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  • Badiou and Wagner:From Fidelity to Prophecy
  • Stephen Decatur Smith (bio)

Alain Badiou’s recent Five Lessons on Wagner seeks at once to refute a critical indictment of Wagner that took shape across nineteenth- and twentieth-century European philosophy, and also to offer a philosophical renovation of Wagner that directly addresses our own historical moment.1 In so doing, it offers a novel and sometimes surprising rereading of Wagner, which resonates richly with the broader concerns of Badiou’s philosophical project. The following collection of essays responds in diverse ways to Badiou’s often provocative text: contributions by Brian Kane, Michael Gallope, Naomi Waltham-Smith, and Kenneth Reinhard will show how Badiou’s engagement with Wagner stages the central concerns of his philosophy, but also how this reading leaves unaddressed questions and problems that call for further investigation and critique. Since the contributors’ essays summarize the main points of Five Lessons, I devote most of this introduction to providing a brief sketch of some of the main points of Badiou’s philosophy, before concluding with a short discussion of the collection that follows. So short an introduction must necessarily remain condensed and incomplete. For more thorough introductions to Badiou’s work, readers are referred to the large and often brilliant secondary literature on Badiou, much of which is cited in this introduction’s end-notes.2

Alain Badiou: Thinking the New

Alain Badiou was educated in philosophy at Paris’s École normale supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, where he graduated in 1961. Over the course of the 1960s, he contributed to protests against the French colonial presence in Algeria, taught philosophy at the high school level, published two novels (both before the age of twenty-eight), and participated—alongside Jacques Rancière, Étienne Balibar, and Pierre Macherey—in Louis Althusser’s seminar at the École normale. From 1969 to 1999, Badiou taught philosophy at the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes and St. Denis, an institution founded in the wake of the protests of 1968. Beginning in 1984, he worked with Sylvain Lazarus and Natacha Michel to found l’Organisation politique, a “post-party” political group that organizes targeted interventions around questions of labor, housing, and the status of the sans-papiers (illegal [End Page 335] immigrants) in France. In 1999, Badiou returned to the École normale, where he served as chair of the Department of Philosophy (the position once occupied by Althusser) until his retirement. He continues to hold his seminar there today, and also maintains an active commitment to political intervention.

Badiou’s early work was strongly influenced, first, by Althusser, and then (after 1968) by Mao Zedong. His most influential and original work, however, begins with the late 1980s, especially with what is still widely regarded as his magnum opus, Being and Event (1988, translated into English, after a long delay, in 2005).3 This mature thought has received its most extensive subsequent elaboration in Badiou’s recent Logics of Worlds, subtitled, Being and Event 2 (2006, translated into English, far more quickly, 2008).4 The following summary refers primarily to his thought as it is developed in these two major works.

The central concern of Badiou’s philosophy is the possibility of real, radical change, especially as it irrupts in art, politics, love, and science (which for him means, above all, mathematics). He calls these four domains the “conditions” of philosophy. In his eyes, philosophy produces no truths of its own; rather, it is the task of philosophy to think of the “compossibility” of the truths produced in these domains—that is, philosophy must “gather” and “shelter” the truths that are produced outside of philosophy, thinking them together in a “configuration” specific to a singular historical moment. Insofar as truth emerges from these four domains, Badiou also calls them “truth procedures,” or “generic procedures”—and what he means by “procedure” and “generic” alike is bound up with his thought of being as multiplicity, and his affirmation of mathematics as ontology.

For Badiou, being qua being is multiplicity. In his eyes, to think being in terms of a One, or a One-All, is ultimately to affirm a divine One, which grounds all being. He...


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