Eleanor Kaufman is Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French and Francophone Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. Her work is at the forefront of studies of Gilles Deleuze. She has published widely on other twentieth-century French thinkers and their intersections with Medieval philosophy, the Jewish diaspora, and contemporary literature. Following her provocative new readings of Deleuze, her forthcoming monograph re-examines certain concepts of Alain Badiou in relation to and ‘at odds with’ a variety of thinkers in the critical theory tradition. In this interview regular HRKB contributor Promise Li was able to ask Professor Kaufman some questions about her latest research.
Eleanor Kaufman, At Odds with Badiou: Politics, Dialectics, and Religion from Sartre and Deleuze to Lacan and Agamben (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming)
Promise Li: Can you speak a little bit about the research for your upcoming book At Odds with Badiou: Politics, Dialectics, and Religion from Sartre and Deleuze to Lacan and Agamben? You’ve been writing on these theorists for quite some time now, but what does it mean to be ‘at odds’ with Badiou? As the subtitle also indicates, you are dealing with a number of theorists in relation to Badiou in your text. What effect does this have on the structure and direction of this project?
Eleanor Kaufman: Well, the customary sense of ‘at odds’ as being critical or in disagreement does operate to some degree in the project, especially in the initial chapters I drafted (on Lacan and Agamben, which are located toward the end of the book as it now stands), in that I juxtapose Badiou somewhat less favorably with Lacan on the question of ethics and with Agamben in regard to their respective books on the Apostle Paul. However, the early chapters on Sartre and Deleuze are quite sympathetic to Badiou. I would have never developed the more critical sections into a book-length project were it not for my first encounter with Badiou back at the University of Virginia in the early 2000s. I’ve never been inclined to meet the thinkers I work on, but I made an effort to sit next to Badiou at the conference dinner because he was quite jetlagged and I was one of the few people there who could converse with him in French. Basically, I overcame my usual reticence due to the humanitarian gesture I thought the situation called for, and that was when we spoke about Sartre and Deleuze, especially Sartre’s theater as I recall, and what he said was so compelling that it made me want to read more of his work, and so the project began.
That said, ‘at odds’ has a much more significant and literal meaning for the project, which is that I propose a different form of counting as a way of both reading Badiou’s corpus and thinking about ontology. Rather than following his set theoretical privileging of the void in conjunction with four possible types of generic procedure that may constitute a truth (politics, art, science, and love), I suggest that his work presents an undesignated trouble with counting from one to four, and that it is in the difficult oscillation between one and two, and then between three and four, that the heart of the ontological project resides. To my mind, Lacan captures this problematic in the enigmatic examples of his sixth seminar, before turning to different questions in the seminars that follow. The project is organized very simply: I work from lower to higher number problems.
PL: You have been working with Deleuze, publishing important research on especially Deleuze’s single-author works and later works. In your most recent text, Deleuze, The Dark Precursor, you pose a provocative reading of Deleuze and other critical theorists that stresses inertia, staticity, ‘inoperativity’ over traditional readings of them as philosophers of becomings, movement, etc. Do these motifs continue into your new book project as you take a closer look into Badiou? Even in Deleuze, Badiou’s thought and criticism of Deleuze on the question of ontology and ethics are important to your analysis. In what ways does this extend into At Odds with Badiou, and in what ways is it treated differently?
EK: In terms of the encounter between Deleuze and Badiou, I plan to develop my analysis of it more extensively in the Badiou book, and in fact am working on this presently. To give you a small preview, I consider very carefully Dan Smith’s typically excellent work on Deleuze and Badiou and mathematics, in which he positions Deleuze on the side of the calculus, Riemann, and the infinitesimal; and Badiou on the side of set theory, Cantor, and the axiomatic. But I don’t see such a rigid division and in fact regard Badiou’s very early work on the infinitesimal in Cahiers pour l’Analyse as a potential point of rapprochement. I also follow some, though certainly not all, of Badiou’s characterizations of Deleuze’s project in his Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, and this never sits well with my fellow Deleuzians!
The strongest link between Badiou’s thought and the minor states of inertia, stasis, and unworking that my work has always been preoccupied with might be framed in terms of the notion of the “inexistent” that Badiou develops in Logics of Worlds, something he even links to Derrida’s concept of “différance.” But I draw the connection via a more symptomatic reading, if you will. Lacan describes a sort of faltering or weakness at several junctures in Seminar VI, which marks the encounter in the cases under discussion—including Hamlet’s—with “not being there.” Rather than regard this as a mark of the void, as Badiou would do, I understand it as bound up with not being able to count decisively from one to two, or back down. Although I get at this in very different ways in the Deleuze and the Badiou books, I think both philosophers demonstrate in their fashion that the crack or faltering of being is actually the strongest indication of the purity of its presence. So I see them both as major ontologists, arguably contemporary French philosophy’s boldest, along with Lacan. Since this goes more with the territory of what Badiou claims to be doing, I don’t have to argue the larger point in the Badiou book as much as I do for Deleuze.
PL: In recent talks, you have noted the importance of medieval philosophy, by the likes of Aquinas and Boethius, as key to rethinking certain aspects of what the later French theorists had been working with. As in ‘The Saturday of Messianic Time’, where you discussed both Agamben’s and Badiou’s texts on Saint Paul and the effects on their respective systems of thought, how does your consideration of medieval philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology, especially on the notions of time and ontology, structure your thoughts on Badiou?
EK: You’ve stumped me! I’m sure At Odds with Badiou must connect to my more recent work in Medieval and Late Antique philosophy, but that connection is not yet fully apparent to me. As a matter of fact, my Badiou book has been on hold for far too long due to my preoccupation with these earlier periods. Surely the question of logic is a connecting factor. The Medieval philosophers were very great logicians. They endeavored to do something of an extraordinarily challenging reach, which was to synthesize Greek thought with the respective monotheisms. Such an enterprise requires the most rigorous of proofs. I do see Badiou as having many attributes of a systematic theologian, despite being the committed atheist that he is. My penultimate chapter connects Badiou’s thought to René Girard’s late apologetics for Christianity and also takes up the Paul book as an example, arguably the best one in Badiou’s oeuvre, of a successful event. Maybe we could say Badiou is the Aquinas to Girard’s Augustine.
PL: Finally, I’ve also heard that you have been working on a project on the ‘incorporeal’ in French phenomenology? Can you elaborate on that briefly, and are there any theoretical overlaps and connections between this project and the Badiou one?
EK: As with the Badiou book, the incorporeal project has also been derailed by my foray into Medieval and Ancient materials, above all because the botany section got me interested in the long history of botany and mineralogy in philosophy. That project looks at plants, rocks, objects, and possibly also the stars and heavens in relation to twentieth-century French phenomenology, which I claim provides a quite remarkable account of rock and object being despite its presumed human orientation. The phenomenologists are much less friendly to plants on the whole, which makes that the most interesting category. I was invited to give a talk about this in a film school some years ago and used that as an occasion to do an inventory of the impressive spectrum of plant horror films since The Thing from Another World.
The connection to the Badiou project would be along the lines of a shared penchant for classifying. My claim is that strong classification systems are the most useful, often in spite of themselves, for also providing a view into what falls outside of yet is intrinsic to the system. So although phenomenology may be overtly about the human as the highest category, in comparing the human to a rock as Heidegger does, or God to a stone as Sartre does, we actually have a backhanded phenomenology of the inhuman, if one grants such a thing is possible. A classification system with the category of the human at its apex must, of necessity, do a lot of work to distinguish the human or the animal or the plant from what is beneath it, and this paradoxically enables the thought of a rock ontology, or a mineralogy of being, as I call it. You see this as far back as Aristotle where his division of the soul or psuchē into the categories of the intellective, sensible, and nutritive introduces the problem of boundary entities like the sponge that, in presenting an exception, don’t so much prove the rule as demonstrate that the structure of the exception also pertains to all the primary categories. Whereas someone like Merleau-Ponty in his late work breaks down classification and is in some sense the most radical of the phenomenologists, I’m interested in a very different radicality that is made visible by the more strict confines of strong classification schemas. I guess you could say that what I am arguing with Badiou is not unrelated, that he also employs a very strong, indeed axiomatic, system of classification, and I’m interested in what falls between the cracks of the integers that he counts with.
Promise Li studies early modern English literature and critical theory at Occidental College. He is also an editorial assistant at Decalages: An Althusser Studies Journal and a member of Solidarity (U.S.).
The featured image on this post is by Prudence Whittlesey, whose art can be found here. The portrait of Eleanor Kaufman is from her series “Philosophy Re-Bound,” a project that includes over 100 artist and philosopher sitters.
The HKRB Interviews series specializes in new books in philosophy and critical theory. Interviews have included Simon Critchley, Jodi Dean, Agon Hamza, Frank Ruda and Srecko Horvat. Coming soon: Joan Copjec, Rosi Braidotti and Catherine Belsey.
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