by Robert Nola The French Philosophe Alain Badiou gave a lecture at Auckland University in December 2014 entitled “À la recherche du réel perdu: In search of the lost real.” The full talk is on YouTube .
We are lucky to present here extracts from the diary which he kept while in New Zealand and which make comments on his talk.
Day 1. In Paradise in search of the lost real! Mon Dieu! Here I am in New Zealand. It is Paradise as we say in France! And it must be since here they think that I am the world’s greatest living philosopher. Which I am of course, c’est vrai! Will my world-wide search for the “lost real” end with its discovery here in Paradise? The economic always hides the real making it lost. Here as elsewhere the “real” is thoroughly confounded with the economic. Though I must admit when I tripped over a gutter this morning, the gutter seemed real enough and not just a bit of the economic.
I also say that all knowledge has been progressively reduced to the economic. Yes, all! Protesting physicists, chemists and biologists do not get my point; even their knowledge of the stars, chemicals and bugs they investigate are nothing more than reductions to the economic. How do we get hold of the lost real? One way is through the scandals with which we are surrounded. Scandals reveal a small bit of the lost real. With the scandal we touch the real. It is the real of the real. But there is paradox here in that not only are scandals real but what they reveal about the previously lost is also real. Is this a real paradox? But if I am in Paradise there cannot be scandals! If so, it is not likely I will touch the real here. Unless, of course, I am not in Paradise! My French logic is quite precise here. So I will have to check what my travel brochures say about scandals in the paradise of New Zealand. As we will see the large audience at my talk to nod in agreement.
Day 2. The real and the possibility of the impossible In my talk today I took my audience back to the beginning of philosophy in our search for the lost real. I asked them: What is the real? Here I quote my French colleague Jacques Lacan who says: “the real is the impasse of formalization.” This is really obscure! But if we were to clarify it people might easily see through it and raise objections. So do not clarify it! Instead let me illustrate with an equally obscure example from arithmetic.
In arithmetic there are formal rules for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and the like. Also there is no final number because we must be free to calculate whatever numbers we like. So the sequence of numbers must have no end. Without the idea of an infinite sequence we cannot have the freedom of calculation. But arithmetic does not accept infinite numbers; calculation always leads to finite numbers. So the real of numbers within the formalization of arithmetic must always be finite. But there remains something that is really real — an inexistent infinity that cannot be captured by the formalization. So the formalization is useless concerning the lost real; it requires something that it cannot formalize. This shows that the infinite is the point of the impasse of our calculation which must remain finite. A vindication of Lacan! Do you grasp this? Our French logic is impeccable, n’est-ce pas? French logic is always right; if you disagree with it you do not understand it.
Yet there are many critics who say that my account of arithmetic is riddled with fallacies and that I do not know what I am talking about. In contrast the audience of sociologists in Paradise were much more polite and accepting and agreed with my French logic. Lacan’s insight can be generalized. For any formalization, or set of rules, or framework concerning any matter or system of human thought, of which arithmetic is just one example, there is always an impasse to something else on which it relies but which cannot be expressed in the formalization. My work always depends on a principle of French Philosophy of maximizing obscurity: never say clearly what you can say much more obscurely. Being obscure can make you famous and give you lots of interpreters. If one is clear, no one cares. Given this principle we put Lacan’s insight in another way. What is made possible in the formalization depends on what is impossible in the formalization. Now maximize obscurity and say: the possible is made so by the real of the impossible. Voilà! The impossible makes the possible! This is the delicious dialectic of the possible and the impossible. It is the beauty of French philosophy that it makes the totally obscure dialectic as clear as crystal. Merde!
Day 3. The lost real can never be found? Yesterday’s talk is now on YouTube. This is my last Day in Paradise, yet the “lost real” has yet to be made fully real, or else it remains in Paradise lost. Yesterday’s example from arithmetic is trivial compared to other ways in which the possible is made possible by the impossible. Lacan’s insight also applies to the cinema, or Marxism, capitalism, politics, or anything. But in general when we are in any formalization, or play any human game, we must suppose the possibility of the impossible.
We are in the real of something, we touch the real, when we affirm the possibility of something that is impossible. Is there a problem here? I have said that when we are in some formalization with its possibilities then there is something impossible in the formalization, the real, which makes possible the possibilities of the formalization. But what about this first real? Can we not talk of it and have a formalization of it? If we suppose a second formalization to be able to talk about the first real, then this second formalization will in turn suppose a further second real that underpins its possibilities. And so on. It looks as if the real is like a sequence of Russian dolls inside one another and we have no guarantee that we will stop at the final real doll — the dolls go on and on. Is this not impeccable French logic?
So the search for the real is hopeless; we will never find it. Not even here in Paradise! But I did not tell my audience this. Otherwise the university would not have paid my trip here — the economic of the real trip. My little scandal in Paradise! But they do think that I am the world’s greatest living philosopher! That is not a lost real but a real real!
Robert Nola is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland. His interests span philosophy of science, metaphysics (including naturalism), epistemology, selected areas in social and historical studies of science, atheism, and science and religion. He feels extremely lucky to have been present at Alain Badiou’s lecture.
 À la recherche du réel perdu: In search of the lost real, by Alain Badiou.