‘Alain Badiou: Key Concepts’ reviewed by Ryan Singh Paul

and (eds)
Alain Badiou: Key Concepts

Acumen, Durham, 2010. 224 pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781844652303

Reviewed by Ryan Singh Paul

About the reviewer

Ryan Singh Paul is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Allegheny College. He works on …


In the wake of Alain Badiou’s rise to international philosophical fame over the last decade, a small library has been published of secondary literature devoted to explicating and promoting his thought. As an entry into that collection, A.J. Bartlett and Justin Clemens’ Alain Badiou: Key Concepts provides a thorough, sophisticated discussion of the French philosopher’s work that exceeds the modest suggestion of its title.

As a rule, the essays are excellent introductions to concepts and authors relevant to Badiou’s project; just as importantly, the contributors engage with Badiou on his terms as well as their own, ‘writing on their own specialism vis-à-vis Badiou’ and thus ‘plac[ing] Badiou’s project in its proper conceptual framework’ (5-6). The collection’s pedigree is impressive: five of the contributors have translated or edited Badiou’s work; seven, including the editors, have written monographs or edited collections on Badiou; all have published on Badiou in some form or another. The collection also benefits from its historical moment and the range of material available to the essayists. As Bartlett and Clemens state in their Introduction, the contributors as a whole engage with Badiou via the pivotal break in his work that occurs with Being and Event. However, the increasingly rapid rate of translation of his work into English that has accompanied Badiou’s rise to prominence gives both writers and audience access to a much wider range of his work in English, including Logics of Worlds, described by the editors as ‘simultaneously a major reassessment and, as a “sequel”, a major reaffirmation of the concepts and categories’ of Being and Event. While the earlier work serves as the center of the collection, all of the essays explicitly consider Logics and/or some other post-Event text. New readers of Badiou will find the essays challenging but accessible; the volume’s depth of reference orients those more familiar with Badiou’s thought towards its future development, or what the editors term ‘the philosophical creation of its proper form.’

The volume is divided into three parts, bookended by two introductory essays and an afterword. The sections address, respectively, ‘The Foundations of Badiou’s Thought,’ ‘Badiou’s Key Concepts or “Conditions,”’ and ‘Badiou’s Engagement with Key Philosophers.’ The organization is effective: the earlier essays, while making significant arguments in their own right, also serve as effective introductions to Badiou’s interventions in fundamental philosophical concepts, while the later essays articulate the nature of his philosophical project in action and place him in dialogue with key predecessors, opponents, and contemporaries. The first two essays in ‘Foundations’ document the historical becoming of Badiou’s thought with regards to its nature and practice: Feltham’s entry on ‘Philosophy’ traces Badiou’s engagement with the practice of philosophy from his roots in Althusserian epistemology, through his period of Maoist dialecticism, and ultimately to his ‘reconstruction of the philosophical scene’ and definition of the philosopher as ‘a transhistorical custodian of the eternal becoming of truths’ (20, 23). The relation of philosophy to the production of truth is the subject of Clemens’ article on ‘The Conditions.’ Similarly structured as a narrative of Badiou’s philosophical development, this essay positions the four conditions of philosophy (politics, art, science, love) as Badiou’s response to the recurring problematic the proper object of philosophy’s thought: a ‘return to Plato’ that figures philosophy as the thought of thought (30). The other two essays articulate Badiou’s transformation of the ‘The Subject’ and ‘Ontology.’ In the former essay, Bruno Bessana highlights Badiou’s break with materialist, Kantian, and poststructural theories of subjectivity in favor of the universal subject of the event: ‘the subject manifests itself as an always singular moment, radically subtracted from the ordering of objects, although objectively embedded in the specificity of the situation,’ and it ‘perform[s] a universal address of the consequence of this rupture’ (47). Alex Ling’s article is likely to be the most challenging of the ‘introductory’ essays, and thus appropriately the last, because it deals most directly with the mathematical concepts in which Badiou grounds his philosophy. Ling employs only the essential concepts of set theory and explains them clearly for the non-specialist; the result is an abbreviated, but not dumbed-down, examination of how Badiou employs set theory to think the organization of infinite multiplicity within the situation and the emergence of true novelty.

The second set of essays address philosophy’s ‘conditions,’ the truth-procedures that constitute the proper object of the philosopher’s thought. Outlining the conceptual contours of each truth-procedure, the contributors offer clear explications of the different ways by which the subject comes to truth within each condition as well as the distinct nature of each condition’s relation to philosophy. The most substantial essays are those on ‘Science’ and ‘Politics,’ although this is largely because of the nature of Badiou’s output. In the former essay, Ray Brassier provides a thorough explication from Badiou’s early writings on science (quite useful, as some of these have yet to be translated) as a rejection both of empiricist positivism and the continental tradition’s skeptical attitude towards such ‘scientism.’ In the latter essay, Nina Power and Alberto Toscano discuss Badiou’s conception of politics as ‘[t]he affirmation against the state of an infinite, generic equality’ (98 my emphasis). Badiou’s work has been criticized, particularly from Marxian corners, as lacking any concrete model of political action. Those who find Badiou’s work too abstract will not find complete satisfaction here, but Power and Toscano offer some concrete examples of how philosophy can be made to theorize and affirm political action as the ‘truth procedure that touches on the being of a collective’ (103). Sigi Jöttkandt and Elie During write on, respectively, ‘Love’ and ‘Art.’ During’s contribution centers on Badiou’s only major work on art, the Handbook of Inaesthetics: art, or rather, ‘regimes of artistic reference’ that manifest in generic ‘configurations’ serve a ‘pedagogical function’ for the philosopher as a formal, sensible representation of novelty, ‘introducing new ways of formalizing the seemingly formless within the sensible’ (86). Jöttkandt examines the roots of Badiou’s idea of love in Lacan’s writings on sexuation and the basics of Badiou’s articulation of love’s engagement with truth in the ‘scene of Two’; unfortunately Jöttkandt was unable to consider Badiou’s Éloge de l’amour (2009), recently translated as In Praise of Love (2012).

The third section of the volume is the most wide-ranging in subject matter, considering Badiou in dialogue with other philosophers. Some are the usual suspects: Plato, Hegel, Lacan, Deleuze. Mark Hewson’s contribution on ‘Heidegger,’ on the other hand, is an unexpected entry because, as Hewson demonstrates, the major works of the two philosophers ‘do not stand in the kind of close communication and dialogue that one might expect’ (146). But like the other essays in this section, Hewson’s essay provides a useful explication of the distinctive nature of Badiou’s project, if primarily through its disengagement with Heidegger’s thought. The only significant criticism one can make is that it could not include all the figures one would wish, although there are some notable omissions: entries on Badiou’s engagement with Marx, Mao, and Althusser would be particularly welcome given their importance to his ideas of politics and science, as would an entry on Descartes, one of the crucial figures in Badiou’s philosophical development alongside Plato and Hegel. As for Badiou’s philosophical opponents, the recent translation of his Wittgenstein’s Anti-Philosophy (2011) highlights his absence here. But this complaint is minor, and the included essays not only explicate Badiou’s own work on these philosophers but also extend the dialogue to new areas.

Badiou’s writing is both admired and dreaded for the intellectual demands it puts on its reader: his thought bridges the continental and analytic traditions in philosophy, with a vast network of philosophical knowledge that includes the specialized language of set theory. The essays in Key Concepts capture the complexity and depth of Badiou’s thought in a way that is sophisticated but accessible. For the most expert readers of Badiou, this volume may not offer much in the way of new material, but it serves as a thoughtful guide and companion for the novice and for those with some sense of the philosopher’s corpus and interested in the latest developments regarding his work. 

4 February 2013

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