Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pythagoric snares

Those interested in Badiou should note the currently (and temporarily) available material online at Critical Inquiry, whose summer 2011 issue featured an article by David and Ricardo Nirenberg: "Badiou’s Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology." In Critical Inquiry's forthcoming winter issue (which, when it comes out, will render the links here dead), the Nirenbergs' critique is responded to by A.J. Bartlett and Justin Clemens, whose article is prefaced with some brief remarks by Badiou, the gist of which is (I quote) "What a disappointment!"

Bartlett and Clemens' description, which I read first, led me to expect some truly dismal thinking when I turned to the Nirenberg's original essay. The claim is, over and over, that not only have the Nirenbergs (who they, um, "cleverly" re-name Nini, with a nod to Derrida's Limited Inc, in a move that seems just depressingly nyah-nyah by the third instance) misread Badiou, but that they have done so willfully, or stupidly, or both—unless, that is, the Nirenbergs have not read him at all, which Bartlett and Clemens do not hesitate to insinuate may well be.

Suffice it to say that upon turning to the Nirenbergs' essay, this claim does not hold up. But their point that the Nirenbergs have read Badiou against his own express declarations certainly stands. This is not, to my mind, a coup de grace. One may well say, after all, that if the Nirenbergs can argue that Badiou's formulations can be put to serve positions which contradict other of his own explicit statements, so much the worse for Badiou. The real question is not whether the Nirenbergs have read from (or even into) Badiou statements which are contradicted by some of Badiou's own intentions (or, God help us, the secondary literature), but whether or not their readings are defensible philosophically. Certainly they arrive at conclusions about Badiou which I cannot share, but the condescending dismissal of their argument seems to me to be woefully beside the point.

To be sure, I am not of their position, nor of Badiou's, when it comes to the nature of philosophy nor of what they call "pythagoric snares." Their central contention—that, as they put it in their rejoinder to Bartlett and Clemens,
Badiou's thesis deliberately blurs essential distinctions between realms of discourse
—could be put as well to Plato (a point they concede in advance); but this is, I maintain, a constituent practice of philosophy, not a regrettable lapse of good philosophical discrimination but one half of philosophical praxis. The other half, of course, is knowing what one is doing, and continuing to make the "essential distinctions" which are nonetheless blurred. It must be said that Badiou reiterates these distinctions with a rare degree of articulation. If I think he lapses, it not in blurring the distinctions, for which the Nirenbergs fault him, but in doing so with too guilty of a conscience.

This is because I maintain that the Whole, with which Badiou is overtly willing to dispense, is a sine qua non of philosophy. The "blurring" for which the Nirenbergs reproach Badiou is, to my mind, the unavoidable (albeit deniable) practice of the "flip side" of articulation. The closest we come to this in language is poetic trope. Obviously, this thesis is close to unacceptable to Badiou, for whom it could (depending on just what we mean by "language" here) amount to conceding that poetry is a form of silence (as he puts it in his study of Wittgenstein), or—more tendentiously—a form of non-thought. On the other hand it is also unacceptable to the Nirenbergs, since for them it would license the "pythagoric snares" to which they object so strongly, mistakes (as they see it),
in which contingent aspects of mathematical models are used to reach cosmological or ontological conclusions.
They point, e.g., to Glaucon's discussion of the "nuptial number" at Republic 545 &c. I on the other hand hold that the account of political justice, or cosmogenesis, or the relation between word and object, in terms of mathematics or cookery or what have you is an echo of an archaic-&-perennial consciousness whose critique and defense are the twin sides of the proper vocation of philosophy. I therefore do not regard the "snares" in the symptomatic a priori objectionable terms used by the Nirenbergs; indeed I do not see such moves as "reaching conclusions" at all; I see them as being suggestive and pointing beyond the articulable realm. (Their example is a case in point, as would be obvious if they paused to consider—among other things—that it is Glaucon not Socrates who makes this argument)

A final word about the Nirenbergs' own tone. While hardly as persnickety as Bartlett and Clemens', there is something a little troubling about it. The conclusion of their essay states:
insofar as [Badiou's] mathematical ontology disguises the contingent in robes of necessity, it can only diminish our freedom. We can embrace the politics if we so wish. But we should not confuse this choice with mathematics, nor can we call it philosophy.
I have my doubts about this whole formulation, and Bartlett and Clemens do a fair job of explaining why one might be forgiven for thinking the first sentence naïve. I am not concerned with the naïveté, but with the tendentiousness. The implication is that Badiou has either deceived himself or hopes to deceive us into "confusing" politics with mathematics. Confusion is not the same as "blurring," or, to have recourse to an over-used but still pertinent word, problematizing, a discursive boundary. As I have elsewhere argued, it may be permissible to question Badiou's philosophy's claim to the title platonism. But it is pretty staggering to suggest that his platonism does not deserve the title of philosophy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Follow the argument

By now anyone who cares has doubtless heard more than they can take about the way #Occupy protesters have disrupted traffic and business and school, and how police have been "forced" to use batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. There have also been occasions at which a kind of ad hoc bonhomie flowered for a few welcome moments, as when in New York police told the drum circle, "we like that beat."

Most of the stories are not so cheerful: protesters doused with pepper spray by police officers attempting to clear a public street--except that the protesters were on the sidewalk; or hit point-blank in the face with pepper spray while they sat peacefully on the lawn, arms linked; or battered and struck by batons, again with arms linked in solidarity (a posture the chancellor of Berkeley insisted was "not nonviolent", whatever the hell that means. Did you need another reason to despair over the state of American higher education?)

You can go on iterating stories like this until you want to cry. As atrocious as some of the anecdotes are, no, they don't involve (so far) any real ammunition (if you don't count aerosols), and yes, yes, the police "are the 99% too." Yet neither the grim details nor the saving caveats are central to the Occupiers' concerns. With every line, such accounts point us to questions of crowd management, on police abuse of power, and to civic questions about "balancing rights." They could all seem, in short, a tremendous diversion of attention.

This diversion has had me thinking hard lately. The activist in me (struggling hard with the cynic) sees every story about police brutality as changing the subject--not as good press or bad press, but just the wrong press, press about the wrong issue. The problem is not police brutality. The problem is corporatism.

But. The philosopher must be concerned with the Whole. Socrates gave the philosopher a twofold rule: follow the argument wherever it leads. This means:

follow the argument wherever it leads,

and also,

follow the argument wherever it leads.

The first formulation, Following the argument wherever it leads, means that we see how issue opens upon issue and question upon question. What does it mean that a protest against corporatism has occasioned police brutality? What is the balance, in our tradition, between the right to protest and other legitimate civic concerns--sanitation, safety, commerce? While some of these debates are legitimate (the police, alas, are not the only ones victimizing people in protest camps, as allegations of rape make all too clear), some smell like opportunistic attempts to get rid of Something In The Way. At what point, or under what conditions, then, do these questions themselves cease being legitimate and become instead subterfuge for maintaining the status quo?

The second formulation, Following the argument wherever it leads, means: it is important that we should see that these matters are all intimately intertwined with each other, but that importance will be lost on us if we forget that they are intertwined specifically with the central matter of the economic system under which we have lived more or less since the Civil War, if not the Jackson administration. Keeping sight of this center is not just a concern for activists. It is (I insist) a matter for anyone who wants to think. The movement (if that's what it is) needs to think broadly, but also at length.

There is, too, the third dimension--depth--which asks after what used to be called the existential meaning of these questions: what is human life that these politics can arise in it, what is politics that it sheds light on, or obscures, our human predicament? If you can ask these while not losing the urgency of the immediate task-at-hand (i.e., while tracking the argument), you are, in my book, a philosopher. Which of course does not make one immune from mistakes. Maybe the opposite. Probably.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints' Day in time and vice-versa

The Feast of All Saints is not just the last major feast of the Church Year, but, as such, is also the eschatological Feast.
Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
The Book of Common Prayer (ECUSA) contains a rubric specifying that "All Saints' Day may always be observed on the Sunday following November 1, in addition to its observance on the fixed date." This is an unusual feature; All Saints' is the only Feast of which this double observation is permitted. It is the last major feast of the Church Year; the day when the Church celebrates the company of all the Holy (i.e., the Church itself). (As is usually the case, "scholars are divided," but there are reasons to believe that in some parts of the pre-Christian world, this day marked the New Year.) I do not say that the Church intended the meanings which I find in this curious rubric (and I have not been able to ascertain how venerable it is--it may go back only to the preparatory materials for the '79 Prayer Book), but I think one may read an eschatological significance in the fact that, in this way, the Feast can be seen as bracketing the "ordinary time" of the week, falling on November 1 and then recurring on the Eighth Day of the week, the day of eternity. The Feast's temporal bivalence underscores the way the ontology of the Church is fundamentally eschatology: the Church itself, "the company of all blessed people," is the kingdom that is both coming, beyond the horizon of chronology, and is also now here. To use language that is a bit misunderstood these days, the Church Suffering is the Church Triumphant.