Five Lessons on Wagner

A leading radical intellectual tackles the many controversial interpretations of Wagner’s work.
For over a century, Richard Wagner’s music has been the subject of intense debate among philosophers, many of whom have attacked its ideological—some say racist and reactionary—underpinnings. In this major new work, Alain Badiou, radical philosopher and keen Wagner enthusiast, offers a detailed reading of the critical responses to the composer’s work, which include Adorno’s writings on the composer and Wagner’s recuperation by Nazism as well as more recent readings by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and others. Slavoj Zizek provides an afterword, and both philosophers make a passionate case for re-examining the relevance of Wagner to the contemporary world.


  • "A present defaults – unless the crowd declares itself": Alain Badiou on Ukraine, Egypt and finitude

    I will say once again that I think that the fundamental figure of contemporary oppression is finitude. The strategic axis of this seminar is to provide the means for a critique of the contemporary world by identifying something within its propaganda, activity etc. at whose centre is the imposition of finitude, that is to say, the exclusion of the infinite from humanity’s possible set of horizons. At each session, from now up until the end of the year, I want to give you an example of the way in which something taking place today, or some commonplace or constantly used category, can be represented as a figure or operation of reduction to finitude. As such, each of these things can be encapsulated in terms of the general oppressive vision of finitude.

    Today I would like to take the example of Ukraine, the way in which the historic events in Ukraine serve the propagandist consensus that both constitutes and envelops it (at our next sessions I will address two connected notions, which are similarly hegemonic and bask in consensus: the notions of the republic and of secularism – and what I call false invariants: what is assumed to be an invariant, a commonplace of thought, and even a proof of what it is that unites us).

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  • Fredric Jameson on Wagner, affects, and the Übermensch

    Most theorists have treaded down the road of Wagnerian analysis, most famously Theodor Adorno in In Search of Wagner, most recently Alain Badiou in Five Lessons on Wagner, and of course Slavoj Žižek. Fredric Jameson is no exception. In a talk available on Youtube and held in December 2012, Allegory and Dramaturgy in Wagner, Jameson offered a profuse analysis of Wagner’s operas, discussing the emergence of affects in World culture as well as questions of temporality, revolution, and unrepresentability through Wagner’s work.

    Jameson starts by attempting to sketch the emergence of affects on the World culture scene. Affects, Jameson reminds us, are bodily states and therefore nameless, as opposed to emotions, which are “reified states of consciousness”. As “the body [was] scarcely registered in literature” prior to the middle of 19th century, affects were not yet available to authors as a means of expression.

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  • Hope in the Ring—Alain Badiou's Five Lessons on Wagner in the New Yorker

    New Yorker music critic Alex Ross writes about Alain Badiou's Five Lessons on Wagner (mistakenly presented as co-authored with Slavoj Žižek, who wrote the lengthy afterword). In his substantial essay on Wagner's Ring in the New Yorker Ross agrees with both Badiou and Žižek that in Wagner's music can be found the possibilities of a different world and a new politics.  

    Wagner's music is marked by a constant tension between a will to power and a willingness to surrender. The contradiction is not one that we should seek to resolve; rather it is integral to the survival of the composer's work. Because we can no longer idealize Wagner, he is more involving than ever. This idea animates Five Lessons on Wagner, a recent book of essays by the philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. The latest in a long line of thinkers who have tussled with Wagner, Badiou and Žižek try to revise the prevalent picture of the composer as a proto-Fascist - the phrase was "virtually invented to describe Wagner", Badiou says - by heightening his paradoxes. In Wotan's monologue, Badiou sees a pivotal moment in which "power and impotence are in equipoise"; that paralysis creates the possibility of a different world. He goes on to paint the "Ring" as a mythological tale that annuls, one by one, the consolations of mythology. Žižek sees in Brunnhilde's sacrifice the hope for a new kind of politics - a space of selfless action beyond the failed ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wisely, Žižek does not spell out what these politics might be. The music offers hope, nothing more. 

    Visit the New Yorker  to read the article in full (subscribers only). 

    Also check out Alex Ross' excellent blog, The Rest is Noise

Other books by Alain Badiou Translated by Susan Spitzer Afterword by Slavoj Žižek

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