Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design
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Don’t worry, be happy: on ‘Ethics as a figure of nihilism’

Jon Baldwin, London Metropolitan University

The first three chapters of Alain Badiou’s Ethics contain a broad, dogmatic and rapid critique of contemporary ethical thought. Thirty-nine pages into this small book and Badiou argues, utilising Lacan (1), Foucault (2) and Althusser, that he has shed light on the errors of Kant and Levinas, that he has cleared the path of decades of mistaken ideas and wrong turns, and can now instigate his own conception of what should be meant by ‘ethics’. Such a claim deserves attention. In brief the polemic runs as follows - Chapter One: "Does Man exist?" Can he be a foundation for ethics? No. Chapter Two: "Does the other exist?" Can they be a foundation for ethics? No. Chapter Three: "Ethics as a figure of nihilism": Absolutely, yes.

"Ethics as a figure of nihilism" sees Badiou reaffirm his attack on what he calls contemporary ‘ethical ideology’. Badiou is critical of what he sees as the nihilism inherent in much of what passes for ‘ethics’ today. What does Badiou understand by nihilism? Obviously the key figure is Nietzsche: "Nietzsche demonstrated very neatly that humanity prefers to will nothingness rather than to will nothing at all. I will reserve the name nihilism for this will to nothingness, which is like a kind of understudy of blind necessity" (p. 30). The titles of the sub-sections of the chapter reveal Badiou’s targets: I Ethics as the servant of necessity, II Ethics as the ‘Western’ mastery of death, III Bio-ethics, and IV Ethical nihilism between conservatism and the death drive. So Badiou is to challenge those ethics that serve necessity (for which we should read ‘economics’) instead of interrogating this so-called ‘necessity’ and asking in whose interest this servitude is. [Read more].