—Alain Badiou, Théorie de la contradiction
—Alain Badiou, Théorie de la contradiction
If Alain Badiou’s Being and Event sought to move beyond the “finite thinking” of post-Heideggerian philosophy by unfolding the ontological consequences of transfinite mathematics, the title of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude implicitly credits his mentor’s magnum opus with the achievement of that goal. But Meillassoux’s work extends the consequences of Badiou’s Cantorian ontology through an unexpected maneuver: the contemporary reactivation of Hume’s problem of induction. Meillassoux relies upon the rationalist resources offered by Badiou to disqualify the probabilistic resolution of Hume’s problem that had buttressed Hume’s own theory of habit and that has since been deployed to secure pragmatic rejections of Hume’s skeptical doubts.1 Through this rationalist operation upon the central problem of empiricism, Meillassoux seeks to revive the acuity of Hume’s reason against the complacency of his pragmatism, the profundity of what he had glimpsed (the nullity of sufficient reason) against the rétour à la normale he could not seem to resist (the statistical basis of empirical knowledge). But Hume characterizes his own apparent resolution of his “Sceptical Doubts” through the statistical synthesis of habit as a “Sceptical Solution to These Doubts.” It remains “sceptical” because Hume knows full well that he has not grounded either rational or empirical knowledge of the necessary connection between causes and effects, between the past and the future. He has only offered an account of how we navigate the unavailability of such knowledge, of how we make our way given the default of necessary connection. What entices in Hume, for a sensitive reader, is not quite the initial presentation of his “sceptical doubts” nor his “sceptical solution of these doubts”—though both are immensely compelling. It is the curious tension between these, the feeling of new philosophical horizons that are not foreclosed by Hume’s theory of habit but that, as he signals in acknowledging the skeptical nature of his solution, stretch out beyond the limits of both the Treatise and the Enquiry. The sufficiently alert reader encounters Hume’s concise expositions of his problem and solution with vertiginous alarm—a feeling only exacerbated by then scaling the philosophical heights of Kant’s effort to reconstruct a transcendental terra firma. For how tenuous a foothold is the uncircumventable ideality of the transcendental, how daunting the fault lines between the faculties …
Hume is a pragmatist, but he understood that what he first dared to put down in his stillborn book invited more than two trips across the Acheron: “For my part, I shall think it sufficient, if the present hints excite the curiosity of philosophers, and make them sensible to how defective all common theories are in treating such curious and such sublime subjects.”2 Indeed, let us properly register the curious sublimity of the excitation: First Hume asks, “Is there any more intelligible proposition than to affirm, that all the trees will flourish in DECEMBER and JANUARY, and decay in MAY and JUNE?”3 Later he replies, “It is more probable, in almost every country of EUROPE, that there will be frost sometimes in JANUARY, than that the weather will continue open throughout that whole month; though this probability varies according to the different climates, and approaches to a certainty in the more northern kingdoms.”4 Now, if a meteorologist might thus find consolation, what genuine philosopher could be satisfied with the latter formulation, having already thought through the implications of the former? If one could be so satisfied, why begin to think—really to think—at all?5 And if one does prefer the latter, why bother with philosophy in the first place? (Hume gives us a criterion of philosophical vocation).
But again, it is not simply the former proposition but rather the torsion between the lucid severity of Hume’s skeptical doubts and the placid consolation of their skeptical solution that is genuinely strange. Even if we can resolve the regularity of statistical existence with the philosophical knowledge that we cannot understand its ground, how does one resolve the two affects attending the ultimate groundlessness of induction and the provisional reassurance of habit? For his own part, Hume was certainly “sensible of the difficulty”6 he had raised. It is not only a conceptual but an existential difficulty: when properly registered, the problem of induction makes it seem rather disappointing to simply go about one’s business, as if being able to adjust means to ends were merely cutting corners. If Meillassoux, the Cartesian, returns to the problem of induction to reopen its unsettling lucidity, it is so that his rationalist empiricism can introduce us not to a bearded Hegel and a clean-shaven Marx but to a French Hume and a Scottish Descartes. How alien their improbable progeny. Could we really do without the vaunted Principle of Sufficient Reason? And if we cannot survive without the synthesis of habit, how could we live the default of knowledge it enables us to ignore? What sort of coordination of the rational and the empirical could be effected if we were installed, practically, in the chasm between the past and the future opened by the problem of induction?
Badiou enables Meillassoux’s reactivation of Hume’s problem, but if we turn the pupil’s intervention back upon the work of the master, we may see that Being and Event had already been implicitly concerned with the questions we have just posed. For to be what Badiou calls a subject involves tethering oneself, in excess of one’s habits as a human animal, to that rift between the past and the future Badiou calls an event. Indeed, the very existence of the subject depends upon the irreducibility of what happens to the laws of what happens: “The law does not prescribe there being some subjects.” Thus, “there are some subjects,” but “the subject is rare”: subjects are not given by the norm of situations, as “an invariable of presentations,” nor do they constitute the norm of situations in the manner of transcendental determination.7 Subjectivation is an exception to the law of situations, in excess of the norms that govern them, and as such its process depends upon a scission within the order of the given, a rupture between what has been and what will be, an interruption of the rules that had guided the adjustment of means to ends. Such an interruption may be ignored, or denied, or unrecognized—which is normally what happens; but if one not only recognizes this scission but makes it the very criterion of one’s activity, one ties the taking place of an event to a process of subjectivation toward the production of a truth.
Of course, what Badiou calls an event does not interrupt the laws of nature, if the concept of nature is considered from the perspective of either science or transcendental philosophy. The regularities of physical action to which falling bodies or colliding billiard balls conform are not suspended by the storming of the Bastille or the advent of analytic cubism. On the contrary, the latter rely upon the former, even if they alter their social significance (a new meaning of universality) or their representational disposition (a new method of organizing the picture plane). But the relation of subject to event nevertheless entails a formidable disruption of habit requiring genuinely new ways of conceiving and practicing relations between causes and effects. If it is indeed the case that “custom is the great guide of human life,” the fidelity of a subject to an event is the unbinding of life from its all-too-human habits, from constant conjunctions that were previously observed. That unbinding does not just happen; it is a non-pragmatic practice requiring unreasonable applications of reason and the division of experience from past experience. That is, the practice of the subject requires a new coordination of reason and experience at variance with the coordinates of knowledge.
THE NOTHING THAT HAPPENS
But exactly what kind of “experience” is at issue in the production of a truth through the fidelity of a subject to an event? Badiou tells us at the outset of Meditation 35, “Theory of the Subject,” that “a subject is not, in any manner, the organization of a sense of experience” (la sujet n’est en rien l’organisation d’un sens de l’experience).8 Badiou’s primary argument here is with Kant: the subject “is not a transcendental function.”9 The transcendental stipulates conditions of any possible experience, and Badiou advises that “if the word ‘experience’ has any meaning, it is that of designating presentation as such.”10 From a transcendental, phenomenological, or empiricist perspective, “presentation” is the domain of the given, and it obeys constitutive norms determining what is and is not possible. The subject inhabits the world of presentation, but it is constituted, qua subject, by relating to this world in a manner discrepant from the regulation of behavior according to the norms of the given. This is so because “a generic procedure, which stems from an evental ultra-one qualified by a supernumerary name, does not coincide in any way with presentation.”11 That is a strong claim. It means that fidelity to an event, participation in the construction of a truth, may take place in a world that is indeed the world of presentation, but it encounters and organizes terms of this world so as to construct something other than the givens of presentation, something in excess of what is apparently there. The event is in excess of the count-as-one that orders all presentation; a truth is indiscernible within the givens of presentation. The event is constituted, through its name (e.g., the Revolution) as such an excess: not only as one occurrence counted among others presented within the domain of experience, but as that which interrupts and fractures such a domain so as to present it anew under its own sign:
When, for example, Saint-Just declares in 1794 “the Revolution is frozen,” he is certainly designating infinite signs of lassitude and general constraint, but he adds to them that one-mark that is the Revolution itself, as this signifier of the event which, being qualifiable (the Revolution is ‘frozen’), proves that it is itself a term of the event that it is. Of the French Revolution as event it must be said that it both presents the infinite multiple of the sequence of facts situated between 1789 and 1794, and, moreover, that it presents itself as an immanent résumé and one-mark of its own multiple.12
The name of the event is “supernumerary” in this sense: it is the name of an event that is included in the unfolding of the sequence it presents as that which presents that sequence. It names a term of the situation as the term of the situation, and a subject intervenes in accordance with this nomination, acting within the situation in terms of its relation to the event. But for those who scoff at revolutionary fervor or the enchantment of lovers, or for those removed from the formal breakthroughs of scientific or artistic practice, nothing has taken place at all.
According to Bruno Latour, for example, “the revolutionary idea par excellence, the idea that revolution is possible,” is a bygone fantasy that “we” have now gotten over: “today, that very idea strikes us as exaggerated, since revolution is only one resource among many others in histories that have nothing revolutionary, nothing irreversible, about them.”13 “Seen as networks,” Latour continues, “the modern world, like revolutions, permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, miniscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs.”14 Latour counsels that this “does not mean that I am a reactionary,”15 and for once he is right: he is just a conservative. Deploying the lingo of hybrids and monsters, he claims to speak for “today,” but what he says is the same thing the party of order has always said: don’t you think the very idea that revolution is possible is a little bit exaggerated?
Citing François Furet (who was a reactionary) as if Furet were a neutral representative of what “French historians have finally understood,” Latour holds that “the events of 1789 were no more revolutionary than the modern world has been modern;” it was merely the case that “the actors and chroniclers of 1789 used the notion of revolution to understand what was happening to them, and to influence their own fate.”16 Observe the rhetoric to which Latour must resort in order to reduce the subject-language of these “actors and chroniclers” to irrelevance (to the “passing of an illusion,” as Furet would put it with respect to communism in the twentieth century): these actors and chroniclers used the notion of revolution to understand what was happening to them and to influence their own fate. They are positioned between passivity and destiny. Things happen to them, and they have a fate, but they do not determine what happens nor influence history. Thus, the Revolution is simply the desperate name of their subjection to the past, the present, and the future, concerning which they were in denial. From this point of view, there is no difference between fate and what happens; the organization of experience in terms of something new, something momentously unexpected, is just an illusory phantasm, the name of the nothing that has happened.
But for those enveloped in constructing the consequences of this “nothing,” the name of the event (the Revolution) intervenes between “what was happening” and “fate,” and it does so with consequences. Latour/Furet see clearly that nomination and intervention are what bring the event into existence in the situation, precisely by introducing a term “added to the events of that time”17 (the Revolution). What Latour does not see clearly (or what he intentionally obscures) is that this is not simply a matter of understanding “what was happening” but of constituting a situation in which what happens is a matter of determined activity and commitment that breaks with what merely happens. This intervention is not a passive immersion in what happens, but it does rely upon the constitution of the subject through what has taken place: it marks the fact that something has really happened, something at variance from “small extensions of practices” insofar as it inaugurates and, perhaps, sustains a sequence refractory to the norms of experience.
Latour reports the same thing as Badiou: the existence of the event is a matter of partisanship. Yet unlike Badiou, Latour reports this as though it were not a matter of partisanship (that would be too “polemical,” insufficiently urbane), but rather of objective history—of what, since the 1970s, French historians have “finally understood.” Since the 1970s means in the wake of May ’68 and the Maoism of the Red Years. The reaction against that upheaval in French history, which relayed the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, consisted in part of a historical project to erase its significance by erasing “the very idea of Revolution.” This project, on the basis of which Latour hails Furet, is the model of Latour’s own epistemology of “relativist relativism”: “the scientific revolutions still await their François Furet.”18 It is this revisionist epistemology Latour mobilizes against Althusser’s theory of the epistemological break: “Every new call to revolution, any epistemological break, any Copernican upheaval, any claim that certain practices have become outdated forever, would be deemed dangerous, or—what is still worse in the eyes of the moderns—outdated!”19 These formulations are useful because they make clear the stakes of Latour’s sociology of knowledge and the commitments of those who endorse it (usually in the name of some supposedly progressive politics): his rejection of the epistemological break is of a piece with a politics that reduces revolution to a safety hazard—the same politics the state and the police always call upon to justify their crackdowns. Latour is a conservative sophist, but he shares the key principle of every pragmatic communicator urging rational consensus, or every liberal sycophant urging compromise: the denial that a break between the past and the future can happen. For Latour, the very idea that such a break could happen is just “dangerous.”
Latour merely states what Badiou theorizes: that activity stemming from the nomination of an event “does not coincide in any way with presentation.” But unlike Latour, Badiou does not recoil from the consequences of this non-coincidence: everything one encounters in this non-coincidence is encountered as new (otherwise it is not part of such a sequence at all), which is why it goes unrecognized (or deemed too “dangerous”) by those who obey the norms of the situation. Fidelity to an event inaugurates the conditions under which the unprecedented can proceed. To construct the indiscernible is to treat a sequence of encounters according to a rupture with the past, rather than according to knowledge of the past. The subject treats an exception according to the criteria of the indiscernible, constructing the consequences of the exception as the content of the indiscernible in the future anterior: the construction of a truth will have been the result of a procedure conducted as the consequence of an event. “A subject is what deals with the generic indiscernibility of a truth, which it accomplishes amidst discernible finitude, by a nomination whose referent is suspended from the future anterior of a condition.”20 A subject works “amidst discernible finitude” insofar as the situation it inhabits is that of the human animal; but the intervention of a subject in this situation is to treat it according to the taking place of something that cannot be accounted for according to the norms of its order. Thus “a subject always declares meaning in the future anterior.”21 The sense of a subject is what is to come, not what has been. Considered in terms of the problem of induction, the force that a subject accords to an event is to divide the future from the past, thus constructing the becoming of what will be according to this division. The scission of the future from the past, rather than the synthesis of habit, becomes the condition of the subject’s activity.
THE DOUBLE SCISSION
The schema that follows (see Figure 29) formalizes the practice of a generic procedure as Badiou theorizes it in Meditation 35 of Being and Event. In his early Théorie de la contradiction, Badiou tells us that “the truth exists only as the process of a scission.” The schema displays subjectivization as the process of two scissions:
Figure 29. Badiou’s Truth Procedure—Between the Rational and the Empirical. Constituted by fidelity to an event, a subject constructs the indiscernible multiplicity of a truth through the practice of a generic procedure. The generic procedure consists of finite enquiries into terms of the situation, which are encountered and evaluated concerning their positive or negative relation to the event. Encounters with the terms of the situation are empirical, but not guided by knowledge; their trajectory is aleatory, and terms are treated according to their relation to a truth in the future anterior, not according to their relation with past experience. Empirical encounters with existing multiples are submitted to the formal rule of binary decision, producing statements concerning a truth that remain undecidable from the perspective of knowledge.
1. the scission between event and truth that is the process of the subject, working at the border of the evental site to construct its consequences within the situation
2. the scission between a rational procedure and empirical enquiries, whereby finite terms of the situation are encountered and evaluated according to their relation to the event
The temporality of a subject is situated between fidelity to an event and the future anterior of a truth. The activity of a subject consists in the evaluation of encounters according to the rule of a procedure. The temporality of this activity is the process of the subject (subjectivization). Thus, “A subject is … taken up in fidelity to the event and suspended from truth.”22 This is what the spatial layout of the schema attempts to display. Let us work through the series of concepts it configures in terms of two scissions, shuttling the process of the subject between event and truth (vertical axis) and between the rational and the empirical (horizontal axis), before considering more closely how the politics of Badiou’s theory of the subject might be understood in relation to the problem of induction.
“The opening of a generic procedure founds, on its horizon, the assemblage of a truth. As such, subjectivization is that through which a truth is possible. It turns the event towards the truth of the situation for which the event is an event. It allows the evental ultra-one to be placed according to the indiscernible multiplicity … that a truth is.”23
Fidelity consists in a nomination of the event—an affirmation of its taking place—and an intervention in the situation on this basis. These inaugurate the process of a subject as the opening of a generic procedure, intervening at the site of an event within the situation. A procedure consists of a finite series of enquiries—investigations of terms within the situation according to whether or not they belong to the construction of a truth in the future anterior. Truth is an indiscernible multiplicity because it is indiscernible within the situation from which it is constructed. Confidence is the subjective belief that there is a truth that is being constructed.
“I term subjectivization the emergence of an operator, consecutive to an interventional nomination … If we consider the local status of a generic procedure, we notice that it depends on a simple encounter … The procedure is ruled in its effects and aleatory in its trajectory.”24
The process of a subject unfolds as an aleatory trajectory between finite terms of the situation, evaluated in terms of whether or not they belong to the truth of an event. The operator (□) formalizes the connection between an event (ex) and a term (y) of the situation, according to whether or not the term belongs to the truth of an event. A positive evaluation can thus be formalized (exGy), while a negative evaluation can be formalized (~(exGy)). On the right side of the schema (empirical enquiries), we can see that the subject is constituted by a series of encounters with finite terms of the situation. These terms are existing multiples belonging to the presentation of the situation in which they are counted-as-one. Aleatory encounters with these multiples constitute the matter of the subject. On the left side of the schema (rational procedure), we can see that the evaluation of each encounter performs an operation upon that which is presented. The procedure is “ruled in its effects” insofar as it submits the matter of the encounter to the form of a special count: rather than the count-as-one by which discrete terms of a situation are empirically presented, these terms are counted according to whether or not they belong to a truth. The real being of these existing multiples—insofar as they pertain to the subject—thus consists in their relation to the event rather than their existence in the situation. The subject produces statements that are qualified according to the relation event-truth but unqualifiable according to the count-as-one (i.e. they are not counted by the norms of the situation).
What the schema shows is that the process of the subject is both the scission of the rational and the empirical (the rational operation of the procedure is invisible within the empirical presentation of the situation) and the synthesis of their separation. The subject is both the separation and the relay of the rational and the empirical, just as the subject is both the separation and the relay of event and truth. As such, the subject submits its activity to the rule of fidelity rather than the habit-forms of past experience, yet the rationality of the form of the subject’s activity cannot control the empirical trajectory of its encounters, which are aleatory in their sequence. A subject is also “forever separated by chance” from a truth because the aleatory character of the composition of a truth is not legible in its result; the subject “does not coincide with its result”25 because it is precisely subjected to the chance of the encounters through which it constructs a truth that will have been the result not only of those encounters, but of their evaluation. “The subject is constituted by encountering its matter (the terms of the enquiry) without anything of its form (the name of the event and the operator of fidelity) prescribing such matter.”26 A subject is a being that treats its empirical encounters not according to the synthesis of the past with the future, but according to that peculiar rationality which directs the encounter toward a new composition.
These concepts are formidably abstract. Indeed, they testify to the degree of abstraction requisite to describe the construction of what does not appear in a situation from the perspective of its norms. What must be recognized is that Badiou’s theory of the subject is not a prescriptive guide to political practice. Those who find this theory “idealist” should recall Badiou’s commitment to the position that philosophy does not condition politics but is conditioned by politics. The primacy of practice is installed at a fundamental methodological level in Badiou’s thought. He does not think that political subjects should go about their activity by deciding whether or not such and such a significant occurrence is “an event” and then decide how to properly apply “the operator of fidelity.” Such an orientation toward practice would constitute a theoreticist reverie that would destroy a relationship, obscure the specificity of political situations, distract from the immediate technical exigencies of scientific work, or reduce one’s art practice to theoretical demonstration. Badiou’s theory is a description of what subjects do in sequences that are not guided by any theory of the subject, but rather by the immediate import of inaugurating a break with the past norms of a situation. Badiou does not offer a theory of how to intervene in political situations; he offers a theory of how subjects do intervene in political situations.
OSCAR GRANT PLAZA/OAKLAND COMMUNE
Consider a concrete example, the sequence called “Occupy Oakland” (October 10, 2011–January 28, 2012). “Occupy Wall Street” had been inaugurated at Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, following which meetings ensued in Oakland, and many other cities, to initiate similar encampments in occupied public squares. When Frank H. Ogawa plaza, in front of Oakland City Hall, was occupied on October 10, the beginning of Occupy Oakland was marked by the renaming of the public space as Oscar Grant Plaza. Immediately, this nomination marked a double claim: that the terms encountered in the situation (Frank Ogawa Plaza) could only be misrecognized within the sequence initiated (Occupy Oakland) if they were not recognized as new terms of the situation (Oscar Grant Plaza). Thus the statement “this is Oscar Grant Plaza” reconstitutes a term presented by the count-as-one of the situation, Frank Ogawa Plaza, as a statement of a new subject-language that performs the operation of including it within a special count: Oscar Grant Plaza now belongs to what has been produced by the political activity of Occupy Oakland, whereas Frank Ogawa Plaza does not. This distinction is practically legible within the situation. According to the encyclopedia, to civic authorities, and to those either against or indifferent to the political sequence called “Occupy Oakland,” the square is still named Frank Ogawa Plaza. Thus to refer to the plaza according to this prior name, still operative according to the law of the situation but not the political sequence operative within it, is to imply that one is not a partisan of that sequence. Moreover, this partisan renaming of the plaza has nothing in particular to do with the specificity of its previous name; it was not intended as a gesture against Frank Ogawa, but rather for (1) the recognition of a new sequence; (2) the binding of that sequence to another recent political sequence: Justice for Oscar Grant.
The name “Oscar Grant Plaza” not only ties “Occupy Oakland” to the memory of Oscar Grant, killed by police in the Fruitvale BART station early on New Year’s Day, 2009; it also ties the occupation to the eruption of week-long riots in downtown Oakland in the wake of that killing, and to struggles against anti-black police brutality that followed from those riots. Retrospectively, one might thus view Occupy Oakland as a mediating sequence between Justice for Oscar Grant and the Black Lives Matter movement, between rebellion in the streets of Oakland following the killing of Oscar Grant and similar rebellions in the city following the acquittal of George Zimmerman (2013) and the shooting of Michael Brown (2014). But within the context of Occupy Oakland, the link to the police murder of Oscar Grant also had practically immediate consequences: police were barred entirely from the Plaza, and there was no compromise with civic authorities regarding the regulations of the Occupation itself. These inaugural decisions against any police presence and against compromise with civic laws marked both a difference between Occupy Oakland and other occupations (taking a stronger anti-reformist position) and a difference from the legal norms that had previously governed the plaza. Thus new norms would have to be enforced: to allow police within the plaza, or to compromise with authorities on civic regulations, would be to compromise one’s commitment to the statements of the sequence itself (no cops, no compromise with civic regulations, no collaboration with elected officials). The autonomy of the Plaza from the legal framework of civil society was marked by its attachment to the name of Oscar Grant and the negation of the legal order that killed him.
Names are important, statements within a political sequence matter, because they designate the terrain of inclusion/exclusion according to which the sequence will proceed, and they formalize what it means to proceed within that terrain. Crucially, the renaming of the Plaza was then sutured to a second renaming, in this case of the occupation itself. The encampment of Occupy Oakland would come to be named “The Oakland Commune.” This was the name not only of a place (Oscar Grant Plaza) or of mutual aid through which the inhabitants of that place cared for one another and met basic needs, but also of the subject of the political sequence unfolding in and around that place. This was a collective subject, irreducible to any one individual or group of individuals participating in a political process. Indeed, the collective subject “Oakland Commune” could and did change at any time depending upon who was living there, who was making food or powering generators on stationary bicycles, who was participating in the general assembly, who was taking part in marches, rebuffing police, or organizing future actions. That collective came to include a heterogeneous multiplicity of people of divergent class positions—homeless lumpenproletarians, proletarians in low-wage service jobs, students, community organizes, professionals—and a discrepant variety of political orientations (liberal reformist, anarchist, communist, socialist, etc.). There was not necessarily any agreement among these people concerning exactly how things should proceed, but rather a constant process of disagreement and determination, sometimes mediated by the procedures of general assembly, sometimes worked out among subcommittees, frequently improvised on the spot. While any one or several or many individuals might disagree with any particular determination, nevertheless, the Oakland Commune did determine what it would or could, would not or could not do. Frequently it could not do much about the contradictions it encountered.27 Yet these limits, too, were added to the collectively constituted unfolding of its sequence. It is precisely the fact that no individual controls or even knows the totality of what is being determined that renders “indiscernible” what such a sequence produces: there is a collective subject (the Oakland Commune), but its activity is irreducible not only to the encyclopedia but also to the individual knowledge of those who produce it.
After the Plaza was first violently cleared by police on the night of October 25, more than a thousand people gathered at the Oakland Public Library the following evening for a march to reestablish the occupation. But when the march arrived at its destination, having first wound through the streets of downtown, it stalled at the point of breaking through lines of police guarding Oscar Grant Plaza. The march had approached parallel to police lines, rather than confronting them directly, and self-appointed marshals—surrendering the collectively articulated goal of retaking the Plaza—directed marchers to continue, while radicals attempted to rally a push toward the former encampment. Thus what Badiou calls a “point” of the political sequence hung in the balance: Would or would not the Oakland Commune retake Oscar Grant Plaza to reestablish Occupy Oakland? The stalled march lingered in front of police lines, spreading out at the intersection of Fourteenth and Broadway, and a long standoff held until the police eventually fired teargas and flash-bang grenades into the crowd. An Iraq War veteran, who had been waving an American flag some ten feet from police lines, was struck in the head by a teargas canister, suffering brain injuries from which he would nearly die. Although the march eventually dispersed, the brutality of the police had temporarily undermined their backing by civic of ficials, and the Plaza was taken unchallenged the next evening by some three thousand people, tearing down fences and reestablishing the camp and general assembly. One point had been resolved in unexpected fashion, but another was now tested: A call for a general strike on November 2 was put to the assembly and massively affirmed. On the day of the strike some forty thousand people would march on the Port of Oakland, shutting it down for two days.
This segment of the longer sequence exemplifies the unpredictable shuttling between collective decision—both spontaneous and deliberative—and contingent encounters characteristic of radical political action. There is no “program” that can secure the unity of a collective during such sequences, as divisions abruptly spring from or are resolved by unexpected circumstances. A plan of action can be suddenly abandoned and then able to succeed the following day precisely because of its dramatic failure. The determination to carry out a mass action on the scale of a “general strike” can be mobilized by the brutal circumstance of a near fatality. A dispute among occupiers over whether or not to tear down a police fence can be resolved, an hour later, by the absence of those who resisted its dismantling. A port blockade with truly mass participation, the sort of thing that seemed practically impossible during the student movements in California two years previous, suddenly seemed inevitable. Occupations across the country would eventually be destroyed by federally coordinated crackdowns, but those occupations nevertheless demonstrated that a class-based political movement could spread through nearly every city in the United States and sustain itself over weeks or months through forms of directly organized mutual aid. The immanent articulation of such a sequence, unprecedented in its combination of organizational forms and mass mobilization across the country, is indifferent to both “failure” and “success.” That does not mean it lacks strategy, but that it must ultimately proceed according to what it can make possible as it happens, point by point.
While Badiou’s algebraic formalisms and terms like “operator of fidelity” or “special count” may seem preposterously distant from the real difficulties and dilemmas of mass political action, they might be taken to register the degree of defamiliarization necessary to conceptually grasp and adequately theorize what is actually happening when decisions come to be made by no one in particular in the name of a collective called the Oakland Commune in Oscar Grant Plaza. The name “Oakland Commune” situates itself in a concatenated history, relaying the significance of the Paris Commune (perhaps implausibly) and fusing it with local insurrections following the killing of Oscar Grant. Even among these minimal indications, one sees the collective production of consequences irreducible to empirical givens of the situation, constructed from elements of the past yet irrevo cably torqueing their history, propelling them into the emergence of a sequence whose endpoint is as yet indiscernible yet ardently pursued, the substance of a compound body articulated point by point among individuals who cannot entirely control which point is encountered next, yet who stake their actions on commitment to decisions shaping the very possibilities and limits of what is composed (e.g., no cops, no compromise with civic regulations, no collaboration with elected officials). The theoretical problem is how to coherently register and conceptualize the rift between the past and future such sequences are, and how to conceive action within them in terms of that rift. Terms like “event” and “truth” seem to smack of a certain romanticism the more hard-headed comrades find cloying. Yet one can and should give a deflationary account of their sense, without deflating their consequences. “Fidelity to an event” means: acting within a new sequence as if it is new, as if its terms are not those of the past situation, but terms one must evaluate according to the possibilities and impasses of what is unfolding as it happens, not within that public square (Frank Ogawa Plaza) but within this one (Oscar Grant Plaza), though they seem to others “the same” place. “Production of a truth” means the construction of a sequence of decisions, of actions, of statements that are irreducible to incorporation into the world as it was before, that force an alteration of the situation as it had existed. The term “truth” signifies the irreducibility of what is produced to knowledge.
In 2013 I met with a friend in New York whom I hadn’t seen since before the occupations. She said, “Everything is different now; we live in a new world.” Despite my solidarity with her politics and sympathy for her perspective, I couldn’t quite agree, insisting that the real conditions in which people lived were not really any different than before—which was indeed the case. But I was wrong and she was right. Because the truth, irreducible to the empiricism of what is the case, is that recognition of an irrevocable alteration of the world is a partisan question of affirming what is indiscernible: that something really took place that was new and that therefore makes a cut in the continuum of history which can be carried forward. The world is not all that is the case, since there is no all, and since it is one’s orientation toward the indiscernible that situates the givenness of what is the case within an untotalizable movement irreducible to a set of cases.
Considered in terms of Hume’s problem of induction, Badiou limns a strange terrain that can become legible only through a theory of the subject. The division between the past and the future that the subject affirms, and in accordance with which the subject acts, is not necessarily legible to everyone within the situation, nor is it necessarily legible afterwards. If all the trees were indeed to flourish in December and January, and decay in May and June, this alteration of the norms of the seasons would be legible without the militant affirmation of a subject. And this is the sort of contingency with which Meillassoux is concerned: that the laws of nature could really change, that the stability of the laws we observe is contingent rather than necessary, that the laws of becoming may be traversed by the becoming of laws. Badiou, on the other hand, is concerned with the contingency of what happens in another respect: that exceptions to the rule of situations can and do take place that do not necessarily alter the norms of situations for everyone, yet inaugurate a sequence for a subject, a sequence characterized by radical transformations of activity in accordance with the affirmation of a rupture with the past. We could say that Badiou’s theory of the event is not necessarily related to the problem of induction, since one could very well go on in conformity with one’s habits regardless of whether or not an event has taken place. But Badiou’s theory of the subject may indeed be usefully approached through the problem of induction, since it involves a form of life for which custom is not the great guide. Badiou theorizes the activity of a subject detached from Hume’s pragmatic resolution of his own skeptical doubts and installed in the aleatory process of a series of encounters whose adequate treatment depends upon subtracting them from the rules of experience. Badiou’s theory of the subject is both an empiricism of the encounter and an aleatory rationalism.28 If, according to Hume, we have neither rational nor empirical grounds for inferring the necessary connection of events, in Badiou’s theory of the subject we have a groundless synthesis of encounter and decision shorn of those statistical regularities which fill in the default of our understanding that Hume had exposed. Hence, the fragility of the subject in Badiou’s account; it has nothing to fall back on but its own commitment.
Specifically, we can say that this fragility bears upon the distinction between truth and knowledge. Knowledge is a synthetic coordination of reason and experience that either denies or ignores the problem of induction; it at least implies that past experience offers sufficient reason for future expectation. Such knowledge may concede that it is statistical, rather than absolute, but it still assumes the rationality of its empirical claims. What Badiou calls truth, on the other hand, is divided from knowledge insofar as it affirms that past experience is not adequate to our relation to the future. Thus truth is not verifiable by knowledge, but it does not contradict it either.29 Truth is undecidable according to the criteria of knowledge and indifferent to those criteria in the process of its construction. Knowledge can only retrospectively recognize the terms of the construction:
Knowledge can quite easily enumerate the constituents of the enquiries afterwards, because they come in finite number. Yet just as it cannot anticipate, in the moment itself, any meaning to their singular regrouping, knowledge cannot coincide with the subject, whose entire being is to encounter terms in a militant and aleatoric trajectory. Knowledge, in its encyclopaedic disposition, never encounters anything…. If the subject does not have any other being-in-situation than the term-multiples it encounters and evaluates, its essence, since it has to include the chance of these encounters, is rather the trajectory that links them. However, this trajectory, being incalculable, does not fall under any determinant of the encyclopedia.30
Crucially, then, we must recognize that the subject is divided from both truth and knowledge. It is divided from knowledge because “knowledge never encounters anything,” and the compendium of knowledge (what Badiou terms “the encyclopedia”) cannot account for the aleatory trajectory constituting the very process the subject is. Yet this aleatory constitution of the subject also divides it from truth, insofar the chance of the subject’s encounters is not legible in its result (the sum of its enquiries). This is why a subject does not “know the truth”; it is only the process of a finite practice. It inhabits a situation, but it does so as the void of the gulf between knowledge and truth.
Finally, we must note the theoretical status of the coordination of the rational and the empirical in the construction of this account itself (rather than the practice of subjects of which it is an account). If Badiou’s theoretical framework is marked by an abstract formalism, it nevertheless has its genesis in Badiou’s practical experience of May ’68, and in the effort to account for what was at stake in the meaning of that event during the Red Years that followed from it. How could it be that what had transpired could be reduced, by those who either reacted against its consequences or consigned them to the encyclopedia of linear history, to the nullity of a brief episode to be either memorialized or eradicated? The strange quality of empirical participation in such ruptures is that they are not amenable to empirical description. But nor does that mean they are only describable through poetic language or quasi-mystical evocation. For what is at issue in such ruptures is not only the enthusiasm they produce, or the intensities of their phenomenal texture, as if it were only the singularity of their affective experience that rendered them refractory to simple empiricism. It is not only that affective singularity but also the form of reason involved in love, or art, or politics, or scientific breakthroughs that render their ruptural force at once compelling and nearly incommunicable. It is the fact that the experience of certain sequences both produces and requires heightened forms of rationality (often collective) precisely because they are subtracted from the norms of everyday knowledge that renders such experience irreducible to fact.
For those who are willing to think, formalization is not merely the reduction of the “messiness” of reality to the “clean” requisites of a conceptual vocabulary. It is, on the contrary, the mark of recognizing that it is precisely the chaos of contingent encounters and profoundly unassimilable states of affairs that generates forms of rational discernment to which our habits offer no adequate guide, such that they must be rendered in terms that vary from ordinary language. For what Hume shows is that we never experience any instance of necessary connection between causes and effects, between the past and the future. Habit obscures this fact by creating an expectation of conjunction, the obedience of the future to the past, at the level of behavior. The enthusiasm of political action is easily dismissed as irrational by those who do not partake of it, but it is actually the rationality of that enthusiasm that is more deeply unsettling: the manner in which it cuts through the fallacies of official negotiations or reformist compromise. Such rationality stems from a lucid recognition: we do not know that the way things will be cannot be detached from the way they have been. Since this recognition is refractory to the language of the encyclopedia, the bracing experience of political rationality requires formal tools sufficiently subtractive to remove its description from the givens of empirical history.
“Without the influence of custom,” writes Hume, “we should be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact, beyond what is immediately present to the memory and senses. We should never know how to adjust means to ends, or to employ our natural powers in the production of any effect. There would be at once an end of all action, as well as the chief part of speculation.”31 That is no doubt true, and it remains the case in those unprecedented sequences proper to politics, science, art, or love. But the utility of custom in those sequences—which has taught us how to use a paintbrush, to publicize a march, to use a technology, or how to talk with someone—also obscures the singularity of their unfolding. To address a lover’s body as unprecedented, and also one’s own body as unprecedented in relation to that lover, is to recognize that there is no sexual relation, and thereby to experience sex as something other than codifiable technique or the mimesis of pornography. To pursue political action not only on the basis of what one has learned from previous practice, but also according to singularities with which one has no experience, is to bring new forms of politics into being. Custom is not only a condition of possibility for action and speculation, but also the condition of impossibility for certain kinds of action and speculation; it impedes their ruptural transformation. Like laws, habits are made to be broken. Thus they have to be supplemented by an orientation toward the unprecedented, which is precisely what the problem of induction contemplates.
Perhaps the antagonism proper to Hume’s philosophy is not so much between skepticism and pragmatism as between an empiricism of custom and an empiricism of the encounter—which would have to meet the demands of reason (what must we do?) without recourse to the givenness of past experience. That is why the subject is positioned as the conjunction of an aleatory rationalism and an empiricism of the encounter on the schema presented earlier. The subject collapses Hume’s fork into an arrow, the trajectory of which is irreducible to the calculus of probabilities or the principle of sufficient reason, and which splits the difference between the discourse of reason and the unfolding of experience. To be the flight of such an arrow is not to be either an empiricist or a rationalist but to traverse their disjunction as the antagonist of two gravities: that of the earth and that of the sun.