Preliminary Notes on Badiou’s “Eight Theses on the Universal”

Thesis One: Thought is the Proper Medium of the Universal (thought & knowledge)

  • The universal can only be thought as something that does not (yet) exist in knowledge. It is, in a sense, a “hole” in knowledge.
  • This means that the universal can only ever be grasped from the position of a militant looking for this “hole”, looking for where there are cracks or gaps.
  • The subject is the effect of the process of thinking the universal, or finding cracks, gaps or holes in existing knowledge (i.e., in existing political practices). The subject does not exist prior to this endeavor (which is where Kant’s transcendental idealism is coming from).
  • [Isn’t this a version of Althusser’s “interpellation” in which the subject is created by being called into being except that with Badiou’s subject this is not imposed from an external source (as it is with Althusser) but is an internal phenomenon that extends outward – hence, it recognizes itself as a new type of subject that does not currently exist in universal knowledge?]
  • Badiou says: “Thus the central dialectic at work in the universal is that of the local, as subject, and the global, as infinite procedure. This dialectic is constitutive of thought as such.” The subject is created or brought into being by a “subjective” recognition that there is a “hole” or gap in knowledge about it and it constitutes itself in relation to this “lack” as the possibility of the universal’s existence (someday but not yet).
  • When Badiou uses the example of the assertion by “illegal immigrant workers” of France to be included and recognized, he is saying that these workers are constituted locally as subjects (something like “illegal immigrant workers that want to be recognized as contributing citizens”) and represent a challenge to the idea of universality because they are not simply local subjects (something like “What can happen there could happen here” in both its good and bad sense – think of how the idea of the French Revolution inspired the Haitians, etc.)
  • The universal is “always an incalculable emergence”. Truth cannot be known ahead of time. It is always “out of sync”, so to speak, with existing knowledge.
  • “Particular” is, according to Badiou, what can be discerned in knowledge “by means of descriptive predicates”. “Singular” is, by contrast, something that is identifiable – it exists – but there literally are no words to describe it. An ethnic population is particular but singular is that which cuts across these particularities and registers as universal.

 Thesis Two: Every Universal is Singular, or is a Singularity

  • Badiou sets himself against those who see universality as being the domain of recognizing and respecting particularities (i.e., predicates, identities). This, he says, cannot be so because it will always run up against its limit or contradict itself.
  • “…every universal presents itself not as a regularization of the particular or differences, but as a singularity that is subtracted from identitarian predicates; although obviously it proceeds via those predicates.” What this means is that the universal manifests itself as a singularity that refuses identitarian predicates for itself but uses them as tools for transmission. (At this point, this is all beginning to sound a little Laruellean to me). The singularity is a subtraction from known identitarian predicates, which foreclose or circumscribe thought. The universal singularity reserves itself as a negative check.

Thesis Three: Every Universal Originates in an Event, and the Event is Intransitive to the Particularity of the Situation

  • For Badiou, “political universalism” takes the form of an idea of universality and the fidelity (or infidelity) to that idea. What Badiou calls “reaction” is the attempt to reduce that idea to simple terms (“The French Revolution was a failure”, etc.). Essentially, “reaction” is the attempt to label an idea with predicates, to make it into a predicative particularity (aka, identity). Badiou uses sexualized differences between men and women as an example.
  • Relating back to what I wrote about being anti-social in Error Messages #1, Badiou rights that “it is perfectly clear that the attraction exerted by the universal lies precisely in the fact that it subtracts itself (or tries to subtract itself) as an asocial singularity from the predicates of knowledge.”
  • For Badiou, one of the conditions of the singularity is that there is “no available predicate capable of subjecting it to knowledge.”

Thesis Four: A Universal Initially Presents Itself as a Decision About an Undecidable

  • Encyclopedia: “I call “encyclopedia” the general system of predicative knowledge internal to a situation: i.e., what everyone knows about politics, sexual difference, culture, art, technology, etc.” Baidou claims that there are things that are not tied to this encyclopedic archive of knowledge; They “exist at the margins of the encyclopedia.”
  • Event / evental statement: “…an event is what decides about a zone of encyclopedic indiscernibility.” This is literally a “bringing attention to…” something but then it disappears because it has been declared to be a part of the situation and recognized (but perhaps not accepted) as such. (i.e., the “evental statement”; “It is something that had no valence but now does.”). The evental statement inaugurates the universal singularity. In Badiou’s word, “it fixes the present” form of thought.
  • “…every evental statement has a declarative structure…”
  • “The constituted subject follows in the wake of this declaration, which opens up a possible space for the universal.” You declare that something is missing and it is this and the subject of that statement comes in its wake. The subject is an effect of this declaration.

Thesis Five: The Universal Has an Implicative Structure

  • What Badiou seems to be saying here is that once an evental statement has been made about a situation, not all parties involved must accept the terms of that statement, as such, but they will – indeed, they must – admit that things have changed in some way… the situation has been altered. It is implied that the situation has been altered (?)

Thesis Six: The Universal is Univocal

  • The evental statement, in its declarative capacity, possesses some sense of “valence”, it makes something that wasn’t decidable or visible suddenly so. It “now possesses an exceptional valence,” Baidou says.
  • The evental statement has more to do with the act, Badiou says, rather than being or meaningful. It is the act of bringing a focal point to a decision from out of the flowing sea of many possible decisions that might’ve been able to be made. “It just so happened that the statement was decided, and this decision remains subtracted from all interpretation. It relates to the yes or the no, not to the equivocal plurality of meaning.” It is decisive – one might even say fanatically committed or authoritarian – not wishy-washy and democratic (if we read ‘democracy’ as being equivalent to deliberation and plurality). It is not an existential (being; phenomenology) or a meaning (semiotics).
  • Badiou calls this a “logical revolt”, insofar as it “must gradually begin to transform the logic of the situation in it entirety.” That is, over time (generations perhaps? Centuries?) it will begin to alter one’s subjective understanding of logic and, eventually, the collective logic (“universal” logic). Badiou says that the circumstances of a sitauation might not change but that the “logic of its appearance” might undergo a “profound transformation”.
  • Badiou sets his thesis of univocity against the thesis of equivocity. In the latter, the viewpoint is one in which universality is conceived as generalities have power over particularities. Badiou’s orientation here is the opposite; his is more militant, more fanatical: it arises from the particularity but only as a subtraction from particularities or particular predicates. This subtractive declaration alters the logic of the situation in a singular way.

Thesis Seven: Every Universal Singularity Remains Incomplete or Open

  • Here Badiou simply argues that his theses regarding a “universal singularity” or fanatical decision is in opposition to philosophies of finitude or relativism (which he says are complicit in establishing a particular point of view, one of closure and inclusion that seals itself off after it declares itself.
  • For Badiou, every universal truth must remain open or inifinite and, therefore, not declared or declarable? From this point of view, the universal truth of an evental statement dies the moment that it is uttered, correct? Or must it be uttered but declare that it can never be satisfied? If that is the case, then one’s opposition might simply be able to say, “Well, fine, but if you are telling us that we cannot meet your demands because you don’t have any demands that we can answer then what is the point? This is precisely what happened with Occupy Wall Street.

Thesis Eight: Universality is Nothing Other Than the Faithful Construction of an Infinite Generic Multiplicity

  • What Badiou calls “generic multiplicity” is that which belongs to a situation (again, it is often difficult to conceive of something that belongs but also doesn’t belong) but that is “not determined by any of the predicates of encyclopdic knowledge”. It is not determined as an identity and not determined by particular predicates.
  • The universal “leaves behind it a simple detached statement” (which takes the form of the idea of the universal?) “as a trace of the disappearance of the event that founds it.” The subject (or, rather, “subject-thought”) is an effect of this procedure à this is very different that how most people believe an agent already exists and puts things out into and adds to a pre-existing circumstance. Badiou’s theses basically say that this “agent” doesn’t exist before the declarative statement of its existence. It can declare itself as existing only in the form of saying that it “exists” in a hole or gap in the pre-existing (i.e., it doesn’t exist from the point of view of the whole), only as a negative (again, from the point of view of the whole or the State, etc).

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