BADIOU’S PROTOCOLS OF IMMANENCE: on a poem of Cesar Vallejo

Some of the most interesting and admirable passages in Badiou’s works are his brilliant readings of a diversity of poems. This first lecture is no exception. Badiou begins his readings with a poem by Cesar Vallejo. He cites an excerpt from Vallejo’s “Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic“.

According to Badiou, the poetry of Vallejo illustrates a path going from the immediate, sensitive compassionate reaction of the poet to the suffering of the oppressed  to its reversal in the enthusiasm and admiration for the collective uprising to overcome this suffering. This leads to a creative use of suffering, to enounce a new liberty, that of the reversal of suffering into heroism, of

the reversal of an anxiety-ridden particular situation into a universal promise of emancipation.

The path described by Badiou passes from the sensitive reaction of the poet to a particular situation to its universal sublimation.

This whole discussion can at times seem very abstract. However, it is sometimes necessary to pass through a phase of lexical or conceptual ascent in order to change the way we think. Badiou’s lecture here is a good example of what he calls the “orderly voyage”, moving repetitively from concrete discussion of the history of people’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, through excerpts from modernist poems, and on to Badiou’s own abstract conceptual formulations. One must always remember that French is a Latin-based language, and that a word-for-word transalation of a philosophical text, which I feel is necessary here, will be perceived as even more abstract in English.

The poetic excerpt from Vallejo exhibits the theme that Badiou has been describing in general. It starts from observation of and compassion for the suffering and misery of the “proletarian” and ends with admiration for a world set free to be simply itself, where capitalist “gold” will become just gold in the beauty of its shining.

Another interesting theme is that of an immanent approach to death and eternity:

death itself, which is in question all through the poem, the death in combat of the volunteers of the Spanish people, becomes a construction. We can say that in the poem death becomes a sort of non-religious eternity, a terrestrial eternity.

As we saw in the discussion of the beginning of this lecture, Badiou does not believe in Heidegger’s conception of “being-towards-death”. Rather, he believes in what we could call “being-towards-construction”, or even “being-towards-eternity”, if we can understand “eternity” in terrestrial, Spinozan terms.

A third theme, tied to this rejection of transcendence, is the pluralism that is contained in the expression “bustling, teeming eternity”. Badiou’s French translation says “l’active, fourmillante éternité” or “the active, swarming eternity”, which brings out more clearly the pluralist, Deleuzian resonances:

Eternity is not the unitary simplicity of the beyond, it is here, convoked by all these popular heroes, it is the “active, swarming eternity”. It is that of the true real.

A fourth theme is that the “true life” has to be torn from the cruel powers of transcendence and of capitalist predation, taking us from forced misery to ordinary abundance.

“This eternity is simply that of the true real, torn from the cruel powers, and this is the action that transforms everything into veritable gold. Even the accursed gold of the rich and of the oppressors will become again simply what it is, for everyone: gold”.

These four themes (the reversal of suffering into a world set free; death as construction of a new liberty; active, swarming eternity; the abundance of the real world) constitue four protocols of immanence that can be tested and validated by means of other poems from this partcular period that provides us with a privileged example of the crossing between poetry and politics.

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