Sunday, October 26, 2008

Anti-events: reviewing Badiou

Earlier this month, I expressed frustration with the British media's infatuation with alleged philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. Trying searching, I suggested, for its coverage of Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy, Deleuze, Badiou, Derrida, Blanchot or Levinas – that is, for genuine French thinkers. But don't bother; you'll find only obituaries.

However, one of these names has received something approaching mainstream attention; most recently in Mark Lilla's review-essay in the New York Review of Books and, this time last year, in its London equivalent (both behind subscriptions firewalls). As I know next to nothing about Alain Badiou, these offered me a chance to situate his thought. From brief impressions gleaned online, I had found his "indictment of the fetishization of literature by Blanchot, Derrida, and Deleuze" enough to warn me off. Moreover, his major work Being & Event features the unwitting apex of such fetishisation – mathematical formulae. Such are the ghosts that guide one to and from books.

Our personal ghosts might hamper the serendipity necessary for intellectual discovery – and that's a subject worth exploring all in itself – but what about those that haunt the book pages? Does literary journalism police the public intellect and thus guide a culture down a particular path? It seems so. But how? These questions came to the fore when I was reading both of these reviews.
In the Republic, Socrates and Plato’s brothers wander out of Athens and walk down to the port of Piraeus, leaving the city behind them. After quickly demolishing the prevailing views of justice in Athenian society, Socrates proceeds to dream of another city, a just city governed by philosophers whose souls would be oriented towards the Good. The familiar objection to Plato, that the ideal of the philosophical city is utopian or impossible to realise, is fatuous. Of course the philosophers’ city is utopian: that is the point. You might argue that it is the duty of philosophy to think in a way that allows us to believe another world is possible, however difficult it would be to achieve. Alain Badiou is a Platonist.
Simon Critchley's review of Polemics, a collection of Badiou's political essays, begins by setting the author's place in the very general philosophical scene. It then goes onto his particular approach to the subject:
Philosophy is the construction of the formal possibility of something that would break with what Badiou calls the 'febrile sterility' of the contemporary world. He calls this an 'event', and the only question of politics, for Badiou, is whether there is something that might be worthy of the name 'event'. If philosophy is understood, as Heraclitus had it, as a 'seizure by thought', then politics is a revolutionary seizure of power that breaks with the dreamless sleep of an unjust and violently unequal world.
This is both informative and intriguing. Compare it to Mark Lilla's introduction:
Badiou belongs to the je ne regrette rien fraction of the French left: a student of Marxist theorist Louis Althusser in the early Sixties, a rabble-rousing Maoist and defender of the Khmer Rouge in the Seventies, he still writes warmly about the Cultural Revolution.
What ever the facts are, the truth is obscured by so many fluttering flags: "French left", "Marxist", "rabble-rousing". What do you think Lilla is trying to tell the reader? Even "belongs" limits the scope of comprehension. In his defence, Lilla is covering a number of books on St Paul and cannot devote so much space to Badiou as Critchley. Given that, however, one could replace the quotation above with a summary of his book; nothing would be lost. Lilla does get to it eventually.
Imagine the shock, then, when Badiou published Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism in 1997, calling on the left to rediscover the radical universalism of Saint Paul and apply it to revolutionary politics! Hands were wrung in seminar rooms across Europe and North America, since any mention of universals is grounds for excommunication from the church of academic “theory.”
Again, whether this is true or not – and Lilla doesn't provide even anecdotal evidence – we're too familiar with this form of caricature in the pleonastic conservative press to accept it without complaint. Is this the New York Review or the New Criterion? When he does provide a long quotation – about revolutionary violence – Lilla still can't let Badiou speak for himself:
What about the violence, often so extreme? The hundreds of thousands of dead? [Millions, actually.] The persecutions, especially against intellectuals? [Why "especially," one wonders.]
Perhaps because they kept interrupting. "Febrile sterility" seems like an accurate diagnosis of US liberal commentators (Susie Linfield is another). Lilla's fevered framing of Badiou's philosophy does its work by co-opting the reader into a knowing distance from the passé.
Such cold-bloodedness [Badiou's defence of revolutionary violence] was long out of fashion in France. After many thousands of the victims of the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge escaped onto their rafts into the South China Sea in the mid-Seventies, the French romance with revolution seemed to end. During the next two decades stiff-necked Maoists like Badiou lived in interior exile while the political debate revolved around human rights, multiculturalism, and political and economic liberalism. In the past ten years, though, as a more radical leftism returned, Badiou made a comeback.
It's clear this comeback is threatening. Critchley isn't so worried. He ends his review by distancing himself from Badiou's "apparent optimism and robust affirmativesness". He thinks there's something "deeply pessimistic" about his conception of philosophy.
At the present time, in the face of such a state of war, the philosopher's dream of another city will always appear hopelessly utopian.
He opposes Badiou's justification of violence and instead calls for "the prosecution and cultivation of peace". However, he qualifies this by restating Badiou's Platonism, that is, "the impossibility of Badiou's politics"; its Platonic violence. The real state of war – happening right in front of our square eyes – is something to which Lilla only alludes as he speculates on the reasons for Badiou's rise to prominence:
Eight years into the Bush administration and forty years after the revolutions of 1968, one senses a frustrated desire to have some kind of effect.
"The Bush administration". Is this Lilla's euphemism for the gulag at Guantanamo Bay, active support for dictatorships around the world and the invasion and occupation of two sovereign nations with the subsequent deaths of untold hundreds of thousands [millons actually]?

One has to wonder if Lilla's fevered tone is the return of the repressed in liberal-capitalist thought. We saw explicit evidence of its movement in the attacks on Günter Grass for his belated revelations, the current Schadenfreude-laden coverage of the tales told about Milan Kundera and, less explicitly, in the media's disproptionate coverage of the "left-wing philosopher" mentioned at the beginning and the otherwise unaccountable enthusiasm for Clive James' petty-minded essays on 20th Century authors (those on Benjamin and Celan in particular). Perhaps we can call these anti-events in an unjust and violently unequal world.


  1. Sorry, can you explain what you mean when you say mathematical formulae are the apex of the fetishization of literature? Is that what you mean to say?

  2. Yes, it what I meant to say, although "apotheosis" would have been a better choice.

    There's a general assumption, even among people who love literature, that other systems of expression offer more direct access to the Real World. Hence the respect given to science and maths (an example is Jonathan Gottschall's recent call for literary critics to embrace scientific method). Religions have the same tendency to fetishise texts, although again it would be better to say they ignore the literariness of reality.

    I'm not saying Badiou is guilty of any of this, just that his use of maths warned me off reading him.

  3. OK, now I'm really confused; how are mathematical formula the apotheosis of the festishization of literature? Or the apex of the apotheosis of literature?

  4. How: because they enable *literature* to replace reality. The user can thus make use of its magical powers previously withheld by literature whose limits are recognised - or rather, the limits of human agency in regard of literature.

  5. Anonymous6:46 pm

    There's a general assumption, even among people who love literature, that other systems of expression offer more direct access to the Real World. Hence the respect given to science and maths

    What do you mean by systems of expression? Do you mean that math and science are expressions like art, and likewise literature? If so, I think this would be wrong since (most) math and science are tools used to understand natural and physical processes that exist in our world, and are not artistic, really. I'm not supporting one over the other, they're just different.

  6. No, I don't mean they are *like* literature. They *are* literature. They have to be treated as literature. (By "expression" I do not mean they are automatically human expressions but expressions of literature).

    For support, see Blanchot's essay "How is Literature Possible?".



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