After first watching this film at the start of lockdown — and finding little of value in it, if I’m being honest — I returned to it a few weeks ago, having actually read a fair bit of Badiou now, and found the whole thing much more resonant.
It’s a tricky sort of documentary. As an introduction to the man himself — at least for the uninitiated, as I was on my first watch — it probably appears to be ninety minutes of some coughing Frenchman talking about nothing much of any particular depth or interest. But I can appreciate it a bit more now for the seeds it plants along the way.
Each sequence feels like an introduction to one of Badiou’s primary concerns, introduced in the most basic terms possible — sometimes to their own detriment. (Asking “What is a woman?” remains a questionable look, even if — or maybe especially if — it’s part of your Lacanian routine.) However, discovering how those concerns unravel and complexify over the course of his work is quite a thrilling undertaking — at least for me, still in the depths of things.
Documentary reappraisals aside, I wanted to share, briefly, a quotation taken from early on in the film, where Badiou talks about Plato’s allegory of the cave. I liked this a lot.
The cave of Plato. You know the famous cave of Plato? Take the cave as the metaphor of the world in its normal, oppressive, obscure situation. So, the world as it is. The world where there exists oppression, division, rich and poor, and so on. What Plato explains is that you can find an exit.
The exit is something that you find by chance, practically always. Revolt, new invention, love encounter. Unpredictable, unpredictable. And what Plato says is that, progressively, the idea is the discovery of a new meaning of the world. You see something of the truth of the world, which was invisible when we were in the cave. And from outside the cave you understand that you were in the cave. When you are in the cave, you don’t know that you are in the cave. And Plato describes magnificently, you see the trees, you see the sky, and finally you see the sun. And the sun is the metaphor of the idea. That is, it’s the idea of what is the true nature of the cave, what is the true nature of the world.
And Plato, at this moment, said, what you must do with all that, with the idea. We must return to the cave. You must return to the cave. To do what? To organise the exit. At first, you have had the chance to find the exit, and your duty is to return to the cave to organise the exit of all people of the cave. Not for some aristocratic minority of the cave but for the great masses of the cave.
And this movement is politics.
As I continue to battle with my book Egress, which turns one today — as I continue to think about what it was for, what it meant to me then, what it means to me now, what it contains and what it lacks — Badiou’s comments on that eureka moment and that moment of political action and commitment — that exit from the cave and the necessary return to it — feels like a nice sentiment to internalise and newly affirm.
Egress was, of course, meant to be an egress. I had hopes, this time last year, that it would become a capstone to a few years’ worth of work; a way to commemorate what was, for me, an extraordinary amount of movement sideways. It was a chance to duck out, on a personal level, and pass the story on. I thought I was done, and due a moment to settle into whatever came next. Mark’s death had completely redirected the course of my life at that point, and given a traumatic foundation to a whole new set of commitments that I have so far spent over four years very consciously trying to weather and stay true to. I thought what I had to look forward to was a chance to stop working; a chance to take a break. It turned out it was far too late for that. The egress wasn’t to come; it had already occurred.
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t the same person after Mark died. When I try and list all the ways in which that is true, the list never ends. As melodramatic as it sounds, I feel there is no better way to put it: Mark’s death was apocalyptic. It was a great unveiling. A world ended and another one emerged in its place. Such was the tension at the heart of Egress — the desire to go back and somehow stop it from happening; the knowledge that so much good had come out of that moment all the same.
So many people, over the years, have cynically tied Mark’s depression to his political commitments, as if he was no longer here because he stopped believing another world was possible. Like Rothko, from that moment on people looked at his work and saw nothing but a suicide, conveniently ignoring all the colour and humour that had been there from the start. This was especially true for the rest of us at Goldsmiths. Once the dust had settled, after we’d stopped kicking it up in our grief-stricken abandon, at ill-advised raves and in moments of collective catharsis, we realised Mark’s death didn’t foreclose a world but made another one possible. It showed us, in all the grief and horror, that the facts of our lives are so malleable, and we could treat each other with the same care and compassion we did every day after Mark died, if we let ourselves.
Egress was an attempt to share that initial experience and the thoughts it provoked. It felt important to do so, especially because my experience was not singular. We all felt like the course of our lives had been redirected, and in a very literal sense. With my photographer’s instinct still intact, I wanted to document every minute of it, for better or for worse.
But when I was out of the cave — out of the university, out of the social environment that had initially defined that experience — I almost fell all the way out, irreparably, flying towards the sun, towards the idea, getting burnt up in the arrogance and stupidity of an absolute exit. I wanted out, and I thought I could write my way there. But a return was always necessary. In private, I made attempts to patch-up strained friendships. I built back relationships that had been worn down by the years of erratic mental health. I went back to that community of like-minded people that the book eventually became a tribute to — gently and over time, as I set about finishing a text I had started anxiously but found hard to abandon — watching as the book and the For k-punk nights and all the rest of it grew far beyond in its initial configuration…
Looking back on it now — all the fraught conversations and bad decisions — it makes me think an inevitable return to the cave ain’t such a bad fate after all.
I started putting together Postcapitalist Desire just a few weeks after Egress came out. At that time it was clear that some of the reviewers of Egress just didn’t seem to get it. Perhaps because it felt like a capstone to a story that hadn’t been properly told yet. Postcapitalist Desire wasn’t intended as an addendum to Egress. Even if it was, it doesn’t work as one. But what I didn’t expect was that it would become something of a prelude. People who were nowhere near Goldsmiths have since gained a sense of what Mark was building towards and the despair some of us felt when we understood it would never be realised. Egress is the story of what came next, at least for those of us present. That is, at least, what people tell me. For me, the journey is reversed. Postcapitalist Desire was a return, not a prelude. It was the political act to Egress‘s exit. Putting that book together completed the journey that Egress began, when the first words were written for it, back in 2017. It hasn’t undermined Egress for me. It has only made me treasure that exit all the more. There would have been no return to make without it.
There are still many more ways out, with Mark’s work or without it. I still feel the weight of Mark’s work, although the work and its proliferation makes it lighter. I don’t want to live under the shadow of Mark’s life, death and work forever, but having committed to picking up a project that was not my own in its origin, it is difficult to know how best to set it down again. I keep trying, but it keeps leading to new avenues and new encounters. And so it should. Mark’s gone and he is still so sorely missed, but I think we’ve resisted the impulse to mummify his legacy. I look forward to seeing what comes of it next.
Happy birthday, Egress.