kortina.nyc / notes
20 Jun 2023 | by kortina

Ruti // The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within (draft) 

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My old neighbor from John gave me the following recommendation for The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within by Mari Ruti:

This whole chapter on why we create is the best I have read. For me she put a period on the end of the question. Dropped the Mike. This whole chapter is worth your time.

That chapter is indeed, great.

Much of the rest of the book was abstract and pretty challenging, but Ruti does a better job of demystifying some of the abstraction of Lacan and connecting the dots to how of this stuff matters practically – in our search for existential meaning, our relationships, in politics and power struggles – not just in the academic clouds.

Notes and quotes…

401 Moreover, this approach tends to replicate one of the biggest stumbling blocks of posthumanist theory, namely the propensity to universal-ize human disenfranchisement to the degree that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the general “human condition” (in the existential sense) and more historically specific kinds of traumatization. In other words, it makes it hard to make sense of what I have elsewhere described as the divide between constitutive and circumstantial forms of alienation (Ruti 2006) and what Dominick LaCapra (2001) has brilliantly analyzed as the distinction between structural and historical trauma. To be sure, our constitutive alienation by the discourse of the Other (the symbolic order) provides the structural basis for more circumstantial varieties of alienation so that, for instance, the sense of deprivation caused by poverty sits atop a more foundational deprivation, and a racist slur adds insult to the more universal “injury” that underlies human life. But it would be a mistake to equate the acute impact of poverty or racism with the more slow-burning impact of constitutive alienation.

Personally, I do not lie awake at night worrying about the fact that the discourse I speak is not my “own,” that the signifier robs me of agency, that there is no Other of the Other, or that my self-understanding is, by necessity, incomplete and misleading. Perhaps I should. But, frankly, I am much more likely to wonder how it is that I might be able to revise a situation I find either personally difficult or ethically repugnant. I might agonize over some detail of my daily life or over a specific social injustice—such as gender inequality, gay bashing, or ethnic profiling— that I find nauseating. Undoubtedly, it is my constitutive alienation that allows (or forces) me to worry about these things to the point of insomnia. Undoubtedly, the fact that I have been “split” by language is one of the things that distinguishes me from my neighbor’s adorable cat, who is able to sleep in the middle of the sidewalk amidst the commotion of cars, bicycles, pedestrians, skateboards, and baby carriages. And, undoubtedly, the problems that keep me up are often directly caused by the hegemonic aspects of the Other. But they usually have to do with the highly unequal ways in which this hegemony manifests itself in the context of particular subject positions rather than with the universal alienation caused by language and social subjectivity; they have to do with the uneven distribution of disciplinary power rather than with the ubiquitous stamp of this power.

437 When it comes to protecting a sliver of singularity against the hegemonic dictates of the social establishment, there are basically two ways to go: One can either reject the social or one can try to reconfigure it from within. My aim in this book is to show that the Lacanian real lends itself to both of these strategies. As tempting as it may be to locate singularity entirely beyond the predicates of sociality and signification, doing so limits us both personally and politically, for many of us are not willing (or able) to forgo our pursuit of social belonging, love and intimacy, ethical accountability, and collective solidarity. Indeed, I would assert that, in the final analysis, it is our embeddedness within the social that makes singularity meaningful to us in the first place, for as much as cultural codes of intelligibility constrain us, in their absence we would have no framework for making sense of our lives, let alone for living out our idiosyncratic (singular) passions. In addition, while collective norms can be coercive and life draining, there are other aspects of sociality and intersubjectivity that sustain, augment, and deepen our existence, allowing us to achieve more multidimensional shades of aliveness. Such affirming

541 To fully understand this connection between trauma and singularity, it is useful to start with the repetition compulsion as an articulation of unconscious desire. One might say that the repetition compulsion functions like a train that has been placed on a highly specific set of rails that control its trajectory. This train always aims at its designated destination, even if it has already reached it a thousand times or (and this may be even more exasperating) even if this destination keeps receding indefinitely.

To turn the train around would be impossible and to derail it would be immensely destructive. Consequently, the best the train can do is to maintain its steady course and to obediently stop at a number of pre-selected stations along the way. These stations, which house the subject’s most symptomatic fixations, are likely to carry names such as Anxiety, Depression, Disenchantment, Weariness, Sorrow, Bitterness, and Misery.

If the train consistently stops at them, it is because something in their vicinity remains unresolved or unprocessed.

Although I am here taking liberties with Lacan’s idea that desire situates each of us “in a given track,”1 my analogy speaks to the power of the repetition compulsion to transport us, over and again, to the same destination, even when we are doing our very best to arrive at a different one: We may be desperately trying to get to New York but keep arriving in Boston instead. The repetition compulsion translates desire into a mechanical, fully automatic force that eludes our efforts to redirect it.

It responds neither to rational argumentation nor to emotional persuasion, sweet-talking, coaxing, or blackmail. It holds its course through the various changes we undergo in our lives, persisting beneath the densities of our loves, losses, families, friendships, careers, triumphs, hardships, and fleeting moments of delight. When we least expect it—when we believe that we have finally outrun it—it catches up with us, emerging from a dark tunnel or from behind a sharp curve.

At such moments, we may feel blindsided and betrayed by our own constitution, but there is not a lot we can do to foil the train’s repetitive itinerary. We can learn to cope with the repetition. And we may even be able to work through some of its causes. But we usually cannot entirely erase it or even in any significant measure diminish its dogged perseverance. This is, arguably, one of the main things that sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal world: We tend to compulsively return to the same nexus of (largely unfulfillable) desires, the same messy tangle of existential aporias. This can be annoying, to say the least. But there is also a “functional” side to it, for it is precisely this compulsion that introduces a modicum of consistency to our lives—that, over time, allows us to attain a sense of continuity. In a way, the repetition compulsion (as a way of binding desire) is one of the basic supports of our being, which is why we cling to it, why, when all is said and done, we tend to “love” our symptoms more than we love ourselves (to paraphrase Zizek).

As much as the repetition compulsion disturbs the smooth unfolding of our lives, its obliteration might have even more catastrophic consequences in the sense that we would be left without our customary moorings; we would, as it were, lose the comfort of knowing our destination (or destiny). No matter how disorienting the “life-orientation” that the repetition compulsion offers us, having this orientation is more reassuring than not having it, for the latter would mean that we would need to actively rethink our entire existential approach. We would no longer be able to count on the inevitability, or at least the high probability, of certain outcomes, but would, rather, need to face the abyss of utter unpredictability. This is why many of us keep choosing the “substance” of our symptoms over the “nothingness” of their absence. If the phenomenological (say, Heideggerian) subject alleviates the anxiety of nothingness by espousing the (falsely reassuring) complacency of the social collectivity, the psychoanalytic (Lacanian) subject does the same by embracing the (equally false) security of its symptoms.

Vital, in this context, is Lacan’s claim that the repetition compulsion gives structure to the subject’s jouissance so that the latter becomes more manageable. It translates the amorphous (or polymorphously perverse) pressure of jouissance into the relatively stable “organization” of desire, thereby transforming the uncontrollable urgency of the drives to the more mediated discomfort of symptomatic fixations. Without this organizational consistency of desire, we would be compelled to ride the wave of bodily jouissance in ways that would keep us forever caught at the junction of excessive pleasure and excessive pain. As aggravating as it can be to arrive in uptight Boston when we want to explore the bohemian possibilities of Greenwich Village, the sheer reliability of the repetition compulsion is an immensely effective defense against the explosive intensity of jouissance. Paradoxically enough, even when our desire takes us in pathological directions, it protects us by barring our access to the kind of unmediated enjoyment that we would experience as unbearable.

On this view, while the “destiny” that the repetition compulsion off ers us is a trap, it is at the same time also a protective shield without which our lives would be much more difficult to handle.

573 The easiest way to grasp this is to consider one of Lacan’s best-known discussions of the relationship between desire and the drive: Take the experience of the beautiful butcher’s wife. She loves caviar, but she doesn’t want any. That’s why she desires it. You see, the object of desire is the cause of the desire, and this object that is the cause of desire is the object of the drive—that is to say, the object around which the drive turns. . . . It is not that desire clings to the object of the drive— desire moves around it, in so far as it is agitated in the drive. But all desire is not necessarily agitated in the drive. There are empty desires or mad desires that are based on nothing more than the fact that the thing in question has been forbidden to you. By virtue of the very fact that it has been forbidden to you, you cannot do otherwise, for a time, than think about it. That, too, is desire. But whenever you are dealing with a good object, we designate it . . . as an object of love. (1964, 243) The object of desire is also the object of the drive. Or, if we follow the dizzying twists of Lacan’s rhetoric, if the object of desire is an object around which the drive turns, desire also “moves around” the object of the drive. This is because both desire and the drive ultimately aim at the same object, namely das Ding, or the Thing, as a site of primordial deprivation.2 The Thing, as Lacan repeatedly emphasizes, functions as a melancholy object of loss that can never be recovered for the simple reason that it was never (in reality) lost in the first place. Yet its fantasized loss engenders a whole host of important psychic effects, bringing into existence the Lacanian subject of lack—a subject who is forever plagued by the sense of having been robbed of something unfathomably precious. To be specific, it is because the subject cannot have the Thing that it feels compelled to reach for its echo through the various objects of desire, the objets a, that it encounters in the world; it is because the subject cannot have the sublime object that it is driven to look for its luster in more mundane substitutes.

607 If the drive already exhibits a degree of consistency, desire does so much more explicitly: We are aware that there is a peculiar persistence to our desires—that there is an (il)logic of sorts to what we, over time, fi nd desirable. This is the case because desire arises when the drive encounters social prohibition (the loss of the Thing): The relative fixity of desire results from a faithful and fate-defining meeting of drive and prohibition.5

The Other blocks our direct access to jouissance so that it can only be approached in the roundabout way I alluded to above, through (more or less) socially recognizable objects of desire. This is why no object can ever grant complete satisfaction, why no object can entirely fulfill the directives of desire. The object is, quite simply, never the “real” thing, the sublime Thing of unmediated jouissance. At the same time, as I have begun to suggest, this unattainability of unadulterated jouissance is what makes social life possible, for as enthralling as the elusive Thing may be, it is—like the Kantian sublime to which it bears a close conceptual relationship—also terrifying, overwhelming, and potentially devouring.

The task of desire, then, is to keep us at a reassuring distance from the Thing while at the same time allowing us to fantasize about attaining it.

Fantasy, through desire, usurps the place of jouissance. This is why Lacan claims that “desire is a defense, a defense against going beyond a limit in jouissance” (1966, 699).6

To the degree that jouissance overagitates us, preventing us from living within (the relatively harmonious) purview of the pleasure principle, we are forever attempting to purge ourselves of it even as we tirelessly aim for it. Desire, and the social order that brings desire into being, is a means of arbitrating this process. The Other is therefore not merely what cheats us of jouissance and imposes a distressing self-division, but also a way to alleviate our constitutive helplessness in relation to the excess energies of the real. Indeed, insofar as the Other generates a fantasy of jouissance as a lost state that we might one day recuperate, it protects us from the disillusioning realization that jouissance is antithetical to subjectivity not so much because we have been unfairly deprived of it, but because we are inherently incapable of managing it. This does not mean that we should meekly submit to the normative dictates of the Other without any attempt to resist or reconfigure their hegemonic dimensions. But it does clarify what Lacan means when he states that the drive is a “fundamental ontological notion” connected to “a crisis of consciousness” (1960, 127).

619 If desire results from the foundational lack caused by the signifier, the drives persist as a surplus of enjoyment that continues to bubble up into the symbolic, allowing remnants of the real to seep into the domain of signification and sociality in a highly explosive manner. As both Zizek and Alenka Zupancic have pointed out, the trouble with jouissance is less that we cannot attain it than that we cannot free ourselves of its excess.7 We are, to borrow from Jonathan Lear, condemned to cope with a “too muchness” of energy that haunts our being, perpetually bringing us to the brink of a breakdown. Such breakdowns, Lear specifies, are characterized by a “breaking-through of quantity without quality” by a defeat or eclipse of meaning by the inexorable (and meaningless) force of the drives. This uncontrollable breaking-through of surplus energy proves that life without inner agitation is inherently forbidden to human beings. Such agitation does not aim at anything in particular, but merely demonstrates the psyche’s intrinsic inability to keep things stable and unchanging. Despite the protection offered by social structures and the fixations of desire, we have no choice but to live in a constant dread of imminent disequilibrium. This is why the drive is an important “ontological notion,” changing our conception of the parameters of human life.

643 Santner characterize as a grotesque “undeadness” that infuses the subject with an uncontrollable vitality. Lacan’s portrayal of the lamella as a libidinal force that “survives any division”—and that stands for “immortal life, or irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life” (1964, 197–98)—is perhaps the clearest articulation of this undeadness.

This description allows us to appreciate the full weight of Santner’s contention that “what accounts for the singularity of a human existence, what ultimately makes a human life irreplaceable, is not this or that positive attribute . . . but rather the utter alterity of death which installs in life a fundamental nonrelationality, a dense core of existential loneliness that in some sense is who we are” (2001, 72). Santner is here not talking about existential loneliness in the phenomenological sense. The alterity of death he is referring to is not meant to communicate the subject’s anxiety about its status as a Heideggerian “being-towards-death,” but rather to capture the tight association between singularity and undeadness, between what is irreplaceable about us and what is absolutely nonrelational (incapable of sociality and intersubjectivity). Ironically, our opening to singularity is also what most distances us from any comfortable notion of a fully intelligible existence. Who we are, on the level of the real of our being, is, precisely, a “dense core of existential loneliness” that resists all forms of social assimilation, linking us, instead, to the nonrelational throb of jouissance.9

749 Conceptualized in this manner, transcendence becomes a worldly, rather than an otherworldly, occurrence, allowing us to feel inspired while at the same time anchoring us in the tangible materiality of our lives. Another way to explain the matter is to say that sublime experiences enable us to draw close to the world without being mundane or utilitarian. The deep irony of mundane and utilitarian practices is that even though they take place in the world, they simultaneously distance us from the very world that they seemingly sustain. As Heidegger already suggested, they distract us from the worldness of the world because they are designed to help us to “survive” the world rather than to be passionately immersed in it. From this point of view, being in touch with the rhythm of the world may sometimes be the exact opposite of dutifully navigating its humdrum concerns; it is only when we manage to disregard our preoccupation with the minor annoyances of life that we become capable of a more evocative connection to the world—that we become capable of sublime encounters within the texture of everyday experience. During such encounters, we do not exit the world, but rather cut through the sociosymbolic strata of meaning that normally arbitrate our relationship to it. We touch the living tissue of the world rather than merely perceiving its socially mediated significations. This is why the world, at such moments, appears so intensely, almost painfully, present.

1119 Even if it is the case that all of us, without fail, gain an identity through the various ways in which the signifiers (and enigmas) of the social world cut into our bodily realities, the specific parameters of that identity are molded by the unique arrangement of the signifiers we encounter. There are signifiers (configurations of social meaning) that are enabling and life sustaining. But there are others that are denigrating and wounding. The psychic implications of this are enormous, for while it is certainly possible that individuals with pain-fi lled “destinies” possess a more realistic sense of how the world functions, they may also find it harder to shed the sinking feeling that there is no respite from its intrusiveness. Individuals who experience themselves as being under attack by the external world may find it next to impossible to relax their wakeful vigilance in relation to their surroundings. And they may find this difficult even when there is no immediate danger—even when there is no discernible cause for anxiety.

It would be grossly inaccurate to equate this kind of anxiety with the inherent anxieties of life. At stake here is the distinction between foundational and contingent forms of alienation—that is, between forms of psychic injury that are constitutive of subjectivity as such (existential) and others that are circumstantial (historical or cultural). In other words, there is an important difference between universal forms of lack and the kind of “lack” that ensues from oppressive social conditions that erode the subject’s psychic resources for the simple reason that they oblige it to focus on survival.8 For instance, when it comes to the Other’s enigmatic signifiers, it is not difficult to see how some of us might be more vulnerable to their menace than others. When the mystery of the Other’s desire is intertwined with the Other’s (overt or covert) hostility, this desire becomes even more anxiety inducing. And when this desire rouses us to overvigilance not only because of its inherent opacity, but also because there are structural or power-related barriers to our ability to interpret it, we can be agitated to the point of exasperation (or even self-injury). Finally, when we feel that our very existence depends on our capacity to read the Other’s desire—that the price of failure is nothing short of social extinction—we can become overwhelmed by a “too muchness of too muchness,” so to speak, by an excess of agitation over and above what is “normal” in human life. Whether we are walking in a given neighborhood after dark, trying to make a living, catching a cab across town, entering a government building, or crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, how we are situated in relation to social networks of power matters. If the “validity in excess of any meaning” of social institutions can be maddening for all of us, there are instances when it is nothing short of terrorizing.

1145 The task of analysis, Lacan implies, is to unearth this distinctive character from underneath the conformist yearnings that masquerade as our desire; its task is to release the singularity of our being from underneath the Other’s oppressive signifiers. Or, to articulate the matter in terms of fantasy, the objective of Lacanian analysis is to cut through sediments of fantasy that hold us captive in incapacitating existential scenarios, thereby making us mere passive spectators of our life stories.9

1987 As far as its subjects are concerned, access to truth is . . . identical to the practice of freedom pure and simple. Ordinary individuals are constrained and justified by relations of hierarchy, obligation, and deference; their existence is literally bound to their social places. True subjects, by contrast, are first and foremost free of relations as such, and are justified by nothing other than the integrity of their own affirmations. Pure subjective freedom is founded quite literally on the absence of relation, which is to say that it is founded on nothing at all. (2003, xxxi–xxxii) There is here a somewhat problematic sliding from the notion of hierarchical social obligations to relationality as such, as if freedom and relationality were inherently antithetical to each other. There are those who would point out that the idea that there could ever be a wholly autonomous “integrity” to a given person’s “affirmations” is a myth pure and simple. And there are also those who would argue that freedom is attained through relationality—that human beings reach the transcendent through their interactions with others. Indeed, the fact that Badiou himself links “immortality” to the process of being interpellated to a larger “cause” supports this reading. But if we understand the matter through the link I have drawn between undeadness and singularity, between what is “immortal” within us and what bypasses normative sociality, we once again encounter that “dense core of existential loneliness” (Santner) that connects the subject to the nonrelational pulse of jouissance; we once again meet up with the antisocial compulsion of Antigone. In Badiou’s terms, Antigone’s decision to disobey Creon is what turns her from a mortal creature to an immortal one. Her defiance is an act of freedom in that it liberates her from all bonds to the sociopolitical establishment.

The Call of the Immortal Freedom, in this sense, is not an ontological attribute, but something that comes into existence through the truth-event. As such, it cannot be taken for granted. Immortality, in other words, is not an automatic reward for a virtuous life. Rather, it must be sustained over time through what Badiou calls “fidelity.”

Fidelity to the Event

The question facing the subject summoned by an event is whether, and how, it can remain faithful to that event—whether, and how, it can sustain its passion beyond what Badiou calls the “enthusiastic clarity of the seizing” (2002, 60). How can it, in short, remain loyal to the inspiration the event represents? After all, the event itself evaporates as soon as it appears. The subject’s fidelity to the event consequently entails its ability to retroactively elaborate a “process” of truth, to safeguard the effects of the event after its fl ash has been extinguished. “Truth,” while revealed by the event, is also what the subject gathers together gradually, bit by bit, by its fidelity to the event. In a way, the subject must ask: How can I continue to exceed my own (situation-specific) being, how can I continue to link what is familiar about my world with the singular event of being engulfed by the unfamiliar? How can I defend, in the context of my mortal life, the immortal that the event brings into being? The matter is complicated by the fact that the “some-one” who is punctured by a truth does not (cannot) know ahead of time if she is capable of fidelity to this truth. In Badiou’s terms, this “some-one” sustains her fidelity to the event only by way of “the unknown.” This is why the subject’s ethical fortitude—its capacity to maintain the truth-process in the long run (its “fidelity to fidelity,” as it were)—demands the willingness to “submit the perseverance of what is known to a duration [ durée] peculiar to the not-known” (47).

This is not easy. The event is difficult to sustain over time because it causes a major upheaval that complicates the subject’s existence. As Badiou maintains, “If I ‘fall in love’ (the word ‘fall’ indicates disorganization in the walk of life), or if I am seized by the sleepless fury of a thought [ pensée], or if some radical political engagement proves incompatible with every immediate principle of interest—then I find myself compelled to measure life, my life as a socialized human animal, against something other than itself ” (2002, 60). The event is disorienting because it forces the subject to evaluate its life in terms of criteria that are different from its usual preoccupations. Fidelity, in turn, is a matter of working through this disorientation in order to impose a degree of organization on the utter disorganization generated by the event. This “secondary” organization is what Badiou calls “ethical consistency”: The subject’s ability to faithfully tend to the long-term effects of the event that has derailed it (60).

One could of course say that life—even in its normal course—is inherently disorganized, that the disorganization of life is, quite simply, life itself.11 Yet there are unquestionably life-events that disrupt the subject’s usual rhythm, demanding a drastic rethinking of its overall existential landscape. To return to an earlier line of reasoning, one could say that the event releases drive energies that have been stored in (individually or socially) symptomatic ways of living; it disperses the congealed surplus agitation or overanimation that haunts the subject as a result of its normative seduction by the enigmatic signifiers of the Other. If this seduction determines the contours of the subject’s drive destiny, the event uncouples the drive from its destiny, allowing a new kind of destiny to slide into view. In Santner’s rendering, the event empowers the subject to “unplug” from the automatism of its drive destiny (2005, 121). This is exactly how the event, like the defeat of the vampire by the daimon, breaks the subject’s inertia, creating an opening for genuinely new possibilities.

The Temptation to Give Up

The discharge of congealed energies in the subject’s fidelity to the event facilitates fresh forms of life. Yet to the extent that the event deprives the subject of its accustomed social supports, it, like the Lacanian act, threatens the very parameters of its symbolic existence, potentially generating a high level of anxiety. As a consequence, if the event sounds a compelling call to an alternative life-direction, the challenge of fidelity is to learn to heed this call without being destroyed by the torrent of newly released energies; the challenge is to learn how to survive the (partial) loss of one’s “known” life, one’s customary cadence and concerns. The temptation to give up—to betray the event—is always strong because it is difficult to hold onto the force of the revelation in the context of lives that are organized around the fulfillment of personal interests. In eff ect, our collective world more or less by definition undermines the subject’s fidelity because it actively coaxes it towards utilitarian goals (the “service of goods”). Furthermore, inasmuch as the symbolic rewards a “healthy,” sensible, and utterly levelheaded approach to existence, it tends to disparage the subject’s attempts to stay faithful to an event the minute this event seems somehow “pathological.”

If we step back, for a moment, from the most esteemed values of our society, it is easy to see that there is something profoundly ideological about the assumption that we should live lives that are geared towards balance and longevity regardless of how bland these lives might prove to be. Why not, instead, valorize lives that get imbalanced and a little un-hinged because they are guided by strong convictions? The truth-event is by definition an incident that—if only implicitly—raises this question.

And because the event’s importance is accessible only to those who are caught up in it—because it may seem unintelligible or inconceivable to those who are looking at it from the outside—the pressure to betray it can be considerable.

Badiou explains that even though the truth process itself cannot be touched by a crisis, cannot be marked by uncertainty or hesitation, the “some-one” who has chosen to undertake this process can: “Everyone is familiar with the moments of crisis faced by a lover, a researcher’s discouragement, a militant’s lassitude, an artist’s sterility” (2002, 78). For instance, the subject’s fidelity to the life-altering experience of falling in love can sometimes appear self-destructive (and even self-abusive) to the surrounding world so that friends, relatives, colleagues, and sometimes even therapists do their best to convince it that its passion is misguided.

Likewise, the subject’s political fervor may strike others as deluded, unrealistic, or disproportionate. And an artist’s or scientist’s withdrawal from the concerns of the social world may be condemned as selfish or unwholesome (social isolation supposedly being an instant marker of pathology). Fidelity is demanding in part because it asks the subject to defend the value of something that is rationally indefensible.

2139 Regarding the first of these lures, Hallward explains that it is one of the faces of evil to try to “monumentalize the void,” to worship it as a sacred source of identity or “perpetual ecstasy.” Consequently, it is essential that the subject of truth fight the inclination to turn the name (or the void that the name identifies) into something “inhabitable,” such as “the Third Reich, the Bastion of Socialism, the Land of Freedom and Democracy” (2003, 263). Indeed, one of the surest ways to tell the difference between a genuine event and a simulacrum is that while the event is “universally addressed” (applicable to everyone), the simulacrum attempts to translate the name into an identitarian “substance” of some sort (Badiou 2002, 73). For instance, the rise of National Socialism was unmistakably a simulacrum because its cohesion was erected around an ideology of race, blood, and soil. The Nazis promised to carry a particular community, the German people, to its destiny. However, because they conjured up the “plenitude” (the “national substance”) of a people rather than the void of the situation, they remained utterly incapable of truth (73). We see the same dynamic in the historical endeavor to transform the amorphous void of the “proletariat” into a socialist state with well-defined and well-defended borders and a clearly identifiable membership. Such an eff ort to convert the void into a nameable community inevitably ends in totalitarianism. Because the void is, as Badiou puts it, “the place of an absence, or a naked place, the mere taking place of a place” (quoted in Hallward 2003, 263), any attempt to “fi ll” it by definitive content—to transform the singular burst of the event into something “repeatable”—cannot but lead to a dangerous totalization.

4277 This is where we stumble upon an obvious problem, namely that it is difficult to divorce the notion of universality from the realities of hegemonic power. One of the main strengths of multiculturalist ethics is, precisely, its ability to reveal that what is considered “universal” may very well be merely what happens to be convenient or attractive to those who hold institutional forms of authority (so that, to use the most common example, “universal” is a thinly veiled cipher for “white heterosexual male”).10 To put the matter simply, the idea that “universality” protects the marginalized from the subjective whims of those in power has not been born out by the historical record.

Badiou tries to get around this by positing that universality is invariably “situated” in the sense that the ethic of truths arises in response to the always context-specific void of a particular set of circumstances. This means that there can be no ethical principle, no abstract rule of justice, that predates the situation at hand; there can be no a priori ethics à la Kant, but merely ethical “processes by which we treat the possibilities of a situation” (2002, 16). This, in turn, implies that there can be no general human rights, no general rule of thumb about the correct course of action. Fidelity to the event, or ethical consistency, cannot be decided on in advance, on a theoretical level, but must come into being in the aftermath of the event in question. Consequently, “The only genuine ethics is of truth s in the plural—or, more precisely, the only ethics is of processes of truth, of the labour that brings some truths into the world. . . .

Ethics does not exist. There is only the ethic-of ” (28). Equally importantly, a viable ethics cannot be based on self-interest, but must address everyone evenly. Indeed, because it names what, from the perspective of the privileged, is “impossible” (exactly, the “void” of the situation), it is by definition counterhegemonic, aimed at those who are most vulnerable or thoroughly unacknowledged in a given situation.

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