On Alain Badiou’s Age of the Poets. Short Version.

A Mutual Liberation

Mathematics is not philosophy, only one of its conditions, in the same way that poetry is not philosophy, but philosophy must think poetic thought, it must bring poetry into its form of reflection, not being itself poetry.  Any number of colleagues in our present are put off by Alain Badiou’s insistence on an ontology of the multiple-without-oneness derived from post-Cantorian mathematics, partly because they know no mathematics and feel disoriented by the appeal to it.  Approximately the same number of colleagues are equally put off by what they assume to be Badiou’s abjuration of poetry in his declaration of the notion that Paul Celan, confronted by the silence of the philosophical master, brought the Age of the Poets to its end, as if that meant that poetry is finished as a resource for thought and from now on we can only think politically or mathematically, or preferably mathematico-politically.[1]  They fail to understand that what is meant by Badiou regarding the end of the Age of the Poets is at the same time a liberation of both poetry and philosophy into, respectively, its truth and its conditions. 

            The point for Badiou, speaking as a philosopher and not as a poet, is that the end of the Age of the Poets liberates poetry from its suture to philosophy as much as it liberates philosophy from its suture to poetry.  The suture itself was epochal, that is, historically contingent, and a derivation of a radical malaise in thought: given the fact that philosophy, in the guise of positivism and analytic philosophy on the one hand, and in the guise of Marxism and historical materialism on the other hand, found itself sutured to science and to politics, a dissenting faction emerged whose most eminent representative would prove to be Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche initiated, on the philosophical side, and through procedures that Badiou would later name antiphilosophical, a suture of thought to art, initially through his engagement with Richard Wagner’s work and orientation.[2]  Martin Heidegger is the second great name of philosophy in the Age of the Poets, which is why Heidegger’s failure to respond to Paul Celan’s demand concerning the Nazi Holocaust destroys the suture and opens a new path, registered as imperative, both for philosophy to respond to poetry’s demands and for poetry to persist in its own specific register, now liberated from the need to account for a sense of the world, and for a sense of sense.  Far from establishing a new or renewed destitution of thought, the end of the philosophical Age of the Poets enables philosophical reflection by cutting the knot that sutured it to poetry and doomed it to think of itself as a producer of poetic truth. 

            Philosophy must now think of poetry as one of its conditions.  This is probably an even more demanding predicament.  The same is the case for philosophy regarding political or scientific truth, or the truth of love. The liberation of philosophy from its suture to truth procedures rescues philosophy from its 20th century impasses and restitutes it to its position as the holder of the site of thought’s freedom.  The freedom of thought is a not so paradoxical consequence of the fact that philosophy is under no obligation to produce political truth, scientific truth, erotic truth, or poetic truth.  It only inhabits their paths, and learns from them, and perhaps subverts them. 

            The annotations that follow concern the first four essays included in Badiou’s Que pense le poème?, which are also, in slightly altered order, the first four essays of Badiou’s The Age of the Poets, compiled and edited by Bruno Bosteels and Emily Apter and translated by Bosteels.  I will quote from the Bosteels translation.  My interest, beyond achieving as precise as possible an understanding of what Badiou proposes, is also to determine the way in which Badiou, by going beyond Heidegger in his own metapoetics, enables a new presentation of the thought of the poem, now no longer beholden to the poetico-philosophical suture.  I would not want to suggest that the four essays I want to annotate exhaust the reach of Badiou’s thinking on the Age of the Poets, roughly to be understood as the age after which we must reinvent the possibility of thought’s freedom.  Badiou has many other things to say on this score, and he says many of them in his major works and in his seminars.  But one must start somewhere.  So this is just a beginning, and it only means to establish a point from which to proceed, and to do so with all necessary restraint and reserve.  In the process I will point out some of my own difficulties. 

The Fourth Relation

            In the third essay, namely, “The Philosophical Status of the Poem After Heidegger,” Badiou detects three historical “regimes” (38) for the link between poetry and philosophy in order to postulate a “fourth relation between philosophy and poetry” (41).  Since this fourth relation is the relation that Heidegger himself failed to establish, in Badiou’s assessment, it is at least plausible to think that it is the relation Badiou himself favors.  If so, it is the relation that will determine the link between philosophy and poetry at the end of the Age of the Poets; more precisely, after its end.  “What will the poem be after Heidegger—the poem after the age of the poets, the post-romantic poem?  . . .  This is something the poets will tell us, for unsuturing philosophy and poetry, taking leave of Heidegger without reverting to aesthetics, also means thinking otherwise the provenance of the poem, thinking it in its operative distance, and not in its myth” (41-42).  Badiou proceeds to mention “two indications” (42) that amount, if not to a definition, at least to a naming of the task of poetry.  We must take them to be proleptic indications, to the extent they were provided by poets of the Age of the Poets and not by poets after Heidegger.  One of them comes from Stéphane Mallarmé, and it concerns “the moment of the reflection of its pure present in itself or its present purity” (Mallarmé quoted by Badiou 42).  The poem, in the purity of its present, names “what is present only insofar as it no longer disposes of any link with reality to ensure its self-presence” (42).  Poetry would then be “the thought of the presence of the present” insofar as the present would have transcended its reality into a form of eternity (42).  The second indication comes from Paul Celan.  Badiou glosses: “when the situation is saturated by its own norm, when the calculation of itself is inscribed in it without respite, when there is no more void between knowing and foreseeing, then one must poetically be ready to be outside of oneself” (43).  The step outside of oneself is an event extracted from the void of sense, from a lack of signification: a leap.  Badiou concludes his essay saying, not that those two indications define the poem of the future, but rather that they define what a poem “liberated from philosophical poetizing” “will always have been:” “the presence of the present in the traversing of realities, and the name of the event in the leap outside of calculable interests” (43).  We take this to be the conception of the poem in the fourth relation.  What are the first three, and how is this fourth relation post-Heideggerian?

            In Parmenides’ poem there is a tension between the sacredness of the mytheme, which is the structure of authority under which the poem declares its truth, and the truth the poem itself purports to convey, which we could sum up in the notion that only being is.[3]  The second is, Badiou says, necessarily desacralizing.  The desacralization of apagogic reasoning, which is what medieval philosophy called reductio ad absurdum, has no need to rely on anything but its own force of argumentation.  “The matheme, here, is that which, making the speaker disappear, emptying its place of any and all mysterious validation, exposes the argumentation to the test of its autonomy, and thus to the critical or dialogical examination of its pertinence” (37).  This is the regime of what Badiou calls fusion, where the power of the argument is subordinate to the sacral authority of the enunciation itself.  In Plato a relation of distance obtains.  Plato wants to expel the poets from the Republic, as he has understood that “[p]hilosophy cannot establish itself except in the contrast between poem and matheme, which are its primordial conditions (the poem, of which it must interrupt the authority, and the matheme, of which it must promote the dignity” (38-9).  The Aristotelian moment is a moment of inclusion in which the poem comes under the jurisdiction of philosophical knowledge, which it classifies as a regional discipline that will later be called aesthetics.  The poem has now become an object and is to be treated as such.  “In the first case, philosophy envies the poem; in the second it excludes it; and in the third it classifies it” (39). 

            And Badiou, who wants to take his own distance from Heidegger, wishes now to know what Heidegger’s thinking is.  And he says: “Heidegger has subtracted the poem from philosophical knowledge, in order to render it into truth” (39).  Heidegger thoroughly ruins the aesthetic approach without however compromising with Platonic distance.  As a philosopher of the Age of the Poets, Heidegger privileges the “operations by which the poem takes note of a truth of its time,” which, for the Heideggerian period, becomes the destitution of the category of objectivity in ontological presentation, which is a radically anti-Platonic gesture (40).  This means—“unfortunately” (40), says Badiou—that what is left is either a return to the sacralization of the saying or the thinking out of a “fourth relation” (41).  Heidegger opts for the former: “Heidegger prophesies in the void a reactivation of the sacred within the undecipherable coupling of the saying of the poets and the thinking of the thinkers” (41). 

            The fourth relation, which is the relation that opens up at the end of the Age of the Poets and as a condition of the renewal of a desutured link between philosophy and poetry, is therefore what needs to be thought out or understood beyond the “two indications” given above, which referred both to pure presentiality and to a leap in the void beyond all calculation.  If we understand Badiou correctly, this means that pure presentiality and the need for a leap in the void beyond calculation become, not philosophical truths, rather conditions of philosophy.  Let me now move to the essay published as the second chapter in Que pense le poème?.  The English publication places it as first chapter.  Badiou is very clear: the “Age of the Poets” is neither a historicist nor an aesthetic category (it does not mean to put all poetry of the time under a periodizing category; it does not pass judgment on what poets, by belonging to the Age, are therefore the greatest poets).  It is rather a philosophical category: “the moment proper to the history of philosophy in which the latter is sutured” to poetry (4).  This applies to certain poets, or to certain poems within the epoch’s poetic production.  They would be poets that accept the suture, and its injunction, and respond to it.  Among them Badiou mentions Arthur Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Georg Trakl, Fernando Pessoa and Osip Mandelstam, and Paul Celan.  In their work “the poetic saying not only constitutes a form of thought and instructs a truth, but also finds itself constrained to think this thought” (5). 

Take the poems of Alberto Caeiro, who is one of Pessoa’s heteronyms.  “For Caeiro, the essence of thought is to abolish thought” (7).  In Caeiro’s poetry “being does not give itself in the thought of being, for all thinking of being is in reality only the thinking of a thought” (8).  Caeiro abolishes the cogito in order to liberate being to its radical exteriority: “I try to say what I feel/Without thinking about things I feel” (Caeiro quoted by Badiou 8).  Conscious reflection is an obstacle to the purity of presence, and it must be abolished so that being may come into its own.  Caeiro’s operation is an example.  Other operations configure the truths of the poem in the Age of the poetico-philosophical suture.  Badiou names three, and I propose that they be added to the “two indications” in the fourth relation of poetry and philosophy.  The first is “counter-romanticism,” which subtracts the poem from the image and the dream in favor of the presentation of a counter-image in the form of a “tacit concept” (13).  There is a prohibition of the image in place in the thought of the poem in the Age of the Poets.  The second one is “detotalization” (13).  There is a “separate, irreconcilable multiplicity” that is also inconsistent (14).  And the third one is “the diagonal” (13), which is the attempt or the wager “that a nomination may come and interrupt signification” (15).  Take for example Trakl’s verse: “It is a light, which the wind has blown out” (15).  “The poetic diagonal declares that a faithful thought, thus capable of truth, makes a hole in whatever knowledge is concentrated in significations.  It cuts the threads, for another circulation of the current of thought” (16).   This involves, Badiou points out, an endeavor of deobjectification, insofar as the object is “what disposes the multiple of being in relation to meaning or signification” (16).  And it also involves a “disorientation in thought” (18), since the sum of those operations “put[s] under erasure the presumption of a sense that gives meaning and orientation to History” (18). 

            We have, then, as preliminary conditions of the fourth relation, pure presentiality and a leap into the incalculable, the thinking of the abolition of thinking within the poem, the prohibition of the image, the affirmation of an irreconcilable and inconsistent multiplicity, the active production of holes in signification, and the abjuration of a sense of history.  Through its operations the poetry of the Age of the Poets dismantles the pretensions of both the scientific and the political sutures of philosophy.  And it “bequeaths to us, in order to liberate philosophy, the imperative of a clarification without totality, a thinking of what is at once dispersed and unseparated, an inhospitable and cold reason, for want of either object or orientation” (20).  Badiou’s question is whether philosophy can be faithful to that legacy, and his claim is that Heidegger failed to be so for the sake of engaging in a faux re-sacralization that betrayed the philosophical mission that already the Greek first beginning had determined to be the task of philosophy proper. 

Plato’s Restitution

            Before going on to another essay in the series I would like to dwell on a difficulty that the reader may already have sensed.  It is the following: the poetic truth that Badiou’s extraordinary analysis unveils is established by the constellation of poets that configure the Age of the Poets.  Badiou’s claim is that poetic truth conditions philosophical reflection, which must be commensurate, that is, it must measure up, to the rigor of poetic discovery.  Even if poetry is only one of its conditions, philosophy cannot be oblivious to it, but must let itself be determined by poetic saying.  The fourth relation, in other words, constrains philosophy, which must find its freedom not in a refusal to meet the truths of its conditions, poetic or otherwise, once they are analytically determined, but rather in what can only be understood as a consistency with them.  The fourth relation establishes a rule of consistency for philosophical reflection.  This is nothing less than a paradox, since at the core of the poetic analysis we find “an irreconcilable and inconsistent multiplicity.”  The paradox is compounded, to my mind, by the fact that it is the poetic truth of the Age of the Poets that issues a rule of consistency to philosophy in the fourth relation, which can only be thought of as the relation that obtains at the end or after the end of the Age of the Poets, when the suture of philosophy to poetry has been arguably dissolved.  I will come back to this.  Let me now annotate the second essay in the English-language compilation, which is the first in the French volume, namely, “What Does the Poem Think?”

            Faithful to the poetic truth of Alberto Caeiro’s work, and in fact to the other truths he has delimited in the constellation of the Age of the Poets, Badiou insists that the poem is a form of thought and not of knowledge:

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. (28-9)

            Through “subtraction” and “dissemination” (29) the poem “disconcerts” philosophy, that is, traditional philosophy, because “at the furthest remove from knowledge, the poem is exemplarily a thought that is obtained in the retreat, or the defection, of everything that supports the faculty to know” (31).  This is the reason why the poem, or rather, the poem that is consistent with the inconsistent multiplicity of an affirmation of being that radically subtracts from knowledge, is “haunted by a central silence,” and it is from there, from the point of that void in the situation, that it prepares its leap into the incalculable:

A pure silence, devoid of anything sacred, it interrupts the general racket.  It lodges silence in the central framework of language and, from there, skews it towards an unprecedented affirmation.  This silence is an operation.  And the poem, in this sense, says the opposite of Wittgenstein.  It says: I 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.  (24-5)

            It is a silence with a bite: it ruins discursivity.  It is radically antiphilosophical.  It ignores dianoia (discursive thinking) and every kind of philosophical argumentation.  It is “incalculable thought” (33).  If dianoia is philosophical procedure, and if it is to be understood as “the thought that passes through, the thought that is the traversing of the thinkable” (33), the poem targets the insufficiency of dianoia, which is also philosophy’s insufficiency.  At the end of dianoia, epekeina tes ousias (beyond substance), beyond every possible knowledge of the entity, Badiou says, “the poem is a thought in its very act, which therefore has no need to be also the thought of thought” (34).  This is what makes the ancient dispute between philosophy and poetry, which Plato evoked: palaia tis diaphora philosophia te kai poietike (Plato quoted by Badiou 32): the ancient discord that the suture of philosophy and poetry had dreamed of suspending or reconciling.  We can perhaps now better understand the implications of Badiou’s definition of the poetry of the Age of the Poets in the first essay I examined: “the poems of the age of the poets are those in which the poetic saying not only constitutes a form of thought and instructs a truth, but also finds itself constrained to think this thought” (5).  The intrusion in poetry of the thought of thought echoes the intrusion in philosophy of the strange and inconspicuous “light, which the wind has blown:” the ancient dark light of withdrawing being.  We are back to the unheard-of meditation of Alberto Caeiro, according to which “[b]eing does not give itself in the thought of being, for all thinking of being is in reality only the thinking of a thought” (8).[4]

            It is now possible to understand that the posited rupture of the poetico-philosophical suture is far from being an abjuration of poetry.  Poetic truth persists at the end of dianoia without being claimed by it.  And yet dianoia must not ban it.  But Plato did.  The core of the fourth essay I wish to examine concerns the insufficiency of the Platonic gesture of violence against the poets in The Republic for the configuration of philosophy in our present.  The fourth relation determines thought’s freedom not through the abjuration of poetic truth but rather through the opening of thought to the determinations of poetic truth in the Age of the Poets.  The consistency of philosophy must thus be understood as an acceptance of the radical inconsistency of objectless being.  Heidegger is said to have recoiled in the face of it, towards the sacred of the first regime of the link between poetry and philosophy.  Badiou persists in philosophical de-sacralization while remaining faithful to poetic operations.  This is, I believe, the extent of the difference Badiou claims from Heidegger, which still retains Badiou in the Heideggerian wake and enables us to understand why the end of the Age of the Poets is a limited or restrained end, itself a philosophical operation through which philosophy opens itself again to its political and scientific and erotic conditions. 

            I think the fourth essay in the series, that is, “Philosophy and Poetry from the Vantage Point of the Unnameable,” points out the stakes for the futures of philosophy after the Heideggerian suture.

The Incalculable Wager

            Let me recap the list of poetic truths in the Age of the Poets, which forms a non-totalizing but epochal account of poetic destiny after the 20th century: pure objectless presentiality and a leap into the incalculable; the thought of the abolition of thinking within the poem for the sake of a liberation of exteriority;  the prohibition of the image, which always hides more than it reveals;  the affirmation of an irreconcilable and inconsistent multiplicity as unnameable being;  the active production of holes in signification, which amounts to a liberation of language from the constraints of inscription; and the surrender of a sense of oriented history.   If reflection on what is imperative about those truths determines philosophy, the ensuing philosophical reflection will be opposed to any kind of archeo-teleo-onto-theology.  It will be an an-archic philosophy without principles; it will suspend any positing of ends; it will understand being as the very void of ground; and it will not submit to any paternal sacredness or indeed to sacredness of any kind.  Beyond that, it will only affirm thought’s freedom to proceed to an order of singular, contingent, existential nomination.   Is that Badiou’s philosophy?  I believe it is. 

            If poetry bothers and disconcerts philosophy it is not simply because philosophy, a dianoetic process which believes in the transparency of the matheme and wants to get as close to it as possible, abhors “the metaphorical obscurity of the poem” (48).  In particular the poetry of the time of the poetico-philosophical suture, as we have seen and Badiou now repeats, “identifies itself as thought.  It is not only the effectiveness of a form of thinking proffered in the flesh of words; it is also the set of operations by which this thinking thinks itself” (49).  The poetry of the Age of the Poets has therefore usurped some of the functions of philosophy (since “philosophy . . . has no other stakes but to think thinking, to identify thought as the thinking of thinking,” 48).  Double jeopardy: if poetry is also the thought of thought, then philosophy must include poetry into its purview, because philosophy is the thinking of thinking, therefore also the thinking of the thinking of the thinking.  Poetry has lodged deep into philosophy, in ways that are now more pervasive than they presumably were in Platonic times.  Philosophy has no choice but to deal with it, short of merely disavowing it as a condition of itself. 

            But there is another problem: mathematics, the model science, the paradigm of philosophy’s dianoetic method, has evolved into a erratic situation, has been traversed, after Cantor, Gödel, and Cohen, by a principle of errancy “on which it cannot put a measure” (50).  Mathematics and poetry have begun to move towards each other, very much against the Platonic injunction of radical distance.  “At the same time that the poem arrives at the poetic thought of the thinking that it is, the matheme organizes itself around a point of flight in which the real appears as the impasse of all formalization” (50).  Both poetry and mathematics, as conditions of philosophy, find their contemporary abyssal ground, are de-grounded, by a point of unnameability that is at the same time their power and their powerlessness: “any truth stumbles upon the rock of its own singularity, and only there can it be announced, as powerlessness, that there is a truth” (54).  This stumbling block is for Badiou to be named as the unnameable (54), since truth can, neither in poetry nor in mathematics, force its nomination.  The mathematical unnameable is consistency, just as the poetic unnameable is power.  Both are simultaneously done and undone in unnameability as nomination.  And this is Badiou’s move: “philosophy will place itself under the double condition of the poem and the matheme, both from the side of their power of veridiction and from the side of their powerlessness, or their unnameable” (57).  Finally, against Plato, Badiou must choose, and paradoxically as the very condition of his exit from the Age of the Poets, to “welcome the poem in our midst, because it keeps us from supposing that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thought of this thought” (58). 

            This final appeal to the singularity, contingency, and inconsistency of thought, from which alone a word, in the form of a wager, can be issued towards the incalculable—for me, it means that philosophy has now become open to thought’s freedom, which is the rare freedom of existence. 

Alberto Moreiras

Texas A&M University

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain.  The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth Century Poetry and Prose.

Translated by Bruno Bosteels.  With an Introduction by Emily Apter and Bruno Bosteels.  London: Verso, 2014.

—.  Heidegger.  L’être 3.  Figure du retrait. 1986-1987. Paris: Fayard, 2015. 

—. Nietzsche.  L’antiphilosophie 1. 1992-1993.  Paris: Fayard, 2015.

—. Parménide.  L’être 1.  Figure ontologique.  1985-1986. Paris: Fayard, 2014.

—.  Que pense le poème?  Caen: Nous, 2016. 

Caeiro, Alberto and Timoteo Moreira.  Infracendencia.  Inéditos del entorno (¿póstumo?) de

Fernando Pessoa.  Notas y transcripción de Alberto Moreiras.  With an Introduction by Rodolfo Ortiz.  With a Postface and Notes by Yoandy Cabrera.  Vancouver: La Mariposa Mundial, 2020.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe.  Heidegger and the Politics of Poetry.  Translated with an

 Introduction by Jeff Fort.  Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2007.

Lyon, James K. Paul Celan & Martin Heidegger.  An Unresolved Conversation 1951-1970.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

Pessoa, Fernando.  Obra complete de Alberto Caeiro.  Edited by Jerónimo Pizarro and Patricio

 Ferrari.  Lisbon: Tinta da China, 2019.


[1]  See Lyons, Paul Celan & Martin Heidegger, for a careful and fairly complete account of the relationship between the poet and the philosopher. 

[2]  Badiou makes a big deal of the importance of Nietzsche’s relationship with Wagner to shape Nietzsche’s process of philosophical production and existential reflection.  In fact, for Badiou the impossibility of saving the Wagner relation made Nietzsche’s antiphilosophical trip rather desperate and led to a particular kind of impasse.  Badiou, Nietzsche, particularly 233-311.

[3]  On the “mytheme” see Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger and the Politics of Poetry, in particular “Prologue: Heidegger’s Onto-Mythology,” 11, and “Poetry, Philosophy, Politics,” where Lacoue-Labarthe engages Badiou’s notion of the poetico-philosophical suture (18-37).   Badiou also engages with the Parmenidean poem and with Plato’s Parmenides in a number of seminars, but let me refer in particular to the 1986-1987 seminar on Heidegger, Heidegger, where Badiou also discusses at length Heidegger’s relationship to poetry and rehearses his own notion of the poetico-philosophical suture.  See in particular on Parmenidean issues and the exit from Parmenides’s apagogic reasoning 179-216.  See also of course the 1985-1986 seminar on Parmenides, Parménide

[4]  See on this the literary hoax or semi-hoax perpetrated by Yoandy Cabrera, Rodolfo Ortiz and myself, which nevertheless includes earnest reflection on Alberto Caeiro’s poetry and profile: Caeiro and Moreira, Infracendencia.   See for Caeiro, Fernando Pessoa, Obra Completa de Alberto Caeiro.

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