Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
By Alain Badiou
224 pages, $27
What, another French intellectual? Another Parisian mandarin bedecked
in all the floating signifiers of postmodern significance: the ostentatious
knowingness, the oracular pronouncements, the prose that spawns
an industry of commentary? After Derrida and Foucault, Baudrillard
and Kristeva, Lacan and Irigaray, what difference--or is it differance?--does
another pensant make?
At a glance, Alain Badiou will seem like all the other Gallic imports.
A professor of
philosophy in the École Normale Supérieure, he occupies
a prestigious perch in the humanist echelons of the French technocracy.
He uses ugly words like "subjectivation," "eventality," and "simulacrous"
(a fault for which his translator, Peter Hallward, might be partly
But a perusal of Ethics
reveals that he isn't quite like his predecessors. Still beholden
to the spirit of the May Days, Badiou strikes out in a direction
very different from those followed by other soixante-huitards
like Andre Glucksmann on the right or Andre Gorz on the left. More
like the late Cornelius Castoriadis, or the super-contemporary Slavoj
Zizek, Badiou seeks a new moral and political language for the democratic
left, one that draws with unabashed facility on classical and religious
Badiou writes out of an urgent need to rekindle a revolutionary
vision and militance in the face of neoliberalism. Like others on
the left (especially in France), Badiou identifies neoliberalism
with the swaggering hegemony of the United States, a "democratic
totalitarianism" that imposes liberal democracy and unbridled capitalism
in the name of universal human rights. The NATO war on Serbia, the
sanctions against Iraq, the isolation of Cuba, the creation of NAFTA,
GATT and Maastricht--all comprise a bloody and opulent regime of
"American imperialism and European servility." This neoliberal imperium
rests, not only on the West's economic and military power, but on
a technocratic political culture whose contentious surface hides
a firm consensus about the supremacy of capital. This "belligerent
impotence" characterizes even left-wing parties, tamed and denatured
by "disappointment and broken promises."
So far, so good--but also fairly uncontroversial, at least on the
left. Badiou's provocation begins with his examination and rejection
of what he calls "ethics," what we might call the neoliberal moral
order. This moral order insists on certain universal and inviolable
"rights of man"--the inheritance of the Enlightenment--and on "respect
for the Other," a related but only recently emphasized element also
known as "difference," "multiculturalism" and so on. Badiou's critique
of the "rights of man" as bourgeois ideology is as incisive (and
as old) as Marx's. His repudiation of the discourse of "otherness"
and "difference" (or what he sometimes calls "culturalism") is more
certain to perplex and anger many on the left.
He certainly doesn't help his case by adopting the posture of boldness:
"I [have] taken the risk of saying frankly something that is uncomfortable
to say." Now while "I know it's not p.c. to say this, but ..." can
arguably preface a volley against cant, more often it just steals
the thrill of heterodoxy for some conventional mite of spleen or
bigotry. Still, it's worth remembering that suspicion of "multiculturalism"
isn't confined to the right. Terry Eagleton, Todd Gitlin and Russell
Jacoby, to cite a few, have noted the obscurantism and intellectual
shoddiness of a great deal of talk about "diversity" and "difference."
Badiou joins this left chorus of disgruntlement but offers a philosophical
alternative that acknowledges and resituates the merits of "otherness."
While purporting to "respect difference," the acolytes of otherness
horrified," Badiou observes, "by any vigorously sustained difference."
Arguing that genuine difference entails conflict, Badiou contends
that "difference" is really a recipe for homogeneity and consensus.
By this token, left-wing militants, along with Christian and Islamic
fundamentalists and African practitioners of clitorectomy, are stigmatized
as "bad others" and disinvited from those "celebrations of diversity"
sponsored in campus halls and advertising agencies. "Good others,"
on the other hand, exhibit differences that are remarkably consonant
with "the identity of a wealthy West." Indeed, with its mantra of
"inclusion" and its vagueness about "the exact political meaning of
the identity being promoted," identity politics supplies exotic grist
for the corporate mills of Western democracies. Thus, in Badiou's
view, "difference," cast in the image and likeness of consumerism,
joins "rights" as rhetorical camouflage for Western economic and military
Neoliberal ethics also presumes an understanding of evil as pain,
suffering and intolerance, epitomized as "radical Evil" in the Nazi
extermination of the European Jews. This conception creates three
problems for "ethics" in Badiou's view. As evil becomes, in effect,
the regulative principle of liberal moral thought, then any collective
attempt to achieve justice and freedom--"the Good"--can be stigmatized
by association with fascism and Communism. Also, if happiness (defined
as prosperity and pleasure) becomes the summum bonum, then
any and all attempts to supply it are legitimate--including imperialism.
At the same time, the assertion that the Holocaust is "unthinkable
and unsayable" removes genocide both from historical explanation
and from historical intervention. The fact that the Nazi genocide
is also "constantly invoked and compared" (Badiou notes the facile
comparisons of Nasser, Saddam and Milosevic to Hitler) renders "radical
Evil" even more suspect. "Radical Evil" does more to underwrite
Western interests than to foster a genuine consciousness of iniquity.
As caustic and over-the-top as Badiou's assertions can be, they
counter the ensemble of platitudes about "diversity" and "otherness"
that now passes for iconoclasm, not only on the left, but in much
of American life. Corporate admakers, university administrators
and cultural studies profs now "celebrate diversity." Among students,
the incantation of "respect for other cultures" can now make for
uneasy silence when an unambiguous condemnation of clitorectomy
would be in order. And as Arno Mayer and Peter Novick might agree,
the radicalization of evil has imputed an almost sacral aura to
the Nazi genocide that resists attempts at historical understanding.
You don't have to affirm Badiou's polemical overkill to believe
that the lexicon of "difference," "diversity" and "evil" is long
overdue for critical reformulation.
To this end, Badiou poses an "ethic of truths" against neoliberal
"ethics." This ethic of truths is not hostile to differences--the
covert reality of liberal "otherness"--but rather is "indifferent
to differences." Where the rhetoric of "the Other" disarms revolutionary
politics by focusing on "trifling descriptions" of what is, Badiou's
ethical discourse of "the Same" both announces "a truth [that] is
the same for all" and points toward "what comes to be." Only this
recognition of "the Same" can remedy the contemporary world's "incapacity
... to name and strive for a Good."
Although "the Good" has marked a distinctly authoritarian lineage
in political philosophy from Plato to Leo Strauss, Badiou insists
that only this vaguely spiritual conception accounts for the will
to emancipation, the allure of reaction and the reality of evil.
On all three points Badiou, like Zizek, secularizes ideas derived
from theology. Acknowledging his reliance on the letters of St.
Paul (the subject of an untranslated book), Badiou contends that
the imagination for a new left politics must allow for secular notions
of "immortality," "fidelity," "grace" and "evil," all of which flow
from a quasi-religious understanding of "truth" and "event."
Human beings, Badiou maintains, are "immortal," capable of entering
"into the composition and becoming of some eternal truths." "Truth"--an
unfolding of human possibility--emerges from "events," unsettling
and exhilarating historical episodes that can be neither predicted
nor controlled. Those open to the "possibility of the impossible"
can extend those events into liberating political movements by their
"fidelity" to the revelation. Exemplified in the early Christians,
the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Red Guards, revolutionary fidelity
calls on its adherents to "seize in your being that which has seized
and broken you."
To a generation spoonfed on irony, this depiction of revolutionary
ontology and commitment might seem romantic at best and frightening
at worst. Myself, I don't see how any politics of liberation--from
the catacombs of Rome to the streets of Seattle--can get very far
without a utopian impulse and zeal.
Moreover, Badiou realizes that truth defined in this existential
manner can be betrayed,
forced or simulated. On this last score, his all-too-brief discussion
of Nazism is insightful. Defining evil as a "simulacrum of the truth,"
Badiou asserts that it appears as "the (possible) effect of the Good
itself," indeed is possible "only through an encounter with the Good."
We can understand Nazism if we appreciate that "only in so far as
it could be represented as [the Good] did it 'seize' the German situation."
This formulation goes farther than the banal observation that the
Nazis manipulated the German people. Fascism appealed to a venerable
longing for community, Badiou implies. If so, then evil, far from
being the mere opposite of good, arises out of the deepest and noblest
desires of the human heart.
But why should truth take any false and murderous form? How does
evil happen? Though he doesn't acknowledge it (though I doubt he
doesn't know it), Badiou's account of evil resembles that of Saint
Augustine. Badiou's definition of evil as a "simulacrum" of truth
recalls Augustine's understanding of evil as a "perversion" of good--a
notion that, in robbing evil of any primacy, allows and even mandates
a politics rooted in truth rather than interest. In fact, shorn
of the sexual connotations that obscure its import and power, "perversion"
suggests that the truth is, in the end, in our interest, and that
it will ultimately set us free. But Augustine, unlike Badiou, maintained
that there was something perverse about our own will to truth--not
something fragile about the truth itself--that could mislead us
"Whence will renewal come to us?" Simone Weil asked in Gravity
and Grace. "From the past alone, if we love it." This is the
language of tradition, remembrance and devotion--a language spoken
with facility and often with fraudulence on the right. Now more
than ever, perhaps, the left needs to complement its proficiency
in the language of power and ideology with a fluency in the parlance
of truth and fidelity. Spoken and written with this graceful zealotry,
it would no longer be an empty and conservative irony to observe
that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Eugene McCarraher teaches humanities at Villanova University
and is the author of Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse
in Modern American Social Thought. He is currently working on
The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American
Moral Imagination. He can be reached at [email protected]