‘Personal Liberty and Collective Equality’ by Alain Badiou & Cornel West

Video recording of a paper delivered by Alain Badiou and accompanied by Cornel West titled Personal Liberty and Collective Equality at Princeton University, United States on 28th March 2006.


Badiou begins with a sketch of his concept of the “Event” which ruptures the existing “Situation” and results in a new situation wherein elements in the pre-evental “State” which were not experienced as related become involved in a relationship in the novel state following the event.

The theme of his talk is proposed as concerning the relationship of ethics and politics. He takes up what he says have been the three classical conceptions of ethics (theological, natural and formal ethics), and in the end states he is opposed to each. The theological posits a difference between good and evil determined transcendentally by God, characterized by submission to divine law. The natural determines what is good and evil from a sense of pity, for humanity, for victims. Formal ethics posits imperatives for subjective intentions that are followed (good) or not (bad).

Badiou agrees that some actions are better than others but that neither law, pity or intention can be foundational for ethics. Rather one must find in each singular situation a new rule of action. He contrasts attention to the concrete situation in determining ethical action to belief in something external to the situation for that determination. The example is the the September 11 event and the subsequent reaction – his point being the action of terrorists and the subsequent revenge for that action have emerged from ethical decisions that were not rooted in attention to the real concrete political situation.

Badiou then speaks to the situation of politics today as being characterized by the continued failure of what he calls “expressive dialectics” – to which he proposes attention instead to non-expressive dialects. The former refers to political struggle in the last century as expressive of social contradictions (he refers to Lenin on Marxism: classes are expressed by parties and parties are expressed by leaders – as Badiou says, the proper name of whom express the becoming of the political process).

Non-expressive political dialectics would need to be a new form of collective action, the conception of which is virtual and yet to be actualized; it would be a political dialectics not the result of social contradictions (which nonetheless are real and to which we must be attentive), and a dialectics not expressive of conflicts of opinion in our objective world. Such conception of the possibility of a novel truth, and its actual generation, rather than a struggle between opinions means in fact maintaining separation from the actual objective situation of the expressive dialectics of politics today.

The expressive dialectic of our current objective world – that which we must move beyond, is between conservative and progressive politics, oppressive preservation of power versus creative justice, between desire for law and order versus the collective desire for another world as possible. Both sides of this expressive dialectic are proponents of “prophetic democracy” – which Badiou (prior to stating he will disagree with) outlines as essentially oriented to the principles of human rights, of tolerance and of freedom for all: the individual subject has the right to satisfy desires, all cultures are equal, and subjects must be allowed maximal expressive capacity.

Badiou builds his disagreement with the three main orientations of prophetic democracy on aspects of its formal internal contradictions – on the fact of problematic relationships between human rights, cultural tolerance and freedom. He points out that though people must have the right to exercise their will to satisfy desire there is no parameters of what is “normal” desire eminent to the concept of human rights as such. Likewise there is no parameters for “normal” cultural practices. Finally, freedom in some cultures is only maximized not by how much individual creativity is allowable but by obedience and sacrifice. Again, returning to the example of the “war on terror”, Badiou states that on a philosophical level this is a war between enjoyment and sacrifice, between comfort and money on one side and death and obedience on the other. In either case there is not in either case an ethical framework in which we might wish to participate.

The argument continues against prophetic democracy with an explicit outline of what Badiou has coined “political dialectics” whereby there is participation in novel freedom rather than expressive freedom. We have to grasp in this the meaning of the poetry of saying freedom is like the experience of the possibility of something that is impossible. Badiou introduces the distinction between actual freedom being always a matter of production of novelty rather than the expression or realization of something already existing in the political situation.

In the productive scheme of political dialectics the struggle always involves making a choice against the expression of something intimate to oneself and for something that is social, that is inclusive of that beyond oneself. This would be a human rights orientation that is heroic in opposition to juridical rights because some existing and even allowable behaviors are unacceptable as are some practices in some cultures. What Badiou posits here is that there is “what is” – that is subjects and cultures (individuals and languages of social group expression); but there also exist universal “Truths”. What he means precisely needs careful enunciation.

Universal Truths (I employ capital T) are precisely that, not particular individual or particular cultural truths. They are as Badiou says, exceptions to the situation of individuals in their cultural milieu: “There are only bodies and languages except that there are truths”. To this he is careful to point out this does not mean there are Truths in addition to individuals and cultures. Truths are not transcendental either inasmuch as they operate in individuals and cultures while not being reducible to either.

Political dialectics today, unlike prophetic democracy, is a new democratic political activity engaging Truth rather than a repeating the failed political struggle of the last century. It is not an effort to produce an expressive harmony, a negotiation between multiple cultures. Subjects in the productive action of participation in a becoming of a novel “truth body” do so, according to Badiou, primarily through existing situational modalities of politics, art, science and/or love. What is more, he says, the individual in political dialectics is becoming more than herself in the existing situation, doing more incorporating truth than was possible with her proper ability.

The Princeton University Department of African American Studies is considered among the best academic units in the United States examining the crucial role that race plays in America.

Cornel West is an American philosopher, political activist, social critic, author, and public intellectual and is author of over 20 books, including the classic bestseller Race Matters, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, Democracy Matters, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, Black Prophetic Fire, and editor of more than a dozen others. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University He has also taught at Union Theological Seminary, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Paris. West frequently makes headlines for his political action, including his participation in protests against police violence following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson at which West was twice arrested. He is well known for his staunch critique of Barack Obama’s economic and foreign policy in public media during Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2017, and last year was a prominent endorser of Sen. Bernie Sanders, and later Green Party candidate Jill Stein, during the presidential election. He is also a familiar figure in popular culture, with cameo appearances in The Matrix films, Examined Life documentary by Astra Taylor and as a frequent guest on The Bill Maher Show, The Tavis Smiley Show, CNN, and C-Span.

Alain Badiou is a French Marxist philosopher, novelist and playwright. Born in Rabat, Morocco, Badiou completed high school in Toulouse before moving to Paris for undergraduate studies at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure (ENS), where he worked closely with Louis Althusser, but was never one of the select group of disciples who came to be known as Althusserians. After completing his obligatory military service, Badiou taught in Reims, first at a lycée, then at the university. In 1968 he was invited by Michel Foucault to join the department of philosophy at Vincennes (University of Paris VIII), where his colleagues included Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-François Lyotard. After spending 30 years at Vincennes, Badiou left in 1998 to return to his alma mater ENS. The primary philosophical system developed by Alain Badiou is constructed in Being and Event, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, and the forthcoming Immanence of Truths: Being and Event III. Badiou’s model of praxis is usually described as subtractive because it operates on the premise that political action can only work if it subtracts itself from the power and processes of the state. Throughout his career, Badiou has been actively involved in politics. During the events of May ’68 he was a member of highly vocal Maoist groups. In more recent times he has been involved with L’Organisation Politique, a politicized group he helped found. Because of its powerfully political texture, Badiou’s philosophy is increasingly widely read today, a measure both of the volatility of the times and the lucidity of his thought.

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