As Crazy as French Intellectuals

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

One of my favorite lines from Walker Percy is when one of his protagonists says a rival has “gone as crazy as a French intellectual.” From Lyotard to Deleuze, French intellectuals tend to say loftily inscrutable things about non-problems, a very un-American way to carry on. I fumed for days, for example, when I read Jean Baudrillard’s execrable The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. One sighs and tries to understand what other people think.

Still, even French intellectuls have their moments. In 2009, as Alain Badiou was doing one day in London what he tends to do anytime he is invited to an international conference–preaching that we should give communism a good, honest re-try–he proposed a fullblooded resurrection of the communist-revolutionary idea of the cult of personality.

And why not give Stalin’s main contribution to history another go?

Here are Badiou’s reasons, as glossed by Slavoj Zizek: “The real[ity] of a Truth-event is inscribed into the space of symbolic fiction through a proper name of a leader–Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che Guevara. Far from signalling the corruption of a revolutionary process, the celebration of the leader’s name is immanent to that process.”

Two years ago I would have just cocked an eyebrow or chuckled to myself, a standard Anglo-American reaction to this kind of quip.

Then came Trump. His rise has accomplished many phenomenal things, as I think he himself would gladly put it. Among others, it gives one cause to repeat that last sentence from Badiou-Zizek and give it a moment of honest attention:

Far from signalling the corruption of a revolutionary process, the celebration of the leader’s name is immanent to that process.

I don’t want to speak down to anyone following along with me, but when Badiou says “immanent to” he means “part and parcel of.” (It’s a piece of jargon that philosophers following the 19th-century idealist Hegel have adapted from Kant.) Saying Trump’s name to invoke awe, fondness or respect, as he seems very fond of doing, is part and parcel of building his cult of personality.

desolation____by_day_lightWhile this sounds like the kind of French intellectualism Percy dismisses as nonsense, it is actually something Trump and many of his supporters are deeply invested in. Trump’s insistence that “only he” can solve intractable political problems, his invocation of the Trump “enterprise” or “business empire” at every opportunity, his subsitution of a (self-knowing) smirk for an apt phrase, and his increasing references to himself in the third person, all go to build a brand that answers precisely to Badiou’s description of a cult of personality. When you name it, you help make it happen. “Trump” has become, in Badiou’s terms, a “Truth-event.”

So who has gone as crazy as a French intellectual? Not whom you’d expect. It’s not me, a college educated 50-year old bureaucrat who actually reads French philosophy because I think it is part of a literary project–including novels, science and history–that helps us understand who we are. It’s the so-called outraged white poor; they’re the ones willing to roll the dice on Trump’s tawdry revival of authoritarianism. In a crazy turn of events, they’re with Badiou.

Badiou, although deluded, has given us this gift: he has diagnosed why the very word “Trump” has become toxic, a vector of disease, why it has become objectionable in certain camps merely to say it or write it. Saying it is part and parcel of Trump’s cult of personality. The joke was funny when it was played in its natural environment of reality TV. But it is far from funny today. Wether we choose to be or not, we all as crazy as French intellectuals now.

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