Philosophy in the Present by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek
Reviewed by John David Ebert
This little book was published in German in 2005, and then translated into English and published in 2009 by Polity Press. As anyone who has read much of Zizek is well aware, Badiou is a name that he often cites and indeed, in the present book, he reveals that he reads every single one of Badiou’s books and that “every new work of his leaves a trace in mine.” This short book is a perfectly designed introduction to the basic ideas of Badiou, which center around a philosophy of the Event.
The book opens with a lecture by Badiou entitled “Thinking the Event,” and there we learn just what the term means for Badiou: that an Event in his sense constitutes a rupture within an existing state of things in which novelty is announced. The Event is that which, when it appears within a situation of what Badiou terms ‘encyclopedic knowledge,’ comes down decisively on what is generally regarded as undecidable. Within current encyclopedic knowledge, for existence, the idea of God is undecidable: that he exists or does not exist cannot be stated with certainty either way. But a Truth Event would represent a singularity in which a decisive position on this stance, or upon any other undecidable, would be taken.
The Event constitutes and creates a subjectivity in which and through which the event is manifested as a universal singularity. The subject then demonstrates a ‘fidelity’ to this event which actualizes it through the performance of acts which have the effect of stabilizing and establishing the event as a new cultural horizon (although this can also occur in the spheres of love, science, politics, or art). The French Revolution would be an example of such an event; or October 1917, or May ’68. Indeed, any cultural novelty which manifests and has a fundamental historical significance for the shaping of a culture would seem to be implied here.
Badiou’s theory could cover, for instance, the birth of a new religion: with the advent of Islam, for instance, all the parameters would seem to be met. He is talking, in short, about not just any sort of event, but those events, specifically, which inaugurate new historical, social or cultural epochs, or the equivalent of such epochs in the life of an individual (a love encounter would be included in this, for instance). They are events which change the entire subsequent course of the system.
Badiou’s philosophy is brilliant and ingenious; he provides us with nothing less than a philosophical accounting for paradigm shifts.
Zizek then responds to Badiou with a talk on how “Philosophy is Not a Dialogue,” and indeed, proceeds to demonstrate this by the fact that little of what Zizek actually says in his talk seems to have any relation to Badiou’s lecture. Zizek discusses the nature and role of philosophy in the world, and whether and how it should intervene in socio-political affairs. The contrast between the styles of the two thinkers is instructive, for whereas Badiou is very specific and linear, developing his argument in classical Gutenbergian first-one-point-then-another style, Zizek is all over the map, as is usually the case with him. He is completely incapable of developing a thesis, for his attention is scattershot, and he articulates himself in an everything-all-at-once barrage. His logic is not always easy to follow, but this is both his strength and his weakness, for he is never boring as a result: the reader never knows where he’s going next, and is usually delightfully surprised by the result. This book is no exception.
The two conclude with a brief back and forth discussion in which they agree that the content of philosophy is not humanistic but deals with the inhuman. The capacity for the infinite–and therefore with the inhuman–is ultimately, they insist, what philosophy is concerned with.
At 104 pages, the book is short and can be read in an hour. I highly recommend that the reader acquire the book, read it, review it, write about it, digest it, or at the very least, throw it against the wall.