March 9th, 2006


Blogbabes, the New York Times, and Alain Badiou

Yesterday was as close to "routine" as this weird job of mine is likely to get. I ate lunch (alone) at the bar at Republic on Union Square, some slurpy spicy coconut chicken noodles (actually, the chicken without the extreme spice would have been totally bland and tasteless, which put me in mind of my rant last year about the poor textures of American life). I got to the Whitney a couple of hours "late", but an unreliable tour guide has to be reliably unreliable, otherwise he'd be... well, reliable.

At the Whitney two total babes with the splendid names of Thessaly La Force and Eremi Amabebe (Columbia University students) were waiting to interview me for their blog. We repaired to the cafe with a Chilean boy who'd started chatting to them and quite understandably didn't want to let them go. Talk was of "the good difference" and suchlike, with Thessaly playing the role of the nice cop and Eremi the nasty cop, full of questions about my support for Huntington's "clash of civilisations" thesis.

The rest of the afternoon a writer called Jeff Macintyre followed me around then interviewed me for the New York Times. He intends to write a piece for them called "Tales from the unreliable tour guide". I tried to do all my "hard-hitting" and "controversial" lines, only to discover that the public were all finding me "charming" today. It must be the neat new gold-buttoned blazer I bought the other day, which makes me look like the captain on "Gilligan's Island" and neutralizes at least 35% of my menace.

In the evening I headed down to SoHo, bought a bento supper at the Sunrise Mart on Broome (I can see that place becoming my second home) then attended a talk given by Alain Badiou at the Drawing Center. I went there because Badiou is one of the outstanding French intellectuals of our time, perhaps the last of a dying breed. And I went there on behalf of my brother Dr Mark, who's been influenced by some of Badiou's ideas (for instance, his inaugural lecture at Anglia Polytechnic University drew on Badiou's schema of "the particular that gets to represent the universal"). Badiou makes a lot of sense in, for instance, this Cabinet interview about evil. But last night he seemed waffly, both too abstract and too simple. His theme was art's imperative to speak the unspeakable, and he got tangled up in vapid semi-paradoxes, delineating a water-tight system (complete with spidery diagram on a handout) which seemed more assertive than explanatory.

And so we learned that "being" is "a multiplicity without degree, of purely mathematical determination", whereas "existence" is "the quality, degree or intensity of being". We also learned that "there is always one element in a multiplicity with a minimum degree of existence". No authority cited or examples given. Oh, wait, he did give the example of the proletariat in Marxism, whose political existence has a "minimum degree", hence the line in the Internationale about "we are nought". We were also told, with puckish humour, that "there is a formal demonstration of the necessity of the inexistent", quite a simple one, but that Badiou was not going to demonstrate it for us. Did he mean death?

And so -- pay attention at the back, there! -- a work of art is the construction of an artificial thing in such a way that it inscribes the inexistent, and "this inscription is impossible". This failure, in art, is an honourable one, but in politics leads to monstrosity. The examples of art Badiou used (Monet's lily pad paintings, Beckett's "can't go on, will go on", Rimbaud) were hoary old academic cliches. His manner was amusing but suspect; he played to the gallery, hamming up his french accent and exaggerating certain doddery academic gestures; reaching the end of a particularly abstruse and circular sentence he would stretch his eyes, suck in his cheeks, waggle his tongue as if licking a lemon, looking for all the world like an old doctor describing his favourite disease.

I felt a bit sorry that I'd recommended the talk to my Chilean acquaintance, who was bored and perplexed. And the hot blog babes, also invited, didn't even come. Or perhaps they were there "with a minimum degree of existence".