Saturday, 16 November 2013

Book Review - Badiou/Žižek, 'Philosophy in the Present'

Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek
Philosophy in the Present
Ed. Peter Engelman; Trans. Peter Thomas and Alberto      Toscano
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009, pp. xii, 104. Pb.
£9.99. ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4097-6

What is the role of philosophy in a contemporary society which, on the one hand, largely ignores philosophy, whilst on the other demands engagement with contemporary events? This question must be asked in the light of two major challenges to philosophy in general arising during the twentieth century: firstly, that we are forced to acknowledge the role of intellectuals in facilitating many of the great horrors of recent history, and secondly, that their recent replacement in the public square with celebrities might still be a bad thing. In 2004, Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou met in Vienna to discuss this very issue. Philosophy in the Present is a transcript of this conversation, originally published in German in 2005. The argument presented in the book, to which both philosophers subscribe, is that the role of the philosopher is to notice events (a concept developed by Badiou and adopted by Žižek), and affirm new, revolutionary discourses founded upon their truths. While Badiou and Žižek present an interesting and engaging case, the book fails to find a niche in the field, and the thrust of its critique of contemporary society is problematic.

Badiou opens the book with a brief summary of his philosophy of the event, situating it in the context of what philosophy can and cannot discuss: Philosophy’s task is to construct problems in response to the presence of an ‘event’ which challenges prevailing discourse, initiating a choice between irreconcilable theses. Its fundamental act is one of dedication, affirming events without recourse to ‘justification’ in the language of the existing discourses for which it constructs its problems. This dedication must be accompanied by a theory of universality, constituted by Badiou’s theory of the event: Firstly that truths are realised through subjective demonstration, and are “singular” in that they are cannot be subsumed into, nor acknowledge in themselves, any existing discourse. Universals arise from events, which necessitate a restructuring of the situation around them. Finally, the universal must be conceived as infinite - inexhaustible by thought - and is representable ontologically as an infinite generic multiple.

Žižek’s contribution to the debate is to situate Badiou’s thesis in the context of contemporary philosophy. He begins with an assertion that calls for philosophical interventions into ‘current events’ allude to the existence of, but simultaneously try to mask, a real problem with modern liberal capitalist society. The chapter highlights the nature of this problem. He proceeds to interrogate what he considers as bad answers to the question of the book presented by contemporary ‘liberal’ philosophical approaches to ethics as reconciling the views of disparate ‘others’. Badiou’s contribution to philosophy, according to Žižek, is to interrupt this: in proclaiming the nature of true universalism as subtracted from any particularity, he exposes the ‘otherness’ around which liberal ethics revolves as a facsimile: the freedom to be individual, or ‘other’, in capitalism is underpinned by a disciplinarian levelling of difference. This leads on to his next ‘bad’ answer: liberal philosophy asserts that in order to do justice to the victims of historical events such as the holocaust, such occurrences can only be conceived as unexplainable radical evil. As a result, the radical critiques to which these movements arose in response are prohibited. This leads to what he calls “state philosophy”, where the status quo is declared sacrosanct. He characterises this as a kind of “Neo-Kantianism”: a conservative attempt to reconcile, and thus preserve, disparate but equally ‘essential’ claims about the world. Finally, philosophy must not just seek to point out problems external to philosophy itself, which merely amounts to an un-philosophical listing of opinions given weight by the fact that their exponent is a philosopher. Žižek concludes: philosophy’s task is to present a radical challenge to norms in fidelity to events. This is the source of universalism: the employment of Kantian private (subjective) reason allows the philosopher to escape the particularism of public (social, national) discourse.

The remainder of the book is a discussion around the position established here. Badiou re-frames the argument in terms of ‘humanism’, noting that “humanity” references a particular historically contingent and ideological notion. Universalism challenges all such notions, and is thus a kind of anti-‘Neo-Kantian’ antihumanism. Žižek however is in favour of Kant’s transcendental subject, which he characterises as a positive principle in excess of the human pole of the human-animal oppositional schema. It thus opens up a concept of the Real as an object of science, external to any language game and thus undermining relativism. This leads Badiou to declare that philosophy cannot merely comprise of negating critiques of existing principles. Both philosophers then address the issue of relativism and the unwillingness to critique democracy in liberal politics and philosophy, which Badiou claims stems from a fear of radical change leading to radical evil. He asserts that the real question of philosophy is whether there is in fact a positive form of democracy, over and above merely the consensus in liberal politics, and thus something to defend. Žižek agrees with this, and proceeds to argue that democracy lacks such an affirmative aspect as it effaces itself in pursuit of the order underpinning its hegemony. Finally, both thinkers respond to questions from the audience on Badiou’s interest in electoral politics in light of his statements, and Žižek’s interpretation of Badiou’s ideas.

On the whole, this book is an accessible and engaging foray into the thought of both of these thinkers, and having them expound their respective philosophies in parallel provides a useful insight into their relative positions as leading thinkers in the world of continental philosophy. Due to the general agreement of the two authors, readers who are looking for more of a debate will be disappointed. That said, this does not detract from the book overall – its insights are clearly presented and razor sharp, and neither of these thinkers shy away from breaking the taboos they highlight around critiquing the democratic hegemony. To this extent, they are true to their characterisation of real philosophy as radical and revolutionary critique.

That said, there are a number of issues with the book. Firstly, one must ask just where it fits into the existing field. The main problem in this regard is that the main exposition of the doctrine of the event to which they nominally both subscribe is from Badiou’s point of view. However, it (inevitably, given its original context) avoids the deep ontological work which underpins his philosophy, and so grants little in the way of actual understanding of his position. Nor does it highlight the disagreements between Badiou and Žižek with regards to Žižek’s Hegelianism. To this end, the book is not suitable as an introduction to these two thinkers on anything other than the shallowest of levels. On the other hand, the arguments made in the book are very much in line with what Badiou and Žižek have written in their other texts, and so do not serve to further the existing debate particularly. As such, it is neither a suitable introduction for beginners, nor a novel contribution. We are thus left with reading it for entertainment alone - which risks falling into the very trap of ‘opinion seeking’ that Žižek decries: the philosophers themselves become the focal point of the experience, rather than the ideas themselves.

Secondly, it is arguable that both Badiou and Žižek slip into the kind of Neo-Kantianism which they both claim to challenge in the context of democracy. The doctrine of the event is predicated on two core principles: firstly, that there are events which can be acknowledged via a free decisional intervention in order to overturn discourses, and secondly, that the choice to acknowledge these events can be made, free of the constraints of the discourse being overturned by the decision. Thus, at the heart of the doctrine, there is a presupposition of a transcendental human subject/ego which is capable of such a free decision. Because it is precisely the possibility of an intervention which grants the event the power to initiate a radical critique, by disputing the freedom of the intervening agent and instead rooting its actions in a discourse (à la Foucault), the ability of the subject to initiate a conceptual revolution is overturned: any such revolution is merely an extension of existing discourse. Thus in order for Badiou and Žižek to maintain the possibility of their universalist antihumanism, they must from the outset prohibit any challenges to this notion of the human interventional agent.

In summary, this is an entertaining book presenting the thoughts of two of the most important philosophers in the contemporary continental tradition side by side. Its strengths lie in its ability to effectively communicate the shared aspects of their positions, as well as giving an enjoyable insight into a discussion between two exciting figures. That said, its strengths risk its confinement to a niche which it rejects, and it arguably slips into the kind of discourse it critiques. Overall, it is a rewarding read for fans of Badiou and Žižek, albeit neither a perfect nor essential one.


  1. Excellent first critique (opinion) - but might it not be said in response to your charge of neo-kantianism, that the subject/ego is equally an event?

    1. Wouldn't that entail a circular justification of the state in the concepts within the language of that state - i.e. constructivism, the ultimate form of state philosophy?