Dispatches’s “homage” last month to J. H. Prynne for his pilgrimage to “the Maoist birthplace [Hunan province] as an act of pious recognition,” as he put it in his Paris Review interview, made me think of Alain Badiou. Badiou may be the most prominent of Mao’s defenders in the West (here’s Harriet excerpting Badiou’s The Age of the Poets, arguing “for ‘an essential link’ between the twentieth century’s great poets and its liberatory communist movements”), and for all I know is related to Prynne’s sense that he “would have been more comfortable in the bad period of Chinese Maoism than … in the good period of post-Maoist China” (to which I’d reply, that probably depends on which years in the Mao era, and which years in the post-Mao era; 1956 was very different from 1972, and 1984 was very different from 2016).
At any rate, Prynne says Maoism is “still an active part of [his] thinking practice, which is curious because it’s no longer part of the intellectual world of the Chinese.” This isn’t quite true: there are many intellectuals in China, broadly grouped together under the label of China’s “New Left,” for whom Mao and Maoism are still very important inspirations. (My own stance is that it’s possible to propose new kinds of socialism in response to the problems wrought by capitalism in China and elsewhere without either upholding Mao as a symbol of greatness or demonizing him or the people who followed him, but that’s irrelevant here.) But again, Prynne’s ignorance of the current intellectual scene in China reminds me of Badiou: recently Verso posted an excerpt from Badiou’s Dialogue Between a Chinese Philosopher and a French Philosopher, in which Badiou argues for Mao as a philosopher who “thinks in an almost infinite way.” The Verso page says the philosopher’s “name appears to have been lost in the ashes of time,” but Badiou’s title is an obvious allusion to Nicolas Malebranche’s Dialogue Between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher on the Existence and Nature of God, published in 1708, in which Malebranche argues for the existence of a Christian deity against Spinozan atheism in yellow-face as “Chinese philosophy.” Malebranche had no Chinese philosopher interlocutor, and he knew nothing of Chinese philosophy to represent it as Spinozan. By alluding to Malebranche’s title, Badiou is admitting that his Chinese philosopher interlocutor is equally yellow-face and make-believe.
So what? Wasn’t Mao a monster, equivalent to Stalin, and any philosopher’s attempt to engage with either his thought or his politics should be ignored or shunned as dangerous? Does making up a Chinese interlocutor even scratch the surface of Badiou’s outrageousness? Well, sure, for people predisposed to dislike Badiou, or who don’t need to get into the intricacies of philosophy or history to learn more about China under Mao, that’s good enough. But there are ways to dismiss writers from the outside, and there are ways to criticize them more or less from the inside (or by engaging with their work or the intellectual traditions they present themselves as part of). For fans of Badiou, it won’t do anything to say Mao was a mass murderer—they’ll quibble about numbers and perhaps quote Badiou to note “Mao’s major grievance [that] Stalin’s vision isn’t dialectical.” My tack here, on the other hand, is to see if I can worm my way into Badiou’s thinking and say that in fact there’s nothing Marxist about it at all: it replays all the old tropes of orientalism and Western hallucinations of China and is simply idealism dressed up as materialism. That is, I don’t know any version of Marxism that wants to deny material reality and posit make-believe crap about China—especially when actual Chinese philosophers, with much more nuance than Badiou’s reductive foil, actually exist and could be around for the talking to (as they were not in Malebranche’s day). This is my way to undermine Badiou’s charisma, for people compelled to find him interesting: not dismissing him, but locating the contradictions of his logic to see what they reveal.
Of course, this may only apply to Prynne tangentially. I’ve recently published an academic article in which I note Prynne’s importance to the tradition of translating and representing Chinese literature in English poetry—stretching from Coleridge to Pound to Rexroth to Snyder to Perelman—and how their various tactics might be re-deployed in translating classical Chinese poetry anew, so I don’t mean to disparage Prynne’s poetry. But I do think that more engagement with the material realities of Mao and China would be helpful in either critiquing or defending philosophies that purport to be based on Maoist contradictions.