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  • Badiou and the Subject of Parsifal
  • Kenneth Reinhard (bio)

It is helpful to read Badiou’s recent book Five Lessons on Wagner in the context of his larger work, especially his ideas about art as a “truth procedure.”1 For Badiou art is one of four fields of activity (along with science, politics, and love) in which new “truths” may be constructed by exploring and developing the implications of prior “events,” immanent ruptures within the general consensus that explicitly or implicitly organizes a particular situation or world. The procedures involved in constructing a new artistic truth are distinct from those employed in politics, love, and science; and it is only on the basis of what Badiou calls the actual “compossibility” of all four types of truth procedures at a particular historical moment that philosophy (which produces no truths of its own) or what we tend to call “theory” can operate. The philosopher-theorist depends on the truths produced in art, politics, science, and love as the conditions of his or her properly theoretical activity, which involves clarifying and coordinating those truths. The question for Badiou is never what can theory tell us about art, but what can theory learn from art about the emergence and development of new truths.

For the subject attuned to an event (such as the discovery of transfinite numbers, the brief efflorescence of the Paris Commune, the invention of perspective in visual arts, or an amorous encounter), practices that once seemed necessary now appear merely contingent, and ideas previously considered impossible, even unthinkable, suddenly seem possible. A truth, in Badiou’s sense, is not a kind of knowledge but rather a practice that escapes the horizon of generally accepted knowledge and leads to the possibility of new ways of thinking, making, and doing (e.g., what are the consequences of the discovery of transfinite numbers for contemporary physics or nanotechnology? What are the implications of the Paris Commune for political activism today? Does the idea of the vanishing point still have implications for contemporary art? What does falling in love mean for my life?). Truth procedures such as these are universal and egalitarian, insofar as in principle they are open to anyone, anywhere, without exception; moreover, they are “eternal” insofar as they are always available once their possibility has been initiated by an event, however faint and remote they may seem at times. An event is always historical, but the truth that it opens up is not limited to a particular space or time.

Moreover, the truth procedures that are developed in the wake of an event simultaneously reveal the fundamental assumptions of the previous world and anticipate a new one; as Badiou writes, “a truth is the truth of the situation in which it occurs [End Page 361] while pronouncing at the same time the rupture within the latter.”2 That is, a truth procedure involves both critical reflection on the past and the retroactive projection from a possible future to an actual present. Badiou calls the new practices that construct a truth “generic procedures,” both because they reveal the most general structure of the earlier situation and because the elements of the emergent new situation are unmarked and indistinguishable from those of the previous one, their novelty only apparent to the subject that participates in the process of a truth.3 Badiou often cites Schoenberg’s invention of serialism as an example of an event and its artistic truth procedure: the most fundamental materials of composition, the octave divided into twelve parts, are essentially the same as they were for the preceding generation of composers, but all assumptions about the natural relationships and hierarchies of tones are abolished; in serialism, we might say, all tones are created equal.4 This decompletion of the world of Western music both clarified the nature and limits of classical tonality and opened up a wealth of new musical possibilities in the works of Berg, Webern, and Boulez, to mention just the most famous names. It was (and is) of course possible to ignore the Schoenberg event, to deny that it really was an event, or even that such a thing as an event is possible.5 For that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-2870
Print ISSN
0736-0053
Pages
pp. 361-367
Launched on MUSE
2014-06-05
Open Access
No
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