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  • The Ethics of Truth: Ethical Criticism in the Wake of Badiou’s Philosophy
  • Gabriel Riera (bio)

1. Badiou and the “Ethical Turn”

The ethical turn in literary criticism took place in response to the supposed pitfalls of three dominant paradigms in the Humanities: positivism, neo-humanism and Marxism. Inspired mostly by the works of Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard, it took the form of a reading practice that privileged heterogeneity, radical difference and, above all, the thought of an experience incommensurable to consciousness and language. The ethical turn was also in part invigorated by feminist criticism, gender studies and cultural studies, in their attempt to specify gender, racial, and cultural differences suppressed by more conventional approaches.

The new century saw the most radical insights of ethical criticism being absorbed and neutralized by a bland “ethical ideology” that showed its true face after 9/11. Ethical ideology gave way to a discourse defending freedom and the spread of democracy by way of military intervention. What followed is well known: the renewal and re-implementation of the doctrine of National Security the US employed during the peak of the Cold War. This time, however there was no Latin American dictator as facilitator, but rather some European states—even if their collaboration went against the letter of the European Constitution—and the complicity of some Arab states that took matters into their own hands. These practices went along with a proliferation of legitimizing discourses in American academia, and with a media obsession with security. This situation made any discussion on alterity suspicious, and the Levinasian metaphor of the self as hostage to the other difficult to swallow.

It might seem that we have passed beyond ethical criticism, that it has been neutralized and appropriated by current discourses. However, a cursory look at the reviews of the different strands of ethical criticism shows one crucial omission: Alain Badiou.1 I would like to propose that Badiou’s philosophy can help us inflect a different torsion to the ethical turn by moving away from some of the ideas that became domesticated by the “ethical ideology” and by asserting that the inventive act, art in general, and literature in particular, produces truths. [End Page 92]

The focus of this essay is Badiou’s thinking, and this, for two reasons that, at first, seem at odds with the question explored in this special issue. On the one hand, and unlike Gilles Deleuze, Badiou does not privilege invention. He conceives philosophy as a process of rigorous deduction inflected by mathematics. For Badiou the matheme is the writing of the real; it is a pure writing because it does not maintain a rapport to the real; it subtracts itself from any type of relation. Insofar as it “touches” the real, any other type of writing becomes impure. Mathematical writing is not a trace of the real, but rather, it is the real that is a fleeting trace of this writing. Mathematical writing is the real itself.2

Moreover, Badiou conceives of a dimension that escapes the grasp of language. What distinguishes Badiou from most of his contemporaries is that for him, a domain exists in which language has to be considered as something secondary, and as having a subordinated function. Badiou affirms, with the same force, the absolute radical character of the event and its heterogeneous relation to the order of language. Ordinary language cannot provide an effective description of multiplicity, since it is implicitly ruled by the prescription of the One. Language can access the multiple only by being forced—that is, the philosopher must pass through language, but only to displace it each time by the throw of the dice of a non-deductible nomination. Truth has nothing to do with an object of knowledge, with reference. It proceeds from a decision and under the modality of the event.

The event is lawless and appears as a supplement to a given situation; moreover the event subtracts itself from the order of meaning and, therefore, demands an act of nomination (Being and the Event), or a deduction of a protocol of fidelity to its consequences (Logiques des mondes). The event requires a name (or...


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