EDITORIAL by J. A.

Learning from Las Vegas
Johannes Thumfart

Se réorienter dans le penser

In architecture, Postmodernism has been characterized by the introduction of ornamental forms such as pillars and gables in the mere functional realm of modern building. As best described in Venturi’s, Izenour’s and Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, Postmodernism was loud, noisy and eclectic and was – just like Las Vegas – surrounded by an icy desert of whatever-ness and ignorance.

When Alain Badiou chooses Plato as a guide through “the desert” (Deleuze) of postmodern thought, he surely engages a bit of postmodern historicism, as well. After the successful delocalization of Enlightenment (Foucault), Catholicism (Zizek), Rabbinsim (Derrida) Aristotelianism (Agamben), Baroque (Deleuze) and Japanese Samurai (Baudrillard), Plato may have been the last thing left to postmodern theory that hadn’t already been recycled.

But Plato is a very peculiar recycled object, too. He especially claimed his truths to be unbound by any particular time and space, but to be universal. Due to this rejection of affixing his thinking to any particular historical period, Plato cannot really be used as a mere historic ornament within a postmodern context. He is way too modern for that. Because geometry and mathematics haven’t fundamentally changed since Plato, his dictum that no one who doesn’t know geometry should enter the academy is still scary to many, especially to postmodernists. Are geometry, mathematics and logics not the ontological enemies of postmodern theory, which is, conversely, based on différance, Ereignis (event) and Werden (becoming)?

Although a pupil of Deleuze, Badiou knows mathematics, geometry and likes to argue with the theory of sets. Badiou’s series of lectures “Plato: For Today” is therefore not just the testimony of the “secret appointment” (Benjamin) between two great thinkers and mathematicians, but also a provocation. It is a provocation, foremost, of all for the postmodernists to whom Plato – founder of the academy and symbol of academic philosophy – has always and ever been the enemy No. 1. But Badiou’s reconsideration of Plato is not just a simple “patricide” within the allegedly “post-oedipal” (Deleuze) realms of Postmodernism. It also bears an extreme connection to his comments on contemporary politics. Therefore, when the critic Badiou says “Plato for today,” he means, in fact, “against today.” For Badiou, today, Plato’s philosophy signifies everything “that is not there,” and thus, the place where we should step to in order to “take measurement” anew. According to Badiou, a renaissance of Plato should contribute to the re-introduction of the notions of an objective end and an objective measure in contemporary society, where – as with Las Vegas – anything goes if, (and only if), it is measurable in terms of money.

First of all, Badiou finds in Plato the antithesis to all philosophical approaches of the 20th Century by pointing out that Plato was the most attacked thinker during that period. Although the philosophies of the 20th Century might be various and their differences numerous, one could summarize the whole of 20th Century philosophy as different objections to Plato: The Vitalism of Bergson, Nietzsche and Deleuze defined the Becoming against the platonic idea; the analytical philosophy of Wittgenstein and Carnap based their language against the platonic idea; Marx contrasted social reality against the platonic idea; existentialists like Sartre and Kierkegaard declared the mere force of existence against Plato; Heidegger accused Plato of being the first in a long tradition of the “forgetfulness of being,” (Seinsvergessenheit), and he claimed the recovery of the procedural character of the Sein as his own. Today’s democratic philosophy claims Pluralism and the free play of opinions against the “totalitarian tendencies” of Plato’s political philosophy, especially as expressed in the Politeia.

What connects all these different approaches to one another is their inconsistency, and especially the inconsistency of their objections to Plato. Reading Plato can, therefore, help to cultivate an understanding of the 20th Century philosophies’ – whose values are as vague and fluctuant as Becoming (Nietzsche), Language (Wittenstein), Society (Marx), Existence (Sartre), Process (Heidegger), and Political Pluralism (Popper) – by helping to understand their point of objection.

The most obvious inconsistency might be inherent to Nietzsche’s philosophy of Becoming and its anti-Platonism. Badiou says that by fighting the stagnancy of the “platonic sickness,” Nietzsche’s Vitalism has turned into an “anti-platonic sickness” itself. The “static” platonic ideas that Nietzsche was fighting against are completely imaginative. It is Parmenides’ concept that is much less flexible than Plato’s. Nietzsche seems to interchange the two. Badiou points out that in the “Sophistes” and the “Parmenides”, Plato, himself, fought against the static quality of the parmenidian concept of Being.

The most influential inconsistency is probably the analytical philosophers’ Anti-Platonism. Wittgenstein and Carnap especially attacked Plato because of his granting an eternal and unchangeable status to mathematical objects. Badiou notes that the analytical project of reducing all properties of mathematical and other objects of formal language to mere conventions is still to be debated and that the analytical philosophers too quickly eliminated any idealistic concept of language. The Anti-Platonism of analytical philosophy must, therefore, be re-thought.

It was Marx who dubbed Plato the “philosopher of the society of slaveholders.” In this platonic objection, Marx chose to follow Aristotle. This affiliation is not only obvious in Marx’s famous reprise of Aristotle’s rejection of monetary economics, but also in Marx’s general belief in the supremacy of the “natural” over the “artificial.” In his preference of Aristotle’s natural philosophy over Plato’s mathematical idealism, Marx completely overlooks the fact that it was Aristotle who legitimatized the slave-holder society by creating the figure of the “slave by nature” (doulos physei) and not Plato, who said nothing at all explicit on the problem of slaves.

The democratic Anti-Platonism of today accuses Plato of being “totalitarian,” because it is an essential concern of Plato to take a step out of the plurality of the doxa (opinion) towards an absolute knowledge (episteme). The theorists of modern democracy do not acknowledge any possibility of an absolute scientific or objective truth. That disavowal is, of course, a very totalitarian concept of truth in politics and precisely the stance of the Sophists against whom Plato fought. By identifying themselves with the Sophists, who were lawyers and rhetoric teachers, democratic theorists completely exclude the ethic dimension of politics. But according to Badiou, that dimension of ethics is exactly what is necessary for a measurement of today’s political process. Otherwise, the only reliable measurement of today’s political and social circuity is money.

Badiou writes that today’s most important political and theoretical values – Becoming (Nietzsche), Language (Wittenstein), Sociality (Marx), Existence (Sartre), Process (Heidegger) and Political Pluralism (Popper) – can be identified by their differing forms of modern Anti-Platonisms. In addition to supporting an understanding of these paradigms’ overwhelming power, the study of Plato today offers possibilities for opening up toward the absolute, impossible decisions, which must be made in the field of ethics. More extensively than fluxus, positivism, oversocialization, epistemic and moral nihilism, epistemic and moral relativism, and other discourses whose only aims are ongoing discourse, Plato can tell us, what “is possible, besides from that what is given,” according to Badiou.

Back to Las Vegas, that gem of postmodern architecture and metaphor for postmodern thinking, what Plato recycles is probably the desert itself. Imagine that: the reinvention of the desert as desert. Not an empty space, chora that – as Derrida once put it with Plato – “bears no property in order to take on any property.” Neither does Badiou dwell in Zizek’s “desert of the real.” Imagine Peter O’ Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ instead. When asked why he likes the desert, he answers, “Because it is clean.” That could be Badiou’s answer too.

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