Alain Badiou’s Faithful Subject in Dark Times

Alain Badiou presents his Second Manifesto for Philosophy (2011) as a “simple and immediately mobilizable version” of themes in the second half of his greater work Being and Event. But it’s a fairly technical and complex work of ontology, and since I’m otherwise unfamiliar with Badious’s work, much of it went over my head. But there was a passage that leapt out at me and gave me hope in the face of the current resurgence of the authoritarian right in America and around the world.

Much of the Second Manifesto is focused on the appearing of truth in the world. How does an eternal Idea assume a particular form in actual existence? There is great deal of Platonic dualism in the Second Manifesto and even an emphasis on mathematics that put me in mind of the dialogue Timaeus. That’s already getting technical and, I must admit, it’s not a strain of philosophy I find alluring. But I found hope in the chapter titled “Subjectivation,” which deals with how we respond to the irruption of truth.

According to Badiou, three positions arise in response to an event that disturbs the world order and introduces a new body of truth: incorporation, indifference and hostility. And these correspond to three subjects: faithful, reactive and obscure. The faithful subject embraces the new truth, the reactive pretends it doesn’t matter, and the obscure fights against it. Badiou is primarily talking about political and economic forms and makes an example of international communism. Some will promote its truth, others will try to placate it in order to maintain the status quo, and others will seek its eradication.

The passages that cheered me begin with Badiou explaining the obscure (hostile) subject:

“The problem of the obscure subject is that this purely counter-revolutionary dimension of its revolution lacks sufficient power to rally the destructive forces it needs. It must, additionally, come up with a completely fictitious body that rivals the body of truth even while, however, rejecting and denying, rather than ratifying, the event in which its rival originates. For this, the body that fascism claims to represent has to be of the order not of an event but of a substance: a Race, a Culture, a Nation or a God.”

The obvious example, and one Badiou raises, is the Nazis. Their success depended on presenting the Volk as a master race and all others as inferior, and Germany as ordained by thousands of years of history for glory, and to this end there were no fictions too outrageous, from their bizarre ideas about Aryan ancestry to belief in occult forces. The Nazis owed their power to brutality, but also to a ton of bullshit.

“Accordingly, the obscure subject will, first, impose the lethal sovereignty of a fictitious body borrowed from the tradition […] The obscure subject makes a present of that which, by its account, has always been there but which events have deformed and dissimulated.”

This is Make America Great Again. Trump’s supporters and defenders have an idea of America defined by race, religion and culture. Any change to that perceived order is a threat requiring them to fight back through what they see as purifying and regenerative action. If we view movements such as democracy, civil rights and scientific progress as bodies of truth fighting for increased presence in the world, then Trump (and his ilk around the world) want to do away with all the truths. So he purveys myths and lies, lies, lies.

But this is precisely why there is hope:

“To the mobile body of the truth process, the obscure subject opposes the fixed past-present of national, racial or religious substance. But this promise is untenable. Unlike the body of truth, unfurling that which results from the real of the event, the body of the obscure subject is fictitious and, as such, only derives its apparent present from the destruction of its rival. Aryan eternity only existed as long as did the extermination of the Jews (which explains why the Nazis applied themselves to this right up to the last second of their existence). The Reich existed only as long as it took to lose the war (which explains the suicidal refusal of any negotiation, even after the invasion of Germany).”

The false is not real, so it can only stand for so long. It may last too long for those suffering under it, but for all its bluster, it’s often not very long in the broader tapestry of history. Hitler claimed to have initiated a Thousand-Year Reich, but it turned out, for all the upheaval, to be much shorter-lived, as described so eloquently by William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

“After twelve years, four months and eight days, an Age of Darkness to all but a multitude of Germans and now ending in a bleak night for them too, the Thousand-Year Reich had come to an end. It had raised, as we have seen, this great nation and this resourceful but so easily misled people to heights of power and conquest they had never before experienced and now it had dissolved with a suddenness and a completeness that had few, if any, parallels in history.”

If we have learned any lessons from that Age of Darkness, then we may be able to stop the one brewing now from getting off the ground. Badiou notes that the three subjective types are constantly shifting into new configurations, forming alliances and sparking new conflicts, but the faithful subject is out there. There are people, organizations and forces fighting for something real and true and good, and sometimes they win.

Related posts:
Frederick the Great and 21st-Century Political Malaise
Gaylord’s The Black Metal Scene Must Be Destroyed: Review

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.