Nihilism and finitude: Badiou on death
What is the meaning of death today? For Alain Badiou, it is a reminder that we are defined by finitude: 'we are only…www.versobooks.com
In my previous post, I asked the question of whether tragedy is possible today. If it is not, due to the everydayness and wide media circulation of death — brutal murder, quite frankly — resulting in its banalization, or the revelation that we are not all scapegoats, either way, it means that there is a limit to the universal condition of “death-in-life” that tragedies, from their Greek origins to their present-day formulations, are supposed to reveal.
The lesson of “death-in-life” in tragic thought is meant to give some sort of appreciation of finitude, specifically, a wisdom about living life in accordance to, rather than against, fate. Or, at most, if we are to be more generious, tragedy helps us to understand the conflicted nature of existence. We cannot help but to live but ultimate failure is all but guaranteed. Knowing this still, we persist.
There is, however, the opposite response or “expediency,” as Zygmunt Bauman puts it, which corresponds to the impending doom that we all face. This is, of course, nihilism. Since we’re all going to die anyway, nothing is important. There is no value or meaning in the face of death.
Alain Badiou’s recently wrote something that I thought was worth thinking about. For Badiou, nihilism is never full blown if it remains theological. As he points it, because we all die, then the only important thing remains God, and getting salvation and ensuring the afterlife. Death then becomes set up as the “door to the infinite.” It is the emptying of all values for the Supreme Value. This is not complete nihilism. It is a “theist nihilism.” It retains God.
However, there is another sort of nihlism, which he calls “a skeptical, atheist nihilism,” which is quite simply the contemporary scientific, rational disposition. It is, as he calls it, Descartes gone wild: the reign of reasonable opinions. For Badiou, this is a “non-tragic” nihilism. While finitude is acknowledged, it is covered up. We keep death at a healthy distance. Yes, we die, but “in any case, we already live a long time.”
The defining achievement of modernity is the generalization of slow death. It is the avoidance of “catastrophic” or tragic death. As Badiou puts it, “Tragic, unexpected death is unacceptable. Suddenly, death has arrived — but what is it doing here? What is the government doing?” Tragic or catastrophic death, in modernity, is “pathological.” It requires outrage, narrativized in dramatic form. “Ultimately we have much less chance of being killed in the plane than walking down the steps,” he correctly points out. “This is not at the level of general statistics, but because it is a death out in the open, a death that does not fit into the law of modern death, which means dying very slowly, and, if possible, almost without noticing.”
I wonder how deaths such as Philando Castile’s fit into this. Are there some for whom catastrophic death does not extend to “the pathological” but are stuck in what Canguilhem called “the normal”?