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  • Badiou’s Wagner: Variations on the Generic
  • Brian Kane (bio)

In his Five Lessons on Wagner, Alain Badiou describes the philosophical reception of Wagner—the “case of Wagner,” if you will—as nothing less than a “genre.”1 Indeed, Badiou has put his finger on something. Ever since Nietzsche abandoned his defense of Wagner for star prosecutor, few texts on the philosophy of music have traveled far from the genre. In those cases where Wagner is all but absent, such as Jankélévitch’s Music and the Ineffable, the absence is telling. According to Badiou, “Wagner created a new situation with respect to the relationship between philosophy and music . . . because he instituted a special kind of philosophical debate about himself that must inevitably also carry with it a broader debate about music . . . about mythology, theater, and so forth.”2 We might say that Wagner found a new way for music to make a claim on philosophy. The case of Wagner, spanning from Nietzsche to Adorno and Heidegger to Lacoue-Labarthe, is philosophy’s countersuit to this claim, with Wagner as the defendant.

Five Lessons on Wagner is written as a variation on the genre, a robust defense of Wagner’s artistic and philosophical significance against his critics. But while correctly identifying the case of Wagner as a philosophical genre, Badiou also reduces it to something generic. To make the case for the prosecution univocal, Badiou spends his first three lessons summarizing and redescribing the arguments for the prosecution; but what results is a displacement of these arguments whereby they never quite resemble the original.

As an example, take Badiou’s reading of Adorno. Instead of focusing on In Search of Wagner or “Wagner’s Relevance for Today”—both texts that stand squarely in the genre—Badiou analyzes Negative Dialectics in order to discover to what extent Adorno’s philosophy lays the ground for his criticism of Wagner. The reading focuses on Adorno’s critique of the identity principle: if the identity principle brings about the unity of experience (in the Kantian sense) and the closure of history (in the Hegelian sense), then one must affirm moments of nonidentity that can resist unity and closure, since “the whole is the false”; the affirmation of nonidentity is an affirmation of difference; the concept (which grants the unity of experience) must give way to nonconceptual states, such as suffering, which register the effects of totality on the subject; in artworks, form, where materials are shaped into closure and unity, must be transformed into processes of becoming, that is, transformed into the informelle. In Badiou’s gloss, Adorno is suspicious of the identity principle’s universalism, since it [End Page 349]

consists precisely in the imposition of the One; that is to say, an imposition of identity whereby one thing can apply to everyone . . . [by] reducing everyone to the same insofar as the same is this universal norm. . . . The linked themes of the need for appreciating differences, the respect for otherness, the criminal nature of identitarian disrespect of differences, and the inevitably violent will to universal sameness are basic themes throughout Negative Dialectics.3

By focusing on the issue of nonidentity, Badiou makes Adorno resemble more familiar opponents such as Levinas and then deploys his standard objections. Like Adorno, “Levinas maintains that metaphysics, imprisoned by its Greek origins, has subordinated thought to the logic of the Same, to the primacy of substance and identity.”4 It is for this reason that Badiou is “struck by how many contemporary themes [Adorno] had worked out an approach to early on,” and how Negative Dialectics “anticipates by twenty years themes that have become perfectly commonplace in contemporary ideology.”5 This damns with faint praise. By “contemporary,” Badiou means the philosophy of difference, otherness, and multiculturalism—exemplified in contemporary political theory, the politics of tolerance, and neoliberal democracy. By making difference sacrosanct, contemporary ethics and politics undercut the possibility of identification with others around a political cause or event. Badiou’s militant politics is cast in terms of immortality, greatness, and truth, not finitude, victimization, and relativism.6

For Badiou, the identitarian critique of Negative Dialectics is also at the heart of Adorno’s critique of Wagner...


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pp. 349-354
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