BADIOU ON COVERING OVER AND DEFINABLE SETS

Badiou’s guiding idea in his seminar for this year (2016):

“every figure of oppression amounts to being imprisoned in a finite figure of existence, at the very place where one could maintain an infinte perspective” (Badiou, Seminar February 15 2016)

In the preceding class, on January 11th 2016, Badiou described oppression as functioning principally by means of

“the oppressive imposition of a finitude onto an infinite potentiality”.

This is what he calls “covering over” or a covering operation. It seems to be his way of critiquing the “repressive hypothesis” that Foucault critiqued. The idea is that oppression does not operate so much by negation as by covering over.

“We shall call covering operations, in general, operations of this type, i.e. operations which consist in discerning an infinite potentiality somewhere and, instead of directly denying it in the name of a contradicting finite, making it inactive by covering it over, by hiding it, by considerations that are themselves drawn from finitude in such a way as to make it definitively inaudible. I think that propaganda procedures, on which our society is nourished more than any other has ever been, are not principally operations of negation, but operations of covering” (Badiou, January 11th 2016).

Finitude is not just the natural state of things, but is actively imposed and maintained:

“Given a closed order, of whatever nature, it will try to perpetuate itself by maintaining its closure, by trying to prevent something qualitatively strange/foreign (“étranger” has both senses) to its closure from manifesting. So this order can always be described as the maintaining of a certain type of finitude” (Badiou, Seminar February 15th 2016).

The outside is threatening:

“Everything that appears in excess of this finite (en)closure threatens to overwhelm the very conception of this finite, because an order carries its own conception of the enclosure, and thus its own conception of the finite”.

It deploys and conveys the threat of infinity:

“Anything that appears as disturbing (“de-regulating”) that closure, being beyond the dominant conception of finitude, is perceived, is received, as a menace of infinitisation of the situation”.

The emrgence of any new and infinite possibility must be annuled pre-emptively or retrospectively:

“Covering over, at the most general level, is the attempt to neutralise the possible emergence of a new infinity by covering it over with pre-existant significations, already given in the situation, and that will prohibit, or so its agents think, not only the development, but also the internal signification, the immanent meaning, of this excess, of this new infinite, etc.”.

Old significations, basically stereotypes, are used to stifle the immanent intelligibility of the new actions and to

“kill the innovative intensity of the figure of the new or emerging infinity”.

The aim is to confuse and demoralise the participants in a new project by making it impossible for them to understand it in its own, new, terms but only in terms of pre-existing stereotypes that make it seem unintelligible, antiquated, or harmful. Covering over not only strives to prevent the emergence of a new infinity, but also to render it unintelligible or undesirable, to kill its meaning or its value.

This reflexion on “covering over” has close ties not only to Heidegger, but also to Laruelle (prohibiting the very possibility of the “stranger”) and to Lyotard (the differend as the maintaining unintelligible of the new meaning, the constraining of its enunciation to the already given significations).

Badiou is making free use of concepts derived from BEING AND EVENT in order to say something new. That is to say that he is not here functioning as a “sufficient” philosopher in Laruelle’s sense. As usual, Laruelle is right to see that Badiou’s system-building is problematic, but he is blind to Badiou’s free usage of the same concepts. The seminars contain the aspect of Badiou that I find most interesting, when his ideas are in movement. If one examines only the finished systematic works, as Laruelle does, then of course one finds only static sufficiency. But this “discovery” is circularly implied in the method of reading, and one could make the same objection to Laruelle’s own works, such as his systematic treatise PRINCIPLES OF NON-PHILOSOPHY.

Re-covering is not the negation of what happened, denying it happened, but the operation of substituting something quite different for what was happening, so as to de-possibilise and de-intensify the new creations that were emerging. Covering over is what leads not only the struggle for existence of certain possibilities but also the struggle for their signification, on the plane of the collectivity and also of personal existence.

The operation of covering over is to be found not only in politics but in all the other truth procedures. In mathematics, for example, Galois’s creation of modern algebra was covered over to protect the existing state of mathematics for several decades. In love, for example in the phenomenon of jealousy as described by Proust.

Proust is a great writer of covering over in love relations. Jealousy is a process of finisation of the general movement of love by means of the pre-existing grid coding the existence of the other, established by suspicion.

Re-covering is the operation of sticking fragments of finitude, finite fragments, onto an infinite potentiality. But what does “finite” mean?

“A set in general is called “finite” if it is composed of multiplicities that were definable in another, pre-existing set”.

For Badiou in this context finite is linked to the notion of “definable”:

“A definable part of a set is a part submitted to the dominant language in the context of that set”.

The dominant language is composed of properties, known by all, and which are part of the conservative world. This operation of connecting language and things (multiplicities), or properties and their definable sets, is the basis of the operations of covering over.

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5 Responses to BADIOU ON COVERING OVER AND DEFINABLE SETS

  1. Bruno Desalle says:

    Merci pour ce résumé et vos remarques.
    Ne pourrait-on voir dans l’acception que donne Badiou de l’infini ce que les mathématiciens nomment “cardinal inaccessible”?

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    • terenceblake says:

      C’est une question intéressante, mais hélas je ne connais pas la réponse. J’ai l’impression que oui, car dans sa “Métaphysique du bonheur réel” Badiou distingue les infinis faibles, qui ne peuvent donner que de la satisfaction, des très grands infinis, seuls capables de fonder le bonheur.

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      • Bruno Desalle says:

        Il y a bien des indices dans ce sens dans le &7 de la méditation 29 (p.342 et sq). Il s’agit là, au delà des seuls “cardinaux inaccessibles”, des “grands cardinaux”.
        La lecture de cette méditation est très technique (même si Badiou fait des prouesses pour permettre d’accéder aux concepts mathématiques qui y sont développés.
        J’ai aussi le sentiment que dans ses derniers séminaires il réactive toutes ces idées dans le cadre de sa pensée de l’immanence des vérités.

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      • terenceblake says:

        Oui, et aussi des cardinaux “mesurables”, qu’il commente à la fin du séminaire du 15 février de cette année.

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  2. Do you think that there is a relation between covering up that Badiou speaks about and Latour’s talk against those “forms” that try to take the place of [REP] beings? The second sounds like a special case of the first.
    Moreover, the sense of openness that Latour seems to be feeling when following his approach sounds similar to the preservation of infinite potenitality that you mention here.

    On the other hand cover ups may have virtues too. They remind approximations in mathematics. They can take you a long way. Are they perhaps like scaffolds that need to be kept at bay lest they become the masters?
    Keeping an infinite perspective seems like a very strong liqueur. Can everybody drink it? Are cover ups useful as rituals?

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