[Marxism] Fresh trends
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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
By RICHARD BYRNE
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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