‘The Adventure of French Philosophy’ reviewed by Michael Maidan

The Adventure of French Philosophy

Edited and translated with and introduction by Bruno Bosteels Verso, London - New York, 2012. lvii+364pp., £20.00
ISBN 9781844677931

Reviewed by Michael Maidan

About the reviewer

Michael Maidan studied philosophy in Buenos Aires, Haifa and Paris-Ouest (Nanterre). He published …


In the article “The adventure of French Philosophy”, which both gives its title and serves as Preface to this collection, Alain Badiou develops two ideas that are central to his understanding of French philosophy: 1) That the history of philosophy is punctuated by extraordinary moments: The Greek moment, German Idealism, and a period that extends roughly from the end of WWII to the mid 90’s, the French moment. This moment begins with the publication of Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and concludes with the publication of Deleuze’s last works, or maybe with Badiou himself (iii). 2) That the field of French philosophy is dialectically divided into two orientations, a philosophy of life on one hand, and a philosophy of the concept in the other (iii). This thesis is borrowed from Georges Canguilhem’s eulogy for the mathematician and martyr of the French resistance, Jean Cavaillès. Canguilhem used this idea to attack Sartre and existentialism in general, at that time still at the height of his reputation. Badiou replaces Sartre with Bergson, and reframes the opposition as one between vitalism in different forms, versus a formalist concept of science. The French philosophical moment becomes a struggle in which what is at stake is the question of the subject, a question that can be traced back to Descartes, the father of the self-reflecting subject and of the animal machine.

The articles collected in this volume by Bruno Bosteels are examples both of the unity and of the dialectical division of the French philosophical moment, as interpreted by Badiou over a forty year period of intellectual and political activity. As Bosteels explains in the ‘Introduction’, the articles in this volume were not written as a systematic overview of recent French philosophy. Rather, they are position papers. They take stock of Badiou’s agreements, and more often, disagreements with fellow philosophers. It appears that a motivation for this book was to gather a number of unpublished or hard to find essays of Badiou and that this one will be followed by additional volumes containing other minor or unpublished writings by Badiou (xi, note 6).

The ‘Introduction’ brings the reader up to speed with Badiou’s approach to twentieth century French Philosophy. Besides the opposition between a philosophy of life and a philosophy of the concept, to which we already referred, Bosteels summarizes Badiou’s position on four additional headings: continuity versus discontinuity, the rejection of Kant and of the analytics of finitude, Badiou’s complex relationship to Hegel and his reformulation of dialectics (Ch. 2), and the militant background for many of the essays presented here. Bosteels reviews those four headings in reference to the papers included in this collection as well as to their more systematic development in Badiou’s later work.

The third and last section of the ‘Introduction’ offers a number of critical comments. First, Bosteels suggests that for Badiou, the choice between the oppositions that characterize French philosophy is not a matter of pure choice or taste. Using the concept of ‘diagonal’, Badiou points to a philosophical move to deal with such oppositions. But Bosteels also finds that Badiou lacks a thorough treatment of the problem of language, as shown, among other things, by the lack of a systematic engagement with Derrida (xlvii-xlviii). Finally, he points to the relationship between Badiou’s work and Merleau Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic. Unfortunately, Bosteels does not elaborate on the possible significance of this link.

The book itself is divided into three sections, with the chapters being presented in chronological order. This breaks the continuity between the papers, and seems to establish a hierarchy between them, that is not based either in length, place of publication or intended audience. Regarding the content, besides the big names of postwar French philosophy (Althusser, Canguilhem, Deleuze, Foucault, Nancy, Rancière, Ricoeur, Sartre) we find polemical articles against less known thinkers, including some that shared Badiou’s political engagement with Maoism.

The 1977 essay ‘The Current Situation on the Philosophical Front’ (Ch. 1) offers a window to Badiou’s thinking at that time. Already the first sentence declares without any ambiguity that the issue is ‘Philosophy as partisanship. Philosophy as concentration of antagonism … thoroughly summoned by history … the servant not of the sciences but of weaponry’ (2). Such antagonism circles around the question of the significance of May `68 (3). This is, according to Badiou, the real significance of the variety of discourses, epitomized by the names of Althusser, Deleuze, Lacan, and by unnamed others, which he proposes to confront. On a practical level, the intent of this pamphlet is to oppose that ‘Programme Commun’, an electoral union of the Communist Party, the Socialist and independent left which eventually succeeded in winning the election under the leadership of François Mitterand. These two aspects are not disconnected, as the success of the electoral left was, up to a certain point, a result of the libertarian mood that May `68 both expressed and helped to create. Badiou sees things differently. For him the success of the United Left in the elections is rather a defeat.

The more general question asked in this essay is the relationship between philosophy and revolution. Badiou proceeds to present a map of philosophical reactions to the (May `68) revolution. His account starts with the thesis that at the height of the revolution (1968-1971) philosophy was silent because philosophy was one with the movement (3). In more sociological terms, this was a period in which the petit-bourgeois revolutionary intelligence immersed itself in the movement. But by 1972, the illusion of a non-problematic fusion of the masses and the intellectuals wained. This is the background to the different positions elaborated philosophically by the petit-bourgeois intellectuals. One that attracts Badiou’s particular attention is the one developed by the ‘nouveau philosophes’. For Badiou, this group’s position consists in separating masses and revolts (which are good) from Marxism, power and the state (bad in any circumstance), thereby substituting an imaginary conflict between state and mass for the ‘real’ conflict between classes. A diagram on page 15 is supposed to map the different positions. In this diagram, Deleuze and Althusser stand at the opposites vertices of a triangle, opposed to the Maoist/dialectical materialist and real revolutionary dimension, whereas Lacan is shown in a triangle of its own, inscribed in the first one. Badiou considers that Lacan’s atemporal skepticism legitimates the Union of the Left (13). Still he keeps Lacan separated from other tendencies. Regarding Deleuze and Althusser, he does not consider them beyond despair, as their position fluctuates (16).

More than the ‘nouveaux philosophes’, Baidou’s main adversary during the 70s seems to have been Deleuze. Badiou and Deleuze were both colleagues at the University of Paris-Vincennes, the most radicalized philosophy school at that time. This book contains four essays on Deleuze, which range from fierce attacks to a more subdued epitaph.

The first (Ch. 10) is a book review of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. Badiou concentrates his analysis in the last section of Anti-Oedipus, where the authors take critical distance from the traditional Marxist account of revolution. Is a revolution something to be explained in the order of causes, or is it ‘the agent of a sudden and unexpected irruption’? (quoted by Badiou, 171). Badiou seems to agree with Deleuze and Guattari regarding the unpredictability of the revolution, but rejects both their explanations, and furthermore, their practical lessons. No revolution without a party, claims Badiou (177). The party is needed, even if the masses will use the tools forged by the party in totally unexpected ways. Deleuze and Guattari ‘propose an anti-dialectical moralism’ (178). Theirs is a reversed categorical imperative: always act so that the maxim of your actions be rigorously particular (179). Badiou opposes his own dialectics, anchored in history, to their moralism of desire. On that basis, he defends the party, which is ‘one in two’, utopian dimension, the political project of the proletariat, but also hierarchy, discipline, renunciation (181). Against this idea of the party—which in itself is not a reality but a task to be accomplished by Badiou and his comrades—what is the proposal of these ‘hateful adversaries of all organized revolutionary politics’ (189)? Badiou quotes and comments derogatorily from the final paragraph of the Anti-Oedipus:

‘the task of schizoanalysis is … that of discovering … the entire interplay of the desiring-machines and the repression of desire. Completing the process and not arresting it, not making it turning about in the void, not assigning it a goal … for the new earth …i s not to be found in the … reterritorializations that arrest the process or assign it goals’ (Anti-Oedipus, 382, quoted in part by Badiou,189; the page number given in Badiou’s book is incorrect).

The ‘Fascism of the Potato’ (Ch. 11) is a review of Deleuze and Guattari, Rhizome, and was originally published in the same volume as the essay we reviewed previously. Its language is even harsher, but the central motif is the same, i.e., the question of the nature of the May `68 event, and the role of the intellectuals during and in the aftermath of the revolt. For Badiou, May `68 was an extended revolt, characterized above all by the rejection of the trade unions and the French Communist Party. In lieu of these traditional and by then discredited leaders of the working class, the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia stepped in. But instead of understanding their contingent role, those intellectuals wanted to protect what had catapulted them onto the front stage. They could do so only by forging concepts which tended to privilege the heterogeneity of the revolt and thereby to marginalize its authentic proletarian nature. Rhizome seems to Badiou to be based in such a misinterpretation of dialectics. Rhizomatic thinking is unable to grasp antagonism, which is always binary. Rhizomatic thinking only exalts the pure multiple. Ultimately, this is a conservative thinking, which calls for a mass revolt which lacks the antagonistic factor of unity (the unity that comes from its opposition to the bourgeoisie).

In ‘Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque’, published in 1989 (Ch. 14), Badiou’s tone while critical, is more subdued. This review is also the only one in which Badiou seeks to consider the question of how to read Deleuze’s position. Ultimately his verdict is similar to the one in the previous chapters. But, now the confrontation is not presented in terms of presumptive politics but as the showdown of two different ontologies, an Aristotelian one (Deleuze) and a Platonic one (Badiou) (247).

‘For a Tomb of Gilles Deleuze’ (Ch. 20) was published in 1995 on the occasion of Deleuze’s death. This short piece is more respectful of the originality of Deleuze’s contribution to philosophy. Guarding some distance, he also acknowledges the commonalities, as in this paragraph: ‘Against the return of humanitarianism … one never ceases to rejoice in the force with which he affirms that the inhuman is the measure of all “human” creation’ (340).

The Adventure of French Philosophy contains valuable material for the study of the development of Badiou’s thought, in particular the paper entitled ‘The (Re) commencement of Dialectical Materialism’ (Ch. 9), a 1967 review of Althusser’s main texts from the early 60s that shows in a convincing way that Althusser’s intent cannot be accomplished unless it is reformulated as a formal theory. But Badiou’s understanding of the nature of French Philosophy in the post war period is biased. And it is amazing to what extent Marx is absent from his work. Certainly Marx is invoked several times, but most instances are found in the chapter on Althusser. And even then, Marx does not seem to be ever seriously analyzed.

In recent years, Badiou experienced a revival. Not only has he published some important works, but he has also succeeded in securing a following, mainly in the Anglo-Saxon world. As a founder of the ‘International Center for the Study of Contemporary French Philosophy’ he is one of the leading figures of the ‘historical turn’ in present French Philosophy, the keeper of the flame of quite an extraordinary adventure. 

3 May 2013

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