Profile - Question everything

Always a critic: Alain Badiou. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Philosophy's ethical and political intervention is necessary to ascertain the nature of questions we are asking as well as face up to the fact that we are sometimes asking the wrong questions. Is communism a bad idea? What is the role of the Left in France? What lies ahead for humanity? To respond to these questions, Alain Badiou, one of Europe's most challenging thinkers and the hero of France's intellectual Left, takes philosophy to mean: ‘never accept the world as it is.' A philosopher is always a critic and it is not his nature to accept an opinion because it is part of the dominant discourse. For Badiou, philosophy is in jeopardy because it is customarily allowed to fossilise in the arid confines of academic disciplines rather than be integrated into everyday life.

Compelling conversations

Alain Badiou teaches philosophy at the École normale supérieure and Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. Born in Morocco in 1937, he holds the Rene Descartes Chair at the European Graduate School. These days, he periodically holds seminars at the Collège International de Philosophie which are popular for his intellectual polemics that offer a compelling conversation on contemporary vision of resistance to arbitrary State power and violence. No student of philosophy or political theory can do without confronting Badiou and his ideas on communism, ethics and Metapolitics.

Badiou has reconceptualised philosophy as an imaginative substitute to the empty theoretical position of the New Left, giving a galvanising call to political leaders to use the minds of philosophers in discussing political and social issues. Such was the practice followed by President François Mitterrand who ‘positioned himself in a long tradition in which enlightened power sought to come closer to the philosophers and to draw legitimacy from this proximity.' This is indeed a universal feature of philosophy which can enable a far better understanding of not only the serious issues confronting mankind, but also lead to a more positive and engaging dialogue between the statesman and the philosopher.

But the glory of being invited to the tables of power should not blur or trivialise the need for intelligent suggestions which were always forthcoming from thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault or Hannah Arendt. It has to be kept in mind that ‘the participation of intellectuals in the crimes of the 20th century weighs heavily on the self understanding of this social group.' In this context, Badiou takes up the Sarkozy era in France and feels that part of President Sarkozy's success is a consequence of the weakness of the French Left. He predicts that we are at the beginning of a long walk where we should at least hope to have a collective society in the original Marxist sense of communism. Belonging to the 1960s, he is a philosopher speaking from behind the barricades, who believes that the young can reorder society. To the criticism that this radical French ideology is steeped in the romance of the 1960s rather than in the harsh reality of the free market society, Badiou argues that modern man does not understand the idea of revolution and that there is a need to evolve an abstract idea of transformation for which the philosophy of communism is ripe to be experimented with. There is no need to be disheartened by the tragedies of the 20th century and the failure of communism. A new conceptual or philosophical framework is needed in which communism can signify new forms of struggle and novel forms of organisations. Here lies, for Badiou, the hope for change.

Almost 20 years ago, while writing the Manifesto for Philosophy, Badiou objected to the all-pervasive idea of the death of philosophy. In his Second Manifesto for Philosophy, he examines the present situation, concluding that whereas in the past philosophy was threatened by obliteration, today it is under attack for its ‘artificial existence'. But in the present day, philosophy is ubiquitous, from media to the arts, from culture industry to global capitalism. It livens up cafes and clubs, and is universally at the disposal of corporate entrepreneurs and major state commissions. Law, ethics and duty come under its domain. In such a context, Badiou has tried to side step all moralising and dismiss philosophy's submissive role in upholding laws of the state. He demonstrates the power of certain eternal truths and transforms the role of philosophy from being merely about human concerns for survival to something more engaging and radical. Norbert Wiener's prediction that ‘the world of the future will be a tighter and tighter struggle against the limits of our intelligence' is what Badiou seems to be echoing.

‘A genuine philosopher therefore,' argues Badiou, ‘is someone who decides on his own account what the problems are, someone who proposes new problems for everyone.' Thus the philosopher intervenes, ‘when in the situation — whether historical, political, artistic, amorous, scientific — there are things that appear to him as signs.' And these signs spur him towards visualising new problems within situations that demand a philosophical intervention. The real issue is to ask what these philosophical situations are. As is clear, much of Badiou's work has behind it the impetus of the May 1968 revolt in Paris. An active member of the L'Organisation Politique, his focus is on direct intervention in a broad range of issues from immigration to housing.

Inconsistency of truth

Influenced by Plato and Hegel, he stands up against postmodern thinking and does not question the classical attributes of truth such as rigour, intelligibility and eternity. However, he does believe in the inconsistency of all truth which is basic to human nature. As he explains in L'Etre et l'événement (1988), truths are ‘militant processes' undergoing gradual ‘transformation of that situation in line with new forms of egalitarian principles.' Such transformative innovation works to end the status quo, allowing truth to evolve out of the event when it takes hold of the individual and his convictions. For the formation of the genuine subject what is needed is commitment to the consequences, an involvement in the very transformative procedures.

As he elaborates in Ethics (1993), a book that offers a politically inflected, philosophical polemic, such involvement has to be above and outside party affiliations. This must not be construed as mere politics of consensus. The elimination of antagonism is not possible within democratic politics. The illusion of consensus and unanimity should be recognised as being fatal for democracy and therefore abandoned. One needs to think of the event that turns the ordinary rules of life or social conservatism upside down. In this lies the real philosophical situation for throwing light on the fundamental choice of thought as well as the distance between thinking and power.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 12:46:02 AM |

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