Tag Archives: Living. Philosophy. Richard Oh. Jakarta. Indonesia

To Live


There’s no such thing as ‘was’ –only is.  If  ‘was’ existed, there would be no grief or sorrow. So says William Faulkner.

Years later, Alain Badiou, the French thinker, will make this statement, ‘History does not exist… There are only disparate presents whose radiance is measured by their power to unfold a past worthy of them.’

Both thinkers are in a sense telling us that fetishism of history has stultified our ‘present’. Our presence is not defined, nor is it to be derived from a history per se. The past is not, as most post-modernist relativists would like us to believe, descriptive. The past is not enclosed in a circular description to which the present is inextricably referred. The past is not a separate zone in which everything that has transpired lies in inertia.

The past is prescriptive. So much of the present is reclaimed from a trace in the past that had somehow been buried, either because it had appeared prematurely in a particular period or because a more radical event had overshadowed its presence. In 2007, Garrett Lisi, an impoverished surfer physicist, stunned the world by positing that he’d discovered the unifying Theory of Everything by retooling the complex 248-dimensional symmetry called E8, a category of problems brought up in 1887 by the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie. In March 2010, a group of paleoanthropologists led by Paabo and Krause discovered a new species, called X-woman, in the Denisova cave in Southern Siberia, thought to have shared an ancestor with humans. This specimen, a hominid described as neither Neanderthal nor a human, lived 30 to 50,000 years ago. This discovery may very well lead to a major rewrite of human history.

As Badiou has insisted, the ‘worthy past’ is determined by the disparate presents whose radiance is measured by their power’ to unfold it. These ‘disparate presents’ refer to our movements from point to point in the topology of existence. ‘To live is possible. Therefore, to (re)commence to live is the only thing that matters.” It’s through taking one more step that we reconfigure our present over and over and break with the atonicity of the past. Our fate then is neither pre-determined, nor impacted in any way by the historicity of a past. It’s constantly forged for as long as we keep moving from point to point, from world to world.

We might naturally wonder at the aimlessness of a life wandering from one point to another. The ultimate question is then what’s the point? What is the purpose of a life? Post-modernist thinkers have instilled in our age that to live means to celebrate the present by abusing languages and bodies, because death is inevitable and life is basically aimless. They might have misconstrued Nietzsche who suggests that the Eternal Return of the Same means that Meaning and Purpose shall be lost in the constant re-willing of the non-willed world. Such questions lose their significance as we become One with the symbol of the eternal Circle. The pursuit of a life is none other than the losing of oneself in a passion or in the intensity of a pursuit.

Badiou proposes a more affirmative take on this by suggesting that there are languages and bodies, except that there are truths. He borrows from Descartes this dictum: truths are eternal because they’ve been created and not because they have been there forever.

For Badiou, there are truths as there are worlds. Truths are not confined to a world; they’re infinite, observable from everywhere. ‘Man is this animal to whom it belongs to participate in numerous worlds, to appear in innumerous places. This kind of objectal ubiquity, which makes him shift from one world to another, on the background of the infinity of these worlds and their transcendental organization, is in its own right, without any need for a miracle, a grace.’

Unconstrained by a finite history, unfazed by death as a limit, freely moving from one world to another, humans are therefore immortal.

A version of this essay appeared on Now Jakarta July, 2010