Infinite Commitment

By Bertsch, Charlie | Tikkun, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

Infinite Commitment

Bertsch, Charlie, Tikkun

Infinite Commitment Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy Peter Hallward, editor, Think Again: Alain Badiou and the future of Philosophy. Both from Continuum Publishing, 2005

All too often, fame is the hand-maiden of hypocrisy. People make it big and renounce their youthful excesses. It happens to politicians. It happens to movie stars. And it happens to intellectuals. That's why France's philosopher of the moment Alain Badiou is so refreshing. Even when it would be easy for him to reject portions of his past, he refuses. Reflecting on the supposed "death of communism" in one of his recent essays collected in Infinite Thought, he recalls a political chant he composed two decades before in the fading light of May 1968. Instead of bemoaning the chant's datedness-he was a Maoist at the time-he insists that it remains relevant. The vicissitudes of intellectual fashion do not trouble him. "Against aesthetic nihilism, I hold that convictions and commitment are more durable than tastes. Must be."

This sentence provides an excellent point of entry for Infinite Thought. Badiou's project is not easy to grasp. Because he goes out of his way to break with the dominant trends in contemporary philosophy, he actually puts informed readers at a disadvantage. And his writing is too spare to give much help to neophytes either. But, though it proves difficult going, his work radiates a consistency of "convictions and commitment" that demands our patience. He is no intellectual gadfly bent on provocation for its own sake. Even if it's a struggle to figure out what, precisely, he means, we know that he means it.

This may explain why Badiou is finally achieving the international fame his philosophy merits. Fed up with the slippery thinking associated with post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, many intellectuals of the post-Cold War era have been seeking more stable ground. Some have given in to the hegemony of neo-conservative thought. Some, like Students For A Democratic Society-veteran Todd Gitlin, have advanced a sober, restrained progressive agenda frequently identified as "left conservatism." Some have turned to religion and the politics of meaning advocated by TIKKUN-founder Michael Lerner. Interestingly, Badiou has something to offer all of them. Because he occupies the center of French intellectual life as a professor at the École Normale Superieure, the critiques he levels against relativism carry special force.

Badiou is an insider who stands outside the "common sense" of the Left. Although neo-conservatives do not share Badiou's political allegiances, they can find ample ammunition in his work for their attacks on the sacred cows of American and European progressives. Intellectuals of Gitlin's stamp can find validation for their conviction that the Left goes astray when it concludes that anything goes. And the spiritually-minded can point to Badiou's repeated invocation of religion and his reliance on the idea of a higher truth as evidence that even outwardly secular leftists cannot, if they are honest with themselves, dispense with the human need for the superhuman.

If it seems like the right time for Badiou's philosophy, it is because he argues forcefully that we still live in a time when philosophy has the power to right us. "My hypothesis is that although philosophy is ill, it is less ill than it thinks it is, less ill than it says it is," he writes in "Philosophy and Desire," the first of the essays included in Infinite Thought. "When it is the patient who says he is ill, there is always a chance that it is at least in part an imaginary illness." Because Badiou is not given to flights of metaphoric fancy, this picture of philosophy as a neurotic is particularly significant. It implies not only that philosophy is a patient in need of a cure, but that he is the analyst capable of performing it. The task is to break philosophy free from its destructive self-absorption. …

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