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If you don't like French philosophers, this might not be the post for you...
December 28, 2006 5:31 PM   Subscribe

The most important contemporary French thinker? Influenced by Jacques Lacan and drawing on the set theory developed by Georg Cantor, Alain Badiou is (sort of) attempting to bridge the gap between continental and analytic philosophical traditions and provide a new foundation for leftist politics. His major work is Being and Event (PDF review) -- part 3 of the informal trilogy that began with Being and Time and Being and Nothingness? [more inside]
posted by papakwanz (36 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Badiou on Democracy

Badiou on Frances's Scarf Law

An Interview with Badiou

Lacan dot com's Badiou archive. And another archive of his work.

The Praxis of Alain Badiou: Commentary on Badiou.

Finally: Previously on Metafilter

1001st comment! Yay!
posted by papakwanz at 5:31 PM on December 28, 2006


er, not on Frances's Scarf Law. On France's Scarf Law. He doesn't have anything to say about Frances.
posted by papakwanz at 5:32 PM on December 28, 2006


Is Foucault not contemporary? He seems to rule academia.
posted by k8t at 5:53 PM on December 28, 2006


Foucault died, k8t, so he's probably out of the running for "contemporary," whatever his influence.
posted by cgc373 at 6:02 PM on December 28, 2006


Baudrillard isn't dead yet.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:29 PM on December 28, 2006


Just a note: I'm not claiming he is or isn't, I've just heard that claim made.
posted by papakwanz at 6:30 PM on December 28, 2006


Baudrillard is without importance.
posted by Wolof at 7:06 PM on December 28, 2006


A bridge between french- and analytical philosophy based on set theory?!? That certainly sounds intrigueing.
posted by jouke at 7:27 PM on December 28, 2006


I have a philosophy peeve.

It irks me when certain philosophers co-opt mathematical language to lend credibility to otherwise analogical thinking. No, Lacan, I do not want to hear how the imaginary vector i resembles a phallus, nor the implications you think this symbol has for maleness and its intersection with the real. If I wanted real Magical Thinking, I'd go to a poet or a witchdoctor, to people who make no pretense that they are wading into the shallow end of logic. Not listening to some tweedy NPR voice sing on about how Goedel is truly, intimately connected to hipster politics, don't you know.

It is nice to read from your links that Badiou at least has an informal background in math. However, you must understand why some alarm bells are ringing here.
posted by kid ichorous at 7:47 PM on December 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


ki: I'd recommend reading Bruce Fink's excellent Lacan to the Letter. The last couple chapters especially discuss some of the "psuedo-mathematical" language in Lacan. As he points out, Lacan isn't actually attempting to do math, nor is he interested in appropriating some sort of "scientific" credibility to his thought. It's instead a kind of shorthand, and the mathematical symbols don't actually signify mathematical operations. Fink explains it a lot better than I do, but I think it might answer some (perhaps not all) of your objections to Lacan.
posted by papakwanz at 8:05 PM on December 28, 2006


Without is importance Baudrillard.
posted by vronsky at 8:16 PM on December 28, 2006


The impression I get from the linked review is that Badiou isn't trying to say anything about mathematics as practiced, but rather to say that philosophers should change their ideas about the nature of mathematical activity and how it relates to philosophy. The description of Cantor's set theory there sure doesn't sound anything like the way I think about set theory, but I don't think it's supposed to. Nor do I get the sense it's a credibility grab on Badiou's part, but not having read Badiou himself, I cannot say.

As for Lacan, all I can say is that pissing off mathematicians and Freudians at the same time is an amazing trick. I tip my cap to the guy.
posted by escabeche at 9:22 PM on December 28, 2006


As much as I hate Lacan, I have to agree that the obsession some have with criticizing him based on his use of mathematical symbols is misplaced.
posted by Falconetti at 10:00 PM on December 28, 2006


This guy used to be married to Andre 3000.
posted by bardic at 10:00 PM on December 28, 2006


Lacan? Baudrillard? You guys think these people are relevant?
posted by Nelson at 10:49 PM on December 28, 2006


MetaFilter: Your favorite philosopher is irrelevant.
posted by uosuaq at 11:32 PM on December 28, 2006


Um, Nelson? I think the inevitability of throwaway responses like yours is sort of Badiou's point.

There's a cultural significance here, in that Badiou considers it worthwhile to acknowledge the existence of Anglo-American philosophy, even if he muffs it. In any case, most serious contemporary philosophy is only slightly less rarefied and environment than the summit of Everest.
posted by holgate at 11:36 PM on December 28, 2006


Thanks for the recommendation, papakwanz, and though I mentioned Lacan by name I'm not really laying this one on his doorstep. This strikes me as an occasional and defective practice in the philosophies and postmodern criticism at large. Having some friends in sociology and philosophy programs, I've been exposed to some of their reading material, and I have sometimes heard specific terms of art from mathematics (and the sciences) borrowed and misapplied in order to give weak arguments a certain scientific credibility or at least a whiff of the arcane.

For example, I've noticed that group and category terminology like isomorphism is sometimes borrowed in place of the all-too-honest word analogy. There is, of course, no isomorphism that exists between the two un-algebraic concepts of pornography and hypnotism. But if an author were to construct an argument based on little more than this analogy, isomorphic sounds so much more... definitive. Same go for computation/information theory words like "entropy" or "incompleteness."

All in all, I feel like the sciences have something - rigor, argumentative scrutiny - that is much desired by some in literary and social criticism. By assuming a scientific lexicon and tone without being held to honor its deeper constructs, a writer can put on an air of intellectual rigor while arguing just about anything he/she wants.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:40 PM on December 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


By assuming a scientific lexicon and tone without being held to honor its deeper constructs, a writer can put on an air of intellectual rigor while arguing just about anything he/she wants

This is exactly what New Criticism (in literary studies) was trying to do, and it was a complete disaster, for the most part. Then again, what came after wasn't always so hot either.

My own anecdotal experience of lit. crit. was an amazing duality on the part of English professors regarding their obvious distaste for scientific objectivity (after Derrida, science is just a discourse that hides its tracks better than any "subjective" field like lit. crit.) and their deep, abiding lust to use scientific and/or "authoratative" language that could finally make them look just as important as biology professors.
posted by bardic at 12:51 AM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


now hear this: mumble jumbo...review this nonsense in 15 years anbd then laugh at it (agbain)
posted by Postroad at 5:27 AM on December 29, 2006


Lacan is relevant to me in clinical practice every day. His ideas might be interesting in other venues (or might not), but he was primarily a clinician, and it would be hard to overestimate the utility of his descriptions and explanations of human behavior in psychotherapeutic treatment. In particular, he places the proper emphasis on the place of language in lived human subjectivity; his explanation of transference accords with the demands (voiced and assumed) that patients make during therapy; and, his distinctions between the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real manage to capture the ways in which we are all situated in our egos and in society. His topology stuff has never been all that interesting to me, but much of it does do a very good job of distilling his clinical descriptions, boiling them down to what can be a useful shorthand. If you haven't done formulations of patients as a way to understand what's going on in treatment, it might be difficult to see the utility in being able to think about how things are situated in an abstract form.

I've been less impressed with Badiou, mostly because I find his writing more abstruse (if possible) than Lacan's, and I have persistent concerns about the applicability of Lacan's explanations of clinical behavior beyond the consulting room.
posted by OmieWise at 6:21 AM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


And, I've not read that Fink book, but I certainly think he's the best current US explainer of Lacan's theories, in particular the clinical basis of his thought. The Clinical Lacan is a truly exceptional book, and Fink's re-translation of the Ecrits almost makes them understandable.
posted by OmieWise at 6:25 AM on December 29, 2006


postroad: are you referring to your (apparently drunken) comment?
posted by papakwanz at 8:34 AM on December 29, 2006


ki: an occasional and defective practice in the philosophies and postmodern criticism at large

You may or may not be referring to Badiou (or Lacan) but I wouldn't consider either of them postmodern (a term which I think gets used far too frequently without a lot of consideration for what it means). If anything, Badiou is responding to postmodern relativism by trying to find a new basis for "Truths" (see his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil).

bardic: This is exactly what New Criticism (in literary studies) was trying to do, and it was a complete disaster

Calling it a complete disaster might be a bit much. It certainly had its problems, but their rigorous attention to language and the way words operate together on the page was an important contribution to literary studies that certain schools of criticism have unfortunately abandoned. In my own work, I always try to base any sort of theoretical "mumble jumbo" on close readings in a watered-down new critical mode.

As for your experience with literary professors, I'd say my experience is completely different. I've never really seen anyone display "obvious distaste for scientific objectivity." Even anti-theory types are influenced by Derrida, but I think the lasting point of his (and subsequent) critiques of scientific discourse -- even if he might have disagreed with me here -- is not so much the claim that the body of knowledge investigated by the sciences is bogus or false or "not true" but that our relationship to that knowledge is always mediated through a subjective lens, such as language. Thus, in comes Badiou with his attempts to use mathematics as an endrun around subjectivity. Whether it works or not, I don't know.

The people who I've seen who do seem to really take issue with the notion of scientific objectivity are people in fields like Women's Studies or LGBT Studies or scholars with definite political agendas (often involved in some sort of identity politics). These people have more of an interest in breaking down claims of scientific objectivity because of the historical role of scientific discourse in marginalizing them.

And again, from my experience I've never seen the "lust" to use scientific language in order to "look just as important as biology professors." Most of us (as a grad student, I include myself as a future faculty member) seem to think that we are just as important as biology professors, we just do different things and are important in different ways.

Omie: I have persistent concerns about the applicability of Lacan's explanations of clinical behavior beyond the consulting room

It is Lacan's focus on the role of language in the formation of the subject that makes him so useful to literary types. While he sometimes bullshits, I think Zizek does a good job of applying Lacan outside the consulting room (particularly his Sublime Object of Ideology).

Omie: are you a Lacanian psychoanalyst? I've been thinking for a while now that if I ever feel the need to see a psychoanalyst, I might as well get analyzed by an honest-to-goodness Lacanian. Don't ask me why, maybe I'm just sick.
posted by papakwanz at 9:20 AM on December 29, 2006


papakwanz: If anything, Badiou is responding to postmodern relativism by trying to find a new basis for "Truths" (see his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil).

It looks like Ethics isn't in the public domain. I'll have to steal it! Although this looks to be a Spanish translation.

papakwanz: The people who I've seen who do seem to really take issue with the notion of scientific objectivity are people in fields like Women's Studies or LGBT Studies or scholars with definite political agendas (often involved in some sort of identity politics). These people have more of an interest in breaking down claims of scientific objectivity because of the historical role of scientific discourse in marginalizing them.

That doesn't stop them from selectively reading scientific data when it serves the cause. :)

Creationists and industry lawyers make similar claims of victimhood by science, and similar close readings of it, and it rings false to me. I have a simple explanation: politicos clash with science, and sometimes the very idea of objective reality, because science conflicts with idealized worldviews. For some, it's just easier to parse a world where dinosaur fossils and climatological data are malicious fraud than it is to depart from cannon.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:15 AM on December 29, 2006


ki: That doesn't stop them from selectively reading scientific data when it serves the cause.

Many scientists have done the same. Science and scientists have often played a role in creating idealized, non-objective, or and exclusionary worldviews, which is the point that WS & LGBTers and others are trying to make.

I don't think any of Badiou's books (in English translation, at least) are in the public domain (I have no idea about the French originals as I don't know anything about French p.d. laws). His stuff has only very recently begun to be translated into English/published in the U.S., although he's been around for a while and, from what I understand, a fairly big name on the continent.
posted by papakwanz at 11:50 AM on December 29, 2006


I seriously think that Badiou is making a very long, very clever performative joke. Like if Andy Kaufman was a philosopher. Reasons enumerated here.

And Baudrillard is far more relevant than Badiou, as he actually offers thoughts that relate to contemporary media. Stick that in your truth-event.
posted by hank_14 at 11:51 AM on December 29, 2006


papakwanz writes "Omie: are you a Lacanian psychoanalyst? I've been thinking for a while now that if I ever feel the need to see a psychoanalyst, I might as well get analyzed by an honest-to-goodness Lacanian. Don't ask me why, maybe I'm just sick."

Not an analyst, but definitely a Lacanian psychotherapist. I'd recommend a Lacanian therapist or analyst over any other sort, I think it makes the most sense. Certainly if I get analyzed it will be by a Lacanian (I briefly talked to Fink about it, but priorities changed).

I like Zizek ok, at least he got an analysis. I came to Lacan from studying literature, and at this point I have very little trust for most non-clinical uses of Lacan. I do think that there are rigorous non-clinical readings of him to be made (Timothy Dean is great, Copjec), but Lacan's theory is mis-represented far too often (eg. Butler's horrible failure to apparently even read Lacan before making some of her more outlandish claims about castration and the mirror stage).
posted by OmieWise at 12:00 PM on December 29, 2006


Most of us (as a grad student, I include myself as a future faculty member) seem to think that we are just as important as biology professors, we just do different things and are important in different ways.

Fine, and my own taste is for the humanities, but frankly, English departments are seen as a burden on the "real" departments that bring in money in the form of grants and alumni who will tend to make more and therefore give back more to said university (speaking as a former grad. student myself, with friends who went on to work in university administration and fund-raising). I don't see this as a trend that will change any time soon, given the fact that English departments pretty much doomed themselves when they made (eloquent and quite provocative) arguments against the inherent elitism of great books back in the 1970's and 1980's. Covering a lot of ground quickly here, but my basic sense is that since English departments sill haven't figured out whether their job is primarily one of criticism (I have this to say about this literary phenomena) or of history (I am trained to know and say things about the canon, even as it expands and changes), they really aren't long for this world, although the role of teaching freshman comp. gives them an artificial lease on life (along with a corps of unperpaid graduate students far larger that the actual number of tenure-track positions available).
posted by bardic at 1:55 PM on December 29, 2006


bardic: my basic sense is that since English departments sill haven't figured out whether their job is primarily one of criticism (I have this to say about this literary phenomena) or of history (I am trained to know and say things about the canon, even as it expands and changes), they really aren't long for this world

My naive expectation was that English departments were supposed to teach the techne of (literary) writing. Of course, this was quickly dispelled by poetry lectures which flirted with everything - gender, identity politics, history - but the mechanics of poetry. I've met MFAs from prestigious schools who are just starting to cover basic topics in prosody we learned in public high school. I can't help but think that there's something very wrong with that.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:55 PM on December 29, 2006


I thought this post on Badiou, by John Holbo at The Valve, was excellent.
posted by painquale at 8:19 PM on December 29, 2006


bardic: English departments are seen as a burden on the "real" departments that bring in money in the form of grants and alumni who will tend to make more and therefore give back more to said university

Ah yes, because more money = better and more important, right? Let's eliminate any field whose majors don't (traditionally) bring in a lot of money... ok, English, philosophy, history, classics, modern languages, fine arts, women's studies, african-american studies, theater, anthropology... hmm. The course options are starting to look a little slim.

Look, I'm no fool, I know what the realities are in the economics of higher ed, and I'm not saying that you're supporting those economics, I'm sure you're just trying to point out something that we all know, but I think the situation is not near as bleak as you claim. English specifically continues to be one of the most popular fields of study in most universities. The rest of the humanities aren't doing so bad either; there are jobs in academia, and actually, the market for tenure-track positions *may* be getting better. There are many humanities programs across the country that are thriving and even growing.

English departments pretty much doomed themselves when they made (eloquent and quite provocative) arguments against the inherent elitism of great books back in the 1970's and 1980's

Huh? I don't follow. Doesn't an expanding canon mean more things to study? Maybe this seems like a bad thing to those looking in from the outside (and old farts like Harold Bloom) but I don't see the problem (and I say this as someone who studies "the great books" of the English Renaissance).

since English departments sill haven't figured out whether their job is primarily one of criticism (I have this to say about this literary phenomena) or of history (I am trained to know and say things about the canon, even as it expands and changes)

Again, huh? Why can't we do both? There are people who specialize in one, there are people who specialize in the other. There are people who crossover. I really don't see the problem.

a corps of unperpaid graduate students far larger that the actual number of tenure-track positions available

Yep, that's me. But how is this different from the majority of professions, especially those that require a university education or a graduate/professional degree? It seems there are always more people who need a job than there are jobs.

ki: My naive expectation was that English departments were supposed to teach the techne of (literary) writing.

Your post is a little confusing, so I'm not sure what specifically you're talking about. Are you talking about creative writing? I assume you are, at least in part, since you mention MFAs (not what I am). Are you talking about New Critical methods of close reading that bardic disparaged? Again, I think you might be talking about this as well. I think you might be conflating two things. In my experience, very few MFAs ever study "theory" or are even interested in theory. At the two graduate programs I've attended, 95% of them were extremely hostile to discussing issues of "gender, identity politics, history" etc.

On the other hand, many MA & PhD lit students do have an unfortunate weakness when it comes to the finer points of formal analysis. There are a number of causes for this: the reaction against New Criticism (by both the traditional critics it displaced and the theoretically minded critics who in turn supplanted it) and the introduction and subsequent institutionalization of various schools of literary and critical theory caused a shift in graduate curriculum that deemphasized rigorous close reading, or at least deemphasized the teaching of it; with an ever expanding canon of both primary and "secondary" texts, certain things were left behind. The assumption was, I think, that, like you say, many students learned this stuff in high school. Of course, the diversification of the student population proved this assumption wrong. But still, I don't think there were ever many programs that really rammed theory down the students throats at the expense of all traditional forms of literary study, except for maybe a few that were explicitly oriented to cultural studies and high theory, like UC-Irvine maybe or the Duke "Literature" program (different from their "English" program). In my experience, there is a return of sorts to formalism going on in an attempt to rein in some of the excesses of the high theorists and ground them in close reading and technical analyses.
posted by papakwanz at 8:40 PM on December 29, 2006


papakwanz, I swear I'm on your side, but talk to any university VP or someone working below her and you'll realize quickly where the bread is buttered.

As for my experience as a graduate instructor, I was paid a criminally low amount of money for my time and talent to teach courses that tenured profs couldn't be bothered with. If I was doing my first job at Dean Witter or even, say, a public high school, I'd at least have made a living wage and had benefits. I think that's a qualitative difference. The romance of the "apprenticeship" is so much 19th century garbage. Granted, it was garbage I bought into for a while, but I simply wish PhD programs in the humanities would not take degrees-of-magnitude more people in than they could ever possibly hope to find jobs for, especially if you don't go to one of six or seven institution (Harvard, Yale, etc.).
posted by bardic at 11:15 PM on December 29, 2006


(Interestingly enough, there were some unexpected up-sides to being a failed PhD candidate -- I got involved in journalism on the side, I helped edit the 4th ed. Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, I generally managed to indirectly pick up some important skills, including, obviously, teaching. I'd call it scrambling to cover my ass, but I swear I had advisors who would, with a straight face, claim that not giving me health benefits (until my last two years or so) was "good" for me. And I went to a top-ten school, at least according to the magazines.)
posted by bardic at 11:18 PM on December 29, 2006


bardic: I'm completely aware of the way the humanities are perceived by many at universities and the difficulties faced by humanities programs re: funding. I'm quite involved in lobbying to increase the humanities funding and make ourselves a visible important presence on campus here at my own university. Nor do I think there's anything "romantic" about getting paid $15k a year (although I do have health insurance). My first year out of undergrad I made $80k. Now I'm down to less than 1/4 of that, but I am happier (most of the time) because I'm on a pathway to a career I actually give a damn about, and I'm pretty confident that I will make it into that career.

A couple of misconceptions though: 1) not all PhD programs in the humanities have bloated admissions. Many programs are very strict about limiting their admissions to those students who they can fully fund. Plus, the attrition rate of graduate programs shrinks the output further.
2) The job placement rate at places like Harvard and Yale is pretty miserable (at least for PhD's in English, I don't know about other departments), no better than the national average. There are a few reasons for this. Many of these programs tend to be very conservative in their curriculum, so some students don't even get a basic grounding in theory, they simply avoid it. Outside of these institutions, most schools want someone who can at least address some of the basic issues in literary/critical theory, so it's hard to go on the market if you have no understanding of theory (of course, this isn't true of all students coming out of these programs). Also, a lot of the students coming out of these programs (again, not all) have higher expectations for their first job than warranted. They want to jump into a tenure-track school at another ivy-league program or a major state university. Some of them can get these jobs; most can't, but they aren't willing to put in a couple years as an asst. professor at Small Liberal Arts U. or Minor State College. Finally, these programs don't focus on professionalization nearly as much as some other programs do. They rely on the name. I went to a conference 2 years ago or so (it was my 2nd conference, after my first year & 1/2 or so of my master's degree) and I met someone who was finishing her dissertation at UC-Berkeley; it was her first time presenting at an academic conference. She also didn't have any publications to her credit. In contrast, at my current phd program (at a big state school, and fairly well regarded, but not generally considered "top-10") most graduates come out having been to a number of conferences and published 1-2 (or more)0 articles, and having taught a variety of courses. Consequently, our placement rate for English PhDs over the last 15 yrs or so is roughly 2x the national average. Despite all that, though, we are struggling, and its primarily due to funding; neither the university (nor the state government) wants to increase funding to the humanities (actually, the state government doesn't seem to want to fund the university at all, but that's another issue). So, yeah, I know that times are tough for the humanities, but regardless of what others may think, *I* believe that they are important and I'm willing to fight for them.
posted by papakwanz at 9:03 AM on December 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


Good points, all of which are well taken. It sounds like you're in a great department, not just in terms of brain-power, but also treatment of grad. students, which is very nice.
posted by bardic at 1:38 AM on December 31, 2006


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