Reflections on philosophy and culture


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Badiou on Beckett


I've yet to make heads or tails of Alain Badiou's systematic philosophy, but some of his critical and historical essays are fascinating. For example, this essay, entitled "Figures of Subjective Destiny: On Samuel Beckett," contains insights about Beckett I've never seen articulated quite so well.

Badiou really understands Beckett, especially the significance of Beckett's distinctive way of abstracting from the concrete vicissitudes of human life. This characteristic operation in Beckett's works always functions to outline what Badiou calls a 'figure': an image of the human subject and its encounters with others and the world - what Badiou calls "forms of the destiny of the human subject." These aren't images of a universal human subject - of what a human being is at anyplace or anytime - but of particular ways a human being might be.

Yet, Beckett's figures - and here I have in mind principally the post-WWII prose, Badiou's own focus - are stripped of the particularities that characterize a human life and its situation. The voices that speak in his texts are not characters in the ordinary sense - individuals with a personal biography, history and personality. They lack most or all of the features that make up a recognizable personal identity. For this reason, it might be thought that Beckett's texts involve an ascent from the concrete, a movement away from human involvement with the world.

However, on Badiou's accounting, this gets things wrong. Rather, one of Beckett's figures embodies a vision of what a particular form of embodied and embedded human life is. The nearly ubiquitous chatter about Beckett's 'disembodied voices' is, in this way, totally inapt. That is, these figures - often mistaken as boring existentialist tropes for subjective destitution and despair - paradoxically capture the most concrete modes of human life. And, they do so all the more powerfully because they present these forms in abstraction from the particular. In stripping away the usual trappings of character, Beckett lays bare the general shape of a given human predicament. And, though he does so at a level of abstraction that is more reminiscent of metaphysics than of literary prose, what he attends to is not worldless subjectivity but rather engaged human life.

More often than not, in Beckett's texts the work of outlining such a figure isn't done by a transcendent narrator but rather by the subject being figured itself. A subject who speaks in one of these texts bears witness to the abstract form of its own situation, speaking both it and its own speaking thereof. In this way, what we are given is a subject which is not so much a character as the pure encounter - by way of thought and speech - of a given kind of human situation with itself.

For Badiou, the situations that Beckett articulates in his figures are situations in Badiou's own technical philosophical sense: sites for the irruption of novelty into human affairs. In particular, Badiou sees a certain kind of situation in this technical sense at work some of Beckett's texts. They are sites for the emergence of a particular sort of novelty that results from our encounters with one another - namely love. Although these arguments contain a number of insights about the relationship between solipsistic consciousness and intersubjectivity in Beckett, I'm not sure I agree with their general drift. It seems to me that Badiou is struggling awkwardly to read aspects of his own recondite system into Beckett. Worse, much of the discussion of love and 'sexuation' strikes me as obscure.

Still, as one comment to Badiou's essay suggests, in his reading of Beckett's overall project he rescues Beckett from the labels of 'existentialist' and 'absurdist' which have dominated so much of his critical reception, labels I've always felt in my bones get Beckett dead wrong. He doesn't distill away the content of a human mode of life in order to evoke the absurdity of the world, and the subjects he figures certainly aren't existential heroes persevering in the face of such absurdity. Rather, each encounters the general form of its own situation and testifies to it with clarity, precision and a palpable sense for the momentousness of the encounter. Because he gets onto this dimension in Beckett, it seems to me Badiou is a reader of Beckett with which I would like to engage more. The only other critic I've read who comes close to this level of insight on Beckett is Maurice Blanchot.

Of course, perhaps I am a little bit biased: Badiou opens the essay with an insightful reading of "The Lost Ones." This work has a special place in my heart as the first thing by Beckett I ever read, a text that was like a shock to my system and a challenge to what I thought books could be. I can still remember the afternoon when I discovered it. I was 13, hanging out at the chintzy local library where I spent a lot of my youth. I randomly picked up "The Lost Ones," opened it, and was immediately entranced. I was immobilized with fascination and read the whole thing standing there next to the bookshelf for God knows how long. I checked it out, read it at least three more times over the next week and spent many hours laying on my bed staring at the ceiling thinking about it. For this totally idiosyncratic reason, I fancy that Badiou not only understands something profound about Beckett; more than this, his essay begins the encounter with Beckett in just the right place.

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