Badiou: Event, Truth, Subject

Given my continuing interesting in Badiou and his relevance to political and theological inquiry, here is an extended summary of his understanding of the event, truth, and subjectivity,. Below is part of a larger project contrasting recent pragmatist understandings of ‘social objectivity’ with Badiou’s ‘political subjectivity’. But below is just the parts concerning Badiou on truth and subjectivity.

(If it feels like you jumped into the middle of something, it is b/c you did….
and this is a first draft)



“We shall posit that discernment is founded upon the capacity to judge (to speak of properties), and classification is founded upon the capacity to link judgments together (to speak of parts). Knowledge is realized as an encyclopaedia. An encyclopaedia must be understood here as a summation of judgements under a common determinant” (Being and Event, 328). “The encyclopaedia contains a classification of parts of the situation which group together terms having this or that explicit property” (B&E, 329). Or as we said before, all that falls within a specific norm of objectivity is considered its ‘knowledge’.

What we can see here is the deployment of language games as designators of knowledge which circumscribe ‘existence.’ What Badiou describes as the ‘encyclopaedia of knowledge’ consists of all the terms, properties, objects, and rules which have been allowed, created, or otherwise found(ed) by a language game. In this framework, only what can be made explicit by a well formed language is granted existence, and “whatever is not distinguished by a well-made language is not” (B&E 283).

To speak of ‘judging’ and ‘judgment,’ and the ideas of a well-made language should trigger Stout’s conception of ‘objectivity’ and the operations of making everything explicit. Badiou is not criticizing this conception, knowing that it is usefully deployed in understanding different situation and contexts. However, Badiou seeks to understand how these situations can change, and change drastically, especially when the resources within a situation cannot make everything explicit.

Events and Truths

So, how might something new come about? How can a new word/idea/thought be spoken? How are these new things spoken, breaking with the existing ‘knowledge’ and established ‘understanding’ of the world? We can become trapped in our language games, but not necessarily.

the margins of knowledge
This extended quote from Theoretical Writings (TW) will clarify:

“I call ‘encyclopedia’ the general system of predicative knowledge internal to a situation: i.e. what everyone knows about politics, sexual difference, culture, art, technology, etc. [But] there are certain things, statements, configurations or discursive fragments whose valence is not decidable in terms of the encyclopedia. Their valence is uncertain, floating, anonymous: they exist at the margins of the encyclopedia [of knowledge]…Nowdays, for instance, knowledge enjoins us not to decide about God; it is quite acceptable to maintain that perhaps ‘something ‘exists, or perhaps it does not. We live in a society in which no valence can be ascribed to God’s existence; a society that lays clam to a vague spirituality. Similarly, knowledge enjoins us not to decide about the possible existence of ‘another politics’ [beyond democracy]; it is talked about, but nothing comes of it. Another example: are those workers who do not have proper papers but who are working here, in France (or the United Kingdom, or the United States..) part of this country? Do they belong here? Yes, probably, since they live and work here. No, since they don’t have the necessary papers to show that they are French (or British, or American…), or living here legally. The expression ‘illegal immigrant’ designates the uncertainty of valence,…it designates people who are living here, but don’t really belong here, and hence people who can be thrown out of the country” (TW 146-7, italics added).

These terms floating at the margins of ‘knowledge’, these ‘empty signifiers,’ are unstable sites with the situations. They are areas within the encyclopeadia ready to explode and change everything.

event of truth
But how are these unstable areas ignited? They are set off by an event, blowing a hole in ‘knowledge’ and setting off a chain reaction reorganizing everything previously ‘known.’ Badiou calls this chain reaction a ‘truth procedure’, culminating in the production of a truth. For a “truth is always that which makes a hole in knowledge” (B&E 327).

What Badiou calls an event is a decision about something undecidable within a situation. “Basically, an event is what decides about a zone of encyclopedic indiscernibility” (TW 147). An event is the naming of something for which the ‘encyclopedia of knowledge’ had no language; it is the calling into existence what the situation (the encyclopeadia) did not allow. It is the calling of something out of the nothing. Examples: the Copernican event of calling the solar system ‘heliocentric’ against the knowledge claiming the sun circled the earth; the event of the French Revolution within the situation of the ancient regime; the event of special-relativity within the encyclopedia of Newtonian science.

These events lead to new truths. They don’t gives us the Truth, but open a path towards certain truths. The emergence of a particular ‘truth’ linked to a particular ‘event’ keeps us focused on the reality that truths emerge through a process, rather than being merely found as ready-made objects, and that it is not ‘the Truth’, but ‘a truth,’ which is produced in a dynamic process.

knowledge as objectivity and truth in events
So in summary, we could say that objectivity is on the side of knowledge, according to its specific norms of rationality and objects of investigation, but truth makes a hole in this knowledge, it obscures this objectivity. A truth, while being infinitely open to addition, while constantly grouping to itself different and radical combination from the situation (from the encyclopeadia), is nevertheless not gather by objectivity, but rather with a type of subjectivity.

Subjectivity without Subject

Having now traversed Badiou’s somewhat complex presentation of knowledge, objectivity, events, and truth, we are in a position to understand the question guiding our investigation: In relation to politics beyond Science (objects) and the State (subjects), “is it possible to think subjectivity without a subject?” ( Metapolitic, 64).

Why a ‘subjectivity without a subject’? This is a subjectivity without a (modern) subject because this subject does not “overlap with a psychological subject [Freud], nor even with a reflexive subject (in Descartes’s sense) or the transcendental subject (in Kant’s sense)” (Ethics, 43). A subject realizes a truth, or “we might say that the process of truth induces a subject” (Ethics, 43).

truth induces a ‘subject’
How is the truth of an event made possible? Or, how is the truth of an event known? For Badiou, the truth of an event is manifest through a faithful subject, or rather, through one subjected to the event. A truth always works its way through particular subjects, faithful to a singular event, investigating its results and connections. A subject does not produce truth (being merely a type of subjectivism); rather a truth produces a subject.

Using an example dear to Badiou, we could say that St. Paul did not produce the truth of Christianity on a subjective whim, but rather he was himself produced (/converted) by the truth of Christianity in his encounter with Christ. St. Paul was faithful to the event of truth (the resurrection), and in his declaration of this truth, became more and more subjected to it. We could say the truth made St. Paul, rather than that St. Paul made the truth.

Or, concerning Galileo, he was ceased by the truth of the heliocentric model, and faithful to this truth, he discerned and articulated the being of this truth within the reigning geocentric situation.

For this reason Badiou says, “it is abusive to say that truth is a subjective production. A subject is much rather taken up in fidelity to the event, and suspended from truth” (B&E 406). A subject is suspended from the truth because there are no free-standing, transcendental subject who finds or discovers the Truth; only those who have been subjectified by a truth, and are actively discerning its reality in the world. Or, not using the static term ‘subject’, but the dynamic ‘subjectivization’, Badiou says, “Subjectivization is that through which a truth is possible” (B&E 393).


Well, there it is. Questions please.