Postmodern Cleanness

This general legal and "democratic" representation (the abstraction of the general will so that it can constitute supposedly a single mirroring mind of government) presupposes civility, just as cognitive representation presupposes uni-vocity. But here also, there is a reciprocal foundation (Alliez 1996). Civility also presupposes formal representation. For, even if there must be orderly behavior and handshakes between rivals if there is to be an election or a court trial, nevertheless the hidden presupposition of civility is abstract equality and formal negative freedom. All may use forks (a Renaissance innovation) and wear their conforming or alternative styles, or be dirty or externally clean (now without any symbolic resonance) in manifold conventional or subversive fashions (Bossy 1985: 121-2); it denotes nothing and therefore nothing (or everything) is affirmed or subverted in the fullest conformity. If all are to be free and to aim for anything, then, paradoxically, behavior must be made more and more predictable; but, inversely, an essentially contentless behavior always proclaims freedom, and the sublime gesture. "Postmodern" civility and "modern" representation therefore continuously spring up together. And they both conform to "a certain Middle Ages": a Middle Ages tending to privatize devotion and separate clerical from lay power - thereby immanentizing the latter.

Civility and rights coalesce around the idea of a normative formalism. Rights allow an appearance of peace through regularity that disguises the agon of the marketplace and competing state bureaucracies. Civility prevails in the space of "civil society" or of free cultural intercourse that is supposedly aside from state mechanisms and not wholly subordinated to the pursuit of abstract wealth. Any radical analysis of contemporary society has to expose these twin formalisms as disguising the operations of concrete if self-deluded interests. Do postmodern discourses attain to such radicalism?

Here it is possible to isolate three tendencies that one can associate with the names of Levinas (and to a large extent Derrida), Deleuze, and Badiou respectively.

First of all, a Levinasian perspective tends to merge together the perspective of rights with the perspective of civility. A Kantian formalism regarding the generalized other is supposedly exceeded at the point where a legal acknowledgment of freedom passes over into the nonlegislatable style of regarding the other's specificity. This is a matter of cultivating a manner, rather than simply following a rule. And apparently this is a liturgical idiom, because respect for the other is described by Levinas in terms of the worshipful acknowledgment of the absolute Other, in his irreducible absence (Levinas 1969). At this point, Alain Badiou objects to Levinas that such a religious perspective mystifies and obscures human relationships. If every human being presents to us the absolute distance of God, then we are always asked to respect the ineffable in mortals, and nothing is said regarding how we are to respect the actual appearing attributes of mortals, save vacuously, insofar as they contain a "trace" of the unsoundable (Badiou 2002). Here the merging of rights with the protocols of sublime civility toward others in fact removes one even further from a characterization of those others, whose noumenality now exceeds even the rationality and freedom of the Kantian bearer of rights. It is not clear that this sort of respect for the other rules out any act of violence that one might commit against appearing bodily subjects, since nothing that appears is here regarded as a token of what warrants absolute respect, and furthermore the realm of appearing is for Levinas always necessarily - beyond the whit of politics - contaminated by totalizing oppression. Because of this latter perspective, Levinas does not seem to deny that a certain instrumentalization of human life and human bodies is unavoidable in the world of human labor and striving; but he then has no means of teleo-logical discrimination between acceptable and unacceptable instrumentaliza-tions. In consequence, the most diabolical instrumentalization could still present itself as compatible with respect for the nonappearing other. With reason, Badiou avers that this is just what the West tends to do with the discourses of rights and pluralism: when respect for the other harmonizes with the power of a capital-owning minority, liberalism is affirmed; when this particular mode of arbitrary power is threatened by relatively noncapitalist forces, liberalism is suspended and all sorts of terroristic acts and torturings are legitimated (Badiou 2002: 18-40).

Ultimately, the hopeless formalism of Levinas's ethics is determined by its reactive character. The ethical impulse is for Levinas born with our "persecution" by the sufferings of others. That is to say, his ethic assumes death and violence as the fundamental facts of ethical relevance; such a perspective is perfectly compatible with nihilism and in some ways Levinas appears to offer an ethic for nihilists. This negativity means that for Levinas the only shared attribute of human beings beyond ineffability is the fact that we are all going to die. Against this perspective, Badiou suggests, in some ways in keeping with Augustine, that the good has primacy over evil, and that the good for human beings arises in those acts of imagination whereby we conceive of noble projects that transcend our mere animality and mortality. Evil is therefore more or less privative and not the radical positive force which wields the instrument of death in the name of totalization as for so many of the followers of Levinas, Derrida and even Zizek (Badiou 2002: 40-90).

One might say that for Levinas the best one can do is to exercise a kind of metaphysical politeness in the face of death. However, Badiou surely oversimplifies the problem in saying that Levinas illustrates the danger of letting ethics be contaminated by religion. One could argue that Levinas also commits just the opposite error: transcendence is reduced to the essentially immanent distance of the subjective other, who occupies just the same univocal space as ourselves.

If Levinas can be construed as the contemporary philosopher of rights and civility, this is in no way obviously true of Gilles Deleuze. To the contrary, a Deleuzian perspective would fully recognize that notions of civil society tend to conceal from view the playing out of power disputes. It is not an abstract respect for rights which is promoted by Deleuze, but rather a Spinozistic wider and wider combining of active forces in order to permit mutual flourishing (Deleuze 1968).

For Deleuze, such forces manifest no basic drives or possibilities, but are themselves always the play of surface simulacra which conceal no real original essences. A certain Nietzschean distance from pure Marxist orthodoxy is indicated by what is in effect a refusal to read the late capitalist "society of the spectacle" (Debord 2001) purely in terms of an augmentation of the role of the spell of the fetishized commodity as an element in sustaining conformity. For Deleuze, as for most of the post-1960s generation marked by Nietzsche, there can be in a sense only fetishes, and the specifically capitalist illusion concerns the confinement of the play of substitution and divergence by abstract fundamental norms, rather than the older substantive norms of transcendence. This is the holding back of complete "deterritorialization" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987).

Nevertheless, the modern, capitalist order still represents for Deleuze an important, and even it would seem fated, stage of deterritorialization within the historical process. Where Deleuze's position appears truly incompatible with Marxism is at the point where it would seem that pure deterritorialization can never arrive, any more than Derrida's pure gift, or pure difference and deferral uncontaminated by presence can arrive. For "territory" in Deleuze's philosophy is constituted within the space of epistemological representation. Beyond this space, and always governing it and undoing it, resides the virtual, which does not represent but constitutes new regimes of the event, and is not mere "possibility" because of its anarchic unpredictability. However, just as for Heidegger the history of Being ensures that there must be ontic illusion which is "folded back" into Being, so also for Deleuze, there must be the realm of representation and of temporary territorial illusion which is "folded back" into the virtual (Badiou 2000: 82-91).

It follows that one can say that, whereas Aquinas questions the instance of the Avicennian (and later Scotist) regime of representation, Deleuze affirms its sway within a certain realm of the real. Again, as with Heidegger's Being, this is because for him the virtual has no real ontological content. Just because this absolute is not God, it is paradoxically parasitical upon the very set of temporary orders which it institutes and ceaselessly undoes. The absolute speed of positive difference is too fast for being and understanding; their secondary illusion arrives always too late, but just for this reason belatedness is inescapable, and all that remains is the conformity of the vacuum of empty belatedness.

Part of Badiou's quarrel with Deleuze is a political one: Isn't all this Scotist apparatus of univocity, virtuality, and formal distinction (whereby anything can get composed with anything else and anything equally can get unraveled) only likely to issue in a nonrevolutionary politics of relative speeds where the theorist is simply the spectator of fated conflicts between territorial presidents and deter-ritorializing terrorists and mavericks which only obscurely allow some mode of ingress for a vision of justice and freedom? Deleuze's metaphysics does not allow any place for clean breaks - or even for any discontinuous ruptures whatsoever. At best it would seem to allow, after all, only for the development of civil protocols of temporary balance between restraint and emergence - while one would always have the suspicion that the real manners pertaining between emperors and nomads occurred according to a predetermined and impersonal code.

So what is Badiou's third alternative to Levinas and Deleuze? And does this offer a postmodern escape from the coils of civility?

In one sense it does. Badiou's manners are much more those of revolutionary rupture. He celebrates the pure event or arrival of innovation in the spheres of politics, cosmology, art, and eros (Badiou 1989). Compared with Deleuze, this event of arrival is granted no ontological underpinning - not even the contradictory one of emergence from a virtuality which it simultaneously cancels or contradicts. At the same time, however, the event in Badiou's philosophy ceases to have the sense of plural fragment that still clings around Deleuzian and Derridean difference. To the contrary, Badiou insists that the revolutionary event in any sphere is henceforward universally compelling for all humanity, and he combines this with a traditionalist Marxist (or Maoist) impatience at the politics of ethnic, racial, and sexual difference (Badiou 2002: 18-30).

In this fashion, for Badiou, the universal emerges from a singularity, not from a hidden background of neo-Platonic unity. Though he shares Deleuze's affirmation of univocity, he declares that if he were forced to choose between the univocal and the multiple, he would choose the multiple. And for Badiou events occur not against a background of the henological virtual which generates an agonistic play between movement and stasis, but rather against a background of meaningless multiplicity. Here he develops a fundamental ontology on the basis of the Cantorian theory of infinites (Badiou 1988b).

All that there is is an infinite set of multiples that themselves endlessly break down into infinite sets and subsets. All these monadic universes, one could say, enshrine the mirror-play that allows the illusion of representation; but in contrast to Deleuze, these universes are originally there, and therefore the possibility of representation is more primary and it lies in a noncontradictory relation to fundamental ontology. What stands in contrast to representation now arises not before but after it, in the field of the pure event, which is a kind of surface counter-current to ontology, governed by the Platonic priority of the Good over Being; but with the Good now defined in terms of the radical imagination of new possibilities.

The pure event is held to break with the static given "situation" that embodies some set or other of the multiple. Here Badiou appears much closer to the situa-tionists and their surrealist legacy than Deleuze, because the break with the spectacular universe of the commodity is seen as absolute, and the pure event performed with integrity as a genuine origination uncontaminated by secon-dariness or mimesis. There is no longer any need for a civil or well-mannered social governance of an unavoidable ontological agon, between what totalizes and what breaches and innovates. Thus politically Badiou advocates militant industrial disturbances plus removal from parliamentary processes, and yet, at the same time, pressure on the state to force it to make destabilizing concessions. He claims, against Deleuze, that nothing in his ontology renders impossible the realization of the socialist hopes which drive such stances (Badiou 2002: 95-145).

This political approach has its parallel in Badiou's deployment of religious analogues. We have already seen that he is critical of Lévinas for his religiosity, and he is a far more militant atheist than Derrida - and perhaps even than Deleuze or Nietzsche, since in place of the Spinozistic substantive void, or the Dionysiac will to power (the "will of a god" perhaps literally for Nietzsche), we have instead the pure Mallarméan random throw of the cosmic dice (Badiou 2000: 74-5).

And yet it is possible to claim that this purer atheism is less obviously nihilism; less obviously the worship of a dark Lord. For in Badiou's philosophy, the random and agonistic are in no way subtly affirmed and fated by a more primary virtu-ality or Being into which they are "folded back." As with Mallarmé, the hope here persists that a single throw or series of throws of the dice may yet somehow defeat the desert of chance itself (Mallarmé 1999: 122).

On one level this would appear to be a humanist hope; and there is far more residue of Sartrean humanism in Badiou than in other of the soixante-huitards, however he might protest this. Yet this is not entirely accurate: Badiou retains the tincture of transcendence in the Mallarméan hope. It would seem indeed that he must do so, if he is to explain how the singular event can have the lure of the universal: how, for example, the French Revolution or Cubist painting or Cantorian mathematics or the cult of romantic love should rightly elicit the admiration of all humanity, and yet be entirely self-founded, appealing to no pre-given ontological or epistemological circumstances.

It is here that Badiou proclaims himself still Platonist, offering a "Platonism of the multiple" that expresses the radical thrust of the later Platonic dialogues. And yet Badiou (too hastily perhaps) rejects the continuing role of the Forms in the later Plato, together with his account of methexis. He ascribes without warrant to Plato a recognition of the univocity of being. This leaves a flattened-out ontology of the multiple, in myriad combinations. In this cosmos the absoluteness of human practices is not guaranteed by participation in the forms, in Being, in the One, or in God. But how, then, can something with a singular beginning represent more than the arbitrary sway of power? In asking this question, Badiou remains in effect postmodern, yet appears to break with postmodern nihilism and the enthronement of the agon of difference.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Self Help Affirmations

Self Help Affirmations

The big book of affirmations from personal development authors. An affirmation is something you say to yourself. Everybody uses them on purpose or accidentally. You get up in the morning, leap out of bed and proclaim,

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment