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Words From the (Neither God Nor) Master - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Words From the (Neither God Nor) Master
I don't have enough time on this machine to relate the full strangeness of our conference-concluding session with French philosopher Alain Badiou, who was supposed to speak to us through a video hook-up at the University of Washington but was locked out of the building and ended up calling in via phone. Suffice to say that medium-width French accents do not translate well to a format where reading lips and body language is not a possibility.

But I was able to get down some word-for-word quotes to share with you all. Badiou's talk was on fidelity. Most of it consisted of variations on the sort of term-defining sentences that have long characterized his work. He defined terms both negatively -- by saying what they are not -- and positively by saying what they are. I was surprised that he made as many positive assertions as he did

The talk was full of the sort of formulations that drove me to distraction when I was writing my review of Infinite Thought, in which two or more of his favored terms are related to each other in a manner that can only make sense if you both know and agree with his definitions of them. A good example was when he stated that, "The event is a condition of the construction of truth." Unless you know how he defines both "event" and "truth," it is difficult to do much with this sentence.

My favorite part of the talk was when he seemed to be exhorting us to become new. He noted that there is, "something in yourself which is more than yourself." He then restated this point, adding that there is, "something in your individuality which is the birth of subjectivity." Finally, he used the imperative to advise us to, "do something which is more than you can do yourself." It almost felt like he was troping one of those advertisements the American armed forces use as recruiting tools.

Towards the end, he started talking about Wallace Stevens, which seemed to catch even some of the Badiou experts in the room by surprise. He singled out the line "description without place" as a good way of capturing what his philosophy aspires to bring about. For Stevens, he noted, description means "description as revelation," then added that, "Our goal. . . is to find the description that is revelation." The talk concluded with an emphasis on the creation of "an unpredictable future," hearkening back to earlier references to a future, "beyond all determinations of the future by the past."

Afterrwards, in the Q+A, a number of people, including the professor who introduced Badiou, expressed some consternation at Badiou's increasingly insistent use of religious terminology, despite the fact that he claims to be a committed atheist who believes that religion is incompatible with truth. They wondered at the heavy emphasis placed on the concept of "grace" -- another term he presumably defines against the grain of conventional usage -- and, more specifically, his use of the phrase "grace without God," which he repeated several times and then incorporated into one of his vexing formulations: "And so the event is something like grace without God."

I was happy to hear someone of his stature, even if it was hard to follow him at times. But what really excited me was seeing all of the devotees in the room hanging on his every word and then rising to explain him afterwards during the Q+A. It was how I imagined things were in the 1970s, when similar groups discussed Derrida and Lacan.
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Comments
zonaroja From: zonaroja Date: February 26th, 2006 01:08 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I cannot wait to hear more about this! Sounds fascinating! I want more explication of the quotes, but will wait for a face-time conversation.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 26th, 2006 06:28 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes, that would be nice!
hollsterhambone From: hollsterhambone Date: February 26th, 2006 09:01 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Your description gave me tingles when you related your experience to "when similar groups discussed Derrida and Lacan." Really? Is that really what you were thinking in the moment? Holy cow.

That's so amazing that you got to have that experience. Go Louisville! I'm a little confused about the definitions issue, however. So if you needed to have a definition of "event" and "truth" to understand what would normally be a not-so-terribly-telling sentence, where was the definition of "grace?" Perhaps I'm not getting it. Maybe he really did mean God's grace as God's grace? Or was that just a comparison? Hmmm...
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 26th, 2006 06:27 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes, I really was thinking that! Devotion both scares and fascinates me. I could never be a disciple in that way. But I sometimes wish I could be.

All Badiou's key terms have been pried loose from conventional usage, so I'm sure that the same applies to "grace." What does he mean by grace? Read lots of him to find out. There's something almost mathematical about the way he arrays his terms, as if he were constructing a series of equations that needed to be laboriously figured out by finding least common denominators. But since there is never one least common denominator that works for every term, the end result is a mirror image of the complexity of overlapping but never fully contained sets that he refers to. He's really into set theory. Maybe I just arrived at a way of understanding the way he uses language. Maybe he is trying to create a discourse that exemplifies the need for the set theory he bases his philosophy on. There's actually precedent in Wittgenstein for that approach.
hollsterhambone From: hollsterhambone Date: February 27th, 2006 01:37 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I’m drawn to the idea that abstract concepts are map-able, which is why I enjoyed the Jameson you suggested I read for your class. Not as neatly tied as a set or an array, Jameson and also Susan Friedman allow me to hang on to the idea that what I’m studying has a topography I can scan. The map or the chart is a comforting brass ring for me, even if it’s not perfect. So now I’m intrigued and going to have to read Badiou. I’ve never read him before. Where should I start?

I’m struck by the situation you described because you were in the presence of people who were so energized by their devotion to someone else’s work. There’s something truly freaky about that, and like you said, devotion is scary. But it’s also intoxicating. I like walking that line, sometimes.
From: bobo_amargo Date: February 27th, 2006 08:34 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've never read a page of Badiou, but to judge by the quotations above, he sounds a lot like late Heidegger, and I don't just mean that remark in the typical all-postwar-French-philosophers,-when-they-start-actually-thinking,-think-in-Heidegger's-voice way. Isn't this pure late Heidegger: "The event is a condition of the construction of truth"? _Ereignis_ is the coming into sway of _alethea_, the disclosure of the happening. Likewise, the idea of _Ereignis_ as the settling in of nondivine grace seems like a fairly direct transcription.

Please say more about the relation between set theory and Wittgenstein's work. I've never heard of any connection on this score.

Finally, a word about discipleship. Since I'm just the opposite of you on this matter, i.e., one given to being a disciple, I follow one of those of whom I'm a disciple, Stanley Cavell, on discipleship: it's an alternative to the philosophical appetite for systematicity. Of course, it CAN be scary, but it's not inherently scary. Cavell likes to quote Emerson's line, "Who obeys me masters me," hearing the aural history of the word "obedience." Incidentally, Cavell distinguishes in _Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome_ between the debased calls to perfectionism of the US Army's "Be All That You Can Be!" and the kind of moral perfectionism Badiou seems to be espousing (and, of course, his own).
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