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Philosophy as Biography

Written by eastern writer on Sunday, March 09, 2008

..Alain Badiou

Nietzsche wrote that a philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher. Maybe a biography of the philosopher by the philosopher himself is a piece of philosophy. So I shall tell you nine stories taken of my private life, with their philosophical morality... The first story is the story of the father and the mother.

My father was an alumnus of the École Normale Superieure and agrégé of mathematics: my mother an alumna of the École Normale Supérieure and agrégée of French literature. I am an alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure and agrégé, but agrege of what, of philosophy, that is to say, probably, the only possible way to assume the double filiation and circulate freely between the literary maternity and the mathematical paternity. This is a lesson for philosophy itself : the language of philosophy always constructs its own space between the matheme and the poem, between the mother and the father, after all.

Someone saw that very clearly, my colleague, the French analytic philosopher Jacques Bouveresse, from the Collège de France. In a recent book in which he paid me the horror of speaking of me, he compared me to a five-footed rabbit and says in substance: "This five- footed rabbit that Alain Badiou is runs at top speed in the direction of mathematic formalism, and then, all of a sudden, taking an incomprehensible turn, he goes back on his steps and runs at the same speed to throw himself into literature." Well, yes, that's how with a father and a mother so well distributed, one turns into a rabitt.

Now the second story : about mother and philosophy.

My mother was very old and my father was not in Paris. I would take her out to eat in a restaurant. She would tell me on these occasions everything she had never told me. It was the final expressions of tenderness, which are so moving, that one has with one's very old parents. One evening, she told me that even before meeting my father, when she was teaching in Algeria, she had a passion, a gigantic passion, a devouring passion, for a philosophy teacher. This story is absolutely authentic. I listened to it, obviously, in the position you can imagine, and I said to myself: well, that's it, I have done nothing else except accomplish the desire of my mother, that the Algerian philosopher had neglected. He had gone off with someone else and I had done what I could to be the consolation for my mother's terrible pain — which had subsisted underneath it all even until she was eighty-one.

The consequence I draw for philosophy is that, contrary to the usual assertion according to which "the end of metaphysics" you know, is being accomplished, and all that, philosophy precisely can not have an end, because it is haunted, from within itself, by the necessity to take one more step within a problem that already exists. And I believe that this is its nature. The nature of philosophy is that something is eternally being bequeathed to it. It has the responsibility of this bequeathal. Your are always treating the bequeathal itself, always taking one more step in the determination of what was thus bequeathed to you. As myself, in the most unconscious manner, I never did anything as a philosopher except respond to an appeal that I had not even heard.

The third story is about the famous notion of engagement.

I arrive in Paris in 1955, during the beginning of the war in Algeria. The horrors of this war that are today coming into the open - mass murders, torture, razzia, systematic rapes - are well known to everyone. Nevertheless, we are a small number in 1955, a very small number to want stop these horrors, to be against the war in Algeria. We demonstrate, from time to time, boulevard Saint-Michel, shouting "Peace in Algeria!", and when we get to the end of the street, the police are waiting for us, striking us with their cloaks, and we were joyfully knocked senseless. What is strange is that we could not say anything but this: we have to do it again. And yet, I can tell you this, the "pelerine" cloak is not particularly gay. I even think I prefer to be clubbed. But we had to do it again, because that's what the pure present is: wanting the end of this war, as few as we were to share this wanting. I drew the conviction that philosophy exists if it takes charge of the quick of the contemporary. It is not simply a question of engagement, or a question of political exteriority, but that something of the contemporary is always raw, and philosophy must testify to this raw or take place within it, however sophisticated its intellectual production be.

The story number four is about love and religion.

Before coming to Paris, I lived in a province, I am a provincial who came to Paris a bit late. And one of the traits that characterized my provincial youth is that a majority of the girls were still raised in religion. These girls were still kept or reserved for an interesting destiny. Which gave an important figure to the masculine parade: the different manners to shine in front of these girls still pious, the principal of these being to refute the existence of God. This was an important exercise of seduction, both because it was transgress! ve, and rhetorically brilliant when one had the nieans of doing it.

Before conquering their virtues, the souls had to be yanked out of the Church. Which of the two is the worst, that's for the priests to decide. But out of this conies the idea, that I had very early, that the most argumentative, the most abstract philosophy also always constitutes a seduction. A seduction whose basis is sexual, no doubt about it. Of course, philosophy argues against the seduction of images and I remain Platonist on this point. But it also argues in order to seduce. We can thus understand the Socratic function of corruption of the youth. Corrupting youth means being seductively hostile to the normal regime of seduction. I maintain and I repeat that is the destiny of philosophy to corrupt the youth, to teach it that immediate seductions have little value, but also that superior seductions exist. In the end, the young man who knows how to refute the existence of God is more seductive than the one who could only propose to the girl. a game of tennis. It's a good reason to become a philosopher.

This is what has become the place of the question of love, as a key question of philosophy itself, exactly in the sense it already had for Plato in Symposium. The question of love is necessarily at the heart of philosophy, because it governs the question of its power, the question of its address to its public, the question of its seductive strength. On this point, I believe I have followed Socrates's very difficult direction: "the one who follows the path of total revelation must begin at an early age to be taken by the beauty of bodies".

The fifth story is a marxist one.

Naturally, my family tradition was to the left. My father had bequeathed to me two images: the image of the anti-nazi resistant during the war, and then the image of the socialist militant in power, because he was mayor of a big French town, Toulouse, for thirteen years. My story is the story of a rupture with this sort of official left.

There are two periods in the history of my rupture with the official left. The last, well known, is May 68 and its continuation. The other, less known, more secret and so even more active. In 1960 there was a general strike in Belgium. I will not give the details. I was sent to cover this strike as a journalist - I was often a journalist, I have written, it seems to me, hundreds of articles, maybe thousands. I met mine workers on strike. They have reorganized the entire social life of the country, by constructing a sort of new popular legitimacy. They have even edited a new money. I assisted at their assemblies, I spoke with them. And I was from then on convinced, up till this day I am speaking to you, that philosophy is on that side. "On that side" is not a social determination. It means: on the side of what is spoken orpronounced there, on the side of this obscure part of common humanity. On the side of equality.

The abstract maxim of philosophy is necessarily absolute equality. After my experience of mine workers strike in Belgium, I have give a philosophical order to myself : "transform the notion of truth in such a way that it obeys the equalitarian maxim, this is why I gave the truth three attributes:

1) It depends on an irruption, and not on a structure. Any truth is new, this will be the doctrine of the event.

2) All truth is universal, in a radical sense, the anonymous equalitarian for-all, the pure for-all, constitutes it in its being, this will be its genericity.

3) A truth constitutes its subject, and not the inverse, this will be its militant dimension.

All that, in a still total obscurity, is at work when I meet in 1960 the Belgium mine Workers.

The story number six is a very moral story.

After 68, during what we can call the red years, when we invented new things, when we created bonds with peoples that we did not know, when we were in the conviction that an entirely other world than that of our academic destiny awaited us, we entered into a political enterprise with a good many people, - and some of them, me included, continue this new political enterprise.

But what really struck me, the experience I wish to speak of here, is the experience of those who, starting with the middle of the 1970s, renounced this enterprise. Not only did they renounce this enterprise, but they entered into a systematic renegation that, starting with the new philosophers, from the end of the 1970s, little by little establish themselves, spread and dominate. And this is planted in philosophy like an arrow. It is a question in itself: How is it possible that one can cease being the subject of a truth? How is it possible that one return to the routine of the world This question nourishes my conviction that what is constitutive of philosophy is to stay not only within the vividness of the event, but within its becoming, that is, within the treatment of its consequences. Never to return to structural passivity : That is properly constitutive of philosophy as thought. It is what I simply called fidelity. And fidelity forms a knot, it is a concept that brings together the subject, the event and truth. It is what traverses the subject with regard to an event capable of constituting a truth.

Here again I think of Plato. At the end of Book IX of the Republic, Socrates responds to the objection that the ideal city which he had traced the plan of would probably never exist. This is a massive objection that the young people make: "All that is magnificent, but we don't see it coming!". Socrates responds more or less like this: that this city exists or may one day exist is of no importance, because it is only its laws that must dictate our conduct. That is the principle of consequence. And it is not a question that is inferred from a problem of existence or inexistence. It's our philosophical duty : to continue.

It's my story seven which is an erotic story. This is what is expended by all biographers. Will you be disappointed? I will stay within the discreet erotic genre. A "soft" story.

Just like everyone, in the 50s and 60s, we were tormented by sexuality. This torment is certainly stil very perceptible in my first novels, Almagestes, in 1964 and then Portulans in 1967. But literature is a filter here. In the end, this trouble is foreign to philosophy strictly speaking., in conformity to its great classical tradition. I would say that I learned little by little why. It is certain that sexual situations are fascinating, and it is also certain that the formalism of these situations, the erotic formalism is extraordinarily poor. And all its force depends on a repetitive injunction, with variations of little amplitude. I would say then that little by little in life a relation of charmed connivance is established with this formalism. Finally neither transgressive fascination, nor the repression of the superego are really at their place in this affair. All that is delicious, and, after all, without great consequence for thought. I have come to conclude philosophically, that as acute as this pacifying charmed connivance might be, at least for me, desire is not a central category for philosophy, and cannot be. Or rather desires only touches philosophy - just as well as jouissance - as bodies are seized in love. That is why, from this long crossing through sexual torment the final result is, as I had already said for other reasons, that love, and not desire, must instantly return into the constitution of the concept.

The story number eight is a formal story, or a story concerning forms.

I said, on the subject of the erotic injunction, "formalism", and I said it as a philosopher. Because I deeply believe that what permits a singular truth - amorous as well as political — to touch philosophy is, in the end, its form. In this sense, I would sustain that the only philosophy is formalist. Perhaps in the sense of Plato when he says: "the only veritable thought is in forms" — what is often translated by "Idea" is better rendered by "form". And I believe that the creation of concepts lies in this: philosophy conceives the singularity of theorms of truth. And there again, we have a Platonic program. Why Platonic? Dialectics is the science of forms. And form is, in philosophy, singularity. It is, as Socrates says in Phaedo, "the unique form of what remains identical to itself."

From this we have an intimate tie between philosophy and mathematics (a tie strongly thematized by Plato himself.) If the philosophic concepts are in the end the form of the concepts of truth, then they must support the proof of formalization. Whatever this proof be. All the great philosophers have submitted the concept to an overwhelming, speculative form of formalization. I think this is why mathematics must have remained a passion for me? I scrutinize this precisely - in mathematics: What is thought capable of when it is devoted to, pure form? As the literality of form? And the conclusion I have progressively drawn is that what it is capable of, when it is ordained as pure form, is thinking being as such, being as being. Which gives my provoking formula according to which effective ontology is nothing else than constituted mathematics. Which, obviously, in the eyes of the psychoanalyst, means that my desire is only there to sublimate the image of my mathematician father.

The final story, the story number nine, is about my masters.

Philosophy is a question of mastery, and this in a triple sense. First because it belongs in effect to what Lacan called the discourse of the master. Then because it supposes, in its very subjectivity, the encounter with a master. Finally and lastly, because if we look closely at it, philosophy always ends up by constituting a discourse that is ordained to a principal signifier, a master signifier, such as is, in my thought, the signifier "truth. In the three cases, philosophy is a question of mastery; So, biographically, who were my masters?

During the decisive years of my education, I had three masters: Sartre, Lacan and Althusser. They were not masters of the same thing.

What Sartre taught me was simply, existentialism. But what does existentialism mean? It means that you must have a tie between the concept on the one hand and on the other the existential agency of choice, the agency of the vital decision. The conviction that the philosophic concept is not worth an hour of toil if, be it by mediations of a great complexity, it does not reverberate, clarify and ordain the agency of choice, of the vital decision. And in this sense, the concept must be, also and always, an affair of existence. That is what Sartre taught me.

Lacan taught me the connection, the necessary link between a theory of subjects and a theory of forms. He taught me how and why the very thinking of subjects, which had so often been opposed to the theory of forms, was in reality intelligible only within the framework of this theory. He taught me that the subject is a question that is not at all of a psychological character, but is an axiomatic and formal question. More than any other question!

Althusser taught me two things: that there was no object proper to philosophy — this is one of his great theses —, but that there were orientations of thought, lines of separation. And, as Kant had already said, a sort of perpetual fight, a fight that was constantly begun again, in new conditions. He taught me consequently the sense of delimitations, of what he called the demarcation. In particular the conviction that philosophy is not the vague discourse of totality, or the general interpretation of what there is. That philosophy must be delimited, that it must be separated from what is not philosophy. Politics and philosophy are two distinct things, art and philosophy are two distinct things, science and philosophy are two distinct things. Finally, I was able then to keep all my masters. I kept Sartre despite the disregard he was object of for a long time. I kept Lacan despite what must really be called the terrible character of his disciples. And I kept Althusser despite the substantial political divergences that opposed me to him starting with May 68. Crossing through the possibility of oblivion, the dissemination of disciples and the political conflict, I succeeded in conserving my fidelity to three disparate masters.

And I maintain today that in philosophy masters are necessary; I maintain a constitutive hostility to the tendency towards democratic professionalization of philosophy and to the imperative that is rampant today and humiliates youth: "Be little, and work as a team." I would also say that the masters, must be combined and surmounted, but finally, it is always disastrous to deny them.

It's the end, now. And when I am at my wits' end, my trick is to pass the stick on to the poet. I have chosen the poet of my adolescence. Saint John Perse. With him, I can speak of another dimension of life, the companions, the companions of existence.

The companions of the poet are different from the companions of the philosopher. The companions of the philosopher are the different societies within which the question of a truth is at least posed. The companions of the poet are often the companions of his solitude, which is why Saint John Perse enumerates them as companions in exile, at the moment when he himself must go into exile. And aftet the enumeration of his companions, he returns to his solitude, and he says that:

Stranger, on all the beaches of this world, with neither audience nor witness, press to the ear of the West a seashell without memory:
Precarious host on the outskirts of our cities, you will not cross the sill of Lloyds, where your word is not honored and your gold has no title...
'I shall inhabit my name' was his response to the questionnaires of the port;
And on the tables of exchange, you have nothing but trouble to produce,
Just as these great moneys in iron exhumed by lightning.

"I shall inhabit my name": this is precisely what philosophy tries to render possible for each and every one. Or rather, philosophy searches for the formal conditions, the possibility for each and every one to inhabit his name, to be simply there, and recognized by all as the one who inhabits his name, who, by right of this, as inhabiting his name, is the equal of anyone else.

That is why we mobilize so many resources. That is also what our monotonous biography can be used for: to constantly begin again the search for the conditions by which the proper name of each one can be inhabited.


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