On Contempt

For me, the most liberating contribution made by Alain Badiou’s conception of ethics is its insistence on the pursuit of truth over and against the pursuit of happiness. One need only page through one of today’s ‘lifestyle’ magazines to see the thoroughly biopolitical nature of happiness at its most cynical: pseudo-scientific ‘techniques’ for extracting the most pleasure, commodities, or ‘satisfaction’ from any given situation (always conceived as formally identical ‘tests’ or ‘challenges’), ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ columns where, with a knowing wink, self-proclaimed experts advertise their empty nihilism as a public service, cover stories on heroic artists who emerged from obscurity to do the same, studies from an evolutionary biology or neuroscience perspective where uncertain empirical results are followed by faux-ethical ‘debates’ which always end in a reaffirmation of the inevitable Kingdom of Hedonism and Misery (the future, you see, will consist of those who have a million orgasms per day and those who do not), and worst of all, sentimentalized photographs of the ‘disenfranchised’ alongside self-congratulatory assurances that the absolute least one can do for ‘these people’ – ‘ethical’ purchasing of the right fashionable products – is also the best…when taken together it amounts to the sad spectacle of pure, unapologetic frivolity buckling under the weight of absolute law. In its place, following Plato, Badiou reasserts philosophy, or the pursuit of truth, which after all is nothing more than the twofold practice of accurate thinking outside the norm (or in Badiou’s terms, the ‘state of the situation’) and the action that corresponds with these thoughts (‘truth-procedure as fidelity to an event’). By locating the practice of philosophy at the core of all human action, he liberates philosophy from the philosophers (his ‘anti-philosophers’) who reserve truth for an unknowable Other (always, in Badiou’s view, reducible to God), the wishes/dictates/principles of which are only acknowledgeable through various ‘methods’ of tortured navel-gazing (the dominant schools of professional philosophy). Philosophy for Badiou does not produce new truths, it simply recognizes the ‘event,’ that which exposes what is already verifiably there but invisible from the perspective of the established disciplines, organizing state, or ‘common sense,’ then calls for (but does not force) the action that logically follows from this observation. Thus Badiou, in theory at least, restores thinking to the commons. For professional philosophers, this is always a very exciting move, as it gives them a new vocabulary, the most powerful weapon in philosophy, to attack their internal reactionaries. But for those of us who have never required the permission of philosophers to think (despite the assertions of corporate media we are hardly an elite group), I think it more useful to examine Badiou’s relationship to his real intellectual enemies, whose far more numerous disciples are likely oblivious to the grand revolutionary ambitions of an obscure Frenchman.

It may seem obvious that if there is anyone who the Marx/Maoist Badiou’s ethics must refute, it is the chief progenitor of what would later become capitalist ideology, Adam Smith. But in his attempt to formulate a valid ethics for a global situation dominated by economics, it is more accurate to say Badiou does not dispute Smith’s fundamental observations as explicated in his currently unfashionable Theory of Moral Sentiments, but simply disagrees with his emphases. Against both their moralizing and ‘realist’ peers, they recognize the futility of advocating a return to absolute (ethical or ‘natural’) Law. Their shared thesis, which seems to continually elicit surprise, is that modern ethics can only exist in a regulative capacity.

Let’s take this apart a little.

The idea of an ethics addressed to the universal but which refrains from insisting on worldly dominance is an old conservative one, which Hobbes employed in order to maintain a (symbolic) ‘place’ for the church while reducing its political power. Hobbes’ basic conservative position can be summed up as the replacement of a concrete ethics with arbitrary imperatives (the law of the sovereign) moderated without any guarantee by a Christian morality that legitimates the entire enterprise (if perhaps only to those secure enough to need motivation over and above the constant threat of state violence). The basic mark of conservative ethics is that they begin with a ‘concession’ granted to ‘necessary evil,’ necessary to protect against a supposedly even greater evil.

Smith’s concessions, the basis of his economic theories and which naturally influence his ethical views, are to the scarcity of resources and what he sees as its necessary consequence, the concentration of ownership. This a priori concession is Badiou’s principal target. Accepting a concession into a universal ethics smuggles in a universally acceptable limit to ethical behavior. For Badiou such a limit can only be temporary and provisional, determined within the context of a situation (as its ‘state’ or norm); its overcoming is the real effort of the truth-procedure. Concrete ethical imperatives are also not to be conceived universally, since they are determined in a negative relationship with their own a priori universal limit, and are thus not related to concrete situations. This is the basis for Badiou’s critique of human rights: in trying to protect people from violence in the abstract, they inadvertently preserve the situational factors that produce actual violence from critique or significant alteration, resulting in a functional equivalence between ‘human’ and ‘victim’ and leaving the causality of every violent situation safely concealed by conventional dogma. Badiou’s critique of conservatives and liberals then, in line with Marx and his revolutionary followers (Lenin, Mao), is that they provide only differing interpretations of the same mutually accepted ‘reality.’ The result is idle arguments that end up in superficial insults and personal attacks: “monster!” “utopian!” “anti-human!” “naive!” and grudging acceptance of more or less similar policies predicated on a shared, erroneous vision of a unified social and natural world. However, though scarcity is fundamental to Smith’s ideas about resource management, and even to his choice of metaphors and style of argument, neither it nor pious fantasies of universal peace lie at the foundation of his ethics.

Smith, like Badiou, rejects the self-evidence of moral principles, including those based on utility and reason. No discipline or knowledge, he argues, is able to provide us with first principles. They are instead derived from the far more base motives of charm and taste.

The utility of those qualities, it may be thought, is what first recommends them to us; and, no doubt, the consideration of this, when we come to attend to it, gives them a new value. Originally, however, we approve of another man’s judgment, not as something useful, but as right, as accurate, as agreeable to truth and reality: and it is evident we attribute those qualities to it for no other reason but because we find that it agrees with our own. Taste, in the same manner, is originally approved of, not as useful, but as just, as delicate, and as precisely suited to its object. The idea of the utility of all qualities of this kind, is plainly an after-thought, and not what first recommends them to our approbation.

According to Smith, human social life is regulated by ‘sympathy,’ or the ability to imagine the passions, feelings, and attitudes of others from the point of view of our own. The force and quality of this sympathy is thus not at all automatic; it is arrived at contextually through experience, the product of situational factors: circumstance, relative social status, and various kinds of performance. “Sympathy,” he writes elsewhere, “does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from the situation which excites it,” and his theories for how this happens are appropriately nuanced and complex. For example, pain, suffering, and death, today usually regarded as the greatest conceivable evils, cannot be considered as evils in themselves, but according to whether or not they can gain our sympathy, or whether or not we can perceive in the situation a ‘truth’ that demands satisfaction. Though Smith does hypothesize that a state of universal sympathy would be ideal, we can only feel strong sympathy for pain we feel to be unjust (and thus its situation must be comprehensible, which means logically consistent and not too distant), and universal sympathy demands a totally consistent social order that its members feel to be just (which for Smith, as he argues according to a fascinating psychological theory of power worship, is based on a stable hierarchy). It is the elevation of justice, the preference for the pursuit of truth more generally, and recognition that all of these things are worked out in the social field, that relate Badiou and Smith’s otherwise quite divergent ethical projects.

  When the sentiments of our companion coincide with our own in things of this kind, which are obvious and easy, and in which, perhaps, we never found a single person who differed from us, though we, no doubt, must approve of them, yet he seems to deserve no praise or admiration on account of them. But when they not only coincide with our own, but lead and direct our own; when in forming them he appears to have attended to many things which we had overlooked, and to have adjusted them to all the various circumstances of their objects; we not only approve of them, but wonder and are surprised at their uncommon and unexpected acuteness and comprehensiveness, and he appears to deserve a very high degree of admiration and applause. For approbation heightened by wonder and surprise, constitutes the sentiment which is properly called admiration, and of which applause is the natural expression. The decision of the man who judges that exquisite beauty is preferable to the grossest deformity, or that twice two are equal to four, must certainly be approved of by all the world, but will not, surely, be much admired. It is the acute and delicate discernment of the man of taste, who distinguishes the minute, and scarce perceptible differences of beauty and deformity; it is the comprehensive accuracy of the experienced mathematician, who unravels, with ease, the most intricate and perplexed proportions; it is the great leader in science and taste, the man who directs and conducts our own sentiments, the extent and superior justness of whose talents astonish us with wonder and surprise, who excites our admiration, and seems to deserve our applause: and upon this foundation is grounded the greater part of the praise which is bestowed upon what are called the intellectual virtues.

We might say that Smith and Badiou share a taste for the heroic, the uncommon, and the ambitious. Most interestingly is where this preference colors and even takes precedent over sympathy for human suffering. Here is Badiou’s vision (and rehabilitation) of the concept of Man, taken from Ethics:

  An immortal: this is what the worst situations that can be inflicted upon Man show him to be, in so far as he distinguishes himself within the varied and rapacious flux of life. In order to think any aspect of Man, we must begin from this principle. So if ‘rights of man’ exist, they are surely not rights of life against death, or rights of survival against misery. They are the rights of the Immortal, affirmed in their own right, or the rights of the Infinite, exercised over the contingency of suffering and death. The fact that in the end we all die, that only dust remains, in no way alters Man’s identity as immortal at the instant in which he affirms himself as someone who runs counter to the temptation of wanting-to-be-an-animal to which circumstances may expose him. And we know that every human being is capable of being this immortal — unpredictably, be it in circumstances great or small, for truths important or secondary. In each case, subjectivation is immortal, and makes Man. Beyond this there is only a biological species, a ‘biped without feathers,’ whose charms are not obvious.

Behind Badiou’s critique of human rights is his feeling — we might call it a sensibility, even an aesthetic — that they reduce the other to a victim and an object of contempt. Smith on pain:

It is for the same reason that to cry out with bodily pain, how intolerable soever, appears always unmanly and unbecoming. There is, however, a good deal of sympathy even with bodily pain. If, as has already been observed, I see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg, or arm, of another person, I naturally shrink and draw back my own leg, or my own arm: and when it does fall, I feel it in some measure, and am hurt by it as well as the sufferer. My hurt, however, is, no doubt, excessively slight, and, upon that account, if he makes any violent out-cry, as I cannot go along with him, I never fail to despise him. And this is the case of all the passions which take their origin from the body: they excite either no sympathy at all, or such a degree of it, as is altogether disproportioned to the violence of what is felt by the sufferer.
It is quite otherwise with those passions which take their origin from the imagination. The frame of my body can be but little affected by the alterations which are brought about upon that of my companion: but my imagination is more ductile, and more readily assumes, if I may say so, the shape and configuration of the imaginations of those with whom I am familiar. A disappointment in love, or ambition, will, upon this account, call forth more sympathy than the greatest bodily evil. Those passions arise altogether from the imagination. The person who has lost his whole fortune, if he is in health, feels nothing in his body. What he suffers is from the imagination only, which represents to him the loss of his dignity, neglect from his friends, contempt from his enemies, dependance, want, and misery, coming fast upon him; and we sympathize with him more strongly upon this account, because our imaginations can more readily mould themselves upon his imagination, than our bodies can mould themselves upon his body.

Though Badiou, to my knowledge at least, doesn’t explicitly treat the consequences of the failure to manufacture sympathy in the imagination of the Western intellectual community as such, he is quite clear on the issue of laws based on ‘respect’ for the other inevitably producing contempt for the other. Smith’s hatred of contempt is equally obvious: “Human virtue is superior to pain, to poverty, to danger, and to death; nor does it even require its utmost efforts to despise them. But to have its misery exposed to insult and derision, to be led in triumph, to be set up for the hand of scorn to point at, is a situation in which its constancy is much more apt to fail. Compared with the contempt of mankind, all other external evils are easily supported.” To extract sympathy, the sufferer must do more than merely suffer — he must convince ‘us’ of his worth, he must put on a performance that is in line with ‘our’ taste. What neither thinker bothers to ask is where this apparently original attitude toward suffering and contempt comes from, precisely because they fail to consider it as an attitude, something that is itself produced — it is only something that can be alternately cultivated or reduced, through the allowance of expressions of courage on the part of the sufferers.

The nature and role of taste in ethics is something better treated by Smith than Badiou, whose near-total concern with the nuances of the observer’s reception and subsequent obligation prevents him from developing an ethics beyond subject-object relations as viewed exclusively from the first person plural. Smith’s greater attention to this point, and his greater self-reflexivity overall, comes from the fundamental concern for the management of resources and the production and maintenance of stability that underlies all his thought: self-reflexivity is, after all, only necessary when subjective perceptions have to be checked by external factors (the only way they can be understood as ‘perceptions’ and not ‘truths’). The recognition of truths happens within an un-analyzable conjunction of worldly circumstance (the event) and observational knack or skill (together, the encounter with the real). The whole point of basing his philosophy on this conjunction, the whole meaning of his militant, divisive politics, is to allow for the unexpected, the courageous, the revolutionary, to occur. This is his political aesthetic of interventionist (super-)heroism, which is not remotely ‘responsible’ but is always risking everything for the ‘just,’ according to his highly idiosyncratic definition. “Ultimately, the task of the philosopher consists of exposing a certain politics to its evaluation. Neither in the sense of “the good State,” nor in the sense of generic Communism, but intrinsically, that is to say for itself…In the end a very old word, a word very much worn, philosophically nominates those politics that overcome this ordeal: it’s the word “justice.” (Badiou, Highly Speculative Reasoning on the Concept of Democracy).

Without the space, time, or ability to really get into it, Badiou’s concept of justice derives from mathematics and set theory: he concieves of every situation as potentially (ontologically) infinite despite being empirically bounded. An easy example would be how mathematical theorems have often turned out to have empirical uses only after the fact (i.e. calculus). So justice involves accurately locating the true from infinite possibility within the specificity of the situation against its static state, or something like that. It’s interesting to contrast this with Smith’s views on justice, which are superficially similar: “There is, however, one virtue of which the general rules determine with the greatest exactness every external action which it requires. This virtue is justice. The rules of justice are accurate in the highest degree, and admit of no exceptions or modifications, but such as may be ascertained as accurately as the rules themselves, and which generally, indeed, flow from the very same principles with them.” Smith’s concept of justice can be read as just as mathematical as Badiou’s, but it is based on equivalence and correspondence with reality, that if correctly applied it will have an equalizing, harmonious effect on social relations as they are (sometimes unfortunately) configured. Reduced to a pithy aphorism, Badiou opposes empirical scarcity with mathematical infinity. Those who see the truth (never an easy or certain task) will always be opposed by those who do not. The obvious concern is whether or not this is a practical perspective in every situation, which refers the critic to Badiou’s loose conception of time and history. Another concern might be, ‘isn’t this all sort of unnecessarily melodramatic?’ Perhaps the conjunction of mathematician, philosopher, and Frenchman must produce just such a singularity of super-revolutionary affect. Personally though, my skepticism is more directed at the political consequences of an elite based on an open meritocracy of truth-seeing, and whether or not feeling a deep, instinctual sympathy with elements of this perspective (as you’ll notice from my first paragraph I clearly do) is enough to sign up, with this or with anything.

Though I must admit it is possible, and even likely, that there are no real choices in such matters.

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One Response to “On Contempt”

  1. […] 7th, 2007 at 6:46 pm (Political Theory, Ethics) In my post on Alain Badiou and Adam Smith, one of the things I was getting at was that their shared materialism demands an explanation for […]

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