Alain Badiou: Mysticism, Philosophy, and the Two Cuts

I want to pick up from where I left off in my last overview of Badiou’s 2010 lectures at the European Graduate School. I am going to provide an overview of Badiou’s lecture on mysticism and philosophy.

I would like to recapitulate some of the most important points from my last post. First, Badiou believed that philosophy always begins in the void. Thus, philosophy begins with pure experience, negativity, and nihilism. Second, philosophy does not remain within nihilism but rather approaches the moment of affirmation through dialectics. Badiou’s new point is that philosophy can only reach the affirmation by a sort of movement. And so philosophy is a movement. The question which helps us to compare and contrast mysticism and philosophy follows: what sort of movement is philosophy?

Philosophy has its beginning in the void but it also moves toward the goal of affirmation. The goal of the affirmation is nothing less than the transformation of subjectivity. What distinguishes philosophy from mysticism is the nature of the movement: philosophy moves toward its goal through different stages or passages while mysticism moves toward its goal through a smooth and reciprocal pass. Philosophy, unlike mysticism, can not reduce its movement to the revelation of the pure instant, it doesn’t happen all at once. Mysticism, on the other hand, begins with the destruction of subjectivity and the world of the subject – that is, it begins with nihilism – and moves toward an infinite affirmation through that same experience. Infinity and the void coincide without any mediation along the way.

Mysticism is a form of transmission that occurs outside of the rational transmission or communication of language. It consists of a pure experience of the infinite or, if you like, god, within the nothingness of being. The mystic immediately finds god when he destroys himself, his ego, and so on. It is only by accepting our finitude and accepting our fundamental and primordial nothingness that we can open up access to the glory of god. Badiou calls this the “law of access” to the infinite.

What are the fundamental steps inherent to the movement of philosophy? First of all, it is important to point out that the negative beginning of philosophy does not provide us with an experience of god. If we imagine the void as “0” and the infinite as “w” then we can understand the trajectory of philosophy abstractly as follows:

0                    ->                           w

There are two possible movements toward the infinite (“w”). The first movement from “0” to “w” can be drawn like this:

0 —————————-> w

This movement is a smooth line from the void to the infinite. It represents mysticism. The second movement can be drawn like this:

0|-|-|||||||||||||> w

Here, there is no smooth transition. Rather, there are stages.

Given the last lecture, we might be tempted to argue that mysticism and nihilism are similar experiences. They certainly both begin with nothingness, but mysticism is in all actuality not reducible to nihilism. It is much rather a specific experience of nothingness. Unlike nihilism, mysticism (claims to) transform its relationship into a law of access toward the infinite. It does not move rationally like philosophy but rather assumes that the movement beyond nihilism occurs irrationally or through the experience of nothingness itself. This is why the mystic is destined to solitude, because the experience can not be rationally shared or transmitted to others. It is a form of radical solitude with god. This is why mystics often claim that they can not explain their experience to others – that others have to experience it themselves to fully appreciate it. Mystics can compare affective experiences but really there is nothing tangible – no object – that can be compared or measured against one another. Mysticism is philosophy without patience. It is an immediate experience with god and a pure movement toward the infinite.

What is the relationship between philosophy and mysticism? Surprisingly, the two are not opposed to one another. In other words, the relationship between philosophy and mysticism is not the same as the relationship between philosophy and nihilism or positivism (as described in the previous lecture). Philosophy is not against mysticism nor does philosophy subsume mysticism into its fold like it does with nihilism. Neither does philosophy aim to destroy mystical experience. In the end, the movement toward the infinite from the void is a shared goal. Badiou is not against mysticism at all – he even seems to respect mysticism. The problem is that mysticism is only for some while philosophy is for everybody. Badiou observes that it would be difficult for there to be a society in which everybody is a mystic and completely captured by god. If angels exist, then this might be their situation. A pure angel might be within the constant experience of the mystic. But philosophy claims that not all of us are angels – while equally admitted that perhaps some of us are angels.

Philosophy and mysticism both begin with the experience of nothingness and they both intend to go beyond the nothingness toward the infinite. However, philosophy is more susceptible to conceptualization and to rational steps and processes toward the infinite. The movement of philosophy is always systematic, and consists of definite steps toward the infinite. In the previous lecture Badiou demonstrated that all philosophers describe a passage from nothing to the infinite within their work – but seldom has it been an immediate revelation. Philosophers are patient and they allow time for understanding and learning. Moreover, they also accept that repetition occurs.

How does repetition figure into all of this? Within the number system there is a movement from zero or the void to the infinite – from “0” to “w”. It looks something like this:

0 1 2 3 ….. w

Each number is a new construction from the standpoint of the previous and there is no last number. The operation which allows us to move from 1 to 2 and from 2 to 3, and so on, is a repetition of n+1. So the repetition looks something like this:

n = 1, n + 1 = 2, n + n + 1 = 3, ….. w

And so what is repeated is not the concrete number but the operation or process itself. Philosophy is quite like this sort of numerical succession insofar as it demonstrates a systematic passage from zero to the infinite with new numerical constructions based on the repetition of an operation. The passage from one number or object to another number or object always involves the same procedure even while it produces something new. We know, for example, that 3 is not the same number as 2; 3 is not the repetition of the number 2 but rather the construction of a new number. In this way, it is always possible to create something new inside of a repetition and by the means of a repetition. If philosophy is to allow itself to move beyond nihilism then it will always be by this sort of process of repetition or dialectics.

We should notice that “w” is not the result of a repetition insofar as it can never be constructed by any operation such as n+1. The operation of n+1 always constructs another finite number and never something infinite like “w”.  It is the direction of the movement that “w” provides – n+1 moves toward infinity without ever reaching it. The number after a number is always another finite number. This problematic is solved by drawing a cut before infinity such that we understand that infinity is barred by the repetition of operations. This cut or wall is an interruption in the process of repetition or counting. Badiou claims that the process or operation is oriented by the infinite but the infinite is not produced by the process or operation. To put is rather simply, the process always displaces the infinite by placing it further ahead – renewing it, so to speak. I am tempted to call this the “first cut”.

In the movement of philosophy from pure negativity toward absolute affirmation, there are two operations. First, there is the repetition operation hitherto described. Within any philosophical system, be that system Hegel’s, Kant’s, or Descartes’, we can always identify something that is constantly repeated on their part and which has been rather fruitful for their work. This operation moves from notion to notion, always creating a new notion by the same operation. But Badiou maintains that there is yet another operation which involves interrupting the repetition itself. This is an operation which ruptures the repetition from within and cuts the whole number system from the infinite. Mathematically, and philosophically, this is the limit point of the system. This cut opens up the possibility of no longer repeating the operation of that philosophy.

Plato was the first to make this cut. The method of dialectical discussion moves step by step and through successive refutations. Plato offered a different image of philosophy by offering his stories. It was no longer n+1 operation but a cut at the edge or limit of the discussion. When the repetitions of the past can no longer be held, they must be replaced with something new. This “something new” is “truth”. The passage from n+1 to n+n+1 is a “creative repetition” and is really kind of a regular sort of change. Indeed, Badiou, in later years, will describe this as “regular change”. The second cut is what he calls an “event”. An event completely interrupts the first position – it is something like a movement from philosophy to non-philosophy insofar as it opens up a new zero. When one is within the event of non-philosophy (I chose this concept) and one begins with ever new creative repetitions then this is what Badiou calls “fidelity”.

And so we have two cuts. The first cut is there before the infinite. The second is there before zero, or the void. The latter is a result of the pure experience of negativity. We can imagine it as a cut in our own life, the sudden onset of anxiety and nihilism. This cut is a difficult one insofar as it invites us to remain in fidelity to the anxiety and to work courageously through it rather than to succumb to nihilism. And, once again, the first cut is the cut of truth.

0 ——> w

Event ——> Truth

And so we can begin to see the stages or passageways that philosophy necessarily moves through. At the beginning, there is the dialectical between existence and being. This was discussed in the previous blog post. Next, there is an event which is a rupture within the dialectical of existence and being. This event opens up a new possibility. Fidelity involves the organization of the consequences of the event for the future truth. This sort of organization, with any luck, produces a subject and that subject creates a truth.

Existence   |       Event         |          Fidelity         |   Subject         |    Truth

Being            |


6 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: Mysticism, Philosophy, and the Two Cuts

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