At the end of Un, Multiple, an examination of Deleuze’s work in response to critics of his book on Deleuze, the Clamor of Being, Badiou gives his sotie/enemy (G-D) a backhanded compliment:
“Let’s recall that in our eyes, one of Deleuze’s cardinal virtues is to have hardly ever utilized, in his own name, all the ‘modern’ deconstructionist train [tout l’attirail déconstructiviste"moderne"] and to have been, without the least complex, a metaphysician (or, more than this, a physicist, in the presocratic sense of the term).”
There’s a cautionary note for the writers of a blog named after one of Derrida’s essays. In fact, we are going to put in place some of that deconstructive machinery in spite of Badiou’s evident horror of it. Reader, beware.
As we said in our last post, Badiou’s theses on art interest us as much for what they tell us about Badiou’s peculiar sense of truth as for his aesthetics. Formally, what Badiou might object to here is that, once again, deconstruction obstinately refuses to allow the author the freedom to decide the topic and its order – in other words, it grounds its critique of mastery in a pointless preliminary struggle with the master before he has even made a claim to that status, confusing vandalism and guerilla warfare, mugging and wrestling with Jacob's angel. But let’s put that objection aside for a moment, even as we reluctantly note its pertinence. Here, in LI’s translation, are the first six theses.
Theses on contemporary art
1. Art is not the sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and the genitals. On the contrary, it is the production, by the finite mean of a material subtraction, of an infinite subjective series.
2. Art can’t be the expression of the particular, be it ethnic or egoist [moïque]. It is the impersonal production of a truth which addresses itself to all [qui s’address a tous].
3. The truth of which art is the process is always the truth of the sensible qua sensible. Which means: transformation of the sensible into the event of the Idea.
4. There is necessarily a plurality of arts, and whatever may be the imaginable intersections among them, no totalisation of this plurality is, itself, imaginable.
5. All art came from an impure form, and the purification fo that impurity composes the history both of the artistic truth and its extenuation.
6. The subjects of an artistic truth are the works that compose it.
Notice, first, that these are not axioms or aphorisms. As theses, they have a semi-logical coherence – they hang together, even if their order is not logically deductive. Yet, as much as a thesis is so carved out of human conversation as to be more like a ritual utterance in a courtroom than a dialogue, Badiou has chosen to start off with a negation that is clearly dialogical. One wants to ask: who said art is the sublime descent into bodies and genitals (the genital portion might be a better translation of sexe, here)?
We could name the names. Badiou even supposes that we could. He himself doesn’t, though, isolating the enonce from the agent, the reference, the proper name, all the irritating paraphernalia that would load us down – the attirail -- which actually produced it. Isn't this, according to Marx, the mark of the birth of ideology -- when men bow down to the idols of their brains? But let's try to be more sympathetic, here. If, indeed, the "not" is an obvious not -- if Badiou is beginning with a topic that is known to the extent that anyone reading him can be presumed to know all about it, than the name would merely add an undeserved authority to the propostion. The name could, of course, be Bataille. But as it is, it is an x, no name.
So what, one wants to know, is the truth about the “sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and the genitals, ‘ and what would be the procedure for determining it? And would this procedure be artistic – or would it be about art, deriving from somewhere else -- say, philosophy?
LI’s idea is that a lot depends on the infinite, here. We are given a hint by the yoking together of sublime and descent – an inversion of the Kantian sublime, which is an ascent, indeed, an incommensurability, rather than a vertigo. Perhaps it is out of the proportions, or disproportions, forged in that Kantian sublime that the disproportion between the infinite – which may be an object of Reason, here – and the finite – that downward direction – takes place, or rather – is denied its place. Whatever it is, it isn’t art. The glance downward – a deconstructionist such as LI can’t help but think of the moment in Restitutions in which Derrida quotes Freud’s essay on fetishism, which postulates the (male) infant's upward gaze meeting the impossible object, Mother without a penis, and so looks, immediately, downward, to Mother’s foot – and the series that follows that archetypal moment of looking away. It is, of course, a boobytrapped series: it is boobytrapped by its finiteness, by the object that satisfies it only by provoking the hollowest orgasm, the one that builds around dissatisfaction, the boob that is, indeed, a trap, an exploding cigar, a shoe, panties, hose.
So: this odd thesis that reads like a reply to a fragment of conversation, and the sign that delimits art: no fetishists allowed. The material subtraction (of what?) will have to be faced. There is a reward for that, too: an infinite subjective series. This is where the infinite is supposed to go, then. Leaving, for the moment, the question unanswered: where are these truths uncovered?
If the first thesis separates the (little) boys from the fetishists, the second thesis pushes us, the receivers of the thesis, into the universal by another subtraction, this one of the expression of the particular. This, it turns out, is something art can’t be (ne saurait être). The “can not” in English doesn’t exactly correspond to the phrase in French. But it seems clear enough that, by forebidding another slot in the possible slots of things that art can be, we are getting somewhere. However, what is this movement? On the one hand, perhaps this is a fancy way of saying, identity politics is boring and makes art boring. But this statement is stronger than that. It isn’t just that art that mixes identity politics into the mix is bad – it isn’t art at all. So art, here, is detached from its sociological status, which would say, this is art merely because it is so indicated by the institutions that make art. Badiou is using truth, then, to pull us into a game that we have seen played before. Played, in fact, in the nineteenth century. In this game, the definition contains, in itself, the norms that give us an ideal of the object. The badness in art, then, is that thing in the art that pulls it away from being art. So that the truth of art, the truth made by art, the truth through which art is, will separate itself by its being itself from the untruth that art is not, the personal, the ethnic, the egotistical – the confession that does not rise above the quality of a note passed between students in a high school class, for instance.
Since this is a thesis about contemporary art, we could, to see if this statement is true, compare it to contemporary art practices – this would, in fact, be the critical thing to do. If we look at art from, say, 1900 on, it seems, on the surface, to be doing something different from Badiou’s claim for contemporary art – it seems to be continually searching for ways to be in relation to what isn’t art, and those ways have consisted, in part, of the ethnic, the sexual, the personal. Robert Lowell’s poems, Kiki Smith’s sculptures, or even Robert Walser’s Bleistiftschriften come to mind. Plus, of course, the curious inversion created by excluding bad art from good art in the definition of an art seeking the outside of art – for doesn’t this mean that art will seek bad art as its forbidden other? And isn’t this a return to the perversion from which, in our first thesis, we were seeking liberation?
But basta! LI doesn’t do this very often, but, what the hell. We will move from these theses to the theses on the Universal tomorrow, if we can, to explain -- or complain -- about Badiou's concept of the event.