Archive for the ‘badiou’ Category
Philosophy in the twentieth century has been deeply preoccupied by – if not structured around – the question of novelty. How do (or more pessimistically, how might) new things, events, happen? Badiou, coming at the end of the chain, abandons all the previous modes of causal explanation, last but not least Deleuzian vitalism, and espouses instead a strictly non-causal explanation of change. Long story short, the event simply happens when someone decides that it has. It is not simply that he doesn’t explain how this decision might happen – his position is staked on the argument that we can’t explain how it happens, as if it were explicable it wouldn’t ever have been the new, an event, in the first place.
To me, Badiou’s conception of the event is far more symptomatic than useful. It’s symptomatic of the failure of a line of inquiry – the entire interrogation of novelty that is modern philosophy. When you have to be Pascalian about an issue, when you have to privilege the blind and (purportedly) inexplicable conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, it means the game is over.
After all, what’s even the point of explaining any of this – if an event is going to happen, it’s going to happen whether Badiou writes these books and we read them or not, as there’s no preparing for an event, no knowledge of the shape of the event that we need in order to be ready for it.
In all, my recent reading of Badiou – and the sense of his well-informed but desperate attempt to make some room for unentangled novelty – makes me even more convinced that the question of the new, of the event, was the wrong question to ask from the start. There’s another way, I think, to look at things, and it’s my gambit that certain modernist texts show the way.
I’ve spent a lot of time on airplanes lately, some of them reasonably well equipped with infotainment, so among other things I watched some of the Bourne Films… I’ve also been reading a lot of Badiou – not by choice…
Thing is, as you no doubt have noticed, Jason Bourne never stops for a pizza slice or takes a shit, he never has to change his clothes or brush his teeth, and rarely needs to sleep. He only runs… Full forward, all subjective processes seemingly on autodrive. He doesn’t stumble when he speaks in foreign languages, he doesn’t hesitate because his great gift (if also ostensibly his curse) is that he is a permanent amnesiac, locked in a perpetual present tense. In short, he doesn’t think – he simply and automatically does.
Likewise this subject of Badiou’s, formed only in the event and by absolute fidelity to that event, unconscious of the event but instantly faithful to it, can’t have second thoughts or moments of confusion and ambiguity. He can’t quietly think what we all generally doublethink when trying to believe in the novelty of something – all this has happened before, there’s nothing new under the sun. Metanoia is coupe de foudre – blinded by the light, he does not think, he simply does.
They both, in other words, dwell wholly outside of the everyday – the actual state of the world all of the time and for everyone because we are what we are and we’re wired as we are wired. And the one requires as much suspension of disbelieve from its “audience” as the other… But of course the one is the currently most popular theorist of political change, the other a character in a silly series of films….
Light blogging, relatively speaking, lately, and for that dear readers am very very sorry. You don’t want to hear me go into the details, and you don’t really have to unlike those I know in the pinkflesh earthside, but, ahem, just to make this whole thing more real for you, here’s what I’ve been up to:
– Cleaning up the topmost bedroom because my bestest pal from grad school is coming to stay for a bit. When we were young and not yet employed, I used to meet him every single Wednesday (I think it was Wednesday, right?) at places like this. Whichever of us could get there a bit early would go and occupy a table outside in advance and sit reading the Times until the other showed up. Golden days. In the picture below, it looks like it’s a cloudy NYC day but it still never gets that light in London.
– Shaking Alain Badiou’s hand. Yep, yep. I know. You’re impressed. Thing is he’s bigger than I am, I think, which weirds me out. I am bigger than almost everyone, but not Badiou. Physically I mean. No! Not that sort of physically! You know what I mean, god, you guys! I later asked IT, apropos of I don’t know what, maybe it was this post, if she thought I could take him. She took the fifth. Hmmmm…..
– Working like a maniac. Christ alive, it’s too much! All I do is mark papers and attend departmental meetings. One of my Ph.D. advisors, a guy who wrote a book on Benjamin et al that I know many of you have read, once told me as we walked somewhere after seminar that one of the worst things about academic work is that you never get to read. I responded that I was sure he was being a little hyperbolic. But as it turns out, my god, I don’t have time to read – or let’s see, wash myself, wash my clothes, eat properly, process complex personal epiphanies, read newspapers other than the londonpaper, call my mother, clean the litterboxes, or be civil to ex-students who knock unannounced on my office door.
It’s true what you hear, Americans, about academic life over here. It’s busier, and harder. The upside, of course, is that they don’t seem to fire people all that often. And if you’re lucky, you get to live in London.
– Going to a hauntology event. Which was nice, as it was underneath London Bridge. So under London bridge that you had to have your ID scanned at the door, I guess to make the BBC’s job easier afterwards if you were make the damn thing, erk, fall down. It reminded me, a bit, of nights that I used to have when I was childless (ooops, initially typed childish, ha!) in Brooklyn. That is to say, it made me feel middle-aged before my time. I told my therapist today about that feeling, and he said Yeah, I don’t picture you so much as a raver. I think you’re more a type for talking somewhere with a bottle of wine open. I love my therapist. He’s from Boston, btw. No raver am I! He’s right. I like me some good conversation.
Problem is, I was five years younger in Brooklyn, that is to say safely within the core demographic for such affairs. Now I am, suddenly and shockingly, older than most of the people who attend such events. Hmmmm…. And strangely I’m not depressed by this.
– Feeling even more middle-aged, but in a comfortable way, because everyone I know well, basically, is starting to get requests to appear on TV or radio. Including me, even. One of the Major American Networks is apparently trying to cast my wife as a talking-head in a Major Piece they’re doing on socialized medicine, the NHS and the like. My wife is a brilliant Overton Window player, which is probably the best thing, in terms of politcised hackery, that you can be.
I am happy to hear that the Major American Networks are working on Major Pieces on socialized medicine. I am thinking that they should film the birth of our second child via the costless services of the NHS at University College Hospital, especially the part where my wife pushes and I faint.
– Getting work. Mmmmm. Work. By which I mean writing work, of the non or only para-academic variety. I am covering the enormous Communism Conference for a fine American magazine / journal that you almost definitely read if you look at my site. And this summer I get to write a personal essay cum litcrit piece on sitting around in coffee places doing crosswords and the like that will be published by one of the Finer Left-Oriented Presses. (The table of contents of this collection reads like a who’s who of Interesting London, plus one guy from the Bronx, and, um, me…) And I have various stuff (on Lefebvre and other things) that I need to get to right away. This sort of work makes me very happy indeed…. Not that I don’t want to revise my monograph or anything….
– Watching Mad Men. It’s not the best thing ever, but it’s more than good enough to keep me entertained. Was thinking today that with this one – who is always the one to be pictured in newspaper items about the show – they are effectively bringing the big ass back after several decades in the desert of televised desire. All well and good, bring it back then…. All to the good, all very just and right.
Ah man, I have to go and read some student papers now… Exhausted, awful, but glad that I got in touch….
Read this post as an extended footnote to my previous one. It’s very easy to forget, I suppose because it’s set in 1904, that Joyce wrote Ulysses during and after the First World War. For instance, Badiou does in The Century:
The twentieth century kicks off in an exceptional fashion. Let us take the two great decades between 1890 and 1914 as the century’s prologue. In every field of thought these years represent a period of exceptional invention, marked by a polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance or the century of Pericles. It is a prodigious period of excitement and rupture. Consider just a few of its milestones. […] This period also sees the publication of the vast novels of James and Conrad, the writing of the bulk of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the maturation of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Badiou is making a point here about the relationship between culture before and after the First World War, so it does matter that he’s a few years off with the dating of the development of Ulysses. And it mattered to Joyce, apparently, that we take heed of the dates of the texts “maturation.” Remember what happens at the very end?
watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
The dates and places mark the text as itself marked by the particularly brutal time and place it was written. They are arguably – traditionally – considered to be a part of the text itself, rather than “supplementary” materials added on like an author’s note on the last page of the text.
What do we miss when we read Ulysses without attending to what Joyce clearly wanted us to know (if only retroactively, retrospectively) about his novel? One way to put it is that this novel about 1904 wants to announce itself as a sort of dialectical image, if a strange sort of one. Here are the requisite quotes from Benjamin, the first from the Arcades Project, the second two from the Theses. You’ve probably read them before…
It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. ‘The truth will not run away from us’: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)
The historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill. For this notion defines the very present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism offers the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers – enough to blast upon the continuity of history.
I’d argue that the dates at the end of Ulysses, particularly if they’re taken (as I take them) to be part of the text proper, force us to take the novel as something in line with Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image rather than, say, simply a “historical novel.” 1904 is summoned / presents itself because it was 1914-1921 in Trieste-Zurich-Paris, rather than the alternative.
But it’s a strange sort of dialectical image or collection of dialectical images. First of all – but I suppose this is true of all images of the sort – it’s not clear what exactly we’re supposed to take from what Joyce has collected. Franco Moretti in Signs Taken for Wonders brilliantly claims that Ulysses is a sort of retrograde dystopia, one that predicts the worst of all possible bad futures, the bad future that has already come to pass:
Ulysses is indeed static, and in its world nothing – absolutely nothing – is great. But this is not due to any technical or ideal shortcoming on Joyce’s part, but rather his subjection to English society: for Joyce, it is certainly the only society imaginable, although he just as certainly condemns it, through a hyperbolic presentation of its worst features, to a future of paralysed mediocrity (a future that Joyce, with a stroke of genius, places in the past, as if to underline his consummate scepticism: one can always hope never to reach the negative utopias of science fiction, but if a negative utopia came into being twenty years ago, and no one realized it, then the die is truly cast…)
But there’s something else that’s strange and complicating about all this. June 16, 1904 is also (we know, we know) the date when Joyce first went out with his future wife Nora Barnacle and when, according to semi-official legend, she gave him a handjob. * This fact somewhat over or underdetermines all that I’ve written above, hard to say which, but nevertheless does lead on to the next of my thetically arranged series of posts, in which I attack Benjamin for always fantasizing about explosions where none were to be found…. Coming soon….
* I’ve always been a bit curious about this whole handjob thing, as the letters indicate that it really did mean quite a lot to JJ, but also JJ clearly had been with women – prostitutes – before Nora and assuredly in a more than manual sort of way. Somehow the handjob from a non-prostitute was more, well, epiphanic than anything else that had happened with prostitutes. Which makes sense…. And doesn’t. No it does actually. But for a good time, read this exchange. Just found it.