Friday, 19 June 2009

The unrepentant radical (Alain Badiou)

Nine Power, The Philosopher's Magazine, 15 June

(The full and unedited text of this interview with Badiou is available at Infinite Thought.)

Alain Badiou is having a busy day. Having just been interviewed by the BBC for both the radio and the screen, he arrives at his hotel with just enough time to grant us an audience before dashing off to the Institute for Contemporary Arts. Why all this excitement over an elderly French philosopher? It seems Badiou’s time has finally arrived in the English-speaking world – his latest book on the French President Sarkozy, “that over-stimulated police chief” as Badiou describes him, has caused quite a stir on both sides of the channel.

The main reason for Badiou’s London trip, however, is to speak at an immensely and surprisingly popular conference about communism at Birkbeck, an event which was moved twice to accommodate all those who wanted to attend and which prompted the Guardian to write a piece entitled “Move over Jacko, Idea of Communism is hottest ticket in town this weekend.” The conference does indeed boast an impressive line-up of contemporary European philosophers: Slavoj Žižek, Gianni Vattimo, Jacques Rancière, Antonio Negri, as well as some Anglo-American voices in the shape of Michael Hardt, Peter Hallward and Terry Eagleton.

But why the sudden interest in what is, after all, a rather unpopular idea? Isn’t “communism” rather too tarnished by its historical associations? Badiou is only too aware of the strangeness:

“I know – a thousand people in a room in London to hear some philosophers talking about communism! It would have been impossible ten years ago, so we have to give some explanations. The first one is that after the victory of global capitalism, there have been some deceptions, something wrong. There hasn’t been a new peaceful world. We have huge inequality. There’s no unified world, but instead a rich western world and another world which is not at the same level at all. We have also inside the rich world itself very strong inequalities, which are getting worse. We have wars everywhere in the world: Africa, Iraq. And we have something very important I think, a sort of confusing uncertainty. People cannot really know where they are going.”

If this sounds like a grand pronouncement of an old firebrand, that’s because it is. Badiou is in many ways closer to an older model of the French intellectual (think Sartre) than the Nouveaux Philosophes (think Bernard-Henri Lévy) who came to dominate Gallic thought in the 70s and continue to hold sway over much of the media. Although many still associate French philosophy with the smoking of Gitanes, the drinking of black coffee and long existential discussions at cafés, the truth is that this stereotype has long fallen out of fashion in France, if not yet on the other side of the channel. Whilst Badiou doesn’t smoke, nor indeed drink alcohol (unusual for a Frenchman, let alone a philosopher), he fits in with certain aspects of an older model of the French intellectual: left-wing, charismatic, keen to pronounce on contemporary events, engagé, institutionalised – Badiou was the chair of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure – yet fiercely critical. Unlike another set of clichés about French philosophy, Badiou is also strongly anti-relativist and against the postmodern malaise. His work, as systematic as it is wide-ranging, is concerned with classical, even ancient, philosophical concerns: truth, being and, much like his master, Sartre, subjectivity.

Badiou’s main theoretical work is also concerned with debates in contemporary mathematics in set and category theory, but as austere and abstract as this sounds, even his most conceptual work is political through and through. And indeed, the opportunities thrown up by the current political situation are currently preoccupying Badiou to a large degree. The recent financial crisis, alongside continued and brutal military campaigns, has generated a sense of disappointment and anger; recent months have seen a return to student radicalism in Europe unknown this side of the 60s, with occupations and dramatic clashes between students and university administrations. But is there anything new about the form of these protests? Badiou was himself radicalised by the events of May ’68, and is well placed to compare the two periods. “This revolt is between a sort of repetition of some aspects of ’68, certainly, occupations and so on, and something which is not completely clear. This is the search for political determination which is not the return to old ideas of forty years ago, but which is not resignation.”

The main question for Badiou is the kind of thinking that accompanies this desire for action, what he describes as “new forms of subjectivity”. The Idea of Communism conference is part of this project: to identify these “new forms”. For Badiou, part of this project involves separating out the objective explanations of the current crisis, what exactly went wrong, let’s say, from the subjective ones, why, for example, people feel unable to work out how to respond effectively even at the same time as they have a burning desire to do so.

There is something structural about this feeling of impotence, he thinks. “This subjectivity is fragile at the moment because precisely there is no real discussion at the ideological level. I think this is why it’s necessary for us to organise some discussion at this level, and it’s probably why so many people are interested in this question of organisation.”

It’s certainly the case that there is real thirst for political direction, particularly among students. “It’s clear that today the movement, its weakness is not on the side of action, they are really angry, they are ready to do something, but the weakness is an ideological one. But we can understand that, they cannot simply adopt purely old features, but the new ideas are unclear.” This is where philosophy comes in. Badiou is extremely critical of those thinkers, such as the Nouveaux Philosophes, who take the line that democracy is the “least bad” of all political systems. Their role as media pundits is also something that Badiou feels has corrupted philosophy in the past few decades.

“I think there has been a long sequence since the eighties where the dominant philosophy was in fact without interest. I mean, why do philosophy if all it says is that it is a very good world? It’s democratic, it’s better than other worlds, it’s not perfect, but perfection is not a good thing. And so in that sort of orientation, philosophy becomes two different things: a media entity, which promotes ideological propaganda for the state of affairs, and the academic discipline. But in the end if philosophy is something between public propaganda and academic speciality, it’s not very interesting.”

Much like Sartre, Badiou is passionate about philosophy’s potential to engage with the world, to break with the status quo and the bounds of institutionalised thought. This returns us to the question of young people and students. Following the gloomy 80s and 90s, Badiou sees signs of new life in the discipline.

“I think it is a little different today. There is a new generation, there are young philosophers who are interested in a new figure of philosophy: neither purely academic speciality nor purely ideological propaganda for the world as it is. I think it also explains that the interest in philosophy is also a political one. Not because philosophy is directly politics, I don’t think it is, but because this new philosophical possibility is in relationship to the political situation, but not reducible to it. There is a subjective necessity today to struggle against the reforms and so on, and to have some ideas. If philosophy can in the end be free from the media operations on the one side, and enclosure on the other, it can be useful for the development of the movement, because the weakness of the movement itself is an ideological one, not a practical one.”

Badiou and a small group of political allies, his contribution to “the movement”, are well accustomed to attempting to bridge the gap between theory and practice. For many years, Badiou has been campaigning in defence of undocumented workers, or sans papiers. In defending the immigrants who come to France, Badiou’s political principle is the following: “whoever lives and works here belongs here.” I ask him how this struggle is going.

“The question of the sans papiers, undocumented workers and so on is really at a point where the political possibility is linked with something which is of a philosophical nature. And why? It’s because the fundamental idea concerning the sans papiers is what I call in the Sarkozy book the affirmation that there exists only one world. And this affirmation is of a philosophical nature, because politically you say there is only one world, it’s very abstract. And it’s not true. In fact there are probably two or three worlds today, the south, the north, different names. But it’s a philosophical idea, in close relationship with something which is a political process.

“We can organise the struggle against the laws of discrimination and persecution against the workers from other countries. We have to say this man or this woman who comes from this country. We have to work within the political field as we work with somebody who is really of the same world. Philosophically we have to affirm like a law the idea that there is only one world and politically we have to organise the struggle against persecution in complete equality with them. It’s not only to be in favour of their struggle, because it’s also my struggle. There is complete equality. This equality, which is a subjective equality, is the realisation purely at the concrete, political level of the abstract philosophical affirmation that there is only one world. It is why there is a sort of immanent relationship between philosophy and politics.”

The question of equality is one of the key concepts that ties Badiou’s vision together, mathematically, politically and philosophically. His attacks on what passed for ethics in the 1990s (in a short book designed for schoolchildren) is a fierce defence of the notion of equality against both ethical positions that defend any form of hierarchy (obeying the law or respecting one’s elders) and those that are based on notions of human rights, which Badiou sees as overwhelmingly hypocritical.

In a very memorable comparison he writes, “How long can we accept the fact that what is needed for running water, schools, hospitals, and food enough for all humanity is a sum that corresponds to the amount spent by wealthy Western countries on perfume in a year? This is not a question of human rights and morality. It is a question of the fundamental battle for equality of all people, against the law of profit, whether personal or national.”

As difficult as some of Badiou’s more technical writing can be, at its core lie plain-speaking statements like these. Badiou has a disgust for the contemporary world, but it is not primarily a moral or pessimistic antipathy. As with many Marxists before him, there’s a sense in which Badiou seeks to identify the inherent limitations of capitalism. These limitations primarily concern the lack of real newness in place of the illusion of novelty. As he puts it: “there are new objects, new cars, new phones, and so on. But in fact the experience of the world is the same. Is it possible to live in that sort of world for a long time?”

Alongside the emphasis on new forms of subjective life, Badiou is concerned with the way truth is received or understood. His two main theoretical books of the past two decades, Being and Event (1988) and Logics of Worlds (2006), are immense explorations of the categories of truth and the way in which a “subject” can remain faithful to such a truth. Truths for Badiou take place in four domains: art, science, politics and love, and the “subject” in each domain need not necessarily be an individual and it need not necessarily be human. The truths of art are carried by artworks, for example, whilst the subject of love is the “couple” rather than the separate individuals in love.

According to Badiou, philosophy’s task is to somehow “oversee” all these truths whilst having no truths of its own. Although Badiou’s project seems strange at first glance, in many ways his project is simply an extended rumination on the question of what it means for change to take place, for something to happen. These changes, or “events” in Badiou’s terminology, can include scientific revolutions, political upheavals and artistic innovation, as well as the more personal experience of falling in love.

I asked Badiou what his next plans were, after the two theoretical books. His ambition now is to turn to the personal experience of truth, to flesh out his system with a more personal account of the effects of events and, as he puts it, to work out “what exactly is the vision of the point of view of the individual concerning that individual.” This descriptive project involves certain problems, however.

“The difficulty at this point is to create a framework which is not of a purely psychological nature. And so to create a framework when we can describe the relationship of an individual to the truth, but this is not the point of view of the truth. Because if we adopt the standpoint of the construction of the truth there is finally only one very brutal norm, which is that some individuals are in a truth-process and some are not. And concretely this is not exactly the position because the individual can be divided. A part of him or herself can be near the process of the truth and another part not. And what about a plurality of truth procedures? The same individual can participate in different truth procedures. What is it to be in love and caught up in a political truth procedure? To constitute the conceptual framework of that sort of project is not easy because we cannot accept pure psychological description. So, it’s a conceptual problem, and so I return to this difficulty!”

In a more populist vein, Badiou also has plans to make a film about the life of Plato. He’s entirely serious when he tells me he wants Brad Pitt to play the role of Plato. I suggest he could play Socrates, and with that our conversation draws to an end: Badiou, philosopher, political thinker, contemporary commentator and … filmmaker.