Alain Badiou

On two occasions now, Alain Badiou has cancelled a trip to China – at the last minute. To be sure, he had good immediate excuses, such as his adopted son being in prison. But by the time he cancelled, the date and appearance had been fixed, notices had gone out, and people awaited his arrival. So what is going on with the old polemicist? Why can he not bring himself to go to China? Badiou remains in many ways a Maoist, and holds that the path to communism largely came to an end with the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. That way he can hold to an ideal communism that has not really been achieved as yet (he also rubbishes the communist states in eastern Europe). Is it perhaps because the old bugger fears facing his own Real? What if he actually came to China and experienced a very different form of socialism, with plenty of life in it yet? Could he continue to deride it, or would it challenge the basis of much of his thought and politics? Better to cancel before facing such a moment.

I hear this one in myriad variations:

‘Badiou’s use of Paul is merely as an example of his preconceived system’.

‘Does Negri need Job? No’.

‘Those Americans are not really exegetes’. (They are probably not many things, but exegetes?)

‘Is that really what Calvin is saying or is that you?’

And perhaps the best of all: ‘Do you need Ezekiel?’

On the surface they may sound innocent enough: we need to read carefully and attentively, exegeting the text for its true meaning. But beneath that are deeply held theological and autocratic assumptions. Earlier I had a dig at the theological side of things, but let’s look at the autocratic assumptions. The text and ultimately the author is the autocrat with the supreme authority; the task of scholars is to discern the autocrat’s meaning and will; in doing so, leave all of your petty preconceptions at the palace door. Here too theology is not far away, for autocracy traditionally argues: one God in heaven, one ruler as his representative on earth. Of course, the problem is which autocrat do we mean? During the period of absolute monarchies, myriad rulers – Russian, Prussian, Danish, papal … – claimed to be God’s sole representative. The implications for texts should be obvious.



Badiou may have his shortcomings, but he can turn a phrase. This one on ethics, difference and the other:

What we must recognise is that these differences hold no interest for thought, that they amount to nothing more than the infinite and self-evident multiplicity of humankind, as obvious as the difference between me and my cousin from Lyon as it is between the Shi’ite “community” in Iraq and the fat cowboys of Texas (Ethics, p. 26).

Is it not vaguely obscene to be asked to cough up $20 to go and listen to Žižek at the Sydney Opera House trying to ‘renovate communism’? And this from a liberal opponent, back in the 80s, of the socialist government in Yugoslovia.

Reminds me of a backhanded compliment from Badiou:

Let me begin by refuting, as I usually do, your reputation as a showman and a conceptual poseur – a very French misrepresentation (but let’s not worry that they said the same thing about our master Lacan).

An update on my (More) News from Newcastle page – where James Juniper thumps Alain Badiou.

Looks like I will need a chapter on Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? in my Lenin and Theology book. Up until this work of 1902, I have found scattered biblical allusions in Lenin’s work and some occasionally entertaining reflections on the church, but in this thoroughly engaging text I hit pay dirt. What Is To Be Done? is saturated with biblical references, drawn especially from the Gospels and the sayings and parables of Jesus. For example, in the crucial section concerning organisation of the workers and of revolutionaries, we find:

It is precisely our campaign of exposure that will help us separate the tares from the wheat. What the tares are, we have already indicated. By the wheat we mean attracting the attention of ever larger numbers of the workers to social and political questions … In a word, our task is to fight the tares. It is not our business to grow wheat in flowerpots. By pulling up the tares, we clear the soil for the wheat. And while the Afanasy Ivanoviches and Pulkheria Ivanovas are tending their flowerpot crops, we must prepare the reapers, not only to cut down the tares of today, but to reap the wheat of tomorrow. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 455-6.

This parable, along with that of the sower, becomes an extended metaphor throughout this crucial section.  What happens in the process is not merely that Lenin draws upon Gospel themes for thinking through revolutionary organisation, but that the sayings and parables themselves become radicalised. On this count, Badiou was wrong with his analogy between Lenin and Paul (Lenin is to Marx as Paul is to Jesus), since Lenin himself finds Jesus’ sayings much more useful for revolutionary organisation.

Philosophers have a temptation to build systems, although periods of anti-systematic impulse recur from time to time, literary critics (which is where someone like myself, first trained in biblical criticism, may still be located) slip into perpetual searches for new methods, historians attempt wholesale reconstructions when they have the nerve and are not distracted by yet another pile of archives. I must admit to being fascinated by the daring of such efforts as well as the risk and devotion they entail. For example, Badiou’s single-handed recovery of grand systems is as riskily breathtaking as it leaves him open to attack. Platonic in its scale, it draws in a vast array of topics – Greek tragedy, poetry, Lacan, mathematics, the New Testament, theology (Pascal and Kierkegaard), politics, art, and on and on – in a way that leaves him open to criticisms where he falls short, such as the class associations and anti-democratic tenor of Plato’s elitist thought, the untroubled classicism, the dismissive polemics against ‘sophists’ (who invented democratic theory) and the Romanticism of the event and its truth. Yet the fidelity to his own philosophical event can only be admired, and I find myself drawn to his bemusement, the shy flicker of a smile at being ‘discovered’ so late, especially when he made a virtue out of his solitary extremity to modes of French intellectual and political life. But I would find that a singular exploration of the vast territories opened would become a drag in the long term.

And there are too many systems that have collapsed before they barely were thrown together without adequate structure or mental fortitude. Dühring’s effort in the late nineteenth century merely required Engels’s firm shove and it came tumbling down in a pile of girders and dust. Many have been the apparent new ideas of a life’s work that have deflated with one simple prick. I think of my Hebrew teacher, Barbara Thiering, who constructed a whole edifice concerning the origins of Christianity among the Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) sectarians, only to find that carbon dating comprehensively removed the Dead Sea Scrolls from the first decades of Christianity (they were written much earlier). Some have shown distinct insight with a single idea, such as Girard’s mimetic desire, only to founder with the effort to make it universally explanatory, along with the desperate attempt to include within that system his religious conversion with a ‘miraculous’ healing from cancer after prayer.

So I prefer the comments of Adorno and Bloch. Adorno was wont to quote Nietzsche’s adage:

I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Adorno goes on to characterise system-building as provincial, naïve and caught in the past. It is like a cottage industry in a village, where the village stands in for the whole world and the system produced can pretend to have comprehended all knowledge, or at least provided a key to it. Philosophers continue to feel that they can construct a theory of the universe with a pen, paper and their own thoughts while sitting by a cosy fire in a cottage in the woods, even though they have not noticed how stale the air has become. Adorno is of course having a dig at Heidegger, but he has little time for the provincialism of philosophical systems. As for Bloch, he notes the fading dreams and perpetual retreats of the great planners of systems, preferring in their stead detours, offshoots and accidental discoveries: ‘Just as a detour in life so often turns out not to have been one at all, just as a little offshoot can provide the revitalizing contribution, so does the plan resign and overgrow itself at the same time in many first (and many late) masterpieces’. He gives the example of Cervantes’s small beginning, who wanted merely to mock chivalric romances in Don Quixote, only to find he had created a parody of humanity. Or Hegel, who set out to write a conventional textbook on philosophy and ended up with the Phenomenology. As for a grand system of life, history, the universe and everything, Bloch gives the example of ‘someone who wrote a philosophy of the postal system in three volumes, which was certainly an epochal idea at the time’.

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