Cutting the Knot of Incompetence

For my sins, I’ve been reading a lot of Badiou recently. In fact, I’ve been reading him for most of the pandemic.

After many years of tactical avoidance, I’ve found myself coming full circle, following a trajectory that I imagine is quite common — first, dismissing him out of hand for his unorthodox and heretical take on Deleuze, only to now appreciate the generative power of his militancy.

In reading Badiou, even (or especially) when you disagree with him, his provocations become sharpening stones for your own positions. This isn’t always the case — sometimes he is just bad — but at his best, and whether he is right or wrong, he moves thought forwards. It’s hard not to respect that.

The other night, I was reading The Adventure of French Philosophy for the first time. It might just be the perfect example of how Badiou’s thought operates in this way. Here we have his infamous essay on the “potato fascism” of Deleuze and Guattari, among other striking polemics that are unlikely to convince many readers of his value, but Bruno Bosteels’ translator’s introduction frames Badiou’s provocations in the right way. He writes of a series of what he calls “constitutive polemical knots that give Badiou’s philosophy its distinctive orientation, tonality and feel”. For Bosteels,

one of this thinker’s greatest virtues — which to others might seem to be a defect, especially in his writing on other philosophers — lies in giving thought a decisive orientation by leading readers to the point where they must take a stand in one way or another. Each of Badiou’s knots, in this sense, begs to be cut. And the task of his thought — for example, in reviewing someone else’s work — lies in facilitating these cuts and in elucidating the consequences of choosing one knot and one cut — one act — over another.

It feels like a innately post-punk maneuver — a strange way to frame Badiou, I know… It makes me think of Phil Christman’s poignant essay on the Postcapitalist Desire lectures, in which he writes — in quite Badiouan terms, come to think of it — of Fisher’s fidelity to the event of post-punk:

not the loud, colorful, simple, proudly incompetent, and often nihilistic music known then and now as punk rock, but the strange and often foreboding music that came immediately after it, made by artists who occupied the space of possibility that punk had created by saying “No” to manners, taboos, and musical skill. Such artists — Joy Division, the Mekons, the Fall, the Raincoats, Wire — turned punk’s nothing into something, or many somethings.

Badiou’s thought feels very similar. It could be described as a kind of mathematical post-punk — his assertion that being is produced ex nihilo, making the void or zero his foundation — which is not a nihilism but a challenge to turn the nothingness of being into something through the events that puncture it.

My main reason for reading Badiou has been to better understand his influence on the accelerationists of the mid-2000s — an influence perpetually obscured by the more dogmatic Deleuzo-Landians. Their disinterest is understandable — Badiou’s criticisms of Deleuze and Guattari are fierce. But Alex Williams’ maneuver, following Ray Brassier — arguably the founding accelerationist maneuver in the late-2000s — seems to me like an attempt to combine the insights of Deleuze and Badiou together.

Writing “against hauntology” and its “position of total defeat” — or, as Badiou might put it, its “aesthete’s acquiescence to the proliferating splendour of all rubbish” — Williams put forward a two-pronged alternative to the “good postmodernism” of a hauntological complicity with late capitalism. He suggests that

we might think a more nihilist aesthetic which seeks not merely to foreground the processes of postmodern audio-necromancy, but rather to accelerate the system to its ultimate demise, to speed up the rate of fashion-flux to a point of irredeemable collapse. Rather than an act of reverence, of mourning, of touching at impossible universes from a distance, this would be a deliberate and gleeful affirmation. Alternatively, we might consider Badiou’s analysis of the emergence of the new, which would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.

This reading of Badiou is tinged by the critiques of Ray Brassier, who argues in his essay “Nihil Unbound” — not the book — that the “undecidability” innate to late capitalism in Deleuze and Guattari’s reading, which precisely produces the spectres of hauntology, folds the Deleuzian understanding of multiplicity back into Badiou’s subtractive foundation.

However, if there is such an undecidability, Badiou’s thought is, perhaps, a militant fidelity to decisions nonetheless. Capitalism will not make the decision for us; to take a step back, to try and let the market sort things out, is, predictably, to hedge our bets.

I wonder if this is a useful way of thinking about the current anemia of Twitter discourse over the last few days, following Trump’s permanent suspension from the platform, whilst still technically a sitting president.

For many, it is a mixed blessing. It’s good that he’s gone, but what does that say about society now? Are the corporations in control? Is this an intervention within — or a suspension of — politics by nonpolitical actors? Is that really okay? Doesn’t this set a terrifying precedent?

Personally, I feel like the space for making decisions has only just been produced. The Trump experiment has had its turn. We might say he emerged from the vacuum of neoliberalism and its hollow sense of progress through gradualist reformism. Centrism is a void that somehow manages to make even its most progressive decisions seem like empty and hollow gestures; mere reactions to social shifts produced in spite of them.

The alt-right, back in 2015-16, refused even this. They called themselves the new punks, and many balked at the suggestion, but they were, for all intents and purposes, correct in their self-appraisal. Following Christman, the alt-right were loud, simple and proudly incompetent, but after five years of building an agenda, their refusal has run its course. That form of negative energy only lasts for so long before a choice must be made — whether to double-down or cut the knot.

Trump’s supporters doubled down for a Hail Mary pass and found themselves suddenly clutching the void their movement was built on. They wrongly believed that Trump was only the beginning, and that there was much more to come, but the something produced from their nothing was Trump — a loud, simple and proudly incompetent president — and nothing more.

For a horrified left, there is only one viable response if we are to escape a more impotent future: cutting the Trumpian knot. And it’s about time. The rhetoric responding to the latest misadventure of Trump and his supporters has indeed been the most cutting it has ever been over the last five years. Coming from some, it all feels very opportunistic — in the UK, Lisa Nandy’s harsh words for a “Tory leadership [that] abandoned British values in a ‘nauseating’ embrace of American populism” means little coming from an opposition whose primary weapon against an emboldened right has so far been abstention.

As ever, governments are following the lead of the social. What is disturbing to some is that the social is largely entangled with social media.

But, in many ways, it is telling that social media has cracked down on Trump more than governments have — so far, at least. For much of the last half-decade, governments have attempted to hold social media to account for its part in helping spread deceit and lies from the right. Videos of Mark Zuckerberg squirming under scrutiny are iconic examples of our reckoning with the impact of these communicative technologies. We have implored those in charge of these platforms to think more carefully (and actively rather than passively) about their impact on contemporary subjectivity.

I’m not one to defend social media and our touchscreen capture. I deeply resent the hooks they have in me personally, and I resent the perpetual shitshow on display here that keeps me coming back for more, but I feel somewhat hopeful, following the blanket ban on Trump, his supporters and their platforms, that the questions long asked of social media giants are no longer hypotheticals. We’ve demanded that ethical decisions be made, rather than suspend everything in an “undecidability” — suspending Trump is, frankly, a half-decent start.

If we don’t think social media should be making these decisions, it’s time we made some decisions of our own, to choose one act over another. Any act. Trump’s supporters played their hand and it revealed how hollow it was. It is our turn to claw back some agency from these apps that have for too long fed on our own passivity — a passivity that Trump weaponised for his own aims.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply