BADIOU READS VICTOR HUGO (1): the blue thistle and dis-enclosing the finite

Badiou’s strategy involves beginning with a critique of the dominant ideology of modern society, which is no longer based on a finitude of stability and repetition but on a new form of finitude, one of movement and innovation. The critique of the dogma of human finitude will lead him to elaborate a new theory of the infinite.

In his seminar Badiou proposes a philosophical critique of the ideology of finitude, but he also spends a lot of time discussing examples of the “poetic critique of finitude”. We have seen him mobilise René Char’s vision of the exhausted life and of its hebetude, and Arthur Rimbaud’s description of the “not too discontented” life. Both are figures of the dissolution of intensities under the regime of circulation.

To go further Badiou will need to distinguish different figures of infinity. In the third class of his seminar IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS (December 12, 2012) he criticises the postmodern as an attempt to make one’s peace with the finitude of capitalist circulation, to inhabit it playfully and cynically, i.e. to accept it as a given without being duped by it.

He accuses Lyotard’s post-modernism of being a form of pessimism and resignation, of accepting that there is no exit from the finitude of the modern world. According to Badiou, Lyotard is right to give up the notion of waiting for a better world tomorrow, but he is wrong to conflate the grand narrative with messianism and prophetic expectations.

Against this postmodern “pessimism over finitude” Badiou insists that we need a grand narrative without the messianic wait. We can have a grand narrative based on openness rather than on waiting. We need to find elements of the infinite inside the finite world we live in and “release” them:

To release the infinite is to live in the world in such a way that the present is so intense that there is no need to wait for tomorrow; in reality tomorrow must be there.

There must be points of infinite intensity already there, points of infinity immanent to the world of mediocre intensities:

On the other hand, the primacy of practice means that the representation that one makes of tomorrow is validated by an internal dis-enclosure of finitude, i.e. in points internal to finitude that nevertheless also bear its opening.

Badiou claims that  “Hugo is a poet of the infinite point”. The relation between the finite and the infinite is not a quantitative relation. No matter how impressive the quantity (of wealth, or power, or prestige), it is still finite, and can be surpassed by a point.

According to Badiou, Hugo typically

deploys a general inondation of language destined to plunge us into the marsh of finitude, into an absolutely sombre and terrible universe…and there, at the end, there will be , in a lightning flash, a point of exception.

He cites a fragment from Hugo’s CONTEMPLATIONS, taken from the poem “Words on the Dunes”:

Do I still retain something in my dazzled eyes,
A spark of my youth’s energy?

Has it all flown away? I’m alone. I call out.
No one responds to my scream.
Oh winds! oh billows! am I only a breath?
Am I, alas, only a stream?

Will I never see anything I loved again?
The night within spreads its gloom.
Oh earth, whose summits the fog is effacing,
Am I then the ghost, you the tomb?

Have I emptied it all – life, love, joy, and hope?
I’m waiting; I ask; I implore.
One after the other, I lift my urns to drink
A drop from each once more!

Oh how our memories are neighbours of remorse!
How everything makes us weep more!
Oh, how cold I feel touching you, oh Death,
Black bolt on humanity’s door!

So I dream, listening to winds groan and roar
And waves wrinkle toward the land.
Summer is laughing, and you can see, on the shore,
Blue thistle blooming in the sand”.

From “VICTOR HUGO Selected Poetry” translated with an introduction by Steven Monte, Routledge 2001, page 159-161.

We are not imprisoned in the dunes, emptied of all intensity by the piling up of the sands of time run out, buried under nostalgia and regret. We need not be confined to a negative or reactive subjectivity. The exit point is there, for all to see, in a flash of vision:

This blue thistle of the sands is the point of infinity that the gaze encounters when it is buried at its deepest level in dereliction. Blooming, it is the possible opening of what we do not know, but precisely because we do not know it, it is no longer memory, remembrance, repetition; it’s a promise, and a promise that we can see.

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One Response to BADIOU READS VICTOR HUGO (1): the blue thistle and dis-enclosing the finite

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