Reviewed by Iain MacKenzie
The recent surge of interest in the work of Alain Badiou can, in large part, be attributed to his unflinching critique of ‘contemporary democratic materialism’ and to the inventive philosophical formalism he has elaborated in response to it. In opposition to philosophy’s subordination to the majoritarianism of liberal democracies, that has spawned those all too prevalent political philosophies of consensus and acquiescence, Badiou stands out as one of the few philosophers willing to pursue the grandeur of the philosophical idea against the relativism that sustains the unprincipled accommodations of parliamentary politics. To be a philosopher today, one willing ‘to accept unconditionally the need to find at least one true Idea’, is to recognize that ‘the imperative of contemporary democratic materialism – “Live without Ideas” – is both cheap and inconsistent’ (xi).
In his Pocket Pantheon Badiou summons ‘fourteen dead philosophers’ of the twentieth century who, by way of their passion for thought, have given him the courage to swim ‘against the cultural tide’, to borrow Norris’ phrase (14-25). The philosophers covered are: Lacan, Canguilhem, Cavaillès, Sartre, Hyppolite, Althusser, Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Borreil, Lacoue-Labarthe, Châtalet and Proust. Arranged by date of birth, from Lacan (1901) to Proust (1947), the book is a collection of pieces written ‘as tributes to great minds, often paid to mark their passing, the anniversary of their passing or a colloquium devoted to their memory’ (xi). Clearly, then, the ‘figures of postwar philosophy’ under discussion are those of a very particular lineage; not just ‘French philosophers’ (for all the complications of this term, for example, in relation to Derrida) but a particular set of French philosophers that Badiou has been most strongly influenced by, through agreement and disagreement with their respective philosophical projects. The pieces range from short magazine articles to longer lectures and correspondingly vary in their engagement with the thought of their subjects. Nonetheless, one of the threads that bind them together is a constant return to the political commitment he finds in the thought of each of these thinkers, a commitment derived from their fidelity to the idea of philosophy.
The longer essays on Sartre, Althusser and, perhaps a little surprisingly, Derrida are exemplary in this regard. Discussing Sartre’s philosophical trajectory, Badiou carefully elaborates the gap that existed between existentialism and political commitment only to then perceptively discuss how Sartre addressed that gap with a theory of the masses in Critique of Dialectical Reason; albeit, Badiou concludes, unsuccessfully in the end. In Althusser, Badiou finds a response to Sartre’s failings in a redefinition of philosophy itself; philosophy is ‘the intellectual site where the ability to put a name to the successes and failures of revolutionary politics is decided’ (56). Oriented against the ‘suppression’ of philosophy to a social theory of the masses, Badiou finds in Althusser the paradoxical ideas that philosophy is always immanently conditioned by politics but that ‘politicism offers no escape from theoreticism’ (86). According to Badiou the paradoxical nature of this duality can only be productively sustained if held together by an unshakeable commitment to philosophical truth. This Althusserian aspect of Badiou’s philosophical system makes his tribute to Derrida, whose work did so much to remove truth from philosophical and political debates, all the more surprising. It becomes less surprising, however, when we foreground (as Norris does clearly and sensitively in his discussion of Being and Event) the shared Heideggerian roots of their respective projects. The distinction between being and existence is fundamental to Badiou’s philosophical system and he embraces Derrida’s articulation of the fundamental différance that this distinction must imply; for example, the fundamental difference between the being of the proletariat, ‘which is not in doubt’, and the political existence of the proletariat which is in doubt, now ‘more than ever’ (130-1). In homage to Derrida, Badiou refines his own concept of inexistence to that of inexistance such that the inexistance of the proletariat becomes the basis for a properly philosophical and political imperative: we are nothing, let us be all!
Although the paradoxical relation between philosophy and politics marks these pieces throughout, there is much else of interest in this collection. For those interested in postwar French philosophy there is a wide array of biographical and intellectual insight to be gleaned, on figures well known in the Anglophone world and on those whose work has not yet reached global celebrity status. For those interested in particular figures – for Lacanians, Foucauldians, Deleuzeans, for example – Badiou is always challenging and provocative, though certainly not wide of the mark, in his accounts of their respective philosophical projects and his relation to them. For those with an interest in Badiou’s own work, one finds summary versions of key components of his philosophical system that will be a great aid in trying to grasp the whole. Norris’s guide to Being and Event is another way to approach this task.
While originally published in French in 1988, and now complimented by Logics of Worlds (2009), Being and Event remains the essential work through which to engage with Badiou’s systematic approach to being, events, subjectivity and truth (its major orienting concepts). For those of us coached in Kant’s Copernican revolution and in the linguistic turn of twentieth century philosophy that continues to be its dominant form, Badiou’s explicit revitalization of ontological speculation in the form of a mathematised Platonism is both formidable and challenging. It is useful, even essential, therefore, to have a guide to escort us into and through the resolutely contemporary classicism of Badiou’s magnum opus. To this end, Norris’s addition to the Continuum Reader’s Guides series is most welcome and it rightly recognizes that Being and Event is a text that can sit comfortably within the canon of Western philosophy as one of the great works of philosophy.
Norris approaches the task of reading Being and Event in a refreshingly straightforward way. After a few scene-setting remarks outlining the context and the themes animating the book, Norris presents a ‘running commentary’ that follows the argumentative structure of the text, with only ‘a few short-lived proleptic swerves’ away from Badiou’s own argument. Designed to be read as one reads Being and Event itself, the aim is to enable the reader to come up for air every now and then whilst submerged in the waves of dense argumentation that engulf, page after page, even those well versed in the technical detail and sufficiently erudite to appreciate the breadth of references that span philosophy, poetry, mathematics, logic, politics and much else besides. As one reads Being and Event, the need for a reprieve arrives early as one faces up to Badiou’s use of Cantorian and post-Cantorian set-theory in the argumentation surrounding the books central ontological claims. Norris recognizes this need and doesn’t over burden his presentation of Badiou’s use of set-theory with the abstract logical symbolism of the original text, keeping a delicate distance from it while not undermining its pivotal role. During one of his ‘swerves’, moreover, we are presented with a useful diversion into the work of Frege and Russell that helps to explain the emergence of the paradoxes of set-theory that Badiou treats as ‘a spur to renewed intellectual-creative activity’ (53-5), in Norris’s words, rather than a limitation to its employment. Most importantly, though, Norris is careful to explain to imagined sceptical readers that Badiou’s tendency to move ‘between a register of set-theoretical “abstractions” and a language of engagement … has to do with his singular gift for locating just those erstwhile stress points within the history of set-theoretical thought which lend themselves to re-statement in political terms’ (94). While it is easy to forget this connection in the symbol heavy early meditations of Being and Event, keeping Norris’s guide by one’s side is a good aid in remembering the political force of the concepts Badiou finds in the rarified domain of set-theory.
Equally, though, Norris is at home with Badiou’s use of another abstract language that can prove difficult for the uninitiated to grasp: poetry. In one of the rare moments in which Norris rearranges the order of the text to aid understanding, he draws together Meditation 19 on Mallarmé and Meditation 25 on Holderlin (115-28). The contrast is instructive. In the wake of Heidegger’s readings, Holderlin is characterized as the poet in search of the authentic language of being (a laudable but intrinsically conservative task). Mallarmé, however, is the poet that ‘breaks with the idea of poetic intuition’ in favour of ‘a conceptual rigour and logical precision that poetry is able to exhibit’ (so as to rescue a role for poetry outside of the Heideggerian and hermeneutic search for deep, authentic meaning) (120). Norris summarises what he calls Badiou’s ‘twofold polemic: against literary critics or theorists who fail to appreciate the richness, diversity and truly creative potential of mathematics and also against those in the analytic camp who exhibit a kindred blindness with respect to the kind of conceptual rigour and logical precision that poetry is able to exhibit’ (121). As in his discussion of set-theory, Norris is able to draw out the stakes of Badiou’s use of poetry with admirable ease and precision.
There are times, however, when Norris’s text begins to creak under the weight of its subject, in two key respects. First, the (deliberate) lack of critical engagement will leave many readers still struggling to think through the real value of Badiou’s philosophical project. As Badiou has often remarked, it is finding the impossible moments in a philosophical idea that acts as the prompt to a thought proper to that idea itself. One example of just such an impossible moment occurs in Meditation 16 of Being and Event: the section that introduces the ‘evental site’ as the place ‘on the edge of the void’ of being that founds the situation and conditions the emergence of events that themselves condition truth procedures. In other words, evental sites are crucial when thinking about the ‘and’ in Being and Event. Norris recognizes this and reconstructs Badiou’s claims neatly, but the rather obvious tension that exists in this point of the text – between the void of being and the event of truth – is not really addressed. It would have been useful at this stage of the discussion for Norris to take more than a swerve away from the text so as to address a real theoretical dilemma head-on. It would help readers articulate their own opinions about this manoeuvre in Badiou’s text but it would also serve as the key moment when readers could appreciate why Logics of Worlds – subtitled Being and Event II – had to be written. This later text is, in large part, concerned with shoring-up the rather fragile hinge at this point in Badiou’s conceptual architecture.
Second, Norris’s reader begins to run out of steam as the running commentary enters the last laps of Being and Event. Norris’s reconstructions are still helpful, for sure, but the depth of engagement in the earlier sections is not repeated towards the end. The upshot of this is that Badiou’s remarks on the subject and truth do not get the centrality and the interrogation they deserve in the text overall. Perhaps this impression would not be so striking were it not for the existence of Peter Hallward’s excellent Badiou: A Subject to Truth (2003). Placed centre stage in Hallward’s overview of Badiou’s entire oeuvre, truth and subjectivity seem rather shy characters in the wings of Norris’s guide. Nonetheless, Norris does a solid job of clarifying for the reader, Badiou’s ‘rehabilitation of truth’ and his ‘rehabilitation of the subject as the locus of truth that might always surpass both its own conscious grasp and the limits of currently available knowledge’ (277). At which point, Norris rightly stresses the challenge these dual claims pose to all post-Kantian, critically oriented (political) philosophy; be it dialectical or explicitly anti-dialectical.
And herein can be found one of the reasons for reading (about) Badiou. He has carved out a space for ‘leftist’ thought that is critical of both dialectical eschatologies and non-dialectical mysticisms of life and the will. Moreover, he understands that critical thought must always look to carve out new spaces in which to think: it can never rest content with philosophical camps and traditions. Whatever we make of his own philosophical system, at a time when philosophy is under attack institutionally and intellectually his commitment to the eternally resistant nature of philosophical thought is not just refreshing it is essential. In his hands, philosophy becomes (once again) a form of ‘resistant thought’ that ‘invents the law of its own movement’ (187).
16 July 2010
- 2009 Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II trans. Alberto Toscano (London: Continuum).
- 2003 Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).