Music: Will Ackerman: Passage (1981)
This week graduate seminarians in the subjectivity course read Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, while I read a bunch of other stuff in addition to help us all contextualize Badiou. To my embarrassment, I actually didn’t finish the actual assigned book, but ended up “skimming” (if one can really do that with Badiou) a number of the middle chapters. It’s a rare problem I have, but on the heels of NCA catch-up and then with two job candidates visiting this week (and a host of other unmentionables) time slipped away. Levinas is on tap for next week, and I’m starting reading today!
To summarize Badiou’s project as I currently understand it would be difficult, but what is pertinent to the course is his theory of subjectivity. Apparently, for Badiou, the so-called poststructural project has demolished the self-transparent, substantive subject but, in so doing, has created problems in regard to agency on the one hand, and identity on the other. So, exhibit A for the former problem is Foucault, who cannot locate a seat of agency except only insofar as one can discern a site of resistance. Exhibit B for the latter is Derrida and Levinas, whose profound respect for radical alterity leads us to ignore any positive project of equality. Badiou’s solution to these issues is to focus on the problem of agency first, and then the issue of identity (apparently forthcoming in a follow-up to Being and Event next October).
As I gather (I should stress this is all from secondary sources and a brushing up against the collection Infinite Thought and an incomplete reading of Saint Paul) Badiou’s “question” concerns the relationship between ontology and subjectivity, and before the latter can be discerned (in tension, of course), we must understand the former, hence, Being and Event, only recently translated in English, and apparently a royal mind-fuck of set theory. For Badiou subjectivity is emergent from an event, an unexpected rupture in the realm of Being, where everything is accounted for. Now, I gather that set theory provides Badiou with a logic that helps to formalize more mundane observations about “the new in being” (being being, of course, “the situation” and the “state of affairs,” the “elements” of which we can formalize and mathematize such that we can understand the multiplicity of being in terms of a set, and in a way that does not close-up everything in pre-givenness or in the Big Wait).
When I was reading this, I couldn’t help but to remember a provocative post by Ken on Badiou: was Badiou fucking with us? Is this “ontology = set theory” a joke? Although I didn’t mention it in class, I framed my lecture as a kind of answer to Ken’s blog question. I told the group yesterday that the only way I could understand what Badiou is up to with “set theory” is by way of Lacan, who also, for a brief period, thought that set theory provided a way to formalize psychoanalytic principles in a precise way, but “without mathematization.” As I gather (and this to a large extent from Fink) Lacan was always critiquing notions of wholeness, completeness, and what is presumably a prescientific notion of yin-and-yang: that there is some direct correspondence, perhaps formal or only homological, but a parallelism of sorts nonetheless, between human representation and the world in itself, that underlying the she-bang is this “the,” the whole, Jungian mandalas and so forth. Lacan bitched and moaned about the way in which psychoanalysts kept relying on this old fantasy of wholeness and completeness (e.g., a “sexual relationship”), and he thought one way to avoid the tendency was to reduce his own axioms “to the letter”—that is, a meaningless letter, symbols that were nothing more than placeholders, an “X.” The groovy thing about this “formalization” of principles was that it allows one to play around with the letters, seemingly oblivious to their meaning, and then derive new principles from the new logics that emerged: set theory for Lacan promised a new form of combitory invention, as it were. Lacan thought that set theory allowed for this kind of logic in a way that doesn’t sew everything up in advance and, thereby, collapse onto the fantasy of reconciliation and wholeness.
Badiou, a student of Lacan, unquestionably employs set theory for a similar reason, though I cannot say I quite get this reason yet (which means I’ve not quite got my labels figured out). It’s difficult for us to say that one can formalize with out mathematizing (that is, without getting into issues of the measure), so certainly this is one reason why Badiou embraces mathematics in name. And, if it is the case that one does not want to represent the event (since this would be impossible anyway), I can kinda see how set theory allows one to give an account of the realm of being while also making room for the accident, the new, the . . . well, what Lacan calls the real.
Nevertheless, when we move uneasily from this approach to ontology back to the subject, I’m still fuzzy about where this gets us: are we simply talking about the existence of of possibility, of formally using contingency to avoid a totalizing determinism (e.g.,. that “truth processes” are always already shut-down)? These are rhetorical questions, of course, more about my lack of reading and understanding than anything Badiou-lovers might help me with.
Although I do not think Badiou is a joke (if only because his political views seem pretty darn earnest, and because a friend who attends the EGS says Badiou is one of the handful of heavies that sits among the students [apparently Agamben is the snooty one]), I do wonder about the lack of any reference to the fetishization of theory in Badiou. Lacan is always self-mocking, or at least, seems to make fun of his theoretical enterprise at the same time as he arrogantly makes fun of others. Reading Badiou, you get the sense that no one could possibly agree with him because he’s so different—I dunno. There just seems to be a clamoring for Badiou that is like the next new indie band (you know, Zizek is like Of Montreal—he sold an essay to Newsweek and so, like the band who sold-out to a car company, he’s so 2005). In this I’m sort-of in agreement with Ken and Catherine Liu: why do we need another French philosopher? Where is he getting us, at least in terms of cultural critique?
Well, I think embedded in these questions is a partial answer: Badiou is principally a philosopher, and I’m a critic. Same deal with Deleuze. These guys are about sharpening thought, honing thinking. And I’m trained to “apply or die.” I guess there’s some underlying bitchiness, then, that to “do theory” in my field I have to do philosophy. I majored in it, but then left that field for a reason . . . .
I suppose another part of the answer to “why Badiou?” is that he takes on politics head on, and for every critique he offers he poses an affirmative, forward-moving solution. That is refreshing to read. Even so, I’m reading Badiou because I know others in the field are reading him, and if I want to participate in disciplinary conversations I need to at least have some brushing. I dunno why I’m blogging except to say that “staying current” in theory is sometimes exhausting; and it’s never a theorist that I’m really excited about or interested in. You know, like Larry Rickels. Why can’t we just read Larry? Why does it have to be Badiou? Larry is fun, fresh, takes on big problems, but leaves-off the critique of global liberalism and universal human rights for a while.
Eh, I’m rambling. Maybe just reading Badiou on the evils of the world—ok, on the non-Goods, since evil doesn’t exit—has kind of got me down.
I must now finish reading a dissertation on lynching.