Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Colour by Alain Badiou (Polity Books, £9.99)
“HUMANITY, as such, is colourless.” Alain Badiou ends this slim and quixotic volume of thoughts on the subject of blackness with a forceful plea for equality and a negation of the view that this “non-colour” is somehow, falsely, the opposite of white, light and purity.
The opening chapters are random reminiscences of Badiou’s thrilling childhood games, the searing memory of blackboards at school, the vivid contrast of black ink on white paper and his time as an officious “lights out” national serviceman.
His adolescent self is poignantly represented in a squirmingly honest account of his response to the censored erotic body parts of the monochromatic porno magazines he consumed as a teenager, with black triangles deployed to hide and signpost the object of desire that is no longer visible.
Badiou then moves into more familiar, dialectical, mode. Combining physics, astronomy, the life sciences, anthropology, literature and politics, he analyses western societies’ use and misuse of the word black, especially its employment as an opposing and negative term to something deemed to be present and good.
He effectively demolishes such false dialectics. Looking at the positioning of black as an absence of white, he espouses the view that such misrepresentation “despite its dialectical authority, conceals the fact that both terms equally negate what makes up the multifaceted flavour of the visible universe.”
Likewise, he debunks the positioning of black as an expression of wholly negative political and social forces.
Black is the colour of the priest and the fascist —the one dead in Christ, the other dead in life — but Badiou shows that it is also the badge of anarchism and, in red-black combinations, the banner of socialism and communism.
For a philosopher who has all too frequently sought to detach himself from the achievements of recent real attempts at creating socialist entities and the nostrums of the “old left,” Badiou hits out at the dangerous delusions of intersectionality and the revisionist and divisive tools of the latest manifestations of a leftism detached from the working classes.
“We need to establish once and for all that a politics of emancipation has nothing to do with colours — in terms of norms and hierarchies, of course, but also in terms of objectivity,” he asserts.
But a Badiou work wouldn’t be authentic without flashes of silliness and questionable ivorytower assertions, not least his belief that the social-democratic gains of the 1960s and 1970s were “red years” and “irreversible.”
Badiou makes effective use of French literature, from 13thcentury poems through Victor Hugo and on to Jean Genet, to illustrate his contentions and, in its way, Black is as stirring and accessible as In Praise of Love — in contrast to the heavyweight elements of other parts of his corpus such as Being and Event.