“It would make no sense for life to create cowards,” said Jacques Lacan, about our desire. Why when we feel the tug and pull of Love, of duty to a calling, of resistance to oppression, do we cave so easily? How is it that we can so quickly lose life’s rose tint and suffer mediocrity till death?
This is the central question of Alain Badiou’s Ethics, in which he proposes an alternative to our current understanding of how to live a good life. He claims that our current system of dealing with the evils of the world is reactionary: we wait until something awful happens, and then we must act ethically in response. Evil pre-exists good in this context, and unless there is a crisis, there is nothing prompting us toward action. We see this view reflected in many of the seminal works that have shaped our world, notably Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which man is conceived of as a brute with an unhealthy penchant for war, and little else.
To counter this Badiou envisions what he calls an Ethic of Truths. It makes no sense to sit and wait until tragedy rears its ugly head, we must dedicate ourselves to achieving an authentic good over the course of our life. This is outlined as a convocation to a truth (this is his way of saying a fidelity to a cause, whether it be love, politics, art or science). If we each dedicate ourselves to a cause higher than our mortal lives, we can not only live a fulfilling life but one that actively seeks to enrich the world far beyond the moment we leave it.
This ties into one of my recent articles on love (https://therestissilencesite.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/a-radical-conception-of-love/) where the imperative, ‘you are ready to suffer’ defines our dedication to a fidelity. We have all heard it: “I will get it done, even if it kills me”, the man saving up for his child’s education fees, the author embarking on his debut book, or like in the image above, Marie Curie striving to understand radioactivity, all struggle for these tasks accepting that they warrant their suffering. These causes all represent the good in life, which we should pro-actively dedicate ourselves to.
Somehow, all of the compassions and empathy required of us in the ethical decision is directed to the other, the faceless object of need, the victim, the homeless, those seeking asylum; all of which we are bizarrely demanded to love unconditionally, or at least relate to. Barbara Creed’s outlines the concept of ‘the stray’, an animal (human or other) that is disconnected from society: “The human stray is an outsider, an other, an exile”, comparable to the street dogs of India. Is this not the kernel of our innate psychological disconnect from one another? How can we possibly dedicate ourselves to another when we have no real relationship with them when en masse, the others appear to us as objects rather than human. The crux of this is the moment of fetishistic disavowal (I know very well, but still…), where the other is the object of our attentive dismissal.
To combat this, Badiou prescribes an internal system of ethics, directed at ourselves; where duties of care are a byproduct of striving for a truth (keeping in mind that subjective truths are innately egalitarian fidelities), where our dedication to the other is an act whose will is in and of itself. In theory, this approach dismisses the difference between us, you and I may be each other’s antithesis, but in the middle ground lies a cause worth joining as humans.
In dismissing the other and acting virtuously without the need for stimulus, for the sake of virtue, we attain a kind of freedom. The other can be a victim, but society is also comprised of those that would steer you away from truths towards an inauthentic mediocrity in which your life is spent on gaining little more than you started with. Self-contained determination to make a difference, to leave behind something larger than yourself must in its very nature interact with others, Badiou argues that we must harness this.
Of course, this very elementary review of one book in a series written is little more than vague and introductory. But what we have already is an imperative, an infinite demand to dedicate ourselves to a fidelity that asks of us what we can never truly give it in our lifetime. As a system of ethics, one could argue all day about loopholes, or it’s own rose tinted naiveté, but it reminds us of the question of how to live. When asked about the system of ethics for psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan simply answered: “never give up on your desire.” At first, this sounds hedonistic, but perhaps it is our potentiality to enact good that Lacan had in mind, just as his pupil Badiou has today.