The figure of purification crops up here and there in Badiou: in the discussion of “Philosophy and Cinema” collected in Infinite Thought, for example, where it is asserted that “artistic activity can only be discerned in film as a process of purification of its own immanent non-artistic character”.
“Purification” here names both a filtering operation, the exclusion or suppression of non-pure elements, and an operation of unbinding in which such elements are separated from the “domination of representation, identification and realism” and submitted instead to some contrary formalism: a comprehensive re-coding or exaptation.
We might characterise these two purificatory strategies as the Dalek strategy and the Cyberman strategy. While Daleks ceaselessly declare their intention to exterminate everything that moves, save that which is temporarily necessary to Dalek supremacy, Cybermen proclaim their desire to upgrade all inferior beings save those which, by token of offered resistance, demonstrate their incompatibility with the Cyberman ethos. Your existence may be preserved if - and for just as long as - it is temporarily useful to a Dalek, but will be immediately terminated if you so much as look the wrong way at a Cyberman.
There is perhaps also a parallel here with Lyotard’s distinction between the “totalitarianism” of the Nazis and that of capitalism:
Both perhaps take possession of the totality of life. But Nazism does so openly, under the regime of the “will” (or the faculty of desire), and therefore politically, by fixing its gaze on the source of its legitimacy, the V?lkisches. Capitalism does so of necessity, as a matter of course (the fact of the world market), without any concern for legitimation, by pursuing the disintegration of the modern social bond, the community of citizens…Nazism burns, assassinates and exiles the avant-gardes; capitalism isolates them, speculates on them, and delivers them muzzled to the culture industry.
“Postscript to terror and the sublime”, The Postmodern Explained to Children
Again, these two distinct strategies of purification amount to extermination (“burns, assassinates and exiles”) on the one hand, and and unbinding (“pursuing the disintegration of…the social bond”) and repurposing (“…the culture industry”) on the other.
In the essay One Divides Into Two, Badiou again speaks of purification, and again according to two strategies, corresponding to two modes of production of “the New Man”. For those (Dalek-strategist) thinkers “in the ambit of fascist thought”, purification “is really the more or less violent process of the return of a vanished origin”, a production of authenticity via the destruction of the inauthentic. For those (Cyberman-strategist) thinkers “in the ambit of Marx-leaning communism”, the new man “is a real creation, something which has never existed before” - an upgrade, in which what is destroyed is not impure existents but the very “historical antagonisms” which give rise to the distinction between the pure and the impure. The bonds of history are to be loosed: all will become equal, through participation in the formal equality of cyber-society.
(It is, of course, not only “historical antagonisms” that are destroyed in the process of Cyber-upgrading. To be a Cyberman is to be a being whose body has been replaced with a hard, military-purposed instrumental casing, and whose drives have been replaced by the telepathically received commands of the cyber-leader: a servile and mutilated being. Cybermen thus resemble the drone-like “communists” of the Cold War anti-communist imaginary, or Lyotard’s castrated avant-gardes in thrall to the capitalist culture industry, rather than the emancipated being dreamed of by those thinkers who inclined towards Marx and Engels.
What is significant here is not what has been lost by those who have been “upgraded”, but what has been imposed upon them by way of replacement. The cyber-casing, a full metal jacket, merely concretises the role of the old flesh within the war machine of imperialism; the invasion of consciousness by the imperatives of the cyber-leader is no different in kind from the delinquent authority of the drives manipulated and colonised by consumerist culture, the obscene super-ego imperative to “enjoy!”. A true unbinding from the domination of class society would entail the dematerialisation of that body and those drives - whereas what Cyber-being offers is their immortalisation through technology.)
Badiou comments interestingly on “the passion for the real” as a form of negative-theological purification of reality, identifying the “path” of this purification, at the end of which “the real, as total absence of reality, is the nothing”, with a “terrorist nihilism” akin to the fury against beings Nancy defines as intrinsic to the modern understanding of evil. But Badiou complains that the “active nihilism” of the revolutionaries, everywhere declared obsolete within the contemporary situation, has been replaced with a “passive, or reactive, nihilism that is hostile to every action as well as every thought”.
Reality is now held up for acceptance as it is, as a system of limitations bounding all possible action; but “the real” - which is directly identified with “the paroxystic charms of terror”, and thus to be avoided at all costs - nevertheless remains “the nothing”. Thus, the pretence that this attitude of acceptance is moral, rational, responsible and so on “remains in nihilism”, and is doomed to an ever-accelerating enervation.
It is not at all clear that Badiou opposes the “active nihilism” of the revolutionaries, or is not at least a little nostalgic for its paroxysms; but he identifies another path, the “subtractive path”, which would uphold the revolutionary passion for the real without committing itself to its nihilist destination. The subtractive path aims “[t]o purify reality, not in order to annihilate it in its surface, but to subtract it from its apparent unity, so as to detect within it the miniscule difference, the vanishing term which constitutes it”.
This is a little enigmatic, and very much at risk of being parlayed into some manner of Critchley-lite “deconstructive ethics” (in which one would mull endlessly over the inconsistencies of reality solely in order to keep open the chance of demonstrating, once again, that it isn’t really as consistent as some supposed na?f-antagonist might care to imagine…) But what is actually being essayed in this sentence of Badiou’s is, in telegraphic form, the entire program of Being and Event: to resist the negative-theological temptation to abolish the situation, to declare that ontology is itself a situation, and then to elaborate within that situation the generic-procedure-through-which-a-subject-is-constituted-in-fidelity-to-the-truth-of-an -event. The conjoined assertions that there is some thought, and that there are some subjects, form the substance of Badiou’s response to nihilism, and the basis for his metapolitics of truth.