Black: The brilliance of a noncolor by Alain Badiou (trans. Susan Spitzer) — Steven Felicelli

Alain Badiou’s Black: The brilliance of a noncolor is a radical departure for the impenetrable thinker of Theory of the Subject and Being and Event. It’s more in the tradition of Maurice Blanchot (or even Alexander Theroux, Mark Rothko) than Lacan or Althusser and casts an evocative pall over the way text, thought, and flesh have come to negotiate dark and light (black/white).

Signaling an end to the end of philosophy, Badiou is considered one of the most important philosophers of the new millennium and yet his work has proved virtually unreadable for all but the most dedicated scholars. A philosophy enthusiast, I have made sorties into his major works, retreated to secondary texts and now require tertiary texts to explicate the secondary. I am not alone in following these detours to the Badiouan Event and so, while I might be out of my depth in placing Black in the philosophical system, I represent an eager readership it seems to be opening itself up to. (Artists, authors, intellectuals wanting to fathom the age’s most complex thinkers or perhaps merely seeking the cachet of conversance with them.)

Needless to say, I approached Black: The Brilliance of a Noncolor as I do most Badiou offerings (wearily, warily), with no intention of reviewing (nor comprehending) it. So disposed, I was immediately disarmed and delighted. It was like sitting down for a lecture on Althusserian epistemology (via set theory) and getting a night-music serenade instead.

This poetic, anecdotal meditation (103 pages) marks an unexpected literary (re)turn. Two of Badiou’s formative works were novels (Almagestes 1964, Portulans 1967) and he has occasionally written for/about the theatre. His passion for the latter is detailed in another Polity Press translation, In Praise of Theatre (2012/2015) in which he and Nicolas Truong discuss drama’s contemporary crisis. Therein he recalls a vocational crossroads in response to Truong’s query, “You have hesitated between philosophy and theatre for a long time. Why did you not choose the theatre…[?]”

 Without a doubt mathematics is to blame!I accepted to be to be divided between the classical form of philosophy, which is to say great systematic treatises, and the occasional incursion, a kind of joyful foray, into the domain of the theatre.

Though a work of theory, not theatre, Black clearly (opaquely) comes under this Joyful Foray rubric. (Whereas we might find Theory of the Subject under Badiou’s more extensive Sober Ordeals.) This is not to say Badiou’s work has been unconcerned with drama/literature (Beckett, Mallarmé, Brecht, Pessoa all figure prominently in his work), but rather to distinguish between two modes of thought/composition. (Damn you, Mathematics!)

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Badiou has never thrown his hands over the political and veridical problematics of the postmodern age and set about “playing” with and “deconstructing” texts. The linguistic turn, to Badiou, was away from something important which he has sought to restore or at least reconvene in his work (hence the recourse to mathematics).

His project has never ceased to be the pursuit of (Platonic) truths via procedures that cross disciplines and incorporate all manner of thought, production, affect.

Forgive the makeshift stage-setting, but we are now prepared to enter the dark (Le Noir) theatre of Badiou’s new work. Though entitled Black (Le Noir = black, the black, the dark, darkness, blackness), it could easily have been called Black & White: A Dialectic of Noncolors.

. . . both terms [black and white] equally negate what makes up the multifaceted flavor of the visible universe.

These noncolors are viewed through the prism of Psychology, Astronomy, Linguisitcs, History, Critical Race Theory and Inaesthetics*, in accordance with the philosopher’s comprehensive methodology (engaging various “truth procedures”).

First and foremost, we have words, for it is a book in hand—pages impressed with ink. Not quite black, however, as was the case with fountain pens and the messy ink Badiou describes blotting and taming in his formative compositions.

 Oh, the miracle of a clear and possibly elegant sentence emerging from the sticky ink and wending its way between the blots! It is the black of meaning wrung from the black of matter.

Today, we have the printer’s “grayscales,” ink neatly and uniformly pressed into the page. The substantial, signature black of inscribed ink had become the pale, mechanical quasi-black of copied text and now we have the intangible characters I am currently scribbling onto this white, upright rectangle (no doubt similar to the one you’re monitoring). Though the contrast has dissipated over the years, what remains is the traditional mise-en-scène of meaning: black(-ish) signs in a white field.

Appearing between the sleek black covers of this volume, the signs in question begin by recounting Badiou’s childhood and military service. The latter anecdote concluding with lyrics from a popular song of the time,

 Noir c’est noir, il n’y a plus d’espoir [Black is black, there’s no hope anymore]

sung by Badiou’s military band-mate and joined in by the future set theorist and his comrades “like a hymn of resignation” in the dark barracks of a dark time.** (Military service as a bygone rite of passage will figure prominently in yet another Polity Press translation of Badiou, The True Life/2017.)

From there Badiou retraces his youth back to an even darker time (1945), but one in which the disquieting darkness was still an enchanted land of blind exploration. The Stroke of Midnight was a game the eight-year-old Badiou had invented to titillate and torment himself and his playmates. Think Marco Polo meets Spin the Bottle. In a darkened room (“parents out of the way”), invisible children would grope for others like obscure objects of desire. These invisible objects could defend themselves, resist being apprehended, but if they were seized upon, the subject could make them do “whatever they wanted”. This awakening of desire coincides with the dread of apprehension, a quintessentially Badiouan phenomenon. Here we have the fledgling dialectician orchestrating pre-adolescent antinomies in his feverish little mastermind. It is the unmistakable origin of Black: The brilliance of a noncolor, if not the entire oeuvre this eight-year-old will compose over the next seven decades.

These chronicles of a budding Lacanian set the tonal course for his thoughts to wander through (in)aesthetic, scientific and erotic registers en route to what will always be most important to the indefatigable Marxist: Politics, which is to say People (black, white, et al.).

(In)aesthetics

Pierre Soulages (still alive I was flabbergasted to find—he’ll turn 98 this year) represents an (in)aesthetic paragon to Badiou. According to Soulages, his paintings are “neither images, nor language” and the poet John Yau suggests, “Their dense black surfaces offer no vantage point from which to see them. We do not see these works so much as experience them visually and physically.” For Badiou, this resistance to recognition and its portrait of what defies portraiture represents a pure, pre-lingual expression (of the Lacanian real?).

. . . the painterly landscape of a world without borders and of an infinite potential of perspectives and meanings.

The chromatic endgames of black and white play upon Soulages’ canvas like avid swaths of a bigger picture, where “beyond black” (Soulages’ coinage outrenoir), beyond articulation, comprehension, law (or perhaps before them), there are these…not signs, nor images…Beckett would perhaps call them visual profounds. Badiou waxes rhapsodic about their (literally) impossible beauty being a kind of negation made manifest. A recurring theme of Black (/White) is this absence/presence of what has been absorbed/negated.

Science

Apropos of negation, Badiou will address the paradox of black holes and the confounding abundance of dark matter in the universe (many physicists believe the former accounts for the latter). As a gravitational singularity (Badiouan math is preoccupied with ones), the black hole is an absolute absence (of light) and simultaneous superabundance (of matter). It “symbolizes, without distinction, both lack and excess”. An aporetic poster child for Badiou’s thought, this astronomical thing draws everything into it and reconstitutes/re-presents itself as a vital nothing.

 Truth…makes a hole in knowledge.

Where dark matter is concerned, something must account for the nothing. It “designates what is lacking in perception” and accrues to an apt metaphor for the great unknown (reckoned as something which must nonetheless exist).

But perhaps the most original and evocative of Badiou’s meditations appear in his examination of an earthly black. Though we know it’s there, we never acknowledge, nor even imagine the black of subterranean realms underlying a forest or a field of wildflowers.

On the invisible underside of the green ground and its panoply of colors lies the black network of roots. . .

Terrestrial beauty born in and of the black earth.

Eros

No color is more associated with desire than le noir (the black, the dark). From women’s lingerie to the nocturnal boudoir to the censored genitals in nudie magazines (more gray than black Badiou recalls from his childhood),

 Black is, par excellence, the colorless color of fetishes.

 But all that was once concealed by black has been laid bare with the advent of the internet. Coital close-ups have drawn the black curtain of erotic mystery upon the mincemeat of enjoined genitalia. (Baudrillard describes this as “hyperreal”.) What black had occluded and thus eroticized now opens its legs on command and allure has given way to a banal, routine exhibitionism.

 Politics

Black is the color of Anarchism (the black flag), but it has also been the color of Fascism (Il Duce’s black shirts). Therein the noncolor’s ideological dialectic, but Badiou chooses to focus the conclusion of his book on flesh and blood, not partisan politics. The final chapter of Black is entitled, An invention of white people. It refers both to the origin of a self-identified white race and that race’s invention of “black people”.

In actuality, nobody’s black nor white, Badiou points out, in fact:

…the distinctive feature of human being is doubtless to be more or less dark-skinned, with an infinite gradation of shades, but actually not to be any one specific color. And why is this so? Because people are not covered with fur or feathers or a chitinous shell. They are the only animals who are naturally naked, and their skin only has a variety of shades and no fixed color.

To Badiou, the problematic taxonomy of race is not just invidious, but utterly absurd and

indeterminable. Tamils, Badiou points out, are darker-skinned than many Africans, yet not considered black and “many Europeans are much too dark for it to be reasonable to say they’re white”. (Apropos of the incongruity, my Italian & Tamil daughter looks “white”.) Furthermore, this indeterminacy of race only grows more pronounced with each generation as populations become increasingly multi-cultural; racial distinctions being fucked away all over the world at present (to the reactive chagrin of 21st Century Trumpians).

Badiou’s lesson here: “…beware of any symbolization, collective assessment, political venture, or overall judgment that would purport to include a color, of any kind, in its system.” A novel insight advancing the nuanced critique of race today? Not really (it amounts to closer-look common sense) and I’m not sure how knocking Sarkozy (his racist punching bag), bemoaning the middle passage, and vaguely reproving Black Panthers for their valorization of “black” (thus ratifying racism) is meant to culminate an otherwise scintillating meditation on the dynamism of Le Noir. (Nor does it open an Althusserian avenue to oppressed “blacks” in the alleyways of “white” privilege.)

Off-color admonitions aside, Susan Spitzer’s stellar translation of Black: the brilliance of a noncolor records what could be a crossover hit for one of the most inscrutable intellectuals of our time (twilight of the Counter-Enlightenment). Philosophy enthusiasts, essay-lovers and experimental fiction fans are all eligible audiences for this “joyful foray” into the dark of negation and plenitude.


*From Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics: By ‘inaesthetics’ I understand a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art itself is a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, ‘inaesthetics’ describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.

**Prolepsis or misprint? Badiou’s military service occurred from 1961-62 and yet the song was released in 1966.

Alain Badiou is a writer, philosopher and an Emeritus Professor at the École normale supérieure, Paris.

Steven Felicelli is the author of two novels (Notes Toward a Monograph of the Moment/Six Gallery Press, White/Purgatorio Press) and book reviews which appear at The Critical Flame and Necessary Fiction (upcoming reviews at The Rumpus, Rain Taxi, and The Collagist). He has received fellowships from The Edward Albee Foundation, Bread Loaf and The Millay Colony.

Image: Musée Pierre Soulages, vostok 91, Creative Commons

Black: The brilliance of a noncolor is published by Polity Press. Author bio courtesy of the same.

We try to include translator biographies wherever possible, but in this instance there appears to be no readily available information for Susan Spitzer, bar that she is a regular translator of Alain Badiou’s books.