May 31, 2009

No Truth Without A Fight


[This text was originally published in C Magazine #86.]

This question of the existence of truths (that “there be” truths) points to a co-responsibility of art, which produces truths, and philosophy, which, under the condition that there are truths, is duty-bound to make them manifest (a very difficult task indeed). Basically, to make truths manifest means the following: to distinguish truths from opinion. So that the question today is this and no other: Is there something besides opinion? In other words (one will, or will not, forgive the provocation), is there something besides our “democracies”?
– Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics

The writings of French philosopher Alain Badiou carve out their own distinct path in almost militant opposition to what he sees as philosophies’ current failure to renew itself or provide effective opposition to the ‘repulsive mixture of power and opinion’ that typifies capitalism’s vision of democracy. His works implore us to ‘keep going’, keep pushing against the mere sophistry of an academic overemphasis on the limits of language (he cites Plato: “We philosophers do not take as our point of departure words, but things.”) and towards a manner of thinking that would allow philosophy to regain its primary historical function as a search for ‘truth’. This conviction – that concepts such as truth are essential if we are to continue to effectively think about, and act upon, the world in which we live – is clearly of great relevance to any assessment of contemporary aesthetics.

Concepts such as “truth” might well sound a bit awkward (perhaps even ridiculous) to our post- post modern ears and are certainly a hard-sell when confronted with the widespread certainty that pluralism and tolerance are the most appropriate responses to the complexities of the world in which we live. But if pluralism is no longer doing the trick, if you’re looking for something a little bit more uncompromising, Badiou’s doing what he can to provide it in a manner worthy of the name philosophy, the four dimensions of which he defines as ‘revolt, logic, universality and risk.’

Badiou approaches truth from a provocative and unexpected angle. According to his central work L’Etre et l’Evénement, the only way to become a subject is by encountering an event and then persisting in your fidelity to the truth of that event. At first glance this might seem a bit harsh: if you have never experienced an event (of which there are only four kinds: artistic invention, emancipatory politics, scientific re-foundation and love) and then stood firm in your loyalty to its truth, you simply don’t qualify as a subject. However, no one said truth was going to be easy.

For example, if you were a scientist in the twenties and thirties it would be impossible to practice science in the same way after having experienced the event of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity as you did previous to it. The theory of relativity creates a truth that changes the way you think about and practice physics. It is your fidelity to this truth that defines you as a scientist and it is now possible that the rest of your life might be spent teasing out the many complications and consequences of your encounter.

Badiou goes on to define and re-define his central terms in great detail, a few of which I will attempt to summarize as follows:

A situation is simply the way things are in any given field of experience. It is the status quo, the unquestioned set of assumptions that make up our knowledge of life and thought. If nothing happens the situation remains the same, it can only be changed by an event.

An event is always ‘unpredictable and incalculable’, never something that you can plan, always something that unexpectedly happens and you simply have to deal with. What differentiates an event from other significant occurrences is that the truth it generates cannot be assessed using current criteria. To decide whether or not a given event is significant, whether or not it has generated a ‘truth’, one is forced to change the way one thinks. An event creates something new, something that has the potential to alter the situation once and for all. In doing so, it also reveals the void of the situation, showing that the situation previous to the event was devoid of truth.

Stemming from the rupture of an event, truth forms ‘a hole in knowledge’, breaking open the situation, pushing at the limits of what potentially can be said. In this it contains a paradox since it is both ‘something new and exceptional’ while at the same time encompassing ‘the most stable, the closest, ontologically speaking, to the initial state of things.’ Badiou never sees truth as an unchanging verity. To the contrary, he always views it as an ‘infinite multiplicity.’ Any given truth is not the only one, contains infinite aspects, and therefore should never be rigid. If it goes too far or becomes totalizing, it betrays itself, opening the way to terror and disaster. Significantly, philosophy is not a ‘truth procedure’ and therefore can never create truths. Rather, philosophy’s role is to identify truths that have already been brought into being by one of it’s four conditions – Art, Politics, Science and Love – and to seize them, both in the sense of giving them a name and in the sense of being seized by them, of being astonished.

There is no truth without choice. If in your lifetime you happen to encounter an event, you must choose whether or not what you have experienced is significant enough to have generated a new truth and if so whether this truth should be brought into the fold of your situation (therefore changing everything). If so, this truth will demand of you a fidelity that then leads to an ongoing (possibly lifelong) investigation into its complications and consequences. There is nothing easy about such fidelity, you might change your mind, be killed in the struggle to establish the truth you have encountered, be ostracized from your community, etc. But something new has arisen: precarious, fragile, unable to fend for itself against the tides of convention, corruption, your own exhaustion and the inertia of prevailing wisdom. Without your fidelity to it, the truth you have encountered is unlikely to prevail.

Badiou claims that contemporary philosophy is a kind of ‘generalized, potent sophistry’; the foundational principle of all sophistry, both ancient and modern, being that there is no truth, only social convention, argument, desire, self interest, opinion, etc. It is telling that his response to this situation is not to try and ‘do away’ with the sophists but rather to enter into an ongoing dialogue with them, accepting them as philosophy’s necessary ‘enemy-brother’.

In visual art today we can also recognize something analogous to sophistry: a conception of art that – in its skilful, eccentric rejection of truth – undeniably forfeits certain possibilities for clarity and direction. This loss can then be reintegrated back into the work in the form of institutional or social critique. An institutional critique that unintentionally doubles as an acceptance of art’s socially marginal status by turning in on itself, by attacking the very institutions which, for better or worse, have been set up for art’s benefit and protection. Or a social critique that does in fact acknowledge the role of art within a larger set of social relations but does so under the cloak of a ‘defence mechanism’ irony that is really just the other face of an inability to meaningfully alter our surroundings. Such a strategies are certainly a reflection of the world in which we live, of capitalism’s ability to absorb absolutely anything, and gains further resonance by skirting the thin line between being a reflection of the problematic nature of the world and the spectator’s implicit acceptance of these same problems. However, without principles, without some consideration of questions pertaining to truth as a foundation on which to build, such strategies spin endlessly in circles.

I suppose the main thing I’m arguing for here is that we consider what contemporary art might look like if, much like David Hickey brought ‘beauty’ back into the art discourse of the mid-nineties, Alain Badiou managed to do the same for ‘truth.’ If art today often seems like a series of ‘opinions’, what might an art look like that moves past opinion and tries to encompass truth in Badiou’s sense of the term? At first glance this might appear an unlikely scenario, but fifteen years ago it certainly didn’t seem likely that beauty would become the buzzword of the mid-nineties. And much like beauty, if only as a provocation to current art world thinking, I suspect ‘truth’ has a great deal to offer.

Artists today very much need something like this. Perhaps not precisely what Badiou explores, but definitely something along these lines. For example, what would it mean to see ‘Duchamp’ as a central event (in Badiou’s sense of the term) in the formation of contemporary art? Of course, a great deal of work has been done along these lines already, but for the most part such work has been done while studiously avoiding (or rejecting) words such as ‘truth’. To see Duchamp as an event certainly doesn’t mean that Marcel Duchamp, as an individual artist, should be further lionized. Rather, we would have to search for the truth of what Duchamp and his legacy brought into the situation of art and what it might mean to continue to work in fidelity to this truth. Not just to continue working conceptually because it remains, in one way or another, the dominant paradigm. But rather to intensify one’s relationship with what is essential within the foundation of this paradigm. Of course, it is equally possible that we might realize that the event we are referring to here as ‘Duchamp’ is devoid of truth and therefore the contemporary art situation must simply change.

More to the point, I suspect an engagement with truth (or something like it) is essentially what most artists do anyway, almost as a dirty little secret or unspoken impulse. They feel that within their work there is something true and they bear this truth, remaining loyal to early breakthroughs and realizations, continually teasing out the many complications and consequences of their ongoing endeavour. Dealing with the language of ‘truth-procedures’ more directly has the potential to challenge the unspoken nature of this struggle, asking us to think about what art means on a more fundamental level, intensifying our engagement with our fundamental artistic concerns, allowing the multiplicity of our practice to swarm around a central point, giving us back a clear, yet still hazardous, sense of direction.

In what could also serve as a critique of contemporary art, Badiou condemns the framework of current philosophy as being ‘too strongly committed to the polyvalence of meaning and the plurality of languages’. He feels there is something in it that goes ‘too far in reflecting the physiognomy of the world itself’, that it is ‘too compatible with the status quo to be able to sustain the rupture or distance that philosophy requires.’ In many ways philosophy’s unacknowledged compliance with the status quo is what lies behind Badiou’s preoccupation with truth. If philosophy does not have the tools to sustain ‘revolt, logic, universality and risk’, there is probably something lacking. An ‘end of philosophy’ thinking now dominates which leads towards an unbreakable sense of paralysis.

This sense of cultural paralysis is certainly not an unusual modern sensation. What is unusual, and reveals Badiou’s activist roots, is his ongoing attempt to break it. He characterizes this attempted break as a kind of gamble, a roll of the dice. Perhaps it will succeed, perhaps not. When one is seized by a truth it is imperative to try, to roll the dice, see what might be possible if one chooses not to accept the current situation and instead work towards something that, while seemingly impossible under the current conditions, might suddenly become possible if things were to change.

In the end what Badiou tells us is that there is no truth without a fight, that to be a subject requires a certain degree of militancy (he quotes Mallarmé in saying that we must become ‘militants of restraint’), that ‘respect for the Other’ means nothing without some deeper conception of truth to guide one’s thoughts and actions.

It is only by declaring that we want what conservatism decrees to be impossible, and by affirming truths against the desire for nothingness, that we tear ourselves away from nihilism. The possibility of the impossible, which is exposed by every loving encounter, every scientific re-foundation, every artistic invention and every sequence of emancipatory politics, is the sole principle – against the ethics of living well whose real content is the deciding of death – of an ethic of truths.
– Alain Badiou, Ethics

As artists today, what events can we call upon and generate to destabilize the current situation, to undo unexamined certainties and replace them with something more flexible, more useful, more courageous? Are we willing to leave behind the stifling comfort of relativity in order to once again start thinking about truth? It’s certainly unlikely, but hopefully intriguing to consider. If, without for a moment loosing sight of moderation and critical distance, we allow ourselves to believe that artistic invention has the potential to generate truths – with all the complexity, rigour and multiplicity such a word implies – what might this change? Would anyone care to find out?


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