Monday, October 08, 2007

Beckett and Badiou, by Andrew Gibson

Am writing a review of this great book and as usual well over the word limit so thought I would post the full text here before I have to cut half of it out and inevitably totally change it.

I am posting it because in the months to come Badiou's conception of poetic thinking will make more and more appearances here and Gibson's book is a great introduction to that.

Book Review: Andrew Gibson, Beckett & Badiou: The Pathos of Intermittency (Oxford, 2007).

This is a rare book in modern times, an academic study of unflinching seriousness, resolutely RAE unfriendly at nearly 300 pages, and one of the few examples of literary criticism that one needs to own and return to and over time. In fact it is not one book at all but at the very least two. In the introduction Gibson himself admits that “my book might be thought of as Janus-faced,” adding “it has a revolving structure, turning alternately in one direction and another.” (B&B 5).
Thus, as the title suggests at one moment the revolving eye of Gibson gazes firmly at Beckett, a familiar figure to the academia, at another at Alain Badiou, now perhaps a familiar name but still a thinker many feel the need for an introduction to before then can enter into any form of lively intercourse. These two gentlemen, Becket and Badiou, require therefore two slightly different modes of address as Gibson is aware, producing effectively two different books within one volume.

The first book is quite simply the best introduction to, and proposed development of, Badiou’s work in relation to the study of literature. The second is a sophisticated reappraisal of Beckett’s whole oeuvre. This occurs not merely through the filter of Badiou’s rosy gaze, Badiou’s great innovation being to read Beckett as an optimist of the event, but also through the diffraction of Gibson’s systematic analysis. I am less qualified to say if this is major work in Beckett studies, but I am perfectly in place to say it is an important advance in literary studies and should be made required reading for anyone still interested in the relationship between literature and philosophy that we used to call literary theory.

Or is it three books, the third being more of a parergonal outwork or project for a future monograph in the form of a complex and suggestive conclusion that expands on Gibson’s own theories on the remainder, modernity, and the temporality of intermittency? I don’t have the educational background to know who the three headed beast of yore is that could supplant Gibson’s invocation of Janus, but whomsoever they are, this book is their kin.
This being the case, and my having only a few hundred words to go up against Gibson’s 100,000 plus, it is perhaps best to proceed fairly systematically. Such a progression is in any case apt considering the patient, systematic exposition Gibson provides here of the work of Beckett and Badiou. Then there is the often clinical systematicity of Badiou’s mode of thinking and rhetoric. And finally, Badiou’s project to produce a fairly diachronic, systematic narrative of Beckett’s journey through the problems of humanism, the impasse of language and on into to a thinking of the eventhood of the event. A journey that, in the final analysis, for Badiou and Gibson makes Beckett’s work overall heroic and affirmative.

It took over 15 years before Badiou’s foundational work Being and Event (1988) appeared in English in 2005. In contrast, the follow-up La Logique Des Mondes (2006) will appear in translation in 2008. This is indicative perhaps that Badiou’s star is rising, although his reception amongst Humanities scholars will always be hampered by his reliance on mathematics, in particular set theory. Then there is his unadorned, often vituperative prose that seems cold and angular to an ear attuned to the voluble, metaphoric style of much French philosophy. If Badiou is going to find a world audience not limited to French-speaking philosophers and political theorists, then Gibson’s work in the first 140 pages will play a major role in this.

Gibson begins by defining the bi-polar universe of Badiou’s thought as contained within the concepts of actual infinity and the event. These two ideas are at odds with each other and yet also totally inter-dependant. Actual infinity is not the endless proliferation of numbers beyond human comprehension that one finds in Hegel and Romantic thought, rather it is an axiom of a determinate infinity. In set theory there is an infinity of infinities, but infinity itself can thought of as a limited number or concept, that of the fact that there is infinity.
If infinity turns out to be, in some ways, finite, the presupposed finitude of the event, the thing that happens, reveals in fact the potential for infinity. The event is an “aleatory fragment, the chance occurrence of something that had no existence beforehand”. It is an explosive movement that “destroys any illusion that the limits of the situation are the limits of the world.” (B&B 16). I find the clarity and yet also the complexity of this summary of Badiou’s work of real benefit to the study of literature, but it also explains why Badiou and Beckett form another dyad in this dualistic, yet never dialectic, study. As we go on to find out, the role of infinity is key to Beckett’s work, as is the potentiality or perhaps even threat of the event.

It is at this early stage that we also encounter Gibson’s own central thesis, which remains the most important and original element of this impressive study and, I hope, will come to stand as a key term for the development of our ideas of the relationship between literature and philosophy in the years to come. This conception which Gibson calls “the remainder” is in fact very close to a definition of the literary post-Badiou. I will leave the precise formulation of the remainder to Gibson himself:

In Badiou’s philosophy, the world of events is the sole source of value. From its point of view, the situations to which events are counterposed and into which they break constitute a negligible historical residue. I shall call this residue the remainder. (B&B 18).

The remainder is a vital development of Badiou’s work on literature. As events are so rare, and when they do occur they are often missed or only realised by a coterie of faithful militants, the bare facts state that for the majority of the time we are in the realm of the remainder and most, if not all, literature emanates from that world or temporality. As literature itself cannot constitute an event, but can only testify too or patiently wait for events, by definition literature is the remainder.

This simple logical observation is, in fact, rather devastating. It certainly takes Badiou to task over his neglect of the remainder in his relentless pursuit of intermittent events. It allows Gibson’s book to open up completely the philosophical importance of Beckett, who ceases to be a writer and instead becomes one of the great thinkers of the remainder. It raises uncomfortable questions as to what the status of literature is in relation to the radical potentialities of events. And finally, it makes this book a full-blown theory of contemporary literary value.

Having summarised Badiou’s work and established his own thought in relation to it, based on an implicit critique of Badiou’s work which simultaneously requires that we treat his work with the utmost respect and seriousness, the first two chapters then introduce Badiou’s work to a general audience. Chapter one deals with key Badiou terms: Being, Event, Subject and Truth. While the second moves more towards the issues of state, doxa and politics that fill in some of the detail of the remainder and prepare the way for the consideration of the aesthetics of waiting for the event that define Beckett’s importance to our age.
This allows Gibson, in the third chapter, to tackle specifically Badiou’s take on Beckett in relation to the current scholarship. Taken together with the introduction these first three chapters constitute probably the most accessible and certainly the most relevant introduction to Badiou’s work to a humanities audience. Not that Gibson does not pay his dues to his forbears, most notably the brilliant work of Hallward, it is just that here Gibson is able to concentrate on Badiou’s ideas on literature, apply them to literary works, and unpack their implications from the perspective of a literary critic.

These chapters alone are worth the cover price. In particular we come to understand Gibson’s main criticism of Badiou’s affirmative ethos. Central to Badiou’s metaphysics is a rejection of what he sees as a late-Romantic melancholy to be found in Heidegger’s insistence on the end of metaphysics, and the work which followed on in such an eschatological vein. In contrast, he insists that metaphysics is possible now the gods have fled the earth, placing all his faith in the existence of actual infinity and the power of intermittent events.
What Gibson notes, however, is that because events are so infrequent, so intermittent, there is an inevitable human side or cost to this. One comes to long for past events, or to desire the sudden arrival of new events. Rather than instilling a sense of militant optimism in writers and thinkers, the scarcity of the event has resulted in a pathos or melancholia. And it is precisely such a melancholia, Gibson argues, that one finds in Beckett.

Thus, in keeping with the Janus-face of this revolving study, we have two theses which are then pursued through the remainder of the seven chapters of the book. On the one hand is Badiou’s radical reappraisal of Beckett. In Chapter 2 Gibson addresses what Badiou calls in The Handbook of Inaesthetics “poetic thinking.” There are, it seems, two main types of poetic thought vis-√†-vis the event. The first is exemplified by Mallarm√© and is described as a patient fidelity to the fact of an event having occurred. These poets name the event and in doing so allow it to exist within the world of the remainder that we all occupy. They are the apostles if you will, acting as servants of the intermittent and demanding that we accept its occurrence.
Then there is a second type of poet, those of restricted action. These writers take as their point of interest not that there was an event, but that there is no event. They are the precursors, John the Baptist preparing the way for the possibility of the event. One can see here then that there are two alternatives for Beckett. He may testify to the event’s passing, or he might clear the ground in preparation for the event’s arrival. That it is the latter case explains for Badiou and Gibson why critics have misread Beckett’s work as pessimistic. Rather, it is a systematic admission and understanding of the fact that there is no event, Such an admission admittedly can seem negative, but it is a necessary negativity and an essential acsesis, a clearing away of the detritus of the remainder. This work must occur before the event can arrive.

This is thesis one and Gibson unpacks how Badiou is able to tell the tale of Beckett’s heroic wait across the whole of his career. In the early work Becket breaks with doxa, across The Trilogy he clears the ground taking language to a point of collapse while demonstrating that there is no event, while in the later prose he is able to establish a landscape in preparation for the possibility of some future event. To explicate and develop this thesis from limited sources, for Badiou’s work on Beckett collected in On Beckett, is both repetitious and intermittent, is a great feat. To bring it about Gibson travels far and wide within Badiou’s whole oeuvre, demonstrating remarkable levels of scholarship.
Where Gibson’s book is exceptional, however, is the way in which he is able to overlay his own critique of Badiou and put forward his own, complementary but ultimately competing theory of intermittent pathos. Taking his lead from attacks on Badiou’s overly technical almost allegorical readings of Beckett, Gibson concedes that Badiou’s reading of the author borders indeed on an allegory of reading that not only misses the detail and nuance of Beckett’s work, but misses the fact that breaking with doxa, clearing the ground and waiting on the event are all dependant on nuance, hesitation and uncertainty:

The final chapter, looking at Beckett’s plays, is effectively Gibson’s extension of Badiou. Criticising explicitly Badiou’s reading of the drama as “more consistent with his [Badiou’s] philosophy than with the plays themselves”, Gibson is free to propose instead the centrality of the remainder to Beckett’s poetic thinking. Perhaps my only criticism of the book is that the centrality of the remainder is not matched by extensive consideration of what the remainder consists of. Gibson is not unaware of this problematic when he notes, reviewing his own book:

It may sometimes have seemed as though I have defined the concept of the remainder chiefly in terms of what it is not. The remainder is what exists outside the domain of the event, truth, subject, fidelity. How can we characterize it, other than negatively?...For Badiou, the remainder is so closely associated with pure negativity that he scarcely thinks it at all as such. (B&B 235)

Gibson goes on to assert that in Beckett one comes close to an “empirical definition of the remainder” (B&B 235) as effectively an approximation or an abstraction. Gibson then sets himself the task of tracing these approximations and abstractions across the plays which he feels Badiou reads rather poorly. As to whether this will satisfy the reader as to the importance and definition of the remainder, I remain myself unconvinced, not by the conception but by the clarity of its appearance here. It is, I would humbly suggest, the topic for a future study.

Two things come from this book as very clear however. The first is that Badiou’s formulation of an atheistic, post-Romantic metaphysics of acsesis and assertion is highly significant for an understanding of poetic thinking. or how literature has taken up the reins of philosophy during the period of modernity. Second, that Badiou’s work on literature has limitations when it comes to analysing literature as such, beyond using is as simply exemplifying his system. At this stage one needs a literary critic to step in as Gibson has done. In doing so Gibson not only expands one of the four terms of contemporary, post-Badiou philosophy, but also provides a complex intervention on Badiou’s work through his criticism of the philosopher’s neglect of the remainder.

In the conclusion Gibson takes up his own theorisation of the pathos of intermittency and provides a complex and wide-ranging reading of various philosophers’ work on modernism. I can’t do justice to it here but if the reader is at all concerned with modern art then I suggest they read it. This leads Gibson to a conclusion that, while pitched locally at the way a contemporary philosopher reads one of the great writers of modernity, is in fact a provocation to all of us whose object of regard is literature:

We might finally put the point like this: for Badiou, the event is difficult insofar as it is rare and has a complex structure. But it is also simple, almost luminously clear…Because Becket thinks the event and its rarity from the vantage point of the remainder, the event appears only in second-order, muted, veiled, distorted, equivocal, or compromised forms” (B&B 290)

It was ever thus. Even when formulating poetic thinking, the philosopher cannot resist the clarity of dianoia, cannot, in fact, in approaching literature, help but obfuscate it by the very act of philosophical illumination. At the same time the writer, however philosophically rigorous, can’t help but smear the clarity of the philosophical optic with their messy insistence on thinking through poiesis, through making. Gibson’s brilliant study takes us right to the heart of this ancient and yet suddenly very relevant problem. In the future library of works on poetic thinking which thinkers like Badiou have founded, Beckett & Badiou: The Pathos of Intermittency will be a required text and I urge any colleagues with an interest in the future of our disciplines to read it with care. While the remainder may be obscure, Gibson’s mind is nothing but clarity and light.
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