- Badiou and Deleuze Read Literature
In 1992, Gilles Deleuze entered into a correspondence with Alain Badiou at the younger man’s urging, and for two years, these two thinkers exchanged letters on the aim and faults of one another’s projects, only ceasing after having “affected,” in Badiou’s words, “clarification.”1 Deleuze later destroyed this correspondence, urging Badiou to never publish or circulate his own copies. “In the corner of his study,” Jean-Jacques Lecercle writes of Badiou, “there must lie some of the most important letters in contemporary philosophy.”
The imagination of what such letters may contain animates Lecercle’s fascinating and overdue study of these seemingly antithetical thinkers as a disjunctive pair. While the rhizomatic thought of Deleuze has been increasingly embraced by the “Anglo-American” philosophical community in recent years, the axiomatic work of Badiou has come along as a refreshing corrective to a complete splintering of discourse. For the literary theorist, the most pertinent question at this point has become less about what these philosophers think than how this thought may be utilized for the betterment of the discipline. The importance of Deleuze already in profound evidence, the rise of the speculative materialists gives weight to the increasing necessity to understand and manipulate the insights of Badiou if literary theory is to keep pace with the explosion in thought his major works have produced. Yet to approach Badiou without recognizing that it is “vis-à-vis Deleuze and no one else” that he posits his endeavor is to misunderstand the scope and aim of both projects, as well as remain only tangentially informed about the most fertile moments of the last thirty years of French thought.
Welcome, then, is Lecercle’s study on the literary approaches (aesthetic and otherwise) of Deleuze and Badiou. Presenting the two thinkers not as the halves of a dialectic but rather as a correlative “disjunctive synthesis,” Lecercle is able to not only illuminate the specific areas of paradox in the thought of these two complex theorists but to also provide a cohesive background that joins them in their irreconcilable projects. Lecercle, an expert on Deleuze, is more clear and insightful in his treatment of Deleuze’s prose, concepts, and aesthetics, but the author then seems all the more taken—seduced, nearly—by the austerity of Badiou’s style and the asceticism of his position—responding, we might say, to the call of the Other.
Other than the disjunctive synthesis—Deleuze’s concept in which two disparate notions may be jointly suspended on a background of convergence—Lecercle’s study is driven by what he calls “strong reading,” a process [End Page 381] in which he identifies the synthesis of the disparate projects of Badiou and Deleuze as their similar understanding of the role of philosophy in relationship to the literary text. When either theorist approaches a text, Lecercle argues, he seeks to first make an intervention in the historical reception of that text, and to then understand that text not only as an outgrowth of his own thought, but as a condition under which his thought operates.
For Deleuze, this occurs through the identification of a heretofore unidentified “problem” the text presents. That problem then requires the formulation of a specialized philosophical concept that may finally “grasp” it in all its nuance. The efficacy of the procedure is finally verified by the fertility of the concept: the concept is only useful if, once created, it evolves rhizomatically from the text to spread across thinking in general.
For Badiou, this process of expansion is inverted. In his treatment of Mallarmé and Beckett, for example, Badiou merely tasks philosophy with the explication of the thought the text presents. “Merely,” however, insofar as we accept Badiou’s apparatus: the text is univocal, veiling its message in a syntax purposely fractured in order to delay the traversal of its chain of meaning. While treating the text as a cipher left for the philosopher to decipher may seem a perversely regressive position, it nevertheless allows the text, as literature, to remain outside of the realm of meaning in...