Sunday, February 17, 2008

The supreme difficulty is to de-suture philosophy from its poetic condition

The Swerve around P: Literary Theory after Interpretation Jeffrey T. Nealon Pennsylvania State University

While Badiou's work is becoming well-known in North America--the Chronicle of Higher Education recently tagged him as a potential "next big thing" in the theory world, surely the kiss of death (see Byrne)--a brief discussion of some of his thought is relevant in this context. Against the thematics of the twilight of philosophy, and against all messianisms, Badiou calls for thinking's revitalization, primarily through an emphasis on what he calls a "positive," non-sacramental relation to infinity--a relation that, for Badiou, is on display most forcefully in the axiomatic thrust of mathematics. In returning to what he sees as the Greek origins of philosophy--he goes so far as to call his thinking a "Platonism of the multiple" (Manifesto 103)--Badiou locates four "conditions of philosophy": "the matheme, the poem, political invention, and love" (35). Western philosophy is said to have begun in Greece with these four topics (science, literature, politics, desire), and for Badiou "the lack of a single one gives rise to [philosophy's] dissipation" (35), which isn't to say its end. Philosophical thinking is in danger whenever it becomes tied too closely and exclusively to one of its four-fold conditions.

The danger, for Badiou, is "handing over the whole of thought to one generic procedure . . . . I call this type of situation a suture. Philosophy is placed in suspension every time it presents itself as being sutured to one of its conditions" (61). So, for example, Marxism has often been too sutured to the political condition--here Badiou even implicates his own earlier Maoism (76)--while analytic philosophy has on the whole sutured itself too closely to the scientism of the matheme. "Philosophy," in its simplest definition, is for Badiou "de-suturation" (67), the interruption of an exclusive thought-suture to either politics, science, love, or the literary. Hence, Badiou calls his a "subtractive" thinking, one that subtracts itself from constrictive sutures, to reconnect with the multiple.

The most totalizing suture of recent philosophical times, Badiou writes polemically, is not the political or the scientific-mathematical, or even privatized "love," but the poetic, the literary suture. As he insists, today "it so happens that the main stake, the supreme difficulty, is to de-suture philosophy from its poetic condition" (67). Badiou rather cannily chooses Heidegger as his main foil in this argument. Even Heidegger's staunchest proponents would agree that the literary is in fact the ground of his thinking; he has relatively little compelling to say about politics, mathematics, or love for that matter--or, more precisely, anything compelling that he might have to say about those topics would have to run through the poetic, as this suture is the ontological ground of the space of possibility in Heidegger's thinking. Anything that emerges does so in Heidegger through the structure of the literary opening, that privileged path to the meaning of Being.

Of course, my two exemplary accounts of the literary's demise (Tompkins's and Badiou's) do not map seamlessly onto one another, for a whole host of disciplinary, historical, and geographical reasons. Most obviously, one might point out that the lion's share of American literary theory (or most continental philosophy, for that matter) isn't or never was so Heideggerian as Badiou's account would seem to suggest. However, much of the "big theory" era in literature departments did, I think, share the bond that both Badiou and Tompkins point out: the questions of "meaning" or interpretation as the ultimate horizon of inquiry. This hermeneutic thrust was prominently on display in virtually all big theory in literature departments, even in the polemically new historicist work of people like the boundary 2 New Americanists, as well as in much of the early new historicist work in English literature (think here of a great book like Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy, which deploys its historical materialist mix of religion, ideology, and power primarily to produce startling new readings of Renaissance tragedies).

Likewise, however anti-Heideggerian much Tel Quel thinking may have been, it did nonetheless protect the horizon of hermeneutics (the literary suture) as the royal road to larger philosophical and cultural questions. Like Tompkins's call for literary criticism to reconnect to a non-hermeneutic tradition, then, Badiou's critique of the poetic suture in philosophy is less a spring-green avant gardism (calling for a radical new direction in thought), than it is an attempt to return critique to a series of other questions, ones not treated well within the poetic idiom. As Badiou writes, "Descartes, Leibnitz, Kant or Hegel might have been mathematicians, historians, or physicists; if there is one thing they were not, it was poets" (70)... Removing the stitches from philosophy.The most totalizingfrom enowning by enowning Removing the stitches from philosophy.

1 comment:

  1. Methinks the author plus Badiou and all of his admirers, and all of the theorists, ought to read the marvellous Coming Into Being by William Irwin Thompson to discover the relation between the poetic imagination/VISION and the usual dim-witted reductionist "philosophy" generated in the Western mind-factories (universities).