[Marxism] Fresh trends

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 10 07:26:00 MST 2006


Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, March 10, 2006
Alain Badiou Creates a Buzz With Views of Philosophy's Relevance to Other 
Disciplines
By RICHARD BYRNE

New York

Is Alain Badiou the next great French import into American academe? A 
hundred or so people squeezed into a small open space on the second floor 
of Labyrinth Books, near Columbia University, on Monday night to find out 
at a public discussion between Mr. Badiou, a professor of philosophy at the 
École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, with intellectual roots in Marxism and 
in the upheavals of 1968 in France, and Simon Critchley, a professor of 
philosophy at the New School for Social Research and the University of Essex.

The forum was a lively introduction to Mr. Badiou's key ideas -- straight 
from the philosopher's mouth. And introductions are most likely in order. 
The buzz surrounding Mr. Badiou in America has been created by a flurry of 
publishing activity, including eight new books in translation in the past 
two years.

Significant emerging trends in American academe have helped to raise Mr. 
Badiou's profile. His philosophy explicitly aims to unify disparate 
branches of learning, a tactic that resonates strongly with an increasing 
interest in working across disciplines in the United States. His books also 
seek to harness the contemplative strengths of philosophy to love, art, and 
radical politics.

In his introduction, Mr. Critchley noted that there was a "tremendous 
thirst" for Mr. Badiou's far-ranging work in a time when there is 
"frustration and fatigue with theoretical paradigms." He argued that Mr. 
Badiou's work is "refreshing, direct, and concise."

The increasing popularity of Mr. Badiou's work also can be explained by his 
public stance, which is strikingly hopeful. Philosophy is not in twilight, 
he said. Literary studies, psychology, science, and mathematics animate it 
and inform it.

Math Matters

Monday's discussion celebrated the publication of a long-awaited English 
translation of Mr. Badiou's 1988 book, Being and Event (Continuum). This 
work is the cornerstone of Mr. Badiou's philosophic project, yet its 
translation has lagged behind that of other books -- such as 2002's Ethics: 
An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso), 2004's Handbook of 
Inaesthetics (Stanford University Press), or the newly published 
Metapolitics (Verso). Those books build their provocative arguments about 
morality, art, and politics upon Being and Event's blend of mathematics, 
philosophy and literature.

Mr. Badiou's sharply worded attacks on conventional wisdom in his later 
books -- including the philosopher's close questioning of such concepts as 
evil and democracy -- have gained considerable attention elsewhere in the 
world.

In Metapolitics, for instance, there's a piece called "A Speculative 
Disquisition on the Concept of Democracy." In that work, Mr. Badiou argues 
that, "in fact, the word 'democracy' concerns what I shall call 
authoritarian opinion. It is forbidden, as it were, not to be a democrat. 
... If 'democracy' names a supposedly normal state of collective 
organization or political will, then the philosopher demands that we 
examine the norm of this normality. He will not allow the word to function 
within the framework of authoritarian opinion."

Yet it is hard to understand Mr. Badiou's later work without recourse to 
Being and Event. Mr. Critchley led the discussion as a primer of sorts on 
that book, with Mr. Badiou himself explicating many of its key concepts. 
Though his ideas are not simple, Mr. Badiou insisted that "I want always to 
be clear. ... You can be simple and confused. It is a philosophic duty to 
be clear."

Mr. Badiou's aims in Being and Event divide neatly according to the title 
of his book. First, he dissects "being" with the aid of set theory, the 
mathematical study of abstract groups of objects (sets) and their relations 
to one another. Then, he explains how change occurs in the world, a process 
that he calls an "event."

As Mr. Badiou himself told the audience, he finds the second question more 
interesting. "The great question for me is not really what 'being' is," he 
said. "My fundamental question is a very simple one -- and small. What, 
exactly, is something new? What is creation?"

To reach that analysis of creation, however, requires the reader to 
navigate contemporary mathematics. Much of the alleged inaccessibility of 
Mr. Badiou's work is rooted in his reliance on set theory to discuss 
ontology, the branch of philosophy that deals with existence.

Indeed, Being and Event makes the striking claim that "mathematics is 
ontology." And chunks of the book are studded with equations and theorems 
that may frighten off the scholar who fled to the humanities to escape 
mathematics.

"It's a phobia," grinned Mr. Badiou when Mr. Critchley brought up the topic 
of some scholars' resistance to the mathematical concepts that he employs. 
"My goal is to change a phobia into love," he said. And though the clusters 
of equations in Being and Event look complicated, Mr. Badiou's reliance on 
them is explained with little difficulty.

As Mr. Badiou sees it, a central part of the story of philosophy in the 
last century is the displacement of the notion of "being" as a unitary 
entity with the idea that it is made up of multiplicities. (At his talk, 
Mr. Badiou cited Friedrich Nietzsche's statement that "God is dead" as a 
signpost to what he calls the "ontological death" of the concept of 
existence as unitary.) Thus, he reasons, if existence is really "pure 
multiplicity," and those "elements of multiplicity are multiple 
themselves," then set theory is an ideal way to approach ontological questions.

Love, Poetry, and Truth

Being and Event uses set theory to interrogate philosophers from Plato to 
Pascal to Heidegger. At his talk, Mr. Badiou observed that it is not merely 
those in the humanities who are uncomfortable with that tactic.

"Mathematicians don't know that mathematics is ontology," he quipped with 
evident delight.

As the discussion with Mr. Critchley moved from "being" to "event," the 
philosopher struck a biographical note. He observed that his thoughts on 
these questions were stimulated by his experiences during and after the 
political and cultural upheavals in Paris in 1968. Mr. Badiou was swept up 
in the fierce leftist political debates of that time, and remains largely 
committed to the ideals embodied in the tumult of that year.

"I have had a living experiment of something new," said Mr. Badiou, "and 
when something happens that is novelty, you have the birth of a new subject."

Grappling with how Mr. Badiou defines "event" is more complicated, perhaps, 
than all of the set theory. In essence, an "event" is a clear break with 
the status quo. That break creates what Mr. Badiou defines as a "truth." 
The break that creates the truth also creates a "subject," which takes its 
definition from what the philosopher calls the subject's "fidelity" to that 
singular truth.

It is slippery stuff indeed, but Mr. Badiou offered his audience the 
metaphor of falling in love as a way to grasp it. Two people meet and fall 
in love, which is a break from their previous status quo. It creates a 
"truth" (they are in love), and that condition of being in love (the 
"subject") is defined by their fidelity to that love.

"Love is an event in the form of an encounter," said Mr. Badiou, and it has 
the effect of forming "a new relation to the world."

Mr. Badiou sees those creations of truth as manifesting themselves in four 
main arenas: art, love, science, and politics. Much of his work since 
writing Being and Event has been devoted to exploring how the implications 
of his philosophy ripple through those areas.

As a novelist and playwright as well as a philosopher, Mr. Badiou has a 
keen sense of the interplay between poetics and philosophy. The latter part 
of the discussion was studded with aphorisms that connected those two 
disciplines, particularly in his own thought.

"There is always, in every truth procedure, a poetic moment," he said. "The 
finding of a new name. ... We cannot even know a truth event without a 
sense of poetry."

Politics and Fable

Much of the discussion between Mr. Critchley and Mr. Badiou eschewed the 
political in favor of an explication of his philosophical work in Being and 
Event. But when the conversation was opened up to questions from the 
audience, sparks flew about the implications of his work for politics and 
religion.

In response to one question that asked Mr. Badiou to link his philosophy to 
contemporary politics, he noted that "names in politics are impoverished. 
... The weakness of politics today is a weakness of poetry."

The fall of communism, he continued, also influenced that impoverishment. 
"Marxism," he said, "had a constellation of names" for political concepts. 
"It was a sky of names. We lost the sky."

Mr. Badiou also took considerable interest in a question about why religion 
was excluded from the areas that he identifies as sites for the work of 
philosophy. He said that the question of why he had limited such areas to 
four came up often, and "my answer is that I don't find another."

He said he had concluded that religion was "a fable about an event, and not 
an event."

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