A Life Worthy of the Idea and the Appearence of Trees

Alain Badiou is always a pleasure a read even if, like me, one isn’t convinced by or a disciple of his philosophy. The first full book in French I read was Badiou’s Manifeste pour la philosophie, which was in many ways a short summary of Being and Event. He has repeated this gesture with his (recently translated) Second Manifesto for Philosophy, which is a summary of the main ideas present in Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II. LoW contains an interesting development of his theory of fidelity, which most readers will be familiar with from his St Paul: The Foundation of Universalism where St. Paul is an instance of one being faithful to an event. Another way of saying this is that St. Paul, like all faithful subjects, “lived a life worthy of the Idea”. In LoW he expands this to a general theory of “subjectivation” or different relational decisions regarding an event are different ways of being a subject. So in addition to a faithful subject, there is also a reactionary subject (who rejects the event) and an obscure subject (who tries to turn the event, founded on the void, into some transcendent body like the Nation, or God, or Race, or Nature, or what have you). I was really taken with this and so Daniel Whistler and me used it in our editorial introduction to After the Postsecular and the Postmodern (Amazon: US, UK; Book Depository) when writing about the different ways theologians, theorists, and philosophers related to the post-secular event.

As far as it goes, though, I pretty much assumed that this was the limit to the usefulness of the theory. It was concerned ultimately with human beings and the political or social. Badiou is, like many French philosophers going back to Descartes, very much tied up in a valorization of the human being above other animals. Even if he calls the human a human animal, it’s always a condition to be overcome through “ideation” or thinking the Idea. In LoW I didn’t see any threat to the centrality of the human for his philosophy, but in the Second Manfiesto there is a curious recurrence of trees. At first it seemed just an example as he differentiated between the absolute difference between individual trees and their appearing as a blur of “tree” when, for example, you’re sat on a train going at some speed. But at one point, as his ideas blurred along for me since his writing is so clear and enjoyable, I suddenly had to stop. For there was a new difference that didn’t blur with the rest. At one point he suggests that a tree can have a “glorious body”, a term he usually reserves for the transformation of a subject in the light of an event. This happens in the midst of a discussion of Valéry where he writes:

That a truth is universal makes it necessary to maintain that its process binds universality to pure contingency – that of the event. A truth appears in the world as the surnumerary connection of chance and eternity.

This is why we can return to the plane tree in its poetic form, for surely such a connection is what Valéry has in mind when the plane tree responds furiously to the attempt to reduce it to its particular appearance or, again, when it sets against this particularity its own inclusion within the universal. Let us read in response, hearing in ‘tempest’ the action of the event and in its ‘superb head’ the plane tree’s incorporation within the universal consequences of the tempest or a truth’s advent in the world. This ‘superb head’ is the glorious body of the transfigured tree, which is also, thereby, the generic equal of all that grows, with tree and grass joined, under the fold of the True, in fraternity:

‘No! says the tree. It says No! by its superb head’s
Scintillating sparks,
Treated universally by the tempest
As it does a blade of grass (Second Manifesto, pp. 81-82).”

This is really interesting to me and it makes me wonder if non-human naturals can be a subject in Badiou’s philosophy. I had always assumed no, but here he seems to open the door. So can a tree live a life worthy of the Idea?

5 thoughts on “A Life Worthy of the Idea and the Appearence of Trees

  1. I remember an interview with Badiou – I’m sorry, I have no idea where to find it again – in which he was asked about the relation of his thought to Darwinian evolution. He was asked at which point in the natural history of humanity did we become capable of supporting truth procedures, and whether or not animals supported truth procedures.

    His answer, roughly, was that he didn’t know if animals were capable of truth. He came up with an analogy between his procedures and Spinoza’s attributes; there may be other procedures possible, just as there are an infinity of attributes, but humans are only aware of four procedures, just as for Spinoza we could only be aware of 2 attributes.

    I did like the bit in LoW where he brings up aliens and cybernetics, suggesting that in the future, humans may stumble across radically new procedures.

  2. Badiou makes the Spinozist point that Mike mentioned in LOW as well (p. 71 of the English edition):

    “The fact is that today — and on this point we haven’t budged since Plato — we only know four types of truths: science (mathematics and physics), love, politics and the arts. We can compare this situation to Spinoza’s statement about the attributes of Substance (the ‘expressions’ of God): without doubt, Spinoza says, there is an infinity of attributes, but we humans know only two, thought and extensions. For our part, we will say that there are perhaps an infinity of types of truths but we humans only know four.”

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