THE ANATOMY OF NEGATION:THE METAONTOLOGICAL EXCEPTION

METAONTOLOGICAL EXCEPTION

 

 

 

 

 

The question, then, is whether, given its anti-phenomenological structure, presentation obtains in any situation other than the ontological situation. In this regard, it is crucial to note that only the ontological situation, i.e. the set-theoretical axiomatic as presentation of presentation, is capable of remaining rigorously faithful to the injunction that the One is not:

 

In non-ontological (i.e. non-mathematical) situations, multiplicity is only possible insofar as the law explicitly subordinates it to the law of the count […] Ordinary situations, if one grasps them from their own immanent standpoint, invert the axiom which inaugurates our entire procedure. They state that the one is, and that pure multiplicity – i.e. inconsistency – is not. This is entirely natural, since not being the presentation of presentation, ordinary situations necessarily identify being with what is presentable, and hence with the possibility of the one […] Thus it is veridical […] from a standpoint internal to what a situation establishes as the form of knowledge, that to be is to be unifiable. Leibniz’s thesis (‘What is not a being, is not a being’) governs the immanence of situations as their horizon of veridicality. It is a thesis of the law.

(Badiou 1988: 65–6, 2006a: 52–3 tm)

 

But if metaontology is clearly not the presentation of presentation, since its discourse is entirely conceptual and since it has not sutured itself to the real of presentation (the empty set); and if it is not subject to the horizon of veridicality governing ordinary situations, since it has suspended the Leibnizian thesis, then what are its specific situational parameters? Where is Badiou speaking from in these decisive opening Meditations of Being and Event? Clearly, it is neither from the identity of thinking and being as effectuated in ontological discourse, nor from within a situation governed by knowledge and hence subject to the law of the One.

 

But then how are we to situate Badiou’s metaontological discourse, given that its stance is neither ontological stricto sensu nor that of ordinary knowledge? It is not ontological since the concepts it mobilizes – ‘multiple’, ‘structure’, ‘counting-as-one’, ‘situation’, ‘state’, and, most importantly, ‘presentation’ – are transcendent vis-à-vis the immanent resources of the set-theoretical axiomatic, whose defining characteristic is precisely not to recognize itself as the science of being qua being, and hence not to objectify being by reflecting upon it.

 

 But it is not an ordinary form of knowledge, since it is not subordinated to the immanence of any particular situation – not even that of ontology – and thus does not seem to be entirely subject to the law of the One.

 

Thus metaontological discourse seems to enjoy a condition of transcendent exception vis-à-vis the immanence of ontological and nonontological situations.

 

Badiou maintains that it is the hallmark of philosophy to be conditioned by extra-philosophical truths, which remain irreducible to the immanent norms of knowledge, and which it must strive to ‘compossibilize’.

 

But given that philosophy itself is not a truth procedure, therecan be no subject of philosophy strictly speaking for Badiou, and thus he is at pains to explain how the metaontological discourse which conditions his entire philosophy (and from which he draws all the conceptual details for his theory of evental truth) is able to exempt itself from the immanent conditions of knowledge governed by the norm of the One.

 

The question can be put another way: Is the relation between ontology and metaontology one of isomorphy or analogy? Badiou’s metaontological stance in Being and Event perpetuates a dangerous equivocation between isomorphy and analogy; between the literal localization of ontological discourse as presentation of presentation and the de-localization of a metaontological discourse which seems to straddle the ontic (i.e. the ordinary situations in which the rule of the One ensures that being remains convertible with consistency) and the ontological (i.e. set-theory, in which what is presented is presentation’s own latent inconsistency).

 

The a-specificity of metaontological discourse in Being and Event, and the anomalous status of philosophical thought invite the impression that Badiou’s metaontological theses float between a re-presentation of the mathematical presentation of being, and a presentation of the imaginary re-presentations of ordinary knowledge, which remain in thrall to the law of the One.

 

Moreover, it is precisely the anti-phenomenological radicality of the concept of presentation which gives rise to the problem concerning the precise nature of the relations between the ontological situation, the metaontological (i.e. philosophical) situation, and ordinary situations; which is to say, between the set-theoretical axiomatic, subtractive metaontology, and the supposedly ubiquitous law of the One.

 

A cursory glance at the overarching structure of the argument of Beingand Event reveals its complex character. On one hand, Badiou draws the consequences of the decision that mathematics is ontology. It would seem that this decision itself is ultimately ‘evental’ in nature.

 

Thus it remains necessarily unverifiable within the conceptual apparatus which draws its consequences. But it is this apparatus which will explain how and why this unverifiability is not only possible, but valid, albeit illegitimizable in terms of the norms of knowledge.12 Badiou proceeds by identifying the situation in which there is an authentic (albeit unexpected) ‘self-grounding’ of thought; the situation in which thinking sutures itself to being. This suturing, which authenticates theParmenidean thesis according to which ‘thinking and being are the same’, occurs within the set-theoretical axiomatic as presentation of presentation.

 

And it is on the basis of the latter that Badiou will explain the possibility of evental decision in terms of a breakdown in the consistency of being; a breakdown which will give rise to the decision that being is not-all and that thought can find a foothold in ontological inconsistency.

 

Our aim here is not to denounce the putative ‘circularity’ of Badiou’s argument, which may well be perfectly virtuous. Nevertheless, it is important to note that thought’s suture to being – or to ‘the real’ (sheer inconsistency), since they are equivalent here – occurs within the settheoretical axiomatic, rather than within Badiou’s metaontological gloss on the latter; a gloss which he interposes between ontology and the reader via the use of concepts such as that of ‘presentation’.

 

In other words, we have no assurances that thinking has any purchase on being in situations other than the ontological situation. More importantly, there seems to be no reason to assume that the concept of ‘presentation’ indexes anything at all outside of ontological discourse, or that presentation has any extra-discursive existence. Citing so-called empirical evidence, according to which ‘everyone can see that there is presentation’ is out of the question here.

 

A  Platonist as intransigent as Badiou cannot appeal to the doxas of common sense as support for the existence of presentation. Moreover, to resort to the authority of consciousness – whether empirical or transcendental – would be to capitulate completely to the norm of the One insofar as its inviolability is encoded in the putative incorrigibility of phenomenological intuition. Why, then, does Badiou speak of the ‘presentation’ of multiple-being from the very opening of Being and Event? Of what variety of manifestation is subtractive being capable, given that, as Badiou himself emphasizes ‘being does not present itself ’ (‘l’être ne se présente pas’) (Badiou 1988: 35, 2006a: 27) and ‘it is pointless to seek out anything in a situation that would bolster an intuition of being-as-being’ (Badiou 1988: 67, 2006a: 54 tm).

 

If subtractive being is never given, what is the link between the presentation of presentation and the so-called ordinary or non-ontological regime of presentation? For despite the putative ‘a priority’ of ontological discourse as ‘condition for the apprehension of every possible access to being’, it is far from clear whether the argument of Being and Event proceeds a priori from the void of being to the multiplicity of presentation, or on the contrary, and a posteriori, from the multiplicity of presentation to the void of being. In other words, how is it that the unpresentable can give rise to anything but subtractive – ontological – presentation?

 

Ultimately, Being and Event establishes a necessary link between the void of being and the ontological situation only at the cost of severing any intelligible connection between being and the multiplicity of presentation. The discrepancy between Badiou’s claims about the a priority of the ontological and his surreptitious appeal to the a posteriori is revealed in the fundamental tension between certain of his more uncompromisingly anti-phenomenological declarations, such as ‘there is no structure of being’ (Badiou 1988: 34, 2006a: 26), and other more equivocal claims, such as ‘presentation is never chaotic, even though its being is that of inconsistent multiplicity’ (Badiou 1988: 110, 2006a: 94 tm).

 

The multiplicity of presentation implies that there must be presentational situations other than the ontological. But since the set-theoretical axiomatic guarantees the consistency of presentation through the operation of counting-as-one, the aforementioned tension obtains only insofar as presentation occurs in non-ontological contexts.

 

What, then, are we supposed to understand by the term ‘chaotic’ in non-ontological situations? If Badiou means disordered, then the claim is at least empirically contestable, if not downright false. But if ‘chaotic’ simply means ‘inconsistent’ then Badiou is merely reiterating an empty tautology: ‘what is consistently presented does not in-consist’. It is precisely the failure to clarify the connection between ontological inconsistency and ontical consistency that obliges Badiou to resort to hollow tautologies such as ‘consistency must be consistent’. If unity is only ever the result of an inexistent operation, then what non-tautological instance accounts for the necessary ubiquity of consistency?

 

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