“Badiou and the Educational Situation” by Kent den Heyer

Applied to education, Alain Badiou’s work on ethics fundamentally challenges a dominant contemporary vision of education as a sophist’s affair (Bartlett, 2011; and as detailed in the North American context, see den Heyer, 2009a). This is a kind of education marked, first, by what A. J Bartlett explores as the ‘sophistic end (of preparing the youth with ‘skills’ to make their way in the state),’ second by ‘sophistic practice (which treats education as a commodity to be exchanged for other goods)’ and, finally, by sophistical ‘theory […] exemplified in the “democratic” relativism of Protagoras’s maxim that “man is the measure of all things”’ (Bartlett, 2011, p. 37). In contrast, Badiou affirms a life and an education by “truths” born of our ontological relationship to the “void”-set axiomatically contained, as Badiou applies set-theory, to all humanly constructed situations or set ups. Regardless of one’s social position, reputation, or usefulness to the state, we are all equidistance to the void. Encountering the void, ripping our tissues of knowledge or “opinion,” we encounter an “event” as that opportunity for “truth procedures” to articulate what will have been absurd not to have believed (an ethics in the tense of the future anterior, see den Heyer, 2009b; Gibson, 2006): “[A]s with anything that constitutes an event, worlds are turned upside down, neuroses engendered, terrible beauties are born and education departments are forced to confront something that they are professionally required to find incomprehensible, namely, the desire to be educated, as something over and above the development of a specialist-knowledge, vocational competence, or the vague promotion of currently venerated ‘values’ “(Cooke, 2013, p. 3).

This ontological premise and subsequent ethics constitute a significant reconfiguration of the problematic of pedagogy, politics, and that over worn term, social justice. As explored here, it becomes possible via Badiou to think an education that requires attention to social justice as much as social justice requires such an education.

KINship & PIN-heads

While definitions abound across education, a definition of social justice most useful to an education by truths is the public act of challenging personal and structural privilege as it manifests in our classrooms, personal lives, and the formal political sites of our various collective constituencies. I use privilege very specifically to refer to issues and people about which one is ignorant or about which one believes there is no need to be concerned. Social justice works against the privilege that is our ignorance (den Heyer & Conrad, 2011).

As with other scholars in education (Bracher, 1993; Britzman, 1991, 1998; Felman, 1982; Garrett, 2012; Taubman, 2010), I use ignorance in the psychoanalytic sense of the word. In this work, ignorance differs from, for example, being rude or unaware of something. Psychoanalytic theory posits that we actively choose—indeed, have a passion for—our ignorance. From this perspective, we avoid that which challenges our cherished visions or ideals and or implicates us as benefiting from, albeit in unequal ways, the many horrors of the present. Ignorance then is the shadow side of knowledge, as each constitutes a familiar subjectivity and identification whose security requires that we continuously strive to strike a balance of proximity and distance to difficult issues. A passion for ignorance emerges from and serves to reinforce these familiarities.

Ignorance is neither innocent nor accidental, nor does it reside solely in individuals. It is shaped through the institutionalization of our sensibilities and intelligibilities (Simon, 2005). Jacques Ranciere names such institutionalized sensibilities as the social “distribution of the sensible.” Characteristics of bodies and positions within a situation (or “elements” of such in Badiou’s terms) mold with power to separate who can and cannot ‘legitimately’ appear or has ‘authority’ to speak – giving the social its momentum. As Badiou details with set theory, all social situations are, ontologically, vulnerable to the irruption of a voiding event at the crossroads of our Knowledge-Ignorance-Nexus. Privilege, as to who, when, and in what constitutes ‘legitimate’ speakers, knowledge-opinions, and of what we should be concerned, means that every KINship is also a Privilege-Ignorance-Nexus or PIN-headedness.

The moldy social however extends beyond the speaking or knowledge level of who and what legitimately belongs. Institutions (e.g., schools, textbooks, corporate media, museums) not only provide content for our knowing, but shape our emotional resistance to unknowing as well. As with the “official knowledge” (Apple, 2000) found in the State’s programs of study resulting from and contributing to struggles over cultural practices, ignorance and resistance serve the interests of some at the expense of others (Strhan, 2010). In our contemporary sophist situation, being educated does not mean, therefore, simply having achieved knowledge or the ability to do something. To be educated is also to have simultaneously acquired a somewhat predictable ignorance along with an emotional tendency to avoid issues that do not conform to the “instantaneous uptake” (Aoki, 2000, p. 354) of our immediate understandings; that is, issues, people, and or behaviours that defy our efforts to immediately apprehend them (and about which we thereby often become apprehensive). We might refer to this disjunctive space or nexus as a gap or as “the excess” or “void” that exists in a pedagogical encounter around which knowledge-opinion coagulates but, equally, as such, is, always, simultaneously, threatened by its own nullification (Badiou, 2001; Biesta, 2010). Educated apprehensions, therefore, aptly describes both our contemporary situation; apprehension as a synonym for understanding, apprehension as in the arrest of someone, something or some opinion, and, apprehension as describing a state of emotional disturbance or anticipation of adversity when what was previously apprehended is no longer in its proper place.

As with each of our personal identifications, the nexus of privilege/knowledge-ignorance is multifaceted. It is situated, historical, and contingent with different aspects of our privilege and disadvantage invoked depending on context (e.g., the fact that I identify and am identified as a Canadian matters more at borders then in my home-town where my being Canadian matters less than the fact that neither I nor any family member is a veteran when I try to enter the local Legion Hall for a drink). Therefore, we exist in an equality of KIN & PIN regardless of social position, economic capacity, or access to education: We are all equidistance to the void as that which always potentially voids the adequacy of what we once thought. [1]

The key point in this discussion is to emphasize the necessity to learn from knowledge already possessed and to learn from our resistance to questions or issues that potentially put at risk what (and on what basis) we can claim to know. In this sense, truths require knowledge to be just as knowledge requires truths to become. Thus, to engage these spaces at the heart of our PIN is not only a question of social justice. Such encounters with what we have the privilege to ignore (and the attendant stress involved) may be a precondition for learning itself (Aoki, 2000; Britzman, 1991; Felman, 1982). This is especially so if we think of both justice and learning as an ethical journey rather than achievement or acquisition of a pre-determined thing (be it information, skill, or apprehension). Let me provide an example.

Issues related to Aboriginal Alberta elicit difficult emotions in schools and beyond that reflect a colonial legacy, ongoing land disputes (including land from which great oil and gas wealth is currently being extracted), and material and symbolic divisions at the heart of the Canadian nationalist project. As Daniel Francis (1992, 1997) points out, many non-Aboriginal Canadians possess inherited information about an “imaginary Indian” (Francis, 1992). This imaginary is reflected and reinforced in mainstream media when the challenges that many Aboriginal communities face are reduced to discussions about their “special privileges” or claims their cultures of poverty create cycles of failure. Usually unaddressed in such discussions are the ways their poverty provides the foundation of our wealth. Also commonly ignored are the educating forces that produce the predictable non-Aboriginal trans-Canadian imaginary of the Indian (Francis, 1992; see also Tupper & Cappello, 2008). This division and stress exemplify the ways in which a KIN & PIN are, on the one hand, personal and emotive, while on the other, socially institutionally shaped.

To encounter this gap, excess, or void is to occasion an “event” as detailed in a host of Badiou’s writings. We can describe these eventful moments in many ways, such as a moment of “biographical crises” (Britzman, 1991, p. 8) or as a piercing of the “fictional assemblages” by which we organize “a self-representation” (Badiou, 2001, p. 55: tangentially, ‘a fictional assemblage’ is a wonderful description of state organized school curriculum). However described, encountering this event we are confronted with the question and task of “fidelity” which is when, for Badiou, the ethic of truths begins: “A crisis of fidelity is always what puts to the test, following the collapse of an image, the sole maxim of consistency (and thus ethics): Keep going!” (Badiou, 2001, p. 36): “There is always only one question in the ethic of truths: how will I, as some-one, continue to exceed my own being? How will I link the things I know, in a consistent fashion, via the effects of being seized by the not-known?” (50)

This constitutes a significantly different starting point for an ethics of education from those organized around pedagogies of redemption in which “the good” is sought in the redemption of historical evil (e.g., those orientations based on Levinas’ writings, see for example, Simon, 2005; see den Heyer 2009b for an extended investigation of such). Rather, evil in Badiou’s formulation follows from a distortion of the good of a “truth procedure” (via “betrayal,” “terror,” and “disaster” see Badiou, 2001).  Analogously, Ranciere notes that “[i]t is always a matter of relating what one ignores to what one knows; a matter of observing and comparing, or speaking and verifying” (2010, p. 10). To do so is to engage in those ‘terrible beauties’ that constitute an ethic of truths and education.


If  ‘the only education is an education by truths’ (Badiou, 2005, p. 9) then the curricular question is less ‘what knowledge is of most worth?’ (that everyone in a political jurisdiction supposedly needs to know) and more pertinently, how might the forms of knowledge be arranged for the possibility of an event to occur and the educational in the form of a truth procedure inaugurated (Badiou, 2001)? Such a question asks that we think to better balance schooling’s socializationfunction into particular KINships with its educational potential that lies within people’s always present capacity for becoming subjects to their learning and lives. At the very least, as a social justice concern, attending to what our privilege allows us to ignore might make us less the PINheads than we might otherwise be.



[1] I do not mean to suggest that, in our being equidistant to the void and potentiality of a truth event regardless of social position, we therefore need not continue to struggle for increasing local and global access to formal educational opportunities. Rather, I wish to be read as making the case that what is of educational value in the sense of meaningfully learned to a becoming subject exists as much outside as inside formal education. The logic behind this point rests most profoundly in the writings of Ivan Illich, specifically (1970).



Aoki, D. S. (2000). The thing never speaks for itself: Lacan and the pedagogical politic of clarity. Harvard Educational Review, 70(3), 347–369.

Apple, M. W. (2000). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Badiou, A. (2001) Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil (P. Hallward, Trans.) (London: Verso).

Badiou, A. (2005)  Handbook of inaesthetics (Alberto Toscano trans). (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press).

Barlett, A. J. (2011) Badiou and Plato: an education by truths (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Biesta, G.J.J. (2010) Good education in an age of measurement: ethics, politics, democracy (London: Paradigm Publishers).

Bracher, M. (1993). Lacan, discourse, and social change: A psychoanalytic cultural. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Britzman, D. (1991). Practice makes practice: A critical study of learning to teach. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Cooke, B. (2013) ‘Declares by the void…’ Parrhesia: A journal of critical philosophy, 16, 77-101.

den Heyer, K. (2009a). What if curriculum (of a certain kind) doesn’t matter? Curriculum Inquiry, 39(1), 27-40.

den Heyer, K. (2009b). Education as an affirmative invention: Alain Badiou and the purpose of teaching and curriculum. Educational Theory, 59(4), 441-463.

den Heyer, K., Conrad, D. (2011). Using Alain Badiou’s ethic of truths to support an ‘eventful’ social justice teacher education program Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 27(1), 7-19.

Felman, S. (1982) Psychoanalysis and education: teaching terminable and interminable. Yale French Studies, 63, 21-44.

Francis, D. (1992). The imaginary Indian: The image of the Indian in Canadian culture. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Francis, D. (1997). National dreams: Myth, memory and Canadian history. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Garrett, H. J (2012). What didn’t I know this before? Psychoanalysis, social studies education and the shock doctrine Canadian Social Studies 45 (2), 1-11.

Gibson, A. (2006) Beckett and Badiou: the pathos of intermittency (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society (New York: Marion Boyars).

Ranciere, J. (2010). On ignorant schoolmasters. In C. Bingham & G. Biesta (Eds.), Jacques Ranciere: Education, truth, emancipation (pp. 1–16). London: Continuum.

Simon, R.I. (2005) The touch of the past (New York: Palgrave MacMillian).

Strahan, A. (2010). The obliteration of truth by management: Badiou, St. Paul and the question of economic managerialism in education. In Kent den Heyer (Ed.) Thinking Education through Alain Badiou. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 78-98.

Taubman, P. (2010). Alain Badiou, Jacques Lacan and the ethics of teaching. In Kent den Heyer (Ed.) Thinking Education through Alain Badiou. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 45-61.

Tupper, J., & Cappello, M. (2008). Teaching treaties as (un)usual narratives: Disrupting the curricular commonsense. Curriculum Inquiry, 38(5), 559–578.

Kent den Heyer is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Alberta


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