Tuesday, 9 May 2006

A Waft from a Windbag

“Evil is something immanent to truth” [1]. Such is the opinion of Alain Badiou, standard-issue French windbag and Marxian buffoon.
.....Now, I do not doubt that truth can be used for evil or for bad effect—for instance, in teaching a terrorist how to set off a bomb, or in telling a bald man, preternaturally sensitive to his hairless condition, that one can see aeroplanes reflected in his shiny dome—but is it immanent therein? This would mean that telling the truth per se is the speaking of evil. If that is what they have been teaching at the École Normale Supérieure all these years, the attitudes of its alumni begin to make more sense after all.
.....Professor Badiou, having been saintly and studious in his eschewal of truth, is also of the opinion that “with science or with totalitarianism there is always a desire for the omnipotence of truth” [2], in which there appears some deliberate confusion between “truth” and “truth-claims”. After all, from the fact that the totalitarian desires the omnipotence of his truth-claims, it does not follow that he desires the omnipotence of truth. Countless false ideas have been claimed to be true—for the appeal to truth is undoubtedly a powerful one—but who would deduce from this that there has always been a desire for truth? To believe so is to believe that no-one ever lies or deceives.
.....Badiou, however, appears to be trying to conflate the truth-claims that the totalitarian makes about the world with those that the scientist makes, the implication being that scientific claims about, say, the nature of gravity are no more true—and are no more reflective of the desire for truth—than totalitarian claims about, say, the nature of society. The one is as evil as the other.
.....The question must naturally arise of what he means by the word “truth”; for it is widely known that French windbags are rarely satisfied with conventional usage, what with all the demands of “problematizing” and “transgressing boundaries” and the sundry other ways of keeping themselves and their ideologies in business. Here is what Professor Badiou has to say about truth [3]:
(1) “Truth is first of all something new”;
(2) “A completed truth is a hypothesis, it’s a fiction, but a strong fiction”;
(3) “Truth is always the possibility of its proper destruction”;
(4) “Ethical questions, for me, are questions in the field of truth”;
(5) “[T]ruths are something like pure creations, without finality”.
It is difficult to know what to make of these. We might guess that for something to be called true in Badiou’s scheme, it must be new, created, infinite, ethical, and strongly fictional if completed. Since these “truths” about truth were written in 2002, it is unclear whether they are now untrue, in accordance with (1), though presumably if they are still true, they are presumably false, since they are “something like pure creations”, which, if completed, are strongly fictional, and contain moreover “the possibility of [their own] proper destruction”, whatever that may mean.
.....If, as it seems from the statements above, Badiou does not mean by “truth” what we normally mean by it—to wit, the conformity or the correspondence of propositions to what is the case—against which pseudo-philosophy must make its case if it is to be seen by charlatans and excitable undergraduates everywhere as “bold” and “transgressive” in its challenge to truth, then his assertions against this normal conception of truth do not hit their target, since the target has become that other thing which he means by the word “truth”. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of his strategy lies in the equivocation of usage between denoting his eccentric—some might say indecipherable—concept of truth and the concept of truth as we normally conceive it, wherewith the impressionable fool can take any strikes against the former as strikes against the latter.
.....I could, of course, be accused of quoting out of context. The trouble is, it is more difficult to determine from the whole context what he means; for there is a haze of obfuscation and a tangle of intractable phrases. Moreover, miscreants such as Badiou may so render their writings that they can always claim to have been quoted out of context. The trick requires that one’s boldest and clearest assertions, most likely to be quoted in all fairness as the best summation of one’s position and as meaning what they appear to say, are set within an expanded and intractable context that includes subtle and obscured rescissions of those assertions. If the skill is developed, these rescissions may appear as one pole of an ambiguity, the other pole acting in concord with the general position as upheld by one’s clearest and boldest assertions.
.....Discussing the intellectual charlatans of his own time—most notably Fichte, Schelling and Hegel—Schopenhauer had this to say:
From every page and every line, there speaks an endeavour to beguile and deceive the reader, first by producing an effect to dumbfound him, then by incomprehensible phrases and even sheer nonsense to stun and stupefy him, and again by audacity of assertion to puzzle him, in short, to throw dust in his eyes and mystify him as much as possible. [4]
So it is with the writing of Alain Badiou, a thought-rotter of the first order, in whom a profound mendacity is something immanent.

[1] Alain Badiou, “On the Truth-Process: An Open Lecture by Alain Badiou” online at the European Graduate School, August 2002. http://www.egs.edu.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Arthur Schopenhauer, “Sketch of a History of Ideal and Real: Appendix”, Pererga and Paralipomena, vol.1, tr. by E.F.J. Payne, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.23.


dearieme said...

Does your job oblige you to read this tosh? How do you stay sane: cricket, beer, pinot noir?

Deogolwulf said...

Just a horrid fascination, such as another man might have for motorway accidents. As for the maintenance of sanity, I have always found that gin and tobacco help.

Cirdan said...

Deogol, the correspondence theory of truth is true(!) but terribly difficult to demonstrate...

You're right that the issue is Badiou's theory of truth. FWIW, I read him as an identity theorist; he holds that the relation between a proposition and what is the case is identity, rather than correspondence. So if reality includes evil(s), then truth includes evil(s) too.

The identity theory is false; nevertheless, it's semi-respectable these days:

Deogolwulf said...

One of the problems I have with Badiou and his ilk is that I strongly suspect that they do not believe what they say, and that when they get on the bus after a long day's theorising, they do not do so in a manner consistent with their all-encompassing theories of life. But as you may have guessed, Cirdan, I have one foot in the Oh-come-on-you-don't-really-believe-that School of Thought. Not a sophisticated establishment, but one with which it is well worth keeping in contact.

Larry Teabag said...

Without wishing to defend Monsieur Badiou a jot, your allegation that when they get on the bus after a long day's theorising, they do not do so in a manner consistent with their all-encompassing theories of life is one which could fairly have been made against Descartes. But that doesn't prevent the fact that his "Doubt" was one of the most profound ideas in history.

Deogolwulf said...

A charge "which could fairly have been made against Descartes". Indeed it could. If it is legitimate for him to doubt any idea that can be doubted, is it not then legitimate for me to doubt the idea that he doubted any idea that could be doubted, except perhaps insofar as it was as an exercise in philosophical rigor? Do I believe that Descartes doubted his sense-data when he nipped out to buy a bun for his supper? No. I think he was as fervent a believer as anyone.

But then I have neither the philosophical mind nor the inclination to get much involved in such things. You may call me a mystical believer in the knowability of worldly things, if you like, which I suspect every sane man is, especially when an oncoming bus impresses him with the idea.

But as I say, "I have one foot in the Oh-come-on-you-don't-really-believe-that School of Thought", which lacks a certain philosophical sophistication in its arguments.

Deogolwulf said...

I should add that I do not suggest that Descartes was insincere in his search for the grounds of knowledge. Badiou and his ilk, on the other hand, . . .