NOTES FROM Badiou, A.  (2012) Introduction to the philosophical concept of change. EGS video

There seem to be three basic questions:

(A) what is change?  There are different forms of change, for example change within the laws and change outside of the laws.  Is repetition the same as change?

(B) how is change oriented—is it global?  How do we think of change, real change?  Some traditional philosophers, such as Plato, argue that real change as such is impossible.  What part of the totality remains after change?  Our intuition is not very helpful here, because change just seems natural to us, one of the reasons that traditional philosophers like Plato are now seen as the enemy of modern philosophy.  Change implies more than a substitution but the change of some thing—but what exactly, and, if it changes, is it the same thing?  If not, we’re talking about succession.  At the bottom, the issue is one of identity and difference, the issue that lies at the bottom of all problems, both political and philosophical.  If change is pure difference, then difference does not change—in what sense am I the same as you, allowing for all sorts of problems of genetic combinations and the effects of social structures and so on. 

(C) is there any principle to evaluate or judge change, to distinguish, for example positive and negative forms of change?  The traditional philosophical positions says that change is bad, and this is reversed in the revolutionary tradition with the absence of change means death.  It is possible that some change might be good and some bad, depending on the context or orientation.

We can unify these questions by pursuing a particular approach.  Let’s begin by asking why are we [the audience for the lecture] here?  The audience is not the usual university class, but is very diverse.  It could be seen as a generic set, where the elements are not defined by a precise property.  Audience members are not identical they may have no common nationality, generation or sex, and possess many different motivations.  If they are a generic set, how can change be the same for all the members?  Change is always relative to a world, and abstract concepts are always transmitted to the generic audience [seem to be important issues for distance education here—embrace the generic nature of the audience!]

For traditional philosophy the notion of a generic set is impossible, and groups always are constituted inside the tradition: the tradition determines the collectivity and its common properties.  Traditions are national, rational, or for a particular group.  Identity is therefore always involved as well.  For traditional philosophy, the generic set is not a suitable audience and is always a problem.

St Paul was one of the first to say that he was interested in a new religion, still not very codified as Christianity, for a generic audience—not Romans or Jews or women, slaves or masters, but for an undefined ‘everybody’.  This is the radical newness of St. Paul, and the concept was much refused and denied.  People had not yet grasped the concept of a generic set with no name.  Paul was suggesting that change was difficult and must be universal, and this was the subject of an intellectual war over contrasting national or cultural visions.

Marx is the other example, offering a universal international politics.  He even uses the word ‘generic class’ for the proletariat, and the issue was the relationship between this class, change and the world.  Political change is normally seen as a change of a precise definable world, as in a national revolution, or the coming to power of a specific group.  Marx’s conception of universal revolution is exceptional, and there may be only three or four advocates of generic change altogether.  Searching for a complete political rupture of the modern world must be universal.

Truth is connected to the notion of a generic set.  It is a universal not a partial quality.  Of course it is possible to say there is no truth as in relativism, and this is actually dominant today.  This is because capitalism does not need truth, there is no profit in, or price to attach to, it.  Capitalism must assume no generic set.  So arguing for one is an important issue for both philosophy and political and social change.  Truth does not change it is not radically historical [so ‘everybody’ means everybody in the future as well?]. The concept of truth is therefore rather paradoxical in a changing world dominated by the market. 

The concept of the generic set is an important question, especially if we think of it as not containing uniform elements, but, on the contrary, containing all the differences.  The concept of truth similarly does not assume uniformity but its opposite.  In this sense, the truth 'emancipates' differences.  St. Paul says his truth is not for Romans or slaves but for everybody, across all the differences, and must be accepted by very different human beings.  Without such a universal truth, differences are contained, but with one there is a notion of a freedom beyond differences.

So the generic set is at the heart of universal change in politics, and in artistic creativity.  The most important desire of human beings is for the truth, something exceptional.  We see this when people talk about love as exceptional, not at all normal or routine, not reducible to  definite properties.  We see this in classic stories of the conflict between young lovers and their traditions, how they are driven by some exceptional love, chance encounters, and how this leads to rebellion against tradition, such as the traditional family structures.  So this sort of love is also generic, a pure encounter with a generic somebody.  The same can be said of art and the desire for creating something exceptional.  Desire is exceptional, never law governed or traditional.  It follows that desire is for a change outside the laws or traditions.  Desire also reflects something unchanging, not understood by the normal laws of [mundane] change.  What we desire is therefore a social monster.  The important things in life are never anything normal, they’re always exceptional, and often tragic, as in wars.  War is also generic, the same for all soldiers.  We can also see why some people refuse such desires as too terrible, a matter of fear and anxiety.  It’s easy to see why the traditional views see desire as bad, outside the law, never normal.

So there are contradictory tensions of desire and the law, break and repetition, desire and universal change.  We need to turn to set theory again.  If we suppose a set of any kind, it’s possible to conceive of a subset which is completely defined by a property.  This would be a nice formal complete definition.  We say that the subset is constructible.  The question is, are all sets constructible like this?  Axioms of set theory affirm this: the whole universe is constructible.  The mathematician Godel argued that there is no way to refute this idea—everything is definable by clear properties, or to put it another way, sets conform to their direct referents in language.  It’s possible to see that all sorts of problems for action and choice can now be explained in terms of this tight relation of language to ontology [in a pretty limited way, as choices between fixed alternatives etc?].

However, no mathematician wanted to accept this!  The desire of mathematicians cannot accept this tight law, and they all want to go beyond, to search for a monstrous inconstructible set.  This is a complex desire, and an irrational one, since the non constructible set can never be properly defined.  There is a search for something inconstructible in order to find some exceptions to what existed in the world.  This is the artistic desire to create new forms, to let them emerge.  We find it in science as well.  In set theory, the problem becomes one of constructing the non constructible.  The mathematician Cohen solved it in the 1960s with the notion of the generic set.  This can not be constructed in the usual way.  It is like Marx’s universal class, and this can be seen as a generalization away from Marx’s specific political point.  Neither are reducible to law or language, and both represent real creation.  The exercise represented the victory of desire over law!  

The generic set is a monster.  It can never be specified, because to do so would mean adding a property.  We can only prove it must exist.  All differences are contained in it.  It is a multiplicity of differences rather than a collection of sameness as in the constructible set.  There are clearly political implications.  Revolutionaries aim to rupture the world as a desire for something generic, something not reducible to existing properties, something that goes across differences.  Differences are to be emancipated, accepted inside a generic set with no common property, and with a recognition of the truth of the generic set and of difference.  We can conceive of a common world where differences are acknowledged as the truth, exceptions are accepted.  It’s not just mathematicians who want this, and its not just an abstract issue.

Is worth noting that Godel went mad and saw himself as living in a terrible world where everything was fixed in its place.  There was no freedom, no possibility of going to other places.  He could not accept his own argument for a constructible universe, and was pleased with Cohen’s argument.

The generic set permits change, it helps us cross differences [I think the argument is that this would not involve chaos, but whether he meant the concept of chaos as in Deleuze, or just a general sense of disruption is unclear].  It opens us to change without dissolving all differences.  We must preserve the notion of truth to recognize differences, however, rather than operating with indifference: differences have to be recognized not closed off.  The possibility of changing places becomes part of a common truth, implying the right to be different and the right to change differences on the basis of a common truth [reminds me of Rawlsian experiments with social justice].  Notions of tradition, change, history and nature must be on the basis of this truth, the truth of St. Paul and Marx.  We need to think differences and changes of difference.  We need to accept differences and the ‘game of differences’.

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