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The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose.
By Alain Badiou. Edited and Translated by Bruno Bosteels. London and New York: Verso, 2014.

The Age of the Poets consists of a superb, though narrowly focused introduction by Emily Apter and Bruno Bosteels followed by fifteen essays on literary figures by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, spanning his career. There are nine essays concentrating on poetics, one on general aesthetics, and five on prose writers. Wallace Stevens makes what is fundamentally a cameo appearance in providing the motto for an essay devoted mostly to the work drawing does.

Badiou argues in his essay using Stevens that “every work of art, especially every work in contemporary arts, is a description without place” (75). He thinks an installation is “the creation of a place which (dis)places all things in it” (75). And in the case of drawing, “some trace without place creates as its place an empty surface” (76). In this withdrawal, this thinking as making which creates its own place, “we can perceive a secret relationship between drawing and femininity” because in the work of art “appearing and being are indiscernible” (77). Politics, too, comes into play because we see through drawing how the classical politics of description with place is bankrupt. Political thinking needs to go beyond the domination of place to a “purely displaced politics, with absolute equality as its fundamental concept” (81). Then we will finally “find a form of action where the political existence of everybody is not separated from their being—a point where we exist in so intense a fashion that we forget our internal division” (82). Such a vision brings out the political aspect of Stevens’ claim that “being there together is enough” (CPP 444) because it realizes the “Victory of fragility. Victory of femininity, maybe” (Badiou 82).

I have a few problems with this analysis. First, in general the work of poetry has to negate its fealty to a distinct place since it involves the imagination. This is not news. The test of theory is how the separation from representation in the artist’s foregrounded activity serves also to implicate its audience in what that audience takes as significant relations to what does not seem just imaginary. But Badiou simply ignores any art that attempts to correlate worldliness with a strong sense of authorial activity—like objectivist poetics, with its efforts to combine craft and perception under the rubric of “sincerity,” or visual art relying on maps, like the work shown in an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo about five years ago. His reliance on Rimbaud and Mallarmé demands treating the emphasis on worldly activity as necessarily “disenchanted with the object” (29). Second, I would feel more positive about Badiou’s particular reading and his generalizations if he had bothered to consider Stevens’ entire “Description Without Place,” rather than building a thesis on the opening lines that get substantially qualified by what follows. Most readers would probably agree that Stevens is in the long run less concerned with the absence of place (or the place of absence) than he is with the diversity of imagined places released by accepting what seeming makes present. Stevens prefers to the figure of non-space [End Page 98] an emphasis on the variety of spaces the poem can occupy when freed from worry about ontological constraints.

My final objections involve the value of Badiou’s mode of generalization. I find very odd the statement that “every work of art, especially every work in contemporary arts, is a description without place” (75). “Every” and “especially” seem to me grammatical operators that serve very different purposes: the first demands generalization, the second an awareness of differences that require in turn modifications of those generalizations. And then there is the politics imposed on poor Stevens. How can one idealize politics without place after a version of that thinking led the George W. Bush administration to disastrous efforts to produce political reform in the Middle East? Of course, Badiou wants a very different politics for his dream of a universalist set of values. But at least the example of the United States might lead a careful thinker to worry about the dangers in proposing any form of behavior that proudly asserts its independence of place. Needless to add for this audience: Stevens is the American poet most attentive to fitting actions to places, real and imagined.

I cannot leave Badiou’s book without sharing my sense of its strangeness. How can Badiou write so well, make such clear expositions, command such a breadth of reference, and handle concepts so deftly, and still seem, at least to this American, so friggin’ stupid, or at least so blind to the limitations of his own assertions? I attribute most of my disappointment to a gulf between cultures, since Badiou and his interlocutors seem concerned exclusively with how ideas can be formulated and elaborated, especially ideas that attend to refusals of full presence in perception. Reference for them is always to other texts, never to any sense that the world holds out the possibility of basing arguments on evidence and attention to how differences emerge. Perhaps this explains his relying on so narrow a canon.

In order to demonstrate my uneasiness with the entire book, I will try to summarize briefly its overall argument. The core problem Badiou addresses is a Heideggerian sense that philosophy has surrendered its unique role as thinking the conditions of being by allowing itself to be sutured into one of two neighboring discourses—the language of science demanding internal coherence that allows it to make predictions about the world, and the language of politics demanding that thinking directly influence action in the public sphere. Given these tendencies toward suturing, a philosophy seeking a purity of thinking has to turn to poetry, which, because it is typically treated as without content, has been relatively free of efforts to suture it into practical modes of discourse. (Badiou seems never to notice that in asking poetry to preserve the possibility of thinking with philosophical authenticity he is attempting to suture this art to philosophy.)

The “age of poetry” consists in that work (from about 1850 to 1950) which explicitly assumes “the operations left vacant by philosophy when its suture obliterates or paralyses it” (4). This poetry emphasizes three legislative operations by which the poem makes the thinking within it define the possibilities of a world beyond it—“counter-romanticism, detotalization, and the diagonal” (13). The first two of these are standard poststructuralist fare; the third at least provides a new figure for putting “under erasure the presumption of a [End Page 99] sense that gives meaning and orientation to History” (18). The diagonal is an affirmation of a kind of proof that utters from thinking itself rather than from what the thinking might describe. Thus, for Badiou the diagonal as thinking is capable of opposing “whatever knowledge is concentrated in significations” (16).

Badiou offers many brilliant formulations of this idea, but always focused on the pure idea rather than on any testing of how poetry might actually be received by cultural groups. So I will leap to what Badiou sees as the main use of this poetic. Badiou’s preferred formulation of the use of this non-use is through Plato’s opposition between the matheme central to codifying practical wisdom and the disorderly products of the imagination left free to contemplate its own vagaries. For Plato “philosophy cannot begin, philosophy cannot take hold of the real of politics, except if it substitutes the authority of the matheme for that of the poem” (47). Against that backdrop of fantasies of politics based on ordering nature, one can see how the thinking in art might cultivate what Plato would consider a non-thought because it is content with possibility rather than disciplined knowledge. Poetry is a form of thought so attached to the sensual that “we cannot discern or separate” it “as thought” (48). Poetry is the thinking of thinking rather than the thinking of thought so that it might be tested.

Ultimately, Badiou repeats these mantras so often, always tied to the same small canon, that one can be glad there are other approaches to poetry stressing not the thinking of thinking but the ways actions produce imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

Charles Altieri
University of California, Berkeley