On the Age of the Poets: Towards a Different Relation with the Sacred. By Jaime Rodríguez Matos

MLA: 7 January 2021

Today we live on that extreme fringe of metaphysics where it returns—as nihilism—to its own negative foundation (to its Ab-grund, its own ungroundedness). If casting the foundation into the abyss does not … reveal … the proper dwelling of humanity, but is limited to demonstrating the abyss of Sigé [silence], then metaphysics has not been surpassed, but reigns in its most absolute form …. (Agamben)

I want to start with an epigraph from Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, one of Giorgio Agamben’s early books (1982). But I want to preface it by revealing that I was reminded of this passage recently in reading an article by Matteo Mandarini, which I came across while working on a paper on Alberto Moreiras’ recent publications. In both Moreiras’ work and in Mandarini’s article the central problem is the way in which twentieth century Italian thought, in trying to grapple with the destruction of metaphysics yields to different active ways of persisting on the marginalization of the ontological difference, and the peculiarly difficult negative and positive status of being in its relational difference with beings. That is, there is a double movement which, on the one hand, entails the good faith traversal of Heideggerian and Nietzschean insights (sometimes even under the aegis of a more Heideggerian than Heidegger himself kind of militancy) which ends up producing, on the other hand, the paradoxical result of a more consummate forgetting of Being—to use Heidegger’s jargon. The issue is not limited to Italian thought by any means. Post-foundationalisms of all sorts drown in these waters. Agamben’s text reads:

Today we live on that extreme fringe of metaphysics where it returns—as nihilism—to its own negative foundation (to its Ab-grund, its own ungroundedness). If casting the foundation into the abyss does not … reveal … the proper dwelling of humanity, but is limited to demonstrating the abyss of Sigé [silence], then metaphysics has not been surpassed, but reigns in its most absolute form …. (Agamben 53; Mandarini 43)

(I leave aside the issue of nihilism for the moment.) Revealing the proper dwelling of humanity I understand, in Moreiras’ terms, as revealing a “life … without being, life without bios, which is only accessible in the abyssal relation which is itself the necessary consequence of the affirmation of the death of God,” and which would be the “the possibility and therefore the necessity of the experience of … a resacralization of life, and its remembrance” (Moreiras Infrapolítica. Instrucciones de uso 36). Here “resacralization” can mean anything but orthodox religiosity—in fact, it is a marker of the death of God. And this is very far from the passive, apolitical, silent apathy that is often ascribed to thought tracking the outside of metaphysics, but which, within Agamben’s text, can be recast as the “absolute form” of metaphysics. Elsewhere, Moreiras describes it as “the practical compromise in each case with an existential decision that would rescue our time and would prepare, in the long run, a new administration of the time that we have in common, which would merit the name of a new politics” (Sosiego siniestro 126). And I think this is not incompatible with what Badiou proposes when he writes in “Poetry and Communism” that poetic communism is “to sing the certainty that humanity is right to create a world in which the treasure of simple life will be preserved peacefully” (The Age of Poets 103). Perhaps this compatibility explains why, despite all the obvious differences, Moreiras closes a recent set of meditations undertaken during the first months of the pandemic by using Badiou’s work, and the notion of the age of the poets in particular, to argue that the post-foundational politics of Ernesto Laclau’s theory of hegemony ultimately produce a disaster as it seeks the to fill the void of the social, thus providing a ground for the groundless that would then be the sacred incarnation of the Name (124-125). Such would be the result of attempting to surpass the age of the poets via the age of politics, an age that Laclau declares explicitly in On Populist Reason (Laclau 222).

Badiou’s framing of antiphilosophy and the age of the poets remains one of the most powerful ways of broaching the issue of post-foundationalism and foundations in our time.  The idea of an oriented representation of disorientation (exactly what the poets of the age of the poets sought to undermine) remains at the heart of much of what goes by the name not only of philosophy but of theory as a whole—and the theory of hegemony is a good case in point. In fact, the return of philosophy, which has not happened in a convincing way, has only given way to the return of the political suture of philosophy under the guise of a heightened consciousness of historicity, but of a historicity that is only the prerogative to foundational claims, even if those claims have to traverse the abyss revealed by the ontological difference. Philosophy itself should have been able to “conceptualize disorientation” (Manifesto… 74). And the issues of this conditioning of philosophy by the poem will be the central concern in what followis. Without a doubt, Heidegger is one of the crucial philosophical opponents for Badiou in such a conceptualization; but it is also clear that the reach of Heidegger’s philosophical power remains palpable (for some even threatening, as we will see) within it, particularly in the work of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Badiou’s philosophy proposes, in a way that is not simply dialectical, to swallow Heidegger and move beyond him while acknowledging his “success in philosophically touching an unnoticed point of thought detained in poetic language” during the age of the poets (Badiou Conditions 36). It should not be a surprise that, particularly when it comes to the relation between philosophy and poetry, Badiou seems very near to Heidegger. In an important sense, the end of the age of poets means not that we no longer take the poem seriously, but that it is not the only condition for philosophy.

Yet, we indeed inhabit that extreme fringe of metaphysics where it returns—as nihilism—to its own negative foundation (to its Ab-grund, its own ungroundedness). And Badiou’s thought is not only at its most Heideggerian when it comes to the poem, but also, and here the nearness is also the greatest distance (and not in a good way), at its most denegationist regarding his own de-suturing aims.  The aim, for me, is not to unveil this or that incoherence in Badiou’s edifice. In fact, for all of the inconsistencies I rely on work that has been well-known and well-received already (Riera, Lecercle, Macherey, Rancière, Bosteels). I will limit my offering today to sketching, barely, what remains a working hypothesis regarding the need to reconsider how we mobilize our (a-theist) militancy in the face of the death of a God that we never see in our own work but always in that of others.  By this I do not intend anything close to a return of god or making a place for theology. I simply mean to begin the exploration of a stumbling block that is everywhere in twentieth century thought. It is, for instance, registered in Mandarini’s article mentioned above as the struggle with the mystical in Italian negative thought (e.g., Cacciari).

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The age of the poets, as a philosophical category, comes into play within a wider argument that seeks to declare that—despite the significance of the deconstruction of metaphysics, the end of philosophy and the dismantling of the grand narratives of Modernity—the category of the subject, however reconfigured, must be maintained. Philosophy, given over to its own defeat, had not been “in level terms with Capital, since it has left the field open, to it most intimate point, to vain nostalgia for the sacred” (Manifesto… 58). Philosophy has fallen prey to sutures. And vain nostalgia for the sacred is the most dangerous effect of the poetic suture.

At this point, it would be unnecessary to remind anyone of Badiou’s moves in orchestrating the (re)turn of philosophy itself, so I will not attempt even a cursory summary of the architecture of his doctrine. I offer instead a text that cuts to the heart of the issue with post-Heideggerian thought.  It is a passage from a text in which Badiou, in the most loving way possible praises Jean-Luc Nancy, a text in which Badiou claims that given how loved by all Nancy is within the philosophical community, he is tempted to simply be something of an evildoer. It is important to stress this respect and admiration as the context of the passage regarding their philosophical differences.

“… above all, Jean-Luc Nancy more so than many others, more so than myself, is in a refined sense the last communist. It is he and nobody else who writes, not in 1960 or 1 970 but in 1991 that “Communism, without doubt, is the archaic name of a thinking which is still entirely to come.”  Oh, how I fraternally salute this statement! I nonetheless try one last time to be an evildoer. “A thinking which is still entirely to come”! How irritating this post-Heideggerian style of the perpetual announcement, this interminable to-come, this kind of laicized propheticism which does not cease declaring that we are not yet in a position to think what there is to think, this pathos of the having-to-respond for being, this God who is lacking, this waiting in front of the abyss, this posing of the gaze that looks deep into the fog and says that the indistinct can be seen coming! How I feel like saying: ‘Listen, if this thinking is still entirely to come, come back to see us when one piece of it at least will have arrived!'” (Badiou The Adventure of French Philosophy 70).

The age of poets is the sublimated, philosophically correct, way of addressing the issue here broached in good humor but in the guise of the evildoer. The poetic suture is nothing if it isn’t also this irritating post-Heideggerian style. That we are not yet in a position to think what there is to think should be re-stated in the following terms: the age of poets is posited by Badiou in order to avoid thinking what there is to be thought: that the God of philosophy refuses to die; that the abyss is not in front of us but right under our feet …. But also, that perhaps in the militancy against any form of what the tradition has left us under the names of the mystical or the sacred can also be one of the shadows that will remain with us for millennia and that Nietzsche decried in The Gay Science when he first spoke of the death of god (Bk. III, 108). Moreover, can we really argue about communism taking on the “to come” versus the future anterior of the Idea? I simply note the displacement: not the ontological difference, but the relationship between poetry and philosophy is what is at issue with Heidegger in Badiou’s thought, and this troping of the ontological difference will have a price. “What will become of the poem after Heidegger, after the age of poets?,” Badiou asks; the answer: “The poets will tell us, and they actually already have, since to de-suture philosophy and poetry, to leave Heidegger behind without returning to aesthetics, is also to think otherwise that from which the poem proceeds, to think it in its operative distance, and not in its myth” (Conditions 40).

They will tell us or we will tell them that they have already told us, but always only what we are able to hear and that only, particularly when they have already done some of the philosophical legwork for us. One can opt for calling Heidegger’s thought poetic just as Heidegger himself opted for naming  the “poetic” Antigone’s manner of “becoming homely within being” (Heidegger Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” 117). More so if we take into account that it is precisely the ontological difference and the re-casting of the relation being/thought that is at issue in that 1942 reading (see Moreiras Infrapolítica. Instrucciones de uso 68-69). But whatever one decides in that regard, it remains that Badiou’s the age of the poets is here to put an end to it. And that this task is perhaps more arduous than we thought. That there is something off in the way Badiou seems to relate condition and conditioned has been noted forcefully already by among others Gabriel Reira and Bruno Bosteels. Bosteels most radically: “the intraphilosophical apparatus seems to lead to a hypostasis of the pure event or commencement as such, thanks to the philosopheme of selftheorization—with poetry providing the theory of its own eventality” (218). Bosteels further notes that Badiou self-diagnoses dogmatism in this “rather large amount of philosophical appropriation of the condition” (218). One will get to de-stuture, but at the risk of dogmatism: one possible term Badiou will use for describing not what happens when a condition takes over the whole of thought, but for the consequences of the radical appropriation of the condition by philosophy.

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The consequence of this all-too Heideggerian echo is a restriction concerning the unnamable. Bosteels: “Why should we “stand up to the test of an unnamable point to begin with? Why should thinking … recognize its impotence before this empty symbol of the pure real …?” (194). Bosteels recognizes that within Badiou’s doctrine this point is a safeguard against the deformation of fidelity to the event, or against the possibility of pseudo-events that devolve into terror and disaster. (And this is precisely the point that Moreiras was leaning on in movilizing Badiou against Laclau.) The reaction here is not strictly philosophical or theoretical. It hinges, rather, on a specific reading of the historical situation which marks how other might mis-read Badiou and prompts the following warning from Bosteels against two possible risks:

“the notion of a necessary impasse risks falling short of [Badiou’s] own thinking all the while aligning [him] with … radical thought that takes its inspiration from Heidegger and Lacan …. A second risk is that the unnameable operates only as a kind of point in reserve, from which perspective any subjective procedure of truth could be read as always already involving a disaster. … [… T]he postulate of the unnameable can always lead back to the transcendent presentation of a measure beyond measure, or of a ground without any bottom. Indeed, does assuming the unnameable in order to stop evil not mean proposing an insuperable limit to aIl generic thinking of truth? … In other words, we should look to it to make sure that the notion of the unnameable does not become the supporting base for a new nihilist definition of ethics, that is to say, a definition that would start from the avoidance of disaster as the sole reference point of truth.” (195)

This resistance to the unnamable is registered once more in the presentation to “the age of the poets” that Bosteels coauthored with Emily Apter, in which the conclusion makes the poem say what the unnamable limits: “ultimately, poetry and prose after the age of the poets testify to the possibility and even the necessity that we do not remain silent about that of which we cannot speak” (Apter and Bosteels xxxv). The reference here is obviously to the mystical in Wittgenstein’s sense. The least possible charitable way of reading this overstepping of the limit would be to decry it as a militant affirmation of the mystical experience, even if in a denegated form. The aim of the text seems to be rather to reject as nihilism any directive that may stand in the way of a world-changing fidelity by placing too much emphasis on the limits of the sayable. From the point of view of that denunciation of nihilism, the highest being annihilated is the possible new politics of communism. And it would be tempting to see in this only a political theology. But what if the issue is rather with a misdiagnosed or misunderstood notion of sacralization? And what if clearing that up moves the conversation in a different direction entirely?

Consider Heidegger at his most vulnerable when it comes to the accusation of sacralization. In Identity and Difference, in the context of re-imagining what the principle of identity might mean were we to see the ontological difference as difference, Heidegger explains that the deity enters philosophy when the difference between being and being is taken as the ground plan in the structure of metaphysics; Being then is generative ground. This ground then needs to be accounted for by that for which it accounts, which is by the causation through the supremely original matter—the cause as causa sui. “This is the right name for the god of philosophy;” and we cannot pray to or dace before this god (Identity … 72). And here it is here that Heidegger declares that: “The god-less thinking which must abandon the god of philosophy … is thus perhaps closer to the divine God. Here this means only: god-less thinking is more open to Him than onto-theo-logic would like to admit” (72).

The ontological difference is a difficult notion to pin down. It is beyond me to even begin to outline it now. But we can say, provisionally, that the co-belonging of Being and beings of god-less thinking is not a promise or yet to come, it is not a mystical experience any more than we could claim that it is mysticism to say, with Badiou that “there exists a proof of communism by way of the poem” (108). Nothing here will save us from the serious and real difficulties that ensue in thinking our radical ungroundedness, but perhaps a site is thus cleared for a different kind of listening.

Bibliography

Agamben, Giorgio. Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. 1982. Trans. Karen E. Pinkus and Michael Hardt. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Apter, Emily, and Bruno Bosteels. “Introduction.” In Alain Badiou. The Age of Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose. Ed. Bruno Besteels. New York; London: Verso, 2014. vii-xxxv.

Badiou, Alain. The Adventure of French Philosophy. Trans. Bruno Bosteels. London; New York: Verso, 2012.

___. Conditions. Trans. Steven Corcoran. London; New York: Continuum, 2008.

___. Manifesto for Philosophy. Trans. Norman Madarasz. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Bosteels, Bruno. Badiou and Politics. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Heidegger, Martin. Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”. Trans. William McNeill and Julia Davis. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.

___. Identity and Difference. 1957. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. London; New York: Verso, 2005.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Badiou and Deleuze Read Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Macherey, Pierre. “The Mallarmé of Alain Badiou.” Alain Badiou: Philosopohy and Its Conditions. Ed. Gabriel Riera. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. 109-116.

Mandarini, Matteo. “Beyond Nihilism: Notes Towards a Critique of Left-Heideggarianism in Italian Philosophy of the 1970s.” Cosmos and History: Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 5.1 (2009): 37-56. Print.

Moreiras, Alberto. Infrapolítica. Instrucciones de uso. Madrid: La Oficina, 2020.

___. Sosiego siniestro. Madrid: Guillermo Escolar Editor, 2020.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. 1882. Trans. Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian del Caro. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Ed. Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Rabaté, Jean-Michel. “Unbreakable B’s: From Beckett and Badiou to the Bitter End of Affirmative Ethics.” Alain Badiou: Philosopohy and Its Conditions. Ed. Gabriel Riera. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. 87-108.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Literature. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Polity, 2011.

Riera, Gabriel. “For an “Ethics of Mystery”: Philosophy and the Poem.” Alain Badiou: Philosopohy and Its Conditions. Ed. Gabriel Riera. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. 61-86.

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