Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Nirenberg-Badiou debate over Being and Event

In the latest issues of Critical Inquiry, one can watch a philosophical critique of Alain Badiou's book Being and Event degenerate into an academic mudslinging contest with a distinctly testosterone-laden tone.

Ricardo and David Nirenberg proposed a criticism of the way Badiou employs mathematics in the summer 2011 issue. In the most recent issue, the philosophers Adam Bartlett and Justin Clemens as well as Badiou himself responded with quite violent counterattacks.

Bulldozer Ethics?
It is quite evident from his work that Badiou holds himself in high esteem. Depending on taste, one may see this as a case of megalomania or simply of "refreshing immodesty" (as Bartlett and Clemens see it, p. 372). In either case, grooming one's legacy is legitimate enough, even if it gets a little thick at times.

However, other aspect of his style are a little harder to forgive. His attempt to secure himself a place in history is not just expressed through a "refreshing immodesty," but at times also through cruder bullying tactics. Sometimes this just involves him holding up the authority of mathematics as a shield in front of himself, but at other times, he gets more aggressive with the intimidation and the name-calling.

For instance, there is nothing discreet about his attack on the Nirenbergs (his "adversaries," p. 362). They are "stupid," "ignorant," and "careless" (p. 364, 362, and 363), and they make "beginner's errors" (p. 363) while a "constant confusion dominates their thought" (p. 364).

Their critics, Bartlett and Clemens, are on the other hand "clear, informed, and independent" (p. 362).

"Insinuating Rhetoric"
This last remark is a little surprising in the light of the actual style of the article by Bartlett and Clemens. While they scorn the Nirenbergs for "promulgation of an insinuating rhetoric, whose ideological affiliations are at once evident and obscured" (p. 367), they themselves do not seem to mind a bit of ridiculing name-calling: "we would like to renominate Nirenberg & Nirenberg, Nirenberg & Son, as Nini" (p. 366).

One should read these allegations of rhetoric and insinuations against the backdrop of their own style, including quotes like this:
Among much, we will ignore Nini’s effort to demonstrate a familiarity with French philosophy. Badiou’s engagement with the philosophical ‘tradition’ is so extensive, fundamental, and so beyond anything cited here by Nini as to make the latter’s contribution puzzling. (p. 371-72)
Or, in the style of classical rhetoric: "Now, other people might have drawn attention to my opponent's lack of intelligence, to his fat body, or to his embarrassing military record, but I, on the other hand, value the proper tone of the open debate ... (etc.)"

This is all a little disturbing, given that Badiou claims to have something to say about love and politics. It's one thing that he overstretch the significance of his mathematical metaphors a little, but is this really the kind of person we want to take our ethical advice from?

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