February 17, 2008

Truth either has to be autonomous and absolute, or there's nothing but the chaos of the bad infinite

The Swerve around P: Literary Theory after Interpretation Jeffrey T. Nealon Pennsylvania State Notes

1. As Hallward writes, Badiou's "problem with Schmitt's concept of the political, in other words, is that it is not prescriptive enough. Politics divides, but not between friends and enemies (via the mediation of the state). Politics divides the adherents of a prescription against its opponents" (774). That's right, the official political theorist of the Third Reich was too soft--"not prescriptive enough"-- in his thinking of the friend/enemy distinction.

2. Infinity, at the end of the Badiouean day, is akin to the il y a of Levinas, the given multiplicity of the world that we have to "evade" if we are to be ethical subjects (see Nealon 53-72). For his part, Badiou writes that "Most of the time, the great majority of us live outside ethics. We live in the living multiplicity of the situation" ("Being by Numbers"). For Badiou, as for Levinas, infinity or multiplicity is something that has to be escaped rather than deployed otherwise (a la Deleuze) or mapped (à la Foucault): "The set of a situation's various bodies of knowledge I call 'the encyclopedia' of the situation. Insofar as it refers only to itself, however, the situation is organically without truth" ("Being by Numbers"). All claims to radicality notwithstanding, this is the profoundly conservative heart of Badiou's thought: Truth either has to be autonomous and absolute, or there's nothing but the chaos of the bad infinite. That sentiment is, it seems to me, the driver not of philosophy, but of philosophy's (eternal?) enemy, dogmatism.

Unlike Levinas's, Badiou's ethics is (literally) not for everyone. In "Being by Numbers," Badiou is asked by an interviewer about the ethics of the ordinary person, who doesn't care much for universal "truth": "But can one seriously confide and confine ethics to mathematicians, political activists, lovers, and artists? Is the ordinary person, by definition, excluded from the ethical field?" He responds not in a Foucaultian way (with the sense that we are all hailed by literal encyclopedias of truth-procedures), but with this: "Why should we think that ethics convokes us all? The idea of ethics' universal convocation supposes the assignment of universality. I maintain that the only immanent universality is found in the truth procedure. We are seized by the really ethical dimension only inside a truth procedure. Does this mean that the encounter of ethical situations or propositions is restricted to the actors of a truth procedure? I understand that this point is debatable" ("Being by Numbers"). It's "debatable" whether most people are capable of ethics or truth? That really is Platonism for a new age.

It seems equally clear that Badiouian "events," those drivers of change in the historical and political world, are exceedingly rare and addressed narrowly to certain quite unique individuals--people like Badiou, one would assume, who are long on smarts and short on modesty: "Actually, I would submit that my system is the most rigorously materialist in ambition that we've seen since Lucretius" ("Being by Numbers").

3. Badiou is, of course, no fan of Foucault, though given sentiments like the following, it's hard to imagine he's read Foucault closely: "Foucault is a theoretician of encyclopedias. He was never really interested in the question of knowing whether, within situations, anything existed that might deserve to be called a 'truth.' With his usual corrosiveness, he would say that he didn't have to deal with this kind of thing. He wasn't interested in the protocol of either the appearance or the disappearance of a given epistemic organization" ("Being By Numbers").

Foucault was of course obsessed by nothing other than the appearance and disappearance of epistemic organizations (sovereign power, social power, discipline, biopower), which he called "ways of speaking the truth." Though of course the only "truth" worth the name in Badiou is ahistorical and subjective, and here Foucault can be "corrosive" indeed: "Truth is a thing of this world: it is induced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power . . . . The problem is not changing people's consciousness--or what's in their heads--but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth" (Power 131, 133).

4. Maybe literary theorists need to heed something like Badiou's call to philosophers: "Philosophy has not known until quite recently how to think in level terms with Capital, since it has left that field open, to its most intimate point, to vain nostalgia for the sacred, to obsession with Presence, to the obscure dominance of the poem, to doubt about its own legitimacy . . . . The true question remains: what has happened to philosophy for it to refuse with a shudder the liberty and strength a desacralizing epoch offered it?" (Manifesto 58-9).

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