I decided I would become a philosophy major in college because philosophy meant being smart. Now, I knew nothing about philosophy save for the modest amounts of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre I found on my mother’s bookshelves at home. I was a seventeen year old French Existentialist, just like all of my other nerdy friends and yes, I wore all black every day and smoked cigarettes outside of the town 7-11. But when I got to UCLA, when I took my first philosophy class, not only did I not understand very much of what they were talking about (okay, yeah, I was stoned a lot, but it was college and I did just fine in my poetry workshops, so what was the deal????). All I remember was an ethics class where the male graduate teaching assistant asked us hypothetical questions like if we were on a boat and the boat was going to sink and everyone on the boat was going to die unless you did x,y,z do you save one person or the entire boat given these certain conditions blah blah blah and I knew right then I didn’t care. Plus, during our final exam, these male graduate students sat at the front of the auditorium indifferently playing chess. This is what philosophers do, I thought. They sit and play chess and could care less about our personal pain and feelings. I also remember feeling really stupid, like even before I could answer the questions on my final, I just felt dumb. Philosophy was “objective” and I, as a person, sure as hell wasn’t. I was emotional and messy and now I felt intimidated and self-conscious about that and I was never, ever going to know the "right" answer about that damned sinking boat.
Fast-forward to 2003. I’m done with my MFA and living in San Francisco and I have a boyfriend who reads a lot of Alain Badiou so I’m like okayyyyyyy, I should read Alain Badiou and so I start reading him and I’m like what is going on here? It’s not that I don’t understand some of what Badiou is saying, but I just feel deep down I can’t relate to it and it makes me feel hysterical because reading Badiou brings back all of the old feelings I had as an undergrad. Not only do I feel dumb, but now I felt like a dumb, emotional, girl.
Fast-fast-forward to about six months ago. I find this piece of writing, “Poetry and Communism,” in the new issue of Lana Turner written by non other than Alain Badiou! Here’s the first line of the piece, “In the last century, some truly great poets, in almost all languages on earth, have been communists.” Alright, Alain, I’m with you. I’m a communist. I’m a poet. I think, this is great, a philosopher is writing about communist poets. Then he goes on to name these truly great communist poets, and my heart sinks-- none of the poets he lists are women! Not one! I was angry and annoyed by the piece, and, like a good communist, I posted a link to “Poetry and Communism,” on Facebook and aired my grievances. You have to understand, I wanted to like it, but how could I take this all male lineup seriously? Some people on Facebook defended the piece, “but Alain is an old philosopher who doesn’t know that much about poetry” and “you have to accept the spirit of the piece despite its drawbacks!” The usual excuses.
Well, it so happens that a poet named Katy Bohinc joined the discussion and it turns out she has written an entire book of poetry about Alain Badiou and suddenly everything that I’ve felt about philosophy, it’s male-ness, logicalness, infuriating “universality” comes together. I suppose every patriarchal dark cloud has a feminist silver lining, and the silver lining was being introduced to Bohinc’s book “Dear Alain.”
“I couldn’t think my way into you I can’t think my way out of you”—On Katy Bohinc’s Dear Alain
For a book supposedly so relentlessly devoted to Alain Badiou (there’s also the occasional letter to Slavoj Žižek, a diary entry here and there but they are few and far between), it really isn’t about him, nor the specifics of his philosophy. It’s much more a book about how to confront, reject and restructure the troubling unequal power relationship and tensions that arise between the old male philosopher and the young female poet. Bohinc writes, “The problem ultimately is that to define anything is to take a position of power. Are you comfortable with your power? I hate power. I refuse to define. I refuse it. I refuse to be powerful, I refuse to make sense, I refuse I refuse. I refuse in protest. I’m a soft, silly, wild flower basket of love.”
At times she’s angry with him, at times indifferent, at times frustrated, at times erotically attached. And, like the Low book I wrote about before, the book is lengthy—over 200 pages of letters. It’s a conceptual project, the letters are written in prose and the prose isn’t particularly lyric. Still, it’s working in the confessional mode: “I always feel a glow, the best when I confess to you and you say “no” and explain to me why I’m wrong,” she writes. But I don’t want to make it seem like the work is simply a collection of reactions to Badiou because that would put Badiou front and center, make him the star of the show, and I really don’t think that the book is even about him in the first place except to reject him, his form, for something, not opposed to him, but radically different. How do we build new forms of understanding given that this is our model, the symbolic male philosopher? How do we take those indifferent graduate students playing chess during my final as an undergrad—stoic, indifferent, unemotional—off the stage?
In that sense, the book reminds me a little bit of the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the camps that were set up. How do you build something for yourself and your comrades that’s new but not opposed since opposed still gives authority to the existing order? What does it look like to move beyond the old power relationship (kill the father), to move beyond rejection? Part of the struggle and protest of the book is an attempt to let go of that powerful relationship and part of the joy as a reader is to see that other systems can be built, other modes of understanding that are complex, interesting and plural, based in feminine practice. Bohinc’s letters are affirmative and enthusiastic about these possibilities.
One of the fascinating ways the book argues for this is that it makes a strange communist and pluralistic argument about astrology and horoscopes, which are typically gendered “female”:
"I like horoscopes. You know what’s nice about them? They’re equivalent. I mean, I’ve seen bad horoscopes, but I mean everyone has one…The busboy could have the sweetest chart you ever saw. The president a mass of jungle fucked oppositions. There are always eight planets and twelve houses at play. So instead of boring labels - “middle aged, loveless douchebag” or “beautiful young thing” or “rich” or “poor” or dominant American culture “high, low, forgettable” – SO BORING - instead I read a chart and get this complex system of complex adjectives which beyond alleviating my thirst for complexity also seems leveling. Each chart has a complex personality. You know, like a human being.”
There’s a great moment at the end of the book where, finally, Badiou pens a reaction to Bohinc’s project (as far as I understand, the letter is authentic):
“This strange book, Dear Alain, by Katy Bohinc can be represented as such: you have a great countryside named “Alain Badiou,” the park of Alain Badiou. And she looks and walks through the park, with a perspective supported by a thought, an effect, maybe even, a love?...She knows there exists under the name “Alain Badiou,” a park, and so she addresses him, this supposedly dear Alain, at times with affection, at times in anger, at times almost indifferent, and at times revealing forcefully her difference and opposition through the poetic vehemence of her writing to the serenity she sees in the park of philosophy. Day after day, Katy returns to this park and her eye changes, her relationship with “Alain Badiou” varies like the time that passes, and her thoughts inscribe themselves in small texts that in the end compose a kind of ode to the park.”
But in a very interesting and unexpected turn, what we really see is Alain Badiou himself, walking through the park of her book, bewildered, for he recognizes nothing as he has become a stranger in a world he mistakenly believes is about him, a stranger to himself in a strange book. This is no longer the “serene” park of philosophy he has built, that he is comfortable with, but rather a place where his position as the patriarchal philosopher is diffused and rendered confusing, a glimpse of what power looks like looking at power estranged from its order. It’s a world that does not bear a relationship to him, the park is a funhouse mirror of the park obscuring the world he mistakenly believes is him and his. At the end of the letter, it’s obvious that the philosopher fails to make meaning of what he has read. How disappointing it must have been to read a book that is supposed to be about you and isn’t. You think you were going to the park and you are suddenly dropped in the middle of the ocean. So, when he reads the book as a kind of ode to the park, him, it’s obvious he has completely missed the point which is a nice revelation—that it’s possible to build a world of language on the feminine, confession, affect, plurality, irrationality—poetry. In other words, it really is possible to kill your philosophy daddies or at the very least confuse the hell out of them.
I actually don’t want to make it seem like I hate Badiou because I don’t. In fact, there’s a really moving passage in “Communism and Poetry,” that I love very much where Badiou writes, “Communist poetry, with its resource of gentleness combined with that of enthusiasm, tells us: rise up with the will to think and act so that the world may be offered to all as the world that belongs to all, just as the poem in language offers to all the common world that is always contained therein, even if in secret. There have been and continue to be all kinds of discussions about the communist hypothesis: in philosophy, sociology, economics, history, political science … But I have wanted to tell you that there exists a proof of communism by way of the poem.”
So, Dear Alain, I think Bohinc has done a good job of exactly what you describe, except you are no longer at this world’s center.