Just because there are no jobs doesn’t mean

there is no / work to do

— Michael Farrell, ‘Adapting Badiou’

In the middle of a Sydney winter at the turn of the century, Alain Badiou scrawled a message in a copy of Being and Event (1988): ‘For Melissa, in friendship, and in memory of a very dense and very happy trip to Sydney’. The book didn’t exist yet in English; its author was virtually unknown outside of France. At the time—in the late 1990s—only a handful of Badiou’s works were available in English, the most notable being a critical commentary on Gilles Deleuze translated by the Australian philosopher Louise Burchill. So, what had brought Badiou to Sydney? Most immediately, it was Oliver Feltham. Feltham was a young Australian philosopher who had come back from Paris with a plan to bring Badiou to Australia. He contacted the Sydney-based philosopher Melissa McMahon, who helped arrange for Badiou to speak at the 1999 Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy’s ‘To Be Done with Judgement’ conference. There Badiou delivered a paper on ‘The Part and the Whole’ and, on the conference’s final night, launched the English translation of Manifesto for Philosophy (1991). The launch, at Gleebooks, was poorly attended: a few diffident graduate students and academics milled about the bookshelves. A photograph from the event shows Badiou towering (he is very tall) and affectless, arms crossed, besides John Bacon, a logician from Sydney.

Alain Badiou and John Bacon at Gleebooks, 1999. Photo: Melissa McMahon. Reproduced with permission.

An unknown philosopher attends a conference, delivers a paper, launches a book: this hardly sounds like a memorable event. But Badiou’s arrival in Sydney was, in some sense, the opening of a remarkable and unlikely chapter in Australian intellectual life. Badiou’s address in Sydney can help set the scene: in ‘The Desire of Philosophy and the Contemporary World’ (later published in Infinite Thought), he begins by returning to the word ‘philosophy’ as ϕιλοσοϕία, the love of truth. He poses two interlinked questions—what do we want from philosophy? And what does philosophy itself want? —and works his way through the answers offered by contemporary philosophy. Looking on contemporary thought from a ‘bird’s eye view’, he identifies three primary ‘orientations’: the analytic, the hermeneutic, and the postmodern. While the analytic was (and still is) the prevailing style of academic philosophy in Anglophone world, the ‘postmodern orientation’ had, by the late 1990s, reached an apogee of influence outside philosophy departments, shaping not just the humanities and social sciences, but also artistic and cultural life more broadly. Postmodernism never took the form of an established orthodoxy in Australian philosophy departments, but it did find a receptive audience here, buoyed by the vital if improbable role Australian thinkers have played in taking up avant-garde and radical intellectuals from France (the Australian reception of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry, catalogued in Australian Divagations: Mallarmé and the 20th Century, being one example).

In his talk in Sydney, Badiou staked out an alternative to the presiding philosophical approaches of the day. He was spurred, above all, by a sense of the ‘real danger’ in these philosophical orthodoxies. None of the major currents of contemporary philosophy, he felt, were prepared to respond to the challenges of the present, by which he meant (and this, remember, is in the 1990s) the decisive failures of proletarian and labour movements worldwide, the ‘rise of cultural, religious, national and racist passions’, the ascendency of the neoliberal world order, the realities of a newly ‘vulnerable, precarious world’, the failure of the university to live up to its supposedly radical potential, and the relativisation of meaning. In the face of these epochal challenges, contemporary philosophy seemed mostly vague, absent, or irrelevant. And so, in the place of a dangerous philosophical orthodoxy, Badiou hoped for a new philosophical desire for danger: a philosophy willing to risk pursing the truth of what he calls an event. ‘I am convinced’, as he concluded his address, ‘and this is the reason for my optimism, that the world needs philosophy more than philosophy thinks’.

Borrowing a ‘strange expression’ from the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Badiou describes his own orientation in philosophy as a ‘logical revolt’:

Philosophy pits thought against injustice, against the defective state of the world and of life […]. Yet it pits thought against injustice in a movement which conserves and defends argument and reason, and which ultimately proposes a new logic […]. [T]he power of philosophy also includes logic […] [and] involves universality: philosophy addresses all humans as thinking beings since it supposes that all humans think. Finally, philosophy takes risks: […] [it is] open to the irreducible singularity of what happens […], fed and nourished by the surprise of the unexpected. Such a philosophy would then be a philosophy of the event.

This ‘philosophy of the event’ underpins a radically egalitarian, unashamedly universalist account of truth, one ‘indifferent to difference’. Politically, this universal is opposed to the tyranny of majoritarian rule, to anything that seeks to limit the horizon of the possible, to any principle that prioritises the stability of social reproduction over the new, and to any instantiation of inequality. It is here that Badiou’s philosophy differs most stridently from the ‘postmodern orientation’, the approach ‘most active in France’ at the time. For the better part of a century, philosophers of all kinds had been united in their scepticism of truth. They had declared the end of metaphysics; they had put ‘truth on trial’. Badiou’s metaphor here—the trial—goes back to the opening pages of the Critique of Pure Reason, where Immanuel Kant imagines ‘a court of appeals’ in which reason is made to judge itself. Since then, philosophy has become synonymous with this trial, while reason has been disbarred as a judge and accused of all manner of crimes—not simply of confusion, hubris, and blindness, but chauvinism, totalitarianism, and imperialism. It is here that postmodernism has been most outspoken. The postmodern approach is encapsulated, for Badiou, by a remark of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe: ‘[o]ne must no longer be in desire of philosophy’. In the place of philosophy’s desire for universality, postmodernism embraces a ‘plurality of meanings’, and seeks to carve a space for ‘mixed practices, de-totalized practices, or impure thinking practices’. For Badiou, this amounts to surrendering the desire of and for philosophy.

Taken seriously, Badiou’s address in Sydney heralded a challenge to even that part of Australian intellectual life most receptive to philosophy from the European continent. Australian cultural studies—one of the most significant intellectual currents in Australia of the last thirty years—was once characterised by Meaghan Morris as overcoming philosophy’s ‘doctrinal disputes’ through ‘a rigorous mixing’. This ethos is akin to what Badiou calls ‘mixed practices’. It has an immediate affinity with a remark of Deleuze—that philosophy is a ‘conceptual toolbox’ from which people can dip in and take what’s needed. It is here that Badiou’s philosophy seems particularly recalcitrant: it resists being used as a toolbox; it cannot easily be added to the mix. Indeed, cultural studies and Badiou stand in an ‘implacable opposition’, as Julian Murphet argues. ‘While cultural studies’, in Murphet’s words, ‘has been the most hospitable of disciplines, absorbing and assimilating no end of theoretical “positions” in its muscular advance towards an adequate relationship with its world, there is the strong sense that, in the work of Alain Badiou at least, a limit has been reached. […] Badiou’s “return to truth” strikes right to the core of cultural studies’.

Seeking to revive the desire of and for philosophy, Badiou presents an idiosyncratic synthesis. He turns to set theory for a discourse on being, to the anti-romantic and anti-philosophical work of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan for a discourse on love, to the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé for a discourse on the event, and to the events of May ’68, as well as other domestic political agitations like the SONACOTRA rent strike (documented by the Australian philosophers Robert Boncardo and Bryan Cooke), for a discourse on politics. Badiou proposes that real, transformative change is sparked by an event, an enigmatic and obscure supplement that cannot be explained from the vantage point of the present. Think of Paul Valéry’s astonishment when Mallarmé showed him his radical poem Un coup de dés. Valéry could not recognise what he saw as poetry: it seemed to him more like a foreign ‘form of thought’. Or think of two lovers, introduced to one another by chance, whose lives are irrevocably changed by this encounter—who sketch out, day after day, a new communal life removed from their immediate self-interest. These are examples of novelty, of change, of things that could never have existed before, but which, having occurred, could never have turned out otherwise. However, if events are novel, if they really do produce real change, then how do we know if they’ve happened or not, given that we only ever have the resources of the present with which to judge them?

To answer this question, Badiou states that events are undecidable from the standpoint of the situations in which they occur, emerging—only perhaps—like a constellation of stars that risk instantly dissolving into the black backdrop from which it could vanishingly be discerned. Although undecidable, an event leaves a trace, which allows those who have been marked by it to follow its consequences and organise its emergence into the construction of a new present. These traces are localised in particular points, thereby requiring localised activity to be fully realised. Those who explore the consequences of the event, whether in the form of a new amorous couple slowing shifting their entire world or in the form of a mass political group rising up together, Badiou calls ‘subjects’.

In the years since he first described his philosophy in Sydney, Australian thinkers have played a decisive role in the global reception of Badiou’s philosophy, while Badiou has inspired rich and varied responses from Australian thinkers. One reason why this may be the case is that, not unlike the famous Slovenia school of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Australia is peripheral enough to be central to the dissemination of a major European philosopher—a ‘first-rate second-rate’ country, as Justin Clemens says, unable to produce these figures themselves, but able to produce some of the most erudite and important scholarly work on them. Indeed, one feature of the Australian reception of Badiou has been its rigorously exegetic quality: Feltham, for instance, remarks that a ‘striking trait of Australian interpreters of Badiou is how careful and strict they are around the systematicity of [his] philosophy’. This is pronounced enough that Badiou himself once ‘wondered out loud at the depth and breadth of the engagement with his work “down under”’, going so far as to declare that a whole ‘école antipodean’ has emerged out of the reception of his work.

And yet, it would be a mistake to think that Badiou in Australia is a story set in a university faculty, as polemicists sometimes suggest (Daren Roso, for instance, claims that ‘[i]n Australia you can make a career in philosophy out of an obsession with Alain Badiou’, while Ian Hunter contends that Badiou is the provenance of an ‘elite academic-intellectual subculture’). Many of Badiou’s most important Australian interpreters work adjacent to the academy, while Badiou’s influence in Australia has been registered in numerous distinct domains, from activism, film, and theatre to poetry. This influence has spread through informal reading groups, like the eternal ‘Badiou Reading Group’ in Melbourne, open forums, summer schools (especially those run by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy), activist circles, and artistic subcultures more than in university classrooms. If you happened, for instance, to be in the crowd at Occupy Melbourne in the summer of 2011, it is likely that you would have heard talk of Badiou’s philosophy as the protesters set out to define themselves ‘as a united front—as a “we”—against capitalist ideology’. In a similar spirit, it is only in Australia that it makes sense to talk, as Corey Wakeling once did, of a ‘Badiouian poetics’. Here, Badiou has set whole poetic movements in motion, providing the framework for the ‘realpoetik’ of a revitalised avant-gardism. And this current is still very much alive: in 2022, a day-long symposium at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy marked the new translation of The Immanence of Truths, while in a recent piece for Jacobin the Australian philosopher Caitlyn Lesiuk declared Badiou the world’s ‘leading philosopher of Communism’.

Intellectual histories of the twentieth century often invoke the idea of ‘French philosophy in the English-speaking world’, the most well-known example being the association between Jacques Derrida and the Yale School. But Australia is not Yale, and Badiou is not Derrida. There is—it must be said—something improbable about the whole idea of Badiou in Australia. Why would Badiou—Platonist, Maoist, grand-style philosophical system-builder, staunch proponent of love in an age of unfettered desire, interpreter of set theory, category theory and para-consistent logic—resonant in Australia in the first place? There is a sense in which the very idea of an ‘antipodean school’ runs contrary to Badiou’s philosophy. Badiou is a universalist, his thinking is pointedly unmoored from national framings. It would difficult, and perhaps even futile, to seek to ground his thought in cultural particularity, at least in his terms (he once remarked to an interviewer that for him to even talk of culture, it would first be necessary to ‘completely reconstruct’ the concept). There is no sexual relation between Badiou and Australia!

Perhaps more strangely, Badiou’s philosophical lexicon (the conceptual categories deployed in Being and Event: site, situation, inconsistent multiplicity, event) has been used to rethink the political, philosophical, and artistic horizons of Australia. Feltham, for instance, wrote an early essay sparked by an offhand remark Badiou made on his first visit—that there had been no event in Australia. Feltham contends that First Nations land rights movements seek ‘to transform the very nature of Australian politics’ and that ‘the Tent Embassy can be understood as an event in […] Badiou’s terms’ (other commentators have since characterised the Mabo judgement as Badiouian event which ‘expose[d] what had been hidden in this place of “internal exile”’ and ‘put the very identity of [Australia] in doubt’). What, if anything, does an example like this index? Is it philosophy returning to a place it doesn’t belong, or a place returning to a philosophy, in the hope, maybe in vain, of understanding itself?

The story of Badiou in Australia is intriguing then, but also difficult to narrate. Indeed, the first attempt to do so was memorably scuppered: it appears in a book that was supposed to be titled Badiou in the Antipodes. A London-based publisher objected that this title was ‘too local, too parochial’, and insisted instead on the featureless title Badiou and His Interlocutors (2018). The book’s two editors—A. J. Bartlett and Justin Clemens, whose long-time collaboration has produced numerous essays, edited collections, and translations of Badiou’s work—introduce Badiou and His Interlocutors with a brief response to the publisher. They begin first by countering a misunderstanding about provincialism: ‘the last thing that is appropriate to Badiou’s work is some form of parochialism, some essentialization of identity’. Badiou, they note, is ‘anything but parochial or reducible to nationalist, culturalist, geographical or natural determinations’. Nevertheless, Bartlett and Clemens also recognise something important in the fact that their contributors are overwhelmingly situated in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. They describe the volume as a whole as ‘an intervention at a site, local and singular’. The universal must be addressed to all, but it must also start somewhere, at a particular point, with particular actors, militating against particular injustices.

At the launch for Badiou and His Interlocutors, Bartlett returned to this theme. His speech went by the ‘true name’ of the book—‘Badiou in the Antipodes’—and set out ‘what is at stake in the nomination’. Perhaps, as Bartlett strikingly suggested, this ‘is what the name Badiou names: The world turned upside down’. In the place of an unjust world that stands the right way up and believes there is no other way to stand, it might be possible (although it might not), to speak—if only by some fluke—of an ‘antipodean school’: ‘[t]he world upside down, the injunction not to continue doing the opposite of what we should do, a French philosopher down under’. In what follows, we attempt to reconstruct how Badiou’s work first made its way to Australia, and some of the ways that his influence may have been registered.

‘I genuinely do hate Deleuze and Guattari’, wrote a young Justin Clemens in his aptly titled ‘A Thousand Tiny Stupidities: Why I Hate Deleuze (And Guattari)’. It was 1997, and Deleuze’s work was beginning to generate various commentaries from Australian thinkers—not only in cultural studies, but in philosophy, too, thanks to Paul Patton (who had translated Difference and Repetition), the members of the Australian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP), and the journal Contre-temps, which was run out of the University of Sydney. In fact, ‘A Thousand Tiny Stupidites’ was published in a special issue of Antithesis devoted to Deleuze and Clemens could not have differed more markedly from the brief. For him, DaG (as he called them) exemplified the managerial and relativising impulses of contemporary thought. Clemens took their ontology as ready-made for the modern university, as prizing interdisciplinarity over the separation of art, science, and political inquiry, as holding up knowledge and matters of taste over truth. A Thousand Plateaus, Clemens writes:

is arranged like a record; you may like some tracks, hate others, but hey, that’s you! Hence DaG’s opening gambit and primary refusal, to which the great Bruce Lee himself would have assented: take what is useful and discard what is useless! Therefore also, of course, Deleuze’s image of philosophy as a tool box, a heterogenous collection of strange concepts. Which is further why DaG claim that they ought not to be treated as authorities, but merely as proffering an invitation which you are absolutely free to refuse. And so their work has apparently no centre, it is not organised, as they say, ‘arborescently’, it is not organised at all […]. I believe that this repudiation of organisation and concomitant affirmation of ‘crowned anarchy’ is the fundamental orientation of DaG’s ontology.

Clemens’ critique of DaG was influenced by Badiou’s Deleuze: The Clamour of Being (1997). Contrary to the prevailing spirit of the special issue of Antithesis, Clemens sided with Badiou in his fundamental disagreement with Deleuze: that multiplicity must be thought with the resources of mathematics, not concepts grounded in natural language. 

The year before ‘A Thousand Tiny Stupidities’, Clemens had been lost in the labours of his PhD, when he reconnected with another graduate student, Sigi Jöttkandt, who would go on to author many essays on Badiou, psychoanalysis, and literary thinking. Jöttkandt was back in Australia on holiday, and Clemens recalls her coming into his office and asking: ‘Have you heard of this person, Badiou?’ He groaned. ‘Of course I know Bourdieu!’ Jöttkandt presented him with an essay in French, ‘Qu’est-ce que l’amour?’, or ‘What is Love?’. It was a highly technical piece, replete with ‘mathemes’, as Lacan calls the mathematical formalisation of phenomena. Clemens was intrigued by these mysterious diagrams. In ‘What is Love?’, Badiou sketches out a logic of love’s ‘local verification’, based on the Humanity function—written H(x)—as a generic process. It was an essay on love that aimed to skirt romantic cliché without sacrificing the self at the altar of the other or succumbing to ‘the pathos of passion, error, jealousy, sex and death’. Clemens asked to hang onto it and began translating it that night. It was one of the first translations of Badiou into English.

Shortly after, Clemens switched PhD topics, abandoning a project on nineteenth-century blackmail and libel culture to attempt instead to reconstruct Badiou’s critique of romanticism and its ramifications for understanding twentieth-century literary theory. He saw in Badiou a route beyond the theoretical impasses of the present. In Clemens’s words, Badiou forced philosophy to ‘confront simultaneously the two antagonistic enterprises that are mathematics and poetry’. Whereas mathematics ‘provides the philosopher with rigorous knowledge of “being as such”’, poetry ‘gives the philosopher the paradoxical anti-knowledge of “the event”’. By seeking to ‘hold these antagonists together […] [in] “a peace of the discontinuous”’, Clemens believed that Badiou offered a way not just to rethink the Platonic antagonism between the poem and the matheme, but to reconsider love in an era of sexual desire, to renew a lost militantism, and to respond the challenges of the neoliberal university.

But how had Jöttkandt herself come across Badiou? Jöttkandt completed an MA in Romanticism at the University of Melbourne at time when this was a favoured subject. The philosophically-inclined literary criticism of the late 1980s and early 1990s aimed to overcome Paul de Man and the Yale School’s deconstructive mode of literary criticism, something which paradoxically created a kind of everlasting romantic predicament, as Clemens would later explore in his first book The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory (2003). Jöttkandt decided to study for a PhD abroad, and so followed in the footsteps of many Australasian thinkers, journeying from Melbourne to Buffalo in upstate New York. Buffalo was then an industrial city better known for its chicken wings than any literary-theoretical tendencies. But when Jöttkandt arrived in 1991, things were changing. She was assigned the Lacanian Joan Copjec as a supervisor, who was on the cusp of publishing her classic work Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (1994). Pitting the structuralist vision of Lacan against the historicism of Foucault, Read My Desire would become, in time, one of the notorious, anti-historicist books that made psychoanalytic thinking so exciting in the 1990s. By lucky circumstance, then, Jöttkandt was dropped into the experimental heart of psychoanalytic critique in North America.

Early on, Jöttkandt and a fellow graduate student, Sam Gillespie, were charged with editing one of the Center for Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture’s mouthpieces: the newly-found journal Umbr(a). Umbr(a) was devoted to expanding the range of psychoanalytic subjects, moving away from the immediate clinical and therapeutic concerns of psychoanalytic reflection and towards a profound vision of its capacity for social and political critique. The journal’s outlandish but memorable title was lifted from the title of Copjec’s own PhD thesis, suggesting a kind of identification between the Center’s graduate students and their supervisor’s own graduate thesis. ‘Umbra’ is a word with a long literary history: its medieval origins signify a shadow or a blot of darkness, something visible but hidden, present though only just. The title thereby gestures towards Lacan’s famous concept of the ‘object a’—the original lost object that is the object cause of one’s desire and which one then attempts to re-find through their life. Lacan enjoyed this kind of wordplay with names, sometimes going so far as to suggest that the subject spends their life attempting to live up to their namesake (in his own case, the lack in Lacan). In a manner that seemed as though it was always destined to happen, the first edition of Umbr(a) became a lost object almost immediately after it was published. Although it went to print—containing contributions from several prominent Lacanians, as well as a fictional interview conducted by Jöttkandt between Judith Butler, Joan Copjec, and a radical feminist whose name Jöttkandt hasn’t been able to recall since—Jöttkandt and Gillespie were unhappy with the first edition, destroying every copy and deciding to begin again from scratch. The first Umbr(a) is, in fact, not.

The second issue of Umbr(a) was dedicated to Badiou, who seemed to the Center to offer an auspicious extension of Lacan. Since his earliest articles on structuralism and the place of lack, Badiou had reckoned with Lacan’s radical critique of the subject, his trenchant mathematicisation, and his steely investment in tracing the limits of the thinkable. In The Manifesto for Philosophy, Badiou went so far as to call Lacan ‘the greatest of our dead’. Around this time, Gillespie had managed to get his hands on two of Badiou’s then-untranslated works: Being and Event and Conditions, stirring in him a desire to explore a thinker who made grappling with Lacan’s account of the subject the unavoidable task of every future philosophy (although, as Jöttkandt remarks, part of the intrigue might just have been because Gillespie’s French wasn’t so good at the start).

At the same time as Jöttkandt, Gillespie, and Clemens were discovering and disseminating Badiou’s work, Oliver Feltham had chanced upon Badiou in the stacks at the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library. He had ‘just learnt enough French to put the French word for event into the database and this book popped up. […] It was very thick. I could just work out that it was called—Being and Event’. He would later translate it into English. When Feltham moved to Paris to pursue a doctorate, he heard about Badiou’s seminars from Melinda Cooper, who was working on her own PhD on Deleuze and Lacan. ‘A graduate student’, in Feltham words:

spends a year researching […] in Paris, sits in on three notorious seminars. To distinguish the lecturers he disposes of three variables, each with two values: starts late or not, dresses up or down, audience rich or poor. One starts late, dresses up and the audience is rich; another starts late, dresses up, and the audience is rich; the other starts late, dresses down and the audience is poor—which one was Miller, which Derrida, and which Badiou?

In case there was any doubt, Feltham later told ABC Radio that when he turned up at Badiou’s seminar, he found ‘this guy wearing a flannelette shirt, a cardigan, smoking cigarettes furiously. People were handing out political pamphlets in the actual lecture’. At that same time, Melissa McMahon had been sent over to Paris on a French government scholarship. She chose the department because Deleuze was once on the faculty but ended up with Badiou as her supervisor. ‘I remember my first session’, she says. ‘He had read my essay, said a few things about it and then sort of pronounced what my primordial theme was: “your problem, it is… action”’. Both Feltham and McMahon were struck by the novelty of Badiou’s work. When Feltham returned to Australia, he began to organise Badiou’s first visit—the spark that would send Badiou to Sydney.

The Australian Society of Continental Philosophy’s 1999 conference poster, designed by Esther Anatolitis.
Image: Melissa McMahon. Reproduced with permission.

An event always requires fidelity otherwise it risks vanishing into inexistence, disappearing into the darkness from which it, flickering, might have emerged. The anachronism of the expression—‘fidelity’—is deliberate. Events cannot be predicted or anticipated; they aren’t statistically modelled or prognosticated by so-called experts. Only a supernumerary and retroactive act can decree the event’s ‘becoming legal’, an act that rises above the calculative logics of prediction, self-interest, or rational choice. This feature of the event explains why its verification requires fidelity—a procedure lying on the other side of reason. However, Badiou predictably divests the concept of its religiosity, giving it rational contours in Being and Event by dedicating one of the book’s ‘Meditations’ to its procedural form and function. Contrary to the statist situation and its conservative actors—those who think that all that is is all that can ever be—faithful subjects patiently and painstakingly discern a multiple that lies indiscernibly beneath the situation, what Badiou calls the ‘generic’. Faithful subjects thus build and enquire: they encounter the multiples present in the current situation and decide on their connection to the event. As Feltham puts it, this constructive procedure works towards uncovering ‘an unknown consistency’—‘a way of doing things’—‘that works, but that remains foreign to our imagination’. Novelty, in other words, is fortified through enquiry, through work.

When Badiou returned to Australia in September 2006, the situation had been changed by a great deal of enquiry and work. When he first arrived in Sydney in 1999, his philosophy was barely known. By 2006, his books published in English had generated a significant amount of attention and exchange between philosophers in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, North America, the United Kingdom, and Argentina (in fact, Badiou’s work had been a ‘familiar frame of reference’ for leftists in Latin America long before his Anglophone reception, as Marcelo Starcenbaum argues in a 2021 essay, ‘Badiou in Argentina’). This time, Badiou had been invited to deliver a keynote address on Spinoza at a conference at the Victorian College of the Arts. Being and Event had been published in English six months earlier, translated in full by Feltham. With the publication of Being and Event, Badiou’s English readers had been introduced to his mathematical apparatus: the way he sketches out his ontology through set theory. This was at the heart of Badiou’s famous equation that ‘mathematics = ontology’. The various debates in the history of discourses on being—that of the one and the many, the infinite and the finite, the discrete and the continuous—could be reinterpreted thanks to the resources of pure mathematics, particularly a mathematics that had introduced a new articulation of the infinite: Georg Cantor’s ‘transfinite’. In Badiou’s Melbourne keynote, he explored the geometrics of Spinoza’s Ethics (1667), presenting an image of Spinoza that emphasised how both of their philosophies were subjected to the mathematical condition.

By the mid-2000s, Badiou’s philosophy had attracted an ‘enormous’ amount of commentary, as Paul Ashton, Bartlett, and Clemens state in their introduction to The Praxis of Alain Badiou (a book published with the Melbourne publisher re.press and based on an earlier edition of the Australian journal Cosmos and History). This book differs from much of the work that had been published on Badiou to date. It wasn’t exegetical, but rather procedural. Many of its contributors were graduate students or younger Australian philosophers—it featured the work, for example, of Alex Ling, who would go on to author the first book on Badiou and cinema—and the collection had a definite sense of enquiry, of building links between Badiou’s conceptual apparatus and various political, scientific, amorous, and aesthetic historical and contemporary challenges. Among these essays was a piece by Sam Gillespie, who had tragically died some years earlier. Jöttkandt wrote a moving introduction to his work in The Praxis of Alain Badiou, paying tribute to the edition of Umbr(a) dedicated to Badiou. ‘It goes without saying’, writes Jöttkandt, ‘that what one inevitably misses in such written leavings is the electric wit and sardonic humour of this anti-democratic but never inegalitarian individual who inaugurated our tradition of numbering each issue of Umbr(a) as One—not only as a token of what he once called the “arduous” procedure of counting to Two but also as a formal expression of fidelity to what had escaped the previous issue’s “count”’.

In introducing The Praxis of Alain Badiou, the editors offered a Badiouian account of a school that was untied to an institution like the University. The kind of school they have in mind produces a set of ‘disciples’—something Bartlett would go on to fully conceptualise in his work on education, most notably Badiou and Plato: An Education by Truths (2015). The polemical nature of the term ‘disciples’ contrasts with the ‘critic’ and must be understood in the context of Badiou’s concept of ‘fidelity’, a term describing those whose lives have been interrupted by the force of something new, something completely unexpected. In this way, discipleship is not a matter of dogmatism. ‘Disciplines’, in the words of Ashton, Bartlett, and Clemens, ‘read, translate, re-edit the texts of the master; squabble about the philosophy in question; relate it to classical problems in the history of thought; relate it to other philosophies; to the world as they find it transfigured in the unprecedented dark light of these new little letters, etc’. Out of their squabbling there emerges the philosophical ‘institution’, a unique formation, a school at odds with the market logic of contemporary departments, institutes, and establishments. Disciples are homeless and stateless. They are not housed at an institution, and their fidelity takes place in contingent conversations, with everyone and anyone, and at places welcome to all. In a later essay, Bartlett would call these people ‘friends […] of the concept’.

The job of a philosophical disciple, at least as described by Ashton, Bartlett, and Clemens, is not to engage in hagiography. Australian philosophers have often approached Badiou’s work in this spirit, with a deeply admiring yet sceptical approach. One important example is Jon Roffe: he reviewed the translation of Being and Event when it first came out, arguing that it effectuated the end of the Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason. The chance emergence of the event, Roffe maintains, left us without any reason to believe that ‘the universe is governed  by  a  global  network […] in  which  everything is accounted for and justified’. But Roffe was unconvinced by Badiou’s reading of Deleuze in The Clamour of Being, and subjected Badiou’s book to an ‘adversarial trial’, the results of which were later published in his book Badiou’s Deleuze (2011). For Roffe, there was much to admire: while Deleuze’s philosophy had lost its profound consistency amidst its ‘tool box’ applications (Roffe once said the ‘tool box’ description is in one of the most ‘unfortunate things written or spoken by Deleuze’), Badiou’s reading of the philosopher had emerged as a major ‘epicenter of conflict in thought’. Moreover, Roffe noted the profound similarities in orientation between the two, the most important of which is perhaps the thesis that philosophy is not exhausted, that one needs to assume an ethics of continuation, not giving up on the philosophical desire to go on. But there was also much in Badiou’s reading that could not be accepted. For all Deleuze’s rhetorics of multiplicity, Badiou thinks his philosophy is predicted on a rearticulation of the One. For Roffe, this critique was not borne out of a careful philosophical engagement with Deleuze’s texts. At the Spinoza conference in Melbourne, Roffe similarly set out a critique of Badiou’s reading of Spinoza. The next day, Badiou offered the following reflection on Roffe’s paper: ‘I am an old Maoist. And as an old Maoist, when you’re faced with a superior enemy, you retreat’.

Around the time of Badiou’s second visit to Australia, David McCooey published his essay ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’ (2007). McCooey had set himself an unenviable task—to describe the state of contemporary Australian poetry. He was intrigued by how ‘a thing so culturally marginal’ and ‘endangered’ as Australian poetry could be ‘so routinely […] described as “dangerous”’, as arousing passion, controversy, and contempt. In this sense, the title of his essay works ‘in two ways’: Australian poetry is both ‘something that survives and that requires surviving’.

If all McCooey were up to in his essay were dusting off the old trope of Australian poetry as a ‘knife fight in a phone booth’, then ‘Surviving Australian Poetry’ would hardly have struck the chord that it did. But he returned to the idea of Australian poetry as ‘dangerous’, as ‘wracked by factionalism’, with different intentions. Indeed, McCooey felt that the historical moment of this factionalism had passed. In the 1970s, no doubt, the literary landscape of Australia had been divided along aesthetic lines, with Les Murray defending his distinctive lyric traditionalism against the popular, North American-inspired avant-gardism of the Generation of ‘68. But in 2007, things were different. In the place of aesthetic division, McCooey found a newly catholic, hybrid, and accommodating poetics—one that unapologetically mixed the stylistic shibboleths of factions past. He called this ‘the new lyricism’, noting that the ‘musicality’, ‘brevity’, and ‘emphasis on thought, feeling and subjectivity’ of lyricism had coalesced with features once characteristic of the avant-garde. The result was a poetry both ‘lyrical and suspicious of the lyric impulse’. For McCooey, the rise of this ‘new lyricism’ was one of the most salient and promising developments in contemporary Australian poetry.

‘Surviving Australian Poetry’ incited a storm of discussion, but one of the most interesting and, in retrospect, most consequential responses took several years in the making. This is the formulation of a distinctively ‘Badiouian poetics’, a poetic programme that rejected the compromises of ‘new lyricism’ and called for a revitalised avant-gardism instead. The most forthright articulation of this position arrived in typically modernist form, a manifesto. ‘The Realpoetik Manifesto’ (2012), disseminated in a number of venues such as Overland and Cordite, announced a poetics that ‘hears Alain Badiou calling, and breaks with arrogantly lyrical, fashionably experimental and simply educational schemata’. In its place, the manifesto’s writers—‘We the poets Jessica Wilkinson and Ali Alizadeh, and others who shall soon join us’—advocated ‘a poetry that is multiple, transformative, moving, contradictory, evental, […] inaesthetic’. They announced ‘the art of non-fiction poetry’, where ‘non-fiction’ means ‘the potential of poetry to expand our conceptions and perceptions of the “real”’.

If the still-existing comments thread on Overland is anything to go by, this manifesto achieved one immediate aim: to stir and provoke. The poet Lisa Gorton, for instance, responded to its publication in the Southerly blog with enthusiasm, noting her ‘great liking for manifestos’. Wilkinson and Alizadeh had clearly captured ‘a wider impatience with the lyric mode’, she said. But there was a problem: ‘I don’t like their term: nonfiction poetry’. Without a sense where the manifesto’s terminology came from—its terms of art such as ‘evental’, ‘inaesthetic’, and the ‘real’—it was easy for readers to conflate nonfiction poetry with ‘the habit of plainspeaking’. The truth was much stranger: it was a Badiouian intervention into Australian poetry. It is worth underscoring just how improbable this is. It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely pair, especially given Badiou’s critiques of what he calls ‘the philosophical fetishisation of the poem’.

In a series of interlocking reviews, articles, and essays, Alizadeh draws on Badiou to clarify the stakes of this intervention into Australian poetry. If, in his words, McCooey had ‘identified the prevailing mode of poetry in contemporary Australia as a negotiation between experimentalism (the new) and traditional composition (lyricism)’, then realpoetik spoke to a cohort of ‘newer Australian poets’—among then, Louis Armand, Felicity Plunkett, Claire Potter, Maria Takolander, Louis Armand, Justin Clemens, Kate Fagan, and John Mateer—who had gone ‘beyond and broken with this conciliation’. Alizadeh argued that these poets ‘illustrate[d] what the radical philosopher Alain Badiou has called inaesthetics’. ‘Inaesthetics’ is, quite simply, how Badiou differentiates his philosophy of art and poetry from what flies under the more conventional name ‘aesthetics’. Whereas aesthetics treats art as ‘an object for philosophy’, inaesthetics views art as ‘itself a producer of truths’. For Alizadeh, inaesthetics helps us to distinguish what is most exciting about contemporary Australian poetry: not its new lyrical hybridity, but the emergence of ‘an unsettling and rigorous continuation of avant-garde poetics’. This revamped avant-gardism is significant, above all, because it makes an encounter with a truth ‘entirely situated within and immanent to the poem’ possible—what Alizadeh at one point calls a ‘shocking encounter with the Real’. In extended readings of several Australian poets, he demonstrates how their linguistic experimentation amounts to an act of ‘challenging and rupturing the functions of the poem as a linguistic representation of reality’. The poetry that Alizadeh champions is not ‘mimetic’, ‘didactic’, or ‘therapeutic’ (as Badiou distinguishes some approaches to art in the Handbook of Inaesthetics). It is an event in language, a place where a reader can encounter the truth of poetry.

Alizadeh’s own poem Evental (2011) is particularly interesting in this context. A prefatory note announces it as ‘an attempt at versifying the tenets of the work of Alain Badiou’, signalling its debt to Badiou’s commentators, among them Clemens, Ling, Jöttkandt, and Feltham. Evental is a brief and deceptively ‘plainspeaking’ poem—deceptive because it is easy to overlook the audacity of what Alizadeh is attempting here. In one sense, it subverts Ezra Pound, who deployed hieroglyphics and Chinese pictograms in the later sections of his Cantos. Alizadeh, by contrast, splices Farsi, Chinese, and ancient Greek with the notation of set theory. One section, for instance, is titled ‘(W – u) + (M – u) = 七夕’, thus equating a Lacanian matheme with the folktale behind the Chinese Qixi Festival, where the ‘Weaver Girl / and Cowherd’:

                                     live happily ever after

            as stars Vega and Altair in constellations

            on opposing sides of the Milky Way

            forever together and forever apart

In Being and Event, Badiou gives precise contours to mathematics and to poetry: mathematics writes what is thinkable of being, whereas poetry, exemplified by Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés, thinks what vanishes from the field of being, namely, the event. Evental is rare among poems for including mathematics in verse, and it is, to our knowledge, a singular poetic experiment in at least one respect: it versifies mathematics as an exegetical strategy. In other words, Evental does not fetishise the power of poetry at the expense of the mathematical or hand the thinkable over to poetry. It plays, instead, on our expectations of poetic form to raise the question of how poetry might create an encounter with truth.

Evental attempts this through a performative contradiction. The assurance and unpretentious diction of its speaking ‘I’ lulls the reader into thinking that Evental is another example of what Charles Bernstein calls ‘official verse culture’, in which a ‘generic “sensitive” lyric speaker contemplates his or her world and makes observations about it’, as Marjorie Perloff writes. But the ‘generic’ in Evental is a poetic attempt to engage with Badiou’s mathematics of the generic. The ‘lyric speaker’ here explains the illusion of lyric subjecthood by seeking to translate Badiou’s work on the generic into verse: 

            I am not because I think

            , only if I can think of myself. I see

            only what enters the eye

            via the situation of seeing. I write

            after the symbols of language

            enforce the aura of articulation

            taming the tongue. I am

            the element of a set. Identity

            formulates the criteria

            for being

At first these enjambed phrases—‘I see’, ‘I write’, ‘I am’—seem to stand alone, a lyric subject speaking for itself. But each is undermined by the momentarily delayed explanation: ‘I am / the element of a set’. Because the ‘I’ of Evental seeks fidelity to ‘something new […] a singular, transformative truth’, the poem cycles through themes in a way not easily available to a conventional lyric speaker. It transports us from the history of the French revolution and the life of the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad to an explanation of the principles of set theory (in the section titled ‘Ø = { }’). ‘This happened to me’, as the poem’s concluding sequence has it. By this stage of Evental, we have been primed to read this less as memory than an awakening to the possibility of truth.

 ‘The Realpoetik Manifesto’ provides a valuable horizon to understand some of the diverse but no less important ways that Badiou’s philosophy has shaped contemporary Australian poetry. One poet who has been particularly influenced by the work of Badiou is Fiona Hile. Indeed, ‘influenced’ feels like an understatement here. Badiou, as Hile says, is part of what first brought her to poetry:

I was already quite a few years into a creative writing PhD titled ‘Generic Engineering’ and flailing around quite spectacularly in a galaxy of words when an academic friend […] flipped to the middle of the 526-page book he was reading. Wordlessly, pointed to a single sentence. “Due to a predilection whose origin I will leave it up to the reader to determine”, it read, “I will choose the symbol ♀ for this inscription”. The symbol had been summoned to designate what the writer called “generic multiple”. […] I abandoned almost everything I’d been reading and writing so far and began trying to write my way through Alain Badiou’s Being and Event. Badiou’s grand (and, for some, controversial) innovation is to have substituted language for mathematics as the least compromised way of engaging with the philosophical problems of truth, being, and the infinite. Attempting to understand even the most basic implications of this move turned out to be an impossible endeavor, one that I was impelled to confront afresh on a daily basis for a number of years. In the midst of all of this, I began to write poems.

On Hile’s account, Badiou is like the old idea of the Muse who summons the poet to write (better a philosopher than a god, we suppose). But it would be a mistake to think that Badiou is only an origin story for Hile. His philosophy shows up everywhere in her writing, whether she is thinking about ‘poetic communities’ or offering an interpretation of Lionel Fogarty. Novelties (2013) and Subtraction (2017), her two poetry collections, as well as her ‘mathematics’ themed special issue for Cordite, are all written under the sign of Badiou. As she puts it in an interview with Sandra D’Urso, Badiou is at the centre of her deep and ongoing engagement with philosophy: ‘I think […] what ended up saving me was having to get my head around Badiou’.

One thing that reviewers have often said about Hile’s work is that her interest in philosophy does not mean that her poems are simply about philosophy. In the words of a. j. carruthers: ‘This is not just poetry engaged with thinking, this is poetry which is the presentation of thought itself’. In a similar vein, Mathew Abbot remarks that her poetry is ‘not about taking abstract ideas and putting them into the form of verse, and it is not […] about referring to the work of philosophers and thinkers; rather, [its] poetic form just is part of how poetry thinks’. There are moments, of course, where Hile’s poems do directly interject with quotes from Badiou and other philosophers. ‘Hello Darling,’ is a love poem which ends with the words of one of Badiou’s commentators, explaining how ‘fidelity severs the / truth of a love from the world’. Yet, by far the most powerful act of poetic thinking in Novelties is in Hile’s celebrated poem ‘The Owl of Lascaux’.

A clue to what Hile is up to here is once again in its final line, another quote, this time from Lacan: ‘What starts with a tickle ends by bursting into flames’. Lacan is describing ‘jouissance’, perhaps the most famous term in his psychoanalytic vocabulary, by which he means a kind of painful enjoyment, an enjoyment that is too much for the body to bear. ‘The Owl of Lascaux’ is, we might say, a poem of jouissance. It pleads for deliverance from ‘unbearable enjoyment’, its speaker having ‘defaulted on the body and slivered the slipstream / slipshod indifference of rapid firebrand torment’. From its arresting opening image—‘I imagine you chopping the heads off eel’—Hile’s speaker is already poised in ambivalent intensity between pleasure and pain, a place where ‘you squander yourself, // as bleak as beauty’, in ‘[h]ells of quivering delight’. We can speculate about the source of this jouissance—whether it is related, say, to poem’s oblique references to ‘the nuptial meaning / of the body’, or ‘our sure demise, in lieu of your wedding day’. But Hile’s real achievement is to sustain the potent atmosphere of this poem over 81 lines.

One way she achieves this is by playing the ‘logodaedelist’, becoming, that is, ‘an Inventor or Forger of new Words, strange Terms’. Among Hile’s coinages are ‘corsal’, ‘cornuscate’, and ‘flirtigious’. In ‘The Owl of Lascaux’, she offers ‘propulgations’, which suggestively combines ‘promulgate’ and ‘propagate’ into a powerful description of a bodily experience which is compared, in turn, to ‘seabather’s eruption’. Into this heady linguistic density, Hile introduces the animal analogues of parietal art, which she turns into stand-ins for bodily transformation and poetic utterance:

Of the letter, the cubicles were filled with a misty stench.

Mouths closing over libraries

of flesh like molluscs finding a rock. 

This is where the title of the poem, ‘The Owl of Lascaux’, proves pertinent. The poem’s speaker refers once to ‘barking like an owl’, attributing this to an addressee, ‘you’, who is ‘a hungry fish in the paranymph / squatting in the underlit paragon of the / vestibule’. The problem with this—the owl of Lascaux—is that, in the words of one scientist intrigued by ‘early birds’, there are possibly ‘no birds on the walls of the cave at Lascaux and only one—a very nice owl—at Chauvet’. In other words, the most iconic carving of an owl is in a different French cave: there is perhaps no owl of Lascaux. This haunting impression of an owl appears in the Chauvet cave, which is the subject of a celebrated passage on philosophy and cave painting in Badiou’s Logic of Worlds (2006). Writing of the horses in Chauvet, Badiou notes how the artists ‘see in them the precarious fixation […] of a beauty both proffered and secretly dominated’. He imagines the artists of Chauvet ‘relentlessly covering the walls of their cave with intense images, in the oscillating light of fires or torches’. It is an image that brings to his mind Plato’s analogy of the cave in The Republic. Badiou goes on to defend the philosophical acumen of the cave dwellers’ art:

Suppose that you entertain a relation of thought to animals that makes them into stable components of the world under consideration: there is the horse, the rhinoceros, the lion… [and the owl]. Now suppose that the empirical and vital diversity of individual living beings is subordinated to this stability. The animal is then an intelligible paradigm and its representation is the clearest possible mark of what an Idea is. […] This means that—as in the Platonic myth, but in reverse—to paint an animal on the wall of a cave is to flee the cave so as to ascend towards the light of the Idea. This is what Plato feigns not to see: the image, here, is the opposite of the shadow. It attests the Idea in its varied invariance of its pictorial sign. Far from being the descent of the Idea into the sensible, it is the sensible creation of the Idea. ‘This is a horse’—that is what the Master of the Chauvet cave says.

‘And this is an owl’, the Master of the Chauvet cave might also say. Hile’s poem invites us to hear ‘the sensible creation of an Idea’ in the bark of an owl. But her owl is different to that familiar owl of wisdom, the Owl of Minerva who, according to Hegel, always ‘comes too late’, searching for truth in retrospect. This owl is does not look back at history. It is not like Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’, with its face ‘turned toward the past’. The Owl of Lascaux is philosophy’s anticipatory owl, the owl of propulgations. It is as if the Idea itself were already looking back at us from the recesses of an ancient cave.

Owl, engraved by finger into the soft wall, Pont d’Arc cave (copy of the Chauvet Cave), 2016. Image:  Claude Valette, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license via Wikimedia Commons.

In ‘Badiou and the Antipodes’, Bartlett summarises Badiou’s last Australian visit in 2014. ‘Ten days of airports, plane rides, cabs, hotels and hotel rooms, coffee, meals, people known and unknown and coming out of the woodwork, a suburban BBQ, “paradise” seen from a hotel window, a Manly ferry and an unrealised swim in the Pacific Ocean—“to be in the sea…”—shared with a philosopher?’ It was a frenetic visit: the philosopher was interviewed by Clemens at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, lectured large audiences in Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland, listened to a one-day symposium dedicated to his work at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, delivered seminars on ‘art & philosophy’, and even sat for an interview for ABC radios Philosophers Zone on the contradictions of the world after the historical failures of Communism. Bartlett sums up the trip as follows: ‘If it is right and reasonable to rebel against the reactionaries, it is right and reasonable to serve the revolution (in metaphysics). In this way, in Badiou’s words, there now will have been, “an école antipodean”’.

One might wonder if this remark is more serious or satirical—or both. It’s difficult to say. But Bartlett’s use of the future perfect—a school that will have been—might bring to mind of the most magisterial moments from Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés. The poem’s final image is a grouping of stars that are said to only have perhaps appeared to a universe shrouded in nihilistic—‘managerial’ is the word Badiou uses—darkness. How can we know if those stars really appeared or if, to use Mallarmé’s own expression, ‘nothing has taken place but the place’? Perhaps these stars were nothing more than a figment of our desiring imagination, desperate for something new in the sea of repetition. Badiou’s interpretation of this passage bears upon one of his most precious maxims: to become a subject, one must ‘decide from the standpoint of the undecidable’. He writes: ‘One who wanders on the edge of evental sites, faithful to the vocation of the intervening there in order to draw from the void a supernumerary name—some of you will recognize yourselves in this figure’.


We would like to thank Sigi Jöttkandt, Melissa McMahon, Justin Clemens, Oliver Feltham, Ali Alizadeh, A. J. Bartlett, Alex Ling, Jon Roffe, and Elizabeth Presa for answering questions about Badiou in Australia. Their answers have informed this essay. Thank you, too, to Bryan Cooke, Melissa McMahon, and Robert L. Scott for very useful critiques of this essay in draft form. Thanks to Michael Farrell for allowing us to quote from his unpublished poem, ‘Adapting Badiou’. The definition we quote of the term ‘logodaedalus’ is taken from Nathan Bailey’s The universal etymological English dictionary (1727). Fiona Hile uses the word in her poem ‘Defenestrations of Prague’. The description of cultural studies is informed particularly by John Frow’s essay ‘Australian Cultural Studies’ and the description of Les Murray and the Generation of ’68 by J. M. Coetzee’s ‘The Angry Genius of Les Murray’. The account presented here of McCooey’s essay is influenced chiefly by Alizadeh’s writing on the topic.

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