Non-Event 2: The Catastrophic Past

There is no disputing that, for Badiou, the Event is a thoroughly subjective category. The Event has no existence apart from being named by its faithful subjects, and from the process by which they explicate the consequences of the Event in a given situation, and insodoing, constitute themselves as subjects. Dominic’s musing that there could in fact be Events occurring on the surface of Jupiter, but that they would amount to insignificant blips in the absence of subjective intervention, simply concedes too much.

Badiou explicitly states that there are no natural events (M17). Events cannot occur in ordinal or natural multiples, or situations without evental sites. Rather, Events can only occur in historical situations, or situations founded not exclusively by the void, but by some ‘voided’ element that belongs without inclusion, or in other words, by a singularity. Nonetheless, the distinction between natural and historical situations is not itself ‘natural’, and any situation can be retroactively deemed historical insofar as an evental site is qualified as such by the intervening subject (M17).

Moreover, according to the axiom of foundation, every pure multiple contains at least one site; indeed, for ontology, the name of the void itself counts as such a site (M18). Yet all of this still requires that natural multiples be retroactively qualified as historical by intervening subjects, and hence the ‘registration’ of Events by their subjects is coextensive with the retroactive possibility of the Event, insofar as the intervention transforms a natural multiple into a historical multiple. Without this transformation that only occurs through the naming of the Event, the Event wouldn’t have been possible in the first place, because the multiple would have been natural and not historical, or would have been founded by the void alone rather than a singular site.

Does this mean that Badiou’s theory of the Event is fundamentally onto-anthropological, depending on the existence of human beings, or at the very least, equivalently rational animals? Does this mean that Graham’s demand that ‘rocks and earthworms’ be privy to Events cannot be met? To be blunt, yes, rocks and earthworms are excluded. It should be noted, however, that for Badiou, the subject is not simply a individual person, but moreover a collective or multiple composition encompassing people and the resources of the given situation, insofar as they are mobilized through evental fidelity. This answer still seems to fall short, however, because we cannot imagine a subject without humans, even if it is not limited to the human being.

Recurrence and the Impasse of Evental Conditioning

Here I think we must look more closely at the conditions under which Events are possible. On the one hand, it seems that this possibility is entirely the retroactive effect of intervention itself. Yet at the close of Meditation 20, Badiou describes another condition of possibility, one which he leaves quite undertheorized and to which he does not return in Being and Event. He posits this second condition – above and beyond the interventional naming of the evental site – as an attempt to circumvent the apparent circularity of evental possibility.

If the Event is only possible by virtue of the intervention that retroactively discerns the existence of a site (which, moreover, is invisible or even inexistent before the intervention), and the intervention as naming of the Event is only possible by virtue of an Event which it contingently names, then we seem to be stuck with a condition that is conditioned by what it conditions. So we either must claim that the intervention wholly produces the Event, that it is wholly the creation of its subjects, or that Events are impossible, because they require the interventional circulation of their own names to exist, but also must precede their nomination and hence must precede their own existence.

Badiou provides an elegant, though too brief solution to this impasse:

There is actually no other recourse against this circle than that of splitting the point at which it rejoins itself. It is certain that the event alone, aleatory figure of non-being, founds the possibility of intervention. It is just as certain that if no intervention puts it into circulation within the situation on the basis of an extraction of elements from the site, then, lacking any being, radically subtracted from the count-as-one, the event does not exist. In order to avoid this curious mirroring of the event and the intervention – of the fact and the interpretation – the possibility of the intervention must be assigned to the consequences of another event. It is evental recurrence which founds intervention. In other words, there is no interventional capacity, constitutive for the belonging of an evental multiple to a situation, save within the network of consequences of a previously decided belonging. An intervention is what presents an event for the occurence of another. It is an evental between-two. (M20, p 209 [bold mine])

An Event can only ‘occur’ or be decided upon if there was a previous Event within whose consequences the current situation falls. And yet this evental wake is indiscernible within the situation: “the consequences of an event, being submitted to structure, cannot be discerned as such.” (p 211) In this sense, the intervention is a decision that the current situation bears the imperceptible trace of the consequences of a vanished Event, an Event that is invisible within the situation.

We can look at the existing situation and either say: there has never been an Event, because there is no evidence or trace of such a thing (of something that escapes the situation’s representation by the state); or we can say – yes, there was an Event that has now lost all subjective support. One would then see in the situation traces of this prior Event, fragments or artifacts of it – names deprived of their referents. We can moreover claim – and this appears to go beyond Badiou’s explicit theory – that the voiding of the elements of the evental site is precisely the absention of the referent whose name lingers in the situation as an enigmatic, senseless remnant.

Ur-event and the Impasse of Interventional Solipsism

Badiou does not develop his point about evental recurrence much more than this (at least not in Being and Event; I don’t yet have access to Logics of Worlds, but I hear that the concept of ‘resurrection’ he develops therein may be related to the point about recurrence), and this undertheorization has problematic consequences. First of all, what reason do we have to suppose that the prior Event, or Advent of intervention, is anything more than a subjective hypothesis, a fictional presupposition made to support intervention, but having no veracity or validity otherwise? Might not the discernment of traces of a prior Event be nothing more than enthusiastic hallucination?

There is seemingly nothing that prevents the Advent from being only a useful fiction. There is no way of ‘confirming’ the prior Event, and so it seems both this and the newly nominated Event could equally be the products of intervention. Badiou would probably say that this lack of guarantee reflects the courageous fortitude of the intervening subjects…but nevertheless, it seems to undermine recurrence as a proposed solution to the circular impasse of evental conditioning.

Secondly, even if we suppose that the Advent is more than a fictional presupposition of intervention, we nonetheless run up against a rather troubling infinite regress. If every Event is conditioned by another Event whose erasure serves as the Advent of the former’s intervention, then can’t we raise the question of the ‘first Event’ that could not have had an Advent? As we admitted above, the intervening subjects depend upon human beings – or equivalently rational actors – for their composition, and so we cannot posit an infinite succession of Events: the chain of evental conditioning must be limited to human history (barring some kind of evental panspermia; but this would still beg the question). There must have been a ‘first Event’ that had no condition, a kind of ‘radical beginning’ or ‘primal event’ which Badiou explicitly prohibits. (p 210)

Here Badiou’s onto-anthropology comes back to bite him, undermining the autonomy of the Event over and above its subjective support. There are apparently two ways out of this second impasse. The first is to simply admit that Events are not, they have no autonomy from the interventions that posit them; and this would go equally for nominated and recollected Events. The second solution, which would save evental autonomy to some extent, would require us to suppose there is some kind of Ur-event, an always already accomplished and vanished Event that is structurally inherent in natural multiples, and by way of which the first interventional conversion of a natural into a historical situation could have occurred.

This is to say that every accomplished or ‘counted’ unity is potentially visible as a remnant or artifact of this Ur-event, that these ‘ones’ are structurally split between natural being and Ur-evental consequences. The whole of Nature (or rather, of the chain of natural intrication or ordinals) is thus potentially one great evental site, insofar as the name of the void belongs to it without being included in its state (name of the void as ‘ontological site’; perhaps the Ur-event is thus also thinkable as the prohibited ‘ontological Event’…).

Insofar as the count is the operation of passage from inconsistent to consistent multiples, and insofar as inconsistent multiples cannot be represented but only marked as foreclosed (by the name of the void), there is a sense in which the ‘withdrawn interiority’ of this operation is simultaneously the belonging of the name of the void to any given one-multiple. It is this operational interiority, unrepresentable by the state, that for the ontologist makes any given multiple singular. And, insofar as the operation is a voided interior, we can suppose that every multiple is a trace or artifact, a name whose evental ‘referent’ has vanished. So every one-multiple has a virtual singularity or is potentially a site, which equally means that it is the artifact of a vanished (Ur-)event.

Yet doesn’t this imply a kind of absolutized onto-anthropology, wherein the whole universe is reduced to the potential material of subjective intervention? While the Ur-event may guarantee the autonomy of Events from intervention, it only does so by presupposing the ‘idealist’ vision of a natural world that inherently contains its own subjective accessibility or intelligibility. The Ur-event may be a kind of ‘Event’ for objects, autonomous of every human intervention, but it only serves to thereby chain objects to humans all the more. Is there a way out of this third impasse?

Catastrophe and the Impasse of Evental Idealism

I’ll now attempt clarify the ontological status of the Ur-event, and begin treating the impasse of evental idealism, by way of grappling with a paradox intrinsic to Quentin Meillassoux’s account of temporality in After Finitude. This is not to identify the positions of Badiou and Meillassoux any more than to play them off one another, but rather, to reveal that their respective works bear witness to a common impasse, and that grasping the impasse in its autonomy, rather than as confined to one or another thinker, will allow us to go beyond the both of them (and eventually, beyond philosophy itself).

For Meillassoux, everything is absolutely contingent. Or is it? He deduces this principle of contingency while attempting to explain the possibility of ‘ancestral statements’, or scientific statements about a past anterior to thought. This anterior past is absolutely not contingent, but rather was what it was; it could have been otherwise but cannot be otherwise than it was. In other words, while the past was at the time, in its becoming, contingent, it now is necessarily what it contingently turned out to be. So Meillassoux’s philosophy does require a certain necessity other than that of contingency, and that is the necessity of the past, or of actualized contingency.

We can also put it this way: at any given moment, in its present(-ation), what happens is absolutely contingent. Yet if we take that same moment and turn toward its past, everything that occurred before that moment was necessarily what it was. Moreover, everything that comes after that moment is necessarily preceded by what was. (Here, the static genesis qua empty form of time, as discussed in my previous post, shows itself again.)

Yet far from amounting to a refutation of Meillassoux’s principle of absolute contingency, this insight into the paradoxical necessity of the past obliges us to rethink said principle. If the past necessarily was what it was, this does not imply that the contingency of that past in its becoming is obliterated, but rather that it is preserved as foreclosed to that past as actualized. The necessary past still contains its contingency, its potentiality-to-have-been-otherwise, in the mode of a ‘missed opportunity’ or squandered potential. The past, in order to have become what it now necessarily was, had to absent the infinity of potential other pasts it could have been at the time.

So the past as actualized contingency is now necessarily what it was, and that contingency is preserved as a virtuality that actualization does not exhaust. Nonetheless, this virtuality is sterile, impassive, and even akin to Derridean spectrality. It is only the residue of a ‘regret’ that things could have been otherwise, which at the same time is the realization that this ‘otherwise’ is only real as inactual, impotent-ial, missed. It is in this sense that Meillassoux’s principle, when applied to the structure of time, leads to an image of the past that is closely akin to Walter Benjamin’s concept of catastrophe: “Catastrophe: to have missed the opportunity.” (Arcades Project p 474) (And don’t Meillassoux’s ruminations on the possible arrival of a redeeming god bear an uncanny resemblance to Benjamin’s messianism?)

In this light we should read Benjamin’s famous ninth thesis on history as a full-blown theory of temporality:

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. (Selected Writings, Volume 4 p 392)

The angel does not see a chain of contingent nows but one great failure to occur. History is the failed actualization of every other possible history, and hence the structure of time is split between the chain of presents and a ‘pure past’ of failed presentation or actualization, a catastrophic past.

In this sense, every individuated one-multiple envelops the withdrawn interiority not only of the operation of passage from inconsistency to consistency, but of the contingency foreclosed to its present-ation by virtue of the operation of present-ation or actualization. The Ur-event is thus definitely not a mere hypothetical postulate, but a necessary structural feature of actual present-ation, insofar as we understand it not simply as a fictional pre-human/pre-historic Event that is supposed as already accomplished, but as the already-accomplished(-without-presupposition) voiding of past contingency embodied in actual individuals. Here we pass from Ur-event as interventional postulate to the Non-event as already given-without-interventional-givenness.

Everything that has a past, every remainder of the past in the present, every object, every arche-fossil or artifact, is in this sense a trace of the Non-event qua foreclosed potentiality-to-be-otherwise. Intervention is conditioned by the recurrence or repetition not merely of other previous Events, but primarily of the catastrophe of existence, as the embodiment or actuality of the foreclosure of what could have been. The retrojection of vanished eventality by intervening subjects is simply the (Decisional) mechanism for coping with the foreclosure of the Non-event. Or rather, we should say that the foreclosed is not itself an ‘Event’ of any species, and that Non-event is the first name of this foreclosure.

So while the Event may be a thoroughly subjective category, it is nonetheless the mere occasion by which the radically non-subjective foreclosure named Non-event enacts itself as missing or lost. The Event is a simple local means for rational animals to ‘cope’ with that which had to be absented for them to exist, and an occasional material by way of which the Non-event clones itself. Events are only relatively autonomous, determined in-the-last-instance by the radically non-onto(-anthropo)logical foreclosure named Non-event. Here we only begin to see the sense in which Badiou’s ‘non-ontological’ theory of the Event is not done justice by its philosophical explication, and in which philosophy is insufficient to the Event. This realization obliges a non-philosophical approach to Badiou and his theory of the Event.

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14 Responses to Non-Event 2: The Catastrophic Past

  1. Dominic says:

    I’m dubious about Badiou’s characterisation of “nature” according to the schema of natural multiples, although it’s certainly true (by definition!) that no evental site is to be found in such a multiple. Does the surface of Jupiter really have the compactness and transitive consistency Badiou ascribes to nature in general? Is it so unthinkable that an evental site might be found there?

    I don’t understand what you mean when you say that an evental site can be qualified as such by an intervening subject. An evental multiple, sure – that’s what the intervention which nominates the event does. But surely an evental site is directly, structurally “evental” (or foundational, on the edge of the void) with respect to the situation in which it is presented?

    Sorry to detain you with minor technical details, when the latter part of this post is obviously where all the interest is!

  2. reidkane says:


    I too have reservations about Badiou’s ‘nature’, although I am quite intimidated by the mathematics behind it. Right now I’m just looking for internal inconsistency in Badiou’s theory, rather than trying to challenge any of his major claims.

    As for your second point about qualification, here’s the passage I drew it from: “Strictly speaking, a site is only ‘evental’ insofar as it is retroactively qualified as such by the occurrence of an event.” (M17, p 129) Now to be sure, he says this qualification is done by the event itself, not by the subject. But as he goes on to claim later, the Event itself also depends on the subject for its ‘existence’, and in this sense, the retroactive qualification of a site wouldn’t occur without that subject. This is not to say that the subject directly and arbitrarily picks a site from out of a given situation, but rather that subjective deduction and fidelity are conditions for the said retroactive qualification.

  3. Dominic says:

    Ah, got it. Yes, he does say that a multiple on the edge of the void is “strictly speaking” only “evental” if an event occurs in it – and an event is only not a non-occurrence if it is nominated as such. So you’re right, it is the subjective intervention that qualifies a multiple on the edge of the void, retroactively, as an evental site. But its property of being on the edge of the void was already, as B also says, an ontological characteristic, “related to the form of presentation”.

  4. Dominic says:

    So I’m not sure that this subjective qualification of an abnormal multiple as an evental site can turn a natural situation into an historical one, since the multiple that becomes the evental site must already have been abnormal and the situation must already therefore have been historical.

    I think you’re definitely onto something with this treatment of the vanished, evanescent event as foreclosed, and as a figure of primordial foreclosure.

  5. reidkane says:

    Well your later point is really getting at the latent criticism of Badiou’s nature behind this post: my point is less one about ‘conversion’ than about ‘realization’; i.e. there are no ‘natural’ multiples, only historical ones. Nature is a kind of ‘ideological’ effect of the state. I don’t really yet have the grounds to make such claims explicitly.

    I do think there is a certain ambiguity in the nature/history distinction here, though: what is an evental site before it is qualified as evental? Abnormal, okay, but it seems to me (and I sense that you might have sympathies with this position) that nature equally contains abnormal multiples. Though like I said, I’m not quite ready to go barking up that tree.

  6. Dominic says:

    Badiou has a weak but coherent philosophy of nature: he’s just not interested in it. The theory of “natural” multiples, which just extends the ontological schema of the natural numbers to “nature” in general, is a roundabout way of saying “nothing to see here, move along”.

    My dissatisfaction with Badiou on this point is currently being intensified by reading slowly through Iain Hamilton Grant’s Philosophies of Nature after Schelling, which is hard but worth it.

  7. reidkane says:

    I’ll have to take a look. I’ve been curious about Schelling since reading Zizek’s books about him. Before that I always got the impression that he was just the black sheep of the German Idealists, the one we don’t talk about.

    Michael over at Complete Lies has been doing some really fascinating stuff with Schelling too, very closely related to what I’m doing here.

    Thanks for the input Dominic!

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  9. Jonas says:

    I have a few questions concerning your characterization of Meillassoux’ position here:

    Do you consider the necessity of the past to be a thesis Meillassoux himself would defend, or is that your own extrapolation? See, I have not read him as being commited to anything like that. I read his “ancestral statements” as being connected to, 1) a critique of correlationism, 2) a hint concerning mathematics. As far as I have understood him, he is affirming (and the argumentation for this awaits his forthcoming work on mathematics as figures of absolute contingency, I guess) the necessity of the mathematics of ancestral stements, rather than their necessity as statements about the past.

    As far as my understanding of modern physics go, it seems that a change in natural laws would certainly change the past as well as the future. All in all, I’m not sure if I understand why Meillassoux would subordinate his seemingly exclusively modal notion of time to the one-directional time of……well, of ordinary intuition, basically. Within physics, the directionality of time is quite a hot topic, but I don’t think anyone claims to have a decisive solution as of yet.

    If you want the Meillassouxian time to have not only a modal aspect, but also a directional aspect, how can we square that with the very real possibility that mathematics and physics might show us conclusively that time has no intrinsic direction? How would, for instance, time travel to the past be incorporated into such a theory?

    I hope these questions are somehow relevant, I love your exposition here, it just struck me that I myself, at least, do not know how to square what you’re saying about time with, say, the Einsteinian time of relativity theory.

    • reidkane says:

      Thanks for the comments Jonas.

      I don’t know how Meillassoux would feel about these points. I’m certainly not straightforwardly lifting them from his work. Yet they are very important to my own research, and the questions you raise are crucial, so I’m going to address them in a new post.

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