Badiou’s Kantian Undercurrent: The Event as The Result of a Logical Restructuring
Slavoj Zizek is right to point out that we should take Badiou’s claim that his philosophy proceeds “as if the Kantian critical revolution never happened” with a grain of salt. Though Badiou is not a Kantian, his thinking is in no way pre-Kantian. In fact, Badiou’s philosophy can be understood essentially as a logical restructuring of an initial constellation of concepts given by Kant. The terms at play will be: matter, form, Being, the transcendental, and the subject.
We will see how Badiou’s restructuring of these terms will open the way to his creation of the radically new concept of the Event.
The key logic in Kant’s critical revolution was to reframe the relation between matter and form, overturning from within the implicit Aristotelian ontology that had governed centuries of thinking. What Kant realized after Hume awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber” was that if we take the forms of reality we experience as unproblematically real, we have no way of affirming their rational universality, since they can only be accessed on the basis of an empirical and contingent apprehension.
In other words, what amounts to the (false) pre-Kantian view of reality (what Kant called “transcendental realism” as opposed to his “transcendental idealism”) is that the fully structured forms of reality are at the same time the matter of cognition, the directly perceived content. In order to avoid the Humean problem, we have to admit that there is nothing in the perceived content that grounds its universality and as such must introduce the universal form from elsewhere, splitting matter from form.
The split between matter and form leads to the invention of the transcendental subject: the subject is the agent that applies the rational forms in advance, while the matter must always come from outside.
There is here a perfect analogue of what Badiou explains as the retroactive positing of multiplicity. Since in Kant form is imposed from the outside, matter must be taken as pre-formed. This is why when Badiou aims to think Being as pure multiplicity he is given the task of “subtracting” from the always-already given form, in order to think what had to be there ‘before’ the form acted.
Being for Badiou becomes exactly the matter that for Kant was merely presupposed as the condition of cognition; in no way is it the pre-Kantian reality “out there,” beyond cognition. We don’t jump outside of the transcendental subject, we dip down “beneath” it and this beneath then becomes the Real itself.
The dialectic of form and matter, passing from Aristotle to Kant to Badiou, next brings us to the new conception of the subject at play in Badiou.
If the matter beneath form is Being itself, the structure of Being is not subjective, for it is exactly what preceded the subject’s activity. In turn, the transcendental form is not subjective either. Because matter has been subtracted from form and thought on its own terms, the demand for form to retain a necessary subjective relation to matter dissipates. Matter doesn’t need to be formed, it just objectively shows up that way. In other words, there is oneness, form shows up, even though strictly speaking it is not.
How then to reintroduce the subject into this a-subjective field? A clue comes to us in Badiou’s explicit discussion of Kant in his Short Treatise on Transitory Ontology. Badiou says that he fundamentally agrees with Kant that the subject should be seen as “a mere operation.” The subject is always merely formal, just a kind of formative activity. The subject remains in a homology with the transcendental, since the transcendental is just the way Being shows up as counted as one. Both the subject and the transcendental are mere operative effects. So what is the difference?
We have to take seriously the claim that the one is not. If Being is pre-formed matter, the transcendental form cannot be said to be. When Badiou says that the one is an ‘effect,’ he does not mean that something is produced from Being according to a causal power, but just that it shows up, the appearance of oneness being nothing in itself.
The subject is different from the transcendental because it doesn’t just show up but positively founds itself. Such founding however is contingent and axiomatic. We should take very seriously the fact that Kant calls the schematization of the categories in relation to the pure forms of space and time in unity and multiplicity the “axioms of intuition.” Yet, whereas for Kant the subject and the transcendental were identical, the real difference is that the first is founded and the second is not.
If a subject is to be axiomatic, freely positing itself in a pure act, the question then becomes when, where, and how this foundational act can happen.
For Kant, the subject's axiomatic positing is a kind of eternal always-already – it has always-already happened because it identical to the transcendental, which is just that there always-already is form. Yet since the subject is not a transcendental, it cannot be presupposed. The subject has to happen at some point, in other words, it must take place within a transcendental. The Event.
The Event is what takes place within a transcendental, while making it possible for the new formal operation that is the subject to arise, rupturing the original situation and creating something new.
We see that concept of the Event follows from the logical restructuring of the very same conceptual constellation of Kantian epistemology. The event is the axiomatization of the subject following its difference from the transcendental, due to the transcendental’s a-subjective character once the matter of cognition is thought of as Being.