. . .

The Ultimate Battle Between Good and Nice

I throw around the word "evil" a lot. I come from a small midwestern town, so the concept feels comfortably familiar. Familial, even.

Evil is grudges and pariahs and book-banning and hellfire, lynching and sniping, righteous greed and willful ignorance. It's chopping and deforming and squeezing experience into a single-P.O.V. heroic narrative learned from soap opera or sports or lives of the poets. It's clinging to (or even manufacturing) the "kinds of circumstances" in which we need feel no qualms about cowardly cruelties ranging from deliberate public insult to mass murder. Oh, and whoever bred those little pug dogs that can't breathe comfortably or retract their tongues? It's that guy too.

In short, evil is the refusal to deal with particulars.

Alain Badiou says that evil isn't self-evident. Still, he seems pretty certain of himself: good is rigidity and evil is anything that might make you re-examine your premises, or even let other people sleep there overnight. Good is universal condemnation; evil is the notion of individual variation. Good is a focus on extreme circumstances that permit the indulgence of extreme measures.

Thus Lenin and Mao (and presumably Stalin and Kim Jong Il) are good. "The ethics of Truth always returns, in precise circumstances, to fighting for the True against the four fundamental forms of Evil: obscurantism, commercial academicism, the politics of profit and inequality, and sexual barbarism."

Not that I've met Badiou, or want to, but having met evil several times a day for most of my life, it'd be rude to pretend I don't recognize its face.

"The Good in artistic action is the invention of new forms that convey the [fixed] meaning of the world. The Good in science is the audacity of free thought, the joy of exact knowledge."
Me, I'd say the good in art is what gives pleasure and the good in science is what approximates reality. Insofar as we derive pleasure from proximity to reality, there's some ambiguity there, but I think my art and my science are easily distinguished from Badiou's.

As for my politics, if he's right that my choice is Bush or Lenin, neither of whom were democratically elected in the first place, I'll just stay here in the basement till they smoke me out.

Luckily, Badiou's oppositions tend toward the superficial. (Like, just who should declare war on whom to save the "projected ten million dead from AIDS in Africa"? War doesn't have a great record as an antiviral agent.) To "take the nearest example," Bush wasn't in the WTC when it went down, but some of his enemies were, and the hijackers were led by relatives of his business associates. Given that, is it really safe to say "Bush is evil, therefore Osama is good"? Are the evils of corporate rule really so blinding that dialectical materialism and monotheistic fundamentalism become indistinguishable?

"Commercial academicism" is more fundamental, right? Don't matter which party stands me up against the wall so's long it gets done. Well, fuck you, motherfucker.

Speaking of "sexual barbarism," and bearing in mind Badiou's argument that we shouldn't devalue the word "evil" by stretching it to cover totalitarianism and torture, I don't feel as guilty as I might about juxtaposing these excerpts:

"What does 'respect for the Other' mean when one is at war against an enemy, when one is brutally left by a woman for someone else...."
"Evil, then, ... is sexuality considered as merely a technique of pleasure."

I'm a bad guy - and as a rule I don't stand for dumb dames slapping my face. In just about a minute I'm going to shake your teeth out

Sadly, Bloomly, I can define good only as the opposite of evil. Good, like truth, is provisional and incomplete; evil, like deceit, is certain.

Is that liberal capitalism? So sue me. What do I look like, a philosopher over here?

But I do agree with the philosopher that calling everything "evil" all the time is a pretty annoying habit.

. . .

The Ultimate Rematch Between Good and Nice

I don't miss writing fiction. I do miss the workshops. Close reading has its limitations as a critical method, but no receiving transmitter could argue against its utility and pleasure.

Essays rarely get that level of attention, so I'm delighted that my Badiou tantrum elicited such an intelligent and extensive critique from Ezra Kilty.

Two lumps, please:

  1. I briefly sought Badiou's Ethics, but, since I didn't find it at my fingertips and since I don't remember anything else I've read by him, what I wrote was a response to a single interview. Nothing wrong with that, but then I made reference to "Badiou" as if to a body of work. This insinuation of nonexistent expertise is a habit of pundits both academic and journalistic, and I'm ashamed of having reproduced it.
  2. That interpolated "[fixed]" twanged my conscience even while writing. I put it in, I took it out.... I finally decided that the totality of the interview implied clearly enough an art restricted to revealing (or even propagandizing) a known truth rather than discovering (or even inventing) a new one. But a single reader's disagreement is disproof enough.
Another mild criticism, I understand but respectfully disagree with: I feel perhaps even less equipped to define "reality" than most people, but when someone sets the goals of science as "free thought" and "exact knowledge," we're obviously not engaged in that kind of discussion. Stalinist researchers, born-again creationists, and New Age dreamweavers all burst with audacious exactitude. Call me Bacon, but I think reproducibility, falsifiability, and coherence are scientific goods, and I think it's fair English usage to call them all aspects of attentiveness to reality. "The Good of science" is method rather than goal.

Which brings me to my tantrum's motive.

"Evil would be to compromise on the question of the Good." That is, the good is known and must remain unsullied. "Evil is the interruption of a truth." The truth is fixed and not to tampered with. "Evil is the destruction of a subject." Good subjects know their place. In Ezra's formulation, we should "honor and pursue whatever original conceptions we find ourselves having."

Fight the good fight for the good cause. The man can't bust our music.

But not all causes are equally certain goods, nor are all hypotheses, nor are all original conceptions, nor even is all music. In ethics, politics, science, and art, it's often better to let our cause be judged and influenced by the complexities and compromises that our efforts encounter and produce. By the trivial. By the mean.

Ezra doesn't mention Badiou's "four fundamental Evils," so I assume he wasn't as appalled as I was. Deceptions, torture, mass murder: Badiou calls them legitimate means to the Good, as all means are -- except for "obscurantism, commercial academicism, the politics of profit and inequality, and sexual barbarism." It doesn't matter what other benefits might be gained from those means: they're off limits. Only the vilest of humanity would take a paying academic job or partake of sexual pleasure.

But with those exceptions, to use our native homily, the end justifies the means.

Now while that's true for some ends and some means, it doesn't seem to me a universal truth. There may be more than one means to an end (I might grow a tomato to feed myself, or I might bash your skull and stick you in the deep-freeze). There may be more than one end. Means may conflict. The ends may be provisional.

All sophomoric enough, which is why you only hear certain types of post-sophomore say things like "The end justifies the means."

By that bit of wisdom those types usually mean "An extreme end justifies extreme means," with "extreme" a strangled recognition of moral repugnance: a shame which we preemptively deny.

And those types often seem, to me anyway, addicted to extremity. Their means are dwelt on; their supposed ends are comparatively unexamined, distant, and unlikely -- almost an afterthought -- plug-and-play. The viciously callow anarchist matures into the viciously callow Republican.

Then there's the problem of dealing with those who might profess different goals, god forbid. (Presumably they exist; presumably they're why our goal has not yet been achieved.) If one thinks of them as targets of deceit, torture, or murder, they're simply opportunities. But if one treats them as problematic? Well, that's the problem icky old liberal democracy was meant to solve -- by dealing-with rather than by elimination, admittedly and, to many powerful trend-setters, unacceptably. "Grandeur" may be unfashionable in Badiou's circle, but it's the little black dress of John Ashcroft's and Osama bin Laden's.

More mundanely, we have the heterosexual who despises all women (if divorced) or all women but his wife (if married). The libertarian dreaming of tax-free fiery glory. The daddy's-girl feminist who insults and exploits female workers. The tenured Marxist who bullies subordinates. The poet who sacrifices all within arm's reach to the manufacture of elegaic moods.

I know these people all too well -- from the inside out. I judge Badiou's judgment in my light, as I suppose he'd have me do.

A life spent ruining other lives for the sake of a fantasy so persistently distant that its flaws can't be detected -- I admit it's a catchy narrative. I refuse to concede that it's a good life.

. . .


Having had occasion to review my "bit of blog about Badiou," Adam Tobin rightly takes me to task:

While I have you on the line, I'd also like to say that (contrary to your claim that they are evil) soap operas are not single-POV heroic narratives, although such are often used as materials: Chris is pleased to learn that his private eye has already dug up some juicy dirt on his kid brother. Meanwhile, Livvie makes it clear to Jack how much she wants him to make love to her. A flustered Lucy asks Kevin how he can possibly think of leaving Port Charles now that he knows he has a daughter. Eve steps out of her bath to find Ian staring at her. When Harris returns to claim his "prize", Eve covers by assuring a worried Ian that she's only going out to explain the next medical procedure to their captor. Kevin is forced to bodily remove Lucy from the lighthouse but she stubbornly refuses to let go of his arm. Chris interrupts a moment of passion between Jack and Livvie.
Honestly, I meant to refer only to the particular use made in a particular time and place of a particular convention of pseudo-realistic narrative: the division between protagonists (in the longest running soap operas of that time, the wise, good-hearted, mostly passive observers; in sports, the home team; in lives of the poets, the poets) and antagonists (the amoral, weak-willed, and active villains; the visitors; the girlfriends).

But given the treatment usually doled out to gendered genres, I should have been more careful. For all I know, such soap operas aren't even made anymore, and even when they were, their toxicity wouldn't have compared with The 700 Club or "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber". To makers and viewers of soap operas, I apologize.

Badiou, on the other hand, can go peddle his papers.


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