I have been called upon to help to introduce to an English-speaking readership the recent hoax carried out by my friends and colleagues, Philippe Huneman and Anouk Barberousse, who submitted a fake and preposterous article under the fictitious name of Benedetta Tripodi to the Journal of Badiou Studies, a forum dedicated to research on the work of the French philosopher Alain Badiou.
Let me begin by saying that I am no more interested in taking sides in this conflagration than in the one that transpired between Pierre Gassendi and Robert Fludd some centuries ago as to whether or not eclipses can help us predict the course of human affairs. I tend to see conflicts in the world of ideas from a distance, as an outsider, without a stake. This is not because I don’t have convictions of my own —I do— but because in general I don’t think these convictions are best pressed for by taking sides and by battering adversaries. This is in part because, like Leibniz, I believe that everyone is in some sense right, and that it is just a matter of clarifying the terms in which we express our views; and in part because, like the Skeptics, I believe that everyone is in some sense wrong, and doesn’t have a clue what the hell they’re talking about.
Alain Badiou, we may at least say, does not draw much from either of these legacies. He seems fairly certain that his own adversaries are substantively wrong, and if he does not take from the Skeptics the cautious attitude toward his own views that he may not know what the hell he is talking about, he at least ensures that many of us, who are not he, will not know what the hell he is talking about.
This, I suspect, is not a glitch, but rather is central to the program. Scholars of religious studies have often identified something similar in the dogmas of sects: it is not in spite of the fact that a Christian cannot possibly make any sense of the claim that God is three and one at once that he or she continues to have faith; it is because of this core mystery that Christianity has such a hold on the believer’s soul. One need not deal in claims about the transcendent realm in order to draw followers to a movement in this way. I have suspected for a while that some of what is done under the banner of ‘disability studies’ functions like a sort of religious sect to the extent that it insists on incompatible commitments, and distinguishes between insiders and outsiders by noting who is willing to keep quiet about the incompatibility. For example, not every disability can be equally accommodated in a given public setting; to make a room accessible to vision-impaired people by means of bright fluorescent lights might make the room less accessible for people prone to migraines. There are trade-offs in life, outsiders will say. That is a concession to ableism, reply the insiders, grim-faced. Replace 'migraines' with set theory, and 'vision-impairment' with communism, and you have a fairly good sense of how Badiousianism works.
Badiou may not be a 'postmodern', he may even, as he insists, despise postmodernism. Yet I can report, at least, that my experience attending his talks has been remarkably similar to what I've felt when trying to listen, some years ago now, to Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy: I feel as though I am interrupting something, an intimate moment between old friends, grudgingly tolerant of the anxious young aspirants swarming around them trying to gain their attention, and completely indifferent to those who are neither in the inner circle nor hoping to enter it. I should add that I do not have this feeling in other academic settings where I am a relative interloper: I can go to a conference on palaeoanthropology or on Shakespeare, and I can see that the participants all go way back together and are part of what is in many respects a club, and yet there remains this external thing --palaeoanthropology or Shakespeare-- that does not belong to them, that they recognise as something that strangers care about, and that justifies my presence there as well as theirs.
I suspect anyhow that mysterianism is a necessary and ineliminable part of the way people come together around common visions, and that in themselves they are neither good nor bad. So I will not join my friends Huneman and Barberousse in criticising the Badiousians for their apparent inability to make it all cohere. Some collective projects, even collective projects motivated by big ideas, do not share this desideratum.
My first reaction to both Huneman and Barberousse’s canular, as well as to Badiou’s ferocious response, was a deep sincere laugh. But this reaction quickly gave way, in each case, to some substantial concerns. To turn first to Badiou’s reaction.* He used some great words: sous-fifre (an underling, a lowly non-entity), for example, and he made the authors of the original text look pretty foolish and vain, motivated by nothing more than base ressentiment. But then it struck me: Badiou is some years older now than Socrates was at the time of his trial, when he asked ironically if those who had accused him really expected him to fight back, now, at his age, to petulantly insist that the accusations are unfounded. As if to convince anyone of this would thereby win him immortality! Socrates did not do this, to have done so would have been completely out of keeping with his character.
What sort of distinguished old men, what great silverbacks on top of their fields, be it statesmanship or letters or philosophy, do fight back? The ones with thin skins, the ones for whom influence can only go together with power, rather than than with the cultivation of an exemplary life. This is the reaction, mutatis mutandis, of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who does not like being lampooned by a bawdy comedian. It is the reaction of American philosophy blogger Brian Leiter, who, in his words, must yearly ‘plan out [his] litigation strategy’ in order to bring some peculiar version of justice to all those he sees as having committed ‘per se defamation’ against him. It is the conduct of small tyrants (i.e., all tyrants), not of philosophers, and especially not those who have made it to the august age of the senex. If you think the people who mock you really are sous-fifres, then why on earth should you let them eat at you so? You’re almost 80 years old, Badiou. Congratulate the hoaxers on their small victory and let it pass. Aquila non captat muscas.
But what sort of victory is it? Here my laughter on first reading Huneman and Barberousse's text quickly gave way to two concerns. One is that the joke is not so much on the abstruse theory-heads, as had surely been the case in the Sokal incident. The joke isn’t on anyone who is committed to any particular ideology or style of thinking at all. The joke is, rather, on the folks running these pop-up online journals with their ludicrously low editorial standards.
Remarkably, the editors of the Journal of Badiou Studies even admitted as much when they complained of Huneman and Barberousse’s ‘dated’ method of attack “in an age when the pressures on independent Open Access publishing include underfunding and time-pressured staff.” In other words, the editors effectively confess that they do not have the resources to produce a decent journal on their own, and so must rely on the good will of the contributors to not send them crap.
But many people who submit to journals are not in a position to know of their own work whether it is crap or not, and for this reason alone a journal that does not have the resources to weed out crap would be doing scholarship a far greater service by simply not existing. The problem is compounded in the context of continental European publishing in English, where often, at every stage of production, from writing to proofreading to publishing, all of the people involved speak English, at best, as a second language. What slipped through at the Journal of Badiou Studies does not in fact look so different from what slips through on a regular basis at Springer or Brill.
Incidentally, no one so far has explained whether that curious word ‘Strive’, being used as a noun in the title of the hoax article, is part of the hoax, or whether it is part of the more general context of continental pseudo-English in which alone such a hoax could occur.
It seems to me in other words that what this hoax exposes is not so much Badiou, or his gullible acolytes, but rather the dismal state of publishing today— or perhaps we should not dignify it in this way, and instead call it what it is: posting. The Journal of Badiou Studies is a website masquerading as an academic journal. It has an editorial board (of which Badiou himself is a merely ‘decorative’ member), but it is run rather more like the Huffington Post or, dare I say, The Guardian: it is a place that lets people deposit stuff they have written, and then call it a ‘publication’. In this respect it is not clear whether what Huneman and Barberousse have exposed is something much smaller, or much bigger, than what Sokal exposed twenty years ago. Sokal exposed an elite and illicit hot-air factory; the most recent hoax exposes something that we should all already know about but somehow need to be reminded of: there is no such thing as academia anymore, but only countless fly-by-night ventures ensuring that everyone gets to play along.
If there had been any editorial standards at all the journal’s representatives could at least have checked up on the author. In spite of Huneman and Barberousse’s claim, the University of Iași is not off in some inaccessible fantasy world. It is a university in an EU country, with multiple exchange agreements with campuses of the University of Paris. I myself have visited there and know several good philosophers who hail from there. If an article had been submitted to me purporting to be by someone from Iași named ‘Benedetta’, I would immediately have suspected something was wrong.
Here I am reminded of a similar hoax in 2010, when --to cite Perry Anderson-- the crass booby Bernard-Henri Lévy referenced a certain Jean-Baptiste Botul, a supposed expert on Kant, as a source for his own work. It was only later revealed to him that the school of ‘botulisme’ was invented, as a joke, by a French journalist. Botul was supposed to have been particularly influential among the neo-Kantians of Paraguay: a sort of ruse that was supposed to make all readers in France shrug their shoulders and say, ‘What do I know about Paraguayan neo-Kantianism?’ At the time a close friend of mine, an Argentine philosopher who was well traveled on the South American philosophical conference circuit, felt the need to protest that he did in fact know quite a bit about the Paraguayan neo-Kantians, and that from his point of view the whole farce about Botulisme rang completely and obviously false. Romania and Paraguay, I mean, are not just places in the French imagination. They are also places, real places with real philosophers, whose real existence makes the invocation of these places for the purpose of a hoax seem to fall particularly flat. If I may say one good thing about Badiou here, it is that he does seem to be sharply aware of the real existence of Iași, and Asunción, and of the fact that there are real people in those places engaged in real thinking.
One final point about Huneman and Barberousse’s intervention: it is not, it seems to me, nearly so nonsensical as its authors take it to be. This might be a general problem with hoaxes, or it might by contrast be a compelling argument for their proliferation: satirical imitations of the way people who take themselves seriously talk are also reflections of the way they talk. With time and distance these reflections can turn out, for the purposes of understanding what a given intellectual current is all about, to be just as useful as, or even more useful than, the productions of that current's straight-faced partisans. Lucian of Samosata is a valuable resource for the study of Greek philosophy, especially where the texts he is satirising have gone missing. Similarly, I take it that some generations from now Tripodi's contribution to the Journal of Badiou Studies will have turned out to be a real contribution to Badiou studies, notwithstanding the intentions of her creators. Huneman and Barberousse have succeeded in studying the dreary idiom of the Badiousians attentively enough to be able to convincingly channel it. I take it that we can learn something about this idiom from their contribution, and that in time the spirit in which it was generated —contrarian rather than aspirational-sycophantic— will matter less and less.
I am a strong supporter of hoaxes. I think they are healthy and necessary, and I have been involved in some myself. I am not convinced that the nature of their salutary effect is that it sets us back on the right path: the path of straightforward, serious, straight-faced inquiry. I suspect rather that they are an intrinsic and ineliminable part of of the project: the part that has to be there because love of truth is not just a grim and pursed-lipped thing, but a playful one too.
Who comes out of this incident grim-faced and dour? Badiou, certainly. The editors of the website that calls itself a journal: they come out looking simply sad, perhaps in need of a break. Philippe and Anouk just look busy now, dealing with the cascade of further writing responsibilities their initial volley has precipitated, and articulating what to my mind are some fairly compelling points about the need to stir things up as they have. Me, I'm just happy to pass all this along, and to get back to reading Gassendi and Fludd.
*Here is Badiou's reply:
"I never read Badiou Studies, of course, and my 'presence' on the editorial committee is --this should be obvious to you-- of a decorative nature. What strikes me in all this is the total ignorance of my work revealed by the maneuvers of these two would-be philosophers who have gone astray in their little machinations. It is, for any serious reader, absolutely idiotic to identify me with the 'postmodern', the rhetorical vacuity of which I have denounced many times. I am a classical thinker, conceptual, deductive, systematic, everything the 'postmoderns' despise. As for questioning my competence in mathematics: this is precisely what no mathematician has done. I even have a feverishly admiring letter from Jean Dieudonné (concerning my book about Number), a particularly severe man, who hails, precisely, the contrast between my competence in this domain and the ignorance of most 'philosophers', notably those in the analytic school who love to talk about science and logic. Of course, mathematicians can criticise the metaphysical use I have made, like Plato or Descartes or Leibniz, of their discipline, But they cannot criticise me for not knowing it. It is enough to open Being and Event or The Logic of Worlds, in order to appreciate that I give the entire proof of all the theorems that I mention. It is quite natural that these two underlings of academic philosophy are angry that in the whole world no one cares about their existence. That they transform their humiliation and ressentiment into low intrigues: Nietzsche teaches us that this is practically inevitable."