John Lowther


Handbook of Inaesthetics by Alain Badiou

Handbook of Inaesthetics
by Alain Badiou
translated by Alberto Toscano
Stanford University Press, 2005

The problem with irony is
  it's never quite
    ironic enough—
    the game always verges on
                — Bill Lavender While Sleeping, poem 105 is always already there, addressing the thinker with the mute and scintillating question of its identity while through constant invention and metamorphosis it declares its disappointment about everything that the philosopher may have to say about it.
                — Alain Badiou


Badiou's Handbook of Inaesthetics is a small book of 10 essays. these range from a sweeping recasting of the motive relations between art and philosophy (into a tripartite schema & a suggestion of a new schema), diverse comments on the avant garde, a consideration of the poem as a producer of truths, an explorations of the relation of the unnamable to poetry, the designation of the "artistic configuration" as the subject of an artistic truth, a fascinating restatement of Plato's motives in banishing poetry from the republic, careful philosophical readings of Mallarme, Beckett (especially) but also Pessoa, Celan, Labid ben Rabi'a and others, some polemical remarks to Milosz, discussions of dance and the body in dance with intriguing reference to Neitzsche, a selection of theses for the theatre, thoughts on cinema and much else. readers of Badiou's Manifesto for Philosophy who might have felt that the writing/translation there was rather dull will not have that feeling about this collection. poets, wondering at the placement of this review in this venue, please know that not only does Badiou offer readings of many modern poets and aphoristic observations on poetics, but that the thought of poetry is pervasive throughout, even in the essays on dance, theater or cinema, poetry incessantly recurs. poets with any interest in philosophy or aesthetics or poetics could well find this a crucial volume with many insights as well as propositions with which to productively dispute.

this review is a companion to that of While Sleeping, also found in this issue of Big Bridge. now and again, Lavender's volume provides some assistance in my discussion of Badiou. I will mostly restrict myself to his most programatic essay, which opens the collection, called "Art and Philosophy." this essay concerns itself with a survey the ways that art & philosophy have, up to this time, been understood in relation to truth. as Badiou has it the 3 schema of this relation are the didactic, the romantic and the classical.

The Didactic Schema, derives from Plato and his infamous banishment of poets from the republic. here art is judges incapable of truth, which is to say that truth is always external to art. while art does seem to present itself as immediate and effective truth, this is only the "charm of truth," a semblance of the truth. philosophy in this schema is where truth is found. & given that art, as semblance, could be mistaken for truth, it must be controlled. Badiou cites a 20th century manifestation of the didactic, Bertolt Brecht, whose "alienation effect" he calls a "protocol of philosophical surveillance" and describes the perspective required for its use as the belief that "semblance must be alienated from itself so as to show, in the gap thus formed, the extrinsic objectivity of the true." we might think of a Brechtian alienation effect in which an actor breaks the 4th wall to address the audience, telling perhaps of his secret motives, how he as a factory owner will dupe and mislead the workers, before he then turns and does just that (the workers having heard nothing of his speech, applaud their good fortune). what is seen as "reality" on stage (by the workers) is revalued for the audience, by the broach of the 4th wall, who are in this way given this truth which is external to the staged "reality." but, both the worker's reality and the audience's perception combine to form the semblance of the truth as posed by Brecht's ideology.

The Romantic Schema is nearly the opposite of the didactic. although Badiou in Badiou's discussion it seems to mutate somewhat. here art alone is capable of truth. art does what philosophy merely "points to." art "teaches the power of infinity held within the tormented cohesion of a form." in the romantic schema, philosophical concepts are sterile things always stiff and over-rehearsed, whereas art is the incarnation and protean force of truth manifesting itself. art is the revelation of some higher order than reason or perhaps of the reason that can only be seen as such in hindsight, after the cognitive leap that art provides. poem 242 from While Sleeping might be construed as covertly romantic in precisely that way;

is this para
  or is some sort of

if the supposition asked about is correct then we could perhaps read this as an affirmation that parataxis, disjunction, collage, etc — all those privileged modernist and postmodernist artistic tactics could, via their use, reveal a truth, "some sort of logic" beyond what is taken to be logical. a truth with reason only in hindsight.

just as Badiou finds marxism primarily didactic, he feels that hermeneutics is romantic. Badiou's main target seems to be Heidegger but his critique of Derrida, Lyotard etc is much the same. for Badiou philosophy and poetry are distinct enterprises and not to be confused, and he sees hermeneutics as being very confused in imagining that poetry(art) & philosophy are entangled. initially Badiou says that in the romantic schema only art produces truth, but later he says that the same truth circulates between art & philosophy. truth then is an object of exchange between these discourses. sounding very Heideggerian and not terribly clear to me at least Badiou offers that in the romantic schema "the retreat of being comes to be thought in the conjoining of the poem and its interpretation."

finally we come to the Classical Schema in which art is judged incapable of truth. it is instead considered mimetic & thus its effect and only legitimate aim is semblance. because art is not capable of truth and is in fact other than knowledge, art provides catharsis or transference and has therapeutic usefulness. art at its best is simply a snare for desires which it then shapes and sustains by proposing a semblance of its (real, ie, non-art) object-cause. there is no need for banishment in the classical schema as art poses no threat and there is no glorification of art either as it is not thought to produce truth. in the classical schema philosophy is "merely an aesthetics." what Badiou dismisses as the rules of liking.

Badiou's contemporary exemplar of the classical schema is psychoanalysis. he claims that psychoanalysis conceives of art as manifesting only the semblance of the object cause of our desires (the truth of which is in itself unsymbolizable). thus according to Badiou, psychoanalysis holds that art exhibits, in a singular and contorted configuration, the "blockage of the symbolic by the Real, the 'extimacy' of the objet petit a (the cause of desire) to the Other." in more common parlance, there is something in art that stirs our desire, but art is itself not the truth of our desire, it is more of a pretext for desiring, a semblance. consider this passage from the introduction to While Sleeping;

inaudible rehearsals of the auditory, invisible practice of the visual. To rehearse the poem that does nothing more than call up relaxed and relaxing frame of the rehearsal, for the poem has always aspired to sleep and sleep to the poem, referent beyond logic and logic beyond referent.

Lavender is writing of the connection of poems to sleep but it sounds much like the connection Badiou sees revealed between the poem and the unsymbolizable object cause of desire in psychoanalysis. the shadows on the cave wall.

Badiou is unsatisfied with each of these schema and notes that while the 20th century was known as a century of endings and breaks that it did not propose any new schema of the relation of art to philosophy. what did the 20th century give us? the avant garde. here is passage from Badiou on that topic;

That today the three schemata are saturated tends to produce a kind of disentanglement of the terms, a desperate "disrelation" between art and philosophy (...)
          From Dadaism to Situationism, the century's avant-gardes have been nothing but escort experiments for contemporary art, and not the adequate designation of the real operations of this art. The role of the avant-gardes was to represent, rather than to link. This is because they were nothing but the desperate and unstable search for a mediating schema, for a didactico-romantic schema. The avant-gardes were didactic in their desire to put an end to art, in their condemnation of its alienated and inauthentic character. But they were also romantic in their conviction that art must be reborn immediately as absolute—as the undivided awareness of its operations or as its own immediately legible truth. Considered as the harbingers of a didactico-romantic schema or as the partisans of the absoluteness of creative destruction, the avant gardes were above all anticlassical.
          (...) Today, the avant-gardes have disappeared. The global situation is basically marked by two developments: on the one hand, the saturation of the three inherited schemata, on the other, the closure of every effect produced by the only schema that the century applied, which was in fact a synthetic schema: didactico-romanticism.

for Badiou the trouble with each of these schemas is that they have become saturated. what does this mean exactly? well, I must admit to some uncertainty myself on that question and so while I am about to offer you Badiou's description of saturation, doubts begin to arise which I will return to later. here is Badiou;

I can therefore conclude as follows; This century, which essentially has not modified the doctrines concerning the link between art and philosophy, has nevertheless experienced the saturation of these doctrines. Didacticism is saturated by the state-bound and historical exercise of art in the service of the people. Romanticism is saturated by the element of pure promise—always brought back to the supposition of a return of the gods—in Heidegger's rhetorical equipment. Classicism, finally, is saturated by the self-consciousness conferred upon it by the complete deployment of a theory of desire. Whence, if one has not already fallen prey to the lures of "applied psychoanalysis," the ruinous conviction that the relationship between psychoanalysis and art is never anything but a service rendered to psychoanalysis itself: Art as free service. [1]

Badiou states that this book is a series of variations on the thesis that in this situation of saturation of the 3 inherited schema, that a fourth schema must be introduced. to accomplish this he first looks for commonalities in the 3 inherited schema. he finds these to be immanence and singularity. immanence concerns the question about where truth is found— is it inside or outside of art? singularity is the question of whether the truths of art (should there be any) circulate with philosophy or other registers of thought. for didacticism art is not immanent but is a singular semblance of truth. for romanticism truth is immanent in art but not singular. for classicism, truth is not immanent to art because it operates solely as semblance "the guise of versimilitude" & thus singularity is not an option.

this new 4th, inaesthetic schema proposes art as both immanent, "Art is rigorously coextensive with the truths it generates" and singular, "These truths are given nowhere else than in art." philosophy's task in relation to artistic truths is the same as it is in relation to the truths of love, science or politics — to show them as they are. to proclaim them, to remain faithful to them. and as it is really only in relation to this 4th schema that it makes sense, here is what Badiou means by his term "inaesthetics";

By "inaesthetics" I understand a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.

but here a number of other details from Badiou must be brought in and each will simply be stated, in Badiou's own often axiomatic manner. a truth emerges from one of its conditions in an event. for this truth to spread, to have effects, to prosper... it must create subjects. subjects to the truth of this or that event. in addition to this, truth, for Badiou is (in accordance with his ontology) an infinite multiplicity, this is a central tenet of his philosophy and not something he argues for or against in the Handbook of Inaesthetics, referring instead to his (currently being translated) magnum opus Being and Event as the place of this idea's demonstration. still, what is the issue with art works and infinite multiplicity? Badiou;

The work of art is essentially finite. It is trebly finite. First of all, it exposes itself as finite objectivity in space and/or time. Second, it is always regulated by a Greek principle of completion: It moves within the fulfillment of its own limits. Finally, and most importantly, it sets itself up as an inquiry into the question of its own finality. It is the persuasive procedure of its own finitude.

but if truth is an infinite multiple and specific works of art are finite multiples then how can it be that art is a condition of truth? if one wishes to assert truth in specific works of art one will have to "maintain that it is the descent of the infinite-true into finitude." but this simply ensnares one in the romantic schema again. still more difficulties emerge, because truths originate in an events. "The problem that we need to deal with is that it is impossible to say of the work at one and the same time that it is a truth and that it is the event whence this truth originates" — because every fusion of this sort leads us back (again) into the romantic schema — art as the truth's (ie. the event's) self-revelation.

Badiou's answer to these problems is to propose a new "pertinent unit of inquiry." one that fits with an examination of the truths "of which [art] is capable." this new unit of philosophical interest is the "artistic configuration." this is another idea which requires some unpacking. initially one might think an artistic configuration would be some group or movement, say the surrealists, or the beats or language poetry. or, (symptomatically in our naive individualist culture) perhaps we might think of an individual like Ashbery as the leading edge of an Ashberyian artistic configuration. but this is not at all what Badiou has in mind. instead he sees the configuration as being a group of works that is not reducible to any pre-established knowledge, as Badiou notes "The rarity of proper names and the brevity of the sequence are inconsequential empirical data." truth in his conception is something which originates outside of knowledge and could be seen to punch a hole in it, here we might think of the notion of a paradigm shift. after such an event histories must be rewritten as the truth that the new paradigm presents will be seen to have had unrecognized antecedents, which is a bit like Borges finding the Kafka-esque elements of authors before Kafka's time. the group of works which constitutes an artistic configuration is functionally unlimited (infinite) and each work in this set is a specific subject of the truth that the configuration manifests in its infinite multiplicity.

now might be a good time to close down the exegesis and begin asking some questions about all of this. from the perspective of this reviewer (a poet) who feels very much subjected to poetry (instead of having some sort of instrumental control over it) this inaesthetic approach to poetry is, at first blush, rather alienating. clusters of questions and qualms arise...

if the work of art is on occasion a subject of some artistic configuration, and the configuration is achronological and yet somehow manifests a truth, which is an event (but not strictly locatable in time?) what possible effect does this have for the artist or poet? is the poet subject to the truths of any artistic configurations he or she might participate in or might that fall only to anyone subjectivized by the work produced? does being subject to the truth of an artistic configuration allow one to know or recognize that configuration as manifest in other works? exactly why isn't it likely in Badiou's estimation that an artistic configuration will map onto the "inconsequential empirical data" of literary history?

I also have some doubts about his schema having transcended the troubles he cites in others. how does inaesthetics (the "intraphilosophical" effects of certain works of art) evade the charge that it makes of psychoanalysis (and the classical schema generally), that the relation of philosophy and art under the inaesthetic schema is "never anything but a service rendered to [philosophy] itself: Art as free service." if philosophy is charged with proclaiming the truths of art, science, love and politics, whatever would it do if their services weren't forthcoming?

inaesthetics rearticulates something of the didactic as well, in that, while the didactic schema has philosophy controlling art and mandating truth, precisely how much different is the situation when philosophy is mandating how truth must manifest in art (as an infinite multiple or within an artistic configuration), and appointing itself as the proclaimer of that truth, thereby reducing this truth (or so it seems to me) to its inaesthetic dimension, which is after all purely a philosophical affair. it is tempting to suggest that the truths of art don't matter to art at all in this schema but are of importance only to philosophy. philosophy is on the lookout for the truths "of which [art] is capable" but it would seem that it knows already what these limits are and as such it begins to appear like a covert didacticism.

and what of romanticism in all of this? I find it instructive that when Badiou is himself trying to reconcile the requirement of infinite multiplicity with regard to finite works of art that the only solutions he can come up with are romantic ones. the "descent" of the infinite into the finite, etc. and yet, again, how different is it exactly to suggest that this or that work is part of an artistic configuration of infinite scope which is not known, not already naturalized in literary or artistic history? so the infinite descends into the finite or the finite work is a subject point of an infinite multiplicity that exists elsewhere as an artistic configuration, in either case the finite gets infinite "credit." and when Badiou talks about the individual work (which, it must be noted, is what the artist or poet is engaged with creating) all of his descriptions of it suggest the terms of his characterization of hermenuetics & the romantic schema. if he is correct about these descriptions (and I am far from convinced that he is) then, from his own analysis it would seem that as an artist, one is best served by some articulation or other of the romantic schema.

then we come to the problem of the artistic configuration in another way. Badiou notes the rarity of proper names and known sequences within artistic configurations, but what in fact does he do in the much of the rest of this book? he discusses specific works of proper named poets who are nearly all a part of the cumbersome but still useful classification of modernism. that these modernists are also united in being male, white and relatively ungrouped (none of the card carrying surrealists are included for instance) is also ironic as these shared determinations are mere "inconsequential empirical data." I also note that Badiou says nothing about the artistic configurations that these folks are a part of as such — are they all a part of one? this seems unlikely given what Badiou has to say about each and he never makes that claim explicitly. in fact for all the talk about artistic configurations it doesn't seem to me that Badiou "proclaims" one anywhere in this book.

now, as critical as the preceding passages have been, I must insist that Badiou's readings of Mallarme and Pessoa and above all Beckett are fascinating, pulling things together in ways that are very striking, provocative and I should think of interest to anyone interested in any of these writers. and all thru the book are scattered comments about poetry that do I think get at some of what pertains to truth in poetry and art. note my use of "get at" — it is this that I find most worthwhile in this book. not, the proclaiming of truth but the pointing in its direction, the suggesting which brings truth in at all.

reading Badiou makes me wonder about the intrapoetic effects of certain poems (or texts, whether philosophy or any other sort actually) on poetry. his notion of the event and the way that it creates a subject feels very apt in thinking of the effect certain writers have had upon me. what poet has not read poetry that, as it is said in the vernacular, changed everything, & was thus experienced as an event in their own poetic trajectory. likewise his notion of fidelity to an event maps nicely on to the consequences of some art event that changes everything, ie, is experienced as remaking one's parameters or sudden stretching, into the unforeseen and suddenly open territory of one's root concept "poem" or "artwork."

at the head of this review I noted that Badiou offers a restatement of the Plato's motives in banishing poetry from the republic. here is part of what Badiou has to say about this "ancient quarrel";

Plato is very clear on this point: What poetry forbids is discursive thought, dianoia. Plato says that "he who lends an ear to it must be on his guard fearing for the polity of his soul." Dianoia is the thought that traverses, the thought that links and deduces. The poem itself is affirmation and delectation—it does not traverse, it dwells on the threshold. The poem is not a rule-bound crossing, but rather an offering, a lawless proposition.

many poets, and I cannot entirely exclude myself from this, would find something is this very apt. does it not preserve part of dichten/condesare with a heavy salting of immediacy, of poems engaged with being instead of doing? in short does it not find in Plato a characterization (caricature) of modernist art which is still in some sense active, perhaps we might say that it is non-saturated?

I find this reading of Plato compelling, certainly moreso than the standard accounts of why poets are banished from the republic. but as a statement of what it is that holds philosophy and poetry apart, maintaining the clear distinction between them, it seems terribly inadequate. any number of poems from Bill Lavender's While Sleeping might serve as instances in which dianoia & poeisis are merged (and not simply "entangled"). here is 139;

 There is a quantifiable mechanics
to aesthetics (social ideological whatever)
       but these quantities are
not apprehendible by
    the current language system. . .
        (that's why we call it aesthetics.)

as I read this poem, it undoubtedly links and traverses and yet to deny it as poem is unjustifiable. this text and many other poetic texts merge dianoia and poeisis. handily enough it also offers me a chance to clarify my own response to the distinction which Badiou has so much invested in; I simply cannot accept it as globally valid. while it may describe well the differences between certain works generally agreed to be poetry or philosophy. to rebuke other works which merge these two serves no purpose other than solidifying Badiou's own inaesthetic position. I would go so far as to say that I cannot imagine how, if truth can occur in poetry via language that it could not potentially occur in any language use (and this is to limit my comments to language-based issues, not out of the assumption that these are all the truths, but only to focus on what is most poetically significant).

with regard to the issue of saturation, to the extent that the causes of this saturation are stated accurately, then perhaps this does produce a certain closure. but, and to take but one example, that of the didactic schema which Badiou says "is saturated by the state-bound and historical exercise of art in the service of the people." but why does this prevent other didactic uses of art? does it in any way reduce the worth of Brecht? a similar situation pertains to classicism and romanticism, that if the blanket condemnation holds it only holds by a rigidly formalized explanation off how each schema functions and all one need do it would seem is recast the operation of these schema yet again.

poem 139 above is an attempt to resolve a polarity, on the one hand the assertion that aesthetics (whether "the rules of liking" or aesthetic decisions) can never be definitely reduced to formula and on the other the conviction that aesthetic decisions are always political and overdetermined by the social and thus in some sense quantifiable.

in an email Lavender expands upon this, saying;

I started to think that the polarity itself fell into a game that was determined by mushy terms. (It’s a lot like saying “if we didn’t have the word “aesthetics” how would we describe...”) but also that there is something in the language (and this force is social ideological) that causes these games to remain active by hollowing out an untouchable space, and further that that untouchable space is exactly what we mean by the term aesthetics. (...) aesthetics is always more than the sum of its parts, yes, that moreness, that ineluctibility, is the term’s referent.

conceived then, in Lavenderian fashion, aesthetics is not the "rules of liking" and while it may well manifest commitment to the pursuit of that elusive and unsymbolizable object cause of our desire (Lacan's, objet petit a) it doesn't seem saturated or amenable to saturation.

whatever problems one might have with Badiou's work, I think that one of its most useful provocations with regard to aesthetics is in putting truth back on the menu. & if I at times feel that Badiou's schema and characterizations have a self-serving quality, I don't think that this discounts the value, interest or originality of his work.

you poet, how do you feel about truth and poetry?

is it possible to be a pessimist
    without taking a little sadistic
    pleasure in the pose?
or an optimist without owning
    a trace of moral superiority
        for holding out the hope?

                     — from poem 360 in While Sleeping


John Lowther
Atlanta, GA


[1] this is not the place to inquire into whether Badiou's take on psychoanalysis vis-a-vis art is sufficient or accurate. he is correct I believe that in general, psychoanalysis (to the extent that it avoid "applied psychoanalysis") uses art as a means of learning more about psychoanalysis. what for me is problematic is that I am unconvinced that this also obliges psychoanalysis to the strictures of the classical schema as Badiou would have it. suffice to say that there may be some aspects of Lacan's late work on Joyce that while perhaps not voiding Badiou's analysis completely, could be seen to shift the terms significantly. [return]