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  • The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose by Alain Badiou
  • Charles Altieri
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...