on recognising ‘The Same’

A Truth Is the Same for All

by Mark Hutchinson 2016

For the radical French philosopher, Alain Badiou, it is not difficult for philosophy to think difference; “the real question – and it is an extraordinarily difficult one – is much more that of recognising the Same.”1 Here Badiou is talking about people: how and when is it possible to think of us as all the same, not in the negative sense of being uniform and interchangeable but in the positive sense of sharing a common essence? In philosophical language, we could say what is universal about being a person – what applies to everyone despite our differences? Why is recognising the Same difficult?

It is, of course, easy to recognise us all as human beings. But if this is simply to say that we are all the same kind of animal, then this does not touch upon what makes us human, which is precisely our ability to be more than just animals. We are truly human in such things as our passions, attachments, thoughts and relationships and these are particular to each of us. So whilst we are all the same at the level of being a certain kind of animal, we all appear quite different in terms of the particular qualities which are such a large part of what makes us truly human. We all have our individual particularities in terms of our identities: we have different genders, nationalities, sexualities, passions, interests and so on and so forth.

Today we are, on the whole, attuned to recognising and respecting other people’s particular, individual qualities. This is a recurring theme in mainstream contemporary children’s films, for example. Films such as Toy Story or Monsters Inc. assemble an array of characters with different qualities (in terms of abilities, aspirations and so on); differences which are amply demonstrated by the different physical characteristics of the protagonists. A recurring moral of such stories is precisely the need for each individual to find and accept the particular qualities which define him or her as an individual– often against expectations or obligations imposed by others. Buzz Lightyear, for example, must come to give up the delusion that he is a space superhero but, nevertheless, realise that he is capable of bravery as an ordinary toy. Inasmuch as they form a team, they each have a particular talent to contribute. What we should note here, however, is that these characters are rarely transformed by external events but, rather, come to acknowledge who they truly are already, in relation to trials imposed upon them by external circumstances. Buzz Lightyear always was brave but as an individual not as a superhero.

So can we approach the issue of the Same at this level of particularity: we are all different but we are all the same in our right to this difference? This is the thought which underlies the idea of ‘human rights’. Indeed, the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ lays claim to recognising sameness in its assertion of universality. But what it is that the idea of ‘human rights’ seeks to protect? In a nutshell, ‘human rights’ are aimed at allowing each and every individual to live free from persecution. This includes both having a safe and secure environment in which to live and being free from discrimination and intrusion because of your particular identity – who you are and what you believe. Here it goes without saying that no right-minded person would argue for discrimination, disrespect or intolerance towards others simply because they are different and, moreover, it should be emphasised that the struggle against discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age and so on has achieved so much. Nevertheless, the idea of ‘human rights’ is underpinned by the desire to protect the individual from the unwanted intrusion of others. As Badiou notes, this means that at base ‘human rights’ is the attempt to prevent human beings from becoming victims. This is to say that, fundamentally, ‘human rights’ conceives of human beings as beings capable of becoming victims. This is a purely negative definition of being human in that it does not give any positive content as to what being human could involve. The problem here is that in seeking to preserve the particularity of different individuals, ‘human rights’ is forced to protect our basic existence: our animal life. Sameness is only registered at this level of preserving life: particular differences are grafted onto this but it is only in terms of safe-guarding the necessities for sustaining and reproducing life that sameness is registered.

If we are going to ‘recognise the Same’, in terms of what truly makes us human, it is not going to be in terms of animality and particularity. Our identities may well be formed through processes of particular attachments, investments and identifications – which could well be the result of both conscious and unconscious thoughts – but the identities upon which we alight are, in some sense, a result of the fact that we choose to stop looking for differences at a certain point. Perhaps we should begin by entertaining a more radical idea of difference. Badiou says: “There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself. As many, but also, then, neither more nor less.”2 For Badiou, each one of us is singular: not defined by particular characteristics but composed of infinite, multiple processes. This is why he can make the otherwise somewhat surprising statement that we can never even be the same as ourselves. We cannot even be the same as ourselves because we are not defined by particular qualities but swept up in unfinished and unconfined possibilities. We are always becoming something else. Against the idea of a stable identity, each of us is already more than we can know and each of us already has the unending potential for the new.

It is because we are all singular that recognising the Same cannot be achieved by looking inward – by recognising some innate, natural force or properties common to everyone. This means we can only get to what is universal (the same for us all) from the singular (what is absolutely unique for each of us), by-passing the particular (our usual social identities and attachments). How can this happen? The first thing to note is that it is inevitable that we habitually relate to the world in terms of the particular and identity. The particular is the natural backdrop of our existence: the very stuff of the social fabric which binds us. It follows that the Same can only assert itself in circumstances which break with everyday life and the normal run of habitual identifications, attachments and investments; moreover, the Same, as that which is universal, must be something rare, which surfaces in exceptional circumstances.

Indeed, we could go as far as to say that in order to see what transcends particular identifications, what is universal beyond the attachments of our social being, we need the intervention of an external force. For Badiou, this force is the power of a truth. He says: “genuine thought should affirm the following principle: since differences are what there is, and since every truth is the coming-to-be of that which is not yet, so differences are then precisely what truths depose, or render insignificant.”3 Here we should note two, related points straight away. First, this is not to belittle difference but rather to make a distinction between the usual run of things (where differences matter) and the unusual circumstances in which a truth asserts itself. Second, Badiou is using the idea of ‘truth’ in a specific and unusual way – in contrasted with the everyday circumstances in which the idea of truth is regularly used. This is not truth as an accurate picture of the world as it is or the accumulation of facts. Rather, this is truth as an active process of change: something new in the world. For example, we could think of a scientific theory such as Freud’s idea of the unconscious or Darwin’s idea of evolution. Such ideas do not simply add something new to the world but radically change our conception of the world.

This idea of truth is not about revealing or unmasking something hidden. We live in a world where a great deal is made of authenticity, transparency and self-expression. As a figure of speech in ordinary language, for example, we use the idea of wearing a mask to indicate that someone is holding something back or pretending to be someone other than who they are. Popular psychology books frequently use the idea of a mask in a derogatory sense, to name that which blocks the self-expression of the individual. In this negative sense of the mask, there is a contrast between the empty surface of the mask and the replete depth of the face. However, is it really true that behind the mask is a face of authentic expression? Metaphors of surface and depth are embedded in our everyday language, where appearance is made out to be a kind of illusion which covers over the truth. Think of the contrast between ‘shallow thoughts’ with ‘deep thoughts’, for example, or the expression ‘beauty is skin-deep’. But this metaphor of depth is problematic. Instead of thinking of surface as hiding depth we would do better to recognise that a surface creates an illusion of depth. Think of looking deeply into someone’s eyes: what is really there, in the depths, are retinas, optic nerves, blood cells and so on – the material stuff of the body. But it is the materiality of the surface of the eye – the eye as image – which creates the illusion of depth. This is not the inversion of the relation between surface and depth but a different model, a shift in perspective. Surfaces are how we relate to the world. When we look behind a surface we do not get closer to the object of our desire but encounter the messy stuff which had been contained by the surface. Of course, this is not what the metaphor is meant to get at; but it is worth noting how it misrepresents the importance of surfaces and dovetails with the promotion of an illusionary idea of individual authenticity.

Slavoj Žižek, when talking about Western myths of Japan, makes a similar point:

What I despise in America is the studio actor’s logic, as if there is something good in self expression: do not be oppressed, open yourself, even if you shout and kick the others, everything in order to express and liberate yourself. This stupid idea, that behind the mask there is some truth. In Japan, and I hope that this is not only a myth, even if something is merely an appearance, politeness is not simply insincere. There is a difference between saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ and the New York taxi drivers who swear at you. Surfaces do matter. If you disturb the surfaces you may lose a lot more than you account. You shouldn’t play with rituals. Masks are never simply mere masks. Perhaps that’s why Brecht became close to Japan. He also liked this notion that there is nothing really liberating in this typical Western gesture of stealing the masks and show the true face. What you discover is something absolutely disgusting. Let’s maintain the appearances, that’s my own fantasy of Japan.4

Indeed, in these circumstances – when faced with Western ideas of individual authenticity and self-expression – the literal imposition of a mask can act as a condition for truth. As Oscar Wilde put it: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.”5 We should remember, for example, that in the world of comics it is not only villains who wear masks but the super-heroes, too. If the villains wear their masks in order to hide their identities and evade capture, the super-heroes need to maintain their anonymity in order to act. In everyday life, when not performing as a super-hero, the super-hero is a particular individual, a member of society like everyone else. But after the super-hero has donned a mask and assumed anonymity, the particular individual is transformed into a singular individual with universal power.

We relate to the naked face, one without a mask, in terms of its particularity: the particular characteristics of gender, heritage, age and so on. So although a face to face encounter allows an immediacy in how we respond to each other, it is also true that we judge the other in terms of his or her particular qualities, making assumptions, identifications, attachments and projections. And, reciprocally, we realise the other person is doing the same in relation to us. Here it is tempting to suggest that behind the mask is simply another mask. If this level of surfaces is important in maintaining the smooth functioning of social interaction, as described by Žižek, it is, nevertheless, a block on getting at truth. The mistake is to think there is something authentic behind this social surface: that something is hidden. It is this reflex which fuels so many conspiracy theories. Instead, an intervention is needed to interrupt these habitual processes, if we are to move outside particularity. Thus the mask becomes a way that we can see everyone as the Same. Here we could think of the history of mask-wearing in Venice. Wearing a mask was a way to hide one’s social standing, up to and including one’s gender; masks allowed all the citizens of Venice to interact with each other as equals, in a way that would not otherwise have been possible.

In terms of art, we might think of the Gorilla Girls as an example. The Gorilla Girls were a group of women artists who gave lectures, talks and performances about gender inequality in art. And they did these things wearing gorilla costumes. Here, these costumes operate like the super-hero’s outfit. In order for the truth of what the Gorilla Girls had to say to intervene successfully in art, the costumes had to depose of the particularity of the individuals wearing them. One trouble with speaking the truth is that opponents are always liable to attempt to undermine it by linking what is said to the particularity of the speaker: presenting whatever is said as simply the point of view of that particular person. For the Gorilla Girls, masks were needed in order for the truth to function as truth, rather than as opinion.

For Badiou, we only truly become subjects, as opposed to individuals, when we are captured and captivated by a truth, where a truth is not about ‘facts’ but the realisation of something new and true. Inasmuch as a truth is a break with the hitherto existing possibilities of the world it demands something new of us. Thus a truth is a process which is both shattering and liberating: shattering because it destroys an old conception and liberating because it offers a new possibility to follow. To return to Darwin’s theory of evolution as an example: it is impossible to think of the world in the same watt after one has understood it. Or falling in love: true love is not un-traumatic in that it shatters one’s old attachments at the same time as it launches something new and extraordinary in one’s life. We could also think of truly original works of art, such as Shoenberg’s twelve tone music, or emancipatory political events, such as the French Revolution, as launching a new truth into the world – or, rather, changing the world by launching a new truth into it.

It is in relation to a process of truth that we are all the same. This is not simply to say, for example, that we are united by understanding that Darwin’s theory is true. Rather, we should think of the hostility and opposition the theory faced at the time. Darwin’s theory completely changed what the world was. To be a scientist captured and captivated by Darwin’s dangerous idea, at the time, meant to work for it and against the established constitution of science and the general understanding of the world. To be a subject in Badiou’s special sense means to be loyal to a truth and this means, in turn,  to work for it – for the new world it ushers in – which, because of the nature of such truths, means to work against the old and against the odds. So if a truth divides, it is nevertheless true that “a truth is the same for all.”6 So we are all the Same not because of our particularity but because we all have the potential to be captured by truth: by something external and unprecedented that transcends our particularity.

Notes

1. Alain Badiou, Ethics, Verso, London, 2001, p. 24.

2. Badiou, p. 27.

4. Slavoj Žižek, Japan Through a Slovenian Looking Glass, available here: http://www.ntticc.or.jp/pub/ic_mag/ic014/zizek/zizek_e.html.

5.Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891.

6. Badiou, p. 27.

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