Monday, May 22, 2017

The Struggles of 2017 (As Seen From 1968)

Alain Badiou, The True Life

Western traditions and moral foundations are withering, says Alain Badiou. Religion and politics are vestiges of an older time, while capitalism reduces us alternately to children and instruments. In this series of talks, originally directed at adolescents, Badiou questions where youth culture could head in an era when we distrust the past and cannot count upon the future. Answers aren’t much forthcoming, but in philosophy, sometimes the questions matter more.

As a sometime academic and recent convert to contemporary French philosophers, I had high expectations from this book. But even I found Badiou’s prose dense, his reasoning tangential, and his conclusions unsupported by evidence. He presents an opaque philosophy, putatively for teenagers and young adults, that even grey-haired scholars may find confusing and impractical. And it verges, at times, on messianism. I can’t imagine whom Badiou is actually writing for.

Much of Badiou’s philosophy comes straight from his foundations in Paris 1968. He is both agnostic (he says atheist, but fudges), and an unreconstructed Leninist. He draws on an ecumenical selection of sources: Plato and Lacan, Rimbaud and Marx. But he doesn’t feel merely beholden to his influences; he goes beyond them, comments on their thoughts, and attempts to weave his Situationist-era roots with the smartphone age.

The result is, shall we say, chaotic. Badiou caroms from the necrotizing consequences of late capitalism; through the imposed roles of young and old, whom he believes should ally in rebellion against the middle-aged system; through importance and absence of unifying adulthood rites in a post-religious society; to gender roles and, honestly, I’ve forgotten what all else. His underlying thesis is, apparently, that modernity is confusing. Anyone could’ve written that.

Alain Badiou and friend
Not that I’d call Badiou wrong. He says plenty I find appealing. For instance, he writes how a secularized society without clear adulthood rites, traps citizens in perpetual adolescence. “The adult,” he writes, in one of my favorite quotes, “becomes someone who’s a little better able than the young person to afford to buy big toys.” Capitalism, in Badiou’s analysis, turns functioning grown-ups into vehicles of juvenile appetite.

He flinches on this later. Not people, but boys specifically, occupy a permanent teenaged wilderness. Capitalism stunts boys well into senescence, but turns girls into women from the cradle. So, tacitly, he accepts males as “normal” and females as “exceptional.” This becomes most apparent when he says if you look at a woman, “really look at her,” atheism is proved. He doesn’t say how. I know female pastors who’d disagree.

So, okay, Badiou makes weird statements and assumes his readers’ preferential agreement. That doesn’t make him wrong. Indeed, he’s a veritable assembly line of meaningful quotes about modernism’s essential vacuity. “The career is the hole-plugger of meaninglessness,” he says of how men’s adulthood is purely instrumental to capitalism. Or of women’s roles, “There are some women who are laboring oxen and some who are Persian cats.”

These statements make perfect sense to anybody who’s witnessed how society values men according to their remunerative value, and how it forces women into pre-written scripts that, feminism notwithstanding, have changed little. Readers who find modernist capitalism disappointing, like this ex-libertarian, may find themselves pumping their fists in exultation to see a scholar learnedly attesting what we’ve already thought, in terms concise enough for a t-shirt.

Yet reading his reasoning, I keep thinking: your conclusion doesn’t follow from your evidence. In one key moment, Badiou defends lengthy arguments by citing Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, an attempted psychoanalytic explanation of rudimentary religion, which I couldn’t finish because it requires more leaps of faith than the Bible. Freud’s corpus of work is mainly regarded as pseudoscience now anyway, so citing Freud doesn’t strengthen your claims.

That’s just an example, but it’s realistically representative of Badiou’s reasoning process. One suspects he starts with certain premises, like perhaps, that the financial collapse of 2008 and the rise of reactionary nationalism in industrialized nations go hand-in-hand, a premise so bipartisan that Bernie Sanders and Marine le Pen could probably agree upon that. Then he ransacks his personal papers, unchanged since 1968, to craft a justifying explanation.

Basically, I expected better from someone of Badiou’s standing. I want to say, take what you need and leave the rest; but a right conclusion from wrong reasoning is still wrong. Badiou crafts just enough useful slogans that I suspect he understands the core of the common situation. Then he lards it with weird source citations and intellectual cow paths. I just can’t figure where he’s coming from.

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