The aging Alain Badiou pens a radical speech on existential anguish as an opening towards a better community.
The True Life: A Plea for Corrupting the Young
In his philosophy, Alain Badiou alternates between psychoanalysis and Marxism. He also builds on Heidegger’s existential and philosophical thinking, where the truth is found in the relationship between the individual and the world. Badiou’s key works mix existential insight with daunting formal and logical arguments in a fundamental examination of the relation between the possible and the real.
In a lighter manner – through a series of short and easily accessible writings – the eighty-year-old Badiou uses his concept of truth to illuminate general experiences and current problems. The basic idea being that truth emerges as an event where the possible finds space in the real. Seizing the truth in a amorous encounter could radically change reality – the moment of love becomes a relationship, perhaps lasting an entire lifetime. Similarily, in politics : a feeling of injustice makes you an active witness. By being loyal to this experienced truth, you help creating a new political community and changing the world.
Words to the young
The True Life is written as a speech to the young, placing it dangerously close to the often slightly embarrassing – and frequently paternalistic – words of wisdom on coming of age. To compensate for the somewhat plucky role as the keeper of knowledge, Badiou starts off referring to the wildest of all young poets, Rimbaud, who, somewhere, melancholically complains that ‘the true life is absent,’. Talking about the real and inspired life also means speaking of the life that is faded, false and corrupt.
«Talking about the real and inspired life also means speaking of the life that is faded, false and corrupt.»
A conscious provocation, the subtitle of Badiou’s book is A Plea for Corrupting the Young, a reference to Socrates’ equally ironic fate. When Socrates was sentenced to death by the citizens of Athens, the most important accusation was that he had misled young people.
To many young people, a clear and critical insight into the general corruption of society, is a basic experience. Yet, acting as a witness to such bitter insights comes at a price. As any existential philosopher will point out, the solution for most of us is to flee – . With a stark simplification, Badiou points out two escape routes for young people.
The first choice looks a lot like the road taken by the young Rimbaud: an intense existence where the wine flows and life is lived for the moment. Here rebellion abounds, but a life lived only for the instant easily ends up as a series of disconnected episodes, a fragmented experience with no underlying plan. The celebration of life risks ending in emptiness.
To many, the alternative to burning away one’s life force is to carefully ration and invest one’s energy. If this first alternative looks like Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, the second solution is akin to the very lowest level of authenticity, stage zero: the conventional life of the bourgeoisie. Here, the prime goal in life is simply to settle in as well as possible, to gain a prestigious, secure and profitable position. Whereas this is undeniably constructive, it is also dangerously close to what Badiou bluntly terms ‘the trinity of corruption’ – power, money and status.
Separately, the two itineraries may look like extreme caricatures, but Badiou leaves it open for the two escape routes to be combined. With this, we get a very recognizable image of a normal youth – where travels, parties and distractions go hand in hand with studies and social ambitions. If this life, which undeniably is a reality for most people, is a false one – then what is a poor young person to do?
Boy-men and woman-girls
Clearly, the problem is not the young people, but the society they have been thrown into. More than anything, the situation for young people is characterised by consumerism and the free flow of capitalism. This concept was most famously described by Marx as a power that melts all that is solid into air.
«Badiou feels that, more than ever, the real contrast is between capitalism and communism.»
Badiou feels that the disintegration of tradition and the old has made it easier to be young today, because they are freer and do not have to go through conventional rituals of transition. Traditionally, military service caused boys to become men, whilst marriage and children made girls into women. Simultaneously, this new situation is confusing. Without hierarchical structures, youth, especially young men, are unable to ever become adults. They remain children, with teenage desires, but with an adult budget. Youth never ends. On the other hand, childhood disappears, particularly for girls, who from an early age on, and prematurely, see themselves as efficient and independent women. Badiou seems to think that as long the boy-men and women-girls function within a capitalist society, the combination of immaturity and prematurity will not bring any good.
Reaction and rebellion
The cynical insight Marx pointed out, which the modern, capitalist society is based on, is that under all social interactions lie vested interests and money. To compensate for the disintegrating effects of individualism, many choose to retreat into religious identities, nationalism or other such reactionary roles. However, the choice between a hazardous continuation of the West’s capitalist principles or, on the other hand, withdrawing to anti-modern traditionalism, is based on a false contrast. Badiou states that, now more than ever, the true contrast is the one between capitalism and communism.
But is the meaning of ‘communism’ here? As Badiou, the old Marxist, allies himself with the younger generation, communism is first and foremost a code word for a possible society, a future community. In the background, we can discern the play of Lacan’s psychoanalytic distinctions, that places human life between registers of the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic. According to Badiou, putting one’s trust in the possible doesn’t mean escaping into a political daydream or an imaginary world, but rather to refuse to entirely adapt to the brutal realities of capitalism. The goal is to contribute to a “a new egalitarian symbolic order”. The key message is more general: to Badiou, living in accordance with truth means something entirely different than understanding or accepting reality as it is. The true life is lived as a witness to a truth that really demands something from us – and that in return leads us towards something possible and better which does not yet exist.