A Double Critique

Alain Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy

Verso, 430pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781844677931

reviewed by Marika Lysandrou

Hater of democracy, nostalgic adherent to Maoism, dogmatic promoter of insurrectionary politics — these are some of the charges laid at Alain Badiou’s door. In The Adventure of French Philosophy his engagements with thinkers such as Sartre, Deleuze and Foucault, among others, do not in themselves acquit him of such charges but a consideration of his entire body of work certainly does. Although aspects fundamental to Badiou’s thinking — such as the role of philosophy in relation to politics, the nature of the event, and the relation between truth and ethics — emerge during the course of this book, they do so in its cracks and crevices rather than in its central flow of argument. A collection of disparate essays and reviews, this title offers sporadic portals, rather than a coherent account, into Badiou’s positions on the philosophical and political situation in France. The chapters appeared in their original form at different points in time and are difficult to place. For instance, far from focusing on ‘The Current Situation on the Philosophical Front’, as the title suggests, the first chapter refers to the situation of 1977 when the text first appeared in French.

All of this said, Badiou is admirably fearless in the questions he raises during the course of the book. In the first chapter, for instance, he asserts that the question ‘what has been the significance of May 1968?’ is one that occupies all philosophy. In this way, he boldly gets to the heart of what will be his abiding preoccupation: the role of the event, such as that of the uprisings of ’68, and the progressive change — however momentary — it can effect. Further, the aim he sets himself is ambitious: to formulate a ‘double critique … which is itself the reflection of the historical activity of the proletariat to constitute itself into the political class’. Yet the question arises as to whether Badiou achieves his aim in an affirmative, rather than merely incremental, fashion.

In a chapter entitled ‘The Fascism of the Potato’ Badiou mounts a sharp attack on Deleuze’s theory of the rhizome (an approach to political thought that prioritises multivalent, non-hierarchical thinking over binary or dualist conceptions of knowledge). He argues that Deleuze and Guattari’s misreading of the Marxist dialectical principle — they read ‘One divides into two’ as ‘One becomes two’ — is a fatal error with political ramifications. Badiou takes no prisoners: ‘We will not take Deleuze and Guattari to be illiterate. We will thus take them to be crooks.’ Although this may seem farcical in its vehemence, it appears justified in light of Badiou’s arguments. He is very persuasive in the way in which he demonstrates that while ‘One divides into two’ makes the unity of the One seem precarious, ‘One becomes two’ reaffirms such unity. In short, the two statements have polarised implications, one politically conservative, the other progressive.

Badiou suggests that the rhizome, by collapsing the dialectical principle and subtracting the antagonism that is so central to the mobilisation of the proletariat, leads to political indifference: ‘if people do not have their own politics [and antagonisms], they will enact the politics of their enemies: political history abhors the void’. Such statements, while catchy, call out for further substantiation as can be provided with a familiarity with his other works such as The Meaning of Sarkozy (Verso, 2008) and Ethics (Verso, 2002). To further illustrate the point, Badiou explains in Ethics that emancipatory politics needs to equal capital in its formal universalism, and that it will not do simply to react against capitalism and resort to a feudal form of politics. Such politics will ultimately be assimilated by the capitalist system itself. Without these references, however, the lay reader is left to grope in the dark.

The difficulty of navigating this book is compounded by Badiou’s shift in position. As Bruno Bosteels points out in his introduction, there is a development in Badiou’s view of philosophy: while he initially views it as the handmaiden of politics, later, in the 1980s, he sees politics as one of the four conditions of philosophy (the others being science, art and love). It may be true that despite this shift, Badiou’s consistency lies in his continuous concern about philosophy’s relation to forms of political praxis in France. This concern is evident in the question he poses in his chapter on Foucault: ‘What good does the archivist’s work of constructing epistemes … do, when one accepts the urgency of collective action?’ But such concern is rife with difficulties. Badiou minces no words when asking, in effect, what is the point of Foucault’s theories? He insightfully lays bare the ‘political force’ of Foucault’s critique of discourse by suggesting that Foucault, in urging us to look at the genealogy of disqualified forms of knowledge, destabilises the foundations of Bourgeois systems of classification. Further, Badiou suggests that the political effectiveness of Foucault’s theories would lie in making use of the historical knowledge of struggles in various discursive fields and utilising such knowledge in ‘contemporary tactics’. The difficult question is how to move from an analysis of local discursive fields or singular genealogies to a more global interrogation in order to situate, as Badiou puts it, ‘what is at stake in all these genealogies’ without running the risk of falling back into ‘conceptual tyranny’. Badiou’s question is exacting but his answer is not.

Firstly, Badiou shares more with Foucault than he is ready to acknowledge. Secondly, he is unjust and somewhat hypocritical in the criticism he lays at Foucault’s feet. For instance, in his interview with Peter Hallward in Ethics, Badiou encounters a problem similar to Foucault’s. The interviewer asks how, if it is necessary to hold onto the prescriptions of L’Organisation Politiqiue (a militant political organisation of which Badiou was a founding member), one might resist eventual institutionalisation? Badiou replies: ‘I think it’s possible to conceive and practise a discipline that is the discipline of the particular process itself. When we say “hold to the prescriptions”, these prescriptions are always relative to a concrete situation.’ While Badiou advocates local forms of praxis as being politically effective in his own theories, he does not in Foucault’s. Further, Badiou falls in line with other theorists, such as Richard Rorty, in making sweeping statements about Foucault that are not strictly true. He bewails, for instance, that ‘it is impossible to find in Foucault an affirmative doctrine of politics’. Readers of Foucault’s essay ‘Politics and the Study of Discourse’, which makes a series of claims about what constitutes progressive politics, may think otherwise.

The Adventure of French Philosophy is undoubtedly an illuminating insight into the world of Badiou for those already familiar with his philosophical and political ideas. It forms an archive of his work – with some untapped material, such as the essay on Foucault, which, the translator tells us, is near impossible to find in French – and this is itself valuable. The one setback that it cannot escape is the fundamental weakness of appearing to be something of a hodgepodge of engagements that are not bound together tightly enough. The fact that Badiou is such a fiercely opinionated philosopher, such a widely recognised personality in the field, does not seem enough to unite these essays and reviews into a collection with a strong underlying philosophical strain. Yet, given the local and particular form of politics that Badiou advocates, perhaps this is the point. It could be said that in this book he practises what he preaches.
Marika Lysandrou works at the literary agency Sheil Land Associates.