Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rorty again: interim notes on Alain Badiou, _Metapolitics_

I'M ONLY AT midpoint (p. 77) with this, the first book by Badiou I've read, but while the topic is on my mind I want to point out another gratuitous smack at Richard Rorty, this one in Jason Barker's  "Translator's Introduction" to Badiou's book. Since the English version of Metapolitics appeared in 2005, when Rorty was still alive, Barker's smack seems less gratuitous than Samuel Moyn's (see LLL for February 13), but it still irritates.

Barker is writing about the poverty of contemporary political philosophy, which he compares to the "fraudulent behavior" of Kant, who professed admiration for the ideals of the revolution yet distaste for the policies of St. Just and Robespierre.  Rorty gets singled out for this kind of hypocrisy:

Today, the mere spectacle of democracy (and few are more skilled at waxing lyrical on the benefits of liberal democracy  than the contemporary armchair philosophers) lives on in the work of Richard Rorty, whose preference for "irony" over real politics is well documented [here Barker cites Rorty's Contingency, Irony, Solidarity].

Badiou himself does not mention Rorty (or any American thinker) in the book, so why is Rorty dragged in here? My guess is that he is disesteemed at Verso (publishers of the English version of Metapolitics) and neighboring precincts for such pronouncements as "Marxism was not only a catastrophe for all the countries in which Marxism took power, but a disaster for the reformist Left in all the countries in which they did not" (from Achieving Our Country--the whole second chapter of which argues along the same lines).

Well, perhaps Barker values Marx and Marxism, thus feels like taking a shot at a writer who was notoriously dismissive of Marx and Marxists... fair enough, yes?

So I thought until I got a ways into Badiou. Badiou say this about the term that furnishes the book's title:

By 'metapolitics' I mean whatever consequences a philosophy is capable of drawing both in and for itself, from real instances of politics as thought. Metapolitics is opposed to political philosophy, which claims that since no such politics exists, it falls to philosophers to think 'the' political.

That sounds powerful and liberating to me--but it also sounds a lot like Rorty. The first sentence of Contingency, Irony, Solidarity is, "About two hundred years ago, the idea that truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe." He goes on to lay out how the idea that the truths are made, not found, has worked its way through European philosophy since the French Revolution.  Rorty is clearly in the "making" camp, as is, to judge from the distinction he makes between "metapolitics" and "political philosophy," Badiou himself.

Badiou is also, apparently, no longer a Marxist: "I believe, to put it quite bluntly, that Marxism doesn't exist" (58). His rejection of Marxism, admittedly, has more to do with his idea of "singularities," the idea that trying to put Marx, Lenin, and Mao under the same conceptual umbrella just gets things wrong, than it does with the cruelties and humiliations inflicted by Marxist states, as it does with Rorty (Badiou can be snarky about the idea of "human rights'). But still, he's done with it, just as Rorty is.

Badiou sums up his own Manifesto for Philosophy and its notion of "truth procedures": "In their particular way they produce truths. Thus, philosophy operates on the basis of multiple truths, and certainly does not generate them itself." Hell's bells, that doesn't just sound like Rorty, it sounds like Isaiah Berlin, a name I imagine not uttered with much reverence around Verso.

There's a longish piece in Metapolitics on Sylvain Lazarus, whose book, if I understand Badiou correctly, wants to create intellectual space for us to conceive of the possibility of revolution and be alert to unpredictable, unforeseeable ways revolution can emerge in our practices. In part, this involves not being cowed by history and experience--the guillotine, Stalin.  This is a good point; without a sense of possibility, without hope, we are fucked. But would our sorry species have made it even this far had we not developed the ability to say, "since we got sick after eating the berries  from that bush yesterday, let's not eat them today"? Here is where the French philosophers could use a little William James, maybe, a little John Dewey, maybe even a little Rorty.

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