What is the meaning of death today? For Alain Badiou, it is a reminder that we are defined by finitude: 'we are only mortals' is the order of the day, underlying both capitalist and religious nihilisms. In a seminar given on 18 May 2015, Badiou offered a new conception of death as radical exteriority. 'Death is something that happens to you; it is not the immanent unfolding of some linear programme.' Translated by David Broder.
By Alain Badiou
Let’s start from the notion of nihilism. What does it mean? Nihilism is a figuration, a diagnostic on the state of the world and of thought, which established itself in the nineteenth century (we could argue that in a certain sense the first nihilist philosophy was Schopenhauer’s) on the ruins of the old religious and class convictions – as if nihilism had come along to name the void in which the collective symbolisation found itself.
So we could say that nihilism is the negative subjectivation of finitude; it is fundamentally the organised or anarchic (either is possible) consciousness that because we die, nothing is important. The most classic figure of nihilism is the statement that everything is devalued, de-symbolised and untenable in the face of death. It is an equalisation of the totality of everything that could be valued, faced with the radical ontological finitude that death represents. This question of the relation between nihilism and values is, as you know, a central question in Nietzsche’s philosophy, which takes up this theme of nihilism in order to make a very important diagnostic and critical use of it.
In reality, the statement ‘because we die, nothing is important’ can remain a theological one. Indeed, we could say ‘Nothing is important, except God, except eternal salvation, except the other life…’; and we would then be embarking on something that is not nihilism, but the vocation for martyrdom or even placing hope in death itself, given that death is the only door to the infinite, and thus the only door to the value that matters, the supreme value. So we ought to say that full, complete nihilism is the nihilism that not only considers death proof of the inevitable devaluation of differences, but which completes this judgement with the death of God himself. So we can speak of complete nihilism only when the death of man is paired with the death of God. It was evidently in this sense that Dostoyevsky made one of his characters say that ‘if God is dead, then everything is permitted’. This is a nihilist statement in the sense that if God is dead, then nothing allows us to claim an inequality among different values. Judgement is itself of no interest, now that death is constituted doubly, both by the empirical death of men and the historical death of the gods.
In reality, this nihilism probably organises a complicated historical disposition – one that is still unfinished even today – which necessarily constructs what I will call a false contradiction, a contradiction that represents the two possible subjective variants of established nihilism.
The first position is a sceptical, atheist nihilism, which is in fact the most widespread ideology bearing it in the contemporary world. ‘Yes, it’s good to doubt…’ – and this is an absolutely fallacious interpretation of Descartes, when we know that what interested him was to prove the existence of God and to remain in doubt for the least length of time possible. It has become a sort of inheritance, with a long history – including in France – and one that results in the view that, fundamentally, the lightly sceptical reign of reasonable opinions combined with a smiling atheism is an acceptable subjective state, even if it does not seem very vigorous or exciting. It is a nihilist configuration, but it is what we might call a ‘non-tragic’ nihilism – the established, peaceable nihilism. The other position, on the contrary, is the frenzied desire for the resurrection of God – after all, the gods make quite a habit of reviving; they have always shown that their greatness is to mount a challenge to death itself.
This is absolutely what we have before us today, including at the level of average opinion: on the one hand, the will to preserve something of sceptical nihilism, of smiling atheism and the way of life that corresponds to it, and then, on the other hand, an attempt at the impossible resurrection of the dead God. This contradiction is, I think, a false contradiction, a contradiction that organises nihilism itself as a primordial renunciation of judgement and in particular as a renouncement of the category of truth. This contradiction – as is always the case with the great contradictions – today has a tragic and a comic form (though it is sometimes a sinister comedy). The tragic form is the extraordinary violent clash – which is always over oil fields (it is an oil-nihilism) – between sophisticated barbarism and what we might call archaic barbarism, killing either with the electronic drone or the butcher’s cleaver. In this latter case you are forced to invest something of your own person, whereas with the drone you can stay in your armchair and command the murder 3,000 kilometres away, before telling the President who signed the murder-order how it went. It is the tragic form because it is, all the same, haunted by death, murder, and occupation; and it is all the more tragic because it is not possible to see any way out of it, to see how it would be possible to give meaning to any kind of way out of this clash, precisely because it is a clash between two positions that are each in a certain sense untenable.
As for its comic form, we see this in the fact that newspapers can devote front-page headlines to the length of schoolgirls’ skirts, as if this were the news of the day. This will go down in history as ‘the skirt wars’… It is not wholly the same as the other nihilism, but in reality it expresses the same contradiction, because sceptical and nihilist atheism is also a whole universe of representations of femininity, of the relation to femininity, etc – and the impossibility of resurrecting the dead God also bears on this point. So this quarrel is the comic form of war.
We could ask what the two sides of this contradiction have in common. What they have in common is, ultimately, finitude. This is clear in the sceptical and atheist form of nihilism, for which it isn’t judgement that matters, but the free play of opinions. As for the figure of the impossible resurrection of the dead God, we know well enough that you can only get to God by manifesting and martyrising your finitude; so this is always a matter of the humiliation of finitude in front of the greatness of the infinite, which transcends and is external to it.
So in both cases it is the power of finitude that is convoked as the ground or territory of the opposition; and it is convoked in its quadruple operating form: that is, of identity, repetition, necessity and God himself. These four terms are, indeed, present at the heart of the contradiction that I am talking about.
Identity, because it is evidently an identitarian war. A ‘war of civilisations’, a war of religions, a war between the West and what is not the West, a war between democracy and tyranny: it has countless names, but it does indeed manifest itself as an identitarian war. Repetition, because in a certain sense it is a scene that has already been rehearsed, particularly in the representation of a conflict between the West and the Orient. Here we can mobilise the crusades, or, in the inverse sense, the expansion of the Muslim religion under the Ottoman Empire, or again in the other sense, colonialism and the Christians imposing their authority over Muslim peoples – in either case, it is a historically constituted scene being repeated. Necessity, because there is the necessity to deploy modernity conceived as the irreducible enemy of tradition. This is the question of symbolisation, of value, which is posed as the need for modernity to be able to develop without the hindrances, the reticence and the objections of tradition. So ultimately we can clearly see that God is the dividing line between, on the one hand, scepticism – which includes the necessity or authorisation of blasphemy – and, on the other hand, the attempt to resuscitate the dead God, which instead speaks to respect for the contents of the faith.
The common term in this conflict is the exacerbation of the power of finitude. What I want to note here is that identity, repetition, necessity and God are in fact concentrated in the theme of death. The thought of finitude is essentially a deadly and mortifying [mortifère et mortifiant] one. Death is the implicit or explicit recapitulation of the four terms.
Firstly, identity. In the logic of finitude, we only know who someone is when he is dead. Death is the seal that allows us to say what someone is – otherwise you still do not know what he is capable of. This is a theme that you will find in Greek tragedy. It is death that comes to seal the destiny of individuals’ identities but also of peoples’ identities: we know of the eighteenth-century fascination for the fall of the Roman empire, which was the point where it was possible to grasp and to consider what the identity of the Roman empire had truly been, in its own being. There is a rather terrifying phrase of Sartre’s on this point, that ‘to be dead is to be prey to the living’. Death is effectively the moment when you can no longer argue back or plead your cause against the verdict that the living choose to pass on you.
Repetition. Death is what makes every individual substitutable for any other. ‘Death is the great equaliser’ – a theme that we find extending everywhere across all religions. At the moment of death you stop being a king or a toiler; you will die, and faced with this terrifying threat of death and the last Judgement, anyone will be substitutable for any other. Death is the means by which humanity indefinitely repeats its constitutive finitude. That’s the meaning of the meditation pursued in Ecclesiastes: ‘Nothing new under the sun’. That is, that everything is heading toward death, without death itself changing anything. [Which then brings us to] the magnificent metaphor ‘All the streams flow into the sea, and the sea is never full’. This community-in-death is also an annihilation of time, absolutely cancelling out time’s creative capacity: ‘What are a hundred or a thousand years, when they can be wiped out in an instant?’ (Bossuet).
Necessity. Death is the only thing that we are certain of. Everything else is aleatory and variable – ultimately, the pure necessity of human life is crystallised in death. Malraux has Stalin saying (and it’s been questioned that he did), doubtless on a day when he was feeling melancholic, that ‘Ultimately, it’s death that wins’… even if you are a Stalin. This is Stalinist nihilism.
And then God, evidently. God has always been connected to death. God is the promise of immortality, indeed, immortality in itself. God is the name of non-death.
You see that death is the motif that recapitulates the instances of finitude, also because it is convoked as the ultimate argument every time that we suppose, or invoke, the possibility of humanity’s immanent, effective access to some truth of an infinite power – we always say ‘in the last analysis, man is a mortal animal’. From this point of view, I always admired the canonical example you learn in school of what a logical argument is: ‘All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal’. Connected together in this example is a triple relation between (1) necessity – that is, syllogism, as the logical form of necessity, (2) the pretention to wisdom or greatness as embodied in Socrates, and (3) the knot between the two, death. This pedagogical syllogism is a toxic vehicle of finitude. That it is why it is given to everyone as a principle of logical wisdom.
Now it would be interesting to ask what the absolute modern form of that is. I think that it’s not at all a matter of insisting on the value of death, giving it an important place, but rather a case of covering up its finitude. That means calmly setting this finitude at a distance, relegating it to lost corners, if possible, with the idea that, in any case, we already live a long time… Fundamentally, the idea is that death can ultimately be covered up by a carpet of commodities. Consumerist mobility, the possibility of humanity always having another go within its reach, the serial ‘another’ of the commodity (another object, another journey…) is in reality what covers up the categories of death, at the same time as being the same as it. If we think about it, commodity consumerism is also, ultimately, the repetition, the identity of objects etc. So it is death in its consumable form. I always have this feeling that when we buy an object, no matter what it is, particularly the most useless objects – that is, the most amusing ones – it is like in the Middle Ages when people used to buy indulgences. It is buying a little guarantee against the vileness of death, a little slice of anti-death fetish. The image I have of that in my mind is that after having little by little been covered up by these commodities, and then finally disappearing behind them, we are dead: and that is where the true reality, the truly immortal reality, triumphs – the immortality of the market. That is the great comfort – life is covered up by little parcels of indulgences, such that this covering ends up displacing death simply because it is identical to death.
In reality, I think that the great element of modernity is to have generalised slow death, that is, the avoidance – as much as possible – of catastrophic death. That is why our societies find it very hard to deal with catastrophes. There must not be catastrophes: this is pathological. Tragic, unexpected death is unacceptable. Suddenly, death has arrived – but what is it doing here? What is the government doing? The plane to Thailand is meant for relaxation, not for smashing into the ground and killing you. We are forced to feel this as a terrible drama. Why? Ultimately we have much less chance of being killed in the plane than walking down the steps; this is not at the level of general statistics, but because it is a death out in the open, a death that does not fit into the law of modern death, which means dying very slowly, and, if possible, almost without noticing.
The thesis underlying all this, it must be said, is that death is the constitutive principle of humanity as such. The dereliction of man as ‘the being for which there is death’ – the problem being to deal with the extreme anguish that this conviction provokes. The contemporary philosopher who thought this through most deeply was Heidegger. Indeed, he said that from the point of view of man’s immanent end, he is ultimately ‘a being toward death’, and he mounted a fundamentally important meditation on finitude on this basis. I’ll read you an extract from Being and Time [all quotes used here are from Joan Stambaugh’s English translation]:
Ending does not necessarily mean fulfilling oneself. It thus becomes more urgent to ask in what sense, if any, death must be grasped as the ending of Da-sein […] Initially ending means stopping, and it means this in senses that are ontologically different. The rain stops. It is no longer objectively present. The road stops. This ending does not cause the road to disappear, but this stopping rather determines the road as this objectively present one.
Here Heidegger is distinguishing – and here I’ll return to the terms I used before, between the finite as passive stopping and the finite as an operation. The rain stops: it has disappeared, it has stopped passively. Whereas if the road stops, it is because it is its own end, it has led us somewhere which is its end, an end that constitutes the road as a direction, a track, leading from one point to another. In this case, the end closes off the possibility of operation.
Hence ending as stopping can mean either to change into the absence of objective presence or, however, to be objectively present only when the end comes. The latter kind of ending can again be determinative for an unfinished thing objectively present, as a road under construction breaks off, or it may rather constitute the “finishedness” of something objectively present – the painting is finished with the last stroke of the brush.
So here we immediately have the metaphor of work, in the fact that the last stroke of the brush is the thing that brings us to its finished glory, whereas if the road stops because it hasn’t been built yet, then that is a transitory and passive stopping.
Even ending in the sense of disappearing can still be modified according to the kind of being of the being. The rain is at an end, that is, disappeared. The bread is at an end, that is, used up, no longer available as something at hand.
To put it another way, the bread is used up, but it has fulfilled the role it was made for.
None of these modes of ending are able to characterize death appropriately as the end of Da-sein. If dying were understood as being-at-an-end in the sense of an ending of the kind discussed, Da-sein would be posited as something objectively present or at hand. In death, Da-sein is neither fulfilled nor does it simply disappear; it has not become finished or completely available as something at hand.
To put it another way: in death, Dasein is not like the road, the rain, the table or the bread we ate.
Rather, just as Da-sein constantly already is its not-yet as long as it is, it also already is its end. The ending that we have in view when we speak of death does not signify a being-at-an-end of Da-sein, but rather a being toward the end of this being. Death is a way to be that Da-sein takes over as soon as it is. “As soon as a human being is born, he is old enough to die right away”.
Heidegger’s description of death essentially consists of saying that, in man’s case, finitude is radically immanent. Death is not something external, indicating a passive finitude or a finitude achieved by human life: rather, human life is commanded or oriented toward death, from within; Dasein is ‘toward death’ from the beginning. To put that another way, the thing proper to man is that the question of death, of finitude, is internal to his existence and to his definition, and not the result of fulfilment or stopping, which are but empirical appearances. For human life, the end is at the beginning. It is an ineluctable component of the prospect of life in itself.
I think that here we have got to the densest and most complete form of an organic relation between human existence and finitude. In my view this is the most radical thesis concerning the assumption of finitude, because it is a thesis that makes finitude immanent in an absolute way. Ultimately it makes death play the same role that the absolute plays in Hegel’s thinking (as he ultimately concluded that if we manage to attain the absolute, that is because the absolute is with us from the beginning). If we take Heidegger’s texts seriously, they tell us that death is also the absolute of human life, that is, at the same time its beginning, its origin and its fate.
I want to defend another thesis concerning death, a thesis that, conversely, upholds the absolute exteriority of death – a thesis that makes death radically non-immanent. If you want the complete details, see Logiques des mondes, Book III, Section 4, a chapter entitled ‘L'existence et la mort’, where you will find the whole context that I can only give a brief sketch of here.
The idea I want to defend – and it’s a simple one, truth be told – is that death is something that happens to you; it is not the immanent unfolding of some linear programme. Even if we say that human life cannot go beyond a hundred and twenty years, for biological, genetic etc. reasons, death as death is always something that happens to you. One great thinker on death is La Palice. A truth we get from La Palice is that ‘a quarter an hour before his death, he was still alive’. That isn’t at all absurd or naïve. It means that ‘a quarter an hour before death’ he wasn’t what Heidegger sees as ‘a quarter hour before death’ – he wasn’t ‘a-being-toward-death’ ever since his birth. ‘A quarter of an hour before his death’ he was alive, and death happens to him. And I would maintain that death always comes from the outside. Spinoza said something excellent on that score: ‘Nothing can be destroyed except by an external cause’. Yes, I’ll take that. Spinoza gives a long proof of that, but I won’t give it too. This means that death is in a position of radical exteriority: we would not even say that a human reality, a Dasein, is mortal. Because ‘mortal’ means to say that it contains the virtuality of death in an immanent fashion. In truth, all that is is generically immortal, and then death intervenes.
I would define death as a mutation of existential status in a given world, which I will try to give you a general schema of. We are all in a world, Heidegger is right on that, we are somewhere, we are localised and our very being contains and retains this localisation. The metaphysical approach I propose is the following: the register of being [l’être] on the one hand, and the register of existence on the other, have to be distinguished. Being belongs to pure multiplicity, under one form or another, whereas existence is always existence in a place. So it is necessary to distinguish, as Heidegger masterfully did, between being and being-there [Da-sein]. Thought on being is one thing (as you know, I maintain that it fuses with the analysis of multiplicities, or mathematics), and thought on existence is another.
Let’s suppose that X and Y exist in the world. They have a being of their own, independent of the fact that they are in this world. But what does ‘existing in a world’ mean for them? It means: being in a state of being differentiated from all the others who are in the same world. The singularity of existence is the possible systemic differentiation between an element of the world and an element of the same world. So somewhere there has to be the possibility of evaluating the difference between the two. So we would say that ‘existing in a world’ is to be taken in a practically infinite web of more or less strong differences with everything that is in the world in question: that’s what constitutes the singularity of our belonging to the world.
We will use the term D(x,y) to denote the difference between X and Y, a relation whose value ‘measures’ the extent to which X and Y are different. The difference D(x,y) has a value that will situate itself between a minimum (µ) and a maximum (M). If it equals M, it is because X and Y are very different, they are as different as could be; if it equals µ, it is because they are almost the same, as similar as they could be. A world, in its basic machinery, is a game of differentiations proper to this determinate world, oscillating between a minimum and a maximum.
So on that basis we can say that for some person, ‘existing in the world’ is the measure of difference between herself and herself. This would be written E(x) = D(x,x). That is a very simple and ordinary idea. Existence is always something qualitative, it is an intensity: there are moments when you feel ‘alienated’, that is, very differentiated from yourself; so D(x,x) has a maximal value. And there are other moments where you feel yourself fully exist, where your existence is intense, you feel close to your true identity; so D(x,x) has a minimal value. Between the two it fluctuates via intermediate values, and X and Y are not absolutely different nor absolutely identical, but ‘averagely’ different.
We can also express it by saying that ‘the existence of a multiple something, relative to a world, is the degree to which in this world the multiple appears identical to itself’ (Logiques des mondes p. 285). This time, this is expressed in the value of the function ‘identity to oneself’ (annotated Id(x.x)): if Id(x,x) has the maximum value (M), that is because this multiple exists absolutely in the world under consideration; and if Id(x,x) has the minimal value (µ) that is because its existence in this world has an extremely weak intensity.
As for death, it is, formally, the sudden, contingent passage – imposed from the outside – from the situation Id(x,x) = p [p being some non-minimal value] to the situation Id(x,x) = µ. That’s why we can always say ‘that is what death is’, when we see death and we absolutely know that is what it is. We know that it’s death because x is still there, but the intensity of his existence is almost entirely eliminated. The fable of the immortal soul does not rely on the distinction between mind and body, but it is rooted within it, that is, in the distinction between being and existence. The idea of immortality is that in this world – the world that prescribed the intensity of an existence proper to this world – x is dead, but that does not mean that he is dead in every world.
Ahmed chose this moment to signal to ‘Mr. Badiou’ that he had to leave the stage instantly. The meditation he had been elaborating, alone on the stage, concluded with the slogan: ‘Down with death!’
See more from Badiou here.