There was a French philosophical moment of the second half of the 20th century which, toute proportion gardée, bears comparison to the examples of classical Greece and enlightenment Germany. Sartre’s foundational work, Being and Nothingness, appeared in 1943 and the last writings of Deleuze, What is Philosophy?, date from the early 1990s. The moment of French philosophy develops between the two of them, and includes Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan as well as Sartre and Deleuze . . . if there has been such a French philosophical moment, my position would be perhaps as its last representative.footnote1

—Alain Badiou

Zarathustra once ran into an old hermit so completely isolated from the world that he had not yet heard the news, namely that God was dead. One does not accuse Alain Badiou of such isolation; yet in the analogous situation of the death of philosophy—in that immense dedifferentiation of the fields in postmodernity in which philosophy has sunk to the level of theory, opinion, ideology or Wittgensteinian monitoring—Badiou has always rejected such readings of the historical situation and claimed a central role for his own work in the philosophical tradition. To be sure, he also does all the other things with which former philosophers now amuse themselves—the culture critique or the historical commentary, the blog or op-ed, the interview, the simulated polemic, the artificial revival or pastiche of long-dead philosophical genres such as ethics or aesthetics, and even the swan-song, the elegy for a thought-form that once was—meanwhile outbidding his exhausted rivals with a surplus of plays, poems and pronouncements of all kinds, whose proliferation sets him apart from conventional judgement or even comparison. And at the same time, he laboriously pursues an unexpected philosophical Hauptwerk, its prestige scarcely undermined by the mathematical arguments and formulations with which, as with a little-known foreign language, he generously interlards it.

Whether Badiou’s current notoriety is due to his stamina as a survivor, or to the cloud of obiter dicta—he admires St Paul!—that swarms throughout his innumerable minor writings, we do not do him justice by avoiding his more ambitious philosophical monuments; nor does conventional patchwork sampling even constitute a sufficient tribute to those rare commentators—Hallward, Bosteels—who have valiantly offered guides to the thicket. Meanwhile, to step into a swiftly moving stream—Being and Event dates from 1988, Logics of Worlds from 2006—all the while being quite properly assured (by Bruno Bosteels, its translator), that Theory of the Subject (1982) is also indispensable—is a rash if not dangerous project. Still, the fateful Badolian word ‘event’ significantly marks the title of that first post-political philosophical text—the first to emerge from the late capitalist ‘end of history’, that is, the Reagan–Thatcher inauguration of a financial and neo-liberal globalization beyond Cold War ideological struggle. It does not seem unreasonable, therefore, to start by coming to terms with its first systematic statement and its position in the philosophical tradition. To be sure, in doing so one always risks being swept into the Scylla and Charybdis of the dialectic of Identity and Difference: that is, by translating the unique terminology of works like Being and Event back into a more familiar philosophical terminology one may be reducing an incomparable standpoint to the stereotypical positions of stock history of philosophy. In that tradition, however, Badiou’s allegiances extend well beyond the immediate national context he quite properly affirms above. They include, besides Sartre, Hegel and Mallarmé; besides Lacan, Mao Zedong and also Cantor, Zermelo and a modern set theory into which I will not follow him.

Otherwise, we might as well begin where so many others have, with being and nothingness as such. In the Standard Narrative (if I may put it that way), Being is something, whereas nothingness is nothing at all: this was the doctrine, or the discovery, of Parmenides, greatest of all philosophers, who said the first and last word on this subject, followed, unrefuted, all the way up to Heidegger and Sartre. Badiou seems to have felt it was high time to unsettle this deeply rooted prejudice and to affirm that Being is simply multiplicity, it is the untotalizable variety of existents (or Seienden) which we confront in life and which we occasionally attempt to unify (or to ‘count-for-one’, to use his own formula). But there is no One, and as for infinity, let the mathematicians fight over it, our only conclusion being at this stage that ontology is mathematics and being is number. But such ‘numbers’ are like atoms in a void, attracting and repelling one another, and so the logical (and profoundly Hegelian) inference is that Being is simply the void, if not nothingness as such (a view interestingly related to the late Althusserian metaphysic of ‘the encounter’). Much will be premised, as we shall see shortly, on our anxiety in the face of this void and our attempts to flee it. Meanwhile, it is probably not superfluous, in the current intellectual climate, to observe the extraordinary respect in which Badiou holds Hegel; and, indeed, beyond that to note that Being and Event (and even more explicitly, Logics of Worlds) is something like an emulation of the Greater Logic, if not an attempt to fuse logic and ontology as such, in ways neither Hegel nor Heidegger could have imagined.

But that still leaves the other half, so to speak, of the original married pair of opposites in the philosophical tradition, namely that Nothingness which always trails along after Being like a pale shadow of its former self. There will be more to say about such binary oppositions in a moment; suffice it to note that Badiou’s title deviates sufficiently from its Sartrean model to give us the clue: the official, acknowledged opposite of Being will in this work not be le Néant, but rather the Event. When one remembers that Sartre’s nothingness turned out in fact to be freedom and ‘human reality’, the expectation is heightened that the burden of something like praxis and history will fall here, along with consciousness, the negative, freedom, and whatever other accolades we are still willing to bestow on what today is contemptuously called the ‘Anthropocene’ and minimized as thoroughly as possible in Latour’s ‘democratic’ equality between humans and objects. In fact, the author of Being and Event will turn out to be relatively reticent about ‘events’ as such, but we may expect the author of TheTheory of the Subject to be far more forthcoming about human potentialities. Indeed, he there also proves to have a good deal more to say about Being as such, a mute domain of silence in Sartre where only three meagre sentences characterize it: ‘Being is. Being is in itself. Being is what it is.’footnote2 (And as for Heidegger, the fact, not only that there is not much to say about it, but that we have in general forgotten about it altogether, does not prevent das Sein from looming larger than life in his scheme of things.)

In Badiou, however, Being is the realm, not of things as such, but rather of the multiple: and this is why here the absolute inexpressivity of Sartrean matter and the equally inexpressive splendour of the Heideggerian epiphany are both impatiently dismissed by the revelation of a new and different kind of language, if one may still use that word, namely that of mathematics. As the very expression of quantity, only set theory can be considered to be the appropriate conceptual vehicle for things; and here even the word ‘concept’ must be considered doubtful, for Being is the multiple without a concept, as Kant might have put it. But this is the realm of Heideggerian ‘existents’ or Seienden; and for Badiou the only singular of which they are susceptible is the One imposed by us, in that inimitable ‘count-for-one’ which is here the equivalent of Sartrean totalization.