Rationalism in the present

The label “rationalism” has already a somewhat anachronistic aura about it, as if it named something that had no proper place in the present. We have been (or, plausibly, “have never been“) rationalists; but who could be such a thing now? Both the rationalism of the past and the rationalism of the future have a phantasmal quality; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to many people to treat them purely as objects of fantasy, and to focus their critique, such as it is, at the level of libidinal investment. What do these strange people want from rationality? How do these wants relate to the usual generators of desire – anxiety about social position, for example? Why the embattled posture, the rhetoric of transcendence?

Answers to these questions are not difficult to produce – in a sense they’re encoded into the questions themselves – and so the desire-named-rationalism can without much effort be rendered transparent and intelligible. What the would-be rationalist really wants – we are immediately sure of it – is to recover a (fantasised-as-) lost position of mastery, no doubt imbricated with the self-image of the colonial slaveowner; they feel threatened by women and queers and people of colour, whose political demands they wish to subordinate to their own privileged sense of what would be “reasonable”; and so on. Inasmuch as all of this registers only at the level of unconscious fantasy, they are (for now) at least one step away from the out-and-out racists and sexists and reactionaries. If only they could be brought to acknowledge the unsavory unconscious content of all their high-minded talk, they might yet be saved.

Now, this hermeneutic has its own self-sufficient logic: it supplies to itself guarantees of its own correctness. It does not have to reckon with rationalism as a concrete position, taken in the here-and-now, because its founding gesture is one of incredulity that such a position could be held in earnest, that it might have any ramifications beyond the fugitive gratification it offers to a handful of hapless nerds. You cannot be serious. It will not, for example, distinguish between the doing of mathematics, an activity which has real ramifications inasmuch as one thing really does lead to another, and the performance of mathiness, the brandishing of the matheme as a totem of sophistication (or abstract fedora). In short, the source of its power (as a derailer of argument) lies in its capacity for inattention: since I already “know” that the object of your attention is a fantasy with no real purchase on the present, I am authorised to focus my attention on your attention, rather than upon the thing attended-to.

It’s in the specific polemical context in which proponents of rationalism encounter this hermeneutic – and while that is often a very narrow and specialised context indeed, it is nevertheless legitimately of concern to us – that we find ourselves both at bay, and empowered by concrete demonstrations of the viability of rationalism in the present. The terrain under dispute is not, or not immediately, that of the concrete conditions of everyday life. What we’re trying to do, ultimately, is strengthen the hand of a certain kind of argument, in the hope of bringing closer some of the goods that this kind of argument is – we believe – uniquely able to envisage. It’s all pretty meta. But we do think it’s important – or we wouldn’t bother – and I for one do find it galling when people whose reaction to the accelerationist manifesto was to describe its program as inextricably colonialist, then describe the accelerationists’ sense of being put somewhat on the back foot as histrionic.

A few words are in order about the use made of mathematics. I don’t believe, and don’t believe that anyone else believes, that a sound knowledge of category theory is necessary for salvation. We’re not trying to become Pythagorean sages here. What I think has become apparent during the course of the HKW summer school is that the current rationalist use of “higher” mathematics is partly revisionary and partly metaphorical: it’s about taking apart some old and creaky logico-mathematico-ideological constructions, which had trapped us in a false image of thought, and provoking new images of thought by giving a motivated and metaphorically suggestive account of the technical machinery used to do so. Some of the work involved in doing this is very technical, and requires those performing it to learn and practice some real and quite difficult mathematics. But the ultimate purpose is not to become surpassingly good at maths, but to get away from an inadequate sense of what “rationality” can mean, so that we are not presented with a bogus choice between (for example) first-order predicate logic on the one hand, and everything that isn’t first-order predicate logic on the other. Rationalism in the present moment means using whatever tools are available to reflect on rationality and extend our sense of what it is capable of. It turns out that fancy mathematics is quite indispensable to this endeavour, but we do not hold it to be synonymous with thinking itself. In fact, those of us who are good Badiousians will be well-accustomed to the vertiginous transit between mathematics and poetry:

Someone saw that very clearly, my colleague, the French analytic philosopher Jacques Bouveresse, from the Coll├Ęge de France. In a recent book in which he paid me the honor of speaking of me, he compared me to a five-footed rabbit and says in substance: “This five-footed rabbit that Alain Badiou is runs at top speed in the direction of mathematic formalism, and then, all of a sudden, taking an incomprehensible turn, he goes back on his steps and runs at the same speed to throw himself into literature.” Well, yes, that’s how with a father and a mother so well distributed, one turns into a rabbit.

The good rationalist, I submit, will be a five-footed rabbit, composing a living present out of the energetic, irreconcilable distribution of antecedents.