TO LIVE AND THINK LIKE POETS: Badiou’s five maxims of Châtelet’s thought

Some people admire Alain Badiou’s thought for its mathematical sophistication and for his contributions to a post-Cantorian ontology. This technical side to his system has never seemed very useful or convincing to me, and I much prefer Badiou in his « wisdom of life » essays (e.g. THE TRUE LIFE, HAPPINESS, but also the series of interviews: IN PRAISE OF LOVE, POLITICS, THEATRE, MATHEMATICS) and in his more wide-ranging seminars on being and subjectivation where he writes like a modern day Schopenhauer or Sartre (e.g. WHAT IS IT TO LIVE?, HEIDEGGER, TRUTH AND SUBJECT, THEORY OF EVIL, THEORY OF LOVE).

Update: I think that Badiou in his latest book 2018), BEING AND EVENT III: THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS, achieves his best synthesis of technical and existential writing.

In these works he makes use of a vocabulary that is more evocative, that resonates both philosophically and poetically, but that functions without his cumbersome and imposing technical apparatus. This vocabulary allows him to attain great concision, and to liberate the meaning contained in the various objects of his reflection: historical events,  political acts, scientific invention, the experience of love, and insights to be found in films, books, equations, and poems.

Here I wish to consider Badiou’s introduction to Gilles Châtelet’s recently translated book TO LIVE AND THINK LIKE PIGS. In his text Badiou attributes to Châtelet a contradictory disposition, a strong dialectical tension between the optimism of the affirmation of life, the « rage to live », and a sort of pessimism or depression, a « terrible melancholy »:

the rage to live that animated Gilles Châtelet was tempered by a terrible melancholy, the melancholy of seeing that we are solicited (and increasingly so) to live—and to think—‘like pigs’.

This potentially explosive tension is contained by a deeper unity that traverses Châtelet’s thought, uniting academic reflection on epistemology with existential apprenticeship.

Gilles’s philosophy, far from all academicism, is a romantic dialectic since, for him, every proposition on science can be converted into a maxim for life.

This « romantic dialectic », uniting philosophical propositions (thought) and existential maxims (life), involves more than simply juxtaposing a lived complement alongside the technical reflections and the academic philosophy of science. It is a way of describing the goal of Châtelet’s endeavour: to escape from the strictures of standard philosophy and to do something else.

On this « something else, Badiou has said some very interesting things about the so-called « anti-philosophers ». It is interesting and inspiring to see him trying to reconcile himself with anti-philosophy, and to integrate anti-philosophical themes within his own vision of philosophy by rebaptising them romantic dialectic.

In this introduction we catch Badiou in a process of becoming, and he is typically more « Deleuzian » in those moments. This conversion between epistemological and ontological theses and maxims for life goes both ways for Deleuze, and also for Feyerabend. Badiou himself still seems to give priority to the epistemological and ontological, but he is also willing to allow the allegorical resonances of philosophical propositions to flow out into their consequences for life.

Badiou extracts five philosophical propositions, or « certainties », and five corresponding « maxims for life » from Châtelet’s work:

1) Certainty: « thought is rooted in the body… conceived of as dynamic spatiality ».

Maxim: « Unfold the space that does justice to your body« .

Thought as rooted in the body is also rooted in geometry, in a « dynamic spatiality », that requires a diagrammatic thinking. Reflection is academic and intellectual, whereas thought is existential and corporal.

2) Certainty: « Geometry is not a science of extrinsic extension, in the Cartesian sensewe must think a sort of interiority of space, an intrinsic virtue of variation« .

Maxim: « solitude and interiority are, alas, the intimate essence of alterity and of the external world ».

This is less a maxim than an immanent observation. Perhaps Badiou’s interjection of « alas » grants too much to the piggish vision of things, the mark of disappointment rather than of affirmation. The academic dialectic of exteriority and interiority that Badiou sets up here covers up the romantic dialectic of extensity and intensity. For Châtelet, space is not limited to extensity, but extends to intensive variation. « Interiority » is intensive and qualitative, even if it can subsequently be quantified.

3) Certainty: « the history of thought is never ready-made, pre-periodised, already carved up...There are only singularities awaiting reactivation, creative virtualities lodged in these folds of time, which the body can discover and accept ».

Maxim: « Reactivate your dormant childhood, be the prince of your own unsuspected beauty. Activate your virtuality ».

History is a weak point in the system of academic philosophy, along with the body and intensive exchange. The genealogical method is inseparable from a participative heuristic, i.e. history is not an interpretaive grid but a tool-box to continue to draw on and to extend. Genealogy is not uniquely backward-looking, and involves the anamnesis of our present virtualities in view of actualising them creatively.

4) Certainty: « Being reveals itself to thought…in ‘centres of indifference’ that bear within them the ambiguity of all possible separation. This dialectical ambiguity is signalled by the rout of spatial self-evidence« .

Maxim: ‘Be the dandy of ambiguities. On pain of losing yourself, love only that which overturns your order ».

Academic philosophy cannot bear ambiguity, treating it as category mistake and striving to eliminate it. Dialectical ambiguity must be spatialised and eliminated at all costs, in order to preserve synchronic order and legitimate method.

5) Certainty: « for one who thinks, the multiple is the production of a deformation of the linear through laterality...thought is never unilaterally destined to signifying organization ».

Maxim: « seek not the meaning of our existence, but the exactitude of its dimensions ».

Diagrammatising life is not opting for vagueness and imprecision. Befriending chaos means adding more dimensions, inventing new dimensions, not erasing them.

Thus for Châtelet thought is corporal, dynamic, intensive, diachronic, ambiguous, lateral, and pluralist. The concern all along has been with how to live and think « poetically », as a visionary and not as a pig, i.e. not as an academic intellectual or a convivial consumer.To live poetically means to « define vertigos » (Rimbaud, cited by Badiou).

We need to bring together both intellectual form (« definition ») and existential chaos (« vertigo »). But the relative proportions of form and chaos vary from one individual to another. Badiou more often strives to contain the chaos within a system, whereas Châtelet is more open to its power of overturning order.

Note – for a related, and very interesting, consideration of Badiou’s foreword see:

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3 commentaires pour TO LIVE AND THINK LIKE POETS: Badiou’s five maxims of Châtelet’s thought

  1. dmf dit :

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  2. don socha dit :

    Wonderful, wonderful! « Thought is never unilaterally destined to signifying organization”!
    “Seek not the meaning of our existence, but the exactitude of its dimensions”. Though I might have a problem with whatever limits our ‘exactitude’ might imply.


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