Comparing Badiou’s ‘Logic of Site’ with ‘Asymmetry’ in Levinas
April 4, 2016 § Leave a comment
Different thinkers often end up developing idiosyncratic terms in their work. While this might seem wearying to some readers, I think it enriches philosophical discussion. It also helps lessen confusion. For example, if throughout my career I keep referring to one thinker’s terminology I inevitably begin to notice that as a reader my understanding of a philosopher’s terms changes over time. The nuances between two philosophers’ terms can help to better convey each thinker’s metaphysics, ethics, and political commitments. Emmanuel Levinas and Alain Badiou are both notoriously difficult to read, but I think comparing certain concepts in their respective works helps to illuminate each of them as individual thinkers.
Badiou’s focus on the rapturous nature of events and his concern with maintaining fidelity to an event makes him at the end of the day concerned with establishing a subjectivity that is capable of political action. For him such a subjectivity is dependent on a truth procedure that is logical even before a subject is produced. The Logic of coming into being maintains a Truth that exists prior to subjectivity. His ethics are wrapped up in the idea of maintaining a fidelity to the truth procedure of an event. He says in “Logic of the Site,” “we will say that this site is a strong singularity, or an event, if, in consequence of the (maximal) intensity of the site, something whose value of existence was null in the situation takes on a positive value of existence.” In other words, Badiou is interested in how things come into being and how we can maintain attention to that coming into being. He believes that the event itself brings into being the possibility for certain subjectivities and there is certainly something ethical implied in maintaining fidelity to an event. Importantly for Badiou, however, one already exists in being before aligning with an event, which somehow uniquely sutures a past and a present. Although there are both ontological and ethical aspects to Badiou’s work, they are altogether different from how they appear in Emmanuel Levinas.
Levinas famously spends the better part of his career articulating both why and how ethics is “first” philosophy as a notable counter-stance to Martin Heidegger’s return to ontology in Being and Time. What’s at stake for Levinas is an aspect of Heidegger’s thinking that led him to be uncritical of the Nazis’ relationship to Jews in WWII. For Levinas, before we can discuss what it means to exist, we must deal with the question of the relationship to the Other. Multiple levels of thematizing exist when we try to understand what Levinas means. First, we are always already in relation to other people and with language before we come to know ourselves as such entities that can reflect back on ourselves and wonder what it means to exist. But that is not all that Levinas is trying to convey. For Levinas, a relationship with the Other exists not only prior to my awareness of myself as such, it is a relationship that brings me into being as a kind of command. In some ways, hearing this command may sound similar to what Badiou means by maintaining fidelity to the event, but that sort of thinking obscures important aspects of what Levinas is after. Nevertheless, readers and interlocutors constantly attempt to thematize what Levinas means by pointing to relationships with physical others rather than with a metaphysical Other. On top of that, readers confuse the metaphysical other with God, especially because Levinas relates the command of the Other to commandments from the Old Testament. While Levinas’s thinking has implications for both mundane and religious ethics, focusing on either misses his main point.
In “God and Philosophy,” Levinas articulates the asymmetry of the relation with the Other. In particular he uses the analogy of insomnia to thematize the Other’s relationship to consciousness. It is the asymmetry of an Infinite that cannot event be thought of infinite and in this way Levinas believes he has gone beyond the “idea of the Infinite.” As he yells Philippe Nemo, against Descartes where the Infinite remains “a knowledge. For my part, I think that the relation to the Infinite is not a knowledge, but a Desire.” This Desire cannot be satisfied, it is as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity, “a relationship whose positivity comes from remoteness, from separation, for it nourishes itself one might say with its hunger.” I contrast Desire with insomnia here to balance out a strictly pejorative reading of Levinas’s analogy. For him it is as if the insomnia maintained by the Infinite Other powers consciousness with an excess of its own being. It is a relationship of non-adequation but it is also a sustaining consciousness. For Levinas it is the always already “humming” of the Other’s relation to me that underlies my encounter with both the “face” of the metaphysical Other and an “other” person. Signifiaction is the maintained asymmetrical relationship of the Other as non-adequated “saying.” What it “says” primarily for Levinas is “Thou shall not kill.” In the saying the recognition accompanies an ethical command prior to the awareness of being or beings themselves. Levinas says, “ethical signification signifies not for a consciousness that thematizes, but to a subjectivity that is all obedience, obeying with an obedience preceding understanding.” The ordering that this signifying produces is thematized in terms of obeying a command, but there is less choice involved in obeying than one might suspect. It is the recognition of responsibility to the Other. It is not a matter of a will that wills to obey; it is the matter of a recognition that pauses before the moment of violence. One is always already responsible. This is not to be confused with piety. It is more fundamental to being itself than being pious. Levinas makes this point in his interview with Philippe Nemo, who constantly bates Levinas by presenting hypothetical relations between people to exemplify Levinas’s ethics. Nemo wonders whether violence, hate or disdain might not be just as likely to occur when one confronts the Other. Levinas does not discount this as an outcome, he maintains that his description of the encounter with the “face” of the Other is primary. The response of violence or hate or distain has already condensed into a relationship where recognition has become adequation, where desire has become a lack that can be fulfilled by accomplishing a certain action. Levinas is not condoning pacifism or violence here. Justice will only arise through the relationship of a third. The priority he is fundamentally getting at here is what he bases his idea of a human relationship on, which is fundamentally “Thou shall not kill” in the asymmetric relationship with the Other. That one does kill in the adequated relationship with actual physical others is anterior to this and concerned with justice. Levinas often refers to this in anthropocentric terms as the recognition of humanity.
This potentially creates problems for Levinas. For example, in The Animal Therefore that I am, Jacques Derrida’s attention to animality challenges anthropocentrism itself. In a stunning critique of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of the Other, he critiques an anecdote in Levinas’s work during the context of the holocaust, where a dog’s recognition of prisoners as human inspires Levinas to describe him as “the last Kantian in Germany,” appealing to a biological fact that National Socialism ignored. Undoubtedly, Levinas prioritized this line of argument because it was the greater threat to his person, his family, religion, ethnicity, etc. in the context of the Jewish catastrophe. When in a later interview with John Llewelyn, Levinas is confronted with his inherent and perhaps archaic humanism with the question, “Does the animal have a face?” he answers, “I don’t know if a snake has a face. I can’t answer that question. A more specific analysis is needed.” While I tend to applaud Levinas for the recognition of the limits of his own thinking here, it is certainly true that more analysis is necessary and I believe such analyses would be fruitful for ecological criticism. That said, for my purposes here I want to highlight Levinas’s qualified humanism (which is neither Renaissance nor Christian) in terms of his break with communism in order to situate his thinking against Badiou. I turn here to a rather lengthy quotation from the beginning of Totality and Infinity:
Demented pretension to the invisible, when the acute experience of the human in the twentieth century teaches that the thoughts of men are borne by needs which explain society and history, that hunger and fear can prevail over every human resistance and every freedom! There is no question of doubting this human misery, this dominion the things and the wicked exercise over man, this animality. But to be a man is to know that this is so. Freedom consists in knowing that freedom is in peril. But to know or to be conscious is to have time to avoid and forestall the instant of inhumanity. It is this perpetual postponing of the hour of treason – infinitesimal difference between man and non-man – that implies the disinterestedness of goodness, the desire of the absolutely other or nobility, the dimension of metaphysics.
Undoubtedly, Levinas’s critique of Marxism, at least in its 20th century context, puts him at odds with Alain Badiou. This brings into contestation Badiou’s logic of the site as containing a logic that precedes subjectivity but that manifests an event that requires adherence of the militant subject. As I stated earlier, one is already a being before such subjectivity is produced in Badiou, so he is already talking about something more worldly than Levinas is getting at. Nevertheless, the fact that one of Badiou’s most exemplary militant figures is St. Paul warrants a comparison here that distinguishes Levinas’s Judaism from Badiou’s atheistic Christianity.
In chapter 8 of Alain Badiou’s St. Paul, “Love is a Universal Power,” Badiou writes, “Love is precisely what faith is capable of. I call this universal power of subjectification an evental fidelity, and it is correct to say that fidelity is the law of truth.” He then translates this into a theorem for the militant: “What grants power to a truth, and determines subjective fidelity, is the universal address of the relation to self instituted by the event, and not in relation to itself.” This is, of course, the concept of love as the Christian concept of agape, which is the usual translation for love in a Christian context. Badiou would likely know that this word is contextualized against eros. Eros, in the twenty-first century, however, cannot but resound within a psychoanalytic discourse going back to Freud. “Desire” is also loaded. In Badiou’s book, “agape” appears once, in a quote from Galatians: “pistis di’ agapes energoumene, “faith works only through love (Gal. 5.6).” The biblical context here relates to the distinction between faith and law, particularly with the question of circumcision. This is made especially clear in the next line when Paul asks, “who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Gal. 5.7). What I think is important about this faith that works through love is the preferential nature of Christian agape. For the Christian, agape is God’s preference; for Badiou, love is fidelity made by choice in adherence to the event. He says, “Faith publicly acknowledges that the subjective apparatus commanded by the law is not the only possible one.” Eventually this leads Badiou to his next theorem: “the subjective process of a truth is one and the same as the love of that truth. And the militant real of that love is the universal address of what constitutes it. The materiality of universalism is the militant dimensionality of every truth.”
Two closely related versions of universality are present in Levinas and Badiou. Would Badiou accept a militant approach to the responsibility to the Other as preceding the truth event of philosophy recognized as such? Levinas is offering something more than simply what Badiou calls St. Paul’s “antiphilosophy.” Levinas in Badiou’s terms would be something like this: I have to recourse to claim a will to fidelity to the event that sustains me because it is an event that I have always been living whether or not I choose to recognize it as such. Christian antinomianism in the logic of Paul’s fidelity to the resurrection has more to do with a humanly thematized concept of justice than it does with the being of beings or with any universal event. It is bad faith not to recognize that the event has been “eventing” me the entire time through an asymmetry that precedes apperception. Carry on as you will, Badiou, for human action necessitates the doing of justice, but do not forget the responsibility in the face of the Other that sustains your own being’s witnessing of logos itself.
 Alain Badiou, “Logic of the Site,” diacritics, (fall / winter 33.3-4: 2003), 147.
 Emmanuel Levinas, “God and Philosophy,” Of God Who Comes to Mind, Trans. Bettina Bergo, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 58.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A. Coehen, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1982), 92.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 34.
 Emmanuel Levinas, “God and Philosophy,” Of God Who Comes to Mind, Trans. Bettina Bergo, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 77.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A. Coehen, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1982), 89.
 Jacques Derrida, The Animal Therefore That I am, Ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, Trans. David Wills, (New York: Fordham UP, 2008), p. 107-108.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 34.
 Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Trans. Ray Brassier, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 90.
 Ibid., 90.
 I am aware that some think Badiou lands in eros in his book In Praise of Love. I have yet to read it, so I may need to qualify this later.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 92.