Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Century by Alain Badiou

For us philosophers, the question is not what took place in the century, but what was thought in it.  What did the men of the century think, over and above merely developing the thought of their predecessors?  In other words, what are the century's uninherited thoughts?  What was thought in the century that was previously unthought--or even unthinkable?

If there is one lesson I have taken from Alain Badiou's thorny philosophical treatise The Century, it is this: Don't buy the books for your class before the first day, because they're subject to change.

Not to say that I feel like I wasted my time, though ultimately I can't agree with most of what Badiou says.  The task he sets for himself is fascinating enough, and Herculean: to make sense of what the 20th century, or those in it, have to say about their own time period.  The question that dominates the book is, what does this century think about itself?

I think some of what Badiou says is spot on.  I particularly like the idea that the 20th century fetishizes the idea of "waiting" or "watching," which Badiou describes as "a cardinal virtue, because it is the only existing form of intense indifference."  (Think Waiting for Godot.)  But also I got a lot out of Badiou's discussion of Kasimir Malevich's White on White:

We must beware of interpreting White on White as a symbol of the destruction of painting.  On the contrary, what we are dealing with is a subtractive assumption.  The gesture is very close to the one that Mallarme makes within poetry: the staging of a minimal, albeit absolute, difference; the difference between the place and what takes place in the place, the difference between place and taking-place.  Captured in whiteness, this difference is constituted through the erasure of every content, every upsurge.

What Badiou is saying, to the extent that I understand it, is that Malevich (and the entire corps of modern art by extension) is not trying to destroy the expectations of his art form.  Rather, White on White represents an attempt to bring the content of the work and its physical form as closely together as possible, making the gap between art and "the real" as small as it can be.  Badiou would call this the century's "passion for the real."  Admittedly, it doesn't make White on White any more enjoyable to look at.

The later chapters of The Century venture into more unpleasant territory.  Badiou's Marxist vision depicts a century obsessed with revolution and the creation of a "new man," but by doing so he effectively eliminates the significance of any individual experience:

It is certainly true that from Malevich's White on White to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, from Webern's silences to Guyotat's lyrical cruelties, the fundamental art of the century doesn't care a jot about man.  Quite simply because it considers that man in his ordinary state does not amount to much, and that there is no need to make such a fuss about him--all of which is quite true.  The art of the century is an art of the overhuman.

For Badiou, the only art worth anything is committed to a great (but clearly impossible) social project which upends the order of the world and ushers in an "overhumanity" that requires an intermediary "inhumanity."  This line of thought leads him to talk about the "vacuity of the notion of 'human rights.'"  If you are willing to follow Badiou's line of thought into an existence where the individual is expendable and the human only raw material for what comes after, well, have fun, and I hope the Communists don't throw you into a boiling lime pit like in the Brecht play Badiou loves so much.

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