May 28, 2006

Alain Badiou: Philosophy is not in twilight

Significant emerging trends in American academe have helped to raise Mr. Badiou's profile. His philosophy explicitly seeks 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 of "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.
This month's discussion celebrated the publication of a long-awaited English translation of Mr. Badiou's 1988 book, Being and Event (Continuum). That 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), and 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 his close questioning of such concepts as evil and democracy — have gained considerable attention elsewhere in the world. In Metapolitics, for instance, there is a piece called "A Speculative Disquisition on the Concept of Democracy." In it, 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."
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, he 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. 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 the philosopher himself told the audience, he finds the second issue 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." The book is studded with equations and theorems that may frighten off the scholar who fled to the humanities to escape mathematics.
"It's a phobia," said Mr. Badiou with a grin when Mr. Critchley brought up the topic of some scholars' resistance to the mathematical concepts that Mr. Badiou employs. "My goal is to change a phobia into love," he said. And while the clusters of equations in Being and Event look complicated, his reliance on them is explained with little difficulty. As Mr. Badiou sees it, a central part of the story of philosophy in the past 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, he cited 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 French philosopher struck a biographical note. He observed that his thoughts on those questions were stimulated by his experiences during and after the political and cultural upheavals in Paris in 1968. Mr. Badiou, who was swept up in the fierce leftist political debates of the time, remains largely committed to the ideals embodied in the tumult of that year. "I have had a living experiment of something new," he said, "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," and it has the effect of forming "a new relation to the world," said Mr. Badiou.He 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 forum involved aphorisms that connect 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 the philosophical work in Being and Event. But when the conversation was opened up the audience, sparks flew about the implications of Mr. Badiou's work for politics and religion. In response to one question, asking him to link his philosophy to contemporary politics, Mr. Badiou noted that "names in politics are impoverished. ... The weakness of politics today is a weakness of poetry."
The fall of communism, he continued, 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." http://chronicle.comSection: Research & PublishingVolume 52, Issue 29, Page A20

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