness (181). This means that there is no particular pathos attached to this ontology or to the eruption of an event, which simply indicates the inconsistency of multiplicities. Lindsey Hair, in her essay on Badiou’s concept of love, notes the scandalised reaction of one French broadcaster who asserted that it was ‘intolerable that one would associate austere formulas with the marvelous experience of love’ (127).

The problem that dominates this collection is the legitimacy, and success, of this removal of pathos through the ‘austere formulas’ of Badiou’s philosophy. It occurs most violently around Badiou’s work on the four ‘sites’ from which events/truths emerge: science, politics, love and art, especially the last three. In the collection there are those who follow, more or less critically, Badiou’s own subtractive path. They find something powerful in the precision of Badiou’s use of axiomatic thought to delimit and analyse events. Also, they uphold Badiou’s affirmation of the inconsistency of the event ‘without any trace of existential “pathos” or “remainder”‘ (Hallward, 23). In contrast, other contributors argue that this wager on the axiomatic illegitimately removes the problem of alterity too rapidly. This second approach involves a number of linked criticisms: that Badiou refuses to recognise the suppleness and power of the discourses of alterity; that his removal of alterity and pathos hampers or invalidates his understanding of events; or that despite his claims his work still remains haunted by an ineradicable ‘remainder’ of pathos. To describe this dispute we could speak, in the language of Maoism, of a ‘two-line struggle’.

In the first line we have Jason Barker’s essay ‘Topography and Structure’, which uses Badiou to work towards a ‘revolutionary ontology’ (93). He does so by staging an encounter between Althusser’s concept of overdetermination and Badiou’s ‘evental underdetermination’ (98). While Althusser stresses the complexity of the determinations of the political event, Badiou sees political events as the result of a subtraction from their determinations. For Badiou these events are aleatory ruptures with the situation of things as they are, while Althusser follows a more Leninist emphasis on the contingency of a certain arrangement of forces. Barker forces together these two understandings to provide an initial sketch of a topography of political situations and events. In his example of the Palestinian situation he shows how the properly political event is subjected to ‘political displacement’ (101). That is while an event should be taking place, in Badiou’s subtractive sense, the overdetermination of this event as a security situation or as part of the ‘war on terror’ serves to displace politics, to take it ‘off-stage’. Barker’s topography provides us with the means for grasping not only the subtractive challenge of political events (their underdetermination) but also how those events can be removed from the ‘political scene’ (through the effects of overdetermination). This would be carried out through a mapping of the ‘placements’ and displacements of political events.

Hair also pursues the subtractive dimension of Badiou’s work, this time on love. She absolves it from possible accusations of heteronormativity that might seem implicit in his concept of the two sexuated positions. However, it is interesting that she refers to Badiou’s disjunctive ‘Two’ in terms of alterity (137), perhaps indicating the difficulty in our being ‘done with the Other’ (Barker, 2005). Finally Élie During and Nico Baumbach analyse Badiou’s ‘inaesthetics’, which offers what Baumbach calls ‘a new Platonic realism’ (173). This ‘realism’ is an impersonal art that abstracts itself from particularity, so opening another thinking of the same. In doing it also refuses effects of pathos that are dependent on the particularity of the suffering body. In this way, typically, Badiou is again in dispute with some of the dominant tendencies of contemporary artistic practice: abject art, body art and transgressive art. Although both these essays raise critical questions concerning this subtractive model of art they also endorse its radical effects. The question remains about what form this ‘new regulated art’ (154) would take. One answer is to turn to one of Badiou’s own examples, Samuel Beckett.

While Beckett’s art is often rigorously impersonal, particularly in his later texts, it does not seem to do away with the problem of pathos and suffering. This leads us back to the second ‘line’ in this dispute: those who insist on the persistence of pathos against Badiou. Andrew Gibson’s essay ‘Badiou and Beckett’ locates them both as ‘vestigial or melancholic modernists’ (196) who draw on the discourse of mathematics and the possibility of subtractive thinking. He also poses Beckett as the necessary supplement to Badiou: Beckett would complete Badiou because he would supply a sense of the pathos of existence that Badiou rules out. In doing so he would also reveal the problematic absence of that pathos in Badiou’s philosophy. It can be seen, in an exemplary fashion, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which might be renamed ‘Waiting for the Event’. In this waiting we find the ‘flickering’ melancholy of the remainder that exists between being and the event, which Gibson names the ‘pathos of intermittency’. He argues that while Badiou admits the ‘force of intermittency’ he is unable to do away with the pathos of intermittency, which ‘repeatedly shows itself at the edges or just under the surface of his work’ (187). So, Badiou’s elimination of the remainder is never entirely successful, it always returns, and Beckett offers us the means to think this remainder in its ‘existential’ effects. In a sense this is a kind of quasi-deconstructive reading of Badiou, deftly handled by Gibson, which detects the disavowed elements that haunt the margins of Badiou’s ‘system’.

In different ways several other of the essays in this collection take up this point to offer a critique, correction, or even completion of Badiou’s philosophy. In his essay ‘Badiou, Derrida, and The Matrix‘ (205-20) Stefan Herbrechter produces a rather strained rapprochement between Badiou and Derrida’s thinking of alterity, trying to combine truth and the Other. Carsten Strathausen is more straightforwardly critical, finding Badiou’s politics of the event wanting due to its heroising, and anti-democratic, ‘decisionism’ (287-91). In contrast he finds more favour in Derrida’s emphasis on the passivity of the decision in me (286-7) and argues for the necessity of a reformist democratic politics. In both cases there is the implication that in eliminating pathos and alterity Badiou is eliminating something essential to our experience, particularly in art and politics. Perhaps the most interesting staging of this dispute about the ‘remainder’ of pathos and alterity is staged in the roundtable discussion on the critique of Badiou offered by Simon Critchley (2000). Here the confrontation takes place directly between the two ‘lines’.

In this roundtable Critchley invokes, against what he regards as Badiou’s heroising ethics, an ‘everyday pathos’ (304). For Critchley Badiou’s elimination of this everyday pathos means that his ethics lacks any engagement with the micro-politics of everyday life. It also means that Badiou leaves the decision to engage in fidelity to an event underdefined and arbitrary. Against this conception Critchley has articulated an ethical discourse based on infinite alterity as a demand that calls us to engage with the world. The form that this engagement takes though is through the everyday pathos of existence, and previously Critchley had articulated this non-heroic micro-politics through a reading of Beckett (see Critchley, 1997). Those more sympathetic to Badiou counter Critchley with the subtraction of pathos from philosophy because pathos is, as Nina Power points out, what ‘simply happens all the time’ (303). Alberto Toscano suggests that the return of pathos in Badiou’s work, which seems to happen especially in his discussion of ethics of fidelity to truths, is not a mark of failure or contradiction. Instead of Badiou being haunted by what Critchley calls an ‘exception pathos’ (304) we find in his work what Toscano describes as ‘[o]rganized pathos’ (304).

The dispute then lies in the unbridgeable gap between these two concepts of pathos, which are the result of Badiou’s affirmation of inconsistency opposed to various forms of the passive reception of the Other. What is also striking is how much Badiou’s language of courage, fidelity and discipline causes an almost allergic reaction in his opponents (and effect I am not immune from). This is why, as many contributors to this issue insist, it is essential to grasp Badiou’s philosophy through its use of axiomatic mathematical thinking. We can also only be thankful to Alberto Toscano and Ray Brassier for their collection of his Theoretical Writings (2004)2 and Oliver Feltham for his forthcoming translation of Badiou’s Being and the Event (due in 2005 from Continuum). Without recognising this mathematical rigour it will always be a simple enough matter to re-translate Badiou back into the language of ‘exceptional pathos’. But nagging doubts still remains about this remainder of pathos. Has Badiou really eliminated it? Should he have? And is this elimination bought at the cost of violent misreadings of the discourses of alterity or misunderstandings of the world?

In his introduction to this collection Matthew Wilkens notes that the ‘growing debate’ and ‘conversation’ with Badiou has not reached a ‘broad consensus’ or ‘common ground’ (8). However, if Badiou’s work is to be taken seriously, might we perhaps ask whether the disputes his work causes should be resolved at all? In particular should we expect a decisive settling of accounts between Badiou and the discourses of alterity? Bruno Bosteels’ witty essay on Badiou and Zizek suggest some reasons why such a settling would be impossible, even if we should try to produce it. He re-stages the complex encounter between Badiou the subtractive philosopher and Zizek the psychoanalytic philosopher of the pathos of alterity. What makes this encounter so complex is the way in which Zizek has ‘read’ Badiou, but in doing so has ‘expropriated and transcoded’ (225) Badiou’s thought. So, when Zizek is criticising Badiou he is often criticising his own previous positions, and Zizek’s own new positions, which are supposed to ‘correct’ Badiou, turn out to be positions Badiou already holds. . . Bosteels does an excellent job sorting out this mess, clarifying Zizek’s criticisms of Badiou and suggesting responses to them. However the most interesting part of the essay comes at the end as Bosteels considers why the ‘encounter’ between Zizek and Badiou appears to be a missed one.

He argues that the encounter between psychoanalysis and philosophy obeys a ‘strange backtracking’ or ‘temporal loop’ (241) in which the psychoanalyst always comes first. In this odd reverse race whatever point the philosopher reaches the psychoanalyst is always behind them, waving to indicate the dimension of the death drive that the philosopher has missed. Bosteels implies that this dispute is irresolvable for structural reasons, at least if we follow Badiou’s staging. >From the position of psychoanalysis philosophy will have always missed the dimension of enjoyment (jouissance) and the death drive. The philosopher’s denial of enjoyment will always make him or her vulnerable to the charge of asceticism (Badiou, 2002b: 1). But the philosopher, in turn can accuse the psychoanalyst of becoming transfixed by enjoyment. This is especially problematic because Badiou argues that contemporary culture exists ‘under the emblem of enjoyment’ (2002b: 1). In this way psychoanalysis may find itself complicit with the culture of enjoyment. While this is a powerful account of the fact that the encounter between Badiou and the discourses of alterity will always necessarily be a ‘missed encounter’ the difficulty is how much it is premised on Badiou’s own understanding of the task of philosophy. There are other understandings of philosophy and one vital name here is Gilles Deleuze, who has been Badiou’s primary antagonist (Badiou, 2000). Although, like Badiou, Deleuze articulates philosophy as the thinking of multiplicity he certainly does not cede the thinking of enjoyment to the psychoanalyst. In this collection Eric Alliez offers a scathing critique of Badiou from a ‘Deleuzoguattarian’ position, that is an insistence on the revolutionary potential of desire, while Bruno Besana offers a more sympathetic reading of Badiou’s critique of Deleuze.

Another important, and antagonistic, figure would be Giorgio Agamben. As Peter Hallward recognises there is a very strong opposition between Badiou and Agamben because Agamben is the contemporary philosopher who most insists on the irreducible ‘remainder’ (25 n.20). This conflict around ‘what remains’ is particularly evident if we examine the contrast between their ethical discourses. While Agamben bases his ethics on ‘bare life’ (life left on the verge of death), he argues that Badiou’s ethics of truths requires the occlusion of this ‘remainder’ (see Noys, 2005: 89-99). This poses the question of whether we should accept Badiou’s insistence that philosophy can only ever be philosophy if it excludes or delimits pathos and alterity. Agamben suggests a philosophical discourse that rests on the potentiality of this remainder. On the other hand the axiomatic rigour of Badiou’s thought can allow further analysis and clarification of this ‘remainder’. In the case of the remainder as enjoyment Badiou’s rigorous exclusion of it from the field of philosophy might allow us to consider the validity of certain refusals of enjoyment. When enjoyment is in the service of nihilism then it may well be necessary to make an ‘ascetic’ critique of enjoyment, to refuse enjoyment.

This process of antagonistic clarification between Badiou and his critics also leads to the wider question of the status of philosophy itself, especially in relation to other discourses. Badiou’s philosophy actually powerfully restricts the role of philosophy: ontology is given over to mathematics, and in the case of politics, art, and love philosophy offers a space in which the truths generated by events in these areas can be made compossible, that is sheltered together in a common space. So, despite the seeming grandiosity and scale of Badiou’s ‘system’ it is actually a matter of subtracting philosophy itself from its traditional pretensions to be a self-founding discourse that, potentially, absorbs or regulates all other discourses — the ‘queen of the sciences’. Therefore Badiou’s work opens new possibilities of clarifying the status of philosophy itself. This could include, against his own intentions, new possibilities of ‘detaching’ ourselves from the discourse of philosophy.3 I would suggest that the encounter with Badiou offers us more rigorous grounds on which to think and critique alterity and more rigorous grounds on which to consider the status of philosophy. It is only by pursuing the antagonistic dispute with Badiou without reserve that we can come to encounter the severe beauty of Badiou’s philosophy, this ‘stellar matheme’ (Badiou 2004: xv).


1 For a fuller discussion of all the essays in this collection Matthew Wilkens’s introduction offers a clear account (available at

2 The afterword to this edition, by Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano, was mysteriously left absent and can be accessed at

3 Perhaps the most rigorous attempt to ‘traverse’ philosophy without succumbing to an opposition to philosophy has been articulated by Francois Laruelle as ‘non-philosophy’ (see Brassier, 2005 and the texts collected at L’ONPhl


Badiou, A. (2000) Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Trans. L. Burchill. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Badiou, A. (2001) Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. P. Hallward, London and New York: Verso.

Badiou, A. (2002a) ‘One Divides into Two’, trans. A. Toscano, Culture Machine 4 ‘The Ethico-Political Issue’, ed. Joanna Zylinska.

Badiou, A. (2002b) ‘The Caesura of Nihilism’, Paper presented at the ‘Ethics and Politics: The Work of Alain Badiou’ Conference, organised by the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, The University of Cardiff (25th-26th May 2002).

Badiou, A. (2003) Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Trans. R. Brassier. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Badiou, A. (2004) Theoretical Writings. Eds. A. Toscano and R. Brassier. London and New York: Continuum.

Barker, J. (2005) ‘To Have Done with the Other’, paper presented at the Rhetoric, Politics, Ethics conference, Ghent University, Belgium, 23 April 2005.

Blanchot, M. (2001) The Most-High. Trans. A. Stoekl. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Brassier, R. (2003) ‘Axiomatic Heresy: The Non-Philosophy of Francois Laruelle’ Radical Philosophy 121: 24-35.

Critchley, S. (1997) Very Little . . . Almost Nothing. London and New York: Routledge.

Critchley, S. (2000) ‘Demanding Approval: On the Ethics of Alain Badiou’, Radical Philosophy, 100: 16-27.

Hallward, P. (ed.) (2004) Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. London: Continuum.

Hoens, D. (ed.) (2003) ‘The True is Always New: Essays on Alain Badiou’, special issue of Communication & Cognition, 36:1-2.

Hoens, D. (ed.) (2004) ‘Miracles Do Happen: Essays on Alain Badiou’, special issue of Communication & Cognition, 37:3-4.

Noys, B. (2005) The Culture of Death. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Riera, G. (ed.) (2005) Alain Badiou: Philosophy and its Conditions. New York: SUNY Press.

Zizek, S. (2004) Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. London and New York: Routledge.

Benjamin Noys is Lecturer in English in the School of Cultural Studies at University College, Chichester, UK. He is the author of Georges Bataille (2000) and The Culture of Death (2005).