Some thoughts about the Badiou workshop
Yesterday, I attended the Middlesex University Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy workshop on Badiou’s Theory of the Subject (excerpt .pdf) and Logic of Worlds (excerpt .pdf). The whole experience was pleasant, the speakers and their talks were quite stimulating (after all, three of them are translators of Badiou) and there were a good number of people in the audience (I’d say around 80). Hopefully the recordings of the talks (I saw a recorder on the table and I think that Hallward said something about recording) will be available in the near future. To complete the nice experience, I also had the chance to meet in person Nick from Speculative Heresy/The Accursed Share. It is always interesting to meet personally online acquaintances, and Nick seemed like a very friendly and nice guy. I was short on time after the talks, but we had the chance to have a beer and a chat during the concluding reception.
I won’t comment on the single talks, but there is one main remark that I feel the need to make.
Toscano (translator of Logic of Worlds), during his talk, said something like ‘for the most abstruse mathematical passages I had to ask Badiou to email me an explanation to help me with the translation’. Moreover in his Translator’s Note he says ‘for the translations of logical and mathematical terms I’ve been lucky to be able to rely on Anindya Bhattacharyya, a fine reader of Badiou and one of the few people I know capable of engaging his work directly on the formal terrain’.
Bosteels (translator of Theory of the Subject), during the closing session said (and here I quote almost verbatim): ‘Is there a mathematician in the audience that can tell us if Badiou’s mathematics is sound and makes sense? I don’t even know what an algorithm is’.
Yesterday there was some controversy about Badiou’s employment of set and category theory, which was criticized from different directions, both by Ali Alizadeh and Kristin Ross. I don’t want to get into this debate right now. Let us assume for the time being that Badiou’s use of mathematics is philosophically useful (if not inevitable) and mathematically sound (as we can reasonably infer from Badiou’s own remarks about the long time he spent studying math, and about the importance of doing so).
What I want to say is something different. Is it ok for a translator of Badiou to not know the first thing (and knowing what an algorithm is really is Logic 101) about mathematics and to ignore whether or not his use of it is consistent? One possible answer: yes, as long as the translator was selected only for purely linguistic skills. But here we are not talking about translating a novel or a play.We are talking about someone translating a philosophical text, in which mathematical formalism plays a pivotal part in the argument, not just as an embellishment, and about someone who is generally taken as a ‘Badiou expert’. If you ask me, no, it is not ok at all.
I don’t think that I can be accused of being unfair on philosophers, as I’ve often before criticized scientists about the paucity of their philosophical knowledge. Am I then being a hypocrite? Am I accusing someone about an ignorance which I share? Yes, of course, I certainly don’t have Badiou’s knowledge and grasp of the mathematics he uses, and I do often struggle my way through the most formalized parts of his books (still, one can buy a good introduction to set theory–as I did–and just, you know, read it). Sure, I am guilty of that. But then again, I do not translate Badiou’s major books, nor I am invited to workshops on the account of my being a Badiou expert.
You might say that I am being too harsh. Fine, so let me tone down the criticism and say that, even if I was a translator of Badiou’s work and I found it unnecessary for my job to learn one thing or two about the mathematics which he uses, I would not say it in public, almost ironically, as if it is a completely legitimate thing to do.
Let me provide an example to explain my animosity.
I am a French physicist, and I am writing a physics book about the concept of time in physics (yes, the example comes loosely from Sean Carroll’s book). In a very unusual fashion for a scientist, I build my argument relying on Heidegger’s conception of temporality (I said loosely), which comes to have a structurally central part in my book and in the whole of my thesis as exposed in it. Now, my book is very successful and gets translated into English. The translator is selected on the basis of his knowledge of French, and of his familiarity with physics. At a conference, some time afterwards, the translator claims: ‘I know nothing about this Heidegger guy and about the meaning of this ‘dasein’ word and others. I’ve asked the author to help me out. Is there a philosopher in the audience that can tell me if the author interprets Heidegger correctly? I don’t even know what they mean by ‘being”.
I know, the example is too hyperbolic and quite weak, since (among other reasons) to ‘interpret Heidegger’ is not the same as ‘employ Set Theory’. But still, I wanted to exaggerate to expose once again the same question: is it fine for a philosopher to adopt an openly dismissive attitude about scientific/mathematical knowledge? (I think that Toscano said openly ‘I am an ignoramus in mathematics’). And, (and here is the real crux of my critique) is it fine when such a philosopher is called to translate the work of another philosopher who has spent his whole life trying to break out of a certain tradition of philosophy that considers mathematical formalism to be reserved for mindless positivists, and to rehabilitate such a formalism as a necessary part of philosophical discourse?
In my opinion, you can think whatever you want about Badiou’s use of mathematics as a part of a philosophical project, but as a translator and as a ‘Badiouian’ you are expected to take it seriously, and to know exactly what he is talking about.
To be fair, in this regard I have to praise Peter Hallward, who in his book on Badiou advises the reader to start from the Appendix, where he gives a short yet very qualified introduction on the development of Set Theory, furnishing the reader with the basic mathematical tools needed to understand Badiou’s argumentation.
Above the archway of Badiou’s school there is an engraving saying ‘Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter’. Shouldn’t we take it more seriously? Shouldn’t we be more humble?
From left to right: Peter Hallward, Bruno Bosteels, Kristin Ross
Concluding session. From left to right: Nina Power, Bruno Bosteels, Éric Alliez, Ali Alizadeh, Kristin Ross, Alberto Toscano.