The Tripodi Hoax

IMG_0309by Philippe Huneman and Anouk Barberousse

Under the pseudonym 'Benedetta Tripodi', Anouk Barberousse, Professor of Philosophy at the Université Paris Sorbonne, and Philippe Huneman, Research Director at the Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques (CNRS), submitted to the on-line journal Badiou Studies a paper entitled “Ontology, Neutrality and the Strive for (non)Being-Queer”[1]. It was in answer to a call for papers on the topic “Towards a Badiousian Queer Feminism.” The paper was accepted after a process of peer-review, and published in the December 2015 issue of the journal. Yet the paper was written with the specific the aim of absolute meaninglessness. Neither of the true authors could begin to explain what it meant. In a text published on April 1 on the Carnet Zilsel, the authors of the hoax told their story, and explained their project and the goal of the exercise. After this revelation, Badiou Studies withdrew the paper from its website. However, the website Retraction Watch recorded this episode, with comments by both the journal as well as the authors of the fake paper. Here, we provide the context and the meaning of this hoax according to their authors.

The Benedetta Tripodi hoax aims at unravelling the legitimating strategy that consists in presenting Alain Badiou’s philosophy as the central current in metaphysics and political theory in France. Our analysis does not intend to refute Badiou’s theory once and for all, though it does aim, by unravelling some of its weaknesses, to call into question the consistency of the overall construction. By casting a doubt on the philosophical seriousness of Badiou's writings and of the commentaries of his admirers all over the world, it defeats the argument that would establish the eminency of its metaphysical value simply from its current intellectual fame.

If indeed the journal devoted to Badiou allows for the publication of a wholly meaningless paper –for whatever reasons: obliviousness, lack of critical sense, etc.– this reveals a genuine problem within the club of Badiou’s readers. On these grounds, it is clear that Badiou’s international reputation cannot justify his objective supremacy as a philosopher. On the contrary one has to question the nature of this reputation as well as its sociological grounds.

Three main lines of explanation are developed in the commentary that we published in the Carnet Zilsel. The first one concerns the paradoxical reception of Badiousianism within and mostly at the boundary of academic philosophy, in France but above all abroad; the second one concerns the social conditions of the construction of Badiou’s reputation; the last one unravels the textual machinery that encourages and allows discourses with no rational basis as well as a sort of fetishist exegesis. Here we briefly spell out our main conclusions.

Badiou’s philosophy is indeed not postmodern, but rather Platonist and, politically, situated in a Maoist lineage. It is intrinsically dogmatic and contradicts the relativistic and constructivist ideology that flourishes under several labels (“French theory”, “theory”), especially in several recent academic disciplines known various as 'x studies' (cultural studies, heritage studies, media studies, film Studies, white studies, etc.). Nonetheless (and especially in the Anglo-American world) Badiou’s thought benefits from an intellectual support among readers in all those disciplines holding postmodern positions, as is attested by a quick survey of his fans’ affiliations, the main publication venues, or the academic support of the conferences inviting or celebrating Badiou. The spoof shows how absurd such a conjunction is by pushing to its limits a Badiousian-inspired rhetoric in the hands of the extravagant Benedetta Tripodi. The Tripodi paper published in Badiou Studies faithfully respects the codes of such rhetoric, and our presentation of the paper provides examples of analogous texts. Any serious philosopher could indeed see the relatedness between our parody paper and any other work that we quote, with any text randomly picked up within those subfields of x studies where Badiou and a few others have become the new icons, and whose rhetorical characteristics are made explicit in the final section of our paper.

Thus, whereas Badiou’s theses are anti-postmodern, Badiou’s discursive practice, his (and other Badiousians’) rhetoric is often of the same kind as that of postmodern “theory”, often expressed in the framework of x studies. It is a rhetoric that favours suggestivity over clarity, and that is likely to use free associations as a discursive bond. Such rhetorical homogeneity allows Badiousianism to grow and persist, paradoxically, in the hands (and journals) of those who stand (paradoxically) very far from it ideologically. In a significant manner, our presentation of the spoof tends to show that Badiou’s international celebrity is mostly of this nature, rather than being due to anything pertaining to academic philosophy. It is therefore clear that any attempt to dismiss our conclusions about the scope and meaning of our hoax-as-critique –arguing for instance that Badiou is not a postmodern thinker– falls prey to the contradiction that consists in defending a philosophy by emphasising its disagreement with discourses that constitute the bulk of its reputation, since they are almost the only ones who take it so seriously.

Thus, we are not criticising postmodern positions –which would require an argument– but rather pinpointing the coalescence between a specific philosophical style, and a recent tendency, intrinsic to x studies (though still a minority), which has been elaborated outside philosophy and which treats other objects. Such a coalescence is grounded upon a common rhetoric, for which the apparent depth (with its close relations: paradoxes, oxymoron, provocations, etc.) has become the norm. The legitimating and valuing of Badiousianism arises at just such an intellectual point.

In our explanation of the hoax, we also provide some basic sociological elements that explain the conditions under which this legitimating strategy is possible in France. We insist on the existence of a “medial zone”, between the academic field and the field of the media (properly said), within which one can situate oneself by adopting a position that is marginal with respect to academia (a kind of “creative marginality”, so to say) while avoiding the implicit shame usually associated with fame acquired purely in the field of the media.

We show, in turn, that the legitimate marks of philosophical “elevation” (in terms of citations or translations in international reference texts –such as Handbooks or Companions in contemporary philosophy of mathematics or metaphysics) are not as great as they should be to indicate the importance of Badiou’s thinking in the philosophical domain strictly speaking. A good share of the contemporary writers in metaphysics, in political philosophy or philosophy of mathematics, judged with the same criteria, would prove to be no less important as him. Hence, it appears that Badiou’s thinking is simply one among a hundred other philosophies elaborated over the last forty years.

In order at a second stage to call into question the intrinsic interest of this philosophy, and in addition to some insufficiently known critical texts that we cite, we propose two other arguments. The first one emphasises the arbitrary and unmotivated nature of the hyperbolic gesture, which, in Badiou’s philosophy, provide to mathematics its ontological weight. The other concerns the idiosyncratic style of expression of the author (in his theoretical writings), which renders difficult if not impossible any criticism, and favours the most obscure commentary, which we easily parodied. Mathematics (above all set theory) is indeed here rewritten in a language that, according to even the most benevolent philosophers, proves to be wholly esoteric and superfluous (to quote the review of Number and Numbers by David Miller: “competently, if weirdly” [2]). For example, the empty set is handled in a prose that rather reminds us of negative theology, in a manner very remote from its use in Cantorian and later modern set theory. Or, as a very significant example, Being and Event states, with no further argument, that mathematics has been neglected by philosophy since the 19th century, and that no philosopher until Lacan (!) attempted to take it seriously: considering that major 20th century philosophers such as Quine, Goodman, Putnam or David Lewis made major contributions to the philosophy of mathematics (and especially set theory), this statement strikes us (to say the least) as very weird, and quite despiteful..

This language in turn allows metaphors that are presented as inferences, and that render mathematical objects unrecognizable for anyone who works professionally on the philosophy of mathematics (or mathematics simpliciter).

Consequently, Badiou neglects any concern of situating himself with respect to philosophy of mathematics and contemporary metaphysics, and, especially, uses an idiosyncratic language that is heterogeneous to these fields, while at the same time intending to claim an absolute truth about the same objects. From this there results an extreme difficulty, for any expert in these fields, in assess Badiousian statements, or even endowing them with meaning. This situation explains at the same time the rarity of argued criticism of Badiou’s theories (since very few competent readers have enough time to enter into this language and pinpoint the meaningless statements), but also the facility conferred to some practitioners of x studies, who are acquainted with an often empty rhetoric and have a poor grasp of semantic criteria, to integrate the external markers of such discourses. Concepts are here transmogrified into simple tags. They thereby build up the fame of the theory on spurious bases, while themselves making major mistakes in mathematics and philosophy of mathematics, about which in general they understand nothing[3]. Last but not least, this system allows Badiousians to avoid genuine objections.

For instance, Badiou’s concept of “truth”, which is at the same time produced within a “situation” and not deducible from it, corresponds more or less, once we get rid of its discursive obscurity (assuming that this is not essential to it) to the concept of “emergence”. A phenomenon, law, property, etc., is emergent with respect to an ontological region iff it is at the same time dependent on it –causally, materially etc.– and autonomous. A huge philosophical literature exists that construes, criticizes, justifies or defends such a concept; in order to defend their claim about “truth”, Badiousians should, at least, take some of this literature into account, and answer some objections. But by using their idiosyncratic language they get rid of this constraint. Their doctrine thereby appears as arbitrary, since it’s deprived of any of the required philosophical justifications.

For us, there is no doubt that a huge part of Badiou’s philosophical prestige relies upon this resistance to the usual norms of rational argumentation in philosophy –especially in the philosophy of mathematics or metaphysics– which explains therefore how many fans of theory (that it is, the conceptual dressing of often ideologically motivated concerns, that sometimes take place within x studies) can take from this exactly what they want to find in it. The hoax was intended to show exactly this.

Those three elements (reception, social conditions of development, and features of the rhetoric) allow us to sketch an explanation of the way Badiou became such a big name in contemporary thinking. Deconstructing the legitimating strategy that supports his philosophical fame leads us back, eventually, to the question of his idiosyncratic style, his rhetoric, which constitutes the intrinsic cause of this fame. For this reason it is wrong to think that the Tripodi hoax remains external to Badiousian philosophy.

Attacking so-called “continental philosophy” in the name of “analytical philosophy” was absolutely not the point of our critique. We don’t think that this distinction even adequately describes the philosophical field today, neither in France nor abroad, and our critique would not hold for many of the major authors said to be “continental”, such as Husserl or Hegel (whose scholarly specialists, by the way, rarely think highly of Badiou). Neither was the point to denounce “postmodernism”, and replay in some way the Sokal hoax 20 years after. On the contrary, we insist in our commentary on the fact that the usual dichotomies people appeal to in order to describe the phenomena we were dealing with (i.e. postmodernism vs. rationalism, continental vs. analytical, or academic field vs. the media) are not relevant.

Finally, the production of an obscure and self-contained prose, handling mathematical and philosophical idioms through opaque and idiosyncratic procedures, raises a collective problem for professionals in those disciplines, and also in the various x studies fields when they tolerate an extreme loosening of argumentative norms, in the name of an expected ideological benefit. For it is the very foundations of our practice that are undermined by such forms of conduct that do not at all respect the rules of discursive coherence and argumentation. Behind the laughter to which the hoax gives rise there is also the worry that, in this era of budget cuts, the intellectual activities that are crucial for our society as a whole will be delegitimated.

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For some notes on the Tripodi Hoax from 3QD's own Justin E. H. Smith, go here.

[1] Here is the abstract: “Since “gender” has been continually the name of a dialectics of the continued institution of gender into an ontological difference and the failure of gendering, it is worth addressing the prospects of any gender-neutral discourse through the tools of Badiousian ontology. As established by Badiou in Being and Event, mathematics – as set theory – is the ultimate ontology. Sets are what gendering processes by reactionary institutions intend to hold, in contradiction to the status of the multiplicities proper to each subject qua subject. This tension between subjectivity and gender comes to the fore through the lens of the ‘count-as-one’, the ontological operator identified by Badiou as the fluid mediator between set-belonging and set-existence. After having specified these ontological preliminaries, this paper will show that the genuine subject of feminism is the “many” that is negatively referred to through the “count-as-one” posited by the gendering of “the” woman. Maintaining the openness of this “many” is an interweaving philosophical endeavor. It is also a political task for any theory receptive to the oppressive load proper to the institutions of sexuation, as deployed through modern capitalism – that is, any queer theory. In its second step, the paper will therefore expose the adequacy of the Badiousian ontology to provide theoretical resources for articulating the field of a genuine queer nomination. It will finally appear that “non-gender” structurally corresponds in the field of a post-capitalist politics of the body to what Francois Laruelle (1984) designated as non-philosophie within the field of metaphysics.”

[2] David Miller. “From Symbolism to Symbolic Logic. Review of Alain Badiou, Being and Event.Pli. semantic Warwick Journal of Philosophy, 20. (2009)

[3] And inversely, the requisite of situating one self with respect to the common language of the discipline, and to justify any deviation from it, belongs to the norms of rational argumentation, which, for us, should prevail within academia – in philosophy or elsewhere. To which should of course be added clarity, and transparency of logical bonds.

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