I want to begin by making reference to a review by Peter Dews, published in 2008, of Badiou’s Being and Event. For Dews, Badiou’s philosophy derives from a tension between two basic propositions: mathematics is ontology and ontology is a situation. This means that ‘although ontology exhausts what there is, it cannot capture everything that occurs’. This division enlists Badiou in the tradition of anti-philosophy, despite his expressed opposition to it: what cannot be known is what it is most important to know, or, in a different version, what cannot be said is what must be said. Of course, for Badiou, ontology, the knowledge of being as being, is given to us by mathematics, and in particular by the set theory of Cantor. What exceeds the situation is the event and the event is that which cannot be known or said in that situation. An event is a multiple, but one that counts for nothing in the situation in which it takes place. If ‘the state of the situation’ is what is re-presented of what is presented (i.e. if it is the power set of the ‘original’ infinite set of multiples), then the event concerns those presented elements that are not re-presented in the state of the situation. An event is a multiplicity (a multiple of multiples) none of whose elements are re-presented in the state of the situation. As Dews notes, the event is what Badiou calls ‘totally abnormal’, which is to say that an event is a multiple comprised of those elements which were originally presented but not re-presented in the state of the situation. Such a multiple, an ‘evental site’, is ‘on the edge of the void’—in other words, it looks as though it does not exist, but this, it should be noted, is only how things appear from the point of view of someone within the situation. The event counts for nothing in the situation in which it emerges, or into which it erupts. Everything that exists in the situation is numbered or ‘counted for one’ in that situation. The event is thus said to be ‘supernumerary’. It is something that evades the count. To cite Peter Hallward, ‘As something that cannot be recognised as one in a situation, an event is the (necessarily ephemeral) presentation of inconsistency in the situation’. In Badiou’s book, the shift from being to event is the shift from Cantor to Cohen.
The emergence of the event is at the same time the emergence of the subject who recognises it, who nominates it as an event, an act which begins a process of fidelity to the event thus (retroactively) evoked. But, as Dews indicates, if we ask what exactly in the situation is being nominated, or what constitutes the evental site, all we seem to have is the multiplicity of elements from which the event emerged. As Badiou has it, the event consists of the elements belonging to the evental site, together with the event itself. Thus understood, the event can be seen as a set that belongs to itself (it thus violates one of the fundamental axioms of set theory—the axiom of foundation). Dews cites one of Badiou’s favourite examples, the French revolution, which is more than the innumerable (infinite?) list of doings that took place in France between 1789 and 1794. ‘It is rather something bound up in this assemblage, which the term “French Revolution” specifically names. But when we try to specify what this extra something is, we find ourselves again confronted only with the assemblage of happenings—plus that elusive addendum. The revolution is not simply the narrative of what occurred, but it cannot be filtered out from this narrative either.’
However, Dews goes on to argue that, given this way of defining them, events are far more widespread and common than Badiou allows for. He compares Badiou’s account of the event with the way Wittgenstein characterises the grammar of processes that have often been ascribed to a ‘mental’ domain. For example, expecting someone to arrive can consist of a wide range of different thoughts and activities. ‘There is no determinate set of thoughts and activities that can be said to be necessary and sufficient conditions of such expectation (and furthermore, activities which, in one context, are correctly taken as indicating expectation, may no longer have this meaning when transposed into a different context).’ We cannot therefore identify the event (of expecting someone to arrive) either with specific mental processes or with outward behaviour, or with a combination of both. Nonetheless, we cannot conclude that the event (of expectation) is something other than these processes and actions. Dews quotes the following imagined dialogue from Zettel:
Even where the feeling that arouses joy is localised, joy is not: if for example we rejoice in the smell of a flower. – Joy is manifested in facial expression, in behaviour. (But we do not say that we are joyful in our faces.)
“But I do have a real feeling of joy!” Yes, when you are glad you really are glad. And of course joy is not joyful behaviour, nor yet a feeling around the corners of the mouth and the eyes.
“But surely joy designates an inward thing.” No. “Joy” designates nothing at all. Neither any inward nor any outward thing. (§§486-87)
Like joy, as here characterised in Wittgenstein’s dialogue, Badiou’s event cannot be localised in either mental or physical space. For Dews, there is therefore no reason to think that joy, seen in this light, is anything other than an event, as Badiou is given to understand the term.
At this point, I would refer to two articles, published in 1982, by P.M.S. Hacker on the ontology of events and the relation of events to objects, articles that seem to owe as much, in their methods of analysis, to J.L. Austin as to Wittgenstein. In one article Hacker writes: ‘Events are neither substances nor indeed do they exist. Or, if one prefers the jargon, the “being” of events is to take place, happen, occur—but not to “exist”. Material objects do not take place and events do not exist. A volcano exists, but an eruption of a volcano cannot exist. It may have happened, be happening, or be about to happen. The death of Caesar never existed—it took place. Caesar existed and the event of his death was the termination of his existence. The termination of an object is not itself an “entity” which exists. It is an event’.
There is no immediate conclusion that I wish to draw from these reflections. However, I am certain that the matters here raised are of pertinence to a fitting acknowledgement of the power of Badiou’s thought. I would suggest that no just evaluation of that thought will be achieved without setting it in relation to the work of both Wittgenstein and Austin—the two of them representing positions Badiou has been deeply critical of.
Dews, Peter. A review of Being and Event, tr. Oliver Feltham (Continuum, 2006), in Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews 2008.02.18 [online]
Hacker, P.M.S. ‘Events and Objects in Space and Time’, Mind 91 (1982), 1-19.
Hacker, P.M.S. ‘Events, Ontology and Grammar’, Philosophy 57 (1982), 477-486.
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