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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 478-484
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An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil by Alain Badiou. Translated by Peter Hallward. London and New York: Verso, 2001. Pp. 166. $23.00 cloth.
The publication in English of Alain Badiou's Ethics (originally published in French in 1998) may come to constitute an "event" in just the sense that Badiou gives to the concept in his own work: a break with the received ideas of a given context. As Badiou himself makes clear in the "Preface to the English Edition," his Ethics is mobilized by two, not always consistent desires: this slim volume is at once a critique of the taken for granted ethical culture of the contemporary political and intellectual order and the articulation of a radically different perspective on "Good and Evil." On the one hand, Badiou has used the [End Page 478] opportunity of an invitation to write a primer on ethics in order to express his "genuine fury" at the "moral terrorism" of the discourse of human rights and the new US-directed, "humanitarian" interventionism that it buttresses (liii). On the other hand, he seeks to develop the practical and ethical consequences of his philosophical system, which he set out in 1988 in his massive and complex work L'Etre et l'événement (Being and Event—currently under translation). Badiou's political critique of the moralization of politics in the post-Cold War era is an important one, and has been echoed by Slavoj Z;akiz;akek and others. It becomes more interesting and original, however, when read from the perspective of his philosophical engagement with discourses of ethics in postwar thought.
Badiou is probably the most famous French philosopher not to have a major following in the Anglo-American academy—although this situation is surely in the process of changing, with several translations recently published or in the works and with Badiou receiving accolades from Z;akiz;akek, one of the great contemporary mediators of French theory. Badiou's relative anonymity in the English-speaking world probably results in part from the difficulty of his thought—which draws heavily on mathematics (especially set theory) as well as Lacanian psychoanalysis and Althusserian marxism—and in part from his distinctly un-American political profile as an ex-Maoist and unrepentant radical militant. For those unfamiliar with Badiou's work, Ethics makes an excellent starting point. First, the volume is quite accessible, since, as Badiou remarks, it was originally written for "a series aimed at secondary-school and university students" (liii)—although I suspect that the less philosophically-oriented American student would probably still have difficulty with it until the advanced undergraduate level. Second, the book is ably translated by Peter Hallward, who also provides a clear introduction that situates the argument in more familiar theoretical terrain, with references to the ethics of Derrida and Spivak. Hallward also includes a 1997 interview he conducted with Badiou that is fascinating both for the biographical and political contextualization it supplies and for the further hints it contains of Badiou's unusual philosophical system.
Badiou's primary philosophical adversary in his Ethics is Emmanuel Lévinas, the Lithuanian-born, French-Jewish philosopher known especially for his ethics of otherness and his influence on certain versions of poststructuralism. Badiou's critique of Lévinas in this brief text will probably seem superficial to adherents of the latter's thought. Indeed, it seems that Badiou is less interested in Lévinas as such than in the general influence he has had on political and theoretical discourses: Lévinas stands in for the contemporary valorization of otherness, difference, and victimization as the grounds and stakes of ethics. In one of Lévinas's most famous formulations, he writes, "To see a face is already to hear 'You shall not kill,' and to hear 'You shall not kill' is to hear 'Social [End Page 479] justice'" (Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Sean Hand [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990], 8). For Badiou, in contrast, the obsession...