Alain Badiou, The Century

Review by Don Callen

Alain Badiou, The Century. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007)

[1] In The Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel invented the notion that philosophy should be conceived in the first instance as consciousness coming to knowledge of itself through its engagement with the events of history. We should look to a history of the idea in action to understand, at a given time, both the current highest development of the truth of consciousness's effort to embody human freedom within the social world and the current problematic of unfreedom and the possibility for an overcoming. In the twentieth century, philosophy regularly recovered Hegel's notion as essential to its vitality; [1] once again, in the twenty-first century, some of the most important philosophical debates about our present social and political situation have come through a narration—after Nietzsche often "genealogical"—of the life of basic ideas, God, humanity, work, freedom, etc., as they both shaped and led to the impasses of the twentieth century. [2] Alain Badiou's The Century is such a narrative, and it serves as perhaps the best available introduction to his philosophy and the most compelling argument for its importance. Hegel's dialectic must, of course, itself be surpassed, and here we have an extraordinary and innovative synthesis of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Mao, Lacan, Sartre and Deleuze as Badiou seeks to offer a new and radically liberating conception of the significance of the landmark events of the twentieth century for our present situation. Above all, the book seeks to free thought and thereby action from the prevalent and enervating humanism which is unable to see beyond liberal "democracy," corporate capitalism, abstract human rights, "Islamic terrorism," and a pathetic humanitarianism.

[2] The twentieth century was the century of the inception, deployment and collapse of the 'communist' enterprise, the century of horrific mass crimes, Stalinism, Nazism, the holocaust, and the century of the triumph of global capitalism, liberal economy and politics, a triumph of mediocrity and miniscule ideas, beginning after the 1970s. For philosophy, according to Badiou, the key question is: What was thought in this century that was previously unthought—or even unthinkable? For from the beginning, the century was preoccupied with thinking itself. An underlying theme unites the extraordinary inventiveness of the early years of the century, inventiveness in the arts, music (Schoenberg), painting (Picasso), film (Griffiths, Chaplin), poetry, the novel (James, Joyce), science (Einstein), mathematics, logic and philosophy of language, etc., and the ensuing disastrous political projects of the twentieth century, Leninism and Nazism. All concerned making a new man, humanity, but also prepared to consider individual persons as simply material to be twisted, manipulated, and if need be sacrificed to the revolutionary project. We are not done with such crime, however, even if we have officially given up on the project of remaking man. For the remaking goes on in the form of the mindless elaborations of technics, of sciences that are, to be sure, remaking man, but in the absence of a project of thought, leaving themselves open thereby to exploitation for the sake of profit (2007, Chapter 1).

[3] Early in the century, in "The Age," the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam meditates on the violent and unprecedented happenings taking place in his country. He likens the age to a beast. The beast looks back on itself. The century does. It seeks to grasp its own history. Its history is the quality of its life. The century seeks to understand the ontological and narrative quality of its life, and it does not conceive of this in terms of a philosophy of acquiring individual wisdom. The individual is not what counts for this self-reflecting beast. The individual may be sacrificed. And this will be the century's self-conception until the 1980s. The measure of the century is to be made in terms of categories of revolutionary class, proletariat, or party instead. For other self-conceptions of the century, the relevant term for qualifying its life will be race, though Mandelstam does not project this kind of transcendence for man (15). The life of this history is to be mastered (a lesson from Nietzsche), not merely surrendered to. There is no given progress to history; its self-transcendence, the birth of the 'new man,' must be heroically forced. The beast must be forced to serve us. Of course there was still the language of a continuous historical progress that life was subject to. But in practice the dynamic was Nietzschean, a recognition that transcendence would only be won through an act of will, and an act that would not be continuous but an absolute rupture. And this forced discontinuity means that transcendence can only be won through terror. The century's horrors are thus the work of its thought. Death will thus become the instrument of life: horrible, unmediated, unbeautiful death. Though he is never very explicit about this, it is clear that for Badiou this idea of the necessity of terror is one that we must hold on to. The impotence of contemporary humanism can be traced to a moralizing reading of the twentieth century that shrinks from the idea of terror even as we mindlessly embrace it in new forms of imperialism: "I am convinced that what fascinated the militants of the twentieth century was the real. In this century there is a veritable exaltation of the real, even in its horror. The century's key players were anything but a bunch of simpletons manipulated by illusions" (19). These agents are not acting in the name of the 'promise of better days'—some undetermined future. Thus, Badiou argues that the revolutionaries of the twentieth century accept the horror as an unrelieved, unredeemable part of their historical action. The horror of the real is co-present with a necessary part of the action, the rupture with the past. It does not signify historical failure or collapse (the moralizing humanistic reading of the century), but something essential.

[4] The century (in its most authentic moment) is represented in/moved by a paradoxical subjectivity, non-dialectical, at once "end, exhaustion, decadence and as absolute commencement. . .nihilism, but equally as Dionysian affirmation" (31). Two maxims are at work:

[O]ne (operative today, for example) calls for renunciation, resignation, the lesser evil, together with moderation, the end of humanity as a spiritual force, and the critique of 'grand narratives.' The other—which dominated the 'short century' between 1917 and the 1980s—inherits from Nietzsche the will to 'break the history of the world in two,' and seeks a radical commencement that would bear within it the foundation of a reconciled humanity (31).

Though there is no dialectical synthesis or resolution here, the new man must hold these conflicting moments at once. The sense of nihilism bespeaks the death of God. It is for man to begin anew: to violently destroy the old, decadent world and in an ongoing revolution build the new, revolutionary man. Revolutionary man is governed by a passion for the real, a key to understanding the century (32). The real is "the source of both horror and enthusiasm, simultaneously lethal and creative" (32). Part of this passion is an indifference to the cost. The most violent means are essential for the creation. Today's 'well-tempered moralism' judges the century as barbarous. This passion for the real placed it beyond good and evil. But from the inside the century is lived as epic and heroic. As with the action of the Iliad, "the force of the action overrides in its intensity any moral squeamishness" (33), for this action is seen as one's destiny. Destiny trumps morality and human destiny at the beginning of the twentieth century could only be fulfilled under the paradigm of total war, a war to exterminate the old, decadent world: man. Such is the only way to uproot nihilism: put an end to bad war and the pointless conflicts of bourgeois powers that gave us WWI; such is the only way to establish a new order of man and peace (36-7).

[5] The significance and force of thought upon the action of the century cannot be appreciated, however, unless we take into account the effects of representation in a play of masking and revealing the situation. If there is to be a new beginning, the masks which hide and operate the mechanisms of corruption and nihilism in the old society must be destroyed. Thus, the century gives great importance to the notion of ideology: "Ideology stages figures of representation that mask the primordial violence of social relations ..." (48). The nineteenth century affirmed the power of knowledge. By contrast, the twentieth century "deploys the theme of the efficacy of misrecognition" (49). It falls to art to work out the proper distance between the semblance and the real. This is why Brecht is so important to the thought of the century. He understood that the violence of the real only operates through the power of semblance. It is present everywhere. Working out the proper relationship between semblance and the real involves purifying the forms of semblance. We see this in Brecht's emphasis upon maintaining the appropriate sense of distance in the audience for the play. But it is no less present in the show trials that Stalin mounted as a kind of ritual for purifying and enforcing party consciousness. The purge is intrinsically necessary. In this respect, whether or not those purged were guilty of deviant forms of consciousness was irrelevant. The force of the real is always subject to suspicion. The work of purification of the forms of semblance was crucial to the reflexivity of the century's thought (52-53). Badiou credits Hegel's analysis of the reign of terror in terms of this logic of suspicion:

We are in the realm of suspicion when a formal criterion is lacking to distinguish the real from semblance. In the absence of such a criterion, the logic that imposes itself is that the more a subjective conviction presents itself as a real, the more it must be suspected. [...] It is at the summit of the revolutionary state, where the ardent desire of freedom is incessantly declared, that the greatest number of traitors is to be found. [...] This is why our century, aroused by the passion for the real, has in all sorts of ways—and not just in politics—been the century of destruction (54).

So the passion for the real that marks the century involves an obsession with identity, unmasking copies, discrediting fakes, and identifying the authentic. The logic of suspicion and destruction is part of this. But along with destruction, the passion for the real involves a moment of subtraction: destroying fakes on the one hand and purifying the forms of semblance on the other by reducing semblance to its pure elements. Badiou speaks of Malevitch's "White on White" as a paradigmatic illustration of this subtractive dimension of the passion for the real: "So this century is in no way the century of 'ideologies,' in the sense of the imaginary and the utopian. Its major subjective trait is the passion for the real, for what is immediately practicable, here and now. . . the importance of semblance is simply a consequence of this passion" (56-7).

[6] So the century is not bred of promise or portent; it is the century of the act, of realization. It is the century of victory, and 'revolution' is one of the names of victory. There is the October Revolution of 1917, the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, the victories of the Algerians and the Vietnamese in wars of national liberation (58). The victory is to be won through antagonism, through war. This means that a Two will become One, not through a dialectical synthesis but through the suppression of one of the two terms. The right formula for the century is not 'Two fuse into One,' but 'One divides into Two.' The issue is a matter of how one identifies revolutionary subjectivity, its constituent desire. Badiou derives his distinction from a debate in China during the mid-60s within philosophy concerning how to conceive of revolution. The first formula was considered right wing, the second, leftist. And the first formula is premature; the One that it covets is not yet thinkable: "Under the cover of synthesis, this desire is calling for the old One" (63). A revolutionary activist in the present must desire division:

The Cultural Revolution pits the partisans of these two versions of the dialectical schema against one another. Conservatives like Deng Xiaoping see economic management of the status quo as the crucial concern. The educated youth represent the left wing Maoist position. This debate became central to the politics of emancipation at the time of the Paris student uprising in 1968 which was inspired by French Maoism (63).

Badiou argues vigorously that it is a mistake to see the Cultural Revolution as a mere power struggle. Yes it was a power struggle but one in which genuine divisions of political thought were operative. Yes there was great violence, hundreds of thousands dead. But:

The theme of total emancipation, practiced in the present, in the enthusiasm of the absolute present, is always situated beyond good and evil. This is because in the circumstances of action, the only known good is the one that the status quo turns into the precious name for its own subsistence. Extreme violence is therefore the corollary of extreme enthusiasm, because it is in effect a question of the transvaluation of all values" (63).

Badiou goes on: "the passion for the real is devoid of morality. Morality's status, as Nietzsche observed, is merely genealogical. Morality is a residue of the old world" (63). Yes there was a great deal of barbarity in all of this. But it is unjust to isolate this dimension of the passion for the real. The twentieth century is not programmatic like the nineteenth. It is not a century of promise; movement alone is the source of greatness: "Man is realized not as a fulfillment or as an outcome, but as absent to himself, torn away from what he is, and that it is this tearing away which is the basis of every adventurous greatness" (92). There is an alliance here between Marx and Nietzsche, the former as the critic of the alienating effects of capital which breaks all bonds in the egotistical calculation of capital. Beyond that, the century sought to destroy this purely negative power and to restore creativity, but without a sense of promise or finality. Movement, wandering, is valid in itself (93). Having surrendered promise and finality, the logic of this form of thought demands that we turn our back on an obsession with happiness. The desire for happiness prohibits greatness.

[7] Badiou admits that the passion for the real is accompanied by a great deal of semblance. The purification in and laying bare of the real is an ongoing challenge. It is the semblance-of-reality that must be identified and destroyed. The real that is exposed is the nothing. Terroristic nihilism is the creative substance within the subjective motivation of the passion for the real (64). Today we make no room for this active nihilism as a reasonable action. We attempt to avoid any contact with the real. Terrorism is the desire to purify the real. As we suppress it, we deactivate nihilism. We are left with a reactive nihilism, "a nihilism hostile to every action as well as every thought" (65). There is the subtractive path to consider, however, as well. This attempts to hold onto the passion for the real without falling into terror. This involves purifying reality by detecting a vanishing difference that opens up a place to begin anew, creation which begins in the cracks, gradually modifying the terms of social life. Badiou speaks of it as an immanent exception. An older set of terms would have named this reformism, but we must have reform and revolution. In the new beginning is the re-commencement of man (65). Unlike Heidegger, the new beginning is not thought as a return to a vanished origin. Re-commencement as return is what purification meant for the Nazis as well, of course. In the case of communism, the new man lies beyond classes and beyond the state. The new man is seen in opposition to all forms and all predicates, in particular family, property, and the nation-state. This negative conception of the new man traverses the century: "A very important point in this respect is the hostility towards the family as the primordial nucleus of Egoism, rooted particularity, tradition and origin" (66). As the century draws to a close we see a return to family as a fundamental, almost unassailable value:

In the real presence of the century, the new man primarily stood—if one was progressive—for the escape from family, property and state despotism. Today, it seems that 'modernization,' as our masters like to call it, amounts to being a good little dad, a good little mom, a good little son, to becoming an efficient employee, and enriching oneself as much as possible, and playing at the responsible citizen. This is the new motto: 'money, family, elections'" (66).

The century ends on the motif of the impossibility of subjective novelty and the comfort of repetition. Another way of putting it is that there is an obsession of security, a readiness to accept the status quo as not that bad. After all, there has been worse. If the century ends in obsession, it began under the sign of a devastating hysteria.

[8] Whatever one may think about psychoanalysis, Freud is one of the heroes of the century. With Freud, there is a readiness to confront the real of sex face-to-face. This is not merely a matter of confronting sex as objective fact, though this provides a defensive mask for a more radical intervention of thought. What is at stake is a subversive de-subjectivation. This means dispatching the forms of subjectivation that hide sexuality. Thereby, it becomes possible to reveal the real polymorphous play of desire upon its object that belongs to the universal substance of human desire. (This polymorphous quality of desire may be seen in children despite our continuing obsession with denying the sexuality of children. These days we are quick to defend the rights of children against sexual abuse, but at the same time our quick moralizing tends to support the illusion of the child without sexuality.) Freud's subversive de-subjectivation of the sexed human being is the effort to separate the truth of the real from cultural meaning. Culture has perennially tried to inscribe sex within a given meaning thereby to manipulate and control desire. This is not a battle that has been decisively won by any means, and the effort to inscribe sex with a fixed meaning is not the exclusive domain of religion, even if that is one of its principal sites. The effort to inscribe sex with meaning comes also in the many forms and uses of the imperative 'enjoy!' This is the imperative of the official hedonism that defines the advertising that commands us to see enjoyment in terms of purchasing and consumption.

[9] Today we are dominated by an artificial individualism. Only the relations to money, economic and social success, and sex are considered to be worthy of interest. The rest is most likely totalitarian. The Modern, so-called, is the generalization of these three relations into ego-ideals. This is wholesale propaganda and "the extraordinarily brutal inversion of everything that the century desired and invented" (98). The century that comes to a close in the 80s "maintained that every authentic subjectivation is collective, and that every vigorous intellectuality implies the construction of a 'we'" (98). What is at stake are two different visions of the limits of human will and power to alter the world in view of un-heard of possibilities, possibilities that spring from the singularity of an event. Opposed to that is the contemporary conviction that the will is subject to the reality principle of the economy and must behave with great caution: "If you think the world can and must change absolutely, that there is neither a nature of things to be respected nor preformed subjects to be maintained, you thereby admit that the individual may be sacrificable. Meaning that the individual is not independently endowed with any intrinsic nature that would deserve our striving to perpetuate it" (99).

[10] From the 30s to the 60s, within philosophy, thinkers developed the view that there is no nature to the human subject, that the ego is something constructed (Sartre) or imaginary (Lacan): "Adopting Sartre's terminology, we will say that the subject has no essence (this is the meaning of the notorious formula 'existence precedes essence'). Adopting Lacan's, we will say that a subject is only identified at the point of lack, as void or lack-of-being" (100). That being so, the real remains open, since it is neither an essence nor a nature. It follows then that the subject comes to be under certain determinate conditions in the place where it is lacking. Not yet being a subject, there must be a decision to become one. Hence a subject is not an individual by nature:

The individual can be sacrificed to a historical cause that exceeds him. [...] It is only by dissolving itself into a project that exceeds him [that a subjective reality can be created]. The "we" constructed in and by this project is the only thing that is truly real—subjectively real for the individual who supports it. The individual, truth be told, is nothing. The subject is the new man, emerging at the point of self-lack. The individual is thus, in its very essence, the nothing that must be dissolved into a we-subject" (100-101).

Collective and universalizable transcendence takes place as truth procedures such as political invention and artistic creation actively construct them. It must be recalled here that for Badiou truth must be understood ontologically as appearance through an event. So a truth procedure is a way of articulating an eruption in being. Fascism tried to replace these truth procedures with what are supposed to be natural collectives: the nation, the race, the West. Badiou distinguishes Stalinism, for which the working class and the party are declared, to be the basis of state power from Lenin and Mao, who he takes to be genuine thinkers seeking to articulate such truth procedures. Stalinism is not to be confused with Nazism. The latter is based in processes of naturalization. The former reifies real political processes. In Leninism and later in Maoism, the state:

has never been anything but the obstacle that the brutal finitude of the operations of power opposes to the infinite mobility of politics. [...] Fascisms seek to oppose the infinite of emancipation with a bloody barrier of a predictable finitude, the denumerable properties of a supposed substance (the Aryan, the Jew, the German ... ). [...] Communism, in its different manifestations during the century, felt the antinomy between the finitude of the state and the infinite dynamic inherent within the unfolding of political truth (103).

Still, the imaginary macroscopic entities with "hyperbolic names" produced by communism are not the "we-subject" which is the stake of political truth procedures. "Their devotees see them as necessary conditions of any subjectivation, as an objective material that the we-subject either reflects or enacts in practice" (103). Badiou calls such entities "the passive body of subjectivation" (Ibid.). The name of such a passive body "allows singularity to assert its worth beyond itself" (104). This process shows the regard the century had for science, or rather nineteenth century scientism. Historical processes were thought to necessarily be objective processes. Even Nazism felt the obligation to present itself as scientific, though this maneuver was entirely contrived (105).

[11] The political projects of the twentieth century were conceived as long-term historical projects. How different things are now, where everything is a matter of today, the instant. This sense of long-term political projects "implies the staging of a voluntary construction of time" (105).

Today .[...] [o]n the one hand, propaganda declares that everything changes by the minute, that we have no time, that we must modernize at top speed, that we're going to "miss the boat" (the boat of the Internet and the new economy, the boats of mobile phones for everyone, the boat of countless stockholders, the boat of stock-options, the boat of pension funds...). On the other hand, all this hubbub cannot conceal a kind of passive immobility or indifference, the perpetuation of the status quo. [...] We live in a time of stagnant feverishness. We need to recover the twentieth century's sense of time, "if we wish to attain the real of time we must construct it [...] this construction depends entirely on the care with which we strive to become the agents of truth procedures (106).

Badiou's attitude toward violence and cruelty seems ambigous. On the one hand, as essential to the passion for the real, it is essential to the inventive work of creating an authentic collective subject. It is essential even as one cannot be in a position to calculate its acceptability in relation to some ideal end. He leaves no room for a moralistic criticism of violence and cruelty. Still, he appears to leave himself open to the legitimacy of the wish to be done with such violence: "Cruelty is the moment when the integral dissolution of the 'I' must be decided. [...] Cruelty is necessary so that the 'we' and the idea become one, so that nothing comes to restrict the self affirmation of the 'we'" (115). Cruelty is accepted as a figure of the real. A truth is a suffering body and the impassive body of an idea. It is the pairing of a mortal and suffering subject with an impassive and immortal subject. The latter imposes an ordeal upon the former so that the idea can be made incarnate. The discipline is an inversion of the Platonic dialectic whereby one discards the sensible and finite world for eternal and only intelligible ideas. Once again we see the century's debt to Nietzsche: "It remains to be seen whether from the legitimate wish that the hangmen die we must infer the following imperative: 'Live without ideas'" (117). To illustrate and further articulate the ambiguity of cruelty, Badiou gives a reading of the Brecht's so-called didactic poem, "The Decision." The poem considers the status of a comrade who decides to act against the party in the name of the people who are suffering terribly. The party, which is the active agent in the construction of a collective subject, cannot accept this opposition, this determination to act separately. The comrade must be eliminated. The poet's point, it is argued, is that the "I" must abide within the "we" in an inseparate form. The real cannot be constructed in a separation between the "I" and the "we." Even if, in a sense, the comrade is right, he should say: "I am right, but my rightness only becomes real by yielding, be it provisionally, to the 'we' which alone grants its political existence" (122). To insist upon separation amounts "to replacing politics with morality, thus precisely eliminating the real of the situation. The essence of the 'we' is not agreement or fusion; it is the maintenance of the inseparate" (122). This logic of cruelty must be carefully distinguished from a more ecstatic logic, one in which the "I" allows itself to be dissolved in a "we" of orgiastic cruelty: "The sexual element is often present in this figure, alongside drugs, alcohol and idiocy. Or the poem, music and dance" (123). So we are dealing with two distinct logics of cruelty, two distinct maxims: one of ecstatic fusion and the other of inseparate articulation, the first to be rejected, the second embraced.

[12] Standing opposite to both of these, however, is cowardice, one of the central concerns of the century. Ordinary cowardice is a conservatism obsessed with security. This is the kind of life that is glorified today. Nothing is worth tearing ourselves away from our cowardice, certainly not an idea or a collective subject, fantasies of totalitarianism. "As Voltaire, that consummate thinker of humanitarian mediocrity and venomous enemy of Rousseau (the man of courage), once wrote: 'Let us cultivate our garden'" (125). To cease being a coward one must consent to be calming. This is not a matter of will, but abandonment to the event of truth, to a nomadic departure. Our author invokes his own experience of transgression and submission beginning in May 1968:

I felt that the uprooting of my prior existence (that of a minor provincial civil servant, a married father, with no other vision of Salvation besides the one provided by the writing of books), the departure towards a life submitted, ardently submitted, to the obligations of militancy in hitherto unknown places... the clashes with the police, the early-morning arrests, the trials—that all of this originated, not from a lucid decision, but from a special form of passivity, from a total abandonment to what was taking place (125-6).

Passivity is not resignation; it is feminine: "The feminine is that which, when it ceases to be the domestic organization of security and fear, goes furthest in the termination of all cowardice" (ibid). This kind of active passivity, however, can end in mere acceptance or tolerance. Tolerance is the opposite of abandonment. It is the basic ingredient in bourgeois humanism. This is just another form of cowardice. It is a "corrupt fraternity which is made up of nothing but pious humanism and whose formula is that of tolerance for everything, the acceptance of differences and 'human feelings'" (127).

[13] It is the party that sustains the substance not of fusion but of the inseparate. The party is discipline; it is what makes possible the construction of time as the substance of an idea. This discipline of the inseparate was Lenin's idea; it distinguishes the October Revolution from the insurrections, always crushed, of the nineteenth century (128-129). The party is a sharing without knowing in advance what it is that is shared. The party conceived of itself as something indestructible, as distinct from a single individual. Between 1917 and 1980 the century tried to create something indestructible, not an abstract idea, but an indestructible real.

[14] Art in relation to politics is a truth procedure, as that which brings the real to appearance as a potentiality for emancipatory transcendence. The connection between art and politics couldn't be closer. This is the primary significance of artistic avant gardes in the century. "The word 'politics' names the desire of beginning, the desire that some fragment of the real will finally be exhibited without either fear or law through the sole effect of human invention—artistic or even erotic invention for example or the invention of the sciences" (151). However, this sometimes for art as for others implies obedience to the political directives which come from the party as the primary force of creation of fraternity. The desire for revolt and invention must be subject to the imperative to dissolve the "I" into a "we". The real takes its revenge on excessively unified movements, however. The truth procedures of art and the revolutionary politics are distinct confrontations between thought and the indistinctness of the real (a caution against a regime of artistic subservience to political articulations of the event of truth) (152).

[15] Invoking Nietzsche once again, our author identifies the art of the century as inhuman, as over-human. It is a somber art which condemns all particularity, individual pleasure and satisfaction as well as all comfortable and familiar forms (160-161). The art of the century seeks universality, a univocity of form rather than an open multiplicity of interpretation, which privileges particularity. This search for a univocity of form is non-completable, as Goedel showed. The lesson to be drawn from that, however, is not that the real is open to an infinity of incommensurable interpretations. Rather, the lesson is that we face an endless challenge to seek out ever new and better formalizations to encompass more of the infinitely extensive real. There are more familiar names for this struggle, names for wars to win: idea against reality, freedom against nature, rebellion against tolerance, eternity against history, science against technics, and art against culture (164).

[16] So where does the century leave us now? First of all we need to repudiate the pathetic "grand narrative" advanced by so many intellectuals that the century was about totalitarian domination and genocide, and that the lesson to be drawn that the new century must be about the Defense of democracy and human rights against the religious barbarism of Islamic fundamentalism (165-166). There is no hope for a Democratic resurrection of this humanism which is a mask for the promotion of essentially racial and colonial policies and signifiers. This mask hides another drama, "the painful, dispersed, confused and slow replacement of the defunct communisms with another rational path towards the political emancipation of the large human masses currently consigned to chaos" (168). Nietzsche's famous formula, God is dead! "means that man is dead too. Man, the last man, the dead man, is what must be overcome for the sake of the over man" (ibid). If God is dead, man is undecidable. Nietzsche makes man into a program. The current "grand narrative" is an effort to return the religion of man with an implied resignation to the status quo. The century gave us two answers to the question of how to decide about man in this void of undecidability. Sartre's answer is that we must make man arrive in place of the absolute; the project is what counts, not some ideal end point. The project of deciding about man is a radical humanism which makes revolutionary politics the absolute. "Man as program is this: the existential comprehension of the surmounting of the alienation of man, in view of an emancipation whose stages always constitute new forms of alienation" (170). The century's other answer to Nietzsche was given by Foucault. It is a radical anti-humanism, the notion that we are living "the void left by man's disappearance" (171). We can only laugh at those who go on talking about man. So within the century, during the 50s and 60s, there is a confrontation of a radical humanism with a radical anti-humanism. There is in this confrontation, however, a unity on the theme of godless man "as opening, possibility, program of thought" (171). These two orientations intersect in a number of situations or revolutionary episodes—for example, May 1968. So now we must choose between the Marxist-Nietzschean formula "humanism and terror" and the sterile restoration formula "humanism or terror." The latter is "a disjunction which is deprived not only of any radicality but also of any universalizable hope" (172-173). In his later work, Sartre sought to revive an anthropological history, a renewed Marxist dialectic of historical purpose, sense. By contrast, Foucault saw history only as discontinuous singularities without sense. Yet, by the same token, such a history would also be a history of a succession of beginnings: "The program of the godless man has therefore had two stances at its disposal. Either man is the historical creator of his own absolute essence or he is the man of inhuman beginning, who installs his thought in what happens and abides in the discontinuity of this arrival" (174). Today both propositions have been abandoned. We are left with man as merely an animal species, worried only for its own survival: "Ecology and bioethics will provide for our 'correct' development as pigs or ants" (175). We are left with a projectless humanism whose only concern is with the suffering body. Contemporary so-called democracies seek to impose upon the planet an animal humanism, man as worthy of pity. Nietzsche and Sartre would have agreed that such a man deserves to disappear.

[17] There is much to admire and to want to accept in Badiou's defense of a humanism that would transcend an empty faith in human rights and hypocritical denunciations of terrorism as the original sin of others. As Badiou in an earlier text around the events of 9/11 reminds us, "terrorism" does not analyze automatically into something demonic or unconditionally evil done by others. [3] Saint-Just entered into a war of terror as an essential if morally outrageous practical corollary of revolution. It is simply bad faith to suppose that one can defend freedom innocently. To grasp this is to open a window to seeing that others may defend their freedom against us in a way that knowingly involves the killing of innocents and to begin to be aware of our role in their oppression. There is, however, in Badiou's argument an indifference to the lives of human individual persons and to human happiness that is troubling. It should be admitted that individuals are nothing apart from belonging to a collective and that building the right "we" may involve the sacrifice of individuals. However, it does not follow that, ontologically, individuals are nothing or that their happiness is a matter of indifference. What is the point of freedom or of acts of liberation unless it is to enhance the possibilities for the happiness of individual human beings? Collectives are not sentient. They can't suffer or be happy. As De Beauvoir makes clear, there is no such thing as humanity tout court. There are individual human beings. Some of the greatest moral outrages have been committed in the name of an idea of humanity in utter disregard for individual human beings. There is too much in Badiou's argument that rings of this. Hence his distinction between a radical humanism and the weak humanism proclaimed by present-day intellectuals is drawn ultimately in such a black and white way as to be rejected if not rigorously qualified.


[1] For example, Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (Penguin 2006), Richard Kearney, The Waken of Imagination (Routledge 1998) and Richard Rorty, Contingency Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge 1989)

[2] E.g., Alain Finkielkraut, In the Name of Humanity (Columbia 2000), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard 2001), Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy (Princeton 2002).

[3] Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy (Continuum International 2005).