Groundviews

Badiou’s Event and the defeat of the Tigers: A Brief Response to Dayan Jayatilleka

Photo by EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA courtesy LA Times

What follows is a brief rejoinder to my friend, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, whose use of the philosophy of Alain Badiou, in his recently published article “Plato’s Cave in the Indian Ocean: Elite Failure in Sri Lanka”, I find somewhat problematic, at best, or downright misleading, at worst. I shall not, however, engage with the properly political analysis of this insightful piece, for the rationale of writing this down are neither in opposition nor in agreement with those views. Unlike Jayatilleka, whose interest in Badiou seems to me to be primarily political, I am a more philosophical follower of the latter. This does not mean, of course, that I see no value in Badiou’s emphatic political analyses. Neither does it mean that I see no rapport what so ever between politics and philosophy. After all, it was Badiou himself who taught me that philosophy can do an ‘indirect service’ to politics by logically proving the existence of eternal truths within the finite frame of contemporary States.

Nevertheless, what interests me in Badiou above all is his metaphysical notion of truth and the philosophical decisions it entails. It is my strong conviction that one of the essential tasks today is to reinvigorate the idea of human emancipation. One of the most serious consequences of the defeat of the twentieth century communist project is that the idea of human emancipation has been succumbed, without reserve, to the hegemony of its religious interpretation. It is in this context that I believe that we need to re-engage, both as individuals and as a society, with what may ostensibly appear to be purely philosophical notions such as absolute reality, subjectivity, and truth, but this time with the proper seriousness warranted by such notions, outside their sickening use of the academia. Perhaps no other philosopher has enlightened me, surprised me and ultimately challenged me in this regard than Badiou. Naturally, this does not mean that I agree with everything Badiou says; but I nevertheless believe that no one serious about engaging with the question of human emancipation can avoid the difficult labour of reading Badiou, today. It is in this spirit that I thought that a critical re-examination of Jayatilleka’s use of Badiou can, perhaps, lead to a fruitful discussion about Badiou’s philosophy in general.

The obvious difficulty is that I cannot go into a detailed exposition of Badioian thought even though it is unavoidable for a thorough analysis. I have tried to minimize this problem by giving direct quotes from Badiou, wherever possible, so that the reader can verify the source material in order to come to his/her own conclusions. I will limit myself to the three examples that I understand to be the most serious misinterpretations of Badiou: Jayatilleka’s conflation of Badiou with the decisionism of Schmitt, his problematic re-articulation of three subjective responses to an event, and the sheer absurdity of identifying the military victory of the Sri Lankan state over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a Badiouian event.

Jayatilleka begins his piece with the following remark:

“In the beginning is what Carl Schmitt calls ‘the decision’. This is a prerequisite and precursor of that which the communist philosopher Alain Badiou calls The Event…”

Now compare this with the following remarks of Badiou:

“I think there is no decisionism at all in my philosophy. There is a complete misreading on this point. Lyotard said that I was an absolute decisionist, a sort of a new Carl Schmitt. But I think there’s some confusion here because, after all, the crucial question is the event and the event is not the result of a decision.” (Badiou, (2005), “Infinite Thought – Truth and the Return to Philosophy”, p 129)

Immediately after that, in fact within that same sentence, Jayatilleka gives “Good Friday” as “the most iconic Event of all”.

Now consider the following passage from Badiou’s wonderful book on Saint Paul:

“Let us be perfectly clear: so far as we are concerned, what we are dealing with here is precisely a fable. And singularly so in the case of Paul, who for crucial reasons reduces Christianity to a single statement: Jesus is resurrected… [L]et us say that so far as we are concerned it is rigorously impossible to believe in the resurrection of the crucified”. (Badiou, (2003), “Saint Paul – The Foundation of Universalism”, pp 4-5)

What should be clear from the above are the following. For Badiou an event is never a result of some decision but something that happens ‘out there’, pure and simple. In this regard it is simply wrong to say that the Christian belief of the death and the resurrection of Christ is an event in the Badiouian sense, and it is a killer blow to Badiou to say that it is ‘the most iconic Event of all’. Simply because someone, Saint Paul in this case, decides that Jesus is resurrected does not make it an event. An event, in other words, is not a subjective phenomenon – it is a real occurrence in the outside world.

Let us now turn to the three main positions one can adopt, according to Jayatilleka, with regard to an evental situation. To be fair to Jayatilleka, he does not explicitly state that he is delineating Badiou’s three subjective positions apropos an event. But the narrative structure of his argument seriously justifies such an assumption, for he articulates his position immediately after he gives a detailed list of examples of Badioian event (beginning with the wildly misleading ‘resurrection of the crucified’).

Let us first see what, according to Badiou, are the three possible relations one can adopt with regard to an event:

“[First] incorporation within the body, enthusiasm for what is new, and active fidelity to that having locally disrupted the laws of the world through its advent. The second is indifference: to act as though nothing has taken place or, more exactly, to be convinced that, were the event not to have occurred, things would be basically the same. This is the classic reactive position, which quashes what is new within the soft power of conservation. The third is hostility: to consider the new body as a malevolent foreign irruption that must be destroyed. In this hatred of the new, of all that is ‘modern’ and different from tradition, we recognize obscurantism.” (Badiou, (2011), “Second Manifesto of Philosophy”, pp 91-92)

Now compare these three positions with the ones given by Jayatilleka:

Although they appear to somewhat similar, a closer analysis would reveal that they are not. Badiou’s first subjective position, one of fidelity to an event, means the recognition that an event has occurred and the world cannot be the same after that. With this recognition, the faithful subject goes onto to draw the consequences of this evental occurrence. Simplifying things considerably, we can say that this is the process whereby the faithful subject will divide the world according to what is worth saving after this event and what should be discarded, what can take this event to the widest possible audience as possible and what prevents it from being recognized thus. This is, naturally, the most important subjective position and the one capable of creating the radical novelty within an existent order of things.

It is not possible, however, to see this position within the three positions given by Jayatilleka. In the latter scheme, we are witnessing an event and a series of ‘minor events’ following it. And the three positions differ, primarily, with regard to their stance towards these ‘minor events’. Badiou’s theory of events, of course, does not have these ‘minor events’ that follow. It is the subject who creates a body to the consequences of an event. In order to clarify this, let us remember that for Badiou, it is not only within the field of politics that events can occur but there are three other such fields: science, art and love. What would happen if we were to apply Jayatilleka’s scheme of three positions to an amorous event, instead of a political one?

Take Jayatilleka’s favored third position in the above scheme: ‘endorsing the event while criticizing this or that historical phase that follows from it’. Now consider a typical lovers’ situation combating parental totalitarianism and social sanctions. If one were to endorse the amorous event, in this context, it is quite simple: against the whole hierarchy of social relations, some contingent person suddenly – eventally – becomes the closet person one has in life and the very meaning of his/her life becomes living with this abrupt intruder who has thundered into the former’s life. In this context, what does it mean if someone says I keep the right to ‘criticize this or that historical phase that follows from it’? Does that mean we will criticize our two lovers should they decide to elope together on one cold morning? What is the exact subjective position of this critic? It is clear that he/she cannot occupy the position of the lovers – for it is an absurdity to say that the lovers who make the decision to elope would ‘criticize’ their own decision (regretting it at a later point in time is a different matter). Anyone familiar with Badiouian notions of events and truth procedures would know that this position endorsed by Jayatilleka is not a genuine subjective position apropos an event, in any Badiouian sense. Put simply, this position is not a one of militant engagement but a position of safe critical distance. And this is something that is totally alien to that passionately and demandingly engaged philosophy of Badiou – for Badiou, events, subjects and truths are all related notions which cannot have any meaning in isolation.

And this leads us to the most shocking conclusion of Jayatilleka, when he wrote “the victory (or double-barrelled victories, military and diplomatic) of May 2009, constituted the neo-Badiou-ian Event, the historical legitimacy of which must be recognized and endorsed.” What is so shocking about this? Perhaps, the most general definition one can give to the notion of the event in Badiou’s philosophy is that it is something that happens outside the regime of possibilities granted by the state of things. And Badiou has explicitly stated how he is playing here with the double meaning of the word ‘state’ – ‘the way things are’ and ‘State in the political sense’. Leaving aside the jargon of State-of-the-situation, which is fundamental to Badiou’s ontology as it was developed in his magnum opus “Being and Event”, let me just state the most uncontestable facts of Badiou’s thought, both political and philosophical: Badiou is an anti-statist thinker, and a political event, for Badiou, can never be a victory of the state! Politics, for Badiou , is something that happens at a distance from the state. I would even say that, ultimately, for Badiou, the state is the enemy of true – emancipatory – politics. It is from the state that the oppressed have to win their demands. Simplifying things again, one can say that politics, for Badiou is something like this: we decide what the state must do (for example, allocate 6% GDP for education), and then organize ourselves in such a way that we will force the state to do this. We must, however, always do this keeping our distance from the state and also without compromising our beliefs in order to secure that the state would fulfill our demand. Such is the uncompromising position of Badiou. Among the myriad quotes one can find in order to prove this all too obvious point, let me just quote from Badiou’s recent book on Arab Spring:

“[A] political truth is an organized product of an event… with a real presentation of generic power such as its significance has been disclosed to us by the event. Since the radicalized generic is incompatible with the state, which lives exclusively off identitarian fictions, any political truth presents itself as a restriction of the power of the state.” (Badiou, (2012), “The Rebirth of History – Times of Riots and Uprisings”, p 81, my emphasis).

It is quite simply incomprehensible for me to see how a military victory by the Sri Lankan state be ever thought of as an event in Badiouian sense. In his 2007 bestseller “The Meaning of Sarkozy”, Badiou remarks how the phrase ‘communist-state’ is an oxymoron, since communism is essentially a hypothesis claiming that a stateless society is a possibility. Equation of a state’s military victory to a Badiouian event can only be regarded as an equally oxymoronic statement that needs to corrected before any serious engagement with Badiou’s thought can begin.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.