Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review of a Review of a Commentary: Bryan Cooke on Bosteels on Badiou

In a review of Bruno Bosteels' Badiou and Politics published in the most recent Parrhesia, Bryan Cooke goes on a sweet rant about literary and cultural studies "domesticating the radicality" of European philosophy:

"... it is common to hear graduate students in education, English literature or art history with to no prior interest in philosophy nevertheless breezily asserting that they are 'using' a given theorist in their theses... In fact, what the breathless theory-'user' and the disdainful Observer reading theory-skeptic have in common is that they are both in the position of avoiding (taming, confining, position, reducing) that which precisely as philosophy, i.e. as thought, resists being put into the service of any complacently pre-existing dogma about what constitutes utility or good sense... they serve to defend against an actual encounter with a body of thought."

I'm happy to hear this kind of thing (I did my Honours thesis in a literary and cultural studies department on the domestication of European philosophy by literary and cultural studies departments). Nonetheless, Cooke's article brings into focus some of my reservations re: Badiou.
1. Legitimation problems. Is Cooke "using" Badiou in his application of Badiou's thought (mirroring the "theory-'user'" Cooke so maligns), or does his understanding of Badiou guarantee that he is authentically/immanently thinking education? How do we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate activities of thought? Is it really about policing what constitutes a real "encounter" or "event" of thought and what doesn't?*

Badiousians will respond that legitimation is always post-evental for Badiou. The work of the truth procedure is to retroactively produce the criteria for the reception of an event; by definition these criteria do not exist at the time of the event’s emergence (otherwise it would not be new). In other words, truth-practices operate like extended Kantian judgments of taste - hence Badiou's insistence that we must proceed "as if" the event has truth. As Badiou outlines in Ethics, to do otherwise is to court fascism.

But even with this qualification the same legitimation problem emerges - do political subjects activated by '68, for example, proceed "as if" the egalitarian axiom is true, or do they straightforwardly believe it to be true?

2. Cooke presents the "proper" student of Euro philosophy as something like a Badiousian subject on its truth procedure. There is of course something evental about one's first encounter with Derrida, Deleuze et cetera, and there is a kind of fidelity in spending all of one's time and energy on something for which there is barely occasional employment.

Leaving aside the fact that Badiou distinguishes philosophy itself from the truth procedures, to be a post-evental work of subjectivization there has to be (in the language of Logics of Worlds) some "incorporating" of a "new body" in the world, or (in the language of Being and Event) some "forcing" of the supplement of the event into the situation.

In Cooke's review there is no discussion of how the truth of the encounter with European philosophy (ostensibly "revolutionary") could have an impact on the academy or outside of it, because its value seems to be dependent on its oppositional status. Instead we get a rehearsal of the drama and trauma of the subject's break from late capitalist doxa, opinion, utility - true enough, but finally as unsatisfying as the Levinasian drama and trauma of the Other that Badiou beats up in Ethics (and beats up very well).

This I think reflects the simple fact that Badiou's work (and work on Badiou's work) is conditioned (in the Marxist, rather than the Badiousian sense) by the defeat and decline of the left and far left in the last 30 years.* On the left, as Marxists or post-Marxists or anarcho-syndicalists or horizontalist Negri-ists or whatever, there is a tendency to valorise mere opposition or resistance as compensation for and reflection of decline.While we can't be blamed for this fetishisation of opposition  in our current political situation, when alternatives to neoliberalism actually do become real possibilities (as they have in Greece, South America and elsewhere), the fetishisation of opposition runs into serious limitations.

Vincent Descombes says something similar about existentialism:

"If the established order led him to think that its most dangerous enemy was the PCF or the USSR, then the existentialist satisfied the imperative of betrayal by making known his sympathy for communism. He could not, however, carry this as far as membership of the party, for such an initiative would have amounted to sanctioning the measure of reality which existed in communist organisations, or in socialist countries. This is way he created an opposition within the opposition, so as always to awake its destructive potential.” (Modern French Philosophy 18)

In order to clearly distinguish Badiou from Sartre, our reading needs to emphasise the procedure over the event. As Cooke points out, Badiou in the interviews included at the end of Badiou and Politics does just this:

"... what really interests Badiou is how what he calls a 'subject' proceeds, where this procedure will involve connecting together elements (bodies, affects, fragements of already-exisiting languages) that were always, already present in the situation, but whose 'generic' inter-connection is invisible to the situations principle(s) of 'inclusion' (what Badiou calles the situation's 'state')." 

I think we need to go even further in the direction of thinking the procedure, to the point of - and this is  more contentious - allowing the event to be pluralised (many events per procedure), even at the risk of procedures becoming in part the becoming of regulative ideas in the Kantian sense. This would mean contesting the allegedly autonomous rationality of the four conditions as well as Badiou's bivalent positioning of philosophy as both not a procedure and all of them (i.e. it would mean a whole lot of work).

In short, I'm asking if we need an event that is alien to the situation in order to build alternatives to the situation. In many ways this can be read as a question of Althusser v. Marx (in Althusser ideology is so effective that, for a post-Althusserian, it might seem as if the event is necessary to open subjects to non-capitalist possibilities; in Marx capitalism trains its own gravediggers).

* Initiates may have noted the Ranciere in my use of word "police" above. The question of legitimation helps us measure the distance between Ranciere and Badiou, a distance not a few of us are busy measuring at present (because it makes for a more or less perfectly assessable and topical PhD? Or because we have been "seized by at thought"?). In Ranciere, the activity of thought is always legitimate insofar as it affirms an equality of intelligence even when it asserts the opposite (because even alleged "inferiors" can understand, and are thus equal to, thoughts that might assert the opposite; those asserting mastery or rule are caught in a performative contradiction). But - and this is why I'm returning more and more to Badiou - Ranciere doesn't think the "procedure." Instead he thinks the "eruption" of equality as staging, and falls into the vulgar Badiousian trap in reverse, so to speak.

** Badiou re-valorises the Marxist thought of condition - he could even be said to Hegelianise it: the conditioning of philosophy by its outside renders philosophy secondary, as in Marx. But philosophy's secondariness allows it to take its conditions up into thought, to make them rational, and in doing so, renew itself. It is possible of course to argue that Marx makes his arguments concerning the mystifications of German philosophy (or "Ideology") because of Germany's particular historical circumstances, and that his dialectical exposition of Capital enacts a more Hegelian presentation of condition or the outside of thought as that which is available to thought, is becoming thought.

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