Sunday, July 8, 2007


Another rhetoric that tries to close interpretive space (cf. “Language as Unaction III” below): Alain Badiou’s use of mathematical models to represent social and psychological situations. His lecture “For a Philosophy of the Open” (UCLA, December 11, 2003) formalizes the openness of a part of a totality: “A part O of T is an open part (or more simply is open if and only if Int (O) = 0.” The lecture associates the formalization to the intersections of parts within a social totality: “the best example is love,” which creates a new interior that is the intersection of two interiorities. “And with this we have a complete definition of the interior of something” as different from the thing. Or again, “it’s necessary for me to have rights because I open myself to the totality, so my rights are also the rights of others.” Badiou remarks, with understatement, that the lecture is “not really a technical demonstration,” but “purely intuitive.” As method, the presentation of a formalization hopes to have the rhetorical effect of being simultaneously descriptive and normative. “We can only receive” mathematics as an imposition, Badiou observes; “there is no possibility to understand . . . because there is nothing there”; you only “accept or don’t accept.” Interpretation, analysis, understands “a little,” at its own pace, taking and leaving. One’s relation to mathematics consists in “decision” yes or no. “We don’t like that . . . we are afraid of fundamental decisions—to decide that we understand” not a little but the whole.

There used to be discussions in middle school between people who liked math, who invariably said they liked it “because there was one answer,” and those of us who didn’t like it for exactly the same reasons, and were puzzled about where the learning was in reproducing, or bearing witness to, conclusions that had already been established. What was it really that we were being asked to rubber-stamp? Even a mathematical problem gets delivered in a social situation, and to a demand like “True or false?” “Yes or no?” we can always ask: Why are you presenting me with this? And in Badiou’s case that’s a very good question. At best, we’re able to take or leave a mathematical proof only because it’s not language--because "there is nothing there," exactly. As soon as an intersection becomes a model for rights, with philosophical and social implications, we need a third system to connect the proof to the words, or the proof itself is giftwrap. In Badiou, as he admits, there is no relation between the formalization in its empty state and the verbal parallel; the true proof is worse than false as soon as you plug in the words. The words are folded inside the proof as if there were nothing to do but accept or refuse them, too, while the proof takes up the place where there should be an argument, but is none, to support the claims of the words. We are being presented with this now because poststructuralist theory did such a good job of showing philosophy's dependence on writing. Not even a “no” is required by this occlusion of writing, just a smile.

Image: Gerhard Richter, Sheet Corner (1967)

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