Saturday, June 16, 2012
Excursus: Badiou’s Sickle—Philosophy Against its Conditions
Whereas some thinkers have sutured or fused philosophy to one of its four generic procedures or conditions—art, love, science or politics—Badiou’s gesture is to separate philosophy from its conditions in a principled act of separation and discernment which I hereby name Badiou’s sickle. An argument could be made to call this gesture a scythe or shears—all three tools involving cutting or pruning. It is a cognate of Ockham’s razor (lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony) and Hume’s fork, other instruments of thought denoting distinction and separation. There is a family resemblance,[i] too, to Wittgenstein’s ladder, invoked as an argument one uses like steps or a ladder to “climb beyond them.” The reference is to be found in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)[ii]
The difference is that the conditions from which we wish to separate philosophy are not merely stepping stones, instruments or means to an end which can be discarded once we arrive at the end. Neither are they “lies-to-children” in an update on Plato’s Noble Lie. The conditions have the force of suturing philosophy precisely because they are truth-procedures in themselves, hence it would be a mistake to dismiss them like so many “useful idiots.”[iii]
On the other hand, there is the temptation to make philosophy itself one of its conditions. This is the proposal of Slovenian theoretical psychoanalyst Alenka Zupancic in her essay on the “fifth condition.”[iv] To recapitulate, Zupancic argues the following: philosophy’s conditions do not provide a foundation for philosophy, because if they did this would “suture” philosophy and lead to its “suspension,” or abandoning itself to one of its conditions. Nonetheless, she posits that:
One could thus say that there is also a fifth condition of philosophy: philosophy has to pull away from the immediate grip of its own conditions, while nevertheless remaining inder the effect of these conditions.[v]
She arrives at this by acknowledging that Badiou is the first philosopher to conceptualize the singular notion of the Two. Acknowledging that philosophy must “take place within the space of the infinite process of truth without itself becoming a process of truth” that is, “situated on the same level as generic procedures yet a certain distance from them,”[vi] Zupancic argues that philosophy must rely on the “immanent count-for-two.” Zupancic concludes that the count-for-two is also a fifth condition which “defines the very relationship of philosophy with its conditions and keeps it from merging with them, as well as from appearing as their independent sum.”[vii]
In a discussion of Badiou’s politics, Oliver Feltham poses the parallel problem of inhabiting philosophy, that is, “how to take a position within its field, how to even identify its domain via a ‘front,’ a line of conflict, while at the same time completely renaming and refiguring it.”[viii] Feltham calls it “the renovator’s problem[ix]: how do you inhabit what you want to tear down and rebuild?” Citing Althusser’s failed project of trying to fuse politics and philosophy, Feltham argues that philosophy must rigorously separate its own names from the immanent names of a truth procedure and avoid the trap of (con)fusing procedures or conditions with one another (e.g., political art). On the other hand, if these procedures do not intersect or have a common language (Badiou does not present Cantorian set theory or discuss a poem by Mallarmé in the same way), just how does philosophy discern their truths?
While I am aware of this aporia in Badiou’s thought and sympathetic to her argument, I think Zupancic’s resolution is not altogether coherent with Badiou’s approach, in part for the larger problems that Feltham poses. The problem with Zupancic’s elaboration of Badiou’s argument about conditions is that Badiou has posited an instrument of absolute separation, not of degrees. He draws a sharp line—an epistemological cut—between philosophy and its conditions that will be among his lasting gifts to thought. To this cut, I give the name Badiou’s sickle or scythe, an instrument we will apply to other fields, notaby psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. In this analysis, psychiatry cannot be reduced, fused or sutured to one of its conditions—be they the chimeras named “cognitive behaviour therapy,” “existential analysis,” “neuroscience and genetics,” “phenomenological psychiatry,” “systemic family therapy” or “sociocultural studies.” It is in this sense that RD Laing eschewed the label “antipsychiatry” and described himself as an “orthodox psychiatrist,” affirming the key mission of psychiatry as clinical.
In Jewish religious observance, there is a ritual called havdalah, meaning the separation of the sacred from the profane.[x],[xi] Badiou’s sickle functions as a rite of separation of philosophy, which is consacrated to pure thought, from its important, even necessary but subordinate, not to say profane, conditions.
Let us therefore add Badiou’s scythe to the tool-kit of the philosopher. Along with the workaday objects every thinker needs—a ladder (Wittgenstein), a razor (Ockham) and a fork (Hume)—we can now add instruments for cutting, pruning, and sometimes clear-cutting: Badiou’s shears, sickle, scythe.
[i] “Family resemblance” is a term introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (1953), §67, p. 32.
[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by C.K. Ogden (1922), p. 189.
[iii] The term is often attributed to V.I. Lenin but its provenance is not established.
[iv] Alenka Zupancic, “The fifth condition” in Peter Hallward, ed., Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy (2004), pp. 191-201.
[v] Ibid., p. 191.
[vi] Ibid., p. 191.
[vii] Ibid., p. 201.
[viii] Oliver Feltham, op. cit., p. 17.
[ix] Ibid., p. 17 (emphasis added).
[x] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966).
[xi] Jean Soler, “The dietary prescriptions of the Hebrews,” trans. by Elborg Forster, The New York Review of Books, June 14, 1979.