Commentaries, Contemplation

Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek: Philosophy in the Present

Are all truth claims power plays? This post is based on a graduate seminar presentation that I gave. It is from a course called “Otherness and Truth”. Normally, I don’t share my academic work on here. But because I will never publish this anywhere else, I wish to share it with those who are interested. The seminar was on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek’s Philosophy in the Present which talks about how truths and philosophies are produced through the encounter of events. While this seminar assumes that you have read the book, I think most people will be able to understand it without any background knowledge. Both Badiou and Zizek are very well known in and outside of academia. Badiou is one of the last intellectuals from the famous 20th century French philosophical circle who is still alive today. Zizek is well known for his philosophically infused political commentaries. Zizek studied psychoanalysis with Jacques-Alain Miller who is the son-in-law of Jacques Lacan. He is influenced by a lot Badiou’s ideas. 

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write now (!!)


I still remembered when I was first introduced to Badiou’s works by my mentor a few years ago. She was a teacher who I met in my undergraduate studies where she mentored me when I became intellectually aimless and suffered from personal problems after I graduated. I always thought of her as a woman of possibilities because she showed me how much I did not know and taught me to always keep my mind opened for new ideas. At the time, one of her PhD advisors was Alain Badiou at the European Graduate School, with the others being Catherine Malabou and Geoffrey Bennington (both Malabou and Bennington were students of Jacques Derrida). She told me that when Badiou agreed to supervise her work, she got really excited and engraved “write now” on the back of her watch (write now = write philosophy in the present). My mentor also told me about her experience on defending her PhD thesis at Anne Dufourmantelle’s house—a philosopher and psychoanalyst who died in 2017 from saving two children. She now does peer review for works on Badiou and Malabou in several philosophy and interdisciplinary journals across Canada. I am very proud of her! 

I must say that I had secretly admired Badiou ever since I encountered his works. I find his philosophy to be very all encompassing. His works addresses the problem of discourse and the messiness of our world that is created through different political views and truths. What I find most endearing is how he encourages us to talk about truth and ideas without labeling ourselves with any forms of cultural identity and doctrines (I will talk about this in the presentation). Maybe this is because I never liked labeling myself in anyway. I had held this view since my early 20s. It is very important for me to see things from multiple perspectives and why there are so many different ways of thinking.

Badiou’s philosophy is one of those grand “theory of everything” type of theories. But we also have to understand that Badiou’s philosophy came into existence at a time where many philosophers proclaimed “the end of philosophy”. Perhaps the most famous instance was Martin Heidegger’s essay, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”. In it, Heidegger calls for the end of Western philosophy (metaphysics) and wants philosophers to return to the task of thinking—something that Badiou does. Then there was also Jacques Lacan who was an anti-philosopher, and Jacques Derrida who developed a lot of his own thoughts under the context of Heidegger. We also see some of this in Ludwig Wittgenstein and his notion of “language game”. In short, philosophy became a discipline where truth was contextual, multiple, and divergent. The meaning of “truth” depends on how we situate it within different contexts. There is no longer a truth that we can agree on. This takes us to terms like “post-truth” which I personally find problematic. But this is another story.

Badiou’s philosophy wants us to return to the task of thinking and conceive of the conditions that produces thought. He wants to reinvent philosophy. To philosophize in the present is to have a dialogue about truth and engage with thinking. Before we look at any writer’s work, it is important to think about the conditions which motivates them. For me, my interests had always revolved around this question of condition. I became fascinated by this term when I first read the synopsis of Derrida’s book called, The Post Card. I eventually used parts of it at the end of my most popular blog post, “Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction” (here). In what condition is it possible for us to produce truth? I believe that many thinkers of the past had been occupied by this term. Today, we are going to take a look at what Badiou thinks in regards to the condition of thinking.

Note: this presentation is not the official version that I submitted for grades—which is more formal, shorter, less wordy, and less personal. This is the spoken version where I wrote it in the way that I speak. I share my personal experiences on my encounter of Derrida as an event. This blog version includes additional notes that I had removed from the original version.

 



Seminar Presentation: Philosophy in the Present

On Tuesday, we had many interesting questions in regards to the definition of otherness. Does the cynic function as the other? Is the cynic contemporary? Is the other someone or something? Today, instead of going through Philosophy in the Present section by section, I would like to dwell on the word “condition”. In what conditions allows a human being to encounter the other and establish a truth? Philosophy in the Present presents us a theory that speaks about this very condition—that is to say, for example, the condition of encountering philosophy as otherness. Most of us in this class are students of literature where philosophy functions as a form of otherly foreignness. Today, I would like us to think about the conditions which allows us to agree or disagree with these philosophical ideas.

In the essay “Thinking the Event”, Alain Badiou begins by talking about how philosophers are the inventors of problems who intervenes with the sphere of dominant modes of knowledge. This intervention is constituted by what he refers as “events” or “evental statements”. For Badiou, events are born from the contingencies that underlies our reality. These contingent events are related to the “universal” which creates the subject who thinks. For Badiou, thought is the medium of the universal, where all universals are situated in events. It is not the subject who produces thought, but rather, it is the universal or event which summons the subject as thought (27). Furthermore, the universal event is also related to truth which Badiou characterizes as unconscious. Ultimately, the universal as Badiou points out, originates from an event that is born from the contingency of reality. In a way, Badiou proposes the idea that truth, which at first functions unconsciously, is born and made aware through the encounter of the event. Thus, the event is the place where we encounter otherness. Here, otherness functions in two ways. On one hand, Badiou’s otherness via the event is alluding to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis and the ways which the split subject encounters their unconscious thoughts (such as figuring out what the “big Other” wants). On the other hand, Badiou is situating the event of otherness beyond Lacanian psychoanalysis.

To understand Badiou, we must familiarize ourselves with some of Lacan’s psychoanalysis. Badiou’s notion of contingent event is related to what Lacan refer as a lack that is found at the heart of reality. For Lacan, reality is constituted by this unconscious void which causes desire and produces meaning and knowledge. This includes philosophy, ontology, literature, and basically everything in society. Simply put, our experiences as conscious subjects are constituted by the unconscious mind. For Badiou, the truth of the unconscious is made aware through contingent events which brings forth unconscious ideas into consciousness. While Badiou is heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, he attempts to rethink the ontological problems that psychoanalysis had negated and torn apart. Due to the discovery of the unconscious mind, psychoanalysis broke down the relationship between the subject and the impossibility of constituting any forms of truth through our conscious thoughts. For psychoanalysts, conscious thoughts are the symptom of the unconscious—we create discourses like philosophy and literature because we are neurotic subjects. In Badiou’s famous book, Being and Event, he recalls Lacan’s Seminar XI where Jacques-Alain Miller—who is now the sole editor of Lacan’s seminars—asks Lacan, “What is your ontology?” (Badiou, Being and Event 4). In other words, “Lacan, what is your truth?”, how can there be truth when truth is the product of unconscious thoughts? Badiou’s philosophy began at this moment, where he sought to reconcile the subject with truth and thought—something that psychoanalysis had failed to achieve.

Once again, thought is the medium of the universal which is situated in events. For Badiou, an event consists of a truth that is discovered through the act of thinking. This is what he refers as “truth procedures” which consists of four categories: art, love, politics, and science. However, truth should not be confused with knowledge. Knowledge is produced by being faithful to the encounter of an event which exposes a truth. Simply put, an event is the recognition of radical otherness that appears out of place—something that both Badiou and Slavoj Zizek pointed out as the experience of foreignness. It is like the encounter of Michel Foucault’s notion of the cynic, or the encounter of something that is radically different or new. This otherness can also be recognized when Jacques Derrida emphasized on how he always situates himself in places where he “does not know where he is going” (Structuralist Controversy 267). Simply put, the other that is encountered through the event, does not belong within dominant modes of knowledge. The event is what grants our thoughts to “cut” through established knowledge (26). The event makes us recognize new knowledge and new ways of thinking which changes how we perceive the past. The other could be marginalized people, where their voices are left unheard by the majority until their presence are discovered through the event. Badiou gave many examples, one of them was how illegal workers went unnoticed until they demonstrated their existence at the St Bernard Church (43). For Badiou, philosophy is situated within this evental encounter of otherness. To encounter the other is to be untimely, like the random encounter of love, or the encounter of a new idea, such as the books that we are reading in this class. It is here where I believe that literature also functions as the encounter of otherness.

Now, we must be cautious here because the otherness that Badiou alludes to via the event is not only different to the Lacanian other, it is also different to the Derridean other, which is also different to Levinas’ other. While Badiou, Lacan, Derrida and Levinas emphasizes on the encounter of the other, all of them has different views on what conditions allows for otherness to occur. As Foucault might say, parrhesia does not only consist of telling the truth, it is also about investigating in what conditions allows for such truth or otherness to arise. In a way, I think this is what Badiou is doing. Hence, what Badiou attempts to capture in his philosophy, is this multiplicity of truths and universals that are discovered by encountering the event of the other. For Badiou, truth is founded on difference, not sameness. If everybody believed in the same truth, our world would be pretty boring. It is this play in the differences of thought which creates the universal and the encounters of otherness. Such as the encounter of different cultures, literature, languages, truths, and theories. This is why the universal remains open and incomplete. Thought is this medium of the universal which takes place in an event. Pure thought consists of creating new possibilities.

In the following essay, Zizek expands on Badiou’s notion of universal by addressing the problem of the Same. Zizek points out that virtual reality does not engage us with thought because all it really does is simulate reality. Zizek criticizes postmodernism, Frankfurt school, neo-Kantians and the Continental philosophy departments by alluding to how they are simulating old ways of thinking. He even hilariously criticizes Derrida, who made a list of world disasters in ten points and compares it to torturing dogs and killing spiders (66). The main problem that Zizek has with these disciplines is how they are not really engaging with the universal. This is to say, they are not making us think because they think for us—they are telling us how to think. They function like the contemporary book stores which are full of fast food philosophies that replicates and dilutes philosophical ideas. The point Zizek is trying to make is that, we are not engaged with thinking and confronting the universal. We are too safe. We are not taking the risk to engage with the other. For example, many people who are interested in Derrida would rather read commentaries of him than taking the risk to read him and experience the otherness in his work—they would prefer to not take the risk of getting frustrated by Derrida’s writing. Nevertheless, Zizek highlights that because many contemporary philosophical works are fixed on fast food commentaries and retaining a “symbolic boundary”, philosophy is not found in philosophy departments, but are discovered within literature and comparative literature departments. Zizek ends his remarks by agreeing with Badiou and says that philosophy begins at the point of foreignness; or otherness (70). Intellectuals should engage with this purity of thought which functions as the medium of the universal where anything is possible. We can be human without first identifying ourselves through “particularities” (or doctrines)—such as our nationalities, or defining ourselves as Lacanians, Derrideans, Nietzcheans, and neo-Kantians (72). As Badiou pointed out, in genuine philosophy we can talk about truth without making any power claims. In real philosophy, there is a distance between power and truth (23). In other words, while political particularities consist of a claim to power by asserting a certain truth over others (such as the political left over the political right, etc.), Badiou thinks that truth claims should not be power plays. This is because thought is the medium of the universal. Thought is a universal experience that every human being shares regardless of their economic class, political orientation, race, and so on.

Now, perhaps we have all encountered books that changed the way we see the world. A book that changed our ways of thinking through our unique encounters of them as events. Or perhaps we had fatally encountered the love of our life. For Badiou, it is these radical incalculable contingent ruptures of the norm where we confront the other and produce truths. This confrontation of the other reminds me of myself when I read Derrida’s Of Grammatology seven years ago as my very first Derridean text. At the time, not only did I considered this book as foreign because I knew absolutely nothing about philosophy, I also thought of it as nonsense. All of my ideologies and beliefs were radically challenged by Derrida. Yet this encounter was what allowed me to produce knowledge of Derrida by getting lost in his works, and write about them for years to come. In fact, I have written many embarrassingly bad essays on Derrida and submitted them as grad school sample essays. –Of course, I got rejected.

Thinking of Badiou, I always wondered what led famous figures to write their philosophies. How did Karl Marx write one of the most influential texts in history? Was there an event in his life that allowed him to create his works which he remained faithful to? How did Virginia Woolf write her incredible collection of literature? How did Cedric Robinson write his famous book called, Black Marxism? Was it because he encountered Marx as an event? Some of us might be aware that Derrida was Jewish who survived World War II. In a book called Circumfession, Derrida famously confessed of feeling excluded all his life due to his relationship with his family. No wonder that deconstruction “is”, in a way, all about exclusion and otherness. Coincidentally, Levinas was also Jewish and survived World War II as a war prisoner. While he was in prison, he associated his inmates as the other. Is this why he argues that all philosophies should begin as the ethics of the other? Here, I would like to open up to the class for us to consider our own encounters of otherness, event, and truth. Thus, let us once again ask, is the other someone, or something? In what condition makes our encounters of the other possible?

The end 😊



Notes:

1. When Zizek talks about virtual reality, I believe he is alluding to Jean Baudrillard’s criticism of modernism / postmodernism. Unlike what most people think, Jean Baudrillard was not a “postmodernist”. He was a critic of postmodernism.

2. When Zizek points out how philosophers upholds a “Symbolic boundary”, he is alluding to the Lacanian symbolic Other. Philosophers are trapped in their own symbolic Otherness that governs their philosophies.

3. Jacques-Alain Miller was Zizek’s psychoanalyst. If you wish to become a psychoanalyst, you must get psychoanalyzed.

4. The examples I chose at the end (Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, and Cedric Robinson) were intentional. They were meant to connect with my classmates’s interests. I could had chosen anyone and it would work.

5. Despite that this book presents Badiou and Zizek as if they agree with each other, they actually disagree with each other’s ideas quite a bit. But they are apparently really good friends in real life (so I was told by my mentor).

6. The example I gave on people reading commentaries on Derrida instead of his work was meant to facilitate Zizek’s argument. While I do encourage people to read Derrida’s works, I think it is fine to look for help. The danger is that you might run into unreliable sources. There are many reliable secondary sources on Derrida (I certainly would not recommend myself Lol): Leonard Lawlor, Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington, Alan Baas, Christopher Norris, and Martin Hagglund are all very good choices.

7. While Zizek was trained in psychoanalysis, he has become more of a Hegelian than Lacanian.

8. Near the end, I placed “is” in quotation because this has to do with the way which Derrida developed “deconstruction” under the context of Heidegger’s notion of “destruktion”. Deconstruction has to do with “shaking up” and “solicitation” of the text. Heidegger became interested in the word “is” because it is the third person indicative of the word “be”. I emphasize on the word “indicative” for a reason that is associated with Derrida’s reading of Edmund Husserl (found in a book called Voice and Phenomenon; I spoke about some of this here).

9. While Badiou indirectly covers some of the problems found in deconstruction, there is a fundamental difference in Derrida and Badiou’s concept of “present” which lies in their different takes in phenomenology. I tried to point this out in class once, but I don’t think anyone understood what I was trying to say. I would argue that for Derrida, there is no philosophy in the “present” because the present is always situated in the past which shares a paradoxical relationship with the future. There is no such thing as the present because the present is always divided by the spacing of time (past and future). The present is always “elsewhere” (other). In other words, Badiou emphasizes on the presentation of the present. Whereas Derrida emphasizes on the re-presentation of the present (I spoke about re-presentation here).


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