Between Badiou and Valery: The Poetics of Subtraction and Dissemination


I like those lovers of poetry who venerate the goddess with too much lucidity to dedicate to her the slackness of their thought and the relaxation of their reason.
…….– Paul Valery, The Art of Poetry

Paul Valery makes the point between philosophical language and the poetic utterance in his essay The Poet’s Rights over Language stating that for poetry to remain distinct and at variance to the transitive power of intellect and its propositional expediency it must “preserve itself, through itself, and remain the same, not be altered by the act of intelligence that finds or gives it a meaning“.1

Yet, none other than Alain Badiou will tell us that poetry is receding into the ether, disappearing among its own forgotten traces, that culture and civilization are no longer tempted too the feigned art of secular gnosis, the untapped light of its disquieting thought.

Poetry, alas, is receding from us. The cultural account is oblivious to poetry. This is because poetry can hardly stand the demand for clarity, the passive audience, the simple message. The poem is an exercise in intransigence. It is without mediation, and thus also without mediatization. The poem remains rebellious – defeated in advance – to the democracy of audience ratings and polls.2

One wonders if Badiou is ridiculing the democratic impulse, or bewailing the fact that we’ve all become morons unable to decipher the difference between poetic language and the mass mediatization of reality that seems so pervasive in our degraded civilization of Rock stars and Hollywood Prima donnas. Badiou like a good Platonist seeks the Good Life elsewhere, somewhere between the purity of the matheme and the condition of Love.

Yes, poetry has always been an elite game, a voicing for the few yet open to the many and the multitude. At times it drifts among the demos like a vagrant child seeking a habitation of remembrance rather than some fiery abode in the political heart of our fabricated and artificial nostalgias. Badiou against Valery speaks of the annihilation of poetic language at the hands of its victorious progeny, the democratic age of enlightened stupidity where images are no longer spawned within the poetic universe but rather forcibly and violently on display within a mediatainment systems that absorb the mass mind into its formidable Nielsen plug-n-play mindset like so many puppets on a blank screen to be manipulated by the latest advert or political subterfuge.

Where Valery once taught the formal art of poetry as indifferent to the vulgar world of speech and democratic sway, an intemperate art that required a separate and distinct arena for its agonistes. Badiou tells us the Age of Poets is over, extinct, finished and that this poetry exists only in the heterocosm of a vanishing world of poetic language no longer accessible to an age of mediatization where the blip screen cultural matrix has an attention vector of nanoseconds and the mind is hollowed out by the inanity of pop-stars and wrestle-mania bufoonery.

In this silent heterocosm beyond the vulgar worlds and profane tongues of the disaffected poetry once more seeks to “create silence in order to say that which is impossible to say in the shared language of consensus, to separate it from the world so that it may be said, and always re-said for the first time” (Badiou). There is something that still comes through poetry even when the music that carried it along in its rhythmic amplitude is lost, as Badiou remarks “I claim that the voice of the poet, the singularity of his or her musician’s silence, remains, even in the midst of the loss of almost all the music”.

Poetry which has passed a certain age reveals a tendency to create a separate language apart from ordinary speech, with a vocabulary, syntax, licenses, and prohibitions that differ more or less from those in ordinary use. Badiou will define the poem as a language that no longer refers to an external object, but rather “declares from beginning to end its own universe”. He’ll go on to describe it saying:

Not only does the poem have no object, but a large part of its operation aims precisely to deny the object, to ensure that thought no longer stands in a relation to the object. The poem aims for thought to declare what there is by deposing every supposed object. Such is the core of the poetic experience as an experience of thought: to give access to an affirmation of being that is not arranged as the apprehension of an object. (KL 1006)

Valery for his part will describe the poet as a deviationist from the object rather than one who no longer sees it. He’ll emphasize that the poet is not permitted everything like a nihilist, he is not unbounded but is shaped precisely by the ambition “to find the deviations that enrich, that give the illusion of the power or purity of the depth of language”. In fact the poet’s vocation insists that as he work through language he works on language. “On this material he exercises an artificial – that is, a deliberate, recognizable – effect, and he does so at his own risk”. Poetry unlike linguistics or mathematics is not abstract and universal but rather pragmatic and concrete – more of an engineering project that navigates between the mind and its operations seeking the tools to relay the Real.

Yet, Badiou sees the poem closer to an abstract theorem and matheme. “The operation of the poem seeks to pass from an objective tumult, the solar certainty, ‘blaze of fame, blood in foam, gold, storm and stress’, to an inscription which gives nothing, which is inhuman and pure, ‘a fixed septet of scintillations’, which has the withdrawn and abstract appearance of the mathematical number, that constellation which enumerates ‘the successive impact starrily of a full reckoning in the making.’ (KL 1017)” He’ll align this principle of poetry to his own theoretic telling us that such “is the subtractive operation of the poem, which submits the object to the test of its lack” (KL 1021).

After this subtractive act Badiou will plunge us into the principle of dissemination in which the poem seeks to dissolve the object by way of its infinite metaphorical distribution. And so, as soon as it is mentioned the object emigrates elsewhere in the realm of sense, is de-objectified by becoming something other than what it is. The object loses its objectivity, not as the effect of a lack but as the effect of an excess: an excessive equivalence with other objects. This time the poem leads the object astray into pure multiplicity. (KL 1022-1026)

For Badiou that age old battle between the poet’s and the philosophers remains. As he reminds us “the poem disconcerts philosophy insofar as the poem’s operations rival those of philosophy” (KL 1099). He goes on to explicate, saying,

So let us do battle, divided, torn, unreconciled. Let us do battle for the conflicted respite, we philosophers, forever torn between the norm of literal transparency of mathematics and the norm of singularity and presence of the poem. Let us do battle by recognizing the common task, which is to think that which was unthinkable, to say that which was impossible to say. (KL 1113-1115)

Yet, as Valery will attest to “speak of this trend in order to forecast the fate of any given deviation is to make a wager”. Poetry is always a wager and a fate, a deviation from the norm – neither a subtraction from reality nor a dissemination of some metamorphic excess. The objects of poetry become the makers gift, the poet’s enactment of the age old voice of poetry itself of which philosophers are eternally jealous.

  1. Paul Valery. The Art of Poetry (Princeton, 1991)
  2. Badiou, Alain (2014-11-04). The Age of the Poets: And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose Verso Books. Kindle Edition.



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