Fatal Repetition – Badiou and the ‘Age of the Poets’ with Appendix: ‘A Psychoanalysis of Alain Badiou’

“Badiou” by James Luchte

‘Fatal Repetition: Badiou and the “Age of the Poets”; is published in İştirakî 2. Sayı Çıktı! as Ölümcül Tekrar: Badiou ve “Şairler Çağı”’, translated in 2014 into Turkish by Mustafa Kerem Yüksel, Istiraki.  Certain dimensions and the Appendix have been added in this version.

Badiou, in his Manifesto for Philosophy[1], asserts that the ‘Age of the Poets’- a time-span begun with Hölderlin and completed with Celan – is no more.

This ‘Age’ – ‘period’ – inaugurated by Hölderlin, was first articulated philosophically by Nietzsche – and has been reproduced by all those who still remember and work in the philosophies from Kant to Derrida.

His solution is a pseudo-mathematicisation of philosophy[2] – his target is the trajectory of philosophy from the ‘subjectivist’ turn of Kant to the implosion of subjectivism in post-structuralism (even Wittgenstein falls under his hammer as the new sophistry) – and the philosophers along the way, from the romantics, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger – these ‘philosophers’ give us the words of their texts, poetic memoirs of their own subjective experience, but not ‘Truth’ –

The paradigm for this turn from language and a problematic subjectivity to ‘truth’ is the definition of philosophy of Badiou’s Plato. The disciplinary strategy is the establishment of a mathematical aristocracy as the gatekeeper of philosophy, as François Laruelle argues, in his Anti-Badiou.[3]  Indeed, in light of the fact that Badiou criticises analytic philosophy, in his ‘Philosophy and Desire’[4] for privileging a scientific and mathematical language that is inaccessible to the majority of the people of the world, why on earth would he privilege ‘set theory’ and the matheme in the way that he does? It seems to be a glaring contradiction.

The purpose of this essay is to place Badiou into question and to resist those who would wish Continental philosophy to acquiesce to the coronation of a rather derivative thinker who is merely an analytical philosopher in drag.

Badiou seeks to repeat the expulsion of the poets from the polis.  He wishes only to preserve the Idea, displacing the complexities of philosophical poetics – language and language oriented philosophies, such as phenomenology, hermeneutics and deconstruction, which adhere to the early Greek distinction between Being and Logos.[5]   Badiou, replacing Being with matheme, and Logos with event, gives us a Platonism of the multiple, in which poetics (the intimacy of the early Greek thinkers) is revealed to be a mere primitive groping toward the standpoint of mathematics.

Badiou threatens a fatal repetition of the Platonic dismissals of the tragic philosophy of early ‘Greek’ (Mediterranean) thinkers – and seeks to repeat the downgrading of poetics with respect to not only the early Greeks but also with respect to European thought since Kant.

The ‘Age of the Poets’, for Badiou, is completed in the question-raising meeting of Celan and Heidegger – the judgment by Badiou upon poetics (which is parasitic upon similar scenarios of Adorno and Lacue-Labarthe) is retrospective and prospective, and entails a radically eliminationist strategy, just as Analytic philosophy in its initial phase and in its continuing operations.

Poetry (poetics, linguistically oriented philosophies) is to be dismissed in the new age to which Badiou testifies.   He fancies that he has simply bracketed that type of philosophy, put language out of play.  The judgment is asserted in artful language as the last permissable artistic act – the questioning is silenced and the judgment becomes merely a meme orchestrated in polite discourse.  He has the last word in a conversation with a group of thinkers who are now all dead.

Badiou’s assertion – ‘intervention’ – is articulated as an unapologetic ‘system’ (he hates Nietzsche, after all, though steals from him, and from Heidegger) – that of the pure multiple – matheme, poiesis, polis and eros – these are the ‘conditions’ upon which any philosophy rests – the best philosophy, for Badiou, is the one that organizes these four ‘moments’ into a ‘system’ – but, vaguely, one open to multiple ‘events’.  He limits the possibility of the ‘system’ by his deflationary definitions of the moments, though he does not give any architectonic for his ‘system’.

Badiou applies his philosophy nevertheless as he, in a seemingly ad hoc manner, specifies various histories, situations, and persons according to the relationship of the four conditions to philosophy ‘itself’: mathematical, poetic, political and erotic.  For Badiou, for example, May 1968 would have been an event pertaining to several if not all of the conditions…

Philosophy is threatened when it is sutured to one condition amongst the others – and any polis would be threatened in the same way.

Badiou admirers the work of Althusser as he sought to transfer Marxian thought from ‘politics’ to ‘science’ – (which in itself seems to forgo the Quaternary of the four conditions, as we do detect a scientistic bias in the thought of Badiou).

Yet, with this example, even against the text, it is clear that there can be a re-configuration of the moments, conditions of thought, in relation to the context of significance, networked across temporal existence and specific situations.

Significantly, Badiou states that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ academic philosophy has persisted – and perhaps still languishes – in the ‘suture’ of the positivistic or scientistic.  He does not seem to know or care that his analysis may not have merely neutral relevance to an Anglo-Saxon audience.

Nevertheless, he is making, in his works, a primary decision about the status of poetry – and of the meaning of philosophy.  Does that not apply to his Anglo-Saxons? (or, only those who read European journals, who perhaps live surrogate intellectual lives?)

An aspect of the problem is the apparently uncritical reception of the translations of Badiou into English by Anglophone readers who may lack the context that would indicate that his notion of the ‘Age of the Poets’, in its dismissive posture toward poetry (poetics, questions and strategies of language, such as formal indication in radical phenomenology, post-structuralism, etc.), may not have any relevance to the situation of Anglophone life or its version of ‘continental philosophy’, a philosophical movement that has persisted until the last decades in the shadows of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world.  Badiou will simply ‘shut us down’ – his philosophy, for us, is a de facto ‘Trojan horse’ for analytic philosophy.

Do you really want to write essays on ‘Set Theory’? Or, a return to Locke ala Quentin Meillassoux, Badiou’s disciple?  Shall we allow the trope of the Age of the Poets to taint our studies of  Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Derrida and a host of others who have, to give an example, only recently gained a foothold in British universities in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Even if we accept Badiou – for us, there would need be a transfer from ‘scientism’ and ‘logicism’ to something more akin to the existential and poetic/linguistic questions raised by phenomenological, hermeneutical and post-structuralist perspectives in the Anglophone world.

Otherwise, if we had to simply accept Badiou as a universal doctrine, we would be forced to simply capitulate once again to an analytic philosophy, which Hawking has recently declared dead.

In this way, affirming and resisting Badiou, in this instance, there is the need for a transfer – not in this instance from politics to science, as with Althusser, but, a shift  from the ‘suture’ of ‘scientism’ and ‘reactionary politics’ to – in some of Badiou’s words – those of radical politics, poetry (expression, dwelling) and the Empedoclean play of love and strife (in distinction from merely love or strife).

However, it could simply be argued that there is a fatal contradiction in Badiou between his own engagement with the imaginary of the age of the poets, and his own insistence that this age is over, as something the limit of which has been traversed.  How are we to understand for instance such statements by Badiou as ‘We must create new symbolic forms for our collective actions. Probably not in the context of global negation and final war, but in the context of local affirmation and endless conflicts. We must find a new sun, in other words, a new mental country. As Stevens says; “The sun is the country wherever he is.” (‘The Figure of the Soldier in Politics and Poetry’, 2007).

Is Badiou merely an intellectual chameleon, referencing great names as use dictates, or is he continuously enacting a performative contradiction in his simultaneous rejection and exploitation of poetry and thinkers associated with the so-called ‘age of the poets’, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lyotard, the name invoked as the use suggests?  In the end however we are to reject these, though we have purloined their best ideas, but in a form which re-invests them into the Platonic banality of speculative realism.

But, why must our ‘new mental country’ be an old Platonistic and mathematical one?  And, when we have barely been liberated from that cage, indeed, the entire significance of this age is that of poetic liberation, artistic freedom.  These are our strengths, and in them dwell our collective affirmations as a community.

If it is indeed the case that we must create new symbolic forms, then it is clear that it will be poetry, language and art, that will be the source of such collective temporal (and eternal) creation.  But, then the Badiou of the matheme, would be calling for an end to that which – poetics – is actually approaching a peak of its possible artistic and political existence.

Badiou’s is a philosophy in retreat, it is, in the spirit of Nietzsche, a philosophy of exhaustion, a nihilism.

It would seem then, that it is not simply for the Anglophones in their arrested development, but for the West itself and perhaps for the world, that there is a need for an intensification of poetic and artistic activity in light of the current transformation of the world order.

It is not the time to retreat into the ‘Idea of Communism’ and seek to build a new ivory tower, ruled by a mathematical aristocracy.  It is instead a time of poetry, art, and the streets – not the mere idea of ‘Communism’, but an actual community.

The ‘Age of the Poets’ has only just begun … no book burnings will be necessary…

Indeed, what is striking about Badiou’s essay ‘The Communist Hypothesis’[6] is its attempt to stand outside history, demarcating ‘periods’ etc. I think this entire way of thought needs to be rejected, as it is neither courageous nor profound. It is in fact lazy and cowardly, as is the ending of the essay which abruptly leaves us in the lurch of vagueness and ambiguity.

There are no periods – there is only a continuum of struggle, amidst contradictions. The struggle did not stop with 1976, but continued and continues until today through many movements, globally. The strategies of the 20th century worked since they were the correct strategies, and the infrastructure of revolt needs to be rebuilt.

There also needs to be a politics of the imperfect, one which does not repeat idealist errors by trying to find the perfect theory – this has led to all of the sectarian splits in the movement. We need to make alliances with powers in the world amid this situation of imperfection, and also realise that this struggle will take a long time. China for instance – read its constitution, still socialism as the goal, primary socialism for another 100 years (although, this ‘period’ may take a much shorter time), and even as they use markets to build against imperialist states, focus their attention increasingly upon the lives of the people, such as the health care initiatives of 2009 with 95% coverage and the new proactive augmentations to environmental law (and that is not even to mention the ‘Chinese New Left’, which prepares for its own future) – not perfect, but still on the path, just as with Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela, and many other regimes.

We are still in the struggle, it has never stopped (ask the political prisoners subject to body cavity searches each day if the struggle has stopped… we have forgotten them, forgotten that nothing has really changed) – it is not perfect, but as descendants of apes, we need to do the best we can with what we have.

Idealist materialism, idealist Marxism, sectarian perfectionism – all of this must be lost, and we need to get on with re-building a movement and use all the platforms that are possible, including the electoral system, as Gramsci would suggest. Perfectionism and the manifold rhetoric of sectarian abuse must be lost, forgotten, as this is lazy and self-destructive.

We need to become what we are and try to channel the energy in the streets. Occupy Wall Street failed since there was a fundamental lack of political organisation and political connectedness. Badiou is utterly wrong. Of course there must be a party, coalitions, mass worker movements, etc., etc., but that is difficult, and must be undertaken as best as can be done.  Some might not agree with me, but that is fine. What is important is communication and struggle, not the perfect theory. That is death to a revolution.

The ‘Age of Revolution’ is still on the way, upon manifold pathways.

Appendix: A Psychoanalysis of Alain Badiou

This current deconstruction of Badiou should be taken, along with the myriad other implications of its criticisms of Badiou, in a political sense as a critique of the credibility of his approach to Marx with respect to the derivative and rather conservative advocacy in his philosophy.  In the press, from which he originally emerged as a host of a television programme, he takes often radical and I would argue worthwhile stands.  But, then, there is his philosophy and the particular psycho-analytic obsession that underlies his thought.  This would seem fair game as he has overtly confessed his discipleship to Lacan.  But, what is this psycho-analytic image that underlies his thought, in the sense in which Wittgenstein felt lay below Heidegger?  

It must have something to do with May 1968 and the alleged ultimate failure of the political and philosophical Left (even though the ‘Socialists’ are in government).  Maoism in the late 1960’s had its own particular brand. The clothing and the hats, the Mao Tse Tung icon.  The Little Red Book.  The notion that students were, from a revolutionary socialist perspective, no different than peasants.  Maoism remained for the most part in the Universities as proletarianisation and the Agricultural Industrial Complex had pretty much wiped out the peasantry in most modern Western countries. 

But, Maoism as an approach to philosophy, as for instance in the ontology of contradiction in Mao’s 1937 essay ‘On Contradiction’, is still possible and can be compared to work that is being done on Nietzsche and by and about some post-structuralist philosophers. 

Is Badiou really a Maoist?  And, if so, in what sense is he a Maoist?  Is Badiou a Maoist in the same way as Foucault was a Maoist?

What in the event of May 1968 has made Badiou turn against intimate relations between philosophy and the arts, with poetry, painting, dance and music, the very features which contribute to the emergence of a social community with its own culture of self-expression?  Much such cross-fertilisation was rife in the late 1960’s, philosophy had crossed over into the mainstream, there was the drug culture and the rise of neo-shamanist thinking. Marcuse, who sowed the seeds of anarchy where ever he went, turned out to be working for the FBI the whole time.  Much of these revolutionary student activities were frowned upon by academic political philosophers such as Althusser and Adorno, along with the Old Guard Communists (as opposed to the New Left).

Badiou, for his part, is said to have participated in the revolution in the streets, in which students and workers united to force a government out of office.  Did the events go too far?  Or, not far enough?  Badiou’s psycho-analytic image persists in his notion of ‘Love’ of which he says in a recent interview, promoting his book, In Praise of Love, ‘Well, I absolutely agree that sex needs to be freed from morality. I’m not going to speak against the freedom to experiment sexually like some old arse; – “un vieux connard” – ‘but when you liberate sexuality, you don’t solve the problems of love. That’s why I propose a new philosophy of love, wherein you can’t avoid problems or working to solve them.’  This interview with Stuart Jefferies in The Guardian, shows a side a Badiou that is present in some of his essays – a poetic as opposed to a mathematical quality.  Or, to put it in the words, perhaps implied by Keats, in his Lamia, hot philosophy versus cold philosophy.

Speaking about the utter commodification of love in the Love Industrial Complex (my expression), he says: ‘They try to suppress the adventure of love. Their idea is you calculate who has the same tastes, the same fantasies, the same holidays, wants the same number of children.. Everybody wants a contract that guarantees them against risk. Love isn’t like that. You can’t buy a lover. Sex, ‘es, but not a lover.’  It is curious.  Badiou speaks so negatively of commodificiation, of calculation, of buying and selling, consumerism – but, at the very same instant, he wraps his philosophy up tight with the net of mathematics, like a barbed wire fence around his property.  He asserts that Plato’s Polis exceeds the topos of the early Greek thinkers.

But, still, we do not have the image of his love, that image that underlies his philosophy and the manner in which he is constituting the notion of the matheme as the central idea of philosophical thinking and practise?  Yet, again, there is still the question of the event by which he became enchanted by the image.  He himself tells us, ‘For me personally, I responded to the events of ’68, I accepted my romantic destiny, became interested in mathematics – all these chance events made me what I am.’

One thing is clear: Badiou associates the events of May, the revolutionary student and worker rebellion, with mathematics, like some specialist in Chaos Theory who contemplates the dance of his cigarette smoke in the motes of light and the particles of dust.

In this light, we can see that Badiou was struck by the event of May 1968 and began to construct his truth, and one of his main loves is mathematics.  Badiou refuses to acquiesce to Heidegger and Wittgenstein’s criticisms of pure mathematics and its relation to the truth.  Speaking of the relation of his recent philosophical interest in Love and his interest in politics, he said, ‘Love and politics are the two great figures of social engagement. Politics is enthusiasm with a collective; with love, two people. So love is the minimal form of communism.’

Although he disparages the early Greek thinkers (the so-called ‘pre-socratics’), he would do well to reflect upon Empedocles’ notion of Love as being amidst an eternal sphyrillic cycle with Strife.  After all, for Badiou, who is a secularist Pauline ‘Maoist’, Love is a code word for Unity, the central philosophical idea of communism.  But, the question remains ‘What kind of communism are you suggesting?’ You cannot just suggest the Idea of Communism and not try to bring such a state of Affairs into the World.

Are we in some kind of knock-off era where we do absolutely nothing in regard to the obvious failure of capitalism?  Yes, we have the Idea of Communism.  That is enough, besides a few well publicised comments on some issue or other.  Such a pretend revolutionary cannot, at the end of the day, simply surround himself with a Spinozian ‘order of encounters,’ in which he can shield away the real problems of love, of human existence, of strife.  That is not the way of the true philosopher, of which I include as our forebears the early Greeks, who sought to open themselves up to the truth of being, no matter the pain or torment such an opening revealed.  Badiou seems to want to avoid torment, and this is why, he says, ‘I have only once in my life given up on a love. It was my first love, and then gradually I became so aware this step had been a mistake I tried to recover that initial love, late, very late – the death of the loved one was approaching – but with a unique intensity and feeling of necessity.’

Does this feeling of unique intensity give us an understanding of the Conservative presentation of his philosophy, in its mathematical shell?  Who is he trying to scare off with this shell – all those who do not like mathematics?  Is this because Badiou simply loves mathematics and associates it with his image of May 1968.  Can he be so blind that he does not know that – especially when ironically articulating a philosophy of the multiple – there are multiple pathways in the practice of philosophy, there are many ways to the truth, there are many truths?  Is there something special about mathematics?  Or, is he just sticking with what he knows?  Is it really the case that he is only noticed since he is the only one from his generation still left alive?

The image that haunts Badiou is the love lost, mistakenly, one in which the seriousness necessary for true love abides.  He did not take his relationship serious enough, and then – it was too late ever to get it back, all was lost.  Could it be that Badiou is simply hiding himself away from the pain of existence with his mathematical armor and his muster of soldiers who have not been frightened by his mathematical face.  It would seem that Marxian thought has already suffered most from its scientism and rationalism (intellectualism), a species of aristocracy (as Laurelle accuses) that is perhaps most responsible for the many failures of socialism.  Badiou is simply perpetuating this tired Althusserian game.

It would seem that one so concerned with a revolutionary overthrow (and one that does not vote) would be one of the most extreme advocates of the power and sovereignty to poetry and art, and indeed it is shocking that Badiou declares that this age,’ The Age of the Poets’ is over and we must turn instead to the Idea of Communism and to Set Theory.  He does not sound very revolutionary and he is peddling merely a pot of re-heated leftovers, his ‘philosophy’ is a species of Idealism, so hated by Marx and by Mao. 

While Mao was a towering intellectual and had philosophical independence from Lenin and Stalin, for instance, he never forgot that the central precept of the philosophy of dialectical materialism (or whatever other name one wishes to describe it) is that of contradiction – this is the same philosophy as the early Greeks who organised all of their thought around the notion of a unity of opposites.  As everyone knows, but upon which hardly any reflect deeply enough, is the existential shift in ancient philosophy, in which ‘the unity of opposites’ becomes a matter of laughter, as Aristotle deploys in his criticisms of the ‘pre-Platonic’ natural philosophers, especially in his Physics, as ‘illogical’ and thus, amidst his new paradigm ‘untrue.’

It cannot be forgotten that Mao Tse Tung, who as we have said Badiou is an alleged disciple, was also a poet and that some of his best lines can be regarded as poetic actions or praxis (speech acts if you will as we are always talking past each other about the same things all the time), such as ‘One only needs a spark to start a prairie fire.’ 

This is a time of prairie fires, not a fatal return to Platonism and a mathematical ontology.  It must be clear that Badiou is not the way forward.

At the same time, as Terence Blake has shown, in his To Live and to Think Like Poets: Badiou’s Five Maxims of Châtelet’s Thought and Review of Badiou’s Cinema, there is a poetic potentiality in his work for Badiou’s own self-liberation, to free himself from his fixation on the matheme, upon his system and its conditions, to free himself from his Platonism – as evidenced in his ‘wisdom essays’ and the ‘What is it to live?’ seminar from 2003-2004.  It would seem that Badiou is part of a generation, as we have witnessed Badiou’s association of mathematics and May 1968, which made a sharp distinction between pure philosophy, on the one hand, and the wisdom or knowledge of life, on another, as with the friction between scientistic forms of Marxism and existentialist or post-structuralist philosophy, whether Heideggerian, Sartrean, Derridean, etc.  Yet, it would still be possible for Badiou to abandon these scientistic prejudices, and simply admit that the age of poetry is an irreversible liberation of human existence that it is still on its way.

I welcome him to admit that the greatest myth is the absence of myth. (Bataille)




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1  Badiou, Alain. Manifesto for Philosophy, translated by Norman Madarasz, State University of New York Press (1999).

2  For a penetrating criticism of Badiou on this point, please see Ricardo L. Nirenberg & David Nirenberg. ‘Badiou’s Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology,’ Critical Inquiry 37 (4):583-614 (2011).  To read more devastating criticism of Badiou, please see ‘Badiou’s Reductions’ and ‘Badiou’s Involuntary Humour’ by Terence Blake.  The first essay is a sustained critique which includes a defense of many ‘post-structuralists’ in their own critical words and phrases on Badiou, while the second is a list of Badiou’s unintended comedy expressed in his almost ludicrous aura of self-importance.

3  Laruelle, Francois. Anti-Badiou: The Introduction of Maoism into Philosophy, Bloomsbury Academic (2013).

4  Badiou, Alain. ‘Philosophy and Desire,’ Infinite Thought, Continuum (2011), p. 36.

5  Indeed, this is an issue in which Badiou consistently misrepresents Heidegger vis-à-vis the assertion of the contemporary horizon of the ‘linguistic turn’. In fact, Heidegger’s question is that of Being and of the Logos or Logoi that would be necessary to disclose this Being (and Logos is not simply reducible to merely the ‘Poem’, in Badiou’s limited stereotypical sense). Indeed, Heidegger’s main criticism of Analytic philosophy and of the ‘history of ontology’ as such is that it has forgotten Being and has distanced itself not only from the world, but also from the event of truth as the clearing of Being in which things reside.  With one hand, Badiou crassly caricatures Heidegger, but with his other, he blatantly steals Heidegger’s best ideas.

6 Badiou, Alain. ‘The Communist Hypothesis,’ New Left Review, 2007.

4 thoughts on “Fatal Repetition – Badiou and the ‘Age of the Poets’ with Appendix: ‘A Psychoanalysis of Alain Badiou’

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