Generic or Specific?
In one of his recent books Badiou develops a comparison that may serve to illustrate the central dilemma of his philosophy. The comparison is between Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de dés and a pre-Islamic Arabian ode by Labîd ben Rabi'a, whose title translates as The desert and its code.1 In the French poem, an anonymous Master hesitates to throw the dice as he sinks slowly under the surface of the sea; reality dissolves, nothing takes place, but then suddenly, mysteriously, at the very moment of absolute dissolution, there appears the flashing glimpse of a constellation in the night sky, portent of a truth on the horizon of our awareness. The Arabic poem begins with an evocation of the empty desert. Driven on by nostalgia for ancestral authority, it culminates in a celebration of the wise and virtuous leader, the glorification of a lawful mastery adequate to the austerity of nomadic life (PM, 76–77).
Badiou's comparison dwells on the antithetical figures of mastery presented by each poet. In Mallarmé's poem, the master is sacrificed to the void of a more than human truth, and this sacrifice is the price paid for its own poetic preservation. In the poem of Labîd ben Rabi'a, the master emerges as triumphant over the void of his surroundings, and the poem's affirmation of this triumph is conditioned by its own subordination to this authority. Such is, Badiou suggests, the impossible choice forced upon us by our modernity itself: either the inhuman anonymity of a socioscientific or technical truth, indifferent to and transcendent of all personal mastery (this Badiou associates