by Terence Blake
In A PHILOSOPHICAL EVENING (Une soirée philosophique, 1988) Badiou tells us that an author thinks and writes for a reader who encounters the book by a happy chance, who finds the book, like someone who finds a horseshoe, as in Osip Mandelstam’s poem THE HORSESHOE FINDER:
He who finds a horseshoe shines it rubbing it with a woollen cloth, hangs it over the threshold so it may rest from striking sparks on flint
(Note, I have translated the poem from Badiou’s French text. For a direct translation from the Russian by Steven Willett see: THE HORSESHOE FINDER).
There can be no Badiousians nor Badiou experts on this model. Despite his formidable will to system, Badiou sees his activity as poetic, as striking philosophical sparks from mathematical flint. He asks “How have I myself struck sparks on the flint of the matheme“. The poem does not mention the matheme, and we can consider Badiou to be too modest here. He has struck sparks not just from science, but also from art, politics, and love.
Badiou goes on to say that despite subscribing to this poetic image of thought he cannot give credence to Mandelstam’s diagnosis of our epoch, expressed in this poem, as one of completion and closure, of decline and terminal nostalgia. He declares that thought has not come to an end, it cannot be reduced to hopeless playing with dead ideas, to nihilist necrologies or postmodern micrologies.
In his Seminar on Heidegger (dated 1986-1987, published 2015), Badiou cites Rimbaud’s cry: “I lived, spark of gold of nature light”. He contrasts Rimbaud’s sparks with substance, and speaks of the constant danger of the “return to substance”, that overtook him at the end.
The discourse of the end of philosophy, over and above particular themes that may be in fashion at one time or another, is subservient to the ends of neoliberalism, that Badiou calls “capitalo-parliamentarism”. The neoliberal hypothesis is that philosophy as creation of a conceptual space for Truths is finished because it posits non-existent entities: all that exists is bodies and language games regulated by the market.
Badiou’s hypothesis is “philosophy is possible”, that is: more sparks are possible. Up to now that hypothesis has been confirmed by his own writings and seminars. The contrary hypothesis, propounded by Laruelle, of philosophy as caught in the enclosure of its own sufficiency, is disconfirmed by the arrogance of its own enunciation and by the indigence of its own performances.
Badiou has continued to surprise us over the decades, and I think it is a mistake to privilege the substance (the system) over the sparks (conceptual creations), insofar as one can distinguish the two. I have always read Badiou in this sense, for the sparks of creative insight, despite my misgivings about the systematic facture that enwraps them.
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