Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)
Author: Dr. Thomas Mical
Review of: Alain Badiou. Handbook of Inaesthetics. Stanford University Press, 2005.
Translated by Alberto Toscano.
This book is not the best introduction to Badiou’s thought. Until the perpetually delayed publication of the English translation of his magnum opus Being and Event, the best introduction to Badiou’s provocative philosophical oeuvre in English are found in the precise insights concerning the subject formed from the truth of an event offered within his Infinite Thought,1 or the systematic examination of the mathematical and philosophical origins and consequences of Badiou’s discourse within Peter Hallward’s Badiou: A Subject to Truth.2 Curious readers might also turn to the recent issue of Polygraph (Number 17, 2005), which contains a credible collection of recent scholarly interpretations of diverse aspects of Badiou’s work.
Handbook of Inaesthetics is a relatively narrow investigation, technically a manifesto followed by a series of variations as related chapters, all of which assumes some prior understanding of Badiou’s compelling axioms into the differential viscera of artistic production of truth. Badiou is adamant in his claims that philosophy proper does not produce truth, and yet he is also convinced that philosophy cannot be the production of concepts as Deleuze claims.3 In his Deleuze, Badiou elegantly reconfigures Deleuze’s thought into an affirmation of Badiou’s claims that sophistic multiplicity operates only under the influence of unity, and contains other startling proofs.4
In Inaesthetics the increasingly influential French philosopher Alain Badiou redefines a relation of truth over beauty within the contested field of aesthetics, focusing his unblinking cyclopean eye upon modernism in the arts, to define a new schema for that which comes after the aesthetic, the “inaesthetic”, which is:
…a relation of philosophy to art which, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.5
Aesthetics has historically brought philosophy to art; Badiou reverses this relation – art is a master discourse (or in Lacanian terms, more like a hysteric’s discourse) that erratically produces a “truth” through a configuration of works (“a infinite complex of works” by a singular artist)6 , a truth upon which philosophy must then chew. Poetry predominates his exposition, which follows the tradition of the aesthetic food chain, and there are also weaker chapters on dance, theatre, and cinema, but nothing on painting, architecture, or music. The truth of the event of art within Badiou’s schema does not offer criteria to distinguish the content of weak works of “socialist realism” from strong works of “surrealism,” though he has covered “false events” like fascism in his prior writings, and he caricatures the modernist avant-garde as a uniform condition7 , by making such claims as “the avant-gardes did not achieve their conscious objective: to lead a unified front against classicism”8 – but is that really modernism?
Chapter one, “Art and Philosophy,” is really the center of the text, as art and philosophy are methodically cleaved. Badiou here establishes three schemas for ordering the relationships of art, philosophy, and truth within modernity: the didactic (the Marxist), the romantic (hermeneutic – phenomenological), and the classical (including Aristotle and psychoanalysis).9 He then proposes the “inaesthetic” as a new potential, where art works, in their auteur-like serial configurations, offer a truth-event.10
Badiou has always asserted that philosophy does not create but “seizes” truths whose origin (foundation) lie beyond it, specifically in one of four discourses: politics, science, love, and art.11 These, and only these four categories form the differential modes of possible truths that would proceed from an irruptive “event.” What is an event, for Badiou? This will always be the most compelling and difficult question of his philosophy, as the event is profoundly distinct from situations: they occur infrequently (like the French Revolution), and chance is intrinsic to the event. The event, as in the discourse of love, is retroactive – I saw you… I wanted you… whereas in the master discourse of politics it is the socio-political aberration in (produced) space as a void outside being that haunts the persistent symbolic order (or ideology).
The methodology of Badiou’s philosophy is not the warmed-over Platonism his naïve critics sometimes claim, but is precise in its relentless affirmation of specific methodologies of subtraction, subtracting elements from sets of conditions to identify their identity and effects, contra the tired mechanisms of metaphysical negation (that which was once identified by Peter Burger as the cognitive project of the modernist avant-garde). Subtraction is mobilized often by Badiou to overcome the dead-ends of lack, disappearance, and void within aesthetic discourse, for the subtraction is always provisional and enlightening approximation of that which is “unnamable”12 , never an absolute. The maneuvers of the “inaesthetic” should also be read in this light – not as the “negation of negation” but the suspension or setting aside of erring: philosophy’s task is “summoning the retention of what disappears,” as “every naming of an event or of the evental presence is in its essence poetic”.13
Badiou speaks of poetic truth over style, but his writing does offer a specific style – a technique of cutting (the “stylus” of style, as Berel Lang would say). Badiou’s “style” consists of positing but leaving open axiomatic assertions to demand a reader’s engagement and completion of the thought / text, often as cited poetic aphorisms. In so doing he illustrates the process of subject formation around a seized truth of an event (similar to Althusser’s “interpellation”) that is a recurring agenda in his publications. His varied claims regarding art, like cut flowers arrested in motion and pinned to a board, encourage the reader to project back towards possible original motions and movements, and to superimpose their own completion of on incomplete arrays. This metaphor is not arbitrary – it occurs as Badiou’s weak description of the arrested image within cinema14 , though obviously this chapter offers little to the philosophy of film, or film studies – the philosophy of film remains Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. As we move towards contemporary media forms after cinema, Badiou’s silence increases.
For Baudrillard, the contemporary condition demands new abandonments, whereas Badiou reinvigorates the ancient prohibitions. Chapter 2, “What is a Poem?” is an eloquent polemic on Plato’s urge to abolish poetry, which is really the classical agon between poetry and philosophy over who has the authority to decide how to die well. In most respects, Badiou’s thought appears reactionary compared to Baudrillard’s, but they are not quite oppositional. Both thinkers appear to reject the dead language of the Kantian aesthetics, and the utopian-enlightenment critique of judgment, while calibrating the possibility of post-aesthetic distancing. Baudrillard has proposed a “transaesthetics”15 that also accomplishes the absolute truth of art claims Badiou sets to overcome within inaesthetics, but Baudrillard’s process is bi-directional: a specific annihilation and its reversal. To oversimplify the debate: Badiou trivializes the normative; Baudrillard normalizes the trivial.
In his 2003 summer course at the European Graduate School, Badiou elaborated his rigorous but oracular pronouncements regarding philosophical methods under the armature of set theory. He proposed that there was a deviant / alternative contemporary form of philosophy whose origin is not in the conceptual but the (Lacanian) Real – which included Nietzsche and his followers, contra Kant. Badiou subsumed it into mathematics in the manner of Pythagoras (perhaps under the influence of “pataphysics”). To summarize:
Movement 1 – a movement from Ø to 1, or the symbolic determination of the (weak) real – an abstract beginning, like one experience, that supports the symbolic (language) but not an absolute symbolic order.
Movement 2 – a movement from 4 to 2, or the determination of a new discourse without prior conceptualization, a new writing, from limited experience involving metaphoric and poetic imagery, but not the “grand idea”.
Movement 3 – “Ø”, or the new experience of the Real as discontinuous, as a cut, as an impossibility, to recover the living subject from concepts and the loss of imagination in concepts – it is in the form of the experimental where two distinct questions are not correlated or compossible, whose result is to rediscover the Real as a new function, as something that happens, like chance.
Movement 4 …just 3, or the determination of a new subjectivity, one without the possibility of unity, no possible “I”, no possible cogito (no possible transparency…).
This progressive rebus certainly inspired those of us who are designers and artists to pursue the possibility of “inaesthetic” truths in art and then reflect philosophically, and in its entirety illustrates the logic of Badiou’s selective combination and subtraction of philosophy, mathematics, psychoanalytics, politics, and poetics to achieve the possibility of the new through a submerged logic of desire (desire is the ghost in Badiou’s machine). Susan Sontag once famously asked for an erotics of art; Badiou selectively offers the mathemes of the erotic.
For philosophers, the riddle of aesthetics is often: “does art conceal / reveal a secret”? Everyone loves a secret, even if the secret is that, as Lacan and the bell-maker in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rubelev knows, there is no secret but its naming. Badiou, following Plato, is suspicious of secrets while he is simultaneously swayed by the “charms” of certain poets (the chapters on Rimbaud, Mallarme, Char, and others are filled with seductive aphorisms). And yet anyone who seeks to create art which can service philosophy knows, the secret needs to be blurred. Badiou is opposed to blurring on every level, so his text is a strong antidote to didactic-romanticism and any pretense of avant-garde activity.
About the Author:
Dr. Thomas Mical is from the School of Architecture, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
1 – Alain Badiou. Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy. London: Continuum International Publishing, 2004.
2 – Peter Hallward. Badiou: A Subject to Truth. Minneapolis, Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
3 – Alain Badiou. Handbook of Inaesthetics. Stanford University Press, 2005:10.
4 – Alain Badiou. Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
5 – Alain Badiou. Handbook of Inaesthetics. Stanford University Press, 2005:10.
6 – Ibid.:13.
7 – Ibid.:7-8.
8 – Ibid.:8.
9 – Ibid.:5.
10 – Ibid.:11-12, 55.
11 – Reiterated in Ibid.:9.
12 – Ibid.:24.
13 – Ibid.:26.
14 – Ibid.:78-9.
15 – See Douglas Kellner. “Jean Baudrillard After Modernity: Provocations On A Provocateur and Challenge”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, January 2006.