In what follows, I offer a brief profile of the great French philosopher, and influential Critical Theorist, Alain Badiou. This is the first part of a series of posts detailing Badiou’s thought. After providing a short biographical introduction, I discuss Badiou’s disagreements with and departures from post-structuralism, and outline his novel views on the role of philosophy. A significant influence on such prominent contemporary theorists as Slavoj Žižek and Quentin Meillassoux, Alain Badiou is one of the most provocative and profound philosophers alive today.
Alain Badiou was born in 1937 in Rabat, Morocco to a well-educated family. In 1955, he came to Paris, where he attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) and became a student of the famous French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. It was during this time that Badiou first became involved in radical politics, protesting the brutal Algerian War. After receiving an aggregation in philosophy from the ENS in 1960, he spent several years writing novels and teaching at a lycée. He became a professor at the University of Paris VIII, alongside such luminaries as Gilles Deleuze and Jean-François Lyotard–with whom he would go on to have significant philosophical disagreements–in 1969.
The events of May 1968 in Paris proved to have a lasting impact on Badiou’s politics, philosophy, and personal convictions. In his view, the student rebellion remains an archetypical moment of truth, an earth-shattering political event that continues to exert influence upon—and make demands of—subjects in the present.
Over the last thirty years, Badiou has written some of the most significant works of contemporary philosophy, many of which have only just recently become known to English readers. His most important books include Théorie du sujet (1982), L’Être et l’Événement (1988), and Logiques des mondes. L’être et l’événement, 2 (2006).
Badiou continues to produce philosophical work at a prodigious rate. He has recently written books on such diverse topics as Wittgenstein, love, and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. He holds the Rene Descartes Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School.
A unique amalgamation of Maoist politics, Cantorian Set Theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Nietzschean polemic, Badiou’s critical enterprise is dominated by three major concerns: 1) The affirmation of the existence and importance of universal truths; 2) The formulation of a post-Cartesian theory of the subject; and 3) A rigorous attempt to understand the emergence of novelty.
Badiou’s work is perhaps most remarkable for its unsettling of the longstanding—albeit somewhat arbitrary—division between “continental” and “analytic” schools of philosophy. While concerning himself primarily with matters regarded as characteristically “continental,”—politics, ideology, subjectivity, metaphysics etc.—Badiou writes in a clear, almost mathematical style that is widely acknowledged as the hallmark of good “analytic” scholarship, eschewing the formal experimentation that has distinguished much of the work of French post-structralists. Even as he professes immense respect for the post-structuralist philosophers who had dominated theoretical discourse in France from the 1960s onwards—going so far as to compare their oeuvre to fine French wine—Badiou takes great pains to distance his work from theirs.
Beyond its formal differences, Badiou’s corpus contrasts with that of the post-structuralists in its views on the history of philosophy—in particular, on the significance of Plato. Whereas the post-structuralist movement was, in part, defined by its commitment to overturning Platonist presuppositions that had underwritten philosophy since its inception, Badiou enthusiastically declares himself to be a “sophisticated Platonist” (2011, 26). He pronounces a return to such notions as separation of doxa and episteme (opinion and knowledge), advancing an unapologetically Platonic understanding of truth.
By championing the existence of truths that are both universal and eternal, Badiou indemnifies himself against a feature of post-structuralist thought that he feels is, at its root, complicit with the violence of globalized capitalism: the belief that “[t]here are only bodies and languages”—i.e. that there is no statement, no entity, no real which is not limited by its situation within a particular body or semiotic assemblage (2011a: 19). In Badiou’s view, post-structuralism’s emphasis on discursive structures at the expense of ontology, valorization of the particular over the generic, decentering of the subject, and affirmation of the groundlessness of political, ethical, and metaphysical principles renders philosophy powerless to mount an adequate critique of neoliberal capitalist-parliamentarianism (2011, 102). Embedded within a neoliberal capitalist order that lacks any major challenge to its hegemony—as was once provided by the Soviet Union—post-structualism’s net effect is to “[reduce] [philosophy] to… either a laborious justification of the universal character of democratic values, or a linguistic sophistry legitimating the right to cultural difference against any universalist pretension on the part of truths (2005, xii).
The Role of Philosophy
Although Badiou’s critique of post-structuralism is deliberately polemical—and doubtlessly excessive—the thrust of his evaluation is worth considering: What is lost by philosophy’s abandonment of its former aspirations to being the adjudicator of universal truths? What exactly is—or should be—the purpose of philosophy?
In order to determine the role of philosophy, it is necessary to delineate the discipline’s proper limits, establishing what it can and cannot do. Badiou does this by distinguishing philosophy from its armchair equivalent, punditry. The pundit—whom Badiou derisively refers to as a “TV philosopher”—holds that she is capable of speaking convincingly, and with authority, on any subject (2009, 13). Punditry regards all cultural artifacts as equally insightful, all political events—from the toppling of a dictator to the release of a new electoral poll—as uniformly significant. As a result, the pundit becomes little more than a purveyor of doxa, a dispenser of common knowledge—effectively, a hack.
The philosopher, by contrast, does not “talk about society’s problems, the problems of the present,” and thereby accept the prevailing wisdom of the day. Instead “he constructs his [sic.] own” (2009, 13). Like one who has escaped the confines of Plato’s cave, returning only to liberate those who remain imprisoned, “the philosopher intervenes when he [sic.] finds, in the present, the signs that point to the need for a new problem, a new invention,” Badiou explains (2009, 13). It is the philosopher’s job to intercede only in exceptional moments, when a situation cries out—as it were—for philosophical mediation.
Badiou outlines three tasks that are philosophy’s duty to fulfill when it intervenes in a situation. The first, and arguably the most important, is to make clear the decisional status of a given state of affairs. By dissolving all veneers of neutrality, and by illuminating the dichotomous choices to which witnesses to a particular set of circumstances must subscribe, “philosophy confronts thinking as choice, thinking as decision” (2009, 15). An example of a situation that would call for this form of philosophical intervention is the Occupy Wall Street protest. In this situation, the two kinds of thinking that it is philosophy’s role to distinguish are the politics of the protestors, standing in for the middle and working classes, the “99%,” and the politics of the financial elite, the “1%.” The job of philosophy is to emphasize that it is impossible to remain impartial in this situation. One must choose: Which side are you on?
The second task that Badiou sets for philosophy is closely related to the first. Philosophy must not only clarify the choices integral to a situation, it must illustrate that between these choices there is a chasm between “power and truths” (2009, 17). An incommensurability always exists between those who possess might—whether it be martial, economic, or political in nature—and those who are in the right. Badiou argues that this chasm is “without measure, or a distance whose measure philosophy itself must invent” (2009, 17). Because it is in the best interest of the powerful to obscure the fact that they operate at a vast distance from the subjugated—a fact which explains the perpetuation of the myth that “anyone can make it” in the United States as long as they have enough determination; a myth often invoked to denounce political proposals that seek to benefit the masses at the expense of the elites—it is up to philosophers to make this distance visible.
The final task Badiou holds it is philosophy’s obligation to undertake is to draw attention to exceptions to the status quo, breaks with ordinary relations of power, and departures from convention. These exceptions, breaks, and departures constitute “events”: rare occurrences, which have a particular technical meaning and important epistemological function in Badiou’s work that I will discuss later in this profile. For Badiou, the sudden, unpredictable emergence of love between two people—a love which changes each person’s life forever—is an archetypical example of an event. “Between the event of love (the turning upside down of existence) and the ordinary rules of life (the laws of the city, the laws of marriage) there is no common measure,” he explains (2009, 18). In Badiou’s view, philosophy must take as its vocation the elucidation and thinking of such transformative events—whether they occur in the realm of love, politics, art, or science—in order to fulfill its proper role. “Philosophy really is,” Badiou declares, “that which helps existence to be changed” (2009, 20).
More to follow soon…
Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. New York: Continuum, 2005.
—. Philosophy in the Present. Trans. Peter Thomas and Alberto Toscano. Edited by Peter Engelmann. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.
—. Second Manifesto for Philosophy. Trans. Louise Burchill. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.