Wherefore Art Thou Philosophy? Badiou without Badiou

By Barker, Jason | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Wherefore Art Thou Philosophy? Badiou without Badiou


Barker, Jason, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


I wish to begin this essay with an example. Readers familiar with Alain Badiou's work may notice a difficulty with it. I will address this difficulty at the end. For the moment, at the risk of misleading and mis-representing Badiou's work to those less familiar with it, I politely ask for their indulgence. Here is the example, which takes the form of a statement: "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" (2) As is so often the case in "young love", Juliet, who mouths these words alone on her balcony, barely knows Romeo, although the very next day they will be married. Although neither is aware of it yet their passing acquaintance has already triggered a set of consequences which in scope and pure intensity will surpass them both. The outcome will be calamitous for all concerned. But it is also fair to speculate that Love itself, in the wake of this prodigal encounter, is destined never to be quite the same again.

I hope this metaphor will serve to illustrate the sizable impact of Alain Badiou's intervention in contemporary philosophy. Given the encroaching and seemingly pernicious backlash against his thinking, no doubt partly motivated by the bad faith of "philosophical" rivalries, (3) hopefully this essay can serve to remind readers of the ongoing and authentically philosophical stakes of Badiou's ontology.

I: ALIEN ENCOUNTER

In the late 90s and early 2000s, when Badiou first made contact with his Anglophone public, it is no exaggeration to say that the effect was somewhat monstrous. After all, here was a thinker who straddled the French post-War currents of existentialism, Marxism and the philosophy of mathematics; who claimed to have devised the most radical materialism since Lucretius; who declared that "ontology = mathematics"; who drew a direct parallel between his magnum opus Being and Event and Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and, not content with that, then announced his intention to write a new Science of Logic. Initial encounters with Badiou's remarkable yet highly provocative "alien" (4) philosophy tended to inspire readings such that, in the published work of his first Anglophone disciples, the names of Althusser, Beckett, Deleuze, Lacan, Mao, Marx and Sartre were repeated reference points. Although Badiou's philosophy is unfamiliar enough to resist easy categorisation, clearly it brings with it a formidable intellectual reputation.

Today things are different. "Badiou's philosophy" is no longer Badiou's philosophy. Badiou, one might say, has taken leave of his own system. This is perhaps the highest compliment one could pay a living philosopher (who has spawned a "live theory" (5)) whereby the consequences of (his) thinking become absolutely incalculable for thinking. If "Badiou" has become a philosophical signifier then today it's no longer a question of the faithful reception, transmission and assimilation of "his" ideas. Instead it's a matter of philosophical invention, and we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which Badiou's many exacting readers have contributed to it. (6) For this reason there is no need to introduce Badiou's work or chart its evolution. (7) Instead I want to address what I regard as the most urgent philosophical consequences of that work--which of course is ongoing--but which for the sake of brevity I will confine to Being and Event (8) and the books and essays which have followed it. More than any other single work Being and Event, in its radical rethinking of the philosophical mission and status of ontology, purports to change the nature of philosophical practice itself.

Let us now consider the title of this essay, "Wherefore art thou philosophy?" which may be a useful way of reflecting on that which philosophy, in Badiou's sense of the word, implies. First and foremost, Badiou's is a philosophical intervention in the sense that it marks a direct assault on the dominant paradigms in contemporary philosophy of post-Kantian relativism and anti-foundationalism. …

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