Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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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