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Am reading a theory book with a staggeringly diverse frame of reference. One reason I think I have always felt attracted to that style of writing is that you get to enjoy thinking about authors/topics you otherwise wouldn’t realistically have the time to read. There is also the perverse satisfaction of having the feeling that everything is being taken in, that a topic has been completely milked with nothing left to say about it (desperately suppressing the knowledge that there will always remain one more book to be written).  Sort of a temporary antidote to the secret desire to read everything. The tracing of a transversal line through the whole encyclopedia of knowledge.

One author who is a master at this is the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Not surprising that he won the Sigmund Freud Prize for the style of his academic prose (2005), and two other prizes for his essayistic writing. His Sphären (a ‘morphological’ history of humanity) is a monumental philosophical work (spanning around 2500 pages) that includes references to just about any (sub-)discipline, religion, individual-of-interest you can think of. Including pictures on just about every third page. But apart from winning prizes, Sloterdijk’s style has also been criticized for being too convoluted and not suitable as academic register. Sjoerd van Tuinen uses most of the introduction  to his short but very lucidly written monograph on Sloterdijk to introduce just this aspect of the philosopher’s work.

We are dealing with a synthetic-associative thinker who – in his at times megalomanic work – attempts to offer the reader insight into the most unlikely connections. His texts demand very undogmatic readers who are prepared to embrace a dynamic interpretation of the distinction between form and content,  and allow themselves to be carried away by the current of an incomparable discourse that vacillates between theology and literature, psychoanalysis and politics, mythology and science, ingenious abstraction and banal jokes. (Sloterdijk: binnenste buiten denken, p. 13; my translation)

The above description could apply (if not quite as neatly) to the writing of Deleuze (an important inspiration for Sloterdijk), especially his books written in collaboration with Guattari (and then mainly Milles plateaux).

At the other end of that extreme there are the writers of spare, succinct prose, who use hardly any footnotes and get straight to the core of their argument. From recent reading, I’m thinking of Quentin Meillassoux in particular. Where Deleuze & Guattari might add notes as a means of legitimated digression and have endless bibliographies, Meillassoux’s recent Apres l’finitude (140 pages) has a mere two-page bibliography and only employs footnotes where strictly necessary.

Badiou doesn’t use footnotes at all because he reckons if they really want to know, people will look things up for themselves (think I remember that from somewhere in the introduction to (the translation of) Deleuze: clameur de l’etre. Now there’s an affirmative/Bruce-Lee-reading-attitude I can sympathize with. Especially since Google). His style – similarly to much Continental philosophy – is very important to the content, but unlike the flair, exuberance, or convolution of his (recent) contemporaries, Badiou writes in a sober and analytic tone. Badiou does not use irony, association, or wit, to stimulate a reader’s thinking; his syntax, for example, serves the very different purpose of being as unambiguous as possible, and to indicate the hierarchical importance of the parts of a sentence (cf. introduction Being and event).

2 thoughts on “Frameworks, footnotes, style

  1. Logiques des Mondes does contain a very important section of footnotes, where Badiou regularly allows himself to become very personal. There are some moving pages there. These notes are not referred to in the main text though.

  2. Hoi Samuel,
    ah yes, looking forward to reading that when it comes out in translation (didn’t relish prospect of painstakingly working through the original).

    I guess there is a similar section of notes in Being and event. Just that he doesn’t call them notes himself, more sort of appended thoughts. I like that shift of emphasis. But there is no index of any kind, which can be slightly annoying, especially with a book that size.

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