Alain Badiou: "Happiness is a risk that we must be ready to take"
Happiness is central to the police operation of contemporary capitalism: enforced at work by "chief happiness officers" and at home by mindfulness, self-help manuals and "neurosignalling" headbands. Happiness must be meticulously maintained, and a burgeoning industry has grown around it, because collective unhappiness runs the risk of financial collapse. But as Alain Badiou argues below, it is happiness—as the affect on which political action is founded—that is the true risk.
- Visit Regards to read the original interview in French. Translated by David Broder.
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Why should we re-interrogate the category "happiness"? Why do we need to talk about "real" happiness?
The category of happiness, such as it is promoted today, has largely been reduced to what I would call satisfaction. This is a picture of happiness that at root consists of asking ourselves how we can preserve a place we’ve been assigned – a place in the world such as it is already is. That is why I emphasise the word real (real happiness) to mark a contrast with a happiness I see as imaginary: a happiness that neither involves nor allows for any adventure, and least of all any risk. I believe that the modern conception of happiness is essentially not to take any risks; it’s a happiness that comes with a guarantee. This new way of marketing happiness has a watchword, "harmony": a harmonious relation with the world, your friends, your partner etc. It is an ideal of happiness a bit like what we used to call "peace in the home". Though actually everyone knows that, quite the contrary, a couple is a difficult and perilous adventure. At root, this reduces happiness to occupying an already-determined place: a job you like, a loveable partner, children. Of course we wouldn’t wish it on anyone to find out what it’s like to be unemployed – that would be stupid. What I am asking – and this is the key point when philosophy enters the scene – is whether we can really reduce happiness to mere satisfaction.
That’s a classic move, for philosophy, but in what sense does it offer anything new?
There I’m making a classic move, it’s true, declaring that there is a link between philosophy and happiness. That’s obviously an argument that appears in ancient thought, in Plato and the Stoics. But what we ought to take from this move – the startling thing about this move – is the idea that philosophy can shake up and displace the spontaneous, or rather, the socially dominant, conception of happiness. Spontaneity is largely codified: it’s what society makes us think is self-evident. That’s also why when philosophy takes happiness as one of its problems, it enters into conflict with the socially dominant view. Such as it was framed by the Sophists in Plato’s day, and such as it is framed by the magazines or the psychology manuals today. And when philosophy discusses or debates happiness, it is addressing a problem that we have in common, unlike many other philosophical problems. Indeed, if you ask questions like "What is being qua being?", "Is there a mathematical truth?", and so on, ultimately those are questions that you will only be discussing with your counterparts. It’s not that I look down on these questions, their history, and their theoretical necessity; no, quite the contrary, they are a theoretical armoury and arsenal that are indispensable for addressing questions of a more general order. But philosophy cannot stop there: it has to address more widely shared problems like love, happiness etc. Ultimately philosophy has to concern itself with questions that relate to general aspirations, or else it will be left as an academic discipline where colleagues discuss problems inscribed within the space of philosophy alone. So this is where philosophy sets itself up on a front line, in conflict with the dominant ideas.
Why do you enlist the category of "exception" in order to define happiness?
When you embark on a close analysis of the conception of happiness, you also enter into the question of its exceptional status. How is it that real happiness – which is not reducible to ordinary satisfactions – is not the general law of existence, but is constituted by choices and moments that inscribe it within an exceptional status? At root the common consciousness also shares this conception of the rarity of happiness, even if it masks or hides it. Hence, I think, the extreme (I wouldn’t hesitate in calling it lyrical) importance of love in this matter. Love, passion, meeting someone, are thought of as exceptional moments of existence, and everyone is well aware that these moments signpost what we can truly call happiness. Clearly it’s entirely desirable not to be unhappy. But real happiness takes a lot more than just not being unhappy. Happiness can’t just be a simple negation of unhappiness: it is a present, a gift from life that goes beyond the order of satisfaction. A gift from life that we must be ready to accept, a risk that we must be ready to take. It is a major existential choice: either a life that’s only open to satisfaction, or a life that takes on the risk of happiness, including as an exception. That’s also a political question: there are those who only agree on rejecting unhappiness (the conservative argument of the so-called "New Philosophers") and those who’ll take a risk in search of happiness. According to this conservative argument, people can only agree on rejecting unhappiness, and not with a view to happiness. Saint-Just declared on the contrary – in an entirely revolutionary manner – that happiness was a new idea in Europe.
Is that why you, like Benjamin, link the idea of happiness to the idea of a different time?
Benjamin proposed a fibrous conception of time, according to which there are many times: there is no single, common time, but a multiplicity of tangled and sometimes contradictory temporalities. And it is clear that the time of happiness – including in a political sense – is a time that goes beyond and in a sense destroys ordinary temporality. In philosophy, the twentieth century (with the theory of relativity and Bergson) was a moment when the multiplicity of temporalities was explored. The question of happiness takes its place within this framework. The time proper to truths, be they mathematical, artistic, political or the truths of love – the time of happy subjectivation – is the time of the consequences of the event, which can’t be situated in the course of ordinary time. It is necessarily the time of a split, a rupture, an exceptional time. Accepting the consequences of this temporal exception means forging a different time. That’s what common sense ultimately means when it says that lovers are alone in the world. Alone in the world – that is, alone in the time that constitutes this couple, which does not share, or no longer shares, ordinary time. That is a general characteristic of real happiness: the same is also true of a mathematician who resolves a problem, working alone. How, then, can a collective happiness be built, in these conditions? If enthusiasm is the affect that corresponds to political happiness, it is because it marks out a new time in common. Enthusiasm denotes the moment when individuals become subjectively conscious that they can make history, and not just undergo it. So enthusiasm is the shared conviction that we can make history, that history belongs to us and, as Françoise Proust declared, that history is not over yet. It is the sharing of an intensity, of a demonstration, as we saw in the public squares of the Arab Spring. But it is also the maintenance of a state of exception, through the laborious work of what we call political activism properly speaking (interminable meetings, leaflets written at dawn); and I can tell you, political happiness is also exhausting. That has to be said. That is why it also tends, unfortunately, to produce full-time revolutionaries, and sometimes even professional cadres…
Yet you yourself have written that this work, this organisational practice, requires a certain "discipline"…
Let’s be clear, I was obviously using this word as a provocation. Just as I use the word "communism" because it is the most hated word in the contemporary political lexicon. I understand that we are trying to preserve the evental power of politics. But I think that the construction of an enduring political time requires the discipline of an exception, a temporal continuity ensuring that the energy that comes from the political rupture does not die away. So we have to keep on inventing, and these inventions suppose creations – creations that obey a discipline. Here we ought to understand the word discipline in the sense that a painter, experimenting and creating, imposes a discipline on himself, by himself. Just as a mathematician imposes an implacable discipline on himself as he resolves a problem. Once you’ve positioned yourself in an exceptional situation, you are necessarily compelled to create your own rules, your own principles, and it is in this sense that discipline is indistinguishable from freedom. And this discipline constantly has to be reinvented.
And again, why do you use the word "fidelity"? Isn’t that more an ethical concept than a political one?
The word fidelity has a negative meaning – not to betray. For me, though, fidelity shouldn’t be defined by non-treason, by its negation. To be loyal to an event – fidelity is always fidelity to an original rupture, and not to a dogma, a doctrine or a political line – is to invent or propose something new that, so to speak, brings back the force of the rupture of the event. This is anything but a principle of conservation: it is a principle of movement. Fidelity designates the continuous creation of the rupture itself. A conservative fidelity, on the contrary, consists of saying that such-and-such person has to be considered an enemy, has to be excluded, if not even eliminated, because they do not conform to the sense of the initial event. Only this conformity supposes that fidelity entails a sort of objectivity in the same sense as the event, and which is neutral and indifferent to the subjective engagement that the fidelity to an event requires. In this sense, fidelity is more a logical than an ethical concept: it means being logical or coherent with an initial subjective engagement that now proceeds by way of a collective discussion among people who consider each other political friends. In that sense it’s not really much different from the community of mathematicians who have not only a shared problem but also procedures that allow them to define and determine true from false. The essence of politics is not only a clash with enemies; for this also requires the prior, essential condition of agreement among friends. Fidelity means that those who enter into this common discussion have the duty to consider whether there is a contradiction among their own ranks. In no case should this contradiction ever be identified with the contradiction with their enemies.
And that’s the origin of "terror" in politics?
The identification of all contradictions with the antagonistic contradiction, the class contradiction, the class enemy, is always a catastrophe. The terrorist tragedy of the twentieth century was to consider that there was only one contradiction, the class contradiction. On the contrary, we ought to constantly remind ourselves that the discussion has to continue for all the time that it requires, so that we can understand that any political contradiction is always internal to a collective and has to be resolved among friends. From this point of view, impatience in politics is very damaging. The terror proper to twentieth-century communism owes less to the individuals themselves (supposedly cruel characters) than to a mix of extreme distrust, impatience and prudence – wholly antinomic to happiness. We need only think of Stalin’s extremely violent moves to collectivise the land, while at the same time he saw enemies everywhere… No, in the order of politics as elsewhere, we have to know how to be confident and patient – to give patience and time their proper opportunity.
 Alain Badiou addresses this question more specifically in À la recherche du réel perdu (Fayard, 5 euros), where he delves into the reactionary uses of the word ‘real’, and also offers a fine reading of Pasolini’s poem The ashes of Gramsci
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