Legend has it that when Jacques Derrida spoke, one had to arrive two hours early to get a seat. On Youtube we see recordings of Lacan and Deleuze speaking for huge audiences in packed lecture halls. When Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou spoke in Berlin last year they filled a huge theatre to the last spot. It comes thus as quite a surprise, perhaps even as a mild disappointment, when one arrives to Badiou’s seminar a mere 30 minutes early, breathless after a final sprint through the hallways of the École Normal Supérieure, to find a lecture hall not much bigger than Bard College Berlin’s—only half filled.
At the entrance people hand me political leaflets, inviting me to a debate about one-state solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Could I have mixed up the room number? The date perhaps? Was the seminar cancelled last minute? (Badiou has a reputation for changing times and places on short notice.) … 20 more minutes to the scheduled start. Ten minutes later someone starts handing out small red cardboard invitations to Badiou’s next seminar at the Theatre de la Commune in Aubervilliers – a somewhat reassuring sign. People are now streaming into the room more constantly and a few minutes before the scheduled start at eight o’clock the seats run out. There might be around 150 people in the room now, some are standing at the sides. Another fact contrasts with the lectures of past decades: the average age is much higher. About half of the people seem to be students, but the other half look like they could cover all ages and professions.
At 8.15 Alain Badiou arrives. “C’est lui!” someone remarks excitedly just as the voices drop, which earns some laughter. There is ample space at the front desk, three microphones and three water bottles, but he sits down very much alone. Badiou starts speaking: his voice calm, slow, and friendly. He thanks people for coming. He goes through some organisational details: the dates of the future session, an email list to subscribe to. He asks if everybody got the handout. The next session will be at a theatre in the north of Paris. He starts talking about the work the people there do and for five minutes he dwells on a detailed description of how to get there: either first via one bus line and then another, or we could also take the metro to Aubervilliers and then either another bus or a short walk. There’s also a parking lot nearby… mild smiles soon turn into friendly laughter. He looks up in innocent astonishment. Perhaps he does not know about Google Maps.
The seminaire consists of a series of lectures, two in the fall and one every month from January to May. Badiou has been holding such seminars continuously since the late 70s. This year’s seminar will be his penultimate. Together with next year’s seminar and those of the previous two years, the 2014-2015 lectures will form a book, the conclusion of the trilogy that began with Being and Event and continued with the Logics of Worlds. The last volume will be called L’immanence des vérités – the immanence of truths.
Alain Badiou has been a towering figure in French philosophy for much of the second half of the 20th and early 21st century—highly influential and often controversial. His political affiliations are with the far left and he remains unapologetic about his sympathies for Mao. In the early 70s he joined Michel Foucault’s newly founded philosophy department at the University of Paris VIII, where he engaged in fierce debates with his long term rival Gilles Deleuze. After Deleuze died, he wrote a book on him, which Deleuzians still take to be a major provocation. Though heavily influenced by many French philosophers of Deleuze’s generation, especially the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser, Badiou’s own style of writing varies greatly from that notoriously elusive ‘French postmodernism’. Trained in mathematics, with a special preference for set theory, his prose professes a love for rigor and systematicity. Finally, unlike the vast majority of philosophers of the 20th century—in both the Anglo-American analytic tradition and the continental tradition—Alain Badiou is happy to call himself a Platonist, a Hegelian, and a Cartesian, a believer in universal truths and values, who much despises postmodern relativism.
Badiou’s seminar, so far, promised to keep with some old tunes, but also to strike some new chords. In the previous two seminaires (2011-2013), he summarises, the dominant ideology of current day global capitalism was diagnosed to be an ideology of finitude – an anti-utopianism that encouraged acceptance of the status quo, “realistic” thinking, and pleasure or satisfaction as life’s ultimate goals. This year Badiou wants to elaborate on the practices that can wake us from the slumber that the capitalist opiates induced: scientific demonstrations, political actions, artistic contemplations, and amorous passions. Taken together they shall allow us to formulate a vision of true happiness as the highest goal in life.
The revolutionary tones are unsurprising. But the emphasis on happiness strikes me as a bit unusual. Just as the English ‘happiness’, the French bonheur, translates Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia. Badiou furthermore explicitly associates it with Spinoza’s beatitudo. Neither Spinoza, who is revered by the Deleuzian camp, nor Aristotle, in his traditional opposition to Plato, are commonly known as Badiou’s philosophical heroes. It remains to be seen where he will take these terms over the course of the year. It could be an attempt to snatch away the concepts from his philosophical rivals, or perhaps he is venturing out to welcome new thinkers in his own pantheon? Time will tell. But either way seems like it won’t bring much happiness to the Deleuzians (or the Aristotelians, for that matter).
Despite such grave matters there was much happiness in the audience judging by the recurrent laughter about illuminating remarks on French politics and current capitalism. However, the relaxed atmosphere turned out to be a mere prelude to a truly comic performance two weeks later. The second session of Badiou’s seminaire took place at Aubervilliers, a suburb in the north of Paris. The hall was a bit bigger this time but, presumably due to the peripheral location and heavy rain, not many people had made the journey and quite a few seats in the back remained empty.
The lecture was conducted as a reading (with previously allotted characters) of passages from his new theatre piece entitled The Second Trial of Socrates, along with some commentary by Badiou. The piece was inspired by his observations that the three ancient authors who tell us about Socrates—Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon—concur in their picture of him on only one single point: the fact that Socrates was sentenced to death. To illuminate the life and character of Socrates, Badiou decided to thus stage a thought experiment: what if Socrates had appealed against the sentence?
Badiou transfers the scenario into our times, which brings along some problems. Socrates, it turns out, is not really dead, but not really alive either. His three advocates are Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon, with Callicles being the prosecutor. A journalist from the journal Revolution represents the international press and public who follow the trial eagerly. Socrates himself, however, is absent from his second trial and represented by a Parisian policeman. Minor roles feature a cleaning lady and a cheese vendor. It is a comedy in six acts.
The first act takes place before the trial in the offices of the journal Revolution. Two editors talk: “What do you mean ‘so’? – Not otherwise! – Other than what? – Other than so! – What ‘so’? – Just not otherwise! – That’s a tautology! – No! – Yes! – No, it’s a redundancy… ”. It goes on for a while and the people at Revolution seem to be a bit stuck. The news of Socrates’ second trial interrupts the discussion. In the second act we see Callicles and Plato discussing with a local cheese vendor in front of the court. Plato talks a lot about the Idea of Blue Cheese, to the great amusement of the audience, and jokes are made about the French president François Hollande during a discussion of Dutch cheese. In the third act the trial shall be finally conducted, yet this turns out to be difficult. Aristophanes argues that the trial was never closed in the first place! This does not prevent Callicles from proposing the gravest accusations of Socrates, portraying him as a communist whose call for universal equality undermines the good capitalist order.
The jokes find their audience. At one point even Badiou and his two actors break into laughter themselves and have to pause for a bit before they can continue. Little paper signs indicating the names of the characters that are currently read swap places like in a thimblerig, which causes a lot of confusion and more amusement in the audience and on stage. At the end, Socrates himself finally has an appearance. Outside the court he gives an interview to the journalist before proposing his own verdict, thus helping a rather confused jury who seem undecided how to judge.
For me too, it is difficult to judge a comedy in French that relies a lot on wordplay. The crowd though has fully judged in favour of the author and leaves the theatre rather quickly. Badiou sits around a bit longer and talks to people who approach him with questions. As is often the case in France, there is no general Q&A. At the exit people collect signatures for a petition against budget cuts for another theatre and on a small table books are offered for sale. Through the heavy rain a free bus carries people back to the city.
Post-script: Originally the seminar was to continue only in January. But just a few days ago two more sessions for this fall were announced. In November Badiou will also hold office hours at the ENS, and later that month he will be in Berlin again, for a debate on democracy at Schaubühne. I am looking forward to hearing more about happiness and highly recommend checking out the event. Try to arrive an hour early though!