Badiou: To be true

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

I’ve spent the last five weeks getting my head around some of French Marxist Alain Badiou’s thought. Not everyone’s got the time for such pursuits, so I thought I’d share my take on Badiou here with all you busy people. It’s about truth and what it means to be true to something.

Badiou books

Imagine someone you work with, someone you’ve worked with for a while. You see them most days, and over time they’ve become familiar to you. Yet, it’s a work-relationship, so your conversation is quiet, a bit limited. You’d ask her about her weekend, or rant about the National Party, but you know there are limits, and you feel them as the two of you talk; she’s hesitant on the topic of family maybe, or perhaps she steers the conversation away from money.

And that’s okay. It’s all friendly enough.

Nearing the end of a long shift, this co-worker tells you she’s thinking to go swim on the South Coast after work, and would you like to join her? Yes, yes you would.

She drives you there, the car is silent to begin with, but the conversation comes eventually, and then naturally. You edge up to some of those limits you’ve felt and pass over them safely. Neither of you feel the need to remain on well-worn topics of assured mutual agreement (John Key’s a jerk). You venture real opinions (I find work suffocating sometimes), she ventures real opinions (I’m not sure I want a family). Your opinions aren’t necessarily the same, and aren’t necessarily insightful, but they are your own.

Brought into nearness through the conversation in the car, you arrive at the seas edge together. You get changed hiding behind the car’s open door together. You run out to the water and swim together. You talk and talk together. Put clothes back on, and drive home together. She drops you to your door; brief goodbyes and thank-you-for-a-lovely-afternoons round off your time together. You think: A connection like this is rare, work will be different now.

It’s a while until you are both put on the same shift. When it happens, she says hello, of course. She asks about your weekend, of course. You can’t help but mention the loveliness of the beach. She responds, unexpectedly, with a complaint that the National Party isn’t doing enough to protect water quality.

What?! You think, How can we be back here? Back to talk only of well-worn safety topics? You’re silently devastated, isn’t there something more? Didn’t we have something more? But she goes on safe-talking, she even asks you about the fucking weather.


Badiou would call the trip to the beach an event, something that happens to us which is different from the ordinary run of things. Something that feels like an interruption. For Badiou, the whole stuff of life is working out how to live according to such an event, rather than tidy it away. Simply, to be true, is to be changed by the events which happen in our lives.

In this case, that would require both women to re-negotiate the terms of their relationship on the basis that something really did change between them at the beach. To do so would be to live in accordance with the truth. While to act as though nothing took place, as my fictional co-worker does when she continues on her safe-topics, is to live out a lie – one could even think of it as a subtle sort of betrayal.

Badiou doesn’t suppose that it’s easy to be true in this sense. From my own experience it’s quite difficult, especially trying to do so alone, in the face of someone else’s denial. We seem to be all the time shutting down such events, and then later on obscuring their reality. Why? I’m not really sure: Inconvenience? Fear of change? Self-preservation?

Maybe it’s as darkly simple as the Nick Cave song my Dad likes to hum as he does the dishes, ‘People aren’t no good, they never do just what you think they should’.

I began this post with a piece of scripture, partly because Badiou draws on Christian writing a lot (although he is a staunch materialist), and partly because it neatly distinguishes the truth from the law. It points away from an understanding of truth as a set of rules, like Moses’ law (thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not commit adultery, and so). And towards something else. Towards truth as something which passes between us, and is often obscured or simply missed.

Throughout the Gospels it seems to be Jesus’ personal project to point out again and again where people are ignoring the truth of the events in their lives. Reappearing like a voice which, perhaps would say to my imagined co-worker, Stop pretending nothing happened at the beach, even if you’re nervous for what might come next. Less so is his concern upholding Moses’ law.

For my part, whether I come at it through Badiou or through Jesus, I like the idea of trying to become more attuned to the events – like my fictional trip to the beach – which take place in my life. I like the idea of trying to living in truth.

Much of this is taken from Badiou’s short book, Saint Paul: The foundations of universalism.



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