Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Alain Badiou and Available Light: À la recherche du réel perdu / In search of the lost Real

Last Tuesday I sat with about 600 others in the Fisher and Paykel Appliances auditorium at the University of Auckland to listen to a lecture by Alain Badiou, according to his introducer, the greatest living philosopher in the world today.

Obviously a lecture entitled "À la recherche du réel perdu / In search of the lost Real" was going to be a bit of philosophical challenge. It was that (and I did wonder how many of those at the lecture were philosophically trained). But it was also a real challenge for me to pay attention and catch the words: Alain Badiou spoke English with a thick French accent and initially every few words were interrupted by a rasping cough.

I stuck at it. What follows is what I understood him to be saying. But I could be wrong. His meaning could remain lost!

His thesis was that the real is the impasse (or impossibility) of formalisation.

That is, the real (reality) is unable to be formalised.

Clearly 'formalisation' needs defining.

It took me a while to work that out. This is the "I think this is what he means" definition of formalisation:

We experience reality then we try to describe it, to model it, to depict it, to understand it. So we might make a mathematical formula, produce a movie, draw a diagram, compose a song, even take a photograph. This is our formalisation: putting the things of reality in formal terms.

But this should not be mistaken for reality. Reality actually exists outside of formalisation, at the point where formalisation becomes impossible because it is not itself reality.

If I am correct then this has interesting possibilities to consider. For instance, every attempt to use words to engage with reality, whether at the simple level of "Look outside, it is raining" or the scientific level of "What we see is not the full depth of reality which is explained by atomic theory which in turn involves high complexity around almost undetectable small particles and energies" leaves reality itself as unknown to us.

Theologically this means reflecting on the limitations of our words to describe God. Whether we work with the precision of creeds, or the depths of biblical narratives, or the intricacies of Pauline complex arguments (let alone the sheer width of, say, Barth's multivolume Church Dogmatics) we do well to remember that God does not equate to the words we use or the words we read. The reality of God lies just beyond the words!

Yet the words are not unimportant. They help us negotiate reality, if not to understand it. Even God humbled himself as the Word became flesh. In some sense God became part of our formalisation!

Back to the lecture.

As I listened I felt that Badiou was offering a couple of ways towards the 'impossible' of God's existence. One way is that if philosophical discourse is a formalisation which attempts to describe the world without invoking the existence of God, is God the impasse of this formalisation?

Another way, and I am talking about a sense I had as hearer, was that it seemed as though lying beneath, or perhaps in parallel, to Badiou's words, I was hearing a presentation of the ontological argument for the existence of God.

No doubt this seems a bit incoherent to you because I feel I am at the 'impasse' of my own ability to formulate what I heard! I could blame the thick French accent for that, as much as my limited number of working brain cells ...

Except a few days later I read a new post by +Kelvin Wright on his blog Available Light. It seems to me that Bishop Kelvin understands precisely what Alain Badiou was saying. Reality lies beyond, not within the photograph; off the page, not within the words of a post or a poem.


Pageantmaster said...

It sounds like an extension of the existentialism of Sartre. Who is to say? What does it all mean?

As for describing God, we have Jesus to look at, and then we know exactly what and who God is. The unknowable has become known.

If you know what I mean.

Pageantmaster said...

I see he entitled one of his key books 'Being and Event' - how close is that to Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness' to whose arguments Badiou seems to pay more than what one can call homage I suppose.

Oh well, my brain hurts.

Father Ron Smith said...

All of this goes to show how important it is that 'The Word (God) became flesh and (actually) dwelt among us!' This reality is at the heart of our devotion to Jesus in the Sacrament of his provenance.

Our mere words - no matter how profound - can never substitute for the Living Word.
But of course, this requires a living Faith, received in Baptism, affirmed in Confirmation, and ingested in Communion.

Father Ron Smith said...

I've noticed that Pageantmaster has just written an article on the 'Mainstream' web-site - notified on 'Titus-on-line'; wherein he seems to have a problem about celebrating Advent, currently.

PM says here that his brain is hurting - with reference to your article, Peter, about Alan Badiou.

Maybe PM's real problem is dissociation from the Christian Tradition; which sees Advent as a perpetual reminder of the need to prepare for the Coming of Christ at any moment. Perhaps he feels that much more intellectually stimulating theological debate has to be engaged in before such an event could possibly be entertained. What I say is "Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus!"

Pageantmaster said...

Thanks Father Ron. Anglican Mainstream kindly asked to publish my note which went along with Advent Links, so I proofed it for publication and added some references.

If you read it to the end, you will find that I do come to a conclusion in accordance with the Christian Tradition in a somewhat circular manner [I am no revisionist],though perhaps I should have expressed myself better.

As for the instant question, in my youth I did read Being and Nothingness in some detail at university so am familiar with Satre's work and others in this area, but the neural networks in my brain are a bit dusty and clanking a bit. Most of the people I have met who have been through the Ecole Normale have spoken good English so I am surprised that Badiou speaks English like a Parisian taxi driver.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
I myself struggle to see where your critique of Pageantmaster's Advent piece lands a telling blow. It strikes me as covering all the bases of what Advent might mean for Christians working through the dual foci of the season as preparation for two comings of Christ.

Bryden Black said...

The beauty of the Incarnation is this: we humans may now genuinely apprehend God even as we may never fully comprehend God - which apprehension is actually God's apprehension of us through the Son in the Spirit!

Father Ron Smith said...

I'm always a little apprehensive of too much detail - where a divine mystery is involved.

Bryden Black said...

I guess Ron that depends upon whether we take say Eph 1-3 as fully as we may ...