- The Universal Form of Badiou’s Wagner
Readers already familiar with Alain Badiou’s philosophy will note that Five Lessons on Wagner is a rare foray into music. Typically, for the purposes of his philosophical “lessons” (or what he calls his “inaesthetics”), Badiou’s chosen arts are modern poetry (especially Stéphane Mallarmé) and the plays of Samuel Beckett. He has an essay on Nietzsche and dance and a few writings on cinema, but broadly speaking he hasn’t said much about music. In fact, it is worth noting that the Five Lessons are framed by a measure of hesitancy. While the philosopher uses the book’s preface to gush openly about his lifelong passion for Wagner, he also states there that if it were not for the insistent provocations of his friend François Nicolas (a composer and a colleague at the École normale supérieure who teaches courses on music and philosophy), the whole book might never have been written.
Such hesitancy may account for the somewhat uneasy place Five Lessons seems to hold within Badiou’s oeuvre. Indeed, it is odd that many of his trademark concepts (truth, event, subject, void) are virtually absent from the text. In this essay, however, I will take this absence as an opportunity to ask: How might the ideas presented in Five Lessons be read as linked to Badiou’s deeper philosophical views? The philosopher’s books are formidably elaborate and have produced a vast and growing secondary literature. Here I will consider just a few of the most relevant themes in Badiou’s views of art and conclude with some remarks about Badiou’s unlikely proximity to Adorno, his main interlocutor in Five Lessons.
As an opening gambit, Badiou’s philosophy seeks a way beyond the impasses and paradoxes of the linguistic turn, explored by Wittgenstein, Frege, and Derrida among others. Despite obvious differences in intellectual orientation, these thinkers commonly understood properties of language to condition our ability to think philosophically. In his search for a solution, Badiou appeals to mathematics, a discipline venerated by Plato because it endures beyond the mere appearances and semblances of language. Likewise for Badiou, mathematics is the only suitable medium for ontology: it is perfectly consistent, rational, logical, and—perhaps most crucially—unrelated to the particularity of experience, to ordinary thinking, the problems of interpretation, and the relativity of democratic values. Much of Badiou’s philosophy is a provocative and typically arcane elaboration of how set theory, algebra, and category theory might allow us to consistently formalize (and thus rigorously “think”) the pure multiplicity of what actually is (“being”), the irruption of what happens (“events”), the fidelity subjects have to the newness of the events (“truths”), and the dynamic objectivity of appearances (“worlds”). He [End Page 342] discusses the way discrete objects can be formally presented as belonging or “counted as one” and carefully distinguishes that from “inclusion” or representation, a process he associates with the law, the state, and ideologies of various sorts. He recasts romantic and theological appeals to the infinite in sober terms, by way of Georg Cantor’s theory of inconsistent multiplicities. And he isolates a mark for the advent of a real qualitative difference (akin to Bergson’s durée, Sartre’s nothingness, or Jankélévitch’s quoddity) with the causally undetermined “void” of an empty set (ø).
Given Badiou’s rigorously formalist view of ontology, it may be unsurprising that art has no privileged (or denigrated) role for the philosopher; he positions it as just one of philosophy’s four conditions (along with science, politics, and love—what he refers to as “truth procedures”). In stated opposition to the residues of Romanticism that one may find in Heidegger’s treatment of Hölderlin’s poetry or Adorno’s writings on early Schoenberg, Badiou’s “inaesthetic” approach to art always aims to disjoin the formal work of philosophy from the poetic truths of art. In this sense, Badiou does not position the work of art as a sublime limit or aporia to human reason; he is likewise uninterested in normative questions about aesthetics as they are traditionally defined.1 A “truth” of art, for Badiou, is...