Thursday, April 23, 2009

Second manifeste

It is tempting, though I think wrong, to say that Alain Badiou represents the rear-guard of modernism, the last echo of a certain idealist response to modernity that was at full strength in the decade or two before the First World War. In what ways is this wrong? It is right in that Badiou’s basic position is to defend universality/eternity (the Idée) in a radically relativist, because scientistic, world. Hence his turn to Plato. There is also something that smacks of modernism in his attempt to fashion out of his metaphysics not exactly instructions for living in the world, but certainly guidelines for what is good and bad. It is wrong first because these sorts of parallels have got to be stable on both sides, and I am not sure how many people would agree with the definition of ‘modernism’ that I imply here. Second, Badiou is very much a philosopher, very much operating within the institutions and traditions of French academic philosophy. I don’t think, in the end, that this is especially modernist. All in all, though, the comparison is not without its utility.

Badiou has recently published several small books, all in the wake of, in support of, his second ‘big book,’ Logiques des mondes (2006). I have just finished one of these, his Second manifeste pour la philosophie (2009), a sequel to the manifeste published after his first ‘big book,’ Etre et evenement (1988). The purpose of these manifestos is to condense and popularize Badiou’s thinking, to introduce the reader to the project of the larger book. I feel, with a certain uneasiness, that the book is aimed almost exactly at me, since I know a little about Badiou already and am trying to decide if I should invest the (considerable) time and energy that would be required to tackle Logiques des mondes.

At the end of his Second manifeste, Badiou commits what we can call the fallacy of the classic. The reasoning goes broadly like this: ‘because I have what I feel to be authentic esthetic experiences of objects that were produced in conditions somehow distant from those in which I experience them, there must be something like eternal beauty.’ That is, if we still read the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is because they are monuments of the universal human spirit. There are more or less vulgar versions of this idea. It has several opposite numbers, going from those who reduce art to pure ‘cultural capital’ and snobbery (an untenable position) to those who root the appreciation of art in tradition (T.S. Eliot, for instance). It would probably be difficult to sort things out at the edges of these various arguments, and my impulse would be to pay more attention to the contextual/political force of each argument (but this gives away where I stand on it myself). My short response to the basic position is that it simply doesn’t follow. At any rate, Badiou’s example is cave-painting. He says that “nous comprenons la puissance artistique de peintures rupestres réalisées il y a 40 000 ans – il faut bien qu’elle soit transtemporelle...La théorie...doit expliquer comment des existences idéales, souvent matérialisées dans des objets, peuvent à la fois être créées en un point précis de l’espace-temps et détenir cette forme d’éternité” (144, see also 36). It seems to me clear enough that any plausible ‘eternity’ here is going to be much more banal than Badiou wants.

Of course, Badiou is arguing about a great deal more than the transtemporality of art. Badiou is interested in truths of four kinds (the famous art, love, politics, science), and also in ontology (mathematics) and phenomenology (logic), which can at least be wrong or not, although I don’t remember my reading of Being and Event well enough to be certain that Badiou believes they can be the scene of events, and therefore give rise to subjects and practices of fidelity. I think they cannot be, since they have to do with the conditions of being, appearance, and the subject, rather than with multiplicities and particular worlds (which it seems means the same thing as ‘situation’ did in his earlier work).

I have mentioned several times now the differences in emphasis and terminology between the work clustered around the earlier big book, and the newer. Badiou is quite clear about this: “En 1988, la question central de l’Etre et l’événement ai été celle de l’être des vérités, pensé dans le concept de multiplicité générique. Tandis qu’en 2006, dans Logiques des mondes, la question est devenue celle de leur apparaître, trouvé dans le concept de corps de vérité, ou de corps subjectivable” (13). In the later 1980s, Badiou felt that he had to defend the existence of philosophy itself against a cresting wave of post-Heideggerians. Now, he says, the problem is not that philosophy is dying, but that it is too present, that it is vulgarized and instrumentalized. Then, Derrida was an opponent, more recently he has been a friend. The 1988 book arrived at ontology through mathematics. The 2006 one arrives at appearance through logic. Certainly, in 1988, Badiou had presented us with a general discussion of the practice of fidelity to an event, and the relation of this fidelity to a situation. Here, he says, the central concept is the body [corps] of the subject to a truth.

Although some interesting material is presented in the earlier chapters of this second manifesto about Badiou’s idea of appearance, I would prefer very much there to have the fully fleshed out version in Logiques. An outline may at least be given, however, of chapters 6 and 7, treating Incorporation and Subjectivation.

“Nous supposons la survenue d’un événement” (97). The event is outside temporality in the sense that it has always either not yet or already occurred. Indeed, generally it has already occurred, since events are by their very nature unpredictable, outside of prediction—so perhaps it would be best to say that either an event has not yet occurred, or the event has already occurred. The immediate indication of this event, that is, of this instantaneous brush with the void, is called an “énoncé primordial.” Thus, “initié par l’énoncé primordial, se forme dans le monde un nouveau corps qui sera le corps de vérité, ou corps subjectivable” (99). This body does exist (is a multiple) as the bearer of the truth of the event in the world (or its trace), and so other multiples are incorporated within it. Badiou says, “s’incorporer au devenir d’une vérité, c’est rapporter au corps qui la support tout ce qui, en vous, est d’intensité comparable à ce qui autorise que vous vous identifiiez à l’énoncé primordial, ce stigmate de l’événement d’où le corps provient.”

It is possible to take three different positions vis-à-vis this body of truth. “La position prise au regard de l’existence de ce corps est le réel, la matérialité de la position prise au regard de l’événement” (105). The first, the position of fidelity, is to be incorporated into the body. The faithful subject accepts the radical innovation of the event, and transcends (not Badiou’s use of this word) itself through this incorporation. Then there is the position of indifference, the simply reactive position. Finally, there is the position of “obscurantisme” (106), which is radically opposed to the event, and attempts to eradicate it. Badiou’s example here is political. The Event is the Bolshevik Revolution. The position of fidelity is evidently that of the communist militant. The advantage of this example is precisely, it seems to me, that it admits how fraught the problem of fidelity really is. What does it mean to be faithful to the event in this case? Clearly not an easy thing to say, yet Badiou thinks it is, for all that, still meaningful. The reactive position in the same example is the new social welfare state (the New Deal, for instance), that recognizes the innovation of the event, but does not entirely accept it, attempting to react and ‘manage’ it (in this case, by offering certain political and social concessions without allowing deeper changes). Finally, the obscurantist position is fascism.

It is interesting, and I think has been pointed out before, that Badiou in a sense adopts Ernst Nolte’s revisionist argument that the Nazis were something like the fault of the Communists. For Badiou, the obscurantists take on the trappings of genuine revolution (that is, of fidelity to an event) because this is necessary in order to marshal the forces required to contest the genuine body of truth. We should note that this suggests fascism is to be thought as essentially an enormous dishonesty, rather than an ideology or religious fanaticism. It is possible to distinguish, Badiou says, between obscurantist non-events and real events in that the first are substantial rather than genuinely evental. Communists practice fidelity to a moment of rupture, to the event of 1917, while Nazis practice fidelity to the non-event, the materiality, of the German Volk. We might extend this into non-political examples: a certain kind of art would practice fidelity to a break or innovation as a logic, rather than as a body of work, attempting to practice the spirit rather than the letter of a text.

I was left, at the end of this little text, with the no doubt illegitimate question, why? Why should an individual practice fidelity to an event? Why go through the dangerous and perhaps traumatic incorporation it requires? It has been suggested to me that anyone who puts forward a political program and claims to have a good reason why any given individual should commit themselves to it is at base dishonest. There is no reason, exactly, for any particular person to do a particular thing; there are only conditions and chances, there is only our throwness in the world and the commitments we undertake here. It is dishonest to say that there is a reason for this kind of thing beyond our impulse (not, I think, our desire) toward it. So I am a bit uncomfortable with the hints Badiou gives of why he things this is a good idea. Essentially, it is the old desire to be more than one ‘is,’ to go beyond one’s self. Badiou puts it this way both regarding the militant (103) and the lover (114). I am unhappy with the idea that it is basically a desire to inject meaning into a meaningless life that should propel a person (in Badiou’s system) into incorporation into the body of a truth. I suppose the answer would be that it will always be difficult to distinguish a genuine fidelity to an event from a false fidelity to the substantial practice called ‘fidelity to an event.’ This seems overly psychological. The question is perhaps enough to get me to buy and throw myself at the larger Logiques.

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